Note: This is the third story in the Sofie Series. The Sofie Series includes the following stories in this order:
Mouth of Babes
"Sherlock, enough with the outrage," Lestrade said, weary exasperation heavy in every word, familiar in John's ears. "I wasn't asking you for your hand in marriage, your firstborn, or your last nicotine patch. Wasn't asking you for anything, as a matter of fact."
Sherlock huffed. "No, you were asking John – a man who only recently was released from hospital—"
"It's been almost two months," John interrupted. "Feels more like two years."
"—with grave injuries – to traipse about in the open, defenceless, with what amounts to a target on his back. And yours."
"First of all," Lestrade said, "we're not talking about walking the beat all night through gang territory; I'm inviting him to visit a well-travelled, public place in broad daylight for a short time.
"Second, I understand all too well the danger that's out there. You know I do. He'd never be alone. Neither would I."
"Yes, I'm sure Moriarty would soil himself at the mere sight of an ASP baton." Sherlock sneered at the notion. "John's hardly ready for any significant trek, anyway. On some days he still reverts to using his cane after only the briefest activity."
"I'm standing right here, you know," John said. "In the room. I can hear you and everything."
"Third," Lestrade continued, "John's recovery requires exercise, more than he can get in this flat. And his sanity no doubt requires a little fresh air."
"And mine doesn't?" Sherlock asked.
"There are times I question how much sanity you had to begin with," Lestrade said with wry humour. "But from what I understand, your hip and leg need more time to heal before you're properly on your feet.
"Besides," he shrugged, "it didn't seem like something you'd enjoy."
"So you just assumed, rather than ask."
Lestrade took a deep breath, clasped his hands behind his back, and stared fixedly at the floor at his feet. John sensed this was an old script the two were rereading, one that predated his own appearance at 221B by quite some time.
"Sherlock," Lestrade said, measured and steady, "on Saturday would you like to go with my daughter and me to the zoo to see the meerkats?"
"No, of course not." Sherlock was a study in insolence outspread on the sofa, glaring at the ceiling. "Not in the least. Not even if I could – but, of course, at the moment I can't."
"Well, that's settled, then," Lestrade said.
"I don't see why you'd ask John, either."
"Still right here," John said. "In the very same room with you. Need a nametag, do I?"
Offering John a sympathetic glance, Lestrade said, "I like John. Sofie likes John. I thought he might welcome a change of scenery, a bit of exercise. I thought it might lessen the chance he'll go mental from being cooped up here with a moody prat like you."
He straightened his shoulders with something like defiance.
"And yeah," he continued, "maybe I thought it would preserve a sense of normalcy for Sofie, going out with a friend rather than some kind of police escort. I'd be lying if I said I didn't hope John would help keep watch over her while we're out. I know he takes the threat we're all living under seriously. I trust him, at a time when I can't afford to trust many."
Sherlock huffed again. "I knew you were slow, Lestrade, but only you would choose a bodyguard who's still half-crippled from—"
"Stop. Just stop," John said, this time summoning the combined command of his soldier's and doctor's voices. He appreciated that Sherlock lashed out because of concern – for John, of course, but for Lestrade, as well – yet that didn't make the bitter words any easier to hear.
"Maybe this was just a bad idea," Lestrade said, rubbing a hand across the back of his neck, taking a step back, ceding the field. "Sorry."
"No. No, it wasn't," John said, raising a placating hand. "Sherlock, I know you're worried. So am I. But Lestrade's right: if I don't get some fresh air, if I don't do something, I'll lose my mind. I'm climbing the walls here and getting in the way of your work. Lestrade will watch my back. I'll watch his. We can both watch Sofie's. It'll be fun. It'll be fine."
Crossing his arms over his chest, Lestrade looked to John, apparently encouraged. "The meerkats aren't far from the main entrance. Sofie would happily watch them for hours. She knows that if you join us we won't walk the whole zoo, and she's fine with that. We'd only stay a while, but if you got tired early, we'd leave at your word."
He then considered Sherlock's sprawled form. "And I'd have an extra uniform posted here until we return, just to keep an eye out. Sofie would like nothing more than to come back afterward, Sherlock, and tell you all about the adventure in excruciating detail."
"You could wait until it's safer," Sherlock countered, indicating his ever-present laptop. "I'm closing in on him, with every new piece of data. He won't always—"
"I can't," Lestrade said. "I'm not questioning you or your research, Sherlock. But this needs to happen now."
Narrowing his eyes, Sherlock studied Lestrade.
John tried to observe as his flatmate did and blinked, disconcerted, wondering when exactly Lestrade had grown quite so haggard, so deeply lined around the eyes. Not even Moriarty's lurking shadow explained the new strain evident in the man.
Shrugging, Lestrade lightened his tone but refused to meet Sherlock's pale stare. "She's going through a meerkat phase. Who knows how long it will last?"
"What is it really?" Sherlock manoeuvred himself up to a sitting position. "What aren't you telling us?"
Lestrade actually flinched, and then John could see the walls going up around the detective inspector, as plainly as if masons laboured before his eyes with trowels and bricks and mortar.
"Sherlock, no. I can't do this right now." Lestrade glanced at John and then looked away at once. "I'll ring about the details for Saturday, all right?"
