Molly had a sense of self-preservation roughly equivalent to that of a fruit fly, and Lestrade was overworked and red-eyed with exhaustion, but somehow, they had managed to coordinate their efforts to keep Molly safe from Moriarty while she was at work. Sherlock himself, unrecognisable with layers of thick, cheap clothing suggesting a more average body-fat percentage and wearing a ruddier tint to his hair and skin, had doors shut in his face as he attempted to trail after her as she slipped into Bart's.
At least Moriarty had overplayed his hand, Sherlock thought with a vicious curl of satisfaction in his belly. That dim-Jim-from-IT pose meant that his face was on file, so he couldn't threaten Molly in person. And it meant too that he was barred from visiting Moran in jail. It wasn't quite burn the heart out of you good, but there was a definite thrill to knowing one of the Hydra's heads had been severed and the stump burnt dead.
Moran had apparently been the main prop of that branch of Moriarty's organisation and the only link most of them had to Moriarty; when Moriarty had said he didn't like to get his hands dirty, that had evidently not been just an idle boast. The minions were like especially idiotic children, unable to proceed without direction. Sherlock watched their flailing with frank contempt and then with an almost amused wonderment as some of the more energetic underlings tried, ineptly, to stalk Molly or worm some information out of Moran.
Molly nearly bit the head off the one who'd had enough imagination – it was still a laughable effort – to figure out where she lived and become a flower-seller working a patch just near the shops where she bought food and cat litter and, with rather alarming regularity, "treats" for the utterly spoilt cat that could barely stir himself to move. Sherlock, handing out copies of Metro Express just three yards further down, smiled smugly to himself about the idiocy of the man's pose as Molly's pitch rose with fury; people would snatch a paper automatically, barely recognising that it was being offered by another human being, but they looked at flower-sellers, wanting someone who would sympathise with their reasons for buying dead blossoms already halfway to rotting.
Molly in a rage was actually quite pretty, but Nigel Collins – who just last year had made off with substantial sums from a string of three elderly widows – was hardly in a position to notice. Evidently he hadn't learnt well enough how to seduce younger women into obeying his every whim, and through the vitriol, Sherlock heard enough to deduce that all the time Moriarty had spent with Molly had been only as Jim: cat-fancier, avowed fan of ridiculous American action films, and eager but fumbling and rather sweetly shy boyfriend. Certainly Moriarty had never let slip any of his plans or frustrations in the two weeks he'd spent curled up on Molly's pink sofa before orchestrating that meeting in the laboratory.
Sally Donovan walked into the scene, enough urgency in her stride that Sherlock realised some shop owner must have called the police after having got wind that Molly was shouting about criminal masterminds and madmen into Collins's stunned face.
Ah, now that was interesting. Having clapped the cuffs on Collins and delivered him to the constable in tow, Donovan returned to run a hand up and down Molly's back. Both women's faces were balanced on the same improbable point of softness and rawness, and through the sounds of people rushing by and fumbling with his proffered papers, Sherlock could just make out Donovan saying, "Sorry. I'm so sorry he ever got you involved in all of this."
Molly dropped her carrier bag full of chocolate and let Donovan tighten her arm around her. "He's gone, Sally," Molly said, and Donovan gave her a squeeze.
It was getting harder to fall asleep. Not that he ever slept much, but that was by choice. Now, when he needed the rest, he found sleep eluding him, brain caught on what it had seen and heard like a needle that couldn't hop out of the too-deep groove of a particular record. "He's gone," Molly had said, and Sherlock wondered how often John had repeated that to himself.
He walked the streets, hardly noticing the dawn, the way London got ready for a new day, the noises and lights of the night shifting. Roaming the city didn't relax him as it usually did; keeping his natural gait disguised demanded a small percentage of his attention, and the thought that he could not simply curl up on the sofa in 221B at the end of his rambles kept intruding on his thought processes as well. He turned a corner and saw a tall man in his late twenties with his hand raised to summon a taxi. Banker boy, a Seb type, given his three-piece suit, meaning the suitcase by his side would hold enough for four days and three nights plus a spare shirt and some extra pants.
A taxi pulled up, and just before the suitcase disappeared inside it, Sherlock saw the monogram DMQ on it. The man himself, Sherlock analysed as he brushed by, smelt of nothing strong enough to survive his liberal application of cologne, but there was a smudge of newsprint on his right thumb and a few crumbs of his breakfast muffin lingered on his waistcoat only to be dislodged as he bent to get into the cab.
His flat could not be the one on the ground floor with scarlet geraniums in the window boxes, nor the second-floor flat with the windows still open, given the dark clouds overhead. That left the first floor, and Sherlock waited until the cab had turned before ascending the front steps and verifying that the first-floor buzzer was labelled Quincy.
A few nights in a proper bed would do him some good, he thought, jogging back down the steps and crossing the street. He made a production of pretending to make a call on his mobile to give him an excuse for loitering. Within three minutes, the lights went out in the ground-floor flat and a woman in her sixties exited the building. Three minutes after that, he was inside.
Quincy had clearly furnished his flat according to his idea of the lifestyle of a senior banker. In one corner next to a potted palm tree was a gateleg table holding a marble chess set. Sherlock had deleted Mycroft's tutelage and hundreds of exemplary matches nearly thirty years ago, and while John had spoken of teaching him to play, they'd never found the time. He fingered the pieces idly, fingertips pleasingly caught by their sharp spikes, and dragged himself through the flat toward the self-indulgent bed piled high with pillows and luxurious bedclothes.
Several hours in Quincy's soft bed dragged by without the boon of sleep and finally he pushed the duvet and linens aside and booted up his laptop, taking the opportunity to charge it while he worked. But even that was slow going, his exhaustion making him fight to work through his own code as he typed up notes on what he'd observed and absorbed about Moriarty's organisation.
