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The Case of the Meddling Siblings

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"Sir, there's one more thing that needs your attention -- I believe it's time to invoke Project Domino."

Mycroft stared up at Anthea over his papers. "Harry Watson?" She nodded, handing him a file. He flipped through it briefly and frowned. "You're right; circumstances warrant it. Is there a suitable case?"

Anthea smiled. "I've got just the one, sir. I'll make sure the Times covers it, with the correct details."

"Excellent."

* * *

"Just a bit posh, yeah?" was Harry's first comment about Mycroft's abode. He watched as she set her suitcase down with exaggerated care on the mahogany floor of his personal office, and then took a wide stance and cocked an eyebrow. She clearly hoped to signal confidence, nonchalance. Yet he also observed her increased blink rate, and the way her hands fidgeted.

"Good evening, Ms. Watson," he greeted her from behind his desk.

"Yeah, hi." She waited, but when he chose to simply watch her to see what she would do, she eventually continued. "Look, not that I don't appreciate your offer to put me up, but -- why? We only met at that one Christmas party. I wasn't sure you'd even remember me, much less be inviting me over."

"Oh, I think you underestimate your memorability." Mycroft replied drily. He was fairly certain that all the guests remembered her ignominious appearance.

Harry flushed just a little. "Oh, well. I, uh, don't remember that night too well. I might have had just a bit too much to drink…?" She bit her lip, waiting for further hints of what she'd done. Mycroft made a noncommittal noise and leaned back in his chair. It was not in his current interests to make her feel shame or become defensive.

When she got no further answer, Harry continued, "So, why am I here -- and how? It was a bit crazy, you know -- there I am, standing there on the corner, wondering where I'll sleep tonight, and then a big black car rolls up, window rolls down, and a beautiful woman tells me to get in?" She laughed. "Thought maybe I was in some kind of movie, James Bond or something. You know?" Mycroft unfortunately did know. His parents were fans of the Bond franchise, despite its gross inaccuracies and questionable narrative structures.

"And then when she said that someone was concerned about me and wanted to offer me their guest room? And I hadn't told a soul that I needed one? I thought maybe it was actually some sort of horror thriller. You know?" She laughed again, more nervously. Mycroft viewed that genre with even more distaste and was less familiar with it, but he took her point.

"I contacted you because I need your assistance," Mycroft said. "It's to do with your brother."

Harry straightened. "John? What's he done?" Interesting. Mycroft made a note to find out what incidents in the Watsons' personal history led her to leap to that conclusion.

"It's not something he's done, yet." Harry relaxed just a little, but her brow furrowed. "But I'm worried about him. Well, I'm primarily worried about my brother, truth be told. Sherlock has been extremely moody lately, but it's affected John's temper as well, and they're playing off one another. I fear my brother's tendencies toward dark pursuits if this should continue."

"Dark pursuits…?"

"Heroin, among others." Harry's eyes widened. "Should he begin down that path, he would, based on past evidence, be likely to spiral very deeply, very quickly."

She nodded and grimaced. He knew she was personally familiar with such spirals, if not that particular drug. "How bad does he get?"

"Disappearance, for long stretches. Overdose. Brief bouts of clinical death." He smiled thinly.

"Oh, God! That would be terrible for John." Belatedly, she blurted, "And that must be so hard on you!" He nodded with false gratitude for her sympathy. He would rather not be discussing any of this, much less with someone outside the family. But it was a useful time to build empathy with Ms. Watson.

Harry took a deep breath. "Okay, so -- what do we do? Should we be preparing for an intervention? Does that sort of thing even work for Sherlock?" she asked doubtfully.

Mycroft smiled grimly. "No, it does not. He needs a distraction -- they both do. Something interesting enough to stop the negative feedback cycle."

"A case?" Harry smiled tentatively.

Mycroft inclined his head. "One that takes them far away from London and its temptations -- there's one in the Lake District that should be perfect."

"Sounds good." Harry frowned. "So, what do you need me for?"

He smiled, rising from his chair and leading her across the room to a door different from the one she'd come in by. She followed him out the door and down a side hall. "You'll be working with me to monitor both Doctor Watson and Sherlock throughout the case, assessing your brother's moods and responses. Your lifetime of experience with him makes you the perfect expert for the job --"

"Just as you are an expert on Sherlock?" Harry sounded amused.

"Precisely. Together, we will monitor and ensure that both of our brothers are back on a more even keel by the end of the case." He opened the door onto a smaller room, filled with computer screens.

Harry's eyes were saucers. "Hang on, you literally meant 'monitor?' You mean you're going to send them on a roadtrip to solve a case, and we're going to spy on them?"

Mycroft grimaced. He must persuade her he had their siblings' best interests at heart. "Well, in a sense one might say that, but --"

"Awesome."

* * *

"So, you think it's a good case, then? At least a six?"

"It's a nine, John." John's eyebrows rose. Sherlock watched him from the corner of his eye while ostensibly keeping his attention on navigating the traffic on the M40. John, often tense and angry recently, was relaxed, open, interested. Had slept better last night after learning of the impending case than he had in two weeks -- as evidenced by the fact that he had taken the time to use a blade to shave this morning, sported a freshly cleaned and ironed shirt, and had taken the scenic route through the park on his morning run (the soil on John's trainers spoke volumes). Sherlock was duly grateful for a case, even if it hadn't been such an interesting one.

"Right -- a Keswick guest house with two deaths," John said, dubious. When Sherlock suggested they visit, John had expressed surprise, even though he'd seen the same newspaper story as Sherlock. John observed so little.

"Two murders. In the same room -- exactly a week apart -- with the door locked from the inside, both times."

"Locked from the inside?" John looked startled.

Despite John's obtuseness, it was good to be back with him. Very good. It had taken a fake death and a prolonged time abroad to make Sherlock realize how satisfying John's presence was, but now he was all too aware. "Did you not read the article, John? The police were present when the body was found each time, meaning that the proprietors themselves did not possess a key. They summoned assistance after becoming alarmed by their guests' failure to check out."

"Right." John stared at him admiringly, and Sherlock smiled. He'd spent the better part of two years thinking every night of John, in part imagining John giving him such looks whenever he successfully tracked down and incapacitated a member of Moriarty's network. (Though he had also -- and more practically -- longed for John's marksman skills and nerves of steel.)

John's admiration faded to puzzlement. "But I thought the police said there was no evidence of foul play? Heart attacks, yeah?"

"That's because the police are idiots," Sherlock said. John grinned at him, and Sherlock felt a spike of warmth shoot through his gut. It felt so good -- almost like the old days. But ever since returning, it hadn't been like the old days.

At first, Sherlock thought that it was because he wasn't seeing John as much, since he'd started a practice outside London after Sherlock's presumed death and rented a new flat. But even after John moved back to 221B, it was better, but not the same. Sherlock grew more and more out of sorts as he tried to figure out why.

He'd speculated it was because of the nightmares that he didn't want to let John out of his sight. Dreams that by all rights should stop, now that the stimuli were gone -- about what would happen to John if he failed to track down all of Moriarty's snipers. Nightmares, too, about coming back and finding John no longer needed him. And the lingering worry, even while awake, whenever John was not present -- such as when he disappeared upstairs at night -- that something might have happened to him. But empirically, he'd determined that even observing John while he slept was insufficient to settle his disquiet.

"The police might also be lying," he continued, keeping his expression in the neutral-to-positive mode that John expected when they were setting out on a case, despite the darker thoughts running through the back of his mind. "The article said the guest house remains open, but the proprietors are not letting out that room at this time -- which either means the police are still investigating it and don't want anyone to know, or the proprietors themselves have doubts about the cause of death."

John pondered. "Does anything actually rule out heart attacks?"

In spite of all John's flaws and appalling lack of critical thinking skills, after testing many hypotheses (several of which involved provoking negative responses from John; thoroughness was vital to good science), Sherlock had been forced to admit the unavoidable truth. He craved John, in a way that he'd only craved a few substances in the past. And, in some way, he wanted more than what they'd had before.

Sherlock snorted. "Did you read the article next to the one about the guest house?"

"Erm. No?"

Sherlock felt that all the time spent away from John now needed to be made up for, with interest. As to the what exactly he would find satisfying, Sherlock was not entirely certain. Had shied away from considering it in any detail, given the irrelevance of his desire when mapped upon the reality of John Watson's own very different wants.

"There have also been a number of mysteriously missing chickens in the same area."

John frowned. "How is that relevant?"

His greatest fear now was John leaving. It was an inevitability that John would, eventually, leave 221B for some woman. The threat had never seemed very real or concerning before Sherlock had faked his death, but now it was all-consuming. And Sherlock was concerned that his recent discontent -- the broken rhythm of their previous partnership -- might accelerate this process. Yet he could not seem to control his darker moods. And sometimes John's response was almost gratifying; lacking John's desire, he craved the heat of John's anger only a bit less than that of John's admiration.

He was, indeed, very glad for a case to distract them both.

"I'm not sure yet. But I'd say it almost certainly means the deaths are murders."

John brightened. "Ah, right then. Good." Sherlock felt the warmth inside of him again as they both laughed, and did his best to banish all useless thoughts into a different wing of his mind palace.

* * *

"God, they're indecently happy about people being murdered," Harry said, standing just inside the doorway of Mycroft's spy headquarters and yawning. The room was small, but not cozy -- a single table with two chairs sat in the middle of walls of screens on all sides, just a meter or so away in any direction. A high, dark ceiling and a lack of lighting other than a few dim sconces (to avoid glare on the screens? she wondered) completed the room's ominous feel. The only concession to comfort was a thick Oriental carpet, which Harry dug her bare toes into as she watched John and Sherlock from several angles on various monitors, listening to their surround sound conversation.

Mycroft turned to look at her over his shoulder and arched an eyebrow. "How well do you know your brother?"

"Yeah, all right -- guess I've known he was a morbid bugger ever since he signed up to dissect dead bodies in med school," she said, cracking a grin. "The army and Sherlock Holmes haven't made matters any better, though."

She stood a long moment, contemplating the strange man who was her host. He wasn't as much of a blighter as Sherlock was -- at least not in any obvious ways, like saying horrible things to your face -- but he seemed to be at least as cold and calculating. And even though he claimed to be looking out for her little brother, she didn't necessarily believe it. Which was part of why she was still here, despite the weirdness of the whole situation -- to watch out for John's best interests.

Also kipping in a far nicer bed than she would have managed to find of her own accord.

And, okay, she was hardly about to pass up the chance to observe up close the wacky hijinks of her brother and his bizarre live-in detective. If John's blog was entertaining, how much better would this be?

She shuffled over and slouched into a chair next to Mycroft, trying not to feel self-conscious of her disheveled t-shirt and shorts she sported next to his impeccable suit. No point in letting him intimidate her, though. She put her feet up on the table and ignored his disapproving glance.

"How did you sleep?"

"Oh, I slept terrifically well," she lied cheerfully, hoping he wasn't as observant as his brother. Her eyes couldn't look that good at this point, but she didn't feel like talking about it. "Your guest bed is very comfortable." That much was true -- and hey, if she was going to spend a night tossing and turning with occasional bonus bouts of crying, might as well be a cushy one. "Sorry I'm late to the party."

Mycroft shook his head. "It's not a concern. You haven't missed much -- they're only a half hour outside the city."

She nodded. "Good. Oh, and cheers for the breakfast waiting for me this morning. Very in keeping with the 'posh hotel' vibe you've got going on here. What is that you do, anyway, that supports this sort of lifestyle, and all of this?" She tried to sound casual as she waved at the wall of monitors, and to not let her desperate curiosity seep through into her voice.

He smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. It reminded her of Sherlock's smile, when he was talking to Harry -- when he was talking to most people who weren't John, or Mrs. Hudson. "I occupy a minor role in the British government. A rather boring one, I'm afraid, that leaves me too much time to think about my wayward brother."

"Ah," she said, a bit skeptical. "Well, I admit I got peckish in the middle of the night and went exploring… why are all the doors around here shut and locked?"

Mycroft tilted his head and stared at her a long moment. "It cuts down on dust."

She stared back. "Uh-huh."

She swung her feet back down to the floor. Gathering her hair into a haphazard bun, she grabbed a pen from the table in front of Mycroft and shoved it through her locks, holding them in place. Mycroft shot her a look of something approaching horror. "What?" she frowned. "You weren't using it. Okay, so tell me about this setup. How are you pulling off this Creepster-Vision thing?"

Mycroft let out a pained sigh. "There are small cameras and audio detectors placed at several points throughout their vehicle, as well as in some of the luggage. I've also had a few placed throughout the guest house they're traveling toward."

"Right." Harry pointed at two of the monitors. "So here, where we can see their faces from above, are those in the visors?" Mycroft nodded. "And then some of these must be from the backseat -- and then these black screens are the boot?" Another nod. She whistled. "It's amazing that you've got cameras so small that they can't even detect, and with such a good picture. And that you got it all rigged up without them noticing. How'd you manage any of that?"

When Mycroft didn't immediately answer, she continued, "More importantly, can you do it again? I have someone I'd like to keep an eye on -- several someones, actually --"

"No."

"Come on," she wheedled. "One of them is living in a flat that is rightfully mine, so it wouldn't even be --"

"No."

She wrinkled her nose at him. "I'm going to report you for gross misappropriation of government equipment."

When he seemed completely unmoved, she sighed and turned back to the monitor. "Right, well. Plenty of time for me to get you to change your mind while we spy on our little brothers."

* * *

John was happy. They were playing deductions -- one of Sherlock's favorite games. John would make guesses about the owners of cars sharing the road with them, and Sherlock would tell him all the ways that he was wrong. And then John would laugh, astounded at how Sherlock's mind worked. Somehow it never got old, though John almost never got anything right.

"What about that people carrier, John?" Sherlock asked, pointing at a vehicle slightly ahead and to their left. "What can you tell me about the driver?"

"Erm, well…" John tried to focus on the question, but to a large extent he didn't care about getting anything right. He was just happy to be spending time with Sherlock while he was in a good mood, and not wreaking any havoc on the flat. "The vehicle registration plate starts with B -- they're from Birmingham, then, likely headed home from a visit to London."

Sherlock's behavior since John had moved back in had been, at times, nearly intolerable -- turning the heat off for three days this past winter to test the difference between how quickly pipes froze upstairs versus downstairs (Mrs. Hudson had not been happy about that one, either). Experimenting with different acids on a number of John's clothes ("I wasn't about to destroy my own -- you needed new clothing anyway, John.") And the experiment with all the body parts decomposing on the kitchen counter for a week -- well.

All of those times, though, were better than the times that Sherlock sunk onto the sofa and didn't move for days on end, unmoved by Lestrade's attempts to interest him in unsolved crimes, or John's attempts to get him to mock whatever was on the telly. Mrs. Hudson tried to bring food or tea. All of them were ignored at best and snapped at more cruelly than usual at worst. And they were all concerned.

John searched the vehicle for more clues. "The plate also says it was purchased in 2009..."

John had spent so much time recently oscillating between angry and worried that he'd wondered sometimes why he didn't leave. Find a saner flatmate.

And why haven't you? A little voice asked him. It sounded a bit like Ella's voice. Funny that he'd gone to therapy and gained a voice in his head, asking questions about things he'd rather leave unexamined. There's a panic that sets in when you think about leaving, isn't there? Why is that? He didn't know why. He didn't want to think about it.

Sherlock was watching him. John continued, "... and it's in desperate need of washing, so I'm going to say it belongs to someone with not much time or money to spare."

Is it the nightmares that started when Sherlock died? That haven't fully stopped since he came back? That leave your chest in a vise which only starts to loosen when you hear signs of life -- his violin, his dreadful banging -- downstairs? Is that why?

If Ella were really here, asking unwanted questions, he'd tell her that he truly was just worried about Sherlock. That Sherlock had come back with a look in his eyes John has seen before, from men and women who'd faced the horrors of war -- or worse, been captured -- and come out of it changed. That John didn't want to abandon a fellow comrade in a time of need.

All John wanted was for things to go back to the way they'd been. He hoped maybe this case, a really good case from the sounds of it, would help speed Sherlock along that path toward normalcy -- or as normal as Sherlock ever got.

"Since it's a people carrier," he concluded, "I think it's probably a large family. Parents and four children, let's say -- big enough that there's no hope of squeezing everyone into a smaller car, no matter how tight their budget. And I'll guess that Dad is driving, because that's still statistically more common, I reckon."

John was fairly pleased with his deductions. "How'd I do?"

"Terrible, John." Sherlock sped up and passed the vehicle, letting John see a young female driver, alone save for some long pieces of lumber at her shoulder protruding from the back seat. "How did you not spot the wheel trims?"

John smiled and settled in to hear what he'd missed.

* * *

"For Christ's sake," said Harry, after several hours of deductions. She looked about ready to throw something at the monitors, but Mycroft judged the probability sufficiently low that he felt no need to take preventative measures. "Is this sort of thing all they do together? Don't they ever… talk about anything?"

Mycroft smiled. "We are British."

"Granted." She sighed. "Well, at least they seem remarkably cheery right now. Any idea why Sherlock's been so difficult lately?"

Mycroft shook his head. In a deadpan voice, Harry asked him, "It's because Sherlock is desperately in love with John, isn't it?"

He shot her a startled glance for a fraction of a second before he managed to shut his features' rebellion down into a calm, composed mask.

"What?!" Harry breathed. "Oh my god. Oh my god! I was kidding! Oh my god!" She was laugh-shouting at this point, and Mycroft watched with mild alarm. "Yesss!" she hissed.

He tried not to panic as he stared at her with confusion. "I cannot confirm whatever you believe you have just learned. But why would such a belief excite you?"

"Because this is a problem I think I can fix."

"I shudder to think."

"Says the man with a large bank of monitors trained on his brother. What do you think I could do that's weirder than that?"

He arched an eyebrow. She obviously didn't understand how difficult it was to keep his brother safe, nor the challenges of ensuring Sherlock was not doing anything that put national security at risk. Holmes problems were not normal problems, and they did not have normal solutions. "What sort of fix do you have in mind?"

"Well, if Sherlock were in love with my brother -- which, I know, you 'can neither confirm nor deny,'" she did a remarkably terrible impression of Mycroft, "then if it just so happened that my brother were in love with him back, then we could get the two of them together, and they could live happily ever after."

Mycroft frowned. "Even granting, for the moment, your most questionable string of assumptions -- that is not the goal."

"What?" Harry looked at him with confusion.

"My primary goal for Sherlock is stability, not happiness."

Harry gasped. "What a thing to say! You don't want him to be happy?"

"I didn't say that." He shook his head at her logical fallacy. "I'm unconvinced that short term happiness is the best route toward long term stability, which is what Sherlock needs most. The relationship he once had with John Watson was grounding, good for him. I would like for that dynamic to resume."

Harry blinked. "So you're just dismissing the possibility of them both becoming more happy long term, just like that? I mean, 'ever after' is supposed to imply stability."

"I don't believe in happily ever after, as you say; or rather, I believe that in a chaotic system, it's impractically difficult to optimize for."

"That's… I think that sounds like the saddest maths I've ever heard." She shook her head.

He pursed his lips. She had no idea how Sherlock Holmes worked.

For a little while, they watched the monitors together in silence, although Sherlock and John were currently also quiet, and there was not much to observe. Then, "Okay, but," Harry started. "What if it's not possible for them to go back to where they were before? What if things have changed, and they can't be stable in the same way again?"

"Then they will need to find a new stability. With our help, as necessary."

"And you don't think that new stability could include bonking?"

Mycroft grimaced. "I'm not sure my brother knows what to do with sex, other than be alarmed by it. So no, I don't think adding that element to their relationship would add stability."

Harry frowned. "You think he's asexual?"

"I'm not actually sure," he reluctantly admitted. He hated not knowing things.

"You monitor him day and night, and you don't know if he's had sex?"

"Having had sex and being interested in sex are not the same thing."

She blinked at him. "Fair point. Creepster. So what do you think he does want, then, if he's pining? Romance? Formal declarations of love, commitments to stick together, all that? Doesn't sound very much like Sherlock."

"I don't know if even Sherlock knows what Sherlock wants. And even if he does, what he wants is certainly not always what he should get. In any case, I've seen no evidence that Doctor Watson would be amenable to any of the possibilities outlined."

Harry shrugged. "I actually think he could surprise you on that front. At least, if it was clear to him that Sherlock wanted him, I think there's a good chance he might come around. With my help, anyway."

Mycroft folded his fingers together beneath his chin and contemplated this, startled. What evidence could he have missed about John Watson? If Harry was right, did it change any of his calculations?

"What are you doing?" Mycroft asked sharply, as he noticed Harry pulling out her phone.

"Testing your hypothesis," Harry said.

* * *

The pleasant silence after a particularly satisfying deduction was broken by the sound of John's phone receiving a text.

"Harry?" Sherlock asked.

"Yeah -- how'd you know?" John was looking at him with those wide eyes, ready to tell him how fantastic he was.

Sherlock thought of eight possible lies he could tell. "You have a different text alert sound for her."

John blinked and then started laughing, and Sherlock chuckled as well. "Sherlock Holmes, bloody brilliant detective."

John peered down at his phone for a bit, holding it out far from his face -- he needed reading glasses, didn't want them because he didn't want to bother with doctors, but more because they reminded him of his father. If Sherlock got reading glasses for himself and left them around the flat, there was a better than average chance that John would surreptitiously start using them. "Harry wants to know if I know any asexuals," John read, slowly. "For her LGB… a bunch of letters… for an advocacy group she helps run, apparently. Needs someone to come on a panel."

"Mm." Sherlock did not believe Harry was involved in running any such group. She was motivated by socializing -- by meeting people, when she was on the market -- and by drinking, when she was off the wagon, but not by attending or organizing panel discussions. Interesting.

John rubbed his forehead, still staring at his phone. "Don't know why she'd ask me -- who does she think I know? I mean, there's you -- but it's a laugh to think that you'd come talk to her group." He snorted.

"Me?" Sherlock said, confused.

John glanced up at him, also confused now. "Aren't you...? I thought you said… not your area, no?"

Sherlock frowned at his imprecise thinking. "One can't simply equate abstention from sex with asexuality."

John nodded slowly. "Okay, right." Sherlock relaxed -- when had he tensed up? -- and returned to pondering Harry's motives. "So," John said slowly, "you are attracted to people? Sometimes?"

Sherlock gripped the steering wheel tighter, heat creeping into his cheeks. "I am capable" -- he let disdain drip from the word, hoping it would serve to put an end to this line of questioning -- "of feeling attraction." The specifics of his attractions were something he did not want to discuss any further with John in particular.

"Oh. Right." John licked his lips. "So… have you --"

Did John have such a difficult time imagining him as a sexual being? It shouldn't have stung. "Have I ever had sex? Of course I have!" he snapped. "There's nothing wrong with me."

"I didn't mean --" John frowned. "Of course there's not! I was going to ask --"

"Women or men, I suppose? Or some particular position -- do you want a list of those? Really, John. Is your paltry mind so insurmountably focused on the trivialities of sex? Who does what to whom; which bit of anatomy interlocks with which other bits?" He was dimly aware he was overreacting and should probably stop before he caused John to grow angry, but momentum carried him onward. "Yet another reason I've opted out of such matters -- how could I be attracted to the brains of people who are constantly obsessed with trifles such as this?"

