Sherlock Holmes is many things: consulting detective; non-bender; semi-sociopathic descendant of the once-Fire Lord Azula.
John Watson is many things: waterbender; ex-soldier; healer; live-in P.A. to Sherlock Holmes.
The dead body Lestrade shows them in a back street of Republic City is, too, many things: dead for seven and a half hours; an earthbender with firebender's papers; and, to Sherlock's relief, thoroughly not boring.
This mini-murder mystery is set ninety years or so after Korra, with all the new technology that entails.
"Earthbender," Sherlock says, prowling around the prone corpse. "Powerful one. Married twice. No, three times. Ex-Future Industries worker. Lower management level; fired approximately a year ago. Additional pursuits limited to drinking, mashing tsungi horn melodies with modern beats, constant internet usage, and copious sexual activity. John, time of death?"
John closes his eyes, places his hands on the corpse's chest. Reads the curdled blood sitting stagnant in the man's veins. Rigor mortis is complete – plus a few giveaways in the softening tissue of the eyes and face … "Seven and a half hours, give or take a few minutes."
"Wait, wait, bloody hang on!"
John and Sherlock look at Lestrade like they forgot he was there. (They did.)
"Problem?" Sherlock says briskly.
"Yeah, there damn well is! Did you say he was an earthbender? He's got firebender's papers on him, Sherlock." Greg holds out a sheaf of papers, which Sherlock promptly snatches.
The consulting detective's gaunt face goes blank as he flips through the papers. "Firebender … fascinating."
He stands still and silent for a good five minutes. John doesn't bother interrupting The Catatonic Sherlock Thinking State, but after three hundred long seconds, Greg can't help himself. "You sure he's an earthbender, then?"
Sherlock aims a disgusted look his way. "Obvious. Distinctive ridges of callus bunched up beneath the toes; squared fingertips from frequent and direct contact with stone. Metalbender, too – iron curls caught under the thumbnail. So the question becomes why he would pretend to be a firebender … and, more immediately, we have the question of how."
He tucks the papers into the pocket of his coat and strides away, leaving John and Lestrade in a resigned sort of bewilderment.
"Where d'you think he's off to, then?" Lestrade says, letting out a sigh. He taps his foot in clear irritation, and the resultant tremor through the stone pavement makes a nearby Satomobile tremble on its wheels.
John grimaces. "Dunno, but I'd better follow him. Thanks for the case, he's been a right nightmare this entire week."
"Mycroft problems, I think. He's got his metalbenders to pick Sherlock up three times in three days, to talk about … well, Spirits know what. Sherlock won't tell me."
"Chief Nu Wang won't be happy, Mycroft borrowing our metalbenders for his own purposes again."
John snorts. "Like she could do anything to stop the Avatar nicking a couple officers." Not to mention she probably answers to him in the political chain of command … but all that running-the-country rot is under wraps, I suppose.
Lestrade sighs, his expression clearing. He runs a hand through his gray hair. "With Mycroft … I wonder if this has ever happened before."
"What, the Avatar having a non-bending brother? Sod off, Greg, you know it's never happened. Otherwise Sherlock wouldn't be so bloody sore about it, would he."
"Yeah, well, he's had thirty-six years to get over it."
"He's Sherlock, he doesn't just get over –" John peers down to the end of the street and sees Sherlock striding toward a Satocab. And of course, the man has no apparent intention to hold it for him. "Dammit, not again. Got to run. I'll text you."
Lestrade gives a tired salute and goes back to surveying the corpse. John cycles an arm forward, freezing the steady stream of water in the gutter, and throws himself into a forward rush. The slick ice delivers him to the bottom of the street just as Sherlock's slamming the Satomobile door shut, and John scrambles forward to grab the cab's slick handle.
John slips into the back. "Thanks for waiting," he says pointedly. He knows Sherlock isn't listening, but that's fine. Sometimes it's more satisfying to talk at him when he can't be arsed to make a smart remark.
After they pull onto the road, John reaches for the papers, which Sherlock has lain beside him. Sherlock's hand flies down and seizes John's before he can touch them. "No."
"I just wanted to see what the bloke's name –"
"Doesn't matter, it's a fake name."
"How can you –"
"He wouldn't bother falsifying only part of his information," Sherlock snaps. "It's an entirely new identity, which, if you used an ounce of cognizance on a regular basis, you would have gathered. Think, would you?"
They fall into silence, and after a second, Sherlock's vise-like grip releases John's hand.
John tells himself he doesn't care about Sherlock's harsh words. He tells himself that until he believes it.
After the Satocab travels a few more blocks, John realizes they're not going to Baker Street. "Where are we going?"
"I need to see an old friend."
Friend? The word strikes John off-guard, and he lets out an unintentional chuckle. Sherlock shoots him a look that's somewhere between disdainful and – to John's alarm – hurt.
John almost apologizes, but then he reminds himself how often Sherlock is an utter bastard and offers no apology.
No, I'm not sorry.
They travel across what feels like half of Republic City before pulling up alongside a deserted warehouse.
"What is with the pair of you and warehouses?" John says, shutting the door behind him with a bit of unnecessary force.
"We are not a pair," Sherlock says, which is just a lie. John's always thought of Sherlock and Mycroft as a pair, perfect complements, as similar in some ways as they are polar opposites in others. Mycroft fits his natural waterbending abilities exactly (well, the bloodbending part of it more than all else), while Sherlock – if he'd had bending – would have been a firebender, John's almost sure. John never voices it aloud, of course, but the man's flares of energy, spastic bursts of raw power … his spirit reads firebender all over, despite his seemingly cold personality.