Sherlock hesitated, watching his hand shake on the touchpad and the cursor zip around the screen, trying to identify the sensation tugging at his gut. A moment later, he had it; it was guilt, of all the illogical things, guilt that he wanted to skive off work in order to hear John's voice again, see his worn and somehow shining face.
If that was what it would take to get his focus back, then it should be done. He was hurting nothing by checking in on John. He entered the codes that would show him what Mycroft's surveillance was picking up. Nothing. His throat was scratchy; he fetched the bottle he'd bought earlier and filled it at Quincy's porcelain tap and drank half of it in a single gulp. Slightly refreshed, he tried again, but still got only silence and a black screen.
There was a buzzing in his head, agitation over not being able to verify John's continued existence. Impossible to think that Mycroft's equipment was faulty. Just as improbable was the notion that Mycroft really had done it, had removed surveillance from the Baker Street flat, just as his words had promised. But it had to be so.
Did Mycroft have no idea, then? That Sherlock was alive, or that Moriarty had, by the end of the showdown at the pool, been nearly as fascinated with John as he'd earlier been with Sherlock? Sherlock bit at his own forearm to muffle his savage scream of frustrated rage and set out to find the frequency of Moriarty's surveillance.
He very nearly didn't recognise it once he'd found it; he'd never heard those sounds issuing from John's throat before. John's voice had gone deep and slurred and there was an undercurrent of confusion – no, not uncertainty or bewilderment, it was that John sounded dazed, disbelieving – as he panted out half-finished words and incoherent, choppy grunts. There was another voice mingling with his, a woman, moaning and whispering, and Sherlock froze, understanding what he'd stumbled across.
But he knew the acoustics of that room perfectly, and those sounds from the audio-only bug were enough to paint all sorts of unwanted pictures on the insides of his eyelids. Anna Frelinghuysen had to be rocking on top of John, rearing up to throw her head back and let loose an ecstatic moan, eyes closed against the picture John made as he lay in sunshine, golden and scarred and shining with a sheen of sweat. No, it was full dusk now, John would be half in shadow, one stray beam of cerise light through the window his only external illumination, and Anna had that hair like fire that would be tumbling down over both of them. John's mouth would be soft, his fine eyebrows involuntarily raised as they were whenever he listened to Sherlock play his violin. John's eyes – Sherlock could not picture his eyes; would they be dreamy, looking inward, overwhelmed with pleasure, or would they be focused, sharp, watching Anna for the cues to bring her to hers? John's hands were curiously clear in Sherlock's mind, strong and competent and perfectly steady, splayed across her hips. John's thighs, mismatched by scars, would be braced firmly to take her weight.
No. He had to stop thinking – it was too much –
The wet sounds of flesh meeting and parting sped up like a tarantella and they cried out as if pushed past endurance, hoarse shouts mingling together. Sherlock opened his eyes, but the unfamiliar walls of Quincy's ghastly flat offered no respite, nothing clean and simple for his gaze to rest on. The voices – better, yes, better to think of them as just voices, not considering the bodies they belonged to, not as John and that woman – began again, quiet and close, and Sherlock squeezed his eyes shut again as he registered the intimacy of their tones, the way John spoke to her the way he once had to him, as if there were no one else on earth whom he wanted next to him at that moment. How many women had heard that tone in John's voice? How many of them had known what they were hearing?
"Sex on the sofa," Anna said, and Sherlock could hear a kiss, wet and lingering. "You're far too old for this to be remotely plausible." He knew her hands would be stroking John's chest, eager to prolong the moment and undercut her words.
John laughed at that; she would be feeling the rumble of it, lying next to him. "You're far too exactly what I need for any of this to be remotely plausible," John said, and then there was a sound of shifting weight and a slight squeal of surprise, so John had sat up and pulled Anna close, "but you're here."
Anna had to be half in John's lap, stretching greedily to get her mouth behind his ear, one hand coming up to brush across his throat and cup his jaw, while John got his hands on her and gasped, eyes fluttering shut, like her tongue was drawing fire across his skin; Sherlock could hear it all while he cursed himself for being able to deduce that much without effort and yet still be completely ignorant of Anna's true motives. What was she playing at? Was she, like her brother, in Moriarty's employ? No, Moriarty had killed her brother, so was she looking to John to be her white knight and wreak her revenge? Not that either, he thought, frustrated with his inability to think, clenching his hands into fists; she was a soldier and doctor just like John and she had no reason to think that John had ties to her brother's killer. She was there with John because she wanted to be, and it was just her luck that Sherlock wasn't there to keep John happy.
Selling drugs to the kiddies was how Jeannie had described Ashton Frelinghuysen's activities, Sherlock remembered as he stood in line for a coffee and scrubbed wearily at his face in a workman's gesture he'd learnt from John. Frelinghuysen's death would have created a vacuum, one Moriarty surely would not have allowed to continue; all Sherlock had to do to pick up the thread was see who had stepped into the dead man's shoes.
He staked out the yard of the largest secondary school in Jeannie's patch and settled into making himself inconspicuous by acting like the directionless idiots he'd been surrounded by throughout his own schooldays and time at university. He tugged at the drawstrings of his sweatshirt's hood and tapped his foot as if listening to some popular drivel on his earbuds while his mind kept precise time, counting down the minutes until the final bell would ring and the predators would come out to seek prey.
A shadow passed over him briefly three minutes later and he squinted up to see a familiar figure in front of him, facing the same direction he was. What the bloody hell was Moriarty doing with Victor Trevor?
Victor hadn't aged appreciably, was still as boyishly handsome and slim as he'd been back in their Cambridge days, and his presence here meant that he hadn't grown out of his profession of supplying the young and stupid – Sherlock classed his first-year self among their number, having realised only after that year that synthesising his own was the far better course of action – with drugs for any and all occasions. Sherlock looked up at Victor for any clues that he'd expanded his business, but it was clear that he was still operating as a solo entity. Victor was strictly small potatoes, which begged the question of why Moriarty was even bothering. Could Moran's incarceration have done that much damage to Moriarty's organisation that he had to stoop to these tuppenny contractors? Where was the vaunted strength of numbers promised by Moriarty's dazzling arrogance?
