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Saving Sherlock Holmes

Chapter Text

Part I

Chapter One

October 1987

The thing that Mycroft Holmes always remembered most about his mother’s funeral was that it rained that day and he didn’t have an umbrella.

It was unrelenting, single-minded rain, and it flattened Sherlock’s unruly curls onto his head, forming rivulets, impromptu cascades over the topography of his hair. They were, the both of them, soaked through by the time they dashed from the doorway of the house in London to the car waiting for them, and they were even more soaked through by the time they dashed into the church, and Sherlock had water dripping from his too-long hair into his collar, and Mycroft wondered why he hadn’t thought to bring an umbrella and vowed never to be caught without an umbrella again in his life. Mindful of all the people waiting in the church who were much older and considered themselves much wiser and who were waiting to say things like Oh, dear me, he couldn’t even remember to bring an umbrella to cover Sherlock’s poor head, Mycroft pulled Sherlock into a dark corner and tried to find a handkerchief. He thought that surely he had brought one of those handkerchiefs Mummy had had monogrammed for him.

Sherlock stood silent and still, his eyes fixed on a point on the wall to his left, where memorial plaques lined the church. Sherlock had been silent and acquiescent for days, and Mycroft was half-relieved for the reprieve whilst he tried to get his feet under him and half-terrified that Sherlock was never going to speak again.

He found a handkerchief and shook it out and passed it hastily over Sherlock’s sopping-wet hair and wondered why he hadn’t thought to insist that Sherlock get a haircut before the funeral. When do you think the boy last had a haircut? What is Mycroft thinking of? He could hear the disapproval floating up from the congregation toward the vaulted ceiling high above.

Sherlock didn’t move, not even as Mycroft rubbed the handkerchief a bit more energetically into his hair, and Mycroft frowned and thought how he was happy Sherlock wasn’t throwing a sulk about this and sad that Sherlock wasn’t throwing a sulk about this.

“I can’t have you catch cold,” he said, by way of explanation, and passed the now-damp handkerchief over the back of Sherlock’s neck.

Sherlock shivered a little bit, as if proving Mycroft’s point, and then did something he hadn’t done for days. He spoke. “The Latin is wrong,” he said.

“What?” said Mycroft, startled to hear his voice after all this time.

“The Latin is wrong on that grave. You would think someone would have thought to be intelligent enough to check what they were going to carve into stone. How can people be so stupid?”

Mycroft looked at the grave Sherlock was looking at. The Latin was wrong. “Sherlock,” he said, on a sigh. “I’m afraid that is one of the very mildest examples of how very stupid people are.”

Sherlock took a deep breath and fidgeted with the tie around his neck.

“Please don’t,” Mycroft said to him, and straightened it back into place.

Sherlock looked at him. Somewhere deep in those bottomless, colorless eyes he had, Mycroft could see that the gaze being pinned on him was baleful, but it was very, very deep in there, not anywhere close to the forefront. The forefront of Sherlock’s gaze was cool and detached and disinterested, and Mycroft said, hoping it would help, “It isn’t going to be much longer.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Mycroft,” said Sherlock, dully. “It’s going to be the rest of our lives.”

***

Sherlock retreated back into silence. Mycroft tried to see him through the eyes of the judgmental congregation. Tall for his age, but far too skinny, emphasized by the fact that Mycroft hadn’t had time to have the suit properly tailored for him and it didn’t fit well. His hair was drying into cowlicked clouds of black frizz that begged for a comb, and Mycroft thought again how he should have had Sherlock’s hair cut at some point. But when had there been time? In between receiving an abrupt phone call that one’s mother had died and the day when one managed to have orchestrated an unexpected funeral for her, when was one supposed to have time to worry about a mundane thing like a haircut? Mycroft knew the whole idea of it was silly, the the idea was only being entertained by the idiotic people ranged behind them in the church, but he also knew that it was these same idiotic people who would make decisions about his fitness to take care of Sherlock from this point onward, and they would be questioning the state of Sherlock’s hair, because people—Sherlock was right—were stupid.

Luckily, no one mentioned the state of Sherlock’s hair to him. They mentioned Sherlock, constantly, time and again. How is he taking it? Poor boy. It must have been quite hard for him, having found her like that. Has he talked to you about it? What has he said? Mycroft wanted to say that of course Sherlock had not talked to him about it. Why would anyone with half a brain want to talk about something like that? And Sherlock had so much more than half a brain. He wanted to say that, even if Sherlock had talked to him about it, the entire situation was private amongst the Holmeses, not an object of voyeurism. But Mycroft had unerring social instincts. He had been told this. He took after his mother. He spoke platitudes fluently, one of many languages that came easily to him. He clucked sympathetically and shook his head dolefully and hated every single person in what was now his and Sherlock’s house. At least, he presumed it was his and Sherlock’s. Who else’s would it be? But it seemed like another revelation would not surprise him. He had trusted his mother more than any other person in his life, and she had rewarded him by dying without so much as a single word of warning. It seemed to him it would be in keeping with everything if her will left all their possessions to some long-lost seventeenth cousin and Mycroft would have to find a way to get Sherlock to Eton and keep himself at Cambridge on his own.

He lost track of Sherlock, but everyone seemed to lose track of Sherlock that day. Everyone wanted to know about him, but no one wanted to actually try to approach him. Sherlock was not the sort of child—boy—young man—Mycroft gave up classifying him, but whatever he was, he did not invite conversation. He was standoffish and aloof under the best of circumstances, and these circumstances were far from the best. Mycroft realized that he’d disappeared from the gathering within thirty minutes, and Mycroft decided that was the best thing he could have done. Sherlock wasn’t going to run away or disappear, Sherlock would hide, and he would emerge when it was worthwhile for him, which would likely be when the house was empty and he was hungry enough.

The house was eventually, thankfully, empty. Mycroft had refused to allow anyone to stay in it, although he had had ancient aunts try to impress upon his social courtesy for such an invitation. Mycroft needed to feel the cavernousness of the house without his mother; he couldn’t bear to play host at such a time, and eventually the butler saw the last guest out and turned to him questioningly, as if Mycroft was supposed to have an idea what they were to do next. Mycroft knew what came next. Tomorrow would be the reading of the will, his mother’s solicitor had said so, and several distant family members had insisted they must be there. That was what would come next. It was everything after that that left Mycroft feeling out of his depth, and that was not something Mycroft ever felt, so he didn’t much appreciate his mother doing this to him.

Mycroft looked at the butler and said, wearily, “It’s freezing in this house.” Partly, Mycroft knew, this was the chill he’d caught from the rain earlier, which was his own fault. He wondered if Sherlock wasn’t well on his way to dying from pneumonia at this very moment.

“I’ll set a fire in the library for you, sir.”

Mycroft was relieved that the butler offered the library, because his mother had seldom used the library, and Mycroft, at the moment, could not bear the drawing room. They’d had to use it for the gathering by necessity, and it had been ghastly. There had been a row with the butler earlier over the placement of his mother’s chessboard, the butler fearing it would be knocked over and offering to remove it altogether, and Mycroft in dread over taking the pieces out of the positions his mother had last played. He knew he would have to do it eventually, and it was illogical of him to refuse to do it when they had needed the space, but he had insisted, and there had been a compromise where it had been moved carefully to a corner and Mycroft had spent the entire afternoon watching it.

Mycroft glanced into the drawing room now. The fire had been banked, and the lights had been shut off, and everything in the room looked…abandoned. Mycroft walked over suddenly and pulled the pocket doors out. They fought against him, because Mycroft could not remember the last time they had been used, and they didn’t want to budge, and he jiggled at them energetically until they’d finally pulled closed and he didn’t have to look at the drawing room anymore.

Then, satisfied, he turned and walked to the library, meeting the butler coming out of it. “Bring me a tea tray,” Mycroft said, and the butler nodded at him, and Mycroft sat on the couch by the fire and looked into it as it started to catch and wondered where Sherlock was and if it would make things better or worse to go in search of him.

The butler arrived with the tea tray while Mycroft was still considering, and Mycroft shook himself out of his contemplative stupor to thank the butler, who merely said, “Shall I close the door?”

“Yes,” said Mycroft, because he didn’t want the press of the rest of the house intruding on him at that moment. “If you see Master Sherlock, though, tell him I’d like to see him.”

“Yes, sir,” said the butler, and closed the door, and Mycroft looked at the tea tray.

He actually didn’t want tea, but he went through the ritual act of preparing it and then looked at the result and felt that the last thing he wanted was to drink it. Part of him wanted to curl into the couch and sleep his way through everything in his life that was about to happen.

One of the doors leading to the back garden opened and closed, and Mycroft sighed. “Have you been outside this whole time?”

Naturally, Sherlock didn’t answer. He walked over to one of the chairs by the fire and collapsed into it, radiating waves of displeased belligerence. He glared at Mycroft accusingly, as if everything were his fault, which, other than the lack of umbrella that morning, decidedly wasn’t true.

Mycroft stood and walked to the back of the library, behind the desk that had been their father’s more years ago than Sherlock had been alive, really. He tipped the book that he had seen his father tip, all those years ago, and the bookcase swung easily out toward him, as if it had just been used the other day.

Sherlock, as Mycroft had known he would, sprang up immediately and raced over. “How did you know that was there?” he demanded.

“Father used to use it,” said Mycroft, and considered the bottles of alcohol gleaming along the shelf.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“Why didn’t you discover it on your own?” rejoined Mycroft, lightly.

Sherlock frowned and said, “That alcohol cannot possibly still be good.”

“What does it matter?” asked Mycroft, selecting a bottle of Scotch and holding it up to the light as if he knew what he was doing. “Anyway, alcohol gets better with age, not worse.”

“Properly stored alcohol,” said Sherlock, pretending he wasn’t interested in the rest of the contents of the shelf.

“You can explore this to your heart’s content another time,” said Mycroft, nudging Sherlock out of the way so he could close the door. “And where did you learn so much about alcohol?”

Sherlock made a noise that loosely translated to, I do know how to read, Mycroft, you utter pillock. He followed Mycroft back over to the fireplace, where Mycroft took a fresh teacup from the tea tray and poured some Scotch into it. Then he took another teacup and poured more Scotch into it and held it out to Sherlock.

Sherlock looked at him in astonishment that quicksilvered into suspicion. “What do you want?”

Mycroft sighed and sat and put the teacup back down on the tea tray, picking up his own. “Nothing. It was the sort of day that called for a drink.”

“But I’m eleven.”

“Yes, which is why it’s only a small drink. I thought you’d want to be scientifically thorough on the effects of ten years of abandonment on the taste of Scotch. Anyway, you’ve caught a chill and supposedly Scotch helps ward off a cold.”

“That’s an old wives’ tale,” said Sherlock, taking his seat again. He picked up the teacup cautiously, sniffed at it, and then stared into it, and Mycroft watched him catalogue all of his impressions to write down later. Then he took a tiny sip and considered it for a very long moment before announcing, “It’s terrible.”

Mycroft half-smiled and put his own teacup down without taking a sip, suddenly having lost interest in it. “Sherlock—”

“You’re not really worried I’ll catch cold,” Sherlock told him, putting his teacup down.

“Of course I’m worried about that,” Mycroft replied.

“You’re just worried what people will think if I catch cold.”

“Why can’t I worry about both?” Mycroft asked, after a second.

“If you were that worried about it you should have brought an umbrella.”

“I know. I’m sorry,” he said, because it was true.

Sherlock put his feet up on the chair, hugging his knees into his chest, looking lost and little-boy-ish. Someone had told him, during this interminable day, that Sherlock was never going to be a little boy again, but the truth of the matter was that he was so achingly young that Mycroft was terrified of him. If Sherlock were no longer a little boy, this would all be much easier, but eleven was a terrible age, caught between everything, and Mycroft was at a loss as to how he was supposed to navigate it.

“I should have gone with you to the church,” said Sherlock, looking into the fire.

“You did go with me to the church,” Mycroft pointed out.

“Not today. Before. When you were planning, and you asked me to go, and I didn’t want to.”

“You didn’t have to, Sherlock.” Mycroft had been exhausted enough making himself do all the things that had to be done; there had been no reason to subject Sherlock to all of them if he didn’t want to be involved.

“But I would have noticed the Latin on the grave,” said Sherlock, setting his chin stubbornly. “You didn’t even notice it. Mummy would have hated that.”

“Sherlock,” said Mycroft, thinking somehow that this might make things better, “it really doesn’t matter to Mummy anymore, any of it.”

Sherlock stared at him in horror, which momentarily surprised him, because, church funeral notwithstanding, they had not been raised with any sense of religion, and it had not even occurred to him that Sherlock might be harbouring some idea of an afterlife in that fiercely scientific brain he had. Science tempered with philosophy, his mother used to say, and Mycroft realized his mistake.

“Oh,” he said, stupidly, because he could think of nothing else to say.

Sherlock inhaled and exhaled an angry, disapproving breath at him and then said, staunchly, “I am never wearing another tie again, and you are never going to make me, do you understand?”

“I don’t care if you ever wear a tie again,” said Mycroft, honestly. “But you have to wear one to school—”

“Why do I have to go to school? I know everything there is to know already.”

“What do you propose to do instead?”

“I could be a pirate.”

“Surely you are not still taken with this piracy idea,” sighed Mycroft.

“I don’t understand why you think pirates are from a bygone era. The sea is the last great frontier on this planet, the last place without laws.”

“I assure you there are laws that govern the oceans. If you went to school, you could even learn that for yourself.”

Sherlock scowled. “I mean that the laws aren’t easily enforced.”

“Sherlock, don’t say things like that.”

“Why not?”

“Because it makes you sound like a budding master criminal.”

Sherlock considered. “I bet master criminals don’t go to school.”

“Clever ones do. Look, let’s not have the school discussion right now.”

“I don’t want to talk about Mummy,” Sherlock said, instantly, his feet sliding to the floor as he sat up straighter.

“We won’t,” said Mycroft, who didn’t much feel like talking about her, either. “Let’s not talk at all. I had to talk all day.”

“But you like talking. You like the sound of your own voice.”

“Said the pot to the kettle,” said Mycroft, and Sherlock smiled at him, and for a moment it was almost as if none of the past few days had happened at all. “Did you really spend all day outside? It’s cold, and you were already wet from this morning.”

“I only spent some of the day outside,” said Sherlock. He slid off the chair and moved to sit directly in front of the fireplace.

“You should go change into something dry,” Mycroft told him.

“What will happen tomorrow?” Sherlock asked. There was a thread of anxiety in the question that no one but Mycroft would ever have heard.

“Nothing,” said Mycroft, because he didn’t want Sherlock to worry about it. “Absolutely nothing. I promise.”

He wasn’t sure how much longer his promises were going to carry weight, but apparently they were still effective, because Sherlock nodded, once, and then turned to face the fire, presenting Mycroft with his back, and Mycroft watched him and tried not to worry.

***

Mycroft could not sleep. He had wanted the will to be read early in the morning, because he wanted it over with, and he was relieved he had made that decision because it meant that it was perfectly acceptable to give up on the idea of sleep quickly in favour of carefully selecting a tie. Mycroft felt as if he couldn’t remember the last time he hadn’t worn a suit, because, during this whole debacle, he had found it made an enormous difference if he looked older than eighteen, and he was sure that would be even more important on this particular day. He wondered if he was ever going to stop wearing suits every day, ever going to stop worrying about looking older and more competent than he might in fact be.

He decided to go down for breakfast, even though he wasn’t the least bit hungry, just because it was proper and he wanted to say that he supported three square meals, that was just how responsible a human being he was. Before he went, he poked his head into Sherlock’s bedroom just to make sure he was in fact there, because he thought he really didn’t need Sherlock to disappear while under his care on the very day he was planning to have to have an argument about his ability to take care of him.

Sherlock was in his bedroom, thankfully, although he was asleep at his desk instead of in his bed, with the remnants of some sort of experiment around him. Mycroft supposed this was the type of thing he really shouldn’t allow; he really should have insisted that Sherlock go to bed at a reasonable hour and in a bed, but it seemed rather late in Sherlock’s life to start insisting he behave normally.

Mycroft crept into the room and turned down Sherlock’s bed and then walked over to Sherlock’s desk and pulled him to standing. He was pliant with sleep, and he only blinked himself half-awake, just awake enough to cast Mycroft a disapproving look and make a meagre protest before Mycroft had already managed to guide him into tumbling into the bed. He pulled the blankets up over him and Sherlock snuggled into them even as he slurred out, “I was fine at the desk.”

He was so contrary, thought Mycroft, and then, quickly on the heels of that thought, it occurred to Mycroft that he had never actually asked Sherlock who he wanted in charge of him. Sherlock, difficult and obstinate and troublesome, Sherlock would not necessarily agree to Mycroft’s decision on the topic, and Mycroft didn’t want to force him into it.

“Sherlock,” he said, keeping his voice low because it was such early morning and he thought discussing this in loud tones seemed melodramatic. “Is there anyone you want to live with?”

“Stephen Hawking,” answered Sherlock, readily, voice still blurry with sleep, turning his head into his pillow.

Mycroft suppressed his sigh. “I meant anyone other than me.”

“You’re not Stephen Hawking,” Sherlock pointed out, and yawned.

“Excellent,” said Mycroft. “Good observation. But is there anyone realistic you’d rather have in charge of you? Anyone in the family? Or anyone else you know?” This seemed ridiculous. They didn’t really know anyone other than each other; it was why Mycroft had assumed this.

Sherlock’s eyes opened abruptly, staring at him, and Mycroft immediately wanted to backpedal. “Like whom?” Sherlock demanded and sat up. “Who are they trying to send me off to?”

“No one,” said Mycroft.

“It has to be you,” Sherlock informed him. “If it is anyone other than you I will run away, and no one will ever find me.”

“I would find you.”

“Eventually. Maybe,” Sherlock allowed, reluctantly. “I thought it was going to be you. Why would it be anyone else? I’d just about resigned myself to you. I know how to manipulate you. I don’t want to have to start over.”

“That is very touching,” Mycroft said. “Thank you for your vote of confidence. It’ll be me. I’ll make sure it’s me.”

Sherlock regarded him dubiously, and Mycroft could see him waking himself up, clicking his mind into action. “Do you need me to—”

“I don’t need you to do anything. I’ll take care of it. I promise. Go back to sleep.”

Sherlock hesitated, then slowly lay back down and settled the blankets back around him. “Why would it be anyone else, Mycroft?”

There were a million reasons, and Mycroft knew Sherlock was blindingly intelligent and couldn’t understand how Sherlock didn’t see all of them. He wanted to list them for Sherlock. I am barely of age. I’m in university. I don’t have anywhere for you to live with me. I have no idea how to raise an eleven-year-old boy. I don’t know the state of the finances, so I’ve no idea if there’s money enough to get you the things you deserve while keeping me in the things I’ve expected. And, if there’s not, I have no plan for what I’m supposed to do to earn money on my current qualifications. And you are not an easy child, you need guidance and discipline, and I’d just let you run amok because you’re cleverer than everyone else I know. Mycroft said none of that, because he saw that to Sherlock it was all irrelevant. Sherlock considered himself all grown up, and the fact that the law did not see him as an adult was a troublesome irritation, nothing more. A formality he assumed Mycroft would agree with. There was no child-rearing to be done to Sherlock Holmes—he was past that point. In Sherlock’s mind, he needed someone to make sure there was food on his table when he was hungry and nothing more, and Mycroft was the person for that. Mycroft did not need to be more than the age he was to accomplish that, and, to an eleven-year-old, eighteen was ancient anyway.

Mycroft said, instead, “It won’t be anyone else. I promise. Go back to sleep, and don’t run away, and try not to tell other people that you want me in charge of you because you know how to manipulate me.”

“I’m not an idiot, Mycroft,” said Sherlock, but his eyes were already closing and he was already falling back asleep, which Mycroft found astonishing, because his own stomach was tied in knots of nervousness and sleep had been impossible for him. But Sherlock was abruptly sleeping peacefully, as if he hadn’t a care in the world, because Mycroft had promised that he didn’t.

Bloody hell, thought Mycroft. Maybe I should find someone else to do this.

He looked around himself at the scattered mess of Sherlock’s room and thought of anyone trying to tidy up this manifestation of genius, and dismissed the idea of it immediately. Sherlock was right. It absolutely had to be him.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

Mycroft forced himself to eat mechanically, and he glanced through the newspaper the butler brought to him without registering what he was reading, until the doorbell sounded through the house. Then he folded the newspaper back into place carefully, focusing on making it very neat and straight, and the butler led his mother’s solicitor into the dining room.

Mycroft had met him once, briefly, on the day after his mother’s death, when he had explained who he was. Mycroft hadn’t needed him to explain. Mycroft had taken one look at him, when the butler had shown him in that day, and known exactly who he was. Solicitors were easy to spot.

“Mr. Harbrough,” he said now, politely, after rising and shaking his hand. “Won’t you have a seat, and I’ll pour out some tea?”

“Thank you, yes,” replied Harbrough, and sat in the chair Mycroft indicated. “I hope you don’t mind that I’m early. I wanted an opportunity to speak with you alone and yesterday didn’t seem like the time.”

Mycroft listened to him as he concentrated on pouring out the tea. “Not at all,” he said, automatically, and handed across his teacup with a smile.

“It was a lovely funeral,” remarked Harbrough.

“That,” said Mycroft, carefully, so as not to sound offended, even though he rather was, “is an oxymoron.”

“Oh,” said Harbrough, after a moment, and coughed, which Mycroft had noticed was a nervous habit he had. Harbrough put his teacup down. “I wanted to talk to you about Sherlock.”

Obviously, thought Mycroft. “Oh?” Mycroft lifted an eyebrow to indicate he should continue.

“Where is he?”

“He’s sleeping. I thought it best to let him sleep.”

“Of course,” Harbrough agreed. “I imagine he mustn’t be sleeping well after everything…”

Mycroft suspected Sherlock was sleeping much better than Mycroft was, but Mycroft didn’t want to say that really he just didn’t want Sherlock being abrasive and uncooperative if there was going to be a fight over him. Mycroft made a noncommittal humming noise.

Harbrough coughed nervously again. “Your mother’s will was written years ago, after your father’s death. I’m afraid it hasn’t been updated. An oversight, but a common one. People never do see death approaching, do they?” Harbrough smiled palely, as if this was something to be smiled about.

“It is,” remarked Mycroft, “a happy feature of evolution that we do not spend our lives dwelling on the possibilities of our deaths. Or so I have always thought.”

Harbrough hesitated, as if unsure what to do, and then coughed. “You weren’t of age.”

“When my father died? No, I was not.”

“No, I know; I wasn’t—” Harbrough cut himself off with another cough, and Mycroft wondered if he should make things easier for the man and decided his lack of sleep and general tension was making him more outwardly snappish than usual. Also, he didn’t care for Harbrough’s tone, gentle and slow, as if Mycroft were an idiot who needed everything spelled out for him, including the age he had been when he’d lost his father. As if Mycroft might have forgotten that. And, finally, it seemed to Mycroft that Harbrough had created this mess with sloppy will-drafting, and Mycroft already knew he was going to clean it up for him, so he wasn’t particularly inspired to help Harbrough in breaking the news that the mess existed.

So Mycroft did nothing and sipped his tea and waited for Harbrough to continue.

“Your mother made provisions for you both to be taken care of, in the event of her death. It no longer applies to you, of course, as you have reached the age of majority. Sherlock, however…”

“Why wasn’t there a provision made that Sherlock should stay with me in the event of my mother’s death after I had attained majority but before he had attained majority? It seems to me that should have been a standard contingency to include.” Mycroft said it mildly on the surface, but with enough ice lurking underneath that Harbrough flinched.

“Well,” he said. And then, “Yes…” And then he coughed.

Mycroft put his cup down with a sharp clink, settled his elbows on the table, joined his hands together, and looked at Harbrough evenly. “Who am I going to have to fight over this?”

Harbrough swallowed back another cough. “Your great-aunt Iphigenia.”

Mycroft had assumed this, and had paid attention to her yesterday during the gathering. She had hovered mercilessly, fussing over him and studying the drawing room as if she were already envisioning how she was going to change the curtains. “I hardly know her,” he said, which was true. His mother had not been close to any of her relatives. Mycroft thought he had met Iphigenia fewer than five times in his entire life.

“She was your mother’s closest living relative.”

Which was also true, and was why Mycroft had assumed she would be the one named in the will. “That is hardly saying much,” said Mycroft. “Why would she want care of Sherlock?”

“There is money set aside for his care,” said Harbrough, delicately. “A considerable sum.”

Mycroft had assumed as much, and so, apparently, had Iphigenia. It was still a relief to have the existence of money confirmed though. Mycroft had had great confidence in the cleverness of his mother’s head for figures and finances and the chess game of investments, but considering how out-of-character his mother had proven to be at the end of it all, Mycroft had been holding his breath for bad news about thousands of pounds of debt descending upon his head.

“Is this going to be an argument?” Mycroft asked. “Legally? For me to take charge of him instead. If I insist upon taking charge of him, will she be able to fight me on that?

“If she wishes to fight you on it…yes. Yes, it is a legal dispute.”

Mycroft registered that with barely a frown, moving on. “Tell me more about the finances. Not the money set aside for Sherlock. The rest of it.”

“You have inherited the rest of the money. My office is pulling together the exact figures; your mother was heavily diversified. But you and Sherlock split the money evenly. Because he is not of age, his half will be in a trust, controlled by you—the same with the land holdings, this house, and the country estate.”

“He’ll come into the trust when he’s eighteen?” Mycroft asked, which was the age when he had come into his trust.

“Into the trust that was established for him at birth, yes. Into the trust created by your mother’s death, no. He will not come into that until he is twenty-five.”

Mycroft was surprised. “But it isn’t in trust for me until I’m twenty-five?”

Harbrough gave him a thin smile. “Your mother was insistent on the discrepancy. She said she could trust you to take charge of everything that very day, if you needed to, but that she could already tell Sherlock would be more like his father and would benefit from your forced guidance.”

“She knew that ten years ago,” said Mycroft, and was both flattered by her trust and proud of her cleverness.

“Apparently so,” said Harbrough.

“So there’s a comfortable amount, then. There’s enough to maintain things until I’m finished with university?”

“More than enough for that.”

“Excellent. Then I only have to deal with Aunt Iphigenia.”

Harbrough hesitated, and Mycroft stiffened and waited for him to speak. Naturally, he prefaced his speech with a cough. “She might be helpful to you, Mycroft. It might not be such a bad idea…” Harbrough saw the look on Mycroft’s face and trailed off.

“You think it might not be such a bad idea? To send my brother off God knows where with an old woman he’s never met and who has no idea who he is?” Mycroft bit his tongue before he said what he was thinking, which was that the Holmeses needed a new solicitor immediately. Preferably one less stupid than this one. What had Mummy been thinking? No wonder she had thought him capable at the age of eight of handling the situation were she to die. He had been more capable at the age of eight than this idiot was now.

Mycroft took a deep breath and said, instead of all that, “It’s a terrible idea. Don’t suggest it again. I will deal with Aunt Iphigenia, and you will do as I say about the situation.”

“Unless it’s illegal…” started Harbrough, and then trailed off into a cough when Mycroft glared at him.

“As if,” Mycroft said, crisply, “illegality is black and white.”

Harbrough just coughed again.

***

Mycroft had the butler show the relatives who arrived into the library. He didn’t want to use his mother’s drawing room for the reading of his mother’s will. It seemed slightly gauche, he thought. And the dining room was still being cleared of the breakfast dishes. So he settled on the library.

His great-aunt Iphigenia bustled in and tried to give him a kiss, but he dodged her expertly without seeming as if he were dodging her, and she grew flustered and fussed a bit over him instead. Mycroft was not sure of her age, but, whatever it was, it was clearly too old to flutter so much.

Iphigenia was trailed by the trio of dour-looking brothers who were all that remained of the Whitcombe line his mother had belonged to. They had themselves continued the line, and they had children who had children and all of them had been crawling about the house the day before, but Mycroft was pleased that just these three had come, the descendants of some great-grandmother in common somewhere. Mycroft knew the family tree by heart, but he felt acknowledging that he knew it by heart would make it seem as if he cared about it. In truth, his mother had not cared for any of her relatives. And his mother had had plenty of acquaintances—again, Mycroft felt he had spoken to every single one of them the day before—but she had had no friends, which had been one of his mother’s axioms. A true friend will play chess with you right back, Mycroft, she had told him once, sipping tea from a teacup and studying his latest move. But that happens almost never because people are mostly incredibly stupid.

“Where is darling Sherlock?” asked Iphigenia.

Mycroft wanted to say that the fact that she called him “darling Sherlock” indicated how very little she knew Sherlock, but instead he opened his mouth to say that he had thought it better that Sherlock not be present for the reading of the will.

Except that Sherlock walked into the room before he could say that. He was dressed in the suit he’d worn the day before, although, true to his word, he was not wearing a tie. The suit was probably still damp, and that was part of the reason Mycroft frowned at him. The other part of the reason was that he really hadn’t wanted him there, and Sherlock gave him a look that said, Did you really think I was going to help you out and sleep through this?

Mycroft frowned at him some more, but he knew that was a waste of his energy. Sherlock was impervious to his frowns and indeed, Mycroft suspected, actually took glee from them.

“Sherlock, dear!” Iphigenia cooed over him, trying to get close enough to pet at his curls.

Sherlock hated people touching his hair, hated people touching him, really, but instead of saying something blistering and rude, as Mycroft had braced himself for, he darted away from Iphigenia and quickly over to Mycroft’s side, standing much closer to him than Mycroft would have expected, just a breath away from clinging to him. It was so unlike him that Mycroft looked down at him in alarm and then realized exactly what he was doing. Sherlock had clearly deduced it would be advantageous to make everyone in the room believe he was completely dependent on Mycroft and would be lost without him. Well, decided Mycroft, if Sherlock was going to be helpful for a change, Mycroft supposed he could stay.

Harbrough coughed that annoying cough again, and Sherlock looked at him with a trace of a frown. Mycroft could read his thoughts: What is wrong with you? Clear your throat properly, or stop with that coughing altogether—it’s irritating. Sherlock, uncharacteristically, did not voice these thoughts. He turned to Mycroft instead, wiping his face of the frown and asking, in his most angelic tone of voice, “Can’t I stay to hear what it says?”

Mycroft lifted his eyebrows the tiniest amount, perceptible only to Sherlock, by which he meant to convey the response of, You’re ridiculous, don’t think I’m pleased with you. He knew Sherlock got this message because Sherlock was adept at getting those types of messages, as adept as he was at ignoring them. Mycroft said out loud, “Yes, I suppose.”

Sherlock gave Mycroft his best beaming smile, which was downright alarming in Mycroft’s view, that absurd bow of a mouth curving in such a way as to make him appear to be a beatific cherub. Mycroft had a sudden flash of a thought that he should turn Sherlock loose on Iphigenia, it would serve her right.

Sherlock saw the thought cross Mycroft’s mind, dropped the smile from his face, frowned a bit, and sat on the sofa, but everyone else was still behaving as if Sherlock were the most adorable creature who had ever been permitted to walk God’s green earth.

Well, Iphigenia was behaving that way; the three dour men were taking no notice of him and were cataloguing the room’s belongings as if they thought they might be getting any of them.

Iphigenia said to Sherlock, walking over to where he sat on the sofa, “Poor boy, how are you feeling this morning?”

“He has a sore throat,” answered Mycroft, and immediately sat beside Sherlock on the sofa before Iphigenia could.

Sherlock very slightly sprawled a bit to make sure there was no room for Iphigenia on the other side of him and sent Mycroft a brief glance that showed he was annoyed Mycroft had deduced immediately about the sore throat.

Iphigenia looked down at them expectantly, as if waiting for them to make room on the sofa for her.

“Perhaps if you would take a seat we could begin,” suggested Mycroft, pleasantly.

Iphigenia continued to look at them.

“There’s a chair behind you,” Sherlock said, shortly.

Iphigenia huffed finally and took the chair behind her, and Sherlock stopped sprawling quite so much.

“Please begin,” Mycroft said to Harbrough, who started with a cough, and Mycroft felt Sherlock practically vibrate next to him with the force of not saying anything about the bloody annoying cough.

“Well, really, there isn’t much to say,” said Harbrough. “The will is fairly simple and straightforward. She leaves everything to the two of you. Split evenly.” Harbrough smiled at Sherlock and Mycroft as if this were excellent news. Your mother is dead. You’re now very rich. Congratulations! “Of course,” said Harbrough to Sherlock, speaking very slowly and carefully, and Sherlock’s vibrations of rage were reaching a silent crescendo. “You’re too young to inherit everything just yet, so your brother will hold it in trust for you. That means—”

“I know what that means,” Sherlock interrupted, sounding irritated. “When do I get the trust?”

Harbrough looked a bit taken aback. “When you’re twenty-five.”

“Twenty-five,” echoed Sherlock. “But he isn’t twenty-five now. Who’s holding the trust for him?”

There was a beat during which Harbrough looked at Mycroft as if he wanted Mycroft to answer. Mycroft ignored this because he wanted Harbrough to answer, so Harbrough eventually did. “His isn’t in trust; he came into his trust at eighteen.”

Sherlock looked at Mycroft and flickered a frown of displeasure at him over this. Mycroft smiled at him blandly.

“What about dear Sherlock’s care?” asked Iphigenia, her voice dripping with worry over the matter.

“I will take care of him, of course,” said Mycroft, evenly, thinking it would be very nice if Iphigenia just said, Oh, right, of course, and that was the end of it.

Iphigenia looked at him in silence for a long, dubious moment, and then turned to Harbrough. “But what does the will say?”

Harbrough coughed nervously, and Sherlock fidgeted next to Mycroft. “The will leaves Sherlock’s care to you. With a trust created for the costs of his care.”

Iphigenia looked at Sherlock, her eyes shimmering with what Mycroft knew to be avarice and greed but which he supposed Iphigenia hoped to be mistaken for affection.

“It doesn’t matter what the will says,” said Mycroft, matter-of-factly. “I’ll take care of Sherlock.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Mycroft,” Iphigenia told him, lightly. “You’re busy with university, of course. You needn’t worry your head over him. He’ll be quite a lot of work, I’m sure, and I’m more than willing to help you with—”

Mycroft was going to wait for her to finish speaking before he told her she was wrong, but he should have known that Sherlock wasn’t going to. “I am not ‘a lot of work,’” said Sherlock, hotly offended.

“Sherlock,” said Mycroft.

“Tedious, stupid people are ‘a lot of work,’” continued Sherlock. “I am not ‘a lot of work.’”

Iphigenia was smiling tightly, as if she were already losing her patience, and Mycroft thought that only an amateur like Iphigenia lost patience after three sentences out of Sherlock. One had to wait until at least the tenth sentence to lose patience, or one would never stand a chance against him. “Now, Sherlock, darling, be reasonable—”

“‘Be reasonable’?” echoed Sherlock, his eyes wide with indignant disbelief.

“Sherlock,” said Mycroft again, knowing it was in vain but trying it anyway.

“No. She wants me to be reasonable? I am the only person I know who is ever reasonable!”

The frightening thing was that Mycroft knew Sherlock believed that wholeheartedly. “Let’s—” he began, but Iphigenia interrupted him.

“You cannot possibly be so selfish as to think that you should compel your brother to take care of you when he is—”

Sherlock made a strangled noise of fury, but it was Mycroft who interrupted Iphigenia with a flat rage that sliced through what she was saying. “Not. Another. Word,” he clipped out.

Iphigenia choked abruptly, as if Mycroft had taken all the air out of the room, and looked at him in shock at his tone. Even Sherlock turned an expression of astonishment on him, which Mycroft ignored, as he stood and said to him, impressed that he maintained an admirably easy tone, “You need to go to your room.”

The astonishment on Sherlock’s face grew. He stared up at him and said, “I need to what?” and Mycroft understood, because the idea of anyone ordering Sherlock to his room was laughable and Mycroft knew it.

“Or wherever,” he amended. “I don’t care. Not here.”

“But that’s not fair,” said Sherlock, shrinking into the sofa to make himself more difficult to dislodge.

“I agree. But I cannot throw Iphigenia out of the house whilst we still have business to discuss, so the only thing I can do is gift one Holmes with the relief of no longer suffering her presence.”

Iphigenia made a noise behind him, as if she knew she ought to be offended but couldn’t quite work out why. Mycroft waited, hoping Sherlock would be cooperative, considering all the circumstances, and Sherlock glanced from Mycroft to Iphigenia and back again and, miraculously, stood. “Fine,” he said, and stepped out from behind Mycroft so he could see Iphigenia. “I will not live with anyone but Mycroft,” he proclaimed, grandly. “If you try to make me, I will poison you very slowly and in such a way that no one will ever determine quite how you die.”

Oh, wonderful, thought Mycroft. He couldn’t have left the room without threatening murder?

Sherlock departed with an elegant stomp, which was something really only Sherlock could do, and Mycroft turned to the three dour men and said, “Get out.”

They looked annoyed because clearly things had just begun to get interesting, but they also left immediately, without protest, and Mycroft was pleased that there must be something in his face or tone that was not permitting disagreement, not even from Sherlock. Mycroft closed the door crisply behind them and turned back to Iphigenia.

“Let’s do business,” he said, and walked over to the tea tray he’d had carried in and not touched.

“Business?” she repeated, all righteous indignation. “The care of a little boy is not business.”

Mycroft poured out careful, expert cups of tea and said, “You just sat here and called him selfish. He’s eleven years old, and he wishes to remain with the one person left in his life who actually knows anything at all about him. Sherlock is astonishingly selfish, you are quite right, but here, in this regard, ‘selfish’ is not an accusation that should have been flung at him. Ever.” Mycroft walked over to Iphigenia, balancing two teacups. “So don’t pretend this is about Sherlock’s well-being, or you would never have said such an amazingly heartless thing to him.” He handed Iphigenia her teacup with a polite smile, and she took it, looking as if she didn’t know what else to do. “So let’s do business. Because I honestly don’t think you quite want to have a debate over how fit your household is for an eleven-year-old boy, what with your revolving door of young, virile, well-paid help.” Mycroft put enough emphasis on the word to make sure even Iphigenia could not mistake his meaning.

Iphigenia blanched and stood. “How dare you—”

“Sit down,” said Mycroft, mildly. “You are not walking out of this house until you have relinquished all rights to Sherlock.”

“What makes you think that—”

“The fact that I know everything about you. And what I don’t know, I will know. Do not underestimate me or imagine that this is an exaggeration. I will agree that you may have all of the trust established for Sherlock’s care, which is what you really want anyway. You’ll take it, and you’ll give me Sherlock, and that will be the end of it.” Mycroft sipped his tea. He’d forgotten to put sugar in it, he realized.

Iphigenia sat slowly, the fact that she was considering this offer written all over her face. Harbrough coughed, but Mycroft ignored him.

Iphigenia said, eventually, “I don’t know what your mother expected to become of either one of you, raising you the way she did.”

Mycroft smiled without humor, forcing himself to keep his grip on his teacup light and airy and not to think too much about the fact that this woman was in here insulting his mother the day after he had buried her. He said, “I imagine she expected us to get what we want. She would be quite proud this morning.”

Iphigenia stared at him. But Iphigenia did not disagree.

Harbrough coughed into the silence and said, awkwardly, “Shall I draw up the papers?”

“No,” said Mycroft, without looking at him. “I’ve arranged for a competent solicitor to draw up the papers. All I want now is enough on paper to bind us to this agreement until the formal papers are couriered to me.” Mycroft stood and put down his teacup and walked over to the desk, opening the top right-hand drawer and pulling out a piece of heavy stationery and a handsome fountain pen. He slid both across to Harbrough and said, “Write what you need to. And if this doesn’t hold up, I will sue you into ruination.”

Harbrough looked alarmed but started scribbling.

Mycroft read over what he wrote and wished he knew more about law. He thought it looked good enough, and he also thought Iphigenia was terrified enough that she wouldn’t balk at the real papers. It was, really, the best deal for her, anyway. She’d only wanted the money; her concern for Sherlock was merely a matter of saving face. Mycroft signed the piece of paper and turned it toward Iphigenia for her signature, which she scrawled across it after a moment’s hesitation.

Mycroft didn’t say a word. He folded the piece of paper and settled it in his inside coat pocket and showed both Iphigenia and Harbrough to the door. “Have a pleasant day,” he said, and shut the door and looked at the suit of armor in the corner for a moment, then said, “Well?” to Sherlock, who he knew was sitting at the top of the stairs.

“That was quite fast,” Sherlock commented.

“Impressed?” asked Mycroft, walking up the stairs to join him.

“You gave her the whole trust, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” Mycroft sat beside him on the top step.

“Then no, I’m not impressed. That was everything she wanted. You should have bargained her down.”

Mycroft was well aware. He was also well aware that Sherlock was too precious an outcome to have attempted bargaining over. He had wanted Sherlock, and Iphigenia had known that, and Mycroft would have given her more than the trust if he’d had to. He considered getting away with the trust alone to be lucky, really. But if he said that to Sherlock, Sherlock would have scoffed at his sentimentality. So he said, “That was a nice little act in there at the beginning, sitting close to me on the sofa and all that.”

Sherlock hummed with self-satisfied pleasure. “Thank you.”

“You could have given me a few adoring gazes, that would have really sealed the performance.”

“I couldn’t have pulled those off,” said Sherlock. “One must know one’s limitations. Overstepping is always the first step to getting caught.”

“True,” allowed Mycroft, smiling, and leaned back on his elbows.

“What are we going to do now?” asked Sherlock, after a moment.

Mycroft had no idea. He had to figure out some sort of plan for the future, not just the next hour or day, the way he had been living. But just at the moment he didn’t know how to begin. “You should go back to bed.”

“I’m not really sick,” sniffed Sherlock.

“You have an experiment in progress in there, I saw it.”

Sherlock hesitated. “Yes, soil samples, but I’m…I haven’t any more samples to test. Mother and I were…”

Mycroft deduced the rest of it. Mummy must have been indulging him, taking him all over London to collect samples. They should really spend the day inside—Mycroft knew Sherlock had a sore throat and should rest—but it had stopped raining, and Mycroft was feeling stifled by the house.

“Come on,” he said, and stood. “We’ll go to fetch more then.”

Sherlock looked up at him and smiled. Not the overdramatic beaming smile from the library. Just a smile. It was infinitely better.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three

Sherlock had gone from insisting he was not sick to being, as he put it, on the verge of death. Mycroft would have been worried about him had he not said he was on the verge of death. Satisfied that the typical Sherlockian melodrama meant it was merely an unremarkable cold, Mycroft tucked him into bed (this earned him a glare) and asked the cook to make chicken soup for dinner.

Sherlock had clearly not remained in bed, judging from the sound of the violin emanating from behind his closed bedroom door. He would violate Mycroft’s directive in the most obvious way possible instead of doing something quietly rebellious, like working on his experiment.

Mycroft settled himself in his mother’s study, which was off his mother’s bedroom. He could hear the violin from there, and it was actually comforting. So long as Sherlock was playing the violin then he felt well enough to be troublesome, and that was good enough for Mycroft. Mycroft took a deep breath and opened the first drawer of the desk.

His mother had been an organized creature, and Mycroft had always appreciated that about her. It didn’t take him very long, really, to have a handle on most of the things he needed to have a handle on. The primary thing to worry about, he decided, as always, was Sherlock. Sherlock had two years to go still before Eton, so Mycroft had two years he needed to account for until then.

They had, Mycroft thought, two options: Sherlock could switch schools and go to a boarding school, which would permit Mycroft not to worry about him while Mycroft was at university, except during school vacations. Or Sherlock could remain at his current school, which was exclusively a day school, and Mycroft could find someone to watch over him whilst he was away. His mother had left Sherlock pretty much to his own devices, which had turned Sherlock into the willful, obstinate creature he was, but Mycroft knew he couldn’t just leave him alone in the house, unsupervised except for a butler.

Mycroft made up his mind and went to Sherlock’s bedroom and knocked briskly on the door.

Sherlock’s violin stopped. “Come in!” he called, after a second.

Mycroft opened the door and cocked an eyebrow at Sherlock, who was tucked up to his chin in bed and looking at Mycroft innocently.

“I can hear you playing the violin, Sherlock,” said Mycroft.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sherlock replied, vaguely, his eyes bright with the deception.

Hopefully with the deception and not a fever, thought Mycroft, and walked into the room and pulled Sherlock’s desk chair over to his bedside. “We need to talk,” he said.

“Or else you wouldn’t have interrupted my convalescence,” remarked Sherlock, cheerfully.

“What would you like to do about school?”

“Not go,” said Sherlock.

“That’s not an option.”

“Why not?”

“Because you have to go to school. The matter is settled.”

“The matter is not settled,” said Sherlock, and started coughing with the enthusiasm of his fervor in the assertion.

“It would be wiser for you to pick battles with me that you might possibly win. This is not one of them. I am aware you’re very clever and could probably teach most of the schools yourself.”

All of the schools,” corrected Sherlock, a bit hoarse after his coughing fit.

“Fine. All of them. That isn’t the point of school. You need to learn how to be around other people; you’re going to have to be around them your whole life.”

“They’re all dull. I hate them all.”

“People are generally dull. And why should you want to do anything but hate them? One should cultivate acquaintances, not friends, you know that.”

Mycroft looked at Sherlock and thought of the words Mummy had drilled into him over oh-so-many chess games. Caring is not an advantage, Mycroft. Mycroft looked at Sherlock, who he undoubtedly cared about, and thought of all the things he had done recently because of that. His mother had been very right in her assessment of the effect of caring, but Mycroft was helpless to see how he was supposed to fix that. He decided at that moment that caring about Sherlock was not going to be a downfall of his. He was going to win every chess game presented to him, and he was going to take care of Sherlock at the same time. If anyone could do it, he could.

That internal decision made, Mycroft turned his attention to the matter at hand. “Would you like to switch schools?”

Sherlock didn’t look especially taken with the idea. “And go where?”

Mycroft half-shrugged. “I’m sure we could put together a list of options. The point is you could go and board somewhere.”

“Instead of living here?” asked Sherlock.

“Exactly.”

Sherlock was silent for a very long moment, his pale eyes inscrutable. Then he said, carefully, “I’d rather not.”

Mycroft let it drop. There was a vulnerability to Sherlock’s answer that he knew Sherlock hated, and Mycroft didn’t want to call attention to it. If Sherlock wished to stay in this house, then Sherlock could stay in this house. Sherlock was going to go through enough upheaval without Mycroft forcing him to a boarding school on top of all of it.

“Would you rather change to another day school?”

Sherlock considered again. “No,” he decided, heavily. “I suppose the Hall is as good as any of them.”

“Plus, it’s where Holmeses go,” Mycroft pointed out.

Sherlock looked dubious about the advantages of that, but said, simply, “I’ll stay at the Hall. If I have to go to school.”

“You have to go to school. Just as I have to go to Cambridge.” Mycroft hesitated. “That’s…You don’t expect me to…” Sherlock looked at him, curious at the uncharacteristic stumbling over his words. Mycroft took a deep breath. “I was intending on returning to university. On not staying here with you.” It occurred to him suddenly that he wasn’t sure what he would do if Sherlock raised a fuss about that, if Sherlock wanted him nearby. He really hadn’t thought of the possibility of leaving Cambridge.

“Of course you have to go back,” said Sherlock. “If I have to go to school, you have to go to Cambridge, and I certainly don’t want you here.” Sherlock sneezed to punctuate his point.

Mycroft smiled, relieved. “So I assumed. We’ll need to employ someone to stay with you.”

Sherlock looked outraged. “What?”

Mycroft ignored the exclamation. “Someone to make sure you eat reasonably well, and actually go to school, and comb your hair every once in a while.”

“I have a butler for that.”

“The butler’s job isn’t to take care of you that way.”

“I am eleven years old,” Sherlock announced, as haughtily as he could with his nose stuffed up. “It is no one’s job to take care of me but my own.”

“It’s my job to take care of you,” said Mycroft. “What would I ever say to Iphigenia should something befall you while I was away at university? How would she ever survive, Sherlock darling? She’d be heartbroken.”

Sherlock actually giggled at him, which was something Sherlock rarely did, and Mycroft was pleased to have provoked it. “I think I would haunt her,” he decided. “If something were to happen to me.”

“It’s good to know you’d haunt her and not me. Nevertheless, I must have a proxy in place. Otherwise, left to your own devices, you’d burn this place down just to test the ashes.”

Sherlock looked thoughtful.

“That wasn’t a suggestion,” Mycroft pointed out, hastily. “And this illustrates exactly why we have to employ someone to keep an eye on you whilst I’m not here.”

“A nanny,” said Sherlock, scathingly. “You are suggesting a nanny.”

“You can help me choose her. Or him,” Mycroft supposed.

“I can have the final say?” Sherlock proposed.

“Absolutely not. But I will listen to your views on the matter.”

I’m the one who’s going to have to live with the person,” Sherlock protested.

“If I let you have the final say, you’ll never let me hire anyone.”

Sherlock sniffled angrily and pulled the covers over his head dramatically. “You are impossible,” he complained. “I should have gone to live with Iphigenia. I bet she wouldn’t have made me get a nanny. She probably wouldn’t even have made me go to school.”

“This is a tragedy worthy of Euripedes,” drawled Mycroft. “Who you will eventually learn about in school.”

“I know who Euripedes is,” Sherlock insisted, from underneath his blankets.

No, he didn’t, thought Mycroft, and smiled at the lump under the covers. “I’ll fetch you some tea with lemon and honey.”

“I’m not sick,” said Sherlock.

“No? Not that long ago you were on the verge of death.”

Sherlock was silent for a moment. “I think I hate you. I’m going to tell everyone at school how hateful you are.”

“I shall weep into my pillow every night,” Mycroft assured him.

“Go away,” said Sherlock, a rejoinder that meant Mycroft had won this particular round, so Mycroft went in search of tea for him.

Sherlock was sleeping by the time Mycroft returned with the tea, and Mycroft left it on his bedside table and went to contact an employment agency about what Sherlock definitely wouldn’t want to think of as his nanny.

***

Mycroft was determined to employ just the right person as Sherlock’s “annoying, dull idiot,” which was Sherlock’s official term. He didn’t care how long it took him to find just the right “annoying, dull idiot”; he would come to some sort of arrangement with his tutor about whatever he was missing at Cambridge. Learning how to coexist with others was the point of school for him as well as Sherlock, and Mycroft was much farther advanced in that particular lesson than he thought Sherlock was ever going to be.

So Mycroft was willing to take his time, and he didn’t mind if Sherlock kept asking inappropriate questions during the interviews, mostly because Mycroft hadn’t yet come across a single person who he thought capable of handling Sherlock. Sherlock asked questions like: You have quite an extensive pornography collection. Which item would you say is your favorite? And: If I replace all the alcohol in the house with water, will I find you searching the medicine cabinet for mouthwash? And: I’m not willing to be kidnapped to be held for ransom to satisfy your gambling debts. Well, that last wasn’t a question, but Mycroft had already reached the same conclusion about the candidate in front of them, so when Sherlock said it Mycroft did nothing but make a poor attempt to suppress his smile. He had several of the candidates tell him that he only encouraged Sherlock’s unacceptable behavior, and Mycroft supposed that was true and thought he really ought to be stricter with Sherlock, but it was hard to be strict when Sherlock was almost always right. Never polite, but almost always right.

“We are never going to find anyone,” Sherlock told him, from where he was closely studying different varieties of lint he had found on the carpet in the library.

“Yes, we are,” said Mycroft, without looking up from the volume of poetry he was reading.

“We are never going to find anyone, and I’ll have to go and live on a pirate ship.”

“You know you wouldn’t be captain of this pirate ship,” Mycroft remarked, and turned the page.

“I would be!” protested Sherlock.

“Not immediately. And you don’t have the patience to work your way up, so you’d just try to barge your way through the ranks, and you’d be forced to walk the plank and meet a watery end.”

Sherlock was silent, and Mycroft fought against turning his head to read the expression on his face.

“No, I wouldn’t,” Sherlock decided, finally.

“Oh no? Why not?” Mycroft did look at him then, expectantly, interested in Sherlock’s alternative scenario.

Sherlock regarded him coolly. “Because you would save me. You would never let anything like that happen to me.” He said it with slick sureness and then turned back to his lint examination.

Mycroft knew it was true but was a bit alarmed at Sherlock’s steadfast belief in it. “How would I save you from walking the plank? They haven’t telephones on pirate ships. How would you alert me?”

Sherlock didn’t even bother to look up. “I wouldn’t have to. You would simply know. You are Mycroft Holmes. Someday, that is going to be a terrifying thing. In fact, it already is.”

“You, Sir Kettle, are the worst pot-abuser I have ever encountered,” said Mycroft, with forced lightness, and picked up the cushion on the sofa next to him and tossed it at Sherlock’s head.

Sherlock dodged it and smiled.

***

They had exhausted everyone at the agency with a childcare background. Upon reflection, Mycroft concluded he should never even have looked at the people with childcare backgrounds. Sherlock was not a typical child in any way, shape, or form. People who were used to caring for children would have no idea what to do with Sherlock. Mycroft needed someone completely different.

He could tell the agency was annoyed with him. They could not understand how he was looking for a nanny (Mycroft didn’t correct them to “annoying, dull idiot”) yet wanted to look at people without any childcare qualifications. They asked him scathingly sarcastic questions, like whether or not he wanted to look at office temps, and Mycroft found himself rising to the sarcasm bait and asking them to send over their least qualified candidate.

Which was how he and Sherlock found themselves in the drawing room with Martha Hudson.

On paper she was, well, practically blank. Her work experience was minimal, and it had all happened decades ago. There was a huge gap of nothingness in her past, and Mycroft frowned at it and tried to think where to begin asking questions.

Sherlock, as usual, asked the first question. “Where’s your husband?”

“He’s dead,” Mrs. Hudson told him.

Mycroft glanced up at her and then to Sherlock. Sherlock was studying her closely, his eyes slightly narrowed, cataloguing things about her appearance, and Mycroft glanced back at her. Appearance-wise she was nearly as blank as the page in front of him. Old enough to be their mother, easily, and possibly close to what their mother’s age had been, but as different from their mother as night and day. Certainly their mother would never have worn the outfit Mrs. Hudson was sporting, an odd combination of too young and too old all at once. She had taken the Tube to the house, had had a hasty cup of tea that morning, and had a fondness for herbal soothers. She had a sister she loved but who lived out in the country—Surrey, possibly—and she didn’t get to see her as often as she might like. That much could be easily deduced. The rest was an unknown quantity.

“Mrs. Hudson,” Mycroft began, putting the useless piece of paper aside.

“Dead where?” asked Sherlock.

“Florida,” Mrs. Hudson answered him. “Have you ever been to Florida? It’s terribly hot. It’s good if you have a bad hip, which I do. Sometimes I have to take soothers for it. Will that be a problem?” She looked anxiously from Sherlock to Mycroft.

“No,” Sherlock answered her, which drew Mrs. Hudson’s attention back to him.

Mycroft’s attention as well. Sherlock looked…interested. Which was more than he had been in anyone so far.

Mycroft looked back at Mrs. Hudson and tried to see the appeal. Maybe the matronly suggestion to her? Alluring to a boy who had just unexpectedly been orphaned? But they had seen other older women and Sherlock had not taken to any of them.

“So you’ve recently been in Florida?” Mycroft asked, turning back to Mrs. Hudson and taking the interview a bit more seriously than he had been.

“Yes, I’ve just come home. It’s good to come home, isn’t it? I mean, at the end of the day, it’s where your family is.”

“I do a lot of science experiments,” Sherlock announced, abruptly, his eyes still narrowed, as if this were a test.

“What sort?” asked Mrs. Hudson, with interest.

“The important sort,” Sherlock answered. “They can’t be touched or moved or interfered with in any way. Nothing in my room can be touched.”

Mrs. Hudson looked a bit offended. “Well, I wouldn’t be your housekeeper.”

“Sometimes I forget to eat though,” Sherlock continued. “I would need to be brought tea, I think. Mycroft, wouldn’t she have to bring me tea?”

“Well—” Mycroft began, planning to say that they had a cook who would make Sherlock tea and that wasn’t necessarily Mrs. Hudson’s job.

Sometimes I will bring you tea, but I am not your housekeeper,” Mrs. Hudson told Sherlock.

Sherlock considered. “What about biscuits?”

“Possibly,” said Mrs. Hudson, which Mycroft knew was really Always, and knew Sherlock knew that, too, because Sherlock sat back in his seat in apparent satisfaction.

“I have a morbid fascination with death,” proclaimed Sherlock, with relish. A teacher had said this about him years ago, and Mummy had laughed about it, and so Sherlock found it vastly amusing and was very proud of the assessment.

“That’s quite indecent of you,” said Mrs. Hudson, but she smiled at him as if she were already fond of him and already thought him the cleverest thing she’d ever seen.

Mycroft looked between them, bemused by the obvious mutual affection between them but deciding that one did not look a gift horse in the mouth. Anyone who could look at Sherlock with fondness after five minutes with him was worth her weight in gold. “When can you start?” he said.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

As far as Mycroft was concerned, things were going quite satisfactorily. Schools were as expected, he had plenty of money in sound investments, Iphigenia had signed away her rights to Sherlock and stayed silent, and no one else had raised an issue with his care of Sherlock. Sherlock himself had not committed any crimes and appeared to be flourishing. He seemed to adore Mrs. Hudson, which Mycroft deduced from the fact that he almost never spoke to Sherlock. If Sherlock had had complaints, Sherlock would have voiced those complaints, loudly and vociferously. Sherlock was silent, which meant that he must be pleased with the way things were, and Mycroft was relieved about that.

He liked to think they had made it through the hardest part. The reports of both Mrs. Hudson and the butler were soothing. The butler said Sherlock was an enormous amount of trouble and that recently he had taken to seeing how long frogs could go without eating, as part of an experiment. Mrs. Hudson said that Sherlock was making a mess of the house with frog carcasses, “bless his heart.” And Mycroft thought that maybe everything would turn out all right after all.

On the day he received the heavy envelope, he had managed to forget that he was expecting it, and then he locked himself in his room, took a deep breath, and sat and read through his mother’s autopsy report. Twice. Then he phoned Sherlock.

Mrs. Hudson answered, and Mycroft said, with automatic politeness, “Good evening, Mrs. Hudson. How are you?”

“Oh, Mycroft,” said Mrs. Hudson, sounding pleased to hear his voice. “How are you? Things going well?”

“Yes,” he answered, vaguely, not interested. “Is Sherlock there?”

“Of course he is.” He heard her call for him. “Sherlock! Your brother is on the phone!”

There was the sound of a bit of commotion, and then Sherlock’s voice said, “What could you possibly want?”

“Sherlock!” Mycroft heard Mrs. Hudson scold him. “Be nice.”

“It’s just that you’re interrupting a very important experiment,” Sherlock said to him.

“You weren’t doing anything,” Mycroft heard Mrs. Hudson say.

“I was thinking about doing something,” Sherlock defended himself, indignantly. “Thinking very hard. What do you want?”

Mycroft wondered why he was having such difficulty just saying it. “I received Mummy’s autopsy report today.”

“Why did you get to receive it?” Sherlock complained. “Why do you get everything fun because you’re the oldest?”

“It isn’t fun, Sherlock,” Mycroft said, a bit sharply.

Sherlock paused for a moment, and Mycroft could perfectly envision his hurt offense. Mycroft didn’t apologize. Sherlock didn’t seem to expect it. He said, “What does it say she died of?”

“Anaphylactic shock,” Mycroft answered.

Sherlock was silent for a long moment. “That can’t be right. They’ve done it incorrectly. Idiots. This is why you should have let me do the autopsy.”

Mycroft rubbed at a headache forming between his eyes, on the bridge of his nose. “They did it correctly, Sherlock.”

“Do you know what anaphylactic shock is?” Sherlock demanded.

“Of course I know,” Mycroft snapped at him.

“What was she allergic to? She wasn’t allergic to anything!”

“The autopsy says it was nuts.”

“Nuts?” Sherlock repeated, in practically a shriek. “Nuts? We have to exhume her body and have this re-done.”

Mycroft gave up and leaned his head heavily in his hand. “We’re not…She developed an allergy to nuts, Sherlock, and died of anaphylactic shock. That’s what happened.”

“But that…The odds of that are…” Sherlock trailed off into uncertain nothingness.

“Improbable,” said Mycroft, wearily. “Not impossible.”

“So all it was was she…ate nuts.” Sherlock sounded as if this couldn’t possibly be true, and Mycroft understood the feeling, which was why he’d read it twice. He wasn’t sure what he had expected to be the reason why an outwardly healthy woman had abruptly dropped dead, but he had not expected this. “She had some nuts,” continued Sherlock, slowly, “on a day when no one was home. That was…That was all it was.”

Mycroft knew Sherlock was going back over everything he had ever observed about their mother, running through the halls of his mind palace in a frantic cataloguing, trying to make this make sense. “There was no way you could have known she’d developed an allergy to nuts, Sherlock.”

Sherlock was silent.

“Sherlock?”

“Did you want to talk to Mrs. Hudson again?” Sherlock asked him, dully.

“Sherlock,” he said, but it was Mrs. Hudson who answered him.

“Mycroft? Is everything all right? What did you say to him?”

“Where is he?”

“He’s going back upstairs at the moment, but he’s white as a sheet.”

Mycroft sighed. “Our mother died of an allergic reaction to nuts.”

Mrs. Hudson tsked sympathetically. “You poor dears. You’re just finding this out now?”

“I just got the autopsy report.” Mycroft hesitated. “Mrs. Hudson, Sherlock found my mother, the day she died. Possibly you should know that.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Hudson, but the single syllable was crammed with meaning. She paused for a moment, and Mycroft let her absorb what this might mean for however Sherlock might behave in the near future. “Maybe you should send him the autopsy report,” she suggested, eventually. “It might cheer him up. You know, the science of it. He likes that.”

Mycroft tried to imagine anyone else understanding that Sherlock might be cheered by the receipt of his mother’s autopsy report. He wondered, not for the first time, what they would have done had they not stumbled upon the gem that was Mrs. Hudson. “Yes,” Mycroft agreed. “Thank you. I’ll do that, Mrs. Hudson.”

***

Sherlock Holmes had found his mother dead on what was known in the household as the Off Day, the day when Mother gave all the household staff a day off. She had always said it was easier to remember one day without staff than to keep track of a rotating schedule of days off. So Sherlock had not expected to be met at the door when the driver had dropped him off after school. He’d let himself in the way he always let himself in and then he had stopped in the front hall immediately. Because he had known. And despite the fact that he spent much time afterward trying to determine exactly what had caused him to know that his mother was dead as soon as he walked through the front door, he had never been able to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. He had merely known, somehow, that the next step he was going to take was going to change his life irrevocably.

The things he remembered about the discovery of his mother’s body were carefully written in a notebook, in amongst his other scientific data, one more page to shuffle through.

Supine position
Head approx. 7 m. from the front door
Left arm bent, left hand resting against neck
Right arm fully extended, right hand clenched, in direction of telephone on coffee table
Slightly swollen eyes
Bruise on right temple
Skin blue – cold to the touch – slight rigor mortis – dead three hours?
Items on floor:
• Scattered chess pieces – white rook, 2 white pawns, 3 black pawns, black knight, black bishop
• Dessert plate
• Half-eaten piece of carrot cake

Sherlock sat on his bed and read through this page of notes for the seventeenth time in three days. He looked, as he normally did, at half-eaten piece of carrot cake, and wondered how he could have missed the obviousness of that clue. He had thought perhaps she had choked, her death had been consistent with choking, and she had in a manner, just for a very different reason. And he had been roughly three hours too late to be of any assistance.

He had known that immediately, upon discovering her. So he hadn’t phoned emergency services. What good would that have done? He’d phoned Mycroft. And then, once he had got Mycroft to understand that he was serious about what he was saying, he had carefully replaced all of the chess pieces where they had been on the board that morning and then had gone upstairs and taken down these careful notes.

He didn’t know what good they had done him. He had never anticipated the cause of death Mycroft had said. He was an idiot for not having seen it.

Mrs. Hudson knocked on the door. Well, someone knocked on the door, but it had to be Mrs. Hudson, she was the only person who ever did. The rest of the household staff avoided him as much as possible.

Sherlock closed his notebook and dropped it negligently to the floor on the far side of his bed, then called, “What?”

Mrs. Hudson entered, flourishing an envelope. “Your brother sent you the autopsy report, Sherlock. Thought you might like to have a look at it.” She gave him a bright smile.

Sherlock frowned at the envelope. He both did and didn’t want to have a look at it. What he wanted was a new puzzle entirely. Something else. Something that wasn’t his fault.

He took the envelope, dropped it on the other side of the bed with his notebook, and looked at Mrs. Hudson. “Your husband isn’t dead.”

Mrs. Hudson looked slightly alarmed. “What?”

“You lied about that that day. Somehow. But it isn’t a simple lie. There’s something strange about the whole situation that I haven’t figured out yet. Tell me what it is.”

Mrs. Hudson hesitated, but then she sat at the foot of his bed and looked at him. Mrs. Hudson, he had learned, seldom denied a direct request from him. “He’s…almost dead. Not dead yet.”

Sherlock studied her. “Sick?” he ventured, but that didn’t seem right, didn’t seem to fit what he knew.

She shook her head. “He’s—”

“Wait,” said Sherlock, eyes narrowed, thinking. “Don’t tell me. Let me think. Florida. He’s in Florida. He didn’t come back with you. Florida, and almost dead, but not sick, but expecting death—Is he on death row? Is your husband a murderer?” Sherlock knew he wasn’t supposed to feel gleeful about that. He normally didn’t care about the things he was and wasn’t supposed to take joy in, but he did care when it came to Mrs. Hudson. He didn’t want to hurt her feelings. “Sorry,” he corrected himself, quickly. “I’m sorry. Is your husband a murderer?” He made himself ask it very soberly, trying to mimic Mycroft’s tone of sympathetic concern in situations like these.

Mrs. Hudson laughed at him. “You really, really shouldn’t get excited about things like this, Sherlock. People will think terrible things about you.”

“Who cares what people think?”

“I care.”

“Which is why you don’t tell anyone your husband’s on death row.”

“That isn’t the sort of thing you advertise, Sherlock.”

Sherlock dismissed that. What he was really thinking was that this was marvellous. It was a whole magnificent puzzle, just for him. “Has he been wrongly accused?” he asked, excitedly, sitting up straighter on his bed. “Do you want me to prove he’s innocent and save his life for you?”

Mrs. Hudson looked at him. She looked much more serious than Sherlock had ever seen her look before. He wondered what he’d said that was wrong.

“I could, you know,” he insisted, thinking maybe she doubted his abilities on that front.

“Oh, I don’t doubt that you could,” she said, slowly. “But he’s a terrible man, Sherlock. A…he’s a terrible man.”

“He’s guilty,” Sherlock realized.

“Of the crime he was tried for. Of more than that. He’s…terrible.”

Sherlock glanced at Mrs. Hudson’s hands, wrung in a tight knot on her lap, and looked back at her, and frowned a little bit. “You’re scared.”

“Maybe a little bit,” she said, with a faint tremor of a smile.

“Of what? Him? He’s on death row.”

“But what if… There are so many appeals, Sherlock. So many technicalities. The American legal system…”

This, thought Sherlock, was inexcusable. Mrs. Hudson shouldn’t be scared. Ever. Of anything. Not while he was around. “I won’t let him,” decided Sherlock.

“Let him what?”

“Go free. Get out. Take advantage of technicalities. I’ll make sure he stays where he is and is executed and never hurts you ever again.” He gave into impulse and settled his hands over Mrs. Hudson’s nervous ones, because he’d seen people do that before and he supposed it was thought to be comforting. And it kind of was. He even squeezed them. “You don’t need to be frightened,” he vowed. “I’ll keep you safe.”

Mrs. Hudson looked as if she didn’t know what to say. Sherlock wondered if she were about to start crying. “You don’t… It isn’t your job, to keep me safe.”

“Holmeses are good at keeping people safe, you know.” He thought of his mother briefly, and amended, “Usually. We make much better allies than enemies.” He knew that at least this last part was true, because Mother and Mycroft both said it frequently.

“You are much sweeter than you ever let anyone see,” Mrs. Hudson remarked, and squeezed his hands in return.

Which meant, Sherlock thought, that she’d agreed. He sat back against his headboard contentedly and said, “I’m going to need to see all of the papers you have pertaining to your husband’s case.”

Chapter Text

Part II

Chapter Five

September 1992

John Watson had wanted Eton to be the sort of place where he could just…blend in. Fly under the radar a bit. Not be noticed. He hadn’t thought it would be, but he had wanted it to be that way. He had told himself that when he had been packing up to go, trying to ignore the views of his mother, who thought he was reaching far beyond his station and should know his place. A Watson at Eton? she had said to him. They’ll know you’re an imposter immediately. He wasn’t an imposter, of course. He had gained entrance fair and square, but the curious looks he kept getting as he wandered, looking for his house, definitely made him feel like an imposter. And like he was doing a poor job of blending in.

“You look lost,” another student finally said to him. “Do you need some help finding a house?”

John wished he hadn’t looked so obviously lost. He wished he’d looked merely like he’d been out for a stroll. Enjoying himself. With his luggage dragging along behind him. Oh, bloody hell, he obviously looked lost.

“I…yes,” he said, deciding it was stupid to deny it. “I’m looking for Holland House.”

“Oh, that’s easy. It’s just there.” The student pointed at a building nestled just beyond the building they were standing in front of, and John felt like an idiot for not having realized that.

“Cheers,” he said to the student, trying a self-assured smile of I don’t feel like an idiot or anything like that.

“Don’t mention it. I’m Mike Stamford.” He stuck a hand out.

John was slightly relieved. This, he thought, was almost like making a friend. He took the offered hand and shook it. “John Watson.”

“What year are you?” Mike asked it curiously.

“Last year,” John answered.

Mike tilted his head, looking more curious, but only said, “So am I, so I suppose I’ll see you around.” He headed off, clearly with an engagement to go somewhere, meet people he already knew, settle into his last year in a familiar place.

John suddenly wondered if he’d gone absolutely mad for insisting upon this.

He dragged his luggage over to the building Mike had indicated, which was a grand, imposing two-story building with ivy creeping distinguishedly over its walls, and John looked at the rows of symmetrical windows and thought of the council estate flat he’d come from in comparison. He still felt absolutely mad for doing this, but he stared at this new home of his and thought to himself, You’re at Eton. And he didn’t feel any more confident, but he felt more determined not to let anyone know that about him.

The door to the bedroom he’d been told was his was standing open, and there was someone in it. In fact, there was more than someone in it. There were a lot of somethings in it, too. The room was a towering mess of…John didn’t know what. It was almost too much to catalogue. Unsteady piles of books and newspapers and magazines. Petri dishes and flasks littered over every flat surface. What looked very much like a human skull.

“Did you want something?” demanded the someone in the room, without looking up, and John tore his gaze off of the human skull and looked back to the person in the room. A classmate, John assumed, leaning over a microscope set up on the desk by the window, making adjustments to its focus.

“I… There must be some mistake. Sorry,” said John, feeling like an idiot for the hundredth time that day.

“No mistake.” He scribbled something on a piece of paper. “This is your room.”

John had just been confirming that for himself. Unless there was some mix-up with the school administration, this was definitely the room number he’d written down. He looked back at the room’s occupant, who was now sitting back in the desk chair and regarding him with frank interest. He was dressed in most of the Eton uniform, only tie-less, which made John feel distinctly underdressed. Then again, everything about him made John feel distinctly underdressed, as if maybe John’s entire person needed to be rethought, ironed out. There was something dramatic and otherworldly about this person in his room. He had cheekbones so dramatically high that they should have given him an odd, alien look but instead managed to merely be arrestingly intriguing. His mouth was such a dramatic bow shape that it seemed as if it couldn’t possibly be real, and yet it managed not to be foolish looking but paradoxically aristocratic. His eyes were some pale color John couldn’t pin down from the distance he was at, but whatever they were, they were sharp, and his hair was a tumble of dark, unruly curls. Everything about him seemed overdramatic and unnecessary and memorable and commanding. John felt, in comparison, absolutely laughable. He wondered if these were the sorts of creatures that existed at Eton, and if he was going to be tossed out for not being Byronesque enough.

The unknown intruder in his bedroom steepled together ridiculously long, elegant fingers and tapped them briefly against his unlikely mouth and then said, abruptly, “Some sort of delicious blackmail. I can’t wait to find out what it is.”

John blinked, his hand tightening slightly around his luggage. “Sorry?”

“You’re new here. In your last year. New in your last year? That never happens. And from a council estate and a state school, no less. Even if you were the cleverest human being to ever have been born there would need to be something else at work for you to be here.”

John, frowning, started to tell him that this was all none of his business.

“Don’t tell me,” the boy cut him off. “I want to figure it out for myself.”

John grew more irritated. “I wasn’t going to tell you anything.”

“Ah, so there’s something to tell,” concluded the boy, triumphantly.

John inhaled in frustration. “It isn’t any of your business. How did you know all that stuff, anyway?”

The boy made a dismissive noise. “Hardly a difficult deduction, any of that. I’m Sherlock Holmes.”

He had a posh, ridiculous name, John thought, annoyed, to go with his posh, ridiculous looks and his posh, ridiculous voice. John dragged his luggage through the detritus on the floor.

“Careful,” said Sherlock Holmes, sharply, as he tipped over a taxidermied squirrel.

“What are you doing in my room?” John demanded, finally making it all the way to the bed, which was covered with papers on which were scribbled equations for something.

“It’s my laboratory,” answered Sherlock Holmes.

John looked at him in disbelief.

“Well, it’s not like you were using it,” Sherlock pointed out, with a superior sniff. “And I needed the space.”

“Don’t you have a bedroom?”

“Of course. I’m just next door.”

“Brilliant,” said John. “Then we’ll just move all this stuff next door.”

“We can’t possibly.”

“I don’t see any reason why not.”

“My room can’t look like this. I’d get in trouble, and I get in rather too much trouble here already. You will never get in trouble for this. You have some sort of delicious blackmail that we can use to our advantage.”

“We?” echoed John. “Our?”

Sherlock Holmes nodded once. “Of course. Now that we share this room.”

“No,” said John. “We don’t share this room. This is my room.”

“It’s your bedroom and my laboratory. Hence, we share the room.”

“It isn’t your laboratory,” John insisted. “It’s my bedroom. Full stop.”

“It’s both.”

“How is it both?”

“It has laboratory equipment, and it has a bed.”

“A bed that is covered in… Is that chewing gum?”

Sherlock stood up for the first time. He was taller than John, which irritated John a bit more, more of the posh, elegant lines that Sherlock Holmes seemed to be entirely composed of. He gracefully stepped past John and began gathering up all the stuff on the bed. “It’s for an experiment. I’ll, you know, tidy a bit. Of course.”

Sherlock actually sounded a bit embarrassed, and John felt like this was a small victory. “Yes,” he agreed, putting his luggage on the bed. “Tidy it. And nothing on the bed, the bed is mine.”

Sherlock nodded, dropping the stuff that had been on the bed into one of the other piles in the room, and John suddenly realized that he’d apparently agreed to allow the rest of the room that wasn’t his bed to be Sherlock’s laboratory. How had that happened?

John sighed and watched as Sherlock ineffectively did something John supposed Sherlock considered to be “tidying up,” which in reality appeared to be moving things from one pile to another.

“What sort of experiment do you need a rubber chicken for?” John asked.

“Oh, no,” Sherlock answered, with a fleeting smile. “That was just a prank.” He straightened and stood back and looked satisfied, as if this were quite tidied up enough.

John disagreed and was about to say so when Sherlock spoke again.

“You should come with me.”

“Come with you where?” asked John, because he wasn’t sure what mad thing this bloke might suggest.

“They’ve scheduled you to go on the tour of Eton but that would be with the new boys.”

“I am new.”

“No, no, I mean the junior boys, the thirteen-year-olds. You don’t want to take your first tour of Eton with the housemaster and the new boys, you’ll learn nothing.”

John actually thought Sherlock had a good point there.

“So I’ll give you a tour of Eton and, anyway, I want your advice on something.”

“My advice?” asked John quizzically.

“Yes, as a scientist.” Sherlock was heading out of the room as he said this.

John said, “Hang on. What makes you think I know anything about science?”

Sherlock stuck his head back into the room and grinned at him. “You’re letting me keep a laboratory in your bedroom. Now hurry up.” He looked as if he were close to dancing with glee. “This could be dangerous.”

***

John couldn’t make up his mind whether Sherlock’s tour of Eton was extremely helpful or astonishingly useless. It mainly consisted of Sherlock walking very fast and John keeping up while Sherlock pointed to distant buildings and said things like, “That’s the building with all the boring divs about things that don’t matter,” and “Avoid that building. I’m fairly sure everyone in it is dying slowly of mercury poisoning, but no one will listen to me.”

John made a mental note of where the mercury building was and followed Sherlock across a field, toward a clump of trees silhouetted by the long September twilight. “Are you my year?” he asked, because this would be kind of nice if he could just follow Sherlock around for a bit until he got his own bearings.

“No, sixth,” Sherlock answered, never pausing in his stride. “But we may have some divs together. I take the divs of the year ahead of me.”

“Why do you do that?” asked John.

“Because they think it challenges me. Because they are idiots.” His voice dripped with disdain.

“Oh,” John realized, drawing this conclusion: “Because you’re much cleverer than everyone else here. Of course.”

Sherlock stopped walking and drew up to his full height and frowned at him. “I shouldn’t even be in school,” he proclaimed.

John couldn’t help being amused. “Why are you then?”

Sherlock’s frown turned darker, and he swept away, back on his path to the trees.

John smiled and followed. “Where are we going?” he asked.

“To the river, where it is secluded and quiet and we won’t be disturbed.”

“What are we doing at the river?”

Sherlock stopped walking again and peered down at him. “Are you frightened?”

The question surprised John. He looked around the empty field warily. “Should I be?”

“You’ve just met me. I’ve just told you that I’m taking you someplace secluded. And you should know that I know innumerable ways to kill a person. I’ve been revising intensely.”

John cocked an eyebrow at him. “No offense, mate, but I grew up on a council estate, and you’re the poshest thing I’ve ever seen, so I think probably I could take you.”

Sherlock narrowed his eyes a bit, but he didn’t seem displeased, more… Actually, John had no idea how to read the expression on his face. After a moment, Sherlock started walking again and John followed again.

“What makes you think I don’t know how to carry myself in a scuffle?” Sherlock asked, as they walked.

“Do you?” asked John, instead of answering.

“One does learn survival skills, John,” replied Sherlock. “Even at Eton.” They were at the river now, and Sherlock commenced to enthusiastically scrambling about in the mud at the bank for something.

John winced as Sherlock knelt to get a better angle, thinking of the state of the expensive Eton trousers Sherlock was wearing. Everything about the school cost an obscene amount of money, but clearly Sherlock had never thought about anything like that in his life. He was currently crawling through muck in a uniform the cost of which John couldn’t even have contemplated mere months earlier.

Sherlock snagged his shirt on a protruding branch, muttered something that sounded like “Bugger,” and continued crawling around the trunk of one of the trees, perilously close to tumbling off the bank.

“Be careful, would you?” said John, who didn’t fancy having to go into the river to save Sherlock and was hoping Sherlock knew how to swim.

“I’m fine,” Sherlock assured him, and then leaned far over the bank to grab something that he pulled up with a look of triumph in his eyes. “Aha!”

It was a fairly sizeable plank of wood, the length of Sherlock’s arm, and he dragged it over to where John was still standing.

John ignored the plank, looking at the state of Sherlock’s uniform. “My God, you’re a mess.”

Sherlock glanced down at it negligently. “All in a day’s work, John. Look!”

“What work?” said John, and turned his attention to the plank. The light was beginning to dwindle, and John couldn’t see what he was supposed to be concerned about. “What is this?”

“It’s mold, John.” Sherlock beamed with pleasure, pointing at three distinct growths of mold on the plank.

“Yes. Well. Dark, wet, warm: perfect conditions for the growth of mold.”

“Except that I grew this mold.”

“How did you grow it? The plank grew it, and the mold itself. You didn’t grow it.”

Sherlock looked annoyed. “I started it on its way. Just a little nudge. Placed the mold on the plank and took it here to see if it would grow.”

“When did you do this?” John asked, thinking that the Michaelmas term had just started. It suddenly occurred to him. “Do you not go home between terms?”

“Of course I go home between terms. I planted this last half.”

“You left an experiment before you went home for the summer?”

“Of course.”

“How did you get my room such a mess if you’ve just got back yourself?” John asked.

“What are you talking about? I was keeping the room neat for you!”

Sherlock looked as if he meant that sincerely, so John dropped it and looked back to the mold. “Excellent. Well done, you. You’ve grown mold.”

“It’s aspergillus,” said Sherlock, proudly.

“You’ve grown poisonous mold,” John amended, and took a step away from the plank.

“I knew you would know what that was.” Sherlock looked delighted. “Don’t worry, this won’t kill you. But I was curious about how easy it would be to grow. If, for instance, one wanted to kill someone, could one theoretically grow aspergillus mold and use that as the murder weapon? Might be a neat way to do it, wouldn’t you think?”

John considered. “Yes, actually. Not foolproof. I mean, not as straightforward as, say, arsenic.”

“But less traceable,” Sherlock pointed out. “There are pros and cons to all murder weapons.”

“You’d have to have an awful lot of it to kill an adult. Adults can withstand a large amount of aflatoxin. And even then there’d be no guarantee…” John trailed off, abruptly realizing exactly what he was discussing, and looked from the mold to Sherlock. “Is there someone you want to kill?” he asked, quizzically, because this all seemed very strange.

Sherlock looked startled by the question. “No. Well, I mean, of course, there are people who annoy me, but no, I am not actively trying to kill anyone.”

“Then…” John gestured to the aspergillus mold.

Sherlock glanced at it. “What?”

“Why are you growing poisonous mold?”

Sherlock looked at John as if he were the stupidest person Sherlock had ever encountered. “I already told you. It’s an experiment. Come along.” Sherlock tucked the plank under his arm and headed back in the direction they’d come.

John made a face. “Now you’ve got aspergillus mold all over your shirt.”

“You want to be a doctor,” said Sherlock.

John blinked in surprise and hurried to catch up to him. “How did you know that?”

“Simple enough deduction. You know a great deal about what a mold will do to the human immune system. Goes beyond mild interest in human health. Plus, you have caretaker tendencies. You’ve agreed to let me keep a laboratory in your bedroom because you don’t want me to get in trouble, and yet you’ve just met me, and you keep fretting about my clothing and whether or not I’m going to fall into the river. Yes. Definite caretaker tendencies. Definitely a doctor. And that makes sense. That’s why you’re here, suddenly, now, in your last year of school. Why start a new school in your last year? Because you want to be a doctor, and Eton will get you into a better university and from there a better medical college. But you’ve always wanted to be a doctor, no one learns about the effect of mold on a human immune system as part of a summer’s lark. And yet you haven’t started Eton until now. You’re clever, but you wouldn’t even have tried for Eton before, so something changed this summer. Or early this year. Money, quite a great deal of it. You are not fastidious—that much is obvious from what you’re wearing—so at least half of the worry over the state of my clothing is over your knowledge of how expensive the uniform here is. You’ve enough money to be here, not on a scholarship, but you’re not used to that amount of money. But a sudden influx of money wouldn’t be enough on its own to get a council estate boy into Eton in his last year, no, that money has an Eton connection I just haven’t figured out yet, but I’ll get there.”

“That was…brilliant,” John said.

Sherlock stopped walking abruptly and stared down at him. “Really?”

John tilted his head at that reaction. Surely Sherlock was aware that had been brilliant, that was surely why he’d done it in the first place, to show off. “Yes, really.”

“That’s not what people normally say.”

“What do people normally say?”

“Piss off.”

This startled laughter out of John, and Sherlock gave him a quick, tentative smile that was half-pleased and half-surprised, and then turned and started walking again.

John, following him, thought that it was no wonder Sherlock had had to learn survival skills at Eton, but decided not to bring that up. He said, instead, “What time is it?” wondering if they’d missed supper.

“Yes, sorry about that,” said Sherlock, clearly answering the question John hadn’t voiced. “This is why it would be more convenient if I were permitted to bring Mrs. Hudson here with me. She would fetch us food.”

“Who’s Mrs. Hudson?” asked John. They had reached Holland House and were now dodging a number of students in the hallways, all of whom gave Sherlock strange looks and a wide berth.

“Mrs. Hudson is my…difficult to explain,” Sherlock said.

Some sort of domestic help, John concluded. Sherlock had domestic help. Not that that was surprising. Everyone at this place probably did.

Sherlock stopped in front of John’s door and confidently opened it with a key.

John’s eyes widened. “Wait. You have a key to my room?”

“Of course I do. How else would I get in and out?” Sherlock was already in the room, messily clearing space on the desk and setting his plank of poisonous mold down. He paused and looked back at John. “Does that bother you?”

“I…” said John, because Sherlock did have a point about getting to the laboratory part of John’s bedroom. John still didn’t understand how he’d been talked into having a laboratory part of his bedroom in the first place, but he found himself saying, “No going in and out in the middle of the night.”

Sherlock considered. “Much.”

“What?”

“No going in and out in the middle of the night much.”

