'Seriously, Sherlock,' John said exasperatedly, shaking his head. 'You can't say things like that.'
'What, the truth?' Sherlock's face was hidden by the turned-up collar of his coat, but he definitely sounded amused.
'You know what I mean. You didn't have to be so blunt. She was an old woman, you could've given her a heart attack.'
'John, she's having wild and rampant sex every Thursday with a gentleman from her Bingo club. I sincerely doubt anything I told her tonight could have had a chance of straining her heart any more than what they get up to.'
'Oh, just- no- Christ, Sherlock, I do not want to know that sort of thing!'
Sherlock grinned down at the poor gagging doctor. 'Come on, John, the evidence was everywhere. She's hardly the boating type, so what did you think the crossed paddles over the mantle were for? And the hall closet alone had-'
'No!' John slapped a hand over the taller man's mouth. 'Seriously, Sherlock. Unless it has vital bearing on a case, never, ever, ever tell me about the sex lives of pensioners. I do not want to know.'
Sherlock rolled his eyes, but obediently shut his mouth, so John took his hand away. They resumed walking. 'You probably also don't want to know what they did on that sofa you were sitting on, then.'
'Dull, John. Dull and illogical for a doctor. What if the gentleman happened to get groin strain and come into your surgery?'
'Just shut- hang on, what's that?'
John grabbed Sherlock's sleeve to jerk him to a stop, peering through the gathering dusk at the park on their left. They were on the playground's side of the street this time, and the families were gone, but something was definitely moving in the trees. John remembered Sherlock's earlier words about a large dog, and swallowed.
'Not the dog,' his flatmate murmured. 'It's him.'
'Who?' John asked in a whisper.
'The boy. The cousin.' Sherlock shook his sleeve free from John's grip and moved slowly forward to the trees. John followed quickly.
'What boy?' he hissed.
'That boy,' Sherlock said in a loud, clear voice. 'Are you going to come out?'
There was a long pause, then a small, dark-haired boy crept from the shadows of the trees into the glow of the setting sun and street lights. John's breath caught in his throat. The child was thin, painfully thin; that much was obvious even under his enormous clothes. The narrow shoulders hunched in and his stick-like arms were crossed tightly over his chest. He shivered in the cold evening air, and John remembered how odd he'd thought it earlier that the boy had been without a coat even on a cold, late-November afternoon. Without thinking, he shrugged his own jacket down his arms and moved forward to drape it around the child's shoulders.
The boy ducked back, flinching, and John froze.
'Right,' Sherlock murmured, and for once, John didn't need the detective's help to deduce the situation. He'd learned plenty in medical school and seen plenty in his office to figure this one out.
'Right,' he repeated, and crouched down to meet the boy's level with a small smile. 'I'm John,' he said warmly, and gestured over his shoulder. 'That's my friend, Sherlock. We've just been visiting Mrs Christianson down the street. What are you doing out here?'
The boy eyed him intently, then shrugged.
'It's a bit late for playing,' John continued. 'Aren't you getting cold? Here, you can wear my jacket for a while, if you want. I don't need it right now, see? I've got a jumper and a scarf on.' He held the jacket out and waited.
The boy twitched forward slightly, but didn't move to take the coat. 'Mustn't be a burden,' he said in a surprisingly clear voice.
'Oh, for god's sake,' Sherlock muttered. Then, before John could stop him, he crossed the grass to the boy in two long, swift steps, grabbing John's jacket on the way, and stuffed the boy into it before either he or John could yelp in protest. He certainly yelped afterwards, though, squirming to get away from Sherlock's hands as the tall man knelt and zipped up the coat with the boy's arms still folded inside.
'Sherlock!' John cried. 'That's not how you-'
'Why do they hate you?' Sherlock asked, completely ignoring his flatmate. 'Did they tell you to stay out here, or are they so horrible that you'd rather stay out than go back?'
John wanted to throw up his hands and angrily inform Sherlock that you don't just interrogate obviously abused children, that's not how it works- but the boy scowled. 'Dropped the pan,' he grumbled, quickly settling under the heavy hands Sherlock still rested on his shoulders. 'Aunt P'tunia said I can't come back 'til after dinner's done, to clean up.'