"Yes, well, giant loss to humanity. it's hard to imagine how anyone could be attracted to you once you opened your mouth, anyway." John spit back, then pursed his lips and lapsed into silence, glaring out the window.

* * *

"Fuck," Harry said.

"That did not go as well as it might have," Mycroft observed.

"Shut up."

* * *

At the petrol station, John had stalked off into the small nearby town without a word, and Sherlock had let him go. Sherlock filled the car with petrol, then perched on the driver's seat with his hands steepled beneath his chin, contemplating what was wrong with him.

Why couldn't he just answer John's questions like a normal "mate?" -- he could always make up lies when the subject warranted. It was explosive moments like that which would cause John to leave him even sooner. But there was no pretending… If what John Watson wanted was normal conversation, he ought to know by now that he would have to look elsewhere.

He supposed he could try to make an effort to participate in a conventional dialogue periodically. He tried to imagine chatting with John about a match, then discussing some issue John was having with his current girlfriend -- how she'd complained of his forgetting some occasion, or perhaps about some kind of mismatch they'd discovered in their sexual appetites (was that what normal people did, with their mates?). He shuddered. That would not happen.

Everything he had said to John was true. He had no use for normal people -- or truly, for anything that distracted him from his work. And yet, somehow, John was different. It wasn't that John could solve cases -- hardly! -- but they worked better together than Sherlock did alone. Extraordinary. And, equally strange, John appreciated Sherlock. His attention was such a rush that Sherlock wanted to hoard every ounce of it and not spare a drop for anyone else, for the rest of his days.

A futile hope. But Sherlock could at least try not to invoke his anger so frequently, and thus perhaps hold that attention a bit longer.

For now, though, there was a case to solve, and they were not getting any closer while John stomped about, pouting. Sherlock considered going after him to speed the process along. Empirically, however, it worked better to wait for John to come back on his own, rather than to track him down and instruct him to hurry. Even a perfectly innocuous text could sometimes set John off again. No, it was better to let John work things out on his own, and then pretend once he returned that nothing had ever occurred between them.

Sherlock sat and waited, with the patience of a saint.

* * *

John was angry with Sherlock, but also himself. Sherlock was an arse, and ungenerous in his assumptions about John -- he hadn't been planning to ask any of those things that Sherlock had accused him of -- but John had poked him about a topic that he knew was sensitive for Sherlock. John had no idea why it was sensitive, but their rare conversations brushing up against sex or relationships, particularly with regard to the non-theoretical aspects, always caused Sherlock to deflect, often with invective.

In someone else, John might assume it was a sign of closeted homosexuality. But Sherlock seemed to have no issues with others being gay and a complete disregard for social biases. And so John had concluded, early on, that Sherlock was probably asexual, and at least mildly repulsed by things sexual in nature.

It was a startling revelation, after all this time, that he was wrong.

It made him feel off balance. He wanted just a little more information to help him understand. Had Sherlock had past relationships? -- that was what he'd planned to ask. Perfectly reasonable. It was useful to know, for instance, if your flatmate had any nutter exes who might show up.

But that wasn't why you wanted to ask it, Ella pointed out. You wanted to know who he's had relationships with. You would have been happy to know the answers to some of those questions he assumed you would ask. Why does any of that matter?

John didn't know. Sherlock was still Sherlock, after all. But a Sherlock who had definitely had sex, who may have had longer term relationships. The mind boggled. When --? Why--? (For a case?) Who on earth --? John had questions. He found he couldn't stop thinking about them.

Why? Would more information help you to be a better friend?

John couldn't answer that. By all rights, he just shouldn't care one whit.

It didn't matter, though, that he did care. He didn't need to ask those questions aloud; no good would come of it.

He calmed himself down, finally. Sherlock had yelled at him, had implied he was obsessed with trivialities -- but it was nothing John hadn't heard before from him, dozens of times. And John had been unnecessarily nosy. He would just find a way to let Sherlock know that there would be no more questions.

That would come a little later, though. Mentioned in passing, once things were going well with the case. For now, it was best for managing Sherlock's mood that John act like nothing had happened, and they get back on the road.

With a final deep breath and a slow unclenching of his fists, John headed back to the car.

* * *

While John paced his anger away offscreen, Harry paced the small carpet of the monitoring room. She didn't understand. "So, okay. We know Sherlock fancies blokes, right?"

Mycroft stared at her, not deigning to answer.

"I mean, he has to, right? If he's desperately pining for John. And John's a bloke. Then Q.E.D."

Mycroft rolled his eyes. "Oh, well deduced."

"Right, so, why didn't he just say so, then?" Harry said, exasperated. She flopped dramatically back down into the chair, and she fixed Mycroft with an accusatory stare. "Why did your little brother set everything back so far instead of just stating the truth?"

"And if he had? What might John have felt necessary to clarify about his own desires? I would imagine," Mycroft said softly, with a surprising amount of kindness in his voice, "that the prospect of outright rejection from someone is far scarier than the continuation of a current state of longing."

Harry looked at him, startled. "Well, yeah, I guess… when you put it that way." She felt a little chagrined for having not given Mycroft credit for having emotions.

Then she frowned and looked back at the screen. "Just you watch, though. I have more ideas for how to make this all work out."

Mycroft said drily, "I can hardly wait."

Chapter Text

John didn’t know quite what he’d expected, but somehow it wasn’t this perfectly ordinary guest house full of perfectly ordinary people.  

Stoneview House was a three story building constructed of stone on the ground floor and white wood above.  It had an old-fashioned charm -- garret windows in a steep-sloping roof, a carefully carved entry arch -- but it also looked freshly painted and well-kept.  A garden covered the grounds near the house, while a dense swath of trees grew further back from the building and gave the property the feel of being relatively isolated from the neighboring houses and small farms.

A young man was working in the garden when they arrived, in grubby clothing and an old cap to keep the sun from his eyes -- not that there was sun emerging from the clouds, currently.  He only half looked up long enough to bob his head and smile shyly at them in greeting when John said hullo, then returned to his weeding.  

The resident dog, unlike the man, was not shy.  The minute they entered the guest house, it came running at them enthusiastically.  Its claws scrabbled across the wood floor, and a moment later it was standing on its hind legs, licking Sherlock’s face.  Which it was only able to reach because Sherlock was kneeling and running his hands through its extremely curly brown fur.  

The dog, which appeared to be some kind of gangly, adolescent terrier, wagged its tail so hard that its whole rear wobbled madly.  Sherlock looked years younger as he smiled at the overgrown puppy and accepted its saliva all over his face.  John set down all the bags in the lobby (of course Sherlock had bounded out of the car the moment they’d arrived, leaving John to deal with the luggage) and watched, mildly bemused.

“Ah, I see you’ve met our smallest staff member,” a young woman said, coming out from a room behind the front desk.  “Down now, Mr. Pups -- don’t want to frighten the guests off.”  But she was smiling.  Then she frowned as Sherlock pulled some dirt from his hair and examined it.  “Oh dear, has he been out digging in the garden again?  Such a trouble maker,” she tsked.  “George is going to be very disappointed with you,” she told the dog with mock sternness.  

John smiled at her.  “Hello.”  Mr. Pups and Sherlock both ignored her presence.

“Oh, where are my manners?”  The woman looked chagrined.  “I’m Anna -- Anna Selkirk.  This is Mr. Pups.  And if you saw someone out in the garden pretending not to know how to talk, that was George.”

“Ah yes, we did,” John said.  “Pleased to meet you, Anna.  I’m John Watson.”  When Sherlock didn’t look up, John said, “And he’s --”

“-- Perfectly obvious, John.”  Sherlock stood now, after administering a final pat.  “The parking area is empty, aside from the staff’s cars, and has been for several days based on the fact that the last rain was three days back and all tracks and oil slicks have washed away.  It’s not a slow season, with occasional guests wandering in -- there were obviously many guests staying here recently, given that they were dividing guests up into two separate seatings at dinner.”  He nodded at a board that John had paid no attention to near the front desk, featuring a dinner menu and schedules for the two seatings.  “But all guests obviously canceled their stays since the story came out in the papers about the second death and the police investigation.  The only reason we are here is to investigate -- and you called ahead to let them know we were coming.  Of course everyone here knows who I am.”

John rolled his eyes.  

“Right.”  Anna looked as if Mr. Pups had just proven the irrationality of the square root of two for her.  John smiled to himself -- she hadn’t seen anything yet.  “So, erm.  You, er.”  She shook her head, gathered herself, and smiled again.  “You’re here about the ghost.”

Sherlock looked at her sharply.  “Ghost?”

“The ghost that’s been killing people.”

Sherlock raised his eyebrows.  “Is that the popular theory?”

“Well, it’s my theory, and George’s -- not that he’s bright enough for that to be worth much, though don’t tell him I said so.”

John expected Sherlock to excoriate her stupidity, but instead he asked, “Why do you think it’s a ghost?”

“Well,” Anna said, “It just has to be.  Nobody could get in and out of the room.  And we saw a shadowy figure at night, and then there was the blood...” She trailed off under Sherlock’s intense stare.

“Yes, blood, at a crime scene -- an obvious sign of a non-corporeal figure,” he sneered.  

Anna paled. “Right.  Sorry.  I -- I’ll go get the owners.”  She turned and fled.

“Be nice,” John said to Sherlock.  “If you terrify them, they might leave out some important details.”

Sherlock frowned.  “I didn’t mean to --”  He shook his head.  “People are too emotionally fragile.  But you can talk to her later.  I’m sure you have the necessary patience to elicit her ghost stories.”  He said it without irony, and John wondered if Sherlock had deleted the existence of spooky tales.

Soon after Anna disappeared into the back, two middle-aged women emerged.  Anna stayed back behind the front desk, pretending to look busy, but obviously listening in.

“Are you Doctor Watson?” one of the proprietors exclaimed.  “It’s just grand to meet you!  I’m Eesha Karim,” she beamed.  “And this is Rebecca Alison,” she gestured to the petite woman next to her, who looked notably less impressed.

As John set down the luggage and shook hands, Eesha blushed slightly, and she giggled just a little.  “I do so love your blog -- The Giant Flat in Sumatra is my favorite!”

Sherlock rolled his eyes.  “Oh come now, that drivel?  Surely --”

“Thank you,” John said, smiling warmly and kicking Sherlock’s foot.  “That was a lovely holiday, and a fun case to write up.”  

“Well, I’m afraid this isn’t apt to be much of a holiday by comparison,” Eesha admitted.  “Our rooms are considerably smaller, and --”

“Yes, and your murders are delightful, else we’d never be here,” Sherlock said impatiently.  “Please do get on with it and show us the room where they occurred.”

Rebecca sniffed.  “There’s no call to be rude.  We’re grateful for your help -- Eesha thinks you can help us -- but if you want to search our place for clues, you may as well be civil.”  Sherlock looked slightly caught off guard, and John was very entertained by it.  Eesha bit her lip, watching to see if either John or Sherlock was upset, and looked relieved when nothing happened.  “It’s this way,” Rebecca continued.  She set off down the hallway at a pace so sedate John felt almost sure she was trying to provoke Sherlock further, but Sherlock said nothing.  

Eesha trailed behind with John, who’d left the bags at the front desk for the time being, and she seemed to flutter a bit with pent up excitement.  “We’re so glad you’re here.  Because we’re worried, of course, about the deaths.  But also -- I’m so excited to meet you!  And Mr. Holmes, too, of course.”  She ducked her head.  “I’m, erm, more a fan of yours, personally -- but I’ll admit yours is quite the looker.”  She looked back up and grinned knowingly.  “Lucky you!”

John blinked.  “Erm, right, yeah -- I guess he is.  And thank you, it’s, erm, always a pleasure to meet a fan of the blog.”  Normally he would flirt back if anyone showed even a fraction of this much interest in him, but this woman’s girlfriend -- wife, maybe -- was right here.  And Eesha, inevitably, thought John was with Sherlock.  So he wasn’t sure what to make of her.  Maybe she just saw him as a safe target for flirtation.  Or perhaps his assumption about Eesha and Rebecca was wrong -- were they just friends?  John knew well enough how annoying it was to constantly be asked and kept silent.  

“Sorry for his abruptness earlier,” John added.  “He’s just so focused on the case, he gets a bit impatient --”

Eesha smiled warmly.  “It’s no trouble.  Becks can be a bit fierce, too, as you might have noticed.”

They walked past four rooms, doors slightly ajar, and John asked, “How big is this place?”

“Ten guest rooms, plus the kitchen, the dining room, and the library.  All freshly renovated!  Shame there’s nobody here to appreciate it.”  She sighed.

John nodded sympathetically.  No wonder they were frantic to get their guests back, if they’d just invested in renovations.  “And you live here?”

“Becks and I are on the third floor -- the garret; knock if you need anything. The rest of the staff lives in town.”  John nodded; he and Sherlock had driven through the town in question -- Keswick -- on their way in.

“Here we are,” Rebecca announced, opening the door to the third room on the left, at the very end of the hall, and eyeing Sherlock warily.  “This is where Mr. Roylott died, and Ms. Mann a week later.”

“No police tape,” John observed as they stepped into a room that looked ordinary enough for a guest house, if exceedingly floral for John’s tastes.  A four-poster bed sat in between a wardrobe and a chest covered in doilies and porcelain animals.  A lattice window looked out on the garden, and a door led to an en suite bath.

“They’ve already been and gone,” Rebecca said dismissively.  “They took their time about it, but eventually decided it was more likely a coincidence that two people would have heart attacks in the exact same room, and fall on the floor in the same place, a week apart, than that there was anything suspicious at play.”

“Idiots,” Sherlock said.

“Exactly what we said!” Eesha said, satisfied. Rebecca also looked pleased.  If that was all she needed to warm to Sherlock, John thought, she’d get plenty of it.

Sherlock walked across to the windows, winding the screwjack on one until it opened a scant few inches and then reached its limits.  He closed it, and John noted the impossibility of entering through the windows in his notebook.

“Are there multiple keys to the door?” Sherlock asked, spinning on one heel and beginning to examine the inside of the room.  

“Not really,” Eesha said a bit apologetically. “We actually pride ourselves on providing a bit of an old fashioned feel, so we use real keys, not those programmable cards.” She fished her own key ring out of her pocket and pointed to a heavy iron key to demonstrate. “We did have a master key some years back, but it got misplaced somewhere, years ago, and we never quite got around to getting another.  So we had to get the police to break the door both times, to get in when nobody showed up for breakfast or even --”

“Yes, obviously,” Sherlock rolled his eyes, running his hands along the splintered wood of the door frame.  “Keep your answers concise, please.”  Rebecca’s brow furrowed with annoyance, but she didn’t say anything.  “There are no other keys, then, once the guest has one?”

Eesha opened her mouth, then shut it.  “No.”

Sherlock then abruptly got down on the hardwood floor, crawling toward the bed, peering through his pocket magnifying glass at something John couldn’t see.  Dust, probably.  Eesha and Rebecca stared at him somewhat incredulously.  “It happened here.” Sherlock said, near the bed’s left side.  

Eesha nodded.  “Yes, that’s right!”  Sherlock shot her an irritated glance that informed John it hadn’t been a question.  

“The bed is bolted in place,” Sherlock observed.  “Did you do that?”  

“What?  No,” Rebecca and Eesha both looked at one another, startled.  

Sherlock nodded.  “Interesting.”  John jotted a note, though he had no idea yet what it signified.  He watched as Sherlock lifted the frilly valance, and John peered under the bed as well, but there was nothing there.

Sherlock stood and tugged on a bell pull next to the bed that appeared to be purely decorative -- old-fashioned feel, indeed -- and he paused for long enough studying it that John jotted another note.  As he began examining the bed, desk, shelves, vanity, and other objects in the room, John asked, “Were there any other guests staying here -- especially in adjacent rooms?”

“Yes,” Eesha told them.  “We had plenty of guests, including some in the rooms to either side of this one, both times.  Only one that stayed the whole week, though.  He was staying in the room next door, actually.  A quiet young man, on holiday during his break.  He was an odd one… had a pet snake with him.  Actually,” she looked at Rebecca, who nodded, “we were wondering if he -- if the snake -- might have --“

Sherlock turned to face her, brows raised.  “You were wondering if the young man sent his snake into the locked room next door to commit two murders?”

Eesha shrunk back.  “Yes?”  The rising tone at the end ruined any attempt to sound defiant.  Rebecca frowned.

“How big was this snake?”  

“Over three feet long, I think.”  Eesha said, her eyes wide.  “And maybe this thick?” She indicated held her fingers a couple inches apart, too large to fit beneath the door.  

“And the color?”

“White with yellow spots.  It was eerie looking.”

“How do you presume it would have got into the room?”

“We thought maybe the air vents...?” Eesha gestured up near the ceiling, at a vent near the head of the bed.  John studied it; the air slits looked ludicrously small for a snake of the size they were discussing.  Sherlock walked over to examine it and flipped the plate up for a moment, revealing it was on hinges.  “It could have slithered up and down one of the bedposts -- or even the bell pull -- from there,” Eesha continued.  

Sherlock’s eyes bored into her.  “And why would a snake do that?”

“I heard they can be trained to obey music?  The young man was a musician.  He was very talented, and also very smart; he was studying s- some sort of medicine, I think,” she blushed -- John wasn’t sure why.  “One of the guests complained about him playing his recorder late at night.  So if he had some sort of grudge, or was maybe a serial killer...” Eesha trailed off.  

Rebecca spoke up more firmly.  “I also know snakes like milk.  And both the guests liked to take warm milk in the evening, so the smell could have wafted through and lured it.”

Sherlock sneered.  “I’m surrounded by cretins.  First the ghost, and now this.”  

John shrugged apologetically at the women, though he couldn’t really disagree -- it all had sounded rather farfetched.  Eesha was rather crestfallen.  

Rebecca was angry.  “Look, you can’t just say that!  You may be some great detective -- allegedly -- but we’re not and we’re doing our best.  What makes you say that?”

Sherlock blinked, and his tone shifted slightly from derision to lecturing.  “Snakes don’t like milk -- no idea where you got that mistaken idea -- and would not be tempted to crawl through the vents for it. They are mostly deaf and unable to appreciate music, and incapable of being trained to do such a complex task as crawling through vents, committing murder, and returning.  What’s more, they are physically incapable of climbing up and down bedposts in the manner you describe.   Not to mention that, the snake you describe is obviously an albino ball python -- not venomous.  And ‘herpetology’ is the study of snakes, not of sexually transmitted diseases, as you presumed.”

John grinned at this rapid-fire information, and Sherlock’s final deduction.  But he stopped when he saw that Rebecca still looked angry, though she couldn’t immediately come up with any objection now that Sherlock had answered her.

Eesha looked more mollified, but frowned.  “But then, who did kill them?”

“No idea,” Sherlock smiled.  “We’ll take it.”

“The case?” Rebecca asked.

“The room.  We’ll stay here tonight.”  John sighed internally.  Of course they would.

“Oh!” Eesha fretted.  “We have plenty of rooms -- are you sure you wouldn’t rather stay in a different one?”

“Nope,”  Sherlock said, popping his ‘p.’

“But,” Eesha pointed out hesitantly, “Tonight is Saturday, the same night as the other murders...”

“Exactly!”  Sherlock grinned in manic triumph.  “John!  Fetch your gun and pajamas.  Tonight is going to be brilliant.”

* * *

“Yesssss!  They’re sleeping in one bed!”  Harry pumped her fist.  “I didn’t even have to make them do it!”

Mycroft looked up from the monitors, which now displayed feeds from the cameras in the guest house and in Sherlock's clothing.  He rolled his eyes at Harry’s excitement.  “They have shared a bed before, you know.”

“Oh?” she looked intrigued.  “When?”

“It used to happen sometimes when they traveled for cases,” Mycroft said.  “It was all very platonic, and I’m sure it will be again.”

“Well, we should probably help them along, then.  What exactly are we capable of, here?  Can we lower the heat in the guest house?  Make them, you know, have to huddle together for warmth tonight?”

Mycroft noted her implicit commandeering of his abilities and assets via her use of the word we .  “That’s a great deal of power you think I might have,” he observed.  “I will remind you that the goal for this trip is stability, not,” he frowned, “huddling.”

Harry wrinkled her nose.  “Fine, I’ll find other ways to carry out my plans.  And I’ll show you it’s a good idea, just you wait.”

Mycroft was used to having plans for his little brother, but was not used to anyone else, excepting the occasional villain or dominatrix, doing so.  He found it rather unnerving.  Harry would require careful watching.

* * *

Locked in a room and waiting for a murderer; sharing a flowery, frilly bed with a madman and a gun -- John tried to think which part of this equation was the least likely.  Probably that Sherlock Holmes was actually lying in bed instead of pacing about.  

The last of John’s earlier anger at their unexpected tiff in the car had dissipated since they’d reached the guest house, weakening to the familiar point of fond exasperation.  Watching Sherlock work never failed to impress John -- during both the initial assessment of the room they were in, and the subsequent inspection of the rest of the guest house and grounds, John had been smiling and full of admiration.  The owners and Anna also trailed along, listening to Sherlock rattle off deductions in awe, though unlike John, they were sometimes offended.  And reasonably so -- yet watching Sherlock piss off other people somehow made John feel less annoyed himself.  He’d start excusing what was really fairly intolerable behavior, and then soon enough he’d talked himself into believing in Sherlock’s underlying goodness too.

Who’s madder?  Sherlock, or the man who spends all his time with him?  Well, two madmen in a bed, then, maybe.  John smiled to himself.

As for the fact that Sherlock was actually in the bed -- he had said they must emulate the condition of the victims as much as possible, and so he lay in bed with John, with the lights out.  They had advantages over the victims, though -- they were aware of the threat, and beneath John’s pillow was his gun.

A gun wouldn’t help against a ghost, he thought, and had to stifle a giggle at the thought of the glare he’d get from Sherlock if he voiced this concern.  He wasn’t truly worried; if ghosts existed, he would have far too many of his own to deal with.  The war haunted him, but not in that way.

They hadn’t shared a bed since before… before Sherlock had left.  John found himself more aware of Sherlock’s presence than previously -- it was not something to be taken for granted.  Sherlock was lying on his back near his own edge of the bed -- he’d become less sprawling in the years away, it seemed.  John felt a little wistful thinking of the way he’d been before -- in the rare instances when he would actually lie down -- simply because those days had been easier between them.  

John listened to Sherlock’s breathing -- the alert breath of someone awake and listening for clues.  John was initially focused on potential threats as well.  But as the minutes passed, and then longer, all he heard were the creaks of the settling house, the clicks of the dog’s nails on the floor, the hoot of an owl, the rustling of some small forager in the garden outside... he slipped into the background vigilance of an army man in a war zone, whose general state of being was an acceptance that death might descend at any moment.  Meanwhile, his mind kept turning over their spat from earlier, worrying at it.  He still wasn’t sure why Sherlock had responded so defensively to John’s questions.  But, whatever the reason, the fact was that Sherlock was bothered.  And now, while they waited for who knows how long in the darkness, seemed like a good time to try to set things aright.

“Sherlock?” he breathed hesitantly.

“Yes?”  Sherlock’s voice was a deep murmur.  

