The silence in the flat felt thick but sharp. John continued to make mugs of the hot honey-lemon-ginger drink, all of which Sherlock dutifully swallowed down, but each of them had his own laptop, and the telly stayed off.
John honestly couldn't think of a thing to say. It would have been one thing if Sherlock had had good reason to interrogate Clara, but there had been no evidence to corroborate, nothing to prompt it but Sherlock's own inhuman inquisitiveness. Clara had not deserved to be treated like that.
He heard a gasp as Sherlock took a sip of his still too-hot drink, and looked up. Sherlock's face was pale and drawn, purplish smudges under his eyes. He was tapping away at his keyboard, shivering slightly in his inadequate pyjamas and dressing-gown. John stood and pulled the blanket off the back of his chair, crossed the room, and draped it over Sherlock, who held perfectly still.
"I don't want her to be guilty, John." The words were heavy, like stones dropped into a well.
John weighed them as he went to put his own mug in the sink. They were careful, yes, and precise; there was no reason to doubt him. "I believe you," he said.
He came back to his laptop, remembering he still owed Mike and Vee emails declining their invitations. There was a message from Harry in his inbox. "Sherlock, look – I'm going to forward this to you. Harry sent an email with an attachment."
He opened it on his laptop, knowing Sherlock was doing the same across the room. She'd scanned the latest leaflet. This one featured the photograph she'd mentioned, a man with skin not quite as dark as Clara's, eyes closed, lying on the ground. He was wearing a jumper, cheap-looking dress trousers, and rather battered trainers; he could have been a cabbie. Next to that photograph was a still from a security or CCTV camera, time- and date-stamped, of the rear of Harry's car – number plate clearly visible – alone on the road, just a vague shape in the driver's seat. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? was spelt out in anonymous capital letters that looked like they'd come from a copybook.
Sherlock spoke as John's eyes focused on the dead face once more. "What do you make of it?"
"He's African, or of African descent. Late twenties, at a guess. Strong features." He thought back to his days doing rounds at hospitals. "Dressed like many immigrants tend to dress when they're new to the country. No watch, glasses, or jewellery." The still, dead face was somehow wise and sad, but he knew better than to mention that.
"Before you veer off into physiognomy," Sherlock said, sounding sharper now that he had actual evidence to work with, "what else do you see?"
"That's definitely Harry's car and number plate. I can't tell if that's her in the driver's seat, but Clara has her own car anyway, and no one else would have access to Harry's."
"Do you not recognise the location of the photograph of the car?"
John peered at his screen, clicked on the image to try to enlarge it, but only succeeded in blurring it. All he could see by way of landmarks were a rather large tree and some bushes that looked naked without blossoms. "Should I?"
Sherlock was sporting his most shark-like grin. "I know precisely where that car was when this image was recorded." He stood, decisively, and flung off his dressing-gown. "Second mistake the bastard's made. The first was keeping it all too quiet – there's not been a word about a fatal hit-and-run on any news blogs or newspaper websites."
John watched him disappear into his room and started to smile. When he heard Sherlock call out, "Coming?" it blossomed into a proper grin.
"Two days ago in Lestrade's office you could barely stand on your own two feet!" John expostulated at his idiotic flatmate, who seemed bent upon climbing the twenty-foot pole on which a bright yellow speed camera was mounted.
"And you're still nursing cracked ribs and a badly bruised femur and shoulder. It can hardly be you who climbs up there," Sherlock returned. "In any case, you don't know what you're looking for."
"Tell me and I will," John said, trying logic, even though Sherlock always became magically deaf when he did. "And I know you can work magic with mobiles, but I must have missed the moment when you became an all-round technological savant."
Sherlock's whole face was bright in a way John hadn't seen in days, his stride full of energy that had been missing; here, now, he was in his element, fully alive. Even the exasperated look Sherlock threw at him seemed somehow happier, and John couldn't deny that the resumption of the rhythm between them was easing the tension in his own shoulders. "What else do you think I was doing yesterday, John? I've been consulting with someone who offered me the necessary knowledge about cameras. Give me your phone."
John handed it over. As soon as it was in his pocket, Sherlock started shimmying up the pole, making decent enough progress that John bit back his protests. Sherlock took pictures of the camera with John's phone, climbed carefully down, and got the GPS coordinates for the spot once he was back on the ground.
