How is she? MH Sherlock eyed the text, furious at his own ignorance. How would he know how Irene was doing – how John was doing – when he had seen no more than Irene prone in John's arms, bleeding away his child? Though from the research he had done, it seemed that a miscarriage indicated that the embryo was not viable; his and John's ideas of mercy still never perfectly aligned, but surely a miscarriage was kinder than a terminal disease, as there was a reason for it.
Sherlock sat up abruptly and the laptop slid along his chest until one edge was pressed against the sofa back. Was Mycroft's text granting him permission to go to the Trauma Centre and present himself as a visitor? Sherlock had never bothered to retain the etiquette that Mycroft prized so highly, but he could not go wrong by following Mycroft's suggestion, surely?
The taxi ride was remarkably quick; presumably cabbies knew better than to dawdle or make small talk with passengers who named the Trauma Centre as their destination. He wondered if John had prepared the staff for his arrival, because no one protested or put up any ludicrous obstacles, and very soon he was at the doorway to Irene's room. She was lying in a hospital bed, the pale blue of her gown and the white of the sheets conspiring to make her look sickly, and her eyes were wide and wet. John's thumb was tracing her eyebrow with unbearable tenderness, and her eyes gazed only at him, as if he were enough to fill the field of her vision.
"Darling," John said quietly, his voice ripped to shreds even in that single word, and the tears brimming in her eyes spilled onto her cheeks.
It was unsettling, seeing Irene mute, and John was clearly not doing much better than Sherlock was, though his thumb moved down to pull the tears from her skin. It did not take John more than a minute to see that his hand was not enough, and he toed his shoes off and climbed into the bed beside her. That appeared to be what Irene wanted, for her shoulders softened and she curled into him, still sobbing silently, her breath panting against John's throat. His hands looked strong and certain against her back, but Sherlock could see John's own tears leaking out to drop into the dark cloud of Irene's hair. At least one must have touched her scalp because she flinched before winding her arm around his waist and drawing him still closer.
Sherlock watched for another three minutes but they did not stir or speak, and at last he left and texted Mycroft, skipping over what he had seen in favour of the notes he'd read from the chart on the clipboard at the end of her bed.
Miscarriage complete, no foetal tissue remaining: no surgery or medication deemed necessary. SH
The reply took some time, as if Mycroft had typed, deleted, typed, and considered before sending a response. John will need you. MH
There was nothing he could do – he could neither turn back time nor command the next embryo to be of finer mettle and develop healthily. In any case, John with a child was a vastly different prospect than John on his own, or even John with a girlfriend who had made it clear that she was tethered to him. If John wanted a child, then Sherlock would not stand in his way, but he had never heard John express such a desire, and perhaps the whole situation had arisen from faulty prophylactics or a missed dosage of birth control.
I will do the needful. SH
It was like being in a sensory-deprivation tank, being in the flat without John's face to look at or Irene's voice to hear. It had been odd to see Irene looking so drawn, John not much better, arms tight around each other's waists and soft-sided bags at their feet, waiting for the taxi to take them to King's Cross for the train to Edinburgh. Odder still to realise that if Irene had spoken at all since she'd lost the embryo, it had been only to John, most likely in no more than a dispirited whisper.
Sherlock had thought that it might be restful to have the flat entirely to himself, with Lestrade tied up with the trial and John and Irene visiting the place where John had been born and lived for eight years, but it was disconcerting. Even studying the first of the ash samples procured by his homeless network had failed to soothe him.
He pushed his stool back from the worktop, switching off the light on the microscope. A cup of tea was what John would most likely prescribe, so he filled the kettle and opened the cupboard. A row of shining jars of honey lined up like soldiers confronted him, and he took them down, one by one, and sampled their contents again. Such a variety, all from a single natural product. Perhaps bees should be his next area of close study.
No – hold that thought. He owed John better than that.
John had said not one word about Irene being pregnant, not even displaying any of the subconscious gestures of pride or ownership that the male of the species had found useful in warning away rivals; John had not known that he had got her with child. And while some of that was no doubt due to Irene's irregular menstrual cycles – Sherlock had not been able to perform his experiment on her due to that irregularity – at least some of the blame had to fall squarely on Irene, who had not seen fit to tell John that she was gravid. The only logical conclusion was that John had not been trying to impregnate her; thus, if John persisted in having inadequate protection when embarking upon sex with a woman who could not be trusted to remember her birth control, he was in danger of finding himself saddled with a child sooner or later.
There had been something in one of the chemistry journals on the bookshelf – a journal whose ownership he could no longer remember, though surely only John was technophobic enough to persist in keeping paper copies of scientific discoveries? – about measures to reduce reproduction. Finding the article would be a good start, and surely in the ten days that the flat was his he could devise a fool-proof spermicide; as a chemical problem, it was fascinating, and as a favour for a friend, it would be invaluable.
He spent a happy day and a half going through the journals stacked on the shelves and then several of John's medical texts, making a list of the materials he would need to procure and formulating theories. He made himself eat while waiting for Laurel to deliver the items on his list, cooking scrambled eggs, just for the irony.
His phone buzzed with a text message just as he had shovelled the last of the meal into his mouth. Surely John was not tearing himself away from Irene to ask a mundane question about how Sherlock was "keeping"? He picked up the mobile, surprised to see Mycroft's initials at the end of the message; Mycroft still preferred to speak rather than text, but perhaps he was in a meeting of deadly dullness.
She's insisting upon making a farewell visit. Noon tomorrow at 221B? MH
Not a dull meeting, then, but a painful one.
She is horrid. Don't bring her here. SH
The response was so prompt that Sherlock knew his brother had had it typed up and ready to send.
Better whilst John & Irene are away; at least they will escape. I will arrange for lunch. MH
At least if Mycroft were there, he would not have to cope with her entirely on his own.
Wretched woman. SH
Mycroft was too polite to agree, but it might relieve his feelings simply to read the words and know the condemnation to be unassailably true.
He needed a supply of sperm, of course, but had not included it in the list he'd composed, thinking he could simply produce what he required, though the news that that woman would be descending on his flat on the morrow was enough to make an already unappealing task downright arduous.