“I’m sorry about what I said earlier,” he muttered back.  “About not knowing how anyone could be interested in you.  I didn’t mean that.  It’s not true.”  He paused a long moment, trying to find the right words to continue.  “And look, I honestly don’t care what you do or don’t do, or who you do it with, or, or anything of that sort.  I was just trying to take a polite interest, but… You don’t have to tell me.  You’re my best mate no matter what, and it doesn’t matter a whit.  Right?”  

There was another pause.  Then Sherlock murmured, “While I appreciate the sentiment, John, we are currently attempting to trap a murderer with ourselves as bait, and I question your sense of timing.”

John chuckled, and swore he felt Sherlock’s smirk beside him.  They lapsed back into silence, but John relaxed substantially.  

Is that quite right, though, John?  What you said? Ella’s voice crept back into his mind, unwanted.  

He rolled onto his side and scowled into his pillow.  He had meant it to be true.  Had wanted it to.  He still didn’t know why it wasn’t.  John shrugged off Ella and her confusing questions, and gripped the gun beneath his head.  In any case, it seemed like his apology was bound to help things between him and Sherlock.  That and a good case.

* * *

Sherlock lay in the dark, trying to think about the case.  But it was impossible to dismiss the world around him and focus properly, because of John.  John, who was in bed with him.  Next to him.  Close enough to touch, but not quite touching.  Giving rise to a sensation that was pleasant and maddening and risky all at once, like a swarm of bees tickling one’s skin.  Mustn’t make a sudden move.  Mustn’t do anything foolish.

He had not predicted this.  He should have, perhaps -- and yet, he and John had successfully shared a bed before, without distraction.  But that had been long ago.  His mind and body had grown weaker in the intervening time, unable to focus solely on his work.  In fact, the truth was, he wasn’t thinking about the case much at all, in spite of the chance -- though relatively low, in his estimation -- that a murderer might soon appear.

He found himself fixated particularly on the fact that their hands lay only an inch apart on the bedspread.  If he were to move just slightly, he could bridge the gap between them.  He would be able to feel the texture of John’s skin against his fingertips. To assess John’s body temperature.  He would be able to observe how John responded to the stimulus of the gentlest brush of skin, or to firmer pressure.  (Which experiment would he rather run first?)  If he shifted just a little further, he would reach John’s wrist, his pulse.  Such a small taste of John, but so desirable…

Nonsense.  He tried to shake himself out of the reverie.  The case was what he should be attending to, not a pointless fantasy.

Just then: “Sherlock,” John breathed.  His voice was low, mere inches from Sherlock’s ear.

Sherlock’s chest clenched.  His breathing stopped; other parts of his body responded embarrassingly.  Finally, “Yes?” he managed to get out.

John told Sherlock that he hadn’t meant nobody could be interested in him -- he seemed to imply for a moment the opposite.  Sherlock’s heart slammed against his chest at the possible implication, wholly unanticipated.  

Then, in the next sentence, John made it clear that he was unequivocally uninterested.

Sherlock felt like he was floating somewhere above his body as his blood rushed through his ears and he forced himself to make a quip.  Of course John had no interest in Sherlock’s sexuality, no vested interest in the answers to his earlier questions.  Foolish to have thought, even for a second…

John fell asleep not long thereafter, but Sherlock gave up on sleeping entirely and lay hoping for a murderer to arrive and brighten the evening.  

* * *

“Why am I really here?”  asked Harry.

Mycroft had disappeared over an hour ago to take a work call, though he wouldn’t say from whom.  This had happened frequently throughout the day and evening, despite it being a Saturday. Anthea came in almost immediately with two cups of tea (and a gorgeous pair of legs in in a short skirt, all of which Harry tried not to stare at).  She had accepted Harry’s invitation to sit and chat for a bit.  A genuine yet semi-facetious offer, given that Harry was getting the feeling she wouldn’t be left alone for very long even if she asked to be.

“Didn’t Mycroft already tell you?” Anthea countered.

“C’mon,” Harry scoffed.  “It’s obvious he doesn’t need my help.  He seems to be an old hand at monitoring and looking out for his brother.”

Anthea shrugged.  “Your brother has become a key to Sherlock’s happiness.  And for all that Mycroft understands the Holmesian mind, I think his understanding of others can be… limited. He does worry about blind spots, and your input on John is useful.”

Harry considered this.  She was still skeptical, but it was a bit more convincing, coming from Anthea.

“He is grateful to you, you know.  And he does hope that you’re enjoying your stay, whether or not he’s expressed it,” Anthea added.  “I’m grateful, too… you’re a good influence on Mycroft.”

Harry blinked.  “I am?”

Anthea smiled gorgeously.  “Yeah.  He’s calmer when you’re here, and more able to focus on his other work.  So, like I said, we’re both glad you’re here. Is there anything I can get you to make your stay more pleasant?”

Harry was unused to dealing with gratitude.  She reflexively quipped, “A drink?”  When this received a stony look, she switched jokes. “A call to the outside world?”  Anthea raised an eyebrow. “My phone’s gone dead -- and it is a bit, erm, prisony here, isn’t it?”  Between the stark walls with poor lighting, and the locked doors, it felt a bit like one, sometimes.  And, come to think of it, Harry wasn’t actually sure how to get out of the place.

“Who would you call?” Anthea asked in a friendly tone.

Harry opened her mouth to answer, but couldn’t come up with anything.  She felt her stupid lip start to tremble, and she bit down on it.  She clenched her diaphragm to try to stop the treacherous sob she felt building.

“Oh, God, I’m sorry!  I didn’t mean it like that.”  Anthea said.  “Here you go,” she said briskly, reaching inside her jacket and producing a handkerchief for Harry.  

Harry dabbed at her eyes and shook her head.  “No, I’m sorry.  It’s my own damn fault.”

Anthea raised an eyebrow. “How so?”

“Well, it’s just, I would choose to cheat on my girlfriend with my boss’s girlfriend, wouldn’t I?  So that when it came out in the open, I lost my girlfriend and my home and my job, all at once?”

“Ouch,” Anthea said, with such quiet understatement that Harry smiled as she wiped her nose.  “That’s quite the hat trick.”

“Well, you know, go big or go home.”

“Well, you definitely went big --”

“-- and I can’t go home,” Harry laughed wryly through her sniffles.

“What about the thing with the boss’s girlfriend?  Is that --”

“-- over.  It was never serious, just a stupid fling.  I have those occasionally, even though I know it’s dumb -- can’t seem to stop myself.  But I think I’m going to have a harder time getting her to take me back, this time.”  Harry felt her chest clench at the thought.  Bea was -- she was different from the other women.  Harry really loved her, cared about her like she hadn’t since Clara.  But she’d fucked up badly -- and last time, Bea had said it was her final chance.

Harry forced herself to put away the worries until later (God, a drink would be nice), and gave a trembling smile. “So, yeah, it looks like you’re stuck with me as your tenant for the moment.  Or your prisoner, or whatever.”  

Anthea smiled, clearly not taking the last seriously.  “Well, like I said, we’re glad to have you.  And if it makes you feel better, I rarely get out of this place, either.”

Harry nodded.  “So,” she said curiously, “are you and Mycroft…?”

Anthea broke out in peals of laughter and spilled some of her tea into its saucer.  “I’ll take that as a no, then,” Harry said, raising her eyebrows.  “So … you just work for him?  And hardly ever leave?”  It was well past the time when any normal employee would have gone home -- and likely been in bed.

“When there’s important business, I often stay late,” Anthea said, still smiling.  “He does compensate handsomely.”

“I can imagine,” Harry said, rolling her eyes at the high ceilings of the office, and all the expensive surveillance footage.  Either Mycroft was being overly modest about his role in the government, or he and Sherlock had grown up posh indeed.  Or both.

“So,” Harry said, glancing back at the dark monitors, “What is his important business?”

Anthea just smiled.  “Oh, it’s boring stuff.”

Harry wasn’t sure she believed it, but left it alone.  “His brother counts as important business, though, huh?”  

Anthea nodded. “The most important.”

Harry studied Anthea.  “So do you agree with Mycroft? That Sherlock needs to remain alone to be stable?”

Anthea hesitated, then shrugged.  “I’m less certain than my boss.”

“What do you think about my brother?”  Harry asked.  Despite having been brought on as the John Watson expert, she had a feeling this woman knew a lot more about John’s recent life than Harry did.

“Your brother’s relationships are notable mostly for their short half life.  And he also has a remarkable” -- and by her tone, Anthea clearly meant annoying -- “tendency to flirt with any woman he meets.”

Harry glanced sideways guiltily, as he was not the only Watson with that quality.  “Well, okay, yeah,” Harry started, “but his relationships don’t work because of Sherlock.  If Sherlock wasn’t a distraction -- if John was with Sherlock -- then I don’t think they’d be likely to break up.”

“You think John actually loves Sherlock?”

“Yeah, I do,” Harry sighed.  It wasn’t necessarily what she would have chosen for her little brother -- a life of frequent prejudice, accompanied by the danger inherent in spending time with Sherlock -- but it was what it was.  “I’ve seen John be happier with Sherlock than he’s ever been.  In his whole life.”

“And you think it’s love?”

“I wasn’t sure until the bugger jumped off the building and John went into full on grieving, but then… yeah.  And since John’s never going to give Sherlock up....”

“...Sherlock is John’s path to stability,” Anthea finished.

“Exactly.  And if John is stable and happy, then hopefully Sherlock will be, too.”  He’d better; Harry fully intended to beat him up if he ever broke her brother’s heart again.

“What about sex?”

“John likes sex.”

“Oh, yes,” Anthea laughed, knowingly enough that Harry pulled a face and tried not to imagine what had been surveilled.  “But would he with Sherlock?”

“I’ve reason to believe he would.”

“Hmm,” Anthea considered.  “John Watson, out of women’s hair forever?  That could be very good.”  It sounded like she was probably joking.  Mostly.  “And Sherlock in a stable relationship -- that would be good for everyone.  If you really think that’s achievable --”

“I do!” Harry jumped in.  “But I’ll need your help.”

Chapter Text

John was surprised to wake.  Surprised because he didn’t mean to fall asleep, and because he was not woken by anything specific.  No murderer trying for a third kill; no Sherlock speaking aloud -- or banging about -- because he’d forgotten (or didn’t care) that John was slumbering; no nightmares.  His cheeks grew hot -- falling asleep on sentry duty was poor form; it was lucky that the murderer had not returned.

He lay alone in the early morning light and listened for signs of Sherlock.  But he had apparently crept out of the room without disturbing John.  All was quiet, except for the songs of birds outside.

John washed and dressed quickly before proceeding to the dining room, where Eesha was laying out one lonely place setting at the table in the center of the space.  “Sherlock around?” he asked Eesha.

She looked up at him curiously.  “No, he ran off over an hour ago -- and without any food!  I offered, of course -- but he ignored me.”  She frowned.

“Yes, well.  Sorry about that.”  He scrubbed his neck, trying to think where Sherlock might have gone.  He pulled out his phone to text him, then put it away again; Sherlock rarely responded to texts, despite his generous use of them to issue summons or directives to others.

“Well.  I can wrap something up for you to take to him.  Wrap something for both of you, if you’re in a hurry?”

That assumed, of course, that he’d see Sherlock again sometime soon.  He glanced out the front windows and saw that the rental car was missing.  “I’m not in a hurry.”

“Right.” She brightened.  “Fry-up?  Becks is in the kitchen; She can cook you one right away.”

“Yeah, all right.”  John returned her smile and sat down.

Being the only guest at breakfast was truly an odd experience; at dinner last night, he’d at least had Sherlock to share the attention. The staff had insisted on cooking them a full dinner, so eager to actually serve guests that John hadn’t the heart to refuse, despite the oddness of being the sole focus of attention -- had even eaten some of Sherlock’s untouched food surreptitiously, to keep the owners from worrying about their cooking, which was quite excellent.  Breakfast was excellent, as well, so he did his best to ignore the scrutiny and enjoy it.

After eating, still having heard nothing from Sherlock, John decided to interview each of the staff in turn. In the interest of not having them influence one another more than they already had, John spoke to them each individually in the library.  He started with Anna.

She looked very young in the morning light.  He wondered if she was long out of school.  “So, did you notice anything odd around the time of the deaths?” John asked Anna.

She laughed tightly, startling him.  “Anything odd?  What hasn’t been odd, lately?”  John raised his eyebrows, and she threw up her hands.  “Ghosts!  Murders!  Guests with snakes!  And now the two of you.  No offense.”

“None taken,” John said drily.  It was far from the worst they’d been called.

She was looking a bit nervous; he noticed her hands clenching the fabric of her skirt in her lap.  He decided to back up a little, to try to put her at ease.  “So how long have you worked here?”

“Going on three years now.”

“And you like working here, for Ms. Karim and Ms. Alison?”

“Well, aside from the murders, it’s great, yeah.”  John’s lip crept upward, and after a moment, so did hers.  “They’re great to work for.”  She took a deep breath and released some of the tension in her shoulders.  Then she added, “Well, the past several months have been rough.  But it’s not their fault -- Eesha and Rebecca are aces.”

John jotted a note. “How have they been rough?”

“All the double shifts.”  When John raised his eyebrows, she continued, “Since Helen quit, we’ve been short staffed.  We’ve been looking for someone else, but now I don’t know if it even matters.”  She gestured at the empty dining room outside the library doors.  “In fact, I keep waiting to be let go.”  She bit her lip.

“Mmm.”  John murmured sympathetically, and made a note in the notepad on his knee.  “What did Helen do?  Front desk, like you?”  

“No, I mean yes -- I mean -- I mostly do cleaning.  Or did, back then.  She covered the front desk and phones, organized tours for the guests -- to the stones, or the lakes, or the Honister mines -- you know, the sights.  And she kept the website going -- that kind of thing.”  She sighed.  “It was nice.”

There was genuine regret in her voice -- more than that of someone harried by overwork.  “Were you friends?”

“Yeah, and flatmates -- haven’t found a new one of those yet, either.”  She pulled a face.  “Damn her and her desire to live somewhere warm.  And damn Costa Rica for existing.”

John smiled.  “So she left before the first death?”

“Yeah, a month or so before.”

John nodded, and glanced back down at the list of questions he’d prepared.  “And what about George?  Has he been here long?  You get along well with him?”

Anna shrugged.  “George is… he’s very quiet, and he’s not too bright -- don’t tell him I said so.  He’s... fine.”  She shrugged.  When John raised his eyebrows, she sighed dramatically, and leaned in as if to confide in him.  “He has a crush on me -- on Helen, too, when she was here -- so he’s just impossibly shy with me.  Makes it hard to talk to him.  But yeah, he’s okay.”  She seemed to suddenly remember why John was here asking questions.  “He’s been here ages -- way longer than me -- and wouldn’t harm a fly.”

John nodded.  “So can you tell me anything about either of the victims?  Anything at all?”

She thought about it.  “Didn’t notice much about the man, I’m afraid.  The woman was very quiet -- shy, and a little jumpy.  Had good fashion sense, though -- some very pretty scarves and a gorgeous brooch,” she said admiringly.  Then she flushed.  “Sorry, not relevant.”

John shrugged.  “You never know.”

“They were both alone, which is a bit unusual.”  She shrugged.  “Most people who stay here are couples.”   Like you, her smile seemed to add.  

John ignored it.  Then, unable to avoid the topic any longer, he said, “Okay, tell me about the ghost.”

Anna perked up and did so.  “Oh, I’ve always had a strong feeling about this place being a conduit for spirits, even before this, you know?”  John tried not to roll his eyes, hoping there was more to it than this.  “But then the deaths, and the blood and the mess, every night in between the deaths --”

“Hang on,” John frowned, looking up.  “Something happened on the nights between the murders?”

“Yeah -- nobody stayed in the room those nights, but I still had to clean up in the morning.  There was blood!  And bits of leaves and dirt.”

John raised his eyebrows.  “Did you tell the police?”

She heaved another sigh.  “I tried.  Nobody listens to me.”

“Was there a lot of blood?”

“No,” she admitted reluctantly.  “Just traces.  I mean, I’m pretty sure it was blood.  Eesha thought it just looked like dirt, though.”

John nodded.  “What did she say about the leaves and so on?”  

“That someone must have left the window open.”  She rolled her eyes.  “By which she meant me.  But I swear I didn’t.”

John was substantially less interested at this point, but tried to give her the benefit of the doubt that maybe someone really had dragged in some muck.  (Though he refused to believe it was a ghost.)  “Was the door locked those nights?”

“No.  We leave them open when there are no guests.”  John remembered glancing into the open guest rooms from the hallway.

“But you saw nobody enter?”

She shook her head.  “I’m not here nights, though,” she admitted.  

“And there hasn’t been any more --” he hesitated, “-- ghost activity except for the week between the deaths.”

“No.  But I think the ghost was here the nights the guests died, too -- I think it scared them to death!”  

She seemed very proud of this theory.   John dutifully made a note.  “You also said something about a shadowy figure…?”

“Yes!  The night of the second murder, I saw a dark shadow moving in the garden.”

“A person?”

“Well, a spirit.” she insisted.  “But yes, a person-shaped ghost.”

“A man, or a woman…?”

She shrugged.  “I don’t know.  They were just a shape -- it seemed they were wearing robes.”  

Anna could provide no more detail on the ghost or any other aspect of the murders, so John brought Eesha in next, who was very chatty.  She told him with little prompting all about her and Rebecca’s twenty-five years running the guest house, which Rebecca had inherited from her family.  And she was happy to discuss the murders -- and the staff theories -- as well.  “Don’t mind Anna -- she’s always been a bit prone to believing far-fetched stories.”

“So you didn’t notice anything odd about the rooms on the nights between the deaths?”

She smiled and shook her head.  “Anna means well, but she has a tendency to moan on about every speck of dust and dirt she has to clean, real or imagined.”

“And you didn’t see any of it, before she cleaned it up?”

“Just the first morning.  While Anna cleans, Becks and I are usually out doing the morning grocery run.  So we missed most of the ghost-related excitement.”  She made air quotes around “ghost-related.”  “But there really wasn’t too much, from what I saw -- just a hint of mess that any of us could have tracked in.  I think her imagination was just running wild.  Oh, this is so exciting, being interviewed by the actual John Watson!” she gushed suddenly.  “Sorry, sorry.”  She blushed and smiled at him.

John, startled, smiled back.  “Erm, thanks.  Er, no problem.”  He stared back down at his notepad, trying to clear his thoughts.  “So, did you talk much to Mr. Roylott or Ms. Mann?”

“Not really.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have much chance.  They both arrived in the late afternoon, and we’re always busy with supper by then.”  She smiled apologetically.  “And they both died their first night here.”

John pursued a few other lines of questioning that similarly turned up nothing.  “How far in advance did they book their rooms?”

Eesha frowned.  “I’m not sure…  I don’t think I helped them.”

“Can I take a look at the reservations ledger and see?”  This place seemed a good bet to still keep paper records, and any handwriting should be a good clue as to who talked to the couple.

Eesha nodded, but then grimaced.  “You’re welcome to look, but we put all the reservations into the computer system -- Helen set it up for us, a couple years ago -- and I don’t think it records when the reservation was made.”  No handwriting either, then.

John nodded.  “Did you see anyone else talking to them, any of the other guests?”

“Not really.  They both kept to themselves -- ate dinner alone, didn’t say much.  Gosh, I’m just not much help, am I?”  She bit her lip.

“That’s all right,” he said.  A thought occurred to him.  “Can I get the menus from the days they were here?”

Her eyes widened.  “You think -- poison?  Or allergic reactions?”

“I don’t know, but we mustn’t overlook any possibilities.”  

While Eesha left to find the old menus, John talked to Rebecca.  She seemed friendlier, in the absence of Sherlock. “Anything strange?” she repeated.  “No, not that I noticed.  Not about them.”  

John gave her a questioning stare, and Rebecca elaborated.  “The man with the snake, now -- he was an odd bird.”  She smiled tightly.  “Don’t worry, I believe Mr. Holmes when he says the snake man wasn’t involved.  And now that Eesha isn’t getting me caught up in her Nancy Drew theories, I do feel like maybe we ought to believe the police, too.  Maybe it was just coincidental heart attacks.  I suppose weirder things have happened.  I suppose two murders in the same locked room would be weirder,” she added wryly.

John paused, raising his eyebrows.  “So you don’t think we’re needed here?”  

She shook her head, “I didn’t say that.  I’m willing to have you go through with the investigation.  Our guest list can’t get any emptier; maybe if Sherlock Holmes issues a verdict -- natural deaths or otherwise -- people will believe it.  Maybe they’ll feel safe to stay here again.  Or at least we can advertise that he stayed here and get more guests that way.”

John barked a startled laugh.  “Yeah, you might do, at that.”

Unfortunately, Rebecca also hadn’t learned much from the victims during their short stays at Stoneview, and like Anna and Eesha, she didn’t remember having spoken to them beforehand.  After coming up without any clear leads from the first three interviews, John hoped that the gardener might have something more to offer.  But George just shook his head.  He fidgeted and glanced away as he muttered, “I go home early, every night.  They let me go home early, Ms. Alison and Ms. Karim.  I didn’t see anything.”

George hesitated, then leaned in anxiously and whispered, “Are you going to catch the ghost?”  

“The ghost,” John frowned.  “Did you see it, too?”

George shook his head, still looking down.  “No.  But the mess it left -- I saw that.  Anna had to clean it up, and she showed me.”  He blushed a little as he said Anna’s name.

“And did you see anyone in the garden?”

George looked up, confused.  “Any of the guests?”

“No -- anyone you didn’t recognize?  A -- a shadowy figure?”  John felt foolish, saying it.

George looked back down.  “No.  I’m sorry, no.”

John finished the interviews feeling like he’d learned some things, but hadn’t gained any real insights.  Eesha and Rebecca set him up at the computer in their office so he could look through their reservation book and ledger.  But while he ostensibly looked for clues, he mostly wondered where the hell Sherlock had got to.

* * *

Sherlock lay awake but unable to think -- an intolerable circumstance, which he would normally alter with the aid of chemicals.  But they weren’t in London, and he was mid-case, laying in wait for a murderer.  So he waited.  And waited.  No-one appeared, and at last, when he could hear the owners starting to stir above, he jumped up from the bed.  The sky was just barely tinged gray with the first dawn light as he drove away from the guest house and the distraction that John Watson had become.

The drive away shortly became a drive to town, in the direction of the local police station.  He would do some work on his own, and possibly even have the case wrapped up before John even awoke.

The sole officer on night shift proved an obstacle to this plan, as she turned out to have exceedingly poor public relations skills.

“Inspector Holmes, New Scotland Yard,” Sherlock introduced himself with a smile and a flash of a pilfered badge.  “Here to look at the files on the recent Stoneview House deaths.”

The woman behind the desk frowned, glancing at the clock and then back at him dubiously.  “I didn’t hear anything about you coming.”

Sherlock gave his best look of honest bewilderment.  “You didn’t get my superior’s message?  Detective Inspector Lestrade?  He said he’d called ahead.  Should I have him call again, Police Constable  --?”  He knew there was a high probability Lestrade would cover for him if forced to, but he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.  Most people were so lazy.

“Kelly,” she supplied.  “No, it’s no use.  You’re going to have to wait until the sergeant gets in.”

Sherlock kept a friendly smile on his face.  “All right. If I could just take a look at the case file, in the meantime?”

