I've had a truly terrible joke to work into a Sherlock story for months now, and at last it is being unleashed upon the world. Don't say I didn't warn you - which, incidentally, is more than I did for the lovely and forgiving oxoniensis, who did a thoughtful and enthusiastic beta on this story. 4500 words of gen, Sherlock and John at Christmas. Set after the hiatus (my take on the hiatus is "Tear Up Your List").
"His Last Bow"
"This is beyond ludicrous, Lestrade," Sherlock said, resolutely hanging on to his irritation despite the perfection of the cup of tea John had given him. "I am not an object to be lent out as the whim takes you."
"I thought it was the work that mattered," Lestrade said, rather waspishly. "Now you need to have dead bodies lying around for you to get motivated?"
"Rather an odd remark from a detective inspector on the murder squad," Sherlock noted with asperity, then took another sip of John's sublime tea. Really, the man was positively prescient when it came to the flavour, heat, and sweetness that were required at any given juncture. He eyed Lestrade over the rim of the cup, noting that the DI was busily warming his hands around the cup John had handed him. Poor circulation – no, just left his gloves behind. As if it weren't bloody December, with howling winds and a persistent chill.
John settled in his chair with his own cup of tea and smiled at Lestrade as if his cheer could warm the man's hands; it was rather galling to admit that it must have worked, as Lestrade smiled back and left off molesting his mug, finally taking a sip. John nodded, evidently pleased with his apparently magical powers – wait. Sherlock recoiled from his own brain's delusional workings, marvelling at the ghastly effects John's campaign of terrible telly could have even on a first-class, formerly pristine mind. John would pay for that.
"What's the case?" John asked, so mildly that Sherlock had to remind himself that John's underwear drawer housed an illegal firearm.
"Domestic terror – word's come down that some splinter group's planning to barricade themselves inside Harrods sometime next week and use it as a base camp –"
"Harrods has private security –" Sherlock interrupted, only to be cut off by Lestrade.
"And private security doesn't have clearance to talk to these nutters, and in any case, no one's interested in tipping our hand and letting them know we've cracked their code."
"Can't close Harrods, I suppose," John murmured.
"And have them fussing at us about all the money they're losing while we investigate? Not on your life, mate. Plus, it's Harrods. They'd make it out to be downright unpatriotic to shut them down at Christmas."
John groaned – in sympathy, most likely, though Sherlock also caught sight of a biscuit crumb at the corner of his mouth, so perhaps the sound was appreciative – and Lestrade lifted his cup in acknowledgement.
The word clearance put a very unpleasant thought into Sherlock's head. "Where exactly did this word come down from, Lestrade?" He could virtually see Mycroft's pudgy hand pulling strings; a man his age should be ashamed of having dimpled flesh.
"Above my pay grade, I'm afraid. I was asked to consult with the world's only consulting detective, that's all I know," Lestrade answered while eyeing the biscuits John had put on the coffee table. "Though you must admit it's not a bad plan, as these things go – the Harrods name alone will bring them all the publicity they could want, and if they really are planning to kip there indefinitely, they'll have all the supplies they need."
"Yes, it takes a real genius to come up with such a subtly cunning plan," Sherlock said witheringly. Not that John and Lestrade were listening, both too busy rooting around in the biscuit tin to pay him proper attention.
The unholy spirit of commercialism seemed to have descended upon John, who smiled pleasantly throughout their stroll through every damn section of Harrods. For pity's sake, John didn't even have the decency to treat the trip as the reconnaissance mission that it was; instead, he was humming vaguely along with the carols piped in by the speaker system, looking at the goods on display with a faint smile, and actually consulting a list of people he needed to shop for. "Now is not the time, John!" Sherlock insisted, only to have the same yes, yes, hush now gesture he'd last seen from his first-form master directed his way. He had not shut up then, and he most certainly would not shut up now. "This way –"
His words were cut off by the sight of John advancing toward him, a calculating gleam in his eye and a scarf of burgundy cashmere in his hands. "Yes, this should work nicely," John murmured to himself, lassoing the scarf around Sherlock's neck. "You do have the same general colouring. Check Mycroft off the list." Sherlock unwound the scarf from his neck with a frosty glare; he would, frankly, have been less offended by John trying to garrotte him with the thing than he was by the comparison to Mycroft. He still hadn't quite forgiven his parents for having Mycroft first and then using the same DNA to produce him.
