John's neck was warm against his chilled cheek, and Sherlock's eyes closed of their own accord. Rearing back a bit, he opened them to slits, just far enough that his eyelashes were tangled into an irregular lattice, and all he saw was red, the colour of John's shirt drenching his vision as if he were basking in the sunshine with his eyes closed, heat and light beating against his closed lids. Or as if he were drowning in blood dripping from one of Underhill's lethal scarves.
"Sherlock –" John started to say, but broke off when Sherlock lunged forward again, somewhat less than graceful, as if the long weeks away from John had prompted the deletion of personal-space rules. He hunched and tucked himself inward so that his nose met the place where John's jaw, glittering with golden stubble, turned smooth and soft and flowed into the strong lines of his throat. Whatever he might have deleted, at least John was still indelible; he smelled earthy, like tea, and radiated a latent heat, and Sherlock gladly kinked his spine to stay close.
One of John's bruised hands cupped his other cheek, then slid through his unsightly hair to cradle his skull. Sherlock had wanted nothing more than to feel John's protective warmth against him for as long as he'd been away.
"Did you know?" he asked, mouth against John's shoulder, the thin, soft fabric of John's shirt catching against his chapped lips. It seemed absolutely vital that he know if John's instincts had betrayed him; the man who could kill Moriarty bare-handed was no one to underestimate.
Squeezed more tightly against a solid body, Sherlock could feel warm breath against his ear as John murmured, "I hoped. Mycroft hoped. He's missed you so." Then John was loosening his arms and Sherlock stepped away, straightening his spine and directing his gaze just past John's sure-to-be-earnest expression.
He wasn't looking, and John's red-knuckled hand on his forehead came as a surprise. "You're burning up," John said, then chewed his lip and frowned. "Come on, now, into bed with you."
Sherlock inwardly gloated just the tiniest bit that the reproaches John evidently wanted to make on Mycroft's behalf had so easily given way to concern for his health. He dropped the phone on the sofa without any ceremony. John waited in the doorway while Sherlock kicked off his battered trainers and climbed into his own bed for the first time in far too long, then closed the door gently with a snick.
Sherlock remembered how his body had fought him while he'd been ensconced in the overweening luxury of that Quincy tosser's garish flat, how he'd needed some sign of John . . . and now, with John on the other side of that door, it seemed risible that he would do anything but stand next to him. But his limbs felt weighted, like there were magnets holding him down, and he succumbed to his weariness with a roll of his bleary eyes.
Still, sleep eluded him as he heard the soft sounds of John moving through the flat: sweeping up the shattered teacup, puttering around as he made a replacement cup and scraped butter onto his toast, venturing up the stairs to take a shower. Sherlock realised belatedly that he was actually holding his breath, the better to hear John, which was ridiculous, as the bug in John's watch was still in place; better, sharper information, not filtered through doors and space, was available to him. Logic did not seem to matter. Sherlock lay flat on his back and contemplated the ceiling conscientiously until he heard John leave the flat, pulling the door closed behind him.
At that, he was up, swaying a bit on his feet, and laboriously climbing the stairs John had just trod. John's bed was unmade – uncharacteristic, John must have been totally shaken by his reappearance – and there was a strong scent perfuming the air, an apple fragrance synthetic enough to set Sherlock's teeth on edge. He leaned in closer to the bed and saw a single long red hair littering one of the pillows.
Yes, of course Anna would occupy this side of the bed, given John's shoulder; he could see that she must have been angled toward John, both of them curled, like foetuses suspended in amniotic fluid, on the expanse of the bed. He brushed the errant hair from the pillowcase and sat on the bed until the sugary scent of Anna's lotion chased him from the room.
He woke without a single clue as to how long he'd slept. There were no cups of tea on his pristine bedside table, no disturbances to the trail of clothing he'd removed upon returning to his bedroom; John had not so much as peeked in on him, let alone guarded his rest. Ordinary people, he knew, often judged the passage of time by their hunger pangs, but he'd trained himself out of that. He wondered briefly if that had been a mistake, then recalled a number of experiments and stakeouts an ordinary appetite would have precluded. Satisfied, he rested his feet on the cool wood of his floor.
The flat seemed strangely silent, he thought, snatching up his dressing-gown from its hook and drawing it on. There was no one in the living room, no murmur of voices from above or below, and only the fridge was humming quietly. The clutter on the mantelpiece – John's framed photograph of his sister and her wife just edging out the skull – was the same as it had been before. Sherlock prowled through the kitchen, opening the fridge and the cupboards to see nothing of his, just jars and packets of expensive sauces and spices, fresh produce, and similar rubbish; John was evidently cooking rather than relying on takeaways or frozen foods, most likely to impress his current girlfriend. Sherlock wondered how long she thought she was going to last.
The silence was oppressive. He smiled when he realised what he could do about it. He opened the violin case reverently, eyes filling with light as the wood glowed, borrowing colour from the scarlet velvet hidden inside dusty black. The instrument fit in his arms and his mind went beautifully clear, melodies spun out on staves that streamed effortlessly across his inner eye. His fingers were slow at first but soon enough they became obedient, and he played, filling the flat with pure sound.