“No, you can’t.   Not till the sergeant arrives.  In two and a half hours.”  At a normal hour , her eyes added.  “Anyway, I don’t know why you lot would be interested.  They died of natural causes.” She said you lot with the scorn of a local constabulary for outside law enforcement.

“We may have spotted a pattern of similar deaths.”

PC Kelly snorted.  “Of heart attacks?  You don’t say.  Leading cause of death.”

He snapped.  “The leading cause of death is dementia, actually, as of this year.  Not that I expect you keep up on the news much, here in these backward backwoods.  Though I don’t know what else you’re doing with your time -- it’s certainly not honing your deductive skills, since you missed two murders under your nose.”  He narrowed his eyes.  “In your case, I’d say it involves a bit of recreational shoplifting -- your brand new earrings and hairpin are too nice to afford on a police salary, but based on the roots showing in your hair and your slovenly makeup, you’re not dressing up for a husband or lover.  So I’d bet you’ve been slipping items off the shelf and into your pocket, counting on the fact that nobody would suspect an officer of the law.”

She’d turned white.  “Get.  Out.”

He felt a small pang of regret, because he hadn’t got any of the information he came for.  As well as the case file, he’d wanted some other information, but it was probably pointless to ask now, “I don’t suppose you can tell me which morgue the bodies were sent to?”  Instead, he was forced to spill Kelly’s tea all over some important looking papers she’d been reading.  While she ran for towels, he leaned over the reception desk and rifled through the list of contacts near the phone until she returned and chased him out.  He got what he needed before she did, though.

As it turned out, the pathologist at the morgue (once he finally showed up for work -- no work ethic, not like Molly, who was relatively rarely missing from the lab when Sherlock needed her) was also needlessly obstinate.  “No,” the tiny bald vegetarian man with ferrets at home said, blocking the entrance.  “The police already finished their investigation, and I’m not going to let someone else poke at them -- we’re about to release the bodies to the families for burial.”

“Right -- I’ll just need to see the autopsy reports, then.”  He would come back later to view the bodies, when someone less obstinate was about.

“We didn’t do an autopsy -- police decided it wasn’t warranted.”

“And you agreed with them?”  Sherlock exploded.  “What is wrong with the residents of this town?  Are your pipes made of lead, or is it genetic?”

For some reason, the pathologist refused to talk further and kicked him out.  Molly was never unreasonable like this.

Dammit, he worked so much better with John, when John wasn’t being bothersome and distracting.  He would return to the guest house now, and they would keep working together.  And it would be fine.  It was daytime, and they had a case, and everything was very fine.

* * *

“How on earth did your brother ever get anything done before he met John?” Harry asked.  

Mycroft sighed, thinking back to those days with no nostalgia whatsoever.  “With a great deal of supervision and cleanup from myself, and from the only Scotland Yard detective willing to tolerate him.”

Harry frowned.  “He doesn’t seem the sort to take supervision well.”  

Mycroft’s lips curled up.  “No, not particularly.  And especially not from me.  I’ve had to be… subtle in observing where and how I can assist.”

“How do you assist someone like Sherlock?”

His smile soured.  “Rather more bail, bribery, and manipulation of official records than I would prefer.”

Harry gave a startled laugh, sounding a great deal like John as she did.  She was happier and more relaxed this morning than yesterday, Mycroft was pleased to see.  Having a project was good for her.  “Well, I’ve never had to resort to bribery or fraud so much, with my brother.  I’ve usually used a more hands on approach” -- she made a fist -- “when he’s needed help.  Not that he ever appreciated it.”

Mycroft shook his head.  “Little brothers can be rather less grateful than one might hope.”  Then he studied her.  “ You fought to protect him?

Harry glowered.  “Why -- you think I can’t take care of myself in a fight?”

“No, that wasn’t my intended implication, I assure you.  But I would have imagined…” he paused, searching for the most appropriate phrase.  “The time in which you grew up --” not to mention her arrest records “-- would have made you the target of attacks once your sexuality became known, or suspected.”

Harry nodded slowly and relaxed.  “Well, yeah, pretty much.”  She smiled wryly.  “But I took care of myself just fine.  Though John did beat up plenty of tossers on my behalf, too -- nevermind that I didn’t ask him to and gave him stern lectures each time, all of which he paid exactly zero attention to.”  Mycroft’s lip quirked in recognition.  Little brothers.

“My surprise was not at your capability,” he clarified, “but at the idea that John was also a target for bullying.”

Harry smiled tightly.  “I guess the Holmes brothers don’t know everything after all.”

It was a frustrating remark -- Mycroft had thoroughly researched Doctor Watson from the moment his brother had taken an interest in him, but he had apparently missed something.  What was it?  

Before he could ask, Harry said, “In fact, the Holmes brothers don’t know rather a lot.  You think your brother is happier alone, but you’re about to be shown that you’re wrong.”

“Oh?  And how do you propose to do that?”  

She turned away from him and leaned over a phone she pulled from her pocket.  Mycroft watched, confused but only mildly alarmed.  Her phone was dead, and he had removed any method of recharging it so as to prevent her from undesirable contact with the outside world.  Had she somehow found a charger, or new battery?  Where?  In any case, there was relatively little damage she could do by sending John another text message.  Or more than one message, it appeared.

“I’m not doing anything,” she said, turning back around with a triumphant grin.  “You are.”  She placed Mycroft’s phone on the table.

* * *

John had just about finished looking through every boring screenful of the guest house reservations for the last few months, and their financial records, when his phone buzzed.

processed your request... found past evidence of dr watsons bisexuality - MH

likelihood of rejection calculated to be low~ but be v careful sheetrock - MH

*sherlock

oops wrong number

John blinked at the messages sent from a number his phone could only identify as “[UNKNOWN],” trying to make sense of them and feeling an increasing tightness in his chest.  Mycroft…?

What did he know?  What could he know?  He couldn’t.  There wasn’t.  He.

John jumped up from the desk and walked outside.

The Castlerigg stones stood in a circle atop a hill, overlooking the town of Keswick, and valleys and hills for miles beyond.  John found himself among them without having any memory of walking there.  He was breathing heavily.  There was a buzzing in his ears.  He needed to calm down.  He walked among the stones.

It was absurd.  He had never dated men.  He had never slept with a man.  What could Mycroft possibly think he knew?

Smells of young men, grass- and mud-covered uniforms, leather sports equipment, sweat.  Sounds of two low voices and laughter echoing against tiles.  

Impossible.

Playful shoves.   A lingering touch, long breath, lidded eyes.  Teeth gripping lower lip, hesitating.  

It hadn’t even been anything, not really.

Crashing forward suddenly, pressing together.  Lips parted, tongues eager, unfamiliar hints of whiskers against his face --

That didn’t -- it was a long time ago.  Meaningless.  At that age, who knows what they want?  Besides which, Mycroft couldn’t possibly know...

Hands scrambling, fumbling toward more -- door flung open -- shouting -- pushing apart -- running --

Did Mycroft know?  How could he?  Who told him?

No, he couldn’t know.  And he couldn’t think -- not from that one time, so long ago.  What else was there?

John walked, and he trawled his memories for anything.  Bart’s?  The Army?  

There had been a few good-natured jokes about John and Sholto (though not where Sholto could hear), and before that, during training, about him and one of his best mates.  Any time men were close, someone had to turn it into a joke -- especially in that environment.  

He’d never done a thing.  Not with any of them.

He slowed his walking, forced himself to breathe. To think.  He looked at the messages again, for the umpteenth time.  He made himself focus on each of them in turn, not just get hung up on the first one.

There was something strange here.  The messages were clumsier than John would imagine Mycroft’s texts sounding, and texting John by mistake was very odd indeed.  But then, Mycroft never texted -- never texted John at all, but also never texted Sherlock -- unless there was a dental or medical issue preventing him from calling.  He must be under a lot of sedation to make such an error.

John’s heart leapt.  Perhaps he might have been disoriented enough to have forgotten to text Sherlock?  Maybe Sherlock didn’t know.  Whatever the alleged evidence, it was possible he didn’t have it.  

But no, Sherlock had requested this information from Mycroft (why?), which meant he would ask for it again, even if he didn’t have it yet.  

Rejection.   Likelihood of rejection calculated to be low.   Rejection of what -- or of whom?  Of Sherlock?  No, absurd.  Unthinkable.  Wasn’t it?  Sherlock wasn’t -- okay, who knows what Sherlock was after the conversation yesterday. But Sherlock didn’t. Sherlock wouldn't. Right? John felt something uncomfortable clenching at his gut.

What else could it mean, though?

A case.  It could be a case.  (The unnamed thing clenching his gut shifted, slithered, but didn’t become more comfortable.)  Maybe there was something Sherlock wanted to ask John to do that would involve pretending an identity as a gay or bisexual man, but Sherlock wanted to find out whether he’d be willing -- or able -- to play the role before asking.  

John felt affronted. Sherlock didn’t want to ask John directly?  To the point that he’d rather ask Mycroft?   He pursed his lips and picked up his pace.

Yes, it might be for a case.  John could buy that.  But he also didn’t feel terribly sure of it.  It seemed easier to believe than the alternative, though.  In the end, he didn’t have enough information, and he couldn’t come up with any plan besides watching Sherlock and waiting to see what happened next.

John was startled to see that the sun (or the brighter spot behind the clouds that he was pretty sure was the sun) had journeyed several hours across the sky while he’d been thinking.  He felt a stab of guilt -- Sherlock was probably back by now, and wondering where he was.  And the case wasn’t getting solved while he was up here.  He turned and headed back toward the guest house.

* * *

“I would never send such texts,” Mycroft said with a lip curl, before tucking his phone inside his jacket.  She thought she sensed some stronger negative emotions lurking below the surface, but overall, Harry was relieved he wasn’t angrier.  She’d decided she liked her comfy bed here and wasn’t ready to leave yet.

“Oops.” She shrugged.  “Fortunately, my brother isn’t too likely to notice that kind of detail.” She hoped, anyway.  John could be perceptive at times, and so dense at others.  “What’d I get wrong?”

“So many things.  Among others, your sense of typography is … different from my own,” he sniffed.

“Well, hopefully he’ll think it’s from you, despite that.  It is your number, after all.”  Assuming Mycroft was in John’s contacts -- which, come to think of it, she wasn’t sure of -- then that should be pretty persuasive.

“It was also an interesting choice to misspell my brother’s name.”

She grimaced.  “Yeah, that was all autocorrect.”  If Harry hadn’t been rushing so much to send the texts before Mycroft stopped her, she might have caught that one.  Oh well.  “It seems to have caught his attention anyway,” she said, nodding to the monitor that showed the hills where John was now pacing.

Mycroft cocked his head.  “Indeed.  So.  What past evidence of bisexuality?  I’ve investigated John’s history rather thoroughly.” He left unspoken the obvious -- that he’d found nothing.

“’Course you have,” she smirked.  “But I guess you missed a boy we knew in high school.”  Mycroft still looked skeptical.  “Christopher.  He and John played rugby?” Mycroft shook his head slightly, not recognizing him -- and was she just imagining a faint air of chagrin?

“Christopher was always over at our house for a while, and the way John looked at him -- actually, the way they gazed at each other -- I thought maybe...” she hesitated just a moment, thinking how to describe it.

“That’s it?” Mycroft frowned.

“No, no,” she waved her hand at him.  “That was just what made me wonder.  But even at the time, I thought maybe I was just projecting.”  She grimaced a bit, remembering the time, the constant exhausting mix of dread and longing and paranoia.  Analyzing -- and re-analyzing, and analyzing again to be sure -- the way that every other person was looking at each other.  To find others like her, without letting on what she was to anyone else.  

She felt like Mycroft, studying her, could see all of this, somehow, and she shook off the memories. “So, yeah, I half thought I was making it up.  But one day they were caught snogging in the locker room, after everyone else had cleaned up and gone home -- some boy went back for his bag and found them at it.”

For a moment, Mycroft looked like his eyebrows were about to levitate away.  But his frown quickly returned.  “How did this not show up in any records?  I found evidence of you getting sent home from school over rumors that you’d been holding hands with a girl -- “inappropriate behavior” -- but nothing about Doctor Watson.”

“You have a file on me, too?”  Her brow furrowed for a minute.  Then,  “Are you sure you won’t spy on my girlfriend for me?  She’s only one more hop away.”

“No,” Mycroft said firmly.  “Please continue, about Doctor Watson.”

“Nobody in the school administration ever got wind of it.”  

He studied her.  “Why?”

“John beat the crap out of the boy who saw them, and after, he swore he’d never seen a thing.”

“Yet you heard about it?”

“The boy had told a couple others before John got to him -- one of whom had a sister I was friends with -- so it spread a bit.  But John just kept fighting and fighting anyone who dared to mention it.  And I did, too.  Plus everyone knew what a ladies man John was, and so it just -- it seemed unlikely to most people.”

Mycroft raised an eyebrows. “But you believe it really happened?”

“Yes,” she said without hesitation.

“Why?”

She thought about it.  “A few things.  I was running around dating lots of guys back then, hoping to meet one I liked -- so John dating women didn’t rule anything out for me.  And when I cornered Christopher and asked him what had happened, he flushed and ran away, but he didn’t deny it -- though he certainly denied it publicly.  But mostly, it was just they way they were together.”

Mycroft sat back, folding his fingers together beneath his chin, and sighed.  “This is… new information,” he admitted.  “Have there been others?”

“I assume so -- but John must’ve got a lot more careful.  All I know for sure is Christopher. And that the way John looked at Christopher -- it’s the same now, when John looks at Sherlock.”  She studied Mycroft.  “Does this change your opinion about anything?”

He closed his eyes thoughtfully and did not answer.

* * *

“Oh, he went out a while back -- didn’t say where,” the dramatic young woman at the front desk told Sherlock when he returned.  She sighed and looked put upon.  “Nobody tells me things.”

Sherlock pushed past her into the office and huffed as he sat at the guest house computer -- where was John wandering off to without him?  John had also sat here for several hours, before leaving; what had caused him to leave?  Sherlock flicked through the recently visited tabs, looking for clues as to where John had gone.  Finding none, he returned to the case.

He paged through the calendaring software, looking at the guests who’d stayed in the guest house during the murders, or slightly before or after.  He cross-referenced all the names with several reference sites (crimes, ancestry, births, deaths, employment), and -- oh, that was interesting.  He muttered something to John before remembering.  Sherlock performed a number of further searches while also poking through the browser history to see what the staff had been looking at in the past weeks.  

He looked up as John walked in.  He had been out in the sun; the dirt on his shoes said the hills.  (The hills?  Nothing on the computer pointed to them.)  Amount of sun and dirt said several hours of walking.  But Sherlock couldn’t tell why.  John wore an unusual expression, or combination thereof -- tentativeness? nervousness? uncertainty? -- that looked out of place on his face.  

Asking would mean admitting he couldn’t deduce what John had been up to.  “Find anything?” he asked brusquely.

John shook his head, and his expression relaxed just a fraction.  Interesting.  “I interviewed the staff and the owners, and I looked at the records.  Turned up more on the ghost story, but that’s about it.”  He fished his notebook from his pocket and held it out.

Sherlock flipped through it.  No particles from outside on the pages; simply John’s approximately legible scrawl.  John hadn’t been doing something case-related while wandering outside -- or at least nothing that involved taking notes.  “Right,” he said, closing it confidently.  “We’re going out.  But first, we’ll need to talk to the owners and staff.”

“I did,” John repeated.

“But you didn’t ask the right questions,” Sherlock said, eliciting nothing more than a brief nod.  John still looked preoccupied.  

In short order, Sherlock established that none of the staff remembered booking the reservations of the guests who’d died.  And that none of them were aware that Mr. Roylott and Ms. Mann had once been married.  

“How strange!” the more excitable of the two guest house owners exclaimed.  “I never would have guessed there was any connection.”

“Because you were too dim to look at their Facebook accounts, where there are still pre-divorce photos on Mr. Roylott’s account,” Sherlock observed.  She looked hurt, and Sherlock did his best to imitate politeness, since he wanted further information.  “To be fair, everyone was that dim, including the police.  And John.”  John shook his head, but also looked like he was trying to suppress a smile.

“They were married for nearly two decades, until several unhappy events occurred,” he continued.  “Mr. Roylott lost most of his former wealth in a series of poor investments, and then their house burned down with their two teen daughters inside. As is statistically common, their alleged love appears to have been insufficiently strong to overcome this shared trauma.”

“Sherlock,” John hissed, in what was probably a reminder not to sound so dispassionate.  The short, irritable owner was also glaring at him.

Sherlock ignored them.  “After that, their paths substantially diverged.  They moved to different towns -- neither near each other, nor near here.  Which leaves us with the mystery of what brought them to stay in the very same guest house, nearly five years later.”  

John was giving him an admiring look, and even though he felt he’d done little to warrant it this time -- all the information was readily available via a computer screen, very little deduction required -- it warmed him.  The staff also seemed impressed, even the irritable one.

“Did you notice anything that appeared to connect the guests?” Sherlock asked them.

“No?” the owner who’d spoken earlier frowned.  “Not really.”

“Well, there was one thing,” The irritable one said slowly.  Sherlock fought the urge to tell her to talk faster; personality analysis suggested that it would be counterproductive.  “They both won that promotional contest… what was it?  Sun-Swept Adventures?”

“Oh!  Yes, the tour thingummy!”  The other brightened.  

“Specificity,” Sherlock requested sharply.  “Please,” he added belatedly, following a glare.

“Sun-Speckled Adventures, I think,” she tried again.  “I’d never heard of them, but the brochure looked nice.  They were offering a few free trips to the Lake District, with lodging and touring expenses paid.”

“Does that happen much?”  John inquired.

“Never,” the two women said together.

Sherlock rolled his eyes.  “And you didn’t think to mention that before?”

The bubbly woman looked sheepish.  “Well, it’s not completely odd.  We have had a few small tour companies and travel agents call to book some rooms with us as part of some kind of package deal, now and then.  Not usually for a contest.  But it could happen.”

The other woman was frowning.  “So what does it mean?”

“I don’t know yet.  But it’s obviously important.  Fetch the brochure.”

They did, and he tucked it into his jacket for further examination later, then turned on his heel.  “Come, John.  We need to see about some chickens while it’s still light.”  Ignoring the confused glances, he led the way out of the guest house.

* * *

“You gave her my phone.”  Mycroft had adjusted the office lighting to make sure his glower was quite visible.

“Yes.”  Anthea said calmly, appearing entirely unrepentant.

“Why?”

“Why are you so sure you’re right about your brother?” she countered.

He studied her.  He had not predicted this action, or this attitude.  He was used to being closely in sync with his assistant.  “You were the one who pulled the lever on Operation Domino.  You’ve changed your mind so soon?”

She shook her head.  “I agree with you that the circumstances warranted action, to protect Sherlock.  But I never said I thought that he shouldn’t have a relationship.  And I find Ms. Watson’s arguments compelling.”

Mycroft frowned.  “Her methods are --”

“-- Charmingly unconventional,” Anthea smiled disarmingly.  “Why don’t you give her free rein for a bit and see how effective she can be?  Maybe she’s right.”

“Too risky.”

Anthea sighed and looked disappointed.  “Have you considered that perhaps you’re the reason that Sherlock can’t have successful relationships?  That you’ve monitored and sheltered him, warned him away from getting too close to people his entire life every time he had a chance?”

Mycroft sat back, thunderstruck.  “He doesn’t need --”

You don’t need.  Or you think you don’t.  You certainly don’t seem to want to be happy, and do your best to isolate yourself.  Fine, I won’t stop you from following that path.  But I draw the line at helping to sabotage your brother’s possible happiness.”

“That’s not --”  Mycroft started, but she glared him down.

“Despite all your efforts, Sherlock has managed to befriend John Watson, somehow -- and it’s made him more stable, not less.  I think you should let things evolve further.”

“By allowing John’s sister to manipulate them?” He was vaguely aware that he might be sputtering.  It was not a familiar state.

Anthea’s eyes widened.  “Oh dear, manipulation!  That is a terrible thought.”  She dropped the sarcasm and added, “I won’t take your things anymore, but that’s all I’ll promise.  Oh, and by the way, you have a call with Yemen in two hours.”

Anthea left a relevant file on the desk and Mycroft sitting in stunned silence.

* * *

John watched Sherlock introduce himself to the owner of a small farm next to the Stoneview property.  

“Inspector Ash, here from the Livestock Inspection Program,” Sherlock said with a brisk smile.  “Have you any chickens?”

“Mrs. Harper,” the small, white-haired, wiry woman replied.  “Sorry, I didn’t know you were coming.”

Sherlock turned to glare at John.  “Did my assistant fail to make an appointment again?”  

“Sorry,” John muttered, ducking his head.

“I’m still training him,” Sherlock said.  

“Well, it’s all right, I suppose,” Mrs. Harper said.  “You might as well come take a look at them, since you’re here.”  

The farmer slowly led them from the house across the property to the hen enclosure.  She inquired about the status of the previous inspection, and the irregularities of this one, and Sherlock improvised responses.  John took a fair amount of the blame.  But he was too distracted observing Sherlock to care, or to say much besides sorry.

John tried to focus on the case, looking for clues among the remaining flock and their yard.  But he could see nothing of obvious interest.  And despite his best efforts, he kept getting distracted by looking at Sherlock, wondering what Mycroft might have told him, and what Sherlock might be planning to do with the information.

“The earth here was recently disturbed,” Sherlock noted, pointing at a spot inside the enclosure, near the fence.  John could barely see, beneath the chicken feed, that the color of the dirt was a bit darker, and it looked less evenly packed.

“Yes,” Mrs. Harper said, staring at him a bit strangely.  “We lost a few hens a week or so ago, before we located this fox hole and filled it in.”

“You’re very lucky most of your chickens survived,” Sherlock observed.

Mrs. Harper nodded.  “That we were.  The fox took just one hen per night, as far as we can tell -- no killing frenzies, no corpses left behind.”

“One per night?” John managed to come up with a relevant question.  “So this happened multiple nights?”

She looked slightly sheepish.  “Yes, sad to say for the poor hens.  My husband tends them in the morning, and his memory isn’t so good anymore... He thought he’d just miscounted them the first few times it happened.  Especially because Angus -- our dog -- never gave any alert.”

“And did you take pictures of the pen before destroying the evidence?”

“Erm, no?”  She gave him a peculiar look.

Sherlock seemed to remember he was supposed to be a livestock inspector, and smiled disarmingly.  “Right.  And have any of your neighbors had similar experiences?”

“Yes -- a few farms down the road each had hens missing, and another couple farmers found holes where the fox had tried to get in but failed.”

“No sign of the actual fox?”

“No.  We put out traps, after the last attack, but caught nothing.”

Sherlock asked the dates of each attack, and the addresses of each neighbor, and John noted them down.  

“And when did the reporters come?”

Mrs. Harper was giving him stranger looks the longer the questions continued.  “You mean James’s write-up in the local paper?  He lives at the Wilford farm, just down the road, and writes for the paper from time to time.”

“What about the Times reporters?” John asked.

“Sorry?”

“The London newspaper?”

She gave him a long look and then burst out laughing.   “Ah, you’re pulling my leg!  The Times has never cared a whit about a few missing hens, so far as I know.”  

“Thanks, you’ve been most helpful,” Sherlock said, sweeping out.

“Hang on -- don’t you want to inspect the feed?”  Mrs. Harper was confused.

