It took John far less time than Sherlock had counted on to see the flaw in the reasoning. "You can't honestly believe Joe's in the wine cellar," John said, swinging around so abruptly that Sherlock collided with him, the thick wool of their coats providing enough padding that there was no discomfort from the meeting. "If it's this cold up here, the bloody wine cellar must be an icebox, and even Joe must have had the sense to have a sulk elsewhere." Even as he spoke, he started marching again, most likely in an effort to stay warm.
"Do you know him?" Sherlock asked.
"Feels like I do, given how much I heard about him from Gheb."
"How do you know Irene?"
"Ah," John said. "Can't or won't deduce?"
Sherlock kept his mouth stubbornly shut while he activated the torch app on his mobile and searched for signs of passage.
"It would serve you right if I told you she'd picked me up at a pirate-themed bar called Knuckles and then waited while you tried to make sense of that," John said conversationally, watching to see if Sherlock would take the bait. Sherlock turned his back to hide his smile. Really, John was getting more inventive. "All right, the plain truth is that I met her in Afghanistan."
Highly unsatisfactory. Sherlock shut off the light from his mobile and strode briskly ahead, unerringly choosing which of several doors would lead them down to the cellars.
"Sherlock," John said quietly from just behind him as they stepped cautiously down the stairs, his warm breath ruffling the hair near Sherlock's ear, "why are we actually down here?"
"Joseph Vamberry found something in that library, John. He took pains to be secretive, enough that it registered with Irene, who was already used to his outright rudeness to her. We know that he had, or felt he had, financial difficulties. Gheb has said that not only is the house old enough to be a candidate for the National Trust, but that it has been picked over by generations of his mother's family looking for some quick cash. Of course there will not be a convenient stash of thousand-quid bottles in the wine cellar, no matter how much you and Gheb and your friend with the military fetish would like to believe."
"You and I," John said, voice still disembodied as he lingered on the dark steps out of Sherlock's sight, "are going to have a talk about my friends quite soon. In the meantime, what are we looking for, if not the wine cellar?"
"There's no reason to believe Vamberry smarter than the rest of you, which makes it plausible that he started in the wine cellar."
"And ended up?" John prompted, getting out his own mobile.
"Wherever his map led him," Sherlock said, smiling as he recalled the lines pressed into the soft leather surface of the ersatz antique. "Did you not see the signs that he was on the hunt for treasure?"
"Fantastic," John breathed, and then they were off.
Joseph Vamberry was no longer the colour of the house's stone when Sherlock returned to the parlour with the piano; John had taken good care of his patient since they'd discovered him trapped behind a false wall he hadn't had the brains to shift back. All that had saved him was that his bag, which had held a bottle of water and a torch, had kept the wall from sealing shut behind him.
Sherlock entered the room at a good clip, thankful that he had nothing like the Hippocratic Oath binding him to provide succour or kindness to the undeserving; John's expectations of him were terrible enough. In this case, one look from John, half-cajoling and half-humorous, was enough to keep his lip buttoned.
Vamberry was an idiot, to be sure, not to have pieced together from the clues literally all over his lover's house that whatever treasure the map he'd found in the library had led to had long since been picked off by enterprising members of the Musgrave family, whose ancestors had built the place centuries ago. And yet he would endure no punishment for his stupidity and cupidity, other than a few days in a dark, abandoned cellar without food – frankly, that sounded no worse than many of Sherlock's days before he'd met John – because he had a lover; Gheb was stroking Joseph's face tenderly and apologising for the injury to his hip, which had rendered him incapable of following where his lover foolishly went.
John's ironic eyebrow indicated quite clearly that he was not as credulous as Gheb with respect to Joseph's protestations that he had wanted the treasure for Gheb's sake rather than his own, but Sherlock was not expecting the arch look John gave to be directed at Irene rather than himself.
Irene, he rather suspected, would be at loose ends fairly soon, as Joseph's antipathy had not diminished and Gheb was desperate to keep the man happy. Judging by the warmth in her eyes as she watched John tending to his patient, Irene could become a problem.
"Have you got any cases on?" John asked, prompting Sherlock to uncurl himself from the club chair in order to read those familiar features right-way-up.
"Why do you ask?" he inquired.
John grinned and held his hands up in surrender. "I learnt my lesson a few years ago about trying to plan a birthday surprise for you. Wanted to know if there was anything in particular you wanted to do."
Sherlock smiled, pleased that John had not offered to "clear out for the night" or made any other unnecessary, ordinary offer.
"Ah, there is," John said, smiling back. "Out with it, then."
"I've nothing particular in mind, I assure you." All he wanted was a day like any other, when John would look at him like that, like he was still the most extraordinary thing John had ever laid eyes on, a day when he had the chance to use the mind he'd been honing for as long as he'd been aware he had one to use.
"Don't think you're getting out of this so easily," John warned, turning on the telly and making a sound of pleased surprise when the opening credits for some tedious film appeared on the screen.
John was puttering about in the kitchen, making omelettes, toast, and tea; his hips were swaying slightly as he sang, almost under his breath, some song that apparently required frequent use of his spatula as an air-drumstick. He'd been singing more since the new year had dawned, once he'd managed to get the heat in the flat to hold steady at what he called a "reasonable temperature for mammals." It was nice not having to wear eight layers of clothing to stave off any cold-induced headaches, Sherlock would admit, and he'd even go so far as to acknowledge that hot food made the warmth linger quite pleasantly.
He kept his voice low and increased the volume incrementally with each repetition. "John. John. John." Only at the ninth calling of his name did the man finally hear him over whatever melody was occupying his mind and turn to face him, seated patiently at the kitchen table. "I've thought of what I want for my birthday." John's face brightened, only a hint of suspicion lingering about his eyelids. "I'd like you to cook a meal." John nodded slowly, clearly believing there was more to the request than that; evidently, that was not special enough for a birthday, given that John tried to feed him up every chance he got, so Sherlock needed to add more. "And we could invite some others round to share the meal."
Ah, that was it, as John smiled approvingly. Now he just needed to consider whom to invite. It was odd to think of Mycroft as a welcome guest, but he'd not pestered them much while he'd been in Italy, and John would no doubt want to cast a professional eye over him.