He stripped off and sat on the edge of his bed, sample cup in hand. The bathroom would have been more sanitary, but the chill of porcelain against his bare skin would drag the process out even further. Tugging at the length of his disinterested penis did nothing. Fingering his testicles felt uncomfortable and put a lead weight in his stomach. How did people – stupid, ordinary people – do this so often? No, John did it too, or had done before Irene had come along to offer her services. How would John do this? He was left-handed, but shot with his right, though that presumably had more to do with his training than his natural inclination. Still, the upshot was that John was functionally ambidextrous – lovely – and with that Sherlock found his skin heating up just a bit.
John had the strong, deft hands of a surgeon, and his touch would be steady and firm; when Sherlock tightened his grip, there was a little tingling sensation in his toes. John would most likely make some sort of sounds while he was engaged in this pastime, but at the memories of what he'd heard when John had coupled with Anna and with Irene, Sherlock found his own interest flagging. John with a woman was of no interest, and neither was the thought of John with him, perhaps because it was so clearly a fiction. John had no desire to touch him carnally, to worship him with his body, and Sherlock had found far better uses for John anyway. John was there to admire, to inspire, to chide, to feed, to contribute. He was Sherlock's to love, and that was that; there was nothing either of them could do to change that, and Sherlock had no intention of making an attempt. John might reach out and touch Irene at every opportunity, but he'd never offered himself to Sherlock less than whole-heartedly either; Sherlock had been the one to run away, while John had stayed steady.
John was a wonder, he thought as the friction grew bearable and then pleasant, and he finally filled the cup.
The other materials he needed had been left outside his door by the briskly efficient Laurel and he got to work, smiling in satisfaction as a compound with the key ingredient of vanadium, an easily-sourced element, was innocuous with respect to the delicate membrane of each sperm cell – which indicated that it would be similarly gentle with ova – but rendered the sperm entirely ineffective simply by snapping off their tails and making them, practically speaking, immotile .
There. He had produced what John needed, and now he could focus his energies on a more theoretical project while he waited for the bulk of his ash samples to reach him. Sherlock settled down on the sofa with John's laptop and started reading about honeybees.
Sherlock was glad, when he opened the door and saw the fine lines of strain on Mycroft's face, that he had shaved and dressed carefully that morning. The flat was far from immaculate, of course, but the building was old and couldn't be expected to be pristine; in any case, he was the likely focus of his mother's criticism, not his flat.
"Hello, Mummy," he said, politely enough to have won even John's approval. He simply nodded at his brother, recognising that neither of them was adequately armed, but perhaps they could shield each other. It would have been nice for that to be habit rather than a new development, but he trusted that Mycroft would play along.
"Good day to you, Sherlock," she said, marching into the flat as if she had every right to be there, the spiked heels of her shoes creating little divots in Mrs. Hudson's floors. Her silk scarf, taupe and turquoise, fluttered behind her as she moved in a cloud of perfume. He had never seen her dressed for comfort, or known the scent of her unperfumed skin, but still he wondered for whom she'd crafted her appearance. Surely she wasn't craning her neck to find John?
"Would you like some tea?" he offered, stepping back accommodatingly. He'd cleaned the kitchen table and the coffee table in the living room, but his mother frowned disapprovingly at both spaces, as if he should have somehow imported a grand dining room into his flat prior to her arrival.
"Presumably luncheon will not be on time?" She sat gingerly on the edge of the sofa. "Really, Sherlock, this flat is most uncomfortable and awkwardly situated."
"I don't find it so," he answered, throwing himself into one of the chairs and resting his elbow on the thick, neatly folded blanket that covered one arm, which had most recently been wound around a deeply slumbering John to make what Irene gleefully called "a little John-burrito." He caught her eye, the better to impress upon her that she was the guest, and an unwelcome one at that. "John and I have been most happy here."
She was never nonplussed for very long, damn her. With that characteristic, abominable quickness, she struck; unerringly, she put her finger on his weakest points and pushed. "Though you've not been here for quite as long as he has, have you? I did hear that you put the poor man through one of your little games." She turned to Mycroft, who'd sunk helplessly into the other club chair, and included him in her condemnation. "And you wanted to play the benevolent prince, did you not? You thought you would swoop in and take your brother's leavings."
"John has been a good friend to both of us," Mycroft answered with more poise than Sherlock was capable of mustering at the moment.
"Useful, too," she probed, "in taking care of the menial tasks." Her fingers glided along the coffee table and rubbed for dust. "Though you should simply hire someone to clean, Sherlock, as your brother does. Servants are much happier and more reliable when they know their pay depends upon the quality of the service they provide." As if Portia Holmes had ever been known for the fairness of her payments or the contentedness of her servants.
"John is on holiday this week," he said, and Mycroft understood enough from his glance to satisfy himself about the destination.
"It appears that John has been on holiday from you for several months now," his mother said, a ghastly satisfaction evident in every syllable, and Sherlock had never understood why she resented them so, except that they had been got upon her by their father, whose skirt-chasing was matched only by the mediocrity of his intellect. "There is no end to the signs that he has brought a lover here to share the flat you call yours. I am surprised you have allowed him so loose a leash."
At that moment, he hated her with such volcanic fury that imagining her throat under his fingers actually lessened his rage. Mycroft, too, had been startled into stillness, but without reaching out or making it obvious what he was doing, he diverted her attention neatly. Clever Mycroft, for knowing how to use her self-absorption against her.
"Mummy, you've not told us how long you'll be away this time. Has Jean-Louis already gone ahead to open the house and rouse the other servants?"
But she'd scented blood in the air and had no intention of relinquishing her advantage. "Mycroft," she said, as though surprised to see him, "I beg your pardon for assuming you'd been as idle as always. I'm most interested in hearing about the young lady you're courting; I do hope you're more delicate about these matters than your father was wont to be."
For all that he'd resented Mycroft for years – a resentment whose fires had been carefully stoked by his mother, he now realised – he had never once done him the disservice of comparing him to their father. Atherton Holmes had been at best a middle-manager who thought he was top dog, ruthlessly coercing every woman who'd acted as his personal assistant into sexual degradation under the pretence that they were serving a patriot whose only concern was the safety of his nation.
Why had he never put it together before – their father's unsavoury reputation overcompensated for in Mycroft's determined self-effacement with Amy Wilmot? Sherlock knew that Mycroft had never spoken to her of it, but John was certain that Mycroft had loved her, evidently enough not to disrupt the delicate professional balance they had achieved. Their parents had much to answer for, and he wished mightily for his mother to drop dead right there and free them from her noxious presence.