"Lestrade," Sherlock grated. "What. Is. It."
When the detective inspector finally spoke, he had his fingers clenched around the doorknob and his back to the room. "Leave it, Sherlock. A man can take his daughter to the zoo, can't he? Without a sodding inquisition?"
"Don't you dare run," Sherlock said. "Not when I can't give chase."
John limped to Lestrade's side, effectively blocking the door. "Lestrade?"
For stifling, confused moments, no one said a word.
"Julia – Sofie's gran, my mother-in-law – is taking her away. Moving. At least until all of this with Moriarty and his people is finished."
"Where?" John asked.
Lestrade turned, his motions brittle, too tightly controlled. "She's weighing her options. Likely Toronto. She has extended family there."
"Christ," John whispered. "So far."
"Far's the whole point. Suspicious activity around Sofie's school was increasing every day last term. We couldn't seem to add security fast enough. The administrators were justifiably alarmed."
Lestrade spoke without inflection, like a hostage reciting a memorized list of his abductor's demands. "It's the right thing to do. Before the new term. Sofie deserves a chance to have a childhood. I won't lock her up to keep her safe. The farther she is from me, the less chance she and her classmates are in danger."
John stepped backward and sagged against the wall.
"Look, I know I can't behave like I did when I lost her mother," Lestrade said, and his words clearly were aimed now at one man alone. "I can't afford to do anything but keep alert and stay the course. I'll do.
"Just give me one afternoon, Sherlock. One bloody afternoon with the bloody meerkats, yeah?"
For several heartbeats Lestrade held Sherlock's gaze. Then the consulting detective nodded.
"Right," Lestrade breathed. "Thanks." And, dear God, the man actually tried to smile. Tried and failed.
Then, with a mumbled, "Later, John," he was gone.
"Christ," John repeated himself, then cleared his throat. "What are we going to do?"
Sherlock shook his head, eyes on the closed door.
"What did he mean," John tried again, "about when he lost his wife?"
The answer did not come immediately. "He nearly worked himself to death. The very few hours a day he didn't spend on the job, he spent in a bottle."
The idea twisted through John's chest and belly like a cramp. "It's a miracle he ever stopped."
"It wasn't a miracle," Sherlock said. The harsh note in his words didn't escape John's notice. "Just a new project. One that appealed to his perpetually overactive sense of duty."
"Which was?" John suspected he could deduce the answer.
"A genius," he said, "who happened to be a self-destructive drug addict."
With obvious care, Sherlock lowered himself to recline on the couch and glare at the ceiling once more. His loosely belted dressing gown fell open, revealing silk boxers, pale skin, and a fresh network of jagged, puckering scars.
If we'd died in the rubble, John told himself, Lestrade wouldn't be losing his daughter now. But we didn't. Because he saved us.
"Stop that. Be quiet," Sherlock said. "I need to think."
Today will be a good day, John thought on Saturday morning. God, it just has to be. Please.
He knew Sofie would be unfazed by his cane – hell, Sofie seemed unfazed by almost everything, except the odd (and fictional) Voldemort attack, which John found to be perfectly understandable – but despite the summer heat, he opted for a long-sleeved white shirt. No need to display the shiny burns that glazed the length of his arm quite so soon.
As for those on his neck and wrist and hand, there was nothing to be done. John tried not to dwell on those things that couldn't be helped. So many still could be.
The fresh scars on his legs were less gruesome, easier to overlook. Shorts, then.
He recognized the onset of a full-scale Sherlockian pout when he saw it, and he felt genuine sympathy, despite the fact he knew Sherlock would've found meerkat watching at the zoo to be ridiculously pedestrian and dull.
It was the helplessness that rankled, John knew all too well. And the worry.
But Sherlock had Moriarty's world to investigate, to study, to deduce. Constantly. Obsessively. He complained when John interrupted him – especially these past few days, when he seemed even more driven and secretive than usual. Now he'd have a few hours without any distractions.
And John could breathefor a moment. Stretch.
It would be fine, John told himself. Or as close to fine as he could make it.
"Decide what you'd like us to bring back for dinner," he said to Sherlock. "We'll text when we're on our way. Your choice, anything you want."
"And don't forget: Sofie knows nothing about the move yet," John added. "So don't let on."
"I fail to comprehend the attraction of meerkats," came the terse reply, several beats later.
"They're endearing, I suppose. They have some attitude." John straightened a bit and smiled. "According to Lestrade, Sofie says I remind her a bit of a meerkat myself, believe it or not. Which I take as a compliment."
"They eat each other's faeces, John. You must be so proud."
He couldn't think of a clever comeback to that.
Sherlock snorted at this minor default victory. "And what about me? Do I remind Sofie of anything?"
"Severus Snape, apparently." At Sherlock's blank stare, John rolled his eyes. "Oh really, Sherlock. Still?" He sighed and then gave his flatmate's customary words back to him: "Do your research."
The sound of footfalls on the steps drew John to the door. He'd barely cracked it open before "Hi,
John! Hi, Sherlock!" sounded in Sofie's unmistakable voice.
"Here's our girl!" John bent forward to shake her hand properly, but he received an emphatic hug around the neck as his greeting instead. The next moment Sofie was past him, headed for Sherlock.