All he really wanted was John, so he needed a guest list that wouldn't interfere with the balance established in the flat; Lestrade presumed too much and had a horror of a wife, and was therefore unsuitable. Having only Mycroft, though, would lead John to remember some regrettably dismal nights from the not-so-distant past, and so Sherlock needed a fourth name.
"Mycroft and Mike Stamford would do very well." The neatness of it appealed to him – a full circle: Sherlock had known Stamford from Barts, who'd introduced him to John, who'd brokered a peace between him and Mycroft; each link in the chain was necessary and strong.
"Sounds good," John responded. "Any requests as to the food?"
Sherlock waved that question away. The important thing was that John would be cooking, flushed and happy with his domestic success. It would be delightful to watch, as he hadn't been able to the time that John had brought out bento boxes full of carefully designed and camouflaged food, all in a quest to get him to eat. Sherlock was so pleased with himself that he ate both omelettes, leaving only toast crusts and one cup of tea for John.
John rolled his eyes at him and hauled out the hardcover cookbook-slash-scientific tome Mrs. Hudson had bought them. "Pick something out of here that you'd like. Just not Italian, please; I don't want to be competing with Angelo for your love."
"If you hadn't told me, I'd never have believed it," Mike Stamford said, sitting back indolently in his chair.
"Look at this face," John responded, widening his eyes. "Would I lie to you?"
Mike's expression was hilariously aghast, even to Sherlock, and he saw, out of the corner of his eye, Mycroft stifling a smirk. John sighed. "Doesn't work now that I'm old, does it?" he asked.
Mike shook his head regretfully, but softened the blow somewhat. "You've still got the 'cute' thing working for you, mate; more than I ever had."
Mike and John exchanged conspiratorial grins, no doubt remembering their shared past as the most thoroughly debauched pranksters in the storied history of Barts, and Sherlock could picture John at that age only hazily. No lines on his face, no weariness in his step, but his shoulders would be just as wide and his waist just as trim, thanks to youthful metabolism and predilections for both athletic sex and exploits on the rugby pitch.
"My thanks, John, for this meal. I had not expected you to have such a wealth of healthful and tempting recipes to hand," Mycroft said, and Sherlock was too full even to roll his eyes at the needless formality.
John smiled shyly at Mycroft and stood, clapping Mike on the back. "I was never 'cute,' you rotter. Tell him, Sherlock," he said, then pulled the sorbet he'd made out of the freezer, leaving it on the worktop to defrost.
"I have never found John to be particularly cute," Sherlock averred, carefully closing his lips around the other words that belonged to John: indispensable, necessary, competent, wondrous. Those words were for John's ears alone, though he had never spoken them aloud, not even for the pleasure of watching those ears turn pink. John's cold hand lingered on Sherlock's shoulder, thumb just brushing his neck, and in that moment, full of John's good cooking and not nearly abashed by the thought of how he would tax his digestive system by gorging on the sorbet, under the eyes of the brother he'd nearly lost and a friend who had never presumed upon that title and John, Sherlock felt fully forgiven.
The hand on his skin had snuffed out Moriarty's life, and his own had taken Underhill's, and they were still standing, still strong. He reached up and pressed John's hand warmly, then stood to fetch his violin.
Molly Hooper, bucking all expectations based on her past behaviour, stood on her dignity instead of crumpling spinelessly at the sight of him. It had occurred to Sherlock that he had not yet informed her of his return, but there had been no real need, as he had not been much inclined to run experiments since he had been back, and he had been able to examine the security guard's body from the Jaguar tyre case in situ. Still, he remembered how forlorn she had been at the thought of him dead – though unobservant enough to realise that he was only a few yards away, disguised as someone ordinary – and swept into the morgue with the panache she had always appreciated.
"Good day, Mr. Holmes," she said after a long moment in which he saw her lips move; no doubt she was reciting some admonition for strength under her breath. As long as she was not checking her lipstick, he had no interest in what her mouth was doing.
"Hello, Molly," he said, circling the autopsy table, upon which rested the corpse of a forty-something man whose features blended African and East Asian characteristics. "What have you determined about your friend here?" he asked, though it was clear that the man had suffered from some heart malady, which had resulted in the cyanosis easily observed on his fingers and toes. He leant forward and peered at the man's face. "He grew this ridiculous goatee to cover up cyanosis near his lips, as you'll see when you shave him."
Molly's hands faltered briefly, but she forged on, determined to ignore the answers he was dropping in her lap. "Thank you," she said frostily, when he showed no inclination to browbeat her or continue deducing. "Why are you here?"
"John is at work," he said, truthfully, though the hurt that flashed across her face told him clearly that she'd wanted to hear that he could not stay away from her. "Have you been well?" he fumbled out; never had he been so grateful for John's tact in keeping Molly away from the flat, because she was ridiculously easy to wound and simply cast a pall over all proceedings, no matter how trivial.
There were tears glittering in her eyes when she looked up at him, though none had made it to her cheeks. "I've known for some time that you were alive," she said, "as Sally warned me." Ah, Donovan never tired of her quest to demonise him. "In future you needn't exchange pleasantries with me; I know I'm an afterthought at best to you, Sherlock."
Her self-control slipped there, and he could hear the caress her voice gave his name. "Is there something you require?"
"No," he said, but pulled up a stool to check his email. Her distress diminished as she lost herself once more in the autopsy, and he attentively followed the movements of her hands as she worked. There was blood covering them, past the delicate knuckles shielded by latex stretched thin. She was careful, her movements exact; why could she not see that her competence here made her more useful than she could ever be as a sexual partner? He drew breath to point that out, but she was intent on her work, and interrupting her would only lead to a scene in which tears rolled down her cheeks and her nose ran copiously. He had never promised her anything anyway; his conscience was clear, should John enquire.
John had not blogged about a single case since his return, and Sherlock went to the Yard to enquire about the outcome of the tyre case. Lestrade was in a meeting about budgets, according to the scribble on his desk calendar, but Sally Donovan was at her desk, resignedly completing some paperwork, Blackstone Police Manuals pushed to one side. It was the work of a moment to clear a space on her desk and seat himself there, anchoring his weight with one firm foot on the ground next to her chair.
"My thanks, Sally, for industriously spreading the word that I did not perish as you had mistakenly thought."
Sally didn't bother to look up but he saw a sharp smile on her mouth nonetheless. "Trouble with Molly?" she asked, the sugar in her voice as distressing as grit in a sensitive instrument . "I suppose we should have known you'd pull a dirty trick like that the minute John's back was turned."
John, was it? He eyed her more minutely; she had long since broken things off with Anderson and had not yet found a new lover. Perhaps she was intent on catching John's eye? Would John – "How'd you ditch him, anyway?" she interrupted.
"I did no such thing," he said indignantly. "My brother whisked –"
At that, she looked up, clearly startled. "There are two of you? God, poor John. I suppose that one's in love with him too?"
He stood, the better to loom over her, and dropped his voice to a threatening whisper. "Certainly not; put that thought from your mind." He had John's word for it that Mycroft had been in love with Amy, whom he had yet to replace. While the role demanded a variety of skills, surely there were others who could perform at least a moiety? Mycroft was vulnerable without an assistant to be his public face, to control the view the world had of him, and Sherlock did not like the thought that Mycroft was uninterested in taking up arms to safeguard himself, that he was indeed revelling grimly in his assailability.
John would know what to do, how to get through to Mycroft; it was not a subject Sherlock had any desire to broach, now that he had just regained steady ground.
It was habit to avoid as many CCTV cameras as he could, though he'd heard Mycroft tell John that he no longer monitored what they captured. There was a flood of warmth when he finally opened the door to the flat, pleasing until he heard John's conversational tone and smelt the chocolate in the air.
John would not have thought to offer that drinking chocolate – a belated Christmas gift from a former patient, delayed because it had to make its way through US customs before the Royal Mail continued the parcel's journey – to a client; it had too many potential allergens and acquired tastes to be readily shared. Obviously, John was speaking with someone already known to him and who had settled in for a long afternoon at the flat. Not Mrs. Hudson – she was still away – and the coat hanging on a peg was not one he'd seen on any of John's relations or paramours. He saw the mugs first, the distinctive handles of the spoons sticking out of them enough to let him know that John had seen fit to use Sherlock's gift for this guest.
Sherlock stepped heavily into the living room and saw Irene, curled up quite close to John, mirroring his position so that they faced each other.
She smiled when she saw him, and John said brightly, "Sherlock, you remember Irene Adler –" before Sherlock caught his arm and said, rather than asked, "I need to speak with you."
"Yeah, of course," John said, that pin-scratch frown already appearing between his fine brows. "Upstairs?" At Sherlock's nod, he stepped lightly up the stairs; Sherlock, following closely behind, marvelled at the spring in his step.
John's bedroom was isolated enough that he had no fears of being overheard if they kept their voices low.
"What is it?" John asked, perching at the edge of the bed. Sherlock followed suit, as there were no chairs; the room really was rather small and had no doubt been intended as temporary accommodation only. It would be interesting to pinpoint whether John's tendency to sit in the living room with his paper, his books, and his laptop was due to his desire to maintain proximity to Sherlock or the limiting size of his private room.
"Mycroft," he said, and John's gaze sharpened. "I know you are not his primary physician, but are you satisfied with his health?"
John gave him a long look. "No, but I'm not thrilled with yours, either. Mycroft had a serious health event, complicated by emotional and psychological trauma, and he has never made his health a priority. I do think that, within the restrictions he has set, he is doing well." John reached out a hand and wrapped it around Sherlock's forearm, exhaling the scents of cardamom and chocolate. "What's going on?"
His answer was oblique, and the set of John's shoulders suggested that he recognised that.
"Stress is a significant factor in his recovery; I am simply suggesting that he hire a personal assistant."
"And you can't talk to him about it, because his last one was Amy, and that's a minefield you don't want to walk," John summed up neatly. Sherlock gave an abbreviated nod and kept himself busy by looking at the strict order John had imposed on his room, all of his belongings neatly lined up or tucked away. "I'll speak to Mycroft, and in return" – when had John become such a dealmaker? – "you'll eat whenever I ask you to. I wasn't kidding about you not looking much healthier than your brother, Sherlock."
He feigned a little reluctance even as he was warmed by John's care. "You drive a hard bargain," he said finally.
"I really don't, you prat," John said, punching him lightly in the shoulder and then heading back downstairs to his guest.
Mrs. Hudson was installed once more in 221A and had evidently picked up right where she left off, if the stream of gossip she poured into his ear was any indication.
"And Emily was mentioning all the fuss they've been having over the elections – she had to stand in line for four hours to cast her vote, can you imagine! – and then they tried to tell her she wasn't at the right place. I tell you, Sherlock, I know the importance of doing my civic duty, but I couldn't have stood for four hours on a hard floor, not with my hip. But I suppose that sort of chicanery is quite common over there. At least that's what Emily said, and she and her friends were all laughing about it after, though I'm sure at the time they only wanted a cuppa and a nice cushion to sit on. Makes you glad that our politicians haven't got the energy to be so actively nasty, doesn't it? Oh, it's good to be back," she said as she finished putting away the groceries.
"It is good to have you back," Sherlock said, moving from a reclining to a sitting pose on her sofa, not quite as comfortable as the one upstairs, which practically moulded itself to his body.
"Now, I'm not sure I should be telling you this, but you know everything that's going on here anyway, so I'm sure it will make no difference. Loretta was telling me that Roger and Danh have been having loud fights and even louder sex at all hours, and she's at her wits' end with the pair of them. She happened to overhear Danh saying something about the police" – he could easily imagine Mrs. Turner with her ear pressed to the door of her "married ones," the better to catch every whisper – "so it might be a case you'd like to take on?"
A "little domestic" sounded positively ghastly. "I do require a client to approach me directly, if only to assure me of their desire to proceed and state the facts of the case as clearly as possible. I am accustomed to have mystery at one end of my cases, but to have it at both ends is too confusing. " There – Mrs. Hudson always backed down when he stifled his affection for her and made his diction as mannered as Mycroft's.
