He woke to find his phone's inbox full of texts from Sherlock, detailing with perfect grammar and perfect irreverence all of his observations on the way to the IT room and then back home again. He could hear Sherlock downstairs, drawing out long phrases on his violin, though the sun was only peeking over the horizon.
The acoustics of the flat were such that the second floor tended to ring like a concert hall once Sherlock hit a certain decibel level; at least he was playing actual melodies and not any of that modern atonal nonsense.
John shivered in the clear half-light as he pulled on his thickest jumper and a pair of woolly socks, then made his way to the loo. Apparently, the bathroom was another prime spot for someone wishing to hear Sherlock's full repertoire on the violin. Not yet fully awake, he managed to splash a bit of water on his pyjama pants as he brushed his teeth and washed his face, and the cold wetness startled a hiss out of him. He didn't bother heading back to his bedroom to change his clothes.
If he sat down to listen to Sherlock, he wouldn't have the energy to get back up, so he didn't even look anywhere but the kitchen as he walked down the hall. There were two clean mugs already out, as if Sherlock had wanted tea but not the bother of making it, or, to put it more kindly, had intended to make it but been swept up by the need to create music instead. John leant against the counter and let the fluid, yearning melody, throbbing almost like a human voice could, swirl around him. When the kettle boiled, he made tea and took the mugs back to the living room. He sat beside Sherlock on the sofa, liking to feel the vibrations as well as hear the notes, and within a few beats one of Sherlock's long, pale feet had drifted to touch his knee.
John looked up at that, but Sherlock's eyes were fixed on some far-off point surely only musicians could see, and he seemed somehow out of his body in any case. The storm of emotion in the music peaked and then began to diminish, thick chords giving way to single, languid notes, as if the melody were winding itself up into a neat little bundle, and in no more than three minutes, Sherlock let his violin and bow down into the rest position.
John watched imperturbably while Sherlock loosened the bow strings and packed the instrument safely in its case, though he could see tension lingering in the set of Sherlock's shoulders and the way he held his head. That kind of stiffness usually disappeared after a session with the violin; John took one last sip of hot tea and set his mug down so as to be ready.
He was still caught by surprise when Sherlock nestled up against him. Frowning, John caught his too-thin face in his hands, looking for signs that he'd relapsed and was feeling poorly again. His face was cool, and though his eyes were skittishly locking onto John's and breaking away again, he seemed fine. John let his left hand drop, but his right lingered on the hot, soft skin just under Sherlock's jaw that had been pressed against the chinrest for hours. "What is it?" he asked, taking in the signs of evident weariness.
Sherlock shook his head stubbornly, sooty eyelashes and dark circles conspiring to throw his eyes into unreadable shadow. "Did you read the texts I sent you?"
"Not all of them. What's the matter?"
"I told you I think better when I talk aloud," Sherlock muttered petulantly, though his shoulders were rapidly losing that awful stiffness.
"I wanted to come with you," John reminded him, leaving it at that; no need to say that Sherlock could have talked to him, rather than resorting to texting him, if only he'd been allowed to be there.
"We have work to do," was all Sherlock said, stretching out one long arm to pull John's laptop out from under the sofa. "There are some searches you can run." He set the computer on John's lap and stayed where he was; John could feel his own minimal body heat bleeding into Sherlock, leaving him cold. "His name is Charles Augustus Milverton."
Sherlock emerged from his bedroom dressed in his boxer clothes while John was having a sandwich and attempting to catch up on his emails. Sherlock appeared distinctly unimpressed with both activities and chivvied John out the door so quickly that John barely had time to grab his cane and both of their coats as he went.
They still hadn't discussed what the search results John had found meant; the raw data had yet to be synthesised. "Sherlock, what –?" was as far as John got.
"Escott," Sherlock corrected briskly. "That's this idiotic boxer's surname. I haven't come up with a bloke-y enough first name yet."
However he was dressed, he still seemed to have a magnetism that could draw a cab his way in under a minute. "Tell me why Harry calls you Jay."
