He sank back into the sofa, tabs for every crime reported in Carlisle opened in his browser. The new Jaguars only had tyres made at the new factory, so Carlisle was the first place to look for clues. Domestics, sexual assaults, murders – those could all be eliminated fairly quickly, as they were too personal to require the serial acts of vandalism that had occurred. Theft, though, was a possibility. But there was nothing in Carlisle worth the murder of a London security guard, except perhaps the specific formula for the rubber used to manufacture those specialised tyres. That could hardly be the answer, however, as that would not have necessitated a journey to London.
Sherlock set the laptop aside and brought his hands up to his lips, fingers steepled together. He closed his eyes and ran through the facts once more. Three London showrooms, of Jaguars and other luxury cars, had been broken into and the tyres of some of the recent models had been slashed. A security guard at the third location had been fatally stabbed. The tyres were Pirellis. Pirelli, an Italian firm based in Milan –
There it was. E ight months ago, he'd heard something about a massive jewellery theft in Milan, but had been too absorbed with Moriarty's handwritten letters to take much notice. The thieves had posed as police to gain access to the display cases and had struck with commendable efficiency; their organisation had stood them in good stead, as none of the stolen pieces had been recovered by genuine officials.
Pirelli had brought some of its Milanese workers to Carlisle to train English workers, and it was possible that at least one of the thieves left the continent through that ready-made means of emigration. Some small objects – rings, pendants, and the like – might well have been hidden among that worker's tools. Objects that could not be explained away if someone else caught sight of them, so he had panicked and secreted them inside the tyre he was working on , not realising that he'd not be able to distinguish it from others of the same make later.
Yes. It all made sense, the narrative shift from Milan to Carlisle as smooth as points on a train track, and he could feel that tell-tale satisfaction blossoming inside his chest. There was always something, though, which was why he needed John to sit there and listen with his puzzled smile, aura of competence, and willingness to make the leaps Sherlock needed him to. Sherlock pulled on his coat and headed for the White Rose.
John was there, as advertised, though he was mostly hidden behind the bulk of Mike Stamford, and neither of them noticed him as they were completely occupied with the pub quiz in which they were competing. Sherlock sighed disconsolately, but even that failed to wrest John's attention away from the unattractive woman with the microphone who was blathering something about the airport with the longest runway open to commercial traffic.
Sherlock stopped in his approach and took a look at the body language on display throughout the pub. John and Stamford were either winning comfortably or sincerely uninterested in the outcome, as evidenced by their relaxed posture and their smiles as they bent their heads together to consult on the answers; they were surrounded, however, by those who took the pub quiz very seriously indeed, and who, by the looks they were shooting John and Stamford, were upset about losing. It seemed that it was hard to compete with two doctors trained at Barts.
If John insisted on spending all of his free time with other doctors, Stamford was the best of the bunch, though Sherlock could not understand the impulse. It wasn't as if he were eager to share every waking moment with Lestrade or the other Yarders. Once again, he was uncomfortably reminded of how much he had missed when he'd only been able to surveil John sporadically.
Time was called, and John looked up, saw him, and waved him over. "The answer to the last question was Qamdo Bangda Airport," Sherlock informed him, and as if that were the cue he'd been waiting for, John laughed delightedly.
Sherlock conceded that some of his jocundity might be attributed to the pint of lager half-drained in front of him, but it wasn't the drink that got John to smile up at him and ask, "Solve it, then?"
"Possibly," Sherlock allowed.
John seemed to divine his disinclination to say more in front of the pub-quiz participants. With a nod, he sent Stamford up to fetch their prize, and stood, draining the rest of his pint. "Come with us to the Irish pub, and we'll go through it," he offered.
Sherlock hesitated. Lestrade and his team were uninvited but inevitable witnesses to his work, and John was the only one who'd shown an interest in the process itself, not just the results he posted; he was not particularly eager to swell the ranks of his audience even by one.
Stamford returned, voucher for free drinks clutched in his hand. "All set, lads?" he asked, in the tone he probably used most often on recalcitrant students. "Irish pub's just down the road."
John tucked into his steak-and-Guinness pie, colcannon on the side, and Sherlock watched him eat with evident enjoyment; Mike, sitting next to him and eating a boar burger, was far less crucial. Sherlock laid out the trail of his deduction clearly, pulling up corroborating webpages on John's phone as he went. Once he was finished, he allowed himself a few chips from the plate John had ordered for him.
"So all Lestrade has to do is look at the list of suspects for the original theft and find out which of them is employed by Pirelli and currently in England."
John cocked his head to one side and opened his mouth, but Stamford spoke first. "Don't you want to do it? Be there, I mean?"
"What?" Sherlock asked with some asperity.
"If you've done the hard part, mate, you should get to have the fun of slapping the handcuffs on the wanker," Stamford said, evidently believing he was making sense. There was a shiny smear of grease at the side of his mouth.
"The deductions are my interest," Sherlock said finally, having tried to be as mild as possible with his phrasing. That he'd succeeded showed in John's pleased nod.
"There's just one thing, though, Sherlock," John said almost apologetically. "If the original thieves kept so cool that no one was ever convicted of the crime and none of the pieces were found, why would the thief suddenly lose his head once he came here?"
"'s where the great Sherlock Holmes lives, of course," Stamford joked, clearly unaware that he'd put his foot in it by reminding John that he'd not known that Sherlock still lived only a few weeks ago. Sherlock was heartened by the fact that John did not withdraw from the conversation; he simply raised his eyebrows as a signal that he was still waiting for an answer.
"You're right, John; the man here cannot be one of the original gang. His actions indicate youth or possibly extreme inexperience. We should tell Lestrade to look for a son of one of the original suspects."
"Fantastic," John said.
Stamford shook his head and said, "I don't know how you do it," even though Sherlock had just shown him every link in the deductive chain.
Sherlock met John's eyes and barely managed to keep a straight face. John hastily gulped down the rest of his drink.
