Chapter 1: No Apologies
I can't apologise.
I don't try.
How does one go about apologising for something like that?
So sorry about getting carried away and actually fucking you when we were only supposed to be faking some frottage.
Please pardon me being so obviously gone on you from the first moment. I know it is terribly inconvenient that this is certain to get us both killed.
They don't make a Hallmark card for that, do they?
Some people might say that it's not about finding the right words but rather it's the sentiment of apologising that counts, but they'd be idiots. After all, Sherlock made it clear from the beginning that he abhors sentiment.
Inflicting an apology on him could only be an exercise in self-indulgence - an attempt at unburdening my own well-deserved guilt.
And, even if I could find the right words, it's not as if I could say them aloud since we are under constant surveillance by an army of enemies itching for any sign of significant emotional investment in each other.
It's reasonable to assume that any apology would be a damp squib.
So, things are a bit… tense.
By things, I mean me - I'm tense.
Sherlock seems fine.
He's so bloody unmoved that I want to punch that placid, bored look right off of his gorgeous face.
No... not punch... what I really want to do is to grab him by the hair, jerk his head back, and suck on that place on his neck that made his breath hitch.
That'd do me.
But that's not really an option either.
Still, I can't stop thinking about it - thinking about him - and having to watch him continue on, unruffled and aloof, finds me stewing in a quiet, bitter fury.
Whatever Sherlock may claim about bitterness being ‘a paralytic,’ I find my own to be rather productive. Within a few days of being (forcibly) moved into 221B, I've unpacked all my things, cleaned and organised my room, binned all the body parts in the crisper, scoured the entire kitchen with bleach and I can almost see myself in the shine I've put on the bathroom tiles.
It feels good to watch the mess disappear into some order.
If only life could be so easily tidied.
And if it so happens that my cleaning up of the mess comes as an inconvenience or irritation to Sherlock, all the better. Serves the prick right for being unable to muster anything more than indifference to my existence and only responding in vaguely disinterested hums or blunt, monosyllabic retorts to any of my efforts to engage him.
Just as I am beginning to think I might have to learn how to fester in my stoic misery, it all goes to hell. Like a slow motion train wreck, I watch life jump the tracks. And I'm the first to admit that I welcome that carnage as an old friend; a reprieve from too much time to think.
The attacks are subtle at first. So much so, I'm not sure if it is an attack at all or just a coincidental series of unfortunate events.
There's some mix up with my army pension check. No one seems to know why it never made it to my account and they can find no trace of it. It's a minor annoyance that I quickly move to address. I have contingencies. I know I've enough saved back to carry me a little while whilst they track it down.
However, a day later my bank account suffers a ‘breach’ and the balance disappears without a trace.
Only mine, mind you.
Got my full attention now.
Financial sabotage seems likely; a suspicion confirmed by a rather embarrassing row with the chip and pin machine at the supermarket when I attempt to restock the flat with things actually edible and find that my credit card is suddenly 'not authorised.’
It's not the machine's fault, but none of the humans I'd very much like to pummel were near at hand.
I trudge back to Baker Street, empty handed and vaguely enraged with the world.
I'm shit at technology, but I'm already thinking over what resources I might be able to muster to find the bastards that did this and make them regret tampering with my funds.
I am thinking of army mate, RJ, who has a brother-in-law that does forensic accounting. I am thinking that he owes me a favor for that thing in Kabul, when my mind immediately snaps back to attention the moment I step in the flat.
“Bloody hell,” I mutter at the bottom of the stairs, already getting that faint sense of wrongness about things.
There's a pressure to the air of a room after a fight has happened within it. I can't say what it is exactly; some shift in the energy so subtle it can only be felt on the subconscious level; like the charged atmosphere after a thunderstorm. It makes me bristle.
I jog up the stairs, step through the sitting room door and quickly glance around, seeking to identify the threat. There are subtle signs of a struggle; furniture shifted a bit, scuff marks on the floor boards I had put a lot of effort into cleaning, and a gouge of wood missing from the door frame (that I'm certain wasn't there before) all point to a rather violent row having occurred in my absence.
“You took your time,” Sherlock interrupts my assessment of the room almost immediately. I glance up at him, surprised and confused. That he is actually speaking, rather than just ignoring me is probably the most telling sign that he is hoping to distract me from looking too closely at the room.
He is seated in his chair, prim and pristine in his fine suit, and almost in the exact same position I left him in only an hour earlier. However, instead of meditatively steepling his hands beneath his chin, he is now holding a book. He doesn't return my gaze, pretending to consider the book (as if he is capable of something so mundane as calmly passing the time by reading).
“Yeah, I didn’t get the shopping,” I state, knowing that this is such a painfully obvious fact (given that my arms are empty) that it should earn me a glare. However, actual eye contact is welcomed at the moment.
He does look up then, but at the door, as if expecting someone more important to be behind me. After a few seconds his eyes at last shift to me. His expression is tinged with mild surprise and confusion.
“What? Why not?”
“Because I had a row in the shop with a chip-and-PIN machine,” I say more tetchily than perhaps warranted.
I can almost feel the energy thrumming off him from my position by the door; a sort of quiet, smug satisfaction at having had a good physical row. I shift uneasily, my own unresolved tension crawling like fire ants beneath my skin. I could really use a physical fight about now. I am itching for it, really. I'm quite tired of this shadow boxing of digital terrorists and puttering around while feeling invisible in my own flat.
“You had a row with a machine?” He lowers the book, at last giving me his full attention. His lips turn up at the corners, like he is trying to hold in the faintest amusement. It is so slight, yet as close to a smile as I've seen since that first night. I can almost believe it is genuine.
“Sort of,” I say, slower and I know my expression has turned a bit harder. I'm unsure how much he knows about my sudden financial strife and I'm not sure how much he cares to know. “It sat there and I shouted abuse.”
’Perfect metaphor for my life these days,’ I think dryly. I look him over for a half moment, weighing my options before I lift my chin, settling into quiet defiance.
“Have you got cash?” Old habits die hard and, if he is going to sit there and pretend he hasn't been pummeling someone just moments before I walked in, I'm hardly going to be the first to tip my hand by sharing the details of how they've decided to come after me.
“Take my card.” Sherlock nods towards the kitchen where his wallet is lying on the table. His expression is softer than I've seen it since before. It throws me off balance, making an odd, achy sensation expand in my chest as I meet his gaze. Like something is missing that was there before and I'm not sure how to recover it because I'm not even sure what it was.
I turn briskly and march towards the kitchen. I resolutely remind myself that this mission isn't mine to understand. I'm just to keep my head down and do my part. He obviously can handle himself and I'm to take care of myself.
I nearly make it to the kitchen door when I note that the dining set has been shifted several centimeters towards the sink and half the contents on the table have been pushed to the wall as if someone had been thrown onto the surface. My body whirls around on him before my brain has a chance to intervene, anger flaring hot and bright as I glare at his mockingly casual expression.
“You could always go yourself, you know. You’ve been sitting there all morning. You’ve not even moved since I left,” I hiss in a swell of bitter fury. If he's going to lie, I'm not going to make it easy on him. He can do it outright or.... he can tell me the truth and we can start working together.
Sherlock says nothing. Instead, he stares blankly at me, unmoved by my unspoken plea for solidarity in the face of whatever this is and feigns nonchalance as he turns his eyes back to the book and flips a page.
His silence speaks volumes.
Discouraged, I turn and pick up the wallet from the table and rummage through it for a suitable payment card. My mind drifts to when he had confessed to stealing Mycroft's card. I am reminded of that awkward visit we received this morning and, since we are suddenly back on speaking terms, I decide to press my luck.
“What happened about that case you were offered – the Jaria Diamond?”
This morning, when I shuffled down the stairs, it was only to stumble upon the odd sight of Mycroft and Sherlock silently glaring at each other in the sitting room. Still as statues, the two brothers were almost a perfect mirror of each other’s positions and posture as they sat facing each other before the unlit fire. There was a distinct chill in the air between them.
No one spoke or even looked my way as I mumbled a morning greeting. It was more for show than anything. I knew Sherlock would ignore me but hadn't quite figured out Mycroft's role or level of threat in Sherlock's larger mission. Hiding the immense fissures between Sherlock and I seemed like the safest approach. Sherlock, apparently, didn't care to feign civility though.
I wasn't overly eager to spend time in their collective presence. So, I left them to their staring contest and went to the loo to conduct my morning routine. I found they were still wordlessly glaring at each other when I emerged a good 45 minutes later; showered, shaved and dressed for the day.
When I started making tea and a small fry up, Mycroft rose to his feet and announced, with a certain edge of menace, that he expected Sherlock to take a look at the case. He tried to hand a folder to Sherlock. When it was ignored, he noted, in an eerily cold voice, that the Jaria Diamond was very valuable to very important people and it was vital that it be recovered. He then placed the folder on the table of the sitting room, said a curt goodbye to me, and left.
Sherlock didn’t move or give his departing brother so much as a glance. He had remained frozen in his chair the rest of the morning, darkly glaring at nothing in particular until the moment I left too.
“Not interested,” Sherlock answers in a tone that is quick and light. He slams the book shut with a loud snap as punctuation to his assertion. “I sent them a message,” he says firmly.
I wonder at the odd tone of his voice and his cryptic words as I bend over to look more closely at a new long, narrow gouge on the top of the kitchen table. It is a hard wood, so the cut was clearly made by a very sharp blade applying a lot of pressure. I run my finger along the cut and mutter to myself a quiet curse as I look across at him.
Sherlock just shakes his head back and forth, putting on a look of innocence. I glance down and see the glint of metal of a rather menacing sword pushed back under the chair he is sitting in. He has his foot atop it in an effort to hide it from me.
He really does think I'm a complete idiot.
I make a scoffing sound that I hope conveys my combined frustration and contempt over his efforts to keep me in the dark. I turn away before I do or say something (else) stupid.
’You know what? Fuck him,’ I think in disgust as I stomp down the stairs and out the front door. I slam it harder than necessary and march down the street in the direction of Tesco.
‘That's the problem, Watson,’ a small voice restorts from a dark corner of my mind, 'You already did.’
I stop and turn to look back at the window of 221B. I can just barely make out a tall, curly-haired silhouette that is pale as a ghost against the dark of the room. However, I can't make out Sherlock's expression. It's impossible to tell for sure if he is watching me now. Yet, I feel his gaze burning into me, pinning me to the spot. It makes my chest squeeze tight in ways I can't understand.
Flashes of memory of him steal my breath as they rattle through me, like the Tube through the station; swirling everything inside me about. Him at the foot of my bed. Him leaning over my bare chest to study my scars. His look of fierce determination and the moon-gilded glint of the knife as he whispered his ultimatum in the dark.
The truth hits me once again, like a stray bit if rubbish whipped away only to be smacked back into my face and cling there. As furious as I want to be at him, I've no one but myself to blame. I brought this upon us. He'd said they'd attack if they thought we were getting close enough to each other for them to effectively use me as leverage and now they are attacking.
Attacking me financially.
Attacking him physically.
I am supposed to be buying him time but instead I'm bringing on the End Game that much quicker. If I had just kept my feelings out of it during the ruse of us having sex, they'd still be biding their time.
It's all my fault and he is clearly trying to salvage the mission by putting some distance between us… or maybe he is punishing me by cutting me out… maybe, both.
Which, honestly, is no less than what I deserve.
We fuck or we die.
We fuck, we die.
I fucked him. Now we're both screwed.
As I watch, the figure transforms and a violin is lifted and merges with his silhouette; pressed between his chin and shoulder. Heavy notes leaden with sadness, passion and longing sink down to the street, giving the ordinary world a magical quality. People walking by look up and around, trying to catch sight of the source of that siren call. The figure turns and glides away, the notes retreating with it.
I let out a breath and turn away as well, fingering the raised letters of the name Sherlock Holmes imprinted on the card in my pocket.
Chapter 2: Pendulum Swing
I flirt with the checkout girl.
I don't set out to... but it happens.
I decide that interacting with a normal human being is necessary for my sanity and so I slide into the que of a young woman with long, straight, strawberry hair and an attractive smattering of freckles over her cheeks and nose. She seems sweet and kind and nothing like a certain brooding, silver-eyed, dark-haired flatmate.
When she bats her blue eyes at me and smiles, it feels natural to smile back. We talk lightly and I crack a self-deprecating joke about my choice of biscuits that she is far too generous in giggling over.
“Come back soon,” she says in a suggestive tone as I step away with my arms laden down with bags. She pushes her hair behind her ear, looks up at me and bites her bottom lip.
“Um… thanks.” I pause, looking her over and considering if I should take the open invitation in her body language. She's obviously interested and it would be easy to lean in and charm a date or, at the very least, a number out of her.
But something stops me.
My mind flies back to Sherlock standing alone in the window of our flat and those hauntingly beautiful notes pouring down over me.
Though I know that I’ll be lucky if he's still showing the barest of interest in my existence by speaking to me when I get back, and I’ve every indication he'd prefer me to pursue someone else (if for no other reason than to sow doubt and show a lack of any deep commitment between us) this still feels like… well… like cheating on him. It's ridiculous - but true.
“Ah, thanks. I'm sure I will be.” I say with a small smile, lifting up the bags hanging from my arms and ducking my head in an awkward gesture of thanks. Her titter of laughter trails after me as I turn to leave.
Something cold and hard, like dread, settles into my stomach.
All the way back to the flat I mentally kick myself for letting an opportunity drop like that. I try to come up with a good excuse for it, but I can't. I consider turning around and going back no less than three times.
"Damn it, Sherlock," I mutter bitterly. I think of the small smile and the soft look he gave me, even as he tried to hide from me whatever fight he had just endured because of me. It's all so confusing. It shouldn't be possible for a man that seems so harsh and uncaring to make a violin weep and sigh like that. For him to be so cold one moment and so vulnerable and human the next.
Even with my hand on the doorknob of 221 and the plastic bags digging into my palms and forearms with their weight, I hesitate for a few seconds, thinking it could even be charming for me to pop back in and ask her for her information. She seemed like the type of girl to be charmed by that sort of thing.
Instead, I throw open the door and trudge up the stairs, fully expecting Sherlock to be seated in his chair, off in his Mind Palace and refusing to speak to me once again.
“Don’t worry about me. I can manage,” I quip, sighing heavily as I round the corner into the kitchen. He has moved, at least. He is now seated at the table in the sitting room with his hands folded in front of his mouth as he looks over them at a laptop screen. However, my frustration grows thorny spikes and digs in as I note that he's not even bothering to look at me. I feel even more furious with myself for failing to ask the Tesco girl out.
I dump the groceries onto the table, feeling too irritated to deal with putting them away, which will likely require more cleaning - who knows what lurks in those cupboards.
I turn back towards the sitting room and take in what Sherlock is doing. It is clear that he is engrossed in reading from the screen. I stop and frown when I realise which computer he is using. It looks to be my computer.
“Is that my computer?”
He starts to type and, for a few tense seconds, I think he might not answer. Then he replies flatly, as if it is the most natural thing in the world, “Of course.”