“Sherlock, I’ll be trying to sleep.”

“But one never knows when scientific inspiration might strike, John.”

“No going in and out in the middle of the night, Sherlock.”

Sherlock shrugged a bit and made a noncommittal noise and turned back to his plank, and John thought he could already tell that Sherlock had just decided that he could go in and out in the middle of the night as much as he wished.

“Also,” said John, moving into the room toward the luggage on his bed and deciding he ought to unpack, “I’m not sleeping with poisonous mold in my room. You can keep that in your bedroom, ta very much.”

Sherlock waved his hand about, concentrating on peering at some of the mold through his microscope.

John walked over to the dresser and opened the drawer and sighed. “Sherlock.”

“Oh. Yes. I needed space for my socks.”

“You don’t have enough space for your socks in your own dresser?” John asked.

“No,” said Sherlock, absently, as if that answered the question fully.

John sighed again and started to push the socks aside to make room for his own.

“Careful,” said Sherlock. “They’re in an index. If you leave your socks for me, I’ll work them into the index for you.”

“I don’t need my socks to be in an index.”

“Sock indices are important, John.”

“No, they’re not. And I’m not sharing socks with you.”

“Be that way,” said Sherlock, and John looked at him and told himself it was thoroughly irrational to feel like he was the selfish one for not wanting to share his socks.

“You must be Sherlock Holmes,” said a voice behind John, and John turned, and Sherlock looked up from his microscope.

A man in a suit was leaning against John’s doorjamb, arms crossed, looking at Sherlock with a wry expression on his face. He wasn’t terribly old, John thought, late twenties, maybe thirty, with brown hair and brown eyes and a faintly indulgent air to him.

“Who are you?” Sherlock demanded.

“Your new tutor,” the man responded, sounding amused.

“What? But what happened to Ackerley?”

“This is awkward,” said the man, “but apparently the headmaster failed to consult you before making staffing decisions.” The man’s face was serious with mock concern.

Sherlock did not look the least bit amused.

The man finally turned to John, his face losing the drollness, shifting into pleasant sincerity. “You must be John Watson. Welcome to Eton. I’m Mr. Lestrade, and I’m afraid I’m not your tutor, but I am your biology master.”

He extended a hand, and John shook it carefully, wanting to make a good impression, which he wasn’t sure he did considering his room presently contained poisonous mold and a filthy Sherlock Holmes.

“Now,” said Lestrade. “You’ve both missed supper. The house master wasn’t pleased, but I assured him you must both have an excellent reason for being absent.”

“Sherlock was giving me a tour,” John said, truthfully. “He didn’t want me to be humiliated by having to go with the junior boys.”

“How kind of him,” said Lestrade, taking in the state of Sherlock’s clothing. “And this tour was archeological in nature, was it?”

Sherlock scowled.

Lestrade, to John’s surprise, chuckled. “Go and eat,” he said. “And be on time for your schools tomorrow so that I don’t already get a reputation for being too lenient.”

“I am never on time for anything,” Sherlock announced, superiorly.

“So I’ve heard,” remarked Lestrade. “I am very much looking forward to our many detentions together.” Lestrade winked before he pushed himself off of the jamb and walked away.

Sherlock let out an angry breath. “Well, he’s insufferable and unacceptable.”

“He seemed nice,” John said, mildly. “I’d let you sit here and sulk about him, except that your tour of Eton left out the important detail of where I can find the food he was talking about.”

“Fine,” Sherlock relented. “We’ll go eat.” Sherlock stood.

“But first you move the poisonous mold to your room,” said John.

Sherlock huffed with impatience. But he did carry the plank to his bedroom.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six

“I still think this is a terrible idea,” the house master told Greg Lestrade, and Greg tapped his finger on the edge of his teacup and considered a response.

He decided on, “I don’t.”

“I’m aware you don’t, but you don’t know Sherlock Holmes. I think we should move Watson immediately, before Holmes can corrupt him any more than he already has.”

“I don’t think he’s corrupting him,” said Greg. He thought the house master might be given to hyperbole. He thought everyone at Eton might be given to hyperbole, really.

“He made him miss supper last night.”

“That’s hardly corruption. And Sherlock was giving him a tour of the grounds.” Greg left out the part where Sherlock had looked as if he’d decided to roll around in a pigsty during this tour of the grounds. “Really, they looked to me as if they were getting along.”

“Which is even more dangerous,” huffed the house master. “You don’t understand what a dangerous influence Holmes can be on this boy.”

“John doesn’t seem like a fragile kid to me. In fact, he took a legal settlement from a messy car accident that killed his alcoholic father and found a way to get himself into Eton. I think he seems like kind of the opposite of fragile.”

“You still think he is going to be a good influence on Holmes.” The house master said this as if Greg had announced that he thought the teapot on the table had begun singing to them.

“I think stranger things have happened,” Greg insisted. “And I think it’s worth a try.”

There was a tap on the door, and one of the dames poked her head in. “Sorry to interrupt, but we’ve got a rip already.”

“A rip?” said Greg, in surprise. “On the first day of term? Why wouldn’t they just give an info?”

The dame who had handed the rip over—and Greg tried to remember her name but there were 150 instructors at this place, not counting the 1,500 students, and his head was overflowing with names at the moment—gave him a smile that made Greg feel decidedly unhappy.

Which the house master confirmed. “A rip and not an info because it’s Holmes and he carries a reputation.” The house master handed the piece of paper over to him, looking smug and knowing.

“What can he possibly have already done?” asked Greg, reading what was written on the piece of paper. Apparently what Sherlock had done was to tell his chemistry master that he was not going to attend the school this term because he already knew far more about chemistry than the chemistry master did. “Excellent,” sighed Greg, wishing Sherlock could have made his job a little bit easier. “I’ll handle it,” he told the house master.

“It would be traditional for me to handle it,” the house master pointed out.

“It would be traditional to not give a student a rip on the first day of term,” Greg responded.

“It seems as if he deserved it, though,” remarked the house master.

“I’ll speak to him,” said Greg. “At least give me a week before you decide he’s a lost cause.”

“I decided he was a lost cause three years ago,” snorted the house master. “I’ve always been in favor of his rustication. His brother pours quite a lot of money into the school to keep that threat at bay. But you may have a week with Sherlock Holmes, and long before that week is up you will be back here to listen to my I-told-you-so.”

“Right,” said Greg, without meaning it at all, and stood and looked at the dame. “Do you know where he is? Is he still in chemistry?”

“Oh, no.” She looked almost gleeful about this. “The chemistry master told him that he did not want him sullying the classroom. He should have been sent to his room.”

“How do you know all this?”

“School gossip. Got to keep up, Greg.” She grinned at him cheekily and sent him a wink, as if this were all hilarious.

“Will he actually go to his room?” Greg asked, following the dame out of the house master’s office.

She shrugged. “Maybe.”

Which wasn’t especially helpful, and Greg had read through Sherlock’s file, but Sherlock’s file had not included things like “favorite hiding places.” “Where would he be if he’s not in his room?”

“God knows. Anywhere he’s not supposed to be,” said the dame. “Good luck.” She walked away from him, in the opposite direction of Sherlock’s room, and Greg sighed and tucked the rip into his suit pocket and went to Sherlock’s room.

The door was closed, and Greg knocked and didn’t receive an answer. He thought for a second, then sidestepped to John Watson’s door and knocked on it sharply. There was a long pregnant moment, and then Sherlock opened the door a crack and said, immediately, “Damn.”

“Hello,” Greg said to him.

Sherlock looked displeased. “I thought there was a slight chance you might be John, having forgotten his key.”

“Sorry,” said Greg. “No. Are you supposed to be in John’s room without him?”

“John doesn’t mind,” insisted Sherlock.

Greg made a skeptical noise but decided that was the least of his problems. “Come into your room. I’m not having this conversation in someone else’s bedroom.”

“We don’t have to have a conversation,” said Sherlock.

“About the rip? Of course we do. It’s college rules.”

“You can just say we had a conversation about it and then…go.” Sherlock looked hopeful about this.

Greg tipped his head at him. “Is that what your former tutor used to do?”

“No, but that would have been nice.”

“Get out here and into your own room,” said Greg, firmly, and Sherlock sighed but obeyed. As slowly as possible. Greg rolled his eyes, especially when Sherlock flopped onto his bed. Sherlock should be enrolled in drama, thought Greg. Greg leaned against the wall opposite Sherlock’s bed and crossed his arms and said, “Why are you even taking chemistry if it doesn’t interest you?”

“Because I had to fill my schedule. They wouldn’t let me take nothing, they said it wasn’t allowed.”

“You could have taken a science you don’t know as much about,” Greg pointed out. “Astronomy, maybe.”

“Why do you appear to have memorized my file?” Sherlock asked, looking at him suspiciously.

“Because you are by far the most problematic student in this entire college.”

Sherlock looked pleased at this. “Am I? Excellent.”

Greg sighed and hoped that Sherlock wouldn’t think that Greg thought he was at all amusing, even though Greg thought he was actually a little bit amusing. Greg thought the problem with Sherlock was obvious, and he didn’t understand how no one before him had seen it immediately: Sherlock was bored. He was more than bored. He was beyond bored. All indications were that he was cleverer than could be quite grasped, and there was no school nearly challenging enough for him on the schedule. “I’m going to talk to your chemistry master,” he said.

Sherlock made a face. “Please don’t. She’s a horrible cow.”

“You’re no prince either,” Greg replied, and Sherlock made an offended squeak. “Luckily for you, though, I’m quite charming.”

Sherlock looked dubious. “Oh, are you? And why is that lucky for me?”

“Because I’m going to persuade the chemistry master to give you credit for the school based on my assessment of your progress in private chemistry lessons with me.”

Sherlock gave him a truly epic eye roll. “That is worse,” he proclaimed.

“You should hear me out.”

“Why?” said Sherlock, sullenly.

“Taman Shud,” Greg told him. “Do you know what that is?”

Sherlock eyed him. “Another language, clearly.”

“What about The Rubaiyat? Do you know what that is?”

“Is this some sort of quiz on literature?” Sherlock complained. “Because—”

“On December 1, 1948, an unidentified man was found dead on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia. In his pocket was a tiny piece of paper, two words cut from a copy of The Rubaiyat, which is a collection of Persian poems.”

“Taman Shud,” said Sherlock. “Those two words.”

Sherlock had turned fully toward him on the bed, his unusual eyes close on him, sharp with thought. Greg had his interest, which was more than he had hoped to have, really. “Yes. Those two words.”

“What do they mean?”

“You should find out. And also find out who the man was.”

Sherlock hesitated, looking torn between expressing his interest in the puzzle and giving Greg any sort of satisfaction at all. Greg saw him decide to go with indifference. “Fine,” he said, negligently, and waved his hand about. “When shall I get back to you about it?”

“Your timetable,” Greg told him, and straightened from the wall. “I’ll see you in biology. And be nice to John. I’m fairly sure he could kick your arse if you’re not.”

***

John’s first day at Eton was one of the stranger days of his life. And lately he’d had some pretty strange days. But the surrealism of being at Eton was unsurpassed. Truthfully, the news that his father had died had not been surreal. John had realized the moment it was said to him that he’d been unconsciously waiting for just that thing to happen. The rest of it had been a much different story. The news that the car accident hadn’t been his father’s fault had been more surprising than the news of the death itself. The outcome that there would be a sizeable legal settlement had been more surprising still. The fact that the guilt-stricken driver of the vehicle in question had had enough contacts at Eton to pull strings to get John to sit for an entrance exam for his final year, which Eton never did, had been, frankly, astonishing. But none of it had seemed entirely real until John finished his first day at Eton and realized that there were many more to come.

He met with his tutor, who seemed to be nice enough but was dreadfully concerned over John having switched in his last year. “That never happens; how are we supposed to predict your A level results; this is just appalling; but ah, well, we’ll figure it out.” John had a strict schedule by which he was supposed to be settled on which courses he wished to apply to and have drafted his personal statement. It was all a bit overwhelming, frankly.

He sat at supper with the rest of his year and looked around him, at the casual sumptuousness that everyone else seemed to be taking for granted, and promised himself never to find anything about this life routine.

His classmates seemed nice enough. He had almost nothing in common with any of them, but that was to be expected. Actually, he admitted that he rather missed Sherlock. Sherlock was completely mad, of course, but Sherlock didn’t ask many questions. He seemed to already know everything about John, and seemed confident of his ability to eventually learn everything he didn’t already know, and there was a relief to not having to dodge the questions about his past. Where he was from, what school he’d transferred from, how he’d managed a transfer in his final year, what his parents did. John knew these were all normal questions for people to ask him, but he dreaded answering them, and he would rather have had Sherlock at supper with him, talking to him about ways to kill people. John thought that maybe he should have accepted the therapy his solicitor had suggested together with the settlement money.

Sherlock was not at supper, however. John had not seen Sherlock since he had been unceremoniously thrown out of chemistry div earlier that day. John had half-expected to find him in his room when he’d stopped there before supper, but the room had been deserted, and John had realized then that he’d really been looking forward to Sherlock’s company. John wasn’t used to space, to aloneness. He wondered if that was partly why he hadn’t fought Sherlock harder on the impromptu laboratory. He was vaguely homesick, he thought, walking back to his room from supper. Maybe he should phone Harry.

His room was still empty when he entered, and John pushed away the frisson of disappointment and decided to go and telephone Harry. She had started a new school as well, and she was bubbling over with enthusiasm about it, and she also wanted to hear all about how Eton was. John told her all about the divs but left out Sherlock entirely. He wasn’t sure he could explain Sherlock in a way that wouldn’t make one or both of them sound insane.

When he was done talking to Harry, he hung up the phone and considered his room, the strange, unfamiliar contours of it, the sounds he wasn’t used to all around him, the quiet of the countryside and the faint murmurs of people in other rooms, the creaks of an old building settling. He’d slept poorly the night before, restless with nerves, and he felt exhausted suddenly. Maybe he would sleep better tonight, now that one day was out of the way, now that the bed was a bed he’d slept in once before.

He shut off the light and tucked himself into bed and was just on the verge of falling asleep when his door was flung open and the light was unceremoniously turned back on.

John jumped, his heart leaping with adrenaline, but it was, of course, only Sherlock, sweeping into the room and crouching down immediately to start rooting through one of the piles.

“Sherlock,” John protested.

“I’m looking for something,” Sherlock said, as if that were an answer, and began literally throwing things out of his way.

“And I’m trying to sleep,” John pointed out.

Sherlock turned to him, dropping onto the foot of his bed. He was still fully dressed in his uniform, tie-less and a bit disheveled, and his hair was a mess, and his eyes were very bright. “Lestrade has given me an unsolved murder,” he announced, looking gleeful about this. He even bounced a bit on the bed, shaking the mattress.

John gave up on the idea of sleeping, because Sherlock clearly wasn’t going to leave the room until he was ready to leave. “What does that mean?”

Sherlock looked irritated. “It means a murder where the culprit is still unknown.”

John sighed. “I know what an unsolved murder is. What do you mean Lestrade gave you one?”

“He said, instead of chemistry, that I could work on this puzzle.”

“Yeah, speaking of chemistry, was that little performance you gave this morning really necessary?”

Sherlock waved his hand dismissively. “Chemistry was a waste of my time, John.”

“Are you going to get yourself thrown out of every div? Because it was nice to have a friend in them with me.”

Sherlock gave him the oddest look, as if he’d suddenly started speaking in tongues, and John had a moment of panic.

“That is what you lot call them, isn’t it? ‘Divs’?” He’d thought he’d picked up the jargon, but everything at Eton had a different word; it was dizzying.

“Yes,” said Sherlock, slowly. “They’re divs.” Sherlock cleared his throat suddenly and settled himself more solidly on the foot of the bed. “On December 1, 1948, a man was found dead on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia.”

“This is the case Lestrade gave you?” John guessed.

Sherlock didn’t even bother to confirm it. “He had a number of things in his pockets: a used bus ticket, an unused rail ticket, chewing gum, a comb, cigarettes, matches, and, at the very, very bottom of his pocket, a piece of paper with two words written on it: Taman Shud.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Finished. Ended.”

“Why did he have that in his pocket?”

“No one knows. No one even knows who the man is. Forty-four years and no one has even identified the victim, never mind the murderer. This case is like Christmas.”

“If you say so,” said John, and he couldn’t help being amused by how excited Sherlock clearly was over an unsolved mystery nearly half a century old.

“I’m going to solve it,” announced Sherlock, confidently.

“You’re going to solve a forty-four-year-old Australian murder from your bedroom at Eton College?”

“No,” said Sherlock, and grinned at him, looking irrepressible. “From your bedroom.”

John rolled his eyes. “Get out so I can go to sleep,” he said, but he wasn’t even sure he really meant it. “You’re not supposed to be barging in and out of here at night.”

“Not much,” said Sherlock. “I’m not supposed to be barging in and out of here at night much.”

“That isn’t what we agreed.”

“Yes, it is. We agreed to it this afternoon.”

“I wasn’t here this afternoon.”

“It’s hardly my fault you weren’t paying attention.”

John sighed. Sherlock was impossible. “Seriously. Go away.”

“I’m looking for something,” Sherlock told him, hopping off his bed and going back over to his piles of stuff. “I know I did an experiment on cigarettes and tobacco, I wanted to check something against the evidence from the case. Don’t mind me. Go back to sleep.” Sherlock resumed throwing things around the room in a pell-mell manner.

John wanted to point out that no one could possibly fall asleep with Sherlock making the racket he was making. Except that then John actually did fall asleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven

September had been an unusually quiet month. Not global-politics-wise, of course, no, that was as much of a mess as it ever was, but Sherlock-wise. All was quiet on the Sherlock front, and that made Mycroft nervous beyond belief. He was used to escalating phone calls from distressed college officials. The first short leave of the Michaelmas term was approaching, and usually by this time Mycroft had progressed from tutor to house master to headmaster and was considering the amount of the first check he should write to keep Sherlock in school. His phone, however, was eerily quiet, had not rung once with a single Sherlock-related problem, and that meant they had either lost his phone number or Sherlock was dead, Mycroft concluded.

So he phoned Eton, just to be sure.

Sherlock’s house master sounded amused to hear from him. “Mr. Holmes, I cannot deny that I have so missed our little chats. I assume you have as well?”

“I don’t know what to do without them,” remarked Mycroft, smoothly, which was true as far as it went. “You haven’t rung me once so far this term.”

“That’s because I haven’t had any complaints.”

Mycroft felt dread settle into a cold ball in his stomach. “What’s happened to Sherlock?”

The house master laughed. “Nothing. He seems to be well. Have you not been in touch with his new tutor about him?”

Mycroft’s desk had two neat piles of paper on it. One was related to a flare-up of relations in the Middle East. The other was related to Sherlock. The Sherlock pile was the much bigger pile, and on top of it was a subfile on Gregory Lestrade, Sherlock’s new tutor. Most senior boys at Eton got to choose their own tutors. The headmaster had chosen Lestrade for Sherlock. Mycroft had had no problem with taking Sherlock’s choice away from him, but he had been uncertain about Lestrade, who was certainly qualified but came from rather a different background than the typical Eton master. Mycroft hadn’t bothered to contact Lestrade, assuming he would shortly be hearing from him, the usual litany of complaints about Sherlock. Now he wondered if normal people contacted their charges’ tutors just to check up on their progress, not just waiting for bad news to be delivered. Maybe he had been remiss in not phoning Lestrade before this.

“No,” said Mycroft. “I haven’t. But I’ll phone him.”

***

Greg had a message from Mycroft Holmes. He recognized the name, of course, and he hesitated before ringing him back. Mostly because he had really thought things were going well with Sherlock, but maybe Sherlock had complained about him to his brother?

Greg took a deep breath and rang the number, and a female voice answered, and Greg asked for Mycroft Holmes. The woman said, “Please hold,” in a very official manner, and Greg thought that he had been slightly mad to take this job at Eton and be thrust into this world of people whose secretaries answered their phones for them. Most of the time he liked Eton. The boys were mostly clever and not really bad and usually just needed somebody not to treat them like gold all the time. But every once in a while, like now, Greg felt desperately out of his depth.

“Mr. Lestrade,” said a voice on the other end of the line, silky, smooth, with a more polished posh accent than Sherlock sported. “Thank you for getting back to me so promptly.”

“No problem,” said Greg, and wound the telephone cord around his finger. “Is there something wrong?”

“I was hoping to ask you that question,” said Mycroft Holmes. “You see, normally by this point in the term I am positively inundated by details about the vast number of things wrong with Sherlock. And yet you have not contacted me once.”

“There’s nothing wrong. Sherlock’s doing well.”

There was such a long silence at the other end that Greg actually said, “Hello?” He hadn’t heard a click of disconnection, but it still seemed an improbably long silence.

“I’m here,” Mycroft assured him. “Just thinking. What does my brother look like?”

“What does he look like?” repeated Greg, blankly.

“What color are his eyes?”

“They’re…I don’t know. Blue? Ish? Sort of.”

“That does sound like a fair description of his eyes,” Mycroft allowed, musingly.

“Hang on.” Greg realized the purpose behind Mycroft’s question. “Do you think Sherlock has somehow tricked me into thinking that another student is him?”

“I wouldn’t put it past him. He’s viciously clever.”

“You’re extremely suspicious of him.”

“Not at all. I’m extremely realistic about him.”

Greg was annoyed by this. “Sherlock’s doing well,” he repeated.

“Forgive me, but I must ask you to tell me what magic trick you’ve performed to transform my brother into a model Etonian.”

“You know, he’s just bored here,” Greg pointed out.

“I know. I hear little else from him.”

“So I gave him a puzzle.”

“What sort of puzzle?”

“An unsolved crime. One of the more famous ones.”

“You gave him an unsolved crime? For what?”

“To solve, of course.”

“That makes sense.” Mycroft’s voice sounded as if he were piecing things together. “Sherlock likes mysteries. And you started reading criminology, before you switched to biology. Hmm, and quite a bit of chemistry, too. You’re a good fit for his interests.”

“Are you reading a file on me?” asked Greg, incredulously.

“No, I’m reading the file on you,” Mycroft responded, simply.

Greg considered getting upset about this, and then decided there was really no point. Whoever Mycroft Holmes was—and Sherlock never spoke about his brother, or anything, really, other than the Taman Shud case—he clearly had access to things Greg would rather not know he had access to. Greg, instead, decided to turn the conversation back to Sherlock. “I made arrangements with the other masters to trim Sherlock’s schools to only the subjects he’s truly interested in. He’s still too quick for them, but at least he tolerates them if he thinks they’re not a complete waste of his time. And I’ve received permission from the headmaster to fill up the rest of Sherlock’s time with what we’re calling an independent study.”

“That’s clever,” said Mycroft. He sounded almost grudgingly impressed. “That’s a good approach. Why was I never contacted about any of this?”

“You’d have to ask the headmaster. I got approval from him. I didn’t think it was also my job to get approval from you.”

“What case did you give him?”

“This case about an unidentified man found dead on Somerton Beach in—”

“The Taman Shud case,” Mycroft interrupted him, and Greg was surprised. “Very good. That should keep him busy for ages.”

“So far it seems to have worked. Sherlock hasn’t said anything to you about it?”

“We haven’t spoken.”

“You haven’t spoken…since when?” Greg asked, confused.

“Since the beginning of term, of course,” Mycroft answered, as if that should have been obvious. “I’ll see him at the short leave; I’ll ask him about it then.”

Greg processed that, and then said, “Well, he seems quite taken with it. You should see the bulletin board he’s put together for it. It takes up an entire wall of John’s room and is covered in stuff, and none of us can understand it, but—”

“John?” Mycroft interrupted him.

Oh, Greg realized. Mycroft hadn’t spoken to Sherlock since the beginning of the term. “Yeah. John Watson. A new boy in his last year, has the room next to Sherlock’s. He and Sherlock have become quite good friends.”

“You must be mistaken,” said Mycroft.

Greg couldn’t imagine what that was in reaction to. “About?”

“Sherlock doesn’t have friends.”

At several points during the conversation Greg had been annoyed, but now he was full-fledged angry. “That’s a terrible thing to say about your brother.”

Mycroft scoffed. “Oh, please, you’ve met him, you know it’s true.”

Greg did know it was true that Sherlock didn’t seem to have friends aside from John. Sherlock wasn’t the type of boy who was ever going to be the center of popularity. And that didn’t seem to bother Sherlock; as far as Greg could tell the only person whose opinion he cared the least bit about was John. Greg couldn’t puzzle out why; he just accepted that it was true and that Sherlock Holmes would rather have had a single John Watson than a dozen other friends. But sometimes Greg tried to imagine what Eton had been like for Sherlock prior to this term, bored to tears and lonely to boot. And it didn’t surprise him in the least that Sherlock had been difficult, Greg thought anyone would have been, even someone not inclined to be a rude, arrogant, insufferable genius the way Sherlock was. And Greg really didn’t think it was the sort of thing Mycroft should be discussing so lightly. “You know,” Greg began, hotly, “the only thing wrong with Sherlock is that he learned to be great without learning to be good first.”

“Oh, I suppose you blame me for this?” Mycroft’s voice was brittle.

“No, I blame whoever raised him.”

I raised him.”

“Then yes, I blame you,” said Greg, recklessly. “You could be nicer to him.”

“I’m always nice to him. He isn’t nice to me.”

“Which is a lovely, mature thing for you to have just said to me,” remarked Greg.

“You are being entirely inappropriate.”

“This seems to be something your brother and I have in common. You can hang up this phone and call the house master about me, which I know is what you want very much to do at this moment. But you should really think first about the fact that for the first time since he’s been at Eton, you went the entire month of September without getting a single call of complaint. And I don’t mean a call from any of us; I mean a call from Sherlock.”

Mycroft was silent, and Greg knew his wild surmising on that point had been correct.

“I have a div to teach,” Greg lied, because mostly he thought he should stop talking to Mycroft Holmes before he went and said something that would definitely get him sacked. “Did you have anything else you wanted to discuss?”

“No,” said Mycroft, crisply.

“Fine. Good-bye then.” Greg didn’t wait to hear the response before he hung up his phone.

***

Mycroft was seldom astonished. That was especially true when it came to Sherlock. Nothing Sherlock did ever really surprised him anymore. He felt as if he could predict the contours of Sherlock’s dramatic, spoiled histrionics, even if he couldn’t predict the exact details of them.

But Sherlock was not currently engaging in any dramatic, spoiled histrionics, and that was surprising. Sherlock, if his tutor was to be believed, was contentedly working his way through an unsolved crime. Sherlock, if his tutor was to be believed, had a friend. Mycroft didn’t know what to make of that. It was possible Sherlock had a brain tumor that was altering his personality.

In any other person’s life, thought Mycroft, this news about one’s little brother would have merited jubilation. It only made Mycroft worry tremendously. It sounded not at all like Sherlock, and he didn’t know what to make of it.

Of course Mycroft ran into a dozen unexpected work problems on the day when he was supposed to pick Sherlock up for the short leave, and he ended up sending a driver in his stead, and by the time Mycroft himself got to the estate, it was much later than he’d intended.

Sherlock preferred the estate these days. He said he hated coming home to London, and Mycroft indulged him on that. Mrs. Hudson preferred the estate as well, anyway, as it was closer to her sister, so Mycroft thought that it all worked out.

His shoes crunched over the gravel of the drive as he walked to the front door, and he was surprised when it opened before he could quite get to it, the light from the front hall silhouetting Mrs. Hudson.

“Mycroft,” she said to him, with a scold in her voice. “You shouldn’t have driven up so late.”

“If I’d waited until tomorrow,” said Mycroft, wearily, “I’d hardly have seen Sherlock at all before having to bring him back, and something else might have come up to keep me in London by then.”

“Come in,” Mrs. Hudson said, fussing about him. “I’ll fetch you something to eat.”

“You’re not my housekeeper,” Mycroft reminded her, mildly, following her through to the kitchen and taking off his coat.

Mrs. Hudson smiled at him fondly and began assembling ingredients in the kitchen. Cheese on toast with fried tomatoes, Mycroft deduced, and decided it sounded heavenly.

He sat at the kitchen table and said, “Where’s Sherlock?”

Mrs. Hudson was slicing bread, lovely country bread from the market in town, and Mycroft’s mouth watered. “He’s supposed to be sleeping, but we both know he’s not. If you’re anxious to see him, I’m sure he’s upstairs reading. He brought an enormous pile of books home with him. He says he’s solving a murder.” Mrs. Hudson chuckled and put the bread in to toast and began cutting up liberal amounts of cheddar.

“He seemed well?” asked Mycroft.

Mrs. Hudson had turned her attention to the tomatoes, but she abruptly turned to face him, and she looked on the verge of tears, and Mycroft felt the weight of all of the dread that had been building in him throughout this silent September.

“What’s wrong with him?” he asked, hoping he didn’t sound as terrified as he felt.

Mrs. Hudson shook her head and said, tremulously, “Oh, Mycroft, he doesn’t seem ‘well,’” and Mycroft ran through all the things that could be wrong with him, rapidly processing, already cataloguing where they would go for the best doctors, the best anything that money could buy for him, but Mrs. Hudson’s next words stopped all of his racing thoughts in their tracks. “He seems happy.”

***

Mycroft wasn’t sure if Sherlock was asleep or not when he went to bed. The light was still on in his bedroom, shining underneath the door, but it would not have been the first time Sherlock had fallen asleep with the light on. Mycroft decided that, all things considered, it would be best to talk to him in the morning.

Sherlock deigned to come down to breakfast late, still in the T-shirt and pajama bottoms he’d clearly slept in and clutching a book, a small notebook, and a pen. His hair was an uncombed mess, and Mycroft thought he looked ever so slightly too thin, and he didn’t even say hello before he dropped into a chair and stuck his nose into his book. Mycroft nevertheless knew exactly what Mrs. Hudson had meant when she had said he seemed happy. There was a relaxed and casual brightness to him that Mycroft had never quite seen before, and he admitted being somewhat irrationally annoyed about this. In the span of a month, Gregory Lestrade and-slash-or John Watson had managed to unlock something in Sherlock that Mycroft had never been able to even locate, and that was bloody irritating.

“Good morning,” Mycroft said to Sherlock, a bit more sharply than he’d intended, and Mrs. Hudson, putting tea down in front of Sherlock, gave Mycroft a surprised and disapproving look.

Sherlock glanced briefly up from his book. “You’ve put on weight,” he remarked.

Mycroft frowned. “It’s lovely to see you, too.”

“It’s because you have a desk job, and also because you’re busy most of the time, and when you’re busy you eat mechanically and don’t realize how much you’re eating,” Sherlock explained to him, as if Mycroft didn’t already know this, and then took a sip of his tea.

“Mrs. Hudson,” said Mycroft, dryly, “how do we blunder through our day-to-day lives without Sherlock’s insightful observations?”

Sherlock smiled at him and went back to his book.

Mycroft took notice of the book for the first time, tipped his head at it. “Are you reading The Rubaiyat?”

“Yes,” said Sherlock, shortly, making a note of something.

“In the original Persian?”

“Well, how else am I going to know for sure what it’s about? You can’t trust the translators of these things, they’re idiots.”

“I didn’t know you knew Persian.” Mycroft tried not to sound as amazed as he really was.

“I taught it to myself.”

“This past month?” Mycroft tried not to sound as impressed as he really was.

Sherlock made an impatient noise. “Is this an important conversation? Because I’m just in the middle of something.”

The back door that led to the veranda opened, and Molly Hooper poked her head in and said, with cheerful nervousness, “Knock knock!”

“Oh, God,” Sherlock muttered, not nearly quietly enough not to be heard by Molly.

Mrs. Hudson gave him a scolding look, and Sherlock lifted the book up to hide behind it.

“Molly, dear,” said Mrs. Hudson, graciously. “Won’t you come in and sit down? Sherlock was just going to have some breakfast.”

“No, I wasn’t,” said Sherlock, from behind the book.

“You need to eat something,” Mycroft told him, the reason for Sherlock’s ever-so-slightly-too-thinness becoming blindingly apparent to him now. Sherlock didn’t eat when he was busy thinking about something. What sort of friend was this John Watson idiot not to be noticing that?

“You eat enough for the both of us,” Sherlock rejoined.

“If only it worked that way,” said Mycroft, and then he turned his attention to Molly, who had settled into a chair and was torn between looking adoringly in the direction of Sherlock—which really meant looking adoringly in the direction of Sherlock’s book—and fidgeting self-consciously. Molly lived in town and had started to come to the estate when Mrs. Hudson, expert in gossip, had heard that she was clever and interested in science, books about which the estate’s library was flooded with as a result of generations of Holmeses with scientific minds. Mrs. Hudson had offered use of the library, which Mycroft did not object to. That she would develop an improbable and resilient crush on Sherlock had not been anticipated by either Mycroft or Mrs. Hudson. Or Sherlock, who disapproved of her and her crush very strongly. Mycroft saw no harm in it and liked Molly well enough, although he doubted her ability to handle Sherlock in the long run. Or the short run. “Good morning, Miss Hooper,” he said to her. “I hope you’ve been well.”

Molly beamed at him, relieved at the welcome. Mycroft was never anything other than polite to Molly, but she always behaved as if she thought he might bite her head off, given half a chance. “Very well, thank you. I just stopped by because I thought it might be a short leave weekend.” Molly glanced to Sherlock’s book again.

“Brilliantly deduced, Molly,” said Sherlock from behind its safety.

“Sherlock, stop being rude and talk to your guest,” chided Mrs. Hudson, putting a full English on the table in front of Sherlock.

“She isn’t my guest; I didn’t invite her,” replied Sherlock.

Molly went pink, but Mrs. Hudson ignored him and said to her, kindly, “Would you like something to eat, Molly?”

“No. That’s okay. I just came to say that a bunch of us are going to see a film tonight, Sherlock. I thought you might want to come along?” She looked at Sherlock’s book hopefully.

“Trail along with a bunch of dull, idiotic imbeciles who will only want to be discussing who kissed whom and when and where and whether or not there mightn’t have been such things as ‘cheating’ and ‘triangles’ involved, and then, when they are not discussing such trivialities, will be watching some sort of drivel that is so stupendously stupid as to metaphorically cause brain cells to leap from one’s head in despair, and yet they will consider themselves to be vastly entertained by it? Absolutely not.”

“Sherlock!” Mrs. Hudson exclaimed at him.

“…Oh,” said Molly, looking as if she didn’t know how else to respond, and then she forced a smile. “That’s all right, then. Maybe some other time?”

Sherlock turned a page of his book.

“Maybe,” Mycroft said, on his behalf, thinking it was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever said but feeling rather sorry for poor, forlorn Molly.

Molly flickered a grateful smile at him, and then said, standing, “Well, I guess I’ll see you around, then. Enjoy your weekend home, Sherlock.”

Sherlock made a noncommittal noise, and Molly departed the kitchen with a little wave. Mrs. Hudson waited for the door to close behind her before taking Sherlock’s book forcefully out of his hands.

“That was rude of you, Sherlock Holmes,” she told him, sternly. “She likes you.”

Sherlock was calmly eating his breakfast now, having been deprived of his book. “Precisely. It’s extraordinarily annoying.”

“You should be nice to her,” Mrs. Hudson told him.

“That would make things worse,” said Sherlock.

“She’s a nice girl, and she wants you to take her to the cinema. What’s the harm in that?”

“It would be dull. Mycroft, tell her.”

“It would be dull,” Mycroft agreed, since he had avoided taking perfectly nice girls like Molly out on perfectly nice dates to the cinema almost his entire life, once he had determined for himself that it really was dull. Mrs. Hudson sighed and left Sherlock’s book on the table and moved over to the sink to start washing dishes. “But I should make you go into town and apologize to her,” Mycroft continued.

Sherlock looked astonished. “Apologize for what?”

“Being rude. You are astonishingly terrible at cultivating acquaintances.”

“I don’t need to cultivate acquaintances. I have you for that.”

Mycroft wanted to ask Sherlock about his apparent friend John Watson. But Sherlock was eating with a definite sulky edge to him, much sharper than when he’d come down for breakfast and had seemed so comfortable and pleased with himself, and Mycroft didn’t want to have the conversation while Sherlock was in a mood. He ventured, instead, “How’s school?”

“Boring,” Sherlock answered, automatically.

“You haven’t called me to complain about that recently.”

“Because you never listen to my complaints,” rejoined Sherlock, lightly. “It’s like talking to a brick wall.”

“I’m terribly unreasonable,” said Mycroft.

Dreadfully so,” said Sherlock, and picked up his book again.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight

John had been dreading going home for the short leave. He really didn’t want to go. And then he felt guilty about that, because he knew Harry wanted to see him, and he did miss Harry, but he felt as if the past month at Eton had been rare magic, and he was afraid of someone at home pointing out to him that this life couldn’t possibly belong to him.

Sherlock had been dreading going home for the short leave, too, but Sherlock’s dread was over lost time in the solving of the Taman Shud murder. Sherlock considered any time not spent in active pursuit of a forty-four-year-old-murder culprit to be wasted time. John would say Sherlock was driving him spare with keeping mad hours in his “laboratory” working on the case, except that John had grown so used to having Sherlock constantly underfoot that he practically couldn’t imagine an entire weekend without him.

It turned out that there was little time to miss Sherlock when he was busy dealing with his mother’s never-ending litany of disapproval of his activities. His activities being, mainly, his audacity in taking himself off to Eton and absenting himself from all the work he could have been doing around the flat.

John, fixing a leaky tap in the bathroom sink, said, “Why couldn’t you just hire someone for this?”

“Oh, you think we’re just made of money now, don’t you?”

“Of course not, but there’s enough of it to hire someone every once in a while,” John replied, and his mother’s silence was telling. He paused in what he was doing and looked over at her, reading the truth of it on her face before he asked the question. “Haven’t you any of your share left?”

“Of course I have,” she said, defensively. “I just don’t want to waste it.”

But she was obviously lying, and John waited until she had passed out in an alcoholic stupor before asking Harry about it.

“I have no idea where it went,” Harry said, pouring them both generous glasses of the cheap vodka Mum had been drinking. “Booze? Gambling? Who the hell knows? But I’m pretty sure it’s gone.”

“How much have you been drinking?” John asked, noting the ease with which Harry knocked the vodka back.

Harry shrugged and grinned at him. “Come on, no wild parties at that fancy school you go to now? Or do they all drink champagne all the time?”

“Dom Perignon,” John said to her. “Endlessly. I’m slumming it here with you.” He sipped the vodka and made an overdramatic face at its quality, earning him a playful shove from Harry, and they laughed together for a second before John sobered and said, “Your money’s safe though, right?”

Harry nodded. “The trust is ironclad. Mum can’t get at it.”

John was relieved. “Good. That money’s for us.”

“Cheers to that.” Harry clinked her glass against his enthusiastically.

“And not to be wasted,” John warned her.

“Education. Got it. I’m on it.”

“Are you?” John worried about her. She hadn’t wanted to move away, and John had wanted it desperately, and she had told him to go, but John still experienced guilt over leaving her to fend for herself. “How’s school?”

“Good. It’s fine. I’m more interested in your school. I told Sarah you would be home this weekend, and she said she never wants to see your face again, and I told her she probably didn’t have to worry about that because you were probably going to fall in love with some posh git and turn gay.”

“Thanks, Harry,” John told her, dryly, “that definitely helped the Sarah situation.”

Harry shrugged, unrepentant. “Tell me how Eton’s going.”

“It’s fine, it’s…amazing. I’ve chosen my courses, you know. Sticking to London. I’m not even going near Oxbridge. University College is my first choice. I’ll need stunning results though; I’m not totally confident.”

“You’ll get them.” Harry had all the confidence for him that he lacked. “I know you will. Tell me what everyone’s like there. Are they terrible?”

“They’re…” John considered. “They’re not so very different than here, really. I mean, they’re still people, and they have stupid cliques and petty feuds, except it’s a bit worse because they’re all stuck in the same buildings all the time, so they can’t get away from each other. But the schools are fantastic, Harry. They’re really interesting. Biology is a dream. We do so much hands-on dissection, it’s amazing. I’m learning so much, seriously.” John realized he was gushing and told himself to shut up.

“And you’re playing rugby,” Harry noted. “You’re looking fit. Are the rugby chaps nice?”

“Nice enough,” John allowed.

“You’re not lonely, are you?” Harry fretted. “I worry about you.”

John went to tell her about Sherlock. It was on the tip of his tongue. No, I’m not lonely. I have this brilliant, frustrating, fascinating, amazing friend who guarantees I am never bored. But he didn’t. He had this idea she wouldn’t understand Sherlock, would mock his oddities and make light of his genius, and Sherlock was too…too…something, for John to let anyone make less of him. Sherlock belonged to him, to this life he was building where he was merely John Watson, As He Wished To Be, instead of John Watson, As Everyone Else Wished Him To Be. He wanted to be selfish about Sherlock, to keep him all to himself and not allow the fact of him to be poked and prodded and criticized and judged by the people who occupied the rest of John’s life.

So he just said, truthfully, “I’m not lonely.”

***

Sherlock was a captive audience in the car on the way back to Eton, and Mycroft was delighted about that. Not that it wasn’t clear that Sherlock still intended to ignore him as much as he could. He was curled up in the passenger seat reading a book about the early stages of the Cold War, which meant he must have finished The Rubaiyat.

Mycroft let him read. Well, if Mycroft was going to be fair, he was putting off starting the conversation. Sherlock was radiating that unusual amount of contentment that Mycroft couldn’t quite get used to. He thought it possible Sherlock was actually breathing more deeply.

Eventually, though, he ventured, “Tell me about your new tutor.”

Sherlock hmm’d without looking up from his book. “What about him?”

“Do you like him?”

“He’s tolerable. He’s the best of a bad lot, I suppose.”

Which was high praise, coming from Sherlock. “He has you working on the Taman Shud case?”

From the corner of his eye he saw Sherlock look up at him suspiciously. “How do you know that?”

“You’re reading The Rubaiyat and books about the Cold War. It’s an easy deduction. Have you got anywhere?”

Sherlock hesitated, and then he launched into what turned out to be a virtual monologue about the case: his theories and conclusions and the idiotic mishandling done by the police and the fact that clearly the man had died of digitalis, there was no other option. Mycroft listened to him and tried not to let his astonishment show on his face, because Sherlock never spoke at such great length unless he was complaining, and this was definitely not a complaint. Sherlock kept talking even as Mycroft drove them straight into Eton, explaining the work he had done to crack the code that had been found in the suitcase, and then he cut himself off abruptly.

Mycroft glanced at him, wondering if Sherlock had just realized they were at their destination, that he had been talking an uncharacteristic amount, but Sherlock was looking at someone with an odd, fixed expression on his face, somewhere between joy and dread. Mycroft parked the car and followed Sherlock’s gaze, to a boy with sandy-blonde hair who had just come around the corner of Holland House. He was fairly unremarkable looking, except for the truly hideous jumper he was wearing.

Mycroft looked from him to Sherlock and needed to ask no questions. He had never seen Sherlock look at someone like that in his life. That was clearly John Watson.

Sherlock moved suddenly, unbuckling his seatbelt. “Well, it was good to see you, Mycroft. I’ll see you in a few weeks for the long leave.”

Sherlock obviously wanted to avoid an introduction, and Mycroft definitely wasn’t leaving without an introduction. Mycroft took off his own seatbelt and stepped out of the car and turned back to Sherlock and said, very loudly, “Here we are, Sherlock!”

Which, as expected, caused the blonde boy to stop walking and turn expectantly in their direction.

Sherlock gave Mycroft a look that made him grateful Sherlock didn’t have superpowers, or else Mycroft would definitely be dead. Then, resigned, he opened his door.

“Hi,” said the boy who was clearly John Watson, looking more pleased to see Sherlock Holmes than Mycroft had ever seen anyone look before. There was almost a bounce to the boy’s step as he came over to him.

“Hi,” said Sherlock, mostly sullen but with a trace of odd shyness to him. Mycroft had never seen Sherlock be shy. Mycroft thought everything about this situation was testing the limits of his belief.

John held a book up. “Got this for you. Untraceable Poisons. No one would let Sherlock Holmes sign it out, but they didn’t bat an eyelash at John Watson doing it.”

Sherlock said, “Idiots,” but he said it reverently, with a look in his eyes as if he thought it possible the sun rose and set on John Watson and his ability to sign out library books for him.

John beamed a smile at him and said, “In exchange, you have to eat a full meal tonight.”

Sod it, thought Mycroft, at that. He loved John Watson. Mycroft cleared his throat pointedly.

A frown of displeasure flickered over Sherlock’s otherwise adoring face. “You know how I told you I don’t have parents, I have a Mycroft?” he said to John. “And you said, ‘What’s a Mycroft?’”

John looked amused. “Yes.”

Sherlock nodded in Mycroft’s direction. “That’s a Mycroft.”

John looked at Mycroft, startled. “Oh,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t even realize…but a driver came to get Sherlock on Friday, so I didn’t think…Sorry, sorry, sorry.” He rushed hastily to Mycroft’s side of the car. “I’m so sorry. I’m John Watson. I’ve heard…almost nothing at all about you.” John smiled winningly and held out his hand.

“Ah, that’s mutual,” said Mycroft, and politely shook his hand. “Surely you know by now that if you’re going to give him a book on untraceable poisons, you’d better make sure not to eat or drink anything he’s been near?”

“Yes, sir,” John agreed, gravely.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Sherlock sulked. “I would never poison John.”

“Much,” said John, grinning at him and looking fond. Mycroft felt almost dizzy with bewilderment.

Sherlock looked at him in confusion. “What?”

“You would never poison me much. I have no illusions.”

Sherlock looked deeply annoyed and even more deeply star-struck, and Mycroft, who had never seen Sherlock be impressed by anyone ever, studied John Watson carefully and tried to figure out what it was about him that had managed to snag the attention of the world’s most demanding human being. On the outside, Mycroft could see absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about him. He wished desperately that Sherlock weren’t standing right there, because he wanted to have a conversation with John Watson, he wanted to listen carefully to all his replies and figure out what made him tick and what drew Sherlock to him and whether this was going to be the making of his brother or make him worse than ever.

“You should come and stay for a bit over the long leave,” he suggested, and watched Sherlock stiffen with panic. “Sherlock would enjoy that.” He would, too, Mycroft decided, although Sherlock was too unused to the idea of enjoying anyone’s company to realize that he would. And if it just so happened that Mycroft might get a chance to corner John at some point during that week, well, all the better.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine

Sherlock was terrible about eating, which meant that they almost never ate together. John usually pulled together some scraps to bring back to their room that he spent the rest of the evening fruitlessly trying to convince Sherlock to eat, while Sherlock kept protesting that digesting used up his brain. John had never heard anything so ridiculous, but Sherlock was convinced of it.

For that reason, John tended to eat with the rest of the boys in his year, who he liked well enough. He didn’t think he was ever going to be truly close friends with them, but it felt a bit like his friendship with Sherlock was such that he was going to consider all other friends to be secondary in an inevitable sort of way.

And it happened that one night, a week before the long leave, Musgrave said to him, “We’re all curious as to how he is.”

John had been lost in thought, thinking of the upcoming long leave, of the fact that he had made a decision to visit Sherlock for part of it, of how he was going to break that to his mother, of how he was going to keep Harry from reading too much into it, and he said, vaguely, “Who?”

“Holmes. The rest of us tried to crack him, but we didn’t get very far. Trevor there got the farthest, got a bit out of him before Holmes stopped and said he was bored.”

The boys all snickered, but Trevor didn’t look offended. He said, cheerfully, with the air of someone who had told a story many times and relished the telling of it, “And after I very nicely got him off first, too. That’s what I get for being polite.”

It clicked for John, abruptly, what they were talking about. He realized he had been a bit slower on the uptake than he might otherwise have been, because the idea of Sherlock engaging in any of the sexual chicanery that was par for the course around Eton had never occurred to him. Sherlock kept so much to himself that John wasn’t sure he’d ever even seen him talk to any student besides him. It had really never occurred to him that Sherlock had ever interacted with any students but him, and John felt a completely irrational surge of jealousy. Not that Trevor had got into Sherlock’s trousers, but more that Trevor had apparently exchanged words with him.

John recognized that everyone was looking at him expectantly for an answer, and he managed a pale smile and a “We’re not like that.”

“No, we know you’re not poofs,” said Musgrave, who had started the whole thing. “Well,” he amended. “We know you’re not. We’ve no idea how to classify him.”

As far as John could tell, everyone at Eton engaged enthusiastically in energetic sexual activities with each other, and nobody at Eton ever considered himself a homosexual as a result. John understood this, because John had spent most of his adolescence at a school where he had had access to girls for that sort of sexual experimentation, and these blokes had not, and he wasn’t going to judge them for that. Not that he would have judged them if every one of them were gay. It was just that John, with a straight past behind him, didn’t really want any part of Eton’s exhausting sexual politics. He preferred his growing familiarity with sexual frustration, triggered at least in part by never getting to be alone. Or reliably alone. Alone enough to relax and not worry about the door being thrown open at any time.

He shook his head briefly, smiled again, and said, “No, really, we’re just friends.”

Everyone laughed as if John had told a hilarious joke. John looked at them all quizzically.

“He doesn’t have friends,” said Musgrave.

John said, “He has me.”

***

Biology school was just finishing, and John was gathering up his books when Sherlock appeared at his desk. They usually walked out together and back to Holland House, where John would prepare for rugby and Sherlock would sulk about the fact that John had things to do that did not revolve around Sherlock.

Truthfully, it was a disagreement they had so often that it really should never have registered on John’s radar as a disagreement, except that the night before he had been given the fairly shocking news that Sherlock had once been friendly enough with a classmate to get an orgasm from him, and John really could not care less about the sex, he really couldn’t, but he unreasonably resented whatever it was that had happened that had led to the sex, he couldn’t help it.

“I think you should ditch rugby today,” Sherlock said, which Sherlock said every day that John had rugby.

“I can’t,” said John, which John said every day that John had rugby.

They walked outside together, and it was a damp, gray day, and John wished he could ditch rugby to do whatever Sherlock had planned instead. So long as it was indoors.

“I need you to help me with some chemistry I’m working on,” said Sherlock.

That could have been a line, if uttered by any other person, but John knew Sherlock literally meant that he was working on some sort of chemistry experiment. “No, you don’t. I’m terrible at chemistry and you know it. What you need me to do is praise your brilliance while you run the experiment and occasionally scratch your shoulder because you’re too lazy to lift your own arm to do it.”

Sherlock looked pleased. “Yes, exactly.”

John chuckled because he couldn’t help it. “Well, I’m not going to; I’m going to rugby.”

Sherlock made a face. “It’s really inconvenient to me that you know other people.”

And, for some reason, on that particular day, that irritated John. “You know,” he said, rounding on him abruptly, “you can’t really throw stones about that, can you?”

Sherlock looked surprised by his reaction. He blinked at him. “What?”

“Knowing other people. Whose bedroom did you use for a laboratory before mine? Was it Trevor’s?”

“I didn’t use anybody’s bedroom before yours. Who’s Trevor?”

John rolled his eyes and resumed walking. “Oh, come off it, Sherlock.”

“Oh,” said Sherlock, and John heard the spark of recognition in his voice. “Trevor. Wait, is this about Trevor’s terrible fellatio technique?” Sherlock caught up to him. “Because that was an experiment.”

John tried not to think about Sherlock and fellatio and said, “Of course it was. It shouldn’t have been. You can’t just use people like that.”

“Why not? What does Trevor matter? He’s a prat.”

John knew that he was, but he was being irrational, and he figured that carried over to defending Trevor, too. “You should have told me. I looked like an idiot, not knowing.”

“Not knowing what?” Sherlock asked, crossly. “And why were you even talking about that at all?”

Which perhaps made John feel a twinge of guilt. “Can we be done with this conversation now?”

“You started this conversation,” Sherlock pointed out, coldly. “You are being incredibly illogical right now, and I detest illogic.” Sherlock turned with an elegant swirl of his tails and managed to look aristocratic even as he stomped off.

John thought that sometimes he really hated him. “Hey!” he shouted after him, annoyed that Sherlock’s parting volley about John’s behavior had been one hundred percent correct, but Sherlock kept walking in the direction of the science lab and did not turn around, and John suppressed the desire to throw his biology book at his head.

Lestrade had been coming out of the building behind them in time to catch John’s last useless shout after Sherlock, and glanced at Sherlock’s departing thunderous form.

“Trouble in paradise?” Lestrade asked, mildly.

“We are not a couple,” John snapped at him, and stomped off toward Holland House.

***

John, irritated, changed for rugby angrily and then purposely moved some of Sherlock’s socks out of the index, which he knew was petty, especially since he wasn’t entirely sure he shouldn’t be the one apologizing to Sherlock rather than the other way around. But he was annoyed and the rearrangement of the socks felt almost therapeutic.

He was actually out the door, intending to go to practice, before the contents of the bulletin board registered on him, and he backtracked and looked at it. Sherlock had, at some point that day, tacked up a piece of paper with a chemical equation written on it, circled, with a question mark next to it. And John was fairly terrible at chemistry but he did recognize that Sherlock had circled “chlorine.”

John frowned and walked out of his room and went in the direction of rugby practice and took four full steps before turning around and heading toward the science lab instead. Because Sherlock, naturally, would probably inhale chlorine gas and half-kill himself.

As John had predicted, the tang of chlorine was sharp when he opened the science lab door, and John’s eyes stung immediately. Sherlock was wearing goggles, which was probably why his eyes seemed to be fine, and he frowned at John over the Bunsen burner he had lit.

“What do you want?”

John stalked over to the windows and began pulling them open. “You’ve got to ventilate if you’re going to work with chlorine.”

“I’m not an idiot,” said Sherlock, offended. “The concentration of gas hadn’t yet reached the level when ventilation is necessary.”

“It would be nice if you’d ventilate before getting to the point where you’d be unable to breathe,” John pointed out.

“I’m quite capable of taking care of myself.”

“No one said you weren’t.”

“You’re implying it.”

“I’m implying that sometimes you think far too highly of your own cleverness being able to rescue you from every single reckless thing you do.”

“I don’t need your advice on this matter,” sniffed Sherlock.

John threw up his hands in frustration. “Of course not. Why would you listen to me? I’m just your friend.”

“I don’t have friends,” Sherlock spat out at him.

The room was abruptly so silent that John could hear the rugby practice, in the distance, drifting through the windows he’d just opened. He had sat at supper last night and insisted to the rest of his classmates that that wasn’t true about Sherlock —that Sherlock had him — and he was unprepared for how it felt to hear, in Sherlock’s own voice, that that wasn’t how Sherlock thought of him. What were they if not friends? As far as John was concerned, Sherlock was undoubtedly his best friend. And the level of hurt entailed in having that denied, even if they were currently in the middle of a quarrel, took him entirely by surprise. He would have defended Sherlock to the death. It was the first time he had ever doubted that would be returned.

Sherlock did not seem to think he had overstepped any sort of boundary. He held John’s gaze evenly, looking mainly annoyed that John had had the audacity to suggest that he should ventilate his workspace before experimenting with toxic gases.

It was almost funny, John thought, how idiotic he was being.

“No,” he agreed, sardonically. “I wonder why.” And then he marched out of the science lab. He purposely left the door open behind him, half to drive home his point about ventilation and half to give Sherlock the opportunity to call him back and apologize to him.

Behind him there was only silence.

***

Before John stalked out of the science lab, Sherlock’s opinion on the disagreement they were having was that it was stupid and the result of John’s stupidity, and Sherlock couldn’t even be bothered to untangle why the stupid thing with Trevor had got John so upset in the first place.

After John stalked out of the science lab, it suddenly occurred to Sherlock that he had made a terrible mistake.

John was his friend. Sherlock stood frozen in the science lab and thought how he was an idiot for not having seen that so much sooner. John had called them friends after the first day of their acquaintance, but Sherlock had dismissed that. John was that sort, the sort to be friends with everyone, and Sherlock hadn’t wanted to read too much into that. But now, six weeks later, John had seemed, prior to just a few minutes earlier, to very much consider himself to still be Sherlock’s friend.

And John was loyal, startlingly loyal, distressingly loyal. John would abide almost any act on Sherlock’s part but not the sort of betrayal Sherlock had just performed in denying that they were friends. It was possible he had ruined everything. Sherlock felt vaguely ill and wished he could blame it on the concentration of chlorine gas in the room, but no, John, with his caretaker tendencies that he insisted on using on Sherlock, had ventilated the room for him. Sherlock was sick with dread. He had had a friend, and he had stupidly not even realized it until it was too late.

Sherlock turned off his Bunsen burner and tried to think what to do. What did people with friends do? How did they keep friends? Usually it involved things Sherlock couldn’t abide, like inane conversations about the weather and people’s health, but not with John, never with John, which was why he had to fix this. John was just like the skull Mrs. Hudson had given him for company when he had first gone to Eton, only better.

Sherlock went to the pitch, where rugby practice was in full swing, and he sat along the hill that sloped downward and considered what he should say. Humor maybe? Using humor was a hallmark of friendship, Sherlock had observed it time and again. Usually it was perfectly dreadful humor, but it always seemed to work. Sherlock tried to think of something funny to say.

As the practice was breaking up, Sherlock experienced his first moment of fear, because what if John didn’t come over to him? What if John ignored him and went off with his other friends instead? What if John never spoke to him ever again?

Sherlock took a deep breath and tried to get oxygen in his blood to drown out the irrational surge of the adrenaline. It would be fine, he told himself, if John never spoke to him again. He had gone his whole life never speaking to John. What would it matter if John never spoke to him again?

John broke away from the crowd on the pitch and headed unerringly in Sherlock’s direction, and Sherlock breathed a sigh of relief and realized that he’d had his hands curled into the dying grass underneath him in tension. He forced himself to uncurl them, watching John’s approach.

John barely paused next to him, continuing to walk, but he wouldn’t have chosen the path he had if he hadn’t wanted to talk to him, Sherlock concluded, and leaped to his feet to follow after him.

“Practice looked as if it went well,” he ventured.

“Do you know anything about rugby?” John asked, without slowing down.

Sherlock was on the verge of answering that he could know everything about rugby, if he cared to, but he reminded himself that that probably wouldn’t be a friendly sort of thing to say, so he said, “No.”

“Then why are you talking about rugby?”

“I thought it might break the ice a bit,” Sherlock answered, honestly.

“It doesn’t suit you. I’d stick to ice.”

This, Sherlock thought, didn’t seem to be going well. He had one friend—one brilliant friend—and he had ruined it. “John—” he began, helplessly.

“It’s fine,” John said, shortly, which was clearly a lie.

“I meant what I said,” Sherlock told him, desperately.

John laughed harshly and kept walking. “Oh, did you?”

“I don’t have friends. I’ve just got one.”

John stopped walking. He didn’t turn around to face him but at least he stopped walking. “Right,” he said, after a second.

Sherlock wished John would turn around, because he was much easier to read when Sherlock could see his eyes. Sherlock would have gone around in front of him but he didn’t want to do anything that might upset John. He settled for saying instead, “Please come for the long leave still. Please.” He didn’t normally say “please.” Ever. It felt like an odd word to come out of his mouth, as if he wasn’t sure he was pronouncing it correctly. But he couldn’t bear the idea that John wouldn’t come for the long leave the way he’d said he was going to. Friends came to stay at their friends’ houses, and Sherlock had never had anyone come to stay before, and he had been having John come to stay, which wasn’t nearly the same as everyone else who had their dull, uninteresting friends come to stay, it was John, and Sherlock realized suddenly that he’d been looking forward to how much Mrs. Hudson would like him and how pleased Mrs. Hudson would be that Sherlock had managed to find not just a friend but a fantastic friend, and Sherlock couldn’t bear it if John decided not to come for the long leave, and Mycroft would say that he’d known all along Sherlock couldn’t possibly keep a friend like John.

John finally turned around to face him and he looked, honestly, quizzical, as if Sherlock were the mystery here, which was utterly absurd because it was John who was so impossible to comprehend. John said, “I’ve already said I’m coming, haven’t I?”

Sherlock blinked. “Yes, but…” Sherlock wanted to point out that they had just had a row, or at least Sherlock thought that had happened, but maybe he’d read the entire situation wrong and it was best to say nothing at all. “Right,” he said, briskly. “You have said that you’re coming. Excellent. Just confirming.”

“It was just a stupid quarrel, Sherlock,” John told him. “Don’t read too much into it with that overactive imagination you have.”

Sherlock felt so relieved that it drowned out the fact that he also felt stupid. He had a sudden impulse to burrow himself into John and refuse to let him go. Sherlock never had impulses like that, but it abruptly seemed to him to be undesirable to be standing with space between them. He thought his head would fit perfectly on John’s shoulder, his face pressed into the curve of John’s neck. John’s pulse would be elevated still from the rugby, and Sherlock thought it possible he could track it through the press of his tongue against the skin that covered John’s carotid artery. He would taste of sweat, and if Sherlock fisted his hands into John’s shirt and made it clear that he didn’t want him to move, would he stand still and let Sherlock lick along his collarbone and up his neck and behind his ear until Sherlock was satisfied that the taste of John Watson would be always indelibly on his tongue?

Sherlock looked at John’s ear, peeping out from underneath John’s rugby-tousled hair, and said, “I don’t have an overactive imagination. Everyone else has an underactive imagination.”

John rolled his eyes and resumed walking, much more slowly this time.

Sherlock put his hands in his pockets and swallowed thickly and walked swiftly to catch up to John, to walk beside him, so he wouldn’t be behind him studying the tapering of the hair on the nape of his neck. He moved the conversation away from imagination because he didn’t quite trust his active-in-a-perfectly-normal-way imagination at the moment. He moved the conversation away from John, too, that seemed safest. “The man on the beach was last seen eating a pastry. Dough is prone to air pockets, you know. Certain types of dough. The pastry wasn’t poisoned, that was the conclusion of the autopsy, but what if it wasn’t the dough that was poisoned but the air inside the dough?”

“This is why you’re trying to kill yourself with chlorine gas?”

“I wasn’t trying to kill myself with chlorine gas.”

“Don’t you dare make me any chlorine-injected pastries to test this theory of yours.”

“You’re no fun.”

“For a clever bloke, you have no idea what the definition of the word ‘fun’ is, and it’s such a simple word.” John smiled at him, teasing and light and beautiful. How had Sherlock never realized before how beautiful he was, how it practically hurt to look at him?

Sherlock resolved to go eat supper tonight, because it would make John happy, would make John smile at him, and that, Sherlock was realizing, was an extraordinarily important goal.

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten

John didn’t ask for permission to go to Sherlock’s for part of the long leave. It didn’t matter, frankly, whether he had permission or not. He was going, and his mother would really only notice he had gone when something broke and he didn’t immediately answer her call. This was confirmed when his mother expressed honest surprise at seeing him at all when he got home and said she couldn’t bother to keep track of his schedule now that he was at his fancy new school.

Harry, at least, was happy to see him and John thought he should tell her of his plans, but he put off breaking the news until Sherlock phoned and made it impossible to put it off any longer.

The phone rang while John was reading The Rubaiyat. Not in the original Persian, because he wasn’t a show-off like Sherlock. He heard Harry answer it and then, after a second, say, curiously, “Just a mo’,” and then she leaned over into the lounge and said, her voice teasing, “It’s for you.”

John realized he should have known that Sherlock would know his phone number somehow and would ring him to finalize the plans. John had just assumed that he would get on a train the following day and take it to the station Sherlock had said and ring the number Sherlock had given him from a pay phone at the station. But he supposed it made sense that Sherlock would want to know definitively which train he would be on.

“Hello?” he said into the phone, trying to ignore Harry, which was difficult as Harry was making dramatic, ridiculous, kissy-faces at him.

“Your sister,” said Sherlock, without preamble, “is dating a Manchester boy.”

John had no idea whether or not that was true, because he tried to make it a point not to ask Harry questions about her love life. A point Harry did not make when it came to him, as was being very much emphasized at the moment by Harry’s raptly leaning toward him to try to catch what Sherlock was saying.

John shrank as far away from her as the phone would let him go. “Are you phoning about tomorrow?”

“Obviously,” Sherlock answered, with characteristic impatience. “I have tried everything I can think of to convince him not to, but Mycroft is insisting that he must collect you personally so that he can assure your mother that we are not going to murder you in your sleep. Which is thoroughly ridiculous, as Mycroft is the most dangerous man any of you will ever meet and could most definitely murder you in your sleep, only he’d hire someone to do it for him because he hates legwork. Anyway, I would suggest that you just make a run for it but then we’ll have to listen to Mycroft all weekend, so it’s probably best if you just let him be ridiculous and come to retrieve you. He’ll probably get busy and just send a driver for you anyway.”

The problem was that John had not heard Sherlock’s voice for five days, and the part where he was supposed to be paying attention to him had got all distracted with the fact that he had managed to forget how much Sherlock’s voice sounded like rich, luxurious things that you just wanted to sink into and relish, like velvet and ermine. The slide of heavy cream. The snap of bubbly champagne. The—

What the hell had he just said? John’s brain caught up with Sherlock’s words. “No, no, no,” he said, vaguely panicked, and looked around the tiny, drab kitchen. “Mycroft can’t come here.”

“Mycroft, he would remind you, can go wherever he likes.” Sherlock sounded sullen.

“But…” John thought of the slick, smooth man in the impeccable suit he had met and tried to think what his mother was going to say when she saw him. “Oh my God. I was just going to take the train. I can just take the train, Sherlock.”

“I know. I told Mycroft that. He said no, and that if I try to put into place some sort of scheme to thwart him from going to get you that he’ll start a war and take over the railways.”

Sherlock sounded as if he really thought Mycroft could do that. John decided he didn’t care what Mycroft could or couldn’t do, he had bigger issues than wars and railways. Mainly the fact that his mother was currently passed out in a drunken stupor the way she usually was, and John didn’t know if it would be better or worse to tell Mycroft the following day that he couldn’t possibly meet his mother, at all.

“John?” Sherlock sounded vaguely hesitant, in that way John had never once heard him sound until the day they’d quarreled and Sherlock had clearly been in some sort of blind panic that John might no longer be his friend.

Sherlock didn’t have friends, Sherlock had him, and Sherlock was worried he might no longer come to visit. And, honestly, the thought had never crossed John’s mind to cancel the trip. The following day was going to be a disaster, but he didn’t care so much because at the end of it would be Sherlock and that would make it worthwhile. Which was possibly alarming, in and of itself, but the thought of putting more days in between that moment and the moment when he would see Sherlock again seemed unacceptable enough that he didn’t care to examine his motives.

“It’s fine,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He hung up the phone and turned to Harry, who looked gleeful. She was practically vibrating with glee. “Who’s that? A friend? A posh friend? He’s coming to visit tomorrow?”

“No, I’m going to visit him. For the rest of the long leave.”

Harry lifted her eyebrows. “You’re going to go spend the weekend with some bloke with a voice of sex?”

“He doesn’t have a voice of sex.”

“Yes, he does.”

“You heard him say all of one sentence,” John told her.

“Yeah, that was enough. I don’t know how you stayed on your feet while listening to all that talking he was doing. So. Who is he, and why haven’t you mentioned him?” Harry looked as if she wasn’t going to let him go anywhere until he answered some questions, and it was really Harry’s permission he needed to leave, not his mother’s, he well knew.

John sighed and resigned himself to it, leaning against the kitchen counter. “His name is Sherlock.”

Sherlock?” repeated Harry, skeptically. “What the bloody hell sort of a name is that?”

His name,” said John, a trifle irritated. Truthfully, the name suited Sherlock. John couldn’t imagine him having any sort of ordinary name; he needed an overly dramatic one like the one he had.

Harry’s mouth was twisted in amusement, as if she’d just got hold of a marvelous secret. “My God, you like him.”

“Of course I like him,” John said, deliberately. “He’s my friend.”

Harry kept smiling. “I can’t believe you’ve never mentioned him.”

“There’s nothing to say. He’s a friend.” John took a deep breath and decided against even attempting to explain further what Sherlock was. He had a bigger issue at the moment. “He’s…I don’t know, very rich, I suspect, and his brother is coming tomorrow to make sure Mum knows that I’ll be safe at their…country estate.”

Harry lifted her eyebrows. “The thing is, if you want me to marry this Sherlock, just to make sure you have easy access to him and I have easy access to places that are called things like ‘country estates,’ I’d be okay with that, just so you know.”

John shook his head a bit. “It isn’t like that.”

“You should let him know, too,” continued Harry.

He isn’t like that.”

“You’re blushing.”

“Can we focus on my real problem?”

To his relief, Harry didn’t say, Which one? —which she would probably have been justified in saying—and instead glanced to their mother, snoring on the sofa. “Is his brother as posh as this Sherlock sounded on the phone?”

“His brother’s name is Mycroft,” John answered.

“Oh, God,” said Harry. “Maybe I could pretend to be your mum.”

***

His mother was awake, she was reasonably sober, and she noticed that he had a bag with him. So he couldn’t just sneak out.

“Are you going somewhere?” she asked.

John admitted, “I’m going to stay with a friend. For the rest of the long leave.”

His mother said, “A friend? What sort of friend?”

“What do you mean, ‘what sort of friend’?”

“A friend from school?”

“You needn’t sound so shocked,” John said, annoyed.

“Oh, needn’t I?” drawled his mother, and John wondered when he’d started to pick up Sherlock’s strangely formal speech patterns.

Refusing to be embarrassed by that, he said, instead, “A friend at school asked me to come and stay with him for the weekend. So I’m going.”

“You didn’t think you should ask your mother for permission first?” his mother demanded.

John looked at her evenly. “No,” he said, simply. “I didn’t.”

Which made her drop her eyes guiltily, and he felt a vicious twist of triumph that he was not especially proud of.

“Who’s this friend?” his mother asked, less belligerently. “Will his parents be around?”

“He doesn’t have parents. But he has an older brother.”

His mother looked skeptical about this, and John wanted to point out that, as far as he could tell, Harry was constantly unsupervised, and it seemed hypocritical for his mother to suddenly worry about supervision over teenagers. “How much older?” she asked, dubiously.

John wasn’t sure. “Much,” he said, simply.

“Where does he live?”

“Outside London,” said John, not wanting to give too much away, which seemed to be his unerring instinct where Sherlock was concerned. “So, I’ll just be going.” John wanted to be outside when Mycroft arrived. He didn’t want Mycroft in the flat; he couldn’t imagine anything more humiliating than that.

“Do you need money for the train fare?”

This was his mother being exceptionally nice, and John felt guilty, because if he told his mother he wasn’t taking a train, his mother would insist on coming downstairs with him, and John did not want his mother meeting Mycroft Holmes. He was ashamed of this impulse in himself—ashamed of the fact that he was ashamed of her, ashamed of the fact that he was treating the Holmeses as if they were somehow better than him—but he couldn’t help it. John felt suddenly as if he had enough to deal with. Too much. He wanted the part of his life that was Sherlock to be set apart in its crystalline perfection. He didn’t want the rest of his world to intrude on it in any way, and if that was selfish of him, so be it.

He said, which wasn’t quite a lie, “I’m fine,” and then, to assuage his guilty conscience, gave his mother a kiss on the cheek in farewell.

She was pleasantly surprised by this and ruffled at his hair the way she used to when he was a little boy, before everything had fallen apart.

John couldn’t help but feel, as he closed the door behind him, that he was walking out of one life and into another.

Mycroft’s car arrived eventually, drawing the sort of curious glances John knew it would, and John knew it was going to get back to his mother almost immediately that a fancy car had come to pick him up. John reconsidered his decision, thought maybe he should go and get his mother, and then Mycroft exited the car in a smart black trench coat and black leather gloves and a pair of black leather shoes that gleamed, and all of it cost more money than any of them had seen in a month, probably, and John thought there was no way his mother could meet Mycroft. Mycroft would be polite, John instinctively felt Mycroft was always polite, but Mycroft would know, this detail about him that he’d rather people not know. And John would never hear the end of it from his mother, about his posh new life, and his posh new friends, and how he had betrayed everything he really was. John hated the suspicion inside himself that maybe he had never got a chance to be everything he really was and he was seizing that opportunity now. With the Holmeses.

“John,” said Mycroft, pleasantly, but his eyes were sharp on John’s. Mycroft’s eyes weren’t quite the unclassifiable color of Sherlock’s eyes, but they were pale like Sherlock’s, as if Mycroft had decided Sherlock’s eyes were too showy and he would take the shade and make it respectable. They were familiar and unfamiliar all at once. “How long have you been out here in the cold?”

He had no idea. Too long, because his cheeks felt raw with it. “Not long,” he lied.

Mycroft regarded him but did not call him on the lie. “Where is your mother? I wanted to make sure that she knew—”

“Sorry, she had to go out. She said to apologize for not being able to meet you, but she said to let you know that she trusts you not to, you know, murder me in my sleep.”

Mycroft’s gaze was even and disconcerting. John smiled and met it. Then Mycroft’s eyes swept over the council estate, once, quickly, and he turned back to John and said, “Well, I suppose we should be getting along. Sherlock will be anxious and accuse me of kidnapping you.” Mycroft smiled a smile that wasn’t especially comforting and slid back into the car.

John dropped his bag on the backseat and settled into the front seat with Mycroft and tried not to feel like this was all incredibly awkward.

Mycroft was silent as he drove them through London, but, once they got onto the motorway, Mycroft said, suddenly, “What’s it like living with Sherlock? Hellish, I would imagine.”

Hellish wasn’t the term John would use. John would use terms like wonderful, which he thought made him sound like some sort of daft git. He settled for, carefully, “I’m never bored.”

“Good,” said Mycroft. “That’s good, isn’t it?”

John didn’t know what to make of that, so he said nothing at all in reply.

Mycroft said, eventually, “Do you plan to continue your…” Mycroft paused, as if thinking, “association,” he decided, finally, “with Sherlock?”

“My ‘association’?” John echoed, unsure what he was supposed to make of that word. He didn’t think he was quite comfortable with the implication. He said, defensively, “I don’t think it’s really any of your business who Sherlock’s friends with.”

Mycroft’s eyes flickered toward him for a second. “Yes, it is. Very much so.”

John frowned.

“You mistake me, I think,” Mycroft continued. “I don’t wish to discourage your…did you call it friendship? If you choose to continue it, I’d be happy to pay you a meaningful sum of money on a regular basis to…ease your way.”

John stared at him. He couldn’t help it. He could barely comprehend what Mycroft was saying. “Why?”

Mycroft smiled without humor, focused on the traffic. “You may have recently come into some unexpected money, but you are not a wealthy man. And you have a mother and a sister to think of, don’t you?”

John set his jaw at how silkily Mycroft was dissecting his situation. It didn’t even occur to him to wonder how Mycroft knew this. It felt as if Mycroft probably knew everything. “In exchange for what?”

“Information,” responded Mycroft. “Nothing indiscreet. Nothing you’d feel…uncomfortable with. Just tell me what he’s up to.”

“Why?”

“I worry about him,” answered Mycroft. “Constantly.”

John understood that Mycroft probably did worry about Sherlock, the same way John worried about Harry. And John did know that Sherlock didn’t really talk to Mycroft, ever. So it wasn’t that John couldn’t see very clearly what Mycroft’s motivation for all this was. But it was incredibly insulting. As if John would ever betray Sherlock that way.

“No,” said John.

There was another flicker of Mycroft’s eyes in John’s direction. “But I haven’t mentioned a figure.”

“Don’t bother.”

Mycroft was silent for a very long moment. “You’re very loyal.”

“Do you mean that to be an insult?” John retorted.

Mycroft smiled again, and it looked somewhat more sincere. “You’re not scared of me, are you?”

“You’re not very frightening,” John informed him.

Mycroft actually glanced at him, smile still intact. “You trust Sherlock.” Mycroft sounded almost amazed by this.

“Of course I trust him. And he trusts me. Did you really think I’d accept a bribe to spy on him?”

Mycroft considered. “I didn’t really know. You are not an especially easy knot to untie, you know.”

John wasn’t sure but he thought it possible he’d just been complimented. “You don’t need to pay me to be his friend.”

“You’re actually an incredibly difficult knot to untie,” said Mycroft to the traffic in front of them, and John was left pondering that for the rest of the ride, in uncomfortable silence.

***

Sherlock was driving Mrs. Hudson spare. Mrs. Hudson was quite sure he had not really slept the entirety of the long leave, in fretting about John’s upcoming visit. Not that Sherlock would ever admit he’d been fretting, but that was clearly what it was. There was a long list of things she was and was not to do while John was there, ranging from the fact that she was not to ask about John’s family, and especially not his father, because John did not like to talk about them, to the fact that John’s least favorite word was “polyp,” and she was not to use it in his presence if it could be avoided.

“I don’t think I’ve ever said the word ‘polyp’ in my life,” Mrs. Hudson told Sherlock.

“Just make sure it doesn’t come up whilst John is here,” Sherlock told her, extremely serious about the gravity of the situation.

“Is he very particular, your John?” asked Mrs. Hudson, although she knew the answer. It wasn’t John who was particular, it was Sherlock. Sherlock never demanded anything less than perfection from himself, and that extended to making sure that his stint as a host was flawless.

“John,” Sherlock informed her, “is seldom upset by anything. Which is why it’s my job to make sure he isn’t confronted by upsetting things.”

“I’m sure his visit wouldn’t be ruined if I said the word ‘polyp,’” Mrs. Hudson told him.

Sherlock frowned.

“But I’ll make sure not to use it,” she assured him, hastily.

And Sherlock looked appeased.

Thursday was a terrible day. Sherlock was convinced that the clocks weren’t working properly, and he spent a great deal of time taking apart the grandfather clock in the dining room and then putting it back together, frowning because he was sure that time was moving more slowly than it normally did.

The grandfather clock had at least distracted him, because when it was all reassembled Sherlock had nothing better to do but mope around the kitchen and bother her while she was trying to make a roast chicken dinner, which Sherlock had assured her was John’s favorite.

“I hope,” Sherlock said, sharply, watching her, “that you are making sure this food is good.”

“Sherlock,” Mrs. Hudson said, with an exasperated sigh. “Go and read a book or something. You’re making me nervous.”

“Don’t be nervous,” Sherlock told her. “John’s really nice.”

“Then why are you so nervous?”

Sherlock looked indignant. “I’m not nervous. I’ve never been nervous in my life.”

“If you’ve never been nervous in your life then how can you be sure that you’re not nervous now?” Mrs. Hudson asked him. You learned to ask questions like that when you spent a lot of time with Sherlock—they shut him up for a little while.

This one did shut him up for a little while. He pondered it, and then said, “John should have a phone.”

“He does have a phone. You phoned him yesterday.”

“No, a phone he has with him all the time. So that I could know where he is.”

“I thought you hated talking on the phone,” Mrs. Hudson pointed out.

“I do.” Sherlock looked thoughtful. “Someone should invent some way for human beings to communicate that just involves typing words to each other.”

“Someone has invented it,” said Mrs. Hudson. “It’s called ‘correspondence.’”

Sherlock scowled. “Except it would happen instantaneously. You wouldn’t have to wait for the post. Like a pager, only better, quicker, easier to use. A pager with a keyboard. But portable.”

“Well, why don’t you go and invent that then? I bet you’d be well on your way to having it done by the time John gets here.”

“I could,” said Sherlock. “I’m just not interested.” He drummed his fingers on the kitchen table and frowned out the window for a little while, and then said, abruptly, “What do you think Mycroft’s saying to him?”

“Nothing terrible, Sherlock.”

Sherlock made a skeptical noise.

“Mycroft loves you, Sherlock.”

Sherlock made an even more skeptical noise.

Mrs. Hudson sighed. “He won’t say anything terrible about you. What could he even say, anyway?”

Sherlock thought. Then he ventured, carefully, “There was the time I thought Mrs. Rainey’s jewels were being stolen by a famous jewel thief.”

“And it turned out to be a badger,” recalled Mrs. Hudson, and laughed. Sherlock pouted, and she said, contritely, “I’m sorry, dear. I didn’t mean to laugh. But it was funny.”

“That was an honest mistake!” Sherlock protested. “Had you ever heard of badgers getting into a house and stealing jewels before? How was I supposed to predict that?”

Mrs. Hudson smiled and opened the oven to check on the chicken, and Sherlock abruptly announced, “They’re here,” and took off toward the front door.

Mrs. Hudson didn’t even bother to question that; Sherlock always noticed something that she missed. So she wiped her hands on the tea towel and followed Sherlock at a more sedate pace. As she walked out the front door, Sherlock was saying to the boy Mycroft had brought, “Did he tell you the story about the badger?”

Mycroft was walking around the back of the car. He rolled his eyes at Mrs. Hudson as he headed toward the front door. “No,” he called back, disappearing into the house.

“He really didn’t,” the boy who must be John Watson was assuring Sherlock. He was not as tall as Sherlock, but that wasn’t surprising, as Sherlock had always been unusually tall. But John was on the shorter side of average. His hair was a sandy color, and it was just a shade too long, growing shaggy looking, but it was much tamer than Sherlock’s dramatic curls, fairly straight with a hint of cowlicks in places. He was a handsome enough boy, but Mrs. Hudson wasn’t sure he was what she had expected. Sherlock had always been so powerfully dramatic, the force of his personality so overwhelming, she had assumed that the first person he had ever shown any real interest in would be as dazzling, as loudly charismatic, as Sherlock. John looked like one of the most normal boys Mrs. Hudson had ever seen, unassuming and pleasant, and she probably would have smiled politely at him in the street and thought, What a nice young man, and just moved on. Next to Sherlock, he almost faded into oblivion.

“What did he talk to you about?” Sherlock demanded, suspicious.

“Nothing. Stop being rude and introduce me.” And it was there, suddenly, in the fondly bemused command in his voice, in the way he walked past Sherlock and over to her with a simple smile. He didn’t fade, he didn’t let Sherlock run roughshod over him, and he didn’t try to fight the Sherlockness of him: he just quietly sidled right past him. It was right there in his quiet, there was an undeniable pull to him, and you would have had to look twice to see it. Sherlock was the type of boy who would have looked twice. Or maybe would have been clever enough to see it immediately. Suddenly everything about Sherlock’s obvious crush on this boy made perfect sense to her. “You must be Mrs. Hudson,” John said, winningly, with an automatic charm to him that Mrs. Hudson was sure Sherlock envied. Sherlock had to work very hard to be charming and so most of the time said it was boring and stupid and pointless. “Who is everything but the housekeeper, I’m told,” continued John.

Which must have been a description Sherlock had provided to him, and it was such a lovely description that Mrs. Hudson wanted to hug Sherlock, except that Sherlock would have died of embarrassment. Mrs. Hudson wanted to hug John. She wanted to say, We worry so much over Sherlock being lonely, how can we ever thank you enough for making him as happy as he’s been lately? That would have been worse than if she’d hugged Sherlock. So she simply said instead, “And you must be Dr. Watson.”

He looked quizzical and confused, glancing toward Sherlock. “Not…”

“Well, of course not, but Sherlock’s told me all about your ambitions. And don’t worry: I’ll make sure not to use your least favorite word while you’re here.”

“I…” John thought for a second, and then turned to Sherlock. “I have a least favorite word?”

“Mrs. Hudson,” said Sherlock, obviously annoyed with her. “Aren’t you supposed to be putting supper on the table?”

“Aren’t you supposed to take your guest’s bag like a gentleman and show him to his room?” she countered, with a look.

And Sherlock frowned and took John’s bag and said, “This way.”

Mrs. Hudson smiled at their retreating forms as they walked up the staircase, hearing John say, “Tell me what this story is with the badger,” amusement in his voice.

She went back to the kitchen, where Mycroft had taken the chicken out of the oven and had peeled off a piece of skin for himself.

“Do you know how bad that is for you?” she asked him.

“I know everything, Mrs. Hudson,” he responded.

“Including the fact that this chicken is done, I suppose.” She studied it.

“It is done.”

She couldn’t argue with him, because he was right. “Set the table,” she told him, primly.

He licked his fingers and washed his hands and reached for four dishes.

“How was your drive?” she asked him.

His back was to her, but she knew him well enough to know he was making a displeased face when he responded, “Quiet.”

Mrs. Hudson shook her head at him and fished the potatoes out of the roasting pan. “You can’t just spend the rest of his life paying people to make sure he’s all right.”

“I pay you to do that,” Mycroft pointed out.

“You won’t be able to do that the rest of his life.”

“Yes, I will. Don’t even think things like that. I do not know how the Holmeses would begin to function without you.”

He said it lightly, which was how Mycroft said all of his nicest things, and Mrs. Hudson really wished that she could hug either of them without them getting all annoyed about displays of affection, because sometimes they really did deserve hugs, and she didn’t know why they seemed to think hugs were forms of punishment. She said out loud, getting them back to the point of the conversation, “You can’t pay his friends.”

“There was no evidence of that, up until today, because he’s never had friends before.”

“You’re supposed to be happy about that, you know. Happy about the fact that he has a friend now and is happy.”

“I am happy about that,” said Mycroft, and moved to stand beside her to carve the chicken.

Mrs. Hudson looked at him. “You’re jealous.”

Mycroft concentrated on sticking the roasting fork into the chicken to keep it still. “Of a seventeen-year-old Etonian with terrible taste in jumpers and an awful haircut?”

“No one’s ever known him better than you, and now someone does.”

The motion of Mycroft’s carving knife was smooth and precise. “Your job is to take care of Sherlock,” he remarked.