Sherlock lingered just long enough to confirm that Victor hadn't rewritten his entire nature and fathered one of the children pouring out of the school in a steady, enthusiastic stream. With the buzz of so many voices surrounding him, he slipped away in case Victor should prove more observant than Moran, getting on the Tube and sprawling across two seats, hood pulled forward to throw his face into menacing shadow. When he emerged at St. Pancras, he headed straight for the library and some peace and quiet, determined to find all he could about the scope of Moriarty's sinister organisation.
His tired eyes were burning, dry and itchy from too long in front of a monitor, and he sighed into his paper cup of coffee. What he needed now was someone with in-depth knowledge of how money could be manipulated, all the channels both legal and shadowed that it could flow through; he needed Harry, who'd been working since her drinking days for the largest private fund in Europe. Of course, contacting her was out of the question, given that she and John were now part of each other's lives again, to the extent that Sherlock had sat on her sofa half a dozen times for tea and dinner and other gatherings without names but still plenty of food. She would have heard about his "death."
The barista who'd taken over as the blond man's shift ended had a pronounced Italian accent, and Sherlock felt inspiration ripple through him, exhausted as he was. Doug Maberley would know how to read the information Sherlock had uncovered, if his brain hadn't rotted from years of lolling indolently on Mediterranean beaches. He smiled triumphantly at the idea; it must have been one of his more unpleasant smiles, because the barista took an involuntary step back as she saw it. Having a plan in mind always made him feel better, even when he did have to pay for his own coffee and cake.
He missed John's coffee, the aroma of it wafting through the flat on late mornings when neither of them had anything pressing calling them out of the building or out of their pyjamas. He contented himself with another cup of the substandard brew the café offered and set up a disposable hotmail account with the username threegables, knowing the name of the ridiculously posh Maberley home would at the very least catch Doug's eye and convince him that the email was not simply a scam.
As he typed the message with his findings, he tried to concentrate on the dry financial facts, but other observations kept pushing their way to the forefront of his brain. He had heard for himself the different voices Moriarty could put on: the soft stutter of dim Jim, good with computers but not so confident when it came to pulling, and the strident triumph of Moriarty as he gleefully shed each layer of disguise to stand before his archenemy, burning to be told how clever he was for all that he'd done. Sherlock had heard Irish in the mad wanderings of Moriarty's accent, shining through his words even as the notes of each sentence slid like they were being played on a cheap carnival pennywhistle. Not Dublin or Galway, surely; it was too musical a lilt for the bustle of urban life. There might be some remote little village, green as anything and dotted with fluffy white sheep, where Jim had taken his first steps.
But Moriarty had derived too much evident pleasure from his acts of ventriloquy, his dummies rigged up in explosives; he would not drop his last mask and reveal his true voice until he was completely assured that Sherlock would never be able to count that voice as a clue. The melodic cadence of his proclamations at the pool, therefore, was another false trail. There was no village drenched in blood from Moriarty's formative years, no trail back to a hamlet that Sherlock could lose months trying to follow. False clues and whispers were Moriarty's stock in trade, but his actions were shouts: he had been so young when he killed Carl Powers, and that had been in the city.
Moriarty was a child of London, then, and all the evidence Sherlock had found for Maberley to corroborate seemed to indicate that Moriarty had never expanded past its borders to become the international terror he claimed to be. But London was Sherlock's to safeguard and to keep, and he was more than capable of dismantling the organisation of one menace, however intelligent and full of potential it might be.
He would exterminate Moriarty, and then he would be able to go home.
The man had been garrotted with a length of wire enfolded in a crimson silk scarf, the scarf tied in a jaunty bow around his neck as he'd bled out. His pockets had been very thoroughly rummaged through by his killer, who had torn a hole in the lining of one in his impatience. Sherlock had seen the flash of red out of the corner of his eye as he'd paced the streets toward the neon lights of a Chinese restaurant, and put all thoughts of seaweed soup out of his mind once he registered the sight of the body.
The man was fit and bulky with muscles trapped underneath his skin-tight shirt and trousers; his murderer had had excellent balance and superior coordination and stood six feet two in his shoes.
Red silk did not ring any bells in Sherlock's brain. The red, of course, was to disguise the blood, but garrotting had fallen from favour long since, so what was its significance here? He squatted by the body's feet, ignoring a brief flash of dizziness, and peered up its length. There. A tiny swirl of darkness that was neither a shadow nor a crust of dried blood. His forceps were in the pocket of his coat, stashed away and inaccessible, so he dug into his laptop bag and pulled out his locker key. Gently, feeling the slight pops as the fabric peeled free of tacky skin covered in drying blood, he used the key to pull the scarf away from the skin.
The man had a tattoo on his neck and Sherlock smirked as he let the fabric fall back into place, recognising the symbol instantly. So the dead man had been part of Donnelly's gang, the one granted its own wall in Gregson's office; in their heyday, they'd ruled the south side of London with an iron fist, but that had been before Moriarty had made a move to establish himself as the kingpin of all London crime. And at that he'd been bloody successful, even if his grander ambitions had failed to pan out.
Sherlock stood back up, stumbling and falling from exhaustion, landing heavily on the pavement. Thick denim protected his knees but the heels of his hands were badly scraped. He had to think. The dead man was part of a gang, which meant that his flat was not suitable for squatting. Sleeping rough would not allow him to rest, not when he had to safeguard his laptop; what he really needed was a safe space and a pill that would grant him six hours of dreamless sleep. Failing that, a hot meal and a quick shower might do.