John watched in outrage or admiration – he couldn't quite tell which – as Sherlock nodded bashfully at the cabbie, who patiently held his tongue as Sherlock limped over and gingerly entered the taxi. Sherlock was putting on quite a show, and John, having ultimately decided his true reaction was impatience, shuffled hurriedly in after him and succeeded only in aggravating his bad leg.
Sherlock's hand descended, the warmth of it covering John's thigh and ameliorating the hurt, but his voice stayed crisp. "Tell me."
"It's nothing. It's an old family story." Sherlock looked out the window; John did the same and found it easier to speak then. "She's four years older than me, Harry, and when I was getting old enough for my mum to try to teach me how to read, Harry wanted to help. At least at first. I think she thought it'd be the work of one afternoon." He swallowed a laugh. "Mum had just got me to recognise my name in print, but I took that to mean any word that started with a 'j' and looked about the right length was my name." John thought back to what he'd looked like at that age, moon-faced and stocky and small, and didn't bother holding his laughter in anymore. "Harry got quite a kick out of writing the word 'jerk' and pointing to it, waiting for me to say 'John.'"
"And Harry holds on to memories like that," Sherlock said, sounding like he was piecing together vital clues.
"Yeah," John said, surprised at the lack of commentary on his literacy. "Most older siblings do –" He cut himself off before he could enquire about Mycroft's role in Sherlock's earliest memories. "Anyway, I've been 'Jay' to her ever since. You can borrow the name, if you like."
"Yes," Sherlock said, and climbed out of the taxi. John followed at a reasonable three steps behind, unsure if they were supposed to look like they were together as they entered the university gymnasium. Sherlock flashed some sort of identification at the guard, mumbled something while pointing back at John, and beckoned him to hurry up.
"Sherlock," John said, trying to keep his voice down while he trudged alongside him, "what are we doing here?"
"Nothing sells a story as much as having it be the truth," Sherlock said airily, divesting himself of his sweatshirt. "If we're to approach Milverton after this, claiming that we've come from the gymnasium, it rather behoves us to do so."
Sherlock retrieved a roll of athletic tape from his bag and started to wind the tape, clumsily, around his right hand. John set his cane down, snatched the roll, and moved closer still. "Do you even know how to box?" he asked in a furious whisper, taping Sherlock's right hand up. He tapped the back of Sherlock's hand to indicate he was done with that one and ready for the other.
"Are you asking Sherlock or Jay?" Sherlock queried, lifting his other hand obediently. There were indentations from the violin strings marking the fingertips of his left hand, and John felt an odd pang when he saw them. He quashed it and started taping up that hand.
"I'm asking you."
Sherlock looked at his face at that. "Yes," he promised.
John tore the tape with his teeth, tossed the roll back in Sherlock's bag, and picked the duffel up. They made their way past a few students on rowing machines and treadmills to the heavy hanging bags at the back of the gymnasium. John watched the man in front of him roll his shoulders, crack his neck, and bounce a little on the balls of his feet; whoever this man was, it wasn't Sherlock, who was elegant and cerebral above all else. Escott was direct and physical first and foremost. Insofar as it could be, given his bad leg, his footwork was flawless, and the jabs he threw were precise. The transformation was marvellous, and all the more effective for being so bare-faced; there really was no way to disguise his odd and angular face, his striking Svengali eyes, or even the sheer bloody height of him, so it all had to be done with smaller, more credible shifts.
When John started speaking like he would if he were watching a bout on the telly, Sherlock threw him one startled glance from eyes that seemed wider than usual – Escott's eyes – and nodded docilely. "Right cross," John said, and Escott threw one. Escott took direction like a humble amateur with a legendary coach, and John felt a thrill curling in his belly at the idea that Sherlock, for once, was willing, even eager, to obey. He watched as Escott's shirt darkened steadily with sweat and his skin flushed with colour. John took him through a replay of one of his own matches in basic training, putting Sherlock through his paces.
Paradoxically, it was the smell of his sweat, familiar from the pool and a thousand other sticky situations, that kept John from questioning Escott about anything on Sherlock's mind; it was only basic biology that kept the transformation from being absolute. And Escott would keep going, determined to prove himself in this arena, so when it looked like his bad leg was going from stiff but acceptable to dangerously close to buckling, John caught the bag with steady hands and said, "Hit the showers."
