Some time ago, I decided I would write a fic for sherlockbigbang, and wanted to use one of the canon stories as a foundation. I thought "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" would be especially fascinating to update and make into a more personal story, so that's what I did. 20K, rated R.
As with almost all of my fics in this fandom, it's a love story between straight John and asexual Sherlock. I'd call it gen with a side of slash (Harry/Clara); Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, and Charles Augustus Milverton also play significant roles. As does Sherlock in disguise.
A few quick notes before you start the story: Vee (OFC) is Lestrade's wife - I had wanted to write a story featuring her and John becoming friends, but couldn't manage it before this bigbang posting. I'd still like to write it soonish. There's one tiny reference to Veronica Mars in here and another to Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane novels. Points to anyone who identifies them!
Many, many thanks are due to three extraordinary betas and Britpickers, all of whom were extremely busy but took the time to help me anyway: oxoniensis, kate_lear, and _doodle. Cheers, lovelies!
And adoration to y0do and ptelefolone for the gorgeous art they created for this story! You won't believe what they come up with. (Direct link to y0do's art here.)
(Remix by lavvyan: "Bricoleur (the DIY remix)")
A loose retelling of "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" in which Harry, newly separated and struggling to get sober, is the one who's being blackmailed for a drunken hit-and-run. John needs Sherlock to solve the case, but not if he's going to prove Harry's guilty. Set a few months after "The Great Game," while the boys are still recovering. ("Bricoleur" means "one who uses all that he has to do what he has to do.")
Even during the lull that followed being battered by a madman with equal fondness for explosives and henchmen, a quiet morning was a rare treat, and John was blissfully aware that he could hardly improve upon this one. The teapot was full, and he had managed to scrounge up the only mug that looked free of all contaminants. The new toaster, still undefiled by any of Sherlock's mad experiments, had produced perfectly browned slices that were now thickly spread with butter and raspberry jam.
Feeling ashamedly like a nanny with a sickly charge, John had checked on Sherlock, only to find that his flatmate was sleeping the sleep of the thoroughly worn-out and snoring up a storm, as if protesting such a plebeian end to his most recent mad adventures. John knew quite well that anyone still recovering from double pneumonia who nevertheless insisted on hiding out of doors in the freezing rain on the off-chance of catching a counterfeiter got all the wretchedness he deserved, but he hadn't expected Sherlock's snores to be quite so emphatic.
Still, with the door to Sherlock's bedroom firmly closed, he could almost imagine himself blessedly alone. He booted up his laptop to read his emails while he had his tea and toast. There was nothing much of interest in his inbox, aside from an invitation to join Stamford at a lecture and an email from Vee, asking to postpone their Friday lunch but offering him the chance, if he was still so masochistically inclined, to join her in her studio to watch her work.
The Sunday paper was, wonder of wonders, dry and still firmly creased, and he shook it open contentedly to tackle the crossword and Sudoku puzzles, switching whenever he got stuck. He nibbled the last of his toast crusts and drank his cooling tea, pondered 27 down, and asked himself if the sofa could possibly be quite as comfortable a bed as Sherlock made it look when he was sprawled on it like a corpse after rigor mortis had come and gone.
It was, and John, worn out from worrying over Sherlock's much abused immune system, collapsed on it with a happy sigh and fell right asleep.
He woke in no very cheerful mood. That was pretty much a given, since Sherlock had done the waking by holding a cold mug to his bare foot and repeating his name in what promised to be a ceaseless litany. "John," he croaked, injured expression not lightening even when he saw that his tactics had worked, "I require tea."
John sat up, rubbed his face, and checked the clock. "Christ, Sherlock, I was only asleep for seven minutes!" He looked over at Sherlock, who didn't even seem to be aware that he was mimicking John's actions the way a child would his parent's, rubbing at his sleepy eyes with a loose fist. "Are you feeling any better?"
