Contrary to his expectations, the move in was rather unexciting and devoid of drama. The way Sherlock had put it, John had half expected Mycroft to come swooping in with a swarm of flying trunks, or perhaps something a touch more dramatic, such as plucking the entire house out of the ground and resettling it where they wanted it to be for an example, although that might have been impossible. But two days in, sitting in his room with his fish, with the most exciting thing to have happened to him since then being when the Resident who had been sent along to assist him packing his half-drunk glass of water in together with his books in their haste to leave, and miraculously produced again without a single drop spilled in his new room, he wondered if it was really going to be anything that he had expected out of it.
Life was, unbelievably, dull.
He was allocated a room of his own, somewhere along the fifth set of twisting corridors. He wasn't exactly surprised by the utilitarian setting, but he hadn't quite expected it to be as uncomfortable as to be bordering on hostility. The room was on the side of being too spacious, dominated by hard, unyielding lines, and done up in an eye-glaring white, softened only by the thick cream carpet beneath his feet. The furniture was a sombre black, clustered together, all bare hard lines with nothing to soften the edge of it. There was a constant, low, background hum of magic in the structure that set his teeth on edge, and raised the hairs on the back of his neck. The whole setting was harsh and sterile. It wasn't friendly, but he suspected that with some time he could get used to it.
They had, however, graciously stripped the study that was connected to the bedroom bare for his use as a potions lab, leaving shelves shoved up against walls stripped of their paint, the floor stripped down to leave raw unpolished black behind. It was a rather rushed job, John could tell, having detected traces of magic left about in the place. Work had to be done to neutralize the remnant trace remains of magic before any other work could be done in the space. He had been informed that he was to use the larger lab further down and deeper into the house if he were to work with anything of a more volatile, or delicate nature, but having no wish to step out of his room unless absolutely necessary, John had simply set himself to work clearing and neutralizing the space for his future use.
That was yesterday.
Today, he felt more or less settled in, without much fanfare. He had attempted scattering his belongings around the room to populate it, but in the end decided to group all the (frankly uncomfortable) furniture together to create a small corner out of which he would work in. His books and materials were moved into place through the night, for want of something to do when he woke up from the strange, light slumber that people fall into at night in an unfamiliar place, and had opted to do something a little more productive than to toss and turn on a hard mattress and sterile smelling sheets.
The most unsettling thing was the silence, after a while. It was loud, louder than the harsh black and white contrast, than the emptiness. The room was steeped in it, any sort of sound seeming to be swallowed whole by it, walls blanketed and buffered thick with it. It was the sort of silence that would make a man go mad, John thought, fingers stroking the cool fins of his fish. The sort of silence that made a man confront his own mind, that ate a mind away from the inside like wood rot, insidious, all of it amplified by his disability of speech.
If Mycroft was trying to insinuate something, this was a rather bold statement. Sherlock would think it highly unelegant, he supposed.
He shrugged to himself. Well, everything came with a price. He had years of getting used to the silence, after all. This would take a while to get used to, but not insurmountable.
He will be fine.
Time had less of a meaning when he was isolated. It was only then did he realize how much he depended on the sounds around him as an indicator of the time of day back in Upper World. Now, uninterrupted, he had a larger tendency to lose himself in his work, only breaking away from it when he was hungry, or tired, or had a nagging headache.
He was mostly left alone, food delivered to his room, a soft bell ringing outside the door in the morning, afternoon, and evening. If he stayed up late, food will appear at odd intervals, the silver cart delivering little tidbits and snacks for him to nibble on if he was feeling peckish, occasionally bearing shortcakes, biscuits, and also a neverending supply of tea along with glasses of fruit juices.
Day blended into night, with John working hard on perfecting the base potion, sending any progress to Sherlock via peg, getting clarifications from him. Eventually, those messages stopped altogether as John immersed himself fully into tackling the difficulties of building up a pure potion, reading the notes and books that he had been provided with, experimenting widely with any possible combination, relying on new knowledge, and instinct.
And yet, something was still amiss.