"Yes, I can understand that," she said, subsiding. "Would you like a biscuit and a cuppa?" His mobile, mercifully, beeped. "Oh, must you go so soon?"
John's text read Mycroft touched by your consideration. You don't have to go through me. John
The habits of a lifetime were difficult to break, though Mycroft seemed to be managing fairly well; he actually smiled when Sherlock entered his office, and gestured to the chair that would more easily accommodate Sherlock's height.
"May I ask," Mycroft started, leaning forward a bit in his own chair, "the name of the young lady John has been seeing?"
"She's within two years of John's age, Mycroft," Sherlock said, surprised into waspishness by the unexpected query. "There's no need to act as though acknowledging her age would be tantamount to bandying about her name." He paused and Mycroft waited patiently. There was no value in denying him this, particularly if it turned out Mycroft recognised her from some scandal on the stage of world politics or, even better, espionage. "Her name is Irene Adler."
"Ah, it is her, indeed!" Mycroft sounded delighted.
"Do you know her?" Better to nip John's infatuation in the bud now; their new flatmate could be tossed out as quickly as she'd barged in.
"I know her talent, which is prodigious. I have not met the young lady herself." Sherlock's impatient gesture prompted him to continue. "I heard her sing at the Royal Opera House Gala this autumn."
"Another of your pet sopranos?" Sherlock asked, disappointed. He'd never acquired Mycroft's taste for the opera; he'd always supposed that, being musical himself, he had an outlet for his artistic impulses and was not reduced to mere appreciation.
"Contralto," Mycroft corrected gently. "'W itches, bitches, or britches,' as they say. In any case, that's not the matter you wished to discuss with me," Mycroft said suavely. "I understand you expressed concern for my health and indicated your belief that an assistant would ease some of my burden."
Sherlock rolled his eyes. "For heaven's sake, Mycroft, someone else can do your filing and make sure you've enough time between appointments to have a cup of tea. Simply hire someone. I will help."
"In what way would you be willing to make yourself useful?" Mycroft asked dryly, though his eyes gleamed.
"I will sit in on the interviews, or conduct them myself if you'd rather, and screen the candidates."
"And you believe this will secure an assistant for me more quickly?" Mycroft asked, laughing at last. "You will flatten half the population of England with the force of your personality alone."
"Yes, but I'll do it speedily," Sherlock said, unable to keep himself from grinning.
For all his threats, John had not been diligent about making demands for Sherlock to eat. Hungry as he was, Sherlock wanted to wait until he got home, so that he got credit for voluntarily consuming a meal. John was in the kitchen when he stepped into the flat, but Irene was there too, kissing John with her eyes closed, the side of one forefinger trailing slowly down his cheek.
John's eyes were closed as well, hands placed along her body as if he were gathering up discrete pieces and holding them together in one precious, precarious bundle; it was a singularly useless gesture that served no purpose but to remind Sherlock of a laughable term John's therapist had dared to use only once, according to the notes Mycroft had forwarded upon John's signing of the lease. "Touch-starved," she'd called him, a diagnosis that surely applied to most of the adult population of Britain. Sherlock did not especially want to touch John just for the sake of touching him, but he had clapped hands on the man's shoulders, cupped his face, washed his hair, and brushed his skin with fingertips that had seemed suddenly electric; what he had not done, he realised now, was to feel John's warmth with the side of a digit rather than the highly sensitive pad of the finger, and catalogue the data such a different touch could offer.
John's eyes finally opened and at least one of Sherlock's questions was answered; when amorously engaged, John's eyes were neither looking inward at his own pleasure nor focused on the woman to find hers, but rather utterly at peace. It was a look he wore well, and Irene's finger lingered on his cheek. Sherlock would have expected her to demonstrate some awareness of her surroundings, but she was either terribly unobservant or far too comfortable in a flat only newly hers – most likely both. In any case, it was John who saw him first and smiled readily.
"We can get out of your way," John said, one of his fine-boned hands still keeping Irene close – Irene, who did not even have the decency to look smug at collecting data Sherlock would never acquire, but rather seemed endowed with that same serenity John displayed. John's feet were already pointing toward his room.
It was all too sickening, and Sherlock's appetite vanished as if it had never been. He texted Mycroft and fled the flat precipitously, ignoring the growling of his stomach as he stepped into a cab.
"You cannot possibly mean to tell me that these applicants have already been through some sort of culling process," Sherlock said, throwing himself into a chair and letting his head tip back until his nose was pointing at the ceiling. "They are utterly incompetent! From which barrel did you scrape them?"
Mycroft's voice was patient but appreciably weary. "They have been screened and placed in the general pool. They handle some of the low-clearance tasks while waiting for a permanent assignment. All speak at least two languages, and –"
"This last one could not even construct a logical chain of more than three steps!"
"It is not as though he would be called upon to solve any of Detective Inspector Lestrade's cold cases."
Sherlock didn't bother to acknowledge the truth of that statement; the point was that anyone upon whom Mycroft would come to rely ought to be capable of anything. If the assistant brought nothing to the table, that was worse than Mycroft continuing alone.
"I can think of several people who would do better than the candidates whom the government has wasted time and money in screening," he burst out, frustrated, then considered. Not anybody he'd met since his return – Bassem Ghebre had been ridiculously naïve about his lover's matched cupidity and idiocy, and Angela had been even worse, overwhelmed and panicky. Before he'd left, though – he'd had help. "There is a homeless woman who gives her name as Jeannie. She would be more useful than Conor Heppel or Samantha Lyons or any of the other idiots foisted upon you. Molly Hooper, whose mind appears to focus solely on my desirability as a sexual partner, would still be a paragon of utility compared to Jennifer Browne and Melissa Li."
Mycroft simply sat quietly, hands locked tightly together. Sherlock ended his rant and stepped over the resumes scattered on the floor, at the sight of which each successive applicant had blanched, earning an instant demerit. He dropped a hand to his brother's shoulder.
"We'll find someone soon," he said, careful to make no promises about replacing the lost Amy with anyone of her calibre.