"Right, who's next?" John asked brightly, as if trying to coax Sherlock into forgetting the horrors of a shop that seemed to be decorated exclusively in reds and greens. He wondered how a colour-blind man would fare in his place, and felt a searing pang of envy.
"John, honestly. We are not here for Christmas shopping –" even as he said it, he saw a pink shirt that would suit John splendidly "– so do try to remember what we are about." He glared down at his flatmate with his most impressive mien.
John snorted, sounding uncannily like the Shetland pony the neighbouring children – repulsive blisters, one and all – had got one summer; the pony had been prone to kicking and so had been discarded with undue haste, but Sherlock had known by the direction in which the horse had flicked his ears whether he was going to kick or nuzzle, and had never been taken by surprise. He recalled a book he had seen when John had last dragged him to Waterstone's, and allowed himself to wonder if that pony had perhaps been John's spirit guide, though John had no such obvious tells for when he was about to turn dangerous.
"Have you ever gone Christmas shopping?" John inquired, which Sherlock felt was stretching the bounds of rhetorical questions a bit; John did not ask in order to illuminate a point or to propel a deduction, and so was hardly playing fair. "There's no way you won't be noticed if you go on the way you have been, stalking the aisles like some bloody great crow and glaring at people who are just trying to find something to brighten the holiday a bit."
"Meaning?" Sherlock drew it out, counting on John to acknowledge that paying proper attention to the case would mean giving up all of the other commitments John had made for the pair of them. This was working out even better than he had hoped.
John sighed in defeat and Sherlock wondered if a sweeter sound existed. Well, John laughing, perhaps, or John saying, "Brilliant" or "Fantastic" or "Sherlock." John looked steadily up at him and said, "Meaning, you're off the hook for the Yard party and Vee's do and whatever Harry and Clara've got planned. But only until you've solved this, mind. And no dragging this out."
Sherlock did not even try to hide his delight at being freed from all social obligations. "Excellent," he said briskly, rubbing his gloved hands together.
Once again, John surprised him; Sherlock had barely classified the glint in John's eyes as wicked before John was charging ahead. "Yes, you have always enjoyed undercover work, haven't you? And there's really only one place you'll be at the centre of the action and yet inconspicuous," he said, smiling. Sherlock followed the direction of his gaze to take in the flourishing gift-wrapping station, already doing brisk business, its banner promising Service with a Smile!
"Posh git," Sherlock heard distinctly from behind him, and he knew, before he could even work out how he knew, that it had been Belinda who'd made the comment.
"Belinda," he said without turning around, hearing her sharp gasp with some satisfaction, "do you require yet another demonstration of how to shape ribbon into curls?" That had been rather fun, one scissor blade trapping a thin length of ribbon against the meat of his thumb, the sound like a silken zipper as the edge rearranged the basic structure of the material – John knew so many useful things.
"N-No," Belinda stammered, and Sherlock smiled smugly. He felt the smile drop off his face when he turned to see Lestrade, wide-eyed, standing in front of his station, clutching a beautifully bound sketchbook like it was a lifeline.
"What the hell –" Lestrade sputtered, then nearly choked himself with laughter. "Tell me, what's the one gift John wants most? Because I'm getting it for him, possible bankruptcy be damned. Vee will understand. In fact –" he held up his phone, and Sherlock, trapped behind the counter with smiling and chattering women hemming him in, could do nothing but plaster his most disfiguring grimace on his face while Lestrade snapped a picture "– this snap might go down better than a sketchbook."
"And every hour brings further proof of your lack of imagination," Sherlock sniped. "You've been married for twenty-three years, meaning your wife has received no fewer than seventy sketchbooks from you. It must be tiring, don't you think, for her to keep feigning enthusiasm?"
"Oi, shut your face. She bloody loves the sketchpads. Says they're useful and it makes her happy to know I think she can fill them up so fast." Sherlock just levelled a sardonic gaze at him and watched the DI wilt. "Bloody hell, alright then, what should I be getting her? And don't say jewellery – any South Indian woman worth her salt would laugh till she choked at the stuff they sell in the shops round here."
Sherlock didn't let himself squirm, despite the uncertainty creeping down the back of his collar. He'd met Vee a handful of times and she'd been so manifestly unimpressed with him that he'd deleted everything about her except the affectionate way she spoke with John; his sketchbook deduction had nothing to do with her and everything to do with his knowledge of her husband. He could hardly suggest that Lestrade prop John up in a corner of their flat, tinsel twined around him, a big red bow perched at a jaunty angle on top of his head. Still, he could extricate himself from the situation fairly easily. "She'll know the idea came from me," he pointed out, pitching his voice more as dubious than triumphant.
