He’s on step three of seventeen when he realizes he forgot the milk. It’s just a testament to how distracted he’s been since everything fell apart because John never, ever forgets the milk.
He allows a moment of brief debate on whether to just say, “piss it” and continue on to the roaring fire he hopes is in the grate above, or zip up his coat once more and turn back into the early evening rain.
He decides on “piss it,” and climbs the remaining fourteen steps, thoroughly wishing he had indeed turned around when he spots Mycroft hovering near the fireplace, usually smug smile pulled into something grim. John's stomach drops and he immediately looks around for Sherlock, only to find the detective sprawled out on the sofa, looking like he'd rather be anywhere but. John breathes a bit easier.
“Evening,” he greets, eyebrows rising in a silent question, which earns a shrug and an eye roll from Sherlock and an exasperated sigh from his brother.
“John.” Mycroft inclines his head and adjusts his grip on the umbrella at his side. “I’ve just been explaining a situation that could use your assistance.”
“My assistance?” He knows he's not incapable, but it's not often that Her Majesty's right hand calls on him personally.
“Well, both of yours,” Mycroft amends, sparing a withering glance for Sherlock who merely sinks further down into the cushions of the sofa.
“O-kay,” John says, voice hitching over the word because Mycroft’s solicitations are never uncomplicated things. He shrugs out of his damp, heavy coat, starts the kettle, and leans against the doorjamb, crossing his arms as if bracing for a verbal blow.
“Two months ago," Mycroft begins, "a junior official and his family, one child, went missing while on holiday in Dorset. Five weeks ago, an MP and his family, two children, also disappeared in relatively the same area. Three weeks ago, both men turned up dead."
John frowns. "While that's horrible, what exactly does it have to do with us?"
Mycroft inhales, and John doesn't miss the way his eyes flick to Sherlock. "They showed up dead, alongside their husbands.”
Sherlock goes still. To the untrained eye, he might appear aloof and uninterested, but to John, his brain is already running on all cylinders.
“Oh," John breathes. He has a feeling he knows where this is going, but before he can get there - "And the kids?” he finds himself asking and Mycroft’s expression is grim.
The kettles whistles and he jumps, flushing slightly as he pushes off the jamb and pulls mugs out from the cabinet: one for himself, one for Sherlock (which Sherlock won’t realize is next to him until it’s gone cold), and one for Mycroft (whose cup is always more for show than anything else). He tenses as he opens the refrigerator door, always bracing for whatever gruesome surprise might await in the crisper, but for once, his shoulders sag in utter disbelief.
“You bought milk.”
“Pardon?” Sherlock’s voice sounds genuinely confused from where it drifts in from the living room, but perhaps he’s just gotten that much better at feigning innocence. Or indifference.
“All right," John sighs. "What did you destroy?” He glances around, attempting to catalogue their belongings and possibly looking for scorch marks.
“What?” Sherlock asks.
“In the flat," he says, coming into the living room. "What did you destroy?”
Sherlock sits up. “It wounds me that you think the only reason I buy milk is to make up for something I’ve – ”
“The kettle, the microwave, the toaster, my toothbrush,” John rattles off, ticking each offense off with a flick of his finger.
“Yes, all right. Fine,” Sherlock huffs, pulling his dressing gown around him as he stands and moves to the window.
“He didn’t buy the milk, I did," Mycroft says to the shock of absolutely everyone. Even the skull seems to say you must be joking. "Relax, Sherlock, your reputation of being completely useless when it comes to household tasks is still intact.”
John bristles a bit at that, though struggles to come up with an example to refute the claim. “You did,” he instead states flatly, because why on god’s green earth would Mycroft stoop to buy them milk. Unless… “No. Absolutely not. I see what you’re doing here.”
“And what am I doing, John?”
“I’m not going undercover.”
"You haven't even heard the particulars." Mycroft leans forward with a downright evil glint in his eye and John fixes him with a look.
"I can guess."
Sherlock turns from the window with renewed interest and immediately John curses his “gauntlet thrown” take on life.
“Oh come, John. Could be fun,” Mycroft taunts, accompanied by an eyebrow arch he’s gotten far too good at. “Besides, it’s not as if it’s your first time pretending to be a couple.”
John flushes scarlet and doesn't dare look at Sherlock.
"That's right. I know all about the Brighton case," Mycroft continues, twirling his umbrella like the master villain he likes to think he is, and John wishes he could just sink into the carpet. It was two days of sometimes handholding to gain access into an office. Hardly anything to write home about.