They were close to getting it right, John knew that. But instinctively, although there was nothing wrong with the components used, or the theory applied, he knew that the potion wasn't complete yet. Something was out of place, and above theory and practice, John trusted his instincts. As a potioneer, instinct matters far more than the knowledge, or the experience that one had. You either had it, or you didn't, and it made all the difference between research potioneers, and potioneers who simply made potions for a living. It didn't mean that they weren't good at what they do. Skill took practice, and if one did what one did for long enough, they would excel at it, but for it to be truly exceptional, it took talent.
That was only half the problem solved, and he has yet to figure and pinpoint exactly what the problem is.
He didn't know what drew him out of his thoughts, pulling him out from pencil scribbled musings that made him look up, and blink. Paper surrounded him, the dirty plates from the morning's breakfast nearly buried underneath, vials neatly labelled and lined up before him. It was, frankly speaking, a mess. Needing the space, he had moved to working on the floor instead, laying out the relevant information and shuffling them whenever he needed to.
His Airfish was hovering by the door, and although it lacked expression, had managed to convey hopefulness, looking from him to the door when it noticed that it had gained his attention, and executing the equivalent of a head tilt. John knew that slant of its tail any time.
The mess of hastily scribbled thoughts and half checked questions stared back at him blankly from the floor when he looked down again, currently a tangle and a mess of jumbled words that seemed to mean something, all pointing to a vague direction but currently dancing out of his reach. He tamped down on the frustration that rose again, and merely got up from the ground, stretching out stiff joints and muscles, wincing at every creak and pop, and the relief from tension that quickly followed after, and carefully picked his way out of the mess without disturbing anything too much. There was no use pursuing a lost rabbit in the fog, the way his head felt right now, overstuffed with loose tissue and nothing particularly solid. It was time to take a break.
He didn't know how many days have passed since his self-imposed isolation, but it didn't feel more than a few days. His fish did circles around him, a sure indication of joy, and swam up right next to him as he stood with the door knob in his hand, allowing himself a moment of stupidity for thinking that maybe he was locked in after all, and then pulled it open. His fish, entirely oblivious to the tricks of his mind, darted out immediately, John following after, a little slower.
His was the only door in the entire corridor, stark black against long walls of white stretching to either side. The space wasn't quite right, allocated space not corresponding with the size of his room. It was as silent out of his room as it was inside, both ends of the corridor ending in yet more corridors, claustrophobic. It was a maze, a puzzle, a space carved out of where there shouldn't be one, twisting upon itself. An error in architecture, perhaps? He had no idea how anyone lived here.
And God, how he hated that colour scheme.
Movement caught his eye, and he hurried after it, jogging down to the end of the corridor, followed leisurely by his fish. The next corridor was as long as this one, nearly identical to his, except for the two doors set into the walls. A fluttering piece of white paper bobbed slowly down the middle of it, clipped to a black peg, an elegant L inscribed upon it and encircled in gold, the stamp of Little London. Seeing no other options, and because a guide was as good a choice as any other, John followed after it. It had to end up somewhere, and somewhere hopefully meant people, for variety's sake.
The peg drifted along at a slow enough pace that John was able to follow at a comfortable walking speed, passing by corridors after corridors. It wasn't the same route that they had taken upon arriving, but one that went deeper into the building. It was unsettling to be in corridors that didn't hold rooms, but seem to be a main corridor that branched off into various smaller ones in different directions. It didn't seem as though anyone lived here, with the exception of himself. It went on for seemingly forever, an exaggeration in his mundane mind, according to Sherlock, probably.
Eventually, it turned into a corridor, and turned to pause before one of the nearly identical looking doors so abruptly John nearly walked past it, insignia glowing for a second, before the door clicked and swung open, and passed through.
John followed, stepping through the open door, expecting a stuffy office of some sort, or another room, only to find himself blinking unexpectedly in the bright daylights flooding in through floor to ceiling high glass windows.