'Mm,' Sherlock said absently, and John could tell he was scanning and cataloguing and deducing every aspect of the boy's life from his loose, tattered shoes and the way he held himself tightly within John's coat (so massive, on the tiny child). Then he stood and caught John's eyes. 'I think I'd like to pay Aunt Petunia a visit,' he said mildly.
John surveyed the child, too. Messy dark hair, big light eyes, pale skin, scrawny frame. Like a little tiny Sherlock, right down to the stiff carriage and long fingers. 'I think so, too,' he murmured. 'What's your name, little one?'
The boy shrugged. 'Boy. Aunt P'tunia calls me Freak but Mrs Figg says that's not nice.'
John stared at Sherlock and watched the muscles of the narrow jaw clench. Then the detective seized the boy (ignoring the startled yelp), holding him tightly on his hip, spun on his toes, and strode away. 'Directions, please. Come along John.'
John followed, feeling his world shudder a little under his feet. 'Sherlock...shouldn't we just call Lestrade? Or the police?'
Sherlock's snort was audible even three long steps ahead. 'This is not an ordinary case of child abuse, John. I don't want them messing things up just yet. Here we are, number four.'
Another identical little house with another businessman's car in the drive, just like all the houses John could see from where he stood. This was so wrong- child abuse wasn't like murder, they couldn't just go barrelling in, they'd get in so much trouble Greg wouldn't be able to get them out of and they'd probably just muck up any investigation by doing this because the aunt and uncle would have a warning and the boy would never get away, he should just leave, just call the police before Sherlock had a chance to-'
'What do you want?' A thin, long-faced woman with watery-blonde hair had opened the door. Her eyes ran over Sherlock, with his arresting features and expensive clothes, to the obscured child in his arms. She ignored John, stood at Sherlock's side in his jeans and plain camel jumper. Sherlock's smile was sharp.
'Sherlock Holmes, and this is Doctor Watson. I believe we've found something you've lost.'
The boy in Sherlock's arms had twisted and pressed his head into the greatcoat's collar when they stepped up to number four's door. At this, he turned slightly and peered out.
'You.' The woman glared furiously. 'What do you think you're doing, bothering respectable strangers? Get inside, now! Vernon!'
The boy began to shiver visibly. A very large, ruddy-faced man lumbered up from somewhere in the house. 'Yes, dear?'
'The boy made these two men bring him home,' Petunia- it must be Petunia, John thought- snapped. 'Get down! In, I said!'
The child squirmed a little, as though trying to wriggle out of Sherlock's arms, but the man held tight. John set his face in an intimidating scowl and straightened his back, automatically shifting into a parade rest. He wasn't exactly sure where his friend was going with all this, but he'd be damned if he didn't help.
'Actually,' Sherlock said, his light voice in contrast to his flinty eyes. 'I've become rather attached since we met- oh, ten minutes ago, and I wondered if I might keep him. How do you feel about adoption?'
Petunia and Vernon stared, clearly shocked. 'Adop- adoption?' Petunia finally stuttered. 'You want to adopt him?'
'Careful, Petunia,' her husband growled. 'He might be one of them.'
The woman clenched her fists in the skirt of her prim, flowered dress and darted beady eyes between Vernon and Sherlock. 'But if he wants the boy-'
'He might be one of that sort, come to take him away, and then we'll be in trouble. You remember what the note said! Or he could be sent to spy on us!' Vernon snarled, his face going ruddier by the moment. John sincerely feared for his blood pressure.
Sherlock raised an eyebrow. 'I assure you, I'm no sort you've ever met before,' he said coolly, with a little toss of his head to bring up his chin and loosen his dark curls to fall dramatically over his brow and highlight his eldritch eyes, and John had to bite back a smirk. Vain git. 'He's obviously your nephew, or a similar relation, and you obviously don't want him. I'd like to take him.'
'What has he been telling you?' the fat man blustered furiously.