Lestrade's best-of-the-lot status did not stand him in good stead. "True," he said, "but wrap this up for me anyway. Don't want to break tradition."
"Here we are," John said, pivoting so that Sherlock could see the large red mouth, sly hint of a pink tongue peeking between the lips, that adorned his "Kiss the Cook en français" apron. The scents of onion and dill rose from two plates, and Sherlock didn't miss that John made no bones about handing him the plate with the higher mound of risotto. It seemed that John was settling in for a new kind of war.
Sherlock considered his options; he needed to keep his energy up in order to cope with the hordes of idiots who came to his counter, vacant-eyed and spouting clichés, but he had not forgotten the necessity of staging a reprisal for the way John had manoeuvred him into working at that ghastly store while surrounded by half-wits.
John was watching him closely, not yet relaxing and enjoying his own dinner. Just to lull the enemy into complacency, Sherlock smiled and dug in.
Sherlock took one look at the ice-blue polish adorning the woman's fingernails and sighed disgustedly, pushing her wrapped package across the counter. "You haven't yet worked out that your new shag is your half-brother, I suppose, or else you wouldn't be buying him fuzzy handcuffs and massage oils. Do take care to make sure your contraception is up to date."
The woman stared at him, open-mouthed, and Sherlock reviewed the evidence: the man who had come in earlier that morning with the same shade of nail varnish on his jeans had had fleshy earlobes and a cleft chin to match hers, never mind that she was mixed-race and he was not.
The woman continued to stand there, dumbfounded – not a long trip for her to make – and Sherlock had a sudden suspicion that John would have said something along the lines of "that wasn't kind" or "a bit not good." Trying to banish his inner John Watson had always been a futile endeavour, but he tried again. John tapped his foot, so Sherlock pasted on a smile. "Happy Christmas," he tried, and the woman's face crumpled as she dashed away, the gaily wrapped package shoved unceremoniously into her voluminous handbag.
No wonder most people were so stupid – they had jobs that not only rewarded them for ignorance but crushed their will to live. He hadn't been able to follow up on checking the security cameras aimed at the three sections of the store he'd deemed the most likely starting-points for the terrorists' plans; Harrods' own security was quick enough to prevent him from walking around the store when he "should be working," but he severely doubted their ability to be useful should matters come to a head. Frustrated, he shook his head and resigned himself to another shift behind the counter with the dregs of humanity.
"Sir?" one of the women said timidly. He quite enjoyed being able to deduce everything about his co-workers and customers, secure in the knowledge that they didn't even know his name. He flicked his eyes up from the twelve-pointed star he was constructing from ribbon for a large box's finishing touch to look at the woman. A girl, really, nineteen and working to save money to escape the overcrowded misery of her home. "Sir, could you show me how to do that, please?" She spoke in a whisper, and Sherlock considered her fingers, which were small and free from the papercuts that littered the other women's hands.
"Certainly," he said, deftly securing the star to the wrapped box. She was a quick study, and Sherlock nearly smiled until he recalled that there was one security camera sure to be pointed at the wrapping counter. He had a reputation to maintain.
"Your child has been flushing away his medication," Sherlock pointed out to a man who had approached his counter trying to wrangle his son into step beside him while also juggling a horrifying selection of cheap-looking lingerie festooned with lace in patterns too gaudy to be plausible. Obvious: teenage son – chewing gum open-mouthed with nearly bovine stupidity, trying to shut the world out with a blaring iPod – failing to cope with his father's new wife, determined to feel as miserable as possible. Open and shut.
"What did you say?" the man asked.
"I believe you heard me properly, despite the decibel level of the noise issuing from your son's earbuds."
"How –" The man interrupted himself and eyed his son; the boy finally registered the attention and raised an eyebrow. The man seemed unable to speak, and the boy turned his back and lost himself in his music once more.
"He resents your recent remarriage," Sherlock said helpfully, pushing a tiered stack of festive gift boxes across the counter. "Not to worry, though. Your wife will be running off with the plumber soon enough."
"Last chance," John said, heading out of the door with the collar of his deplorable jacket turned halfway up. He carried a wrapped bottle of champagne in one hand and a potted pepper plant hugged against his body.
Sherlock let his raised eyebrow speak volumes, which John somehow understood without even looking over at him. "Vee and Lestrade throw a hell of a party," he coaxed, as if Sherlock had any interest in such mundane amusements. Sherlock jutted his chin at the ceiling and didn't bother to dignify that with even a silent response. "Do you need me here, to talk over the case?" John asked, bending to set the bottle down.