A lobby sprawled before him, all gleaming surfaces of glass and marble, Residents dressed sharply in suits hurrying to and fro, most of them heading for the elevators at the far end of the lobby that pinged constantly, a background sound to clicking heels and shoes. Overhead, countless pegs zipped around bearing messages of various importance in a frenzy, as were different forms of fish, all of the activities closely monitored by CCTVs.
Welcome to Little London, how may we handle your enquiries?
John kept carefully out of the way, standing helplessly next to the door he had stepped out from, an easily overlooked door hidden to the side that didn't look like it led to anywhere.
At least, this explains a lot about space in Mycroft Holmes' mansion and exactly why it felt terribly unnatural and set him on edge all the time.
He was debating returning to his room, half of him dreading the long unguided walk back, when he heard his name being called, and turned to survey the lobby area. Not seeing anyone in particular, he turned back to the door, dismissing it as a figment of his overactive imagination after a long stay in warped space, only to start violently when a hand clapped over his shoulder, spinning him back around.
"John," the voice said again. Low, baritone, familiar.
Sherlock had both hands on his shoulders, towering over him with an expression looking terribly close to concern on his face, sharp eyes darting over the research potioneer, taking in details and information which John could never see himself. He still looked the same as ever, swooping in his coat, scarf neatly knotted at his throat, not a single hair out of place, a sharply pressed suit beneath that.
For the first time, it occurred to John that Sherlock belonged here, firmly a member of Little London despite the fact that he went on episodes around Upper World, where John first met him, and knew him. Different, but still the same.
He felt like the wrong puzzle piece in a game he didn't know how to play.
"John. John!" Sherlock's grip tightened on him, sharp fingers digging into flesh, and John was shaken out of his reverie, blinking randomly, breathing unusually fast. "You're not alright. Whatever did Mycroft do to you?"
John was shaking his head, a little dazed, a little numb at the sudden turn of events and the sudden realization, holding up a hand when a commotion at the end of the lobby attracted both their attentions.
The Residents were scattering now, moving away from the elevators instead of towards it, instead turning towards another area of the lobby for the escalators, a soft announcement redirecting them away. Within the elevator area, several tentacles lazily reached out of the walls, completely heedless of the disruption that it had caused. It was a giant jellyfish, translucent, with long, coiling, doubtlessly poisonous tentacles, half in and half out the walls, and John could catch glimpses of it as the elevator doors opened and closed, delicate machinery unsure of what to do with an Airfish inside its system.
He hadn't thought that it was possible for Airfishes to be of a size that huge. Frankly, the jellyfish could easily take up half of the room that he was given, and perhaps a little more. And it was fascinating, watching it change shades from soft violet to deep hues of purple, sprawling, tentacles teeming, jabbing warningly at Residents that dared approach it. He wondered what sort of man would have a fish like that, and what exactly it said about him. See through and yet not, undeniably present, and with reaches far beyond what the visible eye can see, judging by a few Residents who weren't touched by any tentacles, and yet fell over and stayed down.
Sherlock only scowled, displeased, turning his back against it. "There's nothing he likes to cause more than trouble. Your room, John?"
Without waiting for an answer, he reached around John to pull open the door behind him, and steered John around and back into the maze. The sensation of claustrophobia and uneasiness returned at once, and John stood, trying his best to recall the route that he had taken to the lobby, but coming up short with exactly how many left and right turns he had taken, especially when every other corridor was just like any other.
Sherlock, however, didn't seem to have the same problem as John did, and merely strode forwards, John's fish hovering between the both of them indecisively.
"Research Potioneer John Watson's accommodations," Sherlock said sharply.
In response to Sherlock's words, a bold black line appeared along the floors, as though drawn with an invisible hand, extending down and around a bend, presumably mapping out the way back to his room.
Sherlock was halfway down the corridor when he finally realized that John wasn't following along, and whirled back around impatiently. "Do hurry up, I don't have all day- "
Whatever it was that Sherlock Holmes had wanted to say next was cut short, the man faltering uncharacteristically at the sight of the expression on John's face.
"Oh." Sherlock breathed, knowing dawning in his eyes. "Oh."