It was glorious, reuniting with his violin, asserting that the space he stood in was his. His control was absolute; the time away had not been allowed to diminish his skill. He played serenely until he heard a muted shuffling behind him, and his bow went awry, eliciting a discordant screech, and he turned to find Mrs. Hudson there, clutching a lace-edged handkerchief near her open mouth.
"I didn't think I could believe him," she said, eyes widening when he pivoted, as if Sherlock's face offered more proof of his return than his back. "Wishful thinking, I put it down as."
God, what dreadful sentence structure. "As you can see, Mrs. Hudson, I have indeed returned and you can trust John to grasp basic facts when he is presented with empirical evidence."
She smiled tremulously, then stepped close, her face pressed briefly against his chest. "I should have known you couldn't stay away from him for too long." She tittered, the sound dying as she turned away again. "He said to leave you be, that you needed your rest, so I'll go. I just wanted to see you with my own eyes," she finished, backing away and heading down the stairs.
He frowned and lifted the violin again but could only produce jangling squawks.
Seething with frustration, he gave it up as a bad job and packed the violin away. Mrs. Hudson had broken a sacred calm. He stopped and considered; she'd been wearing a blouse and soft trousers, suitable for running errands. It must be a weekday, then, as she'd long since given up going to the shops on weekends, when they got more crowded. He strode to the windows and saw that the light was a pale, early-morning gold. Excellent – he knew just where he could find Mycroft, and if John thought he could limit others' exposure to Sherlock, then surely Sherlock could warn Mycroft away from John.
There was no value to appearing before his acquisitive brother in his beggar's rags, so Sherlock showered and dressed carefully in a pearl-grey shirt and a sharply pressed black suit. He could wait until after he had announced his return to stop by his locker and retrieve his coat and the outfit he'd had to discard; getting his hair back to its proper colour would also have to be deferred, though it would do Mycroft no harm to see that Sherlock could carry off even ill-cut two-toned hair. He stepped out of the building and headed toward Mycroft's office.
Anthea – Amy – was conspicuous by her absence and the emptiness of her mahogany desk, which had often been hidden under self-important stacks of paper – ridiculous, considering all of her work had concerned electronic files, hence that wretched BlackBerry. It had been months since her death; what was Mycroft waiting for? Sherlock shook off musings about Mycroft's peculiarities, as the lack of an interfering and too-clever-by-half assistant made his path to his brother's door all the easier.
When he pushed open the door to Mycroft's sanctum, Sherlock saw his head go up as if he'd been startled, but no corresponding line of ink defaced the document he had been annotating. Mycroft made a show of politely capping his pen and putting the document into the folder at the top of a thick stack, as if to prove that his attention was undivided. Sherlock decided to proceed as if he were motivated by a similar spirit of amity.
"' For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes,'" he quoted, recalling the words Mycroft had spoken when Sherlock had refused to smile for a family portrait; Sherlock had snooped and discovered that Mycroft had not only bought the painting after Mummy had found it "too realistic" to display in the house, but had hired the painter as one of his minions besides.
There was a silence, and Sherlock saw that Mycroft's mouth was making a funny shape, one he hadn't seen in nearly thirty years; Mycroft was pressing his tongue against his soft palate as he'd taught himself to do to rid himself of the stutter that had plagued him. Mycroft's hands, white with tension, were pressed flat on his desk, the force he was exerting delineating every angle of his body quite clearly; Sherlock could see a small bulge in the breast pocket of Mycroft's ill-hanging suit and realised Mycroft had lost more weight. It was definitely not guilt, but Sherlock felt his own hands shake and the craving for a cigarette sweep through him.
When Mycroft spoke, it was with a fussy precision. "You ought to have that gap in your mouth seen to. My dentist is very good and can keep a confidence." A glance toward the outer office, and Mycroft seemed to lose his way. "I will . . . send you his information shortly."
Sherlock started with surprise, though he knew quite well how many marks he bore from the assault by Mathews, and that Mycroft could have deduced the entire fight from just a single clue instead of the embarrassment of riches Sherlock was obviously presenting. He nodded without quite meaning to. "Fine." He considered how to make his point in a way that would stick. "I can only hope he has as little patience with small talk as I have."
"Dr. Scarborough will be efficient, I assure you. He will not enquire about the weather or your general health. Nor shall I. Good day." Mycroft's skin, Sherlock saw, was an unflattering grey; perhaps Amy had kept his brother in sweets that had given him that porcine glow.
"It would be redundant, given that John has the matter well in hand," Sherlock responded smartly, pleased that he was able to speak obliquely and unmistakeably at the same time.
"I imagine John capable of handling everything you have compelled him to," Mycroft said in turn, lips tightening, and Sherlock was unpleasantly surprised by the informality – no pretence of Dr. Watson – and the assumed smile Mycroft wore. Mycroft's voice became disconcertingly fond, even caressing. "He is a remarkable man, after all. 'For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.'" His expression stayed close to blank. "That is the next line of the poem, but not nearly the end."
Sherlock pulled the lapels of his coat closer together as he sat in the cab, considering how to broach the subject with John. His tongue played along the thin wire holding his new retainer in place. Dr. Scarborough had been surprisingly accommodating about his preference for a new false tooth that could be removed at will, as the need for disguise dictated; he would be able to investigate both the tooth itself as well as the hole at his leisure, and the former could be replaced more easily than if he had opted for a permanent bridge.
Not, however, that the cooperation meant that the dentist had been as taciturn as Mycroft had implied and Sherlock had wished. Sherlock supposed that discovering one's wife sucking blood from her new-born child's neck would drive anyone to verbosity. Half the time, in fact, Dr. Scarborough had seemed to forget that Sherlock's mouth was propped open for his shining implements and that Sherlock could not speak.
It didn't sound like a particularly fascinating case – perpetrator and crime had both been supplied already – but it was more than adequate, both to erase any potential debt to Mycroft and to provide the fodder John needed to resume his blogging; Sherlock was sure John would work in at least one terrible pun or perhaps an allusion to those dreadful Twilight movies, the so-called stars of which had stared vapidly at him from posters strewn willy-nilly throughout London as if they weren't the worst kind of filth. The cab drew to a stop and Sherlock had to find cash – inconvenient – before he could bound up the stairs.
John was in the kitchen, wearing Clara's old "Kiss the Cook en français" apron and stirring something that wafted up a medley of aromas. There was no cookbook out, but his face was not anxious – not experimenting, then, but falling back upon a recipe he'd tested and worked out through previous experience. The sink was empty but there were streaks of water running down two chopping boards, a pair of matched saucepans, and assorted spoons and knives, all in a new drying rack; John had conscientiously cleaned as he went, no doubt recalling his mother's example. John was fascinating, even when he wasn't behaving as himself.
Sherlock took a step in and saw the steady motion of the spoon pause for an infinitesimal amount of time. John cocked an eyebrow at him and Sherlock grinned back. "We've got a case."
"I've got food literally on the stove. You go ahead," John said, turning back to the pot, the contents of which were starting to bubble at the edges.
"No," Sherlock said, swallowing his disappointment, "it can wait until the morning."
"How did you know I've finished this week's shift and that I'm not just done for the night?" John asked curiously, before a small smile found his lips, ruddy from the steam. "Did you talk to Mycroft, then?"
Sherlock shook his head and John's smile faded.
"Will you be eating dinner?" John asked carefully, as if he had to be on his best behaviour, and Sherlock was already wearied by it.
He assented and wondered if he were indulging in wishful thinking in ascribing John's lack of questions about the case to his own oft-shouted precept of not theorising before reviewing the evidence first-hand. John ate quietly but with evident appreciation for his own culinary skills, silently did the washing up, and opened his laptop.
"We'll need tickets to Sussex," Sherlock said, lying on the sofa.
"I'm just sending some emails," John said, already typing diligently with his usual appalling slowness, "but I'll leave the laptop on for you when I'm done. Don't book a return for me – I'll have to ring and find out when they need me back."
John had not said one word about the fact that Sherlock's violin case was lying across one of the chairs, nor had he expressed any interest in journeying to Sussex or what they might find once they arrived. No, John was simply typing, the tip of his tongue peeking out from the corner of his mouth. Sherlock felt heavy and worn down as he dragged himself off to his bedroom and opened his own laptop instead. It would be simpler to book both tickets at once in any case.
If, after he heard John's footsteps on the stairs, he allowed himself to tune in to the frequency of the bug in John's watch, no one ever needed to know. All he heard was silence, which told him John was lying awake too.
John was standing one step behind and two steps to his left in precisely the most irritating spot; Sherlock kept seeing him in his peripheral vision and wanted to snap out a command that John take his place by his side, as befitted a friend. When he sniped at Scarborough, "No, no, I've already met you! It's your wife and child I need to meet, obviously," he could feel John very carefully not speaking a word of reproach. Enough. Sherlock whirled to confront John, who raised his eyebrows mildly, apparently unsurprised by the tactic.
"I'm not married, Mr. Holmes," Scarborough said, as if his marital status were remotely interesting. "Angela said she didn't want to be a pregnant bride, and she wasn't sure she wanted to settle down with a dentist anyway." He let out a nervous chuckle that made Sherlock's hand itch to slap him.
"Is it possible she's conducting an affair with your brother?"
"My broth – no, of course not! I don't think they even like each other much."
"Not a prerequisite, as I understand it. Still, I will need to speak with him as well."
"How –?" The glare Sherlock was levelling at him was enough to make Scarborough swallow the question. "Morgan's away for a few days, walking an appraiser through the family estate in the Loire Valley."
"Vineyard?" John asked abruptly, and Scarborough turned to him with a pleased smile.
"The bottles the cook set out at lunch were the house red." He seemed about to elaborate on that – Sherlock braced for boredom – but interrupted himself to address the young woman who had peeked out of one of the doors in the corridor. "Angela?"
"Putting Ian down for his nap," she said, vanishing back into the room.
"No, you're not," Sherlock cut in, recalling the long silence while Scarborough had eaten his meal and John had done little more than pick at his, though it had looked quite appetising. "He's just waking up and will begin wailing for you presently."
There was a long pause and then she burst out of the room, the baby in her arms. From this distance, Sherlock could see that she was quite young, very slight, and not particularly well-educated. The baby was sluggish, as befit a slowly wakening child, and nearly too well-fed for her to manage his weight. Her skin was punctuated with old, colourful tattoos, one arm nearly covered in a sleeve of pigment. Prominent among them were thick lines of black, shaping characters from various languages, not one of which she was likely to know.
