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The Edinburgh Problem

Chapter Text

221B on a Sunday morning was one of John Watson’s favourite places in London, if not on earth. Sunday morning was a reliable sort of time; clients rarely darkened their doorstep before noon. Criminals usually wanted a lie-in. Lestrade did not come pounding up the stairs to demand urgent assistance on cases, as he only worked Sundays during dire emergencies. Mycroft usually managed to pick another time in which to inflict himself on the residents of Baker Street. And Sherlock, although he was often completely unaware of the days of the week, usually seemed to be content puttering around his experiments in the kitchen rather than shooting holes in the walls, or idly playing his Stradivarius. John avoided buying the newspapers or turning on the television or radio until the afternoon, just to be on the safe side. He liked the peace of Sunday mornings, when he usually lounged in his arm chair and read or listened to Sherlock playing.

And so on a crisp late September Sunday John lay back and listened to his flatmate play Bach. John’s slippered feet were pleasantly warm next to the newly lit fire and he had a cup of excellent coffee next to his elbow, courtesy of Mrs. Hudson. Sherlock was still in his pyjamas and dressing gown and he played facing the window, each movement of his bow causing the blue silk of his robe to swing lazily to and fro. John absently watched the cool autumn sunlight filter intermittently through the thin fabric as Sherlock moved in front of the window. Neither had spoken much that morning, beyond murmured good mornings and thanks when passing coffee cups. There had been no need; and neither man was much inclined to disturb the pleasing calm of 221b.

It struck John that Sunday mornings had somehow become surprisingly domestic, a ritual that both men respected and enjoyed sharing without ever having to talk about it. He had even observed Sherlock ignoring his phone once or twice on Sunday mornings. When John had gestured towards it Sherlock had made a vaguely complicated gesture incorporating a shrug, a curled lip and a dismissive wave of the hand before going back to his microscope. John supposed Sherlock’s gesture had been intended to suggest “sod it, it can wait” despite the fact that it had looked much more like “irritated duck”. He never bothered drawing attention to the abandoned phone again.

Sunday mornings hadn’t always been like this however; back in the old days, before Sherlock’s long absence the two men had treated Sundays casually, as a day not much different to any other. John might have been staying at a girlfriends’ house, or attempting to smuggle an overnight guest down the stairs before they came face to face with his supercilious flatmate. And Sherlock could have been attempting to hack the Pentagon (again) or tailing smugglers or arguing furiously with Mycroft (yet again) over whose turn it was to visit Mummy and Father this month. Certainly not idling around, enjoying the peace of coffee and books and experiments and Bach.

However since the Mary debacle and John’s subsequent move back to Baker Street, Sunday mornings had been different. There was no question of girlfriends for John at the moment at least. Finding out that his ex-wife was an assassin had perhaps made him a little wary of romantic entanglements. Especially so when he found out that she was not, strictly speaking retired even after they were married. And particularly so when he found out that the child she was carrying was not his.

After the last awful crushing blow and the final night of tears and recriminations in the house at Crouch End, John had found himself on the steps of 221b clutching a hastily packed bag and pressing the doorbell with shaking fingers. He had hoped against hope that Sherlock was there; but there was no answer despite his increasingly desperate ringing. He had left his phone behind during his hasty departure, and at 3am couldn’t quite bring himself to wake Mrs. Hudson. He sat on the doorstep and waited for a long time. He could have gone to a hotel or woken up his sister, but somehow all he wanted (all he needed) was to see Sherlock.

Sherlock, who would undoubtedly say entirely all the wrong things.

Sherlock, who would possibly dismiss the whole issue with one of his “humans are incomprehensible and more trouble than they are worth” faces.

Sherlock, who might be perplexed at why John had chosen to come here of all places.

Sherlock, who could be in Nicaragua or Skegness for all John knew. He hadn’t spoken to the man for almost a week, and that was a long time in Sherlock’s world.

Oh god, Sherlock who could be passed out in some grim tenement again; off his face. (Please, not that.)

John grasped his knees and waited. It seemed that several years passed and the cold sank into his bones mercilessly. He received a few pitying glances from passers-by, and more than a few suspicious ones. He attempted to appear as non-vagranty as possible as a police officer walked past. It was probably only an hour or so until an achingly familiar figure came striding around the corner and towards 221b. Sherlock's face was tired and tense, but he seemed reassuringly sober. His coat streamed behind him as he quickened his pace, seeing John on the steps.

“Christ, John. I’m sorry. Getting a cab at this hour was impossible and I couldn’t get here any quicker.” he was taking off his gloves in the last few steps, so that he could grip John’s cold hand and help him get up. Sherlock’s tone was contrite and his eyes darted over John, no doubt piecing together the whole sorry story from John’s dishevelled appearance.

“What? How did you know I was here?” John’s hip ached as Sherlock levered him to his feet. Psychosomatic be damned, it still hurt like hell.

Sherlock jerked his head at the nearest security cameras, mounted on the shop front across the street. “Bloody Mycroft. He has his very occasional uses. I was on Hampstead Heath when he called to let me know you were here.” He grasped John’s shoulders, seeming to be on the brink of saying something more. John stared up at him. His relief at seeing Sherlock suddenly seemed rather silly. He could have gone to a hotel, he could have waited till the morning to find Sherlock. He opened his mouth to apologise, to attempt some (utterly feeble) explanation why he was here of all places.

Sherlock, of course, seemed to read all of his in his face without effort. He half smiled at John, and shook his head slightly. “Come on, let’s go inside.”

He picked up John’s bag and led the way into the building before John could embarrass himself further.

Upstairs, Sherlock pushed John into his usual armchair, handed him a large whiskey and added some more coal to the dying fire. It was a long time before either of them said anything. Sherlock appeared content to lounge in silence in his own chair, rolling the edge of his glass idly against the arm and watching the amber liquid glint in the flickering light. Not for the first time, John was glad that Sherlock had never been a fan of small talk. For now, he could only gaze at his friend and appreciate the warmth and comforting familiarity of his presence in the firelit room. The whiskey was good stuff, from the Isle of Jura. It burnt pleasantly on the way down his throat. After around half a glass, John finally felt capable of talking without his voice wavering.

“I suppose you’re wondering why I’m here.”

Sherlock looked up sharply at that, regarding John hawkishly over his glass. “John, please. It’s perfectly obvious why you’re here. You couldn’t remain there any longer, not after finding out about the child.”

John didn’t bother asking how he knew; he wasn’t in the mood for startling deductions just yet. “And the whole, you know, killer for hire thing,” he added with what he hoped was a spot of bravado. It failed miserably, and Sherlock’s eyes remained on his.

“Oh god, Sherlock. I was really, you know, excited about the whole thing. Once I got over the sheer bloody panic. I had this idea that I could be this really fucking great dad, and be so much better than mine ever was.” he took another swallow of whiskey when he heard his voice shaking. “That we could be a proper family, and you would be godfather and teach her all about, I dunno, chemistry and, and, tobacco ash and how to figure somebody out from their shoelaces?” Sherlock’s expression briefly veered somewhere towards startled incredulity. “That Mary and I could leave the past in the past, that she would be happy to do it.”

His hands were shaking now as well as his voice. Sherlock’s gaze was unwavering, his posture entirely still. The light from the fire threw the angles of his austere face into sharp relief. He didn’t seem likely to say anything, which somehow made John feel obliged to keep rambling on. He took another swallow of whiskey, and choked slightly.

“She said that she was bored with it all. With our life, with working at the clinic, with...everything. With me. And god help me, I sort of knew that already. But then she told me about the baby.”

John furiously dashed away the few tears that had somehow appeared on his face. Sherlock’s carefully blank expression flickered briefly and his fingers twitched on the arm of his chair but he made no move towards John. He probably knew that any overt gesture of kindness would be likely to send John right over the edge.

“I wanted to call her Caroline, after my grandmother. God knows who her father is.” He stared hard at the fire, attempting to quell the blind fury and grief. There was panic there too, threatening to overwhelm him. The life he had mapped out had somehow dissolved so quickly. He didn’t feel capable of saying anything else, possibly ever again.

Sherlock regarded him unblinkingly for several seconds, before digging in his pocket for a handkerchief which he handed to John.

John took it, wondering in a slightly hysterical fashion how Sherlock always managed to have pristine ironed handkerchiefs (and clothes) despite the fact that he didn’t own an iron. The one that John had brought with him to Baker Street years before had been used for an unfortunate experiment involving human spleens and he hadn’t been able to bring himself to use it ever again. He supposed it was somewhere in a box back at his and Mary’s house now. He dimly became aware of Sherlock saying his name, seemingly not for the first time.

“John.” He looked up. Sherlock was perched on the edge of his chair, closer now. He was refilling John’s glass which had somehow become empty. “Stop staring at the handkerchief and use it. Mrs. Hudson irons them, surely even you should be able to tell that from the abominable lavender scented starch, which she persists in using. She probably does it just to spite me,” he added thoughtfully, putting down the bottle on the edge of the hearth. “You’re not going to have a panic attack, I’m not going to let you.”

John barked out a laugh which came out as an odd sound somewhere between a cough and a sob. “You won’t let me? God, that’s nice of you.”

“No, I won’t.” Sherlock said firmly. “Anyway, I was asking you whether you wanted to know who the father is. Whether it would help you at all.”

“How the hell do you know who-“

“I don’t. But I could find out easily enough, I’m quite sure. If you want me to.”

John thought about this while he drank some more whiskey, his burning eyes closed. Did it really matter? Or would it keep him awake at nights, agonising over who Mary had chosen to take to her bed? Whomever she had chosen instead of him. He shook his head angrily at the images.

“I can’t really think about it right now, Sherlock. I don’t know. It probably doesn’t matter, does it?”

Sherlock shrugged one shoulder slightly. It occurred to John that he was probably asking the wrong person. Sherlock, for all his brilliance and his observation of human behaviour, didn’t exactly have a frame of reference for this. He shook his head and attempted to smile at his friend.

“Sorry to ask, but can I stay here tonight, mate?”

“It’s barely night any more, John” said Sherlock, gesturing at the windows where he could see the sky edging towards pale grey. “And you don’t need to ask. Your room is as you left it.”

John blamed the whiskey, but it felt incredibly moving that it was still his room. He swallowed with effort, setting down his glass. “I can’t really talk about this any more. I need to sleep. I’m so bloody tired Sherlock. I just need to sleep and then I can have another go at thinking about all this... this mess. Ok?”

“Of course.” Sherlock somehow sensed that John needed some help manoeuvring himself out of his chair and was on his feet in a trice, gripping his arm.

“And not a fucking word about how this is all in my head, ok?” John muttered as Sherlock helped him to his feet and towards the stairs. The stress of the evening and the cold of the steps outside had left his leg aching horribly.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” He heard the grim smile in Sherlock’s voice. “I’ll save it all up for tomorrow.”

Sherlock helped him up the stairs and made sure he didn’t topple over until he reached the bed. The room was indeed as he left it; slightly dusty but fairly neat. The mess from downstairs hadn’t managed to make its way up here. There were sheets on the bed, and when John lay back he could vaguely make out the smell of lavender scented starch. He shut his eyes and thought a bit about getting undressed and under the covers but it all seemed like a tremendous amount of effort.

He heard Sherlock give a characteristic impatient huff and felt his shoes being untied and removed. Seconds later he felt the blanket from the foot of the bed being pulled out from underneath him, and thrown over him. He should have been surprised at this consideration, but all he could muster was a slightly pathetic sense of gratitude.

“Thanks, mate,” he muttered, managing to drag a pillow under his head. The tiredness was crushing but welcome. He quite fancied sleeping for several years; at least then he wouldn’t have to think about things. “Just... couldn’t go anywhere else, you know?”

He felt Sherlock’s hand squeeze his ankle briefly, before hearing footsteps heading towards the stairs.

“I know, John.” A pause. “And you should know... that this is always going to be your room. No matter how long you’ve been away.” Sherlock’s tone was measured, even if the words were coming out a little slower than usual. He cleared his throat noisily. “Goodnight, John.”

“G’night.”

He heard the door close quietly and a second later the sound of Sherlock’s feet on the stairs.

When he awoke the next morning, his badly packed bag was at the foot of his bed. There was a glass of water and some paracetemol on the bedside table, and oddly enough the latest edition of the International Journal of Parasitology. It was open on an article, entitled Neuropeptidergic control of the hindgut in the black-legged tick Ixodes scapularis. (Probably Sherlock’s idea of a spot of light reading).

When he went downstairs he saw several packing cases and two familiar suitcases on the landing. Sherlock was in the kitchen, glaring furiously at two petri dishes which lay among the clutter on the kitchen table.

“Ah! John. Come here, I need to talk to you about this. For some utterly infuriating reason, the results have been completely skewed. No, wait, make me some tea first – that might help.” He looked up at John, saw John’s (presumably haggard) face and suddenly seemed uncertain. “Sorry. I’ll sort out the tea.”

He strode to the open door and bellowed down the stairs. “MRS. HUDSON, WE NEED TEA!” He looked at John again. “AND PROBABLY SOME BREAKFAST! JOHN IS HERE!”

John scrubbed at his face in a mixture of exasperation and fondness. He could hear vague tutting and muted scolding coming from downstairs and the familiar clack of Mrs. Hudson’s heeled slippers on the tiled floor in the hall.

“Sherlock, really. I can make the tea. Or you can bloody well make the tea, I’ve seen you do it at least once. Don’t shout at Mrs. Hudson, she’s not your maid.”

“Oh, she doesn’t mind.” Sherlock said airily. “And she always enjoys telling me off, you know that. She loves putting on her “martyred landlady” face.” This last comment was delivered somewhat loudly.

“I heard that, young man!” came from downstairs. “John, dear! How nice! I’ll be up in a tick. I’ll just pop into Speedys for some scones. Just this once, mind!” The front door banged loudly.

“All this-“ John gestured towards the boxes and bags, which Sherlock appeared to be determinedly ignoring. “It’s my stuff, isn’t it?”

“Ah. Well, yes. Yes, it is.” Sherlock still seemed reluctant to look at the pile, or indeed at John. He picked up his violin and plucked idly at the strings, before putting it down again and going back to his frustrating petri dishes. “I, er, thought you might want some of your things.”

“Oh.” John stared at the pile. There was an awful lot of it. “Mary didn’t drop it off?”

“No. I went and got it for you. I thought that you perhaps wouldn’t want to go back there just yet. I had a look in the bag you brought with you, and frankly that maroon jumper is offensive and you only brought two pairs of pants, one sock and no books at all. I decided that I simply couldn’t look at you for any length of time if you were planning on wearing that jumper. It makes my eyeballs itch, John. It contains polyester, John. It is an abomination and I barely restrained myself from setting fire to it this morning. So I went and got some of your things earlier so I won’t have to look at it or you wearing it.” Sherlock finally glanced up from the contents of the dishes, which he probably shouldn’t have been absently prodding with his bare finger.

John felt his face was rearranging itself into a faint smile despite his best efforts. “Sherlock-“

“It’s alright. Mary wasn’t there so I didn’t have the chance to say anything...not good.”

John sighed. “Good. That’s...good. Christ. Um. Thanks, I suppose. You’re right, I wasn’t looking forward to making that trip. And I do need more than one sock.” He decided not to mention the pants or Sherlock’s destructive impulses towards his maroon jumper just yet. “I think you’ve probably fetched all the socks I own. And all my books. And possibly everything I have ever owned.”

Sherlock’s mouth quirked into a slightly abashed smile. “Well, it’s hard to know when you might need something urgently. I thought it best to err on the side of caution.”

“Well yes, that is true.” John decided just to go with it. It was nice that somebody was keen on having him around, at least. Sherlock continued to regard him in a satisfied fashion. It seemed unlikely that John was going to argue with his unassailable logic. John stared back at him, taking in Sherlock’s expression and suddenly felt suspicious.

“Sherlock....”

“Yes, John?” That was it. Probably nobody else would pick up on it, but John knew that face. That face was far too bloody innocent.

“I know you didn’t get the chance to say anything...not good. But did you perhaps do anything not good while you were there?”

Sherlock raised an eyebrow as John continued to regard him through narrowed eyes. Eventually he sighed. “Well, I thought perhaps you might also need some fuses. You never know when you might need some fuses.”

“You thought I might need fuses, eh?” John forced his mouth to stay in a straight line. Sherlock looked at him through wide, guileless eyes.

“Yes. Fuses. From every plug in the house. You might need them some day.”

John was definitely not smiling. One should not encourage Sherlock that way. It might make him think that his actions were welcome or appropriate, which they definitely were not. Sherlock fished in the pockets of his coat, which was slung over the back of one of the kitchen chairs. He carelessly deposited a very large handful of plug fuses into a nearby discarded saucer. Some of them escaped and rolled off the table and onto the floor, where they noisily bounced and rolled under the fridge.

“Right. Well done. Good thinking Sherlock; I suspect you brought everything I need.” John said, casually stopping one of the fuses with his bare foot. Sherlock briefly seemed even more pleased with himself, before noticing that his right index finger was still partially submerged in the horrors of the petri dish. His expression swiftly returned to irritation, and he quickly turned to the sink to rinse his hands.

John heard the front door bang again, and the sound of Mrs. Hudson coming up the stairs. He settled himself in (his) armchair and prepared himself for the inevitable questions and commiserations. He was suddenly very sure that Mrs. Hudson was his landlady once more.

And that was alright. There was much to think about and far too much to deal with. He knew that he could only keep the anger and sorrow tamped down for so long. He had to face unpacking those boxes, and all the evidence of the life he had shared with Mary.

But for now it was Sunday morning. He could hear Sherlock swearing quietly to himself in French as he repeatedly scrubbed his hands (hopefully there had been nothing too corrosive in those dishes). He noted the somehow comforting smell of formaldehyde and tobacco (must have a stern word with Sherlock about the latter). He could hear the familiar muted noise drifting up from Baker Street and the sound of china rattling on a tray.

Home.

Chapter Text

Of course, Sunday mornings always had to end. Not necessarily at noon, but at some stage Sherlock would get around to checking his emails and the comments on The Science of Deduction. His phone would chime repeatedly until he would consent to look at it or somebody would ring the doorbell.

John was only vaguely listening to Sherlock’s exclamations of disgust as he read some of the various requests for help on his blog.

“....please Mr. Holmes, help me find my missing marmoset!’ Oh for christ’s sake. Delete!” It sounded like the delete key was being hit very hard indeed. “Unless it’s a radioactive vampiric marmoset on the rampage I am NOT INTERESTED.”

“Quite right, Sherlock.” John turned the page of his journal. As it turned out, the International Journal of Parasitology was a surprisingly interesting publication, if of little practical value for a locum GP in London. He mused that it might be quite a nice change to find a patient with Japanese lung fluke; it would at least be more intriguing than the usual asthma, flu and rashes he was currently dealing with.

Sherlock read another. “’hey Sherlock can you help me figure out who stole my Auntie Bridget’s pacemaker?’ Well this individual uses the letter ‘u’ instead of bothering to spell the pronoun. I utterly refuse to help such an insufferable dolt. It’s the only way they’ll learn, John.” Given the faint thumping sounds coming from the desk it sounded as if this last message was being deleted with extreme prejudice.

“Mhmmm. Yes, Sherlock.”

“After all, you eventually learnt the error of your ways, didn’t you?”

John sighed. “Shut up, Sherlock.”

“But you did! You hardly ever use those blasted abbreviated words in your texts any more.” Sherlock said this proudly, as if John was a slow but promising pupil. “Not to mention those stupid little punctuation-faces. There is simply no excuse for punctuation-faces, John.”

John glared at Sherlock briefly before returning to his article. The important thing at this point was not to engage. Otherwise it would end up in a long drawn out lecture about correct syntax, grammar and the sanctity of the English language. He knew that Sherlock wanted him to say that 'punctuation-face' was not the usual name for an emoticon. But he wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction.

“You’re a punctuation-face.” John murmured very quietly, and turned a page.

“That makes no sense whatsoever, John.” Sherlock said sternly, before turning back to his laptop and resuming typing. Occasionally he muttered darkly to himself when he was particularly affronted by a message, and he periodically demanded that John make him tea.

John grinned and resumed reading. This really shouldn’t have felt like home, there was bickering and grumbling; there was the terrible collection of taxidermied guinea pigs that had somehow appeared on the coffee table overnight; and there was the frankly distressing smell coming from the microwave (he hadn’t dared open it for the last day or two - Sherlock had been worryingly evasive about the contents).

And yet, nearly a year after his arrival back at Baker Street it almost felt as though he had never left. When he thought about Mary it still hurt, but the rage had thankfully subsided to an occasional dull throb. The grief had taken much longer to subside, and there were still nights where he lay awake staring at the ceiling. Suddenly struck once more by the loss of the future he had envisioned.

He never did ask Sherlock to find out who the father was. He had decided that it really didn’t matter, not in the great scheme of things.

Mary had quietly left his life (well, there had been one furious phone call concerning the non-operation of every electrical appliance in their old house). He knew that he could find out where she and the child were, if he wanted to. It would simply involve asking Sherlock, who probably knew already. But he decided that the fewer details he knew, the better. It would somehow be worse to find out that Mary was with the father of her child; that they had taken John’s future and made it their own.

He mainly worried rather a lot about the baby, growing up with an assassin for a mother. A mother who got bored easily. John knew that his own hands were far from clean. He too had killed people and yet he managed to sleep most nights. In Afghanistan, as well as (a lot less legally) in London. He probably could have winged that cabbie instead of going for the kill shot, but it hadn’t really seemed like an option at the time. And yet it definitely seemed worse that Mary was being paid to kill people.

He had spent months anticipating his (not his) daughters arrival, looking forward to meeting her and seeing her grow up. It suddenly seemed miraculous, the idea of creating a whole new person (silly, for a doctor - he knew how these things worked). He had hoped that she would get Mary’s nose instead of his. He wanted her to have Mary’s intellect and maybe a bit more of his empathy. He had wanted to teach her how to read, had already gone hunting for all his old Enid Blyton books in the loft of his mother’s house. He had envisioned Sherlock helping her with her science homework when she was older (and oh, what a brilliant disaster that would have been). He smiled faintly at this last image. Children often seemed to adore Sherlock, despite his obvious awkwardness and inability to say appropriate things to them.

He just showed them pictures of decapitated nuns and was mystified when it upset their parents.

But there was no use in all of this. At first, whenever he felt the memories and grief stealing up on him he had stared at himself in the mirror and told himself firmly “Don’t think about it.” He repeated this to himself endlessly, felt it echoing around in his head. He pushed the grief back. It seemed to work, a bit. He knew Sherlock heard him muttering this mantra to himself, had registered the silent concern on his flatmate’s face. Sherlock had said nothing, but perhaps stood a little closer to him than usual. Watched him more carefully.

On one particularly awful night, it seemed that John really was going to have a full blown panic attack, no matter what Sherlock said. John had been sitting on the floor of his bedroom, leaning against the bed. He could feel his heart racing and stuttering, and his chest hurt from the struggle to breathe evenly.

He knew what was happening, god knew he had had plenty of these attacks after Afghanistan. But this was the first time since Mary. This was a different kind of panic. He fixed his gaze on the feebly fluttering curtains next to the open window and attempted to breathe deeply. It was a summer night, and London was in the middle of one of those grey sticky spells when the air seemed yellow and thick. It was hard to force it into his lungs. The sound of traffic reached him dimly and he tried to focus on it, anything outside of his own head.

He and Sherlock had spent the last two days tracking down a kidnapped teacher, who had been bundled into a van after school by three disgruntled ex-pupils. Although the kidnappers were motivated by the poor marks they received in their GCSEs, they had proved to be rather talented at practical subjects such as subterfuge, dissimulation and mild torture. It had taken longer than either John or Sherlock had anticipated before they found the unfortunate Mr. Travers handcuffed to a radiator in a derelict building.

Mr. Travers was badly dehydrated and had three broken fingers, but was still able to move quickly towards his family when they arrived at the scene in a panda car. John had watched the man, enveloped in his wife’s arms, and then wrapped in those of his two sons. The younger boy was only six or so, and too short to reach his fathers arms where they were around Mrs. Travers. So he had wrapped his father’s legs in a vice-like grip and just held on until his father picked him up.

John had watched, unable to tear his eyes away. Sherlock was elsewhere, having fun berating the teenage kidnappers for their lack of finesse. Mr. Travers was surrounded by medics and several police officers; Lestrade was obviously hoping to get another statement from him before too long. But all Mr. Travers could see was his family. John could almost feel the relief and love radiating from that small group. Mrs. Travers was very obviously doing her best not to cry, but Mr. Travers had tears running freely down his face. It was apparent that he had thought he would never see his wife or sons again.

The sheer envy had hit John like a blow. He had been so relieved when they found the man, almost giddy when he and Sherlock had rounded up the three teenagers responsible for his capture. Nobody had died, which was always nice. But he could feel the elation draining away rapidly, only to be replaced by aching jealousy. Mr. Travers had everything John had lost, wrapped in his arms just a few feet away.

Lucky, lucky fucking bastard.

He had managed to get home without breaking down. He had refused Sherlock’s offer of the traditional post-case Chinese food binge, saying that he needed to go back to Baker Street and sleep. He knew that Sherlock wasn’t remotely fooled, but couldn’t bring himself to look into the detectives eyes. John couldn’t face answering questions at the moment, and luckily Sherlock didn’t attempt to ask any. Sherlock had wandered off to take a shower while John stumbled up the stairs to his room.

The sweat was pouring down John’s face and his mouth seemed to be full of ashes. It was all somehow worse that he knew what was happening, he was a bloody doctor and a good one at that. He knew he wasn’t having a heart attack, that it was all in his head. But he couldn’t stop it, was now having even more trouble controlling his breathing.

Don’t think about it. Don’t think about her. Or her. Or Mr. fucking Travers. Just.... don’t think about it.

“John.” Sherlock’s voice seemed oddly far away. “John, listen to me.”

Sherlock had appeared from somewhere, sitting on the floor next to John. He had no idea when the man had arrived or how long he had been there. He really wanted to tell Sherlock to go away, just to leave him alone until he could pull himself together. But unfortunately he seemed to be beyond words at the moment.

“John, you know that you’re having a panic attack. It’s textbook stuff, and you know exactly what’s happening, don’t you?”

John eventually managed a shaky nod.

“And you know that you’re safe. There’s no reason for your lungs not to work properly. I will not let anything happen to you, you know that.”

He eventually managed to crack one eye open briefly. Sherlock was kneeling in front of him, looking into his face intently. Slowly, Sherlock reached out and put his hand on John’s wrist. John’s arms had been wrapped tightly around his torso; it seemed wise at the time as he felt that it was likely that he would physically disintegrate. He let Sherlock pull his arms away from his chest, and breathing did become a little easier (stupid, John – you were squeezing the air right out of your own chest).

Sherlock kept hold of John’s wrists loosely, wrapping his large hands around them. John grasped Sherlock’s bony wrists and stared at the detectives hands.

“Alright. John, you know that panic attacks typically only last between five minutes and half an hour. It’s already been about ten minutes, so it’s not going to last much longer. Just try and breathe. Can you feel my pulse? Focus on that, and breathing. Just those two things and nothing else.”

Sherlock’s hands were very large, and white, with a fair few scars. There was a very fine scattering of hair on the backs, and calluses on the tapered fingertips. John could feel Sherlock’s pulse under his own fingers. It was strong and steady, if a little faster than one would expect.

“That’s right. Your breathing is already getting more regular. Try breathing along with me.” Sherlock inhaled and exhaled deliberately, and John attempted to mimic him. “You’re already feeling a bit embarrassed about me seeing you like this, which is good. It means that you’re able to think about other things.”

Typical.

“Alright, much better. Keep it up.” Sherlock continued to breathe in an exaggerated fashion. “Your pulse is getting steadier now, splendid.”

As John slowly managed to pull himself together, he managed to tear his eyes away from Sherlock’s hands and up to his face. Sherlock smiled at him grimly as their eyes met. His face was tense and his brow was furrowed, but he seemed to relax a little as John came back to himself. John noticed that Sherlock’s hair was dripping wet and soaking through the shoulders of his t-shirt, which was sticking to him rather a lot.

“I started taking a shower but I was becoming a bit concerned. You’re usually ready to inhale vast quantities of xiolongbao after a case, especially if you haven’t eaten much earlier. You also completely missed the opportunity to mock me in front of Lestrade when he mentioned someone who is apparently the current prime minister and I didn’t know who he was referring to.”

“Deeply... suspicious behaviour. Excellent deduction, Sher... lock.”

“Not particularly.” Sherlock continued to gaze at John, breathing deeply in time. “You are really quite remarkably obvious, and I do know you best.”

John managed a weak smile at this. “Pillock. I suppose you do, don’t you.”

“Aha. You’re back to insulting me, definitely a promising sign. Just keep breathing like this for a bit longer. Then we’ll ring Mrs. Shen and get her to send over a trough of dumplings and fried noodles for you.”

John could feel the thick panic ebbing away slowly but surely. He did feel a bit silly sitting on the floor with Sherlock, focussing on his flatmates face and grasping his forearms; but it certainly seemed to work. After another few minutes Sherlock cautiously levered him to his feet and sat him down on the edge of the bed. They sat silently together for a long time, before Sherlock pushed him in the direction of the bathroom with instructions to leave the door ajar, just in case. When he came out after a long tepid shower, there was enough food to feed an army on the kitchen table and Sherlock was using a scalpel to dissect a spring roll.

And it struck him later, that this was something that the person who knew you best could do. Better than anyone else. Sherlock knew how to nudge him back from the edge of the precipice. He didn’t ask what had been the trigger for John’s panic attack, of course he already just knew.

***

“For pity’s sake John! Pay attention!”

John jerked back to awareness of his surroundings. Sherlock was regarding him with an exasperated expression.

“What? Make your own damn tea, Sherlock.” John sighed.

“I gave up on the tea quite some time ago, since my repeated requests were being deliberately ignored.” This last remark was accompanied by a baleful stare.

“You poor dear. Then what is it?”

“How do you feel about Edinburgh?”

“Nice place. Tall buildings. Deep fried mars bars. Tourists. Endless bloody bagpipes.” John looked at Sherlock through wide, innocent eyes. Both of them knew that this was just to annoy Sherlock.

“Scintillating.” Sherlock rolled his eyes. “A case, John! In Edinburgh. There’s been nothing good for weeks here and I’ve just been asked to help with a nice murder in Edinburgh. We’ll leave in the morning. We’ll stay with my cousin Violet.”

“I’ve never even heard of your cousin Violet. You hate leaving London, you get all moony and homesick. And I’m working Wednesday and Friday this week.”

“Edinburgh is a perfectly acceptable city, although sadly lacking many of the attractions of London. You have never seen or heard of most of my family, for which I am eternally grateful. Most of them are either ghastly or dull or both. Just look at Mycroft. Cousin Violet is an exception, and I haven’t seen her in years. And there’s been a murder in her summerhouse, which always makes a family visit a bit more appealing.”

“Obviously. Who doesn’t like a nice disembowelment to liven up family reunions?” (Come to think of it, a disembowelment would probably have only improved his last dinner with Harry. It had taken ages to get the gravy off the walls afterwards.)

“Not a disembowelment. A stabbing, of an artists model. We’ll take the first train in the morning, and you can come back to London on Tuesday evening. You’re always going on about never going on holiday, John. This will be just like a nice holiday for you.”

“A nice holiday, just a bit more...murdery. ” John said drily.

“Yes! The best kind of holiday!” Sherlock beamed. “So we won’t get bored!”

Chapter Text

Since it was a truth universally acknowledged that Sherlock on aeroplanes was A Very Bad Thing, he and John found themselves on the 7am train from Kings Cross to Edinburgh the next morning.

Despite his token protests about the trip, John didn’t really mind; he always enjoyed train journeys and he hadn’t visited Edinburgh since a weekend at the festival in his student days. He did enjoy getting out of London now and again, and he had a certain morbid curiosity about meeting another Holmes. After all, a family that had produced both Sherlock and Mycroft obviously had some interesting genetic material floating around.

And Sherlock had said that Violet was neither dull or ghastly, which was practically swooning praise from him.

The train wound its way out of London and gathered speed as it headed up the east coast. Sherlock barely glanced up from his phone while John absently watched the sea appear and disappear between the hills.

Somewhere around Newcastle Upon Tyne Sherlock looked up at him and blinked. John supposed that Sherlock had either a) forgotten that they were travelling together or b) forgotten that he was on a train.

“Hello.” John put down his copy of Private Eye on the table between them. “You missed breakfast.”

“Hmm.” Sherlock made a swooping gesture that eloquently communicated his complete disdain for breakfast generally, and for breakfast on trains in particular. He reached over and stole John’s coffee. “There’s no sugar in this!”

“Yes, well done. That is because it is my coffee and I do not take sugar.” John managed to signal to a bemused looking carriage attendant to bring more coffee, before taking his cup back from Sherlock. Travelling first class on trains had its advantages; John didn’t even tell Sherlock off for using Mycroft’s civil service pass to get them an upgrade. “So are you going to tell me anything about the case?”

Sherlock gulped his cup of heavily sugared coffee within seconds and beckoned for more. “So. On Friday evening, Violet’s pupils were painting in a studio in the garden.”

“Violet teaches painting?”

“Yes, brilliant deduction, John. Ten points. So, the facts: at around 6.30 Violet, her assistant Katy and five students were in the studio, which is a converted summerhouse. The artist’s model Sandra Garner was also there. She was to pose on a wooden bench which was draped with a length of fabric. The bench was mounted on a portable wooden dais.
“The pose was of Garner lying back on the bench with her torso facing the ceiling and her legs twisted to one side. She was usually reluctant to take this pose, as she claimed that it hurt her back to maintain the position. One of the students, one Hilary Jessop, assisted her in getting into position by pressing down on her shoulders.
“As it turned out, there was an extremely sharp stiletto knife hammered through the base of the bench and disguised by the drape. Garner was stabbed through the back, between her ribs. The blade entered her heart and she quickly bled out. She died before they could get her to hospital. According to Violet, the local police are-“ Sherlock consulted a text on his phone “-about as much use as a one-legged man at an arse-kicking competition.”

John choked slightly on his coffee. “A member of your family said that?!

Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “Focus, John. The crime! Isn’t it preposterous?”

“Well yes, utterly.” John thought quickly. “It should be obvious that Hilary Jessop is the murderer. She applied the force to the model’s shoulders, pressing her onto the knife.”

“Yes...” Sherlock looked expectant. John was almost waiting for him to wave a biscuit in the air over his nose.

“But we know from the Mayfly Man-“ (Don’t think about it. Not anything else about that day. “-that if you use a fine enough blade it is possible to stab someone easily enough without their feeling it. But if it was a stiletto rather than a needle, she would have felt it enter her body; she would have cried out or resisted or pushed back. Hilary Jessop would have stopped pushing her down onto the bench. Jessop must be the killer.”

“But-“

John attempted to think even more quickly. “Well, the local police wouldn’t be puzzled over that, can they? It must be more complicated.”

“Quite. The problem is this: Jessop has no motive for killing Garner that the police or Violet know of. She freely admits pushing Garner down, and that it was her action that presumably caused the girl’s death. She did it in front of a room of witnesses. She says that she had no idea that the knife was there. Garner did not struggle or resist; she allowed herself to be pushed firmly down on a blade which entered her body several inches deep.”

There was an appalled look from a passing woman who was carrying a toddler. John made frantic “shut up!” noises at Sherlock who heaved a heavy sigh and remained silent until she reached the end of the carriage.

“Look, all children have to learn about homicide some time, John. Basic fact of life. Anyway, Violet says that the police have been crawling all over her house and don’t seem to be coming up with anything. They can’t decide who hammered the knife through the bench. She’s probably concerned that if the matter isn’t cleared up, nobody will want to enroll next year. Well that, and I suppose it isn’t all that pleasant having a killer among your students,” he added as something of an afterthought.

John watched Sherlock retreat into thinking mode, with his hands steepled under his chin. When Sherlock’s ridiculously long legs stretched out and under John’s seat, John made a token effort to nudge them away but to little effect. There was no point, and to be honest he didn’t mind. He had tried explaining the concept of personal space more than once to Sherlock, but had always been greeted with vaguely perplexed impatience. It was quite nice, in a way. Not exactly brotherly (he certainly never saw Sherlock and Mycroft looking comfortable with less than a good five feet of empty space between them) but companionable. It was the feeling of trusting someone within your space, the familiarity that came from long acquaintance and affection.

Most people tended to recoil slightly when Sherlock loomed over them or sat next to them. Admittedly, a lot of the time his goal was to unsettle or intimidate them. But John had seen even Lestrade take a hasty step back when Sherlock brushed against his arm.

It seemed that he and Mrs. Hudson were the only exceptions to the rule. He had gotten used to Sherlock’s proximity surprisingly quickly; and Mrs. Hudson seemed to be utterly unaware of the effect Sherlock had on some people. He had even seen her pat down Sherlock’s hair once or twice as she walked past his chair.

He thought again of Sherlock talking him through his panic, of grasping his arms and listening to his voice, feeling his pulse. Very few people knew that side of the man, and part of him guarded that knowledge jealously, possessively.

John had had plenty of other mates, from his school and uni days, a few from the army and others through both medical and detecting work. But none of them were quite like this. It would have felt a bit awkward if any of those guys were stretched out like this, their legs tangled with his. If any of them had had to talk him through a panic attack, he didn’t think he would be able to look them in the face again. It just wasn’t what mates did. And yet he and Sherlock did.

They stood that bit closer, the two of them against the world. Of course neither would say it; but it was understood that each would defend the other to the end. And it had nearly come to it, on more than one occasion.

It was no wonder that people made assumptions.

“Bloody confirmed bachelor Watson” he muttered, picking up his magazine.

Sherlock’s eyes flew open again. “Oh! John. Yes, there are some things I have to tell you about Cousin Violet.”

“Oh?” John was intrigued. He had purposely not asked Sherlock any questions about his cousin. He knew that if he had done so Sherlock would probably refuse to answer any questions, or only give him misleading or incorrect information.

“Yes. Violet is not in fact a Holmes. She was briefly married to my uncle Sherrinford a long time ago, but he drank himself to death shortly after. Not her doing, incidentally.”

“So why is she called Cousin Violet?”

“Well she was a lot younger than him and it seemed a bit silly to refer to her as Aunt Violet. She’s only two years older than I am. And after Uncle Sherrinford died, it seemed even more nonsensical.”

“Blimey. A bit of a cradlesnatcher, was he?”

“Well yes, but Vi was a bit of a gold-digger, so it was alright. Anyway, she is one of the better relations I have, although that isn’t saying much.” Sherlock pulled a face, no doubt thinking of his brother. “Uncle Sherry left her plenty of money when he died and she moved from their home in Aberdeenshire to Edinburgh some years ago. She teaches painting, but her main occupation is that of an archivist. That is very important John, so please remember: do NOT call her a librarian under any circumstances.”

“But aren’t they the-“

“No, they are not. So don’t make the mistake of calling her a librarian. Also, you are absolutely not allowed to fall in love with her, sleep with her, marry her or anything like that. Agreed?”

John stared at Sherlock, who looked extremely stern. “Is that likely?”

Sherlock scowled. “It’s more than likely. She is intelligent, and quite interesting. It’s been several years, but she certainly used to be very striking.”

“Quite interesting, eh? Striking. Gosh. That’s high praise, coming from you. Anything else?” John grinned at Sherlock, who gritted his teeth and glared out the window as if the rolling countryside had offended him deeply and personally.

“I mean it, John. How would you like it if I suddenly tried to sleep with Harry?”

John boggled slightly at Sherlock. “Well I must say that I would be a little surprised. What with the whole lesbian issue. And well, there’s you-“

Sherlock raised an eyebrow, looking expectantly at John. “Do go on.” He said icily.

John balked. “Er. Well, that is – it’s a highly unlikely thing to happen. Either situation. And I don’t really plan on getting involved with anyone for the time being, surely you know that. And I promise that I won’t fall in love with your cousin. Really.”

Sherlock looked slightly mollified. “Good. Well, she’s going to meet us at the station, and will take us back to her house to show us the crime scene. Unfortunately the body is no longer there, but she assured me that she took several decent photographs of the corpse and surroundings.”

“Wait, what? The police couldn’t have allowed that, surely? NSY certainly wouldn’t stand for it.” John asked, surprised.

“Another thing you should know about Violet, John, is that she is extremely persuasive when she wants to be. And I very much doubt that allowing her came into it.” Sherlock’s tone was approving. “She’s a very good photographer, so hopefully the pictures and the scene should suffice. She will insist on using film however, so she couldn’t email the photos to me immediately.”

“Right.” John was already feeling a little intimidated at the prospect of meeting Violet. Beautiful, talented, ‘interesting’ and intelligent by Sherlock’s standards.

He felt slightly worried that he was about to meet another Irene Adler.

***

John was struck by the drop in temperature as they stepped off the train into the Victorian splendour of Waverley Station. The journey had only taken four hours, but Scottish climes were certainly different to those of London. The station was quite busy, and he scanned the crowds looking for a woman who fitted the description that Sherlock had given him. Unfortunately, Sherlock had neglected to mention any physical characteristics, and after their conversation on the train he had felt wary of asking anything about how Violet looked.

Still, though – he thought that he might be able to identify a woman who would be willing to marry into the Holmes family.

Sherlock was scanning the crowds too, his hands dug deep into his pockets. John spotted a tall, stately looking woman with long black hair and was about to point her out when he heard what could only be described as a squeal of delight.

“Sherlock Holmes, you revolting article! Come here!”

John watched in fascination as a curvy red haired woman of around medium height launched herself at Sherlock, who seemed a little startled but extremely pleased as he folded his arms around her shoulders.

“Violet, you ghastly wench.” Sherlock smiled down at her. It was his real smile, too. Violet turned her head and grinned up at him, resting her chin on his chest. Something changed very subtly in Sherlock’s expression as he looked at her face.

Violet didn’t seem to be in a hurry to let go, but then neither did Sherlock. John watched them, bemused. Violet came up to just below Sherlock’s shoulder. Her skin was pale and freckled, and her carefully arranged hair was coppery red and tightly curled. She was dressed in an extravagantly cut powder blue coat which brushed her shapely calves, and a pair of scarlet suede high heels. She was certainly not what he had pictured. She had dropped her handbag in her excitement, which John picked up and held awkwardly.

“Oh! And Doctor Watson too!” Violet exclaimed, finally pulling away but keeping Sherlock’s gloved hand in hers. “I’m so pleased you accompanied this gargoyle. I hear he minds his manners a bit more when you’re around. I have been simply dying to meet you.” As she said this, she turned to face John fully and he saw all of her face for the first time.

It certainly wasn’t a hideous or ugly face but it was disconcerting. It brought you up short. Broad scars stretched from Violet’s right temple and down across her cheekbone. There was another, smaller scar to the left of her pointed chin, almost like an afterthought. John suspected that there had also been trauma to her right eye although it appeared unscathed – her left eye was bright blue, but the right was a sleepy brown.

She looked at him shrewdly, and he was quite sure that she was reading every thought that was going through his mind. She was still smiling however, and John suspected that this was something she must go through every time she met someone new.

Perhaps only two seconds had passed, and John scrambled to find his manners. He held out his hand, and she shook it firmly. She wore long red suede gloves to match her shoes, and it struck John that Violet was probably someone who had no desire to be inconspicuous, despite her scars.

“It’s lovely to meet you. I forgot to ask Sherlock your surname, so I don’t quite know what to call you!” he laughed, a little nervously. He felt like an idiot.

“Oh, it’s Vernet, but sod that,” she said cheerfully. “Violet is fine. I'm planning on calling you John. And thank you for picking up my bag, I was a bit overexcited to see this foul blot after so long.” She elbowed Sherlock in a friendly manner. Sherlock nudged her back in a fond sort of way. He was still smiling down at her. John tried his best not to stare. “Let’s go, we can get a cab over here. My house isn’t too far.”

Her accent was as unusual as the rest of her, veering here and there. There were definite traces of Sherlock’s cut-glass English, but equally there were traces of Scots and possibly Irish, with perhaps a hint of American or Canadian.

She led the way towards the taxi rank, still holding Sherlock’s unresisting hand. They certainly made a striking pair, and more than one person on the platform did a double take. John wondered if dramatic coats were a Holmes family trait that Violet had adopted when she had married Sherrinford, before he picked up his bag and followed them through the crowds.

Chapter Text

As the cab rumbled across the winding cobbled streets of the Old Town of Edinburgh, John caught vaguely familiar glances of the city. On his brief trip there, years before, he had mainly been struck by the seething crowds everywhere, spilling out of every side street and alley. The festival turned Edinburgh into a city of people, rather than buildings. But now, in the relative quiet of a Monday afternoon in autumn he was struck by the stateliness of the city, the narrow stone buildings towering over twisting streets. The castle dominated the skyline, looming on a massive rocky outcrop over Princes Street gardens. Glancing back towards the Georgian New Town, John caught glimpses of steely water and the Forth Bridges through the long straight streets which sloped towards the sea.

Sitting across from him, Violet was clutching the strap above the door next to her and chatting animatedly to Sherlock. Sherlock was paying no attention to his surroundings, focussing only on Violet; or perhaps more specifically on her face. John was positive that Sherlock had not known of her scarring, although it was quite obvious that the injury to her face must have occurred several years previously. He was also surprised that Sherlock had made no comment so far about them, and was entirely prepared to kick him vigorously if he was tactless.

But Sherlock seemed content to listen to Violet talk, as she told him more about the late Sandra Garner.

“-around twenty-three. She was really quite beautiful, you know. She had the most marvellous bones, and I’d been working with her for over a year. She could be absolutely impossible though, such a wriggler! And a terrible temper. It was worth it though. My current painting of her is really quite good. Well, I suppose it’ll never be finished now.” She frowned. “I know I sound callous, but I am upset about that. I have some photographs, but it’s never quite the same as working from life...”

“Friday night, Vi. Who exactly was in the studio when she was stabbed?” Sherlock prompted, with a long-suffering expression on his face.

Violet kicked him sharply with the pointed toe of her scarlet shoe. “Yes, alright, I know I’m skating around it. Insufferable worm.” she sighed. “Seven people. Me. My assistant Katy. Hilary Jessop. Her latest amour Basil Montague. Patrick Singh. George Marmaduke. Phyllis Lee. They’ve all been with me for two months now. Apart from George, they are all moderately talented. Apart from Katy and Patrick, I’d happily push the lot of them off a bridge if I could get away with it.”

John raised an eyebrow at that.

Violet gave him a lukewarm smile. “I should like to point out that I didn’t kill her. Just so we’re clear. I’ve always preferred psychological torture to actual murder, it’s much less messy.”

John tried not to look abashed.

Sherlock looked faintly amused. “I take it they’ve been staying with you all this time?”

Violet nodded, her mouth twisted into a faint moué of distaste. “Yes, god help me. Two months is a very long time to have house guests, even if they do have their own wing. I’d have given them the push ages ago, if it wasn’t for the extortionate fees I’ve managed to extract from them. Look, it’s probably best if you just meet them and draw your own conclusions; I’m personally sick of the sight of them and I’m unlikely to give you a fair idea of their characters. Besides, we’re nearly there now.”

They had left the labyrinthine Old Town behind, and after driving past wide expanses of green parkland were in the Victorian suburbs of the city. The streets were wider here, lined with tall trees and covered in drifts of autumnal leaves. The buildings were changing as they moved away from the centre of the city; tall tenements were giving way to smart terraced houses and detached grey stone villas with large gardens. To their left, Arthur’s Seat and the volcanic crags towered over the east of the city. After a minute or so, the cab drew up in front of a tall grey stone wall set with an ancient and battered wooden door.

Violet seemed to relax slightly, and leapt from the cab with a theatrical swirl of her beautiful blue coat. After paying the cabbie and tipping him outrageously, she pushed the unlocked door open and led them inside.

John gaped slightly, and Sherlock shook his head in bemused disapproval at his cousin. She grinned up at him, unapologetic. “Shut up.”

Really, Vi.”

They were on a narrow gravel path leading up to the front of a large, sprawling Georgian house. On either side, however they were surrounded by an enormous, towering collection of dark shapes. After a second glance, John realised that they were not sculptures, but topiary. Some of the shapes were over twenty feet tall; huge looming obelisks and improbable geometric shapes. The smaller figures were more varied: running figures, gigantic outstretched hands, strange twisted beasts.

The overall effect was deeply unsettling and more than a little claustrophobic. John felt the need to walk quietly, as if past sleeping monsters. He winced a little at the sound of the gravel crunching under his feet and then felt rather foolish. They were only shrubs, after all. A murder had been committed very nearby; the least of his worries was a bizarre collection of hedges.

Sherlock merely tsk-ed a bit at the garden and followed Violet down the path.

The house itself was charming; it was beautifully proportioned and built out of large blocks of veined yellow sandstone. To one side a large gothic conservatory stretched out into the garden, no doubt a later addition. Before following Sherlock and Violet through the large double front doors, John glanced upwards and thought he caught a glimpse of movement behind the curtains on a third floor window.

Following Sherlock’s lead, John abandoned his bag in the large dim hallway and headed into the vast kitchen where Violet was putting on the kettle. His initial impressions of the house were confused; many of the curtains were drawn and it seemed very dark. Huge numbers of pictures lined the walls, and he caught the glassy eyes of a large stuffed bear under the stairs. (Honestly, what was it with posh people and taxidermy?)

The kitchen, in contrast, was bright and a little chaotic. It had obviously been modernised at some point in the 1950’s; the large kitchen table was deep red formica and edged with chrome, and the many cupboards were painted to match. Everything was extremely well made but a little battered and had an air of frequent and prolonged use. There were several jugs and vases of deep purple irises scattered here and there around the room. The floor was the original black and white chequered tile, and there was a scuffed old chesterfield next to the French windows. Sherlock attempted to sit down on this, before discovering a large and grumpy Russian Blue cat sleeping under a layer of newspapers. The cat narrowed its eyes at him and made no move to vacate the sofa.

“Don’t disturb Benjy, Sherlock; he’s a perfect fiend if he doesn’t get at least eighteen hours of sleep a day.” Violet instructed him breezily. “John, take a seat and I’ll make us a brew.”

John slid into one of the mis-matched chairs at the table, where a disgruntled-looking Sherlock joined him a moment later. Once Violet had flipped the switch on the kettle, she carelessly discarded her coat on the other end of the table, revealing a figure-hugging dress in an eyewatering shade of pink. It clashed magnificently with her red hair and shoes.

“Violet is not colour-blind, John.” Sherlock said, seeming to misread John’s slight gape. “She is simply incapable of not being provoking.”

John closed his mouth quickly. He was in fact remembering a line from a book he had read years before: Built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht.

Violet winked at him with her brown eye. He swallowed hard and tried with limited success not to blush.

“Get the milk, Sherlock – it’s in the fridge in the larder,” Violet ordered lazily. Sherlock looked mildly affronted, until she added “Get the cake tin from in there, too. I made a Victoria sandwich yesterday.”

Sherlock disappeared smartly into the cavernous larder while Violet poured the tea into beautiful old china cups. He reappeared seconds later with a glass pint bottle of milk tucked under his arm, wrestling the lid off a large dented gilt tin. Violet watched in great amusement, and John in something akin to shock, as Sherlock’s eyes widened at the sight of the cake. It did look like quite a nice sponge cake, John had to admit; dusted with icing sugar and oozing what looked like cream and raspberry jam.

Sherlock seized a knife from the table and hacked off a huge slice, which he began to stuff into his mouth with great relish. His eyes were closed and the moan he let out was positively indecent. John stared some more. There was icing sugar and jam around the corners of Sherlock’s ridiculous mouth and cream smeared between his long fingers.

Violet rolled her eyes in a fond sort of way and pulled the tin towards herself. “John. Would you like some cake before this greedy beast eats it all?”

John tore his eyes away from Sherlock, who was still working his way through the massive chunk of cake in his hand.

“Err...are there any class-A substances in it that I should be aware of?”

“Only home-made jam, I promise. You know what he’s like with cake,” she smiled conspiratorially, patting his hand.

John did know what Sherlock was usually like with cake; he mocked it and sneered at it and pushed it around his plate if he had the misfortune of being given any. He had never witnessed anything like this display of gluttony. Sherlock was currently licking his fingers with the sole intention of getting any last crumbs, looking rather a lot like a smug cat. The piece of cake had vanished amazingly fast and he was already eyeing the tin for seconds.

Violet cut John a generous piece and placed it on a plate, and cut another for herself. Sherlock swiftly pulled the tin towards himself again, brandishing the cake knife with unseemly glee.

The cake was good. So good, in fact that John was prepared to start wrestling Sherlock for the last piece. Violet lounged back in her chair, watching them with some great private amusement. “Anyway, you two. If you’re quite finished, we can go and have a look at the studio.”

Sherlock nodded, regretfully chasing the last crumbs around the bottom of the cake-tin with his index finger. The cake-fugue appeared to be receding and he seemed capable of speech once more. “Right. Where is it?”

Violet led them through the French windows and across the back lawn, which was mercifully clear of menacing topiary. “Thankfully, the filth have finally buzzed off. They were lurking around the place all weekend. We were all interviewed endlessly on Friday night and again on Saturday morning. And we’ve all been politely asked to remain here and available for further questioning. I mean, I thought that only happened in films – the not being allowed to leave town bit? I told them to either arrest the lot of us or get lost,” she added blithely. “They didn’t take it all that well.”

“I can imagine not.” Sherlock murmured, as they arrived at the studio. It was a long, low structure of sandstone with wide shuttered windows. There was evidence of much trampling on the lawn and around the perimeter of the studio, which Sherlock huffed at disapprovingly. “I suppose all this mess was created afterwards?”

“Yes, the brutes. I told them that they’d better send a few attractive young constables to sort it out once they were finished, too.”

John grinned at Violet, who remained perfectly straight-faced. “What?” she asked, innocently.

Sherlock peered through a window, and then tried the front door. It was locked, but Violet produced a heavy wrought iron key from her pocket. John momentarily wondered how she managed to fit anything into the pockets of the tight dress, before catching Sherlock’s scowl. He turned back to the building hastily.

“We are not exactly allowed to go in; the rozzers took what they thought was the only key from me. But it’s hardly my fault that I forgot that there was another one in the kitchen drawer,” she explained, handing the key to Sherlock. He smiled approvingly at her, and unlocked the door.

The room was wide and well-lit, and had the air of a place which had been abandoned in a hurry. There were a couple of discarded palettes next to an easel, the smears of paint dried into a lumpy multicoloured mess. A jar of pencils had obviously been knocked over at some point, and they were scattered in a wide arc on the floor. At the centre of a loose ring of easels was the dais, with a narrow wooden bench atop. This bench was partially covered with a horribly stained blue silk drape; it was obvious where Sandra had been lying. The knife had been removed, but there was a small tear in the fabric near the middle of the blood stain that indicated where it had come through.

All three of them regarded the platform quietly for a moment. Sherlock began to examine the bench carefully, and took out his magnifying glass in order to inspect the dried blood more closely.

“Pretty grim, isn’t it?” Violet asked, in a determinedly casual tone. John turned to look at her, but she seemed unable to tear her own eyes away from the blood. “It just happened so fast. I didn’t really understand what was happening at the time, not until Hilary screamed. Sandra barely made a sound, none of us realised until we saw the blood. She sort of...jerked. And Hilary snatched her hands away from her shoulders as if she’d been burnt. I remember Basil asking what the matter was, if Sandra was alright. Bloody fool, of course she wasn’t...” Violet’s eyes were wide and fixed, and while her voice was level John could almost feel the horror rolling off her. He reached out hesitantly and touched her arm.

“It must be awful for you, Violet, for this to happen in your house. But I promise we’ll sort this out,” he said, squeezing her arm gently. Sherlock, who was now lying in a complicated position on the floor so that he could see the underside of the dais, looked up crossly. He seemed to be about to say something scathing until he took in Violets fixed expression. She didn’t seem to have noticed John’s attempts to soothe her, but simply stood staring at the blood.

John looked down at Sherlock in a plea for help (after all, she was his relation), and was shocked to see his face. He seemed almost on the verge of tears, with his hand across his mouth; he seemed utterly lost as he saw Violet’s distress. With a visible effort he got to his feet, clasping the arm that John offered him. Terribly gently, he reached out to Violet and clasped the back of her neck. He turned her away from the dais and walked her over to the doorway. She allowed herself to be moved easily, but she seemed a little unsteady on her feet as she leant into Sherlock’s shoulder.

“Vi, you terrible harpy. Listen to me,” Sherlock murmured quietly. He still had one hand around the back of her neck and he cupped the scarred side of her face with the other. “No, listen, you rotten baggage. John and I really will sort this out. We can’t undo it, but we can make sure that it doesn’t happen again. We’ll ensure that whoever did this terrible thing is caught, that they’re put away.” Violet seemed to be struggling against tears now, blinking furiously and her chin was trembling. She grasped Sherlock’s wrists tightly. “You do know, we’re really quite good at this sort of thing, don’t you?” he asked, with a dash of bravado. “At least, I am. John sort of hangs around and asks obvious questions and blogs in a mediocre fashion about the scrapes we get into. He does make excellent tea, though.” Sherlock’s mouth quirked into a small smile. His eyes never left Violet’s, but John knew better than to take offence at the jibe. Violet managed a gasping sort of laugh.

“You utter horror. Don’t be so cruel to the nice man,” she laughed shakily. For some reason, in her upset her accent had become much more Irish. “Not many would put up with the likes of you, and you know it.”

She made a visible effort to pull herself together, squeezing Sherlock’s hands as she pushed them away. “Sorry. Sorry. It’s always vile to find out that you’re not quite as cool and blasé as you’d like to be. I think I’ll leave you two boys to it. I could do with a big gin and a little lie-down.” She smiled wanly and headed slowly towards the door, clearly making an attempt not to look in the direction of the bench again. “Katy and the students are all at a show at the Royal Academy in town; I shouldn’t think that they’ll be back until around eight so don’t worry about running into them until later. You’re in the green room on the second floor, it’s easy enough to find. Come and have a drink in the library before dinner, and you can tell me all the clever things you’ve figured out. Alright?”

“Alright.” John echoed. Sherlock nodded, watching her walk back across the grass. At one point she paused to furiously kick a pebble across the garden, before continuing on her way. The shocking pink of her dress stood out oddly against the lush green of the lawn, and they watched her until she disappeared through the kitchen doors.

“Poor Violet.”

“Indeed, John.” Sherlock said. He seemed a little hoarse, but when John looked into his face his eyes were dry once more. He turned back to the bloodied silk and took out his magnifying glass again.

John wandered around the studio aimlessly, trying to picture the scene but unable to stop thinking about Violet, and Sherlock’s reaction to her. The tenderness with which he touched her was so real that John felt a little uncomfortable having witnessed it. He badly wanted to ask why Sherlock had not seen or been in contact with her for so many years, as his affection for her was very clear. He couldn’t quite bring himself to form the words though. He could sense some deep chasm had been opened in the past. He was hesitant to bring it up, to make Sherlock relive any past darkness.

Sherlock spoke rarely of his past, and when he did it was only with extreme reticence. John didn’t even know where he had gone to school; if it wasn’t for the periodic appearance of Mycroft he doubted he would have heard anything about his family at all. John had been slightly bewildered at the normality of Mr. and Mrs. Holmes, at their straightforward kindness and unpretentious manner. It didn’t seem possible that they had brought such an odd creature as Sherlock into the world. And since it appeared that they had, John could only wonder what had happened to make him into the man he was, apart from being gifted (cursed?) with his intellect.

“Stop thinking so loudly, John. You’re completely putting me off.” Sherlock broke in on his thoughts.

“Look, Sherlock; we both know that you can’t really hear me think!” John said, suddenly annoyed. The detective raised an eyebrow. He heaved a long-suffering sigh.

“Oh, for pity’s sake. Alright. Ask me some questions if you must. Just don’t take all day about it.”

Chapter Text

John didn’t quite know where to start. It didn’t seem an ideal time to start asking Sherlock about his past and his relationship with Violet. He settled for what he hoped was an easier question.

“Violet’s- her face, Sherlock. I saw you when you looked at her at the station. You weren’t expecting her face to look like it does. You didn’t mention it on the train.”

Sherlock looked at John, his gaze even. “No. No, I did not.”

John looked at him expectantly, but Sherlock wasn’t going to make this easy for him. “Do you know what happened to her?”

“Yes. There was a car crash, around six months before Uncle Sherry died. He was in the car, but was reasonably unscathed due to being in the back seat. Violet was in the passenger seat, which took the worst of the impact. When the windscreen broke her face was cut. I only saw her once afterwards, and very briefly. When she was in the hospital. She was heavily bandaged, needless to say; but at the time there didn’t seem to be much concern about scarring.” Sherlock swallowed audibly, staring hard at his hands. They were knotted together, and his knuckles were white. He didn’t seem capable of looking at John, who was getting more and more worried at his reaction. “They seemed much more anxious about her left leg, which was very badly broken, along with her pelvis. I...didn’t see her again afterwards but I was led to believe that she had fully recovered. ”

“Sherlock, mate.” John slowly approached him and touched his wrist. Sherlock still didn’t seem able to look at him. “Christ. It must have been a real shock seeing her then. When you weren’t expecting her to have been affected like that. But it’s not like her life was ruined, I mean did you see her?” He grasped Sherlock’s wrist firmly. “She’s bloody fantastic.”

Sherlock still didn’t look up, and John felt more and more disquieted. He watched Sherlock’s eyelashes flicker repeatedly and edged further into his space, trying to get a better look at him, trying to guess at his emotional state. Obviously not good.

“Sherlock, she’d hate to see you like this.”

Sherlock half-laughed, and sniffed quietly. John could feel him shaking, and as he didn’t know what to say, pulled him into his arms. He could feel Sherlock standing stiffly, awkwardly in his embrace; but at least he didn’t pull away. After a moment or two, he seemed to fold himself into John, his face pressed into John’s shoulder.

His chest heaved convulsively, and John resolved not to notice the quiet gasps in Sherlock’s laboured breathing. He touched the back of his neck, attempting to stroke soothing circles into his skin. Hugging was not really a thing they did, not normally. Probably not since (No. Not thinking about that now.)

“John.” Sherlock’s voice was muffled by his shoulder, but the taller man made no attempt to move away. “John, please don’t hate me for what I am about to tell you.”

John continued to stroke the back of Sherlock’s neck, which was hot and beginning to bead with sweat. The hair at his nape was damp. He could feel Sherlock’s heart, which was beating wildly. He had a horrible feeling that he knew what was coming next, but forced himself to whisper: “Shh. Not possible.”

“It’s my fault, John. That she looks like that. I...I was the one driving the car. I was completely high. We both were. Uncle Sherry was passed out drunk, and Violet can’t drive. I said that I could drive the three of us back to their house, that I was perfectly capable.” A deep, shuddering breath. John held him a little closer, his eyes squeezed tight shut. “It was only five miles, and it was two in the morning. And then a bloody deer jumped out of the hedge. We were only about five minutes away from the house. I hit the deer, I swerved. We went into a tree.” He didn’t seem capable of saying anything more for another minute. “If I had been sober, I would have seen the animal before it landed in front of us. She... she would still have her face. She would still have two blue eyes. Uncle Sherry was already an alcoholic, but he began to drink much more heavily afterwards. He died from it. It’s my fault, John.”

John stayed very still. “How old were you?” he asked quietly.

“John, it’s me. It doesn’t bloody matter how old I was. I was so arrogant, I believed that if even if I was driving whilst stoned, I was still much more capable than a sober ordinary person. I cleared off down to London as soon as I could. Tried to forget about the whole thing. Tried to delete it. Couldn’t. ” He sighed, and swallowed with difficulty. “Nineteen. I went back to uni, and shortly afterwards discovered more serious recreational substances.”

“Sherlock. Shh. Just...breathe with me. Keep breathing.” John said quietly. “Slow and steady.” His heart ached. There was no other word for it.

“This is what we do, isn’t it?” Sherlock asked quietly, a few minutes later. His voice was barely audible, but much steadier. “You and I. When everything is awful. We keep each other breathing."

Chapter Text

The green bedroom was easy to find; especially as there was a postcard blu-tacked to the door. It read as follows:

“Scurvy blighter (and nice John), these are your digs. Afraid the students have taken up the rest of the guest rooms, so you’ll have to share. There’s a horribly uncomfortable sofa in the dressing room if you want it. I’ll make martinis at 7. Don’t bother to dress if you don’t want to. V.”

“Scurvy blighter?”

“Don’t worry, I’m reasonably certain she’ll start insulting you before long.”

The silk covered walls of the bedroom had probably still been green around a century earlier; but now they had faded to a soft grey. Huge numbers of framed butterflies lined the walls, pinned inside rows and rows of cases. The bed was large and very high, with slightly tattered dark green hangings. Like the rest of the house, the room was full of odd eclectic clutter; when John tugged the curtains open to let more light into the dim room he noticed three overflowing bookcases under the sills. There was a beautiful mother-of-pearl inlaid backgammon set on a spindly table nearby, next to a bell-jar containing the skeleton of a small monkey surrounded by mouldering dried flowers and stones.

“Rather like being in a cabinet of curiosities, isn’t it?” Sherlock asked, scanning the room and examining the butterflies more closely. “I recognise a lot of the furniture from the house in Aberdeenshire. Uncle Sherry was a keen lepidopterist. He travelled all over the world to collect some of these, in his younger days.”

“There are... a lot of dead things in this house.” John said. “What with the bear downstairs, and the butterflies and this poor old monkey.” He touched the bell jar gently, and the wired skeletal tail wobbled dangerously.

“I suppose so. You could say that my family has always been cursed with rather too much curiosity. My great-grandparents spent decades travelling the continents and collecting. And shooting things, of course. Mycroft and I used to refer to their travels as The Grand Sneer when we were children.” Sherlock half smiled. “Our father was among the first of the Holmes’ not to do the grand tour. Sherrinford... he was probably the last to do it properly. He was quite a traditionalist, really. ”

John thought about this as they unpacked; or rather he unpacked while Sherlock typed on his phone furiously. “But if he was so traditional-“

Sherlock looked up and cocked an eyebrow. “Ah. You’re wondering how Violet came into the picture.”

“Well, yes. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she seems like a marvellous woman. But not quite...” John grimaced. “She’s not very... um...tweedy.”

Sherlock laughed a little at this, but not unkindly. “Nicely done John; you managed not to use the word posh.”

“Shut up, you know what I mean.”

“She came to work for Uncle Sherrinford as a secretary and in order to do some conservation work on the manuscripts in the library of the Aberdeenshire house. She was twenty, very attractive and extremely intelligent; intelligent enough to conceal a lot of her abilities until after they were married. She became engaged to Sherry within a few months. The family was not particularly pleased, but there wasn’t really all that much they could do about it.”

John imagined Violet at twenty, determined to charm. Violet, with her face unmarred and her eyes glittering with promise. “Poor Uncle Sherry, he didn’t have a chance I bet.”

Sherlock quirked a little smile at that. “Oh, no. It wasn’t like that at all. For a start, Sherry was a homosexual. He was very fond of Violet, but he didn’t really want her that way. He wanted a wife. My grandparents wanted him to have a wife. And Violet made it clear that she was very willing to be his wife.”

John stared at him, nonplussed. “She knew, then?”

“Of course she knew, John. They came to a mutual arrangement. They would marry; he would have a wife to keep the rumours at bay and who would be more than capable of putting on a good show. She wanted his money, sure enough; but much more than that she wanted access to the collections of manuscripts in my grandparent’s library. They were extraordinarily reluctant to let anyone access them, most likely because they were procured in less than honourable ways.”

“She married your uncle for his books?” John asked incredulously.

“Not books. Well, some books. Mainly original manuscripts, and one noteworthy collection of very old cuneiform tablets and Mesopotamian wax seals.” He stared at John, who appeared to be on the edge of a major giggling fit. “Oh, come on, it can’t be that unusual. It was just a mutual exchange of services, that’s all.” This seemed to push John over the edge; he lay back on the gigantic bed and howled. He couldn’t help but picture the wedding reception; Violet in her wedding dress, poring over piles of ancient manuscripts in a dusty library while Uncle Sherry flirted with the waiters. Sherlock stood over him, looking perplexed. “Honestly, John. It isn’t that funny.”

“...Meso...potamian....wax...seals?!” John gasped, and buried his face in the heavily embroidered silk counterpane.

“Well, since you seem determined to have a fit of hysterics, I’m going to examine the student’s bedrooms,” Sherlock said huffily, and stalked out.

***

While Sherlock amused himself digging through the belongings of the unfortunate art students, John contented himself with wandering the corridors of the large house. For some reason, most of the curtains were drawn and the resultant gloom made the darker corners of the building feel slightly sinister. All of the ornately moulded ceilings were at least fifteen feet high, and the walls that stretched up to meet them were largely covered by a huge number of paintings, framed insect specimens and embroidered tapestries and hangings. While the latter were obviously very old, the paintings were a strange mix of the extremely modern and traditional. John didn’t know a lot about art, but he was fairly sure he recognised a Mark Rothko near the grand staircase, and a Modigliani a few feet down from the room he was sharing with Sherlock.

He had decided to leave Sherlock to his snooping; John was never entirely happy with digging through other peoples belongings, even if one of them was a murder suspect. That still left quite a few entirely innocent people who deserved to have their privacy. Besides, he never particularly enjoyed sifting through soiled laundry and grubby wastepaper baskets. Sherlock, for all his personal fastidiousness, never seemed to mind all that much. John could never quite understand why Sherlock would joyfully fling himself into a noisome skip to look for evidence, and yet pulled disgusted nauseated faces at the oddest things (people eating yoghurt. John’s maroon jumper. The word ‘moist’).

Ambling through a set of stately double doors on the ground floor, he found himself in the conservatory. It was a beautiful place, particularly after the gloom of the rest of the house. White-painted wrought iron arches held up a vaulted glass roof and a narrow walkway some twenty feet above him. The conservatory was long and narrow, filled with tall fruit trees and exotic looking shrubs. The floor was vented iron, and here and there steam drifted idly from an elderly heating system beneath his feet. The air was hot, damp and still. There was a heavy, hushed feel to the place as John wandered through the lush greenery, taking in the complex metalwork and occasional dainty wrought iron pieces of furniture. Around halfway down the room he found a small ornamental pond. It contained a few huge koi carp, which circled languidly in the smooth water.

Pushing through some overgrown ferns, he was startled to come face to face with a cross looking woman holding a very large metal syringe.

“Oh! Gosh. Sorry, hello. I didn’t know there was anyone else in here. Sorry,” he grinned nervously.

The woman raised an eyebrow. She was stout, sandy-haired and perhaps around forty-five, wearing a thick gardening apron over a pair of worn jeans and a dark red t-shirt. When John appeared, she had brandished the syringe in a rather intimidating manner but she seemed to relax slightly at his obvious confusion.

“You’ll be Doctor Watson, I take it? Violet said that you and the detective were arriving today.” she had a broad Scots accent, but she was clearly not from Edinburgh.

“John, please,” he tried another smile, but she remained straight faced and perhaps a little disapproving. At least she lowered the instrument in her hand and he realised that she must have been spraying some nearby plants in large terracotta pots.

“Margaret Gothford. I’m the housekeeper here.”

“Oh, I didn’t realise that Violet had a housekeeper; she didn’t say. It’s nice to meet you.” John’s winning smile was obviously not going to get him anywhere, and he let it fade before his face started aching. Margaret nodded and turned back to her plants.

“Yes, I’ve been with Violet for a long time. I keep an eye on the house and garden while she’s away, or busy with the students.” Margaret said the last word with quiet disdain. “It’s a big place, tricky to keep up with on her own.”

“And these plants too, I’m sure. This place is wonderful. I’ve always loved greenhouses like this. It’s a bit like some of the glass houses at the botanic gardens at Kew.”

“Hmmm.” Margaret seemed even more unimpressed at this transparent attempt at flattery. “Any progress on finding out who laid the knife for that poor child?”

“Er. No, not yet. But we did only get here a couple of hours ago; I’m quite sure that Sherlock will get to the bottom of it soon. Did you know her at all? Sandra, that is.”

“Yes, I did, a bit.” Margaret put down the syringe and took off her gloves. “She was a little terror, but that’s no surprise given the types she was surrounded with. She didn’t deserve it.”

“Of course not.” John agreed. “She was quite young, wasn’t she?”

“Twenty-three. Poor wee thing.” she said darkly. “She had no parents, nobody to warn her about falling in with that lot. I tried, the Lord knows, but she wouldn’t listen to me.”

“You mean the students?”

“Of course the students. Rotten bunch and a bad influence on a girl like her. She was impressed with them, the fancy bunch of twats. And she wanted to be like them, tried her best. And now she’s dead for it.” Margaret stared at John and took a step closer to him. Her grey eyes were stony and unfriendly. “So you and your detective pal had best do something about it.”

John stepped back, more than a little disconcerted. Unfortunately he backed into one of the slender iron pillars supporting the greenhouse room.

Margaret looked at him a little scornfully. “My money’s on Garcia. Just you track him down and see what that scunner has to say about things.” She turned and marched away through a small side door into the garden, leaving John frowning after her in confusion.

He continued down the length of the conservatory, mulling over what she had said. He was positive that Violet hadn’t mentioned anyone called Garcia. She had said that there had been seven people in the studio when Sandra was stabbed, but Garcia hadn’t been one of the names she had recited.

Reaching the end of the room, he turned only to find Sherlock wading towards him through some rose bushes. Sherlock had obviously regained his composure after the uncomfortable scene in the studio; he was practically vibrating with purpose and his green eyes gleamed when he caught sight of John.

“Garcia!” he announced, impatiently untangling one of his jacket sleeves from a thorny branch. “There’s another student called Garcia, Violet forgot to mention him earlier. He left in the middle of last week, but he’d been studying here since the middle of July. I’ve just been talking to the gardener and he told me that he suspected that Sandra and Garcia had been ‘carrying on’ for a while back in August.”

“Ah. I just heard about him from the housekeeper - a prickly sort of woman called Margaret Gothford. She told me that she reckoned he’s done it.” John earnestly hoped that this was not going to be the end of the case. Sherlock would be unbearable if they had dragged themselves all the way to Scotland for an entirely straightforward crime of passion.

Sherlock, however, didn’t look convinced. “Possible. But after having a look round the rooms of the other students, it seems as though there are several people who would have been perfectly happy to stab the girl.”

John really shouldn’t have cheered up at that piece of news, but he couldn’t help it.

***

At around seven o’clock, they went to find Violet in the library.

It was a smaller room than John had expected, and the books lining the walls at two levels didn't look as if they were taken off the shelves all that often. Violet was lying across a large chintz armchair, a cigarette in one hand and a tall stemmed glass in the other. The large cat they had seen in the kitchen earlier lay in front of the fireplace, snoring gently.

“Good evening, you filthy ingrate! John dear, pour yourself a drink; there’s plenty in the jug on the table over there.” she gestured lazily towards a large round central table. There was a heavy looking silver tray laden with glasses and a tall iced carafe of martinis. Violet glared up at Sherlock who was hovering next to her chair. “Get lost. You are not having a cigarette. I don’t care if you beg. John will be cross with me, I can tell.”

“I don’t want one. What you’re smoking is so pretentious I wouldn’t even dignify it with the name of cigarette.” Sherlock said disapprovingly, although his nostrils were flaring as he inhaled the curling wisps of smoke. John looked more closely as he handed Sherlock a glass; Violet was smoking a long thin coal black cigarette with a gold filter. John attempted his best disapproving look but failed miserably. Sadly, Violet was one of those people who actually did look cool when they smoked.

Violet was wearing a complicated sort of dress, all soft black drapery and trailing hems; it hung from one white freckled shoulder in a louche sort of way as she lolled in her chair. Her hair was still pinned away from her face, revealing extremely large pearl and diamond earrings which seemed to drag on her earlobes a little. John hadn’t bothered to change and felt rather underdressed.

“I see that you still have some of Grandmama’s jewels?” Sherlock asked, stooping to inspect her earrings. She cocked her head so that he could get a better look as well as another lungful of her second-hand smoke. “Don’t worry, John – she obviously hasn’t dressed up for our benefit.”
Violet grinned. “Go on then, twerp. How do you know?”

“That dress is very obviously expensive, and made by a famous designer; you made the dress and coat you wore earlier yourself. Both of which suit you much better, incidentally; but that’s beside the point. The earrings again are ostentatious and are obviously uncomfortable but you’re prepared to put up with them for this evening. You’re aiming to impress, but not us. You’re not aiming to seduce anyone, as you forgot to put on more perfume when you dressed earlier; a classic sign. Similarly, you haven’t put on any more make-up, you just powdered your nose.”

“I could have been in a rush. I could have slept too long this afternoon,” she challenged, one eyebrow raised.

“Nonsense. You tried to sleep, but gave up after a while and made a start on dinner. You’d still have pillow creases on your face otherwise, and there’s a trace of some kind of sauce on the back of your wrist. The newspaper next to your chair is open at the crossword, and it’s nearly three quarters done. There’s cigarette ash in the folds of the paper, so you’ve obviously been sitting here for a while.”

“How dare you. It usually only takes me ten minutes to do the Times crossword.”

“But not today. You’ve unsurprisingly been a little preoccupied. But to return to my main point. You spent most of the afternoon cooking, but took the time to return to your room and put on one of your most expensive dresses and jewellery. Your appearance is not calculated to attract anyone; rather to intimidate or inspire envy. Those shoes, as well. They are entirely impractical, look hideously uncomfortable, and I personally find them revolting; but they cost at least a thousand pounds. My guess is that you want to make an impression on one or more of the female students.”

Violet grinned widely. “Ah. Caught. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out which one it is, though, you sheep-faced excrescence. We’ll be dining with them in a while, so you can get a good look at them. So tell me, what have you found out?”

Sherlock took a seat opposite her and took a sip of his martini. Although he hadn’t bothered to change either, he still looked ready to dine with archbishops or royalty. The library was lit only by the fire and candles in glass lanterns scattered around the room, and in the dim light John absently thought that they both looked rather marvellous. Sherlock’s hair was rather unruly from their rambling through the overgrown conservatory, but the dark curls glinted in the light cast by the candles on the mantlepiece. His skin seemed very pale, his cheekbones casting pronounced shadows on his face. Sherlock’s sometimes colourless eyes picked up the deep green of his tailored silk shirt as he fixed them on Violet.

It struck John how right the two of them looked together, eyeing each other over their drinks. Certainly, neither was what you could call conventionally beautiful, but both Sherlock and Violet had faces that you would never grow tired of looking at, as well as that endless, effortless style.

He wondered once again at their friendship. Sherlock hadn’t seen her since he was nineteen and she was twenty-one. From what John could determine, they had barely been in touch at all during that time. And yet the feeling between them was so obviously comfortable, their constant insults and teasing was like that of close family (or old lovers. Or best friends.) He still hadn’t managed to ask about it, wasn’t quite sure how to ask. "Sherlock, I know that she was married to your uncle, but did you ever-“ seemed more than a bit awkward. "Sherlock, Violet is lovely but I’m still the one you’ll want to take to crime scenes, right?" Christ. Far worse.

Settling on a nearby low sofa he leaned in to listen to Sherlock’s deductions.

Chapter Text

Violet didn’t seem remotely perturbed that Sherlock had spent a large part of the afternoon digging through the belongings of her students. Sherlock had discovered a bundle of extremely maudlin and occasionally explicit love letters from Basil Montague to Hilary Jessop (“actual letters, on paper! And wrapped up in ribbon!”). She also had no less than three engagement rings in her jewellery case. As it turned out, George Marmaduke had quite an interesting range of pharmaceuticals taped to the underside of his bed, as well as an impressive case of herpes judging by the contents of the bathroom cabinet. Phyllis Lee had a startling range of hardcore lesbian pornography on her laptop. Patrick Singh obviously had something of a gambling habit, judging by the shredded betting slips at the bottom of the wastepaper basket in his room. Sherlock hadn’t managed to find anything particularly interesting about Violet’s assistant Katy Boorman, beyond an alarming collection of china rabbits but he lived in hope. He hadn’t managed to enter Sandra Garner’s room just yet, as the police had properly locked it and he had forgotten to pack his picks.

“Well yes, Sherlock; this is all terribly interesting but what do these salacious facts tell us about motive? We’ve all been around; all of us are likely to have a thing or two we’d rather not share with the world.” Violet said. “Incidentally, stay out of my room.”

“It tells me quite a lot, Vi. When I meet them, it gives me a certain amount of background detail. I also need to see the room where Garcia was staying; I couldn’t find it.”

Violet frowned, and bit her lower lip. “Sorry, yes. I forgot to mention him. He left a few days ago and wasn’t here when it happened. The police have largely discounted him as he was long gone before the knife was hammered through the bench. To be honest, he left under something of a cloud. I had to kick him out.”

“Because of his relationship with Sandra?” John asked.

Violet nodded gloomily. “Amongst other things. He was frankly a bit of a sex pest, I’m afraid. The atmosphere was getting quite toxic – everyone knew that he had some kind of relationship with Sandra. Yet that didn’t stop him trying it on with Hilary on a regular basis, as well as with me more than once. He actually slept in the little annexe to the studio, not in the house. He couldn’t pay the fees so I felt alright about having him sleep out there. I felt better with him out in the garden rather than roaming the hallways at night.”

John felt rather surprised by this; he couldn’t imagine Violet putting up with a predatory man in her house, particularly one who wasn’t even paying for her tuition. She caught his expression and smiled ruefully.

“John, I know. I really should have turned him out on his ear long before. But his work... it was quite staggering at times. He was simply remarkable, and had the potential to be even better. He was working on some preliminary studies for a fresco for the Royal Bank of Scotland, and they were just so promising. He was almost broke, and I felt that if only someone helped him out a bit he would really make something of himself. I suppose I thought that if he got a bit of recognition, he might turn himself around. But he turned out to be such a troublemaker I couldn’t keep him around any longer.”

Sherlock regarded her thoughtfully. “What was the final straw? Something happened that brought matters to a head.” It wasn’t a question.

“Sandra walked in on him attempting to grope Hilary in the kitchenette of the studio. Being the kind of girl she was, Sandra started screaming the place down. He kicked over the etching press, and damaged quite a lot of equipment. Called both of them some pretty incredible names. I arrived just in time to save the press, but I’d had enough. I can’t be having with rows and drama, it’s enough of a pain having these twits cluttering up my house for months at a time. So I gave him his marching orders, and he left the same day.”

“Which day was this?” John asked.

“Wednesday. The afternoon, around half two.” Violet sighed. “He was quite revolting in many ways, but he was just so talented. I think he headed for London, but I was so furious I didn’t pay a lot of attention. Sandra was in hysterics and pleaded with me to let him stay on, said that she would make him keep his temper. Fat chance of that. And then... then she-“ Violet viciously ground out her cigarette in a nearby ashtray. She seemed both upset and furious and her voice shook slightly as she continued “...the little beast, she waited until I left the studio with Hilary and then she look a paintbrush to a portrait I had finished a few days previously. Defaced it with red paint. She knew exactly which canvas of mine to go for, it was really... very good. I was going to exhibit it at the RA next year.”

John watched Sherlock’s foot inch across the Turkish carpet and nudge Violet’s toes. She lit another of her black and gold cigarettes with hands that were not quite steady and inhaled deeply. She met Sherlock’s eyes after a moment or two.

“Go on. What happened when you found out?” he asked.

“I called her into my study and confronted her. She went to pieces entirely, promised to pose for me for nothing for the rest of the year. Begged and wailed and pleaded until I found myself comforting her. Of course, there was nothing to be done at that point – the paint had dried and the painting was a total loss. I told her I’d have to think long and hard about using her again after her current contract with me ended. She had the utter cheek to ask me again if I would allow Garcia to come back, but I told her there was absolutely no way.”

“Christ, what a terrible thing to do.” John said. “But how did Hilary take the whole thing? Was she upset about Garcia trying it on? Or do you think that there was maybe something between them?”

Violet shook her head. “I really don’t think so. Hilary and Basil have been an item for quite a few months, I think; and frankly she’d be too clever than to mess about with Garcia. Basil is extremely well off, and is the only son of Lord Montague of Elgin. I have an idea that she worked long and hard to get into Basil’s good graces and she damn well won’t let go of him until they’re well and truly married. I don’t think she’d risk everything she has with Basil for the sake of some fun with a bit of rough like Garcia.”

“How about the other students? What did they make of Sandra?”

Violet thought for a moment. “You must understand, I tend to leave them to themselves. They sleep on the second floor, where all the guest rooms are; and they have their own common room, bathrooms and kitchen at the east end of the house. We dine together three nights a week; that’s part of the deal when they come to study here. The rest of the time, I try to give them a wide berth for the sake of my sanity. I really don’t want to know what they get up to most of the time, I’m not their mum. But from what I can gather, they tended to rub along quite well. Sandra is- arse! was... from a fairly humble background, somewhere near Slough. Her parents died when she was quite young, and she was brought up by two of her aunts. She never spoke about her background much, and I think she was a bit embarrassed.

“As you may have gathered, I charge the students rather a lot of money to come and study here. And because of that, they tend to be from well-off families. Sandra was rather in awe of them, really – she hadn’t really mixed much with wealthy people before. I think she fancied Basil a bit, but gave it up when it became clear he and Hilary were an item. Basil was always kind to her though, and Phyllis too. She and Patrick were reasonably friendly, but not close. She seemed to grate on George’s nerves a bit; he’s a snobbish twat and obviously didn’t much like mixing with a model and having her stay and eat alongside the students. As you know, she and Garcia were doing a line together, but I doubt it was all that serious, really.”

“Your gardener and housekeeper both seemed rather keen to point the finger at Freddie Garcia, you know.” Sherlock said, idly. He seemed unable to take his eyes off Violet. John didn’t blame him; and thought once again that she did look very striking, with the tight red curls of her hair gleaming gold. At least, he hoped that Sherlock was admiring her and not berating himself once again. The scars on her face were still obvious in the dimly lit room, but her face was thoughtful and animated; the marks along her cheekbone and temple seemed to give her something of a romantic, rakish air. She looked like a woman who had been through the wars and had lived to tell a tale or two.

He became aware of Sherlock, who had turned to look at him intently. Violet was fiddling with a heavy gold lighter, and John realised that he had been staring at her without taking in much of what she had been saying. “...a bit of a git towards Mr. McCreedy, I suspect. They would have run in to each other in the garden quite a lot, what with Garcia sleeping in the annexe. As for Margaret, I don’t really know why she would have a particular reason to suggest him. He really did seem to leave long before the trap was set, and nothing to suggest that he returned. The police are no doubt tracking him down if they haven’t done so already.”

There was a perfunctory tap on the library door at this point, and Margaret Gothford poked her head into the room.

“Violet, everyone is in the dining room and I’m ready to serve up. It’s after eight, hen.”

“Oh, damn! Sorry, Margie. We’ll be through in a mo.” Violet got to her feet, brushing off a few flakes of ash from her trailing dress. Margaret disappeared without acknowledging either Sherlock or John. “She takes a bit of getting used to, but that woman is a treasure.”

John imagined that he would need a considerable amount of time to get used to Margaret Gothford living in his house. Violet stood on tiptoe to check her appearance in the mirror over the fireplace, and grimaced. “Christ. I’d much rather eat sandwiches off my knees with you two goons in here, but needs must. You better get a look at these creeps.”

She took John’s arm and led them down the hallway and through a set of tall narrow double doors into the dining room. Sherlock brought up the rear, so John could only imagine the peeved look on his face. He still had no intention of getting involved with Violet, even if by some strange twist of fate she decided to take a fancy to him.

But it was always fun to wind Sherlock up a bit now and again.

Violet squeezed his arm and winked at him as they passed through the hall and he suspected (once again) that she knew exactly what he was thinking.

***

The students were sitting at a long dark wooden table in an impressive high-ceilinged and frescoed room. They all turned to face the late arrivals inquisitively, and as he took his seat John quickly tried to match up the names he knew with the unfamiliar faces in front of him. Unsurprisingly most of their eyes were on Sherlock, who sat down silently on his right.

As Violet introduced everyone, Sherlock simply nodded at each member of the party and remained silent. John knew that he was concentrating intensely, taking in as many details as he could about each individual, the little tells and signs that each would give away in a stressful situation. Since his return, the detective had become almost a household name, and as people often already knew something of his talents they frequently became nervous when meeting him for the first time.

Sherlock played on this quite a lot; as he found it much less bothersome than assuming a cheerful and genial air. John thought that it mainly gave him an excuse to act like more of an arse than usual, and that he, John, had to try even harder to get along with people as a result.

Phyllis Lee was sitting on John’s left, and as she was introduced he nodded and smiled, shaking her hand. She was small and plump, with short dark bobbed hair and a heavy fringe. She was oddly prim, and spoke with a pronounced Liverpudlian accent. He tried very hard to concentrate on what she was saying and not think about hardcore lesbian pornography at all.

“-so glad that you and Mr. Holmes are here to help, Doctor Watson. Such a relief that we know it will all be solved soon. Poor Sandra, I mean really! It’s a real tragedy.”

“Yes, it certainly is.” he agreed, nodding and trying to listen while Violet introduced the others. “We’re doing our best.”

Patrick Singh was sitting opposite Sherlock, and was looking at him warily. Singh was a striking man, with light golden brown skin and blue eyes so dark they appeared almost black. His hair was long and dark, spilling over his powerfully built shoulders in thick waves. He wore a crumpled white linen shirt with an air of careless elegance, several buttons undone and the sleeves rolled up to below his elbows.

John felt that he was being sized up and found distinctly lacking when Singh’s glance fell from Sherlock and onto him. He looked back at him unsmilingly, before shifting his gaze on to Hilary Jessop.

Jessop was, in a word, lovely. She was tall and willowy, with a sweetly rounded face and delicate arched eyebrows. Her large round eyes were light china blue and her straight hair was pale gold in colour. She was exactly what he pictured when he thought of English rose beauty, very refined, sweet and natural. When she smiled and said hello to both of them, her voice was soft and low with the merest suggestion of a stammer. “Mr. Holmes. Dr. Watson. I’m so terribly pleased to...to meet you. Even under such... terrible circumstances.”

