(Author's Note: This is a standalone one-shot and is not meant to be canonical for Transfigured Night. It's set after the resolved cliffhanger at the start of "A Scandal in Belgravia," but before anything else therein. Thanks to Rosawyn for the somewhat unintentional challenge: "Can a decent slash-esque story be written with an asexual virgin as half of it?" Since I don't find Johnlock canonical, this seemed a more viable canonical option. And thanks to TheBitterKitten for helping me past a roadblock on this piece! The Trickster Tricked (Le trompeur trompé) is a one-act opéra comique from 1800, by Pierre Gaveaux.)
So many of the houses in Bayswater looked alike, but there were subtle differences to each. Here, one had a balcony; another, Ionic columns propping up a portico; a third, a bike hire in front of it. They'd all been built at the same time, so, bike rack aside, there had to be a pattern. Given enough time to scan a series of row houses, he could figure it out. He didn't have enough time, though. The message had said to come immediately. Ordinarily, he'd have ignored that part, but he knew who had sent the message.
Stalling was a luxury he couldn't afford, for once. He was used to allowing himself all sorts of indulgences, everything except cigarettes. He'd quit those, he promised Mycroft. He'd intended to lie about it. But his brother had been so persistent that Sherlock had kept up with the nicotine patches more to spite his brother than out of any genuine desire to quit.
Gathering his coat around himself, Sherlock strode down the pavement, crisp autumn air urging him forward. The message had been clear enough that even John could have figured it out in under a minute. A simple shift cipher that had been around since Caesar, meant only to dissuade curious onlookers, and nobody who might be more invested in the contents of the note.
He'd figured it out at a glance and then eaten the note, just in case. Whether he'd face confused entreaties from Mrs. Hudson or more pointed questions from John, whichever one of them came across the note first wouldn't know when to quit. The haranguing would be almost unendurable.
Monmouth Park Hotel, then. He inched along the skinny footpath by Kensington Gardens Square, mumbling something distractedly when he nearly bumped into a woman pushing a pram past the wheeled rubbish bins. She turned to stare at him for a moment before huffing and rolling her child towards Whiteleys, so he couldn't have apologized, at least.
Princes' Square lay before him, and beyond that, he could see Monmouth Park Hotel. It was the same façade as many of the rest of the buildings on the square: White Victorian stucco, large windows, and five stories. There were dozens of hotels on the block and in the squares nearby. Why had Moriarty chosen this one? He'd have to ask, and hope the other man was ready to provide the answer.
Maybe he shouldn't have come here. However, it was near enough to Baker Street that he could slip away without owing anyone an explanation, and he almost felt compelled to show up. There was every possibility that, if he didn't show up, the consulting criminal might decide nobody at 221B was worth the effort to avoid killing. Emotional blackmail, even if not explicitly stated. Simple but effective. No doubt, the standoff at the pool had revealed where Sherlock's sympathies lay, and exactly how they could be seized upon.
He couldn't let John be a target. If the alternative was to stand in the path of insanity, it was unfortunate, but it would have to be done, hopefully without notifying John of his methods.
His mobile buzzed. He slid it out, glancing down.
You're a minute late. Tick-tock.
That hadn't been his fault. The switch over at Edgware Road to the train heading to Paddington and Bayswater had been delayed. But a logical explanation would get him nowhere. His finger hovered over the reply button, but he fought his first instinct and avoided texting back. As he closed in on the front steps of the Monmouth Park Hotel, though, he realized it would have been unnecessary, anyway. The suited figure that perched on the squared-off side wall to the steps was instantly recognizable.
"A minute and thirteen seconds," he corrected Moriarty aloud, instantly scanning the criminal's suit and surroundings. Unarmed. No henchmen, who would have been betrayed by their shadows if they'd been lurking below in the patio of the garden apartment. He was safe for now. "Considering your cipher was thirteen letters, I thought it was fitting."
"Edgware," Moriarty replied, with unerring certainty. He knew, Sherlock realized. He must have been watching the Underground on his mobile, all the way from the station on Baker and Marylebone. "But don't worry! You turned up. That's the most important thing, Sherlock. I think we can both agree on that." A blaze of dark eyes. "Why did you turn up?"