Straightening, John looked to Lestrade. The man chuckled softly as he crossed the threshold, clapping a gentle hand to John's shoulder in passing.
He wore a wide grin on his face and unspeakable grief in his eyes.
Sofie seemed to accept as routine her father's careful examination of the car's exterior and interior before he allowed her inside. She spent the drive to the zoo briefing John on all he needed to know about the wonder of meerkats, aided by books, pictures, and two stuffed animals she'd assembled for the purpose.
Her enthusiasm was contagious.
"Daddy says you've been to the desert," she said. "Did you ever see any meerkats? They're desert creatures, you know."
"No, I didn't. I think I was too far north. Wish I had, though. I didn't realize they were so fascinating."
"I wish you had, too. But at least you'll see some today. Did you know they even play sports?
They wrestle, and they race."
"I had no idea. They race? Seriously?"
"Yeah. On their hind legs. Just like humans." Head on one side, she asked, "Do you play sports?"
"I used to play rugby. Come to think of it, compared to some of the big blokes on my team, I was about meerkat-sized."
Sofie crossed her arms, gave him a frank stare, and then giggled.
Somehow Lestrade managed to interject the occasional comment or question that proved he too was listening to Sofie's steady chatter about pups and mobs, burrowing and foraging, but John noted how carefully the detective inspector surveyed the surrounding traffic, hyperaware of their position in it.
Lestrade's vigilance didn't relax once they had parked, but he did seem to breathe a bit easier in the open. Sofie rearranged their positions once she realized that John's uninjured arm was as strong as her father's. With each man holding one of her hands above her head, she could swing her legs in the air as they walked. Her laughter found its echo in Lestrade's, and the sounds warmed John to the core.
The sun on John's skin was nothing short of intoxicating. London indeed had persevered – reawakened, blossomed, thrived – while he and his flatmate were fighting their painful way back from the explosion at the pool. It was both humbling and heartening to glimpse a world beyond 221B Baker Street, to remember there was so much life that Moriarty hadn't touched.
John's uneven gait and reliance on his cane appeared not to trouble the Lestrades at all. They matched his halting pace with good-humoured grace and without comment. Sofie tried to look everywhere at once, wide-eyed, fascinated.
Once they entered the zoo, she took charge of the map and issued directions.
They went through the tunnel below the outer circle. They walked past the giraffes and hunting dogs of "Into Africa." They crossed before the Clore Rainforest Lookout.
Ahead, on their right, lay their destination: the meerkats.
"Lia and Roo will be there," Sofie said, her voice rising with her excitement. "I saw them on the zoo's website. They're babies, being raised by—"
In an innocent moment between one heartbeat and the next, a violent sound tore through the air, erupting across the crowd's amused conversation and the animals' primal calls.
Instinct and training acted as one. John burst into motion.
Lunging a step past Sofie, John shoved at Lestrade with all of his strength. Using the rebound momentum he scooped up Sofie in an arm, clutched her tightly to his torso, and dove for the nearest patch of green grass. His knees and the elbow of his free arm absorbed the immediate impact of the fall. At once he eased Sofie down to the ground and then lowered himself to shield the vulnerable little body with his own, careful to hold back his full weight, tucking his chin over her dark hair.
No one gets to you, John thought, except through me.
He could feel Sofie's shallow breaths against his chest, her fingers curled into the fabric of his shirt.
A second passed. Then another.
As the first immediate clamour of surprise faded, John risked a glance over his shoulder.
Lestrade had planted himself directly in front of them, shifting his weight on the balls of his feet in a fighter's stance, clutching John's abandoned cane like an overlong truncheon.
And no one gets to us, John thought, except through him.
A second report exploded, reverberating through John's skull to the roots of his teeth, and he flinched, curling himself over and around the child beneath him.
Under the hot sun words came unbidden to his lips, spilling out of his mouth like blood from a wound, soft as whispers with every exhalation.
For a span of some minutes that John would never reclaim, his universe faded into the sepia of desert sand and blurred memory.
A hand touched him.
In less than an instant his options presented themselves: break the wrist, break the arm, or break the neck of the man to whom they belonged. Neutralize the threat.
Yet, insistent as it was, the tug of the strong hand on his shoulder seemed to be intended to persuade rather than force. At the same time a low, gruff voice said "John" and "John Watson" and "Doctor Watson," over and over again near his ear, followed by "safe" and "bloody tractor" and "backfired."
Understanding slammed into John like a magazine loaded into a semiautomatic.
Gasping, he threw himself backward, landing awkwardly in the grass. He squinted at the bright sunlit scene before him: the aged service vehicle, hauling a wagon of zoo supplies; the appalled crowd of onlookers, gaping at him; the detective inspector easing his little daughter up from the ground, murmuring reassurances.
"Oh God," John said, gutted. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Crablike, he scuttled in retreat, hands and feet, elbows and arse, trying to put distance between himself and everything he'd just spectacularly ruined.
Even in that, he failed. He couldn't catch his breath. He couldn't stop his shaking.
Dimly he became aware of Lestrade, never more than an arm's length away, running interference for him against the other visitors, the zoo security guards, and God only knew who else.