"Her name is Mary Morstan," Mycroft said pleasantly, and it took Sherlock, still wrapped up in thoughts of the enigmatic Amy, a moment to catch on to what his brother was doing; Amy's name would never be spoken in their mother's presence, but Mary was evidently fair game. "We have been corresponding with some frequency. In fact, you could be of service to me, Mummy; I'd value your advice on some small keepsake I could send her, to distinguish myself from her other suitors. Perhaps we could discuss it over lunch? I believe our table will be ready by the time we arrive."
"God," Mycroft groaned as he sank into the sofa, as if just thinking about Mummy had caused his bones to regress to their childhood softness. "That was wretched."
Sherlock knew a cue when he heard one and decided he could follow it gracefully just this once. He set a cup of tea and a jar of the tulip poplar honey that Mycroft favoured – as much for its dark complexion as its mild flavour – in front of his brother and sat down with his own sugared tea and curled his legs under him.
"I had forgotten how very effective she can be. It would be admirable, were it not . . ." he trailed off, uncertain how to express that admiring his mother's keen observational skills and quickness of tongue did not connote approval of her words or instincts.
"Were it not that she quite obviously does not intend her statements to act as a 'public service'?" Mycroft said dryly, raising his cup to his lips and hiding his face behind it.
Sherlock swallowed his own tea and considered the case of his brother. "Are you really so cavalier about your burgeoning relationship with Mary Morstan that you were willing to speak of her with Mummy, or was that a slip?" The skin around Mycroft's eyes tightened minutely, so Sherlock breathed out a sigh that at least sounded aggravated. "Must you be reassured that you are neither Father, with his tawdry liaisons, nor Mummy, frozen after her first disappointment? Very well, you are neither. That still does not explain what Ms. Morstan is to you."
"A pleasant diversion," Mycroft murmured. "She has no intention of being tied down to a single relationship while her voice and beauty last, and I – it is quite restful, acting the doting suitor."
"Trinkets, chocolates, and flowers?" Sherlock asked scornfully; what use were any of them, if not as currency to buy her into a monogamous bed?
"Tokens of appreciation for her talent," Mycroft gently corrected his train of thought. "This way, there is nothing expected of me."
But that would not be enough for Mycroft, who had burnt for Amy, using that passion to fuel the work he did, evidently sublimating his desire into unassailable competence. Amy had left nothing behind to sustain Mycroft after all – not a memory of sweetness shared, or even a photograph or message. Sherlock looked at his brother, whose eyes were down, studying the depths of his teacup, and found he had no words after all.
"Do not trouble yourself," Mycroft said, thoughtful as if he realised there truly was nothing to be done.
Sherlock eyed him narrowly, then got up and pulled the bovine head away from the wall and let the leather case that Lestrade had never found on any of his drugs busts slip free. Its weight felt comforting in his hands, but he stalked back to Mycroft and set it in front of his brother.
"I've no use for trinkets either," he said, and Mycroft nodded, wordlessly accepting the latest responsibility handed to him.
Mrs. Hudson was sitting at a table off to one side, though apparently not out of the way, given how excitedly she was beckoning him over. There was a pot of fragrant tea and a small assortment of fairy cakes in front of her. Sherlock slapped his own sandwich and coffee down on the table and sat opposite her.
"Such a treat, isn't it, eating something you didn't have to make and you don't have to clear away after?" she whispered conspiratorially, then seemed to recall whom she was addressing. "Well, it's good to see you getting out, even if it is only next door. When are the lovebirds due back?"
"This evening," he answered, comprehending that she foresaw no discord between them; he had been given to understand that a holiday was often the catalyst for sowing discontent between couples, though of course he did not wish any such outcome for John. "I've much to do before he returns."
"You might want to do the shopping, love, so they've got enough for a snack when they get back." He waved her off with one hand, hoisting his mug with the other. "Well, I'm sure I've something that could hold them over in a pinch."
"Good day, Mrs. Hudson," he said, exiting Speedy's. He took an efficiently large bite of his sandwich as he walked down the street, heading for the tobacconist to purchase cigarettes manufactured in the Iberian Peninsula in order to begin the latest round of his ash experiment.
His coat was scented with the smoke of a wide variety of cigarettes, a deeply comforting smell. It was too bad he would have to drop the coat at the cleaners before John got up in arms about the damage he was doing to his health, though he hadn't smoked a single one. He texted Katya to ensure that his coat would be cleaned within a few hours and dropped it off on his way home, walking from York Street to Baker Street.
There was a scent in the air of the flat, something sweetly fragrant, and he followed his nose to the table between the picture-windows in the living room, upon which rested a plain glass vase of pleasing proportions that held a cluster of heavy blossoms on strangely fragile-looking stems. Peonies, he recognised: John's favourite for the heady scent and the profusion of petals, riotous rather than spare.
Sherlock dashed up the stairs. As per his orderly habits, John would be unpacking now, and when engaged on such mindless tasks, he tended to chat quite freely. Sherlock wanted to hear John's observations on how Edinburgh had changed since he'd moved from there in his boyhood and wanted to report on the progress he had made, both with tobacco ash and with that spermicide.
The door was halfway shut, and he saw before he heard the low laughter they shared as they shared breath: John, sitting up, his back against the curved slats of his headboard, with quite a respectable growth of dark beard on his face and a look of pure joy illuminating his features. Irene, equally naked, was on his lap, hair caught up in a hasty knot that left her back – shaped rather like the generous and elegantly curved sweep of a violin – bare for John's fingers. John's thumbs were greedily slipping forward, though it was unclear whether he was reaching for her nipples or hefting the weight of her breasts. The movements of their hips were smooth and economical, just tight arcs that ground out slowly, and seemed to afford them both immense pleasure, heightened when their mouths met.
The soles of her feet were rosy pink, he saw, noting that all four sets of toes were pointed directly at him though neither John nor Irene noticed his presence. The hair on her legs and underarms had grown – evidently neither she nor John had thought to pack a razor or buy one in Scotland – and the discarded clothes strewn indiscriminately on the floor were old and rather worn, which meant that neither had splurged on expensive fashions for the other. Their bags stood open at the foot of the bed, and he could see nothing unfamiliar in them, though a flash of gold from her new hoop earrings caught his eye.
The smell of sweat rose up as he saw John lean forward and nudge at one of her breasts with his nose, saw the soft pink swipe of his tongue underneath the weight pillowed on his cheek. The noises of John's mouth on her skin were drowned out by the moans rippling up from her throat, lengthened by the way she tossed her head back and arched her chest forward. Soon enough she was kissing her own sweat away from his mouth.