"Sherlock," John said as they walked away, "why was it a mistake to send a picture of Harry's car on the road?"
Sherlock had a number of diabolical smiles, and he pasted one on his face now. "Because, John, it's child's play to track down the camera that was positioned to take that image. And that camera, as all of the nearby signs attest, is for police use only, meant to catch motorists speeding."
"Harry's being blackmailed by a copper?" John asked, feeling like he'd been punched in the gut.
"Not at all. There is a small secondary camera affixed like a parasite on top of the official one. No doubt that's the one that produced that extremely convenient image of your sister's car," Sherlock mused.
"Yes, that makes me feel much better," John bit out. How could they track a camera that was positioned on top of another one?
Sherlock laughed as if dark humour always got the same response as light. "It should. We're closing in."
"You've noted, of course, that the blackmailer hasn't specified what it is that Harry is to provide, haven't you?" Sherlock asked, tucking into his lemon rice with an almost healthy appetite. No one would suspect the amount of pleading and bullying it took to get him into a restaurant when what he really wanted was to go straight to Scotland Yard and flay everybody in his path until he had the link back to Harry's case.
"Yes," John answered, because he'd spent the last few days in the surgery worrying over that while treating a steady stream of patients. "She does work at the largest private fund in Europe," he said, thinking aloud. He gave Sherlock one of his fried cashew nuts. "She has access to all sorts of information."
"Mmm," Sherlock mused. "You'll have to go round to see her, try to narrow down what that could be. Take her some lunch, if you like. She's partial to aloo gobi and lamb kadhai, isn't she?"
"While you work out how to trace the second camera?" John asked, refusing to ask how Sherlock had deduced Harry's standard order at Indian restaurants. "Got someone in IT – that consultant of yours – who's as in love with you as Molly?" It was the first time since the showdown with Moriarty, when Sherlock had cracked his head against the lip of the pool and swallowed about half its contents and John had been flung and bounced against the concrete like a deflating ball, that one of them had said her name to the other.
It didn't seem to affect Sherlock. "Molly was infatuated, not in love."
"And that makes it okay to lead her on?" John demanded. He didn't even bother challenging Sherlock's use of the past tense; arguing over "Jim's" function as a romantic placeholder would have to wait.
"If she knows it means nothing to me, how precisely am I leading her on?" Sherlock asked, the look on his face betraying his private conviction that he was being not only patient but reasonable. "I do what I must to solve my cases."
"That's the thing, Sherlock; you don't have to resort to tactics like that. With your brain, you could come up with a hundred other ways to get what you need."
"It seems that I am forever disappointing you, John." With that, Sherlock stood, tying his scarf around his throat.
"That's not – that's not what I said," John sighed, dropping some cash on the table. He didn't know why he insisted on picking fights with Sherlock, especially now, when Sherlock was clearly trying his best to make up for what Moriarty had done to them both. John hobbled after Sherlock, leg stiffer than it had been for days.
"Can I help –" the redheaded receptionist started to ask, before the man looking over her shoulder at her monitor glanced up, saw John, and said, "Oh! You must be Harry's brother, the soldier."
"Yeah," John agreed, taken aback not by the recognition – people had always said how much he and Harry resembled each other, though neither of them had ever agreed – but by the identification of his former profession. "John Watson. Is she available?"
The receptionist smiled prettily at him. "Let me check, sir," she said, tapping keys on her phone and speaking in an undertone to someone, presumably Harry. "You can go back now, if you like," she said. "Down this corridor, make the first left, then the last door on your right."
John nodded his thanks – she really was quite fetching, even if she did look decades younger than he felt – and set off. He paid no mind to the heads that turned as he passed by, just walked as briskly as he could until he saw Harry behind a sheet of plate-glass. Her office was stark and efficient-looking, all metal and computer components and wires. Sitting in the midst of that in her navy blue suit, she looked like she belonged; he tugged at his cream-coloured jumper almost reflexively.
"Jay," she said, standing. "Have you –? Has Sherlock figured it out?"
"More to do, yet," John half-apologised, trying not to let the flat look in her eyes gnaw at him. "But we should talk about –"
Her phone rang, and she automatically sat back down and reached for it. "Watson," she said, then, "no, I sent it on Monday; I'm waiting for outside counsel's response."