“What?!” I take a step forward thinking that I must have misheard. Sherlock continues typing away on my computer, keys clacking rapidly and seeming unnaturally loud in the quiet room.
“Mine was in the bedroom,” he says matter-of-factly. He is still not looking at me.
“You couldn’t be bothered to get up?” It strikes me, at the same moment that I throw this accusation at him, that he did, in fact, get up. He must have. He got all the way up to my room, where I’d left my laptop on my bedside table.
I freeze, stunned speechless for a few seconds by the blatant violation of privacy. He'd been in my room; in my things. I could get whiplash from his drastic mood reversals. He has gone from pursuing me, to pretending like I don't exist, to purposely invading my most intimate places and possessions in the blink of an eye... and he hasn't an ounce of shame or remorse about it.
His fingers continue to dance over my keyboard as my cheeks burn. “It’s password protected,” I growl, clenching my fists. That's pretty much as clear a sign as you can give that you don't want other people mucking about with your stuff.
“In a manner of speaking,” he says, still typing. “Took me less than a minute to guess yours.” He glances up at me for the first time. “Not exactly Fort Knox.”
I breathe out, gutted by the pointed comment. I know the reference to the supposedly impenatrable bank is a criticism of how I've allowed my finances to get hacked. He's obviously taken the liberty of looking over my fruitless e-mails with the staff of the bank and he's mocking my lack of ability to protect myself. I purse my lips on a sharp insult that I want to let loose. There's something in the blandness of his expression that makes me look more closely at his face.
No, he's not mocking me. He's pointing it out; exposing it. He's refusing to let me hide it. I'd liked that about him at first - the way he'd seen through me and dragged everything out into the light immediately. Not for judgement, but to show there could be no false boundaries or illusions between us. I had found that part of him refreshing at that first meeting. Not so much now that he's still keeping all his secrets from me.
“Right, thank you.” I march over and snap the lid of my computer shut. I have a surge of satisfaction in seeing Sherlock jerk his fingers back out of the way just in time. His expression flickers surprise as I stomp away.
I take the laptop across the room with me and rest it on the floor as I sink into my armchair.
Sherlock is clasping his hands into a steepled position in front of his mouth again. He is staring blankly across the room, brow sightly furrowed in thought, as if he had always intended to just sit and have a think.
I pick up a small pile of letters from the table beside my chair for something to do. I'm irritated and confused by his change in strategy. I really wish I could be as good at ignoring him as he obviously is at ignoring me.
“Oh,” I groan as I look over a bill for my mobile that warns of disconnect if I don't pay in 3 days. Another, for the last of my electric in my old flat, has final notice stamped on the top in red. I flip through the rest and find they all need urgent paying.
This is bad. Even if I can get ahold of RJ and arrange for his brother-in-law to look into recovering my money, that will take time - time I don't have. I shake my head, trying to come up with a solution.
“Need to get a job,” I mutter, running a hand over my brow.
“Oh, dull,” Sherlock hisses. This surprises me. I would think he'd approve of me finding employment for many reasons, the least being that it would get me out of his hair.
I carefully place the letters back on the table and stare at him for a moment. Something definitely seems to have changed since this morning and I can't pin down what he's aiming at with this shift in behaviour. He is like a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to the other without warning. Normally, I'd wait it out - patiently wait to see which way the situation is going before responding, but, I haven't time.
I glance over at the bills again, considering what I should do. He's speaking to me now - somewhat. He also knows about the issue with my finances. I decide that if he is breaching the topic because he wants me to ask for help I need to know that he's going to help me now because, if he's not, I'm going to have to move on to developing another solution quickly.
I awkwardly shift forward in my seat, placing my elbows on my knees.
“Listen, um,” I say softly, running my eyes over his expensive suit. “If you’d be able to lend me some…”
I stop, realising he is staring off into space, seeming not to hear me.
“Sherlock, are you listening?” Shit - is he back to ignoring me?
For a moment he says nothing and I think I really might have to tackle him and hit him. Exposing my needs like this, then shuting me out to deal with it on my own, is a whole new level of cruelty.
I clench my jaw and am just about to push myself up to walk away when he sucks in a deep breath and looks around, eyes never quite finding me.
“I need to go to the bank,” he declares getting to his feet. He sweeps out of the room and towards the stairs, taking his coat from the hook on the door as he goes. He doesn't give so much as a backwards glance to confirm I am following.
I've not been invited but I am up on my feet chasing after him before I have a chance to stop myself. I can only hope that this is his way of saying he means to help me after all.
Chapter 3: Follow
“What the hell am I doing here?” I whisper to Sherlock and my voice seems far too loud bouncing around the sleek polished marble and too-bright decor of Shad Sanderson Bank.
Sherlock lifts his chin, looking up and around at our extravagant surroundings in that completely absorbed way he has of observing everything; somewhere between a scientist picking apart all the variables and a predator planning the best means of attack.
My eyes trace his features as I try to patiently wait for those piercing eyes to turn back on me. He hasn’t so much as looked at me since back at the flat when he declared the need to go to the bank. As we make our way further into the strictly secured establishment I am feeling more and more out of place. His perfect posture and his fine, expensive clothes make him appear well suited for a place like this. I, on the other hand, feel like a pauper in the royal palace. In fact, I'm beginning to think he didn't mean for me to follow him here at all.
Yet, it seems too late to turn back now. I narrow my eyes on the side of his face and wait two beats... three... then my irritation tips over into anger.
“Sherlock!” My voice is hushed but with that harsh, commanding edge from my army days. I've stepped forward and squared my body to him to make it clear that that was not a rhetorical question; I expect an answer.
That one word, spoken in such an authoritative tone, lands like a small explosion in the quiet space. I am aware of two sets of eyes snapping to me.
The secretary, almost hidden behind the imposing desk in front of us, is gazing up at me with interest. She's apparently been momentarily distracted from the task she’d been occupied with since we'd arrived of typing rapidly and listening to whomever is on the other end of the phone.
Additionally, Sherlock is (finally) looking at me as well. His gaze is hard; his brow is furrowed, his lips are parted and his expression, like in the car park of Roland Kerr College when he realised I'd shot the cabbie, is oscillating between astonishment, confusion and interest. It's almost like he is seeing the real me for the first time all over again.
I clear my throat, embarrassed and disappointed in myself for the slip back into military mode. I clench and release my left hand, letting go of the anger, and then take a small step towards Sherlock.
“We are going to have to communicate,” I say low and slow, as I look up at him from under my brow. “What's going on?”
His expression fluctuates subtly as his eyes sweep up and down my frame. His mouth has fixed into a tight line and all that intense power of observation is begrudgingly focused on me now. Instead of discomfort, I feel relief. I relax and add a bit of a smile.
“Even you can’t get waved past that amount of security with only your name and your charm.” It's meant to be a bit of a teasing jab at his general lack of niceties and it lands as well as can be expected. In response, Sherlock’s lips twitch up into a slight smirk.
“Good, you follow.” His gaze shifts to somewhere over my right shoulder.
“The security; several levels, varied methods, operated independently. Not a simple task to overcome.” He fixes his eyes on me again, as if challenging me to put the pieces together. I weigh the scant information.
“Right… So… someone here is expecting you about something to do with the security?” I have naturally settled into a military parade rest, clasping my hands at the small of my back. I thrust my lips forward, narrowing my eyes and glancing around. Now that my training has been called upon, I let myself review all the things I'd naturally taken note of out of habit on the way in: Limited exits are all secured. Video cameras. Metal detector. Swipe card. Three armed guards by main entrance. Two plain clothes security officers milling about in disguise among the patrons on first floor. It's excessive.
My gaze comes back to him once I've formed a reasonable conclusion. “A case, then. Breach of security?” I consider what I might be doing here with him and lower my voice to a murmur, “A murder?”
Sherlock's eyes darken and he opens his mouth as if to speak to me but instead he turns to the secretary who has just placed the phone back on the receiver and is now directing her full attention at us.
“Sherlock Holmes for Sebastian Wilkes,” Sherlock snaps at the same moment she begins to greet us.
“Good-” She blinks, face losing all pretense of pleasantness. “Of course,” she says as she briskly switches gears in a way that tells me she's dealt with her fair share of boorish and demanding patrons. She picks up the phone.
“Thank you,” I add, plastering on a kind smile, feeling as though I should compensate for Sherlock's rudeness. She tips her head in a nod and a little smile curls up the corner of her mouth.
“And you, sir?”
Surprisingly, her gaze sweeps casually up and down my body and the lush, dark crimson of her lips grows into a deeper smile, flashing the white of the teeth below as her stare settles back on my face.
“Your name, sir?” There is definitely something coy in the way she says 'sir.’
“Oh… um… Watson. Dr. John Watson.”
She continues to hold my gaze as she punches in the extension and relays our arrival to Mr. Wilkes on the other end of the line.
“Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson to see you, Sir.” She is stroking a finger over the side of her neck now while eyeing me in a clearly flirtatious way. That same tempting shade of crimson of her lips is on her nails and is a very appealing contrast against the milk chocolate brown of her skin. I feel my own smile warming, becoming less forced politeness and more acknowledgement of potential interest.
She really has quite lovely, soft, brown eyes which she keeps lowering demurely. Her glossy black curls are pulled back into a tight bun but I can almost imagine how beautiful she would look if she let it down. Maybe with those curls fanned out on a pillow-
I jump. Sherlock has moved into the space and now looms over me. His voice is hard and full of cold demand and he is glaring down at me with his hand already out in the scant space between us. I reach for my phone instinctively before I stop myself.
“Wait. What’s wrong with yours?” My hand is curled around my phone in my coat pocket. I take a half step back but he follows with his hand still out insistently.
“Why do you need mine, then?”
He huffs, as if terribly put out about my lack of cooperation.
“You asked why we are here.”
He thrusts his hand forward, stopping just short of jamming his fingertips into my sternum. He glares at me, apparently not intending to say anything more. After a few long moments of silent standoff, trying to read his intentions and failing, I slowly draw my phone out of my pocket. I am about to place it in his hand when we are interrupted by the secretary.
“Mr. Wilkes will see you now.” She rises to her feet and makes a gesture of invitation. “If you’ll follow me.” She starts off in the direction of Mr. Wilkes’ office and then I am completely distracted from the confrontation with Sherlock because she is wearing crimson stiletto heels and clearly putting a sway in her hips, naturally drawing eyes to her shapely legs and very flattering, tight, pencil skirt.
Sherlock lets out a harsh, vaguely disgusted breath through his nose, and pushes past me to stride after her. I can't decide if I am imagining it or if he intentionally keeps his gangly form and large, fluttery coat positioned between me and the flirtatious secretary just to obstruct my view.
She leads us through a busy floor of cubicles. It is buzzing with activity, bright and loud, there are large tv screens mounted everywhere streaming numbers, and voices are fighting for dominance over the distracting trill of phones going off all around. Something about it is like a battleground, making my nerves begin to buzz and my blood hum with adrenaline.
My hands are clasped behind my back and I'm glancing around when a man emerges from a nearby office to intercept us. He is as tall as Sherlock, with dark hair, slicked to the side and an expensive suit. He is a bit heavier built with a bulldog jaw, bloodshot, deep-set eyes, overhanging brows, and a seemingly almost permanent large, mischievous grin.
“Sherlock Holmes.” He strides forward to meet Sherlock confidently, eyes roving over him from head to toe and hand already extended to shake. He is smiling, large and warm. Yet, there's something unpleasant I can't put my finger on within his bright expression.
He grips Sherlock's hand and whilst Sherlock tries to keep his arm stiff, the man pushes forward and leans into Sherlock's space encasing the seized hand in both of his own.
“Howdy, buddy. How long’s it been? Eight years since I last clapped eyes on you?” His hand moves up to grip Sherlock's bicep and I think I see his thick fingers curl into the fabric of Sherlock’s coat to squeeze with a kind of quiet possessiveness. My stomach twinges with the gut feeling that there is something very wrong beneath this interaction. I step forward, all my muscles coiled and at the ready to intervene.
He starts to turn and pull Sherlock along to his office when his eyes finally land on me. He seems surprised to find anyone else here. His eyes shift back to Sherlock, eyebrows raised as if asking for explanation.
“This is my…” Sherlock hesitates for a half second, apparently considering what term to assign to me “Friend, John Watson.”
“Friend?” Wilkes’ eyes widen slightly and he stares at me with an expression mixed between doubtfulness and undisguised curiosity.
I step forward again and my eyes can't help but flick to Wilkes’ dumb, thick fingers curled around Sherlock’s arm. Some part of me knows I’m being ridiculous; overreacting. Afterall, Sherlock can take care of himself when it comes to some slimy businessman getting handsy. By the state of the flat earlier, I'd say he's handled much worse today alone, but a sharp edge of irritation is lodged under my skin, like a splinter wheedling its way in further with each moment. I can picture Sherlock's delicate white skin beneath the layers of fabric, bruising in the same way the flesh of his hips had taken on the imprint of my fingers as I-
“Colleague,” I cut off my own train of thought to contradict them. I lift my chin slightly and force a nuetral expression. 'Colleague' is what Sherlock had called me before when he had introduced me to Donovan at the crime scene. And it does seem as if we are pretending that we are the same as we were before.
“Right.” Wilkes drops his hold on Sherlock's arm and takes my hand to shake it. I force myself to smile like a normal bloke that isn't visualising how easily I can break at least five of his bones in under twenty seconds.
“Right,” he repeats as he withdraws his hand from my hold and throws a brief glance at Sherlock. There are things I can't read about what he is communicating with that look but there is clearly a question there. He returns his eyes to me while thrusting his tongue into his cheek and ducking his head to scratch at the back of his neck. He clearly wants to ask something or make an inappropriate remark but wisely chooses to leave it. He instead turns to lead us into his office.
It's a very nice office with an impressive view of London rising up behind Wilkes' large oak desk. Sebastian clasps his hands in front of his chin as he looks Sherlock and I over. We settle side-by-side across from him. He leans back, slouching comfortably in his leather chair. In contrast, I feel myself sitting up straighter, uncomfortable in such obvious affluence.
I'm surprised when Sherlock begins with something of a compliment; observing that Sebastian is doing well and deducing he has been around the world twice in one month. I consider for a moment what could have given such information away, but can't come up with anything.
“Right.” Wilkes chuckles lightly. “You’re doing that... thing.” He narrows his eyes and thrusts his tongue into his cheek again as he points at Sherlock. Then he turns his gaze on me. “We were at uni together,” he explains and he has a grin of deep amusement tinged with something ugly. “This guy here had a trick he used to do.”
“It’s not a trick,” I think I hear Sherlock interject quietly from beside me, but Sebastian continues on speaking to me as if he hasn't heard.
“He could look at you and tell you your whole life story.”
“Yes, I’ve seen him do it,” I agree and don't add that the moment he did this to me might have been the moment when I found myself well and truly gone on him.