John thought he saw Violet roll her eyes.

Basil Montague sat next to Hilary Jessop, and John could tell from the angle of his upper arm that he was holding her hand under the table. He was a slight, pleasant looking man with short tufty dark blonde hair. He was perhaps two inches shorter than Hilary, and something about his posture and expression suggested to John that Basil didn’t quite believe his luck at finding a girlfriend like her. “Quite. I’m sure that the local chaps are doing their best, but they really don’t seem to be getting very far. I would have thought that they'd have found him by now-“

“Him?” Sherlock asked sharply. It was the first word he had said since sitting down, and everyone looked distinctly uncomfortable. Margaret, who had been moving from place to place with a large steaming tureen of soup, paused and straightened up. There was a rather uncomfortable pause, and then a man who John had gathered was George Marmaduke spoke.

“Well honestly, there’s really no doubt in any of our minds; is there?” He looked around at the other diners, who seemed unwilling to say anything. Marmaduke rolled his eyes. “Freddie Garcia. A thoroughly nasty piece of work, and god knows he had plenty of motive.”

“What motive is that?” asked Violet sternly.

George Marmaduke smiled thinly, his light brown eyes narrowed and his gingery waxed moustache twisting. He gave the self-satisfied impression of a man about to win a game of cards.

“I know for a fact that Sandra wanted him to marry her, but he wouldn't hear of it. She was chasing him around for weeks, but he wouldn’t do it. He told me that he didn’t want to be tied down, not to a girl like her.” His voice was a kind of high pitched drawl and he seemed to have the habit of licking his thin red lips rather too often.

“Well, I should think I did him a favour then, surely – kicking him out?” Violet challenged. “He hardly needed to come back and rig the knife if he had a perfectly valid reason to leave in a hurry. He should have bloody thanked me on the way out rather than shout abuse at us all.”

Marmaduke didn’t seem to have an answer to this, although he continued to regard Violet with some great private amusement. Violet, for her part, seemed reluctant to look at him any longer and she signalled to Margaret to continue serving.

The fourth woman at the table coughed loudly.

“I very much doubt idle supposition over dinner and a few drinks into the evening is going to help Mr. Holmes find out what happened here. I suggest we talk about the matter and our opinions with him in the morning, and perhaps individually.” John craned his neck slightly to catch a glimpse of Katy Boorman, seated on Violet’s right. She was a smartly dressed woman in her thirties, with very short dark hair and large round glasses perched on the end of her nose. She caught his eye and smiled slightly. “Dr. Watson, may I pass you some bread? If I’m not mistaken, it’s some of Vi’s rather excellent tomato and fennel.”

“Oh, er thank you. Miss Boorman, isn’t it?” he accepted a piece of warm bread from the plate she passed down the table. He noticed Sherlock taking three pieces as it passed him.

“Yes indeed. Please call me Katy, though. Mr. Holmes, may I say how pleased I am that you’re here.”

Sherlock nodded at her in a reasonably friendly manner and eyed the tureen as it finished its circuit around the table. Somehow his plate was already half empty. “Yes. Well, I certainly would like to speak with you all tomorrow. Ms. Gothford, would you mind leaving that on the table please?”

John stared at him. Now that Sherlock had evidently finished gathering his first impressions of the other diners, he seemed utterly content to pay attention solely to his plate.

And the soup was marvellous, John realised as he took his first spoonful. It was thick, rich tomato swirled with cream and scattered with fragrant herbs and thin slivers of crispy fried shallots. The bread almost melted in his mouth as he took his first bite. He took another look at Sherlock, who was tipping his plate away from himself in order to greedily scoop up the remains of his soup. The other members of the group were evidently a little more used to the quality of the food, and were managing to converse and eat a little more slowly.

“Goodness, Miss Vernet; this soup is wonderful! “said Phyllis rapturously. “I honestly don’t know how you do it. You should open a cookery school as well as a painting school.”

Violet smiled at Phyllis vaguely. “How nice of you to say, dear. It’s really not rocket science, you know – it’s just soup. Anyone can make soup.” She turned back to her conversation with Katy, which seemed to be about the price of shipping canvases to a gallery in London. Phyllis looked a little abashed and attempted to strike up a conversation with George Marmaduke about the German expressionists, with limited success. Marmaduke was still watching Violet, the corners of his mouth curled up slightly behind the rim of his wineglass.

Basil Montague and Hilary Jessop were talking earnestly, their heads close together and their fingers still twined under the table. Montague was obviously right-handed and holding Hilary’s hand made eating a little difficult; but he struggled on. Hilary idly swirled her spoon through her plate of soup, but didn’t seem terribly interested in eating.

Patrick Singh still seemed to have eyes only for Sherlock and was yet to say a word to anyone.

Chapter Text

Several hours later, John lay in bed wide awake and stared at the fussy pleated silk canopy overhead. Across the room, Sherlock was seated at the desk, lit only by the glow from his laptop screen. He had stopped typing around a half hour previously, and simply stared at the screen with his fingers knotted and pressed against his mouth. John turned on his side and watched him curiously, unable to tell if Sherlock was deep in contemplation or wandering through his mind palace, picking up and examining stray thoughts.

“Sherlock?” John murmured quietly. He knew the consequences of disturbing one of his flatmate’s more serious trains of thought (epic sulking at the very least). “Sherlock, are you in?”

Sherlock sighed after a moment and rubbed his temples furiously with both hands. “Yes, John. I am in. What is it?”

“You’ve been very quiet all evening. I was just wondering if you’d come to any conclusions yet.”

“Many. Seven so far. But nothing that I can definitively link to the murder of Sandra Garner. There are obviously quite a few little secrets in this house, and I’m not going to be able to come up with anything until I can investigate her room. Well that, or talk to Freddie Garcia. Preferably both.” Sherlock stood and stretched, his joints cracking loudly. “It’s the food. It’s probably slowing my thought processes considerably.”

John laughed. “Yes, I noticed you taking third helpings of the beef. Violet is a wonderful cook, isn’t she?”

Sherlock paused as he untied his shoelaces, and John heard rather than saw his scowl. “John-“

“I know! I know! Not allowed to fall in love with Violet, no matter how well she cooks. Honestly, Sherlock, I promise I’m not going to suddenly decide to leave London and shack up with her, even if she decided she fancied me. Which, incidentally, she doesn’t.”

Sherlock humphed a bit, and toed off his shoes. “Mind you don’t.”

He efficiently unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged it off before draping it over the back of a nearby chair. As he watched him taking off his trousers and underwear John realised that Sherlock wasn’t even bothering to turn his back. John wasn’t bothering to look away either.

It had come to this, then – personal space was such a thing of the past that neither thought to miss it any more. He was used to the long smooth line of Sherlock’s back as he stepped into his pyjama bottoms, the dip of his waist and the expanse of his shoulders. Somehow over the last year it had become normal to wander around half naked at 221b. Sherlock had never bothered to care about conventional behaviour or modesty, and John had seen most of him at some point whilst patching him up or giving him stitches. And John had stopped caring when Sherlock wandered into the bathroom while he showered, or into his bedroom while he slept. John still maintained some small need for privacy now and again – he had been single for a very long time.

Luckily Sherlock very rarely actually pulled the shower curtain back when he decided that he needed to talk to (or at) John.

One side of the bed dipped as Sherlock slipped under the bedclothes. “Hell. This bed is disgustingly soft.”

“Yes. And I have a suspicion that it is attempting to eat me.” John replied gravely. The mattress was hugely thick and obviously several decades old; with the added weight of Sherlock it sagged even more in the middle.

Sherlock sighed hugely. Both men ended up lying rather closer than planned, side by side in the middle. “This bed was owned by my great-grandfather Albert. He was very morbidly obese and I expect the shape of the blasted mattress is entirely his fault. Mycroft obviously inherited those particular genes.”

John shuffled a bit, trying to inch closer to the edge of the bed but after a few seconds he found himself sliding inexorably back towards the centre.

“There is that sofa in the dressing room that Violet mentioned.” he said hopefully.

“Had a look at it earlier. It’s stuffed with horsehair and concrete and is approximately three centimetres wide. By all means go and sleep on it if you like.”

John gritted his teeth as one of Sherlock’s unreasonably bony elbows collided with his hip. “Ow! Watch it. I was here first. You could go and sleep on it. It’s not like you sleep much anyway.”

“But I’m on holiday, John.” Sherlock said seriously.

“A murder holiday, Sherlock.”

“Still a holiday. I have eaten lots of excellent food and I’m willing to give the sleeping part a good school try. I might even have a lie-in tomorrow.”

“Shut up. Go to sleep.” John turned over, which resulted in his backside pressed rather closely against Sherlock’s hip and his back against Sherlock’s shoulder. He sighed, and gave up. It wasn’t like sharing a bed wasn’t something they hadn’t done before while away on cases. They just usually stuck to their own sides of the bed (Christ, they had sides of the bed now.)

Sherlock wriggled onto his own side, facing away from John. “I’m not used to touching other people while I sleep,” he muttered, burrowing into one of the huge number of feather pillows.

“It’s not so bad. You get used to it.” John said quietly.

The soles of Sherlock’s feet were cold as they bumped against his. At first he thought that this was yet another accidental collision, but they didn’t move away. After a moment he let his own feet relax again, and gently pressed his soles back against Sherlock’s.

***

John was woken around eight the next morning, when the autumn sun began to stream through a gap between the heavy green velvet curtains. He had somehow ended up moulded to Sherlock’s back in the night, chin against his shoulder and a hand on his waist. Thankfully, Sherlock was still asleep so John was saved the inevitable mockery that would have come from being caught spooning his flatmate.

He rolled away gently from Sherlock, easing his way out of bed. For a moment there, it had been oddly tempting to stay as he was, feeling the man’s slow deep breathing against his chest, smelling the funny medicinal smell of his hair and the faint sweat of the night in the crook of his neck.

Christ, he really did need to start dating again if he found himself enjoying cuddling up to Sherlock in the mornings.

John gathered some clothes and tiptoed into the bathroom, not wanting to risk waking Sherlock. Although there was a distinct possibility that they were sharing a roof with a murderer, John was glad that they had made the journey to Scotland. It was almost worth it just to watch Sherlock devour all the food put in front of him, and to sleep an entire night through. John didn’t tend to fuss over Sherlock’s disdain for sleep or force him to eat; but certainly now and again he nudged him towards his bedroom or handed him a couple of biscuits if he was looking too wan. As he made his way down to the kitchen however, John wondered idly if it might be a good idea to ship the man up to Edinburgh now and again, so that Violet could feed him up and push him into a cavernous bed.

Violet was already in the kitchen, which smelt deliciously of coffee and baking bread. She was curled up on the sofa with Benjy, reading her post and drinking from a gilded French bowl. She was wrapped in a voluminous deep blue silk brocade kimono, and her hair was messily plaited down her back.

“John! Come in!” she smiled, beckoning him in. “Help yourself to coffee, it’s in the pot on the stove. There will be rolls ready in a few minutes.”

“Good morning, Violet. Oh, er - thank you.” John poured himself some coffee from a battered red enamel coffee pot and sat down on the other end of the chesterfield. Benjy seemed to silently sneer at him, before proceeding to flop into his lap.

“Ooooh! He likes you!” Violet cooed. Benjy proceeded to slowly insert his claws through John’s jeans and into his thighs; not suddenly or deeply, but just enough to make him rather uncomfortable.

“Oh. Erm. Lucky me?” John said weakly. Violet looked delightedly at her cat, obviously pleased at his social skills. She was different from her polished self of the afternoon and night before; in the chilly early October sunlight and without her well applied makeup she seemed a little older, and a few silver strands glinted in the hair around her temples. Her many freckles showed much more without the powder or foundation or whatever she had worn on her face the previous day, but oddly her scars appeared no different.

“You’re one of the very privileged few who get to see me without the plaster and scaffolding,” she said with a conspiratorial smile.

He laughed, a little embarrassed. “It’s sometimes hard to believe that you’re not a Holmes by blood. You seem to read my thoughts very easily.”

“John, I hate to tell you this but you have a horribly honest face. I can’t imagine you’re terribly good at lying. There’s some that I have trouble reading and no mistake.” Violet said, gloomily. “I like to think that I’m good at knowing people, and yet I seem to have invited something vile into my house. And I can’t make up my mind who did the deed. I have racked my brains again and again, and I still can’t work it out.”

Benjy seemed to glower at John, appearing to blame him for upsetting his owner. The claws dug just a little deeper. “You seem very reluctant to suspect Freddie Garcia, Violet.”

“I am,” she nodded. “And I will be the first to admit that part of it is because I don’t want to believe that someone with that kind of talent, the level of feeling he showed in his work, would have done something like that. I know it sounds stupid, but there was just this...sense in it. Something almost divine, and so much complicated beauty. He was an awful man in a lot of ways, and I have no real reason to defend him. But I hope it wasn’t him.”

“You haven’t heard anything from the police about tracking him down?”

Violet pulled a face. “Not about that. But apparently the local rozzers have caught wind of the fact that Sherlock Holmes is in town and Inspector Menzies is none too pleased about it. He will be descending like the wrath of god later this morning, I have no doubt. He’ll read the riot act to us all.”

“Damn. I can’t imagine that meeting is going to go well.” John said.

“Too right.” she sighed. “Oh well, it was always going to happen some time.”

She got up and donned a pair of oven gloves before removing a large tray of steaming bread rolls from one of the range ovens. John took the opportunity to push the wretched cat off his lap while Violet was distracted. Benjy slinked back to the other end of the sofa with a last malevolent glare. The wonderful smell in the kitchen intensified, making John’s stomach growl.

“I really hope you’re not going to all this effort just for us, Violet. Dinner last night was just...amazing. You weren’t up early just to make breakfast for us, were you?”

“Oh, don’t worry, these were raising in the fridge overnight; I’ve only been up half an hour or so.” Violet pushed a few stray curls out of her face with her forearm, flushed from the heat of the oven. “Cooking helps me think, you see. Bread is particularly good, as I find the kneading quite meditative. A good risotto works too, lots of stirring. I can’t bring myself to paint just now, so I do this instead.”

“Please come and stay with us in London whenever you’re feeling particularly pensive,” John said hopefully.

“Or when Sherlock hasn’t eaten for a week, eh?” she smiled, deftly glazing the cooling bread with a pastry brush. “He used to drive his mother mad, you know; staying up all night reading or tinkering, not bothering to eat. Saying that breathing is boring. Silly twit.” She laughed fondly. “The woman didn’t like me much, but when she discovered that the boy ate everything I put in front of him she was on the phone begging me to invite him for the holidays.”

“So Sherlock used to go and stay with you in Aberdeenshire quite a lot, then?” John asked.

Violet frowned, seeming slightly surprised at John not knowing this. “Well yes, certainly. Almost right after Sherry and I were married, when he was eighteen. He came up and stayed with us most of the holidays, and turned up the odd time when he was probably meant to be studying. I was always glad to have him, though – it’s a very quiet place up there. I was surprised at first that he was happy to be way out in the country with us, but he liked it. The library had really quite a good collection of metallurgical works, and we had a great time going through some sixteenth century alchemical treatises.”

“He wasn’t so interested in the Mesopotamian wax seals?” John asked, then grimaced. He hadn’t meant to say that out loud.

Violet laughed, and threw a floury tea-towel at his head. “So he told you about those then, eh? No, I wouldn’t let him get his hands on them. Besides, he never had much time for history, really. He helped me catalogue them properly, but it was mainly the scientific items that he liked. He tried to recreate some of the alchemical experiments in one of the old barns and nearly burned it down. He infuriated the servants, as he was getting really good at his deductions by then.” she smiled reminiscently. “We spent a lot of evenings in an old boat moored on the river, reading, drinking wine, smoking weed and getting savaged by midgies. I tried to get him to invent a decent insect repellent, but he said that the smoke was more effective. I think Sherry was glad that we were friends, although I always reckoned he thought we were having some kind of torrid affair. Which I promise we weren’t.” she added gently, and smiled at John’s expression.

John blushed. He knew it wasn’t worth denying that he had been wondering about it.

Violet finished glazing the bread and wiped her hands carelessly on her kimono. “It really was an awfully long time ago. We’ve both grown up a hell of a lot since then, and that bloody accident. I’ve missed the great clod. It gladdens my heart to have him here, even at such an utterly rubbish time.”

“Violet-“ John paused. He didn’t really know whether to tell her of Sherlock’s guilt, about his not knowing about her face. It wasn’t his place to tell her; but Sherlock really wasn’t good at that sort of conversation.

She raised her eyebrows at him expectantly.

“Sorry. Never mind.” he said awkwardly, and took a refill of the coffee she offered. “Actually, I’ve been meaning to ask you where you’re from. I can’t quite place your accent, I keep picking up on different bits of it.”

“Oh, all over the place. Mainly Irish, with a bit of Norwegian and Welsh chucked in. I suppose I’m Scots now, really.” she smiled brightly. “Would you like to bring up some coffee to the filthy slugabed upstairs? You’d better warn him about that bloody Menzies coming to see us. Here, take a couple of rolls and some jam too.”

John knew when he was being dismissed; it seemed that asking Violet about her background before joining the Holmes family had been a bad idea. He accepted the tray she hastily assembled and headed back upstairs, hoping he hadn’t upset her.

Sherlock was awake by the time John got back to the green room, propped up against the headboard and texting furiously. His hair had mussed into an extremely amusing shape overnight, which John grinned at as he handed Sherlock a bowl of coffee. Sherlock looked a little startled, but pleased.

“John, people really will talk if you have decided to start bringing me breakfast in bed in the mornings.” he took a long mouthful of the coffee. “Not that I mind, obviously. Feel free to bring me coffee in bed from now on. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken you this long to figure out that I’d like it. But well done, it’s never too late.”

“Ha. Nice try. I think Violet was trying to get me out from under her feet and sent me up here with this.” John clambered on to the foot of the bed, next to where he had deposited the tray. He grabbed a roll before Sherlock could get to them all and took a bite. “She has also heard from the local constabulary, who don’t sound pleased about the fact that you’re here. An Inspector Menzies is likely to show up later this morning.”

Sherlock made a disgusted sound, and dipped his roll into his coffee. “It is so bloody tedious having to talk to these people.”

“Sherlock...” John began, and trailed off. Sherlock raised an eyebrow at him quizzically. He started again. “Sherlock, I was just talking to Violet. She was telling me about how you used to go and stay with her and Sherrinford when you were younger.”

“Until I buggered everything up yet again, do you mean?” Sherlock asked flatly, staring into his coffee.

“No, I mean she really loved it. Loved having you around. I could tell how much she’s missed you over the years. I really don’t think.... that she blames you. For anything. She’s just so pleased to have you here.”

“She’s pleased that I’m here so I can sort out this mess. Which I will, it’s the least I can do for her. But that won’t change what I did, John.”

John sighed. “Sherlock, if she just wanted you here to help out with the investigation, she wouldn’t be so transparently happy to see you. Calling you all those silly names, baking you cakes. Refusing to give you cigarettes. If you’d just sit down and talk to her a bit about the accident, it would probably help.”

“How the hell could it help, John?” Sherlock snapped angrily. “I ruined her face. I contributed to the death of her husband. I cannot undo these things, and bringing them up again after so long won’t do a damn thing. The only thing I can do to help her is to find out who is responsible for Sandra Garner’s murder and then I’ll leave her in peace.”

John sighed and poured them both some more coffee. “It’s up to you, Sherlock. I think it might help you, though. Really.”

“Oh god, why do you people always believe that talking about things helps? Talk, talk, talk! Tell me, John, did talking to your therapist fix you when you came back from the horrors you went through in Afghanistan?” Sherlock stared at him challengingly. “Sometimes the world just goes to hell and there’s nothing to be done about it. Nothing can change it.”

“You’ve deleted an awful lot of useless things in your past, haven’t you?” John asked. “Important things, but useless to you. You said yesterday that you couldn’t delete the accident, despite your best efforts. How many times has that happened? Not many, I’ll bet.”

Sherlock made a scornful noise, but didn’t reply.

“I’ll bet there’s a reason your subconscious or whatever won’t let you do it. It was a major thing that happened, a really awful thing. And you’re upset about it still.”

Sherlock returned to his phone, ostentatiously ignoring him.

John knew that he wasn’t going to get anywhere talking to Sherlock when he was like this, and leant back against one of the bedposts. He sighed. “Alright. When will we start interviewing the students then?”

Chapter Text

Less than an hour later, Sherlock and John had taken up residence in Violet’s study. The walls were lined with dark wooden cabinets, and Violet warned them both under pain of leisurely dismemberment not to open any of the large shallow drawers, and to stay away from her work bench which was piled high with a variety of conservation supplies. John watched her curiously as she tenderly lifted a heavy ledger from a stand where it had been carefully propped for repairs, and slipped it into an obviously purpose-built box. There was no fireplace in this room, and unlike most of the others it had an ample supply of both natural and artificial light. He found himself blinking in the bright light coming through the tall windows.

“I know, the house is ridiculously dark at the moment,” Violet said, although he hadn’t said a word. “It’s Margaret’s doing. You’ll have noticed most of the larger mirrors have been covered or turned around too. She’s a bit...traditional about these things.” She seemed a little sheepish. “I don’t like it, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her not to.”

Sherlock glanced around, his interest piqued. “Primitive mourning rituals?”

“Less of the primitive, you git.” Violet glared at him. “I suppose. Hardly anyone does it any more, but she’s from the Islands. They do things a bit differently up there.”

“Interesting. I suppose in a house where there’s been a murder, it would be even more important,” Sherlock mused. Spotting John’s questioning look he elaborated: “It’s supposed to let the spirit leave the house as easily as possible. The mirrors might distract a troubled ghost on it’s way out of the building. The windows are covered and the front door is thrown open; it’s supposed to encourage the spirit to make a swift exit and not to linger or trouble the mortals left behind.”

“The house was bloody freezing, I can tell you. She insisted on having the front door open all day afterwards. I did point out to her that it actually happened in the studio, and that it was unlikely that poor Sandra would be roaming the house in the first place; but she was adamant. I suppose we’ve all got our own ways of coping in these situations,” Violet said pensively. “Oh well, you’re here now. Who should I send in first?”

***

George Marmaduke sat opposite them on the low chintz covered chaise longue next to the window. He wore worryingly tight skinny jeans and a striped breton shirt artistically daubed with green paint. His thin gingery goatee beard and moustache were waxed to perfection. He regarded both John and Sherlock with some level of amusement, and seemed content to sit in silence until they asked their first question. Sherlock waited perhaps thirty seconds before asking him: “Tell me, Mr. Marmaduke: how long have you been dealing drugs?”

One of George’s wispy eyebrows crept up his forehead, but he did not appear particularly discomfited. “That’s a rather serious accusation to fling around, and needless to say I shall not deign to answer it. You are merely attempting to make me uncomfortable; your question has no relevance to poor Sandra’s death. If you are in fact asking whether I ever supplied the unfortunate girl with any...substances, the answer is emphatically no.”

Sherlock quirked a small smile at this answer and sat back in his chair.

John cleared his throat. “And...er... what did you think of Miss Garner? What kind of relationship did you have with her?”

Marmaduke’s upper lip curled slightly. “I didn’t have much desire for her company. She was here to do a job, which required the presence of her body. I didn’t much care for her mind.”

“Does that mean that you cared for her body?” Sherlock asked in an off-hand fashion.

The man’s expression moved much closer to outright revulsion. “Certainly not. Garcia was welcome to that.”

“So she and Garcia were definitely involved?” John asked.

“Indeed. For quite some time, in fact. He told me that they had lived together for a few months last year. I rather gathered that she had been supporting him with her modelling jobs. He left her after a while and went to Spain to sketch. He hadn’t expected to see her here; he seemed quite sick at the sight of her when he arrived. I suppose they had some kind of reconciliation though; they took up together again fairly quickly. She sneaked down to the studio to join him most nights, as dear Violet wouldn’t have him in the house.” Marmaduke smiled at them again in his rather oily, unpleasant fashion. John felt slightly grubby just looking at the man’s face.

“When was the last time you saw Garcia?” Sherlock asked, casually lifting John’s forearm from the edge of his chair and checking the watch on his wrist. This seemed to rankle with Marmaduke, who cleared his throat viciously.

“On Tuesday evening, Mr. Holmes. I wasn’t there for the drama with Hilary in the studio or his departure. Garcia and I sat for a while in the studio and smoked. We chatted a bit. Eventually I left him, around half eleven, I should think.”

“And what did you talk about?”

“Oh, you know. This and that. Music. Painting. Women. We discussed what it would be like to take each of the ladies in this particular house to bed.” He gave them a very deliberate salacious smile. “We eventually decided that while it would be enchanting to fuck Miss Jessop, dear Violet would probably come top of the list. There’s a woman who looks like she knows exactly what she’s doing between the sheets.”

John knew that this was deliberately geared to enrage Sherlock, who merely sighed in a bored sort of way and stared the ceiling. Marmaduke regarded him in a calculating way, evidently wondering how to get under his skin. “Yes, she’s just so fascinatingly damaged, isn’t she?”

John found himself on his feet without quite knowing how he’d got there. He lunged for Marmaduke, who looked both frightened and oddly intrigued. At the last moment, he managed not to punch him in the face, and settled for grabbing the mans’ arm and jerking him to his feet. He marched him to the door, Marmadukes feet scrabbling feebly at the parquet floor. John wrenched the door open and hurled him into the corridor with as much force as he could muster. Marmaduke collided in a satisfying sort of way with the dark wooden panelling opposite the study door. John slammed it shut on his complaints, getting a brief glimpse of the wretched man clutching his nose, which was streaming with blood.

He turned back around to Sherlock, the blood singing in his veins.

“You were finished asking him questions, right?”John asked briskly, clenching and unclenching his fists rapidly.

Sherlock was on his feet, regarding John with something approaching delight. He came closer and smiled down at him with an oddly elated expression, his eyes gleaming. “Oh, yes. Quite finished, thank you John.”

“Good. That’s... good.” John made an effort to calm down. “Right. Who’s next?”

 

***

Phyllis Lee entered the room, visibly astonished after encountering a furious and bloodied George Marmaduke on her way through the hall. Both John and Sherlock did their best to appear surprised at this news, with varying degrees of success.

Unlike Marmaduke, Phyllis was only too eager to volunteer information. She sat on the edge of the chaise, with her dainty hands clasped on her knees.

“Oh, the poor thing. I can’t stop thinking about her, you know. I just can’t imagine how someone could have done such a thing to another human being, I really can’t.” She blinked rapidly at Sherlock from under her heavy fringe. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Holmes. I forgot what your question was, I’m all at sixes and sevens the last few days.”

John watched Sherlock make a valiant attempt not to be impatient. “I asked you how close you and Miss Garner were, Phyllis. Were you particular friends?”

Phyllis blushed a little. “Well I’m not the type to look down on a girl just because she’s not got much money. She was nice, if a bit... thoughtless. Now and again. But I think she meant well. We really weren’t all that close. I mean, I did like her! We went to the cinema now and again, just the two of us. That was really nice. But we were mainly all together as a group, you see. Everyone here, we’re all quite different, you see. I can’t imagine that if we’d all met at a party, we’d all decide that we would be good pals. But we all got along alright. She didn’t like George very much, but I don’t think he’s terribly good at being pals generally.” She suddenly seemed stricken. “Please don’t tell him I said that, I’d hate to hurt his feelings.”

“Of course not,” John murmured. “We couldn’t have that. But do you have any idea of who could have pushed the knife through the bench, Phyllis?”

She looked at him pleadingly. “I know everyone is saying it was Freddie. But I just can’t believe it of him, Dr. Watson. He and Sandra had their ups and downs; but I can’t imagine him doing something so awful, not even as a joke. I think it must have been someone from outside, some stranger who sneaked in when no one was watching. Really, I’m sure that’s what must have happened.”

“Which ‘ups and downs’ were you referring to, Miss Lee?” asked Sherlock impatiently. She gulped, and John kicked the leg of Sherlock’s chair furtively.

“Oh, er. You two know how it is, I’m sure.” She said a little desperately, glancing between them. John manfully managed not to bury his face in his hands. “Everyone has bad days, everyone gets a little... snappish now and again. It’s just that a couple of weeks ago I went down to the studio to have a squint at my painting, and overheard them having a... a talk in there. Freddie sounded a bit cross, so I didn’t like to go in. I couldn’t help hearing it, you see.”

“Hearing what, Miss Lee?” Sherlock asked with exaggerated patience, having spotted the warning in John’s face.

“I didn’t hear what Sandra was saying. I heard her, sort of sniffing a bit. But she might have had a cold, she might not have been crying. I could have been wrong. But I heard Freddie...” She wrung her hands fitfully. “He told her to go away. I heard him say ‘you better shut your...erm...effing.... mouth or I’ll shut it for you. Permanently’.” She blushed again. “He didn’t actually say ‘effing’, though.”

“Yes, Miss Lee. I gathered as much.” Sherlock sighed. “And what happened then?”

“Then poor Sandra came running out of the studio and headed up to the house. She banged right into me, and nearly fell over. She said... well, never mind. She was upset. She righted herself and I saw her go into the kitchen. I remember thinking that was odd, at the time.”

“Odd how?” John asked.

“Well, you see, Miss Vernet, she doesn’t like anyone going into the kitchen. As you know, she’s such a marvellous cook – I don’t think she likes anyone going in there. Touching her pots and pans and things. Like this room; I’ve never even been in here before. She’s ever so particular about her funny old library things.”

“Archival.” Sherlock corrected, automatically. “So when did you last see Freddie Garcia?”

Phyllis looked like she was thinking hard. “Wednesday morning. I think. I saw him from my bedroom window, and he was out in the garden. I mean the front garden, with all the funny tree things. He was walking about and smoking. I’ve got ever such a nice room here, full of strange old things. And such a lovely view,” she added brightly.

“Around what time was this?” John asked quickly. He didn’t think he could trust Sherlock to continue questioning the unfortunate Miss Lee much longer. Sherlock was already gnawing on the knuckle of his right hand in a visible attempt to control his patience.

“Oooooh.... let’s see. The Archers were on the radio, I remember,” she said slowly tapping her savagely bitten fingernails against her mouth. She brightened a little. “And there was ever such a to-do in the village shop, as I recall. Linda Snell was just-“

”The time, Miss Lee!” Sherlock hissed.

Phyllis appeared startled. “Oh, er, around ten I think? Yes, that sounds right.”

John shot Sherlock his most admonishing look. Sherlock affected a wounded expression. “Is there anything else you’d like to tell us? Any other things that you think might be of relevance?”

“No, nothing at all. Not a thing. I, er.... I think I’ll let you two get on with things. You must be so busy.” She got to her feet and headed for the door, giving Sherlock a wide berth.

The door closed quietly behind her. “Sherlock!”

Sherlock flung himself backwards into his chair, tipping his head back and pinching the bridge of his nose theatrically. “Honestly John, if I tiptoed around these dolts like you do, we’d never get anything out of them. Miss Lee is an fascinating psychological case, I grant you; but she’s of next to no use as a witness.”

John thought about poor, prim Phyllis and her extensive pornographic collection. “You mean that she’s sexually repressed?”

“Not repressed. She knows that she’s a lesbian, and I suspect the others here do too. Her family, however, does not; she’s from a working class second generation Irish Catholic immigrant family. Didn’t you see the St. Anthonys medal and the faint calluses on her elbows? They were in the building or plumbing trade, until they won a large amount of money in the lottery around five...no, six years ago. They’re happy enough that she’s studying art as it’s genteel enough to suit their social ambitions, and externally at least this place seems respectable and not too Bohemian in character. She’s got a marked inferiority complex, and an inherent shame in her sexuality due to her upbringing. Oh, and she was in love with Sandra Garner. Obvious.”

“Obvious how, exactly?” John asked. It didn’t matter how long he had known Sherlock, he still gaped a little at these detailed statements the man rattled out. It really sounded as if Sherlock just made it all up on the spot, but of course John knew better.

“Oh, please. The naked hurt in her eyes when she described the encounter in the garden. Her utterly transparent pleasure at the fact that she got to go to the cinema with Sandra, just the two of them. Also, the way she unconsciously rubbed her thumb and forefinger together when she spoke of her. Classic tell. Speaks of unfulfilled sexual desire.”

“Hmm. So do we think that she’s a potential suspect? I’m assuming she didn’t get anywhere with Sandra, if Garcia was in the picture.”

“No. Very unlikely. Phyllis Lee is by nature extremely averse to confrontation or violence, she’s much more the type to mope about like a kicked puppy and weep into her revolting fluffy jumper.”

“Bit harsh, Sherlock.” John said mildly.

Sherlock was affronted. “It was revolting John, even you must see that. Purple mohair. There is simply no excuse.”

“I find your disgust towards knitwear deeply worrying sometimes, Sherlock.” John said, scribbling down a few notes about Phyllis. “I meant the kicked puppy part. But incidentally, some of us like a good jumper. They’re warm and come in useful when you’re freezing your arse off in bloody Scotland. You might want to try wearing one some time. But I’m beginning to think that you had some traumatic jumper-related incident in your childhood. Maybe I should ask Mycroft about it.”

Sherlock turned his head to direct a glower of utmost disdain at John and did not respond. John grinned and continued hastily scribbling in his notebook.

“Who’s next on the list?”

“Hm. The mysterious Patrick Singh, I think. Call him in, will you?” Sherlock straightened up in his chair, brushing down the immaculate lines of his jacket. John watched him with interest as he patted down the unruly curls at the back of his head.

“You know, Sherlock... I don’t really have to go back to London tonight. I think if I call the surgery this morning, they should be able to find somebody else in time.”

“Oh?” Sherlock glanced up, utterly and annoyingly unsurprised. “Good, I thought you would. Anyway, your return ticket isn’t until Friday evening, same as mine.” He caught John’s grimace of weary resignation and smiled brightly. “Oh come on, John. You’re having fun, admit it. This has to be more satisfying than examining snot nosed children or octogenarians with heartburn.”

“Not Good, Sherlock.” John said sternly and headed towards the door. Sherlock looked unconvincingly wounded.

 

***

 

The students had all been asked to wait in the conservatory, from which they would be called into the study. Hilary Jessop was reclining languidly on a white wrought iron bench, her beautiful hair glinting in the diffuse light. She was idly sketching Basil Montague, who seemed to be nodding off over a book in a nearby chair. John paused near her and stole a glance at her work, which seemed to his untrained eye remarkably good. She had caught Basil’s dreamy expression perfectly, and the angle of his drooping head. Her pencil strokes were precise and decisive, and the movement of her hand was sharp, every line measured and economical. Jessop didn’t move as John stopped behind her, but after a few seconds she slowly tipped her head back and smiled at him charmingly.

“Dr. Watson, hello.” Despite her faint stammer, her voice was beautifully modulated, quite deep and a little husky. “As you can... imagine, after what happened to... poor Sandra we are without a model. I’m trying to keep... keep going though. I’m sure it’s what she would... have wanted.”

“Quite right, darling,” said Basil sympathetically, pulling himself upright in his chair and rubbing at his face.

Hilary tutted at him in an affectionate way as he disrupted his pose. “Oh, Basil sweetheart! Really! You’ve quite... ruined the pose now.”

“Sorry, Hil.” Basil said sheepishly, and attempted to slump back down. “Would you like us to come and talk to you now, old boy?” he asked John.

“Oh, er – not quite yet, thanks.” John said, watching Hilary return to her drawing. Her slender white arm drifted across the pad with a slow and lovely movement.

He scanned the humid leafy room, and spotted Patrick Singh sitting alone on a bench under a large potted palm tree. Singh was reading his kindle in an absorbed fashion and didn’t seem to notice John approaching until he was only a few feet away. He glanced up abruptly at John, and turned the device off hurriedly.

“Does Mr. Holmes wish to speak with me next?” Patrick asked, taking off a pair of elegant tortoise-shell framed glasses. It was the first time that John had heard him speak, beyond the odd word when passing dishes at dinner the night before. His voice was deep and his delivery quite formal, in what John divined was an Oxford accent with the faintest hint of Indian. He was dressed with the same careless style as the night before, in another white linen shirt and beautifully tailored dark tweeds that emphasised the breadth of his shoulders.

“Yes, please.” John said. “We’ll talk in Violet’s study, if you don’t mind.”

Singh rose to his feet and gazed down at John for a moment or two without saying anything.

John didn’t subscribe to ‘short man syndrome’. He didn’t resent the height of others and it didn’t bring out any aggression in him. He didn’t really think about it much at all. He was only a couple of inches less than national average, after all. But something in the way that Patrick looked down at him made him fight the urge to clench his fists.

John put on his blandest, most inoffensive smile. “Well, let’s go then.” He led the way out of the conservatory and back to Violet’s study. Singh followed him silently, walking in a leisurely fashion that had John waiting and holding the door open for several seconds until he caught up. John noticed that before he entered the room, Singh swept his long hair to one side and across his left shoulder. It should have been a camp, feminine sort of movement; but it somehow wasn’t.

Sherlock was still sitting in his armchair, his hands steepled under his chin. He appeared austere and almost monkish to John in the cold bright light of the room. He looked up with interest as they walked in, and gestured to the chaise politely when Patrick approached him. Singh shook Sherlock’s hand in what John thought was an unnecessarily lingering manner before taking a seat. Sherlock seemed a little taken aback at this formality, and glanced down at the man’s slim golden brown hand in his own. Nobody else would have noticed, but John thought he saw some small spark of recognition in Sherlock’s eye as he regarded Singh’s hand.

“So, Mr. Singh-“

“Oh, call me Patrick. Please.” Singh smiled slightly, sitting down on the empty chaise. “No need to stand on ceremony.”

John returned to his own seat and picked up his notebook again. He clicked his biro to release the ink, which seemed to annoy Patrick slightly – he glanced at John briefly and coldly before returning his attention to Sherlock. Sherlock smiled at him warmly, and again John thought that there was some serious deducing going on inside his friend’s brain.

“Thank you, Patrick. Now, I thought we could start by talking about your relationship with Sandra. How well did you know her?”

Patrick shrugged. “Not particularly well. We got along, as one has to when sharing close quarters. I wouldn’t call her a particular friend, but I had no reason to dislike her. I sometimes wished she was better at staying still during a pose, but that was a minor issue.”

“Do you have an opinion on who might be responsible for her death?” Sherlock asked quietly. He seemed utterly absorbed in Singh, for some reason. John couldn’t find anything particularly gripping in what the man had said; but assumed that Sherlock was drawing some deep conclusion based on the length of his eyelashes or the make of his shoes.

At least, he hoped that that was what was going on. There had been enough surprises in the last day or so, without having to deal with Sherlock suddenly deciding to start fancying snooty handsome men with girly hair. He clicked his biro again idly, just to see if it annoyed Singh. (Best to check if the man was easily irritated. Oh good, he was.)

“I don’t really see the point in making accusations, Mr. Holmes.” Patrick said quietly, returning his gaze to Sherlock. “I’m quite sure that you will deduce who the culprit is soon, and it will be a great relief to dear Violet and us all.”

“Everyone else seems very inclined to blame the errant Freddie Garcia, Patrick.” Sherlock pointed out.

The man shrugged. “I do not believe that Freddie was a particularly good man. I did not like him much. He was tediously oversexed and I don’t think he treated Sandra particularly well. But just because a man is not agreeable does not make him a murderer.”

“Indeed.” Sherlock nodded agreeably. “When did you last see him, just out of curiosity?”

“I was out on Tuesday evening, and I didn’t see him before he left. Or rather, I didn’t see the man but I did see him driving away, out of the drive. He had borrowed a van from an acquaintance, I believe. Hilary said afterwards that he was heading to London, but I do not think that the vehicle would have made it so far.” Patrick shrugged again. “I don’t think the man will be missed much by anyone here.”

“It’s a little odd that he hasn’t been found before now though, isn’t it?”

Patrick smiled at Sherlock warmly. “Mr. Holmes, we aren’t in London. This city is full of dark closes, unlit lanes and tunnels. There are very few security cameras compared to the capital. I think that losing someone is much easier in this part of the world. Particularly, perhaps, if they don’t wish to be found.”

“Gosh.” Sherlock said, intrigued and innocently surprised. John didn’t look up from his notebook, but continued to scribble every word down industriously. (Since when did Sherlock use the word ‘gosh’?)

“Is there anything else you wish to know, Mr. Holmes?” Patrick asked, leaning forward slightly.

“Oh, not at the moment, Patrick.” Sherlock returned the man’s smile. “Have you been enjoying Edinburgh? Marvellous place, isn’t it.”

“Oh certainly. There is so much atmosphere here, such a sense of history everywhere you turn. I particularly like the autumn here, with all the leaves drifting through the chilly grey streets. This is truly the city of Stevenson, is it not? I can imagine Mr. Hyde stalking through the early morning fog on the Meadows, returning home after a night of havoc.”

(Jesus Christ.) John fought the urge to roll his eyes. Sherlock however, seemed fascinated.

“I will certainly take the time to explore it more thoroughly, if I get the chance. Thank you so much for the chat. I wonder, Patrick, would you mind asking Miss Jessop to come and speak to us on your way out?”

Singh bestowed a last lingering smile on him, getting slowly to his feet. Ignoring John utterly, he strolled to the door and disappeared down the hall.

Sherlock craned his neck to see him go, making sure that Singh was well and truly gone. John rose and closed the door firmly, shaking his head in bemusement.

“Christ. What a pretentious prat!”

Sherlock raised an eyebrow at this and directed a delighted smile at John. “Now that was an interesting conversation. Extremely informative.”

“What? How?” John asked, perplexed. He picked up his notes again. “I mainly heard a lot of evasion and pseudo-poetic wank!”

“Exactly, John!” Sherlock said gleefully. “That man is hiding something. Something big!”

“Dear lord, please don’t let that be a euphemism.” John muttered darkly.

Sherlock made an impatient noise. “John, Patrick Singh isn’t here to paint. You can tell by his hands. I don’t believe he’s here due to any attachment to any of the other students. He’s destined for a dull life working for his father’s shipping concern, he’s not planning on becoming an artist. He may sit though the classes and do the work that Violet requires of him, but you can tell by his hands that he barely touches a pencil or a paintbrush outside of those times. They do however show the unmistakable signs of typing. Lots and lots of typing.”

“So what is he doing here, then?”

“I don’t know. Not yet. But he is definitely getting up to something in the evenings. His expression when he referred to being out the night before Garcia disappeared. Violet mentioned that he’s often out two or three nights a week, but he never says where he’s been.”

“Not necessarily suspicious, though, is it? He might be gambling, or visiting dodgy saunas or have a married lover or something potentially embarrassing like that.”

“Hmm, no. Brothels and strip clubs are more George Marmaduke’s area. Singh does gamble, but it’s mostly online. He can’t be all that ashamed of it, if he leaves the evidence in his waste paper basket. No, it’s something else entirely. Something he’s very worried about letting slip.”

“What, then?”

“No idea. But we’re going to follow him the next time, and find out.” Sherlock said gleefully. There was a brief knock on the door.

“Come in, Hilary!” John called, getting to his feet again. The door swung open, but it was not the lithe figure of Miss Jessop standing in the corridor.

Instead, it was a small, whiskery man wearing a felt homburg hat and an expression of barely contained outrage. His moustache seemed to be quivering with indignation, and he advanced swiftly into the room.

Sherlock sighed heavily, his good cheer evaporating at the sight of the man. “Inspector Menzies, I presume.”

Chapter Text

The meeting with Inspector Menzies started badly, and got steadily worse.

The inspector had obviously worked his way up to a heady state of outrage since hearing of their presence in Violet’s house. He began by demanding to know the meaning of their presence there. He then proceeded to ask them who did they think they were, questioning witnesses involved in his investigation. He seemed to be working his way into something resembling apoplexy when Violet came breezing into the room, carrying a tea tray.

Inspector Menzies stopped his tirade to look around at Violet, who was setting down the tray on the nearby desk. He was stationed in an attitude of righteous indignation in front of John (terribly meek) and Sherlock (terribly, terribly bored), with his small fists firmly planted on his hips.

Violet directed her most winning smile at the Inspector, and proceeded to pour tea out of a gleaming silver pot. “Oh, please don’t let me interrupt you, Chief Inspector. I just thought that you might like a cup of tea; you’re such a busy man I’m sure you haven’t had time to draw breath this morning.”

Menzies regarded her slightly incredulously, but did not resist when she pushed a steaming china cup and saucer into one of his hands. Into the other she placed a dainty plate on which rested a freshly baked scone covered in cream and raspberry jam (Sherlock stopped looking so bored at this point). As the small whiskery man looked down at these items, Violet deftly guided him into a comfortable chintz armchair and removed the homburg hat from his head, which he had evidently forgotten about.

“Oh! Er- that is... I mean, really Miss Vernet! But, um... thank you.” Somehow in the ten seconds that it had taken Violet to perform this tricky manoeuvre, the wind had rapidly disappeared from Inspector Menzies’ sails. He took a sip of the tea, presumably to cover his confusion; followed by a small bite of the scone.

Violet continued to smile brightly, and sat down next to the man demurely. Sherlock made a slight move towards the tea tray, but stopped in his tracks when Violet made an almost imperceptible abortive gesture with her left hand.

“Chief Inspector-“ she began.

“Oh, well it’s actually just Inspector, Miss Vernet-“ Menzies corrected her gruffly. His tone had somehow become much lower and more agreeable with the presence of Violet in the room.

“Only a matter of time, I’m sure! A man of your skills? Definitely.” Violet purred. John fought hard against the urge to start giggling. He glanced at Sherlock, the corner of whose mouth was twitching very slightly. The important thing at this point was not to make any eye contact, otherwise they were both lost.

“I rather think that there must be some confusion about the presence of my dear cousin Sherlock here, Inspector.”

“Cousin?!” Menzies asked, looking even more confused as he looked at Sherlock’s innocent face.

“Gosh, didn’t you know? I am sorry.” Violet furrowed her brow slightly and patted the whiskery little man on the arm. “Dear Sherlock isn’t here officially, not at all! He wouldn’t dream of it. Would you, sweetie?” she looked meaningfully at Sherlock, who seemed to choke slightly at being called ‘sweetie’.

“Certainly not.” he managed, in a slightly strangled voice.”I’m merely here to-“

“To offer our support to dear Violet. Aren’t we, Sherlock?” John interjected meaningfully. “Needless to say, it’s been a very difficult time for her, and we just wanted to make sure that she was alright.”

“And darling John here, he’s been such a help. A real brick.” Violet said fondly, somehow giving the impression that her eyes were swimming in grateful, unshed tears. “He’s been ever so useful with arranging the flowers.”

Sherlock obviously deduced that John was on the verge of collapse, and insinuated his very sharp elbow subtly into his side. John coughed loudly and managed to keep his face straight.

“Oh. Well that puts a different light on things, certainly.” Menzies said, a little abashed. Violet gave a winning show of dabbing her (entirely dry) eyes with a handkerchief that Sherlock chivalrously passed her. The Inspector seemed positively alarmed at this display of emotion and made a vague gesture of wordless apology in her direction.

“And dear Violet, she... she just hasn’t felt safe at night, Inspector Menzies,” John improvised wildly. Violet nodded sadly, downcast. “Of course we know that you’ve been doing your very utmost to catch the murderer. But we thought that she’d feel better with us at hand.”

“And, of course... well, we should utterly hate to offend or step on your toes in any way....” Violet said, wide eyed and leaning in to Menzies slightly. John noticed that she had changed into a rather lower cut dress than those she had worn yesterday, in a shade of aquamarine that brought out the colour of her left eye magnificently. She had let her hair down since they had last seen her and the thick red curls streamed over her shoulders and down her back. Menzies looked rather disconcerted, and more than a little fascinated. “But, as you may have heard, Sherlock can sometimes have quite useful insights in situations like these. He’s really very clever.”

John, spotting a moment of hesitation in Menzies, jumped in: “But of course, only if you would permit it. We would of course, defer to you entirely. It’s just that we’d love to be of help.” He reached out and squeezed Sherlocks arm in what probably looked a supportive gesture to Menzies, but was in fact a vice-like grip of warning.

Sherlock’s eyes were wide, but he managed to say: “Oh, certainly. Yes.” in a slightly stunned voice.

Menzies was clearly thinking hard as he finished eating his scone. Sherlock returned his gaze to the tray, then directed it at Violet pleadingly. She narrowed her eyes at him warningly for a split second, then resumed smiling at the Inspector. Menzies put down his plate and cleared his throat noisily.

“Well, er- you see, it’s not protocol up here, you see. Um. I know from the papers that down in London you two are popping in and out of Scotland Yard all the time, but that isn’t how it’s done up here usually. But, um....”

Violet, Sherlock and John waited, with baited breath.

“Well perhaps, if you could help us track down this Garcia character. That would be a help, and no mistake.”

“So you think it was Garcia, then?” Sherlock asked, perhaps a little too quickly.

Menzies cleared his throat again. “It’s... a possibility. We certainly need to talk to the young man, anyway. I’ve been in touch with the Department of Transport, and the van that Garcia was driving certainly didn’t take any of the usual toll roads down south. He was flagged for speeding, though – that much we know. On the M8, on Wednesday afternoon last week.”

“The day he left.” Violet said. “The M8, though – he wouldn’t take that if he was heading for London. That’s the road to Glasgow,” she added, for Sherlock and John’s benefit.

“Indeed. But we’ve been unable to find any trace of him after then. Of course, he could have decided to take a bus or a train down to London from there. Or he could have taken the back roads, in order to avoid paying the toll.”

“Have you tried tracing his mobile phone or his bank records?” John asked.

Menzies snorted. “No good. Garcia must have turned his phone off or let the battery die since he left. There’s been no activity there. And as far as we can ascertain, he didn’t have a bank account. None of the major financial institutions have a record of him.”

“That’s a bit odd, isn’t it?” Violet asked. “I mean, he's in his mid-twenties. Everyone needs a bank account by then, really.”

Menzies sucked his moustache in a thoughtful sort of way. “It’s certainly unusual. Not unheard of, there’s always those paranoid scunners who keep their cash in the mattress. And those who mistrust banks after the crash. It’s making it hard to find him, and no mistake. None of your students have heard from him at all?”

“No. Not a word, as far as I can make out.” Violet sighed. “Hilary was the one who said that he’d told her he had been planning on heading for London after he left. The cheeky git apparently suggested that she come and visit him there, even after the incident in the studio.”

“There’s been no evidence to suggest that he returned to Edinburgh after Wednesday, but at the moment, most of the evidence certainly seems to point towards Garcia.” said Menzies, getting to his feet and looking around for his hat. “Now, Mr. Holmes, I’m sure you realise the delicacy of this situation. My superiors will not be happy to hear that there’s a civilian involved in this situation, even a man such as yourself.”

Sherlock nodded meekly.

“So, there will be no chatting to the press. There will be no bossing my men around. And anything, anything at all that you discover that is of relevance to the investigation, you will tell me immediately. Are we clear?”

“Oh, definitely, Inspector. We’ll ring you immediately if we discover any new leads.” John said respectfully. Sherlock nodded again, seemingly unable to bring himself to speak.

Violet threw another split second scowl at him while Menzies buttoned up his coat, then directed one last dazzling smile at him. “It’s just so kind of you to let the boys help, Chief Inspector. It’ll give them something to do, you know. It means a lot, you see – it makes them feel useful.” She whispered these last few words conspiratorially to Menzies, who flushed slightly and seemed momentarily lost for words.

He headed for the door a little blindly, making an inarticulate gesture of farewell. “Gentlemen. Miss Vernet has my contact details, should you need them. I’ll show myself out, not to worry.” He gave an awkward half-bow, then seemed slightly embarrassed and perplexed at his own actions. Violet continued to beam at him until he disappeared down the hall, and then closed the study door gently.

“Violet, you devious harpy!”

Violet grinned in a much more natural fashion at Sherlock’s impressed face, and flopped carelessly down on the chaise. “Honestly, you two. Were you really going to let that little twerp shout at you all day? What an exhausting thought.”

John finally gave in to the giggles that had been threatening to overflow for the last ten minutes. Sherlock rolled his eyes, but couldn’t keep the smile off his own face. “Honestly, John. You do get these bouts of hysteria at the oddest times.”

John gasped, and tried to pull himself together. “Oh god, your face. When she called you sweetie!”

Violet began to laugh in earnest too, and after a second or two Sherlock joined in. “What about your flower arranging then, John? You’ve certainly been keeping that particular skill quiet for the last few years.”

***

As it turned out, Basil Montague had little to offer in terms of ground-breaking information when Sherlock and John interviewed him. (Menzies hadn’t, in fact, expressly told them not to continue grilling the witnesses). He didn’t recall when he had last seen Garcia, and when he was asked of his impressions of Sandra he merely said, a trifle nervously: “Oh, a lovely girl. Very nice indeed. No, I didn’t know her terribly well. But she was very good fun. And an excellent ping-pong player!”

Sherlock frowned at him a little, and dismissed Basil after only a few minutes.

***

Katy Boorman appeared soon afterwards with her own notes and recollections of Sandra’s death in the studio, which she had compiled shortly afterwards with remarkable foresight. She presented these to John in a slightly pitying way after spying his scrawled notes. He accepted them with remarkably good grace (he thought he did, anyway).

She had last seen Garcia when he had been loading his belongings into the dilapidated van, and she was able to recall its colour, the details of the number-plate, the colour of Garcia’s jacket and the side on which he parted his hair perfectly.

“Did you speak to him before he left, Katy?” John asked, slightly reeling from the sheer amount of information.

“Only briefly. I mainly wanted to make sure he left, and preferably without the contents of the silver cabinet under his arm. Violet is terribly well meaning; she really wanted to help him develop his talent further. But he was a bad egg, that man. He took advantage. I’m quite sure he owed money to almost everyone in the house by the time he left. He made a big show of being a starving artist, of being some kind of misunderstood genius. But he was a rotten sponge. A bill arrived shortly after he left for art supplies he had bought on Violet’s account, you know. The sheer nerve of the man.”

“You seem really quite irate with him.” Sherlock said, mildly.

“Irate is right. Violet is a tremendously good teacher, but she relies on me to deal with the financial and administrative side of things. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t attempt to curb that sort of behaviour.” She pushed her large round glasses up the bridge of her nose and sniffed.

“So what did he say before he left?” John prompted.

“He sort of sneered at me a bit, and told me that I’d be much more relaxed with a regular ‘seeing to’. I politely told him to go fuck himself and watched him drive away. That was at two thirty-five on Wednesday afternoon.”

“And you haven’t heard anything from him since? Anything to suggest that he might have come back at some point?”

Katy pursed her lips, and adjusted the carefully knotted scarf around her neck. “Believe me, Mr. Holmes. I would be delighted to point the finger at that man, but I have no real reason to believe that he did come back. I think that he was much more the type to run off and leave Sandra, rather than kill her. I don’t think he would have had it in him, really. I don’t deny that he probably has the most motive, but I don’t think he’s a killer. Anything else? No? Jolly good. I’ll go and find Hilary for you.”

After she had left, Sherlock said nothing. He sat with an oddly perplexed expression, which worried John slightly.

“Sherlock... she didn’t do it, did she?”

Sherlock stared at him and blinked rapidly. “Hm. No, shouldn’t think so. Not beyond the realm of possibility, because that woman could have been the next Mussolini if she set her mind to it. No, there’s something else worrying me. Something else altogether.”

“Blimey. What is it?” John asked, alarmed.

“The rabbits, John! Why the hell does that woman have all those horrid little china rabbits in her room?”

“China rabbits. Seriously. You’re in the middle of a murder investigation, and you’re worrying about a woman’s taste in ornaments?” John asked in disbelief.

Sherlock grimaced. “Does she strike you as the type to collect china rabbits, John?”

John attempted to quell his annoyance and thought. Katy was obviously frighteningly competent and efficient. Her handwriting was neat and regular, in clear blue ink in the notes she had handed him. Her short dark hair was perfectly styled. Her large glasses and clothes were discreetly expensive and stylish. Her shoes were immaculately polished. No, she really didn’t seem the type to collect china rabbits, but there was no accounting for taste.

“What sort of rabbits? I mean, are we talking ancient valuable T’ang dynasty rabbits?”

“No. Rotten little fussy ones. Glassy eyes. Bows around their necks. Utterly vile.”

“Well my granny had these awful shepherdess figurines which she swore were worth thousands. Maybe they’re ugly valuable bunnies, left to her by an elderly and tasteless relative?”

“No. Modern, cheap. And identical. There are eight of them on the mantlepiece in her room, John. Eight! It makes no sense.”

“Some people might say that you keeping a skull on our mantlepiece makes no sense.” John pointed out.

“People are idiots.” Sherlock said. “Go and make me some tea, will you? And see if there’s any more scones. I can’t believe that Vi let that cretin Menzies scoff scones in front of us and didn’t bring us any.”

John began his token protests but still found himself getting to his feet. At that moment however, there was a brief tap at the door and he spotted Hilary Jessop framed in the doorway, smiling hesitantly at him.

“Miss Jessop! Hello. Please come in. Have a seat.” He pulled up an armchair for her and she sat down gracefully, her long legs crossing elegantly at the ankle. She was dressed in a blue silk dress that matched her eyes, and her long fingers fiddled uneasily with the hem.

“Hello... Mr. Holmes. I’m sorry, I’m a little. A little nervous... Talking to you, I mean.” She smiled shyly at him.

Sherlock smiled back at her humourlessly. “Not to worry, Miss Jessop. This won’t take long.”

“And there’s no need to be nervous, Hilary.” John added, pulling his chair a little closer. Sherlock shot him a swift and mysteriously irritated look. (Did he want her to be nervous? Odd.)

Hilary’s eyes were wide as Sherlock’s gaze moved back to her. “I suppose you... want to know if I know anything about where...where Freddie is, don’t you? I’m afraid I don’t, though. I saw him on his way out of the house, in the hall. He said that he hoped there were no hard... feelings. That he hoped I’d meet up with him in London. I said that I might get... Basil to drive me, but he didn’t seem to like that. You see. I knew better. Than to go and visit him in some old... warehouse on my own.”

“A warehouse?” Sherlock asked, suddenly interested.

“Yes, he said... that a friend had lent him a warehouse. To paint in. Somewhere in London. I don’t....I don’t really know where. I didn’t ask. I am so sorry.”

“Don’t worry. Violet told us about the incident in the studio, before he left.” John said carefully. “Poor you. It must have been upsetting.”

She widened her eyes slightly, and smiled at him in a faintly knowing way. “I’m afraid...that Freddie really couldn’t. Couldn’t help himself. He was very attracted to me. It wasn’t the first time. That he had made a pass at me. It made poor Sandra really...quite cross. It’s not as if... it was my fault, though,” she said in a beseeching manner.

“Of course not.” Sherlock said, in a slightly bored tone.

“I must say, I do think that it was unfair.” Hilary said, looking down at the hem of her dress, which she was still worrying between her fingers. When she looked up again, her large round eyes were brimming with tears. “Really so unfair... that it was me who had to push her down. If only Phyllis or poor Violet could have been the one to do it. But no, it was me. I was always the one who helped her into the pose. She wouldn’t do it otherwise. Get into the correct position.” She sniffed and blinked rapidly. Sherlock was not forthcoming with a handkerchief, however.

“Yes, Miss Jessop. I meant to ask you about that. I mean to say, when you pushed Sandra Garner down on the knife: did she say anything? When you had your hands on her shoulders, pushing her down on the blade; did you perhaps hear it enter her body?” his tone was level, and he was watching her face intently.

“Sherlock!” John hissed, appalled.

Hilary seemed lost for words and looked at Sherlock with an utterly shocked expression. Her upper lip was beaded with sweat and she had gone deathly pale.

“It’s only a little noise, when a blade enters deeply into a living human body. But usually quite audible. Before the blood begins to spill.”

Hilary sprang to her feet and ran to the door, which was mercifully still open. They heard her heels tapping rapidly down the corridor, interspersed with frantic retching noises.

“Sherlock! Jesus Christ, what were you thinking?” John cried, horrified. He made as if to follow her, but Sherlock called him back sharply.

“John, let her go. Close the door and sit down.” he ordered firmly.

“The poor girl is sick to her stomach after that!”

“That kind of girl wouldn’t welcome anyone seeing her vomit. Come back and sit down, John.”

John unwillingly closed the door quietly, trying to ignore the horribly wet noises coming from down the hall. He sat down next to Sherlock and glared at him.

“Not Good, Sherlock. Very Much Not Good.”

“Oh, do calm down. That blasted girl is tough as old boots, but I’ll admit she’s good at covering it up. All that fidgeting with the hem of her dress; it was entirely calculated to make her look vulnerable, and incidentally to show off her shapely thigh. She doesn’t give a damn that Sandra is dead, she’s only annoyed that she had to be the one who pushed her down on the knife. She probably got Sandra’s blood on her shoes or something.”

John frowned at Sherlock. “You mean that was all an act?”

“Oh, some of it; certainly. I can now see why she irritates Violet so much. Miss Jessop is so deliberately fragile and young and lovely and doe-eyed. It’s all geared towards men who will want to possess and take care of her. Miss Jessop is a clever, clever one.”

“But you can hardly think that she deliberately pushed Sandra down onto the knife, surely?” John queried.

“It’s a possibility. Distinct possibility. She’s got the determination, and the physical strength. Did you see her lovely arms? Shut up, I know you did. I saw you looking. She obviously works out quite a lot.”

“But motive, Sherlock!” John interjected.

“Not quite sure as yet. I have a feeling that there's something she’s not telling us about Freddie Garcia, though. Miss Jessop is an interesting customer. Not wealthy, but fiercely ambitious. She worked in retail for at least two years before meeting Basil. She must have thought all her Christmases had come at once, getting her hooks into an eligible chap like that. You can tell she’s trying her very hardest to be a fine lady, to be future Lady Montague material. Nobody actually crosses their legs like that, not any more. She’ll have got that off the telly. She’s working class Glaswegian, but I’m assuming she met Basil in St. Andrews, where he was studying previously. ”

“She doesn’t sound Glaswegian. I thought she sounded English, home counties maybe.”

“Not to you, perhaps. She’s worked on that accent. It’s a thing of beauty. And the stammer helps her out, as well. It limits the length and pattern of her sentences.”

“Well is the stammer real, at least?” John asked, rolling his eyes.

“Yes, I think so.” Sherlock mused, staring out the window at the falling leaves. “One of the very few real things about Miss Hilary Jessop.”

Chapter Text

Hilderbogie Estate, Aberdeenshire, 1995

Nobody could claim that the marriage of Sherrinford Holmes to Miss Violet Vernet was a foreseeable event. Most of the guests at the celebration met the young lady in question for the first time that day. Most were surprised, to say the least.

Sherrinford Holmes was a pillar of the local community, a tall stately man with a vague smile and marvellous taste in cravats. He had spent much of his teens and twenties away from the Holmes’ Scottish seat, but had settled comfortably back in to Highland life after his return at the age of thirty-three. His parents had needed some assistance with the running of the farmlands and livestock by then, and with a good grace he returned. It was not widely anticipated that he would marry; none of the local ladies had caught his eye as a young man. There were even fewer eligible females in the surroundings upon his return, and more than one neighbour supposed that Sherrinford was a ‘confirmed bachelor’. There was little supposition about this, however. The man was a fine upstanding member of the community, always paid his workers on time and could be relied upon to volunteer to sponsor the annual Hilderbogie Games every summer.

The elder Mr. Holmes’ health declined slowly over the course of a few decades, and he retired more and more from life outside the estate. He relied on Sherrinford to keep things running smoothly, and to make sure the estate was kept in the same way it had been for the previous two centuries. Mrs. Holmes was a canny woman who ran the church committee with an iron fist and a sweet smile. It was she who would occasionally broach the subject of Sherrinford’s future, of what would happen to Hilderbogie after he left. His younger brother Siger had gone into business down south, had married and fathered two young boys. There was little chance of that branch of the family deciding to uproot and move to Scotland. The likelihood was that the estate would be sold upon Sherrinford’s death; a possibility that kept Mrs. Holmes awake at nights.

Sherrinford bore this with a good grace and many evasive manoeuvres. He had no desire to marry, for reasons he was unwilling to share with his mother. He held onto the hope that she would eventually come to accept that he was just not the marrying kind. He didn’t care for children, and did not feel their lack in his life. But Mrs. Holmes continued to bring up the subject, at least twice a month. This continued for over ten years, and Mr. Holmes slipped further and further into ill-health.

“Wouldn’t you like to see your father happy when he goes, Sherry? Safe in the knowledge that all he worked for, in all these years, will be kept sacred?” (over breakfast on a chilly mid-November morning. Sherrinford smiled politely and asked his father if he would like more cream in his porridge.)

“Wouldn’t it be lovely to hear the halls echoing with the laughter and games of a few wee children, Sherrinford?” (walking to evensong across the fields, on a balmy July afternoon. Sherrinford made a non-commital noise: privately he could think of nothing worse. It was bad enough when his nephews came to stay.)

“Sherrinford, it would be marvellous for all the men to know that their livelihoods are secure after you pass away.” (during a sudden April downpour, watching the field workers dashing for cover from the drawing room window. Sherrinford was a little distracted by the sight of young Mr. Brodie in a wet shirt and forgot to answer his increasingly frustrated mother.)

“Sherrinford, surely you want someone to look after you in your old age?” (as Sherrinford unpacked the latest shipment of new cases for his lepidoptery collection. He frowned at her slightly, and returned to his specimens. In Sherrinford’s opinion, his mother had already looked after him far too much. He’d probably quite enjoy the peace of being neglected. )

In truth, Sherrinford tried not to think about the future of the estate all that much. The Holmes family was not Scottish, but he and his parents thought of their Scottish seat as home; they had chosen to live there rather than their smaller house in Shropshire for the vast majority of several decades.

The three of them had a real attachment to the stones of Hilderbogie, to the river that ran through the nearby woods and the surrounding acres of farmland and grazing. Sherrinford didn’t enjoy navel-gazing, or pondering his own mortality. He was a practical man, who dealt with each day as it came and generally thought no further ahead than that year’s harvest. But as he entered his fiftieth year, his mothers’ words began to sink a little deeper. Still, he paid them no mind. There was always a chance one of his nephews might like to take the place over when they came of age.

Time kept passing, and somehow it began to pass more quickly. Mr Holmes was now unable to walk unaided; he kept to his rooms and was unable even to reach his beloved library without considerable help. His hands shook so much he did not trust himself with handling the rarer editions any more. Mrs Holmes’ mouth grew more pursed with each passing year, and her words towards Sherrinford became a little sharper with each winter that passed.

It was not as if Sherrinford particularly wanted to get married. He quite liked the life he had at Hilderbogie as it was. He had enjoyed his wild years wandering the world, collecting his butterfly specimens – when he returned home he was more than willing to take charge of running the estate. But he knew that something would have to be done; but that something remained unclear.

But one day, as if by magic, a solution presented itself in the form of one Miss Violet Vernet.

Sherrinford had turned fifty-nine by now, and his commitments to the management of the farmland and flocks took up much of his time. Every day, he seemed to wake up with a longer list of things to do than the day before. His father now had a live-in nurse, and his mothers’ rheumatism was steadily worsening. While the lands prospered, the house declined somewhat; and the precious library and collections of esoteric treasures gathered by Mr and Mrs Holmes in their younger travelling days were sadly neglected.

Violet Vernet had arrived one rainy Wednesday morning, recommended fervently by Sherrinford’s old acquaintance, Mr. McIndoe of Muckle Gleikit. This Miss Vernet had spent several weeks painstakingly cleaning, repairing, cataloguing and rehousing the McIndoe family records; before arranging for their transfer to the National Archives in Edinburgh. Mr. McIndoe was entirely delighted with the efficient young lady. He had nudged Sherrinford knowingly and winked when he bumped in to him on market day; adding “-and fair easy on the eye, too!”, before remembering who he was talking to.

Sherrinford spoke to the young lady on the phone a few days later. She told him, in a rather peculiar lilting accent, that she would be utterly charmed to come and visit him at Hilderbogie the following week. She could inspect the Holmes family collections and they could discuss terms of employment.

Upon meeting Violet, Sherrinford was briefly nonplussed at her youth and obvious intelligence. He could not imagine what having that level of self-assurance at the age of twenty must be like. She beamed at him, took his arm and within half an hour he found himself with both an in-house archivist and personal secretary.

Afterwards, he could never quite remember how this had come about.

At first, Violet delighted Mr and Mrs Holmes almost as much as their eldest son. It was quiet in the country, and it was most welcome to have a new addition to the household, particularly in the shape of a charming young lady able to converse on such wide ranging subjects as Czarist Russia, French literature and the death-rites of the Etruscan civilisation over the dinner table. She cycled around the estate on Mrs. Holmes’ ancient black bicycle and chatted with the workers, some of whom developed rather hopeful looks in their eyes when they saw her coasting over the hills with her skirts streaming behind her. She was fiendishly efficient, and Sherrinford suddenly found that he had two free afternoons a week to work on his butterfly collection; as well as every Saturday evening down at the village pub.

And yet, something worried Mrs Holmes about the girl. It seemed odd that such a lively young creature would be happy to live and work in such a remote place. Her work cataloguing and arranging the collections was exemplary. And perhaps the oddest thing of all was how Miss Vernet would deftly steer the conversation away from any discussion of her past, her parentage or upbringing. Her accent was distinctly strange, veering here and there; never seeming to stay fixed in one region or indeed country. She admitted to living in Ireland for some time before arriving in Scotland, but that was the most Mrs. Holmes could divine after a total of four months sharing a roof with the girl.

Sherrinford, on the other hand, was thoroughly enjoying having Violet as his right-hand woman. She would join him for coffee mid-morning in his office, and update him on her work with the latest collection Mrs. Holmes had allowed her to survey. They would chat about his work on the estate, and about the latest gossip from the surrounding areas. Sherrinford found himself with a confidante for the first time in many years, and he eventually told Violet about his worries for the future of the land, and the pressure he was receiving from his mother to marry.

Violet leaned back in her usual armchair next to the fireplace and surveyed Sherrinford thoughtfully, pursing her small red mouth. She propped her feet in their emerald suede pumps up on his knee in a companionable sort of way. She said nothing for perhaps a minute, letting her gaze drift to the stuffed and mounted stags head over the fireplace.

Sherrinford watched her, amused and a little pleased at how comfortable she was using him as a piece of furniture. Eventually she took a deep breath and met his eyes.

“Alright, Sherry. I have a somewhat unorthodox proposal to make.”

***

Nobody could say that it wasn’t a beautiful service, in the nearby Hilderbogie chapel. Sadly, very few friends and relations from Violet's side could attend, but the local population and extended Holmes family managed to fill all the rough old wooden pews. Miss Vernet was stunning in clinging eau-de-nil silk, carrying a bouquet of bright pink snapdragons which she had picked from the estate gardens. She grinned broadly as she walked unescorted down the aisle towards her intended, and positively beamed as she passed her future mother in law. Mrs Holmes returned the smile grimly, and watched her eldest son marry a charming young lady of childbearing age. She had implored him to do as much for many years. She could hardly complain.

***

Violet had grown used to having the library to herself over the months she had spent living in Aberdeenshire. Poor Mr Holmes was now unable to make it up the few stone steps into the room, and Mrs Holmes didn’t seem all that enthusiastic about using it when Violet was working in there. Sherrinford ambled in now and again to say hello and to choose a book before heading to bed; but by and large it was her space. And now, on the evening of her wedding day, Violet walked in with a new sense of possession. It was hers; really hers now.

It was therefore rather an unwelcome surprise to find a gangly teenage boy folded up on one of the window seats. He was reading a first edition of Gormenghast and he ignored her entirely as she walked purposely towards her newly acquired nephew.

“Sherlock fucking Holmes. Are you smoking a bloody god-damn fucking cigarette in a fucking library?” her voice was perfectly steady, tinged with the distinct promise of imminent and profound pain. Sherlock blinked and looked up at her, a little startled. They had never actually met or spoken before now; he had managed to disappear during the family dinner of the night before and had not returned from wandering the riverbank until well after midnight.

Violet reached out and plucked the offending cigarette from between the fingers of his overlarge hands, and as he watched she stubbed it out forcefully on the sole of his shoe. She glared at the boy, waiting for him to speak.

Sherlock cocked his head and stared at her, letting his overlong dark curls fall over one eye. His face was fiercely angular, and his hands and feet seemed far too big for his skinny body. He was dressed in a smart dark suit and white shirt, but his tie had gotten lost somewhere during the course of the day. Violet noticed absently that his left shoelace was untied. Her fingers itched to do it up again.

“Aunt Violet. May I present my heartiest congratulations on this most joyous of days?” he asked brightly, obviously deciding that cheerful insolence was the way to proceed.

Violet raised an eyebrow. She got the impression that she was being read very quickly and very thoroughly by the boy, that he was drawing multiple conclusions based on the length of her hem, the number of freckles on her nose and the earrings she wore. But Violet had stared down much worse than impertinent steerpikish youths in her day, and didn’t even flinch.

“You may, if you like.” she said coolly. “It would be traditional. But you, boyo, do not strike me as the traditional type.”

Sherlock smiled at her, a strange bright flicker across his rather severe face. “My grandmother is not very happy to have had her wish granted, you know. I heard her moaning to Mummy about dreadful little money grubbers.”

If he had intended this to wound, it failed miserably. But as Violet regarded her new relation, it struck her that he probably hadn’t meant to offend her at all. He was merely watching her with a birdlike intensity, obviously gauging her reaction. She made a decision, and sat down next to him after kicking off her shoes. She said nothing, but stared back at him; taking the measure of his face and angle of his awkward limbs.

“Kicked out of our... third school this year, then? That must be inconvenient.” Violet remarked in an off-hand manner. “I can tell by your wrists and neck that you’ve worn three different school uniforms within the last few months.”

It was almost imperceptible, but Sherlock’s eyes widened slightly.

“My grandmother objected to the neckline of that dress, probably thought it was a bit common to show your cleavage in the church. You altered it to keep her quiet, then readjusted it this morning when it was too late for her to intervene.” As he rattled this out, Violet idly wondered if this was merely an excuse for a teenage boy to stare unabashedly at her assets; then decided that it probably wasn’t. “You didn’t really care that much about the dress; but you do like scoring points against your mother in law.”

“You had an argument with your brother this morning. You broke something of his, something valuable...” Violet paused, considering. Sherlock watched her expectantly as she scanned his chin, the top buttons of his shirt and the fingers of his left hand. “Oh! His mobile phone. Did you do it on purpose?”

Sherlock grinned suddenly. “Not particularly, I just wanted to see how it worked. He may have thought otherwise. Only complete wankers use mobile phones, anyway. He looked like such a prat walking around chatting to his chums at the ministry on it.”

“Agreed.” Violet nodded. “Your brother doesn’t like me much, either. Sadly, it seems to be the more intelligent members of the Holmes clan who object to me. I thought I’d done pretty well with most of them.”

“Oh, I shouldn’t let it worry you, Auntie Vi. As far as I can tell, there are no immediate plans to set the dogs on you.”

“Glad to hear it. Incidentally, call me Auntie Vi again and I will deck you, you ghastly little tick.” Violet said lazily, leaning back against the stone arch of the window frame. She was tired and the idea of going back downstairs to be charming to people who distrusted her seemed utterly exhausting. Despite her closed eyes, she knew that Sherlock was still staring at her from his end of the window seat.

“What is it? I know I'm terribly alluring, but I don’t think that’s your game.” she asked, deciding the direct approach was probably best.

Sherlock snorted. “I’m deciding whether my family is right about you.”

“And?” Violet asked, her eyes narrowed and the challenge clear in her voice.

Sherlock’s mouth twisted into a small grin. “Right in parts, perhaps. It’s perfectly obvious that you aren’t romantically or sexually attached to Uncle Sherry. Any fool can see that. I don’t think you’re out to cause harm, although you are certainly extremely self-interested.”

“Please, Sherlock. Do show me someone who isn’t self-interested. Go and find me one among the hordes downstairs. And bring me a drink while you’re at it.” Violet snapped.

Sherlock shrugged, and strangely seemed a little worried that he had caused offence. “Sorry, I- no. No, I didn’t mean that. I just meant that you’ve got your reasons. I’m not judging you in the slightest. I swear. I mean, you’re the most interesting thing to happen to our family in years.”

Violet relaxed a little. “Thank you.” she poked Sherlock’s shin with her toe. “But seriously, any chance of that drink?”

When Sherlock reappeared ten minutes later, he was carrying a bottle of iced Bollinger under one arm and several records under the other. He produced some wedding cake wrapped in a napkin from his jacket pocket, before turning to the ancient music system in the corner. While Violet uncorked the champagne and took a grateful swig, Sherlock pondered briefly and put on a Smiths album.

After a few glasses of champagne, Sherlock felt the need to explain to Violet at great length his passionate love of Morrissey, Stravinsky, the mathematical formulae of Max Born, the Serbian language and the films of Stanley Kubrick.

Violet laughed at him in a fond, unfamiliar sort of way that thrilled him slightly. She told him about walking the banks of the Seine in winter at five in the morning; about finding a lost Vivaldi manuscript among some tax records at the Archives Nationale there. At one point she drew a clever little sketch of his face on a sheet of foolscap, and told him that he looked like something Egon Schiele and Mervyn Peake dreamt up together after a night drinking too much absinthe (he didn’t know whether to be excited or offended by this, and settled for a little of each).

They stayed in the library until three in the morning. Sherlock eventually fell asleep on the sofa, half way through a murmured monologue about his conviction that his second cousin Margaret was secretly a Dutch man called Boris.

Violet draped her shawl over the strange boy and dropped a kiss among his unruly curls, before drifting off to bed.

Chapter Text

Edinburgh, Present Day

Violet reappeared after a few minutes, her face an interesting mixture of disgust, annoyance and amusement. “Sherlock bloody Holmes. Did you make Hilary throw up all over my hall carpet?”

“Ah. She didn’t make it as far as the lavatory, then? So sorry.” Sherlock looked slightly abashed. “I obviously didn’t calculate it perfectly. Better luck next time, I suppose.”

Violet glared at him, her hands on her hips. John didn’t think that she was all that upset about it though. “Yes, poor Margaret is attempting to clear up the mess now. You’re damn lucky I don’t make you do it, you festering gumboil. Hilary has taken herself off to bed, apparently her nerves are positively in shreds.”

“Poor girl. Oh dear.” Sherlock said, in a deeply bored tone. “Anyway. Violet, I want to see those photographs you took of Sandra. And then I’m going to pick the lock of her bedroom, if you don’t mind.”

Violet crossed to a small filing cabinet and extracted a cardboard folder from the top drawer. She opened it slowly on the scarred leather surface of her desk, allowing Sherlock and John to get a good look at the pictures. She didn’t say anything, just stood back slightly to allow them a better view. Out of the corner of his eye John noticed her hand being briefly engulfed in Sherlock’s larger one.

“So. Approximately how long after Sandra’s death did you take these, Violet?” Sherlock asked after a moment.

“Around fifteen minutes, I think. I had a camera down in the studio as a matter of course; I usually take photographs of the poses for reference purposes, and to make sure the model can recreate the pose over a series of days. This... this isn’t really all that different from the ones I took of her previously. There’s the blood, of course. And after we realised that she was hurt, Basil tried to move her but stopped when he noticed the blade. He thought... he thought she’d lose more blood if it was taken out. Don’t know if that was true, I can’t imagine any of us were thinking straight really.”

John bent down to peer more closely at the photograph. Sandra was lying on the bench, loosely framed by folds of vivid blue cloth. Her skin was pale, and stood out starkly against the drape. The blood from the wound in her back had smeared somehow up under her left arm, and there were more traces around her small mouth. Her hair was long, dark blonde and wavy, but her eyebrows were dark and dramatically arched. It splayed around her head and slightly across her pretty oval face. It was an unusually disturbing picture, for some reason. Her body was twisted at the waist, with her long slim legs angled to one side and the expression on her face was troubled. John tried to determine what it was about the photographs that made him so uneasy; he had, after all, seen far worse violent scenes. This was positively tame in comparison to some of the deaths he had seen in Afghanistan or on cases in London.

The clarity and composition of the images was perfect, almost elegant. Violet had taken pictures of Sandra’s body from various angles, with several close ups of her torso and the hilt of the knife protruding from underneath the bench. He tried to imagine Violet taking the photographs, maintaining her composure and recording the moment. She was obviously shocked and upset at the death; and yet she had thought to take out a camera. He stole another look at her, and saw how absorbed she and Sherlock were in the images.

“Her hands; look at them, John.” Sherlock murmured. John looked at the photographs he was offered and squinted. One was a close up of Sandra Garners left hand, with the fingers curled shut. Her right hand was slightly more relaxed, and John noticed some very faint dark lines at the base of her little finger. He accepted the magnifying glass that Sherlock handed him, and looked more closely. “Hm. Blood?”

“Dried blood, I should imagine. That isn’t from the stab wound.” Sherlock said, thoughtfully. “A slightly older injury, but not by much. Did you notice her hurting her hand, Vi?”

Violet stared hard at the photograph. “Noooo. Don’t think so. But I didn’t really see her on Thursday or on Friday morning – I was still too angry about what she did to my painting after Freddie Garcia left. I didn’t want to see her and I told her to take the next day off, that we’d do some still life instead. I really don’t know where she was on Thursday. When she came in to the studio on Friday, I still wasn’t all that keen on dealing with her, and I didn’t speak to her much. She just came in around ten minutes before class started, undressed in the annexe and got into the usual position.”

“And Hilary usually helped her with that?” John asked.

“Mm. Yes. The fabric was pulled taut from the backrest of the bench and across the seat, designed to drape around her as she lay down. She always complained about the pose; said the twist to her torso hurt her back. Hilary usually nudged her into position, held her shoulders down as Sandra got her legs into the right position. The fact that the fabric was pulled across the bench must have hidden the knife perfectly.” Violet glared at the photographs and rubbed her face fretfully. “Christ, everything’s such a bloody mess. Maybe Phyllis knows about the cut. I’ll ask her later. Do you think it’s important?”

“Possibly. I’ll have a better idea once I’ve inspected her room.”

Violet nodded, and rummaged in a desk drawer before handing Sherlock a slim metal spatula, a handful of paper clips, a large hairpin and a fountain pen. He nodded his thanks, and led John out of the room and up to the second floor.

***

It only took Sherlock around three minutes to unlock the door to Sandra’s room, which was at the very end of the second floor corridor. John pushed back the curtains and sat on a nearby windowsill while Sherlock worked.

“You don’t like the topiary, do you?” Sherlock asked vaguely, busily twisting the paperclips into a complicated shape. John looked out of the window and down at the towering, angular shapes crowding the front garden.

“No, not particularly.” he admitted.

“Why not?”

John raised his eyebrows. “What, you haven’t figured it out already? You haven’t fished around in my head or looked at the turn-ups of my jeans and come up with the reason?”

Sherlock shrugged one shoulder, his gaze still trained on the keyhole in the bedroom door. “I’m not omnipotent John. You still have a tendency to surprise me now and again. I know you don’t like the topiary, which is irrational. It’s not an aesthetic objection, you felt psychologically threatened when you walked through the garden yesterday.” he glanced up, and half smiled at John as the door clicked and swung open. “I’m almost sure that it’s based on some past experience. Something that happened to you a long time ago.”

“Hmm, yes. Obviously. Just like you and your jumper phobia.” John interjected, walking past him into the bedroom. Sherlock huffed impatiently, and got up from where he had been kneeling on the hall carpet, following John into the room.

“I am not scared of jumpers, John. That would be patently absurd.” he grumbled, taking a sweeping look around the room.

Sandra’s bedroom was a little smaller than the one that they shared, with pale pink walls and a high narrow mahogany bed. There were several paintings of Scottish landscapes hung around the room, and a large ornately gilded mirror above the fireplace. Sandra had tacked several photographs, magazine cuttings and postcards onto the silk-covered walls, which John doubted Violet was all that happy about. The room was quite messy, with several items of clothes and underwear strewn about the carpet and armchair. The bed was unmade, and the dressing table was cluttered with make-up, hairbrushes, bottles of perfume and various cosmetics.

Stuck to the mirror above the dressing table was a photograph of Sandra with a young man whom John assumed was Freddie Garcia. In the picture, Sandra was laughing and looking a little to the left of whoever took the picture. Garcia had his arm loosely slung around her shoulders, and was staring into the lens unsmilingly. He was strong-featured, with dark eyes and hair and a full sensual mouth. John thought he looked arrogant, and slightly mean; but that could have just been the angle, or his conclusions based on the comments he had been hearing from everyone about the man.

“Freddie Garcia.” Sherlock came and stood next to him, studying the picture. “There’s another picture of him on the bedside table, and another on the mantelpiece. Sandra appears to have had quite an attachment to the man, despite his behaviour."

“Mm. Well sometimes you’ll forgive just about anything, if it’s someone you love.” John said vaguely, turning away to scan the bookshelves. Sherlock began rifling through one of the small drawers in the dressing table.

They worked methodically, with the assurance of long habit. After twenty minutes, they had found evidence of Sandra’s minor drug habit (cocaine residue on the back of a Glee soundtrack CD case and a slightly shredded packet of cigarette papers), estrangement from the aunts who had raised her (torn up birthday card), a substantial bank overdraft and three unpaid mobile phone bills. One of the cuffs on a pink hooded sweatshirt showed a few traces of blood, presumably from the cut on Sandra’s hand.

John stood and looked at the pile of evidence they had assembled on the bed.

“So, what do we think?” he asked Sherlock, after a long pause. “Any ideas yet about the killer’s motivation?”

“Perhaps. Hang on.” Sherlock muttered, coming to stand next to him. He was staring at a small scrap of paper, which turned out to be a torn bus ticket with a few letters scrawled on it in blue biro. John craned his neck to take a look.

“’BARN-‘“ he read. “’LOND-‘ ‘G-’. London? You think that this might give us a clue to Garcia’s whereabouts?”

“Yes, I think so. She obviously wrote this down in a hurry; there’s an admittedly slight chance that Garcia told her the address of where he was heading before he left and all she had to write on was this ticket.”

“Why would he do that, though? It sounded like he wanted to get clear of her. It doesn’t make sense that he’d give her his address.”

“Quite. And why is it torn? Surely she’d be more careful of the address than that. But do you see the really interesting thing about it, John?”

John stared at the scrap of paper, taking it carefully from Sherlock’s deft fingers.

‘BARN-‘
‘LOND- ‘
‘G-‘

“Well, it looks like an address, fair enough. ‘BARN-‘ could be a persons name, or a street name, or a business. Hilary said that he was heading for a warehouse so it’s likely to be the beginning of the name of a commercial premises, right?”

“Quite. Keep going, you’re not at the interesting part yet.” Sherlock prompted.

“So, name of the building, London, G-“ he stopped, and thought. “There should be a street name, though. And... ahhh. Right. Got it.”

“I could almost hear that thought going clunk in your dear little brain, John.”

“Shut up. It’s the postcode. It’s wrong. There aren’t any London postcodes beginning with G.” John said triumphantly. “He wasn’t going to London, was he?”

“No, John. He was not. I suspect Mr. Garcia was heading for another, much closer spot. Given his speeding on the M8, and the first letter of the postcode, Garcia is in Glasgow.” Sherlock whipped out his phone and began googling rapidly. “More specifically, the London Road in Glasgow. Just a moment...” he began studying a map of the road in question. “Damn, it’s a very long road. But it shouldn’t take too long to narrow down the number of premises beginning with the letters ‘Barn’”.

“Excellent.” John rubbed his hands together, and looked down at the collection of unpaid bills, the cigarette papers and the torn birthday card.

“What is it? You’re frowning, John.”

“Well... it’s just kind of sad, really.”

“Yes, well done, you feel sad about a murder; you are a proper human being.” Sherlock sighed dramatically, returning to his phone.

“Not what I meant. I mean, look at these.” he pointed out the phone bill and the birthday card. “I think she must have been really lonely. She barely used the phone, there’s hardly any calls or texts. She didn’t speak to her aunts, and she didn’t have any other family. It doesn’t seem like any of the other students will miss her that much, apart from maybe Phyllis. She was twenty three, in love with a complete git who didn’t seem to care that much for her. She must have felt really alone, when she died. Even Violet was cross with her at the time.”

“Cross with her for committing an act of senseless vandalism.” Sherlock pointed out.

“I’m not saying she was a saint. I just get this feeling that she was going through a tough time. Being alone wears you down. She probably wanted to marry Garcia, despite him being a git, because she thought it was a better option than being alone.” John tailed off, staring at the little pile of evidence that pointed towards a small and empty life.

He became aware of Sherlock subtly insinuating himself into his space once again. He closed the distance between them and leaned slightly against Sherlock’s shoulder. Mercifully Sherlock didn’t say anything, just joined him in looking at the pile on the bed.

“Sorry, don’t know where that came from. I know it doesn’t help us catch whoever did it. Sorry.”

“John, it’s all important. You know I rely on you to see the things that... the things that aren’t always evident to me. I’d be lost without my blogger, you know that.” Sherlock said quietly. “Come on. Let’s go find Garcia and you can give him a good talking to. I’ll even let you slap him around a bit, if you like.” he added brightly, as if promising a special treat.

John gave a weak snort of laughter. “Not Good. Seriously. Alright, let’s go.”

***

As it turned out, there were only three commercial premises on the London road starting with the letters ‘Barn‘; namely Barnsmore Carpets, Barnett and Culpeper’s Self Storage and Barnisdael’s Caravan dealership. Sherlock threw John’s jacket at him and hustled him out of the door briskly. He had paused on the path momentarily, before darting back to the open door and shouted instructions to Violet about keeping some dinner for them both.

It only took ten minutes in a cab to get back to Waverley station, and less than an hour on a train before they arrived at Queen Street station in the centre of Glasgow. They arrived in time to watch the sun slink sullenly behind the tall steeply pitched roofs of George Square and the air suddenly became even colder. There was a distinctly different feel to Glasgow, the buildings were equally stately to those in Edinburgh, but made of much darker stone. The accents John heard on the street were louder and a little harsher on the ear, and there was a much livelier bustling feel to the jostling rush-hour crowds on the pavements. A light but persistent rain began to fall, prompting a sudden mushrooming of umbrellas everywhere around the square.