He smiled contemptuously when he saw that she was glaring at John, who was nearer Dr. Scarborough than he was, obviously believing him to be the one who'd called her out for her lie. John waited until she was done eyeing him up and down and said, "Hello. I'm John."
At the sound of John's tenor, Angela relaxed and considered John again. "Angela. And this is Ian."
The baby went for John and John took him readily. "He's beautiful," John lied, but from the look on her face as she regarded her moist, pink progeny, Angela believed the same.
"Oh, what's happened here?" John asked, voice taking on a bit of an edge as his fingers gently shifted a roll of fat on the baby's neck to reveal a large bruise. Sherlock could see John's spine stiffen as if he were ready to run for the hills, baby clutched in his arms.
Ian's small hands danced along the strong lines of John's arms, patting his face and hair. John dismissed Angela from consideration – interesting, Sherlock would have to consider John's instincts as a factor – and turned to face their host, levelling a look that was just shy of accusing.
"Bryson?" John looked between Scarborough and Angela again, saw that neither took refuge in the other, and nodded grimly to himself.
Sherlock should have made John listen to the case as it had been presented to him, because there was no way to keep John from looking like an idiot at this juncture. Though John had correctly noted that a bruise at that particular location could only have resulted from some deliberate action, as a fall would have caused additional marks on the skull and face and perhaps hands, he had not believed that Angela would inflict such a wound on her own child. Sherlock could see very well that Scarborough could not bring himself to repeat the charge, and that Angela had gone hunched and defensive, though her eyes remained locked on John with a fixed, desperate hope. Curious. What did she expect John to do?
"There is a puncture wound here," John snapped out, and Sherlock bent closer to take a look at a site that should have shown either twin marks or none. John did not accommodatingly shift his hands as Sherlock had expected, so instead of the child's neck, Sherlock saw those hands in close-up: still bearing remnants of their tan, traversed by the weary blue of winding veins, responsive to the baby's movements.
"Let me see," Sherlock insisted, and John's steady fingers exposed the area once more as he made nonsense sounds to soothe the baby, unsurprisingly growing restive again. There was indeed one puncture mark, too fine to have been made by the undernourished Angela's incisor, and in any case her teeth could have been an advertisement for her lover's practice; there were no gaps or overcrowding to mar their symmetry, which meant her bite would have caused a second mark.
"If not teeth, then lips," he murmured to himself. "You were sucking out something with which your child was injected," he said to Angela, gratified by her instantaneous reaction. "How did you know what to do?"
Her eyes, wide and terrified, fixed on him like he was a demon. "Gil, Nan's bloke, has snakes in his flat, he's always letting them out o' the tanks, used to tell Nan if she was bit he'd suck the poison out. Scared the shit out o' her, 'n me too."
"But you remembered," Sherlock said, graciously overlooking the terrible diction.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Scarborough demanded, finally regaining the colour he'd lost, gesturing at her as if his hands were more eloquent than his words. In Sherlock's estimation, it was a tie, neither one serving Scarborough well. "You said nothing! You let me believe you were back to your dark stuff –" He cut himself off by snatching the child out of John's arms.
The baby evidently did not enjoy being treated like a sack of potatoes and wailed in earnest, reaching arms out toward its mother. "Give 'im to me," Angela said sharply. "He's mine."
"It's in your house that 'e's been injected with something!" Angela cried, bouncing the baby ineffectually; Ian screamed all the louder.
"Come, Angela," John said, getting a hand on her back. "We'll leave Sherlock and Bryson to work out –"
"There's nothing to 'work out,' John," Sherlock interrupted. "Clearly, Scarborough's brother, a rather unsuccessful doctor, supplanted as heir to the family fortune by his elder brother's illegitimate but acknowledged child, determined that administering some noxious but rather slow-acting substance and securing an alibi for himself by being out of the country was his best course of action. He counted on Angela's extreme youth and ignorance to overlook any signs of weakness in the child, not realising that her discomfort at the lifestyle Scarborough provides meant that she fixed upon the child as the only focus of her energies. Once his brother's child was dead, he was sure the child's mother would be condemned by either the courts or by Scarborough, and in either case he would be reinstated as heir." He paused; all three of them were looking dazedly at him, and even Ian had lowered the volume of his whimpers. "That medical bag nearly buried under the detritus of this master bedroom – purchased from eBay, not handed down from a family member – Scarborough's brother keeps as a symbol of his chosen profession no doubt contains remnants of the poison. Ineptitude has been his hallmark from beginning to end."
"Oh, God," Scarborough said, and John, his arm around Angela, gestured at Sherlock to lend his arm to the man. Sherlock stepped forward obligingly and looked to John for approbation, but John was half-carrying the sobbing woman and child to the nearest sofa. The entire weight of John's gaze was trained on Angela, whose nose was dripping and shoulders were shaking, even as her arms convulsively tightened around her baby. John kept one arm around her and cupped Ian's head with his free hand, soothing them both quietly for minutes that seemed endless.
John said very little on the train journey back to London. Looking more closely, Sherlock could see he was very slightly greenish, as though he were getting motion-sick. He stood and forced John to switch places with him; now that John was facing forward, surely his inner ear would cease to interfere with his sense of well-being. But John did not confirm any improvement, simply shutting his eyes. It did not look like what was bubbling in his brain was praise for Sherlock's methods or even for the rapidity with which he had reasoned the case out.
