brighteyedjill: Bones is pensive (Sherlock: S&J Blah blah blah)
[personal profile] brighteyedjill
Title: The Golden Key (Ice Melt Remix)
Pairing: John/Sherlock
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: discussion of murder, violence, and brief recollections of war (on par w/ the show)
Word count: ~7,000
Beta/Britpick Team: [ profile] not_a_cypher, [ profile] jaune_chat and An Anonymous Benefactor
Author’s Note: Written for the [ profile] sherlock_remix challenge 2011, and based on [ profile] sprl1199’s story Frozen.
Summary: The current case involves a dead maid, a rumour of ghosts, and a quickly worsening head cold, but none of that troubled John so much as the troublesome patterns he began to notice in the way Sherlock dealt with death.

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Death is the golden key that opens the palace of eternity. – John Milton


John Watson did not consider himself a morbid man. If he thought often of death, the tendency could be excused by the necessities of his profession: first a doctor, then a soldier, and now personal blogger and occasional bodyguard to the world’s only consulting detective.

Recently John hadn’t so much been considering Death—the great beyond, the eternal question—so much as one death in particular. Even the death currently under investigation (one Billie Kirwan, a 24-year-old maid who had worked and died at a posh house in Hampstead) did not gnaw at the edge of John’s consciousness as did the idea of one specific death: the clearly impending demise of Sherlock Holmes.

“You did ask for that, you realise,” John said as he closed the door of the flat.

“I did no such thing,” Sherlock huffed. He tugged ineffectually at his sopping wet shirt with one hand and texted furiously with the other. “You can’t blame me for being out of sorts. Usually when someone charges into the flat inviting me to a crime scene, that person is more-- “

“Lestrade?” John offered.

“Yes, precisely.”

“You can hardly blame Sally for not being Lestrade. If you could just make a little effort to hide your disdain for the whole human race-- "

“Why should I?” Sherlock stabbed at the keys of his mobile with his right hand, whilst trying to unbutton his shirt with his left. “In my own home.”

“It’s my home, too,” John pointed out. “And if Sergeant Donovan throwing tea at you is likely to result in your being more polite to company in the future, I say she’s welcome to do so.”

Sherlock stopped midtext to fix John with a pointed look. “Do you think this experience is likely to mend me?”

“No. Not at all. I did find it entertaining, though.” And in fact, John always enjoyed seeing a rare expression of surprise on Sherlock’s face.

Sherlock gave a noncommittal grunt and returned to texting. “Help me off with this, will you?” He plucked at the centre of the massive splash pattern on his once dark blue shirt.

John caught a glimpse of pale skin at Sherlock’s waist as his fussing pulled the fabric above his trousers, and he quickly averted his eyes. Lingering on such a pleasant distraction would only guarantee John would lose this argument more quickly than normal. Instead, he said, “Now you’re such an infant that I’m in charge of dressing you?”

Undressing, John. Undressing.” Sherlock’s fingers paused over his mobile for half a breath, then resumed at double-time. “You’re always telling me it’s not good to sit around in wet clothes.”

“Yes, but--.” John stopped himself. Sherlock had been nursing a bit of a sniffle the past few days, and it wouldn’t do to let Sherlock drive himself into a proper cold with overwork; he made an utterly insufferable patient. Besides, John meant to encourage any hint of self-preservation that Sherlock showed. “Fine.”

Sherlock stretched an arm out obligingly, and John stepped over to the mantel next to him. He undid the offered cuff, then moved on to the slightly sticky buttons on the front. John tried to work by feel, pointedly not looking at the pale length of chest appearing under his hands, but instead focussing on Sherlock’s fingers dancing over the mobile. Watching Sherlock’s fingers turned out not to be a very innocent distraction, however, so he said, “Seems rather a long text.”

“If I must be subjected to the annoyance that is Sergeant Donovan, I can at least ensure that Lestrade shares my annoyance.”

“Does he really deserve a novel on the subject?”

“Your blog’s not exactly succinct, you know.” Sherlock turned away from his mobile to regard John. They were standing really quite close.

John’s fingers pushed the last button through the damp fabric. Sherlock executed a quick shrug and a fluid turn that involved switching his mobile from one hand to the other. John was left holding the dirty shirt and regarding a half-naked Sherlock who had returned his attention to his texting.

“Fetch me another shirt, and we can leave.”

“Sherlock-- "

“Right, you’ll need more guidance than that on a clothing-related errand. There’s a charcoal grey shirt hanging up in the right side of my wardrobe. Bring it here. Oh, and put some Woolite on the other before the stain sets.”

John opened his mouth to defend his dignity or perhaps his fashion sense, but quickly decided that he had no hope of winning an argument with a shirtless Sherlock. John did mostly as he was bid, though instead of the requested shirt, he brought back a shirt of a vaguely brownish hue and a thick fabric suited to keeping the spring damp at bay.