Sherlock could not swallow, felt his throat issue only dry clicks, and went downstairs for a cup of water. He fetched a glass but was stopped from turning on the tap by what he saw: in the sink were the ends of peony stems, snipped at forty-five degree angles, and the pair of scissors John had once used to cut his hair still lay on the worktop. The scent of the blossoms had permeated in the short time he'd been upstairs, and lingered in the air of the kitchen.
It was appalling that the English language had such a limited taxonomy for scents, and even fewer ways to discuss their effects. At what point in the flat would the smells of sweat and peonies mingle? How did that scent of sweat – the sweat John and Irene generated together from coupling – differ from his, or hers on her own, or what their bed would smell like after a night spent together but not touching when London sweltered?
It was a marvellous thing, knowing there was still so much to be discovered.
"I was out of my head when it happened, and I didn't say it – couldn't even think to say it – then. Thank you. For helping her, for getting your brother's people over here so quickly." John was wearing that black-and-white-striped thin jumper he'd got from Harry, and Sherlock knew better than anyone that the way it made him look young and vulnerable was a trick in the beholder's eye; John was a tower of strength, even with his freshly-shaved face still smarting and pink.
"Of course I would help her," Sherlock dismissed. "I found a way to help you as well." He handed John the pills of vanadium compound with a précis of their effect on the motility of sperm and left him to read it; Sherlock turned to the laptop, as if it were remotely possible that he could concentrate on the towering hexagonal structures honeybees built.
"Ah," John said, lifting his head and looking him squarely in the eyes. "This . . . Irene and I discussed this at length while we were away. But it does involve you, to a certain extent, so you should know. Her pregnancy was an accident – the birth control methods we were using were not fool-proof. After she miscarried, we talked about whether we wanted to be parents, and we've decided to try again."
"How does this involve me?" he asked, absently as though Apis mellifera were the only thing on his mind.
"Come off it," John said, and his gaze was compelling. "A child would mean big changes in our lives, and I want you to be prepared –"
"To come in second – no, third – to your wife and child? At least I am still ahead of your job." He very nearly clapped a hand over his mouth, shocked at what had tumbled out of it, and John's spine went taut, like it was liable to snap.
"I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you never learnt that the one who demands a choice be made is the one who doesn't get chosen." John's voice was slightly clipped but that was the only sign that his control was slipping. "I am capable of making – and honouring – commitments to several people at once. You should know that already, Sherlock; I'm no less your friend for having got Harry back into my life, and I'll be myself even if I do become a father."
John would be an ideal father, and surely as devoted a husband as he was a friend. There was still a challenge in his eyes, a distance growing as each second slipped by, and Sherlock rushed to answer it.
"I'll be here," he said, and John nodded as if he'd never doubted it. "If you are planning to propose to her, I can hide the ring," he offered, still scrambling to release the tension.
John laughed outright, ease in every line of him. "You're always my first choice for a partner in crime, but that's not in the cards," he said. "I can't see myself getting married, and Irene's not fussed about it either." His hand strayed to the pillbox. "Thanks for these. Vanadium's stable, so these should keep?" He made it a question with his voice, but Sherlock had judged John's pharmacological knowledge to a nicety and trusted his understanding enough to forebear from answering.
One hundred forty types of tobacco ash, neatly classified through data acquired through all sensory evidence, were listed on his website. He uploaded the last images and posted the key to the organisational principle with mingled feelings of relief and triumph. John brought home Indian takeaway, and whether he meant it as a celebratory meal or simply was seizing his opportunity to catch Sherlock when he wasn't working didn't matter, as Sherlock ate his fair share and most of John's as well.
There was nothing left for Irene, and John said, "Dress rehearsal," as if it were a reminder rather than new information.
"Meaning you'll be attending the opera tomorrow evening?"
"The premiere is in a few nights, and I believe that's the one they'll be filming for the Royal Opera House Cinema. You've got a ticket too, you know."
"No," John said. "But I'd have thought you'd like opera."
"I'll go unless there's a case," Sherlock bargained.
"I'm surprised Greg hasn't sent you anything. Suppose he must be busy with the trial."
"Hmmm," Sherlock agreed, wondering if he could bear another week without a case.
Irene played sorrow and rage and love even more convincingly as a woman than she had as an adolescent boy, and the role was well-suited to her vocal range. There were moments when her pitch was so low as to set a burr going in his bones, and Sherlock could see the effect on John was even stronger.
When Eurydice sang her delight in the triumph of love on her wedding day, Irene's hand caressed the very spot on Orpheus's chest where a bullet had torn into John, and John's hand stole up, lingering there as if he could feel her touch; Irene had said Eurydice was just herself, not the tenor of any grand metaphor, but it was clear that she saw a parallel between the myth she was singing and the life she was living with John. The twinned gestures forcibly reminded Sherlock that Irene had first known John whole and untraumatised, and that she did count herself lucky to have met him again, no matter how John judged himself wanting. Every successful act of mimesis had truth at its core, and perhaps she had felt her time without John to be a kind of death.
It was rather extraordinary how effectively she conveyed all of that to the audience that mattered most, he thought, closing his eyes to listen as her voice, buoyed by Orpheus's, wound darkly and sweetly through the hall, the words it shaped only coming clear later, when their full meaning had already been felt.
"Listen to this!" John's voice rang through the kitchen, rising with excitement. "I'm buying every copy of this paper I can find and I'm sending one to your mum if you don't do it first. 'Ms. Adler's dark tones suit the character splendidly; her Eurydice is endlessly alluring to her husband and to Death himself, though she raises her voice to assert her own agency. The peak of Eurydice's emotional maelstrom is expressed in the aria using poet and playwright Robert Browning's minor masterpiece , but there is no tame denouement following her demand that she bear an equal share of the weight of their intertwined fates. Though inescapably alone, this Eurydice's every gesture and note eloquently state that her love is wholly requited, a balancing act that the incandescent Ms. Adler achieves with talent to spare.'" John folded the corner of his newspaper to down to watch Irene's face flush. "Well, clearly, the man's in love with you. Requited?"
"But of course," Irene said, eyes cast demurely down as she settled her feet in John's lap. "I'm running off with him shortly. Ugh, if I could move."