Sherlock had a fresh t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms on, and his hair was curling with damp when he led John to the IT building. He pulled John just out of sight of the main entrance and said, "Just watch. You needn't come in, but have some reason ready if you do."
"Do you not want company?" John heard himself ask, voice far too eager.
"Better not, John," Sherlock said lightly. "Milverton is canny, and too much attention might get his hackles up."
"Right," John bit out. He picked a free newspaper out of the rack and settled himself by a window that gave him a clear view of the back of the main room, where the offices were. Sherlock transformed himself into Escott and entered the building, that damn pink mobile in his hand and a bewildered frown creasing his brow. He looked young and earnest in his ratty clothes, a little bit dim, his physical prowess clearly his only chance of livelihood. Where Sherlock had seemed skinny in his thin pyjamas and the swirl of a silk dressing-gown, Escott looked wiry, even lithe, in his thick, well-washed cotton. John saw a man – it had to be Milverton, given the disgust he could feel crawling up his own spine – spot Escott and head over with a predatory smile.
Escott had a hopeful smile on his face when he saw his saviour coming towards him. John could see him shaking his head, self-reproach written across his features as he tried to send a text. Sherlock's curiously, beautifully precise hands seemed to have coarsened and grown clumsy once they became Escott's; he produced a perfect imitation of John's own hunt-and-peck method of typing out messages, complete with the tip of his pink tongue sticking out of his mouth as he concentrated. Milverton laid one comforting hand on Escott's shoulder and Escott's hands opened almost involuntarily, like he wasn't used to gentle touches; Milverton caught the mobile and smiled at the message Escott had been trying to send. Escott ducked his head as a wave of shyness overwhelmed him.
Someone approached the pair of them, kept from getting too close by Escott's large gym bag lying on the ground, but the intruder still managed to block John's view. All he could see were the muscles in Milverton's thick back working as he emphatically shooed away the newcomer. Once the other man finally moved on, he saw that Milverton had one foot casually insinuated between Escott's size-eleven trainers; their two heads were both bent over the pink phone, Escott's the lower, and Milverton's greedy gaze was crawling over the clean lines of Escott's bared neck and strong scapulae.
Right. John was going in. He shook Sherlock's coat out, ridding it of the wrinkles it had acquired from being draped over his arm, binned the free newspaper, and headed for the door. Just as he wrenched it open, however, someone came through; John politely stood aside to let the man pass and looked up to smile at the muttered, "Ta." No. It couldn't be.
But his eye for anatomy could not have deceived him. John recognised the square jaw, the mouth that pulled slightly to one side, and the deep-set eyes. It was the man Harry had been accused of killing, alive and well, wearing expensive-looking tortoiseshell specs, a ring on each pinky finger, and one diamond solitaire in his left earlobe.
All John knew at that point was that he didn't know what the hell was going on.
He stumbled on his way over to Sherlock and had to jam his cane down quickly before he sprawled flat in front of his sister's blackmailer. As he got closer, he could hear Escott's voice, a touch higher than Sherlock's patrician growl. The sound resolved itself – barely – into separate words, the sludgy mumble of swallowed consonants marking Escott as uneducated. John needed to get his hands on Sherlock, reassure himself that there was something solid to hang on to. He stepped forward, the single syllable "Jay" coming out sharper than he'd intended, and draped that long, heavy coat over Escott's shoulders.
"M'trainer, 'e was in the car too," Escott slurred by way of explanation to Milverton, ducking his head down but not enough to hide the sudden blush staining his cheeks. Out of the corner of his eye, John bemusedly watched the colour spread, only realising what had brought it on when he saw Milverton's uncharitable gaze rake over the picture Escott made. Standing there, young and proud, the contrast between his ratty athletic gear and his posh coat was glaringly obvious, as was the easiest explanation for the discrepancy – he looked like a kept man. One who was in the midst of being propositioned, however subtly, by another man, a new potential keeper.
It was too horrifying to contemplate for very long – everything that made Sherlock who he was, irritating and remarkable, reduced to a pretty mouth, a pair of lovely hands, and a perfect arse – but John was unprepared for Milverton's questing eyes to land on him next, small and cynical under raised eyebrows. No, John wanted to shout, but then considered that Sherlock had deliberately fostered the illusion of such a relationship, so he stood straight-backed and unconcerned as Milverton looked between the two of them for confirmation of his theory. John rested a hand on Escott's neck, fingers stretching across it with casual possessiveness, and Escott responded with submissive adoration, shifting so that John's arm didn't have to stretch too high.
Much as he would have liked to get Sherlock out of Milverton's sight, the one thing he couldn't do was to tell Escott to run along like a good lad, since he was flying blind without Sherlock's sharp intelligence watching every last detail. John contented himself with a brisk nod at the filthy blackmailer. "This IT chappie able to sort your mobile, Jay?" he asked, not bothering to disguise his accent or voice; they were unremarkable, after all.
Milverton was apparently unable to resist the opportunity to boast; it was all so much like the mating dances he'd seen on nature specials that John could barely keep from outright laughter. "I'm the head of Systems and Information Technology for the entire university," Milverton corrected. His hands flexed a little, and John considered the man as a physical specimen: powerfully built, running to fat just a little around the waistline, hair thinning but that was only to be expected of a man of his age. "That is my office," he continued, gesturing at the largest window behind them; the rest of the row was made up of smaller offices with people buzzing busily about them.
Escott looked suitably impressed, but John said coolly, like he was waking up to the threat posed by this bastard, "Looks like that bloke thinks he's got the run of your office," just enough doubt in his tone to get Milverton to spin on the spot to see who was invading his domain.
"Ah, no, that's just one of the lads who works for me," Milverton said, so casually it had to be true. As if he could feel their gazes, the boy – nineteen, twenty at most – looked up; his eyes widened as he stared at John, and Escott stepped a bit closer as if sensing an impending confrontation. "Marsh. Good kid," Milverton continued, tone shifting as he realised that Escott wasn't responding to his pose as a man of power but might to his stance as just one of the lads. Escott's lips curved in the smallest of smiles, but the squeeze he gave John's arm meant that it was time to go.
"We've got to be going," John said, digging in his pocket for a fiver; he held it out to Milverton. "Thanks for sorting this one's phone," he said brightly, managing to hold onto his straight face while Milverton sneered at him and spun on his heel.
"John," Escott breathed into his ear, and it gave John a thrill like the sound of a violin played with consummate skill to hear Escott's voice deepen and darken into Sherlock's as the words continued, "I had no idea you were capable of such theatrics." They were back in a cab before he finished, smiling broadly. "Most intriguing."
"We can invite them round," John said, nearly dancing with relief. "Unless you'd rather we all go out?" He looked up from his mobile when he registered the silence in the flat. "What?"
"The case isn't finished," Sherlock said, not quite hesitantly, but with less imperiousness than John was accustomed to hearing.
"Our work is not yet done. It might be unwise to assure Harry that she has nothing further to worry about; we still don't know what Milverton wanted from her."
"I'm not leaving her to worry about this for a minute longer than she has to," John said firmly. "Now, shall we have her and Clara over here, or would you rather go out?"
"It makes no difference to me," Sherlock said.
"Then we'll see what they prefer." He texted his sister, then set his mobile on the mantelpiece; Sherlock was pacing rather aimlessly around the flat, so he settled himself in one of the chairs. "How close are we?"
"Milverton uses a rather sprawling network of spies and informants; that is clear from the fact that he did not recognise you, despite your very strong resemblance to one of his latest victims. Meaning he had no personal hand in the messages that were sent to her."
"Did you see –"
"The poor dead immigrant your heart was bleeding over only a few days ago, alive and well and looking significantly more flush? Yes. Walking out of Milverton's office holding a jump drive, actually, which argues that he has, to some extent, been taken into Milverton's confidence, which in turn argues that this scam of the faked hit-and-run death is one that they have worked before. I'd be interested to know what percentage of their victims have actually committed crimes, and how many have paid out for crimes that they never committed."
"Milverton might have lieutenants, but he is the one with the names and profits. He would have to keep his information secure but accessible."
John groaned. "Not in this day and age. Digital information can't be killed."
"But as we saw this afternoon, Milverton does not like to share," Sherlock said, crisply, as if he hadn't been the merchandise being fought over. "He's canny enough to protect his information base and only dole out bits to his people as they're needed."
"So where is he keeping everything?" John asked.
"Passport drive. Portable, password-protected, and given the innovations in technology, more than adequate capacity for storing all the information he's accumulated. He's like a spider sitting secure in the middle of his web, or at least he thinks he is."
"Do you have any idea how difficult it's going to be to locate and identify one passport drive in that office of his? It's floor-to-ceiling gadgets and hardware! And that's not even considering his home or a safety deposit box or any other place he might have dreamt up."
"He'd never leave it at his home, not since a former girlfriend of his, an Eva Blackwell, took a golf club to all his computer equipment and then tossed it into a full bath. Milverton passed it off as a lovers' spat to the papers but made sure she got jail time for destruction of private property and attempted murder. Not a man to cross."
"How was it attempted murder?" John asked, honestly bewildered. "You mean – oh. Electrical equipment and water. Do you think he had a file on her?"
"Doubtless. And he'd never leave the drive in his office. Not enough security, too many people – informants, mostly – with unquestioned access to it."
"Safety deposit box, then?"
Sherlock grinned indulgently, an expression so alien on his face that John had to shake his head to register it properly. "We will not be wearing masks and breaking into any hallowed institution to recover the information. He needs it to be accessible, remember? He keeps the drive upon his person. Why else would I have let him get so close to me, if not to verify that theory?"
John's long moment of speechlessness was broken by the new-text chime of his phone. "Change back into your Sherlock clothes," he said; "we're going round to Harry and Clara's."
Sherlock was staring at the wall of bouquets with a gleam in his eye that meant he was categorising them according to their toxicity, so in the interests of not alarming yet another florist within walking distance of their flat, John took him by the elbow and steered him toward the till, where his choice was being wrapped in paper and ribbons.
"Why yellow roses?" Sherlock asked, rubbing a fallen petal between his fingers.
John eyed the blossoms, glowing like bundles of sunshine no bigger than a baby's fists and felt unaccountably happier. "They're Clara's favourite."
"And we're not bringing wine, though that is the standard practice when one is a dinner guest," Sherlock concluded.
"Right," John said, refusing to take offence, as Sherlock seemed to be testing out a theory rather than baiting him about Harry's habits. "Now come on, or we'll be late."
The cab ride over was quicker than he'd expected, given traffic patterns in the city, and they were actually standing on Clara's doorstep a few minutes early.
Clara opened the door and caught him in her arms immediately; John relaxed, the restfulness of not having to be sharp or alert or playing some part washing over him. He smiled through the three quick kisses to his cheek. Behind him, he could hear Sherlock shift from foot to foot, the paper around the flowers crinkling between his hands.
"Sherlock," Clara greeted, stepping forward to hug him, and Sherlock, John was surprised to see, accepted it, reciprocating only as far as patting her on the back the way an inexperienced babysitter would burp a baby. Even as he shook his head at Sherlock's oddness, John had to admit that the two of them looked stunning together, all beautiful bones and striking eyes; it was hardly fair that they both had brains to match those looks as well.
"These are for you," Sherlock said, disengaging himself as quickly as he could and thrusting the bouquet toward Clara. "Your favourites."
"No wonder this one's so impressed with your brains," Clara said, her sudden dimple flashing out as she shared a secret smile with John. He laughed and pulled Sherlock into the house behind him.
He nearly ran smack into Harry as he walked into the kitchen. "Jay!" she said, then moved to step out of his way. He hugged her before she could get too far.
"We've got him," he whispered into her hair, and she sagged in relief, all her weight resting on him for a moment.
"I want to hear every last detail," she said, a trembling little laugh escaping her lips.
"Sherlock will want to tell you every clever move he made," he assured her.