Sherlock waited quite patiently, but John did not spend any of his free time blogging about the spectacular synchronised arrests in England and Italy that had been made from Sherlock's tip; to be sure, John was on a double shift, the hours of which made no sense to Sherlock, as he knew most people had not trained themselves to be alert and responsive for so many hours straight.
Three days after Lestrade and Donovan had felled the murderer like lions taking down a gazelle – or so John had said in his tired, congratulatory call to the DI – Sherlock opened up John's laptop. It had been some time since he'd appropriated it, and it was rather a disappointment to learn that John had done away with password-protecting it; deducing the passwords had been a useful exercise in ascertaining John's state of mind.
He knew from previous perusals that John's blog had not had an update since Sherlock had gone underground, and he'd hoped to see if any private entries had been posted. But John's blog was not one of the tabs open, and clicking on it from the dropdown did not automatically log him in; John evidently had not made an electronic record of his time without Sherlock. Perhaps an old-fashioned paper one, then.
Setting John's laptop aside, Sherlock went to rummage through John's bedroom, turning up nothing that in any way resembled a journal. John had learnt cunning from him, though, so Sherlock took a long and careful look at the bookshelves in the living room, where his scholarly texts were jostled by John's novels and brainless "entertainment." He stopped in front of the shelf that held the Gorey anthology John treasured and tapped a thoughtful fingertip against its violated spine; Mycroft now had possession of the bug Moriarty had secreted inside John's watch, and surely it held all of the answers Sherlock was seeking.
Mycroft had shown himself strangely reluctant to disregard John's feelings. All Sherlock had to do was point out the ways in which his own greater knowledge would benefit John, and he would do it with a suggestion that Mycroft would mistake for a flag of truce.
It always surprised him to see sunlight dancing about Mycroft's office, illuminating the rich patina on the wood and picking out individual dust motes. Surely Mycroft would have felt more at home in a secret underground lair somewhere, someplace sterile and cold. Sherlock sat without so much as a by-your-leave, just to keep Mycroft on his toes, and went right for his knight, ignoring the more traditional opening pawn.
"Doug Maberley is waiting for your response to his invitation to spend a few weeks at his villa or palazzo or whatever he calls his wife's estate."
Mycroft's face tightened but he set down the single-spaced report he'd been reading and laced his fingers together. Sherlock continued to loll indolently in the way Mummy had deplored.
"It might do you good to spend some time out of the office," Sherlock said consideringly, as if he weren't aware that the thought of a holiday was enough to make Mycroft run screaming in horror.
"How very thoughtful of you," Mycroft said dryly. "I had not expected that you were in contact with any of my friends, as you've taken on so at the mere notion that John and I –"
Sherlock sat up abruptly and Mycroft stopped and let a most unpleasant smile sharpen his hatchet face. "Do you know, when I first heard you'd found yourself a partner, my initial thought was that someone must have fallen in love with you? That seemed more plausible than the remote possibility that someone could tolerate you just as you were. The notion that you might be good for that person too – well, it never occurred." Mycroft used the tone Sherlock had most hated as he was growing up, the older-and-wiser voice that said careful, you'll hurt yourself and did I not tell you that this would happen?
"I cured his limp," Sherlock parried. "I made it possible for him to stay in London."
"London is his home," Mycroft said dismissively; "you cannot lay sole claim to it."
There had to be another tack to try. "What did you do with Moriarty's body?"
Ah, at last – a pause, a stop for breath, a plea for some room to manoeuvre. The first sting of triumph nearly made Sherlock sick; he'd meant only to catch Mycroft off-guard, not remind him that Moriarty had killed Amy in a fashion so exquisitely cruel that John had elided all detail in speaking of it. Mycroft had gone nearly sclerotic in front of him, and Sherlock unthinkingly put his hand out.
The movement startled Mycroft out of his absence and he eyed Sherlock's hand, curling in on itself but still stretched toward him, with something very like loathing. "A blunt instrument would be taken as a lack of respect between us, I suppose."
"Mycroft, I –"
Mycroft's eyes snapped up to meet his. "I burnt Moriarty's body. I interrogated the doctor in his pay. Whatever loose ends your efforts had left dangling I cleared away. And I thanked John for ridding the world of one who thought himself divine and revelled in the worst of human nature."
It had not been John's first time dealing out death, and Mycroft had seen it, had witnessed John panting and bloody-eyed. Mycroft had been trusted to come to John's aid – and Sherlock had an epiphany, more inconveniently timed than most, right there in Mycroft's office: John would not have kept any journal of his thoughts; John's emotional state and grief-maddened deeds could be read only in the company he had kept, that wide array of friends that John had said had kept him going. Infinite variables – not only how many of them had rallied round John, but what their experiences had been, how they would have reached out to him – meant that Sherlock could never know the precise pattern of John's life while they were apart. It was no good to say that John was strong and could bear the loss; John might very well have lost a best friend before, or he might have emerged from his wars unscathed, but the accretion of losses and gains and betrayals and connections from his entire history meant that Sherlock would never be completely certain in his predictions, or even in the meanings he ascribed to John's past actions. John could not be completely known, even to himself, let alone to Sherlock.
He felt suddenly unclothed, but as he looked at his brother, whose face was haunted still, Sherlock was moved to an act of kindness. "How did John –?" he asked. It would be good to have the deductions he'd made from hearing the showdown confirmed.
"John snapped his neck with his bare hands," Mycroft said, with no small amount of satisfaction.
"As befit a soldier," Sherlock said, and stood to go.
"Mycroft told me he's spending Christmas in Italy," John said, brewing a pot of coffee that smelled terribly decadent. "Sounds lovely, doesn't it?"
"Mmm," Sherlock agreed half-heartedly; Italy would be warmer, but the presence of Doug and Isadora Maberley tipped the scales in the other direction. Of far more interest in Mycroft's email was the case he'd offered, hot on the heels of the conversation they'd had in his office, some tenuous understanding emerging from all the thorns.
"I suppose it does take him a few months to prepare for being out of the office," John mused. "It's only just Bonfire Night."