When John returned, he tossed the shirt to Sherlock, who caught it without looking. Sherlock somehow managed to shrug it on without letting go of his mobile. Then he strode over to John and stood waiting expectantly.

As John buttoned up the shirt, he tried not to think about whether the sugar in Sally’s tea had soaked through the fabric and clung to Sherlock’s skin. He finished the buttons as quickly as his uncooperative fingers would allow. On the last button, John’s traitorous hand forewent its task completely and instead pressed against the tempting skin of Sherlock’s throat.

Sherlock’s gaze snapped to John immediately. John snatched his fingers away, and in a flash of inspiration, pressed the back of his hand against Sherlock’s forehead. John’s mouth curved into a frown to match Sherlock’s.

“Why didn’t you tell me you’d got a fever?” John demanded.

“It’s not as bad as all that.” Sherlock stepped neatly away from John, pivoted on his heel, and made a show of buttoning his cuffs.

“Your voice sounds terrible.” Now that John’s suspicions had been aroused, Sherlock’s baritone did sound more scratchy than rumbly. “Have you a sore throat as well?”

“I’d have some tea, but recent events have put me right off it.” Sherlock snatched his coat off the back of the sofa.

“Take something before we go traipsing all over the Heath.” John made a beeline to bar the exit. “You’ll never show Sally up if you collapse at a crime scene.”

“I’m hardly at the point of collapse.” Sherlock flung his scarf about his neck while managing to tilt his chin at the maximum angle of imperiousness.

“If you won’t have a care for your own health, at least think of the case. You might contaminate the crime scene with germs.”

Sherlock sucked in a deeply affronted breath. “I would never.” He made another attempt on the door, but John stood his ground, causing Sherlock to draw up short and loom over him, bare inches away.

“We are not leaving,” John said crisply, “Until you’re dosed with cough syrup.”

“Must you be so tedious?” Sherlock took three steps back into the room. A series of coughs rumbled through his chest, but he ducked his head and kept them behind his teeth.

“You’re not fooling anyone,” John said. He crossed his arms over his chest.

“Lestrade’s sending Sergeant Donavan to fetch me to the crime scene means that the matter is urgent. Every moment we delay is another moment the killer goes free.”

John ignored the blatant attempt at manipulation and reminded himself of the time he’d let Sherlock run around after a group of smugglers while nursing a case of acute tonsillitis. The result hadn’t been pleasant for anyone involved. “Transport’s no good if it stops working, you realise.”

“Very well.” Sherlock stormed into the bathroom, wrenched open the cupboard, and stared with widening eyes at the neatly arranged rows of supplies. He turned back to John, managing to look almost meek. “Where is it kept?”

By the time John and Sherlock arrived at Cunningham House, the body had been taken away. John had to endure twenty painful minutes of acute pouting, including more than a dozen variations on the theme of “if you hadn’t unnecessarily delayed me at the flat, we’d have arrived in time.” He reminded John of nothing so much as a child who’d been denied a long-awaited treat, and John wondered at the fact that in Sherlock’s life the treat was—or would have been—a corpse.

Sherlock settled, quite grudgingly, for purloining the crime scene tech’s camera and viewing the images digitally. The intense concentration Sherlock usually devoted to examining a body poured instead into the camera’s viewscreen. John couldn’t recall the last time Sherlock had looked at him with half as much attention. Death, it seemed, had far more appeal than a nagging flatmate like John could muster.

Sherlock counted a day well spent if he could flirt with death, cheat it, or snatch away its prey. He seemed to take extra pleasure in following wherever it led, and John had yet to see Sherlock run from death. Sherlock had a way of crawling into bed with death, whispering in its ear, learning every inch of it with the tips of his fingers, teasing out its secrets and—sod off, John would not be jealous of murder victims.

“Poor girl landed right at the bottom of the stairs. Head smashed in,” the tech was saying. “Wasn’t much blood to clean up.”

“Hm,” Sherlock said absently. “Yes.”

“What’s the matter, freak? Not interesting enough if there’s no body to gawk at?”

John looked over to see Donovan barring the hallway to the rest of the house, presumably where she’d gathered the available family members.

“Sergeant,” Sherlock said without looking up. “I suppose you’ve already mislabelled this as a burglary.”

Donovan narrowed her eyes at Sherlock and snatched the camera out of his hands. “It was a burglary.”

“Mm,” Sherlock said, a response no doubt calculated to rile Donovan more than a proper rebuttal would have done.

“You care to run your wild theories past me before you offend the poor witnesses with them?”

“No.” Sherlock swept past Donovan with his fist to his mouth to cover a poorly timed coughing fit.

Watching him go, Donovan seemed in danger of shattering her teeth, they were clenched so hard.