I know there is a soft grin that's crept onto my face as I consider how spectacular it is that Sherlock mastered his skill when he was still only half-grown. I can almost picture a young, scrappy, Sherlock who'd undoubtedly been so much less reserved and disciplined, more open and unguarded; a softer, tenderer, less refined man beneath this hard shell. I'd only caught fleeting glimpses of that boyish innocence in our time together and I found it irresistible.
“Put the wind up everybody. We hated him,” Sebastian continues.
I sit back a little, blinking my surprise at Sebastian. Perhaps I shouldn't be shocked by this assertion, given how I'd seen the majority of NSY react to Sherlock and that Sherlock himself had told me that people usually tell him to 'piss off’ when he deduces them but there is a particular viciousness in it when contrasted with that younger version of Sherlock I'd just been imagining.
I turn my head to glance over at Sherlock and just catch him turning his face away and looking down. He isn’t quick enough to hide the momentary flicker of intimate pain over his features. I’ve only seen a hint of that expression once before, when he spoke of Mycroft's past betrayals.
“You’d come down to breakfast in the Formal Hall and this freak would know you’d been shagging the previous night.”
“I simply observed,” Sherlock says quietly and when he lifts his eyes his expression is so cold and dead I imagine that I can almost feel the chill rolling off of him, like liquid nitrogen.
I turn my eyes back on Sebastian and his gaze is still fixed on me, sparkling with a kind of cruel amusement. I bristle as I realise this man has somehow been close enough to Sherlock to really hurt him. He might even be an intimate relationship gone sour; an ex-lover talking about how he’d got caught.
“Go on, enlighten me,” Wilkes turns his eyes back on Sherlock, seething a patronising arrogance. “Two trips a month, flying all the way around the world – you’re quite right. How could you tell?” He’s pretending it's all in the spirit of good-natured jest but there is a undercurrent of disdain for Sherlock right beneath the surface. Before Sherlock can respond and demonstrate his amazing skill, Sebastian jumps in and smugly berrates Sherlock with a series of increasingly absurd guesses about what arbitrary trait about himself might have told Sherlock where he's been.
When Wilkes finally leaves space for Sherlock to speak, I hold my breath, ready for all hell to break loose when Sherlock puts him in his place. With any luck it will come to blows and I’ll quench my itch for a good fight with a fist in this man's smug face.
Instead, Sherlock fixes Wilkes with a hollow stare and simply gazes back at him for a long moment. Then he flatly lies by saying that he was chatting with Wilkes’ secretary and she'd told him about the travel.
I look over at Sherlock, confused that he isn't pouncing at the chance to demonstrate his cleverness and skill. If anyone deserves to be ripped to pieces by his brilliant insights, it is this pompous, self-righteous prick who requested Sherlock's help only to manhandle him and treat him to non-stop attempts at insults, humiliation and degradation.
Sherlock doesn’t return my gaze.
Sebastian laughs humorlessly and Sherlock's smile back at him is nothing like a smile. He keeps his eyes fixed on Sebastian and the stiffness of the way he is holding himself and the forced blandness of his expression makes me feel like he is being very deliberate in giving Sebastian nothing to sink his teeth into. He is purposely avoiding that fight I am so eager to plunge into. As much as it is the logical thing to do, it also is irritating as hell. The more time I spend with Sebastian the more I want to see the look on his face when I smash my fist into it. But, Sherlock obviously wants to keep things civil, so I reign myself in and force an expression that doesn't reveal my seething anger as I turn back to Wilkes.
Sebastian relents in whatever he’d been driving at and chuckles, clapping his hands together. He switches gears, becoming more serious. “I’m glad you could make it over. We’ve had a break-in,” he states, getting to his feet.
I want to be proud that I'd guessed it was a break-in from what few clues Sherlock had offered but there is this lingering feeling of having been gut punched by the conversation so far.
Sherlock seems different. The set of his shoulders is all wrong, like a heavy weight has been hung around his neck. I only manage to catch his eye for a second as Sebastian leads us across the trading floor to the office of the bank’s former Chairman, Sir William, but there is a worrying undercurrent of sadness in his expression.
“You alright?” I whisper to Sherlock once Sebastian is a few paces ahead. Sherlock just gives me a strange look, as if he thinks it absurd that I even venture to ask the question. I don’t have time to push for an answer, as Sebastian stops in front of the locked door of a large office.
“Sir William’s office – the bank’s former Chairman. The room’s been left here like a sort of memorial. Someone broke in late last night,” he says peering into the glass panels of the office.
“What did they steal?” I ask, following his gaze with my own.
“Nothing. Just left a little message.” Sebastian holds his security card against the reader by the door to unlock it, then leads the way towards the desk. He steps aside to let Sherlock get a better look. Hanging on the plain white wall behind the large desk is a framed painted portrait of a man in a suit; the late Sir William Shad himself, it appears. On the wall beginning to the left of the portrait and over the man’s eyes someone has sprayed what looks like a graffiti tag in yellow paint. The first part of the tag on the wall looks vaguely like a number 8 but with the top of the number sliced open, and above it is an almost horizontal straight line. Across the eyes of the portrait itself, another almost horizontal straight line has been sprayed. The yellow paint has run trails down the wall and over the painting from that indiscernible design.
I watch Sebastian watching Sherlock who is intensely focused on the graffiti. My hands ball into fists at my sides as my thoughts stray to dark and sharp-edged; images of Sebastian forcing his way into Sherlock’s space, enveloping his hand with both his own, gripping Sherlock’s arm, digging his fingers in and repeatedly thrusting his tongue against the inside of his cheek as he talked, creating a suggestive bulge. It seemed like... well.. flirting.
Then there was the Negging - the way Sebastian had casually undermined Sherlock’s usual confidence with insults. I hadn't seen this tactic since a fellow soldier in the army, Murphy, who swore by it as the surefire way to catch the attention of ‘the really hot ass’ by subtly making them feel like rubbish.
I try to push those thoughts aside as Sebastian takes us through the evidence; showing us the security footage of the office from the previous night. The defacement apparently occurred within a minute gap in the footage. Sebastian then takes us down to the main security desk in the reception area where he points out on a computer the layout of the trading floor and its surrounding offices with alarms on all the entry and exit ways.
“Every door that opens in this bank gets logged right here. Every walk-in cupboard, every toilet.”
“That door didn’t open last night,” Sherlock states, staring at the screen. I can't help but notice that he's positioned himself beside Sebastian.
Sebastian doesn't answer, instead he reaches into the breast pocket of his coat and pulls out a cheque. “There’s a hole in our security. Find it and we’ll pay you – five figures. This is an advance. Tell me how he got in, there’s a bigger one on its way,” he says offering the cheque to Sherlock.
I see everything in Sherlock stiffen as he turns his eyes on Sebastian and for a moment I get that tingling forewarning that he might actually throw a punch.
“I don’t need an incentive, Sebastian.” His words are surprisingly bitter. He turns and briskly strides away. I watch him go for a few seconds, shocked. Has Sebastian actually beaten Sherlock down so much that Sherlock believes he shouldn't get paid for solving their little security problem? I decide that I, for one, don't intend to work for this prick just out of the kindness of my heart, especially when those notices sitting on my table back at 221B are screaming for my attention. I turn to Sebastian.
“He’s, uh, he’s kidding you, obviously.” I hold out my hand for the cheque. “Shall I look after that for him?”
Sebastian hands me the cheque and I thank him. I look down at it and shake my head in disbelief. £5000 is more than enough to straighten out my issues and this is only the advance. Relief washes over me as I tuck it into the inside pocket of my jacket and excuse myself.
“Um… Sherlock?” I jog to catch up with Sherlock who is briskly striding back the way we’d just come. “Should I -” I glance back at Sebastian. “Where do you want me?” I only plan to take what I need from the advance but I am also determined to earn it by being of some help on this case.
“The secretary,” Sherlock snaps in that way that could be a conclusion of a deduction he deems obvious or could be an impatient order.
“Yes. Go talk to her.” Sherlock waves his hand dismissively. He’s made it to the lift and he swipes a card against the security pad and presses the button. I narrow my eyes on the security badge suspiciously - we hadn’t been given a card.
“Sorry, you want me to talk to a secretary?”
“Not just any secretary, John, Sir Williams’ secretary. Find out if he had any enemies. People he’d fired. People he’d failed to promote. Affairs. Jaded lovers. People on the floor that naturally were permitted close enough and may have just needed a little skill to breach the last layer of security and cover their tracks.” he waves the card towards me at this statement and I glimpse Sebastian’s picture on it. “The secretary will know.”
The lift opens and he steps in, turning back towards me. “Secretaries mettle in everyone’s business. Practically their primary preoccupation.” I can’t be imagining the edge of contempt in that statement as he pins me with a sharp stare. He leans forward and punches the button for his intended floor with more force than necessary and the doors begin to slide closed.
“Wait. Where are you-” The door closes. I step back and look up at the lighted display ticking off the floors as he ascends. It goes all the way back up to the top floor where Sir William’s office is located. 'Bastard,' I quietly curse. I turn around and stomp back to the security desk to get my own card... through proper channels.
Chapter 4: Live Prey
My chat with the Chairman's former personal assistant yields no useful information. Grace is a frazzled older lady who was reassigned to another director after the Chairman's death, and is clearly struggling to keep pace with the demands of her new position.
Though she talks of little else besides how valued and indispensable she used to be and how miserable and unappreciated she is now (and so could be considered to fall squarely into the category of ’disgruntled employee’) I cannot imagine her smuggling a can of yellow spray paint in her Prada bag, nor defacing the portrait of her former boss, who she seems to adore as much as she despises her new one.
When I return to the lobby, it appears that Sherlock has yet to return from his investigation. Determined that he won't have the chance to dash off without me once again, I station myself by the elevator and wait. I naturally fall into a military parade rest; feet shoulder-length apart and hands clasped behind my back. I let my eyes drift over the tide of patrons flowing through the bank; an endless parade of city boys and office workers in expensive suits and skirts - a mind-numbingly boring assortment of muted blues, beige, grays and blacks. They move quickly. Self-absorbed and brimming with focus and determination, their polished shoes and high heels clack sharply on the smooth marble. It doesn’t take Sherlock to identify the plain clothes security guards among them.
There’s three of them in nondescript slacks, some Marks & Spencer shirts, and much more sensible shoes than all the sharply dressed patrons; good for chasing someone down, should the need arise. When they aren’t making a token effort to look busy, they move from place to place, eyeing everyone with suspicion.
After a few moments, their distrustful gazes begin to linger on me, an obvious oddity in contrast to the bank’s usual customers. I lift my chin and internally scoff at what I know is going to happen if I simply hold my ground. They're so pent up, pacing like caged tigers, starved for a bit of bloodsport. In short order, they will be dragging me off to some back room for a less-than-friendly chat. Won't take much. Any resistance on my part and it will turn into an all out slugfest. Sebastian will eventually get word, and intervene on my behalf, but it could be a satisfying tangle before then.
This is brilliant.
I’ve been itching for a fight for days and this will do me.
Adrenaline swells and thrums through my veins as I consider each man, estimating their skills as a fighter. Two are likely ex-military by the way they hold themselves. The taller of the army blokes has dark hair, broad shoulders, callused knuckles and a steely gaze. The more I size him up, the more that that familiar, primal bloodthirst sings through my veins at the idea of tangling with him.
When his eyes come back around to me, I catch and meet his stare with a hard one of my own; a blatant challenge. That’s all it takes. His jaw clenches and his chin tips up as his eyes narrow on me. Then he shares a quick look and a subtle nod with each of his colleagues. They fan out around me in an attempt to close in from all sides. They are moving in slowly and casually; apparently not wanting to make a scene... but I have no such compunction. I plan to start swinging the moment they lay hands on me.
I shift and settle into a wider stance, stable enough to dodge or throw a punch. I tip my chin down so I can watch the other two in my peripheral... but, Mr. tall-dark-and-dangerous, I stare him square in the eyes, with a grin spreading over my lips.
He is only two and a half metres away when the doors to the elevator slide open and Sherlock steps out. He seems as though he intends to sweep on past me with his usual indifference, leaving me to follow behind him, but something about me must catch his eye. He stops in front of me, an assessing gaze traveling up and down my body. Then, with narrowed eyes, he turns and darts his gaze around the room, pointedly glaring, as if in reprimand, at each of the three security guards as he picks them out.
They have paused in their attack, due to Sherlock’s presence, and now try to awkwardly pretend that they hadn’t been about to jump me.
Sherlock turns back to me and lifts one eyebrow.
“Having fun?” His voice is flat and dispassionate but there is the faintest glimmer of amusement in his eyes.
“Was about to,” I grumble, frustrated that he has, once again, thwarted my efforts to quench my baser needs. I flex my fist open and closed where it is still clasped at the small of my back, willing away the build up of energy in my body that is primed for a fight (that it’s obviously not going to get now).
He rolls his eyes and huffs a sigh full of annoyance that makes him look more like a petulant teenager than the dangerous MI6 agent that I know him to be. However, that switch flips on a dime when he steps closer, locking his gaze on me with eyes that are suddenly as sharp and piercingly intense as a heated iron.
“Later, John.” His voice is low and tenebrous enough that it might well be a threat... or a promise.
All that adrenaline pounding through my system moments earlier is suddenly right there beneath the surface again, aching to split me open. He looms over me - far too close - and his whole body is tensed to the point that I think he might be quivering with barely restrained action, like the spring of a gun when the trigger is gently squeezed, straining to hold back the hammer until that moment of violent release.
I stare back at him, not moving a muscle but my expression clearly dares him to act.
Things are shifting. Heat is flaring, humming through me. His pupils are swelling, opening up to swallow me into their darkness. I'm practically mentally screaming at him, 'DO IT!' Posh bank be damned, if he so much as reaches for me I am taking him to the floor and I'm not sure what I'm going to do after that.
Suddenly, he sucks in a deep breath, whirls around, and strides towards the escalator as if nothing just happened between us.
“There’s work to be done,” he calls over his shoulder, clearly trusting that I will follow after him.
I hesitate. My head is naturally tilted to the side, my eyes are narrowed, and my lips pursed, as watch him move away from me and feel that pull. There is a very familiar, dark hunger stirring in my gut.
Maybe it's knowing who he really is beneath all the trappings, but even here, among the equally posh and bespoke, he stands out. There’s just something about him; arresting... enticing. He is practically gliding as he strides across the marble floor; back straight, and coat swishing around his calves. Contained within the long, lean lines of his body, he emanates a mix of power and elegance, fierceness and finesse - like some clever, wicked demon realised that beauty could be refined to a deadly point. Everyone else simply seems dull in contrast.
In this moment, it is irritatingly clear to me that the dark haired security guard would have been an unsatisfying substitute for who I really want to tangle with.
Got a taste for him now, Watson. Nothing else will do.
I shake that thought out of my head and jog after him, catching up just as he steps onto the escalator. As I step on behind him and it carries us downward, I glance back to ensure the guards aren't pursuing us. They aren't, of course. I almost want to laugh at the irony that Sherlock (the man who actually stole a badge and breached their security right beneath their noses) lends me enough of the appearance of respectability that they’ve decided to let me be. If only they knew!
