"It was the electrical grid, of course."
"Of course. Upon realizing that the Underground lead was a ruse, I turned my attention elsewhere. Within an hour of your disappearance London's power grid had suddenly diverted 50,000 volts to an abandoned factory in the Park Royal Industrial Estate. It wasn't a difficult leap."
The voices were nearby. John heard them as he drifted out of sleep into a warm, dopey sort of awareness. He didn't feel any pain at all, and didn't quite remember why he thought that he should feel pain, which meant that he was most likely drugged to the gills. On the whole this seemed like a good thing.
"H'm. The power cut was effective, but it's a pity that it deprived you of the chance of trying the grid for yourself. I would have enjoyed seeing that."
"No doubt. What was the code, by the way?"
"You had to go through that room on your way in. You didn't solve it?"
"It was dark, and I was in a hurry. I rather had other things on my mind."
Sherlock's deep rumble was at John's right, while on his other side someone was speaking with a lighter, more urbane tone. Same posh accent, though . . . he groped for a moment before the name came to him. Mycroft. Sherlock and his brother were evidently facing each other, with John between them.
John considered escaping back into sleep, or possibly trying for an outright coma. It seemed the safest of his options.
"John." Blast. He hadn't moved or blinked or even changed his breathing, so far as he was aware, but of course a little thing like that wasn't going to put off Sherlock Holmes.
"You're in hospital, John, and you are recovering admirably. The doctor tells me that you'll be fit for discharge tomorrow."
Or his brother either, apparently. John caved to the inevitable and opened his eyes.
The first thing he saw was Sherlock, who smiled so brilliantly at him that John couldn't help smiling in return. Sherlock smiled so rarely – his usual sardonic smirk didn't count – that John had come to value it when he did. Any real, open and honest emotion from Sherlock seemed like a rare treasure, something that only John ever got to see. And here he was grinning at John as if he were a new unbroken code and Christmas and a triple-murder crime scene all rolled into one, and John couldn't help but feel a bit special as a result.
"Hey," he murmured. His voice was weak, but no worse than if he'd had a bout of laryngitis. The greater difficulty was his tongue, which felt thick and strange in his mouth, as if he'd woken with a hangover. "A'right?"
If possible, Sherlock's grin widened. "Fine. You?"
"Yeah," John blinked, taking in his surroundings. He was on a hospital bed, in a small room with a window and a TV mounted on the wall, and very little else. It looked much the same as the room he'd woken up in after the swimming pool bombing.
"Quite so," Mycroft Holmes said. "I believe I shall make standing reservations at this hospital for you and my brother. It would save time."
There was a tinkle of water as he poured a glass from the pitcher next to John's bed, and held it out to him. John reached automatically to take it, and discovered that his left arm was bound to his chest in a sling.
"Ah, you are instructed to keep your arm immobile for the next two weeks," Mycroft said with a sympathetic smile, which John found suspect. "It was the same shoulder as your previous injury, after all."
Sherlock was immediately on the defensive, his smile vanishing as he faced his brother. "It was necessary."
Mycroft raised an eyebrow. Sherlock scowled. "You heard my report. You know what happened."
"Your report, yes," Mycroft glanced down, examining his fingernails. "Your report was . . . lacking, in some details."
"I told Lestrade everything that was relevant. Nothing else matters."
"Mmm. I wonder if John would agree?"
John was suddenly aware of both Holmes brothers staring at him. He busied himself with drinking his water, the glass held awkwardly in his right hand, and didn't look up.
"Leave John out of this."
"It was John's shoulder that was dislocated. In a struggle, as I understand it, for a weapon which Moriarty provided. You neglected to say why he gave you, his prisoners, a loaded gun."
"He was not rational."
"Mmm. And you prevented John from taking it because . . .?"
Sherlock didn't answer. John, looking at him, could see the coming of a massive sulk, the sort of petulant reaction that was usually directed at Mycroft, but was just as likely to include him, Mrs. Hudson and most of New Scotland Yard as collateral damage. He decided to take preemptive action.
