Irene Adler's body turns up within the next twenty-four hours, just as Sherlock had predicted, in the late hours of Christmas Day. Mycroft calls as soon as the corpse is delivered to Bart's. The cab ride over is silent. John can't read Sherlock's mood at all. It disturbs him. He'd like to imagine he has become better at working out what his partner is thinking over the past months, an expected consequence of becoming lovers, but right now he's got nothing.
There's little satisfaction to be found when they get to the morgue either, though John is determined to wring every last drop he can out of the situation. He looks calmly at the ruin of Adler's face. It's caved in, the bones crushed, those fine zygomatic arches pulverised, the occipital fractured, the mandible cracked like a pot smashed against a wall. There's a certain artistry in the sheer brutality of it. There's nothing recognisable left. Nothing but the hair, sleek and glossy black, or the rest of her body, which is utterly untouched.
John can't help but think it's not the way he would have gone about things. This would have been relatively quick, most of the damage done post mortem, and that's not much fun. He wishes, he really wishes, he'd been the one to kill her. It would have been more appropriate somehow. And maybe it would have made Sherlock less... sad. Unhappy. If there had been a personal touch.
Poor Molly, called in on Christmas of all days, pulls the sheet down so that they can get a better look. "That's her," Sherlock says at once. John takes a little longer, but he has to admit it looks like Adler. Same skin tone, same build, same... proportions. He nods.
"Thank you Miss Hooper," Mycroft says, calm as always. John thinks there might be a hint of his own satisfaction there as well. Probably. Adler still had those photographs, and who knows what else.
"Who is she?" Molly asks, hesitantly. She looks from John to Sherlock and back. "How did you recognise her from... not her face?"
"When we met her for the first time she wasn't wearing any clothes," John says, then, wanting to reassure her, "It was for a case. Believe me, I wouldn't have let her near Sherlock if it wasn't important." As much as it would disturb Molly to think Sherlock had been cheating on him – she is fond of John, for some reason – it would disturb her more to think they'd been having some sort of threesome, if only because the third person wasn't her. On a subconscious level at least. Molly seems like the kind of person to bury her jealousy, rather than John's own, rather more murderous, method. Which is probably healthier, all told.
Sherlock is already impatient to leave, so with a final smile in Molly's direction John follows him and his brother out into the corridor.
"That wasn't you, was it?" he asks Mycroft, once they're out of hearing range. "Because if so, I'm a little disappointed you didn't give us" – me – "the job."
Mycroft opens his mouth to reply, likely a denial whether it's the truth or not, but Sherlock beats him to it. "Of course it wasn't him," he says, or rather sneers. "Going for the face like that, it was personal. Very personal. A jilted lover, an unhappy client, something along those lines. Perhaps even someone else she possessed photographs of."
John keeps his eyes fixed on Sherlock's face as he talks. There's no flicker of emotion there, but it can be so hard to get emotion of any kind out of Sherlock when he's trying to hide the fact that he has things as human as feelings that it doesn't mean anything. That's the worst of it, that she's dead and yet she still might have a hold on him. John has no idea whether he's even being rational at this point.
"How did you know she was dead?" Mycroft asks.
"She had an item in her possession, one she said her life depended on. She chose to give it up."
Mycroft's eyes narrow. John is sure he knows exactly what Sherlock is talking about. "And where is this item now?" Sherlock doesn't answer. Mycroft turns his gaze on John, but he legitimately doesn't know. Sherlock has it somewhere, but he's never been able to find things Sherlock really doesn't want found.
From down the hall comes the very faint sound of someone crying. Just visible through the glass window in the door is what looks like a family of three. They're huddled close together. Mourning. It's a miserable time of the year to have to come identify a loved one, John thinks. He feels sorry for them. He does actually still have most of the emotional range of a regular person, it's just that he has to work at it a little bit more now, like the feelings are hiding behind a heavy curtain that has to be pulled aside. Not guilt though. He's never felt guilt for things that have to be done. For things that are necessary for the survival of himself or those he loves.
"Look at them," Sherlock says, half-way between disgust and fascination. "They all care so much. Do you ever wonder if there's something wrong with us?"