"It's a learning experience for those who cannot watch me in action," Sherlock said from behind them, and they both jumped a little.
"Come here, genius," Harry said, taking his face in her hands and getting up on tiptoe to smack a resounding kiss upon his cheek.
John laughed at the look on Sherlock's face, then fetched a vase from the kitchen cupboard to the right of the sink, just where they'd always been.
Clara came in as he was filling it with water, armed with scissors and the bouquet, and set to work cutting the stems at the correct angle; John didn't move away, enjoying the feeling of being shoulder-to-shoulder with her again. He glanced sidelong at her, shot her a smile, and then looked round for Sherlock, who was standing next to Harry and looking back at him.
Sherlock was quieter than usual while Harry and Clara got the hors d'oeuvres set out in the dining room, and John followed his gaze to the grand piano, its sleek blackness making the creamy brightness of the roses all the more vivid. "Clara plays," John told him in an undertone.
Sherlock didn't bother to regulate the volume of his voice. "Obviously, given her knuckles." His eyes stayed fixed on the piano. "That's a beautiful instrument." There were photographs arranged on its lid, in front of the vase of roses; John saw one of himself in uniform, another of the three of them taken by his girlfriend at the time, and several of Harry and Clara together.
"It is; Clara's always kept a lovely home. Come on, it’s time to eat."
"You actually ran into the man who I'm supposed to have killed?" Harry asked, voice rising sharply. "You're sure it was him?"
"There is no part of the body which varies so much as the human ear. Each ear is as a rule quite distinctive and differs from all other ones. Even in the photograph that was sent to you, the man's right ear was distinct – short pinna, broad curve of the upper lobe, and an unusual convolution of the inner cartilage. It had to be the same man we saw." Sherlock's voice brooked no dissent; John was only surprised that it had taken him so long to participate in the conversation and that he'd actually eaten at least a quarter of what had been served him.
Of course, now that he had started, he seemed bound and determined to keep going, ignoring Harry's sigh of relief and the rather fervent kiss she planted on Clara. "Yes, yes, we know Milverton's a fraud. What we don't know is what he wanted from you, or how he got your name."
"Harry's got access to rather astronomical sums of money, through her job," Clara said, taking Harry's hand comfortingly. "But I was wondering if it might have to do with one of the cases I'm handling, if this . . . Milverton was seeking to obtain some kind of leverage."
Sherlock evidently liked Clara, given that he actually answered her, paying her the courtesy of taking her seriously. "No. Given what we know about the size of his organisation and the man's own personality, he wouldn't be so oblique. He comes at his victims head-on, not sideways."
"So he meant to hit me, then. Like Clara said, I have access to all of the account numbers for the investors in our funds, though there have been some new laws passed recently to tighten controls."
"Maybe he was trying to catch you before the new laws took effect?" John ventured. "Are you having to do a lot of work to get new procedures in place for them?"
"Yeah," Harry said, as Clara stood to clear the plates. "That's why I couldn't get five minutes with you the day you came by."
John collected Sherlock's plate and handed it and his own to Clara. "I meant to ask you – there was a chap at your office who recognised me, called me 'the soldier' – did you tell your colleagues I was in Afghanistan?"
"Didn't you know, John?" Clara asked, returning with a sugar bowl and a tiny jug of milk. "Harry bragged to everyone about you while you were gone; she'd stop strangers in shops, the people at the next table at restaurants. Made you sound like Superman. I forgot you were just a wee one, not ten feet tall."
John shot a look at his sister, who had her eyes locked firmly on her own hands. He hadn't known, had judged her from the lack of letters, the fact that only Clara's signature showed up on the cards tucked into his care packages; he'd forgotten that he was her only family too, and that they'd never been good at communicating, just the two of them. They had both been lucky that she'd found Clara, who never minded acting as translator and go-between. He put his hand over Harry's and squeezed.
"John." That was Sherlock's voice, perhaps a little less portentous than usual, though John dismissed the notion that Clara's confession had thawed Sherlock out insofar as Harry was concerned; that kiss in the kitchen was likely to count against her just as much as her nickname for him did. "Did you not observe that the boy who came out of Milverton's office this afternoon seemed to recognise you as well?"