“My assistant will call you,” Sherlock shouted back over his shoulder.

With the other farmers nearby, it was the same story -- one or two chickens missing, at most, before the attacks suddenly stopped; no sightings of the fox.

“This doesn’t even seem like a story.  Why was it in the London Times?” John asked as they returned to the guest house.

Sherlock shook his head.  “Aside from the fact that most of the chickens survived, there’s nothing interesting about it -- except the timing.”

John considered, trying to focus.  “The attacks all occurred between the two deaths.”

“Exactly.”

“Meaning?”

“It’s a bit obvious, isn’t it?”  Sherlock grinned infuriatingly.  When he said nothing further, John sighed, and followed him back to the guest house.

* * *

During dinner, John ate, Sherlock pretended to consider the facts of the case.  The case was disappointingly trivial -- it was going to wrap up far more quickly than he’d hoped, assuming things went as expected tomorrow.  At this point, he was far more interested in what was going on with John.  

John seemed guarded.  Wary, even.  And specifically toward Sherlock; he’d relaxed whenever he was distracted by the case, but grew pensive when they were alone.  But also something else -- expectant, perhaps.  What had happened earlier today, while Sherlock was away?  John had skipped lunch and got enough exercise to warrant shoveling shepherd’s pie into his mouth now at an alarming rate.  Why?

Was John feeling nervous because of their fight in the car the day before?  He hadn’t seemed wary of Sherlock yesterday.  Though perhaps his expression of disinterest in bed last night had been to ward off any potential propositions from Sherlock, now that John knew he was not asexual.  (John was so touchy about others’ perception of his own sexuality; it was possible he was hung up on this detail.)   

Or perhaps John had learned something new today?  About Sherlock, or his past?  There were details enough -- from while Sherlock was away, and from earlier -- to make John blanch.  But how would John know? Unless someone had reached out and told him...  But who, and what information could have that effect?  Something from Mycroft?  Irene?  Sherlock couldn’t imagine what reason either would have had to reach out to John.  

Or had John perhaps done something himself, that he was worried Sherlock might find out about?  Maybe he’d decided to disclose it, but was worried Sherlock would respond poorly?

Sherlock couldn’t tell, which was infuriating.  But he certainly wasn’t about to let John know that.  

Well, tomorrow Sherlock would wrap up this case, and they could go home, where he could test hypotheses about what had changed for John in a more controlled environment.

* * *

“You didn’t miss much,” Harry said.  Mycroft had been off doing who knows what -- allegedly boring government business -- for a while, leaving her to monitor alone, between occasional visits from Anthea.  “They’re just headed to their room for the night.”

“Mm.”  Mycroft sat down beside her.  “No interesting conversation over dinner?”

“No conversation at all, just about,” she said sourly.

“What did you hope for, then, after sending the texts?” Mycroft asked.  He seemed calm and less judgmental than earlier.  “A declaration of love?”

She wrinkled her nose.  “No.  But I guess I thought something might happen, now that John knows Sherlock is into him.”

“Yes, well.   If your brother believes that --”

“You think he doesn’t?” Harry said, startled.

Mycroft frowned ever so slightly at the interruption.  “I think there are multiple hypotheses he may be entertaining.  If he now believes it is possible that Sherlock is interested -- and if Doctor Watson is indeed open to a relationship --” Harry was annoyed at the continued skepticism, but didn’t interrupt a second time, “perhaps he is waiting to see how my brother will proceed.”

She bit her lip and considered. “True.  I guess I didn’t actually plan for that half of the equation when I sent the messages.  I was only considering how to make John aware of Sherlock’s interest.”  She thought a moment.  “Okay, so now we need to figure out how to make Sherlock aware of John’s interest.”

“I think,” said Mycroft carefully, “that it would be better if we wait a bit.  Consider all our options before deploying anything further.”

“Why?”  

“I have far more practice directing my brother than you do.  Right now, he is focused on the case and little else.  That gives us time to choose the next step carefully.”

Harry didn’t miss the “us.”  Mycroft wanted to work with her rather than excluding her, and he wasn’t saying no to “directing” his brother.  She tried to hide her sense of triumph.  “All right.  I guess it’s not a bad idea to sleep on it.”

Mycroft inclined his head.  “Good.  I think you and I can be a most effective team, working together.  If you promise not to take any more actions without consulting me, I will give you access to my phone again, should we decide together that it’s warranted.”

It wasn’t like she had a choice, really.  But she grinned and accepted it.  “Deal.”  She felt reasonably confident she could manipulate both Holmes brothers and her own brother into doing what she thought best.  She had a lot of years of brother manipulation under her belt, after all.

Chapter Text

Sherlock was getting undressed when John bolted.  

As bedtime approached, John found himself becoming awkward, unsettled -- he still couldn’t tell whether Sherlock had received Mycroft’s messages, and he couldn’t anticipate what would happen once he had.  He worried that his being flustered was obvious to Sherlock, which only made him more so.  He needed to take a walk and clear his head.  He muttered something that he wasn’t sure made sense as he headed out.  He felt Sherlock’s eyes on him, but Sherlock didn’t say anything.  

He needed a drink.  Rummaging through the cupboards stocked for guest use, he found a bottle and a glass, and he took them outside.  He would have preferred to get some distance from Sherlock, from everyone, but there was nowhere to go; unlike London, they were surrounded by a pitch black landscape full of not much.  Instead, he softly tread the bricked paths of Stoneview’s garden, near enough the house that the lights within dimly lit his way.  He tried not to feel like a skulking weirdo.  Or a ghost.  He eventually located a chair and a table that he was sure would be quaint given more light.

He sat and drank, and he tried not to think.  He just wanted to stop doing that -- overthinking was what had landed him in this mess.  Watching Sherlock, wondering what he knew, wondering what he knew John knew…  It was all too much.  Not to mention trying to figure out what to do when Sherlock asked him -- whatever it was he was going to ask him.

He succeeded at not thinking about any of it for entire milliseconds at a time.

After a couple glasses, John realized he was going to have to try something new.  He couldn’t afford to stay up all night, nor to drink himself into unconsciousness -- not when there was a case on and a murderer possibly still nearby.

He sipped his drink and grudgingly contemplated Ella.  What would she say?

You’re afraid of Sherlock asking you something related to your sexuality.  Why?  

Yes, that was Ella -- direct.  He scratched his nose, shrugged.

Are you afraid of him being interested in you?

It’s fine if he likes men, he responded.  (Does he like men?  Well, “like” was probably not the right word for it, given Sherlock’s general disdain for most of humanity --  but John was still curious, following their conversation during the drive up from London, who exactly Sherlock favored, and when and how he’d acted on it in the past.  But he wasn’t about to bring it up.)

That’s not what I asked.  What do you want, John?  If you could have any sort of relationship with Sherlock that you desired?  It would be good to start by knowing that.

He snorted.  She was always asking impossible questions.

Are you attracted to him?

John poured himself another drink.

Let’s start with something simpler, then.  Not Sherlock.  Earlier, you described what happened with Christopher as meaningless.  Was Christopher meaningless to you?

He grimaced. No.  He didn’t like to think about Christopher.  About what had happened, after.  But he’d cared about him very much.

So what did you mean?  Did you not want to kiss him?

He had wanted it, in the moment.  He’d thought so, anyway.  Who knows what they want at that age?  At sixteen, nobody has anything figured out.  I’m not gay.

You say that a lot.

I’m not.

That’s clear.  You’re interested in plenty of women.  But that doesn’t exclude attraction to men.  

He shook his head.   I haven’t ever done anything.  Not a thing, plain and simple.  Except that one confused kiss.

So no desires.  No fantasies.

No.   Unbidden images flashed through his head, a visual bibliography of citations to the contrary.  All right, perhaps he might notice the occasional neck, leg, curve of an arse, on a population that did not consist solely of women.  Maybe the rare non-female mouth, chest, or … lower ... might make it into his thoughts, at certain times.  He felt heat rising in his cheeks; the alcohol was strong.

I just look.  Everyone appreciates, don’t they.   He knew it wasn’t true.

Ella was silent for a long moment.   Why don’t you do more?

His throat closed.  With effort, he took another swig.

Tell me about Christopher.  Why was that the last time you acted?  

He shook his head, curling and uncurling his hand.

Things weren’t easy for you after you kissed, were they?

It would be easy to blame everything on the bullying he and Christopher had both received, when rumors were first spreading.  But it wasn’t really the fighting that had bothered him.  When it came down to it, he’d never minded a fight.

So what did you mind most?  The rumors themselves?

No.  Not at first.   Because fuck people who thought there was something wrong with being different.  Harry had come out to him and a few others by then, and he was a fierce defender of her -- there was nothing wrong with her.  

But then.

Then, after taking a bad beating, Christopher had turned on him.  Had told their friends that he and John had quarreled over a girl, that John had fought dirty, ambushing him in the locker room when he was off-guard.  Afterward, Christopher had looked at John with such hatred, such contempt in his eyes, when they passed one another in the hall (never at practice; John had lost his appetite for rugby, after) -- he’d been convincing.

It had made it easier to fight the rumors that either of them was gay.  Neither of them had suffered too much social fallout over it, in the end; more friends had taken Christopher’s side, but nobody had.  John had tried to tell himself that was why Christopher had done it -- he’d lied to protect them both.  For the same reason that John had very visibly thrashed a number of the people who’d taunted them.  But Christopher had never spoken to John again.  And that was the worst thing.

The loss of your friend.  It hurt you.

John huffed at the understatement.   Yes.  

And then?  

And then Harry had been sent home for holding hands with her girlfriend.  And their father had hit her, kicked her out, disowned her.  And suddenly the possibility of rumors mattered a lot more.  Bile rose in John’s throat as he remembered, and hated himself, again, for staying under the same roof as his father after that.  For trying to keep in his good graces, for being respectful toward him.  He didn’t deserve it.  And after John had left home for university, he’d cut ties; he’d never talked to their father again.

It was a very bad time, for Christopher and for Harry, Ella observed.   And for you.

John wanted to escape this conversation.  He willed himself to breathe.  In, out.  In, out.  He repackaged the memories of that time, wrapped them carefully and tucked them away out of direct sight once more.

When he had calmed a bit, Ella said, Times have changed, though.  You’re allowed to change, too.  You could do more now, if you wanted, without such risks.  So what do you want?

He shook his head.  She was right.  And yet...   I don’t know.

You care about Sherlock.

‘Course I do.  He’s my best mate.  

And a huge part of your life.  You never stopped mourning him when he was gone, did you?

He pursed his lips, looked down.

What do you want from him?

He still didn’t have an answer.

Sherlock is a very attractive man, Ella noted.

John scowled.   I don’t know what I want.  I don’t.  This isn’t helping.

Ella was silent.  

John, suddenly very tired, realized how foolish he was being, sitting in the dark and having an imaginary conversation with his therapist.  Besides, the bottle was empty.  He blearily returned to their room, taking more care than usual with each step.

He readied himself to deflect Sherlock’s questions or observations.  But he found, to his surprise, that Sherlock was snoring softly.  Relieved, John got into his pajamas and crawled into bed, falling asleep quickly.

* * *

“Ugh, my stupid brother!” Harry was groaning again.  Like her brother, her face spoke volumes, but unlike him, she was also apt to voice her thoughts frequently, loudly, demonstratively.  Mycroft was unsure why he found her so tolerable.  “What’s he doing?"

“Avoiding Sherlock.  Sitting.  Drinking.”  Mycroft commented dryly, watching her.  The view from the camera in John’s clothes showed almost nothing from its current angle, but the repeated clink of the bottle against glass told enough of a story.

She shot him a glare.  “Ruining everything,” she said, mimicking his deadpan tone.  “Can’t we just --”

“No.  Let’s wait and see what he does next.”

She sighed, but subsided.  Good.  She could learn patience and control, to some degree.

* * *

Sherlock observed John as he fled the room.  The fact that Sherlock had been starting to disrobe when John departed was evidence in favor of John being uncomfortable because of something to do with Sherlock’s sexuality.  And for whatever reason, John’s discomfort with sharing close quarters with him seemed to have increased today.  

Ridiculous.

Unbecoming of John.

And worrisome in the extreme.

Was it to be this that drove John away from him, finally?  Sherlock had thought there would at least be a woman, that he would have opportunities to subtly sabotage her relationship with John.  But Sherlock’s recent statement that he was not asexual -- if that was truly the source of the problem -- was not something he could now retract with any believability.  This was part of why Sherlock never discussed it with John, or anyone else; people treated such matters with far too much importance.

Even if his revelation didn’t drive John away in short order, would John always look at him with such wariness?  Would he flinch when Sherlock drew near?  Would he abandon Sherlock even when a murderer might be approaching?  (Sherlock knew now that this was not a risk currently, but John did not.)  Tedious.  Unacceptable.

Sherlock fought the urge to follow John and fight with him.  To grab John’s face and yell at him, to force him to realize that he was being foolish.  To feel the heat of John’s focused gaze -- and possibly, with sufficient provocation, the contact of his fists, the weight of his body.  

He shook his head.  In this state, John might respond even more poorly than usual.  Might be permanently pushed away.

Instead, Sherlock flopped down on the bed moodily -- fully clad in pajamas and dressing gown, to ease John’s mind upon his return.  He listened to John pacing through the garden, finding a spot to settle (a clink of glass: liquor; John’s favorite coping mechanism).  Sherlock thought about opening the window and suggesting that if John was really so bothered about sharing a bed, there were nine other rooms to choose from.  But no, better to let John reason through that himself, in his current state.  

Sherlock lay in bed alone and tried to solve the mystery of John’s fears and how to alleviate them.  But his mind found nothing to grasp, and eventually, his thoughts slipped away.  Since he’d determined already that the murderer was far away and would not be showing up tonight, he let himself drift toward sleep.

Perhaps it’s for the best… John may be less bothered about getting into bed if I’m asleep.   It was a grim thought.  But he had a treat planned for the morning that he hoped might provide a happy distraction for them both.

* * *

“I thought Sherlock didn’t sleep on cases?” Harry said, frowning.  She was slumped inelegantly in her chair at this point, looking tired; Mycroft would need to find a way to send her to bed soon.  The camera feed had shifted to infrared in the darkness, showing Sherlock alone in bed.  Soft snores came from the speakers.

Harry was not unobservant, and had an acceptable memory, Mycroft had to admit.  John had told her that fact about Sherlock several years prior.  “Not generally.  He must have this one nearly solved.”

She scrunched up her nose.  “How can he?  Nothing that’s happened makes any sense at all.”  

“No?”  He was curious to see what kind of theorizing she was capable of.

She shook her head.  “Unless it’s a ghostly murderer who also snacks on chickens.  Murdering is hard work -- maybe he got peckish!”  She grinned at him expectantly.  Mycroft did not believe puns were a form of humor worthy of encouragement, and kept his mouth still.

She shot him a disappointed look, then blew through her lips.  “Okay, let’s see.  In terms of non-ghostly suspects, it would make the most sense if it were one of the owners, because they were there both nights, and one of them could still have the master key.  But I don’t actually think it’s either of them.”

“Why not?”

“I like them too much.”  Mycroft frowned.  “But also, I can’t see a motive.  The deaths hurt their business.  And they were genuinely surprised that the victims had been married, I think -- it seems like that fact has to factor into why the murders happened somehow, doesn’t it?”  He didn’t answer.  “Plus, I think the owners of the place wouldn’t track any muck into the room where the crimes happened.  I think they habitually would take better care than that.”

Mycroft inclined his head slightly.  Not bad reasoning.  Nothing exceptional, but he admitted -- just to himself -- the bit about tracking detritus inside the guest house had not yet occurred to him.

“That’s all I’ve got, for now.  Who do you think did it?” she asked.

“Oh, you have me convinced about the poultry-devouring ghost.”  

She rolled her eyes.  “Fine, don’t share.”  Glancing back at the monitors, “Meanwhile, John’s still outside, drinking alone.  Idiot.  I think our next step may involve sending them both some liquor -- and then trapping them in a room, so they have to get drunk together .”  Mycroft raised an eyebrow.  She sounded like she was joking, mostly, but she still thought of alcohol too much as a solution to problems -- a Watson family trait.  

“For now, I suggest we go to bed.  Contrary to how it may appear, I do generally prefer to give my brother a modicum of privacy, especially at night.  Besides, I’m tired.”  Unlike his brother, he valued rest, though he was often unable to fall asleep.  He stood up.

She snorted, but followed him out of the monitoring room.

* * *

John awoke in darkness, disoriented.  The glow of the bedside clock indicated it was just after 3 A.M.  It took a long moment to realize he’d been disturbed by Sherlock moaning and thrashing beside him.

John concentrated, trying to focus, his head swimming while his heart raced.  Sherlock was saying something, but John couldn’t understand his words.  Only that he sounded desperate, pleading.  

“Sherlock,” John said softly, and then repeated it louder.  When that didn’t have any effect, he reached for Sherlock and said his name again while gently but firmly grasping his shoulders.  He knew too well that someone woken from a violent nightmare could be a danger to others before they were fully aware.

Sherlock gasped and tried to swing his arms at John.  John avoided the pummeling limbs -- mostly -- thanks to a great deal of effort and much practice treating traumatized soldiers over the years.  John kept repeating his name, and after long moments, Sherlock stilled and said, “John.”  His relief was audible.  

John relaxed his grip, but he didn’t let go of Sherlock, who was trembling.   He lay back down, slipping an arm around Sherlock’s shoulders without thinking.  Sherlock tensed for just a moment, and John was aware of the strangeness of this, but still drunk enough that he stayed relaxed, his arm loose enough that Sherlock could easily move away.  Sherlock didn’t move, and a moment later, he relaxed as well and shift closer against John’s side, placing his head against John’s chest.

After a long moment, John risked, “Want to tell me about it?”

There was a heavy silence. John thought about saying never mind, leaving well enough alone.  Tendrils of exhaustion were already trying reclaim him.  He wanted to know what Sherlock had been experiencing, though; this wasn’t the first time he’d heard such a nightmare in progress since Sherlock had returned.  Sherlock wasn’t likely to answer direct questions, but John thought he knew how to provoke a response.  

John’s words came more easily than usual, in the whisky-warm darkness.  “Let’s see.  You were saying something in … Russian, I think.  I’ve never heard you speak Russian before you left, so you probably learned it while you were away.  You were remembering something that happened during those years.”  Sherlock said nothing, but John felt his wakeful attention.  

“I’ve heard you making similar noises occasionally, back at the flat,” John was glad of the darkness, hiding his blush over admitting to having listened at Sherlock’s door, though it was perfectly justified out of worry for his friend, “so it’s a recurring dream.  From the tone, you’re asking someone to stop something --” he hesitated, then forged ahead “-- physical torture of some sort, probably.  That’s confirmed by the fact that you don’t wander around in a sheet anymore.  You never used to be shy about being in our flat near starkers when it suited you, but I haven’t seen your back or legs since you returned.”

After a longer pause, he continued, hoping that Sherlock would signal if he was getting close, or if he was terribly far off.  Any kind of response, really.  “Or maybe it was some other kind of torment… they may have also tried to keep you awake, but I imagine that bothered you less than it would most.  I expect that one of the worst psychological tortures they could apply to you was locking you up alone for long periods, with nothing to do.  You do get so bored.  In fact, perhaps them threatening to put you back in solitary is the most terrifying… yes, that’s probably what you were struggling against in your dream.”

Sherlock spoke, finally.  “Preposterous, John,” he said, weakly at first, but then with increasing strength and speed.  “You’ve moved beyond deduction to the realm of pure speculation.”  John smiled against his Sherlock’s hair.  “The language was Serbian, which I knew before setting out.  The psychological tortures I underwent were in Asia, primarily -- before I escaped and traveled to Eastern Europe, where they were less subtle in their approach.  And while I do have new scars from several different incidents, I rarely dream about their acquisition.  I never beg for my own safety.  I’m always trying to save you. ”  He nearly spit out the word, almost accusingly.  Then he sucked in a breath, as if he’d said more than he meant.

“Me?” John said slowly, frowning.

Sherlock’s voice softened, grew hesitant.  “It -- it doesn’t matter.”

John snorted.  “Well you might as well tell me anyway.”  He squeezed Sherlock’s shoulder gently.

After a pause, Sherlock continued, nearly inaudibly.  “I’m in a Serbian interrogation room, but I’m seeing you, in London.  Live, projected on the wall.  A sniper is talking to us by phone, ready to follow through on the promise to shoot you if I did not die at St. Bart’s.  He’s one of Moriarty’s men, as are the Serbians.  I’ve failed to capture them all, to stop them.  I’ve failed, and the worst has come to pass.  They’re showing me your head in the crosshairs, and no matter what I say or do, there is no way to save you.”

John hissed in a deep breath.  It was not at all what he’d expected.  And while he’d surmised that he’d been in danger, before Sherlock -- before Sherlock went away, they’d never discussed it directly.  He had no idea that this fear that had been driving Sherlock strongly during the time he’d abandoned John, that he still thought of it now.  He was at a loss as to how to respond.

He felt Sherlock still shaking beside him.  He ran soothing fingers along Sherlock’s shoulders and back, unable to stop himself, and too drunk to care.  Sherlock let him.  “I know that kind of fear,” he murmured.  “I have dreams sometimes, too.  I remember, too often, the people I couldn’t save, on the battlefield.”

“That’s not the same, it’s --” Sherlock swallowed, then muttered almost inaudibly, “you’re not people .”  

John laughed.  “Thanks, I think.  But I’m right here.  I’m okay.”  He continued to hold Sherlock, to touch him gently as he relaxed against John’s body.  Finally, John felt his breathing and heartbeat start to slow.  John’s own body relaxed in response.  

John lay in the darkness, holding his best mate, now snoring gently on his shoulder.  His best mate who dreamed often of trying to save him.  Here, now, in the dark, he was less afraid of -- this, whatever this was.  He trusted Sherlock, and this closeness was… fine.  It was more than fine.  He’d meant to comfort Sherlock, but he found it comforting, too.  

He felt Sherlock’s funny, long, warm, angular body pressing up against him.  The man had a very different body from the women John had held in bed.  It had its good points, though, John had to admit.  Unbidden memories flitted through his drunken haze.   Tight black trousers following Sherlock’s curves; neck and suprasternal notch almost flagrantly on display, framed by his obscenely well fitted shirt; that damn sheet draped over his frame at Buckingham Palace -- no pants…   he had to shift a bit to hide an embarrassing physical response that was developing.  Fortunately, Sherlock was too asleep to notice.

John sighed, staring up at the ceiling and doing his best to clear his mind.  He held Sherlock and eventually drifted back to sleep.

* * *

“Fuck yeah,” Harry said.  “Now that’s what I’m talking about.”

She had just finished reviewing the highlight reel from last night after she and Mycroft went to bed (on fast forward; she didn’t want to accidentally see anything gross -- not that anything like that had happened).  She thought Anthea had probably compiled it, but perhaps Mycroft had an AI program that detected when something of note was happening, or some other sort of automated creeping tool.

She couldn’t wait to tell Mycroft, who’d left to make yet another work call.  She wrote, “Ha HA!!” on a post it note, underlined it twice, and put it on Mycroft’s side of the desk before turning back to the monitors and switching to live view.

