John's neck was warm against his chilled cheek, and Sherlock's eyes closed of their own accord. Rearing back a bit, he opened them to slits, just far enough that his eyelashes were tangled into an irregular lattice, and all he saw was red, the colour of John's shirt drenching his vision as if he were basking in the sunshine with his eyes closed, heat and light beating against his closed lids. Or as if he were drowning in blood dripping from one of Underhill's lethal scarves.
"Sherlock –" John started to say, but broke off when Sherlock lunged forward again, somewhat less than graceful, as if the long weeks away from John had prompted the deletion of personal-space rules. He hunched and tucked himself inward so that his nose met the place where John's jaw, glittering with golden stubble, turned smooth and soft and flowed into the strong lines of his throat. Whatever he might have deleted, at least John was still indelible; he smelled earthy, like tea, and radiated a latent heat, and Sherlock gladly kinked his spine to stay close.
One of John's bruised hands cupped his other cheek, then slid through his unsightly hair to cradle his skull. Sherlock had wanted nothing more than to feel John's protective warmth against him for as long as he'd been away.
"Did you know?" he asked, mouth against John's shoulder, the thin, soft fabric of John's shirt catching against his chapped lips. It seemed absolutely vital that he know if John's instincts had betrayed him; the man who could kill Moriarty bare-handed was no one to underestimate.
Squeezed more tightly against a solid body, Sherlock could feel warm breath against his ear as John murmured, "I hoped. Mycroft hoped. He's missed you so." Then John was loosening his arms and Sherlock stepped away, straightening his spine and directing his gaze just past John's sure-to-be-earnest expression.
He wasn't looking, and John's red-knuckled hand on his forehead came as a surprise. "You're burning up," John said, then chewed his lip and frowned. "Come on, now, into bed with you."
Sherlock inwardly gloated just the tiniest bit that the reproaches John evidently wanted to make on Mycroft's behalf had so easily given way to concern for his health. He dropped the phone on the sofa without any ceremony. John waited in the doorway while Sherlock kicked off his battered trainers and climbed into his own bed for the first time in far too long, then closed the door gently with a snick.
Sherlock remembered how his body had fought him while he'd been ensconced in the overweening luxury of that Quincy tosser's garish flat, how he'd needed some sign of John . . . and now, with John on the other side of that door, it seemed risible that he would do anything but stand next to him. But his limbs felt weighted, like there were magnets holding him down, and he succumbed to his weariness with a roll of his bleary eyes.
Still, sleep eluded him as he heard the soft sounds of John moving through the flat: sweeping up the shattered teacup, puttering around as he made a replacement cup and scraped butter onto his toast, venturing up the stairs to take a shower. Sherlock realised belatedly that he was actually holding his breath, the better to hear John, which was ridiculous, as the bug in John's watch was still in place; better, sharper information, not filtered through doors and space, was available to him. Logic did not seem to matter. Sherlock lay flat on his back and contemplated the ceiling conscientiously until he heard John leave the flat, pulling the door closed behind him.
At that, he was up, swaying a bit on his feet, and laboriously climbing the stairs John had just trod. John's bed was unmade – uncharacteristic, John must have been totally shaken by his reappearance – and there was a strong scent perfuming the air, an apple fragrance synthetic enough to set Sherlock's teeth on edge. He leaned in closer to the bed and saw a single long red hair littering one of the pillows.
Yes, of course Anna would occupy this side of the bed, given John's shoulder; he could see that she must have been angled toward John, both of them curled, like foetuses suspended in amniotic fluid, on the expanse of the bed. He brushed the errant hair from the pillowcase and sat on the bed until the sugary scent of Anna's lotion chased him from the room.
He woke without a single clue as to how long he'd slept. There were no cups of tea on his pristine bedside table, no disturbances to the trail of clothing he'd removed upon returning to his bedroom; John had not so much as peeked in on him, let alone guarded his rest. Ordinary people, he knew, often judged the passage of time by their hunger pangs, but he'd trained himself out of that. He wondered briefly if that had been a mistake, then recalled a number of experiments and stakeouts an ordinary appetite would have precluded. Satisfied, he rested his feet on the cool wood of his floor.
The flat seemed strangely silent, he thought, snatching up his dressing-gown from its hook and drawing it on. There was no one in the living room, no murmur of voices from above or below, and only the fridge was humming quietly. The clutter on the mantelpiece – John's framed photograph of his sister and her wife just edging out the skull – was the same as it had been before. Sherlock prowled through the kitchen, opening the fridge and the cupboards to see nothing of his, just jars and packets of expensive sauces and spices, fresh produce, and similar rubbish; John was evidently cooking rather than relying on takeaways or frozen foods, most likely to impress his current girlfriend. Sherlock wondered how long she thought she was going to last.
The silence was oppressive. He smiled when he realised what he could do about it. He opened the violin case reverently, eyes filling with light as the wood glowed, borrowing colour from the scarlet velvet hidden inside dusty black. The instrument fit in his arms and his mind went beautifully clear, melodies spun out on staves that streamed effortlessly across his inner eye. His fingers were slow at first but soon enough they became obedient, and he played, filling the flat with pure sound.
It was glorious, reuniting with his violin, asserting that the space he stood in was his. His control was absolute; the time away had not been allowed to diminish his skill. He played serenely until he heard a muted shuffling behind him, and his bow went awry, eliciting a discordant screech, and he turned to find Mrs. Hudson there, clutching a lace-edged handkerchief near her open mouth.
"I didn't think I could believe him," she said, eyes widening when he pivoted, as if Sherlock's face offered more proof of his return than his back. "Wishful thinking, I put it down as."
God, what dreadful sentence structure. "As you can see, Mrs. Hudson, I have indeed returned and you can trust John to grasp basic facts when he is presented with empirical evidence."
She smiled tremulously, then stepped close, her face pressed briefly against his chest. "I should have known you couldn't stay away from him for too long." She tittered, the sound dying as she turned away again. "He said to leave you be, that you needed your rest, so I'll go. I just wanted to see you with my own eyes," she finished, backing away and heading down the stairs.
He frowned and lifted the violin again but could only produce jangling squawks.
Seething with frustration, he gave it up as a bad job and packed the violin away. Mrs. Hudson had broken a sacred calm. He stopped and considered; she'd been wearing a blouse and soft trousers, suitable for running errands. It must be a weekday, then, as she'd long since given up going to the shops on weekends, when they got more crowded. He strode to the windows and saw that the light was a pale, early-morning gold. Excellent – he knew just where he could find Mycroft, and if John thought he could limit others' exposure to Sherlock, then surely Sherlock could warn Mycroft away from John.
There was no value to appearing before his acquisitive brother in his beggar's rags, so Sherlock showered and dressed carefully in a pearl-grey shirt and a sharply pressed black suit. He could wait until after he had announced his return to stop by his locker and retrieve his coat and the outfit he'd had to discard; getting his hair back to its proper colour would also have to be deferred, though it would do Mycroft no harm to see that Sherlock could carry off even ill-cut two-toned hair. He stepped out of the building and headed toward Mycroft's office.
Anthea – Amy – was conspicuous by her absence and the emptiness of her mahogany desk, which had often been hidden under self-important stacks of paper – ridiculous, considering all of her work had concerned electronic files, hence that wretched BlackBerry. It had been months since her death; what was Mycroft waiting for? Sherlock shook off musings about Mycroft's peculiarities, as the lack of an interfering and too-clever-by-half assistant made his path to his brother's door all the easier.
When he pushed open the door to Mycroft's sanctum, Sherlock saw his head go up as if he'd been startled, but no corresponding line of ink defaced the document he had been annotating. Mycroft made a show of politely capping his pen and putting the document into the folder at the top of a thick stack, as if to prove that his attention was undivided. Sherlock decided to proceed as if he were motivated by a similar spirit of amity.
"'For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes,'" he quoted, recalling the words Mycroft had spoken when Sherlock had refused to smile for a family portrait; Sherlock had snooped and discovered that Mycroft had not only bought the painting after Mummy had found it "too realistic" to display in the house, but had hired the painter as one of his minions besides.
There was a silence, and Sherlock saw that Mycroft's mouth was making a funny shape, one he hadn't seen in nearly thirty years; Mycroft was pressing his tongue against his soft palate as he'd taught himself to do to rid himself of the stutter that had plagued him. Mycroft's hands, white with tension, were pressed flat on his desk, the force he was exerting delineating every angle of his body quite clearly; Sherlock could see a small bulge in the breast pocket of Mycroft's ill-hanging suit and realised Mycroft had lost more weight. It was definitely not guilt, but Sherlock felt his own hands shake and the craving for a cigarette sweep through him.
When Mycroft spoke, it was with a fussy precision. "You ought to have that gap in your mouth seen to. My dentist is very good and can keep a confidence." A glance toward the outer office, and Mycroft seemed to lose his way. "I will . . . send you his information shortly."
Sherlock started with surprise, though he knew quite well how many marks he bore from the assault by Mathews, and that Mycroft could have deduced the entire fight from just a single clue instead of the embarrassment of riches Sherlock was obviously presenting. He nodded without quite meaning to. "Fine." He considered how to make his point in a way that would stick. "I can only hope he has as little patience with small talk as I have."
"Dr. Scarborough will be efficient, I assure you. He will not enquire about the weather or your general health. Nor shall I. Good day." Mycroft's skin, Sherlock saw, was an unflattering grey; perhaps Amy had kept his brother in sweets that had given him that porcine glow.
"It would be redundant, given that John has the matter well in hand," Sherlock responded smartly, pleased that he was able to speak obliquely and unmistakeably at the same time.
"I imagine John capable of handling everything you have compelled him to," Mycroft said in turn, lips tightening, and Sherlock was unpleasantly surprised by the informality – no pretence of Dr. Watson – and the assumed smile Mycroft wore. Mycroft's voice became disconcertingly fond, even caressing. "He is a remarkable man, after all. 'For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.'" His expression stayed close to blank. "That is the next line of the poem, but not nearly the end."
Sherlock pulled the lapels of his coat closer together as he sat in the cab, considering how to broach the subject with John. His tongue played along the thin wire holding his new retainer in place. Dr. Scarborough had been surprisingly accommodating about his preference for a new false tooth that could be removed at will, as the need for disguise dictated; he would be able to investigate both the tooth itself as well as the hole at his leisure, and the former could be replaced more easily than if he had opted for a permanent bridge.
Not, however, that the cooperation meant that the dentist had been as taciturn as Mycroft had implied and Sherlock had wished. Sherlock supposed that discovering one's wife sucking blood from her new-born child's neck would drive anyone to verbosity. Half the time, in fact, Dr. Scarborough had seemed to forget that Sherlock's mouth was propped open for his shining implements and that Sherlock could not speak.
It didn't sound like a particularly fascinating case – perpetrator and crime had both been supplied already – but it was more than adequate, both to erase any potential debt to Mycroft and to provide the fodder John needed to resume his blogging; Sherlock was sure John would work in at least one terrible pun or perhaps an allusion to those dreadful Twilight movies, the so-called stars of which had stared vapidly at him from posters strewn willy-nilly throughout London as if they weren't the worst kind of filth. The cab drew to a stop and Sherlock had to find cash – inconvenient – before he could bound up the stairs.
John was in the kitchen, wearing Clara's old "Kiss the Cook en français" apron and stirring something that wafted up a medley of aromas. There was no cookbook out, but his face was not anxious – not experimenting, then, but falling back upon a recipe he'd tested and worked out through previous experience. The sink was empty but there were streaks of water running down two chopping boards, a pair of matched saucepans, and assorted spoons and knives, all in a new drying rack; John had conscientiously cleaned as he went, no doubt recalling his mother's example. John was fascinating, even when he wasn't behaving as himself.
Sherlock took a step in and saw the steady motion of the spoon pause for an infinitesimal amount of time. John cocked an eyebrow at him and Sherlock grinned back. "We've got a case."
"I've got food literally on the stove. You go ahead," John said, turning back to the pot, the contents of which were starting to bubble at the edges.
"No," Sherlock said, swallowing his disappointment, "it can wait until the morning."
"How did you know I've finished this week's shift and that I'm not just done for the night?" John asked curiously, before a small smile found his lips, ruddy from the steam. "Did you talk to Mycroft, then?"
Sherlock shook his head and John's smile faded.
"Will you be eating dinner?" John asked carefully, as if he had to be on his best behaviour, and Sherlock was already wearied by it.
He assented and wondered if he were indulging in wishful thinking in ascribing John's lack of questions about the case to his own oft-shouted precept of not theorising before reviewing the evidence first-hand. John ate quietly but with evident appreciation for his own culinary skills, silently did the washing up, and opened his laptop.
"We'll need tickets to Sussex," Sherlock said, lying on the sofa.
"I'm just sending some emails," John said, already typing diligently with his usual appalling slowness, "but I'll leave the laptop on for you when I'm done. Don't book a return for me – I'll have to ring and find out when they need me back."
John had not said one word about the fact that Sherlock's violin case was lying across one of the chairs, nor had he expressed any interest in journeying to Sussex or what they might find once they arrived. No, John was simply typing, the tip of his tongue peeking out from the corner of his mouth. Sherlock felt heavy and worn down as he dragged himself off to his bedroom and opened his own laptop instead. It would be simpler to book both tickets at once in any case.
If, after he heard John's footsteps on the stairs, he allowed himself to tune in to the frequency of the bug in John's watch, no one ever needed to know. All he heard was silence, which told him John was lying awake too.
John was standing one step behind and two steps to his left in precisely the most irritating spot; Sherlock kept seeing him in his peripheral vision and wanted to snap out a command that John take his place by his side, as befitted a friend. When he sniped at Scarborough, "No, no, I've already met you! It's your wife and child I need to meet, obviously," he could feel John very carefully not speaking a word of reproach. Enough. Sherlock whirled to confront John, who raised his eyebrows mildly, apparently unsurprised by the tactic.
"I'm not married, Mr. Holmes," Scarborough said, as if his marital status were remotely interesting. "Angela said she didn't want to be a pregnant bride, and she wasn't sure she wanted to settle down with a dentist anyway." He let out a nervous chuckle that made Sherlock's hand itch to slap him.
"Is it possible she's conducting an affair with your brother?"
"My broth – no, of course not! I don't think they even like each other much."
"Not a prerequisite, as I understand it. Still, I will need to speak with him as well."
"How –?" The glare Sherlock was levelling at him was enough to make Scarborough swallow the question. "Morgan's away for a few days, walking an appraiser through the family estate in the Loire Valley."
"Vineyard?" John asked abruptly, and Scarborough turned to him with a pleased smile.
"The bottles the cook set out at lunch were the house red." He seemed about to elaborate on that – Sherlock braced for boredom – but interrupted himself to address the young woman who had peeked out of one of the doors in the corridor. "Angela?"
"Putting Ian down for his nap," she said, vanishing back into the room.
"No, you're not," Sherlock cut in, recalling the long silence while Scarborough had eaten his meal and John had done little more than pick at his, though it had looked quite appetising. "He's just waking up and will begin wailing for you presently."
There was a long pause and then she burst out of the room, the baby in her arms. From this distance, Sherlock could see that she was quite young, very slight, and not particularly well-educated. The baby was sluggish, as befit a slowly wakening child, and nearly too well-fed for her to manage his weight. Her skin was punctuated with old, colourful tattoos, one arm nearly covered in a sleeve of pigment. Prominent among them were thick lines of black, shaping characters from various languages, not one of which she was likely to know.
He smiled contemptuously when he saw that she was glaring at John, who was nearer Dr. Scarborough than he was, obviously believing him to be the one who'd called her out for her lie. John waited until she was done eyeing him up and down and said, "Hello. I'm John."
At the sound of John's tenor, Angela relaxed and considered John again. "Angela. And this is Ian."
The baby went for John and John took him readily. "He's beautiful," John lied, but from the look on her face as she regarded her moist, pink progeny, Angela believed the same.
"Oh, what's happened here?" John asked, voice taking on a bit of an edge as his fingers gently shifted a roll of fat on the baby's neck to reveal a large bruise. Sherlock could see John's spine stiffen as if he were ready to run for the hills, baby clutched in his arms.
Ian's small hands danced along the strong lines of John's arms, patting his face and hair. John dismissed Angela from consideration – interesting, Sherlock would have to consider John's instincts as a factor – and turned to face their host, levelling a look that was just shy of accusing.
"Bryson?" John looked between Scarborough and Angela again, saw that neither took refuge in the other, and nodded grimly to himself.
Sherlock should have made John listen to the case as it had been presented to him, because there was no way to keep John from looking like an idiot at this juncture. Though John had correctly noted that a bruise at that particular location could only have resulted from some deliberate action, as a fall would have caused additional marks on the skull and face and perhaps hands, he had not believed that Angela would inflict such a wound on her own child. Sherlock could see very well that Scarborough could not bring himself to repeat the charge, and that Angela had gone hunched and defensive, though her eyes remained locked on John with a fixed, desperate hope. Curious. What did she expect John to do?
"There is a puncture wound here," John snapped out, and Sherlock bent closer to take a look at a site that should have shown either twin marks or none. John did not accommodatingly shift his hands as Sherlock had expected, so instead of the child's neck, Sherlock saw those hands in close-up: still bearing remnants of their tan, traversed by the weary blue of winding veins, responsive to the baby's movements.
"Let me see," Sherlock insisted, and John's steady fingers exposed the area once more as he made nonsense sounds to soothe the baby, unsurprisingly growing restive again. There was indeed one puncture mark, too fine to have been made by the undernourished Angela's incisor, and in any case her teeth could have been an advertisement for her lover's practice; there were no gaps or overcrowding to mar their symmetry, which meant her bite would have caused a second mark.
"If not teeth, then lips," he murmured to himself. "You were sucking out something with which your child was injected," he said to Angela, gratified by her instantaneous reaction. "How did you know what to do?"
Her eyes, wide and terrified, fixed on him like he was a demon. "Gil, Nan's bloke, has snakes in his flat, he's always letting them out o' the tanks, used to tell Nan if she was bit he'd suck the poison out. Scared the shit out o' her, 'n me too."
"But you remembered," Sherlock said, graciously overlooking the terrible diction.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Scarborough demanded, finally regaining the colour he'd lost, gesturing at her as if his hands were more eloquent than his words. In Sherlock's estimation, it was a tie, neither one serving Scarborough well. "You said nothing! You let me believe you were back to your dark stuff –" He cut himself off by snatching the child out of John's arms.
The baby evidently did not enjoy being treated like a sack of potatoes and wailed in earnest, reaching arms out toward its mother. "Give 'im to me," Angela said sharply. "He's mine."
"It's in your house that 'e's been injected with something!" Angela cried, bouncing the baby ineffectually; Ian screamed all the louder.
"Come, Angela," John said, getting a hand on her back. "We'll leave Sherlock and Bryson to work out –"
"There's nothing to 'work out,' John," Sherlock interrupted. "Clearly, Scarborough's brother, a rather unsuccessful doctor, supplanted as heir to the family fortune by his elder brother's illegitimate but acknowledged child, determined that administering some noxious but rather slow-acting substance and securing an alibi for himself by being out of the country was his best course of action. He counted on Angela's extreme youth and ignorance to overlook any signs of weakness in the child, not realising that her discomfort at the lifestyle Scarborough provides meant that she fixed upon the child as the only focus of her energies. Once his brother's child was dead, he was sure the child's mother would be condemned by either the courts or by Scarborough, and in either case he would be reinstated as heir." He paused; all three of them were looking dazedly at him, and even Ian had lowered the volume of his whimpers. "That medical bag nearly buried under the detritus of this master bedroom – purchased from eBay, not handed down from a family member – Scarborough's brother keeps as a symbol of his chosen profession no doubt contains remnants of the poison. Ineptitude has been his hallmark from beginning to end."
"Oh, God," Scarborough said, and John, his arm around Angela, gestured at Sherlock to lend his arm to the man. Sherlock stepped forward obligingly and looked to John for approbation, but John was half-carrying the sobbing woman and child to the nearest sofa. The entire weight of John's gaze was trained on Angela, whose nose was dripping and shoulders were shaking, even as her arms convulsively tightened around her baby. John kept one arm around her and cupped Ian's head with his free hand, soothing them both quietly for minutes that seemed endless.
John said very little on the train journey back to London. Looking more closely, Sherlock could see he was very slightly greenish, as though he were getting motion-sick. He stood and forced John to switch places with him; now that John was facing forward, surely his inner ear would cease to interfere with his sense of well-being. But John did not confirm any improvement, simply shutting his eyes. It did not look like what was bubbling in his brain was praise for Sherlock's methods or even for the rapidity with which he had reasoned the case out.
Mile after mile went by and Sherlock looked at his own ghostly reflection superimposed on the landscape rushing by, focusing on forcing down his reawakened nicotine cravings. John stirred, looking slightly better for having got a little rest, so Sherlock ventured, "What will you call this case on your blog?"
John's eyes shot open. "I'm not planning on making anything about this public." There was an undercurrent of confusion in his voice. "Your mate Scarborough wouldn't thank me if I did."
"He's not my 'mate,'" Sherlock said, offended by the characterisation. "We simply did each other a service: he replaced my tooth and I found out why his partner was behaving so oddly."
"He ought to be written up," John said flatly.
"She wasn't that young, John." He offered a smile in case John looked his way.
John eyed him with a sober air Sherlock found himself resenting. "Not for that. Or not just for that. He thought – based solely on her tattoos – that she was some sort of Satan-worshipping blood-sucking ritualist –"
"I cleared her of that charge," Sherlock interjected, surprised at how slow John was being. Perhaps he did need sleep more than he needed cases.
"No. You showed her that's what he thought of her. And you completely overlooked the fact that even though he was wrong about her reasons, he still left his infant with someone he'd seen sucking out his blood! He had a responsibility to that child, Sherlock!"
"That's – that's not our concern," Sherlock said, scrambling to show John all the scattered data he'd synthesised. "We knew she was sucking the blood before we met her – that's why Scarborough asked me to help in the first place. He was trying to do the right thing."
"Not enough," was all John said, the landscape cutting through his reflection as the train clicked steadily on.
Sherlock pulled the sheets off his bed, wrinkling his nose in disgust at the sweaty mess he'd made of them while tossing and turning and trying to find some rest. He dropped them on the floor, too tired to do more, and dragged himself into the kitchen; he presented his forehead to John, who was keeping an eye on the kettle.
"Still warm, but not alarmingly so," John assured him, estimating Sherlock's temperature with the back of his hand, then turned aside to pour boiling water into a mug. John glanced back at him over his shoulder, still holding the kettle aloft. "Tea?"
Sherlock nodded his assent and watched John pour a clean arc of water into another mug, steam rising insistently. So John had filled the kettle with enough water for two cups of tea; what frustrated Sherlock was that he could not tell if it was a habit John had not been able to break, if it was a sign that Anna had insinuated herself enough into John's life that he unthinkingly accommodated her, or if John simply counted on getting a second cup for himself from one use of the kettle. What absolutely galled Sherlock was the knowledge that John had not suddenly turned opaque – he was simply out of practice in reading John and had misplaced his ability to tell which parts of this fascinating palimpsest remained steady and which were evolving.
Sherlock drew back into a corner of the kitchen, cradling his mug in his hands, relishing the heat that passed from the ceramic to his chilled fingers. John set his mug on the clean kitchen table and headed for the cupboard to fetch bread. When he came close to put two slices in the toaster, Sherlock could smell his skin, soapy and warm, and his unwashed hair. John looked up at him and smiled rather shyly; Sherlock's insides tumbled recklessly and he let one warmed hand drift toward John.
The knock on the door surprised them both. John pushed off from the worktop and strode toward the door. His voice, bright and delighted, made Sherlock hold his mug closer, savouring the evanescent heat; he stayed where he was, wanting to see who could make John sound like that when not even a case in which John had defended a woman and child had done the trick.
Lestrade entered the kitchen on John's heels. "She's got I don't even know how many rolls of film and a fair few of them are just me sweating my way up the steps to the Acropolis. I'm to fetch you home now, or, failing that, for dinner on your next night off."
"Sounds good," John said, still smiling. "What would be better for you bo–"
The toast popped up at that moment and Lestrade looked over and went completely still at the sight of him.
"What the fuck –" Lestrade said, eyeing John and apparently reassured by the smile disappearing from John's face. "What the fuck is going on here."
"I'm not dead," Sherlock said.
"I thought you told him," John said quietly, tone still somehow urgent. "Why would you not tell him?"
"What made you think I had?" Had John honestly thought he'd have time to spare for anyone but him? It was John who was necessary to him, John who was still withholding what Sherlock had needed while he was pursuing Moriarty.
"You asked me to update my blog. You know Greg and the rest all read it," John answered, clipped like he was facing Bryson Scarborough again, of all ridiculous notions.
He dismissed John's over-emotional point with a cavalier wave of his free hand, unwilling to acknowledge any disappointment at the thought he was not going to be able to watch John type in his childlike, even idiotic, manner, smiling all the while as he marshalled the facts to make a compelling blog entry.
"Greg, mate, I'm so sorry," John said, putting out one hand and seeming relieved when Lestrade allowed it to rest on his shoulder. "He's ill, so please don't punch him."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Lestrade said after too long a pause, turning his back entirely on Sherlock. "Want to get out of here?"
Sherlock watched a long, wordless conversation unfold in front of him, gleaning emotions from the way John's head tilted and how the light caught on Lestrade's averted face.
"Not contagious," was all Sherlock heard from John, and his fingers tightened reflexively on his mug at the casual tone of voice, as if John were discussing someone from that wretched surgery where he'd used to work between cases.
"Sherlock," Lestrade finally said, pivoting sharply on his heels. "You're coming over, since Vee's missed this one and he won't leave you to fend for yourself. Though God knows you managed well enough for – come on, get cracking!" He looked at John and relaxed into a smile. "Could I get a cup of tea while we wait for his majesty?"
John shook his head as if to negate the smile he was suddenly wearing and filled the kettle once more.
Lestrade's wife – a stone heavier than she'd been when he'd first met her – laughed when she saw John and laid unashamed claim to him, her lips pressed to his cheek and her arms wrapped firmly around him.
"Mmm," John said, brushing sugar from his cheek, "you've been sampling the wares."
"A matter of timing only, I swear. You caught me just as I was about to put the baklava in the oven to warm, so come in and tell me everything –"
Sherlock stepped into view and she stopped talking immediately and simply reached out for her husband. She looked between Lestrade and John but Sherlock, standing behind them, could not see any cues from either of them. He felt slightly overheated in his long coat, even without his lost scarf, and pulled the collar away from his throat.
"Well. Come in," she finally said, standing aside, stiff as an amateur actress.
John and Lestrade went straight into the kitchen, but Sherlock frankly did not feel up to standing around and watching them have a conversation in which he would not have at least an equal share. He settled himself instead on the living room sofa, a nice size for one person feeling unsociable or a tight fit for a cosy twosome. He judged, from the dents in the cushions, that this was where Lestrade and his wife most often sat after a meal; despite his frequent stupidity, then, Lestrade was able to lounge about with the person he most wanted near him pressed up against him.
He glanced around the room, seeing in the sketchbooks scattered on various flat surfaces and the flowering plants blooming at the windows proof that Lestrade was just as much of an uxorious idiot as Sherlock had suspected. He lay down, shoulders perfectly wedged between the back and the arm of the sofa, one overfull cushion bolstering his heavy head. He could hear the three of them talking, all laughing together at irregular intervals; the whistle of the kettle made him startle, but he banished it from his mind by closing his eyes and deducing what spices were mixed into the tea blend Lestrade usually smelt of on a Monday morning. His eyes closed, Sherlock gave himself over to the pleasures of rest and the sound of John's voice.
He stirred briefly, wondering if he'd been asleep, when John's hand alighted on his face, knuckles soft and insistent against his forehead at first, then the palm tenderly cupping his cheek. "Shall we go home, then?" John asked. Sherlock could make out flakes of pastry on his shirt and could smell the honey on his fingers.
"I'm so tired," he said, immediately wondering if Lestrade and his wife had heard his confession. But it was hard to drag his eyes from John, whose mouth curved up at the words and reached down with both hands to help him to his feet.
Eat something said the note Sherlock found in the loo when he woke. A note was a poor substitute for a small doctor with his arms folded sternly across his chest, but it was at least more succinct than John would have been; it was not as though Sherlock needed another lecture on fatigue and susceptibility to illness being results of hunger. In the fridge were small sealed containers of chopped vegetables, packets of gourmet meats, and more, but Sherlock was suddenly assailed with a longing for salt and fat. It appeared that none of the takeaway menus had survived John's new health-conscious regime, but he'd never deleted the number for Dragon Inn; he ordered seaweed soup, braised beef, egg rolls, and John's favourite five-spice chicken, all under John's name.
The chicken had long gone cold when he checked the time, surprised at the lateness of the hour. Surely John had not been on duty all this time? The note he'd left indicated that he'd known he would be out for a significant amount of time, but Sherlock felt uneasy anyway. It would be so easy to verify that John was fine, happily engaged with his work; if he were lucky, Sherlock might even hear about some medical mystery that would energise his mind.
He curled, full and lazy, on his bed, opening his laptop and eschewing the earbuds, tuning into the frequency of the bug in John's wristwatch. Harry's voice came through clearly, and Sherlock frowned in confusion; she sounded relaxed, which made no sense if she was at the Trauma Centre. Clara's voice, pitched a fifth below her wife's, came through, the two of them talking over each other amicably. John was there too; Sherlock would have known just from the sound of his respiration, even if it hadn't been for the bug. The tangle of voices unwound until it was just Harry speaking alone, saying something about their next-door neighbour Laura, the way she and John had eyed each other for one endless summer to the point where Harry swore she'd been embarrassed if she stumbled into their sightlines.
"Oh, come off it," John said, tone relaxed. "She never even saw me."
"You never heard Mum and Auntie Ruth planning out your wedding," Harry retorted.
"So what happened, John?" Clara asked, evidently leaning close, judging by the volume of her question.
"She ran off and had a baby, Harriet, and – why on earth did you bring this up?"
"It reminded me, this afternoon, all those tiny little outfits. Do you remember when Laura brought her baby home?"
"That's right," John said after a pause. "Dressed up like a little sailor while Laura had baby food in her hair."
"You should have seen John. Looking more and more nervous as the baby's being passed around for cuddles, like thirty seconds with him was going to scar the kid for life. And then it's his turn and the baby's eyes are closing and John just gets this look on his face and pulls the kid in and, Jay, I'm telling you, at that moment, Laura was yours for the taking."
John snorted. "I'd've been rubbish for her and she knew it. I could barely wrap my head around the idea of having a baby at our age, leave alone raising one." There was no doubt in his voice, and just from his protestations Sherlock could picture the scene so vividly: John, face smooth and unlined, holding a squirming bundle and belatedly allowing himself to tuck his chin on the baby's shoulder and burrow with his nose into the soft folds of the child's neck.
He'd seen a similar display of John's haptic impulses only the other day, after all, and he knew then why John was not at home. He had gone out to buy clothes for Angela's baby, though he owed her nothing and, in fact, the debt was clearly on her side. Sherlock smiled, satisfied with his deduction, and shut down his computer, feeling weariness overcome him again. As he settled back against his pillows, he wondered if John planned to sign Sherlock's name to the gift; then, considering the company John was keeping, why John had asked his sister to accompany him on the excursion rather than his girlfriend.
He repressed a sigh. "In the bedroom, Mrs. Hudson."
"Oh, I hope I haven't disturbed you. Only I wanted to bring you a nice cuppa and some of those biscuits you said you liked" – he had, but he'd meant only insofar as their texture, spongy yet brittle, interested him – "since I haven't seen John come back yet." She set a tray down on his pristine bedside table and looked disapprovingly at him. "Really, dear, it doesn't take much effort to make up a bed. Where are your clean sheets?"
He assumed that if they existed they would be in the bottom drawer of his bureau, so he waved a languid hand in that direction.
"Up you get, we'll have this done in a jiffy. You can at least put the cases on the pillows while you wait for the tea to cool." She worked while she talked and in a trice Sherlock was back in bed, this time nicely made up, the tray resting across his lap.
"Thank you, Mrs. Hudson."
"For a genius, you've no sense at all sometimes," she said, her voice inexplicably fond. She pulled a paperback off the tray and opened to the page marked by a slim piece of cardboard decorated with silk to look like a tiny geisha doll. He didn't recognise the title, long and no doubt pretentious, but the colours and font of the blurb on the back told him clearly that she was enjoying the latest in a string of surprisingly successful historical mysteries. "Drink up, dear. I'm sure he'll come home soon."
"You needn't – did John ask you to keep an eye on me?" Sherlock asked, not without some faint hope at gaining proof that John retained an active interest in his well-being.
"Now, you know quite well you shouldn't be worrying him more than you already have," Mrs. Hudson returned, unsatisfactorily. "I must say, it's nice to have the company again."
"John didn't bring Anna here at every opportunity?"
"Well, it's hardly the same, is it? Though she looks like a nice girl – so clever, too. She winkled out a splinter I'd got in the meat of my hand one morning, and I didn't feel a thing."
"Yes, it takes a genius to fetch a needle and deploy it," Sherlock said waspishly, then took a loud swallow of his tea, the better to drown out Mrs. Hudson's indignation.
"Where have you been?" Sherlock demanded when John finally walked into the flat, bearing three carrier bags full of groceries.
Slumped over he may have been, but that was no reason to refrain from deducing John's recent whereabouts. He wasn't carrying a box of baby clothes, so either he'd stood in the queue at the post office or he'd left the package with Harry to post; he'd spent the night at Anna's flat, judging by the scent of her perfumed bath products lingering around his collar, and he'd clearly just been to Sainsbury's.
Why John had believed there to be a pressing need for pomegranates and basmati rice, Sherlock could not determine. None of the food in those bags would aid John much if he were looking to regain the weight he'd lost in the last few months, weight he ought to gain back if only so his bones didn't seem so close to fragile skin; Sherlock had long ago determined that John's inner workings were something he would rather take on faith than have visual evidence of.
"I was out. I'm glad you ate," John said as if Sherlock's appearance were the issue, working around the cardboard containers of leftovers as he put the vegetables in the fridge. His trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles bunched and flexed as he worked, and Sherlock saw that John didn't truly care that he'd eaten, no matter what his words said, because his back should have gone rigid at the evidence that Sherlock had disdained all of those carefully prepared vegetables and had instead bolted down greasy Chinese food loaded with salt and preservatives.
"But you were willing to take the chance I wouldn't?" Sherlock challenged, watching John like a hawk; he looked for the tightening of lips or a tremor in the hand, but John's body didn't betray his mind so easily. Soon he'd be no better than a phrenologist, searching for the particular bump that meant John either had hit his head very hard or that he still loved Sherlock. He kept pushing, wanting for once an honest reaction. "You said yourself – I'm ill."
John turned to face him, eyebrows up in surprise. "You're getting over some careless treatment – foregoing sleep and food, and kipping, when you bothered, in some dank alley, no doubt." If he'd sounded the slightest bit curious, Sherlock would have enlightened him, but John wasn't finished. "Look, I know you don't like to take medicine in case it clouds your mind, and all you really need at this point is nourishment and rest. And you seem to be getting better at listening to your body and acquiring both."
As John bent to fit a bottle of milk into the fridge, Sherlock saw one short, flame-red strand of hair clinging to his jumper and realised that John's little speech, recollecting his illness during the Milverton case, had done nothing to appease him. "How fortunate for me that Doctor Watson was able to fit me into his rounds, between squiring his girlfriend to a pricey salon for a haircut and dragging his sister to some equally expensive shops to buy clothes for an ill-tempered infant with a mother too stupid to remove her child from danger," he sneered.
The fridge door slammed.
"You're fucking joking," John said, his spine stiffening with military precision. He whirled around and Sherlock could only see some accretion of emotions akin to a symphony or a Rube Goldberg device, each second adding complexity, flash across his face like debris in a tempest. "I need to say something to you. Sit down."
Sherlock sat as if he were conferring a great favour, sweeping the hem of his dressing-gown out of the way as a concert pianist would his tuxedo tails, then blinked when John slammed a glass of milk – full-fat, from the colour – in front of him. The glass was nearly but not quite full, so that the milk did not spill onto the table at the motion but left a ghostly parabola on the hitherto-clean inner rim of the glass. He considered the liquid and made a face, as he'd never been fond of the taste or the way milk left a film on his tongue.
"Drink it," John insisted, briskly tying the carrier bags into tidy knots. "You need healthy calories and you're not lactose-intolerant." His hands were steady but they had come nowhere near Sherlock's face to gauge his temperature; John was preserving his distance, though whether he thought that was for Sherlock's benefit or his own was murky. He pulled a mug from the suspiciously uncluttered cabinet and filled the kettle.
"Stop trying to deduce me," John snapped, "and just listen to what I'm actually saying."
Sherlock's eyes jumped up and he drank half the milk in one long swallow, anything to delay hearing whatever John was about to say.
But John began speaking the moment the base of the glass made contact with the kitchen table. "I thought you were dead. You got out of Mycroft's car and you walked away, and that was the last I saw of you. I had to pull apart Amy Wilmot's body to learn all the terrible things Moriarty had had done to her while she was still alive, and while I was elbows-deep in her, I got a text from you. Mycroft read it for me and we were both pretending his voice wasn't shot, wasn't shaking, that it was just one friend helping out another. Don't you dare make that face."
Sherlock rolled the glass between his palms and redirected his eyeroll to the white froth of milk. As if Mycroft ever acted so simply, as if he could be just a friend; surely it was obvious even to John that Mycroft had swooped in and picked him up the minute he learned Amy was gone, because he needed a faithful shadow? And there John was, loyal and able to think – to a certain extent – and to act decisively. Terrible with technology, but stout of heart.
"He brought me home," John continued, ice now frosting the steel in his voice, anger flaring at the surprise he read on Sherlock's face. "He brought me home and we waited for you. I told him he could stay as long as he needed, but he said he had to make arrangements for her cremation. I stayed awake so I wouldn't miss you, but you didn't come home. I got Moriarty's note gloating about your death and still you didn't come, didn't say there was no need to worry because you'd hatched a plan. A few hours later, Lestrade came by with fragments of your scarf, your blood soaked into scraps of wool, and that was all we had to identify you. Mycroft still had no information about your whereabouts."
That visit must have been when Mycroft had removed the bug from John's Edward Gorey anthology; John could have gone to the toilet or to the kitchen to make tea, and Mycroft would have strode over to the bookshelf, pulled the volume down, and then pocketed the evidence.
"Moriarty sent me more notes: one with a black armband, one with the list of hostages from the pips cases – the list, Sherlock, that you had been working out when I last saw you. I thought you were dead."
John took a deep breath as if he were watching Sherlock choking on the chlorinated water of the pool again, but his eyes blazed with fury. "And then, months later, you walked back into the flat and acted like you owed me not one word of explanation." John's arms were going taut with the effort to keep a fist from swinging at Sherlock's jaw, and Sherlock rejoiced inwardly at the sight, recognising that John needed to air his emotions if he were truly going to purge himself of them. He froze in his seat when John continued, "You took the time to maintain surveillance on me, but you had better things to do, obviously, than to let me know you weren't a bloody mist in some fucking office!"
How on earth had John worked out that Sherlock had tuned into his life often during his long days away? Ah, of course. "Mycroft insinuated himself very efficiently into your life, didn't he? And you believed every word he said –"
"He couldn't have told me a bloody fucking thing, as he was in hospital!" John raged, face aglow and larynx audibly strained; Sherlock wanted to unspool his thread, unmake him so that he could watch as John was reassembled, just to see how all those standard pieces had to be fitted together in order to make a person who could deduce and shout himself hoarse and still make sure Sherlock drank his milk. He quaffed the last of it.
"I prayed," John said, much quieter now, and Sherlock caught a note of shame in his voice – ah, so John had fancied himself an atheist after witnessing the horrors of war in life, in dreams, in his own body – "I prayed that I had read everything wrong, that you were alive. I've seen you act, Sherlock, so I know you could have made yourself look nothing like you do now and come to tell me – here, at work, through Mrs. Hudson – that you were alive but needed to seem dead." Now John's hands were trembling. "You could have done that for me. But you didn't leave me a single sign."
The chair scraped loudly against the floor as Sherlock stood. "I was working," Sherlock pointed out bitingly. "Was I supposed to put that off so that I could deduce when your girlfriend would be out and it would be safe to enter my own home?"
"This had nothing to do with Anna!" John shouted, reaching full boil again more quickly than Sherlock had anticipated, then abruptly deflated again, sounding very close to resigned. "You – you claim to be able to deduce oceans and forces of nature from a single drop of water, but you couldn't tell what your being gone did to me?"
"You thought I was dead, and you still went on with your life," Sherlock said, horrified that his own tone sounded less like anger and more like hurt.
John reached out and gave him a little shake. "As best as I was able, yes."
Sherlock opened his mouth but nothing came out. John looked up at him, waiting. Sherlock pressed his empty glass into John's hand and escaped into the shower, to try the benefits of hot water and time alone.
He felt thoroughly wrung out by his lengthy shower, emptied until he was virtually hollow. John would feed him and he would sleep and wake up knowing how to explain to John that Anna was no longer necessary – redundant anyway, two doctors dating – and that there was no need to call upon Lestrade or Harry or Clara or anyone else for companionship, as he was back for good. If John's fear of abandonment could only be allayed by Sherlock promising he would not play dead again – a condition Sherlock knew he could meet, as Moriarty had been the only threat sufficient to disrupt the orderly patterns of his life – then Sherlock would make that promise and keep it, come hell or high water.
He found soft sleep trousers in his drawer and a T-shirt that he turned inside-out before pulling on. The silk dressing-gown felt like water against his skin as he smoothed it down to hang properly. He could hear and smell evidence that John had filled the hour by cooking, and smiled as he considered reciprocating the attentiveness by allowing John to watch one of his dreadful programmes or, even worse if only because they lasted so much longer, a film. He could sit through one without any comment as long as he made an effort, he was sure.
Sherlock felt a chill drift down his back as he walked toward the kitchen; he should have dried off more thoroughly. John's back was to him, looking warm thanks to his cashmere jumper, and John was stirring something that smelled unfamiliar but hearty.
"Is it ready?" he asked, impressed despite himself that John didn't jump though his progress through the flat had been inaudible.
"I didn't realise you were eating with us," John said. "But there's plenty, so you're welcome to. It will be ready in ten minutes."
Sherlock sighed, but quietly. Of course John was cooking fancy meals for Anna; hadn't he just defended her presence in his life as if he truly believed it would be permanent? "When does Anna arrive?"
At that, John did turn, though he kept stirring the rice with one hand. "It's not Anna. It's Mycroft."
"Yes," John said imperturbably. "He's my guest."
"It's my flat –" Sherlock began before subsiding and considering; this, probably, was why John had been so overwrought before. Sherlock had not missed how swiftly John had cleared the kitchen of Sherlock's experiments, how all of the paperwork Sherlock had liked having to hand was filed neatly away in those rolling file drawers, and he supposed that John was doing the same kind of work on him, trying to prove that he had equal rights in the state of the flat. "Fine."
"Good," John said, and attended to the food on the hob. "Ah, he's here," John continued brightly, as if Sherlock had gone suddenly deaf, or that he could no longer be trusted to deduce what those thunderous treads on the steps might mean. "Do you want to let him in or would you rather stir?"
Sherlock said nothing, implying with every fibre of his being that he was abstaining from that lose-lose choice, but he opened the door to the flat in order to catch Mycroft off his guard.
Mycroft appeared unruffled, though there were some suspicious bulges in his pockets that Sherlock instantly set about deducing. One large and square in his right trouser pocket, one small and cylindrical in the inner breast pocket of his suit jacket.
"Good evening, Sherlock," Mycroft said, making a show of courtesy purely to impress John. "I do hope you're well."
Sherlock bared his teeth in response, taken aback when Mycroft betrayed no emotion whatsoever and continued past him as though Sherlock were an insufficient impediment to ingress. Sherlock ended up trailing his brother back into the kitchen, where John was smiling benevolently at Mycroft, who was sticking his gargantuan nose into the pot still bubbling from John's exertions.
"It smells heavenly, John; I must thank you for your efforts. Your khoresht fesenjaan is sure to be sublime."
"Wait until you've tasted it to thank me," John warned, but he looked untroubled. "Sit down; it's nearly ready." He turned off the burner under the rice, but kept stirring the contents of the other pot.
"Do you need to tend it still?" Mycroft asked, clearly intimating that he wanted to speak with John. Sherlock sat first, determined not to be chased out of his own kitchen. John shook his head at both of them and gestured that Mycroft should take a chair as well. Once John was seated, Mycroft presented the square box he'd palmed.
"This is yours," Mycroft said, and John was surprised into accepting it without a murmur. When he opened the hinged box and saw what was resting on the midnight velvet, however, his mouth opened; Sherlock supposed the sight of Grandfather's watch, utterly simple and utterly beautiful, would do that to anyone.
"Mycroft, it's lovely. Normally I'd say that someone who gave a gift this lavish had more money than sense, but I know you've got all the sense in the world." John paused and drank in the beauty of the object shining in its case. "But you know I can't accept this."
Mycroft wore his most infuriating smirk. "Please, John, you must. I spent nothing on it, I assure you; it belonged to my maternal grandfather, and it was passed down to me, as was my father's watch. I can only wear one, and this one, regrettably, has been gathering dust in the meantime. As your own timepiece has incurred some damage . . ." Mycroft paused, and Sherlock eyed the cracked face of John's watch and saw the shadow of a bruise underneath it – not chipped by gravel, then, but broken by the butt of Moriarty's gun as it slammed frantically against John's wrist. "You need a replacement, and it would please me to know Grandfather's watch was finally being put to use."
It all sounded plausible, even to Sherlock, who knew very well what Mycroft was doing, sideways as a crab even when there was no need to be, oblique even with John, who was trusting and straightforward and steady. Sherlock felt a sharp jolt of hatred pulse through him. If John took off the watch he was wearing – the watch he'd been given by his parents before he began university – then the bug Moriarty had secreted inside it would be useless and Sherlock would have no way of making sure John was . . . was alive, was doing whatever it was he did when Sherlock wished for him.
"Thanks," John said, reaching for the watch, silver lambent against the fair skin of his palm. "I haven't got round to taking mine to the shop for repairs."
"Allow me," Mycroft insisted, radiating smugness as John smiled and handed over the damaged watch.