Sofie drew close to John's side, pale with enormous eyes, a thoroughly crumpled map of the zoo tucked beneath her arm. She put her fingers to John's cheek. They came back wet with tears.
"It's all right," she said. "It was just that stupid buggy thing. Daddy's fine. I'm fine. Please don't cry, John."
He nodded, burning with shame. "I'm fine, too," he managed.
Strange, how the mind worked, grasping for details with which to ground itself. John observed with perfect clarity how the electric blue laces of Sofie's trainers matched the lettering on her tee-shirt, which read Trust Me, I'm A Jedi.
"Promise you're fine?" she asked.
"Promise. Didn't mean to scare you."
"You surprised me, that's all," she explained. "But then you said, 'I've got you, soldier. Easy now. You're safe.' So I wasn't really scared."
John blinked hard. "Oh."
"Besides, I knew Daddy would protect us."
He nodded. "That's right."
Her concern gave way to a wicked smile, punctuated by the errant blades of grass in her hair. "I bet you were totally brilliant at rugby."
There were several things that John expected he deserved from Lestrade. A suggestion to find himself a cab ride home followed by some choice curses, perhaps. Quite possibly a solid thumping. Fury, most certainly.
What he got instead was a sincere frown and a simple question: "What do you need, John?"
"I'm sorry," he said, forcing the words past clenched teeth. Regret and humiliation conspired to overwhelm him. He scrubbed a hand across his face.
"No," Lestrade said. "Don't." And then, with soft insistence, "Tell me: what do you need?"
To let the ground open up and swallow me whole, John thought. To start this day over. To disappear.
"Sit down for a mo'," he mumbled. "Maybe" – he had to get his damn breathing under control – "something to drink, yeah?"
John was bodily lifted to his feet and tucked against Lestrade's side, his cane fitted into his grasp.
Half-supporting John and holding Sofie close, Lestrade set out like a man on a mission.
And there, oh there, John noted with an odd sense of detachment, there was that thunderous expression that made Anderson tuck his tail between his legs, Donovan swallow her retorts, and even the great Sherlock Holmes go silent on occasion. That scowl assured all comers that anyone who so much as looked in Lestrade's direction would be served his or her heart and genitals on a platter. With relish.
Gawking bystanders parted like the Red Sea.
The next thing John knew, he was seated comfortably on a bench beside Sofie near the "Woodland Walk" across from the meerkat exhibit. His hands curled around a Coca-Cola, while the little girl slurped at an ice lolly with obvious pleasure, swinging her legs as she smoothed the map across her lap.
Lestrade sat on his daughter's far side, a protective arm outstretched along the back of the bench to encompass Sofie and John both. His eyes roamed the surrounding scene as if he didn't have a care in the world, but John could sense the fine tremors in the man as the final brutal waves of adrenaline washed over him before receding.
Shifting a bit, John tried to take stock of himself. Grass stains on his shirt. Skinned knees. Not long ago he could've made a dive like that and been back on his feet in a couple of seconds, scarcely winded. Now every part of his body announced that he'd been shot, blown up, and buried beneath the debris of a demolished building since then. Loudly.
Broken on the outside, just like the inside, an insistent voice mocked him.
But the sweet, fizzy drink helped, as did time and the undemanding presence of the two beside him. Each breath came as less of a struggle.
John watched as Lestrade picked one last twig from his daughter's hair and finger-combed the tangle into order.
"Reckon you're all right?" Lestrade asked, once he'd caught John's eye. His casual tone belied the gravity of his expression.
"Yeah," John said, a beat too fast.
Sofie looked up at him, her features a mirror of her father's.
"And you," John said to her, "are being very patient. Thank you."
This apparently translated to Sofie as permission to resume her previously interrupted monologue. With a deep breath, she began, "Well, like I was saying, Lia and Roo are over there. They're baby pups, being raised by hand by the zookeepers. I saw this video online that showed…"
Beyond her, Lestrade shook his head and bit his lip, unable to hold back his smile.
Lestrade hadn't exaggerated: Sofie could observe the meerkats happily for hours.
And she did. Both men made certain of it.
The meerkats were delightful. Sofie was doubly so.
Their little party of three stood and sauntered and sat until they had seen the meerkats' habitat from every conceivable angle. John promised Lestrade that he'd speak up if he grew too tired or uncomfortable, and then he promptly promised himself that he would die before that ever happened.
He ached and throbbed and hurt, it was true, but he'd ached and throbbed and hurt for so many weeks now: better to do it outside for once, in the summer heat, feeling alive and a part of things.
Better to see Lestrade have this time with Sofie.
Although John was prepared to remain on the periphery and act the lookout, father and daughter continually drew him into their experience, including him as if he'd always belonged there, sharing jokes and snacks and observations. He drank in the feeling of family, not fully realising until then how he'd thirsted for it.
It made him all the more aware of what Lestrade stood to lose.
A good while later, as Sofie paused before the fence, riveted by the meerkats' antics, Lestrade spoke in a hush, angling his quiet words over her head to John.
"Never was much for zoos myself. Preferred to see animals in the wild or on the farms, not penned up just for show."
"But it's hard to find meerkats roaming the English countryside," John said.
"Exactly. And they are amazing creatures." Lestrade sounded as though he was thinking aloud. "Altruistic. There's nothing the adults wouldn't do or sacrifice for their pups.