Harry hung up, apologising, but every time John started to dance near the topic of what prize the blackmailer could be after, they were interrupted, either by the phone or by someone stopping by her office to talk to her about a deal. John left after the third time their conversation was put on hold, and as he walked by the pretty receptionist, he remembered that he hadn't asked if Harry had had a chance to talk to Clara, or to ask about their relationship.
Harry would need all the strength Clara's unshakeable faith could give her. And he knew he'd feel better if he could offer tangible proof of her innocence to Sherlock, so he hunted out Harry's car in the company car park and inspected it closely. There was a dent in the front bumper, but he was prepared to swear that he remembered that being caused by another motorist's inept parallel parking; certainly there were no scratches, bloodstains, or other marks that would be left by an impact with a human body. He took as many pictures as his phone would hold and headed home.
"Never mind, John. Doubtless you did your best," Sherlock said almost kindly as John set a pair of mugs on the coffee table.
"What?" John asked, wondering if he had somehow bollocksed up the drinks or some ongoing quest of Sherlock's to keep the coffee table clear.
"Were you not about to tell me that you weren't able to pin your sister down regarding her access to information that our blackmailer might covet?" Sherlock was in his favourite prayer pose on his back, legs hooked over one arm of the sofa, with his eyes resolutely closed. John wondered if he in turn was supposed to deduce that Sherlock had figured him out based solely on the sound of his footsteps – hesitant and shuffling instead of quick and eager, or something along those lines. "It's of no matter," Sherlock continued, "considering how likely it is that Harry herself doesn't know what he's after. Odds are he would want to wind her up to a fever pitch, drive her out of her mind, before revealing what exactly it is he wants. Hence the texts and the barrage of leaflets."
Sherlock swung his legs around and down, sitting up in one fluid movement. "Now that you've got that off your chest, I have good news." He met and matched John's smile. "The primary camera – the speed camera – we found is no longer funded and serves only as a deterrent; there is no film that could have been used to blackmail Harry."
"So the image definitely came from the second camera?" John asked quickly, taken aback when Sherlock's smile grew broad and strangely fond.
"Nicely reasoned," Sherlock said, "despite your emotional distractions."
"So?" John prompted, waiting for the punchline. He nudged the mug of honey-lemon-ginger closer to Sherlock, who rolled his eyes but sipped obligingly.
"I've traced the output of the signal to a university IT room, the location of which matches the postmarks on the leaflets."
Blast. That was as close to anonymous as it got, pretty much, what with all the people coming and going at all hours. "So we've got to go and stake out the IT room?"
"Perhaps," Sherlock said, draining the mug in one long swallow and lying back down. "I need to work out how best to proceed."
There was a brief, muffled thump on the door, and John rose to answer the knock. Mrs. Hudson entered, her hands full with an enormous parcel wrapped in brown paper. John took it from her, surprised at its weight and rather marvelling that Mrs. Hudson hadn't hurt herself, climbing up the stairs carrying it. He set it down on the coffee table, and Sherlock turned just enough to be able to see out of the corner of his eye. John smirked at this display of curiosity and went to fetch the scissors.
"What is it?" Mrs. Hudson wanted to know.
"Surely you can allow John the thirty seconds he needs to open it and then you will know all," Sherlock said crisply.
"But can't you guess?" she queried innocently – rather too innocently, come to think of it. John very much approved of a landlady able to take the piss out of Sherlock and his deductions on occasion.
"I never guess," Sherlock sniffed disdainfully, but John noticed that he didn't turn his back on the grand opening or offer any theories.
Mrs. Hudson squealed like a kid at Christmas at the bounty inside the box. "Oh, look! There's sausages and cheeses and chocolates! You both could do with some feeding up, if you don't mind my saying." Her hands worked busily to clear space for the goods John kept pulling out of the box; he felt vaguely like a disreputable parlour magician. Her voice lost quite a bit of its enthusiasm when she saw the contents of the last packet. "And . . . nicotine patches." At that, one corner of Sherlock's mouth ticked upwards.
"From 'xxx Clara'?" he enquired as if there were no doubt in his mind; his tone was arch but not derisive, and John was glad that Clara, even in absentia, wasn't being put down with a sneer.
"From Clara and Harry both," John corrected, flashing the card with two signatures in front of Sherlock's eyes, fixed on the ceiling. He felt his heart lift at the sight of their names curving round each other, hoping that it signified that Harry's recent trouble had actually served as a catalyst for their reunion. Love's other synonym, after all, especially when it came to Harry, was stubbornness.
He sent Mrs. Hudson off with thanks and the largest Fruit & Nut bar he'd ever seen – he wanted the Galaxy bar for himself and was willing to bet that Sherlock would appreciate the violence required for the chocolate oranges – and went to find room for the rest in the fridge and cupboards. There were fewer biological samples to clear out from the fridge than he had feared. "We'll have a proper tea today," he called from the kitchen, "and we'll figure out how to take the bastard down."
"A cup of tea and a spot of violence," Sherlock said, with almost palpable fondness. "Truly, John, it takes so little to make you happy."
John laughed and continued binning the oddities that had been housed in the salad drawer.
"Trust me, Sherlock," John said, wondering when this had all got to be funny rather than frustrating. Perhaps it was just that the feeling of momentum, of getting somewhere in the case, was giving him a bit of a high. Or it could be the frankly massive sugar rush hitting his system. "Neither one of us could pass for a regular student at university."
"Post-grad?" Sherlock tried, continuing to decant liquid at the kitchen table. His voice sounded thick, tongue evidently unwilling to move and possibly dislodge the Lindt Thin that John had placed on it.
"You've got the hair for it," John said, looking at the messy mop on Sherlock's head. His own was getting overly long as well; they'd neither of them considered anything so mundane as personal maintenance for the last few months. The stack of Thins was decreasing at a pretty alarming rate. He popped another one in his mouth, savouring the sweet richness as it melted on his tongue.
Sherlock trained his gaze on the ends of his own hair. "Yes, it is getting distracting. You'll have to cut it." He swallowed the last traces of sweetness and eyed John speculatively, as if wondering when his flatmate had turned into the bearer of such delights.
"What? Do you normally recruit flatmates to do your barbering?" John asked, unable to picture Sherlock sitting still for long enough, perhaps one reason his hair was as exuberant as it was.
"Not at all. But then, this –" his eyes pierced John through "– has not conformed to any rules I might have had about cohabiting." He swirled the clear contents of the beaker around, watching for precipitants. "So, mature student? No, that role requires too much earnestness. Post-grad? No, don't want to get the blackmailer's hackles up or play on his inferiority complex." Before John could ask, he said, "Clearly, the man has an inferiority complex if his avocation is to tumble others down from the heights they've achieved. He can't be a student himself, as that would allow him still to be climbing socially, or at least have contacts who could open a few doors for him. He must be working there, at the IT room, watching all the students work their way up. So. I will need to present myself as someone who is no threat at all to him, at least not intellectually, but perhaps physically? We don't know what he looks like, so there's no way to prepare for that. Might as well make it a strength. Yes. I'll go in as an athlete – a wounded athlete, there to utilise the university's therapy facilities. A bit dim, wanting help with his phone or email or some such matter clearly beyond his grasp."
Sherlock set the beaker down, a small smile playing on his lips. "What? No 'fantastic' from the audience tonight?"
The teasing startled a laugh out of John. "You wanker. Actually, I was just wondering if you really needed another person for your conversations."
"Better you than the skull," Sherlock said, dry as the desert, and leaned over to take John's offered chocolate delicately between his teeth.
"Wait, you were serious about this?" John asked. Possibly he should have enquired before Sherlock handed him a pair of scissors. "I don't know how to cut hair!"
"John. I assure you that your intelligence is greater than that of any barber I've known." Sherlock seemed to consider the matter closed.
John did not. "This kind of skill has nothing to do with intelligence," he pointed out.
"Just get on with it," Sherlock said, stripping off his shirt and sitting on one of the kitchen chairs flipped backward, long spine and long neck making one pale line.
John tried not to think of all the ways this could go disastrously wrong and reached for one dark curl, pulling it taut. Snip. It corkscrewed back into place and he assessed it as clinically as he could. A bit shorter than he meant, really, but curly hair was more forgiving of uneven lengths. He shuddered to think what he'd look like if their positions had been reversed; he'd probably have ended up looking like a demented hedgehog. He ran his hand through Sherlock's mess of hair, surprisingly warm and thick, and cut what remained poking out from between his fingers. The repetition of the motions relaxed John, and soon he felt like he'd been cutting Sherlock's hair for years, feeling the curls against his palm.
The haircut was having a lulling, if not soporific, effect on Sherlock as well; his eyes were closed and he hummed softly as John turned his head this way and that. "Boxer," Sherlock said.
"Hmmm?" It didn't do to be distracted, pleased by how agreeably malleable Sherlock was being, how restful it was when the great brain was asleep.
"I'll be a boxer, injured in a previous bout. So you can clip it closer than you have been."
John stopped the automatic motions of his hands. He'd always thought, given the way Sherlock dressed, that there was a healthy amount of vanity there – frankly, more than enough – but if Sherlock was really prepared to alter his appearance just for Harry's sake –
"It's not for her, John. Cut."
John ran his fingers through Sherlock's hair once more, against the grain from nape to crown, and bent to his task again.
Sherlock had unearthed, from the depths of his wardrobe, or possibly from Narnia, a collection of athletic clothes – tracksuit bottoms, t-shirts, and fleecy sweatshirts – that seemed utterly foreign to the clean, crisp, sharp image he so relentlessly projected. He seemed delighted by John's befuddlement. "These clothes are entirely appropriate for my new role," he said loftily, as if he had a Mary Poppins bag of such tricks.
John felt the floor shift further under his feet when Sherlock donned the clothes and paced the living room, his entire body – from the faint frown lines marring his forehead to the slight hesitation as he moved his left arm – acting in service of the lie that he was an injured prize fighter. "You see I've been observing you," Sherlock said, just as John was marvelling over the subtlety of his actions; Sherlock moved like someone who couldn't bring himself to admit quite how grievously he'd been injured, someone who'd always relied on his own rude physical health and was hardly able to cope with the new, unwelcome circumstances thrust suddenly upon him.
The man should have been on the stage, John thought, especially now that he was going whole hog. If this was what he was capable of, then why hadn't he done it earlier, on the cases Moriarty had sent his way? With Kenny Prince, he'd been nimble rather than thorough, swanning in with his obviously expensive coat and luxurious curls – never mind that a paparazzo would have had to get snaps of Princess Diana rising from her grave to afford that kind of rich-tit fashion – and relying on a sort of shock-and-awe campaign to get him to ignore such incongruous details. And with Amelia Monkford, he'd managed to wrong-foot her with his crocodile tears and shammed emotion, quick little bursts of blatant information that she read entirely wrong.
But this, John realised, this was strategy, not tactics; this was Sherlock settling in and preparing for a long fight. This had to be Sherlock on his way to victory.
"You cannot come," Sherlock said again, but John planted himself in the doorway and tried to pretend that he wasn't spoiling for a fight.
"It's not the police," John pointed out, mindful of Sherlock's last dictates. "If this is the bastard who's poisoning Harry's life, I need to be there."
Sherlock didn't seem to need a mirror as he made his preparations, apparently relying on instinct and maybe John's reactions. He looked younger with his hair so short on the sides, the top just long enough for soft curls that were boyishly tousled, convincingly pulled out of place by the hood of his sweatshirt. The tracksuit bottoms added bulk to his frame, camouflaging the lissomeness usually outlined with stark clarity by sleek suits. He was bouncing in place as if he had more energy than he knew what to do with, but he took the time to explain. "John. We will be at a decided disadvantage if your face is introduced into the matter. You do look a great deal like your sister."
John deflated, knowing better than to argue the point. Sherlock eyed him speculatively. "Though it might be good to leave ourselves some room to negotiate. Perhaps not an injury incurred in the ring after all. Instead of a shoulder subluxation, a broken tibia, as one might expect from a car wreck."
"What?" John knew that he was behind on his sleep, but he hadn't felt the effects until he tried to parse Sherlock's latest proclamation.
"You've inspired me," Sherlock said, producing an iPod from the capacious kangaroo pocket of his sweatshirt and donning the headphones. He jogged lightly in place, now affecting a slight limp, looking for all the world like a hungry young fighter determined to make his way to the top. "Get some rest. I'll be back soon."
That at least was simple enough not to need translation. John nodded dumbly and took himself off to bed.