Not to mention his heritage: Sherlock never talks about it, but he and Mycroft are direct descendants of Fire Nation royalty. When John first found out, he was surprised Sherlock didn't bring it up all the bloody time. Until he found out the full truth. Sherlock's is not an honorable birthright: the disgraced once-Fire Lord Azula began their line, a century and a half ago. Azula, cold, sadistic, perfect, brilliant.
Which, John thinks, explains a lot.
(Also, John's secretly glad Sherlock isn't a bender. He has his private suspicions that Sherlock would burn down the entire city out of spite during caseless weeks if he were.)
John frowns, stopping before the side entrance. There's a familiar symbol spray-painted on the door. "Hold on a second. Are we … is this …"
"A warehouse concealing an abandoned outpost of the former Equalist movement? Yes. Largely deserted. One remaining inhabitant, with whom I've had … certain interactions in the past. Enough with the inane questions, John; open the door."
John's lips thin, but he crouches and lifts the thick chain around the door's handles. In one smooth movement, he draws water from the pouch slung about his waist and collates it around the center of the chain. As soon as it settles around the chunky iron, he presses the flat of his hand to the collected water. The links freeze over with a hissing crack sound, tendrils of white snow ghosting across the old iron where they touch the new ice.
Sherlock huffs impatiently.
John looks up at him. "Let's see you do it, then." He goes back to the chain and mutters, "If it weren't for me, you'd be trying to shoot your way in with a bloody Asamishot .53."
Sherlock stares at the back of John's head for just a second before looking away. He has the decency to look mildly embarrassed, though John doesn't see it.
The waterbender breathes onto the uneven chunk of ice, and it splits clean in two, sending the chain slithering to the sludgy ground. John pulls himself to his feet and pushes the door wide. It slams open with a tremendous echoing boom.
Sherlock's inside before John's even brushed himself off.
John rubs his shoulder as he walks into the cavernous warehouse. The stupid joint aches, sometimes, if John partakes in upper-body exercise or any sort of extended activity. Or – as is the case today – if he's forced to face a prolonged damp chill. Even the healing forms he practices in the morning alleviate only some of the discomfort.
"Your shoulder," Sherlock says, not even looking back. He's staring up at the old rafters, at the metal fastenings about the walls' supports. "You should see a healer, John."
"I've tried a million times, remember?" John says, a little more gruffly than intended. "My chi's all blocked up around where the bullet went in, I can feel it when I try healing it."
"If it's a psychological block on your spiritual energy, I doubt your own healing would be sufficient."
"I've got Molly to try, too."
"Molly isn't even a bender," Sherlock scoffs in the general direction of the wall. "Even if she were, she'd be a rather useless one, I'm willing to hazard a guess –"
"Sherlock," John says, disgusted.
"The girl's not even here to defend herself! Have some decency, would you?"
"Anyway," John continues, not bothering to lower his voice, "Molly can do chi-point therapy, which has saved more people's lives in the war than you'll ever save. And she learned from the best, in the Northern Water Tribe. So don't you dare dismiss her just because your way of helping is more damn showy and dramatic."
Another silence, one that sounds sulky somehow.
When Sherlock finally speaks, his voice is filled with wounded pride. "Regardless, Molly is one person. A single consultation hardly demonstrates a reliable –"
"I've also asked half the staff at Bart's to take a look, Sherlock," John says. He has to grit his teeth, force out the words. It's bloody embarrassing, running around trying to get help for a wound that's two years healed.
That shuts Sherlock up, but only for a moment. He finally faces John, his hands kept folded behind his back. "There are specialists you could consult."
"Spirits, Sherlock. I hope you're not talking about Mycroft."
Sherlock clears his throat and meets John's eyes. His gaze is careful. "Well, as the Avatar, my brother has been known to engage in some spiritbending work … 'When the occasion arises,' and 'when no food is available for distractive purposes.'"
It's the closest thing to an imitation of Mycroft's voice John has ever heard from Sherlock's mouth. The snide jab takes John completely aback, and before he can clamp it back, he lets out a startled laugh.
Sherlock shoots him a brief smile. The tense atmosphere melts clean away. (Thank the Spirits – John hates being mad at Sherlock, even if the other man doesn't seem to be bothered by harboring a three-week-long grudge on occasion.)
"A tunnel down there," Sherlock says, nodding toward the corner of the room. "Uneven shine distribution on the floor. Open it."
Another peace offering: He's finally dropped the subject of John's blasted shoulder. Relief budding warm in his chest, John pulls a stream of water from the pouch and slashes at the metal messily.
"I wonder what bending must feel like," Sherlock says, with such pure disinterest in his tone John wonders if he's having a go.
"Feels like shit, when you're trying to cut through steel with water," John pants.
His shoulder aches, but after long minutes and some ice-wedging over the area in question, the water eventually slices through. The long-closed door opens with the grinding of some ancient gear system. "That thing must've been made a hundred years ago," John says.
They approach the hole in the ground. John peers down with apprehension – he doesn't much fancy going into the bowels of some disused rebellion site. Of course, though, when Sherlock walks down the steps, John follows.
If it's chilly outside, the tunnels beneath are frigid, a good five degrees Jin colder. "Who in Tui's name lives down here?" John says, ushering the dripping streaks of water out of their way with a slanted hand.
"I was, at one point, in need of legal falsification. My homeless network directed me here."
"Right. You realize that doesn't answer my question at all?"
John lets out a short laugh, sticking his hands in the pockets of his jeans. Sherlock brightens the torch with a wrench of its head, as if to decapitate it. "Hardly the time for lightheartedness, John."