"They canceled Connie Prince. Nothing good on telly."
"I entertain you as much as you do me, then. Excellent!"
"Why did you call me here?"
Moriarty's smile seemed to suffice for an answer, a broad expression. He gestured with a flat palm towards the hotel, directing Sherlock inside, an easy, offhanded control of the situation that made Sherlock instantly alert.
In a way, the hotel made sense. It was private. Once outside the common rooms, they would be off-camera. Unless Mycroft had put a particular surveillance detail on him today, Sherlock was mostly sure that two people walking through a hotel would hardly be noticed. So the location was fine for a conversation, however deluded their chat might be.
What evaded him was the purpose for a conversation. Everything had been silent since their confrontation at the pool, cut short. A series of rather trivial cases – art theft, kidnapping, but nothing very interesting or compelling, either in the commission or in the solution. Nothing in which the master criminal would have been involved. So what did Moriarty want to talk to him about?
"Oh, come on!" Leaping off the stone wall, Moriarty cast him a thin, tense smile, no warmth in the expression. "You shouldn't take this long to process. You're not that thick." He stood, staring for a moment, before letting out a sharp sigh and stalking in, displeasure on his face.
But not at the hesitation, Sherlock suddenly realized. Moriarty was annoyed that his direction hadn't been followed. Something to use, then, to exploit if necessary. One card he could steal from the pack the other man held, an ace to slide up his sleeve. He strolled in after the shorter man, heading through the double doors into a warmly lit lobby.
The Monmouth Park would have been the height of luxury when he was little. With the passage of time, it just looked chintzy: A fake stone accent wall, walnut paneling on the check-in counter, upholstery in unnatural hues, and synthetic flowers that were too flawless and evenly petaled to be real. Even the avocado green shag carpeting was vintage Seventies, surprisingly clean for its age but still dated. To the right of the entrance, across from the check-in counter, sat a small cafe. A glass-fronted bar with bottled water and juices rested next to tables so haphazardly placed he'd have hesitated to call them an arrangement. All the chairs were mismatched and of uneven height as well. The hotel had seen better days.
Moriarty headed to one of the tables in the far partition of the cafe, gesturing Sherlock to a seat in the corner. Closed in by walls on either side, with nothing to stare at but a maniac. Already starting to feel claustrophobic, Sherlock was careful to avoid letting on as he slipped into the corner, taking a seat.
The chair was too low. He realized that as soon as Moriarty took a seat across from him and stared him in the eye, without having to tilt his gaze upwards. They were even now. Constant brinksmanship. The jab, despite its subtlety, had a familiar feeling.
He was used to that with Mycroft, but his brother was a different story indeed than the madman who sat before him. With Mycroft, it would always end the same way. His brother would call him childish; he would call Mycroft useless, and both of them would go their own way for a few days, until Mycroft decided to check in on him, or until Sherlock himself needed something from Mycroft. It was a strained, strange relationship – but it was functional, and it was sane. Moriarty might be surprisingly functional, but he was nowhere near sane.
"What do you think this is – a date?" There was something wryly anticipatory in Moriarty's smile, teasing him. Again with the insinuations. Strange.
"No. I think it's not worth my time." Sherlock placed his hands on the edge of the table, shoving his chair against the corner walls as he started to stand.
For a split-second, the other man's face contorted into blinding rage, before snapping back into neutrality again. "Sit." It wasn't a scream, one of the sudden explosions the lunatic fell prey to at times. It was cold and quiet, but primed to explode.
Sherlock toyed with the idea of continuing to stand, forcing Moriarty to cause a scene, but it would cause him trouble later. He was sure of that, and so let himself drop into the cornered chair again. "I'm not one of your henchmen, Jim. I'm not even on your side."
"You're not? You understand it well enough."
"Sun Tzu. Art of War. If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat."
The other man's smile grew, but did not warm. "If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle," Moriarty replied without hesitation.
