John looked very small and hopeless, standing there in Mycroft's foyer and dripping cold rainwater on the marble floor. Mycroft was momentarily charmed by the sight - surely Sherlock had never seen the man like this, not when Sherlock always positioned himself to be the one in need, forcing John to straighten his spine and act the caregiver - and beckoned him forward. John shivered from head to toe and followed him into the library, where a fire had been laid, as he'd ordered.
John ignored the drinks trolley's crystal and spirits and waited forlornly until Mycroft had indicated that he could sit. Tea was certainly what John wanted, and when it had been brought, he relaxed ever so slightly. Amused, Mycroft watched as John actually blew on his tea to cool it rather than waiting politely for it to attain a drinkable temperature as he'd surely been taught. Between the childlike gesture and the wet hair plastered darkly to his skull, John had shed at least thirty years; Mycroft could at last comprehend how cheek-pinching counted as a fond gesture. John seemed to derive strength from the tea, despite its lack of nutrients, and his blue lips grew ruddy. It was a sharp reminder of what Mycroft had been musing on earlier, as he'd played chess with Sherlock: that John had layers with which his brother had never bothered. He wasn't simply Sherlock's sidekick. He'd been someone's child, was still someone's protective brother; he was a reputable doctor and a man who'd never relinquished what years of soldiering had taught him. Sherlock's so-called suicide had made a hash of all of those layers with one mighty wallop, leaving John vulnerable and defenceless, summoning once more both the tremor in his hand and the instability of his leg. It was fascinating.
Mycroft waited for John to settle down enough to hear his message. In his head, he started a fresh chapter of the story with which he whiled away the long hours of Sherlock being unbearable; he got nothing so cheap as a naughty thrill from it, but it served as a pleasant distraction and a reminder that his brother did not in fact own the man currently dripping dirty rainwater on the Aubusson rug. The Watson in his head sprang from the scant details in John's intelligence report, augmented by a hefty dose of Mycroft's own silent but fervent appreciation for a military man. Watson was coolly competent, a thick-thighed and cold-eyed soldier who boasted a rapier wit and a hard-earned understanding of collateral damage. He danced across the virtual page as if sorrow had rendered his heart an extravagance and he looked at Mycroft like he wanted nothing more than to take him apart. It would be delicious, Mycroft thought, allowing himself a small shiver. An involuntary gasp escaped him.
"I don't want to hear another apology for your part in all of this," John said abruptly, misreading his sharp inhalation as a sign he'd been about to speak. Mycroft raised an eyebrow and made his gaze as disdainful as possible as it dragged over John from cowlick to worn shoes; this John was hardly Watson, and no one looking quite so pathetic should have had the temerity to upset his delightful musings. "I want to hear a plan of action."
"Action?" Mycroft repeated frostily.
John set his cup down with a sharp click. "To clear Sherlock's name," he started, before suddenly subsiding.
"What is it?" Mycroft asked. John had been like a bloodhound before the fall, setting straight anyone he saw as failing to realise Sherlock's value, and this crumpled face and hunched posture did not belong to that tireless crusader. Trying to make sense of the shift in his guest, Mycroft looked around but saw nothing that should have spoken to John; the only signs of Sherlock's cohabitation were surely too subtle for him: the chessboard where Sherlock had just been trying to escape check, the faint impressions of Sherlock's shoes on the rug before the fire, and the evanescent fragrance of his shampoo over by the arras.
John kept his eyes tightly shut and shook his head, blindly setting his cup and saucer on the elegant table between them. He breathed as if his chest had suddenly grown tight, and Mycroft found himself unable to remember whether anyone with first-aid training was on shift in his house. "Nothing. Why have you brought me here?"
Mycroft directed his words to that deep line carved between John's knotted brows, ignoring John's trembling lashes and the soft mouth that looked like a bruise. "To assure you that efforts are being made to clear my brother's name, though I will not guarantee that the results will be widely disseminated."