“Different sort of place, isn’t it?” John remarked. “Very grand. Very pretty, but sort of-“

“Rougher. Violent.” Sherlock interjected with relish, scanning the passers-by on the streets with considerable interest. “Glasgow has the highest rate of homicide and violent crime in the UK, you know. And the highest rate of knife crime in Europe.”

“Oh. Wonderful. No wonder you look so chuffed to be here.” John muttered, surreptitiously checking that the cab doors were locked. “Just to be clear, Sherlock, we are not moving up here. There is such a thing as a city with too many murders.”

Barnsmore Carpets was the nearest in relation to the train station, and the taxi pulled up outside after about fifteen minutes. During the short trip, John had watched the stately old buildings of the city centre give way to modern industrial buildings and grim tower blocks of flats. There were very few trees and there was a mean, oppressive feel to the bleak stretch of road they stopped on. John felt his hackles rise slightly as he spotted a group of teenage boys kicking over a collection of dustbins further down the street. An elderly couple walked past swiftly, arm in arm and with their eyes carefully downcast. It was obvious that they were eager not to attract attention.

Sherlock looked up at the shabby carpet warehouse, unconvinced. “I’m already quite sure that this isn’t the place, John. I can’t imagine that there’s much room to spare. Just look in the window, the place is packed floor to ceiling with rolls of carpet. If they had any extra room, the owners would use it.” he sighed. “Oh well, we can’t always get it right first time. The caravan dealership should only be a mile or so down the road. We might as well start walking.”

John cast a surreptitious glance over his shoulder at the boys, who were now doing their best to demolish a nearby bus stop. He followed Sherlock at a brisk pace down the street. The neighbourhood did not improve much as they made their way down the London road. They attracted some very suspicious looks as they passed a couple of working mens clubs near a football pitch. John found himself squaring his shoulders slightly, very aware of the gun he had tucked at the small of his back.

The men standing smoking on the pavement outside the pubs fell silent and watched them intently as Sherlock and John made their way past. John could almost feel the weight of their stare on the back of his neck, and lengthened his pace slightly.

“You do bring me to such lovely places, Sherlock,” he muttered after they had put a reasonable amount of distance between themselves and the silent men.

“Alright, I promise we’ll go to bloody Bath or somewhere next time. You can go on a Jane Austen tour and hold a kitten and have a cream tea before we go home, alright?” Sherlock hissed. “Anyway, shut up. I don’t think we want too many people to hear our accents in this part of town.”

(More like Sherlock’s accent. Or indeed even have too many people see the tall man with his stupidly expensive clothes and swoopy coat.) John rolled his eyes. Sherlock might as well have ‘Southern Jessie’ tattooed on his forehead around here.

Luckily, Barnisdael’s caravan dealership hove into sight after a minute or two. It was only just after half past five in the evening, but the premises were completely dark. A tall chain link fence surrounded the dealership, which consisted of a yard containing a large number of caravans and mobile homes in front of a long squat dilapidated building. The gate was heavily chained and padlocked, and the fence was topped with a formidable amount of razor wire.

Sherlock inspected the lock carefully, using his mobile as a torch. “Someone’s been here recently, John. This lock has been opened within the last week. I don’t think that the place has been open for quite some time, though. Look at the windows on that caravan. They’re filthy.”

John squinted through the chain link, and looked more closely at the caravans. They certainly did look a little neglected, with weeds and litter clustered in the corners of the yard and under the wheels of the trailers. A sudden sound from the direction they had come from made him jump slightly, and his heart sank.

“Sherlock! I think we’ve got company,” he hissed. They were still some distance away, but he thought that he saw the outlines of four of the men they had passed earlier. Sherlock cast his eyes to heaven and sighed theatrically.

“For goodness sake, can’t people just let me do a spot of breaking and entering in peace these days?! John, are you by any chance in the mood for a fight?”

“No, I am bloody well not! I’m frozen and they’re fucking big and I seriously doubt they go by Queensberry rules, Sherlock!”

The men were getting closer, perhaps fifty feet away. They weren’t in a hurry, but something about the way they were sauntering down the deserted street made John think that if he or Sherlock decided to run things would get ugly very quickly.

“You’ve got your gun, don’t you?”

“Well yes, but I don’t really want to shoot anyone right now! Do you want to get arrested for murder in this godforsaken part of Glasgow? Can you get us inside that gate?”

“Not soon enough.” Sherlock looked around quickly, taking in more of his surroundings. “Right, ready to run?”

John was very ready to run now. The men were increasing their gait now, their faces intent as they passed through the orange glow of a streetlight. One of them was idly swinging a cricket bat. John thought a little hysterically that he didn’t look much like the cricketing type.

“Yes, dammit!”

“After me, then!” Sherlock spun on his heel and darted round the side of the chain link enclosure. John followed him so swiftly his knees hit the back of Sherlock’s billowing coat. One of the men gave a shout and he could hear the staccato noise of their feet hitting the broken pavement as they gave chase.
Sherlock had led him down a narrow, litter strewn alley. On their right the fence continued in a straight line; on their left a high brick wall stretched up perhaps fifteen feet high. Sherlock leapt over an abandoned mangled bicycle, pausing briefly to grab the chain. John pelted on ahead, wrenching his gun from the waistband of his jeans.

“See you, Jimmy! Masel’ and ma pals just want a wee chat!” one of the men shouted as he ran. They were getting closer. The blood was pounding in John’s veins as he skidded across the bonnet of an ancient ford fiesta and ducked around a reeking skip. Sherlock pounded through a stinking puddle of oily water, grabbing John’s elbow tightly as they hurtled round a corner. This brought them to the rear of the caravan dealership, which faced a lower brick wall punctuated regularly with shabby wooden doors and overflowing dustbins.

Sherlock tried the first door, while John tried the next; both were stubbornly bolted on the other side. The sound of feet was growing louder, accompanied by a loud smashing noise which John supposed was the headlights of the old car being struck with a bat.

“John! Come on!” Sherlock hissed, grabbing his arm and hauling him bodily through the third door. He slid a bolt home behind them and the two men looked around. It was futile to believe that their pursuers would give up so easily; already they could hear the first door being rattled hard and kicked viciously.

John stared around. They were in a narrow overgrown garden, next to a lopsided swing set and a rusty old lawnmower. At the top of the garden was a small terraced house, lights showing from behind brown floral curtains. Already, more lights were going on in the neighbouring houses at the sound of the men hammering at the garden doors.

“Damn. People will be coming out to investigate any moment now. We do not want to be caught trespassing round here, John.” Sherlock whispered urgently. “Come on, over the wall. We’ll try and get at least a few more walls between us and them.” He beckoned John to follow him, coiling the bicycle chain and pocketing it.

John returned his gun hesitantly to the waistband of his jeans, and accepted the boost that Sherlock gave him up onto the wall to their right. He tried to keep as low as possible, to keep out of sight. He grasped Sherlock’s wrists and helped him up before slipping down into the next garden.

Sadly, the owners of this garden had decided to install a small pond and water feature. John and Sherlock landed in it with a loud splash and froze, listening hard.

“Do you think they heard that?” John breathed, staring horror-struck into Sherlock’s face. He had a very nasty feeling he had squashed a goldfish or two.

Sherlock frowned, stock still. Slowly, he shook his head. “Don’t thi-“

The sagging wooden door at the bottom of the garden suddenly rattled loudly. Sherlock swore silently, grabbing John’s arm and towing him into a narrow space between a wooden toolshed and the brick garden wall. The shed was in the corner of the small garden, and this left them essentially in a dead end, which John did not like at all.

They heard low voices coming from the alleyway on the other side of the garden door.

“Ah heard somethin’ in there, for sure!”

“Naw, pal; it wasnae this wan-“

“Was this one here, tellin ya!”

“Did ye bawbags no hear the racket? Was the wan doon there-“

Sherlock was pressed up against John at the extreme end of the gap between the shed and the wall. He sighed gently, his breath ruffling John’s hair. “For pity’s sake, who are these idiots? They couldn’t organise a decent beating if they had a full committee and a month to plan it in.” he breathed into John’s ear. He looked down at John, his face nothing but angles and shadows and a pair of eyes gleaming with excitement.

John grinned up at him and mouthed “shut up, you nit!” back. He had a horrible feeling that he was going to laugh, which was entirely inappropriate given that they were likely to be beaten to a pulp very shortly. Given the way that Sherlock’s chest was hitching against his in the tiny space, the feeling was mutual.

The door rattled again. John’s eyes widened, staring at Sherlock in a mute appeal. “Come on, genius! Think of something!” he whispered.

Sherlock shrugged slightly and looked around rapidly. He was obviously waiting for inspiration to strike. John could hear a regular kicking at the garden door now; the ancient wood surely wouldn’t last long.

Sherlock suddenly squirmed out from their hiding spot and darted out into the garden again, heading straight for the tiny pond. He grabbed a large ceramic gnome that had been aimlessly dangling a fishing line into the water and swung it with an almost balletic grace over his head. It flew through the air in a high arc, revolving and spinning until it landed with a ear-splitting crash in a greenhouse several doors down.

Immediately, the onslaught at the door ceased, and footsteps were heard pounding away down the alley. It seemed like one of the men tripped over a dustbin as he went, given the tumultuous clattering that accompanied the sound of their feet. Sherlock dived back behind the shed and they waited breathlessly for thirty long seconds.

More lights were going on rapidly in several of the houses down the street, and back doors were opening. It seemed that quite a few of the local residents had heard the commotion, and loud voices were heard from a few doors down.

“Fae fucks sake man, tak’ a recce at ma greenhoose!” a new, loud voice roared from down the street. “Right, ah’m calling the polis. What the fuck ha’ you scunners bin playin’ at?”

“It wasnae me, big man! Honest! It was a pair a’ nancies, a big fella an’ a wee fella-”

“Och, I ken! A big boy did it an ran away, eh? I dinnae see no other fuckin’ scunners roond here, laddie! Jest you tak’ a look at the state a’ ma chrysanthemums!”

John had no choice but to bury his face in Sherlock’s chest to muffle his laughter, his shoulders shaking. He grasped the lapels of Sherlock’s coat, hanging on for dear life and hoping against hope that no-one could hear him.

“Shutupshutupshutup!” Sherlock hissed, shaking and sounding more than a little hysterical himself. John could feel him shaking his head in despair.

“We are fucking maniacs, aren’t we?” John gasped quietly. “Why the hell do we do this shit?”

“Correction. You are a maniac and I try not to get you killed very much.” Sherlock muttered affectionately. “Honestly, John. We do this because it’s bloody good fun. What would you prefer, jigsaw puzzles or something?”

Chapter Text

After another fifteen minutes of huddling behind the shed, it seemed safe enough to unbolt the garden door and sneak out into the alley again. The argument between the irate greenhouse owner and the men who had been following them eventually died down, with mutual threats and dire imprecations. If the police had been called, they didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get there. (And if this was the case, John didn’t blame them.)

Sherlock cautiously peered around the door, but the alley seemed deserted in both directions. He beckoned for John to follow him, walking silently and keeping close to the wall.

The chain link fence and razor wire stretched around the entirety of the caravan dealership, and Sherlock studied it minutely as he made a circuit of the premises. John was much more interested in making sure that nobody spotted them, and kept a sharp watch in both directions. There were no lights on at all in the shabby building inside the fence, and an air of prolonged neglect hung over the place.

They rounded another corner, finding themselves in yet another fetid alley, even narrower than the previous two. After a minute or two, John heard Sherlock make a quietly triumphant sound. “Here, John! The fence has been cut and mended badly. Give me some light and I’ll open it up again.” he passed his mobile to John, who directed the beam at a section of the fence which had been mended at some point with rusty wire. Sherlock began to unwrap the long strand, his deft fingers wrapped in his handkerchief. Within a few minutes, he had managed to unravel several feet of wire, and the fence sagged slightly.

John wriggled through, managing to badly snag the sleeve of his jacket on the frayed fence. Sherlock, of course, managed to sidle into the yard swiftly and elegantly without so much as disarranging his scarf.

“If Garcia isn’t here, I am going to be very annoyed indeed.” John muttered darkly, inspecting the tear in his jacket. “Because I am in need of slapping someone around very badly now, and if he’s not here it may have to be you, Sherlock.”

Sherlock did not deign to answer this, and merely swept ahead to peer in one of the darkened windows. It did not look promising to John, who spied a messy office with two cluttered desks and dead plants between the slats of the dusty venetian blinds.

Sherlock moved on to the next window and emitted a quiet “Ha!”

John crept along to join him, and peered through the window. This room was evidently some kind of office kitchen, with sinks under the window and a table and chairs pushed carelessly up against the far wall. What had obviously captured Sherlock’s attention however was the stack of canvases leaning against the wall nearest the door, and a paint-splattered folded easel on the floor. At a second glance at the sinks, John spied a coffee jar filled with murky water standing on the draining board.

“Excellent. He’s definitely been here recently.” Sherlock whispered.

“Doesn’t look like he’s here now, though; does it?” John whispered back. “It’s pitch black out now; he’d have some lights on at least.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, John. He only paints in the building, and obviously he will only do that when he has an ample supply of natural light. A scruffy old office is the last place he’d live and sleep. He has the choice of several dozen caravans to stay in, doesn’t he?”

“Ah. Fair enough.” John muttered, abashed.

Sherlock tried the kitchen door, but it was securely locked. He continued on around the side of the building, peering through each dirty window as he passed it. At the front of the building he stopped, and surveyed the large number of mobile homes with a jaundiced eye. There was slightly more light on this side, due to the dull orange glow of the nearby street lights.

“Well, I suppose we’ll have to split up and check them all. You start with the first two rows on the left and I-“

“Or, Sherlock, we could just follow this which is obviously connecting one of them to the electricity in the office.” John pointed out, smugly. He indicated the thick black cable which snaked through one of the small top windows of the office and ran across the overgrown yard.
Sherlock stared at it, momentarily speechless.

“Lucky for you, I had to endure three summer holidays in Belgian caravan parks as a child, eh?” John whispered, grinning. It always cheered him immeasurably when he found another of the (admittedly few) areas where Sherlock lacked knowledge. “What, you never discovered the joys of being cooped up with Mycroft in a tin can on wheels over the August bank holiday weekend? Oh well, we can all go to Center Parcs next year, what do you think?”

The expression in Sherlock’s eyes changed from resigned irritation to a mixture of outright horror and revulsion. “Dear god, John. The sheer depravity of your mind...”

John chuckled quietly and began to follow the cable as it snaked messily between the rows of neatly parked caravans. There were no lights in any of them, which made him slightly more relaxed. It seemed likely Garcia was out shopping or at a pub somewhere; it was now close to six o’clock and if he was home he would definitely have a lamp or two switched on. The cable ran around the corner of a large yellow and blue trailer and found that it terminated in a panel of covered sockets set into the side of the largest caravan in the yard. It was entirely dark, like all the others.

The blinds in the windows were down, and when John tried the door tentatively it was unlocked. Sherlock’s hand shot out and grabbed the edge of the door swiftly as an awful, overpowering stench roiled out of the narrow gap. John’s stomach heaved. He knew that particular smell all too well.

“Oh, Christ. Sherlock-“

Sherlock nodded grimly, covering his nose and mouth with his hand. John fought hard to get his lurching stomach under control, backing away and leaning against the side of the caravan.

“I suppose we’d better go in,” he said weakly. “and see who it is.”

Sherlock hesitated. “John, I don't think that this is going to be a pleasant sight.”

John stared at him, uncomprehending. “Well, of course not. I’m really hoping that he just left some meat out to defrost and forgot about it, but I think we both know that it’s much more likely there’s a very dead body in there. Sherlock, we’ve both seen decomposing bodies before.”

Sherlock shook his head gloomily. “No, it’s not just the smell of rot. I think I can smell something else, too. Something chemical.”

“Well we can’t walk away now, can we?” John said, squaring his shoulders. “Come on, Sherlock. Let’s just get it over with.”

Sherlock hesitated for a moment longer, before opening the door wider. The gut-wrenching smell intensified, and John choked a little. Sherlock wordlessly pulled the scarf from around his neck and handed it to him; John took it gratefully and pressed it across his mouth and nose. The familiar scent didn’t drown out the terrible stench but it helped dampen it down considerably. He followed Sherlock into the caravan and looked around.

He froze, seeing the shape of a dark-haired man sitting hunched over a table with his back to them. At first it seemed that there must have been some terrible mistake, and for a split second John wondered giddily if perhaps his theory about forgotten meat might have been correct. But when Sherlock flicked the light switch next to the door and stepped purposefully towards the man, the facts of the matter became horribly clear.

“John, I’d open the windows if I were you.” Sherlock said tersely, crouching down to examine the corpse of Freddie Garcia. John forced himself to move, operating the catches on the windows above the nearby sink and in the small living room area. He didn’t look at the body until he had finished this task, still breathing shallowly through Sherlock’s scarf.

Freddie Garcia was hunched over the fold-out dining table, seated on a narrow metal chair. His whole posture seemed to indicate extreme tension and pain, from the way his left leg was twisted around the leg of his chair; how his hands were clenched tightly even now, obviously several days after the death.

But by far the worst part was his face. It was weirdly mottled, even accounting for post-mortem bloating and discolouration, ranging in shades of darkest purple, blue and a horrible sickly yellow. His mouth was torn at one side, and a look at the fingernails on his left had showed how this had happened. His sunken eyes were wide and ghastly, stared eerily into the middle distance. John forced himself to take a closer look, steadying himself on Sherlock’s shoulder.

“Poisoning, wouldn’t you say?” Sherlock said thoughtfully. He had uncovered his mouth and nose, and was looking into Garcia’s face with something akin to fascination. John nodded, unwilling to lower the scarf just yet.

The floor was scattered with shards of glass and crockery, which presumably had been swept off the table. John studied them carefully, using it as an excuse to look away from Garcia until his stomach stopped heaving again. He paused, noticing a litre-sized glass bottle that was partially wedged under the oven. Grabbing a tea-towel from the edge of the sink, he carefully covered the bottle and picked it up. It looked like gin, and indeed the label said as much. John looked at it more closely, half tempted to take a swig. Something seemed wrong, though. He wasn’t about to start swigging booze he found in the vicinity of a poisoned man, no matter how much his nerves needed steadying. He tipped the bottle and watched the clear liquid rush to the bottom of the glass. It just didn’t seem oily enough to be gin, that was it.

“Sh’lock!” he mumbled through the scarf, waving the bottle gingerly. Sherlock looked around and looked at the label of the bottle with interest.

“Gilpin’s Westmoreland. That would be rather expensive gin for a starving artist, if it actually was gin.” Sherlock gingerly uncorked the bottle at arms length, near the window. He grimaced at the fumes that immediately filled the air. “Ah. Nitric acid. Very nasty way to die.”

“S’cide?”

“What? Oh, no. Definitely not.” Sherlock said firmly. He re-corked the bottle quickly and placed it on the table. “No way of knowing that this was full when it was administered, or how much was spilt. But it was certainly more than four hundred millilitres, I should think. I imagine that the killer got him drunk, then held his head back and poured the acid down his throat. How long do you think he’s been dead?”

John forced himself to get closer to Freddie’s body and took a quick look at the condition of his skin and eyes, as well as the bloating of the body. He forced himself to prod the lifeless arm which felt horribly soft under his finger. “T’ree, f’r days?”

Sherlock sighed and straightened up. “Alright. Why don’t you go outside and ring Menzies? Let him know we’ve found Garcia. He can deal with the local police here; I’m sure there will be no end of tedious back and forth over whose jurisdiction this is. I’ll just take some pictures and we’ll be on our way.”

John gratefully headed out of the caravan, moving several feet away from the rank air before lowering the scarf from his face. He took several deep, blessedly cold lungfuls of air before taking out his mobile and dialling Inspector Menzies’ number.

Menzies sounded like he was in a pub and was not particularly enthusiastic to be contacted outside of office hours, until John told him about successfully tracking Garcia. The Inspector obviously ducked outside at this point, as the cheerful background noise and music abruptly disappeared.

“Deid? Are you sure, Mr. Watson?”

“Very, very dead, Inspector Menzies. For a few days at least. We’re in a caravan dealership on the London Road in Glasgow; he hadn’t been heading for London at all. He’s been poisoned, it looks like acid.”

Menzies went quiet for a few seconds. “And you’re sure it’s really him?”

“Yes, Inspector Menzies!” John said, exasperated. “It’s really him. Look, can you come round here or get the local police to come? It’s bloody cold, it smells disgusting and some local wankers tried to beat us up earlier. I really would like to get back to Edinburgh before midnight, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Hang on one minute. The London Road?! Which bloody part of the London road?” Menzies demanded incredulously. “Don’t you two eejits know that Celtic lost spectacularly to Rangers this afternoon? The fans will be just spoiling for a fight! You could get bloody lynched round there!”

“Ah.” John said slowly. “Maybe we’ll just-“

“Yes, you better just! I’d get on the next train back to Edinburgh, if I was you, before they all get hammered and in the mood for a fight. Just give me the address and be on your way. Don’t let that long drink of water say a bloody word to anyone and keep your heads down.” Menzies hung up, swearing picturesquely.

***

Luckily, Sherlock only seemed to need a few more minutes examining the caravan. John waited outside, sitting on the steps of the next caravan along. The adrenaline and hilarity of their earlier chase had disappeared entirely, and he felt vaguely sick and empty. Garcia’s corpse was certainly ghastly, and the smell still seemed to linger in John’s lungs; but it was the attitude of the body that disturbed him the most. He couldn’t stop imagining it, the man forcibly wrenched back and acid poured over his face and down his throat. It couldn’t have taken him long to die, but it must have been an agonising way to go. He had obviously scrabbled at his mouth and torn it, an instinctive reaction to the burning.

John shivered, becoming aware that he was still holding Sherlock’s scarf like some kind of talisman. There was a faint chilly breeze, and it brought occasional wafts of the foul odour from the caravan’s open doors and windows. John buried his face in the scarf again, breathing in the comforting scent once more. He wasn’t quite sure what all the various elements were; certainly the medicinal scent of Sherlock’s ridiculously expensive shampoo from Penhaglion’s, and a whiff of the decadent Indian sandalwood soap they had both used in the bathroom at Violet’s house. There was something else there, though. He supposed it was just the smell of the man’s skin, as he remembered it from that morning; waking up with his nose pressed into the skin below Sherlock’s right ear.

“John?” Sherlock’s voice was tentative. John snatched the scarf away from his face, blushing slightly. “Are you alright?”

“Yes. Yes, sorry. The smell was a bit too much, and it didn’t look like you needed me in there any more.” John slowly got to his feet. “I spoke to Menzies who recommended that we get out of here sharpish. Apparently Celtic lost to Rangers this afternoon, which would probably explain our experience with those guys earlier.”

Sherlock looked perplexed, and John grinned wearily. “Football, Sherlock. Don’t worry about it. Ready to go?”

“Yes. I’ve shut the caravan up again and I’ve called us a cab. No, hang on to that,” he added as John held out the dark blue cashmere scarf. “You forgot yours.”

He turned his coat collar up, and waited while John looped the scarf around his own neck. They began to make their way back to the gap in the fence.

“Suits you better, anyway.”

Chapter Text

The trip back to Edinburgh and Violet’s house was blessedly uneventful. The cab had appeared within minutes in front of the shabby caravan dealership, and as it drew away from the kerb John heard sirens approaching from the other direction. Obviously, Menzies had managed to alert the local police swiftly. He was glad that they didn’t have to deal with giving statements about their grisly discovery just yet.

Upon their return, Sherlock took Violet into the kitchen to tell her the news about Garcia, closing the door firmly behind them. John thought briefly about going to find a cup of tea elsewhere, before abandoning the plan and heading upstairs. He could hear George Marmaduke laughing along with Basil Montague further along the corridor, and picked up his pace. He didn’t think that he could face talking with any of the students just yet. He felt tired, filthy and sick at heart. The smell of the caravan seemed to linger in his nostrils, and he couldn’t quite escape the image of Freddie Garcia’s ruined face.

Deciding that the best course of action was hot water and a book, he took a volume at random from the shelf under the window and went to run a bath in the adjoining cavernous Victorian bathroom. The room was chilly and the elderly wooden window frames rattled steadily from the gentle wind outside.

John toed off his shoes and carelessly discarded his grubby torn clothes on the chequered tiled floor. Violet obviously had little enthusiasm for modern plumbing, and the room looked as if it had been untouched for at least a hundred years, complete with gleaming pale green brickwork tiles and a stately pull-chain lavatory on a pedestal. The extremely large and deep free-standing copper bath stood near the tall arched windows, steaming luxuriantly as it filled.

John slowly sank into the water, which was viciously hot. He stared at the floral moulded ceiling blankly, trying to will the gruesome images away from his mind. It probably wasn’t even the worst death he had ever seen; treating wounds on a battlefield certainly gave you a wide and varied idea of all the horrible ways that humans could die. Garcia’s death was still going to stick in his mind for quite some time.

“Good lord, John; are you attempting to boil yourself?” Sherlock asked, appearing suddenly through the bathroom door. He peered interestedly into the bath. “You have turned quite an intriguing shade of scarlet, you know.”

John sighed and did a swift bit of covering up with a handy nearby flannel. “Hello to you too, Sherlock. Is that for me?” he asked, looking hopefully at the tumbler in Sherlock’s hand.

“Yes, Violet sent it up for you. She thought I should check on you for some reason,” Sherlock handed over the glass.

It was a mixture of superb whiskey, honey, hot water and cinnamon. John took a deep swig and rolled it around his mouth slowly before swallowing. “Your cousin is a queen among women, Sherlock. Why couldn’t I get one like her instead of wretched Cousin Deirdre?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes and pulled up a low chair from next to the marble-topped dressing table. He propped his long legs up on the end of the bath so that he faced John, leaning back with his arms folded. “You were very quiet on the journey back.”

“Mm. I suppose I was.” John said, closing his eyes and sinking a little further into the water. He took another grateful swig of the hot toddy and sighed. “I suppose I don’t really ever quite get used to the really nasty ones, you know. It makes me start thinking about the... the darkness in people.”

Sherlock looked at him thoughtfully, but didn’t respond. John waved an arm vaguely and knocked the soap-dish into the bath.

“I mean, the way that Sandra died; yes, that was pretty awful. But the way that Garcia died, that was really fucking disturbing. Someone planned it, went and got the acid. Someone who presumably knew the guy went to see him, got him drunk, then deliberately murdered him in a disgusting, horribly painful and callous way.” John rested his glass on the edge of the bath and sighed. “They left him there to rot. And the person who did it is in this house, right?”

Sherlock frowned at him. “Why would you think that?”

“Well, Garcia wasn’t from around here, was he? It was the people who knew him who were most likely to have reason to kill him. He knew the people in this house best. QED: One of the students or staff here killed him.”

Sherlock shook his head slowly. “No, John. Nobody in this house killed Freddie Garcia. Come on, think it through.”

“Sherlock, can’t you just tell me? I’m knackered and I’m pretty sure this drink is around three hundred percent proof.” John sighed.

“Isn’t it obvious? Sandra Garner killed him.” Sherlock said. “The cuts under the base of her little finger, they resulted from her grasping his hair and holding him still while she administered the nitric acid. He struggled, and the hair sliced into her hand; much like a piano wire. Human hair has a remarkable tensile strength. Nobody can account for her whereabouts on Thursday, the day it’s likely he was killed. And even without me showing you what I found in the caravan, you must admit she had the most motive.”

“She was in love with him! Wasn’t she?”

Sherlock shrugged. “She certainly had a deep emotional attachment to the man. And such attachments give the object of affection a great deal of power to wound, wouldn’t you agree?”

John stared at him. “You mean, because he left her she decided to kill him?”

“Oh, that was just one of the reasons. She had evidently lost patience with his philandering, and one would expect that she grew tired with him ‘borrowing’ the wages she was earning here. Don’t forget, he had left her before. Last year, remember? That idiot Marmaduke told us as much. He said that she had been supporting him last year, and they had lived together. And then he upped and left her, he went to Spain.”

“He was surprised to see her here,” John said slowly. “She must have known he’d be here and she sought him out.”

“Quite. And despite everything, she was willing to get involved with him again.” Sherlock dug in his jacket pocket and unearthed a DVD. “This, I rather suppose, is one of the main reasons she felt the need to dispatch Garcia.”

John craned his neck and stared at the DVD. It was in a clear cellophane envelope and he could clearly read the title: Teen sexpots 12: XXX All-Girl Action. The top of the CD was printed with an incredibly lurid illustration of two young blonde ladies who were performing a complicated act that looked both unlikely and highly uncomfortable.

“Riiight.” John said slowly. “Sherlock, you do know that these days people don’t usually murder their partners for watching a bit of porn now and again, right?”

“Yes, John. I am aware of that,” Sherlock snapped, obviously exasperated at John’s slow-wittedness. “I do know a thing about the criminal mind, you know. Look at the picture, idiot.”

John squinted. He had, admittedly, been a little preoccupied with areas of the picture other than the women’s faces. He stared a little harder.

“That’s never-”

“Yes! Sandra obviously wasn’t making enough money from life modelling last year to support herself and Garcia satisfactorily.”

“So she became a porn star?”

“More than that. Garcia made and directed this charming work. I also found this in the caravan-“ Sherlock produced a bank receipt from his other pocket with a flourish. “When Menzies wasn’t able to track down a personal bank account for Garcia, he obviously didn’t think of checking business accounts. Garcia had an account at Santander, which received both the paltry proceeds of his pornography and several payments from the account of one Sandra Garner. He must have cleared off to Spain after it didn’t prove as lucrative as he thought.”

“The bastard made her do porn, then left her after taking all her cash?” John glared at the DVD fiercely. “Christ. But she still got involved with him again, didn’t she? She must have forgiven him for some reason.”

Sherlock shrugged. “It appears so. But something happened that must have been the last straw. Something that just pushed her over the edge.”

“What?” John asked, sitting up with a rush of water that slopped over the side onto the tiles. “What was it?”

“Haven’t the faintest.” Sherlock said brightly, removing his feet from the end of the bath and getting to his feet. “Ready for dinner?”

 

***

Thankfully, it was a quieter affair than the night before. Violet only provided dinner for the students three nights a week and the rest of the time they were left to their own devices. Sherlock and John found her in the kitchen, wearing a flowered apron over a trailing scarlet evening dress and swearing quietly into a pot of pasta. She directed a distracted smile in their direction as they entered the room, not quite meeting their eyes.

Sherlock studied her silently, and to John’s astonishment proceeded to start setting the table. He dug noisily around in the dresser drawers, extracting a variety of silverware and placing it around three spaces at the formica kitchen table. John stared at him speechlessly; it just seemed wrong. Sherlock then began to take mis-matched plates off the wooden shelves and placed them on the table. He seemed to think for a second or two, and grabbed one of the smaller jugs of flowers from a nearby shelf and added it to the haphazard table arrangement.

John’s bewilderment was broken by a quiet giggle from Violet, who had turned around to face him. Her eyes were a little red and her hair was slightly disarranged, but she was smiling. “Oh, dear, laddie. The look on your face. He might as well be flying around the room.”

“Well, it’s just... just...” John stammered, lost.

Sherlock directed a baleful glance at them. “I can be helpful. See? I don’t know why you look so damned surprised about it. I help people all the time.”

“Well yes, in a professional capacity.” John said slowly. “But I’ve never been convinced that you actually know where we keep the plates in our flat.”

Violet laughed again, coming to lean against John’s shoulder as they lounged against the counter top. “You’re tremendously helpful, you ridiculous carbuncle. Go get us some wine, since you’re in the mood for being useful.”

Sherlock glowered at them both and disappeared into the pantry. Violet nudged John gently.

“Are you alright, John? Sherlock didn’t go into details, but I gathered that Freddie... that it wasn’t...” she closed her eyes and swallowed hard. “It wasn’t good.”

“God, Violet; don’t worry about me.” John said hastily. “I’m not some delicate flower. How are you, though? It must have been a terrible shock to hear about him.”

Violet shrugged. “Yes. I’m bloody livid, to tell you the truth. It’s such a disgusting waste. A waste of life and talent. I’m so fucking angry I could spit. I had to go and make bloody croissants, it was that bad.”

“Jesus, Violet. Croissants.” John smiled at her gently. “That is serious stress-baking. Nobody makes fucking home-made croissants. You must be completely incandescent with rage.”

She half laughed, and held out her arms. John felt no hesitation in walking into them and wrapping his own around her tightly. How was this possible? He had only met her the previous morning. Her hair was soft and smelt like spices, her ample curves were firm and warm against his body. He hadn’t realised how much he had just needed a hug. “Why is it, exactly, that I feel I’ve known you for years?” he murmured softly.

“Oh for christ’s sake!” Sherlock shouted incredulously, emerging from the pantry with two dusty bottles of Amarone and staring at them in despair. “I thought I made it very clear that you two are not allowed to get involved!”

“Get bent, you muppet!” Violet shouted back in mock outrage, releasing John and facing Sherlock with her hands on her hips. “I never agreed to that, you just swept in and told me I wasn’t allowed to steal your blogger!”

The evening seemed to be improving somehow. Sherlock glared at them both with deep mistrust and began to uncork the bottles, muttering darkly to himself. Violet shot a conspiratorial grin at John and returned to the stove.

John felt something ease a little in his chest, and began to laugh in earnest.

Chapter Text

Hilderbogie Estate, Aberdeenshire, 1995

The side of the dilapidated rowing boat bumped gently and repeatedly against the small jetty that protruded into the river at Hilderbogie. The gentle current caused the vessel to sway in a small arc every thirty seconds or so, culminating in a very slight thunk and the slap of water against the side.

Neither Sherlock or Violet cared all that much. They had been reclining in their respective nests of mildewed cushions and blankets for a couple of hours, and they barely noticed the motion of the boat any longer. Violet had the bow, and Sherlock had the stern. These were their usual places now, and this arrangement was demonstrated by the detritus left behind at either end over the previous several evenings.

At Violet’s end there was a motheaten old embroidered cashmere shawl, a large bottle of Skin so Soft (for the inevitable insect attacks), and a small box of darkest chocolate truffles. At Sherlock’s end there was a tin containing his smoking paraphenalia, a pair of binoculars, several slightly damp editions of The Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine and a much abused copy of The Catcher in the Rye. In the centre of the boat, perched on the common ground of the rowers seat, was a bottle of Chablis, an old tin ashtray, more dog-eared books (paperback novels and distinctly not from the Hilderbogie library collections) and a large battered hurricane lantern.

The summer nights in Aberdeenshire were almost comically short, and the remnants of sunlight still lit the sky for hours after dinner. It wasn’t usually until after midnight that they needed to light the lantern, and even then it was really only necessary for reading purposes. On this particular evening, Violet had carried down a 1960’s dansette record player she had unearthed from one of the cupboards under the stairs. It was sitting on the nearby jetty, and since it was Violet’s turn to choose the record (a strict rotation system was necessary to avoid squabbling) Vaughan Williams was filling the golden evening air. There was only a very gentle breeze, and it ruffled the tall reeds along the river bank.

Violet tipped her head to one side and inhaled on a joint slowly, listening to the susurration of the leaves of the silver birches lining both sides of the river.

“Good god, Vi. Does your crass sentimentality know no bounds?” Sherlock moaned. “Fucking Lark Ascending.”

“Shut up, you maggot.” Violet exhaled lazily, propping her bare feet up on the side of the boat. “I just had to listen to bloody Philip Glass, and did you hear me complain? No I did not. So you can damn well lump it.” She passed the joint over to Sherlock, who took it from her with a faint scowl as he returned to his end of the rowing boat.

They had ample supplies of weed, yet it never occurred to them not to share each roll-up. Violet poured herself another glass of Chablis, which had warmed rather too much at this point and luxuriated in the cool evening air. Her head buzzed pleasantly but not too much.

Sherlock returned to his journal, the joint dangling from the corner of his extravagantly proportioned mouth.

Violet picked up her sketch pad and began to work on her latest charcoal drawing of the boy. Several discarded sheets of sugar paper lay behind her in the bow, and one or two had ended up drifting down the river and into the small deep loch beyond the bend.

***

She hadn’t seen Sherlock for two months after her marriage to Sherrinford. His family had departed the morning after the wedding, and they had had to say an awkward goodbye in front of his parents and brother. They were obviously not a family who went in for demonstrations of affection, and she had kissed Eugenia and Siger gingerly as they stood next to their car on the gravel driveway.

Mycroft smiled at her in an unnecessarily knowing way and shook her hand before she could attempt to kiss him.

Sherlock stood, obviously tired and a little hungover; his hands stuck deep into his pockets. Violet stood in front of him, suddenly feeling unaccountably shy. They stared at each other, and Sherlock blushed a little before dragging the toe of his converse through the gravel. His family began opening car doors and preparing for their departure. Sherrinford, after a final wave turned and made for the front steps of the house.

“Last night was-“ Sherlock said suddenly, in a low voice. “It was good. I-“

Violet stepped forward smartly, reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck. She felt his huge hands come to rest on her waist after a second or two.

She ignored Mycroft’s look of mild outrage from the rear window of the land-rover and whispered in his ear: “I know. I know. Come back, please. Come soon.”

“Sherlock! Time to go!” Mycroft called from the car. Sherlock cursed quietly and pulled away from her reluctantly. The look in his eyes was slightly astonished. She smiled at him, holding his hands and his gaze for a few seconds longer.

He took a breath and seemed to be on the verge of saying something else, but evidently decided against it. He smiled back at her, that same bright flicker across his odd (but now, suddenly, quite beautiful) face.

Within seconds, he was gone; the wheels of the land-rover crunching heavily down the driveway. Violet adopted a bright smile and waved cheerfully as they disappeared out of the high gates.

She tried not to feel as if she had just lost something that was lately found and deeply precious.

 

***

The elder Mr and Mrs Holmes were rather more surprised than pleased to hear that their younger grandson planned to join them for his summer holiday after he finished his final term at his last school; but they did not voice any objections. In the past, admittedly, the boy had been awkward. Standoffish. Frankly, downright rude on more than one occasion. But he was family, and that was what mattered. Mrs. Holmes prepared the furthest guest room from those of the permanent residents of Hilderbogie for the sake of peace. (Violet claimed that she snored terribly and that was why she retained her old bedroom from before her marriage to Sherrinford. Luckily, the elder Holmes son bore this with his customary good grace.)

Mrs Holmes had not expected Sherlock to say a cheerful hello to his grandparents and uncle. She had certainly not expected the large bunch of chrysanthemums he carried, or the loud and smacking kiss on the cheek she received. He had positively lit up at the sight of Violet, who could not stop beaming at her husband’s nephew.

At dinner that night they sat opposite each other and baffled the rest of the family with their spirited discussions about The Cure, Bram Stoker, platonic idealism and phrenology. It was as if Violet and Sherlock were sitting at an entirely separate dinner table, in an empty dining room. Mrs Holmes watched them with the beginnings of misgivings as they leaned towards each other across the table, faces alight and arms occasionally waving in extravagant gestures. They laughed loudly. They seemed to know much more about each others’ opinions and lives than one brief prior meeting would elicit.

Mrs. Holmes began to draw conclusions about the number of letters Violet had posted and received over the last few months. She looked across the table at Sherrinford, perhaps expecting to see the signs of confusion or jealousy.

Her eldest son smiled back at her in a mildly inquiring sort of way, and refilled his wine glass again. Mr Holmes was concentrating on his soup, and did not catch her gaze.

Mrs Holmes stared at the two youngest members of the group and somehow felt a gulf opening up. She suddenly became tremendously aware of her age, of the aching in her joints and of the number of pills for various ailments she had to take every day. She looked at the tremor in her husband’s hands as he fumbled slightly with the heavy silver cutlery. She noticed the lines that had appeared around Sherrinford’s eyes and mouth, the reddish tinge to his aquiline nose.

At the other end of the table Violet sat, her red hair catching the candlelight as she shook with laughter at some story Sherlock was solemnly telling her. Her large almond-shaped eyes glittered and the pale freckled skin of her bare arms somehow seemed to glow in the dim light. Sherlock was more animated than his grandmother had ever seen him; his mouth curled into frequent smiles and his eyes were wide as he regarded his uncle’s wife. His hair was still far too long and the irrepressible thatch of dark curls almost covered his ears now. His odd, deeply set eyes barely left Violet’s laughing face.

Mrs Holmes wondered yet again about the consequences of bringing Violet Vernet into their house.

***

“So tell me more about this Victor chap. You mentioned him a fair bit in your letters.” Violet said, after a pause. Sherlock was proving difficult to capture in this light, and she tore another sheet away from the pad resignedly. Sherlock glanced up at her, inhaling the joint deeply as he regarded her through slightly narrowed eyes.

Although his body had barely moved in quite some time, Violet sensed that some indefinable tenseness had crept in. “-or not. If you don’t want to.” she added slowly.

“There really isn’t all that much to tell.” Sherlock removed the joint from his mouth, delicately picking a flake of tobacco from the tip of his tongue. “I thought perhaps... I thought he might be-“

Violet waited patiently, watching the traces of some internal struggle cross Sherlock’s austere features.

“It doesn’t matter. I was wrong about him. Should have known better, really.” Sherlock shrugged one bony shoulder and flicked some ash a little too forcefully over the side of the boat. “You’d think that I would know better by now.”

“Know what?” Violet asked after a moment, slowly putting down her sketch pad.

“Stupid of me. I should have known that I wouldn’t make any... friends... there. All the evidence points towards my utter inability to do so; after all, it’s not as if I managed it at any of the other places.” he delivered this statement in a calm, absolutely matter-of-fact way, looking directly into her eyes. It was as if he was daring her to contradict him. To pity him.

Violet sighed a little and crawled ungracefully down to his end of the boat. She plopped down next to him on his pile of blankets and cushions, leaning against his shoulder. She plucked the joint from between his unresisting fingers and ground it out in the ashtray.

“I’m not going to tell you that it’s easy to make friends, Sherlock. Not when you’re... like us.”

You have friends, Vi.” It was almost an accusation. “You can chat to anyone. I know that you have people you visit in Edinburgh now and again.”

“You daft fish.” Violet nudged him, a little impatiently. “What I have is a hell of a lot of acquaintances. I think I have perhaps three real friends in the world. You’ll find, however, that life gets an awful lot easier if you can get people to like or admire you.”

Sherlock snorted. “Why the hell should I care about that?”

“You’re right. It really shouldn’t matter. And I know how easy it is to despise them, Sherlock. It sometimes seems like their brains move at the speed of chilled fucking molasses, and all you want to do is shout at them, to tell them to think.” Violet’s voice was still calm but had turned a little colder, a little angrier than Sherlock was used to. “You’re damn lucky that you’re a man, Sherlock. A woman who knows the measure of herself and her abilities, a woman who is unapologetic for it- it’s very tricky road to tread. Oh, yes, I’ve had to learn to be charming and nice and unthreatening; and for years it made my skin crawl every time I directed a false smile at an idiot. But I found that it was better than scaring them.”

Sherlock was gazing at her, suddenly enthralled. “My god, I didn't realise how angry you are...”

“But I’m not, you see.” Violet said, squeezing his elbow tightly. “Not any more. Not... not often, anyway. You’ve got to push it back. I don’t want to struggle, Sherlock. It’s fucking exhausting. I know what I want, and I know how to get it. I go down the path of least resistance. I’m not saying that it’s what you have to do, but it’s what works for me. People will forgive almost anything of a person with charm.”

“That sounds like the beginning of an interesting story.”

“Not one for this evening. So. Victor Trevor. Tell me what happened.” Violet poured herself a glass of wine with not entirely steady hands and looked at Sherlock encouragingly. “Tell me I don’t have to organise a grisly death for him.”

He still looked more than a little unsettled, but took a deep breath. “No. You don’t need to do that. Because it was me, you see. I’m just... not good at this sort of thing. I don’t understand how it’s so easy for other people...”

“Come on. Tell me the bare bones of the matter and less of the editorial comments, you slab of gorgonzola.” Violet prompted.

He smiled and huffed out a sigh. “Right. Well when I started at Harrow, I thought it was going to be just like all the other schools. And I was proved right, by and large. The lessons were dull, I knew it all already. A few of the other pupils started asking me about why I’d started so late in the year and why I was only joining the school in sixth form. I told them about the dissection incident at Tonbridge, which I now realise was something of an error. It was only a matter of hours before they started calling me the usual unimaginative names; but that was nothing I wasn’t prepared for. At least I didn’t tell them about what happened at Abingdon.”

“Sherlock, I’m sorry you even told me about what happened at Abingdon. But continue.”

“Victor had the room next to mine. He was reasonably friendly, polite. He was extremely cagey about his room, though. He never let anyone in there, which raised my suspicions immediately. I began to hypothesize over what he was getting up to, that nobody could be allowed to see.”

“God in heaven, Sherlock. Nobody in their right mind surely wants to see the room of a teenage boy. I mean, I’ve seen yours and I still bear the emotional scars.”

“Stop interrupting, do you want to hear this or not?” Sherlock snapped. “So, I kept hearing odd noises coming through the wall, day and night. At first I thought it was some of the predictable nocturnal sneaking around that inevitably happens in these establishments, but I never saw anyone other than Victor enter or leave his room.”

“Did he perhaps have special prefect’s rights for having unmarried Filipino ladies in his room after prep?”

“No. Nor did he have his meals sent up from London. Shut up. So, one evening I decided to get to the bottom of it, and I climbed out of my bedroom window and along the gutter to look into Victor’s room. As it turned out, he had been keeping a small dog in his room.”

“Bloody disappointing. I was hoping for some kind of den of vice at the very least.”

“I know. But unfortunately, no sooner had I ascertained the existence of the dog, the gutter I was standing on decided to give way. Luckily, Victor’s window was open and I was able to haul myself over the sill. The dog got rather over-excited, and proceeded to savage me as soon as I landed on the floor.”

“Savage you? I thought you said it was a small dog.”

“Shut up. So anyway, at this juncture Victor made an entrance. He had heard the wretched animal making a fuss from down the hall and came back to shut it up. Unfortunately, I had landed on the hem of one of the curtains and when I stood up I managed to dislodge the curtain pole which hit me rather smartly on the top of the head.”

“Smooth.”

“Need I remind you to shut up? So, I was being savaged-“

“Nibbled a bit, I wager. What was this dog, a chihuahua?”

Savaged, and brained by a bloody curtain pole. Victor was rather surprised to find me in his room but was commendably calm in the circumstances. I thought he was just worried about me telling the house master about the dog, but he really seemed quite concerned about my head. He bandaged me up a bit and made me some tea. Apparently, his father had threatened to have his dog put to sleep before term began so he smuggled it back to school with him.”

Sherlock took a mouthful of wine from Violet’s glass. “So we chatted for a bit. As it turned out, he was really quite bright in some areas. We had quite a good talk about organometallic chemistry. Some of his ideas were quite ridiculous, of course, but I soon put him straight.”

“Oh, god.”

“But you see, he didn’t seem to mind. He seemed to find me... sort of... funny. He teased me a bit. But not in a mean way. It was kind of-“

“I know.” Violet nodded. “Go on.”

“So we started to spend time together. We sat together at the revolting excuses for meals they gave us there, and we often met in Victor’s room in the evenings. We listened to music and watched films and it was... nice. He was nice. He didn’t have all that many friends there, and I think he didn’t mind my company. I helped him with his frankly ludicrous attempts at calculus.”

“So you made a friend.”

Sherlock half-shrugged, uncomfortably. “I thought so. Not really my area, but I thought so. But there was this one evening, shortly before the end of term. We were talking about what we’d be doing over the holidays; I said that I was coming here.”

“You could have brought him with you, you know.”

“No, I couldn’t. I didn’t want to.” Sherlock said sharply. “I don’t want to bring anyone else here. But he was planning on going sailing with his father anyway, around the Canary Islands. He asked me if I wanted to come, but I didn’t want to. He asked me why, and I said that I wanted to see you.” he swallowed. “And then he said that he was going to miss me.”

Sherlock shut his eyes and tipped his head back. “I’m such an idiot. I didn’t realise. He was so close. I don’t even know how he got that close to me so fast.”

“He kissed you?”

“Yes.” he said flatly.

“And... how do we feel about that?” Violet asked carefully, after a moment.

Sherlock frowned at the darkening sky, his eyes tightly closed. “It was... oh, I don’t know. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be like. I’d never kissed anyone before. Hadn’t wanted to. I didn’t like it much, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I just sort of... stood there. He started grabbing me. He pulled my hair. He was breathing very fast and he was sweating and...” he tailed off. “I pushed him away when he started unbuttoning my shirt, and he became rather angry with me.”

“Oh, christ.” Violet sighed.

Sherlock opened his eyes and turned to face her, his expression forlorn and a little defiant. “He said I’d been leading him on. But I hadn’t, I really hadn’t. I don’t know how-“ he sighed. “I didn’t want to. It just felt... too much. His hands were all sweaty and it felt like he wanted to bloody eat me alive. I couldn’t breathe properly. It felt all... wrong.” he finished lamely.

“So what happened then?”

“I told him that I wanted to be friends, that I didn’t want to have any kind of sexual encounter with him. It’s possible I was a bit... blunt. He was so angry, Vi. I think he was jealous of you, that I was coming to stay with you. I’d told him about you. It didn’t occur to me that he thought we were... involved.”

“Arse. So was that how it ended?” Violet asked, wincing.

“Oh, no. It got worse.” Sherlock laughed harshly. “Victor proceeded to go around the school and told everyone that I was going to Scotland for the holidays so that I could fuck my aunt. He was quite imaginative in the detail, really. And he neglected to tell anyone that we’re not related, or that we’re almost the same age. By the end of the day I had first-years staring and shouting abuse at me in the corridors.”

“Oh, fuck.” Violet took his hand and squeezed it. “I’m sorry, Sherlock. I really will arrange his death, if you like.”

Sherlock shook his head, pressing her hand tightly between both of his. “It’s my fault. I should have realised.”

“It is not your bloody fault, Sherlock. Possibly you could have handled the situation with a bit more finesse, but you didn’t deserve to be manhandled or slandered. You bruised his ego, and he acted like an utter shit. Those are the bones of it.”

“He called me a freak.” Sherlock said quietly. “I’m so bloody sick of being a freak.”

Violet quietly resolved to find out where Mr. Trevor’s yacht was berthed and to pay a visit armed with a drill.

“I know. People used to call me that too. The nuns told me I was unnatural, that there was something wrong with me. They put it down to an excess of original sin.”

They sat silently together, watching the bats flitting out from the waving branches of the tall birch trees. They skimmed overhead, and swept up the glen across the water. The album had played out and the needle scratched softly at the centre of the record. Violet snugged her head into Sherlock’s shoulder, pulling a blanket over their knees.

“Sherry thinks we’re fucking. I think grandmother does, too.” Sherlock said, after a long pause. “Even Mycroft took me aside before I left and warned me against it.”

“How dull. We could be hatching terrorist plots. We could be planning a bank robbery.”

“Deciding how to overthrow the British government.”

“We could be solving third world debt. We could be inventing a perpetual motion device.”

“Bird-watching. Organising our stamp collections.” Sherlock laughed a little and seemed to relax slightly. They lapsed into silence again.

“You don’t actually want to, though. Do you?” Violet asked, matter-of-factly.

Sherlock shrugged under the weight of her head on his shoulder. “No, not really. I mean, if I absolutely had to, I would do it with you. But I can’t imagine it. I’ve never really understood why people want to do it. I mean, I can tell that you’re very attractive.” he added, slightly apologetically.

“Goodness, what a way to sweet-talk a girl.” Violet giggled, and elbowed him in the gut. Sherlock grabbed her elbow and held onto it tightly.

“It’s not normal, though. Is it. I’m eighteen, my hormones are supposed to be driving me to procreative acts with anything that moves.”

“Who cares about normal? You just might not have realised what floats your boat. Kissing one handsy schoolboy isn’t a defining moment. You might find out that you’re only attracted to strapping Bavarian wenches called Helga. Or accountants. Or lamp-posts. Or goldfish.”

“Oh, thank you Violet. That is tremendously helpful.”

“What I’m trying to say is, it can take you a long time to figure out what you like. And nobody says you have to have sex at all, if you don’t want to. Personally I like it, but that’s just me. Bit of a dry spell at the moment, sadly. For obvious reasons.”

“You and uncle Sherry never-“

“Oh god, no!” Violet said, laughing. “I made that very clear. There was absolutely no physical consummation of our union. I’m not planning on staying celibate indefinitely, just for the next while. Sherry said it would be best to be discreet, until-”

“Until my grandparents die.” Sherlock said evenly.

“Yes.” Violet said unapologetically. “I’m not pulling the wool over your uncle’s eyes, Sherlock. We discussed terms in great detail before we married, and it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

Silence reigned once more.

Sherlock lit a cigarette and pulled another blanket around their shoulders. Violet discovered that the wine bottle was sadly empty and settled for some chocolates.

Overhead the sky had darkened to the colour of watered ink, and a thin crescent moon was beginning to make an appearance over the distant hills.

“I’m glad you married him, Vi.”

“Me too, you insufferable twat.”

Chapter Text

Edinburgh, present day.

After dinner John, Violet and Sherlock abandoned the washing up and carried their coffee and brandy into the shadowy conservatory. The air was heavy and damp, redolent of earth and greenery. The vented metal floor was warm and steamed slightly under John’s feet as he followed Violet through a cluster of palms to an intimate group of chairs near the small koi pond.

He took a seat next to Sherlock on a cushioned wrought-iron bench as Violet lit one of her black and gold cigarettes. She took up residence in a tall, fraying wicker chair and propped her bare feet up on the raised brickwork edge of the pond. She inhaled deeply, with visible enjoyment. Sherlock’s mouth curled slightly at this sight, and John saw his fingers twitch minutely.

“You’re not having one, Sherlock. You’ve been off them for ages and you’ll just be cross if you start again.” he said firmly.

Sherlock huffed and stretched out his own legs. “John is extremely boring about me not smoking, Violet.”

Violet exhaled another great lungful of pungent smoke and smiled with great satisfaction. “Quite right, too. It’s a rotten habit. Sherlock’s grandmother always gave me such unutterably filthy looks when she saw me smoking. I never quite had the heart to stop after that. She took such joy in disapproving of me.”

“It was one of her chief pleasures in life, towards the end.” Sherlock agreed, affably. John could see him inhaling deeply. “It would have been a shame to take it away from her.”

Violet grinned at them both, then sobered a little. “Alright. Are you two going to give me any ideas about who is responsible for planting the knife in the studio? Now that Freddie is... out of the picture.” she swallowed hard. “I rather think that everyone was banking on him being responsible for Sandra’s death.”

Sherlock sat up a little straighter, and took a quick sip of his coffee. “So. I think it’s safe to conclude that Freddie Garcia did not have anything to do with the knife being driven through the bench. Given that the class were working from still life in the studio on Thursday afternoon, he would have been dead by the time the knife was rigged.”

“You’re sure it wasn’t there beforehand?” John asked Violet.

She nodded. “Yes. I moved the platform and the bench to make way for a collection of urns and various objects from around the studio. The drape wasn’t pinned in place, and there was nothing on the bench. We finished up around half five, and headed our separate ways. I went in to wash and change out of my work clothes; and apparently all of the students went to their rooms or their common room. At least, that’s what they told Menzies. I’m not sure when Sandra came back from... Well. She didn’t come back until after nine anyway; we all had dinner together and she wasn’t there. It’s a pretty big window, really. It could have happened any time between half five and around ten the following morning, when I went down to the studio and started setting up for the day.”

“But how would they have gotten in?” John asked, suddenly. “You gave the police the key, and you have the spare you kept in the kitchen drawer. Neither went missing, did they?”

Sherlock nodded. “Quite, John. There were no signs of forced entry anywhere in the studio.”

“It’s true.” Violet agreed. “But it’s hardly a secure building, and there’s usually at least one window open somewhere. And while I don’t think anybody except perhaps Katy knew about the spare key, it wouldn’t have been terribly difficult to find. I think everyone has a drawer in the kitchen filled with odd keys and junk, don’t they?”

“Yes, except ours is filled with odd keys, human femurs and a variety of lethal chemical samples.” John muttered darkly.

“Don’t stray from the issue, John.” Sherlock said airily. “Besides it’s only three femurs, that’s hardly any at all.”

“I’d worry what would end up in the soup.” Violet said in a thoughtful tone. “I mean, what if you were boiling up stock in the kitchen and you got the bones mixed up? Does it count as cannibalism if you don’t know that you’re doing it?”

“Oh, god. Violet, did you really have to say that?!” John groaned. She smiled at him brightly over her crystal brandy glass and raised it to him in a cheeky toast.

Sherlock cast his eyes at the ceiling and sighed impatiently. “For pity’s sake, focus! Let’s get back to the point, shall we? You had dinner with the students. Sandra came back later. What did you do afterwards?”

“I know that Basil and George were talking about playing cards. It didn’t look as though they were going anywhere. Katy was reading in here. Phyllis was with her for a while, and then headed up to her room; Hilary had been beastly to her over dinner and she looked like she was going to have a cry. Hilary said that she’d go and watch Basil and George play cards. Said that poker was a mans game.” She rolled her eyes.

“And Patrick?” Sherlock asked.

“He came and had a drink with me in the library.” Violet said, a little reluctantly.

“Just the two of you?” John inquired, curious. It hadn’t seemed like Violet was all that keen on mixing with the students. “Do you do that often?”

“Now and again. Oh, arse.” She sighed and wrinkled her nose at him. “I suppose Sherlock has already figured it out, but Patrick and I have been known to share each others company now and again. It’s perfectly amicable, and nothing serious. He’s a reserved sort of cove, but he’s clever and quite good company. Rather talented too, if only he was interested in developing his skills. However, I’d decided to call a halt to the... physical side of things. So on Thursday evening I asked him to join me for a drink and we had a chat. He was perfectly pleasant about the whole thing. And I honestly don’t think that he had any reason to want to hurt Sandra.”

A glance at Sherlock’s face told John that this was not news to him. Violet looked a little uncomfortable, which struck John as slightly odd. But Violet really didn’t seem the type to be apologetic for having a casual relationship, even with a student. And Patrick Singh was at least twenty five; it was hardly all that scandalous.

Sherlock frowned at her. “Come on, Vi. The part that you’re not telling us.”

“Look, I really don’t need to give you impertinent blisters all the gory details.” Violet said crossly. “I thoroughly enjoyed sharing a bed with the man; I mean, did you see him? He’s gorgeous.” She paused and bit her lower lip. “He’s bloody gorgeous. I did some amazing nude sketches of him. And I mean, I’m an open-minded sort. But I came to realise that there are some areas in which we weren’t terribly compatible.”

John stared at Violet, who took another mouthful of brandy and fiddled with her cigarette lighter. Sherlock looked thoughtful, studying her intently. She grimaced and waved her arm at them dismissively. “Look, it’s not important. Honestly. So, I had a drink with him, we had a chat. He took the news perfectly politely, and after around half an hour he excused himself and said that he was going to take a walk before bed. He often does that, it was nothing out of the ordinary. I stayed up for a while; I was working on some Scots palaeography for the National Archives. I went to bed around midnight. I didn’t see any of the other students or Katy for the rest of that evening.”

“It’s a bit suspicious, isn’t it? Patrick going out that evening, alone.” John mused. “Surely he could have nipped round the back of the house and positioned the knife.”

“I suppose it’s possible.” Violet said evenly. “But honestly, I don’t think he had any reason to do so. He and Sandra seemed to get along perfectly well, and I don’t think they had much to do with each other outside of classes and mealtimes. And he does go out in the evenings quite a lot. It wasn’t out of the ordinary at all.”

“So what happened at dinner between Hilary Jessop and Phyllis Lee?” Sherlock asked.

Violet glared, crossing her legs in a sudden impatient gesture. “Bloody Hilary. Honestly, I would happily have thrown the pavlova at her head by the end of the meal. She rather delights in upsetting Phyllis. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, for her. But Hilary really seemed to have her claws out that evening. She has this way, you see, of making these terribly concerned remarks about Phyllis’ weight, about her height, about being single. She told Phyllis in this terribly kind, gentle way that she ought to go to a slimming class. That perhaps she ought to consider plastic surgery.

“Basil was quite embarrassed, I could tell; but he’s so spineless he didn’t say a word. George just sat there, looking tremendously entertained by it all. Patrick and I tried our best to steer the conversation away, to talk about any other thing we could think of; but Hilary was relentless. I don’t know what had gotten under her skin.

"Eventually Katy stood up and said that she didn’t care for venom with dessert. She took Phyllis by the arm and took her out here, into the conservatory.

“Hilary was terribly injured. She said that she was only being honest, that she had just been concerned for Phyllis. Basil, of course, said that Phyllis and Katy had simply misunderstood Hilary’s good intentions. I’d had enough at this point, and left. Patrick came with me into the library.”

John shook his head in disbelief. He couldn’t quite match up this description of events with the fragile, lovely girl he and Sherlock had interviewed earlier, no matter what Sherlock had deduced about her.

“Bless him.” Violet said fondly, looking at John’s perplexed expression. Sherlock shot him a scathing glance. “Don’t worry, John. You’re not the first to fall for Hilary’s ‘delicate petal’ act. It would be entirely convincing, if only she wasn’t compelled to be vicious towards every woman she meets.”

“So it’s not just Phyllis?” John asked.

“No. I mean, sadly, Phyllis is the easiest target. Sandra gave as good as she got, and Katy just freezes her with a stare. Thankfully, Hilary knows better than to have a go at me. Well, she does now.”

“Why? What did she say to you?” Sherlock asked, idly twirling the leaves of a nearby fern between his fingers. John watched as he wrapped the long thin leaves around his index and middle fingers, like trailing strands of hair.

Violet shrugged dismissively. “Oh, she said that I would really have quite a pretty face, if only it wasn’t ruined by my scars. She started telling me about this marvellous oil one can buy for minimising blemishes; and had I tried it?”

Sherlock’s thigh had rested carelessly against John’s, and he felt Sherlock’s body go from relaxed to tense in the space of a second. He didn’t move an inch, but his fingers must have tightened around the fern, which snapped under his hand and sprang back with a faint rustle.

Violet seemed to be about to make a cross remark about the damage to her plant, but suddenly looked stricken when she caught sight of Sherlock’s face. His expression was carefully blank, but Violet obviously knew him well enough to see past it.

John opened his mouth to say something, anything, to break the moment.

Violet and Sherlock stared into each others eyes. For once, both of them seemed lost for words. The silence seemed to stretch on endlessly. John couldn’t begin to decide what to say. For some reason, he felt compelled to touch Sherlock, to make sure he wasn’t falling apart. He slid his hand over to Sherlock’s wrist discreetly and squeezed it. The man didn’t move, and John doubted he had even felt the gesture.

John stood up after a moment. “I think... I think I’ll leave you two to talk. I’m for bed. Bloody tiring, running away from thugs. I’ll just- er. I’ll just go. Right. G’night.” he walked away quietly, resisting the urge to look behind him as he left the conservatory.

 

***

 

He glanced through the door of the student’s common room on his way to the main staircase, hearing music and loud conversation coming from within. The room looked as if it must have once been a servant’s hall, with quite bare walls and high narrow windows. Comfortable looking but mismatched old sofas and armchairs lined the walls, and there was a decrepit looking ping-pong table at the end nearest the door. Patrick Singh was obviously just arriving from somewhere, and he was shrugging off his long wool overcoat and removing his felt hat when John poked his head through the door.

“Doctor Watson!” Basil Montague called in welcome, looking up from his book at the far end of the room. He and Hilary were curled up on one of the sofas near the huge cast iron fireplace. Hilary stretched sinuously, appearing to be waking up from a nap. She smiled at him sweetly and waved.

As John walked further into the room, he caught sight of George Marmaduke and Phyllis Lee on the other side of the fireplace. Phyllis was reading a copy of Hello! on the hearthrug, and she darted a cautious smile at him.

Marmaduke was moodily staring into the flames from his armchair and did not bother to look up. John was pleased to see that the man’s nose had bruised spectacularly into a variety of interesting colours.

“Doctor Watson, won’t you join us? I was about to go and make some cocoa.” Phyllis said, discarding her magazine and kneeling up. “The common room has the biggest fireplace in the house; so nice on chilly nights like these.”

Her expression was hopeful, and John found himself agreeing without even thinking about it. Patrick Singh laid his outerwear on one of the sofas and sat down on a low ottoman nearby, nodding a greeting at his fellow students. The only seat left was next to him, and John gingerly took a seat to his left.

“Goodness. You must be...tired. Doctor Watson.” Hilary said, wrapping her arms around her knees. “All this sleuthing. I don’t know how. How you do it.

"We looked up Mr. Holmes’ website. And your blog, this afternoon. It’s terribly clever.” She had changed from her blue silk dress of that morning into a pair of form fitting jeans and a loose white blouse that had slipped carelessly off one delicate shoulder. She looked entirely recovered from her earlier indisposition and her skin was faintly flushed from the heat of the roaring fire.

“Yes, tremendously clever stuff.” Basil agreed, pleasantly. “Goodness, the scrapes that you two get in to! I must say, though, you’re welcome to it.”

“But you’re not any closer to catching Freddie though, are you?” George said sharply. “If the two of you are able to track down master criminals based on the mud on their shoes or the newspaper they were reading; it’s a damn poor show if you can’t track down one addled artist.”

John shrugged amiably and did his best to look a little sheepish. “I’m afraid that it might take a little longer to find the culprit. But we’re doing our best, don’t worry, Mr. Marmaduke.” He smiled warmly at George, who scowled at him then winced in pain. It was obvious that the man hadn’t told the others how he had injured his face earlier.

“We have every confidence in Mr. Holmes’ abilities, don’t we?” Patrick Singh said smoothly, looking around the group.

Hilary nodded, smiling faintly at John.

“Golly, yes!” Phyllis said, reappearing from the kitchen next door with a tray laden with cocoa mugs. John accepted one and sat back. It hadn’t escaped his notice that Singh hadn’t added any mention of confidence in him, and he regarded the man thoughtfully out of the corner of his eye. It was evident that Patrick didn’t like him at all, which he wasn’t going to worry about. But it was certainly interesting.

Patrick raised one of his thick elegantly shaped eyebrows at John and sipped his cocoa slowly. John smiled at him again and returned his attention to Basil, who was telling Phyllis a rather garbled version of the Study in Pink case, which he had evidently read on his blog earlier. John nodded and tried to look modest as Phyllis and Hilary made impressed noises.

“-well, actually it wasn’t the taxi driver’s phone, it belonged to the victim.” he broke in gently, when Basil evidently misremembered a detail.

“Gosh, sorry! It was a bit complicated, wasn’t it?” Basil said, apologetically.

“Well, not for Doctor Watson, really, eh?” George interjected suddenly. “From what I can gather he just stands around and hold’s Holmes’ coat and writes substandard little stories about their ludicrous little adventures.”

There was a nasty silence. Phyllis blushed crimson and stared into her cocoa. Her stockinged toes wriggled furiously. John cocked his head and studied Marmaduke, who had edged forward in his chair and was sitting bolt upright with his hands on his knees. He stared at John combatively, who felt the old battle instincts begin to crawl over his skin, his shoulders squaring as he faced the angry man.

“Really, George.” Hilary said softly, breaking the silence. “That’s... a little unfair. Don’t you think?”

George didn’t even blink. “Oh, please. He’s just the trained monkey that Holmes brings along. He’s just the errand boy. I’ve noticed that there’s no mention of your wife on your blog for a long time, Doctor Watson. You and dear Mr. Holmes are sharing a bedroom here, aren’t you?”

“All the other bedrooms are taken up at the moment, you may have noticed.” John said evenly, deciding to ignore the first comment. His skin was prickling, and he fought the urge to clench his fists. He held his mug between both hands, rolling it slightly between his fingers.

“Oh, yes. Certainly. But it’s pretty obvious that you’re just his bitch, though. In more ways than one. Isn’t it?” George asked loudly.

Phyllis gasped quietly and drew her knees up to her chest, staring down at her hands.

It was this small reaction, most of all, that caused John to hesitate.

(Stay calm. You know that all he wants is to have a fight. Don’t bloody well rise to it. He’s just making a tit out of himself.)

John placed his mug on the floor and clasped his hands loosely on his knees, leaning towards George in a (hopefully) relaxed fashion. He was aware of Patrick’s curious gaze on the side of his face.

“Do you know something, George? I really don’t think that’s even slightly your business,” he said mildly. “But you seem terribly keen to have a punch-up. And if you want one, I mean really want one, I’ll oblige you. I will. But you’re going to have to throw the first punch because I’m not going to start a fight in Violet’s house.” He injected a certain amount of steel into his voice. “And please, mate, bear in mind that it’s just going to be one punch that you’ll get in. Because after three tours in Afghanistan I know all sorts of nasty things to do to people who try to hurt me.” he smiled brightly at Marmaduke, getting slowly to his feet.

George made no move to get up, and contented himself with glaring at John from his chair. John picked up his mug and placed it precisely on the empty tray on the coffee table. “Oh, and by the way. Would you like me to tell everyone what you said earlier to deserve a bloody nose? No? Oh, well. Maybe another time.”

Basil was blushing furiously, silently apologetic. Hilary was leaning forward and was staring at John, rapt. Patrick Singh gave him a small, unexpected smile.

“Thanks so much for the cocoa, Phyllis. It was lovely, just like my old mum used to make it. Well, I’m off to bed. Goodnight, all.” John beamed around at the students once more, turned on his heel and walked smartly out of the room.

Chapter Text

John was not surprised to find their room empty. He hoped that down in the conservatory Sherlock and Violet were managing to have some kind of heart-to-heart; although for the life of him he couldn’t imagine what would be said in such an exchange. Violet had referred to her scars so casually, without thought – it was so plain to John that she didn’t even think about Sherlock in connection to them. He was sure that Violet didn’t harbour any resentment towards Sherlock; but getting Sherlock to understand that might well be an uphill struggle. It was clear that Sherlock had been holding onto lingering guilt for many years.

John was half tempted to go back downstairs, to see if he could be any sort of help as an intermediary; but decided that this was a conversation they were best having alone. He dearly wished that he could have met them both as they were, so many years before. He envied Violet that bond with Sherlock, that common ground of experience. Of growing up together, no matter how briefly. She had seen him on the verge of everything, before the drugs and the overdoses. Before he had started deleting everything that was of no use.

The green room was chilly, but at least someone had lit a fire in the grate. John sat down in a small armchair next to the flames, after retrieving the book he had left in the bathroom earlier. He hadn’t bothered even looking at it earlier, and it turned out to be a hardback copy of Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake. He opened it carefully, noting that it was rather old. A small sheet of yellow paper fluttered out from the inside of the front cover, along with a faded pink pressed flower in a small envelope. John picked up the note and read it curiously.

Sherlock Holmes, you repugnant worm. If I ever find you smoking while reading in my library again, I will gut you like a fish. And I will never bake you another cake as long as you live. Consider yourself warned. V.

The bookplate on the fly-leaf was engraved with the name “Hilderbogie Estate”.

John slipped the flower and the note back into the book and began to read.

The fire burnt lower, and midnight came and went.

John jumped as the ornate carriage clock above the mantle struck the hour, then sighed. Sherlock was still in the conservatory; it had been well over two hours now. He sighed quietly, resting the book in his lap, and stared out the window. He hadn’t bothered drawing the curtains and he could make out branches swaying through the thick rippled glass. Beyond the faint outline of Blackford hill in the distance, he could see the pinpoints of stars in the clear dark sky.

Somehow, he slept through the one ‘o clock chimes, and only awoke when the book fell from his lap onto the floor with a thump. Squinting muzzily at the clock, he saw that it was nearly two am. A glance at the bed and the rest of the room showed that Sherlock was yet to come upstairs.

John stretched, and scrubbed absently at his face. There was a chance, of course, that Sherlock had just decided to forego sleep and was currently working on the case somewhere in the house. After all, he had slept the entire previous night through, a rare enough occurrence. That combined with the huge quantities of food he had eaten over the last two days would probably set him up for a good week of manic energy. He was probably sitting by the fire in the library, deep in cogitation about Sandra Garner.

It wasn’t enough to stop him worrying. John got stiffly to his feet and stretched, yawning hugely. It wouldn’t hurt just to go and check. Surely Violet would have left him and gone to bed by now. If Sherlock was busy, John would just check on him before heading back upstairs. (Don’t let me find him aching and lost in his own head. Please.)

The library was dark, as was the kitchen and Violet’s study. There was a dim light coming from under the door of the student’s common room; but John was not inclined to check in there. He had had quite enough of their company for one evening. He made his way quietly through the hall, narrowly avoiding tripping over the feet of the stuffed bear, which seemed to loom menacingly out of the shadows. John gave the creature a hard look and crept on.

At the far end of the ground floor corridor, he peered through the glass panels in the conservatory door. It wasn’t entirely dark in there, as there were one or two carriage lamps mounted on the iron framework. He couldn’t make out much through the door, and pushed it open as quietly as possible. This still involved an alarming creak and he winced at the sound as the wood scraped over the metal floor.

The heavy warm air enveloped John again as he stepped into the conservatory. It was a very different kind of place at night; the tall palm trees cast huge, faintly menacing shadows over the meandering path and the smaller shrubs caught persistently at John’s clothes. Once or twice he imagined movement deep in the thickets of ferns and trees, but when he spun around he saw nothing there. The whole room seemed much larger, and more than once John took a wrong turn, ending up at entirely the wrong cluster of chairs.

He leapt suddenly as he felt a hand wrap itself around his wrist; while battling with a persistent vine he had stopped paying attention to his surroundings. Instinctively, he flung his arm out and his other wrist was grasped firmly before his blow connected with anything. He had expected to find George Marmaduke, but quickly relaxed at the sight of the familiar figure.

“John, you muppet! It’s only me!” Violet hissed, squeezing his wrists before letting go. “Easy, soldier.”

“Oh, Christ! Violet. Sorry. Sorry. You scared the life out of me. I’m so sorry.”

She smiled at him tiredly. “Don’t worry. I should have known better than to have snuck up to you. Sherlock fell asleep and I didn’t want to make a racket. What are you doing, slinking around the bromeliads at this hour?”

“Sherlock didn’t come to bed and I was a bit-“ he paused, not quite knowing how to continue. “Curious. About where he’d gotten to.” he finished weakly.

Violet smiled and ran a hand through her hair in a distracted sort of gesture. She had swapped her red dress for a pair of black chinese silk pajamas and her hair was loose across her shoulders. Her face in the dim light was washed clean of makeup and her eyes were a little swollen.

“I think he’s alright, you dear old boot. We had a bit of an intense evening. Oh, God. Some things had been unsaid for far too long. I’d no idea....” she trailed off and grimaced. “But it’s alright. We’re alright, I think. We were both a bit... overwhelmed. And knackered, and he fell asleep. I just popped down before going to bed to make sure he was alright.” She stopped and smiled wanly at John. “Like you. Oh, Christ John. I’m so glad he’s got you. Just so bloody glad of it. I’d always worried, you see. It was always in the back of my mind that he was facing the world alone.”

John opened his mouth to utter the usual vague contradictions, then closed it again. Because Sherlock did have him. He was always going to come looking for the daft git, because that was what they did. And he knew that Sherlock would always come and find him, no matter what.

He smiled at her and nodded, feeling a slight ache in his chest. Because he knew that Violet had once been that person to Sherlock; she knew that it was no small thing. It was not just another friendship.

“Vi, are you okay?” he asked hesitantly.

She grasped his hand impulsively and smiled, swinging his arm slightly. “Yes, I’m fine. I promise. Everything is all a bit shitty at the moment, I freely admit. But something bloody marvellous has come out of it. I’ve got my rotten twerp of a cousin back, and he’s in a much better state than I was expecting to find him. And it’s due in no small part to you.”

Again, John opened his mouth to protest but she shook her head. “Shut up, you silly goon. Don’t argue with me.”

To his great surprise she leant forward and kissed his mouth briefly and firmly, her other hand coming up to rest gently on his cheek. She smelt faintly of cloves and oranges and her lips were full and smooth under his.

“Thank you. I mean it. Thank you.” she whispered, drawing back slowly to rest her forehead against his. He blushed furiously, and squeezed her hand; utterly lost for words. “He’s just down there, beyond the citrus trees. I’m off to bed. Goodnight.”

He pulled her hand to his mouth and kissed her palm quickly. She smiled wickedly. “Don’t tell him I kissed you. Can you imagine the sulks if he heard I molested his blogger?”

And with that, she disappeared silently on bare feet down the overgrown path.

 

***

Sherlock was perhaps only twenty feet away; once John rounded the collection of fruit trees in massive chipped terracotta pots he found his way easily. Sherlock was lying on his side on the same wrought iron bench where John had left him earlier, next to the smooth water of the pond. His long legs were folded up and he had evidently kicked one of the faded chintz cushions to the ground as he slept. It couldn’t have been comfortable; but he looked properly asleep to John. He also couldn’t have been cold in the humid air of the conservatory, but he had a small blanket or sheet draped over him. As John drew nearer he recognised the light coloured square as a heavily embroidered dark pink silk shawl, with a long trailing fringe that stretched to the floor.

He knelt down next to Sherlock, staring at his face. Like Violet, his eyes were a little swollen and he was frowning slightly. His hair was a disaster, bearing the unmistakeable signs of having fingers dragged through it repeatedly. The man looked so tired John was tempted to leave him to sleep there for the night. He sat back and leaned against the raised edge of the pond and studied Sherlock wearily. The detective was snoring faintly, and John thought he was probably drooling onto the cushions a bit.

He smiled at the sight, still aware of the gentle ache in his chest. Not many people got to see Sherlock unawares, and it made him feel oddly privileged.

“You do have me, you know.” he murmured, leaning his chin on his hand. “She’s right about that.”

Sherlock’s frown softened a little and he stirred; evidently John’s quiet words had been enough to disturb him. He sighed heavily and stretched his legs out, kicking another cushion to the ground as he did so.

“Sherlock?” John breathed. “You awake?”

“Mmm.” Sherlock screwed his face up again and blinked rapidly before sitting up. “John?”

“Excellent deduction. Yes, it’s me.” John smiled, leaning a little closer. “You’re going to regret it if you decide to sleep down here. You’ll go mouldy. Or you’ll wake up covered in moss or aspidistras or something.”

Sherlock sat up slowly, rubbing at his eye with one hand. “Don’t be ridiculous, there are no aspidistras in this bit. They’re over-” He stopped, momentarily perplexed at the shawl he had dislodged with his movement.

“Suits you.” John smirked. “Pink is definitely your colour.”

Sherlock stared at the shawl, taking the large square of embroidered silk and running the fringe through his fingers. He seemed unable to take his eyes from it. He sat, stroking it vaguely; his expression was unreadable.

“Sherlock?” John asked warily, after a minute.

“This. This belonged to my great grandmother. She brought it back from Shanghai.” Sherlock said slowly. “My grandparents lent it to Violet to wear on her wedding day.” He looked up at John and his eyes were shining. “That was the day I met Vi for the first time. She found me smoking in the library and told me off. We ended up talking for most of the night. It was... it was wonderful. You can’t imagine, John. I fell asleep at some point, which was utterly stupid of me. But when I woke up the next morning, I found this shawl draped around me. Violet hadn’t.... she hadn’t wanted me to get cold.” He trailed off, his voice getting slightly huskier. “And I was so glad, because it proved that it hadn’t all been something I’d just imagined or hoped would happen. It had been... real.”

He stared at it again, running his fingers gently along the edge of one of the large embroidered flowers. Sherlock didn’t look up from the shawl for a minute. John slowly reached out and squeezed his knee; he didn’t really know what to say. He knew he didn’t have to say anything. The iron floor was hard beneath his knees but he wasn’t going to move until he knew Sherlock was ready.

Sherlock took a deep breath and covered John’s hand with his, holding his fingers tightly. John looked up into Sherlock’s face and smiled gently, taking this as a signal. “Come on. Let’s go to bed. You can’t stay down here all night.”

Sherlock nodded and swallowed hard. He stood and pulled John to his feet, before carefully folding the shawl and draping it over his arm. John felt the need to keep touching him for some reason, and rested his hand in the small of Sherlock’s back as they made their way down through the shadowy conservatory.

 

***

 

Sherlock was silent as he changed into his pajamas back in their room. As he and John stood side by side and brushed their teeth in the bathroom, he looked profoundly tired in the age-spotted mirror. But John felt that there was something undeniably different about his face; it was weary, but relaxed in a way that it had not been since they had set foot in the house. John rinsed his mouth and leant briefly against Sherlock’s shoulder. Sherlock nudged him gently back and smiled around his toothbrush at their reflection in the mirror.

The overly soft sagging mattress was like heaven to John as he sank into it. He was too tired to even bother with a token attempt to keep distance from Sherlock. He sighed contentedly, burrowing his head back into the heavy feather pillows. Sherlock stretched out languorously next to him, echoing his sigh.

John was on the verge of sleep when he heard Sherlock murmur: “I don’t mind it, you know. I thought I would. But it’s... it’s good. I know why you like it.”

John thought hard, confused for a few seconds. He felt Sherlock move slightly, as if to face away from him. (oh. Oh.)

Without really thinking about it he reached out and slipped his left arm through the smooth cool space under Sherlock’s pillow. He turned and ran his hand over Sherlock’s side, feeling warm skin and the outline of the man’s ribs through his light t-shirt . Sherlock stiffened slightly, and then relaxed before John had time to question his actions. He took hold of John’s hand and pulled it firmly around, bringing it to rest against his chest. He didn’t let go, idly weaving their fingers together.

John rested his forehead against the back of Sherlock’s warm neck and inhaled deeply; that same complex smell. The scent that was Sherlock, and life, and home.

He tipped his head back and pressed his lips to the nape of Sherlock’s neck, the barest of touches. Sherlock momentarily tightened the grip on his hand and made a small, low sound in the back of his throat that somehow hurt John’s heart a little.

“Goodnight.” John breathed into the back of his neck, and slept.

Chapter Text

John awoke slowly, drifting lazily in and out of consciousness. The room was very dark still, and although the air on his face was cool it was beautifully warm under the covers. He sighed and stretched a little, tightening his arms around Sherlock. He had become gradually aware as he dozed that Sherlock had turned in his sleep to face him, and the detectives long arm was wrapped around his waist. Sherlock’s face was buried in his shoulder and his breathing was deep, even and peaceful. His body was still and warm, stretched languidly against the length of John’s.

John was hesitant to move any further, reluctant to wake Sherlock and start the day. A day that was bound to be full of running around, interrogating people and more dead ends in the investigation. He could admit to himself that this was something he wanted to keep, just a little longer. The warm weight of a sleeping body in his arms, even if it was Sherlock. (Stop it. You bloody well know you like having him lying here, like this. You do.)

Because, as John knew all too well, this was not something that mates did. He had never remotely wanted to share a bed, let alone a sleepy embrace with Stamford or Lestrade or any other man he had known. And yet... And yet. Here he was, relishing waking up next to Sherlock, feeling his friends breath on his skin. The weight of his body, of the arm lying so carelessly across his torso. The warmth that was seeping from Sherlock’s body and into his own. Wishing that this was something they did, as a matter of course.

And it wasn’t just that it had been a terribly long time since John had shared a bed with anyone. It would be all too easy to say that that was the reason he was luxuriating in this warm intimacy, that he would welcome almost anyone into his arms. It was Sherlock; it was this one person he wanted next to him.

Staring up at the shadows in the pleated silk canopy overhead, John began to think hard. He probably wasn’t going to get many other opportunities to share a bed with Sherlock. Circumstances had conspired for them to share this closeness; he could hardly imagine Sherlock clambering into bed with him back at Baker Street at the end of a long day.

And it was hardly the time for some kind of half-baked heterosexual crisis, he realised. He had already known for a long time that what existed between him and Sherlock was far more intense than any other friendship he had known. Within hours of meeting the man, his life had been hijacked, turned upside down and changed completely. John had felt positively drunk for days after meeting him, and it wasn’t just from running around London, chasing criminals and leaping between rooftops. It was this man, this bizarre extraordinary fascinating character. This man, who had looked back at John in that lab and had evidently thought: yes. this one.

Whatever Sherlock occasionally claimed, John wasn’t an idiot. He knew that he mattered to the detective, mattered to him deeply. He knew that Sherlock wouldn’t do this with just anyone; wouldn’t be content to show his vulnerability or share his secrets. And that mattered, so much.
John couldn’t really imagine meeting anyone else now. Because he knew that nobody could ever compete with Sherlock. While he might enjoy dating again, (not to mention having sex again) he knew in his marrow that nobody would ever know him better. He could never trust anyone more. Nobody could dazzle him as much or trust him as much. Admittedly, nobody would ever infuriate him as much either, but that was something John had long been resigned to.

Sex, though. That was it. John sighed inwardly. John Watson liked sex. He liked it an awful lot, although he had become resigned to not having it (with another person at least) for over a year now. And as pleasant and heart-warming as it was to be curled up against a sleeping Sherlock; he suspected that even if this continued, it might not be quite enough. If, perhaps, Sherlock was interested in that sort of thing....

Oh, now you’re getting there Watson. Yes, alright, everyone else thinks that you’ve been shagging for years; but you’ve rarely let yourself think about it, eh? John “Not Gay” Watson.

That was the problem, though, wasn’t it? It was all decidedly hypothetical. While John probably knew Sherlock better than almost all of the people in all of the world, that was one area where he was incredibly ignorant. Time and again he had watched men and women flirt with his flatmate. He had watched Sherlock turn on the charm several times for the sake of a case. He had seen the intrigued way Sherlock’s eyes had travelled across the sleek lines of Irene Adler’s body. He had watched Sherlock kiss Janine with what seemed at the time to be real affection. But he had walked away without so much as a backward glance; leaving John hugely confused about what had been real and what was artifice.

What if it all really was just transport to Sherlock?

But it couldn’t be, really. If you looked hard enough, it was clear that Sherlock had at least some time for the pleasures of the flesh. Admittedly, he seemed to resent eating but when Violet placed a plate of something delectable in front of him he consumed it with frankly indecent pleasure (cream smeared between long fingers, licked slowly by a pointed pink tongue). Sherlock’s pathological hatred of artificial fibres, his utterly ridiculous devotion to tailoring and expensive fabrics. If his body was mere transport, why bother with hand-made silk shirts from Charvet against his skin, or bespoke suits that fit him like a glove? Or fabulously expensive (marvellous smelling) toiletries? It seemed to John that Sherlock might have put a lot of effort into overcoming the desires of his body, but there were certain areas in which he was prepared to give into temptation. Could sex make an appearance on that (admittedly short) list?

(Christ. Look at you. You are honestly thinking about having sex with him. A man. Having sex. With a MAN. And it’s not even particularly bothering you, beyond a slight frisson of excitement. More than a slight one, at that. This should matter to you more. You’ve spent long enough trying to convince the world of your heterosexuality, and yet if he showed the slightest inclination you’d be on your knees in half a second. Wouldn’t you?)

But it was all academic, really. John might be willing to admit (most likely after a couple of drinks) that he wouldn’t be averse to sharing a bed with Sherlock in more ways than one. But John didn’t have the slightest idea of whether Sherlock would like to do anything more than sleep next to him. It was obvious that he liked John’s company, liked sharing his space. It had moved John, the way that Sherlock had hesitantly admitted to liking touching him as he slept.

(No. He probably just meant touching someone as he slept. He didn’t say you, John “Not Gay” Watson).

Sherlock interrupted the snide remarks in John’s head by groaning sleepily and tightening his arm around John’s waist. John squeezed back without thinking and then grimaced slightly at himself. He still didn’t want to let go.

“Is there coffee?” Sherlock muttered, without opening his eyes. “I can’t smell any coffee.”

“No, I’ve only just woken up. And it’s your turn to get coffee, you lazy git.” John murmured. “I brought you some yesterday.”

“You’re tremendously good at it, John.” Sherlock said seriously, his head still on John’s shoulder. “I thought you did it very well yesterday. Best to keep in practice, really.”

“It’s too cold to get out of bed.” John said, after running through his arguments briefly. To demonstrate this, he pulled the heavy eiderdown further up around them. He hesitated for a moment, before returning his arm to Sherlock’s back. Sherlock didn’t seem to notice, he seemed intent on leeching as much body heat from John as possible.

“Nonsense.” Sherlock muttered, and sighed. “I do wish people kept more servants. In my grandparent’s day, we’d have been brought coffee, a well-ironed newspaper and a full English by now. Maybe that battleaxe of a housekeeper will bring us some.”

“I doubt it.” John fervently hoped not, anyway. No matter what his personal thoughts were about his relationship with Sherlock, he wasn’t quite ready for a poker-faced Margaret Gothford bringing them breakfast in bed.

It was this disquieting thought that made John begin to disentangle himself with Sherlock, but he was surprised to find Sherlock’s large hands tightening their grip.

He paused and looked down at Sherlock, who had opened his eyes and was regarding him with a penetrating gaze. He didn’t seem inclined to say anything else just yet, and after a moment, John slid back down under the covers so that they faced each other.

“Hmm?” he said quietly, after their shared gaze stretched on silently for more than a few seconds.

Sherlock swallowed hard and blinked. “John...” he stopped, looking slightly frustrated.

“Yes...?” John prompted. He was very aware of Sherlock’s hands on his torso, of his own on Sherlock’s side. Sherlock’s shirt had slid up as he moved, and John’s hand was half-resting on warm, bare skin. It was smooth and lithe under his hand and he flexed his fingers a little, feeling firm muscles under sleek skin.

“John. I wish... I wish I was better at saying things to you.”

John nodded in what he hoped was an encouraging way, feeling his heart sink a little. He should have known that it was only a matter of seconds before Sherlock divined what had been running through his head, that he was about to get a repeat of the married to my work speech.

Sherlock closed his eyes and swallowed again. “You’re so much better at this sort of thing. And I generally don’t think that we need to say things. Important things, I mean. To each other. I usually find it safe to assume that you know the important things.”

John studied Sherlock’s face intently, which was easier now that the mans eyes were still closed. His face was tense and a little anxious. “But you see, I realised last night that sometimes one does have to say things out loud. That the act of saying them is... significant.”