* * *

Sherlock awoke pressed against the body of another human being. It was a state he had disliked in the few situations where he had previously experienced it; it was generally uncomfortably warm, sometimes even sticky.  And it often preceded the other party getting cross when he tried to leave without any expression of sentiment unwarranted by earlier physical congress.

This was different.  This was John.

He stayed utterly still, preserving the experience as long as possible.  He observed: the rate of John’s breath against the top of his head.  The pace and sound of John’s heartbeat (assessed through John’s thin white vest, which Sherlock desperately wished would evaporate).  The degree of movement, in millimeters, of John’s chest rising and falling; measured with his cheek.  The bulk and tone of each muscle in his left arm, in a completely relaxed state as it encircled him.  The tickle of John’s armpit hair against Sherlock’s shoulder.  His core body temperature, assessed most precisely in various areas to which Sherlock unfortunately lacked access, but approximable again via contact with John’s armpit.  The density of the hair in the trail beneath his navel, just observable in the gap between his vest and pajama bottoms.  The shape of his opposite hip bone, where Sherlock’s hand happened to have fallen.  His skin.  The texture of his skin, anywhere Sherlock could come into contact without significant shifting.

So much data.  Not enough data.

It was completely unexpected that he would be in this situation.  He’d thought John was pulling away from him.  But then, after the nightmare, John had calmed him down and held him close without hesitation.  And had tricked him into revealing things he never meant to say aloud.   

Was it the liquor?  Was that all that was needed to get past John’s wariness of male contact?  Or was it just that John wanted to help people in need -- whatever they needed?  

Sherlock’s breath caught at the thought.  He didn’t want John’s pity, if that’s where this was coming from.  But he wanted this.  Hungered for this degree of intimacy, and more.  And he hadn’t known this much was on offer.  It overwhelmed him, to know John might want -- or at least be willing -- at times, to hold him.  Though it also seemed likely that this was a fluke, a one-time kindness, whether born of alcohol or pity or something else.  Especially now that he’d let slip the degree of his sentiment toward John.

So he stayed as still as he could, though John was sleeping soundly, for as long as possible.  But eventually, he had to rouse John, because they were going to miss an important opportunity.  He lifted his head off of John’s chest and began to move with a degree of regret that certainly ranked in the top three he’d ever felt.

* * *

 

“John, wake up!”  

John opened his eyes with effort, his eyelids thick, heavy, scraping across his eyeballs.  He winced at the dim light of the bedside lamp, blinking at Sherlock.  “What’s going on?”  

Sherlock stood next to John, fully clothed.  He was holding a breakfast tray.  “Sit up,” he instructed, and John groaned and struggled to comply.  

John eyed the bounty now in his lap -- coffee, juice, water, toast, and aspirin -- unsteadily, a wave of nausea passing through him.  Why was this happening?  Did Sherlock want something?  Or was this to apologize for --

John’s breath caught as last night came crashing back into him.  He had fallen asleep holding Sherlock.  Tangled up in him.  Thinking about -- well.  It all seemed like a strange dream, now, certainly not something that had really happened.  Except that Sherlock was smiling at him and making him breakfast.  

“Thank you, Sherlock,” John said, wincing and rubbing his temples as he spoke.  “I appreciate this, I do, but it isn’t necessary.”  In fact, John would have preferred to sleep several more hours.  He glanced out the window and saw that the sky was just tinged with the first light of dawn.

Sherlock’s smile turned a touch impatient.  “Eat up, John.  And drink -- you need your fluids.  You need to be up and about as soon as possible, so we can break into the morgue before it opens.”

John laughed and winced again.  Of course this wasn’t for his own benefit, or because anything had changed between them.  This was for the case.  He felt some relief and tucked away all thoughts of last night for later as he tucked into the hangover cure meal.

Breaking into a morgue was the kind of thing that should probably have brought John guilt.  But he felt something more like glee as he played lookout while Sherlock employed his lockpicks, enjoying the rush of knowing that someone might catch them.  His head was still pounding, a bit, but it was easier to ignore now that that they were on a mission -- an experience he remembered well from days in the army following nights of too much carousing.

Sherlock somehow knew where the bodies of the victims were straightaway; John reflected that it was sad but fortunate from the standpoint of their investigation that no family members had claimed the bodies of either victim yet.  Sherlock and John wasted no time pulling Ms. Mann out of her locker.  

“What do you think, John?” Sherlock asked.

John looked at him in surprise; he assumed that Sherlock already had a specific theory to test.  “Well, erm…” he examined the corpse.  “No clear cause of death; could be cardiac arrest, like they said, but I’d need to perform an autopsy to be sure.”  He hoped that wouldn’t be necessary; he didn’t relish the idea of being found cutting up a body without the family’s permission, even if said family didn’t appear to care much about her remains.

Sherlock nodded.  “Anything else you can spot about her?  Not related directly to death?”

“Hmm.  Scars show she’s had a C-section -- and that she had her appendix removed.  And she has eczema.”  John then studied the body again, trying to see beyond medical conditions, but unsure what he was looking for.  He felt suddenly more aware of her nakedness now that he was trying to view her as a human rather than a casualty, and more sad for her.  “Looks like she dyed her hair brunette -- gray roots showing just a bit -- and had her nails done.  She hasn’t remarried or become engaged; no sign of wearing a ring for some time.  She probably wore high heels sometimes -- see the bunion on the big toe, here.  Maybe she’s been trying to keep up her appearance to find a new husband?”  

John turned to Sherlock.  “Well?”

“You’re right, for the most part,” Sherlock began, and John felt a glow of pride.  “But you missed everything important, John -- Her hair dye was cheap and not recently maintained; she couldn’t afford better.  Nails done imprecisely, and more so on the right side, thus done by her own hand.  Her high heel use was daily, and her shoes were ill-fitting -- see the swollen ankles, and the multiple callouses?  She was working retail, standing on her feet all day, forced to wear shoes that met appearance standards, but unable to afford nice ones, nor pay for trips to the salon.  She in fact worked at Beales, at the perfume counter.  And she lived in a small flat, shared with someone who owned the place or otherwise had control.”

John smiled and asked a question that he knew would suitably stroke Sherlock’s ego.  “Now how could you possibly know all that?”

Sherlock grinned gleefully.  “You can still -- just -- catch a whiff of a Beale’s exclusive fragrance on her.”  John wrinkled his nose and decided to trust Sherlock; sniffing things in morgues was something to be avoided if possible, in his estimation.  “She was, as previously noted, short on cash; the discount of working in the department allowed her to make the purchase.”

He pointed to some faint scratches on her right hand.  “Cat.  She disliked them; commented about it on her Instagram, where she frequently posted pictures of neighborhood dogs.  Her flatmate clearly owned a cat, however, and she didn’t have enough money to get a place on her own -- nor enough control over the place to find a flatmate without a cat.”

John nodded, grinning back with delight. “Fantastic.”  Then he frowned.  “So… did you find what you wanted here?”  He was all for deductions, but they were illegally in this morgue, so perhaps he should hurry them along.

“Not yet.”  Sherlock returned to the woman’s feet.  He picked up each foot in turn and said, “Aha!  Brilliant.  This is it.” when he saw the back of the left ankle, just above the heel.

John looked and saw a slightly raised red dot.  He had no idea how Sherlock had known it was there, and he shook his head.  “Could be a needle mark… perhaps she died by injection, unless the neighboring guest had one-fanged snake?” he joked.

Sherlock’s lip curled up into a half smile.  He twirled and went to the other locker, and they quickly determined that Mr. Roylott had a matching mark.  They found nothing else of note (unless you counted that Mr. Roylott had cohabited with a widow for a while, or that he had recently acquired a new car -- but John was fairly certain Sherlock was just showing off with such revelations).

“Do you want me to draw blood to test for poisons?” John asked.

Sherlock shook his head.  “Not necessary right now.”

“Right -- feel like sharing your theory?”  But Sherlock appeared deep in thought, and just spun and left, leaving John to put away the bodies and rush to catch up with him.

* * *

“They just broke into a morgue and poked at dead bodies,” Harry said, with a mixture of horror and admiration.

“Indeed,” Mycroft said in a surprisingly approving tone.  “Nice to see them getting along so well again.”

“And they’re getting along better together in spite of the fact that John knows Sherlock is interested in him.  Maybe even because of it.  I mean, they snuggled together last night!” Harry crowed.  

“Mm.  What do you infer from this?” Mycroft asked.

“That John has stopped panicking about his sexual identity.  That if Sherlock makes a move, he’ll be open to it.”

“There’s a logical leap in there,” Mycroft observed, watching the screen as their brothers exited the morgue.  

Harry frowned.  “What else could it all mean?  If John was still panicking, or unreceptive, I think he’d be more tense.”

“There are still a wide variety of hypotheses to entertain.  What makes you think John is not, for instance, trying to remind Sherlock how good their friendship is, so that Sherlock doesn’t push the boundaries of their relationship?  Or that John has not simply relaxed because Sherlock did not attempt anything… romantic…” it sounded like he was pronouncing a foreign word, “last night after the nightmare?”

He sounded so cold and arrogant and annoying rational.  She knew she couldn’t out-logic him, so she tried a different tack.  “How many relationships have you had?”

His brow furrowed and he turned to stare directly at her.  “Relevance?”

“Ok, I’m gonna take that to mean you’re not exactly Casanova.”  No response.  “I am Casanova,” she grinned.  “Look, I know what love looks like.  I know what lust looks like.  I know what both look like on the face of my little brother.”  She pulled a face at the last bit, but it was true.

When he said nothing, she swung back to the monitor and started rewinding the video from the morgue.  She focused in on John’s face as he watched Sherlock clutching the ankle of a dead woman, filled with admiration and laughter and joyful conspiracy -- and with something more.  “It looks like that.”

After a long pause, Mycroft nodded.  “All right.  I accept your judgment, as an expert on your brother.  But there are at least seven reasons that neither he nor Sherlock will choose to make a first move toward increased intimacy --”

“Yeah,” Harry cut him off, “I definitely bunged things up a bit when I messaged John, making it sound like Sherlock would be the one to initiate.  But!”  She smiled.  “There’s still time to fix it.”

Mycroft raised an eyebrow.  “What do you propose?”

“We just need to get Sherlock to make the first move.”  

Mycroft chuckled.  “‘Just’ causing him to do something is rarely an easy matter.”

“I have every confidence in your abilities as the elder Holmes,” she grinned.  “Will you help?”

Mycroft considered long enough that she thought he was going to say no, but finally pulled out his phone.  He typed in a message and hit send.  She grabbed his phone and frowned in dismay at what she saw.

Need your assistance with a matter of national security. Return to London ASAP.  Also, do not ask John Watson about Christopher under any circumstances. Will explain upon your return. - MH

* * *

Everything was going so smoothly this morning.  Sherlock had luxuriated in extra unnecessary deductions in the morgue, just to make John’s his eyes light up -- with great success.  And they’d also found what Sherlock had predicted on the victims’ ankles.  Sherlock was almost ready to reveal all the answers.  First, though, he needed a few things from a hardware store.  He left John in the car looking into the contest company that had awarded the victims their free trips.

While Sherlock was in the tool aisle, he received a text message from his brother.  He read it and frowned.  This case was wrapping up already -- disappointing -- but the fact that Mycroft wanted him to return to London made him disinclined to do so.  “National security” without any hint of the details meant that the issue probably wasn’t all that interesting,  it merely involved some high official.  Boring.  Perhaps Sherlock and John could find another case to detain them on the way home.  The second part, though -- that was intriguing.

Christopher.  John had never mentioned a Christopher.  What could Mycroft possibly know?  Did this have anything to do with John’s strange mood yesterday afternoon and evening?

A new and most interesting puzzle.

* * *

“What did you do?”  Harry protested, reading his text.  After a moment, though, she looked up and chortled.  “Wait a minute, let me guess -- he always does the opposite of what you say?”  

Mycroft raised his eyebrows.  “Indeed.  Little motivates my brother so much as antagonizing me -- except for a puzzle.”

“Well played!”  

“It’s always best to make my brother think something is his own idea.”  Besides which, if Harry was wrong about John, this would less firmly put Sherlock on the path toward making a horrible mistake than whatever plan she would have devised.

She brightened.  “Right.  I feel like I’m learning so much from you!  I wonder if I could convince my girlfriend to call me if I used reverse psychology -- maybe I could make her think that calling me would make me feel guiltier --”

Mycroft cut her off.  “No.”  

“Just hear me out --”

“No,” he repeated, and Harry sputtered to a confused halt.

She’d been here long enough that he deemed her sufficiently invested in the case not to leave, so she might as well be told. “Beatrice is not interested in returning your calls, nor in getting back together with you,” he said, not unkindly.  “She has been seeing another woman for a few months now, and looking for the right time to tell you.”

Harry looked at him with such wide, hurt eyes that he found himself feeling rather sorry for her.  Despite the knowledge that Harry was chronically infidelitous herself, as well as frequently failing her attempts at sobriety -- often in conjunction.  

“But… are you sure?”  When Mycroft nodded, she said weakly, “Is it Callie?  From work?”

“Does it matter?”  Mycroft asked gently.

“A little,” Harry grumbled.  She sat there for a long moment, looking lost, then shook herself and, with some effort, rallied.  “Wait, how do you know all this?”  He just watched her.  “You mean you already had my place bugged?”  When he didn’t answer, she rambled, “It is still my place, by the way.  I’m on the lease, and if Bea thinks she’s getting to stay there just because I’ve cheated more than she has, she’s wrong.  I only ever cheated little bits, anyway -- one night stands.  Nothing like a long affair with Callie from work, ” she harrumphed, though she didn’t sound like her heart was in it.

Mycroft watched this display of moral gymnastics with some appreciation.  “I didn’t need to have your place bugged; cursory external surveillance was sufficient to observe this pattern.”  

“Right, okay.”  She nodded.  Then, “Wait, you didn’t need to, for that purpose -- but I bet you did anyway, didn’t you?  You sly motherfucker,” she grinned weakly.  

Mycroft was mildly impressed that she had noticed the distinction.  But it was time to redirect her attention further away from topics likely to depress her.  “What is he buying that for?” he mused, although he could easily guess.

“Oh, weird -- I have no idea.”  Harry frowned at the shot of Sherlock in the hardware store.  She went back to watching the screen, and Mycroft went back to more subtly watching her.  

* * *

Sherlock came out of the hardware store looking more thoughtful than he went in.  John waited to see if he’d volunteer any information, but when he didn’t, John eventually spoke up.  “I looked into the brochure, while you were inside. ‘Sun-Speckled Adventures Company’ has never existed, as far as I can tell.  Their number is disconnected, and their website has been taken down.”

“Mmm,” was all Sherlock said, absentmindedly taking the brochure.  John thought about asking what he’d gone into the store for, or what was distracting him, but kept his peace.  Sherlock seemed to be focused entirely inward as he drove them back to Stoneview.   John wondered if mind palacing and driving was more hazardous than texting and driving.

Now that they were out of the morgue and his hangover had eased somewhat, John finally had a moment to think about what had transpired the night before.  He stared out the window and remembered.  He felt good about the fact that he’d been able to soothe Sherlock’s nightmares.  And he’d enjoyed the comforting contact; it had been too long since he’d had anything like that.  He wondered if it might happen again… it seemed unlikely, though, unless he and Sherlock were sharing a bed again soon and more nightmares transpired.  

He admitted to himself that he’d like that, though, if it happened again.  (Not the nightmares per se, but some excuse to touch, a need for comfort.)  And, aside from that, he thought… he thought maybe.  He might also want.  Well.  

He bit his lip.  It was too hard to put into words, to acknowledge explicitly, but the desire hovered there.

Especially if Sherlock felt -- if Sherlock cared about him so much.  So much that his greatest fear was losing John.  Because John didn’t want to have Sherlock leave him again.  Ever.  Couldn’t stand thinking about that.

Who knew, though.  Who know what Sherlock truly had in store, why he had asked Mycroft about John.  No sense in going too far down this path of thought.  John kept his peace and waited for more answers.  He thought he was going to get at least a few of those -- about the case, if nothing else -- once they reached Stoneview.

* * *

Sherlock considered, turning the name over in his mind as he drove.

Christopher.

Meaning Christ-bearer.  See:  Saint Christopher.  Christopher Columbus.  Christopher, Illinois.  Christopher Robin.  Emperor Christopher of Byzantium, King Christopher of Denmark, Prince Christopher of Greece.  He shook his head impatiently, discarding each of these as irrelevant.

Christopher.

Someone he wasn’t to mention to John.  

Someone related to national security?  Or were Mycroft’s two demands unrelated?  

Christopher.

Was it a name that could upset John, trigger him in some way?  Perhaps Christopher was someone that John had failed to save on the battlefield -- one of the people John had mentioned last night.  Someone Mycroft had recently learned about?

Christopher.

Or maybe Christopher represented something darker -- someone that John had accidentally killed, perhaps through friendly fire?  Or even intentionally killed?  Less likely, but John had his share of darkness, and tendencies toward violence.  If Mycroft had recently uncovered evidence of such a deed on John’s part, he might be planning to help cover it up, but not want Sherlock to agitate John in the meantime.

Christopher.

A secret son?  A secret identity?  Someone who was threatening John?   

Christopher.

Or perhaps it was some kind of codeword.  A signal between Mycroft and John?  They had worried over Sherlock together at various points, had jointly monitored him for drug use, mostly before Sherlock’s time away.  But surely they wouldn’t use such a common codeword -- nor would Mycroft give it to Sherlock.

He shook his head impatiently.  Too many hypotheses, none a clear fit.

His immediate impulse was to say the name and observe John’s response, which would reveal a great deal.  And to hell with what Mycroft wanted.  Mycroft had insufficient faith in John Watson, anyway.  

On the other hand, if John did respond poorly, it would be best to wait until after they’d wrapped up the case.  Which would be very soon now.  

* * *

“Do you have any popcorn?” Harry asked.  Mycroft stared at her in unblinking disapproval, like a judgmental owl, and she shrugged.  “Looks like we’re in for a show.”

Back at the guest house, Sherlock had gathered the owners and staff -- all five of them, counting Mr. Pups, who sat at George’s feet -- together in the front room.  There were only two chairs available, and nobody seemed to want to make the first move to take one, so they all stood around awkwardly.  Anna shifted from foot to foot, chewing on a hangnail.  George glanced around with some unease, though whether it was just because he was in grubby gardening clothes in the pristine front room, Harry couldn’t tell.

“Want to place bets on who the murderer is?” Harry asked.  

“No thank you.”

Harry guessed it was probably best not to gamble with Holmeses, anyway.  But she was putting up her best cheerful front and avoiding thinking about Bea as much as possible by keeping herself distracted.  It was working reasonably well, for the moment.  It was fortuitous that Mycroft had recruited her and given her something to take her mind off her mess of a personal life -- messing with her brother’s personal life was far more fun.

In the Stoneview front room, Sherlock was pacing in front of the assembled group. “The murders,” he announced, “were committed by the couple’s daughter.”

“Ooh,” Harry said, leaning in.  “Didn’t see that coming.”

Anna paused from worrying at her hangnail and frowned.  “Wait, I thought the fire killed their children.”

Sherlock nodded.  “So everyone thought.  But one survived.”

“You’re saying she faked her own death?”  Eesha asked.  “Why would anyone do such a thing?”

“Yes, why indeed?” John muttered, glaring at Sherlock.

“Oh, sick burn,” Harry commented.  Mycroft looked at her with a faint crease between his eyebrows, as if confused.

Sherlock ignored him.  “I’d venture that the murderer was a victim of abuse by at least one of her parents, and it was a welcome chance to escape and change her identity.”  

“Okay, that’s a better reason for faking one’s death than Sherlock ever gave,” Harry said.  

Mycroft stared at her.  “Are you going to provide a running commentary of this entire conversation?”   She couldn’t tell if he was annoyed or just curious.

“Yeah, probably.”  She turned back to the screen.

“How could you possibly know that?” Rebecca scoffed at Sherlock’s revelation.  

Sherlock opened his mouth as if to unleash a tirade, then appeared to reconsider.  Harry snickered -- all it took to teach him some manners was a fierce lesbian, apparently.  In a more conversational tone, Sherlock said, “Based on your descriptions of Ms. Mann -- jumpy, shy -- and the copious application of makeup in some of her online photos, I surmise that she was herself a victim of abuse at Mr. Roylott’s hand.  It’s unsurprising that the children also suffered; a common pattern.  I was unable to confirm this via direct photographic evidence, as Mann and Roylott had both removed any old photos of their children, likely following the fire.”

“Oh, those poor girls,” Eesha breathed, shuddering.  Anna looked horrified, clutching her arms tightly to herself.  George gaped.  Rebecca still looked skeptical, though, and Harry couldn’t really blame her.  

“But if Ms. Mann was also abused by her ex-husband, why would the daughter have killed her?” Anna asked.  George nodded agreement with the question.

John chipped in, surprising Harry.  “Some abusers’ partners are willfully ignorant of the horrible treatment of their children, or are aware but fail to protect them -- and some are even abusive themselves. Ms. Mann was probably seen as complicit by her daughter.”

“Good, John,” Sherlock murmured.  Harry beamed, proud of her little brother.  Then she noticed how the others in the room were responding and remembered that they were talking about child abuse, and she sobered.  

“So these were revenge killings, pure and simple,”  Rebecca said, frowning.  Then she added, “If you’re right about all this.”

Sherlock glared, but said only, “Indeed.”

“Something still isn’t adding up, though,” Harry muttered.  

Eesha asked, “But how did she do it?  And why did she do it here ?”

“Exactly!” Harry pointed to the monitor in triumph.  Mycroft stared stoically at the monitor, pretending she wasn’t speaking.

Sherlock ignored the second question and addressed the first.  “It was all quite clever.  She dug a tunnel beneath the room, with a trapdoor that emerged under the bed.  The bed was bolted in place to keep guests -- or anyone -- from accidentally discovering it.  Then she waited until each guest was barefoot, about to get into bed, and delivered via injection a fast acting paralytic poison -- succinylcholine, for instance.”

“That’s why the dots were on their heels!”  Harry exclaimed. “And why they both fell in the same spot, right next to the bed.  Of course.”

“Sherlock, that’s fantastic --” John started to say, but it got lost in another comment.

“Wait, so now we have a trapdoor and a tunnel under our building?”  Rebecca was, if possible, even more skeptical than before.  

George was shaking his head.  “Not possible.  I would have seen someone digging.”

“And we would have heard that, surely,” Anna added.  

“It could have happened during all the renovations, though,” Eesha mused.  “Especially if the killer had help from one of the contractors.”

“I suppose,” Rebecca said dubiously.  Anna and George still looked skeptical as well.

“As for the ghost,” Sherlock added, “the culprit shall reveal himself now --”  He shook a tin of kibble he’d apparently lifted from the kitchen earlier and had secreted in his coat pocket.  Mr. Pups barked and came running over.  Sherlock fed him a treat and pat his head.

“The dog?” Harry said, confused. Mycroft huffed with what seemed suspiciously like amusement.

“On the nights when no guest was in the room, Mr. Pups would scrabble at the floorboards until he opened the trapdoor -- we should find scratches if we look closely -- then travel through the tunnel.  I believe you’ll find that he’s responsible for the neighbors’ missing chickens.  Because the neighbor dog knew Mr. Pups, he did not raise a ruckus, as he would have had a fox been present.”  