Sherlock turned his way again and smiled. "No, go. You'll be missed if you don't."
"You too," John said, managing to sound truthful, and just before he fell asleep, Sherlock realised that John had been speaking of his own feelings.
He woke when John unlocked the front door and sat up to take in the sight of his flatmate creeping quietly in, his face covered in lipsticked kisses. "Don't tell me that a roving gang of amorous women sprang up in your vicinity," Sherlock said dryly, vigorously scrubbing a hand against his scalp.
"Haven't had that problem since before the war," John said, not quite able to quash the incipient hilarity in his tone.
"Are you drunk?"
"So close," John mumbled, heading for the sofa to sit so he could remove his shoes. "They were, though."
"The women who attacked you were drunk?" Sherlock clarified, though he knew very well from his long-standing observation of John Watson out and about that a woman could be stone-cold sober and still be very aware of his many charms. "Dare I ask if the Maenads left your virtue intact?"
John sat straight up at that. "Why were you reading my Greek mythology texts?"
"Why do you have Greek mythology texts?" Sherlock countered. John pulled the eyebrow trick on him, and Sherlock surrendered. "Very well. A customer came in and bought a set of reproductions of classical busts and could not tell Athena from Aphrodite and –"
"You just had to say something?" John guessed, eyes closing wearily. "Does it have to be your business to educate every idiot you come across?"
"It's more of a calling than a job," Sherlock said, and John started giggling. "Wash your face before you smear your pillows with that revolting stuff," he added, nudging John's hip with his own.
"Yes, Mum," John cracked, then staggered off to bed.
"Mike!" Sherlock called, diverting him from the queue he'd been in to Sherlock's. There had been less demand for Sherlock's services once it had been made known that he deduced the life history of everyone who came in front of him, waiting for him to wrap their gifts. Sherlock had first been pleased by the accuracy of the conclusions he was drawing, then bored as his brain was deprived of the stimulation deducing customers provided. He'd tried to make his deductions silently then, but had apparently managed to discomfit the customers with his "creepy" eyes and intense manner.
Mike ambled over. "All right, Sherlock?" he asked. "Working to save against that marvellous present you're getting me – a cruise for me and Sharon, and a promise to look after Matt and Gwen while we're gone?"
"Hardly, though that is admirably specific."
"Well, you owe me a big one, don't you, given that I found John for you."
"You did no such thing," Sherlock argued, neatly sidestepping the point Mike thought he was making. "You simply heard the same phrase twice in a day and, possessing a better short-term memory than one of your students, whose stupidity is quite frankly legendary, you facilitated a meeting."
"A meeting with John," Mike insisted, apparently believing that to be his trump card. Sherlock chose not to argue.
"Hand it over," he said instead, and found himself confronted with robes and fuzzy slippers and jumpers too fluffy even for John. "How revolting," he said, and Mike turned alarmingly pink as he quivered with laughter.
"No arguing with my in-laws' requests," Mike noted ruefully.
"Dump your children on them while you take Sharon on the cruise yourself, and you might never be troubled by her parents again," Sherlock pointed out, and Mike's round, rubicund face went rather devilish; it was the first time Sherlock had been able to believe any of John's stories about the notorious prankster Stamford had been. He'd deduced John's capacity for innocent villainy long before, of course.
"Can you not come to the store tomorrow and observe while I'm trapped behind that wretched counter?" Sherlock asked, watching John pick delicately at the utensils piled haphazardly on the table, searching for his favourite spoon; he prudently did not mention that the spoon had melted out of shape and was currently in the bin.
"I'm meeting up with Harry and Clara tomorrow," John reminded him patiently.
"They like me," Sherlock said, then wished he had said no such thing; if it were no longer true, now that he'd returned from his presumed death, he didn't want to know.
John hummed non-committally and continued his search. "I'll suggest it," he offered, and Sherlock smiled and filled the kettle himself.
"Stop talking about me like I'm Batman," John said, voice low but clear, and Sherlock heard answering giggles coming from Clara and Harry, half an octave apart.
"Bam! Kapow!" Harry mocked, and John rolled his eyes even while his grin threatened to split his face.
"No queue for you? Shocking, that's what that is," John said sardonically, heaping purchases on the counter in front of Sherlock. "This one's for Mrs. Hudson, so purple ribbon if you've got it. This is for Sarah – she favours light blue. And –"
"Yes, I can name the recipient of each box of chocolates and china figurine in your shopping bag," Sherlock interrupted. "What were you discussing?"