"So my fiendishly clever plan of feeding you until you pop is already paying off." Sherlock could feel John's gaze land on him even as he watched John's hands set the newspaper down to knead Irene's feet. "Honestly, with the two of you it's like feast or famine around here at all times. If you ate when your body told you that you needed to, you'd feel even better."
"Feed me, Seymour ," Irene said, her voice a low rumble in her chest, and John couldn't keep a straight face and with that the lecture was done. She threw Sherlock a conspiratorial wink while John was still laughing, and Sherlock smiled and finished his tea and took the last biscuit from her plate.
His phone buzzed and he bent his head to read the text. It came from Mycroft's number, but he would have recognised the sender from the linguistic pattern anyway. "John, we've got a case. Have you –?"
"I'm all yours today," John said swiftly, "but I'm on shift starting at noon tomorrow. Give me five minutes to shower and get dressed."
"Where's Greg?" John asked as they walked toward the Diogenes Club.
"I've no idea. Now you mustn't speak a word once we're inside, and you should give me your phone now."
Trust John to look neither offended nor acquiescent. "Why?" he asked curiously.
"Because this is the Diogenes, and silence is the only acknowledged principle of the club," Sherlock answered shortly, pausing for a moment to strip the batteries from each of their mobiles before climbing the marble steps.
"How on earth are you going to solve a case when you can't ask any questions?"
"Observation is my guiding principle, John; surely it will not fail me now."
John's face broke into a wide grin and he laid one warm hand on Sherlock's arm and squeezed.
Before they could enter the building itself, a guard relieved them of their mobiles, then nodded to the doorman. Sherlock shuddered to think what photograph Mycroft would have left with the guard to grant him unfettered access, but it must have been done, because he and John did not have to break stride even once, and every dozen yards or so, another Diogenes employee was on hand to point the way to the scene of the crime.
They were shepherded to a third floor, up another long flight of carpeted steps. Instead of being divided into warmly-lit rooms filled with leather furniture, this floor was dominated by a row of small, independent cells that ran the length of the space. The effect was rather like that of the changing-room at the pool.
Sherlock pulled open the unlocked door to one and the inner door slid open to reveal a decent-sized room that looked rather like a bathtub, as all four walls, ceiling, and floor were made of a single piece of moulded black plastic. Tapping on the walls produced only a deadened thumping, strangely muffled, but by then some of the guards had clustered close by and were plucking fitfully at his sleeve to usher him farther down the row.
Cube number twenty-three was just the same, save for the corpse on the floor, sprawled in a way that suggested sleep rather than death. John had pushed through the crowd of attendants and was a solid, steady presence behind him, and Sherlock moved aside so that John could see the body too. John, clearly unsure of the institution's rules, made no move to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him, so Sherlock swept an arm around his waist and pulled him forward while simultaneously hitting the button to let the inner door slide shut. One squawk of protest was all he heard before both doors were in place, and a light set in the door clicked on once the door was securely shut.
"Finally," he said, releasing John and folding his hands together.
"Can we speak here?" John asked, hushed and intimate. The warmth of his body was insistent.
"Each of these cubes is a soundproof unit," Sherlock answered. "No doubt they are here so that a member of the club may check into one in order to make a telephone call or, in the case of Neanderthals whose lips still move when they read, to take care of other activities that might cause them to produce sound."
"So what was he doing? I don't see a mobile or a book or anything."
"First things first," Sherlock admonished. "What is the time of death, and what killed him?"
John stepped forward resolutely, squatting by the dead man without any apparent hesitation. He pulled a pair of nitrile gloves from his jacket pocket and slipped them on. John lightly traced over the dead man's features, palpated the throat, and probed the hinge of the jaw before lifting each arm and running his hands down the torso.
"Rigor mortis has started to set in: the eyelids, jaw, and neck are all stiff but the thorax is only halfway there. That would indicate that he's been dead for about five to six hours, but he's cooler than he should be. Are you sure this cube is airtight? There's got to be air circulating so that no one dies during an impromptu nap."
"Where would such a person sleep, John? There is purposely no furniture in here, the better to keep members from lingering too long."
"Still, there has to be some mechanism to get air in here. What if the locks malfunctioned and someone got trapped?"
"Are you suggesting that's what happened to the corpse? Mycroft would hardly send an urgent message requesting my presence if that were all."
John was silent for a moment. "Is Mycroft a member here?" he asked dubiously. "This place doesn't seem like it'd suit him."
"I believe he's a member for the political advantages more than anything else." Mycroft had no doubt seen the sense of following thus far in their father's footsteps, much as he must have hated doing so. "The corpse?"
"No, I don't think this was an accident," John said, a faint line marring his brow as he reached out to draw a finger along the man's throat. "Hang on." The jaw popped open with some prodding and a loud crack. "Definitely murder," John announced grimly, fishing something out of the throat. He held out his palm and offered the object up for Sherlock's inspection: a thick, pinkish-white slab roughly four inches long, ragged at one edge, rounded on the other three. "It's his tongue," John said. "He had to be dead when this was done, because severing the lingual artery alone would have been enough to flood his mouth with blood if he'd been alive."
"Also, there's no sign of struggle at all," Sherlock mused. "He didn't suffocate – he would have shown signs of distress and at least attempted to make for the door. Have you got another pair of gloves?"
John handed them over and stepped back. Sherlock pulled them on and knelt next to the body, examining the extremities first. There was an oversized watch on one wrist, an everyday item according to the grooves in the man's skin and the near absence of hair where the watch's broad face and speckled band customarily rested. No other jewellery was visible. The man had fair skin, blond hair, and – he lifted each eyelid to confirm the man had not had heterochromia iridis – eyes of pale grey. His features were unremarkable, and he was dressed conservatively in an off-the-rack blue suit, pale blue shirt, and grey-and-white paisley tie.
"Poison's out," he said, pleased when his peripheral vision caught John nodding without questioning. "No medication on the body, so no serious conditions. No disfigurement or evidence that his body tried to expel anything noxious."
Then he turned away from the body, directing his attention elsewhere. The floor of the cube curved gently into the walls; there were no corners or seams anywhere. But there were divots in the floor, pockmarks most likely made by slim heels. He ran his fingers over a few, but his fingertips were too broad to delve into them; when he raised his hand, there was nothing but a little dust on the tips of his glove.
"Come," he said, standing and stripping off the gloves. "We need to get Mycroft to make arrangements to transport the body and preserve the scene. John?"