That made Sherlock sit up and look round at John. "Were you planning to go out?"
He'd not seen any sign that John was dating again, but Harry and Lestrade especially seemed eager to fix John up; the clear-eyed delight their wives took in John was surely no small motivation.
"Shall we?" John asked. "I've got thermoses for the coffee."
Sherlock considered. John was looking very ready for the brisk weather in his sleek blue jumper and worn-soft jeans, his hair shaggy like a wild creature's winter coat, but going outside meant sharing him. Sherlock dug his cold bare toes into the sofa cushion. "Can't we just stay in?"
"As you like," John said, smiling, and brought the silver coffeepot , in which all of his many moods had been reflected at one time or another, over to the living-room table, mugs clinking together in his other hand.
He solved Mycroft's case a few days later, and something about his brother's restrained demeanour had him wondering if Mycroft had contrived circumstances – the timing of the assignment, the frequency with which John had to cover his supposedly ill colleagues' shifts – so that John would miss the case and Sherlock would be able to lay it in front of him as a whole, neat and complete.
John's eyes blazed as Sherlock spelt out how a man named Neville Sinclair had appropriated the history John's friends had died for; Sinclair had, instead of taking on a proper job or even searching for a sinecure based on his family's social status, disguised himself, with the best paints and prosthetics the film industry could supply, as a gravely disfigured war veteran, collecting for the Royal British Legion. The money his twisted lip and amputated legs had earned him had gone straight into his own pockets.
Twice during Sherlock's recitation, John had looked to Mycroft as if to confirm that he was hearing the story correctly; both times Mycroft had nodded gravely back. Mycroft's calm, whether genuine or assumed, was not contagious, and John was shaking with rage by the time Sherlock finished, and his eyes were hard and flat.
"No, it's done," John said quietly to himself before getting up to offer tea. Mycroft accepted and settled back in the soft cloth of his wingback chair. By the time John returned with the tray, Mycroft had John's watch out of his pocket and was presenting it.
"Your wristwatch was returned to me just last evening," Mycroft said, and John's face lit up. He unclasped the silver watch and offered it in exchange for his parents' last gift. "I'd like you to keep this one as well," Mycroft continued, gently pushing away John's hand.
"You or Sherlock could wear it," John protested, though he drew his hand back willingly enough.
"If it is with you, it is still within the family," Mycroft said, smiling, and when John's answering grin flashed across his face, Sherlock very nearly forgot himself and smiled too.
Sherlock did not fidget, though being hemmed in by so large a crowd made it a near thing. He shifted his weight away from Harry and Clara – the former eyeing him with her most unforgiving expression, the latter apparently uninterested in looking at him at all – toward Mycroft. John was in a realm of his own, though he stood with them, the neat lines and superb posture of his figure marking him apart. The watery-eyed man at the front of the crowd was speaking, but his voice trembled as violently as the scarlet poppy in his buttonhole, and only a few snatches of his speech were comprehensible.
John's ears were going pink from the cold, Sherlock could see from behind him; he wanted very badly to observe for himself what John's eyes looked like when he was thinking of his fallen comrades, or remembering the endless moments when he thought he lay dying. But he would have had to jostle everyone around him to effect that, and John would be pulled out of his grave contemplation, so Sherlock stayed put. He saw in his peripheral vision Harry and Clara both shaking while shoring each other up. Beyond them, he could see veterans whose scars could not be hidden by their bright uniforms.
His lungs burnt from the crisp November air and a recollection of John's words; John had called his work a "public service," implicitly comparing solving crimes to the kind of selfless courage he himself had shown in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Sherlock wanted to stand straighter and accept the honour, but knew it was far too generous. In the end, it was only Mycroft's hand at the small of his back that kept him upright, standing amongst those who had given so much.
Sherlock had observed that John felt the cold much more acutely than he did, and was therefore at a loss to explain why John grew more cheerful as London turned chillier. He wore those sleek cashmere jumpers nearly year-round, so it couldn't be that he enjoyed pulling a seasonally appropriate wardrobe out of storage. And shorter days meant that he was more often heading to or from work in the darkness, lit only by the city's harsh glow, which disrupted his circadian rhythms and by all rights should have made him more irritable if anything.
John's cheerfulness was just due to the time of year, Sherlock was forced to conclude, when John got emails and phone calls nearly every night from people he hadn't heard from in months. So pedestrian, this holiday spirit, and far removed from genuine spiritual feeling. John's parents had not inculcated him with any particular religious sentiment, and John had evidently had no inclination to pursue it on his own. Sherlock had memories of being relentlessly suborned into proper attitudes of compassion and love, but John had needed no such instruction to obey not just the letter but also the spirit of such tenets.
At least Mycroft would be safely away in Italy and would not be on hand to plague him about any so-called familial obligations, though Mrs. Hudson was nearly as bad, bustling up the stairs despite her fabled hip, and enjoining him to "stop looking at morbid things on the internet" and help her string lights and garlands everywhere, including 221B. At least his fib that John was allergic to tinsel precluded a final garish layer being added to the mess that was his flat.
"Sherlock," she said firmly, setting a loaded tea-tray down on the table, "I've something to say to you." Pouring the tea, however, was apparently enough to derail her. "Oh, that one strand of lights just won't stay on! I'll just –"
"Mrs. Hudson," he interrupted, eager to have his sofa back. "What was it you wanted to tell me?"
"I'm leaving for my trip in a few days, and I wanted to make sure there will be no more silliness while I'm gone."
He was at a loss. "If you hurt John again," she began, then trailed off; Sherlock got the distinct impression she was trying to avoid laying down an ultimatum. "I don't think he could take it."
He had had suspicions of his own on that front, until John had shown him how wide and strong his network was, the veritable throngs of people who seemed to ask for nothing more than for John to be happy.
"John is not as fragile as you think," he prevaricated; it was hardly Mrs. Hudson's place to lecture him about his relationship with John.
"He – he couldn't keep a thing down for two weeks!" she exclaimed. "Saving some tea, of course."
