The box unsettled all of the dust that had been collecting on the aged floorboards for longer than Sherlock Holmes cared to calculate (though his brain filled him in anyway—five years, seven months, give or take a few weeks). It was the last he had carried upstairs to the flat from the foyer below, and one that he would have ignored still longer had Mrs. Hudson not casually mentioned that she'd try to help him finish moving in after her morning talk shows. Sherlock knew that even if his new landlady didn't constantly harp on about the state of her hip, he could still easily deduce that it (the right one) did cause her a considerable amount of pain (refused surgery—afraid of something going wrong that would strip away her independence), and based on the fact that the rate she was charging him for rent as the sole lodger was insanely below average for this part of London, he thought he could spare her the trouble. Especially since he was short on places to live after slowly creating a reputation of rendering kitchen appliances useless through his experiments within the first month of living in a place. That, and the fact that he desperately wanted to live somewhere that he could truly call his own and not have Mycroft paying some of his bills as an excuse to stop in unannounced whenever he liked (he knew it wouldn't stop his brother, but it would at least give him some higher ground). And, as his last attempt to try to find flatmates had failed more miserably than the time he tried to find out exactly what happened when a person with no actual heart condition took triple the dose of cardiac pills he'd been prescribed (relevant to an important case and therefore unable to be deleted, no matter how hard he tried). Sherlock realized early on in life that he simply didn't belong in social circles (it was easier that way) and thus his failures in that area didn’t surprise him. Mrs. Hudson's fondness, he knew, sprang from his work in ensuring her late husband's execution and nothing more. He glanced over at the large bison skill lying haphazardly underneath the kitchen table (should hang up in the sitting room—can’t let Mrs. Hudson think his act of bringing his lingering belongings upstairs common behavior from him) and set about to opening the box before him.
He knew (from the weight as well as the memory of packing) it contained the last of his books, the older ones that he'd now been carting from place to place for nearly fifteen years now. Some of the first that he'd collected for his work that hadn't suffered from the rapid changes in technology and knowledge that he'd lived through. They were the few where it was not worthwhile updating them on a yearly basis with new editions, or that held information not readily available through a Google search (certainly not of sentimental value, that would be preposterous).
Sherlock ripped off the tape and started placing the books on the last available shelf, close to the ground. Dust coated many of the volumes from their last residence on the bookshelf in the flat on Montague Street. It was quick work, and he had nearly emptied the box when he felt a smaller book slip out between two larger ones onto the floor.
He picked up the book and felt a warmth wash over him. Sherlock hadn't thought about this particular book in a while, which he imagined was in part due to a sticky patch on the front. Probably from a rather messy experiment involving super glue he'd performed nearly eight years ago (which had been the final straw for his landlord at the time). Despite the stain, the book was still as he remembered it—dark blue fabric, sealed with a resin for protection. A rectangular strip on the cover slightly darker than the rest where he had peeled off the sticker proclaiming it property of the school library he'd never returned it to. The faint smell of cinnamon still emanated from the pages when he flipped the book open (Mummy had fallen into an obsessive crafting phase after Father left; he always complained but couldn't deny to himself that her scented bookmarks, at least, were pleasant). The bent spine dictated what page was shown.
And as Sherlock looked down at that particular page, more memories flowed out from some dark corner of his mind palace. It was an illustration, the book itself the type of young adult novel he generally sneered at, both then as a child and now. He didn't know why he'd plucked that one off the shelf that day when he'd been hiding in the library (partially due to the dullness of the course he'd skipped and partially because he simply didn't feel like being taunted by the other boys in the lunch period that followed), since he didn't waste his time reading anything besides the chemistry and biology texts towards the back of the room. But he had stopped, for whatever reason, and taken that titleless blue book sitting between a few silly mystery novels (Agatha Christie). It certainly wasn't what he was expecting.
The face on the page smiled up at him, unchanged after all this time. Sherlock returned it, a bit sadly (though not actually returning it, since the picture was obviously no more than paper and ink).
