Before I Sleep
The world is grey and brown, covered in a veil of white snow that falls like powdered sugar, only to be shredded and trampled into mush the second it hits the sidewalk. The world is the smooth, cold press of glass against his cheek, the familiar rhythms of Baker Street in London, the sporadic ever-fascinating flutter of snowflakes twirling past. All is quiet, and for a moment almost easy.
"Sherlock, it's below zero in here! Did the heat give out?"
"Hm?" Sherlock rouses from where his face has been pressed against the pane of the window for the past ninety-seven minutes. He's surprised to see that his breath has left a long, pale cloud of condensation on the window. It makes steam in the air, too, and he only just realizes that the room is harsh and cold against his skin, his favourite robe insufficient to keep him warm even when he's folded into a ball with his arms around his knees.
John stands in the middle of the flat, coat and scarf and gloves still on, and his breath is visible too, opaque in the dull light of a January afternoon. His cheeks are red with exertion—he must have done the walk from the clinic, even though the weather merits a cab—and his brows are raised expectantly.
"Ah," Sherlock says. Mrs. Hudson is out for the weekend. It hadn't occurred to him to find the thermostat.
"Ah," John agrees, and gives him a look. He turns and goes back downstairs, his steps heavy and uneven on the steps. His knee is hurting him again; cold wet weather does it now, since the pool. Sherlock brushes off the unhelpful qualities of that observation and goes to get dressed, because he's cold.
The sound of John's careful steps coming back up feel heavy in his ears, though, and he diverts halfway to the bedroom to put the kettle on. The knob for the burner should be rough against his skin, but his fingertips are numb from the cold. He twists it on and then proceeds to the bedroom. When he comes back out again, jacket on and scarf wrapped around his neck, the flat is already warming into more acceptable ranges for comfortable habitation.
John stands in front of the stove with his bare fingers extended towards the burner, wiggling them to get circulation back. He's shed his jacket over the back of his armchair. He looks tired. His face is grey, and there are dark circles around his eyes. These signs would usually indicate a difficult day at the clinic, except that he hasn't been fiddling with his collar, and his shoulders lack the stiff tension they normally gain after treating something serious.
It's something else, then. Sherlock leans against the wall and watches him, head tilted at an angle, trying to gather data. John catches the weight of his gaze and turns to lean on the kitchen counter facing him, braced back on his hands. He manages a tired smile and just lets Sherlock look, not trying to prevaricate or help in any way. His ease with this—his actual welcoming of being deduced and dissected—is deeply valuable.
Sherlock ticks over John's form, looking for his usual tells, but nothing is particularly helpful. The textures of his expression, the weight of his stance, the steady center of his presence, have become familiar enough that Sherlock finds himself surprised anew each time he notices them again. John's hands are steady, legs crossed easily at the ankle now that the air has warmed; his head is tilted to the side, a mirror angle of Sherlock's. When he meets Sherlock's gaze, his own is placid and amused. His brows raise expectantly.
Sherlock isn't sure himself, really. He's surprised to hear his own voice murmur, "Alright?"
"Fine," John returns. They have solved twelve murders and two robberies in the last six weeks, and before then they were nearly killed by Moriarty. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), John's answer is entirely honest. The warmth that settles in Sherlock's chest then could be defined as comfort in other circumstances.
The kettle whistles, sharp and metallic, and the moment dissipates. John makes them tea and hands Sherlock a steaming mug as he brushes by into the living room. John settled into the couch with his laptop, and after a moment of consideration Sherlock returns to his place at the window, staring out into the empty street and thinking about nothing in particular. His tea is still cool by the time he reaches the bottom of the mug.
At some point in the long, interminable hours of the afternoon, John drapes a wooly afghan over Sherlock's shoulders and goes to refill their tea. Sherlock wraps the blanket closer around his chest and watches the snow fall until the light gives.
Just past eleven on Thursday, John is puttering around in the kitchen when he hears the front door open. Flurries of snow smack against the windows and the house shakes under the force of the wind. He assumes it's Mrs. Hudson back from bridge until the door slams shut again, precise and strong against the power of the storm. She doesn't have the muscle for that—John's taken to making sure the door's in the frame after she enters, just to make sure the heat stays in.
Someone else is in their flat.
He's about to be alarmed, but then Sherlock makes a loud noise of discontent from the sofa, which can only mean one thing. As a result, John is prepared when Mycroft appears at the top of the stairs a minute later. "Of course you have a key," John says by way of greeting. And then directly after, "Is that brandy?"
