"Do you not have practise to get to?" Sherlock asked the next day, when he came out of his bedroom to find her once again ensconced in John's chair, the blanket looped around her shoulders and bundled against the hot-water bottle pressed to her abdomen, which was visible through the tented fabric of one of John's thin, soft vests. Irene's hair was more than characteristically untidy, and there was an empty mug and plate in front of her; John had clearly made a meal to her specifications, stroked her hair soothingly, and kissed the top of her head on his way out of the flat.
"Rehearsals start Monday," she said tiredly. "I've booked a practise room for tomorrow afternoon just for myself. Until then, I'm just going to wallow." She ran a hand through the tangle atop her head, then visibly brightened. "Weren't you going to get me chocolate?"
"I figured." She sighed. "You practically had your fingers crossed."
He stopped on his way to the kitchen, running that back in his mind. "What?"
"You're claiming you deduced my insincerity by the positioning of my fingers." He looked at them, spindly and pale and long. When he looked up, he saw that Irene's attention was fixed on them as well.
"How are you at massages?"
He started at that, recalling quite distinctly the charge in the air when John touched her in what was supposed to be a therapeutic manner.
She laughed, reading his face. "Not like that! You're a beautiful man, but John is . . ." He waited to hear what words John's lover would choose, if beautiful was insufficient. "Compelling." She rolled her shoulders. "What do you say?"
"No." It seemed to be all he ever said to her, but there was no denying the satisfaction it gave him to refuse her.
"Thought so." She shifted position in the chair, and he could hear the slosh of liquid in the hot-water bottle. "What are you up to today?"
He ignored her in favour of running a web search on menstruation and then, when she realised that her questioning was futile, checking his email. "Oh," he said involuntarily, drawing her attention again. "I've got a client coming now. Not a police matter, according to Gregson, which means it's likely to be interesting." He eyed her dubiously. "I see clients with John in the living room."
"Was that an invitation or a request for me to leave?" she asked, eyebrows raised as if she genuinely couldn't decipher his intentions.
Perhaps she couldn't, as Sherlock found them less than clear himself. "I think better when I talk aloud."
"Right," she said slowly, nodding along as if it would enable her to deduce more quickly. "Your client will be here, so you could talk aloud to – to that person."
"No, I require someone who isn't a complete idiot, and clients usually are, particularly if they are also highly emotional."
"And I qualify? Lucky me," she said, dry as the desert. "I guess I should go get dressed." She uncurled her legs, flexed her feet, set the hot-water bottle on the coffee table, and stood. She unwound the blanket and folded it neatly. All she was wearing was a pair of fleecy tracksuit bottoms and John's vest, and Sherlock could see her contours clearly; her nipples were a soft brown, very unlike the confection-coloured protuberances he'd seen on pin-ups and in pornography. She'd clearly foregone a brassiere for comfort's sake – the website he'd found indicated that some women's breasts felt unbearably tender during menstruation – and had forgotten her state of relative undress. "Back in five," she said.
She returned within the allotted time, one of John's cashmere jumpers covering the vest and her hair plaited away. Sherlock reclined on the sofa, closing his eyes when the buzzer sounded, pleased with himself when Irene sighed disgustedly and went off to answer the door, her slippers muffling the sound of her steps. He could hear her voice and another woman's, first alternating and then mingling; a female client with a non-police matter most likely meant some domestic dispute, for which he was hardly in the mood.
"Here he is," Irene said from the doorway, gesturing the client – a handsome woman around Lestrade's age – to Sherlock's chair and then settling down in John's. "Oh, sorry, would you like some tea?"
"No," the woman said shortly, belatedly smiling as if to disguise what even Sherlock had recognised as rudeness. Interesting, that she was sufficiently disturbed to be rude but proper enough to be worried by it.
"Start with your name and a précis," Sherlock directed crisply, shifting fluidly from reclining to sitting.
"Elizabeth Sutherland. My daughter is missing."
"How is that not a police matter?" Irene asked.
"She's nineteen, and they feel that she might have chosen to leave on her own."
"Did she have any reason to be upset?" Irene interjected again, and Sherlock eyed her narrowly.
"Would her mother's pending marriage be a valid cause for distress, in your opinion?" Sherlock asked before Sutherland could claim that nothing was afoot. Irene's reaction would be highly instructive about her own history at least, if not the present situation; he didn't require any assistance with that.
"Not necessarily. I'm sorry, I haven't even asked. What's her name?" Irene had all sorts of tells. So apparently her protests had been the merest truth: the "Kellam" who had married her mother had not hurt her, acted inappropriately toward her, or been otherwise objectionable. Despite the parallels to her own situation – a woman with a teenaged daughter marrying a man new to their lives – she had not considered the union to be a likely catalyst for trouble between the two women.
"Marie. And you're right, Mr. Holmes, I am engaged to be married. Marie's father died eleven years ago, and I've been running our business since then. I only met James about twenty months ago, and we hit it off."
"He's considerably your junior and not nearly as financially sound as you are – obvious from the ring you wear to symbolise your engagement, the quality of which is much lower than the rest of your jewellery. Have you got him to sign a prenuptial agreement?"
"His lawyers drafted it and forwarded it to me yesterday. I retain all of my business holdings but concede any cash – is this important? I need to find my daughter, not worry about whether James is a bad match." Sherlock frowned when Sutherland shifted in her seat, training her attention on Irene. "You have to understand – I'd already had him checked out before I even introduced him to her. A girl at that age could so easily be hurt by a young man, and he's not that much older than she is – chronologically, anyway."
"How else would you measure relative ages?" Sherlock inquired bitingly.
"I just – I just meant that she comes across as very young. She was ill for a few years when she was younger, so ill she couldn't continue with her schooling. She's just now finishing secondary and is supposed to have her gap year after that; she's been talking about travelling. There's no way she would just run off."
"But does she like him?" Irene pressed, clearly missing the crucial point about the finances.