John looked up at him with troubled eyes and held out his palm again. This time, the tongue was flipped over, and there were markings on the underside, as if it had been imperfectly tattooed.
"Keep that safe," Sherlock hissed, and John dropped it into one of the gloves he'd just peeled off and stuffed the whole bundle into his jacket pocket, then peered out innocently at the guards as if he were merely a lost tourist.
John seemed comfortable in Mycroft's office, and made a point of introducing himself to Laurel Travers. Mycroft closed the door to ensure their privacy and launched into his tale before Sherlock could ask a single question; given that Mycroft had been the one to distil Mummy's example into a few cogent lessons on observation for him, Sherlock felt secure that the relevant points would be covered.
"The Diogenes Club was founded over a century ago, at first to give less sociable men the benefits of a gentlemen's club. It has since become a hidebound shell of itself, its members boasting about its eccentricities rather than relishing the opportunity it affords for silence. It has become de rigueur for any rising Conservative politician to join, though of course only men with six generations of British landowners for ancestors are admitted. Because it is virtually a government front, we are empowered to keep this matter away from standard police channels; Sherlock, you will have to investigate this entirely on your own, without access to any autopsy report or crime-scene investigation other than what you conducted this morning. The body has already been destroyed and the scene will shortly be scrubbed."
"Can you not stop that?" John asked. "Being part of the government and all."
"I apologise for being unclear, John. There is no investigation into this murder, and Sherlock was simply poking around to satisfy his own rather infamous curiosity; it's well-known that he 'collects' odd deaths."
"Then there will be no report," John said slowly, trying to understand the implications. "You simply need to know, because –"
"Because the setting of the murder implicates other government officials, and Mycroft always has his finger on the pulse of the nation," Sherlock answered. "Who was he? One of yours?"
"No. I might have seen him before, though his youth suggests it must have been quite recently and I cannot recall an occasion at which I did not know all of my fellow attendees. Given that he was at the Diogenes, he must hold some truly minor position in our government."
Mycroft saw them out, murmuring a quiet word of thanks as they went, and Sherlock noted the faces of everyone who happened to pass him in the halls, storing them in his mental hard drive.
"What can I do?" John asked the moment they stepped back into 221B. "I'm sorry – I thought I'd have the chance to do more than a cursory examination of the body."
"My fault, for not warning you," Sherlock dismissed, then conceded, "though I expect that the killers were practised enough that we would not have discerned much from the body. Right now, you can make me a coffee and sketch the scene; your visual memory is quite good, and you might have remembered a detail lost to mine."
"Now, what are the odds of that?" John teased.
"Quite low, but it seemed churlish to ask only for coffee," Sherlock admitted, which seemed to cheer John immensely, enough that he opened a packet of those biscuits with a thick slab of chocolate on top of each one. The coffee came only a minute later.
"I'll try anyway," John said, and sat at the kitchen table and sketched. Before too long, his tongue was poking out of the corner of his mouth, as it had in those snaps Harry and Clara had brought over, and Sherlock watched his deft hands move over the paper with the grace of birds in flight, creating an image of what he'd seen that morning, another young life cut short. Sherlock laid a biscuit on his tongue and closed his eyes, the better to lock the picture of John away and start fresh.
He was working on the corpse's tongue, trying to decipher the cryptic markings, when John spoke up. "Why didn't you use one of my extra gloves to take the body's fingerprints?"
Sherlock looked up, surprised at both the ingenuity of the suggestion and the sound of another voice so close by. John had finished his sketch – workmanlike but unrevealing – and opened his laptop in order to run a search on methods for tattooing the tongue.
"Such a man's fingerprints wouldn't have been in the system," he answered; "can't have government officials of Mycroft's sort in files accessible to any plod on the force." He eyed John closely, from the bright crown of his head to the dingy soles of his socked feet. "Yours might well have been excluded as well; Mycroft has enough pull to have managed that, if he thought you'd need it."
John looked briefly displeased at the notion, and studying his face was more rewarding than trying to puzzle out lines on a dried tongue hacked out of a dead man's unresisting mouth. "It says here that you need to tattoo a tongue using a syringe instead of a needle," was John's only response. "Have you been able to make out what it says?"
"The ink was unevenly distributed, meaning that either it was in short supply or the tattoo artist was unaware of how evanescent his work would be. I can see 'VJI' at the beginning, but no more than that." Sherlock set down the tongue and his magnifying glass. "John, I need Irene's shoes – fetch them for me."
"Fetch them yourself," John said, settling contentedly into the sofa, then realised what he'd just said. "Wait, why do you need them?"
"I need to determine the force needed to create divots in a surface such as that cell. Bring her stiletto and kitten heels to the bathroom," he directed; their bathtub was older but quite similar to the interior of the Diogenes cells.
"She doesn't own any," John said rather smugly.
"Well, can she bring some home from the costume department?" Sherlock asked immediately. "Surely they would allow their rising star such an inconsequential request?"
"You'll have to ask her yourself," John said with finality. "You've no way of knowing if those divots have anything to do with this body – they could have been there long before."
"Mycroft specified that membership was open only to men."
"So maybe one of the men had a thing for strutting about in footwear designed for underweight women and went to that cell to indulge himself," John said tartly, with a quickness Sherlock found rather delightful.
His mobile rang just then, Sally Donovan's name appearing on the screen. "Detective Sergeant Donovan," he said, watching John's face resolve into a quizzical expression, "this is an unprecedented surprise. How may I assist you?"
"There's a body with all the fingers of one hand sawed off but nothing to indicate how the man died," she said warily, as though she expected him to rattle off a solution without even seeing the evidence.
"Minimal. I'll send a car."
"We'll take a cab. Send the address to my mobile." He'd rather have the professional quiet of a non-murderous cabbie than the idolatry or disdain of a Yarder. "Come, John – a new body for a new hour."
"Holmes," was what Sally said the minute his foot hit the ground, before John could emerge from the cab. Sherlock had determined to maintain a level of professional courtesy; if Sally didn't say Freak, he wouldn't say one word about either her personal or professional aspirations.
"Sally," he returned, hearing John chime in as well with a friendly greeting. "Are you going to lay it out for me?"
"I thought I'd let you do your bit, but hoped you might be persuaded to do it out loud," she said, looking at the tip of his nose, a time-honoured technique for looking at a person while avoiding the eyes.
"Ah, is it –?"