“What is it that you want to tell me?” John asked softly.

Sherlock inhaled deeply. “I want to tell you that I’m glad that you’re my friend, John,” he said after a long pause. “That I value your company more than I can say.”

Sherlock opened his eyes and studied John’s face, which probably looked a little puzzled as well as affectionate. It was tempting to break the tension with a laugh, to make a flippant comment; to slap Sherlock on the shoulder and accuse him of doing or saying anything in order to get a coffee. To ask him why he felt the need to say such a thing.

“I know you do.” John said, after a moment. “But I like hearing you say it. And I hope you know that you mean... you mean the world to me.” he finished a little awkwardly.

Sherlock smiled at him a little hesitantly, seemingly becoming aware of his grip on John. His hands loosened a little, but didn’t let go. “I know that you mind what people think, sometimes. But I like this. And I know that you miss, er... company in bed. If... if you want to keep doing... this I won’t tell anyone.”

John felt an odd lump in his throat. “I like it too.” He decided to throw caution to the wind, and blurted out: “But Sherlock, I like it that it’s you.” he took a deep breath and shut his eyes tightly. “I like... touching you. I like waking up with you. It’s not that I miss Mary, or that I’m wanting anyone else. It’s you.”

He didn’t dare open his eyes just yet. He didn’t think he could look at Sherlock if the detective’s expression was going to be uncomfortable, or amused, or uncomprehending. He didn’t think that he could bring himself to say another word. He didn’t even quite know what he had meant by those words. All he knew was that he wanted Sherlock, wanted to stay with him and nobody else.

“Oh.”Sherlock’s voice was tinged with something approaching wonder. His hands tightened again, and John felt almost weak with relief. He wasn’t prepared for the feeling of Sherlock’s breath or the firm kiss pressed to his forehead. His eyes flew open and he stared at Sherlock, who smiled at him a little nervously.

“See? Talking is good, sometimes. Told you.” John said, a little breathlessly. He slipped his arm further around Sherlock’s waist, stroking the warm bare expanse of his back below his crumpled shirt.

“It’s just...” Sherlock grimaced, and buried his face in John’s shoulder once more. “It’s just that... Well. I’m not used to this, you see. And I’m not particularly sure what you mean. What you’re expecting... while continuing to share a bed with me.”

John inhaled deeply, breathing in the scent of Sherlock’s hair. He thought hard. “To be honest, I’m not one hundred percent sure, myself, Sherlock. I mean... I want to keep doing this. If you do. But I’m not sure if you want more than just sharing a bed.” (Oh god. We’re actually discussing this. I just said that. Out loud.)

Sherlock didn’t say anything for perhaps a minute. He must have felt John’s pulse accelerating dangerously though, and eventually sighed. “I don’t know. Not yet. It’s...um... not really my area, John.”

“So you’ve never....”

Sherlock tensed. “I wouldn’t say that. I’ve been in sexual situations before, but I’ve never particularly wanted to instigate them.”

(Oh, god.)

John’s eyes widened. “Sherlock, christ. I’m sorry, I didn’t know...”

Sherlock moved back a little so that he could look into John’s face sternly. “Stop it. Stop imagining whatever it is you’re thinking. I just mean that it’s never been particularly important to me. I realised when I was a teenager that I wasn’t... I wasn’t all that much like my classmates. I didn’t really feel much of an urge. On the few occasions that somebody tried to... initiate... intimacy, I didn’t like it much. It just felt overwhelming and complicated and I never really saw the point. While I was.... away....” he broke off and swallowed hard. His gaze was unrelenting and never left John’s face. “While I was away, on one occasion it was necessary for me to engage in certain activities with someone. He wasn’t willing to give me the information I needed initially, and I didn’t much feel like torturing it out of him. It seemed the most expedient way, at the time. But it was- it was not good. It was difficult. Oh, damn it, John – stop looking at me like that!” he broke off, looking a little exasperated.

John inhaled deeply, trying to rearrange his face into something a little more neutral.

“I’m not some wilting innocent; I have always been perfectly well acquainted with the mechanics of sex. It was necessary at the time, and the information was valuable. But I did not enjoy it.”

“Well of course you didn’t!” John interjected, a little shocked.

“I’m just trying to make it clear that my previous sexual experiences have not been particularly... rewarding.” Sherlock said evenly.

John didn’t say anything, thinking hard.

“But leaving all that aside. You and me, right here. There’s nobody else in the world.” He paused, and took a deep breath. “I love you. You know that. I’ve never wanted to have sex with a man before... I mean, I’m frankly still a bit unsure about it. But if I was, um, hypothetically going to have sex with a man, I would want to do it with you. And obviously, only if you wanted to; not because you feel obliged or anything. But honestly, Sherlock... this is already enough. And if you never want to do anything more than sleep in my bed and kiss my forehead now and again, that is enough. If you decide sometime that you want to try something a bit more, that’s fine. We’ll figure it out. I promise.”

Sherlock stared at him, unblinking. His strange pale eyes seemed to glow a little in the dim light as he regarded John.

John began to feel extremely self-conscious, and felt a blush creeping steadily up his body. “Oh god, I’ve done it now, haven’t I?” he muttered. “You’re about to leap out of bed and run away, aren’t you? I am going to be cringing for bloody weeks.”

“Shut up, John.” Sherlock said, a little hoarsely. “Just... shut up. You’ve always been too good for me, I’ve known that for ages. I just need to think for a while, alright?”

“Alright.” John said, with great relief. “Just tell me when you feel like you’ve sorted it out. We’ve got all the time in the world. And a murder investigation to finish, besides.”

“Ah, yes. There is that.” Sherlock smiled, a little more confidently. “One of the great joys of life, you know. There’s always going to be another murder.” His expression grew meaningful. “And coffee, of course.”

John grinned back at him. He felt almost light-headed (relief? joy?) and he kicked Sherlock none-too-gently in the shin before rolling away from him and sliding out of bed.

“Okay, okay. It’s definitely your turn tomorrow, though.”

 

***

John was surprised to find Inspector Menzies in the kitchen, who was sitting at the cluttered table with the happy air of a man who had serendipitously visited Violet’s house at breakfast time. Violet was in the process of pouring the Inspector some coffee as John entered, and she beamed at him fondly. She was not yet dressed, wearing the same deep blue silk kimono as the previous morning over her pajamas. She had obviously taken the time to comb her gleaming red hair and apply some lipstick before meeting with the Inspector, however.

“John, darling!” she smiled, and kissed him on the cheek. She took the opportunity to hiss “Sodding half eight in the morning, the bloody cheek of the man!” in his ear. Menzies sipped his coffee appreciatively and was eating a croissant and blackberry jam with the greatest signs of pleasure as John said good morning to him.

Menzies swallowed, and wiped a few crumbs from his moustache with a starched napkin. “Doctor Watson, good morning. I thought I’d better come and have a chat with you and your man first thing. We’ve examined the body in the caravan, and it is certainly Mr. Garcia. He’d been there for a few days, as you could no doubt tell. There’s going to be an autopsy today; but our fellows say it looks like he choked on his own tissues as a result of the acid going down his throat.” he said blandly. John winced. He doubted that Sherlock had given Violet that level of detail about Freddie’s death.

She was behind Menzies as he spoke, her back to the two men while she sliced some bread on the worktop. John watched her shoulders stiffen under the brocade robe and her head dipped slightly.

“I think perhaps we should wait for Sherlock before we discuss the details, don’t you?” he asked the Inspector coldly. “I was just going to bring him some coffee, I’ll tell him you’re here.”

“No bother, John. I’ll do that.” Violet interjected, seeming glad of an excuse to leave the kitchen. “You help yourself to some breakfast, old thing.”

She swiftly poured some coffee from the pot on the stove into a bowl, hastily added some milk, and swept from the kitchen without looking at either of them. John frowned and sat down opposite Menzies, who seemed oblivious to Violet’s reaction.

Menzies helped himself to another pastry from the plate on the table. “Still early days, really. The Strathclyde constabulary are in charge of forensics, they’ll let us know what they come up with soon. I was hoping that Mr. Holmes might have had an idea or two by now who was responsible for Miss Garner’s death, though. Any leads?” he asked hopefully.

“Nothing definitive, really. We’re doing our best.” John said vaguely, and then an idea struck him. “I suppose that there has been an autopsy performed on Sandra’s body?”

“Of course!” Menzies said, seeming a little affronted. “They did it over at the University on Monday morning. We already knew that she was stabbed, though.”

“Well, yes. I think everyone is clear on that.” John said, after a pause during which he wondered whether Menzies was winding him up and then deciding against it. “I was wondering if we could maybe take a look at the report, as well as Garcia’s when it’s done?”

“Don’t see why not.” Menzies said grudgingly. “Would it help?”

“Don’t know until we see them. The toxicology might turn something interesting up. Sherlock always likes to take a look if they’re available.” John helped himself to a croissant before Menzies managed to get to them all, and poured himself some coffee.

Sherlock appeared in the doorway, fully and perfectly dressed. He had even managed to have a shave and smooth down his hair, although John was positive that he would still have been in bed less than five minutes previously. His manner was business-like as he took a seat next to John, and he looked expectantly at Menzies. The Inspector suddenly seemed conscious of his own whiskery face and the croissant fragments all down his crumpled lapels. John suppressed a smirk as the untidy man straightened up in his seat.

“Mr. Holmes, good morning. I was just telling Doctor Watson here that the man in the caravan was definitely Garcia.”

“Obviously.” Sherlock said crisply. “How much nitric acid had he been given?”

“Given?” Menzies frowned, obviously surprised by this statement. “The man clearly committed suicide, Mr. Holmes.”

“No. He did not.” Sherlock replied, with an expression that eloquently communicated his impatience. “Why on earth would the man put the acid in an expensive gin bottle if he was going to commit suicide? Ridiculous.”

“Well, we don’t know where the acid came from. It might just have been a handy empty bottle, close to hand!” Menzies snapped defensively.

“Of course we know where the acid came from!” Sherlock groaned despairingly. “Honestly. It came from here, didn’t you even realise that? That brand of gin is one of Violet’s favourites. The bottle came from her pantry, where she keeps a plentiful supply. The acid came from the studio, where it was used for the purposes of etching. Didn’t you see the press? Violet told us that Garcia knocked it over before he left on Wednesday.”

Menzies gaped at him, his face scarlet. John placed his bare foot over Sherlock’s, and gave him a warning look. Sherlock rolled his eyes and sighed.

“But, Mr. Holmes, you can’t be-“

“No, Inspector Menzies; I am not accusing my cousin of murder. Garcia was entirely the type to appreciate Violet’s expensive taste in gin, and of course Sandra knew that. She took along two bottles from the pantry here; one which actually contained gin, and another which she emptied and refilled from the large container of nitric acid in the studio.”

“Sandra-“

“Oh, do stop interrupting, please. Sandra knew that Garcia was set up in the caravan in Glasgow, and she went to see him. Persuaded him to have a drink or six with her, and once he was practically insensible she took out the acid and poured it down his throat. She was the only one with opportunity, not to mention motive. Didn’t you notice the cuts on her hand? She held his head back by the hair, and he struggled.”

Menzies stared open-mouthed at Sherlock, who looked back at him challengingly.

“We... we only found one gin bottle.” Menzies said weakly, after a few moments.

“The other one got smashed, there were fragments of glass among the detritus on the floor. And also a distinct smell of gin, but I’m not surprised you didn’t spot it along with the accompanying stench in there.”

“Ah.” Menzies said in a small voice. “I see.”

“I suppose you’re going to ask about motive,” Sherlock continued blithely. He seemed in a tremendously good mood, John noted wryly. He hoped that it wasn’t just because Sherlock was enjoying lording it over the Inspector.

“Oh, er. Yes, but I think I know why, now. You see, we found these-“

“The pornography, yes.” Sherlock nodded impatiently.

“Well, yes, I suppose you’d call them that.” Menzies said slowly. Sherlock frowned at him.

“’Them’?” John asked. “You mean, more DVDs?”

“DVDs? No.” Menzies said, puzzled. “No, I meant the paintings.”

“Paintings? What paintings?” Sherlock snapped.

“We saw canvases through the window of the office, remember?” John reminded him.

“What did they have to do with anything?” Sherlock asked sharply, and a little defensively.

“Er. Well, look.” Menzies had taken out his phone and he fiddled with it for a moment or two. He held it out to Sherlock, who grabbed it off him.

Sherlock inhaled deeply, looking at whatever image was on the screen. John leaned closer to take a look and gasped slightly.

It was a painting, incredibly detailed; photo-realistic in fact. At first, John thought that the image had to be a still from the DVD Sherlock had taken from the caravan; but on reluctant closer inspection he could tell that it was a painting. John was no prude, and he had certainly seen plenty of pornography in his time. But this was far beyond anything he had seen in his trawling of mainstream sites, or even the bizarre things that occasionally showed up in the advertising sidebars.

The painting was of Sandra, naked save for a pair of very high heels and several items which John supposed must have been toys (although he couldn’t imagine anyone enjoying that being done to them). The expression on her pretty face was disturbing, pained and animalistic. Sherlock swiped through several more photographs of paintings, each more ugly than the last. Some featured other figures, but Sandra was always the central figure; only her face was clearly identifiable. In each picture, she seemed both suffering and angry, and utterly humiliated.

John felt himself wincing in sympathy, and reminded himself that they were only paintings. After the third photograph, he had to look away. For all he knew, they came straight out of Garcia’s twisted imagination. A look at Sherlock’s grim expression proved otherwise, however.

Sherlock shook his head slowly. “I rather think that these have been painted from video footage or photographs. You can tell from the very precise shadow lines, and the lighting – the faint blue tinge to the colours along the left edge. I suspect Sandra might have been resigned to the existence of a few DVDs, which were unlikely to be widely circulated. But if Garcia was planning on exhibiting these, there would no doubt be a large amount of attention, probably media and newspaper coverage. Public shock. Coupled with Garcia’s other offences, this was undoubtedly the final straw.”

Menzies nodded gloomily, and took his phone back from Sherlock’s unresisting fingers. “Indeed. And we’re still no closer to finding out who planted the knife. It certainly looks like Garcia couldn’t have done it now.”

“No, he couldn’t.” Sherlock agreed. The wind had gone from his sails, and John could tell that he was angry with himself for not investigating the office as well as the caravan. John had been far too glad to leave the whole place behind for the idea to have occurred to him.

“That Patrick Singh, fellow. What do you make of him?” Menzies asked, after a pause.

Sherlock raised a curious eyebrow. “I don’t think he’s responsible for Sandra’s death.”

“Sure about that? There’s something about him...” Menzies tailed off uncertainly.

Sherlock didn’t respond, merely continued to stare at the Inspector wordlessly. Menzies looked a little flustered and got to his feet suddenly.

“Well, er. I think I’ll be heading off, now that we’re all up to speed. Do let me know if you have any more, er, breakthroughs. Yes. Well. Give my regards to Miss Vernet, won’t you? Mm.”

He picked up his hat from the end of the kitchen table and swiftly made his exit.

“What was all that about?” John asked, curious. He didn’t much like Singh, admittedly, but he certainly wasn’t top of John’s list of suspects.

“Oh, dull. Menzies is grasping at straws. I rather think he’d just like to find that the only member of the household who isn’t white is guilty.” Sherlock said, reaching for the pastry on John’s plate. There were still two on the platter, but evidently the one on John’s plate was the most appealing to him.

“Charming.” John said, with a sigh. “I know I usually give you a hard time for assuming the police are idiots. You really do seem to have a point in this case, though.”

“Of course I do!” Sherlock said, indignantly. “I always do. Anyway, I don’t think that Patrick is directly involved, but he’s certainly up to something.”

“I wonder what it was that he did that unsettled Violet?” John asked, reaching for his coffee. After looking at Freddie Garcia’s paintings, he didn’t particularly feel like eating anything. “I can’t imagine she would be fazed by much. I also thought he was gay.”

“Mm. Evidently not gay on a full-time basis. But I’m going to find out what it is he’s so keen on hiding. We’ll follow him tonight if he goes out.”

“And the murder investigation?” John reminded him, trying not to stare at the way Sherlock was licking blackberry jam from his fingers. Sherlock caught his gaze and smiled slowly at him, with intent but also a little shyly. John flushed and looked away.

“We need to talk to Hilary Jessop again. I suspect she hasn't been entirely forthcoming with all of the information she possesses.”

Chapter Text

Hilary Jessop was with the other students in the conservatory when they found her. Violet had evidently persuaded the (fully clothed) gardener, Mr. McCreedy to sit for the students and the gnarled old man lounged in a wicker chair in the midst of the easels. McCreedy didn’t seem all that uncomfortable with the situation, and seemed happy enough to be sitting quietly in the warm conservatory rather than toiling outside in the chilly garden. A pair of hedge-clippers rested at his feet, and he was still wearing a pair of wellington boots, so John suspected that Violet must have caught him off guard when she asked him to join them.

He supposed that classes couldn’t stay cancelled indefinitely, even if their usual model was no longer with them. Sandra had died six days previously; and it was probably better to keep the students occupied rather than letting them stew and bicker amongst themselves. Sherlock padded quietly behind each member of the group, inspecting each sketch wordlessly. George Marmaduke looked up in annoyance and glared at Sherlock, who totally ignored him. John caught sight of the sketch on Georges’ easel, which consisted of hard, very dense charcoal lines and many sharp angles. His rendering of Mr McCreedy’s legs seemed a bit mismatched to John, although he supposed that might have been Marmaduke’s style. Marmaduke caught sight of John and his lip twisted in disdain.

“Miss Vernet, one really cannot concentrate on the pose with people hanging over one’s shoulder.” he said loudly. Violet looked up from her own sketch and frowned.

“I see. Sorry, you two. If you’re not after anything in particular, would you mind buzzing off for a while?” she ordered briskly, but sparing a wink for Sherlock. She was evidently in her work attire, wearing a slightly stained white mens shirt over a pair of paint-splattered blue jeans. Her hair was coiled in a large knot at the back of her head, and she wore some tattered espadrilles on her elegant feet. The effect was very different to her usual polished chic, but John rather liked how she looked in work mode. She grinned and blew him an extravagant kiss.

“Apologies, Violet.” Sherlock said breezily. “I was rather hoping to speak with Miss Jessop; but it can wait until you’re finished.”

Hilary looked up, as if surprised to find the two men there. She smiled at them both; her eyes lingered coquettishly on John to his mild astonishment. “Goodness! I would be... delighted. To speak to you. Violet, do you mind?”

“Oh, by all means go if you like.” Violet said coolly, without looking up from her own easel. “We’ll be here for another hour, then working on some perspective studies in the drawing room later.”

“Any good leads so far, Mr. Holmes?” Basil asked, obviously a little anxious at Hilary’s imminent departure. He watched her distractedly as Hilary dusted off her hands and wiped them down the sides of her painting smock. This action caused the garment to mould rather closely to Hilary’s chest. Basil dropped his pencil.

“Well, I suppose there’s no point in keeping it from you. Freddie Garcia is dead. He did not plant the knife in the study, as he was occupied with being deceased at the time. Must be off.” Sherlock said briskly, and lead the way out of the conservatory, choosing to ignore the uproar that he left in his wake.

John thought he saw Violet hitting her head slowly and repeatedly against the edge of her easel as they left. He took a quick glance at Hilary as she followed them down the corridor; her beautiful face was carefully blank.

Sherlock flung himself into Violet’s desk chair in the study and studied the young woman as she sat down gently on the chaise. This time, John did not make an effort to move his chair closer to Hilary; he had become considerably more wary of her since their interview of the day before. She folded her hands demurely in her lap and looked at them both expectantly. She didn’t seem inclined to say anything about the demise of Freddie, which seemed rather odd to John.

“Would you like to know where we found Mr. Garcia’s remains, Miss Jessop?” Sherlock asked. He was lounging back in his chair, with his arms folded. He was watching her in a thoughtful kind of way, tapping one long index finger against his upper arm.

“If... you would like to tell me. It’s a terrible shame. No matter where he was.” Hilary said quietly and sadly.

“We found him on the London Road, in Glasgow. In a disused caravan dealership. Odd, isn’t it?”

Hilary raised a pale eyebrow in slight confusion. “Odd? Well. Certainly, I suppose.”

“You told us that Garcia was heading for London, and yet he turns up dead on the London Road in Glasgow. Quite an error, really.” Sherlock said blandly.

Hilary’s lower lip trembled. “Oh goodness. I am so.... terribly... sorry, Mr. Holmes. Doctor Watson. I suppose I mustn’t have... been paying a lot of attention. You see, I’d never meant. To go and visit him. I just said that I might. To be polite.”

“Freddie Garcia doesn’t seem to have been the type of fellow who worried much about politeness.” Sherlock said, with a calculating stare. To her credit, Hilary didn’t so much as flinch.

“One should always... try, though. Surely?” Hilary said, gently.

“Do you know, Miss Jessop, you have a particularly lovely accent. Really quite remarkable RP. Most people would never guess that you were a Glaswegian by birth.” Sherlock said kindly. “Not that there’s anything wrong with the Glaswegian accent, of course. Full of, er, colloquial charm.”

Hilary was very still. She stared hard at Sherlock, and John noticed that her lower lip had stopped trembling instantly. Her hands were still neatly folded on her lap, but the delicate knuckles were almost white with tension.

“It’s the letter ‘R’ that gives you away, I’m afraid. You roll your R’s just a fraction too much. Did Basil ask you to spruce your accent up a bit before meeting his parents? They’re rather grand, aren’t they. Lord Elgin, hm? Mad as a box of frogs, according to Violet, but terribly grand.” Sherlock smiled, giving the impression that they could be chatting as old friends over coffee. “No? Ah, I see. The RP was adopted before you met old Basil, wasn’t it. I doubt he even knows what you sounded like before, does he? Has he met your parents at all?”

Hilary continued to stare at Sherlock, her eyes like ice. When she spoke it was in her usual refined low tones, but with an edge of real bitterness. “Is there a point to all this? Or do you merely wish to... to humiliate me, Mr. Holmes? I wasn’t aware that.... social mobility. Is a criminal act.”

John stared down at his notebook, feeling uneasy.

“No, of course it isn’t, Miss Jessop. Perverting the course of justice, however...” Sherlock trailed off meaningfully.

“Are you going to say anything to Basil?” she asked sharply.

“Not if you tell us the whole story about Mr. Garcia.” Sherlock said simply, his face expectant.

Hilary didn’t say anything for a few moments, apparently thinking hard. The expression on her face was notably different from her usual soft, slightly dreamy one.

“It’s true that Sandra walked in on me and Freddie in the studio annexe. Freddie and I had been... involved. Previously. He knew about my... knew about where I’m from. He seemed to find it funny. That I was going to marry Basil. But he started asking me for favours. Money. I knew that he would tell Basil if I didn’t... comply. He had some... pictures. Of me. I gave him the keys to the caravan dealership after Violet... told him to leave. It belonged to my uncle Jimmy; he died last year. It was on the understanding. That he’d never tell Basil about me. I told him where it was. I wrote down the address; but Sandra saw me giving it to him and... grabbed it from me. She... must have figured it out. That Freddie and I had been... together. She was very angry with both of us. I was hardly the one to blame, though.” Hilary said, coldly. “Freddie Garcia was not the type to be monogamous. Even to me.”

“Why did you tell Violet that Garcia went to London?” John asked curiously.

“Well, I was hardly going to let people know that he had gone to a place owned by my family. Freddie is...was a Londoner. He would have gone back there eventually.”

“Your name isn’t even Hilary, is it?” Sherlock said thoughtfully.”I rather suspect it’s Jessie. Jessie Barnisdael.”

“It’s not a crime to change one’s name.” Hilary said coldly.

“I mention it only because it demonstrates your rather lazy word association. You said that Garcia was going to London, rather than the London Road. Your adopted surname is just a facile adaption of your real first name.”

Hilary shrugged, looking mutinous. “It’s perfectly legal. Basil thinks that... I’m an orphan. My parents don’t know. That I’ve changed my name and they can go to hell for all I care. I haven’t seen them since my uncle’s funeral; he left the caravan dealership to me. I haven’t had the opportunity to sell it, not without Basil finding out. His father is completely mental. Very snobbish and very religious. I was born Catholic, and he would never allow Basil to marry... anyone who wasn’t brought up as some kind of Protestant. And certainly not someone whose father is a market trader. I met Basil at a party in St. Andrews, and told him that I’d fallen on... hard times since my parents died; which explained. Why I was working in a shop. I told him it was a painful subject that I didn’t want to discuss.” She smiled grimly, but with more than a trace of pride. “I think Basil was quite taken with the... idea of my tragic past. Quite the shining knight. He proposed after only a month. He set me up in a flat; paid my bills; made me an allowance. I am going to be his wife,” she added with more than a trace of a threat in her voice. “Look, none of this is of any relevance. I didn’t put the knife in the studio; Sandra was a silly little idiot but I had no reason to kill her. Or Freddie. May I go now, or would you like to harangue me some more?”

“Certainly.”

Hilary rose to her feet, glaring at Sherlock. The expression hardened her features, and she looked like almost an entirely different person. John stared at her, perplexed and more than a little uncomfortable. Sherlock was regarding her coolly, his gaze hard and unflinching. Hilary turned to go; her spine ramrod straight.

“One more thing, Miss Jessop” Sherlock drawled. Hilary paused, but did not turn around.

“Yes?” she bit out.

“Miss Lee. I realise that she is a rather trying character; but if I hear that you have been anything less than utterly charming to her for the remainder of your acquaintance, I will not only tell Basil everything about your less than salubrious origins I will take out a full page advertisement in the Sunday papers and tell the world .”

Hilary turned around, her fists balled tightly. Her face had flushed a dull red and she looked positively murderous. “Anything else?” she asked, after a long pause in which she was obviously struggling for control.

“Not a thing. Off you pop.” Sherlock grinned widely, showing his teeth. Hilary slammed the door behind herself hard, causing the nearest paintings on the wall to rattle dangerously.

“Blimey.” John said, with a grimace. “That was intense.”

“I suppose you think I was too hard on the wretched girl.” Sherlock said, turning to face him. Once Hilary had gone, the ghastly fake grin had (fortunately) disappeared instantly. He looked bored, but John thought he could see a hint of underlying uneasiness.

“Um. No, not really.” John sighed, and put down his notebook. “I mean, I can see that she’s actually a pretty nasty piece of work now.” Sherlock brightened up considerably at this. “But I’m not sure threatening her was entirely necessary. I mean, she’s no different from many people, just wanting to get up the social ladder. I don’t think you quite understand what it can be like, if you’re surrounded by people much posher than you are.”

“John, for heavens sake, my family are not that ‘posh’. And I really wish you’d stop using that word, it’s incredibly vulgar.” Sherlock snapped, frustrated.

John had to laugh, albeit a little weakly.

“Alright. You may not have titles or have tea with the royal family on a regular basis, but you’re a lot...er... grander than Hilary. Or me, for that matter.” he added, watching Sherlock’s forehead crease alarmingly. “Look. I’ve never attempted to pretend to be anything more than thoroughly lower middle class. But I can understand how Hilary might have been tempted to pass herself off as being something a bit loftier than she really is. It really shouldn’t matter in this day and age, I know. But it does, a bit. No matter how pretty she is, she wouldn’t be marriage material for someone like Basil if she was honest.”

“Well that makes him an idiot too!”

“Of course it does. He is. But that’s real life, Sherlock. He’ll want to keep his dad happy. I mean, in an ideal world nobody would care. Or rather, in an ideal world Hilary would want to be a success by doing something useful or interesting with her life rather than just marrying someone rich. But it’s really not our concern, apart from the fact that she lied; is it?”

Sherlock leaned forward in his chair and touched John’s knee gingerly, as if slightly worried that he would be shaken off. “John. You do know that I would never want you to be... anything other than you are. Don’t you?”

John smiled at Sherlock and covered his hand with his own. Sherlock seemed to relax a little and his face uncreased a bit. “Of course I do, you nit. And bloody well done for arranging for her to lay off poor Phyllis.”

“I knew you’d like that. Incredibly sentimental.” Sherlock sniffed, as if he wasn’t the one squeezing John’s knee affectionately.

“Incredibly sentimental. I hope it doesn’t make you break out in hives or something.” John said seriously. “Look. Just promise me that you won’t go telling the world about her past unless it’s justified. It’s not our story to tell, alright?”

“I’m quite sure that Violet already knows.” said Sherlock. “If anyone could spot a human reinvention, she could.”

“Alright, but nobody else. Agreed?”

Sherlock nodded a little impatiently. “For heaven’s sake, John. Do you think I’m some kind of gossip?”

“Well, I have heard all those rumours about how you and Molly meet up every Monday night to drink Chardonnay and read all the celebrity magazines.” John said, taking great delight in watching Sherlock’s face grow increasingly indignant.

Sherlock sat back in his seat, directing a look of withering scorn at John. “You remember how I said that I like you just as you are, John? I am rapidly reassessing my previous statement. You have an imagination that is both absurdly fantastical and deeply horrifying. And you still have revolting taste in jumpers.”

“I’m not even wearing a jumper today!”

“The point is still valid. Anyway, now that we are finished preserving the reputations of hard-bitten shrewish social climbers may we get on with the day? I want to talk to Basil again next. He seemed altogether too worried at the prospect of us talking to Hilary.”

***

Basil sat in his chair, giving the impression of a man who desperately wanted to seem casual. He leant back, with one ankle slung across the opposite knee. He directed a charming, if slightly shaky smile at John and Sherlock and grasped the arm of his chair tightly. John was bemused and more than a little perplexed at Basil’s desperate attempt to appear relaxed. His upper lip was lightly beaded with sweat, and his hairline was glistening slightly. The sun streamed through the open study curtains and made his genial face appear bleached and pale.

“So... er... what did you chaps want to talk to me about?” he asked after a moment of squirming under Sherlock’s glacial stare. “I’m not sure Violet will be too pleased if I miss too much of the class, you know. We’ve missed so much over the last few days.”

“Indeed. You must have done.” Sherlock said calmly. He seemed content to merely sit and survey Basil, who appeared to be on the edge of wriggling. John stared at the unfortunate Montague with fascination. The man was so obviously and deeply uncomfortable that it was almost painful to watch him. As an experiment, John watched him thoughtfully for a few seconds longer then pretended to write a line or two in his notebook. This had the effect of introducing a trace of real panic into Basil’s eyes, and John felt a little mean-spirited. Sherlock threw a brief amused glance at him before clearing his throat.

“Look, Mr. Montague. I think it will be much simpler if you just tell us in your own words. I could just drag it all out of you but it will be awkward for you and frankly tremendously dull for me.” Sherlock said laconically. John nodded seriously, his pen poised over the pad.

Basil swallowed convulsively. “I. Er. That is to say, I’m not entirely sure what you’re alluding to, Mr. Holmes.” he tried, valiantly.

Sherlock slowly raised his left eyebrow in marked disapproval. John fought the urge to giggle. It took all of five seconds before Basil cracked.

“Oh, god.” Basil moaned, his carefully constructed mask collapsing all at once. He uncrossed his legs and wiped the sweat from his lip fitfully. When he placed his shaking hands on his knees they left visible damp patches on the fabric. “Look. I know it looks bad, but I swear to you Mr. Holmes... I didn’t do it, I swear.”

“Mhmm.” Sherlock intoned, looking deeply unimpressed.

“It was just once, you see! We had a bit of a supper party after attending a show at the Academy a while back. We all had rather too much Champagne, and..well... it was a late night. We had a ping-pong tournament in the common room and it kept going very late. Hilary and Freddie came last, and they both went to bed. George and Phyllis went soon after, and Patrick as well. Sandra and I stayed up late; she was frightfully good you see but I won the house tournament at my school three years.” he smiled at them nervously and rubbed his hands on his knees. “And... well... you know...”

“Do continue, Mr. Montague.” Sherlock said sternly.

“Um. Well, we ended up er...”

“Having sexual relations.”

“Um. Quite. Yes. It was just the one time, of course! I’m utterly devoted to Hilary. It was a terrible mistake and I told Sandra as much the next morning. She was a little put out, but I didn’t want to lead her on. I asked her not to tell Hilary. Well, you see, Hilary... well, I just couldn’t risk losing her. She’s a remarkable girl, anyone can see that.”

“And did she keep her word?” John asked, curiously.

“Oh! Er. Yes. Yes, she did.” Basil said, after a fraught little pause.

Sherlock sighed heavily. “And how long was it before she asked you for money to insure she kept her word, Mr. Montague?”

Basil turned crimson and seemed to sag a little further into his seat. His handsome, good-natured face crumpled a little. “About a fortnight.”

“And how much did she ask you for?”

“Ten thousand pounds. In cash, no less.” Basil laughed a little humourlessly. “I don’t know where she got the idea that I could simply walk into the bank and take out ten thousand pounds in cash. That I could just take out that kind of money and not have the manager telephone my father within minutes. All my money is in a trust, you see – any major withdrawals need to be approved by my Pa. She was... rather put out. I gave her a grand, it was all I could manage. She wasn’t terribly pleased, but it was the best I could do.”

John studied Basils sweaty, good natured and not terribly bright face and felt rather sorry for the young man. He was obviously terrified at the idea of losing Hilary; to the point he seemed at danger of having an anxiety attack.

“Basil, as far as we are aware, Hilary doesn’t know about this. We’re not planning on telling her. Just take a few deeps breaths. Get yourself together, and continue.” John said kindly. Basil looked almost comically grateful at this; his eyes swam briefly with unshed tears.

“You see, it wasn’t ever enough. She kept on asking for more money; she kept on dropping hints at dinner. She said that she would write to my father and tell him. I think George guessed, although I never breathed a word. She never liked Hilary much, I’m afraid. Hilary says that it’s been a curse her whole life, the jealousy of other women. Poor thing. I think Sandra quite liked having that power, something that would break dear Hilary’s heart. But she obviously didn’t tell her, I’m sure of that. Hilary is so wonderfully open, she wouldn’t have known and kept it to herself. I really don’t deserve her.” his voice grew hoarse.

Sherlock coughed loudly and pointedly.

“I gave her around three thousand pounds in total; I really couldn’t spare any more as I had to pay for the engagement ring. I don’t know what she did with the money; I rather think she must have given at least some of it to Freddie – he hadn’t a bean, poor old chap. But you must believe me,” he said suddenly and beseechingly. “I really, honestly, had absolutely nothing to do with the knife. I swear I didn’t. I’d never do that to Sandra, never. I mean, how could I? It would be unthinkable.”

“And yet somebody managed to think of it, and did it.” Sherlock said thoughtfully. Basil squirmed and remained silent.

“Is there anything else you want to tell us, Basil?” John asked gently.

Montague looked almost nauseous, and he shook his head slowly after a moment or two. “Can I go?”

Sherlock dismissed him with a wave and watched him leave the room with considerable interest.

“Lying?” John asked, curiously.

“Mm. Perhaps not telling the entire truth.”

Chapter Text

John returned to the study with tea, only to find that Sherlock had taken up residence on the chaise-longue and was staring meditatively at the ceiling. John set the tray down gently on Violet’s desk and surveyed his friend cautiously. He had become something of an expert in determining the nature of Sherlock’s retreats into his own mind: these involved such states as Sulking no.1; Sulking no. 2 (epic); Depressed; Plotting and Scheming; Concealing Intake of Illicit Substances; Contemplation (no.1 through 5); Bored (no.1 through 4).

This appeared to be a Contemplation no. 3, based on the fact that Sherlock’s eyes were half open and he was still fully dressed but had kicked off his shoes. John placed a cup of tea on the nearby table and looked down at Sherlock’s face, which was remote. In the harsh light coming through the tall windows next to the chaise, the angular face was bleached to the colour of bone. The pupils of his eyes had contracted, and the dark flecks in his pale irises were prominent. He was altogether a strange looking chap, John thought absently and fondly.

When he had first met Sherlock, he had kept looking and looking at that face; surely he was merely imagining how unusual it was. He felt compelled to stare, to check each expression; surely the man must look ordinary in some lights or from some angle. But each time he studied the austere features, each time he was fixed by a stare from those icy eyes, he was proved wrong. Of course it was a familiar face now; but he had never grown tired of looking at it.

John reached out slowly and found himself running his fingers through Sherlock’s hair, to the right of his temple. This provoked no response, and he hadn’t expected one. Only determined efforts would rouse Sherlock at this point, and he had merely felt some odd need to touch the man. Perhaps to prove to himself that it was allowed. That Sherlock was, in some way, now his.

He glanced through the window, into the garden full of towering dark trees and shrubs. Despite the bright chilly autumn sunlight, it still seemed gloomy among the dense shapes, and it took him a moment to pick out the shape of Phyllis Lee wandering between two massive obelisks.

Something in her body language struck John as rather lost, and she seemed tiny as she ambled between the dark shadows. Impulsively, he let himself out through the French windows of the study and moved towards her across the garden. It was colder in the garden than he had expected, and he walked briskly over the grass in an attempt to keep warm.

Phyllis had her back to him and jumped sharply when he called a greeting to her when he was less than twenty feet away.

“Oh! Goodness, Doctor Watson. Hello!” she made a brave attempt at a smile, although it was obvious that she had been recently crying. She was bundled in an unflattering mauve coat and a thick black scarf and she was fiddling in a faintly agitated way with a mobile phone.

“Hello! I, er, saw you out of the study window and thought I’d come and say hello. Sherlock is doing a spot of serious thinking and I won’t be able to get a word out of him for hours, most likely. How are you holding up?” he asked, a little awkwardly.

Phyllis flapped an arm in a doomed attempt at nonchalance. “Oh... well. Um. Quite well. Reasonably. Yes. Well. Mm.” her eyes swiftly filled with tears and she looked upset and annoyed with herself. “Oh, drat it. Whenever someone is nice to me when I’m upset, I can’t help it. I do hate crying but sometimes it’s so very hard to stop.”

She patted her coat pockets for a tissue and settled for wiping her eyes with her scarf.

“That’s alright. Here, have this.” John unearthed a thankfully clean handkerchief from his pocket, realising after he had given it to her that it was one of Sherlock’s.

Phyllis blew her nose and sniffed loudly.

“Thank you so much. Kind of you.” Phyllis attempted another smile. She seemed to ponder handing the handkerchief back to John. She obviously thought better of it though, to his silent relief. “Oh, this is one of Mr. Holmses’ hankies, isn’t it? It’s got his initials on it and everything.”

“I never could see the point of old-fashioned hankies myself, really.” John said, trying to get onto a safe area of conversation before he managed to upset her again. "But Sherlock always seems to have a limitless supply of clean freshly ironed ones. He bullies our landlady into washing and starching them, the big git.”

Phyllis managed a slightly more cheerful smile at that. “Oh, you two do live together, then?”

“Oh.” John paused. “Well, yes. I moved back in with him about a year ago. Um. My wife and I went our separate ways, George was right about that.”

“You’re jolly lucky to have each other,” Phyllis said, staring down at the handkerchief she was twisting between her fingers. “It must have been dreadful for you when your marriage ended, of course. But I can tell that Mr. Holmes thinks the world of you. It’s the small things, isn’t it? Small kindnesses, like making sure someone has a clean handkerchief.”

“Yes... yes, I suppose it is.” John agreed quietly, after a moment’s recollection of Sherlock sitting quietly next to him on his bedroom floor and helping him breathe. Sherlock handing him his scarf to drown out the smell of horror.

“I loved Sandra, you know.” Phyllis said, after a moment’s uncomfortable silence. “I really did. And I knew it would never come to anything. I did know that. She didn’t like girls that way. And she wasn’t even nice to me all that often. But there was just something about her that made everyone else.... just fade away. When she came into the room.”

John nodded in what he hoped was a sympathetic way. He didn’t know if she saw, though, as she seemed unable to look up at him just yet.

“Every time I resolved to put it behind me, to just... stop.... she would do something. And it might not be anything more than smiling at me, or sitting on the arm of my chair when there was another seat free. And I’d just fall again, you see. I’d never met anyone like her before. There was just something different about her. She was a bit wild, and sort of...brave. In a way. But I hated seeing her with Garcia. I mean-“ she finally raised her eyes to meet John’s, with a kind of damp defiance. “He... he wasn’t a very nice man really. He wasn’t nearly nice enough to her. He made her...do things. Awful things, really, Doctor Watson.” Her face crumpled a little.

John felt a lump forming in his throat and swallowed hard. He found himself putting his arm around Phyllis and guided her to a seat on a low stone bench. It was even colder sitting there, the bench overshadowed by a huge shrub shaped like an outstretched hand. Phyllis gave a quiet sob, then took a deep breath.

“He made her make these... films. Last summer. He told her they were, um, artistic. She didn’t realise what it was going to involve until the day they started filming. Sandra... well. Freddie told her that it was a way of proving to him how much she really loved him. And, oh god....” Phyllis trailed off. “I didn’t know, you see. She didn’t give me any details, when she told me. And I... Oh, Doctor Watson. I really do hate myself sometimes. I’m so ashamed.”

John sat very still, hardly daring to breathe.

Phyllis bent over and clasped her hands tightly. “I found the films. I ordered copies of them. I loved her and I wanted her so badly. I knew I’d never get anywhere with her, so I thought that... maybe... they might be some consolation. But when I saw them...”

“They weren’t what you were expecting, were they?” John asked quietly. “They were terrible things to see. Especially, I suppose, when it was someone you loved.”

Phyllis nodded jerkily. “I can’t... I can’t unsee them. I feel like my memories of her have been ruined now. And the terrible thing is, I can’t even bring myself to delete the films now that she’s gone. I don’t even have a photograph of her. I can’t watch them, and I can’t delete them. I’m so ashamed of having them, but I feel like it’s another part of her that’s not entirely gone from the world.”

“I don’t think Sandra would like to be remembered like that, Phyllis.” John said quietly, after a pause.

He remembered compulsively visiting that stretch of pavement outside Barts for weeks after Sherlock had fallen. He looked at the broken paving stone, imagined that there were still traces of blood in the cracks. He had felt nauseous and beyond wretched, plagued with recriminations, with wild ideas of what he could have done to change what had happened that day. He had had to stop himself going back there eventually; it had been the only way he could continue to function in any way. Even now, safe in the knowledge that it had all been false, he still felt sick at the thought.

“What will you do, when you and the others are given the all-clear to leave?” he asked, when it seemed that Phyllis wasn’t going to say anything more.

“I... I don’t know, really. I was talking to my mum earlier. She. Um. She said that she didn’t think that studying art was a good idea anymore, not when things like this happen.” Phyllis shook her head with an air of faint annoyance. “Mum’s a bit old-fashioned. She wants me to go home. And part of me really wants to. I do. But...”

“They don’t know, do they?”

Phyllis shook her head. “No. And I can’t tell them. I know that people always say that their families ‘knew all along’, that it was no great surprise. But I know very well that if my family suspected, they’d disown me. It’s an awful thing, Doctor Watson. To know, deep down and for sure, that the people who you love that much would push you away. It’s not the money; it’s knowing that I’d have nowhere to go at Christmas. Not getting a birthday card from my gran anymore.”

“You don’t think they might come round?” John asked quietly. “My sister came out to my parents when she was fifteen. My mum hit the roof, but she was alright about it after a few months. She was livid when my sister broke up with her wife a few years ago.”

Phyllis sighed and said: “No.” very quietly.

“I’m so sorry.” John said, and after a moment hugged her clumsily. Phyllis looked startled but gratified, her face turning pink.

“You’re so nice, to listen to me.” she said, a little shakily.

“Maybe you could go and study somewhere else for a while? Travel, or something? It’s a big world out there.”

“Perhaps.” Phyllis said, dubiously. “Oh look, here’s Katy!”

It was indeed Katy Boorman, striding purposely and loudly towards them along the gravel path. She was as elegant as ever, wearing an expensive looking cream trench coat over a plain black dress and a polka-dotted scarf. Her long roman nose was pink with the cold.

“Phyll, there you are! I’ve been looking all over for you. Violet wants to start the perspective work a bit sooner. She wants to do a bit of her own painting before dinner, you see.”

“Oh! Gosh. Alright, then.” Phyllis said, seeming to brighten slightly and scrambling to her feet. “I do hope I haven’t been keeping everyone waiting.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Katy said briskly, taking Phyllis’ arm as they walked away from John. “They can jolly well wait.”

***

Sherlock didn’t move for several hours, and John contented himself with reading on the kitchen sofa. Violet popped in at one point and directed him towards the kettle and the biscuit tin, before she headed off to paint in the conservatory. She was still wearing her shabby painting clothes, and she moved like a whirlwind through the room.

“I simply cannot stop, you dear old heap. I woke up this morning and I just felt like I could do some work again. Must strike while the iron is hot. Feed Benjy, won’t you? There’s a lamb. Must dash!”

And with that, she disappeared. John couldn’t find any cat food, and gave the monstrous creature a tin of sardines he found in one of the cupboards, served on one of the brightly painted plates from the dresser. Benjy gave him a disgusted sort of look but deigned to eat the fish, dragging the plate across the tiles loudly as he licked it clean.

The light was fading from the room when Sherlock found John dozing gently underneath a copy of the Scotsman newspaper. Somehow Benjy had managed to insinuate his way onto the sofa and had fallen asleep across John’s knees. Sherlock was leaning against the kitchen table and was thoughtfully eating macaroons out of the biscuit tin when John woke up. The kitchen was full of shadows, lit only by the flames in the large ancient fireplace.

“Mmph! Hello.” John said, pushing both newspaper and cat from his body and sitting up and cracking his joints loudly. “Back with us then, I see.”

“No, I’m still thinking. I just needed some biscuits.” Sherlock said seriously. “Biscuits gradually became indispensable. You didn’t bring me a sandwich at lunchtime,” he added accusingly and crunched through what must have been at least his sixth macaroon.

“You didn’t ask me for a sandwich.” John said reasonably, getting up and helping himself to a biscuit. “Or if you did, I wasn’t in the room at the time. What time is it, anyway? Must be nearly dinnertime.”

“Not quite, you’re forgetting how early the sun goes down when you’re this far north. It’s only half four. I thought you’d want to see these, though.” he gestured at a large envelope on the table to his left.

“Ah. Autopsy reports? I asked Menzies for them this morning.”

“Yes. And do you remember how we discussed the fact that the man is a ludicrously cretinous idiot?”

“Yes...” John said, reaching for the envelope and shaking out several pages and a few photographs stapled together.

“Take a look.” Sherlock said darkly, mutinously crunching at a biscuit. John took the tin away firmly. “I simply do not know how that man even ties his shoelaces in the morning, never mind passing the exams for the police force.

“Oh, damn.” John said quietly, scanning Sandra’s autopsy. “She was pregnant.”

“Quite. Of course, I was already reasonably confident about that. Based on what Basil wasn’t telling us this morning. But look at the toxicology.”

John flicked through to the back of the initial medical observations. “Traces of cocaine; no surprises there given what we found in her room. Hang on, though...”

“Opium.” Sherlock said with a trace of relish. “Not heroin. Not morphine. Look at the breakdown of the compounds. Good old-fashioned opium, John. Not something you see every day, hmm?”

“Good god.” John said, genuinely surprised. He flicked to the relevant page of Garcia’s report and saw the same entry on his report, along with a considerable amount of alcohol. “Do people still use opium then?”

“Not many.” Sherlock said, clearly pleased at this unexpected development. “Not many at all.” He was frequently pleased when people did something unusual, John thought to himself with a certain level of bemusement.

Something seemed to catch Sherlock’s eye towards the window, and he frowned a little “Hang on, what’s that plate doing on the floor?”

He stooped and picked the irregular, folksy-looking plate up from where Benjy had abandoned it on the tiles. He turned it over in his hands, studying it with interest.

“Oh, Violet popped in earlier and asked me to feed the cat.” John said, vaguely. He turned back to the reports and started looking for Garcia’s bloodwork.

“Oh.” Sherlock said quietly, after a pause. There was a slight edge of amusement to his voice that made John look up.

“What?”

“Well. Um. I certainly wouldn’t care, but I just hope that it was chipped already.” Sherlock said, clearly trying to suppress a grin.

“Crap, it isn’t a posh one, is it?” John asked worriedly.

“Not...posh, exactly.” said Sherlock with a dangerous little smile. “Don’t worry about it though. I’m sure Vi will understand, honestly. I only recognised it because it used to belong to my grandparents. I mean, what is the pattern meant to be? Some kind of wonky goat? Not many people would realise that it was painted by Picasso. John....? John!”

Chapter Text

John was more than a little relieved to hear that Violet was cancelling dinner with the students in favour of continuing with her painting in the conservatory. While he was fairly confident that she wouldn’t be unreasonably angry about the plate; he still didn’t relish the idea of having to tell her about it just yet.

She had been in the conservatory for several hours, and nobody seemed all that keen on disturbing her. It was now well after dark, and the only noise coming from behind the glass panelled doors was of very loud orchestral music.

The students seemed a little put-out by the fact that Margaret Gothford prepared and served dinner; although he got the distinct impression that this was mainly because of the standard of food served, which was considerably lower than usual. He sat next to Sherlock, sadly watching the dour housekeeper ladling out watery stew. Margaret worked her way silently around the group, seeming to express her disapproval of all the diners with every movement. She gave a particularly miserly portion of the stew to George, although John suspected he didn’t mind all that much.

When the baize door to the kitchen swung closed behind her, Katy sighed a little and reached for the salt. “Sorry, everyone. I’m sure Violet will make up for this tomorrow. She’s better left to her painting just now; I’m sure you all understand.”

George lifted a spoonful of greyish stew with an air of profound distaste and let it trickle back down onto his plate, where it splattered messily onto the starched antique linen tablecloth. “I think we can all agree that dear Violet is much more valuable to us in the kitchen than in the studio.” he drawled, darting a malicious glance at Sherlock and John.

“Yes indeed, George.” John agreed cheerfully, greatly amused by the perplexed look that oozed across Marmaduke’s thin face. “It would be much easier for her to poison you from there.”

Katy snorted, and took a sip of her wine. “Quite.”

George gave them both a filthy look and refilled his glass again. His face was even more impressively bruised than the day before, mottled a sickly yellow and plum across the bridge of his nose. John was pleased to see that his left eye seemed to be blackening nicely too.

“Where is Hilary this evening, Basil?” asked Katy, obviously attempting to steer conversation into slightly more neutral territory. Hilary hadn’t appeared for dinner at all, and Basil looked rather glum.

“Oh, headache, I’m afraid. Poor thing. I offered to bring dinner up, but she said she’d rather just sleep it off.”

“That’s bad luck.” John said politely. “Tell her I’d be happy to have a chat if she’s not feeling well.”

Basil threw him a faintly panicky look and grimaced. “Oh! Er, yes. I forgot that you’re a medical man. Still practising these days?”

“Locum work, mainly. It’s hard to work regular hours when I’m running around with Sherlock. Holding his coat, that sort of thing.” John said blandly. George sneered. Sherlock cast a mildly inquisitive look at John.

“I’m quite sure you do much more than that,” said Phyllis firmly and with a shy smile at him. He grinned and offered her a bread roll from the basket near his elbow.

“He certainly does.” said Sherlock after a slight pause. All the other diners looked up, surprised. “John is a tremendous interpreter. He’s saved my life more times than I can count. Or at least, more than he can count, (I’m much better at mathematics than he is). Not to mention the lives of several innocent and not-so-innocent members of the public. He tends to bring out my better ideas. He’s a crack shot with a pistol. He is, admittedly, something of a sensationalist writer. But then, hardly anyone is perfect. I certainly don’t ask him to hold my coat, though. He would undoubtedly crease it beyond recognition.”

He delivered this startling little speech in a rather blasé style, without looking up from his untouched plate. George stared between John’s furiously blushing face and Sherlock’s bored one with something akin to revulsion.

Patrick seemed rather amused, before turning to Basil and striking up a quiet conversation about that mornings’ work.

Phyllis grinned at John, and offered him some more wine. She was quite transformed when she smiled like that, he thought. So often when he had seen her before, she had been achingly self-conscious, eager to please or just plain miserable. The grin she directed at him was simply warm, pleased and friendly and she looked like an altogether different person. Katy raised an eyebrow at him and he realised that he was staring at Phyllis.

He looked away hastily, and leaned in to Sherlock to murmur quietly: “I can do maths perfectly well, you know.”

“I’ve seen you count on your fingers.” said Sherlock, with what he obviously thought was a scornful air. He darted a look at John which was curious and a little fond. “I take it that you had another altercation with dear Mr. Marmaduke?”

“Mm. Last night, after I left you and Vi in the conservatory.” John replied, keeping his voice low. “He compared me to a trained monkey. Said that we were pretty rubbish if we could catch master criminals but couldn’t track down an addled artist like Garcia.”

“Addled?” Sherlock asked sharply. “That exact word?”

“Yes. Important?”

“Addled.” Sherlock repeated thoughtfully. “Interesting.”

John wanted to ask what exactly was so interesting about the wretched Marmaduke’s vocabulary, but didn’t feel safe doing so surrounded by others at the dinner table. “Do you think Patrick will be taking a stroll later, then?” he whispered.

“Undoubtedly. He’s eating much this ghastly swill much faster than everyone else, probably hopes they will do the same. He’s wearing outdoor shoes.”

John certainly hadn’t noticed Patrick Singh’s shoes, but the man was certainly putting away the stew more quickly than the rest of the diners who seemed reluctant to do much more than look at their plates. Despite the warmth from the large dining room fire place, Singh was wearing a dark red cashmere sweater over one of his elegant linen shirts, and his hair was tied back loosely at the nape of his neck. As soon as Margaret Gothford had cleared the (still rather full) plates from in front of all the diners, he made his excuses and left quietly.

Nobody seemed inclined to linger over dessert, a rather lumpy looking treacle tart and custard that Margaret dumped unceremoniously in the middle of the table.

Sherlock sprang to his feet and swept from the room without a second glance. John muttered an apology and followed on his heels, leaving a rather perplexed group in his wake.

Sherlock threw John’s jacket at him in the hall, followed by the familiar dark blue scarf. Shrugging into his own coat, Sherlock gently opened the front door and peered out. At the end of the gravel path, the wooden door into the street was closing behind Patrick Singh with a dull thump.

“Come on! It’s misty tonight, we’ll risk losing him if we don’t catch up!” Sherlock hissed, pushing John impatiently down the path. “Over the grass, he might hear us on the gravel.”

John lengthened his stride to keep up with Sherlock, ducking under the outstretched paw of a huge topiary tiger. Sherlock poked his head through the street entrance door and glanced up and down the street. The mist was steadily thickening, and it wasn’t clear to John which direction Patrick could have gone. Sherlock seemed to be in no doubt however, and set off quietly to the right. This path took them towards the city centre, passing more stately houses wreathed in greyish mist. The ornate cast-iron streetlights cast a murky yellowish glow, and only illuminated the street for perhaps a dozen yards in either direction. Sounds were strangely muffled, and Patricks’ brisk footsteps were barely audible although he was only perhaps thirty yards ahead. The night was bone-chillingly cold and John dug his hands deep into his jacket pockets, grateful for Sherlock’s scarf wrapped securely around his neck.

Sherlock’s face was deep in shadows, between the upturned wings of his coat collar. There was something a little joyful in his manner, in the slight bound of his gait as he walked shoulder to shoulder with John.

“What do you think he’s really up to?” John asked, as they hesitated behind a tall privet hedge to allow Patrick to cross the street a little way ahead.

“Quiet!” Sherlock murmured, keeping a sharp eye as Patrick crossed at the junction of two deserted streets. “I honestly don’t know, John. It’s worth finding out, though. He’s obviously tremendously keen to keep his activities secret, whatever they are. In the context of a murder investigation, it’s entirely possible that it’s connected.”

“Everyone has a bloody secret in that house.” John muttered, watching Patrick disappear down a narrow stone-walled sidestreet.

Sherlock grinned at him wickedly, his eyes gleaming. “I know. Isn’t it marvellous? Come on, after him!”

Their walk took them through the deathly quiet streets of the Grange, past the high stone walls surrounding Georgian mansions and parklands and across the wide grassy expanse of the Meadows. Patrick walked swiftly down the length of the path that crossed the park, which was lined with huge oak trees and small streetlights.

He appeared positively ghostly, swimming in and out of pools of murky light and the deep shadows of trees.

John and Sherlock walked stealthily through the wide dark grassy fields, cutting across a deserted cricket pitch. There were more people around here, although they tended to keep to the paths that cut through the Meadows in wide straight lines. John gaped as an enormous skeletal arch loomed out of the mist on their left.

“Jawbone walk.” Sherlock explained tersely, keeping his eyes fixed on Patrick. “For some reason the Victorians thought a set of whale’s jaws made for a charming architectural feature.” He flashed another brief grin at John and sped up. “Quite right, too.”

Patrick was making his way through a pedestrian laneway that snaked past an ugly modern glass building and he paused at a junction to let several cyclists go past. John realised too late that he was standing in a cycle lane, and was hissed at loudly by a couple of students.

They were now in the Old Town of the city, and the streets were well lit although still murky with mist. The pavements were bustling with commuters and tourists, and for a second or two it seemed that they had lost him. Sherlock hopped up onto a nearby set of railings and scanned the crowds, getting some strange looks from passers-by in the process.

“Over there! He’s just turning left over there!”

John craned his neck and saw the sweep of Patrick’s coat disappearing down a side street. They sped up and caught sight of him vanishing into a narrow alleyway just as they turned the corner onto a steeply pitched and curving street lined with towering grey buildings and brightly painted wooden shopfronts. Patrick had swept up a flight of steep stone steps through a narrow archway and they made haste to follow him, creeping along a wide stone terrace and ducking through another murky alleyway. Passers-by were markedly fewer here, seeming to prefer the well lit thoroughfares to the dim winding closes that surrounded the steep Royal Mile.

As they emerged from a steeply sloping dank alley, John was momentarily dazzled by the bright lights and noise coming from the many souvenir and twee gift shops that lined the streets below the castle. Loud bagpipe music was blaring from tinny loudspeakers nearby, although it seemed that closing time was near at hand for the shopkeepers who were nudging large wicker baskets of tartan blankets and rails laden with kilts into their stores.

Sherlock gripped his elbow. “There he is!”

Patrick had crossed the wide cobbled street after waiting for a bus to pass, and disappeared smartly through yet another narrow archway. Sherlock towed John across the street and slunk into the dark recesses of the close. They could hear Patrick’s footsteps echoing sharply in the confined stone space, and saw his silhouette emerge into a dimly lit courtyard at the far end. Creeping to the exit of the alley they found themselves looking into a cavernous space, lined on all sides by incredibly tall grey stone buildings with unlit windows. The place seemed deserted, and had a grim desolate air in marked contrast to the cheery bustle of the Royal Mile. Some kind of squat stone monument stood in the centre of the ancient cracked paving slabs, and it was here that Patrick stood. Sherlock and John waited in the shadows of the alley, watching curiously. Patrick’s manner seemed expectant as he strolled slowly around the plinth in the centre of the courtyard, and he peered at his watch in the gloom.

After a few minutes, another figure appeared from some gloomy corner of the space; obviously more than one alley opened into it. A tall man appeared, his face shadowed by a wide-brimmed hat and the upturned collar of a long black coat. He walked swiftly towards Patrick, his hands deep in his pockets. John and Sherlock were too far away from the two men to hear what they said in greeting; both bowed slightly, which struck John as slightly odd. Patrick was certainly formal in manner, but he had never noticed him actually bowing at anyone before now. He didn’t risk pointing this out to Sherlock for fear of being overheard, and the detective seemed rapt with concentration.

The two figures shook hands, seeming perfectly friendly right up until the point when the man in the hat aimed a sharp punch at Patrick’s face. John gasped quietly, wondering briefly whether they should intervene. However, Patrick had ducked the blow easily, and he spun to strike his opponent sharply between the shoulder-blades. The man staggered momentarily and lost his hat, but he righted himself deftly before hitting the ground. Patrick let out a sharp bark of laughter and aimed a kick at him, but the man leapt gracefully; easily avoiding the sweep of Patrick’s legs. They seemed remarkably evenly matched, and John was surprised by how deftly Patrick avoided the worst of the blows aimed at him.

The mist swirled around the swiftly moving fighters, disturbed by the speed of their movement. After perhaps a minute, Patrick succeeded in pinning the man against the opposite wall of the courtyard, between the jutting sills of two dark window-frames. The man struggled sharply, but was unable to escape Patrick, who had his arms pinned on either side of his head and the mans’ lower body pressed against the wall with his hips.

After a moment or two, the man seemed to sag in defeat, and Patrick asked him something quietly that neither Sherlock or John could catch. The man nodded, and Patrick let go of his left wrist. He clasped the back of the man’s neck with his free hand and kissed him gently on both cheeks, before parting the lapels of his coat. He buried his face in the man’s neck, after kissing his lips briefly. This was evidently welcome by the way his companion moaned.

John gaped, blushing a little. Was this some gay cruising thing? He glanced at Sherlock, who was watching Patrick intently and with a hint of confusion. John clasped Sherlock’s shoulder, bringing his ear level with his mouth.

“Did we really just follow a bloke halfway across town to see him have a spot of fisticuffs and a grope down an alley? Because we could be sitting in front of a fire drinking brandy right now, not freezing our arses off in a godforsaken corner like this.” He whispered.

Sherlock shook his head slowly and didn’t answer. Patrick broke away from his companion, who stayed where he was pinned against the wall. Patrick bowed again, and the man handed him something dark that he took from his coat pocket. It looked like a square of fabric or a handkerchief to John, and the man seemed to sigh as Patrick slipped it into his own pocket. Patrick spun on his heel and headed towards the corner that the man had appeared from, without so much as a backward glance. The disheartened figure straightened up, tidying himself before retrieving his hat from where it lay on the stone slabs. He walked off slowly in Patrick’s wake, evidently in no hurry to catch up with him.

“Well that was weird.” John murmured, edging into the courtyard now that the men had gone.

“Very odd.” Sherlock agreed, frowning and looking after the two men. “Come on. Let’s see where he heads next; it’s still early.”

Feeling rather shifty at the prospect of following a man around in order to watch him snog chaps in dark corners, John followed Sherlock. The close that Patrick disappeared down exited back onto the Royal Mile, and they followed him downhill cautiously, away from the Castle. He held his head high and he almost seemed to strut a little. His hair had come loose as he fought the man, and it streamed behind him as he stalked through the fog. A group of girls shot intrigued looks at him and giggled as he passed, watching him saunter through another stone archway.

“If it’s just another bloke waiting for him down there, we’ll go back to Violet’s: agreed?” John said, a little uncomfortably. He really didn’t care for Patrick, but he rather thought the man deserved his privacy if this was all he was up to.

“Alright. I was rather hoping for something a bit more interesting, I admit.” Sherlock said, seeming a little crestfallen.

The latest close was more brightly lit, and a painted wooden sign swinging in the breeze outside the alleyway showed the face of a jolly red-nosed man in a long white wig. Patrick disappeared down a short flight of stone steps near the entrance to another courtyard, and a low burst of chatter and the clinking of glasses was heard as he opened the door to a small basement pub.

Sherlock peered through the small window at knee height and grimaced. “It’s a rather small establishment, and the bar is right next to the door. He’ll see us if we follow him in.”

John scanned the length of the building. The pub was at basement level, but it obviously had some space above ground as well; he spotted another door a few feet further along, hidden between deserted wooden tables and chairs. “Come on. Back door is over here; I could do with warming up a bit.”

Sherlock followed him through the heavy wooden door, and they found themselves on a flight of stairs that obviously led upstairs to the bathrooms. Downstairs, the bar led off around a corner; they could hear customers chattering and the sound of a dog yapping at the other end of the bar. Sherlock eased off his coat and nudged John into doing the same, dropping them on an empty chair before ambling in a relaxed fashion over to the nearby fireplace. They carefully kept their backs turned to the bar, but John noticed how Sherlock had positioned himself facing a spotted old mirror. He had picked up an abandoned pint glass en route, and looked for all the world like a chap who had stopped in for a quick drink on his way home from work.

John, who had never seen Sherlock holding a pint in his life, grinned a bit at this. “What can you see? What’s he doing?”

“He’s ordered a drink and the barmaid directed him to another man drinking alone at the far end of the bar. He’s talking to him now, but he seems rather suspicious of Patrick.”

John risked a quick glance around Sherlock’s shoulder. Patrick had his back to them, and was talking to an older red-haired man with a florid face. He was probably in his sixties, and wore a heavy looking green waxed jacket. The man did indeed look suspicious; although he seemed to relax slightly when Patrick leaned a little closer to whisper something to him.

“I wonder what he’s saying to him,” John mused. It certainly didn’t seem as if Patrick was chatting him up, although he did turn to the barmaid and ordered his acquaintance a whiskey from the extensive collection of dusty bottles above the bar.

“Can’t lip-read at this distance.” Sherlock said tersely, annoyed. “Not in this greasy old mirror, anyway.”

Patrick clapped the red haired man on the shoulder, tossed back his own whiskey and headed for the door without a backwards glance. He was tucking an envelope into his pocket as he went. As John peered cautiously around Sherlock’s shoulder again he noticed the man at the bar tucking something into the back pocket of his trousers.

Sherlock put down his glass on the mantlepiece and nodded at the door. “Quickly, John. Follow him and see which way he’s heading. I’m going to talk to this fellow at the bar.” Without waiting for a reply he stepped over a large dozing whippet on the hearth and ambled up to the bar. John grabbed his jacket hastily and slipped out the main door. From his vantage point at the bottom of the pub steps, he could see Patrick pausing to read a piece of paper at the entrance to the close. John ducked slightly, pressing against the chilly damp stones of the pub wall; hoping that Patrick wouldn’t turn around for any reason. After a second or two, he folded the piece of paper again and slipped it back into the envelope the red-headed man had given him. He carefully pocketed it, and strode quickly back out onto the Royal Mile, heading downhill once more. John scrambled up the steps and poked his head out of the close, watching Patrick moving quickly through the sparse crowds on the pavements. The mist was growing ever thicker, and he would disappear within seconds.

There was still no sign of Sherlock, and John deliberated quickly before following Patrick. (Bloody Sherlock, who was probably having a chat in a nice warm pub and having some bloody nice Scotch and was not freezing his bloody arse off following swanky gits through the streets of this bloody city.)

John rubbed his hands together and blew on them as he walked swiftly down the cobbled streets, careful not to take his eyes off Singh. The Royal Mile narrowed considerably after a minute or two, twisting a little and darkening. After passing a few brightly lit pubs full of tourists, it was nearly deserted and the ancient towering buildings on either side seemed to lurch towards each other overhead. Most of the shops down here were closed for the day, and darkly shuttered. Patrick did not seem inclined to enter any more of the entrances to the closes just yet; his coat and hair billowed behind him as he swept past a silent, dry fountain and ducked through a set of arches. The mist seemed to have settled more heavily in this lower, quieter part of town and it muffled both their footsteps. It was becoming much more difficult to trail Patrick without getting far too close.

Without warning, Patrick seemed to vanish. John cursed quietly, speeding up and trying to figure out where he had last seen Patrick. He froze when he saw a figure outside an unlit Georgian church, but this turned out to be an odd bronze statue of a gentleman in eighteenth century dress. The statue seemed to have paused while walking downhill; John had mistaken the flare of the figures’ frock-coat for Patrick’s own sweeping overcoat. The church looked firmly locked, but a graveyard opened out on either side; stretching behind until the many lopsided monuments vanished in the foggy murk. John sighed silently, wondering whether to continue downhill or to try his luck in the graveyard. Peering down the street he could make out no sign of movement whatsoever; the silence was deadly.

He texted Sherlock quickly: "DOWNHILL. MIGHT HAVE GONE INTO GRAVEYARD OR FURTHER DOWN RM. TRYING GRAVEYARD. "

For sheer annoyance value, he added "YOLO! XOXO :-)", pocketed his phone and headed into the shadows of the graveyard with a small grin.

Chapter Text

The air seemed to get colder still as John waded through the mist of Canongate graveyard. The ground was pitted and uneven and he was unable to see where he was putting his feet; more than once he stumbled and had to clutch at a listing gravestone to keep his balance.

This was not the modern, well laid out kind of graveyards that John had visited in the past. Sherlock’s grave had been in a quiet corner of Caldwell cemetery, which wasn’t exactly modern but was positively brand-new compared to this place. Huge tombs and ruined mausoleums lined the high ivy-covered walls, many of them decorated with weathered carved stone skulls, crossbones, chains and hourglasses. The whole place had an air of abandonment and prolonged neglect. John stubbed his toe badly on the edge of a collapsed headstone and bit his lip to stop himself from crying out. He knew better than to be unsettled by the place; after all the inhabitants of a graveyard were unlikely to pose a threat. And yet there was something in the atmosphere, a dour unfriendly feel that made him feel increasingly on edge.

It was nearly impossible to make out more than the vague outlines of the monuments and high walls. John stood stock still in order to listen hard. He didn’t dare use his phone as a torch; in the near pitch-darkness it would have been an instant giveaway of his whereabouts. The only illumination came from faraway streetlights, high on the facing hill. He heard very distant traffic noise, and the breeze stirring the branches of overgrown trees. The graveyard however seemed persistently silent.

It seemed more and more unlikely that Patrick had come in here after all, and John was about to turn and make his way out of the eerie place when he heard a brief susurration in the long grass further down the slope. It was swiftly followed by a heavy smacking noise; like stone falling upon stone. He froze, widening his eyes and hoping that they would acclimatise to the darkness quickly. Already shapes were taking on a little more definition, and he could make out the shapes of more broken grave markers and empty doorways to mausoleums. He began to edge his way further into the dark recesses of the cemetery, trying to remain hidden behind the listing stones and decrepit walls of tombs. He knew that it was much more likely for him to be spotted, coming as he was from the marginally better-lit end.

Another brief flurry of movement; the mist which lay thickly in the hollow at the bottom of the churchyard seemed to creep and swirl higher as it was disturbed by motion. The sound of breaking glass, and a low chuckle from the darkest shadows made John feel deeply uneasy. He froze in the heavy shade of a massive stone plinth, pondering his next move. He desperately wished that he had thought to bring his gun. It was often a tremendous comfort in times like this.

Because John was so focussed on scanning the dim corners of the graveyard in front of him, he was entirely unprepared for the arm that wrapped around his waist and pressed firmly across his mouth. Instinctively he rammed his left elbow sharply backwards, aiming for his attackers’ solar plexus, his heart hammering and adrenaline soaring. Unfortunately they seemed to have anticipated this move and caught his arm easily. He tried to shout, but his mouth was firmly covered by a gloved hand. Leather gloves.

Sherlock’s hair brushed his ear as he leant forwards, slowly lowering his hand from John’s mouth. John could hear the grin in his friend’s voice as Sherlock whispered: “Really, John. We have spoken about your use of punctuation-faces before.”

John panted, leaning back against Sherlock’s chest and letting the back of his head rest on Sherlock’s shoulder. His chest heaved convulsively as he attempted to get his breathing back under control. “You...utter...bastard.” he hissed.

Sherlock shushed him quietly, tightening his arm around John’s waist as he leaned against a towering headstone. The detective was a little out of breath; John supposed he had been running down the Royal Mile in order to catch up.

“There’s something. Something going on. Down there.” John gasped quietly, straightening up a little.

Sherlock didn’t let go of him just yet, bending to whisper into John’s ear. “I know. But I rather think that it isn’t Mr. Singh.”

“What? If it’s not him, what the hell is going on down there?” John murmured.

“I rather think that this is a useful meeting ground for...um...amorous teenagers, John.” Sherlock whispered, with a hint of laughter in his voice. “Useful shadows, nice and quiet... You could get away with just about anything in here.”

John became rather aware of the warmth of Sherlock’s body against his back and the way his quiet breath felt against his ear. It gently ruffled his hair. Sherlock’s hand had come to rest in the middle of his chest, and he was sure that the detective could feel his heart rate picking up again.

“So. Um.” John whispered, feeling his skin prickle slightly with excitement and a trace of panic. “What now?”

“I managed to persuade Patrick’s friend back at the pub to give me this.” Sherlock dropped his arm and moved away from John slightly, taking off his gloves and pulling a small white piece of paper from his pocket. He pushed it into John’s hands. He squinted at it, holding it close to his face.

In block capitals, it read: “ST ANTHONY’S. RED. 11PM.”

“What the hell does that mean?” John asked blankly, forgetting to keep his voice down.

There was a brief flurry of movement below them, and a pair of scantily dressed teenagers pelted up a gravel path on the opposite side of the churchyard, before disappearing through a broken side gate. Another teenage girl strolled after them, obviously none too worried about being seen. She caught John’s eye as she made for the gate and through the fog he thought he saw her give them a speculative glance and a cheeky wave. “Have fun, laddies!” she called sardonically, and disappeared.

“I googled St. Anthony’s; it’s a church in Holyrood Park. Red, I have yet to ascertain. And 11pm is in fifteen minutes, so we had better get moving.” Sherlock said, turning to John. “The item that Singh gave the man in the pub was a red square of fabric, so I can only conclude that the two things are linked.”

“You didn’t get him to tell you anything?” John asked, following Sherlock up to the main gate of the churchyard. He stumbled again and whacked his shin sharply against a chunk of fallen masonry. “Ouch! Buggering hell.”

Sherlock grasped his hand and towed him along. Of course, Sherlock seemed to have supernatural night vision and he picked his way through the obstacles of headstones and ditches with ease. His hand was warm and dry, the knuckles prominent under John's fingertips.

John had never held hands with a man before, not counting that memorable night when he and Sherlock had fled from arrest, handcuffed together. It was different, having his hand engulfed in Sherlock’s large one, his long elegant fingers wrapped around John’s own. It felt strong, the fingertips a little rough from the strings of his violin. And it felt odd, because it felt like he was being taken care of; that he was being led. John Watson wasn’t used to having people take care of him, not really. He was always the one to take care of others. It felt sort of... Well. Nice. (He’d never admit it.)

He felt oddly relieved and rather disappointed when Sherlock casually dropped his hand when they reached the dimly lit Royal Mile once again. John wasn’t entirely sure that he was ready to be seen holding hands with Sherlock in public, but he’d rather liked it when it was just the two of them in the dark.

“The man in the pub was not initially willing to tell me anything about what he’d said to Patrick, or what he’d given him. I was forced to suggest that I would tell his fellow patrons at the pub about his illegal horse-racing connections as well as his fondness for wearing ladies undergarments.”

John opened his mouth to ask how on earth Sherlock knew this, then decided that he really didn’t much want to know (particularly about the latter issue). “I’m sure that went down well. Pleased, was he?”

“Mm. Not entirely.” Sherlock mused. “Anyway, he thrust the envelope at me, finished his drink and left in rather a hurry. I did manage to pickpocket him on his way past, though.” he fished a square of rough red fabric from his coat pocket and brandished it at John. “It’s Irish linen, hand-dyed with vegetable dye. Machine hemmed. Apart from that, no other distinguishing characteristics whatsoever. The man who gave it to Patrick had obviously kept it in his pocket along with several sticks of chalk and a packet of Turkish cigarettes.”

John lengthened his stride to match Sherlocks, his breath gusting white in the cold air. “This makes less and less sense. What the hell is he doing?”

“I don’t know. Not yet.” Sherlock said, a little grumpily. “But have you noticed that we’re not alone?”

John knew better than to look behind them, but walked a little closer to Sherlock. “Are we being followed?”

“No. But I think perhaps Patrick is. There are two men, one is around twenty feet back. One of them is on the opposite side of the street, in front of us. You can just make him out as he passes under the streetlamps. See?”

Sure enough, John spotted a heavily built man walking smartly downhill ahead of them. He appeared and disappeared in the patches of murky light, disappearing regularly into the soupy fog.

After a few more minutes, they came to the end of the street, finding themselves between the odd modern parliament building and the huge stately palace of Holyrood. The palace was dimly lit, and firmly locked up behind tall ornate wrought-iron fences. Two kilted soldiers stationed at the gates looked suspiciously at John and Sherlock as they nonchalantly walked past and into the grounds of Holyrood park, but did not challenge them. The man in front of them had disappeared into the darkness; the park was almost entirely unlit.

“Damn. Where is this church, then?” John asked, squinting helplessly. He had lost his night vision once again after their walk past the palace. Sherlock consulted his phone, evidently looking at a map.

“Uphill again. Past a pond around half a mile in that direction, then uphill.” he gestured to their left, towards the dark volcanic mass of the Crags and set off briskly. John sighed and followed him.

(If only Patrick had just been picking up blokes in dark alleys for a fumble. But no, the blighter had to be doing something incomprehensible. And bloody Sherlock was entirely incapable of ignoring incomprehensible things, or letting them lie. Incomprehensible things were the Sherlock equivalent of catnip.)

John looked up the massive black outline of the hill and frowned. Whatever Patrick was doing at this church, it wasn’t something that required much light. Sherlock was already some distance down the path and John jogged to catch up with him before he lost him altogether. The pond, when they found it, was quite small and overgrown; the path that skirted its edges was muddy and narrow, and Sherlock had to duck several times under low branches. When they had almost reached the far side of the pond and the base of a rough set of stone steps leading up the hill, Sherlock froze.

“What? What is it?” John asked, looking back down the path. He could see no sign of the two men who had been following their route down the Royal Mile; they seemed to have disappeared into the mist.

“John.” Sherlock murmured, his eyes wide as he slowly turned to face him. “John, the important thing now is not to panic. I want you to walk very slowly towards me. Be as quiet as you can. Come on.” he reached out his hand to John, who stared at him with mounting horror.

“Sherlock, what is it? Tell me, right now.” John hissed. Sherlock shook his head rapidly and beckoned frantically.

“John, please. Just come on. Come to me. Don’t look anywhere but at me, alright?”

“Why?” John said, beginning to panic properly and edging towards Sherlock who was waiting for him perhaps ten feet away at the base of the steps. He heard a sudden splash and a weird low hissing noise coming from the pond to his right.

“John! Come on!” Sherlock whispered urgently, holding out his arm. John picked up his pace, aware of movement and huge pale shapes appearing from the fog-shrouded water. “Hurry!”

John edged towards Sherlock, reaching for his outstretched hand. The ghostly shapes that John could see from the corner of his eyes seemed to be growing, lurching out of the fog. The low hissing noises were growing louder. Sherlock grabbed John’s arm and dragged him roughly up the first few steps at lightening speed. “Hurry! We need to get higher up!”

As the uneven stone steps curved around a rocky outcrop, John risked a look back and gaped. Six huge white swans were attempting to follow them up the steps, stretching their necks angrily and beating their wings.

“Fucking... swans?!” John gasped, once it seemed safe to slow down. “I was expecting, I dunno, wolves or an axe murderer or something!”

Sherlock nodded, leaning against a nearby boulder to catch his breath. He grinned at John. “Quite. Notoriously grumpy birds, swans. Just one of them could break your arm easily. Six could kill you. No wonder our companions didn’t take this route, they must have known a better way.”

“Lucky gits.” John said, wheezing a little. “Are we nearly there yet?”

“We must be. I think I heard movement a little way above us just now.” Sherlock said, peering around the nearest bend. “I can see some lights too.”

Sure enough, when John came and took a look he could make out dim, diffuse light among the scattered boulders and between dips in the earth above. The stone steps gave way to a wide grassy expanse and the remains of a stone church; all that was left, evidently of St. Anthony’s. After a moment he spied the outlines of several silent figures, some sitting on stones and others leaning against the battered stone walls. He counted perhaps twenty people in total, although more seemed to appear from the other side of the clearing as he surveyed the group. He thought he spied Patrick in the distance, standing bolt upright next to a hurricane lantern propped on a wooden box.

Somewhere in the distance, they heard church clocks begin to toll. Eleven o’ clock had arrived. John felt Sherlock edge closer to him, coming to kneel at his side on the stone steps. The figures above seemed to be waiting for the sundry bells to stop pealing around the darkened city, which spread out beneath them in a map of sprawling lights and high spires.

From the shadows of the ruin, John heard another bell begin to ring and he jumped a little at the unexpected sound. Sherlock wordlessly pressed down on his shoulder, urging him to remain still.

A woman strolled out from the shadows, in an unhurried fashion. She came to a stop next to Patrick, who took her hand solicitously and helped her step onto a large oblong piece of fallen masonry. She surveyed the crowd, who had all moved closer and stood in a ragged ring around her. Patrick stood at her feet, a little aloof from the rest.

The woman on the rock was striking; although it was hard to tell in the dim lantern light, John thought that she might have been albino; her hair and skin were so pale that they appeared almost white. She had large eyes and small features, and was dressed in a long ragged dark coat with a red scarf. She scanned the crowd unsmilingly, seeming content just to look at them for a moment or two. When she finally spoke, it was in a distinct Scots accent but not that of Edinburgh.

“Are we all here?” she called in a strong, husky voice. “Can you all hear me?”

There was a general murmur of agreement and nodding from the crowd.

“I heard from McMorrow that a stranger tried to infiltrate our people this eve. It is not to be borne! We have suffered persecution and indignity enough these last years, my brethren!”

The crowd at her feet nodded a little more strenuously. One large woman standing on the outskirts shouted “Aye!” rather aggressively and threw her fist into the air.

“But as long as well all know our kin here, we can trust that our secrets are safe. You have all been given a copy of our plans; you all ken well your parts. It is time to reclaim this city as our own, my brethren! Our enemies have become complacent this last three years. They think that our clan can be trifled with, that they can continue to beat us down. But this year, this night; we take back auld reekie for she is rightfully ours!”

This last statement was shouted angrily and was greeted with loud applause and yells of encouragement.

“The hour approaches, and I can hear our foes approaching from the west. Are your weapons true and sharp?”

“Aye!”

“And are your wits about ye?”

“Aye!”

“Are ye ready to die, my brethren; so that ye may avenge our past sufferings?”

“Aye!” roared the crowd, some of them waving what looked like long knives and bats in the air. They seemed intoxicated by the woman’s stirring words and she looked around at them approvingly, her hands on her hips.

John leant into Sherlock, who was staring at the gathering in fascination and some level of private amusement. “Sherlock, if you know what the hell is going on, feel free to tell me at any point.”

Sherlock turned to him and grinned. “John, you know my methods. Deduce it for yourself.” he was very close, John realised with a start; his face only inches away.

“Um. Well,” John swallowed, his mouth dry. “Patrick is mixed up in some kind of gang war?”

Sherlock continued to stare at him, and said nothing. His mouth quirked into a small smile and his eyes glittered in the dim light of the lanterns. John felt his heart beating rather fast.

“That’s a no, then. Um. He’s joined some kind of anarchist cult?”

Sherlock leaned even nearer and John’s heart stuttered in his chest. Sherlock tipped his head to one side and whispered “Closer.” in his ear, one hand on John’s right cheek. His breath was hot on John’s neck.

“Um...” John scrambled to think clearly, which was becoming more and more difficult. His blood was roaring in his veins.

Suddenly, there was a sharp metallic clash above them in the clearing. Sherlock abruptly dropped his hand from John’s face and resumed his study of the group. John swore silently and clenched his fists. He wasn’t entirely sure what he had wanted to happen next, but whatever it was certainly hadn’t involved blasted cymbals.

Four figures had split off from the main group, and had stationed themselves by the crumbling walls of the ruined church. An eerie, wailing noise cut through the silence and it took John a moment to realise that a young woman in a red sweater was playing a musical saw. To her right, a younger man was playing a violin, and to her left an older man was gently hitting a small round drum. A teenage girl sat nearby on a wooden box, playing a cello. The music was deeply strange, and rather mournful. It took him more than a few seconds to recognise the piece they were playing, although he had heard Sherlock perform it more than once. The Danse Macabre.

They played for about five minutes, during which time the crowd stood and listened; rapt. Once John had gotten used to the strangeness of the arrangement, he found the music really quite beautiful. Sherlock continued to smile his private little smile as he watched the musicians. Normally he would moan about lazy violinists or timing issues, but he truly seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.

And no matter what this bizarre group were really up to, it was a marvellous moment, John admitted to himself. It was cold and uncomfortable on the stone steps, and he really didn’t want to be discovered by this obviously deeply secretive group. But below them and beyond the dark expanse of the park the city was dazzling, sparkling with lights through the layer of mist. Beyond the ancient domes and spires of Edinburgh he could see the bridges stretching out over the water, and the lights of distant ships at sea. Thousands of stars gleamed overhead.

And Sherlock was a solid warm presence, his shoulder pressed against John’s. He glanced out of the corner of his eye at the detective, and after a moment’s hesitation he slipped his hand into Sherlock’s.

Sherlock didn’t look away from the musicians, but he ran his thumb gently across John’s knuckles. His smile widened slightly as the violinist broke off into a particularly energetic solo.

(Here, with you. Nowhere else. No one else.)

Chapter Text

The eerie music ended abruptly; the spell broken by frantic shouts coming from the far end of the rocky clearing. John craned his neck, trying to make out what had caused the uproar. From the deepest shadows, beyond a patch of straggling trees three men appeared, launching themselves into the crowd and immediately tackling the nearest people they could find. The largest man attempted to pin a teenage girl to the ground, but was quickly set upon by other members of the group.

They pushed and kicked him off, landing blows and yelling furiously. The girl sprang to her feet, seeming unharmed although rather dishevelled, the sleeve of her red jacket was torn. She leapt over to the man who was now pinned under three people and kicked him furiously in the ribs, screaming abuse and threats. She looked feral in the lamplight, her teeth bared and face twisted in anger.

Another few people arrived, some women among the newcomers. They did not hesitate in launching themselves into the melee. They were followed by several more figures, as well as three large dogs who barked excitedly. It was sheer mayhem; figures jostled and fought over nearly every inch of ground and circling around the ruined church. Some had crude weapons or knives, which flashed and caught the dim light of the lanterns. The air was filled with screams and shouts, snarls of abuse and furious insults.

Nearer to the stone steps where John and Sherlock were concealed, two men were struggling on the ground; one of them had the branch of a tree pushed up under the chin of his opponent. This did not seem to deter the pinned man from kicking his attacker repeatedly, slinging insults as he attempted to wrestle him off. Beyond them, the pale leader was fighting a tall man; she swung a long wooden stick gracefully around herself and aimed heavy jabs at his arms and legs. He was evading her easily enough, despite her obvious skill – he ducked and weaved around her blows and once, laughed at her scornfully.

Patrick was fighting a tall dark-haired woman in a blue coat who had made straight for him out of the darkness. The way they moved around each other was almost elegant; they seemed to be following some set of rules that the fighters around them were certainly disregarding. Patrick spun and ducked, grabbing the woman’s shoe and twisting in an attempt to throw her off balance. She grinned devilishly and hissed at him, going with the movement and hopping balletically to land neatly on her other foot; before driving her elbow into his stomach. This threw him for a moment but he recovered swiftly; he launched himself at her and they rolled, struggling and turning on the ground.

John watched all of this, stunned. He vaguely thought he should do something, call the police perhaps?

He became aware of Sherlock’s shoulder shaking against his, and turned to look at the detective. Sherlock was laughing, no, giggling, his face creased and his body contorted with the effort of not making noise. He caught John’s gaze and laughed even harder at John’s confusion.

“Oh, honestly, John. Come on. You must have figured it out by now!”

John stared back out at the struggling masses. There must have been about forty people there now, positively rioting on the rocky hillside. He looked around for Patrick, who was still on the ground with the dark haired woman. She was on top of him now, pinning him down. She was grinning triumphantly. He rocked several times, trying to dislodge her but she had him trapped, pinned at the hips and arms. She laughed aloud and without warning buried her face in his neck. Patrick yelled, the sound almost lost in the din. John started, instinctively moving to intervene. Sherlock grabbed his arm firmly.

“For pity’s sake, John. Look. You’re seeing, but not observing.”

John stared at Patrick, who was no longer yelling. He was.... he was laughing. The woman leant back and the expression on her face was amused, but somewhat annoyed. They stared at each other before each broke into a genuine smile. The woman bent down again, a little more hesitantly now, and kissed Patrick on both cheeks, before lowering her face to his neck once again. When she drew back slowly, she had something clamped between her teeth. It looked like a narrow scarf or ribbon, deep red in colour.

John looked around at the other fighters; Patrick was not the first to be beaten. Three others in the original group, and four of the newcomers were pinned to the ground; some more acquiescent than others. The large man who had tackled the teenage girl had two older women sitting on his back as he struggled, while a teenage boy unbuttoned the top of his shirt. John watched him as he lowered his mouth to the man’s neck, obviously suppressing malicious laughter at he moved. A moment later he straightened up again, and the man sagged. The boy had a long blue strand of fabric dangling from his mouth.

Red, and blue. Once John began to see the pattern, it was everywhere. From what he could make out in the low light, the two groups were differentiated by some item of clothing in those colours. Patrick’s red sweater. The pale woman’s scarf. The dark haired woman’s coat.

While many people had blood on their faces and clothes, they didn’t seem to be suffering unduly. The fighting was enthusiastic but he was yet to see anyone who seemed seriously injured.

“They’re teams!”

Sherlock smirked a bit. “Well done, John. You got there in the end.”

“But...this? This is Patrick’s big secret? He likes doing a bit of role playing?!”

“Vampire role playing, I think. Hence all the slobbering all over each other’s necks. I think the red team have lost for the last few years, and are keen to beat their opposing blue team. I’m not sure that they will, though.” Sherlock said, studying the battlefield closely. John relaxed and began to laugh. He had been prepared for satanic cults. An anarchist’s meeting. Some dodgy kind of orgy at the very least. But not LARPing.

“Shouldn’t they, you know, be wearing fangs and cloaks or something?”

“How should I know?” Sherlock muttered back. “I will freely admit my ignorance of this sort of thing, John. I can only imagine that the cloaks would be a bit impractical for fighting and climbing up hillsides. I suspect that most of them have a few theatre blood pellets around their persons, for appearances sake. There is no way that man over there would have that much blood on his face and chest without there being a fatality involved.”

“Maybe they’re modern vampires.” John mused. “Not the rubbish sparkly kind, though.”

Sherlock looked at him in utter incomprehension. John grinned.