I swivel my eyes back around to Sherlock and consider him. His mood seems much improved from earlier. He's practically vibrating with energy; apparently high on the challenge and invigorated by the mystery unraveling before him. It's captivating to see him this way after, what I now realise (by witnessing the contrast), must have been a depressive funk hanging over him this last week. He really does feed off of this sort of thing.
My mind returns to that image burned in my brain of Sebastian disparaging him over his skill. Though all vulnerability had been immediately shielded by a familiar, cold mask of indifference, I can't deny that the flicker of pain in his eyes inspires a fierce, irrational protectiveness in me. I want to counteract the sting of Sebastian's insults and to take the potency out of whatever backhanded, degrading methods of seduction he is trying to use on Sherlock. I lean closer, my mouth just behind his ear and my voice pitched lower.
“Two trips around the world this month,” I remark, “You didn’t ask his secretary; you said that just to irritate him.” I infuse my voice with teasing and conspiratorial notes. I want to give him the chance (that Sebastian denied him) to reveal how he'd worked it all out. I can tell he enjoys that bit and, frankly, I do too.
He doesn't respond but, from my position behind him on the escalator, I can tell that he is grinning. There's something almost coy about his expression. He tips his chin down to his chest and I notice that he is breathing heavier; a sudden anticipation and tension threaded through him.
It’s only then that I realise, with a shock, that I'm flirting with him. Perhaps no one else would typically think of my attempt to get him to share his deductions as a form of flirtation but I know, from what he'd said that first night on the couch (when he had interpreted all my behaviour leading up to that intimate moment), that he takes my enthusiasm for his skill as a territorial display; a way of declaring my interest and staking a claim. It doesn’t matter that that had never been my conscious intention, that is what it is now. It's an established code. Proceeding will be interpreted by him as a clear signal that I'm willing to recommence that twisted courtship dance from our first day together.
On the heels of that first revelation is the insight that he manipulated me into this position. He'd made the first move. The confrontation a moment ago; that irresistible enticement of danger and the challenge of overpowering him, had been a subversive strategy right out of his psychological game of seduction playbook that he'd used with me from the moment we met until the night I'd exploded inside him. He's telegraphing his moves and I’m naturally falling into that familiar battle rhythm.
“How'd you do it?” I ask with a grin and no hesitation. He’s lain a trap and, once again, I am willingly - eagerly, even - walking into it.
The Game is on!
He glances back at me with a smirk and then plunges in with a breathtaking demonstrations of his skill; revealing to me how a glimpse of an incorrect date on Sebastian's new watch had provided all the evidence he needed to deduce what the man had been up to.
Then, as we weave our way back to the lobby, he lays out for me what his investigation of the Chairman's office yielded. His astounding brain has somehow managed to work out that the graffiti was not merely vandalism but rather some kind of message. A code, maybe. He even determined who, among the 300 traders, it was intended for, Edward Van Coon.
As he hails a cab, I'm grinning. I'm practically drunk both with the thrill of his display of mental prowess and all the possibilities awaiting me now that our battle has resumed. A cab pulls up immediately, we climb in, and Sherlock provides the cabbie the address of the flat.
Once we pull out into traffic, I take a moment for the casual intimacy of sitting together in the back of the cab to settle around us before I broach what has really been chafing me since I first saw how Sebastian Wilkes treats Sherlock.
“So, Sebastian…” I say slowly, still looking out the window. “Well off, then?”
I glance over and see Sherlock is on his phone, fingers flying over the screen. “All very apparent once you consider the expense of his shoes and the quality of his tailored suit - not to mention the new watch and the cuff links. He's practically a walking billboard for casual affluence to the point of opulence - which, I suspect, is the point of the whole display.”
I make a sound of agreement but I'm really just trying to hold myself in check and proceed slowly. There is a risk to this conversation. Too eager or interested and he will stonewall me… or, worse yet, begin to suspect how affected I was by that first night. I know that The Game stops if there's any indication that it's more than a game to me - that I'm emotionally compromised.
“Some people go in for that,” I drawl, only looking at him out of the corner of my eyes to gauge his reaction. He merely makes a humming sound, closer to acknowledgement than agreement, his eyes never leaving his phone as he swipes and jabs at it.
I pause for a moment, rubbing a finger over my lips and looking out the window. Do I really want to press the issue? He’d said that protectiveness can only mean that I believe he’s mine to protect, and I can’t deny that I am feeling irrationally protective of him at the moment... but I don't think he'll appreciate or tolerate that sort of sentiment now. He’s a grown man - a highly capable and dangerous man. Yet, when I recall that predatory grin that spread over Sebastian's face as he grasped Sherlock's arm and forced himself into Sherlock’s space, I can’t deny that it makes me a bit mental. I've got to know if there's anything going on there.
“Decent looking bloke, too?”
Sherlock's head whips up and his eyes are hard and piercing as they focus on me and slice me up with laser precision. I don't know exactly what is behind that stare as he says, “You think so?” It is more statement than question.
“Well…” My shrug is awkward and I know it, but I plaster on a smile. Between his beady eyes and smug, slimey smile, Wilkes registers somewhere between rat and snake in personal appeal for me, but I don't want to appear as if I'm disparaging Sherlock for his (potential?) interest or for some past relationship with the man. “I suppose... the slick hair, the expensive suit, the sly smile… can be appealing, yeah?” I press my lips together and lift my eyebrows, trying to appear as positive and open as possible to his potential confession of interest in Sebastian, even though my stomach is clenched into a fist.
Sherlock stares at me a long moment, the wheels clearly turning rapidly behind his blank expression. Then he returns his gaze to his phone, and once more begins to scroll purposefully. “Not Urdu or Hebrew.”
“Right.” I deflate a bit, turning my gaze back to the window. That is as good as a door slammed in my face. He has effectively said he has no intention of revealing anything personal to me.
It's none of my business. And that's all this is - all it ever has been to him, really; business. His job is manipulating people - deceiving them. I am just a colleague, and a bit of entertainment - some live prey to bat around nothing more.
As I draw back into myself and refocus on the case, the space between us feels cold and thick with tension. We don't speak for the remainder of the ride to Van Coon's flat.
Chapter 5: Strung Along
Once we arrive at Van Coon's place, we find that the building is secured. We get no response from buzzing his flat. However, never one to be deterred by pesky attempts to secure facilities (or laptops), Sherlock immediately identifies and hones in on a weakness. I then get to witness Sherlock's skill at deception. He becomes another person right before my eyes. He's all soft smiles and innocent charm when he buzzes the person above Van Coon and pretends to have locked himself out of his flat. The new tenant doesn't have a chance in hell of resisting his little lip bite and puppy dog eyes. He even manages to convince the newly moved in tenant to allow him to use her balcony to jump down onto Van Coon's and climb into his flat. It's probably standard practise for MI6 but I'm left wondering how we're going to explain any evidence we gather or how we are going to talk our way out of this if, heaven forbid, we should get caught.
I expect him to let me in once he's gained entry, but, of course, the prat doesn't bother. My frustration and anxiety grows as I call him on the buzzer several times, but there is radio silence.
Anything could be happening up there.
Irritated to the point of wanting to throttle him, I manage to get into the building with a bit of my own charm, by slipping in with a woman on her way to her own flat and casually chatting her up.
When I get to Van Coon's flat, I find the door is standing ajar. I am immediately on high alert. As I slip inside, I pull out my gun and sweep through the area slowly, following the signs of forced entry. In the back of my mind there's a creeping dread that Sherlock has (once again) leapt full-hardy into a situation he's ill-prepared to handle and this time there might not be enough delay in action for me to intervene.
He may be hurt or even dead.
I'm bracing myself for the worst when I at last creep into the bedroom and find Sherlock hunched over, peering at a man that is lying very still on the bed.
Sherlock turns towards me and takes in my stance; slightly crouched, gun aimed and at the ready, as my eyes scan the room for threats.
“Alright?” The room appears empty, besides Sherlock and the man on the bed who, I suspect, is unconscious or dead - but I don't take it for granted. Always best to verify.
Sherlock gives a sharp nod of confirmation but he continues to watch me closely with his brow furrowed in the middle, as if I've done something puzzling. I glare back at him as I slide the safety on and lower my gun. Surprisingly, he's the first to drop his gaze.
“Edward Van Coon.” He gestures at the man on the bed.
“Deceased. Hardly a threat to anyone anymore.” There is an eye roll in his words that reminds me that, now that I'm certain he's alive, I'd rather like to kill the thoughtless prick for leaving me stranded.
“Right.” I bite down on the urge to curse him out and instead tuck my gun in the back of my waistband, covering it with my jumper.
It's fortunate I don't waste time berating him because, at that very moment, a voice thunders through the flat announcing that NSY is making entry.
I look over at Sherlock, my surprise no doubt written all over my face. He doesn't even lift his eyes from the dead body before him.
“You took time to call NSY but couldn't be bothered to buzz me in?”
“My phone was right here, whereas, the buzzer was all the way at the front of the flat.”
Within seconds the place is flooded with cops doing their own sweep to secure the scene. A few seem to know Sherlock well enough and when they try to put hands on me to ensure I'm not a threat, Sherlock at least has the decency to warn them off with a growled, “He's with me.”
After that they give us both a wide berth. I stand there by the door, arms crossed over my chest, seething over Sherlock's complete disregard. Even after all I've done that should prove my worth, I'm not an equal in his eyes. I’m not even an afterthought.
He makes a token effort to draw me into his process, even encouraging me to inspect Van Coon's suitcase, but I'm in no mood to be strung along when it suits him. Obviously, he doesn't need me to do his work and I’m done being a flunky or his personal toady. I'm just waiting until Lestrade shows up so I can give my statement and leave.
Lestrade doesn’t show.
A few minutes later a young looking detective inspector comes sauntering in in place of Lestrade, proclaims himself in charge and says he's DI Dimmock. He refuses to bow to Sherlock's forceful personality and it puts Sherlock back on his heels a bit. Because of that, I don't mind the bloke at all. In fact, I rather take a shining to him for knocking the pompous prick down a peg. He clearly rubs Sherlock up the wrong way, so I take a special dark delight in stepping up to him and introducing myself with my full army credentials.
"Well, alright then," the DI says looking me over subtly as he takes my offered hand and shakes it. His tone has a certain regard to it and his whole body language changes to something more open as he faces me. I wonder if someone he looks up to has served, and if there is interest there, because he clasps my hand a few seconds too long, studying me. He’s an average looking bloke I suppose; a bit bland with his dirt brown hair, tired eyes and plain face, but not bad. Not someone to usually catch my attention but I’ve obviously caught his. Sherlock lets out a snort like an angry bull beside us and the DI seems flustered for only a few seconds as he quickly lets go of my hand and turns with irritation back to Sherlock.
"Care to explain how you got in here?" His hands are on his hips as if Sherlock is a disobedient child. It's immensely entertaining to see the expressions flicker across Sherlock’s face in reaction to this young bloke, who can't be any older than Sherlock himself, flexing his authority.
"The front door was open, isn't that correct John?" I feel Sherlock turn his eyes on me, but my stare is already fixed on DI Dimmock. When the DI turns his gaze on me, I shamelessly play up the military angle, since that seems to appeal to him. Sherlock certainly isn’t the only one that can turn on his own brand of charm.
"I was concerned there may be someone injured, sir," I say solemnly. I'm standing in military parade rest and I keep my words crisp and confident. Dimmock's eyes catch on mine and I hold them until he clears his throat and looks away.
"Right," he says dragging his eyes back to Sherlock.
“Bedroom door was locked from the inside. I kicked it in.” Sherlock’s smile is nothing like a smile; cold and sharp. It is rather disturbing, actually. Enough so that I consider that he might be mentally playing out the DI’s murder in his head.
"Alright then, that's enough of you doing - whatever it is you do - on my crime scene. Out." He motions and turns to lead us from the room. I catch a glimpse of Sherlock’s face falling into a dark glower as I turn to follow the DI. I get far too much delight from that. And though I wouldn't really go so far as to flirt with someone I don't have any real interest in, as we leave the bedroom I decide to stroke the DI's ego a bit by telling him what a good job he is doing.
The DI doesn’t seem to know how to take this compliment so he deflects by saying “Yes, well… we’re obviously looking at a suicide.”
"Wrong!" Sherlock declares, whipping off his latex gloves. "It’s one possible explanation of some of the facts." He steps up to Dimmock, his posture like a coiled snake ready to spit venom. “You’ve got a solution that you like, but you’re choosing to ignore anything you see that doesn’t comply with it,” he hisses angrily.
“Like?” Dimmock's brow is furrowed with shocked confusion. Perhaps it's because Sherlock seems so virulent and malicious in contradicting him and he can't help but sense that this is about something more than the crime.
Sherlock points out, in the most insulting and belittling way possible, that the wound is on the right side of the head and, since Van Coon is left-handed, it would have been nearly impossible for him to have shot himself in the right side of his head. Of course, given that I am left-handed but prefer to shoot with my right hand, it’s not exactly an air-tight argument, but I don’t mention this at the moment. I am more concerned that Sherlock seems to be on the edge of committing homicide over the fact that Dimmock dares to express skepticism about the victim being left-handed.
Sherlock proceeds to launch into a veritable, ten minute long rant, pointing out each piece of evidence around the flat that points to Van Coon being left-handed. I try to get him to stop beating that dead horse about half-way through, but he goes on for another two or three minutes, just to show off. At the end of his tirade he declares that the only acceptable conclusion of all the facts is that someone broke in and murdered Van Coon. He was waiting for the killer with his gun because he’d been threatened. Then, seeming determined not to tie the last threads of the two cases together for Dimmock, and apparently being of the habit of stringing people along, he suddenly walks away and, with his back turned, starts to put on his scarf, coat and gloves
This leaves me to explain to Dimmock how we’d found a kind of a warning for Van Coon at the bank. I could hope Sherlock took that moment to calm himself, but instead I only get to say two sentences before he jumps back in with the viperous assertion that Van Coon had fired at his attacker and the shot had gone through the window. He proclaims that ballistics will prove that the bullet in Van Coon’s brain was not from his gun.
At this point, my own temper is starting to flare and I feel a bit hot under the collar over his savage stripping down of the DI.
Dimmock, for his part, takes it with a surprisingly even temper. He just questions how Van Coon’s killer could have got into the locked bedroom.
“Good! You’re finally asking the right questions.” Sherlock says condescendingly, as he dramatically slams his hand into his glove. He then turns and flounces out like a pompadour, coat flapping around himself and head held high.
I turn around and look Dimmock over. He is, not surprisingly, gaping over that cattish display of temper. I almost say something apologetic or encouraging as a salve to the acidic burn Sherlock just inflicted, but decide against it. I’m not particularly in the mood or the position to defend Sherlock when he hardly finds me more than an expendable hanger-on. I simply point at the departing drama queen, indicating I need to follow, and then jog after him.
I’ve no desire to have a row with Sherlock but, I intend to at least let him know that I won’t be trailing after him anymore.
“That was unnecessary,” I say when I catch up with him in the lobby.