"She's fine with him – it's fair to say that much. Her illness put her out of step with her peers, and even now she doesn't bring friends home. She neither seeks James out nor avoids him."
Irene tightened her lips at that; clearly she had done much the same with Kellam, though it was evident that she'd been a devoted slave to her half-brother.
"Yes, yes, very good. I need a list of contacts and email addresses your daughter uses. If you know the passwords, that would be helpful, but not necessary."
Elizabeth Sutherland blinked dazedly, as if she had expected him to be emotionally distraught by her daughter's failure to appear at breakfast two days in a row. Irene at least was good at reading cues.
"You can email him that list, or if you've got it in your head now, I can give you a paper and pen?"
Sutherland appeared to decide that it was his sense of efficiency, rather than acute boredom, that was behind the haste and nodded decisively. "I'll write the list right now, Mr. Holmes."
"Thrilling," he muttered, and Irene shot him a look so strongly reminiscent of John that he smiled involuntarily at her. She turned away to fetch a pad and pen. Sutherland was done within ten minutes; either the girl had very few friends indeed, or she was up to things her mother never dreamt of.
"So, am I a part of this investigation?" Irene asked the moment the door closed behind Sutherland. Sherlock did not bother to answer, already absorbed in skimming the inbox of the girl's email account. A separate tab listed the results of a search on Elizabeth Sutherland's personal and corporate history. Her late husband had been George Sutherland, her maiden name had been Robertson, and the fiancé's name was James Windibank. A plethora of images came up as well.
Windibank had the slick look of a man accustomed to charming women with little to back up his claims, but Sutherland had impressed Sherlock as fairly unsusceptible to such wiles; Windibank must have unplumbed depths, and they were most likely criminal.
"It's the fiancé, isn't it?" Irene asked, crowding next to him on the sofa. "Ugh, he just looks like a sleaze."
"Perhaps he cleans up well," Sherlock murmured sardonically, to which she responded with gales of laughter.
"Hello," John said, stepping into the flat and smiling delightedly at the sight of them sitting together.
"Hey!" she cried, scrambling off the sofa to welcome him home with her tongue; Sherlock restrained himself and scrolled past pictures of Windibank at various business functions. There was a ring of some sort on his left little finger – not large enough to be a true signet ring, but suggestive of one. Windibank looked the type to believe he was clever for being brazen about what he should keep concealed; that insignia was going to be the key to the case, Sherlock just knew it.
"Thought I'd stop in for lunch and drop off some chocolate for you, you looked so miserable this morning," John said to Irene.
"We are fine; we're on a case."
"Sherlock!" she scolded, evidently enjoying herself. "You never ever turn down chocolate!" She snagged the thick bar from John's unresisting fingers.
"I've got you something else as well," John said, reaching into his satchel for a plain red bag – he'd had one of those before, Sherlock recalled.
"From Oscar Meunier ? Really?" Irene asked, sounding positively giddy. She tossed the chocolate onto the sofa – Milk with Roasted Almonds, Sherlock noted as it landed next to him – and ripped open the box inside the red bag. "Oh, John," she said quietly. She drew a length of silk from the box, something that nearly slipped through her hands, at last resolving itself into the form of a dressing-gown. It was the palest gold, with lithe green vines snaking around in a pleasing pattern, littered with delicately figured leaves and every so often bursting into tiny blossoms as brightly scarlet as pomegranate arils and shaped like peonies, though decidedly smaller. "What's this for?"
"I saw it and I thought of you," John said. "They called it 'champagne' in the shop, but I thought the colour looked more like your basswood honey."
"And these are peonies?" Irene asked, clearly relying on John's superior knowledge of botany; Sherlock wondered if John's sentimentality was enough to keep his teeth from grinding every time he looked at the dressing-gown, which erroneously depicted peonies growing on vines instead of bushes.
"Something like that," John agreed affably, smiling conspiratorially at him when Sherlock snorted at the evasion. "What were you two laughing about, anyway?"
"Oh, there's a case!" Irene said, stripping off John's jumper to tie her present around her waist; she shivered happily, evidently at the feel of the fabric against her bare arms. "Thank you," she said, catching John's hands in hers and kissing him once more, her arms circling his waist, pinning his hands together at the small of his back. Sherlock saw John move willingly with her so that he was effectively pinioned within her arms; Irene appeared to be mindful of John's shoulder and let him go within a few moments with an extra kiss dropped on it.
Sherlock failed to look back down quickly enough, and John caught his eye and mouthed thank you – presumably for allowing Irene to remain in the flat when Sutherland appeared. If that was all John was after, Sherlock was more than happy to take credit for the harmony reigning in the flat.
He heard their voices grow fainter as they decamped for the kitchen and put them out of his mind. Image searches listed the ring's design as the insignia for a company Windibank had established upon reaching his majority, a company that had never produced, bought, or sold any commodity at all but still listed a Doug Banks as its chairman. In Marie's inbox was an email from that same Banks, introducing himself as one of the cadre of lawyers with whom Sutherland had sensibly surrounded herself, and asking the girl to execute paperwork that would transfer her private funds – inherited from her father – to her mother's account; there was all sorts of technical jargon that erroneously assured the girl that the money would be safer in her mother's coffers. Banks coyly suggested that while he knew the transfer would make her technically penniless, in so doing the girl would see who valued her for herself, rather than her inheritance. Doubtless even now he was in heavy disguise, seducing a disastrously naïve girl even more swiftly than he had her mother.
"A pretty little problem," Sherlock said, satisfied that his reasoning was sound. He only wished it had occupied more of his time than a single morning, though when he saw the lunch John had prepared, he was glad enough to have no reason to fast.
John's blog, at long last, had been updated. The entry was brief, chary with details, though why it mattered now that it was public knowledge that Sutherland had not only broken off her engagement but had Windibank arrested – Gregson was no doubt only too happy to be of use to such an influential woman – Sherlock could not fathom.