He frowned; John had not been ill at the time he'd left, only exhausted. Even if he had been queasy at the thought of Sherlock being killed, two weeks was surely an exaggeration. Anna had re-entered John's life at that point, and if she were even halfway to competent, she would have done something. It was more than implausible; it was impossible.
But Mrs. Hudson's eyes were shining with genuine outrage. "You know I've always been fond of you, but I haven't seen that much has changed since you came back. And he deserves better at your hands, Sherlock. Don't you chase him off."
"You will not return from Florida to find yourself down one tenant," he promised, relieved when she took the evasion as an acknowledgment of her reproach.
He rooted through all of the ingredients with which John had cluttered the fridge and cupboards. It didn't follow logically that John, unable to stand food, would become an avid cook, but this was John, who was as illogical as it seemed a person could be.
He didn't bother to put everything back as he had found it when he heard John's step on the stair; he liked holding evidence in his hands, and there was no time anyway. John walked in, ivory-coloured dust brightening the folds of his jacket, and stopped with the light behind him, limning his figure and making his expression a matter of shadow rather than clarity.
"Sherlock?" he asked, a rumble of amusement in his voice. "Were you hungry?"
Sherlock sighed in exasperation. Had John not seen his plate in the sink, covered in the detritus of two meals? Or had breathing in the marble dust that coated the studio in which Lestrade's wife worked made him unable to process information properly?
"Explain," he demanded, holding out a small hinged box of saffron in one hand and a jar of "Mother's Recipe Andhra Gongura Onion Pickle" in the other; he would think fondly of his own mother before believing John's would have made anything that looked quite so lethal. Though haggis was likely just as hazardous to the health.
"Explain what? You've seen me cook, and once in a blue moon you've actually eaten what's put in front of you," John scolded, gathering the items that had been removed from the fridge and reshelving them. "What's got into you now?"
"Mrs. Hudson has been confabulating again."
"Whilst decorating?" John murmured, looking around at the baubles scattered around their evergreen-scented flat. "Talented lady."
"She claims that you were unable to stomach solid food for two weeks after I left."
John shifted, and the light caught his jaw; Sherlock could see that his mouth was pressed into a thin line. "Ah," John said. "And you want –?"
"You to deny it," Sherlock explained impatiently.
"I can't, though. Do we really need to get into this again?"
"You thought I was dead, you stopped eating, and then you took up cookery? It makes no sense, John!"
"My god, I feel like Maria Montessori," John said under his breath. "I know you grasped this last time, Sherlock. You cannot predict everything I am going to do because not every part of me is covered by your data, however extensive it might be."
That was as unsatisfactory an answer as Sherlock had ever received. "Then why did you not just tell me?" Sherlock demanded.
John shrugged and stepped around him to reach the kettle. Sherlock watched as John filled it with enough water for two. "I was going to make pasta with vegetables for dinner." He retrieved tomatoes and onions and began chopping them, characteristically neat-handed, though it was odd that he'd not donned Clara's old apron.
Sherlock, still watching him closely, tapped his fingertips together. "Cooking is a way for you to claim control of your environment," he deduced, "but not yet a relaxing exercise; there are too many unfamiliar variables."
John was affecting not to have heard him; presumably he was busy blinking away copious tears induced by syn-propanethial-S-oxide.
"You did not wish to tell me; while that is tiresome, I suppose it is your prerogative. The question remains, however, as to why Mrs. Hudson chose to tell me about your bodily reactions to my departure."
John said, over his shoulder, as if his hearing had been miraculously restored, "That's the thing – everyone has parts of their personality that are beyond you, not just me."
Sherlock, still sitting on the floor, went cold at the casual barb. John washed his hands, filled a pot with water, set it to boil, and wiped his eyes. "Now what, you nutter?" he asked, offering both hands to haul Sherlock up. Sherlock laid his hands in John's, which were small and veined and fine-boned, but made no move to shift his weight.
"You're invalidating my work," he gasped out, and felt, from the startled squeeze of John's hands around his, that that was not what he'd intended.
"God, no, Sherlock, no." John took a deep breath and lifted Sherlock up; Sherlock, not much caring where he landed, went where John's strong hands put him. "You know more about crime than anyone else in the world. You're able to work out the who and why and how from any crime scene. Once it's happened, you have the answers." John's arms went round him, warm and secure, and though John's chin was on his shoulder and he couldn't see John's neat mouth shape the words, he could still hear them. "All I'm saying is that in real life, when everything's up in the air, there'll always be something beyond your reach."
Mechanically, he said, "Like your pot."
John spun, still clutching him tight, and said, "Oh!" as the pot boiled over.
"Yes," John admitted, definitely amused, as he shuffled awkwardly over to the hob, Sherlock not letting go. "Like that. Wanker," he said, turning off the heat, and Sherlock felt infinitely better.
Sherlock was engaged in an experiment to determine the ductility of common household objects made of metal alloys. As he had few possessions that could be characterised as common, he'd selected a small sample of John's; that John's favourite spoon was necessary was regrettable but unavoidable. Mrs. Hudson turned up as he finished clearing all the evidence away, weighed down by a stack of packages, one of which was wrapped.
"You boys haven't even got yourselves sorted for the holidays," she said disapprovingly even as she handed him one of the tins and dropped a light kiss on his cheek. It seemed that their previous disagreement had been forgiven and forgotten; just in case it wasn't, Sherlock did not bring it up. "Though I suppose John's work doesn't allow for regular holidays. I'll drop by tonight though, if that's alright. I've got to be off early." She took the other packages back with her as she left the flat, and Sherlock decided that meant he was free to investigate the contents of the one she'd left with him.
Dark golden diamonds, each the length of his smallest finger, lay nestled inside the tin, forest-green tissue paper surrounding them. A rich scent of butter arose from them and Sherlock poked one diamond carefully, until it cracked and he could seize a single crumb. Its taste was both plain and complex, and at last Sherlock recognised it. Gateau Breton was a treat he'd not had in years. He closed his eyes and unerringly picked another crumb loose and brought it to his lips.