Sherlock wasn't surprised at the memorized quote, but he feigned it anyway with raised brows and wide eyes. "You can read."
"I can read you."
The assertion sent a sudden, wired pulse through his nerves. It wasn't fear – not exactly. It wasn't pleasant enough to be called anticipation. The walls seemed to have closed in on him. Impossible. But, just as he would have felt awkwardly lost for a reply, two glasses of red wine arrived, dark and crimson and almost sanguine. Stupid, he told himself, and reached out for one of the wineglasses, sipping it carefully. Balanced, warm, nothing too sharp. Cherries and pepper, finished with rose petals and mineral – definitely drinkable. His brother was more the wine expert than he was, though; Sherlock could notice the notes but not identify them quite as well.
"Romanée Conti," Moriarty replied evenly.
Sherlock recognized the name and felt vaguely impressed. The bottle had to be worth more than all the larder stock in the outdated hotel café. "You didn't buy it here."
The explanation was light. "I didn't buy it at all. Consider it a gift from someone I helped." Moriarty took a sip of his own wine, a satisfied expression crossing his face. It wasn't just at the wine, Sherlock knew. It was because of the detective himself having followed the request. The conversation they were having would have been normal in any other circumstance. The wait staff ignored them just as they might have any other couple having a conversation.
Wait. No. That description wasn't right. He'd come here because he'd been asked, because he didn't want to know what would happen if the asking turned into a demand – but he wasn't willing to commit to anything beyond the simple conversation. It wouldn't happen, even if they spoke each other's language, unlike very few others in the city, even if everything the criminal did was designed to provoke and intrigue him. It was flattering – but it repelled him as much as it drew him closer.
"You're quiet," Moriarty replied. "I might think you weren't interested in this conversation. That would make me sad!" He mimed a frown for a second, and then broke the expression, laughing mirthlessly. "I might have to make sure you have a reason to hang around."
Sherlock picked up the wineglass, setting it deliberately further from himself, clearing his throat. "I've told John whom I thought the message was from. He'll be on the lookout. I thought you asked me here for a reason, not to watch me talk."
"How about 'both'? Will that work?" Moriarty leaned back in his chair, tilting it away from the table. If I lashed out a leg, I could send him crashing to the floor, Sherlock realized. The thought was tempting, in a juvenile way, but he didn't dare do it. He'd seen the full force of Moriarty's anger bleed through the slick veneer a few times, and it hadn't been easy to watch. So he stayed still as the other man began to speak:
"I don't mean your pet, Sherlock. I don't care about him. He's ordinary." Throwing back his wine, Moriarty leaned on the table, splaying his arms out as if he was exhausted, and needed to prop himself up, then looked up at Sherlock underneath his brow, hooding his gaze. "But I suppose that's why you keep him around, isn't it? Can't bear a little competition."
Anger on John's behalf flared up. The man might not be brilliant, but he was reliable. He was trustworthy. Most importantly, he didn't hesitate before getting into all kinds of trouble with Sherlock. Those three credentials were enough. His acquaintance with John wasn't a matter of competition; it was a matter of friendship, he supposed. If that was what friendship meant, then John Watson was his friend. It was a strange thought, but a pleasant one all the same. He felt himself smile slightly at the thought. The anger ebbed and abated, and he shook his head mildly at Moriarty. "If John's not the reason for me to stay here, then what is?"
It was Moriarty's turn to hesitate. He gazed at Sherlock for a second in what seemed to be genuine astonishment, before lacing his hands together and pressing them against his face, drawing a deep breath behind the cover of his fingers. "All right, all right," he murmured, before bringing his palms down on the table sharply, nearly slamming it. "You're supposed to be sharp. I thought you were. Apparently, you've got no points of comparison for this, though. No problem! I'll teach you."
Any lesson Moriarty could give was one Sherlock was certain he didn't want to learn. Still, there was the vexing question at the back of his brain: What did Moriarty want with him? And why did this feel uncomfortably like a conversation he'd have expected to happen between John and one of his girls of the month?