"Why? For Spirits' sake, would you just expla –"
Sherlock stops abruptly and raps on a section of the tunnel wall. "This is the passage to the secret atrium. Only the leader of the Equalist movement used to use it; now it's my contact's dwelling." Sherlock traces a fine line in the metal wall. "When I was last here, I had an escort, but he didn't show me the passcode."
"What passco –"
Sherlock slides a piece of faux stone up on the wall, revealing a tumble lock, and John falls silent.
"Four numbers or letters," Sherlock mutters. "This tunnel was of principal use during the primary part of the Equalist movement, as evidenced by the lack of violent destruction. No; nothing here shows a mark of Equalist decline – this was while pride for the revolution was at its height. Led by a man as enigmatic as he was ultimately false …" Sherlock enters A-M-O-N.
Nothing. Sherlock raises one eyebrow. "Perhaps if Amon had set this himself… yes, he would have wanted something more subtle, having built up a secret life for himself over decades. Something no one knew. Sordid history. Something sentimental? Of course – a man scarred by sentiment, a man who had shed his own name."
"But the bloke's name was six letters, right? Noatak," John says.
A smirk from Sherlock. "Of course. It was. But his name was no longer Noatak, was it? And the man had changed, too. In fact, I'd say he was very much inclined to …" A-T-A-K.
To John's disbelief, a door cracks open in the wall and swings outward. "Incredible," he breathes, before he realizes the word's coming out of his mouth.
The look Sherlock gives him is almost soft. Flushing a bit, John follows the detective up into the smaller tunnel, and if his friend's coat swishes with a little more swagger than is strictly necessary, John doesn't say a word.
"Phomi!" Sherlock calls ahead, into the sheer darkness. His words echo until they're a swirl of warm, incomprehensible baritone. "Stop napping in the middle of the day, would you? It's Sherlock Holmes. There's been a man killed, and he had some of your work on him. I know you typically have a policy of confidentiality, but in the interest of the law … well."
Sherlock and John emerge into the chamber at the end of the tunnel. Sherlock hits the light-switch, drenching them both in cheap fluorescent glare. John looks around, squinting.
The room is paneled with ancient wood. The boards, bloated and warped with water, twist down from the ceiling as if to melt, buckle up from the floor as if to grasp at the men's feet.
And then John's eyes fall on the man in the corner.
He lies in his cot, dressed in blue. And his long arms are sprawled out at terrible angles, his face horribly grey. A froth of dribble has foamed up around his gaping lips and crusted in place. His eyes have rolled back into his head.
"Poison," Sherlock says instantly. He strides toward the body and kneels, rolling the dead man's head from side to side on its socket, a grotesque imitation of reanimation. "Time of death, John. Hurry."
John touches the corpse's left hand and feels sick. Rigor mortis is just finishing. The fresh ones almost hurt to touch, sometimes. "Six hours."
"Same killer, or someone affiliated, at least. Certainly took his time getting here. Two hours' difference, since we left the site of the other body –" Sherlock checks his watch – "twenty-eight minutes ago. Yes; this man's murderer had somewhere to be in-between the two incidents … someone else to kill? Someone to keep quiet? Someone from whom he could wring the passcode to the atrium, perhaps?" Sherlock starts checking the dead man's pockets. "Rather unfortunate about Phomi, he was good at what he did. But we're missing a piece. That other man, the earthbender, fired a year back from a position he was too interesting to hold …"
"Interesting? What about how you described him could possibly make him interesting?" John turns away from the body, scanning the room. There's ash on the table – a neat pile of it, actually. Does that mean something important's been burned? Probably, what with how Sherlock's searching the body.
"The first corpse was an earthbender who did anything but appear like an earthbender. He spent his time on music, a desk job, the internet, sex – everything either sedentary or horizontal." Sherlock allows himself a smirk at his own words. "Yet his body has the marks of earthbending regularly. Luckily, I got samples of the grime on his feet. Should help, as the fact that they were dirty at all implied that he was earthbending almost immediately prior to his death. And his shoes – obviously used to being tied, given the clean ends of the laces – were untied."
John shrugs. "So what? If my shoes had come untied, and I was being tracked down by a murderer, I wouldn't take the time to do them back up all nice and –"
"No, no. He was half a mile from his apartment. With his frequent strolling around at night, as he was wont to do, he'd know how to make the laces stay tied for at least that long. No, his shoes didn't magically come untied; he'd removed them. And he'd had to have been interrupted in the middle of whatever earthbending exploit he was undertaking. No time to tie his shoes. Pulled on the socks. Jammed the shoes onto his feet. And he ran. Not fast enough, but –" Sherlock draws a tiny slip of paper from the torn lining of Phomi's jacket and lets out a slow breath.
The customer's receipt for the forged papers. And on the back is written I O U.
The earthbender needed money. He was going to pay for his firebender's papers eventually, but … how? It's all connected, obviously. Extreme debt, out of work… he'd need a lot of money very quickly to vanish with his new papers. A lot of money.
A second of calm, pale-eyed consideration. Then a manic grin bursts on Sherlock's lips. "Yes. High stakes. Illegal nature. Earthbending … it all fits." He heads toward the exit. "Come on."
"What, are we off to tip some homeless person a ridiculous number of yuans to look for … I dunno, illegal earthbending rings, or something?"
To John's shock, Sherlock gives him a far-too-hard clap on the back. "Well done, John! Excellent deduction."
"… and …"
"…what, you're not going to follow that up with 'Completely wrong, of course' or some other dickish comment?"
"John. You offend me."
"Offend you. You've just seen a dead man and didn't bat an eye, I don't think there's much I could do to put you off." John half-frowns. "Why aren't you upset by that, anyway? You knew him."