“Yes,” she agreed. “I take care of you as a hobby.”

That startled him into genuine laughter, which pleased her. It was difficult to make either of her boys laugh like that. “Your observation is noted,” he told her, which was the closest either of them ever came to admitting she was right. He carried the chicken over to the table and said, “I’ll call them down to supper.”

“Did you threaten him?” she asked him, abruptly.

Mycroft hesitated on his way out the doorway and walked back into the kitchen. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I’m never quite sure what other people consider a ‘threat.’ I do know he’s not easily thrown. By anything. I didn’t try to scare him off, but I couldn’t even if I did try.”

“You could threaten him, you know. Just a tiny bit.”

Mycroft lifted his eyebrows. “Really? I thought you were going to take me to task for even considering such a thing.”

“It’s all right with me if you want to threaten to send a special ops team after him if he breaks Sherlock’s heart.”

“You’ve spent too much time with Sherlock recently,” said Mycroft. “You’ve picked up his penchant for melodrama. Nobody’s heart’s going to get broken here, certainly not Sherlock’s. Sherlock isn’t like that.”

Mrs. Hudson shook her head and said, “Mycroft. How can that be the one thing in the world that you don’t know?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven

John slept remarkably well and woke early with a feeling of utter contentment. He was in a strange bed in a strange house, but he was relaxed and happy, and he stayed in bed for a little while relishing the feeling. Sherlock’s house was absurd—enormous and imposing, sprawling and filled with uncomfortable antiques—but Sherlock’s house also contained Sherlock, and that was enough for John at the moment. If John thought himself past his haze of cheerfulness, there was an edge of alarm there, because never in his life had the knowledge of the mere presence of another person under the same roof as him had the power to make him feel happy. But John didn’t let himself think past his haze of cheerfulness. John felt as if he’d spent most of his life thinking of all the many things he needed to do. He was going to let Sherlock, and especially this weekend, be the one thing in his life he didn’t think about. Not just yet.

It was always awkward to wake up in a house that wasn’t yours, though, even if you were pretty happy to be in that house, and John took his time getting dressed, hoping he would hear people moving around by the time he was done. He didn’t. The house stayed silent, but John was hungry—verging on starving—and he eventually decided he had to go in search of breakfast.

He crept down the stairs cautiously. He hadn’t been sure he remembered correctly which room Sherlock had said was his, and anyway he hadn’t wanted to wake Sherlock if Sherlock wasn’t already awake. Sherlock seldom slept, so John had made it a policy not to wake him if it could be helped. Lestrade said that wasn’t helping Sherlock’s prevalence in the tardy book, but nobody seemed to really care about that.

The bottom floor of the house smelled delicious, and John followed the smell to the kitchen where they’d eaten supper the night before. Mrs. Hudson was frying bacon, and she smiled at him welcomingly when he walked in.

“Good morning, dear,” she said. “Did you sleep well?”

“Fantastically,” said John, and tried not to make it too obvious that his mouth was watering.

“Would you prefer scrambled eggs?” Mrs. Hudson asked him. “Or poached?”

John tried to think, and came to the conclusion that, outside of school, no one had ever actually made him eggs before. He felt vaguely guilty that Mrs. Hudson had offered. “You don’t have to make me breakfast.”

Mrs. Hudson tsk’d at him. “Of course I do! You’re a guest!”

“Scrambled,” John answered, after a second, when she continued to just look at him expectantly. “But I should at least set the table.”

“If you insist. Just the three of us this morning. Mycroft had to go back to London for work.”

“Did he come here just to bring me?” asked John, feeling that vague guilt again, as he located dishes for the table. “I could have just taken the train.”

“Nonsense, don’t be silly. I think Mycroft intended to stay, really, but his work is unpredictable. There’s coffee, dear, if you’d prefer it, but I think tea is much healthier.”

John actually preferred coffee in the morning, but he didn’t want Mrs. Hudson to think ill of him so he said, “Yes, tea is fine, thank you.” He regarded his set table and tried to think of any other assistance he could provide.

“I do hope Mycroft didn’t frighten you,” continued Mrs. Hudson. “He said he didn’t think he did, but he’s not very good at knowing when he is and isn’t being overbearing.”

To John, it seemed as if “overbearing” was Mycroft’s permanent state of being, and he thought Sherlock would agree with him. He said, “He didn’t frighten me.” And then, because he was curious and Sherlock never talked about his family (not that John ever did, either, John supposed), “Did you raise both of them?”

“Oh, no,” said Mrs. Hudson. “I have never known Mycroft to be anything other than quite grown-up. Which is part of his problem. Mycroft grew up far too quickly in order to give Sherlock the luxury of never growing up at all. Which is part of Sherlock’s problem. And my job is to make sure they don’t kill each other.” Mrs. Hudson smiled at John brightly and set a plate on the table for him. “There you go.”

John sat and said, “This is wonderful. Thank you.”

“Not at all. And your tea.” She set it down next to him, as John went to work attacking the breakfast. “How was your game of Cluedo last night?”

This had been Mrs. Hudson’s suggestion. Sherlock had been horrified that they had even had the game in the house at all, but Mrs. Hudson had said she had bought it to play with her sister. John had thought the game had sounded like fun. That had been a mistake.

“Terrible,” he said. “We’re never playing Cluedo again.”

“I don’t know why you say that,” said Sherlock, abruptly coming into the kitchen. He was dressed, sharply, in what looked like half an Eton uniform, and John wondered suddenly if the dress was going to be formal all weekend and he had packed incorrectly. Sherlock sat at the table and informed him, primly, “I thought the game went well.”

“The game didn’t go well,” John said, deciding not to worry about his clothing at the moment.

“Why not?”

“Because the victim can’t also have been the killer, Sherlock.”

“It was the only logical conclusion.”

“It’s not allowed by the rules.”

“The rules are stupid,” said Sherlock.

“What do you boys have planned to do today?” asked Mrs. Hudson, pleasantly, putting a plate of breakfast down in front of Sherlock.

“I was going to work some more on the case,” said Sherlock, and then, to John, “I’ve decided to try deciphering the code again. I gave it a bit of a rest. I thought maybe a fresh start would do me good.”

“Sherlock,” chided Mrs. Hudson. “John didn’t come all the way out here to watch you try to decipher a code.”

“He likes it,” Sherlock insisted. “He even tries to help. Sometimes he even manages to be of some help.”

Only from Sherlock was that an actual compliment, thought John. “I really don’t mind,” he told Mrs. Hudson, because he really didn’t. It would almost be relaxing to sit around while Sherlock grappled with a problem. It would be, John thought, as close to something like a home as he had these days.

***

Sherlock hated the cipher. The cipher was his least favorite thing. The cipher made him want to rip his hair out. He tossed the cipher away from him and announced, abruptly, “We’re going out.”

John looked up from where he was also working on the cipher. He had a series of letters written and crossed out on the paper in front of him, all of which Sherlock had discarded ages ago. He said, calmly, “Where are we going?”

“I don’t know. Anywhere. Options are limited here, though. I suppose we’ll just go into town and see if anything interesting is going on. Although I can already tell you that nothing interesting will be going on. Mrs. Hudson!” Sherlock shouted, as he picked himself up off the floor of the library, where they’d been working.

“Don’t shout,” Mrs. Hudson said when she appeared in the doorway.

“We are going into town,” Sherlock informed her.

Mrs. Hudson looked pleased. “Oh, excellent. You can stop at Mr. Notoriano’s and choose a cut of meat for dinner tonight.”

Sherlock made a face. “I’d rather not.”

“You were the one who refused to let me purchase any of the cuts of meat yesterday because you didn’t deem them acceptable. I’ll not have you criticizing what I come home with if you’re going into town anyway.” Mrs. Hudson looked at John. “John, make him stop at the butcher’s and pick out something for supper.”

“Yes, Mrs. Hudson,” John promised.

Sherlock frowned at him but decided it wasn’t worth the effort of the disagreement. “Fine,” he sighed, heavily, to show how inconvenient it was to be asked to do anything so trivial, and headed upstairs to fetch his coat.

The town was not far, a brisk thirty-minute walk that Sherlock knew by heart because there wasn’t much to do, really, but walk back and forth to the town. John seemed interested in the scenery, and for the first time Sherlock wished he knew more about the stupid things tourists were interested in, like when the old abbey had been founded and other useless information. But he didn’t know any of those things, so they walked in silence, and it wasn’t uncomfortable. They frequently spent a great deal of time in silence. It was nice. John was the only person he’d ever met who didn’t feel it necessary to babble at him all the time, who let him be quiet for vast stretches of time and didn’t constantly ask him what he was thinking.

John did say, eventually, “Why are you all dressed up?”

“I’m not all dressed up,” Sherlock said, in surprise.

“Yes, you are. You look like we’re at school.”

“I’m not wearing a tie,” Sherlock pointed out, logically.

“Yes, and you barely wear a tie when we’re at school, too.”

“What would you have me wear? Something ridiculous like jeans?” Sherlock asked scathingly.

John glanced pointedly at the jeans he was wearing.

“Jeans are fine for people like you,” said Sherlock.

John gave him the look that he gave him sometimes, half-amused and half-annoyed. Sherlock had come to recognize that look as a cue that he had said something rude.

“You know what I mean,” he said, by way of vague apology.

“I do, actually,” John agreed. “I shouldn’t, but I do.”

“Anyway, your problem isn’t the fact that you wear jeans—it’s those terrible jumpers you own.”

John actually looked shocked, as if he hadn’t any idea how terrible his jumpers were, which Sherlock found difficult to believe. “I like my jumpers,” John protested.

“I know you do. And I like them, too, because you like them, and I’d miss them awfully if you suddenly started dressing attractively. But you cannot deny that they’re terrible, John.”

“‘Dressing attractively’?” echoed John. “As opposed to how I dress now?”

You are attractive. How you dress is another matter entirely. You don’t like to call attention to yourself. In trying to accomplish that you’ve gone quite the other direction.”

“Not everyone wants to look like a fashion spread all the time.” John sounded sulky.

“Are you offended?” Sherlock asked him. “Don’t be offended. I told you, I like the jumpers. They are very John Watson. I like all things John Watson.” John didn’t trip or stumble or anything so dramatic, and an ordinary stupid person wouldn’t have noticed anything at all, but Sherlock wasn’t ordinary or stupid and there was a slight hitch to the rhythm of John’s stride when he said that. Sherlock wondered suddenly if he wasn’t supposed to say things like that. He never did really know what he was and wasn’t supposed to say, mostly because he didn’t care except when it came to John. “Sorry,” he ventured, “should I not have said that?”

“No, it’s fine.” John spoke slowly, the expression on his face inscrutable. “It’s fine.”

Sherlock was unsure that was true, but if John had said it was fine he knew John would make sure it was eventually fine. So Sherlock let it drop.

John said, after a moment of silence, “I’m not sure what the end result of that conversation was for me. Am I supposed to buy new jumpers, or…?”

Sherlock smiled. He couldn’t help it. “No. Keep the jumpers.”

They were approaching the town now, and John said, “It’s lovely,” as if he wasn’t the loveliest thing in it, which Sherlock found ridiculous, but he hmm’d noncommittally and led them through the streets. He noticed whenever John’s eyes showed interest in something and made sure to pause so John could inspect whatever it was to his heart’s content. Sherlock tried to think of everything he knew about the town, but it was precious little. He could deduce for John exactly who lived or worked in every single building they passed, and that was the best he could do, and so he did it and was gratified when John paid him the little compliments he usually paid him upon such displays.

Eventually they reached the butcher’s, and Sherlock took a deep breath and ushered them in. He hated the butcher. The feeling was mutual. Sherlock didn’t much care. Sherlock thought it unacceptable that the butcher didn’t automatically put aside the very best cuts of meat for Mrs. Hudson at all times. Sherlock didn’t really understand how every shopkeeper in town didn’t automatically give Mrs. Hudson the best of everything, because she clearly deserved it.

Unhappily, Mr. Notoriano was not in the store: his son Angelo was. Mr. Notoriano would not have started a fight, but Angelo definitely would, and under normal circumstances Sherlock wouldn’t care, but Sherlock did know that he would not forgive a single word from Angelo about John.

“If it isn’t his lordship,” Angelo sneered at him. “Back to see if any of the cuts of meat are up to snuff for his precious mouth.”

John straightened beside him, which was a habit Sherlock had noticed John had whenever he was confronted with a possible fight. Sherlock thought it was half John trying to compensate for his height and half indicative of what Sherlock suspected was John’s talent for brawling.

Sherlock ignored Angelo, which was not usually his wont, but it had occurred to him that the danger wasn’t that Sherlock would lose his temper—the danger was that John would. Sherlock did not usually find himself in a situation where he cared to play peacekeeper, but he found himself wanting to do that now. So he leaned closer to the glass of the meat display and frowned at the pork.

And, luckily, the door opened behind them and Mr. Notoriano walked back into the store. “Oh,” he said. “Sherlock.” Mr. Notoriano had lived in England from childhood, but there was still a stubborn trace of Italy in his voice, and it always seemed extra-present in the way he said Sherlock’s name. “I can handle this, Angelo,” Mr. Notoriano told his son, flatly, and Angelo frowned and stomped heavily from the store.

“Charming, as ever,” remarked Sherlock, once the door had closed, because he couldn’t resist, and then, “This pork looks passable. The rest of the meat is questionable in the extreme.”

Mr. Notoriano sighed heavily and asked, between gritted teeth, “So would you like a cut of the pork?”

“Obviously,” said Sherlock, and glanced at John, who had wandered over to the front store window and was peering out it onto the street.

Sherlock watched Mr. Notoriano closely, because he didn’t trust him to do this correctly, paid, and accepted the cut of meat and headed out of the store, John following him.

“Angelo and a couple of blokes headed up the street this way,” John said.

“So?” Sherlock responded.

“Angelo hates you.”

Sherlock shrugged.

“Why?” John persisted.

“Most people hate me, John. Oh, look, there are Angelo and his friends now. Careful, I’m sure they’ll try to say something cunningly insulting to us and fail miserably because they’re idiots. Idiots are always terrible at insults.”

John glanced over his shoulder, and Sherlock knew he was cataloguing. Angelo, two other boys, all of them a couple of years older and a couple of inches taller than John, but John was fitter than them. Sherlock knew this was what John was thinking.

“We’re not going to fight them,” Sherlock told him.

“Who said anything about fighting them?” asked John.

“I like this shirt,” Sherlock continued. “I don’t want to get blood on it.”

“Oi!” shouted Angelo from behind them. “Wanker!”

“He continues to be confused about what my name is,” remarked Sherlock, blandly.

“What did you do to him?” asked John.

Sherlock was impatient. “I didn’t do anything to him.” They were at the edge of town now, on the road that led to the Holmes estate, and Sherlock didn’t think they’d follow much longer.

“I suppose it was only a matter of time before you brought one of your arse bandit boyfriends to town with you,” continued Angelo, and his friends laughed as if this were hilarious.

But that was quite enough. Not a word about John was allowed. Sherlock stopped walking and turned to John, holding out the pork. “Would you hold this for me?”

“I thought we weren’t fighting,” John pointed out.

“I’ve changed my mind.”

“Well, don’t be idiotic. They’re being stupid and you never allow stupid people like that to upset you. And, anyway, you like that shirt. I’m not holding the pork while you fight.”

You’re certainly not fighting,” said Sherlock. “You’re the guest.”

“This conversation makes absolutely no sense,” said John. “I’m not taking the pork. Just keep walking.”

Sherlock sighed heavily and set his jaw and resumed walking. “I could actually hold my own,” he said, sullenly.

The taunts continued behind them, and Angelo said something like, “How much does he pay you? It must be quite a lot to shag a robot like him,” and he didn’t even finish the sentence before John moved so quickly Sherlock couldn’t stop him and planted a perfect punch that sent Angelo reeling to the ground.

Sherlock was actually taken aback enough to just stand there for a second, staring. They all were.

Sherlock said, “I thought we weren’t fighting.”

“Yeah,” said John, dodging a blow from one of Angelo’s friends. “Sorry about that.” John put his head down and ran at his opponent, throwing off his center of gravity enough that they tumbled to the street in a heap.

Sherlock sighed and tossed the pork to the ground and said to Angelo’s friend, resigned, “I suppose you’re going to try to throw a right hook first, because you’re predictable, but it would be cleverer for you to—” Angelo’s friend went for the right hook, and Sherlock ducked. “Yes. Told you. Predictable.” Sherlock went for the kidney, but didn’t get a direct hit because his opponent used his weight advantage to tumble them over, and for a moment Sherlock had enough of the wind knocked out of him that he was late dodging the blow aimed to his head, which meant that it glanced off his cheekbone just as he jerked his head out of the way, and, annoyed at that, he managed to get his knee up and solidly connected to his opponent’s groin, which made him roll away from him with a howl of pain. Sherlock took a moment to look at the sky overhead and get his breath back.

John’s hand appeared, helping him up.

“That wasn’t bad,” said John.

“You sound surprised.” Sherlock straightened out his clothing and took stock of his injuries. A few bruises, the primary one of which was the one he could feel blooming in tenderness on his cheek. No blood on his shirt but he’d ripped it when he’d fallen to the ground, which was annoying.

Sherlock turned to John, who looked none the worse for wear. A bit of blood on his lip, which he wiped away, and a slightly dusty, tumbled look to him, but the primary change in John was the heightened flush on his cheeks and the brightness in his eyes.

“You enjoyed that,” Sherlock noted.

“No,” John denied, which was an obvious lie. “But they deserved that.”

Sherlock glanced around. Angelo and his other friend were nowhere to be seen. Sherlock’s particular opponent was still attempting to recover. The only true casualty in all this, Sherlock thought, was the pork.

“Mrs. Hudson’s not going to be pleased about supper,” he remarked, and then resumed walking home, because there was no use going back to the butcher’s to get more.

“Or about us getting in a fight, I imagine.” John sounded rueful.

“She won’t know about that. I’m expert at keeping that a secret. And Angelo and his acquaintances won’t say anything because they won’t want to admit they were beaten by a couple of poofs. If they say anything, they’ll make it out that they won, and then Mrs. Hudson will feel pity for us, not anger. So as long as we sneak our way back in, we’re in the clear. We have to have a plausible story about the pork. And, as I am notoriously choosy about the cuts of meat, we’ll just tell her that none were acceptable to us.”

“What about your black eye?”

“I’m clumsy.” Sherlock shrugged. “Our real issue will be that you are a terrible liar.”

“No, I’m not,” said John.

“Yes, you really are,” Sherlock told him. “It’s something you really need to work on. But don’t worry. You’re with me. I’ll take care of that side of things. That’s our partnership.”

“We have a partnership?”

“Yes. What did you think it was?”

“A friendship.”

“Isn’t that like a partnership?”

“I suppose.”

They were silent for a second, and then Sherlock couldn’t help it: he started laughing. And once he started, he couldn’t stop. He had never really experienced such a thing before, but he was having an actual fit of laughter.

“Oh my God,” said John, sounding alarmed. “How hard did you hit your head?”

Sherlock shook his head, gasping for breath.

“What’s so funny?” John sounded honestly perplexed.

“You,” Sherlock managed. “Telling me we weren’t fighting. And then turning around immediately and punching him. Why did you even bother to say that to me, if you were just going to do that?”

John’s mouth twitched with amusement. “I didn’t know I was going to do that until— Well what about you? Asking me to hold the pork as if you just needed to tie your shoe. As if I’d let you take on three wankers while I stood there holding pork.” John was laughing now, which was wonderful, because Sherlock always considered it a wonderful day when John laughed.

“You’re confused,” he said to him. “They think ‘wanker’ is my name, not theirs.”

Which made John laugh harder, and Sherlock thought he had never had such a satisfying trip into town.

***

Sherlock’s foolproof method of sneaking into the house involved climbing a tree. John should have seen that coming. But he followed obediently and dropped through Sherlock’s bedroom window behind him and that was when he finally noticed the back of Sherlock’s head.

“Sherlock,” he said, putting a hand on his shoulder to keep him still and reaching up to put his fingers in the sticky mass of blood tangling Sherlock’s hair.

Sherlock flinched and stepped away. “It’s nothing. Minor scrape. It’s stopped bleeding.”

John sighed heavily. “Why didn’t you say something? Sit down, I’ll clean it for you.”

“You’re not a doctor yet, you know,” Sherlock reminded him.

“It’ll be good practice,” said John, going into the bathroom that adjoined Sherlock’s bedroom.

“I can clean it myself.”

“You can’t clean the back of your head effectively.” Sherlock’s bathroom was well-stocked with first aid accoutrements. John supposed that shouldn’t have surprised him. “Be a good patient and sit still.”

Sherlock was sitting on the desk chair in his room, his arms folded, looking unamused, when John walked back in. “I’m fine.”

“I didn’t say you weren’t fine, but you do need that cut cleaned up.” He set to work on it.

Sherlock flinched again but said nothing, and John could tell he was getting ready to pout.

“Where did you learn how to fight?” John asked, to try to head the sulk off.

“What do you mean ‘where’? I didn’t go to school for it or anything like that. I just…learned.”

John could read between those lines very easily. Sherlock had probably learned to fight out of necessity at a very early age, the way John had, but for very different reasons. And, like all things Sherlock took it upon himself to learn, he’d learned it to the point of perfection.

“What’s the history between you and Angelo?” John asked.

“There is no history.”

“There’s obviously a history, Sherlock. Why does he think you’re gay?”

“Because I go to a posh school, he thinks we’re all gay at Eton. Is this about the Trevor thing again? I told you already, that was an experiment.”

“It would be fine if you were gay, Sherlock,” John said, honestly, because he meant that.

“I know it would be fine.” Sherlock hissed in pain and said, “Are you being careful?”

“Not especially,” said John, lightly.

Sherlock sighed heavily. “I hate it when you make jokes.”

“No, you don’t.”

“I don’t know why you think there has to be a history between Angelo and me,” Sherlock said, suddenly back on the original topic. “People don’t like me. They don’t like me because I’m cleverer than they are and I don’t pretend not to be. People don’t like that. I don’t give a damn that they don’t like that. Which makes them like me even less. You’re the only person I’ve ever met who’s ever actually given the impression of liking me.”

Sherlock said it so matter-of-factly, just one more logical conclusion he had drawn, but it made John feel a curious heaviness through his chest, a leap of adrenaline to find each and every one of these people who didn’t like Sherlock and force them to realize how wrong they were. Sherlock was trying, yes. Sherlock didn’t make it easy. He was blunt and abrasive and insulting. But Sherlock was also clever, he was interesting, he was funny when he wanted to be, and he could be good company, just a comforting presence when you didn’t want to be alone in the world. For all that he could be incredibly demanding, Sherlock really only wanted a friend, someone to listen and be there and talk to, and John couldn’t understand how no one before him seemed to have recognized how thoroughly amazing Sherlock was. He didn’t understand how everyone, from Mycroft to Angelo, seemed to think John needed to be paid to be Sherlock’s friend. He wondered if Sherlock harbored the same fear.

“John?” said Sherlock.

John cleared his throat. “I do like you. I’m not just…giving the impression of it.”

There was a moment of silence. “That…thing that you did, that was…good.”

“What thing?” John asked, confused.

“Punching Angelo.”

“Defending your honor,” said John, with forced lightness. “People will talk.”

“People do little else,” rejoined Sherlock.

Sherlock’s hair was marvelous. The blood was out of it now, and the scrape was clean, and Sherlock’s hair was thick and soft, and John had never really realized before how much he’d wanted to touch it. He turned his hand into it, the curls falling over it, and Sherlock leaned slightly, into the brush of his fingers over his scalp. John paused and swallowed and then ran his fingers slowly through Sherlock’s hair, telling himself he was checking for any cuts he might have missed, letting his fingertips drag along Sherlock’s head, and he heard Sherlock inhale sharply, make a small sound he couldn’t quite read.

“Did that hurt?” he asked, wondering if he really had missed another cut somewhere.

“Absolutely not,” Sherlock answered, his voice pitched even lower than it usually was, and it made John realize abruptly that they were in Sherlock’s bedroom. They were never in a bedroom that belonged to Sherlock, it seemed incredibly more intimate than if they had been in John’s bedroom. Sherlock’s bedroom, and his hands were closed in Sherlock’s hair, and Sherlock’s head was at the level of his waist. If he stepped around Sherlock, moved in front of him, faced him, took another step closer to him, crowded into his personal space, his hands still fastened in Sherlock’s hair and that bow of a mouth in front of him, would Sherlock let him, watch him with those otherworldly eyes, reach up those long, elegant fingers and pluck at the button of his jeans—

John took a hasty step back, dropping his hands from Sherlock’s hair and clearing his throat. “You’re…good,” he said. “The cut’s good. It’s clean.”

“I told you I was fine,” said Sherlock, and his voice sounded perfectly normal, and John wondered if he’d imagined the whole interlude. Sherlock stood and walked past him as if he wasn’t standing there, frozen in a state of trying-not-to-fantasize-about-his-best-friend. “You should go make yourself presentable.”

John resisted the urge to glance down at the front of his jeans, mostly because he knew he wasn’t nearly worked up to any noticeable state of arousal—yet—but one never knew what Sherlock might notice. “Why do I have to make myself presentable?” he asked, trying not to squeak it self-consciously.

Sherlock was opening a wardrobe as he answered. “Because you were just brawling in a street and you look it, and I’ll never be able to lie effectively for us if you’ve got blood on your lip and dirt all over your clothes. So go take care of that.”

“Right,” John agreed, because, well, obviously. Go take care of that. He was losing his mind. He went to his bedroom and decided to blame the whole thing on intense sexual frustration. That was all it was. He wasn’t confused, he told himself, he was…pent-up. Luckily, he had the luxury of a private bathroom here in which to take care of things, as Sherlock had just directed him to do. Perfect. He wouldn’t even think of Sherlock while he did it. Much.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve

John had become the exception to so many of Sherlock’s rules that Sherlock had placed him in his own little compartment in Sherlock’s analysis of the human race. There were People, the billions of people on the planet with him, and they all had characteristics, and he liked a minority of those characteristics and hated the majority of them, but all People seemed to share the same basic, comprehensible characteristics. Even Mycroft was recognizable to Sherlock, could be slotted into algorithms for predictable behavior.

And then there was John Watson, who stood on his own, because Sherlock had no idea what to make of him and had almost given up trying at all. Sherlock, as a general rule, did not like people. He recognized that he liked John. Sherlock, as a general rule, cherished alone time. He recognized that he had come to hate any time at all that didn’t include John. Sherlock, as a general rule, was bored by almost everything everybody said to him. He recognized that he found John endlessly fascinating. Sherlock, as a general rule, did not lose his head and giggle like an idiot. He recognized that John had the ability to provoke that in him. Sherlock, as a general rule, expected everyone he encountered to turn sneering and defensive within ten minutes. He recognized that John had never once been like that with him, even when Sherlock could tell he actually was annoyed with him. Sherlock, as a general rule, did not care what people thought of him. He recognized that he did care very much what John thought of him. Sherlock, as a general rule, did not have friends. He recognized that John thought they were friends, and he recognized that he agreed with the assessment, odd though it was. Sherlock, as a general rule, did not make any effort to be amusing. He recognized that making John laugh had become one of the delights of his life. Sherlock, as a general rule, did not think people were beautiful. He recognized that he definitely thought John was. Sherlock, as a general rule, did not think about people’s mouths and what they might feel like if properly kissed. He recognized that he thought about John’s mouth in that regard far too frequently for someone of his intellect.

Even worse for someone of his intellect: Sherlock, as a general rule, did not like to be touched. He had noted, with curious detachment, the way hormones had exploded for everyone around him at Eton. He had conducted the Trevor experiment and had determined that sex was dull beyond belief, and that had been the end of it for him. He had not thought about it again, even once, since that day, until he’d met John, and that was annoying. Sherlock, as a general rule, did not like to be touched, and then John had brushed his hands into his hair and Sherlock had entirely lost the train of each thought he’d been in the process of thinking, because that had felt wonderful in a way he’d been completely unprepared for. He still wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to have sex with John Watson, but for the first time he was seeing the point of touching. He wanted all five of his senses drenched in John, tuned to no other data but John. It was such a nonsensical desire that it was infuriating to him, but he couldn’t seem to help it. He was helpless to do anything about the fact of John Watson.

He couldn’t read what John thought about all of it. With Trevor it had been so incredibly easy, because he hadn’t cared. He did not want to lose John. He could not bear to do anything that might make John stop looking at him the way John currently looked at him.

The whole thing was annoying. More annoying than the stupid Taman Shud cipher. Sherlock didn’t sleep at all and eventually went downstairs and sat at the kitchen table and tried to drown himself in the cipher so that he’d stop thinking about trying to drown himself in John instead.

Mrs. Hudson came down eventually and looked almost surprised to see him there, which was strange because it was not at all unusual for Sherlock to sit up through the night working.

“Couldn’t you sleep?” she asked him, with that mother-hen cluck to her tone.

“I wasn’t tired,” Sherlock said, which wasn’t quite the truth. He was exhausted, but he was unable to sleep.

“Mr. Hardwicke phoned yesterday to say he’d had a sheep die.” Mrs. Hudson was busying herself with the kettle.

“Why didn’t you tell me this yesterday?” Sherlock demanded.

“I told Mr. Hardwicke you had a friend visiting.”

“What does that matter? John would love to do a sheep autopsy.”

Mrs. Hudson shook her head and sighed and said, “You are the luckiest soul on the planet, Sherlock Holmes.”

Sherlock didn’t really know what that was supposed to mean, so he said instead, “Ring Mr. Hardwicke back and tell him we’ll be there today.”

“You could make a day of it, if you like. Have dinner out at the pub.”

Sherlock considered. Mr. Hardwicke lived in the town on the other side of the estate, a brisker and longer walk, closer to an hour, and they were unlikely to run into anyone that Sherlock might know. And John liked things like pubs, Sherlock knew; John liked having people around. John would enjoy the pub because he almost never got to go to a pub. “Yes,” Sherlock decided. “That would be nice.”

Which was how he found himself teaching John the shortcut across the fields to the veterinary hospital in the next town over. The veterinarian rotated, and wasn’t there all the time, and when he wasn’t there, Sherlock was allowed to use the hospital. Mycroft had arranged that, actually, but Sherlock left that detail out in the telling of the story. Sometimes, when farm animals died under suspicious circumstances, the local farmers would request that Sherlock, if he was home, look into it, make sure it wasn’t something they needed to worry about infecting the rest of the flock. It wasn’t as good as a dead body turning up, but Sherlock would take what he could get.

John had said that he’d never dissected anything as big as a sheep before, and he’d looked excited by the prospect. They spent hours in the veterinary hospital debating the cause of death. John knew nothing about sheep anatomy, so he took out one of the veterinarian’s books and used it to guide the autopsy. Sherlock, who had dissected sheep before, didn’t need the direction but stopped correcting what John was doing when his face started to get a set mask of irritation to it. Sherlock didn’t want to upset John. Honestly, when John’s mouth frowned, Sherlock rather wanted to kiss it away. Of course, he also was taken with the idea of kissing John’s mouth when it was smiling, so it wasn’t like there was really much John could do with his mouth that hadn’t fixated into Sherlock’s brain.

John eventually concluded that the cause of death was a parasite. Nematodirus. Sherlock had concluded that ages ago, almost immediately upon seeing the sheep, but John seemed so pleased with himself that Sherlock just smiled at him.

It was later, when they were walking to the pub, that John said, “You knew that right away, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did,” Sherlock replied, pulling open the door to the pub. “But I thought you did really well, John.”

John sighed and shook his head a little bit, but he didn’t look annoyed, just resigned.

Sherlock enjoyed supper immensely. He told John all the reasons why the woman in the hot pink coat on the other side of the pub was a serial adulterer, and John said the deductions were amazing, and Sherlock was unfamiliarly content. John, to Sherlock’s eye, was quite the most dazzling human being in the pub, and he thought Sherlock was amazing. John told him a story Sherlock had never heard before, about John and his sister and a bottle of wine his sister had acquired (John cleared his throat when he said the word, and Sherlock smiled). There was nothing especially clever about the story, except that John was telling it. Sherlock made some observation about the story, and John laughed, and Sherlock thought he must be the envy of every person in the pub, and that was a curious feeling, although no more curious than everything else that he ever felt because of John.

John was telling another story, which involved using props on the table. Sherlock didn’t even know what the story was about. He was listening without really listening, watching John’s hands as they nudged plates and napkins around on the table, and he was so bloody distracted that he didn’t even notice Molly until she said, nervously, “Hello, Sherlock.”

John stopped talking, and Sherlock looked up at her and told himself not to panic, there was nothing to panic about, except that Molly had an entire group of her tedious friends with her and this was a disaster.

“What are you doing here?” Sherlock demanded. She shouldn’t have been here at all. Sherlock had deliberately gone all the way to the next town over just to avoid running into people like Molly.

“It’s pub quiz tonight here,” Molly answered. “Never see you at a pub quiz.” Molly smiled, both wide and shy at the same time, and Sherlock told himself not to die of annoyance.

John shifted next to him, moving a bit closer to him, and Sherlock looked at him in surprise as John crowded a bit into his personal space and said, “Hi,” to Molly in a determined tone of voice.

Molly turned her attention to him for the first time. “Oh.” She looked flustered. “Hi.”

Sherlock once again reminded himself not to die of annoyance. Because John had a strangely intent look on his face when he gazed at Molly. Was John interested in Molly?

“Why don’t you and your friend stay for the pub quiz, Sherlock?” asked one of Molly’s friends, a ridiculous girl, left-handed, fresh from a shag with someone, diagnosed with minor asthma. She looked pointedly at John and may as well have pulled her breasts out of her shirt.

“Sherlock never stays for the pub quiz,” said another of Molly’s friends, a ridiculous boy this time, video game addict, fond of inhaling markers, and ah, the boy the girl had just been shagging. “If he stayed, he’d have to admit other stuff he doesn’t know, like the fact that the Earth goes around the sun.”

Molly’s friends all laughed as if this were a hilarious bit of repartee. John stiffened into fight-ready pose next to him, and Sherlock half-wanted John to suddenly throw a punch at someone.

Molly frowned and said, “Stop it.” She turned back to Sherlock and said, hopefully, “You could stay? If you want to?”

“I don’t want to,” answered Sherlock, immediately, then glanced to John and wondered if he should ask if John wanted to.

But John, to his relief, stood and said, “Neither do I. Let’s go.”

Sherlock, pleased, followed John out of the pub a bit smugly, and they set out on the walk home in silence. John was angry about something, Sherlock could tell, and Sherlock tried to puzzle out what it was.

“Who were those people?” John asked, finally.

Sherlock shrugged. “People. From town. Not this town.”

“Angelo’s town? Is Angelo’s town inhabited entirely by tossers? Who was the girl?”

“Which girl?” Sherlock asked, suspiciously.

“The one who came over in the first place.”

“Why do you want to know?”

John took a deep breath and said, “I suppose it doesn’t matter.”

Sherlock frowned under cover of the darkness they were walking in and thought it definitely didn’t matter. John wasn’t going to start dating Molly, not when John shouldn’t really be dating anyone at all.

They walked in silence for a little while longer, and then the moon abruptly came out from behind the clouds and everything in front of them was a silver landscape, the outline of the house and the stars flung against the sky over it.

John stopped walking and spent a moment just looking, then said, finally, “It’s beautiful.”

Sherlock looked at him and said, “Yes.”

***

John did not want to go to bed. He was not the least bit tired. In fact, he was the opposite of tired. He was thrumming with energy. And it was the last night of the holiday. The following night they would be back at school, and while they would still be together, it seemed to John that it wouldn’t be the same. He felt as if Sherlock was all his here, that these were all bits and pieces no one else had ever got to see before, and he didn’t want it to be over quite yet.

Mrs. Hudson had gone to bed hours ago. John knew it had to be late, although he was refusing to look at the room’s clock. Sherlock was looking through John’s copy of The Rubaiyat and complaining about the poor translation.

“Are you tired?” John asked him.

Sherlock looked at him over the book. He was sprawled on the sofa, looking elegant and relaxed. “No. Why? Are you?”

“No. Not even a little bit. We should do something.”

“Like what?”

John shook his head in frustration. He had no idea. He felt as if he wanted to do something slightly reckless.

Sherlock cocked his head at him, then sat up and put the book down. “Come with me,” he said, and John followed him down a hallway they hadn’t been down yet.

The hallway was lined with portraits of dour-looking people. Not one of them looked even a little bit like Sherlock. “Are these all relatives?” said John.

“No,” said Sherlock, opening a door and disappearing into it. “Most of them are fakes. I spent a summer carbon-dating the canvases.”

Of course he had, thought John. The door led to a staircase, down which Sherlock was walking, and John followed him.

Sherlock punched on lights as they reached the bottom, and John registered they were in a wine cellar. Sherlock swept his arm out. “Take your pick.”

John looked quizzically from the bottles to Sherlock. “I didn’t think you drank.” But he supposed what was more accurate was that Sherlock didn’t socialize, which was where the drinking took place at Eton.

“I don’t,” Sherlock said, confirming his initial conclusion. “But you do. And you’re feeling restless, like you want to do something out of the ordinary, unusual, special. So, I’ll drink with you.” Sherlock stepped forward, confidently, reaching out and plucking a bottle from the shelf. “Champagne.” He held it out to John.

John looked at the label. “This is Dom Perignon.”

“Do you think Mycroft would stock anything less than the best?”

“Will you get in trouble for this?” John asked him.

Sherlock looked annoyed and shut off the lights, holding the bottle firmly as he walked back up the stairs. “John, there’s very little I do that I don’t get in trouble for,” he reminded him, and they were walking back down the portrait-lined hallway again.

“I’ve never had champagne before,” said John. “I don’t know if it’s a good idea to start at the top.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to properly chill it, so it won’t be the best you’ll ever have. Here.” Sherlock abruptly handed him the bottle, as they entered the kitchen.

“What am I supposed to do with this?”

“Open it.”

“I don’t know how to open champagne.”

“John.” Sherlock rolled his eyes. “It isn’t difficult. You aren’t that stupid. Go outside, though, I don’t want you waking Mrs. Hudson by breaking a bunch of dishes with the cork.”

“Why don’t you open it?”

“Because I’m getting us glasses,” Sherlock answered, primly.

John sighed and walked out the back door, studying the champagne bottle. It really wasn’t difficult. He sent the cork flying off into the field behind the house with a loud, pleasing pop. That, he thought, was kind of fun.

He walked back into the house, where Sherlock was already heading out of the kitchen.

“Come on,” he said to John, and John followed.

Sherlock was going up the staircase, and John wasn’t sure why they couldn’t just have the champagne in the library, where they had been.

“Sherlock,” he began.

“Shh!” Sherlock hissed at him.

So John bit his tongue and followed him into his bedroom, where Sherlock closed the door.

“Your bedroom?” John said. “Really?”

“It will take Mrs. Hudson much longer to find out about the champagne here than anywhere else in the house,” Sherlock said, reasonably, and sat on the floor and looked at him expectantly. “Come on.”

Well, thought John, after a second, he’d wanted to do something reckless. Champagne with Sherlock in Sherlock’s bedroom seemed about right. He filled the flutes Sherlock had retrieved, clinked their glasses together, and sat down opposite Sherlock.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen

Champagne, thought John, was bloody fabulous. It was, possibly, his new favorite thing. No, it was his new second favorite thing. Because his new favorite thing was Sherlock after he’d been drinking champagne, slightly tipsy, with color in his cheeks and a spark in his eyes. Sherlock with the edge off was a delight, less snappish and suspicious and guarded, more open and inviting and seductive. John tried to come up with another adjective, but seductive was the only one that worked. There was something heady about Sherlock like this, the lushness of his voice, the increased warmth in his gaze. John wasn’t entirely sure if he was drunker on champagne or Sherlock.

“I thought I might take up smoking,” Sherlock was musing. He was lying on his back, twirling his empty champagne flute between two long, elegant fingers and gazing up at the ceiling.

“Don’t you dare,” John threatened. He leaned over to top off Sherlock’s glass, only to realize the bottle was empty. “Bloody heavy bottle for having nothing in it. Half the cost of the champagne must be the glass in the bottle.”

“Do you want a second bottle?” asked Sherlock, fuzzily.

John glanced at him. Sherlock didn’t drink, so John considered that he’d probably had quite enough, and John had already determined that he’d rather enjoy Sherlock than the alcohol, so he said, “No,” drained what was in his glass, and laid on his back contentedly, matching Sherlock’s pose and looking up at Sherlock’s bedroom ceiling.

“Why can’t I take up smoking?” Sherlock asked, abruptly. “It would give me something to do.”

“What do you mean, ‘something to do’?”

Sherlock made a sound of disgust. “You know how it is. So boring. All the time.”

“Shut up,” John told him. “You haven’t been bored in months.”

“But I used to be. All the time.”

“Smoking is terrible for you. I won’t let you. You can come up with some other way not to be bored.”

“I’d do anything not to be bored,” said Sherlock, dully. “Anything. I hate it.”

There was something in the way he said it that had John glancing at him, almost in fear. He heard himself say, “Don’t talk like that. You have me now; I’ll keep you from being bored.” It was ridiculous, and he felt self-conscious for saying it.

Sherlock merely hummed thoughtfully, though, and then said, “All right. But if you leave me, I’m taking up smoking.” Sherlock yawned and turned onto his side toward John, as if he were getting ready to fall asleep, here on this ridiculously uncomfortable floor.

John thought he should get up, go to his room. He looked at Sherlock, whose eyes were closed, and said, “What’s my least favorite word?”

“It’s ‘polyp,’” Sherlock answered, sleepily.

John lifted his eyebrows in surprise. “I do hate that word.”

“Yes. You made a face whenever you had to say it when we were doing that unit in biology. You make the best faces.”

John didn’t know what to make of that. He was busy realizing that he’d had no idea “polyp” was his least favorite word until that moment. He made another connection. “And roast chicken is my favorite supper.”

Sherlock nodded. “With roasted potatoes, overdone, almost on the edge of burnt.”

John stared at him. “How do you know these things?”

Sherlock finally opened his eyes. They were slightly unfocused with champagne and what John was starting to realize was exhaustion. Sherlock was exhausted, and Sherlock was seldom exhausted. But his eyes were still compelling, and John couldn’t look away. “I pay attention to you,” Sherlock said.

John couldn’t move. He thought of Sherlock paying attention to him, all of that incomprehensible brilliance directed toward him, cataloguing which foods he ate most enthusiastically, right down to the exact level to which they were cooked. Noticing the faces he made when he said words. Sherlock’s attention could be caught by any number of ingenious mysteries, but Sherlock’s attention was on him. Sherlock knew him better than he himself did, he realized in shock—that was how hard Sherlock was paying attention to him.

He literally did not know what to say.

“Did you like Molly?” Sherlock asked, surprising John, and Sherlock sounded almost hesitant in the question.

John felt the weight of the champagne in his stomach, an abrupt queasiness. He could not lay here half-drunk on Sherlock’s bedroom floor and talk about girls with him. “Why?” he asked warily, trying not to sound like he was panicking.

Sherlock exhaled slowly, a grim set to his face. “Because I don’t like her. If you were worried about that. If you like her…And you’d like me to…”

John focused on the one thing he cared about in that. “You don’t like her?”

Sherlock looked annoyed. “Of course not.”

“She seems nice enough. She likes you a lot.” That much had been bloody obvious.

“Yes. It’s unfortunate for her that she never seems to take a sodding hint. Actually, no, I don’t deliver hints, I just tell her. She doesn’t pay attention. But anyway—”

John started laughing. He couldn’t help it. He blamed the champagne, but he rolled around on Sherlock’s floor in hysterics.

“What?” Sherlock asked, looking perplexed. “It’s really not funny. It’s bloody annoying.”

“Did you think I liked Molly?” John countered, trying to catch his breath.

“You were strange with Molly,” Sherlock informed him, looking out of his depth and annoyed at that.

“Because I was jealous. I’m jealous of every single person you talk to who isn’t me, you stupid git.” John suddenly realized what he’d said and wished he hadn’t drunk so much champagne. “I mean—” he tried to correct himself, hastily.

“I almost never talk to anyone who isn’t you,” Sherlock interrupted him, his eyes wide and fathomless.

“I have no idea why that is,” John said, honestly.

“Neither do I,” answered Sherlock, softly.

They looked across at each other for a long, silent moment. Sherlock’s gaze was steady and inscrutable.

John said, his voice low, loath to interrupt the silence they were wrapped in, “Tell me something about you that no one at Eton knows.” It was greedy of him, because he knew that there were so many things he knew about Sherlock that nobody else at Eton knew, but he wanted a secret that Sherlock gave him, trustingly, knowing it was a secret and that John would keep it.

Sherlock thought. And then he smiled. “I play the violin beautifully,” he said.

John had heard Sherlock play the violin. It was all violent screeches and terrible wails. The running joke at Eton was how awful Sherlock was at the violin. John managed, in surprise, “You do?”

“Of course I do. Do you know how expensive my violin is? I am absolutely bloody fantastic at the violin.” Sherlock looked delighted, proud of himself, pleased with this secret.

“Then…” John was bewildered. It seemed like such a ridiculous thing to lie about. “Why don’t you play it nicely then?”

“Because why should they get to hear me play them nice music? That violin is mine. I’m not playing it for a bunch of sodding idiots I hate and who hate me back.”

“But you could be in the school orchestra.”

“Don’t be stupid, John. I don’t do anything organized.”

“Considering the state of our room, that’s very true,” John allowed.

“Shut up,” said Sherlock, but he laughed. And then he said, “Would you like to hear me play the violin nicely?”

John was surprised. “Now? Won’t you wake Mrs. Hudson?”

“She’s used to me playing in the middle of the night. I do play nice music when I’m at home, and it helps me to think.”

“Then, yes,” said John, immediately. “Yes, I want to hear you play the violin nicely.”

Sherlock looked delighted, and he jumped up and grabbed his violin from where it was resting on his bed. John rolled over to keep him in view, and Sherlock looked at him expectantly. “Do you have any requests? A favorite piece? A composer you prefer? A country even?”

“I don’t know anything about classical music. What are you best at?”

Sherlock looked offended. “Everything.”

Of course. “Play me something nice,” said John.

“Mozart,” Sherlock decided.

“Fine,” John said, because he really didn’t care.

Sherlock settled the violin under his chin and picked up his bow, and then he played. And he played…beautifully. It was an understatement. John had never heard anything half as gorgeous as whatever Sherlock was playing with his violin. He played it gently, smoothly, looking half effortless and half lost in concentration, completely wrapped up in what he was doing.

John had the crystal-clear thought, in the middle of all the champagne, that it was too much. It was all too much. He was in over his head. He was drowning.

He closed his eyes and listened to Sherlock’s violin. Maybe he had already drowned.

Champagne made the floor tilt beneath him. Sherlock played his violin, and John let himself fall.

***

John woke on Sherlock’s floor, wrapped in the duvet from Sherlock’s bed. Sherlock’s doing, he assumed, since he had no memory of it. Sherlock was sound asleep across from him on the floor, covered in a quilt, and John thought how thoroughly ridiculous this was: they were in his bedroom, with a bed right there, and Sherlock had slept on the floor with him. It was utterly ridiculous and made John smile. Sherlock had the quilt up over his head, cuddled into it, only his hair visible above it, which was rather a shame since John had never seen Sherlock sleep before and it would have been kind of a nice thing to be able to see his face.

Then again, John thought, probably not a normal thing to do, to wake up in the morning and watch your best friend sleep.

He crawled out of the duvet and left Sherlock sleeping on the floor and walked to his own bedroom. Sunlight was streaming through the house. It was late, John realized. Then again, he had no idea what time he’d fallen asleep. Close to dawn, John suspected. For all that, he felt fairly good. Not much of a hangover. John decided that was because it had been quality champagne.

He took his time showering and making sure he had everything back in his bag, prepared for the drive back to Eton, and then he finally headed down the stairs.

Mycroft Holmes and Mrs. Hudson were sitting at opposite ends of the kitchen table. Mycroft had papers laid out in front of him, and he flickered a glance at John that lasted half a second and made John feel as if he’d seen every thought John had had over the course of the weekend.

“Good…morning,” Mycroft said, turning back to his papers.

Which confirmed John’s suspicions about the time. “Good morning,” John rejoined.

Mrs. Hudson, who’d apparently been doing a crossword puzzle, smiled at him and said, “Breakfast?”

“It’s lunchtime, Mrs. Hudson,” said Mycroft, without looking up.

Mrs. Hudson, undeterred, said to him, “Lunch?”

“Anything is fine,” John said, honestly.

“You’re fond of scrambled eggs,” said Mrs. Hudson, standing. “I’ll make you some.”

John really could barely comprehend the extent to which his preferences were coddled in this house. It was unbelievable. He didn’t think his mother had any idea how he preferred his eggs. And Harry, though a good sister in her own way, would have laughed at him for being a silly prat if he’d even asked her about it. John kind of never wanted to leave this place.

As if reading his thoughts, Mycroft said, “Did you have a pleasant weekend?”

John shook himself out of his reverie to find Mycroft’s sharp eyes on him, searching, searching, searching. John had an irrational desire to snap, Yes. I may have fantasized about Sherlock. Once. Or twice. Or more times than I might care to count. Do you need more details than that? Instead John said, honestly, “I had a lovely weekend.”

“You’ll have to come to stay again, John,” Mrs. Hudson said, from over by the stove. “Would your mother mind?”

John was conscious of Mycroft’s heavy gaze on him. “No,” he said, determined not to shift with discomfort. “I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.”

Mrs. Hudson smiled at him widely. “Then you must come to stay again. Sherlock would be delighted. He doesn’t normally have an autopsy partner.”

“He doesn’t need an autopsy partner. I’m sure I just slowed him down.”

“Sherlock needs slowing down every once in a while,” Mrs. Hudson responded, merrily.

“No, I don’t,” Sherlock denied, coming into the kitchen. He wasn’t dressed. In fact, he looked barely awake, and he collapsed dramatically into the chair next to John and glared blearily at his brother. John considered that maybe the no-hangover thing didn’t apply when you had built up no tolerance to alcohol.

Mycroft looked between them and lifted his eyebrows but didn’t comment.

“Good morning, Sherlock,” said Mrs. Hudson. “What would you like for breakfast?”

“Nothing,” said Sherlock. “I’m never eating again.”

Mycroft said, mildly, “You should make him a Bloody Mary, Mrs. Hudson,” and turned back to his work.

***

John and Sherlock had been mostly quiet on the drive to Eton. Sherlock, Mycroft knew, because he was hungover. And John because he had nothing to say and John wasn’t a babbler. If he had been, Sherlock wouldn’t have been able to abide him.

When they arrived, Sherlock rolled himself out of the car and headed into Holland House without another word.

John hesitated, looking after him, and then turning back to Mycroft. Politeness, thought Mycroft, and wondered where John had picked that up, because his upbringing would not have led Mycroft to expect it.

“Thank you,” John said, carefully.

“You’re quite welcome.”

John nodded once, as if to ascertain that his duty was done, and then turned to go into the house.

“John,” Mycroft called after him, and John paused and looked back at him. “Be careful,” said Mycroft.

“What? Why?” John looked suspicious.

Mycroft wanted to say: Because you have clearly become the most important thing in my little brother’s life, surely even you can see that, don’t be an idiot, and if you do anything that doesn’t deserve the pedestal he’s put you on, I will unleash every government agency on you, including the top-secret ones no one knows about. He satisfied himself with, “Everything.”

John looked quizzical, but nodded at him and walked into the house.

Mycroft stood, thinking, and then went in search of Gregory Lestrade.

***

Greg was playing football with some of the younger boys who had got back from the long leave early and were feeling homesick. Greg felt for them, and so he had proposed football. It was a raw sort of day, but the boys had fallen on the suggestion enthusiastically, and so eventually Greg found himself, sweaty and exhausted, trudging off the pitch and trying not to limp. He needed to play more often, he thought. He was getting humiliatingly out of shape.

There was a posh bloke in a three-piece suit on the side of the pitch, leaning dramatically against an umbrella and watching him. He looked basically the opposite of how Greg looked at the moment, polished and put-together and composed. And attractive, Greg registered, in the unruffled, untouchable sort of way that just made you think you had to get under that suit to see what might happen. Or it made Greg think that. He had always had a weakness for that sort of challenge.

The man was watching him, but Greg didn’t want to assume that he actually wanted to talk to him. Although Greg wondered if he should say something to him. He wasn’t the right age to be a student or the father of a student. In fact, Greg thought he was probably a few years younger than Greg’s age. He was, it seemed, at that age when youthful metabolism gave way to a desk job and led to a bit of thickness one would prefer not to have. A phenomenon Greg was familiar with.

Greg decided he probably should say something to him instead of letting a strange bloke wander around campus, even if he was well-dressed.

“Can I help you?” he asked, walking toward him.

“Mr. Lestrade?” the man queried.

Great, thought Greg. He was probably about to be sued or something. “Yes,” he answered, slowly, registering that the man’s hair was tipped toward the ginger end of the brown spectrum, and the breeze was coaxing it out of its perfectly combed tameness. “Why?”

“I am Mycroft Holmes,” said the man, and extended a hand.

Greg stared at him dumbly for a second, because he hadn’t imagined Mycroft Holmes to be, well, annoyingly, defiantly attractive. “You’re Mycroft Holmes?” he repeated, just to be sure.

“Isn’t that what I said?” the man responded, irritated.

Ah, thought Greg, there was the family resemblance. Because otherwise they didn’t look like each other at all. A shared drama, but not at all the same type of drama.

Greg finally shook Mycroft’s hand and said, “Well, it’s nice to meet you.”

“Don’t lie,” said Mycroft, with a humorless smile. “You were hoping, after our first conversation, that I’d just stay out of your way.”

“Have you come here to get in my way?” asked Greg, adding just a touch of steel to his voice and wishing he wasn’t dressed in the rattiest clothing he owned, with sweat drying unpleasantly on his chest.

“No. I have no complaints. So far.” There was a gentle emphasis on the so far, a watch-your-step-I’m-not-always-this-nice.

Greg wondered if this was what qualified as “nice” to a Holmes, and, if so, it was no wonder Sherlock had turned out so bloody prickly.

Greg decided he didn’t really care to stand there and be threatened. “I’m so delighted to have your gracious, if reluctant, approval,” he said, dryly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me—”

“I wanted to talk to you about John Watson.”

That stopped Greg from walking away. He turned back to Mycroft Holmes. “What about John Watson?”

“What do you know of his home life?”

“Nothing. I’m not his tutor, you know. You should really speak to—”

“I want to speak to you,” Mycroft Holmes interrupted him, impatiently.

“Why?”

“Because you’re the first person at this idiotic place who appears to have an ounce of reason.”

“Sherlock learned how to pay a compliment from you, didn’t he?”

Mycroft frowned at him but didn’t rise to the bait. “His mother’s an alcoholic who isn’t really paying attention. That’s fine, as far as John is concerned, because John is preternaturally self-possessed, as surely has not escaped your notice. But John has a younger sister who still lives with their mother, mostly unsupervised, and appears to be nursing her own nascent alcoholic habit. Sorry, the sister is nursing her nascent alcoholic habit, not the mother, my subject was unclear in that clause; I apologize.”

Greg stared at him. “How do you know any of this?”

Mycroft gave a ghost of a shrug. “The same way I know you took this position because your last paramour behaved quite indiscreetly with the headmaster of the school you were previously employed at. Bad news for your paramour and for that school.”

Greg was so swiped sideways by that, which he had managed, he thought, to keep a secret, that the only thing he could manage to say was, “Bad news for me.”

“You’re well rid of her. It’s her loss. She was an imbecile. And you’re cleverer than you give yourself credit for.”

Greg narrowed his eyes. “Who are you?”

“Exactly who I say I am.”

Greg kept his eyes narrow, thinking. “Why are you so concerned about John Watson?”

“Why shouldn’t I be concerned about John Watson?”

“I can tell you why I think you should be concerned about him.”

“Please do.”

“Your brother’s rather desperately in love with him.”

The corner of Mycroft’s mouth turned down in a frown. “My brother is literally a schoolboy, in the midst of a schoolboy infatuation. But yes, that is precisely the root of my concern.”

“That John might be distracted with anything in the universe that isn’t Sherlock?” drawled Greg. “I’m not sure what it is you expect me to do.”

“Bring it up with the headmaster, of course.”

“Ah. I see. If I send social services sniffing around the Watsons’, and things happen that may subsequently upset John, Sherlock will blame me. Whereas if you do it, Sherlock will blame you. And obviously it’s preferable that, of the two of us, Sherlock blame me.”

“Obviously.”

“Sod off,” Greg told him, and started to walk away.

“Mr. Lestrade,” Mycroft said, sharply.

Greg really meant to keep stalking away but truthfully he was too annoyed to do it. “No,” he said, and turned and walked back over to Mycroft. “I am not getting involved in that. Do you have any idea what John’s done? He’s clawed his way up from a council estate to Eton. He’s accomplished it at 17, with no family structure to speak of and no one to help him. I’m not going to do anything to take away from that accomplishment, to make him feel guilty or ashamed that he did it. And it’s extra-insulting when you know that I started in the same place as him. What would ever make you think I’d be on your side of this question? It isn’t your place to come in here and judge his home life.”

“Why isn’t it?” Mycroft clipped out. “You judged Sherlock’s almost immediately, didn’t you? Poor, maligned Sherlock, with a brother who never paid sufficient deference to his sensitive genius.”

“Actually,” Greg retorted, “I went back and re-read Sherlock’s file and re-evaluated that. You were a kid when you got control of Sherlock, and Sherlock’s no walk in the park, I’ve no doubt you did the best you could. Plus, Sherlock’s spoiled beyond belief, not the benign sort of spoiled that a lot of these kids have going for them, but the active, indulgent, fawning sort of spoiled, which a kid doesn’t get unless a kid is loved to a fault. So I was prepared to give you a second chance and the benefit of the doubt and all of those types of things. Now, however, you’ve annoyed me again.”

“I really could not care less what it is you think of me,” said Mycroft, angrily.

“You care that I dare to think of you at all,” responded Greg.

“This was going to be a civil conversation,” said Mycroft.

“It isn’t my fault that it’s not. Look. John is a good kid. He’s steady and dependable and level-headed. And, for whatever reason, he is thoroughly taken with Sherlock. You don’t need to worry about the two of them. You don’t need to set into motion elaborate contingency plans to make sure John keeps Sherlock happy. They’re inseparable. I’d bet you twenty quid you couldn’t distract John from Sherlock at this point if you tried. So stop waving about all your shadowy power and veiled threats and…umbrella.” Mycroft looked at his umbrella in surprise. “I’m keeping an eye on both of them. They’ll be fine. Now, I really need to go and take a shower.”

“I’m going to hold you to your word on that,” Mycroft called to him.

Greg responded without turning around. “I’ll get my will in order, just in case I fail you.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen

Sherlock had decided that he wasn’t wearing ties anymore.

This was ridiculous, as they were a required part of the Eton uniform, and, as Lestrade said when he came to their room to berate him about it, “You’ve been doing so well.”

“I hate ties,” Sherlock said, lining up pinecones on their windowsill. He was doing some sort of experiment on pinecones. He’d had these specially shipped from America. John had no idea what the point of it was, but thought it possible Sherlock had rather too much money. John was lying on his bed reading for his physics school and watching the conversation. “I’ve always hated ties,” Sherlock continued.

“Do you think you could manage to put up with them for just a few hours a day?” asked Lestrade.

“No,” sniffed Sherlock. “I don’t.”

“You’ve managed to do it so far.”

“What is the point of them?”

“Many things in life don’t have a point, Sherlock.”

“I’ve noticed. Waste of energy, all of it.”

“Unlike your very important experiment with pinecones,” drawled Lestrade.

Sherlock glared at him. “Well, you gave me an unsolvable case. Unsolvable!” Sherlock gestured to the bulletin board, which was now so covered in stuff that John kept expecting it to fall entirely off the wall.

“Well—” began Lestrade.

“How do you expect me to solve this case when you won’t let me go to Australia? All of the clues are in Australia.”

“You can’t go to Australia, Sherlock. Not without your brother’s permission.”

“He’ll never give me permission,” muttered Sherlock, darkly.

“And if you sneak out and go to Australia on your own, he’ll—”

“You don’t need to tell me Mycroft’s threats,” Sherlock interrupted, impatiently. “I know Mycroft’s threats. How often do you talk to him, anyway?”

“I don’t talk to him. He left me a message this morning.” Lestrade read from a piece of paper. “‘Tell my brother if he sneaks away to go to Australia, alone or with John, I’ll—’”

“Boring,” announced Sherlock. “I don’t want to hear the rest.”

“Look, I’ll try to find you a crime closer to home for you to solve,” Lestrade offered.

Sherlock narrowed his eyes at him. “And I’ll get to see the evidence?”

“I’ll make all my best efforts in that direction. If you start wearing a tie to your divs again.”

Sherlock steepled his fingers against his lips and considered this deal. “How can I trust that you’ll uphold your end of this bargain?”

“My word of honor.”

Sherlock’s lips curled into a mockery of a smile. “How quaint. I don’t believe in anybody’s word of honor.”

“I trust him,” John contributed. “Take my word of honor that Lestrade will fulfill his word of honor.”

“Thank you, John,” said Lestrade.

Sherlock looked at John, thinking, and then turned back to Lestrade. “All right. Fine. You’re lucky John was here.”

“Yeah,” agreed Lestrade, dryly. “What are you doing with the pinecones?”

Sherlock sighed dramatically. “I can’t possibly be expected to explain it to someone with your tiny brain.”

Lestrade shook his head and rolled his eyes and sighed and said to John, “Try and keep him in line, won’t you?” as he left the room.

“You don’t have any pinecone experiment yet, do you?” said John to Sherlock.

“No. Haven’t decided what I’m going to do with them yet. But he doesn’t need to know that.” Sherlock tipped his head and studied the pinecones thoughtfully.

“Do you think, for my sake, you could try not to get yourself kicked out of this school?”

“You’d be fine without me,” Sherlock said, waving his hand at him dismissively.

“No,” John said, bluntly. “I wouldn’t. What makes you think that?”

“You’re charming. You play rugby. You get along with everyone. The only reason you’re not popular now is because you spend too much time with me. If I left, I daresay you’d have more friends than you’d know what to do with.”

“Right,” said John. “But none of them would be as annoying as you are, so what would be the point?”

Sherlock glanced at him with a quick smile.

John ventured, cautiously, “I’m going home for the short leave.”

“You could come home with me if you like,” Sherlock suggested, poking at the pinecones on the windowsill as if they would suddenly do something dramatic.

John knew he would suggest that. John would have liked to go back to Sherlock’s house. He liked it at Sherlock’s house. And he was ashamed of that. He had a family at home. A family he was supposed to be taking care of. He couldn’t keep pretending he didn’t, playing at this fairy tale with Sherlock.

“I know,” he said. “I have to go home.”

Sherlock shrugged as if he didn’t really care one way or the other. Which was a bit of a relief, because John suspected that just a bit of pouting on Sherlock’s part would have changed his mind.

***

So John went home for the short leave. Harry was pleasantly surprised to see him. Their mother was nowhere about.

“I didn’t want to worry you,” Harry said. “But she pretty much drifts in and out now. I think she has a boyfriend.”

John looked at the rather sorry state of the flat around them and said, “How much is she around? Harry…”

“Stop fussing. Don’t look like that. It’s all fine. It’s good to see you!” She gave him a fierce hug, which she clearly intended to distract him with. “Oh! And you’re home! So you can go out with all of us tonight! Sarah’s coming,” she sing-songed.

John had less than zero interest in going out with Sarah that night. And the solid realization of that was alarming. Three months earlier, he had fancied himself deeply in love with Sarah. His determination to go to Eton had caused a vicious row, and John had thought he would be depressed for a while. Then he had met Sherlock and immediately forgot about Sarah. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d thought of her.

“Unless, you know, you’re over Sarah because you’ve got your posh sex-voice Sherlock bloke.” Harry waved her hand about, looking amused.

“It isn’t like that,” John insisted, although he was no longer sure it wasn’t, and that was the moment when he decided he was definitely going out with Sarah that night.

***

Greg thought he’d half lost his mind. He thought he’d never do this with any other student, and he wasn’t sure what about Sherlock had wormed its way enough into his heart that he had even made this effort, but Greg found himself running to catch Sherlock before he could depart for the short leave. Sherlock was, in fact, about to duck into the car his brother had sent for him, and Greg forced the driver to agree to wait until Greg had managed to get Mycroft on the phone. Sherlock looked at him curiously, perplexed, and Greg raced back into Holland House in search of a phone.

He told Mycroft Holmes’s secretary that it was an urgent matter involving Mr. Holmes’s brother, and that opened the doors he’d thought it might. Mycroft picked up almost immediately, polished still but sharp with concern.

“What’s happened?”

“Nothing. I mean, nothing bad. I promised Sherlock I’d get him a puzzle closer to home. I have one, one he would love, phoned in to me by a friend at the Met, but I need your permission for it because it’s unconventional, and I don’t want the headmaster to know.”

There was a pause. “What is it?”

“Two closed-door murders, no obvious means of entry, no obvious connection between the two, except that there must be. My friend’s at the end of her rope, and I convinced her I knew someone clever enough to help her out.”

“Did you mention that this someone is a sixteen-year-old boy?” asked Mycroft, dryly.

“No. Listen, I know it sounds insane, but you know Sherlock’d eat it up with a spoon, and he’d solve it immediately.”

There was a long moment of silence. Then, “Tell the driver where you want you and Sherlock to be taken.”

“Thank you,” Greg said, and hung up the phone and dashed back out of Holland House.

“What is going on?” Sherlock asked, impatiently.

“How would you like to solve two murders today?” Greg replied.

Sherlock looked delighted, and then scaled it back, playing it cool. “I suppose that would be all right,” he said, casually.

Greg shook his head at him, trying to look disapproving, and said, “Get into the car.” When he turned to walk around the car to the other side, he caught out of the corner of his eye the little skip Sherlock gave in glee.

***

Mycroft arrived at New Scotland Yard toward the end of the day and ran into Gregory Lestrade immediately, settled into a chair and watching Sherlock through the windowed wall of a conference room. Sherlock seemed to be ordering everyone around, his eyes bright with happiness.

“Well,” remarked Mycroft. “He looks in his element.”

Lestrade jumped, plainly startled that Mycroft was there. The man must have been thoroughly lost in thought. “Hi,” he said, looking up at him with those wide, dark eyes he had.

Mycroft sat beside Lestrade without waiting to be asked. “How did he do?”

“Solved it. Smuggling ring. Asian antiquities. I knew he’d get it almost immediately. I think, if he was slightly easier to work with, they’d already be offering him a job.” Lestrade looked almost fond.

“Has he managed to alienate people?” Mycroft asked.

“Of course he has. Told several people, me included, to stop thinking thoughts in our heads because we were disturbing him. Told some people to turn around so he didn’t have to look at them, or not to speak because they were bringing down the IQ of the entire street.”

Mycroft winced. “That sounds like Sherlock.”

“But he has been having the time of his life.”

“Of course he has. This is entirely his type of thing.” Mycroft leaned his elbow on the chair and his chin on his fist and watched Sherlock and heard himself say, “Sometimes I have no idea what I’m going to do with him.” This was not something he thought he had ever admitted out loud before. It was an enormous relief to say it now and to not have the world stop turning.

Lestrade said nothing for a moment, but when he did speak all he said was, “He’s very different from you, isn’t he?”

“Most people don’t realize that. But yes.”

“How can most people not realize that? You’re like night and day.”

“We’re more like twilight and dawn. Very different things, but easily mistaken for each other if you’re not looking the right way, and people seldom are.”

Lestrade was silent for another moment, before saying, “He’ll be all right. He’s clever.”

“He’s reckless,” Mycroft countered.

“He’s young. Weren’t we all, at that age?”

“No,” said Mycroft, flatly. “I was never reckless.”

There was another moment of silence. “You should try it sometime,” Lestrade suggested.

Mycroft looked at him in surprise. “Try what?”

“Being reckless.” Lestrade grinned at him. “It’s a hell of a lot of fun, I promise.”

“It’s never seemed so to me.”

“You haven’t been trying the right kind of reckless,” said Lestrade.

Mycroft stared at him and tried to determine what exactly was going on in this conversation.

And then Sherlock announced, walking swiftly over to them, “Well. That’s sorted. Mycroft. What are you doing here?”

Mycroft tore his eyes away from Lestrade and looked at Sherlock, who was practically glowing with exhilaration. It seemed to Mycroft he was almost floating on air, barely touching the ground as he walked. “I’ve come to take you home, now that you’ve solved your first murder for the Met.”

“First two murders,” said Sherlock, looking buoyant, and grinned, almost bouncing with glee. And it was a testament to what a good mood he was in that he just said to Mycroft, “Fine. Let’s go,” and walked off.

Mycroft blinked in pleased surprise not to have had to have a quarrel about that, then stood and turned to Lestrade, who had also risen to his feet.

“Thank you,” he said, sincerely. “This was clever. And also risky. I appreciate it.”

“Reckless,” said Lestrade. “It was quite reckless of me.” And he grinned.

***

There was no way Sherlock could sleep. He was much too tightly wound to accomplish that. And he hated being back in the London house, which felt like pale ghosts to him. Restless with insomnia, Sherlock had the most brilliant idea: He would go and see John.

He knew, of course, where John lived. He had made that deduction early on, and it was an easy task for him to sneak out of the house and get himself to the council estate. There was no answer when he knocked confidently on John’s door, and Sherlock hadn’t anticipated that, but he decided that was all right, he was not deterred. He picked the lock with laughable ease and let himself into the flat to wait.

The flat was a mess, much more so than Sherlock had expected. Sherlock read the whole story with a sweep of his eyes: alcoholic mother who had basically abandoned the flat, irresponsible sister who hadn’t entirely risen to the challenge of taking care of herself. John could not have been pleased with the state of things. No wonder John had felt compelled to come home this leave instead of staying with Sherlock. John was that sort. Caretaker tendency.

Sherlock had really just finished making these deductions when he heard the voices approaching the flat, loud and boisterous and drunk, a group of eight—no, nine. There was laughter, John’s laughter amongst them, and Sherlock experienced an odd contradictory flutter that was both happy anticipation of seeing John again and terrible nervous jealousy over other people making John laugh.

Then the door opened. The first person through was clearly John’s sister—the family resemblance was striking—and she was so busy laughing at something the girl behind her was saying that she didn’t notice Sherlock until almost everyone was in the flat already. John was the last one in, bringing up the rear, with a girl standing rather too closely to him, whispering something in his ear, and then John’s sister shrieked, “Who the hell are you?” and John looked up, straight into his eyes.

John froze. “Sherlock,” he managed.

Sherlock slid his eyes from John to the girl possessively hanging on his arm and back to John. This, he thought, might be about to get interesting. He stuck his hands in his coat pockets and said, flatly, “Hello.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen

John had had rather too much to drink, and his brain was a muddled mess, and for a brief moment he thought he was actually hallucinating Sherlock, standing there sleek and posh in the middle of the filthy Watson flat. He had never seen so incongruous a sight. He thought maybe, if he blinked, Sherlock might disappear. Maybe he was an embodiment of John’s lingering guilt over the fact that Sarah had been throwing herself at him all night.

But no. Sherlock stayed stubbornly there, his eyes expectant, as if he thought John had some sort of explaining to do, which was ridiculous because Sherlock was the one who had apparently broken into John’s flat.

John hastily pushed Sarah off of him, not because Sherlock was there, of course not, just because he needed space for this argument. “What are you doing here?” he demanded of Sherlock, moving past everyone else. He noticed Harry smirking at him out of the corner of his eye.

Sherlock took him in, from the top of his head to the tips of his shoes, and John felt terribly exposed. He had snogged Sarah, and John was sure Sherlock could read every second of the snog on him. He fought against blushing, and then wondered why he would blush about it, anyway. Why was he feeling so guilty? It wasn’t like he’d been cheating.

“Good night?” Sherlock asked him, languidly.

John reached out, closed his hand into the lapel of Sherlock’s coat, and tugged, pulling him with him, past everyone crowded into his flat, past Sarah. “Excuse us,” he said, and kept propelling Sherlock forward, out of the flat, forward, forward, forward, he wanted them as far away as they could get.

“I can walk, you know,” Sherlock said, finally, jerking out of his grasp. “I’m not the one who’s drunk.”

“Seriously,” John demanded, between gritted teeth. “What are you doing here?”

“I thought you’d be pleased to see me, you know.” Sherlock sounded a bit sulky.

“Pleased to see you here?”

“What does it matter where you see me?”

“It matters when it’s here. You were never supposed to come here.”

Sherlock looked quizzical. “Did you think there was a possibility that I didn’t already know where you lived?”

“You know, sometimes the things I don’t tell you are things I don’t want you to know.”

“Oh, so I should just pretend I don’t?” asked Sherlock, hotly, clearly finally snapping into anger himself. John was relieved because in Sherlock’s position he would have been furious, and he was glad to know he wasn’t alone in that.

“It would make it easier,” John shouted at him, and he didn’t even know what they were having an argument about. He suspected it wasn’t at all about what their words were saying it was about.

Sherlock stopped walking abruptly, turning to him, and John stopped, too, automatically, and then Sherlock stepped forward, crowding him. John went to take a step back, away, but realized he was against a wall, which was poor planning on his part and maybe he was drunker than he thought.

“You are being,” Sherlock said, his voice clipped and even and quiet, “absolutely ridiculous. There is nothing I don’t know about you, John Watson. Nothing you could hide from me.”

He was far too close, John thought. His coat was brushing against him. Sherlock ducked forward, and for one wild moment John thought he was going to kiss him, but he merely sniffed at his breath.

“Four beers? Five? And a shot? That’s an energetic night out, isn’t it? You were trying to forget. You were trying not to think.”

John tried not to fidget but Sherlock was much too close. There were only millimeters of space between them. “You’re too close,” John managed.

“I’m not close,” said Sherlock. “I’m spot-on. The girl, her name is Sarah. You dated her before you came to Eton. She’d shag you in a heartbeat, but you’re undecided about it.”

“I can’t breathe,” said John, which made no sense because Sherlock was doing nothing to inhibit his breathing, but he felt light-headed, dizzy, off-balance.

Sherlock ignored him. His eyes were on John’s neck, and he reached out suddenly and traced a circle just above John’s collarbone. John jumped, startled at the touch.

“She kissed you here,” said Sherlock, almost clinically. “Would have done it hard enough to leave a mark, but you jerked away and told her not to.” Sherlock straightened a tiny amount, peering hard into John’s eyes, and John scrambled for breath and curled his fingers into the brick wall behind him and tried not to feel trapped.

Sherlock tipped his head and inched downward slowly. John had plenty of time to move away. He knew he did. He had plenty of time to say something, anything at all, anything to dissuade him, but Sherlock’s lips settled on his neck and he did nothing. Sherlock nipped, and John gasped and leaned harder against the wall behind him, suddenly unsure of his ability to stand without its assistance. Sherlock sucked, hard enough to leave a mark. John closed his eyes. John did not tell him to stop. John swore, breathless and desperate, encouragement more than anything else.

Sherlock lifted his head up, said, softly, questioningly, “John.”

John managed to open his eyes. He listened to their breaths heaving in tandem. He didn’t think he’d ever heard Sherlock out of breath before. It was unbelievably flattering. Sherlock was bathed in fluorescent lighting, ugly and harsh, it made him starkly pale and left his eyes disconcertingly colorless. Even so, he looked achingly, painfully Sherlockian. John felt something inside of him crumble in submission. Ten weeks of telling himself it wasn’t true, and it took a drunken moment in a council estate for him to admit once and for all that he was in love with Sherlock Holmes. He was, undeniably, his.

John closed his hands into the collar of Sherlock’s coat and pulled him forward roughly for a kiss, and Sherlock, after a moment of surprise, opened his mouth for him, and then, after that, it was all a blur, tongues and lips and teeth and hands, everywhere. He wanted to touch, and he wanted to be touched, and he was past the point of it being the gender he hadn’t expected and full of the fact that it was Sherlock, Sherlock, Sherlock, Sherlock, his heart panted it at him and he wanted, wanted, wanted.

Sherlock wasn’t nearly close enough. John pulled, restless, wanting him flush against him, there had been too much time with too much space between them, and Sherlock leaned, pressed, and John licked at Sherlock’s mouth—Sherlock’s mouth—and his hips jerked, instinctively, against Sherlock’s leg, lined up perfectly between his own, friction, and that was perfect, that was glorious, that was marvelous, that was…so close…too close—

John managed to turn his head, to get his mouth out from the kiss and to gasp, “Stop. Stop, stop, stop.”

Sherlock froze for a second, then went to move away, his leg drifting, and John heard the sound he made, something close to a sob, as he helplessly rode the movement. He clawed at Sherlock’s coat, pulling him back against him, eliminating the space Sherlock had tried to create.

“Oh my God,” he panted, squeezing his eyes shut because the sight of Sherlock, thoroughly kissed and flooding his vision, was not helping the situation. “Don’t move. Just stay…Oh my God.” He clambered for control, feeling absolutely ridiculous, because all Sherlock had done was snog him against a wall and now he was in very real danger of coming, fully clothed, against his leg.

The other part of him—the part of him that had been telling him that he had wanted this for weeks and was bloody tired of being ignored—had its own ideas about the situation, ideas that went something like: But wouldn’t it be incredible, and you’re so very close, move like that, once more, twice more, and you could be there, and this is what you’ve been wanting, this is what you’ve been craving, the thought’s been consuming you, night and day, and you’ve refused to let it, don’t stop, not now, so close, so good, kiss him and let him, just let him…

John had never had a fantasy about Sherlock that had gone anything like this, and it didn’t matter, none of it mattered. He climaxed with the blinding truth of Sherlock in his head, no one and nothing but him, and that was amazing.

***

Sherlock pressed his tongue against the pulse point of John’s neck, the way he’d wanted to for ages now, and measured the leap of the blood through John’s body. John was melting bonelessly against the wall behind him, sucking down oxygen as if Sherlock really had been depriving him of it. Sherlock stayed still, pressed flush against him, touching and tasting and smelling and hearing, and if he had his eyes open, then that would have been all of them, all five senses, drowning in John.

John’s breathing was evening out, his pulse dropping underneath Sherlock’s tongue.

“You’re taking my pulse, aren’t you,” John managed.

It wasn’t really a question, so Sherlock didn’t answer it. John shifted a bit, but he didn’t dislodge Sherlock, didn’t try to push him away. He sighed, and Sherlock tried to read it. Contentment? God, he hoped so.

“That was…” said John.

Sherlock turned his attention to John’s ear, worrying at his earlobe. “Good, I hope,” he suggested.

Insane,” said John. “That was absolutely, bloody insane.”

Sherlock didn’t think that sounded like a promising adjective for John to be using. He straightened and frowned at him. He had his head tipped back against the wall and his eyes closed, and he was still breathing more heavily than usual. “Why do you say that?”

“Because, Sherlock, we spend most of our time in a bedroom together. So what are we doing outside, in public, in the freezing cold?”

“No one saw us,” said Sherlock, confidently. “We’re in a secluded spot, and it’s late, and there’s no one around. And you can’t possibly be cold.”

“Did you plan this?” John asked, opening his eyes the tiniest slit so he could see Sherlock.

“Plan you? I can’t plan you,” Sherlock told him, honestly.

“This is ridiculous.” John’s eyes closed again. “I’m an absolute mess.”

“Objectively, yes. Subjectively, I think you look wonderful.”

John laughed, which made Sherlock flush with pleasure, and then he finally lifted his head up, opening his eyes and looking at Sherlock. “I think I can stand now.”

“What?”

“You don’t have to…” John gave him a tiny shove, and Sherlock got the message and stepped away. John looked down at himself ruefully and pushed his hands through his already messy hair. “What are we going to do now?”

Sherlock hesitated. “More of that. I was hoping.”

“Not more of that, we are never doing that again.”

Sherlock frowned. “Why not?”

“Because that was humiliating.”

“I didn’t think so.”

“It wasn’t humiliating for you.”

“Didn’t you enjoy it?”

“Obviously. That’s what’s humiliating about it. I can’t go back to my flat.”

“Don’t,” said Sherlock, thinking there was no way he was letting John out of his sight at the moment. “Come home with me.”

“There aren’t any trains right now.”

“Not that home. We have a house in London.”

“Oh. Of course you do.” John paused, still leaning against the wall, clearly thinking. “Is your brother at the house?”

Sherlock nodded.

“Then no. That’s not an option. Come on, you’re the clever one, and I’m not thinking properly yet, so formulate a plan.”

“Another house?” Sherlock suggested.

“Whose?”

Sherlock shrugged. “I’ll find one.”

“You’ll find a house for us to, what, break into?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “The Flavershams who live next door are out of town indefinitely. We’ve a key, for emergencies. This is an emergency.”

“Exactly the sort of emergency I bet the Flavershams had in mind when they left a key with your brother.”

“They didn’t specify,” said Sherlock, primly.

John considered. “All right. Fine. We’ll go to the Flavershams’.”

“Should I go back to the flat?”

“Why would you go back to the flat?”

Sherlock lifted an eyebrow. “You’re going to need to change.”

“So your plan is to go to my flat, where my sister is, and just announce, ‘Don’t mind me, just got to get John some fresh pants’?”

“Not a good plan?”

“Sherlock.”

“I’m joking. I’d be sneaky about it. You know me, I’m very good at sneaky.”

“No. We’ll go to the Flavershams’. I’ll change there.”

“Into what?”

“I don’t know. Don’t they have clothes there?”

“Mr. Flaversham weighs over 25 stone. I suppose there’s always Mrs. Flaversham’s wardrobe to choose from. She favors sequins.”

John frowned. “We’re going to be next door to your house, right? I’ll borrow something of yours.”

Sherlock regarded him dubiously and opened his mouth.

“Don’t even point out that you’re taller. Not now,” said John. “Can you stop arguing with me?”

“I’m not arguing. I just want to make sure we’re clear on the plan. Switch coats with me.” Sherlock slid out of his.

“What? Why?”

“Mine’s longer and it will cover more.”

“Oh.” John took off his coat, handed it across, accepted Sherlock’s.

John’s coat would be too short for him, so he didn’t even bother putting it on. He turned and went in search of a taxi.

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen

 

John thought Sherlock would have to get the key to the Flavershams’ from within the Holmeses’ house, but no, Sherlock had it on him, fishing it out of his pocket.

“Why do you have that with you?” John asked, in surprise.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Sherlock responded, as if John’s question made no sense.

John sighed and Sherlock opened the front door.

“No lights on this side of the house,” Sherlock told him, “or Mycroft will see. This way, follow me.”

Sherlock moved surely up the staircase. John wondered if he was like a cat and could see in the dark—maybe those unusual eyes had special powers, who knew—or if he was just that familiar with the layout of the house. At any rate, John had to move much more slowly in order to make sure he didn’t trip over any priceless antiques.

Eventually he followed Sherlock into a room whose door Sherlock closed before turning on the light. A bedroom, John saw. Large and rich and opulent.

“We’re far enough off the street,” Sherlock said. “Mycroft shouldn’t see.”

“This is utter madness,” John said, looking around the room.

Sherlock sent him an expression that was caught between smiling and frowning. John tried to think, past the nervous knot in his stomach, because he felt like he wasn’t entirely sure what had just happened and how much that had changed. He knew they needed to talk about it, they desperately needed to talk about it, but instead John, spotting a bathroom, said, “I’m taking a shower,” and then he took the longest shower of his life. He stood in the shower until the hot water ran out, and then he turned the shower off and stood for a moment, dripping, trying not to feel cowardly about going back out there and facing Sherlock. He’d been trying to formulate a speech but nothing would come. Mostly because he had no idea what to say, what he wanted to say. He was clearly in love with him, that much was true, but maybe that shouldn’t have surprised him. Eton was a charged place, and John was out of his depth there, and Sherlock was his lifeline. Maybe it was nothing more than…than…whatever that might be.

He had no clothing to change into, but there was a bathrobe on the back of the bathroom door that turned out to fit him reasonably well and wasn’t garish, so he knotted it securely around him and stepped out into the bedroom, which seemed almost painfully cold in comparison to how steamy the bathroom had been.

Sherlock was sitting on the desk chair in the room, looking out the window, his fingers steepled to his mouth in his thinking pose. He turned to face John as John walked out of the bathroom and said, immediately, “There are other bedrooms, of course. I could find another bedroom.”

John sat on the bed because there was nowhere else to sit. “We need to talk.”

“I know. I know. Listen.” Sherlock stood and suddenly began pacing, up and down the room, tousling his hair restlessly and not looking at John. “It can all go back, exactly the way it was. It’s fine. It’s all fine. It doesn’t have to change anything. I don’t want you to think it changes anything. We can forget all about it. I’m good at forgetting, erasing, I’m brilliant, so I don’t want you to think that I—”

John knitted his eyebrows in confusion and interrupted the monologue. “Hang on. An hour ago you told me you were hoping we could do it again.”

“Right. Well,” said Sherlock, still not looking at him. “That was an hour ago and things were…you were…” Sherlock abruptly turned to him and folded his arms, a defensive posture John didn’t think he’d ever seen Sherlock assume before. “What is it that you want?”

John studied him. “Is this for my benefit? This…” John waved his hand around. “Whatever this is?”

“Tell me what you want,” Sherlock clipped out, impatiently. “I’ll do anything you want, but I can’t read you on this, so you need to just tell me. Please,” he added, as an afterthought.

“Oh, God,” John sighed, and scrubbed his hands over his face, and collapsed backward onto the bed. “I have no bloody idea what I want, Sherlock.”

“Right,” said Sherlock, after a moment.

“I wish I could live in your head for a few minutes. I wish I could see everything as clearly as you do.”

“I don’t see you clearly,” Sherlock said.

John digested this statement. “Yes, you do,” he decided, eventually. “Most of the time I think you see me more clearly than I see myself.” John turned his head, away from his contemplation of the ceiling, to look at Sherlock who was standing on the side of the bed looking at him with something like terror in those blue-gray-green eyes he had. There was clarity there, John thought. More clarity in those eyes than he’d ever seen before. He loves you, John realized. He’ll never say it, but he loves you. This astonishing, incomprehensible, remarkable, brilliant person somehow, for some reason, loves you. Do you understand the importance of that? He trusts you more than he’s ever let himself trust anybody. And you’re teetering on the edge, right here, of breaking his heart.

“Tell me what you want,” John said, gently, because he thought it was about time he thought to ask that.

“I…I…” Sherlock took a deep breath and said, determinedly, evenly, but raw with honesty, “I just don’t want to ruin this. Any of it. I don’t…I didn’t mean to…I only wanted to see you, tonight. I didn’t mean to… And if I ruined it—”

“You didn’t ruin anything. Stop it. I’m not going to go anywhere, Sherlock. I’m not going to suddenly hate you. And anyway, most of it tonight was me. Or did you not notice that, with your powers of observation?”

He knew Sherlock wouldn’t be able to resist that. “I did notice that. I just didn’t want to point it out to you.”

John smiled and sat up on the bed. “What other deductions have you been keeping to yourself?”

“The main one, at present, is just to point out to you that you could have had Sarah, at any moment.”

John looked at him. He was still dressed in his Eton uniform, and he looked long and lithe and elegant, and John thought of him standing in the middle of his flat, looking completely out of place and with eyes only for John. John had had Sarah hanging on him all night, her propositions getting less and less innuendo-y and more and more straightforward, and John hadn’t got interested in anything at all until Sherlock had shown up, and then he had wanted him, with that sharp, single-minded ache that was both familiar and incomprehensible.

“I wanted you,” he heard himself say. “I don’t know what that means. But I only wanted you.”

Sherlock looked vaguely uncertain by the bed, his hands in his pockets, like he’d heard John but wasn’t sure John really understood the words he was saying. He tried for humor. “Then it’s a good thing I broke into your flat, isn’t it?”

“Oh my God,” said John. “Shut up.” He reached for him, pulled him into a kiss, because he just wanted to see, if it was all lightning in a bottle, all out of his system now.

It wasn’t. It definitely wasn’t. He could kiss him for hours. He had the sudden thought that he was going to lock their door at school and do just that, just kiss him, for hours, until he got tired of the way it felt, of the lurking restless edge of desire, sharp in him. John wanted to linger there, just like that, enjoying. Sherlock. His Sherlock.

Sherlock drew back finally, just a breath but too far. And far enough for John to realize that he’d somehow ended up on his back, with Sherlock leaning over him.

“I’m conducting an experiment,” said Sherlock. His voice was low, and only Sherlock could make that sound sexy.

“What type of experiment?” Sherlock was kissing a line down his neck, paused particularly just above his collarbone, and John thought, He’s kissing his own mark, and then Sherlock moved to his chest, parting the bathrobe as he went. John put his hands in Sherlock’s hair, earning him a sound a little like a purr. John, experimenting himself, clenched his hands and pulled a bit, which earned him a sound more like a growl. John smiled, and then Sherlock flicked his tongue over a nipple and John jerked and thought, Touché.

“It’s a good experiment,” said Sherlock. He kept moving downward, he was nearly to John’s navel now, and John tried to think past a growing fuzziness, because he understood the direction of Sherlock’s path, and he wasn’t sure that was necessarily—

“Wait,” he realized, abruptly. “You’re not comparing Trevor and me, are you?”

“There is no comparison there,” Sherlock said, and shifted direction a bit, licking the crease of John’s thigh.

“You really don’t have to…” said John, weakly, because Sherlock kind of actually felt remarkably wonderful, and he kind of actually wanted to see what it would be like.

“I don’t want any stimuli but you,” Sherlock mumbled, and nipped at his hip.

“I don’t know what that means,” said John. He realized he was tugging at Sherlock’s hair, trying to move him where he wanted him, and he forced himself to stop that.

“All five senses. You,” said Sherlock.

And then he stopped talking because his mouth was otherwise occupied, and John wasn’t sure he would have heard him anyway because his blood was roaring in his ears, and Sherlock was…Sherlock was…

“I,” he gasped, trying to translate into words what his nerve endings were telling him, but he couldn’t seem to think of any words other than Sherlock yes good there yes Sherlock close oh please yes like just please yes Sherlock Sherlock Sherlock Sherlock.

John felt the bed underneath him, the cradling of the mattress, and he thought it was the most delicious bed he’d ever been on. He thought he might never move ever again. He’d just lay here, pleasure an almost audible buzz inside of him. He tried to wrap his mind around what had just happened and found he didn’t really want to. Sherlock was fantastic, he thought, drowsily. He was never going to be sexually frustrated again. He was never going to go to div again. They would just stay in bed all day.

Sherlock had a flannel, Sherlock was mopping up, and John thought he should help and then, on second thought, decided it was better to just…just…luxuriate.

“You’re brilliant,” he said. “This is the most brilliant idea you’ve ever had.”

Sherlock’s lips brushed his, ever so briefly, and John was too exhausted to even react to that.

“I’m glad you approve,” he heard Sherlock’s voice say. “Now get under the covers with me.”

“I’m not moving,” said John. “I’m never moving again. How are you moving?”

And then John realized abruptly how it was that Sherlock still had energy: because only one of them had been taken care of. Oh, God. That shook him out of his haze in a wild panic because this was new, the newest thing yet, and he didn’t know how to do that. He understood the mechanics, yes, it was hard for him not to, but he didn’t know how to do it himself, how could he possibly, and did he even want to, but it couldn’t be one-sided, that wasn’t fair.

Sherlock was tugging a blanket over him when he opened his eyes and said his name.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, with a brief frown.

“I didn’t…” stammered John. “I mean, I could, I suppose…if you wanted me to…I don’t know if I’d be any good at it, but you didn’t…”

Sherlock looked blank. “What are you talking about?”

You,” said John, and gestured in what he thought was an eloquent way.

“Oh. I’m fine.”

John frowned briefly. “Did you…? Because I would have…” He didn’t really know what he wanted to say.

Sherlock cut him off by cuddling against him, practically clinging to him, intertwining all of their legs and arms and then humming in contentment.

John was surprised enough to be distracted, finding himself with a mouthful of Sherlock’s hair. “Are you…? Is this how you sleep?”

He felt Sherlock tense a bit and hated himself for that, because Sherlock had just been so wonderfully happy, John had felt that keenly. “Do you not like it?”

He wasn’t sure he did. It was a bit much, another person all around him like this. But John had done precious little for Sherlock this evening, he thought, so this was the least he could do. “I just didn’t think you’d be a cuddler.” As far as John had always been able to tell, Sherlock wasn’t big on touch in general.

“Mmm,” said Sherlock, sleepily, and burrowed into him even more than he already was. “I didn’t think I would be, either.”

Which made John’s breath momentarily catch in his throat. This had been the strangest night, he thought, and he still didn’t know quite what to make of it, and now his best friend who seemed also to be his lover and maybe was possibly his boyfriend was doing something he’d basically admitted he’d never done before with anyone else. John felt a ridiculous wave of warm, hazy affection for him, a burst of protective fervor. If this was how Sherlock wanted to sleep, he’d let him do it every day for the rest of their lives if it would make Sherlock this happy. He wanted to keep Sherlock this happy, he wanted him always to be like this, the Sherlock that existed only for him, that cuddled and kissed and was happy. Sherlock who loved him. Sherlock who was his. John couldn’t imagine when this had happened, or how, or why. He honestly couldn’t even understand how any of this was his life. He just knew that, for as strange as it all was, he was oddly content at that moment.

John closed his eyes and drifted toward sleep, Sherlock warm and soothing against him, his breaths a lulling rhythm. He was nearly entirely asleep when Sherlock spoke again, sounding half-asleep as well.

“Today I solved two murders and accomplished two John Watson orgasms,” he said, drowsily satisfied. “This is the most perfect day I could ever have imagined, doubled.”

***

John woke alone in the bed, and that was momentarily disappointing. At some point he’d gone from being dubious about Sherlock sleeping practically on top of him to being sad not to find him there.

“Good morning,” said Sherlock, and John blinked him into focus. He was sitting in the desk chair by the room’s window, still dressed in his disheveled Eton uniform.

“Good morning,” John replied, and stretched languorously and buried his head under his pillow. “What time is it?”

“Nine,” answered Sherlock.

“Mmm,” John said, from underneath his pillow. “What did you mean last night?”

“I said many things last night,” answered Sherlock. “You need to be more specific.”

There was something short about the tone of Sherlock’s voice. John took the pillow away from his head, really looking at Sherlock for the first time. “Are you angry?”

“No,” Sherlock denied.

“Yes, you are.” That much was very clear, and John couldn’t comprehend what had happened. Sherlock had fallen asleep practically vibrating with happiness. What could John have possibly done while they’d slept to make him angry? “Didn’t you sleep well?”

“Very well.” Sherlock paused. “Then Mycroft arrived.”

John sat up abruptly. “What? When?”

“Around 7 or so. You slept through his visit. You’re a very sound sleeper, you know. You’re capable of sleeping through a lot. Probably a good trait for a doctor to have.”

“Did you let him in here?” asked John.

“Of course not, I talked to him in the hallway.”

“What did you say?”

“I explained the situation. He graciously went and fetched new clothes for you.”

John was open-mouthed with astonishment. “You…you…”

“Don’t worry, I didn’t tell him why you happened to be without clothing.”

“While I appreciate your discretion on that point, the fact that I am currently without clothing is probably damning enough, don’t you think?”

Sherlock got up and collapsed melodramatically onto the bed beside John, making an eloquent sound of disgust. “Why are we spending so much time talking about Mycroft? He’s a terrible conversational topic.”

“Why didn’t you wake me up after all this happened?”

“Why should I have? You were tired, and what difference would it have made? Anyway, I took the opportunity to collect more data.”

“What data?” asked John, suspiciously.

“I’m collecting data on the rate of your breaths as you sleep. I’m trying to see if I can chart what stage of sleep you’re in based on your breaths.”

“When did you start doing this?”

“Ages ago.” Sherlock waved his hand about, dismissing the topic. “What was it that you wanted to know about?”

John looked down at him, confused. “What?”

“Before we got off on this tangent, you wanted to know what I’d meant by something.”

“Oh,” John recalled. “Yes. You solved two murders yesterday?”

“Oh!” exclaimed Sherlock, and sat up suddenly, brightly delighted. “I never got a chance to tell you! Yes! Two. It was fantastic. Lestrade has a friend at New Scotland Yard, and they were baffled by these murders, so Lestrade said that I could take a look at them, and it was a smuggling ring, John. Antiquities. They had matching tattoos. I figured it out right away. Well. Almost right away. And I know what my career is.”

John smiled at him. He couldn’t help it. Sherlock’s enthusiasm was infectious. “What’s your career?”

“Consulting detective.” Sherlock gestured with his hands, as if he could envision a sign blinking that very thing on the wall by the television.

“Is that a career?”

“It’s my career. I invented it. I’ll be the only one in the world.” Sherlock looked pleased at that.

“Well, that would certainly suit you; you are in a category all your own. What exactly does being a consulting detective mean?”

“It means that whenever the police are out of their depth—which is always—they consult me. You could be my assistant.”

“I’m going to be a doctor, remember?”

“Yes. That’s why you’d be a useful assistant.”

“I’m not going to be your assistant.”

“Colleague?” Sherlock suggested. There was a strange light in his eyes, a strange tilt to his head, almost playful. Was he flirting with him? wondered John in amazement.

“Prat,” John said, and hit him about the head with his pillow.

Sherlock laughed, only half-heartedly dodging his blows. “Maybe you could write stories about me. You could be my Boswell.”

“Was that a literary reference? From Sherlock Holmes? You haven’t erased that to preserve some precious memory space?” He succeeded in tipping Sherlock over onto his back on the bed and leaned over him. “Wait, you remembered that because you really want a Boswell, don’t you?”

“Who wants a Boswell? Boswells are boring. I have a Watson,” said Sherlock.

John paused. He knew he probably blushed. Sherlock said it so casually, like it wasn’t an astonishing thing to say. Probably, to Sherlock, it was just matter-of-fact.

John tried to make light of it. “A pretty bloody good Watson, too, if I do say so myself.”

“Oh, the best of the Watsons. Although...” Sherlock turned mock-thoughtful underneath him. “Your sister…”

John kissed him, because he couldn’t help it, and because he no longer had to help it now, he could kiss Sherlock whenever the mad impulse to kiss Sherlock overtook him. Sherlock kissed him back with a happy little sigh, settling underneath him, and this was the most perfect morning John had had in basically ever.

“John,” Sherlock said, eventually, around his kisses.

“Shh,” he replied, refusing to stop. “I’m very busy.”

“I—appreciate—that, but Mycroft said—he’d be back at 10—and—whilst I don’t care—I thought—you might not want to encounter him—and you need—another shower—before—”

John gave in and stopped kissing him, rolling off him. “I have to go home,” he said, after a moment.

“I thought you would. I’ll see you at school tomorrow, then.”

“I bet you’re a lot more enamored of Eton right now than you were yesterday,” remarked John.

“I’m beginning to see its advantages,” said Sherlock.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen

It was surprisingly hard for Sherlock to let John go. It was irrational, and Sherlock detested irrationality. He would see John the following day at school. John did not seem unhappy with anything that had happened, quite the contrary. And if John did have a change of heart, it was fine, Sherlock would be fine with it, he could go back to the way things had been, and he would make sure to convince John of that as well.

Sherlock didn’t want to go back to the way things had been. The very thought of it made him feel as if he’d just tumbled out of a tree and hit the ground hard. He couldn’t imagine, now that he knew what it was like, not touching John all the time, as much as he could. But the thought of not having any of John at all was far worse than the thought of being near John and not touching him. The thought of not having any of John at all was…a vacuum. It was like trying to think of what lay beyond the universe, of what the universe was slowly expanding into. It was expanding into nothingness, it was expanding into a place without John Watson, and who could comprehend such a place?

Sherlock was worried. He was sick with worry. He tried to remember the last time he had worried about anything. He tried to remember the last time he had been irrational like this. What if John changed his mind? What if John didn’t want him anymore? What if John didn’t like him anymore? What if he had to go back to the way his life had been before John? He tried to shake himself out of it, but that didn’t seem to work, so instead he curled his way into the room’s desk chair, drawing his coat all around him, the coat that smelled vaguely of John still, and he worried and worried and worried.

Mycroft knocked, which was so uncharacteristic that Sherlock just stared at the door and tried to consider whether it was an option to say Go away. He’d knocked that morning, too, Sherlock realized. He hadn’t quite been sleeping, had been comfortably half-dozing, tucked against John and lazily filing away all the new data about him, the flutters of his breath, his hands tight in Sherlock’s hair, the way his voice sounded entirely different when he said Sherlock’s name on the edge of an orgasm, better than any other word John had ever said, and then there had been a knock on the door.

“Come in,” Sherlock said now, because he knew Go away wasn’t really an option, Mycroft would just walk in, the way Sherlock had known earlier that morning that he’d had to get up, crawl away from the perfection of a sleeping John Watson, and start to face all the forces that might send him off into that vacuum beyond the creeping universe where John wasn’t.

Mycroft opened the door.

“Since when have you started knocking?” Sherlock asked him.

“Since when have you started engaging in activities with John Watson I’d rather not witness?” Mycroft countered and leaned up against the wall all the way on the other side of the room, his ever-present umbrella resting by his side. The look he gave Sherlock was inscrutable.

Sherlock scowled. “John is not a topic you’re allowed to discuss.”

“Fine. Let’s discuss other topics. Topic Number One: Do not sneak out of the house again to go to a council estate in a rough neighborhood in the middle of the night alone.” Mycroft’s voice was sharp.

“I was fine. I can take care of myself,” Sherlock pointed out, sullenly.

“That is neither here nor there. You just broke up a smuggling ring, Sherlock. I have always considered it debatable whether or not you can take care of yourself considering how much prodding it takes from other people just to get you to remember to eat, but I am definitely not prepared to believe that you could possibly take care of bloodthirsty members of an international smuggling ring who have already killed two people in fairly spectacular fashion and are hell-bent on revenge. It was stupid of you, Sherlock, which is rather a shame as you consider yourself so very clever.”

Sherlock really hadn’t thought about any of that. He had really only thought about John. That he had been restless with pleased triumph and he had wanted to share it with John. “It wasn’t stupid,” he corrected, “it was just…reckless.”

Something flickered over Mycroft’s face at the word, something Sherlock couldn’t quite read. “That’s just another word for stupidity,” Mycroft told him. “A nicer word, a more alluring word, but just a synonym in the end. Topic Number Two: When did you lift that key from my wallet?”

“If you can’t defend against a simple pickpocket, Mycroft, then you haven’t any survival skills at all.”

Mycroft held out his hand, and Sherlock sighed and dug the key out of his pocket and flicked it through the air toward Mycroft, like a boomerang. Mycroft let it hit the wall and then picked it up off the floor.

“Topic Number Three: Stop pickpocketing people.”

Sherlock ignored that one. He was getting rather good at the pickpocketing, and he thought the employee ID badge he’d managed to lift off Lestrade was going to come in handy one day.

“What’s Topic Number Four?” he asked, resigned and wanting to move this along.

“Eton. I’m trying to decide whether to send you back.”

Sherlock stared at him, his eyes wide with shock, because this had never even occurred to Sherlock; Mycroft was obsessed with Eton. “I hate you,” he said, low and swift and dark.

“Sherlock—”

“No, for three years I have begged you not to make me go back to Eton, and now that I like it, now that I want to stay there, now you decide to threaten me with keeping me home? I hate you.”

“Sherlock, I’m only thinking that—”

Sherlock wanted to say a lot of things. He wanted to note just how many pounds Mycroft had put on since the long leave (six point two). He wanted to say that Mycroft was contrary, and had always been contrary, and that he hated him, and if he tried to keep Sherlock away from Eton he would never forgive him. Sherlock would poison his tea but not enough to kill him, just enough to make him extraordinarily sick and miserable, because he would deserve that.

Sherlock wanted to say all of these things, but he couldn’t think past the blinding squeezing sensation in his chest, through the panic flooding through him. He was happy, he thought. He was finally happy, in a way he had never even suspected existed, in a way that made all of that bloody poetry he’d been forced to read in all of those stupid literature divs make sense, and he wanted more of it, he couldn’t go back to life without it, he didn’t know how he would survive the cold.

He wanted to say so much that was cutting and clever, but what he heard himself say, sounding like a hurt, wailing child, desperate, begging, was, “Why do you want me to be unhappy?”

Maybe, after all, that was the best thing he could have said, because Mycroft flinched and Mycroft never flinched.

“I want the exact opposite of that,” Mycroft told him.

“I don’t believe you,” said Sherlock. His heart was beating wildly, and he could taste the press of the adrenaline in his mouth. The idea of being taken away from John had terrified something in his psyche so much that it had engaged his fight-or-flight response. His body was acting like he was in imminent physical danger, when all that had happened was the idea of losing a single person in his life. That would almost be fascinating to examine if he wasn’t too frantic to care overly much. “You don’t like John,” he accused. “You’ve never liked John.”

“That is very much not true.”

Sherlock ignored him. “I don’t care what you think about John; it doesn’t matter. John is mine, and if you try to take him away from me I will disappear, Mycroft. And you may think you’d be able to find me, but I wouldn’t be so sure about that anymore if I were you.”

There was a very long moment of silence. “I don’t know why you think we’re archenemies,” Mycroft said, finally. “I don’t know where you got this idea that…”

Sherlock stared at him, stony and still, breathing deeply and trying to push the adrenaline back.

“I won’t keep you from Eton,” Mycroft said.

Sherlock continued to stare at him, trying to think of countermoves and then countermoves to that, to anything Mycroft might attempt to do.

“Do you want me to promise you?” Mycroft asked.

“No,” said Sherlock, flatly, truthfully. “I wouldn’t believe you even if you did.”

***

John didn’t expect his mother to be home. The thought never even crossed his mind. He had wandered London for a bit, delaying the inevitable, preparing the speech he was going to give Harry, and he knew it would be a bit humiliating because Harry would tease him mercilessly about Sherlock. He finally decided that he couldn’t put it off any longer and went home, but he really didn’t expect his mother to be there. He actually froze in the lounge, looking at her in disbelief.

“Look what the cat dragged in,” his mother snarled at him, and John registered that she was angry with him. “Nice of you to ring us to let us know that you’re safe, all right, not to worry when you disappear with some tosser who’s broken into our flat and never come back.”

John glanced at Harry, who was sitting in the old armchair next to the sofa, and who looked vaguely guilty about all of this and extremely uncomfortable. He looked back at his mother and said, “It was a friend from school.”

“Who broke into our flat?” his mother asked.

Yes. “I think we left the door unlocked,” John lied, vaguely. “Anyway, he—we—I—yes. A friend from school. That’s all.” What the hell kind of an explanation was that supposed to be? he asked himself. He wished his mother didn’t seem as if she was sober for the first time in months.

“You went off with a friend from school and didn’t think to tell any of us? Just left us here to worry about you?”

“I really rather doubt that you were worried about me,” snapped John, losing his temper now, “because you weren’t even home.”

His mother looked offended. “Do you mean to imply that I don’t worry about my own son when he stays out all night without any warning whatsoever?”

“Oh. Sorry, no. I didn’t mean to imply it. I meant to just say it.”

His mother made a shocked noise, and Harry made a mirroring one, and John would have made one himself if he hadn’t just been the one saying those words, but he was furious suddenly at all the things he should have been furious at all his life but had never let himself be.

“I think that school’s a bad influence,” his mother declared. “I forbid you to go back to it.”

John actually laughed because, on some level, this really was funny. “You’re not forbidding me to do anything; you really haven’t earned that right.”

“I think this supposed friend is a bad influence,” his mother spat out.

The idea of this was ludicrous. Sherlock was many things. And it was possible Sherlock wasn’t exactly what any normal person would consider a good influence. But Sherlock thought for whatever delusional reason that John was wonderful and amazing. Sherlock clearly adored him. His mother sat in the middle of their mess of a flat, sober but only just, and John felt as if she were noticing him—really noticing him—for the first time in years, and that she had only done it because someone else who wasn’t her had had the audacity to think there was something there about him to notice. The anger was dark inside of him, so deep it was calm. He wanted to love his mother. He had always wanted to. He had wanted a mother, a mother who would take care of him and be proud of him, and he’d got into one of the best schools in the country, on merit, his own merit, and his mother didn’t care, had never cared, cared only that maybe he would make something of himself, something despite her, and he wasn’t sure what he’d done as a child to deserve that animosity from her.

“You think Eton is a bad influence? Really?” His voice was even and his tone was slicing. “In comparison to all of this—” he swept his hand out to take in the flat—“you think Eton is the bad influence in my life? You think I’d be better off here, when you only think to pay attention to me when it suits you? Where your idea of supervision is to let Harry run off and do any foolhardy thing she pleases? Because you don’t care, as long as it keeps her quiet and she doesn’t bother you while you’re busy trying to find the bottom of the vodka bottle?”

“John,” Harry cut in, her voice low and almost trembling, and John looked at her and realized how very much on the outside of this he was. How, in some strange way Harry and his mother were allied together and couldn’t understand him and his need for more, his need for more from life than vodka to dull it all. Harry was going to tumble over the same cliff their mother had, and he should have realized that so much earlier, should have stopped that, and he thought suddenly that maybe it was already too late, and he’d done so many things wrong that the weight of them was incomprehensible.

And while he was busy reaching this revelation, his mother stood up and slapped him hard across his cheek. It actually wasn’t really a slap, more like a punch, and the force behind it made him stagger a bit, sucking in his breath with the sharp sting of it.

“How dare you?” she demanded of him. “How dare you speak to me like that? How dare you think you’re better than us?” Her fingers suddenly rubbed at the collar of the jumper he was wearing. The one Mycroft had bought for him. The one John had put on even though there had been nothing wrong with last night’s shirt, but the jumper was beautiful, the tag had said it was cashmere, and John had really wanted to wear it. “In clothes bought and paid for by someone else? Sloppy of you to let your punter leave a mark, John. It gives you less of a shot to pull the next one.”

The love bite from Sherlock was in an inconvenient place. It would be hidden by the Eton collar, but it was quite visible if the collar of his jumper slipped at all, which it had, clearly, and John felt suddenly that he needed to get away, that he might do something he regretted if his mother said another sodding word about Sherlock. He went to jerk away from her, but she tightened her hand in his collar in reaction. He scrambled briefly, and it was messy and absurd and pretty much a blur, and she half-shook him in frustration, twisting at his collar until it was practically a stranglehold. He flailed wildly, idiotically, and Harry actually came off her chair, saying, “Mum,” and then someone else entirely cut in calmly with, “I think that is quite enough of that.”

Everyone stilled and went silent, and John, taking advantage of the sudden loosening of the hold on him, backed up several long steps and finally thought to see who had come into the flat, and said, startled into using a first name he’d never said before, “Mycroft.”

Sherlock’s brother was leaning on his umbrella, one foot jauntily crossed over the other, and he looked so mild and passive that he was bloody terrifying.

“John,” he acknowledged, his eyes flickering to him briefly, and then he looked back at John’s mother, who looked baffled, like she wanted to be angry at his sudden appearance but didn’t know what to say. “Did you hit him?” Mycroft asked, the question even and unruffled, as if he’d asked her for her name.

His mother flushed bright red, assuming a defensive position of anger. “I— He— He’s my son,” she settled on proclaiming, loudly, as if that answered the question.

“Yes,” agreed Mycroft, slowly, something in the tone of his voice that made John actually shiver. Mycroft gave his mother a long, calculating look. “Don’t do that again,” he said, finally, and John saw his mother swallow. “John,” Mycroft said, without taking his cool gaze off John’s mother, “do you have your things packed? We must be going if you are to be back at school on time.”

They didn’t have to be back at school until the following day. John almost said that to Mycroft, confused, and then realized what Mycroft was doing. Mycroft wouldn’t come right out, here, in this moment, and ask if he preferred to stay anywhere but at home for the remainder of the short leave. Mycroft would do it this way. And John didn’t care how awkward it might be that Mycroft probably knew every damn thing that had transpired between John and Sherlock the night before because Mycroft was a Holmes and could read people as if they were primary school textbooks. John suddenly wanted to be anywhere but where he was. He couldn’t bear the suffocating guilt of the place. He’d made a mess of everything, but he was too cowardly to stay and fix it.

John said, “Yes. Right. Yes,” and disappeared into his bedroom. He realized he was actually shaking, so he sat down on the bed and took a moment to get himself under control, a few deep breaths. He was being ridiculous. He screwed his eyes shut and counted to three, worried if he gave himself any longer Mycroft would come in search of him, and John thought that the only thing more humiliating than Mycroft having to buy him new clothing because of an indiscretion with Sherlock would have been Mycroft walking in at that moment to John’s dark, depressing bedroom and asking if he was all right, because John didn’t really trust that he wouldn’t have burst into tears like a toddler.

John found his bag, which he had never unpacked, not for the brevity of the short leave stay, and walked back out into the flat. Mycroft was still standing perfectly in place by the door, his gaze still unerringly even on John’s mother. John’s mother came forward as soon as he appeared, as if to give him a hug and a kiss, a pantomime for Mycroft’s benefit, and John flinched without meaning to, shrank away from her like he was still a silly child.

Mycroft inserted, calmly, “I think not.”

If his mother had looked hurt at his reaction, John thought he would have told Mycroft not to worry about him getting back to Eton, that he’d figure it out himself. John thought he would have stayed and tried to apologize and make everything right. But his mother didn’t look hurt. His mother looked furious. As if the worst thing about her son instinctively flinching away from her wasn’t that her son should react that way to her but that he should do it in front of company. John suddenly couldn’t get out of the flat quickly enough.

He turned to Mycroft, trying not to sound desperate when he asked, “Can we go?”

“Yes.” Mycroft kept his eyes on John’s mother even as he reached behind him to open the door, and John escaped into the world beyond the flat, where there was air to be gulped down, cold and damp. “Lovely to finally meet you,” he heard Mycroft say to his mother in the flat, “after everything I’ve…read.”

There was a quiet emphasis on the word, and John thought of what that meant, that Mycroft had read about his mother. Where? How? Did he care?

When Mycroft walked out of the flat and closed the door behind him, he didn’t say a word, just strode over to the sleek black car John had known was his. John practically clawed at the door in his eagerness to be inside it and away. John settled the seatbelt around him and stared stoically out the window, and Mycroft continued to be silent as he drove the car away.

The silence stretched and stretched and stretched. John didn’t know where they were in London. He didn’t care. He sat in Mycroft’s car and stared out the window and kept himself blank in every way.

Mycroft said, eventually, “Would you like to see Sherlock now, or would you rather wait a bit?”

John knew what the real question there was. Did he want to see Sherlock in this state? Did he prefer to try to pull himself together first? “I’m fine,” he said, automatically.

“Of that, I have no doubt,” Mycroft said. “But still, the decision is yours, as you wish.”

John wasn’t sure he could handle Sherlock at the moment. He wasn’t sure he could handle anything at all, really. He shook his head swiftly, as if that were an answer, but Mycroft seemed to understand, and when they eventually got out of Mycroft’s car, the building they walked into was posh and enormous and filled with utterly silent people.

“What—” John started to ask, but everyone in the place looked up at him in horror.

Mycroft put a finger to his lips and led him down a couple of hallways before ushering him into another room, just as posh as everything else John had seen in the place, with large windows looking out to the street and walls lined with impressively bound books. Mycroft was speaking in hushed tones to a man in a suit who had appeared, and then he walked into the room and closed the door behind him.

“We can talk in here,” Mycroft said.

“What is this place?” John asked, in confusion.

“My club.”

He said it like that was a normal answer. John digested it, then said, “You can’t talk in your club?”

“Only in certain rooms. Silence is golden, don’t you think?”

“I guess,” said John, because he didn’t really have any thoughts on the matter one way or another.

There was a brief knock on the door. Mycroft pulled it open, accepted something, and then turned back to John, holding it out to him. John took it automatically, realizing that it was ice wrapped in a towel of some sort.

“For that black eye you’re getting,” Mycroft said, without further comment.

John was grateful, because his eye was starting to throb. Then again, his eye wasn’t throbbing nearly as much as the rest of him was.

“I should go back,” he said, because he knew that he should.

Mycroft sat lightly in one of the room’s chairs, elegant and proper. Sherlock seldom sat properly in a chair; he either sprawled or curled up. Mycroft was the exact opposite, but somehow they resembled each other nonetheless, the clean polished lines of the Holmeses. “I wouldn’t let you,” he responded, the same lightness in his tone.

“You can’t tell me what to do,” John pointed out, and he knew he sounded ridiculous, even as he said it.

“Actually,” said Mycroft, smoothly, “I can tell just about anybody I want what to do. It’s quite nice, really.”

John sighed. “I think you… I mean, it isn’t always… I’d… That was my fault.”

Mycroft lifted his eyebrows, looking mildly interested. “Was it?”

“Yes.”

“No, it wasn’t. You’re seventeen years old. That mess wasn’t your fault, and it isn’t your responsibility to clean it up.”

John wanted to say, I went off with Sherlock, and I didn’t even think to tell anyone, didn’t think they would worry, but he didn’t want to bring Mycroft’s attention back to John’s activities with Sherlock, so he said instead, which was just as true, “I went off to school and—”

“Don’t make me repeat myself, John, it’s tedious. You’re seventeen years old. Going off to school is what you’re supposed to be doing.”

John almost laughed at the naïveté of that. “Yeah, if you’re rich and posh and a Holmes that’s what you’re supposed to be doing at the age of seventeen.”

“And what is it you think you should be doing instead of Eton?”

“Well, you know,” John told him, irritated. “You’ve got some sort of file on me, haven’t you? You know everything.”

“Ah. So do you want me to tell you why I think you think you should go back?”

John wasn’t sure that was better. “I… No.”

“One or the other, John,” said Mycroft, calmly.

John thought he’d made the wrong choice. He should have gone to see Sherlock immediately. But then he’d be having this conversation with Sherlock, Sherlock with his pale all-seeing eyes, and John thought of the possibility of pity in them and thought no, he’d rather do this with Mycroft. He sat opposite Mycroft and said, “My father’s dead. You know that. And my mother…isn’t well.” He supposed that was the most delicate way of putting it. “And Harry—that’s my sister, we call her Harry—no one’s paying much attention to her. And I thought that would be fine. I thought…I was wrong about that, Mr. Holmes, and I—”

“Mycroft,” Mycroft interrupted.

“What?”

“You should call me Mycroft.”

“Oh. Right. Yes. Well, I was wrong, and I can’t just…I can’t just leave her. I have to go back and try to fix it.”

Mycroft’s eyes on him were disconcerting, so like Sherlock’s, so unlike Sherlock’s. Mycroft said, softly, “If you don’t take care of her, who will? No one else would do half as good a job as you would. She’s your responsibility. I see that. I cannot argue with that.”

This surprised John. “You can’t?”

“In some ways, John, you and I are very much alike.”

John didn’t know what to say in answer to that, especially not when Mycroft sounded so odd, resigned and amazed all at once. “I…okay,” he said, because it seemed as good as any other response.

Mycroft stood abruptly, walking over to the window and looking out of it before turning back to John. “Your sister needs rehab. So does your mother. I can arrange it.”

Half of John thought this was a splendid idea, letting someone else handle all of this, and the other half of him—the prouder half—said, “I don’t have… I mean, I couldn’t possibly…”

“Let me do it. It’s better if it comes from me. Siblings especially can be tricky, to put it mildly. But I don’t care if your family resents me.”

“But…” John began, but he didn’t know what the rest of the sentence was, didn’t know what he wanted to say. Thank you, maybe?

“Anyway, I have an ulterior motive.” Mycroft sat back down opposite John.

Of course he did. John looked across at him warily. “Are you going to ask me to spy on Sherlock again?”

John didn’t really expect the next question, which was, “Are you in love with Sherlock?”

“What?” John managed, his voice sounding strangled.

“Because Sherlock is in love with you. Sherlock is so in love with you he doesn’t know what to do with himself. Sherlock is irrationally in love with you; he’s recklessly in love with you.”

“I…oh,” said John, a little breathlessly, because it wasn’t like he hadn’t figured this out for himself, but it seemed more real now that Sherlock’s brother was announcing it to him.

“So you know what I must tell you next.”

Actually, John didn’t. He wanted to point out that he wasn’t a Holmes and didn’t go around predicting what people were going to say before they said it. He looked at Mycroft quizzically.

Mycroft sighed. “Fine. I will say it, then.” He looked at John and formed his words very carefully and deliberately, “If you break his heart…”

The threat hung in the air between them. John almost wanted to ask what would happen, not because he had any intention of breaking Sherlock’s heart but because, well, what if he did it accidentally?

Mycroft himself seemed not to know the end of the threat. He cleared his throat and said, simply, “Don’t break his heart.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen

Sherlock heard the front door open and close. Mycroft coming home from whatever stupid place he’d gone to, and Sherlock frowned and was annoyed with himself for still being there and not having run away, although he wanted to make sure he didn’t give Mycroft any excuse not to take him back to Eton.

Mycroft called up to him, “Sherlock? I’ve brought you a surprise.”

How idiotic, thought Sherlock. Had he brought home a pony for him? “I don’t want a surprise,” Sherlock shouted back.

“What a shame,” Mycroft said, and then, a bit quieter, “I suppose I could get you a hotel room, John.”

Sherlock darted out of his bedroom and ran to the top of the staircase, staring down at his brother and, yes, John, looking slightly miserable and very tired and with a spectacular black eye.

“You didn’t deduce it was him as soon as we walked in the door?” Mycroft asked, mildly, and then walked through the front hall toward the library. “You’re slipping.”

Sherlock frowned briefly, but he was really much more concerned with John and the mystery of Mycroft having fetched John to bring here. Sherlock was overflowing with questions. “What are you doing here? What has he done? What happened to your eye? Why do you have your things with you? Are you going somewhere? Didn’t you go home?”

“Please stop,” said John, wearily. “I can’t, right now, answer all these questions.”

How irritating, thought Sherlock, when he had things he needed to know. “All right. So what happened?”

“I just said I don’t want to answer questions right now.”

“Oh. I thought you’d just meant I’d asked too many all at once.”

John shook his head, glanced around the front hall, wandered into the drawing room. Sherlock hurried down the stairs and followed him into the drawing room, where John was examining Mycroft’s latest chess game against himself.

“Just one question,” Sherlock said, because he needed to know, he had to know, the rest he could figure out on his own, but if Mycroft had done anything, anything at all…

John sighed in resignation. “Fine. What question?”

“Are you coming back to Eton tomorrow?”

“Yes,” John answered, obviously surprised.

Sherlock let out the breath he’d been holding.

“Did you think I wouldn’t?” John asked.

“I don’t know,” said Sherlock, because Mycroft had been involved, and one never knew where Mycroft was concerned.

“That’s it? That was the one question you wanted to ask?”

Sherlock looked at him for a moment, close and careful. John was sporting a black eye and someone had grabbed at his jumper, misshapen it a bit, but it hadn’t been a fight, Sherlock had seen John fight, John would have been both more and less roughed up if it had been a simple brawl. And John’s belongings had been at his flat, and John now had his belongings with him, so John had definitely gone to his flat. A row with his mother, then, Sherlock deduced. A more than vigorous slap to his face. Sherlock had been the subject of this row, the expensive new jumper, Eton in general. Mycroft’s involvement was more shadowy, but somehow he had come to be involved, somehow John was here. Which meant, somehow, in some way, John had chosen Sherlock.

“The rest I can deduce,” said Sherlock, eventually, and then walked over to John, who watched his approach almost warily. Sherlock stood in front of him and then, with very deliberate determination, kissed him, small sips of kisses, wearing him down. Sherlock knew the exact moment when John finally stopped thinking about all of it, because he finally kissed Sherlock back. Sherlock also knew the exact moment when John remembered all of it, because John abruptly brought his arms up and crushed Sherlock to him, and Sherlock wanted to tell him there was no need to hold on so tightly, he was never going anywhere.

***

Greg wasn’t playing football. He had, however, promised assistance in painting the sets for the school production of The Pirates of Penzance, so he was dressed in his very oldest clothing and absolutely covered with paint because that was what happened when you gave a bunch of teenage boys access to paint. He was heading home to change when Mycroft Holmes called, “Mr. Lestrade,” and Greg turned to watch him as he approached and thought, bloody hell, why couldn’t he ever actually look decent when Mycroft was around?

“Mr. Holmes,” he said, by way of greeting, and then, “Do you deliberately always choose the moments when I’m most a mess to come and talk to me? Is it some sort of power play?”

Mycroft looked blank. “What?”

Greg gestured to the current state he was in.

Mycroft took him in, sharp gray eyes running down and then up his body, and Greg abruptly thought that it was much warmer outside than he had supposed. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with the way you look,” said Mycroft, in a tone Greg couldn’t read. Then, “You said before that you were keeping an eye on Sherlock and John, that they would be fine.”

“Yes,” said Greg, unsure what this was about.

“Is that still true?”

Greg tipped his head at Mycroft. “Is there something wrong?”

Mycroft looked oddly uncomfortable, out of his element, even dressed to the nines in all his posh ridiculousness as he was. He fidgeted with his hold on his umbrella and said, “I think you may have been right.”

Well. Obviously that had been the source of the discomfort. Greg stared at him. “Wait, really?”

Mycroft stilled himself, Greg watched it, almost like dominos falling into place, every fidget smoothing away. It was fascinating. Greg wanted to reverse the process. He wanted to rumple Mycroft, shake him out of all that self-possession, shock him into something entirely unexpected. He had a suspicion that Mycroft unleashed would be a glorious sight, it was lurking deep in the back of those gray eyes, and for one self-indulgent moment Greg had a vivid fantasy of peeling Mycroft out of that three-piece suit so excruciatingly slowly that Mycroft would eventually snap and pounce on Greg and—

Mycroft was talking. “Sherlock has never been prone to schoolboy infatuations,” Mycroft was saying.

“I didn’t think he was,” agreed Greg, clearing his throat.

Mycroft looked at him closely, as if he knew exactly what thoughts had distracted Greg, although Greg couldn’t tell whether Mycroft approved or disapproved. Mycroft just said, “I considered not letting him come back.”

“Why would you consider that?” asked Greg in disbelief, and then, swiftly, “Oh my God, you’re not going to get all judgmental about the fact that he’s in love with another boy, are you?”

Mycroft looked confused. “What? No. I couldn’t care less about that.”

Greg believed him. “Then what’s the problem?”

“The most powerful person in Sherlock Holmes’s life is currently a seventeen-year-old, Mr. Lestrade.”

Greg shrugged a bit. “What can you do about that? You knew it was coming.”

“Knew what was coming?” demanded Mycroft, prim outrage.

“I don’t know. Falling in love. First heartbreak. That sort of thing.”

“No,” Mycroft said, crisply. “I did not know this was coming.”

Greg realized that Mycroft really did believe that, that Mycroft saw what was going on with Sherlock and John to be absolutely unimaginable and completely incomprehensible. “Haven’t you ever been in love?” Greg asked him, but he knew what the answer had to be: Mycroft had never let himself be reckless, and love was nothing but recklessness.

“Caring is not an advantage,” Mycroft announced, stiffly.

Greg laughed and watched Mycroft stiffen even more. “Don’t even pretend you believe that. You’re here fretting that someone’s going to break your little brother’s heart. I don’t think it’s possible for you to care about him more. So don’t pretend to be cold and heartless and unfeeling to me. It may work with whoever your government flunkies are, but I’ve seen you desperate that Sherlock be happy, so it isn’t going to convince me, whatever you do.” Mycroft looked offended, but Greg talked over whatever protest he was about to raise. “And doesn’t he look happy? Sherlock? Have you ever seen him so happy?” Greg was genuinely curious about this. Because Sherlock was the talk of Eton. He was still difficult, of course, still uncooperative, didn’t go to divs, and was rude to everybody who wasn’t John. But the general consensus among the masters at Eton was that Sherlock was happier than they’d yet seen him at Eton. Everyone seemed to give Greg credit for this, but Greg thought the real credit went to John Watson.

Mycroft looked genuinely thoughtful at the question. “I don’t know. Maybe? Years ago? When we were boys? It’s strange, sometimes I feel as if I can barely remember when Sherlock was a child, and other times I feel as if I can’t imagine him growing up. My God, I sound like a complete madman.”

Greg felt a bit sorry for him. He imagined that raising any teenager couldn’t possibly be easy. Greg was always relieved to just have to teach them, to not have to navigate the emotional minefield of being totally and utterly the last word on their upbringing. He imagined that having to raise Sherlock was at least a thousand times worse than the usual. “No, you don’t,” he said, sympathetically. “You really don’t at all. And, to answer your original question, I will keep an eye on him. I promise.” He wondered when it was Sherlock had managed to worm his way so thoroughly into his heart. Greg knew lots of students at Eton. Sherlock was the most infuriating one, by far, and the only one Greg felt even half as invested in.

Mycroft looked uncertain, as if people weren’t usually genuinely nice to him and he wasn’t sure what to do with that. Greg felt another pang for him and wondered how lonely his life was, older than he actually was, younger than he needed to be. “Thank you,” he said, gravely, seriously. “For that. And for the thing with the Met. It actually…” Mycroft stopped, gathered his thoughts. Greg watched once again, fascinated, as all the slightly ruffled feathers in Mycroft’s psyche settled back into place. “I don’t know why it never occurred to me that Sherlock would delight in that. I should have done it ages ago. Thank you for thinking of it. Thank your friend for me, for permitting it.”

“Thank you for not ringing the headmaster and telling him I’d gone mad.”

Mycroft huffed out an amused noise. “I would never. Anyone who spends any time at all with Sherlock goes slightly mad. It’s like being exposed to mercury over and over. We all turn into hatters eventually.”

Greg laughed because he couldn’t help it. He knew it was a joke, and he knew also that it was the sort of joke only Mycroft Holmes would make, and that was unbearably adorable to him. Mycroft had become adorable to him. Greg registered that he might be in real trouble.

And that was before Mycroft reached out abruptly and brushed a finger over Greg’s cheek, and Greg froze, not trusting himself to move or speak or breathe. Mycroft’s eyes were intent, and his fingers were cool and precise, and Greg could imagine all that cool precision being directed to other tasks, and this was inconvenient, it was bloody inconvenient.

“You are covered in paint,” said Mycroft, his voice little more than a murmur, and that gingery hair dancing in the breeze.

Greg thought momentarily about grabbing Mycroft’s tie and snogging the composure off his face. He made a noise that was supposed to be affirmation and sounded more like the noise he made when he was being thoroughly kissed.

Mycroft dropped his hand and flickered him a formal smile that had Greg blinking and off-balance. “Good day, Mr. Lestrade,” he said, smartly, as if nothing had just happened between them, and then he walked away, not waiting for a reply.

Greg stared after him and tried to puzzle him out. Holmeses, he thought, were the bane of his existence. He wished he were less intrigued by them.

***

Sherlock was in John’s room when John walked in. Naturally. “I,” John announced, triumphantly, “have figured it out.”

“Oh, good,” said Sherlock, pushing away from the desk. “You’re back from divs. I’m bored. Take off your clothes.”

“You’re such a romantic,” said John, locking their door. “Don’t you want to know what I’ve figured out?”

“Have you figured out a way to stop going to divs?”

“No, the whole point of my being here is to go to divs.”

“Then I’m not interested in what you’ve figured out. We’ve been back a week, and do you know how bored I am when you’re not here? I’m bird-watching.” Sherlock held up a piece of paper on which John could see detailed data of birds scrawled.

“What does the data say?”

“Inconclusive, but it’s possible the birds here are even stupider than the humans here.” Sherlock dropped the piece of paper back to the desk in disgust.

“Why doesn’t Lestrade get you another case?”

“Because he’s a hateful human being.” Sherlock’s hands were undoing John’s tie. “Look at you, with your proper Eton uniform,” he scoffed.

“Because I was just in school,” John reminded him. “Which some of us still have to go to because we’re not our tutor’s special pet.”

“You could be your tutor’s special pet. I told you how to blackmail him,” said Sherlock, unbuttoning John’s shirt.

“You’re scared you wouldn’t like it,” said John, deciding that Sherlock was never going to let him get to his point.

“I’m not scared of anything,” said Sherlock and pushed John’s shirt and coat off in one fluid motion. “Fear is not an emotion I permit myself.” Sherlock kissed him.

John let him, speaking around brief assaults of Sherlock’s tongue. “You’re scared that you don’t actually like sex.”

Sherlock stopped kissing him, pulled back. “I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous,” said Sherlock. “I think I like sex better than you. You’re the one who always has to be convinced.”

“When you wake me up at 3 a.m. with a snog and say, ‘Let’s have sex,’ and I respond with ‘What?’ that doesn’t mean I needed to be convinced. It means I wasn’t awake enough to have a conversation. And, anyway, that isn’t what I’m talking about. I’ve been having an awful lot of sex, I don’t argue with you on that point.”

“You’ve been having an awful lot of sex with me.” Sherlock frowned briefly. “I hope not with other people. I find I’m oddly possessive of you.”

“Good. I like you to be possessive of me, considering my jealousy regarding you is rampant. But I don’t have sex with you. You don’t participate.”

“I know the neurons in your brain are focused on other things during such moments, but I think you’ll find, if you really comb through your memory, that I participate quite a lot,” said Sherlock, and deliberately undid John’s trousers.

“Yes. That’s what I mean. My neurons focus on other things; your neurons never do anything but focus on me.”

Sherlock blinked at him, looking honestly perplexed. His hands were resting lightly on John’s hips, his thumbs moving in circles that John knew were an absent-minded caress, as he considered what John was saying. “That’s…the point, John.”

“It’s lovely that you think that,” said John, reaching for the button on Sherlock’s trousers.

“Haven’t we…” Sherlock looked both quizzical and stricken. “Have I not been doing it correctly? I wish you’d told me before this. I thought you liked it.”

John cut him off with a kiss, hard and abrupt, swallowing the rest of Sherlock’s words. “Shut up,” he said, against his mouth. “I love it. Never think for a second I’m complaining. I’m just saying that the score’s very lopsided at the moment.”

“It isn’t… Are you keeping score?” Sherlock asked. He sounded slightly strangled, but he didn’t move away as John finished with his fly, nudged his trousers down.

“I’m collecting data on it, yes,” murmured John, and kissed Sherlock’s neck, put his hands on Sherlock’s hips and nudged him closer and then kissed him properly, languorous and wet. He could feel Sherlock was interested, growing more interested as the kiss progressed. Sherlock liked kissing, John knew. No, Sherlock loved kissing, he corrected, as Sherlock’s hands came up into his hair.

John drew back a breath, just far enough that Sherlock couldn’t immediately recapture his mouth, although he tried. “Trevor had a terrible fellatio technique,” he said, softly.

“What?” said Sherlock, breathless and not paying attention.

“That’s what you told me. That he was terrible. You didn’t like it. You never let me try anything with you because you’re scared you still won’t like it even though it’s me, and you don’t want to have to lie to me about it, so you’re just hoping that if you keep ravishing me I just might not ever notice how much I’m neglecting you.”

Sherlock was very, very still against him. He was breathing quickly but quietly, clearly trying not to pant. “I…I don’t feel neglected, I—”

“I have never done this before,” John said. “I might be as terrible as Trevor. So that’s fine. I’m sure practice makes perfect. You can coach me. To be honest, I’m a bit horrified you’re as excellent at this whole thing as you are.”

“It’s biology, John,” said Sherlock. “It’s just nerve endings and stimulation, and it’s…it’s an equation.”

“Oh my God,” said John. “Are you really working through equations during your expert fellatio technique? Because I’m never going to live up to that.”

Sherlock frowned, very briefly, and John leaned forward and kissed him again, softly and gently, a press against his bow-shaped mouth, and Sherlock gave a little sigh that fluttered across John’s lips.

“I’m not…” John breathed at him and kept kissing him, slow and small. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… I’m not… You’re spectacular.” He increased the pressure of his kisses slightly. Sherlock’s lips parted, but he didn’t quite take advantage of the invitation. “I wish you would understand how very much I want to make you come undone for me. How very much I’d like for you to let me try.” Sherlock made a noise like a whimper, leaning into him, trying to catch his lips, to deepen the kiss, and John let him for a second before drawing back again. “We don’t have to. I’ll drop this, if you really want me to. I don’t want to…I don’t want to ruin anything. The same way you don’t want to ruin anything. But I…I… Just let me…”

“Kiss me,” said Sherlock, pleading already in his tone. “And anything else. Anything else you want.”

John drew back a bit more. “Tell me to stop if you don’t like it. If anything isn’t good, I’ll just stop, and I’ll drop it.”

Sherlock opened his eyes, looking annoyed. “How can I tell you to stop? You haven’t even started.”

John grinned. “Fair enough,” he said, and leaned forward and kissed Sherlock hard at the same time he slid a hand inside his pants. It was astonishingly strange, John thought, to have his hand inside another man’s pants. Not as strange as the fact that the first time he’d accomplished it was a week after he’d let another man’s hand inside his own pants, though. And John had no idea what he was doing, none, just a vague knowledge of what he liked and what hopefully Sherlock would like in return, and he stroked very, very gently, and Sherlock made a sound like a squeak, and John stopped kissing him for a second.

“Good?” he queried, but Sherlock reached out and pulled him in for a much harder kiss, so John supposed it was good.

John felt as if everything were in his way. It was far more awkward to get Sherlock out of his pants than he would have supposed when he had been rehearsing the whole thing in his head, but Sherlock didn’t complain and didn’t seem to think that John was making a mess of everything yet, and when John nudged him toward the bed he went willingly and pulled John onto him and kissed the thoughts out of his head in that way he had.

Sherlock liked kissing, John reminded himself, trying to stay focused. Loved it. So probably, for this first time, it was best not to occupy his mouth with anything but Sherlock’s mouth. This was partly cowardice on John’s part, because he thought maybe he ought to work his way up to the point where he was going to have to confront the whole issue of swallowing, but mostly this was knowing Sherlock. And Sherlock kissed and kissed and kissed, Sherlock loved it, Sherlock hated to ever relinquish a kiss, and John didn’t want this to be any stranger than necessary, for either of them.

Sherlock, though, having apparently been given permission by John to actually enjoy having sex with him, was moving restlessly against him, arching up into him and wiggling about, trying to line them up exactly, and Sherlock had never done anything like this before, and John was achingly hard, he didn’t understand how Sherlock had been managing for so long to just pay attention to John, because John was already dizzy with how very much he needed to get himself off here.

“Take off your pants,” Sherlock begged into his mouth. “Please. Take off everything.”

Since that was exactly what John had been thinking, he complied, and that was more of a mess than it usually was but that was fine because he eventually managed to accomplish it and then sink back onto Sherlock and Sherlock pushed at him, prodding, reaching, trying to get a hand around him.

“No,” John said, weakly. “It’s supposed to be about you.”

“I don’t want to be alone,” Sherlock panted at him. “Let me—”

“I’ll do it,” said John, and there was brief maneuvering so he could get at both of them at once. Sherlock arched into his touch, gasping for breath, sweat beading along his skin, and John thought he’d never seen anything so erotic. He bit at his tongue, trying to keep his climax back, because he wanted to watch Sherlock’s. He wanted desperately to see the moment when he made Sherlock Holmes come.

Sherlock was talking, it sounded like yesyesyesyesyes strung in a row, and John had thought he was going to have to ask many more times during this process whether or not it was good for Sherlock, but it turned out that it appeared from John’s vantage point that there was no question about that.

“I need…” Sherlock managed. “I want…”

“Tell me,” John told him.

Sherlock’s fingers wrapped around John’s, adjusted the rhythm, and John’s breath hitched. He fought to keep his eyes open, saying desperately, “Sherlock, tell me you’re close,” and Sherlock said, “John,” and shuddered with the climax as it washed over him, his eyes squeezed shut and his mouth wide open, gasping for air, and John thought, My God, he’s gorgeous, so incredibly gorgeous, and you’ve done that to him, and gasped with the rush of the pleasure as it finally swept through him.

John collapsed. The bed was narrow. It necessitated closeness. Sherlock liked that, of course, delighted in crawling into bed with him at whatever hour he’d deigned to go to sleep and having to cuddle right onto his chest to keep from falling off. So, by necessity, John stayed touching Sherlock, sticky and vaguely unpleasant, feeling the sweat cool off both of them. John wanted to ask a million questions but he was scared to. He was scared of the answers to any of them. He stared up at the ceiling, waiting for Sherlock to say something, anything.

Sherlock, next to him, eventually stopped heaving for breath, and then there was just silence, and John forced himself to stay still and not fidget, even though he desperately wanted to reach for the tissues by the bed and clean up a bit of the mess.

Sherlock said, finally, sounding confused, “You…stole my words. I couldn’t get a sentence to form.”

That, thought John, was generally considered to be a good thing. In John’s own limited experience of such matters. “Well,” he said, aiming for the joke, “you managed to form the word ‘John,’ and that was the most important bit.”

“Did I?” Sherlock sounded distracted, absent, lost in thought. “That’s good. I’m glad I said your name. You have the best way of saying my name when you orgasm.”

John hesitated, then thought that he had to ask it. “Was it good? I mean, never mind, don’t feel like you have to lie, but—”

“That was Christmas,” Sherlock cut him off, and John was still registering the relief that description provoked in him when Sherlock rolled on top of him, looking down at him, delighted, gleeful, and commanded him, “Do that again.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen

In the three weeks between the second short leave and the commencement of Christmas break, Gregory Lestrade kept leaving Mycroft messages about Sherlock. They were nice messages, kind messages, assuring him that Sherlock was continuing to do well. He was bored, but Lestrade was making him arrive at explanations for the Nazca Lines, and that was actually a good project for Sherlock because he never really paid attention to history or anthropology or anything like that and so had to do a lot of independent research. According to the messages from Lestrade, aside from a show of sulking over how boring everything that wasn’t John was, Sherlock was still fairly content because he did have John to alleviate the boredom. At one point the message his PA read to him was literally: “No broken hearts, John is besotted and thinks Sherlock is lovely, and I don’t even think Sherlock’s poisoning him with any sort of suggestibility chemical or anything.” Mycroft smiled briefly at that one.

Lestrade never asked to speak with him. His PA said she’d offered to transfer him once or twice when Lestrade had happened to phone whilst Mycroft hadn’t been busy, and Lestrade had politely declined, said it wasn’t necessary, just dictated a message to her. Mycroft supposed that their live conversations frequently didn’t seem to go well, so he appreciated Lestrade’s decision on that point. He also appreciated the messages. He was unused to getting nice messages about Sherlock, and he’d been caught unprepared by how much one could worry when the news kept being good. He kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it was an unpleasant feeling. He very much liked Lestrade’s messages because he sensed that Lestrade understood what Mycroft was going through and was trying to help as much as possible. It was…kind of him. And Mycroft wasn’t especially used to kindness. He didn’t, for whatever reason, seem to inspire it much in others.

Lestrade was…nice. He was, furthermore, nice to the Holmeses, which was not something many people were. Sherlock had alienated every tutor he’d ever had, but Lestrade had been unfazed by his antics, had determined what would interest him and then had actually gone out on a limb and gotten him called in to help with the Met. Mycroft still couldn’t quite wrap his mind around not only the brilliance of that act but the innate affection for Sherlock it had displayed. Mycroft wasn’t used to people other than him recognizing how much there was in Sherlock to love. Sherlock made it difficult for people. Mycroft loved him, and Mrs. Hudson loved him, and John, apparently, loved him, but most people didn’t see what Mycroft saw when he looked at Sherlock. Mrs. Hudson was right that he was a tiny bit jealous of the whole thing, but he was also relieved. Loving Sherlock could be lonely and frustrating, and it was nice to have a bit of company.

Mycroft thought about Lestrade rather more than was quite necessary for him to think about Sherlock’s tutor, though, really. He thought about Lestrade, wind-tousled from football, dark hair messy all over his head and cheeks pink from exertion. He thought about Lestrade covered with splotches of paint and of the places where the splotches of paint would end, hidden underneath his clothing, and he felt it would have been his own Rorschach test, uncovering Lestrade’s body and trying to interpret the spatters of the paint on it. Mycroft had Lestrade’s file, and it told him lots of information, including the rather important fact that Lestrade had had relationships with men as well as women. What the file did not tell Mycroft, though, was mostly everything else he wanted to know, like how he kissed and whether he would like to be kissed by Mycroft and also, strangely important to Mycroft, whether he preferred Gregory or Greg.

Mycroft made up his mind, and once Mycroft had made up his mind then far be it for the universe to try anything different. So he bought a bottle of Chablis Grand Crus and went in search of Lestrade before he went in search of Sherlock at the beginning of the Christmas break.

He found him in his office, standing at his desk and sorting through a towering pile of papers. He was still dressed for work, although he’d removed his tie and thrown it negligently over the back of his desk chair. It was not, Mycroft noted, an especially nice tie. Maybe he should have bought him a tie instead of wine.

Mycroft knocked on the open door, and Lestrade looked up.

“Mycroft,” he said, in surprise. “I mean, Mr.— ”

“Mycroft is fine,” Mycroft told him, mildly, deciding it was a good sign that Lestrade already thought of them as being on a first-name basis. “May I come in?”

“Yes, of course.” Lestrade glanced around the office and then said, “Well. It’s a bit of a mess, isn’t it?”

Which it was, there were papers scattered everywhere. Mycroft stepped through and around them, saying, “It’s no matter. You, by contrast, do clean up nicely,” he remarked.

Lestrade looked startled. “Oh. I— Thanks. Thank you. I guess anything’s an improvement over being covered in paint.” Lestrade smiled at him ruefully.

“I didn’t say it was necessarily an improvement. You looked quite nice covered in paint, too.” He held out the bottle of wine. “Merry Christmas.”

Lestrade continued to look off-balance, leaning over the desk to take the bottle of wine from him and glancing at the label. “Oh, that’s…thank you.”

Mycroft wondered if Lestrade didn’t really drink wine, had a brief flash of panic that it may have been the wrong choice for a present. “It’s French,” said Mycroft, thinking he should shut up but unable to stop himself. “I thought…with your French last name…”

Lestrade smiled at him. “French grandfather,” he said. “Appalled that I don’t speak a word of it.” Lestrade put the wine bottle carefully down on a clear spot on his desk. “You really didn’t have to get me anything. That’s very nice of you.”

“Nonsense. You have executed a stunning turnaround in my brother’s assessment of his quality of life.”

“That wasn’t me. I only wish I could take the credit for that.”

“John has made a difference. But you have been willing to bend the rules for Sherlock, and that has been enormously helpful.”

“Well, everything I’d read about Sherlock indicated that he didn’t do well with rules.”

“To put it mildly,” agreed Mycroft. “And you have kept an eye on him for me. Your messages these last few weeks have been...” Mycroft was inclined to use an impersonal, business-like word, but he realized that didn’t accurately convey what the messages had been. He chose, “Lovely.”

Lestrade shrugged, looking vaguely embarrassed. “I thought you would be worrying. You seem like you’re probably constantly worrying over him. I thought I would try to help with that. It was no huge effort on my part. Anyway, Sherlock and John are still wrapped up in their own little world, so everything’s fine.”

“It’s really Sherlock’s world,” remarked Mycroft.

Lestrade lifted his eyebrows in query, walking out from behind his desk to lean against it next to Mycroft. He was close. Very close.

Mycroft kept his eyes away from Lestrade’s eyes, or he would have been too distracted to go on. “Sherlock’s always existed in a world unto himself. He doesn’t let other people intrude upon it. He doesn’t care what other people think, or he doesn’t let himself care. I admit I’ve never been quite sure which it is. But he sits in his world, with his thoughts, and every once in a while he may deign to come out and pay a call on one of us, but he really would prefer to be alone. His patience for the rest of the population is thin. And then John Watson walked by and for some reason Sherlock laid eyes on him and decided, ‘Never mind, it’s lonely in here; I’ll have that one,’ and pulled him right into his world with him.”

“And what about you?” Lestrade asked, very close, too close. Mycroft was absurdly nervous. One would think he’d never done anything like this before.

He steeled himself and forced himself to meet Lestrade’s eyes. They were very dark eyes, very deep eyes, the eyes of an inquisitor. “What about me?”

“Do you exist in your own little world? Do you ever let anyone in there with you?”

“Ah, I am like the poet said: the world is too much with me.”

“Late and soon?” said Lestrade.

“You know the poem?”

“Not really. Studied it at some point in my past, and that line stuck with me.”

“Well, it’s a lovely poem.”

“I’ll have to dig out a poetry collection.”

“It’s Wordsworth,” said Mycroft, feeling like an idiot and wondering why he was saying such stupid things.

Lestrade nodded, looking slightly uncertain of the conversation, which Mycroft didn’t blame him for, and then he took a breath, as if preparing to say something else. Probably: Well, not that this isn’t lovely, but I have other things to do.

Mycroft hastened to cut him off, to do what he’d intended to do from the very beginning. “My Christmas present to myself,” he said, “is to allow myself one reckless moment.”

“Oh,” said Lestrade, looking vaguely pleased. “That’s good. I think you’ll—”

Mycroft leaned, because if he didn’t do it then he was scared he’d lose his opportunity forever. He pressed his lips against Lestrade’s, who stopped talking abruptly and went very still. Mycroft kissed him gently, and Lestrade didn’t exactly actively participate, but he didn’t exactly not participate either.

Mycroft pulled back and looked at him. His eyes were wide and stunned-looking. Mycroft wasn’t sure that was a good sign.

“That was it,” he said.

“What?” Lestrade sounded strangled.

“That was my one reckless moment.”

Lestrade looked too shocked to say anything else.

“Merry Christmas,” Mycroft said, thinking that he should get out of that office before he died of embarrassment.

“Mycroft,” Lestrade stopped him as he got to the doorway, and Mycroft forced himself not to be a coward and turned back to him inquiringly.

Lestrade walked over to him and slammed the door shut, surprising Mycroft, and then said, “Sorry. You caught me off-guard. I can do reckless better than that,” and then backed him against the closed door and basically stuck his tongue in Mycroft’s mouth.

Which was fine with Mycroft because he would have done the same to Lestrade if he’d had the nerve. He kissed him back, dropping his umbrella in favor of closing his hands into Lestrade’s hair, keeping him in place, although Lestrade didn’t seem inclined to pull back. Lestrade kissed him hungrily, as if he were enjoying it, as if he’d actually been wanting to do it. Mycroft could barely wrap his mind around it, because people might want to kiss Mycroft upon meeting him, but it was Mycroft’s experience that they seldom still wanted to kiss him after a conversation with him, never mind several.

Eventually they stopped kissing, by mutual decision, enjoying the renewed access to oxygen.

“Merry Christmas,” said Lestrade, thickly, and kissed Mycroft’s chin before pulling back a bit more. “I’m not going to drink that bottle of wine until you agree to have it with me over dinner.”

Mycroft was startled into saying, “Really?” Because he couldn’t quite believe this. Lestrade was fit and attractive and probably could have anyone he wanted.

“Yes, really. Do you know how long I’ve been wanting to rumple this bloody suit of yours? When can you have dinner with me?”

“I…” Mycroft tried not to think overly much about Lestrade rumpling his suit. He tried to make the world go back to making sense. He felt as he would have if someone had started walking upside-down on the ceilings, a vaguely disconcerting notion of These are not the rules I’ve learned—where did you get your playbook? “I don’t know. I need to check my schedule.” He wanted to take it back as soon as he said it. He thought it sounded dreadful. He wanted to say, Oh my God, whenever you want, I will be there, absolutely. But he wasn’t sure that sounded much better.

Lestrade didn’t seem to mind. He said, “Fine. Phone me. I’m a decent cook.”

“We could go out,” suggested Mycroft, innate good breeding kicking in, not wanting to force him to cook.

“We could. I’d much rather stay in.” He licked at the line of Mycroft’s jaw for emphasis.

“Oh,” said Mycroft, because he’d much rather stay in, too. In fact, they could bloody skip the dinner altogether. But saying that might imply that he didn’t also want to have dinner with Lestrade, and he did, very much, he wanted all of it. “Greg or Gregory?” Mycroft asked, desperately.

“What?” Lestrade closed his teeth over Mycroft’s earlobe.

“Which do you prefer? Greg or Gregory?”

“Greg,” he answered, and nuzzled behind Mycroft’s ear.

“Then you should know, Greg,” Mycroft managed, “that Chablis Grand Crus pairs well with poultry and seafood.”

Lestrade—no, Greg—laughed, right against the skin of Mycroft’s throat. It was a good laugh, a laugh like he really thought Mycroft was clever and amusing, and, just to reinforce that, he kissed him again.

***

When Mycroft walked into John’s room, Sherlock, from the desk where he was packing his experiments up very carefully, narrowed his eyes at him and said, “Hmm,” thoughtfully.

John didn’t know what that was all about.

Mycroft frowned at Sherlock and blushed just a bit. Was that possible? Or was John imagining that? And he tugged at his waistcoat and straightened his tie and smoothed a hand over his hair and then he turned to John.

“And you’re taking a train into London?” he inquired, politely.

“Yes,” John affirmed.

“You’re welcome to come home with us. I can drive you into London in the morning,” Mycroft offered.

John didn’t think that was a good idea. He didn’t think showing up in an expensive car with the man who had appeared in the middle of a humiliating family fight to issue cool, terrifying threats was the best way to smooth over what was inevitably going to be a terrible homecoming.

“Thank you,” he said, “but I’m fine.”

Mycroft considered him very closely, and John tried not to fidget. “You’re more than welcome to stay with us for the entire break, if you would prefer.”

“Don’t even try, Mycroft,” Sherlock complained, loudly, from the desk. “John’s being annoying. He insists he has to go home.”

“It’s Christmas,” said John, which was what he kept saying to Sherlock. “I have to go home for Christmas.” Plus, he was worried that if he didn’t go home for Christmas, he might never go home again. He felt as if he had to make himself go home, had to stop being a coward about it, had to fix the mess that he’d left things in by running away the first time. “I told Sherlock I could come for Boxing Day, if that’s all right.”

Sherlock sniffed. “You will have missed everything by Boxing Day. I don’t know why you’re being difficult about this.”

John and Mycroft both ignored him.

“Boxing Day would be delightful,” Mycroft assured him. “We shall see you then. And you should stay with us for the remainder of the break. Are you ready, Sherlock?”

“I suppose,” said Sherlock, very dramatically, “that I am ready.” He stood with the box of his experiments.

“Merry Christmas, John,” Mycroft told him, formally.

“Thanks.” John turned to Sherlock, who was busy sulking his way across the bedroom. “I’ll see you in two weeks,” John told him.

“Hmph,” frowned Sherlock. He thrust the experiment box at Mycroft, who took it in a surprised automatic reaction, and said, “Mycroft, go out there somewhere.” Sherlock gestured eloquently.

Mycroft lifted his eyebrows and said, “Be quick. I’ll count to ten.” He walked out of the room.

“I’m very cross with you, and I think this is, frankly, astonishingly irritating of you,” Sherlock told John, and then gave him a very thorough kiss good-bye.

“Ten!” Mycroft shouted from the hallway.

“I hate him,” Sherlock breathed against John’s mouth. “I also hate you.” He nipped at John’s bottom lip to emphasize his point.

“So you’ve said. Don’t snog anyone else over the next two weeks the way you just snogged me.”

Sherlock scoffed. “John, please do try to fight against your natural impulse to be an idiot,” he said.

“Just making sure,” said John.

“Twenty!” shouted Mycroft.

“Go,” John said, smiling as he pushed him away. “I’ll see you in two weeks, and then I’ll give you your Christmas present, and then you’ll forgive me for being an irritating idiot.”

“I’ll never forgive you,” said Sherlock.

“Then I’ll keep the Christmas present,” rejoined John.

Sherlock narrowed his eyes and half-stomped out of the room, and John shook his head and thought something was really wrong with him that he thought that creature rather ridiculously adorable. But Sherlock had no idea what John was getting him for Christmas, and it was driving Sherlock crazy, and that was at least part of the reason why Sherlock was in such a terrible mood. Sherlock hated anything that he didn’t know, and John was determined that he not know his Christmas present in advance. John had even gone so far as to purchase a decoy present. He knew Sherlock had deduced the decoy present, and he knew Sherlock couldn’t figure out what to make of it. John seldom got to puzzle Sherlock Holmes. He was relishing it, bad mood and all.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty

No one was home when John got home. For a moment he considered that this was deliberate, that they were snubbing him, that maybe he should ring Sherlock and say he’d changed his mind and would come to stay for the whole Christmas break. But then it occurred to John that probably they’d just forgotten he was coming home, which would be very like them. And if they were snubbing him, he wanted to force them to do it to his face. He’d made himself come home—the least they could do was stop being cowards about it, too.

He had only just made his mind up to stay when there was a knock on the door. John answered it to reveal a delivery man holding an enormous red poinsettia.

John blinked in surprise.

“Delivery for Mrs. Cynthia Watson,” the delivery man intoned, sounding bored.

“She’s not here,” John said, confused. Who was sending his mother flowers? It didn’t seem likely that she was dating the sort of man who sent flowers. “I’m her son. I’ll sign for it.”

The delivery man looked as if he didn’t really care who signed for it as long as the poinsettia was no longer his responsibility. John scrawled his name across the piece of paper the delivery man held out to him and carried the poinsettia back into the house. He pushed aside the piles of old mail and random trash to create enough space on the table to put the poinsettia down. And then, unable to resist, he read the card.

Wishing you a happy and peaceful holiday season. –Mycroft Holmes

For a second, John just stared at the card, unsure what to make of it. And then he read the message again. He smiled at the word peaceful and smiled at the poinsettia and felt suddenly much better than he had before. He felt as if Mycroft really was keeping an eye on everything, like if anything got out of hand he would show up again. Sherlock might find Mycroft’s omnipotence annoying, and John frankly agreed that it was a bit terrifying, but at the moment he was just pleased to have the omnipotence on his side. To have anyone that was nearby on his side, really. There was a phone number written out underneath Mycroft’s name, and John thought that was for his benefit. He ripped off the bottom half of the card carefully, tucked the number in his pocket for safekeeping, replaced the card in its envelope, and decided to distract himself by watching television.

He fell asleep on the couch, which wasn’t surprising because, what with Sherlock’s clinginess, he had grown used to sleeping in cramped and uncomfortable positions. He woke when the door to the flat opened, and for a second felt the panicked press of being in an unfamiliar place. And then he realized that he was, weirdly, what he should have considered to be home. It no longer felt even remotely like it.

It was Harry who had come in. At least he thought it was. There was giggling, and John hoped his mother hadn’t shown up drunk enough to be giggling. He sat up slowly on the couch, turning off the television as he went, and Harry did indeed come giggling into the room, shirt off, completely wrapped up in another girl’s embrace.

“Oh,” said John, because he didn’t want to see this and didn’t know what else to say, as Harry’s bra went flying over his head in an enthusiastic trajectory.

Both girls started, turning toward him, and then Harry shrieked, “John!” and lifted her arms to cover her breasts.

“I…will…just…” said John, awkwardly, trying to run out of the room with as much dignity as he could muster.

He took refuge in his bedroom, and Harry knocked on the door five minutes later.

“Come in,” he called from his position sitting against the headboard of his bed, and Harry opened the door, looking gravely embarrassed.

“Sorry about that,” she said.

He lifted his eyebrows at her.

“I forgot you were coming home,” she said, trying a bright smile, and then she bounced onto the foot of his bed, sitting cross-legged and enthusiastic. “How are you?”

“Oh my God,” said John. “This is the most awkward conversation ever.”

“Well, I can’t decide which topic I want to avoid more: what happened the last time you were home, or what happened just now.”

“I don’t really care about what happened just now. Although it does speak volumes to me that you clearly didn’t expect anyone to be home.”

“She’s almost never home, John.”

“What about the rehab?” John asked, although he knew, because Mycroft had informed him, that his mother had left after two days, and Harry hadn’t lasted much longer.

“Yeah, what sort of interfering, obnoxious wanker decided we needed rehab? Me? He doesn’t even know us.”

John hesitated. “I asked him to. Harry—” John shifted on the bed.

“You asked him to?” Harry recoiled from him, even though he hadn’t really reached for her. “Mum I can understand, but me?”

“You worried me,” John said, honestly. “Last time I was home, and—”

“Last time you were home? John, last time you were home you were barely here long enough to get your hands dirty, never mind sit in judgment on our lives and what we do. I seem to recall you meeting me drink for drink, by the way, the one night you did try to hang around.”

“Yeah, but I was drinking beer for most of the evening and you were drinking vodka, straight up, which is a bit different. And you’ll notice that I don’t do that every night.”

“John, this is what we do here. Sorry that you’ve forgot all about it at your fancy new school, but the rest of the world likes to go out and have a good time with a few mates. They don’t sit around talking about philosophy.”

“Look, there isn’t anyone here to supervise you—”

“I’m sixteen, you know. Unless you’ve forgotten. I don’t need supervision. I can bloody well take care of myself—”

“I’d feel better if—”

“I notice you didn’t whine about you needing supervision when you were here and the one in charge,” she pointed out, witheringly.

“Because I was responsible,” he retorted. “I wasn’t… Do you still go to school?”

“Yes, I still go to school.”

John narrowed his eyes at her.

“Mostly,” she amended.

John stared at her, feeling all sorts of confused and conflicting emotions. She was his sister, and they had been so close, and maybe he had destroyed it all but he could not, could not, could not imagine leaving Eton and Sherlock. His mind drew a blank at the idea. “Harry,” he said, a little desperately. “Please listen to me. I don’t want to leave Eton.”

She looked confused. “Who says you have to leave Eton?”

“I can’t leave you like this. Don’t you see? I need you to…I need you to not do this. For me. I need you to stop, please. Just…stop. Because you know how much I wanted to do this, but I can’t do it if… And nothing is more important to me than—”

“John,” she cut him off, softly. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, okay? Stay at Eton. You have to promise you will. You’re going to be a doctor and make a lot of money and support your little sister, right? So you have to stay there. Promise.”

“I won’t if—”

“I’m sorry,” she insisted. “I’ll be better. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you worry. You’re right.”

He didn’t believe it. He didn’t believe it at all. But he wanted to. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall and wanted to.

“John,” she said, when he stayed silent.

He opened his eyes again. “Could you go to rehab for me? Please?” He at least would feel like there was a chance, then.

“John—”

Please.”

Harry hesitated, and then said, “All right. After Christmas. It’s a waste of time, and I don’t need it, but if it’ll make you happy I’ll go after Christmas.”

“It will make me very, very happy,” said John, in relief. “Thank you.”

“Yeah, well, consider it my Christmas present to you, I haven’t exactly been shopping.”

“I noticed. There’s not a single bit of Christmas cheer in this whole flat.”

“There’s a huge poinsettia sitting out on the table.”

“Special delivery,” said John.

Harry grinned at him, teasing, and he wished it could just be like this, and he could stop worrying. “From your posh boyfriend?”

“Not quite,” he answered, and he knew he was blushing.

“Ah, but you don’t deny that he’s your boyfriend. You need to tell me everything because he was not at all what I was expecting.” Harry settled in, as if for a good long chat.

“What were you expecting?” John asked, curiously.

“I have no idea. But I’ve never seen a person who looked like him, so there was no way I could have predicted him.”

John thought of how Sherlock looked, all drama and romance, silent movies and Shakespeare sonnets, math and science and philosophy and Sherlock. John didn’t know how he would ever describe him, if asked. Yes, it made sense that Sherlock was never going to be what anyone was ever going to expect.

“You could have introduced us,” Harry was saying, pulling John’s attention back to her.

“No, I really couldn’t have,” John said. “He’d just broken into our flat.”

“Plus, you were with Sarah.”

“Yes,” John admitted. “There was that. And Sherlock isn’t…” John frowned, trying to think of how to put it. “Sherlock isn’t really polite,” he decided. Not an especially nice thing to say, but the best way to get his point across.

Harry’s grin widened. “Really? Well, now I can’t wait to meet him. Are you shagging him?”

“I’m not answering that question.”

“Ah, then you are. I didn’t know you felt that way about boys.”

“I didn’t know you felt that way about girls,” John pointed out.

Harry turned a bit pink. “I didn’t… I… It’s all confusing, isn’t it?”

“Bloody hell, you can say that again,” sighed John.

***

John couldn’t sleep. His room was too quiet without Sherlock scuffling about with his experiments constantly. And his bed was too big, there was far too much space. Somehow, in three weeks, he had become so used to sleeping with Sherlock that he couldn’t sleep without him.

Giving in, he dragged himself to the lounge and sprawled out on the couch and put the television on low for company, and it was much better to be sleeping somewhere where he couldn’t comfortably turn over. Much better. He slept soundly and woke to Harry creeping through the room, gathering books up from where they’d been scattered.

She noticed him as he stretched. “Why are you on the couch?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” he said. “Where are you going?”

“School. Christmas present for my big brother so he stops worrying about me. We don’t get as long a break as the posh place he attends.”

John smiled at her. “Thanks.”

“Yeah. See you!” she called to him on her way out the door.

John spent a little while contemplating the room around him, then decided to get up, get dressed, and go in search of a Christmas tree. He bought them a small tabletop tree and spent the day pulling out the Christmas decorations and scattering them in disorganized piles all over the flat, assuming that Harry would help him when she got back from school.

He was stringing lights onto the tree in a haphazard fashion when his mother walked in. She drew to a halt at the sight of him, and John froze with his hands tangled in fairy lights, watching her warily. Somehow he’d managed to forget that she would, of course, come home eventually.

The continued silence was absurd and uncomfortable. “Hi?” he ventured, finally, uncertainly.

His mother looked from him to the mess he’d made of the flat. Not that it hadn’t been a mess before. John prepared to defend himself.

But, when his mother spoke, she just said “Hi” in return.

John didn’t know quite what to make of that. He didn’t know if he wanted to make anything of it. Maybe they were just going to ignore everything that had happened the last time he was home. It would have been nice to get an apology, John thought. Maybe tears and a promise to stop drinking and go to rehab like he’d wanted and pull everything together. But maybe the best he could hope for was that she wouldn’t demand an apology from him.

She walked past him, apparently on the way to her bedroom, and John let out the breath he’d been holding and supposed he could deal with it, being pretty much ignored. It was better than being hassled, he thought.

He went back to untangling his fairy lights, and his mother turned around and walked back to stand in front of him, looking at him awkwardly. John frowned and concentrated on the lights, wishing she had just followed her first impulse and ignored him. He wasn’t going to apologize. He’d come home, and he’d decorated the flat, and he’d said Hi pleasantly. He wasn’t going to apologize. He was not. He refused to.

“It’s good to see you,” she said, finally, which was not at all what John had been expecting, and he stared at the fairy lights in his hands. His mother ruffled his hair hesitantly, like she no longer quite remembered how to do it, and then she walked out of the lounge.

John took a deep breath.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-One

“There’s a Mr. Lestrade on the line for you,” his PA said over the intercom, and Mycroft’s heart literally did a ridiculous little leap in his chest. Well, he knew it couldn’t have literally leapt, the heart was a stationary organ, it shouldn’t be leaping about, but it felt exactly like it leapt. So Mycroft was possibly about to perish from some heretofore undiagnosed heart condition, he thought.

Then he told himself to stop thought-babbling and pick up the bloody telephone. “Greg,” he said, and then wondered if he’d said it too warmly. Not warmly enough? Had that been too brusque? Too fawning? Damn it. Mycroft realized abruptly that he had only ever had dates with people who didn’t actually interest him. He’d let them play the game, watching it with detached amusement. He’d thought his observations would make him as coolly competent at this as they did for everything else, but now he was beginning to suspect that he was behaving like an imbecile.

“Hi,” Greg said, and Greg sounded completely normal, not at all like his heart was leaping about and threatening to migrate completely out of his ribcage. “Are you busy?”

“Not at all,” said Mycroft, which was a lie, and then he wondered if it made him look like someone who sat around all day with nothing to do, which was decidedly not true, even if usually he did like to give that impression. “I mean,” he amended, “I’m busy, but I’m not too busy. I have time to—” Stop it, he told himself, severely, and recovered with, “No. I’m not busy.”

There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line that Mycroft couldn’t quite read. Probably this moment of silence was Greg thinking that Mycroft was an idiot. “Good,” Greg said, finally. “Listen, I made an error.”

Mycroft’s heart stopped leaping about and fell dramatically into his stomach. Death was clearly imminent. “Oh,” said Mycroft, scrambling to sound casual about this and not like he’d been fantasizing about dinner with Greg when he was supposed to be doing other things like saving western civilization. “Of course—”

“If I were to cook you dinner, you’d have to come out here, to Eton, and I’m not sure…Would the headmaster…”

Mycroft recognized Greg’s point. He honestly had no idea whether there were any prohibitions in place regarding masters dating the guardians of their pupils, and he didn’t relish asking the headmaster about it. What had he been thinking? He hadn’t been. Stupid, reckless moment, and for all he knew Greg could have been sacked for it. “Right,” he said, thinking he had to say something. “Yes. I—”

“So, unfortunately, I can’t cook you dinner. You had suggested Saturday in the message you left for me. Would that still work for you? Only in London instead of Eton? I have friends in the city I was going to visit over the holidays anyway.”

Mycroft let what Greg was saying sink in. “You want to have dinner in London?”

“Yes. If that’s okay. I’d just rather not do it in Eton.”

“But you still want to have dinner?” Mycroft was confused. Mostly because he seldom misread anything as badly as he appeared to have misread what Greg was saying.

“I…” Greg sounded as confused as Mycroft was. “Yes. I mean. If you— No. Never mind. I don’t care if you are having second thoughts, we’re still having dinner, because you think too much, I can tell. So. No second thoughts. Dinner in London on Saturday. Do you have a preference for a restaurant?”

“What about the headmaster?”

“Sod him,” said Greg. “Anyway, I expect you to make a donation to Eton to ensure that I keep my job.”

This startled a laugh out of Mycroft, and he closed his eyes and breathed. His heart was back in his ribcage. Apparently death would be delayed. “I’ll send a car for you,” he said.

“A car for me where?”

“Wherever you’re staying in London. I’ll send a car for you at 7 on Saturday.”

“I haven’t told you where I’m staying.”

Mycroft recognized the teasing flirtation of the comment and rejoined in kind, “You don’t have to. I can find out.”

“Oh, I see,” said Greg. His voice was warm, laced with amusement and something else, something promising that made Mycroft feel itchy with anticipation. “Fine, send a car for me wherever I’m staying. If you are able to pull this off without asking me for the address, I will consider you to have won.”

It wasn’t even a challenge, Mycroft thought. He could have the answer on his desk in thirty minutes. But Greg didn’t know him well enough yet to realize that, and Mycroft was willing to exploit that. “What will I have won?” Mycroft asked.

“Anything you want,” said Greg.

***

Greg had no idea how he was supposed to dress for the date with Mycroft. Because it was Mycroft, who was always dressed in a three-piece suit even when the occasion didn’t call for one, he thought a suit was a safe bet.

Sally watched him tie his tie in the mirror in her lounge and asked, curiously, “Where’s he taking you?”

“I have no idea.”

“You really think his car’s going to show up?”

“Yes, I do. You’ve never met him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he sent a helicopter.”

“I may not have met him but I’ve met his brother, and that was enough. Little freak.”

“Hey,” Greg told her. “Don’t call him that. And he solved your case for you, didn’t he?”

“Yeah. In no time flat. Like a freak. Something off about that one.”

“He’s just staggeringly clever,” Greg said. “He isn’t a freak.”

Sally snorted. “I suppose you’re going to tell me he’s got a heart of gold.”

“No. I’m not going to pretend that he’s any nicer to me than he was to any of you. But he isn’t a freak, that’s unfair.”

“So’s that what that was all about? You fancied big brother, thought you’d get a shag out of it if you were nice to little brother?”

“No.” Greg, finally satisfied with his tie, pulled on his coat. “That’s not what it was about. Trust me. I actually like Sherlock, for whatever mad reason. And it never occurred to me to think I seriously had a shot with Mycroft Holmes.”

Sally looked affronted. “Why not?”

“Because his name is Mycroft. He’s rich and very clever and sexy, and he can find out where I’m staying in London without even asking me.”

“So? You’re gorgeous and clever in your own right. And you’re nice, which is a far rarer thing to find these days than rich.”

“Ah, Sally, very kind of you,” said Greg, and looked out the window and tried not to fidget.

“You really like him,” Sally realized. “Like, genuinely. You don’t just fancy him for a shag.”

“No,” said Greg. “I do not. I genuinely like him. I’d like this to go well.”

“This is why you were practically memorizing the newspaper today, isn’t it?”

“He might want to discuss current events,” Greg defended himself.

“You’re a mess,” Sally grinned at him. “I think it’s cute.”

Greg rolled his eyes and watched the black car roll up in front of Sally’s building. He looked at his watch. “Right on time,” he said, and picked up the bottle of wine he’d set on the coffee table.

“Well,” said Sally, “I hope things go so well that I don’t see you before Christmas.”

Greg laughed and kissed her cheek fondly and tried to look calm and sophisticated as he walked down to the car, as if he walked out to waiting cars all the time.

He had expected Mycroft to be in the car waiting for him, but he wasn’t. Greg sat with the bottle of wine, feeling slightly silly, as the car maneuvered the streets of London. Greg wondered if Mycroft traveled like this a lot. He wondered if Mycroft thought it was silly or just thought it was convenient.

The car pulled to a stop eventually in front of a terrace house, and Greg tried to decide whether he was supposed to get out of the car. The driver got out and opened his door for him, which Greg supposed answered that question.

“Cheers,” he said to the driver, and fleetingly wondered if he was supposed to shake his hand or something. But then the driver, with a simple nod, closed the door and slid back into the driver’s seat and the car pulled away, all before Greg could make up his mind about the handshake thing. “Right,” Greg said to himself, and took a deep breath and walked up to the door of the terrace house nearest to him and knocked smartly.

Mycroft answered after a moment, and he was dressed in a three-piece suit covered by an apron. The sight was so incongruous that Greg could feel his eyebrows lifting as he took it in. “Hi,” he said.

“Greg,” Mycroft said, warmly, stepping aside and gesturing him in. “Come in.”

“Thank you.” Greg looked away from Mycroft’s apron, but decided against gawking at the house’s front hall. He looked back at Mycroft’s apron instead. “Are you…cooking?”

“Making us dinner,” said Mycroft. “Salmon. Pairs well with Chablis Grand Crus.”

“Yes,” said Greg. “But I was going to make us dinner. I didn’t mean to force you to do it.”

“I definitely do not mind.”

“Do you cook?” Greg wished immediately he could take the question back, because he sounded so very disbelieving.

“You would be astonished at the things I can do,” said Mycroft, dryly.

Greg wasn’t sure Mycroft had intended that to be as sexy as it was. But it was. “Oh, would I be?” he asked, and took a step closer to him, just to crowd him a bit. He looked adorable in that apron. Greg wanted to tear it off of him.

“May I see the wine?” Mycroft asked, properly.

Greg, a bit disappointed by the change in topic, handed it to him.

“This isn’t chilled properly,” Mycroft told him.

“Oh,” said Greg, feeling like an idiot, and followed Mycroft as he walked briskly to a kitchen and put the wine in a wine refrigerator.

“That was incredibly clever of you,” remarked Mycroft, turning back to Greg.

Greg couldn’t imagine why. “Was it?”

“Yes. Whilst it’s chilling, I can take you to bed.”

“Oh,” croaked Greg. “Excellent, then.”

***

The wine was good, the dinner was delicious, the sex was phenomenal. All in all, Greg could not remember a more perfect evening in his life.

He sprawled on his side in Mycroft’s bed, propped up on his elbow, watching him pour out the last of the wine, backlit by the bedside lamp. “I don’t understand what made you look twice at me,” he remarked.

“What a ridiculous thing to say,” said Mycroft, putting the empty bottle down on the nightstand.

“I assume,” continued Greg, “it was the overpowering charm I displayed in accusing you of being a terrible older brother.”

“That was only surpassed by the charm you displayed when you told me to sod off.”

“Ah, yes. Followed by my implication that you would have me killed if I didn’t do exactly as you said.”

“That didn’t offend me,” said Mycroft, seriously, “because that’s true; I will have you killed if you don’t do exactly as I say.”

Greg laughed.

“You’re puzzling about the wrong thing,” remarked Mycroft, sipping his wine. “The question isn’t why I wanted you, it’s why you wanted me.”

“Don’t be absurd. You’re the most incredible man I’ve ever met. Why wouldn’t I want you?”

“I assume you mean ‘incredible’ in the old-fashioned sense of the world, as in ‘far-fetched’ and ‘preposterous.’”

“I mean it in every sense of the word. Far-fetched, preposterous, amazing, astonishing, unbelievable. Fascinating.”

“I almost hate to destroy all your illusions.”

“What illusions?”

“No one ever uses adjectives like those to describe me,” said Mycroft.

“Isn’t that because most of the other people in the world are idiots? Isn’t that the Holmes motto? God knows I hear it from your brother often enough.”

Mycroft laughed. “I hate to admit it, but yes, that probably is the Holmes motto.”

Greg hesitated, then said, “Should I go?” He didn’t want to presume otherwise.

“You should stay,” Mycroft answered. “You should definitely stay. In fact, it’s unclear if I’ll ever permit you to leave.”

“That’s either terrifying or flattering.”

“Flattering,” suggested Mycroft, decisively.

“You are very far out of my league, Mycroft Holmes,” Greg said, suddenly, seriously, feeling that it was true.

The amusement slowly faded from Mycroft’s face. He looked at him, his gray eyes grave and his gingery hair mussed all over his head. “That’s not true.”

Greg flickered a smile at him and leaned over to place his wine glass on the floor by the bed. Then he plucked Mycroft’s wine glass out of his hand, putting it safely on the bedside table, and rolled on top of him. “Great God! I’d rather be,” he said, “a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn.”

Mycroft looked pleased. “You—”

Greg interrupted him, pressing a kiss to his lips before murmuring against them, “So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, have glimpses that would make me less forlorn.” He tipped his head, nuzzling at the curve of Mycroft’s shoulder, breathing him in. “Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea, or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”

“You do know the poem,” managed Mycroft, softly, his hands in Greg’s hair.

“Now I do,” said Greg, honestly. “I learned it by heart. Because it’s a beautiful poem.” He lifted his head up to gaze down at Mycroft. “And because I wouldn’t have predicted that you, Mycroft Holmes, would rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn.”

“Well,” Mycroft replied, staring up at him, “I don’t tell just anyone that.”

“I know. I suspected.” There was something sad about it, thought Greg, that Mycroft longed for the soaring, impossible images of a Wordsworth sonnet, when Mycroft was, at first glance, the most eminently grounded of people. And there was something precious about the fact that Greg could now see how very much sense it made, how there was a heart of romantic drama lurking in there, carefully controlled, seldom indulged. Greg suddenly wanted to be for Mycroft all the glimpses that would make him less forlorn. “The world is too much with you, late and soon,” Greg told him, and kissed him, slowly, leisurely.

And Mycroft, between the kisses, recited back to him the poem’s later line. “We have given our hearts away.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Two

“Merry Christmas,” said Mrs. Hudson, flinging open his bedroom door in an annoyingly cheerful manner.

Sherlock grunted and rolled over.

Mrs. Hudson did not take his really very obvious hint. She moved into the room and pulled apart the curtains at his windows, flooding his bedroom with light. Sherlock pulled the blankets up over his head and made a noise of disgust. “Christmas is boring,” he informed her.

“Come on, Sherlock,” wheedled Mrs. Hudson. “Come and open your presents.”

“I already know what they are.”

“Sherlock,” sighed Mrs. Hudson.

“One of them is a coat,” said Sherlock, by way of proof.

“But it’s a nice coat. A dramatic coat. You’ll like it! Come along, Sherlock. I’ve already made you a nice cuppa.”

Sherlock sighed heavily and managed to push the blankets off of his head.

“There you go,” Mrs. Hudson smiled at him happily and then bustled out of the room, clearly deciding that she’d won.

Which she had, because Sherlock meant what he said, he wasn’t interested in opening his presents. He was bored to tears by the entire production of the day looming ahead of him. He wanted to stay in bed and count all of the excruciating minutes until John arrived and things would finally, finally get less boring in his life. But Mrs. Hudson loved Christmas, so he would make the enormous effort of dragging himself downstairs and pretending there was anything remotely worthwhile about all of it.

“There he is!” Mrs. Hudson announced delightedly when Sherlock trailed into the library where the Christmas tree was.

Mycroft was fully dressed in his usual suit and sitting in an armchair by the fire with a cup of tea. He looked about as enthusiastic about the idea of Christmas as Sherlock felt. They had not grown up with Christmas like this, it was a Mrs. Hudson institution, and Sherlock knew that he and Mycroft were involved in one of their few unspoken alliances that they would put up with it for Mrs. Hudson’s sake.

“Look!” exclaimed Mrs. Hudson, waving something hideous at him. “You can wear the antlers!”

Reindeer antlers on some sort of headband. “Some things are better left to the imagination,” said Sherlock, and collapsed dramatically onto the sofa.

“Merry Christmas, Sherlock,” said Mycroft.

“Is it?” asked Sherlock.

“Here you are, Sherlock. A cuppa and a present.” Mrs. Hudson, looking excited beyond words, handed him both.

Sherlock sighed and opened his presents. He didn’t know why Mrs. Hudson bothered to wrap them since he already knew what they were. It seemed to him just a waste of effort on everyone’s part, but he opened them obediently and displayed gratitude for the sheet music—some with music and some blank for his own compositions—and the new set of flasks and test tubes—since he was forever breaking them—and a much nicer microscope than the one he currently had—that had probably been Mycroft’s purchase and Sherlock was annoyed to admit it was a good one—and yes, a new coat, heavy wool, long, properly billowing, with incongruous red stitching around the top buttonhole.

Sherlock tried it on at Mrs. Hudson’s urging and suppressed his urge to twirl about in it. He didn’t really want to admit that he had always kind of wanted a coat like this, because he suspected Mycroft had chosen the coat. It had London-high-street written all over it, as opposed to the catalogue shopping Mrs. Hudson was prone to.

“Oh, look, Sherlock, it fits you perfectly,” Mrs. Hudson said, pleased.

“Yes, what a lovely job you did picking it out, Mrs. Hudson,” commented Mycroft, dryly, just to emphasize that he had done the lovely job of picking it out.

Sherlock frowned at him before turning back to Mrs. Hudson and saying, pointedly, “Thank you for the coat.”

“Oh, you’re welcome, dear,” said Mrs. Hudson, who Sherlock knew was used to pretending things came from her instead of Mycroft. It helped the house function better.

“Mrs. Hudson,” said Mycroft, producing a box from next to his chair. “For you to wear to dinner.” Mycroft always took them to dinner on Christmas, and he always gave Mrs. Hudson a new blouse to wear to dinner, and it was all so dully predictable Sherlock wanted to die of boredom. He collapsed back onto the couch, this time in his new coat, and considered how many hours closer he was to John’s arrival.

“Oh, Mycroft, it’s quite lovely,” said Mrs. Hudson, revealing this year’s blouse, which was a deep purple color. “Just the color for me. How did you know?”

“Mycroft knows everything,” sulked Sherlock.

“What’s this?” Mrs. Hudson was asking, because the removal of the blouse had revealed an envelope underneath it. She opened it and then said, in surprise, “Mycroft.”

Sherlock sat up, watching the proceedings, deducing conclusions. He looked at Mycroft. “A holiday?”

“Morocco for New Year’s,” said Mycroft. “For you and your sister. I thought you might like it.”

“You didn’t have to, Mycroft. It’s so extravagant—”

“Oh, it’s nothing. And God knows you could use a break from the bundle of sunshine Sherlock’s been for the past two weeks.”

Sherlock glowered at him.

“But Sherlock’s having John come to stay,” Mrs. Hudson pointed out. “Sherlock will end up accidentally killing himself without supervision.”

“No, I won’t,” Sherlock said, annoyed. As if he didn’t know how to do something little like keep himself alive. “Anyway, John would make sure I was safe.”

“True. Which is why I like John,” remarked Mycroft. “But I’ll be here supervising, too.”

“You?” Sherlock stared at him incredulously. “Why would you be here?”

“This is, theoretically, my house,” said Mycroft.

“It’s our house,” Sherlock corrected him, swiftly, “and you’re never here; you’re always working.”

“Next week, however, that will not be so,” Mycroft informed him.

“Oh my God,” said Sherlock, narrowing his eyes. “This is guilt because you’re shagging my tutor and think you need to spend more time with me to somehow make up to me how awkward you are making my life.”

“Sherlock!” exclaimed Mrs. Hudson, looking torn between scolding him for being scandalizing and wanting to ask him to tell her more.

“Because you could make it up to me by not spending more time with me, that would be fine, too,” continued Sherlock.

“Peace on earth, good will toward men,” said Mycroft, sarcastically. “Perhaps you should go get dressed in something suitable for dinner.”

“I don’t feel like going to dinner.”

“Such a shame, because you’re going. Cheer up, it’ll help time pass faster than you sitting here moping about, counting down the hours until your beloved walks through the door.”

“I hate you,” Sherlock told him. “I’m so upset I got you a Christmas present.”

Mycroft looked genuinely surprised. “You got me a Christmas present?”

Sherlock rolled himself off the couch, to the pile of presents he’d placed in a corner under the tree. He’d felt like an idiot doing it, but he’d also felt like he had, for the first time in his life, an actual person to buy presents for, and he had wanted proof of that under the tree.

“Oh,” said Mrs. Hudson, as Sherlock dug through the pile. “I thought those were all for John.”

“Most of them,” said Sherlock, finding the presents he wanted. “One for you.” He handed a small box to Mrs. Hudson. “And one for you.” He handed another present to Mycroft. “Although I don’t know why I got you anything at all, and I should take it back, or give it to someone else.”

Mycroft looked thrown, and Sherlock thought that almost made the present entirely worth it because he never saw Mycroft look like that. He stared at the present, turning it over in his hands as if he was going to be able to deduce what it was.

“You’ll never work it out,” Sherlock assured him, sitting back on the sofa and drawing his knees up into his chest. The coat wrapped satisfyingly around him, a neat little package. He really did like the coat. Hated Mycroft, but liked this coat Mycroft had bought him. Damn it.

Mrs. Hudson, who had apparently been unable to wait, had opened her present first, on the pair of amethyst earrings he’d selected.

“Sherlock,” said Mrs. Hudson, as if he’d just made the earrings appear in front of them out of thin air or something.

“I knew Mycroft’s blouse for you was going to be purple this year,” Sherlock explained.

Mrs. Hudson swooped over and enveloped him in a hug.

“This is why I don’t usually buy people Christmas presents,” said Sherlock against her.

Mrs. Hudson ignored him and kissed his cheek as she released him, looking at him as if he were adorable.

Mycroft, meanwhile, had opened his present and was turning it over in his hands in obvious bemusement. “You have bought me…The Hobbit,” he said, eventually. “How kind of you, Sherlock. Thank you.”

“Lestrade likes it, you idiot,” Sherlock told him. “He mentioned it once. Some sort of formative book of his childhood or some such nonsense. I don’t know, I wasn’t really paying attention, but there you go. I thought you probably should be paying attention to all that boring stuff about him.”

“So,” concluded Mycroft, “you didn’t so much buy me a Christmas present as you bought me a don’t-try-to-keep-secrets-from-me-I’ll-always-know present.”

“Don’t even insult me by telling me that you thought you could even try to keep it a secret. The whole thing was painfully obvious.”

He thinks it’s a secret.”

“He’s stupid. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Sherlock stood. “I believe I was told to get dressed for dinner.”

As he left the room and headed up the stairs, he heard Mrs. Hudson say, “What’s he talking about, Mycroft? Are you seeing someone?” in her excited, gossipy tone of voice, and Sherlock smiled and thought of the unpleasant conversation Mycroft had in front of him. Not a bad Christmas at all, Sherlock thought. And less than twenty-four hours until John. He closed his bedroom door, stood in front of the mirror on his wardrobe, gave in, and twirled about in the coat. It flared out in an acceptably dramatic fashion. Sort of a good Christmas, Sherlock admitted.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Three

Mycroft drove him to the train station to meet John and said, whilst he drove, “Tell me how much it actually bothers you.”

“No, no, no,” said Sherlock. “We’re not talking about it. We’re not talking about each other’s sex lives, not even a little bit.”

“I would ask if you’re angry,” remarked Mycroft, “but then, you’re always angry.”

“Not talking about it,” Sherlock reiterated. “We are really, really, really not talking about it.”

“You’ve been…better at Eton this year,” said Mycroft, clearly choosing his words carefully and keeping his eyes glued to the road in front of them. “I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. I know you think that I would do anything to jeopardize it, but that’s not true.”

“Really? So that’s not what this is about?” demanded Sherlock. “Seducing the only tutor at the entire college who isn’t a complete moron. The only one I can even half-tolerate. You’ve got all of London to seduce.”

“It isn’t about you,” said Mycroft. “Not everything is, you know.”

“I want to go back to not talking about it.”

“You’re the one who brought it up.”

“When did I bring it up?”

“Yesterday, Sherlock.”

“No, no, no, you brought it up yesterday by deciding we suddenly had to be best mates because you’ve gone and done something selfish and hurtful to me again.”

“I don’t think it should affect you at all. I really don’t.”

“It won’t. Because we’re going to ignore it, and you’re going to promise me not to break up with him until I’m out of school, so that he can’t take it out on me when you prove to be a tosser.”

“I don’t intend to break up with him, Sherlock.”

“Whatever,” said Sherlock, because he really wasn’t interested. “Don’t say anything to John about it. We are, all of us, just going to ignore the whole thing. Tell Lestrade that for me. I don’t want him showing up and trying to be nice to me.”

“God forbid,” said Mycroft, dryly, parking the car at the train station.

“Shut up,” said Sherlock, and leaned over and turned up very loudly the classical music playing in the car. Vivaldi. They sat in silence and listened to “Winter” until the train arrived.

John stepped off and Sherlock leaped out of the car to meet him. He looked tired and a bit worn, which confirmed Sherlock’s conclusion that he didn’t care for John’s family or approve of the fact that visits with them always made John look exhausted. But Sherlock said nothing about it because he didn’t want to talk about their time apart. He wanted to focus on all the time they had in front of them, together. John was finally here, he had arrived, and he had not seemed to forget about Sherlock in the two weeks they’d been separated. Sherlock wanted to kiss him until the worry line between John’s eyebrows smoothed out. But he settled for saying, by way of greeting, “Thank God, things have been excruciatingly dull around here.”

John quirked a smile at him, weary but genuine. “I doubt Mycroft and Mrs. Hudson would agree.”

Sherlock waved his hand about in his gesture of dismissal.

“What’s this coat?” John asked. “Is it new?”

“Christmas present,” answered Sherlock, and, aware of Mycroft watching, did not twirl. “Do you like it?”

“Makes you look taller,” John decided, looking it up and down quickly.

“You do that,” Sherlock told him as they started walking to Mycroft’s car, and John cocked an eyebrow at him. “Short friend,” he explained.

“Oh, right, of course,” said John with a dry chuckle. “Well, anyway, you look all mysterious, with your cheekbones, and your coat collar turned up so you look cool.”

Sherlock self-consciously settled deeper into the turned-up collar of his coat. “I don’t do that,” he protested.

“Yeah, you do,” John said, and opened the car door and said, pleasantly, “Hello, Mycroft.”

“Hello, John,” Mycroft replied. “Merry Christmas.”

Sherlock slid into the car as well, as Mycroft shifted them into drive and toward the house and said to John, “Did you have a pleasant holiday?”

“It was nice,” said John, with a careful tone, like he was telling a half-truth. Nicer than he’d expected, not as nice as it could have been, Sherlock deduced. “I got your poinsettia. Thank you.”

Sherlock looked sharply at Mycroft. “You sent him a poinsettia?”

“It would have been rude not to,” replied Mycroft, mildly. “At any rate, I trust everything was peaceful, John.”

“Yes. Thank you. And I appreciated the poinsettia,” said John.

Sherlock frowned at Mycroft but decided to let it go since John’s look at him told him that he really hadn’t minded the poinsettia.

“Tell me what you’ve been up to,” John said, changing the subject.

Nothing,” said Sherlock, sighing heavily to show the extent of how much nothingness had been going on. “It is so boring here. This is the most boring place to ever exist in the history of time on this planet.”

“How would you know?” interrupted Mycroft. “You refuse to learn history.”

“I know, Mycroft. I know. I don’t need to read Gibbons to know that it is boring here.”

“It’s Gibbon,” said Mycroft. “No ‘s.’”

“His name could be seventeen ‘s’s in a row. What does it matter?”

“John, you must have missed all this so much,” commented Mycroft.

Sherlock twisted around in his seat to look at John in the back, suddenly terrified John might say, You know, it really was kind of nice, these two weeks without Sherlock. I think I’d like to take the train back to London. But John just smiled at him and said, “Yes, actually.”

Sherlock turned abruptly back around before the amount of relief he knew must be evident on his face became too humiliating to handle.

Mycroft parked the car in front of the house, and Mrs. Hudson came out to greet them, still wearing her amethyst earrings, which she told Sherlock she planned to never take off, which was embarrassing, really. She hugged John warmly, which John did not seem to mind, and fussed a bit over him, saying that she thought he’d grown but that he looked thinner. John hadn’t grown, Sherlock knew that, but he had lost a bit of weight, and Sherlock approved of Mrs. Hudson’s fussing when it was directed at John.

“Come and open your presents,” Sherlock said, as they walked into the house, because he really thought he’d waited quite long enough for this. He’d wanted to exchange presents prior to leaving for Christmas break, because he didn’t see the point of waiting for a particular day, but John had said that, in that case, what was the point of even buying each other presents in the first place, and because Sherlock had already bought John a bunch of presents he had stopped suggesting the early present exchange.

“Let him take his coat off first, Sherlock,” Mrs. Hudson scolded him. “And put his things down. Take his bag for him. Honestly, you’d think I’d never taught you any manners at all.”

“Manners are a waste of time,” said Sherlock, but he took John’s bag for him and led John up the staircase. “Surely you remember where your room is,” Sherlock said to him, walking down the hallway and opening the door for John, “but, just in case,” Sherlock placed the bag down on the floor, “it’s—”

He found himself suddenly pressed against the wall beside the door, John’s mouth on his, John’s hands on his hips, holding him there. The kiss was hard and fierce and after a second of recovering from the surprise of it Sherlock reached out and pulled John closer and thought to kiss back.

John pulled away at that, not very far, just far enough to breathe, “Hi.”

“Hi,” Sherlock tried to say in response, but John kissed the word into his mouth and kept on kissing him, and Sherlock made a pleased sound and carded his hands through John’s hair and felt warm to the very tips of his toes, because John had clearly missed him. He couldn’t possibly have missed Sherlock as much as Sherlock had missed John, because that would have been impossible, but he’d missed him, just the same, missed all of him, it hadn’t all worn off away from the close confinement of Eton.

John eventually pulled back, rubbed his nose briefly against Sherlock’s, and then leaned his face into Sherlock’s neck, the curve of his shoulder. Sherlock rested his head against John’s, keeping him gathered close, enjoying every point of contact. Eventually, he felt John brush a kiss against his neck and then he straightened and moved away. Sherlock told himself not to reflexively cling to him in a ridiculous manner and let him go.

“How thoroughly snogged do I look?” John asked, sliding out of his coat.

“Mycroft will know anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.”

“I can’t decide if the fact that the two of you know everything makes life harder or easier,” said John. He was crouching now, unzipping his bag and pulling out Sherlock’s Christmas present, slightly the worse for wear from being squashed into the bag.

Sherlock frowned at it, thinking hard. He thought he knew what it was, and it didn’t make any sense.

“Are you ready?” John asked him. “Or do you need a bit more time?”

“What?” said Sherlock, and then realized he was still leaning against the wall, that he hadn’t moved since John had stopped kissing him. “No, I’m fine.” He straightened away from the wall.

“Good. Let’s go. Do you think you know what your Christmas present is?”

Sherlock eyed the present in John’s hand. “Yes.”

“I bet you don’t.” John looked giddy with delight.

Sherlock wanted to ask him what inside joke he’d missed that made this present so amazing. Would that be rude? Maybe he was wrong about the present.

“Boys,” Mrs. Hudson called from the kitchen, clearly having heard them coming down the stairs. “Did you want tea?”

“Yes, please, Mrs. Hudson,” John called back, which annoyed Sherlock, because he didn’t want tea, he wanted to exchange presents with John and not have other people on the planet with the two of them.

John walked into the library, said, “Nice tree,” and sat confidently down next to it.

“Here,” said Sherlock, pulling his presents to John out from underneath the tree. They were the only presents left there. “You can open mine first.” Mostly because Sherlock wanted to put off opening John’s present and having to admit that he did not know why John had bought it for him.

John smiled, almost as if he knew Sherlock’s motive, and opened the first of the presents that Sherlock handed him. He started with the boring ones, deliberately, the ones he had bought with a streak of practicality, the things he knew John needed and hadn’t bought because he was worried about money. John, of course, never said things like that, but Sherlock paid keen attention. A new pair of rugby boots, and another tail suit, and a pair of gloves because Sherlock had spilled acid on John’s other pair. John told him he shouldn’t have for the first two presents and then, “Well, this you definitely should have bought me, this is possibly the only thing you should have bought me,” for the third present.

“Here,” said Sherlock, pleased with his reactions so far, handing across the next present. “These are the actual good presents.”

“Sherlock,” said John, “you didn’t need to buy me so much.”

“Yes, I did. It’s what people do, isn’t it?” Sherlock had never really understood the point of gift-giving until he’d met John. He would have given John a present every single day if he’d thought John would accept it.

“Since when do you care what people do?”

“I don’t know.” The question gave him pause. He considered. “I really don’t know. But you should open the presents anyway.”

John sighed and opened the present Sherlock had handed him, which was a dissecting kit—a well-made one. Sherlock had driven Mycroft crazy with his specifications for it. The tools were nestled in a cozy leather pocket embossed with John’s initials, and when John opened it all of the pieces inside were graceful, and elegant, and beautiful, and Sherlock was pleased.

“It should last you for ages,” Sherlock told him as John reached out a finger to touch a scalpel. “All through medical school.”

“You didn’t have to…” said John, and rested a finger on a pair of forceps.

Sherlock looked from the dissecting kit to John’s face, which was facing downward, toward the kit in his lap. “But do you like it?”

“I love it,” said John, and finally looked up at him. “I love it. Thank you.”

He wasn’t lying, Sherlock would have known if he was lying, so he smiled in relief and said, “Last present,” handing it across to him.

John opened it dutifully, not protesting, and said, “Gray’s Anatomy.”

“Which every doctor should have,” explained Sherlock.

He’d had the book rebound in leather and engraved, at the bottom, with John’s name. John’s fingers moved over it. John H. Watson, MD. John took what sounded like a shaky breath and said, in the direction of the book, “You really think I’m going to be a doctor, don’t you?”

Sherlock thought that was a silly question. “Of course I do. Isn’t that what you want to be?”

“Yes,” said John. “But no one else thinks…I mean, everyone at home…” John looked up at him, looking almost rueful. “I think to everyone, even me, this is a fantasy. A crazy idea. And to you it’s just…it’s fact, already.”

Sherlock flickered a frown at him. “Of course it’s fact. You want to be a doctor, and you’re clever, especially clever at science, plus your personality tends toward caretaking; it’s a perfect career for you. You’re at Eton. You’re going to get all As and go to an excellent university. You’ll be a doctor. What about that sounds like a crazy idea? It’s one of the few logical ideas you’ve ever had.”

John shook his head a bit. “Every time you say something lovely to me, you also manage to insult me at the same time.”

Sherlock ignored that. “Anyway, I’m probably going to need a lot of medical care in my chosen career, and I don’t do well with hospitals.”

“Ah, I see, I’m just a potential private physician to you, aren’t I? You wound me. Open your Christmas present.” John tossed it across at him.

Sherlock took a deep breath and opened it and looked down at what it revealed. Which was exactly what Sherlock thought John had bought him for Christmas. He didn’t get it.

“It’s a hat,” he said. He lifted it up and examined it, trying to see the point. “What kind of hat is it, anyway? Is it a cap? Why’s it got two fronts?”

“It’s a deerstalker,” said John, looking excited about this.

“How do you stalk a deer with a hat?” asked Sherlock. “What are you going to do? Throw it? Some sort of death Frisbee?” Sherlock looked down at the hat again. “It’s got flaps. Ear flaps. It’s an ear hat, John.”

“Do you like it?” John asked him. He looked almost…smug.

“I…” Sherlock had no idea what to say. “Is it a joke? Is it… Were you trying to see if you could surprise me?”

“Yes, I was definitely trying to see if I could surprise you,” agreed John, gravely.

“Here we are, boys!” said Mrs. Hudson, finally coming in with the tea she’d promised ages ago.

“By buying me a deerstalker.” Sherlock looked back at it in confusion, still unsure what to make of the whole thing.

And then Mrs. Hudson said, “Sherlock, dear,” and Sherlock said, “I don’t really want a cuppa, Mrs. Hudson, that was for John,” and then he glanced up and realized she was holding out a present to him and smiling.

Sherlock looked from the present to John, who was holding a cup of tea and looking absolutely delighted.

“You…” said Sherlock and accepted the present from Mrs. Hudson, who winked at him and then left the room. “How did you do that?”

“I enlisted Mrs. Hudson. I didn’t want you deducing your Christmas present before it was Christmas. The deerstalker was a decoy present. As if I’d buy you a deerstalker for Christmas. Although you should wear it, I bet people would like it.”

Sherlock didn’t even acknowledge the comment. He ripped open the wrapping paper, feeling the unusual thrill of a present he had not already guessed, a present that was a genuine surprise. No wonder people liked receiving presents!

The present was a notebook. A fairly fancy one, with a hard gray cover, and Sherlock used a lot of notebooks, especially quality notebooks, so he supposed it was a nice, practical present.

“Open it,” John told him.

So Sherlock did as requested and opened the cover. John had written on the first page. To make up for being merely your Watson, here is my attempt to also be your Boswell. –J. Sherlock knitted his eyebrows together and turned the next page. John had written a title across the top. The Blind Banker. And then: It all began with a bank. Someone had broken into their offices and sprayed graffiti across a painting. And then it went on. On and on and on. The notebook was crowded with writing. Sherlock flipped through the pages, picking up phrases here and there.

“It’s…” he said, but he couldn’t even think of what else to say, because he was…floored. Flooded. It was too much to process. He wanted to crawl into John’s lap and kiss him, but he wanted to read every word John had written first. It was a dilemma.

“It’s the case,” John said. “Or, it should be. The murders you solved for the Met. I got Lestrade to talk his friend at the Met into sending along a copy of the file so I could piece it together, and Lestrade read it over and made sure that it’s accurate as far as he knows. I kept thinking that surely you would realize that I couldn’t possibly be spending so much time revising my personal statement, as it had to be finished ages ago.”

“I just thought it had to be entirely rewritten,” Sherlock said, dazedly. “That seemed likely.”

“Thank you,” said John, sounding dry.

“You…you wrote me a book.” Sherlock thought he sounded stunned, but he couldn’t help it, he was. “All I got you was a book someone else wrote.”

“I have no doubt that you’ll correct enough errors in Gray’s Anatomy for me that it’ll almost be like you wrote the book.”

“Anyone else would have just got me a book. You wrote me a book,” Sherlock repeated. Now he was repeating himself. He couldn’t help it.

“Well, a book about your favorite topic: you,” remarked John.

“No, no, my favourite topic is us,” Sherlock corrected him. “This is an acceptable substitute, but next time you have to come with me to the Met, and then you can write a book about us. I am lost without my Boswell.”

“All right,” said John. “That’s a deal.” John paused. “I know it isn’t, you know, an engraved dissecting set that probably cost hundreds of pounds—”

“It isn’t,” Sherlock interrupted him. “It’s better than that. I only got you boring things.”

“No, you didn’t,” John said. “You got me lovely things. Let’s just agree that we both got each other nice Christmas presents.”

“Fine. But this is still better than anything I got you.” Sherlock held his notebook up.

“You missed the point of that,” said John.

“No, I never miss points, I simply don’t agree with the point you’re trying to make.”

John sighed and shook his head a little and said, “Merry Christmas, Sherlock.”

Sherlock looked across at him, John Watson, here for Boxing Day, who had snogged him upstairs as if he couldn’t imagine going another breath without doing it, who was here for the next two weeks because he wanted to be. John, who had written him a book and who had accepted Sherlock’s much inferior presents with every impression of delight. John, who was handsome and charming and could have had anybody he wished and who wanted Sherlock.

“You have no idea,” Sherlock told him. “Absolutely no idea.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Four

It was not the wildest New Year’s Eve John had ever had.

John thought of the council estate. Tried not to think of how much Harry and his mother might be drinking at that very moment. He thought of how loud and raucous it would be, of the parties spilling out into the cold night, of all the drunken snogging of people you didn’t necessarily want to remember snogging in the morning.

Currently, John was sitting on the floor in the library of the Holmes country estate with his back against a sofa that Sherlock was sprawled on as he read The Blind Banker for roughly the two hundredth time that week. Sherlock’s hand was absently in John’s hair, running strands through his fingers, sliding across his scalp, and John was theoretically reading a copy of The Hobbit that Mycroft had left on the kitchen table that morning, but in reality he had his eyes closed, enjoying the fact that Sherlock Holmes was basically petting him. The room was quiet except for Sherlock’s even breaths and the turning of a page every once in a while. John felt drowsy and content. This, he thought, was the best New Year’s Eve he’d ever had.

“Mycroft says The Hobbit is boring,” Sherlock remarked, eventually, shifting a bit on the sofa, and John felt him brush a kiss over the top of his head. “I take it you agree?”

“I haven’t formed an opinion yet,” John replied.

“You also haven’t read a single page in the last hour.”

John didn’t bother to deny that because it was true. He shifted so he could see Sherlock, who was still sprawled in all his unconscious elegance on the sofa, the notebook of The Blind Banker closed and resting atop his belly. “Did you finish your re-read?” he asked.

Sherlock nodded. “Why did you title it The Blind Banker?”

“I don’t know.” John shrugged. “It needed a title.”

“Yes, but that was the least interesting detail in the whole case.”

“Now you’re criticizing the story I wrote you?” John asked, but teasingly, without heat. “Is that what you’re doing?”

“Why does it need a title?”

John smiled at him, because he couldn’t help it, and leaned forward and kissed him. Sherlock made that small sound of approval he made almost every time John kissed him, like he was caught off-guard each time that John still wished to kiss him, like each time was a moment of surprised delight for him. John wanted to kiss Sherlock enough that eventually he would stop with that, eventually he would just come to expect that John was going to keep kissing him. They hadn’t reached that point yet.

Sherlock wriggled on the couch, shifting toward him, rolling a bit, the better to kiss him back, which sent the notebook spilling to the ground. Sherlock’s hand closed over the back of John’s neck, holding him in place, and John pushed The Hobbit out of his lap with the intention of clambering onto the sofa with Sherlock and kissing him senseless, hopefully while Mycroft stayed holed up working in whatever room he currently was.

Then the doorbell rang.

John jumped, startled, pulling back and saying, “Bloody hell.”

Sherlock sat up on the couch, the bow of his mouth rosier than usual from the kiss, and frowned toward the front hall. “The doorbell,” he said. “At eleven o’clock on New Year’s Eve.”

The doorbell was followed up by violent knocking, insistent and continuous. Mycroft came jogging down the stairs and frowned at the two of them in the library.

“Couldn’t you answer the door?” he demanded, crossly, sweeping across the front hall to get it.

Sherlock rolled himself off the sofa, plainly curious, padding in his bare feet over to the doorway so he could see the front door. John got to his feet and followed, just as Mycroft opened the front door on…the butcher from their trip to town. At least, that was who John thought it was.

The man John thought was the butcher said, “Mr. Holmes,” and hesitated.

John imagined Mycroft was frowning. He would have hesitated if faced with Mycroft’s frown, too. The butcher peered past Mycroft into the front hall and said, “Is…is Mrs. Hudson here?”

“No. She’s away for the holiday.” Mycroft sounded stern and annoyed. “Is there something I can help you with?”

The butcher swallowed thickly, wringing his hands together. “Your brother,” he managed eventually. “He’s home from school, isn’t he? Is he here?”

“My brother?” Mycroft echoed, sounding confused.

Sherlock stepped into the front hall. “I’m here.”

“Oh, thank God,” proclaimed the butcher, pushing past Mycroft, who, looking surprised, didn’t stop him. The butcher rushed up to Sherlock. “I need your help,” he said, looking on the verge of tears. “I know he hasn’t…always been…I mean, I know you’re not the best of mates or anything…but I don’t know who else to…I don’t know where else to… You’re my only—”

“Mycroft,” Sherlock said, without taking his eyes off the butcher’s face, “make coffee and ring Lestrade and tell him that I’m going to need access to Scotland Yard again. Mr. Notoriano, tell me when Angelo was arrested and for what.”

***

At 11:57, Sally’s telephone rang, and someone happened to hear it and answer it, and then there was general shouting in the room for Greg. And Greg, who’d found himself cornered by a friend of Sally’s who’d just been dumped and needed someone to listen while she sobbed and to assure her that she wouldn’t be alone on every New Year’s Eve for the rest of her life, seized whatever the distraction was with glee.

“Telephone,” another of Sally’s friends said to him, holding it out.

“Are you just handing my number out now?” Sally demanded, with drunken good-humored offense.

He hadn’t been. He didn’t think he’d given anyone that number. He didn’t bother to answer Sally, just shouted into the phone, “Hello?” while putting a finger into his other ear.

In hindsight he really shouldn’t have been at all surprised when Mycroft’s voice said, on the other end, “Greg?”

Leave to it Mycroft to figure out where he would be at midnight on New Year’s Eve, which was really incredibly charming. They were in some strange half-relationship that was too young to be properly classified, and Greg thought New Year’s Eve a bit too much pressure for it, never mind the fact that in some very real way Mycroft was akin to a single parent and Greg wasn’t about to raise a fuss about Mycroft being unavailable during holidays. But still, a nice, pleasant surprise, hearing from Mycroft.

“Awww,” said Greg into the phone, aware that he’d probably had more to drink than he would have liked for this conversation, “did you call me for midnight?”

Mycroft was silent on the other end of the phone, and Greg deduced through the buzz of the beer he’d drunk that night.

“Ah. You did not,” he concluded.

“It wasn’t that I—I forgot it was New Year’s Eve,” Mycroft responded. “My apologies. Is it midnight? Close enough, I see. Well, then. Happy New Year, Greg.”

“Happy New Year,” Greg said, but he felt like some of the fun had gone out of it because Mycroft had apparently tracked him down for some other reason entirely. “Why did you really phone?”

“I need a favor from you,” Mycroft answered after a moment’s hesitation.

You need a favor from me?” Greg didn’t bother trying to conceal his surprise at that.

“I know, not what I would have predicted either, but yes. If I were to accomplish what I need accomplished, it would make things…bureaucratically messy. For Scotland Yard, I mean. So I think it would make more sense for—”

“What about Scotland Yard?” Behind him someone had started a countdown, and Greg looked around at all the other partygoers in open irritation at how difficult they were making it to hear what Mycroft was saying.

“I need you to call your friend at the Met for me.” Mycroft’s diction was exaggerated. He could probably hear the countdown in the background and was trying to counter it.

Greg processed what Mycroft was saying, sought out Sally with his eyes, found her hanging on that Anderson bloke she’d been obsessed with lately and shouting Five! Four! “And say what?”

“There’s been a murder.”

“What?” Greg exclaimed, as Happy New Year! exploded all around him. “Are you okay?”

“Yes. Everyone’s fine. Everything’s fine. It’s just that a…friend of the family has been arrested for it, and we don’t think he’s guilty of it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Greg was quizzical. He wasn’t sure where this was going. He cursed all the alcohol he’d drunk earlier that evening.

“We need to get Sherlock access to the case, Greg, so he can sort it.”

The penny dropped. “Oh,” said Greg, finally realizing. “Oh. I see. I…” He glanced again at Sally, giggling enthusiastically at something Anderson was saying to her. Sally was going to kill him. “All right, I’ll talk to her.”

“We’re driving in, it’ll take us a bit of time. We’ll meet you there.”

So confident, Greg thought. Well, he supposed that Mycroft knew that if Greg couldn’t get them in, Mycroft himself could accomplish it, just in a somewhat messier fashion.

“Fine,” Greg said.

“Greg.”

Greg paused before hanging up the phone, expectant, saying, “Yeah?”

“Happy New Year. Really.”

“Thanks,” Greg said, genuinely. “You too. See you soon.” Greg hung up the phone and went off to corner Sally.

***

Saying that Sally was furious with him was a gross understatement. Sally stalked into New Scotland Yard, and Greg followed behind her at a cautious distance, not really wanting to be directly in her line of fire.

“This is outrageous, you know,” she spat out at him. “Just outrageous.”

“I know,” Greg agreed, because he did feel bad about this.

Sally was attracting the attention of the police on duty, all of whom looked at them curiously as they passed, but she didn’t seem to care.

“What does he think he’s going to see that the London Metropolitan Police can’t?” Sally demanded. “Huh?”

“Well, he saw quite a lot that the Met couldn’t see the last time ’round,” Greg couldn’t help pointing out.

Sally glared daggers at him. “He’s a kid, Greg. He’s a sixteen-year-old kid with a sick obsession with crime scenes.”

“He’s not a bad kid. He might even be a good one, if you’d just give him a chance.”

“I’m doing you the favor, aren’t I?” Sally said, but she did at least drop the conversational topic. She was shifting through files on somebody’s desk. “What’s the name of the bloke who was murdered?”

“I don’t know.”

“The name of the suspect?”

“Don’t know.”

“Bloody hell,” muttered Sally, “how do we even know this isn’t all some sort of elaborate prank?”

“Because the Holmeses are the opposites of pranksters.”

“It’s great for you that he’s good in bed,” Sally sighed, sinking into the chair behind the desk where she was going through files. “But what’s in it for me? Ah. Here it is. This must be it. A murder from tonight. It’s Gregson’s case. The victim was Donald Hayes. Ew. Basically found butchered at a movie studio in the East End. Nasty bit of business. The suspect in custody is Angelo Notoriano. Butcher. Well, that would make sense. The victim was carved up expertly using a butcher’s knife, and someone fitting Notoriano’s description was seen fleeing the building shortly before the body was found. Notoriano was apprehended, acting guilty, with an inordinate amount of cash on his person. The movie studio had been robbed, apparently.” Sally shook her head. “That doesn’t look good at all.”

At that moment there was a commotion at the other end of the station, and then Sherlock Holmes managed to push his way through, heading unerringly over to them, coat billowing out behind him. He looked energetic and bright-eyed with excitement. John Watson was trailing behind him, looking game but also looking like it was the middle of the night, which it was. And Mycroft was trailing behind both of them, looking generally grim.

“Hello, Lestrade,” Sherlock said in that dismissive way that qualified as a greeting from him. “Is this the file? Excellent.” He didn’t wait for Sally to confirm that it was before grabbing it and moving off with it, his nose buried deep in it.

John gave Greg a slightly bleary smile. “Happy New Year, Mr. Lestrade,” he said.

“Happy New Year, John,” Greg responded before John followed Sherlock off to where Sherlock had begun shedding papers from the file, pawing through them messily.

Two teenagers?” Sally said. “You didn’t say anything about there being two.”

Greg looked at Mycroft with his eyebrows lifted in inquiry. “I didn’t know.”

“Sorry,” said Mycroft, splitting the apology between them gracefully. “John was visiting, and he insisted upon coming along, and Sherlock insisted upon his coming along, and so here, you see, we are. Thank you very much for all this.”

Sally didn’t acknowledge the thank you. She was busy frowning at John and Sherlock across the room. “Great,” she complained. “How can there be two freaks? What are the odds of that?”

“I beg your pardon,” Mycroft said, sternly.

“Sorry,” said Sally, with the air of not really being sorry, “but you’ve got to admit, he’s an absolute freak, that one. I wouldn’t have thought he’d be the type to have a friend.”

“Sally,” Greg begged her. “I already told you—”

“Is this your friend at the Met, Greg?” Mycroft interrupted him.

Greg looked at him, at his gray eyes narrowed in Sally’s direction, and shivered without really meaning to. “You’ve just had a long drive,” he said, deciding he didn’t want happening whatever was about to happen next. “Can I get you some coffee or anything? We may be in for a long night and—”

“Sally Donovan,” Mycroft said, his voice the sharp edge of a jagged piece of ice, and Greg winced. “Who has managed to delude herself that a man who will cheat on his wife with her would never cheat on her. That doesn’t inspire any great confidence in me in your intelligence, and I wouldn’t really feel much of a pang were anything to happen to you, except that Greg appears to be fond of you in some way, so I’ll let it go just this once and say that if you ever speak in any derogatory fashion about my brother again, I will find out.” Mycroft didn’t even make a threat. He just let it hang in the air as he smiled at her.

Sally stared at him and swallowed thickly.

Mycroft turned to Grreg, suddenly smooth and relaxed and not at all death-threatening. “Did you say there was coffee somewhere? I would love some.”

“Um,” said Greg, experiencing something like whiplash. He didn’t know whether to take Mycroft to task for that or to thank him for shutting Sally up about Sherlock in a way Greg hadn’t been able to. He settled for simply answering Mycroft’s question. “Yeah. This way.” He glanced at Sally again, then led Mycroft to the coffee machine a short distance away, pouring him what he was sure was a terrible cup of coffee.

Mycroft took it and didn’t drink it. He said, “Sorry. That was rude of me, and you’ve been quite kind in extracting a favor from her for me. I don’t know what got into me. Normally I just agree when people point out Sherlock’s irritating nature, but it’s late.” Mycroft paused. “And she’s really rather a cow.”

That startled a laugh out of Greg and effectively defused any ill feeling Greg might have had. “Ah, well, she insulted your little brother. I see what you mean: caring isn’t an advantage with you—it drives you to make casual death threats at the slightest provocation.”

“Exactly,” said Mycroft, his eyes on Sherlock and his tone serious, and Greg had meant for it to be half a joke but saw suddenly how truthful it was, how being loved by Mycroft Holmes was probably one of the scariest things in the universe because of how much sheer, terrifying power could go into protecting your every breath.

Greg took a sip of the coffee, which was as terrible as he’d suspected and only lukewarm, and then tried to force humor. “She’s a cow? I thought you’d have a better insult than that. You must be tired.”

Mycroft smiled and relaxed a bit, leaning against the counter that the coffee machine was sitting on, still holding his untouched cup of coffee. “Not physically tired so much as strung-out from Sherlock telling me every five minutes that I am the slowest driver in the whole of the United Kingdom.”

Greg glanced at where Sherlock had now draped himself over a chair, frowning at some piece of paper from the file. John had perched on the desk, reading whatever papers Sherlock had already discarded. “Well,” he commented, “he already looks like he’s having a blast.”

“Yes, to Sherlock this has been a very happy new year, indeed,” agreed Mycroft, dryly. “Less so for the rest of us.”

“I don’t know. John seems to be enjoying himself well enough.”

“John enjoys every minute he’s with Sherlock, even when he doesn’t think that he is. But it’s not such a happy new year for Angelo. Or his father. Or the victim.” Mycroft paused. “Or you.”

“Well. It is a terrible new year for Angelo and his father and the victim. As for me, though, selfishly, I got to see you on New Year’s Eve, which was more than I thought I would.”

Mycroft smiled and slid his eyes over to him, looking warm and amused. “Should we share a midnight kiss?”

“Probably not with the audience.”

“I agree. Sherlock knows, though. John doesn’t, but Sherlock does, and he doesn’t want you to acknowledge it, ever; he wants you to pretend it’s not happening and definitely not to be nice to him.”

Greg was perplexed. “I thought I was always nice to him.”

Mycroft shrugged.

“How does he know? Did you tell him?”

“There is almost nothing that Sherlock ever needs to be told. Anything he needs to be told is, by Sherlock, deemed to be of minimal importance to his life.”

Greg processed this, and then said, “So, this friend of the family, Angelo?”

“The local butcher’s son. He and Sherlock do not get on.”

“You don’t say. Odd. Normally Sherlock’s mates with everyone.”

Mycroft chuckled. “Touché. I only mean that if Angelo is guilty, Sherlock will not hesitate to tell us. And if Sherlock says Angelo is innocent, then you can believe it.”

“I need to talk to Angelo,” Sherlock announced, loudly, to the room at large.

“Absolutely not,” Sally said.

“What if Angelo’s lawyer needs to see him?” Mycroft inquired, blandly.

“Well, that would be a different story, of course.”

“Excellent.” Mycroft straightened. “Angelo’s lawyer needs to see him.”

“Who’s his lawyer?” Sally asked.

“I am.”

Sally snorted.

“I assure you that I am. This is all quite legitimate.”

“Did you read law?” Greg asked, surprised.

“I did indeed.”

“I thought you read classics.”

“I read that as well.”

“And history. And modern and medieval languages. He’s a show-off,” said Sherlock.

“A show-off with an eager young student assistant whom he will allow to question Angelo,” rejoined Mycroft, and Sherlock brightened immediately, then noticeably tamped down on his eagerness and said, with studied casualness, “Well, it’s the least you can do. God knows you wouldn’t be of any help to him at all.”

Mycroft said, dryly, “Yes. Well, Sergeant Donovan? Shouldn’t you fetch me my client so that my assistant and I can see him?”

“John has to come, too,” Sherlock insisted staunchly.

“Hang on,” Sally interjected. “This isn’t a party, you know.”

“I will not work without John. He helps me. He isn’t a genius himself, but he has an amazing ability to stimulate it in me.”

“Thank you, Sherlock,” said John, sounding wryly affectionate of him.

“What? It’s true. You’re not the most luminous of people, but as a conductor of light you’re unbeatable.”

John sighed heavily and shook his head and generally looked much less offended than any other person would have. Which was why, Greg thought, he got along so well with Sherlock in the first place.

Mycroft merely turned to Sally and said, “My two assistants and I wish to see our client.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Five

Sherlock was annoyed, his eyes sweeping over Angelo. “They’ve changed your clothing. How am I supposed to make any deductions without your clothing?”

“It’ll be in evidence, Sherlock,” Mycroft told him, sounding weary. “We can go look at it later.”

“But it’ll have been moved and messed up by all these bloody police idiots.” Sherlock frowned at Angelo.

Angelo hadn’t said a word since they’d walked into the room. He kept looking nervously between Sherlock and John, and John wanted to say, Yes, you implied no one would ever want to be Sherlock’s friend, but it doesn’t matter, he’s still going to save your sorry arse, but he knew Sherlock wasn’t doing it out of any generous altruism but because it was a puzzle, a distraction, and he couldn’t resist it, so John thought it was much better for him to just keep his mouth shut and let Angelo think Sherlock was doing it out of the kindness of his heart.

“Where did you steal the money from, Angelo?” Sherlock demanded.

Angelo looked terrified. “I…I…”

“Stop stammering at me,” Sherlock snapped. “I know it wasn’t your money, but I know it didn’t come from the film studio; it would never occur to you to break into a film studio. More likely you picked a flat, drunk people, partying, New Year’s Eve is an easy night, isn’t it, and everyone’s still flush from Christmas, so just tell me where the money came from so I can start proving you were there instead of at Three Mills. And if you lie to me, I will know.”

Angelo took a shaky breath. “I didn’t kill nobody,” he began.

“I think you mean to say that you didn’t kill anybody, and please, stop wasting my time, I already know you didn’t, that was a pretty murder, an elegant murder, and you haven’t the imagination for something like that. So. The money. Where did it come from?”

“It wasn’t just one flat.” Angelo sounded on the verge of tears, like he was barely holding it together. John swallowed thickly with sympathy. He didn’t care for Angelo, but nobody innocent of murder deserved the terror of thinking they might not be able to prove it. “It was…a bunch of flats. We were…in and out, all night. I don’t know—”

“What part of London?” asked Sherlock, sharply, impatiently.

“Ratcliff,” Angelo managed.

“Well, that’s helpful at least. Clear across the city. Give me addresses.”

“I don’t remember all of them. I don’t—”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Sherlock sighed. “Who were you with? I know you didn’t do it alone.”

“I’ve got a mate. Tony. I can tell you where to find him and he can take you to the flats. Would that be enough?” Angelo looked anxious, terrified that Sherlock would snap, No, absolutely not, don’t be an idiot. John held his breath, hoping that wasn’t what Sherlock’s response was going to be.

But Sherlock just said, “I’ll make it be enough. I won’t need as much as the police would.” Sherlock stood, looking pleased with himself.

“Do you think you’ll be able to clear me?” Angelo begged, desperately.

“I think I’ll be able to prove you were breaking into flats on the other side of London at the time of the murder. You’ll have definitely left enough evidence behind for me to work with, being a fairly stupid person.”

“Sherlock,” said John, because he felt like he ought to. Angelo was clearly a complete and understandable wreck and wasn’t a very nice person, but he didn’t need to be insulted at just that moment.

“What?” Sherlock looked at him in confusion, and John lifted his eyebrows at him, which he knew Sherlock would be able to read. It was the same look John gave him whenever he was unnecessarily rude to a master during a div. Sherlock made a disgusted noise and turned back to Angelo and said, in what sounded like a parody of a kind tone, “Don’t worry, Angelo, I’ll take care of everything.” Sherlock turned back to John. “Good?”

“Better,” said John.

Waste of time,” Sherlock muttered, sweeping past him and out of the room.

Mycroft gave him an inscrutable look, curiosity mixed with something else, but since John could never read Mycroft’s looks, and since it was now more early morning than the middle of the night, John just decided not to think about it.

***

They found Tony in a council estate not far from where John himself lived. Or used to live? Once lived? Lived in the future? Pretended to live? Where just his family lived? Whatever, he was too exhausted to think about it.

Sherlock gave no indication of realizing how close they were to John’s theoretical home. Or of the place where he’d cornered John against a brick wall and snogged him into an orgasm. Which was something John probably shouldn’t think about at just that moment, although part of him couldn’t help it because Sherlock was thrumming with energy, vibrating with excitement, and the only other time John had seen him alive to such an extent was with him. It was strange to see all of it turned on something that wasn’t him, disconcerting, jealousy-inducing, which was ridiculous, he couldn’t be jealous of a murder suspect, and yet, somehow, he was.

Mycroft and Lestrade had both accompanied them to Tony’s, which had annoyed Sherlock but it had been a compromise from the insistence of Sergeant Donovan that she come along, too. Sherlock had been convinced Tony wouldn’t want to confess to an evening of crime in front of Sergeant Donovan. Since that made perfect sense, Lestrade had managed to talk Sergeant Donovan down, but there was still more of an audience than John knew Sherlock would have preferred. But Sherlock didn’t let it bother him much or diminish his enjoyment of the current situation, as far as John could see. Sherlock swept his way into Tony’s flat, looking positively gleeful, and explained the situation to him, speaking sharply and crisply. Well, that was something, at least, thought John, some way in which Sherlock at a crime scene was different from Sherlock in bed, because Sherlock when aroused, when properly kissed, thoroughly shagged, spoke in blurs, his consonants slipping and his vowels smoothing out, his voice no less rich but his diction just a bit less controlled, as if the habits drilled into him during childhood, the precise pronunciation, were too much for him to recall. John liked Sherlock’s voice like that because he had always assumed he was the only person who got to hear Sherlock like that, and he was relieved that still seemed to be true.

Tony took some convincing, mostly because of the presence of Mycroft and Lestrade, and Sherlock finally had to force them to leave the flat. Mycroft had apparently ascertained by then that they were in no immediate danger in the flat, because he agreed to go with only a mild protest, and Lestrade followed his lead.

Once Tony started talking, John took careful notes. Sherlock had thrust a notebook in his hand on the way out of the house, hours ago, with that instruction. Take notes. So John took careful notes through his exhaustion, and Sherlock listened, head tipped and fingers steepled, pale eyes flickering over everything, never pausing, never stopping. John imagined that his notes were capturing maybe one-tenth of what Sherlock was getting out of this interview but he at least managed to write down the addresses of the flats and the approximate times Tony and Angelo had hit them.

“They were busy,” John remarked when Sherlock shut the door behind them. Mycroft and Lestrade were standing by the car, leaning against it, their heads unnaturally close in conversation. John thought that he was too tired to make sense of whatever was going on there and turned his attention back to Sherlock, following slightly behind him as they strode toward the car because he was too tired to quite catch up.

“Yes,” Sherlock agreed, shortly.

“Should make it easier, right? To prove Angelo was somewhere else entirely when the murder was committed.”

“It should. Which is a shame. It would have been nice to have more of a challenge.”

“Try not to say things like that to people other than me,” said John, on a sigh.

Sherlock abruptly stopped walking and looked at him. “But I can say them to you? Why?”

“Because it isn’t like you’re going to stop saying things like that altogether.”

“And it doesn’t bother you, when I say things like that.”

“Because I know you don’t mean it maliciously. You mean it…scientifically. Not everyone understands that about you. People could take it the wrong way.”

“And you would care? What people think? About me? I don’t understand.”

“I’m too tired to understand what you don’t understand about that,” said John, honestly, because wasn’t it obvious? Of course he cared what people thought about Sherlock. He loved Sherlock. He wanted everyone else to see in Sherlock what John saw in Sherlock, and no one ever seemed to, and there was a selfish way in which that was nice, it kept Sherlock entirely his, but there was another way in which it literally hurt to think of anyone in the universe not loving Sherlock wholeheartedly.

Sherlock, after a moment, smiled at him, just a brief upturn of his lips, before he resumed walking.

“Here,” John said, following him again and thrusting the notebook toward him.

“Why are you giving that to me?”

“I took notes for you. On the addresses.”

“Oh, I don’t need notes. I’ve got it all in my brain. My brain can handle that. Yours can’t, especially not on no sleep, you’re quite dragging, and I don’t want you to forget.” Sherlock half-turned toward him, grinning. “You’re going to need to know that information for your next story.” He turned back toward Mycroft and Lestrade, close enough now to be spoken to. “Come along,” Sherlock said to them. “The game is on.”

***

Sherlock flew through the crime scenes at the flats, working at what would seem like double-speed to any other person but was merely Sherlock-speed. Mycroft forced him to wait for Scotland Yard, rather than just allowing him to burst into people’s flats, and Sherlock, impatient at that delay, walked the police officers who arrived through what had happened so swiftly that they were literally stumbling over each other trying to keep up with him. Some of the flat-owners hadn’t even discovered they’d been robbed yet, still recovering from the debauchery of the night before, and Sherlock seemed to relish dramatically announcing it to them as they blinked at him in sleep-addled states. But Sherlock collected enough evidence to prove that Angelo had been at most of the flats he’d said—fingerprints here and fibers of cloth there—and even, by canvassing neighbors and people who worked in the area, some eyewitnesses who provided time stamps.

“It should be enough,” Sherlock told Sergeant Donovan, confidently, once they were back at New Scotland Yard, “but, of course, proving that Angelo was in Ratcliff all evening doesn’t really clear him of the murder at Three Mills.”

“I thought you said it would,” Sergeant Donovan pointed out to him, sourly.

Sergeant Donovan did not like Sherlock. At all. John took careful notes on that, it would add color to the story, he thought.

“No, no, everyone assumed that it would, and I allowed all of you your silly assumptions for a little while. There’s the obvious fact that the body was moved to Three Mills.”

“Moved there? From where?”

“That I don’t know yet. But if you could give me access to the blood the body was found lying in, I could get a better idea.”

“You think they took the blood from the murder scene and transported it to Three Mills?”

“No, I think the blood isn’t human. Clearly he was murdered somewhere else and transferred to this scene. The carving up of the body? That was to try to disguise the livor. Lividity had set in, so they had to carve the body up, so it wouldn’t be obvious that the body had been lying in a different position entirely at another location. If lividity had set in, then that would mean the body had been dead at least eight hours. It doesn’t really matter what Angelo was doing last night, it matters what Angelo was doing yesterday afternoon, but that’s all right because yesterday afternoon Angelo was on the train into London, you have the used ticket stub on his belongings in evidence, and unless he managed to transport a dead body on a train with him, I think he’s in the clear. At any rate, this was a carefully planned, motive-driven murder. This was no robbery gone bad. They moved the body, they carved it up to try to hide that it was moved, and then they surrounded it with blood to make it look as if the victim bled out at Three Mills, but the victim bled out somewhere else. Probably you might all have eventually reached these conclusions, if you’re not all quite as stupid as you look, which is, admittedly, a longshot, but it would have taken you weeks at any rate and by then the trail would have been very cold. As it is, if you allow me to test the blood from the scene, we could learn a lot.”

Sherlock finally stopped talking and looked at Sergeant Donovan expectantly.

After a second, Sergeant Donovan said, sounding both dazed and irritated, “I need to get Gregson.”

***

They set Sherlock up in the lab, and he was in his element. John sat and watched him and tried not to fall asleep. He could have helped, but Sherlock was snappish with any assistance offered to him and John wasn’t really in the mood. He watched Sherlock work and said, “You knew all along that Angelo had an airtight motive, that the police were making the wrong assumptions about the time of death.”

Sherlock hummed and adjusted whatever he was looking at in his microscope.

“Why didn’t you point it out right away?” John asked.

“Why would I have?” Sherlock asked. He frowned at the microscope, but John knew the frown was really directed at him.

John sighed and put his head in his hands. Mycroft and Lestrade had disappeared. Sergeant Donovan was supervising them but she was standing just outside the door and, from the expression on her face and the gesturing of her hands, she was complaining about them vociferously to someone. The number of enemies Sherlock had made in these few scant hours would have been impressive if John didn’t know that it was merely par for the course when it came to Sherlock.

John yawned.

“What do you think the motive is for all this?” Sherlock asked.

“I don’t know,” John replied, sleepily, trying to keep up his end of the conversation. “Tell me.”

“I haven’t decided yet. I’m interested in your theories.”

“Ah. So I can conduct brilliance for you, or whatever?”

Sherlock didn’t seem to notice the sarcasm. He made a note on a piece of paper and said, “Exactly.”

“Well, I have no idea. Someone with a vendetta against this film studio? I mean, why go to all the trouble to do this in that location? If it wasn’t just a robbery?”

“A message,” said Sherlock. “A warning? It’s possible.”

“Or I suppose it could just be random.”

“Not random. The film studio is on the Thames. If the murderer was already there with the body, far easier, much less trouble to just toss the body in the Thames.”

“Oh. Right. Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Because you’re an idiot. I mean, less so than other people, you’ve been doing really well, but still.”

John yawned again and wondered if there was some defect in his personality that made him in love with Sherlock. He wasn’t even bothered anymore by being called an idiot. He barely even noticed it.

“A Mouflon sheep,” Sherlock concluded, and John jerked out of a doze and wondered how much time had passed. Sergeant Donovan was back in the lab, looking very unamused by everything.

“Oh, really?” she inquired, scathingly.

“Yes. Positive. A Mouflon sheep. That’s where the blood came from. And Mouflon sheep are very rare in Great Britain so that should narrow things down for you considerably. Not a lot of access to Mouflon sheep blood in this country. Even you lot may be able to solve this case. Well. Probably not. I’ll do some research of my own.” Sherlock practically hopped off the stool he’d been sitting on. “Not a bad day’s work,” he announced, looking pleased with himself.

Sergeant Donovan looked as if she would’ve murdered Sherlock except that she didn’t want to deal with another case.

***

John couldn’t sleep. He lay awake in his bed in Sherlock’s house and stared at the ceiling. He should have been exhausted, and he was, but he just couldn’t fall asleep.

He opened the door carefully and peered down the hallway. There was a sliver of light underneath Sherlock’s bedroom door. He was either still awake or had gone to bed without shutting off his light. Either seemed likely. John hesitated, wondering if it would be acceptable for him to sleep in Sherlock’s room. He had done it during his last visit but the relationship had been different during the last visit and he knew Mycroft knew that. Mycroft hadn’t seem inclined over the past week, though, to have any sort of awkward talk about sex and seemed more in favor of ignoring the situation, which John was fine with. And John desperately wanted to sleep and he felt he could accomplish that much better in a room where Sherlock was comfortingly working.

So John made up his mind and let himself into Sherlock’s bedroom. Sherlock didn’t even look up from his position on the floor, where he was surrounded by books on sheep and film studios, everything the Holmes library had, which was more than John had expected. John dragged himself over to Sherlock’s bed and burrowed under the duvet. Sherlock didn’t even acknowledge him, face buried in a book.

John normally didn’t bother Sherlock when he was like this. Because normally Sherlock was unbearable when he was like this. But John, curled under Sherlock’s duvet, breathing in Sherlock’s smell, watching Sherlock work, felt a strange sort of cold fear creeping over him. Sometimes just the fact of Sherlock terrified him, just the fact of everything he would do for Sherlock, everything he would allow Sherlock to do, before deeming any of it too much. Would he ever deem any of it too much?

“Can I ask you something?” he ventured.

“I’m busy,” Sherlock responded, absently.

“If it were me, if I were the murder suspect, would you approach it with this much glee?”

Sherlock did not look up, but John could see him freeze for a very long moment. Then he did look up. “Would you rather I go to pieces because it’s you? Wouldn’t you rather I bury myself in clearing you, the way I did for Angelo?”

“You didn’t clear Angelo right away. You could have, but you didn’t, because you were having too much fun.”

“Also, I don’t really like Angelo,” Sherlock pointed out, lightly.

“I just… If it were me sitting there in prison, I’d hate to think you were out here having fun with my predicament. Or if it were my murder.”

“Who would dare to kill you?” Sherlock demanded, flatly. “They would never get away with it.”

John smiled. “I know. And you’d clear me if I were a murder suspect, even if I were guilty.”

“Of course I would. You’d never kill anyone without a good reason.” Sherlock seemed to think the conversation had concluded. He went back to his books.

John watched him for a little while, until his eyelids were too heavy to keep open any longer. He didn’t feel as if he slept, he felt as if he was aware of Sherlock’s even breaths across the room, of the turning of pages and shifting of books, but, at the same time, he had to have been sleeping, because he woke up when Sherlock clambered into bed with him, curling up and into him, in that way John no longer found suffocating and just found perfect. Sherlockian and perfect.

Sherlock nuzzled into his neck, catching his hands into John’s T-shirt to keep him as close as possible. “I’d never let you get arrested,” Sherlock murmured against his skin.

“What?” asked John, blearily, shifting, settling around him, fitting them together into compatible pieces automatically.

“I would never have to clear your name, gleeful or otherwise, because I’d never let you get arrested. The police are so stupid. I’d throw them off your scent.”

“Mmm,” said John, and brushed a sleepy kiss over the part of Sherlock’s head that was closest to his mouth, Sherlock making his typical pleased sound in reaction to that. “I’ll try to do the same for you, because, let’s face it, you’re far more likely to get arrested than I am.”

“I expect you to bail me out,” Sherlock said.

“Always,” John promised, and turned his face into Sherlock’s hair and slept.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Six

Mrs. Hudson arrived home brown as a nut and spilling over with enthusiastic tales about her holiday. Mycroft listened to her passively, smiling absently in all the right places, and John, watching him, wondered if he was even paying attention or if his mind wasn’t on a million things other than Mrs. Hudson’s tale of an overly flirtatious waiter. Sherlock was blatantly looking out the window, giving every impression of his mind really being on a million things other than Mrs. Hudson’s tale of an overly flirtatious waiter, and yet John knew that he was listening to every word.

Because neither Mycroft nor Sherlock seemed to know how to hold an actual, functional conversation, it fell to John to make the affirmative noises Mrs. Hudson expected in the pauses she left in her sentences. This caused Mycroft’s eyes to shift to him, which John didn’t much care for, but he had to be polite to Mrs. Hudson who, after all, had done things like ask him what type of egg he preferred.

Eventually, Mrs. Hudson came to the end of her holiday stories and said, looking content and pleased with herself, “It was lovely, Mycroft, thank you so much.”

“You are quite welcome,” Mycroft replied, with that edge of gallantry that Mycroft put into his sentences sometimes, overdramatic and old-fashioned.

“And thank you, Sherlock. The present was from both of you, I believe.”

“Mycroft idiotically put my name on it,” Sherlock said, dismissively, still looking out the window. “I would never have given you a holiday. I had to spend the whole week without you.”

“Oh, I’m sure you functioned,” Mrs. Hudson remarked, looking pleased nonetheless.

“He didn’t even notice you were gone,” Mycroft contributed. “He was caught up in John and murders.”

Sherlock glared at Mycroft, John struggled not to blush, and Mrs. Hudson said, “Murders?”

“There was only one murder, Mycroft,” Sherlock clipped out. “Do be precise.”

“My apologies, Sherlock. One murder, Mrs. Hudson.”

“Who was murdered?”

“No one remarkable,” Sherlock answered, in disgust, because Sherlock had thus far been unable to determine why Donald Hayes had been murdered, or who had murdered him. Neither had Scotland Yard, but Sherlock had never expected them to. He held himself to a higher standard.

“Angelo was arrested for the crime,” Mycroft explained.

Mrs. Hudson emitted a soft cry, her hands fluttering up to her throat. “Angelo? Mario’s son?”

“Yes. And Sherlock cleared him,” said Mycroft.

Mrs. Hudson turned an adoring gaze onto Sherlock, who had resumed staring out the window but must have seen her out of the corner of his eye, because he stiffened. “Oh, Sherlock,” she said, as if he’d just walked on water.

“It wasn’t even very clever.” Sherlock shrugged. “I wish you were right to be impressed, but it was the simplest, most straightforward thing.”

“Still, it was nice of you,” Mrs. Hudson insisted.

“It wasn’t nice of me,” grumbled Sherlock, as if he could think of no worse thing to be called.

“Angelo’s home now, then? Everything’s all sorted?”

“God, no,” answered Sherlock, sounding bored now. “Angelo broke into quite a few flats. He may not be guilty of murder, but he’s still guilty of a crime. Several crimes.”

Mrs. Hudson considered. “All’s well that ends well, I suppose.”

Sherlock frowned at her. “But it hasn’t ended well.”

“What shall we do for your birthday?” Mrs. Hudson asked, clearly striving to change the subject, and Sherlock froze next to him.

John turned to face him, surprised. “Your birthday?” he repeated. “When’s your birthday?”

“Oh,” said Sherlock, vaguely. “I don’t know. It’s not important. Who cares about birthdays? I’ve erased that knowledge from my head, it’s meaningless.”

“It isn’t meaningless,” John protested. “To know your age? It’s very meaningful for some things.”

“Exactly, John,” Mrs. Hudson agreed, with staunch approval. “And his birthday’s tomorrow. How could you not have told John your birthday was tomorrow?”

“Birthdays are such a waste of time, Mrs. Hudson.”

“I should have got you a present,” John realized.

Sherlock made a face.

“A serial killer or something,” John continued.

“Well, if you insist on presenting me with a serial killer,” Sherlock responded, “please don’t let me stop you.”

“Honestly, you boys.” Mrs. Hudson stood, shaking her head. “It’s really not decent.”

“I thought you might enjoy going to London for the day,” Mycroft suggested.

“If John wants to go,” said Sherlock, lightly.

Which John knew meant Sherlock really wanted to go to London but didn’t want to appear eager to do anything that had started out life as an idea of Mycroft’s.

“I’d love to go to London,” said John.

***

Sherlock liked London. He didn’t like the London house, it was too much Mycroft all around him, but he liked London itself. He liked the vastness of it, liked the fact that it could swallow him up, that he could hide in it with an effectiveness he had never been able to accomplish in other places. He liked the constant stream of data to analyze. He was never bored in London. It was impossible to be bored in London.

He liked London but his motive for accepting Mycroft’s offer of a birthday in London was decidedly ulterior. Sherlock needed to know more about John. He needed more data. With everyone else on the planet, the data he already had would have been more than sufficient. With John, it was not nearly enough. Sherlock wanted to know every single thing about John. He wanted to burrow into all of the crevices of his memory, until the synapses of John’s thought processes felt like second nature to him. Because John’s thought processes confused him. The way he was worried over what people thought about Sherlock. The way he sometimes looked at Sherlock with something close to uncomprehending fear and yet still gathered him close and kissed him if Sherlock leaned into him. The way he was aggravated by things Sherlock couldn’t predict, and the way he recovered from the aggravation swiftly and cleanly, on his own, without any further discussion. Sherlock had the uncomfortable lopsided feeling that John knew him better than Sherlock had ever dreamed anyone would know him, and yet he was always just guessing with John.

And until he could puzzle through John, there was the possibility that Sherlock might do something that would cause John to…stop. Stop all the things Sherlock really liked, stop them. If John were less of a conundrum, then Sherlock would be confident of his ability to keep John forever, but as long as there was uncertainty it gnawed uncomfortably at Sherlock. Every time John kissed him, it was a lovely affirmation that the uncertainty could be pushed aside for at least a few more seconds. And, at the same time, it was a reminder that if John stopped kissing him, Sherlock would lose all of it, that tightness in his chest and tingle in his toes, the rush of euphoria that he felt he could only half explain with things like endorphins. Sherlock had been attempting to diagnose what was wrong with him, the light-headed spin of dizzy happiness when John pressed against him and swept his tongue into his mouth, and the chemistry of sex fell far short. This was not mating, not physical urges, not biology. It was addiction. Sherlock had read up on it. He was addicted to John Watson; he craved him like a drug. He could sink into the heady pull of him and let the rest of the world pass him by, a matter of no consequence. And he had to know how to keep access to this feeling.

So, with ulterior motive firmly in place, Sherlock allowed Mycroft to drive them into the city. He only half-paid attention to Mycroft saying that he had to work, but that they should meet for a birthday dinner. Sherlock didn’t even listen to the time and place given. He had no intention of meeting Mycroft for any sort of ridiculous birthday dinner.

John looked across at him in the front hall of the London house, after Mycroft had left. “It’s your birthday,” John pointed out. “What would you like to do?”

Sherlock wondered if he could be straightforward about it. I would like to meet your family. I have to gather more data about you. Probably that wouldn’t work, which was annoying. Sherlock hated having to waste time angling to get John to that point. Although it was possible to get him there with a very useful approach, he decided. It didn’t all have to be a waste.

“I haven’t spent much time in London,” Sherlock said. A lie. He’d spent a great deal of time in London, especially before starting Eton, and most of that unsupervised because he had been very good at sneaking out of the house.

John looked skeptical. “Really? You seemed to know it well enough when we were solving murders all over it.”

“One murder,” Sherlock corrected him. “It was one murder. And what makes you think I can’t easily memorize a map?”

An expression flickered across John’s face. Sherlock knew that expression. It was his you-win-that’s-a-good-point expression. Sherlock loved that expression.

“Let’s do something you like to do in London,” Sherlock suggested.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Somewhere you used to play with your sister, somewhere your mother or father used to take you.”

John’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What’s this about?”

“Nothing,” Sherlock said, plastering innocence onto his face.

“Where did you used to play with Mycroft?” John asked.

Sherlock frowned. “You think Mycroft and I played together?”

“I think that if, for your birthday, I decide to be generous enough to answer questions about the things you want to know about my past, then I’m going to extract answers from you in response.”

“What makes you think I want to ask questions about your past?” Sherlock inquired, trying to be both light and scathing. “I could deduce anything I might want to know. I wouldn’t need to ask you.”

“Fine,” John said. “Then that’s the end of this conversation, isn’t it? Let’s go to Piccadilly Circus, and I’ll let you show off as a special birthday present.”

Sherlock scowled. John smiled sunnily at him, a hint of smugness to his expression. That was his I’ve-just-made-a-good-point-aren’t-I-clever expression. Sherlock hated that expression. “You’re wrong,” he sniffed, trying to sound as superior as possible when he knew John knew he was completely caught, which was annoying.

“About?” asked John, breezily.

Everything.” He was on his way out the door.

John tugged him back suddenly, pushed the door closed, and kissed him against it. “Be more specific,” he said, into his mouth.

“Impossible,” said Sherlock, pulling John closer, until the carving of the wood on the front door was digging painfully into Sherlock’s back, but he didn’t really care because John’s teeth closed over his earlobe and his thoughts vanished, the way they always did, and that was part of what he needed more data about, why John could do that, it was just an earlobe.

“Who else is in this house?” John murmured thickly into his ear, his voice low and urgent and Sherlock thought of the shape of his name in that tone.

“No one,” Sherlock answered, truthfully.

John pulled back, just far enough to be able to meet Sherlock’s eyes. His pupils were dilated. His hair was also mussed, and Sherlock tried to remember if his hands had been in it. Everything was fuzzy around the edges, in that way he both loved and hated. Addiction, he thought. If John walked away from him at that moment, Sherlock thought he would scream with the physical pain of his absence. John looked promising and seductive and Sherlock felt himself so close to the high of John, everywhere, lips and tongue and hands everywhere, that he twitched with the anticipation of him. “Bet I can get you to agree to my being right about something.” John’s lips curved up in a smile.

“I’d like to see you try,” Sherlock replied, honestly.

The smile widened into a grin, vicious and predatory, and Sherlock didn’t have nearly enough time to take a breath before he was submerged in him.

***

John had no desire to do anything other than sprawl in Sherlock’s bed for the remainder of the day. Sherlock was warm and drowsy next to him, and the room was dim and quiet, and John floated in contentment. But it was Sherlock’s birthday, and John wasn’t so conceited as to assume that spending the rest of the day in bed was Sherlock’s preferred way to spend it. Even if Sherlock seemed to be insisting that it wasn’t a big deal. The point of a birthday was to express your affection for the person celebrating the birthday, and John thought the shag had been enjoyable enough but not the most selfless present he’d ever given someone.

“Sherlock,” John said, softly, in case Sherlock was asleep.

“Forget about Piccadilly Circus,” Sherlock mumbled into John’s skin. “Forget about everything outside of this bedroom.”

“It’s your birthday,” John pointed out. “Don’t you want to do something special?”

“I am,” Sherlock replied. “I’ve been to Piccadilly Circus hundreds of times. I’ve never in my life spent the entire day in bed with you.”

John looked at the ceiling over the bed and told himself not to frown. “Have you ever done it with anyone?”

Sherlock kissed at his jawline. “Jealous,” he murmured.

“No,” John denied.

Sherlock snorted.

“Yes,” John admitted. “Have you?”

“No. Every other time I’ve spent the entire day in bed it’s been because the world outside was too dull to contemplate, not because there was anything of singular interest in the bed.”

John never liked the way Sherlock’s voice sounded when he talked about being bored. He sounded as if he couldn’t bear the idea of it, like the horror of it was always nipping at his heels. “How often were you bored?”

“Always,” Sherlock answered, after a second. “I was almost always bored.”

There was a long moment of silence. John breathed into it, aware Sherlock had just shared something very close and personal to him.

John wanted to match the gesture. “We used to play war,” John said. “Complicated wars. Shifting alliances, bloody battles, so many rules.”

Sherlock didn’t move from his position snuggled against John, but John felt his breathing quicken a bit, away from the relaxed sleepiness and into awareness, wakefulness, interest. “What was the plot of the wars?”

“Vague. But they were always somewhere hot and sunny. Exotic. The complete opposite of Great Britain.”

“You were on the side of Great Britain,” Sherlock remarked, confidently.

“How do you know that? How do you know the wars weren’t…aliens versus humans, or something like that?”

“You’re too much of a pragmatist. You wouldn’t do that. It would be Great Britain against someone else, and you would be on the side of Great Britain. I know you would. Queen and country.”

John didn’t even bother to deny it.

Sherlock shifted, moving away from John so he could prop himself up on an elbow and look down at him. His eyes were alight with curiosity, with fascination, and John was a bit bereft that he’d moved away but was warmed by that gaze. It was never not flattering to have all of Sherlock Holmes’s considerable attention focused on him.

“I bet you were a general,” Sherlock continued.

John grinned, relishing saying, “No. You’re wrong.”

“Wrong?” Sherlock echoed, with a frown. “What was your rank?”

“Captain. And I was a doctor, of course.”

“A doctor. Of course. How stupid of me. Of course. You were an army doctor.” Sherlock considered him. “You would be a good army doctor. That would suit you. That would satisfy you. You’d get to be a caretaker, you’d get to save people’s lives, but you’d also get to defend and protect, aggressively, assertively. You like that. That’s your instinct. You feel things fiercely. You’re not made for passivity. And there’s danger. You love danger. It lights you up from the inside. It steadies you, it calms you, it delights you.”

“I’m not sure what to make of the me you say that I am. I’m not sure what I think of him.”

“You’re so concerned about what people think of other people. You’re even concerned about what you think of yourself. What does it matter? You are who you are. I’d not have you any other way.”

“I suit you,” John allowed. “But what about everyone else?”

“What about everyone else? Sod the lot of them.” Sherlock rolled on top of him, settling, and John shifted to align them better. “You don’t need anyone else.” A frown flickered over Sherlock’s face as he looked down at him. “Do you need anyone else?”

“I don’t know,” said John, honestly. He felt like everything in his head was a jumble, like Sherlock pushed everything out and left no room for anything else, and that was terrifying.

“I won’t let you go to war,” Sherlock informed him, sternly. “I won’t have anybody shooting at you.”

“Why am I so important to you? What is it about me that you find fascinating? I don’t get it, Sherlock. I want to see what you see when you look at me. I want to know what you…” John trailed off helplessly, because he couldn’t articulate it. He knew only that Sherlock was the most extraordinary person John had ever met, and he could not wrap his head around what Sherlock saw in him.

“I see you, John. What else did you think I might see? A unicorn?”

“Sometimes you’re so literal it’s absurd,” John sighed.

“There’s so much I can deduce about you. I know you had a brief, unsatisfying childhood, shortened considerably by the fact that your parents were both alcoholics. They didn’t have a happy marriage, and they stayed together mainly out of laziness. A body at rest tends to stay at rest, and all that. One sister, Harriet, not much younger than you, not very much younger than me at all. Always called Harry, a sign of affection, of adoration even, but you are always John, never any of the diminutives, just John. Harry is playful, vivacious—she’s the life of the party. She’s inherited your parents’ careless, happy-go-lucky streak, and you’re proud of that and you’re terrified of it, all at the same time. You, meanwhile, you are one of those happy accidents of genetics. You’re the best of all of them, and you’re steady and responsible, and you wanted to be a doctor because doctors fix things and that’s all you’ve ever wanted, for everything to be fixed. I’m the only thing you’ve ever encountered that you haven’t tried to fix, and I don’t know why.”

“You’re not broken,” John managed, a bit dazed from the onslaught of the analysis.

“Many people would disagree, including several professionals. Your father died, killed, chance car accident, an Eton housemaster, I think, was at fault for it. Things had been deteriorating, badly, it was a relief when he died, and you felt guilty for that, and even guiltier because you had this thought, this brilliant thought: you heard Eton and you saw your world open up in a way you’d never thought it would. You’d been thinking of the army, maybe, the best you could do, not an army doctor but at least something else, something different, but instead there was Eton, and you ran, and you didn’t look back, and you hate yourself for that. I know all this about you, John. I’ve known it from the beginning. I just don’t know why me.”

John stared up at him. There was an odd sort of relief in having it all out in the open, in knowing that Sherlock knew everything, all of it, and didn’t care. That it was all something to be rattled off in a list of facts, not agonized over, not guilt-ridden over. They were simply the facts of John Watson. Sherlock only cared about the one fact he couldn’t get to make sense, because the only person on the entire planet who Sherlock Holmes was confused about was himself.