“He wasn’t laughing,” John said quickly.

“Of course,” Donovan said, with a stiff nod in John’s direction. She stalked off after Sherlock.

“He is actually ill,” John muttered.

John didn’t precisely regret making Sherlock stop for medicine, but he couldn’t help but feel that he was being punished somehow for the delay. He spent most of the morning unruffling feathers: first Donovan’s, then the Cunninghams’, the family who lived in the house and had employed the victim. At last, John decided an intervention might improve Sherlock’s chances of ever again being invited to a crime scene.

“Did you say you needed to speak to the neighbours?” he said as Sherlock strode into the study pursuing Edgar Cunningham, the already-fuming family patriarch who had just arrived home.

“Have done. Now, Mr. Cunningham-- “

“When?” John interrupted.

“I believe you were occupied, taking tea with the younger Mrs. Cunningham.” Sherlock wrinkled his nose in irritation at the delay.

“Yes,” John said quickly. Of course. John had spent what seemed like an hour trying to soothe the highly nervous wife of Edgar Cunningham, who Sherlock had manage to terrorize three-quarters of the way to tears with a rapid-fire series of questions about her husband’s work habits and romantic inclinations. “In fact, she told me something interesting about the young woman’s room.”

“Really?” Sherlock’s attention slid off Edgar to fix on John.

From down the hallway, John heard a muffled groan as Donovan came around the corner and spotted Sherlock standing so near to the family patriarch, doubtlessly poised to offend. She started towards them at full speed.

John dangled his bait a bit further. “Yes, it’s probably nothing, but I thought I’d take a look all the same.”

“Hm.” Sherlock tossed a look over his shoulder at the scowling Mr. Cunningham. “I’m done with you for the time being. Lead on, John.”

John quickly shooed Sherlock towards the back stairs, neatly dodging the approaching sergeant.

As they tromped up to the victim’s attic room, John found his leg twingeing in protest. The servants’ staircase was steep and narrow, and the damp spring weather always made him achy. Whatever supposedly psychosomatic pain he was experiencing surely hadn’t been helped by a morning of cleaning up Sherlock’s social messes.

“I could have come up on my own,” Sherlock said softly. “You needn’t have come with me.”

“I’ll manage,” John said. He was surprised that Sherlock would even notice his discomfort, much less offer to make accommodations. Still, resentment prickled at that bubble of satisfaction. “Besides, I have no interest in staying down there and listening to Donovan tell me what a nuisance you are. I’m not in the mood to defend you.”

“I’m perfectly capable of defending myself, thank you.”

“That’s the problem.” John resisted the urge to stomp his feet on each step; instead, he set each foot down deliberately as he climbed at his own pace. “You’re not making your job any easier, you know. Or mine, for that matter.”

“How so?”

“By being wretched to the family, not to mention Sally.”

“Yes, please don’t mention her.”

“Don’t be flip,” John said sharply. “You’re meant to be brilliant, not just clever.”

“What should it matter? You put up with me regardless.”

“Perhaps I shouldn’t.”

“Why do you?”

John chanced a look over his shoulder at Sherlock, who seemed to be genuinely puzzled. “Sherlock, that’s not the point.” He kept climbing.

John didn’t, in fact, have a proper explanation for why he put up with Sherlock. He considered himself a fairly astute observer of human behaviour, and certainly compared to his flatmate, he was a bloody virtuoso of emotional comprehension. He knew Sherlock didn’t—couldn’t—relate to the world the same way he did. Sherlock had always been more comfortable around the dead than the living, and it hadn’t bothered John overmuch in the past, because he’d felt certain that Sherlock enjoyed his company too.

Now, however, he was starting to wonder if he was much more than a convenience to Sherlock. Sherlock seemed to be outdoing himself today in offending every single person with whom he came into contact, and nothing John had said or done seemed to make a damn bit of difference. He may as well try a more direct approach. “Would it kill you to make even one human interaction out of ten something other than torture for the other person?”

Sherlock stopped on the step below John, putting them at almost equal height. “Do you feel tortured, John?”

“No,” he said grudgingly. Unless death by unresolved sexual tension was considered torture.

“Good then.” Sherlock squeezed past John to dash up the last few stairs. “My next nine interactions are free.”


Sherlock paused with his hand on the door and turned halfway back, not quite looking at John. “I can only work in my own way, John. If you had to choose, you would ultimately prefer that I solve the case rather than that I be polite to a house full of strangers, and so I will go about my business.” He threw open the door to the murdered girl’s room and charged inside. “Now, what about this room is meant to be ‘interesting?’” he called back.

John took his time hobbling up to the final landing and then leaned against the doorjamb. “Can’t you tell?” he asked, allowing only a hint of smugness to colour his tone.