“Oh no, Mr. Pups!”  Eesha exclaimed reproachfully.  Anna looked crushed at the destruction of her ghost theory.

“This explains the traces of blood, dirt, leaves, and other detritus in the guest room.  The ‘visitations’ ended after the second murder, when the murderer presumably sealed the entry to the tunnel, no longer needing it.”

“Brilliant,” Harry and John said at the same time.  Harry giggled.  

“Oh, come now, the dog was obvious,” Mycroft said.  Harry wrinkled her nose at him.

“Wow,” Eesha said, looking a bit dazed.  “Okay, but -- again -- why here?  Why did the killer choose our guest house for these bizarre crimes?”

“Because,” Sherlock spread his arms dramatically, pausing and clearly relishing the attention, “the killer was an employee of this very guest house.”  There were gasps, and everyone glanced at one another with varying degrees of fear and dubiousness.  Eesha grabbed for Rebecca’s hand reflexively, but missed, because Rebecca crossed her arms and pinched her lips together, staring at Sherlock in outrage as he continued.  “One who could monitor the renovations and bribe the workers to alter their plans -- or to look the other way while she dug a small tunnel.  One who could book the guests and assign them both the right room -- and could send them both fake brochures telling them they’d won a trip here.  One who could conveniently disappear shortly before the murders, to another country; the perfect alibi.”

“Oh!”  Harry gasped.  She saw John get it, too, but it took the residents a moment longer.

Eesha blinked.  “Wait, are you saying -- Helen?  Our Helen?”  

“Correct -- Helen Tyler.  Though I believe we’ll find she was born Helen Stoner.”  The staff stared at one another in confusion, showing no sign of recognition.  “Her father died when she was young, and her mother remarried Mr. Roylott; he adopted the girls and gave them his name.  Helen wanted nothing to do with Roylott, and she had loved her biological father.  Helen changed her surname after her apparent death in the fire -- not back to her biological father’s last name, but to his first name.  Again, if any of you or the police had bothered to do minimal sleuthing on social media, or to look up the obituary of Ms. Mann’s first husband, the shared name would have been apparent.”

“That’s fantastic,” John said.

“That’s stupid, ” Rebecca said impatiently.  “Tyler’s a very common name, and I don’t care if Helen has it -- she couldn’t have done this.  We skyped with Helen the days of both murders --”

“-- I think it was that WhatsUp video chat thing, actually,” Eesha interjected.  “She’s been trying to get us to learn that.”  Anna rolled her eyes so unsubtly that Harry could see it on the monitors.    

Rebecca nodded. “Whatever.  She was in Costa Rica.”  Her voice softened a little as she turned and looked at Eesha.  “We’ve talked to her every other day or so, since she moved -- I think she’s a bit lonely.”  Eesha looked sad, and Rebecca finally uncurled her arms, reached over, and squeezed her hand.  Anna bit her lip and looked away.

Sherlock’s eyebrows rose.  A glimmer of a smile crossed his lips.  “The perfect alibi, indeed.  Are you positive she was where she said she was?”

Eesha answered.  “Well, it certainly looked like it -- that weather and those beaches weren’t England.  And we saw people -- not UK people -- in bikinis walking right by on the sand, and swimming in the water.”  Sherlock frowned, and, for the first time, Rebecca looked mildly pleased.  

“Oh ho, there’s a catch,” Harry said.

“What time of day did you talk --” Sherlock began to ask.

“She wouldn’t have been able to do it, anyway!”  Anna interjected with some agitation.  

“Aye,” George agreed, looking up.  “She couldn’t dig a tunnel.”

“Or even crawl around in one,” Anna added.

“They’re right,” Eesha affirmed.  “Helen has terrible asthma.  We kept her on desk duty instead of having her do any cleaning, or anything else that would have triggered it.”

“Severe asthma -- a possible consequence of having been in a house fire when younger,” Sherlock mused.  

“It couldn’t have been her, though, Sherlock,” John said.  “Not if she was in Costa Rica at the time of the murders.  And not with that asthma, either.”

The detective frowned, then nodded reluctantly.  “It seems I was mistaken about Helen.  And perhaps about some of my other conclusions.  Someone could have booked the guests without working here, and put in a special request for that room.”

“Could it have been one of the renovators?” Eesha ventured.  “Maybe someone with a grudge against the victims joined the work crew and dug the tunnel?”  Sherlock looked thoughtful, but said nothing.

“Oh,” Anna exclaimed, “wait!  What if it was a ghost, though?  If the place is haunted, then there needn’t be any tunnels.  Ghosts can pass through walls,” she pointed out sagely.

It was Sherlock’s turn to roll his eyes dramatically.  “A ghost that doesn’t interact with walls, but handles the guest booking, prints brochures, and tracks mud in?  And steals chickens, presumably.”  (Harry snickered at that.)  When Anna just glared at him, defiant, he sighed.  Then he twirled to face the guest rooms and said, “There’s an easy way to prove I’m correct about the tunnel, at least.  Let’s go open it up and look for clues!”  

Harry turned to Mycroft.  “Well, this is getting exciting.  Do you know what Sherlock missed when he thought it was Helen?”  

Mycroft just smiled.  Enigmatic smiles were a great cover for not knowing things, or not wanting to admit what you did know -- she took a mental note.  “Right -- I think maybe I’ll go make that popcorn.”

Chapter Text

John followed closely as Sherlock led the way to the room of the crimes; the room where the two of them were staying.  Behind them trailed all the workers of the guest house, in suspense as to whether they would find a tunnel beneath the floorboards.

Once in the room, Sherlock pulled from his coat pockets in rapid succession a wrench, a torch, a jimmy, and a nail puller -- John suddenly understood the trip to the hardware store earlier.  Rebecca’s eyebrows shot up, and she opened her mouth, then closed it again, but looked at Sherlock’s coat with a new degree of suspicion.  

John, George, and Eesha helped Sherlock unbolt and move the bed, and they pried open the barely visible trapdoor with some difficulty -- it having been apparently nailed closed from below.  They noted the dog claw scratches along one side, as Sherlock had predicted.

When they got the door opened at last, Sherlock shone the torchlight in.  It was a small, very low-ceilinged shaft, more of a crawl space just below the floor.  Sherlock lowered himself down into it, then ducked and proceeded into the near darkness in a crouch.  With a sigh, John followed him.  

The floor was dirt, hard packed.   There were strong wooden supports holding up a low ceiling made of overlapping planks of scrap wood -- it was narrow and unfinished, but appeared to have been made by someone who knew what they were doing.  It was wide enough for only one person.  As they shuffled down the tunnel, ducking, Sherlock stooped further and picked up something shiny.  He examined it and then passed it back to John.  It was a very nice watch -- looked extremely expensive.  John could make nothing of it, though, and handed it back.  

Sherlock then pointed his torch at a stripe of gray-white dust on one of the posts, near the ground.  He leaned down and tasted the substance.  (John rolled his eyes.  Why did he always do that?  Anyone trained in chemistry should really know better.)  “Slate,” Sherlock murmured.  He pulled a tuft of dark fibers from a snag in the same post and crouched there, thinking for a moment.  

John strained to see further down the tunnel, hoping they would finish soon -- his back ached from the constant hunch.  John thought he could dimly see odd shapes on the floor, but it wasn’t until they resumed walking that those shapes resolved into the bones of several chickens, along with a great many feathers.  And, finally, a dead end: the hole slanted upward, narrowed, and then ran into a brick wall -- or rather, a brick ceiling.

They crawled back out of the tunnel to an expectant staff.  Sherlock said, “Someone’s bricked up the entrance -- I believe it would have emerged behind the hedges, concealed from the house.”

Eesha swore.  “I’ve had George bricking up spots where we find molehills in the garden,” she explained.

“Did I mess up?” George asked, looking very worried.  “Did I, um, destroy evidence?”

“Yes,” Sherlock said bluntly.  John shot George an apologetic glance; the poor man was sweating with consternation.

“Well, at least part of the mystery is solved,” Rebecca said.  “No more nonsense about a possible ghost --” Anna looked affronted “-- and we know why Mr. Pups lost some of his appetite for a bit there … feeding on the neighbor’s chickens!  We’ll have to compensate them, I suppose.” She sighed.

“Well, if the tunnel is closed off, that probably means the murders are over?” Eesha said hopefully.  “We could start letting the room again.  I mean, to people other than you.”  She smiled.  

“Oh yes,” Sherlock said with a roll of his eyes, “do please consider everything satisfactory now, because you can let the room again!  Just ignore the rest of the case.  Even though now is when things are getting interesting!”  Eesha looked taken aback.  Rebecca glowered.  

“A poisoned needle and a tunnel into a locked room wasn’t interesting?” John couldn’t help muttering.  

Sherlock ignored him, instead taking out the watch from his pocket and studying the staff.  “Does anyone recognize this?”

“No,” said George and Rebecca immediately.  Eesha took a bit more time to look it over, then shook her head.

“Yes, I think so,” Anna said hesitantly.  “Wasn’t that Mr. Roylott’s?  I remember it looked expensive, and a bit out of place with the rest of his clothes.”

“You are correct,” Sherlock said, smiling at her. “He was wearing it in all his photos online; clearly a prized possession. It’s a vintage Patek Philippe, worth over £28,000 if I’m not much mistaken.”  Everyone in the room gasped.  

Anna pulled out her phone and started to type, then, upon realizing everyone was watching her, sheepishly put it away again.  “Sorry… I was going to look the watch up online.”  

“You may proceed,” Sherlock said, but she just shook her head slightly and flushed.  

“So... was this murder partly a botched burglary?” John asked doubtfully.  “Someone who knew about Roylott’s expensive watch and lured him here to take it?  And dropped it in their haste to flee?  But no,” he caught himself, “Roylott died first.  Why also lure Ms. Mann, if the murderer already had the watch?  And why not pick up the watch on the return visit?”

“Why indeed?”  Sherlock turned back to Anna.  “If I recall from John’s interview notes, Ms. Mann was wearing a brooch during her visit?”  

“Yes!”  Anna nodded.  “It was so pretty -- sapphire.   Looked old, too.  I went looking to try to find it on Pinterest, but there wasn’t anything quite like it.”

“Our Anna,” Eesha said with a smile.  “She’s quite good with all these social things.  We have her do our Facebook, for the guest house.”

Sherlock ignored this.  “You’re right about the brooch; it appears to have been over one hundred years old, from what I could discern in pictures online where she was wearing it.  Ms. Mann did not have a lot of money, following the loss of her husband’s wealth; the fact that she kept it means it was likely a family heirloom, or had some other sentimental value.”

John was starting to see where this line of questioning was going.  “If the criminal was partially motivated by greed, perhaps the brooch also went missing.”

“Oh, dear -- we can’t tell if the brooch is missing, though!  The police took all their belongings,” Eesha said.

“Yes, obviously -- you’re useless here,” Sherlock noted.  “John, come with me.”

“Sorry, he just -- we’ll be back,” John called back over his shoulder, futilely, unable to come up with a good justification.

An hour later, John had got coffee and the number of the woman who was on reception duty at the police station, and Sherlock had got a look at the personal effects of the deceased.

“Their evidence lockers are subpar, easily picked,” Sherlock tutted as they met back at the car.  

“Good thing -- I don’t think my powers of flirtation were enough to convince her to leave her post for more than a short break.”

“Well done, though.”  Sherlock sounded more appreciative than usual.  “How did you persuade her?”

“I pretended I’d known her at uni and looked her up to grab coffee while passing through town.  As soon as she looks me up online -- or tries -- she’ll realize I was lying.  But it hardly matters.”

“Not planning to follow up with any further dates, then?” Sherlock asked.  For a moment, he sounded almost -- jealous?

John gave him a confused stare.   “No… I really wasn’t.”  And it was true, he realized -- the flirting had been great fun, as always, but he didn’t want to see her again.  Not without figuring out some other things first.   “So what did you find?”

“The brooch is missing from Ms. Mann’s effects.  All of their other personal effects -- of much lesser value -- remain.”

“So, it was burglary, then?  But they dropped the watch?  Or…” John frowned, ”left it behind on purpose?”

“Mmm,” Sherlock said, noncommittally.  “I have a theory.”

“Oh?”  But Sherlock once again chose not to share, driving them back to the guest house in silence.

Back at Stoneview, the staff was at work -- George laying more bricks, the others cleaning rooms and preparing for the dinner hour.  The not particularly chastened Mr. Pups was on a leash in the yard, running back and forth, chasing birds (who were having more luck escaping than the chickens).  Occasionally, he would get his leash tangled up in George’s wheelbarrow or tools, and George would sigh and pause to free him.   

Sherlock stopped to pet the dog and told John, “We need to go to Honister tonight.”

“The slate mine?”  Though there had been slate residue in the tunnel, John hadn’t been expecting to go there tonight.

“I know who is responsible for the crimes, but we’ll need the fingerprints to confirm it -- and we’ll find them there.”

“Sherlock, fingerprints might be impossible to --”

“We’ll go after dinner.”

“But you can’t get good --”

“Trust me.”

John surrendered with a shrug.  “All right.” Sherlock knew as well as he did that clean, reliable fingerprints were very difficult to obtain in the best of circumstances, and a dark slate mine would hardly provide those.  Whatever he was up to, he didn’t need John to remind him.

They went into the front hall, and John gave Anna a polite smile where she sat at the front desk, fiddling with her phone.  Sherlock didn’t ignore her, as John expected.  Instead, he said, “Give me all your maps of Honister.”

Anna blinked.  “I could set up a tour for you tomorrow if you want.  You know, my father and George’s brother both work at the mine -- Rebecca’s cousin, too, actually, but he’s not very nice -- so I can get you the best rate --”

“Yes,” Sherlock said briskly, cutting her short.  “We’ll take the first tour available tomorrow.”  John raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.  “But I need all the maps to study in the meantime.  Be sure to include any that show the parts of the mines closed to the public.”

“But --” she quailed under Sherlock’s glare and went into the office to fetch maps.  Sherlock pocketed the phone she’d left on the counter.  John opened his mouth to comment on it, but thought better of it.

* * *

“Okay, so who is the murderer, then?”  Harry mused.  “I was so sure he was right about it being Helen -- who else could it be?  And why did Sherlock book a tour for tomorrow if they’re going to the mine tonight?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Mycroft said, raising an eyebrow.

Before she could retort that he was a twit, Anthea appeared in the door holding two mugs.  “You have a call,” she told Mycroft.  “It can’t wait.”

As Mycroft rose and left the room, Anthea came and took his place.  She gave one of the mugs -- tea, made just the way Harry liked -- to Harry and held onto the other.  “How’s it going?”

“Ta!” Harry sipped the tea.  “It seems to be going well, in that Sherlock seems to know who did it -- but I don’t.  My best guess is George… then again, I don’t know if he’s smart enough to have planned all this.  And Anna seems like she’s up to something.”

Anthea smiled.  “I meant the other project.”

Harry laughed.  “Oh my God, I can’t believe I got so caught up in the case that I was distracted from the real goal here!”  She pondered.  “I think it’s going well -- no, it is going well.  Did you hear there was cuddling last night?”

Anthea’s smile grew.  “Yes, I may have caught that.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not sure about Sherlock, but I’d say that’s a major breakthrough for my brother, at least.  And thanks in no small part to your help, I’m pretty sure John is game for more.  Now that I’ve talked Mycroft over to the right side of the cause, we’ll have them together in short order.”

“Excellent!  And I’m more than happy to assist,” Anthea said.  “It would be so good for Mycroft if Sherlock stopped moping and got into a steady relationship.  And there’s nobody else I’d wish Sherlock on besides John Watson.”

Harry snorted.  “Yeah -- nobody else I’d wish my brother on, either.  My school friends always thought he seemed nice, but he can be pretty fucked up, under the surface.  Possibly a family trait of Watsons,” she added wryly.

Anthea smirked.  “So this is Operation Get John and Sherlock Out Of The Rest Of The World’s Hair.”

“Truly,” Harry grinned.

“So,” Anthea raised her eyebrows, “what are you going to do after the operation succeeds?”

Harry sighed, deflating a bit.  She’d been avoiding thinking about it as much as possible.  “I don’t know.  I miss Bea like mad, and I feel like a shit about what I did, but I guess we’re probably not going to patch things up.  Between that and losing my job, things are going to be a bit rough, I guess.  But I’ll manage.”  She shrugged in what she hoped was a nonchalant manner.  If Anthea expressed too much sympathy, Harry might do something embarrassing, like tear up.

“I’m sure something will work out,” Anthea said.  She gave Harry’s arm a comforting pat that somehow avoided being condescending while also not overwhelming Harry with emotion.  “You’re a very resourceful woman.”

“Thanks,” Harry said, unconvinced, but appreciating the gesture.

* * *

“So, what are we looking for, again?” John asked as they stepped into the Honister tunnel.  

At around midnight, they’d arrived at the quarry.  They avoided the highly trafficked mines that were currently used for mining or public tours.  After examining several of the closed side shafts for several hours, tasting the slate at each, Sherlock had identified an area with matching dust.  Encouragingly, this mine appeared to have been entered recently; the lock on the gate with the “DO NOT ENTER” sign had already been picked.  Beyond the gate, they’d entered a shaft that was pitch black except for the light cast by Sherlock’s torch.

Now Sherlock’s light illuminated a set of old minecart tracks running between narrow, jagged walls of slate.  The tunnel was roughly round, with cables running overhead and pipe running along the walls, but dust covered all these conduits, and they appeared long out of use.  The ground was muddy here and there, water seeping near the walls especially, and Sherlock knelt to examine what might have been a fragment of a footprint.

“Sherlock?”  John asked again.  “Can you tell me anything, here?”

His voice echoed, louder than he’d intended.  Sherlock turned to face him, but before he could answer, a large noise concussed through John from behind him, along with a burst of heat, and everything went black.

* * *

“JESUS CHRIST!” Harry shot up from her chair as the deafening boom sounded and the screens went black.  “Are they all right?  Please tell me they’re all right.”

“They’re all right,” Mycroft said, though he looked a bit shaken.

“Really?”

“I have sensors on Sherlock that are pressure-sensitive, as well as an oxygen meter.  He has not been crushed, nor are they in immediate risk of suffocation.”

Harry stared at him, incredulous.  “Really?”

He raised an eyebrow.  “Does that seem overzealous to you?”

She shook her head slowly.  “For your brother, not really, I guess.  I don’t suppose you have a pressure sensor on John?”

“I’m afraid not.  However, they were in close proximity, so he is probably also relatively unharmed.”  Harry frowned at the relatively.   “There’s a good chance that at least some of the cameras are still functional; with patience we should at least be able to hear them again, even if their light has gone out.”

“Did you know that was going to happen?”

He grimaced.  “I’m afraid I erred in assessing the probability of this outcome.”

Harry paused.  “I guess that’s a no.”  Then,  “Are you going to rescue them?”

“Soon.  I’ve already alerted some of my local agents to prepare.  But let’s observe what happens next.”

* * *

Heat - sand - fire - noise and then no noise at all - Sholto where was Sholto - unbearable heat - bodies collapsing all around  - where was Bill - risking standing up to look for his friend - PAIN - falling - PAIN - shot?? - where - PAIN - can’t hear - can’t see now - face down - PAIN - peppermint????

“John.” Sherlock’s voice emerged through the confusion, muted as if from very far away.  “John.  I’m here.  You’re with me.”  With it, a strong (very strong, unpleasantly strong) smell of peppermint.  

John’s ears were working now -- with some ringing, but working better -- but his eyes were not.  After what felt like a long time, he managed, “Sh-sherlock?  What happened?”

“We’re in the Honister mine shaft.  Something exploded at the far end of the tunnel.  There was a cave-in.  You had a dissociative episode; likely a flashback to an event in Afghanistan.  It’s all right.  Just focus on your breathing.”

John tried.  He breathed, and he reminded himself where he was, separating himself from the ambush, the narrowly avoided grenade, the shooting.  He breathed, and he tried to come back entirely into the present.  But he was confused.  It was hard to know which senses he could trust -- he seemed to be blind, on top of a slightly squishy surface, surrounded by peppermint.  “Did the torch break?”

“Yes.”  The voice seemed somehow near and far, all at once.

“Do you… erm, do you smell peppermint?”

“Indeed.  It’s excellent for grounding someone who is in a dissociative state.”

John blinked.  “You carry it with you?”

“A small vial of extract.  I know you have experienced episodes on occasion.”  

“Oh.”  John didn’t know what else to say to that.  That was… well.  Good.  

So, it seemed he could trust his senses.  That meant that the slightly squishy surface John was lying on top of was -- probably Sherlock?  His head seemed to be resting on Sherlock’s chest… yes, there it was, rising and sinking subtly beneath layers of clothing and jacket.

Before John could shift, a hand suddenly snaked down his side, toward his waistband.  “Sherlock!” John yelped.  “What are you --?”

Sherlock’s hand was now in John’s pocket.  John tensed, very aware of the proximity of Sherlock’s hand to certain bits of his anatomy that could betray him.  And then Sherlock’s hand was back out again, and the light of John’s phone was illuminating Sherlock’s face and a small area around them.

“Couldn’t get your own phone, could you?” John grumbled, not unhappily.

“Couldn’t reach it as easily,” Sherlock grinned.

John got up slowly, dizzily, sitting up and then back on his heels.  Now that he was away from the peppermint, he could smell ammonia and burned fuel from the explosion.  The smoke and dust made him cough.   Sherlock sat up as well, and pointed the phone flashlight down toward the end of the tunnel from which they’d come -- though there was now a wall only a couple meters away.  He shone the light around in the other direction, and John could see they weren’t far from a newly formed dead end that way as well.  

“We’re trapped,” John said, trying not to panic.  

“Obviously.”  

“By the killer, I guess?”

“I miscalculated slightly; I knew they would follow us -- or hoped so, anyway -- but I thought they would confront us in person, giving us the chance to overpower them.” John laughed a little.  Of course he’d set a trap with them as bait.  

John considered.  “There was no real plan to gather fingerprints, then?”

“No.”  Sherlock smiled tightly.  “Your objections to attempting to gather such evidence were well-founded, but I didn’t expect them to know that.  They probably watch CSI,” he added with a bit of a sneer.

John nodded.  “Don’t suppose either of our phones have reception?”  

Sherlock checked, fishing his phone out of his pocket as well.  “Nope,” he said.

“Well, bugger.”

“Yep.”  

John sighed.  “Any idea what we should do now?  I’d say we’ve got less than a day of air in here.”    

“Fourteen point two hours,” Sherlock said absently, looking around.  Then he settled into a cross legged position, pressed his fingers together beneath his chin, and closed his eyes.

John let him think in silence and tried not to panic.  Somebody may have heard the explosion.  Somebody might notice the evidence of it in the morning.  And Eesha and Rebecca would probably start a search for them when they didn’t show up to breakfast.  Either George or Anna could tell them that John and Sherlock had mentioned going to the mines -- as long as one of them had been paying attention, and wasn’t the killer.  (Who was the killer?  He still wasn’t sure.  But it seemed less important now than getting out of here.)  There was a chance of being rescued, he told himself, dire though the situation seemed.  

He wanted to pace, try to shift the rocks, but he knew he’d be using up valuable air, and that there was no way he could dig them out; he would only risk causing further cave-in.  Instead, he focused on breathing shallowly, tried unsuccessfully to think of creative ideas, and waited for Sherlock to come up with some brilliant way out of this.