"TOWBAR , yes," she agreed, leading them over to the body, next to which stood Lestrade. Before they could get within earshot of the man, Sherlock grasped Sally's arm and pulled her to one side, and John naturally followed.
"I'm not going to repeat myself or slow down. If you wish to demonstrate your fitness for the rank of Detective Inspector, do so by attending to my words, following my observations, and understanding my conclusions."
She squared her shoulders and finally looked right at him. "I wasn't planning on daydreaming through your show," she said.
"Lestrade has the people skills, but you've got the makings of a first-class investigator. Now, watch and learn." He affected not to see the surprised look Sally shot John or the effect John's companionable shoulder bump had on her, and stalked off toward the body.
It was as clean and peaceful as the one at the Diogenes, another young man in a suit and tie looking as if he'd dropped into a deep sleep rather than an eternal one. All of the fingers on his right hand had been severed, marked, and replaced next to the palm as if they hadn't been detached. All of that suggested that this might be the work of the same murderer who had targeted the government official at Mycroft's club, but it was only when he picked up the severed thumb that he was sure of it. VJI was clearly inked on it.
"John," he called, and John came over, his lips tightening as he made the connection and realised that they couldn't tell Sally or Lestrade about the other body they'd examined; they would just have to hope that the second corpse provided strictly corroborative evidence upon which an investigation could be based.
"No footprints at the scene, not even the victim's, which means that care was taken to remove them, though this type of surface is difficult to mark without great force and there is a conspicuous lack of dust in the vicinity. The victim appears to have died peacefully, as there is no sign of struggle, discomfort, or injury. The only marks of violence – the severed fingers – indicate that the man was dead before the severing occurred."
Sally was nodding, not bothering to write any of it down, which meant that she'd worked out that much for herself; Sherlock was impressed.
"We will come to the letters on the fingers later. The victim is a white male, twenty-six to twenty-nine, six feet tall. Medium brown hair, medium brown eyes, medium build. No distinguishing marks or jewellery. Clothing – light grey suit, blue shirt, red-and-white striped tie – is undisturbed; the pockets have not been emptied or even searched. The shoes show minimal wear. In fact, nearly his entire outfit is new; he left one of the straight pins in his shirt cuff. The exception is his tie, which shows signs of having been laundered." Donovan at last made a disbelieving face, so Sherlock thrust the loose end of the tie at her and ordered, "Smell. The dry-cleaning chemicals are unmistakeable even when faint." Though she reared back a bit in surprise, she did inhale deeply, and nodded her affirmation.
"So, how did he die?" Sally asked, squatting next to him once more. "John, what's your medical opinion?"
John's knees cracked alarmingly as he squatted beside the body as well, and Sherlock glanced up at Lestrade, still looming over the proceedings, and thought that from above the three of them must look like birds on a telephone wire.
John pulled up the man's eyelids and palpated his throat. He sniffed at the man's lips and lifted his limbs. "I'd say he's been dead twelve to fourteen hours, but other than that, there's nothing here – it looks like his body simply stopped functioning and he laid down to die. As Sherlock said, no poison, no violence. No discolouration to indicate any kind of organ failure, and there's no sign of anguish or pain on his face in any case. Are you sending this one on to Molly?"
"Whoever's on duty at Barts," Sally demurred.
"Ask for Molly; she'll do you proud," John said. "She's sharp, that one."
"Surely part of the evaluation must be your ability to work with other professionals in order to best serve the people of London," Sherlock said, and Donovan's wry smile confirmed his deduction. "Have Molly fingerprint the other hand. The words on this one will be the key to cracking the case." He snapped several photographs with his mobile: a few of the body sprawled on its back and the rest of the severed digits. "We'll await your production of evidence."
"Good luck, Sally," John said, and she waved them off with a distracted smile, already absorbed again in the work.
VJI VSEOVUS OT VJI QMEHAI was what the digits said in simple block capitals. "Obviously, it's a code. First one to crack it –"
"Eats a proper meal," John said sternly, and Sherlock rolled his eyes while he connected his mobile to John's laptop. He uploaded the images, enlarging them to look for clues in the handwriting itself; he could give John an extra few minutes with the code and still beat him handily, if he wanted to sink to wordplay worthy of the heyday of John's terrible blog.
John resigned himself to pencil and paper, recognising he would not be able to wrest control of the laptop back, and set to work. The tang of graphite was a pleasant aroma, and lent a studious air to the living room. Sherlock curled up with the laptop braced against his thighs. The first and fourth words were the same, and the three-letter word that appeared most often in English sentences was the. Converting vji to the could be done if vowels and consonants were treated separately but each retreated one place in the alphabet. A few more minutes and he had the full phrase.
"Done," he said, and John ceased to scratch out another row of letters. "The phrase is the traitor is the plague. Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero, according to Google."
"That simple, was it?" John asked ruefully.
"Not quite so blatant as that Harrods code, as this one distinguished between consonants and vowels, the better to ensure reasonable placement of vowels in order to mimic uncoded language. Still, not nearly as clever as the murderer evidently believes; it should be a simple matter to determine the second victim's identity and who might have felt betrayed by him. Given what we know of the other victim, it stands to reason that the betrayals and murders have something to do with British government, possibly even spycraft."
"I hope you're as hungry as you are brilliant, because you're eating dinner tonight," John said, resting his feet on the coffee table next to his abandoned pad. "What do you want?"
"Leave it up to –" Sherlock said, hearing Irene's footsteps approaching.
"The next time I get a bright idea, just sit on me and make sure I can't put it into motion, please?" she asked, sighing dramatically and throwing herself down on the sofa next to John and sprawling all over him. A lock of her hair brushed across Sherlock's face, a most unpleasant sensation, as she ducked her head to kiss John's neck in greeting.
"Ah, darling, at least you have bright ideas," John said, matching her histrionics with his own, then smoothing her hair away from her face. "Come on, it's up to you to decide what we're eating tonight, and over dinner you can tell us all about your day and we'll tell you all about the serial killer we've been tracking."
"Targeting Americans?" Irene asked, eyes fixed on the image of the second victim lying flat on his back, staring sightlessly up at the sky.
"Why do you believe he was American?" Sherlock asked. She looked up at him, undoubtedly trying to assess his sincerity in asking. He schooled his face into an inquisitive expression, though the evidence clearly pointed to the victim being not only a Brit, but one entrusted with government secrets.