"Of course there is," John says. "I like killing people, and you like to plan how I do it. But that doesn't mean anything. There's something wrong with most people. Homicide is just a bit of a statistical outlier, when you think about it."
"All lives end," Mycroft says. "All hearts are broken. Caring is not an advantage." The corners of his lips are curled upwards, but it doesn't quite reach his eyes. It seems half-way as though he's talking to himself.
"I don't know about that," John says. He's thinking of Sherlock, of course. Love is one emotion his particular mental state does not dull, and he loves Sherlock more than he has loved anyone ever before. It can be terrifying, if he lets himself think about it. Both the depth of his emotion, and all that comes with a life by Sherlock's side.
"Don't go all sappy on me just because it's Christmas," Sherlock says. His face appears serious but his voice is warm and hiseyes are smiling, so John knows he's just being Sherlock. Mycroft clears his throat.
"Well, since that piece of business is concluded..."
"Merry Christmas Mycroft," Sherlock says.
"And a Happy New Year." And that's their cue to leave.
Greg still isn't sure how he pulled off an entire evening at a Christmas party with Sherlock Holmes without the man catching on to the fact that he's suspicious as fuck. In the past few months he hasn't heard much from his mysterious source, but another package did come, this time containing newspaper clippings for several of the murders he'd heard Sherlock confess to in the recordings, along with some typed notes about the man's whereabouts at the time. It's a frankly chilling history of crime, and some of these cases he recognises. He'd worked them himself, and never even suspected...
But that's always been the fear with Sherlock, hasn't it. Most vocally expressed by Sally, but Greg has heard the speculation around the yard, just idle cop talk. What if, what if? If Sherlock Holmes truly wanted to kill someone, they'd never be able to prove it. Hell, they probably would never even find a body. But it's one thing to kill one person, and quite another to kill, what, scores of them, if this is to be believed.
He'd been in their house. He'd sat and watched Sherlock try and socialise with other human beings and do a fairly good job of it, with John's guidance. The whole thing seems like a sudden stroke of delirium, nothing more than a bad dream. But dreams don't go on this long. There's evidence here that he can't ignore, though not enough for a conviction. Not yet. He doesn't know what to do. Just wait? For more trickles of horror to appear on his desk? For Sherlock to kill more people (because serial killers don't stop, not until they're caught).
And what about John? They live together, sleep together, they're lovers. Surely he would have noticed... but that's not being fair to the man. Some serial killers go so far as to get married, and rarely do their partners know the monster hiding in their house. They find out at the same time as everybody else. And yet... He's always trusted his instincts in the past, and right now they are telling him that even now not everything is as it seems.
This is not a situation he ever thought he'd be in. He had never been trained for this. It's eating him up inside and there's nothing, nothing he can do about it. At least not yet.
Sherlock does not typically believe that emotions are useful. Of course one must understand what they are and how they affect the common, regular, ordinary human being. Emotion is a primary motivator for people's actions, all the more obvious when it comes to crime. The number of times he has investigated so called 'crimes of passion' is in many ways a scathing indictment of the species homo sapiens as a whole. For the most part however, while he is not foolish enough to deny that he has feelings, he will not let himself be ruled by them. Logic is what matters, logic, science, cold hard facts and numbers. Decisions based on sentiment are fundamentally flawed.
But John, as with all things pertaining to him, is an exception. John is his perfect partner, a man similarly un-plagued by morality, possessed of an artistry for violence and murder, someone to enact all the perfect crimes he dreams up in the small hours of the night when boredom rears its dark and ugly head, a fathomless, all-consuming pit fit to suck at his soul, to wrap around him until all he can hear are his own thoughts, his brain turning on itself and consuming itself alive. For so long another problem to solve was the only thing that would help. But now he has John. And John is always there to kill for him if practical, and it not to give him stimulus, a distraction, to force his mind into a pliant state through the rush of endorphins that accompany pain and submission.