"A man knocked me nearly into a cookware display, turned pale when he heard John protest, and said, 'Captain' before scarpering like the hounds of hell were after him."
Clara's recitation of the facts was not exaggerated; had it been, John would have gone pink and protested. "Did you recognise the man?"
"Not yet." John was watching his hands, so Sherlock picked up the pace a bit, folding and tucking frenetically, not omitting the panache.
"Odd," he said, pushing the stack of gifts, paper and ribbons and bows all gleaming expensively, back toward John.
"Will you be home for dinner tonight?" John asked, missing Clara and Harry signalling behind his back at Sherlock, who gathered that they wanted him to put a blue jumper similar to the one being wrapped by Erin, standing next to him, on hold for John.
One nod answered all three of them, and Sherlock whistled a bit as they left. He had some thinking to do.
Sherlock spent his ten-minute "cigarette break" wandering through the store, hitting the strategic points he had earlier identified, one of which was cookware. Under the guise of straightening out the display Clara had inadvertently jostled, he scoured the premises and was rewarded by the sight of a small square of paper dropped by the fool who had drawn John's attention and ire.
The paper was soft with damp – sweat, obviously – and had a cipher printed on it. One glance was enough to tell him that he was not facing any dangerous criminal masterminds; the code was a simple alphanumeric shift that laid out the depressingly facile "plot" in terms that could be understood even by third-form dropouts who must, Sherlock assumed, make up the bulk of the organisation. They had even managed to bungle the dry run, after all, so there was little chance that they would be able to formulate a new, successful plan in the few days remaining until Christmas.
Sherlock sighed, not quite wishing that the terrorists had been sharp and competent, but definitely regretting the hours he had spent listening to terrible Christmas music and enduring the increasingly desperate come-ons of Erin. He stepped outside the store, where the smell of smoke in the air made him crave a cigarette rather desperately. He turned his back on the cluster of people enjoying their nicotine and called Lestrade. "They're idiots," he said in lieu of identifying himself or saying hello.
"Who isn't?" Lestrade asked, missing whimsical by a mile. Sherlock heard a heartfelt sigh. "Fine, I'll bite. Who're the idiots you're talking about?"
"The so-called 'terrorists' you sent me to stop. Their plot is so feeble-minded –"
"Wait!" yelped Lestrade. "Christ, let me get the boss on the line at least. Doesn't matter what you think of their effort – that they're making one at all is what counts. Hold on, would you?"
"If it means I can be free of this hellhole, then yes, I will," Sherlock said, quite politely, he thought. He explained the whole plot – several times – to Lestrade's superiors, and only once it was just Lestrade on the other end of the line did he let his disdain for their collective intelligence show in his tone. "It could not have been simpler," he fumed.
"There, there," Lestrade said rather snarkily, and Sherlock wondered how often he had wanted to snap at the higher-ups and demand that they rub their brain cells together to make a thought. "Thanks, Sherlock. Thanks to you we know their plan, and thanks to John we've got eyes on one of them, who should lead us straight to the others."
Sherlock stopped his restless pacing, stopped feeling the wind knife into his skin. "John?"
"Yeah, came in and told me about the prat who bumped into him and called him 'Captain.' Obviously someone who knew John from the army, someone of lower rank. Got a good description from John, got him on the phone with Vee, who drew a sketch that led us right to the man: Percy Phelps, 41, of Primrose Hill. Not bad for a day's work."
"None of which you did yourself," Sherlock noted acerbically, and Lestrade had the grace to laugh.
"Why bother, when I've got all the consultants I need?"
Sherlock wended his way through Harrods one final time, picking up gifts as he went: remastered Maria Callas CDs for Mycroft, a pair of shoes with decent traction for Lestrade, a seed-pearl bracelet for Mrs. Hudson. And for John, who had consigned him to this terrible shop and then bought him a few days' grace, little things that would make him smile: silverware that matched his lost favourite spoon, that pink shirt Sherlock had spotted the first day, a finely tooled leather wallet, and a dozen other useful items that John would never remember to buy for himself.
He paid and then hauled the goods back to the wrapping counter. His fingers flew as he shrouded the gifts in mystery, festooned with carefully curled ribbon, and made them look picture-perfect. He put the finishing touches to the pile, a sigh of satisfaction escaping him as he taped into place his last bow.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think.