"They even keep a trusted sentry posted at all times to watch for danger. Must be the most important duty there is for them, standing between the burrow and any outside threat." With a quirk of his lips, he added, "See? I've been minding my lessons."
John swallowed. "Lestrade, about earlier: I'm sorry."
Bewilderment was clear in the detective inspector's face. "What for? Having faster reflexes than I do? You weren't the only one who thought all hell was breaking loose. Sounded exactly like gunfire to me."
Lestrade shook his head. "You put yourself…" For a moment, blinking out at the simulated desert, he appeared unable to speak.
When he continued, he said simply, "If that's you 'half-crippled,' John, you must be a bloody marvel at full strength. Glad you're on our side, mate."
John tilted back his head, closed his eyes, and let the sun shine full on his face for several moments. Funny, how those few words could mean more to him than any medal in a box under his bed. At last he cleared his throat and said, "You looked rather fierce yourself with my cane."
"Yeah. Well." Lestrade gave a mirthless chuckle. "If footage of that ever makes it to YouTube, we'll see if the DCI feels the same."
"Oh," John grunted, horrified. For Sofie's sake, he choked back the choicest expletives that came to mind.
Lestrade seemed to shrug off the idea like one of Sherlock's insults at a crime scene. "Could be worse. Could've been a brolly."
Despite himself, John had to laugh.
Sofie began to wilt as the afternoon progressed and the heat increased. John suspected that, if they found a shaded bench, she would be asleep in less than five minutes. When Lestrade reminded her that she had to save enough energy to recount her day to Sherlock, she declared she was ready to go.
As John texted home to ask Sherlock what he wanted for dinner, Lestrade knelt next to his daughter. The next thing John knew, Sofie had climbed onto Lestrade's back, wrapping her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck. As he rose, the detective inspector twined his fingers together over his torso, securing her legs in the crooks of his elbows.
Twin pairs of warm brown eyes turned toward John.
His breath caught. It was picture-worthy moment, those faces nearly cheek to cheek.
The thought of the two of them torn from each other was almost too much to bear. Not for the first time, John wished he had Jim Moriarty alone for just five minutes. Two, even. He wouldn't require more to do what needed to be done. Barehanded.
But then there would be Moriarty's colleagues and associates and minions to face. It never would end, would it? Lestrade understood this better than most. No matter what her grandmother believed, Sofie's relocation would not be a temporary one.
"Ready?" Lestrade asked.
"Yeah," John said. He automatically fell into step behind them to watch Lestrade's back and cover the man's blind spots, just as Lestrade set his pace to match John's speed. By the time they had passed through the exit, Sofie's head was nodding drowsily.
Halfway across the car lot, Lestrade slowed at the same time John picked up his limping pace.
They came abreast of each other, both poised to speak.
"You see it, too?" Lestrade asked. Casual and offhand, just two blokes talking.
"Yeah. If they're waiting for friends, they'd be closer to the exit."
"And if they wanted to park, they could've done; the lot's not full." After a pause, "Mind riding in the back with Sofie?"
John glanced up at Lestrade's face, which was flushed with the effort of giving a piggyback ride in the summer heat. And tight around the mouth and eyes with something else.
"Course not," John said. "Be glad to." It made sense to have someone next to the child in the event that anyone approached the car. If they were cornered, trapped at a stop, or run off the road… the possibilities didn't bear thinking about, not when he could do so little to prepare for them.
"Thanks, mate. Consider yourself warned: we might be taking the long way round to your flat."
The message was clear: if they tail us, I'll try to shake them.
With a nod, John said, "Right. Doesn't look like one of Mycroft's cars, but you never know."
"Guess I can always use the practice, either way," Lestrade said grimly.
John's mobile buzzed and chimed.
He read Sherlock's text aloud: "No food needed. Plans have changed. Return as soon as Sofie is willing."
"Any idea what he's on about?" Lestrade asked.
"None at all," John said. "As usual."
They sighed in unison and continued the short distance to the car, shoulder to shoulder.
Apparently Lestrade had learned at least a few of his defensive driving skills from a combination of buddy cop shows and action-adventure films. Sofie was hugely delighted. John was undeniably impressed.
John also fancied that the traffic lights had proved uncannily sympathetic to their cause.
At any rate, Lestrade soon lost the car that followed them.
There could have been others. Perhaps John's paranoia was getting the best of him, but he had begun to think of Moriarty's people as cockroaches, in that the appearance of one suggested many more lurking nearby, undetected. Lestrade must have agreed, because he remained perceptibly on his guard throughout the drive to Baker Street.
The uniformed policeman on not-so-subtle guard there accepted Lestrade's dismissal and departed. John knew that other less noticeable but equally friendly eyes remained in position to help protect the flat.
Even before he had reached the top of the stairs, John could smell the food.
Not takeaway. Catered, from the kind of posh restaurant neither he nor Lestrade could afford to frequent.
As he opened the door, he braced himself for what he would find on the other side.
"Hello, Mycroft," he said.
He had to give Mycroft credit: any other man in that many layers of clothing during the summer season would be halfway to heatstroke. For the first time in several hours, John felt his own skinned and stained appearance acutely.