“So we’d – we’d need to…” he trails off, waiting for Mycroft to fill in the details.
“Get married,” Sherlock says as Mycroft overlaps with “Act married.”
Two very different meanings for two very small, three-lettered words.
“Act married,” Sherlock amends with an uncharacteristic throat-clear. John frowns in his general direction as Mycroft ploughs ahead.
“We’d have to fabricate a child, of course.”
John chokes on his tea. “Sorry, what?”
“A child. Young preferably. The others that were taken were all under the age of four.”
“Mycroft – ” Sherlock tries to interrupt, but John’s insides have turned to ice. He can't put his hands on knees, it would be too obvious, but right now, his ears are ringing and his breath is just a bit too short.
“We’ve had a scan. We’re pretty sure it’s a girl.”
“We’re not naming our daughter after you.”
“Worth a try.”
"Right." He nods to himself, heart beating entirely too fast as he inhales deeply against the sudden tightness in his chest. "Right."
He wouldn’t call his swift escape to his bedroom ‘fleeing’ per se, but it’s a very near thing.
“That went well.”
Sherlock rolls his eyes and mutters a “Piss off, Mycroft,” his voice growling in a tone that surprises even himself. “You didn’t mention anything about a baby,” he continues more softly, sparing a glance at the ceiling, well aware that the walls are not that thick.
“They disappear with their families. How else are you going to be adequate bait?” Mycroft’s perpetual sneer falters and he taps his umbrella against the floor. “It’s been five months.”
“Four months, three weeks, and five days,” Sherlock amends, always happy to one up his brother, though this win in particular is far more bitter than sweet. “There is no quota when it comes to mourning a child.”
Mycroft’s face evens out, as if someone had smoothed the lines and dispatched his air of haughtiness. It looks… odd. “I can only imagine,” he says quietly. “Had I thought John would have been up for it, I would have contacted you weeks ago.”
And that’s what catches him off-guard; that sense of caring that Sherlock just assumed Mycroft was born without.
He’s not wrong. It has been nearly five months since Mary’s hand was forced by a computer code Moriarty claimed not to exist and a Did you miss me? that he still sometimes hears in his nightmares. Five months since her past caught up with her. Five months since her indiscretions cost the life of an innocent.
Sherlock doesn’t regret much, but the loss of John Watson’s daughter is something he will atone for for a long time to come.
“It’s John’s choice,” he finds himself saying, even as his magnificent brain whirs with various motives and possibilities. “It’s up to John.”
“Well, look at that.” Mycroft’s tone is just the right balance of mockery and sincerity. “You’ve grown up.”
Sherlock seriously considers throwing the skull at his head, but Mycroft’s reflexes aren’t what they used to be, even after the weight loss. He’d probably end up concussed and in hospital for days on end. A not entirely unpleasant thought.
If only it wouldn’t disappoint Mummy so.
The bed dips beneath his weight as he sits and drops his head in his hands.
John is used to Sherlock’s mental schemes, but this is taking it a touch too far, cocaine benders and faked proposals in the name of The Work notwithstanding.
All things considered, though, he supposes this is actually quite tame. It’s not like they’re actually getting married. Still, the thought of playing house with someone when his own fell apart so spectacularly not all that long ago makes him feel somewhat ill. And he tells himself it has nothing to do with the fact that he’d be playing house with Sherlock, of all people.
His fingers push through his hair and he groans before flopping backward on the bed and staring at the cracked, stained ceiling. The mattress dips on the left side, coils having molded to his body after endless nights of restless slumber. He’s always preferred sleeping closest to the door, next to the nightstand and the gun that rests in its drawer.
Life used to be so simple: tea, job, crime, take-out, bad telly. Though he and Sherlock used to blunder through life like bulls in a china shop, they now circle each other as if on eggshells. A carefully choreographed dance, yet no one knows how to lead.
He does not miss Mary. Well, he misses the Mary he thought he had pledged his life to, but even his feelings toward her had grown complicated long before she put a bullet in his best friend.
He doesn’t like what he and Sherlock are now. Careful. Hesitant. Strained.
“You chose her.”
Those words haunt him in both his nightmares and his waking hours. But in the end, he didn’t. In the end, he chose Sherlock, and he will continue to do so until the end of his days, if he’s truly honest with himself.
For what is John Watson without his consulting detective?
“Nothing ever happens to me.”
A clock somewhere ticks off the silent seconds as Mycroft refuses to break eye contact with his insufferable younger brother, but footsteps creak on the stairs, ensuring the monotony is about to break no matter the fireworks that might come with it.