He trudged down the road until he found a cheap-looking café. He couldn't catch a flavour or aroma from the steaming cup set down in front of him, so he abandoned his plan of eating and simply swallowed cup after cup of the stuff to keep himself warm and awake. By his third cup, the waitress had decided not to bother to keep an eye out in case he beckoned for fancy cakes or a sarnie, and he remembered to check the threegables account.
Sitting in the inbox was a reply from Doug Maberley.
Mycroft, you sod, get off your arse every now and again to do your own bloody research. Though why should you, when chumps like me will do it for you? You're dead right about these accounts – shell companies and private money and all that, but none of it touching any of Britain's borders. All domestic, all London-based even, I should say. But the numbers are big enough that setting up any flows outside the metropolis would be the work of a minute. Any idea what this chap's source is? Must be rock solid if he can pump all his profits right back in, as he's doing, though of course he won't be able to keep it up much longer, not at this rate.
If you're ever tired of London rain, come and stay here for a month or two – you must have years of leave accrued by now, and Isadora would be charmed to play hostess.
It should not have surprised him that Maberley believed his correspondent to be Mycroft; they had been in the same Oxford class, though Mycroft had been the younger. Maberley might have a gift for financial matters, but he could hardly be expected to examine the finer details of style and organisation of thought as represented by a single email after years of silence and distinguish Mycroft's handiwork from Sherlock's.
It should not have surprised him, but it did, most unpleasantly. The reminder that in all things – in the supreme matter, the workings of his mind – he was Mycroft's follower, that Mycroft had trained him to see patterns, to organise his own thoughts according to certain principles, to assimilate knowledge rapidly and expertly, even to keep or delete information, made him choke for a moment on grief and anger. He could not start afresh now, and anyway, there was a nasty satisfaction in knowing that Mycroft might never call him "brother" again but he could also never erase the mark he had made on Sherlock, or his ultimate responsibility for the ways Sherlock chose to influence the world. Mycroft could wash his hands all he liked, but he'd still have to answer for what he'd done sooner or later.
Maberley's response confirmed that London itself set the boundaries of Moriarty's business, so Sherlock set out for Barts, determined to shadow Molly and track down those minions of Moriarty's who still clung to her. He'd go round the front in case the Dominion House entrance was still heavily guarded by Lestrade's people and then make his way back; with his laptop, he could pass as a colleague of Jim's, another flunky in IT. He turned the corner and stood stock-still.
If Moriarty had stood in front of him at that moment, waving mockingly at him, he would not have been more shocked. There, through the plate-glass window, he could see John and Mycroft sitting together at a restaurant far outside John's pocket. Though perhaps not anymore, not if he really had taken the job Mycroft had arranged for him, something to do with a trauma centre, possibly even the justly famous one that bore the Barts name. That would explain their location, though not why they were meeting at all. The menu in John's hand shook, possibly because of the waitress's fumbling for it; John clamped his hand around his thigh too quickly for Sherlock to observe whether it trembled, though the grip he had on his leg was likely enough of a giveaway.
John's face was terribly drawn, more than could be accounted for by coming off a long shift at the centre, enough for even the happiness of his time with Anna not to have made a dent. Sherlock could hardly blame him for being less than pleased with Mycroft's company. Not for the first time, he marvelled at how generous John had always been – his time, his attention, everything was present wherever he chose to be; Mycroft had the weight of all of that history and focus on him, and it was clear from John's steady gaze that he'd not forgotten their last conversation in the living room of 221B.
Sherlock felt a bump from behind and recollected that he was standing like a statue in the middle of the pavement. Sooner or later John's eye would be drawn to the pocket of stillness in the midst of all the bustle, and Mycroft might even bestir himself to turn and see what was going on. He put one foot in front of the other, looking for a place where he could be out of the way and yet still keep John in view. The high stone steps of a church three doors down were ideal, and hearing the sounds of the cleaners inside, amplified by the soaring space, reminded him that there was a possibility he could hear John's voice again.
Setting his laptop on his knees, he tuned in to the frequency of Moriarty's bug and heard Mycroft ordering for himself, apparently still keeping up that pointless diet. Sherlock had his answer, then; Moriarty had bugged John and not the flat – had he done both, he would have had to contend with interference too frequent to be acceptable. Where could the bug be? Not in John's shoes, as he had too many pairs of trainers and boots and worn brogues. Not in John's belt, as he didn't always wear one even when he left the flat. John lifted a hand to run it through his hair and Sherlock saw it then: John's wristwatch, shining square face outlined in gold and kept in place with a leather strap. Somewhere in that watch Moriarty had concealed a bug. He cursed himself for not realising sooner what the loose plate at the back of the watch meant; he had noticed it weeks ago.
"How have you been, John?" Mycroft asked, wielding his knife and fork with precision.
"Same as you, I imagine," John said after a pause.
"I see you've been writing," Mycroft tried again, and Sherlock strained his eyes to see what Mycroft might have observed – a writing callus, inky fingertips, a papercut. "But not on your blog. Case notes for your patients?"
John looked up with that unwavering gaze under level brows that had always made Sherlock feel justly chastened, and Mycroft fidgeted, just for a moment. "I've been making lists. Ways to avenge him. Things he said he wanted to do. Reasons to keep going." John didn't seem to want or expect an answer to that, digging into his salad like he hadn't just admitted to contemplating murder and suicide; that reasonable voice, Sherlock realised, let him get away with so much. "What about you, then? I haven't seen the cameras swivel to follow me in days; I think I'm starting to miss the attention."
"John, I –" Mycroft hesitated. John met his gaze and nodded, and Mycroft's posture relaxed infinitesimally. "I've turned my attention outward; there's nothing for me to keep an eye on in London these days."