“I know what’s interesting to me,” Sherlock clarified. “What I can’t predict is what someone like Delia Cunningham would deem interesting.”

“Strange.” John walked into the small room, taking in the brightly coloured bedclothes, the carelessly jumbled contents of the jewellery box, the posters of film stars. “I wouldn’t have thought from looking at the room.”

“Out with it, John.” Sherlock stopped his minute examination of the room to stare at John as if he could read the clue on his face.

John felt almost guilty. “The place is haunted,” he said.

“Haunted.” Sherlock said the word like a curse.


Sherlock regarded him for several silent seconds; John recognised the look of Sherlock sorting through explanations beyond the obvious. “You brought me up here to tell me about a rumour of supernatural activity.”

“Yes.” Or, more precisely, to give Sally a chance to prepare the rest of the family for Sherlock’s brand of human interaction before unleashing him on them again, but Sherlock needn’t know that.

“You said it was something interesting.” Sherlock seemed to be edging dangerously near a pout.

“I said interesting. I didn’t say relevant to the case.”

“Interesting,” Sherlock said again, drawing out the syllable as if testing a new word. “John, there is nothing less interesting than wild speculation. I never thought you a superstitious man.” The elegant lines of Sherlock’s face contorted into a woeful frown. “I know medicine’s not precisely a hard science, not like chemistry, but I wouldn’t have expected you to have such old-fashioned notions.”

“Hang on, I wouldn’t dismiss the idea so quickly if I were you,” John said. He had no vested interest in the idea of haunting, but he was curious to know if Sherlock’s obsession with death extended to the afterlife, and the possibilities thereof. And, if John were being honest with himself, he’d have to admit he enjoyed having a conversation to which Sherlock would actually devote more than a fraction of his attention. “Doesn’t it seem slightly more than coincidence that a maid should have been murdered here a hundred-odd years ago?”

“You are not me. That homicide has nothing to do with this one. They weren’t killed in the same way, or even in the same part of the house.”

“How do you know so much about it?” John asked. His eyes darted around the room, hunting for any clue Sherlock could have used to deduce such a thing. The arrangement of purple pens on the desk? The citrus fruit on the table by the bed? The birds perched in the tree outside the window?

“A street musician told me the local legend. Then I did a few searches. The information was quite easy to find.”

“A street musician?” John asked. He hadn’t thought his tea with Mrs. Cunningham had gone on quite long enough for Sherlock to question all the neighbours and also take in a bit of music, but then again, if one didn’t have to allot time to social niceties, such things could probably get done in much less time.

“Outside the gates, yes,” Sherlock said absently. He picked up one of the cuddly toy cats from on top of the bed, turned it over in his hand, and put it down again. “A fiddler.”

“A fiddler.” John allowed himself a small smile. “Did he give you any other tips?”

“Such as?” Sherlock looked searchingly at John, as if expecting another clue.

“Perhaps something about music. From what I’ve heard, you could use a few pointers.”

Sherlock drew his spine up quite straight and twirled towards the window. “The ghost story is simply that: a story. Local folklore is hardly likely to provide any concrete leads in the case. I’d have thought my methods might have rubbed off on you a bit more.”

John drifted closer to Sherlock, half-sorry now that he’d succeeded in baiting his friend. Sherlock listened to John the way he listened to no one else, except perhaps the dead. It didn’t feel right to take advantage of that trust, no matter how frustrated John felt. He readied a sort of apology. “You’re always saying that once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains-- “

“Yes I know,” Sherlock snapped. “But I haven’t finished eliminating the impossible yet, so I don’t see why you should be going on about ghosts.” He waved a hand at the window. “Next you’ll be telling me that the croaking of the ravens drove her mad, and she bludgeoned her own head and dived off the stairs herself.”

“I don’t really think it’s a ghost,” John muttered.

“No. Of course.” Sherlock glanced over his shoulder at John for a moment: an unreadable, casual look, then slid away from the window to walk the room’s perimeter. “They say she was stuffed up the chimney.”


“The maid who was murdered in 1841. The killer strangled her and stuffed her up the chimney.” Sherlock drew one long-fingered hand across the stone of the mantelpiece, almost lovingly. “Why attempt to hide the body in that way? He must have known it would be discovered.”

“I thought that case wasn’t relevant any longer.”

“It’s not. Of course it’s not. But it is a mystery.” Sherlock touched the fireplace stone once more, and John could almost see the physical connection that drew him to the questions of who how why. Even a death this old captured Sherlock’s attention easily, drawing him in with the promise of adventure, of stimulation. “I don’t need ghosts to explain human depravity.”

“And I’m not willing to rule out something just because I can’t explain it,” John said.

“No, no, that would lead to ruling out far too many things.” The corners of Sherlock’s mouth quirked into a smile, softening the jab.

“‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy?’”

“Hm. Perhaps.” Sherlock’s eyes lingered on John with the weight of something unspoken before jumping back to the fireplace. “But ghosts, John? Is that really what you think happens when we die?”

John knew better than to start a theological argument with Sherlock, so he asked, “What do you think happens?”

“Insufficient data.” Sherlock waved a hand impatiently. “No point in speculating. I must make a study of it sometime.”

A hard-edged lump of something cold turned over in John’s belly. “A study of what happens after death?”

“Yes. It would make a fascinating topic.”

“Oh.” John kept himself breathing even as his stomach clenched in panic at the thought of Sherlock moving even one step closer to death from where he stood now, already far too close to the abyss. John had seen a death wish before: in the manic grin of an arsonist they’d chased last year, in the grief-stricken face of a Pashtun man whose wife and infant son had been killed in a street bombing, in the eyes of his father pouring out the last of a bottle. John had been too far away to see Sherlock’s face when he’d held a possibly poisoned pill to his mouth, and he hadn’t been there at all when Sherlock made the decision to face Moriarty, but such actions were not the behaviour of a man who feared death. One day, though, Sherlock was going to follow it too closely; John didn’t like to think of Sherlock making that leap willingly. “Not too soon, I hope.”

“No, I’ve other things on at the moment.” Sherlock picked up a stack of loose papers from the desk and leafed through them. “In any case, the forensic application would be limited. Still, the results might help with-- " He broke off and groped in his pocket for a hanky. He brought it up just in time to cover his mouth for the beginning of a spectacular coughing fit. Each cough tore through Sherlock’s throat with a thick, wet sound. When Sherlock dropped the handkerchief, John caught a glimpse of vivid red against the white. Sherlock straightened immediately, as if he hadn’t just been doubled over in pain. “I’ve seen what I needed to.”

“You need to go home and rest,” John said. Preferably with a stop at the surgery so Sarah could confirm his diagnosis and prescribe Sherlock some proper antibiotics. He went to the desk to take Sherlock by the arm and steer him out of the house. “It’s not normal for a bug to progress this quickly.”

“Yes, yes. After this is wrapped up.” Sherlock shrugged him off. He took one of the papers he’d been fussing with on the desk and stuffed it into his pocket just as the sound of approaching footsteps echoed from the corridor.

“Be nice,” John hissed through his teeth as Alec Cunningham appeared in the doorway.

He glanced quickly between Sherlock and John. “My father said you’d gone upstairs.”

“And so we did. But we’ve finished up here.” Sherlock sidestepped John and went for the door. As he did, he bumped into a small table next to the bed, sending the bowl of clementines on top tumbling and a water bottle thudding after them, splashing its contents across the floor.

“Hey!” John jumped back from the mess of fruit rolling through water, and Alec likewise retreated into the room, leaving the doorway clear.

“Doctor Watson, do be more careful,” Sherlock said sharply. He took one long-legged step over the puddle and was gone.

John gaped after Sherlock for a moment, then set his face into a polite smile and turned to Alec. “So sorry about that. It’s this old wound of mine from the service. Makes me clumsy sometimes. Have you got a towel?”

While Alec grudgingly fetched something to sop up the spilled water, John bent down to gather the citrus that seemed to have rolled into every corner of the little room. Alec returned with Donovan at his side, apologizing again for Sherlock’s behaviour. For once John was glad of her presence, as he didn’t feel particularly inclined to Sherlock’s defence. In fact, he found Alec and Donovan’s irritation a quite cathartic proxy.

John searched all over the house for more than an hour, stood in the garden calling Sherlock’s name for another five minutes or so, and briefly considered calling Mycroft to ask where Sherlock had last been seen on CCTV before he started to seriously entertain thoughts of returning to Baker Street on his own.

In doing one last sweep of the house, he came across Donovan in the kitchen, flipping through her notepad.

“I don’t suppose you’ve seen Sherlock?” he asked.

“Thankfully, no.” She looked up from her work and frowned at him. “Honestly, Doctor Watson, I don’t see why you keep on with him. I can’t imagine it’s much fun for you, being his whipping boy.”

“That’s not what I am,” John snapped. He bristled that Donovan would think that was the way things were between them; that wasn’t how he felt. Any sympathy he’d been harbouring for Donovan was rapidly draining away.

“No, I’m sorry, John. I only meant… Well, he seems to be as awful to you as he is to everyone else. You must be a bloody saint to put up with him day in and day out.”

John shrugged, somewhat mollified. Donovan wasn’t the best judge of Sherlock’s character, certainly, and John felt a twinge of sympathy for her, that she couldn’t see how truly delightful Sherlock could be. He glanced out the kitchen’s small, high window to the street. “Do you think we should be concerned? He’s been gone more than an hour.”

“The only concern I have is whether or not Lestrade’s going to chuck him out into the street when he shows up. I’d prefer he did.”

