There was a moment, as the black car glided towards him shark-smooth and anonymous, where John's adrenaline level spiked, and his thoughts darted towards Moriarty. Only a moment, though – because of course this was Sherlock's other beloved enemy, come to threaten or to bribe or just generally be annoying. John sighed as the dark window slid down, and Mycroft's distractingly pretty and prettily distracted assistant glanced momentarily up from her Blackberry and arched one brow at him.
“Well?” she said pointedly, as though she were doing John some kind of special favour by plucking him out of his life and whisking him off to be insulted by the elder Holmes brother once again. Briefly, John toyed with the idea of ignoring her entirely and carrying on towards Tesco Metro just to spite them both – but he knew perfectly well that it wouldn't be worth it. Whatever Mycroft's reaction might be, John felt sure that the man would still get his own way in the end – and at least this way he still had the use of his hands, and some illusion of autonomy.
He opened the door. Mycroft's assistant was no longer paying him the smallest bit of attention. He sat down next to her, noticing the way her neat pencil skirt was riding up a little bit above her knees, and sighed.
“So - not really Anthea, then,” he said, after several moments. “Isabella? Kylie? Diane?”
She darted a look sideways at him. “If you like,” she said, her smile the fake-indulgent little curve that John had seen people using towards their friends' sticky children, and people whose English was amusingly poor.
“No, that's not the point,” John said, warming slightly to his task. Sherlock could probably have worked out her name from the angle of her chin and the kind of tights she was wearing, damn it. All John could say for sure was that she was attractive, obsessed with texting or tweeting or whatever the hell she was doing, and probably a witch. “Mildred Hubble? Sabrina? Samantha? Willow? Mother Shipton?” Her eyes narrowed, but she didn't look back up from the fascinating screen of her Blackberry. “Enid? Bathsheba? Gertrude? Helga? Marion, Clare, Marina, Anita-Fiona-Jessica-SusanMariaChristinaUhuraBeyonce...” John continued, the names sliding together into an idle tumble of syllables, because this was better than dwelling on the ways in which Mycroft Holmes currently had him by the short and curlies. “Norma Jean? The Artist Formerly Known As Prince?”
“No and no and no,” said The Assistant Formerly Known As Anthea. Her patience seemed to be wearing thin.
He sighed gustily. “Rumplestiltskin?”
“You aren't actually as charming or amusing as you seem to think,” she said, helpfully, without glancing up from the Blackberry. John, with the prospect of eventually graduating from Sarah's Lilo to her bed still floating before him, found himself remarkably unconcerned about getting on her good side.
“I'm going to go with Rumplestiltskin,” John decided, nodding to himself. She made a barely audible huffing sound, but didn't deign to look at him, and for several minutes they sat in quiet, almost companionable silence. Then the car slowed down and then stopped altogether, and without giving him a second glance the newly christened Rumplestiltskin opened her door and stepped out of the car. John was about to follow suit, but at that moment Mycroft Holmes was suddenly folding long limbs and rigidly furled umbrella into the car, forcing John to wriggle over to the spot that Anthea had just vacated or be squashed flat. The seat was still warm, but John had barely an instant to register this thought before he was alone with Sherlock's brother – Sherlock's brother the wizard - in the sealed-up back of a very nice car indeed. The car resumed its lazy forward motion. John could feel a headache starting to build up behind his eyes.
“We really must stop meeting like this,” he said, tightly – because while there were quite a lot of questions that he'd love to have answered, he still wasn't going to be a big fan of kidnapping any time soon.
“Come now, John, you can scarcely expect me to believe you didn't see this coming,” Mycroft said, pleasantly.
John sighed again. “Okay, fine. Get on with it, whatever 'it' is.”
“You plan to attend my cousin's wedding?” Mycroft said, after a contemplative pause.
John's mouth twitched slightly. “Your cousin the witch? Who attacked us with ninja owls? And pulled a Star Trek beam-me-up-Scotty in the fireplace? No, I thought it sounded dull.”
Mycroft winced. “I shall take that as a yes, then.”
“No getting anything past you Holmes lads.”
“You should be aware that it is highly irregular to permit nonmagical persons such as yourself...”
“...well, yes, in the vulgar parlance, Muggles, if you insist – it is highly irregular to permit 'Muggles' to, ah, remain in possession of potentially dangerous information. In the interests of public safety, you understand.”
John grew still. “Potentially dangerous information such as knowing about the existence of magic, you mean?”
Mycroft inclined his head.