The least John could do was make him some tea. Sherlock wasn't sure if sex would enervate or energise John, and thought it would be best to resign himself to eating nothing substantial tonight in case it were the former. John and the ubiquitous Irene were in the kitchen again, both with damp hair, John's fingers trailing along the bared skin at her waist, revealed when she reached into a cupboard where John now kept tea and drinking chocolate. Without waiting for confirmation, John filled the kettle and set it to boil.
"You really could drink tea every hour on the hour, couldn't you?" Irene asked, emerging from the cupboard with various blends in both hands and catching sight of Sherlock. "You, too?"
"It's my way of life, darling," John said lightly. He caught Sherlock's eye and raised an inquisitive eyebrow. Sherlock nodded and allowed one hand to drift toward his stomach. John grinned even as he shook his head and pulled eggs and butter and cheddar out of the fridge.
Irene began rummaging again, finding a half-finished loaf of granary and a squeezable bottle of Sainsbury's clear honey. "Honey is going on the list," she muttered, but her objection was clearly for show, as the bottle went on the table.
"I'm glad you've an appetite now," John said, setting a plate of scrambled eggs with cheese in front of him.
"Aren't you eating as well?" Sherlock asked, dawdling until John brought three mugs of tea to the table.
"I will do," John assured him. "Eat up while it's hot."
Sherlock watched him steal a slice of Irene's toast and slice a bit more cheddar to top it. John's satisfied sip of his pristinely dark tea was the sound Sherlock's body was apparently waiting for; he gave his own tea one brisk stir to blend the two spoons of sugar and settled down to his meal.
It was Irene who interrupted the flow they had built over dozens of days. "Do you remember how difficult it was to find milk for coffee – or tea – in Afghanistan?" she asked, and Sherlock eyed her narrowly; though her question implied that she had served over there, he refused to believe he had read her incorrectly. Her perfect posture was no matter of military drilling, and she had none of John's gravitas. John nodded, though, and with that she was emboldened to continue. "And there was sand everywhere – I was washing it out of my hair for days."
"Ah, but it's exfoliating," John said mock-solemnly. He extended his hand for inspection, baring the slim strength of his wrist. "Baby smooth, the ladies tell me. Gents, too, actually. They'll say anything as the anaesthetist is putting them under."
Sherlock's rolled eyes seemed to tickle Irene as much as John's attempt at pawky humour. John grinned, pleased with himself for having made her laugh, only to turn to Sherlock, shocked, when he saw how she was treating her tea. Irene was still giggling as she poured more than enough honey into her cup to make the spoon stand up on its own. It was positively barbaric. She took no notice and stirred it while looking at John.
"Smooth skin I do recall, but I seem to remember you being blonder."
"Nature's way of preserving a balance," John said calmly between bites of cheese on toast. "My hair would be darkening now that I'm not out in the sun so much, except that it's greying at a rapid clip."
Sherlock eyed him sidelong, considering. John's hair was darker now than it had been when they'd first started flat-sharing, and John was greyer now than before Sherlock had left, it was true, but he was still John, still essentially unchanged. He'd expected to come home and find him exactly the same in every detail, but that was impossible. Had the situation been reversed, John would have known better, and expected some tightening or slackening of skin, some dimming or shadowing of eyes; Sherlock was abruptly, profoundly grateful that he got to see the results of John's transformation over the months away, even if he had missed the changes due to his own decisions.
Irene, pressing her lips to John's weathered cheek, seemed to feel the same way.
"Bored," Sherlock informed John when he came downstairs the next morning, trailed by the inevitable Irene. John's T-shirt was as rumpled as his hair, and there was a bit of skin showing at the turned-up hem. Sherlock's fingers itched to stroke it, but the heat John was radiating was enough to discourage him; it wasn't latent heat from one of John's blistering showers, but rather heat generated by having his skin pressed to Irene's. "Lestrade has not offered any cases, and you have not updated your blog to solicit any in weeks."
"There you are," John said, perching on the arm of the chair. "You haven't updated your website either. You had some notes out when – you were working on a paper about the sources of homemade inks used in prison tattoos." It was not quite smooth, that rerouting when John was on track to mention Sherlock's disappearance; he wondered how John had described the event to Irene. "Why don't you finish that?"
Sherlock shrugged elaborately and John audibly murmured, "Blight," which Sherlock chose to regard as a private joke between them, as only John had ever used that word to describe him to his face. "Look, I filed away all of the notes you left for posts you were going to make. They're all in this drawer." He pulled forward one of the filing drawers mounted on wheels that usually stayed in the vicinity of the bookshelves.
"What are you going to do?" he asked before he could stop himself.
"Have breakfast and enjoy the morning before my shift starts this afternoon," John said briskly, clearly awakening more with each passing minute.
Sherlock was rather enjoying the sensation of sprawling heedlessly across the sofa and listening to John go straight to the kettle like a devoted acolyte at the high altar of tea. The charm of the morning stillness was lost when he could hear the sounds of Irene's mouth meeting John's, lingering over his skin as the minutes ticked slowly by. Would she never be sated?
It was tempting to slip away to his bedroom with the relevant folder and transcribe the monograph from his brain to his laptop, but he would not be chased away by some jumped-up American girl who presumed on a brief acquaintance with John in Afghanistan. Nodding determinedly to himself, he pulled the file from the drawer, scooped up John's laptop, and settled in at the kitchen table.
"What are you – oi, I was going to use that in a moment!"
"You were not going to solve the online crossword today, I assure you," Sherlock said crisply. He spread out his papers, feigning ignorance of Irene's plan to relax with John in the kitchen over mugs of tea and squares of toast. He could feel her puzzled gaze on him as he bent his head to read.
John didn't regulate the volume of his voice even when she leaned into him, making an inquisitive murmur. "Don't worry about this one – it would take more than a bomb to break his concentration. We'll sit out there. Here, catch hold of the tin."
Denied a proper skirmish establishing rights to John and the kitchen, Sherlock slumped in his seat after they left the room and wondered if John would save any of the shortbread for him.
He could hear Irene's voice start up again and sought to block it from his mind. Where was his much-vaunted concentration now?