“You’re not broken, Sherlock,” John said.

“Yes, I am,” Sherlock insisted. “There’s something very wrong with me. There’s something very wrong with the way I am. I envy you so much, John. Your mind: it’s so placid, straightforward, barely used. Mine’s like an engine racing out of control, a rocket tearing itself to pieces trapped on the launch pad. I wish I could make you understand. I need—”

“What do you see when you look at me, Sherlock?” John interrupted him, calm and firm. Because Sherlock meant none of it as an insult, Sherlock meant all of it as an apology, a confession. He closed his hand on the back of Sherlock’s neck, forced him to keep his eyes on John’s.

“You,” said Sherlock, sounding irritated. “Haven’t I already said? I see you. Innumerable points of data, all adding up to you.”

“And here you see me, looking at you. Innumerable points of data. What can you deduce about what I see when I look at you?”

Sherlock stared at him. “I… Nothing.” His voice was tense with frustration. “I don’t know what you see when you look at me. I can’t imagine.”

“I see you,” said John. “Innumerable points of data, all adding up to you. You’re not broken. You’re you. I’d not have you any other way.”

There was a very long moment when Sherlock simply stared down at him, his mouth in a thin, tight line. Then: “You’re an idiot,” Sherlock told him, his voice swamped with fondness.

John smiled at him. “But I’m your idiot. Doesn’t that count for anything?”

“You’re still an idiot,” Sherlock said, and kissed him, slow and sweet and lazy and grateful.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Greg had just finished a run, and he was in the process of stretching out at the end of it when a man in a dark suit approached him briskly and said, “Mr. Lestrade?”

Greg eyed him warily. “Yes,” he ventured, slowly.

The man handed him a small envelope with his name written on it. Greg opened it and read the note enclosed, which was written on a small card with a silver “MH” embossed on the corner in a heavy, square font. Dinner at 8? I’ll send a car for you. Wear a suit. It wasn’t signed, but Greg looked at the “MH” and the besuited delivery person and knew there was only one person it could be from. How Mycroft had managed to have him tracked down while on a run was something Greg decided not to think too much about since he was mostly just pleased to hear from Mycroft at all. He wasn’t sure what their status was. More than shagging? Less than dating? He had no idea. But an invitation to dinner—even a smug, self-assured one that assumed his acceptance—flushed him warm with delight.

“I suppose he already knows I don’t have any plans tonight,” Greg said to the man with the suit.

“He did say to wait for a reply, sir,” the man responded.

“How kind of him. Do you have a pen?”

The man handed him one, and Greg leaned awkwardly to rest Mycroft’s card against his thigh so he could scrawl across it, But you haven’t specified what I should wear under the suit. See you at 8. He replaced the note card in the envelope he’d torn it out of and hesitated before handing it back across. “You wouldn’t read private correspondence, right?”

The man looked deeply offended. “Of course not, sir.”

Greg nodded and watched the man stride purposely away with the note safely in his pocket. Then Greg glanced at his watch and thought he had way too many hours to kill before Mycroft’s car came to pick him up. Time crawled with his heavy anticipation, and Greg thought, not for the first time, that he was possibly infatuated with Mycroft Holmes. He was not at all the sort of person Greg would ever have imagined himself with, but, then again, he was not at all the sort of person Greg had ever imagined even existing. Now that he knew he existed, he was endlessly fascinated by him. He was looking forward to the sex he assumed would occur, but he was almost looking forward to the dinner more. Because he liked Mycroft.

What Greg didn’t like was every single suit he owned. All three of them. Because he didn’t really wear suits at Eton so much as he fudged it with shirts and ties and interchangeable coats, and he didn’t really make enough money to make the purchasing of suits an attainable luxury. He wasn’t about to go buy a suit for a single date. This was what he told himself. Although clearly they were going out, if Mycroft had found it necessary to warn him to be sure to wear a suit, and Greg didn’t want to look obviously like Mycroft was out of his league and just slumming it with him.

Greg frowned and compromised and went out and bought himself a new tie, which had the added advantage of killing some time while he waited for eight o’clock to arrive.

Sally was apparently busy at work, because she didn’t come home when Greg would have expected her, which wasn’t unusual at all. He left her a note saying that he had a date and not to wait up. He didn’t clarify who the date was with, but he didn’t really want to. Sally’s hatred for Sherlock had only increased after the New Year’s Day experience, and they had agreed to try to avoid discussing Holmeses as much as possible.

Mycroft’s car arrived precisely at eight o’clock. He wasn’t in it, but Greg hadn’t really expected him to be. The car took him to a restaurant in central London Greg had heard of but would never have thought to eat at, considering an evening’s dinner would cost a day’s wages. He was willing to splurge for the evening if it was the sort of place Mycroft would be comfortable, and Greg thought it might be.

The maître d’ seemed to know who he was the instant he walked through the door. Either Mycroft had shown around his photograph, or he’d told the maître d’ to be on the lookout for someone who didn’t look as if they should be allowed to eat there.

“This way,” the maître d’ said, and turned crisply and led Greg through a maze of tables with softly gleaming crystal and silverware, bathed in candlelight and dressed with fresh flowers. Everyone was murmuring at each other in the sort of voices banks apparently taught you if your account exceeded a certain amount.

Mycroft was seated at a table by the window, looking out over the London street. There was already a bottle of wine nestled in a wine bucket by the table, and Mycroft was sipping from a glass of it and watching the street, until he seemed to sense Greg’s approach and turned his head to watch him. His eyes were inscrutable in the low light of the restaurant, and Greg was suddenly unreasonably nervous that Mycroft might, upon seeing him again, change his mind, reevaluate what he was doing. But then Mycroft smiled at him, warm and welcoming, pleased to see him, and Greg, relieved, smiled in response.

Greg sat with a grateful glance at the maître d’, and Mycroft waved away a waiter who started forward, leaning forward to pour wine into Greg’s glass.

“Hello,” he said, and smiled at him again.

“Hi,” Greg replied, and realized he was grinning at him and it was impossible not to.

“Thanks for coming,” Mycroft said, politely, as if it were a business meeting.

Greg tipped his head at him quizzically. “Did you think I wouldn’t?”

Mycroft looked thoughtful. “Our last date was a murder scene. So, yes, I wasn’t sure.”

“I thought that was a delightful date,” Greg told him and glanced at the table, where there was an extra place setting. “Are we expecting someone else?” Greg was suddenly worried he’d read everything entirely wrong, and this wasn’t a date at all, and he’d sent back a ridiculous note that had probably made Mycroft embarrassed.

“No. Well, to be honest, I was supposedly expecting two completely different people.”

Greg didn’t know what to make of that. So he just sat and looked at Mycroft and tried to think what to say. Had he been…what? Second choice?

“It’s Sherlock’s birthday,” Mycroft explained. “So, theoretically I am taking him to dinner at this moment. And John, too, of course, as you cannot have one without the other these days. But Sherlock would never permit me to take him to dinner. I thought maybe there was a possibility, given John’s influence, but, as you see, that was not the case.”

“That’s…” Greg wanted to say it was sad, because it was, and Mycroft was saying it so matter-of-factly, when it had to be painful, but the fact that Mycroft was at least giving every appearance of taking it in stride made Greg think saying it was sad wouldn’t be appropriate. He said instead, “Rude.”

Mycroft shrugged and sipped his wine. “That’s Sherlock. Anyway, I had a free evening and a reservation. I feel like it’s my birthday, and I’ve received a fabulous present.”

Greg smiled. He thought it possible that he blushed. “What were you going to do if Sherlock and John showed up?”

“What was I going to do if I was wrong?” Mycroft asked, leaning back in his seat and smiling at him, as if he were incredibly amused by the idea.

Greg chuckled. “Fair enough. Or, touché, I suppose, is what I should say in this place.”

Mycroft looked suddenly anxious, straightening a bit in his chair. “Would you rather go somewhere else? The food is good here, and I—”

“You cannot possibly be afraid you were wrong in your choice of restaurant,” said Greg, keeping his teasing gentle, because he suspected Mycroft had just displayed a bit of nervousness that Greg identified with. That made Greg feel like maybe he wasn’t alone in the queasy confusion of whatever this was that was going on.

“Ah, is that what this feeling is that you provoke in me?” Mycroft asked, his eyes very sharp in the passing headlights outside the window. “Fear of being wrong?”

Greg considered. “I hope not. I hope it’s a better feeling than that.”

“If an equally unusual one.”

The waiter stepped forward, discreet and polite, and Greg realized he hadn’t even glanced at the menu. He grabbed it hurriedly, pulling it toward him, but everything on it was unfamiliar to him. “I… Have you eaten here before? What would you recommend?”

“The quail,” answered Mycroft, readily.

“Fine.” Greg glanced at the waiter, handing him the menu. “I’ll have the quail.”

“Two, please,” Mycroft said, and Greg realized he’d never even been given a menu. Or else he’d given it back before Greg’s arrival. Or possibly he ate here all the time, and it was his favorite restaurant, and Greg once again felt hopelessly out of his league.

Then Mycroft looked at him, settling back, cradling his wineglass. He looked comfortable and attractive, his ginger-y hair slightly tousled, relaxed in his ridiculous suit, and all of his attention was on Greg, curious and interested. Greg felt drawn to him, wanted to lean over the table and kiss the wine off his lips. Or duck under the table and unzip his fly. One or the other.

“So, Greg,” Mycroft said, almost casually, but plainly meaning it. “Tell me everything about you.”

Greg licked his lips and tried to think. “I was under the impression you already knew everything about me.”

“I have a file on my desk that is not nearly as thick as it should be, given the youness of you. I have studied this file. I find it a poor substitute. Tell me everything about you. And start at the beginning.”

Greg felt like this was both ridiculous and seductive. “I cannot tell you anything about my conception. That I don’t want to know about. I can tell you I was born in April, but you must know that already.”

“Don’t tell me facts. Tell me about you. How do you like to celebrate your birthday? What’s your favorite dessert? Where would you most like to go on holiday? What are you wearing under your suit?”

Greg laughed and said, “I’ll answer everything but the last question. That you have to find out for yourself.”

Mycroft smiled across at him and said, “Fair enough.”

***

Mycroft could talk with surprising authority on every topic Greg raised: football, books, even movies and television. Greg began to see it as a sort of challenge, trying to find something he could express an affection for that Mycroft didn’t have a few talking points on. He gave up when Mycroft was able to speak intelligently about what was wrong with Eldorado, ending on a question about internal politics at the BBC that made Greg admit, “I’ve never even seen an episode of that show.”

“Oh,” said Mycroft, taking a sip of his wine. “Neither have I, of course.”

“But you know about it.”

“I know about everything.”

“I thought you’d know everything about, I don’t know, the Peloponnesian War, or what’s going on in Bosnia.”

“I know everything about that, too,” said Mycroft, calmly.

“So you know everything about Greek history, current events, and primetime soaps.”

“There’s more overlap in those subjects than you might expect. And you’re surprised.”

“Not surprised. Impressed. And suddenly it all makes sense to me.”

“What does?”

“Why Sherlock resents you. You’re cleverer than he is, aren’t you?”

“Not really,” said Mycroft, but he smiled in a way that made Greg know that he’d asked the right question. “I’m just more well-rounded than he is. Sherlock likes what he likes, and he doesn’t bother to learn about anything he doesn’t like.”

“And you like what you like but have made it a personal quest to learn about everything, including what you don’t like.”

“Sherlock is arrogant. Anything he doesn’t know is, in Sherlock’s view, not worth knowing.”

Greg propped his elbow on the table and settled his chin on his fist and regarded Mycroft. “I need to find something to stump you.”

“I welcome the challenge,” said Mycroft. “But I think you could do it easily. The subject on which I am least conversant is Sherlock.”

“And you think I am conversant on Sherlock?”

“I have the impetus of genetics, of years of being responsible for him, and years before that of being told that I ought to love him. You love him without any of those societal prompts. So yes, I think you’re more conversant on Sherlock than the vast majority of people I’ve met. It’s how I knew you must be clever, from the very beginning, because you didn’t dismiss him immediately, you found your way into him.” Mycroft paused. He put his wineglass down and, in an uncharacteristic gesture, fidgeted with it slightly. Greg watched, a bit confused. “I’m not sure that I would have,” he said, slowly, “if he hadn’t been my brother, if it hadn’t been…necessary. You’re a much better person than I am.”

“I don’t think you give yourself enough credit,” said Greg, after a second.

Mycroft looked at him from under his eyelashes, not his usual direct gaze. “Not an accusation that is frequently leveled at me.” He cleared his throat abruptly and straightened, ruffling himself into place in that way he had, so that Greg felt like he could have imagined the moment of vulnerability in his wine-hazy and Mycroft-dizzy head. “It’s late. We should go.”

Greg thought to look around them and was startled to realize that the restaurant was empty except for them. It had to be incredibly late, but Greg had no desire to look at his watch. It had been a marvelous evening, and he thought that looking at his watch, realizing it was almost over, would make him feel like Cinderella at the end of the ball, pumpkins looming. Greg wanted the night to go on forever, the give-and-take of Mycroft, interesting and charming and witty and dazzling.

He looked back at Mycroft. “You must come here often.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because they haven’t kicked us out. We’ve single-handedly made them all work late.”

“Double-handedly,” corrected Mycroft. “There’s two of us.”

“But,” said Greg, “what if we’re holding hands?” He reached across the table to demonstrate, intertwining their fingers.

Mycroft froze, and for a second Greg thought maybe that had been the wrong thing to do, and he went to draw back, but Mycroft tightened his grip and squeezed. Greg looked at him, but his gaze was fixed on their joined hands, clear-eyed and inscrutable the way it always was.

Mycroft cleared his throat. “I see what you mean. Single-handedly.” He unclasped their hands and stood, and Greg followed suit, and there was a flurry of people bringing them their coats, clearly relieved that the end of the night was in sight for them.

Mycroft, settling his coat around him, reached for Greg’s hand and held it as he led him through the restaurant.

“Wait a second,” Greg said.

Mycroft gave him a mildly quizzical look.

“I never saw them bring us a bill.”

“As you accurately deduced,” replied Mycroft, lightly, “I eat here frequently.”

“Mycroft,” Greg protested. “I should have paid something.”

“Thank you,” said Mycroft, to the man who held the door open for them.

“You cooked last time,” Greg continued, as they stepped out into the icy cold of the night.

Mycroft turned to him, used their joined hands to tug him closer, and kissed him. “Quiet,” he murmured against his lips.

“Well, that’s not playing fair,” Greg complained, pushing his free hand through Mycroft’s gingery hair.

“I never do,” Mycroft said, making it sound like a promise. He kissed him again, there on the street, and Greg was dimly aware of the black car that pulled up next to them but much more aware of kissing Mycroft back, the taste of him, the heat of him, the aching closeness of him. “Come home with me,” Mycroft said, around the kiss. “Sherlock and John are out; they won’t be back for ages. Come home with me.”

“Do you think I need to be convinced?” Greg asked him. “I’d shag you in the backseat of that car.”

Mycroft turned abruptly and opened the car door. “Get in,” he said.

***

Greg woke when the phone rang, momentarily disoriented. It was dark in the room, but the darkness was unfamiliar, and he had an arm flung out over a person lying next to him in the bed. A person who moved, shifting, crawling over the mattress in the direction of the phone. Mycroft, Greg remembered, and experienced a sleepy moment of humiliation over the fact that he had apparently been sleeping with a possessive hand needlessly over Mycroft. Ah, well, nothing he could do about that now, thought Greg, and closed his eyes and listened to Mycroft answer the phone.

The conversation consisted of short, crisp yeses on Mycroft’s part, and then, eventually, Mycroft rolled out of the bed. Greg wondered if Mycroft thought he was still asleep. He wondered if he should pretend to still be asleep.

Mycroft disappeared into the room’s en suite while Greg was still pondering the question, and then the question became moot because Greg fell into a doze from which he woke abruptly when the en suite door opened.

Mycroft walked back into the bedroom, and Greg decided against pretending to be asleep, saying, his voice rough and gravelly, “Hey.”

Mycroft turned toward him. He’d left the light on in the en suite, and it was spilling into the bedroom, illuminating the fact that Mycroft was dressed in every item of a suit but the jacket. He walked over to the bed, keeping his voice low. “You should go back to sleep.”

“God, I just want to rumple you when you look like that,” Greg informed him, eyes focused on the alluring knot of his tie.

“Whilst I applaud the sentiment, I cannot encourage it at the moment.” Even as he spoke, though, Mycroft leaned down and planted a quick kiss on Greg’s shoulder.

“Work?” Greg guessed.

“Yes. Sorry.”

“Will I ever get to know what it is you do?”

“I’m not sure,” Mycroft told him, and Greg believed him, believed his uncertainty. “When do you have to go back to Eton?”

“Eton?” The change of subject threw Greg, especially in his half-awake state. “Not until the leave is over. When Sherlock has to go back.”

“Stay here with me,” said Mycroft.

Greg felt as if his head was whirling. “What?”

“Stay here with me, for the rest of the leave. Sherlock and John are leaving first thing in the morning, there’ll be a driver to take them, you’ll never have to run into them. And I’d like very much if you stayed for as long as you can.”

“I can’t believe you’re asking me this in the middle of the night like this.”

“When else would I have asked you?”

“I don’t know. During the day. When I was awake.”

Mycroft hesitated, and even with the dim lighting and the cottony nature of his brain, Greg could tell he was ruffling himself back into place, reevaluating his data. “If you’d rather not—”

“Shut up,” Greg told him. “I’ll stay. Of course I’ll stay. If only for the part where you come home in that suit and I get to rip it off of you.”

“Thank you,” said Mycroft, as if something had happened for which gratitude was necessary.

Greg thought Mycroft was almost too polite. Greg also thought Mycroft was almost too good a kisser. That was pretty inconvenient.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Sherlock was conducting an experiment. John didn’t know what the experiment was about. He’d asked, but Sherlock had answered him in what sounded like Latin, which Sherlock sometimes did if he didn’t want to answer a question. John thought he really needed to learn Latin so that trick would stop working someday.

The experiment involved John carrying two rather heavy knapsacks and Sherlock carrying nothing at all. John wasn’t quite sure how that had happened. He never really was. All he knew was that, immediately after completing his mock exams, which had been exhausting and trying, he now found himself following behind Sherlock as he practically skipped ahead of him through the knot of woods by the side of Eton and complained about how slow John was being.

“Do hurry up!” shouted Sherlock, from up ahead of him by several trees. “I want to get started before it gets dark!”

“Oh my God,” muttered John, “I am going to kill you. This is a perfect place for a murder.” And then, louder, “Didn’t you bring a torch?”

“Of course I brought a torch,” Sherlock answered in his don’t ask stupid questions tone of voice, and John considered that the knapsacks were heavy enough that Sherlock had probably packed several marble paperweights as well, just in case.

“Why couldn’t you have chosen a place for this experiment that wasn’t miles away from the school?”

“We’re not miles away from the school, John. Don’t be an idiot.”

“We’ve definitely walked at least a mile.”

“Walking one mile is not the same as walking miles.”

“No journey is too long for the person not carrying anything,” John snapped, and Sherlock stopped walking abruptly and turned back to him.

“All right,” said Sherlock. “Fine. Would you like to get started?”

“Yes.” John looked around them. They were standing in an unremarkable patch of forest that looked the same as every other patch of forest. “Does this suit you?”

“It’s fine.” Sherlock waved his hand dismissively and reached for one of the knapsacks. “Good a place as any.”

John lifted his eyebrows and watched Sherlock rummage through the knapsack. “We walked all this way so you could find as ‘good a place as any’?”

“Compass,” Sherlock said, pulling it out of the knapsack and holding it up for John to see. “Water. Some biscuits I stole from the housemaster’s stash—”

“Sherlock,” sighed John.

“—A blanket. Matches. A flare gun.”

John’s eyes widened. “Where the hell did you get a flare gun?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes and didn’t even bother to answer the question, zipping the knapsack back up.

“That’s not even legal, is it?” persisted John.

“Laws are boring,” Sherlock reminded him, and handed him the knapsack, keeping the other knapsack at his feet.

John took it automatically. “What’s this for?”

“I want you to run.”

John looked around them. “Run where?”

“Anywhere. Don’t tell me where. I’m going to close my eyes and give you a two-minute head start.”

“Are we…playing hide-and-seek?”

Sherlock scowled. “I’m learning how to track people in a non-urban environment.”

John looked pointedly at the crunchy layer of frost on the ground, at their breath fogging between them. “In January? You have to learn how to do this in January?”

“I’m going to have to learn how to do it in every season, but yes, we’re starting in January, as it’s the beginning of the year, and I’m nothing if not logical.”

“That’s what I always say about you,” said John, dryly. “So the knapsack is my survival kit?”

“Of course. In case you get lost or in trouble or something. But you shouldn’t worry, I’m sure I’ll find you almost immediately. Do try to be a bit clever and make it at least a little challenging for me.”

“Do you know something?” John began, in exasperation.

“I know everything,” Sherlock replied evenly, cutting off John’s impending rant.

John sighed, because that was mostly true, and certainly Sherlock knew what John had been going to say, which was that this was absolutely insane and Sherlock was absolutely insane and John was the most insane of all to be slinging the knapsack over his shoulder and saying, in resignation, “Fine. But this better not take too long, and when it’s over you’re going to steal me hot chocolate from somewhere.”

“When it’s over, I plan to warm you up quite nicely, I promise,” said Sherlock, although he said it absently, as if he knew it would be a nice carrot for John though Sherlock’s thoughts were very much on other things that were definitely not sex.

John shook his head, more at himself than at Sherlock, and started to walk off.

“No, no, no,” Sherlock complained. “You have to wait for me to close my eyes.” Which Sherlock then did, very dramatically, counting as he did so: “One, two...”

John started walking again.

“At least run!” Sherlock shouted to him, before saying, “…seven, eight…”

John took a deep breath, adjusted the knapsack, and ran.

***

John ran until he was out of breath and didn’t feel like running anymore. And then he stopped and considered. Surely Sherlock would be right behind him, he ought to be easy to track, having crashed through the forest the way he had. If Sherlock was more than two minutes behind him, he’d be shocked.

So John leaned against a tree to catch his breath and wait for Sherlock to show up, and that was when he saw the dog, a small, skinny bulldog watching him warily from a few trees away.

John glanced around, as if the dog’s owner was going to appear, but there was no one around them. John looked back at the dog, who was still watching him steadily, and said, experimentally, “Hello, boy.”

The dog cocked its head, and then wagged its tail.

John, encouraged, held out a gloved hand in its direction. “Come here,” he crooned to it.

The dog bounded over to him enthusiastically, clearly having decided that John was A Friend. John crouched to be on its level, pulling off his gloves as he did so so that he could better scratch behind its ears. He found himself almost instantly covered in quite a bit of dog slobber and not really caring a bit, because the dog snuffled happily at him as if it had been waiting its whole life for John’s appearance.

John had fallen in love with Sherlock by gradual degrees, so slowly and insidiously that he hadn’t noticed it until it was done. John fell in love with his bulldog immediately, crashing into it almost painfully. It had all been sealed with copious amounts of drooling kisses by the time Sherlock came upon them.

“What,” Sherlock inquired, stiffly, “is that?”

“It’s a dog,” John answered, gleefully. “Must have wandered off. Is that what you’re doing all alone in the forest here, boy?”

The dog looked adoringly at John and took another swipe at his face with his tongue, which John laughingly pushed away.

“Wandered off?” Sherlock sniffed. “That dog is clearly a stray. No collar. And look at how unkempt it is, how skinny it is, you can see its ribs. It’s been attempting to live off the land for quite a while, and doing a terrible job of it.”

“A stray,” John repeated. “In the wintertime? That’s horrible.” He thought of the dog shivering on the frost-hard ground.

“No,” said Sherlock, flatly, from behind him.

“No what?” John twisted so he could look up at him.

“You’re getting it in your head that we ought to take the dog home with us. Your caretaker fixation. We’re not keeping the dog.”

“But haven’t you always wanted a dog?” John asked him.

An expression passed over Sherlock’s face, something John couldn’t quite read. “No, but you clearly have,” Sherlock said, and he sounded…resigned?

“Of course I have!” John confirmed for him. “Dogs are brilliant. And look at this one. This one likes me.”

“John, everything likes you.” Sherlock made it sound like that was John’s most annoying feature.

John looked at the dog, which looked back at him with sad, appealing eyes. Don’t leave me here in the cold, you’re my favorite human ever, you can’t leave me here, was what those eyes said. John fiercely wanted this dog. He looked back at Sherlock. “We’d have to hide him from everyone. You’d enjoy that. You know you would.”

“Stop trying to convince me,” Sherlock sighed. “It’s done. You can keep the dog. We’ll find a way to smuggle him into our room.”

John grinned triumphantly, surprised it had been so easy. Sherlock must have secretly wanted the dog. “You love the dog, too, admit it.”

“No,” said Sherlock, shortly. “I love you, and you want the bloody dog, and if I raise a fuss about the dog you’ll be sad about it and you’ll look at me with your sad little face, so I’d much rather deal with the dog. Now let’s go, I thought you were annoyed with how cold it is out here.”

John froze into place, crouched by his new dog, and stared up at Sherlock. He wondered if he should point out that Sherlock had never before said that he loved him. If he should point out that he had never said he loved Sherlock. He’d known both things were true, of course, but it was another thing entirely to hear Sherlock say it, so casually, just another fact for Sherlock to spout.

John decided not to point it out. John decided to just keep the memory of it for himself, locked away, precious and beautiful. He stood and kissed Sherlock hard, startling him, and then said, “Thank you.” He didn’t mean just for the dog, although he thought Sherlock would assume that’s what he meant. “I am going to shag you until the only word you can remember is my name.”

Sherlock was a pleasing shade of pink, not entirely attributable, John thought, to the cold. “Not in front of the dog,” was all he said.

***

Lestrade had set him the puzzle of the Voynich manuscript, but Sherlock was much more preoccupied with the challenge of keeping the dog a secret. It was John’s opinion that they needed to enlist the help of the rest of the house to keep the dog’s existence a secret. John thought there was no way they could keep the dog a secret from everyone, because the dog would need to be walked, and the dog would make noise, and they needed allies.

Sherlock had never had allies in his life, and he thought John was being naïve thinking that anyone could be trusted. But it was John’s dog, and Sherlock thought it was John’s call as to the best way to keep the dog a secret. Sherlock admitted to himself he was looking forward to saying I told you so when one of the other boys went running to the housemaster.

Except that no one did. All of the other boys were taken with the idea of having a house mascot. Sherlock felt like this was new data he needed to evaluate. Only there was never time to evaluate the data because there was a constant stream of boys to John’s room, asking for permission to take the dog out for games of fetch. Sherlock hated this parade of visitors and spent most of his time sulking silently on John’s bed, staring fixedly at the wall and refusing to acknowledge anyone’s existence. If John weren’t so plainly delighted by his silly dog, Sherlock would have found it all completely unbearable. Instead, it was just mostly unbearable, alleviated only by the fact that John lit up whenever he talked to the dog in those ridiculous dog voices he used, and Sherlock considered it to be very unfair that John was so adorable, even when doing such extremely silly things. In anyone else, this situation would have driven him mad; he would have given up and retreated back to his room and his solitude. With John, the idea of retreat was unthinkable.

More data to evaluate. But whenever he started to evaluate it, someone either knocked on their door or John crawled into his sulking nest and kissed a curve into his lips, and then it really didn’t seem very important. Sherlock even felt bad when the dog managed to eat all of his latest mold experiment. By rights, he should have been furious, but John was so terrified and nervous and sat up all night with the dog’s head in his lap fretting that he was about to die, and Sherlock had felt terrible. He was becoming the most nonsensical person he knew. He felt like he should care more about that.

John had struck up friendships with many more people than any person needed to be friends with, and John started to tell them stories about Sherlock’s abilities to solve mysteries, so that, after a little while, the visitors were no longer in search of the dog and were instead in search of Sherlock’s services. Every petty problem they had was boring, but they were all slightly less boring than the Voynich manuscript, because at least they were real, and he was playing a real role in them. The other students were seldom as appreciative of his abilities as John was, but that was fine with him, as John continued to compliment him warmly and that was all that mattered to Sherlock.

What all this meant was that Sherlock, for the first time in his life at Eton, was used to receiving knocks on his door. Well, John’s door, which was also, for all intents and purposes, his, because he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been to his room for anything. So he was not alarmed to hear a knock on the door, although he was annoyed, because he was sprawled on John’s bed thinking, and he hated when people interrupted his thinking.

“Can’t you answer the door?” he asked John, and, when the knocking persisted, he realized that John wasn’t there. Div, thought Sherlock. John was always going to divs. It was so inconvenient. Sherlock frowned up at the ceiling over John’s bed and snapped, “Go away,” to the door, because Sherlock didn’t interact with any of the people who banged on their door constantly without John there.

“You should let me in,” came Lestrade’s voice, from the other side of the door.

Sherlock sighed heavily and rolled his eyes and looked at the dog, who had been lying right next to him, head on Sherlock’s belly. Sherlock had trained the dog to do lots of useful things. John seemed to think this was impressive. Sherlock thought it was necessary. And all it took was a look for the dog to know that this was the sort of visitor where he was supposed to hide under the bed, as Sherlock had trained him to do.

Sherlock waited for the dog to be completely out of sight before calling out, resignedly, “Fine. Come in.”

Lestrade opened the door, stepped into the room, and promptly closed the door behind him. Sherlock looked at him from John’s bed, not deigning to sit up.

“Are you thinking about the Voynich manuscript?” asked Lestrade.

“Trying to. Very hard to think with you in the room.”

“I only ask because you seem preoccupied lately with things that are not the Voynich manuscript.” Lestrade leaned against the wall, arms crossed, and regarded Sherlock. “And the deal was that I could get you out of divs if you did independent study with me. You seem to be neglecting your independent study.”

Sherlock shrugged, because he didn’t care enough to come up with a response, and went back to looking at the ceiling.

“There’s a rumor going around that you’re offering your services as a ‘consulting detective.’”

“I’m not really, people just keep bothering me about it,” Sherlock informed the ceiling.

“The other rumor I hear is that you have a dog,” said Lestrade, evenly.

“Don’t be preposterous,” Sherlock rejoined, lightly. “How would I ever hide a dog here? With the ace supervision in this place?”

“I could always search your room,” said Lestrade. “Drugs bust or something.”

Sherlock said nothing.

Lestrade, with a small smile, took a handful of dog bones out of his pocket and placed them on the floor.

Sherlock frowned at him. He heard a telltale scuffling under the bed and frowned harder. “Stay,” he commanded, deciding he’d rather try to pretend he was an idiot saying words for no reason than have the dog burst forth in a bone-crazed state.

Lestrade lifted his eyebrows and crouched to the floor and waved one of the bones about. “Come here, boy,” he said, and the dog immediately scrambled out from under the bed and made a beeline for the bone.

Sherlock made a sound of disgust. “Loyalty is a dead concept, I see,” he complained.

The dog happily munched on his bones and looked at him as if to say But he had food! Sherlock was unmoved.

“So John Watson has a dog in his room,” Lestrade noted, conversationally. “That’s grounds for expulsion.”

Sherlock sat up immediately. “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s my dog, clearly. John had nothing to do with it. John doesn’t even sleep here anymore; I make him sleep in my room. There’s no reason to expel John.”

“And you think loyalty’s a dead concept,” commented Lestrade, dryly, and then sat on the floor, the better to pet the dog. “Relax. Nobody’s getting expelled. What’s his name?”

“Gladstone,” Sherlock answered.

“Like the prime minister?”

“John was learning about him in history, apparently, and wanted a name he thought I’d have to learn about. Little did he know that Gladstone is Mycroft’s middle name and, hence, a perfect name for a dog. And I already know about Gladstone, because of that.”

“Mycroft’s middle name is Gladstone?”

“Hasn’t he told you that yet?”

“I thought you wanted to ignore that there was anything going on between your brother and me.”

“I definitely want to ignore it.”

“Then stop talking about him and start talking about Gladstone the bulldog instead. You can’t just keep a dog in your room, Sherlock.”

“Why not? We’ve been doing it for weeks already. He clearly doesn’t cause any trouble.”

“It’s against the rules.”

“Rules are boring.”

“I know you think so, but, sadly, they must be respected until the happy day when you are made supreme ruler of the universe. And then you’ll see how the first thing you’ll do will be to make your own rules.”

“Is that supposed to be some sort of deep, philosophical point?”

“No, it’s supposed to be my way of telling you that you can’t keep the dog.”

“We have to keep the dog, Lestrade. You don’t understand. John loves the dog. John is completely irrational about the dog. John will go to pieces if you take the dog away.”

“John will still have you.”

Sherlock scowled. He was so tired of conversing with idiots. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“There is no way John loves this dog more than he loves you.”

Sherlock had his next point already formed on his lips, but Lestrade’s words were unexpected, made him pause and backtrack. He turned over what Lestrade had said, and he didn’t want to ask it, he didn’t want the vulnerability of the asking, but he couldn’t help it. “John doesn’t… Does he?” Sherlock couldn’t believe that. He tried to imagine the sound of the words I love you being directed toward him. He couldn’t, it was too unfathomable. New data. Always new data when it came to John.

Lestrade looked at him, his dark eyes penetrating and sharp, and Sherlock felt himself flush, knew he’d given too much away. He cleared his throat quickly and said, “Never mind. You still can’t take the dog. I have trained him to attack the jugular of anyone who tries to steal him.”

“If that were true, I’d definitely have to take the dog,” said Lestrade.

The sentence made Sherlock think he had a bit of an opening, so he wriggled his way into it. Lestrade clearly liked dogs, and Lestrade clearly liked John. Time to use that to his advantage. “John’s always wanted a dog, but his parents are useless and instead Fate intervened and gave him this one. You cannot bargain with Fate.”

Lestrade burst out laughing. “You don’t believe in Fate,” he gasped around his mirth.

“I believe in it more than I believe in Etonian rules,” snapped Sherlock.

“Were you debating whether it should be Fate or divine intervention?”

Sherlock ignored that question, because the answer was yes. “What if I help you out with Mycroft?”

“Things are going just fine with Mycroft without your help. And no, we’re not talking about it.”

“But John,” Sherlock said, trying to play his trump card as forcefully as possible. “You like John. You know John. John would be so sad, and how can any of us deal with John’s sad face?”

Lestrade was silent for a long time. “That’s the first reasonable argument you’ve made about this,” he concluded, finally.

Gladstone drooled contentedly on Lestrade’s lap.

Sherlock decided to try to move in for the kill. “So we’re agreed then.”

Lestrade, scratching behind Gladstone’s ears, looked up at him. “Agreed?” he echoed.

“Yes. In order to avoid John being sad, we will keep the dog.”

Lestrade looked amused. “We haven’t agreed to any such thing. Do you know how much favoritism I already show you? Now you want me to cover up a dog for you, too?”

“Favoritism?” Sherlock sniffed, offended. “I don’t think you show me any favoritism. You just show good judgment, which is so rare around here that nobody knows what to make of it.”

“Sherlock,” sighed Lestrade.

“And anyway, even if it is favoritism, it’s not nearly as much as I deserve, considering that you’re shagging my brother.”

“Sorry, do we discuss each other’s sex lives now?” asked Lestrade, mildly. “How’s John?”

Sherlock frowned at him.

“I thought not,” said Lestrade, plainly satisfied he’d made his point.

Sherlock considered him, decided to switch tactics. “Please,” he said.

Lestrade’s amusement appeared to increase. “Please?” he repeated.

“Yes. Please. Doesn’t that usually make people do as other people request?” Sherlock demanded, impatiently.

“Not always,” Lestrade pointed out.

“John loves the dog,” Sherlock snapped. “He loves the dog. Setting aside whatever he does or doesn’t feel about me, whatever that might be, what I know is that he loves the dog. I won’t let you take the dog away from him. So name your price, tell me what it is.”

Lestrade leaned back against the wall, watching him closely. “Do you imagine there’s some sum of money I have in mind?”

“I don’t bother wasting my energy imagining what dull things must go on in your funny little head.”

“You like this dog, don’t you?”

“I tolerate the dog. He’s John’s dog, and he’ll stay that way.”

“‘He,’ not ‘it,’” remarked Lestrade. “Don’t pretend you’re not taken with the dog as well. More taken with John, it’s true, but just a teeny bit taken with Gladstone here.”

“What does any of this matter? All that matters is that John is currently ahead as far as presents are concerned, and I can’t think of any way to fix that other than to make sure he keeps this dog.”

Lestrade was silent for a second. “You shouldn’t keep score like that. A relationship isn’t like that.”

“If I wanted relationship advice from you, I’d ask. As it is, I find your advice dubious at best, given the fact that your current relationship is with my brother.”

Lestrade regarded him for a moment, then stood up, dislodging Gladstone from his lap and trying unsuccessfully to get some of the drool off of him. “I was never here,” he said, and closed the door behind him as he left.

Gladstone whined a bit and looked from the closed door to Sherlock, as if sad Lestrade had left.

“Oh, stop it,” Sherlock told him. “We don’t like Lestrade in this room. Don’t go developing some ridiculous attachment to him. You’re as bad as John, liking everybody all the time.”

Gladstone jumped onto the bed and settled himself next to Sherlock.

“Also, you’re not supposed to be on the bed,” Sherlock reminded him.

Gladstone put his head in Sherlock’s lap and looked very comfortable indeed on the bed.

Sherlock sighed. “John can’t know that I let you on the bed. You know it’s my stance that you shouldn’t be on the bed, and I’ll lose all credibility if John finds out that I let you on the bed.”

Gladstone looked unconcerned about any of this.

John abruptly threw open the door to the room, eliminating any possibility that Sherlock was going to get away with having Gladstone on the bed. Gladstone did leap off the bed at the sight of John, going to slobber joyfully all over him. John, slightly out of breath, closed the door behind him, greeted Gladstone with an absent pat on the head, and looked around the room.

“Where’s Lestrade?”

“Not here, obviously,” Sherlock said, trying to affect nonchalance and hoping John hadn’t noticed Gladstone’s position on the bed. John usually noticed nothing. Hopefully that would remain the case.

“But was he here? Emerson managed to pass me a note in div saying that Lestrade was here.”

Sherlock thought of Lestrade saying I was never here, and decided that maybe, in the wake of Lestrade looking the other way as far as Gladstone was concerned, he deserved to have his request complied with. “If Lestrade had been here, do you think Gladstone would still be here, too?” It wasn’t exactly a lie, Sherlock thought. Just leading John into the conclusion he wanted him to reach.

“Then I just made up an excuse to get out of div and dashed here for no reason?” John asked, after a moment.

“Well.” Sherlock rolled himself off the bed and backed John against the closed door. John grinned at him. “I wouldn’t say ‘no reason,’” said Sherlock, and kissed him. Sherlock almost never initiated kissing John. Mostly because John initiated plenty of kissing, but also, partly, because a part of him was always worried John would frown and push him away and say, Really? Aren’t we growing tired of this yet? But John kissed him back now, hands settling on Sherlock’s hips, untucking his shirt and angling him into place all at once, and Sherlock wanted to ask him, wanted to say, Do you love me? It wasn’t the first time it had occurred to him to ask the question. He wondered it almost constantly, in dark hours whilst John slept beside him, whilst John was at div and Sherlock had nothing else to ponder, whilst John was being John and Sherlock was watching him be John and thinking that he loved him wildly, his heart thundering with the adrenaline of it. He couldn’t conceive of John feeling that way about him, he couldn’t conceive of anyone feeling the windswept crescendo of adoration that he felt for John, least of all John feeling it for him. Lestrade had said it so casually, as if it wouldn’t have been a miracle akin to the discovery of the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction. Do you love me? Sherlock wanted to ask, but as long as he didn’t, the possibility still existed that the answer could be an astonishing yes, and Sherlock could imagine it that way, so perfect it was painful.

“Sherlock,” John said. The prelude to a conversation, not a moan of passion. John turned his head, thwarting Sherlock’s mouth capturing his, so Sherlock made do with the line of John’s jaw instead and didn’t bother to respond, because he didn’t want to have a conversation. “Were you talking to the dog when I came in?”

Sherlock paused minutely, then said, “Don’t be ridiculous, why would I talk to the dog?” Sherlock closed his teeth around John’s earlobe and tugged a little mercilessly, because he wanted to derail John’s train of thought.

John started to groan, but bit it back, clearly fighting against Sherlock’s tactics. “Before you met me, you used to talk to a skull. Anyway, you like the dog.”

“I don’t like the dog. If it were up to me, I’d get rid of the dog.” Sherlock, brutally and with little preamble, unbuttoned John’s trousers and slid his hands into his pants, because John really needed to be distracted.

“Liar,” John gasped. His eyes fluttered closed and his head fell back against the door. “You let him on the bed with you.”

“Shut up,” Sherlock commanded, and tried to kiss him.

John ducked, pulling Sherlock’s hands out of his pants and wriggling away from the door, and Sherlock felt embarrassed for a split second, braced for a reprimand of some sort from John. But then John fell back onto their bed and pulled Sherlock after him, and Sherlock could think of nothing but love love love love, how much he loved John, and how maybe John loved him back at least a little bit, and John said to him, smiling, “Make me.”

So Sherlock did.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Nine

“Mr. Holmes, could you stay for a few moments?”

Amid the general chaos of the rest of the div packing up its stuff, Sherlock frowned at Greg as if he were the most troublesome human being Sherlock had ever had the misfortune to meet. Greg knew that that was a title always won by whichever human being had last had the audacity to try to speak to Sherlock (John excepted), so Greg didn’t take the look too personally. He watched Sherlock gather his things as slowly as possible and drag his way up to the front of the room. John hesitated by his desk, clearly unsure what to do, and Greg waved him away, saying, “I won’t harm him, I promise.”

Sherlock scowled even more deeply as John left the room, and Greg perched on his desk and said, “Cheer up, I’m trying to be helpful here.”

Sherlock looked deeply skeptical of Greg’s ability to ever be helpful but said nothing and kept sulking.

“It occurs to me you must have a problem,” Greg said.

Sherlock looked offended. “A problem you’re going to help me with?”

“Yes. You’re going home for the short leave, aren’t you?”

“You know I am,” Sherlock said, belligerently.

“John’s going home for the short leave, too?”

Sherlock crossed his arms. “Yes. He’s being stubborn about that.”

“Who’s taking care of Gladstone?”

“We’re in the process of debating that,” answered Sherlock, phrasing it carefully.

“I’ll bet you are,” agreed Greg, amused. “I’ll take care of him for you.”

Sherlock blinked in what was obviously surprise. “You will?”

“Yes. Make up a story to tell John, I’d rather only the two of us know that I know about the dog. But I will take care of him for you.”

Sherlock’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“I have no bloody idea,” Greg told him, honestly. “I have evidently lost my mind.”

Sherlock looked as if the fact of his insanity made perfect sense. “What do you want in exchange?”

Greg suppressed his sigh of frustration. “Nothing, Sherlock. I don’t want anything. Where did you develop this idea that every nice thing someone does for you is one half of a transaction? I don’t see your brother as ever withholding from you something that you want.”

Sherlock snorted eloquently. “Mycroft never does anything without wanting something in return. Never. I have had a lifetime of dealing with him, and I am infinitely cleverer than you. You shouldn’t question me on that point.”

Greg sighed and decided not to fight about it, because Sherlock would never believe that that wasn’t really true. Sometimes the things Mycroft expected in return were the things everyone expected in return: being loved and liked. And Sherlock would never think something like that. “I’ll stop by to check on Gladstone, take him for walks, make sure he has food and water.”

“You have to be careful,” Sherlock said. “You can’t let him be found.”

“I’m not stupid, you know.”

“Where do you get that idea? You also have to be nice to him. He’s very sensitive and easily offended; it’s irritating.”

Greg laughed. He couldn’t help it. “I thought you didn’t care about the dog. I thought this was just about making John happy.”

“I don’t care about the dog.”

“You’ve just described his personality to me.”

“I’d have to be an idiot not to notice his personality, and I am decidedly not an idiot.”

Sometimes Greg thought John was an absolute saint to be able to spend as much time with Sherlock as he did, and then there were times when Greg saw what he was sure John must see in Sherlock. Something about him rewarded patience, made you feel like all your hard work gave you a glimpse of a remarkable person in there that the rest of the world didn’t get to see. Greg had the same thought about Mycroft, felt that there were times when he thought he might be the only person who looked at Mycroft and was allowed to see what Mycroft allowed him to see, and that was heady and addictive. Someday, Greg thought, when John Watson was older, he was going to take him for a pint and commiserate over being in love with Holmes men.

And he realized, in having that thought, that he was painting both of their relationships in permanence, in forever. He thought of Sherlock, plainly shocked by the idea that John loved him, when nothing could be clearer to Greg. He wondered if Mycroft’s face would wear the same expression if Greg told him he was in love with him. He wondered how much more shocked the expression would be if Greg admitted that, despite their limited acquaintance, he could not imagine his life without Mycroft in it, even a Mycroft who was frequently just a warm and amused voice on the other end of a telephone.

He wondered if John felt the same way about being without Sherlock. He wondered if John thought of Sherlock past Eton and past uni, thought of the two of them together into some indeterminate future. He wondered if either Holmes ever did.

***

Sherlock was bored out of his mind. The short leave was the most boring thing that had ever happened, ever, in the history of time, ever, ever, ever. He could not believe John had abandoned him to such dullness. He could not believe that Mycroft and Mrs. Hudson seemed unfazed by how boring everything was. How could they continue to calmly exist in all this nothingness?

Mrs. Hudson told him to “read more about the sheep,” which was the project he’d been deep into the last time he’d been home, but Sherlock was sick of the sheep. He could not solve the Three Mills murder, and it was frustrating and irritating and he didn’t want to talk about it. But, because he didn’t have anything better to do, he traipsed off into the fields to examine the sheep around the house. They weren’t Mouflon sheep, but they were the best he could do.

It was a stupid waste of his time. He already knew everything he needed to know about the local sheep, and none of it was going to explain how the blood of a Mouflon sheep had ended up at Three Mills Studios. Sherlock managed to bribe a cigarette off one of Angelo’s stupid hooligan friends who he encountered in the fields—it was an absurdly small bribe, all of Angelo’s friends seemed to think he’d done Angelo some great service or something—and he smoked it in an act of pure furious rebellion, determined that John would have to come to realize that leaving him alone meant he would do things like take up smoking. Except it turned out that he didn’t really enjoy smoking, the cigarette made him cough unpleasantly, and he felt like an idiot, and to make matters worse it started raining, so he trampled home in the storm and showed up soaked through and miserable and blaming John for all of it.

John was in the room when Sherlock got in on Sunday, wrestling with Gladstone on the floor, and he looked up at Sherlock and asked, pleasantly, “How was your leave?” as if it hadn’t just been the most atrociously boring two days to ever have existed.

“It was terrible,” said Sherlock.

John sat up, looking concerned. “Was it? Why? What happened?”

Nothing happened.” Sherlock shrugged out of his coat and threw it toward the desk and collapsed backward onto the bed.

The bed dipped, John crawling his way onto it with him.

“Stop it,” Sherlock told him, severely. “I blame you for the whole thing. I’m very angry with you.”

John ignored him, draping himself over Sherlock, settling a leg between his. “Nobody killed anybody else? What appalling manners everyone has.”

“I can’t believe you thought it was a good idea to leave me alone for two days. I will never acknowledge you leaving me ever again. If you miss important things because you leave me, don’t ask me to clarify for you when you return because you will never have my permission to leave me again, so I will refuse to notice that you ever do.”

“What can I do to make it up to you?” asked John. He was grinning at him. Grinning. Like he thought this was all amusing. Like he thought… Like he thought Sherlock was hilarious. And adorable. And lovable.

Sherlock stared up at him, at the feeble winter sunlight catching the gold in his tousled hair, at the way that his lips curved at him, at the brightness of his dark blue eyes. Sherlock’s heart thudded at him, thick and heavy, heavier than the weight of John half-sprawled across him. I love you, thought Sherlock. And you don’t understand how much I mean all of this. I am sulking, and anyone else would be offended and tedious, and you’re looking at me like I’m fantastic, and you can never leave me. I cannot relearn life without you. Not now that I’ve learned life with you.

The amusement was slowly sliding off of John’s face. “Sherlock,” he said, looking down at him. His head tipped quizzically. “Are you really angry?”

Sherlock closed his eyes, suddenly worried that the swirl of his emotions must be visible in them, that even John would be able to read all of it, and Sherlock wasn’t ready for that yet, wasn’t ready to push it. He needed John to stay with him; nothing had proven that more than the last two days. He shook his head, threading his fingers into the too-long hair on the back of John’s neck. “Kiss me,” he said. “Kiss me until I can’t think anymore.”

“You okay?”

“Please,” Sherlock responded, squeezing his eyes shut tighter. “Would you?”

He didn’t. It was so annoying when John didn’t do as he was told. He brushed his fingers lightly over Sherlock’s cheekbones, then up, pushing his fringe off his forehead. He said, “Sherlock, look at me.” When Sherlock didn’t, he said, more firmly, “Sherlock.”

Sherlock sighed and opened his eyes, and John studied him with a strange fierceness to his expression.

“I won’t leave you,” he said, eventually. “I will never leave you. I am going to snog you senseless every day, just to get that thought out of your head. Do you hear me? Do you understand me? I missed you, too. And I won’t leave you. Say you believe me.”

Sherlock swallowed thickly. He said, even though he wasn’t sure it was true, “I believe you.”

“‘I believe you, John.’ Say ‘I believe you, John.’”

“I believe you, John.”

“Say ‘You’re so incredibly good-looking.’”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “John—”

“‘And astonishingly clever—’ ”

“Oh my God,” sighed Sherlock.

“‘—and I’m the luckiest person in the whole world to have you, John Watson.’”

“I’m the luckiest person in the whole world to have you, John Watson,” said Sherlock, meaning every word.

John froze, looking uncertain, clearly not having expected Sherlock to repeat it.

“Now will you kiss me?” Sherlock demanded, impatiently.

John nodded dumbly, leaned down, and pressed his mouth against Sherlock’s. Sherlock sighed and pulled him closer, and John’s tongue swept into his mouth, rubbed against his, and his hands were already tugging at his belt buckle, and Sherlock relished not being the least bit bored.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty

On Wednesday, Sherlock was examining under a microscope the bacteria contained in Gladstone’s drool when he swallowed and it hurt. There was an odd, burning tightness to his throat. And it only got worse the more he swallowed. Sherlock began conducting experiments. His throat felt better if he drank cold water. Felt even better with a cup of hot tea. Felt worst of all in contact with his own saliva. Maybe his saliva was the issue. Sherlock took a sample and slid it under the microscope and studied it, and then he made a long list of reasons why his throat might be bothering him.

Pharyngitis

--Throat dryness—caused by smoking in some circumstances—does not seem to be the cause as not improved by steady hydration
--Presence of yeast Candida
--Throat cancer
--Chronic or allergic sinusitis
--Glandular fever
--Tonsillitis
--Strain on vocal chords
--Exposure to pollution and/or mold

Sherlock was frowning at this list when John walked in from divs. John was talking but Sherlock wasn’t really listening because he was trying to determine the odds that he had glandular fever. If he did, he should probably tell John, who had been exposed to it.

Sherlock turned in his chair and interrupted whatever John was saying. “I may have glandular fever,” he said.

John stared at him. He was in the process of changing out of his uniform, and Sherlock tried to remember if John had some sort of athletic event or club meeting. John was always running off somewhere. “What makes you think that?”

“My throat is sore. I think glandular fever is unlikely, but I thought I should warn you.”

John lifted his eyebrows. “You have a sore throat, so you immediately leaped to the conclusion that you must have glandular fever?”

Sherlock bristled. “Of course I didn’t leap to any conclusions. I never leap to conclusions, John. I am in the process of deducing the cause of my sore throat right now.” Sherlock indicated his list.

John took the list out of his hand and knitted his eyebrows together as he read. “You don’t have throat cancer,” he said. “And it’s nothing to do with the yeast Candida, that’s associated with chemotherapy treatments.”

“I was just examining all the possibilities,” Sherlock defended himself, sulkily.

John handed the list back to him and brushed a hand almost casually over his forehead. “You don’t have a fever. You probably just have a cold.”

Sherlock was offended. “I don’t get colds.”

“Everyone gets a cold once in a while."

“I don’t. I don’t permit it."

“Oh, is that how it works? Glad you told me. I’m going to forget about becoming a doctor and just become a motivational speaker instead.” John sat on the bed, tying his trainers and petting Gladstone at the same time, which meant he was doing neither effectively.

“Ordinary people get colds,” Sherlock pointed out. “I haven’t had a cold since I was a child.”

“I think you have one now. Well, you either have a cold, or you’re about to drop dead of a strange West Indian infection you picked up from one of your ridiculous mold experiments. If that happens, it’s been fun knowing you. I’ll try to engage in a suitable period of mourning before I take up with someone else.”

Sherlock frowned, watching as John stood and reached for a sweatshirt. “I don’t think you’re taking this seriously.”

“I’m taking this very seriously. Gargle with salt and warm water, you’ll feel better.” He pulled the sweatshirt over his head, leaving his hair a sticking-up mess.

Gargle?” repeated Sherlock, startled.

“It means—”

“I know what it means.”

“Good. Do it. I’ll be back.”

“You’re going out?” Sherlock squeaked. "I’m deathly ill, and you’re going out?”

“You’re not deathly ill. You have a cold, I promise. Take a nap. I’m going for a run with the rugby lads.”

“You have the most terrible bedside manner,” Sherlock informed him, severely. “I hope I’m dead when you get back.”

“Stop it.” John brushed an absent kiss over Sherlock’s temple. He followed it up by crouching to give Gladstone an equally absent kiss. “Gladstone, if Sherlock stops breathing, come and get me, boy.”

Gladstone, tongue lolling out of his mouth, wagged his stump of a tail enthusiastically.

“You’re leaving a bulldog here as my nurse,” Sherlock commented, morosely.

“You don’t need a nurse. You have a cold. Unless you’d like to go see the dame to see what she thinks.”

“The dame?” Sherlock echoed, in disbelief. “The dame is even stupider about these things than you are.”

“I would miss you so much if you were to die of a sore throat before I got back from my run,” said John, and then, with a cheerful little wave not appropriate to the seriousness of the situation, he ducked out of the room.

Sherlock frowned.

Gladstone came over and put his head in his lap and looked up at him.

“Shut up,” Sherlock told him, and coughed.

***

On Thursday, when John got out of divs, he stopped by the library and got as many books as he could carry and then added, for total novelty’s sake, the newspaper. Then he carried everything to his room, where he found Sherlock sleeping in his bed, cuddled into the blankets and curved around Gladstone, who lifted his head and thumped his tail when John walked in.

“Don’t wake him up,” John whispered to the dog, depositing his pile of reading material on the floor. “I’ll be right back.”

Then he fetched tea and brought it back to the room. Sherlock was still sound asleep and snoring loudly around what sounded like a severely stuffed nose.

John put the tea down on the nightstand and debated waking Sherlock to enjoy it while it was still hot. He decided against it. Sherlock didn’t sleep enough, full stop. And Sherlock had a cold and needed the sleep. John cleared a space for himself in the detritus of Sherlockness that always littered his floor and sat and did maths homework painstakingly until the light in the room faded.

At which point, John went to supper and brought back, as he usually did, food for Sherlock. And another cup of tea. Sherlock was still sleeping, although no longer snoring. Now it was Gladstone doing the snoring. John nudged the old cup of tea out of the way to make room for the food and fresh tea, and then leaned down to rest the back of his hand over Sherlock’s forehead.

Sherlock stirred immediately, turning into the touch, although he didn’t open his eyes. “John,” he said, his voice dry and hoarse, and then he coughed.

“Didn’t mean to wake you,” John murmured to him. “The good news is you don’t have a fever.”

“Of course I don’t have a fever. I’m fine.” Sherlock sniffled very pathetically.

“Really? Your mononucleosis seems to have settled into your nasal passages.”

“If my spleen bursts, my last words are going to be ‘I told you so.’” Eyes still closed, Sherlock reached and tugged at John. “Come to bed,” he said, on the verge of a whine.

“It isn’t bedtime.”

Sherlock yawned and sneezed and coughed and sniffled and said again, “Come to bed,” tugging at him again.

He was weak enough that John suspected he was barely awake. John went anyway, because next to Sherlock was, frankly, his favorite place to be, even a gross Sherlock. Sherlock immediately plastered himself against John like a limpet, making a noise of such pure pleasure that John thought it was no wonder he couldn’t resist letting Sherlock cuddle up to him this way.

“You’re trying to get me sick,” he accused, without heat, brushing a kiss over the top of Sherlock’s head.

“No, I’m not,” Sherlock denied, blurrily. “I’m not sick.”

John ignored him and nudged at Gladstone, wishing the dog would decide to get off the bed. Gladstone snored more loudly. “This dog’s taking up the whole bed.”

“The dog’s not supposed to be on the bed,” slurred out Sherlock.

“You let him on the bed all the time.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Liar. Are you hungry? I brought you food. And a cuppa.”

“Where’d you get food?”

“Supper,” John answered, confused.

Sherlock stiffened a little bit and then abruptly half-sat up, blinking around him in confusion. “Supper?” He looked back down at John. “What time is it?”

“After supper.”

“I only meant to sleep for twenty minutes.”

“You’ve been asleep for hours.”

Hours?” Sherlock looked horrified. “Oh my God. I really am dying, aren’t I?”

“You’re not dying. You have a cold. You needed the sleep.”

“I’m dying,” said Sherlock, and buried his head melodramatically against John’s chest. “I’ll never get well. I’ll feel like this forever and ever.”

“And how do you feel?” asked John.

“Bloody awful.” Sherlock sounded genuinely miserable.

John held him a little closer and kissed his hair again and said, “You’re not doing anything at all tomorrow. Doctor’s orders. You’re not even getting out of bed.”

Sherlock seemed to consider this. “Are you getting out of bed?”

“Yes. I have to go to my divs.”

“Then what—”

“I’ve brought you a mini-library of things to read. You’re going to read and doze and read and doze all day, with Gladstone here for company.”

“Not on the bed with me. I never let him on the bed with me.”

“Of course you don’t. Anyway, that’s what you’re doing all day tomorrow: nothing. Which you should excel at because you’re good at doing nothing all day.”

“I never do nothing all day. Just because I’m thinking at too high a level for it to translate as activity for you—”

“And if you don’t feel better on Saturday, I’ll ring your brother and let him know that your death is imminent.”

Sherlock sighed and was silent for a moment, breathing loudly. “Do you think I’ll feel better on Saturday?” he asked, sounding sleepy again, as he pressed his face against John’s neck.

“Yes. You should. It’s just a cold, Sherlock.” John stroked his hair, enjoying his closeness, his warmth, the gentle lulling rhythms of a tired Sherlock, sinking inch by inch into his exhaustion and letting John catch him. John loved him like this, when he was still with contentment, pliant with trust, when he was completely and utterly and unmistakably John’s. “Are you sure you don’t want to try to eat something?” John asked, eventually, hoping to get the question in before Sherlock dropped off entirely.

Too late. Sherlock did nothing but snore in response, and John lay there, half pinned under him, and loved him so much he could barely breathe.

***

On Friday afternoon, John got back from divs to find Sherlock sitting up in bed, propped against his pillows, his nose buried in a section of the newspaper. The rest of the newspaper was scattered across the bed, sliding to the floor haphazardly, to mingle with library books in various states of being read.

“How do you feel?” John asked.

“Terrible,” Sherlock answered, without looking up from the paper.

Which meant he was feeling much better, John thought, because Sherlock’s voice had been energetically disapproving of the tediousness of the question. That sounded much more like the Sherlock John knew.

John dropped his books to the floor with Sherlock’s books. “The dog is on the bed,” he pointed out, and scratched Gladstone behind the ears in greeting.

“I know. You’ve let him develop terrible habits. He’s spoiled and now he can’t be trained.”

John smiled and kissed Gladstone’s muzzle.

“Have you ever read a newspaper, John?” Sherlock asked, curiously, from behind his.

“Have I ever read a newspaper?” John repeated, in surprise.

Sherlock shook a corner of the paper down briefly so that he could glare at him balefully. “Don’t make me repeat myself, you know I hate that. You clearly heard me perfectly well.”

“So glad you’re feeling better,” said John. “And yes, I’ve read a newspaper before.”

“It’s fascinating,” murmured Sherlock. “The things considered ‘news.’ The world is such a dull and idiotic place. How do all of you people survive in it?”

“You survive in it, too,” John informed him.

Sherlock ignored him. He sneezed and turned a page of his newspaper and said, “A boy drowned in a swimming pool. Such commonplace deaths in here. They hardly bear mentioning.”

“Don’t say things like that,” John said, trying to find his chemistry book in the pile of books on their floor.

“Why not?”

“Because it isn’t the sort of thing you should say.”

He heard Sherlock sigh and then sneeze again, and John found his book and curled up on Sherlock’s desk chair, because the bed was looking too colonized to have any room. Sherlock was voraciously devouring his newspaper. He barely looked up when John said it was suppertime, and he ate mechanically what John brought back for him without acknowledging that John had done it. John then roused him out of bed long enough to take a shower. Sherlock was desperately unhappy over this, but John told him he would go sleep in Sherlock’s room unless Sherlock obeyed, a surefire threat if ever there was one. John changed the sheets while Sherlock was gone and rewarded him by fixing him a cup of tea for his return.

Sherlock did not notice the tea. He clambered back into bed, looking pale and exhausted, and fell asleep without another word. Not quite a hundred percent then, John thought.

John did homework until he got tired, listening to Sherlock snore, and then he forced Sherlock and Gladstone to make a bit of room for him on the bed. He fell asleep with his face pressed into Sherlock’s hair the way he usually did.

He woke abruptly when Sherlock poked him and said, “The trainers.”

“What?” he asked, fuzzily, blinking. Moonlight was spilling through their window, illuminating Sherlock, who was half-sitting up, looking down at him and frowning.

“No one could find the trainers,” Sherlock said.

“What are you talking about? Are you sleepwalking or something?”

“The boy who drowned in the swimming pool,” Sherlock replied, impatiently. “Keep up.”

“What boy?”

“The boy in the newspaper, John,” Sherlock told him, in his how-can-John-be-so-stupid voice.

“You know, you woke me up in the middle of the night to talk about something you last mentioned hours ago. Give me a second, would you?”

“Hours ago? I was just talking about it.”

“You slept in between the last time you talked about it and this time.”

Sherlock waved his hand as if that didn’t matter. “They couldn’t find his trainers, John. Why couldn’t they find his trainers?”

“I don’t know.” John turned his face into his pillow and closed his eyes. “Maybe someone stole them. Can we go back to sleep now?”

“Sleep? How can you go to sleep at a time like this? We need to go to London.”

Sherlock began wriggling, as if he really expected to get out of bed and go to London. John pushed him back into the mattress. “We are not going to London in the middle of the night.”

“Don’t be boring,” Sherlock complained.

“There aren’t any trains right now. And we’re not walking. And we’re not stealing a car.”

“Boring,” accused Sherlock.

John shifted to sprawl completely over Sherlock, letting the fullness of his weight pin him down.

“And heavy,” Sherlock added, voice muffled against him.

John hummed his agreement to that and closed his eyes and listened to Sherlock’s heart beating under his ear.

“John. Really. You’re heavy.” Sherlock squirmed as much as he could underneath him.

“You know,” John remarked, “your heart beats just the same as everyone else’s. Sometimes I think everything inside of you must be accelerated, can’t possibly be…normal. But your heart beats the same as mine.”

Sherlock was silent for a second. Then he said, “Are you saying our hearts match?”

John chuckled and brushed a kiss over Sherlock’s T-shirt, above his steadily working heart. “I’m saying it’s the middle of the night and we should be asleep. But yes, our hearts match, too.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Sherlock said, shifting underneath him, but it no longer felt like an escape attempt, and John let himself slide a bit, let Sherlock settle around him, tuck John up against him with a warm possessiveness John liked.

John yawned. “If you wake me up again before morning, I’ll kill you.”

“How?”

“I don’t know,” John mumbled. “You tell me.” He fell back asleep to Sherlock’s voice rumbling through his chest, a monologue on murder weapons punctuated with sniffles.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-One

John opened his eyes to find Sherlock inches away, staring at him steadily.

John jumped, startled, and exclaimed, “Jesus!”

“Good.” Sherlock immediately straightened and walked away. “You’re awake.”

“What the hell were you doing?”

“Waiting for you to wake up,” Sherlock answered, casually.

“By staring at me like that?”

“You were asleep. You didn’t know.”

John sighed and closed his eyes. “What time is it?”

“Time for you to get up. The train’s in forty-five minutes.”

John opened his eyes again. “Train? What train?”

“The train to London, John. Honestly, did you hit your head at some point yesterday? You’ve been even more slow-witted than usual.”

John ignored the insult. “We’re not going to London. We can’t go to London.”

Sherlock frowned at him. “That’s not fair. You agreed we could go to London as long as we didn’t go in the middle of the night.”

John tried to recall the murky details of their midnight conversation. “No, I didn’t. I’m fairly sure I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did.”

“You’ve just got over a cold. In fact, you’re barely over it. You’re still sick, really. You shouldn’t be rushing about. You should be staying put here, resting.”

“I did that all day yesterday. It was boring. I think I’d feel much better with some London pollution in my lungs, anyway.” Sherlock sent him the overdramatic pout that he thought accomplished things.

John rolled his eyes. “I have divs today.”

“You’re clever, and you go to your divs all the time like the good little Etonian you are. You’ll catch up easily. Skip a day with me, no one will notice.”

“Of course people will notice. They’ll send a search team out to rescue us. They’ll make us sign the Tardy Book. They’ll rusticate us. We’ll get expelled.”

“All three? Really? That would be quite a sentence.”

“You know what I mean.”

“You’re being dramatic, John. I’m sure they’ll only…mildly reprimand us. A rip or something like that. I haven’t got nearly enough rips this year; I think my brother would feel much better if I were to get one. And anyway, we have to go, for the sake of truth and justice.”

John knew Sherlock cared very little for the abstract ideals of truth and justice. He knew that Sherlock thought that John did care about such things. John was annoyed that Sherlock was basically right about this. It was possible a boy had been murdered, and only Sherlock would be able to uncover the truth of it. “This boy who drowned in the pool,” began John.

“He was murdered, John. He was murdered, and his poor mother deserves to know who killed her son.”

“And you know he was murdered because someone stole his trainers?”

“Why would someone steal his trainers, John?”

“Maybe they were nice trainers.”

“Someone broke into his locker and stole just the trainers? Of a talented swimmer who then just happened to coincidentally drown that very day? No, someone needed to get rid of the trainers for some reason. There was some sort of evidence on the trainers. Something incriminating…” Sherlock steepled his fingers together and stared at the wall and thought, his eyes alight with the pleasure of the puzzle-solving. It was a good look for him. It wasn’t often anymore that John thought about how otherworldly gorgeous Sherlock was, but he thought it now with a sort of pang of wonderment.

“Look,” said John, “why don’t we just ask Lestrade to ring his friend at Scotland Yard—”

Sally?” Sherlock interrupted, scathingly. “She hates me. She won’t work with me. You know that. And Scotland Yard will never see any of the things I would see. They’ll do a terrible job and just muddle everything up, and the murderer will never be found. No, I must go myself.”

“And do what?”

“Go to the pool. Look for clues. Talk to the boy’s mother.”

“So we’ll go to London tomorrow. There aren’t any divs, so we probably won’t be missed—”

“We can’t go tomorrow. Carl’s mother may have gone home by tomorrow. Today she’ll still be in London, dealing with the bureaucracy.”

“I don’t think we should go to London and bother a grieving mother, Sherlock.”

“Not even for the cause of finding her son’s cold-hearted murderer?”

“Sherlock,” John sighed.

“Fine. You do what you like, stay here, be boring. I’m going to London.” Sherlock pulled on his coat and, with an artful twirl that John knew he had practiced, he swept his way out of the room.

“Oh, bloody hell,” groaned John, rubbing the last of the sleep from his eyes, and then he pulled on clothing haphazardly and wrote two notes. One he left in the room, the other he slid under Stamford’s door, asking if he could walk Gladstone.

***

Sherlock, having got his way, was in a fabulous mood. He made deductions energetically the entire train ride. John let him, listening to his voice and half-dozing.

When they got to London, Sherlock bounded off the train and John followed him and found himself ensconced cozily in a cab dashing off somewhere before he quite knew what had happened. It had only been threatening rain at Eton but here it was raining in earnest, and John watched the drops lick at the taxi’s windows and lamented the fact that he hadn’t thought to bring an umbrella.

He turned to Sherlock and said, “So where are we going?”

“The pool, of course.”

“And you think we’re just going to waltz right into the crime scene?”

“Do you know how to waltz?” Sherlock asked. “Mycroft made me learn a couple of summers ago. I’m quite good at it but pretended to be atrocious.”

Nothing about any of that surprised John in the least. “I don’t know how to waltz,” was all he said.

“Then it seems unlikely that we’ll waltz into the crime scene, doesn’t it?” Sherlock sent him one of those bright, genuine smiles that were, frankly, rare for him. John spent a lot of time trying to get Sherlock to smile, and he knew that he made Sherlock happy, but Sherlock seldom sent him anything that bordered on a grin without some kind of ulterior motive. Naturally it would be the prospect of a crime scene that would put Sherlock in such a mood. John wondered if he was going to spend the rest of his life being jealous of the attention Sherlock gave crime scenes and yet being turned on by the vigorous rush of Sherlock at a crime scene at the same time. Because John was kind of annoyed they were in a taxi, which was a less than ideal place to taste the curve of a Sherlockian grin.

“Here,” said Sherlock, before John could make up his mind to do anything at all, and thrust some notes at him. “Pay the driver.” Sherlock tumbled out of the taxi, his mind apparently too engaged with more important things to deal with anything as mundane as cab fare.

John paid the cabbie and kept the change for himself, because sooner or later they would need to eat—although Sherlock would never notice—and it would be easier for John to fetch them food if he already had money and didn’t need to interrupt Sherlock’s train of thought.

John ducked out of the rain and into the lobby of the nondescript brick building they’d arrived at. Sherlock was speaking to a security guard, using his bow of a mouth and his beguiling eyes to make himself look like a perfectly innocent little boy. John never stopped being amazed at how much Sherlock could change his appearance with what seemed like incredibly little effort on his part.

“It’s sweet of you to be so concerned,” the security guard was saying to Sherlock, kindly, tipped toward him in obvious condescension, “but there’s no reason for it.”

“And you’ll catch the killer?” asked Sherlock, anxiously. “It’s just that I hate to think there’s a murderer running loose around here.”

“It wasn’t a murder,” said the security guard. “You’ve got nothing to worry about. Now you two run along now.” The security guard turned a beneficent smile on John, clearly including him in this directive.

“You were right, John,” Sherlock said, mournfully, turning toward him. “It wasn’t a murder.”

John played along. “Told you so,” he said, lightly, and then, to the security guard, “Overactive imagination.”

The security guard smiled again, looking sympathetic, and John followed Sherlock back out into the driving rain. Sherlock walked around the corner of the building, where he paused before a back door and slid a key into it easily. The lock turned and the door opened.

“Idiot,” muttered Sherlock, and walked in.

“Couldn’t you have just picked the lock?” John asked, closing the door behind them. John knew Sherlock could have, since Sherlock had just been giving John lock-picking lessons the week before.

“Of course.”

“But you wanted to show off by pickpocketing the security guard.”

“No,” Sherlock sniffed, offended, “I wanted to confirm that they weren’t treating this as a crime scene. The showing off was secondary.”

“Well, it was brilliant.”

“I know. But you can keep saying it.”

They walked into the swimming pool area. It was warm and damp and smelled sharply of chlorine. It was also dim and deserted. Sherlock turned on the lights and walked all around the pool, studying it closely. He crouched and did a bit of crawling. He surprised John not at all by both tasting the pool water and licking the concrete. John sat in one of the spectators’ seats and watched, until Sherlock had apparently had enough and walked purposefully out of the room.

John followed him into the changing area, where Sherlock regarded the lockers and then chose one confidently. It was unlocked, and Sherlock swung it open and looked at the empty space inside. He leaned forward and sniffed. Then he nudged the door closed and looked closely at the handle. Then he straightened and took a step backward and looked thoughtful.

“Well?” asked John.

“I think I know what happened. I think I know how he was murdered. But I need to talk to his mother.”

John sighed. “Do you even know where his mother is?”

“Of course.”

“How—never mind.”

Sherlock smiled briefly, as if pleased John was learning not to question him, turned up his coat collar, and stepped back out into the rain.

John, as he always did, followed.

***

The hotel was nondescript. Sherlock’s nose wrinkled when he saw it. Sometimes, John thought, Sherlock was simply helplessly posh.

Sherlock paused, surveying the hotel and then turning his head fractionally, looking at something John couldn’t determine.

“What?” asked John.

“Nothing,” Sherlock said. “Let’s go.” Sherlock walked confidently into the hotel, and even more confidently over to the elevator. John followed, and no one said a word to them as they took the elevator to the third floor. Sherlock stepped off, looked up and down the hallway, and stepped back onto the elevator.

“What are we doing?” John asked, as Sherlock pressed the key for the fourth floor.

“We’re looking for a maid. And then you’re going to distract the maid.”

“How?”

Fourth floor rejected. Fifth floor button pushed. “I don’t know. Do what you do. Flirt with her.”

“You think flirting’s ‘what I do’?”

“Yes. You do it without thinking. You’re an automatic flirt. It’s dreadful. Ah. Excellent. Go on.” He’d sighted a maid in the hallway on the fifth floor, and he gestured to her.

“How long do I have to distract her for?”

“Long enough for me to get a look at the guest list on her cart, so we can find out which room Carl’s mother is staying in.”

“Should I snog her?”

“If you think that would be most effective.”

“I was joking, Sherlock.”

“I really don’t care what you do,” Sherlock told him, impatiently. “Just do it.”

“For the record,” John hissed at him before he walked away, “you really should care if your boyfriend offers to snog a random woman.”

Sherlock looked genuinely perplexed. “Not if it’s for a case,” he hissed back.

John glowered at him before clearing his expression for his encounter with the maid. “Excuse me,” he said, flashing his best and most practiced grin. If Sherlock wanted him to flirt, he was definitely going to flirt. “I’m wondering if you could answer a question for me.”

The maid was on the younger side, not exactly drop-dead gorgeous, but not bad looking, either. She sent him a harried smile that said that she had a million things to do that weren’t talking to him. “Sure.”

John maneuvered a bit, trying to look natural while forcing her a few steps away from her cart. “I’m looking for the ice machine.”

She looked at him as if he were daft. “It’s in the elevator lobby. Which is where you just came from, isn’t it?”

John refused to let his smile waver. He smiled even wider. He chuckled. “It is. Yes. Okay, confession time.” He leaned down, crowding her the slightest bit, catching her eye. “I really just wanted an excuse to talk to you.”

She looked amused. “Oh really?”

John nodded.

“You saw me folding towels and thought I looked irresistible?”

John did not think this was going especially well. He wondered if Sherlock had managed to look at the guest list yet. He kept his grin easy and loose. “Something like that.”

The maid reached out and slapped him across the face with absolutely no warning. John stumbled backward in surprise, into the cart, hand on his stinging cheek. “I’m not a whore, you know!” she snapped at him.

“I… What? I didn’t… I never… That wasn’t what… Ice machine in the elevator lobby, got it, thanks.” John decided he didn’t care if Sherlock needed more time; he was cutting his losses and getting out of there before she decided to hit him over the head with a mop. He ran down the hallway and into the elevator lobby and into the elevator Sherlock was holding for him.

Sherlock pressed the button for the seventh floor and then collapsed into hysterical laughter, leaning helplessly against the elevator wall to keep himself upright.

“Stop it,” John said, sourly. “It isn’t funny.”

“That was hilarious,” Sherlock gasped, and John tried to remember if he’d ever seen Sherlock so overcome with mirth. It was taking the sharpness off of his irritation.

“Next time somebody needs to be distracted, you’re going to do it.”

“But you’re so good at it,” Sherlock told him, catching his breath, his eyes still bright with laughter. The elevator doors slid open.

“Shut up,” said John, following him off the elevator. “Did you get the information you needed?”

Sherlock startled him by backing him quickly up against the wall and kissing him just as quickly, hard and fierce and abrupt. John had no time to react to Sherlock’s lips on his before Sherlock’s lips were no longer on his.

“John Watson,” said Sherlock, stepping back and putting his hands in the pockets of his dramatic coat, “you are my favorite.” He then walked briskly out of the elevator lobby.

John, a bit dazed, jogged to catch up to him. “Favorite what?” he asked.

Sherlock knocked briskly on one of the hotel room doors, looked at him, and smiled.

The door opened.

The smile fell off Sherlock’s face. Eyes brimming with tears, he turned to the woman who had opened the door, a short lady as nondescript as the hotel, mousy brown hair, face swollen from crying.

“Mrs. Powers,” said Sherlock, his voice swamped with sorrow, and John thought how not ten seconds earlier Sherlock had been positively giddy with amusement, and not five seconds earlier he had gifted John with an illegally hot, quick snog and a breathtaking compliment, and one second earlier he’d been smiling a private, adoring smile just for John. Sherlock could be bloody terrifying, thought John. “We heard about Carl. I’m Sherlock Holmes, a friend of Carl’s. We, um...” Sherlock’s voice artfully broke. “We went to school together.”

John stared at him. So did Mrs. Powers.

She sniffled in her composure. “I’m sorry, who? I don’t think he ever mentioned you.”

“Oh, he must have done,” said Sherlock, dismissively. “Can we come in?” He walked past Mrs. Powers authoritatively. John, trying his best to feign even half of the sorrow Sherlock was projecting, followed him. “This is…this is horrible.” Sherlock sat on the bed in the hotel room and looked tearful and devastated. “I mean, I just can’t believe it. I only saw him the other day. Same old Carl. Not a care in the world.”

Mrs. Powers looked momentarily at John, who looked, he hoped, suitably somber, and then back to Sherlock. “Sorry,” she said, “but Carl was more anxious than usual. Who are you?”

“Well, of course,” allowed Sherlock, ignoring the question. “He would be anxious about the meet. He always was.”

“No, he wasn’t. He was never anxious about meets.”

“Really strange about the corticosteroid cream, isn’t it? I mean, strange that he was taking it. Why was he doing that? An athlete like Carl, with a corticosteroid cream? It’s a bit suspicious, isn’t it?”

Mrs. Powers bristled. “No, it isn’t. He had eczema, that’s all.”

“Ah, well. Typical, him misplacing the trainers. He was always careless. That was Carl all over.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Mrs. Powers practically snapped at him. “Carl adored those trainers. He was never irresponsible with them.”

Sherlock’s voice suddenly lost all hint of grief. “Wasn’t he? Interesting.” Sherlock stood abruptly and walked out of the room.

John had no idea what to do but follow. He followed to the elevator, aware that Mrs. Powers was standing in the doorway staring after them, but she seemed too stunned to follow them.

The elevator doors closed on them, and John turned to Sherlock and said, “What the hell was that? You could be an actor. You could win a bloody Oscar.”

Sherlock ignored him, stepping off the elevator into the lobby. “I know exactly what happened to Carl Powers. But we have a bigger problem to worry about right now.” Sherlock stepped out of the lobby, into the unrelenting rain.

“What problem?” asked John, making an automatic face at the sky.

“We’re being followed,” Sherlock replied, and turned up the collar of his coat.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Two

Greg was in the middle of a div of first years when the headmaster knocked on the door, and he experienced a sinking feeling of dread, because this could not possibly be good.

The students all watched curiously as he walked over to the door, twisting around in their seats to get a better view, and Greg smiled easily and said, “Hello. Is there something wrong? As you can see, I’m in the middle of—”

“As a matter of fact,” said the headmaster, who, Greg could now see, was accompanied by the master of John and Sherlock’s house and another tutor. Definitely not good. “There is something wrong. Mr. Hewitt is going to cover your school for you. Mr. Hewitt?”

Mr. Hewitt, head down as if he didn’t want to meet the eyes of a condemned man, scurried past Greg and into the classroom.

Greg stepped fully out of the classroom and closed the door behind him. “What’s happened?”

The headmaster handed him a piece of paper, folded over, with “Mr. Lestrade” written across the front. Greg didn’t recognize the handwriting. It wasn’t Sherlock’s, which was messy in the extreme, as if he couldn’t be bothered to be legible for the sake of people stupider than he was.

Greg, sending the headmaster a puzzled look, unfolded the piece of paper. Please don’t panic or raise the alarm. We’ve gone to London to investigate the death of some boy who drowned at a swim meet. You know how S is. If you could phone ahead to Sgt Donovan, I’ll try to get S to Scotland Yard at some point. Thanks for this. We owe you, as ever. –John Watson

Greg read the note twice. Not that it wasn’t clear the first time, but he needed time to formulate what his defense was going to be.

“Why does John Watson think you’ll cover for them here?” the headmaster demanded. “And what’s this talk about Scotland Yard? Who is Sergeant Donovan?”

Greg opened his mouth, thinking.

“I told you,” hissed the housemaster to the headmaster. “I told you he’d got too close to them. He’s been letting them get away with murder. I bet you even knew about the dog, didn’t you?”

Greg looked between them, and then decided that he didn’t really have a defense, that most of what they would accuse him of was true, and so it wasn’t worth his effort to lie about it. “We should get in touch with Mycroft Holmes,” he said. “And I can phone Sergeant Donovan, to track them down.”

“That’s it?” demanded the headmaster. “Haven’t you anything else to say for yourself?”

Greg considered. “No,” he decided. “I don’t think, right now, that I do. Let’s just find them and get them safe.”

“If you think,” the headmaster bit out, “that we’re not going to have a great deal more discussion on this topic—”

“I wouldn’t imagine that for a second, sir,” Greg said, respectfully, but the bell had rung to signal the end of divs, and the hallway was filling, and they were getting curious glances, and it was dropped for the time being.

***

There was a time when Mycroft had been very used to phone calls from the headmaster at Eton. It was funny, Mycroft reflected, how quickly one could fall out of habits, adjust to a new reality. In a matter of mere months, Sherlock’s previous years at Eton had all faded into what had felt like a closed book. Sherlock had seemed beyond all of it. Mycroft realized, in the moment when his PA said that the headmaster had rung for him, that he had decided Sherlock might just be happy for the rest of his life, that John would keep him in line and Mycroft could spend a little less time worrying about him and a little more time doing things like trying to determine how to navigate a relationship with his little brother’s tutor.

He had let his concentration lapse for just a little while, he thought. And the terrible thing about it was that it had been kind of…nice.

“Your brother has run away,” the headmaster informed him.

“And what makes you think that?” asked Mycroft, already feeling resigned to a long day ahead of him.

“Because his partner-in-crime, Mr. Watson, left us a note.”

“He’s with John, then? That, at least, makes sense. I don’t suppose the note told us anything so helpful as where they’ve gone?”

“London,” replied the headmaster, dryly, “to investigate the death of a boy at a swim meet, according to the note. I know it sounds preposterous, but, well, I am sorry to inform you that Mr. Lestrade, your brother’s tutor, has apparently been encouraging this sort of…crime-solving foolishness.”

“Yes,” said Mycroft, “with my permission.”

“With your permission?” The headmaster sounded incredulous.

“Is Mr. Lestrade there?” asked Mycroft, injecting boredom into his tone. “And, if he isn’t, could someone fetch him? I need to speak with him.”

There was a long moment of silence. Mycroft knew the headmaster was debating. And then he said, reluctantly, “Just a moment.”

Greg spoke next. “Mr. Holmes,” he said, very carefully formal, and Mycroft sighed.

“The boy at the swim meet, I read about it in the paper. Carl Powers was his name, and there was a suspicious detail about missing trainers. How does Sherlock even know about this? Sherlock never reads the papers; I never let him, for precisely this reason.”

“I didn’t give him the newspaper.” Greg sounded defensive.

“I’m not accusing you.” Mycroft sighed again. “Is it better or worse for you to call Sally and tell her what Sherlock’s investigating, have her be on the lookout for him? Or for me to use my connections?” Greg said nothing. “I’m genuinely asking your advice, Greg,” Mycroft prompted him.

“Sherlock and Sally aren’t especially the best of friends, but your connections would be overkill, wouldn’t they?”

“Well.” Mycroft considered. “Tasteful overkill.”

Greg sighed heavily. “I’ll ring Sally. She’s going to want to murder me. She might never speak to me again.”

“Tell her I’ll pay her for all this trouble.”

Greg chuckled.

“I’m serious,” said Mycroft.

“Ah,” said Greg, “right.” He cleared his throat, sounding a bit awkward, and Mycroft recalled that there was an audience on Greg’s end. “I’ll ring Sally.” He hesitated. “I’m sure Sherlock’s absolutely fine.”

“I’m not any more worried about him than I always am,” Mycroft said, honestly. “He took John with him. John’s practical. John will keep the recklessness in check.”

***

“This is unbelievably reckless,” John complained, nevertheless obediently following Sherlock up the building’s fire escape.

“We don’t have a choice,” Sherlock told him, impatiently, climbing with a sure expertise that John envied a little bit. “We have to shake them.”