Sherlock scowled at the question, evidently resenting the implication that there were times when he was not in the best of health. He didn't deign to answer, either, simply repeated his demand for tea. Mycroft had been right, John reflected. Living with Sherlock could be hellish, never more so than when he was under the weather, because it was then that he reverted back to the mindset and mannerisms of childhood, kicking John's already ridiculously strong urge to protect into high gear. Sherlock when hale and hearty was no prize, and even though his behaviour changed in only the most superficial of ways as his health declined, when he was sick and overtaxed John's susceptible mind cast him as an innocent, off-limits for retaliation in a way John couldn't explain even to himself, not when he bloody well knew better.
He supposed there was nothing for it, now that he was awake, but to make a fresh pot of tea, sterilise another mug – better yet, perhaps simply wash up his own and offer it – and push liquids on Sherlock, whose eyes were already closing again. Sherlock had flatly refused, several times now but always with great vehemence, to take any proper medication, claiming that he could not bear a cloudy mind. John sighed and got off the sofa, and his flatmate, apparently free from even a vestigial sense of shame, crawled into the warm spot his body had left and manoeuvred himself into a position that ensured he took up the entire sofa while still managing to look impossibly small. He'd definitely lost weight that he couldn't afford to lose. John hadn't got more than a few steps away when he saw Sherlock's eyebrows rise over still-shut eyes. "What?" he enquired. "We're not out of milk or sugar –"
He stopped when he heard what Sherlock must have picked up on, the drumming of feet on their staircase, someone upset, stumbling, lost – surely a client. Sherlock was in no shape to help anybody now, though, and John opened the door, ready to head off whoever was standing there by offering an appointment for later in the week. But it was Harry, mascara streaked down her face, who stood on the doorstep and said quietly, "Please, I need your help, Jay."
For all that they'd never got on, John was as powerless to deny Harry when she needed him as he was Sherlock. His arms came up around her in an unfamiliar but earnest embrace, and she choked out a sob into his thin cotton shirt, her hands clutching tightly at him, bruising the ribs he'd cracked not so very long ago. "Shhh," he soothed, rocking their weight from one foot to the other, not letting go.
Harry smelt like her expensive salon shampoo and soap, but the perfume she favoured, which had always reminded John unpleasantly of a garden of dead roses, was missing. So too was any odour of alcohol, and if Harry heard or resented his cautious sniff, she masked it well. She didn't go too far when she stepped back, as if she needed to stay close. John couldn't even begin to guess what could have shaken her like this, not when she'd already lost Clara and then all of their friends by accusing them of taking Clara's side in what had been, up to that point, the intensely private dissolution of a marriage.
"Sorry," she said, rubbing at her damp eyes with the side of her hand, and John was vividly reminded of Sherlock's uncharacteristic clumsiness with the same gesture not five minutes earlier. It was entirely typical of his life, he thought, that at the first meeting of the two people he could neither chuck nor be entirely happy with, they should both be in such poor shape. Harry, panda-eyed and sniffling, was trembling in his arms, and the spell on the sofa and the hours in his own bed had between them dishevelled Sherlock's hair so that he looked like Little Lord Fauntleroy three days gone on the bender of his life.
Harry had never been heavy, at least not since she'd got back from uni, but John could feel bones too close to the surface under her jumper. Whatever else she needed from him, he'd at least see to it that she ate a proper meal. And while he was dreaming big, he might as well include a wish that Sherlock would join them and consume solid food without protest.
Her awkward ministrations to her ravaged face were unsurprisingly ineffective. "You must be Sherlock," she said. Holding her, John could just see the tremulous smile she tried out; she didn't move far enough away from him even to extend her hand to his flatmate.
"I must," Sherlock agreed noncommittally; with the rasp his illness had lent his voice, John could scarcely tell if there was an extra layer of coldness in his tone. "And you are here for my help and not your brother's." He paused, making a show of considering her. God only knew what observations he was making, or what conclusions he was drawing. John tensed up, and felt his sister do the same in response. "I'm not sure that I'm inclined to give it."