John looked incredibly lost, still standing close to the door, posture stiff and closed, fists clenched. Sherlock was unable to put a name to the bit of emotion he had seen in John's eyes before the man had averted his gaze, but he didn't like it, the man's fish hovering listlessly near the man's thigh.
"John." Quieter, concerned. Worried.
The sandy haired man gave himself a shake, muscles working in his jaw briefly, then straightened, and marched stiffly forwards, following the lines mapped on the floor, towards Sherlock.
He shook his head as he passed Sherlock, who wisely kept his silence, and followed after.
"I can talk to him."
Sherlock had taken to pacing, in tight, agitated rounds, hands in the pockets of his coat, around the generous yet unoccupied space in John's room. John sat on one of the armchairs, his fish in his lap, fingers trailing over cool fins for comfort.
"Let me talk to him, John." Sherlock broke off the pacing, standing before John in one stride, all sharp angles and barely suppressed anger. "Surely you cannot think of staying here for however long you have signed on as his apprentice. I have seen rat holes much better than this."
To his consternation, John shook his head, drawing a sharp, impatient exhale from Sherlock, the man turning away from him to gather the remains of his patience. "Can't you see what he's doing- "
Of course I know what he's doing, a scrap piece of paper slapped Sherlock in the face. I am not entirely oblivious to the machinations of your brother.
But I will see to this on my own terms, by myself. I have no need of your interference, Sherlock. Its fine.
John tossed the last piece of paper out, the scrap drawing itself up into the air and hovering in place.
Silence hung between the both of them, a struggling sort of tension, until Sherlock briskly turned away to instead examine the mess of notes that John had spread out on the floor, toeing the edge of the nest-like layout of information without disturbing anything.
"Keep me in the loop in the future," he said, an edge in his voice, but not harshly. "The latest progress updates if you please, John."
Grateful that Sherlock had dropped the subject, John nudged his fish off his lap, and did.
It took him some experimenting and then another three days to get around the limitations of his disability. He had turned down Sherlock's offer of a spell to assist him in finding his way around, thinking that tackling a bit of challenge wasn't particularly harmful. After all, he still had to adapt to Little London on his own, and not the other way around. A lesson in independence.
And it would be very interesting to find out if he was still as good as what he used to be, just for his own personal knowledge.
The result was a small piece of coloured paper, on which he could write a name, or a destination, and it would float on its merry way along the shortest route that it could find. It was a little trial and error, and there was ample room for mistakes, but it worked the way that he wanted it to, unerringly leading the way to the lobby and back, and so he was satisfied for now. It would take some time for it to be tuned in to the more delicate workings of the magic that hummed deep in the structures of this warped space, but it would be enough.
The only problem was to keep his fish from mistaking it for a piece of correspondence that was meant to be delivered and swallowing it. It was interference-proof, but not fish-proof, after all. That, and the fact that it always folded itself up into different shapes before floating off in search of the nearest exit. There could have been something else in the anagram spell that John made for it, but it was a harmless quirk, and he left it be.
The thing with warped spaces was that no one really know how stable it was. It was space, unlimited, which could be added to and subtracted from without anyone the wiser, although there would be noticeable differences in time by minutes to hours and even days. It also meant that directions and places could differ from day to day, and therefore written down directions and drawn maps would serve no use nor purpose. At the very least, conditions were more or less stable, with a constant temperature throughout. The amount of effort and magic put into maintaining the space would have been tremendous.
And so is the amount of effort Mycroft Holmes is putting into showing me my place, John thought viciously. Apprentice, my arse.
It was a power play, in simple and condensed terms. And the fact that it was executed thus overtly was terribly offensive to John. But for what? To put it in his debt? To constantly remind him that it was at Little London's mercy that he was re-appointed?
Clumsy and poorly executed for a Holmes, if Sherlock was any definition of a standard. Though, it was good to know that Little London was still similar, inside and out, still playing by the old games.
He supposed that made it some sort of tradition.
