Your Friends Closer
"He doesn't look well. Is he all right?" John asked.
Sergeant Donovan kept her eyes on her camera, scrolling through the photos she'd taken of the crime scene. "He's a corpse. How good should he look?"
"I meant your boss."
Glancing up, she frowned in Lestrade's direction. "He was out yesterday. Food poisoning. Still looks like death warmed over, doesn't he? He pushes himself too hard. Should be in bed." She shrugged with one shoulder and sighed. "But try telling him that."
Just then Sherlock rose from beside the dead body and clapped his hands in what appeared to be unrestrained glee. Sally glared at John as if this represented a personal failing on his part and trudged out the bedroom door, muttering under her breath.
Yeah, well. He hated to admit it even to himself, but there were times John understood where she was coming from.
"Let me save you the trouble," Lestrade said to Sherlock. His usual rasping voice had deepened to genuine hoarseness. "We're stupid. The murderer isn't. How 'bout skipping to the useful part?"
"No time," Sherlock said, already pushing past the detective inspector. "More data."
"O'course," Lestrade mumbled.
As he turned to trail after his consulting detective, Lestrade caught John's gaze. "Truth is, I think this case is fairly open and shut. But there were several vinyl Rodgers and Hammerstein original Broadway cast recordings spread out on the rug in the sitting room, and Sherlock has a standing request to be called in anytime musicals might be involved."
He flashed a haggard, resigned smile. "I'd explain, but I'd have to understand it first."
"Right," John said faintly, a beat too late.
Following after Lestrade, John considered the man from a medical perspective. Frequent vomiting might have irritated his throat, making him hoarse. Dehydration and sleep loss might have deepened lines around his mouth and painted bruises under his eyes. Nausea and stomach cramps might have left him sore, which would explain the cautious way Lestrade moved and held his body. It was plausible. Yes, certainly. And yet—
As John entered the sitting room, Sherlock lunged toward him, gripping his shoulders in a vice-like hold.
"The Surrey with the Fringe on Top!"
"Sorry? Surrey?" John spluttered. "What's that then? Some code?"
"The answer, John. The answer!"
With an extra squeeze for emphasis, Sherlock released John and spun away, pausing at the front door to throw a look over his shoulder. "This murder is exactly what it looks like, Lestrade. Boring. I'll text you later. I just solved that cold Jorgensen case from 2002."
Haste made John clumsy as he stripped out of his forensics coverall suit and shoe covers. Anxious not to be left behind, he looked about for a place to leave them that wouldn't contaminate the scene.
Lestrade appeared at his elbow, hand outstretched. "I'll take those, Doctor." He shook his head as if exasperated, but John saw kindness in his bloodshot eyes. "Go watch his back, yeah?"
The next thing John knew, London was a grey blur behind the raindrops on the cab window.
For the next twenty-eight hours, minus brief interludes of stolen slumber, John was caught up in the whirlwind of Sherlock's genius as the man connected each individual dot illustrating the story of a nine-year-old murder – and the theft of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein's handwritten notes that had precipitated it. In the process, John learned more than he had ever expected or wanted to know about Oklahoma!
To be fair, his crash course had its unexpected bonuses. As Sherlock grew increasingly drunk on adrenaline and satisfaction while cross-referencing old evidence and new research, he began to litter his deadpan comments with lyrics. Often this left an amused John giggling like a schoolgirl.
"He was clever, smuggling the papers out of the country. Was he? Why was that clever? He only did the kinda things he outta. Sorta."
"Considering the sordid past of the victim, I doubt that folks did weep and wail for miles around."
"I've never seen university libraries employ such security measures, and I expect many a new day will dawn before I do."
The case, spread out as it was over three countries and nearly a decade, brought little need for mad dashes around London. Sherlock made up for this lack of physical action by pacing across the floor (and on top of the furniture), pronouncing his deductions in shouts and whispers and once even song, and turning a manic energy toward exploring Oklahoma! with his violin.
His interpretation of "Out of My Dreams" was enough to bring a sentimental knot to John's throat. And more than once John found himself almost lulled to sleep by a haunting rendition of "Lonely Room."