Mile after mile went by and Sherlock looked at his own ghostly reflection superimposed on the landscape rushing by, focusing on forcing down his reawakened nicotine cravings. John stirred, looking slightly better for having got a little rest, so Sherlock ventured, "What will you call this case on your blog?"
John's eyes shot open. "I'm not planning on making anything about this public." There was an undercurrent of confusion in his voice. "Your mate Scarborough wouldn't thank me if I did."
"He's not my 'mate,'" Sherlock said, offended by the characterisation. "We simply did each other a service: he replaced my tooth and I found out why his partner was behaving so oddly."
"He ought to be written up," John said flatly.
"She wasn't that young, John." He offered a smile in case John looked his way.
John eyed him with a sober air Sherlock found himself resenting. "Not for that. Or not just for that. He thought – based solely on her tattoos – that she was some sort of Satan-worshipping blood-sucking ritualist –"
"I cleared her of that charge," Sherlock interjected, surprised at how slow John was being. Perhaps he did need sleep more than he needed cases.
"No. You showed her that's what he thought of her. And you completely overlooked the fact that even though he was wrong about her reasons, he still left his infant with someone he'd seen sucking out his blood! He had a responsibility to that child, Sherlock!"
"That's – that's not our concern," Sherlock said, scrambling to show John all the scattered data he'd synthesised. "We knew she was sucking the blood before we met her – that's why Scarborough asked me to help in the first place. He was trying to do the right thing."
"Not enough," was all John said, the landscape cutting through his reflection as the train clicked steadily on.
Sherlock pulled the sheets off his bed, wrinkling his nose in disgust at the sweaty mess he'd made of them while tossing and turning and trying to find some rest. He dropped them on the floor, too tired to do more, and dragged himself into the kitchen; he presented his forehead to John, who was keeping an eye on the kettle.
"Still warm, but not alarmingly so," John assured him, estimating Sherlock's temperature with the back of his hand, then turned aside to pour boiling water into a mug. John glanced back at him over his shoulder, still holding the kettle aloft. "Tea?"
Sherlock nodded his assent and watched John pour a clean arc of water into another mug, steam rising insistently. So John had filled the kettle with enough water for two cups of tea; what frustrated Sherlock was that he could not tell if it was a habit John had not been able to break, if it was a sign that Anna had insinuated herself enough into John's life that he unthinkingly accommodated her, or if John simply counted on getting a second cup for himself from one use of the kettle. What absolutely galled Sherlock was the knowledge that John had not suddenly turned opaque – he was simply out of practice in reading John and had misplaced his ability to tell which parts of this fascinating palimpsest remained steady and which were evolving.
Sherlock drew back into a corner of the kitchen, cradling his mug in his hands, relishing the heat that passed from the ceramic to his chilled fingers. John set his mug on the clean kitchen table and headed for the cupboard to fetch bread. When he came close to put two slices in the toaster, Sherlock could smell his skin, soapy and warm, and his unwashed hair. John looked up at him and smiled rather shyly; Sherlock's insides tumbled recklessly and he let one warmed hand drift toward John.
The knock on the door surprised them both. John pushed off from the worktop and strode toward the door. His voice, bright and delighted, made Sherlock hold his mug closer, savouring the evanescent heat; he stayed where he was, wanting to see who could make John sound like that when not even a case in which John had defended a woman and child had done the trick.
Lestrade entered the kitchen on John's heels. "She's got I don't even know how many rolls of film and a fair few of them are just me sweating my way up the steps to the Acropolis. I'm to fetch you home now, or, failing that, for dinner on your next night off."
"Sounds good," John said, still smiling. "What would be better for you bo–"
The toast popped up at that moment and Lestrade looked over and went completely still at the sight of him.
"What the fuck –" Lestrade said, eyeing John and apparently reassured by the smile disappearing from John's face. "What the fuck is going on here."
"I'm not dead," Sherlock said.
"I thought you told him," John said quietly, tone still somehow urgent. "Why would you not tell him?"
"What made you think I had?" Had John honestly thought he'd have time to spare for anyone but him? It was John who was necessary to him, John who was still withholding what Sherlock had needed while he was pursuing Moriarty.
"You asked me to update my blog. You know Greg and the rest all read it," John answered, clipped like he was facing Bryson Scarborough again, of all ridiculous notions.
He dismissed John's over-emotional point with a cavalier wave of his free hand, unwilling to acknowledge any disappointment at the thought he was not going to be able to watch John type in his childlike, even idiotic, manner, smiling all the while as he marshalled the facts to make a compelling blog entry.
"Greg, mate, I'm so sorry," John said, putting out one hand and seeming relieved when Lestrade allowed it to rest on his shoulder. "He's ill, so please don't punch him."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Lestrade said after too long a pause, turning his back entirely on Sherlock. "Want to get out of here?"
Sherlock watched a long, wordless conversation unfold in front of him, gleaning emotions from the way John's head tilted and how the light caught on Lestrade's averted face.
"Not contagious," was all Sherlock heard from John, and his fingers tightened reflexively on his mug at the casual tone of voice, as if John were discussing someone from that wretched surgery where he'd used to work between cases.
"Sherlock," Lestrade finally said, pivoting sharply on his heels. "You're coming over, since Vee's missed this one and he won't leave you to fend for yourself. Though God knows you managed well enough for – come on, get cracking!" He looked at John and relaxed into a smile. "Could I get a cup of tea while we wait for his majesty?"