His musings came to a jarring stop, halting when the paper boat which he had been following through the maze of corridors sailed right into the open hands of a woman, who carefully caught it, painted lips in a polite smile.
"Mr. Holmes would like to see you," she said.
"You can call me Anthea."
She didn't seem to be walking particularly fast, but John had to hasten his strides to catch up with her, the Resident's heels clicking in echoes off the walls around them. Call-me-Anthea was still holding the paper boat in one hand, although all of her attention was focused on a small black device that she was typing away on single-handedly, painted nails clicking occasionally on the screen. John noticed that she was navigating the maze quickly without the assistance of any directional spells, pointing to how tuned in she was into the surrounding magic. Female Residents were nearly unheard of, with majority of the positions filled out by their male counterparts. It spoke volumes about the pretty, slender woman before him, in a demure pencil skirt, black hair loose down her back and lips painted red, and it made John wary of what she was hiding beneath the small polite smile and sharply pressed dress suit.
She led him through a few different doors, all marked with different symbols, some carved into the door, some painted, before they stepped into a bright corridor, and John felt the world settle more solidly around him, the hum of magic falling away, and knew that he had left the warped maze, even though this corridor looked the same as any other, except for the many notes zipping to and fro along them. The main working building, then. There were a few Residents around, all minding their own business, either walking briskly along the corridors, and going in and out of offices on their own errands. None of them glanced in their direction at least once, and John hurried after Anthea when he realized that he had fallen behind.
It is only when the sound of clicking heels stop, did John look up. Anthea continues to tap serenely away on her device.
"Please make an appointment, she says pleasantly, without looking up. "Mr. Holmes will not see you."
The Resident down the corridor swivels his head to fix Anthea with a less than pleasant glare, and turns away from the black door that he was about to knock on.
"I trust that you know where the appointment forms are. Please submit them to the relevant department, and he will contact you when as he will."
John stands from where he is slightly behind Anthea, looking between her and the Resident who is taking slow steps forward, sensing a dispute.
The man stalked forwards, expression stormy, hands clasped behind his back, stopping before Anthea, his posture rigid.
"I will speak to him personally," the man says slowly, pronouncing each word deliberately and carefully. "And you will look at me when you are spoken to."
"I report only to Mr. Holmes," Athea says amiably, and John can hear the steady tap-tap-tapping of her nails on screen.
"If I were you," the man draws in a breath. "I would watch my words and my step."
"Your caution, not mine," Anthea replies immediately, and there is the soundless small explosion of energy occurring in the small space in the corridor from deflected spells, Anthea finally looking up at the Resident, her expression no less serene. The energy crackles in the air, raising the hair on the back of John's neck, and he instinctively takes a step forward. "If I were you- "
"If I were you I would know my place- "
"By Mr. Holmes side, of course."
John could only stare. To those who were not sensitive to magic, it would only seem that they were engaging in a conversation, speaking in strange sentence structures. To him, the air was thick and heavy with spells forming and deflected just as quickly as they were made, light flashing behind eyelids, a sharp tang in his nostrils. It was a common occurrence, particularly in the upper hierarchies of Little London, spells woven into their lives and languages, slyly used against each other in a constant test of will.
"You will not stand in my way- "
"In line, or from making an appointment, no," Anthea smiles, and the spell is elegantly disarmed.
"You little - "
At this, John shoulders his way between the Resident and Anthea, shoulders back and ramrod straight, a challenging expression on his face. The man pauses, returning stare for stare, before smiling, oily, suddenly too pleasant.
"I see. Of course," the man's eyes flicker along John. "My apologies. Please." He nods to John, stepping aside, but not before he aims a venomous glare towards Anthea, and striding away.
John waits until the Resident is gone, down the next turn, before he steps aside for Anthea, who has returned to tapping away on the phone, waiting for her to lead the way again. She glances at him, the small smile never leaving her face, and resumes walking without a word, John following after a beat.