“You called Lestrade?” John asked, more sharply than he’d meant to.

“Had to. After Sherlock questioned the elder Mrs. Cunningham, she demanded to talk to my supervisor.” Donovan’s lip curled, as if she’d tasted something unpleasant. “You needn’t think I go running to Lestrade every time Sherlock pulls my pigtails.”

“No, I didn’t mean-- “

“So when you do see Sherlock, pin him down somewhere so Lestrade can give him a good talking-to. Much good may it do both of them. Excuse me.” Donovan swept up her papers from the counter and strode off down the hall.

John again considered finding his own way home, but he rather liked DI Lestrade, and he wouldn’t wish anyone to get in the middle of a Sherlock vs. Donovan row without backup. More importantly, he doubted Sherlock’s health had spontaneously improved over the course of the afternoon, and if John didn’t insist on rest, Sherlock was all too likely to go on working through the night.

He stepped out into the back garden and the thin grey twilight. “Sherlock!” he called.

“No need to shout.” Sherlock appeared practically at his elbow, fiddling with something on his phone. “What do you know about maritime trade and smuggling?”

“Nothing. Next to nothing. I’ve been on a boat once or twice. Where have you been?” John took a quick look around the garden, but couldn’t see how he’d have missed Sherlock earlier.

“On the Heath,” Sherlock said. He brushed past John to pull open the door to the house. “Clearing my head.”

“You’ve been outside all this time?” John clenched his teeth as he followed Sherlock inside. Nothing aside from the case mattered. The body and its needs didn’t matter. If Sherlock gave such little consideration to the essential functions of the body: eating, sleeping, fighting off possible pneumonia, then how much less must he value the nonessential functions? Trivial things like the pleasure one body could bring another, or the subtle functioning of the heart that bred something more than collegial affection. “Sherlock, that’s not-- “

“I was thinking. Sometimes it’s necessary to do so away from certain…distractions.” He looked up from his phone to meet John’s eyes.

“So sorry to have disturbed your work,” John said acidly. “Come on.” He headed through the labyrinth of hallways and rooms towards the front door and was mildly surprised when Sherlock followed.

“Where are we going?” Sherlock asked.

“It’s late, you’re ill, and neither of us has eaten since this morning.” John pushed open the front door, thought about finding Donovan to say they were leaving, and decided he’d text her instead. He daren’t give either her or Sherlock a chance to argue. “Besides, Lestrade is on his way with the intention of taking you down a peg, and I’d rather not be here for that. We’re going home.”


John made it halfway down the front path before he realised the strangeness of that statement. He slowed down until Sherlock drew even with him. “You didn’t argue with me.”

“I don’t argue with everything you say,” Sherlock said, but he might have looked the tiniest bit guilty.

“If you say so.”

“I can be very agreeable,” Sherlock insisted as they passed through the gate.

John kept a wary eye on Sherlock as he raised his arm to hail a taxi, and muttered, “You must really be ill.”

After forcing soup and tea into Sherlock and encountering only token resistance, John handed Sherlock a half-full bottle of cough syrup and ordered him to bed. “If you feel worse during the night, come and wake me up,” he said.

“I’m not a child,” Sherlock said, but he took the medicine and an extra blanket from the sofa and retreated to his room without a fuss. John didn’t hear the violin, so he chose to assume that Sherlock was asleep, or at least resting.

Sleep was longer in coming to John, though he felt more than sufficiently tired from traipsing around a manor house all day. His shoulder and his leg both throbbed in time with his pulse, and when he thought of returning to the case tomorrow, with a still-unwell Sherlock and an increasingly irritated Donovan, he felt the beginnings of a headache stir behind his eyes. The clock was blinking the small hours before John finally drifted off.

He dreamt of Afghanistan. He stood inside a medical tent, but he knew the glare of the sun through canvas, and the gritty feel of his uniform even without seeing the desert. The tent was full of bodies laid out on cots, each one covered with a white sheet. John knew there’d been some kind of sickness going around that he hadn’t been able to cure. All these men had died because of his inability to protect them, as he’d sworn to do.

“Sherlock’s the only one who can solve this,” Lestrade said with a shake of his head, from where he stood beside John. “He’s making a study of it.”

Lestrade flipped down the sheet over the body on the nearest cot. Then the next one. And the next. Each one had the same face, the same dark, curly hair, and pale, pale skin.

John woke up to the sound of rain on his window. He could already feel the spring damp settling into his bones again. When he finally gathered the courage to drag himself out of bed, he found a note on his door.

Gone to Cunningham House. Meet me when convenient. –SH

John thought of the cold, pale corpses in his dream and wished, not for the first time, that Sherlock hadn’t gone ahead without him.

When John arrived at Cunningham House, Lestrade and Sally were waiting at the door, sheltering just out of the drizzle.