John shook his head as if to negate the smile he was suddenly wearing and filled the kettle once more.
Lestrade's wife – a stone heavier than she'd been when he'd first met her – laughed when she saw John and laid unashamed claim to him, her lips pressed to his cheek and her arms wrapped firmly around him.
"Mmm," John said, brushing sugar from his cheek, "you've been sampling the wares."
"A matter of timing only, I swear. You caught me just as I was about to put the baklava in the oven to warm, so come in and tell me everything –"
Sherlock stepped into view and she stopped talking immediately and simply reached out for her husband. She looked between Lestrade and John but Sherlock, standing behind them, could not see any cues from either of them. He felt slightly overheated in his long coat, even without his lost scarf, and pulled the collar away from his throat.
"Well. Come in," she finally said, standing aside, stiff as an amateur actress.
John and Lestrade went straight into the kitchen, but Sherlock frankly did not feel up to standing around and watching them have a conversation in which he would not have at least an equal share. He settled himself instead on the living room sofa, a nice size for one person feeling unsociable or a tight fit for a cosy twosome. He judged, from the dents in the cushions, that this was where Lestrade and his wife most often sat after a meal; despite his frequent stupidity, then, Lestrade was able to lounge about with the person he most wanted near him pressed up against him.
He glanced around the room, seeing in the sketchbooks scattered on various flat surfaces and the flowering plants blooming at the windows proof that Lestrade was just as much of an uxorious idiot as Sherlock had suspected. He lay down, shoulders perfectly wedged between the back and the arm of the sofa, one overfull cushion bolstering his heavy head. He could hear the three of them talking, all laughing together at irregular intervals; the whistle of the kettle made him startle, but he banished it from his mind by closing his eyes and deducing what spices were mixed into the tea blend Lestrade usually smelt of on a Monday morning. His eyes closed, Sherlock gave himself over to the pleasures of rest and the sound of John's voice.
He stirred briefly, wondering if he'd been asleep, when John's hand alighted on his face, knuckles soft and insistent against his forehead at first, then the palm tenderly cupping his cheek. "Shall we go home, then?" John asked. Sherlock could make out flakes of pastry on his shirt and could smell the honey on his fingers.
"I'm so tired," he said, immediately wondering if Lestrade and his wife had heard his confession. But it was hard to drag his eyes from John, whose mouth curved up at the words and reached down with both hands to help him to his feet.
Eat something said the note Sherlock found in the loo when he woke. A note was a poor substitute for a small doctor with his arms folded sternly across his chest, but it was at least more succinct than John would have been; it was not as though Sherlock needed another lecture on fatigue and susceptibility to illness being results of hunger. In the fridge were small sealed containers of chopped vegetables, packets of gourmet meats, and more, but Sherlock was suddenly assailed with a longing for salt and fat. It appeared that none of the takeaway menus had survived John's new health-conscious regime, but he'd never deleted the number for Dragon Inn; he ordered seaweed soup, braised beef, egg rolls, and John's favourite five-spice chicken, all under John's name.
The chicken had long gone cold when he checked the time, surprised at the lateness of the hour. Surely John had not been on duty all this time? The note he'd left indicated that he'd known he would be out for a significant amount of time, but Sherlock felt uneasy anyway. It would be so easy to verify that John was fine, happily engaged with his work; if he were lucky, Sherlock might even hear about some medical mystery that would energise his mind.
He curled, full and lazy, on his bed, opening his laptop and eschewing the earbuds, tuning into the frequency of the bug in John's wristwatch. Harry's voice came through clearly, and Sherlock frowned in confusion; she sounded relaxed, which made no sense if she was at the Trauma Centre. Clara's voice, pitched a fifth below her wife's, came through, the two of them talking over each other amicably. John was there too; Sherlock would have known just from the sound of his respiration, even if it hadn't been for the bug. The tangle of voices unwound until it was just Harry speaking alone, saying something about their next-door neighbour Laura, the way she and John had eyed each other for one endless summer to the point where Harry swore she'd been embarrassed if she stumbled into their sightlines.
"Oh, come off it," John said, tone relaxed. "She never even saw me."
"You never heard Mum and Auntie Ruth planning out your wedding," Harry retorted.
"So what happened, John?" Clara asked, evidently leaning close, judging by the volume of her question.
"She ran off and had a baby, Harriet, and – why on earth did you bring this up?"
"It reminded me, this afternoon, all those tiny little outfits. Do you remember when Laura brought her baby home?"
"That's right," John said after a pause. "Dressed up like a little sailor while Laura had baby food in her hair."
"You should have seen John. Looking more and more nervous as the baby's being passed around for cuddles, like thirty seconds with him was going to scar the kid for life. And then it's his turn and the baby's eyes are closing and John just gets this look on his face and pulls the kid in and, Jay, I'm telling you, at that moment, Laura was yours for the taking."
John snorted. "I'd've been rubbish for her and she knew it. I could barely wrap my head around the idea of having a baby at our age, leave alone raising one." There was no doubt in his voice, and just from his protestations Sherlock could picture the scene so vividly: John, face smooth and unlined, holding a squirming bundle and belatedly allowing himself to tuck his chin on the baby's shoulder and burrow with his nose into the soft folds of the child's neck.