They sat there, watching the battle unfold. It seemed after around ten minutes that the blue team were winning; their members had subdued several of the reds and had taken the strips of cloths from their necks. The blue team by far had the most blood on their faces and clothes, and John supposed that when they had successfully defeated an opponent they popped another blood pellet in their mouths to suggest a bloody victory. Those members of the red team who had been beaten moped at one end of the clearing, nursing their injuries (both real and feigned).

After twenty minutes, the last wriggling member of the red team had been pinned to the ground and to all appearances savaged by a powerfully built woman in her forties. She had a broken nose, and real blood dripped freely down her face as she wrestled the pale leader of the red team to the ground. The blonde woman struggled and fought, but try as she might; she could not dislodge her opponent. Grudgingly, she admitted defeat and the other woman gave her two smacking kisses which left large smudges of blood on her pale cheeks. Once the red ribbon was taken from her neck she was allowed to get to her feet, rubbing an obviously aching shoulder.

The battered and bloody members of the blue team howled with delight and jeered the losing team with huge glee. The red team stood around, looking dismal and sulky. Patrick leaned against one of the broken walls of the church, looking thoroughly put-out as the woman who beat him grinned at him from her place at the side of her leader. She had gone on to best two more members of the red team, and she was positively drenched in gore.

“Beaten once more, ye pitiful beasts!” crowed a tall blonde man in a badly torn blue jacket. “Once again, powerless to defend your territory! Ye will bow to me and take our colour; else die this very night!”

After many insults were slung from both sides, the red team mulishly accepted bands of blue cloth, which were tied around their upper arms as a sign of loyalty to their new clan. Patrick looked utterly disdainful as he held out his arm, seeming tempted to rip it off right away.

A sudden blast of a trumpet cut through the chatter and shouts of the crowd; the dogs barked loudly and leapt around, hugely excited.

“Ye are now all bound to me!” the leader of the blue group called, a look of urgency in his face. “Those bastard sons of bitches, the clan of the grey house are coming for us! We will fight together and wrest the western territory from their clarty grasping fingers! Away with me; the darkest hour is nearly upon us!”

And with this declaration, he jogged away from the ruins, past the straggling trees and into the darkness. The crowd followed him rapidly, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Some of them were limping from real injuries sustained in the fight. The last to leave were the mournful looking musicians. The cellist heaved her case onto her back and trudged away downhill, thoroughly downcast. The violinist and drummer picked up the lanterns and followed her, leaving the clearing in darkness once more.

Sherlock and John gave the crowd a couple of minutes before emerging from their hiding place on the stones. Once they were sure they were truly alone, Sherlock rose to his feet and rolled his stiff shoulders. John stamped his frozen feet in an attempt to get the blood flowing again and he blew on his chilly hands. He ambled up to the shadowy ruins and wandered around, picking up a discarded knife. He turned it over in his fingers, bemused. It was made of rubber and although the blade shone convincingly like metal, it bent when he pressed the point with his finger.

“Disappointed?” he asked Sherlock, who was absently staring out over the sea of hazy city lights.

“Well... I had been hoping for something a little more criminal in nature.” Sherlock said, rather wistfully. “But it was unexpected, which is always gratifying.”

John came and stood next to him, watching the blinking lights of an aeroplane coast over the distant sea. Sherlock slipped his arm around him after a moment, and John leant into him; a little awkwardly, but grateful for the warmth. Now that the lanterns were gone, the darkness of the hillside made the stars overhead gleam with a new, cold fire.

John became aware of Sherlock gazing down at him, but he did not look up. He hadn’t felt like this for years. (Ever?) Feeling the ache of anticipation and excitement in his chest, hearing the beat of his own heart more clearly than anything else. And it didn’t make sense, to feel like this. This should be effortless, easy, familiar. His hands shouldn’t be trembling. He shouldn’t feel on the verge of scared to meet Sherlock’s gaze. Not after all these years.

“John.” Sherlock said quietly. John inhaled deeply and forced himself to look up at his friend, who looked a little anxious.

Sherlock bit his lower lip and frowned a little as he read John’s face, surely noting every minute fleeting expression.

Anticipation. Worry. Desire. Doubt. Love?

Love.

He couldn’t look into Sherlock’s eyes for more than a second or two, his face flushing. Instead he was drawn to that lush lower lip, which Sherlock had started worrying absently between his teeth.

“It’s alright.” John said, trying to keep his voice level. He couldn’t look away from that mouth. Sherlock stopped biting his lip and it was flushed and slick when he released it. “We... we don’t need to rush into anything. You can think on it as long as...as long as you want.”

Sherlock’s mouth quirked into a small smile at this. “I don’t think anyone could accuse us of rushing into anything, John.”

He placed his hand on John’s cheek, with a movement so careful it broke John’s heart a little. He lowered his face to John’s, very slowly. The last half second before their lips met seemed to stretch on into infinity, and when Sherlock pressed his mouth to John’s it was with an unexpected timidity.

(Oh, god.)

John slipped his arm around Sherlock’s neck, drawing him down a little and pulling him closer. That full, glorious mouth was gentle, but firmer than John was used to. The sensation of stubble under his lips was strange and unexpectedly...erotic. It was all so different. He ran his fingertips against Sherlock’s cheek to explore the texture and the tall man made a soft low sound. The small gesture seemed somehow daring. He kissed Sherlock with a little more force, sliding his hand into the warm hair behind his ear and gently stroking his scalp. Sherlock tilted his head a little, pressing into John’s palm. He seemed so eager to be touched.

John tentatively deepened the kiss, parting his lips a little and encouraging Sherlock to do the same. Sherlock complied, hesitantly, after a moment or two. He allowed John to slowly sweep his tongue against his own, fingers moving in his hair. The blood roared in John’s veins, and he slipped his other arm around Sherlock’s waist, under his coat and jacket, drawing their bodies tightly together. His fingers tightened in Sherlock’s hair and Sherlock moaned into his mouth. He broke away, panting.

Sherlock was shaking. His eyes were tightly shut and his body was rigid in John’s arms.

John stared at him, shocked. (Oh, god. I’ve broken him. I got a bit carried away and I’ve bloody broken him. How have I managed to ruin it all before it even began?)

He began to disentangle himself from Sherlock, slipping his hand from the soft hair. He realised with a pang of shame that he had ripped the tails of Sherlock’s shirt from the back of his trousers, so that he could touch the bare skin at the small of his back. He slowly stepped back and gingerly took hold of Sherlock’s elbows.

Sherlock opened his eyes and blinked several times. John was relieved that he wasn’t pushed away immediately, but he felt deeply uneasy as he saw Sherlock open his mouth to speak but remaining silent. He couldn’t read his expression at all.

“Um. I mauled you a bit, didn’t I?” John said, with a brave attempt at lightness. “Sorry about that. Got a bit carried away.”

Sherlock stared at him blankly for a moment, then sighed. “I...I wasn’t expecting...” He broke off, and glared at the night sky. “Fuck.

John stared at him, more than a little bewildered. He could probably count the number of times he had heard Sherlock swear (in English at least) on one hand. And each time the man had been beyond frustration or in considerable pain.

His heart sank a little further.

“Sorry. I’m so sorry, Sherlock.” he said quietly, squeezing his elbow.

“Stop apologising!” Sherlock snapped, and took a deep breath. “You haven’t done a thing wrong, so stop it. Please. I just wasn’t prepared for...for that, alright?”

“You mean you had to psych yourself up just to kiss me?” John asked, numbly. “Oh god, you only did it because you knew I wanted it. Oh god.”

Sherlock made a sharp noise of frustration and held onto John as he made to move away. “No.

“Just let go of me. Please, Sherlock.” John kept his voice perfectly level and forced himself to look into Sherlock’s eyes. “Please.”

Sherlock reluctantly loosened his grip on John’s arms and let him walk stiffly away. He sat down on a nearby rock and grasped his knees, desperately trying to swallow the lump in his throat.

Sherlock paced the clearing for a minute, his body language practically screaming frustration. He came to an abrupt stop in front of John, standing there silently until John forced himself to look up. The detective’s face was impatient, and more than a little anxious.

“It’s alright, you know.” John said, hating the way his voice sounded. “I knew that it was a risk. We’ll be able to get back to normal, you’ll see. Might take a while, but...I promise we’ll get there.”

“John, I don’t want to go back.” Sherlock said, then winced when he saw the look on John’s face. “No, stop it! What I mean to say is that I’m not used to this. I kissed you because I wanted to. I thought about it for hours earlier, it wasn’t just an impulse or just for your sake.”

“What? That’s what you were doing in the study earlier? I thought you were working on the case!”

“Oh, I only needed about ten minutes for that.” Sherlock said, with a brusque wave of his hand. “Dull. No, I was thinking about. Well, for the lack of a better term, us.” He grimaced. “There must be a better term, surely.”

He utterly surprised John by sinking to his knees in front of him. He unceremoniously leant over and propped his elbows on John’s knees, and glared up at him. “Look. I do not want to rehash every sorry non-platonic encounter in my life. It will bore me and probably upset you or make you angry. But what I probably should have mentioned this morning is that there has been something of a pattern in my admittedly few previous encounters.”

“What kind of pattern?” John asked, warily. He felt slightly reassured that Sherlock still felt comfortable touching him like this, if only to use him as some kind of human furniture. He fought the urge to touch his friend’s face or hair, and kept his hands still on the cold rock.

“You know that most people are perhaps a little...wary of me. Physically, I mean. Most humans tend to sense that I’m a sociopath on some level, and out of some sense of survival they give me a wide berth. Don’t interrupt. I know you don’t agree with that particular diagnosis, John; but this is not the time to discuss it.” Sherlock smiled a little at John’s silent, frustrated expression. “But there are some people who don’t feel that way about me. Broadly speaking, they fall into two groups. You are in the first group, as well as Mrs. Hudson and Cousin Violet. It’s a small group, but I am glad that it exists.”

“And the second group?”

“The second group consists of those who see me as... something of a challenge. Someone to gain mastery over. I think you can see how Irene fell into that group rather easily, although I was admittedly rather intrigued by her at the time. Moriarty. Magnussen. And unfortunately, the few sexual encounters I have had in the past have all been with the kind of person who wishes to dominate or control me, John.” Sherlock said, quietly. “I hated it.”

John sighed heavily, feeling a little sick. “You know I don’t want that, don’t you? I’d never want to make you feel powerless.”

“Rationally, I know that. But I wasn’t thinking terribly clearly when I kissed you, for some reason.” Sherlock said, looking a little annoyed. “You surprised me a bit, when you pulled my hair.” John winced. “I started remembering... Well. I have some utterly stupid psychological associations with that particular sensation.”

He didn’t seem inclined to say anything else, and John didn’t want to push him. Sherlock turned around and leant against his legs, staring out over the city again.

After a moment, John reached out and placed his hand on Sherlock’s shoulder and was profoundly relieved when Sherlock reached up and covered it with his own.
The many church bells of Edinburgh began to strike midnight, almost lazily. They sat there in silence for several minutes, listening to the breeze stirring the long grass of the hillside.

Chapter Text

John and Sherlock walked back to Violet’s house in a rather thoughtful silence. John walked with his hands dug deep in his pockets, occasionally stealing glances at Sherlock’s pensive face. If anything, the detective seemed rather irritated; but he did not give John any clues for the reason behind this.

It was true that John hadn’t thought it would all be plain sailing, heading towards some kind of relationship. He knew in his bones that there were things in Sherlock’s past that affected the way he interacted with people; things that had hardened and distanced him from the rest of humanity. Part of John was tremendously curious about Sherlock’s previous relationships, if that’s what they had been. He was always fascinated by the occasional glimpses into Sherlock’s past he was granted from time to time; it all added to the great puzzle of what had happened to Sherlock. Why he was the way he was.

And yet, John feared what he could find out. He didn’t think he could bear to hear about Sherlock suffering in the arms of someone else. It seemed rather worse than the idea of him being beaten or shot, even if he didn’t have physical scars to show for it. The way the man had reacted to having his hair pulled had shaken John badly. He felt slightly sick at the thought that he had brought some awful memory back for Sherlock, no matter that it was unintentional. He had never thought that he would have to be careful with him. If anything he had imagined Sherlock might have enjoyed being pushed; might have liked John being a little forceful. Much like Sherlock liked a good fight or an argument.

Evidently not the case. Not now, anyway. God, what had he gone through after he had left London?

More expedient. Christ. John guiltily wished that Sherlock had just tortured the information out of that man, whoever he was. Or better still, had just walked away. John had seen the new scars on Sherlock’s body, the ones that hadn’t been there before he leapt from the roof at Barts. He had heard the stories behind most of them. It felt as if he had missed several more, and it made his skin crawl.

They walked over the crest of the hill to avoid encountering the swans again, before descending into the dark parkland once more. There were no streetlamps to light their way along the Queen’s drive, and the only illumination was from the headlights of occasional passing cars. The beams of light lit narrow white slices of the fog, and once or twice John saw large foxes darting silently between the trunks of tall trees.

Eventually they reached the dimly lit streets of the Old Town, and after another fifteen minutes or so they were back walking along the cold grey stone walls of the Grange, and turning onto Violet’s street. The house seemed tremendously welcoming to John as he pushed the heavy wooden street door open, with light coming from the conservatory and a few of the large curtained windows. He crunched down the gravel path after Sherlock, moving swiftly through the dark outlines in the topiary garden.

“Are you staying up?” he asked Sherlock, watching the man shrugging off his coat in the shadowy great hall. Sherlock slung it carelessly at the stuffed bear, and it hung sloppily from the creatures’ outstretched paws.

“Yes, for a while. Probably best not to wait up for me.” Sherlock said, without looking at John. He slowly stripped off his gloves and dropped them on the inlaid mahogany hall table, turning away.

“I won’t.” John replied, feeling his heart sink a little. “Just...”

“Just what?” Sherlock asked quietly, leaning for a moment on the edge of the cluttered table.

John stared at the tense line of Sherlock’s shoulders, the way his fingers were clenched on the edge of the table.

“Just don’t get lost, alright?”

He knew that Sherlock was aware that he didn’t mean this literally. He took an audible step towards his silent friend and reached out slowly to touch his shoulder, giving him ample time to move away if he wanted to. Sherlock nodded stiffly, but didn’t flinch from the touch. He made an odd, awkward gesture that could have meant almost anything, but John knew it was some kind of mute apology. He wished there was some way he could let him know that it wasn’t necessary.

He watched Sherlock walk quickly away across the chequered tiles towards the library. He didn’t look back.

***

Although John was tired and chilled from the long evening outside, he suspected that if he went to bed he was just letting himself in for a long night of staring at the ceiling. At first he headed towards the kitchen, with a vague idea of making tea; but at the threshold he stopped, hearing music coming from the end of the corridor.

Was Violet still up? It was nearly one in the morning, but he supposed she might still be painting.

He dithered for a moment or two; feeling that he probably shouldn’t disturb her if she was working. But on the other hand, he should really own up to feeding Benjy sardines from a priceless work of art.

Really though, he thought gloomily as he headed down the corridor, all he wanted was to see a friendly face. Even if that friendly face could start shouting at him fairly swiftly.

He peered through the glass panels of the conservatory doors, hoping to catch a glimpse of Violet among the heavy greenery and trees. Pushing the heavy door open, he caught sight of an abandoned easel covered with a sheet and an overflowing ashtray next to a discarded palette. On closer inspection, the ashtray was still wafting smoke and John turned slowly, scanning the hot damp room for a sign of her.

“If you’re here for anything other than to bring me some more ice, you can fuck right off, whoever you are!” Violet’s voice called laconically. John grinned and spun around, narrowly avoiding overturning a container full of trailing ferns.

“Aha! Is that a Watson I hear?” he heard her call, her tone considerably more welcoming.

“How did you know it was me?” he called back, scrambling to catch a dangerously tilted terracotta pot before it hit the warm metal floor.

“Your walk!” Violet called, and he finally caught sight of her. She was seated up on the raised wrought iron platform, some twenty feet in the air. She was leaning against the trunk of a tall palm tree and looked decidedly dishevelled, with a black cigarette dangling from her lower lip. “You manage to sound both apologetic and clumsy. It was either going to be you or Phyllis; but you still have traces of a military gait. Dead giveaway. Come up and join me, you swivel-eyed loon. What are you doing up at this hour, anyway?”

John made his way up an overgrown iron spiral staircase and ambled along the narrow railed platform to where Violet sat. She was comfortably settled in a nest of mildewed cushions, a copy of French Vogue open on her lap and a bottle of champagne open in a bucket of largely melted ice.

“Oh, er. Ruling out a suspect.” he said, kneeling down next to her. She passed him a cushion and grinned. She was heavily splattered with paint, and her mascara had smeared a little down one cheek. Her overlarge men’s shirt hung sloppily from one shoulder, revealing a heavily freckled collarbone and a turquoise bra strap woven with black ribbon. Her hair had come undone at some point and hung in a great heavy curtain down her back. She looked tired, messy and utterly marvellous.

“Disappointed?” her expression told him that she knew exactly which suspect they had been investigating. He smiled back and took a swig from the glass she offered.

“Mm. Perhaps a little.” John admitted, wiping his chin and handing the champagne saucer back to Violet. “Unfortunately he’s not up to anything suspicious at all.”

“So what is he up to?” Violet asked curiously, stubbing out her cigarette and leaning forward expectantly.

“Um. LARPing.” John said, unable to repress a smile at Violet’s startled expression. She stared at him wordlessly for a few seconds, her mismatched eyes wide. Together, they dissolved into helpless giggles.

“No!”

“Afraid so. Vampire LARPing. That is his big mysterious secret, I’m afraid.”

“Fuck!” Violet hooted, her face screwed up and she slopped champagne into her lap as she shook with laughter. “Oh god. That explains an awful lot. Oh, god!”

“Explains what?” John chuckled, rescuing the ice-bucket before she knocked it off the wrought iron platform and into the pond below.

“Oh! Um. Well.” Violet attempted to straighten her face with limited success. Her face had turned bright pink, and even her scars seemed to have deepened in colour. “Christ. Well, you’re a doctor; I suppose you’re not that squeamish.”

“No, not really...” John said curiously, finally managing to uncrease his face.

“Menophilia.” said Violet, with a slightly awkward shrug. “I mean, I’m all in favour of getting it on at that time of the month. I am keen on men who aren’t fussy about such things. But. Um. Patrick is a bit extreme in his preferences, you see.”

“Huh.” John said, thoughtfully. “Oh! The vampire thing! It all makes sense!”

“Quite.” Violet said drily, passing him her glass again. “I mean, I didn’t mind at first. But,” she said, fixing him with a meaningful gaze. “The laundry bill was fucking astronomical.”

They collapsed with laughter again, and it took them quite a while to calm down.

“I don’t know how you do it, but you manage to cheer me up so easily.” John blurted out without thinking, wiping his streaming eyes. Violet raised an eyebrow, leaning back against the trunk of the nearby palm. He blushed and shook his head awkwardly, idly turning a page of her discarded magazine. “I mean. Well. You do.”

“Have you and my twerp of a cousin had a falling out?” she asked, after a moment. “Because, laddie, as fond as I have become of you, I will have no problem in kneecapping you if you’ve been trifling with his affections.” She said this with a grin, but John felt quite sure there was more than a little truth in her words.

“I haven’t had the chance to trifle with his affections, you know.” he said, after a pause. “I mean, we- it hasn’t been like that between us. Did you know that?”

Violet said nothing for a few seconds, studying his face. At length, she sighed and said: “I did, really. But... I had rather hoped otherwise.”

John shrugged helplessly. “You and me both. And. Um. Oh, hell...” he trailed off and swallowed. “It looked as if we were getting somewhere, it really did. But. Um. I think I may have buggered it up before we even got anywhere.”

To his relief, Violet didn’t ask for any details. He hadn’t even meant to tell her that much, but it had somehow slipped out as she gazed at him with her odd, thoughtful eyes.

“Came on a bit strong, did you?” she asked gently. He didn’t answer, and she sighed. She obviously found her confirmation in his face. “Look. As you know, it’s been a bloody long time since I have had any particular insight into the workings of his mind. In a way, I really only know him as a gangly mad-haired nineteen year old eejit, running about in a scruffy jumper and raving about Stravinsky. The muppet.” she smiled fondly at some distant memory. “But. Be that as it may, he told me some things back then. But I really don’t know if they’re relevant now...”

“I don’t want you to tell me anything he told you in confidence.” John said reluctantly, after a moment’s fierce wrestling with his conscience.

Violet nudged his hip with the toe of her dusty bare foot. “Nor would I bloody tell you, you clot. But I think that this is a particular area where you should tread rather carefully. And if you break his heart I will hunt you down, understood?”

“Entirely understood.” John said, hastily. He sighed and took another sip of the champagne, which had gone a bit tepid. “Hang on, though. Sherlock wore jumpers when he was a teenager?”

Violet let out a peal of laughter. “You wouldn’t think it to look at him now, eh? Good god, back then he was practically going around with the arse hanging out of his trousers. He wore these big sloppy jumpers with the cuffs all frayed. He used to chew them when he was thinking. Covered with holes from cigarette burns. He looked rather charming, actually. Déshabillé.” she added, the word pronounced in an incongruously flawless French accent amidst her usual wandering lilt. “His grandparents were always telling him to get a haircut. In a lot of ways, he’s quite different now. But I like to see that boy peering out at me, now and again.” she said, a little wistfully.

They sat in silence for a moment or two, listening to a light rainfall tapping on the panes of glass overhead. Both lost in their thoughts.

“Oh, Vi. I’m, er... afraid I have a confession to make.” John said, steeling himself after a few minutes.

Violet looked expectant, lighting another cigarette. “Golly. How intriguing!”

“Er. Well, you remember how you asked me to feed Benjy earlier today?”

“Mmm?” she frowned, perplexed.

“Well. I’m so, so sorry. But I just took a plate at random from the kitchen dresser. I didn’t know any of them were valuable. And, I um...” he swallowed, feeling the back of his neck beading with sweat. “Christ, I’m sorry. I didn’t realise until Sherlock told me. But I used the Picasso plate to feed him some sardines. And I’m not sure, but it might have gotten. Well. A tiny bit chipped, on the floor.”

Violet stared at him, wide-eyed. He winced, waiting for the explosion. He was utterly unprepared for her to start laughing again, and he stared at her in utter bewilderment.

“You’re not going to murder me? This isn’t just hysteria?” he asked hopefully, watching her collapse back on a pile of cushions. The champage glass went flying, and smashed loudly on the conservatory floor below.

“Oh, god! John! Your poor face!” she snorted loudly, and hiccupped before grasping his hand. “Have you been agonising over that all day?”

“Um. Well, a bit. Maybe.” he said, feeling greatly relieved at her reaction. “I am so terribly sorry, though.”

“Sherlock! That rotten twerp! How could he?!” she gasped. “Oh, the rotter! John, the plate is a fake.”

“But-“ John exclaimed. “But Sherlock told me, it belonged to his grandparents-“

Violet shook her head, grinning. “It’s true that they did own a Picasso plate. But Sherlock broke it, when he was staying with us. He knocked it off a shelf in the drawing room when we were doing a spot of archery. His grandmother loved that thing; she actually knew Pablo himself slightly. She would have hit the ceiling if she knew he’d broken it. She probably would have sent him home on the spot. Luckily she was away at the time, so there was enough time to organise a replacement.”

John gaped at her. “That git! He knew it was a fake?”

Violet hugged her knees in glee and smiled at him roguishly.”Of course he bloody well did! I showed him how to make it.”

***

When John reached the green room, some half an hour later, he was surprised to see a light coming from underneath the heavy wooden door. He pushed it open slowly, feeling hope bloom in his chest as he caught sight of the familiar figure.

“Hello. Didn’t expect to see you back here so soon.” he said, taking a seat on the hearth rug. Sherlock was perched in the armchair next to the dying fire, looking tired but thankfully rather calmer than he had done earlier. He seemed to study John’s face carefully in the warm, dim light and smiled back at him, raking his hair back from his temples with both hands.

“I wanted to see you.” Sherlock said quietly, after a moment.

John nodded encouragingly, and when Sherlock didn’t elaborate he prompted: “And?”

Sherlock frowned, seeming a little confused. “That’s it. I wanted to see you.”

“Oh.” John said, unsuccessfully smothering a smile and feeling ludicrously cheered by this small statement. “Good. Er. I quite wanted to see you too.”

Sherlock didn’t seem to feel the need to say anything else, and stared into the fire, where the last few glowing logs were subsiding into drifts of ash. John sat on the ground next to him for a few more minutes, before getting ready for bed. Feeling rather foolish, he carried his pajamas into the chilly bathroom and changed there before brushing his teeth. When he returned to the bedroom, Sherlock was already in bed, burrowed under the many layers of sheets and blankets.

“For heaven’s sake, John. Get in.” Sherlock muttered, obviously sensing how John was hesitating at the edge of the bed.

“I don’t mind sleeping in the dressing room or downstairs somewhere, if you like.” John murmured. “Honestly, it’s fine.”

Sherlock thrashed around under the covers, turning to face John. He looked rather exasperated and his hair was wildly untidy. John bit his lip to stifle a smile.

Sherlock glared. “Get. In.”

John lifted the heavy layers of bedclothes and clambered up into the high canopied bed. He stretched to turn out the last lamp before coming to lie next to Sherlock, his arms held carefully at his sides. He felt profoundly awkward, but at least Sherlock couldn’t see his expression in the darkness.

“If you continue to impersonate a recalcitrant ironing-board I bloody will make you sleep in the dressing room.” Sherlock muttered, after a minute. John huffed quietly, and attempted to relax a little more. He was not prepared for Sherlock to turn abruptly and drape himself heavily across his body.

“Sherlock!” he protested, attempting unsuccessfully to squirm out from under him. “For pity’s sake, you don’t have to prove anything to me!”

“Yes, I do.” Sherlock said calmly, folding his hands on John’s chest and resting his chin on them. “I need you to know that I still want this. I know that earlier, things didn’t go as smoothly as they could have done. That was not your fault, and I don’t want you to feel like you have to keep away from me. I want this, John.”

Why did he have to have his hands right there, just over John’s heart? John shut his eyes and swallowed hard. Sherlock was too heavy, and his hips and knees were bony as they pinned him down. His elbows were digging into John’s arms. What worried John most of all at this point however was the possibility that parts of his own anatomy might end up digging into Sherlock.

“Good. That’s-good. But. Um, please, could you get off me now? I’m planning to breathe while I sleep, alright?” he pleaded. With a poor grace, Sherlock shuffled off him but kept his arm wrapped around John’s waist. John inhaled deeply, trying to order his thoughts. He slipped his own arm around Sherlock loosely, who made a pleased sort of sound before sliding his hand up under the hem of John’s t-shirt.

He gasped audibly, and blushed hotly in the darkness. “Um. Your hands are cold.” he said lamely.

“No, they’re not.” Sherlock said, with more than a hint of laughter in his voice.

“Alright, they’re not, you bastard.” John growled, feeling Sherlock’s hand smooth curiously along his side. His heart sped up even more as he felt Sherlock move even closer, until they lay almost nose to nose.

“You don’t like having your hair pulled.” John murmured, after a pause. “Anything else?”

Sherlock was silent for a few moments. “I don’t like being held down. Tied up. Slapped. Well, hit in any way. Hard biting. And I don’t like being confined.” he said quietly.

John waited until he could trust that his own voice would be steady, forcing his hand to stay relaxed on Sherlock’s back. “Understood.”

And with that, Sherlock closed the narrow gap between them, and kissed him firmly on the mouth. John started slightly, his mind reeling. He hadn’t been prepared to try this again so soon. He forced himself to stay calm, reminding himself to let Sherlock set the pace. But Sherlock seemed more sure of himself now, running his hand up John’s chest under his shirt and coming to rest directly over his heart once more. He ran his fingers idly through the hair on John’s chest while he kissed him, again and again.

He kissed John until he slowly opened his mouth, and allowed Sherlock to slide their tongues together languidly. He could barely think as he let the sensation wash over him. The kiss was warm, wet and slick, and Sherlock’s breath was hot in his mouth. He allowed his hands to move a little on Sherlock’s side, sliding into the dip of his waist and beyond; letting his thumb rest into the smooth hollow of his hip bone. He squeezed gently, and thrilled at the quiet moan that Sherlock gave in response. He pulled away to kiss Sherlock’s cheek, revelling in this new sensuousness, the texture of his skin. He rubbed his cheek against Sherlock’s, and gasped aloud as Sherlock dragged a calloused fingertip across his nipple.

(Oh god, why couldn’t they have done this years ago?)

Sherlock claimed his mouth once more, with a small impatient sound. He felt warm, heavy and supple in John’s arms. John cautiously explored the lines of his body, the lean muscles of his arms and the flat plains of his pectorals and stomach under his shirt. The narrow, bony hips and the sparse hair on his arms. He kissed Sherlock’s adams apple, licking it and feeling the texture of it under his tongue.

“Are you enjoying this?” Sherlock murmured in his ear, a little breathlessly as John kissed his neck.

“Possibly a little too much.” John muttered, without moving his face from the crook of Sherlock’s neck. He smelt of clean, fresh sweat, the wool of his coat and his own peculiar scent. It was somehow dizzying to experience it like this, at such close range. “You?”

“Mm.” Sherlock hummed contentedly, then inhaled sharply as John slipped his hand up under the hem of his shirt. He huffed a laugh as John poked the tip of his index finger into his navel. “I think, however...”

“I know. I do.” John admitted, attempted to quell his enthusiasm with limited success. He had determinedly kept his hips angled a little way away from Sherlock, and this had become more and more of a necessity over the last few minutes. His body was screaming at him to dive right in, to wrap his body around Sherlock, to strip his clothes off and do whatever he wanted, whatever it took until the man was writhing beneath him.

Bit not good.

With an effort, he pulled his hand out from under Sherlock’s shirt, stroking his stomach a little wistfully as he did so. He ended up brushing his wrist against the front of Sherlock’s pajama bottoms in the process and his eyes widened. He hoped Sherlock hadn’t seen the expression that was doubtless on his face.

“Um. Yes. There is that.” Sherlock muttered, slowly withdrawing his hands from John’s shirt and turning to lie on his back. John grinned into the darkness. His heart felt like it was glowing.

“Don’t worry. It’s all just transport, isn’t it?” he asked in a quiet, deeply serious voice.

“Quite.” Sherlock said darkly. “Shut up while I think about Mycroft. That always does the trick.”

“Christ. That does help.” John said, after a moment’s thoughtful silence. “I might actually be able to sleep after all.”

They lay in silence, breathing slowly returning to normal. John didn’t quite trust himself to reach out to Sherlock just yet. He contented himself with how his left arm and leg were companionably pressed against Sherlock’s right side.

He thought that Sherlock must have dozed off, when he felt his hand being engulfed in Sherlock’s larger one. He smiled into the darkness and squeezed it tightly, before adopting a withering tone.

“Just so you know, Sherlock. We will be having a very serious chat in the morning about certain items of crockery. Not to mention your early career in forgery.”

Chapter Text

“Tell me about the topiary.” Sherlock whispered, at some point before dawn.

“It’s not a very interesting story.” John murmured, turning over to face Sherlock. He hadn’t been aware that his friend was conscious; he himself had been awake for a while, gazing absently into the shadows over his head as he replayed the events of the night before over and over again. His stomach twisted pleasurably every time he remembered Sherlock’s hands on his chest, the warmth of his lips touching John’s own. What might have happened if they had kissed for just a few minutes longer?

Sherlock smiled slightly when he saw John’s face in the dim light. John manfully fought a blush and lost miserably.

“Come here. I need a doctor.” Sherlock ordered brusquely, sliding his arm under John’s pillow. John shuffled a little closer, and allowed himself to be prodded and shoved until his head rested comfortably on Sherlock’s shoulder. Sherlock wrapped his arm around him, drawing John’s arm to lie around his chest.

“Oh god. We’re cuddling.” John half-laughed, shutting his eyes and revelling in the shared warmth. The feel of Sherlock’s body stretched out bonelessly against his own. “Actual bloody cuddling.”

“Shut up. We are not doing anything of the kind.” Sherlock said in a revolted tone. “We are merely sharing body heat, which is an entirely practical act in a chilly bedroom.” He rather ruined the effect by dropping a brief kiss at the top of John’s forehead.

“Sorry, don’t know what I was thinking. Foolish misconception. Won’t happen again.” John murmured, feeling oddly daring as he ran his hand gently along Sherlock’s ribs.

“Tell me the dull story about the topiary, then.” Sherlock asked quietly.

John sighed and closed his eyes. “Mm. Well. Afghanistan.”

“I had deduced that much, at least.”

“Shut it. When people think about Afghanistan, you see... they think of desert and heat, right? They think of ruined towns. Dusty mountains, dry godforsaken plains. But that’s not right. Not really...” he trailed off, fiddling with the hem of Sherlock’s tee-shirt. “I mean, they’re half right. But some of the places I saw, they were beautiful. Huge, ancient trees. Gardens that had been carefully tended for centuries. Green, leafy shadows and ponds. Canals, rivers... The sort of places, where in another life you’d love to just lie in the grass and listen to the breeze in the trees. It used to shock me a bit, when I’d find another forgotten corner like that. Where you could imagine what a nice place it was to live, before the Taliban took over.”

Sherlock began to trail his fingertips idly along his spine, the gentlest of touches. John swallowed hard.

“Well, you know that I was shot near Bamiyan. I was stationed there for a few months. And it was probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in my life. I can still picture it so clearly. There were these incredibly high, barren mountains. Incredibly bleak, really quite...startling. To look at. The valleys and plains were deep green farmland, with these ancient gnarled olive trees and winding rivers. There were these old abandoned Buddhist monasteries, dug right into the sandstone cliffs. At dawn, the light was so clear. And the air was so cold it felt like it was burning your lungs. There were these huge statues of Buddha carved into the mountains, I mean huge. Hundreds of years old.

“The Taliban destroyed them, of course. Stored weapons in the caves where the monks used to live, terrorised the locals, turned the place into a fucking ruin.” John sighed, willing the familiar anger away. “We weren’t helping much. But anyway. We were on patrol one evening, at the base of the cliffs. I used to like going along that route, although it was bloody risky. Because we’d go through the remains of the old monastery garden. I mean, it was sad in a way – the old statues had been broken and kicked over, and they were slowly getting completely overgrown. But most of the trees were still there, cypresses I think? You know, the tall pointed ones. Loads of them, and olive and cedar trees. All laid out in complicated patterns.

“There was nine of us there, that evening. I remember Briggs, he was whistling. He always whistled, drove us all up the wall. That man was such a terrible whistler, you’d barely be able to tell the tune. It had turned into a tradition at that stage, everyone telling him to shut up. We stopped in the shade of some trees for some water and a smoke. I can still hear the terrible racket Briggs was making, and of course he was whistling louder than ever. I was laughing, and I told him to shut it. He had his back to me, taking a leak in a nearby hedge. And he did shut up. Which was unusual. It took me longer than it should have to realise that he’d been shot in the head.”

John’s voice was flat and carefully even, but he was grateful when Sherlock tightened his arms around him and remained silent.

“It was a fucking mess, really. It wasn’t just the Taliban, it was the local anti-Taliban alliance as well, who incidentally hated us too. The Taliban guys had been planning a straightforward ambush on us, and were surprised by the Hezbe Wahdat, who had also been planning something similar. We ended up stuck in that garden for hours. Briggs was killed instantly, of course. Patel, he got shot in the thigh soon afterwards and I sheltered with him in the shadow of a massive fallen statue. Trying to stop the bleeding, but they got him in the femoral artery; he bled out before long. Nothing I could do. He was a nice bloke, Patel; we used to play poker in the evenings. He had four older brothers and all of them were dentists. He had wanted to do something different, so he joined up. Poor bugger.

“So, there I was. Stuck in this garden, and night fell quickly enough. The shadows cast by the trees and broken statues were weird. I can’t describe the feeling of the place; I had loved it during the day but that night it was...different. All these shadows, strange twisted shapes in the darkness. Listening to potshots coming from what seemed like every direction. Bursts of gunfire, then nothing for what seemed like hours. I was covered in Patel’s blood, and I had his poor head in my lap. I thought that the rest of our blokes were in the trees and in the basin of an empty old fountain. I tried making a move to get over to them, but each time I nearly had my head taken off. So I stayed there, hoping that the Wahdat and the Taliban would take each other out.

“The moon rose and the shadows were everywhere. I started seeing shapes in them; these twisted branches suddenly seemed like huge clawed arms stretching out across the ruined lawns. Eventually, I decided to make a break for it; Patel had been dead for hours and I just wanted to be with my mates again. I got ready to run, things had been quiet for a good half hour. And then, a half second before I was about to leg it into the trees, I heard someone running towards me across the grass. I saw him in the moonlight, once he got clear of the shrubs. It was a thirteen or fourteen year old boy, with a gun nearly as big as himself. He was screaming at me in Pashto, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. It was pretty clear that he was coming for me, though. I yelled back at him, I can’t remember what, exactly. Christ, I didn’t want to shoot him. He was just a kid. I had my gun aimed at him, but I still don’t know if I would have pulled the trigger. I never found out, in the end. Somebody else saw him, and shot him in the chest. He was lying on his side about ten feet away, and he didn’t die straight away. He was staring at me. I watched him gasping and coughing up blood. His hands were clutching at the grass and the tears were fucking pouring down his face."

“You tried to help him, didn’t you?” Sherlock murmured.

“I couldn’t leave him there. I thought that... well, I wasn’t thinking too clearly. I suppose I thought that whoever had shot him would have written him off and be focussing elsewhere. Wrong conclusion, as it turned out. That was when I was shot, when I crawled out towards him.”

Sherlock’s fingers unerringly found the exit wound on John’s back, feeling the uneven texture of the skin through his shirt. John sighed, and pressed his face into Sherlock’s chest. He breathed in deeply, feeling oddly comforted by the smell.

“No need to tell me; I know I was an idiot.” he muttered. “The boy died, I’m sure of it. Although I don’t remember an awful lot more about that night. Not until I woke up back at the base. Somehow the garden got all twisted up in my head. The dark shapes, the statues... the terrible sounds that the boy was making. Patel’s blood all over me.

“I got a bad fever when the wound got infected, I was drifting in and out of these dreams for days. It wasn’t about getting shot, not really. Just this really menacing feeling of being surrounded by these weird dark shapes. The smell of hot blood and green leaves. The shadows moving around me. I’d read this silly horror story, years before. There was this kid in the book, who was being chased by topiary in a garden, they were moving and attacking him. I’d completely forgotten about it, hadn’t thought about it for years. But I remembered it during the fever, and it all got messed up in my head, it got twined with the monastery garden and the statues and that boy bleeding out in front of me. I dreamt about him and Patel and Briggs playing cards on the grass, only to be torn to pieces by the trees. It felt like it went on for years. They had to strap me down, I was thrashing about so much. I had to be in a single room, because I was scaring the other patients with my screaming about the shapes in the trees. It was....”

He trailed off, making himself take regular deep breaths. Sherlock’s hands were still and careful on his back. “Not good.” he swallowed, and continued in a more level voice. “But I got better. And I found you. I hardly have any bad dreams anymore, at least not about Afghanistan. I don’t mind trees, but admittedly topiary gives me the creeps. When I’m in the garden here, I look out of the corner of my eye and I imagine them moving, waiting until my back is turned. I know it’s utterly stupid.”

“Illogical, perhaps.” Sherlock murmured. “But interesting.”

John stretched out languidly and wrapped his arms more tightly around Sherlock, glad to have finished his story. The sun had begun to edge over the hills outside, and the room was slowly filling with cool golden light. He was on the verge of falling asleep again when Sherlock quietly said: “Squid.”

“Hm?”

“I don’t like squid. I find them unsettling.” Sherlock said calmly. “Their eyes are entirely too big and they have far too many tentacles. Octopi have eight; what on earth do squid get up to that requires an extra pair? Sinister, I call it.”

John stared up at him, propping his chin on Sherlock’s chest. He blinked rapidly. “Right.... Squid. I see.”

“I merely point this out to demonstrate that even the most logical of individuals may have deep-seated irrational phobias.” Sherlock said hastily.

“And you’re scared of... squid.” John said, slowly.

“Specifically, super-giant squid. Mycroft gave me a copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea when I was six, and it had quite alarming illustrations in it. It is obviously completely his fault.” Sherlock said, darkly.

“Gosh. Well, um. That’s good to know. We’ll make sure to turn down any cases that involve submarine travel.” John said, unsuccessfully trying to keep the grin from his face. “Or aquariums, obviously.”

Sherlock scowled at him, the tips of his ears turning faintly pink. “Quite.”

John was not prepared for the next words to come out of Sherlock’s mouth, which were “Now take off your shirt.”

Sherlock raised an eyebrow at John’s expression and sighed. “If you want to.”

“No objections, really. Just...um. Wondering why?” John said, wriggling away a little and easing his t-shirt over his head a little self consciously. He knew he wasn’t in bad shape, and Sherlock had certainly seen his bare torso several times. He still felt a little awkward about it in this context, though.

“I want to look at your scar again. I am also planning on touching you quite a lot while I kiss you in a minute.” Sherlock said calmly, sitting up and shrugging off his own shirt. “Acceptable?”

John’s heart-rate seemed to accelerate ridiculously fast, and he nodded. He lay back and looked up at Sherlock, who had turned his back and was throwing his shirt over the side of the bed. He watched the shifting of muscles across Sherlock’s shoulders and swallowed hard. “An experiment?”

Sherlock turned back to face him, slipping down between the sheets until he faced John, and leant over him. He placed the tips of his fingers on the knotted scar tissue on John’s shoulder, and pressed lightly. “Of sorts. This doesn’t hurt you, does it?”

“No.” John breathed, watching the long digits trace every edge of the darkened scar tissue. Sherlock studied the skin closely, brushing the pad of his thumb firmly across the centre. He didn’t seem to feel the need to say anything more, or to tell John what he was deducing from the scar.

He was utterly surprised when Sherlock swung his right leg across his hips and settled casually on top of him. Luckily, this time Sherlock was keeping most of his weight on his bent knees and elbows. John was suddenly, achingly aware of the proximity of his groin to Sherlock’s. Sherlock dropped his head to the scar and ran his tongue across it slowly. It wasn’t a kiss, and John suspected he was simply feeling the texture of it carefully.

That should not be as arousing as it was.

“Um. Er, Sherlock?” John murmured. “I mean, keep going. No problems here. But. I just want to give you fair warning...”

Sherlock glanced up at him quizzically, sliding his hands up the bed until they disappeared under the pillow, on either side of John’s head.

“You’re becoming aroused by this?” he asked, seeming honestly curious.

John attempted not to glare. “Yes”.

Sherlock smiled, seeming unreasonably pleased by this. “Good.”

He lowered his face and kissed John soundly and messily, sliding his tongue into John’s mouth and exploring it slowly. John lay there, a little stunned as he let Sherlock suck languidly on his tongue. How the hell had this happened? He was being snogged senseless, by his best friend. His very male best friend.

He cautiously wrapped his arms around Sherlock, stroking his long smooth back. Tracing the wings of his shoulder blades, revelling in the lithe strength and muscles under his hands. He could feel the scattered scars under his fingertips, and stroked them gently before continuing to map the sleek lines of Sherlocks back.

The force of his desire for Sherlock kept surprising him; he kept on expecting it to evaporate somehow. It shouldn’t feel this marvellous, or this natural to be lying half-naked in the arms of a man. He wasn’t used to it. It felt so different, the size and weight and scent of him. When he felt Sherlock’s erection pressing against his own, surely it should make him at least a little unsettled rather than this new fierce joy and excitement?

He rocked his hips upwards gently, thrilled to be rewarded by the moan Sherlock gave. The larger man ground his hips down ruthlessly, sliding unerringly against John’s aching arousal. John broke away and gasped, panting as he pressed the back of his head into the pillow. Sherlock slid his arms around John’s neck and held onto him tightly, his breath hot and loud in John’s ear.

“Alright?” Sherlock murmured breathlessly, before catching the lobe of John’s ear between his teeth. He kept slowly grinding their hips together, which was making coherent thought extremely difficult for John.

“Um. Yes, well, obviously. Can I just check, er. What you’re comfortable with? At the moment?” John made an undignified noise that was close to a whine as Sherlock ran his tongue gently along the edge of his ear.

“This. I like this.” Sherlock growled, his voice deeper than usual. “Oh, god. I hadn’t expected this, John. Keep touching me. Please.

He shifted and nudged one knee between John’s thighs, and after a moment John hitched his leg over Sherlock’s hip. Sherlock hissed “Yes, like that. oh...” in his ear, rutting slowly and deliberately. “John. John. John.”

He had heard Sherlock say his name thousands of times, but nothing had prepared him for hearing him moaning it in his ear, helpless and a little desperate. John let out a low sob, feeling another heavy rush of heat to his groin. Sherlock smelt like musky arousal and fresh sweat; John’s palms were slick as they skated down the ridge of his spine. Sherlock kissed him fiercely, John glorying in the soft inarticulate sounds of desire his friend was making.

Sherlock suddenly stopped moving, and for a split second John thought that things had somehow tipped into the territory of too much. He froze, his heart pounding. Sherlock was flushed and his hair stuck messily to his forehead. His eyes were tight shut and he was biting his lower lip savagely when his hips jerked and he collapsed onto John who felt that he could nearly weep in relief. He felt dampness seeping through his pajamas, slicking his cock further as he kissed Sherlock’s face and shoulders, anywhere he could reach.

“Oh, god. Oh... Sherlock. Oh!” Sherlock kissed him once again, nipping briefly at his lower lip. His eyes were heavy-lidded and hazy, and he slid down to suck sharply at John’s left nipple.

John’s back arched violently and he came hard, wrapping his leg tightly around Sherlock’s waist. He somehow managed to wrench his hands away from Sherlock’s back, knotting his fingers in the sheets so that he wouldn’t hold onto him too tightly. He nearly sobbed with the release, his cock throbbing as he came against Sherlock’s taut stomach, through the thin fabric of his pajamas.

When he was capable of opening his eyes, he saw Sherlock grinning up at him. His lips were reddened and swollen, and his cheeks were flushed. The creases around his eyes were pronounced as he beamed at John, his pale eyes gleaming.

John laughed weakly, his chest heaving. He felt boneless, sated and quite unreasonably happy. He reached out and ran his hand gently through Sherlock’s wildly disordered hair. “Come here. I need a detective.”

Sherlock obligingly shifted back up the bed, draping himself heavily over John and tucking his face into the crook of John’s neck.

“I’m rather sticky. I have your ejaculate all over my stomach.” he said, after a moment. His tone was thoughtful, rather than complaining.

“Who cares?” John murmured. “Oh god, that was brilliant. You’re brilliant.”

Sherlock laughed a little breathlessly. “I didn’t intend for things to get this far just yet. I had a schedule, which we have completely disregarded. I’ll have to amend it now.”

“A schedule? Damn it, of course you have a schedule.” John grinned. “Do you have a spreadsheet on your laptop, with dates and activities on it?”

“Just a mental one, but yes.” Sherlock said seriously. “I planned it all out yesterday. We weren’t meant to get to this point ‘til next week. I only planned for torso contact and kissing today.”

“Mm.” John hummed sleepily. “Tell me more. What else is on the list?”

“Well,” Sherlock said, a little hesitantly. “Pending your approval, the next step is coming to bed entirely unclothed. Bringing you to orgasm with my hands, and vice versa.”

“Sounds good. Looking forward to it.” John whispered, running his hands through Sherlock’s hair and kissing his cheek. “After that?”

“After that, I want to fellate you. Agreeable?”

“Um. Very. Can I return the favour?”

“Yes, certainly.” Sherlock said hastily. “I wasn’t sure that you would want to. With your previous sexual history.”

John laughed. He didn’t seem capable of not touching Sherlock. He wasn’t sure that he was going to be able to stop running his hands over the pale smooth skin. “I can’t promise I’m going to be brilliant at it straight away. You’ll have to let me know what you like, when the time comes. But yes. I want to try everything with you.”

Sherlock smiled at him, a little hesitantly. “Good.”

He seemed slightly reluctant to continue, and worried slightly at his lower lip with his teeth.

“You’re thinking about the stage after that, aren’t you?” John murmured, and kissed Sherlock’s mouth until he released it from his teeth. He felt oddly calm discussing this, although the thought gave him odd shivers of excitement and slight dread in his stomach.

“It’s all negotiable, of course. Entirely dependant on whether you want to try it.” Sherlock said quietly, his eyes closed as he rested his forehead against John’s.

“Everything.” John said firmly. “I meant it. I want to try everything with you.”

“It’s just that...” Sherlock hesitated, and swallowed. “I mean, I would love to. With you. But, er...”

“You don’t want to be the receiving partner. I know. I figured that out already.” John kissed him again. “Honestly, Sherlock. It’s fine. It’s all fine. I trust you. I’ll give it a go, when the time comes. I can’t guarantee that I’ll like it, but I want to try it with you.”

How was it that he was calmly able to discuss this? A month before, the thought of sex with a man had rarely even crossed his mind. And now, here he was reassuring Sherlock that he wanted it. Wanted to feel Sherlock moving deep inside him. His stomach clenched in anticipation and nerves, and he grinned at Sherlock a little anxiously.

“I’m assuming that that’s quite far down the schedule though, isn’t it?” he asked. Sherlock nodded slowly, a slightly disbelieving look on his face. “Right. We’ll leave that ‘til we get home. Anything else?”

“Not as such.” Sherlock said. He was blushing.

John wrapped his arms around him tightly and laughed. He felt almost giddy. “Right. Ok. Now, about that plate...”

Chapter Text

Somehow, despite Sherlock being in deep disgrace over the plate incident, John found himself in charge of fetching the coffee once again.
He could hear Sherlock humming quietly to himself in the bathroom as he shaved, and the familiar splashing noise of a razor being rinsed in the huge porcelain sink.

It occurred to him that he rarely heard Sherlock hum, as he hastily pulled on some clothes in the chilly room. He rubbed his own bristly chin absently, feeling his lips curving into an irrepressible grin under his fingers. He couldn’t stop thinking of the sensations and discoveries of the morning, kept closing his eyes and reliving the experience (and oh the feeling of coming apart under the weight of Sherlock. The sound of his name being softly moaned in that voice).

He somehow found himself grasping the back of an armchair, eyes closed and biting his lip to restrain a delirious smile.

It was probably wise to leave the room at this point, really.

It was significantly later than the time he had risen the previous mornings, and when John found Violet in the kitchen she was fully dressed and industriously sketching on a large pad of cartridge paper on the sofa. She waved idly at him without looking up, and he decided that it was probably best to leave her in peace as he made coffee. The red enamel pot on the table was lukewarm, and he poured the cold dregs down the sink as quietly as possible before starting to make a new batch.

The kitchen was bathed in cool golden light, pouring through the thick rippled glass of the tall windows. The garden outside was filled with drifts of red and gold leaves, and the sparsely covered branches of the trees waved idly in a slow cool wind. John sank into a chair next to the kitchen fireplace, which was clearly newly lit, the large logs hissing slightly in the leaping flames.

He studied Violet surreptitiously as she drew, watching her small neat hand move swiftly across the page. She was back to her usual polished self this morning, and her red curls were carefully arranged in a heavy knot at the nape of her neck. She wore a tightly fitted wool dress in a vivid shade of acid green, the full skirt pulled loosely over her propped-up knees. A pair of shocking pink suede pumps lay discarded on the tiles next to the battered sofa, surrounded by pencil shavings and discarded sheets of paper. She was frowning slightly as she worked, a sharp crease between her beautifully arched eyebrows. He craned his neck slightly, trying to catch a glimpse of her drawing.

At this point however, the coffee pot on the stove began to hiss and bubble loudly and she looked up, blinking.

“Dear old heap! Good morning.” she grinned, stretching her legs in an oddly catlike fashion before swinging herself off the sofa. She pressed a kiss to his cheek and looked into his face with considerable interest.

John looked back at her, feeling slightly panicked as he watched her calculating expression dissolve into a startled grin.

“No!”

“Jesus, Violet. How do you bloody do that?!” John said weakly, feeling his face growing hotter by the moment.

Violet laughed and impulsively hugged his arm. John laughed, embarrassed and pleased, returning the squeeze.

“Oh, laddie. You are fucking adorable. You look like the cat who got the clotted cream and the jam. I’d see it a mile off.” She reached over to deftly retrieve the coffee pot, which was still bubbling furiously. “Don’t worry, I am not about to ask for all the gory details.” she added, to his great relief.

He wordlessly accepted a bowl of coffee, sitting down near the fireplace once more. Even his ears felt like they were glowing under Violet’s delighted gaze.

“So. Um. Working on anything in particular?” he asked, in a brave attempt at nonchalance. He glanced curiously over at the sketchpad she had dropped on the end of the table.

“Mm.” Violet nodded, curling up on a kitchen chair and hugging her knees in a way that was sharply reminiscent of Sherlock in his armchair at home. She sighed, a little of the brightness draining away from her face. “It seems a bit heartless, I know. But I keep on drawing Sandra. She keeps coming into my mind, clear as anything. I seem to get her onto the page more successfully since she died, I seem to be catching some kind of... I suppose you’d call it an essence. Of sorts. Oh, I know that sounds wanky, but I can’t put it any other way.”

She reached out for the pad, and studied a few of the pages thoughtfully. “She was a complicated sort of girl. I mean, I knew that even before... well. What she did to Freddie. But I feel that I’ve got more of an impression of who she was, you see. It makes a difference.”

She held it out to John, who took it from her carefully. He felt rather honoured; he hadn’t actually seen any of Violet’s work before now.

“I’m afraid I don’t know much about-“ he murmured, and stopped abruptly, his eyes dropping onto the page. For there was Sandra, standing in the studio; the lines of her slim body thickly outlined in heavy grey strokes. It wasn’t an attempt to realistically reproduce a scene, as Violet merely suggested the angles of her straight back and legs, the surroundings a mere blur. The back of Sandra’s head was a spare sweeping line, but something about it suggested intense thought. Looking at the drawing inspired an uneasy feeling in John, and he somehow became sure of a kind of dark anxiety within the girl in the picture. He could barely tear his eyes away from the page. He couldn’t call it a beautiful drawing, it was too troubling for that. But it brought out a strong, visceral reaction in him that he had rarely experienced in any gallery.

He didn’t know how long he sat looking at the sketch, with Violet curled up nearby as she stared meditatively into the flames of the kitchen fire. He only tore his eyes away from the picture upon feeling a large hand dropping onto his shoulder. He jumped, feeling rather spooked.

Sherlock looked down at him curiously, a faint smile on the corners of his mouth. “Well, I must say that the delivery times for coffee in this establishment are abysmally slow.” he said, his gaze moving to the sketch pad that John had lowered to his lap. Violet snorted derisively, and grinned affectionately at Sherlock.

“Well you know the answer to that problem, don’t you?” John asked, feeling his heart-rate pick up ridiculously. “You could always try fetching your own bloody coffee once in a while, hm?”

Sherlock turned and dismissed this fanciful notion with a wave of his hand. He stooped to kiss Violet on the forehead, and John watched her catching Sherlock’s eye, holding his gaze intently for a few seconds. When Sherlock moved to the table to investigate a plate of raspberry muffins, John was sure that the man was blushing slightly. He looked into his bowl of coffee, attempting to smother a smile.

Violet sipped demurely at her coffee, and winked at John with her sleepy brown eye. Sherlock came to sit next to John, closely studying the drawing that lay in his lap.

“Interesting.” he said, after a long pause. Violet nodded, looking rather pleased and flattered. John knew that interesting was among the highest compliments that Sherlock could give; far above beautiful or good.

“I think it’s shaping up rather well. I was gutted when she attacked my painting of Hilary, but I rather think this might turn out even better. I mean, it’s only a preliminary; but I have a sort of conviction in this one.” she leaned back and lit a cigarette, blowing the first lungful of smoke vaguely towards the huge fireplace.

“It was a painting of Hilary she defaced?” John asked, trying to remember if Violet had told them this before. A glance at Sherlock’s pensive face confirmed his suspicion that she had not.

“Mm. It was really bloody good, too.” Violet sighed, wriggling her stockinged toes in front of the flames. “I mean, Hilary may be a complete and utter bint most of the time, but she has rather superb lines. The curve of her spine... Well, there’s no point in mooning about it now. I did a quick sketch of Hilary while she was drawing during class; probably one of the few times I’ve caught her unaware of being watched. The sketches took me less than ten minutes, and she agreed to pose for me again, so that the colouring was right. She wasn’t bad as a model, really. She’s never had much time for conversation with other women, so at least she didn’t chatter on.”

“Can I see it?” Sherlock asked, after a moment’s pause.

Violet shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Once you’ve finished your..my god, is that your fourth muffin? Greedy swine. We’ll mosey down to the studio. Bloody Inspector Menzies finally said that it’s alright to open it up again. He rang earlier this morning; said he’d call round to check in with us later.”

John sighed a little at this. He liked Menzies less and less since their meeting of the morning before. Violet nodded, reading his thoughts. “I know. The blighter obviously just wants you to do his job for him; he can take all the credit and it’ll be sunshine, tea and buns for him.”

Sherlock shrugged slightly, swallowing the last of the muffin in his hand. John glanced at the plate on the table and was slightly appalled to see that only two remained. He grabbed one hastily as they stood up and made for the French windows that led into the chilly sunlit garden.

Violet was obviously surprised to see both Katy Boorman and Margaret Gothford in the studio when they reached the long low building, and she paused at the narrow double doors before going in.

Margaret was wearing an apron and rubber gloves, and she was just getting to her feet as the three of them entered the main room. She had obviously just finished scrubbing the floor, which was spotless and wet. The air smelt strongly of lemon detergent and bleach. She nodded at Violet expressionlessly, easing her stiff back before dropping a hard bristled brush into a pail of dirty water. Katy was wearing a pair of old jeans and a grubby creased blouse, her short dark hair covered by a blue cotton scarf. She was busily returning the easels to their places, obviously having moved them out of Margaret’s way.

She pushed her large round glasses back up her nose with a dusty hand, and sneezed loudly.

“Violet! I didn’t think you’d be down here for a while yet.” she said a little apologetically, catching sight of them. “I- Well. I made an executive decision. You didn’t need to see the mess in here again.”

“We’re nearly finished, hen.” Margaret said briskly, knotting the top of a large refuse sack tightly. John thought he caught a glimpse of blue fabric in there before she pulled it closed. “We’ll be out of your way in no time.”

Violet rubbed her ear in a faintly agitated manner. “You’re both utter darlings. You didn’t need to do this, I was going to call some people in. I just wanted to show these blots one of the paintings in the annexe.” she seemed a little lost for words.

“Don’t be silly, Vi. It’s no trouble at all.” Katy said in a cool businesslike tone that belied the kind expression in her eyes. “This is much less fuss than bringing in a gaggle of strangers who would only put your things back in entirely the wrong places.”

Margaret patted Violet on the arm gently on her way out of the studio, and John noted the reddish tinge to the water she sluiced onto the grass. Katy resumed her efficient arrangement of the easels, clearly trying to give the impression that she was the type of woman who did this sort of manual labour every day.

Violet watched them for a moment; then swallowed hard, seeming to shake herself a little. Her pink heels tapped sharply as she led the way into the adjoining room. She had determinedly avoided looking at the wheeled wooden platform where Sandra had died, but when John looked for it and the narrow bench both were gleaming and clean. He saw Mr. McCreedy industriously washing the windows at the other end of the room, and he tipped his cap grimly at John as they caught each other’s gaze.

The annexe was where Garcia had slept; and there was a narrow single divan pushed into one corner of the room. Shelves of art books and technical texts lined one wall, and there was a small sink and hot water boiler near the door. A large number of canvases were propped up against the wall, their surfaces facing away from Violet as she rifled through them.

“These are an odd mixture; there’s a few by everyone in here.” she muttered, deftly flipping through them. “Mostly the ones nobody was happy with. Christ, look at this one! George seems to have thought painting a still life entirely in puce and viridian was a jolly good idea, the twit.” she stood back to let John and Sherlock see the offending work. “Quite vile. Oh, and this one: poor Basil. He’s got some kind of mental block when it comes to painting knees; he’s made Sandra look like some kind of pony hybrid here. Now, where’s mine? Um... oh. Yes, here it is.” She had reached the back of the pile and hefted a large canvas one-handed with surprising ease.

“I couldn’t quite face throwing the painting away so I stuck it in with these. Silly, really – there was nothing to be done with it. But I’d liked it so much...” she trailed off. Sherlock studied it intently, taking it from her and turning to the window to see it in brighter light. John came and stood next to him, absurdly aware of his upper arm in contact with Sherlock’s. It took him a minute to gather his thoughts sufficiently to look at the painting with his full attention.

He wouldn’t have known that it was a painting of Hilary if Violet hadn’t told them so. The face was crudely defaced with thick scarlet paint, it appeared to have been done hastily, and the paint had run in streams down the delicate lines of the torso. He could tell that it had been a painting of Hilary in profile, working at her easel.

He could make out the curve of her spine and the elegant lines of her legs, and the shape of one of her hands grasping a palette. Like the drawing he had seen in the kitchen, it was no mere reproduction of a scene. It was a suggestion of feeling rather than shape; the dark shadows near the bottom of the canvas and the twist to the long fingers suggested both beauty and darkness. It unsettled him more than a little.

“Why do you think that Sandra chose this particular painting, Vi?” John asked curiously. Violet scowled, taking a seat on the divan and lighting a cigarette.

“Oh, she knew that I was proud of it. I rarely exhibit these days, you see. I’d said to Katy that I would submit this one to the academy while Sandra was in the room. She was livid with me when I told Garcia to leave. Really furious, and even more so when I told her I wouldn’t allow him to return. She knew exactly which one to go for, the one which would hurt the most.”

“It’s a painting of Miss Jessop. Did that make a difference?” Sherlock asked, without looking away from the canvas.

“Entirely likely.” Violet said darkly. “They couldn’t stand each other. I think Sandra didn’t like me painting Hilary; she was the model, you see. I think she viewed it as some kind of slight. Oh, she was so fucking irrational...” she glared at the end of her cigarette and sighed. “You see, I think she blamed Hilary for the fact that Freddie fancied her. After the incident when she walked in on Freddie groping Hilary, she was screaming at Hilary almost as much as she was screaming at Freddie. I think that was a key factor in vandalising the painting. Apparently Basil had wanted to buy it from me after I’d exhibited it. He seemed quite sick when he saw what Sandra had done to it.”

Sherlock continued to stare at the painting, mesmerised by the broad streaks of red paint. John wandered around the room, and then knelt and idly flicked through the pile of shoddy canvases against the wall. Certainly Marmaduke’s lurid still life was dire, as were some of Basil’s wobbly looking sketches of Sandra sitting on a wooden box. As he turned away from the stack of canvases, something long and white caught his eye under the bed where Violet still sat, smoking furiously.

Unthinkingly, he crawled towards the divan. Violet looked down at him interestedly, as he came to a stop in front of her elegantly crossed legs.

“I say, steady on, Doctor Watson!” she grinned. John stopped, and realised that he was on his hands and knees in front of a woman on a bed.

Sherlock gave him a withering stare from around the edge of the painting of Hilary. “John, I really must protest if you persist in indulging in this lascivious behaviour towards my cousin.” he said coldly, although John thought that there may have been a slight twinkle in his eye.

“Oh, shut up the pair of you.” John said, exasperated and trying not to blush.

Violet, who obviously knew what he was really up to, got up and knelt beside him on the floor. “What is it, you cream-faced loon?”

John stretched out on the floor and reached into the narrow gap between the floor and the base of the bed. He eventually managed to grasp the object between his index fingers and slide it out. It was another canvas, and Violet gasped when she saw it.

“Christ. It’s one of his. Freddie’s.” she said, almost reverently. Sherlock put down the painting he was holding and came to take a look.

To John’s great relief, it was nothing like the darkly explicit works that the police had found in the caravan dealership in Glasgow. Oddly enough, this was a painting of Phyllis. She was walking alone among the towering shapes of the topiary on the other side of the house, and her small figure seemed a little lost among the dense trees and shrubs. Her round face was thoughtful, but not sad or anxious. The painting was incredibly detailed, and almost shockingly realistic. John could make out the veins in the individual leaves in the foreground, and the shadows were sharp and perfectly defined. It looked as if it were summer in the painting, the sky overhead a milky blue and the grass of the lawn was lush deep green. And bizarrely, despite what he knew of Freddie Garcia’s character, John felt calm and somehow warm when he looked at it. He could almost feel the tranquillity of a clear summers’ morning. He almost believed that he could smell newly mown grass or hear the low drone of bees.

“You can feel it, can’t you?” Violet said, reading his expression. “I never really understood how he could do it. He was so awful in so many ways; yet he could create something like this. Oh, blimey – look!”

She pointed into a distant corner of the painting. There, in the shadow of a huge monkey-puzzle tree was Sandra. She was a tiny figure, but the detail was so intense that it was very easy to make out her identity. She was sitting on the grass, staring directly at the viewer. Her expression was veiled, and John couldn’t quite decide what it conveyed.

John felt Sherlock’s hand come to rest on his upper arm, and felt himself being gently pushed aside. He shuffled to the left, and allowed Sherlock to kneel between him and Violet, in front of the painting which lay flat on the floor.

“Once you two have finished with the art appreciation club meeting...” he said briskly, ignoring the thump that Violet aimed at his upper arm. “Why on earth haven’t you noticed the most important thing?!”

John stared at the painting, marvelling at the detail. He studied Phyllis, who had her small hands in the pockets of her pleated skirt and was walking towards them. He traced the outlines of the topiary and shrubs, the scattered sculptures of the garden. He shook his head, perplexed. “What?”

“This!” Sherlock tapped the bottom left of the canvas. “There’s obviously something underneath it. It’s not lying flat on the floor; there’s at least a millimetre’s gap here. Honestly!”

He slipped his fingers under the edge of the canvas and levered it up one-handed. John peered curiously at the wooden frame underneath; sure enough there was a small package wrapped in dark green plastic taped into the bottom corner.

“What is that?”

“It’s not going to be anything good, is it?” Violet sighed, sitting back on her heels. “I mean, I’m hoping for jewellery or a tin of caviar; but if it’s something that Freddie wanted to hide, it’s not going to be nice.”

Sherlock said nothing, carefully placing the canvas face-down on the bed. He glanced about the room, before taking a large craft knife from the shelf above the sink. He used it to delicately lever the tape from the corner of the canvas batons, and deftly removed the parcel; which he carefully held in his handkerchief to avoid transferring his fingerprints. He laid it out on the bed next to the canvas and stared at it. John expected him to attempt to unwrap the package, and was a little surprised when the detective leant forward and inhaled the package deeply.

“Ah. As I thought.” Sherlock said, in a pleased tone. “We’ve found the opium.”

“Opium?!” Violet snapped. “Oh, bloody wonderful.”

“A substantial amount showed up in the toxicology reports for both Freddie and Sandra.” Sherlock explained, wiping down a couple of pencils and using them to delicately unwrap the plastic. Inside the green wrapper was a clear cellophane envelope, containing several greyish brown pellets; each one was around the size of a peanut.

“Who the fuck smokes opium these days?!” Violet asked incredulously. “I mean, it can’t be easy to source; can it?”

“Mm. Well, I’ve never been offered it.” Sherlock said absently, as he studied the envelope closely.

Violet looked at him sharply and swallowed hard. She stood up abruptly, and stalked to the window. She glared out at the trees, inhaling deeply through her nose.

After a moment, John watched her light another cigarette with slightly shaking fingers. He winced a little, but said nothing.

“I think we can make an educated assumption as to where this came from.” Sherlock said after a moment. A certain stiffness had crept into his posture, although he was yet to look away from the opened parcel.

“Oh?” Violet asked quietly, without turning from the window.

"Marmaduke.” John said quickly. “We already know that he deals drugs. He as good as confirmed it when we interviewed him the other day.”

Violet ground her cigarette out furiously on a dusty saucer on the windowsill. “Oh. Marvellous. I’m glad I charged him double what everyone else is paying for tuition fees now.”

“And opium would certainly tie in with his bohemian affectations.” Sherlock said thoughtfully. “He would probably think that it’s a more artistic kind of drug.”

“The night before Freddie left!” John interjected. “George said that he was in here, smoking with Freddie. Were they smoking this, do you think?”

“Entirely possible.” Sherlock said, levering himself to his feet. He walked to the window, and buried his face in the curtain, inhaling deeply. Violet watched him with interest. Sherlock returned to the bed and sniffed the rumpled covers extravagantly.

Violet pulled a face. “Christ. I wouldn’t do that to any covers that Freddie Garcia had been sleeping under.”

“You can smell it. It’s a peculiarly bitter, oily scent. It’s seeped into the soft furnishings. Faint, but definitely there.” Sherlock said, with satisfaction. “He was definitely smoking it in here, and probably more than one. This is worth quite a lot of money, you know. This amount... I would say it’s worth nearly a thousand pounds.”

“Violet!” Katy’s voice came from the main room of the studio, and footsteps were heard approaching the door. Sherlock darted to the bed and positioned himself in front of the opened parcel, standing between it and the doorway when Katy popped her head through. She looked round at the three of them a little curiously, particularly at John who was still crouching on the floor. Sherlock reached down casually and grasped his hand, pulling him to his feet. John smiled nonchalantly at Katy, who raised an eyebrow at him.

“Vi, you probably haven’t noticed the time. You’re supposed to be with the students in five minutes. I suppose they could come down here again, now that we’ve cleaned the place up?” she said, turning to Violet at the window.

“Oh, damn. Where do the bloody mornings go to?” Violet complained. “Leave them in the conservatory for now, will you? We’ll get back to working in here later.”

“Very well. Will we reschedule dinner with the students for this evening?”

Violet muttered something that sounded an awful lot like “Fuckety arsebiscuits!” to John, and made gloomily for the doorway. “Yes, I suppose we’d better, and get it out of the way. For pity’s sake, Sherlock, you fabulous monster. Please solve this bloody thing for once and for all. I cannot wait til I send this lot packing.”

She followed Katy out of the room with a poor grace and an eloquent gesture to hide the opium. Once they were gone, John realised that he was still holding Sherlock’s hand.

“Oh! Er. Sorry.” he said, squeezing Sherlock’s fingers and letting go. Sherlock’s mouth twitched into a small smile, and he turned back to the parcel on the bed.

“You’ll notice that this has been opened and sealed more than once.” he said to John, bending down to inspect the plastic once more.

John stared at the parcel intently. “Ah. Traces of glue from the tape. It hasn’t been pressed back in quite the right place, has it?”

“Nicely done, Doctor Watson.” Sherlock said approvingly. John smothered a smile. “Quite right. The first time it was sealed, it was done precisely and neatly. It wasn’t done hurriedly. The first time it was re-sealed, it was done a little more clumsily but equally precisely; presumably by Freddie Garcia, and while he was under the influence of the drug. The second time it was re-sealed, it was even messier. Possibly while the person was high, possibly they were in a hurry. I would lean towards being in a hurry, as the ends of the tape aren’t pressed down fully, which they were previously.”

“What will we do with it?” John asked, after a moment. He determinedly kept his tone casual.

“Oh, I expect we’d better give it to Menzies when he comes round later.” Sherlock said in a disinterested tone, re-wrapping the parcel and encasing the whole thing in his pocket handkerchief. “I suppose we could fingerprint the plastic, but it will be something of a formality.”

“I see.” John said slowly, watching Sherlock begin to slip the cotton-wrapped bundle into his jacket pocket. Sherlock paused, catching his gaze. He smiled, a little grimly.

“John, I appreciate your concern but please be assured that I will not be sampling the evidence. For a start, smoking opium requires a special pipe, which I do not have. I suppose I could render it suitable for injection, but I do not have any syringes or needles in my luggage. You may check my case if you like. At a last resort, I could certainly swallow it; but there would be an unfortunately high likelihood of my death as a result of ingesting the drug.” he rattled this off in a blasé tone, but his face had hardened slightly as he gazed down at John.

“Right. Good.” John said, standing his ground and refusing to look away. “Glad to hear it.”

Sherlock held his gaze for a few moments longer, before deliberately stepping into his space. He loomed over John, who inhaled deeply and fought the urge to bury his face in Sherlock’s chest. The man smelt heady, his own scent and strong coffee. His eyes were wide, shining grey-green as he leant closer to John.

“My dear John.” He whispered in his ear, making the hairs on the back of John’s neck prickle. “There are certainly times when I am tempted to relapse. When I’m horribly bored, or lonely, or when my brain just won’t shut up. Now and again, yes, the thought crosses my mind. But what always brings me back from the brink is the knowledge that my friend John Watson would suffer more than I ever could. You have brought me back from the edge more times than I can count. I will certainly hurt or disappoint you many times in the future, and I am already sorry for it. I probably won’t mean to, but I will.” he moved back slightly, so that he could look calmly into Johns wide eyes. His tone was fervent as he added: “But I swear to you, I won’t go back down that particular path. I wouldn’t do that to you. My dear John.”

Chapter Text

John left Sherlock to go and have another look around Sandra’s room, while he headed off to take a bath. Violet and the class were working in the conservatory as he passed through the main hallway. He took the opportunity to retrieve Sherlock’s gloves from the hall table and to disentangle his coat from the outstretched paws of the stuffed bear. He nearly walked straight into Katy Boorman as he turned for the stately staircase.

“Careful!” she said, sidestepping him smartly and picking up the soft leather glove he had dropped on the floor. She deposited it carefully on the bundle in his arms and smiled at him slightly. “Everything alright, Doctor Watson?”

“Oh, er. Yes. Perfectly!” he said, smiling a little nervously.

He couldn’t help remembering how she had last seen him, hand in hand with Sherlock in the studio. Katy had obviously just changed out of her cleaning clothes, and was back to her usual quietly elegant self. She now wore a smart grey sheath dress and a long cardigan, and her short dark hair was gleaming and smooth. John, with his unshaven face and hastily pulled-on clothes felt distinctly scruffy in her presence.

Katy appeared a little undecided about what to say next, and she seemed to be on the verge of walking away when she stepped closer to him. “John. I know it’s probably not the done thing to ask you this, but how are you and Mr. Holmes getting on with the investigation? It’s not doing Violet any good at all, having this mess hanging over her head. Not to mention the reputation of the painting school. There was an article in the Scotsman today about Sandra's death, and I’ve had to send more than one journalist away from the door with a flea in their ear.”

“We really are doing our best, Miss Boorman. I promise. It’s all turned out a bit more complicated than we thought – it often happens when there are so many people in one place.”

Katy smiled a little grimly. “You mean so many suspects, I expect.” she sighed a little. “I don’t doubt that you and Mr. Holmes are trying your best. In truth, I’m mainly concerned about getting the students out of here – Inspector Menzies still won’t clear them all to leave. What that man is doing, I have no idea. He’s about as much use as a chocolate kettle.”

“I know it must be trying to have them all cooped up here.” John said apologetically.

“Trying?!” Katy sniffed. “It certainly is. It's like cabin fever. Hilary seems to be avoiding Phyllis for some unknown reason, but I suppose that’s an improvement, if anything. But that bounder Marmaduke has just been making some filthy comments about the sub-continent in front of Patrick. Basil is barely saying a word to anyone, I think the strain is getting to him. The sooner we can send them all home, the better.”

“What will you do, once they’ve gone?” John asked curiously. He had the impression that most of Katy’s workload was centred around the students and sorting out the business aspects of Violet’s teaching.

“I am damn well going to take a holiday.” Katy said firmly. “Violet won’t need me for a few weeks, and I wouldn’t bet on her taking any more students until the New Year at least. I’ll go and visit my mother in Dundee, then make for the Highlands. I quite fancy getting in a bit of shooting before the season ends.”

John was momentarily struck by a vision of Katy striding over the Scottish hills, steely-eyed and brandishing a double-barrelled shotgun. “Sounds...nice?”

“Anyway, I mustn’t dawdle. Cleaning out the studio took most of the morning; I’ve neglected the accounts. I’ll see you at dinner, I’m sure.”

As she turned, he caught sight of something that was making the pocket of her smart draped cardigan bulge oddly. It seemed unlike her to neglect a detail of her appearance like that, and he craned his neck to take a look as she paused to peruse the newly arrived post on the hall table.

It was hard to tell, but he thought he might have spotted a pair of small white china ears sticking out of her pocket. Katy gathered up a few bills and clicked away on her sensible heels, flicking through the envelopes as she went.

“Rabbits.” John muttered to himself, feeling rather baffled, and made for the stairs.

He stopped abruptly on the first step when he heard the bell of the front door chime. He dithered slightly, tempted to sneak away and let somebody else come and answer it; but there was no sound coming from either of the long corridors that led from the great hall. Sighing, he dropped Sherlock’s coat in a bundle on the central table and made for the grand panelled double doors. He swung one of them open and froze.

“Good morning, John.” Mycroft said smoothly, a slight smile on his foxy features. “Good to see you. I’ll just come in, shall I?”

***

John jogged up the stairs, swearing repeatedly and silently. Of course. Of bloody course Mycroft sodding Holmes would choose to show up in Edinburgh as soon as John and Sherlock had started...whatever it was they had started. (Fuckety arsebiscuits indeed, as Violet would say.)

He had left Mycroft standing in the dark hallway, interestedly studying the many paintings that lined the walls. Sherlock’s elder brother was as relaxed as ever, wearing one of his usual impeccable three-piece suits and a beautiful cashmere overcoat. The very sight of the man put John’s teeth on edge.

He headed for the long teak-panelled hallway that led to Sandra’s bedroom, but as he turned the corner off the main landing he spotted Sherlock striding towards him. The tall man appeared to be studying fabric samples. When John got closer, these looked unfortunately like they had been snipped from the heavy pink silk curtains in Sandra’s room.

“Sherlock!” he panted, jogging the last few metres.

Sherlock stopped and looked up, mildly inquisitive. “Mm? Do you know the interesting thing about Sandra’s room, John? No traces of opium at all in there. I can’t get a single whiff of it anywhere! Not even on her pillow, where one would expect her to have exhaled-”

“Never mind that now. We have a problem.” John said ruefully. “Your brother is downstairs.”

Sherlock’s eyes widened, and his jaw set into a familiar mulish expression. “Oh, for pity’s sake! Why can’t that meddling git just leave me the hell alone?”

John made a frantic shushing gesture and stepped closer to Sherlock. He lowered his voice. “Sherlock... you don’t think...um...that he knows?

Sherlock stared at John, evidently taking in his rumpled appearance and unshaven face. He sighed. “Well. I’m afraid it’s all too obvious that you had some kind of sexual encounter recently.”

John closed his eyes and found himself leaning his forehead against Sherlock’s shoulder. “Argh...argh...argh!”

“But he won’t automatically assume that it was with me, idiot.” Sherlock said, with a trace of a smile. “I am thankfully not as transparent as you, and there are several people in the house whom you could have been with. For god’s sake, John. Pull yourself together! What ludicrous pretext did the gluttonous arse give for his presence?”

“You know, the usual. Secret government business at the parliament. Meetings with the First Minister. World domination.”

“Hah! Mycroft hates Scotland. He never comes here if he can possibly avoid it. The only time he’s been here in the last five years was to arrange the outcome of the independence referendum. Stop panicking, John! He didn’t come here with the express purpose of asking you what your intentions towards me are.”

“Oh. Good.” John murmured weakly into Sherlock’s shoulder. “It was bad enough the first time. I can only imagine the horror if he knew for sure that we were. Um. Sleeping together.”

Sherlock’s hand came to rest on the back of John’s neck, and he stroked his nape a little awkwardly. He dragged the pad of his thumb gently along John's hairline, worrying at the nub of bone at the base of his skull. “He is going to find out some time.” he murmured quietly (uncertainly?)

“Yeah. He is.” John said, moving back a little so that he could look up into Sherlock’s face. “And so will everyone else. Well, everyone who hasn’t been thinking we’ve been at it like bunnies for years. That’s a relatively small number, really. But. Um.” he sighed, and tentatively reached up to run his fingers across Sherlock’s sharp cheekbone. “But right now, it feels sort of... well. I know Violet knows, as it’s apparently impossible to keep anything from her. But it sort of feels like this incredible… secret… we have. Nobody knows that you and me...” he swallowed and flushed a little. “No one knows that we’ll be getting on with that schedule of yours tonight. I... I really hope we are, anyway.”

Sherlock smiled at him, the rare real smile when his eyes crinkled and his lips curved joyfully. John watched him with a certain amount of fascination; utterly unprepared when Sherlock pushed him forcefully up against the wall and kissed him deeply. John hit the back of his head smartly against the corner of a huge gilt picture frame and only dimly registered the ache - he was still too overwhelmed by the way Sherlock was cradling his face in both hands, his tongue slipping into John’s mouth and tracing wanton patterns against his own. Sherlock seemed breathtakingly confident like this, pinning John against the wall with his hips. It was still a little strange, and gloriously unfamiliar. He knew that he could easily break out of any grip that Sherlock had on him. Although John was smaller, he was strong and he was a trained fighter. He just wasn’t used to this feeling of being... well. Taken.

It shocked him quite a lot, just how much he liked it. This new feeling of Sherlock using his masculine strength and height and weight to overwhelm him. Although Sherlock had had his usual close shave that morning, John could still feel the slightly rougher texture of the skin on his face under exploring fingertips. He touched Sherlock’s hand where it cradled his cheek, placing his hand over the long elegant fingers; the hand that was so much larger than his own.

(Hm. I wonder if... Oh. Stop right there, Watson. Very much NOT the time to follow that particular train of thought.)

He couldn’t repress a smile under Sherlock’s lips, and the detective broke away with a questioning look. John followed him helplessly, and pressed another brief kiss to his flushed lips.

“I really want to stay and snog you in a corridor. I do.” he laughed a little breathlessly. “For bloody hours. But your brother is wandering around unattended downstairs, and I was looking forward to actually having a wash today. Go and see what the hell he wants and I’ll come and find you in a bit. If you manage to get him to leave the house within an hour, extra points for you.”

Sherlock leaned his forehead against Johns and made a disgruntled sound. “Damn him.” he straightened up with a martyred expression, readjusting the lapels of his jacket back to their pristine lines. John wanted to rumple him badly. “I suppose I’d better try and get rid of him before Violet finds out he’s here.”

Before John could ask the meaning of this last statement, Sherlock had kissed his forehead swiftly and strode away down the hallway, for all the world looking like a man about to fight a dragon.

***

John was all too tempted to wallow in the deep copper bath for hours, inhaling the sandalwood scented steam that wafted from the hot water. He gazed dreamily through the tall arched windows, watching a flock of starlings wheel giddily through the clouded sky and swooping over the nearby hills. He did not want to see Mycroft’s face again; didn’t want to encounter the usual cold cleverness and smug loftiness that seemed to be the elder Holmes's default setting. He wasn't at all sure that he would be able to keep the secret of his new relationship with Sherlock while they were all in the same room. Mycroft would probably be able to read it in the way he handed Sherlock a cup of tea, or the manner in which he raised his left eyebrow.

He knew that Mycroft accepted the depth of his loyalty to Sherlock; he knew that on some level he appreciated it. But he equally knew, deep in his bones, that Mycroft resented him. Resented the fact that John was important to his brother, resented the fact that Sherlock wanted John's company and not Mycroft's. Resented the laughter they shared, the camaraderie, the unthinking sharing of personal space. John didn't doubt how much Mycroft loved and cared for his brother, although it definitely veered towards being overbearing and intrusive. But he had little warmth for the man who had let him believe that Sherlock was dead; had let him go through years of mourning. The man who had calmly watched Sherlock being beaten to a bloody mess in Serbia before finally stepping in to help him escape.

And why would Sherlock want to keep Mycroft and Violet apart? John somehow couldn't imagine the same level of cheerful fondness between them as there was between Sherlock and Vi; but after all, they were relations of sorts. He could only imagine a similar resentment of the closeness they shared. Or perhaps Mycroft took a dim view of Violet marrying into the Holmes family for material gain?

The water was cooling rapidly in the chilly high-ceilinged bathroom. John toyed with the idea of turning the stiff brass bath tap with his toes, refilling it with more hot water and just wallowing for another hour or longer. It was a magnificent tub, he reflected, slowly allowing himself to sink entirely below the surface to rinse his hair. One could easily fit more than one person in its depths, with room to spare.

Now there was an idea. He grinned to himself and sat up, sluicing the last of the soap from his shoulders. He tried his best to ignore the pleasurable ache of desire he felt in the pit of his stomach. But the idea persisted, and as he ran his hands down his own body he thought of sharing the deep hot water with Sherlock, of slowly lathering the richly scented soap all over that lithe form; massaging over every muscle, skimming over every curve and angle. Running his fingertips slowly through slick wet hair and down his spine, further and further down...

He was more than half hard by the time his hand reached his cock and he inhaled deeply as he trailed his fingers gently over the length of his growing erection. He remembered the way Sherlock had kissed him in the hallway, the way the man had felt in his arms that morning, moaning his name... grinding his hard cock against John's. The way his beautiful mouth had latched onto John's erect nipple as he came...

The cool air of the bathroom raised goose bumps all along John's shoulders and the nape of his neck. He rested the back of his head against the raised lip of the bath, and closed his eyes. All he could hear was the rhythmic lapping of the water and the sound of the wind rushing through the branches of the trees outside.

Oh, god. Coming to bed, entirely unclothed. Bringing you to orgasm with my hands. Sherlock's hands travelling all over his body. His mouth. (Christ. His mouth.) Those huge hands, those long elegant fingers slipping down his abdomen, trailing over his quivering stomach and groin and finally gripping John's aching cock. What would it be like? What would Sherlock's face look like as he concentrated on bringing John pleasure? Would they touch each other at the same time, or take it in turns to bring each other off? Would it be different (better?) with a man, who knew instinctively what felt good? Exactly where would Sherlock want to touch him tonight?

John's hips bucked convulsively, and a small wave of water slipped over the edge of the bath, splashing messily on the tiled floor. He gasped as he came, the breathy sound loud in the echoing bathroom. He sank lower into the cooling water, breathing shakily. His heart-rate gradually slowed; his hands coming to rest weakly on his thighs. (Christ, he felt absurdly like a teenager again.) He covered his face with his wet hands and laughed softly.

Damn. He expected that he looked as debauched as he felt. Maybe he really should just stay in the bedroom until it was safe to come out, and Mycroft had left the building.

That in itself might look suspicious, though.

Wincing, John splashed his perspiring face with icy water from the tarnished cold tap, and stood up as the bathwater drained. He dried himself briskly and went in search of some clean clothes in the bedroom. He dressed in front of the newly lit fire, relishing the growing heat from the flames. It was only when he sat in the nearby wing back armchair, in the process of pulling on a pair of warm socks, that it occurred to him that the fire had not been lit before he had gone to take a bath. He stopped short, scanning the room.

It certainly looked rather tidier – Sherlock’s shoes were neatly lined up next to the huge carved wardrobe, and his books were neatly piled on the table next to the bell jar that contained the sad little monkey skeleton. The bed had been made neatly, and on closer inspection the sheets had been changed. Neither John or Sherlock’s pajamas were anywhere to be seen. He was fairly sure that his had been left where he dropped them, on the bedroom carpet.

John groaned aloud, closing his eyes. He hadn’t even fully closed the door to the adjoining bathroom. Whomever (Margaret? Oh god. Oh god!) had tidied the room had probably heard him. He couldn’t even remember if he had made any noise as he touched himself. Oh god.

She was probably washing the sweaty sheets and grubby pajamas at that very moment, with a disgusted look on her dour face. Christ. Well, if anything was going to help quell his libido, that thought certainly did the trick.

What if she made some comment about them to Mycroft? Unlikely, but not beyond the realms of possibility. He didn’t think that Mycroft would bother making conversation with the staff, but what if she decided to talk to him for some reason?

It was this thought that had John racing to lace his shoes, and still pulling his jumper over his head as he trotted down the hallway. How long had he been upstairs? Forty minutes? An hour?

He was almost weak with relief when he heard the unmistakable sound of the Holmes brothers having an argument coming from the direction of the library. John paused, and took several deep breaths. He willed himself to remain cool, calm and collected.

It wasn’t that he was scared of Mycroft. It was more that he didn’t trust himself not to punch the man in the face if he started making snide comments about whatever it was that was happening between Sherlock and himself.

(Right. You’re not twelve. Pull yourself together, Watson. He’s just a bloody bureaucrat in a stupid waistcoat. Who could have you shipped off to Tasmania within a minute if he wanted to. Fuckety fuck fuck fuck!)

Despite the distinctly grand surroundings of Violet’s library, the scene that awaited him was extremely familiar. Mycroft sat in one of the fireside armchairs; his manner superficially relaxed and mild as he surveyed his brother. Sherlock sat opposite him, slouched deeply into his own armchair. His hands were knotted into fists at his sides, and John knew that he was aching for a violin to torture. Sherlock’s face was scrunched into deep lines of distaste and his hair seemed even more unruly than usual, as if it were standing on end like the fur of a disgruntled cat. Speaking of which, Benjy was sprawled between them on the hearth-rug, watching the two brothers with malevolent interest as if he was watching a particularly bloody tennis-match.

“You are being an overbearing ass, as usual. I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing, barging in here like this. You know very well Violet won’t want you here; never mind us.” Sherlock snapped. “Your bloody concern. Yes!” Sherlock hissed. “Yes, I wondered when we’d get to this. I had a very interesting conversation with Violet the other night. Apparently, she wrote to me several times. Tried telephoning Mummy and Daddy, wanting to talk to me. Until you told her in no uncertain terms that I had realised that I was better off without her company. You utter, UTTER git!”

Mycroft sighed heavily, but did not look remotely perturbed. John studied him intently as he quietly took a seat on the nearby chaise longue. Part of him thought that he should leave them to it; but he was far too curious about hearing more about Sherlock and Violet’s past relationship to pay much heed to this notion.

“Brother mine, you know that you were hardly in a fit state to correspond with anyone during that period.” Mycroft said lugubriously, idly twirling the ever-present umbrella between his long clever fingers. “I doubt that Violet would have appreciated receiving the addled scrawlings of an addict, now would she?” he smiled coldly at Sherlock. “Perhaps I should have permitted it, though. It might have been beneficial for her to realise what her influence over you had led to.”