Sherlock hobbled forward, his fresh tee-shirt and light cotton pyjama pants almost formal compared to his attire of recent weeks. His pale, perceptive eyes inspected John from head to foot; his brow furrowed.
Meeting John's gaze, he asked, "You're all right?"
"I'm fine," John said, sending up a fervent prayer that Sherlock would accept the answer for now.
After a brief hesitation, enough to assure John that they'd be revisiting the topic later, Sherlock nodded. John felt a sudden and fierce rush of affection for this enigmatic man who by turns could seem so imperious and vulnerable, aloof and attached.
"Hello, Mr Holmes," Lestrade was saying to Mycroft. Lestrade was never truly off duty – it was one of the traits that John most respected about him, in fact – but he'd been far more a friend than a colleague this day. Now a kind of professional composure settled over him as he nodded pleasantly to Sherlock's brother. Not unfriendly, most definitely not intimidated, but not entirely at ease, either.
Yeah, well, John thought, Mycroft did that to people.
Not, apparently, to Sofie.
"Hi there," the little girl said, flapping a plush meerkat toy under each arm. "You're the man I met at school."
"It's a pleasure to see you again, Ms Lestrade." Mycroft nodded toward her shirt. "My compliments on the appropriateness of your attire. I have no difficulty whatsoever believing that you are a member of the Jedi Order."
"I'm sorry, but I don't understand," Lestrade said, a question plain in his eyes. "You've met before?"
Sherlock crossed to Lestrade, one now-graceless step after another. To John's surprise, the consulting detective wore none of the sullen defensiveness that Mycroft's visits so often seemed to provoke in him. If anything, Sherlock seemed shyly pleased as he approached Lestrade, an awkward adolescent bearing a homemade gift.
"Mycroft will explain everything," he said, his voice uncharacteristically soft. "Please, sit down."
Then a childlike grin transformed Sherlock's features. John knew him well enough by now to understand that expression appeared for only one of three things: the discovery of a particularly fascinating corpse, the successful conclusion of a complex scientific experiment, or the appearance of one Sofie Lestrade.
"Join me in the kitchen?" he asked the child. "I've set up a surprise. And I must hear your report on the day's events."
As the two departed from the sitting room, Mycroft said to Lestrade, "Our food is warming in the oven. I hope you won't mind my taking a few minutes of your time, Detective Inspector, before we dine." He resumed his seat and waved Lestrade to another.
"I'll just…" John had no idea what he'd just do. He took an uncertain step backward toward the staircase.
Sherlock's voice carried from the kitchen. "Everything you've told me, Mycroft, John will know anyway. Let him join you, and save me the tedium of filling him in."
Mycroft raised an eyebrow and looked to Lestrade, who shrugged and beckoned to John. Visibly fatigued and now steeling himself for this next ordeal, the detective inspector appeared as though he could use all of the support he could get.
John felt no better than Lestrade looked. A month might have passed since that morning. He barely kept himself from groaning aloud as he eased his weary body into a chair.
"I'll speak candidly, if I may," Mycroft said to Lestrade, quiet and calm and precise. "We all know that your daughter, as someone close to you and close to Sherlock and John, is particularly vulnerable to outside threats at this time. From one direction, in particular. You are of course singularly well qualified to see to her security at home, but when she is at her studies, well…"
In that instant, John realized the true focus of Sherlock's fevered efforts over the past few days.
Mycroft's eyes flickered toward the kitchen, from which Sofie's animated chatter could be heard. "I was informed that your late wife's family planned to… take measures… for her safety. Understandable, given the circumstances. But short-sighted. Anywhere one can relocate, one also can be followed."
Lestrade flexed the fingers of his right hand and curled them around thin air. He nodded once, the muscle rippling at his jaw, but he said nothing.
"I took the not insignificant liberty of visiting your daughter's school and requesting certain information, which necessitated the administration of a specific test. Normally this would require parental approval, not to mention a great deal of time and paperwork, but a man of my security clearance level is rarely constrained by general safeguards enacted for the personal privacy of the public."
As Lestrade visibly bristled, Mycroft raised a hand.
"I realize you would be well within your rights to view this as a violation, but I deemed it best for all concerned that as few individuals as possible knew of my actions. I trust you will agree with me, once you've heard all. If not, I will offer both my regrets and the sole copies of the documentation I gathered."
"Go on," Lestrade said in a strained rasp.
"Simply put, I offer you and your mother-in-law an alternative." With this, Mycroft produced a card from his breast pocket and leaned forward, presenting it to Lestrade.
After considering the card for several moments, Lestrade passed it to John, who shook his head.
"Never heard of it," John said.
"That," Mycroft explained with an enigmatic half-smile, "is because it doesn't exist. Officially."
"It's a school?" Lestrade asked.
"Indeed. As you are both no doubt aware, our country boasts several elite institutions for the education of the upper class, the sons and daughters of the peerage and gentry, even royalty. What is not well known – indeed, not known at all – is that there is a separate institution, a 'shadow school,' if you will, for the sons and daughters of those in the most crucial positions of the government.
"By this I mean the children of our most valued international intelligence agents; of our diplomats currently engaged in high-level and often covert negotiations with foreign powers; and of other parents whose service not only distinguishes them, but also makes them and their family members particularly attractive targets for our enemies.