“Terribly tedious, but obviously they can’t work it out for themselves,” Sherlock replies, his agitation still apparent in his posture, his clipped words, and his gait. I’m having to practically run to keep up with his long, brisk strides.
“That’s not what I’m talking about.” and he knows it. From beside him I can see him roll his eyes. He waves a hand dismissively as he reaches for the building door and pushes it open.
“There’s only two reasons someone that young makes it to the rank of DI; nepotism or exceptional skill. One must assume it is the former since there’s no indication of notable acumen or luminosity in DI Dimmock. He is nothing more than someone’s nephew or brother-inlaw with subaverage intelligence and a conflated sense of entitlement and self-worth.”
I glare over at Sherlock who has put his arm up to call a taxi. “Because he didn't have it all worked out? He was there all of 5 minutes before you laid into him.”
“So was I and I worked it out,” Sherlock retorts, and I realise he is holding open the taxi door for me. I huff and slide in, then scoot over for him. As he gives the address to the cabbie, I scowl out the window. I could say that it’s not fair to compare Dimmock to himself since Sherlock is obviously exceptional, but that’d play right into his hands, wouldn’t it? Likely that’s his point; no one holds a candle to him.
“I shoot with my right hand,” I say instead, glancing over at him as the cab pulls into traffic. He's typing on his phone again.
“And yet, you didn’t offer that fact to the young DI to garner additional favour.” His voice has a cold, cutting edge, like bitterness. That's surprising.
“Didn’t seem necessary.” I shrug, pulling on my ear as I continue to gaze out the window. “Would have muddied the waters... and... I happen to think you’re right.” I look over at Sherlock and find him staring back at me with one eyebrow cocked in intrigue. “Reason I shoot with my right is I’m professionally trained to use the gun in the optimal manner in which it was designed to be used; Van Coon just had it for defense, more than likely never shot it before - he’d have grabbed it with whatever hand he favoured. Gun was also on his left - where it fell when he dropped it. Besides, bullet wound was too small to be suicide.”
“You refused to come over to examine the wound.”
“Didn’t have to. If he’d had the barrel right up against his temple I’d been able to see the entry and exit from where I was, easy.”
Sherlock’s eyes narrow and he bites his lip, considering me for a moment. Clearly, he hadn’t expected me to pick up on that much. I feel a slight thrill at defying his expectations once more. However, it does not offset the undercurrent of frustration that has only grown throughout the day.
“You once told me you wouldn’t make the mistake of underestimating me,” I say in a low, flat voice. I watch as his eyes darken, his posture goes stiff and his hands tighten visibly around his phone. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought up that first night and dared to evoke images of him straddling me in the dark. He seems to prefer to forget all that, but I’m not feeling particularly gracious enough to let him do so right now.
It’s been a wholly unsatisfying day.
I sniff and turn my eyes on the back of the cabbie's head.
“You can have him drop me at the flat.”
“It’s not on the way.”
“Then we’ll drop you. I’ll go on to it.”
I hear him shift beside me. He exhales a long, slow breath like he's resigning himself to something.
“We’re going to see Sebastian.” I look over at him and he is staring at me with an expression that has opened up just enough to have a little softness and sadness on the edges. “Need to learn more about what Van Coon was into that might have lead to someone wanting to murder him. The tactics… defying security at the bank and the flat, getting into a locked room - had to be a professional job. ”
It seems like this is as close to an apology as I'm going to get.
It’s an effort, anyways. He's letting me in by communicating, and I suppose that is something.
Maybe quite a lot for a man like him.
Besides, I’m not particularly fond of the idea of him seeing Sebastian alone.
“You think it’s work related?”
Sherlock smiles slightly, his posture straightening now that I’ve signaled a willingness to be involved. “Men like Van Coon, their whole lives revolve around work."
"Someone from the bank, then? Wanted him dead and hired a contract killer?” I can only hope it's Sebastian. I would certainly relish seeing him hauled away in handcuffs and that smug grin disappearing when his posh suit is exchanged for a prison uniform.
“Perhaps... There’s a reason the message was there at the bank..." He taps his leather clad finger to his lip, staring off into the distance. "Money. Statistically speaking, it’s one of the primary motivators for crime. There’s money at the heart of this. Follow the money and we’ll find our killer.”
The cab pulls up in front of a posh restaurant. I feel Sherlock staring at me as I look out the window, considering if I really want to continue. I turn back to him and he lifts his eyebrows.
In place of a response, I open the door and climb out onto the kerb. I stand there staring at the restaurant. Sherlock pays the cabbie and slides out to stand next to me. I look over and he is grinning. I can tell he's going to enjoy this.
I think I might just enjoy it too.
“Intimidation, John," He says looking over at me. "He isn’t going to want to give up information easily. We must hit him quick and precise. Pressure points; police scrutiny and losing face.”
I give a sharp nod of understanding and we march into the restaurant side-by- side; a two man army.
Chapter 6: Cracks
The restaurant is the kind of dimly lit and posh trendy setting where politicians, movie stars and white collar criminals rub elbows over five star cuisine and thirty year old bottles of scotch. I’m not at all surprised to find a slimy character like Sebastian completely at ease here.
Sherlock struts in as if he owns the place, head held high and stride brisk and confident. With not even a glance at the Matradee, he dismisses him with a curt statement about being late for a meeting with people that are already seated. I march in step right behind him exuding the authority, conviction, and decisiveness I’d honed in the army. I figure, if nothing else, I can at least pass as a bodyguard.
Sebastian is at a small table at the back with some clients. His laugh is that smug, malicious, self-satisfied chuckle of one having his fun at another's expense. Sherlock begins speaking before he even reaches the table, his booming voice drawing the attention of everyone nearby even if the declaration that 'it was a threat' didn't. True to his plan, he hits Sebastian fast and hard, going straight for the most vulnerable points, making quick work of his attempt to dismiss us. He tells him that VanCoon has been murdered and when Sebastian tries to brush him off, he makes it seem as if Sebastian either speaks with us now or New Scotland Yard.
I stand right behind Sherlock, offering the occasional confirmation or additional details but mostly just relishing the destruction being wrought upon Sebastian by Sherlock's skillful assailment.
It's quite satisfying to see Sebastian squirm. He puts down his glass of water, nervously runs his finger along the inside his shirt collar, as if it suddenly feels too tight, then excuses himself from his guests.
"VanCoon was into something, Sebastian." Sherlock begins as we stride away together. "I need-"
"Not here," Sebastian says whirling around on Sherlock with a dark glare. "Discretion, for Christ's sake. Do you ever learn?"
The shift in Sherlock is so minute, you wouldn't see it unless you were watching closely and knew him well. Something goes dead in his eyes and his face goes so neutral it is hauntingly empty.
"Of course," he says flatly, but they continue to stare at each other. Some sort of silent conversation is happening, and I can't take it.
"The lav?" I say stepping forward and gesturing towards the corridor that leads to the toilets.
"Brilliant idea, mate." Sebastian's eyes shift to me with that falsely jovial tone, and a too large grin. "Right, lead on," he says with a tick of his head in the direction of the loo. I'd rather not turn my back on the smarmy bastard, nor leave Sherlock behind with him, but I can't justify being rude. I turn and lead the way, feeling a strange tension in Sebastian's gaze on the center of my back as he follows close behind.
The washroom is large and, as I step in and pause to scan the place to ensure it's empty, Sebestaion moves past me, already pulling himself out. Startled, I glance at Sherlock, but his eyes are cast down at his own feet, his whole face now darkened. It's not that I haven't seen my fair share of private equipment but, since we've ducked in here specifically for a discussion about VanCoon, I hadn't expected for Sebastian to be whipping his cock out. This is surely just another attempt to taunt Sherlock by putting himself on display.
"Sorry, hope you don't mind if I take care of myself," Sebastian says casually, already settling in at the urinal. "While we're here and all, might as well get some relief."
"Sure. Why not? Just here to question you about your employee that's been killed." My voice has a tense edge of sarcasm to it. I quietly fume, glaring at his back. He doesn't seem to take the hint. "
"Right. VanCoon," Sebastian says finishing up, tucking himself away, and moving to the sink to wash his hands. He glances at Sherlock out of the corner of his eyes, his face fixed once again in that slimy smug smirk. Sherlock's chin is tipped down and he's wound so tight that he's practically vibrating. Perhaps this sort of power play really does get him worked up.
"Harrow; Oxford. Very bright guy. Worked in Asia for a while, so…" Sebastian is next to me but facing the sinks. I can feel his eyes on the back of my neck through the reflection in the mirror and I cross my arms over my chest to keep from using them to try to knock that permanent grin off his face.
"You gave him the Hong Kong accounts," I add, trying to hasten the conversation along. Sherlock is being strangely silent.
"Lost five mill in a single morning; made it all back a week later," Sebastian replies, turning towards me as he dries his hands. "Nerves of steel, Eddie had." I look up at Sherlock.
There's the money.
Sherlock doesn't meet my gaze. He still seems withdrawn and not interested in leading the questioning.
"Who’d wanna kill him?" I press.
"We all make enemies," Sebastian dismisses with that sharp smile, his eyes locked on mine. It feels like a challenge. I glare right back.
"You don’t all end up with a bullet through your temple," I say flatly, not smiling in return. I'm not at all impressed with his posturing and some dark, vicious part of me (that I don't particularly like) whispers that he doesn't know who he's messing with; I've already put a bullet in one man for trying to hurt Sherlock.
The tension breaks when Sebastian’s phone beeps a text alert.
"Not usually," he grins, opening the message. "’Scuse me." He gets out his mobile and looks at the message. After a second of reading it, his eyes narrow.
"It’s my Chairman. The police have been on to him. Apparently they’re telling him it was a suicide." He looks up at Sherlock with a raised eyebrow. The ruse is obviously up.
"Well, they’ve got it wrong, Sebastian. He was murdered," Sherlock says, at last breaking his silence, with a tone that almost seems like it's a plea. I cock my head at that, curious at the rawness of it. It seems genuine.
"Well, I’m afraid they don’t see it like that." Sebastian's uncaring tone contrasts sharply with Sherlock's.
"Seb- " Sherlock begins, and I can't help but flinch at the familiarity - intimacy - in shortening his name like that paired with the tone. Apparently Sebastian's tactics are having an impact.
" ... and neither does my boss," Sebastian interrupts with a stern edge. "I hired you to do a job. Don’t get side-tracked." He throws away his towel and brushes past me a little too closely as he pushes his way out the door.
"I thought bankers were all supposed to be heartless bastards," I try to joke, but it's dry humour. I give a sidelong look to Sherlock but his face has tightened and gone dark again. He doesn’t say a thing but suddenly swirls out of the room and strides towards the entrance. I have to nearly run to keep up with him.
He moves briskly; blowing past the crowds, shouldering his way out the door, pulling on his gloves, and striding out onto the pavement. He's angry. It's in every tense muscle and sharp movement. I'm about to try to say something to appease him about there still being a chance we'll find something from forensics or that we can always try talking to more coworkers but then I catch the low growl of his words over the noise of the street.
“The promiscuous girl from Tesco, the submission kink secretary, the dull DI. You’ve obviously no dearth of options” Sherlock steps to the kerb and throws his hand up with his back to me. He gives no indication that the words are addressed to me and not to the air in general. “If you prefer to suck off dim-witted, city boys that make their fortunes off of swindling others then there is little to be done for it, but I prefer if it not be that particular miscreant.” Sherlock still has his arm lifted and his back to me as he looks down the street towards an approaching taxi.
I gape at him, trying to process his words. I had thought for a moment that he was telling me that Sebastian isn't the murderer but it seems that the conversation jumped the track and I can't make my mind follow it.
Surely, I've misheard.
“I’m sorry, what?”
The taxi is slowing, so he drops his arm, staring down at his glove as he needlessly yanks at the cuff and stretches his fingers within the leather casing.
“I know that it is foolish to expect you to take my direction in this matter, or to respect my request, but...” he is still not looking at me. As the taxi pulls up beside us, I see in the profile of his face as he squeezes his eyes shut for a moment and his lips part over a silent sigh of frustration. Then he straightens his shoulders and glances back over at me with a look that is hollow of any emotion. His voice is completely neutral.
“Pretty much anyone - anyone else - would be more tolerable.” A muscle twitches in his cheek like he is fighting a grimace.
Christ, is he really saying...?
I look down at his hand that is reaching for the handle of the taxi. I'm struck by a surge of panic as I realise that something is happening here - like a break in the code or a crack in the wall - and this rare moment of directness and honesty is about to slip away without me comprehending it at all.
“Sherlock,” I grab him, spin him around and push him back against the taxi. My hands are gripping his coat at the lapels and my body is pinning his.
“What the hell are you on about?” My voice sounds angry, and maybe I am. He's just casually dropped a bomb into the middle of my reality and blown everything I thought to understand about the situation (and about us) to smithereens.
His stare sharpens and he searches my face for a moment. Then his gaze flicks to the building behind me. I ease back a little, reminded that the CCTV cameras are always watching. However, I don’t let go.
I need him to answer this. It feels like the most important question in the world right now.
“He’s hardly being subtle, John,” his voice is low and there is a bitterness on the edges of his expression. The way it wavers slightly tells me that he's putting a lot of effort into keeping it completely oblique. “Obviously Sebastian is playing you. His crude efforts at seducing you would be laughable if they weren’t so appallingly effective.”
“Wait a goddamn minute-”
“Are you getting in?” the cabbie shouts through the passenger window.
“Just a minute-” I reply distractedly to the driver.
I try to focus on Sherlock’s face in the fog of incoherent reasoning he’s just swamped me in.
“Wilkes is - that - that is not for me, Sherlock. He’s after you.”
Sherlock snorts, and it is an acrid, ugly thing with his sneering face so distorted by anger and disgust.
“Don’t be coy John, it’s an insult to my intelligence." His expression turns fierce. He leans forward into my space; ferocious and challenging. "Of course he isn’t interested in me. He is aware that I have never been susceptible to his primitive tactics. He wants to hurt me. Get one last dig in. Prove he has something - anything - over me. That’s his game. He gets off on it - taking with ease another’s hard-won prize. Feeds his ego.” Sherlock’s eyes are blazing fury and he’s grown quite close to me in his rising furor. “What he can’t destroy completely, he sullies then tosses aside - broken, like so much rubbish - just to prove he can. You’ll be no different. He’ll use you. I shouldn’t have brought you in on this but I thought -” He shakes his head, ending with a sound of frustration.
“Time’s money, fellas. I haven’t got all day,” the cabbie grumbles.
“You must understand, John,” Sherlock whispers quieter, his voice full of fervor. “You’re meaningless to him. He doesn’t care what he does to you. He doesn’t think you’re special. He doesn’t see, John. He just knows you’re-” Sherlock’s mouth snaps shut suddenly and his head jerks back as if he’s just realised that he's said too much when he almost said something truly catastrophic.
“I’m…?” I search his face. His expression is hard now, closed off, but at the corners of his eyes I see a tinge of fear. It felt like he was going to say it - finally put a voice to that something growing between us in spite of his best efforts to snuff it out. It felt like he was going to say that I’m important. Maybe even that I’m his. I belong to Sherlock and that is why Wilkes wants me.