"For God's sake, Sherlock, please," John hissed, though he knew that Sherlock thought he was being a good friend by peremptorily refusing Harry, who'd caused John so much grief in just the short time he and Sherlock had known each other; such actions and overtures, laden with meaning, had become important to Sherlock in the aftermath of their midnight encounter with Moriarty at the public pool. Trust Sherlock, tone-deaf as ever with respect to the complexities of familial obligations and fraternal love, to make such a stand just as Harry relinquished her destructive pride. John kept an arm around his sister's shoulders and met Sherlock's carefully blank gaze; he shook his head slightly, just enough for Sherlock to pick up on, and saw the slightest smile flicker on his flatmate's lips. He knew very well how satisfied Sherlock was by his plea, since he had been chomping at the bit for a case ever since he'd worked out how the counterfeiting had been accomplished; for Sherlock, actually catching the criminal was, despite its moments of excitement, still only part of the dénouement.
He knew that Sherlock would solve this new case. He knew, too, that once the case was over, Harry would most likely go back to being nothing more than a distant, infuriating voice on the telephone and a constant pressure on his heart, just as she had been since the day he'd realised that she used alcohol as glue to patch what she saw as the broken shards of herself together. He wanted better for her, but if wishes were horses, beggars would ride, and there were evidently no words he could string together to make her see the light. He knew because he’d tried them all, every last one.
The memories pushed his shoulders down, and she swayed into him again, her weight shifting with his. It wasn't a question of whether she deserved the help or not; it was knowing that he was bloody useless at being her white knight. At least this time, he could bring her to the saviour she needed. He rubbed his hand up and down her back once, firmly, then guided her to the chair facing Sherlock's sofa. He would have pulled away and propped himself up against the wall, had she not clung to his hand, though he knew she recognised the futility of looking to him for aid.
Sherlock aimed his unsettling stare right through her. "Begin," he commanded, gaze shifting up to John's face as if he'd gleaned all that was necessary from Harry's demeanour. John tried to keep his features still, intensely aware of his hand, clasped around his sister's shoulder, trembling under one of hers. "John, tea," he reminded, and John, comprehending that Sherlock wanted Harry facing him without the benefit of a crutch, slipped free of them both, filled the kettle, and set it to boil.
He only heard silence, though, and as he rinsed out his mug, he looked over his shoulder to see Harry twisting her hands in her lap. Just as he turned off the tap, he heard Sherlock say flatly, "You should have told him that you'd patched things up with your wife. He’s been worrying over you and Clara both." John caught his breath in his throat at this accusation. Had Clara taken Harry back, then? He turned fully around to see Sherlock drawing his hands together, the tips of his index fingers meeting just in front of his lips. It made the venom in his voice seem all the more like a judgement from on high, when the mouth forming the words was hidden. "Though I have long observed that you reach out to him only when you need something."
Harry's hands had gone still and she was staring at Sherlock like a rabbit would a snake. John could see her mouth moving, but no sounds came out. His nickname finally emerged from her throat, strangled: "Jay." They looked at each other, and out of the corner of his eye he could make out Sherlock eagerly watching the byplay between them. He wasn't even going to enquire how Sherlock had known that he'd been toying with the idea of calling Clara – she was still number one on his phone's speed-dial – or even calling upon her, just to see if she was still standing after Harry's shit had hit the fan.
Since John had offered to sacrifice himself and take Moriarty with him, Sherlock seemed to consider the stakes of their friendship raised, and he'd not been backwards about responding. The only thing was, Sherlock also seemed to believe that everyone else in the entire world – first and foremost his recalcitrant sister – also owed John absolute allegiance and care, and he very evidently resented John being treated like what he was, an ordinary bloke.
But surely even that frankly alarming mindset could not account for all of the frost in Sherlock's tone. John made Sherlock's tea, stirring it briskly, and realised that some of Sherlock's umbrage came from the timing of this meeting. Sherlock was insatiably curious about Harry, about anyone in John's life, really, and that he had to meet her when he was ill and tired and far from his best was chafing at him. John handed him the tea and said absolutely nothing about what a trial Sherlock must have been to his parents as a child.
And if he was the slightest bit bucked up by Sherlock's evident partisanship, he kept mum about that too.
He couldn't perch on the arm of Harry's chair, not unless he wanted his bad leg to lock up and cause him to tumble gracelessly to the floor after a few minutes, but he stood next to his sister, letting his hip push gently against her shoulder. "Just tell him everything," he counselled. "Start at the beginning. We'll discuss Clara later, if you like."