Irene Adler, on the other hand, was not an exception to his rule about feelings. He is not maudlin about her death. He does not miss her. He misses the wasted opportunity. The possibility of a game, a worthy opponent while Jim lies quiescent, all dashed against the rocks of life – that is what causes him to mourn. Mycroft promised he would not be bored when they made their deal, but what he does provide is merely sufficient. Scraps. No real challenge.
He can feel the threat of boredom in the back of his head. Without Irene he can't see any hope of anything interesting happening in the next few months. Composing a few melancholic songs is hardly cutting it. Right now he needs what only John can give him, which will do to tide him over until things pick up again. Besides, John is in need of reassurance. Needs to know that Sherlock is his and his only. Giving him that reassurance is not exactly a burden. This is something for both of them, which, he understands, is generally the purpose of having a sex life.
Will be waiting for you upstairs, naked, when you return from the shops, he texts.
Hoping for anything in particular? John texts back almost immediately. Sherlock can't help the smile, the involuntary curl of lips.
Going to Baker Street at all is a risk, but Irene is confident in her plan. Moriarty's various contacts can do a passable imitation of Mycroft's own secretive network, and they should be enough to lure John Watson out of the area long enough for her to sneak in, 'attempt' to retrieve her phone and be conveniently caught by Sherlock Holmes. At which point they will exchange witty remarks, perhaps attempt to pickpocket one another for said phone, and then she will disappear again, leaving him all the more intrigued. And also with a little surprise, only to reveal itself at the very end of the game.
Or at least that's the idea. It doesn't go off quite as she imagined it.
John Watson's hand is around her throat, pinning her to the wall. He's strong, though you wouldn't necessarily think it to look at him. She struggles, of course she does, but his grip is relentless, his body pinning hers down. His eyes... god, his eyes. There's mere inches between them, and it's like having a wolf there ready to tear her throat out and eat her remains.
"I don't know how you faked your death and I don't really care," he says, in a conversational sort of tone. "If you were smart you would have stayed away. I wanted to be the one to kill you, and now it looks like I'm going to get my wish."
She chokes against the pressure on her neck, tries to protest, but she can't seem to force the air out of her lungs.
"I suppose that was you with the car and the beautiful woman? Did you really think that trick would fool me? I know the people Mycroft sends, I've met them. He always tells us about new hires. I'm not Sherlock, but I'm not stupid. I thought it was Moriarty though, so that's one less thing to worry about." He bares his teeth at her. It's not a smile any more than a tiger smiles before goes in for the kill. She turns her head away, unable to look. Nothing is worth this, not the money, not the power, she should never have gone to Moriarty with that offer, should never have taken him in when he needed help, nothing. "But not quickly. I want it to last. I want to tie you to the bed and force hallucinogens down your throat, and then I'll whip you until your back is ribbons while you hallucinate the most horrible things. See how you like being drugged." His voice is quiet, like the devil whispering in her ear.
"I'll rub salt all over your wounds. I'll crisp your skin into crackling with a blowtorch." He hums, a low, pleased sound. "Perhaps some pepper as well for seasoning. I'll cut the tendons in your legs so you can't run away, but I'll leave the nerves alone so you can still feel. I'll need to keep injecting you with adrenaline so you don't pass out on me, but not too much. Wouldn't want your heart to give out. I'll break each and every bone in your hands, to teach you not to touch what isn't yours. I'll probably be hard by that point, but I won't fuck you. That's not what this is about." He pauses, tightens his stranglehold for a moment. It doesn't make much difference, she's nearly hyperventilating as it is. One far-away part of her is still listening to his description of what he's going to do to her, but the rest is too frightened to register much. The most terrifying thing is how normal he sounds, despite his actual words.
"Or maybe I will in the end, but with a knife. I'll carve you up and flay you from pubic symphysis to coccyx. I'll..."
"John." The voice is deep and disapproving, and she could weep with joy to hear it. The grip on her throat is suddenly gone and she sags against the wall, taking deep gasping breaths. Usually she is the on the other end of that particular equation, she thinks, rather too hysterically for her own personal liking. Still, it's excusable. It's the first time she has ever been in genuine fear for her life.