Mycroft Holmes' office was huge. Spacious enough to be intimidating, furnished enough to look comfortable for the man sitting behind the desk, a half eaten sandwich clutched in a hand, and tapping away at a device that looked similar to Anthea's with the other. John walked in, and stopped in the middle of the office, his paper boat in one hand, and a paper pad and pencil that Anthea had pushed into his hand. The Resident looked up as the doors closed, and John didn't miss the way his eyes flickered to the set of doors, before landing upon him, resisting the urge to fidget, feeling terribly alone and exposed without his fish, or Sherlock.
"Make yourself comfortable," Mycroft says, putting down his sandwich in favour of removing the pair of glasses he was wearing, and rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "I apologise for being unable to speak with you any earlier. May I offer you lunch?"
At John's stoic stare, Mycroft's lips tilt into a smile, and the man stands up from behind his desk, walking around it and indicating a room through their left. "Please, Research Potioneer Watson?"
The stare held for about a few seconds longer, before John turned, grudgingly. The room that he was shown into was warmer, the colour scheme deviating slightly from the rigid black and white that dominated Mycroft's office. It should have been a rather nauseous mix, but whoever was in charge of interior decor outdid themselves, managing to create a space that took a slight break from the stringent monochromatic scheme and highly polished finishings that the rest of the building seemed to favour, although no less impersonal. No less stifling, either, with the obvious lack of windows, and more doors than it should have in various directions, cleverly hidden behind panelling and screens.
Mycroft settled down opposite John, removing the cloche on the small table between them, and placed the soup, a plate of roast beef with a salad and some bread before John, and kept the small bowl of leafy greens for himself.
"I hope the menu is to your liking," Mycroft says, frowning slightly down at the bowl before him, as though the greens were offending him in some way, fork paused over it. "The Kitchen has a fixed menu on operating days."
Ignoring John's hard stare, Mycroft begins picking through the salad for the cherry tomatoes, seeming to be eating the vegetables in order, and remained silent until John picked up his own cutlery to start on the soup. It wasn't until John was halfway through the admittedly delicious beef when Mycroft spoke up again, the man delicately prodding at a purple leaf carefully.
"I trust that you are settling in well. There is nothing I can do about your accommodation as of now, but it should not have posed a problem for you. As is proven." Mycroft nods to the little boat at John's elbow, a hint of approval in his voice. "An unfortunate circumstance, for which I will apologise for."
Disability does not equate inability, John pushes across the table in a neat handwriting, eyes hard, but not challenging. Adaptation has been said to be one of my better skills.
"As it is, but not the only skill that you possess, Research Potioneer Watson. If I may?" He indicates the paper boat spell with his eyes, and John gingerly puts it into Mycroft's open palm.
Mycroft unfolds it, murmuring something quietly under his breath, until it lies flat again, once more, to survey the words and letters spinning across its surface. "An interesting piece of work, but," he falls abruptly silent, drawing the letters out of the paper into the air with a hand, directing them quickly, sending them into quick spins with a finger and removing a few letters, before pulling out a pen and writing something in the air that contained elaborate loops and flourishes, and pressed them back into the paper with his palm. "It should be more precise. But a very good foundation for a spell."
He offers the spell back, the corners of it curling slightly and flattening again, and John picks it up. It doesn't seem very different, but it feels different, and also that the letters are spinning less randomly, more in a certain pattern that he cannot yet decipher.
"I will leave it to you to find out what and how," Mycroft says, folding his hands on the table, one over the other neatly. "At your own leisure. Your priority as of now remains on Sherlock's case, and I will assign you your duties when I see fit to. Take the time to settle yourself, and to familiarize yourself with the new environment. Just in case."
They stare at each other over the plates and cutlery, until it seems that a mutual agreement and consensus has been reached, and John returns to eating again, picking up his cutlery, finishing off the last of his roast beef and bread.
"I hope that these meetings could be regular, as depending on our schedules."
Have to see about that, John writes, in reference to Sherlock, a somewhat polite smile plastered on his face. Lunch was lovely, thank you.
Mycroft only smiled, as though he found something particularly amusing that was rather obscure to John. "Welcome to Little London."