A/N: This story is a sequel to "Promise to the Living". If you haven't read it already, I recommend that you do so, as this opening chapter picks up where the closing chapter of the prequel leaves off. Many thanks and much love to my beta, chasingriver.
John's eyes closed seconds after his head hit the pillow. He was so exhausted that the room spun. Mycroft was beside him, reclining against an avalanche of pillows and tapping lightly on his laptop keys. In the suite's sitting room, beyond the closed bedroom door, John could hear Sherlock pacing about, reading the case file for the millionth time and muttering to himself.
John sighed in relief as the paracetamol kicked in. He'd needed an extra-strength dose after spending four hours in a small rental car with the Holmes brothers bickering nonstop. He hadn't heard Lestrade return to the suite yet: the former DI was probably still in the hotel pub, indulging in beer and barmaids to forget the nightmare.
Four hours. That's how long it had taken them to drive from London to the Royal Clarence Hotel in Exeter. John understood why they hadn't traveled via a more expedient or comfortable method, such as government helicopter or town car: if Black Cell or another subversive group was, as Mycroft suspected, behind the mysterious footprints that appeared in Woolsery two weeks ago, their arrival in Exeter had to be low-key. On the other hand, if Lucifer himself was actually back after an absence of almost 160 years, as paranormal groups trumpeted, John didn't want to give him a heads-up either.
Although he accepted the need for caution, the drive had left John with a headache that sent him to bed soon after checking into their three-bedroom suite. When he heard the soft click of the lamp being turned off and felt the mattress dip as Mycroft settled next to him, he grumbled into the goose-down pillow, "Was it really necessary?"
The elder Holmes didn't ask what he was talking about. "I'm sorry, John. Sherlock can be terribly intractable."
"He was only half the problem. You were just as intent on having the last word."
"Naturally. My brother has to learn that he can't have his way all the time." Mycroft shimmied across the mattress until he was pressed tightly against John's back. His lean arm settled around John's bare waist. "I am sorry that our fraternal spat wearied you. I assumed that you were used to our interactions by now."
John threaded their fingers together and smiled despite his fatigue. "I thought so too. But four hours of listening to you and Sherlock fight about this case, the weather, and the price of petrol raised the bar. Hell has been redefined."
Mycroft kissed his shoulder. "Good thing you never saw us growing up. Such confrontations went on around the clock."
"Lord." John shuddered. "I don't know how your parents kept any hired help."
"Me neither. Perhaps that's why Father's wine cellar was constantly depleted," Mycroft sighed. "Still, Sherlock was unusually vitriolic this afternoon. I suspect it was because of this." He waved his hand over them both. "Like I've already told you, he'll be insecure about our relationship for awhile, John. Brace yourself."
"I know. This is hard for him to handle. I'm his best- actually, he says only- friend. You're his 'arch enemy' on a bad day. I think he's still trying to figure out how this happened."
"So are you."
It was true. John had known Mycroft for almost as long as he'd known Sherlock, and he hadn't always held him in high regard. For the first two years of their association, he'd seen the elder Holmes as a pompous nuisance who spied on and occasionally manipulated both Sherlock and John. Then, last year, Sherlock was forced to fake his suicide and disappear to protect his friends from James Moriarty's wrath. John, alone and unaware of the unwilling deception, fell into a grief-fuelled depression and planned his own death. Mycroft forcibly intervened, setting off a chain of events that led to forgiveness, healing, friendship, and finally a love that surprised everyone involved.
"Yes," John admitted. "When we first chatted in that warehouse, I wasn't exactly thinking about kissing you. Ever. Now it's all I want to do."
"I feel the same way. You're the best thing that's ever happened to Sherlock, and now me." Mycroft squeezed his hand. "He will come around, John."
"Well, it's not like we haven't taken steps to reassure him."
John and Mycroft had promised Sherlock that very little would change on the surface. John would remain at Baker Street, and now that their detective agency paperwork had gone through, he and Sherlock would be working on cases together once more. Like this one. But Sherlock still clung to John like an anxious and petulant child and sniped at his brother more than usual. He knew he had to share, but refused to be graceful about it yet.