John Watson steps back, folding his arms across his chest. The monster inside him has been shut back into its cage, leaving a deceptively ordinary looking man in an Arran jumper and dark jeans. Behind him Sherlock looms in the shadows, his eyes narrowed in the way of one just woken from sleep. He's in a dressing gown. She can see his feet, strikingly pale against the floor. It's so abrupt, this return to normality, domesticity, that the past minutes would seem almost a dream or waking nightmare if it wasn't for the pain in her neck, the promise of future bruises.
"You're here for a reason," Sherlock Holmes says, sounding impatient. "What is it?"
"I might have just come to tell you I'm still alive." The words rush out too fast, betraying her. It's a bad idea to show fear to predators.
"No. If that was all you'd have sent a text, we both know you have my number." His eyes rake over her, cold and impersonal. "You want something."
Irene gathers her composure. If she is careful she will still make it out of this alive, though if she does she intends to give Jim Moriarty a piece of her mind. "I need it back. My insurance."
"Why now? Staying dead not working out for you?" Despite his words she can tell Sherlock is pleased to see her. It's in his eyes, the hint of a smile pulling at his lips. "It must be urgent to risk coming here. I'm sure it didn't escape your notice that John doesn't like you very much."
"He did fire a gun at me," she replies, keeping her voice level. "You don't seem very concerned that I know he wants to kill me."
"You're not the type to go to the police," Sherlock says.
She dips her head slightly in acknowledgement, going back to his original question. "They'll work it out eventually, the people who're after me. It can't stay here. It's not safe. They'll send others..."
"The same sort of people we met at your flat, you mean."
"Yes. And next time my death might not be fake."
"Mm, that'd be a pity wouldn't it," John Watson mutters under his breath.
She doesn't react. "So where is it? My camera phone."
"Not here of course," John says. "We're not stupid, we knew there'd be people after it." She can't tell if he's lying or not. His face is blank, placid as chill arctic waters.
"Then what have you done with it? Even if they haven't made a move yet they'll have you under surveillance."
"If they've been watching me," Sherlock says, "they'll know I took a safety deposit box at a bank on the Strand a few months ago."
"Then we need to get it. I need it. I need what's on it."
"Hmm, and what would that be?" he asks.
"Pictures, information, things I might find useful."
"What, for blackmail?" John chiming in again, though he's one to be talking about wrongdoing. Irene doesn't particularly care about society's rules, but she's never killed someone and she never intends to.
"For protection," she corrects. "I make my way in the world; I misbehave. I like to know people will be on my side exactly when I need them to be."
"I don't suppose I need to ask how you acquire such information." Micro-expressions and body language once more tell her there's a hint of something interested there. She's not sure he's even consciously aware of it, it might just be a learned response to the promise of a certain kind of stimuli, but that doesn't mean she can't take advantage of it. Provided John doesn't notice, of course. "This time though... this time you've acquired something that's more danger than protection."
"Yes but..." she pauses, as though it's a blow to her pride to admit this, "I don't understand it. Otherwise I'd have used it to get them off my back for good." The plan had been to wait a while longer before bringing this up, but it seems now will have to do.
"I assumed," Sherlock says. He dips his hand into his pocket and there it is. Oh yes, very secure with that kind of hiding place. She should have known they were lying about the deposit box. She might roll her eyes if this didn't work out to her advantage. Easier to pick a pocket than a lock. Still something must creep into her expression, for he continues, "Oh, you needn't worry. Despite appearances there are few safer places in London than Baker Street, unless you're very clever which is doubtful of the CIA. John and I can take care of ourselves." She doesn't doubt it. Not after all this. "Now, show me."
She reaches out her hand for the phone, but he draws it back out of her reach.
"Surely the great Sherlock Holmes would have been able to figure it out without my help?" She risks a smile, keeps her hand out. She needs to get her hands on the phone one way or the other to leave Jim's surprise, but this would be easiest. Finally Sherlock narrows his eyes at her and thrusts the phone in her general direction. Clearly he doesn't appreciate the slight on his deductive abilities.