John had almost forgotten what a thrill it could be to see Sherlock in his element – revelling in the use of his remarkable faculties, playing the game with every fibre of his being – on a case completely untainted by Moriarty's looming shadow. Sitting amid loose stacks of sheet music, open books, scattered albums and disks, and their computers and phones, John realized that he had missed that biting flavour of challenge, of excitement, unspoiled by the cloying taste of dread.
When he wasn't questioning and prompting Sherlock, acting as the consulting detective's sounding board, or offering his own opinions, John took copious notes to be used for his future blog report.
Despite the fact there was little danger this time, only discovery, he still felt wholly, vibrantly alive.
Thus it was late Thursday afternoon, as John stretched beneath the spray of a hot shower and wondered at how the hours had flown, before a niggling worry caught up with him, a conviction that something troubling remained unresolved.
He replayed the last two days in his mind.
He recalled watching Sherlock at the crime scene.
And watching Lestrade watching Sherlock at the crime scene.
John chewed his lip and wondered.
"Did Lestrade seem 'off' to you yesterday?" John asked Sherlock as he descended the stairs toward the sitting room, towelling his short hair dry. "I mean, Sally said he'd suffered from food poisoning—"
Sherlock snorted where he lay draped across the sofa, sated by the answers he'd found. "If by food you mean whisky, and by poisoning you mean drinking."
John halted mid-step, foot hovering in the air for a moment before settling on the next stair.
"Don't look so scandalized, John. He does this rarely. Only when he's very distressed."
That was no better, just a different kind of wrong. "But why... What was he distressed about? Not the case, surely? No, that's not right. The murder hadn't even happened yet."
John made it to the bottom of the stairs and sat down there, clutching his towel, feeling suddenly adrift.
Trying again, he asked, "Something... something to do with his home life?"
"He has no home life." Straightforward. Matter-of-fact.
Shaking his head, John said, "He wears a ring."
"He and his wife are separated, John. Her doing, not his. She's already moved on. Repeatedly. He lives alone."
John grimaced. When he had dashed – or been dragged? no, dashed – headlong into Sherlock's world, he'd accepted Lestrade from the very first as a key fixture there. Respect, trust, and fondness came readily, but on the run, in the midst of the clamour.
Over the course of their chaotic life he'd become allied with Lestrade, but not exactly acquainted with the man. Yet this, surely, he should've known.
"Lestrade's life is his work," Sherlock continued. "It's one of the things we understand about each other."
"So what's upset him then?"
The shrug appeared to travel the length of Sherlock's entire body, rippling down his frame like a wave. "I expect it has something to do with the fight, or—"
"Wait, what fight?" Feeling more lost by the second, John rose, draped the towel over his shoulder, and began to wander the room.
"John. John." Sherlock sighed. "His right hand had been carefully tended, to be sure, but the knuckles nonetheless were swollen and bruised. I assumed it caught your attention as a doctor."
"No. No it didn't." The exultant high from the past hours deserted him completely, leaving hollowness behind. Hours they had spent, days, on a cold case, while right in front of them… "So tell me: what happened to him?"
"No idea. My method requires concentration. I filtered out distractions and focused on the scene."
John blinked. "So you didn't ask."
"Of course not." Sherlock gave an impatient huff. "I made him happy in the best way I know how: I solved two cases for him in less than two days."
"You would've solved those cases anyway."
Sherlock waved off the remark. "In the past, Lestrade's proven he can get over whatever's troubling him on his own." After a beat, somewhat less convincingly, "He's not a complete imbecile, you know; he'd ask for help if he needed it."
"Would he?" John asked. "Would he know he could do that?"
I didn't know he lived alone, John thought. I didn't know he turned to whisky when he suffered. I didn't even know his first name until I read it off one of those stolen warrant cards.
Sherlock shifted and glared, and then his words came in a fast and frustrated stream of clipped syllables. "You and all of the other arbiters of so-called manners need to make a decision and stick with it; I am not, despite what anyone thinks, a mind reader, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to study tomes on the social niceties.
"Either it is or isn't 'a bit not good' to bring up personal subjects at a crime scene. I was under the impression, from your previous reactions, that this was frowned upon, considered humiliating."
The worst part was that, in his own strange way, Sherlock was trying.