“Oh my god!” Sherlock groaned theatrically, but with real anger. “How many dozen times must we go over this?! No matter what your warped mind may think, Violet did not corrupt me, Mycroft! I did a bloody good job of that myself, as you never cease reminding me!”

Mycroft hummed in a thoroughly unconvinced manner. “Nevertheless, you cannot deny-“

“Deny what?!” Sherlock spat. “Deny that she was my first friend? Christ, you must have hated that, didn’t you?”

“You cannot deny that under her supervision, you began to drink and smoke cannabis regularly-“

Sherlock laughed harshly. “Oh yes. Certainly! It was all Violet’s fault that I eventually became a cocaine addict. Absolutely. And as for her supervision, you utter imbecile, may I remind you that she is all of TWO years older than I am? Shouldn’t you be blaming Sherry or Grandmother?”

“She enabled you-“

“To do many of the usual things that teenage boys do! And how you hated that, didn’t you? You saw me with a friend, enjoying myself. Somebody whose opinions mattered to me more than yours did. Christ, you must have been delighted to get the chance to split us up.” Sherlock was leaning forward in his chair now, and John noticed the index finger he was waving at Mycroft was trembling slightly. His face was deathly pale, and more furious than John had seen it in a long time.

Mycroft said nothing, merely looked at Sherlock with a careworn and slightly disappointed expression. John cleared his throat and edged forward.

“Gentlemen, could we…er… calm this down a bit, perhaps?” he ventured. Both Mycroft and Sherlock seemed to notice John's presence for the first time. He fought the urge to recoil under the combined looks of scorn directed at him.

He swallowed, and clasped his hands on his knees a little self-consciously. Even Benjy seemed to look indignantly at him for interrupting the flow of the argument. “Listen. You really don’t need to do this now, do you? We’ll be back in London before too long. You can both take a while to think about what you want to say, and, er… you can have a good shout about it back at Baker Street, eh? No need to start World War III in Violet’s house.”

“You certainly will be back in London soon. Sherlock will be, anyway.” Mycroft said brusquely. “There’s a jet waiting at Turnhouse. Of course, John, you are free to stay and mmm…amuse yourself any way you see fit.” He delivered this last statement with a deadly little smile.

John blinked a couple of times, willing his face to remain impassive. (Right. Ok. Bastard.)

“I am not going anywhere with you.” Sherlock said flatly, collapsing back into his armchair. “I am utterly sick of the sight of you. And we have a case to conclude, in case you are unaware.”

“Perhaps I should go and explain the situation to dear Violet-“ Mycroft said, getting to his feet.

Sherlock shot up and glared into his brothers face, and John could tell that at times like this he really hated the couple of inches Mycroft had on him.

“You will not say a word to Violet!” Sherlock hissed. “She has had a murder in her house, and she is relying on me to sort it out. The last thing she needs is for you to-“

He paused suddenly, and grimaced. John looked at him curiously, and after a second or two he became aware of the cause for the hiatus. He could hear approaching footsteps coming towards the door of the library, which stood ajar.

“Tea, you blistering barnacles!” came Violet’s voice, and a moment later the door was nudged open. She entered the room carrying a heavy tray, laden with a steaming teapot, china cups and an overflowing silver cake stand. John leapt up to take the tray from her, and watched with concern as her cheerful smile froze. She had caught sight of Mycroft standing in front of the fireplace.

She flushed slowly, letting John take the tray from her unresisting hands. She was back in her messy painting clothes. He could almost feel her discomfort as she stood staring at Mycroft, her face filled with something approaching horror.

“Dear Aunt Violet! How nice to see you after all this time.” Mycroft said unctuously, and without the slightest hint of sincerity. Sherlock directed a look containing daggers at his brother.

John stared at Violet, who had managed to rearrange her face into a bland mask with admirable speed. She wiped her hands over her full hips encased in their grubby old jeans, and John somehow knew that she hated appearing in front of Mycroft in such a state of disarray.

“Mycroft. What are you doing here?” she asked bluntly, without a single hint of warmth. After her initial blush, her face seemed to be paling rapidly; and her scars stood out; livid against the white skin. John edged slightly closer towards Violet, for some reason feeling the need to bolster her. Mycroft watched this small movement with chilly bemusement.

“Oh, you know. Business at Holyrood.” Sherlock snorted loudly at this, but his eyes were anxious as he scrutinised Violet. “I thought I might pop in and see how Sherlock and John are getting along. I admit, I’m a little surprised that it’s taken them this long to resolve a perfectly straightforward case.”

“Holiday!” John interjected, feeling the need to break the tension even if it meant he was going to sound like an idiot yet again. “Sherlock promised me a bit of a holiday. I haven’t been in Edinburgh for years. Lovely place. Haven’t even gotten around to having a deep fried mars bar yet, either. Shame, really.”

“So the murder investigation is being prolonged for the sake of amusement. How novel.” Mycroft said, raising his eyebrows. “However Violet, as I was just saying to Sherlock, I think it best for everyone concerned that he returns to London with me this afternoon. I’m entirely sure that you understand.”

John waited for Violet to send back a sharp, witty retort at Mycroft; to put the overbearing arse back in his place. Sherlock watched her with something approaching dismay as she merely swallowed and nodded, and patted her hair a little distractedly.

She swallowed again, and pasted an approximation of a smile on her pale face. When she spoke, John noticed that her accent was close to that of the Holmes’s: cool and crisp, and very English. “I see. Of course I knew you must be close to finishing up here. I’ll just…” she seemed to somehow flail while remaining utterly still. “I’ll just go and fetch another cup from the kitchen, I didn’t bring enough for four. If you will just excuse me…” she turned towards the door and made a swift exit.

John heard her footsteps falter for a second before they headed quickly away down the corridor.

Chapter Text

John stared at Mycroft with incomprehension and mounting anger. How the hell had he managed to take the wind out of Violet’s sails so completely? He had found it hard to believe how defeated she had looked before fleeing the library.

Sherlock continued to regard his brother with the utmost revulsion and something approaching despair. “Christ, Mycroft. After all this time….” he shook his head distractedly.

“Can’t you just let it go? What harm did she do, really?”

Mycroft sniffed, taking his seat once more. “We’ve discussed this before, Sherlock. I realise that you don’t remotely appreciate the importance of such things. But what she did to our family was completely inexcusable. But my primary concern is, of course, for your continued wellbeing. Mummy was most concerned when she heard where you were-“

“Mummy! Well, I think we all know where she got her impression of Violet from, don’t we?” Sherlock snapped. “You, reporting back to her with your warped little tales. Oh, I remember that look on your face when you found us in the garden that afternoon all too well!”

“And you still cannot understand my concern?!” Mycroft hissed.

“She was bloody drawing me, you idiot!” Sherlock sighed, exasperated. “In case you didn’t realise, she’s an artist!”

“Oh, I’m sure that’s what she told all of the young men whom she had wrapped around her little finger! Or, at least”, he added blandly but with a hint of venom, “…until she became slightly less alluring-“

“Mycroft!” John barked, and was gratified when the elder Holmes looked a little disconcerted. “Kindly tell me what the fuck you are talking about this minute. And do not for one second think that I will put up with you sneering at Violet about her face.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” Mycroft said wearily. “Not another gormless swain of Violet’s. Well, I suppose it’s not entirely surprising, she would be your type. What you should understand about dear Aunt Violet, John, is that she is nothing more than a common criminal who robbed our family blind.”

“I don’t believe you.” John said firmly. “She wouldn’t do that.”

“She’s tremendously lucky that my parents wanted to avoid a scandal, and didn’t take her to court. I suppose they felt sorry for her, after the accident. She’s a thief, John. Whatever charming façade she’s created for herself, you should know that she’s nothing more than that.”

John stared at Sherlock, utterly bewildered. What on earth was this all about? Sherlock had buried his face in his hands, and looked as if he had retreated utterly from the conversation. His shoulders were rigid and his posture indicated complete and total frustration. Could this possibly be the truth?

“What did she steal?” John asked after a moment’s hesitation.

“Extremely rare items from the collections of artefacts belonging to my grandparents.” Mycroft said bitterly. “Most of them were entirely unique, family heirlooms in fact. She married our Uncle Sherrinford with the express intention of obtaining access to the estate collections. Almost all of which disappeared in the years following Sherrinford’s death.”

(Christ. Even Sherlock admitted that Violet married Sherry for the Mesopotamian wax seals. But wait…)

“But she married Sherry! She was legally part of your family-“

“Legally, yes. But the terms of the family entailment were that following the death of my grandparents and uncle, the estate and collections only passed to Violet in life-rent. Upon her death they will revert to our father or, more probably, to me. She can live in the estate, use the contents, make money from the farmlands; but they do not belong to her. She had absolutely no right to take or dispose of those items. It was a criminal act to do so.” Mycroft smiled coldly at John. “And, incidentally, it was very far from being the first criminal act she has committed. Aunt Violet has lived quite an interesting life, John.”

John scrubbed his face with both hands and sighed. “I’m really not interested in your silly feud, Mycroft. You’ve got no right to barge into her house and intimidate her. I will admit we’ve probably drunk a bit more than usual in her house, but there has been absolutely no question of substance abuse.”

“But nonetheless Sherlock has been residing under the same roof as a known small-time drug dealer, as well as keeping company with a former acquaintance with whom he has previously indulged in class B substances. I imagine that you of all people appreciate my concern.”

“If you use the word concern one more time in my presence, Mycroft, so help me I will tell Mummy about Eulalie.” Sherlock glowered, lowering his hands. “I did not remotely care about the bloody collections, and neither did you. The family owes her much more than a few sodding tablets.”

“Who the hell is Eulalie?” John asked, momentarily distracted.

“Never mind.” Mycroft said coolly, getting to his feet. “Sherlock, I will grant you the remainder of the day to resolve matters here. There are some matters which require your attention back in London, which I am not at liberty to discuss in front of... ahem… others.”

“Get out, Mycroft.” Sherlock cried. “Go and find one of those disgusting mars bar things John mentioned, they sound right up your street. I will damn well deal with you later!”

John noticed that he did not absolutely refuse to return to London, and his heart sank a little. Mycroft fussily brushed down his suit jacket and picked up his coat from the end of the sofa.

“Gentlemen. I shall be in touch later.” he bowed slightly, and with a final chilly little smile he was gone.

John waited perhaps ten seconds, before checking the hallway. He was reassured when he heard the distant sound of one of the front doors closing heavily, and ducked back into the library.

Sherlock was still seated in his armchair, glaring at his knees. His expression was dark. Benjy regarded the detective curiously for a moment, then idly reached out a curled claw towards one of his shoe-laces. Sherlock hissed loudly and furiously at the cat, who leapt and scuttled hastily from the room.

John rather knew how Benjy felt, but forced himself to stay put. He sank to his knees onto the hearthrug in front of Sherlock and looked up into his furious face.

“Charming fellow, your brother. I keep meaning to invite him round for beer and the footy at ours some Sunday.” he said mildly. Sherlock snorted and hunched over his knees, eyes shut and his fingers tightly knotted together. His knuckles were white.

(The important thing to do right now was to avoid saying things like: ‘Calm down, Sherlock’, or ‘Cheer up, Sherlock’. ‘What are you thinking, Sherlock?’ Christ. Avoid that one at all costs.)

Of course, these days, was there another option?

Kneeling up, he cautiously shuffled closer to Sherlock. Very, very slowly (Jesus, he’s not a boa constrictor. The worst he can do is shout at you or push you away.) John moved forwards between Sherlock’s knees and reached up, placed both hands on Sherlock’s shoulders and squeezed them gently. Sherlock didn’t move or respond; but at least he didn’t shy away or shake John off. Emboldened by this, John awkwardly slipped his arms further around Sherlock’s shoulders and stroked the back of his neck gently. It was a bit uncomfortable, as Sherlock’s clasped hands were trapped between their stomachs and the man was as stiff as a board. But after a moment or so, Sherlock dropped his face to rest on John’s shoulder and inhaled deeply.

This seemed like progress. “I like that we do this now.” John realised that he had murmured this aloud, and smiled slightly. “I like that I’m allowed to touch you like this.”

Sherlock sighed heavily. “You’ve always been allowed.” he muttered into John’s sweater. “You just never dared to, before now.”

“Christ. You’ve just been proved right. I am an idiot.” John whispered.

“Mmph. You’re my idiot, though.” Sherlock said, finally unknotting his hands and engulfing John in his arms.

A long minute passed, and John contented himself with feeling the rhythm of Sherlock’s breathing, the synchronized movement of their chests where they pressed together. He gently scratched the nape of Sherlock’s neck with his fingernails and was rewarded by the quiet sigh against his shoulder. Sherlock slowly pulled back and looked at John in a slightly wondering way.

John sat back on his heels, fighting the blush that was arising at the way Sherlock was regarding him. It was almost… (astonished? reverent? Christ, almost… adoring? All of the above?)

He cleared his throat and scratched his ear to cover his (admittedly pleased) embarrassment. It was just that… well. He just couldn’t actually remember anyone ever looking at him like that before.

“So. Er. Can you tell me what the hell all that was about, without bursting a blood vessel?” he asked, in what was hopefully a matter-of-fact tone.

Sherlock quirked a small smile, and sat back in his chair. “It’s true that the cuneiform tablets are no longer in the collections at Hilderbogie. They were in Violet’s care after my grandparents died. Grandfather had been ailing for years, but my grandmother died first – less than a year after Sherry. My grandfather died the year after that. Violet made sure he stayed at the estate ‘til the end – he couldn’t have borne going into a nursing home or hospital. Under Scots law she does have the life rent of the estate. And no, she didn’t legally have the right to dispose of the collections. I didn’t hear about it until years later, and only through overhearing Mycroft talking to our father about it. I suppose she must have needed money for some reason; although I’m quite sure the estate still brings in a decent amount. Whatever she did with them, though – she would have made sure they were well taken care of.”

“You don’t mind?”

“Why should I? I’ve never had much time for history, you know that. They were just sitting in storage at my grandparents’ house for decades. Nobody looked at them, or used them for research. They were of no use for anything. Mycroft didn’t want them, not for their own sake. He’s just infuriated that Violet managed to take something that would have potentially come to him one day. Besides,” Sherlock rolled his eyes. “What on earth is the point of fretting over bloody tablets and manuscripts? It’s not as if any of us have or will ever have children to pass these things on to. If they were still in the family, when we all died they would just have been gifted to the British Museum or something dull like that. There is no posterity to pass them on to.”

Sometimes the waves of loss caught John unawares, when he was least expecting them. Sherlock might as well include him in that last, off-hand little statement. The future that John once had, the future that had included things like a family line – it had all disappeared now, hadn’t it? It wasn’t as if there were any Watson family treasures, but he thought of his old childhood books. Harry’s old Chopper bicycle. The dozens of photograph albums his mother kept. When they were all dead, those relics of the past would just be turfed into a skip.

He didn’t think Harry would have children, not at this stage. He hadn’t thought all that much about them himself, until… until it seemed like an inevitability. He had panicked at first, couldn’t possibly imagine himself as a parent. Rebelled at the idea of all the freedom he would lose, at the idea of sleepless nights and the tedium of parent teacher meetings. Having to stay home nights, instead of running around with Sherlock or just going out to dinner with Mary or going for pints with Lestrade and Mike. And yet… once he had gotten used to the idea… it hadn’t seemed so bad. He would adjust. And after a while it seemed positively marvellous, miraculous even. His heart had felt like a slowly unclenching fist when he thought about that daughter, the love he had for the idea of her, and the vision he had of his potential future.

And then it was gone, before it even began. Mary had told him the truth, less than a fortnight before her due date. And abruptly, just like that, his future had vanished. Melted into nothing at all.

“John?”

“Hm?” John’s attention snapped back to Sherlock, who was staring at him expectantly and with some concern. “Damn. Sorry, what?”

(Not the time. Don’t think about it. Not now.)

“Violet. Could you go and see if she’s alright? She’s taking a long time to fetch that cup. She’ll be pleased to hear that Mycroft has left.”

“Oh! Right. Yes. Okay.” John absently wiped his palms on his knees and got to his feet. His knees felt oddly shaky and he held on to the ornate marble mantlepiece for a second as he regained his balance. Very aware of Sherlock’s questioning gaze, he smiled casually and said: “My legs were falling asleep. Bloody pins and needles. Anyway, if I’m checking on Violet; what are you doing?”

“You heard Mycroft. It looks like I’ve got the rest of the day to solve this thing.” Sherlock said gloomily.

John stared at him. “You’re actually going to leave because he told you to? I know our train tickets back to London are for tomorrow, but I sort of assumed we’d-“

Sherlock glared into the depths of the fire. “Not because that git told me to, don’t be moronic. But he’s going to hang around like a persistent stench of sulphur and self-righteousness until I do. And Violet won’t be happy until he’s gone. You saw what happened – I can’t stand watching the life being sucked out of her like that. It’s… it’s wrong.”

“Is she so scared that he’ll drag her through the courts over the collections?”

“Mm. Yes, in a way.” Sherlock stood up and propelled John towards the door. “Anyway, tell her I’ll have a result within a few hours. I’ve allowed myself to get side-tracked; this really shouldn’t have taken me so long.”

“But what are you going to do?” John asked, as he was bodily pushed out of the door of the library.

“Oh, you know. Stuff. Things.” Sherlock said airily, and closed the door between them firmly.

***
Violet was not in the kitchen, but to John’s consternation Margaret Gothford was there, busily sweeping shards of broken pottery into a dustpan. She turned and straightened up as he came in, and raised a questioning eyebrow.

(Oh. Damn, damn damn.)

“Oh. Er- hello again, Ms. Gothford.” he smiled in what he desperately hoped was a nonchalant fashion.

“Doctor Watson.” She nodded coolly at him. “Anything I can help you with?”

“Just, er- just looking for Violet. You haven’t seen her around at all, have you?”

“I saw her heading upstairs not five minutes ago.” Margaret said darkly, returning to her sweeping. John stared at the floor, momentarily distracted from his laundry anxiety.

“Had a bit of a mishap in here?” he asked curiously. “Can I help at all?”

“Pass me that big paper bag over there, will you?” Margaret said unexpectedly, gesturing towards a heavy paper sack on the red formica table. John nodded and held it open for her as she emptied the contents of her dustpan into it. She turned to another pile of blue and gold shards a few feet away; which John recognised as the remains of one of the beautiful gilded coffee bowls he had drunk from that morning.

He held the bag out for her again, and she curtly nodded her thanks as she emptied the second load of glittering fragments into it. There was another pile near the stove; judging by the scattered and broken stems of several purple irises amidst the shattered ceramics, one of the flower jugs had been broken too.

Margaret utterly disconcerted him by taking hold of his arm after he had put down the sack next to the bin.

“I don’t know what set her off, but I don’t like it. She’s not the type to pitch a fit, laddie. Not a bit of it. I've been her housekeeper for nearly a decade now, and I've never seen her like that. I don’t know if it’s the present mess or if it’s something new. But you and that big galoot – you’ll try and sort it out, won’t you?” her usually hard features were oddly pleading.

“Of course we will.” John said humbly. “I promise we will. Sherlock thinks he can figure things out soon, and everything can get back to normal. Might even be today, with a bit of luck.”

He thought for a split second of attempting a comforting pat on the shoulder, then hurriedly thought better of it. Margaret seemed to relax slightly, and stashed her dustpan and brush into a nearby cleaning cupboard.

“She’ll be up in her rooms, I reckon. Third floor. Tell her I’ll do the dinner again tonight if she’s not up to it.”

“I will. Thank you.” John turned for the door.

He had just nearly left the room when he heard Margaret call briskly after him: “I put your things on a hot wash, Doctor Watson – they’ll be back in your room by bedtime, don’t you worry!”

(Ah.)

Chapter Text

John’s mood was not improved by encountering an agitated George Marmaduke in the hall. George’s face was sour and his mouth twisted into a sneer as he caught sight of John making his way towards the main staircase.

Marmaduke was wearing another pair of alarmingly skinny jeans and a blue painting smock that was unbuttoned low enough to display the wispy gingerish hair on his bony sternum. John did not greet the man, but nodded curtly and attempted to give him a wide berth. Unfortunately George had other plans, and his hand shot out to grab John’s arm as he attempted to pass.

“I say! Why the rush, old chap?” Marmaduke asked, with a nasty grin.

John looked down deliberately at the slightly grubby hand that gripped his arm above the elbow, and returned his gaze to the student’s slightly sweaty face. George’s face was magnificently coloured in parts, as enough time had passed since his collision with the wall for the bruising to develop to its full extent. His right eye was blackened to a deep purplish hue, and the bridge of his still-swollen nose was stained with darkest red and plum.

Marmaduke did not remove his hand, and looked expectantly at John.

“I’m just going to see Violet.” he said tersely. “Please let go of my arm, George.”

George’s smile widened slightly, and John noticed for the first time how the pupils of the man’s washed-out blue eyes were oddly dilated. He was perspiring noticeably; his hairline was beaded with sweat, as well as below his absurd little moustache. His mouth seemed to be working restlessly, and John watched with increasing distaste as he licked the droplets from his upper lip.

“Yes, I noticed a certain frisson between you two.” George said, in an oddly cosy fashion. “You lucky dog. I suppose Mr. Holmes is such a cold fish he doesn’t mind giving you a little leeway now and again, eh? A little leeway. Dear Violet is quite the little bohemian, after all. I doubt she minds the fact that you like a little variety.” His grin was ghastly.

“Is there a point to all this, George?” John asked coldly. George licked his upper lip again convulsively .

“Just making conversation. Lucky dog. Lucky dog!

“Then let go of my arm, please.” John said, with more than a hint of steel. George seemed slightly surprised to find that his bony hand was still clutching John’s upper arm. He detached them slowly, with a great show of wiggling his spindly fingers.

“Goodness, touchy chap aren’t you? Off you pop and pay your regards to Violet then. So long, Doctor!”

With a last, ghastly grin he spun on his heel and marched off towards the common room. John watched him go with more than a little disquiet.

 

***

 

John followed the sweeping staircase higher than he had previously done, passing more huge pictures in gilded frames, tapestries, and at one memorable point a huge stuffed ostrich in a shadowy alcove on a half-landing. The house seemed very quiet up here, but brighter than the gloomy downstairs. The curtains on the upper landing had been pulled back and allowed wide shafts of sunlight to permeate the space. Dust motes drifted slowly through the beams of light. John felt an odd childish urge to tiptoe between the golden stripes of light that cut across the deep soft carpet.

It was clear which door to try first, as he reached the third floor. A pair of tall panelled double doors stood ajar, and as he took a step closer John thought that he could hear quiet music coming from inside.

He knocked quietly at one of the doors. “Vi?” he called softly.

He heard a faint sigh from inside, and after a moment he heard her say: “Come in, John.”

Violet’s room was rather disconcerting; stepping into it made John feel as though he had somehow wandered inside a fabergé egg or an overfilled jewellery box. The walls were painted a deep cerulean blue, but were almost obscured by a vast number of paintings, shelves containing huge quantities of books, brightly coloured gilded icons, and any number of odd and beautiful glittering things. A large glass bell-jar was filled with several tiny stuffed hummingbirds perched on the branches of a jewelled golden tree. The bed was ancient carved wood, hung with heavily embroidered and mirrored Indian silk. It was a large, long room with several tall windows that overlooked the topiary in the front garden, and Violet was curled up on one of the window seats. She was still wearing her messy painting clothes and a large panel of needlework was lying discarded in her lap.

“Yes, I know it looks like the nest of a demented magpie in here.” Violet said wearily. “What’s up?”

John came nearer and took a seat opposite her on the low wide window seat. Violet looked tired and washed out in the bright light that streamed through the windows. She half-closed her eyes and leaned back against the panelled window-frame, looking at John unsmilingly from underneath her long eyelashes.

“I suppose you’ve come to tell me that you and Sherlock are leaving?” she asked quietly.

“No, not as such.” John said, tentatively reaching out to take her hand. She didn’t resist, letting her small freckled hand lie limply in his. He swallowed hard. “Mycroft wants Sherlock to go back with him, though. Said that he’d give him the rest of the day to solve the case.”

Violet snorted. “I’m sure that went down well.”

John smiled a little, desperately wishing that she would come back to herself a little. She seemed smaller somehow, listless and a little cold. And anger was there too, chills and hurt.

“Vi… I think we can both agree that Mycroft is a complete and utter arse, right?”

“Quite.” Violet said, staring at the holes in the knees of her jeans. Her narrow fingers twitched slightly in John’s hand, and he noticed that she had been biting her nails savagely.

“Sherlock doesn’t give a damn about the tablets or anything else from the collections. He just told me as much. He wants to get rid of Mycroft for you, though. And he really doesn’t want to leave, but he will if it means that Mycroft won’t come near you again.”

Violet didn’t look up for several seconds. Her hand felt chilled, despite the warmth streaming from the elaborate Victorian cast iron heater beneath the window. She eventually sighed and rubbed her left eye petulantly.

“I can’t bear having him in my house. He always had a right to come to Hilderbogie; it was his birthright. And that was one of the reasons I moved down to Edinburgh permanently, you see. This is my house. He’s got no business coming here. Christ, that endlessly smug, patronising git!” she glared out the window, and John felt a little heartened by this small flash of defiance. Anything was better than the cold, defeated look she had worn before. “The worst thing is, though. He’s in a position to make my life very bloody complicated, if he wants to.”

“Sherlock told me a bit about the collections… I can’t imagine the courts-“

Violet shook her head sharply. “John, it’s not the collections. I very much doubt I’d be convicted of anything. And even if I was, it would be a case of paying a fairly large fine; but nothing too terrible.” She sighed. “I mean, fair enough. I can’t really afford the scandal. If it becomes known that I’m involved in any kind of theft of artefact, that’s the end of me. Professionally, I mean – no archival institution would come near me. But that’s not the worst of it, not by a mile. Mycroft – he knows things about me. I don’t know how he knows all of it, but he does….” She trailed off and swallowed, blinking hard. “John, there are people out there who would dearly love to know where I am. And Mycroft knows who they are, and how to get in touch with them. He informed me of this years ago, after the accident. Being the idiot I am, I thought that surely - I mean after nearly twenty years! - it wouldn’t do any harm to get back in touch with Sherlock. But I got this a few minutes ago.”

She dug in her pocket and pulled out a mobile phone. She pressed a few buttons on it, before holding it out for John to see.

It was a text message, and it simply read: “Filip Vilhjalmsson.” Below the text was a photograph of a stocky man exiting a tall art-nouveau style city apartment building through a pair of grand front doors. There was snow piled up at the corners of the steps and the man was wearing a heavy coat and boots. His face was a little blurred, but his fading red hair was bright in the sunlight. There was some kind of date stamp in the bottom right corner of the photograph; and John realised that it had been taken that very day.

“Sweden?”

“Norway.” Violet said flatly. “Taken within the last hour. That man cannot find out where I am, John.”

He stared at her wordlessly. She wriggled slightly, and sighed. “Christ. It’s a long story and I’ll need a stiff drink before telling it.”

“You don’t have to tell me anything.” John said quietly. “Your past is absolutely none of my business. But if you’re in danger of any kind, Sherlock and I will help you.”

Violet smiled for the first time, with the first sign of real warmth. She reached out to take his hand again and squeezed it. “Oh, laddie. I absolutely believe that you would, if you could. But these people – that man is only one of them – they’re not the type who can be handed over to the police. And if by some miracle they were, they’d bring me down with them. John, I have done some terrible things in my time.”

She said this softly, and in an utterly matter-of-fact way.

John studied her wordlessly for a moment or two. “I can’t believe that of you.”

Violet snorted. “Of me now? Fair enough. But long ago and far away, as they say in the stories… I did some very bad things. At first, I had the excuse of it being a matter of survival. And after a while it wasn’t just out of necessity, not really. I could have walked away. But I didn’t; not for quite a while.”

John felt something akin to ice trickling down his back. He suddenly remembered Mycroft’s snide words: Well, she would be your type.

Christ. He felt the blood draining from his face. Violet was watching him intently.

“Have you killed people?” he managed to ask bluntly, after a moment or two.

“Yes.” She said levelly. “Twice.”

(Fuck. Fuck, why did this keep happening? Did every charming person he met have to turn out to be a fucking murderer?)

“Why?” was all he managed to say, and even in his own ears it sounded pleading.

Violet smiled at him bitterly, evidently reading all the horror that was swirling through his mind. “Never for fun, or for money. The first time… the first time was necessary. I promise you that. And the second time? Well. Also absolutely necessary, but for rather different reasons.”

They stared at each other warily for several seconds.

John swallowed several times, finding his mouth unaccountably dry. Finally, he managed to say: “Alright. Tell me.”

 

***

 

One of the first of the many surprising things that John learnt about Violet that afternoon was that her name was not, in fact, Violet. And Vernet was far from the surname she had been born with.

“I was born in the west of Ireland, in 1975. It wasn’t any place that you would have heard of; it was in the middle of nowhere for a reason. Because it was a place that was supposed to be difficult to get to. And,” Violet added quietly. “Because it was supposed to be even more difficult to get away from.

“And an important thing to know is that the 1970s in the west of Ireland were very different to the 1970s in Britain. You might as well think of it as the 1940s or 50s in some ways. And my mother, you see… well, I had to piece this together later. I never knew her. Her name was Gráinne. But she was a beautiful girl. Long curly black hair and huge brown eyes. I can’t really think of her as an adult at all, because I’m more than twice the age she was when she had me… Christ. But she was a traveller. Do you know what that means?”

“A gypsy?”

“Yes, that's what they... we... were called, although it's perhaps not strictly accurate. But travellers were lower than dirt in Irish society. Still are, in a lot of ways. But back then, out in the country, they were generally treated as dirty, lying, thieving scum who would steal the false teeth out of people’s mouths and the sheep from their fields given half the chance. And even though my mother was a beautiful girl, nobody from outside her community would have touched her. But that was alright, because nobody would have approved of her getting involved with an outsider. She was meant to marry her first cousin, who was six years younger than her. She was meant to wait for him to get a bit older, before they’d marry.

“But when she was nineteen she met a man at a market, when she was trying to sell some clothes she’d made. I’ve got a piece of embroidery that she did; it’s bloody beautiful. She was properly talented.” Violet glanced down at her own stitching in her lap, and sighed. “I suppose I get that from her, at least.

“But anyway, she met a man at this market. His name was Philip, and he said he was a historian; visiting the local museums and big houses, researching the local culture. He didn’t spit at her or tell her to keep her dirty knacker hands to herself. He wanted to know some of the stories and songs that she had learnt from her parents and grandparents. He was interested in the patterns that she embroidered. And he was a handsome man, with nice clothes and good manners. He had blue eyes and red hair, and a strange accent. He was a rare and unusual creature to meet in that neck of the woods, and I reckon my mother was half in love with him by the end of the afternoon.

“Philip tried to take her out for dinner, but none of the local pubs or restaurants would serve her. So he bought a picnic and they sat on a headland overlooking the beach. They stayed out late, for which my mother was beaten by her father. It’s entirely possible I was conceived that night; who knows? I suppose there are worse places to enter existence than a grassy headland underneath the stars, with the sound of the waves on the rocks nearby.

“Gráinne sneaked away again the next day, and the next. It was clear to her family that she had some kind of secret; and eventually she told them that she had met a man from far away, and that he wanted to hear some of the songs and stories that had been passed through the family for generations. And because they wanted to get a look at this man, my mother’s parents agreed. The stranger showed up one evening, and my mother sat next to him on a piece of driftwood next to the fire. He ate the food given to him, and drank the poitín straight from the bottle when it was offered. He was respectful and polite, and he wrote down all manner of notes in his little notebook as the stories were told. He greatly admired the gypsy songs and the fiddling. It all went unbelievably well, considering. It was made very clear to him that night, however, that he was to have nothing to do with Gráinne. She was promised to her cousin, and that was the end of it.

“He seemed to take this well, although he did tell her father that he would have been honoured to marry her himself; that his intentions were true.” Violet stared out the window at the trees below, her beautifully shaped lower lip twisting a little. “Which was a handsome thing to say, when there was no danger of being held to it.

“A few days later, Philip told my mother that he had to go to Dublin, for an urgent appointment at the National Library there. Of course, he would be back; he had a plan. He was sure he could convince her parents to let her marry him. Failing that, she would come away with him. They would run away and get married, and they would start again somewhere else.

“Well, strangely enough; Philip did not come back from Dublin. Gráinne waited, and she waited some more. She got another beating after she took a bus to Dublin herself, and desperately tried to find him. They had never heard of the man at the National Library; but he had a complicated surname and she wasn’t sure if she pronounced it properly. She couldn’t write it down either, you see; she couldn’t write more than her own name. It must have been terrifying for her, having to go round a big city like that on her own. She’d never been anywhere larger than a market town.

“She had to come back, in the end. And it became all too clear before long that I was on my way into the world. My grandparents were furious, because she couldn’t marry her cousin; not now. Not now that she was damaged goods.

“And so, eventually she ended up at the door of a convent. She was seven months pregnant, sported several bruises, and was wearing only one shoe. She had to beg them to let her in; and that really was saying something. Because everyone knew what those places were like. And because she was a traveller, it was worse for her than it was for most. She was beaten there, too; but this time it was for her own good. It was righteous punishment, you see. It was only right that she should suffer for her mortal sins.”

Violet trailed off and remained silent for several seconds. She was still turned towards the window, but John could see her reflection in the glass. She blinked furiously and swallowed before continuing. “She worked all day in the laundry there, along with all the other unfortunate ‘bad girls’. They were scarcely fed, for which they were supposed to be grateful. It was slave labour; it was a fucking Victorian workhouse in the late 20th century, with a massive helping of religious guilt and repression thrown in. They cut off her beautiful hair. They told her she was even more of a sinner because she was a dirty gypsy. But once you were in there, there was no getting out. And really, none of those girls had anywhere else to go.

“I think she was probably mostly dead on the inside by the time I arrived. She only lasted a few days longer. I don’t blame her; I wouldn’t have had the heart to keep living if I were her. They buried her in an unmarked grave, along with all the other girls who couldn’t face living any more. I’ve been back, you see. It took me years to get up the courage, and when I did; I had no way of knowing which of those dozens of graves was hers.”

“Vi… Vi, this is too much. You don’t have to tell me this part. You don’t have to-“

Violet glared, and wiped her eyes distractedly. “Fuck it. Yes I do. I want to. I haven’t told anyone about this for bloody decades. Not since… well. And don’t tell me you don’t want to know, I can see that you do. So you can just bloody listen. You asked for this, didn’t you?

“Right. Right. So. There I was, in this godforsaken (and I use that word advisedly) convent. Usually, children were adopted as soon as possible. It cost a lot, you see, to feed children. They weren’t so easy to control as the mothers, who stayed there until they were deemed to have repaid the ‘charity’ they had been given. But adoptive parents weren’t forthcoming for me. When I was older, I was told by the nuns that it was because nobody wanted a child whose mother was a gypsy and whose father was some shadowy foreigner. I eventually realised, however, that they intended to keep me there. I worked in the kitchen and the laundry. I cleaned the toilets and I made the nuns’ beds. It was obvious I was intelligent enough to do these things, at least. I learnt quite early to keep as quiet as possible. To never, ever, ask questions.

“They made their great mistake when I was seven, however.” Violet smiled grimly. “Because when I was seven, they allowed me to learn how to read. I think it was probably with a mind for me to take on more household tasks; or so that I could run errands. One or two of the nuns had already seemed a little suspicious of me; I mean, I was already suspicious due to my parentage. But I noticed that when I added up some of the kitchen grocery accounts in my head without thinking, Sister Agnes looked at me oddly. And when I could remember all the names of all the businesses whose laundry we washed, and how many items were in each order, Sister Dorothy glared at me and slapped my face for being a know-it-all.

“The woman was an idiot. Calling me a know-it-all? Was that an insult? I wanted to know everything. And when I learnt to read, it was like looking at the night sky for the first time… It’s hard to explain. It was like… like having thought for years that each star was just a spot of light; and then realising that each and every one was an entirely new world. There was just so much to learn. I was drunk with it. I’d sneak out of bed in the middle of the night to read the newspapers that had been thrown in the bins. I read all of the books in the convent library within months. I went down to the kitchen and hid under a blanket with the radio pressed to my ear, so that I could hear about things happening in other places.

“And I realised that the place where I was, it was utterly inconsequential. It was nowhere. It was a pinprick in a huge map. It had been my world, and I’d never been anywhere else; I’d never been further than two miles away from the convent in my life. And it was then, aged seven, that I realised that I had to get away.

“The nuns told me that since my mother had died, I was working to atone for her sins as well as my own. That I was lucky that they would extend their charity to me. Fucking charity. I slept on a camp-bed with a single sheet, at the end of the girls dormitory. I wasn’t even allowed a bed. I listened to the sound of girls weeping every night for the duration of my childhood. I ate scraps. I wore clothes that belonged to the girls that died; I had to safety pin the sleeves and hems so that they wouldn’t drag on the floor. On average, I was hit in the face twice a week. I was thoroughly beaten seven times during my time there.

“It’s funny, how anger can build. I was really good at hiding it, I had to be. But learning how to read somehow made it all much harder to bear. I can’t ever remember believing in their god. It became more and more clear to me that for them, religion was a means of getting and retaining power over others. I read the bible several times, mainly because it was the only book I was allowed to read. I only made the mistake of asking questions about it once. I still have the scars on my legs from that incident. Sister Dorothy used the buckle end of the belt that time.

“So, I was becoming more and more aware of the world; and the fact that they were never going to let me see it. I was never going to get adopted. We were miles and miles from the nearest village; and even further from the nearest bus or train station. I was trapped, and I knew that I could easily end up staying there for years; for the rest of my life, maybe. There were old women there, you know. Girls who had had nowhere to go after they gave birth and had to give up their babies; they just… stayed. They went odd in the head, almost all of them. Completely institutionalised. They didn’t know anything about the world outside the walls anymore; the idea of it frightened them. I knew I couldn’t let that happen to me.

“I was only a matter of weeks away from making a run for it when he showed up. I was eleven, and I was nearly sure I could manage the fifteen miles to the bus stop. I’d been planning on stealing a bicycle if I could, but failing that I would walk it in a night. I thought I’d been found out when I was called to the Mother Superior’s office. I was sure I would be beaten again when I went in. I stood outside for a good ten minutes, wavering before I knocked. In the end the door opened, and Sister Dorothy was standing there. And there was a man sitting at her desk. He had red hair and blue eyes, and he was wearing a beautiful grey suit and the shiniest shoes I had ever seen. He didn’t have my freckles, but I knew who he was, alright. He didn’t smile at me, but he looked at me for a long time.

“I think he gave them quite a lot of money, so that they would let me go without a fuss. He barely spoke to me at all, and didn’t seem remotely pleased to see me. I was too scared to say anything to him at all; I’d hardly ever seen a man before, apart from the priest who came to say mass in the chapel on Sundays. I was given ten minutes to pack my things and a pillow case to put them in. I overheard Sister Dorothy telling him that I required a lot of discipline before I went back into the office. That my mother’s blood was the reason I needed a firm hand.

“I didn’t say goodbye to anyone. It would have broken the older girls’ hearts to see me get to leave; and I had no love for any of the nuns. I was nearly a mute at that stage; because talking only ever got me into trouble. Beyond reciting my prayers at mass, I barely said more than please and thank you to anyone.

“But I spoke to him as he drove me away from the convent in his shiny green car. I asked him: ‘Why now? Why did you come and get me now?’

“And he said to me: ‘It wasn’t my idea.’”

Chapter Text

“I didn’t dare say anything else to him after that. I sat there in the passenger seat, holding my pillowcase on my knees and staring at the road ahead, rushing towards me. I wanted to ask him questions, so badly. I wanted to know whose idea it was to take me away from the nuns. I wanted to know where we were going. I was too scared, though. I’d never been alone in the company of a man. I was so afraid that he was going to do something terrible to me. Some of the girls in the convent; they were there because of what their fathers had done to them. Others had been thrown out of their homes by their fathers when they became pregnant. I knew that just because this man had come to fetch me, it didn’t mean that he was going to be nice. I mean, I knew from books and the radio that fathers could be lovely, but I had no experience to back that up. So I sat there, so tense that my muscles ached. I kept wondering if I should jump out of the car and run, if I somehow got the chance.

“But we drove for hours, though and we didn’t stop once. I badly needed the bathroom but I didn’t say so. The silence between us was so heavy, I had developed a sort of horror of saying a word. I didn’t realise that he was taking me so far away. It didn’t occur to me that he was taking me right out of the country before we arrived at the port. We were the last people to drive onto the ship, and before I could make up my mind about running they had closed the doors to the car deck.

“We sat there in the dark for a few minutes. He lit a cigarette. My hands were sweating so much I had soaked handprints into the pillowcase I was still holding on my knees.

Eventually he turned to look at me and sort of smiled. He said, ‘I would usually go up to the main deck, but in those clothes you are hardly fit to be seen.’

“He seemed rather amused by the fact that an eleven year old was wearing a skirt and blouse that were meant for a grown-up. He reached out, I think to touch the hole in my sleeve, and I shot back against the car door. I couldn’t countenance the idea of him touching me. Really, anyone touching me. Nobody ever had before, unless they were going to hit me. He wasn’t pleased about my reaction, I could tell.

“I asked him if there was a toilet on the ship, and he sighed and took me upstairs. Everything was so strange; I’d never even been in a car before that day and now I was on a ship going who knew where. I nearly fell over several times, what with the motion of the waves. We didn’t see many other people, but I got some funny looks from a few of the passengers. My skirt was dragging on the floor on one side, because I’d lost one of the pins that held it up. My hair was all over the place and I was sweating like mad. After I got to a toilet, we went and sat up on the deck.

“Ireland seemed to be disappearing very fast. Already it was just a blurry green line, ebbing away behind me. It was gone altogether before long. I didn’t realise at the time that I wouldn’t see it again for several years.”

“Where were you going?”

“Bergen. It seemed to occur to Philip after a while that he might as well tell me. He bought me a dry cheese sandwich and a horrible cup of tea, and he told me that we were going to his family. It all felt so surreal. All I had known before then was that my father was a foreigner. I hadn’t even known what country he was from. It was only that day I found out I was half Norwegian. That I had some kind of family.

“The trip took hours and hours. It was late October, and I didn’t have a coat. I was so cold and I felt sick from the way the ship lurched through the waves. Philip didn’t seem to feel the cold; but then he was used to it. He took out a book after a while, and read. When we reached Bergen we got back in the car and he drove north for another two or three hours.

“I had hoped we were going to a town or a city, but we seemed to be heading out into the wilderness. I was sickened when we ended up outside a big house in the country. It seemed as if I was being moved from one prison to another. When we went inside though, it was very different from the convent. It was a big modern place, all black and white and only a few bits of uncomfortable looking furniture. It was so obviously clean that I was scared to touch a thing. There was a fire burning in the hall, but it seemed incredibly cold in there.

“It was my grandmother’s house. When she came into the room, she seemed none too pleased to see Philip; she barely acknowledged his existence. She was a hard looking woman, very tall with masses of grey hair in a bun. She was dressed all in black, very elegant. She couldn’t stop staring at me, and when she first spoke to me it was in Norwegian. I hadn’t a clue what she was saying, and I suppose it was obvious. She switched to English, then. A beautiful accent, just perfect. She didn’t bother saying hello, or welcoming me. She simply said that I would be living there for the time being, and that my room was on the second floor. And then she walked out of the room, like she was in some kind of hurry. I hadn’t said a word to her; I just stood there gaping. She scared me almost as much as Philip; with her black clothes and air of authority she reminded me of the nuns. That was the first time I met a member of my extended family. I learnt later that her name was Hedda.

“Philip seemed a little irritated; and he showed me to my room. It was grander than anything I had ever seen before, and as artfully empty as the rest of the house. He followed me into the room, and sat down at the desk. I just stood in the middle of the white carpet, still holding on to the pillowcase. I didn’t know what to do or say. I couldn’t look him in the eye, but I knew I needed to keep watch on him. I didn’t know if he was going to hit me or attack me in some way. I know it probably sounds hysterical; but I was eleven, and before then I had only heard about the evil that men did. I didn’t have any idea of what nice or kind men were like. And as it turned out, he wasn’t a nice man. But at least he didn’t touch me.

“’Why haven’t you asked me any questions?’ he asked, after lighting a cigarette. ‘Are you so uncurious about what is happening to you?’

“’Am I allowed to ask you questions?’ I asked, after a minute. I still couldn’t look at him, just the knot of his tie. I still remember it; forest green silk with cream spots. Beautiful.

“He seemed a little amused by that, and nodded. He had such cold eyes, though. I could tell, even then, that he didn’t want me there. Not at all. After a moment or two, I screwed up my courage and asked him to tell me why he had brought me to that place.

“And he sighed heavily, and began to talk. He said that his mother had only learnt of my existence a few weeks previously. She had not been pleased to hear of his ‘indiscretion’ (that was his word for it; for the abandonment of my mother and my unfortunate entry to the world. Christ.). While she wasn’t pleased about the fact that she had an illegitimate grandchild; she couldn’t condone abandonment. (I learnt later that Philip’s younger brother Karl had let it slip in the middle of an argument. My entire existence was revealed as a way of scoring points during a family row.)

“Hedda had sent him to fetch me; I was to live with them from now on. Philip made it very clear that I was to call him by his name. There was absolutely no question of calling him father or papa. He also made it very clear that he had no intention of being any kind of parent to me. And, you know, I was almost grateful for that. I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea how to react if he’d tried to be any kind of dad. Oh, he was a strange man in a lot of ways. As cold as they come, but he could charm the birds from the trees if it suited him. I learnt in the following days and weeks that he was really quite brilliant. He wasn’t lying when he told my mother that he was a historian; he was an expert in seventeenth and eighteenth century European art and folklore. He had published books, he had worked for several very important museums and galleries in Norway and further afield. He knew exactly how to authenticate almost any kind of document or painting you put in front of him.

“And all this, of course, was tremendously useful to him in his most lucrative profession. Because Philip, as it turned out, was a forger. And it wasn’t just him; it was something of a family affair. From the outside, they were as respectable as you could imagine. But on the inside… oh, you wouldn’t believe all the things they were involved in. It would take me days to tell you all of it, and I’ve always been sure that I didn’t know the half of it.

“Philip was certainly a cold, odd man. It was something of a family trait. When he realised that I truly didn’t know a single word of Norwegian, he was incensed. I mean, can you imagine? How the hell could I possibly know Norwegian? Where on earth would I have learnt it? But somehow, in his head, he thought that I should somehow instinctively know it. He insisted on my starting to learn it, and luckily I managed it quite fast. I was already rather good at Latin, which redeemed me in his eyes slightly.

“Hedda, as it turned out, was something of an ally. She was as cold as her son, but I think she realised that I was clever quite quickly. I helped in the kitchen, because at least that was something I knew how to do. I was terribly worried that they would throw me out, you see. And as anxious as I was, I didn’t want to face being alone in a foreign country. So I did my utmost to be useful. The staff didn’t want me to clean, but I was permitted in the kitchen. A lot of my early Norwegian language skills came from the shelves of cookbooks; I knew the words for ‘ladle’ and ‘chopping knife’ before I learnt ‘dog’ or ‘friend’. Hedda allowed me to use the library, and she watched me for a while as I began to read. Slowly at first, then faster and faster. I managed to read Great Expectations in Norwegian within a month of my arrival, and I didn’t really need the dictionary for much longer. That was the greatest incentive, you see – a limitless supply of books to read. I didn’t care what language they were in, I was damn well going to read them all.

“And slowly, she started pointing out the differences between the editions; the types of paper and ink. The different styles of hand in the earlier handwritten manuscripts. How you could identify the components of ink by smell and texture on the paper. It was the first time someone taught me something ungrudgingly. And I thrived on it; I spent hours and hours studying the variations between materials, learning the differences between vellum, parchment and all the hundreds of different kinds of paper. It didn’t take her as long as she thought to teach me all about the library collections; within six months I think my knowledge rivalled hers. She was clever enough not to resent this, and she decided to start me on the art collections.

“By this time, Philip had come to realise that I wasn’t stupid. I still clammed up whenever he was around; he scared me still. And he disappeared frequently for several days or weeks at a time. But eventually, he took over where Hedda left off. He started taking me to galleries, to auctions. He showed me the art collections owned by the family, a lot of which was kept in a special climate controlled room in the cellars of the house. Other items were kept in a storage facility in Bergen. He taught me about pigments, about technique, about canvases and style. I didn’t really understand at first why he put so much emphasis on the physical nature of the paintings; he didn’t seem to care very much about what the artist was trying to say. He didn’t seem to have any kind of sense of beauty; he didn’t seem to feel much about the paintings. He simply didn’t understand when I would linger for as long as possible in front of one work and not another, particularly if it was deemed to be less valuable. He was impatient and scathing if I forgot something he taught me, so I had to be quick. When I proved myself capable of absorbing everything he told me, he set about teaching me to draw. No, not draw per se… to copy. He would make me sketch a painting ten times in a day, over and over again. I hadn’t known that I could draw before, because I’d never had the chance. But I was good at it, even he could see that. But he didn’t care about the things I drew for myself. It made him angry, even. He didn’t want me to develop a style, because of course he was only interested in the styles of others.

“Of course, by this point I had realised that there had to be a point to all this endless instruction and sketching. I never explicitly asked him the reason; I still had something of a horror of asking questions. In the back of my mind, that was always a sure path towards being beaten. It was nearly a year before he showed me his study, where he did his own work. I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t shocked. I was… fascinated. He let me watch him, working from dozens of photographs of every square inch of an old oil painting of peasants in a snow-covered field. He was half-way through his copy, and it was remarkable. And I realised that I had seen this painting before, in a book in the library. It had disappeared during the war in Germany; the Nazis had looted it from a prominent Dresden family. Philip told me calmly that he had a prospective buyer in Leningrad for the painting. It went without saying that the buyer was expecting the original, that he believed that Philip had somehow procured the original. His reputation as a historian helped tremendously – who on earth would question Vilhjalmsson’s judgement on whether a painting was real or not?

“I successfully forged a painting for the first time when I was thirteen. By that stage, I was working every day in Philip’s study. I was still wary of him, but I didn’t panic every time we were alone in the same room. My education by then consisted of artistic technique and whatever I could read in the library. There was no mention of my going to school. I realised much later on that I didn’t even have a social security number. I probably had some kind of birth certificate somewhere back in Ireland, but I never had a copy. We were several miles from the nearest town, and if the education authorities knew of my existence, they certainly didn’t do anything about my truancy.

“It was fun, in a way. I felt challenged for the first time. I didn’t get much in the way of praise, but at least I knew I was doing well enough to fool people with my works, experts even. Of course, I was never involved with the business side of things. I hadn’t a clue how he went about selling the paintings. I knew his younger brother Karl was involved, but I’d only met him once or twice during my first couple of years in Norway. He passed through now and again, picking up the paintings. He usually came at odd hours, very late or very early.

“Karl looked like Philip, the same blue eyes and red hair. But while Philip went to great lengths to avoid touching me, Karl started making a point of seeking me out whenever he saw me. I’d… filled out a bit by the time I entered my teens. I finally had enough to eat, and I started growing, fast. I was embarrassed by this, and I tried to hide my body under big sweaters and long skirts. Karl noticed before anyone else. He made a point of brushing against me, of ‘accidentally’ touching me. I knew that he was the kind of man that the nuns warned us about, but I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do. He was my uncle, and he was an adult. I was sure that if I made a fuss I would be thrown out, and where would I go then? Philip never seemed to notice, but I think Hedda noticed how I froze up when Karl was around. She would give me an errand to run or something to learn when he was around; but he always seemed to know where to find me. I eventually managed to create a few bolt-holes around the property where I could hide if necessary. He seemed greatly amused by the fact I couldn’t speak when he groped me, that I squeezed my eyes shut and shook. He seemed to like it. Thank god my bedroom door had a lock; more than one night I heard the handle turn.

“Karl was involved in a lot of things, things I wasn’t aware of til much later on. One morning he showed up at breakfast, with a bad cut on his cheek and blood all over his coat. His hands were shaking and he went straight for the brandy on the sideboard. It was several hours later that I realised that the blood on his coat could not possibly have come from the wound on his face. It belonged to somebody else. It was a lot of blood. Philip and Hedda barely reacted to it at all.

“Hedda died suddenly of a stroke when I was fifteen. I couldn’t say that I loved her, but I missed her more than I thought was possible. She was the first person who had seen potential in me; the first person who had bothered to teach me anything properly. The house felt all wrong without her. It seemed much darker there without her. And it quickly became clear that she had been the main force that had restrained Karl. Within a week he had become more aggressive. He left bruises when he grabbed me and pushed me up against the pantry door in the kitchen. He pulled some of my hair out at the roots.

“I tried saying something to Philip, but he just looked through me. After his mother died, he turned into something of a ghost. He barely said a word to anyone anymore. Karl came to stay more and more frequently. It got to the point where I ran straight out of the back door when I heard his car coming up the drive. I would walk the fields and woods around the house for hours in all weathers, often without a coat. It was still preferable to being around him.

“On the outside, I suppose I was meek. I was still scared a lot of the time. I was terrified of what Karl could do to me; I was terrified of being thrown out of the house if I made a fuss. But I was also becoming increasingly angry. It burnt within me, every minute of the day. The level of rage I felt frightened me at times. But when he touched me, I froze. He was a lot bigger than me, and perhaps on some level I thought that if I shut my eyes and clenched every muscle in my body, if I just put up with his hands sneaking inside my clothes he would get bored and go away. Inside, though – I killed him a hundred times over, in so many horrible ways.

“And eventually, I actually did. I planned it out carefully, over a few months. I gave him every opportunity to leave me alone. But I took his life. It was the only way I could make it stop.”

***

John left Violet where she was, still curled up on the low wide window seat in the Aladdins cave of her bedroom. She had watched him go wearily, with no other farewell than a half-hearted smile. He was shaken and felt a little sickened. What he mainly felt however, was a slowly rolling, simmering fury.

("She would be your type.")

Fuck you, Mycroft. Fuck you and stick your bloody umbrella somewhere really bloody uncomfortable. Fuck you and your smug, patronising little smile. The sheer gall of the man.

And the unapologetic cruelty of it all. John had certainly been shocked, and discomfited by what Violet had told him over the course of the afternoon (he had to keep on thinking of her as Violet, never mind that he now knew her real name. Violet was who she was now. That was what mattered, at least in John’s mind. He had been shocked, yes. And the story that she had told him left him… appalled? Yes, on occasion.

But he still felt as determined as ever to stand between her and the elder Holmes. He was prepared to sit on the doorstep and act as sentry, if it came to it.

John was a very different man to the one he had been when he was eighteen. He sometimes looked back with an odd, wondering awe at the naiveté of his teenage self; wide-eyed, impressionable, desperately selfish and hopelessly idealistic. The world had been black and white; his ideas were clear about what was right and wrong. It had taken him many years of experiencing heartache, frustration, horror, fear and love before he came to realise that the world was not simple. It was complicated, and hard and messy. And sometimes the decisions you had to make involved choosing between two or more terrible options; sometimes there was no right way to proceed. Sometimes you had to lob your choice into the world, as hard as you could. You could only duck and cover, and hope against hope for the best.

He knew, with sickening clarity, that Violet had found this out at a far younger age than he ever did.

He wasn’t able to leave her with words of reassurance. Because the ammunition that Mycroft held ready in his long clever hands was far too dangerous. John knew all too well that the man would calmly burn the city to ashes and rubble if he thought it would keep his younger brother safe from harm. Sacrificing Violet to the wolves?

The work of an instant. The twitch of a finger.

Christ, how it rankled, the idea of simply giving in. Of quietly packing their bags and leaving by nightfall, even if it was to remove the imminent threat over her head. If it came to it, John would do it. Sherlock would leave too, although he would probably suffer fits and have a week-long migraine from the sheer frustration of complying with the ultimatum.

And while John was excited and more than a little thrilled at the prospect of just the two of them, back at Baker street, he didn’t want to see Sherlock walk away from Violet.

On some level, he sort of felt that he should be jealous of Violet. Of the history, of the connection between them. He was the one who was meant to make Sherlock smile. He was supposed to be the only person who had the power to make the man in some small way good and not just great. But something shifted in his heart every time he saw Violet grin delightedly up into Sherlock’s face. Each time he watched them tease each other and bicker, he silently thought - Thank god. You had this. I’m so glad you had this, Sherlock, once upon a time. And thank god you’ve found each other again.

(Violet's fervent voice in the conservatory that night: "Oh, Christ John. I’m so glad he’s got you. Just so bloody glad of it. I’d always worried, you see. It was always in the back of my mind that he was facing the world alone.")

And that ran both ways, he thought, as he slowly followed the curling staircase downwards. Violet may have worried about Sherlock facing the world alone. But John was helplessly glad that Sherlock had had her in his life, even though it had been all too briefly. Even if it had been so long ago. He couldn’t help but feel glad that somewhere in the past, Sherlock and Violet had gone crashing around the Aberdeenshire countryside together; practising archery in the drawing room and getting tipsy in rowing boats. He was glad of that flash of brightness in what had probably been a deeply solitary youth. And he felt, somehow, when he watched them together he got to see a little of what Sherlock had been like, once upon a time. Back when he had been so much less guarded, before he had suffered and ached; before he had been hardened by time and life and addiction.

But was she responsible in some way for Sherlock’s descent into cocaine and suffering?

Not deliberately, no. Of course not. And it wasn’t as if John hadn’t drunk to excess or smoked the odd joint as a teenager. But if you introduced someone like Sherlock to such pleasures, someone who certainly had all the hallmarks of an addictive personality; could you be held accountable in some way? Could the cannabis have acted as some kind of gateway, the first steps of the path that led towards the cocaine?

Christ. What was the point in all this? Sherlock may well have been impressionable. But Violet wouldn’t have forced him into trying anything. Sherlock had been quite clear that he held only himself accountable for his self-destructive binges. It certainly seemed that it had never occurred to the detective that he should blame anyone other than himself for his addiction. So where the hell did Mycroft get off, pinning the blame on Violet?

John paused, absently grasping the intricately carved bannisters of the first floor staircase. He stared unseeingly into the depths of a huge abstract painting for a few seconds.

Because he loves his brother above all else. Because he still aches and coldly rages over the way Sherlock suffered. Because he’s ashamed of it.

Because he wants it to be somebody else’s fault.

Chapter Text

John’s thoughts were unexpectedly shattered by the sound of raised voices in the hall below, and he leaned curiously over the bannisters to see what was causing the disturbance.

Around twenty feet below him, on the chequered black and white tiles Basil Montague was standing almost nose to nose with George Marmaduke. Basil’s usually good natured, blandly handsome face was flushed and his fists were clenched. Marmaduke was grinning at him in an inane fashion, clearly finding Basil’s ire highly amusing.

“-for heavens sake! Honestly, George you are acting like a total twit; I don’t know what’s gotten into you! That was completely uncalled for, and I must insist that-“

“Oh do shut up, old man. You’ll give yourself a nosebleed with all this righteous indignation. Hilary didn’t mind a bit! It was just a bit of slap and tickle, eh?” George raised a thin eyebrow, his smirking expression laden with innuendo.

Basil gaped at him. “Do you honestly think that it’s acceptable behaviour to lay a hand on another man’s fiancée?”

“Depends on the fiancée, really…” George said, after what seemed to be a thoughtful little pause.

Basil tightened his fists, his face flushing a dull red as he narrowed the gap between them.

John was torn; as badly as he would have liked to witness George getting a good thrashing from Basil, it probably wasn’t going to improve the atmosphere in Violet’s house any further. It was the last thing she needed on top of everything else hanging over her head.

He cleared his throat noisily and jogged down the stairs, coming to a halt a few feet away from the two men. Basil still looked furious but he took a step back from George, who gave John a ghastly, toothy grin.

“If it isn’t the good doctor!” George drawled. “I do hope you spent an enjoyable afternoon with Violet. You’ve been upstairs quite a while, you know.”

John ignored this and shot a look at Basils flushed face. “Everything alright here?” he asked, feeling ridiculously like a teacher breaking up a schoolyard row.

“Oh, poor old Basil has his knickers in a twist over nothing.” Marmaduke grinned. “I think he’s er, a little… frustrated, if you get my meaning.”

“George!” Basil hissed, incensed. “I don’t know what is wrong with you today, but you’re going too damn far by half. I would insist that you apologise to both Hilary and myself, but I don’t think there’s any point. Not when you’re like this. Just bloody well stay out of our way, alright?”

George held up his hands placatingly, the wide grin still on his thin whiskered face. He was still as pale as he had been when John met him earlier, his eyes wide and glassy. John stared at him shrewdly, taking note of the sweat marks under the arms of his painting smock and the twitchy way his fingers moved.

He turned to Basil and led him a little way away, resting a restraining hand on his shoulder. “I don’t think there’s any point arguing with him when he’s in this state. He’s taken something, can’t you tell?”

Basil stared at John, clearly surprised. “Taken- oh! Oh, blast. Has he? How can you tell?”

John raised an eyebrow, taken aback. Perhaps it was his medical background or having spent several years keeping a watchful eye on Sherlock; but it was as clear as day to him.
But then, Basil had never come across as the brightest chap in the world; and John supposed it was possible that he had had a rather sheltered upbringing.

“Just a hunch. I’d leave him be, for now. Is Hilary alright? What did he do?”

Basil glared over John’s shoulder at Marmaduke, who was studying the huge stuffed bear with great interest. “The bloody swine. I came into the common room and he was attempting to grope her on the sofa. He had her backed right into the corner. It was damn lucky that I came in when I did. Poor Hilary, she was very upset and rushed out. She’s so beautiful and she’s had to put up with that sort of thing so often, you see.”

“Christ. I’ll try and get him up to his room. He might see sense and stay in one place until it wears off.” John said, without much hope. “Go and see if Hilary is alright. She didn’t come upstairs, so she probably headed for the garden or conservatory.”

Basil grimaced and nodded, making a visible effort to calm down. He seemed about to turn and leave when he paused and ducked closer to John.

“I say, Doctor Watson… you still don’t think you’ll need to say anything to Hilary about… um. Anything? To do with poor Sandra, I mean?” he asked, in a quietly pleading manner.

John opened his mouth to reassure Basil, and then shut it again abruptly. He studied Basil’s boyish features curiously, his thoughts suddenly rearranging themselves.

“You knew, didn’t you?” John murmured, making sure that Marmaduke was still out of earshot. “You knew that she was pregnant. She told you, when she started asking you for money.”

Basil swallowed hard, suddenly seeming tremendously interested in the savagely bitten thumbnail on his left hand. He didn’t respond, but his silence made the answer clear enough.

John suddenly liked Basil rather less. Up until this point, the young man had seemed one of the less objectionable members of the group of students. But it suddenly seemed tremendously clear that it didn’t matter a jot to Basil that his unborn child had died along with Sandra. All he cared about was that Hilary didn’t find out about his liason with the unfortunate girl.

“Look, it wasn’t necessarily mine.” Basil said weakly. “She was that sort of girl, Doctor Watson. She was still carrying on with Freddie now and again while we were-“

“I see. While you were what exactly?” John asked mildly. “I thought you said that it was just one time, Basil. Would you like to revise your previous statement, by any chance?”

Basil froze, staring at John in rising horror. “Look, it makes no difference whatsoever.” He blustered, shoving his suddenly shaking hands into his pockets. “None at all. I didn’t do it, and I had nothing to do with it. And… and that’s all I have to say about the matter.”

He turned and half-ran away down the hall, towards the door to the conservatory. Both John and George Marmaduke watched him go with considerable interest.

“Now, George. Might I suggest that we take a stroll upstairs?” John said with a half-hearted attempt at affability. It didn’t seem to ring true with either of them, and George looked at him appraisingly.

“Terribly sorry, Doctor Watson. You’re simply not my type.” George said, with exaggerated tact.

“The feeling is mutual, George.” John said grimly. “But I think you’d be better off in your bedroom for the next few hours. I don’t think that you’re feeling quite yourself at the moment, are you?”

To his surprise, George didn’t seem to object when John started steering him towards the stairs. The wretched man seemed entranced by the sounds his feet made on the steps, though, and he ascended and descended several steps on their way to the first floor. John gritted his teeth and did his best to herd him upstairs, feeling deeply relieved when they made it to the familiar corridor which led to the guest rooms.

George became rather distracted in front of a Paul Klee painting around twenty feet from his bedroom door, and John had a hard time getting him to move past it.

“It sort of hums, doesn’t it?” George sighed, wistfully tracing the line of the picture frame with a dirty fingernail. “It’s a really fucking sexy shade of orange, isn’t it?”

At this point, Patrick Singh emerged from a room across the hall, wearing a half-buttoned shirt and a curious expression. He raised an eyebrow at the sight of John tugging on George’s arm.

“Is everything alright, Doctor Watson?” Patrick asked, looking faintly amused at the tableau in front of him.

John sighed, wishing they had encountered anyone other than Patrick. “I’m trying to get George to his room before someone throttles him. He’s not quite himself.”

Patrick stepped out into the hall and took a closer look at George’s sweating face. Unlike Basil, he seemed to get to the root of the problem immediately, and nodded unsmilingly at John.

“Ah. I see. Come along; I’ll help you.” He said unexpectedly, taking hold of George’s scrawny arm. “George, please come along with us. You’ll feel much better after a rest, I’m quite sure.”

George seemed slightly startled at this. He had been so engrossed in the painting he didn’t seem to have heard the exchange between John and Patrick, and he looked down at Patrick’s hand on his arm curiously.

“Do you know, Watson old chap, while chaps are definitely not my cup of tea, and chaps like you are certainly not my type… I think I’d be prepared to make an exception for a chap like old Paddy Singh here…” he paused thoughtfully, seeming to take in Patrick’s long shining dark hair, the well defined muscles and golden skin visible through the gaping white linen shirt. “I mean, he’s just got that certain dusky beauty…um…. je ne sais quoi, sort of thing…”

There seemed little to say in response to this, and John carefully avoided Patrick’s gaze. George allowed himself to be half-pushed and half-carried into his bedroom.

It was just as stately as the one occupied by John and Sherlock, with deep plum brocade walls and a large number of ancient tapestries hanging around the room. Unlike theirs, however, it was a complete shambles, with grubby looking clothes strewn around the Persian carpet and several overflowing ashtrays and dirty dishes. A glass had evidently been knocked over on a beautiful embroidered rug next to the white marble fireplace and had left a wide red stain soaked into the wool. The deep leather armchair next to the window showed signs of cigarettes being stubbed out lazily on the armrest.

Patrick looked around the room with evident distaste and helped John prod George over to the bed. At first, it didn’t seem likely that he would stay put for any length of time, until Patrick cunningly pointed out the complicated pleating in the grey silk canopy. After that, George seemed quite content to stare at the fabric over his head, feverishly counting the number of folds in the silk.

“Well done.” John said grudgingly, stepping back from the bed. “With any luck, that will keep him busy for a while.”

Patrick looked down at George, shaking his head regretfully. “I hope he hasn’t managed to cause too much havoc. He can be something of an agent provocateur, particularly when he gets like this.”

“Hmm. Is he like this often?” John asked, gesturing for Patrick to join him by the fireplace so that they could converse without being overheard by George.

Patrick shrugged elegantly, thoughtfully sweeping his long thick hair behind one shoulder. “Rarely to this extent. But I have observed him under the influence of some kind of drug reasonably frequently during my time here. And I suppose it depends on what he’s been taking. I am far from an expert in such matters, but I rather think he prefers opiates.”

“Well, I don’t think that’s what he’s on today.” John said grimly. “Listen, Patrick – I’m afraid I’m going to have to look for his stash. We can’t have him taking more of whatever it is. He’ll run around the house causing chaos, and we don’t need that at the moment.”

Patrick looked around the room again, looking a little revolted at the thought of digging through the squalor. John fought the urge to giggle, particularly when he remembered how he had watched Patrick wrestling LARPers on the muddy ground the evening before.

“Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to help.” John said kindly. “Just keep an eye on him for a moment, I’m fairly sure I know where it will be.”

He cautiously approached the high four poster bed and dropped to his knees, before attempting to wriggle under the heavy silk valance in as dignified a fashion as possible. It was entirely possible that George would have moved his supplies since Sherlock had confronted him about his drug dealing; but it seemed sensible to try the last known location of the hoard.

It was dusty under the bed, and extremely dark. John sneezed convulsively, and rapped the top of his head smartly against the wooden underside of the bed. Swearing furiously, eyes watering, he stretched out further to feel around the perimeter of the carved legs. Luck was on his side, however, and after a few seconds his questing fingers encountered an oblong shape duct-taped to the inside of the side board. He scrabbled at the tape for a moment or two, before successfully tearing it away from the dark mahogany. He gingerly started edging his way out from under the bed, listening carefully for any indication that George knew what he was up to.

Fortunately, when John quietly extracted himself from under the bed, George was still entranced by the pleats over his head. John edged away slowly, the rectangular plastic box hidden behind his back.

Patrick looked highly amused at this performance. “My goodness. Well done, Doctor Watson.”

John shrugged in a non-committal sort of way, and pocketed the box without opening it. Looking down, he was rather dismayed to see that he was coated in a thick layer of grey dust, and a swipe of his hand confirmed that his face and hair were similarly covered. It seemed rather unfair that it was his lot in life to appear as sloppy and uncouth as possible in front of Patrick.

Patrick, despite his bare feet and half-unbuttoned shirt simply looked louche and somehow suave. John caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror over the fireplace and grimly thought that he looked as if he’d been dragged through a hedge backwards and then antiqued to match his surroundings. He suppressed a sigh.

“I suppose I’d better put these somewhere safe.” John murmured, patting his pocket. “And, um. Sorry about what he said in the hall.”

Patrick made a dismissive gesture, glancing towards the bed with distaste. “Hardly your fault. And it’s nothing he hasn’t said to me before. Luckily, his entrenched racism tends to eclipse his repressed sexuality when he is sober; but when he is intoxicated or high he tends to become… a little more uninhibited. Oh, good heavens!” Patrick said suddenly. “He’s opening his trousers. Let’s continue this discussion in the hall, please.”

John grimaced and followed Patrick outside hastily, closing the door firmly behind them. Patrick sighed heavily, and leaned against the frame of a nearby window.

“I always thought that he was rather homophobic, if anything.” John said awkwardly, after a moment. He remembered how George had looked when Sherlock had casually lifted his arm to check his watch while they were interviewing him. And it wasn’t as if there had been anything going on between him and Sherlock at the time. He flushed slightly.

“Mmm. I have always thought that George feels that he is supposed to be homophobic. And he behaves abominably towards men whom he perceives to be… that way inclined.” Patrick raised an eyebrow at John in what seemed to be an unnecessarily knowing fashion. “He comes from that particular sort of background. He has the sort of father who wouldn’t countenance having a homosexual son. I have always found the British system of education rather odd, you know – that is, the public school system? Keeping lots of young men together for years, next to no female company and yet there is condemnation and surprise whenever men take an interest in each other.”

“I wouldn’t know. I went to a local comp.” John said, feeling a little out of his depth and in some ridiculous obscure way wanting to reinforce his proletariat status.

“Well George went to Eton. As did I, although we were not friends and I was a year or two ahead of him. I did hear from mutual acquaintances that he had a certain… dalliance… with a young man in his final year, and news of it reached his father. I never heard the details, but he was rather severely punished when he went home for the holidays. In the aftermath of that unfortunate incident, I’ve always felt that George has always felt the need to prove that he is very much a heterosexual. Hence his rather predatory attitudes towards Hilary and Violet. It is tedious and objectionable; but then so is Mr. Marmaduke, sadly.”

Patrick smiled a little condescendingly at John and detached himself from the window frame. “Fortunately, Doctor Watson, neither you or I are bound by such pedestrian attitudes. Let us appreciate our good fortune for that.”

“Oh, er. Yes?” John murmured, feeling rather lost. “Certainly.”

“And Violet is a charming woman.” Patrick continued blithely. “I entirely understand why you would be drawn to her. I take it that Mr. Holmes has an open mind about the situation?”

John stared at him blankly.

“Because, you see…” Patrick paused delicately. “Well, I should hate to cause any ill-feeling or misunderstandings. But since you and Mr. Holmes appear to have quite a relaxed arrangement, I was wondering if you would mind if I made some kind of overture to him?”

John inhaled deeply, and pinched the bridge of his nose. (Oh, god. Oh GOD!)

“Doctor Watson, I sincerely hope that I haven’t caused you any offence.” He heard Patrick say smoothly. John found that he was glaring at the man.

“Patrick, let’s just make one thing very clear.” He said, with a brave attempt at good nature. He didn’t quite know how it had happened, but he was somehow standing well inside Patrick’s personal space, fighting the urge to go on tiptoe so that he could glower directly into the mans curious face. His heart rate had picked up considerably. “Really bloody crystal clear, alright? You are not going to make any overtures to Sherlock. You and I will be having a really very serious conversation if I hear the first bloody note of an overture. Understood?”

Patrick looked at him, wearing an unreadable expression. After a moment or two he nodded, and gingerly stepped back.

“Um.” He said, and John stared in disbelief. It was the first time he had seen Patrick lost for words, or lacking any of his trademark poise. “Um. Yes. My apologies, Doctor Watson. I didn’t…”

“John!”

Both he and Patrick spun around, John a little guiltily. Sherlock was striding down the hall towards them, looking excited about something. He barely spared a glance for Patrick, who took the opportunity to make a swift departure.

John swallowed hard, and scrubbed his hand across his face. He suddenly felt like rather an idiot, and an oafish one to boot. Sherlock stared at him.

“Why were you under George Marmaduke’s bed?” he asked, perplexed.

“I felt the need to confiscate his supplies.” John said, not bothering to inquire exactly how Sherlock knew exactly where the dust had come from. “He’s high as a kite and he’s been making a nuisance of himself. I thought it wisest.”

“Splendid! I was just coming to do the same thing.” Sherlock beamed. “Where are they?”

John dug out the plastic box and laid it on the nearby window seat. Down the hall he heard Patrick’s bedroom door closing softly and he winced a little.

(Damn. You are a bloody caveman at times, John Watson. He was being polite and you were seconds away from punching him in the face.)

He watched Sherlock flick the lid of the box open and watched the detective’s long slender fingers rifle deftly through a collection of small plastic envelopes and bottles.

(When did you ever react like that to a bloke flirting with Mary? With any girlfriend you ever had?)

“Basil knew about Sandra’s pregnancy. It sounds like they were having some kind of affair rather than just a one night stand.” He said, mainly for the sake of drowning out his own internal monologue.

“I suspected as much.” Sherlock murmured vaguely. His hair fell over his forehead carelessly as he hunched over the box. He impatiently pushed the dark curls away with the back of his hand, and caught John staring.

“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I think I might love you more than I have ever loved anyone before.” John said helplessly.

Sherlock raised an eyebrow at this. “Um. Good?”

John had to laugh. He hadn’t meant to say that, not at all. And he hadn’t the faintest idea what kind of response he had been expecting. He wasn’t crushed at the response, and wasn’t that saying something? It was just so… Sherlock.

He sat down at the other end of the window seat, and looked up at Sherlock. Sherlock seemed a little confused, his fingers straying back towards the task of sorting through the box.

“Just. Just to be clear. I know we haven’t said anything about this. But. Um. I don’t want to be with anyone else. I only want to be with you.”

“Right.” Sherlock said slowly, straightening up and resting his pale restless hands on his hips. John winced, feeling the beginnings of epic embarrassment stirring below his collar. Sherlock stared at him, his brow furrowed.

“Should I be saying something like that to you now?” he asked, after a moment. John buried his face in his hands (Oh god.)

“No! No, oh bloody hell. Please don’t.” John muttered, shoulders hunched and feeling his face burning under his fingers. “Ignore me, please. Get back to the drugs.” (Didn’t think you’d ever say that to him, did you?)

He still couldn’t bring himself to look up, but froze when he heard a sudden “Ah!” coming from Sherlock. (Oh, great. Marvellous.)

After a second he felt Sherlock’s hands prising his fingers away from his face. For a sudden mad moment, he was tempted to resist or to made a bid for freedom down the corridor. Sighing, he dropped his hands, and looked up at Sherlock who was regarding him with a mixture of fondness and incredulity.

“I deduce that Mr. Singh said something that made you feel rather… possessive… towards me, just now.”

“I was being an idiot. Nothing new there.” John said, after a brief internal struggle. “He seemed to think that you and I had some kind of sophisticated arrangement where you were alright with me having an affair with Violet.”

“But I’m not alright with you having an affair with Violet!” Sherlock shouted, his eyes wide. “I made that very damn clear, John!”

“I’m not having an affair with Violet!” John shouted back, startled. “You great berk!”

“Oh.” Sherlock subsided, looking a little ruffled. “Good.”

“I don’t want to have an affair with Violet.” John said, feeling the need to be very clear on this point. “I mean, she’s lovely and clever and incredibly attractive.” He watched Sherlock’s expression darken infinitesimally and hastily added: “But I only want to be with you. Are we clear on that point? You’re even more clever and attractive.”

“You don’t think I’m lovely?”

“Shut up!” John laughed, and reached for Sherlock’s hand. “Anyway. It appears that Patrick thinks I’m involved with Violet, for some reason. George, too.”

“Giving a man a black eye and a minor fracture to the nose when he insults a woman will do that.” Sherlock said knowledgeably.

“So he asked me if I minded if he… approached you.” John waved his free hand vaguely, seeing Sherlocks faintly puzzled expression. “You know. Romantically, sexually, what have you.”

Sherlock’s expression would have been comical if it wasn’t so horrified. He stared down at John, his mouth slightly agape. “But I only want you that way, you idiot! I thought you were aware of that!”

John couldn’t help laughing. “Oh god, this is the most convoluted discussion about exclusivity I have ever had. I am literally about to die from embarrassment, Sherlock.”

“Figuratively.” Sherlock said automatically.

“Shut up.” John muttered, leaning forward so that his face was buried in Sherlock’s side. The fabric of Sherlock’s jacket was smooth against his cheek, and he sighed when he felt Sherlock’s uncertain hand coming to rest on the back of his neck. “I’m sorry. It’s possible I was a bit… assertive towards him. And I started worrying that maybe you’d want to keep your options open. I mean, I’d understand. He’s sort of an offensively handsome bloke. Even if he is a snooty git with girly hair. And if you feel like you’re sort of discovering-“

He heard Sherlock inhaling deeply, feeling the movement of his chest through his jacket. He couldn’t help but grin a little at the irritation radiating from Sherlock’s voice when he spoke.

“You know I hate repeating myself, John. I only want you. I only want to share a bed with you. I only want to have sexual contact with you. I have no interest whatsoever in Patrick Singh. The man runs around pretending to be a vampire at night, for pity’s sake!” he added, incredulously.

John snorted with laughter, feeling stupidly relieved. He leant back a little so that he could look up into Sherlock’s frustrated face. He badly wanted to kiss him, but forced himself to focus on the box next to him on the window seat.

(Case. Priorities. Yes.)

“Right. Good. Ok. So what about the drugs, eh?”

Chapter Text

“So why were you planning on confiscating George’s stash, exactly?” John asked, making a point of not sounding suspicious. Sherlock, evidently aware of this, allowed the corner of his mouth to curl into a faint smile.

“I needed to confirm that the opium came from him. As you probably remember, he claimed that he never supplied Sandra with any narcotics; and I believe that he didn’t, not directly. But he certainly seems to have supplied Garcia, as well as smoking it with him on more than one occasion in the study. It was quite clear from the degree to which the scent had permeated the soft furnishings in the studio annexe that opium had been smoked in there several times. We heard from George that he and Garcia were in there the night before Garcia left; he said himself that they were smoking in there.”

“So you think that Sandra was smoking with them?” John asked, curiously.

“Mmm, no. I don’t think that George would have enjoyed being so friendly with Sandra, and if they were smoking together that would have required sharing a pipe. That would probably be a little too chummy for him, I should think. The man is nothing if not a snob.”

“But it’s not as if Freddie Garcia was particularly grand, either.” John observed, watching as Sherlock resumed rifling through the contents of the plastic box on the window seat.

“True. But Freddie was a man, and it is eminently clear that George Marmaduke has little time for the platonic company of women – he is almost as much of a misogynist as dear Miss Jessop. And, significantly, Freddie Garcia was a talented artist with the potential for success. Far more so than George himself. I rather think that he was prepared to be friendly towards Garcia, on the basis that he could be associated with a rising star of the art world. And I’m quite sure that Freddie would make a point of staying friendly with a man who could supply him with recreational drugs and from whom he could borrow money.” Sherlock paused, and extracted a small parcel from the bottom of the box using two fingers wrapped in a handkerchief. He hummed in a satisfied manner and waved it at John, who recognised the green plastic wrapping; identical to the small parcel they had found under the bed in the studio. “Splendid. Of course, chemical analysis can confirm the fact that both supplies came from the same batch. But the wrappings and the exotic nature of the drug provide ample evidence for the time being. We had better replace this, though; that blithering idiot Menzies will need everything spelt out for him.”

“Well, I will let you do the honours.” John said firmly. “When Patrick and I left George, it looked as if he was about to have a little recreational fun of a different nature. Although how he manages to get those jeans on or off at all is a mystery to me,” he added thoughtfully.

Sherlock huffed impatiently, and pressed his ear gently to George’s bedroom door. “He probably requires a large shoe-horn and considerable amounts of some kind of lubricant.”

“Golly. Sounds like an unusual fetish.” John murmured thoughtfully, staring at the ceiling.

Sherlock fixed him with a scathing glance, his ears turning slightly pink. John grinned at him.

“I rather think that Mr. Marmaduke has fallen asleep. I can hear snoring.” Sherlock said, clearly deciding not to stoop to the tone of John’s conversation. “I’m going to risk it.”

He slowly opened the door, lifting it slightly by the handle as he swung it open to minimise creaking. Heartened by the sound of George’s heavy breathing, he crept inside. John watched him silently approach the bed where Marmaduke lay face down in the messy bedclothes, snoring loudly. Sherlock dropped to all fours with a catlike movement, and slid under the ruffled valance noiselessly. He moved with a weirdly fluid grace, and in the doorway John found himself gaping slightly at the view. He swallowed hard, and forced himself to look away.

(Not the time, Watson. There is certainly a time for ogling your flatmate’s arse, but this is NOT it. Have a good think about Mycroft. Think about his smarmy smug face. Think about Mycroft in knee-socks and a pair of speedos, eating a banana.)

( Argh! Argh!)

“John, why are you doing that?” Sherlock asked, perplexed, when he emerged from George’s room to find John looking pale and distracted, biting the knuckles of his left hand in horror.

“Um. No reason. Not important. Mission accomplished?”

***

Judging from the level of clattering noises coming from the kitchen a while later, Violet was indulging in a spot of theraputic hate-cookery. As they passed the door, John peered curiously inside and spied her doing something complicated and tremendously violent towards a large tray of ducks. Complex, savoury aromas filled the air and reminded him forcefully that he hadn’t had lunch. Violet was still in her painting clothes, with a splattered apron tied tightly around her narrow waist. Several pots were bubbling furiously on the burners of the stove, and a line of loaves were rising in tarnished oblong tins on the end of the table. Her face was grim; she seemed utterly absorbed in her task. He nudged Sherlock.

“D’you think it’s wise to talk to her?”

Sherlock frowned, his eyes widening slightly as Violet wielded a huge cleaver and brought it swinging heavily down onto an unfortunate fowl on a scarred wooden chopping block.

“Hm. Maybe in a while. How was she when you went up to her room? You were gone for quite a while.”

John shrugged a little uncomfortably, leading the way down the corridor towards the conservatory. “Not great. She really does not want to see your brother again.”

“That makes two of us.” Sherlock muttered darkly, glaring ahead. “But I rather think we haven’t seen the last of him. He won’t be happy until he’s dragged me out of here by the scruff of my neck. Overbearing arse.”

“Violet told me some things. You know, about her past.” John sighed, pushing the heavy glass panelled doors into the warm glasshouse. Sherlock looked at him sharply but did not respond. “It seems like Mycroft has quite a lot of stuff to hold over her head.”

The conservatory was very still; the lowering sun left wide orange beams of light and filigreed shadows between the towering palm trees and overgrown shrubs. The air was beautifully warm and damp, and John idly sank his fingers deep into a patch of verdant moss that grew on a nearby urn. He sighed, glancing at Sherlock who had taken a seat on a narrow wrought iron bench under an arbour of trailing ivy. “We’re going to have to leave, aren’t we?”

Sherlock didn’t answer, but his expression spoke volumes. John grimaced and sat down next to him, stretching out his legs and propping them up on the edge of a nearby plant pot.

“As you know… I ordinarily would cheerfully tell him to go to hell and do what I like.” Sherlock said eventually, evidently wanting to make this point crystal clear. “But this… it’s just too much of a risk. He would do it, you know. He would give them a map and hold their coats if it meant that Violet would be out of my life again.” He began worrying at a nearby trailing vine with his long pale fingers. “It’s no use, you see. He always hated her. Always believed that she was a bad influence on me.” The corner of his mouth twitched, and John rested his shoulder against Sherlock’s.

“And was jealous of her, obviously.” John said meditatively. “Incidentally, what did you mean earlier about him finding you in the garden?”

“Ha. Umm. Well… Violet, as you know, likes working from life. She was drawing me.” Sherlock said woodenly.

John bit his lip in an attempt to stifle an incredulous grin. Sherlock turned to scowl at him.

“It was all entirely innocent. I was wearing pants at the time! But the rest of the family were away for the day, and we weren’t expecting anyone. It was a nice summers day, and Violet was sketching me on the back lawn. And of course, bloody Mycroft decided to pay a visit unannounced and he found us drinking absinthe and Violet surrounded by several drawings of my unclothed self. That was the first really major argument that they had. But far from the last.”

“Gosh.” John said, after a moment during which he wondered if it would be a bit creepy to ask Violet if she kept all of her old drawings. “Um.”

“Stop grinning like that. It wasn’t funny.” Sherlock said brusquely.

“Oh! Oh, no. Certainly not. No.” John agreed solemnly.

“I suppose I should be in some measure grateful for the fact he didn’t walk in on us that time she was teaching me how to dance the tango.” Sherlock murmured thoughtfully.

John boggled slightly. “Right. Right. So, er. The case. Where are we?”

“Hm.” Sherlock shrugged in a distinctly non-committal way. “I’m waiting for Inspector Menzies to turn up. I spoke to him on the phone earlier and he said he would be inflicting his company on us later. And by later, I expect he meant as close to dinner time as possible.”

“So do you have anything new to tell him, besides about the opium?” John asked curiously. Sherlock hummed vaguely, raising one angular shoulder. John stared at him.

“You’re being very cagey, all of a sudden.” he remarked.

“Am I?” Sherlock asked innocently.

John sighed and leaned back, digging his hands into his pockets. “Fine, be that way. I must admit I’m more worried about your brother at the moment.”

Sherlock leaned against John’s shoulder gently and exhaled heavily. “Yes. You see…” he trailed off and swallowed. “You see, I don’t want to leave like this.” he said quietly. “Not like this. Not when…”

John nudged him. “I know. Not when it feel like you just got her back again.”

Sherlock nodded, glaring down at his hands again. “And it doesn’t just mean leaving this time. Mycroft won’t hesitate to interfere any time I make an attempt to see her again. And… and I want her back in my life again, John.” His tone was quiet, and the edge of pleading to Sherlock’s voice made something twist in his heart. “She was… important to me.”

“Of course she was important to you.” John agreed, reaching out and winding their fingers together. “And she’s important to me, because of that. I don’t want you to have to walk away from her again.”

It was true. John was drawn to Violet, admired her and enjoyed her company. But most important of all was that she was a true friend of Sherlocks, one of the rare and precious few. He was damned if he was going to sit by and watch one of those number disappear.

“We’ll figure something out. Hey-“ he suddenly remembered the earlier conversation between the Holmes bothers in the library. “Hey, what about that Eulalie thing? Can we use that as leverage?”

Sherlock shook his head and squeezed John’s hand. “No, not good enough. And I’ve got no actual proof. It would really only embarrass him and get him into our mothers bad graces for a month or two. And no,” he added at John’s curious expression. “I’m not telling you. I can say with absolute conviction that you do not want to know. No, really. Really. It would give you nightmares. You wouldn’t be able to rid yourself of the mental images for years. I would have deleted it long ago except I know it will come in useful one of these days. I’m… saving it up.”

“Blimey.” John pondered all the possible things that could embarrass Mycroft and came up with a blank. He had known the man for years now, and he knew next to nothing about him. It seemed rather unfair, really; Mycroft knew far too much about him. But John didn’t even know where Sherlock’s brother lived. He couldn’t even picture him sleeping. For all Sherlock’s gibes about diets, he had never even seen Mycroft eat. It seemed much more likely that Mycroft somehow hung himself up on a wooden clothes hanger and slept in a wardrobe in some dark corner of the Diogenes club, the lines of his suit still undisturbed and immaculate.

“Hmm. Looks like Mr. Marmaduke has finished his nap.” Sherlock said suddenly, frowning and leaning forwards so that he could get an uninterrupted view through some palm fronds. John turned and followed his line of vision. Sure enough, George could be seen pacing the wide smooth lawn outside. Despite the chilly late afternoon and the brisk wind, he was still clad only in jeans and his light painting smock. His hair was dishevelled and he seemed to be muttering to himself as he made his way along the gravel path that led to the back garden and the painting studio. John stared at him speculatively.

“Damn it. I was hoping he would have stayed put until it wore off. I suppose the garden is probably the best place for him, really. I shouldn’t think that anyone else will be lingering outside on a chilly day like this.”

They lapsed into silence, John closing his eyes and breathing in the still, moist air of the warm room. It was beautifully quiet. Sherlock seemed content to sit and think, and John rested his head on his shoulder after a minute. He was nearly on the verge of nodding off, when he heard the sound of running feet coming down the corridor. After a second, the door to the conservatory burst open and Phyllis stumbled in.

As John sprang to his feet, he saw that her face was shining with sweat, panic-stricken. “Doctor Watson!”