The book, as it turned out, was about neither science nor mysteries, but instead the wartime adventures of an army doctor in India and Afghanistan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Dr. John H. Watson was, as far as the story went, a completely ordinary sort of man. That did nothing to stop Sherlock, however, from reading and rereading his story for the rest of the school day, tucked away between the wall and a cart of books to be shelved (not nearly as tall then as he was now). Dr. Watson left England in search of excitement (boredom: that Sherlock could understand), and found it dodging bullets to pull the wounded to safety. It seemed to Sherlock that it wasn't an exceptional level of military knowledge that kept the doctor alive, but rather an almost unhealthy amount of bravery (bravery was the kindest word for stupidity, Mycroft used to say) because he believed, more than anything, that people deserved to be saved.
Dr. Watson was, essentially, the opposite of Sherlock Holmes, but Sherlock had immediately saw more to it than that—he saw the perfect team. The doctor may not have been as intelligent as him (even more so now than at ten), but he was skilled as a physician, which would be useful should the two of them ever become injured while investigating one of the more violent criminals (the idea of becoming a consulting detective existed for at least a year before he found the book—he just needed to wait for his body to catch up with his mind to make his plans come to fruition). At the same time, his military training could also perhaps prevent some of their wounds from ever happening. And, of course, there was the fact that he willingly chose, day after day, to throw himself into danger's path when he could just as well be saving lives from a comfortable arm chair back in London. No, they both needed that liveliness that existed beyond banality and normality (school very nearly, literally, killed him). And so, Sherlock had simply taken the extra step in imagining that this inherently altruistic individual would extend his kindness to Sherlock himself, the boy with no desire to change his actions or personality in order to make friends with those he saw as below him.
Thus, the book that should have bored him more so even than the geography class he was missing became a personal comfort when his self-imposed loneliness ate away at him. John, as he had quickly turned to calling the army doctor in his head, actually thought that his deductions were fantastic, not weird.
Sherlock closed the book, frowning now and rubbing his thumb absently along the cover's edge. He hadn't actively thought about John since . . . since he met Victor.
Victor, the one actual living person (Mycroft excluded, he had had too much of a sense of familial duty) who showed more than a cursory interest in him. His final year at university became a whirlwind after he met Victor, especially after cocaine became a regular ritual between the two of them, at little cost to Sherlock through Victor's connections. The drug replaced escaping through John—he no longer needed an imaginary friend’s support to survive the way the world tried to crush him. The cocaine made him comfortably isolated, his mind moving faster than ever with no regard to the way others saw and treated him.
He told Victor about John, he remembered, one night after they were coming down from a high born of both the chemical and physical. Victor laughed, called him a nutter, and eventually fell asleep while Sherlock lay beside him, a brief panic enveloping him as he made the decision to delete John for good, since wasn't this better? A real person? He'd fallen asleep much later, feeling empty in a way he did not understand.
Obviously the deletion hadn't worked as well as he'd hoped then, though now, quite far from twenty-two, he didn't mind all that much. He'd gotten on just fine (well, at least after he quit cocaine, if he listened to Mycroft—which he did not) even if Victor had dropped him as soon as he'd graduated, his "rebellious" phase apparently over, and surely Sherlock understood? That he needed to go out and be an adult now, and that meant putting their silly romance to rest. He'd told Victor the truth, that his father had threatened to cut him off of his rather substantial inheritance if he didn't "shape up," and Victor flustered, called him a freak (though Victor was the liar, not him), and walked out of his life.
Now, he supposed he had everything he'd ever wanted, if one ignored the tedious amount of boredom that he suffered through between interesting cases. But, he did have those cases, as well as a obliging sense of respect from Scotland Yard. He knew none of them really liked him, aside from perhaps DI Lestrade (in a similar way to John, he wanted the best for those he served). Thinking back to John, however, and all of the adventures he crafted around the two of them, he felt a mixture of nostalgia and something he supposed was regret.
(John would never abandon him like that.)
He wasn't sure how long he sat there on the floor in front of the bookcase in his new Baker Street flat, his mind going over all of his memories of the best friend he never had and rereading the book he'd all but memorized a week after he'd borrowed (stolen) it. It wasn't until Lestrade bounded up the steps with the news that the serial suicides had increased from three to four that he finally placed the book on the shelf, welcoming the distraction of the macabre, a world he understood all too well, from emotions he couldn't quite grasp the meaning of.