"Imagine how our nation might be endangered if someone in an especially sensitive position could be compromised due to threats to a child."
An "Ooooh!" of appreciation sounded from the kitchen, followed by a bubbling-then-splashing gurgle and a thoroughly nauseating smell.
"Sherlock, remember your promise: no scarring her for life," Lestrade called out, his attention never wavering from Mycroft's face. "That includes poisons and explosives."
"We're just making potions, Daddy!" Sofie answered.
John could imagine more reassuring responses.
Readjusting his weight fussily on the sofa, Mycroft threw a glare in Sherlock's general direction and then continued.
"This school is of the very highest academic quality. But what is more to the immediate point, it is housed in one of the most secure physical locations in the country, quite likely in the Western world.
"I can offer you no details, save for the fact it is in London."
Lestrade crossed his arms and gave a tentative frown. "A school like that must be very expensive."
"A single term would cost more than your annual salary, Detective Inspector." Mycroft waved a long-fingered hand. "But that's hardly relevant."
This surprised a chuckle of astonishment from Lestrade. "Maybe for someone like you, but—"
"You misunderstand me," Mycroft interrupted. "I have secured a tuition waiver for your daughter for the entirety of her matriculation. It's simply not an issue."
"Ms Lestrade herself eliminated the one obstacle that might have presented a challenge," Mycroft continued. "The institution maintains rather high standards – there are other arrangements available for the safety of children who do not meet them – but fortunately her test scores qualify her easily. You have quite an intelligent and engaged daughter, Detective Inspector."
This, John thought faintly, was the point at which Sherlock would make a joke – unfairly but inevitably – about how such news brought Lestrade's paternity into question. Even though Sherlock wasn't in the room, the three men paused, as if waiting for it.
Truth be told, John needed a breather, however brief. He continued to feel like Lestrade looked, which at the moment meant colourless and thoroughly gobsmacked.
"What you're suggesting… God help me, it's a dream come true." Lestrade ran his fingers through his hair and swallowed hard. "But it's also a debt I can't owe. Considering your position, your power, and my job… to any outsider, Mr Holmes, I'd look bought and paid for. You understand? I'd be no good to your brother, to anyone, if someone believed..."
It was physically painful, John thought, watching Lestrade force out the words, knowing what they cost.
"You're offering me the one thing I want," Lestrade said, "but at a price I can't pay."
"You, Detective Inspector, are a rarity." It was Mycroft's turn to look taken aback. Surprise didn't suit him. "Sherlock anticipated that you'd voice just such a reservation, but I doubted it."
Sofie was applauding now in the kitchen. John hoped he was imagining the faint whiff of smoke.
"Let me see: where to begin?" Mycroft said, shifting slightly. "Practicality: knowledge of this school's existence is exceptionally limited. Knowledge of this school's student roster is so highly classified as to be virtually impossible to discover. In short, information is provided strictly on a need-to-know basis, and no one needs to know. Thus you should not concern yourself about how this would seem to an outsider. The outsider will never be aware of it."
John heard something along the lines of "Never mind, we'll clean that up later – or, ah, John will," whispered by Sherlock. He resolutely ignored it.
"Second," Mycroft continued, "this arrangement in your case is utterly justifiable under current policy. As a consulting criminal for a variety of regional, national, and international associates, James Moriarty has proven at least as dangerous as any domestic terrorist or foreign agitator. And you happen to be the ranking public servant standing on the proverbial front lines to combat him – and thus to be targeted by him.
"You have accepted grave risk for London, for the entire country. It is only just that your daughter be protected in return. In the unlikely event that any question of propriety is ever posed, this would be my answer."
Lestrade had gone very still, even as Mycroft had grown more intense. John felt as though his heart and stomach had lodged together in his throat. His hands had lost all feeling where he grasped the armrests of the chair.
Drawing himself up – not an easy feat, as Mycroft already had appeared ramrod straight – the elder Holmes reached down to his knee and wrapped his fingers around the handle of his ever-present umbrella, much as a child might clutch a security blanket. He fixed his eyes on a point past Lestrade's elbow.
Whatever he intended to say, John realized, wasn't coming easily.
"On a more personal note, I am most sympathetic to your impulse not to owe another a significant debt. I share your sentiment." A frown marred Mycroft's broad brow. "Imagine my chagrin at owing you my brother's life. Twice, at least, to my knowledge. Quite likely several times more.
"I do not find this easy to discuss, Detective Inspector, and I will say it only once: five years ago Sherlock did not overdose and die in some gutter, thanks to you; three months ago, he did not haemorrhage and bleed to death in the wreckage of that building, again thanks to you. My debt weighs heavily on me, and I welcome the opportunity to balance the ledger between us."
Lestrade shook his head and drew a breath, presumably to protest, but Mycroft did not give him the opportunity.
"If the state does not owe you – and I believe that it does – then it certainly owes me," Mycroft said. "The delicacy of my position entitles me to the use of this institution. As is perhaps obvious at this juncture, there is no cause to expect direct Holmes descendants in the near future. If there had been no other openings, Ms Lestrade would have been welcome to one held in reserve for me."