"He was a criminal."
"Technically, every time you nab a bit of corpse you're not supposed to, you are too."
"Yes, John, but it's for science," Sherlock says, his voice dripping with patronization, as if science justifies everything in the world.
John sighs. With Sherlock, it'd seem that way half the time.
As soon as they emerge aboveground, Sherlock texts Lestrade and the address:
Found a related body. Send your lackeys immediately. –SH
Sherlock glances up at the gunmetal-grey sky. Minutes later, repulsively enough, Donovan and Anderson and a few other morons are whizzing down the street, metalbending themselves to the scene.
"Hello, freak," Donovan says, dropping ten feet to land in front of him with a thud.
"In there," Sherlock says, nodding into the warehouse. "I'd hold your hand on the way down so you know where you're going, but I've more important things to do. One can only hope you don't get pathetically lost."
He struts off to the nearest main street.
John meets Sally's eyes, gives her an apologetic look, and opens his mouth to say something. But in the end, he just leaves.
"Welcome to … Earth Rumble CLXVII!" roars the announcer. Recycled electronic music blares over the speakers, darts of traditional instrumentation all but destroyed by the wub-wub effects. John winces, covers his ears, and feels rather old. Sherlock, for his part, looks all of twenty-five years old, his normal-person disguise safely slipped over his usual self. He slouches back in the seat, yelling obscenities with the rest of the crowd, eating some sort of baked good he purchased at the entrance.
"Come on, John; you're not even trying," Sherlock mutters, passing the baked goods to John.
"I'll have you know I'm reading this program very closely," John says, brandishing the cheap folded paper at Sherlock, who snorts.
"As if any of these people are literate."
John leans back, trying to relax. Not easy. Ever since the war … well, after fighting for the United Republic against an extremist fringe group in Ba Sing Se, earthbenders chucking rocks doesn't exactly put him at ease. If he's not careful, he's afraid he might yank a water whip from that moat around the raised contest dais and stand at defense on pure instinct.
At least there aren't bombs. Or other weapons – Asamishot Vipers, Blazers, the standard-issue .44s.
John keeps his eyes on the screen, which displays the contestants. He almost can't believe it: He's lived in Republic City for how long now without knowing about this place? Of course, Republic City is huge, but the arena is hardly subtle. How haven't they ever stumbled across it, one way or another?
"Who are we looking for?" John says.
"I've invited Lestrade along. I assumed it would be useful to have an earthbender present, just in case there -"
"I meant the murderer. Who are we looking for?"
Sherlock's eyebrows rise slightly. "Well, this is an annual event, one with half a million yuans of prize money. The first man was clearly a competitor – murdered for a possibility that he might have won, perhaps?" He mutters it all in a long stream, directly into the food he's holding. John has to strain to understand a word. "Though if we factor in the information that he carried a firebender's papers, we know that either he or someone near him wanted his earthbending to be a secret. Perhaps his presence wasn't meant to be a dark horse victory; maybe he was specifically trained to target one competitor and prevent that person's advancement in the tournament. His absence could have other purposes, too … we'll wait to see if they announce his withdrawal from the line-up."
John checks the program. "Doesn't look like there's a gap in the bracket. They must've found someone to stand in for him when he didn't show." He offers the program to his friend, but Sherlock wrinkles his nose and says,
Lestrade arrives right as the lights are dimming. He nods to the pair of them and slips into a seat. "Spirits, I've no idea how the police missed this place. That's embarrassing."
"Yes," Sherlock agrees. John shoots him a look.
"'s all right, mate," John says to Lestrade. "It was underground, in every sense of the word. You've got reinforcements?"
"Course. Waiting outside and at all the entrances and exits. Seen anyone dodgy yet?"
"No. Have we?" John glances at Sherlock and gets no response. "No, don't think so."
Lestrade nods. "In that case, s'pose we're just enjoying the show, then."
And they do. The challenger of the night is the underdog type, small and not particularly muscular. Ridiculously enough, he wears a suit and dark glasses, undoubtedly to line up with his stage name – the Blind Banker. Every time he defeats an opponent, he throws not a single punch offensive – instead, he gets closer and closer to them until he can dislodge their center of gravity, and hurls them bodily into the moat. Everyone receives the same treatment: a colossal man who shakes the earth when he takes a step; a lean woman with sinewy muscles and tattoos laced down her arms; a middle-aged man with a rock-solid stance. One by one, the tournament table clicks down, until the Blind Banker has reached the semifinals.
"Not really doing much earthbending, is he?" Lestrade says loudly, over everyone cheering for the Banker. The small man is darting around his current opponent, a strongly-built woman whose attacks the audience can feel shaking the stands. (John's hands are tight on his knees. Sherlock has noticed, but doesn't say anything.)
However, for all the woman's exertions, she hasn't landed a single blow. Finally, the Banker gets close enough to flip her onto her back, and despite having to dodge a final tremendous rock piston, he flings her out of the ring.
"Ooh, finals. Time for my food." Lestrade pulls out his own refreshment and starts crunching. "Ow, these are hot."
"Flaming fire flakes," Sherlock says drily. "Hot." His eyes are fixed on the Blind Banker, who stands bowing to the audience, waiting for his next opponent to arrive. The reigning champion is next – the Gravedigger. This person is the most obvious murder suspect, for natural reasons – but John said the reigning champion had chosen to remain anonymous. Unlisted in the program except by the stage name. Interesting…
"Why do they even bloody have fire flakes at an earthbending tournament?" Greg mumbles through a mouthful. "By the way, Sherlock, I'll be needing those papers you took. We have this thing called procedure, and if the Council is on our arses one more time about evidence going missing … well, I swear, the earthbending representative has about had it with us."