Later, as he sat in the back of an ambulance being looked over (harassed) by paramedics, he couldn't help but think of John. Over the sound of Lestrade shouting at him about his stupidity (same as bravery, wasn't it?) in following the cabbie here and nearly taking the pill (he was right, or at least mostly certain, so why the fuss?), he imagined that it wasn't Lestrade yelling, but rather John gently berating him, calling him an idiot but smiling all the same, because it really was brilliant what he'd done, wasn't it? And the cabbie hadn't suffered a burst aneurysm when Sherlock had confronted him, the excitement in the moment tipping his blood pressure just high enough to cause a massive bleed in his brain—no, no, if John had been there, he would have done something about it. He was excellent with a firearm, obviously, and well acclimated to violence, so of course he would have found a spot to watch everything, watch while Sherlock found out the last bits of data he needed and act if things went too far. And John's blasted moral compass would come in handy this time, since he wouldn't fire until he thought Sherlock might be in danger, which would give him just enough time to get everything he needed.
Sherlock would of course would put on a show of mild irritation that John had intervened, since he knew (more or less) that he had chosen the right pill, but would be secretly pleased that once again John had shown his reliability when danger struck.
After the case, they'd find some hole-in-the-wall restaurant (Sherlock knew of a Chinese restaurant near Baker Street that would work perfectly) and talk about who the mysterious Moriarty the cabbie mentioned could be before walking back home together.
Instead, thought Sherlock as he finally placated Lestrade enough to let him leave, promising (and mostly meaning it) that he'd be by the station tomorrow, he'd be skipping dinner and bouncing ideas off the skull on the mantel, alone in the dark flat.
He played out the Chinese restaurant scenario with John to himself the entire trip home.
A few months later, and Sherlock was playing his violin to the walls and furniture, Mrs. Hudson having confiscated the skull a few weeks ago. The music varied from frantic to subdued, his fingers moving on their own without much conscious input. He desperately needed to keep his body occupied, his mind threatening to self-destruct and he really didn't need the extra support from idle hands at the moment.
Most times, immediately after finishing a case he had a grace period, a brief time when the adrenaline from the finish lingered on to prevent the start of boredom from seeping in. This was different, though.
It wasn't as if he'd failed—on the contrary, he'd solved the Chinese smuggling case in quite a spectacular fashion (and really, the fact that it might have been at the last possible second didn't bother him all that much, since the thrill of it did him wonders). Rather, it was returning to that abominable Sebastian Wilkes to let him in on what exactly was going on at his bank. Sherlock hadn't wanted his money (he was doing all right for himself, even by Mycroft's standards), but he did want to show off, show that wanker that he could do was in fact extraordinary and rather beneficial to idiots like Wilkes.
He always missed something.
Wilkes, instead of looking on in awe, merely laughed. He was bloody amused by the whole thing, saying it brought back fond memories of their time together in uni. He actually had the audacity to tell Sherlock he was happy to help him "get off," since he was still the same old lonely freak, wasn't he? Still just a boy who preferred the company of his books and experiments and corpses more so than actual people. At times like these, Sherlock could normally think of retorts faster than he could even say them, but this time nothing came. He stood there for a few minutes, numb, while Sebastian tucked his check into Sherlock’s pocket and walked away, still laughing to himself.
Sherlock added an angry flourish to the mindless series of notes he created and flung the instrument down onto the sofa onto the shreds of the check he'd torn up upon returning to Baker Street. He paced over to the window, staring out at nothing. Getting like this was unusual for him nowadays, and it was the fact that Sebastian had been able to dig so deep with his taunting that really upset him. Sherlock told himself that it was just the fact that he'd known Sebastian at a more vulnerable time in his life, and that it was those memories that bothered him now. That was only part of it, though. Ever since he'd found that blasted book when he'd moved in, there had been thoughts of John and how things would be different if he were here. If he had been here, he could have shown that dolt Wilkes that despite what he'd always believed, not everyone despised being around him. John would actually like it—and John would agree with him about Wilkes's idiocy, and Sherlock didn't think it would be all that terrible complaining about someone like that when you weren't alone doing it.
He flung his hands to his hair, mussing and pulling. This had to stop—he couldn't go on like this, comparing his life to one of fiction that was never going to actually happen. He couldn't afford to get into moods over this with all of the other reasons he had. It was affecting his mind, and it was only a matter of time before it started affecting his concentration on cases.
A thought struck him, and before he could change his mind, he took John's book from the bookcase and threw it in the bin (and good riddance). He tied up the bag and brought it outside, slamming the door on his way out and back in. If he'd deleted John once, he could do it again, and now he wouldn't have the book to remind him.
He picked up the violin once again, playing well into the early morning hours.
The smell of chlorine was nearly overpowering when Sherlock entered the natatorium where Carl Powers died all those years ago. If Sherlock weren’t physically humming with anticipation at the meeting that was to take place, he might think it eerie to be the only one in sight (though certainly not the only one there—that he knew). He took the memory stick that he'd promised Moriarty out from his pocket.
"Brought you a little getting-to-know-you present. Oh, that’s what it’s all been for, hasn’t it? All your little puzzles; making me dance – all to distract me from this." He held the stick up and walked in a small circle, enabling whoever might be watching him to see that he'd followed through. He whirled over to the direction of the changing stalls at the sound of faint footsteps.
Though Sherlock hadn't known anything about Moriarty's physical appearance other than the incredibly vague comment about having a "soft voice," the man he now saw before him still managed to surprise him. Considerably shorter than him, dark blonde hair, dark eyes (though from this distance and with this lighting, color undetermined), and oddly enough wearing a heavy parka even with the humidity of the room. The fact that the man looked as though he was caught between contained terror and bewilderment was perhaps the most unusual thing, though. Sherlock was hoping his friend (of sorts) would have been just as excited to see him.
The man's voice held a slight tremor, and Sherlock honestly had no idea how his voice could be considered "soft."
"This is a turn-up, isn’t it . . . Sherlock?"
There was no force behind the words spoken, and Sherlock started to feel a bit funny. Because the man in front of him . . . "You're not Moriarty." It was like the other kidnapping victims; Moriarty was still using someone else's voice.
"Oh, good show. Still, thought you could have been a bit quicker. John and I here do set our expectations up so high." The man looked down, as if to calm himself, and then back up.
Sherlock was silent for a moment, his breath catching before he forced himself to stay calm. Moriarty must have been watching him, must have found the book and then found someone to fill the role of John. In order to wear him down? Show his superiority? (Emotions are a weakness, after all.) Mustn't let that happen. He kept his face blank.
"And mine of you are dropping considerably, so unless you feel like showing up as yourself anytime soon, I feel that I'm done here." Sherlock put the flash drive back into his coat pocket, his fingers brushing the gun he'd nicked from Lestrade.
The fake John (because the real John didn't exist, obviously) didn't say anything in return, but instead slowly unzipped the heavy jacket. (Stupid, stupid!) There was a considerable amount of semtex underneath, though John's hands remained steady. He'd been distracted—as the fifth pip, he should have known there would be more to it than just a puppet voice.
"You'd leave Johnny here to die, would you? Because I can stop him. Stop his heart." As if his voice alone powered it, a red dot appeared on John's chest. "Just like Carl Powers. Sweet, choosing the place he died for us to meet." His voice didn't shake this time, but there was no inflection of anger. Just something along the lines of sadness in his eyes.
"We both know what you're trying to do here, and I'm surprised you're sentimental enough to think that might work." He pulled his eyes away from John, feeling uncomfortable looking back despite the fact that he knew he was a fake. "Now, who are you?"
"I gave you my number. I thought you might call." A different voice, coming from the other end of the pool, belonging this time to an impeccably dressed man (Westwood). This time, the face and voice clicked.
"Jim from IT, Molly's boyfriend." Despite the circumstances, he couldn't help but be impressed. He'd never given a second thought to Jim.
"Dreadfully boring role, but necessary—you're a worthwhile study, Sherlock Holmes." The look he gave him was almost predatory, but it casually morphed into one of casual indifference as he looked at John, who'd been silent since Moriarty entered the room. There must have been some sort of earpiece that Jim communicated to him with. "Another dull one here. Don't know what you found so fascinating about him." Jim wandered over to John as he spoke and caressed his face. John flinched, which was rewarded with a slap that reverberated throughout the wide room. John didn't react this time.
"Pets. Mine never lasted." Moriarty smirked and focused his attention back to Sherlock.
"I've never met him, you know."
"Oh, I know." He walked closer, skirting the edge of the water and changing the subject as he went along. "I’ve given you a glimpse, Sherlock, just a teensy glimpse of what I’ve got going on out there in the big bad world. I’m a specialist, you see ..." Moriarty put on a look of exaggerated surprise. "Like you!"
The pieces started rapidly fitting together in Sherlock's brain. “Dear Jim. Please will you fix it for me to get rid of my lover’s nasty sister?” Encouraged by Moriarty's near childlike-grin, he continued. “Dear Jim. Please will you fix it for me to disappear to South America?” He couldn't help but feel, despite the situation, a deep sense of admiration. "You're a consulting criminal. Brilliant." He pretended not to notice how John's face fell.
"It is, isn't it? I don't think the good doctor here would agree, though."
Sherlock wondered how Moriarty knew John's reaction while staring at him, but knowing that he himself would likely have been able to figure it out based on other cues, he wasn't surprised that Jim had been able to. He was more curious, however, about why Moriarty kept bringing John into the conversation—and not just his hostage, but the very man that Sherlock had essentially created from a poorly written children's novel? Moriarty couldn't possibly know the extent of what he imagined.
"You can let him go. This is between us." He took the memory stick back out from his pocket and twiddled it between his thumb and pointer finger to emphasize the point. "No one else needs to die."
"That's what people DO." The last words were practically screamed at Sherlock, though there was only a few meters between them. Jim Moriarty, it seemed, had a volatile side right underneath his sleek exterior. The game needed to be played carefully. Moriarty's face was once again faux-playful almost immediately.
"He's served his purpose, and while I'm sure you understand my love of the occasional dramatics, I think it's time the two of us discussed why exactly I'm here."
"Oh, Sherlock, can't you see it?" Moriarty closed the distance between them to take the memory stick. "All of these little puzzles I've had you dancing for? They're for you. Just for you. Because I know more than anyone how much you like to dance." He kissed the stick and flung it into the pool (perhaps this man was more dramatic than he was). "I could have gotten those missile plans anywhere, darling."
Sherlock, apparently, was the only one taken off guard when John decided to lunge at Moriarty, one arm around his neck and the other wrapping around his chest. John looked stoic yet serious (almost like a soldier), while Moriarty continued smiling, as if this was all a part of his plan.
"Sherlock, you need to run. NOW."
But Sherlock found that his body was working far slower than his mind. He registered the very opposite nature of the two men before him, but as to why this stranger would try to ridiculously swap his life for his own, he had no idea. Unless . . .
"I'm serious, Sherlock, just—”
John's words cut out as he suddenly went tense and released Moriarty, raising his hands. Sherlock could easily deduce that he currently had his own red dot hovering somewhere over his body. He could feel the weight of the gun in his pocket, and for the first time that evening, he seriously thought about the possibility that he might need to use it.
"You’ve rather shown your hand there, Dr. Watson." Moriarty laughed again. "Sherlock, dear, I'm going to continue the fun and give you a choice. You can walk out of the room with either myself or Johnny here. You choose me, we talk and finish the game in a spectacular fashion. Haven't quite decided how yet." The desire in his eyes was searing. "Or you leave with Dr. Watson, because I know how curious you are. But never fear—we will be meeting again. I will ensure it." Again, Moriarty had trailed off far chillier than he'd began, and Sherlock didn't miss the fact that the hostage's (John Watson's) survival was never mentioned in the first option. And now, Moriarty was right—he needed to know, desperately, if the seemingly impossible had happened. If he, Sherlock, understood Moriarty more than anyone, it was only rational it went both ways. What Moriarty would gain from having him spend time with John went beyond him, though, and as annoying as it was, he knew there was no way to hide that fact from him.
Jim could tell the moment things were settled in Sherlock’s mind, and, as expected, seemed thrilled by the idea.
"I'll be calling soon, Sherlock. Don't forget about me now, darling." He bowed and walked backwards into the changing stall that John had emerged from. Sherlock knew that Jim would realize the moment he decided to use the gun, and with the curiosity beginning to burn within him, he couldn't risk losing John (or himself) now.
Sherlock waited an obligatory ten seconds after Moriarty's footsteps faded before racing to John's side. The supposed army doctor (because that's what he was, wasn't he) looked relieved, though still wary, his eyes sweeping the dark balcony above before assessing Sherlock. He, however, focused only on the man in front of him, confident in Moriarty's promise.
"Are you all right?" he asked as he shoved John's arms out from the heavy coat. With Moriarty gone, John had started to tremble. He was silent, apparently too absorbed in studying Sherlock for himself. However, with the knowledge that he himself was fine, Sherlock had no patience for John’s curiosity. "Are you all right, John?" he asked more forcefully.
"I'm fine, yeah. Fine."
Though apparently not exactly fine, as he wobbled a bit as Sherlock finally got the bloody bomb off him and swept it as far down the pool deck as possible. Sherlock leaned John against the nearest wall, keeping a gentle but steady grip on his upper arms.
"Really, I am fine. No need to worry." He closed his eyes for a moment, apparently to work on controlling his breathing. He didn't shake off Sherlock's grip, which Sherlock took as permission to stay just where he was. By the time he opened his eyes, John’s shakes had ceased and he looked considerably calmer.
"So you're really Sherlock Holmes, then?"
"So it would seem." Had the situation been a bit different, lighter, he would have chastised John for being so obvious—Jim had used his name several times—but the fact that he could actually do that caused a giddiness to well up inside him. John frowned, concerned, and Sherlock could only imagine what his face looked like right now.
"We apparently have much to discuss, Dr. Watson." He paused, considering. "Dinner?"
John smiled himself. "John is fine. And I’m starved. Being a madman's hostage doesn't exactly have many perks."
It was utterly absurd (and perfect) and Sherlock was laughing before he could stop himself, and John joined in after a moment. It didn't last. The air caught in his throat as he heard Moriarty's voice again.
"Did I say you'd be walking out of here? That may have been poor word choice on my part."
Sherlock couldn't tell what happened first, him hitting the tile floor or the dulled sound of a bullet entering flesh, and it took him another moment to realize it wasn't his flesh the bullet had pierced.
"John." He flipped the man over onto the floor, noticing the bright red patch seeping through the sleeve of the cranberry cardigan he wore. He dimly registered Moriarty's "see you later" and chuckle as the consulting criminal left for presumably the last time that day, focused instead on the intense relief that the wound wasn't somewhere more vital. John was once again breathing hard and was becoming diaphoretic, and only made a pained noise when Sherlock dug the heel of his fist into the epicenter of the blood stain.
"You idiot." The word fell easily enough from his lips this time. "It wouldn’t have been a vital hit, he can’t kill me yet, you stupid—" (brave)
"You're welcome. Call 999, yeah?"
"No." John gripped Sherlock's unoccupied arm with his good one. He took a long blink. "Just—please don't. I know it's insane, but—" He closed his eyes again, wincing this time. "I didn't even think you were real until maybe three hours ago. I don't want to wake up and . . ." The sentence ended, John seemingly unsure of how to phrase the feelings running through him. Sherlock, for all the trouble he normally had with this sort of deduction, understood perfectly this time.
"I don't need you leaving either. Christ, could you stop bleeding already?" He'd meant to sound light, but the words hadn't formed that way. John still smiled lightly.
"Trying my best. Phone?"
Sherlock spurred into action, whipping out his phone and making the call, all while keeping the pressure on the wound and his eyes locked on John's. The Chinese would have to be postponed (again), but he knew he and John would make it there eventually. Might as well get to know each other in hospital, with how life was going to be from now on (exactly as imagined). He knew they needed to plan and work out some way to confront Moriarty again, because this injury, being John's, was unacceptable. The gun wouldn't be kept hidden next time. Whatever plan Moriarty had, there was no one better to thwart it than Sherlock Holmes—and really, with John Watson by his side, it was practically guaranteed.
He had more questions than answers, even more so than when he came to the pool, but with the blood ebbing under pressure (didn't hit brachial artery—actually quite superficial), he couldn't remember feeling happier.