“Are you sure we’re—” Sherlock reached the roof and took off at a dash. “—being followed,” John finished quietly to himself, because there was no point in pretending to talk to Sherlock, he was already too far ahead. John gritted his teeth and broke into a run.

Sherlock was darting headlong over the roof. It was close against the next building, a mere step and they were over it, and Sherlock kept dashing. John made sure to keep the tail of his coat within grabbing range, just in case Sherlock did anything daft like skid off the side of a building, possible in the slick rain puddles. But Sherlock ran in a sure-footed manner, and he took the leap over to the next roof without a moment’s hesitation. John did hesitate. He thought. His body skidded to such an abrupt stop at the edge of the roof that he felt as if his stomach crashed into his heart. He stared, slightly dizzy, at the distance to the ground and the distance between the roofs.

Sherlock paused, looking back at him, slowing. “John!” he called. “Hurry up!”

John looked over his shoulder, and, impossibly, there was someone chasing them over the rooftops. They were being followed. John had a moment of blind questions running through his head—Who? Why? What the bloody hell?—and then he backed up a few steps to take a running leap to the building Sherlock was on. He cleared it, stumbling only a bit on the landing, and Sherlock, satisfied, took off again.

Now that he knew they really were being chased, he felt his adrenaline kick in. Sherlock was running as if he knew exactly where they were going, and John supposed he wouldn’t put it past him to have memorized all the rooftop routes in London. Sherlock was descending another fire escape now, practically skidding down it, and John followed, half-slipping and sliding himself.

They reached the ground, and they were on a busy street, and John tried to place it but didn’t have time, because Sherlock darted out into the traffic without even a moment’s hesitation. John felt all his breath leave him in a curse as a car squealed its brakes and Sherlock skimmed over its bonnet without even glancing behind. John followed, apologizing and shouting at Sherlock, but Sherlock was already across the street, down an alley, and then another alley. Sherlock was sprinting by this point, and John was having trouble keeping him in sight, and then they burst out into another busy street and Sherlock, in front of him, snagged a cab, practically lunging into traffic again in his eagerness to be seen.

Sherlock turned and grabbed John and shoved him into the cab, as if John hadn’t been moving quickly enough, and then he clambered in behind him, slammed the car door shut, and gasped to the driver, “New Scotland Yard. Hurry.”

“What the hell was that?” demanded John, trying to catch his breath. “Are you trying to get us killed?”

“Quite the contrary,” Sherlock snapped.

“Don’t you ever run out into traffic like that again,” John ordered him. “I think you almost gave me a heart attack.” He pressed his hand to his chest, where his heart really did feel like it had stuttered at the sight of that car barreling down on Sherlock.

“Don’t be melodramatic,” Sherlock scoffed. “You’re seventeen and in decent health, a heart attack is unlikely.”

Decent health?” echoed John. “I’m in excellent health.”

Sherlock lifted his eyebrows at him. “You’re overly fond of sweets, you know.”

“Oh my God,” said John. “This from the person who wouldn’t eat anything at all if I didn’t force him to. And this is changing the subject. Who was that chasing us?”

“I have no idea.” Sherlock looked brightly enthusiastic. “But this is getting fun!”

“You’re mad,” said John. “You’re completely mad.” He suddenly found himself giggling against his seat, rolling with laughter. He blamed the adrenaline crash. “That was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done.”

“Oh, please, you flirting with the maid was more ridiculous than that.”

“I only flirted with the maid because you told me to.”

“I thought you’d do a better job than that.”

“I’m out of practice.”

“We should flirt more often.”

“We’re flirting now. It’s just that rooftop chases aren’t the typical flirtatious device.”

“The rest of humanity is so boring,” remarked Sherlock. “How did you stand it before me?”

“I have no idea,” John answered, honestly. “Care to fill me in on what’s going on with this case? So I can write it up for us?”

“I don’t know.” Sherlock shook his head. “I know how he died. But I don’t know why, or who.”

“Just that whoever it was is desperate enough to keep it quiet that he chased us over rooftops.”

“But did that have to do with Carl Powers?” Sherlock was musing out the window. “A boy. At a swim meet. And such a clever murder, John. Such an elegant murder. But the trainers. Why the trainers? Almost like…a sign? A signal? Wanting to be caught? The frailty of genius, John—it craves an audience.”

“You don’t say,” said John.

The cab drew to a stop in front of New Scotland Yard, and Sherlock said, “You’ve still got the money, John. Pay him,” and got out of the cab.

John paid the driver and followed Sherlock into New Scotland Yard, listening while Sherlock asked for Sergeant Donovan. She came stalking into the lobby a second later, looking extremely displeased to see them.

“Look who it is,” she said. “The freak. And you.” She looked at John. “Still hanging around him? You should get a hobby.”

“I’m fine, thanks,” said John, giving the words a sharpness.

“Do you know what I’m not?” She folded her arms and frowned at them. “I’m not a babysitter.”

“Sergeant Donovan,” said Sherlock. “About the Carl Powers murder—”

“Save it.” She lifted her hand up. “I’m not listening to another word. You’re getting a police escort to a train back to Eton, and then that’s it, I’m done. I don’t care how much your brother pays me.”

Sherlock went still, swallowing all the words he’d been about to say. He frowned, furrowing his brow, and when he spoke his tone was flat. “My brother pays you,” he said. “Of course. Of course.” He repeated the second of course softly under his breath, to himself, looking thoughtful.

There was something smaller about him suddenly. Something that made John want to reach out and gather him in. “Sherlock,” he said.

“Never mind,” Sherlock said, primly, sounding collected and recovered from the momentary flicker he’d just had. “Sergeant Donovan is quite right. We should go back to Eton. We are far more trouble than the money’s worth.”

John stared at him in confusion. “But what about—”

Sherlock gave him a look John could easily interpret. A shut up look. Something had changed, but John wasn’t sure what it was. “I said, never mind,” Sherlock emphasized. “Let’s go home.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Three

The headmaster wanted Mycroft to go to Eton to wait for Sherlock and John to be located. Mycroft thought this was absolutely ridiculous since Sherlock and John were in London, where Mycroft currently was. But he was also aware that quarreling with the headmaster on this minor point probably wasn’t the best idea. Sherlock had all of them out of practice. Whereas an action like this would have caused barely more than a shrug in previous years, the headmaster was now behaving as if Sherlock were a perfectly normal, obedient student and this was highly out of character and a crisis of the nth degree. Mycroft was inclined to believe that Sherlock was merely reverting back to form, and that he should have realized it would only be a matter of time before he convinced John to join him in his life of crime.

So Mycroft went to Eton, aware he not only had Sherlock and John to argue on behalf of but Greg as well.

When Mycroft got to Eton, he was shown immediately to the headmaster’s office, which he was all too familiar with at this point. The headmaster rose to greet him, as did Sherlock’s housemaster. Greg, slumped against the windowsill with his arms crossed, just lifted his eyebrows in Mycroft’s direction. He looked as if he were having a terrible day, and Mycroft wished he could have walked over and kissed him out of it. Greg almost never looked as if he were having a terrible day, and he was always very good at coaxing Mycroft out of his terrible days, and Mycroft wanted to be able to return the favor.

“Good news, Mr. Holmes,” said the headmaster, warmly. “Your brother and Mr. Watson have been located and are safely on the next train into Eton.”

Mycroft tore his gaze away from Greg to look at the headmaster. “Where were they located?”

“They went to New Scotland Yard, where Mr. Lestrade apparently has a friend who was willing to deposit them on the next train for us.” The headmaster sent a frown in Greg’s direction.

“I’m aware of Mr. Lestrade’s friend at Scotland Yard,” Mycroft said, and looked at Greg and said, gravely, “Thank you.”

Greg opened his mouth to speak.

The headmaster cut him off. “I must say, I apologize, Mr. Holmes, but we had no idea the extent to which everything had become so...irregular.”

Mycroft took a deep breath, prepared to say that Sherlock inspired irregularity and, indeed, as had been proven, thrived in it, and Mycroft had encouraged it, so there was no need for such overreaction. But at that moment John Watson’s mother arrived, clearly excelling in the art of overreaction. She looked wild-eyed and slightly unkempt, especially in the overly proper atmosphere of the Eton headmaster’s office, but at least she also looked mostly sober. Mycroft had been keeping an eye on the family as a secret favor to John, and neither John’s mother nor his sister had quite embraced the idea of sobriety.

“How,” she demanded, stalking into the office, “could you have lost my son? What sort of place is this?” She caught sight of Mycroft, leaning casually on his umbrella by the fireplace, and faltered, coloring a bit, which pleased Mycroft. “Oh,” she said. “It’s you.”

He inclined his head slightly. “Hello again.”

“Have you two met?” asked the headmaster.

“Only once,” answered Mycroft, his eyes on Cynthia Watson, who looked away and fidgeted a bit. “I was in a position to be of some assistance to her son. Happily. So good to see you again, Mrs. Watson.”

She made a small, dismissive squeak of a sound. Mycroft noted Greg’s eyes, sharp and curious on him, and thought that he was going to be telling him the whole story very soon.

Mrs. Watson suddenly turned back to him, her eyes widening with comprehension. “You’re here, too! That must mean he’s with your...” She took him in, and Mycroft could see her thought process, see her determining that he didn’t look exactly old enough to be the father of a seventeen-year-old. “Whatever.” She waved her hand about.

“Brother,” inserted Mycroft, with bland helpfulness.

“He is a terrible influence, that boy,” she proclaimed, stalking up to him, and he had to give her points for courage, which was the nicest word he could think of for her stupidity. “John never used to do things like this, and he’s always doing them now that he’s got involved with him. Swanning off, staying out all night, it’s shameful.”

Mycroft spoke slowly and deliberately, making sure he was very clear. “People who know that I know that they live in glass houses need to be very careful about the stones they throw at my little brother. Very careful, indeed.”

The words and the threat they were wrapped around made Mrs. Watson go pale and take a step back from him. She turned, trying to recover her balance, speaking to the headmaster now. “What’s being done to find him?”

“He’s already been found,” Mycroft answered before the headmaster could. “Thanks to the assistance of Mr. Lestrade, they are already on the train back to Eton.”

Not thanks to the assistance of Mr. Lestrade,” inserted the headmaster, flatly. “Now that you are both here, we can discuss this situation frankly. Mr. Lestrade has been encouraging, in both John and Sherlock, the most shockingly inappropriate behavior. He has had them solving crimes. For credit.”

“To be fair,” Mycroft interrupted, “I believe it’s just Sherlock who does it for credit. John does it for...fun.”

“For fun?” Mrs. Watson looked astonished. “Since when is that fun?”

“Sherlock has a great deal of enthusiasm for the subject—” Mycroft began.

“I don’t care how Sherlock feels about the subject,” she snapped. “I care about the fact that he’s suddenly forced John into this morbid fascination with...crime. What sort of crime?”

“Apparently, from what we can discern, it started with great unsolved mysteries,” answered the headmaster. “And, from there, it, sadly, morphed into assisting Scotland Yard in solving actual, bona fide murders.”

Mrs. Watson stared from the headmaster to Greg and back again. “They’re seventeen years old,” she said, sounding shocked. “How can they be...”

“Sherlock’s very clever,” said Mycroft. “Sherlock needs to be challenged. His school reports were very clear. When Sherlock’s not being challenged, he’s either triggering school-wide catastrophes or too depressed to get himself out of bed. To Mr. Lestrade’s credit, he recognized this and challenged him appropriately. Sherlock has, frankly, been something approaching a delight since Mr. Lestrade was assigned as his tutor, which is something I never thought I would say about Sherlock.”

“Letting children do whatever they want—” the headmaster began.

“He cleared it with me,” Mycroft cut in, sharply.

“Well, he never cleared it with me,” complained John’s mother.

Mycroft looked at her. “The only investigation John participated in happened during Christmas break, when you had entrusted him to my care.”

“And you decided that meant you could have him investigate a murder?” she demanded.

“I was with him the entire time,” replied Mycroft, evenly. “Which, I think, is more than could have been said for you had John been home.”

She opened and closed her mouth without saying anything.

The headmaster interjected, “It doesn’t really matter when the criminal investigations were taking place. Sherlock’s record of attendance at his schools this year is appalling.”

Greg spoke for the first time. “Because we agreed to independent study. You approved that. And I believe John’s record of attendance, aside from today, is flawless.”

The headmaster looked annoyed. “Well. Yes. But. They have a dog.”

“A dog?” Mycroft echoed, blankly.

“Yes. A dog. About which Mr. Lestrade does not seem nearly as surprised as he should.”

Sherlock?” said Mycroft, in disbelief, because Sherlock had never once expressed any interest in having any sort of pet. “Has a dog?”

“The dog is John’s,” said Greg. “As I understand it, John had always wanted a dog and had never had one before.” His eyes flickered toward John’s mother.

She stiffened. “I don’t care for dogs—”

“Students are not permitted to keep dogs, Mr. Lestrade,” the headmaster snapped. “You should have reported the dog’s existence immediately.”

Greg straightened suddenly, looking angry for the first time. “Have you read Sherlock’s files?” he demanded.

“I wrote most of Sherlock’s files,” the headmaster retorted.

“Ah. Then you know, then. How practically every comment about Sherlock expresses alarm over the extent of his self-absorption. ‘Displays a distressing lack of empathy.’ ‘An inability to identify with others.’ ‘A disregard for the feelings of those around him.’ Over, and over, and over again, one conclusion, which I’m sure you’ve called in Mycroft to discuss, because then there are reports from expensive psychologists, all over the country, all expressing concern that possibly what Sherlock is is a high-functioning sociopath who displays utter contempt for the necessity of conforming to society. Well, here’s what I have to tell you: John wanted a dog, so Sherlock got him a dog, and Sherlock was willing to do anything necessary to make sure John could keep the dog, because the dog made John happy. He has a file full of people saying that he doesn’t care about others, and I stood in his room and listened to him basically beg me to cover for the dog because he couldn’t bear to see John sad for even a minute. So forgive me if I couldn’t find it in my heart to punish him for that impulse. Forgive me for thinking it ought to be encouraged. I would have had to be a high-functioning sociopath to turn him in.”

The headmaster and housemaster were both silent, open-mouthed in astonishment at the outburst. Mycroft stood very still, letting the words sink into him. They had never really discussed this about Sherlock, although Mycroft knew Greg must have read the assessments of him. Mycroft had personally never really believed it. Sherlock cared about Mrs. Hudson, of course, in his own way. Mycroft had always been able to see that. Sherlock had loved their mother. Sherlock even, in his own very odd way, tolerated him. Sherlock was simply slightly out of synch with the rest of the world and unwilling to slow himself down the half-beat to get himself into synch. Mycroft understood that. He had slowed himself down a bit, could mimic being in synch much better than Sherlock ever would, but Mycroft thought it was a personal choice. Sherlock drove him mad, but Mycroft wasn’t about to punish him for being himself, not when he was cleverer than anyone else and wasn’t actively hurting anyone. It was nice to hear Greg echo the idea, express skepticism over the diagnosis, point out that, when Sherlock did care, he cared with a single-minded, admirable fierceness, cared so much that it made up for all the times when he didn’t.

“Plus,” Greg finished, sounding less angry, “John takes care of Sherlock, and Sherlock lets him. The dog is something for Sherlock to take care of, and I thought it would be good for him to learn some responsibility.”

There was another moment of silence. Greg glanced at Mycroft. Mycroft flickered the smallest of smiles at him. Greg looked away.

The headmaster drew in breath and said, “Nevertheless, it is against the rules, and it is not your place, Mr. Lestrade, to decide which rules should be adhered to here at Eton and which should be ignored. In all our centuries—”

“Please spare us the history lesson,” Mycroft interrupted. “We are all aware of the esteemed status of this college.”

The headmaster frowned at him. “They’re effectively living together. Did you realize that?”

Mycroft lifted his eyebrows, because, well, it was a public school, and these things happened, but
John’s mother exclaimed, “What?”

“Mrs. Watson—” began the headmaster.

“I want them separated,” she commanded, swiftly. “I want them as far away from each other as they can get. I want them on opposite ends of this campus.”

“I don’t,” said Mycroft.

“Of course you don’t. As far as I can tell, my son is busy making your brother human, while your brother is busy making my son into a juvenile delinquent.”

Mycroft’s hand tightened around the umbrella. So it was true that Mycroft had had the thought that the excursion into London was showing Sherlock’s growing influence on John’s behavior. It was one thing for Mycroft to think that. Mycroft was allowed to think those things about Sherlock because Mycroft was the one who had also kept Sherlock safe for over five years now. Other people were not allowed to think those things about Sherlock. Mycroft felt himself shift into defensive mode, felt the growing lick of fury inside of him, that this woman who really wasn’t fit to think about Sherlock at all should think—and saythis about him. That was simply not permitted.

“I must say, Mrs. Watson, I agree with you,” contributed the headmaster, before Mycroft had got his emotions in check enough to decide what he needed to say.

Mycroft stared at him and thought, To hell with getting his emotions in check. “I disagree. Strongly.”

“But you don’t run this college,” said the headmaster, firmly. “I do. And, forgive me, Mycroft—” The use of his first name made Mycroft bite at the inside of his cheek in annoyance. “—I understand your brother is difficult, and you’ve done the best you can with him, but perhaps it’s time to listen to the experts here.”

“The experts?” Mycroft repeated, scathingly. “The experts in what? Certainly not the experts in Sherlock. Do you not remember what Sherlock was like before? He’s never been so...” Mycroft searched for a word, settled on the only one that seemed to fit, “happy.”

“But Mrs. Watson is correct. I do not wish unhappiness on Sherlock, but this extreme indulgence of him will be harmful to him, ultimately, and, in the meantime, he is leading astray other boys.”

“Don’t be absurd,” Mycroft snapped. “He’s doing nothing of the sort. John is absolutely fine. In fact, John is, I would wager, better than he’s ever been before. And I must say, you really ought to keep in mind—”

“How much money you’re able to give us to keep Sherlock here? Surely the thought has occurred to you, Mycroft, that your brother has already completed his course of study. He isn’t even taking schools here anymore, really. We’re willing to send him on his way respectably, and you are, we assumed, on the verge of withdrawing him anyway. We have been assuming that there would not be much more money coming.”

“And, if you allow him to bribe you into harming my son this way, I will sue,” threatened John’s mother.

Mycroft stared at her. His brain was tumbling over with blackmail, but he wasn’t letting it pour out. It wasn’t going to do Sherlock any good for Mycroft to rush headlong into this. He hadn’t been expecting this complete and utter meltdown here. He needed to take a step back and consider the next move.

There was a knock on the door, and a woman stuck her head in and said, hesitantly, “The boys have arrived. Should I send them in?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Four

Sherlock did not utter a single word. Not for the entire train ride back to Eton. The contrast with how bubblingly enthusiastic he’d been on the train ride to London was painful to John. He tried to speak to him, but Sherlock didn’t reply. He burrowed into his coat and curled himself against the window and didn’t respond to anything John said. John half-wanted to crawl directly onto Sherlock’s lap, to kiss him out of it, but he was also half-worried Sherlock in his current state would push him away, and John couldn’t bear the idea of that. So he sat beside Sherlock in brooding silence and listened to him cough and thought how Sherlock was still sick and they’d been running around in the rain and it had been stupid, so stupid, how had he let Sherlock talk him into any of this? And now Sherlock was…upset. John could think of no other word to describe it, because he wasn’t sure what the root of it was. He just knew that Sherlock was desperately unhappy about something, in a way John hadn’t seen him be in…ever, really.

They were led immediately to the headmaster’s office, Sherlock sniffling and coughing and otherwise silent next to him, and John wished Sherlock would talk, wished they would come up with some sort of coherent plan of attack, an allied stance to take.

And then, while he was busy worrying about this, he found himself abruptly engulfed in a hug by his mother. His mother.

“Oh, John, thank God you’re safe,” she exclaimed, and John couldn’t think past trying to remember the last time his mother had hugged him like this.

He squirmed out of the hug, annoyed, because it was acting. It was more acting. She was always acting when there was an audience. The stark truth of this made him feel vaguely ill.

Mycroft was there as well, and he and Sherlock were not acting at all. Sherlock had deposited himself in a chair, his posture slumped and resigned, and Mycroft was standing by the fireplace. He was tapping his umbrella in a nervous gesture John had never seen him make before.

“Are you all right?” his mother was asking him, all full of false concern.

“I’m fine,” he answered, shortly. “What are you doing here?”

“They rang me, of course. When they found out that you’d run away with…” His mother cast a dark look at Sherlock. “Him.”

“We didn’t run away,” said John, and couldn’t help the glare he sent in Lestrade’s direction.

“Oh, you needn’t blame Mr. Lestrade,” inserted the headmaster, drolly. “I’m quite sure he would have kept your secret for you, the way he’s kept so many of your secrets so very admirably. Have a seat, Mr. Watson.”

John glanced at Mycroft, trying to get a read on the room. Mycroft’s face was blank, and he’d stilled his umbrella, but he was looking at nothing in particular, at a fixed point on the wall, and that seemed a bad sign to John, who was used to getting a reassuring sharpness from Mycroft. He sat slowly and swallowed a leaden ball of nerves and considered begging for his Etonian life. It had been a dreadful transgression, but surely they wouldn’t make them leave. He had a spotless record otherwise, and the Holmeses were rich, surely Eton didn’t expel rich patrons.

“Do you,” asked the headmaster, and his voice was deadly calm, “have anything to say for yourselves?”

John looked at Sherlock. Sherlock stared at the base of the headmaster’s desk. John looked back at the headmaster. “Sherlock solved a murder today.”

The headmaster looked sarcastically interested. “Oh, did he? How remarkable.”

John frowned and looked at Sherlock. “Sherlock, tell him what you learned.”

Sherlock sniffled but did not speak. He didn’t even move his gaze to acknowledge John. John drew his eyebrows together and barely resisted the urge to kick Sherlock’s shin.

“He seems disinclined to talk,” said the headmaster. “Perhaps you would care to fill us in on what he learned, Mr. Watson.”

John licked his lips and tore his gaze away from Sherlock. “He…didn’t tell me,” John admitted.

“He didn’t tell you the astonishing things he learned today?” The headmaster lifted his eyebrows dubiously. “How can you be sure he learned anything astonishing at all, then?”

“What is that supposed to mean?” demanded John, bristling.

The headmaster was speaking to John, but his eyes were on Sherlock. “How can you be sure it wasn’t all a wild goose chase? Engineered by a lonely boy, desperate to keep his only friend and not have the glamor wear off you?”

“That is quite enough,” cut in Mycroft, his voice a crack like a whip.

“You think he’s making it up?” John asked, incredulously. “He isn’t making it up. Sherlock, tell them what you learned.”

Sherlock breathed, in and then out. Sherlock didn’t look up. He didn’t speak.

John frowned, annoyed now, and spoke for him. “We went to the crime scene. Well, the police don’t even think it’s a crime scene, but—”

“The police don’t think it’s a crime scene?” interrupted the headmaster, coolly. “But you do?”

“The police are stupid,” John said, thinking of how much he sounded like Sherlock. “Anyway, the boy was murdered. Carl Powers was murdered. It has to do with the missing trainers. And his mother said that he was anxious before the meet, which was unusual—”

“His mother?” said the housemaster. “You spoke to his mother?”

“We… Well, yes, we had to. How else were we going to… Anyway, something to do with the cream he was taking for his eczema, I think.”

“You ran away to London,” said the headmaster, “and cornered a poor woman grieving for her recently deceased son?”

“It wasn’t like that,” John denied, then recalled Sherlock’s terrifyingly adept acting performance. “All right, it was a bit like that, but it was necessary for us to—”

“Solve a crime that only exists in Sherlock Holmes’s head?”

“He isn’t making this up,” John said, desperately.

“He’s just that much cleverer than everyone else?”

“Yes,” John insisted, staunchly. “He is.”

The headmaster gazed at him for a moment, looking almost sad. “Oh, Mr. Watson, I’m so sorry. I fear we here at Eton have failed you.”

John stared at him. “Failed me?”

“Your mother is quite correct to be displeased with us. Please accept my apologies, Mrs. Watson. But we’ll fix this, as you requested.”

“Wait a second.” John shifted in his chair, looked from the headmaster to his mother and back again. “Fix what?”

“We should have provided you with more guidance,” said the headmaster. “A new boy, at Eton, in your last year. We should have integrated you better. We left you on your own, to fend for yourself, and it’s no wonder that you were taken in by him. You shouldn’t blame yourself.”

“What are you…” A dim understanding was growing in John’s mind, but he refused to acknowledge it. “I haven’t been…”

The headmaster looked at John’s mother, standing at his shoulder. “As you say, we’ll switch his house immediately.”

“What?” John sat up in alarm. He’d been terrified of being expelled, the thought of being moved out of the house had never occurred to him. It would be horrible. Horrible to leave Sherlock. Devastating. “No. No, no, no, no, no. I don’t want to switch houses.” He appealed to his mother. “Mum—”

“It’s for the best, Mr. Watson,” said the headmaster. “Really.”

“It isn’t ‘for the best.’ What have you done?” he asked his mother. “Why would you do this?”

“It’s for your own good,” she said, firmly.

“My own good?” he repeated, in disbelief. “Since when have you ever…” He turned abruptly away from her. “Sherlock. Bloody say something,” he snapped at him.

“What’s there to say?” asked Sherlock, simply, his eyes still lingering on the bottom edge of the desk. “I like to show off, and you were such an easy target. How clever everyone is, to have seen through my elaborate scheme to trick you into being my friend, trick you into being impressed by me.”

“Shut up,” said John, frustrated. “That isn’t helping.” He twisted around in his seat to see Mycroft behind him. “Mycroft,” he appealed to him.

Mycroft tapped his umbrella and met John’s eyes. “I’ve lodged my strong disagreement with this,” he said.

“You’ve lodged your disagreement?” John cried. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? Threaten to kill them, or throw some money at them, or something.”

“John—” Mycroft began.

“It’s for the best,” his mother cut him off. “It really is. You heard him say it himself: he’s a show-off.”

“He’s not. I mean, yes, he is, he’s a dreadful show-off, but he’s for real. He solves crimes. He helps people.”

“Like the crime he solved today?” asked the headmaster, patiently. “Like the grieving mother he helped?”

“He’s not lying,” said John. “He isn’t lying. You will never convince me that he’s ever told me a lie. Sherlock.” He turned toward him, heard the begging in his tone.

Sherlock stared at the bottom of the desk and coughed.

***

They insisted that he go to his own room, but Sherlock didn’t want to go to John’s room. He crawled into his own bed for the first time in months. It was stiff and musty. It didn’t smell like John. He was no longer sure he knew how to sleep in beds that didn’t smell like John. He curled tightly on his side and stared at the wall that separated his bedroom from John’s, behind which there was scuffling movement. John packing up his belongings. John switching houses.

Mycroft walked in without bothering to knock and began speaking immediately. “You couldn’t have waited until tomorrow to go to London? Just one more day and you probably would have got away with all of this, but no, it had to be today, and look at the mess you’ve made.”

Sherlock closed his eyes and sniffled. He wished Mycroft would leave. He wished he could breathe properly. He wished the bed would just swallow him whole and save him from the tedium of the rest of his life.

“Enough of this sulking,” said Mycroft, sharply. “Turn over and look at me, so we can start discussing how I can fix this.”

Sherlock didn’t turn over to see Mycroft, but he did talk, which was more than he’d intended to, and what he said was, “Do you pay John?” which was not anything he’d intended to say.

“Pay John what?” asked Mycroft.

“Pay John,” Sherlock repeated. “Pay him. Don’t be stupid, Mycroft, you know exactly what I’m asking you.”

There was a moment of silence. Sherlock opened his eyes and stared at the wall and tried to read the silence without turning over to face Mycroft. Then Mycroft answered, “No.”

Sherlock made a disbelieving, scoffing noise.

“I tried to,” said Mycroft. “He wouldn’t take the money.”

“John isn’t wealthy. John needs the money.”

“He refused to take it,” Mycroft insisted.

Sherlock stared at the wall and tried to determine whether or not to believe him. He wanted to believe him. He wanted everything to be real and true. He wanted the look in John’s eyes when he looked at Sherlock—that look like Sherlock was the most marvelous human being he’d ever met—to be legitimate, authentic, genuine. But that piece of himself that had never been entirely sure John sincerely loved him was leaping about in vindication. It was all too good to be true, he knew. He had said it to himself many times. Why would John suddenly like you, when no one else ever has? John of all people. John who is so amazing. You should have seen this so much earlier than you did. You, who pride yourself on logic and reason. You’ve made yourself a laughingstock. “If John didn’t take the money from you, then that makes him an idiot,” he decided, finally.

“He’s an idiot where you’re concerned, yes,” agreed Mycroft. “He’s mad about you. What would ever make you think I was paying him?”

Sherlock wished Mycroft would leave. He wanted to turn his face into his pillow and let his thoughts race along, thinkthinkthink, until he reached a conclusion about whether or not Mycroft could possibly be telling the truth here. He wanted to thinkthinkthink about every single moment he’d ever spent with John, turning it this way and that, examining it to make sure that it could be verified, that it wasn’t a counterfeit, that he could give it a stamp of approval of being true, real, them.

But everything else drummed in his mind, the fact of Mycroft drummed in his mind, and he couldn’t just think about John, because Mycroft was still there, not leaving him alone. Mycroft never left him alone; Mycroft interfered, and planned, and strategized, and never left anything to chance. “It’s what you do,” Sherlock pointed out, dully. “You fix things. And you almost always fix things by paying people. I can’t believe it took you so long to come up with this idea, really. It’s so obvious. Need to keep your trying little brother at Eton? Oh, nothing could be simpler, find some halfway-clever, money-frantic chap and pay him to pretend to be his friend. Easy money, when all is said and done. You chose well and wisely. I didn’t suspect a thing until now.”

“Your theory, whilst wildly entertaining, is completely incorrect. I never met John until the day you introduced me to him, and I’ve already said: I’m not paying him.” Mycroft actually sounded annoyed.

“You pay everyone,” Sherlock reminded him. “You pay Sergeant Donovan to humor me.”

“No, I don’t. I paid Sergeant Donovan once, today, for her inconvenience in having to be responsible for getting you and John back to Eton. I never paid her before today.”

“I can’t believe how stupid I was, how long it took me to see all this,” said Sherlock. “Were you laughing at me?”

“Sherlock, your opinion of my omnipotence is flattering, but I didn’t set this up. I haven’t been paying John, John just is. And I wasn’t paying Sergeant Donovan to listen to you about the murders. She did that because she had to because you were right and she couldn’t afford not to listen to you.”

Sherlock didn’t want to talk about this any longer. He squeezed his eyes shut and thought of the first time he’d kissed John, flushed with triumph over his first solved murder, and he had been impossibly happy, he had wanted to be that happy forever. And now he felt like it had been nothing more than a move on a chessboard for Mycroft. The most perfect day of his life, and it all felt manufactured, a set piece, no longer strictly his. Everything inside of him was exhausted. He wanted John desperately. John would make him still, only John could do that for him, but John was packing up his room, and Sherlock was no longer sure where they stood with each other. Mycroft claimed that John liked Sherlock, John wasn’t being paid to be Sherlock’s friend, and yet Sherlock had never been so agreeably well-behaved at Eton, and Mycroft never left anything to chance. John’s presence there was an inexplicable anomaly, and Mycroft paid everyone to put up with Sherlock, even Mrs. Hudson. Why would John be the outlier, the one different person? What about John made him so unique? Was it just the fact that Sherlock wanted him to be unique so badly? Wanted one person who just wanted Sherlock, not Mycroft’s bribes, just Sherlock?

He coughed, irresistibly, unable to suppress it.

“Are you sick?” Mycroft asked from behind him.

“Go away,” Sherlock commanded, miserably. “Don’t you have more money you have to wave around? To make sure I’m not expelled? To fix this?”

Mycroft hesitated. Sherlock could feel it. “Sherlock—”

“Go away,” said Sherlock again, and after a while Mycroft stalked out of the room, plainly displeased with him.

Sherlock could not care less about Mycroft’s displeasure. Sherlock was displeased with Mycroft. Sherlock was displeased with everything in the universe. Sherlock was mainly displeased with himself.

Sherlock did something he never did at school. He reached for his violin and he played.

***

John stood in his doorway, looking at a room that seemed strangely empty without Sherlock in it, and said, “Where’s Gladstone?”

His mother was already pulling open his drawers, clearly getting ready to pack him up, a suitcase borrowed from the housemaster open on the bed where he’d slept tangled with Sherlock just hours earlier. She didn’t even look up at his question.

The housemaster, who had brought along two junior boys to help with the operation, said, “Who?”

“The dog. Where’s the dog?”

“Not here.”

John gritted his teeth, clenched his fists, and told himself not to throw a punch at his housemaster. That would surely not turn out well. “I can see that. Where is he?”

“That is no concern of yours, Mr. Watson.”

“Of course it’s my concern. He’s my dog.”

The housemaster looked evenly across the room at him. “No, he isn’t. Etonians aren’t permitted dogs on campus. We could expel you for that offense alone.”

John wanted to be furious, but what he was, inconveniently, was a bit shattered. He should have expected it, should have seen it coming in the middle of everything around him unraveling so completely, but it still battered him about the head, this latest offense. Gladstone, who had loved him as soon as he had seen him, in a frosty forest clearing, and had now been stolen from his home and was God knew where, somewhere he probably wasn’t allowed on the bed, wasn’t cuddled and kissed, wasn’t greeted with joy when he slobbered drool everywhere. He felt frozen in the doorway, unable to move, watching his mother pick up a handful of socks, his and Sherlock’s, intermingled.

“Don’t pack any of the lab equipment,” the housemaster was saying to the junior boys. “We’ll just toss it all in the rubbish bin.”

“It belongs to Sherlock,” John said.

“Obviously,” the housemaster agreed.

“Well, don’t you think you should ask him, then, before throwing it away?”

“Students are not permitted laboratories on campus, Mr. Watson.”

“Those are my notes,” John said, suddenly, as the junior boys seemed about to add Sherlock’s crowded, overflowing notebooks to the pile of items destined for the bin.

The junior boys hesitated, and even the housemaster looked dubious, but John snatched the notebooks out of the junior boys’ hands.

“They’re mine,” he insisted, and stuck them in the suitcase. “Mum,” he said, turning to her, trying for one last appeal. “This is ridiculous. You’re overreacting. Everyone is overreacting.”

His mother continued to pack and didn’t even look at him. “You ran off to London, on your own. You could have been killed.”

“I wasn’t on my own. And London is home. We weren’t anywhere more dangerous than our council estate, Mum.” John decided against mentioning that they had been chased over a rooftop. He felt that wouldn’t have helped his case.

She looked at him for the first time then, hissing “shut up” even as her eyes darted toward the housemaster.

John wanted to shake her. As if the housemaster didn’t know they came from a council estate. And as if he cared that she cared who knew that. “I cannot believe my bad luck in this being your one day of sobriety this month. If you’d been drunk, as you usually are, you wouldn’t have cared and none of this would be happening.”

His mother went white with what was very clearly rage. She narrowed her eyes into slits at him and breathed very hard and very fast. For a long moment, John thought she was going to hit him.

And then Mycroft said, blandly, from the doorway, “I do hope I’m not interrupting anything. I merely wanted to make sure that my brother’s belongings will be sent to me at my London address?” Mycroft’s eyes seemed to look meaningfully all around the room: at John’s mother, at John, at the pile of Sherlock’s lab equipment, at the housemaster.

The housemaster sent him a sour, unhappy smile.

Mycroft’s gaze settled on John. “All right?” he inquired, mildly.

“No,” John snapped. “No, I am not ‘all right.’ You have to fix this.”

Mycroft’s eyes shifted to John’s mother, still breathing with a furious quickness, coiled with anger. “Yes,” he agreed, in a tone John couldn’t quite read. “I will.” Then he disappeared from the doorway.

John frowned after him. The knowledge that Mycroft planned to fix this situation didn’t help much when people were still packing up John’s things and Sherlock was unbearably quiet in the next room over.

John amended the statement in his head, because Sherlock started playing the violin in the next room over, something achingly sad, and he was playing it beautifully. John wanted to go to Sherlock’s room and tug the violin forcefully out of his hands, tell him to stop playing sad music, tell him he never wanted to hear Sherlock play sad music ever again, it was too heartbreaking. Sherlock should be happy. Sherlock should always be happy. Hadn’t John promised himself that, the first time he had fallen asleep with Sherlock burrowed against him? But John felt that he would be expelled if he took one step out of the room. It was bad enough to be shunted off to the other end of campus, it would be worse to be away from Eton altogether.

In the end, it was only that fear of expulsion that made John accompany his mother to his new house. It was indeed on the opposite side of campus, as far away as they could get him. The rest of the boys in the house kept creeping by his new room in unabashed curiosity, since a move like this was virtually unheard of. The housemaster—John’s former housemaster now, he supposed—departed, looking satisfied with a job well done, leaving John alone with his mother, who was steadily unpacking everything she had just packed.

John leaned against a wall and watched her, refusing to help.

“This school has been a terrible influence on you,” she said, finally, when the silence had apparently stretched too long for her. “I’ll be happy when you’re done with it and back home.”

“I’m not coming back home,” John pointed out, flatly. “I’ll be off to uni then.”

His mother made a face that John could only interpret as dubiousness, and John stiffened. He thought of the bound copy of Gray’s Anatomy Sherlock had bought him for Christmas. He thought of how confident Sherlock was that John would be a doctor. And here his own mother didn’t even think he’d make it to uni.

“You know so little about me,” John said, suddenly. “And you understand even less. I’d feel sorry for you, except you never bothered to make any sort of effort to learn. This place has not been a terrible influence on me. This place is the best thing I’ve ever done. I met Sherlock here, and Sherlock is the best person I’ve ever met. Sherlock’s a genius, and Sherlock thinks I’m amazing. You’re my own mother, and you’ve never thought that once about me.”

“For someone who thinks you’re so amazing, he didn’t fight very hard for you today,” his mother pointed out.

“Because he was hurt and he was upset and it wouldn’t have done any good and of course he was clever enough to know that. I’ve just never understood why you can’t let me be…not like you. I’m not like you and Harry. I can’t just…roll with the punches. I can’t stop fighting for the things I want, and I wish that you would…be okay with that.”

His mother had stilled in her frantic unpacking, her hands holding an Eton collar. “I… You make things so difficult for yourself, John. Dreaming all these impossible dreams, about being a doctor. Where can it possibly lead you but to heartache? People like you don’t become doctors. For someone who thinks they’re so very clever, why can’t you see how much disappointment you’re setting yourself up for? You always choose the stupidest thing to do. Like come to a posh school like this and try to fool everyone into thinking you belong.”

“I was happy here, Mum. I was happier than I’ve ever been. He makes me happier than I’ve ever been. Mycroft knows that, it’s why Mycroft thinks this whole thing is wrong. If you’d ever once bothered to see me when you look at me, you’d know it, too, and you wouldn’t have done this to me. Don’t tell me that this is for my own good. You lost your right to pass judgment on what would be good for me when you started being too drunk to wake up to see us off to school in the mornings. There is so much I shouldn’t forgive you for, but I want you to know, in case you’re wondering in the future, that I was always able to find a reason to excuse all of it. All of it. Because you’re my mother, and no matter what, I have always loved you. But I will never forgive you for this. Not for this. I will never forgive you for thinking so little of me.”

His mother stared at him for a very long time, looking a cross between uncomprehending and defiant. And then, to John’s relief, she threw the collar on his new bed and walked away without saying another word.

***

Mycroft found Greg packing up his office. He sighed and leaned on his umbrella. “And you’ve been sacked,” he concluded. “I’m going to spend all week cleaning up this mess of my brother’s.”

“Don’t ‘clean me up,’” said Greg, tossing books into a box with little regard for the state of their spines. “That’s insulting.”

“Why?” asked Mycroft, with mild confusion.

Why?” echoed Greg, turning toward him. “Because I am, you may have noticed, a grown man who can take care of myself very well. I don’t need you to do anything to fix the mess I’ve got myself into, I’ll do it myself.”

“But you didn’t get yourself into the mess,” Mycroft pointed out. “My brother did. It’s the least I can do to—”

“Your brother didn’t get me into this mess. The headmaster’s right. I let him do anything he wished to do, because it was easiest for me. That wasn’t my job. In fact, it was the exact opposite of my job. I was letting him keep a dog in his room, for God’s sake.”

“You were kind to him,” Mycroft said. “People seldom are. That made a difference for him. An enormous difference—”

“You’re not listening to me.” Greg shook his head in frustration and resumed his packing. He was far removed, on the other side of the room, and Mycroft felt that he’d done that purposely, was keeping space between them. “I let him do whatever he wanted. That’s different from being kind, Mycroft. That’s spoiling him. Not that I would expect you to recognize that, because you have spoiled him.”

Mycroft stiffened. “Let’s change the subject,” he suggested, aware that they were about to tip into a conversational minefield he’d rather avoid.

“And now you’re going to fix everything for him,” Greg continued, as if Mycroft had never spoken. “You’ll just fix everything the way you always fix everything, and he’ll never learn a single bloody lesson, because you never make him. You just fix things to be the way Sherlock wants them to be, and he’s never going to learn that the world doesn’t revolve around him, because you’ve always given him every impression that it does.”

“Sherlock would disagree very strongly with what you’re saying. Sherlock would say that I’m constantly forcing him to do things he doesn’t want to do. Eton being a case in point.”

“Oh, you make him go to school,” scoffed Greg, his voice dripping sarcasm. “What a totalitarian regime you’re running.”

“So you think it would be better for me to leave things this way? You sacked from a position at which you’re very good? John and Sherlock separated like this?”

“Maybe they were getting a bit too codependent,” said Greg. “Maybe we were letting them. Maybe I’m not nearly as good at this job as I…” Greg stopped throwing books into the box and leaned suddenly against the windowsill, looking abruptly stunned and very tired. He scrubbed his hands over his face and up through his hair, leaving it sticking up in clumps. “They’re just kids. They’re just kids, and they took off on their own to London, because I’d given them the impression that that would be acceptable. Not just to London, but to solve a crime in London. Bloody hell, they could have been killed.” Greg looked across at Mycroft. “You should be furious with me.”

“For what? It’s London, they both grew up there. And they were together. In previous years, Sherlock would have done exactly the same thing, and he would have done it alone. It had nothing to do with you. It’s just who Sherlock is. It isn’t your fault. And they’re not really kids; they’re old enough to do something like take a train to London on their own.”

There was a long moment of silence. “You say that because you were a year older than Sherlock when he became your responsibility. You have a different understanding of the age of seventeen than the rest of us do.”

“What were you doing at seventeen?”

“I was getting into more trouble than you can possibly imagine.” Greg sent him a wry, self-deprecating smile. “That’s why I sympathize with Sherlock so well.”

Mycroft sighed. He walked across the room, picking his way over the boxes, and perched on the windowsill next to Greg. Greg shifted to make room for him, so Mycroft supposed this was acceptable. “You’re a good teacher,” he said.

“How would you know?” asked Greg, sounding vaguely amused.

“I’ve read your file.”

“Oh, God, yes, of course.”

“You don’t deserve to be sacked over this, regardless of what you think in your self-flagellating head. They were boys being boys, and the only reason it erupted out of proportion was because we’d all been lulled into a false sense of security. I can fix this.”

“I suppose it would require all of the effort of you twitching your little finger,” remarked Greg, dryly. “How easily the enormous hurdles of our lives fall down before the power of Mycroft Holmes.”

Mycroft hesitated. “Does that upset you?”

“Yes,” he answered, frankly, and then turned his head to Mycroft’s eyes. “You know what makes me feel better about it?”

“What?” asked Mycroft, warily.

“The fact that I know that if I ask you not to fix this, you’ll listen to me. Right? Don’t fix this for me. It is what it is. I’ll find another position. It isn’t the end of the world.”

“What about Sherlock?”

“Sherlock will be fine. Teenagers are resilient.”

Mycroft wasn’t so sure. And yet maybe Greg had a bit of a point about how much Mycroft had managed to spoil Sherlock. Sherlock, even as a young boy, had been prone to bouts of sulky depression. Early in his life there had developed an unspoken alliance between Mycroft and their mother to do anything possible to keep Sherlock happy. Mycroft had continued that tradition. Whatever else might happen, Sherlock must be kept happy. Mycroft had never felt as if he’d ever achieved that goal. Sherlock had never seemed happy to him, no matter how hard he tried, until he had met John Watson. Maybe Greg was right and Sherlock and John were too codependent. They were teenagers. What were the odds Sherlock would have John around for the rest of his life? Maybe Sherlock needed to learn a bit of distance, needed to learn how to be happy without John, and maybe Mycroft wouldn’t be helping things by not teaching him that lesson.

And, anyway, if the recent conversation with Sherlock was any indication, it was possible Mycroft fixed too much for Sherlock, since Sherlock seemed to think that everything in his life was nothing more than a Mycroft-engineered plan. Maybe it would be better to take a step back. Maybe Sherlock needed that. Maybe, after all, Sherlock’s resentment was precisely because Mycroft worked so hard to keep him happy.

Mycroft sighed and wished Sherlock weren’t the only thing in his life he wasn’t sure how to do and also the only thing in his life he really cared about being good at. Well, he amended, Sherlock, and now Greg, who was leaning silently beside him, breathing.

“Will you take it the wrong way,” asked Mycroft, slowly, “if I suggest that you come stay in London whilst searching for a new position?”

“And be a kept man?” asked Greg, but he asked it with a glimmer of amusement.

“That would be taking my suggestion the wrong way,” rejoined Mycroft, carefully.

Greg turned and breathed into the hollow behind Mycroft’s ear, a gentle nuzzle. “I’ll tell you all about my misspent youth.”

“I look forward to that,” said Mycroft.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Five

John did not speak to Sherlock at all on Sunday. This annoyed him. He couldn’t get into his former house because the housemaster was standing guard to turn him away, but he felt like, if Sherlock would just leave his room, they would surely be clever enough to find a hiding place suitable for a discussion. Instead, Sherlock had gone into full-on sulk lockdown and stayed holed up in his room all day, playing tragic violin music, according to Stamford.

Sherlock also stayed barricaded in his room on Monday, but, again according to the reports that sympathetic former housemates gave him, the violin playing had finally stopped at some point in the middle of the night. Sherlock went to none of his divs, which was not a surprise, but he also didn’t sneak out of his room to see John at any point, which was a bit of a surprise to John. He slept very little for the third night in a row on Monday night. On Saturday and Sunday night, he had been lying awake, waiting for Sherlock to knock on his window to gain entry. On Monday night, his sleeplessness was rooted in fretting. Sherlock was in the sort of mood where he needed saving. John knew those moods. John was adept at snogging him out of those moods. He just had to get into Sherlock’s room.

On Tuesday morning, he gave Stamford a note to slide under Sherlock’s door and insisted that Stamford knock on the door to announce that he was sliding the note under. John also thought to inquire whether anyone had brought Sherlock any food. Stamford looked at him as if he were daft, and John made him take a couple of muffins to at least leave by Sherlock’s door, if Sherlock refused to let him in.

Then John went to find Lestrade, because enough was really enough.

Lestrade had not been at biology divs, so John shouldn’t have been caught off-guard to find his office thoroughly cleaned out, but he was nonetheless. He stood in the doorway and considered, and then he decided that he had to do something. He went to the house’s dame and begged to be allowed to at least knock on Sherlock’s door. The dame seemed more sympathetic than the housemaster would have been, but she said she was under strict orders to keep them separated.

So John demanded to know who Sherlock’s new tutor was. The dame tried to pretend for a little while that Lestrade hadn’t clearly been sacked, and then admitted that Mr. Dimmock had been assigned to him.

John tried not to make a face about this while still in the dame’s presence, but the fact was that Dimmock was a terrible choice to tutor Sherlock. He was pedantic and by-the-book and Sherlock would hate him and rip him to shreds. But John went in search of him.

“Don’t tell me you’re here to talk about Sherlock,” Dimmock said as soon as he saw him. “Because you’re not allowed to talk about Sherlock.”

John ignored this. “Have you seen him? Since you’ve been assigned to him?”

“No. And he hasn’t been going to his divs. He’s racked up an atrocious number of rips. I’ve been sliding them under his door.”

“Don’t you think you should check on him?”

“What for?”

“He hasn’t come out of his room in days.”

Dimmock looked unconcerned. “He’s been playing his violin.”

“Not since Sunday.”

“You’re not supposed to know these things. Anyway, you know Sherlock Holmes. He’s stubborn. He won’t come out of his room until we drag him out, which I’m sure will be happening by the end of the week.”

“Right,” agreed John. “I know Sherlock Holmes, so I’m worried about him. He doesn’t eat when he’s in moods like this, it doesn’t even occur to him, someone has to go make sure he takes basic care of himself.”

“He’s seventeen, Mr. Watson. He’s quite old enough to feed himself. Now stop being such a mother hen. You’re bright, and a rugby lad, I hear. Surely you could find a few teammates, get rid of some of this excess energy.”

John gritted his teeth and hated Dimmock passionately. He left without saying another word, went back to his new room, and thought. He had been depending on Sherlock’s cleverness to find a way to him, but it was going to have to be the other way around.

He made up his mind, found a sheaf of papers he didn’t care about, and pocketed a lighter that Sherlock had pickpocketed off one of the masters ages ago. It had ended up in John’s room, as the vast majority of things had, and John had managed to pack it and move it with him, as part of his quest to save as many of Sherlock’s belongings as possible.

The housemaster couldn’t watch every door at once, so he had been depending on his ability simply to guard Sherlock’s hallway. John knew this, and it made it easy for him to slip inside the house during suppertime, light his sheaf of papers on fire, and stand holding it up toward the fire alarm. Which did exactly what it was supposed to do and began blaring.

John dropped the smoldering sheaf of papers in the nearest bin, and, in the middle of the commotion caused by stampeding students and alarmed masters, walked easily up the stairs to Sherlock’s doorway. And then he did something that Sherlock had taught him weeks ago but that John had not thought he would ever have to do: He picked the lock on Sherlock’s door.

The lamp on the bedside table was on, shedding enough light so that John could see Sherlock twist on his bed to squint at him.

“John,” he said, sounding surprised, and then burst into a coughing fit.

“Still battling that cold, I see,” remarked John, closing and locking the door behind him and stepping over a pile of rips and John’s own note from that morning.

“It’s a stupid cold,” said Sherlock, not moving from his position on the bed. “How did you get in here?”

“I picked the lock.” John knelt by the bed because it seemed the most logical place to be. “Aren’t you proud of me?”

Sherlock smiled faintly. “Did you set off that sodding fire alarm, too?” He coughed again. It was really, John thought, not a nice-sounding cough. It was deep and rattling and racking, and once he started, it took him a long time to stop, wheezing for breath. And Sherlock was trembling. John could see that clearly now that he was right next to him.

John shifted slowly, leaning over Sherlock. “You’re shivering,” he pointed out.

“It’s freezing in here,” Sherlock answered.

“No, it’s not,” said John, and brushed his hand over Sherlock’s forehead. “You’re burning up.”

“I’m fine,” said Sherlock. “Stupid cold.” He batted John’s hand away. “Listen to me. I have something important I need to tell you.”

John ignored him, nudging him so he could get his ear against Sherlock’s chest. “Breathe for me,” he said.

Sherlock ignored him right back, talking instead of just breathing. “I don’t care that Mycroft’s paying you. I really don’t. You can keep taking Mycroft’s money, I’m fine with it. I just miss you; I need you to come back; I want you to come back; can you come back?”

John drew away from Sherlock’s shallow, rapid breaths as they struggled to fill his chest cavity. “How long have you been like this?” he asked, drawing his eyebrows together.

“Humiliatingly desperate?”

“No, this sick.”

“Oh, God, forever. This is a stupid cold.”

“It isn’t a cold. I think you have pneumonia. How long have you had the fever?”

“I don’t know.” Sherlock sounded as cross as he could in the middle of another one of the terrifying coughing fits. “Didn’t you—cough—hear what I said?”

“I need to get someone. I need to get you to hospital. You’re very warm, and you don’t sound good at all.” John tried not to sound as completely alarmed as he was feeling. He stood and walked to the door, thinking that the housemaster would be back any second, having realized that the smoke alarm had been an obvious ploy.

He reached the door and abruptly translated what Sherlock had said to him. He turned back toward him, his hand still on the doorknob.

“You complete pillock,” he said.

Sherlock blinked at him.

John walked over to him, leaned over him in the bed. “Your brother was never paying me. Is that what you think? How could you ever think that? Your brother was never paying me.” John pressed a fierce kiss to Sherlock’s hot forehead, and then pulled back.

Sherlock’s hand circled around John’s wrist before he could pull back completely, and he studied John’s face closely. “You’re telling the truth.” He sounded amazed.

“Have you been sulking about that all this time?” John demanded, exasperated. “Just ask me next time.”

Sherlock smiled at him, bright and wide. “Come to bed,” he commanded, as if the past three days had never happened.

“I can’t. I have to go find someone to—”

A lock turned in the door, and John looked up as the housemaster burst in, aglow with triumph. He actually exclaimed “Aha!” upon finding John in the room.

John said, “Thank God you decided to show up. You’ve managed to make Sherlock extremely sick. You need to get him to hospital.”

Sherlock coughed, another painful-sounding racking cough that ended him with him wheezing terrifyingly for breath, and John wondered if he was deliberately helping him along.

John looked at the housemaster’s horrified face and said, simply, “Now.”

***

Greg was telling Mycroft about his day. He had spent it polishing his resume and sniffing out job opportunities. Mycroft was mainly distracted by the fact that these activities had not required Greg to comb his hair properly or put on shoes. He was wearing socks and jeans and a well-worn sweatshirt, and his hair was sticking out in a million different directions, and he hadn’t shaved, and he looked so generally irresistible in that state that it was frankly annoying. Mycroft just looked like a mess when he was, well, a mess. Greg looked young and playful and ravishable.

He was also listing a large number of positions that weren’t in London.

Mycroft pointed this out. “None of those positions are in London.”

They had both finished eating, and Greg was leaned back in his seat, looking very relaxed, his plate pushed away a bit. He tipped his head at Mycroft, teasingly quizzical. “Would there be a reason for me to prefer positions in London?”

Mycroft sighed as if Greg in this sort of mood were tremendously irritating instead of absurdly appealing. He leaned his elbow on the table and propped his chin on his fist. “If you’re not careful, I’ll have to interfere to make sure every job outside of London turns you down.”

Greg grinned and shifted in his seat, his toes slipping their way under the cuff of Mycroft’s trousers. “Let’s skip the pudding,” he suggested.

“But the pudding is the best part of the meal,” Mycroft informed him.

Greg’s grin widened, his dark eyes bright with mischief. Greg was several years older than him, but most of the time Mycroft felt as if he had never been as youthful as Greg was. The sense of fun Greg brought to everything, including what Mycroft had always considered to be the very serious subject of sex, was infectious.

“Let’s see if I can’t convince you that some things are better than pudding,” he said, sliding to his knees and crawling under the table in a ridiculously over-the-top manner.

“You’re going to hit your head,” Mycroft warned, pushing his chair back so Greg could clear the table.

“Do you ever stop worrying?” Greg asked him, looking up from between his knees.

Mycroft reached out to run his fingers through Greg’s messy hair. “Yes,” he said, honestly.

Greg flickered a smile and rested his chin on Mycroft’s knee, and Mycroft brushed at Greg’s hair, unsure if he was straightening it or tousling it more, and which he wanted it to be. Greg’s eyes were no longer as bright with enthusiasm as they had been, seemed a bit more introspective, and he opened his mouth to say something at the same moment that the phone rang.

Greg dramatically buried his face in Mycroft’s thigh with a heavy sigh. “Bloody hell,” he groaned. “How can you be so in demand all the time?”

“I’m quite irresistible,” Mycroft told him, nudging him with the thigh Greg’s head was currently leaned against.

Greg shifted backward, sighing again.

“Watch your head,” said Mycroft, rising.

Greg carefully arranged himself into a seated position at the foot of Mycroft’s chair, half under the table, and called to him, “Tell whoever it is you’re in the middle of an important meeting involving a head between your thighs.”

“Yes, that seems like something I’m likely to say,” Mycroft remarked, dryly, and answered the phone. “Hello?”

“Mr. Holmes,” said the man on the other line—the headmaster at Eton.

Mycroft closed his eyes and considered knocking his head against the wall. That was not something he’d ever considered doing before. Greg had to be rubbing off on him.

“It’s—”

“I know who it is,” Mycroft interrupted him, impatiently. “What has he done now?”

“It’s come to my attention,” the headmaster began, choosing his words carefully, and Mycroft opened his eyes and straightened, paying a bit more attention, because something was going on here. If Sherlock had merely got himself into trouble again, the headmaster would have just announced it, shouting about it, complaining about it. This was something else entirely.

A voice in the background was saying something, demanding something, and Mycroft said, “Is that John? Let me speak to him,” because he’d much rather speak to John about Sherlock than anyone else.

“I don’t think that’s—”

“Let me speak to him,” Mycroft reiterated, crisply. Greg, apparently hearing something in his tone, had crawled his way out from under the table and was standing now, leaning against it, looking curious and concerned.

There was a moment of scuffling phone-passing before John’s voice clipped out, “Mycroft.”

“What’s wrong?” Mycroft asked him, swiftly, because John sounded furious about something.

“Sherlock has pneumonia,” John replied.

“Pneumonia?” echoed Mycroft.

“Yes. Which no one bothered to notice because nobody bothered to check on him for three whole days. We’re at the hospital now. He’s severely dehydrated and his fever’s elevated enough that they say they need to admit him.”

“Which hospital?” asked Mycroft. “I’ll leave now, I’ll be there as soon as I—”

“The doctors won’t let me in the room with him. They say I’m not family. I need your permission to—”

“Who do I have to give my permission to?” Mycroft cut him off.

“Hang on.”

There was more scuffling as the phone was passed again, and then a voice Mycroft didn’t know said, “Mr. Holmes? My name is Dr. Collins, I’m your brother’s admitting—”

“Yes,” said Mycroft, impatiently. “Fine. John Watson should be permitted in my brother’s room, but no one else until I get there, not a single other person, is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Which hospital?”

The doctor relayed the name, and Mycroft said, “Hang on,” and told Greg the name. “Do you know where that is?”

Greg nodded.

“I’m leaving London now,” Mycroft said to the doctor, and hung up the phone.

“What’s wrong?” Greg asked.

“Sherlock has been hospitalized with pneumonia.” Mycroft was walking out of the dining room, heading toward where he’d draped his coat over the staircase banister. He’d given the butler the week off, thinking he’d rather have the house to himself whilst Greg was there, but now he was annoyed not to have someone to dictate orders to about what needed to be done.

“Pneumonia?” Greg had followed him into the front hall. “Is he going to be okay?”

“I suppose so. I didn’t even think to ask. But John didn’t seem alarmed that he was going to die, just alarmed he couldn’t get into Sherlock’s room. I should have thought to ask. That was…odd of me.” Mycroft paused in the act of pulling on his coat, thrown by that realization.

“Not odd.” Greg took over the buttoning of his coat. “The answer is pretty much irrelevant to you until you see him for yourself, so you didn’t need to ask. You’d never believe what anyone told you. You need to learn that your inability to play Sherlock like a chessboard is not a bad thing.”

“I need to ring Mrs. Hudson and tell her… You know where the hospital is?”

“It isn’t difficult to get to. Just take the—”

Mycroft shook his head. “You can drive.”

Greg paused. “You want me to come with you?”

“Yes, of course.” Now it was Mycroft’s turn to pause. “Unless you’d rather not.”

“No. I wasn’t sure— Never mind. Ring Mrs. Hudson. I’ll bring the car around.” Greg went running up the stairs.

“Greg,” said Mycroft. “That’s not the way to the car.”

“I need to put on some shoes,” Greg called back.

Mycroft took a deep breath and phoned Mrs. Hudson.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Six

John took great pleasure in closing the door of Sherlock’s hospital room on the headmaster.

Sherlock, behind him, said, “Thank God. Everyone in this place is an idiot. Let’s go home.”

John turned around to face him and noted in alarm that he seemed to be intent on getting his IV out. “No, no, no.” John practically lunged at him, pulling his hand away. “You’re keeping that in. That’s the whole reason we’re here, because you stupidly drank basically nothing for three days because I wasn’t there to tell you to.”

Sherlock might have fought him if he hadn’t got distracted by a violent coughing fit. “I don’t just drink because you tell me to,” Sherlock grumbled when he’d recovered. “And I had a cup of tea at some point. At least, I’m almost sure I did.” Sherlock drew his eyebrows together, clearly thinking. “What day is it?”

John sighed and sat in the chair next to Sherlock’s bed. “You can’t do that.”

“Do what?”

This.” John gestured around at the hospital room. “This whole epic, suicidal, self-destructive sulk you embarked on.”

“I wasn’t trying to kill myself,” Sherlock protested, annoyed.

“Then what, exactly, were you doing?”

“Nothing,” Sherlock answered. “I was doing nothing.”

He said it with such raw honesty that John felt he had to close his eyes rather than keep meeting Sherlock’s gaze.

“John?” Sherlock’s voice was hesitant and questioning.

“You scared me,” John told him and opened his eyes. “You scared me half to death.”

“I’m fine,” said Sherlock.

“You’re in hospital.”

“Yes, but they’re being idiots about that. I’m fine.”

“You have pneumonia.”

“They’ll give me some antibiotics. I’ll recover just fine. You’re being irrational.”

I’m being irrational?” John laughed. He couldn’t help it. It was one of the funniest things he’d ever heard. “You refused to come out of your room, refused to leave your bed, for three whole days because you’d got it in your head, for no earthly reason I can discern, that your brother was bribing me. That overactive imagination is going to kill you someday.”

“It wasn’t some flight of fancy, all the evidence pointed to it.”

“What evidence?” asked John, in exasperation. “It isn’t true, so what evidence could there possibly have been?”

“Mycroft pays people to put up with me. He pays everyone.”

“That isn’t true.”

“He pays Mrs. Hudson. He pays Sergeant Donovan. He’s shagging Lestrade, so let’s not even get into that.”

John wrinkled his nose and said, “All of that is just—”

“So why shouldn’t he pay you, too? It seemed more likely that he’d be paying you, too, than that you would be the one exception. I mean, you show up at Eton, a new boy in your last year, and that never happens. And then you happen to have the room next to me. And then you’re…you’re…everything. You’re perfect. You like science, and you enjoy a good puzzle, and you let me keep a laboratory in your bedroom, and you didn’t blink, no matter how daft I behaved. You thought I was amusing, and you listened to me when I spoke, and you asked good questions and made funny comments, and you said nice things to me and never said that I was weird and honestly, John, you’re, like, hand-picked for me. You’re everything I could ever have wanted, and what are the odds of that just happening? They’re…infinitesimally small. And do you know how much smaller the odds are that I would meet someone like you and that you would like me? They’re vanishingly small, John. No one likes me.”

John sat still in his uncomfortable chair for a moment, looking at Sherlock in his hospital bed. Sherlock was extremely ill and very unkempt, and he should have looked terrible, but he looked as ethereal as he always did, his unusual eyes bright with his fever and his dark curls tumbled in perfect unruliness. He looked gorgeous, like some sort of Regency-era painting, all cupid’s-bow mouth and romantic poet paleness. He was beautiful and posh, and to say he was clever was a vast understatement—he was an absolute genius. And, to John’s eyes, all of that placed Sherlock in a league entirely of his own, unequaled and incomparable, and all along John had been envying him that, the vast, aching, not-normal uniqueness of him. The whole time, John had wondered how he had ever caught the eye of such a creature, when everything about John was plodding and ordinary and unremarkable. And he knew that Sherlock didn’t think that way of John, knew that Sherlock seemed to think that John couldn’t possibly love him, but John had been dismissing that absurdity for so long that he had never really stopped to think of it from Sherlock’s point of view. Sherlock, in all of his vast, aching, not-normal uniqueness, must have been the loneliest person in the world, John realized. To Sherlock, who might be admired from afar, the existence of John, who admired him from right up next to him, must have seemed like a momentous wonder, and the tumbling of their happy house of cards around them must have seemed like the universe righting itself, readjusting the data that hadn’t fit. No wonder Sherlock had had a depressive fit. To Sherlock, it must have been a torment to think of all that loneliness looming back up again to swallow him whole.

John leaned forward slowly in his chair and said, slowly, “I like you.” He hesitated, and then added, “I love you.” Because he thought, dammit, that Sherlock desperately needed to hear those words. He wondered if anyone had ever said them to Sherlock before. Mycroft clearly wasn’t the type, and he thought Mrs. Hudson would have hesitated for fear of making Sherlock uncomfortable. And, indeed, at the sound of those three syllables, Sherlock’s face froze in an oddly concentrated way, like the effort it was taking to process them had stolen all of his faculties. “Sod the rest of them, Sherlock. What do they matter? I love you. I love everything about you. Everything. I can’t explain to you the why or the how of us meeting, and I don’t actually know the odds to the degree of mathematical certainty that you do. But I do know that it wasn’t engineered, and Mycroft had nothing to do with it, and I am here because I love you too much to live without you. That’s it.”

Sherlock stared at him in astonishment. “Do you mean that?” he asked finally. “You love me?”

“Yes, I love you. And I’ll love you even more if you get some rest and let that IV rehydrate you.”

“I’m not tired,” said Sherlock. “I just slept for days. Say again that you love me.”

John chuckled, thinking that he had been right about Sherlock needing to hear those words out loud, more than anyone he’d ever met. “I love you. Seriously, how are you that surprised by this? How could you not have known all along?” How, John wondered, could he not have felt how beloved he was, every moment? Was the idea of that really so foreign, so unbelievable a concept to him?

“Do you know that I love you?” asked Sherlock, sounding almost anxious.

“Yes,” he answered.

Sherlock looked alarmed. “How? How long have you known that?”

“A very long time,” John assured him.

“You should have told me. You should have said something,” Sherlock accused.

“You knew you loved me, you never said anything,” John pointed out.

“I didn’t want to…” Sherlock trailed off and frowned, apparently frustrated with his inability to finish the sentence. He seemed to switch tactics, saying instead, “I missed you so much, I thought…I thought…What was the point of anything, if I had to go back to before? I’m not sure I can.”

“You don’t have to,” John promised him. “You don’t. I apparently haven’t got that thought through your skull yet. For someone so clever, you’re amazingly thick sometimes.”

Sherlock coughed. “Tell me again that you love me.”

“I love you.”

“And again.”

“Oh my God,” John smiled. “Go to sleep.”

“I’m not tired. I’m never going to be tired again. You can sleep, if you want. You’re exhausted.”

“You can tell that?”

“Yes. You look it.”

“I didn’t sleep very well without you.”

“I did nothing but sleep without you.”

“Well, that settles it,” said John. “We need to stay together, it’s the only way either one of us sleeps a healthy amount.”

“Go to sleep,” said Sherlock. “I’m just going to lay here and stare at you.”

“That’s not creepy at all,” commented John, but he smiled as he said it, shifting a bit in his uncomfortable chair until he found a good angle at which to lean his head. He really was exhausted, all of it hitting him at once now that he knew Sherlock was all right. He closed his eyes, but he could feel Sherlock’s eyes still on him, as promised. It was far more comforting than it should have been.

The radiator clicked with heat and Sherlock coughed a bit and somewhere there was a clock ticking.

“John,” said Sherlock suddenly, after a moment.

“Mmm?”

“Are you sleeping yet? No. Never mind. Stupid question. You just answered me. I’ll blame the pneumonia.”

“Did you want something?” John asked, opening one eye a bit to look at him.

“Just say it one more time before you go to sleep.”

John closed his eye again, sighed good-naturedly, and said, obediently, “I love you.”

***

Sherlock curled on his side as much as he could with the limited movement granted him by the IV. He did not pull the IV out, much as he wanted to, because John had been insistent about it, and what John wanted, Sherlock was determined to give him. So he curled gingerly on his side and watched John sleep and went over the memory of the sound of his voice forming the words I love you. Not just once or twice but seven whole times. Sherlock tried to get himself to comprehend this. It was impossible to do with so much space between them. Sherlock wanted desperately to burrow into John, drown his senses in him. Then, surely, the words would make more sense. Everything made more sense then.

His contemplation of John was interrupted by his hospital room’s door being flung open without preamble, the noise of it slamming against the wall jerking John awake.

Sherlock scowled as Mycroft swept into the room, asking in his imperious and demanding tone, “Are you all right?”

“Fine.” He looked at John, who was rubbing his neck. “Did you phone Mycroft?”

“Of course. How else was I going to get into your room?”

“You could have been clever about it.”

John looked at Mycroft. “Believe it or not, we just had a really nice conversation during which Sherlock said really nice things about me.”

“Of course he had to phone me,” Mycroft told Sherlock. “What do the doctors say? How are you feeling?”

“I feel fine. Absolutely fine. Everyone overreacted.”

“No,” said John. “We didn’t.” He addressed Mycroft. “They’ve started him on a course of antibiotics, which should knock out the pneumonia. Their real concern was his dehydration, but they’re hydrating him now.”

Mycroft nodded and looked back at Sherlock. “You should have rung me yourself and told me you were sick long before it got to this point.”

“I’m fine,” Sherlock insisted, and looked past Mycroft to Lestrade. “What are you doing here?”

“Be polite,” said Mycroft. “John, could I speak with you for a moment?”

Sherlock narrowed his eyes. “About what? What do you need to speak with John about?”

“Your terrible manners,” said Mycroft, and left the room.

“Be right back,” John promised, and followed him.

Sherlock sighed and glared at Lestrade.

Lestrade leaned against the wall casually and regarded him. Then, after a moment, he said, “What did you find out about Carl Powers in London?”

Sherlock hesitated, not wanting to engage in conversation with Lestrade, but he hadn’t yet shown off his Carl Powers brilliance and he desperately wanted the opportunity. “Carl Powers was murdered. Clostridium botulinum. It got into his system through his eczema medication. Corticosteroid cream.”

“Really?” Lestrade lifted his eyebrows, looking thoughtful. “Clever and convoluted scheme. What was the motive?”

“I don’t know,” Sherlock admitted, in frustration. “I hadn’t got that far yet. Carl was nervous before the meet, I know that much, which was unusual for him.”

“And why take the trainers? All that effort to put together a complicated murder, and then give it away with a telling detail like the trainers?”

“There’s always a detail that gives it away. Some details are bigger than others. And it’s not like anybody was paying attention to the trainers before I came along. He would have got away with it, if not for me. There must have been evidence on the trainers. He would have laced them up after applying the cream, so maybe trace amounts of Clostridium botulinum… But that wouldn’t make sense, the corticosteroid cream wasn’t stolen and that could be tested so easily…” Sherlock considered. “A trophy, maybe? I mean, this entire operation screams over the top. Seems like the kind of bloke who would keep a trophy.”

“You think it’s a bloke?”

“Statistically, yes.”

“But he was definitely murdered?”

“Definitely.”

“That’s interesting, then.”

“What is?”

“You said he was poisoned by Clostridium botulinum.”

“He was.”

“That’s how the body in the film studio was killed as well.”

Sherlock, heedless of his IV, sat up in bed and said, “What?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Mycroft thought he was going to learn much more about Sherlock from John than from the headmaster. He put a hand up to ward the headmaster off when he tried to approach, saying, “I am not ready for you yet,” and led John to the end of the hallway, where they wouldn’t be overheard by anyone Mycroft cared about. “Tell me what happened.”

“What happened was that you didn’t fix things the way you were supposed to,” John accused.

“I know. I…I had a conversation with Sherlock where I thought it was clear that Sherlock thinks that I do too much…fixing.”

“Oh, God,” said John. “Is this about how Sherlock thought you were paying me?”

Mycroft blinked. “You know about that?”

“He had all this evidence amassed about why it must be true, like I’m some sort of bloody mystery he’s trying to solve.”

“Of course you’re a mystery he’s trying to solve. Everything in Sherlock’s life is divided into two categories: the things he understands, and the things he’s in the middle of trying to understand. The things in the former category he ignores. The things in the latter category are few and far between, and you happen to be one of them, John Watson. For reasons, I confess, that are quite beyond me. The idea that I would be clever enough to look at you and think that you were going to captivate my brother as much as you have is so patently absurd as to make me decide that it was possible Sherlock’s logic was being skewed by my…well-intentioned involvement in his life. This was, apparently, poor timing for me to become laissez-faire.”

“He sulks,” said John. “You know how he is. Most of the time, he would have viewed us being separated as a challenge, it would have kept him occupied and distracted, but he’d got this whole idea in his head and it froze him into place. And he was sick to begin with, and we got caught in the rain in London on Saturday, and it really shouldn’t have taken me so long to realize there was something wrong. I mean really wrong, as opposed to normal Sherlockian wrong.”

“It’s not your fault,” said Mycroft, automatically, because John was the personality type who needed to be told that. “What happened on Sunday?”

“Nothing.”

“No word from Sherlock?”

“No. I heard he played the violin until sometime in the middle of the night.”

“And yesterday?”

“He didn’t go to divs. And he’d gone quiet, I was told.”

“And today?”

“I slipped him a note this morning, although I don’t think he read it, and I tried to get some food smuggled to him, although I’m sure he didn’t eat it. So I went to find Lestrade, to see if he’d spoken to Sherlock, only Lestrade’s been sacked, as you obviously know. So then I found out Dimmock was Sherlock’s new tutor, so I went to speak to him. He said Sherlock hadn’t been attending divs and was getting rips left and right. He’d been sliding them under Sherlock’s door, but he hadn’t seen Sherlock, which meant that no one had seen Sherlock since Saturday or heard from Sherlock since the violin had stopped late Sunday night. Dimmock dismissed the fact that I was worried, and I wasn’t allowed back in the house, so I set off the fire alarm and picked Sherlock’s lock in the chaos.”

“Of course you did,” said Mycroft, mentally cataloguing the offenses he was going to have to get cleared.

“And I found him, well, basically like this. Bad cough, high fever, chills, and rapid breathing.”

“So you diagnosed pneumonia.”

John shrugged. “It was a bit obvious. And I knew he hadn’t been taking care of himself, because he never does.”

“And your diagnosis was correct.”

“Again,” said John, “it was a bit obvious. Now.” John crossed his arms and looked determined. “What do you plan to do about all this?”

Mycroft looked at John and bit back his smile. Truthfully, he thought he loved dealing with John. John was direct and forthright and that was so simple to comprehend, it was a huge relief. “What do you want me to do?”

“I want my old room back. I want everything back to normal. I don’t want anyone to bother us. Sherlock should go back to independent study, he was happy with that. They should re-hire Lestrade, because Sherlock might end up actually killing Dimmock if he has to work with him. And they should tell me where Gladstone ended up.”

“Gladstone? He served as prime minister into his eighties and then died peacefully at home after a brief illness.”

John rolled his eyes. “Not that Gladstone. The dog.”

Mycroft lifted his eyebrows. “The dog’s name is…Gladstone?”

“Yes,” John answered, staunchly. “We like the name.”

“So did my parents,” Mycroft remarked. “So much so that they chose it as my middle name. You named your dog after me?”

“What? No, I was studying the prime minister— Your middle name is Gladstone?” said John.

Mycroft decided that line of conversation was getting them nowhere. “I suppose you want me to take the dog?”

John hesitated. “Not if you don’t want to, I guess. But I’d feel better knowing he was somewhere where they were being nice to him.”

“I’ll inquire about the dog. John, what about your mother?”

John visibly bristled. “What about her?”

“She’s the one who insisted on your separation from Sherlock. Had she stood with me on the question, even with the headmaster in the state he was in, I don’t think you would have been moved. With her on his side, he grew emboldened. The fact that Sherlock was left in his room for three days with pneumonia, growing progressively more dehydrated, gives me a great deal more power over the headmaster than I had on Saturday. However, if he moves you back to your room, he will be compelled to tell your mother, and you’ll—”

“I don’t care,” said John, fiercely.

“She’ll—”

“I don’t care. I’m tired of her popping into my life only when she feels like—” John cut himself off. “With any luck, she’ll be too drunk to care when he rings her,” he finished, bitterly.

Mycroft regarded him for a long moment, then said, “Go back to Sherlock. I will fix this this time. I promise.”

John nodded once, curtly, and took two steps down the hallway, back toward Sherlock’s room, before Mycroft forced the word past his lips. “John.”

John stopped walking, turned back, eyebrows lifted curiously.

“I’m sorry,” said Mycroft, awkwardly. “That I didn’t…I’m sorry.”

John stuck his hands in the pockets of the Eton uniform he was wearing. “I will watch his back for you. But you have to help me when I ask for it.”

Mycroft nodded, and John nodded back before turning and walking to Sherlock’s room, and Mycroft felt as if they’d reached an important and pivotal understanding. Then he turned his attention to the headmaster, who was practically wringing his hands in concern.

“Mr. Holmes,” he began, and Mycroft took pleasure in the fact that his first name was no longer being used.

“Well, well. It seems my brother has been very poorly served by your esteemed college. Severely dehydrated to a point requiring hospitalization, and all because nobody thought to check on him when he was missing divs left and right because he was too sick to get himself out of bed?”

“Mr. Holmes,” stammered the headmaster.

“It appears to me that you could have a lawsuit on your hands. I took a degree in law, you know. And it does seem to me negligent on the part of Eton, not to look in on a boy who was known to have been missing divs and who had last been seen soaking wet and with a cough. However, it also seems to me that, as yet, we might be able to reach an understanding that would avoid getting this splashed all over the newspapers.”

“I suppose you want John Watson back in his room,” guessed the headmaster. “Yes, I agree, that seems to make the most sense—”

“And all of Sherlock’s laboratory equipment returned to him. And Sherlock restored to independent study. Things will go back to the way they were, and no one will say a word about it.”

The headmaster hesitated. “Mrs. Watson—”

“I’ll deal with John’s mother. Leave her to me. You’re just going to do as I say.”

“Mr. Watson restored to his room, and your brother with independent study.” The headmaster was nodding his head so vociferously Mycroft thought it might be in danger of rolling off.

So Mycroft concluded that it was also safe to say, “Oh, and you’ll give them back their dog, too.”

***

Mrs. Hudson was in Sherlock’s room when John got back. John wasn’t sure how she had managed to get in without Mycroft having approved her. Maybe it was simply because she was Mrs. Hudson and an army wouldn’t have been able to keep her out of the room. At any rate, she was there, fussing over Sherlock, who looked half-annoyed and half-pleased at the attention.

She engulfed John in a smothering hug as soon as he walked in the door. “Oh, John!” she exclaimed. “You darling boy. How can we ever thank you enough?”

“Oh, please.” John could hear the eyeroll in Sherlock’s voice. “It isn’t like he found me choking to death, or had to administer CPR or anything like that. John, tell everyone how we have to leave this hospital immediately.”

Mrs. Hudson had finally released John from the hug. He noticed that Sherlock was now sitting on the edge of the bed, looking for all the world as if he expected to walk out of the room any minute.

“What?” said John, drawing his eyebrows together. “You’re not going anywhere until the doctors say you can go somewhere.”

“No, we have to go to London,” Sherlock insisted.

“Yeah, because things turned out so well the last time you said that to me. I was forced to move, we lost our dog, Lestrade was sacked, and you got pneumonia. Now get back into bed.”

Sherlock frowned in Lestrade’s direction. “You’ve been sacked?”

“Yes,” affirmed Lestrade, with brief wryness.

“Then who’s my tutor?”

Lestrade shrugged.

“Dimmock,” answered John.

“Dimmock!” yelped Sherlock. “I can’t work with Dimmock.” He turned back to Lestrade. “You’ll have to come back.”

“I’ve been sacked, Sherlock. That means—”

“I know what that means,” Sherlock interrupted, impatiently. “But you’re not paying attention to me. I can’t go back to Eton with Dimmock for a tutor.” Mycroft walked into the room, and Sherlock said to him, immediately, “Mycroft, you have to get Lestrade his job back.”

“I would, but he has asked me not to interfere,” Mycroft replied, smoothly, and then kissed Mrs. Hudson’s cheek. “Hello, Mrs. Hudson. How does he look to you?”

“I don’t think he’ll die,” said Mrs. Hudson, sounding a bit tremulous over the experience nonetheless.

“I’m right here,” inserted Sherlock, annoyed, “and I’m fine. Since when do you not interfere upon request?”

“Since I decided that it was possible you were going mad with crazy theories about the extent of my interference.” Mycroft leaned casually on his umbrella.

“It was not a crazy theory,” said Sherlock. “Anyway, I’m asking you to interfere now. I must have Lestrade back. I won’t go back to Eton without him.”

“Don’t you think you ought to ask him how he feels about that?”

“Why wouldn’t he want to come back to Eton?” asked Sherlock, blankly, clearly with no inkling that he might not be the world’s most delightful person to work with.

Mycroft sighed and looked at Lestrade. “Currently, Sherlock is in a position to demand anything he likes from the headmaster. Apparently, what he likes would be you back as his tutor. Are you amenable to this?”

Lestrade regarded Sherlock for a long moment. “You won’t leave Eton again without my express knowledge and permission.”

Sherlock considered. His index finger tapped against the bedsheet. “Will you phone Sergeant Donovan about Carl Powers?”

“Yes. When the doctors discharge you. And if you go up to London to see her or investigate on your own or anything, I will never ring Sergeant Donovan for you ever again.”

“What if you go to London with us?”

“I have no objection to that proposal,” said Mycroft.

“Fine,” said Lestrade, after a moment. “It’s a deal.” He looked at Mycroft. “Go get me my job back.”

Mycroft inclined his head in agreement and left the room again, swinging his umbrella.

“Clostridium botulinum, John,” said Sherlock, looking pleased with himself.

“What’s that?”

“That’s how Carl Powers died. It’s also how the victim in the film studios died.”

“Botulism?” said John. “But…why?”

“No idea. It makes some sense for Carl Powers, easy to get into his system through the corticosteroid cream. But it’s such a clean, pretty way to commit a murder. Why, then, move the body away from the murder scene, carve it up, and cover it with Mouflon sheep blood? In its original position, and knowing the incompetence of Scotland Yard, the murder would never have been suspected.”

“Never mind that question,” said John. “What’s the connection between Carl Powers and the bloke in the film studio?”

“There must be one.” Sherlock lay back down on his bed, staring up at the ceiling. “Clostridium botulinum. It’s so specific. It’s almost a calling card of sorts. It’s over-the-top. They were both entirely, unnecessarily over-the-top murders. Signals being sent? Possible. We’d need to have the code to decipher it, though. Or just a show-off. It could just be a show-off. Just doing these things because he can.”

“You know,” remarked John, “it would make sense if the murders were somehow connected. Explain a bit why we were chased over rooftops. We’ve been sniffing around both murders, so we must seem like a threat.”

“Hang on,” said Lestrade. “What’s this about being chased over rooftops?”

Sherlock scowled at John. “Nothing.”

“We were chased by someone, after we spoke to Carl Powers’s mother.”

“By whom?”

“If we knew,” Sherlock snapped, “we would tell you. Anyway, this is why we need to speak with Sergeant Donovan. This is important police business.”

“It can wait until you’re better,” said Lestrade.

“And what if the botulism killer strikes again?”

“Do you think that’s likely?”

“One never knows,” replied Sherlock, solemnly.

Lestrade sighed in resignation. “Fine, I will phone Sergeant Donovan and tell her your theory, but you’re still going to stay in bed until the doctors say you’re better and then you’re not going to rush off to London until I say it’s okay.”

“It isn’t a theory. I’m right, I know I’m right. A botulism killer.” Sherlock rubbed his hands together in glee. “Brilliant.”

***

The most difficult thing about arranging a meeting with John’s mother was finding a time when she might be expected to be reasonably sober. Mycroft did not want her forgetting the conversation they were going to have. He thought the most likely time for a sober meeting was morning, which required him to receive intelligence on when she was spending a night at home.

Which was why, on the first morning Cynthia Watson woke up in her own flat since Sherlock had been released from hospital, she found Mycroft sitting in her lounge.

For much longer than a person without a hangover would have found necessary, she stood and stared at Mycroft, mouth opening and closing like a guppy. Mycroft wondered if she was experiencing a guppy’s limited ability to think as well. He debated internally how long he was going to let her gape at him before he decided to get things started. He thought he would count to five hundred.

He had reached seventy-two when she managed to gasp, “You!”

“Good morning,” he said, with a tight smile in her direction. “Although I must say, you are looking the worse for wear. Hurry and have your first drink of the day, if you must. We’ve things to discuss, and I’m a very busy man.”

She registered his words in comically slow motion, narrowing her eyes at him. “How the hell did you get in here?”

“That’s really none of your concern,” he responded.

“None of my concern? How you got into my flat? You know, your brother broke into this flat, too.”

“Then it appears you are in need of better locks, Mrs. Watson. Either get a drink or have a seat, I haven’t time for this.” He clipped the words out at her.

She lifted her chin and pulled out one of the mismatched chairs tucked under the room’s crowded dining table.