“Phyllis! What’s the matter?” he asked, beginning to make his way down the overgrown path towards her.

“Doctor Watson, you’ve got to come! Quick! It’s Miss Vernet, she’s in the kitchen and I couldn’t get in!” she implored, frantically gesturing towards the door which was swinging slowly shut behind her. “Mr. Holmes, please!”

Sherlock leapt to his feet and across a row of huge terracotta pots, crossing the distance to the door in an instant. He wrenched the door open again and pelted down the hall, the soles of his shoes drumming frantically against the polished wood.

“What’s wrong?” John said, running towards the door.

“George! I could hear him in there, I couldn’t hear what he was saying but there were things breaking and she was shouting-“

Oh god. He had watched the man making his way towards the back of the house, towards the French doors that led to the kitchen. He had thought nothing of it. What the hell was the man doing? He ran after Sherlock as fast as he could, Phyllis panting after him.

Sherlock was hammering on the kitchen door, which appeared to have been bolted on the other side. “Vi! Are you alright?”

From inside, the sound of breaking glass was clear, and John could hear Violet’s raised voice.

“For fucks sake, George! You’re out of your bloody mind. Get out of here this instant!”

He couldn’t hear George’s reply, if there was one. But after a moment he heard a heavy clattering noise and a harsh scraping sound; possibly the kitchen table being dragged or pushed across the tiled floor.

“So help me, George, if you lay a finger on me-“ Violet’s voice was high and broke slightly, with either fury or fear John couldn’t tell. He began hammering at the door along with Sherlock, who was silent and white faced, his shoulders rigid. The ancient wood was heavy and thick, and barely budged under the onslaught.

“I’m going through the garden and I’ll try the windows. That’s where he got in. Keep trying here.” John snapped tersely, and turned to Phyllis who was pressed against the wall nearby, wringing her hands. “Phyllis, go and find Patrick and Basil. Get them to help break the door down.”

“Go!” Sherlock shouted, directing his shoulder at the lock and taking a run at it from across the corridor. Phyllis nodded and ran as fast as she could towards the main staircase.
John spun and bolted down the hall, hearing his heart hammering in his ears. What the fucking hell was George doing to Violet behind that door?

The most direct route to the kitchen doors was probably back through the conservatory and out the side door, but John couldn’t be sure if he could get through the obstacles of the plants and find it quickly enough. After a split seconds deliberation he hurtled down the corridor that led to the main hallway, and wrenched one of the heavy front doors open. He flew over the path that led around the back of the house, sending gravel flying in every direction.

Skidding around the corner, John nearly overbalanced but threw himself forwards, catching sight of the French windows of the kitchen, which were standing ajar. As he crossed the last ten metres or so there was a sudden sharp smash. Glass exploded outwards from one of the central panes as something small and heavy was propelled through it.

John grabbed the edge of the door and slammed it back against the stone wall of the house, barely registering the sound of more breaking glass. He hurled himself into the kitchen and stopped dead.

He had dimly been aware that he could hear Sherlock battering at the kitchen door and the sound of his increasingly loud shouts. But John hadn’t heard anything of Violet or George since leaving Sherlock in the corridor. When he caught sight of them, the reason was clear.

George had Violet bent over the table, one of his grubby hand splayed across her face. He had her wrists trapped between her fiercely struggling body and the edge of the table, and his other hand was yanking hard on the back of her jeans. He was muttering quietly, and he laughed a little as Violet frantically aimed a kick at his legs and missed.

“Oh, come along Violet! Surely you can’t begrudge me a little fun!” he laughed again, oddly shrill. “-not after you’ve been spreading those dimpled thighs for Singh and Watson-“

John didn’t remember how he got from the threshold to the table. He seized George’s arms and hauled, distantly surprised by the wiry strength in the narrow biceps. George didn’t seem to have noticed his presence in the room and he let out a shout of surprise. He let his hand slip from Violet’s scarlet face and she drew a deep ragged breath; evidently he had been covering her nose as well as her mouth.

“Watson! Come back for another round?” George grinned. “You’ll have to wait your turn!”

John hauled at his arms again, and this time managed to pull the twitching man off Violet. She was coughing violently and she sagged against the table. There were deep red lines on her wrists from where George had pinned her against the edge.

John’s right fist connected with Marmaduke’s cheekbone just as the bolts on the kitchen door flew off the wall. George spun and collided with the stove as Sherlock thundered into the room, his face rigid with fear.

“Calm… down!” Violet gasped, waving an arm vaguely as she caught sight of Sherlock. “’M alright.”

Sherlock dropped to his knees next to her and reached gingerly for her arms. He seemed incapable of speech, running his eyes over her shaking body.

“Sherlock. Calm the fuck down. I’m honestly alright.” Violet said, her voice a little steadier. She reached out for him, and grasped his arm. “The arsehole didn’t manage to do more than hurt my wrists. Well that, and ruin a fucking amazing parfait.”

She gestured weakly at a shattered dish and splattered food on the nearby cupboards.

John stared down at George, who was clutching his cheekbone and muttering to himself. His thin red mouth was working furiously, and he was sweating profusely. John fought the urge to deliver a sharp kick to the mans ribs. The fact that George was clearly under the influence of some kind of drug did little to assuage his anger.

For now, George seemed unwilling to move from where he was slumped against the Aga, and he stared at Violet with wild eyes.

“Good god, Violet! What a fuss!”

Sherlock turned to face Marmaduke for the first time, his eyes like ice. He didn’t seem willing to leave Violet’s side, but his voice was filled with the coldest menace as he addressed the stunned man. “You will not speak to her. Don’t even look at her again.”

George goggled at him, then fixed John with something resembling a pleading look. “Honestly, chaps. It’s all rather a misunder… misunderstanding!”

“Oh really. You just assaulted a woman by accident, then?” John asked quietly, bending over George and staring into his wide eyes.

“Assault?!” George spluttered. “She was asking for it! You know what she’s like, old man!”

John clenched his fists and took a deep breath, reminding himself that George was not in his right mind. Whatever drugs he had taken had evidently left him completely uninhibited.

“Shut your face, George.” He said tersely. “Shut up NOW.”

“You’ve seen what she’s like, sashaying around in her tight little frocks and her fuck-me heels. Obviously gagging for it. Like a fucking sexy librarian!”

“Archivist.” Violet said quietly. John had had his back to her and Sherlock where they sat on the tiles, and he had been trying to block the line of sight between them. He hadn’t heard her getting to her feet or approaching the twitching Marmaduke.

“I am a fucking archivist, George. Bloody well get it right.”

John only noticed at the last minute that she was clutching a gleaming copper pan in her left hand. She swung it in a graceful yet determined arc, and it collided with the crown of George’s gingery head with a sickening dull clang.

Chapter Text

The silence following Violet’s blow seemed to last for hours. John stared at her, open mouthed. She was still clutching the copper pan tightly in her left hand, which was white-knuckled. Her face was flushed and her scars seemed to fade a little against the deepened colour. Her expression was beyond furious as she stood over George’s motionless form, and she didn’t seem aware of anyone else in the room.

Sherlock moved forward silently and prised the pan from her reluctant fingers, before nodding at John to attend to the unconscious Marmaduke. He put an arm around Violet’s shoulders and led her, unresisting, over to the sofa under the window.

To his great relief, John noticed that George was still breathing. Violet had struck him squarely on the crown of his head and while John was sure (and very pleased) that the blow must have hurt like hell he doubted that George would be seriously affected by it. He lay propped against the doors of the Aga, dribbling gently down his front. He looked awful, with the combination of the residual bruising across his nose and eye, and the split skin on his cheek where John had punched him. Within minutes he would start developing an impressive swelling on the top of his head.

(Christ. What a bloody mess.)

Automatically, John went in search of ice in the huge ancient freezer in the pantry. He found two bags of frozen peas after a few seconds rummaging, and half-ran back into the kitchen in case George had come round. He needn’t have worried; Marmaduke looked more peaceful than John had ever seen him.

He was dimly glad that Sherlock had restrained himself from hitting George as well, as he didn’t think that the detective would have managed to stop at just one blow. The incident with the American agent who had hurt Mrs. Hudson bore witness to how he could react when someone he cared about was threatened.

He carelessly slapped the bags of peas to Georges face and head, and turned to look at Violet and Sherlock.

Sherlock was shrugging out of his suit jacket and draping it around her shoulders with a heartbreakingly careful movement. On closer inspection, John saw that Violet’s oversized white shirt was missing several buttons and was ripped at the sleeve. She was muttering furiously to Sherlock, who took hold of her hands gently. He nodded as he listened to what she said, quietly inspecting the damage to her wrists. They looked raw and sore, but Violet didn’t wince as Sherlock tentatively rotated them and checked her fingers for movement. Her apron lay tangled and discarded on the tiles; it seemed as though George had somehow tangled it around her forearms before shoving her against the table.

The kitchen was freezing, as the French doors were still wide open. The table was pushed halfway across the room and surrounded by broken shards of pottery and glass. The red painted kitchen cupboards were splattered with what looked like some kind of paté. John watched with a kind of detached interest as several rising loaves of bread dough slowly deflated in the chilly air, one after the other.

It couldn’t have been more than a minute or two since Violet had hit George, but it seemed to stretch on endlessly. John could hear the sound of running feet coming down the corridor, and hastened to the door. He didn’t think that Violet would appreciate anyone else seeing her in her current state.

Patrick, Katy and Basil appeared after a second or two, closely followed by Phyllis and Hilary. John pulled the door closed behind him so that none of them could see into the room, and thought fast.

“Violet!” Patrick said tersely. “Is she alright?”

“Yes, she’s fine. She had a bit of a row with George, but she’s perfectly alright.” John said, as calmly as possible. “Thanks for coming to help, but... Um. Not necessary, anymore.” he finished, a little lamely.

“Where is George, that blasted twit?” Basil snapped. “He’s gone much too far today. First poor Hilary, and now this. It’s damn well insupportable!”

Hilary came and slipped her hand under Basil’s arm. “I quite... agree. Darling. Where is he, Doctor Watson?” She avoided John’s gaze, and it didn’t escape his notice that neither she nor Basil seemed all that concerned about Violet.

“Oh, he’s around here somewhere.” John said blandly. “I’d recommend leaving him alone for the next while. I don’t think he’s feeling very well at the moment.”

Phyllis looked a little perplexed, but after exchanging a loaded glance with John she cleared her throat. “Goodness, sorry everyone!” she said breathlessly. “I must have imagined some of it. I must have made it seem far more serious than it was. So sorry about that.”

Hilary gave her a thoroughly unimpressed look. “I should... save your imagination. For your work, Phyllis. It is certainly… required there.”

“Oh, do shut up Hilary.” Katy snapped, and rolled her eyes at Hilary’s injured look. “I’m quite sure that Violet will want to get back to preparations for dinner. Why don’t we all just leave her to it, eh?”

And with that, she shepherded the students away towards their common room, loudly talking over their objections. Patrick went last, and threw a questioning glance at John.

John mouthed ”She’s fine. Don’t worry.” at him. Patrick seemed to relax slightly, and allowed himself to be herded down the corridor by Katy. Before they turned the corner, John saw him stoop and whisper in Phyllis’s ear, the latter pausing to nod worriedly back at him.

He ducked back into the kitchen, and after a cursory glance at George he went to kneel on the floor next to Violet.

“Violet?” he asked quietly, trusting that Sherlock had adequately examined her wrists. Her face was angry and streaked with tear stains, and her hair was loose and dishevelled, hanging messily down the left side of her neck. Sherlock’s jacket was ridiculously ill-fitting on her frame, drowning her shoulders and arms, the lapels barely meeting over her torso. “Do you need anything? Can I get you anything?”

“A house with no wretched students in it would be good.” Violet said savagely, vainly attempting to wrap herself further in Sherlock’s jacket.

“You’ll have one very soon. I promise.” Sherlock said quietly. His face was still pale and tense, and he didn’t seem able to take his eyes away from her just yet. “Damn it, Vi. We should have gotten in sooner. He shouldn’t have been able to breathe on you.”

“Stop it.” Violet said flatly, kicking his shin. “He’s off his face, and is sodding unpredictable at the best of times. Ordinarily I’d have been able to fight him off, but he caught me unawares. I was thinking too hard; I didn’t even hear him come in or bolt the door. I only noticed him when he whipped my stupid apron over my head. I suppose,” she added quietly, “I’m a bit out of practice. I haven’t needed to, you see... not since... not for a long time, is all.”

She glared into her lap. John was glad to see that she wasn’t shaking or displaying any obvious signs of shock; but part of him winced at the thought that she had needed to be the kind of person who could come through such an experience calmly.

“What do you want me to do with him?” Sherlock asked, finally looking over at George’s motionless form. His tone made it entirely clear that he would go along with absolutely anything Violet requested, up to and including disembowelment of the man.

Violet glared over at George, her anger seeming to seethe anew. She seemed to be thinking hard, and as she did so she slowly removed one of her shoes. She threw it at him, hard. It bounced off his chest and skittered across the floor.

She inhaled deeply. “I can’t charge him with attempted assault. I can’t get involved in a court case, it’s too risky. Fuck it, can he get me for assault? I hit him in the right sort of place that won’t leave lasting damage, but I doubt that’ll matter.”

“It’s possible he’ll try.” Sherlock said heavily, after a pause. “It wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t think we can pass off those injuries as accidental.”

“I’ll say I did it.” John said instantly. “I already hit him twice; he probably won’t remember the exact details about being hit by the pan. He won’t remember anything about today, not properly. God knows what he’s been taking, but he hasn’t been in his right mind.”

Violet reached out and grabbed a handful of his hair affectionately. “You are a fucking glorious quack, John Watson. But I’m not about to let you take the rap for me. It could bugger up your career and I’m not having that. No, don’t bloody argue with me. I’m traumatised. You can’t argue with traumatised women, they don’t like it.”

“He was on methamphetamine, most likely.” Sherlock said thoughtfully. “Possibly speed. Potentially both, in fact. He has both in his grubby little box of wares upstairs. Anyway, I doubt it will come to assault charges – I am personally going to ensure that George Marmaduke will be having a little holiday at her majesty’s pleasure before long.”

George chose this moment to stir slightly, no doubt roused by the droplets from the slowly melting bag of peas that was perched rakishly on his head. He winced and let out a low whine, his spindly fingers twitching on the floor.

“Well until you manage that, he needs locking up.” John said firmly. “It can’t be false imprisonment if we think he’s a danger to himself or others. Is there a key to his bedroom?”

Violet shook her head, visibly tensing up as she watched George beginning to come round. “No. The downstairs cloakroom perhaps?”

“No, the window in there is too large.” Sherlock said brusquely, and stood up with a menacing expression on his face. “But I rather think that the coal bunker will be ideal.”

***

Between them, John and Sherlock manhandled the feebly protesting Marmaduke into the ancient coal store that was attached to the back of the disused scullery. As Violet seemed to prefer wood fires there were only a few pieces of coal left in the corners of the narrow outhouse. John was pleased to see that the room was incredibly chilly, heavily swagged with ancient spider webs and coated with a thick layer of coal dust. Despite his temptation to leave George in there with nothing but his own thoughts, he forced himself to make a return trip with a blanket, a bottle of water and another bag of frozen peas. He passed these to a very sulky George through the tiny glassless window. Sherlock looked inclined to protest at this lenient treatment, but managed to restrain himself from confiscating the supplies.

Back in the kitchen they found Katy surveying the damage and no sign of Violet. She held up her hands placatingly as they entered.

“I’ve sent Violet up to her room. I’m not an idiot; I know what that filthy swine Marmaduke is capable of and I saw her wrists. Is he out of harm’s way?”

“Coal bunker.” John said, reaching down to retrieve the remains of a large earthenware bowl which lay in several pieces on the floor.

“Good, then there’s less chance that I’ll bump into him and flay him alive.” Katy said crisply, looking around for a clean apron and pushing her round glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Violet said she would entrust me with finishing dinner preparations. She also told me to ask you to give her an hour to herself, and then to bring her an enormous drink before dinner.”

“Can I do anything to help?” John asked, looking around at the mess of the kitchen.

“No.” she said with absolute certainty, and in a manner that illustrated her considerable doubts about John’s ability to do anything remotely helpful. “Phyllis said she’d come and help out. Run along please, gentlemen.”

***

Once they were alone in the hall, John paused and gripped Sherlock’s elbow.

“Alright?” he asked, squeezing gently. Sherlock’s face was still pale and tense, and John could feel the tension that had taken root in his body ever since Phyllis had burst into the conservatory.

Sherlock inhaled deeply and shook his head sharply, eyes closed.

“Right. Upstairs.” John said firmly, nudging him along the corridor. To his surprise, Sherlock didn’t resist or even question him. He let John guide him up the stairs, a hand resting softly in the small of his back. Their room was blessedly peaceful, and had warmed up considerably since John had left it earlier. He pushed Sherlock carefully into the armchair next to the carved marble fireplace and sat down on the nearby low ottoman.

“Not your fault, you know.” he remarked cautiously, staring into the depths of the fire. He heard Sherlock give an impatient huff, but the detective did not respond.

“I mean it. Yes, we saw George in the garden. But there’s no way you could have known that he was going to go after Violet. Yes, I know you’ve got a brain the size of a planet, but he was acting in an unpredictable fashion. He could have just as easily gone into the studio or stayed wandering round the garden talking to the shrubs.”

“And yet I knew that he was pestering Hilary earlier. I knew that he was volatile. I knew that he had previously displayed predatory attitudes towards Violet, after what he said when we interviewed him. If you hadn’t managed to-“

“Sherlock, you got through the kitchen door all of thirty seconds after me. Violet should never have had to face that situation. It was sick, and wrong. But,” he added, reaching out and nudging Sherlock’s knee. “Vi is tough as hell. You know that, much better than I do. And the way she swung that pan… sodding masterful.”

Sherlock made an impatient gesture, and John caught his hand mid-flight. “Stop it. It’s done. I believe that you’re going to make sure he’s banged up, as he should be. He’s not going to go near her again.”

Distraction. That’s what was generally needed when Sherlock was lost in dark thoughts. But sadly, John did not have a handy cadaver or a locked room mystery to hand. All he had was a house full of shifty art students, an increasingly cold murder case, the hovering spectre of Mycroft and a growing sense of helplessness. What the hell could he use to distract Sherlock?

“Hungry? I could get you a sandwich or something. We didn’t have lunch.” He asked, after a pause. Sherlock curled his lip and didn’t deign to respond. Evidently his recent willingness to eat regularly was dependant solely on Violet’s preparation of the food.

(Um. Distraction. Right.)

“I’m fairly sure that Margaret overheard me having a wank in the bath earlier.”

Sherlock raised an eyebrow at that, at least. John knew he was turning red, but the main thing was that Sherlock wasn’t focussing entirely on his supposed failure to protect Violet.

“Yes, um. Not my finest hour.” He said bashfully, tracing the pattern of the carpet in front of the fireplace with the toe of his shoe. “I didn’t realise that anyone would come and tidy our room. And, well… you’d just been kissing me and I was thinking about this morning… and um. This evening. And your schedule. And well, the bathroom door wasn’t properly closed and she was in here tidying up.”

“And she was listening to you while….”

“I think so. She also changed the sheets and took away our pajamas to wash.” John said ruefully, glancing at Sherlock with a faint grin. Sherlock’s expression was incredulous and (thank god) slightly amused. “When I saw her earlier, she said she’d put them on a hot wash.”

It was only a small huff of a laugh, seen rather than heard. But John was deeply relieved to see it. He squeezed Sherlock’s fingers, bringing their joined hands to rest on his knee.

“Well, I must say that I hadn’t expected to hear that you have a preference for exhibitionism in front of domestic staff, John. I may have to adjust the schedule to take it into account” Sherlock said seriously. “Should I consider hiring a suitably dour char lady when we return to London?”

“Oh, shut up. I’ll probably manage to stop cringing about it in around a year.” John muttered, and sighed. “Should I start packing? I know you really don’t want to leave. Damn it, I don’t want to leave. But should I?”

“Mm. Not just yet. We’ll stay for dinner, and I have no doubt that my wretched brother will impose himself on us before long. I’ll try and negotiate with him about the information he holds about Violet. I’ll promise to do ten dull government cases or something like that.”

“Do you think that will work?”

“Probably not.” Sherlock admitted with a sigh.

“You could promise to take your mum and dad to see Billy Elliot when they’re in town next.” John said thoughtfully. “Oh, or maybe Grease, hmm?”

Sherlock snorted derisively. “I don’t think Violet would want me to stoop to such depths of self-mortification, John. There is a limit, even to save one’s favourite cousin from a criminal syndicate.”

John smiled, and knelt on the hearth to add more wood to the fire which was burning a little low. He looked around the shadowy room, which was darkening in the wake of the rapidly sinking sun. The rows and rows of pinned butterflies on the greyish walls caught the light, iridescent wings gleaming in shades of electric blue and viridian. It was a beautiful, odd house and he was reluctant to leave it. He was particularly sorry to leave the huge sagging four poster; when they returned to Baker Street there was the issue of separate bedrooms to address. What seemed easy and natural now, far away from home, might suddenly seem awkward or uncomfortable back in their everyday London life.

“My bedroom is larger, and quieter than yours.” Sherlock said calmly. “I don’t think I have much spare room in my wardrobe, but I suppose we could see about buying a larger one.”

“Ah. Oh. Well, good. Glad that’s settled.” John said, after opening and closing his mouth a few times.

“You must be aware, however, that I am not planning on continuing this habit of sleeping every night indefinitely.” Sherlock said firmly, waving an admonishing finger at John, as if he had been demanding otherwise.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” John replied, very seriously. He couldn’t help the way the corners of his mouth were curling up. Within seconds, the irrepressible grin was plastered across his face and he felt his heart lighten as an answering small, private smile inched onto Sherlock’s face.

“You know, as we have no guarantee that we’ll be sleeping here tonight…” Sherlock began thoughtfully, then paused to clear his throat. “And we have approximately forty minutes before Violet wants to see us…”

John widened his eyes and looked at Sherlock questioningly, attempting to look honestly and innocently curious. His pulse quickened considerably, and he felt his palms begin to sweat slightly.

Sherlock made an impatient noise and stood up, coming to loom over John. “Stop it. Take off that damn jumper and kiss me, John.”

***

John wasn’t used to his hands shaking. Not any more. And certainly not in situations like this. As he raised them to the top button of Sherlock’s tightly fitted white shirt, slipping the tips of his middle and index fingers behind the small pearlescent disc he took a deep breath.

(Undressing him. I’m going to slip his clothes off his fucking beautiful body and touch him. Oh, Christ.)

He took a deep breath, and exhaled shakily, focussing on slipping the first button through the tight slit in the fabric and feeling Sherlock’s hands smoothing down his sides, coming to rest on his hips. Desire was flooding though him already, blossoming through his nervous system like ink through water.

He continued to expose more of Sherlock’s pale chest, button by button. Fine, sparse hair on the broad chest. The small, almost perfectly round scar from the bullet, which he gently pressed his lips to; a brief, dull ache. Reaching the waistband of Sherlock’s trousers, he pushed the shirt open, revealing pink nipples, peaking in the cool air of the bedroom. He glanced up into Sherlock’s face, daring to run his hands down the firm pectorals, smoothing the softer skin of his stomach.

Sherlock’s gaze was heated, but strangely curious. He seemed honestly fascinated in reading John’s expression as he gingerly undressed him.

“John, it’s just me. You know me.” Sherlock whispered, raising a hand to John’s face and running his thumb across his cheekbone. “Better than anyone.”

John swallowed hard. “It’s just… I don’t know this side of you. Not really. I…” he ran his hand back up Sherlock’s chest and rested his fingers in the shadows of his collarbone. “I never thought we’d be doing this. And god, I love it. I do. I’m just a bit…”

“Nervous?” Sherlock murmured, his eyes softening.

John nodded, and continued easing Sherlock’s shirt off his broad shoulders. So far, he had only discarded his jumper and Sherlock had made no move to take any of his other clothes off. He wondered if he was just going to take care of Sherlock now, and they would address John’s needs later. He wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed by this.

“Cuffs, John.” Sherlock pointed out, with a smile. John glared at the French cuffs of Sherlock’s tailored shirt as if they had personally offended him. Sherlock’s outstretched hands were far too big to slip through the cuffs without being unbuttoned.

“There are far too many bloody buttons on this shirt. Who the hell needs two of them on each cuff?” John muttered, slipping them free. He slowly inched the sleeve down on one side and watched as Sherlock carelessly shook the shirt from his other arm, letting it fall into a heap on the Persian carpet.

“I do. And I like having you undo them.” Sherlock smiled, stepping closer and wrapping his arms around John.

“God, you smell amazing.” John murmured, into the crook of Sherlock’s neck. The detective made a pleased sort of sound, slipping his hands under the back of John’s long sleeved t-shirt and tracing his spine with clever fingers. He could feel Sherlock growing hard against his stomach and the knowledge that he was causing it sent another rush of excitement down his spine.

“Trousers.” Sherlock whispered in his ear, in between gentle bites that were doing nothing to quell the shaking in John’s hands. “Take them off next.”

Not wanting to step back, John slipped his hands between their torsos, unhooking and unbuttoning the top of Sherlock’s black wool trousers. He swallowed hard, and let his fingers slip inside after he slid the zip down. Sherlock’s cock was hot and hard under a layer of grey cotton, and as John cautiously trailed the tips of his fingers from base to tip he heard the detective give an almost inaudible moan. Sherlock’s hand slipped down onto John’s arse and squeezed hard.

“Stop teasing me, John.” Sherlock breathed, his face still buried in John’s shoulder. “Strip me bare and touch me.”

He didn’t need to be asked twice. John clumsily grabbed handfuls of fabric on either side of Sherlock’s hips and pushed down, letting his trousers and underwear puddle around his bare feet. He glanced down at Sherlock’s cock, which was flushed darker than the rest of his smooth pale skin and surrounded by fine dark hair. He swallowed audibly, taking in the dampness at the head; the thickness and length of it.

“Alright?” Sherlock asked quietly, a hint of unease in his voice. He stepped back a little so that he could look down into John’s face.

(Oh god. He thinks I’m freaking out at the sight of his cock, when I’m actually…)

John crushed his mouth against Sherlock’s, trying to communicate without words just how alright he was. He slipped his hand around Sherlock’s narrow waist, and pressed their bodies together, feeling the length of Sherlock’s erection against his stomach and his own answering hardness against Sherlock’s bare thigh. He moved his hand slowly down to catch a handful of that frankly amazing arse. He flexed his fingers, stroking soft skin over firm muscle.

“Do you want me to take my clothes off?” he murmured, after several long breathless seconds.

Sherlock’s eyes widened a fraction, and licked his lips before nodding. John suddenly realised that Sherlock hadn’t wanted to rush him, and felt like an idiot. He half-laughed as Sherlock wrestled his shirt over his head and began working at his belt buckle with indecent haste.

Within seconds, he was standing naked in front of Sherlock who was running his eyes over John’s body as if he had never seen it before. His roving eyes kept coming back to John’s aching erection, and after a moment or two he slowly reached out and wrapped his long white fingers around it.

(His hand. Oh fuck, those fingers. Look at them.)

John stared down, almost as entranced by the sight of Sherlock’s hand around his cock as he was by the slow smooth motion Sherlock was using on him. After a moment or two Sherlock cupped his face with his free hand and smiled at him, with an edge of dark fun.

“Come on. Let’s make the most of this ludicrous bed while we can.”

John couldn’t help but watch with helpless longing as he saw the way Sherlock turned and crawled slowly onto the bed, his beautifully rounded arse presented wantonly as he slipped between the layers of starched linen. He couldn’t help but follow, rather less gracefully and he sighed as Sherlock wrapped his long strong limbs around him, rolling him so that he lay on top. He gasped as Sherlock moved a little, bringing their cocks to lie against each other.

“Are you… okay? Ah! Like this?” John asked breathlessly, as he felt the long fingers wrap around them both. He kept becoming deliciously distracted, but he felt that he had to check. “I mean… with me. On top?”

Sherlock nodded. His eyes were closed, his cheekbones flushed and he seemed to be biting his lower lip in an attempt not to moan. John carded his fingers through his damp tangled curls, and kissed him slowly.

“Just… you’re in charge here, alright?” John murmured against his lips. “Tell me what you want me to do. This is all…oh, god Sherlock! …new to me.”

Sherlock opened his eyes, and John inhaled sharply at the look of undisguised predatory want in their icy depths. Sherlock’s hand, which had stilled momentarily, suddenly slipped a little lower and gently squeezed his balls, causing John to gasp helplessly.

“Sit up, and straddle my hips.” Sherlock ordered him quietly, before letting go. John scrambled to obey, pushing the sheets so that they tumbled back and pooled behind him on the bed. Spreading his thighs shamelessly, he came to kneel above Sherlock’s narrow hips. His cock felt hot and heavy with want, and he couldn’t help but marvel at the sight of both of their lengths pressed together. His own was a little darker in colour, and Sherlock’s was slightly longer. Both of them were slick and as he watched, another clear drop of pre-come beaded and slipped down the rosy head of Sherlock’s cock. Without conscious thought, lost in his own lust, he reached out and ran his finger through the slick trail and smeared it across his own shaft.

“John Watson, the things I want to do to you…” Sherlock whispered. He reached out and took John’s hand, arranging them so that they were loosely clasped around both of their members. It only took a few feverish seconds for John to get the rhythm, and together they began stroking from base to tip. At one point, Sherlock took hold of John’s palm and ran his tongue wetly across it before returning it to run slick and warm against his aching cock.

If John had been capable of coherent thought, he probably would have been slightly embarrassed by how quickly he found himself on the brink of orgasm. His body somehow seemed full of firelight, warmth and desire and fierce need for this man. He rocked his hips slowly, feeling his balls gently drag over Sherlock's, and thrilled at the reaction he could read in Sherlock's face, the incoherent sounds he let slip from his lips.

The room was dark and full of secret shadows, lit only by flickering flames and the last gasp of dusk through the open curtains. Sherlock was stretched out beneath him, his chest gently heaving and splashed with the flush of exertion and arousal. John couldn’t help staring at him, the beautiful lines of him and the gorgeous strain in his angular face. Sherlock’s hair was splayed every which way over the white linen, sticking to the glaze of fresh sweat on his temple. He had let John take over stroking them, and now his hands had come to rest on John’s wide-spread thighs, running their length and smoothing over his hips. Each time he dragged his short fingernails over John's skin, he left faint burning trails in their wake.

He opened his eyes, taking in the sight of John as he caressed them both. His smile was hazy but sincere, and he was so… (handsome? No. He’s fucking lovely like this.) that it broke John’s heart a little.

“John... you’re beautiful.” Sherlock whispered, and came.

***

As it turned out, it was closer to an hour before John and Sherlock stumbled out of the green bedroom, hurriedly doing up buttons and attempting to avoid each others gaze. Following John’s rather spectacular climax, both of them had needed to clean up thoroughly before dressing. Catching Sherlock’s eye as he pulled the bedroom door behind him, John felt his mouth pull itself into a ridiculous grin. Sherlock attempted to look aloof and serious, and failed miserably. He laughed quietly and kissed John hastily.

“Will you go and get Violet that enormous drink? I’m just going to have a quick chat with her; we haven’t much time before dinner.”

“What are you up to, Sherlock?” John asked curiously.

“What makes you think I’m up to anything?” Sherlock replied innocently.

“Because I bloody know you. And I can tell when you’re up to something.” John retorted, grabbing hold of the front of his deep blue shirt and pressing him up against the wall.

Sherlock hummed vaguely and shrugged.

“Just wait until dinner. You’ll see.”

“Dinner? What the hell could happen over dinner?” John asked curiously, rubbing his nose gently against Sherlock’s freshly shaved cheek and inhaling deeply. Sherlock shrugged again, a shifty little smile on his face.

“Oh god. You’re not, are you?” John exclaimed, the pieces falling into place. He poked Sherlock in the stomach indignantly.

“What?”

“This! This case, in this place. You just can’t help yourself, can you?”

Sherlock evidently decided that haughty incomprehension was the correct response to John’s accusation and he stepped back, adjusting the cuffs on his shirt.

John fought the urge to laugh. It was just so typical of Sherlock. Never mind that there had been a murder, an assault, and that the threat of Mycroft still hung overhead. Sherlock was by nature a showman, a dreadful drama queen. John despaired of it frequently, and incidentally completely loved him for it.

“You’re waiting for the fucking dénouement, you git!”

Chapter Text

John ventured into the library in search of the enormous drink that Violet had requested, and stopped dead at the sight of the figure next to the fire.

Mycroft Holmes sat comfortably in Violet’s wing-backed leather armchair, a slender stemmed glass on the small table at his elbow. Benjy lay stretched across his lap, purring loudly and looking inordinately smug as Mycroft’s slender fingers smoothed through his blue-grey fur. Mycroft looked tremendously relaxed and at home in his surroundings, and John knew without having to ask that his choice of seat was entirely deliberate. He looked up with an insincere smile as John entered, watching with bemusement as he saw the look of dismay that no doubt crossed his face.

“Mycroft. I didn’t realise that you were coming back so soon.” John said, forcing himself to approach the fireplace. He glared at Benjy, who was obviously a base traitor and a terrible turncoat.

“Mmm. I thought I might just pop in and see how everything is developing. I do hope that there has been some progress with the case since this afternoon.”

John went to the inlaid mahogany table where several venerable looking bottles sat next to a crystal ice-bucket, and poured something at random into a tumbler.

“I think that Sherlock has come up with some answers, yes.” He said evasively, taking a sip and resisting the urge to choke. (What the hell was this stuff? Oh Christ. Fucking Crème de Violette. It tasted like grandmother’s hairdos and talcum powder.)

“Oh, good. That’s good, isn’t it?” Mycroft purred.

John shrugged, non-committal. “I was just coming down to fetch Violet a drink. She’s just getting ready for dinner.”

“Oh, I’m sure she can spare you for a moment or two. After all, when Miss Boorman let me in she said that you’d been upstairs for quite some time.” Mycroft said innocently, the merest suggestion of amusement in the way he raised an eyebrow.

John sighed, and took a seat opposite him on the other side of the fireplace.

“Let’s have less of the small talk, Mycroft. Neither of us is terribly good at it.” he said firmly. “Look, can we just talk frankly?”

Mycroft finally looked interested and smiled grimly at John, his neatly combed hair gleaming bronze in the firelight. His fingers stilled in Benjy’s fur and the cat looked up at him, annoyed.

“Certainly, John. Do go on.”

“Right. Look, I know you don’t like Violet. And I know you don’t want Sherlock to spend any time with her. You think she’s a bad influence on him, correct?”

“Admirably concise, John.” Mycroft nodded politely, taking a sip of his drink with evident enjoyment. (Bastard.)

“You’re worried that she’ll push him into a relapse.”

“You know that we have to be ever vigilant in that respect, John.” Mycroft said grimly.

“Mm. I’ll be sure tell her to sweep for bugs after you leave.” John said coolly. “Not that I think you put much faith in my convictions, but I reckon she’s rather good for him really.”

Mycroft did not respond to this, but his disbelief was evident from his expression. John sighed, and stretched his legs out onto the edge of the marble hearth.

“Would it make any difference if I told you he’d eaten and slept regularly since we arrived?”

A faint flicker of surprise might have crossed Mycroft’s face, but it was gone in a trice.

“And he’s laughed more than usual.” John added, with a wry smile.

“Oh, certainly. I remember the peals of laughter at Hilderbogie all too well.”

Something in Mycroft’s tone seemed slightly off to John, and he stared at him thoughtfully. Sherlock and Violet, laughing together. Sharing secrets. Dancing the tango. Drinking absinthe on the lawn, half naked and comfortable with each other.

“He does love you, you know.” John said quietly.

Mycroft fixed him with an incredulous glance, and straightened his waistcoat fussily. “That is quite the non-sequitur, John.”

“He does.” John said steadily, leaning forward in his chair. “It doesn’t matter that he’s got me, and Violet and the others. You’re his brother. You’re the only one who can think on his level, and although he’ll never say it, he appreciates that. You’ve got that bond, which no one else can touch. Violet is incredibly clever, but she doesn’t think the same way you two do. She’s not a Holmes. Nobody else has that, Mycroft.”

Mycroft regarded him thoughtfully for a minute or two, before clearing his throat. “Well, that was all very charming, John. I’m sure you made sure that Sherlock was well out of earshot before delivering that touching little speech.”

“Oh, for fucks sake, Mycroft!” John snapped, and was pleased to see the look of mild outrage that momentarily replaced the bland expression. “You know me. You know far too much about me. And you know that I will always have your brother’s best interests at heart. You know that, yes?”

He glared at Mycroft until the man grudgingly gave him a curt nod.

“And you know that no matter how charming Violet is, I would never want Sherlock to spend a minute in her company if I truly thought she was bad for him. I would damn well help you keep them apart, if I believed that. I swear.”

Mycroft continued to stare at him, an eyebrow slightly raised. At least, John thought grimly, he had the man’s full attention.

“But she’s not. She bakes him cakes and calls him names and kicks him in the shins when he’s being a git. She won’t even give him cigarettes. She was as shocked as anyone to find out about George’s dealing; and incidentally in light of some events this afternoon, that bastard should hopefully be going to jail. He’s currently locked up in the coal bunker. I haven’t seen any sign of Violet taking as much as an aspirin while we’ve been here.”

“John, I realise that you have the best of intentions at heart.” Mycroft said heavily. “No, please let me talk. No one is more grateful than I for your continued presence and steadying influence in my brother’s life. But Violet simply does not have your moral sense. There are things in her past which you cannot possibly-“

“Yes, I can.” John interjected. “I asked her after you left earlier today, and she told me all about it. And it was a bloody horrible story. It really shocked me. But it was a long time ago, and she was really young. We all made some stupid, wrong choices in our youths. All of us.

“It was rather more than youthful indiscretion, John.” Mycroft said forcefully.

“Oh, please. I don’t remember you kicking up a fuss when Sherlock kept visiting Billy Kincaid in jail. You never seem terribly concerned when he hangs around under bridges, getting information from smackheads and junkies. I mean, bloody Wiggins is more of a threat to Sherlock than Violet.”

Mycroft opened his mouth, and took a breath before closing it again. He evidently wasn’t lost for words (as if that ever happened!) but he seemed to be taking a moment to think, which seemed very slightly promising to John.

“You see John, there is an ever present problem with your argument. A constant threat that you don’t address.” Mycroft said ponderously, reaching for his glass once more. John stole a glance at his own crystal tumbler, filled with murky liqueur. He decided not to risk it, and simply rolled it between his fingers.

“What?” he asked, when Mycroft didn’t seem to be in a hurry to elaborate.

“You, John. You are the threat.” Mycroft said simply, taking a sip and leaning back in his chair. He seemed to have forgotten the cat in his lap entirely.

“Me?” John frowned. “I mean, I may not get him to eat his vegetables but I hardly think-“

Mycroft made an impatient noise. “You, John Watson. You’re the greatest threat to his well-being that I can think of. I think we can all remember what happened within weeks of your, ah, move to Crouch End with…”

John decided that he wasn’t glaring hard enough, but didn’t think he could do it any harder.

“You’ve got some nerve. I mean, really. Wow. That’s pretty impressive, even for you.” he said icily, after a moment..

Mycroft rolled his eyes towards the ceiling with a long-suffering sigh. “I don’t mean to offend. But the sad truth is, John, that my brother does not thrive in your absence. And without wishing to be, ah, indelicate.”

“Oh please, Mycroft. Go ahead and be indelicate.” John said coldly. “After all, you’ve already been insulting and supercilious.”

Mycroft ignored this. “You must admit that you are the type of man who has… needs. The kind of needs that my brother cannot fulfil. It’s only a matter of time until you meet the next Mrs. Watson, and what then?” he waved his elegant hand in what he must have thought was a placating manner. “I mean, I realise that your current involvement with Violet is likely to be fleeting. But how long until you decide to leave Baker Street and settle down?”

John stared at him for a long moment. “So, let me get this straight. You’re saying that you’re alright with Sherlock being pally with Kincaid and Wiggins and all the rest, so long as he’s got me to keep him on the straight and narrow?”

“I realise that the dynamic may be somewhat more complex; but that, in essence, is it." agreed Mycroft. “And I know that I will have to pick up the pieces once again, once you decide to leave him. I’m not worried about Violet’s influence just now, John. It’s when he’s alone once more, and more susceptible to the influence of undesirable sorts.”

“Well, you’ve made your feelings admirably clear.” John said coldly, getting to his feet. He was quietly angry, but that was his usual default setting when finishing one of his ‘little chats’ with Sherlocks brother. “I’m… I’m just going to bring Violet her drink.”

“I’ll see you at dinner, John.” Mycroft said smoothly, returning his attention to Benjy who was arching his back and eyeing him meaningfully.

John nodded, poured a generous glass of whiskey from a dusty decanter and briskly moved towards the door.

His first instinct had been to tell Mycroft just how unlikely it was that he would leave Sherlock, now that things were… different. Well no, his first instinct had been to tell him to do something anatomically improbable with his umbrella. But regardless of all that… surely it was about bloody time he took a step back and started to respect the fact that Sherlock was a grown man (alright, a capricious, easily bored and dangerously curious grown man) who could make his own decisions.

John wasn’t a carer; he was a bloody partner. Yes, he would always support Sherlock. And yes, he would absolutely always tell him to get a grip if the man was being an idiot. But he wasn’t about to tell Mycroft that they were together just so that he could be viewed as some kind of live-in minder for Sherlock.

That wasn’t who they were and it wasn’t how they worked.

 

***

Violet’s bedroom was empty when John arrived upstairs, but he spotted an open door at the far end of the long room, to the left of her opulent four poster bed. Moving closer towards it, he could hear voices and the sound of music coming from within.

“John, that drink really better be sodding enormous with the amount of time it took you to fetch it! I’m expecting a bloody bucket of booze!” came Violet’s voice as he got closer. He was relieved to hear her usual embullient tone, and he pushed the door open with a smile.

Violet was seated at a long low dressing table, wearing a stunning green silk evening dress and busily powdering her nose in the mirror. Sherlock was lounging on a nearby chaise longue, casting revolted looks at his surroundings. The room was very… pink. The walls of the intimate room were covered in rose-patterned silk, and the carpet was a deep dusty cerise. Two large double doors at one end of the room stood open, displaying a profusion of wildly coloured and patterned fabrics – evidently the entrance to Violet’s impressive wardrobe.

“Sherlock. You’re in a lady’s boudoir.” John said, with a grin. He placed the glass on the etched glass top of the dressing table next to Violet’s elbow, and she smiled at him in the mirror. On impulse he stooped and pressed a kiss to her cheek, and she swatted him with her powder puff.

“I know. Isn’t it vile?” groaned Sherlock, looking around with a dark expression. “It’s all so… fluffy.”

“Shut it, you dreadful philistine. It’s my bloody boudoir and I like it.” Violet said blithely, opening a nearby drawer and scrabbling around for an eyebrow pencil in the messy contents.

Taking a seat next to Sherlock on the velvet chaise, John studied Violet covertly in the mirror as she resumed making up her face. There were no signs of tears on her face any more, and she was as polished and elegant as he had ever seen her. Her gleaming red curls were loose down her back, striking against the poisonous green silk. She had covered her wrists with some bracelets, frankly obscene diamonds and emeralds set in geometric platinum settings.

“Stop worrying.” Violet said, without stopping her careful pencilling. “The skin was barely broken. And wearing these monstrous things will annoy Mycroft no end. They belonged to his grandmother and they’re worth a packet.”

“You know that he’s downstairs?” asked John, who had been wondering how to broach the subject.

Violet and Sherlock both snorted in unison.

“Of course he’s damn well downstairs.” Sherlock muttered, slouching further down on his side of the chaise and sulkily resting his chin on his chest. “The overbearing arse just can’t help poking his nose in. I can always tell when you’ve been talking to my brother, John. You develop this interesting little twitch in your right temple, and you look like you’ve been grinding your teeth. A marked difference to how you looked when I left you.” John glared and elbowed him in the ribs. Sherlock looked wounded, and sighed. “Interesting that he showed up just before dinner, isn’t it?”

Violet smiled grimly at them in the mirror and took a sip of her whiskey. “I’ve a good mind to get Margaret to serve him nothing but a fish-paste sandwich and a glass of water in the kitchen. It’s not as if he was even slightly invited.”

“I’m fairly sure he’s started wars over less.” Sherlock said flatly. “Has Inspector Menzies appeared yet?”

John shook his head. “I didn’t see any sign of him.”

Violet glanced at her watch, which lay discarded on the dressing table amidst a profusion of scent bottles and drifts of spilt powder. John suddenly realised that while she had taken the time to apply a variety of cosmetics, Violet had very carefully powdered around her scars and had applied absolutely nothing that might obscure them or the depth of their colour. If he hadn't been assured of Sherlock's censure, John would have been quite tempted to kiss her again.

“It’s almost eight.”

As if on queue, they heard the distant sound of the doorbell below.

Violet rolled her eyes and got to her feet after slipping on a pair of gleaming black satin pumps. She took a final glance in the mirror and nodded approvingly at her appearance. “Fuck it. If I looked any more awesome I'd start a riot. Once more unto the breach, you craven worms.”

***

By the time they reached the dining room, Inspector Menzies was already standing with a glass of champagne in his hand and a silly smile on his face as he attempted to converse with Hilary Jessop. Hilary was nodding vaguely as Menzies earnestly told her about his recent promotion to the dizzy heights of police Inspector. She wore a clinging lavender dress that revealed her delicate collarbones and her hand never left Basil’s arm.

Basil, for his part wasn’t even pretending to pay attention to Menzies. He kept looking nervously at Mycroft, who was giving his best impression of a charming dinner guest as he made polite conversation with Katy Boorman.

Katy, John was delighted to see, was looking rather unimpressed at whatever Mycroft was telling her. It didn’t look as if even the British Government unsettled Miss Boorman, and as John went to fetch aperitifs from the low sideboard near the window he distinctly heard Katy say: “No, I don’t agree with you at all. Cezanne wasn’t even remotely-“

Sherlock and Violet stood under a huge Gainsborough near the fireplace and conversed in whispers; pointedly ignoring Mycroft.

Phyllis appeared at his side and nudged him gently. John smiled and handed her a glass of champagne. “Evening, Phyllis. Gosh, you look nice.”

Phyllis smiled and blinked rapidly, looking down at her dark blue chiffon frock and the long rope of pearls she wore over it. “Oh! Um, thank you Doctor Watson. I thought I’d make a bit of an effort this evening. Violet always wears such lovely things, and Hilary too…” she trailed off, watching as Hilary laughed politely at some feeble joke Menzies was evidently making.

John frowned. “Has Hilary… Damn it, Phyll. Is she being an utter cow to you again?”

Phyllis frowned and shrugged slightly. “It’s odd. She laid off for a bit, which was nice. But oh… I don’t think she can help herself, really.” She squared her shoulders and smiled determinedly at John. “Oh, never mind. Who cares what she thinks, really? Katy says that when the Lord made Hilary he put all his efforts into the outside and didn’t have much left over for the inside.”

John glanced at Katy, and clinked glasses with Phyllis in agreement. “Too bloody right.”

“Who’s that man, John? The one she’s talking to?” Phyllis murmured curiously, following his gaze.

John glared at Mycroft’s profile. It seemed that he and Katy had moved on to the thorny subject of the Fauvist movement, but with little chance of an accord.

“That’s Sherlock’s older brother.” he muttered darkly. “Not my favourite person in the world.”

“Goodness!” Phyllis said, her eyes widening with something akin to horror. “There’s two of them?!”

John laughed weakly. “They’re not so alike. Thank god.”

At this point, the door to the dining room opened once more and the last guest arrived. Patrick Singh wandered in, immaculate in a dark suit and a deep blue silk evening scarf thrown carelessly around his neck. His snowy white shirt offset the golden tone of his skin, and his dark hair was swept casually over one shoulder.

He had evidently just taken off his horn-rimmed reading glasses and was just slipping them into the breast pocket of his suit when he turned to take in the room, and the two new faces. His elegantly arched eyebrow raised a little at the sight of Menzies, who immediately looked even scruffier than usual in contrast. He nodded at the whiskery little man and turned to say good evening to Mycroft.

John stared. He had seen many strange things in his time. He had seen matchboxes full of mysterious golden light, and inexplicable elephants. He had seen hallucinatory hounds, and fluorescent bunnies.

On one notable afternoon the previous summer, he had even seen Sherlock solemnly playing hopscotch with some kids over on Gower Street.

But nothing had prepared him for the sight of Mycroft Holmes’s face when he saw Patrick Singh for the first time.

Chapter Text

It took several seconds before John became aware of the fact that he was standing, open mouthed with his glass suspended in mid-air.

Mycroft had just released Patrick’s hand; his own slowly coming to rest at his side once more. His eyes were still trained on Singh’s face, his expression as unguarded as John had ever seen it. He was… he was rapt. That was the only word that came to mind. Usually Mycroft made a point of preserving his lofty, aloof manner. A genuine, honest expression? That was a rare occurrence. The elder Holmes brother was a man of many layers, and he played his cards close to his waistcoat. John still wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, but Patrick Singh was provoking something interesting in him to say the least.

Mycroft’s shrewd eyes were a little wider than usual, his eyebrows raised slightly. His thin mouth was relaxed; not pursed fussily or smirking as it so often did. His attention was solely on Patrick, who was as sphinx-like as ever. They shared a long glance that seemed heavy with some hidden meaning. Weirdly, time almost seemed to have slowed as John watched the exchange of murmured greetings and shaking of hands. Could he be imagining this? Nobody else around them seemed to have noticed anything out of the ordinary.

But then, nobody else in the room besides he, Sherlock and Violet had any familiarity with Mycroft and his customary reserve.

John glanced towards the fireplace, where Sherlock and Violet were still huddled beneath the massive painting. (Ah. Interesting.)

Sherlock was watching the exchange too. Unlike John who was merely nonplussed, Sherlock looked positively nauseated. He looked as if somebody was suggesting he don a moistened polyester jumper and eat a large tub of yoghurt. His eyes were wide and his mouth was twisted into an incredulous grimace. As John watched, Sherlock tore his eyes away from Mycroft and cast an imploring glance at him.

“Ah. Sorry Phyllis – I think Sherlock might need me.” he murmured, vaguely patting her on the shoulder. He made his way over to Sherlock, who seized his elbow with the air of a drowning man.

“John!” Sherlock hissed, looking slightly faint. “John, please tell me that I have started hallucinating. Please!”

“Ummm…” John said, fighting the urge to laugh. Sherlock was looking slightly green. He grabbed John’s glass of champagne from his unresisting hand and tossed it back; clearly in need of some kind of restorative.

John surreptitiously glanced around Sherlock’s shoulder and saw that Mycroft had turned to speak to Basil, who was looking extremely nervous. Mycroft barely seemed to notice Basil’s stumbling words, however – his eyes kept drifting over to Patrick who was lounging against the mantelpiece. Patrick cast a demure look at him over the rim of the champagne glass that Phyllis had passed him, before turning away to converse with her about a nearby Monet.

“He’s practically attempting copulation, right in front of us!” Sherlock muttered furiously, which caused John to choke abruptly. Violet appeared at his side, and distractedly pounded John’s back as he struggled to recover his composure, his eyes watering.

“Well that’s a turn-up for the books, eh?” she muttered, crossing her arms and regarding Mycroft through narrowed eyes. “I haven’t seen that look on his face since I invented that balsamic honeycomb gelato back in ’95.”

Sherlock seemed to be attempting to look anywhere else, but his gaze kept creeping back to his brother with some kind of horrified fascination. “I haven’t seen that look on his face since…”

“Eulalie.” Violet and he said in unison, turning to look at each other meaningfully.

John sighed. “Will somebody please tell me what the hell this Eulalie thing is?”

Sherlock pressed his lips together and shook his head vigorously. Violet rolled her eyes and took a sip from the glass of champagne Katy had just passed her.

“Not before we eat, laddie. You wouldn’t like to lose your appetite.”

Phyllis edged past them, carrying a couple of glasses. “Goodness, what a gorgeous dress, Miss Vernet!” she sighed, looking at Violet’s green silk with good-natured envy. “It’s almost the exact colour of a scarab shell.”

Hilary glanced over at this, a sweet smile on her lovely face as she regarded the full skirt and tight waist of Violet’s dress. “It really is… quite charming. I suppose you… must have worn frocks like that all the time… back in the fifties.”

Violet gave Hilary a smile that was full of knives. “Gosh, you are such a flatterer, Hilary. But I was actually born just before the glaciers receded and formed the great lakes, you know.”

There was a rather deadly little pause, during which Basil flushed with embarrassment and John stared fixedly at the ceiling. Sherlock simply stared at Hilary, his face impassive.

Margaret mercifully chose this minute to appear through the door to the kitchen, and cleared her throat noisily.

“I’m ready to serve, everyone – if you want to take your seats?” she said loudly, looking around at the company with her usual vague disapproval. Violet relaxed slightly and flashed her a fond grin.

“Thanks, Margie. Grab a seat, everyone.” she called, making her way to her customary chair near the centre of the long table. John was grateful once again for the relaxed atmosphere in Violet’s house – the surroundings may have been formal but there was no question of a seating pattern or alternating the sexes. Sherlock stuck close by his side and surprised him by pulling out the heavy carved cherry wood chair next to Violet for him.

“Blimey.” John murmured, catching his eye. “Will you be buying me flowers next?”

“Shut up.” Sherlock said brusquely, taking a seat and dragging the baroque carved feet of his own chair across the parquet with a sharp screech that made Hilary shudder delicately.

John leant into Sherlock, his back to the rest of the table. Sherlock looked at him curiously, the corner of his mouth pulling up a little when John covertly ran the tips of his fingers along the inside of his wrist and under the cuff of his shirt. “Nobody’s ever pulled out a chair for me before. Lots of new experiences for me, today.”

The thoughtful look that Sherlock gave him made it very clear that it wasn’t going to be the last. John felt himself flushing a little, and sat back in his seat.

Mycroft took a seat a little further along, between Hilary and Phyllis. Interestingly, this placed him directly opposite Patrick Singh, who took his time finishing his champagne before coming to the table.

Patrick slipped into the last empty chair slowly, pulling the heavy seat towards the table with silent ease. John watched curiously as his strong graceful fingers slid into the indigo folds of his silk scarf and pulled gently; the fabric tightened momentarily around his long neck before gliding free, causing the thick dark waves of his hair to slip over his shoulder. It gleamed in the light from the heavy silver candelabra.

Mycroft dropped his butter knife.

Violet grasped John’s hand convulsively and when he glanced at her she was furiously biting her lip in an effort not to laugh. He heard Sherlock inhale sharply next to him and he slid his hand onto his knee in what he hoped was a comforting gesture.

Katy, who was seated opposite Sherlock at the end of the long table, cast a questioning glance at the detective.

“Everything alright, Mr. Holmes?” she asked with a frown, leaning towards him across the table.

Sherlock nodded speechlessly, and was luckily distracted by the arrival of Margaret with a plate of hors d’oeuvres. He took the plate from her with the air of a starving man and began shovelling dainty slivers of candied beetroot and smoked salmon into his mouth, casting occasional dark looks down the table towards his brother. Mycroft had recovered from his minor lapse into clumsiness and was now determinedly grilling Inspector Menzies about his investigation into Sandra’s murder. John might have been imagining it, but there was the faintest hint of colour along his cheekbones.

Violet leaned into John and murmured in his ear: “This is fucking unprecedented, laddie. I’ve never seen the like.”

John nodded in agreement, turning to face her. “It’s bloody odd, I agree. Oh, and damn – I meant to mention it earlier, Vi – like everyone else he seems to think that you and I are…” he raised his eyebrows meaningfully.

Violet grinned at him devilishly, raising one of her own delicate eyebrows in response. “I’m not surprised. At least he doesn’t seem to think that I’m having it off with Sherlock anymore.”

“It’s not like him to get things so wrong.” John said thoughtfully, absently picking up a glazed fig wrapped in prosciutto and popping it into his mouth. He groaned slightly as the flavours developed on his tongue. “Damn it, Violet. How do you do this?”

“Focus, you gluttonous muppet! Now, this is an interesting situation, isn’t it? He rarely misunderstands anyone or anything, right?”

“Right.”

“And yet he gets entirely the wrong end of the stick when it comes to the two of us. I mean, the rest of these goons – fair enough. It’s obvious that I’m fond of you, so they might be excused for misinterpreting that. But Mycroft Holmes? Bloody odd.”

“This is the man who has the personal motto of Caring is not an advantage.” John muttered darkly. “And who spent years trying to get Sherlock to believe the same.”

“Christ.” Violet rolled her eyes. “Fucking Holmses. Anyway, the great pudding-faced moose won’t like the idea of you and me getting involved, as that would take you away from Sherlock.”

“Right. And he doesn’t want you to spend any time with Sherlock because you’re a terrible influence on him, and when I inevitably leave him he’ll fall under your spell and relapse.”

“I am right here, you know.” Sherlock said irritably, pushing his empty plate aside and leaning towards them. John glanced around with an embarrassed smile. “And blessed as I am with functioning auditory canals, I can hear you both.”

Violet threw an olive at him, which he casually snatched out of the air and swallowed without blinking. She rolled her eyes. “Then bloody well stop stuffing your face and contribute, cloth-ears.”

“I’m intending to.” Sherlock said haughtily, casting a quick glance at their dinner companions to ensure that nobody was listening. Katy and Phyllis were deep in conversation across the table, evidently having abandoned all hope of chatting with them. To Phyllis’s left, Inspector Menzies was visibly sweating as Mycroft asked him about the finer points of his forensic analysis of the studio.

Patrick sat on Violet’s right, and he laid a gentle hand on her arm to catch her attention. Violet smiled at him, touching his hand as she turned to him. John didn’t hear what Patrick murmured in Violet’s ear, but his careful hand above her wrist made it clear that he had noticed the abrasions hidden beneath her ostentatious jewels.

Mycroft continued his conversation with the unfortunate Menzies, but his expression darkened fractionally as he glanced at the whispered exchange between Violet and Patrick.

His gaze drifted to John, who nodded at him coolly before returning his attention to Sherlock.

“What’s wrong with Basil?” John asked, momentarily distracted. “He looks like a rabbit in the headlights. He has done since your brother appeared. Does he know him, do you think?”

“Mm, no. Not personally.” said Sherlock. “But he knows of him, certainly. Mycroft knows Basil’s father – Lord Elgin has a seat in the House, and lifelong membership of the Diogenes. He stays there whenever he’s in London. They are not fond of each other, and I’m sure Mycroft will take great delight in Basil’s involvement in a murder case. Not to mention the fact that Basil’s fiancée was the one who pushed Sandra onto the knife.”

“Charming.” John sighed, taking a sip of his wine. “Your brother really does love messing about with other people’s lives, doesn’t he?”

Violet, overhearing this as she turned back to John and Sherlock, half-laughed and took a swig from her own glass. She cast a stormy look at Mycroft. “You never said a truer word. Fucking Mycroft Holmes: Half Iago; half Fu Manchu. All bastard.”

John grinned, pleased that she wasn’t as cowed as she had been earlier when she was unprepared for the presence of the elder Holmes brother in her house. At the moment, anger seemed to have trumped her fear and she seemed stronger for it.

Margaret appeared once more to clear the plates, and Sherlock watched with a spiteful grin as she whisked Mycroft’s plate away before he had finished savouring the last of his hors d’oeuvres.

Inspector Menzies had managed to devour everything on his own plate, as well as several rolls from the central basket. He leant across the table towards Violet, smiling obsequiously.

“I must say, Miss Vernet, that you are looking very lovely this evening.”

Violet raised an eyebrow at this, but smiled politely.

“Thank you kindly, Inspector. I must say, this evening has provided us with a bountiful supply of unexpected guests. I do hope we’re not keeping you from anything - this is a little late for an official visit, isn’t it?” she asked in a genial tone, with a glint of steel.

Menzies had the grace to look a little abashed, and crushed his napkin fitfully. “Oh, er… well, I did want to see how Mr. Holmes and Doctor Watson were getting along. See if you’d come up with any new leads?” he added, turning to catch Sherlock’s eye a little pleadingly.

Sherlock seemed reluctant to neglect the steaming plate of duck and roasted squash that Margaret had just placed in front of him, but grudgingly lowered his fork when John nudged him sharply.

“Yes, we have.” he said shortly. “I thought this could wait until after dinner though.” He added, a little pleadingly.

“Oh for pity’s sake, you blithering git!” Violet hissed, exasperated. “If you’ve figured it out, you will damn well tell us this minute!”

Sherlock cast one last sorrowful look at his plate, and pushed it aside. John noticed that he now had everyone’s full attention after this last exchange, and stifled a grin. Sherlock might well bemoan the fact that his dinner was getting cold; but he would undoubtedly relish his bloody denouement just as much as the duck.

“First of all,” Sherlock began, nudging his chair to the head of the table so that he could look down its full length. “First of all, we need to consider the psychology of the individual.”

He leant forward, studying the curious and startled faces in front of him intently. He remained silent as his gaze moved from face to face, and sighed dramatically.

“Sandra Garner. Twenty three years old, lately of Slough. We’ve lost sight of her a little, haven’t we? With all the comings and goings. With all the intrigue and misdirection and lies, haven’t we?”

Nobody answered him, although John noticed how Basil and Hilary both avoided his gaze.

“I rather wish I could have met her.” Sherlock said thoughtfully. “Sandra was uneducated, but certainly imaginative. Resourceful. A certain native wit, one might say. Cunning. Sadly let down by her temper, but then nobody is perfect. The way she killed Freddie Garcia-“

There was more than one gasp at this, and John belatedly realised that while everyone had known that Garcia was dead; it was definitely not common knowledge that Sandra had murdered him. Phyllis stared at Sherlock, aghast; her eyes filling with tears. Katy reached out quickly and covered Phyllis’s hand with her own, throwing an irritated look at the detective.

“Oh, honestly. You all knew he was murdered. Who else would have done it? She took acid from the etching supplies in the studio and poured it down his throat after she discovered that he intended to hold an exhibition of pornographic paintings of her.” Sherlock said, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Nasty way to go, certainly. But never mind Garcia; what does this tell us about Sandra?”

He stared around the table hopefully, like a teacher in front of a class of exceptionally slow students. He sighed heavily when nobody answered. Violet was glaring at him, and Mycroft was leaning back in his chair with a resigned expression.

Patrick cleared his throat and said: “It says that she was a very angry person, Mr. Holmes.”

“Certainly, Patrick!” Sherlock agreed in a deeply patronising tone. “Well done. Anyone else?”

Nobody else seemed inclined to contribute. In the few seconds of silence, Sherlock took the opportunity to spear several morsels of roast duck with his fork and chewed them feverishly before returning to the group.

“Sandra Garner didn’t like people taking advantage of her.” he announced, waving his fork. “When Freddie Garcia went too far, Sandra decided that he needed to be punished. He had borrowed money from her, he had made her appear in dubious films. He was repeatedly unfaithful to her, and refused to marry her when she told him that she was pregnant. Frankly, I’m surprised that he lasted as long as he did. Of course, Freddie would have been an ideal candidate for the person who hammered the knife through the bottom of the bench where Sandra met her untimely end; but unfortunately he was unarguably dead on Thursday night, when the trap was laid.”

“So who did it, Mr. Holmes?” Katy asked crossly, fumbling in her pocket for a tissue for Phyllis.

“I’m getting to that!” Sherlock snapped, evidently annoyed at the interruption. “But this is important, Miss Boorman. Sandra liked revenge. She had her own form of justice and she didn’t hesitate to dole it out when she thought it was necessary.”

John glanced down the table, and caught sight of Basil. The fair haired young man was pale, and his upper lip was beaded with sweat. His hands were convulsively clutching his napkin, and John found himself wincing in sympathy despite himself.

“-and of course, Sandra would have felt entirely justified when she started asking Mr. Montague for funds.” Sherlock continued blithely. Hilary’s back stiffened and she leant forward across the table towards Basil.

“Basil!” her voice was sharp. “Basil, what does… he mean?”

Basil stared at the napkin he held clenched between his shaking hands, and didn’t say anything.

“Why… why would you give Sandra money?” Hilary asked, her eyes wide and swimming with tears

“Oh, please, Miss Jessop!” Sherlock groaned. “Do spare us the theatrics. You know exactly why Sandra would ask Basil for money. You know perfectly well that she and Basil were having an affair.”

Hilary straightened her back and stared at Sherlock. Her tears had vanished and she looking at him challengingly. “That doesn’t mean that… I… killed her.” she said coldly.

Sherlock grinned cheerfully. “It does give you a nice motive though, doesn’t it? I mean, Sandra was pregnant with the child of your fiancé. Your fiancé with the rich father and a title to inherit. Might have complicated matters for you, surely?”

Basil stared at Hilary, open mouthed. “Hil, darling… surely you- you couldn’t have! You didn’t!”

Hilary gave Basil a thunderous look. “Don’t be… absurd, Basil. I am so very… disappointed in you.”

Basil squirmed in his seat, shame-faced. “Oh, Hil – I’m sorry. I just-“

“Save it for later, Mr. Montague.” Sherlock advised breezily. “Incidentally, you might like to have a little chat about Miss Jessop’s friendship with Mr. Garcia while you’re at it.”

Evidently choosing to ignore the gasps coming from that end of the table, Sherlock clapped his hands together with every sign of enjoyment. John fought the urge to bury his face in the tablecloth.

“Miss Boorman!” Sherlock cried, turning to Katy. She looked affronted and stared up at him.

“For pity’s sake, Mr. Holmes!” she snapped. “What? Aren’t you finished upsetting everyone?”

“Miss Boorman, don’t think that it has escaped my notice that you too are harbouring a secret.” Sherlock said, towering over her. John was impressed to see that Katy did not flinch or move a muscle. She merely sat and stared back at him, unblinkingly. Phyllis gulped.

“Go on, then. Tell me my secret. I am agog.” Katy said coolly.

A flash of irritation crossed Sherlock’s face. “The rabbits, Miss Boorman. Why don’t you tell everyone about the china rabbits?”

Katy seemed momentarily lost for words, but after a few seconds she smiled grimly and with admirable aplomb at Sherlock. “Why don’t you tell everyone, Mr. Holmes? I don’t mind.”

Sherlock glared at her, and wheeled to face Phyllis. “Miss Lee! How about you?”

“What about me?” Phyllis asked, looking confused and horror-struck.

“Why don’t you tell everyone about the rabbits?”

“But I don’t know anything about the rabbits! Which rabbits?!” she cried, distressed.

Sherlock made a frustrated noise and raked his fingers through his hair wildly. Katy looked at him with a quietly satisfied smile, and comfortingly patted Phyllis on the back.

“Why don’t we get back to the more serious issue, eh?” John asked quietly. He had a nasty feeling that Patrick would be confronted next about his own little secret if he didn’t distract Sherlock. Although he still didn’t like Singh much, he didn’t think that the man deserved to be embarrassed in front of the party.

“Yes indeed, brother mine. Is there an end to all this in sight?” Mycroft sighed, reaching wearily for the wine. “Mr. Singh, may I offer you some more?”

“Thank you so much, Mr. Holmes.” Patrick said, with a small smile. He held out his glass for Mycroft to refill, and looked at him thoughtfully through his long eyelashes.
Sherlock’s eyes glittered with malice.

“George!” John interjected hastily, with the sole aim of derailing him. “That bastard could have done it, couldn’t he?”

Sherlock cast an incredulous look at John, distracted. “George? No, of course George didn’t put the knife there, John. Don’t be idiotic.”

“Where is Mr. Marmaduke, incidentally?” asked Inspector Menzies, looking around with a frown. It seemed that he had only just noticed the absence of George. Violet rolled her eyes and sighed.

“Mr. Marmaduke has been placed in protective custody in the coal bunker.” Sherlock explained, as if Menzies was rather slow for not having realised this fact. “Mr. Marmaduke, Inspector, is a drug dealer and a predator. He has been under the influence of his own wares, and I deemed it best to lock him up. You can take him away with you when you go.” He added, with the air of a man bestowing a favour.

Menzies looked about to argue at this point, but Sherlock held up a hand. “No, not finished yet. No!” he added sternly, “Don’t interrupt! Mr. Marmaduke supplied Freddie Garcia with the opium that showed up so liberally in his toxicology report. He admitted as much to Doctor Watson and myself when we initially interviewed him. Sandra evidently knew where Garcia kept his little stash hidden in the studio, and she helped herself to it at some point. Most likely on Thursday evening.”

“Thursday evening!” Violet interrupted, frowning. “But-“

Yes Vi, you ghastly wench!” Sherlock beamed at her proudly. “Sandra came back from Glasgow on Thursday evening, having dispatched Garcia. She returned while you were all having dinner in here. Before she entered the house, however, she went through the garden and into the studio where she retrieved the opium and hammered the knife through the bench. She then returned to the front of the house and entered through the front door, to all intents and purposes as if she hadn’t been near the studio.

“It wasn’t as if anyone was looking for her or waiting up for her. Violet was still annoyed about the painting of Hilary that Sandra had defaced, she wasn’t going to go looking for her. Phyllis might have, but she was in the conservatory with Katy at the time. Patrick was with Violet in the library, then headed out for a walk. George and Basil were playing cards in the common room, in the company of Miss Jessop. This is a big house. She could have come back at any time. And nobody saw her. It never occurred to anyone to check whether she’d come home at all.”

There was a ringing silence. Violet was staring, white-faced into her lap. John reached out and took her hand and squeezed it between both of his.

After a moment, Phyllis cleared her throat. Her face was shining with tears. “But why would she do it, Mr. Holmes?”

“The psychology of the individual, Miss Lee!” Sherlock said despairingly, with a weary gesture. “Haven’t I already said? Sandra wanted revenge!”

“But revenge on who?” Katy asked curiously.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Sherlock asked, seeming honestly perplexed. “Sandra had already exacted her revenge on Freddie. But she still wanted to punish Mr Montague and Miss Jessop.”

Both Basil and Hilary looked up sharply at this. Basil was slack-jawed and whey-faced. Hilary’s face was pinched and tense as she glared at Sherlock.

“Basil wasn’t able to give her as much money as she wanted. Sandra thought that since Basil comes from a well-off family, he should have been able to give her as much as she thought she deserved. So far, so obvious. Sandra wasn’t an idiot; she knew that Basil wouldn’t marry her just because she was pregnant. And she knew that even if she told Hilary about their affair, Hilary probably wouldn’t break things off with him. She’d have too much to lose.”

“So… she knew that Hilary would be the one who pushed her down onto the knife.” John said slowly. “Because Hilary always helped her into the pose.”

“Exactly!” Sherlock agreed, nodding. “Hilary is the one who Sandra wanted to punish most of all. Understandable, really. You really are quite poisonous, Miss Jessop.”

“How dare you!” Hilary hissed.

“Oh, do shut up Miss Jessop!” Sherlock said amiably. “Remember Violet’s wonderful portrait of you? The once that Sandra defaced with red paint? We all thought that Sandra did that as a means of punishing Violet for sending Garcia away. But what had happened directly beforehand?”

“Sandra had found Hilary and Freddie in the studio.” Violet said, with an air of dawning realisation. “When I went in, she was screaming the place down. At both of them, not just Freddie.”

“Yes! Both of them!” Sherlock agreed. “Now Sandra really had grounds to hate Hilary. Not only was Hilary marrying the father of Sandra’s child, but she was going to go and live happily ever after and become Lady Elgin with a big house in the country. Hilary had been having an affair with Freddie, whom Sandra had been very attached to for some bizarre sentimental reason – well, at least she was, until she decided to kill him.

“Psychologically, the painting is important. Don’t you see? Sandra wanted to destroy Hilary. Hilary was getting everything that Sandra wanted, and of course Hilary was just as objectionable to Sandra as she is to every woman she meets. Sandra knew that she wouldn’t get away with killing Freddie, not for long. So she decided that she would die, and that she would destroy Hilary in the process.”

“But you’ve just proved that… that I didn’t put the knife there!” Hilary shouted. Basil jumped, and seemed to shy away from her a little.

“Yes, it was a long shot.” Sherlock agreed. “While Sandra would have loved to have seen you convicted of murder, destroying your chances of a grand life with Basil would have been almost as rewarding. I rather think she’s succeeded in that respect, don’t you?” he asked innocently.

Hilary opened and shut her mouth a few times, visibly making an effort to calm down. Externally she was as sweet looking as ever, in her pretty lavender dress. But the strain was evident in her face as she turned to Basil. “But… Basil. She- she hasn’t? Has she? I swear that the… the thing with Freddie. It was. It was over a long time ago. I forgive you for-”

“It’s no good, Hilary.” Basil said wretchedly, refusing to meet her eye. “My dad finally got wind of the whole story. He’d been off on a trip to Iona for a few days, but he got home to Montrose today and saw the papers. He saw that you were the one who pushed her onto the knife. I got a message from him, right before dinner.”

“But… it wasn’t my fault!” Hilary pleaded, reaching for him desperately. She grabbed his arm across the table. “I didn’t know it was there!”

“It doesn’t matter, Hil.” Basil said quietly, still not looking up. “You know what he’s like. He can’t face the scandal. He said… he said that you’re an agent of death. That it’s almost as bad.”

The silence seemed to stretch on forever. Hilary continued to stare at Basil, her bloodless fingers tight on his limp arm.

Violet exchanged a long glance with John, then leaned back in her chair heavily.

“I suppose we should be glad,” she murmured wearily. “At least there hasn’t been a murderer in our midst this week at all.”

John nodded, and glanced around at Sherlock. The detective was looking around the table with a certain air of satisfaction at the scene of trauma he had caused.

As he watched, Katy was curling a protective arm around Phyllis’s shoulders, murmuring gently in her ear. Mycroft exchanged a thin smile with Patrick, who seemed quietly relieved that his own secret had not been exposed. He raised his glass in a silent toast, which Mycroft returned.

Menzies kept looking around at them all, blinking furiously. Several times he seemed inclined to ask Sherlock a question, but never seemed to find the nerve.

At the far end of the table Basil and Hilary sat, silent and surrounded by invisible ruins.

John inched closer to Sherlock, who was reaching towards his plate of cold food. He picked up a chunk of deep yellow squash and swirled it around in a pool of gravy, before popping it in his mouth with relish. He licked his fingers and reached for the bread.

“You bloody great drama queen.” John muttered, attempting to sound censorious but the words somehow came out affectionate. “I bet you always wanted to do that, didn’t you? I bet you always wanted a murder in a big old house and a captive audience. Bloody dénouements. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

Sherlock looked innocently affronted. “I don’t know what on earth you're referring to. And anyway, John, it wasn’t a murder. And I think you know what that means.” He added meaningfully.

John stared at him, bewildered. “Ye-es. It was a suicide.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes and leaned closer, his lush mouth curling into a self-satisfied grin. “No, John. Listen very, very closely. Are you listening?”

John glared at him, trying very hard to ignore just how green Sherlock’s eyes looked in the flickering candlelight. He licked his lips.

“You see, my dear John…” Sherlock whispered softly. “It means that the victim did it.

Chapter Text

Neither Hilary nor Basil lingered at the dinner table for long after Sherlock finished addressing the group. Hilary was the first to leave, roughly pushing back her chair and sweeping from the room without saying another word to her fellow guests. Her spine was rigid as she made her way to the door, and both John and Violet could see her tightly clenched fists at her sides as they watched her go.

Basil winced and jumped as the heavy door to the dining room slammed shut behind her. He looked thoroughly miserable, and after a minute or two got to his feet wearily; evidently having decided he had left enough time to avoid meeting Hilary again in the hall.

Violet sighed and poured some more wine into the heavy crystal glass in front of John before topping up her own. She pushed back her own seat a little so that she could slouch back and cross her legs comfortably. “Well that was a pleasant little scene.”

Sherlock snorted, pulling John’s half empty plate towards himself. “They would both have been utterly miserable within a year.”

“Utterly.” Violet agreed. “They almost deserved each other, really.”

“And how about these two?” John murmured, nodding surreptitiously in the direction of Mycroft and Patrick.

“Don’t be revolting, John.” Sherlock said reprovingly, wiping the remains of the sauce from John’s plate using the last of the bread rolls before licking his fingers with relish.

“I wonder if I let slip to Mycroft that I have had my way with Patrick several times, in a variety of interesting positions; would it put him off?” Violet mused, taking a stealthy glance at the elder Holmes. “I could just slip it into conversation, give him a few tips? Ooh, I could show him some of my drawings! I did this fabulous charcoal sketch of Patrick where he was completely- well.” She broke off, and grinned at John’s scarlet ears. “You probably don’t need to know.”

“Blimey. I think his head might explode.” said John weakly.

“We could use this, you know.” Violet said thoughtfully.

Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “Go on.”

“Well, I think it’s safe to say that Mycroft has changed his mind about escorting you off the premises tonight.”

Sherlock glared down at his brother, taking in the way that Mycroft was leaning very slightly across the table as he conversed with Patrick. Singh for his part looked surprisingly animated; he had propped his elbows on the table and he was smiling as he nodded and listened to Mycroft. They had evidently found some common ground.

“They’re talking about Wagner.” Violet whispered, after a second or two. “Of course your bloody brother likes Wagner, the pestilential worm.”

John knew for a fact that Sherlock himself was quite fond of Wagner, but it didn’t stop the detective curling his lip and nodding darkly in agreement with Violet.

“He’s too busy chatting him up to worry about us just now. Let’s make a bid for freedom, shall we?” Violet murmured. She glanced over at Inspector Menzies, who was scribbling frantically in his notebook; no doubt trying to jot down what he remembered of Sherlock’s deductions.

She cleared her throat and smiled charmingly at him when he looked up, startled. “Inspector, we’ve all had a trying day. Since there is evidently no murderer on the loose, I’m assuming that we don’t need to stick around. Feel free to stay for dessert, and don’t forget to take Mr. Marmaduke with you when you leave.”

Menzies opened his mouth to protest, but Violet had already bestowed another sparkling breezy smile upon him and swept away towards the door without a backwards glance.

She dragged Sherlock by the hand along with her, the latter having begun to make enquiries about what exactly had been intended for dessert.

“You’ll find his supplies taped under his bed.” John added helpfully, getting to his feet. “We’ll be delighted to clear up any of the finer points in the morning. Must dash. So sorry.”

Phyllis glanced up and smiled distractedly as he passed her chair, before resuming her conversation with Katy about her imminent trip north to the Highlands.

Mycroft didn’t even break eye contact with Patrick; John doubted that he had even noticed that they had vacated their end of the table. Patrick, however, glanced up at him as he passed and nodded at him. John was glad and a little ashamed that Patrick had evidently decided not to hold their earlier conversation in the upstairs corridor against him.

“Are you leaving us so early, Doctor Watson?” he asked politely.

Mycroft turned and glanced up at him coolly, then swivelled in his seat to catch sight of Violet and Sherlock who were waiting impatiently for him at the door. His brow furrowed a little when he saw that they were still carelessly hand-in-hand.

“Yes, I think we’re going to skip dessert. Please don’t let me disturb you, you’re obviously finding a lot to chat about.” John said politely, adopting a bland smile as Mycroft turned back to face him. “I’m sure we’ll see you tomorrow, Mycroft.”

Mycroft seemed to struggle momentarily, glancing back across the table at Patrick. Singh watched this exchange with mild curiosity and a hint of humour in his dark eyes, before murmuring: “I don’t think I am in the mood for sweets just now, either. Perhaps you would like to take a stroll with me in the conservatory, Mr. Holmes? It is quite… atmospheric at night.”

John bit his lip to stifle a grin and patted Mycroft’s rigid shoulder cheerfully. “Good idea! I don’t think Mycroft has seen it yet. Don’t forget to show him the koi pond, Patrick. The aspidistras, too. Make sure to take your time. We, er, won’t disturb you. Have fun. Goodnight, then!”

He turned and strolled away, fighting the urge to giggle. Mycroft’s face had gone blank, but what looked suspiciously like a blush had begun to rise in his cheeks. Patrick, in his quiet way, seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.

As he crossed the threshold of the dining hall however, he heard Mycroft say “Not the conservatory, I think – but perhaps we could retire to the library?”

***

Violet pushed the door firmly closed behind John as he stepped into the hallway and sighed loudly. The relief was evident in her face. “Thank Christ. With any luck Hilary and Basil are upstairs packing their bags already. This time tomorrow I might have a house blissfully free of students. Gosh, the utter luxury of it!”

“I hope this experience has made you think twice about teaching, Vi.” Sherlock said darkly. “No matter how diverting it is to have a crime scene conveniently close to home.”

Violet rolled her eyes at him and took John’s arm companionably. “Too bloody right. Students are far more trouble that they’re worth. Brandy in the library, chaps?”

“Sounds like Mycroft and Patrick are heading that way soon.” John informed her, grinning as she did an abrupt about-turn and started sailing in the opposite direction towards the conservatory. He glanced up at Sherlock, who had come to walk on his other side. The detective’s face was slightly queasy, but thoughtful.

“I think it’s about time I started working on my own painting a bit more seriously.” Violet said pensively. “I haven’t exhibited my work in years, but I used to do quite well out of it. Katy was wonderful, I must say. She pretended to be me, attended the opening and appeared in all of the press photographs. I didn’t want to risk appearing in the papers, you see.” She explained, at John’s quizzical look. “As a result, however, I do have something of an unusual reputation of being a business savvy and mercilessly efficient artist in certain London galleries.”

“Did you mind it?” John asked curiously.

Violet shrugged. “Not particularly. Never wanted to be one of those ‘famous artist’ wankers who go on telly. I mean, I like it when people admire my work for what it is; not because of who I am. The last exhibition got pretty good reviews, too. It was at that Hickman place; you two had a run-in with them, didn’t you?”

“Blimey. You didn’t have to deal with Miss Wenceslas, did you?” John asked, surprised. Sherlock pushed open the door to the conservatory, walking through and holding the door for Violet and John. The conservatory was comfortingly shadowy and warm, lit only by small lanterns dotted here and there. It was a clear night outside, and John could make out the brightest stars through the glass roof overhead.

“No, and just as well. I actually knew her, a long time ago.” Violet smiled grimly. “Interestingly, neither of us have the same names or faces as we did back then.”

“I wonder why Mycroft didn’t want to come in here with Patrick?” he mused, taking a seat next to Sherlock on the cushioned bench next to the pond.

Violet raised an eyebrow, taking a seat in her battered wicker armchair. “He didn’t?”

“No.” John stretched his legs out lazily, closing his eyes. “He suggested the library instead, almost straight away. And lets face it, if you’re looking for a quiet corner to-“

“John, for the sake of my sanity, you will not finish that sentence.” Sherlock wailed, with an agonised expression.

“Well, you know what I mean. If I was hoping to have a quiet, intimate… um, chat, with someone, I’d do it in here.”

Violet smiled around the cigarette she was in the process of lighting, and nodded. “It’s true. You’d be amazed at how easy it is to seduce someone in here.” She said reminiscently, taking a proud look around the towering palms and dark shrubs. “Dark corners, warm moist air-“

“Urgh!”

“Shut up, Sherlock, it’s only a word. Moist. I’ll say it all I want.”

“Disgusting harpy.” Sherlock glowered, taking a long look around the conservatory. “I rather think that I know why he didn’t want to come in here, though.”

“Oh?”

“Glass. Glass everywhere, all around us.” He groaned theatrically at John’s uncomprehending features.

Violet on the other hand, looked affronted. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Not really?”

Sherlock raised a shoulder in a petulant shrug, and glared into the depths of the pond. “I think that we can be reasonably confident. It would be the easiest place for him to arrange surveillance-“

“Your brother’s been bugging the place? Seriously?” John exclaimed, remembering his flippant remarks to Mycroft earlier in the library. “Wanker.”

“Well, I don’t know about bugs, but I think we can be sure he’s had visual surveillance from outside the building. And he may well have taken the chance to plant one or two of his little recorders when he inflicted himself on us earlier. You did leave him alone in the hall this morning, John.” Sherlock added accusingly.

“Oh!” Violet gasped suddenly, sitting up straight in her chair and slapping her hand to her forehead. Her cigarette went flying, and narrowly missed the carelessly strewn hem of her dress.

John hastily ground it out under his shoe and stared at her. “What the hell-?”

“That’s it! That’s bloody it!” she waved her hand at him wildly. “That’s why he thinks-“

He stared at her, perplexed. (Why he thinks… oh. Oh, no. No! Arse.)

“Is either one of you planning on telling me what on earth you’re talking about?” Sherlock asked, folding his arms fussily. Despite his eternal impatience when lesser mortals didn’t catch up with his lightning train of thought, the detective never had much tolerance when others knew something he didn’t.

“Um…” John widened his eyes meaningfully at Violet, who grinned a little shiftily back at him. “Look, it was entirely innocent but I suppose it might not have looked that way to someone watching from outside…”

He watched as Sherlock’s face rearranged itself into an angry crunched up grimace. “And what was it that was so entirely innocent, John?”

(Oh, god. This is not going to go well. She had even said it, at the time – “Don’t tell him I kissed you. Can you imagine the sulks if he heard I’d molested his blogger?”)

Violet evidently decided to take pity on him and sighed melodramatically. “Oh, calm down you histrionic numpty. I kissed John. On the mouth. Very briefly, and as a thank you. Oh, and he kissed my hand too, which was very sweet.” She looked steadily into Sherlock’s narrowed eyes, unapologetic. “I was categorically not trying to steal your blogger; although it would have served you right if I did. Look at him,” she added, gesturing at John’s wincing face. “He’s fucking adorable!”

John opened and closed his mouth a few times, not quite knowing what to say at this point. He turned to Sherlock and shrugged apologetically. “Um. Well. So you see how it might have looked a bit. Um.”

Sherlock glared at Violet, looking positively malevolent. She looked entirely unrepentant, and dangerously close to giggles. John’s palms were beginning to sweat, and he rubbed them anxiously on his knees. He didn’t want Sherlock to have a row with Violet, even if it was a silly one.

He watched Sherlock open his mouth to speak, and decided that drastic action was needed.

“Violet, I’m going to take Sherlock to bed. Right now.” He said firmly, getting to his feet and squaring his shoulders. Violet’s eyes gleamed, her expression thoroughly impressed. “I’ve never had angry sex before, and if I’m being honest I’m quite looking forward to it.”

He grabbed Sherlock’s wrist and hauled him to his feet. Sherlock’s face was priceless, the anger and petulance beginning to give way to incredulity and intrigue.

“Right. Okay. Goodnight then, Vi.” John smiled, and towed an unprotesting Sherlock down the conservatory, back towards the door. He paused once they rounded a curve in the path, and turned to face him. Sherlock pulled back slightly and folded his arms. His shoulders slumped a little, and John sighed quietly.

“She was thanking me. That was all. It was a friendly gesture, Sherlock. I’m not going to apologise for it; but if it makes you feel any better I promise it won’t happen again.”

Sherlock shrugged moodily, refusing to meet his gaze and staring at a point on John’s shoulder. John suddenly felt sure that this was probably just how he had looked as a teenager, sulky and inarticulate. Desperate for reassurance but unable to ask for it.

There was a reason why John had chosen this particular spot. He was almost sure that it was just where he had encountered Violet a few nights previously, when he had come looking for Sherlock in the small hours. Glancing to his left, he realised that there was indeed a gap in the foliage between them and the glass wall. There was a clear line of sight into the dark gardens beyond.

Sherlock didn’t move or respond at first, when John stepped deliberately closer. When John slid his hands up either side of his neck and deep into the dark curls of his hair, Sherlock shut his eyes but determinedly kept his mulish expression. John sighed, and stood on tiptoe when Sherlock didn’t bend to meet his lips. “I love you, Sherlock. You can’t really doubt that, can you?”

Sherlock’s shoulders twitched, and he grudgingly brought his hands to John’s waist. “No.” he said quietly. “No, I don’t doubt it. But I’ll never understand it either.”

John felt his heart clench a little painfully. “Open your eyes and look at me, you darling ridiculous man. Please.

Sherlock opened his eyes, and after a second or two relaxed enough to unbend and rest his forehead against John’s.

“Are we alright, Sherlock?” John murmured, running his fingertips through Sherlock’s hair as gently as he knew how.

Sherlock closed the remaining couple of inches and kissed John, with an unexpected sweetness. Since their first, slightly disastrous kiss next to the ruined abbey, Sherlock had tended towards being decisive, even a little forceful when he embraced John. As if he felt safer taking the lead, bending John to his will and desire.

This kiss was a little different, and it felt almost as though Sherlock was telling him wordlessly just how much trust he was putting in John’s calloused hands. John felt it, deep in his bones and as they broke apart he wrapped his arms firmly around Sherlock’s neck and held him close.

Sherlock’s hands worried a little at the hem of John’s jacket and he huffed a soft, self-conscious laugh into his shoulder. “Can we go and have some not-angry sex now? I’m fairly sure we’ll get around to the angry sort some other time.”

“Oh, I think we can bank on that.” John said, taking his hand with a grin before leading him swiftly down the shadowy path.

***

Upstairs in the green bedroom, they found two pairs of very clean pajamas folded neatly at the foot of their bed. Sherlock picked them up at once and pitched them across the room before going to brush his teeth with indecent haste. John grinned and followed him, laughing aloud when Sherlock handed him his toothbrush, already dampened and coated with toothpaste.

“A little eager, are we?” he asked innocently, beginning to brush slowly. Sherlock rolled his eyes, and daintily spat in the sink.

“If you’re not undressed and in bed within sixty seconds John, it may turn out to be angry sex after all.” Sherlock informed him sternly, beginning to unbutton his shirt. John watched in the mirror as behind him, Sherlock shrugged the crisp fabric off his sculpted shoulders on his way back into the dimly lit bedroom. He bit down on his toothbrush sharply, feeling his stomach twist in newly familiar desire. He was all too aware of what was next on Sherlock’s schedule.

(I want to fellate you. Agreeable?)

(Too bloody right.)