It is brandy, in fact: a heavy, amber bottle with the seal still intact, and it feels like warm evenings and money when Mycroft sets his briefcase down and hands the liquor over. John whistles appreciatively at the label.
"Hello, John. Sherlock." Sherlock doesn't deign to respond, and Mycroft's half-smile softens into something a bit more sincere as he shares a commiserating look with John. Besides the familiarity of the expression, John finds the current picture rather disconcerting. Mycroft is in a thick blue jumper and slacks that probably cost more than one of John's paychecks, and his cheeks are red from the cold. He has conscientiously shed his shoes at the front door and is standing in his stocking feet. This means their carpets will be spared a tromping of muddy snow, but it also means that the man intends to stay for a while.
This is an altogether unprecedented situation. John looks at the brandy again, considering. "This is a bribe, isn't it."
"A bit of one, yes," Mycroft admits.
John considers this a moment longer, hefting the bottle in his hand. It's extremely expensive and, knowing Mycroft, it's going to be excellent. It's not even noon yet, but John has no plans to go anywhere else. As bribes go, it's an effective one. "Alright," he says brightly. "You can have him."
Mycroft lets out a laugh at that, low and contained and shockingly genuine. Sherlock's head appears over the back of the sofa to glare at the both of them. His hair is a mess; he looks like a disgruntled six-year-old.
"Still putting on weight, Mycroft?" he says snidely. "At least it'll keep you warm for the winter."
Mycroft raises an eyebrow at him, unimpressed. "Charming as ever, Sherlock, thank you."
Sherlock opens his mouth to retort and John sighs, "Oh, go back to your sulking."
For once, it works; Sherlock gives a disgusted huff and throws himself back into the cushions.
John turns back to Mycroft again and gestures at the brandy. "So?"
"Ah. Yes." He looks a bit sheepish; John suspects it's a pre-manufactured expression, pulled from a hidden retinue of body language that Mycroft uses when he thinks he needs to act like a person with normal human emotions. He's rather better at it than Sherlock is, because he plucks at the sleeve of his jumper and stops projecting smug omniscience long enough to say, "The heating in my house is entirely defunct, as of this morning. Repairs are underway, but-"
"Government payroll," Sherlock interjects gleefully.
Mycroft gives him an ironic nod and looks to John expectantly.
John realizes, belatedly, that Mycroft thinks that the conversation is over. Well, for them it is. This is one of those moments when John hates the both of them, a bit. They're each a hazard to the general public on their own, but when the brothers are in a room together they're another reality of arrogant intelligence all together. They find it completely unnecessary to provide information out loud where everyone else can process it.
He refuses to give in this time. They're testing him. He looks at the brandy, and at Mycroft's jumper and the amused glint in his eyes, and he tries to think like a Holmes.
Mycroft had planned to be at home today. Mycroft could easily go into the office, but he isn't dressed for it. He has apparently decided to be here with them instead, and he's brought alcohol as a kind of peace offering. Sherlock hasn't chased him off yet. These are the facts.
It has occurred to John more than once that in the dark of the night or the middle of the afternoon when no crisis is in sight and no government function needs to be filled, Mycroft Holmes must be the loneliest, most solitary person that anyone has ever met. And here he is in their kitchen, because apparently even the British Government hates the thought of going into the office when the world is dark and grey with blowing snow.
As it turns out, John can follow the conversation just fine, this time around.
"Make yourself at home," he says, and he finds that he means it. "Can I pour you a glass?"
Some tension in Mycroft's shoulders disappears, visible only in its absence. "Yes, please." And then, more quietly, "Thank you."
John does him the courtesy of not replying. He sets to work with the really excellent brandy.
Mycroft takes a small laptop (probably secured on fifteen different levels) from his briefcase and goes into the living room. He bypasses his (John's) usual chair entirely. John watches in bemusement as Mycroft sets the laptop down at the foot of the sofa, shoves Sherlock's feet off one of the cushions, and proceeds to make himself comfortable. Sherlock grumbles something and pokes Mycroft in the thigh with his toes. Mycroft ignores him with all the skill of an older sibling and slips his laptop open, settling back into the couch with one leg crossed neatly over the other.
John brings him a glass of brandy and settles into his chair with a tumbler of his own. Mycroft nods his thanks and begins to type one-handed.
The entirety of the afternoon goes like that. By tea time, John has written up three pages of notes and has spent most of his time watching the brothers interact. Sherlock deduces highly confidential state secrets from the slant of Mycroft's eyebrow and they keep jockeying for space even though there's an empty chair two feet away. They talk in half-vocalized code at random intervals and John gives up following their conversation.