“The safety of which public, exactly? Because I can't help thinking that most of the non-wand-wielding population would probably be pretty bloody interested to know that there's all this power sitting around doing – what, exactly?” He was almost surprised to feel the rush of anger thrumming under his skin. “Not much to improve the lives of ordinary people, at any rate. Not enough.” John could think of a hell of a lot of things he'd be doing right now if he had that kind of power at his beck and call.
“You don't know what you're talking about.”
“I know that people die for want of basic medicines, for want of drinking water, for – look, I don't know how it all works, but it's perfectly obvious that you can perform miracles. So why aren't you?”
It was by no means the first time he'd wanted to grab a government employee by the throat and ask them a question such as this; even before Afghanistan he'd had that feeling plenty of times, watching overworked and underpaid doctors and nurses falling asleep standing up after being on shift for thirty hours straight. In Afghanistan – well. John had not been naïve when he went to war, but he had still had very little concept of the full scale of what he was walking into. This was the first time he'd had a government employee's throat to hand. He drew a ragged breath and maintained a semblance of control with some difficulty.
Mycroft looked at him expressionlessly. “You have no idea how much worse things could be,” he said. “It would behove you to count your blessings, Doctor Watson.”
“So you say.” John made no effort to hide his incredulity.
“I am a public servant, Doctor. The safety of my country is of paramount importance to me. You, of all people, should appreciate that.”
John was surprised by the intensity of the sudden impulse he had to do something violent and unexpected and profoundly unwise to Mycroft Holmes. Something painful and undignified to ruffle that oily composure. He closed his eyes and gave himself a long moment to remember the many reasons why that would be a bad idea. Foremost among them being the fact that if John got himself turned into a frog for laying hands on Mycroft Holmes, nobody would be there for Harry the next time she needed someone to talk her down from hurling herself off the wagon.
“Is that really an umbrella, or is it a wand?” he asked, scrabbling for a distraction.
“It really is an umbrella,” Mycroft replied, his voice thick with fast-curdling patience. “But, yes, of course I have a wand with me. I do hope you aren't going to embarrass us both by asking me to pull a hat out of a rabbit, or cut a lady in half.”
“I think it's normally a rabbit out of a hat,” John said in spite of himself. Mycroft's expression went decidedly fishy.
“Only if you lack imagination,” he said.
“Do let's skip the boring part, John. You know. I know you know. You know I know you know ad infinitum. So far we have refrained from erasing that knowledge from your mind, out of some misguided sentimental impulse and the wish to humour little Luna on her wedding day.”
John thought back to his conversation with Luna Lovegood and watched Mycroft's expression for clues. “The Minister's forbidden you, hasn't he? He likes Luna more than he likes you, she said.”
Mycroft made a stifled choking sound that John found remarkably satisfying. John allowed himself a very small smile.
“So let's cut through the crap, shall we? I know, you know I know – and you've got to suck it up and accept that Sherlock's going to be attending his cousin's wedding with a Muggle in tow.” Sherlock had been most evocative on the subject of how wizards – or at least, the ones he was related to - viewed nonwizards. “Sorry – is that going to bring shame on the venerable name of Holmes? Because it's Luna who's getting married, and she wants us both there. I like her. I'm looking forward to it. Now, is there anything else you wanted to discuss, because there's something on Radio Four that I really wanted to listen to.”
“Oh, stop trying to be nonchalant, Doctor. Since you seem determined to fling yourself into the middle of our affairs willy nilly, and since you are quite transparently important to my brother, there are a few things you should know.
John held his tongue, his eyes fixed on Mycroft and his expression as cool and unimpressed as he could manage.
Mycroft made a tutting sound. “I would have thought that by now you would have had the good sense to realise that even though Sherlock may view me as his enemy, I am nothing of the kind. Put simply: I am concerned for him.”
John continued to regard Mycroft steadily.
“Sherlock prefers to eschew our world as much as possible, for obvious reasons. Most – ah – magically impaired...”
“...yes, well, as you so bluntly put it - squibs - most squibs make lives for themselves in the Muggle world, as far as they can. It is never an easy adjustment, but people have always managed it, more or less, when they had to. When it became evident that my brother was not merely a late bloomer but was actually – ah - impaired - we moved swiftly to place him in the best of Muggle educational establishments. But of course he was obliged to live a lie, pretending that there were no such things as dragons, no fairies at the bottom of the garden, no vampires or werewolves or shapeshifters, no ghosties or ghoulies or long-legged things, or things that go bump in the night. And he was, too, in the infuriating position of being ignorant of many things considered basic primary school knowledge. Wizards are, you understand, taught the “Three Rs” by their parents. We don't make much of a study of the Sciences, or indeed the Arts or Humanities. Not on a formal basis.”