But a small part of him, for all his enthusiasm and desire, was still a bit unsure about this next development. Not about Sherlock, or what was happening between them. It was just… well. John had never had his mouth anywhere near a man’s cock before. He didn’t know what it would be like (hell, what’s it going to taste like? Will he expect me to-)

“John, I can damn well hear you fretting from in here, you know!”

(Oh, fuck it.)

***

And as it turned out, it was strange and sensual and maddening and clumsy and messy and… perfect.

He left his clothes in a pile on the floor next to the bed, hastily slipping between the sheets and turning out the lamp next to the bed. The room was left bathed in firelight, and Sherlock’s eyes gleamed as John wriggled towards him, turning to face him and resting his head on the pillow next to Sherlock’s.

“Look. Um-“

“Nobody’s ever done it to me before.” Sherlock said quietly, reaching out and skimming his hand gently down John’s side. “Stop worrying. I’ve got nothing to compare it to.”

John stared at him. (How could no one have wanted to? This frankly amazing, beautiful man?) He wanted to ask, but instinctively knew that now was not the time. It didn’t escape his notice that Sherlock hadn’t said that he hadn’t done to it someone else before.

“Stop it.” Sherlock murmured. “Look… this is about you and me. No one else. I want to eclipse everything else, every other tawdry, inconsequential encounter. I want you to be the only person I ever think of in relation to sex. I want you to be my only frame of reference, John. Can you understand that?”

John nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He exhaled slowly, taking Sherlock’s hand from where it lay on his waist and kissed his knuckles. He attempted a smile, but it felt a bit crooked on his face. “So do you want to flip a coin or something?”

Sherlock snorted impatiently, and pushed down the covers unceremoniously. “No.”

The cool air of the room made John shiver slightly, and he felt a little abashed at his sudden exposure even in the shadowy room. Sherlock knelt up on the bed at his side, studying his body with such frank interest that John closed his eyes and knotted his fingers in the sheets. It was the only way he could stop his hands moving to cover himself. He shivered again when he felt the tip of one finger curiously trace the length of his half-hard cock, from base to tip. He gasped when he felt Sherlock firmly push his thighs wide apart, his eyes flying open. Sherlock glanced up at him as he clambered between John’s thighs, coming to lie between them and pushing his knees up a little.

He grinned wryly at whatever he saw in John’s expression. “I like this angle better. Not to mention the view…”

“Oh my god.” John said weakly, and shut his eyes again.

He knew it was coming; had seen Sherlock’s mouth inching closer to him, had seen those lush lips parting wantonly as they approached his twitching cock. He still wasn’t prepared for it, though – being suddenly engulfed in the heat and wetness of his mouth, for the decisive flicking of the clever tongue. The sly fingers stroking his sac, rolling his balls gently and spreading the film of saliva that was already slipping from the base of his cock.

The small part of his brain that was still capable of coherent thought registered that being sucked off by a man was a bit different; Sherlock’s mouth felt a bit bigger and he was a bit more sure, more forceful than any woman John had been with. He gasped as Sherlock firmly dragged the flat of his tongue along the underside of his erection, before delicately trailing the tip around the swollen head. He gently flicked the tip of John’s cock with his tongue, worrying almost absently at the slit.

John, who was now somehow propped on his elbows and helplessly watching him, realised that Sherlock was tasting the pre come that seemed to be almost constantly leaking from his cock. The endless, unfurling rushes of desire at the base of his spine and groin seemed to magnify, and he couldn’t help but moan softly at the sight. Sherlock raised his eyes to meet John’s, his eyes hazy as he reached out a hand to gently stroke John’s stomach. He opened his lips wider, and took John back into his mouth to suck at him a little harder. His fingers gently stroked his balls in a rhythmic, teasing motion that had John nearly sobbing with lust before they slipped a little lower to press at his perineum.

He felt Sherlock’s prominent knuckles kneading gently at the skin there, and he felt almost panicked by the increased rush of arousal it brought on.

Sherlock must have been a little concerned at the long, slightly pained groan that had somehow made its way out of John’s mouth. He pulled off, making John almost whimper at the sudden disappearance of the slick heat.

“I’m fine!” John half-shouted, wide-eyed. “Fine! Oh fuck, Sherlock, please don’t stop now…”

Sherlock smiled slyly, running the tips of two of his fingers teasingly up and down the length of John’s erection. The hot, flushed skin was visibly coated in a sheen of saliva, gleaming wet in the firelight. John’s hips bucked helplessly as Sherlock licked his lips and lowered his head again. He gasped again when he felt Sherlock’s tongue lapping slowly at his sac, and wrenched at the sheets when he messily began to suck at his balls. Sherlock’s fingers continued to stroke his cock and the taut skin between his thighs.

John felt helpless, feverish, wanton as he gave in to the overwhelming sensations. He was trembling convulsively by the time he came, glazed with sweat, his body ablaze with arousal. He was incapable of giving Sherlock warning, but it must have been obvious as the detective suddenly pinned down his rocking hips, taking him back in his mouth as his cock surged. He rolled his tongue obscenely around John’s length until he begged for mercy, aching and overwhelmed.

He was dimly aware of Sherlock sliding up the bed, and he clumsily reached out to cup his face with a trembling hand. He couldn’t speak, not yet. He could barely see. Sherlock grinned down at him, triumphant, and kissed him deeply. John could taste and feel the slick, slightly metallic remains of his come on Sherlock’s tongue, and he surprised himself by lapping greedily into Sherlock’s hot mouth. Sharing the taste, the evidence of his desire.

(Oh fuck. We can never go back from this. Not ever.)

“Um. I can see that you’re a little… overcome…” Sherlock murmured, breaking away after a minute or two. “It’s alright, you know, if you want to wait until-“

“Not bloody likely!” John snapped, his eyes flying open. Glancing down, he saw Sherlock’s erection which was so swollen that it looked almost painful. His gradually slowing heart rate skipped a beat, and he swallowed hard, still faintly tasting the remnants of his own come.

He knew Sherlock was watching him intently, and he met his eye with an attempt at bravado. “Just… don’t expect me to match what you just did, alright?” He smiled bravely, turning and slipping down the bed.

“John, it’s your mouth. You don’t know how many times I’ve fantasized about having your mouth on me.” Sherlock whispered softly, watching with wide eyes as John awkwardly slipped between his thighs.

(Oh, god. The way he looks at me. It just doesn’t make sense.)

Sherlock’s cock was darkly flushed, the head already slick. John was oddly surprised by just how much he wanted to find out what it would feel against his lips, slipping across his tongue. He reached out and gently squeezed the hard, velvety column of flesh. He smiled when Sherlock dropped his curly head back on the pillow and groaned weakly.

“Promise me you’ll tell me if I do anything you don’t like. I’ll stop whenever you want,” he added, feeling the need to make this point very clear.

He watched as Sherlock nodded, his face flushed and almost pained with desire. Taking a deep breath, John lowered his mouth to Sherlock’s twitching cock, gently circling the base with his fingers. He smoothed the long expanse of Sherlock’s pale thigh with his free hand, exploring the muscles, the fine hair and heated skin. He smelt warm and musky, of sandalwood and of fresh sweat; incredibly, unavoidably male. The mouthful of warm, smooth cock tasted a little salty. When John sucked harder in an attempt to savour more of it, Sherlock let out a deep rumbling groan that thrilled him, his sharp hips bucking helplessly.

(I’m doing this. I’m actually bloody doing this! Oh, god, look at him…)

John attempted a swirling movement with his tongue that made Sherlock pant loudly, his torso twisting and arching restlessly off the mattress. He had to keep glancing up, enthralled, as he took note of what made Sherlock quiver and moan, which flicks of the tongue and pressure made him swear breathlessly. His jaw began to ache a little after a while, from being stretched around Sherlock’s not inconsiderable girth.

(Fuck. That’s going to push inside me some time. It’ll probably hurt like hell but my god, I want it.)

He gave Sherlock’s cock a last wet lick before pulling off to rest his jaw, giving the detective an apologetic grin as he did so. Sherlock watched him through half-closed eyes, his chest heaving and flushed with arousal. He bit his swollen lower lip and shut his eyes tightly as John began to stroke him firmly with his fingers, and let out a startled hiss when John’s tongue flicked across his tightening balls. “John! Oh, god- do that again. Please do that again, oh…

Obligingly, John lowered his head and ran his tongue slowly across the soft damp skin again, tasting the salt and musk, exploring the texture of the fine coarse hair. With each pass of his tongue the skin tightened more, Sherlock’s balls nestling closer to the base of his cock. His thighs were trembling, and Sherlock seemed to be having a hard time keeping still, his back arching helplessly and his long legs falling wide open. Surprising even himself, John slipped a little lower on the bed and let his tongue slip down behind Sherlock’s sac, pausing to lap messily at his perineum.

Sherlock’s hips bucked wildly and he let out a sharp moan, come striping his stomach and oozing over John’s fingers. John continued to lick at him until he heard the sharp intake of breath that suggested Sherlock was becoming too sensitive. Easing his way back up, he impulsively ran his tongue through the creamy, slightly bitter mess on Sherlock’s abdomen before wrapping his arms around his torso. Sherlock’s eyes were tightly shut, and his chest was heaving as he attempted to catch his breath. His hair was plastered to his face, and he made a weak sound of protest when John briefly took his arm away to drag the sheets up from the foot of the bed.

After a few minutes, when their breath had steadied a little, Sherlock turned to John; his expression tinged with something that looked a lot like wonder. “That… John, that was…”

John grinned at him, feeling ridiculously pleased. (Cocky. That’s the bloody word.)

“…good?”

“Quite good, yes.” Sherlock said, after a moment during which he kissed John soundly. “But, er… I think you need a bit more practice. Much more, in fact.”

“Oh, really?” John asked, beginning to glare.

“Yes, I’m afraid so.” Sherlock said a little apologetically, his eyes glinting green in the firelight. He seemed incapable of keeping the corners of his mouth from curling up into a gleeful little grin.

“You’re going to have to start working on it again, in… oh… half an hour, perhaps? Yes, that seems reasonable.”

“I’ll show you reasonable, you utter git!” John muttered darkly, before smacking his pillow into Sherlock’s head.

Chapter Text

John awoke shortly after nine the next morning, feeling his lips curve before he consciously remembered his reason for smiling. The bedroom was dim, with a narrow shaft of light spilling through a gap in the heavy velvet curtains. He stretched luxuriously, with a soft contented groan. Relishing the slight friction of warm crumpled linen against his bare skin, he turned slowly and found Sherlock’s half of the sagging mattress empty. Slipping his hand across the sheet, he felt the bedclothes for warmth. They were cool beneath his palm, and he sighed quietly.

(Did you really think that it was going to be cuddling and long lie-ins every morning? With Sherlock bloody Holmes? Good grief. Get a grip!)

After huddling under the heavy covers for a few moments longer, John steeled himself for the chill of the bedroom air. He slid down from the high bed, wincing and feeling goosebumps erupt all over his skin. He snatched a heavy woollen blanket from the foot of the four poster and wrapped it tightly around his shoulders. Sherlock, of course, travelled nowhere without his dressing gown; John supposed that it was a habit born of spending holidays in huge draughty old houses like this.

Ten minutes later he was much more cheerful, having taken up residence in the stately copper bath. He was idly scrubbing some rather embarrassing residue from his thighs and stomach (oh Christ, how did it even get behind my ear? Must have been round three. Blimey, that one was spectacular) and watching the branches of the trees outside wave in the breeze when he heard the bedroom door open.

He froze, craning his neck to check whether he had left the bathroom door open again.

“Don’t worry, I asked Ms. Gothford to stay out of our room for the rest of our stay,” came Sherlock’s voice, accompanied by the slam of the heavy carved bedroom door.

“Oh. Good.” John said, relaxing a little and returning to his ablutions. “Did you make up a good reason?”

“Yes, I told her we were going to be having a lot of sex. She didn’t seem to require any more reason than that.” Sherlock said airily, coming into the bathroom without knocking. He smiled cheerfully, and to John’s great surprise, handed him a steaming cup of coffee.

“Funny.” John said drily, dropping the scented soap into the depths of the bathwater and taking a sip from the cup. It somehow tasted even more delicious than the coffee he had drunk the previous mornings, sweetened with darkest raw sugar, an oily dash of cream swirling over the surface. He sighed with contentment, closing his eyes and sinking a little deeper.

“You’ve become rather attached to this bath.” Sherlock commented, taking a seat on the gleaming rolled edge and taking a sip from his own cup. He let his eyes drift over John’s flushed wet body with considerable interest. John felt a blush rising, and fought the urge to duck his head.

“It’s one of the few warm places in this house.” he pointed out. “Apart from the conservatory. And bed. Bed is also an excellent place to be.”

Sherlock hummed in agreement, trailing a fingertip idly across the steaming surface of the water, watching the ripples spread.

“Quite. Unfortunately, Inspector Menzies appeared bright and early this morning and wanted me to explain some of the finer details to him. Violet came and woke me around half eight, but you were fast asleep.” John heard the grin in Sherlock’s voice. “Violet came and had a look at you. She said that you looked quite worn out.”

John opened his eyes and sighed. “Christ, neither of you have much of an idea of personal boundaries, do you?”

“Dull.” Sherlock said sniffily, standing up and proceeding to strip off his dressing gown and pajama bottoms.

John raised an eyebrow. “Planning on wearing me out a bit more?” he asked, the question coming out more hopeful than blasé.

“Certainly, in time.” Sherlock said firmly, stepping into the tub and lowering himself into the deep hot water with a sigh. “Bloody hell, this is hot.”

“Why, thank you.” John said with a grin, rearranging his legs so that Sherlock had more room at his end of the tub. Sherlock didn’t deign to answer, slipping deeper and resting the back of his head against the lip of the bath. Their legs ended up comfortably tangled, one of Sherlock’s feet coming to rest on John’s inner thigh.

(No, I can’t be developing a thing for his feet. Can I? I mean, they’re nice feet, but still- )

Sherlock regarded him over the edge of his coffee cup. His mouth was obscured but his eyes had crinkled a little at the edges. John smiled back and him and sighed, nudging Sherlock’s knee with his own.

The wind outside whistled gently around the house, causing the tree branches to knock softly against the nearby tall windows. Crows wheeled leisurely through the grey skies outside, and in the distance John could see the gardener Mr. McCreedy busily chopping wood. On closer inspection, it looked as if he was methodically dismantling the wooden bench and platform from the studio, upon which Sandra had died.

“Menzies took George away with him last night, then?” asked John, after a minute or two.

“Yes. I would have been quite pleased if he had been left to freeze in the coal bunker overnight rather than a cosy cell at the police station; but at least he’s gone. I heard Ms. Gothford tell Violet that she was going to pack his things this morning and ship them down to his father’s house in Canterbury. They’ll let him out on bail before the court case, and we don’t want him coming anywhere near this house again.”

“Bastard.” John muttered, with feeling. Sherlock nodded grimly. “Any sign of Mycroft this morning? I’m assuming that he did leave last night, didn’t he?”

Sherlock glanced down into the bathwater and sighed theatrically. “Yes, there it goes. Despite the fact that I am naked in a bath with an equally naked John Watson, I am now completely without an erection.”

John, who had just taken another mouthful of coffee, choked slightly. He grinned and flicked some water at Sherlock, who looked most put out.

“Oh, come on. I suppose even bloody Mycroft feels an urge now and again. I suppose, if I ever thought about it, I would have reckoned that he’d have had a really bizarre and obscure kink. Like people dressing up as conservative prime ministers or military dictators. Or only being able to shag on Bauhaus furniture or something. Patrick seems interested, anyhow. Maybe getting his leg over would put him in a good mood, make him a bit less likely to terrorise Violet.”

Sherlock snorted. “It would take more than that. And frankly, after the Eulalie incident-“ he trailed off, shaking his head slowly.

“Oh, come on, Sherlock! What the hell was it, this incident? And who is Eulalie?”

Sherlock sighed and shut his eyes wearily, tipping his head back so that the curls at the back of his neck slowly saturated and trailed in the water. “Oh, alright. If you must know. Eulalie was the name of our au pair. My parents needed help at home when Mummy was away on lecture tours, and Father was on business trips. I didn’t go to boarding school until I was twelve, and they seemed to think I needed some kind of supervision. Absurd, really. But we had various au pairs over the years, but Eulalie was the last. I was ten, and Mycroft was seventeen. Most of the previous ones we had were French, but she was Scots, from the Borders. I suppose she was reasonably attractive, quite large with curly blonde hair and dark eyes. She was twenty when she came to work for us.

“She wasn’t the worst au pair we had. She didn’t mind my experiments, as long as I kept them in my bedroom. We came to a reasonably amicable agreement to leave each other alone as long as I ate at least two meals a day and was home by midnight during the week. Mycroft was in his final year of school, but he came home for weekends and holidays most of the time, mainly so that he could check up on me and boss me around. Obviously.

John stifled a grin at the look of chagrin on Sherlock’s face. “So he had it off with the help, then?”

Sherlock grimaced. “No. He used to make these dreadful cow eyes at her, though. I expect it was her dreadful lard-infused cookery that did it, all those steamed puddings and treacle tarts. I do think that she was at least partly responsible for his quite remarkable corpulence at the time. He spent a lot of time in the kitchen, eating currant scones and making abortive attempts to charm her.”

“Oh, dear.” John tried to imagine this, but failed miserably.

“Quite. Eulalie was not interested, however. She left after a few months, to go and work at a girls correctional facility. She said that working with fifty hormonal teenagers with violent criminal tendencies sounded like a nice quiet change after life at our house, and I never saw her again. I did try and get in touch once, as I would have liked to visit the institution; but I never received a reply to my letters.” Sherlock sounded slightly injured. “Mycroft kept a picture of her in his wallet for a long time.

“Ultimately, I realised that his attraction for Eulalie had been a formative psycho-sexual experience. Bear in mind, John, that both Mycroft and I did not meet many girls during our schooldays. Eulalie was probably one of the very few females that Mycroft had prolonged contact with. Although he later displayed a preference for the company of men, Eulalie cast a long shadow over his personal relationships. And in those days, Mycroft actually had one or two relationships, usually tall sturdy blonde types with dark eyes. Not coincidental, I think you will agree.

“But it was at my grandparent’s estate, at Hilderbogie, that the incident occurred.” Sherlock shuddered. “Oh, god. It was shortly after Violet had married Sherry, and I spent as much time up there as I could manage. And of course, Mycroft used to pay his little visits to keep an eye on me. But during this time, he met Mr. Brodie, who worked on the estate. Mr. Brodie, unfortunately, was just Mycroft’s type. And he was from the Borders, so he even had the accent. And even more unfortunately, Mycroft was Mr. Brodie’s type.”

Sherlock took a deep pained breath, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Violet and I were looking for a tin of creosote in one of the stable outbuildings, when we heard a noise coming from one of the empty stalls…”

“Blimey. You saw Mycroft having sex?” John asked, in slightly horrified fascination.

“Not just that.” Sherlock muttered. “Mr. Brodie was wearing one of our mother’s floral dresses, and Mycroft was calling him Eulalie as he… oh god, John. The horror!“

John stared at him blankly. He opened his mouth, and then closed it again. Sherlock looked slightly ill.

“One of your mother’s dresses?” John asked carefully.

Sherlock nodded. “It wasn’t anything overtly oedipal. It was very similar to one that Eulalie used to wear to church on Sundays.”

“Did he know you’d seen him?”

“Violet grabbed me by the arm and started towing me away. She seemed to think that we should leave them to it, and also I rather think that she was about to have one of her giggling fits. But I was, um. A bit transfixed with horror. And I knocked over a bucket on my way out of the yard. Mr. Brodie came running out, his lipstick smeared all over his face, and tried to persuade us that he and Mycroft had been rehearsing some amateur theatricals for the annual féte.”

John dissolved into laughter. He couldn’t help it. “Sherlock… you’re making this up. I mean, come on! It’s Mycroft!”

Sherlock shook his head vehemently. “It’s all true. I would give a considerable amount just to un-see it. Urgh! That’s the problem with having an eidetic memory, John. I can still see his flabby white-“

“Don’t finish that sentence!” John shouted, dropping his empty coffee cup into the bath and covering his face with his hands. “I believe you! I don’t need more details! Christ.”

“And of course, that little incident contributed to Mycrofts feelings towards Violet. He hates the fact that she saw him in a compromising position, although she never mentioned it to him once. Violet has always been very broad minded, even back then. But Mycroft has never been able to bear the fact that she knows about it. It probably makes him even more determined to squash her.”

“Hmm.” John nodded, still boggling slightly. “But Patrick doesn’t really fit in with his type, does he? I can’t imagine him being willing to put on a floral frock, either.”

Sherlock shrugged. “After the Eulalie incident, I don’t think that Mycroft was involved with anyone else again. I think he deemed personal relationships were far too much trouble, and left him vulnerable. Understandable, really. Luckily, Mr. Brodie is discreet by nature, and nobody else ever found out about it. He’s been in charge of managing the estate for several years now.”

“Blimey. No wonder Mycroft seems a bit flustered, if he hasn’t been involved with anyone since then.” John said thoughtfully. “I mean, that must be over twenty years ago.”

Sherlock shrugged a little awkwardly, and John was suddenly reminded of the night he returned to Baker Street. It felt like decades, rather than just over a year ago. John asking Sherlock if he thought it would make a difference, knowing the identity of the father of Mary’s child. And Sherlock shrugging, just like that. Not knowing. Not his area.

Sherlock evidently read at least some of this in John’s face, and he tilted his head a little, looking at John shrewdly from half-closed eyes.

In the bright light coming through the tall arched windows nearby, he would usually be colourless and pale, but the heat from the steaming bathwater had left his face and chest flushed and rosy. John watched with something like fascination as droplets of water ran slowly down over the sharp lines of his collarbones, trickling from the dip of his suprasternal notch and slipping down over the dark pink nipples. The water had left the fine hair on Sherlock’s chest slick and a little darkened against his skin. The ends of his hair were soaked, and stuck in loose dark coils to either side of his ridiculous, elegant throat.

John knew he was staring. Ogling, in fact. He accepted that he was the ludicrously lucky fool whom Sherlock had decided to let into his heart and mind. It had taken him long enough to accept that fact. John didn’t remotely understand it, but he knew it; knew that Sherlock had come back to him. Had saved John’s life at considerable cost, had spent his years away working to come back to him. John Watson, a scarred and greying army doctor with post-traumatic stress, an average intellect and a frequently bad temper. John wasn’t the type to be self-conscious about his looks, but he knew that Sherlock would traditionally be judged as being well out of his league.

“Sherlock…” he ventured, and stopped. Sherlock gave him a look that made it clear that he was unimpressed with the way the conversation was about to go. John stretched out a hand to find Sherlock’s knee and squeezed it. “You don’t have to answer this-“

“Then I probably won’t.” Sherlock said reprovingly.

John sighed. “Look. You know all about me. You’ve probably deduced everything there is to know about my personal history. Romantic history, I mean.”

“And by romantic, you mean sexual.” Sherlock said flatly, before draining the last of his coffee.

John raised one of his shoulders, a little uncomfortably. “I mean both. That is… I mean, last night and yesterday; it was fantastic. You were fantastic. It was way better than anything I hoped.”

“You were expecting me to be incompetent at sex?” Sherlock asked, looking more than a little affronted.

“No, of course not. But, um. Look, I know you don’t see the point of talking about your past… experiences. And you absolutely don’t need to give me details. But, I’m just a bit concerned that it might all get a bit much, or I might do something that triggers a bad memory for you…” he trailed off, watching with dismay as Sherlock’s face turned stonily blank. “Look, Sherlock – you don’t need to tell me anything if you don’t want to. And I don’t mind if you feel like you need to be in control or in charge when we’re… in bed. I honestly don’t. But I hate the idea that you’ve got to keep an eye on things, that you’ve got to maintain control and not just... feel everything. To trust me enough to let yourself go completely-“

“But you know that I trust you! I trust you more than anyone, John!” Sherlock said, evidently a little shocked.

John squeezed his knee. “And that’s bloody amazing, you darling man. But I’m always a bit worried, that I’ll do something that you don’t like. That you’ll remember something, and it’ll ruin everything for you.”

“Not possible.” Sherlock said brusquely, although his cheeks had turned a little more pink when John used the endearment. “You couldn’t possibly.”

“But I could.” John said quietly. “I wouldn’t mean to; but I could. Like last night, when I was. Um. Licking you. There.”

“John, as a medical professional, it is frankly ludicrous for you to be bashful about using the correct terminology. You were licking my perineum, and I think I made it extremely clear that I liked it.”

John grimaced in embarrassment, blushing slightly and lowering his chin onto his chest. “Er. Yes.” He shuffled his feet along the bottom of the copper bath, and steeled himself.

“And I’m really glad you liked it. But while I was doing it, I was thinking about going a bit further, and touching your arse. Maybe licking it too, a bit.”

He glanced up from the surface of the water and into Sherlock’s face. The detective seemed to have frozen, and he was blinking rapidly. John didn’t have a clue what was going through his mind and he decided just to plunge onwards. “And I didn’t because I didn’t know how you’d feel about that. I’ve gathered that you’ve had some experience in that area in the past that was… not good. I wanted to, but I was worried that you’d start remembering some of the bad stuff.”

Sherlock continued to stare at him wordlessly. John began to worry some more.

“Just… could you have a think about it, maybe? I mean, about talking to me about it sometime.”

“Um.” Sherlock swallowed audibly. “Yes.”

“Yes, you’ll think about it?” John asked, hoping for some kind of elaboration.

“I mean yes, you can lick me there. Anywhere you want, really.” Sherlock said, his eyes downcast. When he looked up at John his eyes were visibly dilated, his face flushed.

“And touching your arse?” John asked slowly, realising the effect of his words. He bit his lip and grinned at Sherlock, who nodded a little jerkily.

“Yes.” Sherlock murmured, his voice husky.

“Touching how, exactly?” John asked, attempting to sound politely enquiring and studiously ignoring his own physical reaction to the conversation. This was something he really wanted to know, after all.

“I don’t… I don’t think I want you to fuck me.” Sherlock said quietly, fixing John with a heated glance. The richly scented sandalwood soap had turned the water a little cloudy, but John didn’t miss how Sherlock’s hand was slipping slowly down his torso. He could feel Sherlock’s long toes flexing on his inner thigh. “I’m not completely against the idea, not any more. I know you’d be… I know you’d be more careful than...” he trailed off and John watched, spellbound as he sinuously arched his back against the edge of the bath.

“Think about it for a while. No rush.” John slid his left hand down from Sherlock’s knee and gently ran his fingers as far up the underside of his thigh as he could reach, feeling the muscles quiver slightly. His right hand strayed inexorably towards his own rapidly hardening cock. “I honestly don’t mind if you never want to. But, um. I’m looking forward to you… fucking. Me.”

Sherlock’s gasp was almost inaudible, and John grinned as the surface of the water rippled around them. “It’s true. I was looking at your cock last night and imagining it inside me. How it’s going to feel when you push inside my arse.”

“I’ll… I’ll make sure you’re ready.” Sherlock whispered in a low voice. “I’ll use my tongue and fingers on you. Stretching you slowly open until you’re ready. Until you’re begging me to take you.”

John was aching by the end of that sentence. He couldn’t stop the involuntary buck of his hips as he stroked himself, gripping Sherlock’s thigh and cursing quietly; the water slapped the side of the bath loudly. He was torn between watching the action of Sherlock’s wrist under the water and the hazy feverish look in his eyes.

“Can I do that to you? Not my cock, but how about my fingers? I’d only need one, to stroke your prostate.” John watched the water ripple and wave around Sherlock’s shoulders and grinned slyly. “I’d lick you until you’re panting. You’d be soft and hot and open, your cock rock hard. Balls nice and tight, and you’d be trying to rut against the sheets. Or maybe, bent over the arm of the sofa or the kitchen table…”

“Bed.” Sherlock gasped, letting his head fall back against the gleaming copper lip of the bath. “On the bed, John.”

On some level, John filed this tiny piece of information away, and continued quietly. He felt extraordinarily daring, talking like this to Sherlock – he would never have attempted whispering dirty talk while watching any of his previous partners masturbate, not this early in the relationship at least. It was incredibly arousing, watching Sherlock come apart like this. He could feel himself edging closer and closer to his own orgasm, the little rushes of desire steadily increasing in his thighs and at the base of his spine. The feeling of his hand stroking his cock under the water was somehow magnified by the fact that Sherlock was doing the same, so close.

“On the bed, then. In your room, the door closed but the lights on so that I can see every inch of your beautiful body. I can see and feel every shiver, every twitch you make. I’ll put a pillow under you so you’re comfortable, and your cock will be pressed down, so that I can reach it between your thighs. While I’m rimming you, I’ll start rubbing the tip of my finger against you. I won’t push in, not for a while. I’ll wait until you’re loose, and I’ll slowly edge just the tip in-“

Sherlock moaned helplessly, sliding a little deeper into the water as the movement of his hand sped up. “John!”

“I’ll push, very very slowly inside. I’ll have some lube handy, and I’ll make sure you’re slick and wet as my finger slips into your hole. It’ll take ages. You’ll lie there panting as your body relaxes enough to let me inside, little by little. Eventually I’ll slide my finger in far enough to reach it, but until then I’ll be kissing your balls, sucking you off until you’re right on the edge-“

John watched Sherlock come with a kind of fascination, his own ejaculation feeling a bit secondary as he saw the almost anguished look in Sherlock’s flushed, damp face. The deep moan Sherlock gave echoed slightly in the huge bathroom. John couldn’t help but grin as he watched him sag after a few seconds, the movement of his chest causing the water to lap furiously at the sides of the bath. They had both had several orgasms within the last day or so, and John didn’t really feel this last one quite so strongly; it was a gentler release. He could feel the small amount of come swirling around his fingers before dispersing in the cloudy bathwater. He sighed deeply, unable to stop looking at Sherlock (nothing new there). He felt ridiculously, foolishly proud of himself. And happy. (My god, when was I last just this simply, honestly happy?)

“Your face…” Sherlock murmured, after a moment or two. He trailed off, then unexpectedly launched himself down to John’s end of the bath, causing great waves of water to slop over the sides and onto the tiled floor.

John laughed, his heart almost hurting as Sherlock wrapped his arms around him, coming to lie with his cheek pressed against John’s chest. “What about my face, you darling idiot?”

“Nothing.” Sherlock muttered, tightening his arms around him a little. “It’s… it’s a good face, that’s all. It’s my favourite one.”

John looked down at the top of Sherlock’s head, which was a riot of soggy, messy curls. He kissed it after a moment, unable to find anything like the right words to say.

“You called me darling.” Sherlock said quietly, after a minute or two of quiet breathing and dripping water.

“Mm. Yes. Well, I called you a darling idiot.”

“You called me darling last night, too. In the conservatory.”

John thought hard for a moment, and laughed a little. “I think I called you a ridiculous darling man.”

“I think that Violet is a bad influence on you. You insult me, even when you’re telling me you love me.” Sherlock said thoughtfully, rubbing his cheek against John’s chest. No doubt noting how John’s heart sped up a little at the mention of that particular word.

(And why the hell should it? He knows I love him. I’ve told him as much, even though I know better than to expect it from him.)

“You don’t mind.” John said, after a moment. “I promise I won’t call you darling at crime scenes, though. I won’t grope your bum or hold your hand either, if you’re worried about that.”

Sherlock snorted. “You may do so in front of Anderson. I look forward to seeing his expression.”

He unwound one of his arms from around John and reached over the side of the bath, scrabbling around until he found a bottle of shampoo. He handed this to John wordlessly, before slipping around to face the foot of the tub, arranging himself so that he lounged between John’s thighs. Inevitably, even more water ended up on the floor.

John decided not to protest, although he was a little taken aback. He pressed on Sherlock’s shoulder to indicate that he wanted the man to tip the back of his head under the water, and then finished the job of wetting Sherlock’s hair with his empty coffee mug. As he had dropped it into the water earlier, he supposed it was clean enough.

He poured some of the dark, slightly medicinal smelling shampoo out of the bottle and into his palm, carelessly dropping the heavy bottle over the side one more. When he began to run his fingers through Sherlock’s hair, he was careful not to let his hands tangle in the curls. He instinctively knew that this was another small act of trust, Sherlock asking him to do this.

Sherlock’s scalp was warm as he ran his fingertips gently through his hair, and John curiously traced the shape of his skull as he slowly lathered the shampoo. He ran his fingers from the top of Sherlock’s forehead right back to the nape of his neck, exploring the odd hollows and curves, the pronounced swell at the back of his skull. Tentatively, he used his fingernails to scratch gently behind Sherlock’s ears, vaguely remembering a scalp massage he’d once had at a barbers in Bamiyan. He was rewarded by a quiet, contented hum, Sherlock running his hand affectionately along the length of his shin.

He was taking far too long to just wash the man’s hair, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop running his fingers through the sodden curls. He was surprised when Sherlock broke the silence, beginning to talk in a low, measured tone.

“It was in Armenia that it happened. I had been there for nearly six weeks, trying to track down a man called Harman whom I knew had supplied Moriarty with arms several times. I thought initially that he would be able to lead me to the Turkish branch of Moriarty’s empire, but after trailing him for some time and talking to his acquaintances, I realised he also had dealings with even bigger fish. He was supplying explosives and guns to terrorist groups in Belfast and also in Munich. It became clear that he was involved with a plot with the ‘real’ IRA to completely derail the current political status quo in Northern Ireland. A bombing was planned that was going to create absolute chaos, and it was going to leave both Belfast and Londonderry in ruins. He wasn’t just a supplier; he was a smaller-scale Moriarty in his own right. He helped organise carnage, not because of any political or personal agenda; he was just good at it. He enjoyed it. Sometimes he charged for his expertise, and sometimes he did it as a favour.

“I was careful, when I approached Harman. I presented myself as the estranged son of one of one of his British rivals, wanting to get revenge for being disowned. I had done my research, and when I dyed my hair and gained some weight, I passed reasonably well for the man in question. He lived quietly enough running a brothel in Hong Kong, and there was little risk of our crossing paths. At first, it all worked rather well. He was suspicious, but I managed to impress him with my strategic abilities. I was able to assist him with some delicate negotiations with some Russian suppliers. Eventually, after a while he seemed willing to take me on as an apprentice of sorts. He badly wanted to injure the man he thought was my father, but I managed to persuade him to keep my ‘identity’ a secret for the time being.

“When I learnt about the Northern Ireland plot, however, I knew that I needed to do something. It was not a question of Queen and Country, it was a case of thousands of civilian lives. It wasn’t something that Moriarty had had any hand in; but I needed to do something. But Harman believed in keeping his cards close to his chest, and he never divulged anything useful enough. I think that he was worried I was going to set myself up as a rival; that I would attempt to usurp him at some point. Eventually I convinced him that I had Irish republican sympathies, that I wished to further the cause. That I wished to get in touch with the leaders of this splinter IRA group, and to help them with their cause.

“He laughed at me initially. He thought that I was an idiot romantic with aspirations to be some kind of freedom-fighter, and I did not dissuade him of this. He still wasn’t willing to assist me, though. Not without… not without some form of recompense.”

John continued to card his fingers gently through Sherlock’s hair, reluctant to say anything that might stop him from recounting the tale. Sherlock’s voice had remained level and distant up until this point, and it was almost as if he was talking about things that had happened to someone else. He paused for breath, and continued tonelessly.

“I knew that he desired me. He had made it quite clear, from quite early on in our acquaintance. I informed him that I was entirely heterosexual, but it didn’t make much difference. He watched me constantly, made tiresome remarks about my appearance and was generally rather a nuisance. He managed to restrain himself to the occasional ‘accidental’ fondle, which I laughed off. I couldn’t afford to insult him, not when there was so much at stake. When he realised just how much I wanted the information about his contacts in Belfast, he changed tactics. He must have decided that I wasn’t going to endanger his arrangement with them, and that he could use the situation to his advantage.

“I didn’t want it to have to come to that. I told you before that I wasn’t an innocent, that I had always been acquainted with the mechanics of sex. When I was younger, I… I tried it a few times. I wanted to see what it was like, why people behave in that way. I’d never understood it, though. At best, it was indifferent; but I didn’t like people breathing on me, or the feeling of hands on my skin. Not like that. At worst… well, I was never badly harmed. But based on those previous, admittedly limited experiences, I thought that it could be bearable. That it would be a means to an end; that I would put up with him pawing me for half an hour in return for incredibly valuable information. Time was running out; the attack was less than a week away when I arranged to meet him at his house in Yerevan.

“I knew that it was likely he would be forceful. He was that kind of man. He liked proving that he was the most powerful man in the room. But he seemed to value me as a business associate, so I assumed he wouldn’t actually injure me. He was alone in the house when I arrived that evening, which put me on my guard. But he was cheerful enough, and gave me a sheet of paper with the names and methods of contacting the leaders of the group in Belfast.

“I don’t want to tell you everything, John. It’ll make you sad, and angry and you’ll be too careful with me.” Sherlock broke off, sounding aggrieved. John rested his hands on his broad, pale shoulders and didn’t say anything. He focussed on breathing deeply, not wanting to interrupt. His heart already ached. He watched as Sherlock viciously worried at the beginnings of a hangnail on his left thumb, and fought the urge to reach out and stop him before he broke the skin.

“I… I let him tie me up. He obviously wasn’t skilled at knots, and I knew I’d be able to slip free easily enough if necessary. At first, I thought it would merely be unpleasant, but bearable. He pinned me down on the carpet, called me some rather juvenile names and slapped me a few times. I don’t think I reacted in the way he wanted, though. And he became more forceful. He took off his belt and hit me with that. He pulled my hair while I performed fellatio on him, and tore some of it out at the roots. He then proceeded to penetrate me without protection or preparation, which was… difficult. I began to struggle, which seemed to please him. He bit me several times. He evidently realised that I was attempting to slip the knots on the cord around my wrists, and produced an unfortunately sturdy pair of handcuffs. The whole ordeal lasted around three hours, after which he unlocked the cuffs, handed me a glass of vodka and left me alone to get dressed. He seemed to believe it was a satisfactory experience. He… he slapped me on the back on the way out the door.”

Sherlock’s wooden delivery faltered a little, and he abruptly dipped his hair under the water to rinse out the shampoo. John still didn’t dare move. He didn’t trust himself to speak.

When Sherlock leaned back against John’s chest, his hair was sleek and flattened against his skull.

“I had planned to leave Yerevan that night, but I wasn’t able-“ he swallowed. “I needed a day or two. But I was able to get the information to Mycroft through a mutual acquaintance. I doubt it ever reached the media, but the bombing was averted. I crossed the border into Turkey and bribed my way onto a trawler bound for Ukraine. I never saw Harman again. He’s dead now. Mycroft arranged it, when he took care of the Turkish network.”

Sherlock didn’t seem inclined to say any more, and John certainly wasn’t going to ask him for more detail. He was glad that Sherlock was facing away from him. It meant that he couldn’t see the tears that were slowly inching their way down his face. Sherlock didn’t need to see that.

After a minute, he reached out of the bath for a bottle of conditioner and he spent some time working it carefully through Sherlock’s hair, making sure that all the tangles were smoothed away. He cradled Sherlock’s head in his hands, stroking his scalp rhythmically. He spent a minute or two stealthily trying to get his breathing under control, before carefully rinsing out the conditioner. Sherlock’s eyes were closed, and his face was carefully blank. He could almost be asleep.

“Can you delete it?” he asked, finally. His voice hardly wavered. “I know you couldn’t, not right away. Not when you needed information about him. But surely now…”

“Tried. Can’t.” Sherlock said tersely, and sighed in irritation. “It’s not a perfect system. Useless everyday things are easy. Some things… some things seem to leave a deeper imprint in my memory. I… I still dream about it sometimes.”

John slowly inched a little deeper into the cooling water, and slipped his arms around Sherlock’s waist, resting his chin on Sherlock’s shoulder. He laid a hand on Sherlock’s chest, and could feel the mans heart beating far too quickly beneath his palm.

He wondered what on earth to say, and eventually settled for: “I promise that I’ll try not to be too careful with you. I love you, you darling git. Thank you for telling me.”

Sherlock nodded a little shakily, and placed his hand over John’s. “I- you, too. That. What you just said. Yes.”

“Sherlock Holmes, you are so fucking suave.” John murmured in his ear, and kissed him when he saw the edge of his mouth curve into a smile.

Chapter Text

Half an hour later, Sherlock and John descended the staircase into the main hallway, having eventually (and extremely reluctantly, in Sherlock’s case) hauled themselves out of the bath. Sherlock had been quiet as he dressed in front of the huge mirror set into the wardrobe door, but he seemed more thoughtful than troubled. John had covertly watched him as he tied his shoelaces, waiting for some sign of inner turmoil. It didn’t appear.

There was a definite air of activity downstairs, and it took John a moment or two to realise the difference in the house. All of the heavy curtains had been pulled back from the windows, and the previous heavy twilight of the house was replaced by a cool bright glare, beams of autumn sunlight streaming into every room. As they reached the last step of the sweeping staircase, John spied Margaret in the small cloakroom near the front door, hooking a final curtain back with a definite air of satisfaction. Katy breezed through the hall carrying a large vase of flowers, heading towards the library.

There was a large pile of suitcases on the chequered floor, as well as a messy heap of coats on a nearby chair. Hilary appeared from the direction of the common room, carrying a folded easel and a wooden case which must have contained her art supplies. Without sparing a single glance for either John or Sherlock, she reached for her coat and began to shrug it on. Her face was carefully blank, but there was something that spoke of quiet fury in the stiff way she held her shoulders.

Margaret appeared from the cloakroom, and stood in the narrow doorway. She folded her arms and watched Hilary impassively, with the air of a bouncer making sure that a troublemaker was vacating the premises. John felt rather awkward. Some small part of him still pitied her in a way, and something in the way she held herself made him wonder if she was on the verge of crying or shouting. He was on the verge of saying something, although he wasn’t quite sure what, when he heard another set of footsteps coming down the stairs.

It was Phyllis, looking a little nervous but determined. John’s eyes widened as she made her way towards Hilary. He winced and reached out as she tripped over the edge of a Persian carpet, then breathed a sigh of relief as she caught herself at the last minute. Hilary watched her approach, her beautiful face twisting into a rather scornful expression as Phyllis stumbled and blushed.

“Oh! Who put that there?!” Phyllis laughed nervously, casting a mock-annoyed look at the offending rug. “Goodness. Um. Well, are you going then, Hilary?”

Hilary nodded coldly. “Ob..obviously. Basil left twenty minutes ago. He didn’t even offer to give me a lift to the station.”

“Well perhaps that’ll make you think a bit harder about being nicer to people in future.” Phyllis said brightly, her cheeks pink and eyes shining.

“John, your mouth is hanging open.” Sherlock murmured in his ear. He glanced at Sherlock, who carefully placed his index finger under John’s chin and pushed it upwards. John glared at him briefly, before turning back to the pair near the door.

He realised that there really was something different about Phyllis; she seemed to be standing up straight for once and her posture seemed almost defiant. Her round face was unusually cheerful, and she looked Hilary straight in the eye rather than fidgeting and cowering as she normally did.

“Indeed?” Hilary said, icily. She looked almost as taken aback as John was, her fingers frozen mid way through buttoning her elegant cream coat. “People like… like you? You mean?”

“Yes. People like me.” Phyllis said firmly. “You’ve been really mean to me ever since you arrived, Hilary. You didn’t need to. But you were horrible to me, and to Sandra, and to every girl… I mean woman you met in this house. And I don’t know why you felt like you had to – it’s not like we’re in some kind of… some kind of competition!”

“Hardly.” Hilary sneered quietly, looking Phyllis up and down.

Phyllis, to her credit, didn’t even flinch. “I’m a… I’m a bloody lesbian, Hilary. I was hardly going to try and steal Basil away from you. You’re really talented; I was never going to outshine your work. You’re really beautiful. You’re clever. You’ve got every reason in the world to be a nice person, but you just can’t bring yourself to be one!”

“Oh, god!” Hilary sighed, rolling her eyes. “Is this going to… turn out as some. Some tedious feminist thing?”

“It’s about not treating other women like they’re your enemy, just because they’re women!” Phyllis said loudly, taking a step closer to Hilary. “And you didn’t need to behave the way you did towards Violet, or Katy or Sandra. And now you’re alone.”

Hilary looked down into Phyllis’s face coldly, but didn’t say a word. When Phyllis made a move closer, John wondered for a mad instant whether she was about to slap Hilary in the face.

He was completely floored, however, when Phyllis placed her small hands on either side of Hilary’s shoulders and kissed her pale cheek. Hilary’s mouth fell open, her eyes wide. She seemed to have frozen entirely.

“And I’m sorry about that. It’s not nice when you’re on your own. If you’re stuck or need some help, you’re to get in touch with me. Here’s my number. I promise I’ll help you if I can.” Phyllis handed Hilary a folded slip of paper, pushing it into her unresisting fingers. “I’m going to go up to the Highlands with Katy for a week or so, but I’ll be heading back to Liverpool to look for a flat of my own after that. I’ll soon have a spare room if you need one.”

Hilary seemed incapable of movement or speech. Phyllis nodded at her, squeezed her shoulders again, and walked briskly away towards the common room. As she passed John, she shot him a small secret grin; evidently taking note of his staggered expression.

“Well played, Miss Lee.” Sherlock murmured, giving a small respectful bow as she passed.

***

As Hilary made her way out the front door, she almost collided with Mycroft. He looked affronted, and ducked as she narrowly avoided hitting him with her easel. Hilary didn’t attempt to apologise, blindly shoving her way past him and towards the taxi that awaited her at the garden door.

Mycroft sniffed, and adjusted his tie fussily as he stepped into the house. He handed his overcoat and umbrella to Margaret, who looked as thoroughly unimpressed with him as she was with anyone, before smiling at Sherlock and John in a chilly fashion.

“Blood.” Sherlock acknowledged him frostily, making a noble attempt at looking down his nose at his taller sibling. Mycroft sighed wearily, nodding a greeting at John, who studied the elder Holmes with interest. Had Mycroft seen any surveillance from the night before? His face gave no answers, although that was certainly nothing new.

“Good morning, brother mine. John.”

“Isn’t the empire crumbling without your constant attention?” Sherlock hissed. “Don’t you have some wars to start or politicians to manipulate?”

Mycroft gave him a quelling look, making his way towards the library. “I need to speak with Violet about one or two issues, if you will excuse me.”

Sherlock inhaled deeply, his eyes narrowing menacingly. “If you have come to make further threats-“

“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic, Sherlock!” Mycroft snapped. “I had a rather interesting conversation with Mr. Singh yesterday evening, as it happens. I wish to clarify some details, that is all.”

“Details about what?” John asked curiously, trailing after them towards the open door of the library. It, too, was flooded with sunlight now that Margaret seemed to have decided the mourning blackout had ended. “And incidentally, Sherlock, you do know that we don’t have an Empire any more, right?”

Sherlock dismissed this irrelevancy with a wave of his hand, his eyes riveted to the back of Mycrofts neatly combed head. He smartly followed him through the door into the library, where Violet was curled up in her usual armchair next to the fire. She was somehow managing to smoke, eat chocolates from a dainty box of truffles, stroke Benjy and do the crossword simultaneously; although both cat and newspaper landed unceremoniously on the floor when she caught sight of Mycroft.

She took a deep drag from her black and gold cigarette, her large almond shaped eyes narrowing. She was dressed in a narrow, sharply cut wool dress in a vivid shade of kingfisher blue that somehow made the colours of both her odd eyes even deeper. As she stood up, she slipped back into the pair of shocking pink crocodile pumps that lay discarded on the hearth rug; evidently wishing to make up some of their difference in height.

“Dearest nephew, last time I checked people tended to wait for an invitation to other people’s homes.” Violet said coldly, delicately tapping some ash into the fireplace.

“Oh, we’re all family here, aunt Violet.” Mycroft smiled humourlessly, taking a seat opposite her. “And I promise that we won’t be seeing much more of each other after today.”

John, who had taken a seat on the nearby low ottoman felt Sherlock tense slightly beside him. Unthinkingly, he reached out and placed his hand on Sherlock’s knee before cursing himself quietly. Mycroft’s eyes flicked over to them at the small gesture. Perhaps one eyebrow raised infinitesimally, but that was all the reaction he gave.

Sherlock didn’t seem to have noticed any of this, or perhaps he merely chose to ignore it. He glanced between Violet and Mycroft, looking surly and more than a little anxious.

Mycroft slid his own monogrammed silver cigarette case from the inner pocket of his suit jacket, obviously deciding that he would be waiting a long time for Violet to offer him one of her Sobranies. He lit one slowly, giving the impression of a man who had merely dropped by for tea and a pleasant chat.

Benjy, who had hissed crossly when he landed on the floor, began to move slowly across the edge of the fireplace towards Mycroft. Violet watched her cat with something approaching outrage as he casually leapt onto the arm of Mycroft’s armchair, and allowed him to gently tickle him behind his ears.

“Will you kindly stop molesting my cat and tell me what you want.” Violet nearly spat, sitting down again and crossing her legs tightly.

“I had an interesting conversation with Mr. Singh yesterday evening, you know.” Mycroft said idly, allowing Benjy to flop heavily onto his lap.

“Oh I’ll bet you did. Did he offer to show you his etchings?”

Mycroft make a slight moue of distaste at this, but chose to ignore her. “Patrick said that you had some mutual acquaintances in India. That you had spent a considerable amount of time there, some years ago.”

“I’ve been to a lot of places, Mycroft.” Violet said levelly. “What of it?”

“New Delhi, to be precise. Patrick told me that you got to know the director of the National Museum quite well, when you worked there in the late nineties.” Mycroft studied her thoughtfully. “You are remembered very fondly there. And also in Nepal, where you spent nearly a year working at the national records office.”

“I don’t think that my line of work is news to you.” Violet said calmly. “I am an archivist. I was helping supervise the movement of some collections.”

“Indeed. I spoke to the director of the museum this morning, incidentally.” Mycroft murmured. “He told me of how you came to work there. Quite an interesting story.”

John frowned, watching Violet as her face became stony. She didn’t seem inclined to answer, her small pointed chin jutting out a little mulishly. What on earth could this have to do with anything? The previous afternoon, Violet had told him the rather harrowing tale of her teenage years, up until she arrived in Aberdeenshire. He didn’t have a particularly clear idea of what she had been doing besides teaching and working quietly as an archivist in Edinburgh since then, though. He began to feel rather uncomfortable, a little anxious at the idea of yet more unpleasant bombshells to come.

“He said that you approached him, back in 1997. You wrote him a very charming letter, telling him that you wished to make a donation to the museum. That, as an archivist, you would be delighted to arrange the transport and installation of the items, which came from a private benefactor. In return for this very generous donation, you asked for a short contract of employment in their manuscripts department. Does any of this ring a bell, Aunt Violet?”

“Oh, for fucks sake!” Violet hissed. “Leave off with the ‘aunt’ business, I’m bloody well five years younger than you. What do you want me to say, Mycroft? Are you expecting an apology? Because you’re damn well not going to get one!”

“A collection of birch bark manuscripts, written in Pali. Ancient scientific treatises, and very rare. Unique, in fact.” Mycroft idly ran a finger along the length of Benjy’s spine, seeming slightly amused when the cat lazily swatted a large paw at him. “And in Kathmandu, a similar situation. Mr. Vasudevan in New Delhi was very sorry to lose you, but he helped set up your placement at the records office in Maithi Ghar. Another donation; this time of some ancient Ayurvedic texts. You spent even longer there. Interesting place, was it?”

Violet still did not respond. Sherlock was watching her intently, a slight frown on his austere features. John was quite sure that this was all news to him.

“Shall I continue? There are several museums and repositories in central and southern America who also remember you, very well. You made quite an impression in Argentina, especially…” Mycroft consulted his phone and nodded. “Yes, when you worked at the General Archive of the Nation in Buenos Aires. You arrived with some very interesting artefacts relating to the Tehuelche and left with the hearts of both the director and his twin brother. That must have been an interesting trip.”

Violet continued to stare at him balefully. She didn’t move an inch.

“I could go on. I confess, I find the spell you spent in Kuwait in 2003 particularly intriguing. According to my sources, a most charming lady arranged for the donation of some Mesopotamian wax seals-“

“That’s enough, Mycroft.” Sherlock broke in suddenly, turning to face his brother with an impatient gesture. “I don’t think any of us require more detail. I do, however, want to know what your damn point is.”

“You… you gave all of the collections back?” John asked Violet curiously, leaning towards her a little.

She shrugged a little defensively, fiddling with her gold cigarette lighter. “I- yes. Their grandparents and great grandparents collected a great many things they shouldn’t have, on their travels. I felt that it was the right thing to do. I made sure that they were going to be well looked after; that’s why I usually asked for a spell of employment when I donated them. I needed to make sure that the collections would be safe. Things were a bit basic in Kathmandu; that’s why I stayed so long. Well that, and I liked the food a lot.”

“They weren’t yours to give away.” Mycroft said sharply, wiping the faint smile straight off her face.

“Nor were they yours to keep!” Violet cried, clearly goaded by his tone. “Your bloody family travelled around, looking at people and their cultures, and they decided they should take bloody souvenirs! Some of them had obviously come from tombs and holy places! They had no right to take them away!”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Sherlock asked curiously.

Violet viciously ground out her cigarette and looked impatient. “I knew you wouldn’t care, even if I had. And I know that this git and your parents wouldn’t understand. They always despised me.”

“Because you took advantage of our family!” Mycroft retorted. “You lived under my grandparents roof, and when they died you made free with their house and possessions. You continue to make money from their land.”

“Oh god, Mycroft.” Violet said wearily, scrubbing a palm across her face and smudging her mascara slightly in the process. “Why can’t you just see things as they really are? As they were?”

Mycroft merely raised a thin, incredulous eyebrow at this impertinence.

“What do you mean, Vi?” John asked, breaking the silence. At his side, Sherlock was motionless.

“Your uncle and I had an arrangement, Mycroft. Before we got married, we made things very clear. I’ve got a bloody bit of paper with the details on it; we damn well wrote it down when we’d agreed. It’s in my desk in the library at Hilderbogie. Sherry was a lovely man, and I was very fond of him. I swore to him that I would keep the estate running smoothly and profitably; which it is. The staff are happy. The house is in better repair that it’s ever been. I go up there at least once a month to make sure everything is in order.” She paused, and lit another cigarette. “But perhaps what you don’t know is that Sherry also asked me to make sure that your grandparents were well looked after, in case he died before they did. His heart wasn’t in great condition, even before he began drinking in earnest.”

She glanced up at Mycroft, who merely stared at her coldly.

“And I ended up looking after Sherry, until he died. It wasn’t a nice death, Mycroft. It was messy and rather sordid and it broke your grandmothers heart. She died so suddenly, I didn’t have to look after her. Although, I swear to you that I would have, if it had come to it. But your grandfather…” she shook her head a little, and sighed. “I did my best for
James. I liked him, Mycroft. And I think he liked me, eventually. We spent a lot of time talking in the evenings. I read to him, when he wasn’t able to anymore. We listened to records. He told me stories about the family. He was a very lonely man, in a lot of ways.”

“My father was very busy.” Mycroft said mechanically.

Violet nodded slowly. “Yes, that he was. A very busy man indeed. He telephoned, though. Helped organise the nurses from the agency. But he didn’t want to come up to Aberdeenshire, not often. It was difficult for him, wasn’t it?” she asked gently. “He… he didn’t want to look at me.”

With a slight jolt, John realised that she was talking about life in the aftermath of the accident. She had probably still been limping, from her healing broken pelvis and leg. (Oh, god. What would her face have been like then? Her eye? She was still recovering from the crash, and she still cared for her husband and father in law for months until they died.)

“He felt guilty.” Sherlock said woodenly, staring into the empty fireplace. “He and Mummy. About how I was driving the car. As if it were, in some stupid way, anybody’s fault but mine.

“Not entirely yours. It was also mine, for letting you drive.” Violet said calmly, waiting until he grudgingly met her gaze. “But we’ve already sorted that out, you damnable oik. We don’t need to talk about it any more. Not now, anyway. But your mum and dad didn’t want to come to Hilderbogie very much, not after that. Not while I was there. And at the same time, they relied on me to take care of your grandfather. They didn’t want to, but there wasn’t much alternative.

“James told me a lot of stories about the family. About his parents, and their parents. All their travels, their adventures all over the world. It gave me a context for all the collections I’d so carefully catalogued and conserved.”

“And then you decided that as soon as my grandfather was in the ground, you would skip around and use the collections to make your own version of the grand tour.” Mycroft interjected.

Violet gave him a quietly aggrieved look. “No, Mycroft. It was your grandfather’s idea. We planned it out, together. He… he felt bad about the collections, in his later years. He told me that he’d always meant to try and return at least some of them but he hadn’t known where to start. The estate had taken up so much of his time, and his health had been failing for so long. He had put it off, year after year. The task had just gotten more impossible, the longer he left it. And he knew that I didn’t have a plan, not really. He didn’t want me to end up spending my life in the wilds of Aberdeenshire, running the estate. Because at that time, it was tempting to stay. To hide.” She dragged her fingers through her hair distractedly, looking a little ashamed. “I had been a beautiful girl, and I knew it. I used it. It was hard- I mean, it took me a while to get used to how different I looked. And James knew it, too. I think it was one of the reasons he suggested it, really. Returning the collections would force me to go back out into the world. To travel, to face strangers and crowds, to prove myself without the advantage of my looks.

“So when he died, I took a while to plan it all out. I had to wait until my bones were healed entirely. I had to do a lot of telephoning and writing letters, negotiations with museums. Luckily, most of the institutions I was in touch with were well outside Europe, so I didn’t have to worry about encountering people who might know of me or my father. And in any case, I looked a lot different to the girl I was in my teens. I had a different name. Interestingly, I found out that scars were among the best disguises a person could have; people look at the injury, rather than the face behind them. At first, anyway,” she added, casting a small smile at John. She had obviously noticed that he was about to protest at this, and he closed his mouth.

(But you remember, don’t you? When you first saw her face; when you didn’t know her. Her scars were what occupied you, and her different coloured eyes. Now you can look at her and see her personality, her beauty. But it took you a while, didn’t it? The scars got in the way of you seeing her.)

“You do realise that gifting important historical artefacts to foreign states can be problematic, politically?” Mycroft asked, inspecting his nails.

“Which I why I always made it very clear that they came from a private owner, who wanted them returned on his death. I wasn’t giving back the bloody Elgin marbles, Mycroft. I know you’d worry about your precious bloody career. I never, ever claimed that they came from the British government. But I never planned to tell you, because of that. I knew you’d think I’d just sold them off on the black market. I never had any illusions about your opinion of me.”

Mycroft regarded her, his eyes narrowed. John could almost hear his brain whirring.

“Look, I know that they weren’t mine to give away, Mycroft. But I did it with the full approval of your grandfather. I promised him I’d do it, and I like to think that he left this world a bit happier because he knew they’d be going back to where they belonged. And, I suppose, in a way I felt like it was some kind of… oh, I suppose you’d call it atonement, of sorts.” She swallowed hard. “I’m not proud of who I was before I came to Scotland, Mycroft. But I was desperate and scared a lot of the time. When I came to the UK, I was trying to make a fresh start. Meeting your brother was the best thing that had happened to me in years. Possibly ever. I know you think I was a bad influence on him, and you know, maybe I was. A bit. But I didn’t mean to be.”

“You weren’t.” Sherlock said quietly, leaning towards her slightly. He finally seemed capable of speech. “Meeting you was the best thing that could have happened to me, back then. If I hadn’t, I am quite sure that I would have developed a habit even sooner. I was…” he paused and glared at Mycroft, as if daring him to mock him for this nauseating display of sentiment. “I was lonely, and incredibly bored. I hated school, and after that I hated university. Everything and everyone was so dull. And when I was with you, things… weren’t.”

Violet’s hand twitched, as though she wanted to reach out to Sherlock despite the fact that he was well out of reach where he sat. Her watched as her lower lip trembled minutely, and she bit down on it savagely. He knew she’d never forgive herself for crying in front of Mycroft.

Mycroft sighed heavily, extinguishing his cigarette delicately in a nearby silver tray. “You do know that this puts a slightly different complexion on matters, don’t you?”

“How, exactly?” Sherlock shot back. “You’re still as tediously overbearing as you ever were. You may not believe that Vi stole the collections, but I’m quite sure you still think she’ll be leading me astray as soon as she gets the chance.”

“I don’t think that she will be getting the chance, do you?” Mycroft asked, with a deadly little smile. John sucked in a breath sharply. Violet stared at Mycroft with visibly rising horror.

(He wouldn’t… Oh, god! He can’t hand her over to them, can he? Not now!)

“Oh, don’t be such a drama queen, Mycroft!” Sherlock snapped, although when John turned to him he was astonished to see the tension slowly ebbing from his face.

“I merely mean that Captain Watson here won’t permit you to lead my dear brother into temptation.” said Mycroft sweetly. “You won’t, will you, John?”

John gaped a little. “He’s a grown man, Mycroft! I’m not his minder. I’m his-“

“You’re my John.” Sherlock said briskly, with a sidelong glance at him. “And don’t ever think of calling me your boyfriend again. Ghastly term.”

“So you’ll back off, as long as John keeps an eye on Sherlock?!” Violet exclaimed, staring at Mycroft as if she had never seen him before.

“It has come to my attention that things may be a little different between my brother and his… ahem… blogger.” said Mycroft coolly. “I have come to the conclusion that Sherlock’s domestic arrangements may be a little more permanent than I had previously thought.”

“Oh, so you have been watching the house then?” John asked, still reeling a little.

“Certainly not.” Mycroft said, with utter insincerity. “But, as I said, I had a very interesting little chat with Patrick last night. He said that you seemed rather devoted to my brother, John.”

“Well?” John replied, with a glare. “That’s hardly news.”

“We’re just having lots of sex these days as well.” Sherlock interjected, cheerfully watching the distaste spread across his brothers face. John fought the urge to bury his face in his hands. “Mainly in great-grandfather Alberts bed, but also in the bath this morning. It’s been splendid.”

“Oh, hell.” John muttered weakly.

Violet startled them by wailing loudly, lowering her head to her lap. At first John was worried that she might be crying, but the snorts of laughter that swiftly followed dissuaded him of this idea. Violet’s shoulders shook uncontrollably as she giggled, her beautifully arranged hair coming messily undone as she completely fell to pieces. Sherlock watched her with great amusement, grinning as she fought unsuccessfully to regain control of herself. Her sheer relief was evident in the way she simply let herself collapse in her chair, as if her tremendous strain had been the only thing keeping her upright.

Mycroft watched this display of hysteria with no small amount of horror. He clearly wasn’t used to women having fits of mirth in his presence. “I should make it clear that if I decide that my brother does not maintain his current level of... hmm… stability; I may choose to intervene.”

John felt his hackles rise a bit at this. Who the hell did Mycroft think he was, dictating how Sherlock should live, who he should have contact with?

He opened his mouth to speak, then unexpectedly, he felt Sherlock’s hand cover his. He looked up into the knowing green eyes, recognising the slight note of pleading in their depths. He felt the angry words die on his lips. Sherlock shook his head minutely, and after a moment John sighed and nodded. He squeezed Sherlock’s hand discreetly.

Violet was safe, for now. And Sherlock got to keep another friend in his life. Maybe some fights were best left for another day.

***

It took Violet a considerable amount of time to calm down. Eventually, Mycroft carefully placed the traitorous cat on the floor and stood; checking his pocket watch with dissatisfaction.

“In a hurry, brother dear?” Sherlock asked snidely. “More meddling to do elsewhere?”

“I have a meeting to attend at Whitehall later today. I take it that you will not be joining me on the journey?”

“Nope.” Sherlock said brightly. “Don’t let us keep you.”

“I will see you at Baker Street, then. Soon.” Mycroft said, with a hint of warning. Sherlock merely rolled his eyes and dismissed him with a wave of his hand.

“Oh! Um, before you go…” Violet managed, wiping her streaming eyes and getting to her feet. She couldn’t keep the grin from her face, and her shoulders still trembled slightly with glee. “I’ve got something for you, Mycroft.”

She crossed to the desk under the window on slightly unsteady feet, and pulled out a large leather-bound portfolio from underneath the stained ink-blotter. Untying the cords, she extracted a plain brown envelope; around A4 in size. She gave the elder Holmes her most charming smile and handed it to him. Mycroft took it between thumb and forefinger, looking deeply suspicious.

“I think you might like this. Save it for later, though.”

Mycroft raised an eyebrow, but evidently decided not to inquire further. “I see. Very well. Goodbye then, Violet.”

“So long, Mycroft.” Violet said evenly, and held out her hand. After a moment, Mycroft shook it briefly, and turned to go.

“I’ll see you out.” John said, less out of politeness and more out of a desire to make sure he was safely off the premises. “I’ll find your coat and brolly.”

He walked silently beside Mycroft as they made their way to the hall. The house seemed so different now, all the colours of the paintings seeming to glow in the new bright light.

Even the dreadful stuffed bear looked more cheerful in the illuminated hall, and John patted his nose absently as he passed.

The pile of luggage near the front door was significantly smaller, now. Hilary had taken hers away, and evidently George’s belongings had been shipped off to his fathers house.
All that was left was a collection of rather beautiful brown leather suitcases, with the small initials ‘P.S.’ discreetly stamped in gold.

As if on cue, Patrick himself appeared, slowly strolling his way down the staircase. He was wearing his black wool overcoat, and was carrying the blue silk scarf he had worn at dinner the night before. The thoughtful smile that he directed at Mycroft made the tall man swallow audibly. John stifled a grin.

“I’ll, er. I’ll go and find your coat, then.” John said hastily, marching into the nearby cloakroom. He scanned the long rails of coats, looking for Mycroft’s dark grey cashmere and umbrella among Violet’s huge collection of brightly coloured capes, coats and parasols. He didn’t want to rush however; he was far too curious about the conversation taking place out in the hall. He wasn’t going to feel even slightly guilty about eavesdropping – after all, how many times had Mycroft listened in on him?

“I assume that you will return to London, now that all this unpleasantness has concluded?” he heard Mycroft ask, after a slight pause. John craned his neck, attempting to steal a glance through the open doorway without giving himself away. A moment later, he noticed the small porters grille further along the wall, half hidden by a tall hatstand, and stealthily peered into the hall.

Mycroft wasn’t meeting Patrick’s eyes, choosing instead to idly study a nearby portrait of some long forgotten ancestor on the wall. In the strong light streaming through the fanlight over the front door his features were cast into sharp relief and shadowy angles; his expression veiled.

Patrick tilted his head a fraction, coming to lean against the tall door frame as he regarded Mycroft thoughtfully. His indigo blue scarf dangled from his hand and as he spoke he ran it gently between his fingers.

“Yes, I should think so. My father expects me to take rather more of an interest in his company before too long.” His tone was light and careless, and he smiled a little at Mycroft’s profile. “I don’t mind. I never really saw myself as much of an artist; it was always more of a hobby, for me. Perhaps I will take to the shipping trade, who knows?”

“What is it that you really care about?” Mycroft asked quietly, taking his pocket watch from his waistcoat pocket and glancing at it with a slight frown. “Surely you wish to find an occupation that will fulfil you?”

Patrick’s mouth curved gently at one side, and he gave Mycroft a knowing look. “Is that what you have, Mr. Holmes?”

Mycroft looked up sharply at that, seeming to abandon his pretence of mere casual interest. “My work is a continual source of… interest, certainly.”

Patrick raised an eyebrow at this. “Interest. I see.”

There was a silence that seemed to stretch out endlessly, and John was beginning to think that they were just going to stare at each other indefinitely when Mycroft quietly said:

“And frustration, quite frequently. It takes up so much of my time. In truth… I spend so much of my time solving problems, I am often at a loss as to what to do when I have a quiet hour.”

“I rather like the quiet hours, Mr. Holmes.” Patrick remarked thoughtfully. “I see nothing wrong with walking away from a job at the end of the day, safe in the knowledge that an evening for my own pleasures and amusements awaits.”

Mycroft stared at him. Eventually he murmured: “I must confess that I find myself curious about what those may be, Mr. Singh.”

Patrick smiled at him again, and took a slow step closer. He was almost as tall as Mycroft, and looked into his face with a languid, yet slightly predatory expression. He reached out slowly and ran his fingertips along the edge of Mycroft’s pocket square. Mycroft’s hand clenched convulsively at his side, and he grasped the edge of the nearby table.

“Perhaps once we are both back in London, you might care to find out.” Patrick murmured, raising his eyes to meet Mycrofts. He bit his lower lip gently as they exchanged a long look.

“I… I don’t often have much free time.” Mycroft said, a little hoarsely.

“Sure you could find an hour or two, once in a while?” Patrick suggested, his voice low and intimate. “I’m quite sure that I could ensure your time wasn’t altogether wasted.”

Mycroft swallowed audibly, his fingers tightening on the edge of the table. He cleared his throat, before nodding. “I- yes. Yes, I’m sure you’re-“

Patrick gave him a quiet smile, and very slowly smoothed the length of Mycroft’s silk tie; evidently choosing to ignore the sharp intake of breath this gesture caused. “I’ll certainly look forward to it, Mr. Holmes. Don’t leave me waiting too long, will you?”

He bestowed one last knowing smile on Mycroft, before turning and picking up his cases. He walked out of the open front door without a backward glance, his long dark hair and elegant coat streaming behind him in the breeze.

Mycroft seemed rooted to the spot, and he simply stared after Patrick for several seconds. After a while, he sighed quietly and bent to pick up the scarf that Patrick had carelessly dropped on the tiles. He made no attempt to follow Singh, or to return the item to him; instead he gently looped the length of fabric around his hand and slipped it into the pocket of his jacket.

John realised suddenly that he had been in the cloakroom for far too long, and hadn’t been making anywhere near enough noise to suggest he had been searching for anything.

He hastily began to rattle coat hangers and kicked over a few wellington boots, before grabbing the grey coat from the end of a rack of furs. Mycroft’s umbrella was lying on a nearby low bench and he snatched it up before emerging from the cloakroom, attempting to look at nonchalant as possible.

Mycroft nodded his thanks, appearing more than a little distracted. He shrugged on his coat wordlessly, and took the umbrella from John before making his way to the door.

“Oh, don’t forget this!” John exclaimed, picking up the envelope that Mycroft had left on the nearby table and waving it with a grin. “Knowing Violet, I have an idea of what it might be.”

He patted Mycroft cheerfully on the shoulder and watched him begin to walk down the gravel path, surrounded by the strange shapes of the topiary. He hesitated briefly, warring slightly with himself before calling out: “A word to the wise, Mycroft! Open it in private!

Chapter Text

Closing the front doors behind him, John paused and looked around; digging his hands deep into his pockets. The house was still and quiet around him, and he spent an idle moment watching dust motes swirl in the broad beams of sunlight that illuminated the hall. Distantly, he heard a spluttering shout of laughter coming from the library. He couldn't hear what Sherlock was saying to provoke it, but the sound of Violet laughing again made him smile.

(Christ, what a week. And if I never see a bloody art student again, it'll be far too soon.)

Ambling slowly back towards the library, he encountered Katy Boorman emerging from her small study that was next door to Violet's own. She was clearly dressed for the cool October weather, wearing a well cut black coat and a cashmere scarf. She carried a cotton shopping bag on one shoulder, which bulged slightly and rattled as she moved.

Katy nodded at him and smiled a little, and it struck him that this was probably the most relaxed he had ever seen her.

"Doctor Watson! The elder Mr. Holmes has taken his leave, I hope?" she inquired, buttoning her coat. "I do not believe that that man is good for Violet's nerves at all."

"Gone, and hopefully won't darken your door again for quite some time." John answered with relief. Katy gave him an approving smile.

"Excellent. Now, have you seen Phyllis anywhere?"

"Not for a while. Not since she told Hilary off in no uncertain terms before offering to help her out if she could." John smiled reminiscently. He was still tremendously impressed by the earlier scene

"She... offered to help Hilary?" Katy asked incredulously. "You're quite sure?"

John nodded, and Katy sighed, looking rather annoyed. “Damn! Well that was an hour I wasted this morning, teaching her how to throw a punch.”

He stared at her. “You taught Phyllis how to punch someone? Phyllis?

“Well, somebody had to. A valuable life skill, I think you will agree.” Katy said calmly. “Of course, I was hoping she would try it out on Hilary first.”

“Huh. Um, well if I see her, I’ll tell her you’re looking for her.”

“Many thanks.” Katy replied, smartly turning on her heel and heading towards the door. “I’ll be in the garden.”

John watched her make her way across the hall. She paused at a large carved oak chest that sat underneath one of the tall windows to the left of the door, and unlocked it using a key she took from her pocket. To his utter surprise, she reached inside and carefully extracted a large shotgun and a small box; presumably full of cartridges. Before he could inquire what on earth she was planning on doing with the gun in the garden, she had disappeared through the door and into the breezy sunlit afternoon.

Back in the library he found Violet tidying her hair in the large mirror above the fireplace, still wearing a broad grin on her freckled face. Sherlock was lounging comfortably on the ottoman, his endless legs stretched out in front of him on the hearth rug. He raised an eyebrow as John entered the room.

“He’s gone.” John confirmed, sitting back down. “Vi, what would Katy be planning on doing with a shotgun in your garden? You don’t happen to have pheasants somewhere among the shrubs, do you?”

Sherlock looked up with interest at this and Violet turned, adjusting one last pin in her hair. She smiled slyly at him. “Ah. I wondered how long it would take. Katy is a terrifyingly sensible soul, and she locked her gun away before the students came to stay. Just as well, really. I might have been tempted to use it on one or two of them over the last few weeks. But she’ll have been dying to take it out again; she does love her shooting. Why don’t you take this wretched gump for a stroll around the garden while I see about lunch? I’ll come and join you, bye and bye.”

Sherlock shrugged, and went to fetch his coat. Within minutes, he and John were wandering between the towering trees and shrubs of the topiary in companionable silence. John paused under the branches of the huge monkey-puzzle tree, looking up into the shadowy arms that swayed delicately in the chilly wind. Sherlock stood a little way away, his hands deep in his pockets as he studied John with interest.

“They don’t seem to bother you as much, today.” Sherlock said, after a minute or two.

John shrugged and didn’t contradict him. He still didn’t especially like the strange twisted shapes of the garden, but they seemed somehow less threatening than they had done over the previous week. Or perhaps it was because the shadows had left the house and grounds along with the students and Mycroft.

Sherlock turned and ambled away, deeper into the rambling gardens. He and John had not explored the full extent of them until now, having only wandered through the topiary and the wide back lawns. Tall hedges hid an overgrown fruit garden and small orchard, where an abundance of blushing apples weighed down the curving bows of trees.

Sherlock meditatively nibbled on a stolen handful of jewel-bright blackberries before kissing John slowly against a crumbling stone wall. He tasted sweet and dark as his full lips parted against John’s, his mouth stained with ripe fruit. Grey clouds roiled overhead and briefly threatened rain.

They passed a dilapidated peach house, and a large bronze Henry Moore reclining nude in the shadow of a massive oak tree. At one point they found an overgrown police box behind a bank of laurels; dark blue paint peeling and overgrown with tiny, late flowering yellow roses. John grinned at the incongruity of this structure, wonderingly running his fingertips over the barely visible panel of instructions. When he buried his nose in the petals of one of the soft, lush blossoms that grew over the door he was startled by the intensity of the scent; bitter lemons and black pepper.

Just as they were rounding a corner onto a weedy tennis court, John was awakened from his dreamy musings by the sharp crack of gunfire. Sherlock’s arm flew out instantly, blocking John’s path onto the court. He peered interestedly around the hedge and called “Miss Boorman! May we approach?”

“By god, man - announce yourself in future!” came Katy’s rather annoyed voice. “That’s how accidents happen!”

John followed Sherlock around the tall hedge and onto the disused tennis court. It was surrounded on all sides by tall laurel hedges, and all that was left of the net were two lop-sided posts on either side of the faded orange court. Katy stood at the far end along with Phyllis, who smiled and waved at them both. Katy had lowered her shotgun and it rested comfortably in the crook of her arm.

“Target practice, Miss Boorman?” Sherlock inquired, approaching her to inspect her gun with interest. John followed at his heels, keeping a sharp eye on the double-barrelled gun.

“Indeed. Phyllis is going to accompany me on my trip north tomorrow; I thought I’d better teach her the basics.” Katy said, breaking the weapon and emptying the used cartridges on the ground where they bounced and rolled. “With a spot of luck, we’ll bag a few grouse at least.”

“I’ve never used a gun before.” Phyllis said, with a hint of trepidation. John mused quietly that Katy was filling quite a few gaps in her education today.

“Oh, you’ll get the hang of it easily enough. You just have to watch the kick back.” Katy said confidently. “Be a dear and sort out the next couple of targets, would you?”

Phyllis brightened, and jogged away across the court. At the far end, a collection of battered wooden boxes were arranged in a line, surrounded by several small white irregular objects. As Phyllis reached the end, she reached into a bag that John recognised as the one Katy had had slung over her shoulder earlier. Phyllis rummaged around and extracted a few small items, blocking their view as she arranged them atop the boxes. Her grin was directed at Sherlock as she turned and trotted back up the court. The targets were too far away to make out the details, but John thought he saw her slipping one more into her coat pocket.

As soon as she was clear, Katy swung her reloaded shotgun back up to her shoulder and aimed carefully. She double checked that Phyllis was safely back at her side, before shouting “Clear!” loudly. Her aim was exquisite, the line of her shoulders and arms firm and true as she pulled the trigger. The gun kicked back strongly, but she held strong; the first two targets shattered and ricocheted in quick succession. Lowering the gun, Katy nodded approvingly.

“Not bad. Much harder with live targets, obviously.”

“Would you like a go, Mr. Holmes?” Phyllis asked politely, although she couldn’t stop grinning. Sherlock looked down at her curiously, his eyes widening as he took what she held out in her outstretched hand.

A small, ugly china rabbit.

 

***

 

John left Sherlock with Katy and Phyllis on the tennis court, as soon as he was convinced Sherlock really did know what he was doing with a shotgun. He still couldn’t quite wipe the grin from his face, remembering Sherlock’s astonished expression that had quickly been replaced by a knowing nod. Of course, the detective claimed to have known all along why Katy had had the rabbits.

(Yeah, right.) John chuckled quietly to himself, catching sight of Violet waving at him from the kitchen door. When he entered the warm room, scented with the aromas of roasting chicken, onions and rosemary, Violet was wiping her hands dry with a tea towel and humming to herself. She gave John a smacking kiss on the cheek and handed him a large fruit scone, warm from the oven and dripping with raspberry jam.

“You have a lean and hungry look about you, you loathsome worm.” She beamed at him, and laughed a little as he mumbled his thanks around a large mouthful. “It’ll be a while until lunch. Let’s go and lounge in the conservatory for a while, shall we?”

Once they had ensconced themselves on piles of cushions on the raised walkway in the conservatory, Violet lit a cigarette and exhaled the smoke with so much satisfaction that she looked almost post-coital. “Oh, John, my fabulous monster. The bliss of it! Can you hear that?”

John listened closely, but heard nothing but the low hiss of steam coming from the vents in the floor below; and a faint splash from the koi pond. He shook his head and looked inquiringly at her.

“Absolutely fucking nothing!” Violet sighed. “No arguing, no tedious debates on the merits of Chagall versus Matisse. No bitching or moaning. No bloody students!”

"Well, there is still Phyllis.” John pointed out, leaning back against the trunk of a nearby palm tree that grew conveniently close to the platform. “Katy seems to have rather taken her under her wing.”

Violet shrugged and gave a dismissive wave of the hand. “Alright, one student. She’s not the worst.”

John peered through some trailing vines, trying to catch a glimpse of the garden where the unlikely trio were still practicing their shooting. “What is the situation with those two, do you think? Katy’s not in love with Phyllis, is she?”

Violet hummed in a non-committal fashion. “She may well simply be turning Phyllis into the kind of person who could withstand love. Real love, that is.” She added, tapping some ash absently over the railing. “Do you remember what it was like, laddie? That kind of aching, hopeless unrequited love? It can destroy you if you feel it too long, I think.”

John could, although it was a long time ago now. A girl in his year at medical school, who had barely spared him a glance. He had pined for her for months. It seemed like a million years ago, now. He couldn’t even remember her face properly.

What he felt for Sherlock – well, no matter the parameters of it, on some level he’d known he was loved by the man. It had been frequently infuriating, stressful, and occasionally hurtful. But even during the worst of times, he’d always felt needed.

“I wish it hadn’t taken Sandra dying for Phyllis to break that habit.” Violet said sadly. “She’s cheered up a bit, and Katy is probably doing her a world of good. But it’s going to take a while for her to get past it.”

“I wonder what would have happened, if Sandra could only have loved Phyllis back?” John mused. “Would she have just been able to walk away from Freddie and Hilary? Would she have been happy?”

“What-if’s and maybes never get anyone anywhere, though, do they?” Violet sighed. “I’ve lain awake at nights, wondering about what would have happened, if I’d never hired Sandra? If I’d decided never to teach? Would she still be alive?” she took a glance at John, and smiled wryly at his face. “There’s no need to tell me that it’s not my fault. But there’s no way of knowing what direction our lives will take, based on the tiniest things.”

“I sometimes wonder that too.” John murmured, gazing thoughtfully into the depths of the plants and shrubs below. “Meeting Sherlock – it was such a fluke. I could have chosen to walk down a different path in the park that day. I only took that particular path because I wanted to avoid a crowd of tourists on the other one. And I met Mike, whom I hadn’t seen in years. I didn’t want to talk to him. I could have made an excuse; I could have gone away without stopping for coffee with him. And he told me about somebody else he knew who needed a flatmate.”

“Ah. The trousers of time.” Violet said seriously, and grinned at his reaction. “You know what I mean. Alternative histories. You could have gone down the other path, bumped into a Japanese tourist, fallen in love with them and ended up living in Tokyo until you were killed in an earthquake at the age of a hundred and seven. I could have taken another job than the one Sherry offered me, I’d never have settled in Scotland, I’d never have met Sherlock. I’d never have had the accident. I could have continued my work as a forger and ended up shot dead in an alley within a year. It’s an entertaining kind of self torture, really.”

“I used to be so angry at Mary for stealing my future.” John mused, then glared inwardly. As usual he found himself saying things in the company of Violet that he had never meant to utter. “That’s my ex-wife.”

Violet nodded. “I know. Sherlock told me a bit about her.”

“I had this idea, of what my life was going to be like. I had it all planned out in my head. I was so sure of it all. Of… of everything.” he swallowed hard. “And that doesn’t mean that I’m unhappy with my life now. I mean, Christ, no! It’s still all a bit new and unexpected; but I’m so- well. Happy. But a year ago, I thought I’d be a dad and Mary would still be my wife and we’d still be living in Crouch End. This isn’t where I thought I’d end up.”

“Nor I.” Violet said calmly, and he was glad that she didn’t attempt to commiserate. He didn’t want that; he didn’t feel cheated any more. Life was different now, and it was a different life to the one he used to imagine.

(Caroline. I wanted to name her after my grandmother. And she never existed; not my Caroline. Some other bloke’s daughter, and lord knows what her actual name is.)

“Are you happy, Vi?” John asked curiously, after a pause.

“Yes, I suppose so. Most of the time. But I rather think, dear old heap, that what you actually want to ask me is ‘Am I lonely?’” Violet answered evenly, with a hint of a smile.

John reddened slightly and scratched the back of his neck.

Violet took her time answering him, slouching further down into her nest of ancient mildewed cushions. “Not the way you mean it, I don’t think. You’re wondering if I’d like a husband and kids, or even a significant other. And the answer to that is unreservedly no. I’m… I don’t think I’m wired that way, laddie. Don’t get me wrong, I like the sex and the companionship and all that… I’ve loved people, but I’ve never met someone who could be quite enough for me, you know? I’ve never really gotten the hang of that sort of thing.” She wrinkled her nose at him. “We can’t all find our Boswell. And at the risk of sounding incredibly bloody soppy, the way he looks at you… well. I can’t quite imagine having that. And I’m not sure I’d want it, to be honest.”

“Did you mind Patrick taking a shine to Mycroft?” John wondered. Violet grinned, lighting another cigarette.

“Blimey, no. I just wish that I could be there when he finds out about the LARPing. And the blood kink. And the fact that I got there first.”

“I warned him to open that envelope in private, you know.”

Violet glared at him. “Bloody spoilsport.”

 

***

They had eventually left Violet’s house on Saturday afternoon. They had spent the night before in the conservatory, where they had had a kind of picnic dinner, drank far too much champagne and listened to music on an ancient portable record player. At one memorable point Sherlock and Violet had solemnly danced the tango before knocking over several plant pots. Violet demanded that John cut in, and he had managed to waltz with her quite well for at least thirty seconds until Sherlock grabbed him by the wrist and hauled him crossly off to bed.

In the morning, John had wanted to leave them alone together, to say their goodbyes. But in the end, Violet had stood in the hall and grinned up into Sherlock’s face; merely saying: “So long, revolting article.”

“Goodbye, Violet.” Sherlock had said, and with a small smile added: “Ghastly wench.”

***

John watched Edinburgh disappear slowly, first the Victorian glass roof of the station and one last glimpse of the towering castle before the train vanished into the darkness of a tunnel. Sherlock was hunched in the seat opposite, and didn’t even look up from his phone as the train picked up speed.

“And I didn’t even get to try a deep-fried mars bar.” John murmured, stretching his legs out under the table between them, tangling them companionably with Sherlock’s.

“Mm.” Sherlock hummed, nudging his ankle. “Next time, perhaps.”

“Next time?”

“Hogmanay. We’re going to spend it in Aberdeenshire with Violet. Didn’t you know?”

“I do need to be in the room when you tell me these things, Sherlock.” John pointed out, with a smile. “But good. Sounds like fun.” He watched Sherlocks fingers flying over the keys of his phone curiously. “Who are you texting, anyway?”

“Currently? Lestrade.” Sherlock muttered, without looking up.

John sighed. He supposed it had been nearly a week since they’d left London. Who knew how many cases had cropped up in their absence? A small, secret part of him had been hoping that they’d have a few more days to themselves. To settle into Baker street again, for John to carry a few things down from his bedroom to Sherlocks. Not everything, but a few bits and pieces. Just enough to establish it as their room now.

Tomorrow was Sunday morning, though. What would Sunday mornings be like now, he wondered as he stared out the window at the distant stormy sea. He was looking forward to resuming their routine of lounging around, drinking coffee and reading. He had missed hearing Sherlock’s violin over the last week, and he hoped that tomorrow he might hear him play again. Maybe some Bach, or Satie. And who knew what else?

His stomach lurched a little as he imagined what lay in store, his skin prickling slightly. He knew what came next on Sherlock’s schedule, and he unsuccessfully fought the blush that was creeping above the collar of his shirt.

Sherlock pressed the send button on his phone one last time, and set it down on the table with a sense of satisfaction. He leant back in his seat and studied John, no doubt taking in his quickened breathing and dilated pupils. He bit his lip and smiled, a little shyly. He reached out his hand across the table, and after a moment John slid his fingers slowly across his palm until they came to rest against the inside of Sherlock’s wrist.

He could feel the mans pulse, strong and quick under his fingertips.

“Schedule.” John murmured quietly, aware of the other passengers seated across the aisle. “Can we resume it tomorrow?”

Sherlock nodded wordlessly, his eyes never leaving John’s face. There was a kind of wonder in their depths. They sat there for a long minute, unable to take their eyes off each other. John’s phone chimed, and he ignored it. Then it happened again, and he frowned. And again.

Sherlock made an impatient noise when John pulled away, seeming reluctant to release his hand. John swatted him away affectionately, digging in his jacket pocket.

“Oh, it’s Lestrade. Case, maybe?” he muttered, opening the first of five or six unopened messages. “Blimey, I’m popular today.”

JESUS! ABOUT BLOODY TIME!

“What? What did you tell Greg?” John asked, busily scrolling

“Oh, a few salient facts.” Sherlock said vaguely, lolling back and staring out the window at the darkening countryside.

JOHNNY, WHY THE FUCK IS SHERLOCK TEXTING ME? WHY DID I HEAR THIS FROM HIM AND NOT YOU? YOU ARE A PIECE OF WORK, LITTLE BROTHER.

John’s eyes widened as he scanned the next few texts. His jaw sagged a little when he read the one from Mycroft.

GRATIFIED TO HEAR THAT YOU’VE MADE THINGS OFFICIAL. WOULD YOU CARE TO CHANGE YOUR MIND ABOUT MAKING A HAPPY ANNOUNCEMENT, JOHN?

“You texted everybody we know and told them we’re shagging, didn’t you?”

“Oh don’t be dull, John. It will save time; and it merely confirms the suspicions of most of our acquaintances.” Sherlock said airily, not quite meeting John’s gaze. John glowered at him a bit, grasping for words.

“Who, exactly have you-“

JOHN, SHERLOCK JUST TEXTED ME TO SAY THAT YOU GUYS ARE *ROMANTICALLY AND SEXUALLY COMMITTED TO EACH OTHER*!! WHICH IS NICE, BUT WHY? IS IT YR ANNIVERSARY OR SOMETHING? PLEASE TELL ME U DIDN’T SNEAK OFF AND GET MARRIED WITHOUT TELLING EVERYONE!

That one was from Molly.

John groaned slightly and slowly tipped forward until his forehead rested on the table. He hadn’t given much thought about how he would go about telling all his friends and colleagues about the new developments in his relationship with Sherlock; but sending mass texts wasn’t part of it.

His phone chimed, and chimed again.

“Come along, John! Don’t be so melodramatic.”

“Sir, are you quite alright?”

“He’s fine. He’s just making a fuss about-“

“I’ll have some of that wine, please.”

“Of course, sir. Chardonnay or-“

“Don’t care. Big glass, thanks.”

“Honestly, John! It’s not as if-“

“Sherlock, I need you to be quiet for just a minute or two, alright?”

“Really, J-“

“I mean it, Sherlock. Shut up now. Go and have a canter around your mind palace for ten minutes. It is very important that you don’t talk to me right now.”

“Just one thing, though, John. John. John!

“Sherlock, I swear to god!”

“Does this mean that we get to try having angry sex when we get home?”