Before the conversation could continue, a knock sounded at the door. John started to rise, but Mycroft stopped him.
"What is it, Sherlock?"
"I've found a pattern in the witness statements. I need to talk to John."
"John is resting. I'll join you." Mycroft tossed the duvet aside and got up.
"No. I need John. I think better with him listening. You just try to trump my conclusions."
"Only when your reasoning is flawed, making it necessary. Which is woefully often."
John groaned. He suspected that Sherlock's intrusion had nothing to do with the case file.
"I'm not talking to you, Mycroft," Sherlock warned.
The elder Holmes approached the door anyway. "Then it will have to wait until morning. John's tired."
John sat up and rubbed his eyes. "It's all right. I'll go see what he's found."
"No, it's not all right." Mycroft extended a restraining hand and reached for the doorknob. "My brother is going to learn-"
A dull roaring noise drowned out the rest of his words. Then a fragrant, smoky substance billowed under the door and completely enveloped Mycroft, making him choke.
It took John a moment to realize what Sherlock had done. Anticipating his brother's actions, he had poured talcum powder on the floor and blew it under the closed door with a hair dryer.
It was juvenile. Spiteful. But watching the normally dignified Mycroft Holmes swear like a lorry driver and bat frantically at his face and pyjamas sent John into peals of laughter. He was still howling when Sherlock threw the door open, a towel pressed to his nose and mouth, and barged through the haze toward the bed.
"Come on, John," he grumbled. "We've wasted enough time. You need to see-"
Now it was Sherlock's turn to be interrupted: Mycroft tackled him and threw him onto the bed. "You idiotic child!" he sputtered. "When are you going to grow up!"
Sherlock, who had fallen across John's legs, propped himself up onto his elbows. "Only after you stop being so easy to fool, taking the fun out of it."
Lestrade appeared in the doorway. "What's going on?" he slurred. "If you lot are having a row, count me out. One punch-up's enough for me tonight. I'm going to bed."
The former Yarder's silver hair was rumpled, as were his clothes. He didn't appear to be injured, but John jumped off the bed and approached anyway.
"You had a fight with someone?" he asked. "Who?"
Sherlock and Mycroft stopped struggling and sat at attention. Talcum powder coated both of them now and streaked the dark red duvet, but their fight appeared to be forgotten.
"Dunno who he was. Tried to nick my wallet in the Gents', so I floored the bastard. He ran, though."
"Actually, he wasn't trying to nick anything," Sherlock said, staring intently at Lestrade.
"What do you mean? Of course he was. Stuck his hand in my pocket."
"That's because he was trying to give you something," Mycroft supplied. He rose, trailing rose-scented talc in his wake, reached into Lestrade's open coat, and took out an envelope. "This."
Sherlock didn't attempt to snatch it from him: he was too busy doing an excellent impression of a greyhound with a mechanical rabbit in its sights. "How long ago was this?"
"Ten minutes ago, at most."
The detective's eyes lit up. "Brilliant! That's why that man was running."
"Wait a minute," John interrupted. "What man?"
"I was looking out the window roughly ten minutes ago and saw a man hurrying out of the hotel across the courtyard." Sherlock pushed abruptly past Lestrade and strode toward the suite's entrance. "Mid-thirties, wearing a jacket that was a rather nauseating shade of green?"
Lestrade turned. "Yes! You saw where he went?"
"Not only that, I believe he's still there." Sherlock opened the door and disappeared into the hall.
John, who had scented an upcoming chase the moment Sherlock got that look in his eye, had already slid his feet into his shoes. Now he hauled on a T-shirt and told Mycroft, "I'll go with him." When the elder Holmes nodded and held the envelope to the light, John ran out of the bedroom, grabbed his coat from its perch, and followed Sherlock. He had no idea where they were going, but that was nothing unusual.
He was following Sherlock into another potential minefield, and he loved it.