"Take them. I've extracted what information I can. Useless, now." Sherlock yanks the papers from his pocket and passes them over. John scans them as he hands them to Lestrade, and catches a glimpse of the dead man's name: Richard Brook.
John's eyes widen. "What the – Sherlock!"
"What?" Sherlock says, still staring at the place where the Gravedigger will appear.
"Sherlock." John stuffs his program in his friend's face. "The Blind Banker's real name is Richard bloody Brook."
Sherlock snatches the program. "What? Why didn't you mention this earlier?"
"You wouldn't tell me his name, remember? You said it was inconseque –"
And then the bell rings, and the platform swivels up with the Gravedigger atop it.
The Gravedigger. A slender woman with mousy brown hair in a ponytail and a shy look about her.
Lestrade promptly chokes on his fire flakes, turning so red that he could be aflame himself. John can't even muster the presence of mind to thump him on the back, because shit, is that Molly Hooper?
She wears simple dark yoga pants and – of all things – a t-shirt with a cat adorning it.
Sherlock reads the Banker's lips. "Ooh, this will be fun," he says, skipping around the ring. He waits for her to make the first move, but she stands in place, watching, waiting.
Molly Hooper looks more at home in the center of that ring, isolated from all human contact, than she ever has in Sherlock's company.
As for Sherlock, he doesn't think he's ever been this humiliated. How often is he around Molly Hooper? How many times has he written her off as being boring?
The Blind Banker sprints for the girl, running with almost unnatural speed. But as he lunges for her, she ducks out of the way. Her arms spread to balance her, and she wheels out of the way of every attack, reeling back, darting in close, giving him a gentle push on his left shoulder to send him stumbling away.
Sherlock understands what she's doing, too. He's done it a million times while speaking to people. Testing them out, seeing how they react and what their approach will be to various types of situations. Of all the competitions, this one is the only interesting one – because the Banker, too, has been doing this the entire time. These two opponents are reading each other and learning.
Sherlock leans forward, steeples his fingers beneath his chin. Richard Brook. A fake name this man has adopted. Is he a plant? An unnaturally good fighter; yes, he could be a plant. Or he could be the orchestrator, the engineer. Killed a man who had a choice spot in this tournament to get a shot at the prize.
In which case Molly is fighting a murderer.
The thought mildly alarms Sherlock, but he can't do anything about it. He's a non-bender, for Spirits' sakes; he wouldn't even be able to get over the moat. Besides, the man wouldn't kill Molly, not in front of an arena full of people. There's more to it than this. And the fact that Richard Brook's name wasn't stricken from the program … of course, it's an underground ring, but that's practically inviting questions, if anyone found the body. What does that man on the dais, or his employer, want out of all this? Money? It makes sense, but why wouldn't they take his bloody name out of the program … a mistake?
It would be a stupid mistake. Colossally stupid. Monumentally stupid. Sherlock grimaces. If that's really all it boils down to, he'll be a teensy bit … disappointed.
By the time the Banker regains his balance, the smile has disappeared. A dangerous imbalance lies on his features, now, highlighted by the closeness of the camera's zoom. His eyes are still covered by the sunglasses, but he tilts his head and points at Molly's body as if determining the best location to start disemboweling her. Sherlock can read a few things about his appearance – well-kept, used to luxury – but nothing overtly telling. Money seems a more and more likely motive by the second. No, no; boring!
The commentator falters. After all, the competitors are doing nothing except standing.
The audience starts to get restless.
Then Molly moves faster than Sherlock can believe. She catches the air between her fingers and twists, and the stone beneath the Banker crumples up, crumbles, cracks. It's a terrible noise, a million snapping bones, a powerful roar of dust. Molly drives her foot heel-first into the stone, and a resultant spike of rock smashes out of the wreckage.
The Banker leaps away. Catapults himself off the jutting pinnacle of rock. Lands in the center of the ring.
"Okay, how in the name of Tui and La did we not bloody know she was an earthbender?" John says.
Neither man can answer. Lestrade seems too riveted by the fight. Molly's every action is precise and calculated; each strike carries full conviction, and each form is executed with prudence. Not a single wasted movement. Brook still seems intent on making no move to actually bend. It's a fascinating ploy, in Sherlock's opinion: Evasion is so typically airbender that it would throw most opponents entirely off-balance. He'd be suspicious, but Brook doesn't carry any of the typical airbender signs. (Wide-spanned fingers from handling gliders; muscular center in the back from keeping oneself straight on a glider … and, of course, the master's arrow, though that's fallen out of fashion for many.) No, the man is definitely not an airbender – he just acts like one.
Again, he circles in on Molly, a predatory smile slashed across his lips. She fends him off deftly, matching blow for blow, striking hard and stone emphasizing her points. Soon enough, they're close, hammering on each other's defenses.
Then the man reaches forward, palms out, and claps his hands over Molly's eyes. She staggers back, her arms making to break his hold, but he's already slipped behind her and slammed the point of his thumb into her back. Five times. She crumples, bending disabled, body choked up by negative energy.
John's on his feet, hot rage wiping through him. "He can't do that!"
"He can," Sherlock says. "It counts as hand-to-hand, which is allowed. Only other bending types are prohibited."
John shakes his head. "If Brook throws her over the edge and into that water, she'll drown. I've got to get down there."
He forces his way back down the row, Lestrade following, and sprints down the aisle. The pair of them stop when they've reached the edge of the stadium seating.
But Richard Brook doesn't try to throw Molly off the edge. He leaves her there.
"We have a champion!" the commentator announces, and the spectators burst into applause. "Make some noise for the Blind Banker, Richard Brook!"