He was still picking thoughtfully at the cake when John entered the flat, dropping his jacket – too thin and brief for the weather; hadn't those wretched professional busybodies furnished him with a proper coat whilst ogling him? – and heading determinedly for the stairs. There were noises coming from his room as of drawers being opened and wardrobe doors being flung wide open, and then finally John returned, in thick, soft fleece and cotton, his hot-water bottle in its red woollen sheath dangling from one hand.
"Would some of Mrs. Hudson's Gateau Breton divert your attention away from your shoulder?" Sherlock offered, raising the tin.
"Ta, but I just want to rest a little," John said, heading to the kitchen for the inevitable cup of tea and to fill the bottle.
John ended up getting about forty minutes of relaxation with the heavy heat pressed to his shoulder before Mrs. Hudson came up, bearing more parcels than she'd carried earlier. If only Mrs. Hudson would get a mobile, she could have received a text from Sherlock asking her to delay a while.
"John, dear," she said, bustling in self-importantly, "this arrived for you, and I thought I should bring it while I brought your present."
"Oh, I haven't yet done my shopping," John said, looking guilty, and presenting his cheek for her smacking kiss. "I forgot you'd be leaving in the morning, sorry."
"Hush, now," she said, perching on the arm of the sofa where he lay like a rag doll that had been tossed at the corner. "Just open mine first, would you? This one's for you, and the other is from me to both of you."
Sherlock sat up from his sprawl to watch John open a tin of brownies that Mrs. Hudson had baked, face lighting up as he sampled a small corner piece.
"Divine," John pronounced solemnly. "I don't know how you do it," he said, while Sherlock sniffed and smelled pistachios rather than the more usual walnuts; Mrs. Hudson had learnt John's tastes rather well. "Sherlock, do you want to do the honours?" he offered, handing over the shared gift. Sherlock shook his head, feeling exceptionally lazy, and lay back down. John tore open the gaily striped paper to reveal a hardcover book.
The New Best Recipe, Sherlock read and rolled his eyes.
"Since you're cooking so regularly these days," she explained as John delightedly flipped through the pages. "I was going to get you that new book, the Modern Kitchen at Home, no, that's not the name –"
"Oh, no, that one's far too dear," John interrupted earnestly. "This looks much more useful, anyhow, with all the scientific explanations."
Sherlock did not believe in rising to such obviously cast bait, but he was full of Gateau Breton and had no real desire to disappoint Mrs. Hudson in any case. "Scientific?" he asked, tone just curious enough to get John and Mrs. Hudson to exchange conspiratorial glances.
"Make me something for when I get back," Mrs. Hudson asked, "and that'll do me for a present. Oh! I nearly forgot this other package. It looks very smart, doesn't it, with the gold paper."
"That's not Harry's writing," John said, that puzzled line appearing between his brows, "nor Clara's either. And it's not like them to be so early with a gift."
"Secret admirer?" Mrs. Hudson cooed, elbowing John familiarly, and he laughed despite the way she jostled his shoulder.
"If only," John said, carefully peeling away the paper, as if he knew Sherlock might need to examine it later. The box inside was large and without a logo, and Sherlock knew exactly who had sent the parcel.
John pulled off the lid to reveal a thick woollen coat in a dark blue that would set off his eyes remarkably well. He stood to shake it out and Sherlock saw that the breast was cut wide and square to drape comfortably across the breadth of John's shoulders and that the coat tapered at the waist; Mycroft had had it made to John's specifications, and it would suit him perfectly. The crinkling sound that he heard as John held it out to admire it was explained by the sheet of ivory tissue paper keeping the vermilion silk lining pristine.
"Mycroft," John said, beaming, and reached for his mobile.
"He's en route to Italy," Sherlock reminded him. "You won't be able to reach him."
"Oh, you'll cut such a fine figure in that coat, John," Mrs. Hudson said, fluttering about, gathering up scraps of paper and setting the box on the table. "Now, I must be off; I've an early flight." John kissed her cheek and Sherlock walked her to the door and submitted to another fond embrace.
"Eat what he cooks you, dear," she said in a whisper far louder than it needed to be, then started down the stairs.
It was clear that John was reaping benefits in the form of Christmas presents from those he had befriended, which meant that Sherlock was going to have to find something absolutely perfect to remind him of the pecking order; no one else could claim to be John's best friend as corroborated by the man himself.
John had headed to the Trauma Centre just before Mrs. Hudson's taxi arrived, booked for an early shift, which meant he'd return by early afternoon. Sherlock went to investigate his room, to see for himself what John had, the better to determine what John lacked.
It was rather cold in the upstairs bedroom, he noticed, looking at the pristine condition of rather spartan quarters. He opened the wardrobe doors and saw John's shoes and boots neatly lined up and his shirts hung in front of the shelving that held his towels, sheets, and other sundries. John's black-and-white striped dressing-gown hung from a hook and was only slightly damp. Sherlock closed the doors and started on the bureau, working from the bottom drawer up. More clothes: jumpers, jeans, trousers, socks, vests, pants. In the top drawer lay his deflated hot-water bottle in its scarlet woollen cover, resting on a pile of thin white vests. There was one discordant sliver of ivory peeking out beneath the red, and Sherlock reached for it automatically.
It was a note from Mycroft, navy-blue ink on heavy cardstock, and there was a blue thread clinging to the edge; the card had had no envelope but rather had been secreted in one of the pockets of John's new coat. The note could not be simply a season's greetings card, or else John would have put it up on the mantelpiece or perhaps on top of his dresser. Burning with curiosity, Sherlock bent his head to read Mycroft's spindly script.
My dear John, Sherlock read, and it was only the colours of ink and paper and the familiarity of Mycroft's tall, elegant hand that kept him from reacting as if this were one of Moriarty's poisonous notes. Those had been done in rather chic black and white, not the warmer tones of blue and cream, and Sherlock, dizzy with frustration at the repeated assumption that John was anyone else's, wondered where all of Moriarty's letters had gone.