Went home for lunch the other day only to find Sherlock had solved a case that included fraud, an innocent girl, and a society marriage in five minutes flat without getting off the sofa. Astonishing, that's what he is.
He considered John's uncharacteristic succinctness. He hadn't written a word relating to a case on his blog since before Sherlock had left, and now all he recorded was an entry of fewer than forty words?
"Hello?" Mrs. Hudson called. "May I come in?"
"Enter!" he called, still scowling half-heartedly at the laptop screen. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mrs. Hudson was carrying a slim, flat package along with what looked like the usual post.
"Look what's inside," Mrs. Hudson invited, sitting next to him on the sofa familiarly. She unpeeled a magazine stuck haphazardly to the back of the package and flipped it open to a page she'd already obviously memorised. There were two medium-sized pictures in the middle of the spread: one of Irene and Mary on stage, from their first duet, and another of them at the champagne reception. Mycroft and Mary were chatting amiably – his body language suggested that his fascination with sopranos had not abated – and Irene and John must just have broken their kiss, so close were their beaming faces. Sherlock pushed the magazine away before his eye wandered over the text, sure to be a paean to Irene's beauty, talents, and utter perfection. He couldn't escape it from Mrs. Hudson, though.
"What a lovely girl," she said, closing the magazine – Irene's complimentary copy of Libretto, the so-called newsletter filled with onanistic, glowing copy about the Royal Opera House's productions. "I'm glad John had the sense to be happy."
Sherlock had no intention of picking up that rhetorical gauntlet. A flash of cream arrested his gaze and he went still, more confused than he'd been before. Still, he didn't have to keep up appearances in front of Mrs. Hudson the way he did around John; she was too dim and too partial to be anything but impressed, and he could ask questions outright without sacrificing anything.
"What is the occasion?" he ground out, still hating the necessity of the question. Before she could ask him to clarify, he barrelled on. "You're wearing a cardigan and the black trousers that you keep for home wear, which indicates that you're not planning on venturing out of the building. Yet you're also wearing the seed-pearl bracelet I bought you for Christmas, which you would only do on a special occasion. So, again, I ask: what is the occasion?"
"Oh, Sherlock," she said, patting his cheek fondly. "There's no occasion. I didn't want to have all my nice things locked up in a bank box somewhere; pretty things like this are meant to be enjoyed, and I mean to do it, for however long I have left."
He went cold at the thought of her mortality; it was harder to formulate the thought of her dead than it was for anyone else, perhaps because she'd not chosen a dangerous career the way John, Mycroft, and Lestrade had.
She smiled and peeked at the laptop. "Are you working on anything exciting?" She wasn't wearing her spectacles, which made her slower than she should have been. "Oh, John's begun his blog again, has he?" she asked, sounding rather surprised.
"Why should he not?" he asked with asperity.
"Well, he's got so little time these days. And my understanding, dear, was that he was asked to write it by the therapist he was seeing just after he got back from the war?"
"So he's found his place, hasn't he? He doesn't need to sort out his life online and put it up for anyone to see." She straightened all the corners of the mail, aligning them with the package on top of which they rested. "I'll make you a nice cuppa, and you can tell me all about how you would have written it."
"I thought you might be twins," Irene said, looking between Harry and John, and Sherlock snorted derisively. "What? They look so much like each other!"
"She's four years older," John said, laughing easily and rubbing Irene's back. His insouciance died a quick death when he saw what Clara was pulling from her bag. "No. What –"
"Remember that lunch you skipped in favour of catching a murderer?" Harry asked sweetly, and Sherlock winced to hear the Porlock case so erroneously dismissed. "Irene wanted to hear all about your misspent youth, so we found some photographic evidence."
John clearly knew his sister would be merciless, and appealed to Clara. "Clara, please."
"Clara's the family archivist," Harry said in a whisper meant to carry. "She's got everything scrupulously organised, thanks to that big, terrifying lawyer's brain."
"Hush, you," Clara said; "just let her enjoy this." Sherlock abandoned all pretence of searching through the cupboards for something and sat at the table between John and Harry. "And Sherlock, too."
He could see easily over John's shoulder, and was transfixed by the images of John – a smiling, golden child with a few scattered freckles on his nose and an apparent fondness for wearing holes through most of his brightly coloured clothing.
"My God, you're like the happiest little Dickensian urchin," Irene said dryly. "You little scamp."
"Hey! My clothes were on their last legs by the time they got to me; Harry here was awfully hard on them."
"Your parents didn't put you into pink frilly things from the word go?" Irene asked, turning to Harry.
"Apparently I was quite vocal about my fondness for blue and orange," Harry said with a shrug.
Harry had always had more of an Edinburgh burr in her voice than John, but it manifested only in certain words – judging by the sounds of the colours she'd named, those words were the ones she'd learnt before the family picked up and moved to London. That much was only logical, and Sherlock smiled to himself, pleased that he'd put that small matter to rest. The next picture was of John with a rather becoming beard in a rich chestnut brown, looking pleasingly pensive as he wrote something longhand. With a higher resolution picture, Sherlock might have been able to deduce something useful about the document and its intended audience. Sherlock frowned, frustrated that Clara's album did not proceed along chronological lines.
John laughed at the next image, him as a smallish child sitting at a table of pressed wood, tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he concentrated fiercely on a piece of bright plastic he was manipulating. Chubby fingers gripped a long yellow pencil, the colour picked up by some of the flagstones of the kitchen floor.
"You had a spirograph too?" Irene asked delightedly. Sherlock made a mental note to look up the word, as it seemed John had derived pleasure from the article in his youth.
"Our dad was an engineer; he always brought stuff like that home to get us interested in maths and technical work. Well, just me, really – Harry always impressed him with the maths she could do in her head."
"What are you talking about, Jay?" No false modesty from either sibling; interesting, that each had assumed the other was their father's favourite and yet still bore no grudge.