The commentator punches steps out from his platform to the arena.
Quietly, surreptitiously, medics carry Molly off on an exit bridge at the nearest corner of the arena. John hurries around the side of the stadium seats to meet them. "I'm a doctor," he says breathlessly. "And she's a friend. May I?"
They stop, frown. One says, "You know the Gravedigger?"
The other says, "She must be bloody scary in real life."
John almost laughs. Instead, he opens the pouch at his side and draws water over Molly's back, feels the clogged-up energy in her bruised muscles. Shaking his head, he starts to heal.
John, engrossed, only half-hears the commentator start to talk. But Sherlock, still far up in the stands and perched in his seat, is listening to the post-victory interview with rapt attention.
"So, Richard," the commentator says, "what do you plan to do with your half million?"
"Get a nice new Satomobile, I suppose," the man chuckles. Sherlock narrows his eyes – accent of the central Earth Kingdom, looks uncomfortable with public speaking…
"Sounds good to me," says the commentator. "And, folks, if you'll believe it – this man only signed up this morning. Care to tell us more, Richard?"
"Yeah, course," says the man. "My friend was going to compete, but he felt a little ill this morning and called in to cancel. He told me, so I thought I'd give it a go."
Sherlock sits up straight.
This man isn't posing as Richard Brook – this man is Richard Brook. They changed the program to put Richard Brook's name in there; the man himself requested it. And yet, on the body, the papers for Richard Brook – why would someone plant this man's papers on a dead body? Unless ...
Sherlock's breath chokes in his throat. It was a trail. The murderer knew he would recognize Phomi's work; the murderer knew he would be at the crime scene … the murderer knew he would follow the trail down to the warehouse. Find Phomi dead. Find the receipt, assume the debt, find his way to Earth Rumble Six. No one else could have done it.
It's for me.
The commentator says, "Time for your final round – the Open Round!"
Raucous cheers. Sherlock looks down at the program, and back up. And Richard Brook has taken off his sunglasses, and those eyes have turned to fix on Sherlock. A violent dark whirlwind of a gaze.
"Will anyone fight the Blind Banker? Anyone?"
The man folds his hands behind his back and tilts his chin up. Half-smirks at Sherlock.
Sherlock slowly rises. "Me," he calls. "I'll do it."
Surprised looks from a few close people – justified; Sherlock hardly looks like an athlete – and, down by the edge of the seating, Lestrade looking horrified. John is God knows where, but Sherlock doesn't have time for his friend, unless he's in immediate and life-threatening danger.
The commentator stamps once on the arena, and a bridge forms, linking the seating area to the arena with a stone bridge. "Good luck, challenger!"
Sherlock heads down, choosing the aisle opposite Lestrade.
"What are you bloody doing?" Lestrade yells, ignoring the stares from the audience. He starts trying to forge his way forward, but Sherlock steps onto the bridge and strides across.
The lights are hot, the bridge slides away behind him, and he stops ten feet from Richard Brook. The commentator rises back up to his platform.
The bell rings.
"Figured it out, have you?" says Richard Brook, approaching Sherlock. "Glad to see you got my message."
"Why did you want me here?" Sherlock says, ignoring the fact that in the stands, two burly men are removing a yelling Lestrade from the premises. "Who are you?"
"I wanted your attention, of course!" The man's face animates suddenly, his lips stretching into a wide, silly, greedy, glinting smile. "I'm dying for your attention, Sherlock Holmes."
"You've killed two men. Who was the first man? Who was he?"
"Oh, Sherlock, come now. I've already told you. The former challenger was simply my way into this competition; you don't need his name. I did need a way in, of course … because I am going to win, after all. I'm going to own those half-million yuans."
"If you think you're going to walk out of here without handcuffs around your wrists, you're sorely mistaken," Sherlock says. "And you don't need the money – look at you. Designer suit, XiMu collection. Sunglasses more expensive than some people's Satomobiles."
"Well done." Another toothy smile. "Our audience is getting tired, Sherlock. I'll tell you what – if you beat me, I'll tell you why I'm here. I'll explain everything to your tiny little mind."
The three words are like punches. Sherlock stares for a second, a corner of his nose twitching in disgust and restrained rage.
"Well? Shall we dance?"
"Let's," Sherlock growls, and he flings himself at the smaller man. Grapples for him in the strangest way he knows – reaching for the man's waist, body angled practically sideways. No better way to read a bender than in his reaction to this specific form.
He realizes the second he gets his reaction: "You're not a bender." Because Brook has twisted out of the way with complete ease. He knows this form, the Sato Non-Bender Freeform, learnable only through a specialized non-bender school.
"Really, Sherlock?" the man says, diving in with a fist aimed to Sherlock's jaw. "Thought you would've figured that out alrea –"
Sherlock ducks and drives a fist into the man's stomach. Brook absorbs the punch like water, laughs, and backhands Sherlock across the face. Sherlock staggers back, his mouth half-open, four bloody half-moons torn into his cheek. He dives for Brook again, and this time tackles him back to the stone floor. He pulls his fist back for a punch, but before he can make good on the action, a pillar of stone crashes into him from the side. His body hits the ground and skids. Every inch of him is a pounding bruise.
Dazed, from his side, he looks up at the small man, who's back on his feet already. "And … and you are – but you're an earthbender. You lied."
The man chuckles. "Like I've never done that before."
"How did you know the –"
"You can get into a non-bending school if you really want to. You can get into airbending schools and firebending schools. You can get in anywhere." Brook draws his foot back, clasps his hands together, and thrusts his fist forward. Sherlock scrambles out of the way of the attack, away from the spike of stone that erupts from the arena floor with a crash.