“We’ll do it,” John’s voice comes from the doorway and Mycroft watches something akin to pain cross Sherlock’s face. Interesting. “We’ll take the case.”
Mycroft will deny the elation he feels until his dying day, choosing instead to rise from John’s chair and offer the man in question a tight, yet grateful smile. “Excellent. I’ll have Anthea draw up the necessary documents.”
“Marriage certificate and the like."
“Ah.” It’s to John’s credit that he only pales somewhat.
“The rings are on the table, sized accordingly,” Mycroft says, nodding to the velvet box next to Sherlock’s latest disaster. “Itinerary will be delivered tomorrow with the rest of the files.”
“Does the baby come with the documents too or does she get her own folder?” John’s voice slices through the thick air, silencing the non-existent conversation.
“We can discuss those arrangements tomorrow,” is Mycroft’s quiet reply, but even he can’t deny he’s unsettled. Contrite, even.
Sherlock finally seems to be spurred into action as he whips around and glares at him accusingly. “Where the hell did you procure a baby?”
But Mycroft merely raises his eyebrows in a way that tells both men they really, really don’t want to know.
“Preference on gender?”
John’s lips part in an utterly lost way, but Sherlock swoops in and mutters “Boy” as he passes into the kitchen, taking the mug out of John’s limp grip and refilling it.
Boy, of course. The significance is not lost on Mycroft.
“Ta,” John murmurs as Sherlock practically shoves the hot mug back into his palm, and Mycroft takes a moment to truly observe them – the detective and his doctor. The madman and his blogger. Two sides that don’t yet know they create a whole. Idiots.
“Is this really the best idea?” Sherlock whispers as John drifts closer to the table and the ring box which lays upon it. The fact that Sherlock is asking him this at all is reason enough to call out an honor guard.
"You'll be in capable hands."
“You’re sending me in there with a baby. Have you met me?" Truer words were never spoken and yet –
“I’m sending you in there with a baby and John Watson. I'm more confident than you could ever know."
Sherlock’s lips part and he inhales sharply, but whatever he was about to say never passes his lips. Perhaps there were no words to be had. After all, Sherlock isn’t known for holding his tongue.
Mycroft slips his arms into his raincoat and tugs the collar tight around his neck.
“I’ll be back tomorrow with the rest of the details,” he murmurs, holding tight to the curve of his umbrella. ““Be careful, brother mine.”
Sherlock dismisses him with a casual flick of his fingers, but his eyes never quite leave the carpet, which is all the evidence Mycroft needs.
The front door closes with a thud as Sherlock hears a click to his right, fact enough that John has opened the ring box Mycroft so annoyingly left on their kitchen table.
He wants to glance over; wants to pick apart the look on John’s face as he glances at their supposed wedding rings, but he doesn’t dare.
Deducing John in this moment might be more than he can bear. So he settles for padding back to his chair, sweeping the dressing gown around him as he flops down with more vigor than necessary.
John doesn’t glance up, though. Sherlock knows this because he knows what it feels like when John’s gaze is upon him.
“We don’t have to do this,” he murmurs, because even though John has already acquiesced, Sherlock needs the added reassurance. He needs to give John one more out.
“Four dead parents, three missing children? Yes we do,” is John's quiet and simple reply.
And Sherlock both loves and loathes that John is that damn noble. And it’s that nobility that causes his eyes to track across the carpet, up the chair and latch onto the box in John’s hand. And once his gaze is there, he cannot turn away.
The light catches the silver of the rings and throws patterns across John’s face as he turns them over in his hand. Platinum, Sherlock notes, not gold. Different from the last ring that claimed residence on the fourth finger of John’s left hand.
Something not entirely unpleasant clenches in his chest, a longing ache that he dares not identify. It curls around his muscles, winding its way through his veins as he very consciously commands his heart to keep normal time.
It doesn’t listen.
“Indian or Chinese?” John asks, breaking him from his internal panic attack as the box in his hand snaps shut with a clap.
“Thai, I think.”
“Thai, it is.”
They’ve gotten good at this. Pretending all is well. Pretending that their lives have settled into some semblance of normalcy – or at least what’s normal for them – but they haven’t. Not really. Not since Sherlock asked John, “This is what people do, don’t they? Leave a note?”
He can hear John dialing the Thai restaurant around the corner and placing an order he knows by heart.
And now, as Sherlock stares at the velvet box far beyond his reach, he wonders what on earth he’s gotten himself into.