"He'd come home and ask you maths problems and you'd just do them." John sounded every inch the little brother he was; Sherlock could relate. "Don't you remember when we moved to London and Mum said we could paint our rooms any colour we wanted? Dad asked you to check his calculations for how much paint he'd need to buy. I was the thicky with my model planes."
"At eight you wanted to do that kind of maths? And Dad had a grand time with those models too; he was always talking about how good you were with your hands."
"They were fun, but the best part was peeling dried glue from my skin," John said with a laugh, getting up to refill Irene's and Harry's mugs.
"Ta. Ah, this is me getting arty," Harry said, pointing at the next few pages, which showed John as an infant, an erect crest of white-blond hair atop his head, his eyes unfathomably deep. The snaps were taken from a variety of angles, and in more than one the image was slashed across by pale gold threads.
"That's not artiness," Sherlock corrected. "It is evident that your wrists at that age were unable to deal with the heaviness of your father's camera, and that your own hair fell in front of the lens several times."
"You could spare me a few of my delusions," Harry said.
"That's not what he does," John said, and Sherlock turned to rebut that; this close, he could see that John's eyes were luxuriantly fringed, lashes curled like ductile gold and thick enough to cast shadows. "Come on, skip ahead or we'll be here all day admiring my beauty."
"Whoa, hold on," Irene said, turning to the next page obligingly. "Hello, handsome."
Sherlock rolled his eyes at the cliché – John was in his rugby uniform, clearly in the pink of health and agreeably mussed and muddy from his exertions, but he was no more appealing in that snap than he'd been in all of the others.
Irene had to be prodded – poked in the side by John, repeatedly – to move on from that picture. She touched the following black-paper pages with delicate fingers as she examined several images of John and Harry together, teenagers sometimes cognisant of the camera's presence and sometimes caught unawares.
"Wow, you really look like your mom," she stated with a low whistle, and Sherlock craned his neck to see past John's head, now nearly resting on Irene's shoulder.
The snap was of all four Watsons clad in jumpers that were not an exact match but nonetheless coordinated, the same hues appearing in each in different combinations. They were all seated on a bench in a garden, parents in the middle, Harry next to her dad and John next to his mum; John's small hand was a bit of a blur, reaching out to feel the petals of the tall blossom curling over the bench's arm. It was true that Harry and John seemed to have inherited most of their features from their mother, though her eyes were a mossy green that had escaped both of her children; Harry's eyes were as dark as John's but tended more to brown with bluish speckles than his dark blue with copper rings. Their colouring was their father's, whose hair was several shades lighter than his wife's soft brown. For once, Sherlock did not have to shape the pertinent question himself; Irene got there first, though her phrasing and vocabulary were entirely inelegant.
"What's the deal with those sweaters?"
Harry and John both laughed at that. "That was Auntie Ruth doing her part to celebrate Mum's birthday," Harry said, pushing her half-full mug toward her wife, who scooped it up with pleasure. "Mum said that she'd learnt her lesson in Edinburgh and when we moved to London she was going to do things very differently. Jay was terrorised, thinking he wouldn't have his own room, or that he'd be whipped regularly, or something stupid."
John's ears had not gone pink, so either Harry was exaggerating or he'd long ago reconciled himself to his own youthful idiocy. "All she meant was that she wanted to find some friends to share her work with. We moved next door to Auntie Ruth, who could sew and knit anything better than you'd get from the shops. Mum was a cracking good cook, and she grew most of her own vegetables. Aunt Linda had a car and could get all of the shopping. It was like a little commune."
That was a surprisingly logical notion and had little to do with the tiresome ideals of equality that society espoused; each to her own chosen purpose was far better than all three struggling individually.
It was fascinating to think about John and Harry as the bearers of their parents' traits, unevenly split. John had inherited his mother's domains of kitchen and garden, while Harry had got her organisational spirit, judging by the professional hierarchy she had steadily climbed. From their father, John had been graced with dexterity and Harry with mathematical inclinations. It was all rather charming, if a trifle boring, to trace the lineage in this way, until John smiled at him with that smile that was entirely his own, not generated by any forebear, and Sherlock saw the curiosity he'd been feeling reflected in John's pensive eyes.
There was nothing he had inherited from his parents, surely – there was no impression of them in his character, his abilities, his thoughts. Mycroft might be his ur-text, but he was not some simulacrum or even a variation.
"They were really beautiful," Irene said, hushed as if she were treading on dangerous ground, the presence of which she'd only recognised once everything was out in the open.
"Thomas and Celia," Clara informed Irene. "Lovely people."
"How did they meet?" Irene asked and Sherlock decided he'd had enough. It was a common enough question, and it was utterly useless; what good would it do Irene to know the story of how two people she would never know had met?
"In primary school, if you can believe it," John said, indulging Irene as he always did. "They were never apart for very long." Sherlock stalked off to his bedroom and picked up his violin, though he affixed his practise-mute to the bridge first; he did not particularly feel like sharing.
He ran through his dexterity exercises, allowing the familiar motions to soothe him. He'd always appreciated competence, and it had been most pleasing to find that John prized it as well; even more gratifying was John's insistence that his skills as a violinist – which he'd developed in order to train his mind – stood on their own and brought pleasure to his audience.
With that thought in mind, he could not bring himself to play someone else's music. He made sure the floor was free of detritus and that he had room to pace, then closed his eyes and let his fingers obey their own will. Soon enough he had a motif, then variations, then a melody resolving out of his movements. There was a percussive click in the background – had he stepped on a creaking floorboard? – that underlined the crescendo of a phrase, and he played back from dominant to tonic and at last opened his eyes to find John in the doorway to his bedroom, eyes shining.
"Magnificent," John breathed sincerely, then raised a hand to forestall any response. "I should have interrupted you, but I couldn't bear to. Greg's here – says he has official business and he had to discuss it with you and only you. Shall I ask him to come here, or do you want to come out? Irene and I can go up, if you like."