John felt a pang when she looked up at him gratefully. God, her eyes looked so tired. "This all has to do with Clara," Harry said haltingly, "and I should have told you, but I couldn't quite believe that she’d given me another chance, that I wouldn't fuck this one up too."
"I know," he soothed, over the sound of Sherlock's long slurp of tea; the man lost even the barest pretension to social graces when he was poorly and therefore feeling put upon and ill-used by the world.
"Clara," Harry said, turning back to Sherlock, whose spine stiffened at Harry's imploring look, "has made it a condition of seeing me that I don't touch alcohol."
"Altogether? Not weaning away?" Sherlock asked, voice rough with what John would have liked to call empathy, one addict to another, but recognised merely as phlegm.
"Cold turkey," Harry confirmed. "I –"
"Where do you meet her?" Sherlock interrupted.
"She comes to me." John swallowed involuntarily at her dead-eyed expression, trying to convince himself that he was wrong, but to no avail. Harry looked like a shell of her former self, to the point where even her voice sounded desiccated. He cast his mind back to their brief – necessarily, as they had driven each other mad inside of a week – experiment in sharing a flat, how she'd come back from a fourth date with Clara at three in the morning, waking him up with her French-farce tiptoeing and blinking at him, when he snapped on the light, with eyes defiantly in love. He wanted that Harry back, pain in the arse though she’d been. "At my flat – it's a bit of a pit, really, but we agreed that I shouldn't go back to our – I mean, her – flat until she's ready for me to be there."
"You'll wait six more months, at a minimum," Sherlock said into his mug of tea, and John wanted to slay him on the spot for being so offhand with a deduction about a woman he'd not even met yet. "But that can't be why you've come round, so, tell me what case you've brought me."
John squeezed his sister's shoulder, a private message to buck up and just spit it out, but was surprised when she neatly shrugged out of the embrace and raised her head to meet Sherlock's cool, incisive gaze head-on. Fine. She wanted honesty, not sympathy, now; John recognised the way she held herself almost at attention, remembered it from members of his squad, and, before that, from their mother, stoic Celia Watson, who had a smile sadder than tears.
"I got smashed one night anyway," Harry said, not bothering to disguise the ugly truth. "About a week after John came home, a few days after Clara left." He'd forgotten how quickly events had followed each other, how it had seemed like his homecoming was the impetus Clara had needed to speak up for herself and say that she'd had enough. He wondered if it was just that Clara had waited until she knew someone else could take over responsibility for Harry. Even then, he could see very well, she hadn't wanted to go, had already promised to come back the moment Harry quit drinking.
Maybe Sherlock was right, and love and stupidity were two words for the same thing.
"We'd just gone down – Barry, Simon, and myself – we'd gone down to close a deal, a very large deal, and the clients insisted on taking us to dinner to celebrate what had been about seven months of intense work. Four courses – you know what bank blokes are like – with wines to match, and cocktails before and scotches after." Harry paused, but Sherlock had no comment. Not because, John thought, he was cognisant of the glass house in which he lived, but because he genuinely did not care what poison Harry poured into her system or what pledges she broke. Harry mattered not one whit to him, and maybe, given the swooping of John's stomach at the confession, that was the smartest decision that could be made.
God, poor Clara.
"Next morning," Harry continued, "I got these texts on my mobile." She held up the screen so that Sherlock could see it, and John left her side to stand beside the sofa and read the screen himself.
FAT said the first. "You're not fat," John said automatically before willing himself to shut up; Harry was not here because of any self-esteem issues or because she needed his help against stinging schoolyard taunts.
Harry pressed a button, and the next text displayed said DRUNK. CUNT came up last. Nasty, very nasty. John sat down on the arm of the sofa without quite meaning to.
Sherlock set his mug down, none too gently. "I am a consulting detective, not an agony aunt," he rasped. "I could not possibly care less that someone is calling you names."
"Wait, Sherlock," John said, trying to work out what was niggling at him about Harry's statement. In response, he got a curly head pressed against his hip; he could feel Sherlock's vastly irritated sigh through the fabric of his pyjama bottoms. Suddenly he had it. "The timing on that is awfully tight. Harry gave me her old phone the day after Clara left, got drunk – what? two days later?" Harry nodded "– and this poison pen had her new number already? Why didn't the texts come to me?"