When Mycroft finally stands to go, John is surprised to see it's still blasting snow outside. He actually finds himself disappointed, more for Mycroft's sake than anyone's. He stands to walk him to the door, but Mycroft waves him off. "I'll see myself out. Thank you."
John doesn't speak Holmes fluently yet, but he knows enough to appreciate the words. "Any time," he says, and they both ignore Sherlock's snort at that, because after this afternoon he doesn't have a leg to stand on.
Mycroft packs up the computer and makes a graceful exit down the stairs without looking back. It is the first and only time he's come to Baker Street without leaving on the tails of an argument with Sherlock. The door thumps shut a few minutes later and John moves to the window to watch Mycroft fight against the wind and step into the sleek black car waiting at the kerb.
John watches him go and then turns back to the warmth of the flat. Mycroft left the brandy. Half of it's still left. He eyes it, wondering whether one more will do him in for the night, and whether he cares.
He catches Sherlock watching him, smirk firmly in place.
"Shut it," John tells him happily, and goes to pour himself another glass.
The text from Lestrade comes in late Saturday evening.
Weird one. Double murder, frozen into Thames. Waiting for extraction. Bringing files.
Sherlock has spent most of the day taking observations on the mould cultures in the freezer, feeling the familiar itch of restlessness beneath his skin. A case—even a dull one without a proper scene—would be a welcome reprieve from being stuck inside and watching the weather pound against the windows for the fourth day straight. The street below them has lost its characteristic features under heavy layers of ice and the puffy contours of collecting snow.
Neither of them have been out since Wednesday, and John has the heating cranked high enough for Sherlock to wander about with his sleeves rolled up out of his way. The enforced calm would almost be pleasant if it wasn't so horribly dull. He's tempted to try shooting at the walls again. His response is nearly instantaneous:
Acceptable. John and I will be here.
Lestrade appears at seven thirty. Sherlock watches him park the car down on the street, where the snow is falling soft and heavy through the yellow beams of the streetlamps. The sky is beginning to clear, at last. Going out tomorrow is a viable option.
"Lestrade's here," he informs John as he turns from the window.
John looks up from his computer and blows out a breath. "Good. I'm going mad." He snaps the laptop shut and stands. When Lestrade tramps up the stairs a minute later, his pace is more sedate than usual. He looks as worn as ever; the weight of his day is heavy in the lines of his face. The file is clutched in his right hand. Snow is dusted along his coat and sprinkled in his hair. The sharp, clean scent of winter enters with him.
"God, it's bloody freezing out there," he says by way of greeting. He slaps the file down on the end table and blows on his fingers through his gloves. "Mind if I-"
"Sit down and get warm," John tells him. He pats Lestrade on the shoulder in one of those baffling gestures of easy affection that people seem to find so natural, and then goes into the kitchen. Sherlock reaches over and pulls the file with one finger until it's close enough to open. He sits forward on the couch and flips through the photos. The bodies are laid out neatly side-by-side on the bank. A man and a woman, arms crossed over their chests, eyes wide open, distorted under a thick layer of ice. It's a striking picture.
"Found them Friday evening," Lestrade begins on a sigh. He tosses his jacket over the back of Sherlock's usual chair and sits down. "Mallory and Thomas Grieb."
Sherlock flips back to the first photo and reaches out to trace the cuff of Thomas Grieb's not-quite-new suit jacket. His tie—what remains of it—looks to match his partner's blouse, if they were dry. "Engaged?" he wonders aloud, and then he notices her heels and corrects himself. "No, but a long-term relationship. Moved in together a year ago. Fairly happy, as these things go. When were they last seen?"
Lestrade shakes his head and leans back. The expression on his face—part irritation and part amazement—is the reason Sherlock has tolerated working with him for the last six years. "Never quite get used to that," he says with more candor than is usual for them. Sherlock grins a little. Lestrade leans forward and slips the initial (useless) site report from the bottom of the pile. "They went to a party with some friends on Thursday, left early because of the weather. No one's seen them since. Thanks."
He accepts his tea from John and takes a long sip. His eyebrows raise and he looks down at the cup, which clearly holds more than tea. "Bit lush, for the two of you."
Sherlock shakes his head. "Really, John. If Mycroft hadn't given you the brandy, I'd say that's a waste of perfectly acceptable tea."