"Moriarty told us that he'd planted bombs on the Underground. He threatened to set them off unless Sherlock killed me."
"John!" Sherlock was aghast, staring at him in horror.
John looked back defiantly. "What? It isn't as if you actually did it. Even with all those lives at stake, you found a way out. It was brilliant. Mind, you took years off my life with that stunt, and I'll never forgive you, but you were genius, you daft idiot."
There was a pause. Mycroft looked from John to Sherlock, his eyes, so like his brother's, calculating. Sherlock turned away, closing his eyes like one utterly betrayed. John sighed.
"Well," Mycroft said at last. "It may interest you to know that the Underground has been shut down while we perform a bomb sweep. Four explosive devices have been found, along with some canisters of an as yet unidentified chemical."
"Mustard gas," John said.
"Ah," Mycroft took a small book from his breast pocket and made a note. "So. As it seems that you have prevented a major national disaster, you have your country's thanks."
Sherlock snorted. John glanced at him, and decided, what the hell, he might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. "He said that you were there. Moriarty. He intended you to be killed in the disaster, if –"
"John, please," Sherlock broke in. "It's over. It doesn't matter."
"Indeed," Mycroft said. "And as I was there only a few minutes before determining that my attention would be better directed elsewhere, one might presume Moriarty's surveillance to be lacking. Nonetheless, the thought is appreciated."
Sherlock lifted his head. For a long moment he and Mycroft locked gazes. John felt distinctly uncomfortable. He had an image of himself as an unarmed civilian who has wandered off a map and into the middle of a war zone.
Then Sherlock said, apropos of nothing: "Moriarty wasn't in Bolivia."
It was a declaration of intent, John could tell that much, though he'd no idea of what.
Mycroft's eyes narrowed. "How long?"
Sherlock smirked. "Two years. Plus Christmas dinners."
There was a pause. Then Mycroft said, turning a page in his diary: "We found several video recorders among Moriarty's equipment in the factory."
Sherlock froze. Mycroft said nothing more, but fixed his brother with an assessing gaze.
Finally Sherlock swallowed. "What do you want?"
"Ten cases," Mycroft said promptly. "To be of my choosing, when and where I determine. You will take them without complaint, sulking or injury to yourself or to your flat, and you will accept any reward which a grateful government chooses to bestow upon you afterward."
Sherlock glared at him. "Three cases. No knighthood, and don't even think about the House of Lords."
"Seven," Mycroft said. "No knighthood, barring exceptional circumstances. And I doubt the peerage could survive you, anyway."
"Five," Sherlock said. "And," he sighed, as one who makes the ultimate sacrifice, "I won't mention again that you were wrong."
"Done," Mycroft smiled and made another note in his little book. "I shall have the tapes delivered to Baker Street this afternoon. Good day, John. Sherlock."
With a nod to John he slipped the book back into his breast pocket and, collecting his umbrella from where it leaned next to the door, he left.
Sherlock remained where he was, standing rigid as the door closed behind his brother, before he finally released a long breath and sank down into the chair next to John's bed. John turned his head to look at him.
"You're really a piece of work, aren't you?"
"H'm?" Sherlock glanced at him.
"You. Mycroft. It's just . . ." John waved his water glass in a gesture meant to encompass Sherlock, his brother, and the entire screwed up history of the Holmes dynasty. "Most people wouldn't mind admitting that they cared if their brother lived or died. It wouldn't be something to be embarrassed about."
Sherlock snorted. "Most people's brothers are not Mycroft."
"Thank God," John agreed. He was aware that he was still riding a high from some severely powerful drugs, and that was making him speak more freely than he normally would. If he didn't stop talking soon he'd be in danger of broaching subjects that Sherlock had long ago made clear were off-limits. But those same drugs made it hard for him to care. And besides, he reasoned, he'd been through a lot in the past few . . . hours? Days? He wasn't sure. All he knew was that Sherlock owed him some answers.
"Did he even hug you?"
Sherlock stared at him. "Did who hug me?"
"No!" Sherlock looked alarmed at the thought. "Why would he?"
"Why . . ." John looked to the ceiling for help. "You nearly died, Sherlock! And, for all you knew, he could have died too. The main reason thousands of people didn't die is that you used your own life as a bluff against a homicidal maniac. And now you're both safe and it's all back to staring contests and silent threats and I don't even know . . . What is it with you, anyway? I swear, the two of you make the bloody Royal Family look healthy and well-adjusted."
There was a pause. Then Sherlock said quietly, "It wasn't a bluff."
"My threat to Moriarty. It wasn't a bluff. I was prepared to go through with it."
John looked at him. "No, you weren't."
"Of course I was. It wouldn't have been an effective threat otherwise. But there's no need to look at me like that. Even you must have seen that his response was completely predictable."
"No, I . . . what?" John pushed himself to sit up straighter, bracing his back against the pillows. "What are you talking about?"
"Moriarty," Sherlock said. "He never intended me to die."
"Oh, well, that's obvious," John snorted. "He only kidnapped you, and stranded you in front of an oncoming train, and nearly electrocuted you –"
"Immaterial," Sherlock said impatiently. "That was just . . . fun." He saw John's frown and sighed. "Yes, all right, not good, but it was. And besides, I knew he couldn't kill me."
"Really," John said.
Sherlock looked at him. "John, haven't you ever wondered why I never went into crime?"
It was a moment before John could speak. "Have I . . . no! Because you help people. You have a unique talent, and you use it to solve crimes that no one else could. You stop murderers, and you save lives. You serve justice."
"Oh." Sherlock blinked. Evidently this was a thought that had not previously occurred to him.
John sighed. "Okay. Why do you think you aren't a criminal?"
"Because it would be boring," Sherlock said. "You've met the official police force. There's no creativity there, not the least desire to stretch their limits. I could run rings around them with my eyes closed – I could certainly be a better master criminal than Moriarty ever was. They'd have no chance of stopping me. You see?"
"Oh, God," John muttered. "I'm beginning to."
"Exactly," Sherlock nodded. "It would be dull beyond all tolerance. Now consider Moriarty. Without me, where would he be?"
"H'm," John considered this as best he could, given the dissipating haze of painkillers and the surrealism of this conversation. "He sounded ready to end it all, though, before the lights went out. How did you know he wasn't planning to finish it with you right then?"
"There was only one bullet in the gun," Sherlock said. "Any rational observer would agree that my life is more valuable than yours – the service you provided was useful, no doubt, but no different than that of a hundred other army medics. Whereas I am unique. Logically, there was no reason for me to sacrifice myself for you. And, had I become irrational in my grief following your death, there would have been no more bullets for me to use. So he gave himself away, you see."
"Right," John took a moment to let this sink in. He had the feeling that he should be insulted, but the truth was, while he'd never have stated it so baldly himself, Sherlock was right. John was ordinary. Being around Sherlock, he'd never felt more dull and plain and boring in his life. In a purely rational, logical analysis, the world's only consulting detective beat a used up army surgeon hands down.
None of which explained why Sherlock had been so ready to take his own life to save John's.
"You're a crap sociopath, you know that?"
Sherlock looked affronted. "John –"
"Oh, don't start. You just said yourself that there was no rational reason for what you did. Why is it so bloody hard for you to just admit that you care about people?"
"Why are you so insistent that I do?"
"Oh, come off it!" John began to laugh. "I was there with you, after the chess game . . . Do I have to play you the tape?"
Sherlock jumped to his feet: a swift, restless movement. He paced to the window and stood looking out at the slanting evening sun, his back to John. It was a long time before he spoke, and when he did, his voice was strained, as if it were being wrenched out of him.
"I never did."
"Before," Sherlock made a vague gesture, and then dug his hands into his hair in clear frustration. "Before you, I never cared. Not the way they said I should."
John didn't ask who 'they' were. He did have the thought that this answered one question, at least. He'd wondered before, if Sherlock had just been mouthing off to Anderson or if there had actually been doctors in his youth, a diagnosis – but he kept quiet and listened.
"I can't care. Look what it's done to you. You nearly died because I cared. I can't think when you're in danger, and if I had any sense at all I'd leave and break all contact with you, but I won't because every time I think about it I feel as if I'm dying inside, and I'm too selfish to die that way, by inches."
John opened his mouth to protest this statement, but Sherlock carried on, unheeding. "He knew. You were right; we were alike, more than I wanted to admit. But he never had a John to care about. He never had anyone to tell him when he was not good . . . and he would never conceive putting an ordinary person's life above his own, so he couldn't imagine that I would. Even though he knew enough to recognize my . . . heart . . . he didn't really understand it. You. Me. Us. How could he?"
Sherlock stopped. John waited, but it seemed that there was nothing more to come. Sherlock so rarely spoke of anything even remotely personal that this felt like the bursting of a dam, like a flood. John took a breath, trying to get his bearings, lest he be swept away.
"Okay. First, you don't get to decide what's best for me. There are two of us in this . . . whatever this is, and I do know what I'm doing, thank you. If you ever even try disappearing on me I'll get Mycroft to hunt you down, and then you really will die, and it won't be by inches. Got it?"
Sherlock turned his head, just enough for John to see the half-smile that played around his lips. "Yes."
"All right," John hesitated, and then made the plunge. "Second. When you say 'us' . . ."
"Our friendship," Sherlock finally turned to face him, and then rolled his eyes. "Oh, honestly. Must you be so pedestrian? It took seeing you strapped in enough Semtex to take down a building to make me realize I actually cared about you as more than a portable sounding board. I think that's quite enough to be getting on with, don't you?"
"Right. Sorry," John shook his head. "You know what? I take it back about you and Mycroft. This thing between you and Moriarty – that is the most fucked up relationship I've ever seen."
Sherlock's mouth quirked in a slanted grin, and John smiled back. "Well, at least you didn't have any problems killing him."
Sherlock's smile faded. John looked more closely at him. "What is it?"
"Nothing," Sherlock shook his head.
"It's nothing," Sherlock said. "You should get some sleep. Your sister will be here soon, and your interactions with her will be improved if you are rested."
"No, Sherlock –" John dropped his empty glass to reach across the bed, managing to snag Sherlock's sleeve as he passed. "Tell me. You aren't actually going to miss that insane –"
"Of course not," Sherlock said.
"Good," John said. "Because I don't care how many interesting cases he gave you, he wasn't worth it. The people he killed, and –"
"I know," Sherlock interrupted. "Regretting his death would be not good, correct?"
John blinked. It was a moment before he could speak. "Not . . . yes, Sherlock. Regretting the death of the psychopathic murderer who imprisoned and tortured us would be very not good."
"Which is why I don't regret it," Sherlock said. "Even though life is going to be insufferably boring without him. I can't help that part, it's true," he added, seeing John's look. "You know it is. But even so, I don't regret it. It's just . . ."
"In the struggle, I didn't have room to aim. The bullet passed through his skull and destroyed his frontal cortex," Sherlock said. "And I would so have liked to have kept his brain."
John stared at him. Then he started to laugh. He couldn't help it. The drugs had faded enough now that he could feel the pain in his shoulder as he slumped back on the bed, but he laughed anyway. After a moment, Sherlock began to laugh too.
This doesn't happen in real life, John thought. People didn't get into giggling fits over the death of their flatmate's arch-nemesis, because real people didn't have arch-nemeses, except that Sherlock did and John's entire life was just so crazy and messed up and Sherlock that he didn't even know what normal was any more.
So he laughed, and Sherlock laughed with him, and it was good.
It was all good.
Coming in 2013: The Gloaming, an original novel by Lamiel. In a world ruled by monsters, you have to be a monster to survive.