John had to remind himself to breathe. As blue eyes once again held brown, he fancied he could hear the heartbeats of the two men in the stillness, which was broken only by the sounds of Sherlock and Sofie and God only knew what mischief brewing in the kitchen.
"I think," John said to Lestrade in a choked voice, "he's trying to say you're family."
"Really, John. There's no need to be insulting." Mycroft scowled and brushed at an invisible piece of lint on his trousers.
Lestrade made a strangled noise, something like a cross between a gasp and a laugh.
"I appreciate that you may wish to consult with your mother-in-law," Mycroft continued. "You will have to be circumspect, of course, in what you tell her."
"This… It can't be this easy. It just… can't." Lestrade's voice sounded as if he hadn't used it in years.
"I assure you, Detective Inspector, there would be nothing easy about it. Your daughter's classmates would, by and large, come from a different social and economic class than she. Extra tutoring might be required at first to help her catch up with the material she's already missed. She would enter a highly competitive and isolated – and, needless to say, security-conscious – world."
Cupping his chin in one hand, Lestrade nodded his understanding.
"That said," Mycroft continued, "being of the same social and economic class as one's cohort is no guarantee of an agreeable rapport with one's peers. If you doubt me, ask your consulting detective."
Oh Sherlock, John thought.
"Furthermore, your daughter would graduate in a position to choose both her university and her career. No door would be closed to her.
"Most importantly, Ms Lestrade would be able to face her future with her father literally as well as figuratively by her side."
John tried to imagine giving Mycroft a hug or a high five or even a pat on the back, but the effort was beyond him. He settled for mentally punching his fist into the air in victory.
"Think on it," Mycroft said. "The offer is not, I'm afraid, without an expiration date, but I was able to secure you a week. I hope that will suffice."
"O'course," Lestrade said unsteadily. "Ah, Mr Holmes, I—"
A muted squeak sounded, followed by, "Doitagain, Sherlock! Pleaseplease! Doitagain!"
Then, to John's amazement, the pitch-perfect dulcet tones of Alan Rickman-as-Severus Snape followed: "I can teach you how to bewitch the mind and ensnare the senses. I can tell you how to bottle fame, brew glory, and even put a stopper in death."
"Oh, that's him! Again! Please?"
"Bloody hell," John said, shaking his head, unsure whether to laugh or cry. Perhaps he was already doing a bit of both. "He did his research."
After several heartbeats, Sherlock's own familiar voice rang out in impatient complaint: "Stop listening, you three! You're putting me off."
John paused in his typing and glanced over his shoulder. "It was a very good thing that you did for Lestrade," he said. Asking Mycroft for assistance was not, John knew, one of his flatmate's favourite pastimes.
Sherlock's long-abandoned Stradivarius had reappeared for the first time since the explosion at the pool. Thus far Sherlock had done nothing more than sit on the sofa and hold it, but John nursed a sense of hope.
"Sofie will continue to be in constant danger," Sherlock replied, cradling the violin in his hands. "As will Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, Mycroft – and you, of course."
Until I find him and stop him, Sherlock didn't say. John heard it anyway.
"True, but she'll be surrounded by people who'll love and protect her. That matters, Sherlock."
He felt the full weight of his flatmate's scrutiny then. "Sofie said that she's your soldier. You told her so. She seemed honoured."
John ducked his head, staring once more at his laptop keyboard. "Yeah, well… I don't exactly remember that."
When the silence from Sherlock grew too loud, John squared his shoulders and turned to face him. "Did she tell you everything?"
"She didn't need to. Your, ah, episode was simple to deduce from your clothing, your—"
"Right," John interrupted. He waited for an "I told you so," but it didn't come.
Sherlock looked away and hugged his Stradivarius to himself like a shield. After a pause, he said, "I believe the preferred phrase in the aftermath of such a traumatic event is 'I'm here for you.'"
Discomfort radiated from Sherlock like heat from a furnace. And clearly the man was steeling himself for a second attempt.
"Should you need, ah—" he began.
"Sherlock." Something melted inside of John, going as warm and gooey as Sherlock and Sofie's so-called "potions" had done all over the kitchen table. And floor.
After a heartbeat, John took pity on his flatmate. "If you offer me a hug or a sympathetic ear, I swear I'll thump you."
It was all he could do not to laugh out loud as the tense lines of Sherlock's body immediately relaxed.
"Not that I don't appreciate the thought," John added.
Sherlock's lips twitched, fighting a grin. "Understood."
John returned to his typing.
"What are you doing?" Sherlock asked.
"I haven't updated my blog in ages."
"We've had no new cases."
"We will," John said. "I need to stay in the habit."
It didn't matter to him if the post was brief. He'd been pleased at what he found when he'd Googled "summer quotes." The people who mattered most would understand.
He reread his entry:
As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, 'Summer has set in with its usual severity.'
But the meerkats don't mind the heat. The sentries are on duty. For now the burrow is safe."
John hit "enter," sighed in satisfaction, and stretched.
"So," he said, "are you going to stare at that violin all night, or are you going to play me something?"
Vital stats: Originally written in July 2011.
Originally written for the prompt "Summer has set in with its usual severity" for the Summer of Sherlock Fest.
No meerkats were harmed in the making of this story.