"There was a man, an MOD official," she says, turning to the side to obscure her hands from view as she types in her code. The phone is hers, she knows the heft, the tiny marks that accumulate over time no matter how careful the handling. She wouldn't have put it past Sherlock to commission a copy in an attempt to trick her but for that he would have needed to know she was still alive. He hadn't. The surprise on seeing her had been genuine – Moriarty does good work.
"I knew what he liked." It's sleight of hand at that point. When this is all played out, when they've won as she's still sure they will, it's going to be a delight to see his face. Perhaps not actually in person if she has any choice about it – Irene is just about done risking her life for riches and power. That's one of the many benefits of modern technology though. "One of the things he liked was showing off. He told me this e-mail was going to save the world. He didn't know it, but I photographed it."
She has done what she needed to, and so she hands the phone back to Sherlock, the photograph clearly visible on the screen. He locks on to it with deadly intensity.
"He was a bit tied up at the time." Fond memories. He had been an excellent customer, but he seems to have dropped off the map lately. Someone had worked out he'd let her see the email, even if they hadn't known for certain that she'd made a copy of her own. Perhaps Mycroft Holmes, perhaps someone else of the same type and job description. It doesn't really matter. She imagines her client is dead now. Well. It can't be helped. "It's a bit small on the screen – can you read it?"
"Yes." His pale blue-green eyes are lit from beneath by the glow of the screen, held close to his face in the off-yellow half-light coming in through the window from the streetlights outside. Beside him Watson leans in for a quick look, though he's careful not to take his eyes off her for long.
"It's code, obviously," she lies, since Jim told her that much at least. "I had one of the best cryptographers in the country take a look at it – though he was mostly upside down, as I recall." Yes, with his legs hooked over the back of the couch watching TV with the sound off, because that was the sort of thing James Moriarty apparently did to pass the time. Something about lip reading in disadvantageous situations being a useful skill. She didn't enquire further. "He couldn't solve it. But he wasn't you Mr Holmes."
She won't fool herself; it's not her personal charms that have him so interested, so focused on solving the puzzle she has presented for him. It's just the thrill of the game. It's her brain he likes, which would be less disturbing if it didn't come from an alleged serial killer. Probable serial killer. Thankfully a brain removed from its skull can't function so she thinks she's safe from him at least.
She can see the moment he gets it, when the tiny movements of his eyes tracking information invisible to the rest of them halt, when his eyebrows rise just slightly in realisation. When he begins to explain the words trip out of his mouth with such rapidity that she's surprised he has room to breathe.
"There's a margin for error, but I'm pretty sure there's a Seven Forty-Seven leaving Heathrow tomorrow at six thirty in the evening for Baltimore. Apparently it's going to save the world. Not sure how that can be true but give me a moment; I've only been on the case for eight seconds." When he looks up from the screen there's nothing but satisfaction on his face. It seems he works best when he's trying to impress someone, particularly an opponent. It's still very quick. Even quicker perhaps than Jim.
"Oh come on," Sherlock says when he sees Watson's expression of confusion, turning the screen to show them both. "It's not code. These are seat allocations on a passenger jet. Look: there's no letter 'I' because it can be mistaken for a '1'; no letters past 'K' – the width of the plane is the limit. The numbers always appear randomly and not in sequence but the letters have little runs of sequence all over the place – families and couples sitting together. Only a Jumbo is wide enough to need the letter 'K' or rows past fifty-five, which is why there's always an upstairs. There's a row thirteen, which eliminates the more superstitious airlines. Then there's the style of the flight number – zero zero seven – that eliminates a few more; and assuming a British point of origin, which would be logical considering the original source of the information, and assuming from your urgency in turning up where you know John wants to kill you that this crisis is imminent, the only flight that matches all the criteria and departs within the week is the six thirty to Baltimore tomorrow evening from Heathrow Airport."
Irene doesn't have to fake admiration, that much is real. She's not the only one feeling it; there's a warm smile on Watson's face that he doesn't seem to be aware is there – she can't imagine him letting his guard down on purpose while she's still around. Looking at him, it is again hard to see him as a murderer. For a moment their eyes meet, and Watson takes a slight step closer to Sherlock. His meaning is clear: mine. She'd like to tell him she knows, she gets it by now, but he wouldn't believe her. It will be over soon anyway.