"Sherlock needed all the minders he could get –" John started, before Mycroft drew a ragged breath. "Sorry, I'm so sorry, I shouldn't have said his name –"
Sherlock could feel the scrape of air in the back of his own throat, echoing Mycroft's choked gasp, and he wanted more than anything to see his brother's face, to deduce for himself what John was reluctant to voice. It didn't seem possible that Mycroft could be so hurt by his death, not when he had hissed his fury out at him the last time they'd spoken. "You don't look well," John continued quietly. "Would you allow me to –"
The waitress cut him off, stepping between them with a pitcher to refill their water glasses.
"I am fine, thank you," Mycroft said before John could pick up the thread of the conversation. "I've simply moved from domestic work to international."
"So it's a promotion, then?" John asked, and Sherlock wondered how he managed to convey both disbelief and a desire to trust with his tone.
"Of a sort," Mycroft said, and turned his attention to his plate once more.
Following John was an even better plan that shadowing Molly, Sherlock told himself, watching light and shadow chase each other across John's lined face; if Mycroft's cameras were no longer watching out for him, then John was acutely vulnerable when not barricaded inside 221B. Just as John was putting his key in the lock, he clapped a hand to his pocket and pulled out a buzzing mobile.
"Hello?" he said. The bug in his watch caused static to fill the air, and John grimaced. "Clara, sorry, give me two seconds to call you back from the landline. I forgot this bloody thing won't let me speak these days, just text." Sherlock paced outside, earbud still plugged into the laptop zipped inside its case, while John raced up the stairs and entered their flat.
John dialled the phone just as he typed, with two fingers and his tongue poking out of his mouth, Sherlock remembered, warmth spreading through him from the memory. He could hear the moment the call connected. "John?" Clara's pleasing alto voice came through clearly.
"Yeah, it's me," John said. "What's up? How are you and Harry?"
"We're fine. Had a busy day, just thought it would be nice to hear your voice at the end of it."
Sherlock could hear John's smile through his next words. "You're a right charmer," he said. "Dangerous, very dangerous. What're you buttering me up for? You want to meet Anna that badly?"
Sherlock had not known that Clara was even aware of Anna's existence except as the surgeon who had once worked on John; John was moving far more quickly with Anna than he had with Sarah.
"Is it that serious?" Clara asked. "Meet-the-family serious?"
"Are you and Harry plotting?" John asked, sounding relaxed and amused.
"Yes," Clara admitted. "We were busy today cleaning out the spare bedroom."
"Oh, Clara, not this again," John said, frustration bleeding through his voice, and he got up and started pacing as well.
"Please, we're worried about you, and we want you here," Clara said at the same time. She took a deep breath and continued. "You said no funeral for him, and we went along with that. But we liked him too, and as difficult as he was, he would never have wanted you to give up on everything like this."
"I'm not giving up, I just can't – leaving here would be giving up, can't you see that?" John's voice grew firmer. "Darling, I can't. This is where I live."
Sherlock could hear the sounds too quiet for Clara to pick up on – John walking through the flat in his socks, John pausing once, John laying his palm against the strings of Sherlock's violin, the muted vibration of them like the buzz of a bee against his skin.
Sherlock missed that violin, the ache in him growing as he remembered looking at John down the violin's length, lazy dust motes floating into f-holes between their matched gazes. He thought of the basic form of each, instrument and man, and their infinite varieties, how easily the body of either could be shattered, fractured, damaged beyond repair. John should go and leave 221B behind, but he would dig in his heels instead and mourn for the man who was deceiving him.
Sherlock tore the earbuds out and walked until he was ready to drop. He looked around, registering his location for the first time in hours, and found himself in front of the site where the pool had been.
Irregular hours were no excuse, Sherlock thought grimly, and neither was overwork; Gregson should definitely have known that the cramped flat next to his had never found a buyer because it was not much more than a shell for which dozens of people paid the building's owner, simply so they could claim to have an address in the proper postal code. He picked the lock and surveyed the tiny, dim space: no pests, but no amenities either above running water and electricity. But he would have access to Gregson's flat and files and computer, and he had certainly kipped in worse places for far longer stretches of time; there was a sense of momentum building inside him, and he let himself believe that this would all be over soon.
He slept, finally, exhaustion precluding the need for any chemical aid, and woke to find his eyes less gritty than before. He washed quickly and waited for the sounds of Gregson leaving for work before he let himself into the DI's flat. Another time, it might have amused him to note the hairbrush in front of the large bedroom mirror, holding more hair than Gregson had on his head, or the dreary organisation of Gregson's collection of self-important leather-bound classics. This time, he smiled in simple satisfaction at the proof that Gregson was as unimaginative as ever, a clear sign that his password would be simple to crack. When he sat down in front of his computer, working out the password took fewer than thirty seconds.
A library's worth of case files, classified by status, date, type, crime, and investigating officer appeared before him. Even skimming through to determine which files were relevant would be the work of several days.
He turned to the murder files first; Moriarty had shown no compunction in killing off people either individually or in groups, and there was no reason to believe the stakes were ever any lower where he was concerned. The first three open cases he pulled up all clearly had the same perpetrator – why had no one at the Met made the connection? It was obvious from the physical evidence that the killer had been trained as a sniper; even though his kill shots were made from a variety of distances from point-blank to a hundred yards away, he consistently aimed for and hit the spot where the brain stem met the spine. John had told him once that the snipers he'd known called that spot "the apricot," presumably seeing a likeness between traumatised brain matter and fruit ripe enough to burst. This sniper shot left-handed and had suffered from scoliosis as a child.
The fourth open murder case, however, quashed Sherlock's budding enthusiasm; the victim was the sniper who had been in Moriarty's employ.
Photographs of several more murder victims offered incontrovertible proof that they had perpetrated other crimes that bulked up the Met's files. So Moran's mutterings had been informed, not just ignorant complaints, and in-fighting was a constant threat within Moriarty's network. As a way to assure that Moriarty only had the best working for him, it was effective. But there was a price for that efficacy; the organisation was, it was becoming clear, more emaciated than aggressively lean. Once again, armed with mounting evidence, Sherlock considered the idea that Moran had been Moriarty's most valued lieutenant and best link to the underlings he'd been reading about.