"Yes, that's right," he said, recalling the widened eyes and the instinctive hunch of the shoulders he'd seen. "Marsh, Milverton called him."
"Donny Marsh?" Harry asked, sitting forward to try to puzzle it out. "Twenty, straight blond hair, about Sherlock's height?"
John nodded. No doubt Sherlock could detail Marsh's features – ears especially – down to the last cell, but that was enough to be going on with.
"He interned with us for a few months. Christ, some of us even took him out for drinks on his birthday."
"What happened?" John asked.
"He had some sort of family problems, meant he couldn't keep both school and the job along with whatever he had to take care of at home, so he left." Before Sherlock could prompt her, she pieced it together herself. "That's how they knew I had a new phone; I'd given the new number out at the office."
For once, Sherlock kept his mouth shut, not mentioning that surely being colleagues also meant that Marsh knew exactly what Harry's relationship with alcohol was, and that she would be ripe for the picking if she could be convinced that she'd done something terrible while intoxicated. John smiled at him, and Sherlock stared back, unflinching and cool.
When he did open his mouth, it was only to fill in a small detail that had been niggling at John's brain. "I told Milverton the pink mobile was my sister's, that I'd lost mine in the car accident that had injured the two of us." He paused, to see if John was following his train of thought. "I had to see if he would react to the idea of a sister lending her brother a phone, to know if he had in fact recognised you but managed to mask it somehow."
"He hadn't eyes for me once he saw you," John said, which was only part of the truth, but saying so allowed him to launch into the tale of how Sherlock had cracked the case while they all sipped Clara's good coffee.
"Once we get the passport drive, are we turning it over to Lestrade straightaway?" John asked, hanging his jacket on the peg next to Sherlock's coat. Milverton had nothing real on Harry, so he could stop worrying that she'd be hauled away in handcuffs. "Or –"
"Extrapolating from Harry's case and what we know of Milverton personally, it's almost certain that there is no evidence of real criminal wrongdoing on the drive; it should be safe to pass it to Lestrade. It might even give him a boost on some open cases." Sherlock straightened his cuffs, rucked up by his coat, even as he was heading into his bedroom, presumably to change into his pyjamas. "I must admit, I will derive great satisfaction from seeing Milverton pay for all of his bullying."
"And the rest of his team?" John asked as he tidied the living room, sorting scattered papers into neat stacks and rearranging throw pillows.
"If Milverton kept files on his lovers – remember Eva's determination to destroy the equipment – then he must have done the same for every member of his organisation. We'll have them all. Marsh included."
John straightened at that, not bothering to disguise his satisfaction. It called for more compassion than he was capable of to protest that Marsh was only a kid, a kid with problems at home. For what he'd done to Harry, the bastard had to pay.
Through the open door, he could hear the soft shushing sounds of fabric as Sherlock changed, and having observed Sherlock eyeing Clara's piano, bet himself that Sherlock would be carrying his violin when he returned to the living room. John refolded the blanket that lay across the arm of the sofa and headed upstairs.
He came back down in his pyjamas to find Sherlock plucking pensively at taut violin strings. "How are we going to get the drive?" John asked; all he could think of was Sherlock – Escott – seducing Milverton for access to his trouser pockets, but he knew Sherlock would have at least three marvellous schemes better than that.
"It was rather restful to be Escott," Sherlock said, the plucking resolving itself into a melancholy melody; "I shouldn't like to sacrifice him so quickly."
"So he can't know it's you, then?" John asked, no small amount of relief flooding through him at the thought that Milverton was going to get no second chance with his friend.
"Correct. He's careful not to allow himself to be trapped in crowded areas, so we will have to engineer a crowd around him." Sherlock's long fingers were moving more quickly now, the melody becoming more frantic. "I think, John, if you could pull the fire alarm for the building, I could pick Milverton's pocket in the ensuing bustle."
"That's too close," John objected.
"He won't recognise me," Sherlock declared. "It won't be Escott who gets within inches of him."