Running a hand through his hair and down his face, John said, "God, Sherlock, there's a difference between blurting out your deductions about colleagues' sex lives in public and taking friends aside to ask if they're all right."
He sat heavily in the chair. "You know, friends. We're not blessed with an overabundance of them, in case you haven't noticed. We should take care of those few we do have."
Especially now, he thought. Especially with Moriarty out there.
Suddenly he felt very tired indeed.
"Oh, for—" Sherlock began.
Heading off the tirade before it could begin, John asked, "When you texted him about the case, did he reply?"
"Yes. Just as he always does."
"Right. He's probably at the Yard now up to his elbows in paperwork, yeah?"
"I would assume so." In one fluid movement Sherlock pulled himself up to a sitting position. "What do you propose to do?"
"Drop by. See how he is." Plucking the towel from his shoulder, he kneaded the damp fabric between his hands. "Do you have anything I could take with me? Files or something? You know, as an excuse for the visit?"
"I've sent him everything he needs. Anyway, you're a terrible liar, John," Sherlock scoffed. "Lestrade's no genius, but he'd see through you."
"Fine. You, on the other hand, are a brilliant liar. You could go..." Sherlock looked horrified. John tried to picture his flatmate attempting a heart-to-heart conversation and shuddered. "Right. I'll play it by ear."
Pushing himself to his feet, he said, "Who knows, maybe I'll do something truly mad like tell him the truth." He heard bitterness in his own voice. Fair enough. He should've realized something was really wrong with Lestrade. To use Sherlock's well-worn phrase, he had seen, but he hadn't observed. Not closely enough, anyway.
By the time John was fully dressed, Sherlock had turned his back to the room, transforming his post-case sprawl into a full-scale sulk.
"Last chance to join me." John only offered because he already knew the answer.
"Go," Sherlock grumbled. "And get milk while you're out." Then, more quietly, "And John? Be careful."
Ever since the night at the pool it had been this way. John considered it a victory that he was 'allowed' to leave on his own at all. But he would've been lying if he said he didn't understand. Or appreciate it.
Opening the door, John almost blundered headfirst into the chest of Mycroft Holmes.
"God!" John exclaimed, startled.
"Ah, Dr Watson, no need to exaggerate," Mycroft said in a smooth tone, apparently unruffled by their near collision. "Mr Holmes will do. Even Mycroft, in fact."
He glanced over John's head and took in the wild disarray left by their recent investigative efforts. "I see you've redecorated."
Determined not to be drawn into the drama of the Holmes brothers' next standoff, John summoned his blandest smile and stepped aside. "Come in. Sherlock's all yours. I was just on my way out."
"As a matter of fact," Mycroft said as he entered, umbrella in one hand a leather attaché case in the other, "I came here to speak with you for a moment, if I may." Then, a fraction more loudly, "It is immaterial to me whether my brother is present or not."
The sullen mass of Sherlock on the sofa reacted at once to this, visibly coming alert.
Really, John thought as he closed the door, sometimes Sherlock's buttons were astoundingly easy to push.
"What is it, Mycroft? Is there a purpose to your intrusion or did you simply feel like slumming it for a while?" Sherlock spat the words into the back of the furniture.
"Believe me, I take no pleasure in my visit today. However, I have information I believe the doctor will want to know. And should know."
I'm right here, John thought, resisting the urge to wave.
"And what about me?" Sherlock asked.
"What about you?" Mycroft planted himself in the middle of the room like some kind of monument. "Tell me, Sherlock, have you seen your detective inspector recently?"
The hairs on the back of John's neck stood on end.
In a heartbeat, Sherlock was sitting upright and facing his brother. "What do you know about Lestrade?"
"Ah, so his welfare does matter to you. I am gratified to hear it."
"Mycroft—" Sherlock's tone was a warning.
"Please," he gestured with his case, "allow me to use your sofa, and I will explain what I can to you both."
If anything spoke to John about the seriousness of the issue at hand, it was Sherlock's quick compliance and lack of complaint as he shuffled aside to make room for his brother.
Mycroft sat, arranged his umbrella to rest against his knee, and opened his case on his lap. As he withdrew his computer, he nodded at the space beside him.