"But you'll know the truth," John said, eyes open once more, and Mycroft was disconcerted to see them Watson-cold rather than brimming with tears. "And so will I."
Mycroft fingered the point of his knight's domed cap, idly enjoying the pricking against his fingertip, and pondered what John's abrupt departure could have meant. How many times through the years had he sat thus with a problem, wearing down the walrus ivory of the famed chessmen, a current of satisfaction running through him as always that he had had sufficient clout to claim a complete set from the varied pieces found on the Isle of Lewis before distasteful squabbles had begun as to the pieces' permanent residence?
Sherlock popped his head through the doorway, reminding him of the provenance of most of those problems. Though Sherlock had stayed utterly still and silent throughout John's visit, concealed behind an arras, now he could not seem to stop toying with the belt of his dressing-gown. "Rather hypocritical of you, isn't it?" Sherlock said with a sneer. The affectation was unnecessary to divine his meaning, but Sherlock had always been rather flamboyant.
"I do not choose to employ monitoring for my own quarters," Mycroft answered patiently, "but to answer your actual query, John looked as well as could be expected."
Sherlock sniffed disdainfully as if John's well-being were completely irrelevant to him. "He sounded . . . odd, at the end."
"I concur." He found his fingertip stroking the uneven edges of the crown Sherlock's king wore, saw Sherlock's eyes narrow, and moved without haste to his own rook, the little berserker that had first captured his fancy. "Is it possible -?"
"No," Sherlock said definitively, flopping bonelessly into the velvet wing-chair John had left damp, his head creating a new spot of moisture against the back. "John's face always gives him away. If he'd had even an inkling of the truth, you couldn't have missed it."
The statement was not as comforting as Sherlock meant it to be; Mycroft knew he wasn't fanciful enough to have imagined a glimpse of Watson in John's familiar figure, and thus had no way to account for that slippage. Perhaps monitoring would have been a good idea after all, if only to give him a record of what had prompted that shift and allowed John to walk out with steel in his spine.
Mycroft would have kept an eye on John no matter what, of course, but it was all the sweeter to know that he could, with some justice, claim that his surveillance was a favour to his brother. How it must chafe Sherlock to know that his flatmate's well-being depended on Mycroft's vigilance.
John was certainly a fascinating study, despite the limitations he'd imposed. The day after John had walked out, demanding justice be done to Sherlock's tarnished name, Mycroft had received a package containing every camera he'd had installed at Baker Street. Each had been smashed to smithereens, the fragments and fine powder scooped up into separate envelopes, all neatly labelled. It would be prohibitively expensive to replace the equipment, and in any case John had shown no sign of rebelling against more personal methods of surveillance - his predilection for Mycroft's assistants had not abated - so Mycroft was satisfied he could still get the whole picture as needed.
However, it soon became clear that he would have to do the legwork himself, not by proxy; his assistants did not, as a matter of course, provide the intimate details Mycroft found he required: the glowing hues John's hair took on in sunshine or in lamplight, the chance reminders of Sherlock that made his breath hitch ever so subtly, the taut stretch of worn denim when he sat with his legs splayed, the stillness he took on as a kind of rough camouflage when his every instinct shouted at him to attack. If Sherlock doubted the need for that level of detail in his reports, that curiosity was drowned out by eagerness to know every last thing about his erstwhile flatmate, and Mycroft was willing to provide.
The only fly in his ointment was that John remained John, though a more closed-off, careful version; Watson lived nowhere but in his imagination.