"Maybe not with his eyes, but he'll know your scent." Sherlock and Escott had smelled the same, since Sherlock routinely used only unscented soap and deodorant and no cologne or aftershave; the scent of Escott's skin when Milverton had pressed against him had been particularly clear, since he'd been fresh from the shower. Milverton's every sense would have been working overtime to catalogue everything about the man in front of him, and scent held the strongest ties to memory. "Trust me, Sherlock," he said, knowing the man would otherwise dismiss the notion, having no experience with the tricks lust could play, "you need to wear some kind of scent."
The last note Sherlock had struck, one fingernail snapping decisively against a string, echoed in the air and finally Sherlock said, "Not your aftershave, though. You were wearing it that day, so he'd recognise that just as quickly. I could borrow some of the ghastly stuff Mycroft uses; I know the perfumier he employs to make it."
"Or you could go round to the shop in the morning and buy a bottle of the cheapest stuff you can find," John said.
"That would work too," Sherlock said with a perfectly straight face and dancing eyes. John wondered where the irritability that usually accompanied cracking a case was; it was as if Sherlock was not anticipating the onset of debilitating boredom once Milverton's pocket was picked. Curious. "Sleep well, John."
John sat in one of the club chairs in the living room, his back to the kitchen, determined to ignore the malodorous experiment Sherlock had spread all over the kitchen table. The man didn't even have the decency to monitor it closely, just set it up and let it stink up the entire flat while he lay on his stomach on the sofa and pored over an organic chemistry text with a rapt expression on his face. John sighed and returned to his novel.
The trill of John's mobile broke the silence. Lestrade was calling; John slid a bookmark into place and picked up the phone. "Hello."
"This Milverton's a real beauty," Lestrade said. "Had his fat fingers in as many pies as he could manage."
"Gone for good, then?"
"He won't be troubling decent folks for quite some time," Lestrade agreed. "Got a question for the nutter – can you put it on speaker? I know he won't pick up his own phone, the lazy git."
One of the many qualities John appreciated in the detective inspector was his candour. "Go ahead," he said, pressing the button.
"Sherlock," Lestrade said, voice a little tinny on the speaker, "what possessed you to substitute one of my warrant cards for this bloody passport drive?"
Sherlock was wearing a smug smile that was rapidly reaching Cheshire Cat proportions. "Even in that crowd, Milverton would have felt the absence in his pocket rather quickly. The card was the right size, if a bit lighter than the drive." He sighed theatrically. "Was that really what you wanted to ask me? Why can't you just try to think?"
"No, that's not my only question," Lestrade said, apparently taking no offence. "Vee asked me to ask you round for dinner tomorrow night, now that you apparently eat on a semi-regular basis. Said she wanted to meet you properly. You're invited too, John, obviously."
John looked over at Sherlock, who was managing to both shake his head emphatically no and scowl at him; he knew Sherlock's eating habits had improved only because of his own determined campaign to make them better. It was ridiculously easy to work out that John was happier when Sherlock was healthier, so while Sherlock got no points for the deduction, he did earn them for following the logic through to its natural conclusion.
"We'd love to," John said, and Sherlock's scowl increased in intensity until John was sure he felt heat as if from a laser on the side of his face. "Vee's a fantastic cook. Can we bring anything?"
"She said not to bring wine, but you could bring a plant if you can't show up empty-handed. And Sherlock, I'm telling you you're to bring your manners."
Sherlock made a face at the phone, and John laughed and disconnected the call.
John pulled a photograph from the box under his bed. It was curling at the edges, a little faded, but Clara and Harry, cheek to cheek and beaming out at him, still shone through bright and beautiful. He sat on his bed, letting the afternoon light wash over him as he looked down at the snap that had got him through his tour of duty.
His mobile beeped its text-message alert. Tea, please. SH
He hooked his cane over his arm and took the stairs slowly. One of these days, soon, he was going to run up and down these blasted steps just because he could.
He set the photograph on the mantelpiece, made a mental note to get a frame for it when he went to the shop to buy Vee a little flowering plant, and headed to the kitchen to make tea.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think!