Evidently Harry and Clara had left; John's hair was tousled in that way that only a big sister could get away with.
"I'll come out," he said, not wanting Lestrade to see more of his bedroom than he'd already glimpsed on that infamous drugs bust. A man had to have some sanctuary, after all.
Lestrade was sitting remarkably still on the sofa, a thick folder under one hand on the coffee table. Grave face, so serious business was afoot, but posture not urgent enough for a personal matter, as if his wife or one of her innumerable family members had been injured. There was no cup of tea in front of him, which meant he hadn't wanted to encourage John's friendly chatter even for the few minutes it took to boil water and dump a teabag into a mug. Curious, as Lestrade typically got peckish around this time; he was a slave to his habits, which was enough to keep him from truly excelling at his profession.
Sherlock wondered if it were simply a matter of accommodation. Lestrade's wife was most devoted, and clearly indulged him; was that enough to foster habits that led to a kind of gross unwillingness to push himself intellectually? Was it necessary to be unfulfilled personally in order to succeed professionally?
He reached for the folder, but Lestrade's hand stayed firmly on top of it. "Sit down," Lestrade said brusquely. "I need to speak with you first."
Sherlock stepped over Lestrade's legs to sit next to him on the sofa, forcing Lestrade to sit back in order to face him. "Sebastian Moran will be on trial in a few weeks –"
"What has taken so long?" Sherlock interrupted. The evidence he had planted had been iron-clad.
"The higher-ups were trying to decide if a voluntary bill of indictment, allowing them to bypass Magistrates' Court and go directly to the Crown Court, was appropriate."
"It is inexpressibly comforting to know that the murder of a child and three women is a debatable matter for your betters," Sherlock spat and started to rise.
Lestrade's hand on his forearm locked him in place. "Shut up. If you're really that worked up about it, then you should want to do this. Walk me through what happened when you confronted him, how you know he murdered those people, and what the hell made you run off like that."
Sherlock had forgotten how much he'd elided, how much Lestrade's immediate fury had allowed him to defer, and what John's insistence on standing between his two friends had meant.
"A verbal statement will suffice?" he asked, because he knew that courts fussed over direct and indirect knowledge.
"I need to know, Sherlock. You'll write out a full statement as well, but for now, tell me."
It felt improbably alien, reciting facts without deductions, discussing his work without John at his side, but he pulled the facts from his memory and relayed the simplest version – one without Mycroft, Amy, or John. If Lestrade noticed the omissions, he didn't let his suspicions show.
"So Moriarty, a criminal mastermind, who was the one who kidnapped John and got you both injured at that swimming pool, knew he'd left a loose end in the form of the one child-hostage he'd used during his bloody 'game,' and you were there just at the time his second-in-command, Sebastian Moran, was sent to kill the boy. Moran got the job done, then got the drop on you and thought he'd killed you when he triggered a bomb in the office you were supposedly lying unconscious in. You got the bright idea to run off and let him and Moriarty – not to mention myself and John – think you were dead, while we got an anonymous tip from one of Moran's juniors implicating him in the murders. Fine. That all hangs together, though not as seamlessly as you're making it sound. I'm not even going to get into why you decided to run off, as I fervently hope that John raked you over the coals for that stroke of genius. My question is, why hasn't Moriarty done anything to spring Moran? Get some unassailable witnesses to swear that Moran was with them, doing charity work for the church, or doing the shopping for his sainted, elderly mother?"
"Look at the files – Moran has refused all visitors and said not a word in his own defence. He has no idea that he didn't kill me, so he is content, thinking that at least the act that got him jailed was what his boss wanted most. Furthermore, Moriarty had no reason to draw attention to his own involvement, and Moran understood that he'd be on his own if he got caught."
"But with the trial imminent, will that hold?" Lestrade asked, brow furrowed at the speed of the conversation. "Mightn't Moriarty have another 'game' up his sleeve?"
"You are mixing metaphors with great abandon," Sherlock said, at last allowing a satisfied smile to show on his face. "Moriarty is not around to orchestrate his henchman's release."
Lestrade sighed deeply, as if from the soles of his feet. "Tell me."
"I heard indirectly that the government disposed of him." Every word was crystalline truth.
Lestrade scrutinised him carefully, and Sherlock breathed out slowly; this – investigating people – was what Lestrade did well, no matter how rubbish he was at crime scenes without a witness or suspect.
"Which Moran does not know, as he's turned away everyone who could give him that information." He shook his head. "No. It makes no sense. I saw you with Moriarty's puzzles. Like a dog with a bone, you were, gloating over his cleverness and your own, both. No way you'd let someone else 'take care' of him. Why should I believe that you didn't read whatever clues he left, find him, and kill him?"
"I assume my word –"
"Is not good enough. For all I know, you spent the time you were away shacked up with some lover, or in the States, or hunting Moriarty for putting a bomb on John."
Damn Lestrade for catching some fleeting glimpse of the truth and syncretising it with the Yard rumour that he was a consultant only for the ghoulish thrill of being close to death. "Would John's word do? He knows what I've done."
Lestrade sighed and dragged his hand through his hair, from nape to crown, disordering the spikes. "I'll not have you standing here when I ask him."
"Fetch him, then, and I'll retreat to my bedroom."
Lestrade's questions about Moriarty's death must have triggered John's nightmares; recumbent on the sofa, Sherlock was startled by a hoarse shout and Irene's muffled scream in the dead of night. John should not be feeling guilt – he had defeated Moriarty more than honourably, in something like single combat – but there was no mistaking the sounds issuing from his throat.