For once, though, if there were clues, he wasn't attuned to them. He felt cast adrift, without any points of reference towards which he could swim, and he didn't like that feeling. He couldn't let it show, either. "Thanks for the wine. But you'll have to find someone else to talk to for dinner. How about her?" He indicated the least intriguing target he could find. Sloane Ranger, conservatively dressed. Navy blue sundress belted at the waist, sheer hose, pointy black heels, orange blossom scent, hair pulled back in a neat chignon. Wore a long chain with a stone on it that she'd likely bought from a South American marketplace during her gap year. Like any of a thousand girls from here to Sloane Square.
The shorter man's brows lowered; his lips pursed as he swiveled to glance where Sherlock had indicated, before casting a displeased look the girl's way. "She's Prada. I'm Westwood. It would never work out, I'm afraid."
Neither would whatever you're considering, he wanted to say, but he didn't dare. The man sitting before him was too volatile to state it so directly, and he wasn't entirely sure what Moriarty wanted and why it had to do with him. There had to be some way he could find out what Moriarty wanted and use it against him, though. He could use it just like the other man had used his respect – friendship – whatever for John against him. He tilted the chair back, thinking, all the while feeling the other man still staring at him. "Tell you what, Jim."
The smallest smile crossed Moriarty's face at the use of a first name, but the lone word was chilly, almost venomous. "Subtle."
"I thought so too," Sherlock replied, not giving the other man time to speak further. "If I can figure out what you want, you have to give me a few months' peace."
A clue for the future. An obvious one. There would be an intermediary. He couldn't let himself be distracted that easily, though. "Just you."
"Right, then. Go on."
"The way you're leaning towards me suggests interest of a sort, anticipation, curiosity. If there weren't any other clues, I'd think you were interested in the conversation, as if I'd made a statement you found surprising."
Moriarty shook his head. The conversation itself wasn't the answer; they both clearly knew it. It wasn't specifically a counter of what he had said; there were no other signs of disapproval on the slight man's face or in his body language. Moriarty held himself still, careful not to give away any details. "But there are other clues, Sherlock."
"Of course there are. Both ones you mean to give me – the sidelong way that you're smiling, the fact that you brought in a bottle that I couldn't afford without a loan from my brother – and ones you don't."
"Ah!" An exultant little chirp of approval. Moriarty reached for his wineglass, taking a neat sip, watching with intense scrutiny. Sherlock's stomach tied itself into knots, but he forced himself to continue, feeling too much like a puppet on strings. Which ones was Moriarty pulling to make him so uneasy about this conversation?
"You were waiting for me outside. That indicates a need to direct the situation, one you both want me to know about, given the low chair, and that you don't want me to pick up on. Urging me to talk to you, because having me here and being unable to watch me trying to figure you out would be unbearable. It's not narcissism. Not quite. Don't mistake me; we're both narcissists, but no – this is different. It's a signal."
"Of what?" The wineglass descended carefully to the table, only the softest little clunk announcing its landing.
That was the question. Sinking into the chair, Sherlock considered for a moment, watching the criminal's avid gaze on him. His hands trailed to his chin, pressing against the center of his jaw. "You wouldn't waste good wine on someone who didn't matter. You have some type of personal regard for me."
"As you have for me." A well-manicured hand stayed where it was, holding the wineglass, too tightly, as if strangling the stem of the glass.
"Not the same. I want you caught. You want me destroyed."
Moriarty raised both his brows and his voice, a brief bar of singsong echoing their recent confrontation at the pool. "No-you-don't!" There was no denial of what the Irishman himself wanted, not that Sherlock had expected one. He knew he was right.
"You wanted me to come at a precise time. Either you have something scheduled or you want to see if I'll follow your directions. You're interested in what I think of you, because…" His deconstruction of the meeting dead-ended there. Why would Moriarty care what Sherlock thought of him? Why would it matter? If Moriarty viewed him as an annoyance to be destroyed, then he wouldn't care; Sherlock wouldn't figure into the plans. He was right about the destruction, though. Moriarty had made that too clear to be a lie. Wrong about the annoyance, though.
"Quiet again," Moriarty announced. "Boring! If you don't figure it out, well…" His mouth drooped, and he shrugged. "I can't be responsible for what happens next."