Sherlock raised his head with a look of dawning wonder. "Yes. Point." A colossal sneeze escaped him, and he fumbled in the pocket of his dressing-gown for a wad of tissues. "How did the blackmailer get hold of your new number? How did he know you'd got rid of your old phone?"
"Hang on – blackmailer? Over one slip off the wagon?" John asked, praying that Harry wasn't about to recount further lurid exploits. "There's only one person we need to keep this from, and it's not like Harry's wealthy, really wealthy, anyway; would that be worth it to a blackmailer?"
"Ah, but there's more," Sherlock said, virtually purring with satisfaction at the prospect of a real puzzle. John told himself sternly that it wasn't Sherlock's fault that he was like this, and kept quiet. "Out with it."
"I can't help you with how it started," Harry confessed, already ducking her head like she knew Sherlock's poisonous glare was coming. "I thought the letters were Clara's – she used to get these things all the time, you know." John could see her bite her lip, hard, trying to keep the water in her eyes from spilling over.
"Harriet Deborah Watson," Sherlock snapped, holding up one hand to stop what promised to be a messy flood of words and tears. "You will give me facts and only facts, and save the histrionics for a later date. What kind of letters did you receive, and did you bring any with you to show me?"
"I burnt them all," Harry said softly. "But I can't forget – I can tell you everything you need to know."
"Doubtless another will be arriving shortly," Sherlock responded after a discordant sigh. John pushed Sherlock's head off his thigh, where it had resettled. Sherlock merely rolled his shoulders and continued, "Do not destroy it; bring it round to me immediately."
"Do you – do you want to know –" Harry ventured, and John winced, seeing her set herself up like that.
Sure enough, Sherlock pounced, with a withering glare. "The average human memory on visual matters is only sixty-two percent accurate. And given that you've spent years with your brain being pickled in alcohol, yours is likely to be even less reliable."
Harry nodded, as if she deserved that, and then launched into a description anyway. "Leaflet, black and white, on plain white A4, copy quality only, no ink smudged, but cheap-looking nevertheless. Probably done at a Prontaprint or Office World or somewhere like that. Closely mimicked the kinds of appeals letters that we used to get whenever Clara would send a cheque off to some charity or another."
Sherlock turned his head just enough to slice a glance at John, perhaps trying to gauge if Harry's dispassionate words were a sign of extreme intelligence – listing every detail of the form so analytically – or evasion – trying to build her courage to discuss the leaflets' content. John wasn't sure himself.
It was to him that Harry turned, like she needed to get the worst over with at once. "They said I killed a man," she said, and John couldn't move, couldn't speak. Harry could never – all her destructive urges were turned inward, not out at the world, let alone at any particular person.
Abruptly, John got up, needing an outlet for his jumbled thoughts. Pacing seemed to be the best he could do without running from the flat entirely. "Who?" he asked.
"No name yet –"
"Yet?" Sherlock demanded. "The letters are escalating?"
"Yes. First, it was just an image of this man, African, I think, lying on the ground, eyes closed. I thought it might be for a campaign, the kind of thing Clara's firm runs – legalisation of immigrants, immigrants' rights, you know, something like that. Then the next one had my name on top – H. D. Watson, my professional name, can't have people refusing to take meetings with me once they know I'm not a man – and at the bottom, it said look what you've done. Same picture on it, but I still didn't get it." She wiped savagely at her eyes. "The next one was the same picture, only smaller, and a picture of my car underneath."
"Hit and run," Sherlock summarised, comprehension making his voice light and almost playful. "That night you celebrated your deal closing, you drove back home smashed out of your wits and hit someone, and now someone else is going to tell."
"I swear I didn't! I don't remember hitting anything, and if I had, I'd have stopped to – to check." Her last words were muffled, spoken into John's chest.
It wasn't Harry but John that Sherlock was watching, as if the truth of the situation could only be prised from his brain, as if John would tip him a secretive nod to acknowledge that his sister, his only family, was no better than a murderer. Sherlock stared John down and declared, "I despise blackmailers. And I will find the truth."
That last was a threat and a promise both, John knew, and he tightened his arms around his sister.