He pulled up Moran's file next, open still because the trial was weeks away, and noted that Moran had refused all visitors. Doubtless the man thought he was keeping Moriarty from being implicated and had no idea that he was actually killing the organisation by removing its one reliable point of two-way contact.
All of which meant that Moriarty was now more dangerous than ever. Instead of sitting atop a network buzzing with industry, turning profits at a staggering rate, and contemplating a bright future, he was crashing down from dizzying heights, losing manpower, and thinking only of Sherlock, destroyed too soon and indirectly – and John, still under his surveillance and unarmed.
After all the internecine warfare, there were only two free men whom Sherlock deemed able to think and plan on a level that Moriarty appreciated. If Moriarty were to make a move, he would surely turn to one of these two members of his organisation to carry out his orders.
Fred Underhill was meticulous and painstaking in keeping a low profile. Had Sherlock not read his name in several seemingly unconnected case files – always mentioned only as a witness properly willing to speak to the officer in charge – he would have had no reason to suspect him of anything. Underhill appeared to earn his living as a night watchman at a bank, but there was a car he kept in a private garage that a guard's salary could never have covered. Sherlock followed him for one complete day, noting that the man had excellent hand-eye coordination and balanced his six-two frame with a predator's instincts.
That profile, fitting the murderer of the gang member, made him wary, and watching from a distance was insufficient. He let himself into Underhill's scrupulously clean flat and searched for links back to Moriarty. A second red silk scarf gleamed in a drawer, but no clues about the next victim were anywhere Sherlock could see. There was no computer in the flat, just minimal electronics, so all contact with Moriarty must be coded or on a private phone – chargers for two different brands of mobile were plugged into the outlet next to the bed. Sherlock backtracked to pick up the digital camera he had noticed in a lockbox on the top shelf of the wardrobe and scrolled through the images. There, on the bright, tiny screen, he saw John: walking to work, kissing Anna on the front steps, waiting for the bus that would take him to Harry and Clara's flat.
He opened the drawer again and considered the red silk scarf once more. This time, he recognised it as the instrument Underhill had prepared for John's death. No shining metal garrotte was yet embedded in its folds, but as soon as Moriarty gave the word, John's life would be counted in minutes instead of years. The efficiency of the Donnelly thug's murder confirmed Underhill's skill; there was only one thing Sherlock could do.
He pulled the silk out of its drawer and wrapped the edges around his hands, flexing and tautening the shining length between his fists to get a feel for its give. He inserted the bright strip of metal and tested the weapon again. Then he settled down to wait.
After eight hours on his feet at his shift, Underhill still moved with enviable grace, but his reflexes were just a touch slower than he needed. Sherlock took full advantage, striking with speed he hadn't known he could still command, wrapping the fabric round Underhill's throat before the man could get a hand up. Sherlock pulled, his hands fighting to increase the space between them, as Underhill thrashed and clawed at his neck. Blood poured and still they struggled, until Underhill abruptly ceased, dead at last.
Sherlock shuddered and let go. The scarf was embedded deep in Underhill's neck, but the ends he'd held fluttered free. He cut them off and burnt them in the sink, the smell of the smoke soothing enough to keep his gorge from rising. Breathing deeply, he shut his eyes and tried not to think of himself as being one death closer to going home.
He retreated back to the flat in Gregson's building, intending only to wash and sleep, but found he couldn't close his eyes without wanting to scream aloud. How had John borne this metamorphosis, this knowledge that he was a killer, that his own hands had taken such a momentous, irreversible action?
John. That was all he needed to comfort him in this hellish early morning. John.
Why had he never allowed himself to drop his guard entirely for John? John wouldn't have presumed to abuse his power, even if he had understood that he was laying siege to Sherlock's defences just by existing, by being so vibrant and responsive and alive. But Sherlock had cravenly acted like John was a treat to be rationed, so he'd kept his eyes closed while prostrate on the sofa, only feeling the slight breeze John stirred up as he walked by, and he'd only allowed himself the briefest of glances at John's reflection, shining back from a beaker or Mrs. Hudson's silver coffeepot, watching as a tiny, ghostly John scratched idly at his belly or rubbed at his sleepy eyes. Why had he not let himself bask in John, extending all of his senses out to see what merry havoc John could, all unthinkingly, wreak? An experiment in friendship, one without any damaging consequences, had been his for the making.
He cursed himself extravagantly as he put the earbuds in and settled down to listen to John going about his morning routine, slower than he'd been when Sherlock had been there, but steady, familiar, as good as a lullaby.
Cole Mathews was more slippery than Underhill, as befit a man who lived off his girlfriend and had no set job. He had been a "person of interest" in a number of crimes ranging from larceny and assault to rape and murder, and had been hauled in by the police on several occasions, always managing to conjure up airtight alibis. Sherlock, following him, could not make out what Mathews was doing as he wandered round the city, dressed impeccably, sharp eyes tracking everything. After an appallingly long time, Sherlock realised that Mathews was looking for him, that Moriarty must have deduced his involvement in Underhill's death.
Mathews' relentless gaze probed every shadow near Underhill's flat and garage, catching on any fair-skinned man, lingering longer on any who was alone. Satisfied that no one Moriarty wanted was hanging around there, Mathews widened his search area, and Sherlock decided it would be better to dictate the time and place of their meeting rather than be caught unawares. He could hear a clock chiming midnight, the bells sounding like a spur to action, and made his presence known before Mathews could return to the heart of the city proper.
When he stepped from the shadows of the tiny train station and faced his opponent, Sherlock saw that Mathews had sharp pale eyes, so striking that he would never have been able to do what Underhill had done and blend into the background of so many crime scenes. But then, Sherlock doubted whether Underhill would have been able to do what Mathews did and turn up new clients for Moriarty's "consulting criminal" business, charming them into believing that all of their problems would be solved with an email to Dear Jim.