John's mind darted back to a conversation some weeks earlier about the solar system, and he felt an unexpected little stab of sympathy for his irritating flatmate. It was, in retrospect, perfectly obvious how he could have managed to reach his thirties with such astonishing gaps in his world view; if one missed one's whole primary education, then it was probably easy enough to go through life without ever happening to learn about the movements of the celestial bodies. John knew all too well that odd, vertiginous sense of discovering that everyone else in the room was familiar with some point of reference – some stupid little pop culture thing, maybe, a shared joke or a famous scandal – which had somehow never made it as far as Kandahar, and which now served to set you apart from all the merry chatter in the room, left wondering whether to make everything awkward by asking for clarification, and inadvertently bringing up the war (trying to hold in a slippery spill of intestines with bare hands; firing back blindly and fatally at someone who turns out to be barely into his teens; pretending to a dying man that you don't know he's shat himself in terror, and listening whilst he stammers out confessions and regrets and curses and finally gasps out the name of the wife, or mother, or boyfriend he's left behind) or remain quietly on the outskirts of the conversation. Again. And he knew too exactly how it felt to walk through the bland streets of London like a man in a dream, with a whole different world painted vividly behind one's eyes, envying the others their cheerful ignorance. John knew all about having a mind full of things you weren't supposed to mention in polite company. He could feel Mycroft Holmes watching him with an expression far too like his brother's.
“I see,” was all that John said, but Mycroft pursed his lips as though John had said a great deal more than that.
“Well – my point is that Sherlock avoids events such as this one like the plague. I was frankly astonished to hear that he had informed Luna she might expect him. And that you would be his date.”
John blanched. “Not his date,” he said, a little wearily, because Mycroft certainly knew them both better than that.
Mycroft gave a small shrug, and his smile was infuriatingly tolerant. “His plus one, then,” he said, in the mildest of tones. “Nevertheless, I believe that were it not for your influence there is no way that dear Sherlock would have even considered attending Luna's wedding.” His eyes darted up and down, as if taking a swift mental inventory of John's every feature and failing to find one particular detail that could account for Sherlock's partiality. “You told him that you wanted to go, didn't you?”
John blinked. “What if I did?”
Mycroft shook his head. “If we could only identify precisely what it is you have, Doctor Watson, and bottle it – well. Suffice it to say that this will be the wedding of the year and a considerable spectacle, since both my cousin and her fiance are celebrities in our world. I cannot think of another living soul, myself included – oh, most especially myself – who could have made Sherlock voluntarily put himself through a high profile Wizarding event such as this.” His eyes narrowed. “Little Luna really was wasted in Ravenclaw. She knew precisely which buttons to press, didn't she?”
John shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He had wanted to go to the wedding, of course, but he hadn't been thinking of any of it in these terms at all. Mycroft was making him feel like he'd done something rather dreadful.
“Is he – will he be in danger?” John asked, awkwardly.
“No,” said Mycroft. He sounded almost affronted. “No, I think we can safely say that it would be a suicidally stupid individual who would try to hurt my only brother under the nose of my entire department, and in the presence of such notables as Longbottom, the Granger-Weasleys and The Boy Who Lived. Sherlock should be perfectly safe.” He drew in a long breath before adding: “You might need to keep an eye on him afterwards, however.”
John looked at him in puzzlement.
”I would rather imagine that this encounter will bring out the worst in him. I'm almost sure that there are no Class A drugs in your flat at the moment, but since he knows perfectly well what he's letting himself in for I rather doubt that will be the case much longer. I shall do my utmost to ensure that he at least doesn't obtain any magically enhanced intoxicants or mind-altering substances; they're damaging enough when used by wizards in their full power, but they play pure merry hell with the minds and bodies of persons such as yourself and my brother. Which makes them well nigh irresistible to him, of course.”
“We won't go,” John said, hoarsely.
Mycroft laughed. “Too late for that, Doctor! Sherlock would guess your change of heart was down to me in an instant, and that would make him attend the blasted three-ring-circus just on principle, even if you cried off yourself. And I do believe that he would find the whole thing much more trying alone. So go you will, I'm afraid. I only ask you to keep a weather eye on my brother while you're there – and afterwards. Especially afterwards.”
John had no idea what to say to that. He wanted to protest that Sherlock was his friend, and that obviously he would look out for him. But he couldn't quite escape the feeling that Mycroft was, in his own bloody annoying, presumptious, Holmsian way, sincerely trying to protect his younger brother. And that made it rather difficult to get really pissed off with him.
“Tesco Metro,” said Mycroft unexpectedly, as the car slid to a halt. “I believe that you're out of Hobnobs as well as bread and milk. Oh – and you might as well pick up a spare lightbulb while you're there, because the one in the downstairs loo will need replacing in a day or two.”