"Good. Learn faster." Brook snaps his hands out, crooks his right arm, lashes out with his left. The earth cracks in a perfect geometric pattern, catching Sherlock's feet as he tries to get back up.
Sherlock wants desperately to turn his mind off. He can't focus on evasion properly with the question alight under his brain. Why are you here, why are you here, what are you doing, what –
"You're the only one, you know," Brook says, stamping almost lazily. The action sends two angular pistons of stone rushing toward Sherlock.
Sherlock barely leaps out of the way in time. The edge of his t-shirt snags on the stone, and as he lunges forward, it half-rips. I could have died, just then, crushed to death. I could have – I'd never have figured out the case –
Brook slides a foot forward on the ground and stamps, crooking a finger.
Sherlock can't clear his head fast enough to realize he should duck. The boulder smashes into his back. Blunt, powerful agony.
He flies forward like a toy and lands on his front. Tries to gather his breath. Can't breathe, vision blacking – don't pass out, not here –
Before he can do anything more, Brook is before him again, pulling him to his feet. "You're the only one who could stop me." A fist slams into his nose. Breaking it. "Funny, isn't it?"
Blood rushes down over Sherlock's mouth. Brook has him by the throat. When did that happen? It hurts.
"I could kill you right here," Brook says softly. "But I think that would be too kind. And too easy, much too easy. For everyone involved."
"You're … insane."
Brook rolls his eyes. "You know, I've just been thinking you'd be rather fun if you wanted to get revenge on somebody, Sherlock. Lots of fun."
Sherlock musters up every fraction of his remaining energy, grabs Brook by the shoulders, and drives a knee up toward his groin. But the fingers fastened around his neck tighten, and Brook sinks halfway down into the arena, burying his lower half in stone. Sherlock crashes to his knees, lets out a sound of agony. Brook pops back out, brushing off his suit. "Should be about now," he says, looking around. "Come on, sweetheart…"
Sherlock hears John's voice over everything.
And the rush of water from below – John's coming onto the arena. Sherlock twists himself to his feet somehow, casts a look over his shoulder – "John, no –"
But Brook's foot drives into his ribcage, and he drops for what feels like the millionth time. The last time.
His head spins. He forces himself to stay conscious. This delirious pain is just like a high, really, a bad trip. From the ground, he watches. Hears the commentator calling security to get the waterbender out of the arena. And John is fighting more ferociously than Sherlock thought possible. The water is a cage around John's body, a symphony of bullets, a flood of ribbons. John is yelling something. Words. Deleted unintentionally.
Brook hasn't deigned to bend against John. Not at all.
You're the only one, Sherlock, comes the voice in Sherlock's head.
"No, this man is guilty of murder!" John yells at the men approaching him. The words cut through the haze. "He's killed people!"
Brook groans. "Oh, this is too easy. Stop it, would you? Just stop."
"What are you –"
"JUST STOP!" Brook roars, and then there's an Asamishot .44 in his hand. He waves it at the two security guards. "You, back away."
The arena is silent. Sherlock forces himself back to consciousness. Forces his head to stop spinning through sheer stubbornness.
And then Brook's hand is fisted in his hair, pulling him upright and against the man's suit-clad leg. His other hand has the .44 pointed to Sherlock's temple.
"I'm taking you with me," Brook says, "Healer Watson. Or you can make another move, and I can shoot Sherlock Holmes in the head."
Sherlock makes a feeble attempt to get away, but the blood is starting to harden over his mouth, and he's finding it difficult even to draw breath. Broken ribs. (Two? Three.) Dizzy, can't think, fragmented observations without deduction … shining lights and strong hands. Fine healed cracks along the arena floor. Small object in Brook's jacket pocket – practically invisible; probably taped in place. Sherlock dimly recognizes that this is a Very Bad Thing.
That's when he passes out.
"And how d'you think you're going to get out?" John says, trying to keep his voice strong, but he's already capitulated. His arms are by his side. Sherlock's passed out – he hasn't got a chance. "Gonna just walk out, are you, Richard?"
"No, no." Brook smiles and draws a small black machine from his pocket. Presses a button.
"Jim Moriarty," he says. "Hi."
The ceiling explodes.
The commentator is killed instantly. Screams erupt, and chaos bursts in the stands, and suddenly everything is a mad rush for the door and security couldn't care less about keeping order, much less about trying to control the madman with the .44 on the stage.
Jim Moriarty stands with perfect composure. "Come here, Dr. Watson," he says.
John spends a full minute warring with himself.
"I'll count to five before I shoot Sherlock," Moriarty says, rolling his eyes. John strides forward immediately, and Spirits save him, but he'd like nothing more than to cut out the man's throat.
"Mr. Holmes made a dire miscalculation," Moriarty says. "Yes. Quite dire. Direr than anything has ever been." He grins and looks up at the night sky. "Oh, he thought this was simple."
John stops three feet from him. Moriarty brings his foot down hard on the arena, and nods his head upward.
A column of stone starts to slide upward, bringing the three of them toward the ceiling's gaping injury. Moriarty releases Sherlock's head, which sags against the Asamishot .44. With his free hand, he pulls at the air, slides them toward the sky one foot of stone at a time.
John hears the whir of a helicopter above and mentally curses. But when they emerge into the open air – when the power of the moon washes over him – he remembers. And he says, "No. You miscalculated."
He lifts his hands before him, and Jim Moriarty freezes, every limb trembling.