“For Christ’s sake save your domestics for the bedroom, mates.” The cabbie grabs for the gear shift, clearly ready to pull away.
“Just hold on-” I shout back. I release Sherlock to crouch down and meet the cabbie’s eye, offering a finger - not the one he deserves, but one that will hopefully buy us another moment. He huffs and rolls his eyes.
“Sherlock-” As I straighten to face Sherlock it is clear that he has pulled back on all his shields. His expression is completely unreadable. The moment is slipping away. “Are you saying…?” I don’t know how to finish that sentence. The moment feels heavy and dangerous. My thoughts are swirling too rapidly with the shock of all this and I have several questions pressing up all at once.
“John-” There is a small jerk of his head in denial and a twinge in the muscle by his nose, like a suppressed grimace. “It’s nothing. Forget it.” He shoves me away, turns, and pulls open the door to the taxi. “Forget I said anything… it’s nothing to do with me.”
He slips into the taxi and the door slams behind him. I stare after the silhouette of his curly hair through the rear windshield as the taxi pulls away and gets swallowed up in the flow of traffic.
Chapter 7: Sheep and Wolves
“Sherlock?” I pound up the stairs of Baker Street and burst into the sitting room.
Mrs. Hudson startles, and grabs her chest, something falling from her hand to the floor with a clack as she jumps back from the bookcase. “Oh, dear! It's just you,” she says, one hand still clutched over her heart as she steadies herself with the other by grasping the back of Sherlock’s chair. "Such a racket."
“Sorry, Mrs. Hudson." I glance around and step further into the room, peering into the kitchen as well. "Is Sherlock-?”
“Still out. Haven’t seen him since you left together around noon, dear.” She reaches down and picks up the long handled feather duster she'd dropped, propping it against the fireplace. “Did you two get separated?”
“Something like that,” I mutter, as I massage at my throbbing temple. "More like we had a bit of a row and he ran off." I drop down onto the couch, scrubbing a hand over my face wearily. My mind tumbles over and over the confrontation on the sidewalk, trying to make sense of what had just happened. It doesn’t make a bit of sense. It has to be a game. Some sort it manipulation? Maybe a performance for the cameras? The cold, manipulative bastard is playing me somehow. I just can't understand to what end.
Mrs. Hudson makes a sound of understanding. "Such an emotional young man. He tries. He really does. ”
“Emotional?” I pinch the bridge of my nose, wondering if we are talking about the same man. My anger is draining, leaving in its place exhausted confusion. I'm only half listening to her. I'd really rather be alone.
“Yes, of course... But, you know, he hasn't had much experience with this sort of thing. I'm afraid you'll have to take the lead there."
I look up at her in confusion. "Sorry… experience?"
She flutters her hand in the air as if to bat away my silliness and continues gathering up abandoned dishes. "Not with the real thing, you know. He can put on a show well enough for an hour - maybe even a day or two - for the work, but he's a lost little lamb when he finds himself genuinely falling for someone."
I let out a disbelieving sound that's not quite a laugh at the absurdity of Sherlock, a highly capable and deadly MI6 agent, being considered a lost little lamb. "I really don't think-" I freeze in mid sentence as I process the last bit of her sentence and the full weight of what she is suggesting at last hits me. "No, no. I’m afraid you've got it all wrong, Mrs Hudson," I say waving a hand in the universal gesture of 'I'm innocent of this crime you're acusing me of.'
She stops and looks at me. "Have I?" Her eyebrows lift slightly and a soft smile comes over her expression. It is the sort of patient smile a mother might give a child that is being especially foolish and stubborn when they probably should know better.
I purse my lips a moment to keep my instinctive reaction in check. I stare her down, considering my words carefully. I can't afford to let anything show. Sherlock had said on my first night in 221B that the flat is full of cameras and listening devices spying on everything; enemies waiting for confirmation that Sherlock and I mean enough to each other for me to be used to control or destroy him.
I fold my hands together, leaning forward with my elbows on my knees. "We are not like that." My words are measured, with the force of conviction behind each one.
Her hum says less that she believes me and more that she considers it interesting that I would say such a thing.
"What's it like," she asks. It is not exactly pointed. The tone light and her expression is only open and curious. Yet, I can't help but jerk back a little, reminded of Sherlock wrapped around me on the couch and asking the same question. My mind inevitably tumbles through what it actually was like; the ravishing kisses, the grinding sweaty bodies, the tightness of him around me.
It’s only when I see the flicker of tension in her face and the wary way she is regarding me that I become aware that my tone is too harsh, my jaw is clenched, and I am gripping the edge of the sofa tightly. I force myself to relax, draw back, and smooth out my features.
"We are not together, Mrs. Hudson." I say calmly, a tight smile on my face.
She looks at me thoughtfully for a moment before she turns to the side.
“Did you have a look at the file?” She asks, shifting her eyes and tipping her head to indicate the file Mycroft left on the table.
I look over at it, blinking with surprise at the sudden shift in conversation. She seems content to let the issue go and I am too. "The Jharia Diamond file? No. He didn’t take the case.”
She hums as if considering this as she shuffles around the kitchen, tidying. “Do you wonder why?"
'No." I let out a long breath and grind the heels of my palms into my eyes. “Said he wasn’t interested, I think."
"Hmmm… why do you suppose that is?" When I Don't respond she pops her head out of the kitchen and asks, "Don't you wonder what goes on in that funny little head of his?"
"No," I say, my tone hard and flat. Trying to work out what is going on in his head is driving me mad and I'd rather not get any deeper into those weeds by trying to unravel his logic about yet another thing. "Don't imagine I could work out anything in his head."
"Healthy curiosity is so important," she says, turning back into the kitchen. "Important for a long life, they say...”
“Thought it killed the cat,” I mutter, sighing and sitting forward. I begin to push papers around on the table for a distraction.
“No, no. Actually, the full saying is ‘curiosity killed the cat, satisfaction brought it back’. That's an old one, dear. Been shortened along the way. Gives a completely different meaning when you don’t know the whole of it.”
“Right,” I nod distractedly, not really interested but thinking idly that they probably shortened it because a zombie cat can't really be considered a good outcome.
Besides, it's wise not to stick one's nose where it doesn’t belong.
I pick up an advert and start to read it, my mind returning to Wilkes's cheque in my jacket pocket. We may well have to return it. The case has hit a dead end and Sherlock has run off to who-knows-where - that means I am back where I started my day. Broke and pressed for money. Time to return to my original plan of getting a job. As I consider the job posting section of the paper, I feel eyes on me and glance up to find Mrs. Hudson standing in the doorway of our kitchen, staring at me.
“Sherlock says a lot of things. Always best to look - really look - for oneself, I find. Don’t you, dear?” She’s smiling at me but there is a razor sharp keenness in it that I’ve not seen in her before. It's a bit of a terrifying revelation. I’d suspected there was more to her than just a landlady, but that look is all the confirmation I need to know that she's not who she's pretending to be. It's like glimpsing the wolf beneath the sheep's clothing.
“Right.” I slowly place the classifieds down on the table and pick up the file. “I’ll just have a look then, shall I?”
“Good idea,” she beams, all sweet, old lady again.
Hardly a subtle nudge.
She wipes her hands on her apron with an air of satisfaction.
"And I wouldn't worry about your row with Sherlock, dear. I always found that after a little domestic with my late husband, the making up was the best part, if you know what I mean." She smiles slyly with a twinkle in her eyes that makes my stomach lurch.
"Is there something more you need?" I rise to my feet, my tolerance now run out.
Who the hell's side is she on, anyways? I thought she was Sherlock's ally, but now I'm wondering if she's not on the payroll of Mycroft (or someone worse) by the way she's so blatantly pressing for Sherlock and I to be more.
"As I recall," I say, briskly striding over to the fireplace and snatching up the feather duster. "You are not our housekeeper." I cross to her and hold out the duster to her. My set jaw and my flinty stare say that it’s time for her to go.
"Yes, of course,” she says with a little laugh, taking the duster and twirling it with the wistfulness of a young woman twirling her dress. She seems unruffled by my hardening mood, continuing on as if we are just having a pleasant chat.
“Old habits and all." She sighs and meanders over to the door, still talking. "He's just returned, you know. Place was so empty before and, of course, I couldn't just leave it to the dust." She turns back to look at me, fussing at the button of her dress with her free hand.
"Suppose I’ll leave it all to you now, then." There's a lilt at the end of the sentence. Her eyes that have a pointed question in them that gives me the feeling that she is talking less of the flat's upkeep and more of Sherlock’s care. I level a stony expression at her, refusing to give an inch. After a few seconds her expression gentles and she smiles.
“I’ll go make some scones for you boys," She turns and begins a careful decent down the stairs. "Sherlock’s bound to be hungry once he’s solved it. Always such strange appetites, that one. Famine to feast in a heartbeat,” she says over her shoulder
I narrow my eyes on her back and watch her slow retreat down the stairs. I don't unclench my fists until I hear her door shut below. I walk back to the couch and sit down. I reach for the file and only hesitate a moment before I flip it open and begin reading it. After all, if Sherlock had no qualms about invading my privacy, why should I feel a need to refrain from reading the file of a case he's abandoned.
It turns out that the ‘Jharia Diamond’ is not so much a case of a missing diamond as the case of an apparent abduction of a young girl from a powerful political family in the Jharia region of India.
Kali Prasad Singh, ‘The Jewel of the Singh Family,’ also known as ‘The Jharia Diamond.’
Almost the entire file is stuffed full of extensive political and historical background information about the influential Singh family and the tumultuous Jharia region. The family has ties to royalty and considerable circles of influence that reach all the way to the highest cabinets of India's government. There are many family members engaged in powerful political offices that have gained numerous outspoken and passionate rivals over the years.
One report details the controversial political views and policies of each of the family members. It enumerates their most vocal opponents, ranking them into a list of the most likely suspects for the abduction.
It is the work of a dozen analysts.
Enough to make your eyes go crossed...
It's also complete rubbish.
At the back of the file is a picture of the young girl in question; Kali Prasad Singh, ‘The Jharia Diamond.’ It's clear to see why she has earned the name. Draped with elaborately embroidered garments that are studded with stones that catch and reflect the light, her oval face is the colour of warm honey, lush black lashes frame brown eyes, and her hair is long, glossy, and black, laying like thick satin over each shoulder. Her back is straight, her chin is lifted high and she holds herself with a kind of dignity and beauty that makes her seem both hard and pure.
Yet, it’s there in her eyes for anyone that looks close enough. I stare at her face a long time, a familiar uneasy sense of wrongness taking root in my gut. Her big, deep, innocent eyes tell the truth that is carefully shuddered behind a determined stoicism. Beneath it all, she is just a child; young and terrified and trying hard to hide the fact that she is full of fear and dread.
On a single sheet of paper in the back of the file is the most important information. The first half of the page details the circumstances under which she disappeared. She was out on a shopping trip with her trusted bodyguard, a man who had been charged with protecting her since her birth, when men in full battle dress attacked. There had been a fight, which many had witnessed. The men had ultimately overwhelmed the guard and spirited Kali away into a waiting van. The van was found, empty and abandoned, two hours later. There has been no ransom note or call.
There is a small aside at the bottom noting that the guard was initially uninjured but disappeared a day later. It is thought that, in shame for his failure to protect the girl, he has taken his own life, as is the tradition for such a dishonour.
The second section outlines political repercussions if she is not found. It notes, in a cold, remote way, that Kali was to be married to a political rival to secure the alliance of the two families and ensure the future social status of the Singh, which had endured many challenges to their prestige recently.
Her bridegroom, a middle-aged man whose previous young wife died giving birth to their third child, is furious and blames the Singh family for not allowing him to take the girl a year earlier, at the time when they had first come to the marriage agreement. He has threatened to destroy the Singh family both financially and politically if the girl isn't retrieved and relinquished to him immediately. The whole incident promises to throw the region into political upheaval.
The report ends with hard numbers; projections of the cost that such political instability could have, due to the anticipated disruption in the production of coal. Apparently, the Jharia region is the primary supplier of coal to India and the UK. The losses are projected in the billions and dismal enough to apparently warrant the British Government being willing to (quietly) put a significant amount of resources towards supporting efforts to locate the girl.
My disgust with the family, that is treating their young daughter like a bargaining chip, is only matched by my distaste for the British government that has, in a sense, condoned this child being bartered away in such a manner, simply because they are desperate to ensure that the price of coal remains low.
I flip back to the photo of the young girl; twelve, maybe fifteen at best, and doomed to a life of loveless marriage with a significantly older man, with an apparent temper. I can see now that that look in her eyes is practically a plea for help. I shut the folder and stare across the room.
My gaze focuses on Sherlock’s chair and, like the perfect thread pulled, suddenly the whole tangled skein unravels in my mind. It is as clear as day what happened in this case.
Her lifelong protector.
I was a soldier and I know what it is to protect and defend life. I know what I would have done if I had spent every waking moment protecting a little girl, only to see her family trade her away for the hope of gaining political power. The guard had to look into Kali's frightened eyes every day and know that that previous life (he has been protecting since birth) was being cast aside. He had to see the devastating fate that awaited her. So, he ensured Kali escaped her destiny. He arranged a public abduction that would lead everyone to look elsewhere for her, and then found a way to secure her safe passage to freedom.
All those analysts picking apart Kali’s case and even the genius mind of Mycroft Holmes couldn’t manage to see an act of love when it was staring them in the face.
He'd seen right through to the heart of the matter.
My gaze drops and I remember the scimitar that Sherlock had tried to hide beneath his chair. I realise who his attacker must have been.
The one person who wouldn’t want a detective taking the case and potentially finding out what really happened to the girl.
Sherlock had been fighting the guard whilst I had been off fighting the Chip and Pin.
The man responsible for the crime Sherlock had been all but ordered to solve had attacked him, yet, he’d let him go free.
Heaven knows how he’d managed to both stop the attack and get the message across to the guard that he would not look for Kali, but he must have done, because I hadn’t come home to a body and there’s been no more attacks.
“Fucking amazing,” I mutter, throwing the file down on the stack of papers on the table. It does him no favours to have refused to reveal the truth of this case to Mycroft. He is giving the British government, who might be the only ones capable of lending him some protection in the coming fight with his big target, the proverbial finger (rejecting whatever rewards and bearing any consequences of failing to cooperate with them).
It’s possible that he refused the case just to thumb his nose at his brother or that he even did it as part of some strategy that I can’t fathom yet (being that I’m largely in the dark about what any of his objectives are), but it’s possible - just possible - that he did all this just so a little girl that he's never met gets the chance to have her freedom, live her own life, and choose who she loves.
I rub at my temple again as the conflicting truths war in my head once more.
On the one hand, there is the high-functioning sociopath that cares about no one and that concerns himself with nothing but solving mysteries. The cold and manipulative MI6 agent that tried to seduce me, then cast me aside the minute he had my aligenance secured. In many ways, it is easier to accept and believe in that version of him than entertain the highly improbable and dangerous alternative.