His smirk did not fade even when John said, "This is a loan, not a gift. I'm not parting with mine permanently."
"I understand," Mycroft assured him respectfully, as if he weren't burning with the desire to slide his eyes Sherlock's way and gloat openly.
"Alright then," John said, rising, "dinner's ready."
"I'll wash up," Mycroft said, rising and slipping John's watch into his trouser pocket. Sherlock would have bet all of the money he'd ever earned that Mycroft would dismantle the bug the moment he slipped out of John's view.
He rose, agitated at the way Mycroft was bulldozing into his life, and froze when John teased, "Where are you going? You can't need to wash your hands when you've just come from the shower."
The answering grin Sherlock plastered on his face was enough to discomfit John; Sherlock wished he'd be a little less perspicacious when it came to him, just this once.
"Are you feeling ill again?" John asked quietly, leaning close as if he hadn't been shying away from all expressions of intimacy since Sherlock had returned.
Sherlock shook his head mutely, willing John to understand. John bit his lip, evidently puzzled, and the sight of him struggling to understand relaxed Sherlock; surely John could not have put his finger on Sherlock's deeds so unerringly by dint of thoughtful deduction. John had taken a shot in the dark and scored a lucky hit. It would calm him down to run through all of the evidence John had overlooked, to settle back into their familiar routine, so, emboldened, he asked, "Why did you say I had been surveilling you?"
John started at that and one corner of his mouth, that curiously telling and mobile architecture, turned down. "You walked back into the flat hours after I killed Moriarty," John said simply. "Such good timing couldn't have been a coincidence."
Sherlock flushed hot and then cold at the bare-bones explanation that had not required any brainpower at all.
"Quite right," Mycroft said from behind him. "Was the pomegranate any more of a coincidence, or are you both a master chef and a master allusionist, John?"
John's face stayed unhappy. "Would you believe I wasn't thinking of Sherlock but of you when I made this?"
"I would, Doctor," Mycroft said in a gravely apologetic tone, and John's shoulders relaxed and his chin went up so that all of his face was aimed at Mycroft. "I appreciate your care for my health."
"Diet food?" Sherlock snapped, intentionally shattering the fresh peace.
"Heart-healthy," John started, but Mycroft interrupted again.
"He'll have deleted all of that, John; anything to do with food was of no interest to him."
"I learned from the poor example of my elders."
"What you do not know, Sherlock, is that the pomegranate is a food with a story built around it, that of a loved one's unexpected return from the realm of death."
Sherlock was determined not to look at John's face just then.
"And what you have failed to deduce, despite John's painstaking selection of an appropriate recipe and this bottle of pills I have taken to carrying on my person, is that I had a heart attack while you were apparently occupied elsewhere."
He couldn't help it then; he had to read Mycroft's greyish skin, the protrusion of the bottle under the soft folds of his suit jacket, the directness of his gaze. Mycroft was not lying and John had known, had – Sherlock saw it in his stance – been the only witness to the attack and had got Mycroft to hospital in such short order that Mycroft's life had been spared. John was a marvel. But John was withholding himself from Sherlock still.
Trial by fire, then. "What do you need to hear?" he demanded, forcing John to meet his earnest eyes.
"That you're hungry," John said, retreating, as he dished out chicken-and-pomegranate stew over rice.
It was unbearable that John put so low and yet so distant a price on his regard. Still smarting, Sherlock turned on Mycroft. "Did you really think I had failed to deduce the state of your health? Is not the more plausible explanation that, as you did not bother to deduce that I was merely absent and not dead, I withheld my own conclusions about you?"
"Not at all, as you clearly see my health as a never-ending opportunity to flaunt your superiority," Mycroft said, a knife-edge in his voice. "Do not, furthermore, attempt to convince us that your original plan was a ploy to rouse me. Were you truly trying to pique my interest, you would have chosen another method; you are aware that you have gone to this well too often for it to arrest my attention."
"No –" Sherlock pleaded in a harsh whisper, the word nearly punched out of him.
"I have seen you dead, or infinitesimally close, several times, always because you set the stage to appear so. Overdose when you were nineteen, again at twenty-three, another encore later still." Mycroft was implacable, sitting there like an underworld judge, but it was John's face, crumpled with agony, that made Sherlock squirm.
He could barely breathe under the weight of their eyes. He dropped his spoon in the untouched mess of his plate and bolted from the table.
He paced until the floorboards of his bedroom sang predictable notes. His laptop was right there and he eventually succumbed to its lure, hunched in a tight ball on the treacherously soft bed. There was a study on the prevalence of heart attacks in the newly bereaved, which would have pleased Mycroft, who apparently subscribed to the medieval notion of the physical organ of the heart being the seat of emotion. Twenty-one times more likely than an unbereaved person to succumb the next day, six times more likely in the next week.
So Mycroft's grief for Amy had been genuine, and John had seen it; it was little wonder that John had not wanted to reach out to him, as Mycroft would have made clear that Sherlock was the one to blame for her death. It wasn't fair that things had spiralled so spectacularly out of control, that Amy's own agency as a player in the game was thoroughly ignored, that John could withhold himself and feel no loss just because Sherlock had never reached out in return.
Everything had gone awry and Sherlock could not see even a single thread to lead him out of the labyrinth, though it was his own construction.
He started as John's arms wrapped around him from behind and John's warm lips pressed against his temple. He swivelled as best he could, still enfolded in the comfort of a soft jumper and strong arms. "Why –?" he asked, swallowing the rest of his question.
"It wasn't until I said it out loud that I realised," John said, voice a rumble in Sherlock's ear, against Sherlock's spine, "for all that I'd been stewing over it for so long. That you returned to Baker Street as soon as Moriarty was gone meant you'd been watching me or him, yeah. But it also meant that you wanted to come home."
"And you're glad?" Sherlock asked, hands coming up to clasp the sturdy forearms that lay over his clavicles.
"Gladder than I'd known I could be," John said, then eased himself free. "Get some sleep."
"So what happened with the rest of Moriarty's people?" John asked the next morning when Sherlock stumbled into the kitchen, as if continuing a conversation in progress. John shook something into a liquid mess of eggs and then whipped the mixture thoroughly with a fork, his hips shifting in a pleasing rhythm as he stirred.
Sherlock wasn't sure how much detail John wanted. He had asked, yes, but had done so in a way that conflated all of the henchmen, collapsing the levels of distinction between them, so that Moran was no more important than the pathetic specimen Molly had shrivelled into dust with no more than justified indignation. "They made themselves irrelevant or were eliminated."
"By you?" John asked as he poured the egg mixture into a hot pan already sizzling with a pat of butter skating drunkenly across its surface.
"Not –" Sherlock had not planned to confess, but something about John compelled him. "One, yes." Even from behind, he stood out – the way his hair grew in neat, tight spirals from one point on his head; the matchless softness of the pink insides of his elbows, glimpsed as he stood with arms akimbo; the cracked heels on which he danced slightly while waiting for his eggs to cook. John was wearing only the T-shirt and drawstring trousers he'd slept in, but was making a hot breakfast. Taken together, that meant that the weather was turning and John would go on long walks and return with his cheeks brightened and his spirits lifted simply because it was autumn.
John turned to eye him. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Sherlock shook his head tightly; the less time Underhill occupied his thoughts, the less purchase the whole incident would have on his time with John. Though . . . John had killed before and somehow was still John.
"If you want to later, just let me know," John said lightly, and there was a pause during which Sherlock congratulated himself on his escape. Then John continued, as he flipped the omelette, "Honestly, did you have one decent meal while you were chasing after them?"
John's tone indicated that a good meal would have been a real treat, but the closest Sherlock could recall coming to that was the packet of cigarettes he'd smoked through while on Moran's trail. John eyed him and said, "Cigarettes do not count as a meal, Sherlock. Incorrigible."
He wasn't incorrigible, surely, not if his first impulse had been to conceal his actions from John and vow not to succumb again?
"What did you live off of?"
"Grammar, John," Sherlock said caustically and John grinned shamelessly.
"Off of what did you live?" John rephrased obligingly, still smiling, but repeating the question gave him time to consider the possibilities and the mirth disappeared from his face. "You didn't have to –"
"I had some cash handy," Sherlock interrupted, unwilling to let John put his doubts into words, but even there he steered wrong. John's face transmitted his fear that Sherlock had been saving money for drugs. As if he could not have manufactured whatever he needed, as he had before. As if he had no incentive to stay clean, given that he knew very well how John would look at him if he began to use again. "John –" he began, cutting himself short when John slid the omelette in front of him.
"Eat it while it's hot," John requested, as if a command would have been an imposition, and cracked more eggs to make his own breakfast.
John's breath quickened and he shook out the newspaper twice, thrice, the way he did when he was genuinely interested in the subject at hand. Sherlock gritted his teeth, frustrated that he had not skimmed the paper before John settled down with it and would have to ask like any idiot what had caught John's attention. No, better by far to let John volunteer the information; music would surely coax it out of him more quickly than any other indirect stimulus. He warmed up his fingers with scales and arpeggios, then ran through a few exercises of his own devising.
But John, contrary John, resisted the music and read further, sinking deeper into his chair; he even booted up his laptop and entered a URL with his accustomed slowness, checking his typing several times by referring back to the newspaper. Sherlock frowned and turned from Romantic to Baroque, feeling a sense of failure. John glanced up as the crisp, mathematical melodies penetrated the fog he was in.
"Did you do that on purpose?" he asked, eyes shining.
Sherlock merely smiled, determined not to douse the aura of mystery, but John laughed and said, "Suppose not."
"You would have taken credit for it if you'd known what you'd done. No, first you would have explained every thought in my head and then you'd have taken credit for deducing them."
It wasn't mean-spirited; John was inviting him to laugh. Sherlock didn't think he could manage that much, but he could at least be civil. "So what were you reading?"
"They've sequenced the Black Death genome," John answered promptly. "It's fascinating."
Yes, John would be intrigued by a story like that, combining medicine with history and public health. He wondered if John might have gone into research had he not been swept off his feet by the siren call of adrenaline. Actually, that was irrelevant; the crucial point was whether John mourned the lost possibility of such a life, if he would trade the scars on his body for an eternity of safety and boredom. John might wish to retain his army and medical-school experiences, but it was a near certainty that the last few months had represented a low point for him, one that he must wish to forget. Those months looked like years on John's face, and Sherlock abruptly recalled that he must have missed John's birthday. Surely he'd been taken out, though, by all the people that John claimed had his best interests at heart – Harry and Clara, Lestrade and his wife, even Stamford and Donovan. There was no way to ask.
"Sherlock?" John broke into his recriminations with a puzzled smile. "Just the very words 'Black Death' are enough to ensure a rapturous silence? I'll have to try that more often."
"Just considering the concept of public service," Sherlock said crisply, but he must have miscalculated his tone, as John swiftly cut him off.
"You do know that solving cases is an act of public service, don't you?" When Sherlock scoffed, John plodded on, so absolutely in earnest that Sherlock had not the heart to point out that motives were completely meaningless. "You solve problems that look insoluble, even ones that don't look like problems. And you don't require any reward other than setting things right."
"Yes, nobility is my salient characteristic," Sherlock sneered.
"I'm not claiming that it is. I'm just saying there are a hundred uses talents like yours could be put to, and you've chosen to serve the greater good."
Was that the light in which John truly viewed him? No wonder his blog posts were paeans in praise of the matchless intelligence that bowed to no considerations but the truth.
But John was particularly sharp-eyed today, and he read Sherlock's discomfiture with ease. Sherlock opened his mouth, ready to rebut all of John's pitying theories as soon as they burst forth, but John looked at him, sleep-rumpled and well-fed and agonisingly bored, and said something unexpected. "This time tomorrow, I'll be on my shift, so I'm going out while the weather holds. Care to join me?"
There was going to have to be a point at which he stopped hiding away from John, if John was going to forgive him fully. He raised his chin defiantly and went to change his clothes.
Only a few leaves had reverted back to the colours that chlorophyll masked in the warmer seasons, but there was a definite bite in the air, and Sherlock missed his scarf. John's bright face was turned up to the sky and he was already humming something under his breath. Sherlock considered him as objectively as he could and realised there was no outward symmetry between them that would indicate that they wanted to spend time together, as there was between the two women walking toward them hand-in-hand or the man on the corner wearing the same style of jumper as his wife. He stuffed his fists into the pockets of his coat so he wouldn't reach out; it was up to John to set the terms of their time together, as he'd asked for his company.
"Were you in London the whole time you were away?" John asked, startling him into looking directly at him.
"And you dyed your hair because?"
"I needed Mycroft's men to overlook me," he started, trying to keep everything simple. He should have mentioned Moriarty instead, he saw instantly; John was getting agitated, no doubt recalling Mycroft looking wan and weak in a hospital bed.
"I don't understand how –" John interrupted himself. "The woman he loved had been brutally murdered and her body just recovered, and you –"
That time, Sherlock interrupted him. "Don't exaggerate. She was a player in the game, a tool he could use for his ends." John was silent, so he pressed his advantage. "She designed all of the surveillance equipment he had placed throughout our flat."
"Mycroft loved her, Sherlock."
"You have no proof of that." What did it matter in any case? She was dead and Mycroft's feelings were moot. "Don't, I beg you, say 'you can't deduce love' or any other trite and ghastly thing."
"No, I wouldn't. You deduced love right in front of me, that first case we worked on. Jennifer Wilson, you saw that she'd had a string of lovers just by looking at her, remember? But you didn't know why she had them, what part her memories of Rachel played in that decision, or why she didn't just leave her husband."
"You know your brother loved her, that she was important to him."
"And sentiment should outweigh all other considerations?"
John stopped short. "Hardly. But it is a consideration all on its own."
At last, John was saying something useful. "And you believe I cannot be trusted to give emotions their proper due."
"Have you ever had to?" John fired back. "I certainly haven't made you, and it sounds like Mycroft never did either."
"You are making leaps that defy logic," Sherlock warned, striding away, pulling clean air into his lungs.
"No, I'm not. I was introduced to you simply as a potential flatmate, but I became your bodyguard, your audience, your doctor, your caretaker, your friend –"
"Everything," Sherlock summarised; it was hardly flattery if it was the truth, and he wanted John to stop being angry and just smile at him the way he used to, before Moriarty sent their lives careening off-course.
"No," John said, walking next to him, military march. "No one person can be everything to another person."
Sherlock reached for him to stop him in his tracks but John didn't see; Sherlock made a desperate grab for him and pulled him close.
"You see any emotion as a flaw, except when it comes to me. All of your emotions, good and bad, are aimed at me," John said. Sherlock shook his head – what a ridiculous notion – and that seemed to strengthen John's resolve. "And you want me to be solely invested in you."
"I know quite well you are not," Sherlock acknowledged, recalling John's pleasure as he and Anna coupled on the sofa, John's tenderness as he spoke to Harry and Clara, John's delight in Lestrade and his wife.
"Leave over being angry at me," John said, facing him squarely, and Sherlock stared in disbelief. "Because here's the thing, Sherlock. The fact that I didn't wail like a widow, that I put myself to bed and got up in the mornings and went to work and held tight to my friends – that doesn't mean that I never loved you or that I'm not happier than I've ever been about anything that you're back. It just means I had reserves of strength to call on. So stop punishing me."
That was not right at all. John was the one doling out the punishments, withdrawing from Sherlock at every opportunity. But the words would not come out; his throat was stuck, his face was hot, and John was out of reach despite being toe-to-toe with him.
"Let's not even get into the fact that your realisation that I didn't fall apart means that you started to doubt if you'd read me right at all, and consequently you're unsure that running off in secret was the right move to make," John said, looking up with eyes that were rock-steady, unable to be evaded.
John suddenly looked a little blurry, and Sherlock was horrified to find himself blinking back tears of frustration and rage. He couldn't tell if John had seen, as John was looking terribly kind and terribly unyielding, the two in perfect balance. With a supreme act of will, Sherlock swallowed and spoke.
"What you mean is that you were unprepared for me to carry out logic to its fullest extent and thought I'd give up the organising principle of my life in order to remain with you." A thought occurred to him. "Or perhaps it is your girlfriend who requires an explanation for our relationship and you could not offer her one."
Didn't John see that they could transcend boundaries, that they belonged together? Anna was not necessary, and John's sexual hunger was just a weakness.
John's face took on a peculiar expression.
"Anna and I are no longer dating," he said, and Sherlock felt the words like he'd been thumped on the back by a giant fist. "But this is what I mean – you resent that I want a lover just because you don't. We're not alike in every way, Sherlock, and there are people I want or need who aren't you – sometimes because they aren't you."
He stopped, abruptly, and shook his head. "That sounded terrible. I just meant – here, take Harry for example. She's my sister, the only other person in the world who grew up with the same mum and dad in the same house. She knows things about me no one else does, things she probably doesn't even remember sometimes." Sherlock's anger found a new channel, that Harry would squander memories of John. "And I love her and I know she loves me. But even she can't be everything for me the way you want to, and it's true the other way round as well; I'm her brother, but I wasn't her reason for quitting drinking."
"Clara was," Sherlock pointed out.
"Yes, but my point was that people usually need more than one source of strength, and Harry had herself and Clara and me and who knows how many other people besides."
"I've had to hear about your sister's alcoholism on a fairly regular basis, and it has no bearing on our situation," Sherlock said, ignoring both the triumphant tattoo of his heartbeat that shouted Anna's gone and the feeling of pins and needles in his leg.
John's eyebrows, which had been arched hopefully, slammed down. "Here's the relevance. She's more than my sister, though that's the way I'll always know her. There's more to me than just your friend or dogsbody or whatever you need from me at any given moment. You don't get to play merry hell with my heart because you think you've sussed out everything there is to know about me."
Looking at him, at the lines on his weary face and the soft dampness of his mouth, Sherlock sincerely thanked whoever had broken John's heart before him, just because it meant he hadn't been the first, hadn't been the one to scar and maim the man standing in front of him, all earnest eyes and enraged words.
"There are parts of me that you don't get to have. I am not on this earth just to be your shadow and echo."
"That was not my assumption," Sherlock responded venomously. "You say that I do not take emotion into account, but that seems to be all you do. Look dispassionately at the situation, John; that's all that I require. Moriarty thought he had killed me, and I saw the advantage I could gain if his delusion was not dispelled immediately. His whole organisation could be brought down by someone working invisibly. There was no one else to be that someone other than me. To use your terrible logic, I was born for it."
John looked shocked and brought his hand up to scrub futilely at his face, as if he wanted to wipe the sunshine away; his borrowed watch shone in the light and Sherlock was dizzy with gratitude that Mycroft would never hear a syllable of this excoriation. "You do know that's not true, don't you? I wasn't saying that there's more to just me than you ever saw; I meant to say that there's more to you too."
"No –" He could barely get a word in edgewise, so eager was John to refute even the most self-evident logic.
"Look, there are two things everyone who meets you knows straight off: you're a detective and you're my best friend. Two things – not just one, like you're a machine made for a single purpose."
"You're wrong, John; everything ties together in me." He began pacing, and John stayed still and let him roam, though he'd begun casting a longing eye at the closest bench. "I was born with ample intelligence. I grew up with Mycroft training me to observe and think; before I had my first haircut, I had made my first deduction."
He could see the counter-argument John was about to make and felt a vindictive pleasure in beating him to the punch.
"I picked up the violin not because music spoke to my soul but because the discipline of it made orderly the paths of my thoughts; cocaine lent those thoughts swiftness." John's eyes clouded and Sherlock felt the sting of a pyrrhic victory. "I was not speaking idly when I deemed everything but my mind 'transport'; everything I am has tended toward one goal, as I've winnowed away all else. As for your proximity – my work necessarily endangers my life, and you stayed because I could supply you with adrenaline."
"And I said I loved you because?" John asked forthrightly. "No, don't bother, you haven't got an answer, and that speech you gave is the biggest load of shite I've ever heard in my life. If you didn't know it before, hear me and know it now: you're more than a crime-solving machine, more than just Moriarty's nemesis."
He sniffed and stepped closer, halting Sherlock's pacing. "You deserve better than that." His hands came up to cup Sherlock's elbows, an awkward position that was less crowding than a full embrace but conveyed the same meaning, at least when John's smile was shining out at him. "I should have seen you weren't accustomed to treating yourself as a person and couldn't be expected to know how to see me as one either."
"Was that a compliment?" he asked after a pause for consideration, genuinely curious.
"No, you egomaniac. An observation." His hands grew tight. "It devastated me, Sherlock, thinking you were dead. Don't do it again."
"Never," Sherlock promised, and a breeze blew between them, setting John's sun-gilded hair on end and no doubt rearranging his own curls into an unflattering mop.
John laughed, squeezed once, and let go. "Though given that I secretly thought of you as the Pollux to my Castor, I supposed I should have known you'd prove to be immortal."
Sherlock awoke in the morning to a Johnless flat, absolutely silent. He felt some sort of stirring in his belly and assumed it was hunger and would go away eventually. Then he considered John's plea for him to think of himself as a person – not normal or ordinary, but just as human as John. When he was hungry, he should eat, particularly since there was no case that made running lean a matter of urgency. There was milk in the fridge, and bread and eggs. He wasn't sure he knew what John had added to the eggs to make the omelettes, so he decided to keep it simple. Toast with John's raspberry jam and a glass of milk took only a few minutes to prepare and just as short a time to consume; the whole process from beginning to end occupied less than ten minutes, though he had skipped the washing up.
Feeling refreshed, he lounged in one of the club chairs, his spine against one arm while the other supported his knees, idly composing on his violin. There wasn't a complete idea there yet, not even a proper motif, but something was germinating – John would like that term's horticultural connotations.
He borrowed an egg-timer from Mrs. Hudson and boiled two for his lunch when that rumbling made itself known again. John kept salt, pepper, cayenne, and garlic powder on the table; Sherlock divided his eggs neatly into quarters and experimented with combinations of spices. The section with salt and pepper reminded him very strongly of sitting for the first time in a proper chair at the table, same as Mycroft's and not that embarrassing raised chair he'd needed for so long because he'd been rather small. He and Mycroft had only had one year of shared breakfasts before Mycroft had gone off to school and Sherlock spoke either to empty rooms or to servants who had been trained not to answer back. One year of being half of "those odd Holmes boys" before he had to stand on his own and let his brain and tongue carve out a place of respect suited to his shape. Only a few days of that and he'd realised that caring what others thought of him, called him, was as pointless as expecting himself to be able to fly.
He dumped his plate in the sink and determined that if he chose the same foods tomorrow, he would eat his eggs off his toast plate and save John the washing of one dish; it sounded vaguely restful rather than alarming to have a routine sketched out.
He opened his laptop to research "Pollux" and "Castor" and found too many disparate versions to be able to rely on any one. It was John's allusion, so all he needed was to go to the source John had used to understand his full meaning; he pulled John's favourite Greek mythology text from one of the shared bookshelves. Castor and Pollux were half-brothers, hatched out of eggs laid by their mother, though Castor was entirely human and Pollux was half-divine. Sherlock wondered briefly at what point in human history people stopped being so bloody idiotic before reading on. Castor, the one who could be killed, had been, and Pollux, the untouchable, the immortal, had out of love given up half his immortality to share with his brother.
He could see why the story appealed to John – the two were inseparable and an exemplar of fraternal devotion. Reading the story as John knew it gave Sherlock a feeling of disbelieving pleasure; it seemed that John saw them as not only linked but of a kind, though he erred in viewing Sherlock as the greater of the two. Sherlock thought that their completeness and utter self-sufficiency as a pair rather undercut the point John had made so passionately yesterday, but accepted that fiction did not always follow the rules; John was at least partly right about the parallel – Sherlock had no intention of living without John. He just had to remind John of what they had shared, draw him slowly back in without dropping any hint that that was what he was doing, because John was as stubborn as a mule and had convinced himself that Sherlock did not need him specifically but rather any warm body that parroted "Fantastic" and "Brilliant" at regular intervals. But John was hardly fungible, even if he did claim for himself – and, more importantly, for Sherlock – the absolute ordinariness of being human.
Still, Sherlock knew they were two prime examples. With a feeling of glee, he entered the URL for his website and updated it: Accepting cases again. He wondered what John was doing, then checked his email. A message from Lestrade from that morning, consisting of the DI's office phone number, was in his inbox; Lestrade was clearly firing on all cylinders to have realised that Sherlock no longer had his contacts in his phone and that he might need a reminder of the best way to reach someone. Still, Sherlock had had Lestrade's mobile number memorised for five years, and required no such courtesies. He texted Lestrade and picked up when Lestrade rang him back.
"Got a case, bit of a weird one. Pranks escalated very suddenly up to murder, looks like. D'you want in?" A bit different from a pleading "Will you come?" but he supposed Lestrade had started to wean himself away from depending on others to do his job for him.
"Where are you?"
"Mayfair – Berkeley Street."
"I'll be there within the hour," Sherlock promised, beaming so incessantly that, minutes later, the spray from his shower hit his teeth.
John shouldn't miss this, he thought as he towelled himself dry. Berkeley St, Mayfair – murder. SH he texted, but got no response.
Settled in the cab, he checked his email on his mobile, and it seemed to be in good working order, but John did not respond. Perhaps John would be waiting at Berkeley Street with Lestrade.
He did hope Lestrade wouldn't make a big production out of working with him again; surely that co-tantrum he and his wife had thrown would be enough to get any irritation out of his system.
"Just over there, by the police tape," Sherlock directed the cabbie, who looked more than eager to depart the scene, which made Sherlock look closely at him for the first time. No actual crimes committed, just a disinclination to be in proximity to the police, suggesting an adolescence spent on the cusp of criminal behaviour.
"Ah, Lestrade," he said, exiting the taxi, speaking first to catch Lestrade on the back foot.
"This is the third showroom that's been broken into with merchandise destroyed," Lestrade said, launching immediately into the most professional rundown Sherlock had ever heard from him, "but the first where a murder occurred as well. We're proceeding on the assumption that the same party was responsible for both, but we're open to hearing your conclusions."
"How very generous of you," Sherlock said, unable to resist.
Lestrade still stood between him and the door to the Jaguar showroom. "If you don't want to be part of the investigation, you're free to go right now." His face was set and he did not appear to be bluffing.
"Will the Jaguar people agree to that?" he needled.
"Absolutely," Lestrade said, almost convincing. "Just as John would let you walk away from a murder victim."
It's a public service, Sherlock recalled John saying of his work, and he dropped the posturing and inclined his head to indicate that he would follow Lestrade's lead. "I'm ready."
There was a cluster of people hovering near the body, none of whom was John, so he decided to start with the vandalism, which no one was paying much attention to. Three of the seven cars in the showroom had been damaged, the tyres slashed and the paint near the bottom of the frames scratched. He crouched and tucked his body close to the first car – taupe, closed-top. The scratches in the paint were not quite shallow, but nor were they a message; probing the longest scratch thoughtfully with a delicate fingertip, Sherlock decided it was simple carelessness. The vandal had clearly wanted to slash the tyres and had simply not taken enough care to tuck his knife flat against his thigh as he moved from rear to front.
He rolled forward a bit, sitting back on his haunches and wondering dispassionately why so many people rhapsodised over "new-car smell." It was doing nothing for him, though perhaps that might have been because the smell of inky black rubber was so strong, as his face was mere millimetres away from the right front tyre. The damage had been done to the upper left of the wheel, at about "ten o'clock," if the tyre could be reimagined as an analogue clock. It was no mere puncture or slash – the vandal had sawed at the tyre until the rubber parted and expelled some of the noxious air trapped inside. A closer inspection of the wheel – when it was not in situ – would no doubt reveal that the blade used was serrated.
Sherlock followed the vandal's progress around the car, using the trail of rubber shavings left in a faint but distinctive ring around the vehicle to do so. The ivory car bore the same markings, as did the one painted a pale green often referred to as "mint," though the actual herb's colouring was much more robust and vivid. It was at the ivory car that he encountered Donovan, whose arms were folded sternly across her chest when he glanced up to dismiss her with a look.
"No, you don't," she said. "You had people crying over you, thinking they'd give anything to have you back, and here you are with that same sneer on your face."
"Sally," he said, sighing a little as he stood, letting the folds of his coat, which had been tucked into the bend of his knees, fall freely. "I don't believe I owe you any apology."
"End justifies the means with you, doesn't it?" she agreed, face blank like he'd hurt her somehow. "I notice John's not here, putting up with your shit. Maybe having you swan off was enough to break the spell."
No, John was coming, wasn't he? He turned his back to check his phone, frowning as he tried to make the lack of response to his text seem like a clue for Donovan's benefit. "I have apologised to John for my absence, and Lestrade evidently found that to be sufficient, Sergeant. I suspect that if I turned this conversation the right way round, I'd be waiting in vain for your thanks for dismantling Moriarty's organisation."
"You apologised to John?" she demanded, as if she expected him to produce video of the moment to satisfy her. She dropped her hands and stepped away. "The body's over there, when you're done crawling round on your belly."
He watched her walk away, surprised by how readily she'd dropped her steely pose. No longer entwined with Anderson – that much was evident from her posture and her complexion. Still subordinate to Lestrade, despite the fact that in terms of ability they were roughly equal; she was not quite ready to strike out on her own yet, though she had been preparing, in a thoroughly disorganised and haphazard way, to sit for the Detective Inspector examination.
And here came Lestrade now, ready to wade into the evidence of the vandal's work on the tyres because he could not see any connection between this crime and that of murder. Sherlock put up a hand to stop him before his shoes actually disturbed the ring around the third car.
"The murder was committed because the victim surprised the vandal in the commission of his planned crime. The victim is a security guard, stripped of his uniform, which will be located in a bin somewhere in the showroom; you should have been able to identify his profession from the fact that this is at least the third security guard you and I have found dead since we began working together and all the bodies have shared certain tell-tale characteristics. To return to the main crime: this was not vandalism for the sake of damaging something expensive and out of reach. He – for simplicity's sake we will call the criminal 'he' – slashed open the tyres of these two cars, killed the guard by stabbing him in the chest, and returned to hack away at the tyres of the third car. There is blood evident on the shavings of rubber circling the third car, and no doubt there are particles of rubber in the stab wound that punctured the guard's heart."
"Fantastic," Lestrade said, deadpan. "Why?"
"Ah," Sherlock said, biting back a retort about the DI needing a bedtime story. "That's where it gets interesting. We know he had time to kill the guard, strip him, and return to his task, but it's unclear whether he had finished or whether he intended to damage every car in the same way and was scared off by something. What is the estimated time of death?"
"Six this morning. Morning guard came to relieve him, found him still warm. Can't remember if he heard anything, though he admits he was making enough of a racket to have scared off anybody, singing along with his iPod."
"Good. So, the possibility exists that the vandal was interrupted and plans to return to finish the job. The question then becomes: why did he damage these three cars, either only or first?"
"You want to translate that?"
"Do drop the act, Lestrade, and admit you're following me; I won't fault you for not having the answer to that question, as I don't yet have it myself." Sherlock, pleased at Lestrade's gaping, continued. "Either he only wanted to damage these three cars, or he chose these three cars first and was planning to do the same to some, if not all, of the others. So, why these three?"
"These three are the only light-coloured models in the showroom," Lestrade offered, clearly postulating that the vandal had some deep-seated trauma concerning pale cars. "Or" – he had seen Sherlock's purposefully unsubtle eyeroll – "maybe it had nothing to do with the paint, since it's the tyres he was after."
Good, that was better, and quicker than Sherlock had expected.
Donovan had rejoined them, listening intently. "If the killer was hiding in the employees' loo, which he might have been, as there are no signs of a break-in, these three would have been the first he'd see when he came from that direction."
"Valid," Sherlock allowed graciously. He pivoted and did a quick sweep of the showroom, collating the information in his mind. "The showroom appears to be organised by models. There are XFs, XJs, XKs, and a few scattered throughout that do not, miraculously, have 'X' in the model name. Only the XJs have been damaged."
His mobile beeped and he saw a flash of a message: You go ahead. John He lost track of what he was saying. When he looked back up, Donovan was directing the photographer to get close-up snaps of all of the tyres in the showroom and Lestrade was watching him silently. Sherlock turned his attention back to his phone, fingers flying as he sought an answer to the immediate problem and filed the far more important one away until he could discover what had gone wrong.
"XJs are fitted with 225/55 16 W Pirelli P6000 tyres, with which no other model is routinely matched," he said after a few minutes of furious Googling.
"There is no bloody way a man's lying dead because some nutter had a beef with a kind of tyre," Lestrade said. "Absolutely not."
"The data is here; I have not twisted it to suit any theory, not even one in which our vandal was traumatised by a pale-coloured car."
Lestrade looked like he was trying very hard to keep hold of his temper. "How likely is it that the killer's done here?"
"Impossible to say. Leave a man here in case, and notify all Jaguar dealerships in the vicinity that there is the possibility of trouble."
"New cars only, and just Jaguars?"
"That much you should be able to tell from the other two dealerships he hit," Sherlock pointed out, and turned to go.
An hour later, he was on his own sofa, one of the blankets that lay on the arms draped comfortably over his bare feet, his laptop warming his thighs. Pirelli, an Italian firm, had just opened a new, state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Carlisle. Presumably there was some way to trace each tyre back to the plant where it was made, though the key to the puzzle could also be matching the tyres to the vehicles; he was not going to endure a five-hour journey north unless he absolutely had to. It would be a neat deductive triumph to solve this one with a minimum of legwork in any case.
John walked into the flat then, looking happy and energised, even after a fairly long shift. Sherlock opened his mouth to greet him and then closed it with a snap when he smelled the foreign fragrances duelling for ascendancy on John's skin. One was Anna's shampoo, without a doubt, and the other was less familiar these days, but still unmistakeably Sarah's lotion. No wonder John appeared so satisfied with himself.
"Did you not inform me that you were no longer seeing Anna?" he asked.
John didn't even have the grace to blush as he took off his jacket. "I'm not, but –"
No, he didn't have to stay to listen to John explaining how wonderful she was, or, worse, how irresistible he was even to women he'd given up. Sherlock swung his legs off the sofa, set his computer aside, and stood.
"Wait," John said, smiling while his face took on a familiar expression of confusion, "what's got into you?"
"You were in close contact with Sarah and Anna within the past hour. Anyone else that you managed to fit into your schedule?"
John had been peering at the laptop screen, shaking his head at the photographs of luxury cars, all designed to part a fool and his money, when his spine stiffened at Sherlock's words.
"Really? This again?" Sherlock crossed his arms defiantly. "You know quite well why Sarah and I called it quits, Sherlock. You had to, because you were the main reason!" John cleared his throat; evidently he had not meant to let his irritation become so full-throated. "And I . . . left her in the lurch when you disappeared" – Sherlock remembered the conversation he'd watched on his laptop, when Mycroft had coaxed John into admitting he'd quit the surgery – "and I knew she'd been having quite a time trying to find someone reliable to fill my spot. So I introduced her and Anna, and they hit it off."
"And you've indebted them both to you," Sherlock summarised when it became clear that John believed the story needed no further embellishment. "Sarah gets a doctor for her staff, Anna gets a steady paycheque, and you?"
John shot him a look that was at least half disappointment. "It was in my power to do them a favour, and I was happy to do so because they're my friends." It sounded like he was reciting a lesson in front of an indifferent classroom. He eyed Sherlock up and down in a way he'd insisted before was rude, but apparently only when Sherlock did it, and continued, "This isn't some barter system through which we'll now get free food or free dry-cleaning or what have you for life." John ran a hand through his hair. "You're making me feel like a shit, you know." He paused, but his words were no more convincing for having been considered. "It's like you think I want to erase you and make you over to be the next Dalai Lama. It was just something I could do to help them both out."
Fine. John was after unrewarded acts of kindness, but how did introducing two women who were bound to meet each other sooner or later, given that they were both medical professionals who had kept company with the same man, take precedence over a crime scene complete with murder victim? In fact, it was implausible that they hadn't met before, when John had been too adrift to insist on boundaries between his personal life and professional one, when Anna was a new romantic entanglement and Sarah would have been looking to rekindle her own relationship with John.
"During your work hours," Sherlock noted in a low murmur.
"No, during my break – they met me there. Jesus, if my boss had no problem with it, I don't see why you should have."
"You didn't answer your phone."
"Ah, that's the real crime, is it? Wouldn't have helped even if I'd had the time," John said, and Sherlock sucked in a surprised breath; Anna and Sarah together could not have made a compelling argument for John to cut ties with him, could they? "Not much of a car fancier," John said, sparing another glance at the laptop as he went into the kitchen for a glass of water.
"Off to the pub with Mike, if you want to join us?" John offered though he barely waited for Sherlock's indignant shake of the head. "If you solve it, come out and join us. We'll be at the White Rose." He walked out the door, inelegant jacket only halfway on.
Sherlock would have screamed with frustration, had he not known that it would have no effect other than to summon Mrs. Hudson with a pot of tea and a wide array of biscuits.
He sank back into the sofa, tabs for every crime reported in Carlisle opened in his browser. The new Jaguars only had tyres made at the new factory, so Carlisle was the first place to look for clues. Domestics, sexual assaults, murders – those could all be eliminated fairly quickly, as they were too personal to require the serial acts of vandalism that had occurred. Theft, though, was a possibility. But there was nothing in Carlisle worth the murder of a London security guard, except perhaps the specific formula for the rubber used to manufacture those specialised tyres. That could hardly be the answer, however, as that would not have necessitated a journey to London.
Sherlock set the laptop aside and brought his hands up to his lips, fingers steepled together. He closed his eyes and ran through the facts once more. Three London showrooms, of Jaguars and other luxury cars, had been broken into and the tyres of some of the recent models had been slashed. A security guard at the third location had been fatally stabbed. The tyres were Pirellis. Pirelli, an Italian firm based in Milan –
There it was. Eight months ago, he'd heard something about a massive jewellery theft in Milan, but had been too absorbed with Moriarty's handwritten letters to take much notice. The thieves had posed as police to gain access to the display cases and had struck with commendable efficiency; their organisation had stood them in good stead, as none of the stolen pieces had been recovered by genuine officials.
Pirelli had brought some of its Milanese workers to Carlisle to train English workers, and it was possible that at least one of the thieves left the continent through that ready-made means of emigration. Some small objects – rings, pendants, and the like – might well have been hidden among that worker's tools. Objects that could not be explained away if someone else caught sight of them, so he had panicked and secreted them inside the tyre he was working on, not realising that he'd not be able to distinguish it from others of the same make later.
Yes. It all made sense, the narrative shift from Milan to Carlisle as smooth as points on a train track, and he could feel that tell-tale satisfaction blossoming inside his chest. There was always something, though, which was why he needed John to sit there and listen with his puzzled smile, aura of competence, and willingness to make the leaps Sherlock needed him to. Sherlock pulled on his coat and headed for the White Rose.
John was there, as advertised, though he was mostly hidden behind the bulk of Mike Stamford, and neither of them noticed him as they were completely occupied with the pub quiz in which they were competing. Sherlock sighed disconsolately, but even that failed to wrest John's attention away from the unattractive woman with the microphone who was blathering something about the airport with the longest runway open to commercial traffic.
Sherlock stopped in his approach and took a look at the body language on display throughout the pub. John and Stamford were either winning comfortably or sincerely uninterested in the outcome, as evidenced by their relaxed posture and their smiles as they bent their heads together to consult on the answers; they were surrounded, however, by those who took the pub quiz very seriously indeed, and who, by the looks they were shooting John and Stamford, were upset about losing. It seemed that it was hard to compete with two doctors trained at Barts.
If John insisted on spending all of his free time with other doctors, Stamford was the best of the bunch, though Sherlock could not understand the impulse. It wasn't as if he were eager to share every waking moment with Lestrade or the other Yarders. Once again, he was uncomfortably reminded of how much he had missed when he'd only been able to surveil John sporadically.
Time was called, and John looked up, saw him, and waved him over. "The answer to the last question was Qamdo Bangda Airport," Sherlock informed him, and as if that were the cue he'd been waiting for, John laughed delightedly.
Sherlock conceded that some of his jocundity might be attributed to the pint of lager half-drained in front of him, but it wasn't the drink that got John to smile up at him and ask, "Solve it, then?"
"Possibly," Sherlock allowed.
John seemed to divine his disinclination to say more in front of the pub-quiz participants. With a nod, he sent Stamford up to fetch their prize, and stood, draining the rest of his pint. "Come with us to the Irish pub, and we'll go through it," he offered.
Sherlock hesitated. Lestrade and his team were uninvited but inevitable witnesses to his work, and John was the only one who'd shown an interest in the process itself, not just the results he posted; he was not particularly eager to swell the ranks of his audience even by one.
Stamford returned, voucher for free drinks clutched in his hand. "All set, lads?" he asked, in the tone he probably used most often on recalcitrant students. "Irish pub's just down the road."
John tucked into his steak-and-Guinness pie, colcannon on the side, and Sherlock watched him eat with evident enjoyment; Mike, sitting next to him and eating a boar burger, was far less crucial. Sherlock laid out the trail of his deduction clearly, pulling up corroborating webpages on John's phone as he went. Once he was finished, he allowed himself a few chips from the plate John had ordered for him.
"So all Lestrade has to do is look at the list of suspects for the original theft and find out which of them is employed by Pirelli and currently in England."
John cocked his head to one side and opened his mouth, but Stamford spoke first. "Don't you want to do it? Be there, I mean?"
"What?" Sherlock asked with some asperity.
"If you've done the hard part, mate, you should get to have the fun of slapping the handcuffs on the wanker," Stamford said, evidently believing he was making sense. There was a shiny smear of grease at the side of his mouth.
"The deductions are my interest," Sherlock said finally, having tried to be as mild as possible with his phrasing. That he'd succeeded showed in John's pleased nod.
"There's just one thing, though, Sherlock," John said almost apologetically. "If the original thieves kept so cool that no one was ever convicted of the crime and none of the pieces were found, why would the thief suddenly lose his head once he came here?"
"'s where the great Sherlock Holmes lives, of course," Stamford joked, clearly unaware that he'd put his foot in it by reminding John that he'd not known that Sherlock still lived only a few weeks ago. Sherlock was heartened by the fact that John did not withdraw from the conversation; he simply raised his eyebrows as a signal that he was still waiting for an answer.
"You're right, John; the man here cannot be one of the original gang. His actions indicate youth or possibly extreme inexperience. We should tell Lestrade to look for a son of one of the original suspects."
"Fantastic," John said.
Stamford shook his head and said, "I don't know how you do it," even though Sherlock had just shown him every link in the deductive chain.
Sherlock met John's eyes and barely managed to keep a straight face. John hastily gulped down the rest of his drink.
Sherlock waited quite patiently, but John did not spend any of his free time blogging about the spectacular synchronised arrests in England and Italy that had been made from Sherlock's tip; to be sure, John was on a double shift, the hours of which made no sense to Sherlock, as he knew most people had not trained themselves to be alert and responsive for so many hours straight.
Three days after Lestrade and Donovan had felled the murderer like lions taking down a gazelle – or so John had said in his tired, congratulatory call to the DI – Sherlock opened up John's laptop. It had been some time since he'd appropriated it, and it was rather a disappointment to learn that John had done away with password-protecting it; deducing the passwords had been a useful exercise in ascertaining John's state of mind.
He knew from previous perusals that John's blog had not had an update since Sherlock had gone underground, and he'd hoped to see if any private entries had been posted. But John's blog was not one of the tabs open, and clicking on it from the dropdown did not automatically log him in; John evidently had not made an electronic record of his time without Sherlock. Perhaps an old-fashioned paper one, then.
Setting John's laptop aside, Sherlock went to rummage through John's bedroom, turning up nothing that in any way resembled a journal. John had learnt cunning from him, though, so Sherlock took a long and careful look at the bookshelves in the living room, where his scholarly texts were jostled by John's novels and brainless "entertainment." He stopped in front of the shelf that held the Gorey anthology John treasured and tapped a thoughtful fingertip against its violated spine; Mycroft now had possession of the bug Moriarty had secreted inside John's watch, and surely it held all of the answers Sherlock was seeking.
Mycroft had shown himself strangely reluctant to disregard John's feelings. All Sherlock had to do was point out the ways in which his own greater knowledge would benefit John, and he would do it with a suggestion that Mycroft would mistake for a flag of truce.
It always surprised him to see sunlight dancing about Mycroft's office, illuminating the rich patina on the wood and picking out individual dust motes. Surely Mycroft would have felt more at home in a secret underground lair somewhere, someplace sterile and cold. Sherlock sat without so much as a by-your-leave, just to keep Mycroft on his toes, and went right for his knight, ignoring the more traditional opening pawn.
"Doug Maberley is waiting for your response to his invitation to spend a few weeks at his villa or palazzo or whatever he calls his wife's estate."
Mycroft's face tightened but he set down the single-spaced report he'd been reading and laced his fingers together. Sherlock continued to loll indolently in the way Mummy had deplored.
"It might do you good to spend some time out of the office," Sherlock said consideringly, as if he weren't aware that the thought of a holiday was enough to make Mycroft run screaming in horror.
"How very thoughtful of you," Mycroft said dryly. "I had not expected that you were in contact with any of my friends, as you've taken on so at the mere notion that John and I –"
Sherlock sat up abruptly and Mycroft stopped and let a most unpleasant smile sharpen his hatchet face. "Do you know, when I first heard you'd found yourself a partner, my initial thought was that someone must have fallen in love with you? That seemed more plausible than the remote possibility that someone could tolerate you just as you were. The notion that you might be good for that person too – well, it never occurred." Mycroft used the tone Sherlock had most hated as he was growing up, the older-and-wiser voice that said careful, you'll hurt yourself and did I not tell you that this would happen?
"I cured his limp," Sherlock parried. "I made it possible for him to stay in London."
"London is his home," Mycroft said dismissively; "you cannot lay sole claim to it."
There had to be another tack to try. "What did you do with Moriarty's body?"
Ah, at last – a pause, a stop for breath, a plea for some room to manoeuvre. The first sting of triumph nearly made Sherlock sick; he'd meant only to catch Mycroft off-guard, not remind him that Moriarty had killed Amy in a fashion so exquisitely cruel that John had elided all detail in speaking of it. Mycroft had gone nearly sclerotic in front of him, and Sherlock unthinkingly put his hand out.
The movement startled Mycroft out of his absence and he eyed Sherlock's hand, curling in on itself but still stretched toward him, with something very like loathing. "A blunt instrument would be taken as a lack of respect between us, I suppose."
"Mycroft, I –"
Mycroft's eyes snapped up to meet his. "I burnt Moriarty's body. I interrogated the doctor in his pay. Whatever loose ends your efforts had left dangling I cleared away. And I thanked John for ridding the world of one who thought himself divine and revelled in the worst of human nature."
It had not been John's first time dealing out death, and Mycroft had seen it, had witnessed John panting and bloody-eyed. Mycroft had been trusted to come to John's aid – and Sherlock had an epiphany, more inconveniently timed than most, right there in Mycroft's office: John would not have kept any journal of his thoughts; John's emotional state and grief-maddened deeds could be read only in the company he had kept, that wide array of friends that John had said had kept him going. Infinite variables – not only how many of them had rallied round John, but what their experiences had been, how they would have reached out to him – meant that Sherlock could never know the precise pattern of John's life while they were apart. It was no good to say that John was strong and could bear the loss; John might very well have lost a best friend before, or he might have emerged from his wars unscathed, but the accretion of losses and gains and betrayals and connections from his entire history meant that Sherlock would never be completely certain in his predictions, or even in the meanings he ascribed to John's past actions. John could not be completely known, even to himself, let alone to Sherlock.
He felt suddenly unclothed, but as he looked at his brother, whose face was haunted still, Sherlock was moved to an act of kindness. "How did John –?" he asked. It would be good to have the deductions he'd made from hearing the showdown confirmed.
"John snapped his neck with his bare hands," Mycroft said, with no small amount of satisfaction.
"As befit a soldier," Sherlock said, and stood to go.
"Mycroft told me he's spending Christmas in Italy," John said, brewing a pot of coffee that smelled terribly decadent. "Sounds lovely, doesn't it?"
"Mmm," Sherlock agreed half-heartedly; Italy would be warmer, but the presence of Doug and Isadora Maberley tipped the scales in the other direction. Of far more interest in Mycroft's email was the case he'd offered, hot on the heels of the conversation they'd had in his office, some tenuous understanding emerging from all the thorns.
"I suppose it does take him a few months to prepare for being out of the office," John mused. "It's only just Bonfire Night."
That made Sherlock sit up and look round at John. "Were you planning to go out?"
He'd not seen any sign that John was dating again, but Harry and Lestrade especially seemed eager to fix John up; the clear-eyed delight their wives took in John was surely no small motivation.
"Shall we?" John asked. "I've got thermoses for the coffee."
Sherlock considered. John was looking very ready for the brisk weather in his sleek blue jumper and worn-soft jeans, his hair shaggy like a wild creature's winter coat, but going outside meant sharing him. Sherlock dug his cold bare toes into the sofa cushion. "Can't we just stay in?"
"As you like," John said, smiling, and brought the silver coffeepot, in which all of his many moods had been reflected at one time or another, over to the living-room table, mugs clinking together in his other hand.
He solved Mycroft's case a few days later, and something about his brother's restrained demeanour had him wondering if Mycroft had contrived circumstances – the timing of the assignment, the frequency with which John had to cover his supposedly ill colleagues' shifts – so that John would miss the case and Sherlock would be able to lay it in front of him as a whole, neat and complete.
John's eyes blazed as Sherlock spelt out how a man named Neville Sinclair had appropriated the history John's friends had died for; Sinclair had, instead of taking on a proper job or even searching for a sinecure based on his family's social status, disguised himself, with the best paints and prosthetics the film industry could supply, as a gravely disfigured war veteran, collecting for the Royal British Legion. The money his twisted lip and amputated legs had earned him had gone straight into his own pockets.
Twice during Sherlock's recitation, John had looked to Mycroft as if to confirm that he was hearing the story correctly; both times Mycroft had nodded gravely back. Mycroft's calm, whether genuine or assumed, was not contagious, and John was shaking with rage by the time Sherlock finished, and his eyes were hard and flat.
"No, it's done," John said quietly to himself before getting up to offer tea. Mycroft accepted and settled back in the soft cloth of his wingback chair. By the time John returned with the tray, Mycroft had John's watch out of his pocket and was presenting it.
"Your wristwatch was returned to me just last evening," Mycroft said, and John's face lit up. He unclasped the silver watch and offered it in exchange for his parents' last gift. "I'd like you to keep this one as well," Mycroft continued, gently pushing away John's hand.
"You or Sherlock could wear it," John protested, though he drew his hand back willingly enough.
"If it is with you, it is still within the family," Mycroft said, smiling, and when John's answering grin flashed across his face, Sherlock very nearly forgot himself and smiled too.
Sherlock did not fidget, though being hemmed in by so large a crowd made it a near thing. He shifted his weight away from Harry and Clara – the former eyeing him with her most unforgiving expression, the latter apparently uninterested in looking at him at all – toward Mycroft. John was in a realm of his own, though he stood with them, the neat lines and superb posture of his figure marking him apart. The watery-eyed man at the front of the crowd was speaking, but his voice trembled as violently as the scarlet poppy in his buttonhole, and only a few snatches of his speech were comprehensible.
John's ears were going pink from the cold, Sherlock could see from behind him; he wanted very badly to observe for himself what John's eyes looked like when he was thinking of his fallen comrades, or remembering the endless moments when he thought he lay dying. But he would have had to jostle everyone around him to effect that, and John would be pulled out of his grave contemplation, so Sherlock stayed put. He saw in his peripheral vision Harry and Clara both shaking while shoring each other up. Beyond them, he could see veterans whose scars could not be hidden by their bright uniforms.
His lungs burnt from the crisp November air and a recollection of John's words; John had called his work a "public service," implicitly comparing solving crimes to the kind of selfless courage he himself had shown in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Sherlock wanted to stand straighter and accept the honour, but knew it was far too generous. In the end, it was only Mycroft's hand at the small of his back that kept him upright, standing amongst those who had given so much.
Sherlock had observed that John felt the cold much more acutely than he did, and was therefore at a loss to explain why John grew more cheerful as London turned chillier. He wore those sleek cashmere jumpers nearly year-round, so it couldn't be that he enjoyed pulling a seasonally appropriate wardrobe out of storage. And shorter days meant that he was more often heading to or from work in the darkness, lit only by the city's harsh glow, which disrupted his circadian rhythms and by all rights should have made him more irritable if anything.
John's cheerfulness was just due to the time of year, Sherlock was forced to conclude, when John got emails and phone calls nearly every night from people he hadn't heard from in months. So pedestrian, this holiday spirit, and far removed from genuine spiritual feeling. John's parents had not inculcated him with any particular religious sentiment, and John had evidently had no inclination to pursue it on his own. Sherlock had memories of being relentlessly suborned into proper attitudes of compassion and love, but John had needed no such instruction to obey not just the letter but also the spirit of such tenets.
At least Mycroft would be safely away in Italy and would not be on hand to plague him about any so-called familial obligations, though Mrs. Hudson was nearly as bad, bustling up the stairs despite her fabled hip, and enjoining him to "stop looking at morbid things on the internet" and help her string lights and garlands everywhere, including 221B. At least his fib that John was allergic to tinsel precluded a final garish layer being added to the mess that was his flat.
"Sherlock," she said firmly, setting a loaded tea-tray down on the table, "I've something to say to you." Pouring the tea, however, was apparently enough to derail her. "Oh, that one strand of lights just won't stay on! I'll just –"
"Mrs. Hudson," he interrupted, eager to have his sofa back. "What was it you wanted to tell me?"
"I'm leaving for my trip in a few days, and I wanted to make sure there will be no more silliness while I'm gone."
He was at a loss. "If you hurt John again," she began, then trailed off; Sherlock got the distinct impression she was trying to avoid laying down an ultimatum. "I don't think he could take it."
He had had suspicions of his own on that front, until John had shown him how wide and strong his network was, the veritable throngs of people who seemed to ask for nothing more than for John to be happy.
"John is not as fragile as you think," he prevaricated; it was hardly Mrs. Hudson's place to lecture him about his relationship with John.
"He – he couldn't keep a thing down for two weeks!" she exclaimed. "Saving some tea, of course."
He frowned; John had not been ill at the time he'd left, only exhausted. Even if he had been queasy at the thought of Sherlock being killed, two weeks was surely an exaggeration. Anna had re-entered John's life at that point, and if she were even halfway to competent, she would have done something. It was more than implausible; it was impossible.
But Mrs. Hudson's eyes were shining with genuine outrage. "You know I've always been fond of you, but I haven't seen that much has changed since you came back. And he deserves better at your hands, Sherlock. Don't you chase him off."
"You will not return from Florida to find yourself down one tenant," he promised, relieved when she took the evasion as an acknowledgment of her reproach.
He rooted through all of the ingredients with which John had cluttered the fridge and cupboards. It didn't follow logically that John, unable to stand food, would become an avid cook, but this was John, who was as illogical as it seemed a person could be.
He didn't bother to put everything back as he had found it when he heard John's step on the stair; he liked holding evidence in his hands, and there was no time anyway. John walked in, ivory-coloured dust brightening the folds of his jacket, and stopped with the light behind him, limning his figure and making his expression a matter of shadow rather than clarity.
"Sherlock?" he asked, a rumble of amusement in his voice. "Were you hungry?"
Sherlock sighed in exasperation. Had John not seen his plate in the sink, covered in the detritus of two meals? Or had breathing in the marble dust that coated the studio in which Lestrade's wife worked made him unable to process information properly?
"Explain," he demanded, holding out a small hinged box of saffron in one hand and a jar of "Mother's Recipe Andhra Gongura Onion Pickle" in the other; he would think fondly of his own mother before believing John's would have made anything that looked quite so lethal. Though haggis was likely just as hazardous to the health.
"Explain what? You've seen me cook, and once in a blue moon you've actually eaten what's put in front of you," John scolded, gathering the items that had been removed from the fridge and reshelving them. "What's got into you now?"
"Mrs. Hudson has been confabulating again."
"Whilst decorating?" John murmured, looking around at the baubles scattered around their evergreen-scented flat. "Talented lady."
"She claims that you were unable to stomach solid food for two weeks after I left."
John shifted, and the light caught his jaw; Sherlock could see that his mouth was pressed into a thin line. "Ah," John said. "And you want –?"
"You to deny it," Sherlock explained impatiently.
"I can't, though. Do we really need to get into this again?"
"You thought I was dead, you stopped eating, and then you took up cookery? It makes no sense, John!"
"My god, I feel like Maria Montessori," John said under his breath. "I know you grasped this last time, Sherlock. You cannot predict everything I am going to do because not every part of me is covered by your data, however extensive it might be."
That was as unsatisfactory an answer as Sherlock had ever received. "Then why did you not just tell me?" Sherlock demanded.
John shrugged and stepped around him to reach the kettle. Sherlock watched as John filled it with enough water for two. "I was going to make pasta with vegetables for dinner." He retrieved tomatoes and onions and began chopping them, characteristically neat-handed, though it was odd that he'd not donned Clara's old apron.
Sherlock, still watching him closely, tapped his fingertips together. "Cooking is a way for you to claim control of your environment," he deduced, "but not yet a relaxing exercise; there are too many unfamiliar variables."
John was affecting not to have heard him; presumably he was busy blinking away copious tears induced by syn-propanethial-S-oxide.
"You did not wish to tell me; while that is tiresome, I suppose it is your prerogative. The question remains, however, as to why Mrs. Hudson chose to tell me about your bodily reactions to my departure."
John said, over his shoulder, as if his hearing had been miraculously restored, "That's the thing – everyone has parts of their personality that are beyond you, not just me."
Sherlock, still sitting on the floor, went cold at the casual barb. John washed his hands, filled a pot with water, set it to boil, and wiped his eyes. "Now what, you nutter?" he asked, offering both hands to haul Sherlock up. Sherlock laid his hands in John's, which were small and veined and fine-boned, but made no move to shift his weight.
"You're invalidating my work," he gasped out, and felt, from the startled squeeze of John's hands around his, that that was not what he'd intended.
"God, no, Sherlock, no." John took a deep breath and lifted Sherlock up; Sherlock, not much caring where he landed, went where John's strong hands put him. "You know more about crime than anyone else in the world. You're able to work out the who and why and how from any crime scene. Once it's happened, you have the answers." John's arms went round him, warm and secure, and though John's chin was on his shoulder and he couldn't see John's neat mouth shape the words, he could still hear them. "All I'm saying is that in real life, when everything's up in the air, there'll always be something beyond your reach."
Mechanically, he said, "Like your pot."
John spun, still clutching him tight, and said, "Oh!" as the pot boiled over.
"Yes," John admitted, definitely amused, as he shuffled awkwardly over to the hob, Sherlock not letting go. "Like that. Wanker," he said, turning off the heat, and Sherlock felt infinitely better.
Sherlock was engaged in an experiment to determine the ductility of common household objects made of metal alloys. As he had few possessions that could be characterised as common, he'd selected a small sample of John's; that John's favourite spoon was necessary was regrettable but unavoidable. Mrs. Hudson turned up as he finished clearing all the evidence away, weighed down by a stack of packages, one of which was wrapped.
"You boys haven't even got yourselves sorted for the holidays," she said disapprovingly even as she handed him one of the tins and dropped a light kiss on his cheek. It seemed that their previous disagreement had been forgiven and forgotten; just in case it wasn't, Sherlock did not bring it up. "Though I suppose John's work doesn't allow for regular holidays. I'll drop by tonight though, if that's alright. I've got to be off early." She took the other packages back with her as she left the flat, and Sherlock decided that meant he was free to investigate the contents of the one she'd left with him.
Dark golden diamonds, each the length of his smallest finger, lay nestled inside the tin, forest-green tissue paper surrounding them. A rich scent of butter arose from them and Sherlock poked one diamond carefully, until it cracked and he could seize a single crumb. Its taste was both plain and complex, and at last Sherlock recognised it. Gateau Breton was a treat he'd not had in years. He closed his eyes and unerringly picked another crumb loose and brought it to his lips.
He was still picking thoughtfully at the cake when John entered the flat, dropping his jacket – too thin and brief for the weather; hadn't those wretched professional busybodies furnished him with a proper coat whilst ogling him? – and heading determinedly for the stairs. There were noises coming from his room as of drawers being opened and wardrobe doors being flung wide open, and then finally John returned, in thick, soft fleece and cotton, his hot-water bottle in its red woollen sheath dangling from one hand.
"Would some of Mrs. Hudson's Gateau Breton divert your attention away from your shoulder?" Sherlock offered, raising the tin.
"Ta, but I just want to rest a little," John said, heading to the kitchen for the inevitable cup of tea and to fill the bottle.
John ended up getting about forty minutes of relaxation with the heavy heat pressed to his shoulder before Mrs. Hudson came up, bearing more parcels than she'd carried earlier. If only Mrs. Hudson would get a mobile, she could have received a text from Sherlock asking her to delay a while.
"John, dear," she said, bustling in self-importantly, "this arrived for you, and I thought I should bring it while I brought your present."
"Oh, I haven't yet done my shopping," John said, looking guilty, and presenting his cheek for her smacking kiss. "I forgot you'd be leaving in the morning, sorry."
"Hush, now," she said, perching on the arm of the sofa where he lay like a rag doll that had been tossed at the corner. "Just open mine first, would you? This one's for you, and the other is from me to both of you."
Sherlock sat up from his sprawl to watch John open a tin of brownies that Mrs. Hudson had baked, face lighting up as he sampled a small corner piece.
"Divine," John pronounced solemnly. "I don't know how you do it," he said, while Sherlock sniffed and smelled pistachios rather than the more usual walnuts; Mrs. Hudson had learnt John's tastes rather well. "Sherlock, do you want to do the honours?" he offered, handing over the shared gift. Sherlock shook his head, feeling exceptionally lazy, and lay back down. John tore open the gaily striped paper to reveal a hardcover book.
The New Best Recipe, Sherlock read and rolled his eyes.
"Since you're cooking so regularly these days," she explained as John delightedly flipped through the pages. "I was going to get you that new book, the Modern Kitchen at Home, no, that's not the name –"
"Oh, no, that one's far too dear," John interrupted earnestly. "This looks much more useful, anyhow, with all the scientific explanations."
Sherlock did not believe in rising to such obviously cast bait, but he was full of Gateau Breton and had no real desire to disappoint Mrs. Hudson in any case. "Scientific?" he asked, tone just curious enough to get John and Mrs. Hudson to exchange conspiratorial glances.
"Make me something for when I get back," Mrs. Hudson asked, "and that'll do me for a present. Oh! I nearly forgot this other package. It looks very smart, doesn't it, with the gold paper."
"That's not Harry's writing," John said, that puzzled line appearing between his brows, "nor Clara's either. And it's not like them to be so early with a gift."
"Secret admirer?" Mrs. Hudson cooed, elbowing John familiarly, and he laughed despite the way she jostled his shoulder.
"If only," John said, carefully peeling away the paper, as if he knew Sherlock might need to examine it later. The box inside was large and without a logo, and Sherlock knew exactly who had sent the parcel.
John pulled off the lid to reveal a thick woollen coat in a dark blue that would set off his eyes remarkably well. He stood to shake it out and Sherlock saw that the breast was cut wide and square to drape comfortably across the breadth of John's shoulders and that the coat tapered at the waist; Mycroft had had it made to John's specifications, and it would suit him perfectly. The crinkling sound that he heard as John held it out to admire it was explained by the sheet of ivory tissue paper keeping the vermilion silk lining pristine.
"Mycroft," John said, beaming, and reached for his mobile.
"He's en route to Italy," Sherlock reminded him. "You won't be able to reach him."
"Oh, you'll cut such a fine figure in that coat, John," Mrs. Hudson said, fluttering about, gathering up scraps of paper and setting the box on the table. "Now, I must be off; I've an early flight." John kissed her cheek and Sherlock walked her to the door and submitted to another fond embrace.
"Eat what he cooks you, dear," she said in a whisper far louder than it needed to be, then started down the stairs.
It was clear that John was reaping benefits in the form of Christmas presents from those he had befriended, which meant that Sherlock was going to have to find something absolutely perfect to remind him of the pecking order; no one else could claim to be John's best friend as corroborated by the man himself.
John had headed to the Trauma Centre just before Mrs. Hudson's taxi arrived, booked for an early shift, which meant he'd return by early afternoon. Sherlock went to investigate his room, to see for himself what John had, the better to determine what John lacked.
It was rather cold in the upstairs bedroom, he noticed, looking at the pristine condition of rather spartan quarters. He opened the wardrobe doors and saw John's shoes and boots neatly lined up and his shirts hung in front of the shelving that held his towels, sheets, and other sundries. John's black-and-white striped dressing-gown hung from a hook and was only slightly damp. Sherlock closed the doors and started on the bureau, working from the bottom drawer up. More clothes: jumpers, jeans, trousers, socks, vests, pants. In the top drawer lay his deflated hot-water bottle in its scarlet woollen cover, resting on a pile of thin white vests. There was one discordant sliver of ivory peeking out beneath the red, and Sherlock reached for it automatically.
It was a note from Mycroft, navy-blue ink on heavy cardstock, and there was a blue thread clinging to the edge; the card had had no envelope but rather had been secreted in one of the pockets of John's new coat. The note could not be simply a season's greetings card, or else John would have put it up on the mantelpiece or perhaps on top of his dresser. Burning with curiosity, Sherlock bent his head to read Mycroft's spindly script.
My dear John, Sherlock read, and it was only the colours of ink and paper and the familiarity of Mycroft's tall, elegant hand that kept him from reacting as if this were one of Moriarty's poisonous notes. Those had been done in rather chic black and white, not the warmer tones of blue and cream, and Sherlock, dizzy with frustration at the repeated assumption that John was anyone else's, wondered where all of Moriarty's letters had gone.
My dear John,
I had not intended to write such a note, but your transparent surprise at my words the other night reminded me that your modesty is still inconveniently great. When I said that you were part of my family, I meant it, to an even greater degree than you could have imagined. Do you remember telling me that you counted your sister-in-law as one of the great boons of your life because she brought out the best in you as well as the best in your sister, and, not coincidentally, brought you two closer together? Ms. Endriseh, you told me, performed a service, all unheralded and often overlooked; I know you too well to believe that you have not made a point of thanking her. So must I do the same for you. These last several months have been an extraordinarily difficult time, and your steadiness has been a strength upon which I have relied. Though I had not counted on it, you have made it possible for me to feel part of a family again, and it has been your efforts that have built the bridge toward sharing a relationship with my brother again.
I am deeply indebted to you, and so, if he has any sense at all, must my brother be as well.
Sherlock abandoned his plan of looking under the skull for Moriarty's notes and sat on John's neatly made bed, the card still in his hand. He had never expected such an outpouring of genuine emotion from Mycroft, of all people, or for John to recognise it and treasure it, keeping it tucked away like a pre-pubescent girl of a pre-Facebook age would have hidden her diary, wearing the key to its lock around her neck. Mycroft had been in a bad way since Amy's death, it seemed, and it was hardly surprising that he had latched onto John as the one ray of light in the darkness; that seemed to be what John was made for, an unwavering candle that lit the way back to the world.
He supposed he could forgive Mycroft for going back on his vow never to call him "brother" again. His hands were perfectly steady as they replaced the card in John's drawer, straightened out the creased bedclothes, and set the room to rights. He only faltered when, safely installed in the kitchen once more, he tried to crack an egg against the worktop edge and ended by crushing it uselessly in his hand instead.
That spark of forgiveness fizzled out unceremoniously when he reasoned that his brother was the driving force behind the case Lestrade was presenting, with John, ever faithful to the cause of justice, as his willing audience. Even when he was supposed to be lying on a beach in Italy, all thoughts of work drained out of his head, Mycroft had no compunction about twisting Sherlock's arm and demanding that he take this case.
It was instructive, though of course rather wretched, to be exposed to so many ordinary people all at once and for so many hours every day; Sherlock wondered idly if Harrods drew a particularly dim clientele or if John had simply spoilt him for companionship. He lost days to the case, days when John was either on call or meeting with people eager to wish him good cheer for the holidays.
And then, rather abruptly, John solved the whole case and Sherlock was free of his employment. He celebrated by picking up his violin for the first time in weeks and serenading John. No carols, nothing John could tap his foot to or try to hum the melody of; this was more about John opening himself up to the rapture of the counterpoint than about simple recognition. John's slate-dark eyes had gone rather dreamy and hungry, as if he were peering at something far out of his reach, when Sherlock, elated by his success, launched into the familiar strains of Bach's Partita Number One. John's gaze became sharp and focused, and he did not wait for a pause but simply spoke when the diminuendo occurred.
"That's the last thing you played me before you left," John said, evidently believing that it was some kind of code.
"It is a particular favourite of mine," Sherlock said, watching, gratified, as John's body lost its peculiar tension and he accepted once more the music being woven around him.
Sherlock could not say which upset him more: John's failure to understand that the private – though not quite impromptu – concert had been his Christmas gift to John, or that he had missed deducing that John had been planning to update his blog at long last. Nothing consequential, of course, and it did cheer him to observe that John never did have anything valuable to say except about him. I've much to be thankful for, the entry read. Cheers to you all. Absolutely banal. He switched over to his own website and saw that there were no new comments – no comments at all, actually – on his wholly absorbing study of tattoos, covering the significance, colours, shapes, sizes, and meanings of the markings.
Very well. If John needed to see a wrapped package in order to comprehend that Sherlock reciprocated his friendship, then he would get a towering stack of them.
Sherlock stalked to 221C, where he'd hidden the festively wrapped gifts he'd been saving for Christmas Day. He shook off the stray thought that John had been running himself ragged at the Trauma Centre and was possibly allowing some vile illness to batter his defences and therefore sap his brainpower.
When John finally returned from the Trauma Centre, sniffling heedlessly, he perversely took no notice of the tier of boxes set next to his chair, going instead to his laptop and turning it so that the screen faced Sherlock. Sherlock ignored the sight of John's blog, now with some comments, and looked instead at John's face, which was slightly fuller now than it had been upon his return, but was currently pulled awry by an anxious expression and the incipient drip of mucus.
"This is what I'm asking for for Christmas," John said, guileless as a child, his voice ever so slightly clogged. "A friend of mine needs your help."
John's friend was inept with respect to putting together a case file, preferring, as John did, to sacrifice clarity for a suspenseful narrative stuffed full of extraneous detail; by the time he got on the train, Sherlock still wasn't sure if an actual crime had been committed.
The journey itself was markedly different from the last time he'd been on a train with John, and Sherlock smiled at the sight of him, pink-cheeked and eager for his expertise.
"Tell me what you know thus far," he instructed, and John compliantly sat back to marshal his thoughts and blow his nose.
"I didn't get much of an explanation from him, just the comment on the blog, which you saw."
"Which was less than informative," Sherlock reminded him.
John frowned, endearingly, making himself look terribly young. "That in itself was odd; Gheb's one of the most level-headed fellows I know. If he couldn't pull himself together enough to lay out what happened, it must be bad."
Sherlock supposed that was fair, and John's willingness to travel all the way to Sussex on this man's say-so, while ill, surely spoke to the trustworthiness of the man.
"Soldier," he deduced second-hand, enjoying John's amazed surprise, "but not a fellow doctor. You do associate him with your work, though, given how readily you took charge of this current situation, so – a soldier you treated. You noted his level-headedness, which means you weren't dealing with an immediate, shattering trauma for which you would have anaesthetised him; you were able to speak with him over several visits, so – long-term care. The nickname you used implies friendship beyond the professional or even the camaraderie of the unit, warning me I should brace myself for further proofs of your dubious sense of humour."
"You are such a blight," John said admiringly, then sneezed.
John's friend was the owner of a very fine property, sprawling enough that it included a lake, a brook, and some thick woods. The house itself had a grand façade made of an unusual grey-blue stone, the precise colour of John's irises bleached several shades lighter. Sherlock shot a look at John, who was slowly turning blue as they waited on the step, buffeted by the merciless wind.
At length, the door opened and there stood a man with a broad chest, not entirely steady on his feet though he carried no cane.
"Gheb!" John said, hurrying forward to lock the man in a fond embrace.
"Ah, John, mate!" the man returned, clapping John on the back with a cupped hand; the reverberation it would have made was lost due to the thickness of John's new coat. His eyes were shining darkly, and they met Sherlock's without a qualm. When he pulled back, he had a hand on each of John's shoulders. "Thank you both for coming." He looked assessingly at John, now that there was a bit of distance between them. "I meant to call you before all of this –"
"No more vagueness, please," Sherlock requested crisply. "What exactly has happened to your lover?"
John's hand clasped his friend's bicep to get his mouth to close.
"Here, let me; it always seems to go down well when I do it." John turned to Sherlock, eyes mischievously shining in his careworn face in a way that took ten years off him, clasped hands near his cheek. "My God, that's amazing! How did you know?"
It was impossible not to laugh a little bit at that, or at John's follow-up, which was some muttering about freezing his bollocks off on the front step. Gheb hastily pivoted to let them by, but the inside of the house was not notably warmer. In fact it looked like the house had not been occupied for very long, as there were snowy cloths covering the furnishings of all of the rooms save one suite, and the banister of the great staircase was similarly draped. The set of rooms in use had lights on, and Gheb haltingly led the way.
The parlour was large and dominated by a grand piano, toward which all of the embroidered wine-coloured chairs were turned, while lengthy sofas anchored two of the walls. If the other suites in the house were built along the same lines, then to fill the massive fireplaces in each room would have been to denude the property's woods entirely; as it was, the fire in this room was roaring and there was plenty of wood stacked high to keep it going. As it hadn't warmed the room noticeably, Sherlock kept his coat on and saw John make the same decision.
"Sit, please," Gheb said, finding the seat that apparently accommodated his hip the best.
"Joe – Joseph – Vamberry is my partner. Long-term, and in fact we were planning to marry soon."
"He lives here with you?" Sherlock cut in. It was important to have all of the data before making any judgements, but it was much easier to ask the right questions than to trust that those involved would have the presence of mind to offer everything he needed.
"Yes. We were batting the idea around when word came that I was being deployed, and then the decision was made and he moved everything in one weekend. We had one week together and then I was in Afghanistan, with Doc here to look after me." He and John smiled at each other at that, firelight flickering photogenically over their faces. "We stayed in contact while I was gone, and he never mentioned anything wrong."
"No issues with the locals, who didn't like the owner of the big house being a Muslim? Or a homosexual?"
"There are no locals; the area's not got much going for it, and people have left for the cities or even abroad. I can't even find a few people near enough to care for the place, and with my hip, I had to close most of the house."
Sherlock focused his attention on Gheb's hip, but other than the asymmetry to his form that came from overcompensating for it, he could not see what exactly was wrong. It could not have been that injury that brought John and Gheb together, either, as it looked to be sudden and traumatic – ah, he had it.
"You're diabetic," he deduced, steepling his fingers comfortably, "and as a medical officer, John was your source for either glucose-lowering tablets or insulin injections. The latter, I take it," he added, as Gheb's fingers brushed unconsciously over his stomach. "And then you were shot in the hip and invalided home."
Gheb looked like he needed more time to process his own biography, but he nodded valiantly. "Yeah. God, you're amazing."
"Agreed," Sherlock said, waiting for John's wry smile. "When did you start experiencing problems?"
Gheb hesitated. "I can't put my finger on it. I wasn't . . . quite myself when I came home, and the house was so quiet, and Joe hadn't counted on having a cripple for a partner." Sherlock saw, with a flush of pride, that Gheb had not even glanced John's way at that; John's limp, which should never have existed, had been thoroughly conquered. "I've a feeling he put up with quite a lot from me. I should have been better to him."
John, Sherlock observed, had not leant forward to chime in and assure Gheb of any innate wondrousness or inability to treat his loved ones shabbily; he wondered if John had heard such things himself and scorned them as sentimental pap unworthy of a grown man who had chosen to fight for a greater good.
"Fine," he said, "let us agree you should have been more forbearing. Did Joseph have any specific complaints?"
Gheb nodded, adding detail as he remembered it. "I remember him talking about money, about bills, even though I'd set up all of my payments online, so he shouldn't have even seen any bills."
"Unless he was spending money while you were away."
"We never did get a chance to set up a joint bank account, but he should have had enough from his job to get by."
"So cash would not have been the urgent matter, as far as you are aware. What changed one month ago?" He waved away any tedious questions. "One month," he prompted.
"My therapist asked me to try something new. Nothing as formal as music therapy, but along those lines. There was a musician who was willing to come down from London and stay here to remain in this country –"
"A permanent house-guest could very well have changed the household dynamics," Sherlock said.
"I was wondering about the piano," John cut in. "I didn't think you played –"
A new voice, American, made him stop short. "It took me forever to find it, but I have to say that 'aubergine' does sound nicer than 'eggplant.'" A woman – within a year of his own age, Sherlock estimated – stepped into the suite, arms full of the shopping. The bags blocked most of her body, so that all he could see of her apparel was a pair of faded blue jeans, sloppily tied trainers, and a scarlet knit cap. "Sorry," she said, "I didn't realise you had company." Her eyes widened when they lit on John, and Sherlock turned to follow her gaze; John was caught in a weak beam of sunlight that made his hair monochromatic instead of variegated. "John!" she gasped.
"Irene," he said, stepping forward. "Let me help you with those," John continued, gesturing to the bags in her arms. Irene ceded one of the bags without a murmur of protest and as she and John disappeared, their footfalls echoing faintly, Sherlock turned to Gheb, eyebrows arched interrogatively.
"I'd no idea she and Doc knew each other," Gheb said. "Small world."
Sherlock continued to wait. "And, yeah, her presence was what used to drive Joe absolutely mad. Said I'd be after her in no time – as if I even could, with this hip!"
"So you are bisexual but your partner is homosexual," Sherlock said, irritated with himself for having got it wrong before. "Have you given him cause to doubt your fidelity before?"
"No, and I haven't since I came home either. Joe knows he's all I need. I told him so every damn day, until he disappeared."
Sherlock stood back and observed Gheb from head to toe, reading tension in every line of his body. Though it had taken him far too long to get to the crux of the matter, Gheb certainly was not failing to take Vamberry's disappearance seriously. "What have you tried so far?"
"I've called the police –"
"Useless," Sherlock spat.
"I've had Irene go to the shops and ask everyone to keep an eye out for him. I emailed his friends in London, but they hadn't heard from him. I've called his family and his former partner, and they all thought he was tucked up safe here with me, still celebrating my triumphant homecoming." There was self-mockery painted across Gheb's face at that.
"So you have merely confirmed that he has no confidant you have been able to locate, if not even they were made aware of your changed circumstances. No ransom demanded, no note from the man himself with an ultimatum to rid your household of this new addition." Gheb shook his head. "What do you think has happened?"
"I don't know!" Gheb said, shifting in his seat as if the pain in his hip had just become unbearably acute. "I don't even know what he thought of this place – if there was somewhere he liked to go, to think – because for the week we had together, we spent most of it in bed."
Sherlock refrained from rolling his eyes twice over at that. Once for the thought of shagging from morning to morning, and again for the notion that thinking required special locations. Perhaps that was why most people simply could not think at any satisfactory level – they placed a totemic importance on the setting of an act that should be occurring constantly, regardless of time or place.
"Where was he when you were having your 'not quite music therapy' sessions with this 'Irene'?" he asked, forcing himself not to ponder the significance of the wonder that had alit on John's face at the sight of her, instantly recognised.
"The library, mostly," Gheb said, gesturing.
"The kitchen would be likely to be warmer," Sherlock pointed out.
Gheb smiled sadly. "Yeah, but the library's a bit further away."
"Very well, let us go inspect it," Sherlock said, noting that, given the speed at which Gheb walked, he would have plenty of time to take a look at the kitchen and hear at least part of the conversation that had been ceaselessly flowing all the while.
Even with the slow pace, Gheb did not look particularly good once they reached the library; the house was old and featured uneven floors, winding corridors, and small sets of steps between rooms. There was sweat standing out on Gheb's brow when he dropped into one of the wing chairs clustered around a table high enough to hold a meal. John, who had been summoned by Sherlock's demanding eye, started forward with a glass of water in his hand and spoke in a low voice to Gheb. Sherlock looked over at Irene, who was watching John and Gheb fondly and paying no attention to her surroundings.
The shelves held the usual hardcover editions any grand estate would have, most of which looked undisturbed, and stacks of more modern-looking paperbacks. The lack of dust on a few shelves indicated the reading tastes of the house's inhabitants: local history, French classics, and P. G. Wodehouse.
"Is Joe an avid reader?" Sherlock asked, only to be met with Gheb's chagrined face.
"I don't think so. He didn't keep any books by our bed except his ledgers and sometimes a notebook."
"I saw him in here a couple of nights, when I couldn't sleep and needed something to read," Irene chimed in, stepping forward as if seeking a spotlight. "He had a couple of these" – her hand waved to indicate the local-history tomes – "on the table and he was taking notes in a notebook." She seemed to realise what the next questions would be. "He growled at me and did his best to shield what he was working on from me, but there's not a lot of camouflage in this room."
"He was sitting here?" Sherlock asked sharply, once it was clear Irene had nothing further to add. "Right-handed, of course," he murmured to himself as he ran careful fingertips along the underside of the table, searching for any kind of spring or catch to release a concealed drawer. Nothing. "This table is a fake," he said, straightening up. "A genuine piece would have had a convenient hidden drawer here to justify the space the table occupies."
John smiled sunnily at Gheb, as if to distract from the revelation, and Gheb just shrugged unconcernedly. "It wouldn't surprise me to learn that half the stuff in the house is fake. Mum said she came from a long line of spendthrifts and we should just be grateful the house itself hadn't been sold out from under us."
"What are you planning to do with it?" John asked, and Sherlock worried his lip as he considered whether it was possible that John was asking as much for the benefit of this Irene as he was for his crippled friend. Perhaps not, as John's eyes were fixed on the elaborate mouldings and his face betrayed an appreciation for the fine colours and fabrics furnishing the library.
"The upkeep alone makes it silly for me to stay," Gheb admitted, "and there's just me, so it's not like any other family member's going to come out of the woodwork and demand his share, because that would have happened when the house went to Mum after Uncle Peter died."
So Gheb was mixed-race, his mother from England's landed gentry and his father a businessman from Egypt. Irrelevant, as was what Gheb was saying, about donating the house to some wildlife charity or registering it with the National Trust. Except . . .
"What does Joe do?" he asked, waiting while the rest tried to shift conversational gears. "Quickly! You said he kept ledgers in your bedroom, that he was worried about his finances. Clearly he was looking for quick cash. Given that this library holds nothing more valuable than some first editions of some rather mediocre titles, he could not have been selling off the contents of this room. But of some other room, yes, it's possible."
"He's a wine merchant."
"Ah! John, the wine cellar." John nodded, decisive and calm, and Sherlock took one look at Irene, who'd noted the action as well, and turned swiftly to her. "You may wait here." Before she could protest, he cut her off. "According to all accounts, you are the last person Joseph Vamberry would want to see." He was surprised to see agreement rather than hurt on her face, but pushed her toward Gheb in any case.
It took John far less time than Sherlock had counted on to see the flaw in the reasoning. "You can't honestly believe Joe's in the wine cellar," John said, swinging around so abruptly that Sherlock collided with him, the thick wool of their coats providing enough padding that there was no discomfort from the meeting. "If it's this cold up here, the bloody wine cellar must be an icebox, and even Joe must have had the sense to have a sulk elsewhere." Even as he spoke, he started marching again, most likely in an effort to stay warm.
"Do you know him?" Sherlock asked.
"Feels like I do, given how much I heard about him from Gheb."
"How do you know Irene?"
"Ah," John said. "Can't or won't deduce?"
Sherlock kept his mouth stubbornly shut while he activated the torch app on his mobile and searched for signs of passage.
"It would serve you right if I told you she'd picked me up at a pirate-themed bar called Knuckles and then waited while you tried to make sense of that," John said conversationally, watching to see if Sherlock would take the bait. Sherlock turned his back to hide his smile. Really, John was getting more inventive. "All right, the plain truth is that I met her in Afghanistan."
Highly unsatisfactory. Sherlock shut off the light from his mobile and strode briskly ahead, unerringly choosing which of several doors would lead them down to the cellars.
"Sherlock," John said quietly from just behind him as they stepped cautiously down the stairs, his warm breath ruffling the hair near Sherlock's ear, "why are we actually down here?"
"Joseph Vamberry found something in that library, John. He took pains to be secretive, enough that it registered with Irene, who was already used to his outright rudeness to her. We know that he had, or felt he had, financial difficulties. Gheb has said that not only is the house old enough to be a candidate for the National Trust, but that it has been picked over by generations of his mother's family looking for some quick cash. Of course there will not be a convenient stash of thousand-quid bottles in the wine cellar, no matter how much you and Gheb and your friend with the military fetish would like to believe."
"You and I," John said, voice still disembodied as he lingered on the dark steps out of Sherlock's sight, "are going to have a talk about my friends quite soon. In the meantime, what are we looking for, if not the wine cellar?"
"There's no reason to believe Vamberry smarter than the rest of you, which makes it plausible that he started in the wine cellar."
"And ended up?" John prompted, getting out his own mobile.
"Wherever his map led him," Sherlock said, smiling as he recalled the lines pressed into the soft leather surface of the ersatz antique. "Did you not see the signs that he was on the hunt for treasure?"
"Fantastic," John breathed, and then they were off.
Joseph Vamberry was no longer the colour of the house's stone when Sherlock returned to the parlour with the piano; John had taken good care of his patient since they'd discovered him trapped behind a false wall he hadn't had the brains to shift back. All that had saved him was that his bag, which had held a bottle of water and a torch, had kept the wall from sealing shut behind him.
Sherlock entered the room at a good clip, thankful that he had nothing like the Hippocratic Oath binding him to provide succour or kindness to the undeserving; John's expectations of him were terrible enough. In this case, one look from John, half-cajoling and half-humorous, was enough to keep his lip buttoned.
Vamberry was an idiot, to be sure, not to have pieced together from the clues literally all over his lover's house that whatever treasure the map he'd found in the library had led to had long since been picked off by enterprising members of the Musgrave family, whose ancestors had built the place centuries ago. And yet he would endure no punishment for his stupidity and cupidity, other than a few days in a dark, abandoned cellar without food – frankly, that sounded no worse than many of Sherlock's days before he'd met John – because he had a lover; Gheb was stroking Joseph's face tenderly and apologising for the injury to his hip, which had rendered him incapable of following where his lover foolishly went.
John's ironic eyebrow indicated quite clearly that he was not as credulous as Gheb with respect to Joseph's protestations that he had wanted the treasure for Gheb's sake rather than his own, but Sherlock was not expecting the arch look John gave to be directed at Irene rather than himself.
Irene, he rather suspected, would be at loose ends fairly soon, as Joseph's antipathy had not diminished and Gheb was desperate to keep the man happy. Judging by the warmth in her eyes as she watched John tending to his patient, Irene could become a problem.
"Have you got any cases on?" John asked, prompting Sherlock to uncurl himself from the club chair in order to read those familiar features right-way-up.
"Why do you ask?" he inquired.
John grinned and held his hands up in surrender. "I learnt my lesson a few years ago about trying to plan a birthday surprise for you. Wanted to know if there was anything in particular you wanted to do."
Sherlock smiled, pleased that John had not offered to "clear out for the night" or made any other unnecessary, ordinary offer.
"Ah, there is," John said, smiling back. "Out with it, then."
"I've nothing particular in mind, I assure you." All he wanted was a day like any other, when John would look at him like that, like he was still the most extraordinary thing John had ever laid eyes on, a day when he had the chance to use the mind he'd been honing for as long as he'd been aware he had one to use.
"Don't think you're getting out of this so easily," John warned, turning on the telly and making a sound of pleased surprise when the opening credits for some tedious film appeared on the screen.
John was puttering about in the kitchen, making omelettes, toast, and tea; his hips were swaying slightly as he sang, almost under his breath, some song that apparently required frequent use of his spatula as an air-drumstick. He'd been singing more since the new year had dawned, once he'd managed to get the heat in the flat to hold steady at what he called a "reasonable temperature for mammals." It was nice not having to wear eight layers of clothing to stave off any cold-induced headaches, Sherlock would admit, and he'd even go so far as to acknowledge that hot food made the warmth linger quite pleasantly.
He kept his voice low and increased the volume incrementally with each repetition. "John. John. John." Only at the ninth calling of his name did the man finally hear him over whatever melody was occupying his mind and turn to face him, seated patiently at the kitchen table. "I've thought of what I want for my birthday." John's face brightened, only a hint of suspicion lingering about his eyelids. "I'd like you to cook a meal." John nodded slowly, clearly believing there was more to the request than that; evidently, that was not special enough for a birthday, given that John tried to feed him up every chance he got, so Sherlock needed to add more. "And we could invite some others round to share the meal."
Ah, that was it, as John smiled approvingly. Now he just needed to consider whom to invite. It was odd to think of Mycroft as a welcome guest, but he'd not pestered them much while he'd been in Italy, and John would no doubt want to cast a professional eye over him.
All he really wanted was John, so he needed a guest list that wouldn't interfere with the balance established in the flat; Lestrade presumed too much and had a horror of a wife, and was therefore unsuitable. Having only Mycroft, though, would lead John to remember some regrettably dismal nights from the not-so-distant past, and so Sherlock needed a fourth name.
"Mycroft and Mike Stamford would do very well." The neatness of it appealed to him – a full circle: Sherlock had known Stamford from Barts, who'd introduced him to John, who'd brokered a peace between him and Mycroft; each link in the chain was necessary and strong.
"Sounds good," John responded. "Any requests as to the food?"
Sherlock waved that question away. The important thing was that John would be cooking, flushed and happy with his domestic success. It would be delightful to watch, as he hadn't been able to the time that John had brought out bento boxes full of carefully designed and camouflaged food, all in a quest to get him to eat. Sherlock was so pleased with himself that he ate both omelettes, leaving only toast crusts and one cup of tea for John.
John rolled his eyes at him and hauled out the hardcover cookbook-slash-scientific tome Mrs. Hudson had bought them. "Pick something out of here that you'd like. Just not Italian, please; I don't want to be competing with Angelo for your love."
"If you hadn't told me, I'd never have believed it," Mike Stamford said, sitting back indolently in his chair.
"Look at this face," John responded, widening his eyes. "Would I lie to you?"
Mike's expression was hilariously aghast, even to Sherlock, and he saw, out of the corner of his eye, Mycroft stifling a smirk. John sighed. "Doesn't work now that I'm old, does it?" he asked.
Mike shook his head regretfully, but softened the blow somewhat. "You've still got the 'cute' thing working for you, mate; more than I ever had."
Mike and John exchanged conspiratorial grins, no doubt remembering their shared past as the most thoroughly debauched pranksters in the storied history of Barts, and Sherlock could picture John at that age only hazily. No lines on his face, no weariness in his step, but his shoulders would be just as wide and his waist just as trim, thanks to youthful metabolism and predilections for both athletic sex and exploits on the rugby pitch.
"My thanks, John, for this meal. I had not expected you to have such a wealth of healthful and tempting recipes to hand," Mycroft said, and Sherlock was too full even to roll his eyes at the needless formality.
John smiled shyly at Mycroft and stood, clapping Mike on the back. "I was never 'cute,' you rotter. Tell him, Sherlock," he said, then pulled the sorbet he'd made out of the freezer, leaving it on the worktop to defrost.
"I have never found John to be particularly cute," Sherlock averred, carefully closing his lips around the other words that belonged to John: indispensable, necessary, competent, wondrous. Those words were for John's ears alone, though he had never spoken them aloud, not even for the pleasure of watching those ears turn pink. John's cold hand lingered on Sherlock's shoulder, thumb just brushing his neck, and in that moment, full of John's good cooking and not nearly abashed by the thought of how he would tax his digestive system by gorging on the sorbet, under the eyes of the brother he'd nearly lost and a friend who had never presumed upon that title and John, Sherlock felt fully forgiven.
The hand on his skin had snuffed out Moriarty's life, and his own had taken Underhill's, and they were still standing, still strong. He reached up and pressed John's hand warmly, then stood to fetch his violin.
Molly Hooper, bucking all expectations based on her past behaviour, stood on her dignity instead of crumpling spinelessly at the sight of him. It had occurred to Sherlock that he had not yet informed her of his return, but there had been no real need, as he had not been much inclined to run experiments since he had been back, and he had been able to examine the security guard's body from the Jaguar tyre case in situ. Still, he remembered how forlorn she had been at the thought of him dead – though unobservant enough to realise that he was only a few yards away, disguised as someone ordinary – and swept into the morgue with the panache she had always appreciated.
"Good day, Mr. Holmes," she said after a long moment in which he saw her lips move; no doubt she was reciting some admonition for strength under her breath. As long as she was not checking her lipstick, he had no interest in what her mouth was doing.
"Hello, Molly," he said, circling the autopsy table, upon which rested the corpse of a forty-something man whose features blended African and East Asian characteristics. "What have you determined about your friend here?" he asked, though it was clear that the man had suffered from some heart malady, which had resulted in the cyanosis easily observed on his fingers and toes. He leant forward and peered at the man's face. "He grew this ridiculous goatee to cover up cyanosis near his lips, as you'll see when you shave him."
Molly's hands faltered briefly, but she forged on, determined to ignore the answers he was dropping in her lap. "Thank you," she said frostily, when he showed no inclination to browbeat her or continue deducing. "Why are you here?"
"John is at work," he said, truthfully, though the hurt that flashed across her face told him clearly that she'd wanted to hear that he could not stay away from her. "Have you been well?" he fumbled out; never had he been so grateful for John's tact in keeping Molly away from the flat, because she was ridiculously easy to wound and simply cast a pall over all proceedings, no matter how trivial.
There were tears glittering in her eyes when she looked up at him, though none had made it to her cheeks. "I've known for some time that you were alive," she said, "as Sally warned me." Ah, Donovan never tired of her quest to demonise him. "In future you needn't exchange pleasantries with me; I know I'm an afterthought at best to you, Sherlock."
Her self-control slipped there, and he could hear the caress her voice gave his name. "Is there something you require?"
"No," he said, but pulled up a stool to check his email. Her distress diminished as she lost herself once more in the autopsy, and he attentively followed the movements of her hands as she worked. There was blood covering them, past the delicate knuckles shielded by latex stretched thin. She was careful, her movements exact; why could she not see that her competence here made her more useful than she could ever be as a sexual partner? He drew breath to point that out, but she was intent on her work, and interrupting her would only lead to a scene in which tears rolled down her cheeks and her nose ran copiously. He had never promised her anything anyway; his conscience was clear, should John enquire.
John had not blogged about a single case since his return, and Sherlock went to the Yard to enquire about the outcome of the tyre case. Lestrade was in a meeting about budgets, according to the scribble on his desk calendar, but Sally Donovan was at her desk, resignedly completing some paperwork, Blackstone Police Manuals pushed to one side. It was the work of a moment to clear a space on her desk and seat himself there, anchoring his weight with one firm foot on the ground next to her chair.
"My thanks, Sally, for industriously spreading the word that I did not perish as you had mistakenly thought."
Sally didn't bother to look up but he saw a sharp smile on her mouth nonetheless. "Trouble with Molly?" she asked, the sugar in her voice as distressing as grit in a sensitive instrument. "I suppose we should have known you'd pull a dirty trick like that the minute John's back was turned."
John, was it? He eyed her more minutely; she had long since broken things off with Anderson and had not yet found a new lover. Perhaps she was intent on catching John's eye? Would John – "How'd you ditch him, anyway?" she interrupted.
"I did no such thing," he said indignantly. "My brother whisked –"
At that, she looked up, clearly startled. "There are two of you? God, poor John. I suppose that one's in love with him too?"
He stood, the better to loom over her, and dropped his voice to a threatening whisper. "Certainly not; put that thought from your mind." He had John's word for it that Mycroft had been in love with Amy, whom he had yet to replace. While the role demanded a variety of skills, surely there were others who could perform at least a moiety? Mycroft was vulnerable without an assistant to be his public face, to control the view the world had of him, and Sherlock did not like the thought that Mycroft was uninterested in taking up arms to safeguard himself, that he was indeed revelling grimly in his assailability.
John would know what to do, how to get through to Mycroft; it was not a subject Sherlock had any desire to broach, now that he had just regained steady ground.
It was habit to avoid as many CCTV cameras as he could, though he'd heard Mycroft tell John that he no longer monitored what they captured. There was a flood of warmth when he finally opened the door to the flat, pleasing until he heard John's conversational tone and smelt the chocolate in the air.
John would not have thought to offer that drinking chocolate – a belated Christmas gift from a former patient, delayed because it had to make its way through US customs before the Royal Mail continued the parcel's journey – to a client; it had too many potential allergens and acquired tastes to be readily shared. Obviously, John was speaking with someone already known to him and who had settled in for a long afternoon at the flat. Not Mrs. Hudson – she was still away – and the coat hanging on a peg was not one he'd seen on any of John's relations or paramours. He saw the mugs first, the distinctive handles of the spoons sticking out of them enough to let him know that John had seen fit to use Sherlock's gift for this guest.
Sherlock stepped heavily into the living room and saw Irene, curled up quite close to John, mirroring his position so that they faced each other.
She smiled when she saw him, and John said brightly, "Sherlock, you remember Irene Adler –" before Sherlock caught his arm and said, rather than asked, "I need to speak with you."
"Yeah, of course," John said, that pin-scratch frown already appearing between his fine brows. "Upstairs?" At Sherlock's nod, he stepped lightly up the stairs; Sherlock, following closely behind, marvelled at the spring in his step.
John's bedroom was isolated enough that he had no fears of being overheard if they kept their voices low.
"What is it?" John asked, perching at the edge of the bed. Sherlock followed suit, as there were no chairs; the room really was rather small and had no doubt been intended as temporary accommodation only. It would be interesting to pinpoint whether John's tendency to sit in the living room with his paper, his books, and his laptop was due to his desire to maintain proximity to Sherlock or the limiting size of his private room.
"Mycroft," he said, and John's gaze sharpened. "I know you are not his primary physician, but are you satisfied with his health?"
John gave him a long look. "No, but I'm not thrilled with yours, either. Mycroft had a serious health event, complicated by emotional and psychological trauma, and he has never made his health a priority. I do think that, within the restrictions he has set, he is doing well." John reached out a hand and wrapped it around Sherlock's forearm, exhaling the scents of cardamom and chocolate. "What's going on?"
His answer was oblique, and the set of John's shoulders suggested that he recognised that.
"Stress is a significant factor in his recovery; I am simply suggesting that he hire a personal assistant."
"And you can't talk to him about it, because his last one was Amy, and that's a minefield you don't want to walk," John summed up neatly. Sherlock gave an abbreviated nod and kept himself busy by looking at the strict order John had imposed on his room, all of his belongings neatly lined up or tucked away. "I'll speak to Mycroft, and in return" – when had John become such a dealmaker? – "you'll eat whenever I ask you to. I wasn't kidding about you not looking much healthier than your brother, Sherlock."
He feigned a little reluctance even as he was warmed by John's care. "You drive a hard bargain," he said finally.
"I really don't, you prat," John said, punching him lightly in the shoulder and then heading back downstairs to his guest.
Mrs. Hudson was installed once more in 221A and had evidently picked up right where she left off, if the stream of gossip she poured into his ear was any indication.
"And Emily was mentioning all the fuss they've been having over the elections – she had to stand in line for four hours to cast her vote, can you imagine! – and then they tried to tell her she wasn't at the right place. I tell you, Sherlock, I know the importance of doing my civic duty, but I couldn't have stood for four hours on a hard floor, not with my hip. But I suppose that sort of chicanery is quite common over there. At least that's what Emily said, and she and her friends were all laughing about it after, though I'm sure at the time they only wanted a cuppa and a nice cushion to sit on. Makes you glad that our politicians haven't got the energy to be so actively nasty, doesn't it? Oh, it's good to be back," she said as she finished putting away the groceries.
"It is good to have you back," Sherlock said, moving from a reclining to a sitting pose on her sofa, not quite as comfortable as the one upstairs, which practically moulded itself to his body.
"Now, I'm not sure I should be telling you this, but you know everything that's going on here anyway, so I'm sure it will make no difference. Loretta was telling me that Roger and Danh have been having loud fights and even louder sex at all hours, and she's at her wits' end with the pair of them. She happened to overhear Danh saying something about the police" – he could easily imagine Mrs. Turner with her ear pressed to the door of her "married ones," the better to catch every whisper – "so it might be a case you'd like to take on?"
A "little domestic" sounded positively ghastly. "I do require a client to approach me directly, if only to assure me of their desire to proceed and state the facts of the case as clearly as possible. I am accustomed to have mystery at one end of my cases, but to have it at both ends is too confusing." There – Mrs. Hudson always backed down when he stifled his affection for her and made his diction as mannered as Mycroft's.
"Yes, I can understand that," she said, subsiding. "Would you like a biscuit and a cuppa?" His mobile, mercifully, beeped. "Oh, must you go so soon?"
John's text read Mycroft touched by your consideration. You don't have to go through me. John
The habits of a lifetime were difficult to break, though Mycroft seemed to be managing fairly well; he actually smiled when Sherlock entered his office, and gestured to the chair that would more easily accommodate Sherlock's height.
"May I ask," Mycroft started, leaning forward a bit in his own chair, "the name of the young lady John has been seeing?"
"She's within two years of John's age, Mycroft," Sherlock said, surprised into waspishness by the unexpected query. "There's no need to act as though acknowledging her age would be tantamount to bandying about her name." He paused and Mycroft waited patiently. There was no value in denying him this, particularly if it turned out Mycroft recognised her from some scandal on the stage of world politics or, even better, espionage. "Her name is Irene Adler."
"Ah, it is her, indeed!" Mycroft sounded delighted.
"Do you know her?" Better to nip John's infatuation in the bud now; their new flatmate could be tossed out as quickly as she'd barged in.
"I know her talent, which is prodigious. I have not met the young lady herself." Sherlock's impatient gesture prompted him to continue. "I heard her sing at the Royal Opera House Gala this autumn."
"Another of your pet sopranos?" Sherlock asked, disappointed. He'd never acquired Mycroft's taste for the opera; he'd always supposed that, being musical himself, he had an outlet for his artistic impulses and was not reduced to mere appreciation.
"Contralto," Mycroft corrected gently. "'Witches, bitches, or britches,' as they say. In any case, that's not the matter you wished to discuss with me," Mycroft said suavely. "I understand you expressed concern for my health and indicated your belief that an assistant would ease some of my burden."
Sherlock rolled his eyes. "For heaven's sake, Mycroft, someone else can do your filing and make sure you've enough time between appointments to have a cup of tea. Simply hire someone. I will help."
"In what way would you be willing to make yourself useful?" Mycroft asked dryly, though his eyes gleamed.
"I will sit in on the interviews, or conduct them myself if you'd rather, and screen the candidates."
"And you believe this will secure an assistant for me more quickly?" Mycroft asked, laughing at last. "You will flatten half the population of England with the force of your personality alone."
"Yes, but I'll do it speedily," Sherlock said, unable to keep himself from grinning.
For all his threats, John had not been diligent about making demands for Sherlock to eat. Hungry as he was, Sherlock wanted to wait until he got home, so that he got credit for voluntarily consuming a meal. John was in the kitchen when he stepped into the flat, but Irene was there too, kissing John with her eyes closed, the side of one forefinger trailing slowly down his cheek.
John's eyes were closed as well, hands placed along her body as if he were gathering up discrete pieces and holding them together in one precious, precarious bundle; it was a singularly useless gesture that served no purpose but to remind Sherlock of a laughable term John's therapist had dared to use only once, according to the notes Mycroft had forwarded upon John's signing of the lease. "Touch-starved," she'd called him, a diagnosis that surely applied to most of the adult population of Britain. Sherlock did not especially want to touch John just for the sake of touching him, but he had clapped hands on the man's shoulders, cupped his face, washed his hair, and brushed his skin with fingertips that had seemed suddenly electric; what he had not done, he realised now, was to feel John's warmth with the side of a digit rather than the highly sensitive pad of the finger, and catalogue the data such a different touch could offer.
John's eyes finally opened and at least one of Sherlock's questions was answered; when amorously engaged, John's eyes were neither looking inward at his own pleasure nor focused on the woman to find hers, but rather utterly at peace. It was a look he wore well, and Irene's finger lingered on his cheek. Sherlock would have expected her to demonstrate some awareness of her surroundings, but she was either terribly unobservant or far too comfortable in a flat only newly hers – most likely both. In any case, it was John who saw him first and smiled readily.
"We can get out of your way," John said, one of his fine-boned hands still keeping Irene close – Irene, who did not even have the decency to look smug at collecting data Sherlock would never acquire, but rather seemed endowed with that same serenity John displayed. John's feet were already pointing toward his room.
It was all too sickening, and Sherlock's appetite vanished as if it had never been. He texted Mycroft and fled the flat precipitously, ignoring the growling of his stomach as he stepped into a cab.
"You cannot possibly mean to tell me that these applicants have already been through some sort of culling process," Sherlock said, throwing himself into a chair and letting his head tip back until his nose was pointing at the ceiling. "They are utterly incompetent! From which barrel did you scrape them?"
Mycroft's voice was patient but appreciably weary. "They have been screened and placed in the general pool. They handle some of the low-clearance tasks while waiting for a permanent assignment. All speak at least two languages, and –"
"This last one could not even construct a logical chain of more than three steps!"
"It is not as though he would be called upon to solve any of Detective Inspector Lestrade's cold cases."
Sherlock didn't bother to acknowledge the truth of that statement; the point was that anyone upon whom Mycroft would come to rely ought to be capable of anything. If the assistant brought nothing to the table, that was worse than Mycroft continuing alone.
"I can think of several people who would do better than the candidates whom the government has wasted time and money in screening," he burst out, frustrated, then considered. Not anybody he'd met since his return – Bassem Ghebre had been ridiculously naïve about his lover's matched cupidity and idiocy, and Angela had been even worse, overwhelmed and panicky. Before he'd left, though – he'd had help. "There is a homeless woman who gives her name as Jeannie. She would be more useful than Conor Heppel or Samantha Lyons or any of the other idiots foisted upon you. Molly Hooper, whose mind appears to focus solely on my desirability as a sexual partner, would still be a paragon of utility compared to Jennifer Browne and Melissa Li."
Mycroft simply sat quietly, hands locked tightly together. Sherlock ended his rant and stepped over the resumes scattered on the floor, at the sight of which each successive applicant had blanched, earning an instant demerit. He dropped a hand to his brother's shoulder.
"We'll find someone soon," he said, careful to make no promises about replacing the lost Amy with anyone of her calibre.
The least John could do was make him some tea. Sherlock wasn't sure if sex would enervate or energise John, and thought it would be best to resign himself to eating nothing substantial tonight in case it were the former. John and the ubiquitous Irene were in the kitchen again, both with damp hair, John's fingers trailing along the bared skin at her waist, revealed when she reached into a cupboard where John now kept tea and drinking chocolate. Without waiting for confirmation, John filled the kettle and set it to boil.
"You really could drink tea every hour on the hour, couldn't you?" Irene asked, emerging from the cupboard with various blends in both hands and catching sight of Sherlock. "You, too?"
"It's my way of life, darling," John said lightly. He caught Sherlock's eye and raised an inquisitive eyebrow. Sherlock nodded and allowed one hand to drift toward his stomach. John grinned even as he shook his head and pulled eggs and butter and cheddar out of the fridge.
Irene began rummaging again, finding a half-finished loaf of granary and a squeezable bottle of Sainsbury's clear honey. "Honey is going on the list," she muttered, but her objection was clearly for show, as the bottle went on the table.
"I'm glad you've an appetite now," John said, setting a plate of scrambled eggs with cheese in front of him.
"Aren't you eating as well?" Sherlock asked, dawdling until John brought three mugs of tea to the table.
"I will do," John assured him. "Eat up while it's hot."
Sherlock watched him steal a slice of Irene's toast and slice a bit more cheddar to top it. John's satisfied sip of his pristinely dark tea was the sound Sherlock's body was apparently waiting for; he gave his own tea one brisk stir to blend the two spoons of sugar and settled down to his meal.
It was Irene who interrupted the flow they had built over dozens of days. "Do you remember how difficult it was to find milk for coffee – or tea – in Afghanistan?" she asked, and Sherlock eyed her narrowly; though her question implied that she had served over there, he refused to believe he had read her incorrectly. Her perfect posture was no matter of military drilling, and she had none of John's gravitas. John nodded, though, and with that she was emboldened to continue. "And there was sand everywhere – I was washing it out of my hair for days."
"Ah, but it's exfoliating," John said mock-solemnly. He extended his hand for inspection, baring the slim strength of his wrist. "Baby smooth, the ladies tell me. Gents, too, actually. They'll say anything as the anaesthetist is putting them under."
Sherlock's rolled eyes seemed to tickle Irene as much as John's attempt at pawky humour. John grinned, pleased with himself for having made her laugh, only to turn to Sherlock, shocked, when he saw how she was treating her tea. Irene was still giggling as she poured more than enough honey into her cup to make the spoon stand up on its own. It was positively barbaric. She took no notice and stirred it while looking at John.
"Smooth skin I do recall, but I seem to remember you being blonder."
"Nature's way of preserving a balance," John said calmly between bites of cheese on toast. "My hair would be darkening now that I'm not out in the sun so much, except that it's greying at a rapid clip."
Sherlock eyed him sidelong, considering. John's hair was darker now than it had been when they'd first started flat-sharing, and John was greyer now than before Sherlock had left, it was true, but he was still John, still essentially unchanged. He'd expected to come home and find him exactly the same in every detail, but that was impossible. Had the situation been reversed, John would have known better, and expected some tightening or slackening of skin, some dimming or shadowing of eyes; Sherlock was abruptly, profoundly grateful that he got to see the results of John's transformation over the months away, even if he had missed the changes due to his own decisions.
Irene, pressing her lips to John's weathered cheek, seemed to feel the same way.
"Bored," Sherlock informed John when he came downstairs the next morning, trailed by the inevitable Irene. John's T-shirt was as rumpled as his hair, and there was a bit of skin showing at the turned-up hem. Sherlock's fingers itched to stroke it, but the heat John was radiating was enough to discourage him; it wasn't latent heat from one of John's blistering showers, but rather heat generated by having his skin pressed to Irene's. "Lestrade has not offered any cases, and you have not updated your blog to solicit any in weeks."
"There you are," John said, perching on the arm of the chair. "You haven't updated your website either. You had some notes out when – you were working on a paper about the sources of homemade inks used in prison tattoos." It was not quite smooth, that rerouting when John was on track to mention Sherlock's disappearance; he wondered how John had described the event to Irene. "Why don't you finish that?"
Sherlock shrugged elaborately and John audibly murmured, "Blight," which Sherlock chose to regard as a private joke between them, as only John had ever used that word to describe him to his face. "Look, I filed away all of the notes you left for posts you were going to make. They're all in this drawer." He pulled forward one of the filing drawers mounted on wheels that usually stayed in the vicinity of the bookshelves.
"What are you going to do?" he asked before he could stop himself.
"Have breakfast and enjoy the morning before my shift starts this afternoon," John said briskly, clearly awakening more with each passing minute.
Sherlock was rather enjoying the sensation of sprawling heedlessly across the sofa and listening to John go straight to the kettle like a devoted acolyte at the high altar of tea. The charm of the morning stillness was lost when he could hear the sounds of Irene's mouth meeting John's, lingering over his skin as the minutes ticked slowly by. Would she never be sated?
It was tempting to slip away to his bedroom with the relevant folder and transcribe the monograph from his brain to his laptop, but he would not be chased away by some jumped-up American girl who presumed on a brief acquaintance with John in Afghanistan. Nodding determinedly to himself, he pulled the file from the drawer, scooped up John's laptop, and settled in at the kitchen table.
"What are you – oi, I was going to use that in a moment!"
"You were not going to solve the online crossword today, I assure you," Sherlock said crisply. He spread out his papers, feigning ignorance of Irene's plan to relax with John in the kitchen over mugs of tea and squares of toast. He could feel her puzzled gaze on him as he bent his head to read.
John didn't regulate the volume of his voice even when she leaned into him, making an inquisitive murmur. "Don't worry about this one – it would take more than a bomb to break his concentration. We'll sit out there. Here, catch hold of the tin."
Denied a proper skirmish establishing rights to John and the kitchen, Sherlock slumped in his seat after they left the room and wondered if John would save any of the shortbread for him.
He could hear Irene's voice start up again and sought to block it from his mind. Where was his much-vaunted concentration now?
"Are these really yours? You've got great taste," Irene said, and Sherlock sneered at the judgement that John would have been responsible for choosing the best brand of biscuits. "Can we play them now, or will that bother him?"
"Go for it," John said, and Sherlock strained his ears to hear what was coming next before the clicks and hisses spelt it out clearly. A stringed instrument – guitar – and a drum started up in unison and then a man's clear voice rang out over them, pleasingly. The lyrics laid out the man's professed ignorance of many vital subjects, but the song somehow remained charming.
Irene waited until the song was over and sighed contentedly. "That's who it is that you remind me of," she said. "I kept thinking, duh, the person John reminds you of is John, from when we met before, but it's him, it's Sam Cooke. You've got a voice like Sam Cooke, all pure and true."
"Not Barry White?" John asked, dropping his voice to a ludicrously low pitch, so deep it sounded like a growl.
Sherlock couldn't very well delete the acoustics of the rooms in the flat – the knowledge was potentially useful – but he needed to come up with a workaround so that he could ignore it whenever John was left alone there with a shag partner. He could hear from the timbre of Irene's laughter that she was sitting on the sofa and then from the hitch in her breathing that John had settled himself in her lap and kissed her soundly. Sherlock silently stole to the doorway and peeked around it in time to see her hands settle on his waist while John's head dipped once, twice, thrice toward hers, which he held in his cupped hands, bestowing a kiss each time, and then John swung his leg to the side so that he was sitting next to her, the lengths of their bodies touching from shoulder to knee.
"I used to deejay in uni," John said. "Never saved up as I'd meant to, just put all the cash I earned into more records."
"I can tell; that's quite a collection. You've got all of my favourites."
"Ella, Etta, Marvin," John said, each guess landing a bull's-eye, to judge by Irene's face. His hand plucked meaningfully at hers.
"Who's your favourite singer?" she asked him, sliding her head across the back of the sofa, leaning away so she could look him in the eye.
He smiled, a perfect expression of tenderness, and Sherlock turned away, but not in time to avoid hearing John's voice shape the single syllable with lapidary solemnity: "You."
It was intolerable, how thoroughly Irene had settled herself into John's life. He'd observed Mrs. Hudson, whom he'd expected to rout out the intruder, if only because there was the small matter of a lease that permitted two occupants only, actually matching the woman smile for smile and insisting that Irene call her Helen and not to hesitate to knock upon the door of 221A if she needed anything.
That it was John being so inconsiderate as to foist a new flatmate upon him was surprising; John had always made it clear that the flat was to be their little oasis, and in fact had spoken sharply to him when he felt Sherlock had gone past the lax line precedent allowed. It was sorely tempting to escape from the flat and vanish into 221C, taking only the battered leather sleeve that held chemical salvation from behind the headphone-wearing bovine head on the wall, but he could still see John's face crumpling in on itself when he'd caught sight of Sherlock's inner arm, could still hear Mycroft – who was not a chemist – wearied by the repetition of overdoses and calculation. It would not be oblivion but destruction, if he chose to indulge. No, he could endure Irene's bath products that caused honey-scented clouds of steam to roll through the flat, the quick shuffle of her socked feet against the floorboards of John's room, even her evident desire to kiss John senseless. He simply had to give her a wide berth.
He was rudely interrupted in the organisation of his thoughts by a tap on his bedroom door. John had long since departed for the Trauma Centre, and Mrs. Hudson knew better than to tap that way when he might be on the cusp of making a case-breaking deductive leap.
"Yes?" he said, hoping to make the interview a quick one.
Irene poked her head around the door, smiled, and entered. He bit his lip to keep himself from asking if she'd lost her wardrobe in some crime or accident, given her propensity for wearing John's clothing on the days she had no responsibilities outside the flat. The hem of John's RAMC T-shirt was pulled taut, caught by a corner of the large box she held. The writing on the top listed her name above his address, and his fists clenched at the confirmation that she meant to entrench herself in the flat for the foreseeable future.
"I just got my latest box from my friend, and I wanted to let you know you should help yourself if anything looks good. There's four kinds of honey and actual peanut butter that doesn't need to be stirred to be good and lentil crackers and Reese's." She held the box out and he could see flashes of oversaturated colours meant to lure the American public into exchanging money for diabetes.
"Your friend sends you all of these goods on a set schedule, and in return you send her – of course it's a woman, not just your friend, but, in fact, the first vocal coach you had who took your ambition seriously – local treats from wherever you happen to be studying or performing."
"Betty asked for Marmite," Irene confirmed, wrinkling her nose in distaste. "But I packed the box with Cadbury's, too, and –"
"Yes, Betty," Sherlock continued. "She was the one who helped to train you into a softer accent, rounding your vowels as very few from New Jersey ever learn to do. She was a soprano, never got further than a few local productions of family-oriented musicals. And you were eager to justify her faith in you; you thought of her as a second mother after your mother remarried, and you wanted an alternative to modelling, for which you were being headhunted. Well done on that front, incidentally, as I have done it for a case and can attest that it is terrible." He smiled as he saw the frown growing on her face. "Ah, you have questions," he said, reclining, prepared to hear queries about his time as a model.
"I never resented my mother for marrying Kellam," was what she said, dark eyes clear of past grievances and fastened on his. "He's good to her and to me, and I've never seen her happier than when she was pregnant with my brother."
Her spine was, as ever, ramrod-straight but the weight of the box she was holding was beginning to tell on her. Her arms trembled slightly before she compensated by jamming the box against one hip and shifting her weight to accommodate it. That stance was a challenge, even if she did not know it, and John had hammered home the notion that an enemy worth engaging was one worth respecting also, if only for its destructive force.
"You were intelligent enough to be happy for your mother even as you were well aware that it was no longer the two of you against the world, and that the foxhole mentality she fostered had given way to the onslaught of a textbook family; you were the only piece that did not fit." Her eyes never wavered from his, and he felt the rush of the deductions pour through him. "It is clear that you are a tactile person, and equally obvious that you view John's responsiveness to you as a sign of his generous nature; between the two of you, you've generated a feedback mechanism, so that each touch spurs another and you cannot seem to keep your hands off each other. All of that points to a need for touch that has never before been satisfied. Furthermore, though you are generally more prolix than John, you are quite commendably trying to keep silent now, another sign that you have learnt not to air your thoughts before an audience you believe will not be receptive. And yet you want to keep that audience in its place; you keep trumpeting your previous relationship with John in Afghanistan, prior to my own meeting with him, but I have seen no sign of an extended acquaintance, or even more than a single chance meeting."
At last she was roused to respond, igniting the air in his room. "I bumped into him, literally, and there was something about him, the way he looked at me, that made me sure he was a good person."
How terribly banal she made John sound, and how dull it was to justify her trust in John as nothing more than a gut reaction. "There are ways of getting to know someone that do not require intercourse," he said smoothly. Sexual hunger was always the least interesting motivation, and it was so very commonplace.
"But this was the best way for both of us to get what we wanted. And I wasn't wrong about him, was I?" At that she hauled her box back into her arms and left.
Sherlock lay back against his pillows and tallied up the hits and misses, satisfied that the skirmish had gone to him.
There were no comments, or even hits, on his post on the derivations of the inks most commonly used in prison tattoos, and Sherlock sighed disgustedly. He needed a case desperately before his brain stagnated further and he was reduced to fashioning his cases into fiction.
Lestrade was still showing signs of that aggravating independence, so his only alternative was Mycroft. Surely this was the day when the proper assistant would make herself known. Mycroft appeared overworked as usual, and disinclined to postpone any of his tasks until Sherlock casually questioned whether John would like the look of him at their next lunch date.
"It's rather galling that such a simple stratagem should be so effective," was all Mycroft said, but he acquiesced, turning away from his computer after a few decisive keystrokes.
"That appears to be John's motto in life," Sherlock acknowledged by way of commiserating.
"Congratulate him for me, please, on the two pounds you've put on," Mycroft said while waiting to be connected to the main office. "Yes, interviews for assistants. Immediately."
It wasn't long before there were several candidates waiting in an orderly queue outside Mycroft's office. Sherlock took the opportunity to look them over and make them quail; a handful broke ranks and departed, which of course was a testament to the efficiency of his gimlet eye. There was only one who had not used her peers' cowardly flight to indulge in a few tics, and Sherlock beckoned her in with an imperious flick of his fingers.
The woman settled herself in a hard-backed chair, crossed her ankles, and waited patiently. Sherlock eyed her narrowly, waiting for her to blink, to proffer the vita folded crisply in one hand, and nodded when she simply faced them squarely.
He took the first crack at deducing her history. "Took a First in Economics and Management from Hertford College."
"Family history at Hertford, Mycroft. Brasenose offered her a place."
"Special interest in BRIC," the subject of the discussion, Laurel Travers, said without any notable inflection. Sherlock eyed her again, taking in her stiletto heels and forest-green skirt suit, her trim fingernails and large pores. She sat unwilted by the inspection and left promptly when Mycroft inclined his head at a specific angle. Biddable, then, and able to separate work from emotion.
"No major objections, though one must wonder at the type of woman who would choose to keep long-haired Persian cats," Sherlock said.
"Indeed." A nod settled matters, and Sherlock was rewarded for a good day's work by a text from Lestrade, followed hard upon by one from John confirming that he would be at the crime scene by the time Sherlock got there.
Lestrade was standing near John, who was smiling at Sally Donovan and laying a congratulatory hand on her arm; there were evidently no secrets there, as they all looked pleased to be in each other's company. Sherlock wondered bemusedly how John had only now noticed that Sally was in the running for promotion to Detective Inspector. He stepped out of the cab and saw all three of their heads swivel toward him. Lestrade had clearly swallowed his pride, which was all to the good, and Sherlock acknowledged him with a cordial nod.
"We haven't managed to get a coherent word out of her," Lestrade warned in an undertone, holding back as Sally forged ahead. "John, the SOCO's delayed, we might need you –"
"Understood," John said firmly, following after Sally. Sherlock watched him go and then turned his mind to the room they were in. Modern, spare, and covered in blood. A corpse lay on the floor.
"Heavily built white man, hair half-brown and half-grey, approximately six feet tall," Lestrade started, then stopped at Sherlock's impatient look.
"I can see all of that, and more besides," Sherlock reminded him, gesturing for silence. The face of the corpse had been bludgeoned and stabbed so that none of the hairline, none of the features, and only a small fraction of the jaw, which was marked by a sticking plaster, retained integrity. The body was dressed in a blood-spattered T-shirt that was twisted around the torso and cheap trousers that clung to powerful thighs and calves. Its hands were reddened by rashes that started at the wrists; Sherlock pushed aside the cuffs of the man's trousers to see the same discolouration at the ankles.
The incoherent moaning that had filled the flat slowly decreased in volume as John's soothing murmurs gained ascendancy. Sherlock strode through the doorway and found him sitting with a woman in her early thirties, holding her hand and letting her sag against his side as they sat on her bed. John looked up when Sherlock entered the room, but gave every indication that he would not be letting the woman go until she was ready to sit up on her own and tell her story.
Sherlock examined the woman's cluttered bedroom, his eyes lighting on gaps in the rows of paperbacks on her shelves and a photograph propped up against the base of her lamp, evidently waiting for a frame. It showed her with her hair done up in a professional knot, her flight attendant's uniform crisply pressed, smiling and holding the waist of a man half a foot taller with a wide smile and broad shoulders.
More quickly than he'd expected, she sat up and blew her nose violently. "I came back from a flight and found Fred like that," she said, gesturing ineffectually at the living room where the body lay. "He'd only just got back from Africa a few weeks ago, and hadn't been to work because he'd got sick; there was no reason for anyone to want to hurt him."
"Is that Fred?" Lestrade asked, pointing at the photograph. "What was his surname?"
"Porlock," she said, bewildered until she followed the DI's pointing finger, then shook her head. "Nah, that's my boyfriend, going on three months now."
"Do you want us to call him for you?" Donovan asked softly.
"He got a call a few days ago that he had to go see his mum in hospital in Glasgow. He said we'd talk when I was back from New Zealand. I don't know what to tell him; he liked Fred." She buried her face in her hands again and snuffled into the tissue.
"John, I need you to identify the cause of the discolourations on Fred Porlock's extremities," Sherlock said, and John nodded, squeezing the woman's shoulders.
"Lily, are you up to coming with me?" he asked quietly. "Or would you rather stay here?" Sherlock could see very well that she was reluctant to let John go and was about to ask why John, of all the detectives, was the one who needed to view the body.
"Dr. Watson," he prompted, watching understanding dawn on Lily's face.
"I'll come," she said, standing as John did, allowing his arm to stay firmly around her until they were within a few feet of the corpse. "Oh, Fred," she said, and turned her head.
John let go of her once he was sure she could stay on her feet and squatted near Fred Porlock's waist. Sherlock watched him snap on the gloves Lestrade handed him and then examine the body gently, as though it still mattered. John crab-walked around the corpse, first toward its feet, at which point he examined the ankles and raised the trouser hems to press inquisitively at the shins, and then toward the head, peering closely at the ruin of the face. He pivoted on the balls of his feet.
"Have you got a recent snap of Fred?" he asked Lily.
She looked blankly at him before starting as the memory came back to her. "Yes! He said he needed one for a friend he'd made in Ethiopia, and he asked me to take it on my mobile and mail it to him. I did it just before I left for Wellington a week ago." She fumbled briefly in her handbag, fetched by a constable, and unlocked the mobile so that the picture was on the screen.
"Ta," John said, taking it from her. He looked consideringly at her. "Would you like to lie down for a bit? We'll be here for some time, taking all of this down and cleaning everything up."
"Yes," she said shakily. "I think I might." John nodded, emailed the picture to himself, and handed her the mobile, which she clutched to her breast as if it were all that could anchor her to reality.
The constable got her back in the bedroom and closed the door firmly. The moment that was done, John looked first at Sherlock, then at Lestrade and Donovan, and raised the mobile.
"That's not Fred Porlock," he said with certainty, his voice betraying only a hint of his excitement that he was the one making the deductions. He raised his own mobile up to show them the photograph, which showed only a broad face framed by greyish-brown hair; a bit of sticking plaster affixed to Fred's jaw was startlingly stark against his bland skin. "Look," John said, and peeled back the bit of plaster from the man's jaw, revealing unbroken skin beneath.
Sherlock's attention sharpened as John continued to speak.
"This corpse is exhibiting no additional symptoms of any disease or condition that would cause this kind of discolouration – no desquamation, no oedema, no ischaemia. In fact, the discolouration appears to have been painted on." He drew one fingertip heavily through the worst of it, on the corpse's wrist, and then held up his gloved hand to reveal powdered pigment staining it. "This looks like low-end blush."
Lestrade took the mobile from John's unresisting hand and examined the photograph. "But Fred Porlock had these symptoms for real?"
"It looks that way," John said, standing and groaning as his knees cracked. "Lily said that he'd been ill since returning from Ethiopia, and the snap is not of a healthy man."
"There's no discolouration in this picture," Sally said, peering at it from the other side.
"Evidently it affected only his extremities," John agreed. "Might be gangrene."
"So how can you know he wasn't well?" she asked, curious rather than challenging.
"You see enough ill people, you get to know the look," John said.
Lestrade blew out a frustrated breath. "Can't take your word for it, though I'd like to. We'll bring the body back to Barts and see what can be done."
Sherlock said nothing, finding yet another advantage to not being an official investigator: he could take John's word, and was therefore several steps ahead of Lestrade already.
"John," Sherlock said as they shared a cab back to Baker Street, the noises of the streets an accompaniment to John's absent-minded humming. "Is that 'Bist du bei mir' that you are mangling?"
John turned to him with a swift smile. "No idea. Irene was singing it the other night, and I only caught a few words. Wish I'd retained more from those agonising years of German lessons."
Sherlock eyed John's reminiscent smile disdainfully. "And you find it romantic that your girlfriend sang a song linking your proximity and her impending death?"
"Sod off," John said lightly. "With that voice, she could sing the grocery list and I'd stop to listen." He started to say something else, cut himself off, and turned to look out the window.
"Yes, I believe you were correct and that the corpse in Lily's flat is not her flatmate Fred Porlock," Sherlock said in answer to the bitten-off question.
John leant his head back and lost some of the tension in his shoulders, and Sherlock, gratified by the response, murmured lowly, "You were most impressive," just to watch John blush. It didn't fade until the cab stopped in front of their building.
When Sherlock pushed open the door to the flat, Irene was on the sofa, socked feet clinging to the coffee table doggedly with prehensile toes. A large score lay open on her lap, and she had her earbuds in; so fierce was her concentration that she knew nothing of their arrival until John stepped forward, tilted her head up, and kissed her hello. Then her eyes said unmistakeably that John was very welcome, and Sherlock, bored by this self-perpetuating cycle, went into his room and pondered what it could have profited a killer to make his victim appear to be someone else. Sleep caught him unawares, he knew not how much later.
The sun informed him that it was late when he woke, as if the lack of an alarm was to be taken as an invitation to waste valuable hours in sleep. Still recumbent, he checked his mobile; not a peep from Lestrade, which meant that he was still tied up with the usual routine inquiries, perhaps even confirming John's reasoned premise from the night before that the corpse was not Fred Porlock. He raised his head from his pillow to listen for John or Irene stirring in the kitchen or living room, but heard nothing. Was John at work, or was he available to discuss the case more thoroughly?
Sherlock flung off the covers and stole up the steps to John's bedroom, nudging open the door, which evidently had not been securely shut. A tableau of peace confronted him.
The two of them were on their sides, facing each other, blankets pooled around their waists; John's hand rested snugly between her bared scapulae, the contrast in their skin tones harmonious rather than striking. All Sherlock could see of John's face was one closed eye and the neat wave of his hairline, hair soft and rumpled; Irene's face was tucked into his throat, her hair a messy cloud on his pillow. The light caught the sharply cut muscle of John's legs and his bare arms and made everything look golden, halcyon, a place where Sherlock did not belong.
The air in the kitchen smelt faintly of apples and cheese, the fragrance growing sharper in his nose as he got closer to the table, upon which rested a plate heaped with eighths of one and cubes of the other. John spooned some ploughman's pickle on a smaller dish.
"Don't tempt me," Irene moaned, eyeing all of it ravenously; "there's already no way I'm going to fit into my costume, and it was made for me just last year."
"Have some apple at least, darling," John said, though he pushed the plate in Sherlock's direction, to tempt him as well. Sherlock indulged and immediately his stomach demanded more.
He sat and decided to tread softly, that he might keep John in this obliging mood. "What costume is that?" he asked politely, dipping his next slice of apple into the swamp of pickle on John's plate.
"I'm singing Romeo for a benefit," Irene said readily, fingers darting out to capture a slice of fruit. "I sang it last year in Philadelphia with my friend Mary playing Juliet. We're both in London, and someone got the bright idea to transplant the production over here."
"When does it come off?"
"For Valentine's Day. We all know our parts, and the orchestra here is fantastic. But there's all the publicity and ticket sales and, ugh, Mary and I have to waste time getting photographs taken and giving interviews. Nothing ever gets done when it should, and it just cuts into our rehearsal time." She pushed impatiently at the heavy darkness of her hair, falling out of its untidy knot, and reached for more apple.
"Scotland Yard works on much the same principle," Sherlock said, pleased when Irene's giggles ignited John's.
She stood, unnecessarily laying a hand on John's arm. "Today's picture day. Promise me there will be cheesecake when I come home." John inclined his head as if he needed to be convinced. "Chocolates?" John still said nothing, chewing thoughtfully at a cube of smoked cheddar. "Some kind of treat?"
John grinned at her. "That I can safely promise." He relaxed in his chair, drinking tea as if he hadn't a care in the world.
As soon as Irene's tread was audible on the stairs, Sherlock looked at John curiously. It was frustrating how much more opaque John had become, just when it turned out most of his actions had nothing to do with Sherlock anymore; that mischievous smile breaking across his face was surely caused by the thought of Irene rather than him, the case, or even his work. Still, Sherlock could not help looking at John to try to trace the course of his thoughts, but as he watched, the smile went from puckish to disarming.
"Well? I'm not on shift until tomorrow morning, if you want to talk over the case," John offered, warming his hands around his mug of tea in a gesture Sherlock had seen so many times that the rush of love he felt took him completely by surprise. John was magnificent.
If only he was wholly Sherlock's, as Sherlock was wholly his.
Still, no one else got to see John in just this way, vital and alive as he pieced clues together, trying to steer his brain out of his accustomed courses and put it through entirely new paces; John was direct by nature and the corkscrew turns of really good cases required him to step out of himself. He brought a whole new set of gestures to the task: ticking off points on his fingers and chewing at the inside of his left cheek.
"What do we know?" John began, eyes bright and engaged. "We know that Lily Douglas, poor lady, a stewardess, landed back in London after a flight from New Zealand yesterday morning" – he checked his watch, the square face outlined in gold catching the light briefly – "at about this time." He frowned, biting his lip. "No, actually, I suppose we don't know that, not for sure. She might have been there, or in New Zealand, or anywhere in the world for that matter. We'll have to check on that."
"Lestrade," Sherlock said, dismissing the thought with a wave of his hand.
"We know that Lily reported finding a corpse in her flat, and that furthermore she believed the corpse to be that of her flatmate. Platonic, never dated or shagged, found each other on a flat-share website." Sherlock considered this information, which John must have coaxed out of Lily when he'd been promising with the warmth of his hand and his attention to keep all the monsters at bay. "We know that the flatmate, Fred Porlock, had been to Ethiopia for an unspecified length of time and had got back to England within the last two or three weeks. We know that he contracted some illness, which either was acquired or gestated while he was in Africa or, at the very latest, on his flight home. We know that the corpse found in the flat matches Fred Porlock's height and body type but did not display the symptoms Porlock presumably did, though an attempt had been made to mimic them. We know that the corpse was bludgeoned and stabbed, but not if either of those was the cause of death. We don't know if that is Fred Porlock. Stop me anytime, Sherlock."
"No, it was quite illuminating hearing our case laid out so crisply," Sherlock said. "You have thrown some light upon it by stating your conviction that the corpse is not Fred Porlock. It is time now to list what makes you believe so."
It surely redounded to his credit, Sherlock thought, watching John lick his lips as he prepared to lay out his chain of reasoning, that John no longer backed down when pressed thus. The man who'd protested that he had no intention of courting humiliation when presented with Carl Powers' trainers had given way to this one, who relished using his mind to its full capacity. John was astounding. Sherlock's smile soured slightly when Irene, freshly showered and for once not dressed in John's clothing, dashed into the kitchen to bestow a fervent but hasty kiss on his flatmate before leaving for her photo shoot; it was possible, judging by John's blissful glow, that Irene had been a factor in his evolution. Then again, perhaps not – it was hardly his brain that Irene was stimulating.
Sherlock gnawed on another slice of apple while John got up, presumably to walk Irene to the door, though he heard no fervent farewells, only the sound of rummaging. John came back to the kitchen with his phone in hand and, without being prompted, returned to the topic at hand. Sherlock nodded approvingly.
"The photograph from Lily's mobile shows us Fred Porlock after his return from Africa. Solid, fleshy face. Nothing remarkable about his looks either way. But I remembered what you had said, during Harry's case, about ears being distinctive, and yeah, Fred Porlock's were rather." He held up the mobile and Sherlock took note of Porlock's right ear, resting nearly flat against his head, with its attached lobe and pronounced anti-tragus. "But our corpse's ears, hairline, and face were all obliterated. All that was left was a few inches of his mandible, exactly where a sticking plaster had been placed. So permanent features had been wiped away, but a temporary one was left, which suggested that the identity of the corpse was not as straightforward as it first seemed." John paused long enough to push the plate closer to Sherlock. "Eat some cheese; you could use the calories."
Sherlock rolled his eyes extravagantly but obliged. "The illness?"
John rubbed self-consciously at his ear. "Yeah, my first clue there was the smell. Cheap cosmetics have a distinctive plasticky tang to them; you'd know it if you'd spent as much time as I had in grotty pubs, trying to pull." Sherlock had just opened his mouth to protest that John could hardly have smelt such a scent over the odours of blood and death when John murmured into his surely lukewarm tea, "Thank god that's over."
Sherlock went hot, then cold, once he parsed John's meaning, and to distract himself he considered the way John looked as he sniffed at a corpse; he had done it with Jennifer Wilson and he had done it with the Putative Porlock. It was an animalistic gesture the way he performed it, delicate but direct, the nose that gave his face so much character put to its proper use; it was all too easy to imagine John on the pull – no more, he'd said – confident and appealing, invited to scent a woman's pulse-points, just where her perfume had been applied.
"But there's no condition I'm aware of, other than blushing, that reddens the skin but does nothing else; there was no peeling, cracking, or swelling underneath the colour, and once I touched it, it came off on my glove. Bit of a giveaway, that," John finished, helping himself to more food.
"Plus," John added, swallowing the last slice of apple, "it just seemed odd that he would have needed Lily to take the snap, considering it was only of his face. A mobile" – here he sent a portentous look Sherlock's way – "may easily be borrowed for something like that. For a full-length photo, yes, it would make sense to ask for assistance, but not for that."
"That he was unfamiliar with the technology of her mobile, unwilling to borrow when it was just as quick to ask her, or – and this is the one I favour, going by the slight blur in the photo – unable to hold the phone steady to take the snap himself." Sherlock looked up sharply at that, considering the possibilities; John's medical instincts were hardly worth debating. "Which means that if the killer's taken him somewhere, he's virtually helpless."
Sherlock thought back; he'd seen no sign of abduction at the site, which meant –
"Earth to Sherlock, hello," John said, sitting down with two mugs of fresh tea. "Have you got it already? I could spend some time doing some research into Porlock's condition, if you like."
"Do that," Sherlock said, fascinated by how much John had already uncovered. "I need to speak with Lestrade and with Lily Douglas."
"I'll be cleaning the flat while you're gone," John warned. "Anything I need to steer clear of?"
"Most of the mess isn't mine, it's hers," Sherlock said, and John nodded as he enlarged the photo on his mobile, studying it for further clues.
"Lestrade," Sherlock said, striding into the man's office, "how far have you got with the Fred Porlock case?"
Lestrade looked up from the paperwork on his desk, evidently a little caught out. "Ah. The body's in a queue at the Royal Free, as Barts got backed up. I haven't heard from them yet, though they're supposed to get to it sometime today."
"Never mind that for now," Sherlock said, which caused Lestrade to frown more deeply than before for some reason. "I need to speak with the flatmate, Lily Douglas."
"You think she's involved?" Lestrade asked disbelievingly.
"Just think, Lestrade. I simply have not spoken with her and heard about her flatmate's illness or his whereabouts directly from the only witness we've got. Have you at least recovered Porlock's mobile?"
"No," Lestrade said shortly.
"All the more reason to believe that the corpse isn't his, then, isn't it?" Sherlock asked, sitting in the chair opposite. "Call her. Porlock must be located; John believes he's seriously ill."
Ten minutes later, they were on their way to the block of flats; Lily's landlord was the family type and had let her kip on the sofa while she considered whether she could bear to return to the scene of the crime.
"Ms. Douglas," Sherlock said when she opened the door, "we only need a few answers from you, so the more quickly you answer, the better."
"Yes, all right," she said, sounding subdued. "Come in."
Sherlock noted that she was not wearing cosmetics, cheap or dear, which either meant that she simply hadn't bothered today or that the powdered rouge on the corpse had been provided by the killer. It would be fascinating to watch as one of those probabilities became more heavily weighted as he received answers to his questions.
"First, you told John that you met Fred Porlock through a flat-share site. Which site was it? How long ago was that? Were you moving in with him or was he with you?"
"A couple of years ago now. I'd signed on to so many of those sites that I can't remember now which one I met Fred through – flats4u or something like that, I think. One of the girls from work was quitting the flat to move to Hong Kong, and she had me round to see the place before she and her husband moved out, so I suppose you could say Fred moved in with me, though it wasn't really my flat either until then." There was weariness in her tone, but no excessive grief or despair.
Sherlock's expectations for the interview rose; if she could be so straightforward for the length of it, he might leave with all of the answers he needed after all.
"Why had Fred gone to Africa?"
He felt Lestrade sit up a bit straighter and nudge him when Lily laughed ruefully before answering; Lestrade was completely wrong if he believed that this reaction had anything to do with guilt. "Bit of an odd bloke, that one, though there was no harm in him, really. Just felt he had to solve all the world's problems, and he was the only one to do it."
Sherlock brought back to mind John's words, soothing as a mantra, about his own work being a public service, and wondered why striving to achieve, to be extraordinary, was counted as such a risible endeavour.
"He wanted to go and lead Ethiopia out of poverty."
"White man's burden, Jesus is the light, or micro-loans?" Lestrade asked, pitching his tone to match hers, and Sherlock briefly admired the skill in that before turning to her to focus on her answer.
"Mostly the first, but in all honesty, I don't think he had much of a plan. Just wanted to go and help out. He wasn't a hypocrite, though; he tried to live simply even when he was here – didn't have a computer, just stuck with the mobile he'd had for years, that sort of thing. He didn't deserve to die for it."
"So you believe he was followed from Africa to England?" Sherlock asked. It stretched credibility, but stranger things had happened.
"No, I just meant – Fred was trying to do good. And someone killed him so viciously that it couldn't have been an accident. And he didn't deserve that." Which simply begged the question of who did deserve such an ending, in Lily Douglas's mind, but there was no point in raising a query.
"Was he ill before he left?" he asked instead.
"No, I don't think so. But I didn't see a lot of him before he left – I was mostly working or at Alec's, and Fred was trying to make all of his arrangements for the trip at an internet cafe. I mostly saw him when we both wanted a cuppa at the same time."
"I've had weeks like that," Lestrade put in, and Lily smiled when she saw his wedding ring. "So he got sick in Africa, then? What'd he have?"
"Well, you saw his hands and feet," she responded. "They got worse and they started to look a bit, well, raw, but he took to wearing socks and pulling the cuffs of his sleeves over his hands, so I don't know what state they were in, if he was getting better like he said. And he was having . . . spasms, I guess you'd call them, at times. Bad ones, that would jerk him around, but then he'd be fine so quickly that I didn't feel like I could insist that he go to hospital. And . . ." She trailed off.
"Yes?" Sherlock prompted.
"And I wonder if he was seeing things, because I'd catch him staring off into space with the oddest look on his face. At the time I chalked it up to jetlag, but what if it was a symptom, and I didn't help him? Oh, God!"
Lestrade soothed her, one professional arm around her as she cried into his shoulder. Sherlock took the opportunity to text John the latest data. "Raw" hands and feet. Intermittent spasms. Possible visual hallucinations. Most likely contracted during stay in Ethiopia. Which conditions fit the bill? SH
"You didn't ask her if there was anyone who might have wanted to hurt Porlock," Lestrade noted as they stepped outside, as if it had slipped Sherlock's mind.
"Of course not. They simply shared a living space and had no real involvement in each other's lives; that much was obvious even from our first encounter with her, when she stated that Porlock wanted a photograph of himself to send to 'a friend' he'd made abroad. Had the flatmates been friends as well, she would at least have known the name of the photo's intended recipient. Moreover, Porlock went to an internet cafe rather than borrowing Lily's computer. Yet they were cordial enough that he felt able to ask her for a favour, the aforementioned photograph." He adjusted his coat and thrust his hands into his pockets. "All we need to do now is locate the closest internet cafe and obtain his browser history. Perhaps by then John will have come up with some possibilities for what Porlock's mysterious disease is. And you might have brought yourself to acknowledge that the corpse Lily Douglas tripped over did not belong to her flatmate."
He strode off, ignoring Lestrade's expostulations. All the same, Lestrade was convenient to have around for this type of situation, Sherlock thought, watching the DI convince the proprietor of the internet cafe that turning over the search history associated with Porlock's login at the cafe – FredforGood – was a better idea than having any sort of grand ideas about defending a dead man's right to privacy when it worked out to letting a murderer get away scot-free. The proprietor saw the wisdom of such action, and sent them on their way with a zip file full of cached data.
"Christ, he sounds insufferable," Lestrade exclaimed, looking up from one of the printouts. "Telling everyone that all he required was 'bread and a blanket,' that he wanted 'to live as simply as the humblest brother.'"
Sherlock didn't bother to respond. He went through the zip file once again to verify his findings. The only email address that had received that photograph taken on Lily Douglas's phone was Porlock's own; it had never been forwarded, and in fact no messages had been exchanged with any of Porlock's "brothers" after his return.
"Most intriguing," Sherlock said, sitting back and folding his hands into the prayer position that most readily facilitated his thinking process.
John had gone out when Sherlock returned to the flat, but he'd left his laptop running in sleep mode and put a Post-It on its closed cover: Read me!
Sherlock snorted in amusement and obeyed, watching the computer come to life, several pages opening up, including a text document with John's numbered notes – brief, no doubt, because of the speed of John's typing, and barely grammatical.
(1) best guess for that combination of symptoms is ergotism, but that's quite rare and this would have to be a fairly serious case if he was still displaying all of them so long after he got back. (2) check for outbreak where he was staying? extraordinarily odd if he was the only one. (3) botanical research – most likely culprit rye; occurred in Ethiopia before. (4) if no hallucinations, ergotism far less likely.
Fairly cogent for John, who usually invested his writing with much more extraneous flair that ended up obscuring his point; that third point must have been especially rewarding for John, who'd clearly inherited his mother's mania for gardening, which did him no good living in the middle of London. Sherlock was rather impressed, all the more so when he went through the pages John had left up, with gruesome illustrations of the disease, known for centuries as "St. Anthony's Fire." The case was proving educational as well as entertaining, and he sighed contentedly and read what John had found.
By the time John returned, bearing carrier bags from Sainsbury's and M&S, a slim plastic package from the record store across the park, and one plain red bag without a logo – Sherlock didn't recognise the hue and frowned at his own ignorance – he was done reading the sites John had bookmarked.
"I need you," he said, waiting for John to acquiesce.
"Yeah. Come to the kitchen so I can cook while you're thinking," John invited.
Sherlock poked him until John set a cup of tea in front of him and then turned back to the worktop to make preparations for dinner. Sherlock was aware that John insisted upon eating every day, and would even admit that he enjoyed the cuisine John offered, but it made no sense, as a practical matter, to devote such a large percentage of time to food preparation and consumption, not to mention clean-up. John, however, didn't seem aware of the waste; he was whistling some cheery tune as he sliced several onions finely, pausing occasionally to rub tears out of his eyes with his shoulders. The slices went into a pan on low heat and John bustled about, organising the rest of his ingredients as the onions slowly caramelised.
"Well?" he asked, looking over his shoulder at Sherlock, who'd neglected his tea in favour of watching John's neat-handed work. "What did Lily tell you?"
"Not much," Sherlock acknowledged. "Lestrade is even now trying to follow up with some people in that village in Ethiopia regarding a possible outbreak of ergotism, but –"
"But that still leaves you no closer to solving either of the two mysteries at hand: where Fred Porlock is and who was actually killed in his stead." John reached up to the cabinet above the hob, his socked heels coming slightly off the floor, and fetched down a bottle of balsamic vinegar. "It seems like they'd have to be linked, but it doesn't really follow, does it?"
"How so?" Sherlock inquired, unwilling to break the flow of John's remarkably pleasant voice to ask for biscuits.
"Well," John said, chopping vegetables roughly and tossing them into a large ceramic bowl, "the corpse was dressed up to look like Porlock, right, with the blush on the hands and the features obliterated. Which suggests that it needed to look like Porlock was dead, but that the killer knew the victim wasn't to be Porlock himself. So what would that killer need Porlock for? Why would he take him if he could have just killed him?"
"And who would have needed to see Porlock as the victim? Lily could not name a single friend of his and went so far as to suggest that she was not particularly close with him despite cohabiting with him for a few years." Sherlock drummed his fingers on the table, feeling close to a breakthrough. "John! Did the blood spatter look odd to you?"
"Which part? It was all over the flat. Can't think how they'll ever get the walls clean again."
"No, not the flat; it's obvious the killing took place there, though it is rather surprising that no one heard any screams. I mean on the clothing."
"You're suggesting there was a single killing strike and then, once the victim was dead, all of the other blows were dealt to disguise his identity?" John asked, the steady rhythm of his knife not faltering; the mound of vegetables in the bowl had grown to a comical size. "I didn't see any spatter on the shirt consistent with that, although that's the only explanation that covers the lack of noise, if we take as a given that the first blow came as a complete surprise."
"Exactly, which suggests that the killer and the victim were known to each other. Fred Porlock was not the victim but the murderer. The blood spatter doesn't match because the victim was dressed after the fact in the murderer's shirt."
"Go through that one more time," John requested, sweeping the last of the vegetables off his chopping board into the bowl and then turning round to face him. "How did you get to that?"
"At least one of the people in Porlock's flat had to be Porlock or Lily, and Donovan confirmed that Lily was indeed on a flight at the time of death. The landlord, the only other person to have a key, was sorting out another tenant's leaky sink all morning. If you were going to murder someone, John, would you first break into someone else's flat to do so? No, it had to be that Porlock was there, and since he does not fit on one side of the equation, he must be on the other."
"Couldn't the boyfriend have a key?" John asked. "Lily said they'd been seeing each other for a few months, so the timing could work out.
Sherlock groaned. "You and Lestrade between you solved this one. Lestrade pointed out the similarity in appearance between Porlock and the boyfriend that first day, when he asked if the photograph of the boyfriend was of Porlock." He sat back, dejected. "Text Lestrade, would you, and tell him the case is closed."
"Not nearly, Sherlock," John argued, dashing vinegar into the pan and giving the onions a stir, causing a most pleasing fragrance to waft through the kitchen. "You've still got to prove your hypothesis correct. Did you follow up with Lily to ask if Alec really is at his mum's bedside in Glasgow? And what's your explanation for why Porlock would have murdered Alec?"
"The 'why' hardly matters if we know what happened."
"If you're right – if," John stressed, pretending that he didn't see Sherlock's withering glare, "there's a very ill man with blood on his hands somewhere in London."
"You say that as if there's only one, John." It was almost charming.
"And even if you're wrong, then we still need to find him and get him the treatment he needs."
Would John never get over his inclination to shoulder others' burdens? "Your argument is uncompelling. You and I do not need to do any such thing; that is what the police are for."
John subsided, though he looked dissatisfied. "You had better text Lestrade, then, if you're sure of your conclusions," was all he said, as if it were not perfectly obvious that he'd be haranguing Lestrade about the treatment to be accorded to Porlock when he was located.
"I'll tell him Porlock can most likely be found holed up in his victim's flat, shall I?" he offered.
John took his time washing his hands and then drying them. "Please do," he said. His hands were rough as he passed Sherlock his mobile. "Then wash up; we're having dinner as soon as Irene gets home."
John evidently enjoyed seeing Irene in his clothes; it was most likely some territorial instinct that hadn't been bred out of him. Put that way, Irene was far less likely to find it flattering than she clearly did, given the frequency with which she indulged him. At the moment it was the long-sleeved scarlet shirt that John had been wearing the morning after he'd killed Moriarty, which, Sherlock had failed to note until Irene's very different contours made it painfully obvious, was faintly striped, red on red. John seemed to favour striped patterns for moments when he needed comfort: that jumper Harry had bought him in which he wallowed after some of his breakups, that blue-and-black shirt he'd worn after succumbing to the illness he'd nursed Sherlock through, and this one, which he'd donned when turning his conscience inside-out. Even his dressing-gown was striped, though that might have been a coincidence.
He had his hand under the hem of the shirt, Sherlock could see, and was using his rough fingertips to sketch circles on her waist as she sat carelessly on his lap, both of them directing their attention to John's laptop.
"Want to see?" John asked him, and he shrugged; until Lestrade got back to him, he was rather at loose ends.
What they were looking at turned out to be digital images from Irene's photo shoot. Sherlock reached out to enlarge one of the photographs, which featured Irene and a blonde woman – presumably the Mary who was to play Juliet – gazing longingly at each other, hands just barely meeting in a delicate interlacing of fingertips.
"Are you meant to be passing as male?" he asked. If she was, then the endeavour was a marked failure; the costume was modelled after a courtier's dress, but cut to accommodate the curves of her figure, far more lush than a man's would be. "Or is this meant to titillate?"
John's fingers kept moving steadily, and Sherlock felt he might go dizzy tracking their motions.
"Romeo's only a boy, so the part goes to a contralto or even a mezzo instead of a tenor; everyone knows there's a woman playing his part. If that's what does it for you, then yes, it's titillating." Irene smiled as she minimised the image. "Hopefully, the audience isn't entirely made of pervs."
"And me," John reminded her.
"I was including you already, darling," she said sweetly, causing John to rumble out a laugh; she jumped a little when he tucked his face against her throat.
"Even if we are all pervs, our money's still good," John pointed out, ears gone pink with embarrassment.
"Ooh, good point," she said appreciatively, leaning back against his chest. She turned her attention back to the laptop when it sounded an alert. "Who's 'Lestrade'?"
"Greg," John told her, reaching for the trackpad to open the message. He spent a moment scanning the message and looked up at Sherlock. "He's on his way over." He kissed the nape of Irene's neck quickly. "Official business, darling. Where are you going to be?"
"I need to practise," Irene said, sounding entirely unruffled about being bundled out of the way. "Have you ever tested whether that little room was adequately soundproofed?"
"No," Sherlock said, recalling how injured he'd felt when John had vetoed each proposed experiment in quick succession.
"Then I'll do it for science," she said, nodding smartly and fetching her score from the coffee table before heading toward Sherlock's room, which offered the only entryway to the tiny room that might once have been a nursery and would have made an ideal lab had it only had a more powerful ventilation system.
"You were right, John," Lestrade said. "There was an outbreak of ergotism in a few of the towns where Porlock was staying, which officials in Ethiopia traced back to tainted rye flour. Apparently he displayed either no or very minimal symptoms during his stay, which suggests that it only became a full-blown case once he returned home. Is that possible?"
"I'm hardly an expert," John warned, "but yeah, a gestation period sounds plausible, particularly if no one was paying him much attention because of other, more severe cases cropping up."
Lestrade nodded sombrely. "We've also been trying to track down Alec MacDonald, since we're getting no response from the mobile number Lily Douglas gave us, and she couldn't help us with respect to his mother's name or address."
"That is because Alec MacDonald is dead; Fred Porlock killed him and has been living in his victim's flat."
"What?" Lestrade sounded confused, though if he'd read the texts Sherlock had sent, all of this should have been perfectly clear.
"What basis do we have for believing that Alec MacDonald was called away from London several days ago?" Sherlock prompted, identifying the moment John caught on by his sudden sad look, and disgusted by Lestrade's ongoing bafflement.
"Lily told us –"
"Lily Douglas was in New Zealand several days ago, remember? She had no reason to disbelieve her flatmate, who spun that story in order to preclude her suspicions about her lover's whereabouts."
"You're saying it was not just murder, but premeditated?" Lestrade asked harshly.
"Indeed. You should have asked for Alec's address, as that is where Porlock is, waiting to profit from his crime."
"Profit how?" John asked sharply.
"That he will have to tell us," Sherlock answered.
John begged off from lunch with Harry, Clara, and Irene in order to be part of the team storming MacDonald's flat, though Sherlock had the distinct impression that he was there less as an avenging angel and more in a medical capacity. There was no response to Lestrade's heavy official fist on the door, or even to Lestrade's choked, "God," when he'd pushed through the door and seen what was inside.
It was a scene even more gruesome than the first one had been. There was blood everywhere, and the razorblade in Porlock's dead hand was eloquent. John knelt as close to the body as he could without disturbing the spatter or the outflung limbs caught in some grotesque dance. His voice, when he detailed the destruction, was hushed and nearly reverent.
"He couldn't trust that his fingers would obey him for long, so he seized his moment – look, you can see cuts on the web between his thumb and forefinger the razorblade made each time he slipped or faltered. He attacked his legs first, slicing the skin off in sheets, trying to eradicate the signs of his illness, then his arms, and he struck arteries and bled out." The images John was painting were terrible but more than plausible; John caught his eye and hypothesised in a way he only dared because the case was, at its heart, a medical mystery. "When he killed MacDonald and removed his identity and substituted his own, he was trying to displace his condition as well. He must have become convinced that he could trick the illness into leaving him if offered a sacrificial victim to bear it in his stead."
Sherlock looked silently down at Fred Porlock's frenzied face and marvelled that, in the grip of such pained insanity, he had still been cleverer than most of the murderers Sherlock had caught. John had wrapped it up rather neatly, though there was a detail that had been niggling at his brain for days.
"Lestrade," he said, turning to the man, watching him drop a supportive hand to John's shoulder, "you never explained what case it was that caused a logjam of bodies at Barts."
There was still work to do.
John again failed to update his blog, though Sherlock had heard Lestrade offer a fitting entry title, The Blushing Body; he seemed more interested in spending his evening massaging Irene's sore muscles – her exultation about fencing onstage had been disconcertingly short-lived – while listening to her blithe chatter about how much she liked his sister and sister-in-law. Presumably the feeling was mutual; Harry especially was likely to see in Irene her younger brother's salvation and his last chance for the "normal life" she believed he must want.
Sherlock failed to entirely suppress the irritation that arose when he recalled that Harry had once looked on him with favour as the proper partner for John's life, though to do her credit, it was clear that his disappearance counted for more against him than his work to acquit her on the Milverton case counted for him. Damn all the Watsons, anyway, with their sense of justice and relish for fair play. Had he not won John's forgiveness?
Perhaps a cup of tea would remind John of that fact. He stalked into the kitchen, only to hear Irene break off her unending narrative to ask, "Would you mind making me a sandwich?"
He popped his head back out, unable to believe he'd heard her correctly. She already commandeered John's attention, and she still had the effrontery to act as if she had any right to ask favours. John looked up from kneading her neck with a smile.
"I'm getting peckish, and I know you've not eaten for at least a day. All of us could do with a sandwich."
Sherlock nodded curtly.
"Peanut butter and honey, please?" Irene requested, moaning a bit when John's precise fingers found the knot Sherlock had deduced ten minutes ago from the way she'd sat. Sherlock turned back to the kitchen without another word; the dramatics were getting to be too much for him.
He heard Irene's pleased exhalations as he examined the orderly row of jars of honey, each a different colour and, presumably, flavour or strength. The whitest, curiously, was the most sharply flavoured, hitting his tongue like raw spirits, while the amber varieties were richer, more mellow. He read the labels: basswood, aster, avocado, buckwheat, heather, macadamia, sage. All were from small farms in America, but were easily distinguishable from the others. How curious to think that the type of flower a hive of small insects chose to feed on influenced the meal he could make for John. He wondered if John's knowledge of and interest in botany would allow him to discern the flavours if he tasted them blindfolded.
"Can you switch around your shift?" he heard, just as he was getting used to the silence and considering all of the things John might be able to deduce with one sense temporarily stripped away.
"No," John said, and Sherlock was pleased with the promptness of the rejection. "I can't. But I could come by afterwards, if you think you'll still be out?"
"That would be great," Irene said without a sulk, and Sherlock nearly tore the bread with the peanut butter knife.
"Am I going to have to have a word with this Bellamy character?" John asked.
She moaned quietly again, as if John were removing her vertebrae with deft, delicate hands and not just rubbing her strained muscles. "Bellamy just needs a reminder that he's not irresistible. Come, and you'll crush him." She did not sound displeased by the notion.
John's voice was light. "Most blokes aren't intimidated by the sight of me."
That was because most men, as Sherlock had said ad infinitum, were idiots who didn't bother taking a second look to see the soldier still lurking in John's compact frame. John was a secret only a select few got to know.
Sherlock reasoned that Mycroft would already have procured a ticket to the benefit for himself, and that John would lump all classical music together – as if vocal and instrumental music were analogous – and believe Sherlock was deeply interested in opera simply because he played the violin, and so made sure he received the second free ticket allotted to Irene for the night of the benefit. Irene had left the flat hours earlier, and John wandered into the kitchen; he was wearing the pink shirt Sherlock had got him for Christmas as well as a pair of form-fitting and expensive-looking charcoal trousers.
"What do you think, Sherlock? Tie and waistcoat, or will I look a giant prat?"
"You're Romeo's boyfriend, John. Dress however you wish; she will still come home with you." He didn't bother to look up from the website he was reading, though he knew to a millimetre how close John was to him.
John's proximity allowed him to determine that, though he wore no cologne, his intrinsic scent of warm earth was not only overlaid with the aroma of clean laundry but also muddled by a sweetness very like some kind of spicy honey. Irene was even in John's very pores, assailing Sherlock's senses, and he longed to know if he'd had as essential an effect on John's scent. To him, John had always smelt like tea and warm, rich things, but what fragrance had clung to him before?
"Sherlock," John said, gently but firmly drawing his attention with a hand on his forearm; Sherlock wished he hadn't rolled up his sleeves earlier, as the pads of John's fingers were perfectly placed to measure his heart rate, already accelerated by thoughts of John's scent emanating from his pulse-points. "Help me out, please. You haven't got a case on, so you can read about spiders later, can't you?"
John most likely looked terribly winning as he pleaded; Sherlock kept his eyes firmly fastened on the laptop.
"The spider in question appears to be an entirely new species within the genus Cyclosa, and able to understand what its predators are looking for; it outwits them, John. This is not a matter of mere camouflage or poison, some happenstance of evolution that ameliorated the protection of the species. This small spider constructs an exaggerated simulacrum of itself out of miniscule bits of leaf, debris, and insect carcasses and then rocks its web to make the large dummy-spider appear alert and alive."
John's face crinkled delightfully into a warm and amused smile. "Is this your way of telling me that appearances don't matter and I should just be myself?" His mirth slipped when Sherlock didn't respond in kind. "Hey, what is it?"
"What are you doing with her, John?" he asked, then foolishly shut his eyes as though he could ward off the effects of his own stupidity. If he had to hear the words, that would be bad enough; knowing that John would only utter the words if he'd considered them carefully was even worse, because John would not be less than sincere.
"Trying to get dressed for the opera," said John, kind John, trying to give him a plausible escape. Sherlock shook his head, determined to have it out with him since the moment had come upon them. "I'm in love with her, Sherlock. I love her and she's said the same to me."
He could not ask directly what about me?, not yet; he fumbled to find a detour that would keep him reasonably close.
"You didn't appear to be missing anything before she showed up. You'd broken it off with Anna and seemed quite content to be without a sexual partner." He sounded injured, even to his own ears, which was wretched, but the thought of being cast aside was worse.
"No, I –" It was ghastly, watching John flush and fumble for words when he'd only ever been straightforward. "Anna and I were never in love, Sherlock. We were two people who'd lost loved ones who turned to each other for a little support, a little comfort; that can be all that gets you through the day sometimes, knowing someone else you trust is going through the same thing."
"So my return was the catalyst for your breakup, as it turned out you hadn't lost me." Something inside him was positively singing at the ease with which John had named him as a beloved.
"No, it wasn't going to last – we fell into a relationship as an alternative to being alone, which isn't the best way to go about it."
It wasn't entirely convincing, because he'd heard John and Anna coupling with vigour and enthusiasm and even laughter, on the sofa where John now kissed Irene. What made her different? "And Irene is not just another way to stave off life as a technically single man?"
"'Technically single'?" John asked, his brow wrinkling in confusion as he gazed up at Sherlock. His hand had drifted to Sherlock's ribcage, a tender touch that made him acutely aware of the power of this man. "What does that mean?"
"I mean," Sherlock said, wetting his lips and watching John do the same reflexively, "that I am here, requiting your feelings for me, and thus you are not alone, or 'single.'" He cut himself off, wanting John to reach the inevitable conclusion for himself: Irene was simply unnecessary.
John's worry did not diminish, and his eyes seemed to dim – ridiculous sentiment. "I do love you. That's what I'm saying; as strong a hold as you have on me, she's got an equal one, and asking me to choose is not . . . not something I can . . . do. I've been trying so hard to keep things on an even keel, everybody coexisting peacefully. I thought . . . it was going well." John had never lacked for courage. He met Sherlock's gaze squarely, his hands clasped behind his back. "Do you want me to move out of the flat?"
"No!" Sherlock snapped. Was John using a gambit, or was he genuinely that worried about the mutual indifference Sherlock and Irene felt? Drastic measures needed to be taken to ensure that that pyrrhic victory was avoided at all costs. "I hadn't realised our arrangement was taking such a toll on you. I am sure we can endeavour to make things run more smoothly around here."
"Well," John said, and lost control of his face for a moment before he pursed his lips and looked back up at Sherlock with suspiciously glossy eyes. "Helping me dress would be a step in the right direction."
John, it transpired, listened to Irene very differently than he did Sherlock. Perhaps because Irene sang words and stories, which would appeal to John as a writer? Sherlock sat dazzled by the way John looked in his three-piece suit, silky garnet tie accenting the pink of his shirt, leaning forward and watching intently. When Romeo fenced, John's body went taut, as if he were coiling the power within himself deliberately; when Romeo sang his delight in Juliet, John's lips parted invitingly. Sherlock scrubbed at his face in a gesture lifted from John's repertoire, eager to deny the comparison in which he fell short, and John flashed a sideways glance of empathy at him, no doubt having deluded himself that Sherlock was as moved by the story as he was.
John jittered through the intermission while Sherlock pulled up the pitch-pipe app on his mobile that he used to tune his violin. Juliet had been off by one small chromatic step, but Irene – of course, it was all so predictable – had been precise; he grimly added "perfect pitch" to the list of attributes that, taken together, were enough to enchant John Watson.
Of course there was a champagne reception yet to be endured even after the lovers were in their supposedly untimely graves; Mycroft found them and laid one hand on John's bicep as if to intimate that John had endured something momentous by sitting in the audience as his girlfriend sang. Sherlock wondered if John had been as struck as he was by the difference in power Irene displayed in singing on stage than when she bounced around the flat, singing that ghastly novelty song John had bought her "on vinyl," as if that were a rare treat; John grinned every time she sang the descant I'm gonna make your life so sweet, so presumably the gift had fulfilled its true purpose.
A rapturous round of applause saved him from further speculation, a few pompous fools who prided themselves on their cultural superiority shouting "Brava!" as Irene and Mary appeared, both in bright frocks and heels. They curtsied to the conductor, presumably the odious Bellamy, who'd already acquired a clique of followers, and then made for John, Irene leading the charge.
"Darling, you were –" John said before tilting his head up to meet Irene's mouth; her thick, squared heels gave her three inches on him, and Sherlock considered how the experience might vary based on the parties' relative heights. Irene pulled back, perhaps belatedly remembering the sizeable audience.
"Mary, hello, you were sublime," John said as suavely as a man could with a mouth stained the same shade as his tie.
Mary inclined her head graciously; given the size of the diamond solitaire adorning each tragus and lobe, Sherlock was rather surprised she could move at all.
"Sherlock, Mycroft, this is Mary Morstan, our ravishing Juliet," Irene said. Sherlock levelled one long look at her, pleased when she took the hint and turned instead to Mycroft, who smoothly filled in all of the niceties Sherlock had long since discarded.
Sherlock tuned the two of them out and listened to John instead, who was murmuring, "You were incandescent, love. Simply magnificent."
"It went better in Philly, but the audience here is more appreciative," Irene said, squeezing John around the waist. "I've got to go mingle. Do you want to wait, or . . . ?"
"Early shift in five hours. Enjoy your triumph," John said easily, drawn forward for another, quicker kiss by Irene's fingertips in the slim pocket of his waistcoat. Sherlock turned on his heel the moment they broke apart, more than ready to settle into a cab and be on his way home.
His skill at hailing cabs was a bit of an inside joke between them, and Sherlock gulped gratefully at the biting night air as he threw his arm up. It was a pity he couldn't direct the flow of all of the other vehicles as well; their cab hit a wall of traffic, and he and John were consigned to wait for unanticipated minutes. Sherlock knew he was pressing his luck but couldn't keep himself from leaping into the great unknown regardless. He kept his eyes down, locked on the burnish of John's shoes, while he considered.
"Isn't it all rather quick?"
John was halfway through a yawn, as if he'd been abruptly deserted by whatever adrenaline had got him through the performance. "What's quick?"
"You and Irene. Love." Mycroft had always told him off for picking at his scabs, which had mostly been self-inflicted in the name of science, and it seemed that the habit had not been broken. This was going to be punishing; John was not going to take back all those moments of joy Sherlock had witnessed and claim that Irene was just a shag toy or a gimcrack girlfriend. John genuinely loved her.
Still, he could not help pushing.
"You, deciding to spend the rest of your life with her." Even as he said it, he remembered the sight of John, shrouding himself in a cloak of innocence and shielding his decisive action by falling into parade rest, on that distant night when he'd shot the murderous cabbie; John had been just as quick to declare allegiance to him – with a bullet instead of a kiss.
John snapped upright abruptly, then sank back, as if wearied by the subject, which only went in circles. His eyes went to the cabbie, safely removed from the conversation by a partition, and he began to speak. With glass enclosing them on three sides and the leather of the seat swallowing John's quiet words, the backseat took on something of the hush and sanctity of the confessional – dreadful superstition that Sherlock fully appreciated for the first time, locked there in that near-silence with John.
"It's even quicker than you think. I think I knew, that first time I met her, that we were . . . I don't know how to put it. Not akin, but not strangers either. Just that there were two of us in alliance, that I could have that with her."
"Sex." Sherlock said it with finality, meaning to drop a curtain on the conversation.
John didn't let it lie. He shifted a bit, and Sherlock was assailed by a reminder that Irene had known John when his shoulder was unscarred and his sense of purpose crystalline in its clarity, that she had even more knowledge on her side than what he could deduce. "Reaching out and knowing someone else is there, wanting to touch you, to make you happy – that's what sex can be." There was nothing in that description that didn't pertain to Sherlock; he shouldn't be precluded from stroking John's hair or touching John's skin just because he had no interest in penetration.
"Don't be romantic, John. It also involves contact that might very well be unwelcome or overwhelming or unpleasant." As well to touch pitch and be defiled – so he had always thought, until John had settled determinedly into his life.
"Yes," John granted readily. "Look, what is it you want me to say? I love her differently than I love you, and I can't separate that out into mind and body."
"Could you not?" he asked softly, as close as he would let himself get to begging.
John's eyes were fathomless and wide in the gloom of the cab and Sherlock read his answer in those dark depths.
Sherlock was making notes for his Index on the Porlock case – fantastic, having a single person play the roles of abductor, abductee, witness, killer, and victim – when a thud from upstairs claimed his attention. John was at work, and surely Irene had not brought someone else into the flat?
He stole up the stairs, listening to a frustrated muttering that was not as quiet as it could have been, had she really not wanted an audience. He pushed the door open but stayed in the doorway, surveying the cramped space of John's bedroom.
"What are you doing?" he asked crisply, and she jumped a bit, sending another stack of scores crashing down. That was the sound he had heard from below.
"I can't find my power adapter," she whined, waving some hideous thing in his face despite the assertion; it was a flat piece of corduroy cloth, patterned in a violent paisley, which for some reason had an electrical cord dangling from one edge.
"And that is . . . ?"
"My heating pad! Oh, you can find my adapter, can't you? Please, I'm cramping up a storm and feeling like someone went after my belly with an aluminum baseball bat."
He frowned, trying to ignore the histrionics to recollect what he had seen of the American pastime. "I thought those bats were made of wood?" Americans wanted everything to be natural all the time, as if an element were somehow more artificial than a harvested part of a living organism. "Why are you specifying aluminium?"
"Because it feels like the hits are still reverberating," she enunciated exaggeratedly, as if she were speaking to an idiot, when she was the one too stupid to acknowledge his correction of her atrocious pronunciation. "Look, can you figure out where the adapter might have gone or not?"
He strode to the closet, pulling it open to see John's shirts relegated to only half of the hanging space, to make room for Irene's wardrobe, more extensive than her borrowings would suggest. He eyed the clothing – she evidently favoured bright colours and had a range of black clothes that perpetuated the stereotype of New Yorkers – and lost all interest. Finding the adapter would mean she would sit near an outlet, and the most convenient was in the living room; far better to provide a solution that would not encourage proximity.
"If all you require is heat," he said, "John has a hot-water bottle."
"God, he's a genius," she muttered fervently, which Sherlock thought was rather missing the point. She dropped the heating pad on the bed as he turned to John's bureau, pulling out the top drawer confidently. There, under a stack of John's plain white vests – an unopened packet of six resting on top – was the scarlet wool of the cosy sheathing the rubber. "Thank you thank you thank you!" she said, snatching it from his hand the moment his fingers had closed around it to draw it from its spot.
She fled the room, presumably to fill the bottle, and Sherlock was left to take in the changes she had wrought in John's room. There was a bottle of lotion and a brightly coloured notebook on the bedside table, some patterned scarves rumpled on the top of the bureau, and a hairbrush with wiry black hairs trapped in its bristles. Her suitcases were gathering dust under the bed, and Sherlock moodily prodded one with his toe before retreating.
He returned to the living room and picked up John's laptop once more. Fred Porlock had been well worth memorialising. It was rather a pity Sherlock had not known him before, in order to determine the deterioration – or amelioration – of his thought processes by his condition.
"Is there no junk food in this kitchen?" Irene said plaintively, shuffling into the living room with John's thick blue blanket wrapped around her. "Never mind – look who I'm talking to. You barely eat even when John begs you, and you wouldn't recognise a craving if it jumped up and bit your butt."
"You are sorely mistaken if you believe that the gibberish spewing from your mouth is at all intelligible," he said, eager to stem the tide of speech.
She did cease her whining, though he could feel her speculative gaze on his skin. "Hey, Sherlock," she said after a few minutes' respite, "want to do an experiment?"
He raised his head, keeping a disdainful look on his face to disguise the fact that his interest was piqued. "Well?" he prompted.
"You could go get some chocolate – good chocolate – and measure the effect it has on the temperament of a woman experiencing menstrual cramps."
That was unexpected. Transparent as glass, of course, but he had never had a willing female test subject. This particular experiment might not be completely worthless; there were processes women underwent that men did not. He wondered briefly if menstruation had a mental component, then recalled all the advertisements he'd seen – large-eyed women looking startled and embarrassed by their own functions, then improbably blue liquid poured onto a pad or wicking up a small cloth cylinder, and finally the same women dancing or biking or running happily – and concluded there was not. So he would not simply be repeating his success in ridding John of his psychosomatic limp; if he could affect Irene's cycle, it would be his mind mastering a purely biological function.
He smiled in anticipation. He needed to establish a control, and the duration of this cycle should be sufficient. "No."
"John will bring me chocolate today," she shot back, fumbling for her mobile.
"You'll still have to wait until his shift is over," Sherlock said triumphantly.
"Fine," she said, abandoning the search for her phone and tucking the blanket firmly around her body. "I can barely move, anyway. Do your worst."
"What do you normally do to combat your cramps? Surely a woman your age would have worked out a system to handle a monthly occurrence?"
"I lie around and eat comfort food and watch terrible movies. What have you got?"
"No prepared food, as John's cooking kick has inexplicably persisted, leading him to stock only ingredients."
"You could do a little shopping and cooking, too, you know," she cut in.
He continued as if she hadn't interrupted. "And there are no films on DVD in the flat. You could watch television –"
"You guys only get three channels, and there aren't even commercials for bathroom breaks. No thanks." She had an idea, he could see from the enterprising glint in her eye. "What I need is to be entertained."
"Play John's records, or your own iPod."
"That'll make me want to either dance or rehearse. No, I need someone else to do all of the work, and I'm too scattered to read anything good." She grinned at him, as shameless as John could be at his most puckish. "Play for me?"
He considered the request, evidently more seriously than she had anticipated; her face was wonderfully expressive, and surely this was a chance to determine how a professional musician rated his musical ability? "Very well."
"Seriously?" she asked, sitting bolt upright. "Wait, I need food first. Can I make you anything?"
He shook his head impatiently and set aside the laptop before rising to fetch his instrument.
For all her talk of passivity, she listened intently, breathing only when he did, making him the focus of her whole attention. Only her fingers moved without conscious thought, pulling apart the sandwich she had made, breaking it into smaller and smaller scalene triangles.
"Do you not have practise to get to?" Sherlock asked the next day, when he came out of his bedroom to find her once again ensconced in John's chair, the blanket looped around her shoulders and bundled against the hot-water bottle pressed to her abdomen, which was visible through the tented fabric of one of John's thin, soft vests. Irene's hair was more than characteristically untidy, and there was an empty mug and plate in front of her; John had clearly made a meal to her specifications, stroked her hair soothingly, and kissed the top of her head on his way out of the flat.
"Rehearsals start Monday," she said tiredly. "I've booked a practise room for tomorrow afternoon just for myself. Until then, I'm just going to wallow." She ran a hand through the tangle atop her head, then visibly brightened. "Weren't you going to get me chocolate?"
"I figured." She sighed. "You practically had your fingers crossed."
He stopped on his way to the kitchen, running that back in his mind. "What?"
"You're claiming you deduced my insincerity by the positioning of my fingers." He looked at them, spindly and pale and long. When he looked up, he saw that Irene's attention was fixed on them as well.
"How are you at massages?"
He started at that, recalling quite distinctly the charge in the air when John touched her in what was supposed to be a therapeutic manner.
She laughed, reading his face. "Not like that! You're a beautiful man, but John is . . ." He waited to hear what words John's lover would choose, if beautiful was insufficient. "Compelling." She rolled her shoulders. "What do you say?"
"No." It seemed to be all he ever said to her, but there was no denying the satisfaction it gave him to refuse her.
"Thought so." She shifted position in the chair, and he could hear the slosh of liquid in the hot-water bottle. "What are you up to today?"
He ignored her in favour of running a web search on menstruation and then, when she realised that her questioning was futile, checking his email. "Oh," he said involuntarily, drawing her attention again. "I've got a client coming now. Not a police matter, according to Gregson, which means it's likely to be interesting." He eyed her dubiously. "I see clients with John in the living room."
"Was that an invitation or a request for me to leave?" she asked, eyebrows raised as if she genuinely couldn't decipher his intentions.
Perhaps she couldn't, as Sherlock found them less than clear himself. "I think better when I talk aloud."
"Right," she said slowly, nodding along as if it would enable her to deduce more quickly. "Your client will be here, so you could talk aloud to – to that person."
"No, I require someone who isn't a complete idiot, and clients usually are, particularly if they are also highly emotional."
"And I qualify? Lucky me," she said, dry as the desert. "I guess I should go get dressed." She uncurled her legs, flexed her feet, set the hot-water bottle on the coffee table, and stood. She unwound the blanket and folded it neatly. All she was wearing was a pair of fleecy tracksuit bottoms and John's vest, and Sherlock could see her contours clearly; her nipples were a soft brown, very unlike the confection-coloured protuberances he'd seen on pin-ups and in pornography. She'd clearly foregone a brassiere for comfort's sake – the website he'd found indicated that some women's breasts felt unbearably tender during menstruation – and had forgotten her state of relative undress. "Back in five," she said.
She returned within the allotted time, one of John's cashmere jumpers covering the vest and her hair plaited away. Sherlock reclined on the sofa, closing his eyes when the buzzer sounded, pleased with himself when Irene sighed disgustedly and went off to answer the door, her slippers muffling the sound of her steps. He could hear her voice and another woman's, first alternating and then mingling; a female client with a non-police matter most likely meant some domestic dispute, for which he was hardly in the mood.
"Here he is," Irene said from the doorway, gesturing the client – a handsome woman around Lestrade's age – to Sherlock's chair and then settling down in John's. "Oh, sorry, would you like some tea?"
"No," the woman said shortly, belatedly smiling as if to disguise what even Sherlock had recognised as rudeness. Interesting, that she was sufficiently disturbed to be rude but proper enough to be worried by it.
"Start with your name and a précis," Sherlock directed crisply, shifting fluidly from reclining to sitting.
"Elizabeth Sutherland. My daughter is missing."
"How is that not a police matter?" Irene asked.
"She's nineteen, and they feel that she might have chosen to leave on her own."
"Did she have any reason to be upset?" Irene interjected again, and Sherlock eyed her narrowly.
"Would her mother's pending marriage be a valid cause for distress, in your opinion?" Sherlock asked before Sutherland could claim that nothing was afoot. Irene's reaction would be highly instructive about her own history at least, if not the present situation; he didn't require any assistance with that.
"Not necessarily. I'm sorry, I haven't even asked. What's her name?" Irene had all sorts of tells. So apparently her protests had been the merest truth: the "Kellam" who had married her mother had not hurt her, acted inappropriately toward her, or been otherwise objectionable. Despite the parallels to her own situation – a woman with a teenaged daughter marrying a man new to their lives – she had not considered the union to be a likely catalyst for trouble between the two women.
"Marie. And you're right, Mr. Holmes, I am engaged to be married. Marie's father died eleven years ago, and I've been running our business since then. I only met James about twenty months ago, and we hit it off."
"He's considerably your junior and not nearly as financially sound as you are – obvious from the ring you wear to symbolise your engagement, the quality of which is much lower than the rest of your jewellery. Have you got him to sign a prenuptial agreement?"
"His lawyers drafted it and forwarded it to me yesterday. I retain all of my business holdings but concede any cash – is this important? I need to find my daughter, not worry about whether James is a bad match." Sherlock frowned when Sutherland shifted in her seat, training her attention on Irene. "You have to understand – I'd already had him checked out before I even introduced him to her. A girl at that age could so easily be hurt by a young man, and he's not that much older than she is – chronologically, anyway."
"How else would you measure relative ages?" Sherlock inquired bitingly.
"I just – I just meant that she comes across as very young. She was ill for a few years when she was younger, so ill she couldn't continue with her schooling. She's just now finishing secondary and is supposed to have her gap year after that; she's been talking about travelling. There's no way she would just run off."
"But does she like him?" Irene pressed, clearly missing the crucial point about the finances.
"She's fine with him – it's fair to say that much. Her illness put her out of step with her peers, and even now she doesn't bring friends home. She neither seeks James out nor avoids him."
Irene tightened her lips at that; clearly she had done much the same with Kellam, though it was evident that she'd been a devoted slave to her half-brother.
"Yes, yes, very good. I need a list of contacts and email addresses your daughter uses. If you know the passwords, that would be helpful, but not necessary."
Elizabeth Sutherland blinked dazedly, as if she had expected him to be emotionally distraught by her daughter's failure to appear at breakfast two days in a row. Irene at least was good at reading cues.
"You can email him that list, or if you've got it in your head now, I can give you a paper and pen?"
Sutherland appeared to decide that it was his sense of efficiency, rather than acute boredom, that was behind the haste and nodded decisively. "I'll write the list right now, Mr. Holmes."
"Thrilling," he muttered, and Irene shot him a look so strongly reminiscent of John that he smiled involuntarily at her. She turned away to fetch a pad and pen. Sutherland was done within ten minutes; either the girl had very few friends indeed, or she was up to things her mother never dreamt of.
"So, am I a part of this investigation?" Irene asked the moment the door closed behind Sutherland. Sherlock did not bother to answer, already absorbed in skimming the inbox of the girl's email account. A separate tab listed the results of a search on Elizabeth Sutherland's personal and corporate history. Her late husband had been George Sutherland, her maiden name had been Robertson, and the fiancé's name was James Windibank. A plethora of images came up as well.
Windibank had the slick look of a man accustomed to charming women with little to back up his claims, but Sutherland had impressed Sherlock as fairly unsusceptible to such wiles; Windibank must have unplumbed depths, and they were most likely criminal.
"It's the fiancé, isn't it?" Irene asked, crowding next to him on the sofa. "Ugh, he just looks like a sleaze."
"Perhaps he cleans up well," Sherlock murmured sardonically, to which she responded with gales of laughter.
"Hello," John said, stepping into the flat and smiling delightedly at the sight of them sitting together.
"Hey!" she cried, scrambling off the sofa to welcome him home with her tongue; Sherlock restrained himself and scrolled past pictures of Windibank at various business functions. There was a ring of some sort on his left little finger – not large enough to be a true signet ring, but suggestive of one. Windibank looked the type to believe he was clever for being brazen about what he should keep concealed; that insignia was going to be the key to the case, Sherlock just knew it.
"Thought I'd stop in for lunch and drop off some chocolate for you, you looked so miserable this morning," John said to Irene.
"We are fine; we're on a case."
"Sherlock!" she scolded, evidently enjoying herself. "You never ever turn down chocolate!" She snagged the thick bar from John's unresisting fingers.
"I've got you something else as well," John said, reaching into his satchel for a plain red bag – he'd had one of those before, Sherlock recalled.
"From Oscar Meunier? Really?" Irene asked, sounding positively giddy. She tossed the chocolate onto the sofa – Milk with Roasted Almonds, Sherlock noted as it landed next to him – and ripped open the box inside the red bag. "Oh, John," she said quietly. She drew a length of silk from the box, something that nearly slipped through her hands, at last resolving itself into the form of a dressing-gown. It was the palest gold, with lithe green vines snaking around in a pleasing pattern, littered with delicately figured leaves and every so often bursting into tiny blossoms as brightly scarlet as pomegranate arils and shaped like peonies, though decidedly smaller. "What's this for?"
"I saw it and I thought of you," John said. "They called it 'champagne' in the shop, but I thought the colour looked more like your basswood honey."
"And these are peonies?" Irene asked, clearly relying on John's superior knowledge of botany; Sherlock wondered if John's sentimentality was enough to keep his teeth from grinding every time he looked at the dressing-gown, which erroneously depicted peonies growing on vines instead of bushes.
"Something like that," John agreed affably, smiling conspiratorially at him when Sherlock snorted at the evasion. "What were you two laughing about, anyway?"
"Oh, there's a case!" Irene said, stripping off John's jumper to tie her present around her waist; she shivered happily, evidently at the feel of the fabric against her bare arms. "Thank you," she said, catching John's hands in hers and kissing him once more, her arms circling his waist, pinning his hands together at the small of his back. Sherlock saw John move willingly with her so that he was effectively pinioned within her arms; Irene appeared to be mindful of John's shoulder and let him go within a few moments with an extra kiss dropped on it.
Sherlock failed to look back down quickly enough, and John caught his eye and mouthed thank you – presumably for allowing Irene to remain in the flat when Sutherland appeared. If that was all John was after, Sherlock was more than happy to take credit for the harmony reigning in the flat.
He heard their voices grow fainter as they decamped for the kitchen and put them out of his mind. Image searches listed the ring's design as the insignia for a company Windibank had established upon reaching his majority, a company that had never produced, bought, or sold any commodity at all but still listed a Doug Banks as its chairman. In Marie's inbox was an email from that same Banks, introducing himself as one of the cadre of lawyers with whom Sutherland had sensibly surrounded herself, and asking the girl to execute paperwork that would transfer her private funds – inherited from her father – to her mother's account; there was all sorts of technical jargon that erroneously assured the girl that the money would be safer in her mother's coffers. Banks coyly suggested that while he knew the transfer would make her technically penniless, in so doing the girl would see who valued her for herself, rather than her inheritance. Doubtless even now he was in heavy disguise, seducing a disastrously naïve girl even more swiftly than he had her mother.
"A pretty little problem," Sherlock said, satisfied that his reasoning was sound. He only wished it had occupied more of his time than a single morning, though when he saw the lunch John had prepared, he was glad enough to have no reason to fast.
John's blog, at long last, had been updated. The entry was brief, chary with details, though why it mattered now that it was public knowledge that Sutherland had not only broken off her engagement but had Windibank arrested – Gregson was no doubt only too happy to be of use to such an influential woman – Sherlock could not fathom.
Went home for lunch the other day only to find Sherlock had solved a case that included fraud, an innocent girl, and a society marriage in five minutes flat without getting off the sofa. Astonishing, that's what he is.
He considered John's uncharacteristic succinctness. He hadn't written a word relating to a case on his blog since before Sherlock had left, and now all he recorded was an entry of fewer than forty words?
"Hello?" Mrs. Hudson called. "May I come in?"
"Enter!" he called, still scowling half-heartedly at the laptop screen. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mrs. Hudson was carrying a slim, flat package along with what looked like the usual post.
"Look what's inside," Mrs. Hudson invited, sitting next to him on the sofa familiarly. She unpeeled a magazine stuck haphazardly to the back of the package and flipped it open to a page she'd already obviously memorised. There were two medium-sized pictures in the middle of the spread: one of Irene and Mary on stage, from their first duet, and another of them at the champagne reception. Mycroft and Mary were chatting amiably – his body language suggested that his fascination with sopranos had not abated – and Irene and John must just have broken their kiss, so close were their beaming faces. Sherlock pushed the magazine away before his eye wandered over the text, sure to be a paean to Irene's beauty, talents, and utter perfection. He couldn't escape it from Mrs. Hudson, though.
"What a lovely girl," she said, closing the magazine – Irene's complimentary copy of Libretto, the so-called newsletter filled with onanistic, glowing copy about the Royal Opera House's productions. "I'm glad John had the sense to be happy."
Sherlock had no intention of picking up that rhetorical gauntlet. A flash of cream arrested his gaze and he went still, more confused than he'd been before. Still, he didn't have to keep up appearances in front of Mrs. Hudson the way he did around John; she was too dim and too partial to be anything but impressed, and he could ask questions outright without sacrificing anything.
"What is the occasion?" he ground out, still hating the necessity of the question. Before she could ask him to clarify, he barrelled on. "You're wearing a cardigan and the black trousers that you keep for home wear, which indicates that you're not planning on venturing out of the building. Yet you're also wearing the seed-pearl bracelet I bought you for Christmas, which you would only do on a special occasion. So, again, I ask: what is the occasion?"
"Oh, Sherlock," she said, patting his cheek fondly. "There's no occasion. I didn't want to have all my nice things locked up in a bank box somewhere; pretty things like this are meant to be enjoyed, and I mean to do it, for however long I have left."
He went cold at the thought of her mortality; it was harder to formulate the thought of her dead than it was for anyone else, perhaps because she'd not chosen a dangerous career the way John, Mycroft, and Lestrade had.
She smiled and peeked at the laptop. "Are you working on anything exciting?" She wasn't wearing her spectacles, which made her slower than she should have been. "Oh, John's begun his blog again, has he?" she asked, sounding rather surprised.
"Why should he not?" he asked with asperity.
"Well, he's got so little time these days. And my understanding, dear, was that he was asked to write it by the therapist he was seeing just after he got back from the war?"
"So he's found his place, hasn't he? He doesn't need to sort out his life online and put it up for anyone to see." She straightened all the corners of the mail, aligning them with the package on top of which they rested. "I'll make you a nice cuppa, and you can tell me all about how you would have written it."
"I thought you might be twins," Irene said, looking between Harry and John, and Sherlock snorted derisively. "What? They look so much like each other!"
"She's four years older," John said, laughing easily and rubbing Irene's back. His insouciance died a quick death when he saw what Clara was pulling from her bag. "No. What –"
"Remember that lunch you skipped in favour of catching a murderer?" Harry asked sweetly, and Sherlock winced to hear the Porlock case so erroneously dismissed. "Irene wanted to hear all about your misspent youth, so we found some photographic evidence."
John clearly knew his sister would be merciless, and appealed to Clara. "Clara, please."
"Clara's the family archivist," Harry said in a whisper meant to carry. "She's got everything scrupulously organised, thanks to that big, terrifying lawyer's brain."
"Hush, you," Clara said; "just let her enjoy this." Sherlock abandoned all pretence of searching through the cupboards for something and sat at the table between John and Harry. "And Sherlock, too."
He could see easily over John's shoulder, and was transfixed by the images of John – a smiling, golden child with a few scattered freckles on his nose and an apparent fondness for wearing holes through most of his brightly coloured clothing.
"My God, you're like the happiest little Dickensian urchin," Irene said dryly. "You little scamp."
"Hey! My clothes were on their last legs by the time they got to me; Harry here was awfully hard on them."
"Your parents didn't put you into pink frilly things from the word go?" Irene asked, turning to Harry.
"Apparently I was quite vocal about my fondness for blue and orange," Harry said with a shrug.
Harry had always had more of an Edinburgh burr in her voice than John, but it manifested only in certain words – judging by the sounds of the colours she'd named, those words were the ones she'd learnt before the family picked up and moved to London. That much was only logical, and Sherlock smiled to himself, pleased that he'd put that small matter to rest. The next picture was of John with a rather becoming beard in a rich chestnut brown, looking pleasingly pensive as he wrote something longhand. With a higher resolution picture, Sherlock might have been able to deduce something useful about the document and its intended audience. Sherlock frowned, frustrated that Clara's album did not proceed along chronological lines.
John laughed at the next image, him as a smallish child sitting at a table of pressed wood, tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he concentrated fiercely on a piece of bright plastic he was manipulating. Chubby fingers gripped a long yellow pencil, the colour picked up by some of the flagstones of the kitchen floor.
"You had a spirograph too?" Irene asked delightedly. Sherlock made a mental note to look up the word, as it seemed John had derived pleasure from the article in his youth.
"Our dad was an engineer; he always brought stuff like that home to get us interested in maths and technical work. Well, just me, really – Harry always impressed him with the maths she could do in her head."
"What are you talking about, Jay?" No false modesty from either sibling; interesting, that each had assumed the other was their father's favourite and yet still bore no grudge.
"He'd come home and ask you maths problems and you'd just do them." John sounded every inch the little brother he was; Sherlock could relate. "Don't you remember when we moved to London and Mum said we could paint our rooms any colour we wanted? Dad asked you to check his calculations for how much paint he'd need to buy. I was the thicky with my model planes."
"At eight you wanted to do that kind of maths? And Dad had a grand time with those models too; he was always talking about how good you were with your hands."
"They were fun, but the best part was peeling dried glue from my skin," John said with a laugh, getting up to refill Irene's and Harry's mugs.
"Ta. Ah, this is me getting arty," Harry said, pointing at the next few pages, which showed John as an infant, an erect crest of white-blond hair atop his head, his eyes unfathomably deep. The snaps were taken from a variety of angles, and in more than one the image was slashed across by pale gold threads.
"That's not artiness," Sherlock corrected. "It is evident that your wrists at that age were unable to deal with the heaviness of your father's camera, and that your own hair fell in front of the lens several times."
"You could spare me a few of my delusions," Harry said.
"That's not what he does," John said, and Sherlock turned to rebut that; this close, he could see that John's eyes were luxuriantly fringed, lashes curled like ductile gold and thick enough to cast shadows. "Come on, skip ahead or we'll be here all day admiring my beauty."
"Whoa, hold on," Irene said, turning to the next page obligingly. "Hello, handsome."
Sherlock rolled his eyes at the cliché – John was in his rugby uniform, clearly in the pink of health and agreeably mussed and muddy from his exertions, but he was no more appealing in that snap than he'd been in all of the others.
Irene had to be prodded – poked in the side by John, repeatedly – to move on from that picture. She touched the following black-paper pages with delicate fingers as she examined several images of John and Harry together, teenagers sometimes cognisant of the camera's presence and sometimes caught unawares.
"Wow, you really look like your mom," she stated with a low whistle, and Sherlock craned his neck to see past John's head, now nearly resting on Irene's shoulder.
The snap was of all four Watsons clad in jumpers that were not an exact match but nonetheless coordinated, the same hues appearing in each in different combinations. They were all seated on a bench in a garden, parents in the middle, Harry next to her dad and John next to his mum; John's small hand was a bit of a blur, reaching out to feel the petals of the tall blossom curling over the bench's arm. It was true that Harry and John seemed to have inherited most of their features from their mother, though her eyes were a mossy green that had escaped both of her children; Harry's eyes were as dark as John's but tended more to brown with bluish speckles than his dark blue with copper rings. Their colouring was their father's, whose hair was several shades lighter than his wife's soft brown. For once, Sherlock did not have to shape the pertinent question himself; Irene got there first, though her phrasing and vocabulary were entirely inelegant.
"What's the deal with those sweaters?"
Harry and John both laughed at that. "That was Auntie Ruth doing her part to celebrate Mum's birthday," Harry said, pushing her half-full mug toward her wife, who scooped it up with pleasure. "Mum said that she'd learnt her lesson in Edinburgh and when we moved to London she was going to do things very differently. Jay was terrorised, thinking he wouldn't have his own room, or that he'd be whipped regularly, or something stupid."
John's ears had not gone pink, so either Harry was exaggerating or he'd long ago reconciled himself to his own youthful idiocy. "All she meant was that she wanted to find some friends to share her work with. We moved next door to Auntie Ruth, who could sew and knit anything better than you'd get from the shops. Mum was a cracking good cook, and she grew most of her own vegetables. Aunt Linda had a car and could get all of the shopping. It was like a little commune."
That was a surprisingly logical notion and had little to do with the tiresome ideals of equality that society espoused; each to her own chosen purpose was far better than all three struggling individually.
It was fascinating to think about John and Harry as the bearers of their parents' traits, unevenly split. John had inherited his mother's domains of kitchen and garden, while Harry had got her organisational spirit, judging by the professional hierarchy she had steadily climbed. From their father, John had been graced with dexterity and Harry with mathematical inclinations. It was all rather charming, if a trifle boring, to trace the lineage in this way, until John smiled at him with that smile that was entirely his own, not generated by any forebear, and Sherlock saw the curiosity he'd been feeling reflected in John's pensive eyes.
There was nothing he had inherited from his parents, surely – there was no impression of them in his character, his abilities, his thoughts. Mycroft might be his ur-text, but he was not some simulacrum or even a variation.
"They were really beautiful," Irene said, hushed as if she were treading on dangerous ground, the presence of which she'd only recognised once everything was out in the open.
"Thomas and Celia," Clara informed Irene. "Lovely people."
"How did they meet?" Irene asked and Sherlock decided he'd had enough. It was a common enough question, and it was utterly useless; what good would it do Irene to know the story of how two people she would never know had met?
"In primary school, if you can believe it," John said, indulging Irene as he always did. "They were never apart for very long." Sherlock stalked off to his bedroom and picked up his violin, though he affixed his practise-mute to the bridge first; he did not particularly feel like sharing.
He ran through his dexterity exercises, allowing the familiar motions to soothe him. He'd always appreciated competence, and it had been most pleasing to find that John prized it as well; even more gratifying was John's insistence that his skills as a violinist – which he'd developed in order to train his mind – stood on their own and brought pleasure to his audience.
With that thought in mind, he could not bring himself to play someone else's music. He made sure the floor was free of detritus and that he had room to pace, then closed his eyes and let his fingers obey their own will. Soon enough he had a motif, then variations, then a melody resolving out of his movements. There was a percussive click in the background – had he stepped on a creaking floorboard? – that underlined the crescendo of a phrase, and he played back from dominant to tonic and at last opened his eyes to find John in the doorway to his bedroom, eyes shining.
"Magnificent," John breathed sincerely, then raised a hand to forestall any response. "I should have interrupted you, but I couldn't bear to. Greg's here – says he has official business and he had to discuss it with you and only you. Shall I ask him to come here, or do you want to come out? Irene and I can go up, if you like."
Evidently Harry and Clara had left; John's hair was tousled in that way that only a big sister could get away with.
"I'll come out," he said, not wanting Lestrade to see more of his bedroom than he'd already glimpsed on that infamous drugs bust. A man had to have some sanctuary, after all.
Lestrade was sitting remarkably still on the sofa, a thick folder under one hand on the coffee table. Grave face, so serious business was afoot, but posture not urgent enough for a personal matter, as if his wife or one of her innumerable family members had been injured. There was no cup of tea in front of him, which meant he hadn't wanted to encourage John's friendly chatter even for the few minutes it took to boil water and dump a teabag into a mug. Curious, as Lestrade typically got peckish around this time; he was a slave to his habits, which was enough to keep him from truly excelling at his profession.
Sherlock wondered if it were simply a matter of accommodation. Lestrade's wife was most devoted, and clearly indulged him; was that enough to foster habits that led to a kind of gross unwillingness to push himself intellectually? Was it necessary to be unfulfilled personally in order to succeed professionally?
He reached for the folder, but Lestrade's hand stayed firmly on top of it. "Sit down," Lestrade said brusquely. "I need to speak with you first."
Sherlock stepped over Lestrade's legs to sit next to him on the sofa, forcing Lestrade to sit back in order to face him. "Sebastian Moran will be on trial in a few weeks –"
"What has taken so long?" Sherlock interrupted. The evidence he had planted had been iron-clad.
"The higher-ups were trying to decide if a voluntary bill of indictment, allowing them to bypass Magistrates' Court and go directly to the Crown Court, was appropriate."
"It is inexpressibly comforting to know that the murder of a child and three women is a debatable matter for your betters," Sherlock spat and started to rise.
Lestrade's hand on his forearm locked him in place. "Shut up. If you're really that worked up about it, then you should want to do this. Walk me through what happened when you confronted him, how you know he murdered those people, and what the hell made you run off like that."
Sherlock had forgotten how much he'd elided, how much Lestrade's immediate fury had allowed him to defer, and what John's insistence on standing between his two friends had meant.
"A verbal statement will suffice?" he asked, because he knew that courts fussed over direct and indirect knowledge.
"I need to know, Sherlock. You'll write out a full statement as well, but for now, tell me."
It felt improbably alien, reciting facts without deductions, discussing his work without John at his side, but he pulled the facts from his memory and relayed the simplest version – one without Mycroft, Amy, or John. If Lestrade noticed the omissions, he didn't let his suspicions show.
"So Moriarty, a criminal mastermind, who was the one who kidnapped John and got you both injured at that swimming pool, knew he'd left a loose end in the form of the one child-hostage he'd used during his bloody 'game,' and you were there just at the time his second-in-command, Sebastian Moran, was sent to kill the boy. Moran got the job done, then got the drop on you and thought he'd killed you when he triggered a bomb in the office you were supposedly lying unconscious in. You got the bright idea to run off and let him and Moriarty – not to mention myself and John – think you were dead, while we got an anonymous tip from one of Moran's juniors implicating him in the murders. Fine. That all hangs together, though not as seamlessly as you're making it sound. I'm not even going to get into why you decided to run off, as I fervently hope that John raked you over the coals for that stroke of genius. My question is, why hasn't Moriarty done anything to spring Moran? Get some unassailable witnesses to swear that Moran was with them, doing charity work for the church, or doing the shopping for his sainted, elderly mother?"
"Look at the files – Moran has refused all visitors and said not a word in his own defence. He has no idea that he didn't kill me, so he is content, thinking that at least the act that got him jailed was what his boss wanted most. Furthermore, Moriarty had no reason to draw attention to his own involvement, and Moran understood that he'd be on his own if he got caught."
"But with the trial imminent, will that hold?" Lestrade asked, brow furrowed at the speed of the conversation. "Mightn't Moriarty have another 'game' up his sleeve?"
"You are mixing metaphors with great abandon," Sherlock said, at last allowing a satisfied smile to show on his face. "Moriarty is not around to orchestrate his henchman's release."
Lestrade sighed deeply, as if from the soles of his feet. "Tell me."
"I heard indirectly that the government disposed of him." Every word was crystalline truth.
Lestrade scrutinised him carefully, and Sherlock breathed out slowly; this – investigating people – was what Lestrade did well, no matter how rubbish he was at crime scenes without a witness or suspect.
"Which Moran does not know, as he's turned away everyone who could give him that information." He shook his head. "No. It makes no sense. I saw you with Moriarty's puzzles. Like a dog with a bone, you were, gloating over his cleverness and your own, both. No way you'd let someone else 'take care' of him. Why should I believe that you didn't read whatever clues he left, find him, and kill him?"
"I assume my word –"
"Is not good enough. For all I know, you spent the time you were away shacked up with some lover, or in the States, or hunting Moriarty for putting a bomb on John."
Damn Lestrade for catching some fleeting glimpse of the truth and syncretising it with the Yard rumour that he was a consultant only for the ghoulish thrill of being close to death. "Would John's word do? He knows what I've done."
Lestrade sighed and dragged his hand through his hair, from nape to crown, disordering the spikes. "I'll not have you standing here when I ask him."
"Fetch him, then, and I'll retreat to my bedroom."
Lestrade's questions about Moriarty's death must have triggered John's nightmares; recumbent on the sofa, Sherlock was startled by a hoarse shout and Irene's muffled scream in the dead of night. John should not be feeling guilt – he had defeated Moriarty more than honourably, in something like single combat – but there was no mistaking the sounds issuing from his throat.
"No, no, NO!" Sherlock muttered furiously as he raced up the steps, only to stand stock-still on the landing as he heard Irene singing something low and sweetly melancholy to soothe John back to sleep. Sherlock clenched his fists, needing to see – he could not picture whether John's face would be dry or streaked with tears, if he were flat on his back trying to catch his breath or curled on his side like a small child seeking comfort, if his hands were tucked closely to himself or reaching out for contact. He was the one who had heard John triumph over Moriarty's malignancy, and he should be the one to whom John turned.
He comforted himself with the notion that John's evident feelings of guilt most likely proceeded not so much from having killed Moriarty as from having to dance around the truth to preclude Lestrade being placed in an awkward situation. He stayed crouched on the landing, listening intently while Irene made her voice into John's lifeline, bare toes curled against the cold, until dawn broke and spilled the first shafts of light into the flat.
Sherlock was concentrating on remembering with exactitude every detail of his time away, the better to record all of it in his Index. He dimly heard some loud clomping noises but felt no particular urge to abandon his work to see what Irene was up to at the moment. With John at the Trauma Centre, there had been many hours when it was just the two of them in the flat, and he'd learnt to tune her out and disregard all of the little noises she made, her voice just as expressive as John's face.
"My god, your feet are like boats," she said, stumbling against them on her way into the living room. The tie of her dressing-gown trailed along his arm.
That remark was odd enough to get Sherlock to lift his chin from his knees and untuck his legs, the better to examine his supposedly nautical feet. "In what way?" he enquired.
"Just, you know, they're so big," she said, gesturing a little, and he supposed that had to be some American expression – it was evocative whilst still being entirely idiotic. "Anyway, here; I got these for you." She dropped a packet encased in bright blue plastic into his lap. He looked at her, willing her to strive for more precision. "Fine, fine, I asked Betty to buy them and ship them to me so that I could give them to you."
He examined the packet. "Biscuits." He kept his tone flat so as not to imply any gratitude or fondness. "Why are these so remarkable that they needed to be imported for my benefit?"
She rolled her eyes at him. "It's no big deal, Professor Higgins," she said dismissively. "I saw you gnawing the chocolate off your breakfast biscuits the other day and thought it was funny because Godfrey used to do the exact same thing with the cream of his Oreos. So I thought you'd like these. Believe me, the ones they sell here taste nothing like the real thing."
So much to deduce, so little time. "You claim my behaviour was reminiscent of your younger brother's, but you make no mention of your own. Yet you enjoyed the biscuits enough to seek out the British version and judge them wanting. It is clear –"
"Give them back if you're not going to eat them," she interrupted, holding out her hand.
"I didn't say that," he noted, clutching the packet firmly.
"Fine," she said, sounding monstrously smug, and Sherlock had to wonder if she'd been acting on John's orders to stuff him with more calories. "Then you'll need this," she said, setting a glass – one with a disproportionately wide rim – filled with full-fat milk in front of him. At his exasperated sigh, she said, "Yes, I know, your life is so difficult."
The intonation was straight out of John's repertoire, and Sherlock laughed outright. "Fine. Show me what your blasted brother did."
She grabbed the first biscuit in the little packet. "Now, I like to just grab and dunk, but Godfrey had to unscrew each one, then scrape the cream off with his teeth, then choke down the cookie parts and only then take a swig of milk."
Sherlock frowned at the discordant fact. "Really? But you pull everything else apart – you can hardly eat a sandwich without tearing it into bits and then licking your fingers and making a whole disgusting production of it."
"Such a charmer," she said, deftly peeling apart the two unequal halves of the biscuit and setting them down in front of him. "Knock yourself out with experimenting."
"Sherlock," Irene said, keeping her finger in her book – John's favourite Greek mythology text – but folding its front cover closed, "remember when you . . . could you . . . have you ever –"
Best to cut her off before she spat out any more incomplete phrases. "Where is John? Surely if his shift started before nine he should be done by now."
The query distracted her sufficiently to throw out an actual answer. "It started at noon. We went out for brunch first with Vee and Greg." She paused, visibly gathered herself, and began again. The dressing-gown gaped at her chest, revealing another of John's vests. "I've never been able to get my mother to talk about my father. I have no idea what he looked like, what his name was, or how they met. I don't know if he knew she got pregnant, or even if he forced her. Is – is that something you'd be able to figure out?"
Sherlock eyed her balefully, willing her to just shut up. This was even worse than when John had asked him – before the slightest bit of proof had been gathered – to clear Harry's name. There was absolutely no upside to this; had there been something positive to discover, surely Irene's mother, however closed-mouthed she might be, would have disclosed it already. Nor was it a case or even a puzzle, as the person with the answers was readily accessible.
"No," she said, surprising him. "Never mind. I don't – I shouldn't have asked. I'm sorry."
Irene was becoming unexpectedly fascinating, he thought as he curled his bare feet beneath him. The movement caused the wrapper on his lap to crinkle noisily.
"Oh, what did you think?" she asked.
"Dunking is by far the best course of action," he told her.
"That's one more for our team," she said, smiling as she bent her head to get back to her book.
"Lousy Smarch weather," John said nonsensically when he entered the flat, raindrops sparkling in his hair and weighing down his curling eyelashes. His peacock-blue scrubs were clinging to his skin.
"Good to know you're familiar with one of our greatest exports," Irene responded, rubbing John's hair vigorously with a clean kitchen towel liberated from the bottom drawer. "Where were you, that you got so soaked?"
John adopted a distinctly nasal tone and a broad American accent. "I was on a road, looked to be asphalt, and was directly under the earth's sun –"
"You are fantastic," Irene said, looping the towel around his neck and pulling him in for a kiss. John's trainers squelched noisily as he shifted his weight to accommodate her.
"Do you require an umbrella, John?" Sherlock asked, filling the kettle with water; hot tea would warm John more efficiently than Irene's mouth, no matter how enthusiastically she applied it.
"Had one," John said, pausing as Irene kissed the tip of his nose. "It turned inside-out and nearly took my eye out, so I chucked it. I'm off for a shower. Call for takeaway and get enough for your brother as well, would you? It's been too long since he was here."
Sherlock acquiesced; John might very well want to speak to Mycroft about Lestrade's questions and Sherlock needed to determine how much Mycroft already knew about Moran's trial. In any case, Mycroft would be pleased to furnish John with a new umbrella, perhaps one with a tracking device concealed near the unfurling mechanism.
It hasn't yet ceased to be disconcerting, watching John and Mycroft silently communicating with each other. He expected it with Harry and Clara, with whom John had had years to develop such rapport, and even with Irene, whom John was shagging every chance he got and whose wordless messages were no doubt all about their perfect, precious love, but with Mycroft it was still too intimate to be comfortable. Every incremental change in posture, timbre, and rhythm had meaning, and Sherlock saw concern and reassurance being expressed freely, all while John and Mycroft piled the takeaway onto four plates.
Mycroft finished half his vegetables before making a show of noticing the Greek mythology text Irene had been perusing.
"Research, or a more general interest?" he enquired politely.
"I've been wanting to tell you anyway," Irene answered promptly, though Sherlock saw her eyes cut to John when she said you. "I'll be singing Eurydice to finish out the season."
"Eurydice, really?" John asked, evidently delighted. "That's my favourite myth."
"One of the few that's happy," Irene agreed, spearing another julienned stalk of carrot.
Mycroft had an exquisitely baffled expression on his face. "How so?"
"They're in love, they get married. There are no gods trying to rape her, no nymphs trying to seduce him, her humanity isn't stripped away so that she becomes a bird or a tree or a reed. They find each other even after she dies, and they come as close as you can get to beating death."
"But they are still separated, are they not? Orpheus fails in his quest, and is subsequently torn limb from limb," Mycroft noted. Sherlock looked up with unfeigned interest, then did a search on his phone for the rest of the story.
"He can move mountains with his music. You think he couldn't have escaped the Maenads if he hadn't wanted to be with his wife in the underworld?" Irene riposted.
"The Gluck, or a more modern score?" Mycroft asked, retreating.
"New libretto, new score. Well, new a few years ago when she wrote it. This will be the first public performance."
"Originating a role is quite a coup; my congratulations," Mycroft said.
"Grinkov will be Orpheus, Nikolaj is Persephone, Ioannidis is Hades," Irene said lightly, accepting his praise casually while Mycroft nodded to indicate his approbation. Her socked foot tapped gently on John's, and John looked tremendously pleased, though the names she had just dropped must have meant as little to him as they did to Sherlock.
"What is it that you like about the story, John?" Mycroft asked.
It took John a moment to formulate his answer. "It feels real, like it could have happened." Sherlock felt disappointed; John had more intelligence than to believe that a man playing the lyre could reverse his wife's death. "It's about grief, and what it means to mourn someone, but it's also very much about those two people in particular. They don't stand in for anybody else, or any larger concepts."
Sherlock watched Mycroft's face change as he comprehended something significant in John's response, something perhaps that John had not even been aware of communicating. John took another bite of his dinner and Sherlock felt the knot in his stomach that informed him that he'd missed something.
He pushed his food around his plate, looking at the tracks left by the sauce, and changed the topic before another twenty-minute conversation could occur. "Your assistant seems to be earning her salary," he said, directing the opening volley at Mycroft, who had been so very voluble before.
"Indeed," Mycroft said. "She fairly chivvied me out the door when she realised who was calling to invite me to dinner."
"Three cheers for her, then," John said. "What's she like?"
Lestrade kept texting, reminding him – as if he had an untrained, imprecise memory – that Moran's trial would be starting within the next few days, and prompting him to have an unassailable statement ready for police review. Mycroft's contributions were helpful, but could not preclude the need for at least a show of justice; Sherlock believed justice had already been achieved, with Moriarty reduced to ashes and Moran willingly immured, believing he was earning his lieutenant's stripes.
Sherlock caught himself then: John wouldn't like army terminology being applied to Moriarty's organisation. It was unlikely that John would ever see Sherlock's report, but there was a chance he might; he was curled up asleep on the sofa, head just near Sherlock's hip, a knit blanket wrapped tightly around him.
The flat was hushed, other than the click of his keyboard as he wrote and abridged his report. He'd set his phone to silent as soon as John, bundled in his blanket, had put two mugs of tea on the coffee table and sat down, eyes already heavy-lidded. John's soft, grinding snore abruptly added a new sonic layer to the ambiance of the flat, and Sherlock considered it as dispassionately as he would a piece of evidence: John was either ill or exhausted, and his body had betrayed him by revealing his state through these snores. Irene would not have understood what they meant, but he did; he swept John's soft hair back, the better to see what lines were on his brow, and saw the same carved-marble marks that John always wore. Tired, then, and not ill, so better by far that he should continue to sleep rather than be woken to have fluids pressed on him.
Sherlock finished typing an expurgated statement of Moran's crimes and connection with Moriarty and sent it off to Lestrade, no doubt piquing the man's curiosity by not demanding a case in return. John was unlikely to feel hale enough to run through London with him, after all, so he shut down the laptop and turned off his mobile. There was any number of projects he could be working on now instead; he squirmed into a more comfortable position, drawing his feet up and winding his arms around his bent legs, as he settled in to think.
John slept for ten hours, his snores gradually tapering off, and woke at dusk, a determination to clean the flat from top to bottom goading him to arm himself with brooms and sponges and the hoover.
"Lift, Sherlock," John said, quietly enough that Sherlock could affect not to have heard him. John took the lack of response in stride and placed one firm hand under Sherlock's thigh, hoisting it up so that his foot came off the ground and John could turn back the rug and sweep the area thoroughly. It seemed he was the only obstacle in John's path to cleanliness, for soon John was shifting furniture easily about and humming to himself as he worked.
Sherlock felt his spine stiffen as he recognised the melody issuing easily from John's throat. It was his own composition, what he had created the last time he'd found solace in his solitude. John had heard it and internalised it and liked it well enough to be pouring it back out. There was a rush of heat crashing down on him at the very thought of it, like a tide that kept advancing without retreating. John's warm voice stripped the tune of the harmonies he'd composed, but Sherlock felt unmistakeable happiness despite the lack; John was all the instrument he needed at that moment.
"Off out," John said cheerfully as he coiled the hoover's electrical cord in neat loops. "Night shift for the rest of the week. Remember that you're well within your rights to eat something whenever you feel hungry."
"Yes," Sherlock said, gambling that sheer surprise would shut John up, but of course John spoilt everything by beaming at him.
"And it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if you actually weren't awake for each of my departures and arrivals."
"Duly noted. Go away," he said, and John picked up his satchel and jacket and left.
John would give him ten kinds of hell if he brought cigarettes home, even if he explained that he had no intention of inhaling and only meant to collect the ash. But his homeless network would be only too glad to oblige him, and he could confirm his knowledge of local soil types by matching the ashes with the patches of London covered by his network. He made up labels and dropped them into the sealable plastic bags John used for sandwiches; three of each ought to be sufficient.
Machine-made first, he decided, looking at the brightly coloured packets at the tobacconist's. Happily single, delusions of artistic grandeur, he thought, surprised when the man behind the counter winked at him and slipped a box of nicotine patches into the carrier bag on top of all the cartons of cigarettes.
"No sense getting the doctor all riled up at me," he said artlessly.
The evening was rather fair, so he walked instead of hailing a taxi, recoiling from the volume at which most people conducted their conversations and the absolute hideousness of current fashions; he saw a cluster of women wearing precariously high-heeled boots that were shaped to resemble cloven hooves, which were surely as uncomfortable as they were unattractive.
Clive and Jeannie were easy to find, but Beth had been picked up for public drunkenness. "Who could collect the data I need?" he asked Clive impatiently; it was most inconvenient for Beth to be unavailable to him.
"Try Uwe," Clive advised, already lighting his first one and inhaling greedily. "Down near Elephant & Castle most days. Big guy. Webbed fingers."
"You understand what I'm asking of you?" Sherlock said again.
"Ash in the bag, got it," Clive said, waving him off. Sherlock set off to find the amphibiously-appendaged Uwe, already foreseeing many happy hours studying ash under his new microscope – surely John would concede the necessity, especially since Sherlock had kept the flat cigarette-free – collecting data that would form the basis for his most ambitious monograph yet.
Sherlock woke – John would be pleased that he'd slept for a few hours, at least – and went into the kitchen to fill the kettle. He brewed a cup of tea that didn't taste quite right, because John hadn't made it, but settled down at the table with it anyway.
John came home just as he was pouring himself a second cup, and shook his head when Sherlock offered it to him; if he watched how John prepared it, he'd be able to replicate the process himself should John continue to work hours not conducive to Sherlock's schedule.
"No, thanks," John said, "I need to get some sleep. It's Irene's birthday, and I'm taking her out tonight for dinner and a film."
"Angelo's?" Sherlock asked, wondering if the proprietor offered them a candle or if he maintained an icy hauteur at the sight of John with anyone other than him.
"Whatever she wants," John said, shrugging. "Has she left already?"
"I've no idea."
"Did you actually sleep?" John asked, sounding impressed. He yawned widely and grinned. "I'm for bed myself," he said, standing up and tucking his chair back in.
Sherlock took a long, contemplative sip of subpar tea, pondering what had brought John's most recent patients to the Trauma Centre. He started ungracefully when he heard John's shout, leaving a puddle of sloshed tea on the table; he untangled his suddenly uncooperative fingers from the handle of the mug and raced up the stairs.
He found John in the bathroom, kneeling beside Irene, who was prone, unconscious, and bleeding through her pyjama bottoms. Blood had started wicking up the white cotton vest she wore, its hem hitting her just where the flow of blood was strongest; she and John were the same height, but he tucked his vests for neatness and she wore them loose for comfort. Her bare arms were cool but not cold, indicating that she'd lain against the tiled floor for no more than an hour.
"Call 999!" John roared, gathering her up in his arms, then standing and carrying her down the stairs.
Sherlock eyed the smears of blood left behind on the floor and looked at his hand, rather surprised his phone was not in it. He had left it next to his mug, he remembered; the splash of tea had nearly baptised it.
He took the stairs three at a time, fumbling to unlock his mobile and dial Mycroft, who would be quicker and easier to direct than any ambulance service partnering with 999.
"Irene needs a bed at Barts Trauma," he said quickly. "Miscarriage."
John had bundled Irene into his own shirt and a capacious jacket that might once have been black. "Sherlock," he called, sounding strangled by fear.
"I've called," Sherlock said soothingly. "She'll be fine." It should not have worked, and at least on some level it did not, but John closed his eyes in gratitude and stood up a little straighter, arms still looped around Irene.
A dark vehicle fitted up as an ambulance screeched to a halt in front of the building, and Sherlock held the door open as John carried her out to the car; Mycroft's people had been briefed effectively, if they knew to stay out of John's way and not interfere with his directives. John got Irene settled and then threw himself into the seat beside her, and before Sherlock could make a move, the vehicle had taken off, lights flashing.
The door to 221A opened and Mrs. Hudson peered sleepily up at him. "What on earth?" she asked half-heartedly, clearly not expecting a reply.
"John has had to take Irene to the Trauma Centre," he said, unprepared for her to sway as if she'd been the one haemorrhaging.
"Oh, God," Mrs. Hudson cried, her hand like a vice around his arm. "Don't let anything happen to her."
He wanted to list all of the ways in which that was not only a useless but also a deeply stupid prayer, but stayed silent as he freed himself from her clutches, sat her on her own sofa, and headed back to his flat to scrub away the blood on the bathroom floor John had cleaned not one day earlier.
How is she? MH Sherlock eyed the text, furious at his own ignorance. How would he know how Irene was doing – how John was doing – when he had seen no more than Irene prone in John's arms, bleeding away his child? Though from the research he had done, it seemed that a miscarriage indicated that the embryo was not viable; his and John's ideas of mercy still never perfectly aligned, but surely a miscarriage was kinder than a terminal disease, as there was a reason for it.
Sherlock sat up abruptly and the laptop slid along his chest until one edge was pressed against the sofa back. Was Mycroft's text granting him permission to go to the Trauma Centre and present himself as a visitor? Sherlock had never bothered to retain the etiquette that Mycroft prized so highly, but he could not go wrong by following Mycroft's suggestion, surely?
The taxi ride was remarkably quick; presumably cabbies knew better than to dawdle or make small talk with passengers who named the Trauma Centre as their destination. He wondered if John had prepared the staff for his arrival, because no one protested or put up any ludicrous obstacles, and very soon he was at the doorway to Irene's room. She was lying in a hospital bed, the pale blue of her gown and the white of the sheets conspiring to make her look sickly, and her eyes were wide and wet. John's thumb was tracing her eyebrow with unbearable tenderness, and her eyes gazed only at him, as if he were enough to fill the field of her vision.
"Darling," John said quietly, his voice ripped to shreds even in that single word, and the tears brimming in her eyes spilled onto her cheeks.
It was unsettling, seeing Irene mute, and John was clearly not doing much better than Sherlock was, though his thumb moved down to pull the tears from her skin. It did not take John more than a minute to see that his hand was not enough, and he toed his shoes off and climbed into the bed beside her. That appeared to be what Irene wanted, for her shoulders softened and she curled into him, still sobbing silently, her breath panting against John's throat. His hands looked strong and certain against her back, but Sherlock could see John's own tears leaking out to drop into the dark cloud of Irene's hair. At least one must have touched her scalp because she flinched before winding her arm around his waist and drawing him still closer.
Sherlock watched for another three minutes but they did not stir or speak, and at last he left and texted Mycroft, skipping over what he had seen in favour of the notes he'd read from the chart on the clipboard at the end of her bed.
Miscarriage complete, no foetal tissue remaining: no surgery or medication deemed necessary. SH
The reply took some time, as if Mycroft had typed, deleted, typed, and considered before sending a response. John will need you. MH
There was nothing he could do – he could neither turn back time nor command the next embryo to be of finer mettle and develop healthily. In any case, John with a child was a vastly different prospect than John on his own, or even John with a girlfriend who had made it clear that she was tethered to him. If John wanted a child, then Sherlock would not stand in his way, but he had never heard John express such a desire, and perhaps the whole situation had arisen from faulty prophylactics or a missed dosage of birth control.
I will do the needful. SH
It was like being in a sensory-deprivation tank, being in the flat without John's face to look at or Irene's voice to hear. It had been odd to see Irene looking so drawn, John not much better, arms tight around each other's waists and soft-sided bags at their feet, waiting for the taxi to take them to King's Cross for the train to Edinburgh. Odder still to realise that if Irene had spoken at all since she'd lost the embryo, it had been only to John, most likely in no more than a dispirited whisper.
Sherlock had thought that it might be restful to have the flat entirely to himself, with Lestrade tied up with the trial and John and Irene visiting the place where John had been born and lived for eight years, but it was disconcerting. Even studying the first of the ash samples procured by his homeless network had failed to soothe him.
He pushed his stool back from the worktop, switching off the light on the microscope. A cup of tea was what John would most likely prescribe, so he filled the kettle and opened the cupboard. A row of shining jars of honey lined up like soldiers confronted him, and he took them down, one by one, and sampled their contents again. Such a variety, all from a single natural product. Perhaps bees should be his next area of close study.
No – hold that thought. He owed John better than that.
John had said not one word about Irene being pregnant, not even displaying any of the subconscious gestures of pride or ownership that the male of the species had found useful in warning away rivals; John had not known that he had got her with child. And while some of that was no doubt due to Irene's irregular menstrual cycles – Sherlock had not been able to perform his experiment on her due to that irregularity – at least some of the blame had to fall squarely on Irene, who had not seen fit to tell John that she was gravid. The only logical conclusion was that John had not been trying to impregnate her; thus, if John persisted in having inadequate protection when embarking upon sex with a woman who could not be trusted to remember her birth control, he was in danger of finding himself saddled with a child sooner or later.
There had been something in one of the chemistry journals on the bookshelf – a journal whose ownership he could no longer remember, though surely only John was technophobic enough to persist in keeping paper copies of scientific discoveries? – about measures to reduce reproduction. Finding the article would be a good start, and surely in the ten days that the flat was his he could devise a fool-proof spermicide; as a chemical problem, it was fascinating, and as a favour for a friend, it would be invaluable.
He spent a happy day and a half going through the journals stacked on the shelves and then several of John's medical texts, making a list of the materials he would need to procure and formulating theories. He made himself eat while waiting for Laurel to deliver the items on his list, cooking scrambled eggs, just for the irony.
His phone buzzed with a text message just as he had shovelled the last of the meal into his mouth. Surely John was not tearing himself away from Irene to ask a mundane question about how Sherlock was "keeping"? He picked up the mobile, surprised to see Mycroft's initials at the end of the message; Mycroft still preferred to speak rather than text, but perhaps he was in a meeting of deadly dullness.
She's insisting upon making a farewell visit. Noon tomorrow at 221B? MH
Not a dull meeting, then, but a painful one.
She is horrid. Don't bring her here. SH
The response was so prompt that Sherlock knew his brother had had it typed up and ready to send.
Better whilst John & Irene are away; at least they will escape. I will arrange for lunch. MH
At least if Mycroft were there, he would not have to cope with her entirely on his own.
Wretched woman. SH
Mycroft was too polite to agree, but it might relieve his feelings simply to read the words and know the condemnation to be unassailably true.
He needed a supply of sperm, of course, but had not included it in the list he'd composed, thinking he could simply produce what he required, though the news that that woman would be descending on his flat on the morrow was enough to make an already unappealing task downright arduous.
He stripped off and sat on the edge of his bed, sample cup in hand. The bathroom would have been more sanitary, but the chill of porcelain against his bare skin would drag the process out even further. Tugging at the length of his disinterested penis did nothing. Fingering his testicles felt uncomfortable and put a lead weight in his stomach. How did people – stupid, ordinary people – do this so often? No, John did it too, or had done before Irene had come along to offer her services. How would John do this? He was left-handed, but shot with his right, though that presumably had more to do with his training than his natural inclination. Still, the upshot was that John was functionally ambidextrous – lovely – and with that Sherlock found his skin heating up just a bit.
John had the strong, deft hands of a surgeon, and his touch would be steady and firm; when Sherlock tightened his grip, there was a little tingling sensation in his toes. John would most likely make some sort of sounds while he was engaged in this pastime, but at the memories of what he'd heard when John had coupled with Anna and with Irene, Sherlock found his own interest flagging. John with a woman was of no interest, and neither was the thought of John with him, perhaps because it was so clearly a fiction. John had no desire to touch him carnally, to worship him with his body, and Sherlock had found far better uses for John anyway. John was there to admire, to inspire, to chide, to feed, to contribute. He was Sherlock's to love, and that was that; there was nothing either of them could do to change that, and Sherlock had no intention of making an attempt. John might reach out and touch Irene at every opportunity, but he'd never offered himself to Sherlock less than whole-heartedly either; Sherlock had been the one to run away, while John had stayed steady.
John was a wonder, he thought as the friction grew bearable and then pleasant, and he finally filled the cup.
The other materials he needed had been left outside his door by the briskly efficient Laurel and he got to work, smiling in satisfaction as a compound with the key ingredient of vanadium, an easily-sourced element, was innocuous with respect to the delicate membrane of each sperm cell – which indicated that it would be similarly gentle with ova – but rendered the sperm entirely ineffective simply by snapping off their tails and making them, practically speaking, immotile.
There. He had produced what John needed, and now he could focus his energies on a more theoretical project while he waited for the bulk of his ash samples to reach him. Sherlock settled down on the sofa with John's laptop and started reading about honeybees.
Sherlock was glad, when he opened the door and saw the fine lines of strain on Mycroft's face, that he had shaved and dressed carefully that morning. The flat was far from immaculate, of course, but the building was old and couldn't be expected to be pristine; in any case, he was the likely focus of his mother's criticism, not his flat.
"Hello, Mummy," he said, politely enough to have won even John's approval. He simply nodded at his brother, recognising that neither of them was adequately armed, but perhaps they could shield each other. It would have been nice for that to be habit rather than a new development, but he trusted that Mycroft would play along.
"Good day to you, Sherlock," she said, marching into the flat as if she had every right to be there, the spiked heels of her shoes creating little divots in Mrs. Hudson's floors. Her silk scarf, taupe and turquoise, fluttered behind her as she moved in a cloud of perfume. He had never seen her dressed for comfort, or known the scent of her unperfumed skin, but still he wondered for whom she'd crafted her appearance. Surely she wasn't craning her neck to find John?
"Would you like some tea?" he offered, stepping back accommodatingly. He'd cleaned the kitchen table and the coffee table in the living room, but his mother frowned disapprovingly at both spaces, as if he should have somehow imported a grand dining room into his flat prior to her arrival.
"Presumably luncheon will not be on time?" She sat gingerly on the edge of the sofa. "Really, Sherlock, this flat is most uncomfortable and awkwardly situated."
"I don't find it so," he answered, throwing himself into one of the chairs and resting his elbow on the thick, neatly folded blanket that covered one arm, which had most recently been wound around a deeply slumbering John to make what Irene gleefully called "a little John-burrito." He caught her eye, the better to impress upon her that she was the guest, and an unwelcome one at that. "John and I have been most happy here."
She was never nonplussed for very long, damn her. With that characteristic, abominable quickness, she struck; unerringly, she put her finger on his weakest points and pushed. "Though you've not been here for quite as long as he has, have you? I did hear that you put the poor man through one of your little games." She turned to Mycroft, who'd sunk helplessly into the other club chair, and included him in her condemnation. "And you wanted to play the benevolent prince, did you not? You thought you would swoop in and take your brother's leavings."
"John has been a good friend to both of us," Mycroft answered with more poise than Sherlock was capable of mustering at the moment.
"Useful, too," she probed, "in taking care of the menial tasks." Her fingers glided along the coffee table and rubbed for dust. "Though you should simply hire someone to clean, Sherlock, as your brother does. Servants are much happier and more reliable when they know their pay depends upon the quality of the service they provide." As if Portia Holmes had ever been known for the fairness of her payments or the contentedness of her servants.
"John is on holiday this week," he said, and Mycroft understood enough from his glance to satisfy himself about the destination.
"It appears that John has been on holiday from you for several months now," his mother said, a ghastly satisfaction evident in every syllable, and Sherlock had never understood why she resented them so, except that they had been got upon her by their father, whose skirt-chasing was matched only by the mediocrity of his intellect. "There is no end to the signs that he has brought a lover here to share the flat you call yours. I am surprised you have allowed him so loose a leash."
At that moment, he hated her with such volcanic fury that imagining her throat under his fingers actually lessened his rage. Mycroft, too, had been startled into stillness, but without reaching out or making it obvious what he was doing, he diverted her attention neatly. Clever Mycroft, for knowing how to use her self-absorption against her.
"Mummy, you've not told us how long you'll be away this time. Has Jean-Louis already gone ahead to open the house and rouse the other servants?"
But she'd scented blood in the air and had no intention of relinquishing her advantage. "Mycroft," she said, as though surprised to see him, "I beg your pardon for assuming you'd been as idle as always. I'm most interested in hearing about the young lady you're courting; I do hope you're more delicate about these matters than your father was wont to be."
For all that he'd resented Mycroft for years – a resentment whose fires had been carefully stoked by his mother, he now realised – he had never once done him the disservice of comparing him to their father. Atherton Holmes had been at best a middle-manager who thought he was top dog, ruthlessly coercing every woman who'd acted as his personal assistant into sexual degradation under the pretence that they were serving a patriot whose only concern was the safety of his nation.
Why had he never put it together before – their father's unsavoury reputation overcompensated for in Mycroft's determined self-effacement with Amy Wilmot? Sherlock knew that Mycroft had never spoken to her of it, but John was certain that Mycroft had loved her, evidently enough not to disrupt the delicate professional balance they had achieved. Their parents had much to answer for, and he wished mightily for his mother to drop dead right there and free them from her noxious presence.
"Her name is Mary Morstan," Mycroft said pleasantly, and it took Sherlock, still wrapped up in thoughts of the enigmatic Amy, a moment to catch on to what his brother was doing; Amy's name would never be spoken in their mother's presence, but Mary was evidently fair game. "We have been corresponding with some frequency. In fact, you could be of service to me, Mummy; I'd value your advice on some small keepsake I could send her, to distinguish myself from her other suitors. Perhaps we could discuss it over lunch? I believe our table will be ready by the time we arrive."
"God," Mycroft groaned as he sank into the sofa, as if just thinking about Mummy had caused his bones to regress to their childhood softness. "That was wretched."
Sherlock knew a cue when he heard one and decided he could follow it gracefully just this once. He set a cup of tea and a jar of the tulip poplar honey that Mycroft favoured – as much for its dark complexion as its mild flavour – in front of his brother and sat down with his own sugared tea and curled his legs under him.
"I had forgotten how very effective she can be. It would be admirable, were it not . . ." he trailed off, uncertain how to express that admiring his mother's keen observational skills and quickness of tongue did not connote approval of her words or instincts.
"Were it not that she quite obviously does not intend her statements to act as a 'public service'?" Mycroft said dryly, raising his cup to his lips and hiding his face behind it.
Sherlock swallowed his own tea and considered the case of his brother. "Are you really so cavalier about your burgeoning relationship with Mary Morstan that you were willing to speak of her with Mummy, or was that a slip?" The skin around Mycroft's eyes tightened minutely, so Sherlock breathed out a sigh that at least sounded aggravated. "Must you be reassured that you are neither Father, with his tawdry liaisons, nor Mummy, frozen after her first disappointment? Very well, you are neither. That still does not explain what Ms. Morstan is to you."
"A pleasant diversion," Mycroft murmured. "She has no intention of being tied down to a single relationship while her voice and beauty last, and I – it is quite restful, acting the doting suitor."
"Trinkets, chocolates, and flowers?" Sherlock asked scornfully; what use were any of them, if not as currency to buy her into a monogamous bed?
"Tokens of appreciation for her talent," Mycroft gently corrected his train of thought. "This way, there is nothing expected of me."
But that would not be enough for Mycroft, who had burnt for Amy, using that passion to fuel the work he did, evidently sublimating his desire into unassailable competence. Amy had left nothing behind to sustain Mycroft after all – not a memory of sweetness shared, or even a photograph or message. Sherlock looked at his brother, whose eyes were down, studying the depths of his teacup, and found he had no words after all.
"Do not trouble yourself," Mycroft said, thoughtful as if he realised there truly was nothing to be done.
Sherlock eyed him narrowly, then got up and pulled the bovine head away from the wall and let the leather case that Lestrade had never found on any of his drugs busts slip free. Its weight felt comforting in his hands, but he stalked back to Mycroft and set it in front of his brother.
"I've no use for trinkets either," he said, and Mycroft nodded, wordlessly accepting the latest responsibility handed to him.
Mrs. Hudson was sitting at a table off to one side, though apparently not out of the way, given how excitedly she was beckoning him over. There was a pot of fragrant tea and a small assortment of fairy cakes in front of her. Sherlock slapped his own sandwich and coffee down on the table and sat opposite her.
"Such a treat, isn't it, eating something you didn't have to make and you don't have to clear away after?" she whispered conspiratorially, then seemed to recall whom she was addressing. "Well, it's good to see you getting out, even if it is only next door. When are the lovebirds due back?"
"This evening," he answered, comprehending that she foresaw no discord between them; he had been given to understand that a holiday was often the catalyst for sowing discontent between couples, though of course he did not wish any such outcome for John. "I've much to do before he returns."
"You might want to do the shopping, love, so they've got enough for a snack when they get back." He waved her off with one hand, hoisting his mug with the other. "Well, I'm sure I've something that could hold them over in a pinch."
"Good day, Mrs. Hudson," he said, exiting Speedy's. He took an efficiently large bite of his sandwich as he walked down the street, heading for the tobacconist to purchase cigarettes manufactured in the Iberian Peninsula in order to begin the latest round of his ash experiment.
His coat was scented with the smoke of a wide variety of cigarettes, a deeply comforting smell. It was too bad he would have to drop the coat at the cleaners before John got up in arms about the damage he was doing to his health, though he hadn't smoked a single one. He texted Katya to ensure that his coat would be cleaned within a few hours and dropped it off on his way home, walking from York Street to Baker Street.
There was a scent in the air of the flat, something sweetly fragrant, and he followed his nose to the table between the picture-windows in the living room, upon which rested a plain glass vase of pleasing proportions that held a cluster of heavy blossoms on strangely fragile-looking stems. Peonies, he recognised: John's favourite for the heady scent and the profusion of petals, riotous rather than spare.
Sherlock dashed up the stairs. As per his orderly habits, John would be unpacking now, and when engaged on such mindless tasks, he tended to chat quite freely. Sherlock wanted to hear John's observations on how Edinburgh had changed since he'd moved from there in his boyhood and wanted to report on the progress he had made, both with tobacco ash and with that spermicide.
The door was halfway shut, and he saw before he heard the low laughter they shared as they shared breath: John, sitting up, his back against the curved slats of his headboard, with quite a respectable growth of dark beard on his face and a look of pure joy illuminating his features. Irene, equally naked, was on his lap, hair caught up in a hasty knot that left her back – shaped rather like the generous and elegantly curved sweep of a violin – bare for John's fingers. John's thumbs were greedily slipping forward, though it was unclear whether he was reaching for her nipples or hefting the weight of her breasts. The movements of their hips were smooth and economical, just tight arcs that ground out slowly, and seemed to afford them both immense pleasure, heightened when their mouths met.
The soles of her feet were rosy pink, he saw, noting that all four sets of toes were pointed directly at him though neither John nor Irene noticed his presence. The hair on her legs and underarms had grown – evidently neither she nor John had thought to pack a razor or buy one in Scotland – and the discarded clothes strewn indiscriminately on the floor were old and rather worn, which meant that neither had splurged on expensive fashions for the other. Their bags stood open at the foot of the bed, and he could see nothing unfamiliar in them, though a flash of gold from her new hoop earrings caught his eye.
The smell of sweat rose up as he saw John lean forward and nudge at one of her breasts with his nose, saw the soft pink swipe of his tongue underneath the weight pillowed on his cheek. The noises of John's mouth on her skin were drowned out by the moans rippling up from her throat, lengthened by the way she tossed her head back and arched her chest forward. Soon enough she was kissing her own sweat away from his mouth.
Sherlock could not swallow, felt his throat issue only dry clicks, and went downstairs for a cup of water. He fetched a glass but was stopped from turning on the tap by what he saw: in the sink were the ends of peony stems, snipped at forty-five degree angles, and the pair of scissors John had once used to cut his hair still lay on the worktop. The scent of the blossoms had permeated in the short time he'd been upstairs, and lingered in the air of the kitchen.
It was appalling that the English language had such a limited taxonomy for scents, and even fewer ways to discuss their effects. At what point in the flat would the smells of sweat and peonies mingle? How did that scent of sweat – the sweat John and Irene generated together from coupling – differ from his, or hers on her own, or what their bed would smell like after a night spent together but not touching when London sweltered?
It was a marvellous thing, knowing there was still so much to be discovered.
"I was out of my head when it happened, and I didn't say it – couldn't even think to say it – then. Thank you. For helping her, for getting your brother's people over here so quickly." John was wearing that black-and-white-striped thin jumper he'd got from Harry, and Sherlock knew better than anyone that the way it made him look young and vulnerable was a trick in the beholder's eye; John was a tower of strength, even with his freshly-shaved face still smarting and pink.
"Of course I would help her," Sherlock dismissed. "I found a way to help you as well." He handed John the pills of vanadium compound with a précis of their effect on the motility of sperm and left him to read it; Sherlock turned to the laptop, as if it were remotely possible that he could concentrate on the towering hexagonal structures honeybees built.
"Ah," John said, lifting his head and looking him squarely in the eyes. "This . . . Irene and I discussed this at length while we were away. But it does involve you, to a certain extent, so you should know. Her pregnancy was an accident – the birth control methods we were using were not fool-proof. After she miscarried, we talked about whether we wanted to be parents, and we've decided to try again."
"How does this involve me?" he asked, absently as though Apis mellifera were the only thing on his mind.
"Come off it," John said, and his gaze was compelling. "A child would mean big changes in our lives, and I want you to be prepared –"
"To come in second – no, third – to your wife and child? At least I am still ahead of your job." He very nearly clapped a hand over his mouth, shocked at what had tumbled out of it, and John's spine went taut, like it was liable to snap.
"I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you never learnt that the one who demands a choice be made is the one who doesn't get chosen." John's voice was slightly clipped but that was the only sign that his control was slipping. "I am capable of making – and honouring – commitments to several people at once. You should know that already, Sherlock; I'm no less your friend for having got Harry back into my life, and I'll be myself even if I do become a father."
John would be an ideal father, and surely as devoted a husband as he was a friend. There was still a challenge in his eyes, a distance growing as each second slipped by, and Sherlock rushed to answer it.
"I'll be here," he said, and John nodded as if he'd never doubted it. "If you are planning to propose to her, I can hide the ring," he offered, still scrambling to release the tension.
John laughed outright, ease in every line of him. "You're always my first choice for a partner in crime, but that's not in the cards," he said. "I can't see myself getting married, and Irene's not fussed about it either." His hand strayed to the pillbox. "Thanks for these. Vanadium's stable, so these should keep?" He made it a question with his voice, but Sherlock had judged John's pharmacological knowledge to a nicety and trusted his understanding enough to forebear from answering.
One hundred forty types of tobacco ash, neatly classified through data acquired through all sensory evidence, were listed on his website. He uploaded the last images and posted the key to the organisational principle with mingled feelings of relief and triumph. John brought home Indian takeaway, and whether he meant it as a celebratory meal or simply was seizing his opportunity to catch Sherlock when he wasn't working didn't matter, as Sherlock ate his fair share and most of John's as well.
There was nothing left for Irene, and John said, "Dress rehearsal," as if it were a reminder rather than new information.
"Meaning you'll be attending the opera tomorrow evening?"
"The premiere is in a few nights, and I believe that's the one they'll be filming for the Royal Opera House Cinema. You've got a ticket too, you know."
"No," John said. "But I'd have thought you'd like opera."
"I'll go unless there's a case," Sherlock bargained.
"I'm surprised Greg hasn't sent you anything. Suppose he must be busy with the trial."
"Hmmm," Sherlock agreed, wondering if he could bear another week without a case.
Irene played sorrow and rage and love even more convincingly as a woman than she had as an adolescent boy, and the role was well-suited to her vocal range. There were moments when her pitch was so low as to set a burr going in his bones, and Sherlock could see the effect on John was even stronger.
When Eurydice sang her delight in the triumph of love on her wedding day, Irene's hand caressed the very spot on Orpheus's chest where a bullet had torn into John, and John's hand stole up, lingering there as if he could feel her touch; Irene had said Eurydice was just herself, not the tenor of any grand metaphor, but it was clear that she saw a parallel between the myth she was singing and the life she was living with John. The twinned gestures forcibly reminded Sherlock that Irene had first known John whole and untraumatised, and that she did count herself lucky to have met him again, no matter how John judged himself wanting. Every successful act of mimesis had truth at its core, and perhaps she had felt her time without John to be a kind of death.
It was rather extraordinary how effectively she conveyed all of that to the audience that mattered most, he thought, closing his eyes to listen as her voice, buoyed by Orpheus's, wound darkly and sweetly through the hall, the words it shaped only coming clear later, when their full meaning had already been felt.
"Listen to this!" John's voice rang through the kitchen, rising with excitement. "I'm buying every copy of this paper I can find and I'm sending one to your mum if you don't do it first. 'Ms. Adler's dark tones suit the character splendidly; her Eurydice is endlessly alluring to her husband and to Death himself, though she raises her voice to assert her own agency. The peak of Eurydice's emotional maelstrom is expressed in the aria using poet and playwright Robert Browning's minor masterpiece, but there is no tame denouement following her demand that she bear an equal share of the weight of their intertwined fates. Though inescapably alone, this Eurydice's every gesture and note eloquently state that her love is wholly requited, a balancing act that the incandescent Ms. Adler achieves with talent to spare.'" John folded the corner of his newspaper to down to watch Irene's face flush. "Well, clearly, the man's in love with you. Requited?"
"But of course," Irene said, eyes cast demurely down as she settled her feet in John's lap. "I'm running off with him shortly. Ugh, if I could move."
"So my fiendishly clever plan of feeding you until you pop is already paying off." Sherlock could feel John's gaze land on him even as he watched John's hands set the newspaper down to knead Irene's feet. "Honestly, with the two of you it's like feast or famine around here at all times. If you ate when your body told you that you needed to, you'd feel even better."
"Feed me, Seymour," Irene said, her voice a low rumble in her chest, and John couldn't keep a straight face and with that the lecture was done. She threw Sherlock a conspiratorial wink while John was still laughing, and Sherlock smiled and finished his tea and took the last biscuit from her plate.
His phone buzzed and he bent his head to read the text. It came from Mycroft's number, but he would have recognised the sender from the linguistic pattern anyway. "John, we've got a case. Have you –?"
"I'm all yours today," John said swiftly, "but I'm on shift starting at noon tomorrow. Give me five minutes to shower and get dressed."
"Where's Greg?" John asked as they walked toward the Diogenes Club.
"I've no idea. Now you mustn't speak a word once we're inside, and you should give me your phone now."
Trust John to look neither offended nor acquiescent. "Why?" he asked curiously.
"Because this is the Diogenes, and silence is the only acknowledged principle of the club," Sherlock answered shortly, pausing for a moment to strip the batteries from each of their mobiles before climbing the marble steps.
"How on earth are you going to solve a case when you can't ask any questions?"
"Observation is my guiding principle, John; surely it will not fail me now."
John's face broke into a wide grin and he laid one warm hand on Sherlock's arm and squeezed.
Before they could enter the building itself, a guard relieved them of their mobiles, then nodded to the doorman. Sherlock shuddered to think what photograph Mycroft would have left with the guard to grant him unfettered access, but it must have been done, because he and John did not have to break stride even once, and every dozen yards or so, another Diogenes employee was on hand to point the way to the scene of the crime.
They were shepherded to a third floor, up another long flight of carpeted steps. Instead of being divided into warmly-lit rooms filled with leather furniture, this floor was dominated by a row of small, independent cells that ran the length of the space. The effect was rather like that of the changing-room at the pool.
Sherlock pulled open the unlocked door to one and the inner door slid open to reveal a decent-sized room that looked rather like a bathtub, as all four walls, ceiling, and floor were made of a single piece of moulded black plastic. Tapping on the walls produced only a deadened thumping, strangely muffled, but by then some of the guards had clustered close by and were plucking fitfully at his sleeve to usher him farther down the row.
Cube number twenty-three was just the same, save for the corpse on the floor, sprawled in a way that suggested sleep rather than death. John had pushed through the crowd of attendants and was a solid, steady presence behind him, and Sherlock moved aside so that John could see the body too. John, clearly unsure of the institution's rules, made no move to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him, so Sherlock swept an arm around his waist and pulled him forward while simultaneously hitting the button to let the inner door slide shut. One squawk of protest was all he heard before both doors were in place, and a light set in the door clicked on once the door was securely shut.
"Finally," he said, releasing John and folding his hands together.
"Can we speak here?" John asked, hushed and intimate. The warmth of his body was insistent.
"Each of these cubes is a soundproof unit," Sherlock answered. "No doubt they are here so that a member of the club may check into one in order to make a telephone call or, in the case of Neanderthals whose lips still move when they read, to take care of other activities that might cause them to produce sound."
"So what was he doing? I don't see a mobile or a book or anything."
"First things first," Sherlock admonished. "What is the time of death, and what killed him?"
John stepped forward resolutely, squatting by the dead man without any apparent hesitation. He pulled a pair of nitrile gloves from his jacket pocket and slipped them on. John lightly traced over the dead man's features, palpated the throat, and probed the hinge of the jaw before lifting each arm and running his hands down the torso.
"Rigor mortis has started to set in: the eyelids, jaw, and neck are all stiff but the thorax is only halfway there. That would indicate that he's been dead for about five to six hours, but he's cooler than he should be. Are you sure this cube is airtight? There's got to be air circulating so that no one dies during an impromptu nap."
"Where would such a person sleep, John? There is purposely no furniture in here, the better to keep members from lingering too long."
"Still, there has to be some mechanism to get air in here. What if the locks malfunctioned and someone got trapped?"
"Are you suggesting that's what happened to the corpse? Mycroft would hardly send an urgent message requesting my presence if that were all."
John was silent for a moment. "Is Mycroft a member here?" he asked dubiously. "This place doesn't seem like it'd suit him."
"I believe he's a member for the political advantages more than anything else." Mycroft had no doubt seen the sense of following thus far in their father's footsteps, much as he must have hated doing so. "The corpse?"
"No, I don't think this was an accident," John said, a faint line marring his brow as he reached out to draw a finger along the man's throat. "Hang on." The jaw popped open with some prodding and a loud crack. "Definitely murder," John announced grimly, fishing something out of the throat. He held out his palm and offered the object up for Sherlock's inspection: a thick, pinkish-white slab roughly four inches long, ragged at one edge, rounded on the other three. "It's his tongue," John said. "He had to be dead when this was done, because severing the lingual artery alone would have been enough to flood his mouth with blood if he'd been alive."
"Also, there's no sign of struggle at all," Sherlock mused. "He didn't suffocate – he would have shown signs of distress and at least attempted to make for the door. Have you got another pair of gloves?"
John handed them over and stepped back. Sherlock pulled them on and knelt next to the body, examining the extremities first. There was an oversized watch on one wrist, an everyday item according to the grooves in the man's skin and the near absence of hair where the watch's broad face and speckled band customarily rested. No other jewellery was visible. The man had fair skin, blond hair, and – he lifted each eyelid to confirm the man had not had heterochromia iridis – eyes of pale grey. His features were unremarkable, and he was dressed conservatively in an off-the-rack blue suit, pale blue shirt, and grey-and-white paisley tie.
"Poison's out," he said, pleased when his peripheral vision caught John nodding without questioning. "No medication on the body, so no serious conditions. No disfigurement or evidence that his body tried to expel anything noxious."
Then he turned away from the body, directing his attention elsewhere. The floor of the cube curved gently into the walls; there were no corners or seams anywhere. But there were divots in the floor, pockmarks most likely made by slim heels. He ran his fingers over a few, but his fingertips were too broad to delve into them; when he raised his hand, there was nothing but a little dust on the tips of his glove.
"Come," he said, standing and stripping off the gloves. "We need to get Mycroft to make arrangements to transport the body and preserve the scene. John?"
John looked up at him with troubled eyes and held out his palm again. This time, the tongue was flipped over, and there were markings on the underside, as if it had been imperfectly tattooed.
"Keep that safe," Sherlock hissed, and John dropped it into one of the gloves he'd just peeled off and stuffed the whole bundle into his jacket pocket, then peered out innocently at the guards as if he were merely a lost tourist.
John seemed comfortable in Mycroft's office, and made a point of introducing himself to Laurel Travers. Mycroft closed the door to ensure their privacy and launched into his tale before Sherlock could ask a single question; given that Mycroft had been the one to distil Mummy's example into a few cogent lessons on observation for him, Sherlock felt secure that the relevant points would be covered.
"The Diogenes Club was founded over a century ago, at first to give less sociable men the benefits of a gentlemen's club. It has since become a hidebound shell of itself, its members boasting about its eccentricities rather than relishing the opportunity it affords for silence. It has become de rigueur for any rising Conservative politician to join, though of course only men with six generations of British landowners for ancestors are admitted. Because it is virtually a government front, we are empowered to keep this matter away from standard police channels; Sherlock, you will have to investigate this entirely on your own, without access to any autopsy report or crime-scene investigation other than what you conducted this morning. The body has already been destroyed and the scene will shortly be scrubbed."
"Can you not stop that?" John asked. "Being part of the government and all."
"I apologise for being unclear, John. There is no investigation into this murder, and Sherlock was simply poking around to satisfy his own rather infamous curiosity; it's well-known that he 'collects' odd deaths."
"Then there will be no report," John said slowly, trying to understand the implications. "You simply need to know, because –"
"Because the setting of the murder implicates other government officials, and Mycroft always has his finger on the pulse of the nation," Sherlock answered. "Who was he? One of yours?"
"No. I might have seen him before, though his youth suggests it must have been quite recently and I cannot recall an occasion at which I did not know all of my fellow attendees. Given that he was at the Diogenes, he must hold some truly minor position in our government."
Mycroft saw them out, murmuring a quiet word of thanks as they went, and Sherlock noted the faces of everyone who happened to pass him in the halls, storing them in his mental hard drive.
"What can I do?" John asked the moment they stepped back into 221B. "I'm sorry – I thought I'd have the chance to do more than a cursory examination of the body."
"My fault, for not warning you," Sherlock dismissed, then conceded, "though I expect that the killers were practised enough that we would not have discerned much from the body. Right now, you can make me a coffee and sketch the scene; your visual memory is quite good, and you might have remembered a detail lost to mine."
"Now, what are the odds of that?" John teased.
"Quite low, but it seemed churlish to ask only for coffee," Sherlock admitted, which seemed to cheer John immensely, enough that he opened a packet of those biscuits with a thick slab of chocolate on top of each one. The coffee came only a minute later.
"I'll try anyway," John said, and sat at the kitchen table and sketched. Before too long, his tongue was poking out of the corner of his mouth, as it had in those snaps Harry and Clara had brought over, and Sherlock watched his deft hands move over the paper with the grace of birds in flight, creating an image of what he'd seen that morning, another young life cut short. Sherlock laid a biscuit on his tongue and closed his eyes, the better to lock the picture of John away and start fresh.
He was working on the corpse's tongue, trying to decipher the cryptic markings, when John spoke up. "Why didn't you use one of my extra gloves to take the body's fingerprints?"
Sherlock looked up, surprised at both the ingenuity of the suggestion and the sound of another voice so close by. John had finished his sketch – workmanlike but unrevealing – and opened his laptop in order to run a search on methods for tattooing the tongue.
"Such a man's fingerprints wouldn't have been in the system," he answered; "can't have government officials of Mycroft's sort in files accessible to any plod on the force." He eyed John closely, from the bright crown of his head to the dingy soles of his socked feet. "Yours might well have been excluded as well; Mycroft has enough pull to have managed that, if he thought you'd need it."
John looked briefly displeased at the notion, and studying his face was more rewarding than trying to puzzle out lines on a dried tongue hacked out of a dead man's unresisting mouth. "It says here that you need to tattoo a tongue using a syringe instead of a needle," was John's only response. "Have you been able to make out what it says?"
"The ink was unevenly distributed, meaning that either it was in short supply or the tattoo artist was unaware of how evanescent his work would be. I can see 'VJI' at the beginning, but no more than that." Sherlock set down the tongue and his magnifying glass. "John, I need Irene's shoes – fetch them for me."
"Fetch them yourself," John said, settling contentedly into the sofa, then realised what he'd just said. "Wait, why do you need them?"
"I need to determine the force needed to create divots in a surface such as that cell. Bring her stiletto and kitten heels to the bathroom," he directed; their bathtub was older but quite similar to the interior of the Diogenes cells.
"She doesn't own any," John said rather smugly.
"Well, can she bring some home from the costume department?" Sherlock asked immediately. "Surely they would allow their rising star such an inconsequential request?"
"You'll have to ask her yourself," John said with finality. "You've no way of knowing if those divots have anything to do with this body – they could have been there long before."
"Mycroft specified that membership was open only to men."
"So maybe one of the men had a thing for strutting about in footwear designed for underweight women and went to that cell to indulge himself," John said tartly, with a quickness Sherlock found rather delightful.
His mobile rang just then, Sally Donovan's name appearing on the screen. "Detective Sergeant Donovan," he said, watching John's face resolve into a quizzical expression, "this is an unprecedented surprise. How may I assist you?"
"There's a body with all the fingers of one hand sawed off but nothing to indicate how the man died," she said warily, as though she expected him to rattle off a solution without even seeing the evidence.
"Minimal. I'll send a car."
"We'll take a cab. Send the address to my mobile." He'd rather have the professional quiet of a non-murderous cabbie than the idolatry or disdain of a Yarder. "Come, John – a new body for a new hour."
"Holmes," was what Sally said the minute his foot hit the ground, before John could emerge from the cab. Sherlock had determined to maintain a level of professional courtesy; if Sally didn't say Freak, he wouldn't say one word about either her personal or professional aspirations.
"Sally," he returned, hearing John chime in as well with a friendly greeting. "Are you going to lay it out for me?"
"I thought I'd let you do your bit, but hoped you might be persuaded to do it out loud," she said, looking at the tip of his nose, a time-honoured technique for looking at a person while avoiding the eyes.
"Ah, is it –?"
"TOWBAR, yes," she agreed, leading them over to the body, next to which stood Lestrade. Before they could get within earshot of the man, Sherlock grasped Sally's arm and pulled her to one side, and John naturally followed.
"I'm not going to repeat myself or slow down. If you wish to demonstrate your fitness for the rank of Detective Inspector, do so by attending to my words, following my observations, and understanding my conclusions."
She squared her shoulders and finally looked right at him. "I wasn't planning on daydreaming through your show," she said.
"Lestrade has the people skills, but you've got the makings of a first-class investigator. Now, watch and learn." He affected not to see the surprised look Sally shot John or the effect John's companionable shoulder bump had on her, and stalked off toward the body.
It was as clean and peaceful as the one at the Diogenes, another young man in a suit and tie looking as if he'd dropped into a deep sleep rather than an eternal one. All of the fingers on his right hand had been severed, marked, and replaced next to the palm as if they hadn't been detached. All of that suggested that this might be the work of the same murderer who had targeted the government official at Mycroft's club, but it was only when he picked up the severed thumb that he was sure of it. VJI was clearly inked on it.
"John," he called, and John came over, his lips tightening as he made the connection and realised that they couldn't tell Sally or Lestrade about the other body they'd examined; they would just have to hope that the second corpse provided strictly corroborative evidence upon which an investigation could be based.
"No footprints at the scene, not even the victim's, which means that care was taken to remove them, though this type of surface is difficult to mark without great force and there is a conspicuous lack of dust in the vicinity. The victim appears to have died peacefully, as there is no sign of struggle, discomfort, or injury. The only marks of violence – the severed fingers – indicate that the man was dead before the severing occurred."
Sally was nodding, not bothering to write any of it down, which meant that she'd worked out that much for herself; Sherlock was impressed.
"We will come to the letters on the fingers later. The victim is a white male, twenty-six to twenty-nine, six feet tall. Medium brown hair, medium brown eyes, medium build. No distinguishing marks or jewellery. Clothing – light grey suit, blue shirt, red-and-white striped tie – is undisturbed; the pockets have not been emptied or even searched. The shoes show minimal wear. In fact, nearly his entire outfit is new; he left one of the straight pins in his shirt cuff. The exception is his tie, which shows signs of having been laundered." Donovan at last made a disbelieving face, so Sherlock thrust the loose end of the tie at her and ordered, "Smell. The dry-cleaning chemicals are unmistakeable even when faint." Though she reared back a bit in surprise, she did inhale deeply, and nodded her affirmation.
"So, how did he die?" Sally asked, squatting next to him once more. "John, what's your medical opinion?"
John's knees cracked alarmingly as he squatted beside the body as well, and Sherlock glanced up at Lestrade, still looming over the proceedings, and thought that from above the three of them must look like birds on a telephone wire.
John pulled up the man's eyelids and palpated his throat. He sniffed at the man's lips and lifted his limbs. "I'd say he's been dead twelve to fourteen hours, but other than that, there's nothing here – it looks like his body simply stopped functioning and he laid down to die. As Sherlock said, no poison, no violence. No discolouration to indicate any kind of organ failure, and there's no sign of anguish or pain on his face in any case. Are you sending this one on to Molly?"
"Whoever's on duty at Barts," Sally demurred.
"Ask for Molly; she'll do you proud," John said. "She's sharp, that one."
"Surely part of the evaluation must be your ability to work with other professionals in order to best serve the people of London," Sherlock said, and Donovan's wry smile confirmed his deduction. "Have Molly fingerprint the other hand. The words on this one will be the key to cracking the case." He snapped several photographs with his mobile: a few of the body sprawled on its back and the rest of the severed digits. "We'll await your production of evidence."
"Good luck, Sally," John said, and she waved them off with a distracted smile, already absorbed again in the work.
VJI VSEOVUS OT VJI QMEHAI was what the digits said in simple block capitals. "Obviously, it's a code. First one to crack it –"
"Eats a proper meal," John said sternly, and Sherlock rolled his eyes while he connected his mobile to John's laptop. He uploaded the images, enlarging them to look for clues in the handwriting itself; he could give John an extra few minutes with the code and still beat him handily, if he wanted to sink to wordplay worthy of the heyday of John's terrible blog.
John resigned himself to pencil and paper, recognising he would not be able to wrest control of the laptop back, and set to work. The tang of graphite was a pleasant aroma, and lent a studious air to the living room. Sherlock curled up with the laptop braced against his thighs. The first and fourth words were the same, and the three-letter word that appeared most often in English sentences was the. Converting vji to the could be done if vowels and consonants were treated separately but each retreated one place in the alphabet. A few more minutes and he had the full phrase.
"Done," he said, and John ceased to scratch out another row of letters. "The phrase is the traitor is the plague. Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero, according to Google."
"That simple, was it?" John asked ruefully.
"Not quite so blatant as that Harrods code, as this one distinguished between consonants and vowels, the better to ensure reasonable placement of vowels in order to mimic uncoded language. Still, not nearly as clever as the murderer evidently believes; it should be a simple matter to determine the second victim's identity and who might have felt betrayed by him. Given what we know of the other victim, it stands to reason that the betrayals and murders have something to do with British government, possibly even spycraft."
"I hope you're as hungry as you are brilliant, because you're eating dinner tonight," John said, resting his feet on the coffee table next to his abandoned pad. "What do you want?"
"Leave it up to –" Sherlock said, hearing Irene's footsteps approaching.
"The next time I get a bright idea, just sit on me and make sure I can't put it into motion, please?" she asked, sighing dramatically and throwing herself down on the sofa next to John and sprawling all over him. A lock of her hair brushed across Sherlock's face, a most unpleasant sensation, as she ducked her head to kiss John's neck in greeting.
"Ah, darling, at least you have bright ideas," John said, matching her histrionics with his own, then smoothing her hair away from her face. "Come on, it's up to you to decide what we're eating tonight, and over dinner you can tell us all about your day and we'll tell you all about the serial killer we've been tracking."
"Targeting Americans?" Irene asked, eyes fixed on the image of the second victim lying flat on his back, staring sightlessly up at the sky.
"Why do you believe he was American?" Sherlock asked. She looked up at him, undoubtedly trying to assess his sincerity in asking. He schooled his face into an inquisitive expression, though the evidence clearly pointed to the victim being not only a Brit, but one entrusted with government secrets.
"His tie is striped the wrong way. American striped ties go like that" – she slashed the air with the side of her hand to indicate a diagonal from top left to bottom right, then switched to top right to bottom left – "but British ties go like this."
Sherlock, completely taken aback, looked over her head at John. "Is that true?"
John shrugged his shoulders. "Quite possibly," he said unhelpfully. "I'd trust her."
"That hideous tie you wore to Mycroft's office for the Bruce Partington case – was that striped?" Sherlock demanded. He'd not worn a tie himself since the last of his class pictures, hating the feel of anything other than the soft comfort of a scarf pressing against his throat.
"Just look it up; someone must have written a treatise on the subject," John said, smiling a bit at the look on Sherlock's face. "If you can write about one hundred forty types of tobacco ash, I guarantee that someone's posted something about stripes."
It didn't take him long to find it: a shop in America called Brooks Brothers had deliberately flipped the standard pattern of British school and club ties for a more "American" style and the rest of the country's clothiers had followed suit.
At long last, John followed the logic. "But how can a British government agent be wearing an American tie if he was too young to be sent abroad? And you said it was definitely his – it had been laundered, remember?"
"But nothing else had been worn before," Sherlock recalled. "Why would he need to replace everything else – suit, shirt, even shoes – at short notice, but not his tie?"
"Maybe it was his lucky tie, and he had it in his hand luggage and the airline lost everything else?" Irene suggested, curled up against John, head tucked under his chin.
"Wait, are you saying that we made a mistake or that the killer did?" John asked.
"We have no way of knowing based on the information we have at the moment. When Donovan and Molly provide more, we will be at liberty to formulate a new theory or refine the one with which we've been working." He sent Mycroft the image in which the victim's face appeared most clearly, hoping his brother could put a name to the corpse, and looked up to find the pair of them smiling devilishly at him.
"So, looks like you're free for dinner," John said nonchalantly.
Irene laughed. "Brilliant."
"I should have brought you with me," Irene said, pouring the rest of the mattar paneer over her rice, "just to stay sane. What I was thinking, getting all of those composers and soloists together, I really couldn't tell you."
"I'm sure it was helpful for everyone," John soothed, stealing back a forkful of peas and cheese. "Was there anything that you'd want to audition for?"
"Mmmmaybe," she said, getting up to fetch ginger beers from the fridge. "Sherlock, another?"
He nodded his head; he quite enjoyed the fizzy kick of the drink, especially when paired with Indian food. "Well?" he asked, deciding to help John out.
"Wait, I'm still griping," she said unabashedly. "It turned out there were two of them composing operas based on the story of Griselda. Griselda! Can you believe it? As if there needs to be one more retelling of that stupid story, let alone two. So of course there's drama when they find out, and each of them is claiming to be the more authentic and well-researched, and the only difference is that one wrote the part for a soprano – surprise! – and the other for an alto. But who cares, because the whole story's there, wrapped up in her name – Griselda, who only gets to know her kids are living by the time she's grey, worn out by her asshole husband's whims."
"As long as you don't feel strongly about it," John murmured, and Irene dissolved into laughter.
"Shut up," she said. "Thalia was there, the one who wrote the new Eurydice and Orpheus. She said she didn't have enough new material to present, but she was working on a full-length opera called Aurora Leigh, based on something Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote."
That sounded equally as dreadful, in Sherlock's estimation, but given that a previous collaboration between them had been fruitful, it made sense that Irene would be pinning her hopes on a second success.
"Have you got a library card?" she asked.
"Mmm," John said, finishing his garlic naan, "in my wallet. You should get your own, too. I'll take you there in the morning, if you like." He got up and pulled a small tub out of the freezer and collected three spoons. "Sherlock, you like pistachios; you're having some of this kulfi. It's gorgeous."
Sherlock assented vaguely, knowing the two of them would finish off the lot if he tarried long enough. The ginger beer was more than enough of an indulgence for one meal, and he had no desire to let any dairy product lie heavy in his stomach when he still had work to do. As if on cue, Mycroft texted back.
Darren Wernham, PA six doors down. MH
So the dead man was an Englishman, no mistake, because the offices along Mycroft's row all belonged to men of considerable but unspoken power. When he looked up from his mobile, Irene was looking speculatively at him.
"I'll get out of your way – you and John must have some work to do."
John was looking so contented, sitting at the kitchen table and enjoying their company, that Sherlock found himself loath to call an end to the proceedings. "We haven't got much to work on without more data, can't make bricks without clay. But John used to blog about all of our cases, so, off you go, John; tell her how you'd write this one up with what we've got so far."
John slouched a little in his chair, ever more indolent, and offered them both a lazy smile. His eyes were clear, though, and it was obvious he correctly understood Sherlock's invitation as permission to discuss even the first body at the Diogenes.
"Well, not that I'd have said this on the blog – I am capable of discretion – but there's a secret club in the heart of London, meant only for government officials. Or, at least, the percentage of that population that also happens to be rich, white, and male. And this morning, there was a dead body found in a solitary cell on the top floor of that club, mutilated after the fact but with no marks of fatal violence on him. Cut to this afternoon, when Sally called us to examine a second body in much the same state, same coded phrase about traitors and plagues marked on the corpse. Only she doesn't know about the first body. That second body is more puzzling: a British body" – he looked questioningly at Sherlock, who nodded – "with an American accessory. So there we are."
"That was an atrocious précis of your putative blog post, John; it was almost entirely comprised of information you acknowledged you wouldn't include in any such document. However, as a summation of our day, it was fairly accurate. Irene, what do you make of it?"
"Sorry, was I supposed to take a crack at solving it just from that?" she asked, startled, a spoon heaped up with pale-green kulfi halfway to her lips.
John sat up straight and then leaned forward. "You know, he'd never tell you this, or even admit it, but one of the best things about Sherlock is that he doesn't treat his abilities as a sort of superpower or a 'gift' or a 'curse'; he genuinely believes and is insistent that anyone could do what he does."
"If that person paid attention, observed, was able to retain vast amounts of data, properly organised, and respected the logic of crime," Sherlock stated, unwilling to let John paint him as a sort of humanitarian mentor.
"So warm and fuzzy!" Irene pretended to marvel.
"That's just what Sally said," John said lightly.
"Please," Sherlock scoffed. "You've been on a quest to trumpet my 'humanity' for months."
"Yeah, but no one ever listens to me," John said, heaving himself up and beginning to clear the table.
"We'll solve the question of the corpse's nationality later, John; we still have the question of what could have killed both men to answer." He led the way to his bedroom and closed the door behind them to keep out the noise from the television; Irene was watching QI, having professed a great love for the host, some awkward-looking man with a crooked nose. He smoothed down the bedclothes hastily in order to let John sit at the foot of the bed. He climbed in and pressed his back against the solid slab of his headboard.
"There weren't any marks on either corpse that indicated suffocation, strangulation, poison, venom, or trauma," John said, ticking points off on his fingers.
"Is it possible they were injected with something?"
"We should have seen an injection site," John objected.
"We had severely limited time with both corpses, and injections are often designed to be difficult to spot."
"I doubt Molly will find any such site during the autopsy," John said firmly. "What could they possibly have been injected with that would have caused instantaneous, painless death? Could you have concocted anything this effective in your lab?"
So John was thinking of him as a chemist and not as an addict. "Even air, if properly injected, can be fatal," Sherlock reminded him, smiling despite himself.
"Gas embolisms are tricky things, and for it to have worked perfectly both times is really pushing it."
"Maybe several people were attacked and only these two died."
"And they all stood still to allow their killer to find the best spot to inject oxygen into their bloodstream?" John shook his head and looked up at the periodic table hanging above his bed. Sherlock had had that copy for several years, a gift from Victor Trevor, enabler extraordinaire; it was too useful to throw away, and he'd never got around to replacing it with one unladen with memories impossible to delete. "Wait – not a poison. Something natural that the body could not process."
"Such as?" Sherlock pressed. He'd seen chlorine gas film over its victims' eyes while painting their skin in dark and violent hues of green and yellow shading to black. He'd determined the use of thallium in a case in which the victim suffered hair loss and tingling in the extremities due to the associated nerve damage. "The body has ways of telling the careful observer what it underwent."
"Not if it's something the body has no defences against," John said, looking electrified by his own cleverness, for which Sherlock could hardly blame him. "Like nitrogen – inert nitrogen gas."
"The body requires oxygen."
"But the body doesn't check to make sure the gas it's inhaling contains oxygen; the defences are on the other side, making sure that it exhales carbon dioxide, which inhalation of nitrogen still allows. The body has no idea it's in danger until it's dead."
"No panic," Sherlock mused.
"No muss, no fuss," John agreed. "Not that we've proved any of this."
"Molly will find it if you direct her search."
"Then you can figure out where these men were held that could contain nitrogen instead of oxygen, and who killed them. I'm back on shift tomorrow."
"I'd remembered. Good night, John."
"Sleep, would you? As a favour to me," John said, uncurling his legs and sliding to the edge of the bed. "I'll send Molly an email first thing in the morning."
Sally proved herself capable of original thought, researching uses for nitrogen gas and coming up with electronics factories and motor workshops; according to her research, nitrogen smothered stray sparks that oxygen would have coaxed into blossoming.
"Thank you," she said formally after sharing the information with him and hearing him out about the ways in which stripes differed by continent. "You and John have been really helpful, and he was right about Molly as well. But I should be able to handle it from here."
He eyed her for long moments before offering his hand. "That's it, Donovan."
"What?" she asked, involuntarily shaking his hand.
"That step Lestrade never takes. Asserting your independence –"
"The boss is a great copper," she said warningly.
"He has considerable skill and decent instincts. But he's also found a shortcut. He's not wrong; more people would undoubtedly die if we waited for him to solve every case instead of calling me in, but the point is he doesn't take a crack at the cases first anymore. You'll be DI by the end of the summer and you'll beat him to DCI."
"He's not ambitious," she demurred.
"No," he agreed. "But you can be." Before she could smile or blush or otherwise ruin what was a perfectly professional moment, he turned, calling over his shoulder, "You might want to check into the birth records of your victim. I'm fairly certain he had, to borrow John's egregious parlance, a 'long-lost evil twin.'"
"Don't – are you serious?" she called.
"Identical twins have different fingerprints, as they're caused by position in the womb rather than genetic factors."
"That explains exactly nothing."
"The message inked on the fingers was intended for someone with access to the British government, but I've no doubt that when you run the fingerprints, you'll find your corpse is American. I am merely suggesting one explanation for the discrepancy."
"The more outlandish your story, the easier it is to believe you, somehow," she said grudgingly, then waved him off.
She was really quite entertaining, after all. He grinned at the thought that darted into his head; it would be most interesting to see what she and Mycroft made of each other.
Irene emerged from the soundproofed room into Sherlock's bedroom, a thick score bending her wrists taut and pale, and Sherlock approved once again of the utility of John's besotted gift; though it had seemed like the merest scrap of silk, the dressing-gown was tremendously useful as a barometer. He had seen it ride up high enough on Irene's burnished thighs to allow him to observe the marks of John's mouth and teeth, explaining the aura of satisfaction emanating from the pair of them. It had parted slightly as she'd held John's red-rubber water bottle, in its ridiculous scarlet wool cosy, to her abdomen, warning him that her body was tender and her energy low. And now, he could see, from the way the thin material clung to her, hugging her breasts and belly, that she was carrying John's child; there was no real "bump," but she had taken on an unaccustomed solidity evident despite the layers of cloth.
Her free hand fluttered unmistakeably in front of her abdomen, indicating that her nerves had been wrought to an unsustainable pitch, and he supposed that she needed assurance more objective than John's that this pregnancy would come to term. He dragged his eyes up from her belly to find her looking thoughtfully at him.
"You know, don't you?"
"I haven't deduced your due date, if that's any consolation," he offered.
She tossed the score on his bed and sat at the foot of it, just where John had solved the Cicero murders. "What are you doing?" he asked, confused by the way she simply sat without making any demands or searching out his gaze.
"I just – need a minute where I'm not on my own and not with John," she said nonsensically. "To feel the reality of it, you know?"
She laughed a little then, nearly rueful. "I'm so happy when I'm with him, that I kind of don't trust myself around him. It's like I've been drugged with joy."
Sherlock reared back as if she'd slapped him. Irene was the one who should be keeping the blog, if she could so precisely express what he felt whenever John smiled at him or spoke the word "love" so easily, looking at him unflinchingly.
"But I need to think about a baby in my life, not just in ours."