My dear John,
I had not intended to write such a note, but your transparent surprise at my words the other night reminded me that your modesty is still inconveniently great. When I said that you were part of my family, I meant it, to an even greater degree than you could have imagined. Do you remember telling me that you counted your sister-in-law as one of the great boons of your life because she brought out the best in you as well as the best in your sister, and, not coincidentally, brought you two closer together? Ms. Endriseh, you told me, performed a service, all unheralded and often overlooked; I know you too well to believe that you have not made a point of thanking her. So must I do the same for you. These last several months have been an extraordinarily difficult time, and your steadiness has been a strength upon which I have relied. Though I had not counted on it, you have made it possible for me to feel part of a family again, and it has been your efforts that have built the bridge toward sharing a relationship with my brother again.
I am deeply indebted to you, and so, if he has any sense at all, must my brother be as well.
Sherlock abandoned his plan of looking under the skull for Moriarty's notes and sat on John's neatly made bed, the card still in his hand. He had never expected such an outpouring of genuine emotion from Mycroft, of all people, or for John to recognise it and treasure it, keeping it tucked away like a pre-pubescent girl of a pre-Facebook age would have hidden her diary, wearing the key to its lock around her neck. Mycroft had been in a bad way since Amy's death, it seemed, and it was hardly surprising that he had latched onto John as the one ray of light in the darkness; that seemed to be what John was made for, an unwavering candle that lit the way back to the world.
He supposed he could forgive Mycroft for going back on his vow never to call him "brother" again. His hands were perfectly steady as they replaced the card in John's drawer, straightened out the creased bedclothes, and set the room to rights. He only faltered when, safely installed in the kitchen once more, he tried to crack an egg against the worktop edge and ended by crushing it uselessly in his hand instead.
That spark of forgiveness fizzled out unceremoniously when he reasoned that his brother was the driving force behind the case Lestrade was presenting, with John, ever faithful to the cause of justice, as his willing audience. Even when he was supposed to be lying on a beach in Italy, all thoughts of work drained out of his head, Mycroft had no compunction about twisting Sherlock's arm and demanding that he take this case.
It was instructive, though of course rather wretched, to be exposed to so many ordinary people all at once and for so many hours every day; Sherlock wondered idly if Harrods drew a particularly dim clientele or if John had simply spoilt him for companionship. He lost days to the case, days when John was either on call or meeting with people eager to wish him good cheer for the holidays.
And then, rather abruptly, John solved the whole case and Sherlock was free of his employment. He celebrated by picking up his violin for the first time in weeks and serenading John. No carols, nothing John could tap his foot to or try to hum the melody of; this was more about John opening himself up to the rapture of the counterpoint than about simple recognition. John's slate-dark eyes had gone rather dreamy and hungry, as if he were peering at something far out of his reach, when Sherlock, elated by his success, launched into the familiar strains of Bach's Partita Number One. John's gaze became sharp and focused, and he did not wait for a pause but simply spoke when the diminuendo occurred.
"That's the last thing you played me before you left," John said, evidently believing that it was some kind of code.
"It is a particular favourite of mine," Sherlock said, watching, gratified, as John's body lost its peculiar tension and he accepted once more the music being woven around him.
Sherlock could not say which upset him more: John's failure to understand that the private – though not quite impromptu – concert had been his Christmas gift to John, or that he had missed deducing that John had been planning to update his blog at long last. Nothing consequential, of course, and it did cheer him to observe that John never did have anything valuable to say except about him. I've much to be thankful for, the entry read. Cheers to you all. Absolutely banal. He switched over to his own website and saw that there were no new comments – no comments at all, actually – on his wholly absorbing study of tattoos, covering the significance, colours, shapes, sizes, and meanings of the markings.
Very well. If John needed to see a wrapped package in order to comprehend that Sherlock reciprocated his friendship, then he would get a towering stack of them.
Sherlock stalked to 221C, where he'd hidden the festively wrapped gifts he'd been saving for Christmas Day. He shook off the stray thought that John had been running himself ragged at the Trauma Centre and was possibly allowing some vile illness to batter his defences and therefore sap his brainpower.
When John finally returned from the Trauma Centre, sniffling heedlessly, he perversely took no notice of the tier of boxes set next to his chair, going instead to his laptop and turning it so that the screen faced Sherlock. Sherlock ignored the sight of John's blog, now with some comments, and looked instead at John's face, which was slightly fuller now than it had been upon his return, but was currently pulled awry by an anxious expression and the incipient drip of mucus.
"This is what I'm asking for for Christmas," John said, guileless as a child, his voice ever so slightly clogged. "A friend of mine needs your help."
John's friend was inept with respect to putting together a case file, preferring, as John did, to sacrifice clarity for a suspenseful narrative stuffed full of extraneous detail; by the time he got on the train, Sherlock still wasn't sure if an actual crime had been committed.
The journey itself was markedly different from the last time he'd been on a train with John, and Sherlock smiled at the sight of him, pink-cheeked and eager for his expertise.
"Tell me what you know thus far," he instructed, and John compliantly sat back to marshal his thoughts and blow his nose.
"I didn't get much of an explanation from him, just the comment on the blog, which you saw."
"Which was less than informative," Sherlock reminded him.
John frowned, endearingly, making himself look terribly young. "That in itself was odd; Gheb's one of the most level-headed fellows I know. If he couldn't pull himself together enough to lay out what happened, it must be bad."
Sherlock supposed that was fair, and John's willingness to travel all the way to Sussex on this man's say-so, while ill, surely spoke to the trustworthiness of the man.
"Soldier," he deduced second-hand, enjoying John's amazed surprise, "but not a fellow doctor. You do associate him with your work, though, given how readily you took charge of this current situation, so – a soldier you treated. You noted his level-headedness, which means you weren't dealing with an immediate, shattering trauma for which you would have anaesthetised him; you were able to speak with him over several visits, so – long-term care. The nickname you used implies friendship beyond the professional or even the camaraderie of the unit, warning me I should brace myself for further proofs of your dubious sense of humour."