John, Mycroft found, was worth studying even in this domestic incarnation that bore no real resemblance to Watson. He had a sly, surprising wit that was immensely appealing, particularly when it was coupled with a self-deprecating smile. The cameras had never been removed from Dr. Sawyer's surgery, and so Mycroft was able to watch as Sarah Sawyer returned to the office after her maternity leave for a flying visit, baby Lily squirming in her arms, and read the card John had attached to his gift: Congratulations - I knew you had it in you! (She's lovely, like her mother.) x John
That touch of paraprosdokian humour would have been enough on its own to fuel further chapters of the epic adventures of Watson, who automatically acquired all of John's best characteristics, but then a new underling, recently seconded to his staff, said, "That's Three-Continents Watson," when he saw a surveillance image of the doctor on his way to A&E for his shift. Mycroft's imagination was instantly ablaze. Watson was now a smooth lady-killer who walked with an efficient strut and spoke volumes with his eyes. Watson had an unshakable confidence and a justified ego, going by the trail of beauties he'd loved and left. Best of all, Watson never backed down from a challenge or an order, and Mycroft, ensconced in the comfort of his sewing room, his hands idle for once, dreamt up scenario after scenario that pleased him to no end.
"Moran, Sebastian," Sherlock said, panting into what had to be his fourth or fifth mobile since he'd left London behind. "Bring me home now." The line disconnected, and Mycroft waved a hand at whichever underling was on duty at the moment; they all knew the drill.
Within minutes, a military file on Sebastian Moran, formerly a Colonel in Her Majesty's Army, was on the desk before him. The identification photograph on top showed a strong-featured man without any particular charm or imagination in his face. Mycroft pursed his lips to keep from smirking at the latest fish to wander into the Holmes net, wondering how on earth Moriarty had settled for such prosaic instruments, then considering that perhaps Moran was akin to John: bland on the surface and mostly ordinary underneath but for an ability to inspire greatness in a more volatile, intelligent man. He looked again at the photograph, musing over the relationship Moran might have shared with Moriarty.
A brisk knock at his door distracted him for a moment, and he swivelled in his chair, expecting some peon or another to bring him the details of Sherlock's transportation back to London; instead, a somewhat thicker file was handed to him. Upon opening it, he discovered the unofficial dossier on Moran, apparently quite the able mercenary for anyone with sufficient funds. The action shots inside - Moran striding about, streaked with dirt, heavily armed, clearly revelling in his work - increased his level of attractiveness about a hundredfold, and Mycroft's mouth watered: this was the Watson he'd been fantasising. It was a pity the man couldn't be brought to heel with a simple "for Queen and country," but perhaps victory would be all the sweeter if achieved in some unprecedented way.
Yes, perhaps John should have the opportunity to face down his would-be assassin; it might even prove distracting enough that he would fail to crack Sherlock one across the jaw when Sherlock made his (inevitably tone-deaf) reappearance in John's humdrum life.
Neither Sherlock nor John lived up to his expectations when he walked into the Baker Street flat with a distilled file on Moran; Sherlock did not have a bruise purpling his jaw, and John looked disappointed rather than euphoric. Gracious host that he was, John took his dejected self off to the kitchen to make tea as soon as Mycroft set foot in their sitting room.
Well, even if John's emotions were unwontedly difficult to negotiate, his intellect plodded steadily on, and Mycroft found it an easy matter to drop the suggestion that John should be the one to approach Moran like a stone into the water between them, the concentric circles of its wake marking the growing (still inexplicable) rift he sensed. John rose to the bait as expected, but Mycroft did not feel the satisfaction he'd expected at the desired outcome; John was a good soldier, but holding his own safety so cheap was problematic, and in failing to pay proper attention to Mycroft's detailed directions, John was jeopardising the entire mission.
Mycroft left Sherlock to try to get through to John and went to direct the fitting of the bar with surveillance equipment.
John did not look or behave appreciably different before being let loose in the bar, though he had angled his body away from Sherlock and toward Mycroft when it came time for him to be fitted with the microphone; Mycroft had obliged, attaching it and tapping it to test its functionality while listening to John's steady breaths and touching the varying softnesses of warm skin and cotton.
He needed to make sure John understood the importance of getting Moran to agree that their agenda was in his best interest. "If I may -"
"I understand the stakes, Mycroft," John assured him quietly. "And I know your plan; I won't drill him too hard."
"Let him come to you," Sherlock interjected, evidently resenting their private conversation.
"I won't go anywhere unless he comes," John said, bowing his head meekly as if the weight of his task were crushing him, then left.
He appeared on the screen, and Mycroft nodded approvingly as John stood still for one long moment, grounding himself while doing a visual sweep of the bar's layout, staff, and patrons. Then John approached Moran casually, as if knocking back a pint with a bloke were all that was on his mind.
Good, very good, in fact; Mycroft had been expecting John to be far stiffer.
Moran evidently had no complaints about John's stiffness.
That voice of his went from a standoffish growl to an urgent moan. "Make me roar, John," Mycroft heard between pleas to be fucked good and hard, and John - no, Watson; no, some unholy hybrid of the two - readily obliged.
John's hips must have been motorised, judging by the sounds Moran was making, and John's mouth, which had recently housed Moran's cock, spilled forth dirty words in counterpoint to Moran's harsh, Northern imprecations. It all sounded rousingly satisfying, like Moran was getting the best of what Three-Continents was capable of and John was delighted to exceed expectations.
That there was no video of the coupling might have been all that saved his surveillance equipment; Sherlock sat stock-still for some time, his eyes huge and shocked. The sounds of kisses, too wet and numerous to be perfunctory, brought Sherlock around, and his face went from milk-pale to blood-red as he snatched up his mobile.
A movement on the monitor captured their attention. There were John and Moran, settling down on unnecessarily close barstools, ready for a second round of drinks.
Sherlock made a sound that said he'd been pushed past the point of endurance, and Mycroft shifted to be close enough to restrain him. That put him in a position to see the content of Sherlock's enraged text.
You've proved your point. Desist. SH
Mycroft dragged his eyes from Sherlock's mobile to the screen, where he could see Moran pressing his torso to John's left side, one thick-fingered hand slipping below John's shirt to rest against the small of John's back. Can't quit now - I think he's on my side. John sent the text and turned his head, letting his nose brush Moran's hairline companionably - no, affectionately.
STOP IT IMMEDIATELY. SH
You got to die, and you're denying me a little death of my own? John set his mobile down and turned so that he was looking directly into the main camera, eyebrows raised in challenge. Moran said something in an undertone directly into his ear, too soft for the microphones to pick up, and Mycroft heard John's easy laugh before it disappeared into the depths of his pint.
So John had known the truth about Sherlock's "death." Had Sherlock only been as adept at reading Watson's face as John's, they would have understood the truth much sooner. Still, Mycroft suspected John had no complaints at how events had unfolded, and that he'd got another chance to take a crack at Moran - good God, John's penchant for puns was evidently contagious. He shuddered, ran his fingers through his hair, and straightened his tie. He saved the mental file with Watson's exploits and took a calming breath. When the knock shook his door, he said, keeping his tone light, "Do come in, Colonel."
Moran's wrists and neck bore marks from John's grip and teeth, and his hair was as disordered as such short strands could be, but his gaze was cool, contemplative, and resolute. "I wouldn't do that, sir," he said. His voice had lost the passion of his multiple rounds with John; nevertheless, it was authoritative.
Mycroft deliberately turned up one corner of his mouth. "What is that?" he inquired.
"Think of me as the way John proved his mettle to you and that brother of yours." Mycroft froze, taken aback. "There's more to him than that." How much more, Mycroft had only glimpsed, and this man obviously knew a good portion of the rest.
"Is there?" Mycroft kept his tone precise and hard-edged, irritated by being lumped in with Sherlock, who surely saw John's relations with this man as an act of defiance, shaking off the leash of ownership Sherlock presumed he'd wound around John's strong throat. He'd been watching John for months as Sherlock gallivanted across the globe; he knew better than that. He was more than capable of making arrangements that suited the real John. "And to you as well, no doubt?"
"Oh, sir," Moran said, a slow grin spreading across his face, "that's a whole different story."