"No, no, NO!" Sherlock muttered furiously as he raced up the steps, only to stand stock-still on the landing as he heard Irene singing something low and sweetly melancholy to soothe John back to sleep. Sherlock clenched his fists, needing to see – he could not picture whether John's face would be dry or streaked with tears, if he were flat on his back trying to catch his breath or curled on his side like a small child seeking comfort, if his hands were tucked closely to himself or reaching out for contact. He was the one who had heard John triumph over Moriarty's malignancy, and he should be the one to whom John turned.
He comforted himself with the notion that John's evident feelings of guilt most likely proceeded not so much from having killed Moriarty as from having to dance around the truth to preclude Lestrade being placed in an awkward situation. He stayed crouched on the landing, listening intently while Irene made her voice into John's lifeline, bare toes curled against the cold, until dawn broke and spilled the first shafts of light into the flat.
Sherlock was concentrating on remembering with exactitude every detail of his time away, the better to record all of it in his Index. He dimly heard some loud clomping noises but felt no particular urge to abandon his work to see what Irene was up to at the moment. With John at the Trauma Centre, there had been many hours when it was just the two of them in the flat, and he'd learnt to tune her out and disregard all of the little noises she made, her voice just as expressive as John's face.
"My god, your feet are like boats," she said, stumbling against them on her way into the living room. The tie of her dressing-gown trailed along his arm.
That remark was odd enough to get Sherlock to lift his chin from his knees and untuck his legs, the better to examine his supposedly nautical feet. "In what way?" he enquired.
"Just, you know, they're so big," she said, gesturing a little, and he supposed that had to be some American expression – it was evocative whilst still being entirely idiotic. "Anyway, here; I got these for you." She dropped a packet encased in bright blue plastic into his lap. He looked at her, willing her to strive for more precision. "Fine, fine, I asked Betty to buy them and ship them to me so that I could give them to you."
He examined the packet. "Biscuits." He kept his tone flat so as not to imply any gratitude or fondness. "Why are these so remarkable that they needed to be imported for my benefit?"
She rolled her eyes at him. "It's no big deal, Professor Higgins," she said dismissively. "I saw you gnawing the chocolate off your breakfast biscuits the other day and thought it was funny because Godfrey used to do the exact same thing with the cream of his Oreos. So I thought you'd like these. Believe me, the ones they sell here taste nothing like the real thing."
So much to deduce, so little time. "You claim my behaviour was reminiscent of your younger brother's, but you make no mention of your own. Yet you enjoyed the biscuits enough to seek out the British version and judge them wanting. It is clear –"
"Give them back if you're not going to eat them," she interrupted, holding out her hand.
"I didn't say that," he noted, clutching the packet firmly.
"Fine," she said, sounding monstrously smug, and Sherlock had to wonder if she'd been acting on John's orders to stuff him with more calories. "Then you'll need this," she said, setting a glass – one with a disproportionately wide rim – filled with full-fat milk in front of him. At his exasperated sigh, she said, "Yes, I know, your life is so difficult."
The intonation was straight out of John's repertoire, and Sherlock laughed outright. "Fine. Show me what your blasted brother did."
She grabbed the first biscuit in the little packet. "Now, I like to just grab and dunk, but Godfrey had to unscrew each one, then scrape the cream off with his teeth, then choke down the cookie parts and only then take a swig of milk."
Sherlock frowned at the discordant fact. "Really? But you pull everything else apart – you can hardly eat a sandwich without tearing it into bits and then licking your fingers and making a whole disgusting production of it."
"Such a charmer," she said, deftly peeling apart the two unequal halves of the biscuit and setting them down in front of him. "Knock yourself out with experimenting."
"Sherlock," Irene said, keeping her finger in her book – John's favourite Greek mythology text – but folding its front cover closed, "remember when you . . . could you . . . have you ever –"
Best to cut her off before she spat out any more incomplete phrases. "Where is John? Surely if his shift started before nine he should be done by now."
The query distracted her sufficiently to throw out an actual answer. "It started at noon. We went out for brunch first with Vee and Greg." She paused, visibly gathered herself, and began again. The dressing-gown gaped at her chest, revealing another of John's vests. "I've never been able to get my mother to talk about my father. I have no idea what he looked like, what his name was, or how they met. I don't know if he knew she got pregnant, or even if he forced her. Is – is that something you'd be able to figure out?"
Sherlock eyed her balefully, willing her to just shut up. This was even worse than when John had asked him – before the slightest bit of proof had been gathered – to clear Harry's name. There was absolutely no upside to this; had there been something positive to discover, surely Irene's mother, however closed-mouthed she might be, would have disclosed it already. Nor was it a case or even a puzzle, as the person with the answers was readily accessible.
"No," she said, surprising him. "Never mind. I don't – I shouldn't have asked. I'm sorry."
Irene was becoming unexpectedly fascinating, he thought as he curled his bare feet beneath him. The movement caused the wrapper on his lap to crinkle noisily.
"Oh, what did you think?" she asked.
"Dunking is by far the best course of action," he told her.
"That's one more for our team," she said, smiling as she bent her head to get back to her book.
"Lousy Smarch weather," John said nonsensically when he entered the flat, raindrops sparkling in his hair and weighing down his curling eyelashes. His peacock-blue scrubs were clinging to his skin.
"Good to know you're familiar with one of our greatest exports," Irene responded, rubbing John's hair vigorously with a clean kitchen towel liberated from the bottom drawer. "Where were you, that you got so soaked?"
John adopted a distinctly nasal tone and a broad American accent. "I was on a road, looked to be asphalt, and was directly under the earth's sun –"
"You are fantastic," Irene said, looping the towel around his neck and pulling him in for a kiss. John's trainers squelched noisily as he shifted his weight to accommodate her.
"Do you require an umbrella, John?" Sherlock asked, filling the kettle with water; hot tea would warm John more efficiently than Irene's mouth, no matter how enthusiastically she applied it.
"Had one," John said, pausing as Irene kissed the tip of his nose. "It turned inside-out and nearly took my eye out, so I chucked it. I'm off for a shower. Call for takeaway and get enough for your brother as well, would you? It's been too long since he was here."
Sherlock acquiesced; John might very well want to speak to Mycroft about Lestrade's questions and Sherlock needed to determine how much Mycroft already knew about Moran's trial. In any case, Mycroft would be pleased to furnish John with a new umbrella, perhaps one with a tracking device concealed near the unfurling mechanism.
It hasn't yet ceased to be disconcerting, watching John and Mycroft silently communicating with each other. He expected it with Harry and Clara, with whom John had had years to develop such rapport, and even with Irene, whom John was shagging every chance he got and whose wordless messages were no doubt all about their perfect, precious love, but with Mycroft it was still too intimate to be comfortable. Every incremental change in posture, timbre, and rhythm had meaning, and Sherlock saw concern and reassurance being expressed freely, all while John and Mycroft piled the takeaway onto four plates.
Mycroft finished half his vegetables before making a show of noticing the Greek mythology text Irene had been perusing.
"Research, or a more general interest?" he enquired politely.
"I've been wanting to tell you anyway," Irene answered promptly, though Sherlock saw her eyes cut to John when she said you. "I'll be singing Eurydice to finish out the season."
"Eurydice, really?" John asked, evidently delighted. "That's my favourite myth."
"One of the few that's happy," Irene agreed, spearing another julienned stalk of carrot.
Mycroft had an exquisitely baffled expression on his face. "How so?"
"They're in love, they get married. There are no gods trying to rape her, no nymphs trying to seduce him, her humanity isn't stripped away so that she becomes a bird or a tree or a reed. They find each other even after she dies, and they come as close as you can get to beating death."
"But they are still separated, are they not? Orpheus fails in his quest, and is subsequently torn limb from limb," Mycroft noted. Sherlock looked up with unfeigned interest, then did a search on his phone for the rest of the story.
"He can move mountains with his music. You think he couldn't have escaped the Maenads if he hadn't wanted to be with his wife in the underworld?" Irene riposted.
"The Gluck, or a more modern score?" Mycroft asked, retreating.
"New libretto, new score. Well, new a few years ago when she wrote it. This will be the first public performance."
"Originating a role is quite a coup; my congratulations," Mycroft said.
"Grinkov will be Orpheus, Nikolaj is Persephone, Ioannidis is Hades," Irene said lightly, accepting his praise casually while Mycroft nodded to indicate his approbation. Her socked foot tapped gently on John's, and John looked tremendously pleased, though the names she had just dropped must have meant as little to him as they did to Sherlock.
"What is it that you like about the story, John?" Mycroft asked.
It took John a moment to formulate his answer. "It feels real, like it could have happened." Sherlock felt disappointed; John had more intelligence than to believe that a man playing the lyre could reverse his wife's death. "It's about grief, and what it means to mourn someone, but it's also very much about those two people in particular. They don't stand in for anybody else, or any larger concepts."
Sherlock watched Mycroft's face change as he comprehended something significant in John's response, something perhaps that John had not even been aware of communicating. John took another bite of his dinner and Sherlock felt the knot in his stomach that informed him that he'd missed something.
He pushed his food around his plate, looking at the tracks left by the sauce, and changed the topic before another twenty-minute conversation could occur. "Your assistant seems to be earning her salary," he said, directing the opening volley at Mycroft, who had been so very voluble before.
"Indeed," Mycroft said. "She fairly chivvied me out the door when she realised who was calling to invite me to dinner."
"Three cheers for her, then," John said. "What's she like?"
Lestrade kept texting, reminding him – as if he had an untrained, imprecise memory – that Moran's trial would be starting within the next few days, and prompting him to have an unassailable statement ready for police review. Mycroft's contributions were helpful, but could not preclude the need for at least a show of justice; Sherlock believed justice had already been achieved, with Moriarty reduced to ashes and Moran willingly immured, believing he was earning his lieutenant's stripes.
Sherlock caught himself then: John wouldn't like army terminology being applied to Moriarty's organisation. It was unlikely that John would ever see Sherlock's report, but there was a chance he might; he was curled up asleep on the sofa, head just near Sherlock's hip, a knit blanket wrapped tightly around him.
The flat was hushed, other than the click of his keyboard as he wrote and abridged his report. He'd set his phone to silent as soon as John, bundled in his blanket, had put two mugs of tea on the coffee table and sat down, eyes already heavy-lidded. John's soft, grinding snore abruptly added a new sonic layer to the ambiance of the flat, and Sherlock considered it as dispassionately as he would a piece of evidence: John was either ill or exhausted, and his body had betrayed him by revealing his state through these snores. Irene would not have understood what they meant, but he did; he swept John's soft hair back, the better to see what lines were on his brow, and saw the same carved-marble marks that John always wore. Tired, then, and not ill, so better by far that he should continue to sleep rather than be woken to have fluids pressed on him.
Sherlock finished typing an expurgated statement of Moran's crimes and connection with Moriarty and sent it off to Lestrade, no doubt piquing the man's curiosity by not demanding a case in return. John was unlikely to feel hale enough to run through London with him, after all, so he shut down the laptop and turned off his mobile. There was any number of projects he could be working on now instead; he squirmed into a more comfortable position, drawing his feet up and winding his arms around his bent legs, as he settled in to think.
John slept for ten hours, his snores gradually tapering off, and woke at dusk, a determination to clean the flat from top to bottom goading him to arm himself with brooms and sponges and the hoover.
"Lift, Sherlock," John said, quietly enough that Sherlock could affect not to have heard him. John took the lack of response in stride and placed one firm hand under Sherlock's thigh, hoisting it up so that his foot came off the ground and John could turn back the rug and sweep the area thoroughly. It seemed he was the only obstacle in John's path to cleanliness, for soon John was shifting furniture easily about and humming to himself as he worked.
Sherlock felt his spine stiffen as he recognised the melody issuing easily from John's throat. It was his own composition, what he had created the last time he'd found solace in his solitude. John had heard it and internalised it and liked it well enough to be pouring it back out. There was a rush of heat crashing down on him at the very thought of it, like a tide that kept advancing without retreating. John's warm voice stripped the tune of the harmonies he'd composed, but Sherlock felt unmistakeable happiness despite the lack; John was all the instrument he needed at that moment.
"Off out," John said cheerfully as he coiled the hoover's electrical cord in neat loops. "Night shift for the rest of the week. Remember that you're well within your rights to eat something whenever you feel hungry."
"Yes," Sherlock said, gambling that sheer surprise would shut John up, but of course John spoilt everything by beaming at him.
"And it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if you actually weren't awake for each of my departures and arrivals."
"Duly noted. Go away," he said, and John picked up his satchel and jacket and left.
John would give him ten kinds of hell if he brought cigarettes home, even if he explained that he had no intention of inhaling and only meant to collect the ash. But his homeless network would be only too glad to oblige him, and he could confirm his knowledge of local soil types by matching the ashes with the patches of London covered by his network. He made up labels and dropped them into the sealable plastic bags John used for sandwiches; three of each ought to be sufficient.
Machine-made first, he decided, looking at the brightly coloured packets at the tobacconist's. Happily single, delusions of artistic grandeur, he thought, surprised when the man behind the counter winked at him and slipped a box of nicotine patches into the carrier bag on top of all the cartons of cigarettes.
"No sense getting the doctor all riled up at me," he said artlessly.
The evening was rather fair, so he walked instead of hailing a taxi, recoiling from the volume at which most people conducted their conversations and the absolute hideousness of current fashions; he saw a cluster of women wearing precariously high-heeled boots that were shaped to resemble cloven hooves, which were surely as uncomfortable as they were unattractive.
Clive and Jeannie were easy to find, but Beth had been picked up for public drunkenness. "Who could collect the data I need?" he asked Clive impatiently; it was most inconvenient for Beth to be unavailable to him.
"Try Uwe," Clive advised, already lighting his first one and inhaling greedily. "Down near Elephant & Castle most days. Big guy. Webbed fingers."
"You understand what I'm asking of you?" Sherlock said again.
"Ash in the bag, got it," Clive said, waving him off. Sherlock set off to find the amphibiously-appendaged Uwe, already foreseeing many happy hours studying ash under his new microscope – surely John would concede the necessity, especially since Sherlock had kept the flat cigarette-free – collecting data that would form the basis for his most ambitious monograph yet.
Sherlock woke – John would be pleased that he'd slept for a few hours, at least – and went into the kitchen to fill the kettle. He brewed a cup of tea that didn't taste quite right, because John hadn't made it, but settled down at the table with it anyway.
John came home just as he was pouring himself a second cup, and shook his head when Sherlock offered it to him; if he watched how John prepared it, he'd be able to replicate the process himself should John continue to work hours not conducive to Sherlock's schedule.
"No, thanks," John said, "I need to get some sleep. It's Irene's birthday, and I'm taking her out tonight for dinner and a film."
"Angelo's?" Sherlock asked, wondering if the proprietor offered them a candle or if he maintained an icy hauteur at the sight of John with anyone other than him.
"Whatever she wants," John said, shrugging. "Has she left already?"
"I've no idea."
"Did you actually sleep?" John asked, sounding impressed. He yawned widely and grinned. "I'm for bed myself," he said, standing up and tucking his chair back in.
Sherlock took a long, contemplative sip of subpar tea, pondering what had brought John's most recent patients to the Trauma Centre. He started ungracefully when he heard John's shout, leaving a puddle of sloshed tea on the table; he untangled his suddenly uncooperative fingers from the handle of the mug and raced up the stairs.
He found John in the bathroom, kneeling beside Irene, who was prone, unconscious, and bleeding through her pyjama bottoms. Blood had started wicking up the white cotton vest she wore, its hem hitting her just where the flow of blood was strongest; she and John were the same height, but he tucked his vests for neatness and she wore them loose for comfort. Her bare arms were cool but not cold, indicating that she'd lain against the tiled floor for no more than an hour.
"Call 999!" John roared, gathering her up in his arms, then standing and carrying her down the stairs.
Sherlock eyed the smears of blood left behind on the floor and looked at his hand, rather surprised his phone was not in it. He had left it next to his mug, he remembered; the splash of tea had nearly baptised it.
He took the stairs three at a time, fumbling to unlock his mobile and dial Mycroft, who would be quicker and easier to direct than any ambulance service partnering with 999.
"Irene needs a bed at Barts Trauma," he said quickly. "Miscarriage."
John had bundled Irene into his own shirt and a capacious jacket that might once have been black. "Sherlock," he called, sounding strangled by fear.
"I've called," Sherlock said soothingly. "She'll be fine." It should not have worked, and at least on some level it did not, but John closed his eyes in gratitude and stood up a little straighter, arms still looped around Irene.
A dark vehicle fitted up as an ambulance screeched to a halt in front of the building, and Sherlock held the door open as John carried her out to the car; Mycroft's people had been briefed effectively, if they knew to stay out of John's way and not interfere with his directives. John got Irene settled and then threw himself into the seat beside her, and before Sherlock could make a move, the vehicle had taken off, lights flashing.
The door to 221A opened and Mrs. Hudson peered sleepily up at him. "What on earth?" she asked half-heartedly, clearly not expecting a reply.
"John has had to take Irene to the Trauma Centre," he said, unprepared for her to sway as if she'd been the one haemorrhaging.
"Oh, God," Mrs. Hudson cried, her hand like a vice around his arm. "Don't let anything happen to her."
He wanted to list all of the ways in which that was not only a useless but also a deeply stupid prayer, but stayed silent as he freed himself from her clutches, sat her on her own sofa, and headed back to his flat to scrub away the blood on the bathroom floor John had cleaned not one day earlier.
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/426492.html.