Mycroft got right to it. “John used to empty the alcohol, didn’t he? Keep the flat clean of it? That’s why it had never reached this point before. Don’t pretend it’s the result of devastation at your husband’s sudden death. John might like to excuse it as that, in his head, but we both know the only thing you noticed about your husband’s death was the influx of money it gave you. And it got rid of John for you. John’s the sort it’s difficult to disappoint. I have witnessed the phenomenon first-hand. John got rid of the alcohol and tucked away the mouthwash and steered you away from pubs, and you had to let him because of the relentless force of him, but John left and look at you now. These are the things you don’t say out loud, but you’re relieved not to have to face him over the breakfast table these days, aren’t you?”

Her face was set and stony, but she made no move to say anything to him. He didn’t think she had any idea what she would say.

“Harriet, meanwhile. What a curious girl. She’s clever, you know. Her grades were very good. Bright future ahead of her. That was the assessment. People never said that about John. It isn’t the sort of thing people say about people like John. They don’t think about John. They say things like ‘kind’ and ‘dedicated’ and ‘hard worker’ and ‘determined’ and ‘nice.’ ‘Sweet,’ that one comes up quite a lot. They don’t say ‘bright future,’ they say that about people like Harriet. The problem with people like Harriet is that there is either a bright future or a terrible catastrophe. There is no in-between for people like Harriet, and you’re letting her tumble down the catastrophic path.”

She licked her lips, which were trembling, and forced out, her voice soft, “When John was home—”

“It wasn’t John’s job,” Mycroft snapped at her, “it was yours. As far as I can tell, John’s cleverer than the rest of you put together. John wants the bright future, he wants it badly, and he will have it. You will not take it from him. I know everything about you and I have the ability to destroy you with it. Every secret you try to drown with the alcohol, trust me, I know each one. I know that your share of the cash is gone, and I know exactly where the cash is coming from to support your habit, every last sordid thing you’ve done. I tried to play nice with you. That time is over now. I need you to understand that not taking this very seriously would be the gravest mistake you could commit.”

She stared at him. Her hands were shaking in her lap and she pressed them together. Mycroft thought she must desperately want a drink. “I don’t understand what you want,” she said, eventually.

“Stay away from Eton. He’s happy there, and he’s successful there. Leave him be. He’ll do as he pleases, he’ll attend the university he wishes, and you will not bother him.”

“You just want me to…abandon my son?” she demanded, hotly.

“Nothing would make me happier than for you to not abandon your son. However, as you have already effectively done so, I don’t see what your objection could possibly be. Here is what is going to happen. You’re going to go to rehab. So is Harriet. When Harriet has completed her rehab, I will arrange for her to attend a lovely and respectable public school. When you have completed your rehab, you may feel free to get in touch with John, but if you do anything at all to mar his time at Eton I will bring plagues down upon your head. He deserves this year, and you owe it to him. You could, if you wish, ring the police that you’ve had a break-in, but they would never arrest me. I would make it all go away by snapping my fingers. Keep that in mind, and do not cross me on this.” Mycroft stood, pulling his waistcoat down smartly to straighten it and picking up his umbrella. “I’ll send someone to take you to rehab this afternoon. Have a pleasant day.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Eight

His mother had voluntarily requested another stint in rehab, according to Mycroft, and Harry had joined her, and so John went to the Holmes country estate for the long leave free from guilt or worry. It seemed spectacular to him, to have a week stretching in front of him with no divs, no obligations, just Sherlock to enjoy. He didn’t even have to feel selfish about the week, there was literally nothing else he needed to do with his time, aside from Gladstone, who had been restored to them and taken home for the long leave. John felt light enough to walk on air.

Sherlock, who was much better and insisted that he had never been really sick in the first place, spent the first few days completely buried in books about botulism and swimming and eczema. John was mostly okay with this. Sherlock’s engagement with the puzzle was a relief. Nothing signaled Sherlock’s recovery better. And after the three days of abject depression John knew Sherlock had spent during their separation, he was pleased to see him wrapped up in something. He brought him tea that Sherlock did not acknowledge, and forced him to eat food periodically, in brief discussions that always turned into short skirmishes over the fact that John was interrupting him when he was very busy.

In the meantime, John and Mrs. Hudson alternated between watching Connie Prince and James Bond films. Mrs. Hudson had a collection of all the Bond films, and John, who had only seen bits and pieces of them, devoured them.

He was watching On Her Majesty’s Secret Service late one night after Mrs. Hudson had gone to bed, when Sherlock appeared in the library doorway. This was momentous enough an occasion that John sat up from where he’d been sprawled on the sofa. Sherlock hadn’t left his bedroom in days. Even Gladstone, snoozing by the banked fire in the fireplace, looked up and thumped his tail and whined a bit in greeting.

“Hello,” John said, in lieu of anything else to say.

“I have a theory,” replied Sherlock.

“About?”

“As far as we know, nothing connects Carl Powers and the body in the film studio. Nothing except the same murder weapon and a similar showy style. But what if that’s the point?”

“What if what’s the point?”

“What if there is nothing that connects them, and that’s the point. That’s how you get away with murder, of course: You don’t have anything to do with the murder. What if the real murderer isn’t even the person who did the killing? What if that person was once removed? They’d be so safe. No one would ever get to them. They could just sit in the center of a vast spider web of criminals. A consulting criminal, above the fray, tethered to no one person.”

“A consulting criminal?” echoed John.

“Like a consulting detective. Like me, really, only not having chosen the side of the angels.”

John lifted his eyebrows a bit. “In a flowery, poetic mood tonight, are we?”

Sherlock finally moved properly into the room, backlit from the light in the hallway as he moved to sit on the sofa with John. He looked at the movie, but John was sure he didn’t see it at all. “I need to look at the criminal files. I need to find the pattern. I need to find the ones with the little showy detail, the clever and audacious ones.”

“You’ll have to ring Mycroft to get in touch with Lestrade to get you access to the files.”

Sherlock made a face. “Don’t I know it.”

“We’ll do it tomorrow. What’s on your agenda for the rest of tonight?”

“I’m writing up an analysis of the types of bacteria found in different bodies of water. Might be helpful someday, and I need to get my brain away from the consulting criminal problem for a bit.”

“Oh, I’ll take care of that,” said John, shifting on the sofa to face him more fully.

Sherlock smiled. “I can’t imagine how.”

John didn’t bother to respond. He smiled back and kissed him.

Sherlock returned the kiss only briefly before pulling back. “Say it,” he whispered. “It’s been ages since you said it.”

“Because you haven’t spoken to me in ages,” John pointed out. “Not properly.” He recaptured Sherlock’s mouth, then murmured, “I love you. Even when you don’t come down and see me for days at a time.”

“Shut off this bloody movie and let’s go to bed,” said Sherlock.

“I thought you were writing up an analysis of bacteria in water,” John teased.

“I am. I’ll do that after you’ve fallen asleep, post-shag.”

“Ambitious,” said John, and Sherlock kissed him thoroughly before agreeing, “Yes.”

***

John woke to Sherlock having a snappish and loud conversation on the bedroom telephone, which he then slammed down into its holder.

“Who was that?” John asked, sleepily, burrowing deeper into his pillow.

“Mycroft,” answered Sherlock, shortly. “Couldn’t you tell?”

“I’m still sleeping,” John mumbled.

“No, you’re not.”

“Only because you woke me up shouting on the phone.”

“No, I didn’t,” Sherlock denied.

John didn’t even bother to reply to that. He kept his eyes closed and tried to fall back to sleep.

Sherlock bounced onto the bed next to him. “I wasn’t shouting,” he continued.

John pulled the blanket up over his head.

“Get up,” said Sherlock. “We have to go to London.”

“What time is it?” John asked in the direction of his pillow.

There was a pause. “Half-eleven,” said Sherlock.

“Liar,” said John.

“We have things to investigate, John. Well. I have things to investigate and you have things to be impressed over and compliment whilst you watch me investigate.”

“We’re such a good team,” John yawned.

“Mycroft said that Lestrade thinks he can persuade Donovan to give me access to basically any criminal file I want. I can’t go through all those by myself.”

“You think I’d be helpful?”

“Probably not, but you’d try, and I do so enjoy it when you try.” Sherlock tugged at the blanket over John’s head, which John, with a sigh, eventually relinquished, and Sherlock sprawled beside him and blew into his ear.

“If you want me to get out of bed, say something nice and flattering to me,” John told him.

Sherlock kissed him under his jaw. “I like the way you snog when you’re half-asleep.”

John chuckled and tipped his head a bit so Sherlock could lick along his neck. “Is that supposed to be getting me out of bed?”

“You’re the best at half-asleep snogging,” said Sherlock, nudging him.

John took the hint and rolled over and gave him a half-asleep snog that started out lazy and slow and drifted into single-minded and urgent. John curled a leg over the leg Sherlock had between his, shifted his hips into suggestive friction.

Sherlock pulled back, rubbed his nose against John’s. “Good morning,” he murmured, his voice pitched low and husky. “You’re awake now.”

“Definitely,” John agreed.

Sherlock slid off him and out of the bed and spoke briskly. “Good. Get dressed. We have to go to London.”

John blinked at him, then lunged for him, grabbing his hand and tumbling him back onto the bed and pinning him underneath him. Sherlock laughed, looking pleased, and John thought of the way he’d looked on the way back to Eton from their last trip to London. Sherlock experienced everything in such extremes, it was difficult to reconcile that anyone who looked as delighted as Sherlock did at that moment could also have looked as defeated as Sherlock had looked.

“You’re happy,” said John.

The smile on Sherlock’s face was irrepressible. “Only if we don’t miss our train to London. So, if you’re going to shag me in some way, shape, or form, do it quickly.”

***

Mrs. Hudson phoned Mycroft to let him know what train they would be on, which Sherlock found “unnecessary” and “insulting” and “irritating” and “stupid” and a number of other adjectives to which John was treated during the journey. The tenor of Sherlock’s adjectives did not change when he saw Lestrade waiting on the platform for them, lounging casually against the wall, arms and legs crossed.

“Where’s Mycroft?” Sherlock demanded by way of greeting.

“Working. He has a job, you know. I mean, a job other than taking care of you.”

Sherlock stiffened. “No one is asking him to take care of me.”

“He doesn’t need to be asked. That’s what older brothers do. John would agree. Now, do you want to go to Scotland Yard or don’t you?”

Sherlock glared at John as if he considered his status as an older brother to be a betrayal of the highest order. Then he looked at Lestrade and said, sulkily, “I’d like to go to Scotland Yard.”

“I thought you might.” Lestrade straightened, and they followed him through the train station to a waiting black car that slid into movement as soon as they were inside, without any direction from any of them. “I told Sally your theory about Carl Powers.”

“And?” asked Sherlock, eagerly, his sulk forgotten.

“It was too late to redo the autopsy. He’s already been buried.”

Sherlock frowned. “That doesn’t mean it was too late. They could exhume the body—”

“His mother didn’t want him disturbed.”

Sherlock’s frown deepened. “Well, that’s suspicious, isn’t it?”

Lestrade sighed. “Not necessarily, Sherlock. Her only son is dead. She wants him to rest in peace.”

“Whilst his murderer runs free?” Sherlock demanded.

“It’s sentiment, Sherlock,” John inserted, quietly, because Sherlock could be extraordinarily sentimental about things on occasion but never seemed to recognize it for what it was, especially not in other people.

“Sentiment,” Sherlock scoffed, and slouched into the seat, sulk resumed.

“But they did test the corticosteroid cream,” Lestrade continued, “and you were right: Clostridium botulinum.”

“Of course I was right,” said Sherlock.

“Sally wants to know how you knew that.”

“I used my brain,” answered Sherlock, scathingly, and then fell into a brooding silence that lasted until they got to New Scotland Yard.

Sherlock demanded files. All other cases of Clostridium botulinum. Or cases that could have involved Clostridium botulinum. The number of these cases was fairly small, and Sherlock pored over them. John and Lestrade did as well, for lack of having anything better to do. Sherlock scribbled cryptic one-word notes to himself on torn pieces of paper and arranged them in elaborate patterns on the floor, shuffling them all around and ruffling at his hair as he did so. He skipped lunch and only ate dinner because John demanded it, and he shoved a few mouthfuls of food in while staring at his notes so intently that he couldn’t even be bothered to give John the usual baleful look at being interrupted.

Sally knocked on the door when it was close to nine. She looked at the notes scattered all over the floor.

“What’s all this?”

Don’t touch anything,” Sherlock snapped at her, and stretched out an arm as if he expected her to launch into a tap dance any minute.

“I wasn’t going to,” Sally snipped back. “Find anything? Got any theories?”

“I’m working on it.”

There was a moment of silence. “Well?” Sally prompted, crossly, lifting an eyebrow at him.

“Well what?”

“The theories.”

“Not ready to be shared yet,” Sherlock responded, primly.

Sally threw up her hands. “Well, when are you going home? You can’t stay here all night.”

“Why not?” asked Sherlock, frankly.

Sally boggled at him.

“Sherlock,” began Lestrade.

“It’s a reasonable question. Why can’t I stay here all night?”

“Because you’re still recovering from pneumonia, and even your brain needs sleep.”

“Well, that’s just demonstrably untrue,” began Sherlock, hotly.

“Doesn’t matter,” interjected John. “I’m going cross-eyed. It’s time to go home and take a bit of a break.”

“You don’t need to be able to read the files,” Sherlock told him. “If you’re cross-eyed, it’s irrelevant.”

John ignored this. “Come on,” he said. “You could use the break. You can play the violin and think it all out.”

Sherlock scowled, but turned to Sally and said, “If you touch anything—if you breathe on anything, I will know.” Then he swept out of the room past her, leaving John and Lestrade to follow.

Mycroft was not at the London house when they arrived home, which Lestrade said was not unusual. John made some amiable conversation with Lestrade while Sherlock disappeared into his bedroom to think, behavior which made Sherlock less-than-ideal company. He was heading into his third straight hour of violin playing, and the song selections had not varied, when John went up to bed. John did intend to go to his own room, but he couldn’t resist knocking on Sherlock’s door.

The music stopped, and Sherlock answered after a moment, still holding the violin in his hand.

“What is this terrible music?” John asked him.

“It’s atonal,” he answered. “Don’t you like it?”

“Not particularly.”

“Well, it suits my thoughts.” Sherlock walked over to sit cross-legged on the center of his bed, staring into space.

“That’s alarming,” remarked John. He leaned against the doorjamb. “So tell me these theories you’re working on.”

Sherlock kept his focus on some point in space, decidedly not on John. “I don’t have one,” he admitted. “I don’t have a single one. I can’t find any pattern.” Then he took a deep breath and picked up his violin and played something atonal.

***

Sherlock woke him in the middle of the night by jumping on top of him. “It isn’t about the botulism,” he announced, loudly.

“What?” asked John, blinking blearily at him.

“It isn’t about the botulism. That isn’t the link. It isn’t a botulism serial killer. He is a criminal mastermind who happens to like botulism, among many other ways of killing people. It isn’t about the botulism at all. I’m trying to find a pattern in the wrong place.”

“He’s a criminal mastermind who likes to kill people using botulism?” John summarized.

“Do keep up,” said Sherlock. “The criminal files are going to be useless to me.”

“Why?”

“Because everyone at the Met is an imbecile. The Carl Powers file, right? There wouldn’t even be a Carl Powers file if it hadn’t been for me. They’d been ready to dismiss it, freak accident, kid drowns, what are you going to do? It wasn’t a freak accident, it was a murder, but they would never have known that if I hadn’t come to London that day. He’s not going to leave a trail. He doesn’t leave trails, not a trail an ordinary person could spot. So there aren’t going to be files on him, not officially, not of any utility to me.”

“He left a trail with the man in the film studio,” John pointed out.

“Well, yes, he would, wouldn’t he? Sometimes. When it was necessary. That was always about sending a message. The body was moved and dramatically cut up and covered in Mouflon sheep blood. What was the purpose of any of that? There wasn’t a purpose. But the Met got all caught up in it and distracted by it and forgot to tell me the most important thing about the body: that he was killed by botulism.” Sherlock stopped talking, looking almost feverish with his triumph. John stared at him. “Don’t you see?” Sherlock prompted him, eagerly.

“Don’t I see what?”

“Oh, dear God,” sighed Sherlock. “Is it nice, not being me? It must be so relaxing.”

“Less relaxing than you’d think,” retorted John, drolly, because he’d just been woken in the middle of the night for the second straight night, and not for anything so pleasant as a shag.

“He wants to play.”

“What do you mean?”

“The first murder, the Mouflon sheep murder, that just was. Silly and reckless but that’s how he likes it, a little bit of a thrill, that’s him all over. But he would have followed what happened here on New Year’s, when I cleared Angelo, he would have seen that, and this Carl Powers murder, this is for me.”

“He… What? He killed a kid for you?”

“Not really for me, I mean, probably someone other than me wanted him dead—”

“Sherlock, let’s try to remember that you didn’t want him dead at all, I don’t want you—”

“But the botulism, that was for me. That was the repeat calling card; that was my invitation. He wants to play.”

“I don’t understand. Play what?”

Sherlock looked delighted beyond measure, a delight that filled John with a cold dread. Sherlock answered him, “Hide-and-seek.”

***

Sherlock walked into the room, picked up his notes, and flung them all into a corner.

“Hang on,” Sally complained. “You made me promise not to even breathe near those.”

Sherlock didn’t even bother to respond to that. “Everything about Carl Powers,” he said. “I need everything you have on Carl Powers.”

“Why?” asked Lestrade.

“Because I need to solve Carl Powers’s murder. That’s the key.”

“The key?” echoed Lestrade.

“The signal. It’s what he’s left for me.”

“He? He who?”

“The killer. Obviously. The files, please,” he said to Sally. “Everything you have.” And then, to Lestrade, “Shut up.”

Lestrade blinked in surprise. “I didn’t say anything.”

“You were thinking. It’s annoying.”

Lestrade looked at John. John half-shook his head and half-rolled his eyes, which was the way he tended to respond to the confused looks Sherlock’s behavior often lobbed in his direction. John had a nagging worry gnawing at his stomach, a worry that Sherlock seemed to think he was playing hide-and-seek with a man who had already murdered two people, but he wasn’t sure whether to raise the alarm yet. Raise it too soon and Sherlock would never forgive him, might never speak to him again. Sherlock was stubborn, and he would find a way to be strong enough to do that. John wasn’t sure he was strong enough to handle the idea of Sherlock not speaking to him, not forgiving him, not loving him. He had, frankly, grown used to the headiness of being adored by Sherlock Holmes. He didn’t want to do anything that might dislodge that.

At the same time, he didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize Sherlock, of course, which meant he had to wait to raise the alarm until he was absolutely certain an alarm needed to be raised. And, in the meantime, he had to stick close to Sherlock to rescue him if necessary.

Sherlock sat poring over the file, sometimes asking terse questions of Sally even though Sally had left the room hours before. John had to keep seeking her out to get answers, which Sally provided with increasing levels of rudeness.

“This one,” Sherlock announced, eventually, sliding a photograph of a freckled, grinning boy with a mop of straw-colored hair across to John.

“What about him?” John asked.

“His name is Graham Lewis. He shows up a lot in the file. One of Carl’s mates is the conclusion.”

Sherlock said mates dubiously, as if the idea that people had mates was vastly overrated. “You think Graham Lewis killed Carl Powers?”

“No.” Sherlock didn’t even bother to look up from where his head was still buried in Carl Powers’s file. “I need to know everything about Graham Lewis’s family life.”

John sighed and went in search of Sally, who told him that information would take time to get; the entire Met wasn’t at the whim of a seventeen-year-old boy. Except that they got the information much sooner than Sally had said they would, and John considered that maybe Mycroft was making sure the entire Met was at the whim of a seventeen-year-old boy.

Sherlock pored through the information and, eventually, pushed it all aside. He stared at the table for a long moment, before finally taking a deep breath and nodding once. “Yes. I know who it is.”

“The murderer?” said Lestrade.

“Yes.” Sherlock spoke rapidly, staring at the table. “This Graham Lewis wasn’t a mate at all. He was bullied by Carl Powers. So easy for adults to overlook that—is it something one forgets with age? No matter, it’s not like any of you were brilliant to start off with. But bullied, yes, definitely, I recognized the signs immediately. So, Graham Lewis was bullied by Carl Powers—popular, talented Carl—and it didn’t matter who Graham’s family might complain to, this was Carl Powers we’re talking about, swimmer extraordinaire, might even go to the Olympics someday. So there was Carl, the golden boy, and there was Graham, sadder and sadder and sadder. And do you know what Graham has? He doesn’t have parents. He has a much older brother. A much older brother who would do anything in the world to make his little brother safe and happy. Anything in the world, including murder.” Sherlock paused, and his voice was flat when he said, “Because that’s how older brothers are, isn’t it?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Mycroft was sprawled on the bed when Greg finally staggered home. The bedroom light was on, and Mycroft was not asleep but rather staring up at the ceiling, still fully dressed, looking thoughtful.

“You’re home,” said Greg, relieved to see him.

“I’m home,” confirmed Mycroft, and then shifted slightly to look at him. “Where are the boys?”

“Raiding the kitchen.” Greg crawled onto the bed next to him. “They’re famished. Well, John’s famished, and John’s convinced Sherlock that maybe he ought to eat something, too.” Greg curved into him briefly, breathed him in, admitted, “I’m so glad you’re home. I’ve had the oddest day.”

“An odd day with Sherlock?” said Mycroft, dryly. “You must be joking.”

Greg propped himself up on an elbow, serious. “He solved the Carl Powers murder.”

“Did he? Who was it?” Mycroft looked only mildly interested.

“There was a kid Carl Powers was bullying. Graham Lewis.”

Mycroft lifted his eyebrows. “And Graham Lewis put Clostridium botulinum in Carl Powers’s corticosteroid eczema cream?”

Greg shook his head. “No. Not Graham Lewis—Graham Lewis’s older brother.”

Mycroft’s eyebrows lowered into an expression closer to a scowl, much more intent on what Greg was saying now. “His older brother?”

“Graham Lewis had a much older brother. Adoring. Overprotective. Responsible for Graham’s well-being at a very young age and taking it very seriously.”

Mycroft lifted himself up on his elbows. He had been distracted by something else when Greg had come into the room, but Greg could tell he had his entire attention now, his gray gaze keen. “Carl Powers was killed by…me?”

“Exactly.” Greg nodded emphatically. “Exactly. Sherlock said that was a message to him. Circumstances so very like his own. Sherlock claims the whole thing was for his benefit.” Greg wasn’t sure which he feared more: that Sherlock was wrong, completely delusional, and egocentrically out of control, or that Sherlock was right and a murderer was playing some elaborate game with him.

“What whole thing? The Carl Powers murder? A message to him from whom?”

“From the murderer.”

“From Graham Lewis’s older brother?”

“No. That’s the funny thing. They pulled Graham Lewis’s older brother in on Sherlock’s recommendation. The kid broke immediately. Said he would have had no idea how to kill Carl Powers, except that he got some help from—”

“Moriarty,” Mycroft interrupted him.

Greg stared at him. “How did you know that?”

Mycroft rolled off of the bed. “Because this isn’t a message for Sherlock, it’s a message for me.” Mycroft was already out of the room by the time he finished the sentence, and Greg scrambled off the bed to follow after him.

“Mycroft,” he said, but Mycroft strode quickly to the kitchen without pausing, without even acknowledging him.

John was helping himself to a fairly enormous sandwich. Sherlock, sitting next to him at the kitchen table, had nothing but a pickle on his plate, and he looked at Mycroft and scowled. John, just about to take a bite, looked up at Mycroft in surprise.

“What do you know about Moriarty?” Mycroft demanded of Sherlock, without preamble.

Sherlock’s eyes narrowed. “What do you know about Moriarty?”

“You need to stay away from him, Sherlock.”

“I don’t know where he is, do I? Or who he is, for that matter.”

“I’m serious.” Mycroft leaned on the table, looming over Sherlock. Sherlock was scowling even more deeply; John was looking even more surprised. “No more of this.”

“I’m not doing anything,” Sherlock pouted. “I solved a murder, that’s—”

“Precisely. No more murders.”

“What?” said Sherlock.

“No more murders. No more Scotland Yard. No more London.”

What?”

“The two of you are going back to Eton in the morning.”

“Back to Eton? But we’re on leave. You are being…preposterous.”

“I am most assuredly not.”

“I have things to do here. I have—”

“You’re not going to play cat-and-mouse with Moriarty. You’re going to go back to Eton, and you’re going to be perfectly, utterly dull, do you understand me?”

“Dull?” Sherlock echoed, and it sounded as if he really didn’t understand Mycroft at all. Frankly, Greg didn’t blame him. It was clear something about this situation had spooked Mycroft, the same way it had made Greg feel uneasy, but it was also clear that Mycroft’s fears were much more concrete than Greg’s, that Mycroft knew more than anybody else in the room about Moriarty.

“Yes, dull. It will be a challenge for you to undertake, being dull. What you are definitely not going to do is receive any more signal murder mysteries from Moriarty. This is not one of the things I forbid you to do that you then make a point of doing and I let it go. If you contradict me on this, I will never let you out of my sight for the rest of my life. Which I understand might be considerably shortened by you if that should ever come to pass.”

Sherlock was staring at him. He looked as if he didn’t know what to make of this. Greg wondered if this was the sternest, most serious Sherlock had ever seen Mycroft, if normally Sherlock could sense the vast reserves of indulgence that lurked under Mycroft’s orders and that he was thrown off-balance by the stoniness of Mycroft’s tone.

“John,” said Mycroft, sharply, without ever taking his eyes off of Sherlock, “do you understand me?”

“Y-yes,” John managed, as a slice of tomato plopped out of his sandwich.

Mycroft studied Sherlock’s face, his expression inscrutable, and Sherlock studied him right back, his expression openly puzzled. “Don’t,” said Mycroft, finally, and then turned and stalked out of the kitchen as abruptly as he’d stalked in.

“What the hell?” John said to Greg, with a quizzical tipping of his head.

Greg glanced at Sherlock, who was frowning after Mycroft, and shrugged a bit before hastening to follow Mycroft.

Mycroft was back in the bedroom, but he was on the telephone, speaking briskly in one of those code-word-heavy conversations that Greg could never really follow. Greg sat on the room’s chaise lounge and waited five minutes, until Mycroft hung up the phone and looked at him from his chair behind his desk.

“Fill me in,” Greg ordered. Not a request. Not at this point.

Mycroft considered him. “People like Moriarty, we…know about them. We watch them. But not Moriarty. We’ve never been able to get close to Moriarty. His name is a whisper on the winds, shrouded in mystery. He’s practically a myth. I’ve never been certain he’s even one person, as opposed to a conglomerate of many. He sits at the center of a spider web so vast it’s… I’ve been starting to unravel the web, and now I hear that Sherlock has brushed up against a Moriarty-planned crime and solved it, caught the killer, and got Moriarty’s name on the record. Moriarty’s name is never in a criminal file, he stays so far above it; his name is never involved. But he gave his name to a terrified man who wanted to murder a child? No, that was deliberate. Sherlock’s right: That was a message. A message about how older brothers would do anything, commit murder, go to prison, anything to keep a little brother safe.”

“He’s going after Sherlock,” Greg realized.

“In the most alluring and irresistible way for Sherlock: He’s giving him puzzles.”

Greg felt cold. Because Mycroft was right, that was perfect. How well must Moriarty know Sherlock, to plan such a perfect trap for him? How much did he know? How long had he researched him? “And they were chased. John and Sherlock, when they were here investigating the Carl Powers murder, someone chased them.”

“What? Why didn’t anyone tell me this?”

“I don’t know. I should have. But I thought maybe they were exaggerating, and we’d reached the deal where they were staying at Eton, and I thought they’d be fine. I didn’t know something like this was involved. You have to tell Sherlock.”

Mycroft snorted. “Tell him Moriarty is using him as bait, setting a trap for me? Sherlock would immediately take it as his own personal challenge to either best Moriarty or ally with him. I’m not sure which I fear more.”

“He wouldn’t ally with him,” Greg said, almost automatically. “But Sherlock’s never going to listen to you. He’s never going to just stay away from Moriarty because you told him to.”

“Of course not.” Mycroft was grim. “I have to hope John makes him. I have to hope you make him.”

Greg shook his head. “You shouldn’t send him back to Eton. You should keep him here, with you. Surely it would be safer for him to—”

“I’m never home. And Sherlock knows everything about this place, including how to escape. I’ve never yet been able to find the holes in my security that he keeps exploiting. At Eton, there might be other things to distract him. Here, there would only be Moriarty and the fact that I’m keeping him from Moriarty.” Mycroft paused. “Besides, if you think I’m sending him to Eton by himself, you must be mad. That telephone call was to ensure that Sherlock’s going to be under the constant surveillance of a small army of highly trained assassins. Eton is about to turn into the most heavily guarded fortress in England, unbeknownst to anyone but you and me.”

Greg hesitated, then said, “And probably Moriarty.”

Mycroft said nothing. But in his silence was a threat so hard and determined that Greg actually shuddered.

***

Everyone, thought Sherlock, was being utterly ridiculous. Not that this was any different from the way the world usually worked, but, nevertheless, they had all gone above and beyond. Eton was miserable under the best of circumstances; it was far worse now that he knew he was under minute surveillance. Mycroft hadn’t told him there would be surveillance, and Sherlock supposed that theoretically the surveillance was passably acceptable at staying hidden, but he knew it was there and it chafed at him. It was probably reporting back to Mycroft that Sherlock never did his tie up properly, and was refusing to eat anything other than chocolate biscuits, and was collecting teacups of Gladstone’s drool for experiments. Sherlock hoped it was reporting all that back to Mycroft, especially the bit about the collection of Gladstone’s drool, because maybe Mycroft would be stupid enough to think that Sherlock had moved on past the mystery of Moriarty and onto something as prosaic as Gladstone’s drool.

Mycroft was in London, though, and, even with his surveillance, easier to deal with than John. John was right there at Eton with him, usually in the same room and frequently in the same bed. John had a pair of eyes that, when infused with just the right amount of supplication, Sherlock found it difficult to say no to, difficult to lie to, difficult to consider disappointing. And John, in the dark on the night they’d been unceremoniously shipped back to Eton, in a dorm silent with the long leave, silent except for the sleet tapping against their window, John had said, “You’re going to drop it, right?”

Sherlock had pretended to be asleep.

“I know you’re not sleeping,” John had said, and nudged him.

“Don’t worry about it,” Sherlock had said, dismissively.

“I am worried about it.” John had curved into him and slid his hands under Sherlock’s T-shirt, laying them flat against his belly.

Sherlock had flinched. “Your hands are freezing.”

“Drop it,” John had begged. “Please drop it. Let me be enough for you. Can’t I be enough for you?” And then, “I love you.”

Sherlock had covered John’s icy hands with his own, felt the warmth of himself gradually seep into John’s skin, absorbed by him. Sherlock had thought how even the heat of John’s skin was in some way Sherlock’s. Sherlock had wondered what was wrong with him that John wasn’t enough for him, not when there were other mysteries out there he hadn’t solved. He had no interest in solving them without John, but he had no interest in not solving them, either. Sherlock had snuggled closer to John and tried not to think about Moriarty.

Not that there was much he could do to unravel the mystery of Moriarty from where he was. He worked on the puzzle furtively, so as not to alarm John, but he could get nowhere with it. Moriarty was some sort of clever consulting criminal. Moriarty had sent him a message. Moriarty wanted to play. See who was better? Who was superior? Mycroft knew about Moriarty. Consulting criminal. Clever consulting criminal. Something much more than just the murder of bullies, or even cheaply showy murders in film studios. Mycroft didn’t take notice of run-of-the-mill criminals. Something about Moriarty had to be amazing, remarkable, and Moriarty had sought him as an equal. Moriarty was his nemesis. And that was basically all he knew about him. Lestrade was no help at all. Sherlock sensed Mycroft had told Lestrade more than he’d told Sherlock, but Sherlock knew if he asked any questions Lestrade would tell Mycroft immediately. Who knew what would happen then?

Sherlock was sprawled on John’s bed staring at the ceiling and thinking about Moriarty when the junior boy knocked on the door.

“Go away,” said Sherlock, automatically. The boy knocked again, so Sherlock sighed heavily and rolled himself out of bed. Gladstone looked up, only mildly interested. Sherlock pulled open the door and snapped, “Tell me what you want, and be quick about it.”

“The housemaster wants you to go see him.”

“For what?”

The boy shrugged. “Didn’t say.” The boy moved off down the hallway, that apparently being the extent of his message.

Waste of time, thought Sherlock, and huffed out an impatient sigh. But, for John’s sake, he was trying not to get himself suspended or thrown out entirely, so he went to the housemaster’s office.

The housemaster greeted him with great effusiveness, and asked him how he was feeling. Sherlock coughed delicately and lied, voice trembling with affected fatigue, that sometimes he felt nearly a hundred percent, but then he would try to do too much and find himself relegated to bed again. The housemaster clucked over him like a concerned mother hen, and Sherlock enjoyed it a great deal. The housemaster poured him a cup of tea, and Sherlock criticized it as too strong, too weak, too sweet, not sweet enough, too hot, too cold, et cetera, and then the housemaster offered him biscuits and Sherlock helped himself to a considerable collection of them just to be irritating.

And then, nearly an hour after they’d sat down to tea, the housemaster suddenly said, “You’ve received a letter, Mr. Holmes. I thought the letter provided me with a wonderful opportunity to invite you to tea, and so it has, but I probably ought to give you the letter.”

The envelope was a heavy cream stationery, Bohemian, and Mr. Sherlock Holmes had been written on it by a woman. There was no further address.

Sherlock stared at it. “Where did you get this?”

“Slid under my door. Bit unconventional, but then, your brother’s an unconventional man.”

Sherlock turned the envelope over. “You didn’t see who slid it under your door?”

“No.” The housemaster handed him a letter-opener.

Sherlock coaxed open the envelope carefully and read the note. You seem to need more incentive to come out and play, so I’ve taken the liberty of inviting your friend John along. Hope you don’t mind! He’s quite adorable! See you soon. –JM

Sherlock looked at the initials, at the M of the last name. He looked back at John’s name, written in an angular script that made it look like violent slashes across the page.

“Good news, I hope, Mr. Holmes?” said the housemaster, like the idiot he was.

Sherlock carefully refolded the piece of paper, put it back in its envelope, and tucked them both into his pocket. Then he stood slowly and said, “I must go.”

The housemaster stared at him, but Sherlock forced himself to calmly exit the office, calmly close the door behind him, and then he sprinted back to his room. Gladstone was still on the bed where Sherlock had left him. He hadn’t moved, not one inch, so John hadn’t been back to the room. And John certainly wasn’t in the room. What was John’s schedule? What the hell was John’s schedule? John had told him a million times, and he’d always erased it from his mind as irrelevant data. How had he been so stupid?

Sherlock ran back into the hallway, stumbled immediately into a boy Sherlock recognized as being John’s year, not that he remembered his name, because his name was also irrelevant data. “John’s schedule,” he said. “Do you know John’s schedule?”

The boy looked at him like he was a lunatic and said, “No. But divs are over now.”

“Divs are over,” Sherlock repeated. And John wasn’t in their room. “Is rugby practicing?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Get out of my way,” Sherlock said, and pushed past him. He dashed through classrooms, but John was in none of them. Nor was he by the rugby field. John was nowhere, and no one had seen him. Sherlock eventually went back to their room, breathing hard. John still wasn’t there, but Gladstone had moved and had been tied to foot of the bed with his own leash. John never tied Gladstone up. John also never left notes on his pillow marked for Sherlock. In the same woman’s hand as the first note.

Sherlock reached for it and opened it, dreading it. The pool. Midnight.

Chapter Text

Chapter Forty

When Sherlock had been a boy, still very young, young enough for his mother to be alive, he had as a matter of course eavesdropped on her conversations with Mycroft. Mycroft had been close to their mother, much closer than Sherlock had ever been, and Sherlock had never really minded that. Mycroft and Mother had been kindred spirits; they had understood each other with genetic instinctiveness. Sherlock had never felt hurt by that—it would have been silly to have been hurt by a simple fact like that. And he had been loved.

It had been a very long time since Sherlock had thought of that, but he had known, then, how much he had been loved. It hadn’t mattered that Mycroft and Mother were wrapped in a cocoon of closeness he couldn’t penetrate, because he had known that, regardless, they had both loved him. He had known it in the darkness of those nights when he’d sprawled by the fireplace in the upstairs morning room, listening to their voices from the drawing room below, clear through the shared chimney, the thunk of their pieces as they played one of their endless chess games. Caring is not an advantage, Mycroft. Mother had said that to Mycroft more times than Sherlock could remember, so many times that sometimes it had been a lullaby to Sherlock as he’d drifted to sleep in the morning room. He never could clearly remember how he’d got back to his room on those nights, and now that he thought of it he seemed to have vague memories of Mycroft shaking him awake, a hand pulled affectionately through his curls. Mycroft must have known he eavesdropped. But he never said anything to him. Not once. Caring is not an advantage, Mycroft and Mother shared with each other over their chessboard, and Sherlock had understood then that they had been referring to him. Caring was not an advantage, but they cared about him; he was their weak spot, and that worried them.

It had been years since he had thought about any of that, but standing in John’s room, without John in it, with nothing but two threatening pieces of paper and a strange tightness to his chest, an inability to take a deep breath, like pneumonia all over again, he thought about it then. This was what they’d meant. Caring was not an advantage. His mind was a blank of white panic, his hand was frozen around the note in fear, and he had to stop it. John couldn’t afford this from him, he needed to think, and all he could bloody think about was his mother saying to Mycroft, over and over, Caring is not an advantage, because it wasn’t.

He loved John. He had to save John. Sherlock stared at the note in his hand. He thought of nights as a child by the fireplace in the morning room. He thought of the silent efficiency of Mycroft bringing him back to his bedroom and tucking him into his bed and never saying a word about it, just letting him eavesdrop, night after night, to the ongoing chess game whenever Mycroft was home. He had been loved. Mycroft had always loved him. Sherlock thought of the surveillance all around him. Mycroft loved him. Mycroft would save him. And Mycroft would understand that he’d had to save John first. That was just how it went. Caring was not an advantage. It made one do stupid, irrational things.

Sherlock left the note on the desk, open to its message, The pool. Midnight., and left John’s dorm room, left Eton, and went to the train station. No one stopped him, but he thought of the frantic network that must be being engaged, surveillance trying to track down Mycroft, trying to ask for instructions. Sherlock thought of that and tried not to think of John, of whatever terrible things might be happening to John, of whether something terrible might have happened already. He tried not to think of everything he knew about the human body and what could be done to it. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to think at all.

It was busy in London. It was always busy in London. Sherlock exited the train with no clear idea of what to do next. He had a bit of time to kill, and he had no actual plan, and he needed to have a plan. He couldn’t just show up with nothing, he was going to get John killed, it was all going to be his fault, he needed a bloody plan.

Someone, in the bustle, jostled into him, slid something into his hand, and under any normal circumstances Sherlock would have known who, immediately, but he felt like he was moving in slow motion, and by the time he turned his head, tried to find the culprit, the crowd had pressed in all around him.

Sherlock looked down at the piece of paper in his hand. You’ve got an entourage. Lose them before midnight.

Which was fine with Sherlock. Because he’d left Mycroft all the clues he was going to need, in the note in John’s room.

Sherlock slid the piece of paper into his pocket and put his head down and ran.

***

The problem with everything was delegation. Mycroft was in a towering temper, and it was because he had to delegate too much. Mycroft decided that, if his last New Year’s resolution had been to be a bit more reckless, his next New Year’s resolution was going to be to just bloody do every bloody thing himself because, bloody hell, everyone was incompetent and he was going to sack the lot of them. No. Correction. Kill the lot of them.

He rang Greg, who, fortunately, answered.

“Have you spoken to Sherlock?” he asked, without preamble. “Or John?”

Even though it was late, Greg merely answered the questions posed to him without asking any of his own, which was part of the reason why Mycroft loved Greg. “Not today. John was at div this morning, but we didn’t really speak. Why? Is something wrong?”

“They are both missing,” Mycroft spat out.

“Missing?” Greg echoed, his confusion evident in his voice.

“Yes, missing.”

“But…don’t you have them under—”

Mycroft didn’t even wait for the question to be complete. “Yes, and they are all idiots. Despite my express orders that they never let John and Sherlock out of their sight, they managed to be distracted by the world’s simplest decoy and lost John entirely. Meanwhile, they did manage to track Sherlock to London, but didn’t flag his movements as urgent, which meant I wasn’t disturbed in the meeting I was in, and now I find that they managed to lose Sherlock once he got to London. I swear to God, Greg, I am going to put cameras on every single bloody corner of this wretched city just so that I know where Sherlock is at all times.”

There was a moment of silence. “I’m sure they’re fine. I’m sure it’s just—”

“There was a decoy, Greg. John didn’t slip away from his surveillance, they were purposely distracted. Sherlock’s clearly gone after him, and I need to know where he’s headed before Moriarty kills both of them. Did they say anything at all to you recently? Anything that could be some kind of clue?”

“I really haven’t spoken to either of them.” Greg sounded at a loss. “Sherlock’s been sulking and giving me the silent treatment, and John’s been keeping his head down and working.”

Someone had left a tray of biscuits on Mycroft’s desk at some point during the day. Mycroft attacked one, tearing it apart, in order to bite down on his impulse to hurl the entire platter against the wall. “Can you get into their room?”

“Yes. Do you think they’ll have left you a clue?”

“No. That would be Sherlock being nice. And Sherlock is never nice. But I don’t have other options. I can’t go to Eton myself; I don’t want to leave London when Sherlock is here.” The biscuits were terrible, stale and sickly sweet. Mycroft ate another one.

“Fine, I’ll go look. I’ll phone back as soon as I can. Mycroft.”

“Mmm?” said Mycroft around his mouthful of biscuit.

“Take a deep breath. It’s fine. It’s going to be fine. We’ll find both of them, safe and sound, just like the last time they took off to London.” Greg hung up the phone.

Which was good because Mycroft swallowed his biscuit and gave into his impulse to shout at the phone, “Oh my God, you don’t know that! Don’t say things just to say them!” Then he polished off the plate of biscuits and waited for Greg to phone back. Greg wouldn’t find a clue, Mycroft thought. Greg wasn’t as observant as a Holmes was. Maybe he should leave for Eton. But if Moriarty got Sherlock, if Moriarty got in touch with him to negotiate, he wanted to be in London so he could—

His phone rang, loud in the otherwise empty office. Mycroft took a deep breath, licked some sugar off his fingers, and answered.

“He left you a clue, Mycroft,” said Greg. “He did better than that. He told you exactly where he’s going to be.”

Mycroft felt uncomprehending. He felt it was possible he’d fallen asleep and this was a dream he was having. “Sherlock did?”

“He must have been feeling nice.”

It made no sense. Maybe it was a trap? Mycroft felt dizzy and also felt that it was the only lead he had, so he was going to bloody hold onto it for dear life. “Where did he say he would be?”

“The pool at midnight.”

The pool where Carl Powers had died, thought Mycroft, and checked his watch and swore.

***

At 11:55, Sherlock Holmes straightened his Eton uniform, tugging it out of its wrinkles. At 11:59, he stepped into the pool area where Carl Powers had died and wished, for the seventeenth time in the last four minutes, that he possessed a gun. Or at least knew how to shoot a gun. He should have taken an interest in hunting game. Then he pushed the semi-hysterical thought out of his mind and forced himself to settle, clearing his brain of its clutter, imagining himself sweeping up the front walk. Sherlock had watched Mycroft do this hundreds of time, smooth himself into place, shut himself down, keep the leaping riot of his emotion so far away that it no longer belonged to him. Sherlock could do it himself. He knew he could. He’d learned from the best in that regard. Caring is not an advantage.

When he spoke, he was pleased that he sounded casual and cavalier and playful. Perfect, Sherlock, he thought to himself. Well done. “Brought you a little getting-to-know-you present!” he called out, and held the sheaf of papers up over his head. He turned in a slow circle, looking all around, trying to make his mind slow down enough to catalogue. This might be important; it might all be important.

A door opened and closed, behind him and to his right, and he turned his head, and John stepped slowly out into the pool area.

For a moment, Sherlock was flooded with relief. John was alive and looked relatively fine, as fine as a hostage could look, Sherlock supposed, and there didn’t seem to be a mark on him. What was on him was a bulky jacket Sherlock had never seen him wear before, and Sherlock felt his relief trickle away, as he turned slowly to fully face John, and John sent him a tight, unamused smile and parted the jacket, just a bit, so Sherlock could see the explosives underneath.

Sherlock felt his heart stop in his chest and thought that surely that meant he was about to fall over, dead. But no, somehow he stayed upright, so his heart must have resumed beating. Sherlock stared at John without really seeing him, trying to think of what their next move could be, should be, how to get out of there alive. Sherlock wished again he had a gun—eighteen times—and also wondered, for the first time in a very long time, possibly his entire life, where the hell Mycroft was.

Sherlock looked away from John, scanning the pool area again. “Moriarty!” he called, trying not to sound as if he’d had enough, bloody enough, even though he really, really had.

Another door opened and closed, from the far end of the pool, and Sherlock stood warily, waiting, wishing again for a gun and the knowledge of how to use it—nineteen times. A man walked into the pool area, well-dressed, younger than Sherlock had expected, possibly around Mycroft’s age. He stood, looking relaxed and genial, and smiled easily at Sherlock as if they’d just been introduced at a debutante party.

“Jim Moriarty,” he said, conversationally, and then, brightly, “Hi!”

Sherlock didn’t say hi back. Sherlock didn’t say anything. Sherlock stood and thought, harder than he’d ever thought in his life.

“I’ve given you a glimpse, Sherlock,” continued Jim Moriarty, strolling slowly toward him, “just a teensy glimpse of what I’ve got going on out there in the big bad world. I’m a specialist, you see.”

“Dear Jim,” said Sherlock, mockingly, “please will you fix it for me to get rid of my little brother’s bully?”

“Just so,” agreed Moriarty, grinning at him. “It is astonishing, is it not? The things men will do for their little brothers.”

Sherlock ignored that. “Consulting criminal,” he said instead.

“Brilliant, isn’t it? No one ever gets to me. And no one ever will.”

“I did,” Sherlock pointed out.

“Only because I let you. Only because I wanted you to. As if you could have done it on your own.”

“A warning,” said Sherlock, “for my brother. Back off.”

“For your brother, yes. You figured that out, did you?”

“People have died.”

“That’s what people do,” Moriarty shouted at him.

Sherlock didn’t flinch. The effort of that was enormous. John did flinch and then took a deep breath, and seeing that was almost worse.

“We will stop you,” said Sherlock, calmly.

“No, you won’t,” replied Moriarty, answering calm.

Sherlock looked at John, met his eyes. “Are you all right?”

“You can talk, Johnny boy,” said Moriarty, and Sherlock wanted to snap at him not to speak to John. He wasn’t allowed to speak to John, especially not to say his name.

John didn’t talk. John held Sherlock’s gaze and nodded, just once.

Sherlock held out his pile of papers. “Take them.”

“Hmm?” Moriarty looked mildly interested. “Your brother’s files, I suppose?” Moriarty took them out of his hands. “Boring! I could have got them anywhere.” He tossed them away, into the pool, where they floated along the surface of the water. Moriarty stepped forward, closer to Sherlock. Sherlock held his ground and wished again for a gun. Twenty. “Do you know what happens if your brother doesn’t leave me alone, Sherlock? To you?”

Sherlock affected boredom, disinterest, nonchalance. “Oh, let me guess. I get killed.”

“Kill you? No, don’t be obvious. I mean, I’m going to kill you anyway, someday. I don’t want to rush it, though. I’m saving it up for something special. No, no, no, no, no. If your brother doesn’t stop prying, I’ll burn you. I’ll burn the heart out of you. Which will destroy him. Because you are the thing he’s proudest of in the universe, and any small thing done to you… Men do the silliest things to protect little brothers, Sherlock. People do the silliest things, Sherlock. To protect the ones they love.”

Sherlock did not let himself breathe, for fear it would be a gasp and it would give away the extent to which he was a bit of a mess. He also didn’t let himself look at John. He didn’t give a damn about whatever Moriarty threatened to do to him, but he needed Moriarty to forget about John. John wasn’t involved in any of this. Sherlock was the Holmes. Sherlock should be the only one Moriarty was threatening.

“Well,” said Moriarty, abruptly. “I’d better be off. So nice to have had a proper chat. Give your brother my regards, won’t you?” All of the conversational joviality faded abruptly from Moriarty’s face. “Ciao, Sherlock Holmes,” he said, his voice dripping with disdain.

“Catch you later,” rejoined Sherlock, cheerfully, watching him slink off through the door John had come through.

“No, you won’t!” Moriarty’s voice sailed back to him.

Sherlock waited a moment, just to be sure he was gone, and then pounced on John, pulling the coat off of him and the explosives with it, demanding of him, “All right? Are you all right?” He slid the explosives across the pool’s tile floor, away from them.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” John managed, trying to take a deep breath, and it was John’s voice, John’s voice, Sherlock could have cried with joy over hearing John’s voice again. “I’m fine. Sherlock—”

Sherlock ignored him, jogging toward the door Moriarty had left through, making sure he was gone, and then coming back into the pool area. John was crouched down, leaning back against the wall, gasping for breath.

“Are you okay?” John asked.

“Me?” Sherlock said, incredulously. “Yeah, fine. I’m fine.” He dropped to the floor beside John, ran a hand through his hair, over his face, down his neck, pressed his finger against the steady, elevated thrum of his blood there and then leaned down and pressed his entire face against it, John, John, John, whom he loved beyond reason. “I’m fine,” he said, because he was, with John’s blood flowing against him, with John breathing beside him.

A door opened and closed, echoing loudly through the pool area, and Sherlock thought, vaguely, that it was finally Mycroft. He forced himself up and away from John, because there was plenty of time for that, he thought, so much time for that. He stood and walked a few steps away from John, and Mycroft dashed into the pool area. Mycroft actually running, the thought was so ridiculous that Sherlock almost laughed.

Almost. Because Mycroft skidded to a stop, saying, “Sher—” and the name died on his lips, and Sherlock wasn’t sure what Mycroft had seen beyond him but it had turned him pale. Sherlock turned, wondering, but never got to see what he’d missed, because John slammed into him at the same time that what sounded like thunder rumbled through the pool area, and Sherlock found himself choking on a breath full of pool water, John’s dead weight pushing him deeper.

Chapter Text

Chapter Forty-One

When compared with the panic that had drowned Sherlock upon realizing John was missing, Sherlock experienced no panic at all over the actual act of being drowned. He kicked upward, carrying John with him out of the practical consideration of John being heavily entangled with him and Sherlock being desperate enough for some air that he didn’t want to take the time to kick John away.

He had barely broken the surface, barely sucked in a breath, when he was knocked back underwater by something landing squarely on top of him. Sherlock struggled, but whatever it was—whoever it was—grabbed at his arms, held him still, and Sherlock registered that it was Mycroft, who held up a finger as if to indicate: wait. Then the pool was illuminated by a shocking blast of light that forced Sherlock’s eyes closed and an explosion that shook the water all around them.

Mycroft let go of him as the reverberations faded, and Sherlock sought the surface, gasping in oxygen and pushing his hair back off his forehead. His mind was a whirl of data, too much to try to make sense of all at once. He had barely started down the path of one deduction—What had initially driven John to push him into the pool?—before getting distracted by the path of another deduction—What had caused Mycroft to leap into the pool after them?—and then suddenly realizing that the water all around them was dark with…blood. He treaded water and stared at it—blood, that was blood—and then he felt panic rise in his throat and start to choke him.

Mycroft had noticed the blood as well. “Are you hurt?” he demanded.

Sherlock knew that shock could keep him from feeling the effects of any wound he might have suffered, but he also knew, unerringly, that he had not suffered any wound. “John,” he said, and turned in a circle, hands reaching out blindly through the blood curling through the water. “John. Where’s John?” He thrashed about in increasing panic, looking for him in the water. The lights were out. Or, most of the lights were out. What had happened to the lights? Why couldn’t he see?

“Stay still,” Mycroft said to him. “You’re stirring up the blood—”

“We need to find John,” Sherlock snapped. Why was Mycroft being such an idiot?

“Got him,” Mycroft said, suddenly. “I’ve got him.”

Sherlock turned toward the sound of Mycroft’s voice. “Where—”

“Sherlock.” Mycroft’s voice was calm and even and something in it reminded Sherlock of being a child, of an impulse Sherlock had long since forgotten. The impulse to find Mycroft and make him promise everything would be all right, because Mycroft would make the promise in that tone of voice, and Sherlock always believed, always listened to, that tone of voice. Mycroft knew everything in that tone of voice. “Listen to me. I’ve got John. We have to get out of this pool. We have to get out of this building. You’re going to get out, and you’re going to run, and you’re not going to stop until you’re across the street, no matter what happens, do you understand me?”

“No,” Sherlock began.

Sherlock. We don’t have time to disagree about this.”

Sherlock set his jaw and clenched his teeth and said, in the darkness, “If anything happens to John, I’m going to blame you.”

“Of that I have no doubt.” Mycroft sounded grim. “Go.”

So Sherlock went. There was something in the air, a scent of acrid burning that didn’t bode well, an electricity in the room that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up with foreboding. Sherlock couldn’t have walked out of that room if he’d tried, something made him run. And then once he had run instinct buried in his brain from the earliest of his ancestors made it almost impossible to stop. He ran for his life, with the overfast processing of adrenaline, until he was across the street, and then he half-collapsed.

Mycroft was directly behind him, carrying John, who was clearly unconscious, and Sherlock pushed Mycroft away as he laid him on the pavement.

“Get away,” he said, leaning his head down toward John, assessing. In the distance there were sirens, but Sherlock knew they didn’t have time to wait for them. John wasn’t breathing, and Sherlock turned to that first, commencing CPR even as he evaluated the blood pouring out of John’s shoulder. Gunshot wound, Sherlock thought, leaning on John’s chest with an almost automatic absentness. Close to the heart. But missing the heart? “Take off your jacket,” Sherlock panted to Mycroft, as he counted his compressions.

He leaned down, pinching John’s nose and breathing into his mouth, and John responded instantly, coughing up pool water. Sherlock pulled away, turned John’s head to keep him from choking on the water, and slid out of his own jacket. Mycroft had handed him his, and Sherlock bundled it up, tearing John’s uniform out of the way, pressing Mycroft’s jacket hard over John’s wound, leaning his weight onto it.

“Sherlock,” said Mycroft, “the ambulance will be here any minute—”

“We have to stop the bleeding,” Sherlock said, concentrating on leaning into John. Mycroft’s jacket was soaked; it was singularly ineffective in absorbing blood. Sherlock tossed it aside, replaced it with his own equally soaked jacket, hoped the pressure would be enough, leaned heavily over onto it, put his mouth directly at John’s ear. “Listen to me,” he whispered, raggedly. “I love you, I love you, I love you. Do you hear me? I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you.” John was breathing, shallowly and faintly, but breathing, and Sherlock focused on it, pressing his forehead against John’s cheek and pressing his hands harder against John’s shoulder. He squeezed his eyes shut, took a deep breath, and felt the sharp ache of being alive, spinning through him in the dizzying thrum of his adrenaline, and wished he could press all of it into John, all of his surfeit of aliveness that John needed so much more than he did. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

“Sherlock,” said Mycroft, hands pulling at him.

“No, no, no, no, no.” Sherlock shook his head automatically, leaned more completely into John.

“Let them work,” Mycroft said, and more hands than Sherlock could possibly fight off pried him away from John, left him sitting outside the circle of usefulness, on the pavement. “Let them work,” Mycroft said again, and Sherlock realized he was right next to him.

“Do they realize he’s important?” Sherlock demanded.

“Do you think when I call for emergency vehicles they send me anything less than the very best?” Mycroft countered, evenly.

There was a dull rumble from the building across the street. Sherlock looked at it for the first time, thoroughly disinterested. Flames were licking through it, leaping toward the sky, and the rumble was its walls crumbling, caving in. With an odd, logical detachment, Sherlock realized that Mycroft had known this would happen, and had therefore insisted they run immediately. Mycroft had kept thinking. Because Mycroft wasn’t in love with John. Caring is not an advantage, Sherlock.

Sherlock turned to Mycroft with a suddenness that he could tell caught Mycroft off-guard, because there was an expression in Mycroft’s eyes he’d never seen before and couldn’t quite read. Mycroft shuttered it immediately upon finding Sherlock’s attention on him. Not that Sherlock cared about that, or anything but John, hidden now behind the frantic activity surrounding him.

“Mycroft,” he said, and then stopped. Words tangled over themselves in his head. He felt as if he’d lost the ability to translate language, or at least to translate thought into language.

And it didn’t matter, because Mycroft seemed to understand anyway, Mycroft had always understood everything, it was so annoying about Mycroft, but he said, “Everything’s going to be all right. I promise.”

***

As a technical matter, the doctor should not have been giving him any information at all. As a practical matter, he was Mycroft Holmes, and although nobody knew his title or anything about what he did, they did know that there was basically nothing in Great Britain that Mycroft Holmes didn’t have a right to know about, and especially not the current medical state of John Watson. So Mycroft turned from his meeting with the doctor in the doorway, walked back to his seat beside Sherlock, and said, “The bullet pierced his pectoralis minor and is lodged in his scapula. It missed the nerve and the artery. The prognosis is good; they’re taking him to surgery now.”

Sherlock didn’t respond. Sherlock hadn’t said a word since saying his name on the pavement by the burning building. Mycroft was reminded of Sherlock’s total and complete silence for days after their mother had died. He wondered if this was simply how Sherlock processed major emotional shocks, by shutting down the part of himself that communicated, by retreating completely into himself.

There was a discreet knock on the door, and Mycroft looked up to see that it was his PA. Mycroft stood and walked out into the hallway and closed the door behind him. “What is it?” he asked.

“Sorry, sir. But Mrs. Watson is here, sir.”

Mycroft nodded and took a deep breath. “Take me to her.” He glanced behind him as he followed his PA, at the two guards that settled comfortably into place beside the door behind which Sherlock was sitting.

John’s mother had been shown to a private waiting area, as Mycroft had requested, and she came up to him as he entered and closed the door behind him, wringing her hands together closely. His sister was there, too, small and pale in a chair, and she looked at Mycroft without any comprehension at all, so Mycroft focused on the mother. Her eyes were bloodshot, and she looked haggard, and it was impossible for Mycroft to deduce if she’d been drunk or not before she’d got the call, but, if she had been, she was stone-cold sober at the moment.

“How is he? What do they say? They won’t let me see him.”

“They’ve brought him to surgery,” said Mycroft. “The bullet is lodged in his—”

He never finished that sentence because she reached out and slapped his face, hard. “How could you do this?” she demanded, furiously. “How could you allow this to happen?”

Mycroft opened his mouth but found that he didn’t really have anything to say to that. It was unclear to him how he’d allowed it to happen, frankly. Unclear to him what he could have done differently to not end up here and now. And that was never the case in his life. He decided to ignore the question and also to ignore the stinging of his cheek. “The surgery should take—”

“Is he going to die?” she asked, cutting him off, and she almost swallowed the words, sounding small and terrified.

Mycroft looked at her and thought of the possibility of their positions being reversed, of John sitting silent in a waiting room whilst Sherlock was taken to surgery. He couldn’t even imagine it. His brain shied away from the concrete details he would have to put into place if he thought about it too much. He didn’t like John’s mother, but she was still his mother, and the heartbreak of her current situation was written all over her face.

“The prognosis is good,” he said, gently.

She processed that, pressing her trembling lips together and wringing her hands still and nodding her head a little bit. “That’s good. Right?” She turned to Harry. “That’s good, Harry.”

Harry swallowed but didn’t say anything.

Mycroft looked at the pair of them. “Is there anything I can get for you? I’ll have them send up tea.”

“Where’s your brother?” asked John’s mother.

Mycroft regarded her and said, carefully, “In a room,” which he knew was no sort of answer at all.

“Is he okay?” she asked, and she sounded regretful, as if anxious that Mycroft not think that she’d wanted him to be hurt.

He wasn’t okay, Mycroft thought, but he answered, truthfully, “He’s not in surgery.”

She nodded, accepting that, and then he inclined his head briefly at her in what he intended to be a farewell, before leaving the room.

“Get them tea,” he said to his PA, who nodded, and then Mycroft walked back to the waiting room where he’d left Sherlock.

The guards parted for him, and he opened the door. Sherlock hadn’t moved. He was sitting stiffly in the chair, in a bedraggled Eton uniform that was still damp and encrusted with blood. The only part of him that was moving was his fingers, resting on his knees and drumming anxiously against them, a betrayal of nerves that he wasn’t managing to suppress. Mycroft sat next to him and listened to his silence and watched the pattern of his fingers. If there was a violin there, Mycroft thought, Sherlock would have been playing it, and the idea filled him with a sudden fierce wave of relief, that Sherlock was next to him, silent but alive, that there would be years of his future filled with Sherlock on his violin.

The door was flung open and Mrs. Hudson hurried in and did something Mycroft had never seen her do before: She fell upon Sherlock and smothered him in a hug, pressing his filthy head against her shoulder and closing her eyes as she held him. Sherlock let her, his fingers stilling on his knees.

“You’re freezing, Sherlock,” she said, eventually, with a sniffle, and Mycroft supposed that was true, the pool water had been cold, and it was cold outside, and Sherlock had just been sitting in those wet things.

Sherlock didn’t answer, but he did something Mycroft had never seen him do before, which was, now that he was being hugged, to hug back. He turned his face into Mrs. Hudson’s shoulder and lifted his arms and closed them around her.

Mrs. Hudson’s eyes flew open in surprise, meeting Mycroft’s over Sherlock’s head, hers trembling with unshed tears, and Mycroft suddenly felt as if he couldn’t spend another minute in the room. He stood without a word and tugged open the room’s door and said to his PA, “I need a room, an empty room, is there one?” His voice sounded rough to him, as if he hadn’t used it in ages, and even his PA looked surprised and stammered as he pointed.

The room was dark and Mycroft didn’t bother with the light. He did open the window as wide as it would go, and harsh, crisp air drifted in, bracing against the closeness of the hospital atmosphere. The room was somebody’s office, and Mycroft sat behind the desk and leaned his elbows on it and put his head in his hands and concentrated on breathing in the fresh air and keeping down an irrational surge of panic.

There was a hesitant knock on the door. Mycroft swore thickly into his hands and wondered why people couldn’t leave him alone for even two seconds. “Give me a minute,” he called, but the door opened anyway, and he looked up in annoyance. And then he said, thoroughly surprised, “Greg.”

“Hey,” Greg responded, closing the door behind him, and then took him in. “Mycroft,” he said, “what the hell happened?”

Mycroft tried to imagine what he looked like. He no longer had a suit jacket, as it had been sacrificed to John’s wound. His white dress shirt was mostly dry now, but it was splotched over with blood, and his wool trousers were still damp and entirely too unpleasant. His hair had dried in God knew what manner of a mess, and he knew it was caked through with blood as well. And Mycroft decided that however he looked, it was accurate.

Mycroft took a deep breath and tried to think of an answer to Greg’s question. He couldn’t. He had never been so at a loss for words as he was now, he thought, and that was almost too hilarious, because so much had happened, there should have been thousands of words at the ready to tell people.

Greg glanced at the open window, and then back to Mycroft. “Mycroft,” he said, carefully, “is Sherlock all right?”

Mycroft nodded. “Everyone’s all right, I think. Or going to be all right. It seems. I’m having a delayed stress reaction.”

“Who diagnosed that?” asked Greg, walking over to him.

“I did.”

“Of course you did.” Greg reached out and smoothed at his hair. “Have you had anyone look you over? You look like you’ve just come out of battle.”

“I’m fine.” Mycroft thought. “I should have someone look at Sherlock, though. I should have… It was—”

Greg’s finger pressed against his lips, and Mycroft looked up at him. “Mycroft,” he said, softly. “Shh.”

Mycroft sat and looked at him. It was getting unpleasantly cold in the room. Mycroft could feel it in his toes, still encased in wet socks and sodden shoes.

Greg’s hand tugged at his, forced him to stand, and pulled him against him. Mycroft felt stiff and uncoordinated, pressing his icy nose against Greg’s neck.

“I’m fine,” he half-mumbled.

“Shh,” said Greg, and kept him close.

Chapter Text

Chapter Forty-Two

Sherlock was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the window, watching the progress of the sunrise. There was tea next to him that Mrs. Hudson had insisted on bringing for him. Mrs. Hudson and Mycroft were always forcing tea upon him as if it solved all problems. John had the same habit, Sherlock thought. John made tea with an almost ferocious devotion. Sherlock glanced at the cup of tea, which he knew was stone-cold now, and thought that John would have been furious if he’d known Sherlock had refused to drink the tea. It was almost enough to make him try to drink it. Almost.

The door opened and closed. Mycroft. Sherlock knew without having to look behind him. He also knew that Mycroft and Mrs. Hudson exchanged a glance, and that Mrs. Hudson shook her head ever so slightly, No, he hasn’t said a word yet, but that he knew because he could see Mrs. Hudson’s reflection in the glass.

Mycroft walked over to him, stepped around the tea, leaned against the glass and looked down at him. “He’s going to be fine, you know. He’s through the worst of it. He’s young and he’s healthy and all he has to do is wake up now. You know the statistics. I don’t need to tell you.”

Sherlock looked up at him. Lestrade had called for a change of clothes for Mycroft, and Mycroft had changed, showering somewhere in the hospital. He looked neat and put-together, as if nothing had happened. Sherlock had refused his change of clothes. These were the clothes he had worn when he’d forced John back into breathing, when he’d tried to push his blood back into his body. There was nothing whatsoever wrong with these clothes, and Sherlock didn’t want to clean up and pretend that everything could be put into place as tidily as Mycroft always managed to accomplish it.

“You could go sit in his room, you know,” Mycroft continued.

Sherlock frowned and looked out the window.

Mycroft sighed and said, “Mrs. Hudson,” in a slightly questioning tone of voice, and Sherlock watched Mrs. Hudson’s reflection nod and leave the room, the door opening and then closing. Sherlock braced himself for a lecture, but what he got instead startled him, because Mycroft leaned down, moved the tea out of the way, and slid to the floor beside him, mirroring his cross-legged position.

Sherlock stared at him, terrified enough to speak. “What’s wrong?”

Mycroft looked from the window to Sherlock. “Nothing. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. There’s nothing wrong. You saved his life, Sherlock. There’s nothing wrong.”

“Then why are you sitting on the floor?” asked Sherlock, suspiciously, eyes narrowed.

“Because I thought it might get you to speak.”

“I hate you,” said Sherlock.

“Thank God,” said Mycroft.

Sherlock huffed with annoyance and went back to watching the sunrise.

“You should go to his room,” Mycroft ventured, after a moment.

Sherlock watched the path of a bird wheeling its way between the buildings. “His mother hates me. I don’t think John would like to have all that drama by his bedside.”

“John would like to have you by his bedside,” said Mycroft.

Sherlock kept watching the bird. “I didn’t save his life, Mycroft,” he said, finally, after so long a silence that he knew Mycroft had decided he was going to stop talking again. “I almost got him killed. It was all my fault.”

Mycroft leaned back on his hands. “What makes you say that?”

Sherlock looked at him in disbelief. “What do you mean?”

“It was all your fault,” repeated Mycroft. “What’s your evidence for that?”

“If John hadn’t… If I hadn’t…” Sherlock marshaled his thoughts, took a deep breath. “Moriarty only wanted him because of me.”

“And why did Moriarty want you?”

“Stop being deliberately obtuse, Mycroft.”

“I’m just surprised that you’re not saying that this whole thing is my fault, since I was the person Moriarty was trying to get at all along.”

“It is your fault. But if I hadn’t let John…Well, you know.”

“I know what?”

Mycroft was looking irritatingly innocent. Sherlock gritted his teeth and said, “Caring isn’t an advantage.”

Mycroft was silent for a second. “Have I ever said that to you? Ever?”

“You never had to, Mycroft.”

Mycroft sighed and looked back out the window. A moment of silence ticked by. “Moriarty had John kidnapped from Eton, rigged up with explosives, and brought to the pool. All to lure you in. You weren’t playing, not the way Moriarty had expected you to. He needed to give you a nudge, so he used John. He got you to the pool area, and then he was going to kill you. A sniper’s bullet, straight through your head, nothing could be easier.”

“But why?” asked Sherlock. “It doesn’t make any sense. I’m no threat to him. Not realistically. I even brought him some papers from your desk. Worthless papers, but he didn’t know that. Maybe I was going to help him, for all he knew. Why would he kill me?”

Mycroft stared at him. “Are you seriously asking that question? How can you not know?”

Sherlock cocked his head. “Know what?”

“I’ve been chasing Moriarty down, trying to take him out. I didn’t think I was getting anywhere, but I was apparently much closer than I realized. He had to stop me.”

“So why didn’t he just kill you?” asked Sherlock, impatiently, because he understood all of that, he’d figured that out already.

“First, because I’m better protected than you are. And second, because if he were to kill me, someone else would take my place. Maybe not someone quite as clever, but someone with access to my files, to everything I already know, and it would go on, the chase for him, it wouldn’t end. But if he killed you…”

“If he killed me,” Sherlock prompted, when Mycroft trailed off.

Mycroft sighed and looked out the window. Sherlock watched him, studying him closely. “If he killed you, Sherlock, he’d win. I’d keep my job, I’d maybe even keep going after him, inspired by revenge, possibly, but I’d be distracted. I’d be ineffective, I wouldn’t be me, which was exactly what he needed. Killing me wouldn’t accomplish what he needed. Destroying me, that would accomplish it. And you’re the key to that. You’ve always been the key to that. How is it that you’ve never understood this? How is it, after all this time, after everything, you still don’t seem to realize this?”

Mycroft looked at him then, and he looked…younger, somehow. Sherlock had long ago stopped thinking about it, because to his mind Mycroft had been born old, but Sherlock considered that, in the scheme of it all, Mycroft was really very young still. Mycroft had basically been his age when Mother had died, and Sherlock thought of having to lose Mother and take care of a little brother on top of it. He thought of Mycroft asking him if there was anyone else he wanted in charge of him, and he thought of saying, in so many words, No, of course not, it must be you. He thought of the first time he had seen in Mycroft the person Mycroft had turned out to be, the way he had commanded attention in the library with a few flat and precise words, because Iphigenia had called Sherlock selfish. Sherlock had given no thought to that, he didn’t care what people thought, but he had been selfish, he’d changed the path of Mycroft’s life forever, and Mycroft had never once complained. Mycroft had been annoying and controlling and protective and irritating beyond belief, but Mycroft had never once said, the way he could have said: Enough. This isn’t my job. I’m not supposed to be worrying about a teenager this way. You should be someone else’s responsibility.

Mycroft met his eyes and said, “You, Sherlock Holmes, are the most precious thing I have. There is nothing more important to me than you. You’ve always thought otherwise, and you’ve always been wrong. Caring isn’t an advantage, but I never bothered to say that to you because the hypocrisy of my saying that to you was too much to be borne.”

Sherlock stared at him. He swallowed. He remembered to blink. He tried to think of anything he could say, but his mind was a blank. How did people live like this, Sherlock wondered, wildly. How did you live knowing that other people loved you, loved you enough to do anything for you, and you were forever in their debt, never able to make any of it seem worth it?

Mycroft sighed and looked back out the window. “But caring does make you foolish and impractical and irrational. For instance, when you see a gun leveled at the person you love, it makes you think it would be a capital idea to take that bullet yourself rather than see that person hurt for even a second. John saved your life, Sherlock. He’s not going to blame you for his being shot; he went and got himself shot on purpose, to save you.”

Sherlock cocked his head, processed this. Moriarty had always intended to kill him. Moriarty couldn’t let him go. Moriarty needed him dead in order to get the desired effect of devastation out of Mycroft. There had been a sniper, behind him, that Sherlock had failed to see. Mycroft had seen it, when he’d come running into the pool area. And John had seen it. John had pushed him into the pool in reaction, taking the bullet himself.

“But there was more than one gunshot,” Sherlock said, thinking hard. Even accounting for echoes off the hard tile surfaces of the pool area, he was sure he’d heard more than one gunshot, there had been so many it had sounded like thunder to him.

“I have a security detail with me at all times. They opened fire. It escalated out of control quickly, and someone hit the explosives.”

“Which was when you jumped into the pool and pushed me back under the water,” Sherlock deduced.

“Right,” Mycroft confirmed. “Well, I jumped in before that. I could see the explosives coming.”

Sherlock looked out the window, running it through in his head. It made sense. All of it made sense.

“You’re wrong,” Sherlock said, after a moment.

“About what?” The surprise was evident in Mycroft’s voice.

“I did know. I’ve always known. It’s why I left you the information about where we’d be. I knew you’d save us—save me—I knew you’d do it no matter what. If I joined a pirate ship, you’d find me before I had to walk the plank. I knew you would. I have always known that, Mycroft.”

There was a very long silence. Sherlock decided to save Mycroft from trying to find a response to that. There were no responses to things like that. It was why they were better left unsaid. He said instead, “I’ve seen him, Mycroft.” He turned to face him, adjusting his position on the floor. “Moriarty, I mean. Which means that we now know a lot about him. Do you think there’s anybody on this planet who could hide for more than a week from the combined efforts of the two of us?”

“You mean the two of us on the same side?”

“We’ve always been on the same side,” said Sherlock.

Mycroft regarded him for a moment, and then he smiled. “I think it is extremely unfortunate for Moriarty that you’re still alive right now.”

“I think it’s a shame for him that he underestimated how much Holmeses stick together.”

“In fairness to Moriarty, I’ve been known to underestimate that as well,” Mycroft responded.

“But you’re an idiot sometimes,” said Sherlock, lightly.

Mycroft chuckled. “Tell me everything you know about him.”

Sherlock opened his mouth to start, but there was a knock on the door. Mycroft’s PA stuck his head in. “Sorry to interrupt,” he said, “but I thought you’d want to know, Mr. Watson’s regained consciousness.” He looked at Sherlock and added, “He’s asking for you.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Forty-Three

John’s mother and sister were both in John’s hospital room when Sherlock walked past the bodyguards flanking the door. Sherlock had been expecting them, but they still gave him an awkward moment’s pause. What he wanted to do was crawl into bed with John and put his ear over his heart and listen, but he didn’t think that he was allowed to do that with an audience in the room. Not that he cared, but he thought John might care, and John had enough to be furious about, what with his near-death experience and everything.

Sherlock spared only the briefest glance for John’s mother and sister and instead took in everything about John’s condition with a sweeping glance. His heartbeat was strong and regular. That was a good sign, thought Sherlock. He’d apparently asked for him. Another good sign. Sherlock walked carefully over to the side of the bed and peered down at John, whose eyes were closed. Sleeping? Sherlock catalogued the paleness of John’s skin. To be expected. He’d improve, Sherlock thought. He leaned, trying to catch a glimpse of John’s shoulder under the blanket pulled up to John’s chin, and John must have sensed him, because he blinked his eyes open and Sherlock froze, waiting for him to say something.

“Sherlock,” said John, and gave him a flickering smile, a shadow of his usual one. “Where have you been?”

“I don’t know,” answered Sherlock, feeling too confused to think about where he’d been. “With Mycroft. How are you feeling? Are you in any pain? Nauseated? Is the tip of your nose itchy? That could be the anesthesia.”

John shook his head with a weakness that Sherlock found alarming because he was finding everything about John being in a hospital bed alarming. “My nose is fine. You look terrible.”

This offended Sherlock. “Do I?” he retorted. “And I’m not even the one who jumped in front of a bullet like an idiot, so you can imagine what you look like.”

John smiled, smaller than usual but genuine. The look in his eyes was the look he almost always had in his eyes, that unbelievable you’re fantastic look. Sherlock thought of never seeing that look again and needed to touch him, needed to reassure himself, needed the data of his all-right-ness.

“Sorry,” said Sherlock, “I just have to…” and then leaned his head down, into the curve of John’s uninjured shoulder, burying his face against him. He was warm, alive, solid.

“I’m fine,” John told him. “I really am.”

“You’re such an idiot,” Sherlock mumbled against him. “You are such an idiot.”

“I know,” John agreed. “I know.”

“We should go,” he heard John’s mother say.

Sherlock couldn’t quite read her tone. Resentful? Resigned? Embarrassed? Annoyed? Sherlock found he didn’t care. He kept his face against John and said, “Good,” which probably didn’t help his relationship with John’s mother.

The door opened and closed and John said, “I see you’re turning on the charm for my mother.” Sherlock ignored him and straightened and said, earnestly, “I love you. I know I never say it to you, but I love you. I love you so much it seems stupid to say it to you, because it comes nowhere near to being accurate, it’s…I love you.”

John looked confused. “I know that. I’ve always known that. I told you. Were you worried I didn’t know that?”

“If you knew how much I love you, then why would you do that?”

“Do what?”

“This.” Sherlock swept a hand toward John’s shoulder. “I find this whole thing unacceptable.”

“And I found the alternative unacceptable. Let’s agree to disagree. I’m too exhausted to fight with you right now.”

Sherlock sat anxiously in the chair next to John’s bed. “Sorry. I’m sorry. Tell me exactly how you feel.”

“I’m fine. Just tired.”

“How did you do this, when it was me in the hospital bed? How did you bear it?”

“I suffered in silence,” said John, in the tone of a long-suffering martyr.

“I’m serious. I don’t know how to do this.” Sherlock felt swallowed up with terror. John was fine, he was fine, but he had never seemed so fragile to Sherlock. Sherlock looked at him and saw the vulnerability of his skull, the accessibility of his carotid artery, the collapsibility of his windpipe. John Watson was a bundle of exposed deaths, waiting to happen, and Sherlock in response felt like a bundle of exposed nerves.

John looked at him and said, “No one does.”

“But I’m Sherlock Holmes,” said Sherlock, almost desperately. “I know everything.”

“Come here,” said John, after a moment, shifting to make room for him on the bed.

Sherlock needed no further invitation. He’d been practically holding his breath, hoping that John would suggest it. Sherlock clambered onto the bed and plastered himself against John. John winced a bit, and Sherlock said, “Am I hurting you? I’m sorry,” but didn’t move away, because he needed this, needed this closeness, and John said, “No,” even though he probably was hurting him, because John knew he needed it, too.

John spoke eventually, his voice soft. “I want to spend the rest of our lives watching you try to figure out how to do this.”

Sherlock squeezed his eyes shut, breathed John in, and silently agreed.

***

John had progressed to the point of sitting up in bed. He was making Sherlock read his schoolwork to him, because he tired easily enough still that it was trying, and also because Sherlock complained about it a lot and John liked to hear him complain. Sherlock complaining was his natural state, it was comforting, and John loved the rhythm of Sherlock complaining. Sometimes John tried to imagine a future for himself with less complaining, and such a thing seemed like a terrible, gaping void.

His mother and sister stopped by daily, and both seemed to be doing so well that John was almost pleased that he’d gone and got himself shot, if it had given them a wake-up call. Harry plainly didn’t know what to make of Sherlock, and it didn’t help that Sherlock usually curled in a sulky ball whenever they were in the room and radiated a possessive displeasure. John was going to have to call Sherlock on that eventually, but he figured Sherlock had had enough of a scare recently that he was allowed some moments of possessiveness toward him.

John thought his mother didn’t know what to make of Sherlock either, but seemed to be leaning toward disliking him. John thought his mother was probably hoping this whole thing was a phase. Probably, at a certain point, John would have agreed with her. It had never entered his mind before meeting Sherlock that the love of his life would turn out to be a man. He thought it more likely than not now that it was definitely true. He wasn’t entirely sure he was gay, but he was sure that he loved Sherlock, that, so long as Sherlock wanted him, he intended to spend the rest of his life with him, keeping him safe so that he could keep complaining. And his mother would just have to learn to accept that.

John hadn’t seen much of Mycroft. He knew Mycroft was probably pulling strings for him all over the place, because Mycroft was always pulling strings, but he stayed mostly out of the way, which was why, when he knocked on the hospital room door a week after everything had happened, John was surprised to see him.

Sherlock was half-sprawled next to him on the bed, one foot on the floor because there wasn’t quite room for him, The Interpretation of Dreams open in his hands. He paused in reading aloud from it to say to Mycroft, “Did you want something?”

“What are you reading?” asked Mycroft, coming into the room.

The Interpretation of Dreams,” answered John, while Sherlock scowled over their happy cocoon being invaded.

“How…romantic,” said Mycroft.

“It’s dreadful,” said Sherlock, fervently.

Mycroft chuckled and sat in the chair by John’s bed, setting his omnipresent umbrella next to him. “I wanted to talk to the two of you.”

Sherlock eyed him suspiciously. “This cannot possibly be good.”

Mycroft ignored him, looking at John. “I hear you’ve received an offer from UCL.”

“Yes,” said John. “Conditional, of course, but yes.”

Sherlock was descending into sulking mode next to him, which he always did when the topic of John’s university plans came up.

“Congratulations,” said Mycroft, easily. “But I thought, recent events being what they have been, you might be interested in a bit of a break. A gap year.”

John looked at him in confusion. “A gap year?” The thought had never occurred to him. He couldn’t really afford a gap year. “Doing what?”

Mycroft shrugged. “Whatever you like.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere. Everywhere. I would pay, of course.”

John stared at him, trying to add up the cost of an open-ended gap year like the one Mycroft was proposing. “I… No. I couldn’t possibly accept—”

“Fine,” interrupted Mycroft, sounding bored. “Don’t think of it as a present then. Think of it as payment for preserving for me a most treasured object.” Mycroft’s eyes flickered to Sherlock.

“I don’t—” John began.

“And, of course, you must accept, because I simply cannot allow Sherlock to take a gap year entirely on his own, he’d get into all sorts of trouble. At least if you’re along with him I can be assured that he’ll be slightly less careless with his well-being than he might otherwise be inclined to be.”

Sherlock straightened on the bed, pouncing before John could react to that. “What are you talking about?” he demanded.

“Something the headmaster said to me when you were having your melodramatic brush with pneumonia,” remarked Mycroft. “You’re more than capable of taking your A-levels now. As it is, you’re barely attending any divs at all. Why shouldn’t you take a gap year next year? Especially as you have no intention of subjecting yourself to the whims of idiots and attend university the way stupid people like John and I do.”

“Are you serious?” said Sherlock. “You’re not going to fight me on that?”

“No,” said Mycroft.

“Why not?”

Mycroft sighed. “Because we’re on the same side, Sherlock. No catch. A gap year for the two of you. That’s what I’m proposing. Greg would keep taking care of Gladstone, in case you’re worried about him.”

“And what about Moriarty?” said Sherlock. “You’d never let us do this if Moriarty—”

“The issue of Moriarty has been addressed,” Mycroft cut him off, simply, and then stood. “Think about it. There’s no rush. I just thought you might want to be considering all of your options, John, as you try to make decisions about next year.”

John watched Mycroft leave, thinking. He’d never really considered the possibility of taking a gap year. Now it seemed…like a pretty fabulous idea. A gap year, to see the world. All of the places he’d never really thought he’d ever get to see. See the world with Sherlock, instead of going off to university without him, and then come back and start down the path of being a doctor.

“What do you think?” Sherlock asked.

“What do you think?” John countered.

“I think we should do it.” Sherlock sat up suddenly, practically bouncing in his enthusiasm. “I think it sounds brilliant. I’ll get out of Eton, and you won’t have to go to London yet, and we’ll be together. Do you know how much we could see? We could go to all those hot, sunny places you thought about as a child. We could go to Bohemia. And Sumatra! We could go to Switzerland; I’ve always wanted to see the Reichenbach Falls. We could even rent a yacht and see if we could find pirates!”

“Pirates?” echoed John, in bewilderment.

“I wanted to be a pirate, you know.”

“A pirate?”

Sherlock ignored him. “Then we could come back and get a flat in London. I could solve crimes for people, and you could go to university.”

“How very domesticated we sound,” said John, smiling.

Sherlock tossed The Interpretation of Dreams off to the side and rolled carefully onto him. “I’ll keep severed heads in the fridge,” he promised.

“That’s better.”

Sherlock kissed him. “I’ll play the violin at all hours and keep you up.”

John kissed him back. “I’d expect nothing less.”

“Mmm. Sometimes I won’t talk for hours on end.”

“Because you’ll be snogging me?”

“Possibly.”

“Well, this all sounds heavenly.”

Sherlock grinned, his kisses deepening, and John prepared to settle into the sort of lazy, extended snog that Sherlock adored. Except that Sherlock suddenly lifted his head, turned to look at something John couldn’t see.

“What?” asked John.

“Mycroft left his umbrella,” Sherlock said.

“So? Oh, are you afraid he’ll come back to get it? Go and take it to the nurses’ desk for him.”

“No.” Sherlock sounded strange. “Mycroft never forgets his umbrella. He…” Sherlock looked down at John. “He forgot his umbrella.”

John was confused. “Are you…worried he’s, what, sick or something?”

“No.” Sherlock smiled suddenly. “No, actually I’m not worried at all. Now. Where were we?”

“I think we were about to become flatmates and solve crimes together.”

“Ah, yes. It’s going to be so fabulous that people will talk of it for centuries to come.”

“Oh, really?”

“Well, yes, because you’re going to document everything.”

“I’m going to leave out all the shagging we’ll be doing.”

“That’s so Victorian of you, Dr. Watson,” said Sherlock Holmes, and kissed him.

 

THE END.