"You are such a blight," John said admiringly, then sneezed.
John's friend was the owner of a very fine property, sprawling enough that it included a lake, a brook, and some thick woods. The house itself had a grand façade made of an unusual grey-blue stone, the precise colour of John's irises bleached several shades lighter. Sherlock shot a look at John, who was slowly turning blue as they waited on the step, buffeted by the merciless wind.
At length, the door opened and there stood a man with a broad chest, not entirely steady on his feet though he carried no cane.
"Gheb!" John said, hurrying forward to lock the man in a fond embrace.
"Ah, John, mate!" the man returned, clapping John on the back with a cupped hand; the reverberation it would have made was lost due to the thickness of John's new coat. His eyes were shining darkly, and they met Sherlock's without a qualm. When he pulled back, he had a hand on each of John's shoulders. "Thank you both for coming." He looked assessingly at John, now that there was a bit of distance between them. "I meant to call you before all of this –"
"No more vagueness, please," Sherlock requested crisply. "What exactly has happened to your lover?"
John's hand clasped his friend's bicep to get his mouth to close.
"Here, let me; it always seems to go down well when I do it." John turned to Sherlock, eyes mischievously shining in his careworn face in a way that took ten years off him, clasped hands near his cheek. "My God, that's amazing! How did you know?"
It was impossible not to laugh a little bit at that, or at John's follow-up, which was some muttering about freezing his bollocks off on the front step. Gheb hastily pivoted to let them by, but the inside of the house was not notably warmer. In fact it looked like the house had not been occupied for very long, as there were snowy cloths covering the furnishings of all of the rooms save one suite, and the banister of the great staircase was similarly draped. The set of rooms in use had lights on, and Gheb haltingly led the way.
The parlour was large and dominated by a grand piano, toward which all of the embroidered wine-coloured chairs were turned, while lengthy sofas anchored two of the walls. If the other suites in the house were built along the same lines, then to fill the massive fireplaces in each room would have been to denude the property's woods entirely; as it was, the fire in this room was roaring and there was plenty of wood stacked high to keep it going. As it hadn't warmed the room noticeably, Sherlock kept his coat on and saw John make the same decision.
"Sit, please," Gheb said, finding the seat that apparently accommodated his hip the best.
"Joe – Joseph – Vamberry is my partner. Long-term, and in fact we were planning to marry soon."
"He lives here with you?" Sherlock cut in. It was important to have all of the data before making any judgements, but it was much easier to ask the right questions than to trust that those involved would have the presence of mind to offer everything he needed.
"Yes. We were batting the idea around when word came that I was being deployed, and then the decision was made and he moved everything in one weekend. We had one week together and then I was in Afghanistan, with Doc here to look after me." He and John smiled at each other at that, firelight flickering photogenically over their faces. "We stayed in contact while I was gone, and he never mentioned anything wrong."
"No issues with the locals, who didn't like the owner of the big house being a Muslim? Or a homosexual?"
"There are no locals; the area's not got much going for it, and people have left for the cities or even abroad. I can't even find a few people near enough to care for the place, and with my hip, I had to close most of the house."
Sherlock focused his attention on Gheb's hip, but other than the asymmetry to his form that came from overcompensating for it, he could not see what exactly was wrong. It could not have been that injury that brought John and Gheb together, either, as it looked to be sudden and traumatic – ah, he had it.
"You're diabetic," he deduced, steepling his fingers comfortably, "and as a medical officer, John was your source for either glucose-lowering tablets or insulin injections. The latter, I take it," he added, as Gheb's fingers brushed unconsciously over his stomach. "And then you were shot in the hip and invalided home."
Gheb looked like he needed more time to process his own biography, but he nodded valiantly. "Yeah. God, you're amazing."
"Agreed," Sherlock said, waiting for John's wry smile. "When did you start experiencing problems?"
Gheb hesitated. "I can't put my finger on it. I wasn't . . . quite myself when I came home, and the house was so quiet, and Joe hadn't counted on having a cripple for a partner." Sherlock saw, with a flush of pride, that Gheb had not even glanced John's way at that; John's limp, which should never have existed, had been thoroughly conquered. "I've a feeling he put up with quite a lot from me. I should have been better to him."
John, Sherlock observed, had not leant forward to chime in and assure Gheb of any innate wondrousness or inability to treat his loved ones shabbily; he wondered if John had heard such things himself and scorned them as sentimental pap unworthy of a grown man who had chosen to fight for a greater good.
"Fine," he said, "let us agree you should have been more forbearing. Did Joseph have any specific complaints?"
Gheb nodded, adding detail as he remembered it. "I remember him talking about money, about bills, even though I'd set up all of my payments online, so he shouldn't have even seen any bills."
"Unless he was spending money while you were away."
"We never did get a chance to set up a joint bank account, but he should have had enough from his job to get by."
"So cash would not have been the urgent matter, as far as you are aware. What changed one month ago?" He waved away any tedious questions. "One month," he prompted.
"My therapist asked me to try something new. Nothing as formal as music therapy, but along those lines. There was a musician who was willing to come down from London and stay here to remain in this country –"
"A permanent house-guest could very well have changed the household dynamics," Sherlock said.
"I was wondering about the piano," John cut in. "I didn't think you played –"
A new voice, American, made him stop short. "It took me forever to find it, but I have to say that 'aubergine' does sound nicer than 'eggplant.'" A woman – within a year of his own age, Sherlock estimated – stepped into the suite, arms full of the shopping. The bags blocked most of her body, so that all he could see of her apparel was a pair of faded blue jeans, sloppily tied trainers, and a scarlet knit cap. "Sorry," she said, "I didn't realise you had company." Her eyes widened when they lit on John, and Sherlock turned to follow her gaze; John was caught in a weak beam of sunlight that made his hair monochromatic instead of variegated. "John!" she gasped.