“I don’t suppose you’ve seen him,” John said as he approached.

“Just a five a.m. text.” Lestrade held up his phone. “And now he’s not answering his mobile.”

“Did you try texting him back?” John asked.

Lestrade returned a look that made John smile.

“Are you sure he even came here?” Sally asked.

“He left a note, which he never bothers doing,” John explained. “Even if he stopped for an errand, it took me ages to get here.”

“He must have solved it,” Lestrade said. “Perhaps he’s gathering some final evidence.”

“Or he’s off somewhere being strangled by the killer,” John said darkly.

“Let’s have a look around, then.” Lestrade flipped up the collar of his coat against the persistent damp wind and stepped out of the shelter of the entrance. “Sally, will you stay here in case he comes back? Perhaps check out the garden see if he’s lurking anywhere. Come on, John.”

The two men set off down the lane together. John hadn’t had much time to appreciate the neighbourhood yesterday, but he had to admit the place had a certain appeal: large overhanging trees beginning to bud, well-trimmed hedges in front of big old houses, pubs with tables optimistically set on the pavement. At this time of the morning, there wasn’t much sound beyond the patter of the rain and the crunch of two pairs of shoes on the pavement. Perhaps it was only last night’s dream, but John almost felt like he was out on patrol again, looking for survivors. Then Lestrade spoke, and John let the sense of the battlefield slip away.

“Sally tells me you were a great help yesterday.”

“Well. I can’t say I helped at all with the case.”

“You’re keeping my coppers from murdering our favourite consultant. That’s a help.”

John tried to keep his smile modest. “Good on you, taking a case off from him.”

“Trying to, anyway,” Lestrade said, and John laughed. “ You never get a day off.”

“No, but…” The fact that John wouldn’t want a day off from Sherlock was news to him and, he decided, best not shared with Lestrade. “At least he and Sally haven’t come to blows.”

“Near thing, sounds like,” Lestrade said. “Still, Sherlock might actually have it solved by the time he feels like being found.”

John spared a glance at the bleak sky and tried not to feel disappointed to be missing out on part of the case. He didn’t think he was imagining Sherlock’s keeping him at arm’s length this time. In the past day, John had begun to develop an appreciation for how Lestrade must feel: on the outside of Sherlock’s genius, begging for a glimpse of what lay within. “I’m sorry. I know his behaviour is-- “

“Much better, yes.”

“Pardon?” John found he’d stopped in the middle of the crossing, and he hurried to catch up with Lestrade. “He’s been terrorising Donovan and infuriating the witnesses.” Not to mention wandering around in the cold and damp for hours at a time, despite specific doctor’s order to the contrary.

“It takes more than a few cutting remarks from Sherlock Holmes to strike terror into Sally’s heart,” Lestrade said with a chuckle. “I thought she illustrated that rather cleverly by throwing a cup of hot tea at him.”

“Yes, but-- “

“And of course I’d prefer a bit more tact in dealing with witnesses, but at least now he refrains from sharing his clever observations that have no actual relevance to the case.”

“Yes, but-- “

“Furthermore, though I’m not happy to be tramping through the neighbourhood looking for him, I’m confident he’s hared off after a lead, and there’s no need to call in the drugs squad to find out if he’s… Well.”

“Yes.” John nodded slowly. “I hadn’t seen it in quite that light.”

“I’ve known him for five years, John.” Lestrade stopped at the corner to give John his full attention. “This is Sherlock making an effort. Has done since he’s had you as a flatmate, in fact. So when we find him, don’t go too hard on him, eh?”

“Yes. All right.”

“Good man.” Lestrade clapped John on the shoulder, then gestured down the road. “This will go faster if we split up. I’ll take the market down this end, you take the shops and restaurants over there?”


Making an effort. John considered the facts and had to concede that maybe he’d had the wrong perspective. Sherlock didn’t want to die. He chased death, perhaps had a bit of an unhealthy obsession with it, but he didn’t love it the way he loved his work. He squared off against death the same way he faced Moriarty: conscious of his foe’s weaknesses and of the trouble it could cause, and thrilled by the challenge it represented. John should have known better than to think that Sherlock would surrender, even to death. However, Sherlock, whose impulse control had always been poor, was all too likely to be seduced by death.

John peered into every shop and café he passed, though most of them were still closed at this early hour. He had no particular theory about where Sherlock had gone, and now that the hot irritation he’d been feeling had fled, a cold current of dread had taken its place. John began to step a little faster. He’d just passed a filthy alley and dismissed—for now—the idea of searching each skip, when he spotted a familiar coat wrapped around a slumped figure on the pavement next to a wrought iron gate.

“Sherlock!” John pounded across the road and dropped to his knees beside the prone figure. “Sherlock!”