What if the truth lies in those little cracks of vulnerability and those flashes of raw and beautiful humanity that drew me to him on that first day? What if the hungry way he looks at me sometimes, and what happened between us that first night, and what he said on the sidewalk in front of Seb's club haven't been games or attempts to use or deceive me, but him letting his mask slip. What if, against all odds, he is the opposite of Mrs. Hudson; a sheep in wolves clothing?
With a groan, I flop back to lay flat on the couch and stare up at the ceiling.
What a mess!
In another place, at another time, I would risk it. But here… now?
There’s too much on the line to be selfish and trust in this absurd impossibility.
I clench my fists and close my eyes, sinking into the dark swirl of my thoughts.
I fall asleep with my mind tumbling over and over the problem of Sherlock Holmes.
Chapter 8: Nightmare
I startle out of sleep with the sensation of something pressing down on my face. I struggle to fight it off but, as I breathe in, my head spins and I sink even deeper into that gray, dreamless abyss.
The next thing I am aware of is that the nature of that pressure has changed. It's moving. It's plush lips and a slick, heated, and invasive tongue pulling, pressing and plundering my own lax lips as if it means to devour me.
It's urgent and demanding, in a harsh, relentless way.
I'm not sure how long it takes for this to reach my awareness. My lips move weakly for a moment. I'm confused, groggy, and my head is full of a thick fog. I'm unable to pull myself fully out of sleep. But then, by instinct, my body begins to respond. I suck in a breath, reach up to grasp the body above me. My hand slides up the firm muscles of a bare back, sinking into soft, thick curls. I pull, drawing them closer, changing the angle and then the tempo of that almost franic kiss to suit my own needs. I force it deeper, slower. Desire unfurls as the fog falls away and everything sharpens. A body is moving against mine; aching pressure. The heat of it builds like a fire catching and then slowly roaring to life; all the stronger for growing gradually.
Familiar long, strong hands move over me, one holding me in place as the other tries to tear me apart. Sliding down. Popping the buttons of my shirt. Trailing down, down, down. over chest… stomach… Going straight for my-
My body jerks. I break off the kiss and turn my head away.
"Sherlock," I gasp, the truth of who is kissing me hitting me at the same time that his name leaves my lips. "You're - What are you doing?"
In the dark, I can only see the silhouette of him straddling my thighs; an ebony void etched against the washed out grays of the room. I'm panting, trying hard to bring him into focus, but not quite succeeding.
"This is what you want, John." His voice is strangely monotone, resonating on some subatomic level that makes me feel a bit drunk and I try to blink it off - to focus.
I need to focus.
Damn. Why can't I focus?
He leans forward and his voice purrs right by my ear.
"There is no reason to fight this." He rocks his body against mine and I can feel his plush rump, slide against my throbbing cock through our clothes. I suck in a deep breath, grabbing at his hips in an effort to still him, but the sensation still shivers through me like the aftershocks of an earthquake.
"You want this," he says as his hands sweep over my now exposed chest. My whole body is twisting up tight with need, muscles twitching. "Want me." It's more of an order than a declaration. He pinches harshly at my peaked nipple and it seems angry and dark but no less arousing, sending a jolt through me that makes me buck up into him.
"There's no reason to fight this," he repeats over and over insistently until it loses meaning and just becomes sounds, like some ancient chant. It wears down my resistance.
Something in me shatters.
Christ, I want this.
Everything else falls away.
"I want this," I growl, lunging forward and winding my arms around him to pull him back down on top of me. I thread my hand up around his head and yank it down to capture his lips again in a ravenous kiss. It's hot and intense, quenching and igniting. His mouth swallowing all my heated moans as I skim my hand down and grab a hand full of his plush arse to hold him in place so I can grind my hips up into him. I want to ravage him - take him apart - keep my promise from that first night to make him beg. I'm mad with it. But then my brain begins to flicker back online again, like a computer rebooting.
What the hell are we doing?
There is every reason to fight this.
It's stupid, and deadly, and can only end badly.
"No. No. Wait!" I violently shove him away so I can sit up. My head is swimming like I'm more than half drunk. I am breathing heavily. Everything is throbbing in time with my rock hard prick. I ache. Every fibre aches. I can't make my scattered thoughts assemble. I need to pull this thing back from the edge it's teetering on.
“Shit, Sherlock. Stop - Stop this… We can't…. Whatever you're doing…” Giving in to him will ruin everything we're trying to do. The mission - the whole blasted facade. Even if we don't get caught, it's sure to ruin me and what little grasp I have on my feelings for him.
"You want this," he repeats firmly, more like a command. His face is entirely in shadow, and yet I think I see the glint of his eyes. “Don't even bother denying yourself. You want this, John. That much is apparent." He tilts his head down and stares directly at my cock, which has definitely responded to his attention and proximity; uncomfortably straining against the confines of the fabric.
I turn the sound stuck in the back of my throat that wants to be a moan into a growl and sweep my tongue over my bottom lip that suddenly feels too warm and dry.
It tastes like him.
“I - we can't. This is dangerous.”
“Of course it is.” There's a tinge of amusement in his voice. “That is what you like, John. You're addicted to the rush of danger. A challenge. A risk. A battle.” His voice rumbles in his chest.
In my chest.
"This is why you've come to me." There's something off about his tone. Something harder and colder in him that makes me uneasy. He tilts his chin up with the raw heat of challenge in his eyes.
"Sherlock-" I shake my head in denial. "You don't know what you're asking of me.”
He growls in frustration.
"Too early. We're losing him," a voice suddenly says from the darkness around us. I turn towards the source and there is only the skull on the mantle. But, as I stare at it, its eye sockets become alight with a flickering blue flame; that light increasing to reveal the space more and more, like someone with a torch is approaching from inside the caverns of those sockets.
"What the-‽" I turn back to Sherlock and gasp in horror, trying to scramble away. His eyes are... gone! Burnt out. Only black, gaping voids where they once were.
"What the hell‽" I gasp as terror flares thorough me.
"You've triggered him. He's not ready. Put him back." Says the foreign voice, but it's coming from Sherlock's mouth.
Then he's moving towards me with inhuman jerkiness like a puppet with its strings tangled or some reanimated undead thing. I'm trying to get away but can't. I'm trying to scream but I'm drowning in blood, gurgling up to flood my mouth with its thick, copper penny sludge. I'm gagging but I can't breathe. The darkness is closing in.
The thing that is not-Sherlock lunges forward, pinning me, hands everywhere, holding me down, clawing and ripping at me. "John," he urges and his hands are tearing at my clothes. My flesh. His voice is rising until it rattles on all my nerves. "John? John! JOHN!"
"No! God, no!" I scream out, struggling, panicking, desperately trying to free myself. I flail, still trying to fight as I tumble through the air.
I land with a crash, and scramble across the ground for cover. Trembling. For a moment I can't comprehend where I am. My heart thundering. Chest constricting. It's dark and everything is wrong. Fear screams on all my nerves as if I'd awoken to gunfire and bombs exploding.
I can't tell how long it is before the fear abates enough for me to realise I'm awake.
I'm awake and on the floor of 221B huddled under the sofa table.
I force myself to crawl out from under the table, but I'm not quite able to lift up from lying there on my stomach as if I'm in a trench rather than hunker between the sofa and table. It's been ingrained in me to stay low so that I can't be sniped, and the fact that no one is shooting at me doesn't seem to matter to my brain at the moment. I weakly manage to roll onto my side, head spinning and body feeling strange, as I lay there on the floor, panting and trying to slow the earth shaking pound of my heart.
What the fuck?
What the hell was… that?
It felt... too real.
Some hyper-realistic night terror?
I've had my fair share of nightmares since returning from the war, but this was like nothing I've experienced before. Could it even be considered a nightmare when I'd spent the better part of it aroused?
It's probably another ten minutes before I can force myself up onto the couch. I'm still shaking. I don't know what to do with myself but I feel sick and weak - worse than any typical panic attack or nightmare. I don't feel safe staying there in the sitting room with the nightmare so fresh. I push myself up and stagger up the stairs to my room. I lock the door behind me and wedge the desk chair under the knob. I get out my gun, load it and lay down on the bed, eyes fixed on the door long into the night until exhaustion finally overtakes me.
Chapter 9: Headache
I wake to the faintest metal on metal scraping sound. My vision clears, gaze focused on my bedroom door. My fingers move slowly beneath the pillow, curling around the familiar steel of my gun. The quiet metallic tinkling and grating continues and then, as I watch, the lock on the door slowly starts to turn into the unlocked position.
My feet hit the floor.
I'm crouching with my gun cocked and aimed at the door before the lock clicks into the unlocked position.
"Open that door and I will end you," I warn.
Everything freezes for several seconds as the intruder considers this statement.
"Is that a promise?" That familiar deep voice is silky and full of dark humour. I don't lower my gun. If anything, my eyes narrow as I measure the prickling alarm raising hairs on the back of my neck.
Is it valid alarm, or simply a by-product of the horrifying, hyper-real dream I had last night?
The door knob turns.
"Sherlock," I growl, my gun steadily trained on where I estimate his head to be on the other side of the door. The door unlatches and he pushes it forward. However, it is halted with a loud screech after a few centimeters by the desk chair I'd wedged under the knob.
"Have you actually blocked it?" Sherlock sounds indignant, as if access to me is his unalienable right.
I sigh and lower my gun, clicking back on the safety. Obviously the idiot isn't going to let a little thing like a locked and barricaded door stop him and, all things considered, I don't really intend to drop him with a bullet to the head this morning.
I tuck the gun in the back of my jeans as he throws his shoulder into the door and the chair gives up a few more centimeters of ground, scraping harshly against the wooden floor; almost certainly leaving a gouge.
"Just stop," I huff in exasperation, moving towards the door. "You'll ruin the floorboards."
"Technically, you'll have ruined them, being that it was you that set the chair up to block the door," Sherlock grumbles on the other side of the door. At least he's stopped throwing his weight against it.
There's a muffled sound of protest when I push the door closed. He is apparently reluctant to give up any ground he's claimed. I ignore it and shut the door all the way. I tip the chair back, and pull it out from under the handle to set it aside. Then I turn and walk back towards my bed. It's a bit of a posture, since the gun in the back of my waistband (that I'd been very close to using on him) is on full display as he enters the room.
It's a silent warning.
"What is it? Why've you barricaded the door?" Sherlock spills into the room, smelling of fresh London air, cigarette smoke, and dust. His eyes dart wildly around the space and then drag over me; undoubtedly gathering reams worth of information.
I don't say anything. I just slowly turn to stare at him, eyes hard and cold. I fold my arms over my chest and set my jaw in accusation. Last time he broke into my room he stole my gun, handcuffed me to the bed and held me at knife point...
Then there'd been other things that happened…
There should be no question why I'm taking reasonable precautions to protect my personal space.
For a moment we just stare at each other, the tension building.
"You look awful," he says at last. I scoff. He's hardly one to talk. He's wearing the same suit as yesterday. I'd wager that he hasn't slept a wink.
"Ta, for that." I gesture vaguely at him to take in his entire form as I turn away. "You obviously were out all night."
"Didn't sleep well," he presses; not quite a question as much as a statement of fact. I set my jaw, refusing to respond. "Nightmares," he concludes, with a hint of confusion that grates my nerves.
"Sorry, did you want something?" I snap. "Why are you trying to break into my room?" Again.
"I wouldn't need to break in if you hadn't locked it."
I grind my teeth and pinch the bridge of my nose, a headache throbbing at my temples that is making me feel nauseous and groggy. I'm not at all up for this sort of circular conversation first thing in the morning.
"You've a headache," Sherlock says with just a hint of curiosity in his tone.
"Brilliant observation," I grumble. "Top form today."
He steps closer to me, eyes flitting over me as if he's reading me like a book. "You get those often?" His tone that is quieter and more intense, makes me drop my hand and look up at him.
"A lot more frequently than I used to," I snipe with obvious exasperation. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to get the hint that the comment is a dig at him and how he causes me headaches. He takes another step towards me. His head is tilted to the side quizzically, as if I'm suddenly fascinating. I'm not sure what he sees as he slowly draws closer. It sets my nerves tingling with danger. The scent of him rolling over me like the oppressive atmosphere before a storm; both subduing and agitating. I'm suddenly reminded of the last conversation we had; Sherlock's request that seemed to reveal... something more. My palms itch to reach out and grab him - as I had then - to put him between the wall and my body - pin him in and make him confess whatever is behind all this. But, remembering the surveillance cameras watching us, I shift my eyes to just over his shoulder, clench my hands into fists and wait for him to reveal what he plans to do. He draws right up to me with an invasive stare studying me.
Just when I think that things are about to tip over the edge and he might actually do something absurd; like a switch flipped, his interest turns off and he spins away, walking towards the window.
"Paramactole. Downstairs medicine cabinet."
"Right," I snarl out through my clamped down teeth, not at all impressed by his posturing only to dole out (frankly, insulting) medical advice. He's just toying with me now. "I am a bloody doctor - I know how to treat a headache."
I turn away and busy myself with straightening the bed to military precision. It doesn't soothe me, like familiar routines usually do, yet I can't think of anything better to do with myself. This whole odd encounter is making me feel irritable and off-step.
I expect him to continue - to tell me whatever it is that he finds important enough to break in on me at this ungodly hour, but after a few moments of silence, I look up again and find Sherlock is staring at the bed with a distant expression.
"Sherlock," I hiss, done with all this. I tilt my chin up in demand, tensely waiting for an explanation of why he is in my room. There's actually a momentary widening of his eyes as they snap up to me, as if he's startled - then his gaze slides away to the window.
"The killer will strike again." He continues to gaze out the window, his eyes narrowing. "He won't stop until he gets what he wants."
"What does he want?"
Sherlock takes two steps towards the window. His face has gone darker and his hands are lifted slightly as he tries to work something out.
"The window… that is how he did it, you see," he says, voice distant in thought. "Locked door. No other way." At last, he turns his eyes on me. "I spent the evening at NSY looking through case files. Burglaries. Murders. Home invasions - even other cases that were classified as suicide." His eyes drift down again, snapping side to side over the floor, as if he's mentally reviewing the files.
"Find anything?" I ask, crossing my arms over my chest again.
"Solved a few simple ones." He flicks a dismissive hand, as his eyes find me again. He lifts a finger to point at me, "but the point is there is no one even close to that skillset in all of London and the surrounding areas."
"That's committed a crime before," I correct. "Could be his first."
"This isn't an amateur, John. He's killed before. Has a reputation, or he wouldn't have left the calling card." In his excitement he's moving towards me again, eyes wide with the thrill of working it out. "The origami flower. He'd staged a perfect suicide, why leave evidence? Why leave clues? Unless..."
"Wants to get credit…" I shift from one foot to the other. "So… what? Lots of hired killers have signatures."
"The flower. VanCoon's death -" he's right in front of me now; hands swishing elegantly through the air as he paints a mental picture of the connections, "They are meaningful to someone. It's as much a message as the symbols in the yellow spray paint were."