Finally, after what felt like ages, Sherlock spoke.  “Christopher.”  

John got a strange feeling, goosebumps.  “Pardon?”  There was nobody named Christopher associated with the case.  Nobody significant he could think of that had that name, in general.  Unless he meant… but no.

“Who is he?  Was he in the army with you?”  Oh.  Oh, he did mean.  

John blinked a few times, pursed his lips.  “You cock. Is that what you’ve been sitting there trying to work out this whole time?”  

“I have insufficient data,” Sherlock said, frustrated.

“Do you really think now is the best time to have this conversation?”  Somehow, in this circumstance, he felt rather calm about the whole matter, but he still questioned the appropriateness of the timing.

“It doesn’t look as if there will be much other time, does it?” Sherlock said.

John took a deep breath -- a precious resource now, but one couldn’t be with Sherlock without needing them fairly frequently.  He closed his eyes so he didn’t have to look at Sherlock’s face in the dim phone light as he spoke.  “It was high school.  Just a kiss, nothing more.  But yes, he was… important to me.  And, you know, I would have told you about him, if you’d just asked.”   Would you really, John?  Ella asked.  He ignored her.  “I really, really wish you hadn’t gone to Mycroft for information.  I know --” he sighed, admitted Ella was at least a little bit right.  “I know I am not the best at talking about things.  About my feelings.”  He grimaced.  “But I still wish you’d asked me.”

Sherlock paused a long moment.  “Gone to Mycroft?” He feigned ignorance well.

“I know all about it.  I got a text from him that he meant to send to you -- must have been drugged to the teeth, so to speak.”  John smiled, imagining for a moment the chagrin Mycroft must have felt, realizing his error.  “Anyway, I know what you were up to.”

“But,” John took another deep breath -- there was a band trying to tighten around his chest, but he forced himself to breathe through it and keep going, because what the hell, if they were about to die anyway -- “I suppose it’s true.  I’m … I’m, erm… I’m bisexual, to an extent -- though I’ve never, except with Christopher.  But to an extent that,” he swallowed, “well, that includes you.”  He felt hot and cold.  He desperately wanted to look at Sherlock, but also couldn’t bear to; he just had to get through this.   

“And I would have wanted to… with you… well… I would have wanted… more.  I can’t actually imagine spending my life with anyone else anyway.”  John laughed shakily.  “You know that, you great git?  You’ve spoiled me for anyone else, a bit.”  

He heard nothing for a long moment, and opened his eyes.  Sherlock was completely still, brow furrowed, blinking rapidly at a spot on the floor somewhere between them.  “Sherlock?”  

Sherlock didn’t respond, and he continued to look so thunderstruck that John began to worry.  Had he misunderstood?  Misinterpreted Mycroft’s text?  Was this all for a case, after all?  Fuck.  Oh fuck, what had he done?  John found himself drenched in sweat.

“Sherlock?  You okay?  I’m -- I’m sorry if -- I didn’t mean we had to -- if you don’t want --”

Sherlock looked up, then.  He opened his mouth, but for once seemed at a loss for what to say, and closed it again.  Then he lunged forward abruptly.  Catching John’s jacket lapels, he pulled John forward as well, till they were both on their knees, and their lips collided.

It was a kiss of more teeth and stubble and desperation than John could have imagined.  Sherlock whimpered and gripped John’s hips, yanking him closer, burning John’s knees against the gravelly ground in a way that John couldn’t bring himself to mind at all.  They scrabbled against each other in the near dark, both frantically adjusting angles, clashing teeth and noses again before at last aligning -- it would have been a bit comical had John not been so intensely relieved and aroused and overwhelmed.   As their kiss deepened, John ran his fingers along Sherlock’s jaw, brushed his fantastic hair back from his ear, trailed his fingers down the nape of Sherlock’s neck… and oh, the shivers he got in response, the groan against his mouth, they went straight to his groin.  If he’d ever had the slightest doubt as to whether he would truly want this, it was gone.

* * *

“FUCK YEAH!”  Harry shouted.  “We did it!”

She turned away from the screens -- so dark as to be basically black, which was all right; she didn’t need to actually watch their brothers snogging -- to high five Mycroft, who just stared at her upraised palm like she was making an unrecognizable gesture.  But his lip did stealthily creep up into a liminal smile.

“So we should probably rescue them now, I guess?” Harry said.  “It would be a pity to let them suffocate right after such a breakthrough.”

Mycroft’s smile grew from Mona Lisa halfway to Cheshire.  “Not quite yet.  Sherlock doesn’t like to know that I’m hovering over him quite so closely.”

“But --“

“Soon.”

* * *

John pulled back an inch or two, panting, and placed his forehead against Sherlock’s.  “We should, erm.  We should save air.  Just in case they’re looking for us.  Give them more time to search.”

Sherlock shifted his hips and caused sudden, exquisite friction, and John groaned and nearly changed his mind.  It would be a shame to die without having --

But Sherlock sat back.  “Yes.  Yes, of course.”  He looked dazed, but after a moment, he shook his head, reached into his coat pocket, and fished something out.

“What is that?  Is it -- is that an antenna, Sherlock?”  Sherlock grinned at him as he began attaching the large item to his cell phone.  “When did you --”

“The hardware store.”

John tried to make sense of that.  “Did you -- did you plan all this?”

Sherlock laughed.  “No, John, this was not an elaborate seduction technique.  Nor, I must admit, had I planned to need a rescue from the slate mines.  But I already had deduced the tunnel under the hotel when I went to the hardware store, and thought it possible we might face a confrontation there, or be shut in while we investigated… it seemed prudent insurance.”  Then he dialed the phone.

* * *

“Sherlock,” Mycroft answered.  He put the call on speakerphone, muting the monitors to avoid a telltale echo.

“You know where we are, Brother.”  Harry raised her eyebrows at that, and Mycroft frowned.  “Come fetch us now.”  

“It will take a while for us to dig you out of your latest mess.  I estimate one hundred seventy minutes.”  It would take far less time if Mycroft called in all his resources, but there was no need to move quite that quickly.

“Excellent.”  Sherlock ended the call.

“I guess we ought to give them some privacy, then,” Harry said with a smirk.

“Please, let’s,” Mycroft agreed.

* * *

“I’ve solved the case,” Sherlock said, standing in the Stoneview front room, before an audience once more.  This time, the assembly included the local police constable as well as the staff.  The constable had muttered about fool’s errands and closed cases when Sherlock had called to tell her they had new information about the guest house deaths, but she had come over anyway.   (She was still glaring daggers at Sherlock, though, presumably over his earlier deductions about her less than ethical habits -- people could be so touchy, even when you presented them with the straightforward truth.)  

Sherlock’s triumphant announcement brought him less satisfaction than usual.  He had solved the main case, but had been utterly blindsided by John’s confession in the mines.  He was still very distracted by trying to understand how that had happened.  

Nowhere in his list of hypotheses had been that Christopher was someone John had kissed.  Or that John would want to do the same with Sherlock.  

Sherlock still could hardly believe it, even though he had collected substantial and indisputable evidence of John’s desire at this point.  (Not nearly enough, though -- more data were needed, as soon as possible.)

He realized everyone was watching him curiously, impatiently, even, waiting for elaboration on the case.  He tried to focus.  “Helen did in fact plan the murders and book the rooms.  As I postulated earlier, she wanted revenge upon the stepfather who’d abused her, and the mother who’d done nothing to prevent it, possibly had enabled it.”  The owners and the gangly, dramatic front desk creature looked sad.  “But she left shortly after booking the rooms, moving to Costa Rica and creating her alibi by making sure plenty of people saw her there -- in person and on video chat.”

He paused, turning and catching John’s eye again.  He resisted the urge to wipe a missed smudge of dust and soot off of John’s neck.  After Mycroft’s helpers had dug them out of the collapsed mine, they’d rushed back in the early morning light, and they’d had time for only a hasty, cursory washing up while the staff had assembled.  Somehow, though, even still dirty and rumpled, John was utterly compelling.  John, whose pupils were dilating as Sherlock’s eyes lingered on his, whose Adam’s apple was bobbing up and down --

The friendlier, more excitable owner cleared her throat.  “So if Helen didn’t do it…”

Sherlock turned back to the assembly.  “Yes.  Right.  Clearly, she needed a local accomplice to carry out the crime.  Someone who knew the guest house and the area well.  Now would be a good time to arrest the gardener, by the way,” Sherlock said to the constable.  “He’s getting ready to make a dash for it.”  

The man -- Gavin?  George?  No, it definitely wasn’t the same name as the NSY DI, so George, probably -- looked frightened as the officer grabbed him and fished for her cuffs.  “B-but you’ve got it all wrong.  I didn’t kill them,” he said.

“I know,” Sherlock said.  The constable paused in the midst of locking George’s hands behind his back, confused.   

“You’re not so sharp, and you had a crush on Helen -- that made you loyal, and easily manipulable.”  George flushed, looking down.  “Helen told you her sob story, and she got you to dig the tunnel for her during the renovations, and probably to deliver the bribe to the contractors so they would look the other way.  That way, there was nobody who knew of her involvement besides you.  You also helped conceal the tunnel temporarily with sod -- though the dog kept digging through it -- and to seal up the tunnel once she was done.   And ,” he twirled dramatically, “she had your help in sneaking in and out of the grounds to reach the tunnel on the night of the murders.”

“But,” the short, stubborn owner protested, “she was in Costa Rica!  You just said.”

Sherlock nodded.  “It’s true.  And she was also here.  How is that possible?”  

There was a silence as everyone pondered.  “No,” John breathed.  “But… it’s never twins!”

Sherlock grinned at him, delighted that he’d caught on.  “Well, it’s occasionally twins.  Or, at any rate, siblings.  Helen was not the only daughter of Ms. Mann to fake her death in the fire.  Julia, her sister -- technically not a twin, but only a year and a half apart, and remarkably similar in appearance -- came here when Helen went away.  In the dark, speaking in whispers, George thought he was helping Helen.  Meanwhile, Helen was very convincingly skyping with the owners from Costa Rica.”  

Sherlock felt John’s eyes on him, shining with admiration -- and also with a new kind of heat.  He’d thought being the subject of John’s appreciative gaze was the greatest thing he could experience, but it paled in response to the attention John had lavished on him a short while ago.  And the things John’s eyes were promising now --

“She was the hooded figure!” someone interrupted.  Oh, right -- it was the dramatic young woman, and there were still other people awaiting the end of his deductions as well.

“Yes, congratulations,” he retorted, turning toward her, “you finally got past your superstitious worldview full of spirits and observed what was right in front of you -- perhaps in a few million years you’ll develop something like critical thinking.”  John hissed at him and kicked his ankle, though rather halfheartedly.  Sherlock immediately said, “Sorry,” without meaning it.  

Best to get this deduction over with as soon as possible -- a thought he was fairly certain he’d never had before.  He rushed onward.  “Of course, with Helen gone, Julia couldn’t afford to be seen by anyone in town, or the alibi would be ruined. She stayed in one of the abandoned mines and wore a hooded cloak to avoid being recognized.  Hence the traces of slate and the dark fibers in the tunnel beneath the guest house.”

“So -- Julia’s the one who caused the cave-in at the mine?”  John asked.  His brow furrowed adorably.  Sherlock couldn’t quite believe he’d just thought such a word.  But John’s endearing appearance was empirical fact.

“No, John, she’s long gone.  She joined her sister in Costa Rica.  Our assailant was George -- he wanted to protect Helen, and when he heard me say that we’d find identifying evidence in the mine, he panicked.  He turned to his brother, who works at the mine, for help getting explosives.”

“Lots of us have relatives who work in the mine, though,” the irritable owner said dubiously.  “Me, Anna…”  The front desk woman nodded.  “It’s hardly a sign of guilt.”  

“True,” Sherlock acknowledged.  “But I gave Anna a different time that we’d be at the mine; if she’d been the one assisting her best friend, Helen, with the killings, she would have attacked us the following morning, instead.”  Anna looked affronted at the idea.  

“What about the watch and the brooch, then?” the friendly owner asked, frowning.  “Was that just to make it look like a burglary?  To throw us off the scent?”

“Not that anyone was on the scent,” Sherlock smiled at the constable, who glared.  “No -- if, as seems likely, the brooch was a family heirloom, the daughters felt it was rightfully theirs.  And perhaps they wanted to sell it to help fund their new life.”

“Too bad Helen’s sister dropped the watch, then,” John noted.  “It was worth a lot more.”  

“I don’t believe she did drop it,” Sherlock said.  “I believe Julia gave it to George, partly because she couldn’t stand to own something associated with their stepfather, and partly as compensation for his help, and a bribe to stay quiet.  But he deliberately left it in the tunnel.”  He turned to George and cocked an eyebrow.

George, shoulders slumped, nodded.  “I didn’t want the stupid watch.  I did it to help her.  Her story was so sad.  How could they do that to her?”  He looked around the room imploringly, but nobody had any answers.   He continued his speech.  “It… it made me angry that she didn’t know that I cared about her enough to help her for her own sake.  So I left the damn watch down there and bricked up the tunnel.”  

Everyone who worked at the guest house looked sorrowful.  Even the constable looked a bit sad as she said, “All right, George.  Let’s go.  We’ll be bringing in your brother, too.  And I guess we’ll need to see what we can do about extradition, for the sisters.”  George, who’d been looking upset, went ashen at that.

“I believe you’ll find that Costa Rica has no extradition treaty with the UK.”  Sherlock observed.  “And that Helen has disappeared at this point, in any case -- as Anna, who tried to text her earlier, presumably discovered.”

“Bugger,” the constable swore.  Then she added, “Excuse me,” self-consciously to the other women in the room, who appeared unfazed.

“Perhaps it’s for the best,” Sherlock mused.  “The deaths were arguably justified -- the victims weren’t very good people, after all.”  The constable looked dismayed at the idea.  John, at his side, continued to broadcast approval in his stance and his gaze, though.

“So is this one an accessory, too -- since she was trying to contact one of the perpetrators?” the constable asked, nodding to Anna.

“No. If you examine her texts, you’ll find that she was just belatedly getting over a sulk over her friend abandoning her.  She felt guilty over not joining in any of the video chats with Helen or otherwise contacting her since she’d left.  She tried to get in touch to ask Helen what she knew about the crimes -- right after she started believing they were non-ghostly crimes, after we found the tunnel and the evidence inside.  But Anna failed to reach Helen; she found her number disconnected.”

“How did you know all that?” Anna asked, wide-eyed.  

“Bitten nails and looks of guilt when skyping with Helen was mentioned -- plus this.”  Sherlock plucked her phone out of his pocket and handed it over to the officer.  He felt John brimming with barely suppressed giggles at his side, and he smiled.  “From when you were arranging the tour for us.”

Anna scowled.  “So that’s where it went.”

“Thank you,” the friendlier owner of Stoneview said, after the constable had left with George.  “It’s such a relief to know what happened, and to know that we’re safe.  Though I still can’t believe our Helen would have helped do such horrible things.  Even if they were bad people.”  She shivered.   

“George was a surprise, too.”  The formerly stubborn owner, now seemingly mollified, sighed.  “I guess we’ll have even more hiring to do -- assuming we ever attract any new clientele.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Sherlock said, “You might find that a story of a double murder can bring in a great deal of business, if you spin it the right way.  Maybe you can even play up the ghost angle more; people believe the silliest things.”  Anna perked up.  “There’s an inn at Baskerville that has benefited greatly from local monster stories; I can put you in touch.”  He and John grinned at each other, and now that the deductions were over, he allowed his eyes to linger longer, marveling over this man and his surprises.

“Will you be heading back to London, then?” The polite owner asked.  

“No, we’ll be staying another night,” Sherlock said, still staring into John’s eyes.  “Actually we’ll be retiring right now.”  John cleared his throat, turned a bit red, and looked away.

“But you haven’t even had breakfast!”

“Food can wait.  Very exhausting work, being stuck in a mine and solving mysteries.”  

* * *

Back in the room, after locking the door behind them, John said, “You’re brilliant, you know that?”  Sherlock gave him a lovely smile and flushed in a way that was somehow both endearing and sexy.  Suddenly the long shower he’d been craving seemed like it could wait just a little longer.  John pushed Sherlock back against the door and leaned in for a kiss.

“Wait,” Sherlock said.

“Okay?” John tensed up a little and stepped back.  This was still so new, he wasn’t sure what to expect.  

“We’re being watched.”  

John’s brow furrowed.  “What?  Who?”  Sherlock rolled his eyes with a particular brand of exasperation that John recognized.  “You mean… Mycroft is watching us?  When you said earlier that he knew where we were, I thought you just meant via GPS or something.”

“No, there are cameras.  And Harry is with him.”

“Harry -- my sister Harry?”  Sherlock nodded.  “How -- why?”

“I believe her girlfriend just broke up with her, possibly on the same day that Harry lost her job.”  

John frowned, surprised by this and confused by its relevance.  “Dammit; I liked Bea.  How do you know?”   

“Obvious.  Just before this case, she called you up, unsolicited, just to check on you -- she only does that when things are going poorly for her and she’s desperate for distraction.”  John flushed, but it was true.  “Usually that means a fight with her girlfriend -- but she called you three times in short order, including when you were at the clinic -- so it was worse than usual.  Probably a breakup, then, and a lost job.”  

“Fuck -- I’d no idea it was that bad.  She didn’t tell me any of that.”  John shook his head guiltily, remembering the two follow up calls he’d ignored.  “Okay, but -- why is she with Mycroft?”

“Given her state, Mycroft presumably surmised that she was about to go on a bender, which would in turn be likely to pull you away from 221B to deal with her and help her back into rehab.  Mycroft knew I was at risk as well, for other reasons --”

“Other reasons?” John interrupted, frowning, but Sherlock kept going.

“-- And that if you left, I might turn to substance abuse myself -- a chain reaction.  To prevent that and preserve all of our stability and sanity, Mycroft recruited Harry to monitor us.  He distracted her -- and us -- by sending us on this case.  He and Anthea probably even assigned the project it some cute codename.”

John pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to think this through, and trying not to contemplate directly the horror of their two siblings joining forces.  “How -- how do you know all this?”

“Mycroft never sent you any text messages.”

“He did -- I can show you.”

“No need; I saw them.  They were from Harry.  Mycroft’s style is completely different.”

John sighed.  “You read my texts.  When you stole my phone, in the cave?”

“After your bewildering confession -- congratulations, by the way, very little surprises me -- I certainly did.”

John shot him a brief grin.  “Okay, so -- Harry was trying to get us together.  Are you sure she was working with Mycroft, though?  That she wasn’t just impersonating him?”  

“I’m sure.  Mycroft texted me, as well -- actual Mycroft.”

John blinked.  “He did?”

“Yes.  He told me not to ask you about Christopher.”

John snorted.  “So of course you did.”  Then he buried his face in his hands.  “Oh, god, Harry told Mycroft about Christopher.  They are working together.”

“Cheer up; Mycroft already knew almost all your embarrassing past,” Sherlock said with a smirk.  

John turned a pained smile toward him.  “Thanks.”

“I also detected Mycroft’s hand in the stories placed in the London Times,” Sherlock continued.  “Chicken deaths and double heart attacks in Keswick?  Not London-worthy news.  Someone was trying to pique my interest.  Mycroft’s been worried about me and trying to get me to take a case for some time.  And he knows I can’t turn down a locked room case.”

“Worried about you?  Because of whatever reasons were putting you at risk?”  John hazarded.

“Yes.  Because I was pining over my flatmate, who would never return my affections,” Sherlock said, giving John a lopsided smile.

John laughed.  “Your oblivious flatmate.  Was that why you were being such a cock all the time?  I wish you’d just said something a lot earlier; we could have cleared all this up easily.”

“No we couldn’t.”  Sherlock pointed out calmly.  “You have to be tricked into life and death situations to reveal your feelings.  Or you need the other person to be dead already -- I’m glad we didn’t have to do that again.”

John grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck.  “Right.  Me, too,” he said.  Sherlock gave him a look that left him in no doubt about Sherlock’s current interests, and his breath caught.  “Now, let’s find those cameras so we can shut our nosy sibs out and get on with it, shall we?”  

“By all means.”

* * *

John and Sherlock went around searching for bugs, and found a few of them.  Harry turned off the monitors on the rest before things got weird.  Well, weirder.

“You had the whole thing planned?” she turned to Mycroft accusatorily.  “This whole thing -- it was actually about me, and distracting me from booze?”  Anthea had just walked into the room and stilled, watching them.

Mycroft shrugged.  “In part.  I was truly also hoping you could help stabilize both of our brothers, as I told you.”

Harry stared at him a long moment, then broke into a big grin.  “Wow.  Well-played.”  Harry felt a surge of affection toward both Mycroft and Anthea for providing her with such a good distraction from her own woes -- Mycroft had even kept her up most of the night watching movies while they waited for Sherlock and John’s rescue, so she hadn’t had time to mope much.

Then she asked, “So now what?”

“Pardon?”  Mycroft tilted his head.

“Well, I’m obviously still in danger of going on a bender at any moment, given that I still don’t have a girlfriend or a job or a flat, and we’ve wrapped up this case.  So how are you going to help?”

“I’m… I’m not going to find you a girlfriend,” Mycroft said, looking startled.

Harry laughed.  “No, of course not.  But don’t you think I’ve auditioned rather well for a surveillance role?  I could do this all the time.  It’s great fun.”

Mycroft sat back, studying her.  Finally, “I think we might manage a starting role continuing to consult on Doctor Watson and my brother.  You may in fact have a better grasp on some aspects of them than I do.  And then we can see.”

“Awesome!”  Harry grinned.  “I’m also good at fixing up Holmeses, apparently.  Watch out, you’re next!”

“What?  No!”  Mycroft sounded alarmed.  “I am not in need of your services, thank you.”

Harry cackled.  

Anthea smirked, too.  “Oh, by the way, Harry -- I’m looking for a flatmate, actually, if you’ll be wanting a place to stay that isn’t so … Mycrofty.”

Mycroft looked even more alarmed, standing and straightening his waistcoat.  “I don’t know if that’s the best idea --”

“Oh, Anthea, that’s perfect!”  Harry said, with a delighted smile, curious as to whether Anthea had actually been searching before she showed up, but not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.  “Thank you.  And thanks so much for a lovely weekend, both of you… this is all much better than I ever expected.”  She jumped up and ran over to Mycroft impulsively, pulling both him and Anthea into a group hug.  Anthea responded like someone who knew how to hug; Mycroft like someone who’d read about it once in a manual.  

“Hahaha, I can’t wait to tell my brother who I’m working for now,” Harry said, pulling back.  “And to tease him about his new boyfriend.  His life,” she said with great satisfaction, “is going to be hell.”

“Well, aside from the part where he’s finally together with the man of his dreams, after years of separation and repression,” Anthea pointed out.  “It may be hard to rain on his good mood for a while.”

Harry sighed happily.  “You’re right -- he’s going to be in a disgustingly good mood for quite some time, isn’t he?  And it’s all because of us.”  She turned to look at Mycroft.  “We make a good team.”

He nodded thoughtfully.  “We do -- far more than I expected.  I’m looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish together in the future.”  He and Harry shared a smile that would have terrified their brothers, if they had been able to witness it.