"I would be grateful if you would join me," he said to John.
In fact, the three of them sitting shoulder to shoulder proved too cosy by half, a problem Sherlock solved by perching atop the back of the sofa and planting his long, bony feet on the cushions. He curled forward so he could view the screen over Mycroft's shoulder.
After the elder Holmes adjusted the laptop to his liking, he rested his fingers against the keys and stared at them. "The decision to share this with you is not one I made lightly. You are not authorized to view this footage, and I am certain the subject himself would not thank me for making it available to you. By this act I am violating a man who clearly wants to retain whatever privacy he can.
"However" – the long fingers spread and twitched, a jarring sign of unease – "his ordeal was meant as a message, and if he does not see it delivered, I will. Furthermore, because his actions since then, which I have monitored carefully, prove he does not plan to seek care on his own, I feel an obligation to gain Dr Watson's medical opinion on his behalf."
Deeply worried now, John ground his teeth together until his jaw ached.
"I hope you will understand—"
"Mycroft." Sherlock interrupted, making a growl of the name. "Play it. Now."
For a moment nothing happened, and then Mycroft, to John's surprise, obeyed. His fingers played over the keys with brisk efficiency.
"This is a low-resolution copy from the CCTV cameras, but it will serve our purposes. There is no volume, but I have had an expert lip reader translate all that she can. I have taken the liberty of adding her transcript to the bottom of the screen, when available."
Turning his head slightly in Sherlock's direction, he added, "Don't waste your time trying to identify the men. All have records. They are minor players, not well connected. Each can, however, if traced back through many layers of their so-called organizations, ultimately be linked—"
"To Moriarty," Sherlock interrupted.
John forced himself to breathe. The tightness in his chest made the act a struggle.
Mycroft pressed a key, and the grainy, black-and-white image of an alleyway glowed on the monitor. Readings indicated that the footage came from 10:43pm on Monday night of that week. A separate tag identified the location: right under the nose of Scotland Yard.
Lestrade had worked late, John told himself. Again.
As Mycroft set the film in motion, a steely calm descended over John. He shuddered once and went perfectly, terribly still, eyes riveted to the screen.
Though barely more than a roughly pixellated smudge of grey, Lestrade was instantly identifiable at the far mouth of the alley, walking briskly past on the pavement. The stoop of his back reflected his weariness, but his eyes were up and alert to his surroundings.
A total of six men waited for him in hiding. John allowed himself to feel a flush of pride at the fact Moriarty expected to need so many. He felt another at the brief and brutal struggle that followed. Lestrade put one man down and struck another hard – that explained his knuckles – before several knives and a gun appeared.
The men closed ranks around him, shepherding him off the main street.
Even from the far distance and steep angle, John could see the detective inspector compose himself, then walk deliberately into the alley, head raised, shoulders back.
The scene showed all the signs of a professional hit, John thought. Lestrade must have believed they planned to kill him then and there.
Halfway down the alley, the man with the gun positioned himself in front of Lestrade, while the others – including the downed man, now on his feet but apparently dazed – formed a half-circle at his back, various weapons in hand.
With a gesture that required no translation, the leader ordered Lestrade to his knees.
Lestrade shifted his weight and spoke. Below the footage, typed lines appeared like cinema subtitles: "Or what, you'll shoot me? Looks like you plan to do that anyway. Rather die on my feet, if it's all the same to you."
John nodded once in silent salute.
At the leader's signal, one of the thugs behind Lestrade danced forward. Lestrade lurched and then fell heavily to his knees. Once more the man lunged, arm extended, and Lestrade's whole frame seemed to convulse and then battle for air.
"Modified shock prod," Sherlock muttered.
Another member of the gang tangled gloved fingers in Lestrade's silvering hair, wrenching his head back. Lestrade's chest heaved for breath, but he clamped his mouth shut, sealing his lips in a thin line.
The man with the gun advanced a pace. John assumed he was speaking, but the camera caught only the top and back of his head.
Text appeared once again as the detective inspector panted out a reply. "Put anything in my mouth, and I bite it."
The leader took several short strides and drove his booted foot into Lestrade's groin. Once. Twice.
Flexing the fingers of his left hand, John yearned for something to grip. His cane. His service sidearm.