"Well, even if you're right-"
" I am right," Sherlock cuts in, lifting his sharp gaze to meet mine with an edge of challenge.
"Alright," I concede, not really wanting to fight him on that point. I rub at my temple - the pain of its throbbing making it difficult to focus. "Well, he'd be a thousand miles away by now, wouldn't he? No professional is going to stick around."
Sherlock's eyes sharpen, narrowing into slits and cutting into me for a few beats. I am suddenly aware that the things we've been discussing might be uncommon knowledge. That my answers reveal that there's something more about me. I only grimace slightly but then put my hands on my hips as I level a stare at him, braced for attack. I expect him to pounce on that loose thread and try to dig out my truth. If it wasn't for this bloody headache I wouldn't have let that slip.
However, his sharp look only lasts a moment, then he's turning away, waving a hand as if dismissing the possibility that the hired killer did his job and skipped town.
"He didn't find what he wanted."
"How can you be sure?"
Sherlock looks over his shoulder at me with a small, enigmatic smile curling up the corners of his mouth. Clearly, he has no intention of telling me.
"The Game has only just begun, John."
His eyes have that dark spark in their depths which is both thrilling and terrifying. I can't put my finger on why this feels like a threat, but I bristle.
However, in a blink he's gone; a flurry of black, swirling coat and curls. I can hear him clattering down the stairs, his feet almost an inhumanly fast staccato. Perhaps he expects me to follow him - give chase - but I move over to the door and shut it again, mentally planning to install a deadbolt on it by the end of the day.
Probably won't stop him, but might slow him down and give me some warning.
I go into the half bathroom and splash some cool water on my face, trying to scrub away the last wisps of the fog of sleep. It feels like more than a night of bad dreams. There's an eerie feeling lingering like an angry ghost in the back of my brain. It makes me irritable; an urge to punch someone or scream niggling at the back of his mind.
I'm dangerous like this, I know; a live bomb waiting for the slightest disturbance to explode. As I brush my teeth and shave, I mull over my options.
When I'm done I've found no more clarity. Worse yet, trying to work through what is a real concern and what's a paranoid delusion leads me to remember in vivid detail the dream from the previous night and that has me throbbing in more places than just my head.
That settles it. I can't walk around like this.
Given the odd turn my nightmares have taken and how unstable I'm feeling, maybe it's time to pay another visit to Ella, my therapist.
I make the call.
Maybe I sound desperate or perhaps, when a diagnosed PTSD patient calls after skipping two appointments, you assume that it's urgent, but she manages to fit me in for an appointment in an hour.
I change my clothes and bypass the sitting room, not wanting to encounter Sherlock again before I have a chance to get my head professionally straightened out.
The minute I step to the kerb to hail a cab, a black sedan with tinted windows pulls up beside me. Any other day I might humour Mycroft. Now that I know who he works for, I'm a little more inclined to cooperate than that first meeting because I am still hard-wired with a sense of duty to Queen and Country. However, at the moment I can't miss this appointment - my very sanity might depend upon it.
I also don't know if I can risk Mycroft's scrutiny.
So, I ignore it and turn towards the tube.
Whatever the elder Holmes wants can wait.
Chapter 10: Appointment
Missing scene of John returning to his therapist in an attempt to address his new nightmares.
30 minutes later I'm sitting in Ella Thompson's office.
Ella is the same.
The office is the same.
I am distinctly different.
The last time I'd visited her was several weeks ago. At the time, I was useless, broken, depressed, and slogging through the monotony of civilian existence like something unnaturally risen from the dead.
That was right before Sherlock came crashing into my life and upended it.
Sherlock managed to do more for me in one evening than she'd done in five months; he'd cured my limp and tremor, he'd brought me back to life, and he'd given me new purpose. There didn't seem to be a reason to return to therapy after that.
So much had happened in those weeks since our last appointment. Yet, many of those incidents are things I wouldn't dare to share with her even before I became gravely concerned about her ability to keep our sessions confidential.
As she settles into her seat, I visually scan the room for threat. I can't help but take note of the glint of glass in the upper corner of the room. Given the constant monitoring I've been living under at Baker Street, it immediately sets me on edge. As she flips open her pad and clicks her pen, I force my gaze back down to her and try to push that needling awareness of a potential threat to the back of my mind for the moment.
"It's good to see you, John. It's been a while." I appreciate that she doesn't lie and say that I 'look good' nor does she point out how edgy I clearly am. My fingers are tapping on the arm of the chair and I hadn't even noticed. I stop them by clenching them into a fist. "How have you been?"
"Fine. Yeah. Good…" I force a wane smile, unable to stop from glancing up to the corner as I carefully weigh what I say. "Busy - I mean, I've moved. Living in London now and doing a bit of… work." I'm hesitant to tell her that my work involves trailing after a madman to solve (and occasionally commit) crimes. I somehow doubt she'd approve.
She nods, scribbling on her notepad. That prickly irritation that's been haunting me since I awoke flares up and I breathe out harshly and cross my legs in an effort to restrain myself from fidgeting.
"No cane," she notes, glancing at my leg.
"No... Not for a couple weeks. Haven't had a tremor either." I lift my hand to show her how steady it is, and my smile is genuine for that. It's no small feat to be rid of those most visible identifiers of my broken mental state.
She makes a sound of interest and her eyes sweep over me, assessing me in her cool, clinical way; like a triage nurse cataloging wounds and their severity to determine priorities for treatment.
"But something's gone wrong?"
I almost object out of defensive reflex but she holds up her hand to stop me as she fixes me in her no-nonsense stare. "Let's not waste time, John. We both know you wouldn't be here if everything was fine. What's bothering you?"
I sniff and stare straight at her for a moment before I give in with a stilted nod. Suppose we've got to face it if there's any hope to solve this.
"Nightmares," I admit.
"Not your usual nightmares?" It's more a statement than a question. We both know I've grown somewhat accustomed to the torture of my PTSD invoked nightmares. I wouldn't have returned if it was only that.
I shift uneasily and my gaze is once again drawn to the corner. I can't ignore it any longer - not with where this conversation is heading.
"Sorry, but what's that about-" I gesture towards the corner of the ceiling.
She twists in her seat to look where I've indicated. "The camera?" Her eyes swivel back to me and I meet her gaze with a tip of my head to the side and a thin smile; polite but demanding. Something in her posture shifts.
"Safety precaution." She is speaking in that slow, deliberate way that is probably meant to soothe and ground me. It only grates my nerves with the feeling she's trying to hide something. "Common practice when you deal with clients with... anger issues. Closed circuit," she assures, "It runs to the security desk and it's strictly for visual monitoring. The video is not kept and there's no audio..." She pauses, turning to fully regard me a moment before speaking. She folds her hands in her lap with deliberate calmness. "I think the more important question is 'why are you fixating on it now?' It seems to me you're deflecting, John. Are you trying to avoid the topic?"
"No. No. Not at all..." I shake my head and lift a hand to deny the accusation but I can't help but glance back up towards the camera. I can't tell her that my sudden interest in her closed circuit security system is because a shadowy government agent had demonstrated his ability to hack such a system by tracking me down and springing a trap to abduct me. I can't tell her that I'm understandably cautious because I'm now under constant surveillance by people who are looking for an opportunity to kill my flatmate. I can't tell her about the mess I made for myself and Sherlock when I had to perform for a camera. I'm becoming more and more agitated with each thought tumbling through my head.
"Just… you know… observing," I say as blandly as possible, picking up the glass of water on the table and taking a sip to try to disguise my uneasiness. I'm keenly aware that Mycroft or any number of other threats could be eavesdropping on our session as we speak.
She hums at my response but it's clear that she's skeptical. She fails to shield her notepad and I clearly see her write 'RØ Paranoia' on it and underline it. When she looks up and catches me reading her notes upside down, she clears her throat and tilts the pad up out of sight, leveling a reprimanding look at me.
"Let's get back to the nightmares, shall we? They're different?"
I consider my words for a moment. It's a fine line to walk between giving her enough information to potentially help me put the nightmares behind me while not providing any ammunition to eavesdropping enemies.
"They're... vivid," I say slowly. "Not flashbacks."
She hums and nods, taking notes. It takes everything in me not to leap up and snatch her pen. Who knows who might read those notes and try to use them against me, as Mycroft had already done. "What are the dreams about?"
I purse my lips and shake my head back and forth, refusing to elaborate. There's no way for me to add further detail without revealing far too much for comfort and safety.
She pauses but doesn't try to wait me out. She knows from experience that that's not a strategy she can win with against me. She's accustomed to me shutting down when it comes to sharing uncomfortable things (which is pretty much everything about my past experiences or current emotional state). After a few moments, she continues in a different direction; circling around to try to get at the problem from another side.
"So, I was pleased to see that you're using the blog."
Shit! The blog!
How had I forgotten all about the blog!? Of course she'd seen it - she was the one who made me start the infernal thing. I hadn't much use for it before Sherlock, but I had wrote up a bit about my first meeting with him as a form of insurance prior to visiting the flat; enough bread crumbs to trace my probable murder back to the mysterious and dangerous Sherlock Holmes. Then, I'd posted again right after the serial suicide case concluded to establish an albi since I'd had to take down the cabbie to save the idiot's life. I hadn't returned to it since.
“Oh, right. The blog. Will probably take that down."
“I wish you wouldn't." Her voice is trying so hard to be encouraging. She must see my desire to delete the thing as embarrassment.
It's not that.
It's a liability. If she's following it, who knows who else is. Ultimately, it isn't worth the security risk.
"The blog reinforces your progress and I really believe it will be vital for keeping perspective as you make this transition. Opening yourself up and connecting to another person - that's a big step for you.”
I start to nod, then freeze and look up with her with wide eyes, confused and hoping she's not suggesting what I fear she is "Wait, what?"
"You've met someone." She looks down at her notes again. "Sherlock."
"Sherlock is my flatmate," I say slowly, emphasising the final word sternly, as if that excludes anything else she might be thinking. "We share the rent and kitchen, that's all.
"Hmmm." She doesn't look up. Instead she appears to consult her notes again.
"You work with him as well?"
My jaw tightens into a grimace but I nod. I don't like the turn the conversation has made.
"I mean a bit. Mostly just stand there while he calls us all idiots for not keeping up," I say, trying to downplay it. She makes a small sound (mostly of acknowledgement) as she scribbles something else on her pad. This time she is careful to keep the pad tilted out of view, but I recognise that little furrow in her brow and the way she's holding her lips. She's coming to a very important conclusion about what she thinks is going on when me.
"He's the reason your leg doesn't bother you anymore, correct?" I say nothing. There's nothing I can say - no defense or deflection. I'm being taken apart, stitch by stitch, and I hate it. So, I merely glare at her with lips pursed shut on bitter words.
"And you described him as..." a flip back in her book to look at notes she obviously took down before I arrived, "strangely charming and-"
"Listen," I snap, cutting her off before she, like Sherlock, can fabricate all the evidence she needs about all my feelings as if I have somehow been broadcasting them. "I really didn't come to talk about him" My irritation is sparking into fury now. "He's just a flatmate. He's arrogant, rude, and self-absorbed. We hardly speak - ignores me most the time." I can't modulate the volume of my voice. It's increasing as I reach my emotional boiling point. "I'm really fucking tired. I came here for help. Help with my nightmares. Are you going to help me, or not?!"
It’s only when I see the rare flicker of tension in her face, and note how she's shifted back in her seat with a wary stare fixed on me that I become aware of just how viciously I've reacted. The sound of my roar is still echoing in the room, I am gripping the arms of the chair tightly and leaning forward, practically snarling at her. Bit not good, Watson. I tip my head back and suck in a deep breath. I force myself to relax back into my seat and smooth out my features. However, there's no way to cover the fact that I'd lost control. She looks at me thoughtfully for a long moment before she continues.
"May I observe something?" She asks.
I hesitate for a few seconds, certain that her observation is going to be something I won't like. Still, I feel a bit ashamed for snapping, so I dip my head in a nod of consent, eyes focused somewhere around her knees.
"Uncomfortable dreams are typically either a way for your subconscious to work through its fears or for it to try to prepare you for potential danger by playing out scenarios in a less risky context. When a brain has been exposed to trauma, like yours, it can be overly sensitive to risk - seeing danger everywhere." This isn't anything we hadn't discussed before in relation to my other nightmares, so I nod. Still, I brace myself because I know that she is just softening up my defenses before she moves in for the main attack.
"Though you prefer not to talk about it, you are a man who has survived an enormous amount of pain; physically, mentally and emotionally." She pauses and I look up at her from under my brow. My heart is thumping like with the first pops of gun fire in the distance but I refuse to let it show. I've been trained to just stand there stoic and let my doom roll towards me like an approaching storm. So, Iet her say her piece. "It's clear to me that you've lost people - people who you cared about - people who likely relied upon you and who you felt responsible for," she continues, stripping flesh from bone with each careful but brutally honest word. I don't flinch, though it burns from the inside out. I grit my teeth and refuse to look away. "It undoubtedly was the worst pain in your life and you, understandably, don't want to suffer any further loss. So, you keep your distance from people - refuse to trust - you try to go it alone… but connection is necessary for survival. It's human nature, John." She pauses.
I am glaring at her so hard my eyes burn. I want to yell at her - tell her to shut up - but that would amount to confirming her conclusions and I can't afford to do that. Instead, I take each word like little cuts - like it's only flesh - something I can detach from, box up and bury deep at my core letting that contained explosion center me, as it had through my ordeal in Afghanistan.
"If I had to guess what is triggering these nightmares - based on what I know about you, what is happening in your life right now, and what little you'll tell me about the dreams - I'd say that this is a type of… subconscious self-defense to protect you from getting close to someone because you know the damage they can do if you actually care."
For a long time the room is quiet. There's only my breathing, rough like I've just taken a beating. I work to swallow down the burning heat flooding my system. I'm determined to speak calmly and clearly when I respond - giving nothing.
"You're wrong," I force out, at last. "You don't know what the hell you're talking about." My voice is so smooth and hard it could be steel. She doesn't know. She doesn't know anything; about me, about my experiences in the war, about Sherlock and what I do(n't) feel for him.
"John," she sighs, setting her notepad aside and leaning forward with elbows on her knees. Her face is full of practised compassion and concern. “I'm not saying that a man who you’ve referred to on your blog, as 'mad' and 'dangerous' is someone you shouldn't have concerns about getting close to but... you're living and working together and he's obviously having a profound effect on you." Her gesture sweeps from my leg to hand. "If you really wish to stop these new nightmares, I believe you must confront that fear you're hiding from - the fear of intimacy."
"Right. We're done." I stand up so abruptly, that she has to jerk back into her seat to keep from getting hit. I'm quivering with rage - or maybe just shaking from the inside out, like a stopped up weapon about to explode. I march around the chair towards the door, and then stop, turning back to glare and point a finger at her.
"You know, I was told that you got me all wrong and I should fire you," I say, clinging to Mycroft's comments from our first meeting about how she'd misdiagnosed the cause of my tremor and leg. "Got one thing right, didn't he?" I growl.
And with that I walk out her door, slamming it behind me.