It was eminently reasonable, he supposed; he certainly had no intention of stopping anyone whose stated goal was to think. He started to rise, then recollected that she'd specified that she did not seek solitude. "What do you need?" he asked.
She tugged him down beside her, and they lay, side by side, contemplating the ceiling. He could start pinning codes up there, to give himself something to puzzle over during the long nights when he tossed and turned, trying in vain to lull his mind to sleep. Irene breathed quietly next to him, her pure profile looking like a classical carving. Then she turned slightly to face him, and the distinctive curve of her cheek, something that had become familiar in the long months since she'd entered his life by way of John's, stood out against the dark bedclothes. A glint of gold shone from her earring. When his hand brushed against hers, he honestly did not know if that was an accident or deliberate, but he did not pull away as her fingers curled round his.
"Everything will change," she said quietly, then repeated it over and over again, an innocuous statement changed to a clarion call of promise and wonder by the power of that voice that John loved.
"Sherlock, dear, do you have anything on at the mo?" Mrs. Hudson asked, cornering him in the flat while John and Irene were at the movies, taking in the filmed version of Irene's performance as Eurydice; she'd protested that John shouldn't have to sit through it twice, that she needed to critique her own performance while experiencing the production as one of the audience, but John had been adamant. He'd also been exhausted from pulling too many shifts, and it was even odds whether he'd fall asleep inside the hushed darkness of the theatre.
"I do," he equivocated; he'd do her a favour if she needed it, but wasn't willing to be lent out to casual acquaintances. "Vital experiments," he added when she went to the kitchen to fill the kettle and turn it on.
She took the implied reproof quietly but betrayed herself by putting too much sugar in his tea, either out of carelessness or a desire to "sweeten him up." He sipped it anyway, as the heat of it was welcome on a damp evening. "What is it, Mrs. Hudson?"
She brightened perceptibly, set her teacup down, and turned to face him, though her knees were still pointing off to one side. "It's Loretta's married ones."
"What, still?" he asked, surprised; she'd last spoken to him about them months ago.
"It turns out Roger's father was killed in a burglary gone wrong – there had been several burglaries by the same gang, I think, enough for the police to know who was to blame, and, of course, murder was worse than theft."
"So at last they stepped up their efforts?" Sherlock asked dryly.
"Yes, of course, but when they finally caught the burglars, it turned out that they'd been in Brussels that same night, stealing something else, so it couldn't have been them who killed Roger's father, poor man, so now there's talk of exhuming him and reopening the case, and Roger's just beside himself, and the police won't let him come to take his mum away from there – she's still had to live in that house, poor lady, the sister has only a small flat and hasn't room for her – and the whole thing's in a tangle."
"The Belgian police do not seem any more capable than our Met," he observed dryly, "but surely there is no reason to suppose they will not at last stumble across the truth, even if the trail has gone cold?"
"I'm sure Roger would be glad of your help," Mrs. Hudson said firmly, indicating that she and Mrs. Turner had made up their minds and he and Roger would be chivvied together like reluctant primary-school pupils at a play area. He did not have a means of escape calibrated to the situation – all of his traps were too elaborate to spring on an elderly woman of no particular malice – but he held out a faint hope that Lestrade would rescue him with a well-timed text.
"Very well," he said finally. "Shall we?"
He followed her down the stairs, down the front steps, and then up the steps to the front door of 219, which was in better nick than their own, its brass knocker shining from all of Mrs. Turner's devoted polishings. Mrs. Turner had, he saw when she opened the door, a chair so placed as to be able to see both out the window and anyone coming up the steps.
"Sherlock's here to help," Mrs. Hudson said before Mrs. Turner could get a word in edgewise.
"Thank you, Helen. I'll take you up," Mrs. Turner said, but Mrs. Hudson was determined not to be left out of the proceedings she had helped to engineer and tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow.
Mrs. Turner was either scrupulous about respecting her tenants' privacy or eager to appear so; the former, Sherlock concluded, taking in the lack of surprise at her knock on the face of the man who opened the B-flat door. Sherlock had seen him on the street and, thanks to Mrs. Hudson's formless narrative, had a name to put to the face.
"Danh? Sherlock Holmes. I understand you and your husband might need the services of a consulting detective." From the squeeze Mrs. Hudson gave his arm, he knew she was pleased he'd opted for a kind of stately formality.
"Oh! I hadn't realised you'd be able to help out on an international matter," Danh said, holding the door open for them. The flat had been decorated by someone who saw no point in hiding his wealth or, Sherlock thought, his bad taste. There was black leather furniture, glass-and-chrome tables, and sisal floor matting. To his eye, it had all the charm and warmth of a dentist's waiting-room. John would have told him to say something nice, and pointed out the tidiness of the space as a model to emulate, but Sherlock was doing them a favour, not the other way round, so he kept silent.
"One minute," Danh said, retreating to the bedroom to fetch his husband.
They were dressed rather alike, both in khaki trousers and Oxfords, though Roger's clothes were clearly bespoke and Danh's socks were of a hue calculated to make a Savile Row tailor weep bitterly. Danh's shirtsleeves were rolled up to the elbow, exposing solid forearms the colour of Mrs. Hudson's milky tea, and he returned to the kitchen, where he was preparing dinner. Roger beckoned them to sit.
He had a ruddy complexion to match his strong, husky build and an incongruously pointed nose that looked far too delicate for his face. He spoke English easily but with a rhythm that marked it as a second or even third – definitely third – language.
"My father was killed," he said, "and it's only for my mother's sake that I'm involved." He smiled mirthlessly. "I shock you," he announced, though Sherlock was emotive as a stone. "My father threw me out once he realised I was homosexual; fortunately, he discovered my sexuality after I'd attained my majority and had funds of my own."
"Earned or inherited?" Sherlock queried.
"Both, though mostly the latter. I've deviated a little from my family's line of work, as I'm a banker and the men of the Scheldt family have long been in the diamond trade."
"In Antwerp?" Sherlock asked. There was serious money in Antwerp's diamonds, and the police's continued attention became clearer.
"Just so. Our house is in Kessel."
"A likely target for thieves?"
"Our name is fairly well-known, though I would think that most people would be able to distinguish between 'working in the diamond industry' and 'keeping diamonds in a readily accessible and unguarded location within the house.'"
"It is possible you're giving the criminal element entirely too much credit," Sherlock said coolly; he preferred dispassionate clients, but there was something about Roger Scheldt that was not entirely to his liking.
"Perhaps. In any case, my mother said she was in bed when she heard a scream and she went to investigate, as Krista – my sister – was spending the night at the house, and she thought my father was still out at a business dinner. She went downstairs to find the front door open and my father lying dead in front of the fireplace in the main parlour. It looked like he'd struck his head against the mantelpiece. Krista was next to him in a dead faint. My mother revived her and called the police. Based on what Krista told them, they went away satisfied that the killers were the burglars who had struck in a different part of Antwerp every week. But now that they've caught them, it seems those burglars must have been in Brussels. What does it matter who it was? Those burglars, some other burglars – some pair of them killed my father and left my mother too agitated to sleep."
"What did Krista say she saw?" Mrs. Hudson asked, leaning forward eagerly. For all her talk about decency, she enjoyed hearing about the crimes he investigated.
"She was up late and heard my father's car approaching the house and saw him alight with two companions, whom she assumed to be colleagues he'd met at the dinner. She wasn't particularly in the mood for a lecture about how she was wasting her life" – Roger's lip curled at the phrase – "so she went quietly to the next room, which was why she could see and hear everything that happened. My father always had several bottles of wine to hand, and he opened one for himself and his colleagues. They toasted and chatted, but after a few minutes, the two men – one tall and blond, the other taller and brunet – started asking about anti-theft precautions his firm was taking, marking diamonds and so forth. My father got drunker and drunker, and knocked into the table with the glasses. He said he'd shout for my mother to clean up the mess, but the men drew knives and ordered him to open his safe. When my father lunged for one of them, he was pushed back, and he cracked his head and fell down dead. They ran out of the house and Krista, going to check on him, screamed and fainted on the spot."
A more stitched-together story Sherlock had not heard for quite some time, though it was clear that Roger believed it; did ordinary people have no common sense or the least bit of curiosity? He'd been spoilt by long association with John, who would have frowned at three separate points in that recitation, even if he couldn't put his finger on the exact weaknesses of the story. Burglars with the patience to lull a victim into drunkenness, who not only had no fear of showing their faces to their victim or concern that his inebriation might hinder his ability to open the safe they wanted to clear, but left themselves no means of escape? Flatly impossible.
And yet, the sister had certainly witnessed something that had made her scream. And she had known enough of the burglars' descriptions to point the police in their direction.
"Who is handling the investigation?" he demanded.
"The Antwerp police," Roger said slowly, shifting so that the light caught on the last few strands of his thinning yellow hair.
"Has your mother or sister provided the name of the detective in charge?" he tried again.
"No, but I have an email from one of them, asking me to provide certain information," Roger said, scrolling through his inbox on his mobile.
"Insurance information, number of years in the area, if I had been back – François le Villard, that is his name."
Sherlock sat back, considering the case as it stood. He could be in Antwerp tomorrow if he chose, though he might very well be able to solve the case from his own sofa. Mrs. Hudson placed an insistent elbow in his ribs.
"May I email M. le Villard and offer my services on your behalf?" he asked dutifully.
At last, Roger turned to his husband, who had been quietly stirring something on the hob, silently asking for advice.
"May we let you know tomorrow?" Danh finally asked. For some reason, this released the tension in the room. Mrs. Hudson and Mrs. Turner embraced each other as if they'd been reunited after years apart, and Danh came to stand next to his husband, who reached out for him immediately.
"Certainly," Sherlock said graciously, letting Mrs. Hudson lead the way out of that flat and back into the familiar warmth of 221.
She disappeared into her flat with a "Ta, love," and he climbed the steps to his own. A spot of colour made him turn his head as he walked into the living room and there, at the top of the stairs to John's room, were John and Irene, wrapped tightly in each other's arms and joined at the mouth, limned against the light.
He slept later the next morning than he had meant to; he'd set no alarm, certain Lestrade would text, but no message had come. Sherlock wondered if his words with Sally had made their way to the DI's ear, then decided that Lestrade had a strong enough sense of justice to admit that Sherlock had the right of it.
John and Irene were dashing about the kitchen, sharing a plate of toast slathered with butter and a dark variety of honey and gulping down mugs of tea. "Forgot to set an alarm," John explained.
Irene caught sight of his watch. "Go, or you'll be late." John nodded, folded one last slice of toast in half, and crammed a good portion of it into his mouth. Hands free, he picked up his satchel and collected his phone and left, not bothering to lock the door behind him.
"You can have the rest of the toast, if you like," Irene offered. "I need to shower and get down to the Opera House; I'm helping some of the newer soloists rehearse. They're so young, poor things, and they all look like they can be snapped in two."
"Perhaps you should feed them butter and honey, then," Sherlock said, looking at the cooling swirls on the toast.
"It's not like you don't need the calories, bub," she said, humming lightly to herself as she ran up the steps toward the bathroom.
He sat at the table and checked his email on his phone. Among the unread messages was one from "RogerandDanh." Shared email accounts were even more ghastly than the term "significant other," which covered a multitude of sins. The email appeared to be written in the first-person singular, however, which was a point in its favour.
Dear Sherlock, Roger and I thank you for offering your help and accept gratefully. I wasn't sure if John would be accompanying you – no doubt you've deduced that I read his blog! – and so didn't make any travel arrangements yet. If you can get back to me, I'll be happy to organise your transportation, either by aeroplane or train, whichever you prefer. Roger will make sure the police know to expect you, and you will be able to stay in his mother's house. We know our case is in good hands with you. Thanks, Danh Nguyen.
He could stay and let John and Irene exercise their parental instincts by feeding him up, or he could go to Antwerp and solve a case. And quite likely cause an international incident, the John-voice in his head chimed in. He grinned to himself and wrote Danh back, then got up to pack.
The flight was short, and he felt rested and alert by the time he was dropped off in front of the Scheldt estate, which was just short of palatial. Diamonds had been good for the family coffers. A tall, strikingly slender woman with hair as fair as Roger's opened the door and sized him up; apparently he did not look either Teutonic or Gallic, for she spoke in English with a heavy French accent.
"Yes, may I help you?"
"Je suis ici pour vous aider, Madame," he said after a moment; he had always stayed silent for the first few days of a visit to Grandmère, immersing himself in the language until he was sure he could speak without any mistakes or hesitations. Mireille Scheldt appeared distressed by his words, though when he repeated them in English a good deal of the tension left her frame. "I am here to help you."
"You are Roger's friend, the detective? Famous?"
Neither part of that was true, but he would not get inside the house by parsing her every statement. "Yes."
A tremulous smile bloomed on her face. "So glad I am that he is not here, to be in trouble for his father."
"Indeed," he said, and she beckoned him inside.
The foyer was large and tiled and would carry sound excellently. Her bare feet hardly raised a whisper. He set his overnight bag in one corner and followed her to the parlour where her husband had reportedly met his death. The mantelpiece had evidently once held framed photographs, judging by the crowded cluster of them on a small table near the window; it was now draped with Brussels lace that camouflaged but could not entirely conceal the dark stain eating into the pale marble.
She fussed with the photographs, straightening them out with tiny nudges, and Sherlock came up behind her to view them more closely. Her spine went ramrod straight, visible even under the thin blouse she wore, and she seemed to be holding her breath. He considered her response while casting an eye over the images considered worthy of framing and displaying; all featured a man who looked like a broader-nosed ginger version of Roger, thirty years older: clearly the dead man. He had his arm around his wife's miniscule waist in a few of the shots, always gripping her tightly, painfully even, judging by the fixed quality of her smiles.
He made no comment and did not step away; she was evidently practised in holding herself entirely still, for she did not so much as twitch to betray her discomfort with having him so close.
"And where was Krista seated?" he finally asked.
"In this room," she said, silently leading the way. "This chair has always been a favourite of hers."
The chair in question was an oversized wing chair; if Krista was built along the same starved lines as her mother, she would be able to sit there and remain invisible from the parlour, so long as her legs were tucked up and her height was not greater than five foot ten. There had been no images of either child in the collection in the parlour.
"What does she look like?" he asked, watching the fear dance across Mireille's face. He followed as she turned to lead him out of the room and up the grand staircase. The bullnose was massive, supporting a thick blond banister on each side. Mireille walked precisely in the centre of the staircase, and Sherlock saw a long, pale-blonde hair caught in the ironwork under the left banister, for which he could assign no meaning other than a woman falling down these stairs, banging her head against the grim iron meant to guard her.
A fall that might have been caused by a push, he thought, watching her slender figure, covered from neck to wrists to ankles in thin, dark fabric.
She led him to a room, large as any room in the house must be, but smaller than the others they had passed. It was as white and spartan as an unoccupied cell in a convent, but Mireille opened the third drawer in the bureau and pulled out a box of snapshots. She sifted through them and handed him one of a group of half a dozen girls of about twenty, all grinning and holding wineglasses aloft. He did not need her hesitant finger pointing at the girl in the green dress to identify gingery-blonde Krista, as she was as fragile-looking as her mother, with her brother's pointed nose. He frowned at the image, noting that the dress was both short and sleeveless, which indicated that she had not been subject to the kind of abuse her mother had been, at least not during the time the photograph had been taken.
If her father had come after her on that fateful night and she had pushed him away reflexively, he might well have been surprised into losing his balance and striking his head at a fatal angle; her mother, who hid pictures of her children away like secret treasures, would surely have helped cover up her deed. How had the local police failed to put the pieces together?
"I must contact M. le Villard, to let him know I have arrived," he said.
"Yes," she said, eyes downcast.
Le Villard did not come himself. It was his supervisor, a M. Lescaut – interesting, that the police of Dutch-speaking Antwerp had Francophones in positions of authority – who appeared, very much aware of his more exalted position and eager to fend off any criticisms Sherlock might make; their meeting roused Sherlock's temper from Lescaut's opening gambit, which was to throw a wrench in the works.
"The burglars might not have been in Brussels after all. We cannot trace what they are meant to have stolen, as no one has come forward to make a complaint."
"That simply indicates that the victims cannot do so without some questions being asked of them."
"Likely the burglars burgled someone holding stolen goods," he bit out.
Lescaut was extravagantly sceptical. "That is the assumption in London? But here we say, perhaps they were not in Brussels after all. Perhaps they were in Kessel, planning to rob a man and killing him by accident. Perhaps they think it is better to confess to stealing something that does not exist than to admit to the killing they did."
"Do you get many burglars who introduce themselves to their victims without disguise, drink heartily with them, and then panic at the first sign of disappointment?" Sherlock asked scornfully.
Lescaut clearly understood the tone. "When we have an eyewitness able to name specific details about their appearance, whose own father was killed in front of her, we feel we have sufficient evidence to lock up any such burglars."
"What details did she offer?"
"Nothing that was released to any reporter. She knew about the ring Antoine Bresson was wearing, the scar on the side of his neck, and his partner Mathis Ott's crooked fingers."
"And all of that was kept out of the French- and Dutch-language papers?" he asked sceptically. "Have there been no eyewitnesses before, whose stories she could have pieced together?"
"No. We only know it ourselves because of a security camera three houses down from one of their earlier robberies."
"Let me see the pictures."
"You may have the entire file, for all the good it will do you. You have one hour."
The file was thin, and an hour would be more than sufficient. Lescaut's scrawl was so messy as to be illegible, so he looked only at the images. There he was, Karl Scheldt, collapsed on the floor of his own parlour with a surprised look on his face. Shards of glass lay all around his legs, a few even on his trousers. What looked at first glance like blood was clearly wine; the bottle and three delicate glasses had shattered. Two of the glasses had broken into miniscule fragments, but the third lay in larger shards. The stem was mostly gone, and the cup, which retained enough of its bowl to still hold some wine, had a lip as jagged as a skyline.
Sherlock pulled out his pocket magnifier, which called forth a derisive chortle from Lescaut, easily ignored though not to be forgotten. The wine inside the cup, he saw, was cloudy with beeswing. Not a trace of that residue was visible in any other splash or puddle of wine at the scene. He checked all of the other images in the file and found no evidence to the contrary.
"Were you able to confirm that the dinner Scheldt attended did not include Bresson and Ott?" he asked, giving Lescaut one last chance. But Lescaut was as hard-headed as Gregson and as stubborn as Anderson.
"There were hundreds of attendees, any of whom could have assumed a false name in order to gain admittance to the conference," Lescaut dismissed. "Mademoiselle Scheldt might well have been mistaken in her assumption that her father's killers came with him from the dinner at the end of the conference. M. le Detective," he said, assuming an English twang meant to sound provincial, "your time is up."
"Take it," Sherlock said, baring his teeth in what might, in a pinch, pass as a smile and not an act of aggression. "I've no further need for it. I'll be off."
"But what are your conclusions?" Lescaut asked, insincere surprise colouring his tone.
"To be given only when I have reached the end of this matter, which is larger than you can possibly appreciate." He stood, letting himself tower menacingly over Lescaut, and waved the man out of the house.
"Mevrouw Scheldt," he called, climbing the stairs, certainty building with each step. He found her in that white room, pictures of her children on her lap. "I need to speak with Krista," he said, as gently as he could, and saw the confirmation he needed in the dread written on her face.
"It was I –" she started, valiantly, but faltered when he held up a hand to silence her.
"Let me speak with her. I am working for your son, not the police."
"She stays in another town. I will have the car take you," she said without further demurral.
It was insultingly easy to break into Krista's tiny flat, and a quick inspection of the place showed that she was not often at home. There were clothes both fashionable and expensive scattered everywhere, but few domestic appliances, books, or knickknacks. There was no desktop, and none of the accessories a laptop owner might collect but not haul around. Everything must be on her mobile, which meant he had to wait. Surely it would not be long, if Mevrouw Scheldt had called to tell her daughter to cooperate?
In the meantime, he set his own smartphone to work. Lescaut had been careless enough to give him the names and supposed location of the burglars on the fateful night. He searched for "Brussels" and "Bresson," then the former with "Ott," and still had no hits. It was possible that the pair had, as he'd suggested, stolen something dangerous to possess, but their silence could equally well indicate their participation in a more shattering crime. He searched again, eliminating the city name, and at last found something.
An article, written for a French-language website unaffiliated with a newspaper – "Citoyen Blogger," atrocious blog title – listed a death notice for a Lieke Ott of Bruges, sister of Mathis Ott. A hyperlink stated baldly that Mathis Ott was a brute and petty criminal with a murderous temper, and listed cases in which he was suspected to have a hand. On the night Karl Scheldt had died, a kitchen knife had been plunged into Lieke's heart, and the citizen-blogger implied very heavily that such a death was unlikely to be the suicide that the police believed; Sherlock took one look at the photograph of the woman, alive and smiling, wearing a finely-worked crucifix pendant, and agreed.
A jangle of keys announced Krista's arrival, and Sherlock stood, smoothing down the jacket of his suit.
"I know," he said, and she nodded hopelessly. "Fortunately for you, no one in an official capacity knows what I know. Tell me how you gleaned the information on Bresson and Ott."
She released a great, shuddery sigh and collapsed onto the sofa. "It happened months ago. I'd been out with some friends, and we'd – I'd – been drinking too much." She spoke English as well as her brother, perhaps the result of long conversations on the phone. "My friend Annika wanted me to go back to her place, so she could keep an eye on me, so I went. I slept through my classes, and when I woke up, I thought I was alone. There were some papers on the table, and I looked and saw some photographs of two men. When I started reading what was written there, I realised these were the burglars that had been on a spree throughout Antwerp. I heard the shower stop, and realised that Annika's boyfriend must have come over after I fell asleep. He's a policeman. François le Villard. Nice man. He wouldn't have wanted me seeing his files, so I went back to the sofa and pretended I was just waking up when he came out of the bathroom."
"Just from a quick glance at the photographs you retained enough detail to lie convincingly to the police about Bresson and Ott?" Sherlock probed, curious about her visual memory.
"Yes. I've always been able to memorise images. I used to drive Roger mad by winning all of the memory games we played."
"Kim's game," Sherlock said, remembering how well the pastime had eased the endless long hours of childhood once Mycroft was away at school.
She nodded again, mute and drained. "What now?"
"Had your father ever hurt you before?"
"He hurt me every time he raised a hand to Maman. Roger wasn't there, he somehow always missed seeing, but Maman was afraid all the time." She swallowed with difficulty, her eyes on the floor. "That night, I told him I knew what he'd been doing to her, and that he had to stop or I would tell the world about him. He came after me, and I just pushed at him like I'd seen her do. Just a push, and suddenly he was falling and the sound – oh, God, the sound he made when his head struck –" She stopped, covering her mouth.
"You screamed when you realised he was dead. Your mother awoke and came down the stairs and saw you, unconscious. She poured some wine and held it to your lips in an effort to revive you," Sherlock prompted.
"We had all night to come up with a story – one that people would believe, because no one wanted to hear that Karl Scheldt could do anything wrong. She filled the wineglass again and threw it to the floor; there was no rug to trip over, but we wanted it to look like he'd gone clumsy from drinking. She poured most of the wine on the floor. That was when I remembered the burglars. We fetched two more glasses, filled them, and threw them down. We couldn't have anyone testing for fingerprints."
"You did very well," Sherlock said consideringly. "Save for the glass on top of the corpse rather than under it, since your story was that he'd knocked the table over first, and the beeswing in one of the glasses, the last of the bottle, which your mother did not decant in her haste to waken you. Also, you should have sustained some injuries from fainting and falling on top of the shattered glass, but that is more circumstantial."
"Beeswing?" she asked disbelievingly.
"A seasoned drinker like your father would not have offered wine that had not been properly decanted. The presence of that residue pointed unmistakeably to another person pouring the wine."
"What are you going to do now?" she asked, wearily lifting her gaze to meet his.
"I am going home," he said definitively. "Bresson and Ott did commit murder that night, as you claimed. Which crime they pay for is of no interest to me."
"Mrs. Hudson doesn't yet know?" Sherlock asked Irene, though he hardly needed the confirmation; Mrs. Hudson would never have let Irene pass by 221A with a simple, "Morning, love," if she had had the least notion of what was housed in Irene's belly.
"We wanted to wait until five months before telling anyone; you caught on sooner than expected."
How could he fail to notice that someone living in his flat was changing daily, her body growing steadily, if incrementally, more lush and rounded? Or that she held herself more carefully, as if she were less steady on her feet, and that her very gait had changed? Or that John was even more vigilant about ensuring that she ate at set times?
"Give me a modicum of credit for observation, at least, though why it should be a secret –"
"Not a secret, Sherlock," she interrupted, as though she had as much right as John to do so. "I lost one baby and didn't want to say anything about this one just in case."
Ah. "Five months is a turning point?" There was so much to research about pregnancy and children in general.
"John said he'll breathe easier once we get there, so yeah."
"What of your mother?" he asked curiously; she'd been old enough at the time of her half-brother's birth to take an interest in the process.
"I haven't told her yet," Irene said, sounding worn and diminished, and Sherlock recalled that he'd never seen a letter from the woman come to the flat, nor heard a phone conversation between the two. "She hasn't – there are other people who are here who should know."
"I meant, what was her experience?" he clarified. "Is five months a standard amount of time to wait, or was that just due to your history?"
"It's a big milestone, the halfway point," she said, abashed. "We'll hit it this Saturday, so John's making dinner for Harry and Clara and we're telling them then."
"There's more going on than that," Sherlock said, eyeing her curiously. "What is it?"
"You'll have to be there to find out," Irene said.
"We're off for a proper honeymoon," Harry said, beaming.
"Ah, finally!" John said, dishing up the food. "Where's it to be, then?"
"Australia," Clara said. "I've always wanted to go, and Harry's run away with the idea."
"You have to go to the Opera House, definitely, and I never got to Melbourne, but I heard it's great," Irene said.
"Sherlock, have you been?" Harry asked. He shook his head shortly and poked at the masses of cheese and sauce and vegetables on his plate.
"We leave next month and will be gone for three weeks," Clara continued. "All that's booked are the flights there and back; we still need to determine our itinerary."
"That's the fun part," John said, smiling at them. "We've actually got news of our own. We're expecting."
"I was wondering why you looked extra-gorgeous tonight," Harry said, turning sideways in her chair to embrace Irene tightly. "Jay? What about –?"
"The echocardiogram said her heart is fine," John assured his sister, and Sherlock needed to know what family history had required an echocardiogram.
Before he could ask, Clara piped up, "It's a girl, then?"
"We're going to have a daughter," Irene confirmed, setting off another round of embraces and kisses that Sherlock endured because John's arm landed on his shoulders.
He cursed himself for only looking into John's military medical records, for prioritising that fascinating scar on John's shoulder above what had seemed to be the ordinary workings of his body.
"What necessitated the echocardiogram?" he asked, casting an abrupt pall over the celebratory mood; really, John and Irene had had sex and a sperm had fertilised an egg, and there was nothing extraordinary about any of it. All of them turned their gazes on John, as if he would put Sherlock in his place.
But John knew him too well for that, and understood that the health of this half-John child was a matter of concern to him. "Mum was born with a condition called aortic stenosis that wasn't diagnosed until her brother Hamish died of it. His heart was strained by having to compensate for a dangerously narrowed aortic valve. Her case was relatively mild, enough that growing up we didn't know she was sick, but she died of it just after I went off to uni, still quite young." That explained why John was so fanatically attached to the wristwatch his parents had given him upon going off to read medicine. John's hand found Harry's and squeezed. "It turned out Dad knew all along but respected her right not to burden us with the knowledge, though they'd had both of us tested several times, as it runs in families."
"You know, I asked Dad what she said to convince him it was best not to tell us," Harry said to John, as if no one else could hear her words. Her fingers clutched his. "She quoted van Gogh to him: 'I get very cross when people tell me that it is dangerous to put out to sea. There is safety in the very heart of danger.'"
At that, both Watsons laughed, and Sherlock sent Irene and Clara each a sidelong glance; it was surely a little odd for merriment to feature in a discussion about a beloved parent's death. Neither woman was any help, each focused on her partner. Why was Celia Watson's response funny? And what had Thomas Watson's response been, given that he too was dying, though of cancer? Pancreatic cancer was particularly insidious, he remembered from his research into terminal conditions for the Porlock case, in that symptoms only manifested near the end. The twin blows, less than one year apart, had hit both children hard; John had enlisted and Harry had started her campaign of relentless drinking.
"She had a quotation for everything," John said, still grinning. "'April showers brought me my May flower,'" he said, pinching Harry's cheek.
"'Mum, I'm going to read medicine,'" Harry said, in a poor but recognisable imitation of John, wide-eyed and earnest. "'Knowing how the body works doesn't take away from the pleasure of living.'"
"Except you missed out the wink she gave me at the end of that, which was mortifying. And there was Dad, egging her on, and you, standing there as if butter wouldn't melt in your mouth!" John answered.
"I miss them," Harry said, smile fading slowly.
"Me too," John said.
"They'd be happy for you now, though, wouldn't they?" Irene asked.
"Over the moon," Clara said. "I've never known anyone like your mum for being happy."
"To their good example," John said, and Sherlock raised his glass as well, unwilling to be the fly in the ointment, though he had every intention of researching aortic stenosis further. "And, in the spirit of Mum's overly honest speeches, to my darling Irene, for doing all of the hard work and letting me simply reap the reward."
Irene laughed at that, and Sherlock watched as they all dug into their food, apparently made famished by so much frankness. He stirred the food on his plate and took one tentative bite.
Sherlock was pacing circles around the coffee table, thinking through the conclusions Donovan had forwarded to him on the Cicero case. He was pleasantly surprised by the incisive reasoning she used to get from one step to the next, and how clearly she presented her arguments. He rolled his eyes when he saw that John, tired of trying to move his feet out of Sherlock's way with every pass, had simply swung them up on the sofa and pressed his back to the sofa arm and that Irene had mirrored him so that the soles of their feet pressed together. John had a crossword puzzle in his lap and Irene had a book of verse, but they ignored their pursuits in favour of another round of tedious flirtation; what more could it possibly achieve at this point, when they had both made clear that they had all they sought?
"I want her to have your eyelids," John said in an undertone that nevertheless carried.
"I want her to be left-handed, like you."
That seemed to check John's incipient flow, Sherlock noted, with a tiny stab of vindictive pleasure. "Why on earth?"
"I just like lefties, what can I say? You're lucky I have a weakness for southpaws."
"Then we're agreed, she should have my sense of humour," John said.
"Hey! I am extremely funny."
"That is hilarious, but not enough for it to be the first joke we tell her."
"Hey!" Irene said again, squawking without any dignity when John, laughing, tossed aside his paper, reached over and hauled her onto his lap, and pressed a kiss beneath her ear. Aurora Leigh tumbled off her lap with a loud clatter, but Sherlock pretended he observed none of it and was fully absorbed in Donovan's findings about a conspiracy of British spies all mistakenly convinced that several of their junior members were double agents.
"That's right, you can't tell jokes without giggling even before you get to the punchline," John pretended to remember. "Lucky for you I find that ridiculously endearing."
"You do have a magnificent deadpan," Irene conceded, sounding appeased. "She'll be lucky if she inherits that. And your smile." Sherlock silently approved of the last addition to the list.
"Let's be realistic and hope that she looks like you," John said simply, his hand tucking under the loosely-tied sash of her dressing-gown to rest lightly on her belly, still fairly trim despite the recent addition of a few kilos.
"John?" she said quietly, tilting her face up as he pressed close to nuzzle her cheek. "I have a name in mind."
"Oh," he said, startled into sitting back and darting a glance up at Sherlock, who had paused in his circuit. "I – we have – what is it?"
"Cecilia Tamsin," Irene said, squirming around to look directly into John's stunned face. "Your mum sounds like exactly the person I want her to be, so Cecilia. You were named after your grandfathers, and I want her name to have a history."
"And Tamsin?" John murmured.
"I always liked that name. And it's a feminine version of Thomas. You said they were never apart for very long, so here they are in one name."
"But what about your family? I thought you might want to call her Daniela after your mum."
"No." Irene shook her head. "She'll get a chance to be all sorts of things for her granddaughter, but not the namesake." John bent his head and kissed her soundly. "So we're agreed?"
"Seal a bargain with a kiss," John said, leaning forward to do it again, when Mrs. Hudson, with a sense of timing Sherlock had never suspected might be one of her talents, gave a cursory knock on the door and entered.
John's smile, already incandescent, grew dazzling. "Two minutes, Mrs. Hudson, for us to get dressed, and then we're taking you and Sherlock out to dinner at Angelo's."
"Ooh! That sounds a treat," Mrs. Hudson said, clapping her hands together once. "I'll just change myself and meet you downstairs."
"You're coming, Sherlock," John said from the foot of the stairs.
"But Lestrade –"
"Is on holiday until Sunday, so he won't be texting you."
"What? Where?" It wasn't as if Lestrade's mere presence in a locale was enough to quash all crime in the vicinity.
"In the West Country. He's visiting with his sisters; he told us months ago," John said, tolerant and amused, then dashed up the stairs.
Sherlock did not need to change, and waited impatiently for John to return. "Are you going to be telling Mrs. Hudson about the baby tonight?"
"That's the plan."
"Have you told Mycroft?"
"I'm having lunch with him tomorrow – Sherlock, have you already told him?"
"No," he said truthfully, uncertain whether Mycroft would have been able to deduce it from Sherlock's behaviour at their last meeting; probably not, as nothing similar had ever occurred to either of them, and Mycroft would have no pattern of behaviour to form adequate context. If Mycroft had not taken down his cameras and destroyed the bug Moriarty had planted in John's wristwatch, he might have known at the very moment John found out. Perhaps, Sherlock mused, he would prefer hearing the news directly from John and being invited to share in the emotions it aroused. "You must be glad Moriarty is dead," he said, recalling the chain of events that had begun with Mycroft's repudiation of him.
The dark blue of John's eyes went cold as shadowed stone. "Yes, I am," he said, and gripped Sherlock's shoulder fiercely.
Mrs. Hudson was susceptible enough to Angelo's flattery to be persuaded that an order of his three-meat lasagne would do nothing untoward to her figure. Angelo did not bother taking orders from the rest of them, assuring them instead that they would be pleased with what he brought them; Angelo had always done so with Sherlock, but it was only now that he considered that in so doing, Angelo was deducing him, albeit in a very small way for limited reward. Sherlock sat up alertly, wondering what significance Angelo assigned to posture, time of day, number in the party, and dining history. It might make for an amusing experiment if Lestrade persisted in taking wrong-headed holidays willy-nilly.
Before their food could be brought out, John leaned toward Mrs. Hudson. "We've got a bit of an ulterior motive in asking you to dinner tonight, Mrs. Hudson," he said conspiratorially.
Irene leaned in too, one lock of her hair settling on John's shoulder. "We're having a baby."
"Oh, John, love!" Mrs. Hudson exclaimed, kissing his cheek firmly. She held out a hand to Irene, seated across from her. "Oh, Sherlock, isn't this exciting!"
"Yes," Sherlock allowed, considering how little she must get by way of real news.
"When are you due, love? Are you having a boy or a girl?"
"A girl. Due in eighteen weeks," Irene said.
"That isn't much time at all!" Mrs. Hudson said, hands flying to her cheeks. "There's so much to do!"
"You and I will make schedules and lists," Irene promised, and Mrs. Hudson settled immediately.
"There's nothing like a baby," she said, and before Sherlock could point out the idiocy of that statement, Angelo arrived, bearing their bread and olive oil.
"Why did you come to our flat earlier?" Sherlock asked, taking a small roll but disdaining the oil, in which freshly chopped garlic swelled.
"Oh, yes!" Mrs. Hudson said, at last recalling her original errand. "Loretta's just been given notice by Roger and Danh. It seems they're going to Belgium and settling there, since you solved that case for the family. Just when she was thinking of going to live with her sisters down in Brighton, and now she's got the worry of finding someone to take the flat who won't ruin the house. It's all such a trial for her, poor dear. She doesn't have a hip, of course, but at her age, she can't be going up and down those stairs all the time either."
"No, of course not," Irene said. "Are she and her sisters close?"
"There's some squabbling between them, but they close ranks if anyone else makes a peep about any of them. As it should be," Mrs. Hudson said with a decided nod, pulling apart her roll and releasing a cloud of fragrant, yeasty steam.
At their lunch, John must not have invited Mycroft along that evening, for he looked surprised when Mycroft knocked politely at the door. He asked for Irene and handed her a gift envelope before setting foot in the flat. John peered over her shoulder as she opened it, and while she went pink, John eyed Mycroft wryly, and murmured, "Silver-tongued devil." Irene pulled out the gift card enclosed within the note and frowned her puzzlement.
"My gift is being held at the shop until you are ready to pick it up or have it delivered. I saw no need to clutter up this flat until that time."
"Meaning?" Sherlock asked, recognising the signs of Mycroft wanting to make an announcement.
"John, you told me that your neighbours are moving."
"Yes," John acknowledged, a look so complicated on his face that Sherlock wanted to pause time to be able to study it as it deserved.
"I know you have reservations about raising a child in this flat, which is already rather cramped for three people, but you also are unwilling to leave Sherlock on his own. The time when you will have to commit to one path or the other is quickly approaching. I can assure you that Sherlock will not suffer financially from losing you as a flatmate, and I can offer my assistance if you wish to not just rent but purchase 219 Baker Street. You would still enjoy proximity to Sherlock and also be able to give your daughter an experiment-free flat."
Throughout Mycroft's speech, Sherlock kept his eyes on John, waiting for some reaction, but John merely stood still and let the flood of words wash over him. It was Irene who gasped, prompting John to reach out his hand without breaking eye contact with Mycroft, to enclose hers in his own.
"It's a splendid opportunity, to be sure," John said slowly. "I make enough at Barts to be able to rent the B flat at least."
"Mrs. Turner is amenable to selling, as she would be able to move to Brighton immediately," Mycroft said smoothly, and as Sherlock was about to object, continued. "As is Mrs. Hudson, actually, though she wishes to remain in residence. She is also willing, Sherlock, to raise no objections to you refitting the C flat into a decent laboratory, as long as it is properly ventilated and stocked with safety equipment."
"Why?" Sherlock demanded, questioning not her motives but Mycroft's.
"I have money, from which I choose to provide for my family. This arrangement should suit us all."
"It's too much," Irene said, and John's face softened with relief; Sherlock was surprised to feel the last of his resistance to her vanishing at this proof that she could precisely match John's instincts. "This is an insanely expensive city; buying a building in an area like this requires more money than I've ever seen in my life."
"It won't be missed," Mycroft said simply. "Please don't make me ask again, or I shall think you are intent on severing ties with all who bear the name Holmes."
"And 221?" Sherlock interjected. "Can the coffers be stretched enough to cover that as well?"
"If you wish, though I thought you might choose to use your own funds," Mycroft said in his mildest tone.
"His own –? Sherlock, did you not need a flatmate to afford this place?" John asked.
"I told you I think better when I talk aloud," Sherlock said petulantly, aware that John and Mycroft were exchanging glances promising incipient laughter. He fought the irritated shudder crawling up his spine and decided to be generous and allow them their mirth. "If I am the landlord, Mrs. Hudson will have no right to take my skull," he finished, and John burst into laughter, Irene and then Mycroft following where he led.
The deadly dull beiges and creams of 219B were being covered up by oranges, scarlets, and blues. John was in his oldest jeans and a stained and faded red cotton vest. He had peacock-blue drops of paint in his hair, and was able to cover the walls while berating Sherlock.
"Are you helping or just taking up space?" he asked, rolling paint onto the walls diligently.
"I am thinking," Sherlock explained dignifiedly, though he should not have had to respond to such an unfair query.
"Evolution has fitted us with brains that work even as our hands go about manual labour," John said dryly. "Pick up a roller and get to work."
"This is a misuse of my time," Sherlock muttered discontentedly. "Where is Irene?" She was the one who would be living there with John, after all; she should have to contribute.
"Away from the paint fumes, as I asked. She's helping out with rehearsals." John's tone was light, and Sherlock considered that Irene might already have contributed by ensuring John's happiness.
Sherlock watched him work, the muscles of his back rippling as he worked, his legs going taut as he stretched to reach up to the ceiling, edged in blue tape that was a close match for the colour going up on the walls.
"It will be odd living without you," Sherlock said, surprising even himself.
John turned sharply, just as startled, and broke out into a smile that crinkled his eyes and made the mask covering his nose and mouth shift upward. "I'll be just next door." He hardly required evidence, but it was pleasant to be given further proof that John knew him well enough to veto his next proposal without even hearing it. "And no, we won't be cutting a door to run between the two flats. But if you brush up on your Morse code and promise to use it only in case of emergencies, we can knock messages to each other. Happy?"
Sherlock sketched a nod; to begrudge John his evident happiness would simply be churlish, particularly since John had only taken this final step upon being assured that Sherlock would not suffer for it. His mobile buzzed.
"Ah! Lestrade has a case," he said, smiling at the sight of those familiar words. Will you come?
"Ah, now you're happy, you mad git," John said, plucking his mask off his face and raising it to rest on top of his head. He wiped his face with his forearm. "I've still got this room and another to finish, but text me if you need me."
"I will, John," he promised and exited 219, the sound of John's cheerful whistling floating through the open windows as he stood on Baker Street and hailed a taxi.
Title: "Picardy third" is a musical term: A practice from the 16th century and the Baroque era of ending a composition with a major chord, when the rest of the composition is in a minor key, thus giving the composition a sense of finality. This is accomplished by raising the third of the final chord one half step or adding a sharp. In the key of A minor (A - C - E), the final chord would be (A - C-sharp - E).
1 - "'For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes,'" / 'For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.' - Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno
2 - discovering one's wife sucking blood from her new-born child's neck - ACD's "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire"
3 - that you were alive but needed to seem dead - ACD's "The Adventure of the Empty House"
4 - you claim to be able to deduce oceans and forces of nature from a single drop of water - ACD's A Study in Scarlet
5 - Twenty-one times more likely than an unbereaved person to succumb the next day, six times more likely in the next week.
6 - They've sequenced the Black Death genome
7 - XJs are fitted with 225/55 16 W Pirelli P6000 tyres, with which no other model is routinely matched
8 - Pirelli, an Italian firm, had just opened a new, state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Carlisle
9 - Eight months ago, he'd heard something about a massive jewellery theft in Milan, but had been too absorbed with Moriarty's handwritten letters to take much notice. The thieves had posed as police to gain access to the display cases and had struck with commendable efficiency; their organisation had stood them in good stead, as none of the stolen pieces had been recovered by genuine officials.
10 - Objects that could not be explained away if someone else caught sight of them, so he had panicked and secreted them inside the tyre he was working on, not realising that he'd not be able to distinguish it from others of the same make later. - ACD's "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons"
11 - the silver coffeepot, in which all of his many moods had been reflected at one time or another - ACD's The Hound of the Baskervilles
12 - Neville Sinclair - ACD's "The Man with the Twisted Lip"
13 - That spark of forgiveness . . . - refers to my story in this series, His Last Bow
14 - Vamberry, the wine merchant - mentioned as a failed case in ACD's "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual"
15 - grit in a sensitive instrument ACD's "A Scandal in Bohemia"
16 - I am accustomed to have mystery at one end of my cases, but to have it at both ends is too confusing. - ACD's "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client"
17 - 'Witches, bitches, or britches,' as they say.
18 - BRIC - shorthand for the rapidly developing nations of Brazil, Russia, India, and China
19 - The face of the corpse had been bludgeoned and stabbed so that none of the hairline, none of the features, and only a small fraction of the jaw, which was marked by a sticking plaster, retained integrity. - ACD's The Valley of Fear
20 - ergotism/St. Anthony's Fire
21 - The spider in question appears to be an entirely new species within the genus Cyclosa, and able to understand what its predators are looking for; it outwits them, John. This is not a matter of mere camouflage or poison, some happenstance of evolution that ameliorated the protection of the species. This small spider constructs an exaggerated simulacrum of itself out of miniscule bits of leaf, debris, and insect carcasses and then rocks its web to make the large dummy-spider appear alert and alive.
22 - that ghastly novelty song - The Archies' "Sugar Sugar"
23 - Oscar Meunier - the designer of the wax bust in ACD's "The Adventure of the Empty House"
24 - Doubtless even now he was in heavy disguise, seducing a disastrously naïve girl even more swiftly than he had her mother. - ACD's "A Case of Identity"
25 - Professor Higgins - the character from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (and its adaptation, My Fair Lady)
26 - Lousy Smarch weather/"I was on a road, looked to be asphalt, and was directly under the earth's sun –" - Allusions to The Simpsons: here and here
27 - key ingredient of vanadium, an easily-sourced element, was innocuous with respect to the delicate membrane of each sperm cell – which indicated that it would be similarly gentle with ova – but rendered the sperm entirely ineffective simply by snapping off their tails and making them, practically speaking, immotile
28 - Robert Browning's minor masterpiece
29 - "Feed me, Seymour"
30 - TOWBAR - Some forces are trialling a scheme which bypasses the need to take and pass Part 2 [the role-playing exam]. In these forces (for example the Met, which calls this 'TOWBAR'), you are promoted on a 'temporary' basis and then over the next six months to a year must gather evidence of your competency in the rank. You are formally assessed throughout the period and if successful are fully promoted (made 'substantive' in the rank).
31 - He'd seen chlorine gas film over its victims' eyes while painting their skin in dark and violent hues of green and yellow shading to black. He'd determined the use of thallium in a case in which the victim suffered hair loss and tingling in the extremities due to the associated nerve damage. - see Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
32 - But the body doesn't check to make sure the gas it's inhaling contains oxygen; the defences are on the other side, making sure that it exhales carbon dioxide, which inhalation of nitrogen still allows. The body has no idea it's in danger until it's dead. - see Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
33 - Identical twins have different fingerprints, as they're caused by position in the womb rather than genetic factors.
34 - In any case, my mother said she was in bed when she heard a scream and she went to investigate, as Krista – my sister – was spending the night at the house, and she thought my father was still out at a business dinner. She went downstairs to find the front door open and my father lying dead in front of the fireplace in the main parlour. It looked like he'd struck his head against the mantelpiece. Krista was next to him in a dead faint. - ACD's "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange"
35 - François le Villard - ACD's The Sign of the Four
36 - there, at the top of the stairs to John's room, were John and Irene, wrapped tightly in each other's arms and joined at the mouth, limned against the light - ACD's "A Scandal in Bohemia"
37 - Kim's game