Lestrade was denied even the meagre comfort of curling over himself in agony. A second man joined the first to force Lestrade upright on his knees and pin him in place, clutching at his hair and shoulders and arms. After some fumbling in the detective inspector's coat, one of the thugs produced Lestrade's own truncheon, extended it, and held it across his throat.
Before Lestrade could recover from the vicious kicks, the leader went down on one knee before him. In what to John seemed surreal slow motion, the man chambered a round in his semiautomatic and then forced the weapon between Lestrade's lips. After a dramatic pause, he began to pump the weapon in and out of Lestrade's mouth in the parody of a phallus.
The muscles corded in Lestrade's neck. His brow furrowed in a thunderous frown, and his dark eyes narrowed in what looked like fury. The obscene display continued for a sickeningly long time.
John could feel heat climbing in his chest, clawing up his throat – shame, for witnessing Lestrade's abuse without his knowledge, and rage, at the ill use the gang had made of a valiant man.
When at last the leader tired of his fun, he rose and made room for another of his comrades. This one delivered multiple punches to Lestrade's torso in rapid succession, as a boxer would assail a punching bag.
John forced himself to watch with the eyes of a doctor, trying to gauge what damage Lestrade might have sustained. It was impossible to be certain without examining him. From what John could make out from the footage, however, the blows seemed aimed for immediate incapacitation rather than maximum injury: the solar plexus, for example, rather than the ribs.
Even so, it would have hurt. It still would be hurting.
The thug pulled back after some time, leaving Lestrade shuddering and gasping in his captors' arms, his throat working hard against the unforgiving ASP baton. The leader made a motion, and the men pushed Lestrade forward onto his belly against the cold concrete.
Lestrade kicked out blindly and struggled against their restraining hands as they peeled his coat and jacket over his shoulders and down to his waist, pinning his arms behind his body at the elbows and wrists.
The leader loomed over Lestrade and waved the other men aside, taking the truncheon in the hand that wasn't holding the gun.
Tangled in the fabric of his clothing, Lestrade's hands tugged and pulled, his fingers splayed wide.
Looking up for the first time at the CCTV camera, the leader flashed a predatory smile, teeth unnaturally bright in the greyscale image. Still turned toward his video audience, he planted his boot squarely between Lestrade's shoulder blades, directly over the vulnerable spine, and pressed.
The detective inspector went still.
The thug bent slightly to point his semiautomatic at Lestrade's head, but he kept his face upturned toward the camera.
As he spoke, the caption read, "Any last words, Detective Inspector?"
Lestrade's jaw moved, but his face was turned away now from their view.
The leader shook his head. As he replied, the text said, "How very rude."
He pressed the gun flush against Lestrade's temple. John's stomach rolled, watching Lestrade's pinned hands curl into impotent fists.
For several long moments nothing happened. John didn't dare blink.
"On second thought, a change of plan," came the subtitles as the man took a step backward and then sank to his haunches. A stark black footprint showed on the white cloth of Lestrade's shirt.
The leader slammed the retracted ASP baton to the concrete beside Lestrade's face, making the detective inspector flinch. "Maybe next time we'll use this on you – and in you – before we take turns on your arse. Then we'll leave your brains on the pavement. Be a good lad and tell Sherlock Holmes that he can clean up the mess when we do."
The man retreated. At a jerk of his chin, another thug took his place, wielding the prod. Lestrade received shock upon shock – on his shoulders, between his legs, in the middle of his back.
"Christ," John choked. It was too much too fast, he thought: the bastards could have induced a heart attack.
Lestrade's body jerked and spasmed and shook in pain. It was still doing so when the six men melted into the darkness and left him alone on the pavement, all but defenceless.
Breathing through clenched teeth, John started when Sherlock's hand settled on his shoulder lightly, as if unsure of its welcome. John could feel the tremor in the long fingers.
Mycroft moved to touch the keyboard.
"Leave it," John said. The hoarse request sounded far too loud in the close space between the three men, and he cleared his throat. "Please. I need to see how he moves, when he gets up. I need to assess how badly he's injured." He rubbed a hand roughly over his eyes, dismayed by his own helplessness.