"Would you check the flight schedules for me John, see if I'm right?" Sherlock asks. Watson nods, a brisk, military motion and goes to the table nearby where his laptop is sitting. Irene takes advantage of the moment's distraction to slip her hand into her jacket pocket to her other phone. She can text by touch, she's spent enough time practising it. Never know when you're going to need the skill. Moriarty will get the signal that Sherlock has done what he needed him to do. If everything goes as planned, this will be the last time she sees these pair in the flesh. She'll be out of the country by nightfall, once Jim has fulfilled his end of the bargain.
"Yes, you were right," John says after some while. "Flight double oh seven." Really Mycroft, Irene thinks. Really?
"What did you say?" Sherlock strides over to look at the laptop himself, a whirl of fabric like an elegant tornado.
"No, no, no, after that. What did you say after that?"
"Double oh seven. Flight double oh seven." It is obvious, Irene has to admit. Perhaps it wasn't Mycroft who actually named the thing, on second thoughts and from what she's heard of the man from Jim he doesn't seem like the time to watch Bond films. Maybe an underling.
Sherlock is repeating the words quietly to himself, over and over again. Has he really not made the connection yet? Actually, has he even seen those movies? It would be somewhat hilarious if he hasn't.
"There was something... something connected to double oh seven..." He keeps on muttering to himself, pacing up and down, his partner looking at him in confusion. His eyes go to the door, or more specifically the hallway outside it and once again she can see the moment of discovery like someone has thrown a switch in the man's brain.
She can't stay long after this. She'll have to make her excuses and go, mock-unwillingly leaving the phone behind. Not safe to stay anywhere Mycroft Holmes might see her; she knows he has surveillance in the area.
At least then it will be over.
Jim is sitting on the bed of a room in the Marriott County Hall Hotel facing Westminster when he gets Irene's text. It's rather less upscale than his usual choice of accommodation, but it has the best view of Parliament. Somewhere over there, behind one of those lit up windows shining out into the night is Mycroft Holmes, the traitor, betrayer. He has no idea that his little brother has just betrayed him in his turn. Treason is such a nasty word, like execution, and extradition and exsanguinations, and other things starting with 'ex'. Even Mycroft has to answer to someone, which is just one of the many reasons Jim is on this side of the law (aside from his complete and utter lack of morals and the fact that one of the few things that gives him pleasure is seeing other people in agony both mental and physical, that is). Does the Ice Man care enough about his baby brother to protect him? Let's wait and see.
Jumbo Jet, he texts. Dear me Mr Holmes, dear me. On the opposite shore of the Thames the Clock Tower is shining gold, and Big Ben starts to peal out the hour, once, twice. Once, he planned to bring it all crashing, tumbling down, and he imagines for a moment that the glow is flames instead of plain lights, that there is smoke rising in billowing clouds like soft pillows into the sky. But it's not going to happen. He's not going to last that long. There is barbed wire in his head, all tangled round him, and he can't move without it cutting deeper. The body is cannibalistic, consuming itself at need, his more than most. He and Sherlock are alike in this, and he had though that together two broken things might have been enough to make one whole. But now there is nothing new left in the world, no crime he has not stuck his fingers in, no foul deed he has not at least tried, whether it was to his taste or not. There had been something about Sebastian that patched the gaping hole inside him, but he's gone now so what's the point.
That's right, there is none. There is no higher purpose to life, there is just surviving, just staying alive and that's it. Everything dies in agony. 'Bastian died, and the only thing that's keeping Jim from digging out his sniper's favourite pistol and blowing his brains out is that he hasn't had his revenge yet.
This is not going to be enough to pay Mycroft back, not really, but it'll do for a start. First Mycroft, then Sherlock, then Watson. Watson the last and Watson the worst because he's the one who ruined everything, and he's the one who killed Sebastian. He likes his knives, does John Watson, sharp and slicing, skinning. He's tracked some of the work he's done for Mycroft, knows his style now. He did it, and so Jim is going to make him hurt.
He rubs his leg absently where the prosthesis sits. See how he likes it to lose someone he loves.