John drags him away from Sherlock. His shoulder aches, burns – he hasn't bloodbended since the war – but dammit, it feels good, feels powerful. Perfect. Take this, you bastard – John wants to break him, to snap him in half –
And then the red dot appears on Sherlock's forehead, and John's stomach twists horribly. He releases Moriarty and yells up to the helicopter. "No. No, don't! Don't shoot, I'll come quietly!"
"Good boy," says Moriarty quietly, seeming completely unfazed. He walks back to Sherlock's unconscious body and aims the .44 at him again. Starts sliding the column up again.
Silent minutes go by, buffeted by the night air. John doesn't dare look over the edge. They must be a few thousand feet up, at least – and they're nearly at the helicopter.
Then there's a sound, and John looks up.
John can't help it: his mouth falls open, and he stares.
Actual clouds are forming behind Moriarty's back. Clouds crackling with lightning. And at their forefront, with a black industrial glider and an army of airbenders cascading down behind him, Mycroft Holmes tears through the air.
From far away, his eyes are pinpricks of light.
For the first time, Moriarty looks like the plan has gone terribly wrong.
Mycroft's feet detach from the foot supports, and he swings the back of his glider forward with a mighty rush before slipping back into place. A cyclone of wind blasts through the night and buffets the helicopter tail over blade. Mycroft reaches one arm out, swerving dangerously, and holds the metal beast mid-air. John stares open-mouthed; the man is metalbending without even direct physical contact.
The machine rises foot by foot, and then Mycroft opens his mouth and bellows.
The scream is unholy. Fire and air rocket out and engulf the helicopter, send it blasting away toward the gulf. Mycroft's airbenders fly forward to handle its course, guiding its remains to the water. They land with a crash.
Moriarty lets out an inhuman cry, eyes wild, and topples to his knees.
Mycroft lands on the pillar with a boneshaking thud. "James Moriarty," he says, and his voice is hoarse and hollow and filled with a million other voices.
Moriarty looks up, his face filled with agony. John shakes his head. It doesn't make sense, though – how would Moriarty not have factored Mycroft into the equation? Didn't he know Mycroft would do anything to keep his little brother safe? For Spirits's sake, the Avatar State is almost predictable when it comes to an angry Mycroft Holmes –
Mycroft's attention trains on Sherlock for a split second, just as John realizes. He lets out a shout, but doesn't act fast enough.
Moriarty's expression flips from misery to glee. He lifts the .44 and shoots Mycroft in the chest.
Then he jumps off the pillar.
There's the sound of a single glider vanishing into the wind. Mycroft hits the stone with a thud of awful finality.
John throws himself across the top of the pillar and turns Mycroft over. There's blood – so much blood, spilling out, warm and dark.
"Fuck, fuck, Mycroft –!" The pale face isn't moving. He isn't breathing. Isn't anything.
John lets out a shaky exhalation. Breathe, John. Breathe.
He pulls a palmful of water from his pouch and places it over the elder Holmes's chest. Shit. He can feel every piece of torn flesh. Who knew Mycroft Holmes was so human?
As quickly and efficiently as possible, John starts repairing the damage. His hands don't shake.
A minute goes by, and he hears the crack, the rush of manipulated stone. Before he can even look over the edge of the pillar, Molly Hooper is joining him.
"This was his plan, Molly," John says. "God, I never saw it coming, he never wanted to use me to get to Sherlock, he wanted to use Sherlock to get to Mycroft – he was in the Avatar State, and now he's not – I can't –"
She drops to her knees beside John, and fumbles in her pocket. "Here. John. Take this."
"What is –"
"Er, it's, when I was in the Northern Water Tribe, the healers said that Water from the Spirit Oasis, it could maybe, if you drink it or if someone uses it to –" but John draws it from the delicate vial, cutting her off. Power hums in it, a power even he can feel.
He turns back to Mycroft's body.
As the water sinks into his gunshot wound, John feels something else.
John thinks he might collapse next to the two Holmeses from sheer relief.
Molly stamps once on the pillar, and it sinks back toward the earth.
John eyes her, his hands sunk deep in glowing water. "Thanks. I think … think you might've been the only part of this he wasn't expecting, you know. When you were fighting, that … you know. And now."
She gives him a small smile. "Oh, well, you know. We all have our secrets."
One week after, Sherlock Holmes is back to being an arrogant dick, insulting everyone who's bought into the new fad of buying domesticated lion-turtles. ("They bite not just when they're young and stupid, but intentionally, when they're older. You'd think this city's population would know the slightest thing about animal safety.")
Two weeks after, Molly Hooper is still working at the morgue, bringing Sherlock coffee, remaining underfoot. He treats her exactly the same as he did before. But she thinks something in his eyes is different when he surveys her. There is something like respect hiding sneakily behind them.
Three weeks after, Jim Moriarty and Sebastian Moran reach the Northern Water Tribe. They have heard that Mycroft Holmes has woken up from his injury, with help from a certain healing technique, and Jim now fully intends to destroy the Spirit Oasis. A game like that, after all, must never be lost again.
One month later, John Watson is having nightmares. He wakes up mid-scream one night and hunches over, gasping, thrashing. And then a hand lands on his shoulder, a friend's hand, and Sherlock – baffled as he may secretly be – allows John to sob into his dressing gown. He does so with a minimum of obnoxious comments. ("Careful. Waterbenders shouldn't dehydrate." "Shut up, Sherlock.")
Five weeks later, Mycroft Holmes is tapping the metal implement in his chest, which is glowing slightly. "It prevents the bullets' fragments from reaching my heart," he tells John, from his mobile. "Technology these days is progressing so rapidly, is it not?" He doesn't say that he designed it himself. He doesn't say that he has more plans.
In short, life seems set to progress. And it promises not to be boring.