"Yes, of course," Mycroft said without inflection. After several heartbeats, "When the detective inspector finally left the alley, he managed to hail a cab. Apparently he did not trust his ability to operate his own vehicle. He went to his flat and remained there throughout the day and night on Tuesday. His only call was to his office, explaining his absence. He apparently used the day to rest – and, ah, self-medicate."
The whisky, John remembered. Not at all what he would've recommended, of course, but at least the drink served as a potent painkiller and muscle relaxant, two things Lestrade would have needed rather badly.
On the screen, it took long minutes for Lestrade to stir and gather himself for the effort of regaining his feet. He barely had worked his arms free and made it to his hands and knees before he was violently sick.
"There is a saying," Mycroft said, using a soft voice that John had never heard, never imagined from him. "'Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.' I do believe your enemies are most certainly close enough. But your friends, Sherlock?"
"Don't hide behind aphorisms," Sherlock said harshly. As he tucked his long limbs against his body, seeming to fold in on himself, his hand left John's shoulder.
"I would simply point out that, when you were the one – how shall I put it? – face-down in your own vomit, the detective inspector found you, took you to his home, and tended you through your withdrawal. At no small risk to his career and reputation, I should add."
The battered figure on the monitor crawled to the wall and used it to pull himself more or less upright. John ached in sympathy as he witnessed the lonely struggle.
"And you watched," Sherlock said, sounding unusually subdued.
"Of course I did. The surveillance cameras I had installed in his home were the closest you would allow me to come. At that time I did not know him as more than a name on a file; I had to assure myself that you were treated well, and for the right reasons."
"I was," Sherlock admitted, hushed.
"Yes," Mycroft agreed.
One hand braced against the wall, the other holding his truncheon, Lestrade took unsteady steps toward the mouth of the alley.
Deep bruising of the abdomen and groin, John recited to himself, filing these other revelations away for a later time. Muscle spasms and knotting. Probably contact burns in half a dozen different places. Very painful, of course, but nothing that necessarily required professional medical treatment. Thank God.
Sherlock seemed to erupt from the back of the sofa, springing to his feet to begin pacing, hands tangling in his hair. "He could've called an ambulance. Or the Yard. Or us. Anyone. Why didn't he? What does he gain by keeping this a secret?"
"What doesn't he lose by keeping this a secret?" Mycroft countered evenly. "Perhaps that is the more relevant question. If his superiors knew..."
"If they made the connection with Moriarty," Sherlock said, following the thought at once, "he might be pulled from any case that could be related. No doubt he would be sidelined by investigations into this attack – and by a battery of required medical and psychological examinations, as well.
"And if they made the connection with me, I wouldn't be allowed to consult for him anymore, since it's obvious that I pose a risk to him."
"All quite likely," Mycroft agreed.
At last it made sense to John, that fiercely determined expression he'd seen cross Lestrade's features while watching Sherlock work on Wednesday.
"He wants to protect you," John said. "From facing Moriarty without an ally at the Yard. From losing your access to crime scenes. Even from the guilt of knowing what happened – because he doesn't buy your 'high-functioning sociopath' act any more than I do, no matter how well you perform it."
He didn't point out that this attack had been designed to humiliate as much as to hurt. John understood all too well a man's desire to lick his wounds in private, to keep his vulnerabilities to himself.
"Moriarty both anticipated Lestrade's decision and made it possible," Sherlock added. "No visible wounds to the face. No injuries serious enough to require hospitalisation. The camera footage, to deliver the message if Lestrade chose not to do so."
"The proverbial shot across the bow," Mycroft said. "Not a direct attack, but a warning that one soon will follow. Designed, obviously, for maximum psychological impact."
And bloody effective, John added to himself. He leaned forward and pressed the palms of his hands to his brow.
Beside him, Mycroft quietly powered down the laptop and packed it away.
"What's next?" Sherlock asked Mycroft. "Planning to kidnap Lestrade and give him a little talk? On the off chance his week hasn't been traumatic enough?"
"Your information is incomplete, brother mine. He and I had our conversation quite a long time ago." John looked up at that. A small grin tugged at the corner of Mycroft's mouth, a sign of his pleasure at knowing something Sherlock did not.
"When?" Sherlock asked, eyes narrowed.
"More than four years ago. After your withdrawal, when it appeared that he intended to consult with you regularly on his more unusual cases. I made him the same offer I made the good doctor here."
John tried to imagine that conversation. He couldn't help but chuckle. "God, I bet he told you off."
No longer attempting to hide his smirk, Mycroft said, "He invited me to perform an act on my own person which is, I am reliably informed, biologically impossible."
John laughed. "Good for him." Then, thinking of the motivation behind Mycroft's current visit, "Um, no offense."
"None taken, I assure you." With a sigh, Mycroft added, "It was quite refreshing, truth be told."
Sherlock continued to pace. "If Lestrade doesn't report the assault, but the footage goes through routine screening..."
Any trace of mirth, or any expression at all, left Mycroft's face. "I can make it disappear."
"And the assailants?"
"I can make them disappear, too." The certainty behind the statement sent a chill down John's spine, even as he found it brought a certain primal satisfaction.
"However," Mycroft continued, "that will be an overt blow against Moriarty. I'm not sure you want to show your – our – full strength quite so early, over such inconsequential players as these common criminals."
Sherlock paused, frowned, shook his head. "No."
Once, with great force, Sherlock stamped his foot in agitation.
"Then we wait, I suppose. And watch." Mycroft stood and reclaimed his umbrella. "I've done what I came here to do. I will continue monitoring the situation via my usual channels."
"I expect I should thank you for intruding in this matter," Sherlock said, staring resolutely past Mycroft at a blank stretch of wallpaper.
"I expect you won't," Mycroft said, making his way toward the door. "If it helps, remember that this wasn't for you at all. I owe few true debts, Sherlock, but one of those is to the detective inspector. He deserves far more than he has received. Do with that what you will."
John opened the door for him. "I'll check on Lestrade," he said to Mycroft.
"Thank you, Doctor." With a nod at John, and another at his brother, Mycroft left.
John closed the door and turned to Sherlock, who now was standing aimlessly in the middle of the room like a lost child. "You all right?"
"I wasn't the one assaulted and abandoned in an alley, John." Sarcasm hung thick on the words.
"You don't have to be, for this to hurt."
Sherlock glared at him.
"Look," John said, "I need to do something or I'll go mad. And since finding those bastards and dismantling them limb by limb doesn't seem to be an option at the moment – though I'm not ruling it out for later, mind you – I'm inclined to follow my original plan."
"Drop by the Yard. Make sure he's okay." He hesitated a moment. "What do you think?"
Arms crossed over his slender torso, Sherlock considered, then shrugged. "I defer to your judgment. Do what you think is right." He met John's eyes. "From both of us."
John nodded, touched.
"Moriarty's made another move." Palming a packet of nicotine patches from the mantelpiece, Sherlock arranged himself full-length on the sofa once again. "And now I need to think."
"Right. I'll bring back something for your dinner." He forced a smile. "I know how you get after you've solved a case."
"And milk," he agreed. "And yes, I'll be careful."
"I may text," Sherlock said, closing his eyes. "To check on you both. Be certain to respond promptly."
This time John's smile appeared on its own. "Yeah, all right."
The world beyond 221B Baker Street appeared different to John than it had the previous day, when Sherlock's mad energy made each idea more fascinating, each breath more invigorating. That had been the calm before the storm. Now John saw spectres in every shadow, ambush at every turn.
If nothing else, he thought, maybe I'll live longer this way.
While part of him couldn't help but shiver at the thought of the figurative target he wore on his back, another part almost hoped someone would try something, now, while his outrage and anger were ripe, while the image of a brave man tormented by cowards was vivid in his mind's eye.
There was guilt, too, at the idea of all of those hours he had spent with Sherlock, laughing and listening to music and working through a case that already had waited years and easily could have waited longer. All of those hours, when his instincts were telling him something was wrong. Hours Lestrade had suffered alone.
It wouldn't happen again.
John arrived at Scotland Yard after sunset to find most of its rooms darkened for the evening. It was hardly late yet, but it was after regular hours. Lestrade's office light, of course, still shone.
The detective inspector sat in his shirtsleeves, hunched over paperwork, a cup of coffee at his elbow. He looked like... What had John expected? He looked like Lestrade.
He was paler than usual, but his colour seemed healthier than it had the previous morning. The dark shadows under his eyes were still present but not quite as harsh. He appeared to need a shave and a good night's rest, but that was hardly new.
As John watched, Lestrade rolled his eyes and crumpled the official form he'd been reading into a wadded ball. John needed no specialist to interpret the wry "Bugger that!" on his lips.
When he caught sight of John, Lestrade flinched in surprise – a reflexive jerk, eyes wide in sudden alarm – but the next moment he was waving John into the office and running his fingers through his dishevelled hair.
"Didn't expect to see you again so soon." Lestrade's familiar rasp had returned.
He frowned at John, his dark eyes radiating concern. John always seemed to forget that Lestrade was just as intense as Sherlock, albeit in his own quieter, saner way. When you spoke to him, either alone or in a room filled with others, he focused on you as if you were the only person on the planet.
"You all right? Is Sherlock?"
The questions caught John off guard, considering the circumstances, and he had to blink back a traitorous wave of emotion.
After a deep breath, John did as he'd promised himself and spoke only the truth, if not the whole truth. "We're fine. Sherlock's crashing after solving that cold case, and I needed some air. It suddenly caught up with me that I haven't had anything resembling a meal since yesterday. I thought, since I needed to eat, and you probably needed to eat..."
He shrugged and raised the bag in his hand. "Fancy some takeaway?" For the sake of good form, he added, "I only got the mild stuff, in case your stomach's a bit dodgy still."
Lestrade stared at John for a moment, clearly taken aback, and then a boyish grin transformed his features. "God, yeah. Sounds brilliant." A chuckle bubbled up from his throat. "You can't imagine."
Rising from his seat, he began to clear a space at his desk. "Pull up a chair, mate."
"Thanks," John said, making himself comfortable.
"There's bottled water in the fridge down the hall. Unless you prefer a cuppa?"
Lestrade disappeared around the corner of the office and returned with two bottled waters. He moved quite slowly, with conscious care, but without significant distress. John's relief was a physical sensation, the shrugging off of a terrible weight.
"Long day?" John asked.
"Long week, but nothing I didn't sign up for." And, dear God, Lestrade was serious: resolute and straightforward as a soldier in his sentiment, John could tell. There was something self-deprecating in his gusty sigh and almost-smile, John thought, but nothing fragile.
He continued, "It's ending with more solved cases than fresh bodies, so I'm counting it as a win for the good guys."
John shook his head. "I don't know how you do it, day in and day out."
"This, coming from the man who doctored soldiers in a war zone. While the enemy shot at him."
He hadn't thought of it that way. Did Lestrade have nightmares, too? John didn't doubt it. "Point taken," he said, setting out the cartons from the bag. "So we're idiots, then."
"Just ask Sherlock. He'll be glad to tell you."
This was his world now, he realized. Men spied on one another, kept secrets from one another, and broke the law for one another - and those were the good guys. London was a battlefield, ready to erupt in an all-too-personal war, and he was standing on the front lines.
Then again, his brothers-in-arms might be few, but they were extraordinary. Take his flatmate, for instance: a genius, a great man with the promise of goodness. And this detective inspector: a good man, whose quiet moments of greatness went unheralded, true enough, but not unappreciated. No, never again.
And whatever Mycroft turned out to be, John was grateful that the elder Holmes was on their side.
"Speaking of Sherlock..." John began.
He knew what he wanted to say: Sherlock saved me, but only because you saved him first. I'll watch your back now, just as you continue to watch his.
The words that he spoke were different only in shape, not in meaning. "Over the last couple of days I've discovered some truly shocking gaps in Sherlock's knowledge of popular culture. I mean shocking.
"I was thinking a mini movie marathon is in order this weekend. I could use a 'co-sponsor,' though, so we can gang up on him properly. Are you in?"
They chatted and schemed – and answered multiple texts from Sherlock – until John was drooping and Lestrade no longer could hide his yawns. Then Lestrade offered John a lift home, and John accepted.
When they stepped out into the darkness of the night, they walked closely side by side.
Vital stats: Originally written in May 2011.