"Is there a bonus in it for you if you bring me to him?" Sherlock asked, watching that handsome face sag with surprise. "Did you think the boss was going mad, always listening to the bug he'd planted and suddenly insisting that I'd survived that pesky blast?"
Mathews had started to laugh. "I'm going to rip you limb from limb. All I need to bring back to him is your head."
"You didn't answer my question," Sherlock tutted, unable to resist the glee rising up inside him, the knowledge that if he could just get rid of Mathews, Moriarty would be his to take in single combat.
"Your roots are showing," Mathews said, still laughing, and lunged for him.
The reflection in a puddle of beer ringed with broken glass had betrayed the shine of Mathews' knife in time for Sherlock to twist against the blow, seize Mathews' arm, and force the knife to fall to the ground. Mathews snarled and delivered a vicious elbow to Sherlock's face, and there was a tooth on the ground, next to the knife, and a most interesting pattern of blood on the grimy pavement.
Sherlock felt no pain, just straightened his spine inexorably and moved to engage Mathews again, striking at kneecaps, groin, and nose in quick succession. Mathews went down under the blows, striking wildly, one lucky shot catching Sherlock in the celiac plexus. He recovered in time to keep Mathews on the ground with a foot on his neck, recalling the last time he'd had one of Moriarty's tools under his heel, when the name was new to him and he'd had clean hands and John, decisive and upright, who declared allegiance to him with a single shot.
"That little doctor of yours," Mathews choked out. "Moriarty has special plans for him."
Blood was still filling Sherlock's mouth, and he swallowed it and ground his foot harder against the fragile neck underneath it. "When?" was all he got out before he was hauled off Mathews by insistent hands, the constable letting go of him to clap hands on Mathews. Their struggle must have been caught by the cameras outside the station.
Even bound in handcuffs, Mathews was smiling at him, smiling because he knew what Moriarty was planning now that Underhill was gone, and Sherlock had to get away. "He had a knife," he whispered, pitching forward, squeezing Mathews between his body and the constable's.
"We saw it, sir," the constable assured him, shifting to balance their combined weight more easily. "We'll have to take you both in." Sherlock let the blood pooling in his mouth escape between his lips. "Don't faint, sir," and Sherlock took the suggestion, sliding to the ground in an effective approximation of a dead faint.
Mathews took the opportunity to kick at his prone form, but Sherlock had braced for that, and it merely hastened the desired result, the constable pulling Mathews away even as he called for backup on his radio. The instant they were out of sight and out of earshot, Sherlock was up, running away from the station, cameras be damned.
He ran until he hit a spot not covered by cameras and powered up the laptop with shaking hands. The earbuds only gave him the familiar sounds of John drinking tea, but the background noise didn't sound like their flat. A female voice called out a hello to John, and Sherlock realised that John was covering a late shift at work, gulping down a hasty cup of tea. Sherlock sagged against the wall, the brick biting into his back and catching at strands of his hair; John was safe at work for a few hours more, and Sherlock could walk there and follow him home, guarding him while working out how best to draw Moriarty out.
"Good . . . morning, Dr. Watson," another voice said, precise and sibilant.
"Ah, good morning, Dr. Reichen," John answered, enough of a pause that Sherlock knew he'd checked his watch to see that it was in fact after midnight. "Just finishing your shift?"
"I was looking for you. I'm hoping you could favour me with a consultation," Reichen said; "Dr. Krishnan has agreed to cover the last hour of your shift."
"She's overworked already," John said, sounding concerned and even a little wary. Sherlock pushed himself away from the wall, spine taut with tension as he tried to work out what was wrong with Reichen's request. "I don't want to leave her scrambling."
"Please, John," Reichen tried. "I can't lose this patient." John must have nodded his assent, as Reichen continued, "He's in a bed in the other building, just this way."
John's fatigue manifested itself in his limp, but Reichen took no notice, unwilling to slow down to accommodate him. Sherlock could hear the whoosh and hiss of sets of automated doors opening and closing, and pictured John in the narrow courtyard between the centre's main and auxiliary buildings. "Damn, I've left my keys on the break-room table," Reichen said, an obvious lie, for there had been no sound of keys jangling, but before John could point that out, Reichen had gone back inside the main building, the doors whirring shut behind him.
"O . . . kay," John muttered to himself, and Sherlock could hear his soft whistle, knowing John would give Reichen five minutes – the length of time it took him to get through that Queen song he particularly enjoyed – to rejoin him before he went back inside to finish his shift, conscientious doctor that he was.
John paced as he whistled, stepping from the pavement to grass to gravel, the crunch of the gravel underfoot providing percussion. The melody was approaching its crescendo when sardonic applause interrupted its flow. "Really, dear heart," that hateful voice drawled, "I had no idea pets could boast so many skills."
"Moriarty," John breathed, like the meeting was a dream come true, and Sherlock, paralysed by the knowledge that he couldn't get across London in time to pull them apart, could only hold his breath and listen.
"You're very good, you know," Moriarty said casually, and Sherlock strained to hear John. But John had gone silent, as he always did while deciding on a course of action. "Honestly, you had me riveted with your whirlwind of activity: crying into your pillow over Sherlock, your adventures in cookery, the hours on the phone with your sister and her delectable wife." The sneer in Moriarty's tone was reason enough for wanting to smash his head into a wall, and Sherlock snarled as his hands curled into fists. "But when the fuck were you going to GET TO THE BLOODY POINT?"
"That point being?" John asked, calmly, from which Sherlock could deduce nothing; John got perversely calm when his life was on the line, but it could equally mean that there were no snipers' lights dancing on his chest and it really was down to him and Moriarty, just as John had hoped.
