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Phantom At The Feast

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‘God, this is awful.’

The whispered complaint reached Sherlock’s ears, half-hidden beneath the joyous chatter around him. Everyone loved a wedding. With free food and drink, most people were more than content. Until a moment ago, he’d thought he was the only one casting a disdainful eye over the proceedings, but it seemed he wasn’t alone in his abhorrence.

He searched the crowd, dismissing the whirling dancers and the giggling grandmothers who should have ceased drinking about three hours ago. Nearby, an elderly couple smiled mistily: too happy in one another’s company and their shared memories to be likely suspects.

A moment later, his gaze alighted on the man at the next table. With ash brown hair and a look of bottomless exhaustion on his expressive face, he was easy to overlook. At gatherings such as this, the quiet and unhappy went ignored. Sherlock himself had been projecting an unapproachable air since his arrival. He had only shown up at Mummy’s request, and even then, she’d had to resort to threats.

Unless he was very much mistaken, the stranger was in the same boat. No doubt some well-meaning relative had coerced him to attend, and now he regretted the decision. His suit was new and crisp, but cheap, probably bought for the occasion. It was off-the-rack, its poor fit doing little to hide the gaunt body of a man who’d suffered an illness or injury: something long-term that had melted away muscle and left him slender and strained.

A cane was propped against the table: metallic and utilitarian. Something given to him by the hospital as a temporary measure, though the scuffed tip suggested it had seen a great deal of recent use. Then there was the occasional flicker and twitch of his right hand, pressing into a quick fist as if trying to still a tremor.

Interesting.

Sherlock took in the rest of it in a blink, from his military bearing and the tan lines to the short, uninspiring haircut. How long had he been back in the country? A couple of months at most, if he was any judge, and probably significantly less. A military man, honourably discharged due to some trauma probably received in the execution of his duty.

Now he was attempting to acclimate to civilian life, and some fool thought a wedding was a good place to start.

As if the endless tedium would do this man any good. If anything, it only increased his isolation. Did he remain seated because he didn’t want to dance, or because his injured leg would not allow the movement? Was this someone attempting to avoid company, like Sherlock, or simply struggling to connect with these people and their lives?

After the reality of a warzone, all this must seem repulsively mundane.

Other deductions fluttered like butterflies across his consciousness, fractions of supposition. Here with family – a romantic partner would likely stay close to the man’s side, attempting support and comfort. Whoever shared his table had a drinking problem, judging by the sheer array of empty glasses with the same shade of lipstick at the rim.

One quick sweep of the room highlighted the most probable culprit: a slightly younger woman, with similar features, dancing with the dis-coordinated abandon of someone too drunk to be self-conscious. His sister, Sherlock surmised.

Yet the disapproval on the man’s face was not just the cringing of sibling embarrassment. It was more than that, something older and steeped in bitter resignation, as if he was staring down the fruitless result of an age-old argument.

The drinking problem wasn’t new, and the look in the man’s face was not unfocussed concern. He knew the risk at the bottom of every glass. Either he had suffered the loss of other family members due to alcohol addiction, or he had some level of medical knowledge to shade the outline of his fears

Sherlock could see nothing to offer credence to his assumptions. This was not the art of deduction, and he gave a self-deriding sneer. Clearly, he had been reduced to making up stories about strangers to escape his banal surroundings. Despicable.

The buzz of his phone in his pocket interrupted his musings, and he retrieved it, triumph blooming in his chest at the brief, stressed message from Lestrade. Of course the killer would escalate, how could the DI think otherwise? It had only been a matter of time before Sherlock’s help was required, and frankly, it couldn’t have come at a better moment.

He rose to his feet, poised to stride through the pressing crowds towards the beckoning open doors of the reception hall. Yet something made him hesitate, his attention briefly lingering with the man who sat, surrounded by people and yet still so isolated, a bare few feet away.

It was a split-second decision: a way to prove one of many theories. In a fluid movement, he took the cane, the metal cool in his grasp as he wove through the throng of people and out into the hallway beyond.

One or two couples lingered here, enjoying quiet conversation and the lower temperature, but Sherlock disregarded them. He was too intent on the noise behind him, not a cry of outrage or helplessness, but a distinct, steady march. A moment later, warm fingers grabbed his wrist, dragging him up short with surprising strength.

Fascinating.