"Are these really yours? You've got great taste," Irene said, and Sherlock sneered at the judgement that John would have been responsible for choosing the best brand of biscuits. "Can we play them now, or will that bother him?"
"Go for it," John said, and Sherlock strained his ears to hear what was coming next before the clicks and hisses spelt it out clearly. A stringed instrument – guitar – and a drum started up in unison and then a man's clear voice rang out over them, pleasingly. The lyrics laid out the man's professed ignorance of many vital subjects, but the song somehow remained charming.
Irene waited until the song was over and sighed contentedly. "That's who it is that you remind me of," she said. "I kept thinking, duh, the person John reminds you of is John, from when we met before, but it's him, it's Sam Cooke. You've got a voice like Sam Cooke, all pure and true."
"Not Barry White?" John asked, dropping his voice to a ludicrously low pitch, so deep it sounded like a growl.
Sherlock couldn't very well delete the acoustics of the rooms in the flat – the knowledge was potentially useful – but he needed to come up with a workaround so that he could ignore it whenever John was left alone there with a shag partner. He could hear from the timbre of Irene's laughter that she was sitting on the sofa and then from the hitch in her breathing that John had settled himself in her lap and kissed her soundly. Sherlock silently stole to the doorway and peeked around it in time to see her hands settle on his waist while John's head dipped once, twice, thrice toward hers, which he held in his cupped hands, bestowing a kiss each time, and then John swung his leg to the side so that he was sitting next to her, the lengths of their bodies touching from shoulder to knee.
"I used to deejay in uni," John said. "Never saved up as I'd meant to, just put all the cash I earned into more records."
"I can tell; that's quite a collection. You've got all of my favourites."
"Ella, Etta, Marvin," John said, each guess landing a bull's-eye, to judge by Irene's face. His hand plucked meaningfully at hers.
"Who's your favourite singer?" she asked him, sliding her head across the back of the sofa, leaning away so she could look him in the eye.
He smiled, a perfect expression of tenderness, and Sherlock turned away, but not in time to avoid hearing John's voice shape the single syllable with lapidary solemnity: "You."
It was intolerable, how thoroughly Irene had settled herself into John's life. He'd observed Mrs. Hudson, whom he'd expected to rout out the intruder, if only because there was the small matter of a lease that permitted two occupants only, actually matching the woman smile for smile and insisting that Irene call her Helen and not to hesitate to knock upon the door of 221A if she needed anything.
That it was John being so inconsiderate as to foist a new flatmate upon him was surprising; John had always made it clear that the flat was to be their little oasis, and in fact had spoken sharply to him when he felt Sherlock had gone past the lax line precedent allowed. It was sorely tempting to escape from the flat and vanish into 221C, taking only the battered leather sleeve that held chemical salvation from behind the headphone-wearing bovine head on the wall, but he could still see John's face crumpling in on itself when he'd caught sight of Sherlock's inner arm, could still hear Mycroft – who was not a chemist – wearied by the repetition of overdoses and calculation. It would not be oblivion but destruction, if he chose to indulge. No, he could endure Irene's bath products that caused honey-scented clouds of steam to roll through the flat, the quick shuffle of her socked feet against the floorboards of John's room, even her evident desire to kiss John senseless. He simply had to give her a wide berth.
He was rudely interrupted in the organisation of his thoughts by a tap on his bedroom door. John had long since departed for the Trauma Centre, and Mrs. Hudson knew better than to tap that way when he might be on the cusp of making a case-breaking deductive leap.
"Yes?" he said, hoping to make the interview a quick one.
Irene poked her head around the door, smiled, and entered. He bit his lip to keep himself from asking if she'd lost her wardrobe in some crime or accident, given her propensity for wearing John's clothing on the days she had no responsibilities outside the flat. The hem of John's RAMC T-shirt was pulled taut, caught by a corner of the large box she held. The writing on the top listed her name above his address, and his fists clenched at the confirmation that she meant to entrench herself in the flat for the foreseeable future.
"I just got my latest box from my friend, and I wanted to let you know you should help yourself if anything looks good. There's four kinds of honey and actual peanut butter that doesn't need to be stirred to be good and lentil crackers and Reese's." She held the box out and he could see flashes of oversaturated colours meant to lure the American public into exchanging money for diabetes.
"Your friend sends you all of these goods on a set schedule, and in return you send her – of course it's a woman, not just your friend, but, in fact, the first vocal coach you had who took your ambition seriously – local treats from wherever you happen to be studying or performing."
"Betty asked for Marmite," Irene confirmed, wrinkling her nose in distaste. "But I packed the box with Cadbury's, too, and –"
"Yes, Betty," Sherlock continued. "She was the one who helped to train you into a softer accent, rounding your vowels as very few from New Jersey ever learn to do. She was a soprano, never got further than a few local productions of family-oriented musicals. And you were eager to justify her faith in you; you thought of her as a second mother after your mother remarried, and you wanted an alternative to modelling, for which you were being headhunted. Well done on that front, incidentally, as I have done it for a case and can attest that it is terrible." He smiled as he saw the frown growing on her face. "Ah, you have questions," he said, reclining, prepared to hear queries about his time as a model.
"I never resented my mother for marrying Kellam," was what she said, dark eyes clear of past grievances and fastened on his. "He's good to her and to me, and I've never seen her happier than when she was pregnant with my brother."
Her spine was, as ever, ramrod-straight but the weight of the box she was holding was beginning to tell on her. Her arms trembled slightly before she compensated by jamming the box against one hip and shifting her weight to accommodate it. That stance was a challenge, even if she did not know it, and John had hammered home the notion that an enemy worth engaging was one worth respecting also, if only for its destructive force.
"You were intelligent enough to be happy for your mother even as you were well aware that it was no longer the two of you against the world, and that the foxhole mentality she fostered had given way to the onslaught of a textbook family; you were the only piece that did not fit." Her eyes never wavered from his, and he felt the rush of the deductions pour through him. "It is clear that you are a tactile person, and equally obvious that you view John's responsiveness to you as a sign of his generous nature; between the two of you, you've generated a feedback mechanism, so that each touch spurs another and you cannot seem to keep your hands off each other. All of that points to a need for touch that has never before been satisfied. Furthermore, though you are generally more prolix than John, you are quite commendably trying to keep silent now, another sign that you have learnt not to air your thoughts before an audience you believe will not be receptive. And yet you want to keep that audience in its place; you keep trumpeting your previous relationship with John in Afghanistan, prior to my own meeting with him, but I have seen no sign of an extended acquaintance, or even more than a single chance meeting."
At last she was roused to respond, igniting the air in his room. "I bumped into him, literally, and there was something about him, the way he looked at me, that made me sure he was a good person."
How terribly banal she made John sound, and how dull it was to justify her trust in John as nothing more than a gut reaction. "There are ways of getting to know someone that do not require intercourse," he said smoothly. Sexual hunger was always the least interesting motivation, and it was so very commonplace.
"But this was the best way for both of us to get what we wanted. And I wasn't wrong about him, was I?" At that she hauled her box back into her arms and left.
Sherlock lay back against his pillows and tallied up the hits and misses, satisfied that the skirmish had gone to him.
There were no comments, or even hits, on his post on the derivations of the inks most commonly used in prison tattoos, and Sherlock sighed disgustedly. He needed a case desperately before his brain stagnated further and he was reduced to fashioning his cases into fiction.
Lestrade was still showing signs of that aggravating independence, so his only alternative was Mycroft. Surely this was the day when the proper assistant would make herself known. Mycroft appeared overworked as usual, and disinclined to postpone any of his tasks until Sherlock casually questioned whether John would like the look of him at their next lunch date.
"It's rather galling that such a simple stratagem should be so effective," was all Mycroft said, but he acquiesced, turning away from his computer after a few decisive keystrokes.
"That appears to be John's motto in life," Sherlock acknowledged by way of commiserating.
"Congratulate him for me, please, on the two pounds you've put on," Mycroft said while waiting to be connected to the main office. "Yes, interviews for assistants. Immediately."
It wasn't long before there were several candidates waiting in an orderly queue outside Mycroft's office. Sherlock took the opportunity to look them over and make them quail; a handful broke ranks and departed, which of course was a testament to the efficiency of his gimlet eye. There was only one who had not used her peers' cowardly flight to indulge in a few tics, and Sherlock beckoned her in with an imperious flick of his fingers.
The woman settled herself in a hard-backed chair, crossed her ankles, and waited patiently. Sherlock eyed her narrowly, waiting for her to blink, to proffer the vita folded crisply in one hand, and nodded when she simply faced them squarely.
He took the first crack at deducing her history. "Took a First in Economics and Management from Hertford College."
"Family history at Hertford, Mycroft. Brasenose offered her a place."
"Special interest in BRIC," the subject of the discussion, Laurel Travers, said without any notable inflection. Sherlock eyed her again, taking in her stiletto heels and forest-green skirt suit, her trim fingernails and large pores. She sat unwilted by the inspection and left promptly when Mycroft inclined his head at a specific angle. Biddable, then, and able to separate work from emotion.
"No major objections, though one must wonder at the type of woman who would choose to keep long-haired Persian cats," Sherlock said.
"Indeed." A nod settled matters, and Sherlock was rewarded for a good day's work by a text from Lestrade, followed hard upon by one from John confirming that he would be at the crime scene by the time Sherlock got there.
Lestrade was standing near John, who was smiling at Sally Donovan and laying a congratulatory hand on her arm; there were evidently no secrets there, as they all looked pleased to be in each other's company. Sherlock wondered bemusedly how John had only now noticed that Sally was in the running for promotion to Detective Inspector. He stepped out of the cab and saw all three of their heads swivel toward him. Lestrade had clearly swallowed his pride, which was all to the good, and Sherlock acknowledged him with a cordial nod.
"We haven't managed to get a coherent word out of her," Lestrade warned in an undertone, holding back as Sally forged ahead. "John, the SOCO's delayed, we might need you –"
"Understood," John said firmly, following after Sally. Sherlock watched him go and then turned his mind to the room they were in. Modern, spare, and covered in blood. A corpse lay on the floor.
"Heavily built white man, hair half-brown and half-grey, approximately six feet tall," Lestrade started, then stopped at Sherlock's impatient look.
"I can see all of that, and more besides," Sherlock reminded him, gesturing for silence. The face of the corpse had been bludgeoned and stabbed so that none of the hairline, none of the features, and only a small fraction of the jaw, which was marked by a sticking plaster, retained integrity . The body was dressed in a blood-spattered T-shirt that was twisted around the torso and cheap trousers that clung to powerful thighs and calves. Its hands were reddened by rashes that started at the wrists; Sherlock pushed aside the cuffs of the man's trousers to see the same discolouration at the ankles.
The incoherent moaning that had filled the flat slowly decreased in volume as John's soothing murmurs gained ascendancy. Sherlock strode through the doorway and found him sitting with a woman in her early thirties, holding her hand and letting her sag against his side as they sat on her bed. John looked up when Sherlock entered the room, but gave every indication that he would not be letting the woman go until she was ready to sit up on her own and tell her story.
Sherlock examined the woman's cluttered bedroom, his eyes lighting on gaps in the rows of paperbacks on her shelves and a photograph propped up against the base of her lamp, evidently waiting for a frame. It showed her with her hair done up in a professional knot, her flight attendant's uniform crisply pressed, smiling and holding the waist of a man half a foot taller with a wide smile and broad shoulders.
More quickly than he'd expected, she sat up and blew her nose violently. "I came back from a flight and found Fred like that," she said, gesturing ineffectually at the living room where the body lay. "He'd only just got back from Africa a few weeks ago, and hadn't been to work because he'd got sick; there was no reason for anyone to want to hurt him."
"Is that Fred?" Lestrade asked, pointing at the photograph. "What was his surname?"
"Porlock," she said, bewildered until she followed the DI's pointing finger, then shook her head. "Nah, that's my boyfriend, going on three months now."
"Do you want us to call him for you?" Donovan asked softly.
"He got a call a few days ago that he had to go see his mum in hospital in Glasgow. He said we'd talk when I was back from New Zealand. I don't know what to tell him; he liked Fred." She buried her face in her hands again and snuffled into the tissue.
"John, I need you to identify the cause of the discolourations on Fred Porlock's extremities," Sherlock said, and John nodded, squeezing the woman's shoulders.
"Lily, are you up to coming with me?" he asked quietly. "Or would you rather stay here?" Sherlock could see very well that she was reluctant to let John go and was about to ask why John, of all the detectives, was the one who needed to view the body.
"Dr. Watson," he prompted, watching understanding dawn on Lily's face.
"I'll come," she said, standing as John did, allowing his arm to stay firmly around her until they were within a few feet of the corpse. "Oh, Fred," she said, and turned her head.
John let go of her once he was sure she could stay on her feet and squatted near Fred Porlock's waist. Sherlock watched him snap on the gloves Lestrade handed him and then examine the body gently, as though it still mattered. John crab-walked around the corpse, first toward its feet, at which point he examined the ankles and raised the trouser hems to press inquisitively at the shins, and then toward the head, peering closely at the ruin of the face. He pivoted on the balls of his feet.
"Have you got a recent snap of Fred?" he asked Lily.
She looked blankly at him before starting as the memory came back to her. "Yes! He said he needed one for a friend he'd made in Ethiopia, and he asked me to take it on my mobile and mail it to him. I did it just before I left for Wellington a week ago." She fumbled briefly in her handbag, fetched by a constable, and unlocked the mobile so that the picture was on the screen.
"Ta," John said, taking it from her. He looked consideringly at her. "Would you like to lie down for a bit? We'll be here for some time, taking all of this down and cleaning everything up."
"Yes," she said shakily. "I think I might." John nodded, emailed the picture to himself, and handed her the mobile, which she clutched to her breast as if it were all that could anchor her to reality.
The constable got her back in the bedroom and closed the door firmly. The moment that was done, John looked first at Sherlock, then at Lestrade and Donovan, and raised the mobile.
"That's not Fred Porlock," he said with certainty, his voice betraying only a hint of his excitement that he was the one making the deductions. He raised his own mobile up to show them the photograph, which showed only a broad face framed by greyish-brown hair; a bit of sticking plaster affixed to Fred's jaw was startlingly stark against his bland skin. "Look," John said, and peeled back the bit of plaster from the man's jaw, revealing unbroken skin beneath.
Sherlock's attention sharpened as John continued to speak.
"This corpse is exhibiting no additional symptoms of any disease or condition that would cause this kind of discolouration – no desquamation, no oedema, no ischaemia. In fact, the discolouration appears to have been painted on." He drew one fingertip heavily through the worst of it, on the corpse's wrist, and then held up his gloved hand to reveal powdered pigment staining it. "This looks like low-end blush."
Lestrade took the mobile from John's unresisting hand and examined the photograph. "But Fred Porlock had these symptoms for real?"
"It looks that way," John said, standing and groaning as his knees cracked. "Lily said that he'd been ill since returning from Ethiopia, and the snap is not of a healthy man."
"There's no discolouration in this picture," Sally said, peering at it from the other side.
"Evidently it affected only his extremities," John agreed. "Might be gangrene."
"So how can you know he wasn't well?" she asked, curious rather than challenging.
"You see enough ill people, you get to know the look," John said.
Lestrade blew out a frustrated breath. "Can't take your word for it, though I'd like to. We'll bring the body back to Barts and see what can be done."
Sherlock said nothing, finding yet another advantage to not being an official investigator: he could take John's word, and was therefore several steps ahead of Lestrade already.
"John," Sherlock said as they shared a cab back to Baker Street, the noises of the streets an accompaniment to John's absent-minded humming. "Is that 'Bist du bei mir' that you are mangling?"
John turned to him with a swift smile. "No idea. Irene was singing it the other night, and I only caught a few words. Wish I'd retained more from those agonising years of German lessons."
Sherlock eyed John's reminiscent smile disdainfully. "And you find it romantic that your girlfriend sang a song linking your proximity and her impending death?"
"Sod off," John said lightly. "With that voice, she could sing the grocery list and I'd stop to listen." He started to say something else, cut himself off, and turned to look out the window.
"Yes, I believe you were correct and that the corpse in Lily's flat is not her flatmate Fred Porlock," Sherlock said in answer to the bitten-off question.
John leant his head back and lost some of the tension in his shoulders, and Sherlock, gratified by the response, murmured lowly, "You were most impressive," just to watch John blush. It didn't fade until the cab stopped in front of their building.
When Sherlock pushed open the door to the flat, Irene was on the sofa, socked feet clinging to the coffee table doggedly with prehensile toes. A large score lay open on her lap, and she had her earbuds in; so fierce was her concentration that she knew nothing of their arrival until John stepped forward, tilted her head up, and kissed her hello. Then her eyes said unmistakeably that John was very welcome, and Sherlock, bored by this self-perpetuating cycle, went into his room and pondered what it could have profited a killer to make his victim appear to be someone else. Sleep caught him unawares, he knew not how much later.
The sun informed him that it was late when he woke, as if the lack of an alarm was to be taken as an invitation to waste valuable hours in sleep. Still recumbent, he checked his mobile; not a peep from Lestrade, which meant that he was still tied up with the usual routine inquiries, perhaps even confirming John's reasoned premise from the night before that the corpse was not Fred Porlock. He raised his head from his pillow to listen for John or Irene stirring in the kitchen or living room, but heard nothing. Was John at work, or was he available to discuss the case more thoroughly?
Sherlock flung off the covers and stole up the steps to John's bedroom, nudging open the door, which evidently had not been securely shut. A tableau of peace confronted him.
The two of them were on their sides, facing each other, blankets pooled around their waists; John's hand rested snugly between her bared scapulae, the contrast in their skin tones harmonious rather than striking. All Sherlock could see of John's face was one closed eye and the neat wave of his hairline, hair soft and rumpled; Irene's face was tucked into his throat, her hair a messy cloud on his pillow. The light caught the sharply cut muscle of John's legs and his bare arms and made everything look golden, halcyon, a place where Sherlock did not belong.
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/426961.html.