He'd seen a similar display of John's haptic impulses only the other day, after all, and he knew then why John was not at home. He had gone out to buy clothes for Angela's baby, though he owed her nothing and, in fact, the debt was clearly on her side. Sherlock smiled, satisfied with his deduction, and shut down his computer, feeling weariness overcome him again. As he settled back against his pillows, he wondered if John planned to sign Sherlock's name to the gift; then, considering the company John was keeping, why John had asked his sister to accompany him on the excursion rather than his girlfriend.
He repressed a sigh. "In the bedroom, Mrs. Hudson."
"Oh, I hope I haven't disturbed you. Only I wanted to bring you a nice cuppa and some of those biscuits you said you liked" – he had, but he'd meant only insofar as their texture, spongy yet brittle, interested him – "since I haven't seen John come back yet." She set a tray down on his pristine bedside table and looked disapprovingly at him. "Really, dear, it doesn't take much effort to make up a bed. Where are your clean sheets?"
He assumed that if they existed they would be in the bottom drawer of his bureau, so he waved a languid hand in that direction.
"Up you get, we'll have this done in a jiffy. You can at least put the cases on the pillows while you wait for the tea to cool." She worked while she talked and in a trice Sherlock was back in bed, this time nicely made up, the tray resting across his lap.
"Thank you, Mrs. Hudson."
"For a genius, you've no sense at all sometimes," she said, her voice inexplicably fond. She pulled a paperback off the tray and opened to the page marked by a slim piece of cardboard decorated with silk to look like a tiny geisha doll. He didn't recognise the title, long and no doubt pretentious, but the colours and font of the blurb on the back told him clearly that she was enjoying the latest in a string of surprisingly successful historical mysteries. "Drink up, dear. I'm sure he'll come home soon."
"You needn't – did John ask you to keep an eye on me?" Sherlock asked, not without some faint hope at gaining proof that John retained an active interest in his well-being.
"Now, you know quite well you shouldn't be worrying him more than you already have," Mrs. Hudson returned, unsatisfactorily. "I must say, it's nice to have the company again."
"John didn't bring Anna here at every opportunity?"
"Well, it's hardly the same, is it? Though she looks like a nice girl – so clever, too. She winkled out a splinter I'd got in the meat of my hand one morning, and I didn't feel a thing."
"Yes, it takes a genius to fetch a needle and deploy it," Sherlock said waspishly, then took a loud swallow of his tea, the better to drown out Mrs. Hudson's indignation.
"Where have you been?" Sherlock demanded when John finally walked into the flat, bearing three carrier bags full of groceries.
Slumped over he may have been, but that was no reason to refrain from deducing John's recent whereabouts. He wasn't carrying a box of baby clothes, so either he'd stood in the queue at the post office or he'd left the package with Harry to post; he'd spent the night at Anna's flat, judging by the scent of her perfumed bath products lingering around his collar, and he'd clearly just been to Sainsbury's.
Why John had believed there to be a pressing need for pomegranates and basmati rice, Sherlock could not determine. None of the food in those bags would aid John much if he were looking to regain the weight he'd lost in the last few months, weight he ought to gain back if only so his bones didn't seem so close to fragile skin; Sherlock had long ago determined that John's inner workings were something he would rather take on faith than have visual evidence of.
"I was out. I'm glad you ate," John said as if Sherlock's appearance were the issue, working around the cardboard containers of leftovers as he put the vegetables in the fridge. His trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles bunched and flexed as he worked, and Sherlock saw that John didn't truly care that he'd eaten, no matter what his words said, because his back should have gone rigid at the evidence that Sherlock had disdained all of those carefully prepared vegetables and had instead bolted down greasy Chinese food loaded with salt and preservatives.
"But you were willing to take the chance I wouldn't?" Sherlock challenged, watching John like a hawk; he looked for the tightening of lips or a tremor in the hand, but John's body didn't betray his mind so easily. Soon he'd be no better than a phrenologist, searching for the particular bump that meant John either had hit his head very hard or that he still loved Sherlock. He kept pushing, wanting for once an honest reaction. "You said yourself – I'm ill."
John turned to face him, eyebrows up in surprise. "You're getting over some careless treatment – foregoing sleep and food, and kipping, when you bothered, in some dank alley, no doubt." If he'd sounded the slightest bit curious, Sherlock would have enlightened him, but John wasn't finished. "Look, I know you don't like to take medicine in case it clouds your mind, and all you really need at this point is nourishment and rest. And you seem to be getting better at listening to your body and acquiring both."
As John bent to fit a bottle of milk into the fridge, Sherlock saw one short, flame-red strand of hair clinging to his jumper and realised that John's little speech, recollecting his illness during the Milverton case, had done nothing to appease him. "How fortunate for me that Doctor Watson was able to fit me into his rounds, between squiring his girlfriend to a pricey salon for a haircut and dragging his sister to some equally expensive shops to buy clothes for an ill-tempered infant with a mother too stupid to remove her child from danger," he sneered.
The fridge door slammed.
"You're fucking joking," John said, his spine stiffening with military precision. He whirled around and Sherlock could only see some accretion of emotions akin to a symphony or a Rube Goldberg device, each second adding complexity, flash across his face like debris in a tempest. "I need to say something to you. Sit down."