It was the owner of the cane. Gone was the huddled, cringing figure. Now Sherlock took it all in, from the military bearing, undeniable now, to the firm lines of the man’s features: annoyance barely supressed behind a mask of politeness.

The man’s right hand was smooth around his wrist. A soldier who frequently used a firearm would still carry some trace of a callous there, no matter whether it was their dominant hand or not. The army trained all its soldiers the same.

So, a predominantly non-combative soldier recently discharged due to injury…

‘You’re a doctor. Better than that, you’re an army doctor.’

The words escaped him before the stranger could speak. Thin lips parted around something, a challenge, perhaps, but it never came. Instead, those eyes, blue in this light, narrowed, and Sherlock could easily observe an above-average intelligence at work.

Normally, his assertions were met with denial and suspicion. Yet the subtle shift of the man’s body- the way he straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin – suggested something else was at work. Curiosity, perhaps? Intrigue?

Sherlock felt an echo of the same emotion. He had taken the cane to prove a point. However, this man, standing there with no trace of weakness or a limp, was not what he had expected. Nor was the slow, thoughtful nature of that gaze. The aggression lingered still, but it was an unfocused anger at life in general, rather than something targeted at Sherlock.

‘Yes, or I was anyway. How did you -?’

He did not spare him. It was not in his nature to smooth the harsh edges of his facts with platitudes. It was a test of sorts, to see if this man was any different from others before him, or if the brief flash of interest would wither and die beneath the cold indifference of Sherlock’s explanations.

If the comments on the cheap suit and apparent infirmity of his body didn’t trigger an angry retort, Sherlock was quite happy to assume that the accusations of his sister’s addiction would push him over the brink. Insults were a best-case scenario at this point, and as he fell silent, Sherlock idly wondered if it would devolve into punches.

‘That –’ The man wet his lips, his hand twitching briefly at his side as he took half a step forward, invading Sherlock’s personal space. ‘That was… amazing.’

‘That’s not what people normally say.’ Honest surprise strained his voice in his throat, and Sherlock found himself locked in a constant cycle of reassessment. Perhaps he had successfully lain down a foundation of deduction on this man’s character, but with every new piece of data, his conclusions evolved into something more.

‘What do people normally say?’

‘“Piss off.”’

The man’s laughter was bright in the peace of the hallway, a nervous giggle that gradually grew into something more. An answering smile sprang to Sherlock’s lips unbidden. It was odd; a moment of comradery that lingered around them like smoke, setting them apart from the other guests.

‘All that,’ the man huffed, ‘and I don’t even know your name.’

‘Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective.’

‘John Watson, but you already know what I used to do.’

It was a normal name. Bland and unremarkable, much like the man himself at first glance. To Sherlock, it hid far more than it revealed. He did not realise he was staring until the irate buzz of his phone made him look away.

‘Duty calls?’

John’s smile strained at its edge, and some of the light mirth had brought to his eyes began to fade. Sherlock could sense it too, not the closing of a chapter, but the end of a story. They were strangers, sharing little more than a passing moment.

Reality began to intercede, and he found himself casting about for something, anything, to delay the inevitable.

‘I work with the police, helping them solve the crimes they cannot.’ It sounded ridiculous to his ears, but he pressed on regardless. ‘Murders, mostly. I could have a use for your expertise.’

It seemed pointless. Sherlock had nothing to offer as proof beyond a text on his phone, and Lestrade could be anyone. He had nothing to recommend him – no kind words from a friend, no formal introduction… All John had was Sherlock’s name, and that meaningless to most people.

He read the hesitation in John’s face – saw the wrinkle of his brow and the twist of his lips. Sherlock braced himself for a polite, disinterested response as John gently retrieved his cane leant on its support.

Those blue eyes examined him – assessed him – weighing and measuring the impossible equation of untellable risk versus unknown reward.

‘All right.’ A deep breath swelled John’s chest, making the cloth of his suit whisper. ‘All right, yeah. If I can help, I’m more than happy to.’

Sherlock blinked, unable to mask his surprise. It was only a flicker of shock: a brief, electric shiver down his spine, and then it was gone, replaced with something far more alien. Happiness was not an emotion he often entertained, but there was no other way he could describe the feeling that settled in his chest as he stepped back and gestured towards the open door.

The night awaited them, brimming with possibility. John Watson was no ordinary man, and for the first time in his life, Sherlock could honestly say he was captivated.

Maybe this was not the ending he had feared. Perhaps, given time, it would prove to be a new beginning for them both.