"His tie is striped the wrong way. American striped ties go like that" – she slashed the air with the side of her hand to indicate a diagonal from top left to bottom right, then switched to top right to bottom left – "but British ties go like this."
Sherlock, completely taken aback, looked over her head at John. "Is that true?"
John shrugged his shoulders. "Quite possibly," he said unhelpfully. "I'd trust her."
"That hideous tie you wore to Mycroft's office for the Bruce Partington case – was that striped?" Sherlock demanded. He'd not worn a tie himself since the last of his class pictures, hating the feel of anything other than the soft comfort of a scarf pressing against his throat.
"Just look it up; someone must have written a treatise on the subject," John said, smiling a bit at the look on Sherlock's face. "If you can write about one hundred forty types of tobacco ash, I guarantee that someone's posted something about stripes."
It didn't take him long to find it: a shop in America called Brooks Brothers had deliberately flipped the standard pattern of British school and club ties for a more "American" style and the rest of the country's clothiers had followed suit.
At long last, John followed the logic. "But how can a British government agent be wearing an American tie if he was too young to be sent abroad? And you said it was definitely his – it had been laundered, remember?"
"But nothing else had been worn before," Sherlock recalled. "Why would he need to replace everything else – suit, shirt, even shoes – at short notice, but not his tie?"
"Maybe it was his lucky tie, and he had it in his hand luggage and the airline lost everything else?" Irene suggested, curled up against John, head tucked under his chin.
"Wait, are you saying that we made a mistake or that the killer did?" John asked.
"We have no way of knowing based on the information we have at the moment. When Donovan and Molly provide more, we will be at liberty to formulate a new theory or refine the one with which we've been working." He sent Mycroft the image in which the victim's face appeared most clearly, hoping his brother could put a name to the corpse, and looked up to find the pair of them smiling devilishly at him.
"So, looks like you're free for dinner," John said nonchalantly.
Irene laughed. "Brilliant."
"I should have brought you with me," Irene said, pouring the rest of the mattar paneer over her rice, "just to stay sane. What I was thinking, getting all of those composers and soloists together, I really couldn't tell you."
"I'm sure it was helpful for everyone," John soothed, stealing back a forkful of peas and cheese. "Was there anything that you'd want to audition for?"
"Mmmmaybe," she said, getting up to fetch ginger beers from the fridge. "Sherlock, another?"
He nodded his head; he quite enjoyed the fizzy kick of the drink, especially when paired with Indian food. "Well?" he asked, deciding to help John out.
"Wait, I'm still griping," she said unabashedly. "It turned out there were two of them composing operas based on the story of Griselda. Griselda! Can you believe it? As if there needs to be one more retelling of that stupid story, let alone two. So of course there's drama when they find out, and each of them is claiming to be the more authentic and well-researched, and the only difference is that one wrote the part for a soprano – surprise! – and the other for an alto. But who cares, because the whole story's there, wrapped up in her name – Griselda, who only gets to know her kids are living by the time she's grey, worn out by her asshole husband's whims."
"As long as you don't feel strongly about it," John murmured, and Irene dissolved into laughter.
"Shut up," she said. "Thalia was there, the one who wrote the new Eurydice and Orpheus. She said she didn't have enough new material to present, but she was working on a full-length opera called Aurora Leigh, based on something Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote."
That sounded equally as dreadful, in Sherlock's estimation, but given that a previous collaboration between them had been fruitful, it made sense that Irene would be pinning her hopes on a second success.
"Have you got a library card?" she asked.
"Mmm," John said, finishing his garlic naan, "in my wallet. You should get your own, too. I'll take you there in the morning, if you like." He got up and pulled a small tub out of the freezer and collected three spoons. "Sherlock, you like pistachios; you're having some of this kulfi. It's gorgeous."
Sherlock assented vaguely, knowing the two of them would finish off the lot if he tarried long enough. The ginger beer was more than enough of an indulgence for one meal, and he had no desire to let any dairy product lie heavy in his stomach when he still had work to do. As if on cue, Mycroft texted back.
Darren Wernham, PA six doors down. MH
So the dead man was an Englishman, no mistake, because the offices along Mycroft's row all belonged to men of considerable but unspoken power. When he looked up from his mobile, Irene was looking speculatively at him.
"I'll get out of your way – you and John must have some work to do."
John was looking so contented, sitting at the kitchen table and enjoying their company, that Sherlock found himself loath to call an end to the proceedings. "We haven't got much to work on without more data, can't make bricks without clay. But John used to blog about all of our cases, so, off you go, John; tell her how you'd write this one up with what we've got so far."
John slouched a little in his chair, ever more indolent, and offered them both a lazy smile. His eyes were clear, though, and it was obvious he correctly understood Sherlock's invitation as permission to discuss even the first body at the Diogenes.
"Well, not that I'd have said this on the blog – I am capable of discretion – but there's a secret club in the heart of London, meant only for government officials. Or, at least, the percentage of that population that also happens to be rich, white, and male. And this morning, there was a dead body found in a solitary cell on the top floor of that club, mutilated after the fact but with no marks of fatal violence on him. Cut to this afternoon, when Sally called us to examine a second body in much the same state, same coded phrase about traitors and plagues marked on the corpse. Only she doesn't know about the first body. That second body is more puzzling: a British body" – he looked questioningly at Sherlock, who nodded – "with an American accessory. So there we are."
"That was an atrocious précis of your putative blog post, John; it was almost entirely comprised of information you acknowledged you wouldn't include in any such document. However, as a summation of our day, it was fairly accurate. Irene, what do you make of it?"
"Sorry, was I supposed to take a crack at solving it just from that?" she asked, startled, a spoon heaped up with pale-green kulfi halfway to her lips.
John sat up straight and then leaned forward. "You know, he'd never tell you this, or even admit it, but one of the best things about Sherlock is that he doesn't treat his abilities as a sort of superpower or a 'gift' or a 'curse'; he genuinely believes and is insistent that anyone could do what he does."
"If that person paid attention, observed, was able to retain vast amounts of data, properly organised, and respected the logic of crime," Sherlock stated, unwilling to let John paint him as a sort of humanitarian mentor.
"So warm and fuzzy!" Irene pretended to marvel.
"That's just what Sally said," John said lightly.
"Please," Sherlock scoffed. "You've been on a quest to trumpet my 'humanity' for months."
"Yeah, but no one ever listens to me," John said, heaving himself up and beginning to clear the table.
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/426009.html.