Sherlock sat as if he were conferring a great favour, sweeping the hem of his dressing-gown out of the way as a concert pianist would his tuxedo tails, then blinked when John slammed a glass of milk – full-fat, from the colour – in front of him. The glass was nearly but not quite full, so that the milk did not spill onto the table at the motion but left a ghostly parabola on the hitherto-clean inner rim of the glass. He considered the liquid and made a face, as he'd never been fond of the taste or the way milk left a film on his tongue.
"Drink it," John insisted, briskly tying the carrier bags into tidy knots. "You need healthy calories and you're not lactose-intolerant." His hands were steady but they had come nowhere near Sherlock's face to gauge his temperature; John was preserving his distance, though whether he thought that was for Sherlock's benefit or his own was murky. He pulled a mug from the suspiciously uncluttered cabinet and filled the kettle.
"Stop trying to deduce me," John snapped, "and just listen to what I'm actually saying."
Sherlock's eyes jumped up and he drank half the milk in one long swallow, anything to delay hearing whatever John was about to say.
But John began speaking the moment the base of the glass made contact with the kitchen table. "I thought you were dead. You got out of Mycroft's car and you walked away, and that was the last I saw of you. I had to pull apart Amy Wilmot's body to learn all the terrible things Moriarty had had done to her while she was still alive, and while I was elbows-deep in her, I got a text from you. Mycroft read it for me and we were both pretending his voice wasn't shot, wasn't shaking, that it was just one friend helping out another. Don't you dare make that face."
Sherlock rolled the glass between his palms and redirected his eyeroll to the white froth of milk. As if Mycroft ever acted so simply, as if he could be just a friend; surely it was obvious even to John that Mycroft had swooped in and picked him up the minute he learned Amy was gone, because he needed a faithful shadow? And there John was, loyal and able to think – to a certain extent – and to act decisively. Terrible with technology, but stout of heart.
"He brought me home," John continued, ice now frosting the steel in his voice, anger flaring at the surprise he read on Sherlock's face. "He brought me home and we waited for you. I told him he could stay as long as he needed, but he said he had to make arrangements for her cremation. I stayed awake so I wouldn't miss you, but you didn't come home. I got Moriarty's note gloating about your death and still you didn't come, didn't say there was no need to worry because you'd hatched a plan. A few hours later, Lestrade came by with fragments of your scarf, your blood soaked into scraps of wool, and that was all we had to identify you. Mycroft still had no information about your whereabouts."
That visit must have been when Mycroft had removed the bug from John's Edward Gorey anthology; John could have gone to the toilet or to the kitchen to make tea, and Mycroft would have strode over to the bookshelf, pulled the volume down, and then pocketed the evidence.
"Moriarty sent me more notes: one with a black armband, one with the list of hostages from the pips cases – the list, Sherlock, that you had been working out when I last saw you. I thought you were dead."
John took a deep breath as if he were watching Sherlock choking on the chlorinated water of the pool again, but his eyes blazed with fury. "And then, months later, you walked back into the flat and acted like you owed me not one word of explanation." John's arms were going taut with the effort to keep a fist from swinging at Sherlock's jaw, and Sherlock rejoiced inwardly at the sight, recognising that John needed to air his emotions if he were truly going to purge himself of them. He froze in his seat when John continued, "You took the time to maintain surveillance on me, but you had better things to do, obviously, than to let me know you weren't a bloody mist in some fucking office!"
How on earth had John worked out that Sherlock had tuned into his life often during his long days away? Ah, of course. "Mycroft insinuated himself very efficiently into your life, didn't he? And you believed every word he said –"
"He couldn't have told me a bloody fucking thing, as he was in hospital!" John raged, face aglow and larynx audibly strained; Sherlock wanted to unspool his thread, unmake him so that he could watch as John was reassembled, just to see how all those standard pieces had to be fitted together in order to make a person who could deduce and shout himself hoarse and still make sure Sherlock drank his milk. He quaffed the last of it.
"I prayed," John said, much quieter now, and Sherlock caught a note of shame in his voice – ah, so John had fancied himself an atheist after witnessing the horrors of war in life, in dreams, in his own body – "I prayed that I had read everything wrong, that you were alive. I've seen you act, Sherlock, so I know you could have made yourself look nothing like you do now and come to tell me – here, at work, through Mrs. Hudson – that you were alive but needed to seem dead ." Now John's hands were trembling. "You could have done that for me. But you didn't leave me a single sign."
The chair scraped loudly against the floor as Sherlock stood. "I was working," Sherlock pointed out bitingly. "Was I supposed to put that off so that I could deduce when your girlfriend would be out and it would be safe to enter my own home?"
"This had nothing to do with Anna!" John shouted, reaching full boil again more quickly than Sherlock had anticipated, then abruptly deflated again, sounding very close to resigned. "You – you claim to be able to deduce oceans and forces of nature from a single drop of water , but you couldn't tell what your being gone did to me?"
"You thought I was dead, and you still went on with your life," Sherlock said, horrified that his own tone sounded less like anger and more like hurt.
John reached out and gave him a little shake. "As best as I was able, yes."
Sherlock opened his mouth but nothing came out. John looked up at him, waiting. Sherlock pressed his empty glass into John's hand and escaped into the shower, to try the benefits of hot water and time alone.
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/427671.html.