"One moment, Jim." Moriarty waved a hand at him, but Sherlock saw the slight flash of irritation that made the other man bare his teeth, a wild expression that vanished in seconds. Sherlock was being too slow, too deliberate, in trying to figure this out. Whatever Moriarty's contingency plan was… "Edgware. The delay."
"If I rang Lestrade, he'd say there's a bomb threat on the Circle. Probably around South Kensington or Knightsbridge by now."
"You can stop it, Sherlock. If only you figure out what I want. I wonder: Would saving all… those… people make up for the twelve you let die with that old blind biddy?"
That was meant to anger him, and Sherlock glanced up sharply at that, tensing before he caught the smile on Moriarty's face, daring him to lose control and shoot his mouth off, reveal his suspicions without using them to their best advantage. He couldn't, though. He wouldn't. There was something odd about this situation, though, almost as if Moriarty were trying to –
It couldn't possibly be the case. He would realize that. He drew back, staring, unsure of how to react. His pulse raced. It made sense: The wine, the hotel. Yet, it didn't. It had been playacting in the lab and at the pool, and no doubt it was playacting now. Whatever else it was, it wasn't real. It was a test. He couldn't let himself fall for it. The bomb threat couldn't be real, either. He was being played; he was being forced to an answer because of sentiment, because Moriarty thought he was weak and could be fooled.
And whatever Moriarty wanted by calling him to a hotel – it didn't concern him. It was as irrelevant as what either of them had had for breakfast that day. He wasn't going to let himself be distracted by factors that would never happen.
He was silent for a long moment, staring at Moriarty's slick hair and sleek suit, and then reached out a hand to finish his wine. "You made a mistake."
Moriarty's head snapped up. His smile was sly. "Don't say you aren't interested."
"In your mistakes? Intensely," Sherlock replied evenly, neutrally. Watching Moriarty all the while, like a cobra that might strike at any moment, he nodded towards the Sloane Ranger. The girl in blue still sat there, chattering away, not a care in the world or a thought in her head. Irritating, but useful, all of a sudden. "She knows something you don't."
Moriarty glanced the girl's way, scoffing loudly at her, dismissively. In any other circumstance, Sherlock would have agreed with the assessment, and just as loudly. Now, though, she was helpful, and he was glad that she was there.
"Knightsbridge isn't on the Circle Line. Gloucester Road, South Kensington, Sloane Square," Sherlock replied. "There's no bomb, and I'm neither of your type. But I don't think she'd be quite so choosy." With a sharp smile towards the seated man, he dropped his voice low. "If you have a more interesting proposal than that, feel free to ring. In a few months' time, like you promised. I'll be waiting."
Moriarty sat there in mute anger, his fingers curled against his palms and his posture too straight to be anything but overly formal, but he wouldn't strike – not now. The moment had passed, and the Irishman's concern about timing and appearances would trump his need for revenge. Sherlock knew he'd pay for avoiding the trap at some point, when Jim Moriarty had a more tightly organized situation. For now, though, Sherlock was confident enough that he could step away from the table, ignoring what the other man wanted, deliberately heading away in a direction Moriarty hadn't anticipated.
"You won't have to wait long, Sherlock," Moriarty said. All the warmth had been leeched from his voice, revealing a polished, nearly spat-out hate that made the detective almost stop in his tracks.
"I hope not." Sherlock couldn't turn around to look back at Moriarty, couldn't give him anything to go on. "Cover the tip for me. I owe you." And, with that, he headed out into the blandness of Bayswater beyond.
Stuccoed, whitewashed, carbon-copied normalcy swept over him like a too-thick blanket, more confining than comforting, and he almost turned back, out of curiosity. But his curiosity wasn't important. What was important was winning – and he had done just that. He was unstoppable – but so too was the angry, temporarily outsmarted madman who sat half a block away. He couldn't help but quicken his pace as he headed back to the Tube stations on Queensway, and could do nothing for the cold shudder that swept through him as he walked towards Bayswater Station, although no breeze crossed his path.