Sherlock raised his head and looked up at John with half-lidded eyes. He looked awful: pale, with dark circles under his eyes, and a slightly reddened nose. He pressed his hand to his mouth and coughed violently for so long that John grabbed his mobile and had dialled two nines before Sherlock grabbed his wrist.

“I’m fine,” he rasped.

“You are decidedly not fine, Sherlock,” John said. “How long have you been out here? What happened to you?”

Sherlock coughed again, but subsided this time as soon as John’s phone hand twitched. “Don’t,” he said, but the scratchiness of his voice made it a feeble warning.

“Alright. Let’s get you off the pavement, at least.” John tugged Sherlock’s arm around his shoulders and dragged him upright.

“There’s a bench on the Heath,” Sherlock muttered.

John steered them through the little gate and onto the deserted Heath. Sure enough, a bench stood empty under a tree whose new leaves provided a little shelter from the persistent drizzle. He tipped Sherlock onto the damp surface and plopped down beside him. John pressed his fingers immediately to the carotid artery in Sherlock’s neck. The pulse beat strong and not too fast. Sherlock stared straight ahead, breathing shallowly.

“Tell me what you’re doing out here,” John said.


“Collapsing in the street can not in any way be construed as working,”

“I went for a walk, to think through the facts once more.” Sherlock chose his next words carefully. “I must have been more tired than I anticipated.”

“That’s all? You didn’t get attacked?”


“Well, good.” John sat back against the bench, thought for a moment, then leant forwards again. “No, actually, sorry. It’s not good. I asked you not to do this to yourself.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” Sherlock said in a voice rather smaller than usual.

“I can only offer my help, Sherlock. I can’t actually be your nursemaid, nor do I want to be. I hate seeing you like this. You chase death around London with no thought for any living creature, least of all yourself.”

“It’s my work,” Sherlock said, but it came out half cough, and was accompanied by a prodigious full-body shiver.

“You won’t be able to do your bloody work if you let yourself die, you dense bastard.” John flung his arm around Sherlock and did his best to rub some heat into his arms. “Sometimes I think you’re trying to die. If death is so fascinating to you, how can I compete? I’m not half as mysterious; you deduced everything about me within hours of meeting me. You think of corpses—hell, or even ghosts—as more enjoyable company than anyone living. The only thing that makes you pay attention is death and more death.”

“That’s not entirely true.” Though he was taller, Sherlock managed somehow to turn himself and shelter under John’s arm. “Sometimes I quite enjoy the company of the living. Your company.”

“Sherlock,” John said. He knew enough to recognize a Holmesian apology when he heard one. “At least try to understand. You’ll be no good to anyone if you keel over.”

“I’d still be good to you,” Sherlock said, with a fleeting sideways glance at John. “I am rather certain that I’ll always be good to you.”

“Oh.” John held quite still, just playing those words over and over again in his mind, until Sherlock moved to look at him.

“In any case, you’re a constant mystery. A portable one. Quite convenient, as well.”

“Thank you for that.” They sat in silence with John’s arms still wrapped tight around Sherlock until he stopped shivering.

“You’ve solved the case, I presume?” John said at length.

“What? Oh, that. Yes.” Sherlock pulled away slightly and dragged a rumpled piece of paper from his pocket. “Financial peril, smuggling scheme, blackmail, parental protectiveness. Quite pedestrian, in the end.”

“Will you text Lestrade, or do you want the chance to monologue to a room full of witnesses?”

“I do not monologue.” Sherlock snatched his phone out of his pocket and fired off a text. “There. Now.” He looked over at John with as much attention as ever he’d paid to a corpse.

“Now we get you home,” John said. “The rest can wait until you’re on the mend. Can you stand?”

Sherlock demonstrated. John braced himself to catch an armful of detective if necessary, but Sherlock remained surprisingly stable.

“I do feel much better,” he said.

“Is that so?” John leaned in close, quietly glad of the excuse to keep looking at Sherlock. “You do have some of your colour back. What little you normally have, anyway.”

“The spring air seems to have done me good. My fever’s gone. See?” Sherlock took John’s hand in his and placed it against his forehead.

John felt only the normal warm of Sherlock’s body heat, not the flush of a heightened temperature, though at the close contact he felt his own face heating. Sherlock didn’t remove his hand from John’s.

“Good. Yes.” Now John was the one who sounded hoarse.

“I shall trust you to aid the rest of my recovery. It seems you’ve a certain knack for making me feel…” Sherlock paused, choosing a word with the full and precise meaning he intended. “Alive.”

John smiled, and the grin Sherlock returned banished all thought of death.

When Sherlock dropped his hand to his side, he kept their fingers twined. John led them out of the park, into the pale light of the warming morning, to begin the trip home.
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brighteyedjill: Bones is pensive (Default)

January 2012


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