"Irene," he said, stepping forward. "Let me help you with those," John continued, gesturing to the bags in her arms. Irene ceded one of the bags without a murmur of protest and as she and John disappeared, their footfalls echoing faintly, Sherlock turned to Gheb, eyebrows arched interrogatively.
"I'd no idea she and Doc knew each other," Gheb said. "Small world."
Sherlock continued to wait. "And, yeah, her presence was what used to drive Joe absolutely mad. Said I'd be after her in no time – as if I even could, with this hip!"
"So you are bisexual but your partner is homosexual," Sherlock said, irritated with himself for having got it wrong before. "Have you given him cause to doubt your fidelity before?"
"No, and I haven't since I came home either. Joe knows he's all I need. I told him so every damn day, until he disappeared."
Sherlock stood back and observed Gheb from head to toe, reading tension in every line of his body. Though it had taken him far too long to get to the crux of the matter, Gheb certainly was not failing to take Vamberry's disappearance seriously. "What have you tried so far?"
"I've called the police –"
"Useless," Sherlock spat.
"I've had Irene go to the shops and ask everyone to keep an eye out for him. I emailed his friends in London, but they hadn't heard from him. I've called his family and his former partner, and they all thought he was tucked up safe here with me, still celebrating my triumphant homecoming." There was self-mockery painted across Gheb's face at that.
"So you have merely confirmed that he has no confidant you have been able to locate, if not even they were made aware of your changed circumstances. No ransom demanded, no note from the man himself with an ultimatum to rid your household of this new addition." Gheb shook his head. "What do you think has happened?"
"I don't know!" Gheb said, shifting in his seat as if the pain in his hip had just become unbearably acute. "I don't even know what he thought of this place – if there was somewhere he liked to go, to think – because for the week we had together, we spent most of it in bed."
Sherlock refrained from rolling his eyes twice over at that. Once for the thought of shagging from morning to morning, and again for the notion that thinking required special locations. Perhaps that was why most people simply could not think at any satisfactory level – they placed a totemic importance on the setting of an act that should be occurring constantly, regardless of time or place.
"Where was he when you were having your 'not quite music therapy' sessions with this 'Irene'?" he asked, forcing himself not to ponder the significance of the wonder that had alit on John's face at the sight of her, instantly recognised.
"The library, mostly," Gheb said, gesturing.
"The kitchen would be likely to be warmer," Sherlock pointed out.
Gheb smiled sadly. "Yeah, but the library's a bit further away."
"Very well, let us go inspect it," Sherlock said, noting that, given the speed at which Gheb walked, he would have plenty of time to take a look at the kitchen and hear at least part of the conversation that had been ceaselessly flowing all the while.
Even with the slow pace, Gheb did not look particularly good once they reached the library; the house was old and featured uneven floors, winding corridors, and small sets of steps between rooms. There was sweat standing out on Gheb's brow when he dropped into one of the wing chairs clustered around a table high enough to hold a meal. John, who had been summoned by Sherlock's demanding eye, started forward with a glass of water in his hand and spoke in a low voice to Gheb. Sherlock looked over at Irene, who was watching John and Gheb fondly and paying no attention to her surroundings.
The shelves held the usual hardcover editions any grand estate would have, most of which looked undisturbed, and stacks of more modern-looking paperbacks. The lack of dust on a few shelves indicated the reading tastes of the house's inhabitants: local history, French classics, and P. G. Wodehouse.
"Is Joe an avid reader?" Sherlock asked, only to be met with Gheb's chagrined face.
"I don't think so. He didn't keep any books by our bed except his ledgers and sometimes a notebook."
"I saw him in here a couple of nights, when I couldn't sleep and needed something to read," Irene chimed in, stepping forward as if seeking a spotlight. "He had a couple of these" – her hand waved to indicate the local-history tomes – "on the table and he was taking notes in a notebook." She seemed to realise what the next questions would be. "He growled at me and did his best to shield what he was working on from me, but there's not a lot of camouflage in this room."
"He was sitting here?" Sherlock asked sharply, once it was clear Irene had nothing further to add. "Right-handed, of course," he murmured to himself as he ran careful fingertips along the underside of the table, searching for any kind of spring or catch to release a concealed drawer. Nothing. "This table is a fake," he said, straightening up. "A genuine piece would have had a convenient hidden drawer here to justify the space the table occupies."
John smiled sunnily at Gheb, as if to distract from the revelation, and Gheb just shrugged unconcernedly. "It wouldn't surprise me to learn that half the stuff in the house is fake. Mum said she came from a long line of spendthrifts and we should just be grateful the house itself hadn't been sold out from under us."
"What are you planning to do with it?" John asked, and Sherlock worried his lip as he considered whether it was possible that John was asking as much for the benefit of this Irene as he was for his crippled friend. Perhaps not, as John's eyes were fixed on the elaborate mouldings and his face betrayed an appreciation for the fine colours and fabrics furnishing the library.
"The upkeep alone makes it silly for me to stay," Gheb admitted, "and there's just me, so it's not like any other family member's going to come out of the woodwork and demand his share, because that would have happened when the house went to Mum after Uncle Peter died."
So Gheb was mixed-race, his mother from England's landed gentry and his father a businessman from Egypt. Irrelevant, as was what Gheb was saying, about donating the house to some wildlife charity or registering it with the National Trust. Except . . .
"What does Joe do?" he asked, waiting while the rest tried to shift conversational gears. "Quickly! You said he kept ledgers in your bedroom, that he was worried about his finances. Clearly he was looking for quick cash. Given that this library holds nothing more valuable than some first editions of some rather mediocre titles, he could not have been selling off the contents of this room. But of some other room, yes, it's possible."
"He's a wine merchant."
"Ah! John, the wine cellar." John nodded, decisive and calm, and Sherlock took one look at Irene, who'd noted the action as well, and turned swiftly to her. "You may wait here." Before she could protest, he cut her off. "According to all accounts, you are the last person Joseph Vamberry would want to see." He was surprised to see agreement rather than hurt on her face, but pushed her toward Gheb in any case.
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/427168.html.