"That point being here, Johnny," Moriarty said, recovering his poise. "When were you planning to tell the world – those dim DIs, that lovely little doctor who's been ministering to your pain – that your part in all of this was just to lie while Sherlock did the dirty work?"
"Sherlock's dead," John said steadily, though his eyes must have gone rounder and dimmer, having never learnt the control Sherlock had schooled himself in.
"Oh really, pet, just let the pretence go. You've distracted me – bravo."
"If he's alive, why isn't he here now?" John asked, still so unwavering. "You were all he cared about; surely if he had escaped the explosion you'd set, he would be following you, tracking you, trying to finish you off."
"Can I help it if I'm always several steps ahead?" Moriarty asked, and Sherlock heard the click of a gun being cocked.
"Are you now, though?" John asked quietly, and then exploded into a frenzy of movement, the gravel beneath his feet sending out a series of sharp reports. Something heavy crashed to the ground – Moriarty's gun, an unaccustomed weight in a clumsy hand. A scream burst out of Moriarty's throat, then ceased with sickening abruptness. There was an overwhelming noise that threatened to burst Sherlock's eardrums – the sound, he realised, of Moriarty's lifeless body slapping the gravel.
Finally, he could hear John again, breathing quickly and shallowly, then swallowing heavily. John must have bent to retrieve the gun, his tread making the gravel crunch. The computerised beeps of John's mobile filled the next few seconds as John stepped onto the grass, and then John said through the static, "Mycroft? I need your help, please."
A wave of white was coming up before Sherlock's eyes, and he could hear no more.
Sherlock walked numbly through the streets of London, feet finding their own way back to Baker Street. That John, the unassuming, the friendly, the overlooked, had been the one to snuff out Moriarty's misbegotten life with his bare hands didn't fit with the narrative Sherlock had carefully crafted, and now he was floundering. He couldn't claim to have stayed away, to have deceived John, in order to keep John safe – Moriarty had been lurking in the shadows all the while, listening for each drop of John's lifeblood as it spilled heedlessly to the ground. He couldn't declare that he had been protecting John – John was the soldier, the shield transformed at the decisive moment into the sword.
Sherlock had no idea what to say to John. And he was already on the steps of 221.
He fumbled briefly for his key before managing to unlock the door. He climbed the seventeen steps, expecting at each one a sudden revelation or a speech neatly laid out in his brain, but he reached the top no wiser than he'd been at the bottom.
The shower was running when he entered the flat, unfamiliarly clean and bright and airy, and he relaxed at the sound, thinking that he might have a few more minutes to piece something together. That faint hope died when John walked out of the kitchen.
John took one look at him and dropped the mug he was holding, ceramic shards and hot tea reproducing a sunburst pattern on the floor. "God!" John burst out.
John was wearing a red long-sleeved shirt Sherlock had never seen before, something soft and clingy against which the white bandages on his knuckles stood out starkly. His face had sharpened, hollows beneath his cheekbones and jaw where there had been none before. Sherlock couldn't get his voice to work. "I –" It didn't help that he still didn't know what to say. "I – I'm so sorry."
The shower turned off, the sudden silence amplifying John's voice unbearably. "Not something I would have expected Sherlock to say," John said as if musing on the ways Sherlock failed to measure up, entirely too calm. "Unless the hair-dye's gone to your head."
Could it really be that easy, that John would allow a feeble joke to cover the multitude of Sherlock's sins? No; there was still mistrust in John's eyes. Sherlock was going to have to work to regain John's squandered fidelity. "'The two met at a Self-Help Institute lecture on the Evils of the Decimal System, and immediately recognized their affinity,'" he quoted from John's beloved Edward Gorey book.
John's eyes had not lost the trick of crinkling in a delightful fashion when he was truly amused. "Also unexpected, but rather good," John said dryly.
"Mycroft's bug was in the spine of your Gorey anthology," Sherlock said, too abruptly, and the moment was lost.
"You owe him a hell of an apology," John said, fury flaring in his eyes. That the fury was on Mycroft's behalf and not his own gave Sherlock a sudden, dizzying hope – that he was secure in John's affection, that the choice John had made to love him was fundamentally unshaken despite what he'd done. Hope had not figured largely in his life before, and he felt his throat closing up with fear that it was false; he had never before wanted anything other than the truth.
It was a further unpleasant shock to realise that it mattered, as much as it mattered with John, if Mycroft forgave him.
"John –" he said, then stopped. When he tried again, there was another voice on top of his, shaping the same syllable. He tore his gaze away from John's familiar, alien face and saw Anna descending the stairs that led up to John's bedroom. She had used John's soap but had not washed her hair, bundled away in a hasty-looking low knot.
"Running late – oh!" she said, catching sight of him. "Sorry, got to run. John, see you tonight at mine." She brushed a kiss across John's mouth on her way out of the door, neatly sidestepping the cooling mess on the floor but turning back to shoot John a quizzical look once it registered. John merely nodded reassuringly and kissed her again. Sherlock could see her adjusting her handbag's strap as she jogged down the stairs, and then John closed the door behind her.
John rested his forehead against the door, allowing Sherlock to see no more than his back, the vulnerable nape of his neck. Sherlock looked dumbly at John, willing him to have understood everything he couldn't say by the time he turned around.
"Right," John said, squaring his shoulders and retreating to the kitchen before reappearing briefly to toss the house phone at him. When he emerged again, he had a sponge and a dustpan-and-brush set in his hands. "Call your brother," John instructed, nodding at the phone in Sherlock's hands. "I'll still be here when you're done."
That was more of a promise than Sherlock deserved, but he pushed his luck anyway, unable to help himself, reaching out almost blindly. John dropped what he was carrying to hold him close, and Sherlock nestled in closer, tucking his face against John's warm throat, John's pulse steady against his cold cheek. John spoke then, his voice a lovely rumble Sherlock felt all throughout his body. "Welcome home," John said.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think.