"I'd say it's an acceptable use of bloody good brandy," John replies. "Nothing does better when you're frozen through." He settles next to Sherlock on the sofa and looks through the photos for himself. He sighs and puts them down again. "Right, poor phrasing on my part. Though, wait, are they actually-"
"Nearly straight through, yeah." Lestrade finishes off the tea and puts his empty mug on the table. "It's going to make the autopsies a bugger. If we thaw them out too fast there won't be much left for evidence, but if we do it too slow their personal effects will be useless, and they might be all we have."
John's brow furrows. Sherlock suppresses a smirk and lets him think it through. "But that's not—I mean, it's been bloody cold out, but not nearly bad enough to do that in two days."
"Just so," Sherlock agrees. "You're in fine form today, John." He reaches out to tap the photo of the face of Thomas Grieb. "Now what about..." His clothing is evidence enough, but combine that with the girlfriend's heels and the new watch and the careful placement of her arm, it's almost enough to—but no. That doesn't cover all the data. Unless- oh – it's almost possible that-
"What about what?" He looks up to see them staring: John amused, Lestrade impatient. "Sherlock? What do you see?"
"Be quiet," he says abruptly. "Let me think." The data spins out through his head, separating into strands of images and information. He pistons to his feet and paces towards the windows.
The rest of the world ceases to exist after that. Sherlock strings the photos up along the mantel and leaves the laptop within easy reach. Something tickles at the back of his brain, waiting for him to work it out. He paces and types and occasionally says things aloud, and the dull murmur of conversation behind him will pause long enough for John and Lestrade to pay attention before he slips away again. And then he notices her necklace- "Oh, stupid, stupid, of course-"
"Oh, shut up and let me work!"
-and he loses track of time entirely.
When Sherlock finally surfaces from the depths of his own mind, he spins around with a wide smile, because for a case that he can solve from the sitting room, this was brilliant and Thomas Grieb nearly got away with it, except for the part where his lover turned on him and left him frozen next to the girlfriend. He opens his mouth to start in, and then he blinks.
It's entirely dark outside. A look at his watch reveals that it's one in the morning, and the only light still on is the lamp Sherlock placed by the mantel to have a better look at the photos.
John is sound asleep in his chair, face pressed into the fabric hard enough to leave an imprint. This is not the first time it's happened, though he'll regret the crick in his neck come morning.
Sherlock is slightly more surprised to see Lestrade spread across the sofa, snoring softly. His shoes are discarded and his sleeves are rolled up. He looks younger in sleep; the gray of his hair and the shadowed lines on his face seem very real, and less the abstractions of age and experience that Sherlock generally considers them to be.
The bottle of brandy, nearly empty, rests of the end table between them. They both sleep the deep, all-encompassing sleep of police officers and soldiers. If he said their names, they'd both wake in an instant, alert for danger and ready to rush off into the night.
Sherlock makes no noise, oddly reluctant to break the strange sleeping peace which has settled over his sitting room. He looks out the window and sees that the sky, at last, has cleared. No new snow falls, and the whole of Baker Street is smooth and white and undisturbed. Sherlock follows the pull of some quietly insistent instinct and goes to get his coat and scarf.
When he steps out onto the street, the air bites in his throat and stings his cheeks. He burrows his chin into his scarf and walks a few feet down the road, making footprints in the fresh layer of snow. The sky is dark and clear above him, and what stars are visible from the middle of Westminster shine down upon the world. The world is very quiet, and very still, and he has solved a murder.
He stays out until the breathtaking impact of the cold outweighs the satisfaction of hearing fresh snow crunch and squeak under his feet. Then he goes back inside.
Sherlock hangs his coat and scarf up on the rack and leaves his snowy shoes in the entryway. He climbs the seventeen stairs up to their flat with careful, noiseless steps.
John and Lestrade are still asleep. Sherlock pads over and turns off the final lamp, leaving the room swathed in darkness. He stands there for an indeterminate time, letting his eyes adjust and listening to the steady rhythms of their breathing. The moon reflects on the snow outside and leaves a vague blue-silver imprint on the profile of John's face, the line of Lestrade's bare arm where it hangs off the sofa.
In this moment, the world for Sherlock is easing warmth and familiar company and the satisfaction of his work well done.
Sherlock collects the afghan from its corner and arranges it over Lestrade's long form. He collects John's empty glass from the table and, after a moment of hesitation, he pours the last of Mycroft's brandy into it and finishes it one long, burning swallow. And then he goes to bed. They'll do the legwork in the morning, when the snow is swept away.
Author's Note: It snowed all day here, so I curled up and wrote Sherlock. Thank you for your reading time! Comments are like hot tea and brandy. The title comes from Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening".