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Rosethorne

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Dr. John Watson was not altogether happy.

He hadn’t been, in fact, for some time – not since he’d been wounded and shipped back to London three months previous. Yanked from the one place in the world where he felt useful, where his presence meant something. Where people needed him.

He shifted in his seat, grimacing in pain as the car bounced along a road that could only generously be called maintained. He’d been met at the train station in Yorkshire more than an hour ago, and had barely had time to stretch his sore muscles and try to work the stiffness out of his leg and shoulder before he was being ushered into a car by a grey-suited driver, impatient to deliver him to his new assignment.

His assignment – not back in France at the field hospital scarce miles from the front. Not where people – soldiers bleeding out their lives on foreign soil – counted on him for a second chance. No – to his new assignment as resident physician at an Englishman’s private manor.

Resident physician.

Resident physician at what was, for all intents and purposes, a convalescent home for odds and ends of the British elite.

He turned the phrase over in his mind, finding it lacking on so many levels. He wasn’t a physician. He was a military doctor – a field surgeon – putting Britain’s young men back together, staving off death for them so they could fight another day.

He frowned, staring at the hand clenched in his lap.

John Watson’s glory days of saving soldiers while the earth rumbled beneath his feet were over.

He should be happy. Relieved. He knew quite a few field surgeons who’d have jumped at the chance to abandon their posts for a boring assignment like this one. He, however, would just as soon return to his former post.

Would just as soon have back the use of his arm.

And since he was asking for the impossible, he’d take back his old life in London. His fledgling practice. His tiny flat. His clever, beautiful wife.

He flexed his left hand – his dominant one – and tried to make a fist. He could barely press his fingers against the palm of his hand. Wielding a scalpel would be impossible.

The sun had set and twilight lingered, the first stars just beginning to poke through in a sky wide and clear, when the car finally pulled off the main road and stopped before a pair of tall wrought iron gates. The driver beeped his horn twice and they waited – the driver not too patiently – until someone appeared to open the gates. The driver drove on without a thank you or a wave, and John glanced over to see the gateman staring at him with unabashed curiosity.

Gateman was another generous statement. The man was dressed like a gardener, far too old to serve, and had a weathered look about him, as if he’d spent more time in the sun than indoors. John had the feeling that he watched the car until it was out of sight down the drive, and the feeling of being watched did little to calm his increasingly jumpy nerves.

The estate – for estate it was – belonged to a man of some standing in the British government, or so John had been told. He’d had very little information, actually, only that he was being given an assignment of indeterminate length as the resident physician at the estate of Mr. Mycroft Holmes in Yorkshire, where he would, in addition, serve at Mr. Holmes’ personal physician. That Mr. Holmes was “of extreme importance” to the British government, despite his lack of rank or title, and that his inability to perform surgery with his injured arm would not interfere – in the least – with his ability to attend to Mr. Holmes and his convalescent “guests” at the estate.

It was all very odd, and more than a bit mysterious.

However, Captain John Watson was accustomed to following orders.

Even orders to leave his uniforms behind and wear civilian clothing, despite how unusual the request. Two packed suitcases had been delivered to his quarters the night before.

Suits – in grey, navy and black –all in the more simple, less adorned wartime style. No vest, pocket flaps or trouser cuffs. Plain white shirts – six of them. Ties in solids and stripes. Black shoes and socks.

An assortment of more casual shirts and trousers, vests and pants, pajamas and dressing gowns.

Hats to match each suit and two more, less formal, for every day outdoor use.

Swim shorts – three sets.

And despite the simplicity of style and colour, every piece was well-cut and well-made, tailored to fit his shorter than average stature.

He was wearing the grey suit now, and despite his initial misgivings about the apparent formality of his new environment, he’d hardly noticed the lack of his familiar uniform, nor did he miss it. If he were completely honest with himself, he felt less of a farce these days in civilian clothes.

The farce, he thought grimly as a rambling old manor rose into sight, was that he was expected to care for injured convalescents when he wasn’t much more than one of the same himself.

The car pulled up into the circle before the entrance and John let his gaze sweep over the stately old building, the bushes and hedges that were trimmed but not manicured. The manor was not neglected – but from the exterior, at least, John had the idea that the garden staff was doing just enough to keep up appearances.

Garden crew. That was it, wasn’t it? These days, resources were scarce. Nearly every able-bodied man who could was fighting the Germans. Old men and children, wives and daughters – those were the garden crews, the at-home work force, these days.

The driver opened his door, pulling him out of his musings.

“This is it, Dr. Watson.”

He was brusque – professional, but not friendly. Probably accustomed to chauffeuring Holmes and his high-placed friends and family. He waited for John to extract himself from the vehicle and right himself with his cane, not attempting to help him, then followed him to the door, carrying the two suitcases.

“There you are at last.” The woman who opened the door looked past John and addressed the chauffeur. “Simon – Mr. Holmes would like you to take Dr. Watson’s bags to the Westminster Suite in the west wing.” She stepped back as Simon dutifully headed off with the suitcases, then her gaze rested at last on John.

She seemed pleasant enough, John thought. Brown hair flecked with grey and done up in a loose bun. Dark grey dress with the barest hint of white trim at the wrists and collar. Sturdy shoes. Apron tied about the waist, drooping slightly on one side. She looked as if she’d made it to the tail end of a very long day and was gathering up strength to deal with the newcomer, all the while maintaining a positive attitude.

Wartime, John thought. Wartime changed everyone and everything.

The woman, apparently finished with her scrutiny of John’s person, pushed the door closed behind him.

“Come in then, come in. We’ve been expecting you, Dr. Watson. Mr. Holmes will be leaving in the car that brought you, but I’m told he wants a word with you before he goes. He’s gone more than he’s here, isn’t he, so you’ll need your orders – we do hope you last longer than the last one – two weeks. Two weeks! It’s as if they find this wholesome ountry air an imposition! Now come along – I’m to take you to up to Mr. Holmes straight away. You’ll be wanting tea so I’ll have Annie bring it up. I’m Mrs. Hudson, by the way, and just to be clear, I’m not the housekeeper. My late husband was the grounds manager here – and Mr. Holmes kept me on to keep things going while he’s away, you know.”

“Of course – right.” John nodded awkwardly, following behind the woman as she started down the passageway to the left.

“Two flights of stairs, Dr. Watson.” Mrs. Hudson gamely marched ahead of him, stopping at the bottom of a wide stairway leading up into darkness. “We keep the lights down, of course.” She lowered her voice. “I know you can manage it – your leg isn’t really injured now, is it?”

By great force of will, John kept his mouth from falling open. He cleared his throat, realising that an ugly or angry retort would accomplish nothing – everything she knew about him must have come from Mycroft Holmes, and everything he knew came from John’s private military records. Records, he noted, that apparently weren’t very private at all. No one seeing him going about with limp and cane would assume he was simply imagining an injury.

“He’s very hopeful – almost optimistic,” Mrs. Hudson continued as she climbed the stairs and he struggled to keep up. There might be no logical medical reason for the pain and weakness in his leg but he felt it as keenly as the bullet in his shoulder. “This time, he hand-picked you, didn’t he? Colonel Littleton was here himself just two weeks ago with the dossiers – I did the serving myself, though don’t you forget I’m not a servant here – and I hope I don’t offend you when I tell you that the colonel thought you might not be up to the job what with your injuries and limitations. But Mr. Holmes – Mr. Holmes, he thought otherwise.”

John quickly filed away this new information. Holmes, apparently, was a man to be watched – and not necessarily trusted.

“This last doctor – the one that only lasted two weeks – what made him leave?” John struggled up the second long flight of stairs as Mrs. Hudson slowed her pace and walked alongside him instead of in front of him.

“Dr. Chandler? Oh, I’m afraid I don’t know.”

She became suddenly, uncharacteristically, quiet at that point, and John had the idea that she knew quite a bit more about Dr. Chandler’s departure than she was letting on.

“But that’s when Mr. Holmes had the idea to find an army doctor,” she said, brightly. “And here you are.”

She had stopped in front of a closed door – the third one in a long corridor full of dark paneling, somber portraits and solid oak doors. She turned to face him and he stood at attention as she studied him more carefully than she had before.

“Mr. Holmes is – well, he’s rather abrupt. He doesn’t waste words, and he has certain expectations of all of the staff. He doesn’t spend much time here, so we’re left alone to go about our business most of the time.” She lowered her voice and glanced down the passageway. “We need a doctor here, Dr. Watson. Don’t let Mr. Holmes scare you away.”

John smiled wryly. What Mrs. Hudson failed to understand was that, despite the civilian clothes, he was an officer in the British Army and this was his assignment. Complaining about conditions here would get him nowhere – he might be the only man in the King’s service who actually preferred the impossible conditions of a field hospital to solid stone walls two hundred years old and regular hot meals. Abandoning his post would leave him AWOL and eventually court-martialed or worse.

And John Watson didn’t willingly abandon anything.

Or anyone.

He pushed thoughts of another life away and affected the look that had become his daily mask – a look of dutiful attention, focus on the other, complete detachment from himself.

“I’m sure I’ll get along just fine here, Mrs. Hudson,” he said. He lowered his voice, and leaned in conspiratorially. “I don’t scare easily,” he whispered, giving her the kind of reassuring smile he might have given his mother.

The smile, however, as much as it seemed to reassure Mrs. Hudson, did not seem to work on Mycroft Holmes.

John had barely made a dent in the generous plate of sandwiches the girl had brought in when Holmes entered the room through the same door John had used and silently made his way to the sideboard, where he poured a drink, then sat down in a leather chair opposite the settee where John was seated.

Holmes didn’t say anything for a long time, preferring, apparently, to study John with the same bland look on his face John so often wore himself these days. Pretending that John was of so little real interest to him that he might disappear from this spot in an eye’s blink and Mycroft Holmes would hardly notice.

“There are, currently, four persons convalescing here at the manor. Three were injured in action and the fourth is a civilian. Their medical files are waiting for you in your rooms. You will be responsible for their daily medical needs and for overseeing their treatment. We have a resident aide – Miss Molly Hooper – charged with their physical exercise regimes and spa therapy. You are free to direct her to alter the prescribed treatments as you see fit, based on the progress of each patient.”

He looked intently at John as he spoke, and if he blinked even once, John missed it. The man didn’t bother with social niceties he obviously didn’t feel. No “we’re so happy to have you here, Dr. Watson.” No “If there is anything at all I can do to make your stay more pleasant, please let me know.” Not even a “Welcome to Rosethorne Manor.”

Rosethorne – he’d raised an eyebrow at the name when he’d first read his orders. It wasn’t exactly a welcoming name in an area that boasted the kind of raw, natural beauty that made a person believe in a nameless, faceless God.

For his part, John willed himself to hold the other man’s gaze and tried very hard not to blink. He failed, however, when Holmes let a self-satisfied smile flit across his face and continued.

“You are to avail yourself of Miss Hooper’s services as well. And that, Dr. Watson, is an order.”

With an unnecessary flare, he extracted an envelope from his inside breast pocket and held it out to John. Despite his initial flinch, John managed to keep the stoic look on his face as he accepted the envelope, extracted a single sheet of paper and scanned it.

Orders indeed. Medical orders passed down by his superior – they apparently weren’t giving up on him as a surgeon yet. He returned the document to the envelope and handed it back to Holmes, acknowledging his understanding with a silent nod. They could have him squeeze balls and pick up marbles full time from now until the end of this interminable war and he still would be useless in the operating theater. He was a doctor for Christ’s sake – he understood what physical therapy could and couldn’t do.

“You will have full access to the grounds, as well as to the patient and medical facilities and the swimming pool. In your explorations of the property, if you encounter a locked door, be assured that it is locked for a reason. I have been informed of your proclivity to wander at night – when your … dreams … keep you awake.”

Only a man accustomed to scrutinising an adversary would have noticed the slight tightening of John’s jaw. Mycroft Holmes noticed.

“My rooms…?” John led, letting Holmes take it for what he would – question, statement, barely veiled request to leave his company.

“Are removed from the others,” Holmes said neatly. “We’ve put you in the west wing – the staff sleep on the third floor of the east wing.” He paused. “Your psychiatrist has prescribed fresh air and long walks, Dr. Watson. You will find opportunities for both in abundance at the manor. Neither myself nor any of the residents or staff are here to be your minders – your recovery, so to speak, is completely up to you.”

John had been in the service far too long to feel betrayed by what most would consider a breach of confidence. Holmes was a civilian, after all, high-placed or not, and obviously knew even more about John’s injuries – physical and traumatic – than he’d so far revealed to John. He wondered who else besides Mrs. Hudson knew.

“Thank you.” John was careful to look Holmes in the eye as he spoke. He was all-too-familiar with power plays.

“Mrs. Hudson serves as a matron with the patients. She isn’t formally trained, but is well-liked and quite able to see to their needs and to interpret medical orders. She will tell you she is not their nurse – don’t believe her.” There was a trace of humour in that last statement, but it was gone as quickly as it appeared.

“I will be leaving shortly and may be gone as long as a month. I remain in contact with my key staff while I’m away and they will appraise me of any important developments.”

John nodded. Of course. Don’t let the mice play while the cat was away. “I’m quite sure all will be in order from my end,” he said.

“As am I,” said Holmes. He stood then, and walked to the window, where he gazed out into the darkness for some time while John stared at his back, for all appearances patiently waiting.

“There is one more thing,” Holmes began, almost as an afterthought. “Another resident here. You aren’t likely to cross paths – he’s an invalid and has his own caretaker. But if there is a true medical emergency, you may be called upon to assist.”

John wondered why the subject of this man had only now come up, but shrugged. He didn’t think an occasional consult would be out of his realm of expertise, and frankly, was thankful there was someone else employed to tend to the man’s daily needs. “I’d be happy to offer the same to the other members of your household as well,” he said.

“Of course you would,” snapped Holmes, narrowing his eyes. “You are the resident physician – not the private doctor for our four convalescents.” He leveled his gaze at John, then turned and sighed. His mood had turned, John noted, since he’d brought up the subject of this additional patient at Rosethorne.

“Mrs. Hudson will show you your quarters and introduce you to the staff and the patients.”

“I’ll treat this assignment as seriously as any other,” John said as Mrs. Hudson, who’d likely been hovering about in the corridor, opened the door. “And I trust you know I never abandon a post or sleep on the job.”

“Of course I do, Dr. Watson.” The man was staring at him now, staring through him, John thought. Seeing parts of him he’d rather keep under wraps. He picked up his scotch and downed the remainder with a practiced swallow, then set the glass back on the sideboard and stared out the window again. “I hand-picked you, after all.”

He seemed to be talking to the night, to someone hovering about in the air before him, and not to John at all.

Mrs. Hudson touched his arm. “Come, Dr. Watson. I’m sure you’d like to clean up a bit before dinner. It’s fish tonight.”

He glanced back at Mycroft Holmes as he followed Mrs. Hudson from the room. The man remained at the window, staring out into the dark, his profile sharp in the lamplight. He didn’t look altogether healthy, and John wondered what weight he was carrying, and what part he was playing in this endless war.

He wondered if he’d be here at Rosethorne long enough to find out.

“It’s too late for a formal tour so we’ll save that for tomorrow. I’ll have Annie fetch you for breakfast at seven thirty. You will be awake by then, won’t you? I wouldn’t want the girls to be frightened if they have to wake you and find you in one of your fits.”

John sighed.

“Mrs. Hudson – I have nightmares - not fits.” He spoke calmly, wondering why Holmes had seen fit to share such details with this particular woman, and who else in the household was in on the secret.

“Nightmares with thrashing,” she said sagely. “You broke a nurse’s nose.”

John stopped in his tracks, watching as Mrs. Hudson walked ahead until she realized he wasn’t following her. He took the time to take several deep breaths, pushing the air out more vigorously than he should. He might be totally powerless in regards to where he was assigned and the responsibilities given him, but he did not have to tolerate such a blatant violation of his privacy.

By the time Mrs. Hudson turned around, he’d managed to regain some semblance of control.

“Mrs. Hudson,” he began.

He must have looked less in control than he thought because she brought her hand to her face and muttered “Oh dear.”

“May I ask – please – just exactly who told you that last bit of information?”

“I – I read it.” She seemed to be quite flustered. “No one told me. I saw – I mean – I was cleaning, and Mr. Holmes had left it – your file. On the desk. It was open, and I took a peek. I – I couldn’t help myself. Do forgive me, Dr. Watson. It wasn’t right – please don’t tell Mr. Holmes. I … I don’t know what I’d do – where I’d go….”

John didn’t comment as she fumbled through the explanation. She was afraid – of that he was sure – but she wasn’t blushing and didn’t seem at all embarrassed to have been caught out. The fear came from another place, and it made him wary, and curious.

He smiled.

“Mrs. Hudson – please. I understand. Just – no more, alright? And if you haven’t already, no word to the other staff, please. We all like to start in new places with a clean slate, and I’m hoping to have a smooth go of it here.”

Her relief was obvious as she smiled back at him. “Of course. Not a word. We all have our pasts, don’t we?” she said enigmatically.

They didn’t speak much after that, and when John was safely delivered to his comfortable and spacious quarters, he divested himself of coat and shoes and sat on the edge of the bed, then let himself fall back and stared at the ceiling.

Mrs. Hudson was lying.

She’d made a point of telling him she wasn’t the housekeeper and didn’t do the cleaning at Rosethorne Manor.

She hadn’t stumbled upon that file accidentally.

There was something else at play here – something curious.

Something that might take his mind, for a time a least, from the dreariness and hopelessness of his future as a disabled army doctor.

He fell asleep that evening after a plain but hearty meal, and his restless dreams of dark halls and shadowed faces and whispers in the night were nearly as disturbing as his usual nightmares of struggling to keep his grip on a bloody scalpel as soldier after soldier bled out his life beneath John’s clumsy fingers.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

John was awake, dressed and waiting, patient files in hand, long before Annie rapped tentatively on his door to call him for breakfast the next morning. She seemed quite relieved to find him ready to go, and he followed her through a maze of corridors to a small dining room where most of the staff members were already gathered, eating family style at a long, narrow table. They were a varied lot – Mrs. Hudson, Annie, two other young women wearing the same uniform Annie wore, a young woman in a modified nurse’s uniform, a manservant or two, the cook, the man who’d opened the gate the previous day, a quiet man dressed for outdoors work, and another young man whose position in the household he couldn’t quite place. The chauffeur who’d brought him up from the train station was absent – John wondered if he was both chauffeur and personal assistant to Holmes and stayed with him while he was absent from the manor on business.

Mrs. Hudson introduced John all around, and he was greeted politely, if not universally warmly – the nurse – who must be Molly Hooper – regarded him, he thought, with some suspicion and distrust. But conversation around him soon picked back up, and he helped himself to eggs and sausage and accepted the basket of toast from the woman seated beside him with a friendly smile. He listened more than he spoke, both that morning and all the mornings thereafter– the quiet chatter told of a staff comfortable with each other, perhaps even more so than usual with the master of the house away. At the other end of the table, someone was going on about one of the patients – the old boy couldn’t keep his hands to himself, apparently, and Annie, who was tasked with delivering meals to the infirmary, was tired of having her bum pinched.

After breakfast ended, Molly Hooper retained a professional yet distant air as she led him to the convalescent wing. She’d approached him as he rose from the table, had offered her hand and shaken his firmly and briskly. “Dr. Watson – if you’ll follow me, please.”

John had the idea that this firm, authoritative, no-nonsense approach was something Molly Hooper was trying on specifically for him. She had seemed much more reserved during breakfast. She’d been quiet and polite, smiling at the morning banter but not joining in. Watchful and alert, but not suspicious and certainly not distant.

He didn’t pay much attention to the path she took through the corridors, only noting that they passed through an open atrium of sorts, full of plants and sparkling clean windows through which the morning sun poured, and ended in a small sitting room-turned-office which felt, for lack of a better word, homey.

Clean and bright yet full of the kind of clutter that made a place look lived in. A navy blue cardigan draped on the back of a chair. Stethoscope and blood pressure cuff hung on a wall hook beside the door. An array of papers and files and pamphlets and books. A few well-tended house plants. There was nothing feminine at all about the room yet John knew immediately that this was a woman’s office. Perhaps the tea service – floral with gold edging – gave it away, but he thought not. It was more a feeling, something to do with the order of things.

Molly Hooper took a seat behind the desk, picked up a fountain pen, then opened a leather notebook and made a careful notation on a blank page, all without looking at John or acknowledging him at all. She studied what she had written, the finally lifted her gaze to meet his own.

John had piled the files he’d found in his rooms in a neat stack before him, arranged by the rank of the patients – general, major, private and civilian. He smiled and tapped the top folder.

“So – we’ll start with General Dixon?”

Molly frowned. She glanced at her file. “Brewton,” she murmured. She met his gaze again. “Private Brewton.”

“Ah – right. Of course.” John dug for the file in question and opened it on the desk. He’d reviewed all of the files that morning after his brisk, wake-up shower. Brewton had suffered second degree burns over his back and buttocks and several badly fractured bones in his hand – but the injuries occurred nearly three months previous. The man was young and otherwise healthy - his broken bones should certainly have been on the mend, and his skin returned to normal. There was nothing in the file, in fact, to explain why he was at Rosethorne when he could be returned to his unit. “I’ve read his file. As there seems to be absolutely nothing there to explain his continued stay here, I’m guessing he’s someone’s son.”

He spoke casually – not judgmentally.

Molly’s mouth opened a fraction, then she bit her bottom lip but didn’t speak – looking at him expectantly.

Waiting.

“Not military – an officer would have his son back in the action. I’d guess a Minister – some higher-up? Or – hmm. He looked at the photograph taped to the inside of the file folder. “Minor royalty?”

Her eyes opened wider. He’d surprised her.

“Very,” she said.

“Very?”

“Very minor,” she added.

They looked at each other for a long moment, then John smiled and Molly’s eyes shone before she looked quickly back at the file. “Let’s just say he’s getting quite a bit of therapy for that hand.”

Now John’s eyes widened, then he looked down at his own set of files, cheeks beginning to redden.

Molly’s laugh, when it came, was surprising and very welcome.

“Not that!” she said, shaking her head. “Oh – the look on your face!”

John grinned. “Alright – moving on….”

They were both more relaxed after that, and got through the other charts quickly – the general who’d suffered a rather severe coronary and who very much wanted to return to his post. The major who’d lost his left eye and his right leg below the knee. The last patient – a woman, much to John’s surprise – whose position with the British government was classified.

“Her injuries aren’t detailed,” John noted with a frown. “But the treatment she’s receiving – poison?”

Molly stood and quietly closed the door that led to the corridor.

“Dr. Watson,” she began, voice catching a bit as she leaned back against the door. “You aren’t at all what I expected.”

“Oh?” he asked. He hadn’t worked out why she’d initially been so unwelcoming. “And what exactly did you expect?”

“You’re clever,” she said. “You read between the lines. You - .” She paused, frowning. “What are you doing here, anyway? Why aren’t you in Africa?” She fumbled, realising her slip. “Oh, I may as well tell you. Mrs. Hudson told me Mr. Holmes was bringing in a military doctor. But I expected a fumbling old codger, too old to be of much use in a field hospital. But there you were this morning – all polite and lovely and certainly capable - and it just made me angry. We don’t really need a doctor here – do we? These patients are convalescing. They don’t need complicated medical treatments, much less surgery! I’ve spent hours and hours devising their treatments – their therapy. And suddenly I had a nice young doctor who could actually think for himself here, ready to dig in and change things up.”

Ah. Now he was beginning to understand.

“Why are you here?” he asked. Then, realising how that question likely sounded to her, added. “No – wait. What I mean is – why are you working here and not in London? Or with the army?”

Molly dropped back down into her desk chair with a sigh of resignation.

“Because Mr. Holmes requested me,” she answered. “Specifically. He and the director of the hospital where I worked are somehow connected. Mr. Holmes asked for the hospital’s best therapist and two weeks later I was on a train to Yorkshire.”

If she’d been bitter once, she didn’t sound so now.

“I’m told I was hand-picked as well,” John confided. He was growing more and more curious about this convalescent manor and its peculiar purpose. “Odd – considering my injuries.” He nodded at his left hand, which was resting on his thigh.

Molly’s attention was, for the first time, directed to his hand. She looked at him quizzically, and he lifted his hand off of his leg and attempted to make a fist.

“I was shot in the left shoulder three months ago,” he explained. “I injured my hand when I fell, but they missed the hand injury and didn’t catch it for several days. I have limited mobility and very little strength in it.”

“And you’re left-handed,” she said, voice soft, sympathetic, but not pitying. “I’m sorry, Dr. Watson.”

“John, please,” he said.

“Molly.”

“Molly, then.” He leaned forward. “Molly, I think we understand each other. I’ll stay out of your way, but I’ll be available for anything you need. So long as we’re both forced to be here, let’s make the best of it.”

“John – ” She bit her lip again – he’s already noticed she did this when she was nervous. “I hope I’m not being too forward, but I might be able to help.”

He’d been staring at his hand, but now he looked up to meet her eyes. “Well, considering I have orders to ‘avail myself of Miss Hooper’s services,’ I’m open to the possibility.”

“Orders?” She obviously had not been briefed.

“Orders.”

“Hmm.” She rearranged the files, seemingly at random, and frowned, then stacked them neatly and arranged them on the desk. “Does it seem at all odd to you that you’ve been sent somewhere where you’re really not needed yet something you need – rather desperately – is here?”

John didn’t bother to argue about how desperately – or not – he needed her help. “Everything about this assignment is odd,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “But I’m no one special – nothing special. The army’s not about to invest extra resources in me.”

“Alright – happy coincidence then,” she said.

But he thought she didn’t look convinced, and he saw her looking at him speculatively more than once that morning as she made the rounds, introducing him to each patient, and watching them interact with unveiled interest.

ooOOOOoo

By the end of the first week, John wondered exactly what he could do here that Molly Hooper could not.

The convalescents were all out of danger and each was steadily improving with the prescribed therapies. He made what amounted to rounds every morning, but his visits were more social in nature than medical. Both Ms. Adler and the general took a great deal of interest in him – for very different reasons. The general recognized John as a military man, and demanded detailed news of the war effort in Northern Africa. Irene Adler, on the other hand, stared at him with an enigmatic smile as he examined her the first day, and every day subsequent brought up a topic that let him know she’d read him far better than anyone ever had.

He had no idea how she did it – what her particular brand of insight was. How the hell she knew he’d been married. How she identified the guilt that plagued him, how she knew there was something he was hiding, keeping buried.

When she looked at him, she looked through him. He had the oddest sensation that his skin was transparent, that his thoughts were words spinning around his head. But when he looked at her, it was like trying to see through muddy waters into a cloud-filled sky.

Two weeks passed before Mycroft Holmes returned. He was in the house for less than twenty-four hours, and called John in to look at a toenail he thought might be ingrown, and to inquire how his therapy was coming along.

John, who could no more cut out the severely ingrown nail right-handed than speak Italian, told him the truth.

“Slowly. Molly has me counting pills – picking them up and dropping them into a bowl. It takes me an hour to do what I should be able to do in five minutes. I’m not going to be working on that toe anytime soon, Mr. Holmes. You should see a doctor in London.”

“Pills?” The man carefully replaced his sock. “Exercises in futility.” He winced a bit as he slid his shoe over his sock, but stoically laced it. “You need a meaningful activity to encourage your progress. Surely Hooper can see that.” He nodded toward the door. “I’ll speak with her in the morning before I leave. Good evening, Dr. Watson.”

John wasn’t sorry to see Holmes’ car driving away the next morning. The staff acted differently when he was on site – jumpy, on edge. There seemed to be a universal sigh of relief when he was gone, and life soon returned to what passed for normal at Rosethorne Manor.

And while normal was well and fine, John was bored.

Before his first week was done, he’d taken to spending his afternoons out-of-doors, walking the paths in the gardens closest to the house. They’d been stately once, and evidence of a former grandeur could be found at nearly every turn. Marble benches and statuary grown over with vines, grass creeping over the edges of the stone paths and growing up in the crevices, fountains and pools filled with leaves and debris. Not willful neglect, John thought, but evidence of attention focused elsewhere. Of gardeners and groundskeepers gone off to war, of resources redirected.

Some effort was still made around the main terrace, where the herb and flower beds were being maintained and the grass and weeds pulled away from the edges of the walks. Someone was trimming the hedges here too – someone with a steady hand and an artistic touch. The first hedgerow was low and wide, and cut so that it curved down and out, giving the appearance of blending seamlessly into the endless moors behind it. The hedgerow seemed to be part of the landscape – not something that separated the manor from the land beyond.

John had only ever seen one man working out here – the man who sat so quietly at meals - a man of his own age named Greg Lestrade.

He knew the name only from Mrs. Hudson. The man himself never spoke to him, returning his greeting each afternoon only with a nod of acknowledgement before he averted his eyes and continued working, maneuvering his garden shears a surgical precision John instantly envied.

John didn’t expect anything more than that nod, of course. Mrs. Hudson had pulled him aside after dinner that first night to explain.

“He doesn’t speak, you know,” she told John in a hushed voice. “He hasn’t – not since before he came here, Dr. Watson. Something happened – something that affected him. Something terrible, I imagine, in the war. Mr. Holmes brought him here six months ago, and he’s been keeping the grounds since.” She paused, and John thought she looked particularly sorrowful, as if Lestrade’s affliction was personally upsetting. “We didn’t really know what to do with him at first,” she acknowledged. “Mr. Holmes explained that Mr. Lestrade was mute, and that we were to welcome him, and find something to keep him busy, and not make unreasonable demands of him. I decided to ask him to trim the hedges closest to the manor – they’d been neglected since James and Toby joined up. Old Higgins can barely keep the grass trimmed. He took right to it. He’s taken on more and more, though no one presses him to do it.”

“He seems content here,” John mused. “Perhaps he just needs time to recover – to find his voice again.”

“I’m sure that’s it,” Mrs. Hudson agreed.

He didn’t want to think about what particular brand of terror had silenced Gregory Lestrade.

“He’s not as jittery as he was at the beginning.” Mrs. Hudson walked beside John as he headed back to his rooms. “The air is good for him here – and the work. He’s outside nearly all of the time, even when the weather is foul. We don’t know what all he gets up to – but he’s made a world of difference in the gardens. We all enjoy going outside for an afternoon walk now that the pathways aren’t choked with grass and weeds. And the roses! We haven’t had such big blooms in years!”

John paid more attention to the gardener after that day, and every time he passed him as he took his after lunch walk he greeted him by name, and always added some small tidbit – a comment about the weather, or about the excellent roast chicken they’d just had for lunch, or some piece of news he’d read in the morning paper or heard on the evening radio broadcast. Then he’d go on his way, never waiting for – or expecting – a reply.

 

He found he quite liked spending time out-of-doors, and his afternoon meanderings about the gardens grew in length, and he began to venture further away from the Manor, trying out crumbling walks that led to long-neglected terraces and gardens. He encountered his first locked door one misty Monday afternoon, and remembered what Mycroft Holmes had told him about locked doors – that they were locked for a reason.

But this one puzzled him. It was a barred gate set in a long brick wall, too high to climb. He could see through the bars to a crumbling bricked sitting area, and to a child’s swing hanging from the bough of an oak tree just beyond that. The ropes that held the swing to the branch were old and frayed, and the grass beneath the wooden seat was tall and wild. It was a tableau of disuse, of a childhood long forgotten, yet oddly, the padlock on the gate was not rusty, and in the overgrown grass that carpeted the garden, a faint path wove its way into the trees below.

John came back from time to time, drawn inexorably by the forlorn scene, but the gate was always closed and locked.

He’d been at Rosethorne Manor a month when he found the second locked door. This one, however, didn’t remain locked for very long at all.

Chapter Text

“Mr. Holmes called me in before he left this morning,” Molly told John as she led the way down a passageway on the west wing. She’d interrupted his after-lunch walk, intercepting him as he’d veered off the garden path beside the manicured hedges, and crisply informed him that he was needed inside. He’d assumed there was a medical emergency of some sort, and had followed her without question, but she’d skirted the infirmary and headed instead for the other wing of the manor. He kept pace behind her her, frowning, watching her back as she walked with determined purpose, and stepped back in surprise as she suddenly whirled around to face him.

“You complained about your therapy? Really, John?”

He couldn’t tell whether she was more angry, or more hurt.

“What? No – not – Molly….” He called after her as she turned quickly back around and continued walking purposefully down the corridor. She slowed again, then turned around to face him, looking slightly wounded.

“Mr. Holmes told me you need therapy with more purpose – that you find pill counting meaningless.

“Molly - it’s not like that – not at all. He asked me how my therapy was progressing. I told him what we were doing with the pills. He – well, he scoffed at the idea. He was the one who said I should be doing something more meaningful. Or relevant. Look – I don’t remember what he said, but I certainly didn’t complain.”

She leveled a steely stare at him, then whirled around and continued purposefully down the passage, stopping in front of the last door on the left.

He recognized the door. He’d been here before.

“It’s locked,” he said as he caught up with her.

He’d tried this very door only a few days before. He passed under the room’s windows nearly every day as he walked the grounds, and often stopped to admire them, each a beautiful work of art in coloured glass, reminiscent of cathedral windows in design if not theme. There were four of them, each depicting a scene from London – famous buildings, parks, streets – and they struck him as so lovely, yet so out of step with the setting of the manor, that he determined where the room must be within the house, and found his way there one evening after dinner, only to find the door locked when he tried to turn the knob.

He had heard music as he approached - he was sure of it – but when he’d reached the door, there’d been nothing but silence from within. He’d stayed there in front of the door, listening, for several minutes, but didn’t hear anything again.

And now, Molly only looked at him curiously, then turned the knob with ease and pushed open the door.

“The music room,” she said with a broad gesture. She’d stepped into the middle of the room and turned back to beckon John forward.

John didn’t bother insisting that the door had been locked when he’d tried to use it. It was obviously open now, and his attention was drawn at once to the windows, even more magnificent from this interior vantage with the sun streaming in from outside.

Molly, however, hadn’t brought him here to admire the windows.

“You’re to play the piano,” she said, walking over to console that sat against the wall between two of the windows. “Fifteen minutes, three times a day.” She lifted the fallboard and slid it back. “I don’t play,” she said, inexpertly tapping a white key first, then a black, “though I’ve always wanted to learn.”

John stared at the piano, trying to ignore that Molly somehow was aware that he knew how to play. Or had – once. If she knew, then she’d been told by Mycroft Holmes, as he’d not mentioned this lost talent to anyone at Rosethorne. He couldn’t imagine that his childhood skills – musical or otherwise – would have made it into his official military file, and, not for the first time, wondered how Mycroft Holmes knew what he knew, and more importantly, why he'd bothered to dig into his past so deeply.

He glanced at Molly, who was looking at him curiously, then stepped up to the piano and played a basic scale with his right hand. The piano was far from ignored. It was perfectly in tune.

He remembered the music he’d heard when he’d stopped before this door. Not piano. Definitely not piano. He glanced around the room. In the corner near a window, one that depicted a busy Victorian-era London street, stood a music stand with sheet music still on it. It was set up for someone quite tall, someone who played standing up, but there was no instrument to be seen.

Molly cleared her throat.

He struck a chord – again with his right hand only.

“You do know how to play, then," she said.

“I did. Once.” He slid onto the bench and, unable to stop touching the lovely instrument, picked out the melody of a popular wartime song.

“That’s not an old song,” Molly said. “That’s the bluebird song – mum sings it all the time now.” The edge of her anger seemed to be wearing off.

He smiled, fingers still trying out the keys, and wondered why he’d never thought of this himself.

As a form of therapy, it was absolutely perfect.

The piano required manual dexterity and strength, though both grew with practice and experience, and the left hand was taxed less than the right. The piano required left and right hand independence. It was rewarding – in ways that sorting pills and counting marbles never would be.

He stopped playing and ran a finger down a key – ivory, of course, old and well-loved.

He hadn’t played in years, not since he’d left home, but there’d been a time when he’d played nearly every day – forced practice when he was very young, when he’d rather have been outdoors with the other boys, then those months – those years – when he’d play every evening for his mother as her cancer took her slowly, painfully, away.

He hadn’t had the heart to touch the piano since her funeral. Things that she’d loved – music, roses, walks in the summer rain – evoked her memory too strongly.

A memory that had faded to the back of his mind over the years, over the war, and was, as he touched the keys with his right hand, brought suddenly back to life.

“How did you know that I played?” he asked as he softly picked out one of his mother’s favorites.

“Mr. Holmes mentioned it,” she said. She raised her eyebrow. “He seems to know quite a bit about you.”

“I imagine he does,” John mused, wondering what else Holmes knew and, for the moment, not caring.

She watched him for a few minutes as he played the simple, familiar melody of Abide with Me. She stepped in closer, and he felt her hand touch his shoulder.

“My mum likes that one too.”

“Seems like our mums might have liked each other, then,” he said.

“Oh.” She dropped her voice, all trace of anger now gone. Funny, he thought, how music can do that to a person, take the edge off of anger, cool down the frustration. “So you’ve lost yours? Your mum, I mean?”

“A long time ago,” he said. “She was ill for a long time – I used to play for her. She said it helped...with the pain.”

He didn’t know why he’d volunteered all of this to her, for just saying it aloud brought a lump to his throat. Since he’d walked away from the piano after her death, he’d taken care not to get too close to one. He’d continued his medical studies – she had so wanted that for him – and then the war had come, and there’d been far more important things to do with his hands than caress the ivories.

“Oh - John. I’m sorry. I’m sure – I’m sure Mr. Holmes wouldn’t have known that.”

The song sounded hollow and empty without the richness added from the second hand. Still, he played it again. He hadn’t realised just how much he’d missed this, and was quietly amazed at how easily it came back.

Molly didn’t speak again for a long time, but finally she leaned in and spoke softly into his ear.

“The point is to use your left hand, you know,” she said. Then she squeezed his shoulder. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”

He wondered if she knew - how she knew – that he was terrified of bringing his damaged hand up to the keyboard, of fumbling through the motions that had always been second nature to him.

Terrified of making noise instead of music.

The door closed with a small snick as Molly left the room, and John took a deep breath as he lifted his left hand slowly and rested it against his chest.

One note, he told himself. One key. One finger.

He pressed his index finger into his chest. He could barely feel the additional pressure.

He continued playing with his right hand as he worked the thumb and middle finger of his left down so that his index finger was extended.

His hand felt leaden as he lowered it, and he stopped playing altogether as he watched his finger descend, falling on C too hard, taking B along with it.

It was a discordant, halfhearted sound – something more than noise but less than music.

He rested the palm on his hand on the wood in front of the keys and lifted his index finger again.

And again.

And again.

While a physical therapist, working with him, might have had him concentrate on the repetitive movement – perhaps strengthening individual fingers, then moving on to sequencing, more complex motion, John worked for something entirely different.

He wanted to be able to play the note consistently. He wanted the same timbre each time he pressed the key, wanted it to resonate clearly, sink into his skin, into the expensive carpet beneath his feet. He wanted it to sound true.

No, damn it! He wanted his fingers to dance over the keys. Allegro. Adante. Adagio. Notes and chords. Melodies and harmonies.

Arpeggio. Glissando.

He pressed on. Index finger only, but D now.

His hand was trembling – he’d done more than he should have, but far, far less than he wanted to do.

He rubbed the heel of his left hand with his right, holding both hands in his lap, finished for now – for quite a while, if the pain running from his thumb down into his arm was any indication – but already in possession of a grim determination he hadn’t had before.

Why hadn’t he thought of it himself?

It had seemed – still seemed – an impossibility to even dream of being a surgeon again. Too much was at risk – too many lives. One missed stroke, one fumble with an instrument, and he’d lose much more than his dignity, suffer much more than mere frustration and embarrassment.

And he couldn’t practice surgery in relative anonymity. Couldn’t ask for volunteers to submit to the knife so he could practice holding his hand steady, making precise, even cuts.

But the piano….

He’d been a better surgeon than a pianist, though he’d been a competent pianist, when he still had the use of both hands. Surgery was science – rules, and procedures, and a determined order of things. True – a good surgeon had to be inventive at times, ready to do a sudden turn to get around an unexpected problem, but once that detour was made, it was back to business as usual.

When John was performing surgery, his mind was filled with textbook drawings and maps and diagrams. He was focused – hands steady, eyes fixed, blocking out the distant sounds of war, the dust and sand they could never quite keep out. He worked until the job was done – all of the jobs, all of the men, all of the injuries. He could hardly recall the early days of surgeries performed in a hospital theater, but the performance was the same, no matter the venue.

But when John was sitting before the piano, his mind was a thousand miles away. Up above the clouds, out beyond the white cliffs of Dover, far out to sea. Running through the London alleys with his boyhood playmates, daring each other to climb on the bins to reach the ladders to scramble up on the city roofs.

They were the kings of the world, princes and thieves. Robin Hood and his merry men, Peter Pan and the lost boys.

The bench was hard beneath him, reminding him now of those countless hours with his back to his mum – resting as she was on the too-short sofa, knees bent as she fought, there at the end, to draw every breath. His body in the room with her, his hands playing out the songs she loved, but his mind miles and miles away. Lying on his back beside the little pond in the park, watching the clouds reshape themselves before him, above him. A skull. A hound. A hat. A violin.

He moved his left thumb, trying to stretch it away from the finger beside it, then awkwardly lifted his hand and pressed another key.

He should stop. Let it rest.

Let it go.

Practicing surgery could kill a man who still had a fighting chance.

But practicing this – the piano – would kill only himself.

He stopped at last, leaned his head against the cool wood and closed his eyes – waited – until the thudding in his brain retreated.

He thought he heard something – the tread of a foot, the squeak of the old floors beneath the carpet – but when he turned his head there was nothing, no one, there. Colours danced on the carpet where the sun shone through the streets of London scene, and he followed them to the door.

Molly had closed it. He’d seen her do it, heard the snick of the closure.

But it was open now – just a sliver.

Curious.

He stood and carefully closed the fallboard, then made his way to the door.

The corridor, as he had expected, was silent and empty.

Chapter Text

Another month at Rosethorne Manor was well underway when Mycroft Holmes returned for the second time. John wasn’t told when he’d be visiting, of course, but the buzzing of the staff always put him on alert. Holmes had been back for more than a day when he called for John.

“He says you’re to bring your medical bag, Dr. Watson,” instructed Mrs. Hudson, standing in the doorway of the sunroom where John sat, patiently playing an after lunch game of chess with the general. “And do hurry – he’s already got poor Annie crying.”

“Is there an emergency?” John asked, standing and excusing himself with a promise to return to finish the game. Privately, he thought that it didn’t take much to get Annie to cry, but he kept that thought to himself.

“Well, that would depend on your definition of emergency, I suppose,” Mrs. Hudson snipped. She was clearly frustrated, but John understood that she depended on her position at Rosethorne, and that position depended entirely on Mycroft Holmes.

He had his bag with him – he’d finished his rounds today with the general’s check-up and had stayed after for their usual game of chess.

“Alright, then.” He apologized to the general and nodded to him in farewell. “Lead the way.”

He followed on Mrs. Hudson’s heels as she hurried through the corridors, muttering as she went about excessive drama and the staff having to walk on eggshells when he decided to grace them with a visit.

“Is it the other patient this time?” he asked as she turned down an unfamiliar corridor.

He nearly ran into her as her step faltered, but she quickly resumed her pace, though she took a moment to respond.

“Other patient? Which one do you mean?” she asked, her voice artificially bright.

“Dr. Watson – in here, please.”

The chauffeur, Simon, stepped out from an inset doorway, then nodded at Mrs. Hudson, as if silently letting her know that she was dismissed

Mrs. Hudson, however, hurried away without complaint, happy, John thought, to escape without further discussion of the mysterious invalid. He decided to ask Molly about it – she’d been here longer than he had and got along well with the other staff. Part of him hated to stir things up – caring for invalids was difficult, tedious work and he was rather enjoying spending his free time exploring the grounds and picking at the piano instead of tending to an invalid. Yet another part of him wondered about the locked doors and gates, the sheet music in the music room, and the footsteps he’d heard in the corridor that day Molly had introduced him to the piano.

Invalids don’t walk, he reminded himself as Simon closed the door behind him. Invalids don’t wander the corridors and leave sheet music behind.

“Dr. Watson.”

He’d been admitted to Mycroft Holmes’ bedroom suite with Simon’s perfunctory nod as he passed. The master of the house was propped up against a stack of pillows on a high four poster bed. He was wearing a dark green dressing gown, and as he turned his attention to John, he closed a file he’d been reading and placed it on the bed beside him.

John glanced around the room. Simon had closed the door behind him, leaving them alone in the room. The silence was awkward, so he held up his medical bag.

“Mrs. Hudson asked me to bring this,” he said.

“Hello, Dr. Watson,” said Holmes, and John felt the scrutiny of his gaze as he stood there waiting. Seemingly satisfied with whatever it was he observed in John, Holmes pointed to his foot – the same one John had examined several weeks earlier. “I saw a doctor in London, as you suggested, but the toe’s been causing me some discomfort and I’d appreciate you taking another look.”

“Of course.” John placed his bag on the foot of the bed and waited while Holmes took his time removing his slippers, then moved closer to the side of the bed where John stood.

The toe in question was bandaged.

“What did the other doctor do?” John asked as he carefully removed the wrapping.

“Surgery,” answered Holmes in a clipped, disinterested voice. “Numbed it and cut it out. I should have insisted that you do it – you’d have done a better job right-handed.” He grimaced as John pulled off the gauze covering a row of uneven sutures. “How is your therapy moving along, Dr. Watson? You seem to have more strength in that hand.”

“I’ve noticed a bit of improvement, thank you.” John was using his left hand to steady the toe as he examined it. The offending toenail had been cut out, as Holmes had indicated, but the toe was red and clearly infected. He pressed against a worrisome spot and Holmes winced then blew out a slow breath, but did not jerk away.

It needed to be cleaned thoroughly, possibly drained, and certainly redressed. He imagined he was up to the task - the piano therapy had done as much to improve the dexterity of his right hand as it had strengthened his left. Marginal improvements, to be sure, but improvements nonetheless. Surely he could manage as simple procedure as this.

“It’s badly infected,” John said. “How long ago did you….?”

“Two weeks,” Mycroft said, not waiting for John to complete his question. “I’ve kept it clean and dry, as instructed.”

“Where did you – no. Never mind. It doesn’t matter.” The infection had likely come from the actual surgical procedure, John concluded. At this point, it would be a waste of time to chase down the butcher who’d performed the procedure. It didn’t matter who had done the job – taking care of the resulting infection was far more important than finding someone to blame. John would have to treat it as best he could with clumsy hands and the supplies he had available.

He pressed again on the wound and frowned as it wept a yellowish fluid.

The work itself wasn’t too difficult, even right-handed. He found towels to layer under Holmes’ foot, then lanced the infected wound, drained it, and cleaned it thoroughly, not apologising for the pain the process caused, nor for his awkward fumbling. Holmes had asked for it, hadn’t he? He knew perfectly well that John’s fine motor skills were still severely compromised.

“You don’t ask many questions,” Holmes said as John rebandaged the toe.

“No, I suppose I don’t,” John replied mildly.

“You treat me as a superior officer, not as a patient.” Holmes crossed his leg to examine his newly bandaged toe. John had done more than a reasonable job wrapping it, and it didn’t look entirely amateurish. “Dr. Watson, you are in my employ, not under my command. You are allowed to ask questions.”

John was rolling up the unused gauze, a difficult task with only partial use of his dominant hand, and he gave it up and stuffed the roll into his kit, determining to see to it later. He had moved his bag to the chest of drawers, and kept his back to Holmes as he considered the man’s words. He assumed Holmes would expect him to ask about the toe – who had worked on it, what instructions he’d been given, how the hell it had become so infected.

But frankly, John wasn’t invested in or, to be honest, much interested in Holmes’ health. Holmes was a grown man, intelligent, educated. He should certainly know to keep a wound clean and dry. No, John had immediately assumed that the infection had come from the procedure itself – the doctor’s hands, or his instruments, or the dressing.

But then again, he’d essentially been invited to ask questions.

“I wanted to thank you – for the use of the music room,” he began after a prolonged silence, back still turned. He took his time closing up his bag, then turned to face Holmes, for he wanted to see the man’s face when he answered. Holmes had stopped studying his toe and was looking at John with interest. “I’ve noticed that someone else is using the room,” he continued. “Who would that be?”

Holmes’ face remained impassive and disinterested, and if he betrayed himself at all, it was with the time he took to answer.

“Wiggins, I believe,” he said, almost dismissively, after a pause which John thought could not be insignificant. “Is he disrupting your therapy? I gave instructions that your needs are to take priority and that you are not to be disturbed while you are playing.”

John mentally scoffed. He could hardly call what he did playing.

“Wiggins.” John had been here long enough to know everyone’s name – guests and staff – but that particular one was not familiar. “I don’t believe I….”

“Tall, thin chap. Dark hair. He doesn’t talk much, I understand.”

“Billy?” John’s eyes widened in surprise. “Really?”

The man John knew only as Billy – he’d never heard Wiggins before now – appeared only at meals, and seldom missed one. He generally kept his mouth occupied with eating, but when he did speak, it was with a distinctive Cockney accent, and more often than not, in response to a conversation he wasn’t involved in. Like Holmes had said, he was a tall, thin man. Wiry more than thin, though. The kind of man who was much stronger than he appeared. He wore plain white shirts and grey trousers, tailored clothing that hung oddly on his frame and never appeared to be pressed or well-laundered. No matter that he seldom spoke - the man was always listening and didn’t miss a thing – John was absolutely sure of it. By the process of elimination, John had determined that he had to be the attendant assigned to the other patient – the invalid. He certainly didn’t have the air of a caretaker – nurse or therapist or physician – though John imagined it was more important that he be able to lift the patient, and tend to the tasks of feeding and bathing him.

But Billy as a musician? Billy composing?

For the sheet music left on the stand in the music room wasn’t standard-issue music – classics and standards and war-time favorites. When John had wandered over to the music stand the second time he’d come to the room for his therapy, he’d found sheet after sheet of handwritten music. Musical notes were penciled in, erased, redrawn. There were words written in the margins – the notes of an artist, of a man obsessed with his music.

Not, John thought without a doubt, the creation of the man he knew as Billy.

Holmes, however, stuck to his story.

“I know nothing of his talent, only that when he accepted the job here, he told me he plays the guitar, and asked if he could practice. I suggested that he use the music room, as the noise wouldn’t bother anyone there. He was also advised when you began to use the piano, and instructed to limit his use of the room to the evening hours.”

Guitar? No. The stand was set up for someone who stood when they played. Guitarists didn’t typically stand to practice, and the music was put together in chords. No, the music John had seen on that stand wasn’t guitar music at all.

Why was Mycroft Holmes lying?

He thought about the invalid again that evening after dinner, long after his encounter with Holmes. He was walking the garden paths, taking his time and enjoying the unusually nice weather, trying to relax shoulders that had tightened over the long day, slowly flexing his left hand, wanting to believe it was stronger, better. Molly thought so – guarded optimism, she said – when she sometimes popped in on him and sat down beside him on the bench and pecked at the keys while he grimaced and showed her a chord or a short key sequence that always made her smile. He’d asked her about Billy’s charge before dinner, but she didn’t know anything more than he did. Like him, she’d been told that there was an additional resident, an invalid, who might require her care or intervention should there be a true emergency, but who had his own caregivers. In all the time she’d spent at Rosethorne, she’d not seen the patient, or been called in to consult.

“Who do you suppose it is?” John had asked as she walked with him toward the gardens.

“Well, it must be family, don’t you think?” she’d answered. “If it were someone in the service, they’d be in the infirmary with the other patients.” She shrugged. “This is the Holmes estate - I just assumed it was one of his parents. You know how this set is about privacy.”

He’d agreed with her, and let the matter drop. Molly didn’t seem at all curious about the matter, most likely feeling that dealing with one of the Holmes family was quite enough for her.

And what she said made sense.

Except – well, except for the matter of Billy Wiggins.

Billy didn’t seem at all like the type of caregiver one would hire for an invalid parent.

Billy was rough around the edges. Very rough, even in the tailored but serviceable clothing. John couldn’t begin to imagine him caring for an elderly man – or woman. He seemed more the type to run errands, or tiptoe about the house listening in doorways. John could see him minding someone – an errant youngster, perhaps a senile old gentleman. But an invalid?

His thoughts were on the mysterious invalid, and the improbable man in charge of his care, and when he reached the lock gate in the garden, he very nearly walked past it without stopping to stare through the bars at the forgotten garden beyond.

He did stop, though, when he was nearly past it, as he trod on the distinctive shadow it made on the walk. He glanced inside, and all was as it always was.

Except that the gate, when he grasped the bars and rested his forehead against them, shifted inward a fraction.

John pulled back immediately, surprised, and glanced over at the lock. It was a large brass padlock with a long shank, which had, inexplicably, popped open.

John quickly stepped over and studied the lock.

It took only seconds to remove it, and hang it over a crossbar. He didn’t hesitate, then, to push the gate open and squeeze through it. With a last look behind him at the deserted pathways, he quietly moved forward toward the sagging swing, sparing it only a glance before heading down the faint path through the too-tall path.

It ran nearly straight, though it trended downhill, until it crossed a derelict terrace and met a crumbling wall. Here, the path turned and followed the wall. It was clearly an old garden path, with remnants of paving stones here and there, though crossed with roots and potmarked with holes. It continued through an archway whose gates were long gone, ran through another, smaller garden with an abandoned pool and fountain, then finally ended at yet another closed gate.

But this gate was low, more ornamental than functional. He could easily see over the top of it. Eyes wide with surprise, he leaned against the gate and stared.

He was in another world altogether, divorced from the crumbling, neglected reality of the gardens closer to the manor. No – more than that. Much more.

England was no longer a beautiful, or fanciful, or peaceful place. Not when the world was at war, and people were hungry, and churchyards were spilling over with the dead.

But this - this - defied all logic. It was a place out of time, a time out of place.

It was, if John had to guess, an old garden maze. Or had been. Made of hedges once carefully squared off and angled in intricate patterns.

Once.

But now – it was a sculpture. An exotic menagerie. A fanciful sea monster snaking in and out of the earth. A swan with outstretched wings. A porpoise’s tail. A stallion. A fox.

Large and small, the hedges had been transformed. Shaped into animals, connected wing to tail to outstretched foot. It was the work of an artist and totally, absolutely impossible. A garden of joy, and hope, and beauty, locked away from the world.

And it wasn’t old, or forgotten, or a relic of long-forgotten days.

He could hear a telltale snip snip of garden shears now, and the sound of someone whistling. He felt like a voyeur as he watched the man work, for the artist had made an appearance at last, circling a peacock-shaped bush, carefully – surgically – trimming its plumed tail. As he worked, a pair of squirrels kept him company, sitting a respectful distance away, but staying close, and running out to fetch the occasional peanut the man tossed their way. At one point, a robin flew off the wall and lit on the man’s shoulder, and balanced there a few moments before taking flight once again.

John waited there, silently, until Greg Lestrade moved out of sight, then he quietly made his way back the way he’d come, dazed at his discovery, confused by it.

Intrigued. Curious. Delighted.

It was a spot of color in a world turned dark, and he wanted nothing more than to be invited into the silent man’s world. To sit with him as he worked, and feed the squirrels nuts from his pocket.

He wanted to tell everyone.

He vowed to tell no one. Not even Molly.

Not yet.

And it didn’t occur to him until he had put the lock on the outside gate back in place that Lestrade hadn’t been silent after all.

He’d been whistling. Whistling.

The sound of that whistling stayed with him that evening as he prepared for bed. It was soft, and low. Melancholic. It faded into the background of his thoughts, and wore a gentle rhythm in his mind. The book he tried to read held no interest, and he finally put it down and closed his tired eyes, and drifted off to sleep to the low lullaby of whistling on the wind.

But he wouldn’t sleep long that night.

It was Mrs. Hudson who woke him at one o’clock in the morning.

Mrs. Hudson, distraught, shaking, who led him to the west wing, and down a corridor he’d never before visited.

Mrs. Hudson who pushed open the door, and introduced Dr. John Watson, at last, to the master’s brother, the mysterious invalid himself, Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes gripped by a seizure, Billy Wiggins forcibly holding him down.

Chapter Text

He’d have time to think about it later, to ask the hundred and one questions percolating through his mind as his instincts won out and he slipped into medical mode.

“Turn him on his side,” John ordered, pushing quickly into the room then dropping to his knees beside the convulsing man and his attendant.

Billy immediately complied, though he had some difficulty rolling the man onto his left side, facing John, and John had to help position his arms. The patient’s body continued to spasm and release, though the seizure was clearly beginning to abate.

“Pillow, Mrs. Hudson, please,” he called out, almost automatically. How many other times had he done this? Grabbed for a pillow, positioned it just so under his wife’s head? He waited, wiggling his fingers until Mrs. Hudson hurried over to the bed, then pressed a pillow into his outstretched hand.

John folded the pillow, using his left forearm as support, then worked it under the convulsing man’s head, checking his watch. Drool immediately stained the pillow cover. He’d probably soaked the carpet already, but John didn’t care a whit about that. The man was breathing – there were no apparent obstructions. They’d just have to wait it out. He bit back the soothing noises that rose in his throat, threatening to escape into the room, rested his hand firmly on his own thigh, for it wanted to run down the crest of the man’s hip, soothe the muscles of his back as the tremors died.

As he had done – too many times to count, to remember – back in London, in those rose-tinted years before the war, before he’d left for Africa.

He shook himself from thoughts of Mary, and the content life they’d built together, and focused on this new problem – one that could hardly be considered coincidental. He’d been brought to a manor in Yorkshire to care for a handful of convalescents who didn’t really need a staff physician, and to be on call for a resident invalid in case of emergency.

This not-really-an-invalid who happened to suffer from the very condition that had so tormented his late wife.

As he always had done when Mary suffered an attack, he took in his immediate surroundings. It was rather late to clear the area of sharp edges, but he looked anyway. The man had fallen in a relatively clear area, on a thick area rug surrounding the bed. Still, there were a number of things with which he might have collided on the way down. The nightstand was a particularly likely suspect, especially given that the bedside lamp was lying on its side.

“It’s his third one tonight,” Billy volunteered as John quickly checked the man’s shaking head and found, as he thought he might, a raised knot, but fortunately no blood. “Not so bad as the first two,” Billy continued. “Those lasted a long time – ‘s what made us so scared.” He exchanged a worried look with Mrs. Hudson. “The boss said to fetch you right away if the fits lasted more than five minutes or if they kept coming on.”

“Where is Mr. Holmes, then? Perhaps you should fetch him too.” John’s fingers had encircled the patient’s wrist, feeling for his pulse, but the tremors prevented him from getting a good count.

“Gone again,” lamented Mrs. Hudson. “Just a few hours ago.” She sighed. “He’d gone two weeks without an attack, hadn’t he? I was beginning to think we wouldn’t need you after all, Dr. Watson.”

John kept hold of the wrist, watching the man’s face as it relaxed, then took its time contorting again. That, too, was familiar territory for him. The signs were clear – the attack was passing, and he was beginning to make out the racing pulse.

Wouldn’t need you after all, Dr. Watson.

He hadn’t missed that statement. It, and the details of his past experience with epileptic seizures – he would educate Billy later on about his use of the term fit - pointed to his selection as resident physician for Rosethorne Manor being much more than a happy coincidence.

“He’s had these often enough,” Mrs. Hudson supplied from behind him. She still sounded distraught and John wondered what, exactly, her relationship to this man was. “But the second one – it wouldn’t stop. Went on and on jerking him around like he was a helpless puppet. And Mr. Holmes said….”

“His medical file. Please.” Billy was still hovering close, unused, John thought, to doing anything more than holding down jerking limbs during an attack, and John touched him on the shoulder. “It’s passing. Go on – get me his file. And his medications.”

Wiggins hesitated, but John nudged him again. The patient’s breathing was beginning to regulate. A now-relaxed hand twitched.

“How long has he been having seizures?” he asked Mrs. Hudson as Billy finally edged over to a desk beside a closed door.

“Since the roof fell in on him – oh – you wouldn’t know about that, would you?” John looked back and found her staring at the man, concern – and something more – affection, perhaps? – evident in her eyes. “That was before Christmas, and Mycroft – Mr. Holmes – had him brought here from London in February, just after….” She trailed off, apparently unsure how much she should divulge.

John noted the use of the name Mycroft. How curious that Mrs. Hudson had referred to Holmes by his given name.

John lifted one of the man’s still-heavy eyelids, revealing an eye whose colour he couldn’t name, an eye still dull and unfocused. “What did you say his name is?” It was something odd, uncommon. Not wholly dissimilar to Mycroft.

“Sherlock,” whispered Mrs. Hudson, with obvious fondness. “He’s looking better, Dr. Watson. His colour is coming back. It won’t be too much longer, now, will it?”

He glanced at her, smiling vaguely. “He’s taking his time coming out of this one. But as it’s his third tonight, he’s bound to need quite a bit of recovery time.”

“Here’s the letter, then.” Billy shoved an envelope at him and John took it with a frown. “What…?” he began, but Billy was talking through him.

“He said you were to have it if we had to call you in. He said it was all you’d need to know.”

“Presumptuous of him,” John murmured as he clumsily broke the seal – had Holmes not trusted Billy with the information within? – and fumbled to extract three sheets of paper, typewritten and crisp.

The first was a personal letter, addressed to Dr. John Watson. He glanced at the signature. Mycroft Holmes. He quickly tucked it behind the other papers, noticing how closely Billy and Mrs. Hudson were watching him.

The other papers held the relevant facts, sketchy as they were, about the patient, his injury and resultant condition, and his treatment.

William Sherlock Scott Holmes. 30 years old. Service status classified. A terse paragraph requesting that all details about the patient, including his location, be kept strictly confidential.

Dates. Diagnoses. Procedures. Medications. Prognosis.

Traumatic head injury. Moderate injury-induced epilepsy.

 

John’s hand trembled. He looked up to find both Mrs. Hudson and Billy still staring at him expectantly.

He wet his lips, trying to push those thoughts away. He’d met Mary a year after she’d been assaulted by her then-husband, pushed over a stair railing while heavily pregnant.

She’d lived – miraculously enough. The baby had not.

“I’ll stay with him until morning – I can sleep on the sofa,” he said, clearing his throat. “You should go back to bed – both of you. I’ll be fine.”

Billy and Mrs. Hudson exchanged a glance. A worried glance that held something John could not interpret.

“He can be difficult,” Mrs. Hudson said. She bit her bottom lip and let her gaze move over to Sherlock again. “He doesn’t like – well, he hates being weak.”

“And he might have another fit,” Billy warned.

“He’s demanding,” Mrs. Hudson said, adding, in a half-whisper. “Rude, the poor dear.”

“I think I can manage – I’ve lots of experience with difficult patients. And with seizures,” John said, adding, just under his breath, “Quite a coincidence.”

“I – I don’t know what’s in that letter,” Mrs. Hudson said, and John took that opportunity to tuck the pages back in the envelope. “But no one’s to know he’s here. Not unless it’s absolutely necessary, Mr. Holmes says. It has something to do with the war. Sherlock’s very, very bright. Queer sort – too smart for his own good. And important – what he does – what he did – it was something important. For England.” She breathed their country’s name on a sigh, and there was pride in her voice now – the pride of a mother, John thought, wondering how long she’d been at Rosethorne, how long she’d known this Sherlock Holmes.

She was babbling, reluctant to leave Sherlock, or to leave him with John. He wondered if she was more worried about what Sherlock might say or do, or about John’s ability to care for him.

“He’ll be fine. We’ll be fine. Mr. Holmes trusted me enough to instruct you to fetch me, didn’t he? Get some sleep – I’ll stay here until you’ve had some rest. If it’s unusual for him to have three seizures so close together, I’ll need to observe him and record my observations.”

Mrs. Hudson appeared to brighten. “You’ll make a chart, then? Oh, Dr. Watson – Sherlock will like that.”

John didn’t quite know what to make of that statement. “Um – well, good,” he replied. He smiled at her, and made a motion for her to leave. “Go on now, really. You’re exhausted. You’ll not get any sleep at all if you stay here, and he’s going to need some extra attention tomorrow, isn’t he?”

Billy had now backed over to the door, but he apparently got his marching orders from Mrs. Hudson, for he stood there, head swiveling from John to Mrs. Hudson, looking conflicted.

Mrs. Hudson had seemed ready, at last, to leave. But now she turned to him and half-whispered. “The staff assumes he’s old Mr. Holmes – still hanging on,” she said, hesitating.

John sighed. Somehow, he wasn’t terribly surprised by this latest revelation, which should have been very surprising indeed.

“By old Mr. Holmes –do you mean his father?”

She shook her head. “His grandfather – Malcolm. He passed away only a few days before we brought Sherlock here to Rosethorne,” she said.

John, not a dim-witted man by any means, but one who was, on principle, opposed to the kind of subterfuge he thought he understood was happening here, especially when it involved himself, avoided looking at Mrs. Hudson, choosing instead to study the young man stretched out beside him. He vaguely resembled his brother, but was decidedly younger, with a full head of short, messy curls and high, sharp cheekbones that stood out in a too-thin face. What role in the war could this man possibly have had that elicited such lavishly ridiculous secrecy? Swapping him out for his dead grandfather? Had the old man not even had a proper funeral?

Mrs. Hudson and Billy finally agreed to leave – Mrs. Hudson through the door by which they’d entered and Billy through a door that led to a connecting room. Billy seemed much more amenable to the idea of John taking over than did Mrs. Hudson.

“I trust you, Dr. Watson, really, I do,” she said.

He held her gaze, waiting. She finally gave him a tremulous smile, then turned to leave. “Do wake Billy and send him for me if you have any trouble,” she said as she pulled the door shut behind her. He waited, listening, and finally heard her footsteps fading away.

John settled on the floor with his legs crossed, comfortable enough in his pyjamas and dressing gown, and waited. He had been awoken after midnight, but was reasonably alert, and more curious than upset about the circumstances. He glanced again at Sherlock, then at the room itself.

He was certainly not in an invalid’s room. The room was both bed chamber and living quarters, and there wasn’t a single item present that would support a case that an actual medical invalid inhabited the quarters – no wheelchair, no appliances to help lift a nonresponsive body, no bed pan, no stacks of diapers. No tell-tale smells of urine and bleach. And there were shoes, of obvious quality and scuffed enough to indicate frequent wear, dropped near the end of the bed.

He studied the less obvious clues in the room. A stack of books on the far side of the bed – he thought they might be medical texts. Cigarettes – a pack on the end table atop the books and another on the wardrobe, though oddly, the room didn’t smell of them. A handheld magnifying lens atop sheaves of paper, dense with type-written words. A tray with the remnants of afternoon tea. A coat, dark grey and long. A record player, with a polished wooden façade, and a stack of records beside it. A jigsaw puzzle, nearly finished, on a small table under a ceiling lamp.

And there – almost out of sight in a little nook between wardrobe and dresser – propped atop a stack of sheet music – a violin.

A smile crossed John’s face and his gaze wandered back to the man on the floor.

Sherlock,. He mentally sounded out the name, finding it just as unusual as Mycroft, but decidedly more pleasant, less sharp, less self-indulgent.

The man in question was beginning to stir. He’d be sore, and out of sorts mentally for at least a few minutes, and John leaned forward and laid his hand on Sherlock’s shoulder.

“Breathe. Just concentrate on breathing for a few minutes. Through your nose, if you can manage, then out your mouth. Slowly.”

He spoke quietly, as soothingly as he once had to his wife, and Sherlock seemed to comply, breathing in tandem with John’s instructions until he at last opened his eyes, blinking against the light, the sensory assault as his brain attempted to sort itself again, to order events, to pull together fragments of memories and distorted stimuli and let them coalesce into this new reality.

“Can you hear me?” John asked after a few more breaths. “Can you understand what I’m saying?”

Sherlock’s eyes had closed again, but he gave a single downward tilt of his head, dipping his chin toward his chest, in answer.

“Good. Do you know where you are?”

Another tilt.

“You’ve had three seizures – that’s more than usual, right?” He kept his arm firmly planted on the man’s forearm. Mary had liked that – the feeling of being grounded. Sherlock, apparently, did not.

He shrugged his shoulder, frowning, and John finally realised he was trying to throw off John’s perhaps not-so-comforting weight.

John let his right hand fall to his side.

And Sherlock found his voice. “Yes. More,” he managed in a raspy croak.

“Alright. Alright.” John reached forward to measure the man’s pulse again, but dropped his hand before he touched him. “I’m going to take your pulse now, and I need to check your head and see if you have any other injuries.”

“’m fine,” grumbled Sherlock, voice weak yet a bit annoyed, but John’s hand had descended on his head, and he winced as it ran over the knot.

John pulled his hand back. He didn’t think the injury was serious, and certainly couldn’t distinguish the effects of a concussion when the man had just come out of a seizure. “Would you like to get back in bed? You need to stay off your feet until we’re sure you’re through with these tonight.”

“’m fine here.” He was breathing more regularly now, and had once again opened his eyes, but this time he was regarding John rather steadily, his eyes more focused.

“Good. You hit your head when you fell. You’ve got a nice bump. Does anything else hurt – and yes – I know – everything hurts.” He smiled, trying on his understanding doctor persona. “I mean – does anything hurt more than it usually does after an attack.”

“No.” He definitely was finding his voice. He kept his eyes on John, not moving, and John felt a bit like a bug under a microscope.

Sherlock licked his lips.

“Are you thirsty?”

Sherlock hesitated, as if considering whether he was, his brain taking a bit of time to process the question. He nodded. “Please.”

The bathroom was connected to the living quarters, and John filled a glass with water and brought it back in. He stepped over Sherlock to position himself, then maneuvered his right arm behind the man’s back and pulled him more upright, just long enough for him to swallow a few mouthfuls of water.

Sherlock’s eyes soon closed again, and John wondered just exactly when he was going to become as difficult as Mrs. Hudson had warned. He stood, and settled into a comfortable chair in the corner close to the bed, eyes not leaving Sherlock, waiting for any sign of another seizure.

Eventually, with Sherlock’s breathing still even, and his limbs relaxed – though he did not think him asleep – John reached into his dressing gown pocket and extracted the letter. He’d wanted to read it while alone, and he was effectively so now, with Sherlock slowly recovering, still curled on his side on the floor.

He unfolded the letter, smoothing it out against his thigh with the palm of his left hand, glanced over at Sherlock, and read what Mycroft Holmes had written.

Dear Dr. Watson:

As you are certainly by now aware, there is another Holmes in residence at Rosethorne Manor. My younger brother, Sherlock, recently received a severe head injury, from which he has largely recovered. However, he has been left with periodic seizures, and must be monitored closely. To that end, I have employed a young man by the name of Billy Wiggins, who has a prior connection to my brother, and who is exceedingly loyal to him, as well as Mrs. Hudson, my brother’s landlady from his pre-war London residence. Her priority here is to assist with Sherlock’s care. He is a difficult patient, but he is family, and a valuable asset to our war effort.

Regrettably, I cannot tell you how he served our country. Trust me that it involved as much discipline and sacrifice as you yourself gave. He is anxious to return to his position, but cannot do so while he is plagued with seizures and crippling headaches.

We – Sherlock and myself – have chosen you specifically to assist in his recovery. As his recovery, in some ways, depended on you regaining some of your lost motor skills, we delayed your meeting as long as possible to allow you to focus on your own progress.

And now – the piece of the puzzle that will make your job even more difficult. Sherlock Holmes was the only survivor of the bombing that destroyed the building in which he was working. However, everyone – friend and foe alike – believe him to be dead. And this, Dr. Watson, makes him – potentially – all the more valuable. The staff not appointed to his care believe our grandfather, who passed away earlier this year, is still in residence and that Billy is caring for him. You must guard this secret to which you’ve now been entrusted.

I will meet personally with you as soon as possible, but in the interim, enjoy getting to know my delightful younger brother. He spent quite some time poring over your files and is already well-acquainted with your background and abilities. He was quite insistent on obtaining your services, despite a few small details about your past we discovered in our investigations. I am sure you know to what I am referring.

Cordially,

Mycroft Holmes

 

John stared at the letter as it rested there on his thigh, keeping his breathing calm and regular, thinking.

He wasn’t surprised, not by what Mycroft Holmes knew. Not even, really, by what Sherlock himself knew, or his involvement in John’s presence here. It was all orchestrated, every event, every turn of his life, since he’d been called up.

He heard the veiled threat in the last sentence of the letter, and understood very well that the Holmes brothers somehow knew his secret. Knew it – knew what he’d done to James Agra – yet brought him here anyway.

He looked up to find Sherlock Holmes’ strangely-coloured eyes staring at him. His mouth twitched into what might have been an amused smile.

“Codebreaker,” he said, voice stronger now. “I hated it.”

“Ah.” John wished he had a better retort. Sherlock was deliberately breaking the code of confidentiality his brother had established. Were they in this together – or not?

“Make no mistake, Dr. Watson. Despite my brother’s assumption, I don’t want to return to my position.” He had a frantic look in his eyes now, as he got to the crux of the entire matter. “I just want my mind palace back.”

To be continued

Chapter Text

I just want my mind palace back.

John turned the phrase over in his head. Mind palace? What the hell was a mind palace?

“Yes, mind palace.” Sherlock hummed out a sigh. “A mental construct. My mental construct. Archived memories and knowledge, organised with a system of my own creation to facilitate immediate retrieval and conceptual analysis.” He paused, studying John’s face. He looked – surprised? John closed his mouth with an effort.

“I didn’t say that out loud.”

“Oh, please.” The man sounded more satisfied than annoyed, and when he spoke again, the words seemed less laboured, less forced. “It was written all over your face.”

John blinked. He was rapidly losing control of the conversation and he wasn’t exactly sure how that had happened. He did know, however, that Sherlock Holmes was the most interesting thing he’d encountered since arriving at Rosethorne – more interesting, even, than what he’d found behind the locked gate.

He watched as Sherlock rolled slowly onto his stomach, then laboriously pushed himself up on hands and knees. He paused, took several deep breaths, then dropped into an awkward seated position against the bed, still breathing heavily. John watched him without offering to help, realising that the man wouldn’t appreciate being babied, and had doubtlessly righted himself from this same position dozens of times previous.

“Thank you,” Sherlock said when he was breathing more evenly again.

“I’m sorry – you looked like you could handle that on your own,” John responded, assuming Sherlock was being sarcastic; that he was, in fact, pointing out that John hadn’t bothered to help him at all.

But Sherlock dropped his head back against the mattress and let out a slow, measured breath. “No, you don’t understand. Thank you for not helping. For not hovering. It’s – refreshing.”

“Ah – right. You’re welcome, then.” John stood and righted the bedside lamp, then sat on the edge of the chair in the corner. “But I don’t promise not to hover if I believe you truly need my help, or if you’re in danger of hurting yourself.”

Sherlock made a sound of clear frustration. “I’m always in danger of hurting myself.”

John acknowledged the statement with a shrug. “It seems you’ve done a fair job of keeping yourself alive these last months.”

“I live in a three room prison – a rather lavish one, I admit.” He moved his head, winced, and felt the back of it tentatively, then sighed. “It’s hardly a life.”

“You prefer – what? Dodging traffic in London?”

Bombs. Dodging bombs in London.

“Are you mad?” Sherlock closed his eyes. “London to Yorkshire?” He sounded very tired, not surprisingly, but wistful too, and John, who’d spent only an hour with the man, found the tone discordant with what little else he knew of him.

“Yorkshire has a certain appeal,” he said, trying to sound positive. “The moors are – ”

“Boring.”

“Lovely. Open and wild. Better than the desert.”

They stared at each other for a long moment, and Sherlock was the first to look away. He dropped his head back and closed his eyes.

“I disliked them when I was a child, when we came to visit.” He spoke slowly, just a shade this side of haltingly, with his eyes still closed, voice even softer now. “The only fresh air I’ve experienced since they brought me here comes in through the window.” He paused, and until he spoke again a few moments later, John thought he’d fallen asleep. “Though the Yorkshire air is nothing compared to the complexity of what passes for air in London.”

John laughed, and the corner of Sherlock’s mouth twitched in a near smile.

“You could say that,” he said. He sobered then, thinking that today’s London wasn’t the London of the 1930s, and the air had a very different quality there indeed.

Neither of them acknowledged this, though, and John waited a few more minutes before the physician in him insisted on speaking up.

“Are you ready for bed, then? I’ll sleep on the sofa – I told Mrs. Hudson I’d stay while she and Billy get some sleep. I’ll hear you if you need me.”

“You mean you’ll hear me if I have another seizure,” Sherlock quietly clarified. “Go to sleep, then. I think I’m good. My head hurts, as expected, but the brain is less muddled. I can’t sleep until I regain some clarity. It’s too – troubling.”

John frowned at the statement. “Sleep will help you with that clarity,” he insisted. “Your body needs it. You need it.”

“I need to think.” Sherlock squeezed his eyes shut and sighed. “To sort. Classify. Inventory. Reorder. Rebuild.

“Your – what did you call it – mind palace?” John watched Sherlock curiously. Mary had never wanted to talk like this after a seizure, not to John, and certainly not to herself. She wanted to rest – to sleep – curled up beside John on the sofa, or wrapped in his arms in bed. She’d wanted the contact, the comfort, but not the mental task of sorting out words and ideas. She was always better the next day, after a night in his arms.

“I did.” His eyes closed, perhaps, John thought, to hide the pain awoken by the reminder of the mental acuity he’d apparently lost. “Once.”

John dared a response, choosing his words carefully. “I can’t be the first one to tell you how important sleep is, Mr. Holmes. Especially for someone with – ”

“With my condition.” Holmes made the word sound derisive. “No. You most certainly are not the first. But sleep is impossible – no, exceedingly difficult. And please – John – Mr. Holmes is currently ensconced in a bunker somewhere beneath Parliament winning the war for England. Do call me Sherlock.”

He didn’t ask permission to address John by his given name, and didn’t pepper his request with the everyday niceties – no please, no thank-you. Despite his all-too-recent seizures, which should have made him want to crawl into bed and sleep for half a day, he managed to come across as both presumptuous and bored.

John, long exposed to persons with all categories of illness and injury, recognized defense mechanisms such as these. Still, he felt a duty to fulfill his professional role.

“Alright – Sherlock, then.” Sherlock made no sign to acknowledge the concession. “Try to sleep, please. I know you’ll find that your brain will work better once you’ve given it a rest. You’ve just had three episodes, and - ”

“John – please. I thought better of you. They’re a trifle more than episodes. I quite prefer Billy’s terminology. Fits. More apt.”

“Three seizures. Three significant seizures.” John gave Sherlock his best doctor glare, instinctively knowing it wouldn’t have the desired effect on this patient. But he wasn’t ready to give up just yet. “Alright – what do you do when you can’t sleep?”

Sherlock blinked. He cocked his head, wincing as the bump rubbed against the mattress, and studied John with a frown.

“What is it now?” asked John, trying to sound exasperated. It was difficult to keep up the pretense, as he was a great deal more intrigued with the man than exasperated.

“Are you asking what I do to encourage sleep?” Sherlock asked.

“Yes – or course.” It was increasingly difficult to keep the practiced neutral expression on his face. What else could that question possibly mean?

“Nothing. I never encourage sleep and I don’t sleep on schedule. I sleep when I’m too tired to stay awake any longer.”

“But – you must be tired now. It’s the middle of the night and you’ve just had – ”

“Yes, I’m fully aware, John. No need to repeat it. Three epileptic seizures. I can count, despite my brain being compromised in other ways and my mind palace having the structural integrity of the Coliseum.”

John, wanting to protest again, closed his mouth instead and stared at Sherlock.

His eyes were closed. His face was pale. He looked utterly exhausted. He was speaking with a cadence which was surely slower than was normal, though still clipped and precise. He’d just suffered through a series of seizures and was alone in his room with a man he’d never before met.

He should not have been capable of this type of conversation – banter, sarcasm, wit. But since John couldn’t force him to sleep, he might at least utilise this time more to his own benefit.

“You’re not at all what I would have expected,” John chanced. “And since you’re obviously not inclined to do what your body is demanding, and I’m awake anyway, why don’t you tell me about your….”

“Boring.”

“Boring?” John frowned. “That’s hardly an answer to – ”

“I’d rather listen to you,” Sherlock said. “I already know everything there is to know about me.”

“You’re rather presumptuous,” John said.

“Rather?” Sherlock quirked an eyebrow, unfased.

John couldn’t help smiling. “Extremely.”

Sherlock looked quite satisfied. He closed his eyes again. He may have claimed to not have a sleep schedule, but he’d quite obviously been affected by the seizures. He was still sitting on the floor, for one, and while he definitely was not short of words, and was quite able to string them together, he seemed unable to focus on anything other than speech. John doubted that he had the energy necessary to right himself and crawl into bed.

When he spoke again, he sounded both far away and wistful.

“Tell me about practicing medicine in the desert, John. Tell me what it feels like – the sand, the grit – in your eyes, on your skin, in the wounds – when you’re trying to operate. What a bullet feels like when it pierces flesh and bone. What your mind does when you’re losing too much blood and your vision is fading. And then, when you’ve told me all you know about that, tell me about the piano. Why you learned to play. And more importantly, why you stopped.”

It was the singular most unusual request John had ever had.

He didn’t particularly want to dredge up memories of North Africa, or of the conditions under which he’d had to work. He had no desire to revisit memories of the injury that had nearly killed him, that ended not just his active military career, but his active career all the way around. And what man in his right mind would want to hear about treating bullet wounds caked with sand and grit?

As for the piano….

“Could we start with something a bit less personal?” John asked. “Perhaps work ourselves up to the kind of sharing people do when they know each other very well?”

“But I do know you well,” Sherlock countered, a smile of satisfaction flitting slowly across his face and disappearing into a sigh. “But I can’t connect the pieces. My mind palace is in shambles. I know things. Bits of information. Facts. Data. Hair colour. Eye colour. The fabric of your dressing gown. The particular shade of the flesh of your lower arms. I observe how you walk, how you talk, your choice of words, the variance in your vocabulary. Before - before the accident – these things had meaning beyond the obvious. But now – now I’ve lost it. The ability to compile, sort, and ultimately deduce. All those things I read in your file should be obvious to me now that I’ve met you. The pieces should fall together. But they aren’t – not as they should be, in any case. There are holes – too many holes.”

His speech had slowed as he spoke, from a voice reminiscent of one of John’s college professors in full lecture mode, to the voice of a man up long past his bedtime. He tried to cover a yawn, but it escaped and he fought to keep his eyes open.

“In bed,” John said, standing and offering a hand to Sherlock. “I’ll answer a question or two once you’re settled.”

He really didn’t think this particular tactic would work with a man like Sherlock, but he kept his hand outstretched for so long that Sherlock finally took it. Fingers – cool and smooth – clasped his wrist, and John pulled until Sherlock was off the floor far enough to be able to fall back onto the bed, atop the covers. He lay there, breathing hard, and John sat on the edge of the bed and softly, voice deliberately lowered to just above a whisper, began to speak even as he counted Sherlock’s pulse, and eased him into a more comfortable position on the bed.

“I’m not sure why you want to know what it’s like practicing medicine in wartime, much less in the desert. I don’t think you need a mind palace to understand that it’s hot, and quick, and dirty, and just enough – sometimes. Sometimes you can’t do a damn thing to save them – they were doomed before they arrived. You have to be fast – nimble-handed and nimble-minded. You’ve got to make quick decisions – right or wrong – and stick with them. And more often than not, you’re cutting off a boy’s leg, or his arm, and I used to do it without even thinking. About what kind of life he’d have when he got home – if he got home. Keep them alive – that’s what we do. That’s what we did, or tried to do, anyway. And sometimes you don’t get any sleep at all. And you hear the guns all the time, even when they’re not firing. They’re in your ears, like a permanent echo, just like the wind, and the sand against your skin. And I wasn’t even right there – we stayed well behind the lines, advancing or retreating as they did. Sometimes a few miles back, sometimes closer if we were losing ground quickly.”

He paused, glancing at Sherlock, hoping he’d fallen asleep. But Sherlock’s eyes were open, and he was studying John intently.

“Go on,” he urged. “Tell me about your injury.”

John shook his head. “Not this time,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me about your brother.”

Sherlock was studying him now as if he were a rare specimen, an insect pinned to a board. He looked oddly pleased at John’s turn-about, despite the fact he wasn’t getting the answers he apparently wanted.

Perhaps it was the question itself that distracted him enough to hop down this particular rabbit hole.

“My brother wants me to be well so I can return to my position and continue my efforts to help make England victorious. He wanted to find a medical professional to help me, but after the disaster with his last find, I insisted on participating in the selection this time. His belief continues to be that a medical solution exists, and that wealth and influence can procure that solution.”

“And you chose me.” John had a hundred questions, a dozen statements of incredulity, but he cut through it all to the heart of the matter. England, counting on the assistance of this apparently brilliant code breaker to help win the war, was putting its hope in an injured field surgeon who was barely able to pick up marbles with his dominant hand. And taking its time about it. He’d been here weeks and had only just met the very person he was – somehow – supposed to help.

“You were quite interesting on paper,” Sherlock responded.

“And in person?” John asked. “Disappointed?”

“Hardly. You handily dispatched both Billy and Mrs. Hudson, and Mrs. Hudson is not easy to budge. You don’t hover, don’t offer ridiculous platitudes, and your advice to sleep is sound, despite my refusal to follow it. You’ve managed to distance yourself from the majority of the staff, keep to yourself, and do not seek out my brother or appear to think of him as your benefactor or savior in bringing you to this admittedly comfortable position. And finally, you are tenacious. You do not believe that your arm and hand will recover enough to allow you to perform surgery, yet you have not missed a session in the music room and are already discovering new ways to circumvent physical obstacles.”

John chuckled. “Amazing. I should ask how you know all these things, but I have an idea that you have eyes all over this estate.”

“Not all over,” Sherlock replied. His own eyes were closed again. “But I have then where it matters.”

The room was quiet for several minutes. John remained on the edge of the bed, watching Sherlock, who had steepled his hands on his chest, tips of his fingers touching his chin. He was breathing evenly, but showed no sign of slipping into slumber. John thought about what he’d said, and all the questions he’d like to ask. He wondered about this mind palace purported to be in ruins. Sherlock Holmes seemed brilliant on every level. Refined speech, well-chosen and effective words, clear retention of knowledge of materials both recently learned and long held. His head injury hadn’t obviously affected his recall, and while his speech seemed a bit slow, he was just coming out of a series of seizures.

What did he think John, of all people in the world, of all the medical professionals available to someone of the Holmes brothers’ means, could do for him?

What had Sherlock said?

You have not missed a session in the music room and are already discovering new ways to circumvent physical obstacles.

“You know I can’t help you medically.”

It was a statement, not a question, and Sherlock, eyes still closed, acknowledged it with a quiet hum.

“Yet you expect me to help you – somehow.”

The plot – if plot it was – was beginning to click into place.

“Of course.”

“This has nothing to do with my wife.”

Sherlock slowly opened his eyes and regarded John with unveiled interest and approval.

“Your exposure to a patient with brain trauma-induced epilepsy was not the first thing I noticed when I reviewed your profile. I was much more interested – as I know you’ve now determined – in your injury, and its consequences on your life and career. When I discovered that you had played the piano, I was even more interested.”

“Whose idea was it – no. I already know. You arranged for me to take up the piano as therapy.”

A vague smile was his only acknowledgement.

Oddly, John wasn’t outraged. Or even angry. He was, instead, intrigued. Intrigued with this odd manor, its locked doors and gates, its mute groundskeeper, its quirky inhabitants and now, its secret resident.

“So if I’m not your doctor, what exactly am I?”

“An experiment,” Sherlock murmured. “Inspiration. Proof of concept. My muse. Many things.” Sherlock sighed and John watched as sleep finally began to chase him down, grounding him like a top taking its final spin. “Many, many things.”

He slept then, and John let him be, and dropped into the chair in the corner.

He had questions. Dozens of questions. But they would wait ‘til morning, or even longer. If this was Sherlock Holmes, sleep deprived and suffering the after-effects of three seizures, what would the man be like at full throttle?

And what would he be with access to this mind palace that seemed to be his central focus, and the heart of the reason John had been brought to Rosethorne?

In time, John dropped off into sleep himself, and didn’t awaken until someone shook his shoulder as the first rays of morning sunlight slanted across his face.

He opened his eyes, blinking back sleep. He focused on the figure before him, mouth dropping open in surprise when he saw who it was.

“Miss Adler – what…?”

“Good Morning, Dr. Watson,” she crooned, reaching down to brush the bottom of his chin with the tips of her fingers. “I wondered when you’d find your way here.”

Behind her, Sherlock Holmes slept on, still clad in dressing gown and slippers, but curled up on his side. From time to time, an undignified snore escaped him. She sat on the edge of the bed and crossed her legs.

“You’d best get back,” she said, laying a hand casually on Sherlock’s hip. “There’s been a bit of a stir – it seems they’ve lost the General.”

He had the presence of mind to wake Billy before he rushed back to the infirmary, and when he glanced back at Sherlock as Billy stumbled into the room, Irene Adler was leaning over him, brushing the tangled curls out of his eyes.

That image stayed with him throughout that interminable day. It disquieted him, and he couldn’t say why, but finally decided that it reminded him of Mary, of all that he’d once had, of all that he’d lost. And he wondered who else here at Rosethorne was not what they seemed, and what other secrets slumbered behind its locked doors.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

The General had died in his sleep, naked and flat on his back in Irene Adler’s bed.

There was no indication of anything other than a sudden, massive coronary, and from the look on his face, that he’d died a very happy man.

Irene had come for John first, and finding his bed empty, had gone to Molly next. Then, instead of following Molly back to her bed, had come to Sherlock’s room. Thus, John appeared in the infirmary not long after Molly had determined that the general was, indeed, dead, had covered him with a sheet, and had gone in search of John herself.

Irene Adler told her story without embarrassment, though John and Molly blushed like virgins. The general had come to her room at four o’clock in the morning, had knelt beside the bed and had proceeded to tell her that he’d been a very bad boy indeed, and needed a paddling. Cognizant of his condition, she decided to mete out his punishment in a way that might benefit both of them.

“Not that I wouldn’t have enjoyed it,” she said, candidly, eyes on John the entire time. She gave him an enigmatic smile that he could not help but read as invitation.

“I did all the work – he was flat on his back the entire time,” she continued, unapologetically. “And when it was over – it was over. I closed his eyes but the smile on his face was there already.”

The entire day was exhausting. There were reports, and arrangements, a telegram from Mycroft Holmes and by nightfall, a visit. Irene Adler was ushered to Holmes’ room and remained there, door firmly closed behind her, for more than two hours.

And when she finally was dismissed, and began her slow walk back to her room with head held high, John himself was summoned.

They passed in the entry hall, and he instinctively reached out to take her arm. Not yet fully recovered from her illness, she was clearly overtired and weakened by the long day.

“So gallant, Dr. Watson,” she murmured, extending a hand and brushing her knuckles along his jaw. There was nothing weak, nothing hesitant, in her touch, and her eyes, when he met them, were hard and determined. “Don’t let him break you, John,” she murmured. “Remember why you’re here.”

He stepped back, hand falling from her arm back to his side.

She arched an eyebrow.

“That was your left hand, Dr. Watson,” she said.

He considered her words – all of them – as he continued on his way, and waited outside Mycroft Holmes’ door. Don’t let him break you. Remember why you’re here.

Your left hand.

It didn’t mean anything. It was reflexive – his once dominant hand. The practice in the music room had certainly strengthened his arm and hand, and adroit manual dexterity wasn’t required to offer a bit of support to an over-tired patient.

Don’t let him break you.

What the hell had the woman meant by that?

The door opened, and Mrs. Hudson, tight-lipped and pale, hurried out of the room.

ooOOOOoo

Mycroft Holmes sat on the center of the sofa facing the door, tea service waiting on the table before him. He motioned for John to sit and began to serve. John lowered himself into one of the leather chairs angled to face the sofa, watching Holmes pour, waiting for him to speak.

“I’m interested,” Holmes said at last, after passing John his tea, “in your assessment of my brother.”

Sherlock. Of course it would be Sherlock.

John sipped his tea, taking his time to consider his answer.

“The seizures are severe,” he stated at last. “Though he comes out of them more lucid than I’d have expected.”

He held his teacup, waiting.

“He’d gone some time without one. I was disappointed to learn he’d succumbed again.”

John slowly lifted his eyes again to meet Holmes.’

“Succumbed?” he repeated, ignoring the curious use of disappointed for the moment. “You say that as if he had a choice in the matter.”

Holmes’ face tightened just enough for John to take notice. He was the type of man who didn’t betray emotions, undoubtedly an expert at maintaining a smooth, level exterior. Watchful. Calculating.

“I say that because I am frustrated,” Holmes said. “When he finally began to make progress, he made it quickly. Mobility. Speech. Reading. His violin. He plays better now than he ever did, and he was more than gifted before. So why - why - can he not resurrect what he once had?”

John frowned, shaking his head. “You’ve spoken to his doctors – you must have. You’ve done your own research. You know the brain is complicated. You know recovery is slow and that many – no, most - never recover all that was lost after a brain injury.”

Mycroft Holmes tapped his index finger on the table, regarding John for a long, uncomfortable moment.

“Are you saying there is no hope?” he asked at last.

“No. No – of course not.” John’s grip on his teacup tightened. “Patients such as your brother may show improvement over years.”

“We don’t have years,” Holmes said dismissively. “It’s been months already.” His fingers continued their rhythmic tapping.

John cleared his throat. “What do you want from me?” he asked. “You – not your brother.”

Mycroft Holmes smiled. His finger tapped the table. He studied John intently, and John shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny.

“From you, I want one thing, and one thing only,” Holmes said, looking past John, out the window beyond his left shoulder. “My brother believes you can help him rebuild his mind palace.” His eyes moved slowly back to John, studying him, somehow, both with interest and casual boredom. “So help him, Dr. Watson. You have my permission to use any means, any type of therapy, necessary to achieve that end.”

Mycroft Holmes sounded deadly serious.

“I can’t cure him,” John insisted. “And he’s making everything more difficult already by fighting off the natural impulse to sleep.”

Every means.” Holmes rephrased his original statement. “If sleep is important, there are certainly ways to encourage it.”

John let the comment go. He wasn’t going to drug Sherlock to make him sleep, and besides, he’d been summoned to discuss the general’s death, hadn’t he?

“I’ll do what I can for your brother,” he acquiesced. “But I’m quite sure I won’t suggest anything his doctors haven’t already….”

“His doctors tire of him quickly,” Holmes cut in. “They don’t have the patience – or the time – to deal with someone like him. I assumed you would read between the lines, Dr. Watson, and understand that we have tried – and exhausted – all orthodox methods and are looking for something quite different from you.”

John shifted uncomfortably. No matter what his impressions after his first introduction to Sherlock Holmes, it was quite clear that Mycroft Holmes knew quite well that Dr. John Watson had been willing in the past to step outside of the expected norm of behavior to accomplish an end.

“Two hours, Dr. Watson. Spend two hours each day with my brother – perhaps over teatime since you nearly always skip it and wander about outside poking your nose at locked gates?”

John bristled.

“He doesn’t take tea.” He said it with quite a bit of conviction, despite not having any real evidence to support the statement, and knowing full well it wasn’t an argument that would buy him a reprieve.

“Excellent. Less time wasted sampling biscuits,” Holmes responded as he picked up a piece of shortbread from the tea tray and bit into it, then brushed crumbs from his fingertips. “Now, about Miss Adler.”

John looked down quickly, thankful for the teacup still in his hands. He schooled his features and took a moment to collect his thoughts. Instinctively, he knew he wouldn’t trust Mycroft Holmes even if he hadn’t had the curious conversation with Irene Adler moments ago in the corridor. He’d been called here, he’d assumed, to discuss the general’s passing, and the circumstances surrounding it. Yet the general hadn’t even been mentioned yet.

“Miss Adler,” John repeated, looking up at Holmes with what he hoped was a neutral look. He waited, and Holmes looked at him disapprovingly, as if he expected John to better uphold his end of the conversation.

Holmes cleared his throat. He put the remainder of his shortbread on his saucer then folded his hands across his stomach. “Miss Adler’s health is much improved. I see no reason for her to continue her stay here. I agreed to take her on here only as a favour. As her attending physician here, you’ll simply need to write a letter of release and she can return to – well, to wherever it is she was before coming here.”

“Are you asking me to do this or ordering me?” John asked. He set his teacup on its saucer on the table and squared his shoulders, drawing himself up to what amounted to seated attention.

“Do you have an objection, then?” asked Holmes, eyes narrowing just enough for John to take notice. “Or perhaps an attachment of your own to Miss Adler?” He said the last with voice dangerously low, raising an eyebrow suggestively.

He knew Holmes was trying to rile him – but wondered, briefly, if the man was jealous, or desired the woman himself. He chose to ignore the second question and answer the first. “Objection? Not specifically. Though it would be easier to make a decision about her suitability for release if I knew why she was here to begin with.”

The corners of Holmes’ mouth twitched as if he wanted to give John a congratulatory smile but could not quite force his face to comply. “Touche, Dr. Watson.” He had picked up the remains of his shortbread and frowned as it crumbled in his fingers. “The letter, of course, is a formality. Let me assure you it will ultimately make things easier for Miss Adler as she moves on to her next … assignment.” Here he caught and held John’s eyes. “It will lend credence to her resume – explain her absence these last months.”

“Are we going to talk about the general at all?” John asked with a noncommittal shrug.

“We are talking about the general,” Holmes said. “You’ll want to backdate that letter – I believe Miss Adler left the premises for good on Monday, yes?”

A series of sharp raps on the door interrupted their conversation then, and Holmes sighed.

“Yes, Mrs. Hudson?”

The door opened to an obviously agitated Mrs. Hudson, who looked like she’d rather be anywhere but standing in that particular doorway.

“We were just finishing – thank you, Dr. Watson. I’ll have Simon pick up that letter in the morning. And I believe Monday was the sixth of the month?”

“But Mr. Holmes – it’s Dr. Watson he’s wanting. He’s quite insistent.”

“Is he having an attack?” Holmes asked, too calmly for John to think that he believed that Sherlock was, in fact, having a seizure.

“No – well – no. Not a seizure. But he’s agitated, Mr. Holmes. And my instructions are to keep Sherlock calm – to give him what he wants, within….”

“Within reason.” Homes finished the phrase for her and gave an exaggerated sigh. “My brother is accustomed to getting what he wants, when he wants it. He is using his injury to his advantage. This is not about Dr. Watson, Mrs. Hudson, as you well know.”

They stared at each other, and Mrs. Hudson forced a smile. John didn’t think he’d ever seen a smile less genuine.

“Very well. I’ll let Mr. Holmes know that Dr. Watson has other commitments.”

John took the opportunity to stand and excuse himself. He’d never much liked Mycroft Holmes, and after this conversation, liked him even less. He had half a mind to make his way directly to Sherlock’s room, but had a gut feeling that letting this particular pot stir itself might be to his advantage. Sherlock would certainly find a way to get what he wanted. John wouldn’t need to defy Mycroft Holmes himself.

What he wanted - or who he wanted.

John imagined Sherlock wouldn’t react very well at all to Irene Adler being removed from Rosethorne.

oooOOOOooo

He decided to examine Miss Adler in the morning, after sleeping away the better part of the day’s excitement and stress. He’d write the letter only after what he hoped would be an objective assessment of her physical condition, and he had no intention of pre-dating it.

But in the end, he didn’t write the letter, nor did he examine Irene Adler.

She disappeared sometime in the night, after he went to bed at ten o’clock and before he was awakened by a hand clapped over his mouth at three in the morning.

His natural reaction was to fight. He hated being restrained, and suffered what he’d been told was a type of claustrophobia. He was left hand dominant, despite trying to train his brain to think otherwise, and he tried to raise his left arm but found it heavy and unresponsive.

He got in a decent punch with his right, however, drawing his fist back and jabbing upward like a boxer, connecting on the bottom of the chin.

He’d regret it later, when he took time to consider what a blow like that could do to a man with a traumatic brain injury, but his reflexes were in charge and he’d reacted to the perceived threat appropriately.

The attacker, however, was stronger than he looked and soon had John pinned to the bed.

“Stop struggling and listen to me,” he hissed. Moonlight from the window illuminated his face, and John’s foggy brain tried to reconcile the attacker’s masculine voice and feminine attire. He blinked – he’d have sworn Molly Hooper had ambushed him, except for what was clearly a very masculine torso pressing down against his own.

Sherlock.

It was definitely Sherlock Holmes. The lips – nose – cheekbones. Smooth, upper crust voice. But wearing what had to be a woman’s wig, along with a ruffled silk dressing gown.

“What do you want?” John whispered loudly, jerking his right arm until Sherlock released it and rolled off of him. “And why are you wearing women’s clothing?”

“Disguise,” Sherlock responded, standing and wiping at his lip, which John now saw was bleeding. “Do keep up, John. I’m supposed to be dead. I can’t be ambling about the house at night.”

John rolled out of bed and stumbled over to the dressing chair, where he picked up his own dressing gown and shrugged into it.

“Why are you here? What’s going on?” he asked as he tied the sash, feeling somehow inadequate in his serviceable but rather plain gown.

“Irene Adler is gone – and as there’s a high probability you may be suspected of assisting in her disappearance….”

“What?” He was having great difficulty thinking clearly – he’d been sleeping deeply when he’d been so rudely interrupted.

“Irene Adler is gone,” repeated Sherlock quietly and very slowly. He dropped into a reading chair in the corner of the room and crossed his legs. “You don’t seem surprised.”

“I’m not, actually.” John wiped sleep from his eyes as he sat on the edge of the bed, facing Sherlock, and turned on the bedside lamp. “I was asked to officially release her. I was going to examine her in the morning – determine if she was sufficiently recovered – ”

Sherlock cut him off with a scoff of dismissal.

“You don’t even know from what she was recovering.”

“Of course I do – she was poisoned. With what – I can only guess. It’s not in her chart, as you undoubtedly already know.”

“Of course I know.” Sherlock had steepled his hands again, and his index fingers rested against his lips as he regarded John with interest.

“And what did you mean about me helping her disappear? What’s going on? This place is more a madhouse than a convalescent home!”

“Of course it is. I have it on good authority you’ve met my brother.”

He gave John a pleased smile, and John couldn’t help but shake his head and groan.

“Sherlock – please. Miss Adler?”

“Escaped. She wasn’t fond of her former position, what with it leading to arsenic poisoning – surely you noticed her complexion, Dr. Watson?” He didn’t wait for an answer but plowed on ahead. “Not eager to return to her former life of servitude to the king, she’s gone on to new pursuits. Now, come back to my quarters with me. I will, of course, swear you were with me all night.”

“I don’t need an alibi,” John exclaimed. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Not yet,” Sherlock said as he rose to his feet, an odd figure in woman’s dressing gown and wig, swollen lip distorting his angular face. “But the night is young. Come, Dr. Watson - the game is on!”

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

Sherlock Holmes moved through the hallways of Rosethorne Manor like a stealthy shadow on wings.

There was no real need for the disguise, thought John as he followed. The man blended into the walls, into the woodwork, footsteps seemingly in tune with the ticking of the clocks, the groaning of the wind over the moor. Not once did he look back to make sure John was following, nor did he slow his pace to accommodate someone less familiar with the manor, and especially one unaccustomed to moving about at night. He moved in the most self-assured way, comfortable in his skin, assuming his role of leader and having every confidence he was being followed.

John could have been exasperated, indignant, put out. But he wasn’t any of those things. He was, in fact, intrigued, curious. Excited. Sherlock Holmes was by far the most interesting thing that he’d encountered since coming to Rosethorne, and he was allowing himself to teeter dangerously close to the other man’s substantial gravitational pull.

It was dangerous, but there were those that had once claimed that danger was John’s middle name. He had an idea that that might have been documented somewhere for the Holmes brothers to see.

The moon was bright in the sky, and muted light spilled through windows and out from open doors as they hurried past. John didn’t understand the need for such haste, and the pace made him breathless, yet still he pushed to keep up. He turned left to follow the retreating shadow, and was pulled into a doorway and pressed against a wall with a quiet admonition to be still. He heard the echo of footfalls above them, a slow walk down a long corridor, but Sherlock released him as the footsteps receded and pushed past him, seemingly incorporeal again.

John’s heart was still pounding and he was half out of breath when he reached Sherlock’s room. He found Sherlock at his dresser, holding the wig in one hand and running the other through his flattened curls. A lamp with a weak bulb illuminated the room poorly, but enough for John to see that the bed was not empty.

Sherlock waved a hand toward the bed and put a finger to his lips. John saw him only in reflection, standing before the mirror. He half-expected to see Irene Adler in the bed, but instead found another man sleeping there, stretched out with one arm flung over his eyes.

“My body double,” Sherlock whispered, dropping the wig onto the dresser top and shrugging out of the frilly dressing gown. He draped it over the back of a chair and reached for his own gown, tying the sash and bidding John to follow him as he moved to the door leading to Wiggins’ room. John could see now that it was Wiggins himself sleeping in Sherlock’s bed. He’d not noticed before that the two men were of similar height, weight and complexion and one could pass for the other in near darkness.

Sherlock passed through Wiggin’s room quickly, and John glanced at the rather Spartan bedroom curiously as he followed Sherlock into the connecting room.

From all appearances, this second room was study, parlour, laboratory and smoking lounge. It held a mishmash of objects and furnishings, and the scent of pipe smoke clung to the carpet and curtains. Sherlock went directly to an upholstered red chair that faced the fireplace, then moved a stack of books from it onto the floor and patted the seat.

“Your chair,” he said, tossing a pillow made from the Union Jack toward John. John deflected the pillow with this left forearm, and it bounced onto the floor. Sherlock kicked it aside. “Sit,” he directed.

“You do know it’s after three o’clock in the morning,” John said, taking the proffered seat with a covered yawn. “Do you ever sleep?”

Sherlock had pushed a pile of newspapers onto the floor from a second chair, and was positioning it now to face John’s. He dropped into it with a bounce, and quickly folded his lanky legs up against himself, then leaned forward, peering at John with obvious interest.

“In the past thirty minutes, I ambushed you in your own bedroom, implicated you in the disappearance of one of Britain’s finest spies, and asked you to follow me here, all while disguised as a woman. And the first question you ask is about my sleep habits.”

He looked, John noted, somewhat delighted.

John sighed and closed his eyes. Forearms resting on the arms of what was arguably the most comfortable chair in all of England, head positioned just perfectly against the firm yet softly rounded chair back, he considered Sherlock’s statement.

“Spy, then?” he asked, opening his eyes and focusing on Sherlock. “Will your brother have to kill me now?”

Sherlock scoffed. “Kill you? Mycroft doesn’t get his hands dirty, John. He might have you killed – though I doubt he’ll believe my ruse for one second. Which is exactly why I chose to implicate you. It would have been so much easier to frame Molly Hooper, really. Helplessly in love with you, envious of your infatuation with Miss Adler….”

“She’s not…my what?”

“Infatuation. Not all of us are immune to her feminine wiles,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Wait – ”

“And while Miss Adler rejected your amorous advances, she ultimately accepted those of a much older and clearly infirm man, which, naturally, infuriated you. You went to her room after the household had gone to bed, drugged her and removed her to a secret location – your predilection for wandering about the estate and poking your head over hedges and through fences is not exactly a secret.”

“How did you – ?” sputtered John. “That’s preposterous!”

“How did I know about your wanderings?” Sherlock folded his hands together and rested his chin on this thumbs.

“Yes – yes.” John’s second yes was more emphatic than the first. “That.”

That and everything else, but he’d start with an explanation of how someone who was supposed to be dead, somone confined to three out-of-the way rooms, seemed to know everything that went on at Rosethorne Manor.

“My transport is the only thing confined to this prison, John. I have eyes and ears everywhere.”

“Your transport?” John asked. “You mean – your body. That’s all it is to you, then? A way of moving your brain around?”

“It’s mostly an inconvenience,” Sherlock acknowledged. He grew more serious. “It’s betrayed me on more than one occasion.”

John considered that statement, and all it could mean. He didn’t want to chase that rabbit too far right now, with more immediate concerns at hand.

“So you have spies.” John said. He glanced toward the door. “Billy.”

Sherlock smiled cryptically. “You give him too much credit, and others not enough.”

“Miss Adler, then,” John said, nodding.

Sherlock laughed. “Aren’t you at all concerned that you’ve been set up? That the woman herself has left a sealed letter in her room claiming that she felt threatened by you and your unwanted sexual advances?”

John rolled his eyes. “It’s not true and you’ve absolutely no proof. Molly will stand by me, and you yourself said you’d provide an alibi for tonight – one I really don’t need, mind you. Miss Adler is a distraction and frankly, I’m much more interested in you right now.”

Sherlock’s eyes widened.

“I see.” He stared at John a long, uncomfortable moment then, in a most unexpected move, clapped his hands together and jumped out of his chair.

“Exactly!”

“Exactly?” John repeated, watching Sherlock with some trepidation.

“Yes, exactly! The fewer people who are interested in her, the better. Tell me, John – where is Miss Adler?”

“I’ve no idea. Gone, if you’re to be believed.”

“If I’m to be believed,” Sherlock murmured as he paced over to the window and pulled the curtain aside, letting in a shaft of moonlight. “Then why is she gone?”

John thought this rather obvious. “I suppose she figured out she would be sent away – and she wanted to leave on her own terms.”

“Good, good.” Sherlock spun on his heels and faced John. “But why try to make it look like a kidnapping instead of merely a flight in the night?”

John rubbed at his eyes. “You don’t plan on letting me get back to sleep, do you?”

“Sleep is highly over-rated,” Sherlock replied.

John let out a long breath as he relaxed again into the chair, this very lovely chair that seemed to have been made with his proportions and comfort in mind. Amusing and unpredictable as this game of Sherlock’s seemed to be, he was tired and really preferred to deal with the fall-out of Irene Adler’s disappearance after a good night’s sleep.

Across the room, Sherlock let the curtain drop back into place and bent to pick up his violin and bow which had been resting against the wall beside the window. He sank back into his chair, violin balanced on his knees, and began adjusting the strings, looking up at John after several quiet minutes passed.

“My question?” he asked.

John, who had been watching Sherlock’s fingers as they manipulated the instrument, lifted his eyes to meet Sherlock’s.

“Oh – right.”

“Why make it look like a kidnapping?”

What the hell? Was this some kind of test?

His doubt must have shown in his eyes, because Sherlock quickly looked away, but not before John saw something that looked like amusement in the odd-coloured eyes.

“There’s no letter, is there?” he asked.

Sherlock quirked an eyebrow and resumed fiddling with the violin. He hummed softly to himself, something John recognised but could not name.

“Fine – I’ll humour you. Not much else to do this time of night other than sleep.”

Sherlock threw in a one-shouldered shrug but didn’t say a word.

John forced his tired brain to think. “How about this? Kidnapping is more dramatic than a person running off on her own accord. It would certainly get everyone stirred up around here – and it would involve the authorities, deflect attention for a while from the real situation.”

Sherlock carefully placed the violin on the floor beside his chair and settled back, legs folded like a gangly child. The expression on his face was undoubtedly different now – pleased? Hopeful?

“Good, good,” he said. “Go on.”

“Go on?” John frowned, thinking he’d done about as much as he could given the time of night and his lack of sleep. But when Sherlock just continued looking at him, devoting all of his attention now to John, considerable brain no longer distracted by the violin, John couldn’t help but try a bit more. “Alright. Kidnapping is a crime. The local constables will be involved. Not knowing a thing about me, they’ll be predisposed to believe whatever she wrote in this alleged letter.” He emphasized the word alleged, frowning at Sherlock as he said it, but Sherlock only smiled, clearly pleased.

“Exactly. Bumbling fools the lot of them. They’ll waste all sorts of time questioning you. Do try to throw them a red herring or two.”

“You do realise you can’t be my alibi, don’t you?” John asked, thinking that he’d rather be out exploring the gardens than spending any time at all being questioned by the village constables, and realising, now that he was more awake, that there were several large plot holes in Sherlock’s story. “Being as you’re dead and all.”

“Oh.” Sherlock tried to hide a smirk, but John saw it, and narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “Well – I said I’d swear you were with me. I mean, of course, I will swear to my brother. He’ll in turn provide you a workable alibi.”

“Your brother will see right through this,” John said.

“He isn’t as clever as you might think,” Sherlock replied. “And I believe he has a certain fondness for Miss Adler – he’ll quite likely feel threatened by your own romantic feelings and….”

“I am not romantically interested in Irene Adler!” John hissed, tired of this game, and frankly, just plain tired. “Nor is your brother. I don’t believe him to be interested in any woman, for that matter, except in how they can help him reach his ends. And speaking of romantic interests, Miss Adler was in your bed last night, petting you!”

“On my bed,” Sherlock corrected, rather calmly, and apparently not at all taken aback by John’s outburst. “On, not in.” He gazed at John with unabashed interest. “And quite astute about my brother, though that certainly not something he advertises publicly. Odd that you picked it up.”

They stared at each other and John, naturally, deflected.

“Still – there’s certainly more evidence to implicate you than me, isn’t there?” he shot back. His head had bounced around between amused and irritated for too long now, and frankly, he was beginning to suspect that this was some sort of elaborate ruse with John Watson cast as the fool.

“And she wasn’t petting me,” Sherlock continued, as if John hadn’t spoken at all.

“Right. You’re not a dog. No – cat. You’re not a cat.” He faltered – realising that he might actually think of Sherlock Holmes as some sort of exotic cat – certainly not a dog.

“Back to the original premise, then,” Sherlock said, and he must have forced his brain to do an about face, as he suddenly looked completely serious, as if nothing other than the very grave matter of an actual kidnapping was on his mind. “One more reason why Miss Adler might prefer her disappearance to be considered a kidnapping. We’ve already covered the bumbling constables.”

“Does your brain ever stop?” John asked, exhausted from trying to follow all of these hairpin conversational turns.

Sherlock actually paused to consider. “No,” he said. “Which makes sleep difficult. So humour me – one more reason.”

“This is ridiculous,” John said, rubbing thumb and forefinger over his aching head. “I don’t know - maybe to make the authorities look in all the wrong places.”

He’d dropped his head back on the chair again. He was already half in love with it, and he wondered if there was another like it in the house, one he could have moved into his own quarters. He wasn’t really thinking about Sherlock’s questions, but rather pushing through the interrogation to get to the end of it all – to the punch line, if there was one, anyway. The medical man inside him considered whether this odd behavior from Sherlock might be attributed to the head injury, but he suspected not.

“Exactly!” Sherlock clapped his hands again, and John jumped. “And for that excellent deduction, you deserve the truth. Would you prefer to interrogate me or will you accept an explanation in narrative format?”

John thought that Sherlock Holmes would much prefer to be interrogated, and had it not been nearly four o’clock in the morning, he might have considered that option. However, he didn’t have the energy to corral all of the disparate threads Sherlock was likely to give him into a cohesive story.

“Narrative. Be succinct.”

Sherlock didn’t waste a moment in collecting his thoughts. He likely didn’t need to.

“Irene Adler left Rosethorne Manor approximately one hour ago. Ah – that surprises you. It was meant to. By now, she is most assuredly on her way to a comfortable bed in a remote cottage, assisted by someone who is above suspicion simply by being below consideration. Her medical files are on her person, and she will receive the care she needs at her final destination, which is, of course, confidential. She did not, in fact, leave a letter implicating you, or anyone else for that matter. I removed you from the wing and brought you here to allow her departure to proceed smoothly and to ensure you saw and heard nothing. You will explain, of course, that Mrs. Hudson brought you here, as grandfather has been feeling poorly – vomiting, dehydration. The same Mrs. Hudson will check on Miss Adler at seven o’clock to wake her for breakfast, and will then come directly here to alert you that she is not in her room and cannot be found. You will then return to the infirmary and conduct your own search. You’ll ask the other patients and the staff if anyone might know where she is, or if they heard or saw anything last night. No one will have seen or heard a thing, of course. You will then organise a search of the grounds. When you and the staff have left your fingerprints everywhere, and obliterated any footprints or other evidence that may have inadvertently been left, you will admit defeat and ask Mrs. Hudson to take you to Mycroft.”

He looked at John expectantly when he finished, and John stared back, speechless.

“John?” asked Sherlock. A long moment had passed and John had done nothing save blink several times.

“You – you….” stammered John.

“Problem?” Sherlock reached down for his violin and picked it up again. He polished the wood with the cuff of his dressing gown.

“No. Not at all,” said John, finding his voice. “Only that that is the most confusing, complex and unnecessarily complicated way of asking me to help cover your tracks! You are – you are –”

“Brilliant?”

John gaped.

Brilliant. He’d just been led him through a torturous mental obstacle course at three o’clock in the morning. Sherlock Holmes might be brilliant, but it wasn’t the first word on John Watson’s mind at the moment.

“Infuriating.”

Sherlock had the audacity to smile.

Then, without further comment, he lifted the violin and began to play.

He played something soft, something warm, something comforting.

Something that took the frustration out of John’s voice, that made him forget that this odd and ridiculous man had played with his mind for more than an hour, had manipulated him, had led him round the mulberry bush until he was so dizzy he nearly fell down.

He fell asleep in the impossibly comfortable chair, and didn’t know that Sherlock played on for nearly an hour, or that he tucked a blanket ‘round John, lifting his crippled arm with curious tenderness. Or that he stared off into space for some time after – mentally reciting pi to one hundred places, listing the elements of the periodic table, counting to one hundred in Cantonese.

It was dreary work, these mental calisthenics, but he forced himself nightly, sleep be damned.

Mycroft didn’t think John was the answer to his problems, but Sherlock had hope.

It was a foreign feeling, and he held it carefully, acutely aware of how tenuous it was.

Chapter Text

Just as Sherlock had ordained, Mrs. Hudson woke John at half past seven.

She didn’t bother telling him that Irene Adler was missing.

“Molly is a bit put out,” she said instead. “Two days in a row there’s been excitement over there and you’re missing both times.”

“What did you tell her?” He’d unfolded himself from the chair where he’d slept for the last three hours, and was following her through Billy Wiggin’s room. The bed was empty – still made up.

“That the old man had taken another bad turn,” she whispered as they passed quietly through Sherlock’s room. Sherlock was sprawled across his bed, head near the foot where a stack of books reached nearly as high as the mattress. He appeared to be sleeping, and in the muted morning light, he looked younger than he was, and decidedly peaceful.

Drawing on his experience with Sherlock Holmes to date, the word peaceful seemed rather out of place.

He hurried on alone to the infirmary while Mrs. Hudson continued to the breakfast room, mentally preparing himself for the chaos to come.

And true to form, the remainder of the morning went very much as Sherlock had described. By the time the staff had completed an exhaustive search both inside and out for the missing woman, under the logical presumption that some accident or injury had befallen her – perhaps she’d gone out for a breath of fresh air and fallen, it was nearly nine o’clock.

John had no problem staying on script when Mycroft Holmes summoned him, well into the afternoon. Two officers had been escorted into the manor at eleven, while several more uniformed men prowled around the grounds. The officers were present for most of the staff interviews – Molly recounted her experience to John while he waited for his own summons, working on his weekly patient reports after lunch.

“I can’t understand what all the fuss is about,” she said, sitting down across from him and leaning forward, elbows on his desk and chin resting on her hands. “What do you think, John? Where did she go?”

John put down his pen and relaxed back in his chair. He enjoyed the easy camaraderie with Molly, though sometimes, as with so many of the residents of Rosethorne, he thought there was a lot to her not showing on the surface. “I’ve no idea – I agree with the rest of the staff, though. She left because of what happened to the general. I have an idea we’ll be finding out more about that in the days to come.”

“Do you think they think she killed him?” Molly edged her chair a bit closer and lowered her voice.

They stared at each other a moment, then John’s mouth quirked into a smile he couldn’t suppress, and Molly grinned.

“You know what I mean,” she said, looking much more mirthful than the situation warranted. “Killed him in some way other than the obvious!”

“I’d be surprised if they aren’t checking it out,” John admitted. “There’s no question that his heart was weak, and had I thought there any possibility he’d had this particular activity on his mind, I’d have advised against it. Strongly. But that being said, it was a risky activity, but not one certain to result in a massive coronary. And what’s the motive? What could Irene Adler personally gain by killing a disabled general?”

He tried to sound disinterested, matter of fact. He assumed Molly didn’t know any more about the patients in their care than he originally had. And what did he know, anyway, about this particular general? Or precisely what kind of spy Irene Adler was?

“John, don’t be naïve,” Molly said, reaching forward to ruffle his hair as if he were a small child. “Everyone here is here for a reason. Ordinary people don’t come to Rosethorne. I’d wager there’s quite a bit about Irene Adler we don’t know, and a reason for everything she does. A reason she was here at Rosethorne convalescing.”

John wondered if the surprise he felt registered on his face. Despite the feeling that she was more than she seemed, he’d assumed Molly was – well, unassuming.

She laughed.

“John, I’ve got to do something to fill the time here. Especially with you disappearing all the time – first ambling about out in the garden and now in the middle of the night, too.”

He gave an exaggerated sigh. “That last can’t be helped, I suppose. I’d much rather stay put in my warm bed than be hauled away to play doctor in the middle of the night.”

“You’re hardly playing,” she said. “Is there anything at all you can do for the old man?”

“Ah – so you know about my patient,” he said, relieved he didn’t have to bring up the lie himself.

She gave a disinterested shrug. “Some of the staff have known him forever. Not much love lost there, I gather.”

“I doubt I’ll ever get to know him well enough to judge,” John said. “I’ve not yet seen him lucid. At this point, we’re just trying to keep him comfortable.”

“Well, you’ve managed to miss two eventful mornings – or nights. Though I don’t imagine you’ve had seen or heard anything if you’d been here. I didn’t hear a thing and my rooms are closer to Miss Adler’s than yours.” She yawned. “I suppose they haven’t had you in yet, then? You look far too comfortable to have just sat through a meeting with Mr. Holmes.”

“I’ve been advised to be ready when I’m called,” John acknowledged. “There’s not much I can tell them, unfortunately.”

“They’re not happy that we trampled all over the grounds and made a mess of everything,” she said. “I told them we were looking for a patient who might have fallen ill, or had an accident, not an escaped murderer. I don’t know, John – there’s something important about Irene Adler – something we’re not likely to ever know.”

John could only nod vaguely in agreement.

He had his personal turn with what he would later consider a most insidious form of the Spanish Inquisition not long after Molly left him for her next round of physical therapy sessions with the two remaining convalescents. One of Mrs. Hudson’s girls brought him a summons in a sealed envelope, and he thanked her as he broke the formal wax seal, thinking how different the fine parchment was from something he might have been handed in his wartime battlefield days. It was hand-written in a fine, schooled hand instead of typed on a utilitarian typewriter, and smelled faintly of tea.

He was somewhat surprised to find the familiar door closed and the corridor empty when he arrived. He was even more surprised when Mycroft Holmes himself opened the door to his perfunctory knock.

Holmes was alone in the room.

John glanced around as he took his seat, knowing that the absence of the officers who’d arrived earlier was not accidental and that his questioning would not follow the same script as Molly’s had.

He steeled himself for what was to come, resolving to strictly adhere to the script Sherlock had laid out.

Mycroft Holmes was both ruthless and relentless. He was not at all satisfied with John’s answers, though John never varied. He’d been awakened sometime around two o’clock by Mrs. Hudson, who brought him to Sherlock’s room, where he found Sherlock slightly feverish and dehydrated but not convulsing. He’d stayed with Sherlock, monitoring him, encouraging fluids after he vomited. Sherlock had eventually fallen asleep around four o’clock, and John himself had slept on a chair until he was awakened by Mrs. Hudson. He’d organised the staff to search the premises, and when Miss Adler was not found, he’d made the decision to inform Mr. Holmes.

“Did you, by any chance, write the letter I requested?” Mycroft asked. He may have appeared matter of fact, but John knew he was anything but.

“No. I planned to examine Miss Adler this morning after breakfast and make my own assessment of her condition before writing the release letter you requested.”

“And you would have written the letter no matter your findings?” Mycroft persisted.

John didn’t have a ready answer for that question – it wasn’t one he’d thought of, or prepared for, in the hours he’d spent at his desk after Mycroft had first been informed that Irene Adler had gone missing.

“Not necessarily,” he answered. “I would have approached you with my reservations about releasing Miss Adler if my examination had given me reason to believe she needed additional recovery time.”

“But ultimately? If you’d have had reservations yet I demanded the letter?”

“I’d have consulted my superior officer and followed orders.”

The two men held each other’s eyes, neither flinching.

“What, Dr. Watson, what exactly do you know of Miss Adler?”

And so it continued.

And no matter how often and how aggressively Mycroft Holmes circled the issue, John never admitted knowing of even a single connection between Sherlock and the woman.

“This has my brother’s fingers all over it,” Holmes said at last, gazing fixedly at John’s face. “He resents being here – being kept here. He has helped her escape.”

John noted the use of the work escape. A slip of the tongue, but a telling one. “Then he did it while I was asleep – before they brought me to him. Or after I fell asleep in his room.”

“You really know nothing.” Holmes sounded incredibly disappointed. “I’d have thought Sherlock would have confided in you by now. He’s waited so long to get his hands on you.”

If John thought that an odd statement, or a provocative one – and he did – he nonetheless shrugged.

“I hardly know him,” he said.

“Yet.” Mycroft’s voice was soft, but not kind. “You may go, Dr. Watson. Thank you for your statement.”

John got to his feet, stood straight, near attention, and nodded at Holmes, though he felt that he should be saluting. It was an odd sort of dismissal – he felt like a soldier, as if Holmes was his commanding officer, though he most decidedly wasn’t, and the nod in place of a salute or even a handshake was awkward at best.

He left without further comment, feeling both drained and triumphant, like he had just survived a great test, a dangerous test and certain that Mycroft Holmes, like his brother, was much, much more than he seemed.

ooOOOOoo

Mycroft Holmes remained at Rosethorne for an entire week, and John didn’t see Sherlock again during that time.

In one way, he supposed that was a good thing. It was unlikely that Sherlock suffered any major seizures during the time, or that his health was otherwise compromised. He could certainly have sent for John at any time, or come for him at night himself, in disguise. But with Mycroft remaining uncharacteristically close, he probably chose not to chance it.

A new patient appeared to replace the general, this time an RAF pilot of some note. He’d been severely injured several months before, and suffered burns on his legs that had forced the amputation of half of his toes. His care was more intensive than had been the general’s, but it didn’t seem like Miss Adler would be replaced, so with three patients instead of four, John’s work load was still no more than it had been and he had time for his piano therapy, and to continue his exploration of the grounds.

John left the door ajar as he worked at the piano, an hour a day, every day. He wasn’t expecting to see or hear Sherlock, not after the first day or two when he’d pause with every creak of floorboards or rattle of windowpanes as the wind tried to push through the old house. On the fourth day after Miss Adler’s disappearance, he finally succeeded in a slow and stilted two handed C Major scale. It wasn’t pretty, or nuanced, but it was music.

It felt like a success, even though his fingers were clumsy and felt twice as big as they actually were. Even though his shoulder ached, and his arm felt leaden, and it wasn’t even a song, it was just a scale.

A two-handed scale, he reminded himself.

His left hand fell heavily onto his lap as he picked idly at the keys with his right. He was startled when a voice at the door addressed him.

“Well done, Dr. Watson. You’ll be performing brain surgery in no time.”

He didn’t need to turn to know that it was Mycroft Holmes who’d spoken.

“Are you volunteering to be my first patient?”

He wondered if he’d gone too far, but Mycroft only laughed.

“Touché, Dr. Watson. Touché.”

ooOOOOoo

It was an odd week, that week that Mycroft Holmes stayed at Rosethorne, the week when all the staff walked on eggshells, the week that RAF pilot Peter McGregor arrived to take the dead general’s bed.

On Sunday, Mycroft Holmes announced that Miss Adler had been located, and had been moved to a care facility in London. Mrs. Hudson made the announcement at breakfast, reading from a typewritten sheet.

“Well, I suppose that’s that,” she said, folding the paper and tucking it into her apron pocket. Molly looked troubled, and Mrs. Hudson looked like she didn’t believe her own announcement at all.

John spent a good deal of that day outdoors, though he hadn’t intended to stay out more than an hour or two.

He’d memorised the paths closest to the house well enough to walk them idly, passing the locked gate at the midpoint of his circuit. He was enjoying the sun, half-convincing himself that he liked it here at Rosethorne, that he wasn’t bored, wasn’t lonely, and put himself to puzzling out the Holmes brothers.

They’d not grown up here – Sherlock had talked of visiting, hadn’t he? But the garden behind the gate was clearly set up for children, or had been once. Of course, their father – or mother, perhaps – had grown up here. But why lock up a garden? A play yard?

And the garden behind the first one – where he’d watched Greg Lestrade sculpt the magical menagerie that had once been a garden maze. Surely Sherlock and Mycroft had run through that very maze as children. Was it only wartime that had caused the neglect?

Why was the whole thing locked up?

He’d stopped by the gate, and was leaning against it, studying the swing, and the faint, worn paths that led to other gardens beyond this first, puzzling out a childhood for the Holmes brothers that was as unlike his own as humanly conceivable, when he heard footsteps approaching behind him.

He expected to see Greg Lestrade, or the old gardener from the village who came now and then to help out, but it was Mycroft Holmes who was approaching, dressed in traveling clothes, and looking completely out of place despite being the master of the manor.

“My brother’s antics have caused me a great deal of trouble and have put me a week behind on a project of national importance. I trust you can keep him out of additional trouble, Dr. Watson? He’s eager to see you again, though he won’t indulge while I am here. He doesn’t trust me, or my motives, for that matter. Extending the length of his recovery, he believes, inhibits my plans, or whatever he’s determined they are. And before you ask, we need him. The war effort needs him. He has a certain gift, you might call it, and we haven’t yet found someone who can replace him.”

“And he’s no use like he is now? He seems bright enough.”

Damn brilliant, really. And though he’d spent less than a day with the man, the thought of Sherlock Holmes in uniform, obeying orders, was such an impossibility that he discarded it as such.

“Oh, he’s bright enough.” Mycroft Holmes had walked to the gate and stood beside John, looking inward at the tilted, forlorn swing. “He’s lost the ability to see patterns. He isn’t able to make the connections he once could. There’s something missing – a processing tool. A function.” He sighed, and sounded put out and disgusted. “He was invaluable.”

John frowned. His mind leapt immediately to what he knew about Sherlock – what he’d experienced himself. The violin. Music. And what was music, at the heart of it, if not codes and patterns?

“I’ve already told both of you – I can offer advice, but not a solution. These things are…delicate.” He searched for another way to express what he knew about the brain, but had a feeling that both Mycroft and Sherlock knew everything that he did already. Hell, he could probably talk either one of them through an emergency appendectomy. “He might benefit from additional stimulation. Have you tried…?”

“Of course.” Mycroft cut him off at the quick. “He has access to the entire British library system, every critical record of note held by the British government, academic journals and processes, theoretical studies. He’s read case study after case study of similar situations – brilliant minds cut down in their prime by traumatic head injuries. It isn’t overwhelmingly encouraging, is it, Dr. Watson?”

John frowned again. “Not wholly, no.” He hadn’t been talking about that kind of stimulation at all. He had an idea, in fact, a feeling, that what Sherlock actually needed was less mental stimulation. A great deal less.

And some time in the sun.

But that was a discussion – likely an argument – to be had with Sherlock, not with the brother whose motives he didn’t quite trust.

Which was odd, John thought, as Mycroft Holmes stood at the gate with him, looking in at the neglected childhood tableau, careful not to touch the gate with his hands or his suit. He’d never before, during the entirely of this war and of his service, questioned the necessity of serving his country, or the moral rightness of the war effort itself. Yet, for some reason, a reason that felt odd and uncomfortable, the paradigm shifted when the focus was on this particular man.

Sherlock Holmes.

“Why do you keep it locked?” John asked, with a sudden need to change the topic.

Holmes stood, hands held rigidly at his sides, and stared into the abandoned play yard he’d been regarding for several minutes already. His face was unreadable, but John thought he saw a struggle there.

“Some gates, Dr. Watson, keep things out while others contain things within.”

“And this one?”

“Does a bit of both.”

He turned, adding before he walked briskly away, “I don’t hold the key to this gate, Dr. Watson. You’ll want to find the keeper of the keys, I expect, though you may not find your answer even there.”

John stood there until Mycroft Holmes had disappeared from view. He stood there even longer, waiting for the telltale sound of the automobile engine starting up.

Then he laughed. It sounded out of place in the silence.

Mycroft Holmes had intentionally handed him a puzzle, invited him to unlock one of the manor’s secrets. The man was as much an enigma as his intriguing brother locked up inside.

John resolved, then and there, to help Sherlock recover.

But not to achieve Mycroft’s ends. No, not for that reason at all.

Chapter Text

As he’d expected, John found himself back in Sherlock’s room the very evening Mycroft Holmes departed for London.

The stack of books at the end of Sherlock’s bed had grown and had spilled over, spawning a second messy stack beside the first. Sheets of paper filled with small, precise writing covered the dresser. But Sherlock left the bedroom behind when Mrs. Hudson arrived with John, leading him into the room behind Wiggins’ and sweeping a stack of newspapers off of the upholstered red chair.

“Did he bore you to death?” Sherlock asked as he tossed two pillows off of his own chair. “Was it horrible?”

“Not so horrible,” John answered. “Long. He wasn’t predisposed to believe me. Did he really find her?”

“Of course not.” Sherlock bounced down into the chair he’d cleared. “Thanks to you. The staff made an absolute mess while searching. Mycroft’s men couldn’t find a shred of evidence to support their theory. And on top of that, no one heard or saw a thing.”

“Well, that wasn’t my doing. I didn’t drug the staff and the other patients so they’d sleep soundly.”

Sherlock quirked an eyebrow at him.

“No! You didn’t….”

He trailed off at the larger than life grin on Sherlock’s face.

“You’re a menace.” John looked around at the cluttered but comfortable room, then back at Sherlock. Despite the man’s obvious good mood, he looked a bit off. John couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was – he remembered the man being exceedingly pale, though he reminded himself he’d never seen him in daylight. Far too thin as well – he had enough physical evidence of that from the previous week when he’d been tackled in his bedroom – though not weak, at least not when fueled by a fight.

“You’re staring.” Sherlock crossed one leg over the other, exposing a bare and rather bony foot. He was dressed in day clothing instead of pajamas and dressing gown this time, making the bare feet seem overly casual and oddly out of place.

“You’ve been ill this week?” John asked, not apologising for staring.

“Ill? Do you mean have I had seizures? No. None at all.” Sherlock’s elbows rested on the arms of the chair and he touched his index fingertips together, making a triangle with his thumbs, then circling his thumbs, first forward, then backwards. He didn’t seem aware at all of these repetitive, geometric movements.

“Good. But actually, I was inquiring about your health in general. You look – off.”

Sherlock shifted in his chair, frowning.

“How have you been sleeping?” John asked. He sensed Sherlock’s discomfort, and tried to sound conversational.

“I’ve told you already – sleep is difficult.” Sherlock’s foot began to jiggle. “Especially with Mycroft lingering on and on.”

John shook his head, feigning exasperation. “I don’t expect he was lingering on and on in your room,” he said pointedly, “flicking the lights on and off or leaving crumbs in your bed.”

Sherlock gave a noncommittal shrug. “I expected you would understand,” he said, “as you’ve been exposed to the man on more than one occasion now.”

John had some ideas about Sherlock Holmes, about things he should and shouldn’t be doing if he wanted to recover his fabled lost mind palace. And he especially had ideas about sleep, but was wise enough to not pummel Sherlock with these ideas quite yet.

“Well, since your brother is gone again, and there don’t seem to be any imminent crises looming over us, maybe you can tell me why you had Mrs. Hudson bring me here tonight.”

Sherlock stopped the distracting game with his thumbs and folded his hands together, leaning forward to rest his chin against them. “Precisely that – I’m not convulsing on the floor, Irene Adler is safely out of harm’s way, and Mycroft is gone and his eyes here at Rosethorne aren’t loyal to him at all. We’ve hardly met properly, have we? I thought it a good time to get acquainted.”

“Get acquainted.” John was developing a habit of repeating Sherlock’s out-of-nowhere statements. “What would you call our last time together? When you accosted me in bed? Dressed as a woman?”

“Ah.” Sherlock seemed to be giving the matter some serious thought. “I suppose that instance did acquaint you with some of my tactics, especially when it comes to subterfuge and disguise.” He continued, unruffled. “And with my person, for that matter, as I recall I did have to pin you down to assure your cooperation.”

John shook his head, realising that he was starting to make that a habit too with Sherlock. “That was for dramatic effect. You could have made up a medical emergency and sent Mrs. Hudson for me.”

“It was rather dramatic, wasn’t it?” Sherlock asked. He looked pleased with himself.

“It was. And how would we have explained a man who is supposed to be dead, dressed as a woman, in my bedroom, had you had a seizure while you were out and about?”

“Dull. It didn’t happen.” Sherlock uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, peering at John with his head slightly cocked to the side. “Tell me about the piano, John.”

It was a question out of the blue, and John found his focus once more jerked from one line of thought to quite another.

“The piano.”

Sherlock smiled. “You have a curious habit of repeating what I say. I’m assuming it’s your manner of dealing with the abruptness of my statements. I don’t like to waste words, but if a preface statement is required to introduce my thought, please say so.”

“A preface statement?”

“Aha! A question, at least. Yes – a preface statement. Such as “Since we’ve already done the preliminaries, and have been in each other’s company on two very different occasions, and since I obviously knew quite a bit about you already before you came here to Rosethorne, and have deduced that the piano had a meaningful place in your past, and could help lead you to a more amenable future, yes, let’s do talk about the piano.”

John very deliberately kept his mouth firmly shut, defying its natural instinct to drop open as he digested the content of Sherlock’s lengthy spiel.

And, as he’d already learned that the best way to keep up with Sherlock was to suspend disbelief, push aside unanswered questions, clarifications and factual challenges, he allowed himself to get sucked into the Sherlockian vortex.

“All right.” He at least could attempt to slow the conversation down to a more normal – or socially acceptable – pace. “Though I must say I’m even more unlikely to be a piano virtuoso in the future than I was in the past.”

“It has nothing to do with being a virtuoso,” Sherlock exclaimed. “It has everything to do with passion. What are you, John?”

The ready answer died on his lips.

A surgeon.

His hesitation must have shown.

“Go ahead. Say it.”

“I wasn’t….”

“You were.”

He looked at John expectantly, waiting, it seemed, for John to admit the truth – or at least the truth, as he, Sherlock, saw it.

And Sherlock was right, of course. Bastard. John crossed his own legs, hoping he exuded the relaxation he didn’t feel. At the very least, he was happy to be dressed in trousers instead of pajamas and dressing gown. His summons had come unexpectedly early this time around and he’d been at his desk completing a report for his superior officer when Mrs. Hudson sought him out.

“I’m a doctor,” he said. “I should think that was obvious to you as you’re playing the part of difficult patient so well.”

“Thank you,” Sherlock answered. “I do try. And no – not a doctor. Or better said – not just a doctor. You’re a surgeon, John. A field surgeon. Quite an excellent one, I understand.”

John scoffed. “You’re confusing your verb tenses. Was. I was a surgeon. I won’t be sewing anyone up for – well, ever.”

“Yet that doesn’t mean you’re not a surgeon. Is a novelist who has put down the pen, no longer inspired, not still an author? Or a man who has killed once – is he not forever a murderer?”

“Sherlock – I hardly….”

“Think about it John - think! In five years – or ten – will the man whose life you saved on the battlefield see you on the street in London and tell his wife that you are the person who sewed him back together in North Africa? No! He’ll look at you and see the surgeon who saved his life. Your accomplishments in the field give you credence, but even without them, you are, at the heart of things, John, a surgeon. Thus – and we return to where we began – the piano.”

He found himself repeating the words.

“The piano.”

“Exactly.” Sherlock looked at him expectantly. “Tell me about the piano.”

“How…?” John began to ask how in the hell Sherlock had determined that insisting that he was still a surgeon had the least bit to do with his piano playing. But he faltered, recalling Sherlock’s words.

At the heart of things.

They are related, he thought. The pieces were beginning to knit together, and he finally saw the thread connecting his aborted career as a surgeon and his nearly forgotten affinity for the piano. A thread Sherlock Holmes, even at his best and brightest, could never have guessed – could he?

“My grandmother taught me to play,” John murmured, thinking aloud as the years melted away, leaving him snuggled up beside his grandmother on the polished piano bench. “She was so proud of her piano – it was the most precious thing she owned. I was always fascinated by it – I remember sitting on her lap when I was only three or four, plunking down my fingers where she pointed.”

“She lived nearby – across the street, perhaps? You went there after school to practice. You never complained.”

“Yes – right. Exactly.” He glanced quickly over at Sherlock, but found him attentive, leaning forward slightly, watching him. “I always loved to practice with her, even when I was eleven or twelve, and I’d only spend a half hour with her after school before running out to play with the other boys.”

“And it was she who first said you should be a surgeon. She’d watch your fingers on the keys, perhaps she even held your hands in her own, and said that you had such fine, strong, steady hands. The hands of a surgeon.”

He said it with surety, as if retelling an oft-told story. And indeed, it was a story John had heard – and told – before. But not to Sherlock Holmes, or to anyone here at Rosethorne. Not to anyone at all, in fact, in many, many years.

And something so insignificant, so personal, couldn’t possibly be in his military file.

“How did you know?” John asked. “How could you possibly have known that?”

“It is a reasonable conclusion, is it not? That your grandmother would have high aspirations for you? That she’d want you to be successful – to live a more comfortable life than she had, than your parents had.” Sherlock shrugged dismissively. “It wasn’t in your file, John. Sometimes – well, I’m told that sometimes I see things that aren’t obvious to others.” He uncrossed his legs and John noted that he was wearing loose-fitting grey trousers and a dark green shirt instead of pajamas or dressing gown. In this every day attire, Sherlock looked even taller, thinner, more angular. “Why did you stop playing, John?”

It was a question he’d been asked many times, back in the day, and he had a ready answer.

“Just grew out of it, I suppose. Grew up, went off to medical school, then the army.”

Sherlock’s face took on an intensity John found uncomfortable. It was almost the look of a cat who’d cornered the mouse. When he spoke, his voice was low, and calm, almost matter of fact.

“And where is the piano now, John? What happened to your grandmother’s piano?”

John tried to force away the lump in his throat. Even as he’d sat in front of the piano here at Rosethorne these last weeks, touched the ivory keys, concentrated on plunking down the awkward and heavy fingers of his injured hand, he’d succeeded in remaining stoic and detached. Just physical therapy. Just a way to regain motion, strength, control. Not about the instrument, or the music, but rather about manual dexterity, repetitive motion.

“Gone – along with her,” he answered, brusquely. He cleared his throat. He wasn’t going to allow Sherlock Holmes to back him into a corner and force him to discuss what had happened. He’d be surprised if the man didn’t already know – he and his brother seemed to have access to every detail about his past. But he’d been gone – already deployed – when the Blitz began. He’d received the news in a letter from his sister and had locked the anger and pain down tight, resolving to stay in the fight until it was won.

His mother. His grandmother. Mary.

He could never protect the women in his life from all the forces more powerful than he.

God he hated it – how weak he felt. How powerless.

He remembered how he’d pounded on the piano the first time his mum was in hospital, before the cancer had spread. You’re taking out your anger on that thing, his sister had accused. Beating up the piano isn’t going to make her better! Why don’t you go outside and pick a fight with one of your mates instead?

His right hand clenched involuntarily, and he forced himself to relax. He gave Sherlock a smile that he could only hope was convincing.

“Look, Sherlock – I’m not sure where you’re going with all of this. And I’m not at all sure why we keep talking about my injury, and my abilities, when you’re the one who needs to get better to get out of here. Why don’t you tell me what you’re looking for – why the hell you brought me here.”

He hoped a full-on reversal was the best way to turn the tables. He needed to get his feet under himself again – to tuck away the feelings. They wouldn’t give him an advantage here. Not at Rosethorne. And not with Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock seemed agreeable to the change of direction, though John had the feeling that he was putting aside his questions about John only for the time being, and only to temporarily placate John. He dove right in without prelude.

“My mind palace is – or was – a system. A living, breathing, working system. Organic in its own right. It was composed of the knowledge, the data, acquired and assembled over the course of my adult life and archived for ready access, interpretation and analysis. With my injury, and resultant trauma-induced epilepsy, the system is inaccessible. You see, I didn’t just store information. I stored my analysis, my deductions – I stored the processes themselves. If I’d been successful at breaking a code, I stored the patterns, and these patterns connected different areas of the mind palace. And now the connections are gone, and I can’t seem to recreate them. I can solve a puzzle, or break a code, but I can’t build from there, or retrieve patterns from previous successes. It’s new effort each time around, which makes me essentially useless. And worse yet, I’ve discovered large caches of random data – the planets, for example, and their attendant moons – clearly misfiled, shoved back in a dusty corner like unwanted rubbish.”

“Your brother wants you to take up where you left off, I gather,” John said. “Is this what you want too?”

He regarded Sherlock with interest as the other man steepled his hands before his face in the now familiar gesture, taking his time to consider. He looked up to meet John’s eyes, and held them for some time. For the first time, John noted their colour – a stormy blend of grey and green, as if they couldn’t decide on a single colour and tried out different shades and intensities at random.

“I want to do my part,” Sherlock answered at last. “I want this war to end, and end well for us. But putting the fate of the nation, or of the world, in the hands of a single being is ill-conceived. Others can do the job, perhaps working in tandem. But my brother can’t control their efforts. I was his trump card, and he’s lost prestige.”

He looked away, and John knew there was more he wasn’t saying, but he didn’t pursue it. And after a moment, Sherlock continued.

“My mind palace – it isn’t a device conceived and executed for this job – for the war effort,” he clarified. “It is something – a construct – that has been part of my being for many years. I don’t want it back – I need it back. I don’t know how to be me without it. And even more – I don’t want to be me without it.”

John was intrigued – by the desperation and passion in Sherlock’s voice, by the entire mysterious concept of this revered mind palace, but mostly by what he already knew of the man. He didn’t find Sherlock Holmes wanting at all. No – the man was intriguing, an enigma, an odd misfit in this propertied, wealthy family.

And not by his appearance, discounting the woman’s dressing gown, of course. He spoke with a cultured accent, and his clothing, though simply styled in keeping with the wartime limitations, was clearly expensive and well-fitting.

No – it was his behavior. His clear disdain for authority. His subversiveness in working against his brother in the Irene Adler affair. His unpredictability. It was the whole idea of this complex, creative and obviously brilliant man subjected to the random attacks of the brain that was so obviously his most prized asset.

If he wasn’t being himself, he wanted very much to know what Sherlock Holmes was like with an intact memory palace.

And yet…

The medical man inside him saw the problem. The more Sherlock tried to rebuild this conceptual thing, this intricate cerebral organizational system, the more he attempted to retrain his compromised neural system, the more stress he put on the very system. And very likely, this came with an increased chance of epileptic seizure, and perhaps even of their severity.

Sherlock had to back off. He had to allow his brain to recover before he attempted to recover what he’d lost.

John knew this. Knew it in his gut, had seen how his wife thrived on sleep and distraction, how she declined when over-tired, or too-long stressed. There were no guarantees, but Mary had lived a better life, at least, without the worries and cares of her past plaguing her every thought.

John had an idea, an idea Sherlock would very likely summarily reject.

The trick, he already realised, was to make it Sherlock’s idea. To offer something Sherlock could not have. Something forbidden.

A distraction – body and mind away from the dark-paneled rooms and stale air and pipe smoke. Away from the piles of books, the typewriter, the fountain pens, the note pages full of precise and formal writing.

John pulled his gaze away from his hands in his lap and looked up at Sherlock.

“I can practically hear you thinking,” Sherlock murmured. “Plotting.”

He added the last word with a satisfied smile, as if nothing pleased him more than the thought of John trying to get the best of him.

“I’ve several ideas,” John said, casually uncrossing then recrossing his legs in the opposite direction, adjusting his position on the chair. Totally unnecessarily, of course. He was beginning to think the chair was designed specifically for him – for his height and proportions, for his predilection for reading the newspaper with legs crossed and tea at his elbow.

“Do tell,” urged Sherlock.

John shook his head. “Sorry. I need to do some research. I wouldn’t want to start down the wrong path and have to pull you off of it midway.”

“Ah.” Sherlock stared at him over his clasped fingers. He seemed a bit surprised, and a bit put out.

Good, thought John. He wondered how long he could draw this out.

But with a sudden movement, Sherlock stood. He brushed the wrinkles from his trousers and stared at John pointedly.

“Well, I’ve work to do and you may as well get started on that research.”

Really, John should have seen that one coming.

“Right.” He stood, reluctantly giving up the comfort of his chair. “A few days should do it – might have to write to a colleague, but I won’t make you wait too long.”

Sherlock was already on the other side of the room, sorting through a stack of documents a foot and a half tall, by the time John made it to the door.

And as he walked back to his room, he wondered if he really had the upper hand here, if Sherlock Holmes could be surprised – or tricked – at all.

And how the hell was he going to engineer this thing? A dead man couldn’t just turn up outside, getting exercise and breathing the fresh air.

Oh.

John grinned. Well – perhaps he could. If he wasn’t really dead, or if he wasn’t actually a man at all.

TBC

Chapter Text

When John Watson began to lay out the first steps of a plan to help Sherlock recover his mind palace, he had no inkling of how many lives his efforts would change. He might have seen it coming, perhaps, had he been looking in the right places, or thinking along other, less direct, lines. But John was a linear thinker. In his left hand he held the problem, in his right the desired end, and in between he sought the thread that connected the two.

And in John’s way of seeing things, this thread was a line of travel as direct as possible.

Perhaps this was born from his years in the service, from the home-grown need to triage and treat with no time for extensive analysis and certainly no room for second guessing. He certainly wasn’t one to waste time and energy in sorting through possible scenarios when a potential solution was already obvious. He was a man of action, not a thinker, or a schemer. These characteristics gave him exceedingly quick response time, and a very deliberate trigger finger.

Sherlock Holmes needed time to heal. He needed exercise, and sleep to follow. Deep, undisturbed sleep. He needed fresh air, and something to divert his mind from the exertion he subjected it to in trying to recover the mental organisation and stability he’d lost. He needed distance from the books and papers and formulas and research, reminders of what he was before, what he wanted to be again.

There were no guarantees, but John had every confidence that the man couldn’t help but improve if he just quit trying so hard. And he was equally sure that he’d never be able to talk Sherlock into giving up his mental calisthenics in favor of a romp in the gardens.

Unless it was more than a romp. Unless – unless it was a puzzle, of sorts. A locked gate. A mysterious menagerie where once had stood a maze.

He hadn’t shared the secret with anyone, and while he felt an odd reluctance to share it now with Sherlock, he needed a way to lure him outside, to get him away from the dark paneled walls and stacks of tomes and journals. Doctor’s orders wouldn’t go far at all with Sherlock Holmes.

He puzzled over what Mycroft had said to him. Find the keeper of the keys.

Obviously, Greg Lestrade had a key. But it couldn’t be that easy, could it? And while it seemed obvious he had to start with Lestrade, what possible reason could he give the man for needing to get inside that gate?

I’ve a patient – a secret patient. A man who’s vitally important to the war effort, but everyone – the enemy, especially – thinks he’s dead. But he needs exercise, and fresh air, but no one can see him, so I need a secure place on the grounds to bring him – somewhere secret, private, where no one will wander by. Anything come to mind?

For two days, John spent nearly all of his free time walking the lawns and gardens of Rosethorne Manor, exploring the grounds and looking for the best place to bring Sherlock. He’d love to get into the locked garden, but simply couldn’t risk approaching Lestrade for the key. He’d walked as much of the perimeter of the stone wall surrounding the gardens as he could, and hadn’t found another gate, though the walls were often covered with robust ivy, with wild and overgrown bushes pushing up against the vines. Despite what Lestrade had managed to tame around the manor house, Rosethorne still suffered the effects of long neglect.

He could go over the wall, of course. He was generally fit, and scaling an eight foot, vine-covered wall was certainly not outside his athletic ability. He had the feeling that Sherlock, in his prime, could have climbed the wall and danced atop it, but his current circumstances certainly didn’t allow for such dexterity and balance. They’d have to be as unobtrusive as possible, possibly even venturing out at dusk when there was little or no chance of finding the staff out wandering the gardens. No, he wasn’t about to resort to army basic training maneuvers and potential injury to get Sherlock into the locked garden.

In the end, he settled for a secluded and neglected perennials garden, partially enclosed by a high trellised wall that hid it from view of the manor house. The brick pathway to the garden was overgrown, but generally level, and wide enough for what he had in mind. The garden itself had been laid out in concentric circles, with a cobbled path cutting through the middle. A fountain in the center had long gone dry, but the benches that surrounded it were still serviceable. Neither Lestrade nor Ben, the old gardener, had given this particular garden any attention to speak of, though someone had left an assortment of garden tools in a pile near the vine-thick trellis, as if they’d meant to start work here but had been distracted from the task and had moved on to more pressing matters elsewhere.

And while that worried John a bit, he didn’t plan to have Sherlock outdoors when Lestrade and old Ben might be about. Ben didn’t live at Rosethorne, didn’t take meals with the staff, and Lestrade was always present for dinner, and surely didn’t take up his gardening duties again after the evening meal. It would be safe enough to be out of doors during and after supper hours, once they had made it through the house and out into the garden.

And while the house was large, and the wartime staff skeletal, there were no guarantees that they wouldn’t come across anyone.

He laid out only the barest bit of groundwork as a cover – a brief conversation with Molly about the elderly patient, growing more and more feeble, and how a bit of fresh air might help the old man – though at a time when no one was about, as he was reclusive and ill-tempered.

He gave Mrs. Hudson a task, which she completed promptly and without question, giving him a sidelong glance that let him know she knew exactly what he was up to. He didn’t enlist Billy’s help – Billy seemed to be totally at Sherlock’s beck and call. He would do what Sherlock told him. John doubted very much that Billy could actually influence Sherlock’s behavior or decisions, though he felt a bit differently about Mrs. Hudson.

The cook had Thursdays off, which meant crusty bread and simple stews she’d concocted with the week’s leftover meats and vegetables. They were good, and wholesome, but not the sort of foof that drew everyone to the dining room by their noses. While John seldom missed a meal, he had taken off a time or two on Thursday, so targeted that day for the launch of his great campaign.

That’s how he’d started to think of it, anyway. He wasn’t at all convinced he’d be successful with such a subject as Sherlock Holmes, but he was nothing if not determined and resilient. He had developed thick skin over the years from dealing with patients, sick people, hurting, who would lash out through their pain. He’d learned not to take it personally, and that had served him well during the short years of his marriage. He could stoically enforce a regimen that was difficult and sometimes painful knowing that the end result would be more strength, more endurance, and faster recovery after an attack.

As he walked to Sherlock’s rooms that Thursday as the rest of the house was sitting down for mutton stew, he wondered about that thick skin that he’d counted on for so long to protect him when he delivered unpleasant news or laid down difficult directions. He didn’t get angry, didn’t get hurt, rarely even got excited. And as difficult situations went, this one was a walk in the park. No one’s life was at stake – well, aside from the whole of England and all of the free world, if Mycroft Holmes was to be believed. He wasn’t pulling the sheet over a patient’s head, literally or figuratively. And the prescription he was about to deliver wouldn’t be called painful at all by the vast majority of human beings, regardless of their physical state.

So why was he so damn nervous?

No – not nervous. He was practically bristling with anticipation, and what he was feeling wasn’t really nerves at all. An honest examination of his motivation and his emotional state would reveal that he was nearly itching for the anticipated fight.

He actually hoped he hadn’t read Sherlock wrong. That he would put up a fight.

God he must be bored! He’d become too accustomed to conflict these last years, he thought, to appreciate what a good thing he had here at Rosethorne.

He squared his shoulders and continued on his way, the clothes Mrs. Hudson had turned up arranged in a neat pile in the wheelchair he was pushing, leaning against it with his stomach to compensate for the weak left hand. They smelled a bit of pipe smoke, and belonged to another day altogether. Turn of the century, he thought. Even the colour was off – he couldn’t decide if the suit was brown or purple.

He grinned.

Sherlock would hate them.

ooOOOOoo

Sherlock loved them.

He’d barged past Sherlock when he opened the door, pretending that it was perfectly commonplace for him to be taking a stroll with a wheelchair.

“John – of course. I was expecting you. Oh – wonderful – you’ve brought play clothes for me. A disguise? Yes – of course.” Sherlock had relieved John of the suit and laid it out on the bed, running his hands over the fabric to smooth it out. As John watched him, surprised yet again, Sherlock studied the clothing, exploring the pockets, the seams, the hem in the trousers.

“An odd colour, yet not especially unusual for a vestment from 1910.” He picked up the jacket and sniffed at the lapel. “Full-bodied tobacco. Oriental blend.” His gaze narrowed as he ran his hand once more over the suit, then glanced back at John. “This suit belonged to my grandfather.”

“So I’m told,” John replied. “It should fit you well enough – probably too short, though, and loose about the waist.”

Apparently, he wouldn’t need to convince Sherlock to don the suit. The man had already dropped his trousers to the floor, displaying not a modicum of modesty and quite a bit of exceedingly pale skin. He stepped out of them and draped them on a chair, then pulled on the borrowed pair, fastening them and studying himself in the mirror.

“No belt loops – and I don’t have suspenders, John. I can’t go dashing about the Manor at night with my trousers about my ankles.”

“You won’t be dashing about the manor in those trousers. They'll stay up well enough for what you'll be doing. Here - put on the shirt and jacket.”

Sherlock gave a dissatisfied hmph, but began to unbutton his shirt, pealing it off and dropping it atop his trousers while he quickly put on the shirt John had brought. He buttoned it, then stretched out his arms to show John several inches of exposed wrist.

John chuckled. “It doesn’t matter. Jacket now, and stop enjoying this so much.”

Sherlock buttoned the jacket and turned sideways, examining himself in profile. “This is marvelous, John.” He fingered the collar of his shirt. “Club collar. Very Edwardian. So, where’s your disguise?” He strode over to the wardrobe and pulled it open, then shuffled through the clothing and extracted a high-collared dress in green velvet.

John backed away. “I’m not even going to ask why that’s in your wardrobe, and have no intention of putting it on, so put it back where you found it.” He looked up as Billy Higgins opened the connecting door and stuck his head inside Sherlock’s room, watching John with apparent interest and ignoring the green dress as if it weren’t actually the elephant in the room. “I’m taking you outside for some air and exercise, under the pretense of taking your grandfather out into the gardens that he misses so much.”

“He’s dead, John. He doesn’t exactly miss the gardens. And I don’t recall ever seeing him outside when I was a child.”

John ignored him. “Slippers, Sherlock. But bring a pair of shoes as well – you can wedge them in the chair beside you.”

Sherlock, looking more amused than annoyed, dropped onto the bed and reached down for his slippers.

“My grandfather was bald,” he said.

John tossed the shawl at him. Sherlock caught it with one hand then stood from the bed and plopped down onto the wheelchair. “You did do your research. Grandfather only had the one leg.”

By force of will, John stopped himself from responding or reacting. He took on a business-like demeanor and turned to Billy.

“That will be all, Billy. I’ll be looking after Sherlock for the next few hours.”

Billy looked quickly over to Sherlock, who was sitting in the wheelchair with his legs crossed at what had to have been an uncomfortable angle, and was smoothing down the lapel of his suit coat with one hand as if approving the entire ridiculous tableau.

“I’ll be fine, Billy. I’ll be with the doctor should anything happen.” He uncrossed his legs. “Where are we going, John? Away from Rosethorne, I’m sure. London? There’s a train at six forty-five, though I hardly think we can sneak aboard without Mycroft’s spies discovering us. We’d have far more luck if you were in disguise as well. Or if we took a later train, though I’m dressed and ready now, and it seems a shame to waste such a lovely disguise on you and Billy.”

Billy was still standing in the doorway, eyes traveling from Sherlock to John.

“Boss – you can’t….” He struggled with the words. He was clearly not accustomed to having anyone rattle the rules that had been laid down regarding Sherlock.

“Billy, it’s John. My physician. He obviously believes I will benefit from an outing, and I’ll be virtually incognito disguised as my dead grandfather. John, have Mrs. Hudson fetch one of his hats, and a pair of dark glasses. I’ll do the rest myself. And you did get a private compartment on the train, did you not? I won’t be able to go to the library myself, of course, not if I want to maintain this deception. I’ll make a list for you. Did you speak to Mrs. Hudson about using her flat in London?”

“Sherlock – stop.” John held up his hands, feeling oddly guilty. Sherlock looked so – well, so alive. He did desperately want out of Rosethorne, though John doubted that a stroll in the gardens was at all what he had in mind. “You’re getting miles ahead of yourself, and you know it. We’re just going outside today. For exercise.”

He said it in the best doctor voice he could muster, authoritative but soothing.

Sherlock, of course, was immune to that voice.

“Outside? For exercise? John, I can hardly stroll around the grounds and expect that no one will see me. We’ll be seen leaving – you can’t push a wheelchair about Rosethorne without people noticing.”

“I can at dinnertime on a Thursday,” John insisted. “And we have to hurry. I’ll explain as we go. I’ll get the dark glasses and hat for the next time – for now we’ll have to do with the shawl. Put it around your shoulders and over your head. Try to look old and feeble. I’ve told Molly that I’ll be taking the old man out and warned her that he doesn’t want to see anyone. With his reputation, they’ll all be staying as far away as they can.”

Sherlock stared at him, studying him with a frown, then unfolded the shawl and arranged it around his head and shoulders. Then, in the space of a breath, he changed.

His shoulders sagged, his head bowed, and his stomach paunched out as he relaxed his abdominal muscles. He somehow looked both bony and boneless, and had John looked up to see him for the first time, a stranger in a wheelchair, in a suit from a bygone day, he’d have thought him very, very old indeed.

“I’m going with you under protest,” Sherlock stated emphatically.

“Noted,” said John.

John smiled as he maneuvered the wheelchair out the door, correcting its direction with his hip as it veered toward the wall with Sherlock's weight and his weak left side. He had a good feeling about the outing.

ooOOOOoo

While Sherlock may have liked the idea of disguises and masked escapes, he disliked being outdoors and hated the garden.

“This? This is what took you a week to research?” he exclaimed as he stood in the middle of the garden near the dialect fountain, turning slowly to study the sad, crumbling and overgrown space.

“The idea is to get you outside, breathing fresh air. I didn’t have a lot to choose from – I needed someplace where no one would stumble on us.”

“Mycroft will have your head.”

“Mycroft left you in my hands. He wants you better – and you aren’t going to get better rotting away inside in those rooms!”

“I’m hardly rotting away,” Sherlock countered. He kicked at a loose stone on the pathway, and it skittered along and bounced into a neglected flower bed. He stared after it, then turned back to John, sweeping his hand to indicate the gardens. “This, however, is. I do realise it’s wartime but surely Mycroft has hired someone to take care of the grounds.”

“The old gardener’s still around,” John replied. “Ben. And Lestrade, though it’s far too much for him to look after.”

“Lestrade?” Sherlock had kicked another stone, seeming to take solace in the force of the act, or in the way they bounced erratically. But now his entire attention turned back to John. “Lestrade is gardening for Mycroft?” he asked, voice clearly conveying his disbelief.

“Yes – he’s…well, he’s quite good, I suppose.” John vividly recalled the fantastic menagerie cut from the maze hedge. “Do you know him? Lestrade, I mean?”

Sherlock dropped back into the wheelchair, looking oddly deflated. “Old friend,” he muttered. “Well, better to say I worked with him. He’s – he’s helped me in the past. And I him. I knew he was here, of course. But gardening? Are you quite certain?”

“Of course I’m certain. I spend a lot of time outdoors. I’ve seen him at work. And he takes his meals with us. You know he’s mute then?”

Sherlock had been staring at his own steepled fingers, and he looked abruptly up at John.

“Mute? Lestrade?”

“Yes. Carries a small slate with him if he has something to convey, but doesn’t use it very often. I take it you didn’t know he can’t speak?”

Sherlock shook his head. He looked oddly troubled – pained. He pushed the wheelchair’s wheels with his hands and moved over to the benches, then abandoned the chair in favour of lying on a bench, knees drawn up and arms folded on his stomach.

“Is his injury physical? Is he unable to speak at all?”

“He’s not my patient,” John answered, taking a seat on the other bench. “I haven’t seen his medical records. No one knows much about him – though he doesn’t have any outward signs of traumatic injury.”

“He can hear, though,” Sherlock stated. He had steepled his hands again, and seemed to be peering through his fingertips, only half-aware of John’s presence.

“Yes. He seems to be have no problems with his hearing.” John watched Sherlock a moment more. “Look – we’re out here, the sun’s about to go down, the moon is already out, there’s even a nice breeze. Why don’t you walk around the garden a few times? Humor me, Sherlock. I’ll walk with you if you’d like.”

Sherlock made no movement other than to turn his head slightly and study John from beneath long lashes. It was the first time John really noticed his very extraordinary eyes. They stared at each other, and it was Sherlock who broke the gaze first, letting out a deep, dissatisfied sigh.

“This garden is hopeless. If we’re to keep coming here, I’ll need Lestrade to work on it – clear out these beds and get something growing here again.”

John was already shaking his head.

“Can’t risk it, Sherlock. I picked this garden in large part because it’s so neglected. Not much danger of Lestrade or Ben wandering by – especially this time of the day.”

“It’s depressing.”

“Don’t you like to walk?” urged John.

“Yes I like to walk – when I have someplace to go!”

“I’ve told you this before, but physical activity, especially physical activity out of doors, helps your mind. Your brain, Sherlock.”

“There must be other gardens – someplace more pleasant.” Sherlock gave an exaggerated shudder and closed his eyes, shielding them with one forearm.

John really should have expected this, though he admitted he’d allowed himself to believe that a quiet breeze and the fading sunlight on Sherlock’s skin would change his attitude. He stood with determination and walked over to the forgotten garden tools, picked up a trowel and a small rake, then returned to Sherlock, whose eyes were still closed.

John dropped the tools on Sherlock’s stomach.

“Since this garden isn’t up to your standards, and there’s a shocking lack of gardeners since all the able-bodied men are off to war, you can work on this one yourself.” Sherlock had let out a small oof and opened surprised eyes when John dropped the implements on him, but he remained immobile, staring at John cautiously. When John just stared back defiantly, Sherlock picked up the trowel gingerly between two fingers and held it up, studying it curiously.

“A digging implement, judging from the shape and compacted earth adhered to it,” he said.

“If you’re not planning to walk, at least do something.” John folded his arms and attempted to glare, but he was too captivated by Sherlock’s scrutiny of the trowel to put any force behind it.

Sherlock ran his finger around the edge of the tool, using a manicured nail to pick at the compacted earth, likely years old and sun-baked like a brick. He pressed his thumb against the pointed, triangular tip of the trowel, then gripped the handle in his fist and gave an experimental upward stab, piercing nothing but air, but apparently, if John was correctly interpreting the look on his face, getting a great deal of satisfaction from the act.

“As you’ve undoubtedly deduced from the dirt on the blade, it’s for digging. In the soil.” John used his own shoe in the garden patch beside him to illustrate, kicking up a tangle of dead leaves and a clod of earth.

Sherlock sat up on the bench, still examining the hand tool. He gazed across the garden, over John’s shoulders.

“I think I’ve remembered something – something I meant to forget,” he said, quite quietly, in a tone John wouldn’t have recognized as coming from his new friend. He placed the trowel beside him on the bench and abruptly stood.

“Come, walk with me around the garden,” he demanded as he set off down the outer path, and John, surprised, hurried to catch up. “And tell me more about Lestrade. Is he really mute? Does he make any sounds at all?”

And John, still behind Sherlock, looking at the too-loose odd-coloured jacket flapping in the breeze, thought of spying on Lestrade as he worked in the locked garden, and of the sound of the man’s pleasant whistling as he wielded his garden tools.

Oddly, though, he wasn’t quite ready to share that with Sherlock.

Chapter Text

Sometimes, John hated how routine life felt. And while he couldn’t say that he missed the living conditions in the war zone in northern Africa, or the standard military rations, he did miss the unpredictability of his days.

Here at Rosethorne, at least before Sherlock Holmes began to occupy his thoughts more than any one person or thing, life seemed utterly predictable.

Though, as with anything in life, there was the occasional surprise. A quick visit from Mycroft Holmes, sometimes come and gone before John knew he was in residence. A very early morning wake-up call when Sherlock had a particularly bad seizure. Surprising bits of information gleaned from Sherlock as he strolled around and around the wild garden on the cobblestone path, talking – always talking – and intrinsically trusting that John was beside him, listening.

Listening, on one particular occasion, to the tragic story of how Sherlock’s grandmother had died here at Rosethorne from something as ridiculous as a bee sting, while walking among the roses in one of the gardens.

It came to light on their third visit to the garden, when Sherlock dropped to the ground at the base of an elm tree that had seeded itself years ago and had been allowed to grow, unhindered, in the southwest corner of the garden.

John, who’d been just behind Sherlock, was, at first, concerned that Sherlock had fallen.

“Sherlock? Are you alright?”

“Shhh!” hushed Sherlock. He was on knees and elbows on the lawn, looking intently at the base of the elm tree.

“What are you doing?” protested John, squinting the dimming evening sun at Sherlock. “You’ve lost your shoe.”

“Quiet.” Sherlock’s voice was a low rumble. He’d belly-crawled to a stop only a few feet from the elm. “Listen.”

John saw it before he heard it, though when he did hear it, he wondered how they’d passed this spot so many times before without noting the thrum.

It was a bee hive, in a split low in the trunk. He could see the bees now, crowding the edges of the split, a few buzzing about in the air a foot or two above the earth.

“Ah – right. Bees.” He watched a moment, more interested in Sherlock’s reaction than in the hive itself. His instinct was to grab Sherlock by his feet and drag him back and away from the bees. He had no idea if he was allergic, or what an attack could trigger in a system as compromised as Sherlock’s was.

“Yes, exactly. Bees. What a stunning find, John.” He was speaking softly, voice just above a whisper, evoking something akin to awe. “This garden is absolutely perfect.”

“You’re not allergic, are you?” John said, keeping his voice as calm and as low as Sherlock’s.

“I’ve no idea.” He inched closer to the hive. “Though we were told grandmother died of a bee sting – out here in one of the gardens, long before I was born.”

He didn’t panic. He didn’t want to stir up the bees. He himself had no particular fondness for them, always having seen them as a menace more than a curiosity. He waited as patiently as he was able while Sherlock studied the comings and goings of the creatures, propped on his elbows on his belly on the ground, until the light grew too dim and he finally backed away and stood up, dusting the dirt off of his knees.

“Fascinating. I must remember to bring my notebooks out tomorrow. We’ll need to come out much earlier, while the bees are more active. And I’ll of course need to document all the species of flowers here.”

“Or course.” John had no intention of bringing Sherlock out any earlier – he was nervous enough even this late in the day. “Hat and glasses – we need to get back inside.”

Sherlock, however, had paused to crouch down beside a flower bed. He pushed away a layer of leaves to expose new green shoots. “I knew them once,” he murmured. “Common and scientific names. Genus and family.”

“Let’s get inside,” John urged, valiantly trying to distract Sherlock. “You can tell me about your grandmother as we walk.”

Sherlock looked over at him, clearly not impressed with his efforts. He got to his feet then dropped unceremoniously into the wheelchair John had pulled forward. “My grandmother hardly merits mention save for the suddenness of her death and the tragic circumstances. She died when my father was too young to retain a real memory of her, more than fifty years ago now. Everything I know of her came to me from her older sister, my great-aunt, who visited us from time to time. She was morbidly old to my seven-year old eyes. I was fascinated by the deep wrinkles in her skin and the ornate cane she used as she moved about. She’d poke at me with it as I dashed by, and it was a great game for me to sneak up on her, or to spy on her from around the corner.”

“Only her?” John asked with a smile. Pushing the chair back to the house, up the gradual incline, was always a challenge with his weak arm. He had to hold his body off-center and lean into the chair from the left to direct it. He was glad to have Sherlock engaged in telling a story instead of feigning fright at his driving skills and calling for a taxi – humorous the first time, but now a stale joke.

Sherlock chuckled. “I learned more from her directly than by spying. She liked to shock me – to beckon me over to sit beside her on the settee and tell me all sorts of gruesome stories about death, dismemberment and abject tragedy.”

“Sounds lovely,” John said, huffing as he pushed the chair forward on the steepest incline of the path back to the manor. He pressed his entire midsection into the back of the chair to maneuver it, and was oddly aware of the pressure against Sherlock’s thin back.

Sherlock glanced back at John, tilting his head up. He looked nothing like himself with the hat and glasses, with the defeated slump of shoulders he took on when posing as his grandfather. “I have Aunt Adelaide to thank for expanding my mind from an early age,” he stated. “I don’t know that Father ever knew the nature of our little conversations, and Mycroft certainly never let on that she’d treated him to anything similar.”

“So what did she tell you about your grandmother, then?” asked John. As always, he was keeping a sharp eye out for movement of any kind around them, and he spoke softly into the settling evening.

“She was twenty years younger than Grandfather, a girl of sixteen when he fell in love with her at a friend’s wedding where she was a bridesmaid, a cousin of the friend’s new wife. That they married and he took her to live at his country estate, and locked her away there in a labyrinth of cold and opulent rooms, where her only joy was a special garden. Like his bride, grandfather loved the outdoors, and granted her every wish when it came to the garden. He had a maze built for her, and a lily pond, and a swing hung from the limb of an oak tree that hung over the pond. She loved roses, and he had a fabulous rose garden planted there for her, with roses of every colour and variety. But those roses, as much as she loved them, were her undoing.”

He spoke as if reading from the pages of a fairy tale, and John imagined him, a small boy, sitting stiffly beside his elderly aunt, listening to this story.

“When my father was barely two years old, grandmother took him with her to the garden on a warm spring morning. They found him there hours later, crying, lost in the hedge maze, too small to see over the top. And they found grandmother dead among her roses, with a bee’s stinger in her grotesquely swollen hand. Grandfather locked up the garden and never again visited it, and father was raised by nannies, and never knew his mother, or the lovely garden that had been her solace at Rosethorne.”

“God, Sherlock – that isn’t the kind of happily ever after story for a child,” John said, though his mind was mulling over the details of the story – the hedge maze, the locked garden. The neglected play area he’d seen inside the gate.

“No, it isn’t, is it?” Sherlock mused. “Fascinating, though. I, of course set off to prove her wrong – that a single bee, a tiny insect, couldn’t possibly be responsible for the death of a grown adult.”

John chuckled. “How did it feel to be proven wrong?” he asked.

“Humiliating,” Sherlock responded. “But it was a valiant search. I didn’t trust anything at face value then, and don’t to this day." He huffed out a sigh. "It's served me well through the years.”

They were close to the manor now, and Sherlock dropped his head and scrunched his shoulders, visibly shrinking in his too-large, odd-coloured and outdated suit. John picked up the shawl they carried over the back of the chair and draped it around Sherlock’s shoulders, then resolutely began the arduous process of wrestling the chair inside.

ooOOOOoo

Near-daily outings to the secluded garden for exercise and air had a positive outward effect on Sherlock within the space of two weeks. His appetite increased noticeably, and his skin began to lose a bit of its pallor. The outings, unfortunately, did not seem to distract him long term from his books and journals and notebooks, and John had other duties to perform at Rosethorne, and could not monitor Sherlock every moment.

But it was a start, and was enough for now. The bees continued to be the star of the show for Sherlock, the primary attraction. He brought a journal outside with him now, and lay on the ground with pencil held loosely, oft forgotten, as he observed the insects’ comings and goings. And when he seemed to remember the writing implement in his hand, he used it more often to doodle than to take notes, sketching the bees, sometimes observing them on the nearby flowers while sitting cross-legged in the beds like a school girl.

John, for his part, let him be. He didn’t have much interest in bees as a rule, but found himself studying Sherlock studying the bees with intensity akin to that of Sherlock studying the bees themselves. He’d given up on keeping Sherlock away from the bees – Sherlock stated that if they killed him, so be it. His life, his choice. John didn’t think Mycroft would take too kindly to losing his brother to an insect bite, and had assembled all the items he would need for an emergency tracheotomy. He carried them in a kit in his medical bag, and hung it on the chair's handle.

But every time he brought Sherlock outside, he thought of the other garden.

Oddly, Sherlock hadn’t ever expressed an interest in it, in the mysterious locked garden where his grandmother had died. To be fair, he’d no cause to think it even existed anymore, locked or not. His grandmother had died more than fifty years ago, and the story might be nothing more than fairy tale to him.

Still, the fanciful maze hedge stayed with John, and the derelict play area, and the never-seen pond with the swing in the oak tree. And quiet, reserved Greg Lestrade, whistling as he worked the garden.

He tried not to let his mind wander too far as he sat in this garden with Sherlock. He insisted they both walk several circuits around it when they arrived before setting Sherlock loose with the bees. John had found a piece of crumbled walkway where the paving stones had shifted up, compressed and crumbled, and he sat there on the ground, piecing the puzzle back together with his left hand. It was tedious and painful, making his fingers close around bits of stone, wedging them back in place awkwardly after clearing the rubble and smoothing the surface. He used the trowel, the same one that had seemed to evoke a forgotten memory in Sherlock, but when he asked Sherlock about it, Sherlock just shook his head and looked away.

And inevitably, what was bound to happen did, though invariably, not the way John had thought it might.

He sat on the ground, not in his usual spot, but closer to Sherlock, who lay stretched out on his stomach beside a bed of coreopsis, sketching. They’d survived a quick drop-in by Mycroft, who had stayed two nights, effectively grounding Sherlock inside. He’d seemed eager to get back outside, and John had let him be. He’d walked past the locked garden both evenings of Mycroft’s visit, but the padlock was firmly in place. The swing still hung as it had, frayed and neglected, amid the overgrown sitting area, but there was no sign of the pond Sherlock had spoken of in his story. It was likely in the rear garden, John thought, peering through the overgrowth into the distance. He was thinking of that other garden now, as he sat beside Sherlock, closer and closer to broaching the subject with him. He would have already, he knew, had Sherlock not been so fascinated with the bees here. John would save it, he’d decided, for when boredom crept in as it was bound to someday.

He didn’t quite know how it happened – he was plucking idly at the grass under his fingers with his right hand, watching Sherlock, and he must have disturbed the bees, or somehow attracted them, because he was suddenly reacting to several sharp jabs in his hand, jumping up with a shout, shaking his hand and cursing.

“Stop killing my bees, John,” Sherlock said, not looking up from his sketch.

John retreated to a safe distance, studying his hand, which was already an angry red and slightly swollen. He tried to shake the pain away to no avail, and when he examined his hand more closely, found that he had at least four stingers in the back of his right hand, and not enough strength and dexterity in his left to remove them.

“You’re going to have to help me, Sherlock,” he said, hissing against the pain. He flexed his fingers, grimacing at the burn. “I can’t get the stingers out with my left hand.” He flexed his left hand reflexively along with the right. “Sherlock?”

He glanced over at Sherlock when he didn't answer, expecting to find him still absorbed in his drawing. But Sherlock was no longer sitting with legs folded and notepad in his lap. He was lying on the ground, folded at an awkward angle, pencil, still clutched in his hand, half-buried in the soil beside him.

John must have shouted as he hurried over to him, though he didn’t remember having done so. Sherlock was clearly convulsing, and John struggled to roll him onto his side, his hands painful, weak and useless. He ended up hefting him over with his shoulder leveraged against his side, panting as he struggled to make sure Sherlock was in a proper position to keep his airways open.

He saw the hand before he heard a sound.

Someone had found them. Someone was trying to help.

He whirled his head around in surprise, finding himself nearly nose to nose with Lestrade.

Lestrade, who had Sherlock by the shoulder.

Lestrade, whose eyes were locked on Sherlock’s face. Whose own face was white with shock. Whose chest was heaving.

Lestrade, mute Lestrade, whose mouth was moving, breathing a barely audible word, but a word nonetheless.

“Sherlock.”

Chapter Text

“They told me – told me,” Lestrade rasped. He stumbled backward, falling to his arse on the ground, dropping his head in his hands. “Dead,” he muttered. “Dead is dead.”

Sherlock was still convulsing, though less violently than before, but John stayed with him, hoping that Lestrade would remain with them and not run back to the house to raise an alarm.

Mycroft was going to murder him.

His hand throbbed, the pain still biting. He tried to ignore it as he supported Sherlock, finally letting him roll onto his back as the seizure finally ended.

“Jesus.”

John dropped onto the ground, cradling his right hand in his lap. Lestrade was still sitting where he’d fallen.

“Look – you’re going to have to help me,” John said, keeping his voice low and speaking as calmly as possible. He needed to keep Lestrade close. “I’ll tell you what’s going on, but you have to promise to help me get him back inside without anyone noticing.”

John was having a hard time reading Lestrade’s face. The man’s gaze was fixed on Sherlock, and he was breathing heavily, certainly still in shock. Dead men don’t often spring back to life, John realised, and he really didn’t know the circumstances of Sherlock and Lestrade’s past.

“Greg? You’ll help me, then?”

The man finally wrested his gaze away from Sherlock’s face, and looked at John. His mouth opened, and he struggled to form words, but was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to voice them.

“Look – I know it’s a shock. I understand.” John spoke without looking at Lestrade. His focus was back on Sherlock, whose eyes were fluttering open. “As soon as he feels like sitting up, we need to get him in the chair.”

Behind him, Lestrade made a strangled sort of sound.

John turned. Lestrade pointed at the wheelchair, then back at Sherlock.

Oh.

“No – he doesn’t really need it. He’s got epilepsy – from the head injury. He has seizures – sometimes bad ones. That’s the real reason they brought me here. This one wasn’t so bad, all told. He doesn’t need the chair – it’s part of our disguise. It’s meant to make people think it’s his grandfather I’m bringing out here.”

Lestrade swallowed and, eyes still on Sherlock, carefully got to his feet.

Sherlock, apparently, had registered the other man’s presence.

“Lestrade,” he choked out, scrabbling at the earth with his fingers, trying to get purchase enough to right himself. “I – I – John?”

“Right here.” John glanced at Lestrade, gave him an encouraging smile. He held his hand out so Sherlock could see the damage. “I was stung – right about the same time you had the seizure. I must have shouted – Lestrade heard and came to investigate.”

Sherlock had pushed himself up and leaned against John. He fumbled for John’s hand. “Let me see.”

“You’re too shaky,” John said. “Look, Lestrade’s going to help get you back to the manor. We can deal with my hand inside. And then -” he looked at Lestrade again, catching the man wiping tears from his eyes. “And then – you need to tell him what’s going on. And see if we can keep this from Mycroft for a while.”

ooOOOooo

It was awkward, and frustrating, and in the end, John was just as confused and frustrated as Lestrade.

He hadn’t understood the relationship between Sherlock and Lestrade before the accidental meeting in the garden, and he sure as hell didn’t understand it three hours later when he was back in his room, nursing a swollen and numb hand and feeling completely useless as he could hardly unbutton his flies without help. He paced the room, finally stopping to stare out the window. The lawn was bathed in pale moonlight, and he leaned his forehead against the cool windowpane and stared out into the darkness, trying to sort out emotions he didn’t quite understand.

Not only did he not understand what he was feeling, but he had no idea why he was feeling this way either.

It had been awkward from the beginning – getting Sherlock back into the manor as he sat slumped in the chair with the shawl over his shoulders. Lestrade had done his best to push the chair, which was unwieldly on a good day. The proximity to Sherlock seemed to upset the man, and from time to time his mouth worked as if he very much wanted to say something but couldn’t – or wouldn’t – get the words out. They’d been fortunate to get Sherlock back to his rooms without meeting anyone in the corridors, and as soon as the door closed behind them, John directed Lestrade to spot Sherlock as he unsteadily rose from the wheelchair and lowered himself to the bed. Then Sherlock shakily poured himself a glass of water from the pitcher on the bed stand.

He sipped at the water, then carefully set the glass on the table before addressing Lestrade. John hung back against the wall, cradling his throbbing hand, knowing he really should get the stingers out, but too caught up in what was about to happen to make dealing with it a priority.

“This wasn’t my idea,” Sherlock began, shifting uncomfortably. “I didn’t know they were pretending I was dead until nearly two months after the bombing.” He ran a hand through his curls, clearly frustrated. “I didn’t know anything at all for more than a month.”

He sounded more bitter than apologetic. So unlike the Sherlock John had grown to know that John hardly recognized him.

Lestrade made a sound then. A guttural noise, almost a sob. He stood beside the closed door, eyes darting around the room, taking in the chaotic order of Sherlock, the books and papers, the hastily made bed, the dressing gown draped over the chair.

“I didn’t have a choice – they didn’t give me a choice,” Sherlock continued.

“You….”

Lestrade managed the single word, almost a whisper, then fell silent again.

Sherlock kept his focus on the man, paying no attention at all to John, who felt the voyeur as the tableau unfolded, though not in a way that tidied anything up at all.

“Me,” acknowledged Sherlock. “I wouldn’t have left like that. I wouldn’t have just disappeared.” He spoke forcefully, then paused, watching Lestrade until the man looked up and met his eyes. He lowered his voice. “You asked that of me – you demanded it.” He paused, and his voice broke. “I promised you.”

John’s gaze traveled back to Lestrade, who looked, somehow, as if he simultaneously wanted to punch Sherlock in the nose and throw his arms around his neck and hug him. His hands at his sides were tense, clenching into tight fists, then slowly unclenching, fingers stretching out before the hand closed once more into a fist. It was a stance John recognised well. Sherlock seemed to recognise it, too. He lowered his voice even more, launching into a monologue in a quiet, calm, and oddly clinical manner.

“Mycroft brought you here to Rosethorne. He told you it was a place where you could recover and heal but you knew you’d be left alone here, and you craved that peace. You needed it. You were injured in the attack, and you weren’t able to speak immediately after –you choked on the dust and debris. It damaged your throat. But you chose not to speak once you recovered physically. My bother wanted you to see a psychiatrist – of course he did – but you refused, and he’s let you be – so far – because he hasn’t needed you yet. You blame yourself because you promised to protect me – you promised my brother, and you promised yourself. You didn’t think me capable of protecting myself when I was deep in The Work.”

The Work.

Sherlock spoke as if this work was an entity in and of itself. A living thing, sentient and corporeal.

In John’s months here at Rosethorne, he’d come to regard Lestrade as something of a social recluse, going about his business as quietly as possible, blending into the background with hunched shoulders and downcast eyes. John had thought him a broken man, a man with a traumatic story of his own, perhaps sent here to Rosethorne because he couldn’t be helped in London. It was all too easy, given the fact that he didn’t speak and avoided social interactions, to regard him as a simpleton, a simple man given simple tasks and existing only in one’s peripheral vision.

What John had forgotten was that everyone at Rosethorne - everyone - was here for a reason.

Because that person was useful. Or important. Useful or important to The Cause.

He would never look at Greg Lestrade the same way again.

Rosethorne – a country manor on the fringes of the moors. Escape was a long trek on foot to a train station some distance away. Rosethorne – a gated manor with a skeleton staff, a handful of locals to cook and clean and an odd collection of professionals over-qualified to help the patients they served.

John kept his eyes on Lestrade as Sherlock continued to speak, cataloguing the man’s past months as if pulling facts from a newspaper. And this was the man whose mind palace was broken?

Lestrade didn’t seem discomfited as Sherlock both dissected and analyzed him. If anything, he seemed to relax more the longer Sherlock spoke, his posture easing, his hands gradually unclenching and dropping loosely to his sides.

“But you aren’t here at Rosethorne because my brother feels sorry for you. Nor is he protecting you. Perhaps he brought you here at first thinking he could fix you so you could be redeployed. That, after all, explains my own presence here.”

John stepped forward. He had no idea how long Lestrade would remain in the room, listening to Sherlock, with only scattered threads of information. And they needed to ensure his cooperation – that he’d not tell anyone about Sherlock, that he’d keep the secret.

“Lestrade – there’s something more you need to know.”

Sherlock looked at John curiously as John stepped forward, still cradling his hand against his shirt. “There’s more wrong with Sherlock than the epilepsy. His brain injury has affected his ability to do the job he was doing before – he can’t process information like he used to.”

“The Work,” Sherlock confirmed. “I can’t do the Work. The Mind Palace is in ruins.”

Lestrade’s eyes widened. Then, to John’s immense surprise, his mouth twitched into a slow, delighted smile and he moved forward until he stood just in front of Sherlock beside the bed.

“Good,” he said, carefully forming and pronouncing the word, blowing it out in a long exhale. He reached out and placed a hand on Sherlock’s shoulder. They remained there, neither moving, long enough for John to grow uncomfortable. Then Sherlock lifted his hand slowly, resting it on top of Lestrade’s.

“Right. You’re right. It’s what I wanted, isn’t it?”

ooOOOoo

The stingers had remained in John’s hand far too long.

When Sherlock and Lestrade had shaken themselves out of their moment, John had stepped forward.

“I was under the impression that you actually wanted your Mind Palace back again. Which is precisely why I’ve been hauling your arse outside because there doesn’t seem to be any other way to get you to rest your brain for even a minute. And for my efforts, I get this.” He held out his right hand, now swollen to enormous proportions.

He shouldn’t have left the room without trying to sort out the problem of Lestrade knowing, but he couldn’t make himself stay any longer. Sherlock certainly seemed to have the matter of Greg Lestrade well in hand, whatever that matter was. He could deal with the fall-out of Lestrade knowing, and the very real possibility that Mycroft would soon find out. Of course, since it was John’s idea to take Sherlock outside, responsibility ultimately would fall on his shoulders.

Nevertheless, he’d left the room and gone directly to Molly, who’d chastised him for waiting so long, but had dutifully removed the stingers, treated the wounds and bandaged his hand, then sent him to his room with an ice pack. He’d tried sleeping, but his mind was restless and he couldn’t settle down.

He couldn’t stop thinking. Thinking about Sherlock and Lestrade.

He’d given some thought to what should have been the most obvious concern. Why had Mycroft Holmes brought Lestrade here to Rosethorne? Lestrade, like everyone else, thought Sherlock had died in the attack on the location where he’d been working. Lestrade had been there himself – Sherlock had just revealed as much. Lestrade had been there to protect Sherlock – but in what capacity? Was he a member of the military? A guard or some sort? Lestrade was somewhat older than Sherlock, or looked so. Not too old to serve – God knows old men were being called up in this war.

If Lestrade thought Sherlock dead, and if Mycroft wanted everyone to continue in this mistaken belief, why was Lestrade here? So physically close to the rooms where Sherlock was hidden? Where there was always a chance he’d be discovered?

Sherlock had asked that same question, but John had stepped forward and interrupted before he’d voiced all of his thoughts.

Was he here, as Sherlock had pondered, so that he could be cured then redeployed?

John didn’t think so. He was here because of his relationship to Sherlock. His past. His shared history.

Mycroft expected he’d be needed again.

And it was precisely that that left an uncomfortable feeling in John’s stomach.

That – and – if he were completely honest with himself, the gnawing question of the relationship between Sherlock and Lestrade. He couldn’t stop thinking about the way they had interacted – how Sherlock had spoken to him, deferred to him when he had uttered that one word that puzzled John above all others.

Good.

Good. Your Mind Palace is gone – blown to shreds. You can’t do The Work anymore.

John was absolutely missing something – something important.

He was pulled from his musings by a knock on his door, and he jumped up to answer it. Knocks after bedtime were seldom social visits, and usually meant an emergency with one of his patients.

He fumbled for the doorknob with his left hand, and succeeded in opening it, to find Greg Lestrade, holding a notebook and a pencil.

They stared at each other, neither speaking or acknowledging the other’s presence, until John stepped back into his room and motioned with his bandaged hand.

“Come in, then.”

Lestrade handed him a page of the notebook.

John sat on the bed and nodded at the chair beside the small desk. Lestrade sat down, glancing around the room with guarded interest.

John looked at the paper in his hands. A letter.

John:

You left rather abruptly, before you had an opportunity to ask the questions that are surely keeping you awake tonight. I have asked Lestrade to bring this letter to you, and after you read it, to answer any questions you might have for him. He is not yet wholly comfortable speaking, so please permit him to use the notebook and respond to your questions in writing.

We have only known each other a short while, and while I had the opportunity to learn a bit about you before you came here, you know very little of my past, a past in which Greg Lestrade figures rather prominently.

You will not be surprised to learn that I had what may be considered a privileged childhood. It was quite typical as these sorts of childhoods go – absent, uninvolved parents, a child who acts out for attention, bored beyond measure with school and tutors. Older brother trying to keep the peace while establishing his own position in the family and in the world. The feeling of constriction – being channeled into a narrow funnel when there were boundless options in the world I could not touch.

Naturally, I ran away. The first time, I was fifteen. Mycroft retrieved me within two months. I was living with two prostitutes in London, having the time of my life. I was introduced to the sordid, the steamy, the most base elements of society. It was eye-opening and enlightening.

I ran away again at seventeen, and this time managed to avoid Mycroft and my father for five years. I became well-acquainted with what you might refer to as the dregs of society – tramps and hobos, men sleeping in gutters and doorways. At the same time, I had attached myself to a morgue attendant at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and gained entrance to nearly every area of the hospital, educating myself in forensics, anatomy and chemistry. The morgue introduced me to crime, but it was a different facet of crime that led me to one Inspector Greg Lestrade of Scotland Yard.

However, my interest in organizing and archiving the plethora of information I’d gleaned led me to new, untried means of expanding my mind, broadening my horizons. I began experimenting with illegal substances, soon settling on cocaine as my drug of choice.

Further detail is not needed. I became dependent, took unnecessary risks, and nearly died. Lestrade found me when his team raided the flat where I was being held, and while the others were inclined to boot me onto the street as I looked no better than the criminal element they’d just arrested, despite obviously being their prisoner, he took pity on me. He took me to his own home, and cared for me. I was malnourished and addicted to cocaine, and had been abused by my captors. As I fought through the withdrawal, he began to take me with him on investigations to keep an eye on me, and within a month or two, I was solving previously unsolvable crimes and building, perfecting, my Mind Palace.

It was my recovery, this fortuitous stumbling into a legitimate, though unusual, career, that re-introduced me to my family. I gained a small degree of fame, enough that my photograph appeared in the Evening News alongside Lestrade’s, and by the next day, Mycroft, now with the British government, had found me.

He was more intrigued with my abilities than in returning the prodigal son to the fold, and offered me a position with British intelligence, which would keep me out of northern Africa. I am man enough to admit that I didn’t want to fight – I abhor authority and would have made a pitiful soldier. And while working in the capacity of code breaker didn’t interest me as much as the rawness of London crime and the ingenuity of London criminals, I had developed a hatred for Nazi Germany great enough to sway my decision.

Imagine my surprise when, two weeks into my new position, Greg Lestrade turned up as chief security officer at our small operation’s headquarters. His title, it turned out, was a mere formality. We were fully protected by the security forces of the British intelligence. Lestrade’s job was me. He took the job seriously – escorting me to and from the flat he procured for me on Baker Street, taking a small space in the building himself. He helped me – helped me keep my focus on the work, which in short order, as I immersed myself in the project, began to consume me in much the same way the drugs had. Codes are math, and puzzles, and language, and the Mind Palace I’d devised in those earlier years proved an adequate foundation, but I had to expand it, both in form and function, to accommodate the demands of this new task. I needed more waking hours, a larger virtual storage area, more power to run this amorphous organism, but Lestrade kept me straight, did not allow me to turn to the props, the crutches, that had landed me in the prison from which he rescued me.

So there you have it, John. He saved me for no reason other than he is a good man. I repaid him by nearly getting both of us killed. I was not supposed to be where I was when the attack was launched, and Lestrade was only there to retrieve me before I made a tragic mistake.

You know the rest of the story.

So now, I’ll leave you to question Lestrade, and will expect you tomorrow dinnertime, as always.

Sherlock

John, lips pursed, mind racing, considering a dozen different possibilities, looked up sharply at Lestrade. Of all the startling information in the letter, he couldn’t get past the piece he felt Sherlock had glazed over – his rescue by Lestrade. He carefully folded the letter and ran his fingers over the crease, quietly considering his words before he spoke.

“Why were they keeping him? What, exactly, did you save him from?”

Lestrade had been watching him curiously, and he paled at the question.

“Dr. Watson – ”

He stopped, coughed, looked down at the notebook in his hands, then back at John.

John kept his eyes on the man as he sighed and began to write.

It took him an inordinately long while to formulate his answer, and put the words to paper. John sat watching him, gut tight with apprehension. He stood when Lestrade stopped writing, and looked up at him expectantly.

John took the notebook from Lestrade.

Lestrade shifted uncomfortably and John looked quickly down at what he’d written. One sentence, brief and brutal.

They said he owed them money for the drugs they’d given him, and he agreed to pay them back with “personal” service.

John stared at the paper, then raised his eyes and met Lestrade’s gaze.

“He agreed to this?”

Lestrade held out his hand, and John handed over the notebook. He scribbled something down, and handed it back to John.

Don’t ask what you don’t want to know.

TBC

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

He hadn’t asked Lestrade more questions, although there were dozens churning through his mind, questions that kept him awake most of the night, and plagued him the next day as he made his rounds and struggled to complete his notes with his nearly-useless dominant hand and his sore and swollen right.

He had seen his share of addicts and had no reason to doubt Sherlock’s claims. And he had firsthand experience of what an addict might be willing to do to procure another hit.

Yet – it was clear that Sherlock had been in over his head. Far over his head.

What the hell had happened to him before Lestrade had found him and taken him in?

Sherlock was an adult. He didn’t need John – or anyone – to fret over a past that he’d clearly put behind him.

And if all this had happened because of his dependency on drugs – wasn’t it his own fault, anyway?

No. That sounded like his father talking. No one had a right to take advantage or harm anyone else simply because that person was more vulnerable, no matter the cause of said vulnerability. A drunk might be an easy mark for a pickpocket, but it didn’t make it right for a pickpocket to target one.

Just like it didn’t make it right for a man to steal an easy kiss – or more – from an intoxicated woman at a party.

He iced his hand after lunch, then, still frustrated and out of sorts over the letter he’d read the night before and his reaction to Sherlock’s relationship with Lestrade, he made his way to the music room, determined to clear his mind. The bee stings on his right hand, and the resulting short-term inability to use it, had underlined the importance of strengthening his left. He’d been remiss of late – hurrying to fit his daily responsibilities in a smaller window so he could take Sherlock out to the gardens at suppertime.

Take Sherlock out to the gardens and watch him obsess over the bees instead of get in the exercise he’s not getting indoors.

He shook his head as he walked. He had to acknowledge, however, that getting Sherlock outside at least kept him from poring over the books and journals in his room or spending hours writing out his thoughts and ideas, trying to rebuild his Mind Palace bit by bit. He just needed to find something else to engage Sherlock outdoors. Something to more permanently change his focus so that he didn’t bury himself back in the books as soon as John left him. Something to tire him physically. To test the limits of his strength.

As John sat at the piano, slowly working through the simple scale, forcefully, while the sunlight through the coloured glass danced a kaleidoscope across the back of his hand, he knew what he should do.

He should ask Lestrade for the keys to the garden – the secret garden, the garden with the magical maze. The plot transformed by Lestrade. The spot of heaven on earth where the mute man whistled as he worked. He knew – intrinsically knew – that Sherlock would be as mesmerized by this particular garden as he was with the honeybees, and felt that perhaps – just perhaps – he could be sucked into the magic along with Lestrade, and that both of them could heal. That Sherlock would find a way to restore order from chaos there, much as Lestrade had in the garden. That Lestrade could find his voice.

Only – only John wanted more than that.

Selfishly, perhaps, he wanted magic for himself as well. He wanted two hands that could coax music from the ivory keys below his leaden fingers. A steady, strong hand to wield a scalpel. Dexterity to pick up small stones from the shore. Strength to toss them far out into the water.

He thought there might be magic – and miracles – for Sherlock. For Lestrade. But he didn’t really believe there would be any for himself.

Still – he had to try.

For as much as the thought of Sherlock blossoming, unleashed behind the locked gate, appealed to him, the knowledge that Greg Lestrade would be his savior – once again – disquieted him.

Yet – he liked Lestrade. Or certainly felt no ill toward him. Or hadn’t. Yet the feeling in his gut as he thought of Lestrade’s past with Sherlock was undeniably jealousy.

Naming the feeling, the disquiet, the unease, was half the battle, wasn’t it?

The other half was understanding why it was there, simmering unpleasantly beneath his skin.

It made no sense.

What right did John have to think himself Sherlock’s only savior? What claim did he have to this odd man he’d known such a short time? Why should he be jealous of another man’s attention? Another man’s influence on Sherlock’s life?

He stared at the spectrum of coloured light on the keyboard cover, mind returning to the time before the war, to the man he used to be. A man with a wife at his side, with no blood on his hands.

He turned his left hand over, studied it as yellow and green and red gems seemed to sparkle on his skin.

The hand that saved with a scalpel, destroyed with a gun.

Useless. Fucking useless.

The hand clenched weakly as he gave way to frustration. He’d hoped for a miracle – who wouldn’t? And while the limp that had accompanied him to Rosethorne had all but disappeared with his garden walks and other distractions, his hand – no matter that it, too, was stronger than it had been – would never regain the dexterity and steadiness of a surgeon.

He doubted he could even use it to fire a weapon, to handily dispense of a threat to his own life, or to someone he loved.

There were those who’d tell him that that was for the best – he didn’t need anyone else’s blood on his hands.

Perhaps. But he’d never entertained a second of regret for the bloody mark on his records titled James Agra.

Once, he had killed a man who’d ruined Mary’s life, who’d left her with an injury that left her weak and shaken, with a hole in her heart too big for even John to fill.

How small had his life become that a man he’d met only weeks ago, whose parallels to his wife were only surface similarities, had hijacked his thoughts? That helping him had become more a vocation than an order?

He’d felt justified rage against the man who had ruined Mary’s life.

This disquiet – this seething hurt for what Sherlock had suffered at the hands of those who’d kept him captive – wasn’t anything like that rage at all.

Was it?

Jesus – he needed a diversion other than Sherlock Holmes. The man was beginning to consume him. He’d rearranged his entire life here at Rosethorne around the man. He put Sherlock Holmes’ needs before his own, frequently missing dinner to take him outside to the gardens, putting off his own therapy to find ways to force the man to stress his brain less and his body more so that he could figure out how to rebuild the venerated Mind Palace and go back to his job of winning the war for England.

What the hell? Had John actually thought he would be the one to achieve the impossible through an old-fashioned prescription of fresh air, exercise and sunshine? Did he really think he could do it alone when Mycroft Holmes had the resources of bloody England behind him?

He dropped his fist onto the keyboard, tired and frustrated, and winced at the unpleasant, dissonant sound.

“That’s not the therapy I prescribed, John.”

It was Molly’s voice, soft, gently chiding. He looked up to find her standing in the doorway. She smiled, and he smiled back wanly.

“It’s not going well today,” he answered. He lifted his hand and flexed it, then used the index finger – the strongest – to press a key. The note was not flawless – it was longer and louder than he’d meant it to be. He sighed and moved to close the cover, but she stopped him, pushing it back and covering his right hand with her left as she slid onto the bench beside him.

“I already told you I never learned to play,” she said, dusting over the keys with her free right hand. “My mum wanted me to, but I wanted to dance so I took ballet.”

John nudged her over a fraction with his hip, freed his hand from her grip and pressed out a simple, familiar melody.

“Swan Lake,” she said with a sigh. “Tchaikovsky. I dreamt of dancing Odette – I suppose every girl did.”

“How long did you stay with it?” John asked, repeating the melody, enjoying being able to reproduce something recognizable, no matter how simple.

Molly laughed. “A year. I was a horrible dancer – I’m clumsy and graceless. I’d have been better at driving a lorry.”

“You’re not too old to learn now,” John said, scooting left again and giving her room to slide closer to him. “The piano, I mean. Not how to drive a lorry.”

She laughed. “I imagine driving a lorry would be easier.”

“More useful, too, if you want to get out in the middle of things,” he mused.

“I don’t think I do,” she murmured. “I’m content right here.”

She was comfortably warm beside him, their shoulders and hips touching.

“At Rosethorne,” he completed, very quietly.

She didn’t answer, just gave a noncommittal hum.

“Do you have family?” he asked. “Besides your mum, I mean.”

Molly shook her head. “It’s just the two of us now – Dad died when I was eighteen. You?”

“A sister.” He plucked a key with his left thumb. “I lost my wife a few years back.”

“Mr. Holmes told me you were a widower,” she acknowledged, not looking at him. She watched him plunk his thumb down again.

“Like this, John.” Molly worked her hand under his, coaxing his hand into a higher arch. “Press down deliberately, one by one. Don’t drop your entire hand.”

“I’m trying,” he snapped, regretting it almost immediately as Molly recoiled. But she turned her hand over under his, and interlaced their fingers.

“No, you’re not.” She squeezed his hand gently. “You’re trying to get music out of this hand,” she said. “Instead of working to strengthen your hand so you can use it to make music the way it used to.”

She was right. Absolutely right.

And that made all the difference in the world.

He turned his head, smiling his understanding, and she squeezed his hand again. He squeezed back, at least to the extent he was able, and when enough time had gone by and she should have dropped his hand, she hadn’t. She ran her thumb over his knuckles as he watched, realising too late what was happening. Where had his head been? When had he ever before missed clues so obvious?

Had he not been so utterly tied up in the problem of Sherlock Holmes, he’d not have mistaken Molly’s affections for simple friendship.

He pulled his hand away, as gently as he could, and positioned it over the keyboard

“Like this, then?” he asked.

She recovered quickly. “Yes. That’s – that’s good.”

As he resumed the exercises, forging forward uncomfortably, Molly stood, squeezed him on his injured shoulder, and walked out of the room, closing the door gently behind her.

John waited two heartbeats, then closed the piano, resting his hands atop the cover as he took in steady breaths, mind racing as fast as his heart.

What the hell was wrong with him?

He’d been lonely. He had no other romantic commitments or entanglements. The prospects at Rosethorne were extremely limited. Molly was smart, attractive and, apparently, interested.

And he’d let her walk out that door. Had rebuffed her gentle advance.

Hadn’t, in fact, regretted it in the least. He’d had too much on his mind.

The problem of Sherlock, and of Lestrade, and why his stomach ached for what Sherlock went through, and why he envied Lestrade for pulling him out of the gutter.

He closed his eyes, but even with his eyes closed, all he could see was Sherlock Holmes.

He heard the door as it opened again behind him, and gathered himself, putting on as pleasant a face as he could muster before turning to face Molly again.

But it wasn’t Molly Hooper standing in the doorway.

The door closed softly, and as he watched, Sherlock Holmes calmly walked over and slid onto the piano bench beside him.

“She has good ideas, but she’s going about it all wrong,” he said without preamble.

“Wait – what are you - ?”

Sherlock lifted the piano cover and slid it back silently, then rifled through the sheet music, finally settling on a piece and propping it up above the keys.

“Play to your strengths, John,” Sherlock said. “Take the right hand – I’ll do the left. Ready?”

“Danny Boy?” John laughed, a genuine sound which started low and rumbled in his chest. His right hand curled above the keys almost without his leave, and he waited for Sherlock to count quietly - one two three - before plucking out the notes in time with the left-handed playing.

They went through it once, with fumbles and foibles, learning the rhythm together, two separate hands and souls awkwardly keeping pace with each other.

They started over at the top, working through the piece again, and this time Sherlock hummed in accompaniment, and John’s left hand twitched, and he lifted it automatically as it longed to join the right, but forcefully dropped it back onto his lap

On the third time through, with the pace resolved, working fluidly together, John quietly sang the lyrics as Sherlock’s right hand took hold of his left, grounding it. Grounding them.

“And I shall hear, tho' soft you tread above me,
And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be
If you'll not fail to tell me that you love me,
I simply sleep in peace until you come to me.”

They finished together and Christ, but it was the best he’d felt in – in forever.

And without further comment, Sherlock gently released John’s hand, and stood. He grasped John on the shoulder and leaned forward, and flipped the sheet music back to the first page.

“All yours now, John Watson,” he said. “From the top.”

He squeezed John’s shoulder again – his good shoulder, of course – and left the room as quietly as he’d entered it.

John sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. Then another – a breath of courage – and stared at the music before him. His left hand remained in his lap, still warm from Sherlock’s touch.

The song was still in his head, in his heart, and when he lifted his left hand, there were, of course, no miracles. But there was dogged determination, the will to make music, just like they’d done together.

He didn’t think of Molly as he sang over the butchered notes.

He didn’t think of Molly Hooper at all.

Chapter Text

The week following the piano lesson with Sherlock could not have been more beautiful, with sunny days and cool, clear evenings. The moon was waxing and the days getting longer, allowing more time in the gardens after dinner, and moonlight and stars even after the sun went down.

But Mycroft’s unexpected arrival, with three uniformed officers soon following, put a quick end to any plans to enjoy the out-of-doors.

It would not be an easy week for John.

Annie came to fetch him just after lunch on Tuesday. Word had traveled quickly around Rosethorne of the senior Holmes’ arrival, and about the officers accompanying him who’d been given guest rooms. The cook was loudly lamenting her orders not to serve chicken or shellfish while the guests were on premise, complaining about allergies and special diets, and Mycroft pulled Lestrade from his garden duties and assigned him to helping Simon tend to the needs of the guests. Lestrade looked uncomfortable in the more formal clothing, and John caught him pulling at his white collar more than once.

“Master Holmes says to come at once, and to bring your bag,” Annie instructed, looking flustered. She stood at John’s door, nervously waiting, while he shrugged into his jacket and grabbed his bag. “He’s sent away both Simon and Greg,” she whispered as he followed her into the corridor. She took an unexpected turn, and he realized they weren’t headed to the usual parlour. “It’s odd, it is. All this secrecy every time he turns up with that tall major.”

She led him to a small antechamber, where Mrs. Hudson sat in a straight-backed chair against a wall, clutching a folded newspaper and looking out of sorts herself.

Annie didn’t wait for a take-your-leave, disappearing as soon as Mrs. Hudson dropped the newspaper on the chair beside her and stood. She eyed John, clearly taking in his rumpled trousers, and he bent to smooth them like a chagrined schoolboy when he caught the direction of her gaze.

“I thought it was an emergency,” he explained. He lifted his right hand to indicate his medical bag. “Annie told me to come at once and to bring my kit.”

“Right.” She glanced at the closed door opposite the door to the corridor, then stepped closer to him. “It’s not what you expect, Dr. Watson,” she whispered, removing the bag from his grasp and dropping it onto the chair on top of her newspaper. “Be strong. Remember who this is really about – who you really answer to.”

She didn’t give him time to ask questions, or puzzle out the enigma she’d presented, but knocked briskly on the closed door, waited a moment, then opened it.

“Dr. Watson, as you requested,” she said briskly, stepping aside so that John could enter the room.

“And tell him I’m not the butler,” she muttered as she brushed by.

John squared his shoulders and walked confidently into the room, eyes on Mycroft who sat directly opposite the door, at the head of a table stacked with books and papers and the remains of a tea. The three men in uniform turned toward the door, and John instinctively stopped and saluted. A colonel, a major and a captain – John was immediately on his guard. It was only when he slid into the empty chair Holmes indicated with a nod of his head that he took in the other man in the room. He wasn’t even moderately successful at hiding his surprise when Sherlock Holmes slowly raised his head. He was sitting directly across from John, and had had his head lowered, staring into his own lap.

John slowly turned his gaze away from Sherlock and fixed his eyes on Mycroft Holmes.

“Captain Watson – good of you to join us,” Holmes said, perfunctorily straightening a stack of paper before him.

John nodded, straightened his posture and folded his hands on the table, waiting. He found it difficult to keep his eyes focused on Mycroft, as Sherlock was, by far, the most interesting – and surprising – thing in this room.

“Colonel Chambers, Major Sholto, Captain Anderson.” Mycroft indicated each in turn, then turned his attention back to John. “And I don’t need to introduce my brother.”

John allowed himself a glance at Sherlock, but Sherlock was staring at his lap again, and didn’t bother to acknowledge the introductions. John frowned, and returned his focus to Mycroft.

“We are interested, Captain Watson, in your prognosis regarding Sherlock’s health.”

Interesting that he was using Captain and not Doctor, thought John. Mycroft was reminding him, perhaps, that despite his lack of uniform, he hadn’t been discharged, and had to both answer to and obey his superiors.

Sherlock coughed.

“Sherlock’s health?” John glanced around the table, frowning, understanding that whatever it was Sherlock was involved in before his accident had enough importance to attract three officers to Rosethorne.

“Every single person in this room has a vested interest in my brother’s ability to finish the project he had undertaken before he was injured. He’d made significant progress, and a breakthrough was imminent.”

John chanced another glance at Sherlock. His lips were tightly compressed, and he gave John no outward clue as to how he wished John to answer the question.

“Unfortunately, there’s no cure for epilepsy,” John stated bluntly. “Sherlock continues to have seizures, though the frequency and intensity vary greatly. I’ve been working with his aide, Billy Wiggins, to track potential triggers.” He glanced at Sherlock to find the man’s sharp eyes on him – he hadn’t divulged this bit of information before. Sherlock continued to scrutinize him as John continued. “His overall health, outside of the epilepsy, is good, though he remained underweight. He seems to have recovered from his injuries otherwise.”

“Can he return to work?” asked the colonel, narrowing his eyes and sizing up Sherlock in a way that made John bristle.

Sherlock huffed in a breath but said nothing.

John considered his words carefully before answering. He didn’t know anymore what Sherlock himself wanted. He wanted his Mind Palace back, of course, but to what end? He’d assumed, when he first met the man, that he desperately wanted to return to his codebreaking job. But more recently, he’d begun to wonder if Sherlock was trying to restore his Mind Palace for other reasons, the codebreaking being nothing but an incidental benefit to the restoration. However, Sherlock’s desires aside, he felt obligated to answer the question as best he could.

“An epileptic is often able to work,” he stated, as neutrally as possible, glancing yet again at Sherlock, who was still looking at him, but whose face was oddly blank. “His co-workers must be trained to recognize the signs of an oncoming seizure, and learn how to take steps to help him avoid injury. They’ll need training to recognize when to call in medical help – and that medical help should be on-site, or readily available. He’ll have an easier time if we can more fully work out his triggers – the conditions or circumstances that might bring the seizures on more frequently. Common triggers are lack of sleep, bright or flashing lights and stress.”

Major Sholto waited for John to finish. He looked at Mycroft, received a nod in response, then directed his attention to John. He had a handsome face, though weathered and tired, and he ran his hand through thinning hair and scratched the base of his neck.

“I see no reason why we can’t provide an amenable working environment, with personnel trained to be attentive to Mr. Holmes’ needs. As for the medical help – ”

“Dr. Watson. Non-negotiable.”

“Sherlock!”

John’s head snapped from Sholto to Sherlock to Mycroft.

“Dr. Watson. Though what good it will do to bring me back when I’ve only just begun to restructure my Mind Palace I don’t know. And the new system I have in place is rudimentary at best.”

They were all staring at Sherlock now, Sholto with amusement, Mycroft and the colonel with resignation, and Anderson with clear annoyance. Only John looked at all surprised. It was evident that this was not these officers’ first meeting with Sherlock Holmes.

“Something is better than nothing at all,” said Captain Anderson with an unattractive, thin-lipped smile. John instantly disliked the man.

Mycroft, however, ignored the captain and leaned forward.

“What do you need, Sherlock?” He let his gaze move to John, and stared at him long enough for the others to take notice. “I’ve given you all you’ve asked for.”

“I didn’t ask to be dead!” Sherlock snapped. He settled back into his chair, trying for aloof. “It’s very distracting.”

“Distracting?” Mycroft shot back, thankfully fast enough for John to swallow the chortle that threatened to erupt.

“Limiting,” Sherlock said. He glared at Mycroft, then dropped his gaze to his hand and began to pick at a meticulous fingernail.

“He’s better than anything we have, even in his current condition.” The colonel eyed Sherlock with an inscrutable look, which Sherlock could not have seen, given his attention to his finger.

This meeting was not going to end well.

“Captain Watson, your report is being changed, effective immediately, to Major James Sholto.” Sherlock looked up as the colonel spoke, suddenly more interested in the proceedings. “Unfortunately, you will still some responsibility for your other patients. It is critical that life at Rosethorne continue to appear exactly as it does now to anyone on the outside.”

A document was passed across to John in a sealed manila envelope. Sherlock watched its progress from Sholto’s fingers to John’s, frowning. John saw him look up at his brother, and caught Mycroft’s quick head shake.

For his part, John opened the envelope, using his left hand to hold it and his right to break the seal and extract the single typewritten page. He scanned the document, the looked over at Sholto.

“Rosethorne?”

“If you haven’t already gathered, Sherlock won’t be moving back to London. We’ve deemed it safer, and certainly more prudent, to build a new team around him here.”

“A small team,” Sherlock clarified. He spoke with his eyes fixed on Anderson, and he wrinkled his nose again as if smelling something unpleasant.

“We’ve made virtually no progress on the – on Project Bluebird – since the attack that injured Mr. Holmes.” Captain Anderson spoke in one of those superior tones that raised John’s hackles. “The rest of the team will be redirected to other critical projects, and Bluebird comes back to roost here with The Magpie.”

“That’s me,” Sherlock explained. John thought he looked amused, and was apparently paying only peripheral attention to the very serious matter being discussed. “Code name Magpie. I imagine they’ll have to shoot you now, John.”

“Not funny,” John said, though he was amused. He just didn’t need Sherlock to know that.

“And I haven’t actually agreed to this yet,” Sherlock stated. He summarily ignored the uniformed officers when he spoke and directed his statements to Mycroft.

“You know the alternative,” Mycroft said, but he didn’t sound threatening.

“I highly doubt they’d send an epileptic into combat.”

“They’d give you an office job, brother dear. You’d like it even less.”

“I’m not ready.”

He looked like he was heading for a pout. John watched him, fascinated by this unexpected behavior. It wasn’t the Sherlock Holmes he’d grown to know over these past weeks, the Sherlock who hurriedly walked the garden paths, putting the exercise behind him so that he could then drop to the ground to study bees until the sun went down.

“Sherlock, it cannot wait any longer.”

Mycroft’s hands were flat on the polished wood before him. He raised one, and made as if to pound it on the table, but stopped himself with great effort, and slowly lowered it again.

“You said you were making progress – you mentioned – restructuring?” Major Sholto had shuffled the papers before him, clearly checking notes he had made over the course of the meeting.

Sherlock turned his gaze to the major, finally acknowledging there were others in the room.

“Restructuring the Mind Palace,” he clarified, speaking slowly. “I have found a new model – an organic model to replace the traditional cataloguing system.” He paused, nodding at John. “All credit to Dr. Watson for that discovery, by the way.”

“What are you …?” Sherlock had never mentioned this before.

“But no matter,” interrupted Sherlock, smiling at John as if John should know perfectly well what he was talking about. “It isn’t ready. I cannot deploy a solution that isn’t fundamentally stable.”

“But you can work,” insisted Sholto. “You have traditional means.” He looked at Sherlock earnestly, and John wondered, not for the first time, just what Sherlock was decoding. “We realise it will be more slowly than before, but progress is progress.”

“This is important!” Anderson slammed his fist onto the table, rattling the teacups.

“I realise it is important, but I am in no position to guarantee success.”

“Trying is all we ask,” Sholto replied. They’d all ignored Anderson completely. John sincerely hoped the man wouldn’t be taking residence here at Rosethorne.

No one spoke for several moments. Sholto shuffled through more papers, the colonel stared at Anderson and Mycroft stared at Sherlock, who had gone back to staring at John.

John cleared his throat.

“I’m afraid – ” He paused as all heads turned toward him. Sherlock quirked an eyebrow.

“Conditions,” he stated. “I’m afraid there are conditions to Sherlock starting to work again.”

“Dr. Watson, you are hardly in a position to impose conditions.”

“Captain Watson,” snapped Sherlock, glaring at Anderson. “And as my physician, he has every right to impose conditions, which I have every right to consider once I’ve heard them.”

“Thank you.” With effort, John kept the amusement he felt from registering on his face. This was the strangest meeting he’d ever endured. Sherlock was completely unpredictable, and that unpredictability was beginning to make life interesting again.

“Your conditions, Dr. Watson?” Mycroft stared at John, hands folded before him, belying the impatience he surely felt.

John squared his shoulders. Sherlock was not going to like what he was about to say.

“He can work no more than four hours a day, preferably in two sessions with a significant break between. A minimum of three hours each day spent out of doors, walking or gardening or doing some sort of physical exercise that doesn’t tax his brain. Regular meals, plenty of water, no alcohol, and a minimum of eight hours of sleep each night. He’ll benefit as well from a regular schedule – I’m willing to set one and try to enforce it.”

“Completely out of the question,” said Sherlock, speaking as if the matter were settled.

“Actually, it sounds rather sensible,” commented Mycroft. “Rather like raising a child, isn’t it?”

Sherlock glared at him. Mycroft’s look was just shy of a smirk.

“It sounds boring. It’s nearly as restrictive as being dead. I do not require sleep, nor do I require a caretaker.” He let out a dramatic sigh. “Eating is boring.”

Sholto and the colonel ignored him while Anderson froze, a biscuit raised to his lips.

“A reasonable request, Captain.” Major Sholto glanced at Mycroft. “Good advice for most of us, in fact. He will be able to work up to longer hours, yes?”

“I’d hope so,” John answered. “If he settles into the schedule well, and doesn’t have an upswing in the seizures, we can adjust it after a few weeks.”

“I have no plans to settle into a schedule,” murmured Sherlock. “I’m an adult, if you hadn’t noticed.”

He spoke more to Mycroft then to John.

“You’re ill. You have a serious condition,” John retorted. “One that is aggravated by stress and lack of sleep.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. The Major chuckled.

“You’ve known him a while, Major, haven’t you?” asked John.

“Long enough,” he answered. “Long enough to appreciate your offer to force him into a schedule.”

ooOOOoo

They’d been dismissed from the meeting soon afterward, and Sherlock led John quickly down to the music room, where he dropped into a chair and pulled his knees up to his chin, appearing to sink into a sulk as he ignored John completely.

“What?” John stood with arms folded and stared at Sherlock. “Sherlock, you are not twelve years old. You don’t get to do this.”

“Thinking.”

“Fine.”

The man was so utterly exasperating – brilliant one moment, sulking the next, acting out in front of John’s superior officers.

John sat at the piano and began a right-handed retelling of Three Blind Mice, pointedly ignoring Sherlock.

“Left hand.”

“You aren’t my mother.”

Wonderful. Now he sounded like a twelve-year old.

“Nor am I your commanding officer. Left hand, please.”

“Ah.” John turned on the bench, eyes narrowing as he considered Sherlock and his sulk. “My new commanding officer.”

Sherlock didn’t look up. He was staring through his steepled fingers.

“Sholto. What do you know of him, Sherlock?”

Sherlock didn’t answer, though a twitch of his lips let John know he’d heard the question. Curious.

“You’ve known him long, then? Did you work for him in London?”

“Classsified,” Sherlock said, tight-lipped, through his steepled hands.

John swung around and played the simple tune – right-handed – again. And again.

“If you insist on playing that infernal song, do us both a favor and use your other hand.”

“While you tell me about James Sholto,” countered John, curiously pleased at evoking this reaction in Sherlock.

As Sherlock didn’t reply, he did another quick three-fingered round of Three Blind Mice.

And another.

And another.

He kept playing for some time, and didn’t hear Sherlock stand, and nearly jumped when the other man slid onto the bench beside him. He reached over for John’s right hand.

“You are insufferable,” he said, but there was a fond note in his voice. “No one - no one - outlasts me, but I cannot bear to hear those discordant notes a moment longer. Use your left hand, and I’ll trade information on your new commanding officer for a few well-played notes.”

He moved John’s right hand down to rest on his lap, but John didn’t lift his left hand.

“This doesn’t have to be a game, you realise,” he said. “I’m quite happy to practice, and you could just tell me about Sholto.”

Sherlock was quite still beside him for a moment.

“It’s all a game, John Watson,” he said at last. He picked out a quick tune on the keys. “So let’s change the rules a bit. I’ll tell you a bit about the Major, and in turn, you tell me a bit about your wife.”

John had lifted his left hand, prepared to knock out the first few notes of the child’s song he’d been practicing, but at the unexpected mention of his wife, he fumbled, striking several keys.

He was spared an answer when the door opened, and his head turned toward the sound. As Molly Hooper entered the room, he was suddenly and very acutely aware of how close he was sitting to Sherlock, how intimate their position must have looked.

It occurred to him a second that Molly Hooper was standing in the doorway, staring at Sherlock Holmes.

Chapter Text

Understandably, it took some time to get things sorted with Molly.

She’d been waiting for them, they discovered, for more than an hour, tucked away in a small guest parlour after her own summons from Mycroft. The elder Mr. Holmes, however, had given her only the sketchiest of details, explaining that she’d be working with a new patient who would be her first priority from here forward, not that she could shirk her other duties, mind you. Mrs. Hudson had been charged with locating Sherlock and John and bringing Molly in to meet Sherlock and be briefed on this new project.

It did not escape John’s notice that Molly discovered them in nearly the same position she and he had been in so recently on the piano bench. That she didn’t seem to notice their physical proximity, or sink into a sense of déjà vu, should have immediately warned him that he was already in dangerous territory with Sherlock. Molly’s eyes were fixed on Sherlock, this new face at Rosethorne, and she hardly seemed to notice how close they’d been as John slid off the bench and stood.

Had John been left to his own devices, it would have been a very awkward conversation, full of clumsy falsehoods and excuses as he tripped over his tongue, but Molly held up her hand to silence him as he opened his mouth, and pointed at Sherlock instead.

“You’re his brother,” she said, her soft voice rising. “Mr. Holmes told me I was to meet my new patient – he told me I’m to start working with him now.” She spared a glance at John at last. “Lies work best when they’re built inside of a truth. You’ve not been minding Mr. Holmes’ sick grandfather but his brother and still a Holmes.” She took a few steps closer, studying Sherlock with a tentative smile. “I thought I’d walk in on John taking the old man’s pulse. I expected him to be very old, and very feeble, but with a mind as sharp as a whip. But you – ” She smiled again, and John thought the smile bled outside the lines of professionalism, “You certainly don’t look like you need my help, Mr. Holmes.”

“Actually, I do.”

Sherlock did not stand. He lifted his feet off the floor and, using the piano for leverage, spun himself around with a dramatic flourish so that he was facing Molly instead.

Show off, John thought, but he was more amused than annoyed.

Sherlock leaned back against the piano, and gave Molly a smile that seemed artificially bright. But then again, John had never seen Sherlock deal with a brand-new person before, and when he’d first met the man, it had been in decidedly different circumstances.

“Sherlock Holmes – you’ve obviously already met my bully of an older brother. I’m the smart one, of course – he has me breaking Nazi code in return for keeping my feet on English soil, not that I’d be an effective soldier with injury-induced epilepsy, but that’s another matter altogether. So – you’re part of the team now, but things aren’t exactly as they seem, are they? I don’t need physio – Dr. Watson has my physical needs quite covered already. I need an assistant. Someone intelligent, loyal, unattached – someone who won’t stand out otherwise here at Rosethorne – someone who can double as a qualified member of the medical care staff. I hoped you would work well with Dr. Watson, and I’m not at all disappointed.

When he finished speaking, Molly opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. Another false start. While she struggled to find her voice, John, whose brain had finally stopped short-circuiting at the idea of covering Sherlock’s physical needs – spoke up.

“What do you mean you hoped she’d work well with me? What are you saying, Sherlock?” He stopped, frowning as he remembered something. “Unattached?” He turned to look at Molly, who’d given up even trying to speak. “What has that got to do with anything?”

“John, sit down. Please.”

“Not until you explain.”

“John. Please?” Molly frowned at him, and he frowned back at her, but settled his hips against the back of a sizable leather chair, only half following their request to sit. In turn, Molly folded her arms over her chest and bravely faced Sherlock. “I think why I’m here is more important than whether or not I’m attached.”

“You’ll need to remain in the present, with the problem – the code. Attachments are – problematic. Distracting. Focus is paramount.” He lifted a shoulder lazily. “And besides, you’re not.”

“I’m not?”

“Sherlock.” John’s voice held a warning, but Sherlock ignored it. He studied Molly a moment longer, then stood and walked over to one of the stained-glass windows, leaning casually against the wall beside it.

“Attached,” he stated. He let the word sink into the silence of the room. “You’d like to be, though. But John clearly isn’t your type. He’s too moody, too short-tempered, and not nearly as attentive as you’d demand. Furthermore, he isn’t predisposed to being a father. He’d be an admirable one, of course, if the role were pressed upon him, but he’d not easily make the conscious choice to reproduce. You, on the other hand, are looking forward to children – three – no. Two. You’d like to return to work when they are old enough to fend for themselves for a few hours a day. Don’t feel guilty – my own mother did the same thing and look at me – I turned out perfectly fine.”

He spoke quickly - cleanly, and quite clinically, and John and Molly both paid him the sort of attention one gives a fast-talking salesman.

“Sherlock – that’s ridiculous. You can’t know those things. You’re just guessing, and making her uncomfortable.”

“I’m not uncomfortable,” snapped Molly. “And no – he can’t know those things. But he does. Somehow, /he does.” She gave John her attention now, looking a bit hurt. “Do you really not want children, John?”

“I – no. My wife – Mary – she … she couldn’t have children. And that – that was fine. Good, I mean.”

“Good?” Molly looked mildly alarmed.

“No. Not good. She wanted them – desperately. But couldn’t – and it wasn’t important. That’s not why I married her.”

“You married her because she aggressively pursued you,” Sherlock interjected. “She made you feel wanted. Needed. And you’d gone too long without a wife – people wondered if you’d ever settle down. That unsettled you.”

John bristled. What the hell was wrong with Sherlock today? “How do you know that? That – that’s not in my file. It’s not even right – not exactly. And it doesn’t matter – I loved her.”

“You did. You were devoted to her.“

“You don’t know that!”

How the hell had this conversation even happened? John didn’t want to discuss his dead wife, his marriage, or his reasons for getting married in the first place. He’d expected that Sherlock would be explaining what part Molly was going to play in this new project of Sherlock’s, and why he’d chosen her to come to Rosethorne in the first place.

Because it was abundantly evident that Sherlock, or Mycroft, had chosen each person on staff here for a specific reason that went far beyond their ability to perform their primary role. Mrs. Hudson was much more than a housekeeper, Billy more than an aide, John more than a medical doctor. And Molly….

“Brains,” Sherlock said, as if reading John’s thoughts. “Pathetically hard to come by these days, yet Miss Hooper possesses them in abundance.”

“And that’s surprising, is it?” asked Molly. While John could tell she was fascinated by Sherlock, she wasn’t taken with him in the same way John had been when they’d first met. She was testing him – drawing him out. And Sherlock was acting extraordinarily odd. It almost seemed as if he was deliberately provoking Molly.

But why?

“Surprising? Not in the least. Your mother was quite gifted – her unrealised intellectual potential made her untimely breakdown and institutionalisation all the more tragic. Not that your father was a lightweight himself, though his refutal of the theory of genetic evolution in the peppered moth post Industrial Revolution left him a bit high and dry. But then again, he was always a bit of an outlier, wasn’t he?”

“Sherlock – stop that. You’re upsetting Molly.”

Molly kept her eyes fixed on Sherlock as she answered John, her voice measured. “He’s not upsetting me, John, though for some reason he’s certainly trying quite hard to do so.” She paused, narrowing her eyes as Sherlock turned away and looked out through a clear panel in the window, casually thrumming his fingertips against his thigh.

Molly moved past him then, until she was close enough to Sherlock to reach out and touch him. He shifted uncomfortably as she took the conversation in an unexpected direction.

“If Dr. Watson is not my type, Mr. Holmes, exactly whose type is he?”

John sank into a leather library chair and dropped his head into his hands. He couldn’t fathom how or why this conversation had veered from Molly’s past to his own love life. He squeezed his eyes shut for a long moment, willing it all away, but when he opened them, he was still locked in this surreal tableau.

Sherlock had stopped pretending to look out the window. John watched, as one might look on helplessly as two trains head for an inevitable collision, as Sherlock turned his head and met Molly’s eyes.

The smile he gave her this time around was genuine, and there was something akin to respect in his eyes.

Molly extended her hand. “Then we understand each other, Mr. Holmes.”

He took her hand and held it briefly. “Sherlock.”

“Molly.”

It was an interesting and auspicious first meeting, one John would recall often in the weeks ahead as they settled into an unconventional work routine, one riddled with innuendo and, oddly, a good deal of sexual tension. Sometimes, they were a three-legged stool, balancing each other out with science, logic and medicine. And at other times, they were no better than teenagers, misreading each other’s emotions and intentions, falling into piques of jealousy on his part, and unbecoming pouting on Sherlock’s.

And while John would recall the odd discussion of his own romantic attachments in this first meeting with Molly, he’d also remember this day for what followed soon after.

Odd formalities out of the way, Sherlock and Molly had established an immediate rapport. She seemed to take in stride that Sherlock had chosen her, from among a portfolio of candidates presented to him by his brother, to come to Rosethorne in the guise of physical therapist for the convalescents. John, on the other hand, was beginning to feel like an ant under a magnifying lens, blown up to ridiculous proportions, studied with minute detail.

He’d managed to move the conversation to the sitting area in the music room, and had then gone to find Mrs. Hudson to request tea and sandwiches. He’d found Sherlock and Molly conversing together when he returned, but they’d stopped talking abruptly, and Molly had looked quickly down at her lap while Sherlock cleared a space on the table for the tray. He was certain that neither dared to meet his eyes.

When Molly had poured and they’d each helped themselves to sandwiches, Sherlock leaned in toward her, elbows on his knees, chin resting on clasped hands.

“You’ve had the opportunity to work with John for some time now,” he began. “Do you think he’s on an appropriate course of therapy to mitigate the damage from his war injuries?”

And off they’d gone, rapidly discussing his injury, nerve damage, therapy, recovery potential and whether the better course of action might be to give up on the left hand altogether and instead concentrate on working with the right until it became his new dominant hand.

Molly’s sandwich sat on her plate, ignored, while her tea cooled in its china cup.

At times, John wanted to stand up and say “Hello! I’m right here! The chap you’re discussing like I’m lying over here in a coma.” Yet at other times, he was so engrossed in the thoughtful and measured way Molly considered Sherlock’s words, and the rapid-fire delivery of those words, that he forgot to be outraged on his own behalf. After all, these were his friends – his newest friends. His best friends.

Hell, he needed to be honest with himself.

His only friends.

He’d left everyone else behind, long ago. He’d left his previous life behind when he’d lost Mary, when he’d slipped over the edge of anger, when he’d joined up and marched himself into discipline, and order, and predictability. It was a penance, self-imposed, as harsh as he could make it, and he’d paid a high price to end up here at Rosethorne.

God he hoped these two didn’t fall into conversations like this all the time now. What more could there possibly be to discuss concerning nerve damage and restorative therapy?

“If the two of you can come up with a better treatment plan, by all means go about it,” he said, “I’ll just sit here and eat the rest of these sandwiches and warm up my tea while you go on talking like you’ve known each other since you were children, and please do continue discussing me as if I’m deaf, dumb and blind and decidedly not a doctor myself. Don’t mind me – don’t mind me at all.”

He reached for another sandwich, helping himself to two then topping off his tea. He was aware, as he added milk and methodically stirred it in, that the room had become very quiet.

Sherlock cleared his throat.

“I – Forgive me – I’ve been waiting quite a long while to meet Miss Hooper - ”

“Molly,” she corrected, smiling down at her cold tea.

Sherlock sighed. “I’ve been waiting some time to meet Molly in person, and I’ve quite a few questions for her.”

John raised an eyebrow, tapped his spoon against the rim of his cup, then balanced it on the edge of the saucer.

“About your project,” John said, an odd little thrill tingling in the back room of his consciousness. Time to get this conversation moving along. “About the work.”

Sherlock blinked. Molly’s frowned again.

“My project. The work. Right.” Sherlock steepled those long fingers in front of his mouth and looked extremely thoughtful for several moments. Molly seemed vaguely uncomfortable. She’d just looked away from John, back toward Sherlock, when he suddenly lowered his hands.

“My apologies,” he said. “Damaged mind palace.” He tapped his temple.

“I’m sorry?” Molly held her hand over her cup as John offered a warm up. “Mind palace?”

And just like that, the conversation took another abrupt ninety degree turn, and Sherlock was delivering what amounted to a veritable Shakespearean soliloquy, on his feet again, pacing and gesturing, expounding on his mind palace in such a way that John, had he not already been introduced to the concept, would have believed it to be a living organism, quite possibly the Prince of Whales or the Archbishop of Canterbury.

At no time during the lengthy treatise did Molly interrupt or lose her focus. When Sherlock stopped at last, plunking himself back down in his chair and drawing his legs up so that his chin rested on his knee, he continued to gaze at her expectantly.

When no one spoke, he gestured impatiently.

“Well?”

“Bravo?” John suggested, earning a quick glare from Sherlock. He didn’t recall Sherlock treating him to such an outlandish performance when he’d first explained his mind palace. Why the hell had he just flounced about like a one-man circus when he and Sherlock had had a regular conversation - more or less – on the heels of one of Sherlock’s seizures.

Oh.

Molly.

Molly.

She’d shown an interest in John, and he’d gently pushed her away. He hadn’t been interested in her that way. As a friend, a confidante, yes. But he had no desire to risk that friendship with something more.

But now, Molly’s attention was on Sherlock. Sherlock, who was younger than John, taller, wealthier, smarter, and certainly more attractive. Sherlock, whose family owned all of Rosethorne. Who was so intelligent, so accomplished, that England was waiting for him to recover to end the bloody war. Sherlock, who had hand-picked Molly to come to Rosethorne to work alongside him. It seemed incongruous to think of Sherlock that way, but Sherlock was a man, a man who’d been kept isolated for quite some time. Just because John hadn’t shown an interest in Molly didn’t mean no one else would.

Molly, it turned out, did have something to say about Sherlock’s performance.

“You’ve lost your indexing system.” Molly looked serious and thoughtful. It was a good look on her, John thought, feeling all the more strongly that she was the kind of woman Sherlock would find attractive.

Sherlock kept his gaze fixed on her.

“And somehow – somehow you know about mine.”

Jesus Christ! Not Molly too!

“You have one too?” John shook his head in disbelief.

Molly blushed. “It started as a hobby, really. Just something that worked for me when I was learning anatomy. It’s nothing like Sherlock’s– because it’s not in my head. I documented the entire process on paper – it’s possible to apply it to other disciplines.”

John, medical degree and years of practice notwithstanding, felt rather like the third wheel in the group. While Sherlock and Molly continued to discuss how they might apply Molly’s organisational system to Sherlock’s intelligence work, John watched them as they practically leaned their heads together over the table, Molly drawing a matrix on the back of a piece of sheet music, Sherlock grabbing the pen from her hand, redrawing tables and populating them with letters and numbers that made no sense at all to John.

When he made his excuses and stood to leave a few minutes later, stating that he had to check on his patients, both Sherlock and Molly were sitting cross-legged on the floor, the coffee table between them, the tea and sandwiches still forgotten. Sherlock did look up long enough to ask if John would be returning for their dinnertime outing.

John paused, one hand on the door.

“Would you like to go out this evening?” he asked.

Molly’s head swiveled quickly toward him, and John, realising what he’s said, worked to keep his expression neutral.

Sherlock, however, turned back to the matrix, apparently oblivious.

“I believe it was one of your conditions, John. When you agreed with Mycroft that I was fit enough to work again. Six o’clock, then?”

Molly continued to stare at John as he fumbled through an acknowledgment, backing out the door and closing it firmly behind him.

He didn’t make his way back to the other wing, despite his stated intention. Instead, he slipped outside, breathing deep gulps of fresh air and walking quickly and deliberately down the bricked garden path that led along the drive. After a time, he veered off along the ivy-covered garden wall that led to the locked gate.

He tried, as he walked, to understand why he felt so conflicted.

It was ridiculous. He was a grown man. Rosethorne was a mere blip in the timeline of his life.

A crow’s caw, sharp and coarse in the quiet gardens, caught his attention, and he located the bird on a nearby tree, scolding him as if this day was exactly like any other.

“What are you so riled up about?” John asked, addressing the bird as it studied him from a low branch on the tree.

The bird cawed even more harshly, and as John watched it, he noticed boards nailed to the tree, old and rotten, leading to a long-forgotten stand in the crook where the trunk split into three. The stand had been painted at one time, but the blue paint was faded with the sun and wind, sunk into the aged timber, coated over with years of pollen and dust. He walked over to investigate, remembering the swing on the other side of the garden wall through the gate, and found he could reach the decaying platform with his hand. The crow had flown to a nearby tree, but watched John suspiciously as John considered his find, imagining a small boy playing pirates on a three-masted ship. The platform was built over the bowl formed by the split trunk, but the bowl had become exposed as the platform crumbled. He stood on tiptoe to examine it, and smiled as he realised he’d found the crow’s stash – bits of shiny paper and foil, a gold button, a hatpin.

And something else – larger than the other items in the stash, and far too heavy for a crow to have lifted.

A key. A very old, very heavy, very ornate brass key, the kind that might have once opened an old-fashioned garden gate.

“No,” John said to himself, remembering Mycroft’s words that day in the garden. He looked up at the raven, still standing guard nearby. “The keeper of the keys? You?”

The bird cawed and hopped to a higher branch.

“No. The gate has a new lock on it,” John mused. The key – even if it had once opened the garden – was useless.

He pocketed it nonetheless, and continued walking. The key might be useless, but it was an interesting story, one that perhaps Sherlock could suss out later tonight in the garden.

The weight of the key in his pocket was comforting as John made his way back to the manor. Far above, the crow watched him. He should have remembered that crows were intelligent birds, and problem solvers, with long memories and a fondness for shiny trinkets.

Chapter Text

“Corvus corvus,” Sherlock said. “I’ve heard crows in the garden but haven’t seen one in here before.”

The crow in question flew from its perch atop a tree down to the fountain, where it extended its wings and cawed again. It appeared to be focusing its attention on John.

“It doesn’t like you, John,” Sherlock said. He’d stopped midway through his bored circuit around the perimeter of the garden to watch the crow’s posturing. He was clearly amused.

John, still feeling a bit off after a long day of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings he couldn’t yet reconcile, was quite aware of the key in his pocket as he glanced warily at the crow. It was an ordinary looking bird, one of dozens or more than hung about the manor. It was impossible to know if it was the same bird that had scolded him earlier from the tree with the old treehouse platform, but the possibility seemed remote.

Yet something gnawed at the back of his mind – something about crows. What had his grandmother always said about them as she gamely tried to keep them out of her garden?

“Crows have long memories,” Sherlock called to him as he continued forward to complete his circuit. “This one recognises you.”

That was it. Long memories. Smart birds, with long memories. He sometimes wondered if he was thinking aloud given the number of times Sherlock appeared to read his mind.

The crow in question had flown off the fountain to find a perch in a tree whose branches hung over the wall. They both watched it hop down to a lower branch then spread its wings and caw, once again, in John’s direction.

John, feeling oddly protective of the strange key he’d taken from the tree, and somewhat picked on by the crow, patted his pocket, feeling the key’s weight.

“I suppose it might recognise me,” John conceded. “Funny they can tell us apart – they all look the same to me.”

Sherlock stopped beside John and dropped onto the bench with a scoff. “You’ve not been throwing stones at it, have you?”

Now John scoffed. He held his left wrist with his right hand and made a show of lifting it toward Sherlock, letting it hang limply, as if he had no control of that hand at all.

“That hand is weak, John, not crippled,” Sherlock said, his voice a very gentle scold, as if reminding him that in the grand scheme of things, he had very little to complain about. “And besides, you have two hands. Surely you could toss a stone with your right?”

“And hit anything?” John dropped his hand, letting it fall heavily onto his thigh. “But no – I haven’t thrown a single thing – rock or stone or clod of earth or even breadcrumbs - at any crows.” He scowled at the crow, who seemed to scowl right back at him.

“Then you’ve been in its hoard.” Sherlock’s head swiveled toward John as John tensed, his hand moving up over the key in his pocket. “Wait – you have!” He looked delighted with himself to have solved the puzzle so quickly. “Tell me, John! What have you taken from him?”

“You’ve got to be joking! You can’t know that. You don’t - you….”

“It’s in your pocket, isn’t it?” Sherlock had turned toward him from the other side of the bench and was studying him intently. “Your hand – you instinctively tried to cover up something. What is it, John? Show me.” He held out his hand, wiggling his fingers, then, when John showed no sign of plucking the item out of his pocket, adding, “Please?”

John shook his head, and attempted to deflect. “Do you honestly believe that bird is following me around because I stole something from its nest?”

Sherlock grinned. “Show me,” he persisted. “What do you have in your pocket?”

John sighed. He certainly wasn’t going to beat Sherlock at this game. “I can’t.” He gestured at the bird. “He might see it.”

Sherlock laughed. “It’s a bird, John. You’re quite a bit bigger than it, and it doesn’t have opposable thumbs. It can’t shoot you, or even drop a rock big enough to hurt you onto your head. And really – if it became a pest and tried to peck your eyes out, I’d catch it and we’d bake it in a pie for dinner.”

John didn’t comment on the implied pun, eating crow indeed. But Sherlock grinned nonetheless at his own cleverness. The bird in question seemed to have tired of watching them, or perhaps was frightened off by all the talk of stones and pies. It flew off with a loud squawk, and John watched as another bird fluttered in to take its place on the branch. It was a robin, however, and could not be mistaken for the crow that had just departed.

Sherlock’s hand was still outstretched, and John eyed the newcomer suspiciously, but reached into his pocket for the key, dropping it unceremoniously into Sherlock’s hand. Sherlock’s expression changed immediately, though he schooled his features quickly, and affected an air of casual interest. He turned the key over on his hand, then held it up, studying it in the fading light.

“An old gate key,” he said at last. He continued, sounding a bit forced. “When I was a boy, grandfather had an old gardener named Ben. He had an entire ring of keys like this. We could always hear him coming – no matter what mischief we were up to.” He smiled fondly at the memory. “It gave us ample time to escape trouble.”

John forced himself to remain silent, trying to school his features as well as Sherlock had. His mind was racing as pieces of the puzzle he’d long been pursuing began to fall into place.

The keeper of the keys.

“Us? You and your brother, then?” He forced out a chuckle. “I can’t imagine Mycroft breaking rules.”

Sherlock shrugged. “He wouldn’t have – anywhere else. But when we came here, we only had each other. We spent most of the summer here when I was seven. Mummy and Father were travelling abroad, and our Aunt Addie, Grandfather’s youngest sister, minded us here while she took care of grandfather. We thought him quite old even then – he spent nearly all of his time indoors and saw us only at dinner, which was always a formal affair. We had to dress for it, and Aunt Addie schooled us in manners, though Mycroft was born with a serviette in his lap and didn’t need instruction at all. But I was only a boy, and Aunt Addie would bribe me with an after-dinner outing in the gardens if I managed not to upset my water or chew with my mouth open or call Mycroft a nincompoop during the meal. I nearly always won my reward, and Mycroft would take me out, still in our dinner clothes. No one would be about at that time of day to keep me out of trees and off walls, but Mycroft wouldn’t allow me to risk damaging my clothing.”

John imagined Sherlock as a child, and had no trouble at all seeing him sitting on a garden bench, petulantly pulling at this cuffs and kicking stones out of the way with well-shined shoes, or running along the paths ahead of his brother, brandishing a stick like an army rifle.

“You’re quiet,” Sherlock said. “Unusually so.” He didn’t wait for an answer, just tapped the key in his palm. “A crow could hardly carry this,” he murmured. “Perhaps – a large crow, for a short distance. So you didn’t find this key in a crow’s nest, but a crow was guarding it nonetheless. A tree then. The key was in a tree – though how you came to find it there is the real mystery, isn’t it?”

John had an idea that this mystery wasn’t a mystery at all. Not for Sherlock. John would wager, from Sherlock’s initial reaction at seeing the key, that he’d seen it before, or had lost one like it himself. Still, he went along with it and played the game. “I have no idea how you do that – but yes, it was in a tree. In an old tree house, actually – well, under the ruins of the platform, in the bowl made where the trunk split. I put my hand on it by accident, and when I saw what it was, I pocketed it. I thought it interesting. But now I know that the gardener had a whole ring of them when you were a boy, so it’s hardly unique.”

Sherlock watched John as he spoke, and John shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny. He knew that Sherlock, with his sharp mind and uncanny ability to see right through him, was very likely piecing together an explanation for John’s mood, and his reluctance to show Sherlock the key and to admit that the crow’s behavior seemed unusual.

“A treehouse?” Sherlock considered John, and his face took on an odd look, as if he really hadn’t expected that answer but was nonetheless not at all surprised that John had found a treehouse on the estate. He looked forward, out past the edges of the garden in which they sat. “Mycroft and I built a treehouse here that summer – well, not a real treehouse. I’d never held a hammer or saw in my life, and as I recall, he had scant more experience than I. But old Ben had torn down a rickety garden shed – watching him take it down had entertained me for an entire day – and we absconded with some of the planks, and hid them in a back garden. We drew up plans for a treehouse – I wanted to model it after a pirate ship, with a crow’s nest on top, but Mycroft wanted a castle with turrets.”

“And a throne room, I imagine,” John quipped, falling into the story.

Sherlock smiled. “And dungeons,” he said dryly. “Functional dungeons.”

John grinned. If the treehouse he’d found earlier had in fact been the treehouse Sherlock was describing, he was pretty sure neither boy had had his way in the end.

“In the end, we had quite enough wood for two treehouses, so Mycroft convinced me to help him with the castle, promising to help me with my pirate ship once the castle treehouse was completed. I was only seven, mind you, so I reluctantly agreed, though I recall having my suspicions about his motivation even then.”

He glanced at John, then continued his story. “He picked out a suitable tree, one close to the locked garden – the one I mentioned before, John, that Grandfather had locked up.” He glanced at the key in his hand, and John imagined that the key might have opened the lock in the old gate. “I was fascinated by that garden, but Mycroft always warned me away – he told me the garden was haunted, that our grandmother was buried there and her ghost was trapped inside. But oddly enough his tree was positioned such that if we climbed high enough, we could see over the garden walls.”

John chuckled at Mycroft’s tactics. “He may be an arse, but he’s clever.”

“Tricking a seven-year old isn’t the most laudable accomplishment of his life,” Sherlock clarified. “He also steals from the blind and trips old ladies in the street.”

“And steals candy from children.” The two men exchanged an amused glance. “Go on. How does it all end?”

“As you would expect, of course. I helped him with his castle in the trees, and I spent so much time climbing higher to see over the wall that we ran out of time and never got around to my pirate ship.” He shrugged, indifferent. “Not that his looked anything like a castle, mind you. Two platforms, a bigger one above the smaller one, a couple of half-hearted boards attempting a wall in the back, and steps leading up to the crook where I would sit and peer over the garden wall. Mycroft assured me I was safe from ghosts up there – that they’d only haunt me if I tried to go over the wall or through a gate.”

“You saw the loophole, though, right?” asked John. He glanced at the sky – they’d have an early moon tonight, but dusk was rapidly settling and they should be getting inside soon. But conversation was so easy now, with Sherlock transported to childhood and talking about the very garden that had been on his mind so much of late, that he pushed aside the urgency and let Sherlock go on.

“Of course. Not through. Not over. So – under.” Sherlock smiled at John, and there was approval in his eyes. He liked that John was keeping up with him.

“And?”

“What do you think?” He was teasing, and John found that he savoured the attention.

“I think Mycroft watched you dig under the wall from the treehouse and had a good laugh at your expense.”

“Watched me try to dig. I soon gave up and stomped off, after calling Mycroft every bad word I knew.” He tossed the key up and snatched it again from the air. “And then, Dr. Watson – I stole Ben’s keys. Found the ring on a garden bench while he was up a ladder pruning a tree, and, believing that this one, the largest, the most ornate, had to fit the gate to that particular garden, I worked it off the ring and ran off with it.”

John elbowed him. “I knew it – I knew you’d seen that key before!”

Sherlock shrugged. “I must say I was quite surprised to see it again. I’m certain it’s the same – you’ll surely guess that I was wrong – the key didn’t fit that lock, and it became nothing but a child’s toy – we kept it in the treehouse, and obviously left it there when we left at the end of the summer. Odd that it’s remained there all these years, but then again, where would it go on its own? As I said earlier, it’s too large for a crow to carry off.”

He handed the key back to John then, but John pressed his hand back.

“Keep it.”

“You might need it – you might happen upon a locked gate in your wanderings.”

John shook his head. When he spoke, he found himself revealing what he’d been holding so close. Revealing it without regrets – it seemed the appropriate time, at last, to tell Sherlock about what he’d found.

“Actually, Sherlock, there’s a new lock on that garden gate. This key wouldn’t begin to fit it.”

And the story spilled out. The locked gate, the overgrown garden within. The gate left ajar, and his peek into the second garden locked up within the first where Lestrade worked with clippers on the maze of living things.

“And he was whistling – I’d been told he was mute, and had never heard him utter a sound. But there he was with his clippers over his shoulders. I had a veiled chat with your brother about it – he knows I’ve been prowling about out here. He warned me about locked doors, and told me I should find the keeper of the keys.”

“You never mentioned it,” Sherlock said, studying John curiously.

“I’m well aware of that,” John answered. “It wasn’t important until I began looking for a place to bring you to exercise outside. And – well, I don’t really know.” He sighed, and looked at Sherlock, chagrinned. “I know it sounds silly – but I think I wanted to spring it on you. A surprise – the big reveal. But I wanted to solve it for myself – figure out how to get in again, without you puzzling it out for me. It really does seem ridiculous now, looking at it from this angle with you sitting here telling me you used to look over the walls, afraid of ghosts.”

“I wasn’t afraid.”

“Of course you were afraid. You were seven years old. If you weren’t afraid, you’d have scaled that wall on your own and explored it for yourself.”

Sherlock laughed. “I suppose there’s nothing stopping us now, is there?”

John smiled. “Lestrade has the key. We’ve only got to ask him – but I haven’t figured out how to go about doing that.”

Sherlock looked puzzled. “What do you mean? It’s a simple request, isn’t it?”

“For you, perhaps. You know about the garden – you remember it from your childhood. But the only reason I know is that I slipped in one day when he’d not closed the gate, and spied on him while he worked. I could have announced myself, but I didn’t. It’s rather – well, awkward – to admit that now.”

John wasn’t sure that Sherlock actually understood – but he nodded. “I’ll ask, then. Tomorrow. I’ll tell him that I remember the locked garden from my childhood visits, and suggest it as a place where I can spend more time outdoors now that you’ve mandated it as a condition for starting on the project again. I’ll ask him if he has the key.”

“You make it sound so easy,” John said. He stood, stretching to work a kink out of his back. “We should go in – it’s getting dark.”

Sherlock stood. “I’d like to see Molly again – if not tonight, then in the morning. We’ve got quite a bit to discuss before we start in earnest.”

“You two seemed to get along well,” John said, keeping his voice neutral.

“Famously,” Sherlock agreed. “Her credentials looked good on paper, and she didn’t disappoint.”

“She’s great,” John said. “She’s immensely over-qualified for her position here – I’ve always wondered why Mycroft chose here. It seemed a waste, really, since she could help so many more people at a hospital in London. I just thought him selfish and greedy – I figured he had need of her himself.”

Sherlock glanced at him, and John blushed.

“For physical therapy,” John clarified.

“Of course,” Sherlock agreed. “I couldn’t imagine…”

“She’s – well, I think she’s lonely.” The words fell between them, a bit awkward. “She’s looking for something – for someone. I should tell you that now, in case – well, in case you’re interested. I’m not, and I think she knows that now. I was rather hoping you’d be…interested.”

“Interested,” Sherlock repeated. He was looking at John rather oddly.

“Yes. Interested.” John forced a smile, hoping he looked encouraging.

“In?” Sherlock raised an eyebrow, expression inscrutable.

“In Molly?” John hadn’t meant to make it sound like a question, but surely Sherlock couldn’t be that clueless.

“You were hoping I’d be interested in Molly,” Sherlock repeated.

“Yes. That.”

Sherlock shook his head. His look was – well, fond.

“No you weren’t.”

He turned away then, and went to fetch the wheelchair which he’d left, abandoned, over near the fountain.

John stared after him, heart beating furiously. What did Sherlock mean by that?

He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

He let the statement go without comment, and Sherlock settled into the wheelchair, covered his telltale curls with the old man’s hat, and pulled the coverlet up over his legs, letting his shoulders hunch forward.

“How long do we have to keep up this pretense?” he asked, as John began to push him back toward the house.

“Until your brother officially raises you from the dead, I suppose,” answered John.

And it was only later, as he lay in bed, turning over the conversation in the garden, that he realised that Sherlock may have been talking about another pretense altogether.

Chapter Text

John’s idea, when it came, didn’t come all at once. It took its time to worm its way around his brain as the pieces all began to fall together.

It took very little time for Sherlock to casually mention to Lestrade that his grandparents had kept a maze in a special garden, a place where his own father had played as a child. Had Lestrade come upon this place as he worked the manor grounds? Sherlock remembered that it was a walled garden tucked inside another larger walled garden, and he’d been thinking of it, and wondering if it still existed, and if it could serve as a secure gathering place, or perhaps a place of quiet and reflection when Sherlock’s brain would not function as he wanted it to, when he needed to clear his mind, to search for the structures, the connections, he’d lost.

“He is considering it,” Sherlock told John the next afternoon when John rushed in, having been told by Mrs. Hudson that he was needed - and quickly.

John, who’d expected to find Sherlock in the throes of a seizure, stared at Sherlock, irritated, then dropped into a chair and glared some more.

“I thought you were ill. Mrs. Hudson said to come quickly.”

“Of course! I’ve spoken with Lestrade - he hasn’t admitted to knowing about the garden - he affected muteness again to avoid answering, but he’ll come around quickly as soon as I go poking about with you.”

“With me?”

“Of course with you! You won’t let me poke about outside on my own, will you? I suppose I could have Mrs. Hudson accompany me, or Molly Hooper.”

“Or Mycroft,” suggested John, recognizing Sherlock’s ploy and upping the ante.

John had taken his leave then, occupying himself with a new task - two of the patients were being transferred out, deemed fit enough to return to their families, and he had paperwork to compile and case files to complete. He understood, of course, that Mycroft was taking pains to free up his time so he could spend more time with Sherlock and the other cause.

And thus, two days later, John found himself pushing Sherlock out into the gardens at the very unexpected hour of two in the afternoon, just after lunch. Sherlock was in disguise, as always, though the disguise of late was no more than the old-fashioned and oddly-coloured suit coat, the lap rug, and the old man’s hat to cover Sherlock’s tell-tale curly head.

They hid the chair behind a stand of azaleas, left the lap rug and suit coat folded up on the seat, but Sherlock kept the hat as John - somewhat reluctantly - led him through the garden paths to the gate he’d found so early in his meanderings here at Rosethorne.

It was still locked, of course. The padlock securing the heavy iron clasp to the ring inset into the stone wall was securely fastened. There was evidence, which Sherlock of course found at once, that someone had opened and shut the gate recently. The lightly worn path leading back through the grass, past the derelict swing, spoke of recent comings and goings, but likely by a single person at regular but infrequent intervals. The sunlight through the canopy of leaves from the old garden trees dappled the ground, bringing out touches of vibrant green and gold amid the shadows.

Sherlock rattled the gate despite having judged the lock secure, then stood there, studying it carefully as if determining whether scaling it would be possible. The gate was quite sturdy, eight feet tall and topped with pointed iron bars set mere inches apart. Scaling it would have certainly been possible were either of them in the physical condition they’d been in before the war, but with John’s injury and Sherlock’s present condition, they’d need a very tall ladder on one side only to face a significant drop on the other.

“And you’ve examined the wall thoroughly,” Sherlock stated. There’s no other way in.”

“Not that I’ve found,” John replied. “Look - why don’t we go back to the other garden while you puzzle it out.” He’d been walking along the wall just past the gate, studying the vines that had crept up and over the wall. He thought that perhaps he could have scaled it had he two good hands, but hefting himself up to the top with one would be difficult even with two good legs supporting him.

“Come on - let’s go.”

John gave up his study of the wall and turned back toward Sherlock, just as the hinges of the gate groaned and screeched.

Something fell to the ground with a quiet thud.

“Sherlock?”

When he’d turned his back and walked away a minute ago, Sherlock had been studying the gate, standing several paces back with his hands in his trouser pockets, sizing it up.

But now - now Sherlock was slumped on the ground, against the gate. His free right arm was jerking and his legs had tensed.

John hurried over and dropped beside him. He loosened Sherlock’s collar as best he could as the man jerked beneath him, one arm flailing hard and landing against the gate with a crack.

Shit!

Sherlock groaned. His legs trembled but the seizure appeared to be abating. John managed to arrange Sherlock so that he was stretched out more comfortably on the ground, but the arm that had whacked the gate worried him. He arranged the arm carefully beside Sherlock, relieved that it did not appear to be broken.

He waited for Sherlock to come to his senses - the disorientation following a seizure was always troubling for the patient. John knew better than to hurry Sherlock through it. Five minutes passed, and John stayed where he was, speaking quietly to his friend and checking to assure that Sherlock was breathing and had a steady heart rate.

When at last Sherlock was nearly back to normal, he helped him up to a seated position, back resting against the gate, and examined his arm.

It was bruising already, but didn’t appear to be broken. A hard bump had arisen midway between wrist and elbow, and Sherlock winced when John manipulated his arm to rotate it.

“How are you feeling?” John asked after checking Sherlock’s head to see if he’d hit it when he fell.

“Lestrade,” Sherlock muttered.

“Lestrade?” John frowned, then pushed up one of Sherlock’s eyelids, examining his pupil again.

“B’hind you,” Sherlock muttered.

John swiveled his head around. Lestrade was standing there, looking a bit panicked. He held a pair of hedge trimmers in one hand and a ring of keys in the other.

“I’ve found the garden,” Sherlock said - speaking more coherently than he should have been able to this soon following an attack. He was addressing Lestrade, who remained behind John. “This is the one - I’m sure of it.”

He hefted himself up then, swaying and wobbling until John grabbed him around the middle.

What was Sherlock up to? He shouldn’t be standing - he couldn’t be, in fact. Nor could he be speaking so well so fast - he should be disoriented for quite a bit longer.

John finally caught on. The bugger had faked it. He’d faked a seizure - but why? To get Lestrade’s attention? To curry his favor?

“Play along, John,” Sherlock murmured in his ear as he pushed away from John and wobbled toward Lestrade.

John stepped forward and grabbed Sherlock again.

“Could you give me a hand?” he called out. “He got so excited when he found this gate he started convulsing. He’s hurt his arm.”

Lestrade dropped the hedge trimmers and hurried over. He seemed cautious still, but worried. He helped John prop Sherlock up against the stone wall to which the hinged end of the gate was connected, then held onto Sherlock’s uninjured arm as they lowered him to a seated position. John rather hated helping Sherlock deceive Lestrade, but if they could just gain access to the garden, the charade would be over.

“Is that the key?” Sherlock murmured sleepily as the key ring jingled in Lestrade’s hand. “The key to my grandmother’s garden?”

“He gave them to me.” Lestrade’s voice was faint, yet defensive. “He told me….” He coughed, cleared his throat. “He told me to work on whatever I could find - anywhere - on the manor grounds.”

“My brother?” Sherlock asked, speaking slowly and rolling his head around limply to face Lestrade. “You mean Mycroft? When he brought you here?”

Lestrade nodded sharply, once.

Sherlock fumbled with his left hand, resting it clumsily on Lestrade’s shoulder. “Why do you keep it locked? There’s no one here to….”

His voice trailed off as Lestrade pulled away, straightening up and stepping back. He stared through the gate, toward where John knew the fantastical maze was hidden, then back at Sherlock.

“I’ve been working in it,” he said. He was unused to speaking, and the struggle, the surprise of hearing his own voice, showed on his face. “It … was … a mess.”

“I’ve always wanted to see it,” Sherlock said. “Will you show us?”

“I’d love to see your work there,” John said, helping Sherlock to his feet once again. “You’ve done such nice work with the flowers and beds close to the manor.”

“This garden - ” Lestrade fought for the words. “This garden is different.” He picked up his hedge clippers then stared at the keys in his hand, seeming to come to a decision. “All right.”

His voice was a murmur, a quiet whisper, but he moved to the lock and opened the gate. He pushed it open only enough to allow a single person to enter at a time.

“Come,” he said. He was pushing his own limits, John knew, with the invitation, with the few words he forced himself to utter. John had a very good idea that if Sherlock hadn’t been there, Lestrade would have remained mute.

ooOOOoo

The idea began to germinate that first day inside Lestrade’s garden, or, as they would soon come to call it, simply the garden.

Sherlock would admit later that he’d seen Lestrade approach as he and John talked by the gate, then had seen him duck behind some bushes when he’d realised they were blocking his way into his gardens. Sherlock had pretended to have a seizure, suspecting that Lestrade would come forward to help, and hoping he could use the moment to gain entrance into the garden. It had been a rather low trick, John thought, but the trick had succeeded and there would come a day when Sherlock would admit the deceit, and Lestrade would slap him on the back, voice jovial, confident, and call him a berk. They’d clink their glasses of celebratory scotch, and Lestrade would go off to find his bride and Sherlock would grin and lift his glass to his lips, smirking at the memory.

But today, Lestrade was like a reclusive artist, standing back, on edge, as the first outsiders regarded his unfinished masterpiece, ready to judge him a genius or a failure. John knew Lestrade was watching his old friend Sherlock - waiting for his reaction, his judgement, and paying little if any heed to John. This gave John time, and opportunity, to study the garden more objectively, to look beyond the teeming maze of greenery that dominated the center of the garden, that called such attention to itself by its abstract fantasy.

He couldn’t help but wonder how much time Lestrade spent in this place - for it really was a place of wonder and beauty, far beyond the great work of art at its center. There were mismatched beds of early summer flowers already in bloom, and there were flowering bushes and statuary and paving stones and ivy. There were fruit trees - apple and pear and plum - and closer to the garden walls grew a group of oaks, and beneath them, some stone benches, shaded by the trees from the afternoon sun.

The space was not precisely laid-out, nor did it appear to be carefully planned, though John suspected that every single thing within these walls was very carefully considered indeed. Unlike the stately old manor and gardens that surrounded this small space, there wasn’t an order that John could discern, not in the traditional sense, and the overall effect was a tamed sort of chaos, as if the garden was trying to submit to its new master, but was rebelling here and there, as the new master didn’t subscribe to the old rules of order.

Sherlock had approached the maze with hands steepled, finger tips ghosting over his lips. It was obvious that the original structure of the maze had been lost - the paths overgrown and tangled, the hedges too woody to coax back into borders and paths. But no matter - the bushes themselves were now fantastical creatures, a zoological park turned on its head, mingled with the mythological inhabitants of an older, unreachable universe and surrounded by an English garden that looked ordinary only by its proximity so something so extraordinary.

John watched as Sherlock slowly walked around the maze, taking in a winged dragon and a human-sized caterpillar standing upright, a lazy sea monster and a fanciful plumed penguin. He studied each new creature in turn, how each form morphed cleanly into the next, while Lestrade watched cautiously from the second gate. Finally, Sherlock turned to Lestrade. He kept his quiet, contemplative air, but his eyes were bright.

“Amazing,” he said, almost reverently. “Truly amazing work”

Lestrade lowered his head at the praise, and John was reminded that until just a few moments ago, this place had been Lestrade’s secret retreat, a work in progress that no one - at least as far as he knew - had seen, that no one had judged.

And it was difficult to say, looking at Lestrade’s opus, what the creative process was exactly, how Lestrade started, and what followed what. Lestrade was damaged by the war, and this garden could be nothing but the man’s healing therapy. Was he giving life to a battered village? Bringing back comrades from the dead? Restoring beauty to the England he’d loved? Was it in homage to a lost loved one? Or was he vanquishing shadows in his mind, changing regiments of soldiers into fanciful birds and mythical creatures of power and light? Throwing light on dark shadows, knowing that demons are more threatening, more menacing, when locked away from the sun?

In all of his focus on this very place, in all of his determination to come here, to solve the riddle of the secret locked garden and Greg Lestrade’s odd creative genius, John had never really considered that he’d feel this much of an intruder.

No matter that Lestrade had opened the gate for them. No matter that this was Sherlock’s family’s ancestral home and he should have a right to go where he wanted about the estate.

But somehow, traipsing through a man’s inner sanctum felt all wrong.

But Lestrade was standing beside Sherlock now, keeping pace with him as he walked another circuit around the maze. John could not make out what they were saying, but he watched them while he sat on the bench in the shade under the oaks.

This was a Sherlock John didn’t know. A Sherlock who seemed to understand his fellow human being at an emotional level. Who showed compassion. Who was moved by what he saw before him - a work of art in an untried, unusual medium. A shout-out from a voice muted. Lestrade had found a forgotten garden, had claimed it, had found his voice here. And now, now that he’d also found a friend he’d thought forever lost, he was sharing his recovery, taking another solid step out of those tumultuous, voiceless shadows he’d been inhabiting.

Sherlock circled the old maze with Lestrade beside him, hands constantly moving, admiring a bird with outstretched winds riding atop the head of a dolphin like a figurehead on a ship, then a mermaid sitting atop a monstrous sea-turtle. It was like watching clouds, John thought, the more he studied it. Shapes of greens instead of whites that morphed into new beings when you turned your head, when the wind blew.

A noise above him in the trees caught John’s attention, and he looked up to watch a squirrel on a low branch. It paused to chatter at a robin, and the chattering caught Lestrade’s attention. He snapped his fingers and held out his arm and the squirrel, obviously not a random wild thing as John had thought, ran across the branch, down the trunk and over the ground toward him. Lestrade stooped to lower his arm, and the creature jumped up and scurried up to sit at the juncture of neck and shoulder, accepting a treat from Lestrade’s pocket, then holding it in both small hands, nibbling on it and turning it as if it were an ear of corn.

And while watching a squirrel scamper onto a man’s shoulder and accept a treat was certainly unexpected, Sherlock seemed to take the entire thing in stride. This was, after all, a most unexpected place, almost magical in its decidedly un-manorlike disorder. If squirrels on the manor grounds scampered up trees at their approach, squirrels here would come to them to beg treats and ride about the garden on shoulders.

Soon after, Sherlock had a pair of garden shears in his hand, and Lestrade had the hedge clippers, and Lestrade seemed to be giving Sherlock a pruning lesson. They were working on a young yew, one that had sprouted from seed or root, and John left them to it as his gaze drifted upward again, into the branches of the oaks as the breeze began to blow again through them.

Like wind in my sails, he thought as he closed his eyes and let his mind drift into the unexpected pleasures of this summer’s day. It occurred to him, as the sound of the men’s voices and the clacking of their tools passed by him on the wind, that, given his initial reaction to Lestrade and Sherlock’s relationship, he was oddly calm about the obvious closeness between them today.

He dismissed it now, where he hadn’t been able to before, because the explanation was clear. Sherlock and Lestrade were old friends. Their relationship pre-dated John, pre-dated Sherlock’s injury. They were comrades. And until a very short time ago, Lestrade had thought Sherlock was dead.

Lestrade was damaged, just as Sherlock was. Just as John was.

And somehow - John couldn’t say exactly how - it put them all on a level playing field, so to speak.

He spent some time staring up into the tree, studying it with a critical eye, and he realised just how perfect the tree was. The trunk was thick and straight, with wide, sturdy branches growing out from it to form a lovely canopy. From fifteen feet up, John imagined one could look out over the gardens to the manor house itself.

It would be a project, anyway. A way to strengthen the body, and the mind, for there would be planning, too, and design. While Mycroft would hardly approve of a structure in the trees with Sherlock’s probability of falling into a fit at any time, a structure could be designed to work into the tree, and the ones around it. John imagined an organic structure, one that wrapped around the base of the tree and spiraled upward. The tree as the mast of the ship, perhaps, a wide deck built below where they could lie with arms folded behind their heads, listening to the birds, the chatter of the squirrels, or Lestrade working with his clippers.

He stopped a moment to let his mind consider its own flight of fancy. This was unlike Dr. John Watson altogether. John Watson was a military man, a man of medicine, who was structured and orderly and obeyed rules.

No, his mind said. You obey rules when they suit you.

Alright,then.

He frowned, tucking the thought away for further study at a later time.

He was looking for a solution to a problem - the war effort needed Sherlock.

Sherlock needed his mind palace - as John understood it - both a system and an archive.

And John had already issued a prescription - a healthy mind is tied to a healthy body. The brain heals itself by making new connections, new conduits. Those new connections and conduits were strengthened and enhanced by a strong, active body.

Hence, the regimen of daily walks, the fresh air of the garden, even if only for an hour or so an evening. But if there were more to do out-of-doors, more to occupy Sherlock, he wouldn’t yearn to return to his articles and books so quickly.

He sighed, trying to assess what would be needed to start. He could hardly propose taking down an existing garden shed, nor could he propose having a delivery made to this space which Lestrade held almost sacred. In fact - he’d need Lestrade’s permission first, wouldn’t he? And what about a buy-in from Sherlock?

He smiled. How could Sherlock not agree to such an extraordinary plan?

ooOOOoo

“I had an idea - out there in Lestrade’s garden,” John said to Sherlock later that evening, as they faced each other in Sherlock’s semi-dark room over a fine old chessboard with ivory pieces.

“It’s not Lestrade’s garden- not properly,” Sherlock voiced, distracted by the move he was considering. “It’s grandmother’s - or was hers. Lestrade is just borrowing it for a time.”

“He seemed amenable to sharing it, didn’t he?” John asked, eyes on Sherlock’s fingers which hovered first over his rook, then his bishop.

Sherlock nudged the rook forward, then settled back into his chair, fingers steepled over his lips. He folded his hands, clasping them together, and spoke with his chin resting against them, watching John as he considered his next move.

“He did. He trusts you, John. He trusts me - he always has, though he’s suspicious by nature, given his profession especially. He’s always seen me as something like a younger brother, someone to keep out of trouble. But he sees that you are trying to help me regain my footing, so to speak. I assure you we will be welcome in the garden, and we may go there from now on during out outings.”

He reached into his pocket and laid a key onto the table. It was a more modern key than the one John had found in the ruined tree house.

“He gave you a key.” John smiled as he nudged a pawn forward.

Sherlock captured the pawn with one of his own pawns, and John quickly took Sherlock’s in a one-for-one that left him well-positioned.

“He did.” Sherlock pocketed the key again. “He would prefer that the gate remain locked, though I think we happened upon this at the right time. He’s been working on that maze for some time, working out his demons. He was ready to share it - and he feels, I think, that you and I might understand.” He lifted his eyes and there was a fleeting sadness there that John hadn’t seen before. “He knows full well that I have my own demons, John, and he suspects, I’m sure, that you do as well.”

John remembered what Sherlock had revealed to him in the letter Lestrade had brought to him that night, and he knew that Sherlock, at least, understood John’s demons, though they never spoke of them. They stayed there - just past the edge of propriety - John’s anger. His seething need for revenge.

And the other thing – that John had put behind him so long ago. The thing Sherlock hadn’t yet discovered. The thing John could never voice.

“He’s quite the artist,” John commented. “Has he always been?”

Sherlock shrugged. “I asked him that, but he didn’t say. He was on the police force when I met him. I don’t know what he did before that. Sometimes the artist is buried deep inside the man, John, and it takes a life-changing event to shake him loose.”

He looked at John with sharp eyes of indescribable colour, and John shook his head.

“Perhaps - but I’m afraid there’s no artist inside me. I’d be happy if I can learn to write with my right hand, much less draw or paint.”

“Musicians are artists as well,” Sherlock insisted. “As are writers. Perhaps you have a story to tell.”

John laughed. He captured a rook and placed it on the table beside the board.

“No - I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m nobody, really. From nowhere.” And going nowhere, he thought.

“Ridiculous.” Sherlock scooted his queen diagonally. “Check.”

John frowned and moved his king.

“You have a story, John Watson. Something more than in your military records, I’m sure. Something even more than Mycroft learned of you with his sources. You wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t found you suitable for me, if he didn’t think we’d work well together.”

Sherlock had exaggerated the word well, hesitating a bit before pronouncing it.

John kept his eyes on the chess board. “I’ve told you my story,” he said. “Or you’ve guessed it. My grandmother, the piano, why I became a surgeon. It isn’t interesting at all.”

“Everyone’s story is interesting,” Sherlock insisted, scooting his queen two squares closer to his king. “Tell me about your father.”

He said it so smoothly - so innocently, that John immediately looked up, suspicious.

“My father?” he repeated, more harshly than he’d intended. “Why?”

“You’ve not mentioned him before,” Sherlock replied.

“I’ve not told you about my wife, either.”

Sherlock caught his eye. “Only that you loved her. You were devoted to her. I guessed a bit more. Would you rather tell me about her than about your father?”

“Stop playing games,” John said angrily. With all the Holmes brothers knew about him, could they possibly not know why his father had gone to prison, dying there of a heart attack two years after being put away for manslaughter?

“I’m sorry.” Sherlock did sound contrite, but still, John was suspicious.

“Tell me what you know about him,” demanded John. “It’s not as if I have any secrets - not after your brother’s exhaustive background check.”

Sherlock dropped his hands into his lap. The chessboard defined the distance between them.

“Alright. If you insist,” he said. “But John - really - I’m sorry. I only meant to let you know that I under-”

“Just get on with it,” John interrupted.

It was a do or die moment. He had never felt so naked, so exposed.

“Your father and mother came home from a night out with friends. You were seventeen, your sister eighteen. They found a stranger, a man of twenty-five, escaping through a back window. Your father assaulted him, while you intervened and attempted to prevent your father from harming him. However, your father threw him against a wall, ultimately causing his death by cerebral hemorrhage. Your father was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison. He died there, of cardiac arrest.”

John nodded at the clinical way Sherlock related the facts of the story.

“My mum died the next year,” he said.

“It was assumed,” Sherlock added, voice quite soft. He reached out and toppled his king, though he was only a move or two away from a win. “It was assumed that the young man was your sister’s lover.”

He said nothing else, and John lifted his chin and met Sherlock’s eyes.

Sherlock knew.

Deduced. Determined. Guessed. It didn’t matter. He knew. Knew the thing John could not forget, even though it had died there - the lust, the want, the need - died there with his father off in prison and his mother sick and dying and David dead and buried. There’d been no more room after that for what he wanted. What he needed.

And here, today, Sherlock wanted John to know that he knew. That he knew and had not judged. That he understood how complex these things were.

John might have been a damaged man, and he might have been an angry man. He’d looked death in the eye more than once. When he was down, he got up again, and fought another day. He wasn’t a coward, and if he had anything to hide, he had good reason to keep it hidden.

“Everyone has a story, John,” Sherlock continued. “I’ve told you much of mine, and I’ve deduced much of yours. So where does that leave the two of us?”

John bit back a smile. He’d seduced before, and he’d been seduced. He knew how to play the game.

He picked up Sherlock’s king and set it upright again.

“Finish the game, Sherlock,” he said. He looked up and met the other man’s eye. “Your move.”

Chapter Text

Rosethorne was a large place, and it was occupied, presently, by a very small number of people.

There were only two patients now, and John and Molly as the official medical staff, plus aides from a nursing service who filled out the schedule, appearing for two eight-hour shifts during the daytime and spending all of their time in the infirmary. Sherlock, Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade and Billy Wiggins completed the resident list. The cook, her assistant, and three maids, one of whom split her time between household chores and the kitchen, were present for a large part of the day, but didn’t overnight at Rosethorne. Ben the gardener wandered about, but seldom came inside, even for meals. And when Mycroft was present for his occasional visits, he had his personal assistant and chauffeur Simon with him.

It seemed a paltry staff, but it was wartime, and resources were needed elsewhere. The obvious intent was to care for the people and the parts of the manor they inhabited, with much less attention paid to the grounds themselves. With Sherlock spending all of his time in the private family wing of the manor or outside, and being cautious to avoid moving about while the staff was changing shifts, he continued his faceless, anonymous existence with apparent ease.

John, on the other hand, functioned as medical doctor not only for the patients, but for all of the staff when problems or emergencies arose. Someone needed to know where he was at all times, so he could be fetched and consulted. Even if playing a quiet game of chess with Sherlock, there was always the possibility that Mrs. Hudson would knock on the door, summoning him or advising him of a pressing emergency.

When he was outside with Sherlock, in the early days before Lestrade brought them into the garden, when Sherlock still walked reluctant laps around the other garden with the fountain in the middle, Billy Wiggins was charged with fetching John should an emergency arise. It had happened only once, and Billy had taken Sherlock back inside, seemingly happy to have his old charge back again.

In the later days, in the garden, when the sun shone and life began to curl up again beneath his feet, worming its way into his consciousness, into his pain-dulled heart, no one intruded in their magical garden outside of time. If an emergency arose, Mrs. Hudson rang a bell. It was intrusive enough, but it didn’t pierce the secrecy of their sanctuary.

John worried too much.

He worried preemptively.

He thought of it as planning, though. Covering all contingencies. He’d learned early in his life that he must always have a plan. He must always be aware of his circumstances, his surroundings. He would attract far less suspicion if he was never caught slinking around, slipping off without a goodbye, disappearing and reappearing at odd hours. It took a good deal of care, and discipline, and certainly planning, to have secrets.

To keep them well-guarded.

And despite the fact that he’d lived a number of years now out in the open, as a soldier, an army doctor, a widower, the secrets from the past still influenced his everyday behavior.

It was an unexpected relief, a relief almost palatable, to face Sherlock Holmes over the chessboard and finally let go.

“My move?” asked Sherlock that first day, the day John let out the breath he’d been holding for half his life. He’d proceeded to win the game in seven moves, then set the board up again and addressed John softly as he carefully lined up pawns and pieces precisely in the center of each square.

“A new game, then,” he said. “But let’s up the stakes a bit, shall we? A question for each piece captured. Any question, and we’re to answer honestly, and completely.” He adjusted a white knight so that it faced squarely forward, then looked at John, expression deceptively casual, raising an eyebrow in query.

“A question,” John repeated. He moved his left rook a millimeter to the left, no matter that it was perfectly centered already. “Any question.” He was musing it over, and questioning the game as well. It seemed silly at first glance, and he wondered what Sherlock was up to - what exactly he wanted to know about him that he hadn’t already deduced.

“Any question at all,” Sherlock said. He pressed a pawn forward two spaces. “You could ask me why I despise my brother, or what my favorite vegetable is. And I could ask you why you sometimes carry your cane, and sometimes seem to forget it.”

John looked up, startled. His cane? Where had he left it now? Sherlock laughed.

“Your move,” he said.

John enjoyed chess, despite the fact that Sherlock nearly always won when they played. But the game today was decidedly more interesting with the twist Sherlock had given it.

John captured a piece first. He set the pawn to the right of the board, considering. He’d not played a game like this one before, and hesitated to ask the questions that interested him most. Better to see where Sherlock went with his own questions and ask something relatively safe, innocuous.

“What was your mother like?”

Sherlock let out an undignified chortle, totally in contrast to the serious tone of John’s voice.

“My mother?” Sherlock blinked at John in feigned surprise. “You want to know about my mother?”

John frowned. He obviously had misinterpreted how the game was played. “Yes,” he snapped. “Your mother. What was she like?”

Sherlock shifted in his seat, looking at John oddly. “Well, first of all, she is as she always was. Indescribably intelligent, very hard-working and terribly distracted.” He paused a moment, studying him, then added. “She’s not dead, John. What gave you the idea that she was?”

John reddened. “I’m sorry - I... I just assumed. You don’t - didn’t ever - speak about her. She’s not come to visit, has she?” He realised the question was more of an accusation, and looked away with a shrug.

“John,” Sherlock began, then cleared his throat and tried again. “John - I am supposed to be dead.”

John stared, sudden, horrible realisation dawning.

“You mean - your mum - your mum doesn’t know?”

The very idea of it was untenable.

“John - the only people who do know are either associated with military intelligence or confined here at Rosethorne. You, Mrs Hudson, Billy, and now Lestrade and Molly Hooper. My mother would not stay here. She also cannot be trusted not to reveal my status. As I said - she is very easily distracted. She would forget the information is a secret.”

“Wait - confined? What do you mean confined here at Rosethorne?”

“Unfortunate word choice. And another question altogether - you’ll need to win another piece, first.” Sherlock looked altogether too collected for John’s mood now. “We were talking about my mother, I believe,” he continued, too casually.

John closed his mouth, with great difficulty, mentally removing the kid gloves. If Sherlock wanted to play hard ball, he could give as good as he got.

“Your move,” he said, coolly, eyes resolutely on the chess board.

Sherlock quickly captured a pawn, even though, from John’s perspective, it didn’t advance the game at all to do so.

“Which of these things, if you had it back again, would make you happier? To be a surgeon or to play the piano?” He was holding the pawn in his hand, and he placed it carefully on the table, then looked at John with a small smile. “And why?”

It was certainly not the question John had been expecting, and not one for which he had a ready answer.

He let out a huff of air, deflecting a moment for time. “That came out of the blue. I was expecting you to ask my favourite colour, or whether I prefer a soft or a firm mattress.”

“Green, and firm. So - which is it? And why?”

“No - wait. How did you know that?”

“Are you forfeiting your next question?” asked Sherlock with a smile. He was studying the board again, pointedly not looking at John.

“No - of course not. You can enlighten me later - after the game.” John really didn’t want to think about this right now - or ever. The seconds ticked by. He cleared his throat.

“Surgeon,” he said. His voice lacked conviction. “It’s a skill that would help immeasurably now, at this point of the war. And afterward. The number of wounded who’ll need continued treatment after this is all over….”

Sherlock was shaking his head. He looked more amused than exasperated.

“Not what I asked,” he said. He folded his hands on the table and leaned forward. “I asked what would make you happier, John.”

“Helping people makes me happy,” John responded. “Saving lives - it fulfills me. I miss it.”

“Alright,” Sherlock said lightly, obviously unconvinced. He nodded at the board. “Your move.”

John’s turn came for a question came next. “Have you ever been in love?” he asked. He kept his eyes on Sherlock, but he should have known the other man wouldn’t be at all discomfited by John’s questions, no matter how personal.

“I thought so - once,” Sherlock answered. “Looking back on it, I imagine what I actually felt was something between infatuation and lust.”

“How old were -” John began, but Sherlock cut him off.

“A man with a medical degree should be able to count better,” Sherlock said. “That was another question. That sure you’re going to win?”

John couldn’t help but smile. “Fine. Another one to tell me after the game, then,” he said.

He had the chance for another question before Sherlock had his turn, though, capturing a third pawn.

“Who taught you to play chess?” John asked. The answer to the question didn’t particularly interest him, but he hadn’t had time to consider a better one.

“My brother,” Sherlock answered. “When I was six years old. “Until you came around, I’d only ever played with him. He’s highly competitive and I adore beating him. I don’t really like the game, otherwise.”

“Then why….?”

Sherlock looked at him sharply and John actually laughed. “You really are brilliant, you know? Devious and under-handed, too. You’re playing chess with me even though you don’t enjoy the game, but saw an opportunity to turn the game into something of a truth or dare.”

“I miss London,” Sherlock admitted. “Life is altogether too slow here, and before you appeared, utterly boring as well. I appreciate you humoring me.”

Sherlock’s next question to John was just as startling and thought-provoking as his first.

“Why were you jealous of my friendship with Lestrade?”

“I’m not - that isn’t true. It isn’t quite true, I mean,” John fumbled. “I’m - well, we’re all rather isolated here, aren’t we? And I know it doesn’t make sense, but since my injury, I’ve been even more so. Getting to know you has been unexpected - unexpectedly enjoyable.” He felt like he was babbling, like he was a ridiculous teenager trying to back himself out of a corner. “And Lestrade - he’s part of your past, isn’t he? An important part. In the back of my mind, I suppose, I thought you might not need my friendship anymore.”

Sherlock had canted his head a few degrees to the side. He looked like he was trying to sort something out, as he did when he was studying one of his journals, or some of the cryptic strings he so often stared at on his notepads.

“Oh, I can’t imagine that,” he said, an odd smile flitting across his face. He nodded. “Your move.”

They played several moves before John captured another piece. He’d had time to consider a new approach, and as he placed the knight beside the chessboard, he asked his question.

“If you could either have your mind palace back again, or be free of these seizures, which would you choose?”

Sherlock narrowed his eyes.

“I learned from the master,” John quipped.

“In this scenario, there is no option to be rid of the epilepsy and have my Mind Palace restored, I imagine?” he asked.

John shook his head. “Sorry, but no.”

“I’d give up the seizures, then,” Sherlock said, decisively. “I’d tell Mycroft and his generals to stuff it and become a troubadour. I’d wander the streets of London without fear of falling into the Thames and make my living playing the violin on street corners.”

John’s shook his head fondly as he filed that bit away, thinking, not for the first time, about the limits a malady like epilepsy put on a life. Safety would always be a concern, wherever Sherlock was, as long as a seizure could take hold of him at any time, without any warning at all.

When it was Sherlock’s turn to ask, he returned to the very subject he’d tried, in the past, to broach.

“How did your wife die, John?”

John’s heart jerked out of rhythm. He had trouble sucking in a breath of air. His chest was suddenly too tight. This was ridiculous - all of it. Ridiculous. Mary had been sick. Mary had died. There was nothing to hide. The sorrow had long since passed, and most of the anger. The discipline and the routine of the army, the enormity of what he’d dealt with since Mary, had helped isolate her into a quiet corner of his past.

“You already know,” John answered at last, once he’d pushed past the unexpected panic. He studied the board for his next move. “Surely it was in Mycroft’s report - you know, the one that has things about me that I don’t even know?”

“I know what the report said,” Sherlock answered. “Your wife drowned in the sea on holiday. It was ruled accidental.”

“She couldn’t swim,” John said, still looking at the board and not at Sherlock. The statement felt weak. If fell flat between them.

“She had an attack while playing in the water near the shore. You were sleeping on the sand.”

John jerked his head in a nod. “Is there any reason you’re putting me through this, Sherlock?” He raised his head and stared the other man in the eye. “I was there. I don’t think I’ll ever manage to forget it.”

He might have felt pain - once. He did feel it. Pain, and blessed, blessed relief. For Mary. For himself, when he was honest enough with himself to admit it.

“It was the anniversary of her child’s death, of her accident,” Sherlock said when the silence between them lengthened.

John pressed his eyes shut. He knew that wasn’t in the official report. That Sherlock had put the pieces together, though, no longer surprised him. He could even see, in a way, what Sherlock was trying to do. It might feel cruel, but there was a larger purpose here. He’d spent years layering reality over fabrication, creating a twisted version of events that fit the mould he needed to go on.

Sherlock spoke again before he could think of anything to say.

“John Watson would not sleep on the sand while his epileptic wife played in the ocean.”

He said it as a simple statement of fact. It was not an accusation. He was not trying to convince John of something that he didn’t already see.

John was torn between outrage and admiration. During the horrible event itself, and the weeks that followed, no one had even suggested that Mary’s death was anything but a horrible accident. When the idea of neglect had arisen - that John Watson perhaps should not have been sleeping while Mary waded in the waves, the quick determination was made that John and his wife were at the seaside, on a much-needed holiday. That John was a doctor, overworked and tired, that the sun could lull anyone to sleep. That Mary was a grown woman, and knew the risks. That she could have an attack at any moment, without warning.

It was difficult, nearly impossible, to give words to the secret.

“When I woke - it was too late. There was a commotion - they were bringing her in. They didn’t know who - what -”

“You weren’t just sleeping, John. You wouldn’t have been. It’s not in your make-up.”

“What do you know about my make-up?” John asked, his voice steely. But it was all for show, really. He shouldn’t be surprised - at all - at any of the startlingly accurate deductions made by Sherlock Holmes.

“Quite a bit, actually.” Sherlock waited while John made a hasty and less-than-strategic move, then folded his hands, appearing as if he was studying the board.

He wasn’t, of course. Or he was - but he was equally engaged with culling through the John Watson file in the ruins of his Mind Palace.

“Quite a bit?” John couldn’t think of anything more clever to say. He could have raged back at Sherlock, denied it all, called him crazy, but there was something, some little nugget of anticipation, of curiosity, of need, that wanted Sherlock to go on. To spell it out.

Sherlock moved his white bishop, keeping his finger atop it while he studied the board, then finally, appearing satisfied with the move, removing his hand and looking across at John.

“I chose you, John Watson,” Sherlock reminded him. An odd look - fond, perhaps - stole across his face then disappeared. “I would not do so without careful consideration of your character, as your character largely determines your future behavior.”

“And this - this consideration. Of my character.” John stressed the last work, surveying the board, affecting an air of casual observation that he certainly didn’t feel. “You think I wouldn’t sleep while my wife played near the water.”

“I know you wouldn’t.”

John looked up again, meeting Sherlock’s eyes. He could let Sherlock go on - he’d surely deduced it already, and most certainly had the facts right, or nearly so. Or he could end the game, cut to the quick. They were headed to an obvious conclusion already, and short of demanding that Sherlock respect his privacy - a demand Sherlock might well ignore - that conclusion was rather inevitable.

“She drugged me. I didn’t realise it until I was back in our room, after the constable finished up, and I’d dealt with the undertaker. I wanted to get back to London to tell her mother in person, and I started packing things up. I admit I was in a daze, numb and half-stupid with it all. But when I saw the bottle - her sleeping pills, the ones she used when she was plagued by insomnia - I knew. She’s been depressed for days, but had agreed to go down to the beach with me after lunch. They brought our meal up while I was in the bath - she’d have had time to dose the soup. I only realised because of the after-effects. How fuzzy I was. How discombobulated when they woke me.”

The words had rushed out once he started, each one propelled by the ones before it, too many, too forceful, to hold back with a finger in the dike.

“If she meant to do it – to take her own life – you couldn’t have stopped her,” Sherlock said. “Who were you protecting by suppressing the truth?”

John opened his mouth, then closed it abruptly.

“That’s another question,” he said. He looked at the bishop Sherlock had just moved, then studied the configuration of pieces around it. He touched his knight, then moved it along its L-shaped path to capture a pawn. “And I believe it’s my turn.”

Chapter Text

When they were old men, when the war was over and other wars had come and gone, when John’s needed thick spectacles to tell one chessman from another and Sherlock’s hand shook so much at times that they’d taken to using an over-sized chessboard with clunky chessmen, they would remember the chess game that night, but neither would recall who’d won.

Winning in the traditional sense - at least - because it was clear that Sherlock won the game of words, though John scored some direct hits and glancing shots of his own.

They’d sat there long after the game was over, sipping scotch they’d pilfered from Mycroft’s office, breaking in like two school boys, muffled whispers as Sherlock picked the lock, giggling like school boys as they secured their booty. They talked freely - no need for games at this point, when lips were loose and guts were warm with the drink, brains just beginning to blur at the edges.

John, who’d spent far more time fumbling through the retelling of his mistakes and tragedies than Sherlock had, was in the mood to listen.

And Sherlock, fortunately, in the mood to talk.

About pirates.

It started with John asking about the ill-fated tree house, the pirate ship in the sky.

It ended with coloured pencils and rulers and drawing paper spread across Sherlock’s work table. Drawings. Measurements. Materials lists. Doodles of pirates with eye-patches, wooden legs, hooks for hands. A John pirate with a sickly-looking parrot on his shoulder. Sherlock with eye-patch and spyglass. John and Sherlock in tricorn hats, side by side, peeking over the top of a hedge maze.

“John, we’re far too old to have a tree house,” Sherlock said as John rose to his feet, more than a bit tipsy, and called it a night.

“I never had one as a boy,” John countered with an exaggerated sigh. “And ‘sides, we can be whoever we want to be in that garden.”

“‘It’s a wonderful place, but the garden isn’t magic,” Sherlock said.

“It’s whatever we want it to be,” John insisted.

“What did you want to be, John? When you were a child?” Sherlock was more serious now. He was stacking up the drawings carefully, looking at each as he cleaned up, an odd, whimsical look about his face. It was as if the drawings transported him somewhere.

“A Yeomen Warder,” John said, very solemnly.

“A Beefeater?” Sherlock grinned.

“No worse than a pirate,” John replied. “And I imagine the meals are more regular. And less chance of losing limbs.”

“Well, then.” Sherlock’s grin was downright gleeful. “We can start on your Tower of London after we finish my pirate ship.”

“What would Lestrade do if we tried to turn the garden into some sort of childhood wonderland?”

“John.” Sherlock was shaking his head. “Think.

“What?” John thought he was missing something important about Lestrade, but then - “Oh!”

“It’s already a bit of a childhood wonderland, wouldn’t you say?” Sherlock asked.

“I suppose Mycroft would tell you that it’s a ridiculous fantasy. That there are more pressing matters at hand.”

“And he might tell you that you’re supposed to be grounding me, not leading me off onto ridiculous flights of fancy.”

John was pleasantly tipsy, but not too far gone to let that one slide by.

“Grounding you?” he asked. “Grounding you?”

“Of course,” Sherlock replied. He was gazing at a drawing on top of the pile. His eyes crinkled at the corners in a fond smile. One of John’s drawings - Mycroft on the plank with snapping crocodiles below.

“What do you mean? Grounding?” John asked, more soberly.

“Keeping me focused on recovery with all your army discipline, but with a touch of humanity and compassion inspired by our shared experiences.”

It was the kind of statement that should have been possible only with rehearsal, but from Sherlock, somehow, it sounded ad lib.

“You thought I would help ground you? After you read my files?” John leaned against the wall beside the door, curious, feigning indignance. He really needn’t bother. He knew Sherlock wasn’t likely to be fooled.

Sherlock held up the drawing of Mycroft Holmes walking the plank and John couldn’t help but smile. He’d worked hard on that one - though admittedly, his Mycroft lacked the supercilious air of the man himself.

“Mycroft sees what is in front of him and interprets it well with a classically trained mind. He read your file after I selected you, and agreed you were an excellent choice. I, however, see what is missing as well as what is there in front of me. I read between the lines, and underneath them, beyond them. For every story, every situation, there is a who, a what, a where, a why and a how. But beyond those, there is the Why Not?.”

“You’re not making much sense,” John said, but he smiled, the alcohol making him more indulgent than normal, as he spoke. “And I don’t think there’s much to me beyond what you see on paper.”

Sherlock only smiled as he studied another of their silly drawings, and John watched him a moment, unable to make a clear deduction of what exactly was going on in Sherlock’s mind.

“Goodnight, then,” he said.

He didn’t see Sherlock lean back in his chair, or steeple his hands before his face in the contemplative pose he so often fell into. He leaned down, then, and picked John’s cane off the floor, resting it against a chair.

John didn’t miss it for quite some time.

ooOOOoo

Reality roared its ugly head the next morning, as John was nursing a rumbly stomach when Mycroft Holmes returned to Rosethorne ready to launch Project Bluebird.

The day was filled with closed doors, tiptoeing staff and hushed voices. While John spent the day frustrated and isolated in the infirmary reviewing the file of a patient who’d be arriving later in the week, Molly was summoned to Mycroft’s office to participate in the grand kick-off.

She was gone more than four hours.

John didn’t even bother to pretend he wasn’t watching the clock.

And that was as long as John was willing to tolerate, given that Sherlock had surely been behind closed doors with Mycroft and his team even before Molly was called in.

He’d given then conditions, after all. Conditions designed to protect Sherlock’s health and recovery. And here they were, on the first day, flaunting those very conditions and threatening Sherlock’s health and recovery. Never mind that Sherlock did more to inhibit his own recovery than an extra hour or two in meetings would do.

It was important they understood that John was quite committed to his duties here.

He went in search of Mrs. Hudson, who didn’t seem at all predisposed to interrupt the meeting.

“Mr. Holmes ordered me specifically not to interrupt them,” she protested. “Not to open that door or even knock on it unless I was summoned. I’ve got Annie working in that wing and keeping an eye out, but they’ve not even asked for tea yet.”

John frowned, huffed, then frowned again.

It really wasn’t the end of the world. Molly was in there, after all, and she could monitor Sherlock and insist on a break. And it was the first day - there was surely quite a bit of material to cover before he’d be able to dive back into the project.

Reluctantly, he pushed down the irritation. He knew his feelings were more complex than irritation at not having his explicit orders followed. He was curious about what was happening in that meeting. He was worried about Sherlock. He was bored - bored - with the quiet routine of the infirmary and the patients that would make successful recoveries with or without his presence here. He was claustrophobic - it was a beautiful day he was itching to feel the sun on his shoulders.

All of those things. Yet, even more, he felt left out of the action, pushed to the sidelines. His intellect might not measure up to Molly’s, and certainly not to Sherlock’s, but he was useful as more than a day nurse. He’d never tried his hand at decoding, but who was to say he’d not be a whiz at it?

Four and a half hours after Molly left, Mrs. Hudson finally came to tell him he was wanted in His Majesty’s throne room.

He’d expected Sherlock and Molly to be at the table when he entered the room, but only Mycroft, Anderson and Sholto were there to greet him. The surprise - alarm? irritation?- must have shown on his face, because Mycroft sighed as he motioned him to a chair beside Anderson.

“My brother and Miss Hooper have gone to have lunch and set up the work room,” Mycroft said. It obviously wasn’t difficult to read John’s expression. “They seem quite eager to get this project underway again.”

“Will anyone else be coming to help them here?” It wasn’t the top question on his list, but it seemed an acceptable one.

Sholto and Mycroft exchanged a glance. Mycroft made a weak waving motion with his hand.

“No - at least, not at first. As we don’t yet know how well Sherlock will progress with the work, our main team will keep moving forward with the project.”

“The same project?”

Mycroft’s gaze hardened. “They’ve made little progress in the interim. His methods are unorthodox - yet his results, to date, are flawless. It hasn’t been easy to pick up the pieces and continue since the team often can’t understand their starting point. You understand, Dr. Watson?”

“I understand. Spreading out those eggs so they’re not all in the same basket. If Sherlock implodes, you’ll still have your more traditional team, hard at work.”

“We’ve actually called you in here for a reason, Captain Watson,” Major Sholto said, interrupting the slightly uncomfortable silence that followed John’s statement. “You should know, before going any further, that you are about to receive classified information that cannot be disseminated, for any reason, beyond the persons in this room and Sherlock Holmes and Molly Hooper. Doing so will be considered treason, Captain Watson. Understood?”

John compressed his lips, considering the seriousness of the statement, and of the task appointed. “Yes, sir. Understood,” he said.

“Sherlock and Miss Hooper are working parallel to our main operations at Bletchley Park. Before the attack, Sherlock was working with a group we carved out of our main group at Bletchley, on a project no one had yet cracked. The routine is to receive intercepted messages, relay them to Bletchley Park where they are decrypted, analyzed and the results disseminated appropriately. While Sherlock at times worked to decode messages directly, he was his own special unit, receiving, analyzing and archiving nearly every message in its encoded and decoded format in his continuing efforts to create the perfect code language. A living resource, if you will - mathematics, logic, linguistics applied to the art of communication.”

Sholto didn’t need to tell John where Sherlock had stored all of his work.

It was brilliant, and tragic. Sherlock hadn’t only been working on a decoding project - he’d beeen working on an entire system of coding. And he’d very likely been keeping his work in mental storage.

“His co-workers gave him the name Magpie,” Sholto continued. “Did you know the magpie is afraid of shiny objects?”

John shook his head, thinking of Sherlock out in the garden, on the ground studying the bees. “But how does that relate to Sherlock?”

“They view him as a machine more than a man, spending his entire life indoors, pouring over formulas and texts and notes. Never seeing the sun.”

“That’s not really appropriate - birds spend their entire lives outdoors, under the sun….”

“Someone came up with the name one day and it stuck,” Mycroft said, closing the matter. “The point is that Sherlock is convinced that the key to putting it all back together and delivering a nearly fool-proof encoding system is to restore his former mental system - the one he has so grandiosely named the Mind Palace.”

“Your job, Captain Watson, is to do everything possible to enable this,” Major Sholto stated. He spoke evenly, and seriously, but John heard something else, perhaps a touch of quiet desperation behind his voice. Or saw it in his eyes. Something he’d not seen before in a commanding officer.

Anderson shifted. He glanced at Sholto. “We’ve got to stop wasting time,” he said tersely. “Don’t for one minute think the Germans are sitting on their arses waiting for us to catch up now that they think the Magpie is out of the picture.”

John bristled. He hated Anderson’s attitude. It was utterly offensive. He acted as if Sherlock had somehow engineered this catastrophe - had very nearly been killed through some fault of his own. It didn’t escape him that Anderson’s statement implied that the Germans had intelligence on Sherlock, that they’d known about him and his project, and like everyone else, thought him dead. But even with that weight of that knowledge, he attacked back.

“Sherlock Holmes has a serious - and possibly permanent - condition. It affects his brain, as all of you already know very well. The brain can’t heal if the body is over-worked, or sleep-deprived, or too stimulated. Working him too hard would be counter-productive.” He couldn’t risk an actual glare in Anderson’s direction, but he looked him in the eye, his face set.

“And for that reason, he is back in his room, having lunch with Miss Hooper and resting.” It was Major Sholto who spoke, and John turned obediently to face him, Anderson forgotten. John didn’t interrupt to remind him that Mycroft had said they were setting up the work room as well. “A telephone is being installed in your office today, Captain Watson. The purpose of this line if to communicate directly with you, as you will be the sole point of contact between Sherlock and Miss Hooper and your contact at Bletchley Park. You will be notified in advance of the arrival of a courier. The courier will deliver a package directly into your hands. These deliveries will be frequent but with no regular pattern. The package may be disguised as pharmaceuticals, medical supplies or reports, and the courier, and his vehicle, will not always be the same. Don’t accept a delivery if you haven’t been called ahead and told to expect one. All calls of this matter will be placed between seven o’clock and eight o’clock in the morning.”

“Dr. Watson is typically in his rooms or in the infirmary at that time,” Mycroft said, helpfully and unnecessarily.

Sholto acknowledged his statement with a nod. “While we have every confidence that Sherlock’s status and identify remain secure, you will nonetheless treat every package you receive as if it is a typical delivery for the infirmary. Deliver it to Sherlock the day you receive it, directly to his hands, but try not to alter your behavior in any way.”

“In other words,” Mycroft said, “continue to be unassuming Dr. Watson, pleasant but reserved - a man who is serious about his job and does it well, but who would rather be left alone to his own musings and wanderings than engage overly much with the patients and staff. A man dealing with loss, a man healing just as slowly as the patients under your care.”

As much as it stung to hear those words from Mycroft Holmes, especially in front of his commanding officer and Anderson, John couldn’t help but recognise the truth in them. Sherlock said that he, not Mycroft, had chosen John for his position at Rosethorne, but Mycroft had obviously presented Sherlock a list of candidates. Someone had created that list. Someone had culled through the possibilities.

Someone - someone who knew what Sherlock would respond to. Someone, perhaps, with an agenda of his own.

Still - Sherlock wasn’t an idiot. Far, far from one in fact. The dynamics at play between the two brothers were both complex and chaotic. They were either seriously mismatched - had they even had the same biological parents? - or a perfect yin and yang - a photograph and its negative.

“If I understand correctly, you’d like me to - ” John began.

“Your orders are…” corrected Mycroft, rather smugly.

John started over, swallowing his irritation. “My orders are to do everything possible to enable Sherlock to do his job. I’m to facilitate the passing of information to him, and more importantly, to facilitate his healing however I’m able.”

“I don’t believe anyone qualified that task as more important than the others.” Mycroft sounded nearly as irritated as John felt.

“I did.” John looked him in the eye. “And I’ve already explained why.”

Sholto chuckled. “Captain, just keep doing what you’re already doing. You know now what Sherlock is working on. If you can help get him to the goal a bit quicker, all the better. You know what we’re up against.“ His hand, on the table before him, closed into a fist. “You know how important this is.”

They dismissed him after a bit more discussion of the logistics of the couriers and communications. He’d refused to budge on a more lenient schedule for Sherlock, knowing it would be nearly impossible to keep Sherlock from doing exactly what he wanted to do. If he became too engrossed in the project, he’d certainly overtax himself and ultimately lose more than he gained.

The key, then, would be to manage him - give him something as enjoyable, as engrossing to do in his off time as in his time on. That, in and of itself, would not be difficult. Balancing the two, however, would be.

John went down to the kitchen to beg a late lunch from the cook, and carried his soup and sandwich to the breakfast room, sitting alone at the table with the morning paper, trying to be interested in the headlines, in the goings on of a world at war. But he wasn’t interested today, couldn’t even feign passing interest in the war that had been his very life for so long.

He folded the paper and pushed it aside.

He was annoyed. Irritated. Unreasonably angry that the war and all its attendant demands - its tragedies, its atrocities - was about to intrude on the tiny piece of - of possibility - he’d been about to claim for himself.

A secret garden with a magical, mystical maze. A brass key inside a child’s forgotten treehouse. A tattle tale crow. A tragedy, a death. A childhood, interrupted.

John scolded himself for his selfish attitude, and determined to reexamine his priorities. Men were dying out there - hundreds of them, thousands. Men he’d worked with, who’d had his back. Men who didn’t sit at a chessboard in the evening, playing silly games, spending time thinking about themselves, flirting....

Flirting.

Christ - it wasn’t fair. He’d put it all behind him years ago, with his father. Determined then and there to lead what would seem a normal life to anyone looking in, atone for his sins, the sins that had put his father behind bars, that had taken his life prematurely. He’d been there for his mother, through every day of her illness and decline. He’d become a doctor, taken a wife, joined the army, gone off to war. He’d followed orders - had had a model career. If he’s slipped once, if he’s snapped, he’d been paying for it, making up for it, every minute, every second, sick with the worry, the possibility that he’d be discovered.

And now -

He shouldn’t be flirting with Sherlock Holmes.

He shouldn’t be playing odd games of chess, drinking too much scotch, drawing a cartoon of Mycroft Holmes standing on a plank with crocodiles circling below. He shouldn’t be letting Sherlock Holmes see through him. He shouldn’t be answering questions about his father, his mother, Mary.

With new resolve, he determined to be a soldier again. To take and obey orders. To serve country before he served himself.

He thought his resolve would last. He’d been determined before, and had weathered the years after his father’s arrest and incarceration, a man self-condemned to the kind of life he’d never wanted.

He thought his resolve would last, but as it turned out, he didn’t know Sherlock Holmes very well at all.

Chapter Text

Chapter 21

Sherlock noticed John’s new resolve within minutes, and shattered it into pieces within an hour.

John had impatiently watched the minutes tick by after his meeting with Mycroft and Sholto until Mrs. Hudson finally came for him at three o’clock. She’d been directed by Mycroft to take him to Sherlock and Molly in their new work room, where they’d gone to set up after lunch. “He said to tell you Sherlock’s only been on the clock two hours,” Mrs. Hudson said as he followed her from his office through the grand foyer and into the other wing, then down a short corridor that led to an out-of-the-way stairway designed for the staff’s use. “Though he had him in that room with those officers for most of the morning too.”

A locked door opposite the narrow stairway opened to another equally narrow stairway leading down. It was poorly lit, and John, who always struggled going down stairs with his bad leg, gripped the railing with a frown. The door at the bottom of the stairs was bolted as well, and Mrs. Hudson unlocked it with a shiny new key, opened it, and led the way into a large room used for storage. A half dozen dim bulbs illuminated the room. Old furniture lined the walls and spilled out into the center, while shelving held household items that had been retired but not discarded.

Mrs. Hudson proceeded directly over to yet another door. This one, like the one before it at the bottom of the stairway, looked far more modern than the doors in the upstairs rooms, suggesting that the area had been built out much more recently. But instead of unlocking this door with the second key on her keyring, she knocked on it.

The door opened, and Mrs. Hudson stepped aside as Molly peeked out.

Molly looked much more energised than he felt. She would, of course. She had an intriguing new task and an interesting new partner.

“Oh, there you are, John. Finally - I’ve got to run - I’m already late for physio.”

“Right - you’d best get back then,” he said, peeking into the room over her shoulder and talking himself out of the childish resentment he was feeling for being mostly left out of this new game - despite his lack of qualifications for the job. This room, unlike the other, was brightly illuminated, but there was no natural light and very little in the way of creature comforts, only an assortment of tables, chairs and bookshelves. John, looking at the setup with the experienced eyes of someone who’d long cared for an epileptic, saw the entire room as a hazard of sharp corners and hard surfaces.

Molly had acted like she expected him, and as she hurried out, Sherlock, who was sitting at a table sorting through the contents of a folio, lifted his head and looked up at John.

“You survived the assault, I see,” he said, scrutinising John’s face even as John schooled his features, gearing up for the lecture he was about to deliver. Sherlock frowned, apparently not approving of something he read in John’s expression. He dropped his gaze, returning his attention to the folio without commenting on what he’d found troubling. “Anderson is a blithering idiot. Sholto would be acceptable if he stopped trying to be diplomatic and simply spoke his mind.” He did not offer any comment on his own brother.

John didn’t reply. He agreed with Sherlock about Anderson, though he thought Sholto more acceptable as he was than Sherlock did. As Sherlock had turned his attention away, back to the folio, John began to walk the perimeter of the below-ground room, examining the work space more closely before he condemned the room and demanded consideration of Sherlock’s infirmities.

He did understand why they’d chosen this location, at least from a security standpoint. It was difficult to locate, had a series of locked doors to navigate to gain entrance, and was certainly safer than the upstairs rooms from bombardment. Yet John immediately saw the liabilities, too. They needed an escape route - stairs that led directly up and outside would be best, though that would in turn open up a vulnerability from the outside. A window - but even a casement window would be unlikely in a building this old. A second set of stairs leading to the main floor, then. Reserve stores. Candles or oil lamps. A source of water. A bath - a loo, at the minimum.

There had to be a loo, he thought.

He found it with little effort, just off the workroom. It was small and bare, but clean enough. John gave the toilet a flush - it did the job, though slowly. He tested the taps - the flow wasn’t strong, but warm water did appear after half a minute. There was paper, a rubbish bin and two white hand towels and a stingy bar of soap. Checking the cupboard behind the mirror, he found the shelves bare, so he mentally composed a list of supplies - plasters and disinfectants, the basic medications and supplies for common ailments and first aid. A medical kit similar to the one he kept upstairs.

A cupboard too large for the available space was built into the rear wall, and when John opened one of the doors, he found that it was more a wardrobe than a cupboard. There were shelves on each side, but the center space was designed for hanging clothing, though it, like the medicine cupboard, was empty. It would be a good place to store extra bedding - for the bed John was going to insist Mycroft provide for the workroom so that Sherlock could rest if overtired, or lie down to recover from an ill-timed seizure.

John closed the wardrobe door and went out to the workroom again, eying the door directly across from the door to the loo. He soon found that it led to another storage room, this one even dimmer than the first, but not so crowded with cast-offs. The bed would go here, then - though the room could stand a bit of cleaning first. John sighed - Mrs. Hudson would have a thing or two to say if called upon to clean a dusty basement.

He closed the door and wandered back toward Sherlock, who pushed a piece of paper across the table toward him as he approached.

“I’ve already mapped out an escape route. Shall I post it on the wall by the door?” He sounded just condescending enough to raise John’s hackles.

“Not necessary,” John replied stiffy. “We’ll be having weekly escape drills.”

Sherlock looked up at him, surprised. The look faded away, though, as John continued.

“Anderson will be leading them. Tuesday mornings. He’ll have a whistle.”

“Oh - you’re joking.”

“About that - yes.” John gestured at the room in general, trying to convey his displeasure. “But not about the rest of it, Sherlock. We’re in a manor house – not a church meeting room.”

“The rest of it? Church? What are you talking about? I can hardly read your mind, John.”

“Hardly read my mind? Really, Sherlock?” John grabbed the back of a wooden chair, spun it around, then straddled it, facing Sherlock. He rested his elbows on the table and his chin on his clasped hands and tried to stare Sherlock down. “Go on, then. Read my mind.”

“John, you don’t want....”

“No - I do. I do want you to. What was I going to say next?”

Sherlock frowned. He studied John a long moment, then shrugged. “Oh - I don’t know. Something about working too long without a break because I can’t - won’t - follow simple instructions, and cracking my head on the corner of a desk when I inevitably have a seizure while I’m over-working myself.”

“Something like that,” John said, not acknowledging how close Sherlock’s guess was. “And something about needing some emergency medical supplies down here, and better chairs, and a bed or at least a sofa so you can rest if you do have one. And something to eat - snacks or fruit or even those shortbread biscuits you….”

He cut himself off with a huff. He didn’t need to clutter his mind with the type of biscuits Sherlock Holmes favoured.

He didn’t miss the twitch of lip as Sherlock registered his slip. The other man let out a similar huff - feigning an annoyance he clearly didn’t feel. His eyes moved to the wall over the door.

“And a clock,” Sherlock added. ”Surely there should be a clock.”

“Yes. And a clock.” John tried not to look surprised. Of course - a clock. He hadn’t missed one yet, but had he, he’d have definitely included it on his mental list.

Sherlock assumed a haughty attitude. “I’ll remind you that I’m a grown man. I may not be a whole man, anymore, but I can take care of myself.”

“A whole man?” John gave a disbelieving scoff. “I’ve seen plenty of soldiers with arms and legs blown off. You look pretty whole from where I’m standing.”

“Do I? I didn’t think you noticed those things, Dr. Watson.”

Something inside John surged outward, but the disciplined soldier won control of his tongue before the reckless mere human could either acknowledge or contradict the statement.

Instead, he stared at Sherlock, who stared back in challenge.

Finally, Sherlock looked away.

“I’d rather be missing a leg or an arm.”

He said it quietly, then sighed, raising his voice and looking directly at John, who struggled even more to stay in role. “You’re not my keeper, Dr. Watson,” he repeated.

“But I am,” John responded. “I am your keeper. The orders I’ve just had drilled into my skull by my commanding officer are very specific on the matter. My job is - to put it simply - you. Your health, your recovery, your productivity. And ultimately, apparently, the future of England.”

“Only England?” Sherlock shot back. “Not all of Europe and the entirety of the western hemisphere?”

There was something in his voice - above the sarcasm, or beyond it - that gave John pause. He was being a dick and he knew it, coming down here sporting a new attitude and not giving Sherlock any sort of explanation. He could be a friend without being - something else. Without being whatever it was that chess game, the questions game, had suggested. Drawing the line was the difficult part - and from what he had learned about Sherlock, he didn’t think Sherlock Holmes would honour any boundaries someone else was trying to impose on him.

“Stop it.” John’s voice sounded resigned. “Just - stop it. I will too, alright?” He wasn’t entirely sure he was going to like Sherlock as well from here on out, back at work with his focus on a vexing national problem and not on -

“Alright,” Sherlock said. He’d been fiddling with the folio, and he aligned it now so it was precisely parallel to the edge of the table. He glanced at John, a look on his face that John could not interpret. “I suppose we’re going outside, then? I could use some fresh air.”

And that thing – that protective beast, roared again, and he disguised his concern for irritation. “Are you feeling alright? Did you eat?”

“Yes. I had lunch in my quarters with Molly. She cut my chicken into small pieces and made me drink my milk.” He stood and pushed his chair back. “Damn it, John! I like you far better when you’re being an overbearing doctor instead of an obedient soldier ! I already have a mother - and I must say she is less maternal than you are acting now. I don’t need another mother - I need - ”

He cut himself off abruptly.

“I’m ready to go.”

John stepped forward. “Sherlock…”

Sherlock ignored him. He plucked his jacket from the back of a chair and shrugged into it, but John, stubborn John who most definitely knew when to not step on an armed land mine, didn’t let it go.

“What? What do you need then?”

“What don’t I already have?” snapped Sherlock “Only London. A working brain. A body that’s got going to fail me without warning.” He adjusted his jacket sleeves, his eyes sweeping the bare wall behind him. “And a tunnel,” he added, spinning around and appearing to pull this most expected word out of a cubby hole in his mind. “Hopefully, still intact,” he continued, back to scrutinising the rear wall of the room and continuing matter-of-factly “It’s probably been here since the manor was built. It will lead to Hawthorne Cottage - it’s a guest cottage on the property – it’s practically in ruins now, but my great-grandfather kept his mistress there, and he’d have to have had a discreet way of reaching her. Quite a few of the old manors had them - especially out in the wilds - they provided safe, warm and dry routes of travel between the manor house and outbuildings. It won’t take me long to find it once I set my mind to the task. I doubt we’ll need the tunnel for protection, but it will come in handy if we do, and give us easier access to the garden without having to walk out one of the main doors and pass in front of the house. I won’t need that ridiculous disguise.”

He spoke as if he disliked disguises in general, though John had first-hand evidence that they were one of his specialties, and he very much doubted Sherlock found it as reprehensible as he made it sound.

He’d walked over to a bookshelf and sorted through a pile of rolled documents, then selected two and unfurled one of them on a table, weighting one of the upper corners down with a heavy dictionary. “Mycroft turned these up in Grandfather’s study when he died. I nicked them during one of his lamentably too infrequent absences.”

John was torn. Sherlock obviously wasn’t going to tell him what he really needed. But did John, given his already crumbling resolve to treat their relationship properly and professionally, really want to know what Sherlock needed from him?

“You’re wondering about the tunnel,” Sherlock said as John watched him. “It’s family lore - not only that my great-grandfather kept a mistress, but that he did so on the manor grounds under his wife’s very nose. It came to me when you mentioned that we needed an escape route - ”

“I didn’t mention that. I never said - ”

“You didn’t need to. It was written on your face, plain as your nose.” Sherlock looked up from the schematic he was studying. “Not that your nose is entirely plain - it fits your face well and certainly isn’t the feature one focuses on first.”

John may have wanted to know what feature one did focus on first, but he managed to stay firmly on the already winding path down which Sherlock had started. “So your grandfather kept a mistress in a guest cottage and this makes you believe there’s a tunnel connecting the house and the cottage?”

“Exactly!”

It was easy, ultimately, to justify his participation in the grand tunnel search by telling himself that the existence of a tunnel would make this location more secure, with easier access to the garden and a better chance of helping Sherlock recover and rebuild. He leaned over the table beside Sherlock, studying the drawing - a schematic showing the entire property and the exact placement of its buildings, walls, walkways and drives.

“Where are we in here, then?” John asked, studying the manor’s building footprint on the schematic.

Sherlock placed his finger on a spot near the front of the wing.

“And the cellars - are they complete or partial?”

“Partial – and separate under each wing.” Sherlock sorted through a stack of papers, pulled out a floor plan from the pile and smoothed it out. “They only extend another twenty or thirty feet to the west from here.”

“And this cottage you mentioned? Hawthorne, was it?”

“Here.” Sherlock rotated the paper ninety degrees and moved his finger to a new point on it. “No more than a quarter mile away. We’re facing south. The main entrance is in front us and the gates just beyond the cottage.” Sherlock’s voice, falling from just slightly above his ear, was low and even, and he brushed easily against John as he traced a line to the guest cottage. “The tunnel most likely starts on this wall, between here and here.”

He punctuated the statement by tapping on the drawing. John looked at it closely, adjusting its position to match his perspective better. They were facing south - the back wall. Storage room to the west and loo to the east and who knows what beyond either of those.

The loo to the east. The loo he’d just examined a few minutes earlier.

No. It couldn’t be that easy. Or that obvious. It couldn’t even really be - as an escape tunnel from this work-space hidey hole, one that might well lead to a cottage conveniently close to their gardens, was a pie-in-the-sky illusion.

But with Sherlock - one never knew. John had heard and seen more than his share of preposterous and impossible things over the time of his stay here at Rosethorne. Hadn’t be been fetched once and taken to see a dead man now alive? Then awakened by said dead man in the guise of a woman? And what about crows keeping keys, and locked gardens, and tragic stories of a man left a widower by a bee sting?

Why wouldn’t there be a secret tunnel in a world of secret gardens and undercover operations, of mute men talking and dead men walking?

Sherlock had begun tapping on the south wall, alternating high and low. John watched him a few minutes, but when he removed a pocket knife from his trouser pocket and inserted the blade in the seam between two of the wood panels that covered the room’s walls, John stepped quietly into the loo and stood facing the wardrobe-like cupboard. It extended from one wall to the other, and stretched nearly to the ceiling.

He wasn’t an expert, and had never even seen a secret drawer in a desk, much less a secret door in a wardrobe. But it stood to reason that if the wardrobe was hiding the entrance to a tunnel, the back panel of the wardrobe must be false, and removing it had to be simple enough for a single person to manage. He opened the doors and began to examine the panel. It was a solid piece of the same dark wood that made up the rest of the wardrobe, and had no knotholes or flaws that John could see. He ran his hands around the edges, pushing inward, and feeling a bit ridiculous for his efforts. When he gave up on the rear panel, he turned to examine the shelves on either side. He thought he saw a knob on the top right shelf, but soon realised it was just a discarded drawer pull.

“Second shelf, left side.”

“Christ - Sherlock!” John whirled around, startled, heart pounding. “Don’t do that!”

“What? Don’t surprise you when you’re obviously trying to escape down the tunnel without me?” Sherlock accused with a gleam in his eye.

“You think this is it, then?” John had turned and was eying the shelf Sherlock had indicated.

“It is conspicuous in its size - inappropriate for a small loo such as this - the doors don’t even open all the way with the placement of the sink and commode. It’s against the south wall and is large enough to accommodate a grown man. It’s too large to have been moved here - so either the room was built around it or it was built into the room. It must have a purpose.” He leaned in close to John again until John could nearly feel the phantom scrape of the stubble on his chin. “Look at the shelf - there’s a build-up here -” he touched the edge of the shelf he’d indicated - “that you don’t see on the opposite shelf or the ones above and below. Residue from fingers, laid there over some time, and most importantly, not rigorously cleaned by the servants. Lifting the shelf, or doing it in combination with another action, could trigger a release mechanism on the panel.”

He spoke softly, with a subdued excitement in his voice that brought to mind childlike exuberance. He rapped on the back of the wardrobe, but it sounded as solid as any other large piece of furniture.

“It would be made well - our great-grandfather was a da Vinci manque of sorts. His specialty was clocks….” He manuevered himself inside the piece as he spoke and looked between the shelf he’d indicated and the one below it. “There’s a torch on the table in the corner of the workroom. Would you…?”

John retrieved the torch without question and held it for Sherlock, shining it on the shelves he was studying, then holding the edge of the top shelf up with one hand as Sherlock studied the way the shelves were held in place.

“I think - this.” He was fiddling with the sturdy pegs on which the shelf rested and reached out to touch the third. He pushed - hard - and the peg slid back through the hole into which it was inserted.

Still, John was surprised when the entire back of the wardrobe swung silently out away from them with a long, slow creak. He could immediately smell the cool, dank air beyond. Impossible. There was absolutely no way they had gone from guessing that there might be a tunnel to standing at its open entrance in less than fifteen minutes.

“You knew about this already,” he accused. “You had to have. That was far too easy.”

Sherlock turned to him with a wide smile. “I knew there was a tunnel,” he conceded without apology. “Father told us - he challenged us to find it that summer we spent here. But - Grandfather wouldn’t tell us where it was - he claimed he’d had it filled in as it wasn’t safe. So naturally, we started digging to find it.”

“Naturally.”

“DIgging was unproductive - given that I was seven years old and Mycroft made me do most of the digging. So we built a treehouse instead, or part of one,” Sherlock muttered, watching the beam of John’s torch illuminate the smooth dirt walls and ceiling of the tunnel. “Well - does it look safe enough for you?”

John swept the torch beam over the tunnel again. He could barely make out a supporting structure of sorts at the edge of the beam’s reach - rough-hewn wood with supporting ceiling beams. It was more passageway than crude tunnel, appearing high enough for a man to walk through without stooping, and just wide enough for two men to stand side by side.

“It must be shafted - or be open on the other end,” John said as he shone the beam on the floor just past the wardrobe, illuminating an old-fashioned oil lamp on the floor against the wall. “The air is moving - it’s not as stale as you’d think it might be.”

Sherlock stooped to step through the opening and examined the panel that had opened to reveal the tunnel. “It’s a simple latch mechanism from this side,” he said. He took several steps into the tunnel, running his fingers along the tightly packed dirt wall, then turned to face John. “Ready for a new adventure then, Dr. Watson?”

John shook his head in resignation and dropped all pretense of pretending he didn’t want to explore the tunnel with Sherlock.

“Oh for Christ’s sake...” He sighed, then stepped carefully up into the wardrobe, careful of his leg, and ducked through as Sherlock kept walking, trailing his hand along the wall as he went. “Wait for me – I’ve got the torch!”

A thousand feet as the crow flies seems a short and manageable distance when on the surface of the earth in the full light of day. Underground with the single beam of a mediocre torch, a thousand feet began to seem like a formidable journey. The tunnel, at least, didn’t narrow as they progressed. It ran straight for a hundred feet or so, then began to curve to the west, and the dim light from the loo behind them disappeared.

Suddenly, Sherlock stopped and grabbed John’s arm.

“John - the torch,” he whispered. “Turn it off.”

John, adept at following commands, complied without question.

The darkness that enveloped them was absolute. He hardly had time to process that thought before he was pushed roughly against the wall. Startled, alert for a danger he could not see, he instinctively froze.

But the danger that approached was of a kind he hadn’t anticipated.

Lips - Sherlock’s lips - pressed against his ear with the ghost of an exhale.

“Quiet,” they whispered.

And he couldn’t have made a noise, not when Sherlock turned his head, brushing those lips against his skin from the hollow of his ear, across his cheek, to the corner of his mouth.

“Tell me you want this, John,” he murmured as they stood there in the darkest of dark, unmoving, not touching, almost touching. His voice was the only sound, the only sensation in the absolute blackness. “Tell me I’m not wrong.”

John’s reply was a groan unleashed, one hand fisting in Sherlock’s jacket to pull him against his body, the other rising on its own accord to wrap around the back of his neck.

He didn’t kiss him - not just yet. They stood, breathing hard, while John voiced the words, the warning, he needed to say. “We shouldn’t do this. It won’t end well. It never has.”

Sherlock’s chuckle echoed through the stillness.

“If endings are the problem, I suppose we shouldn’t let it end at all.”

And suddenly, with Sherlock’s weight against him, with his intentions clear, it wasn’t just a game of chess any longer. Check mate John thought. He was the vanquished king, toppled by his own hand, but with one last-ditch move left.

He moved to kiss Sherlock, but Sherlock’s lips were already on his, and John was kissing him back as the farce of a life he’d been building since the day his father was incarcerated crumbled to dust at their feet.

Chapter Text

Chapter 22

“If endings are the problem, I suppose we shouldn’t let it end at all.”

And John kissed him.

Tightened the fist that held on to Sherlock’s jacket, twisted it to pull him closer even as the hand on the back of Sherlock’s neck worked itself into those soft curls.

He groaned, a deep guttural reverberation, as Sherlock bent his head and pressed his warm lips against the corner of John’s mouth even as John turned his head and captured Sherlock’s mouth.

It had been too long.

Too long since he’d kissed a man, since he’d felt the scrape of beard on his cheek and long fingers on his jaw. Too long since he’d had to battle for control, since the body grinding against his own had been hard and angular, all hips and thigh and lean muscles and strong arms.

He let go of Sherlock’s jacket as Sherlock leaned into him even harder, and lifted his other hand to frame Sherlock’s face as he kissed him in the dark.

It could have been anyone - any man - any stranger in the absolute blackness, the air dank and close around them, entombed in the earth beyond the light of day, the sight of friend or foe.

But it wasn’t anyone. It was Sherlock - brilliant, beautiful, flawed and maddening Sherlock. Sherlock who knew his secrets, who’d guessed his past. Sherlock who’d played a masterful game and left him the last move.

“God I want you,” he murmured into Sherlock’s neck, dragging his lips down below Sherlock’s collar, kissing a blemish there with lips and teeth.

It was almost like dancing - anticipating the next move, the spin, the turn, the dip. Every sound - cloth on cloth, creak of bone, catch of breath, scrape of teeth on skin stretched tightly over collarbone - every sound was magnified, over-loud in the stillness. Heart hammering in chest too small to contain it, he pressed his mouth again to Sherlock’s, searching for sustenance. This kiss - this kiss - was ambrosia. Nectar of the gods. Manna from heaven.

“You kiss with your eyes open,” Sherlock whispered into his mouth, pulling his lips away from John’s and grazing them over the corner of his eye and it shouldn’t have felt so intimate, so erotic. It shouldn’t have made him shiver, and wrap his good arm around Sherlock’s shoulders, sink his face into the crook of his neck and breathe him in. He closed his eyes now, squeezed them shut until light seemed to dance behind his eyelids like shards of a shattered star.

He was hard. Hard from a kiss in the dark. Hard from a man caressing his face with a whisper and a sigh.Hard because he was wedged between a solid earthen wall and Sherlock Holmes, and they were utterly, absolutely alone.

“Do you dance?”

John, head buried against the warmth of Sherlock’s neck, pulse beating beneath his lips, lowered his arm to rest on the small of Sherlock’s back.

“Do I dance?” he responded, smiling as Sherlock’s fingers laced through the fingers of his weak hand, then brought it up to waltz position. “Yes. Sometimes. With music.”

“With a partner?” He took the torch from John’s hand, managing to find it without fumbling in the dark, then placed his hand on John’s shoulder. John obligingly raised his own hand, sliding it from Sherlock’s back up along his side, and stopping to rest it on his side above his waist. He could feel the movement of Sherlock’s ribcage as he breathed.

“Music?” he murmured.

“It’s in your head, John. It’s always in your head.” He bowed, touching his forehead to John’s. “Ready, then?”

He’d put John in the lead position, so the next move was his.

“You’re serious.” John moved his foot, still pressed against Sherlock, not caring that Sherlock felt him, that he knew John was aroused. Sherlock followed his lead, moving his own foot in tandem with John’s.

It came so naturally after that.

It was utterly ridiculous to waltz in tiny box steps in the earthy stillness of a secret tunnel, counting in his head as the Blue Danube played through his mind. He’d always been no more than an adequate dancer, mind so acutely attuned to the music and his feet and the position of his arms that he was dancing only in the most clinical definition of the term. The woman in his arms was more prop than partner, the entire experience more task than pleasure.

But now, here with Sherlock, he was dancing, not counting. Sherlock held his weak hand firmly, holding it in position so that it was neither liability nor distraction, and in the quiet John heard him humming as they moved.

The Blue Danube.

“You’re reading my mind,” he whispered, not because anyone could hear them, but because the intimacy of the moment demanded it.

“Dance,” Sherlock murmured. And he went back to humming, and John picked up the tempo, and they tripped over the torch and stumbled into the wall. Sherlock fell against John, and they were chest to chest, groin to groin. Dance forgotten, melody unchained, Sherlock dropped his forehead against John’s and they were kissing, and laughing, and kissing until Sherlock slid down on his knees, mouthing him through the fabric of his trousers, and John stopped kissing, stopped laughing, nearly stopped breathing.

This.

Breath hot, burning, searing, branding. Groaning as cool air touched his skin, as warm mouth tasted him with the barest scrape of teeth, the skillful lave of tongue.

Sinful, but he was damned to hell already. Sinfully good, sinfully perfect, and he strained not to thrust into the exquisite feel of heat and suction.

It was nothing like he’d ever experienced. Foreign, like the desert sand and merciless sun, but familiar, like the warmth of the soil beneath his fingers as he sat in the garden, watching Sherlock watch the bees. He strove to breathe as Sherlock took him in even more, holding him at the root with one hand as the other grazed back then cupped his heavy sac as he knotted his right hand in Sherlock’s curls and fervently wished he could see Sherlock’s face. Wished he could see himself sliding into Sherlock’s mouth, through the circlet of his fist, Sherlock’s head buried between his legs.

His weak hand was fisting at his side and he vaguely thought that this kind of physical therapy would have it strong and useful again in no time.

He deliberately relaxed the hand in Sherlock’s hair, carding his fingers through the curls, caressing the back of Sherlock’s head. Sherlock responded by taking him even deeper with a groan that nearly obliterated John’s remaining brain cells.

“Sherlock - Sherlock - you don’t...you don’t have to…” he attempted, tugging at Sherlock’s hair with an intent he didn’t feel. The hand gripping him loosened, but in a blink he was swallowed to the root and Jesus Christ he had to be halfway down Sherlock’s throat and there were no brain cells left to direct his hips not to thrust, his fingers not to fish in Sherlock’s curls, to thwart his groans and leave him with even a modicum of dignity.

He could almost hear Sherlock’s voice of dismissal.

Dignity is over-rated.

If so, it was about the only thing in this moment of time that was over-rated.

John exploded with a strangled cry that echoed in the silent tunnel. The entire universe, his entire being, was centered on the tight warmth of Sherlock’s mouth, and his injured leg, the one he’d hardly felt as he danced with Sherlock on the rough stone floor, shuddered in protest and Sherlock’s arms gripped him hard around his thighs and kept him steady, even as he let gravity take over and slid down the wall, coming to rest on his arse, knees up in front of him, trousers undone, one hand still holding onto Sherlock, pulling him in for a kiss that offered to start something more.

“We should get moving,” Sherlock murmured,

“But you haven’t -”

“We’ve all the time in the world,” Sherlock reminded him. “Remember? No endings?”

“It’s private here,” John protested, groping around until he found the torch.

“It’s private in your room at two o’clock in the morning, or in the music room, or under the stars in the garden. It’s private nearly everywhere in this rambling manor. And besides - I’ve something else in mind when the time is right.”

He grasped John’s hand with uncanny sense in the pitch dark, and pulled him to his feet.

They made their way through the tunnel, torchlight illuminating the walls and floor before them, walking, perhaps, closer together than they had before, but carrying on as they had before Sherlock had dropped to his knees and sucked John’s brain out through his prick. In any other situation, with any other person, he would have been reveling in the afterglow. Lounging in bed with his arm around his lover, snuggling under the quilt in the chill of the morning.

Except - well, except that he’d never had a lover so attentive on his pleasure. Had never had a lover on their knees before him, serving him without being subservient, controlling him from a position of submissiveness. The illusion of power even as he was being skillfully taken apart, piece by piece. Reassembled into the shape of the man he’d always been inside, beneath the three coats of skillfully applied paint to hide his true colours.

He hadn’t spoken aloud, yet Sherlock must have heard him, or more likely still, was reading his thoughts. A hand - the strong, calloused long-fingered hand of a musician, laced through his and squeezed, lifted his fist and pressed a kiss to the back of his hand.

“Nothing has changed, John,” claimed the man who was holding John’s hand, the man whose lips had just burned a new brand into his soul. “We’re on the same path, going the same direction, toward the same destination. We’re just walking together now.”

Sherlock spoke softly, but confidently, so utterly sure of himself that it made John’s heart ache. Was Sherlock really that naive? To believe they could have that kind of life - this kind of life - out of cover of darkness?

They reached the end of the tunnel at last, a narrow stairway that led to a small landing. John went up slowly, good leg up then bad following, behind Sherlock and by the time he reached the top Sherlock had tripped the mechanism to open the door.

“Clever,” he murmured, as the back panel of a familiar wardrobe fell away, and they stepped carefully out into a dim, dust-shrouded dressing room.

The first thing John saw as he blinked against the muted light from the doorway was the reflection of his face in the mirrors that circled the room. He looked a different man - disheveled and relaxed. Where had the rigidity with which he’d carried himself for so long gone?

The second thing he saw Sherlock’s face.

Eyes unfocused. Mouth slack.

He spun around just in time to catch him as he crumpled.

Chapter Text

As much as he wanted to cradle Sherlock in his arms, John allowed his inner physician to take control and backed off, giving him space.

He’d been here before, in this position, crouched on the floor three feet from his wife with arms empty, fists clenched in frustration, while Mary convulsed.

He’d even been in this exact position with Sherlock - rolling him away from the wall, from the bedroom furniture, then backing off, staying close enough to offer help if needed, but keeping out of the way of flailing arms and legs.

It wasn’t the filth of this long-disused guest cottage that bothered him as he leaned against the wall, with the layers of dust covering the circular rug and wooden floor around it. It wasn’t the severity of Sherlock’s attack - as seizures went, this one, thank God, seemed less severe than the others he’d witnessed.

No – what bothered John Watson, what was making him even more uneasy as he waited out this latest seizure, was the timing. The slap-in-your-face reminder of Sherlock’s injury and condition on the very heels of the intimacy they had just shared. It was as if they’d finally reached the summit of a mountain, standing side by side as the view to eternity opened up, then taking a half step too far, or stumbling on a loose stone, slipping and sliding back to where they’d begun, battered and bruised, all the worse for the wear.

Sherlock’s attack just as they’d emerged from the hidden, private, safe world of the tunnel was a cold-hearted reminder, John thought, a glass of ice water thrown in his face. The world above wasn’t going to stop spinning because of stolen moments in the dark. And those moments, he realised, no matter how frequently stolen, would continue to be like sandbars in a swollen river, safe shores that were there one moment and gone the next.

How long could he live a life made up of sandbars, of moments stolen in the dark?

He forced himself to swallow back the doubts, the second thoughts. That he was considering this life at all was answer enough. He focused instead on Sherlock’s body as the jerking motion of his limbs subsided into something more like restlessness, as if he were attempting to wake from an unsettling dream. This was the body he’d just held, the mouth and hands that had just given him some of the most exquisite pleasure imaginable. This contorted mouth. These jerking arms.

This was the first Sherlock he’d seen - a man in the throes of an epileptic seizure. Lean and long, head of over-long curly hair standing out starkly against the paleness of skin and bedsheets. Everything about him all the more surprising as back then, when he’d been called in to help, John had expected to meet an elderly man on the brink of death.

He lowered himself carefully to the floor now as the seizure ebbed, as Sherlock, limbs nearly calm, made a low, incoherent sound.

“Hey, I’m here,” John said, inching toward Sherlock and resting his right hand on his shoulder. “Rest a few minutes before you try to move again.” He let his hand drift down to Sherlock’s back, and rubbed it lightly, relieved when Sherlock sighed, dropping his shoulders as he relaxed under John’s touch.

He sat on the floor beside Sherlock, bad leg stretched out awkwardly before him, and continued to rub his back, a gesture he wouldn’t have dared before today. The rhythmic motion calmed him as much as it soothed Sherlock. As Sherlock’s breathing became more regular, John took the time to study his surroundings. They were in the middle of what must be, from its size and layout, a dressing room, with a large window to the side and mirrors on every wall. The room suggested a faded sort of elegance, with gold-flecked wallpaper peeling away behind the beveled mirrors and cobwebs glazing the crystal chandelier overhead. The gauzy curtains at the window were nearly transparent, and beyond them, through the dusty glass, he could see the line of the ivy-covered garden wall.

Lestrade’s garden - their garden - was hardly more than an arm’s reach away.

John maneuvered closer and settled Sherlock’s head on his lap, recalling, as he stroked hair back from the pale face, how he’d held Mary like this. How he’d felt pity for her, and sadness, and that curl of bittersweet love. With Mary, the feeling that he’d arrived too late to save her stayed with him from the beginning, and no matter what she said, no matter what her friends and family told him, he was never able to shed the feeling that he’d somehow failed her, though there had been absolutely nothing he could have done save hold her when she was down and make her good days marginally brighter.

Until the end, anyway. And the course of action he’d taken then hadn’t done a damn thing for Mary, though it had, in its own twisted way, leveled the unbalanced scales of justice.

Why was this so different, then? This time - this man? Why didn’t he pity Sherlock? Why did his condition simply slip into his reality here? Why didn’t it make him sad?

He knew it had something to do with the fact that Sherlock was a man, and that something was more than a logistical list of parts and pieces. But at the heart of it, he knew the issue of gender wasn’t the crux of the matter. He’d met Mary after her accident, after the onset of her debilitating condition, yet their meeting had nothing to do with his medical training, or with caregiving. He’d had no idea she was ill – he’d danced with her, and stepped on her feet, and she’d laughed and tried to take the lead. He’d resisted and they’d taken a walk together instead, arm in arm. He’d learned about her condition later, and while it had come to define their shared life, it was initially a side-note. He’d met Mary in a carefree moment, and when he’d learned of her injury, her past, her epilepsy, something inside had fired up, a flare of protectiveness that nearly destroyed him in the end. He’d been attracted to her from the start in the usual way, and the disease hadn’t figured into their relationship until later. He’d fallen for her before he knew what was to come.

But he’d met Sherlock under entirely different circumstances. He’d met Sherlock when the man was at his weakest. He’d met him under the cover of night, under layers of complex secrecy, when Sherlock was convulsing. He’d known nothing of the man, had not been stunned by his beauty or taken in by his winning personality. He was a patient, and a mystery, and John had grown to know him, had become his friend, in an upside-down way unlike any of his previous relationships.

He had, in fact, become first Sherlock’s physician, then his friend, and finally his lover - all of it slowly, painfully slowly, and all of it with his eyes wide open. He’d had any number of opportunities to change course, and even though he’d resolved to do just that, he’d proven himself incapable of doing so - or, if he were honest with himself, unwilling to carry it through. He knew what he was getting into in every sense, knew how his choices would define him for the rest of his life. Perhaps that was why the game had gone on so long. Why they’d played mind games over chess moves, or played side by side on a piano bench during his weakest moments.

Yet onward he’d gone. And when he’d reached the edge of the cliff, the insurmountable precipice, he’d closed his eyes and jumped.

Through the wardrobe. Into the all-forgiving, all-concealing cover of darkness. A long, slow, arduous, teasing sort of climb. A fall into a forbidden paradise. A rise to cold, harsh reality.

And yet he was here, alive, meeting reality head-on and ready for more.

“Well - that - that was inconvenient.”

Sherlock’s voice, soft as it was, and oddly feeble, echoed hollowly in the small room.

“A bit,” John conceded, shifting with a wince as Sherlock rolled off of his lap and pushed up to wobbly knees. “Hey there - careful.” He steadied Sherlock with a hand, then scooted back to lean against the dressing room wall, giving Sherlock space to get his own bearings. It was care-giving he’d learned from Mary, giving power back to her at her weakest moment.

Sherlock remained on his hands and knees for several moments while John waited. He blew out long, audible breaths, then lowered himself until he was seated on the floor, scooting back to rest against the wall beside John.

They were quiet for a long while then, though John reached for Sherlock’s hand and laced their fingers together. He dropped his head back against the wall and waited, gazing at the dusty chandelier above them.

“Well, then.”

Sherlock let out a weak chuckle.

“I did that on purpose, you realise.”

John rolled his eyes. “What - timed your seizure to coincide with the end of our first romantic encounter?” he asked, lifting their joined hands and pressing his lips to Sherlock’s knuckles in a casual gesture of affection, as if they weren’t two grown men hiding out in a dusty women’s dressing room.

“Ah - John. That was hardly our first romantic encounter.” Sherlock tipped his own head back, staring at the chandelier along with John, and John acknowledged the correction with a squeeze of his hand.

“Sexual, then,” he said, turning his head just enough to see Sherlock’s profile. He was surprised that his face didn’t heat up, and if he flushed at all, it was from the smile that curled Sherlock’s lip at his correction.

“I don’t want one to supplant the other,” Sherlock said quietly. “They both have a certain appeal.”

John squeezed his hand again in acknowledgment. “I suppose we could clean this place up and have private candlelight dinners in the dining room.”

Sherlock laughed. The sound, like the chuckle before, echoed oddly in the gloomy stillness of this forgotten space. “Or better yet - a bottle of wine shared in the garden under the stars?”

John thought of Mary in her party dress, dancing in the ballroom, of kissing on the balcony on New Year’s Eve. He thought of holding her hand in the hospital, sitting at her bedside time and again and lifting her hand to his lips. He thought of walks in the park, hand in hand, feeding the greedy swans, huddling up against the wind on a bench as the autumn sun went down.

When it came to the more traditional expressions of romance, the cards were certainly stacked against them.

John wanted to ask - and after the war? After Rosethorne? Are we going to share a bachelor’s flat in London? Have friends in common? Go to the theater? The symphony? Will my entire life be spent following you about London keeping you out of trouble and patching up your wounds?

A sudden, odd vision of pushing a pram through Queen Mary’s Garden in Regent’s Park with Sherlock at his side came to him, but he blinked it away with a quick shake of his head. Madness. It was all madness. This war, this thing with Sherlock, and especially all the traditional notions of a proper life that had been drilled into him from childhood onward. It was madness to be with Sherlock, but….

Carpe Diem, he thought, sitting there in the dust with Sherlock pressed against his side. Seize the day. There were no guarantees in life, he’d learned. No guarantee even that England would win this war, that there would be an after to consider. And certainly no guarantees that a proper life would bring him even a modicum of happiness.

Sherlock seemed to know his thoughts, for he gave John’s hand a reassuring squeeze, then let it go. John pulled himself to his feet, wincing as his leg protested, and steadied himself against the wall. Sherlock offered his hand then, and John helped pull him upright. Sherlock’s arms came up around him as he got his footing, and he nestled his head in the crook of John’s neck, breath warm against John’s skin.

He could have stayed like that forever, world and war be damned, but Sherlock pressed a kiss onto his neck, brushed off his trousers, a futile but automatic gesture, then walked carefully to the window, hand trailing the wall and leaving a dusty cloud in its wake. He stood there, fragile curtain pushed to the side, supporting himself with both hands on the windowsill, studying the wall beyond, and John stayed where he was, watching Sherlock.

He knew that Sherlock needed more time to pull himself back together, and that he was using the opportunity to center himself physically as he examined the garden out beyond the cottage. John wandered out of the dressing room into the bedchamber. The furnishings had been removed, leaving a once-lush carpet over narrow hardwood slats, but John’s eyes were drawn to the windows which let in a flood of light through the unwashed glass. They ran nearly floor to ceiling and French doors between them led to a wide, open veranda.

He fumbled with the old-fashioned locking mechanism on the doors, cursing his lack of dexterity, but managed to pull them back at last. They creaked as they opened, and a breeze, as refreshing as it was symbolic, washed in. Relieved to finally be outside where the wind from the moors swept everything clean, he stepped carefully down onto the veranda.

What caught his attention first was not the garden wall, and not even the archway built into it directly opposite him, with its solid wooden door, or the garden shed beyond, dilapidated and creaky. His eyes focused instead on an oak tree to his left, midway between the cottage and the wall. It was a large tree, towering over house and wall, shading much of the cottage and veranda. It had a solid trunk, sure and straight, leading up into a full canopy. But there was something off about the part of the trunk that faced him - something that gave its surface a misshapen, irregular appearance.

The matter resolved itself as he got nearer. Boards were nailed to the trunk to form a ladder leading up into the canopy, but the boards were so old, or had been nailed there so long ago, that they had nearly been consumed by the tree as it grew and now seemed almost organic - part of the tree itself more than something built onto or out from it.

He thought it had to be a child’s construction. The distance between each board was irregular, though, as he didn’t know much about the growth pattern of trees, he supposed those distances may have changed through the ensuing years. Two of the boards still had exposed nails where the tree had grown around the ends of the boards more than the middle, and John could see that each was held to the tree with far too many nails than necessary, as if a child had done the hammering, working under the theory that more was better. The nails themselves were of the old-fashioned, spikey sort, but had certainly withstood the test of time.

He stood at the bottom of the tree and looked up to see what had once most certainly been an elaborate tree house. It was higher up in the tree than John thought he’d have allowed a child to climb, though probably no higher than a first-floor window. John imagined it closer to the ground in days gone by, when the oak hadn’t been quite so mighty. Though the tree itself had grown around the house, he could make out a rail, and something that glinted in the speckled sunlight, and what might have been a castle turret had it not been perched in an old oak tree.

“What do you see, John?”

He wasn’t exactly startled by Sherlock’s voice behind him, though he hadn’t heard him approach.

“A treehouse - they seem quite popular here at Rosethorne.” He indicated one of the old steps. “Did you and Mycroft wander over here, by any chance?”

“Sadly, no,” Sherlock said with an easy shrug. He made his way over to stand beside John. He was not standing too close, no closer than their previous familiarity allowed, but his presence seemed to have a magnetic pull that hadn’t been there before, and John found himself leaning closer and rubbing shoulders as Sherlock bent forward and examined the exposed nails, the nearly-consumed ladder rungs. “Go on, then. What else do you see?”

“Ah. Well, then.” John cleared his throat as Sherlock continued his examination. “A treehouse - twelve or fourteen feet up - looks like there are - were – eight – nine - ten stepping boards. Quite old - the tree has nearly swallowed most of the boards. They’re sturdy.” He tugged on one of the steps, and it didn’t so much as wiggle. “Don’t you think it odd to find a treehouse at a guest cottage?” he asked.

“Perhaps it wasn’t a guesthouse to all of its residents,” mused Sherlock. He placed his hand on the knobby growth over one of the boards, studying it, then raised his gaze to the treehouse above.

“The board was precisely cut and measured - it’s not a random scrap but a carefully-considered ladder rung made of strong, weather-resistant wood. Yet it was erected less carefully - though safely enough.” He tugged on the end of one of the wooden steps, though it was essentially part of the tree now and didn’t budge. “What does that tell you, John?”

John shrugged. “Sounds like a father and son project - Dad did the planning and maybe let the boy cut the wood where he marked it, then allowed the lad to nail it up.”

“Good - very good.” Sherlock glanced at him, and John thought he looked pleased, if a bit surprised. But Sherlock soon went back to studying the tree. He seemed particularly interested in the tree growth around the boards, but he stepped away and gazed up, perhaps estimating its height.

“Sixty years ago - perhaps as many as seventy-five,” he said. “The cottage isn’t as old as the manor house, but it’s very likely as old as this tree.” He spoke quickly, and John listened, captivated by the display of reasoning. “Child - living in a guest house, which seems on the surface less than permanent, but constructing a very permanent playhouse in the tree. Doing so with a father who had the means to procure teakwood from India for a child’s treehouse.”

“Teak? Oh. You mean…?” John was catching on now,

“Exactly. My grandfather had a brother. Or, more accurately, a half-brother.”

“Wait - what?”

“Which explains quite a bit about my grandfather, I think. He was the legitimate heir, but perhaps not the most loved, perhaps not even the first-born.”

“Hey - slow down. Mortal here, remember?” John tugged on Sherlock’s sleeve. “Is this how that brain of yours works, then? You can deduce the identity of a child you didn’t know existed by a bit of wood swallowed up by a tree?”

“Oh.” Sherlock’s eyes drifted up to the treehouse, then back to John. “Is that what I did, then?”

“Yes! Exactly that - it was brilliant! But it makes no sense. Less than an hour ago, you were convulsing on the floor. Your brain should be a chaotic mess still - foggy and unfocused. Look at how you’re moving, Sherlock. As if every muscle in your body hurts. You’re considering each step before you take it, and you’re careful to lean against things for extra support because you’re weak and sore from the uncontrolled muscle movements. The only reason you’re up at all is that the attack was mild, and didn’t last very long. But regardless- your brain should not be so - so - engaged.”

“It isn’t always.” Sherlock seemed to think it best to back pedal. “Sometimes I sleep for hours after an attack because I can’t concentrate enough to even read or take notes, and I never have a puzzle waiting to solve to occupy me.”

“But could you - if you did? Have a puzzle, I mean. Could you solve a puzzle after an attack if you had one to solve?”

“I could. I just did.” Sherlock took one last curious look at the treehouse above then settled stiffly to the ground, leaning against the tree as he drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them. “My mind is all I have as I recover physically from an attack. I learned techniques to clear it - to keep it sharp - many years ago. It might be fuzzy after a seizure, but it doesn’t hurt like the rest of my body.” He rolled his shoulder, wincing, clearly indicating his body and the shoulder in particular were betraying him, then stretched his feet out and tipped his head back against the tree, studying the treehouse again.

John settled on the ground beside him. It felt good to rest, and better yet to do so out-of-doors in the calm evening, with Sherlock slowed down to nearly his own speed. He gazed upward into the tree for a minute, wondering what Sherlock was staring at, but couldn’t make out form in the shadows. He watched the clouds roll by for a time, then let his gaze wander back to the garden wall, and the doorway in it, and the shed just past the doorway. It was as if everything they needed to execute their plan had been dropped in pieces at their feet for them to assemble.

“There’s a door in the wall,” he said. “And a very convenient garden shed to dismantle just a few yards away. Lestrade can help up - we can haul the wood through the door and save ourselves a -.”

He trailed off as Sherlock, still staring up into the tree, suddenly jumped to his feet. He grabbed at the tree, dizzy and disoriented, as John hauled himself up to steady him.

“Sherlock – what….?”

“I don’t think we’re going to need that shed, John,” Sherlock said. “What we are going to need is a ladder.”

“A ladder?” John glanced upward again, then back at Sherlock.

“Don’t you see?” Sherlock pointed into the tree, at what John had thought to be a castle turret, then at the sweep of the railing at the edge of the platform.

“It’s a ship, John.” John followed his finger as it moved to point out feature after feature. “Crow’s nest. Captain’s wheel. Plank – or what’s left of it – I can’t imagine my great-grandfather actually allowing a functional plank – perhaps there was a safety net… Ladder – Lestrade will have one, won’t he?”

“Calm down, Sherlock,” John said with an indulgent sigh. While Sherlock’s childlike enthusiasm was infectious, he didn’t feel the same exuberance himself. “There’s no way I’m letting you climb a ladder today. We can come back tomorrow if you’d like – with Lestrade.”

As they walked back inside, having decided to return by the most direct route – the underground tunnel – John couldn’t help but feel a tinge of regret. He’d looked forward to the project more than the outcome, as a means of redirecting Sherlock’s frustration with accessing his mind palace, and perhaps allowing his mind to heal by taking the focus off of it for at least part of each day. But now a fully formed pirate ship tree house had all but fallen into their laps, one that was likely to be even more interesting when examined up close.

But perhaps he’d have to rethink the entire idea anyway. For today he’d discovered that Sherlock’s post-seizure mind wasn’t a confusing maze of dead-end corridors and mist-filled cellars. It was sharp and clear and capable of examining an old tree and solving a puzzle inside a mystery they hadn’t even known existed.

Perhaps they were going at it all wrong. Perhaps the project Sherlock had started wasn’t the project he was going to finish.

What John never did consider, however, was that Sherlock Holmes wasn’t the only one who needed to heal.

Chapter Text

There came a day, some time after Sherlock and John found the tunnel and ventured through it to the cottage, when Sherlock, more melancholy than usual as they walked through Greg’s garden, said, “I need to do something.”

It was five o’clock on a perfectly lovely summer day. The sky was cloud-dappled blue and a pleasant breeze cooled the air. Greg had gone into town for supplies and hadn’t yet returned, and John needed his help to maneuver some of the heavier boards from the now-dismantled garden shed into the walled garden through the little door. Sherlock had found the key, of course – rusty yet still functional – hanging from a nail above the spyglass in the tree house.

They’d used the first of the boards from the shed to rebuild the ladder leading to the treehouse platform, and Sherlock had discovered the little spyglass then. It was still mounted, a perfectly sound and functional nautical telescope of the sort you night find on a pirate ship, or so Sherlock had proclaimed – he seemed to have much more knowledge of all things pirate-related than did John, and John had no solid way of disproving him.

“What do you mean?” John settled onto one of the two benches that he had built, with a bit of reluctant help from Sherlock, from the next boards they’d scavenged from the shed. Unfortunately, it was his first bench, not the much-improved second, the one with the slightly off-kilter proportions. The seat canted back nicely for the much taller Sherlock, but left John’s feet with toes barely touching the ground

“I’m not making progress,” Sherlock said as he dropped onto the bench beside John. He frowned as he tested the bench’s strength, but settled in with a sigh.

“Molly would disagree, I think,” John said. “She told me you’re processing those packages I deliver in no time.”

“Do you know what is in those packages, John?” asked Sherlock, folding his hands behind his head and looking upward to study the clouds.

“I take it I’m not supposed to know,” John said with a shrug. He was certainly familiar enough with how classified information was treated in the British army.

“Not the specifics – what they’re about generally.”

They were sitting too close to each other – closer than two men should sit on a three-man bench, anyway, but John didn’t scoot away. They were alone in the garden, and as there was little or no danger of being caught out here, crossing the line of propriety slightly wouldn’t hurt.

“You’re a code expert. I imagine the package contains transcripts of intercepted transmissions.”

Sherlock sighed.

“Precisely. But what you may not know is that the transmissions have already been decoded. The intent is that I study the code itself – dissect it, take it down to its core – and compile a mental encyclopaedia of sorts. One that ultimately enables me to design the perfect, unbreakable code.”

“Right - we’ve talked about this before – when you first explained your mind palace to me. This encyclopaedia – it was in your mind palace, right?”

“Sadly, yes. It was my mind palace. Or more precisely, my mind palace was it.”

“And now you’ve lost it – since your injury, I mean.”

“Lost it - no. I’m convinced the information is intact. I’ve lost the structure around it. The filing system. The card catalogue, if you will. I’ve lost the artificial organisational construct around the data – it’s as if someone removed the cards from the drawers and tossed them all into the middle of the room.”

John didn’t reply immediately. Sherlock was obviously exhausted by the effort to rebuild what he’d lost, but, as far as John could tell, this had been his exact situation for months, even before he formally began to work again for British military intelligence. What was different now? What exactly did Sherlock have to do?

He’d hoped that Sherlock’s mind would begin to heal, slowly but steadily, with regular sleep, fresh air, and pleasant diversions from the mind-numbing work he’d been engaged in for so long. And he had seen a change in Sherlock –when John came to fetch him every day at four o’clock, an hour after Molly left to do afternoon physio with her patients, Sherlock actually noticed when John knocked at the door. He seemed genuinely pleased to see John, ready to be done with the work and to get on with the more pleasant parts of the day. Sherlock looked healthier all around, and though the seizures continued, they’d not worsened in severity.

And Sherlock definitely had more energy.

John smiled at the thought. They seldom made it through the tunnel now without stopping to lean against the earthen wall, to kiss each other in the darkness, to touch each other through their clothes and sometimes skin to skin. They’d found a comfortable nook in the cottage, a cubby hole of sorts between two bedrooms, windowless and even more private than the rest of the forgotten building. But always their private time was hurried, moments borrowed from the business of the day, constrained by the ticking of the clock and the downward journey of the sun.

Now, on the bench beside him, Sherlock’s posture changed. He dropped his hands into his lap, then lifted one hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. John rested his hand on Sherlock’s thigh and leaned a bit closer. It seemed to silly suddenly that they were entirely alone in the garden, on an estate populated by not more than a dozen persons altogether, yet he still had such difficulty showing affection when they weren’t in a locked room or in total darkness.

“Don’t think so hard,” he told Sherlock. “If you don’t want to sit here and relax in the sun, you could always help out with our project.”

Sherlock’s head swiveled toward the pile of wood from the dismantled shed, now stacked at the base of the tallest, straightest tree in the garden. He then wiggled deliberately on the bench, as if to point out that John could certainly use the help. John’s grip on his leg tightened as the bench swayed.

“I’m not claiming you wouldn’t benefit from my help,” Sherlock said. “But I agreed to help move the wood into the garden. You have already succeeded in convincing me that this commitment included deconstructing the shed – board by board.”

John smiled. “Well, we couldn’t move it like it was – all nailed together into walls and floor and roof.”

Sherlock dropped a hand on John’s and squeezed it. “Taking that damn thing apart was the most physical labour I’ve done in my life.”

“So you said,” John replied. “And look at you – still walking and breathing. Amazing.”

“I developed blisters.”

John laughed, and the moment was light again, but after a bit Sherlock dropped his head back again, staring at the clouds, and John knew he’d not succeeded in distracting him from his thoughts.

“You said you need to do something,” he said after a few more quiet moments. “What did you mean?”

Sherlock answered, eyes still upward. “I meant I need to do something else. This – this thing - this project. I’ve lost the thread, and every time I try to grasp it, to follow it back to its source, I get distracted by something that I should completely ignore, something that I never paid the least attention to previously.”

“What? Me?” asked John with a smile. He’d turned his hand over and was holding Sherlock’s in a loose grip.

“You?” Sherlock’s fingers tightened around his and he lowered his voice. “Well, you are distracting, but I don’t think you should be ignored completely. No – what I mean is that my job is to deconstruct the language of code – to analyze the components, how each is used, what makes each successful or not. The actual decoded message is, or should be, irrelevant. Yet somehow – somehow -”

He paused, lips pursed, and shook his head.

“You’re getting pulled in? To what they say?” John deduced, though this conclusion wasn’t much of a leap. “And that’s distracting you from your goal.”

“Yes. No.” Sherlock sighed and blew out a frustrated breath. “It’s distracting me from my goal – yes. But at the same time, it’s giving me ideas. A mystery to solve that seems even more pressing, John. I know you can’t see it. You have no idea what I’m on about. But each and every one of these transmissions has clues – insights into the enemy’s mind. Taken singularly, they offer nothing but snippets, like random lines pulled from a Shakespearean tragedy. No context, save a character name or familiar place. But then imagine you’re given a dozen lines pulled from Shakespeare’s entire works, then a dozen more, then a dozen again and again. Even if you’re not familiar with his opus, you’ll start to see patterns, clues both obvious and hidden. And you’d be caught up in it, wouldn’t you? Sorting out Romeo and Juliet from Hamlet from Richard III. You’d want to know what comes next, even though you might not have all the pieces of what actually came before. And there are clues – so many clues. That’s how great tragedies work out, you see. The end is always the same – but the path to that end can have a million different variables. And every choice – every one, deliberate and accidental – affects that path. It’s course, it’s length, the number of forks and turns and dead ends.” He swept his hand out to indicate the old hedge maze that Lestrade had begun to transform into a thing of wonder. “Like a maze, John. Do you see?”

Oddly, impossibly, John did see.

“So when you study these – these transmissions, what you’re supposed to be doing is archiving the code itself. Figuring out why it works and what its strengths and weaknesses are. Right? Something like that?”

“Something like that,” murmured Sherlock, but he said it with a smile. “Yes – that’s it. That’s close enough, John.”

“Alright.” John took a moment to organise his thoughts. He studied the far corner of the maze where Lestrade had transformed the square of sturdy hedge that anchored the point into what looked quite a lot like St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. “You used to do that – before you were injured. And you filed all the information in your Mind Palace. Your plan was to use all this data to create a super code – the code of all codes.”

“Not precisely my idea,” Sherlock corrected him. “But I latched on to it quickly enough, despite it coming from Mycroft first.” He said his brother’s name with the kind of disdain a child of ten might use for his tag-along younger sibling. “At least he had the presence of mind to realise that I was the right man for the job.”

“It doesn’t really matter now, does it?” John said, tucking his hand behind Sherlock and dropping his fingers into Sherlock’s back pocket. Sherlock hummed in approval and relaxed back onto the bench.

“You’re right, of course. It’s irrelevant. It just irks me, is all.”

“So – you’re seeing something you didn’t see before. Something important, or it wouldn’t be gnawing on you all the time like it is. So why don’t you pitch it to Mycroft and the others? Let me tell them you can’t continue like you’ve been going at it. Your seizures haven’t slowed down since you started – you’re having far more than you used to and we all know it has to do with the work.”

“John – do you realise what I’m telling you?”

“I think I do,” John said. His gaze drifted skyward. On beautiful summer days like this one, it was unforgivably easy to forget that the world was at war. He frowned as the clouds above gave way to scorching, glaring sun and the grass beneath the bench burned away to blowing sand.

“John?”

John swallowed away the memories and cleared his throat. “We have code-breakers, and spies, and war rooms with simulations. The generals move the pieces around like a chess game. But you’re saying – you’re thinking – that you can -”

“Get inside the enemy’s head. Accurately predict the enemy’s next moves based on a study of the information revealed in and by the intercepted messages?”

John grinned, shaking his head. “Well, that about sums it up, I suppose.”

“But it’s more than that. There’s something more there – in my brain – something that wants to take shape, to take form, but I’ve been fighting it back - suppressing it while I attempted to reorganise the data I’d previously collected. And this painting, or sculpture, this thing - I can’t ignore it anymore. John – there’s just too much noise!”

Sherlock stood suddenly, and John’s injured arm, which had been wedged behind Sherlock, fingers in his back pocket, fell awkwardly to his side.

“It wasn’t like this before. It’s not that I don’t have focus – I have endless focus, it seems, to research German dialect and regional food preparation techniques. And soil! I find myself constantly fascinated by the mud on my shoe – how it smells, and tastes. If it’s more sand or clay, loamy or rich with vegetation. Which led me to tobacco ash, and from tobacco ash to tobacco itself. The smell of it on a man’s jacket can tell me where he’s been, with whom he’s been traveling. It’s so distracting I’ve had to build an entirely new system to catalogue tobacco ash, and another for soils.”

“Sherlock – sit down.”

Sherlock’s gaze swept over the bench and he shook his head fondly.

“I don’t believe that bench is quite sound, John. If I can learn to identify a hundred varieties of tobacco by the ash left behind, you can certainly learn to build a sturdy bench that’s both structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing.”

John grinned as he wiggled experimentally on the bench, much as Sherlock had when he’d first sat down. It swayed a few inches in each direction, side to side, and John shook his head. “I suppose you’re not going to let me claim a crippled hand as excuse.”

“Only one of your hands is compromised – it’s certainly not crippled. You can use the tools in your right while you steady with your left.” Sherlock, apparently happy to be distracted, put a foot to the bench and jiggled it. “But John, the real work is in the planning and design. The best results will spring from coupling the brain with the strength of the body and the agility of the hands.”

John reached for Sherlock’s hand and grasped it, pulling him slightly off balance so that he tipped forward and steadied himself with a knee on the bench beside John’s leg.

“You really are brilliant, you know,” he said. Their faces were dangerously close to each other, and Sherlock’s expression softened as he and John locked eyes.

“I’m told brilliance is over-rated, unless it’s used in service of the crown,” Sherlock said.

“That’s Mycroft talking,” John said. He let go of Sherlock’s hand and Sherlock dropped back onto the bench beside him. “But what you said – that’s what I was trying to do, you know.”

“Were you?” asked Sherlock, quirking an eyebrow. “Trying to distract me from the work by tempting me with old sheds and tree houses?”

“Was I that obvious?” John asked.

“It might have worked had we not found a perfectly good tree house, already in working order,” Sherlock admitted.

“Except for the ladder up,” John corrected.

“Which we’ve already rebuilt,” Sherlock added. “And that was quite enough physical labour for me, especially on top of the toppling of the shed.”

“Greg did most of that,” John reminded him. “You just complained about the nails and poked at the dry rot.”

“I helped stack the wood.”

“You directed Greg and me.”

“I created an organisational system based on the size and quality of the board in question.”

“Fine. You win.” They sat for a few minutes, companionably quiet. A squirrel chattered at them from on top off the pile of lumber under the tree but, aside from the squirrel and the rustle of the breeze in the leaves, all was still.

“I thought that being outside would distract you from the project,” John said at last. “I hoped that your mind would have a better chance to heal if you could just get away from the notes and locked doors and the stale air of the manor.” It sounded like he was admitting defeat, confessing to a plan doomed to failure, and Sherlock squeezed his hand again.

“If I could kiss you now, you idiot, I would,” he said. “And I would, if I didn’t half expect Mycroft has these gardens under aerial surveillance.”

They both looked up at once, and John laughed, and Sherlock squeezed his hand again, harder this time, and John sighed into the touch. For all its lack of intirmacy, the physical gesture was comforting and managed to convey Sherlock’s meaning.

“John, perhaps you don’t realise exactly what these forays into the out-of-doors have given me already. I haven’t spent significant time outside during daylight hours since I was a child. I’ve discovered a fascinating world full of secrets to learn and systems to explore, and all without leaving the grounds of Rosethorne. Imagine what we might find in the world at large. But there you have it – don’t you? That world is at war, and I’ve been given a task to complete. You did your part and you’ve came home to do even more here. I’ve not actually delivered anything since they pulled me from the rest of the decoders.”

“You had a building blown apart over your head. It left you with a serious, life-altering injury. You’ve done your part, Sherlock. If you want to do more, good. If you don’t – if you’re done with it now, and want to chase bees about the garden, good too. Or if you’re somewhere in the middle – you need to shift your focus. Change isn’t failure – brilliant as you are, you’re only a cog in a giant machine. Do your part, but don’t lose your mind over it, Sherlock. They’re treating you like a secret weapon. They’ve surrounded you with the people you asked for – plopped you and Billy and Mrs. Hudson out here on the Moor in the middle of nowhere – then brought me here to seal the deal. And all the while you’re trying to recover from a head wound and dealing with epilepsy.”

“They’re not forcing me, you know,” Sherlock said after a pause in which John’s ire on his behalf began to fade. “Well -Mycroft rather forced my hand with the decoding job, but I was perfectly happy to take that on. But the other project – the creation of the super code– was my idea. I was thrilled to get the go-ahead and to be removed from the others.”

“Hmmm.” John watched a butterfly flit over the hedges. Beside him, Sherlock shifted uncomfortably, then sighed.

“Do you want to finish it?” John asked at last.

“Yes. I simply can’t. My head is too full of other things. Bee society and how it mirrors those of the countries we’re fighting and, sadly, even our own. Speech patterns. Dialects. Idioms – all of these things in the transmissions we decode, brief and barren as they are. And you – the colour of your eyes, the marvelous pattern of the wound on your shoulder. The way you fight with yourself when the soldier or the doctor in you roars its head and gets in the way of the lover and the friend. The way you groan when I take you in my mouth. The way your legs tense up, the way you run your fingers through my hair and breathe my name when you’re on the brink of orgasm.”

John shifted to accommodate the growing weight in his groin. God – he was getting hard just from hearing Sherlock. “Do you have any idea what you do to me?” he said, voice as quiet as Sherlock’s, eyes still on the cotton candy clouds as they rolled across the sky. “What I see when you’re lying between my legs? What your mouth feels like on my skin? Do you know how much I want to kiss you now? What I’d give to have you here, now, on this bench, right out in the open? Do you know how hard it is to keep my hands off you?”

“I know,” Sherlock murmured.

The clouds blew by overhead, changing shapes, exposing a pink-hued sky as the sun began to consider a dip beyond the horizon. There was war somewhere, but the only hints of it at Rosethorne were the skeleton staff, the limiting rations and the patients, well-fed and clean, recovering in the sun-lit infirmary.

“It’s easy to forget here,” John said. His fingers were intermingled with Sherlock’s now as they watched the sun begin to sink away. “What they’re all going through – in Africa – on the continent.”

“In London,” Sherlock added quietly.

“In London,” agreed John.

God, he’d waited all his life for this – for this man beside him on the school-project bench. For a reason to laugh, and to hope.

For music to return to his life.

For something to temper the memories of all the ones he couldn’t save. His mother, his grandmother, his wife.

How hard it would be to give this up – for the cause. For the greater good. For England.

“You’re thinking too much,” Sherlock whispered with the so-familiar squeeze to his hand.

“I’m not leaving,” John said, rather fiercely, his words stuttering out into the peaceful air. “I don’t care what Mycroft says. If he thinks I’m distracting you, he’ll want me gone.”

“If you go, I go with you,” Sherlock promised. And he lifted their joined hands and kissed John’s knuckles. It took every bit of resolve John had, and a bit that he didn’t even know he possessed, to not crawl into Sherlock’s lap. “We may have to watch our step around Mycroft, while this war lasts, but I’m not going to hide from the world.”

We’re not,” added John, with a surge of confidence from some hidden reserve he’d long buried.

Sherlock stood suddenly. “The cottage beckons, John. Let’s not consider it hiding if we’re engaged in activities that most keep behind closed doors.”

John didn’t need convincing. He followed Sherlock down the garden path, then through the little door that led to the cottage. But he’d taken only a few steps toward the house when the door flew open and Greg Lestrade appeared, hand still grasping the doorknob and panting. He pointed at John and opened his mouth, but no words came out.

“Lestrade – breathe.”

Sherlock’s voice was calm but firm. He stopped and held a hand out to keep John from running forward.

“Something’s happened – John is needed, correct?”

Lestrade nodded and gasped out a single word.

“Mycroft.”

“Mycroft?” John pushed up beside Sherlock, eyes on Lestrade. “He’s not here, Greg – he’s in London.”

Lestrade shook his head. “Brought him,” he said. “Car crash. Hurt.”

Later, John didn’t recall who’d moved first. He hardly remembered Sherlock fumbling with the shelf in the wardrobe in the dressing room, or Lestrade running ahead of them with the torch as he limped along as fast as his leg would take him, all thoughts of private time together gone as they hurried back to the manor house.

But he’d always remember Sherlock at his side as he worked on Mycroft, Sherlock following his instructions, stitching the gash on the side of Mycroft’s head, helping set the broken arm. It felt completely natural to have him there, and he proved more than a competent nurse, and nearly a competent physician. And when Mycroft was sorted and sleeping, and Simon’s more minor injuries were patched up and he’d gone off to bed, John collapsed on the sofa in the adjoining sitting room to wait out the night.

He didn’t know what woke him in the waning hours of early morning, but when he shifted he found Sherlock on the couch as well, spooned in behind him, one arm draped over John’s belly. The warmth felt wonderful, the casual embrace the culmination of his dreams of normalcy, but when he gathered his wits about him, he untangled himself, then stood, stooping to press a kiss to Sherlock’s temple before going in to check on Mycroft.

He took a single step then froze in place.

The door to Mycroft’s room was open, and someone was standing there watching him.

Chapter Text

“Mycroft – Christ – you should be in bed.”

John stepped forward as he spoke softly, feigning confidence and innocence he didn’t feel, relieved that his instincts as a physician had risen before true panic set in. Mycroft, remarkably, let himself be pushed gently back into the room as John moved forward, still with no idea what he was going to do or say, and shut the door gently behind him, taking care to not wake Sherlock.

“Do you need something for the pain?” he asked, still keeping his voice low and affecting a professional attitude. “Morphine? I’ll get you settled then get ice for your arm.”

“I need to use the toilet, Dr. Watson.” Mycroft sounded both tired and extremely serious. “Then I would like a word with you.”

John’s hand dropped away from Mycroft’s shoulder. The dread he’d been keeping at bay hit him in full, but he managed a curt nod and stepped aside to allow Mycroft to make his way to the bathroom. He held the arm with the temporary cast awkwardly, and John thought he might need help in the loo, but couldn’t bring himself to offer.

Fuck.

He heard the bathroom door creak open then shut, and he leaned against the doorframe and blew out a breath, trying to steady himself.

Think.

Deny? Attribute what Mycroft had certainly clearly seen to the combination of trauma, pain and strong medication?

But Sherlock’s words out in the garden, his quiet determination, his affirmation of this thing between them, remained imprinted in his mind.

I’m not going to hide from the world.

John had no illusions about homosexuality and the world at large. Some people they encountered would simply look the other way, and some would love and accept them no matter what, but there would always be those who would see their love as something perverse and abnormal – immoral, even illegal. If they intended to stay employed, enjoy a life together in London, and ensure their personal safety, a large degree of discretion would be necessary, despite Sherlock’s proclamation.

John squared his shoulders. But this - Mycroft - Mycroft was family. And John had been taught that family came first, even before country.

But even now, this far into his deployment at Rosethorne, he wasn’t one hundred percent certain where Mycroft’s own loyalties were. His relationship with his brother seemed strained, at best, though Sherlock had seemed truly alarmed and had not wasted any time in getting back to the manor when Lestrade came for them. While he hadn’t been overly panicked or emotional, he’d certainly been -urgent., standing beside John, serious and tense, following John’s lead and even completing a row of neat sutures with John’s guidance.

Not once did Sherlock voice what John voiced a half dozen times - Why did you bring him here? He should be in hospital – his arm’s broken, damn it! His head is bleeding – he could have a concussion!

“The best doctor is here,” Sherlock had said as Simon stood by, a bit battered himself, and seemingly unsurprised that Sherlock was alive, and stoically announced he’d followed Mr. Holmes’ directions to return directly to Rosethorne. The farm truck stopped to help change a flat that they’d swerved to avoid had brought them both here, and Mycroft had staunched his bloody head with an old shirt.

The bathroom door opened again, and Mycroft, trailing the fingers of his good hand along the wall, slowly walked toward John. In the dim light of the corridor, he looked – and moved – more like a ghost than a man. John stepped back into the bedroom and stood quietly aside while Mycroft maneuvered himself back into bed, straightening the covers awkwardly with one hand.

“What I saw,” he said at last, after staring at John for several long moments, hand fisting the sheet. “What I saw, I don’t want to see again. Ever.”

John shifted. He inhaled, straightened his shoulders even more, and waited.

“Am I clear?” asked Mycroft.

And still John waited – he could play the fool, take the words at face value. Interpret them however he’d like – however it suited him best. He could deny that Mycroft saw anything at all, or make up a creative excuse to explain Sherlock spooning up against him, to write off the kiss he’d dropped on Sherlock’s temple as a reflex action as he stumbled, half-asleep, from bed.

After all, thought John, it was really none of Mycroft Holmes’ business.

It was no one’s business, actually, except for their own. Or wouldn’t be, in other circumstances.

Other circumstances, as in a world that wasn’t at war, or inside an ordinary man’s life, a man who hadn’t been working on a top-secret project, who wasn’t hidden away, purported to be dead, given the charge of single-handedly changing the direction of this war.

Where were Mycroft’s loyalties in the end?

“His seizures have become more frequent since he started working again,” John said at last, deliberately not answering Mycroft’s question, but not cutting off the conversation either. “Not more severe – just more frequent. They’ve been relatively minor but the increasing frequency isn’t a good sign.”

Mycroft’s expression, illuminated only by the dim light from the bedside lamp, did not change. He stared at John, his eyes sharp behind the pain that should have had him begging for relief.

Discipline, thought John. This is the face of studied, learned discipline.

“Are you speaking as Sherlock’s physician or his worried lover?” he asked at last, his voice surgically steady.

Ah. So there it was at last.

“Depends, I suppose,” John answered. “Are you representing Sherlock as his brother or as his supervisor?”

Mycroft’s mouth twitched as he attempted to hold his expression.

“Touché, Dr. Watson,” he said. “Let’s take them one at a time, then.”

He shifted uncomfortably, repositioning his arm on his stomach and frowning against the pain.

“I’m getting you an ice pack first,” John said, walking over to study the swelling and to check the sutures under the loose bandage on his forehead. “And something for the pain. Then we’ll talk.”

Mycroft nodded, the barest movement of his head, but when John reached the door, he spoke again.

“I am not an unfeeling monster, Dr. Watson. But this is quite an inconvenient time for sentimentality of any sort. The world is at war - we are at war. We have everything to lose.”

John had stopped in his tracks, hand on the doorknob, and he turned slowly around to face Mycroft.

“Sentimentality is part of what makes us human. And if we lose our humanity in trying to save humanity – well, then where are we at the end?”

He turned away, then stepped outside without waiting for an answer, pulling the door closed behind him.

With pounding heart, he took two steps across the corridor and leaned against the wall, hands on his knees. It had taken all his will and reserve to hold it together under Mycroft’s scrutiny and he was paying for it now with weak knees and a racing heart. He steeled himself. He was a soldier. He’d been trained – conditioned – for every circumstance, every enemy.

He took his time in the kitchen fetching the ice, hoping Mycroft would be asleep when he returned. He should have known better – Mycroft Holmes did not succumb so easily. He remained stoically silent as John arranged the ice pack on his arm just over the break, administered the morphine, and rebandaged the dressing over the neat line of sutures.

“You’re very lucky,” John said in his best bedside voice as he took Mycroft’s pulse. “The break was clean and you only needed a dozen stitches. I hope you have the sense to go to hospital next time.”

“I detest hospitals. I don’t keep an army physician schooled and experienced in traditional medicine and field triage at Rosethorne so I can waste time in hospitals.”

John bit his lip as he considered a reply, keeping a lid on the vitriol that threatened to spill forth. “And that traditional physician-turned-field-doctor could not have begun to set that arm without Sherlock’s assistance. You probably recall it was Sherlock who set those sutures as well. You only keep half a physician here, Mycroft. You’re not only fortunate Sherlock was here to help, but that he was willing, and that he has the confidence to take on a task outside his realm of experience.”

“My brother has never lacked confidence,” Mycroft said. He was growing tired, or the pain was getting the best of him. John could hear the exhaustion in his voice now. “And you, Dr. Watson, are far more than half a physician. I am quite sure my brother would argue the point as well. And do not be fooled – I know my brother well, what fuels him, what feeds the inner fire. And I know his foibles, his weaknesses. And through it all, I see his potential, what his mind can do with the right stimulus, under the right circumstances. Until he was injured, he was a veritable powerhouse. The data – the transmissions pouring through the system, trickling down to him, was enough stimulus to keep him on target. Beware, Dr. Watson – beware of Sherlock Holmes when he grows bored. I would advise you to remember his past, and to put the morphine under lock and key, but given what I witnessed earlier, and the conclusions I subsequently drew, my brother won’t be growing bored for quite some time.”

They locked eyes again, and John realised then that he would never be able to stare down Mycroft Holmes. It wasn’t admitting defeat – he’d have to earn his victories in other arenas.

“Boredom isn’t the problem,” he said, dropping his eyes and carefully choosing his words as he stepped back and braced himself against the dresser, as if the solid mahogany imbued strength into his damaged leg.

Mycroft looked at him expectantly, then closed his eyes and exhaled into a sigh,

“I am well aware of my brother’s limitations, Dr. Watson. Your job is to help him overcome those limitations so that he can complete the assignment he was working on when he was injured. And please take note that I did not go into this blindly – I understood the risks of allowing my brother to choose you, and could have aborted the process at any time. But the risk was worth the potential gain. He presented your dossier to me and announced that it would be you, or no one at all. I made it very clear to him at that time that if I brought you to Rosethorne, he would be committed to the war effort ‘til the end. So, now that you and Sherlock have moved matters along” – here he waved tiredly toward the closed door of the chamber where Sherlock lay sleeping – “where do we stand with the project? Has his obsessive focus on you benefited or harmed our endeavor?”

“You’ll need to speak to Sherlock about that,” John answered curtly. “In the morning, after a few hours of sleep.”

He was wound up so tightly inside, angry, just barely suppressing the incredulity of it all, that his words were sharp-edged, his voice clipped.

“Oh, I intend to, Dr. Watson. And might I suggest you do the same? Sleep improves one’s outlook on life. In your case, it may do something about the steam escaping your ears.”

John found himself stepping forward, one pace, then another, and another, until he was standing just beside Mycroft. He was, for some reason, extremely aware of his damaged left hand hanging at his side, fingers compressed into a fist nearly as tight as the one on his right. Something was off – something was digging at him about Mycroft’s reaction, and with the morphine making him groggy, he had a better chance now of getting an honest answer than any time in the foreseeable future.

“I don’t understand,” he said, not quite achieving the deadly calm in his voice he’d hoped for. “Where’s your righteous indignation? The fire and brimstones for – for – sleeping with another man?” He jerked his head toward the closed door behind him, and the last words came out in a harsh whisper. “Do we get a pass because Sherlock is important? Because you need him? Anything to keep him from becoming too bored with the project? Enough distraction to take away the edge but not enough to put him off the project altogether?”

John Watson did not like being used. He had sins of his own to atone for, but the decision to change the course of his life had been his and his alone. Driven, perhaps, by guilt – most assuredly by guilt – but not imposed upon him by anyone or anything other than his own misguided morality.

“Oh, Doctor. Surely you’ve been in the army long enough to know that men have needs, and they find ways to satisfy those needs in times of war as well as in times of peace. And certain men have proclivities, and can lead perfectly normal lives on the surface, and have all types of dalliances just below. Men, faced with death at every door, love hard, Dr. Watson. And even if that enemy is not so close that you can hear its breath, the danger is still imminent, and the need for human comfort, the feel of another’s arms, just as pressing. This is war, and we are soldiers – yes, even Sherlock Holmes – and love, Dr. Watson, is love.”

John stood staring a long moment, trying to digest the words. Mycroft’s voice had gone from bitter to warm, from commanding to something almost tender. It was the morphine – or the pain – or both together, and John knew he was seeing what few saw from this man. Glimpses of the human being inside the rigid exterior. A humanity suppressed, encaged beneath thick skin, and duty to family, and country, and whatever supreme deity the Holmes family worshipped.

He thought the man had drifted off to sleep at last, but Mycroft opened his eyes one more time and smiled blandly.

“It’s all a game, Dr. Watson. Surely you see that? The king on his throne, but who will be the queen at his side? The powerful one to protect the king’s square while he goes about the important business of the state? The beautiful, cunning Irene Adler? The damaged but valiant doctor? The intelligent and lonely Molly Hooper? And don’t forget the army of pawns, the first line of defense – the Mrs. Hudsons and Billy Wiggins and Greg Lestrades of the world.” He sighed and closed his eyes, this time for as long as the morphine covered the pain. “Frankly, Dr. Watson, my money was on you.”

John’s heart thudded in his chest. His fisted hands ached. He wanted to punch something – someone. Mycroft, first. The wall. His own face in the mirror.

Sherlock. No. Not Sherlock. He wasn’t part of the plan – just part of the game. And John had been foolish. Foolish to think that the garden, the violin and piano, the coloured light dancing on the walls of the music room, the childhood regained, that any of this opened up a secret door in his heart, or Sherlock’s. That magic was at work when it was so clear now that this was just more wartime strategy.

It made him sick to his stomach, and he bypassed the sitting room with the sofa, warm with Sherlock’s body, and exited into the corridor instead, and fell against the wall for the second time that night, bent over, hands on his knees and eyes closed as he tried to calm himself, tried to keep an open mind despite the hard evidence before him. His bad leg trembled and he started to slide down the wall to the floor.

He heard nothing, hardly felt the shift in the air, when a hand clapped down hard over his mouth and a voice as soft as moonrise whispered in his ear.

“Don’t listen to him.”

He hardly had time to suck in a breath of air before he was pressed against the wall by Sherlock’s lean body, before Sherlock’s lips were on his. A knee worked in between his legs, stopping his downward slide, and Sherlock’s thigh pressed against his groin as his lips moved on John’s, sucked on his bottom lip, released it and mouthed his jaw, his cheek, his ear.

It was perfect. Aggressive, reckless, pleasure. All the better for Mycroft’s presence behind the very wall on which they leaned. Sherlock’s thigh rolled against his groin and he stifled a groan, coherent thought impossible as he hardened, and pushed back against Sherlock, groaning as Sherlock’s fingers worked under his shirt, pinching at his nipples.

He rolled his head against the wall and closed his eyes, giving in, allowing his body to go where it would, right here in the corridor where they could practically hear Mycroft breathing. He felt Sherlock fumbling with his shirt buttons, pushing his vest up. The air in the corridor was cool and still, and he felt momentarily exposed until warm, moist lips moved over his chest and closed on his nipple. Tongue and teeth then suction so deep that he shuddered. The fingers of his right hand dug into the back of Sherlock’s shoulders, and he hardly had breath for the oh fuck that left his lips as Sherlock’s hand worked down into his trousers, gripping him possessively.

Mycroft be damned.

He let go. Rutted up against Sherlock, into his calloused hand, tunnel-focused on the tidal pleasure, the feeling of too much and never enough, empty and over-full, the need to reach the cusp and tumble over the abyss, Sherlock caught in his wake, tight in his arms. He bit his lip as his release overtook him at last, leg giving out, moan drowned out by Sherlock’s mouth over his, swallowing the sound, body pressing him into the wall as Sherlock, in turn, rutted against John’s good leg until he collapsed with a groan and they slid down the wall to the floor.

The sound echoed through the quiet corridors as they lay there, tangled together, heartbeats out of sync.

“It’s a game,” John said, when at last he felt he could speak without choking on the words he had to say. “Mycroft – everyone here – ”

“A game he can’t win,” Sherlock said, gripping John’s hand. “He has his fingers on the players, but he doesn’t understand the variables.”

“The variables?” asked John. They’d scooted up against the wall, and adjusted their clothing, but he was utterly spent, and let his head rest on Sherlock’s shoulder.

“Sentiment,” Sherlock murmured, and though John couldn’t see it, his eyes were alive with it. “Sentiment changes people, changes the motivations of the players. Mycroft always underestimates the importance of sentiment. It might be his game, John, but we – we have the winning hand.”

He lifted John’s closed hand to his lips, and pressed them against it, and the brand burned into his skin, and settled around his heart.

Chapter Text

When it came down to it – when they stood face to face and showed their hands, Mycroft didn’t love Rosethorne enough.

John could have told anyone as much. If forced to quantify, to order people and possessions in terms of value, of deemed worth, Rosethorne would only top Mycroft’s list because the manor filled a purpose and offered the necessary seclusion to further veil already secret operations. It was remote, sparsely staffed, fenced and gated. That it had monetary value was a bonus, but not of great importance to him. That it was a long-standing Holmes family holding mattered not for sentimental reasons, but for the social recognition that came with the land.

When the cards were on the table, when the brothers stood across from each other, closed up together in a private room, the negotiations were straight-forward. And when the brothers sealed the agreement with a handshake, everyone was satisfied.

Everyone, that is, but John Watson.

Six Weeks Before the Deal

“Sentiment,” Sherlock murmured, and though John couldn’t see it, his eyes were alive with it. “Sentiment changes people, changes the motivations of the players. Mycroft always underestimates the importance of sentiment. It might be his game, John, but we – we have the winning hand.”

He pressed his lips to John’s hand, and John sighed, even as the feeling of Sherlock’s lips branding his skin imprinted itself on his heart.

“He thinks he has us, Sherlock. He knows - and he’ll use that knowledge to get exactly what he wants.” He dropped his face in his hands and squeezed his eyes shut. He hated being beholden to anyone, and didn’t think he could survive being used like this by Mycroft Holmes.

Sherlock was quiet for some time, but when he spoke, he surprised John with the direction of his thoughts, and the intensity of emotion behind his words.

“It’s not that I can’t,” he said, his voice a soft whisper in the darkness. “It’s that it no longer interests me as it once did. I don’t want to expend the effort – the time – to reconstruct my mind palace exactly as it was. There are too many distractions now, too many other things I want to catalog.” He sighed, and pressed his head back against the wall, staring at the shadowed corridor ceiling as he quietly spoke again. “The movement of the bees. The colours in the garden as the setting sun dips beyond the horizon. The way your expression changes when I distract you when you’re upset by Mycroft – how it begins to soften as you focus back on me. I’ve – I’ve….”

He faltered, then stopped speaking altogether as he looked vaguely off into the distance, into the far corner of the corridor, though his eyes were distant and unfocused. John reached up and touched his cheek, worried that Sherlock was slipping into a seizure.

Sherlock blinked, then turned his head quickly and wrapped his hand around John’s neck and kissed him exuberantly.

“I’m a fool,” he said, but he wasn’t chastising himself. “I’m an absolute idiot.”

“You’re ridiculous,” John said, smiling into the kiss. “You’re anything but those things.”

“All this time I’ve been trying to recapture what I’d lost – to find a way to piece back together all the ridiculous bits of information I’d archived before the accident. But while I failed miserably at that, I somehow succeeded in building something entirely new.”

His voice carried down the corridor. He was no longer whispering, no longer able to contain the exuberance of his discovery.

“Don’ you see, John? The bees in the garden. The sunset. You, John. The expression on your face as I take you in my mouth – the colour of your bottom lip when you bite it, trying to stave off orgasm. The minute change in your eyes when you’re perplexed, or bothered, or worried, or distracted, or angered. Emotion. Sentiment, John. Not file drawers in a card catalog linked by key words in alphabetic order – but something more organic, like hexagonal cells in a honeycomb. One bit tied to the next by colour and texture and scent. Each separate point of reference framed by six more – nearly the same but entirely different.”

He got to his feet then, pulling John up with him, and one would never have known from the gleam in his eyes that he’d had virtually no sleep at all, or that his carefully-guarded and sensibly-structured world was about to be re-ordered around something as tenuous as colour, as shaky as sentiment, as mundane as music.

“I’ve been so focused on recreating the original system that I didn’t realise I was building something new atop the rubble. Something made of colour and sound and motion and scent – memory is sensory, John! I simply have to discard the old pieces, not reorder them! I need to rebuild with something more meaningful than a system of rules. It isn’t tidy anymore – it can’t be – it’s damaged. My mind – my brain – my….”

“Sherlock.”

John spoke quietly, touching his fingertips to Sherlock’s cheek as he spoke, distracting him from his rambling thoughts, centering his focus. “Hey – it’s good. It’s all good. I understand.”

And he did understand – at least he thought he did. He knew how memory worked, could not sit down at the piano without thinking of his mother, his grandmother, even of Mary. Could not smell the roses in the garden without seeing his mother’s face in profile as she knelt to tend the soil. He’d stopped attending church services long ago, when the hymns had recalled her pain, and even the alleluias had heralded her death. That this discovery would be new to Sherlock seemed remarkable indeed, but Sherlock, John had discovered, was not put together like most other people.

John dropped his hand from Sherlock’s face and glanced back at Mycroft’s door. He straightened his collar and smoothed out his trousers, and Sherlock snorted softly beside him.

“I don’t think even Mrs. Hudson is up and about yet,” he said.

“Habit,” John replied. He glanced over at Sherlock with half a smile, then squared his shoulders. “I’ll stay with him ‘til morning,” he said. “You should….”

“Stay with you, of course,” Sherlock said.

John frowned. “There’s no reason to remind him – ”

“As if he’s going to forget.” Sherlock took John’s hand and tugged him across the corridor, then pressed him up against the door and kissed him on the mouth. It was a long kiss, a lingering kiss, unhurried and thorough. Sherlock hadn’t a care in the world that they were standing in a dark corridor, leaning against his brother’s bedchamber door, and it was impossible for John to be bothered by it either, not with Sherlock’s lips on his, with Sherlock’s body pressing him against the cool wood.

He’d think about Mycroft in the morning. About what Mycroft knew. About how what he did with that knowledge could affect his career, his entire life.

But only if you let it said the voice in his head.

He almost thought it was Sherlock whispering in his ear.

Four Weeks Before the Deal

It was utterly, totally, mind-blowingly ridiculous.

Brilliant, perhaps. Logical, from a certain perspective.

Logistically, it was a nightmare.

Moving a top-secret operation from a windowless, locked basement room to the middle of a walled garden was ludicrous, John knew. His head knew it. He was absolutely convinced that Mycroft would murder them both, no matter how much John had protested. Sherlock was supposed to be dead, and he was supposed to be working in a secure, protected location – underground, with military rations and gallons of water stored in the wine cellar nearby.

“Accessible through the tunnel,” Sherlock insisted.

“Tunnel?” asked Molly, as she watched Sherlock and John argue. John had just had to explain the garden to her, and wasn’t looking forward to telling her that the mute gardener was really a brilliant, shell-shocked artist. She’d soon find that out for herself, he supposed.

“It’s the only way it’s going to happen,” Sherlock insisted. “I need sunlight, and the smell of the grasses and flowers. Noise! I need sound, and the breeze, and the clouds above and birdsong.”

“You could bring your violin here,” John suggested. “You could play it to calm yourself – to help organise your thoughts.”

It was a marvelous suggestion – really, it was. Sherlock’s eyes went out of focus for a moment, gazing far away at nothing at all while his mind processed not the idea of music in the work room, but how it would fit into the grand plan he’d begun to formulate.

Molly and John exchanged a glance, but returned their focus to Sherlock as he spun on the spot.

“Music!” he exclaimed. “We shall have music!”

Three Weeks Before the Deal

“Mycroft is going to kill you.”

Molly was wandering around the maze, her fingers grazing over the sculpted animals as she completed the circuit of the maze’s outer walls. John stood beside an uncomfortable Greg Lestrade, who’d looked a bit wounded when Molly stepped into the garden behind Sherlock, through the door that led to the guest cottage. She held a leather portfolio tightly against her chest, and from time to time glanced nervously overhead, as if assuring herself that enemy aircraft weren’t hiding behind the clouds.

Sherlock, for his part, had plopped himself down on a lush grass lawn and was tuning his violin, ignoring them completely.

“I’m not the one holding the top-secret files,” John said

“What are you making over there?” Molly asked, eyes now on the piles of recovered lumber near the tree.

John glanced over at Sherlock, who was sitting cross-legged on the grass tinkering with his violin. He thought, oddly wistful, of his original intent of distracting Sherlock from the problem of rebuilding his Mind Palace with the hands-on project of designing and building the pirate ship treehouse he’d never quite managed as a child. Finding a perfectly preserved treehouse at the guest cottage, no matter that it was designed and built for a different long-ago boy, seemed to have satisfied any lingering childhood fancy for Sherlock. Oh, he’d been happy enough to help John dismantle the garden shed and carry the wood here, but he’d not taken to the activity as John has hoped he would, and seemed happier watching Greg at work, or even picking up a pair of hedge clippers himself from time to time.

“It was going to be a treehouse – a pirate ship, like one Sherlock wanted when he was a child.”

Sherlock was playing now, moving from melody to melody, trying them out, abandoning them, starting up another, until he settled on something John recognized but could not name. By the quick and irregular motion of the bow, it seemed a complicated piece, but the expression on Sherlock’s face was more relaxed than contemplative as his body melded with the music, and the music, in turn, melded with the mood of the garden.

“I think he’s got what he wanted,” Molly ventured. Her gaze moved to Sherlock, and she studied him for a minute, then watched Lestrade, who’d started a renewed bit of sculpting with his clippers when Sherlock had begun to play. “Perhaps – perhaps the garden needs something else besides a treehouse – something for you?”

He scoffed. What the garden needed, he thought, was a bunker. He glanced at the leather case Molly held, the case that was full of secret documents that shouldn’t be in the garden at all.

“Something for you first,” he said. “And for Sherlock. Do you plan on spreading those out all over the ground?”

“This wasn’t exactly my idea, you know,” she reminded him. They both looked over at Sherlock, who was paying them no mind at all, buried as he was in his music. “But yes, a table would be nice, if you’re offering.” She glanced at the bench – the first one he’d attempted. She’d taken a seat on it earlier, and had laughed herself silly while John pretend-scowled at her. “Something simple, though, John. A square or rectangle, perhaps with low legs so we can sit on the ground and his highness can still commune with nature?”

“Right. I can do that.”

He didn’t sound convinced, or Molly wouldn’t have looked at him like that, head cocked slightly to the side. “You really wanted that treehouse, didn’t you?”

He quickly shook his head. “I just wanted to distract Sherlock from the head games – it’s not good for him. He was having too many seizures, not getting enough sleep either. He told me he spent time here as a boy, and never got the treehouse he and Mycroft planned to build.”

“Ah.” She seemed to consider something, but let it be. But she squeezed his hand before she wandered over to watch Lestrade at work, trimming the beard on a lion of epic proportions.

He couldn’t exactly tell her he’d been looking forward to spending the time with Sherlock. To make plans like they had that one tipsy, light-headed evening. As if they were children again, with no cares or worries or looming battles. That he’d thought about the time they’d spend together cutting the wood, nailing it together, just the two of them like two boys hiding out from their parents, carving out their secret, hidden place in the world. No, he couldn’t tell Molly that he’d wanted, as well, to give Sherlock – who by all accounts had had nearly anything he’d wanted as a child – the one fantastical thing that he’d wanted yet never had. Something like that from him, from John.

But Sherlock – well, Sherlock defied expectations. In every way that mattered.

And Mycroft….

Mycroft had returned to London to convalesce. John didn’t expect to see him for several weeks. He didn’t seem the type who’d put up with a skeleton crew of caregivers – the man probably needed help to tie his shoes even when he didn’t have a broken arm.

But when he returned to Rosethorne – because return was inevitable – he’d have all of their jobs, and their heads to go with them.

“Molly!”

All eyes moved to Sherlock, who was standing, brandishing his violin and bow, and looking half mad scientist, half excited child.

“Molly – I need you at once!”

John watched them a moment, then turned away and made his way to the garden door, heading for the cottage.

He needed to think – and to plan. Instead of throwing caution to the wind, they might save themselves with a well thought-out plan to quickly move their operations back to the manor basement should need arise. It would require quick movement, a lookout, and the appearance in the work room that all was as it always had been.

I shouldn’t be the one worrying about this, he thought, idly waving a bee away from his face as he made his way back into the cottage.

One Week Before the Deal

“There isn’t enough – hey! – enough alc’ol in the world to make this alright,” John said in a too-loud whisper as he fell back onto Mycroft’s bed. His trousers were undone, his shirt untucked and his shoes were somewhere between the bed and the door.

“He’s a hedonist. He’ll have the most comfortable bed in the manor,” Sherlock insisted. “The sheets are amazing – he probably has Annie sprinkle rose petals on them before he retires for the evening.”

“You’re not – ohhhh – drunk.”

John had fallen onto his back, but paused in his protesting to appreciate the cool down coverlet on the rather perfect mattress.

“Don’t need to be – needed you to be. Couldn’t make love on Mycroft’s bed all by myself.”

“You’re putting me off sayin’ his name,” John complained.

Sherlock climbed across John and plopped down in the middle of the bed, on his back, head on the mountain of pillows. “Come here. I swear I won’t mention whose bed we’re about to desecrate again.”

John laughed. As nervous as he’d been when Sherlock had dragged him up here, he couldn’t help but be a bit turned on by the thought of shagging Sherlock on this particular bed. It was a bit of a holy place – rather like having sex in a church.

“Desecrate, eh?” he said with a smile, which Sherlock promptly tried to kiss from his face.

“I think I’d like to do things to you I haven’t yet done,” Sherlock said. He was rather breathless now, after John had wrapped his legs around Sherlock’s hips, bucking up against him as they kissed.

“I can’t imagine what that might be,” John said. “You’re – inventive….”

“So is Mycroft,” Sherlock said – producing a pair of fur-lined handcuffs from the drawer in the bedside table.

“Ugh. The name a’gin,” John said, grabbing the handcuffs from Sherlock. “Jesus - rabbit fur!“ He grabbed at one of Sherlock’s wrists but Sherlock evaded him. “And good job planting ‘em– but where did you get ‘em?”

“You don’t believe they’re his, then?” Sherlock tried to look affronted but failed, dissolving into laughter himself. “Can you even imagine Mycroft in….”

“No! The name!”

Sherlock grinned, and John reached up to pull him down into another kiss, and for a long while, the silence of the room was broken only by the squeak of the bedsprings and the small, breathy moans of the two men, one of them stretched invitingly on the bed with his hands deftly secured to the headboard.

“So are you go’in to tell me whose they are?” John asked some time later. His shirt was open and pushed to the side, his trousers and pants bundled at the foot of the bed, and his cock, spent and flaccid, lying against his belly. Sherlock had unlocked the cuffs, and was massaging his injured arm, positioning it back at John’s side.

“Nicked them from Irene Adler,” he said, dropping to his side beside John.

“Liar,” laughed John. But Sherlock wasn’t laughing, and the look on his face told John he wasn’t joking either. “Irene? So – you – did you…?” He wished it didn’t bother him so much. They all had their pasts, after all, and Sherlock was just as deserving of lovers as John.

“Irene?” Sherlock narrowed his eyes, then shook his head slowly. “Not my type, John. Nor am I hers. But she had the most marvelous toys – a gorgeous combination of hard and soft – leather and fur, polished wood and feathers. The most intricate leather and whalebone corset. A brassiere made of nothing but metal rings and velvet straps….”

Fuck. He swore he was getting hard again, as impossible as that might seem. “She had those things here? How….?”

Sherlock laughed. His eyes traveled down John’s body to his cock, which was very definitely plumping up again. “She wasn’t injured on the battlefield, John. She was shipped here to recuperate – she brought two trunks with her. Sadly – when she escaped, most of her possessions remained behind. Fortunately, I was able to remove the more damaging ones – to save her reputation, of course.”

“Of course,” breathed John. He didn’t really believe Sherlock, not fully, but he couldn’t quite get the imager of Sherlock in leather restraints from his still alcohol-fuzzied mind.

“Another round, then?” asked Sherlock, grazing John’s cock with the tips of his fingers.

John picked up the cuffs. “On your back, soldier.”

Sherlock grinned and complied, and for another blissful hour, they forgot the world was at war.

The Day Before the Deal

As the weeks had crept by, John had managed to organise Sherlock’s new work requirements. They worked in the garden, as he demanded. His violin was always at his side, and he played it frequently, sometimes just a series of random melodies as he lay contemplating one puzzle or another, sometimes a lengthy piece, often sad and melancholic, where the violin mourned on, begging for other instruments to join it.

At times like these, John wished for the piano. He’d been good enough, once at least, to accompany Sherlock - not as a performer in his own right, but as the soft notes to fill in the empty spaces and showcase the other instrument. As he was a man driven by routine and schedule, he still visited the music room several times a week to work on his manual dexterity. It was difficult to guess how much, if any, he’d improved – after all, his right hand had always known its way about the keyboard. He’d found, though, that his fingers didn’t seem as still and weighty as did his arm, and while he had to lift the arm to rest on his thigh, he could raise his knee to elevate his wrist to the proper level. It was awkward at first, and frustrating, but Sherlock had found a cushion of the right size to fit on his left leg.

But these days, Sherlock spent very little time in the music room.

The workroom where Sherlock and Molly were supposed to be working didn’t look as abandoned as it was, but only due to John’s daily efforts. Chairs were appropriately placed – giving the appearance that the occupants had left for a meal. Files were present – concealed, stacked, neatly arranged. A stack of opened envelopes containing their once or twice daily missives from headquarters sat in a file box on a table, weighted on top with an empty tea cup and saucer. A tea tray – short one cup - was kept on a file cabinet, seemingly ready to serve once the kettle boiled.

John had carefully counted the steps from the work room to the cottage through the tunnel, and lamps and torches were kept ready at either end. He knew exactly how long it took to traverse it, as well. He had every confidence that Sherlock and Molly would be able to get back into the work room within ten minutes when the need arose.

If Sherlock would listen to him, that is.

He shouldn’t complain – should count his lucky stars instead. In the weeks of Mycroft’s absence, Sherlock had thrived. Once he’d discarded for good the idea of reconstructing his damaged Mind Palace and salvaging the information he’d archived there, he had instead begun to look at the problem afresh, and build a solution using the more organic construct of his new organisational system. He’d not only made incredible progress, but was sleeping much better and suffering fewer seizures.

And he was happier – far happier – as was obvious in his general disposition, and in the melodies that sprang from his violin. Molly could hardly keep up with him when they sat together in the garden, around the knee-high table John had made to her specifications. It was a fair effort, he thought, sturdy and level, the old wood thoroughly sanded, though Sherlock dragged it from place to place by one short leg, and told John that a round one would have been far more useful, as he’d have been able to put it up on its side and roll it across the garden.

Late one Friday, after he’d finished his rounds and his weekly reports, he made his way to the garden with an envelope in hand. It had been delivered later than usual, but Molly had told him to look for it. His hip was sore after a hard week on his feet, and his limp more pronounced than usual. He’d arrived later than his norm, and Lestrade wasn’t in the garden. Sherlock had taken up his shears and was working on his continuing attempt to turn the lion’s mane into a Medusa’s nest of snakes. Lestrade had sculpted the lion from one of the overgrown shrubs at the maze’s entrance and it sat, sphinx-like and unprotesting, while Sherlock transformed it. John handed Molly the envelope. At first, he’d refused to bring the deliveries here – but gave it up as a lost cause after a week or two when Sherlock simply refused to work inside, even to receive these classified deliveries.

Molly dropped onto the shaky bench John had built, the one they all seemed to favour no matter that he’d built better ones since. She broke the seal and extracted a single sheet of paper. She scanned it, and a smile bloomed on her face.

“Well?” asked John. “Good news?”

“He’s done it,” she whispered, tucking the paper back inside the envelope. “They’ve had it for a solid week and haven’t been able to make a start on cracking it. And they’re the best of the best, John.”

“A week isn’t all that long,” John said cautiously. “But it does look like he’s on to something – if they’re the best we have….”

“He’s more than on to something, John. He’s got it. I knew it as soon as it clicked. He had some sort of epiphany about the time that Mr. Holmes had that accident. He’s been refining since – but John, I really do believe he’s come up with something – well, something good.”

She was flushed, clearly excited, as she continued, her voice still low. “I know you’ve tried to stay out of all of this, John – and it’s for the best, really. He’s – well, he’s unorthodox, on his best day, and you’re – well, look how much it upsets you to have him working out here. If you realised that everything – or nearly everything – is still in his head – why…”

“Wait.” John held up a hand. “In his head? As in – not written down?” He shook his head, incredulous. “But you’re writing all the time – you can hardly keep up with him. I see you – with your notebook and pencil….”

He trailed off, and Molly shifted uncomfortably beside him.

“I take notes,” she said, voice small and apologetic. “He says the most fascinating things. And when he finally did it – he explained it to me – or tried to – but it didn’t make the least bit of sense. But he was convinced he had it, so we sent off a message for the team to crack – and they can’t. Not without the key – and the key is just as much in his head now – because he’s got all that sheet music memorised.”

“Sheet music,” John repeated. He glanced at Molly but she looked away.

“I probably shouldn’t have said that.”

Jesus Christ. Had Sherlock developed a code associated with musical compositions? It would make sense – wouldn’t it? He knew there were book codes – spelling out the position of certain words or letters on specific pages of the same edition of a book. But music? His face must have looked as pained as he felt, because Molly took pity.

“Try not to think about it,” she said. “I can’t begin to understand it myself and I’ve been listening to him for weeks. But John – trust me on this. I really do think he’s solved it. Once he let go of all the work he’d lost with his injury, he saw a new way through to the end.”

John watched Sherlock bend to pick up a different pair of clippers from the ground. He was completely relaxed and as he stood again, he glanced toward them, then shielded his eyes with his hand to focus on John against the sun. John waved, and Sherlock stared at him a long moment, as if deducing his thoughts from the way he held his shoulders.

“He’s got to document it,” John said to Molly as Sherlock got on with the trimming. “It’s useless if he doesn’t. Mycroft won’t let it rest. None of them will – and I hate to say it but I see their point. The faster they have this, the faster this war might be over.”

“It will be a job,” Molly admitted. “He can replicate it – he’s clearly done so – but he’s pulling it from that Mind Palace of his, and the patterns are absolutely indecipherable. It’s layered – a simple cypher at first, poly-alphabetic, but paired with musical compositions for stress and cadence – so that to decode, to pull out the wheat from the chaff, you have to have sheet music. Specific sheet music.”

Brilliant. The man was bloody brilliant.

“Well, he’s going to have to document the hell out of it, like it or not,” John said after they watched Sherlock’s meticulous work on the guardian lion a bit longer. “Mycroft isn’t going to give him a pass on this one.”

He stood then and limped slowly down toward Sherlock, but when he reached him, he didn’t lean against him, or take his hand, or brush his lips against his cheek, as much as every instinct within him urged him to do so.

“New envelope,” he said. “I gave it to Molly – she seems really excited about whatever it says.”

“She’s told you,” Sherlock responded. “I assume they weren’t able to break it, then?”

“What do you think?” John answered. Sherlock smiled and turned his attention back on the bush, but John continued. “Does this mean we’re finished here? I can’t see why they’d continue to run a convalescent home out here in the middle of nowhere when they’ve already got what they want from you.”

Sherlock moved around the bush, blocking Molly’s immediate view. John stepped to follow him, and Sherlock tugged him closer by the wrist.

“What do you want, John? When this is over? When you don’t have to answer to higher-ups and be my caretaker and deliver secret messages? Will you leave the army or stay? Go back to London and practice medicine? Live with your sister on your pension?”

John stepped back, into Molly’s sight as was proper, and schooled his features.

“I think a country cottage will do,” he answered, voice calm, understanding what was behind Sherlock’s questions. “I can’t do surgeries but I can do enough to get by out here where medical help isn’t always easy to find. And I can have a garden, and make benches and tables enough for it. I’m not – I’m not as – as angry here. At the world. About what I’ve lost.”

He said the last with a bit of desperation. He’d lost enough already. He didn’t fancy losing even more.

“You’d stay then? Here?”

John gave a quiet snort. “Here? At Rosethorne? Quiet dinners and strolls in the garden with Mycroft?”

Sherlock gazed at John a moment, then looked away and took up the clippers again. “Don’t say his name in the garden – please, John.”

He was making light, and John appreciated it. He didn’t want to think about life after Rosethorne.

He didn’t want to think of life without Sherlock.

The Deal

Mycroft Holmes returned to Rosethorne the next morning.

He didn’t have to call Sherlock or John or Molly to his room for a briefing. Sherlock was at his door within fifteen minutes of his arrival.

“You’re holding us hostage.” Mycroft, calmly sitting behind his desk, said the words matter-of-factly.

“Us? No. The encoder – most definitely. I’ve cracked it – well inside the time frame you requested. I’m only asking for a bonus, a reward beyond ‘Job well done, Sherlock.’”

“Your reward was staying off the front lines,” Mycroft stated dismissively.

“And staying off the front lines kept me safe and sound.”

“That wasn’t in the agreement.”

“The offer stands – Rosethorne for the encoder. Documented, explained. You can bring the entire team here for training. I’ll work with them until you’re satisfied.”

“Impossible.” Mycroft folded his hands on the desk and looked thoughtfully at his brother. “Curious that you don’t want to leave here. You’ve always hated the country. You seemed to thrive in London. Yet – here you stand. Blackmailing me out of my ancestral home.”

“Rosethorne means nothing to you. It’s convenient. It serves a purpose.”

Mycroft did not deny it. He assessed Sherlock once again, then came to a decision.

“Rosethorne has allowed for your convalescence,” he stated. “You look well, better even than before your accident. I imagine the doctor has had you under a special regimen?”

Sherlock, who was already standing, turned his back on Mycroft and walked toward the door.

“Sherlock! Stop. I have a proposition.”

Sherlock let several seconds drag by before he turned. He met his brother’s eye coldly. “Go on.”

“One week to document, and a second week to train your first student – me.”

Sherlock blinked. He waited, expression unchanged.

“And if you can train me, both to encode and decode using your system, then you can train the others and have Rosethorne as you requested.”

Neither brother moved as they each regarded the other, waiting.

“There’s a catch, of course,” Sherlock said at last. He affected a military rest position, but he was no John Watson, and managed to look not at all at ease.

Mycroft’s gaze hardened. “It is impossible to complete the training here. You know the logistical impossibility. You’ll go to them – and you’ll work with them until you are no longer needed.”

“That’s entirely too open-ended,” countered Sherlock. “Two months.”

“Three.”

They stared at each other, each holding his ground, until Sherlock, at last, gave a sharp nod.

“I want to see papers before I leave,” he said. “A handshake agreement isn’t enough.”

“We haven’t shaken hands yet,” Mycroft pointed out, extending his hand as he spoke.

Sherlock extended a hand, but Mycroft pulled his own away a few inches. “You’ll go alone, Sherlock. The doctor is needed here.”

Mycroft watched his brother’s face, but the only sign of distress was a brief bob of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed. He gave himself away, though, when he wiped his hand on his trousers before extending it to Mycroft.

“Agreed.”

They shook hands at last, and Sherlock deliberately looked away, then left the room as purposefully as he’d entered it.

Chapter Text

Summer slowly began to give way to autumn, to golden leaves and acorns and grass and flowers fading and turning to seed.

Mycroft wasn’t missed at Rosethorne, but Sherlock’s absence was an emptiness John could never fill, no matter that his patient load suddenly doubled, with three more convalescents arriving just hours after Sherlock left. The level of care each needed was slightly higher than the existing and previous patients. There was an aging colonel with painful diabetic nerve damage and the threat of gangrene, and two young soldiers, burned and broken, so depressed they were considered suicide risks and sent to Rosethorne, they were told, to take the country air and take their time healing under John and Molly’s practical care.

Yet they were two young soldiers who hadn’t done anything extraordinary, whose families weren’t important, who had no reason to be at Rosethorne, at this exclusive facility for people who were treated to something special because of who they were, or who they knew.

The only thing extraordinary about either of these boys was how closely their injuries paralleled his own and Sherlock’s.

This was Mycroft’s doing, and John could protest all he cared to, but to what end? He was the resident physician at Rosethorne. He had explicit orders to be here. He had a capable second in command in Molly, and with Sherlock gone, no other assignments to distract him. He couldn’t even write to Sherlock, or expect to have a letter from him, or even news, as his location was closely guarded and his very existence not yet official.

No news. No word. No updates. Rosethorne was a microcosm, sealed and nearly self-sufficient. Existing as it did because of the war, yet removed from it. Every day was a repeat of the day before – the patients’ needs knew no holiday, and the not-so-distant war hardly brushed their daily lives yet governed and controlled their very being.

In the early days, when he’d first arrived, before he’d willingly thrown himself into the vortex that was Sherlock Holmes, he’d been happy to be here. Pleased to be useful again. Curious about the manor house, and its gardens, and the odd collection of misfits who populated it. He had his garden walks, and had discovered the old piano in the beautiful music room, and had won Molly’s friendship. The war, which had left him half crippled, was a far-away thing from this Yorkshire estate. It was no longer personal, except for the lingering knowledge of what it had cost him, and the residual anger from those losses had faded as Sherlock began to fill his broken places.

He didn’t want to dwell on their arguments before they parted, the heated words they’d exchanged, hidden away in the derelict guest cottage. The risk was too great. It was a trick, abject manipulation. Mycroft would not keep his word, had no intention of letting Sherlock return. Mycroft could engineer his permanent disappearance from John’s life. How difficult would it be to erase a man already thought to be dead? And what about Sherlock’s health? The seizures that, while less frequent and less severe than they had been, could not be prevented and could strike when he was in transit or cause a life-threatening injury?

Now, from this side of the argument, with miles and silence between them, he felt the fool. Sherlock was a grown man, fully capable of making his own decisions and watching out for himself. John had been living in a bubble at Rosethorne, reminded of the harshness of life by his own injuries, and by Sherlock’s, but shielded from reality by the magical walls of the gardens, and the impossible brilliance of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock, who was unlike anything John had ever known, but who was everything he’d never known he needed.

And now, with Sherlock away – in London, most likely, in some hidden bunker, airtight and sterile – Rosethorne seemed more prison than paradise.

By brute force of will, calling upon the discipline he’d lost of late, but that he’d practiced the entirety of his adult life, he adhered to a strict schedule for those first long weeks. Weeks when he slept the night through without a call to go to Sherlock – to help him through a seizure – real or feigned. Up early for a brisk walk, breakfast, rounds, treatments, an hour in the music room coaxing tunes from the piano with his inadequate fingers, then lunch, more rounds, a game of chess in the mid afternoon.

And finally, in the waning light before sunset, a visit to the garden.

A garden that missed Sherlock. Missed his motion, his music. Missed him conducting the impossible flight of bees with raised bow, or taking up the clippers to sculpt the mane of a lion or the arced spine of a sea monster. The low work table sat neglected, and the pile of lumber from the dismantled garden shed was slowly disappearing under a blanket of leaves.

Lestrade was nearly always present those late afternoons in the garden, and as the summer slowly gave way to autumn, he began to engage John in preparations for the winter.

He’d been preparing a flower bed around the maze, an ambitious undertaking, but as evidenced by the riotous maze, Lestrade didn’t do things by halves. The bed was four feet wide, encircling the perimeter, and he was edging it with paving stones stolen from a neglected walkway. Lestrade spoke to John, but while he now chose to speak words aloud, he didn’t waste them. John had walked about the garden half the first week, doing little more than brooding, while Lestrade toted stones. On the fourth day, Lestrade stepped in front of him as he limped past.

“You’re too much like him,” he said, shaking his head in disapproval. “You should help.”

The stones were not heavy if carried one by one, and working together, the job went faster. Still, it was slow work – each stone had to be dug out, brushed off, moved and reset. Working with one good hand, John used a wedge to work loose a stone, then cleaned it with the wire brush from Lestrade’s collection of tools in the old garden cart. He found he was able to lift the stone with his right hand, steadying it with his left, and move it to a pile within Lestrade’s reach. The work was repetitive, and the only reward was the odd find beneath a stone – an old button, a penny coin, fat earthworm. But the work filled the hours, and John went to bed tired, and slept more soundly.

The flower bed itself wasn’t brand new – it had been put in many years before, but was long neglected and choked with grass and weeds. Lestrade worked the earth loose when he could, but he had other projects throughout the manor grounds, and only so many hours of daylight.

Molly still came to the garden from time to time, and had begun to help carry stones when she did. Bringing in more help was her idea.

“They need something more to do,” she said, referring to two of the new patients. “They’re withering up like this. They need to believe they’re useful still– that their lives have a purpose."

Charlie and Al were young men, barely out of their teens, one blinded in one eye and heavily scarred, suffering periodic seizures, the other learning to live without most of his right arm. John sat by their beds and spoke with them every morning, seeing himself in their countenances, in their wounded and defeated demeanors, and wondered more than once if this was another of Mycroft Holmes’ attempts to manipulate him.

Yet these were real people, real wounded soldiers, and he was careful to treat them with respect and not suspicion. But caught up as he was in the tangle of Mycroft’s net, it was difficult for John to escape the web of his own fear and self-absorption, to look at his patients as wounded soldiers instead of Mycroft’s cruel tools, illustrations of his own weakness, his own frailty, and constant reminders of Sherlock’s own precarious health.

A precarious health he could no longer monitor.

Molly, however, wasn’t predisposed to question Mycroft Holmes’ motives in bringing these particular wounded men to Rosethorne. She knew nothing of the arrangement Sherlock had made with his brother, and had no idea of how deeply Sherlock’s absence affected John. She didn’t question why Sherlock had left Rosethorne on the heels of his break-through with the code. Who else could accomplish what he had to do? He’d return when his mission was completed. In the meantime, she and John had patients to care for. A job to do. And a beautiful estate to call home with warm, comfortable beds and quiet, star-filled skies at night.

Bringing the new patients to the garden was Molly’s idea.

“Greg is in over his head,” she told John one morning, lingering over the breakfast table and blowing across her already cool tea. “He’ll never finish what needs finishing before winter, John. And the boys – ” She trailed off, biting her bottom lip.

“The boys?” asked John, not following. “Which boys?”

“Charlie and Al especially, but Henry too – they could all use a distraction. They need something to do, John. Don’t you agree? They can help Greg with the tulip beds – get their hands in the earth for an hour or two a day. They’re not really that sick, are they? They’re just scarred – inside and out.”

“Al shouldn’t…” he began, something inside him immediately balking at the idea of bringing anyone else – strangers, outsiders - to their garden.

“We’ll wrap his elbow very well, John. I’ll have Mrs. Hudson find one of Sherlock’s long-sleeved shirts. Al’s more or less his size, and we can knot the sleeve past his stump. You know as well or better than anyone that treating these boys like they’re fragile china dolls won’t speed along their recoveries.”

“No – no.” He sighed, looking blankly at his empty cup. Those boys had been on his mind a lot these last days, and he didn’t necessarily want Molly to know how much they’d affected him. “But Charlie is another story, Molly. He hates to be seen by anyone – he won’t even look up at me when I change the dressing. He’ll hate being outside – he’ll feel exposed. And his balance – the seiz…” He shook his head. “He could fall. Perhaps we could take him to one of the other gardens closer to the house – we could push him in the chair.”

Molly looked at John oddly. She studied him long enough to make him uncomfortable, then reached across the table and squeezed his hand. She spoke softly, and he thought she’d come to some realisation about him, or the situation, but he had no real desire to press her and bring more to the surface.

“Let’s give it a try, John. If it doesn’t work, we’ll think of something else. I – I have an idea you’d prefer to give them more time to decide on their own that life is worth living, even the lives they’re facing in the years ahead with their injuries.”

He shrugged. “It took time – takes time,” he said. “They need to rework things in their heads. It can’t be forced.”

“This isn’t forcing anything,” Molly said gently. “Taking patients out for fresh air and sunshine is age-old therapy.” She canted her head and lowered her voice even more. “Did you – when you were injured…?”

He laughed. “I was shot in the desert, Molly. Getting out of the sun did more to cheer me up than anything else they tried.”

She shook her head with a smile, then pushed her teacup aside and stood.

“One at a time, then. I’ll bring Al out first, and we’ll see how it goes.”

John shrugged, feeling both unsettled about and disconnected from the decision. The garden wasn’t his – he had no real right to claim it, or to prevent anyone entry.

“Have you asked Greg?” he asked. “He may not want to share it any more than he already has.”

“I’ll ask him,” Molly promised. “But I don’t think he’ll mind, John. He’s been in their shoes already, just like you have. And look what the garden’s done for him – it’s an outlet for his hidden artist, a way to channel his emotions.”

They’d left it at that, and two days later, John, arriving later than was his custom to the garden, found Molly already there, sitting on one of John’s benches which she’d pulled out into the fading sunlight. Al stood beside Lestrade, a good distance away from them.

“Well, it didn’t exactly go as planned,” Molly said as John sank gratefully onto the bench beside her. “I’d hoped to get him interested in working the earth in the beds around the maze and planting some of the bulbs Greg’s got waiting. Maybe even carrying some of the smaller paving stones. But he took one look at the maze and that was that. He latched on to Greg like a puppy dog – I think I could have danced naked in front of him and he’d only have had eyes for Greg and his menagerie.”

John glanced at her, grinning. “Oh, I seriously doubt that.”

Molly laughed. “Really? It seems to be a recurring theme around here – Al and Greg, you and Sherlock.”

John forced a laugh. He knew she wasn’t joking, but taking her comment as such let it slip away without further discussion. They watched the two men a few more minutes, John thinking of the last conversation he’d had with the boy that very morning.

“Do you know what he’d planned to do?” he asked. “After the war?”

Molly shook her head. “I haven’t asked him,” she said. “I – well, I didn’t want to go there, yet. I thought it might be another impossible dream now.”

“His father’s a country veterinarian,” John said, still watching Al. “He was going to go to school – then join his practice.”

Molly looked over at him, and he turned his head to meet her gaze. He might have expected a pitying look, but it was understanding he saw, and he looked away, ashamed that he’d expected something less.

“Well, he wouldn’t be able to perform surgery – not alone, anyway,” she said, obviously giving the matter some thought. “But there’s quite a bit he could, do, especially with his father.”

John shook his head. “He’s a country vet – he works with cattle, horses, sheep and pigs. You need quite a bit of strength and dexterity just to handle the patients. And I doubt he’d get through school – that he could pass the requirements.”

“But with his father…” Molly began, but she faltered at John’s look. “Right. It’s not the same.” She squared her shoulders and looked sagely at John. “Still, he’ll be able to do something he loves, and he just might find something else he can do that will make him just as happy. Lots of people change course in life, John.”

He knew, by the way she spoke, how she looked at him so intently, that she wasn’t referring only to Al.

Despite his reservations about anyone else sharing their garden, he had a great deal of empathy for boys like Al – soldiers who’d given their all just to have the wind – and sometimes the life – knocked out of their sails. He’d been in their boots once, mere weeks after his own injury, when he knew he’d never practice surgery again. There’d been no one waiting for him back in London, and there’d be no place for him there, and nothing for him to contribute.

What use was living?

It wasn’t something he could tell Al, or Charlie, or any of the others. That he’d found purpose in the impossible task that was Sherlock Holmes. That no surgical procedure could possibly be as rewarding as watching Sherlock come alive in the garden, nothing as fulfilling as kissing him against an earthen wall in a centuries-old secret tunnel. He’d not have believed anyone if they’d told him he’d find meaning and purpose again, that he’d love, and be loved in return.

“I wondered how long it would take,” Molly said.

John had already seen, and certainly could have predicted it. Al had his own cutters now, scissor-like snippers for trimming newer growth. He was holding them awkwardly in his hand, and as they watched, Lestrade repositioned them, then set him to work on the tangled lion’s mane that Sherlock had sculpted not so very long ago.

“Well, they’re animals, anyway,” John said, wincing as he adjusted his position on the bench.

“You should make yourself a chair,” Molly suggested. “You obviously don’t find this bench very comfortable. You need to design something with the right proportions for you.”

John glanced over at the woodpile peeking out from beneath the fallen leaves. He’d painstakingly dissembled a garden shed, pulled out old and bent nails, moved and stacked the wood with Sherlock. He’d thought they’d make a treehouse, a project for the two of them to keep Sherlock’s mind on something besides code and scribbled notes and the reordering of a mad library as nebulous as the sky in March. He’d had in mind something to help him heal – something to do together.

But Sherlock had found peace elsewhere – in John’s arms in the quiet darkness or beside him at the piano, on a rickety bench with the violin pressed against his cheek and the breeze in his hair, prone on the ground in a bed of wildflowers cataloguing the movement of honeybees.

“John?”

She caught him staring at the stack of wood, an idea beginning to percolate through his tangled thoughts and dead-end anger.

“Not just the right proportions,” he said. “One that takes the pressure off my hip, if that’s even possible.”

“Anything’s possible,” Molly said. She looked over toward Lestrade and Al, at the maze with its sea serpents and lions, unicorns and ladybugs, and at the garden around it all. “At least here – in this garden.”

He wanted to believe her. He wanted desperately to believe that Sherlock would be back. That Mycroft could be trusted to keep his end of the agreement. That the war would end with the Allies victorious. That all the broken pieces would fall together for a pair of misfits who’d already given their all, coming out the other side of the war damaged but still breathing.

“Right,” he said, chasing away thoughts of bombed buildings crashing down and crushing his dreams – of a normal, ordinary life with Mary, of something secret yet extraordinary with Sherlock. “I’ve certainly got enough materials.”

“Good – good.” She smiled at him conspiratorially, and wiggled on her bench. “And while you’re at it, you might do something about this one too.”

ooOOOoo

John did do something about the bench.

And he had help – help from a most unexpected source.

Charlie, who’d at first refused to go outside, and had become so agitated when Molly insisted he give it a try that he’d had a seizure, changed his tune within a week. Al did his work quietly, but managed to worm himself beneath Charlie’s armour, and describe the maze with such a brilliant light in his eyes, that Charlie finally agreed to come out with him and have a look.

The walk to the garden was a long one, though Lestrade no longer bothered to lock the gate that had hindered John for so long. They’d worn a wider path through the front garden, but the old table just inside the gate made a good resting place. Charlie complained, and held onto Molly’s arm on one side and John’s on the other, but when they stood inside the garden at last, his absolute silence in the presence of Lestrade’s masterpiece, and the way he held his head up to stare, not trying to look down and away to make the scarred side of his face less obvious, spoke his heart and soul more loudly than words.

Yet, he didn’t engage with Lestrade and his maze as Al had. Instead, he stayed at Molly’s side, approaching John’s work area with her, where John was reworking Molly’s bench into something more suitable for the garden. It was slow work without Sherlock to steady the boards while he cut them, but he’d managed better than expected, slowly lifting his weak left hand to brace each board in place while he lined up the saw with his right. He was less clumsy than he had been, but was by no means a master of straight lines and precise angles.

“Care to help?” John asked, after Charlie stood there for several minutes, watching him laboriously work the saw up and down. He stood with his head canted, watching with his good eye and blinking too often, as if there was something obstructing his vision, something that could be magically blinked away.

Perhaps it was the nonchalant way he asked, or the fact that John himself was so obviously damaged that made Charlie step forward instead of back. Or perhaps it was the fact that he’d spent much of his childhood in his grandfather’s woodworking shop, and watching John cut the plank and pick up a sanding block to begin smoothing it out stirred something long-buried within him.

It was an actual step, the physical movement of the boy closer to John, close enough to help steady the board as he finished the cut and positioned the wood to sand it. Close enough to tentatively take the sanding block from him when it was offered. Close enough that John saw how his left hand caressed the wood, running down the edge to feel the roughness of the cut. How his posture changed as he leaned in, pressing the sanding block against the ragged edge, gaining confidence as he worked.

It was a physical step, an approach, but it was symbolic as well. For Charlie, who found a piece of himself he’d forgotten, a task that didn’t require sight in both eyes, or perfect balance, and would, throughout the rest of his long life, give him both privacy and purpose.

As John passed the sanding block to Charlie, and stood back, exchanging a glance and a smile with Molly, he knew, with unexpected clarity, that he wasn’t likely to actually perfect any one hobby or talent. He’d not be more than a passable doctor, a mediocre pianist. He wouldn’t necessarily find his inner artist in the garden – not as a sculptor, anyway, and certainly not as a carpenter. But he’d barely begun to scratch the surface of possibilities – hell, he might just develop an interest in those infernal bees Sherlock found so fascinating, or plant red tulips in the shape of a heart or spell out “John Loves Sherlock” in crocuses.

There was a world of possibilities before him, and more than enough time on his hands.

ooOOOoo

He planted the tulip bulbs, and daffodils and crocuses, spending hours cleaning and toting stones, then burying his hands in the earth. Hyacinths and jonquils, lilies and irises – whatever Greg put before him, withered clumps of roots in damp brown paper. He knew little of gardening, and maintained a healthy skepticism that glorious colours would erupt from such drab and meager beginnings.

He worked the bed around the maze in pieces, as Greg prepared it circling clockwise, arranging whatever Greg left for him be it bulbs or seeds or transplanted vines or clumps of roots salvaged from another part of the manor.

He bought more time in the garden by bringing more of his patients outside. The old men played chess at Charlie’s first table, and Annie brought tea just before they went in for the day. John joined them, sitting in the chair he’d helped Charlie build. Molly’s creation, really, built to his frame, strong in his weakest places.

Lestrade spoke more often, sitting beside Molly for tea, and there was something there, nascent and tentative, but deepening as the days grew shorter and their slow walks around the garden grew longer.

Al turned an untouched row of overgrown hedge into a galloping stallion, tail and mane flaring, and there seemed nothing he couldn’t do, one-handed and driven, and Greg, oddly, seemed to be at peace with letting him run with it, going where his heart took him, while he brought John cuttings and lost the key to the garden gate to a raven’s hoard.

By the middle of November, the days were too short and the wind too cold for long forays into the garden, and Al and Charlie had families at home and lives to lead away from Rosethorne. John ventured out on daily walks, but his skin felt too-tight in the too-quiet garden, where remembered discoveries, gaiety, camaraderie, made the early-winter bleakness even more oppressive and lonely.

Three months.

Three months and a week. Two weeks. Three.

A memo from Major Sholto – clear in what it didn’t say. An indefinite extension of orders. Stay the course.

Oddly, it gave him hope.

Four months.

Christmas came, subdued and silent. Boxing Day. A brand new year.

Mrs. Hudson fell and broke her leg. The entire staff succumbed to flu.

Five months, another week, two.

Hope is a tenuous thing, buoyed by sunlight and dampened by rain. Despair is the enemy, oozing through the cracks, gaining ground in the darkness.

He walked outside on the tenth of March after a week nursing a lingering cold, on a day with blue-grey skies and a brisk wind from the west. Into the garden, past the old swing Lestrade had rehung for Molly at Christmas. Through the second gate, to a view of the slumbering maze and a riot of gentle colour – blue and white, purple and yellow – in the beds around it.

The crocus were blooming.

He walked the perimeter of the flower beds, pulling his coat more tightly around him as he caught the wind. He was smiling, uplifted by the spring display and the evidence before him that his autumn labours had borne such plentiful fruit.

Movement near the gate didn’t startle him – he often saw Lestrade out and about during his winter walks.

The voice, however, did.

“John – I’ve been looking for you.”

The voice was Mycroft’s, and he was alone.

 

Chapter 28 Preview
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"John - I've been looking for you."

John stepped forward, hands firmly in his pockets where his clenching fists would not give him away. He kept his gaze on Mycroft, not allowing himself to search the path behind him for a different figure, a different Holmes.

"You're a bit late, Mycroft," John said, surprising himself with how casually he was able to say the words.

"A bit." Mycroft approached him slowly, and John saw that his gait was somewhat uneven. He narrowed his eyes as his heart sank. He felt almost violently ill.

"Care to elaborate?" he asked, but the words sounded pained and broken.

"There were - complications. Our security was breached. I - I was captured."

John swallowed. His left hand, once weak and useless, fisted nearly as tight as his right. He sucked in a breath then let it out very slowly.

"And Sherlock?" he asked, holding Mycroft's gaze.

"He came for me." Mycroft shifted, grimacing a bit, then limping forward toward a garden table, sanded and polished, and the sturdy chairs around it. "Sit, John," he said, motioning to one of the chairs.

John approached the chair slowly, but stood behind it, hands on the chairback, waiting.

"They're settling him in now, John. His injuries were not life-threatening." He held up a hand as John jerked, standing up straighter. "I wanted to tell you first. What - what a good man he is. What a good man you've found. You - " He struggled with the words, staring at his hands splayed on the table. "You deserve each other - and Rosethorne."

TBC

Chapter Text

"John - I've been looking for you."

John stepped forward, hands firmly in his pockets where his clenching fists would not give him away. He kept his gaze on Mycroft, not allowing himself to search the path behind him for a different figure, a different Holmes.

"You're a bit late, Mycroft," John said, surprising himself with how casually he was able to say the words.

"A bit." Mycroft approached him slowly, and John saw that his gait was somewhat uneven. He narrowed his eyes as his heart sank. He felt almost violently ill.

"Care to elaborate?" he asked, but the words sounded pained and broken.

"There were - complications. I - I was captured."

John swallowed. His left hand, once weak and useless, fisted nearly as tight as his right. He sucked in a breath then let it out very slowly.

"And Sherlock?" he asked, holding Mycroft's gaze.

"He came for me." Mycroft shifted, grimacing a bit, then limping forward toward a garden table, sanded and polished, and the sturdy chairs around it. "Sit, John," he said, motioning to one of the chairs.

John approached the chair slowly, but stood behind it, hands on the chairback, waiting.

"They're settling him in now, John. His injuries were not life-threatening." He held up a hand as John jerked, standing up straighter. "I wanted to tell you first. What - what a good man he is. What a good man you've found. You - " He struggled with the words, staring at his hands splayed on the table. "You deserve each other - and Rosethorne."

“We don’t need your blessings,” John said, voice terse. Mycroft, perhaps expecting something more conciliatory after what for him were difficult and unusually heartfelt words, looked oddly deflated.

It wasn’t a good look on him.

But John didn’t want a wounded, defeated and weakened Mycroft. He knew how to bristle at the cold, business-like man, the taskmaster who came and went without notice, who made the very air stale and unbreathable when he spent days at Rosethorne. John knew how to meet his usual cold indifference with a soldier’s stance and clipped, but proper, words in return.

But here, in the garden, with the crocuses of every hue heralding spring, and the waning winter cold colouring his cheeks pink, with Sherlock only a thousand steps away, he couldn’t give voice to the anger.

“Six months,” he managed. “With no word – at all.” He swallowed, watching Mycroft knead his thigh with the knuckles of his right hand. “Only an extension of my orders – at Christmastime.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Mycroft said. “I don’t recall Christmas.”

He said the words softly – a contemplation more than an accusation – but John held his stance, and his gaze, biting back the reflex to ask what the hell had happened. He refused to pity the man even though Mycroft, he realised, didn’t need or want his pity, only his forgiveness.

If Sherlock was all right – if his injuries weren’t serious, weren’t life-altering - there would be time for forgiveness later.

Now – there was nothing on his mind except Sherlock. He didn’t want explanations from Mycroft, descriptions of injuries and treatments. Injuries that were not life-threatening covered a range from scratches to missing limbs and brain injuries on top of what Sherlock had already suffered. John wanted – no, he needed - to see for himself, assess for himself.

“You don’t trust me,” Mycroft said, voice bland, as John remained silent, still standing behind the chair. He didn’t wait for an answer, nor did he seem to expect one, but stood, steadying himself with a hand on a chairback. He looked like a man unaccustomed to infirmities of any kind, confused when his body refused to cooperate. He sorted himself then nodded at John.

“Go – please. Sherlock has likely offended the entire staff by now, and will be insisting he doesn’t need the care he requires and should be returned to his own quarters. The staff will be as happy to see you as Sherlock will be.”

As much as he wanted to know what the hell had happened, he didn’t want the answer badly enough to stay here in Mycroft’s presence any longer. He nodded, but even as he turned to walk away, another question rose in his mind, one that only Mycroft could answer. Gripping the back of his chair, he looked up at Mycroft, who was still standing beside his chair, watching John with tired eyes.

“Will you be staying?” John asked. “Here – at Rosethorne?”

Mycroft laughed. It wasn’t a jovial sound, or even a pleasant one. He laughed like someone unaccustomed to doing so, seemingly surprised at the unfamiliar sound escaping his body.

“A desk job is waiting for me in London,” he answered. “It seems field operations are not my strong suit. The powers that be want my ‘arse behind a desk’ and not compromising the security of the entire nation, even though my capture had nothing to do with - .” He stopped himself and looked away. “So no – I won’t be staying here at Rosethorne, Dr. Watson. In fact, I’ll be leaving before nightfall.”

John stared at Mycroft longer than was polite, unable to voice any platitudes, heartfelt or not. He nodded at last, understanding that Mycroft Holmes’ had not escaped unscathed physically or professionally, but unable to care one way or the other. Perhaps later – when he knew what Sherlock was facing – he could spare a thought or two for Mycroft.

But as he hurried back to the manor house, his thoughts were only on Sherlock.

Behind him, Mycroft Holmes slowly followed him out of the garden, taking his time with the leg that would trouble him for the rest of his life.

Curiously, the doctor rapidly out-distancing him ahead was no longer limping.

ooOOOoo

John stopped at the bottom of the main stairway to catch his breath. He leaned against the stair post, taking deep breaths, telling himself to stay calm, trying to slow his racing heart. He wished he’d cleaned up better today – wished he was wearing something more presentable than the wrinkled trousers and too-large shirt he’d hurriedly put on that morning.

God – Sherlock was here. Sherlock was under this very roof right now.

Sherlock was injured. Sherlock was being settled in the infirmary.

He took a final fortifying breath and blew it out slowly, then pushed off the stair post and walked into the infirmary.

He nearly ran into Mrs. Hudson as she rounded the corner at the same time he did.

“Oh, Dr. Watson!” she exclaimed. “Have – have you…?”

“I’ve just spoken with Mycroft,” he said, steadying her by the elbow. “Where is he?”

“They’ve put him in Al’s old room. I’m so very glad he’s back – he’s had a long journey, hasn’t he?”

John really didn’t know, and was ridiculously put out that she’d seen Sherlock before he had. He smiled non-committedly and moved past her toward the room Al had used.

The door was closed when he reached it, and he rapped lightly, pushing it open even as he did so.

Sherlock was lying in bed, left leg encased in a plaster cast that nearly reached his hip. His face and hands were swollen and coloured with healing bruises and contusions. He looked, John thought, like he’d been on the losing side of a pub brawl.

Beside him, sitting cross-legged on the bed in a crisp white uniform and cap, a nurse looked over at him and smiled. John, dumbfounded, stared at her hand with its polished red nails as it slid through Sherlock’s curls.

Sherlock’s eyes were closed and he appeared to be sleeping.

“Dr. Watson – we’ve been expecting you.”

John recognised the voice where he’d not recognised the woman.

“You’re back,” he said, noting her dyed-red hair under the nurse’s cap, drawn back tight from her face. He supposed he might not have recognized her had she not spoken, or had she not been in the same position as the first time he’d encountered her with Sherlock – namely, in his bed.

“He needed my help,” she said, running the fingers of her other hand lightly over Sherlock’s face as he groaned softly. She looked up at John, and seemed to take pity on him.

“Let’s just say I provided a distraction while he went in for his brother. Alcohol is such a useful thing.”

John still did not ask what, exactly, had happened, though he itched to know. He wanted to hear it only once, and only from Sherlock.

“Must not have worked,” John remarked. He was still cataloguing Sherlock’s injuries, his breathing, trying to discern if he was in pain. His hair was longer than he’d seen it, and he looked to have lost a stone he couldn’t afford to lose. He was gaunt, and pale, and the heavy cast unbalanced the symmetry of his body.

“Oh, it worked,” she said with a feral smile. “Or it certainly would have had Mycroft been more balanced. I don’t think we anticipated fully what a couple months of captivity might do to him.”

He didn’t take the bait. A couple months of captivity.

“Speaking of Mycroft, he said Sherlock was being difficult. He doesn’t look difficult to me. He looks practically drugged.”

“That’s because I’ve given him a nice dose of morphine so you and I can have a little talk, Dr. Watson.”

John bristled. He hoped she didn’t know about Sherlock’s past addiction. If she did, there was no forgiving administering a heavy dose of opiates to him.

“I don’t intend to explain myself, Dr. Watson. My business is strictly that - my business. But it seems our Sherlock has got himself tangled up in it – again – and by extension now, his brother as well. Mycroft Holmes might think he’s the one calling the shots, but he’s wrong. Dead wrong. And now he owes his life to me, and to his brother. I intend to take advantage of that debt.”

“Your business doesn’t concern me,” John said, treading carefully. Irene Adler was clearly a dangerous woman, and he disliked her familiarity with Sherlock as much as he was intrigued by her casual threats regarding Mycroft.

“No?” She laughed, and her laugh was as dangerous as her voice, as her beautiful and cold appearance. “I disagree, Dr. Watson. Mycroft Holmes owes his life to his brother. He is indebted to Sherlock. Sherlock could ask anything of him, and he’d comply.”

“He only wants what he was promised,” John said. “For Mycroft to hold up his end of the bargain.”

He didn’t think he needed to fill her in on the details of that bargain.

Her gaze, diamond hard, softened minutely. She looked down at Sherlock for a long moment, then leaned down and kissed his cheek fondly.

“Adieu, mon ami,” she said. She tucked an errant curl behind his hear, stretched her legs out gracefully, then stood, bending down for a final kiss, this time a lingering one to his mouth, before turning back toward John, addressing him as she smoothed out her skirt and slipped into her shoes.

“Take good care of him, Dr. Watson,” she said, fingertips resting casually on Sherlock’s shoulder. “He speaks very highly of you.”

She looked at him in a way that let him know that she knew.

“I intend to,” he said, his eyes fixed on Sherlock.

“And do find something for the pain that won’t make him high as a kite,” she said. “He’s going to be very cross with me for using the morphine.”

She gave Sherlock a final, fond, look, then moved past John to the door. “I don’t want to miss my ride – Mycroft’s cars are so much more comfortable than the train.”

She winked at him as she left, and he stared at the door, wondering what the hell had just happened.

ooOOOoo

The story, when eventually Sherlock was able to tell it in full, was equal parts tedium and boredom – planning, waiting for the right moment to strike – and adrenaline punching thrill, a rush that lasted all of five minutes before the fall from the roof.

But the story stayed in the background for quite some time that evening. Sherlock slept while John sat at his bedside, reading his chart from beginning to end. A compound fracture of tibia and fibula was the most serious injury, though he’d taken a second blow to the head which had resulted in a mild concussion. A dislocated shoulder had been readily righted. He’d been conscious but mildly confused when he’d reached hospital, and had requested no morphine, though it had been administered to him anyway at the surgeon’s insistence. Sutures had been removed with no sign of infection, and he’d been generally alert and disagreeable.

John examined X-rays of the injured leg before and after the surgery. The surgeon had certainly done a good job – though recovery, John knew, would require a good deal of physical therapy and strength training, and definitely no future falls off rooftops.

Oddly, or not, the only mention of Sherlock’s seizures was the notation that the patient had suffered a previous head injury leading to trauma-induced seizures, but hadn’t had any seizures while in hospital.

John pondered that sentence. Things that seemed too good to be true generally were. Second blows to the head seldom did anything more than exacerbate an existing problem. He didn’t believe the problem was gone, however. He couldn’t allow himself a hope based on wishes and prayers.

But no seizures – at least temporarily – was good news for a man recovering from another head injury and a compound fracture.

Sherlock awoke at last from his morphine-induced haze while John was out of the room, very reluctantly and hurriedly completing his evening rounds. Molly and Lestrade sat together beside his bed, and it was Molly who held his hand, and offered him water, and leaned in to kiss his brow and tell him how much they had missed him, how happy there were to have him back.

When John came in at last, having borrowed a few extra minutes to change clothes and shave, Molly and Greg were still in the room with Sherlock, and Mrs. Hudson had joined their number. Sherlock was propped up on a stack of pillows, groggy still, and clearly suffering their presence more than enjoying it.

All heads pivoted toward the door as John pushed it open it, but the tired smile that lit Sherlock’s face was all that John saw.

He couldn’t have kept the answering smile from his own face had he wanted to. His heart had firmly taken charge, and he stepped into the room, feeling lighter than he had in six long months.

“We’re going to have to do something about those other patients,” Sherlock said by way of greeting. He spoke more slowly than was normal, and more softly. “You’ve read my chart - you can’t possibly address all my needs and give them adequate care as well.”

“Sherlock – you selfish thing!” exclaimed Mrs. Hudson. “The poor soldiers – you can’t simply boot them out of here.”

“I most certainly can – this is a private residence, not a military resort.” He was answering Mrs. Hudson, but looking at John. “And I’m not having them booted into the wilds, mind you – there are numerous lovely facilities in London. I know this. I’ve had the great misfortune of spending two weeks in one.”

Mrs. Hudson smiled indulgently. “You’ve missed us,” she said. “Haven’t you, Sherlock?”

“I’ve missed you,” he said.

And he was looking at John, and how could anyone in the room have missed the way his voice choked on the words?

ooOOOoo

The manor was quiet at midnight, save for the low voices audible only as murmurs through the door of a single bedroom.

“You need your sleep,” Sherlock said as John’s eyes dropped once more.

“I didn’t tumble off a roof three weeks ago onto a flock of sheep.”

“Those sheep saved our lives,” Sherlock said.

“They saved Mycroft’s life. You managed to miss them and hit the ground straight-on.”

“If I hadn’t been in such pain, I’d have laughed at him,” Sherlock said. “I imagine he looked ridiculous atop those poor, maimed ewes.”

“It’s not funny,” John said, pushing up on one elbow and gazing down at Sherlock. “You could have died – you nearly did. You should never have gone in there alone…”

“I wasn’t alone. Irene was already there, and our plan was airtight. She’d have them thoroughly incapacitated and all I had to do was break into the room where they were holding Mycroft, take him out a dormer window onto the roof and escape down the ladder. I had no idea he’d injured his leg when he was captured – or what being locked up for so long had done to his mind.” He dropped his voice, and John squeezed his hand.

Sherlock looked over at him.

“You keep doing that.”

“What?” John squeezed his hand again, smiling.

“That. You do realize you’re holding my right hand with your left?”

“Oh?” John pressed a kiss onto Sherlock’s lips, dropping Sherlock’s hand and grazing his over Sherlock’s thigh and up across his groin. He rested it there. “I finally found the perfect way to exercise it,” he said, squeezing lightly.

“Liar. You spent eons in the garden. You made benches. You planted tulips. You practiced the piano. You were too tired at night to do anything but close your eyes and fall asleep.”

“Thinking about you,” John said, kissing Sherlock again.

Sherlock groaned as John squeezed once more. “I had no physical activities to distract me,” he said. “I’m afraid my thoughts of you were not quite so pure.”

John hummed. He dropped back down beside Sherlock, on his side, cradling the pillow under his head. “You haven’t told me how it happened,” he said. “How did Mycroft get abducted, anyway? I wouldn’t think he’d be the target they were looking for. I can’t think of a more difficult prisoner.”

Frankly, he was surprised they’d kept him alive.

Sherlock closed his eyes. “It’s a long story, and I still haven’t worked out all the details, but you’re correct – Mycroft wasn’t the intended target. I was. But – John, it wasn’t even about the war, or the code. It was a case of raw vindictiveness. Before Lestrade found me, after I’d run away from home the second time and was living on the streets of London, I knew a man named Jim Moriarty. I used to do errands for him – deliveries.” He opened his eyes and looked at John, gauging his reaction, and seemed to assure himself that John understood. “He was a difficult man – brilliant, in his own way, and extremely possessive. He regarded me as one regards possessions, and when he lost me – when Lestrade stepped in – he didn’t forget.

“How or where he saw me, I still don’t know. But he set out to bring me back, and his men made a mistake – they got the wrong Holmes. If Moriarty hadn’t used him to try to get to me, I’d likely never have known what happened to him.”

“What happened then? On the roof?”

“At first, I thought we’d get out of there without incident. He cooperated – he was dazed, but he came with me quietly enough, and climbed through the window. But something happened once we were on the roof in the open air - Mycroft wouldn’t go down the ladder. He’d been doped up to make him dependent and he was in need of a fix. He insisted we go back inside and find Moriarty. He became violent and attacked me. I lost my balance and slid toward the edge. He launched himself at me and we both went over.”

“Jesus – well, that explains a lot,” John said, thinking of Mycroft’s behavior in the garden.

“In a way, I feel sorry for him,” Sherlock said. “Moriarty was someone you didn’t trifle with. He was a chameleon - capable of being whatever you needed him to be, whatever he wanted to be. He was dangerous, John. The most dangerous man I’ve ever known. More so even than my brother.”

John sat up, sitting cross-legged in much the same position in which he’d found Irene Adler earlier that day.

“You’re speaking of him in the past, you know,” he said. “What happened to him, then?”

“Put out off his misery,” Sherlock said blandly. “Irene didn’t leave it to chance.”

“She killed him?” John raised an eyebrow. He knew she was dangerous, and frankly, didn’t have to stretch his mind much to find her capable of murder.

“Self-defense, or so I’m told,” he said. “Apparently, sheep being crushed by a falling human make an ungodly sound. She put a bullet through his head to halt his investigation of the noise.”

“She told me she got Mycroft’s captors drunk.”

“Is that what she said?” Sherlock’s smile was almost fond. “Drunk on love, perhaps.”

John, very reluctantly, got off the bed and stretched.

“It’s nearly one o’clock,” he said. “I should let you sleep.”

Sherlock sighed. “I’d insist you stay, but the bed is barely large enough for one.”

John smiled. “Yes – that and about a dozen other reasons.” He brushed the back of his hand on Sherlock’s cheek. “You need something else for the pain?”

“Only you,” Sherlock said.

“You can have as much of me as you want,” John said. “Feel free to overdose.”

“It’s good to be home,” Sherlock murmured.

He drifted off to sleep then, but John stood beside his bed for a long time, slowly letting go of the breath he’d been holding for six long months.

ooOOOoo

The Life They Lived

Sherlock would always love London, but Rosethorne would always be home.

They kept a flat in the city, a collection of rooms so oddly put together that visitors spent more time studying the wallpaper or the bizarre artifacts on the mantel than drinking their tea, and their cups would go cold, forgotten on their saucers. Sherlock’s seizures very nearly disappeared altogether, though he suffered them on rare occasions, but John, dependable as London fog, was always there to see him through. John’s hands were ultimately strong enough, and steady enough, to tend to most of his patients, and he could suture up wounds in a pinch. He’d never perform surgery again, but his practice in the Yorkshire countryside, and as the on-call physician for the convalescent hotel at Rosethorne, called for nothing more dexterous than setting the occasional bone and stitching up a gash from a fall in the garden.

The manor house proved far too large for two men and a handful of associates. John looked up Charlie, and they brought him back to Rosethorne to restore the cottage. The manor house fell gradually back into its role as a long-term hotel for convalescents, with Molly and Mrs. Hudson at the helm, and John being particularly suited to helping redirect its residents to new purposes. And Greg stayed at Rosethorne as well – he wasn’t ever too far from Molly, as they married just after the war ended and in short order produced three children and acquired chickens, a milk cow and a dozen sheep, plus a border collie to keep track of them all.

And while more people came to Rosethorne than ever before, the walled garden was private. The guests could wander where they would, but the original garden gate was removed and the open space built up to close it in, and the manor guests were none the wiser. Greg planted a new maze closer to the main house, and as the shrubs grew tall enough, shaped ravens and falcons, owls and kestrels, atop each bush to serve as sentinels.

The tunnel, too, remained their secret. The guests talked of a manor ghost, a benevolent spirit who crept along the corridors at night, creaking floorboards, opening locked doors and magically reviving wilted flowers in the vases on the breakfast tables. No one suspected that it was Sherlock who sometimes haunted the halls after dark, or John who followed behind him with an armload of fresh flowers which grew in such abundance now in their garden. Sherlock’s bees, now housed in a row of hives against the wall beyond the maze, helped the flowers along, buzzing heavily from bloom to bloom in speckled garden sunlight.

Charlie helped John with the children’s treehouse, built in the old garden that fronted their own. It was a thing of beauty, well-crafted and tight as a ship. It had a secret tunnel of its own, and port hole windows so the children could spy on their dad as he worked his art in the maze, and a dog-sized dumbwaiter to bring the collie up to play.

John had long ago worked out his anger and frustration with a hammer and sanding block, with his hands in the soil and his back to the sun. Sherlock still worked out his boredom with a thousand and one projects, beehives and ghosts, and always with John at his side.

No one said much about Sherlock and John living together in Hawthorne Cottage. There were two spacious bedrooms with two comfortable beds, each room neat as a pin and with little outward sign of whose room was whose. Two cupboards in two bedrooms held two distinctive sets of clothing - tailored suits and crisp shirts filled one, comfortable trousers and warm cardigans the other. The office was more chaotic – Sherlock’s side was a riot of papers and detritus from one new endeavor or another, while John’s small desk held a few medical texts and a stack of writing journals that even Sherlock wasn’t allowed to touch.

Two chairs, two pipes, two pair of slippers on opposite sides of the fireplace. The London paper on John’s table, and the local from York on Sherlock’s chair. A radio, a violin, a small piano with sheet music in the bench. Photographs on the mantel – John’s mum, Molly and Greg in wedding finery, Mrs. Hudson with the children. Two separate men, two seemingly separate lives. But in the evenings, Sherlock would sometimes sit on the floor in front of John’s chair, nestled back between his legs, reading a medical text book on human anatomy, or entreating John to come to London with him to find a cursed necklace stolen from the neck of a visiting dignitary. John would always protest – he had patients to see, and work to do here – but he never said no, and off they’d go. A week or two of London air made Rosethorne all the sweeter, and they’d lie in bed with the windows open when they returned, and fall asleep thinking they were the only two men left in the world.

Sometimes, they’d make love in the tunnel, covered by darkness - rough, primal, silent - apart from the world. Sometimes, they’d stretch out together on a blanket in the garden when the moon was new and stars pushed through the canopy of night and flooded their faces with innocence.

Molly knew, though she rarely saw them touch each other - nothing more than a glancing, accidental brush of fingers. She saw it in John's eyes, and in the way Sherlock deferred to him like he deferred to no one else on earth. Some things simply could not be hidden. She knew, but never said, and sometimes wondered if she and Greg could ever love each other as truly as Sherlock loved John and John loved Sherlock.

Greg knew. He knew for years before he and Molly dared broach the subject. He'd always known when Sherlock was content, and he hasn't had reason to question Sherlock's happiness in many years. He was uncomfortable at first, with the idea, and the reality, but it melted away when the children came, and when Sherlock handed him the keys to the manor house, and tucked himself away in a little cottage with John.

Mrs. Hudson knew, and she wished she had someone in her life to love her like Sherlock loved John, or like John loved Sherlock. Someone special to bring her tea when she was under the weather, to share her pillow, to make her laugh when she was feeling particularly low. Mrs. Hudson truly didn’t care who loved whom, and she thought both Sherlock and John well-deserving boys who’d paid their dues and had won the right to be left alone.

The children knew, though they didn’t know what they knew. Sherlock and John were family, like Mrs. Hudson, and mummy and dad. Sherlock brought them frogs eggs and caterpillars, balanced with them on railings, fixed their bicycles to reach maximum speed. John patched up their skinned knees, kept a supply of chocolate biscuits and read Treasure Island and The Swiss Family Robinson out loud in the treehouse. In the eyes of the children, John and Sherlock went together like biscuits and tea. You said their names together, and when you called out to them, it didn’t really matter which one picked you up and swung you around in a circle.

And Mycroft knew. Mycroft who spent the rest of the war behind a desk in London, who walked with a limp and used an umbrella as a cane, who never knew when Sherlock would pop up in his doorway, looking hale and hearty. It would take a great deal of time, but one day, Mycroft Holmes would appear at Rosethorne in bespoke suit and, finding Sherlock and John off on an adventure south of Penzance in the unlikely village of Mousehole, would wander out to the near garden to watch Greg Lestrade shape a boxwood into the tail of a porpoise. And when Sherlock and John returned three days later, they found him in the garden with sleeves pushed to his elbows, working quite diligently on what he said was an Irish Setter, but could very well have been a wooly mammoth instead.

He stayed only a week, but he returned from time to time, careful to never wear out his welcome.

Sherlock gave the setter a pig’s tail, and John smiled and let it be.

Fin