'Is there anything to tell me?' Sherlock asked mildly. 'Besides the obvious facts that you clearly don't feed him, you don't let him use any of the bedrooms upstairs, you utilise him as a slave, and you allow your pig of a son to physically assault him on a regular basis? Or perhaps the fact that some paramilitary group is after him, certainly with intent to harm and most likely to kill, but you let him wander in the dark alone? Or maybe you were referring to the fact that you've been receiving money for his care, but spending it all on yourselves and insisting to the boy he's just a burden. Of course, you might not mean any of those things at all; he could hardly have told us much, could he? It's so difficult to start a conversation when you don't even know your own name.'
Vernon's face went alarmingly red. 'Petunia, dear,' he said through gritted teeth, 'go see to Dudders, won't you? He'll be ready for his dessert, by now.'
The woman's face had grown steadily more pinched throughout Sherlock's coolly-delivered accusations as though she'd been sucking on a lemon. She shot one last suspicious look between Sherlock and John, then hurried away into the house with a sharp click click click of her heels.
'Now,' Vernon said, rubbing his thick hands together like a criminal in a film. A vein pulsed visibly in his temple, making John wince. 'You're some of...them, aren't you? Probably a relative, by the look of you- for all the old man said he had none left. Not that I ever thought we could trust a word your lot said!' His cackle sounded more than a little mad, John thought with some alarm. 'Well, you can tell whoever you work for that we don't want to be watched. If you want to keep an eye on the freak, you can take him back and take care of him yourselves.'
'Look, we've got no idea what you're talking about,' John interrupted irritably. 'What the hell is your problem, calling an innocent little boy a freak?'
'Innocent!' Vernon crowed. 'Innocent, all those freaky things he does! Dangerous to our Dudders! I don't want my son brought up around any...any...' His voice dropped very low. 'Any magic.'
John stared, completely nonplussed. Vernon glared back.
'I won't have it anymore,' he snarled. 'If you're going to be watching over our shoulders, you can ruddy well have him. We don't want him anymore. No more making things appear and disappear under our noses, or mucking about with Dudders' toys, or doing things to the bloody flowers! No- more-' his voice dropped again- 'magic!'
Then he slammed the door on their noses, leaving John and, for once, Sherlock, completely dumbfounded on the doorstep.
'Well,' Sherlock said finally, and glanced down at the wide-eyed, white-faced child in his arms. 'Do you like violin music?'
'And that was it, really,' John said with a sigh, leaning back in his seat. 'We took a cab back to Baker Street and Sherlock spent the whole ride with Hadrian in his lap, the two of them muttering back and forth. I kept trying to ask what they were talking about but he just kept saying he was 'gathering information' and wouldn't tell me anything else. Then we got back to the flat and I offered to take him down to the police station so they could call social services, and he said Hadrian was 'his experiment' and he wouldn't be giving him up. And here we are. I still don't know what he means by 'experiment,' either.'
'Mm.' It was the first sound Mycroft had made in a while; even the cooling tea had been abandoned during John's retelling. The Holmes brother was still blank-faced.
'And...the magic,' John said with difficulty. 'Sherlock thinks it's real.' He scrubbed a hand over his face and through his military-crop hair. 'I know it sounds mad, I really do. I mean, I'm a doctor and I know how most of the things people used to think were magic or vampires or whatever can be explained away by science and diseases- but there was this thing with my door being locked and then unlocked, and...I don't know. I'm...worried, though.' He caught Mycroft's distant gaze and the pale eyes focussed on his at once. 'His uncle was actually afraid and angry at whatever it is Hadrian can do, and he made it sound like there are other people like him somewhere out there, watching him. Or waiting for him, or something. I don't know, but I'm worried. And I have no idea what Sherlock's thinking with all this.'
'Yes,' Mycroft murmured. 'He does have a distressing tendency to rush into things...' He trailed off, gazing out the hide window again, even though the ducks had drifted to a distant patch of reeds. 'Well.' He turned back to John. 'I can tell you nothing at the present moment, Doctor Watson, except that your fears are not entirely unfounded. Hadrian is in no danger for the present moment, and Sherlock is not likely to do anything rash today or tomorrow. If you are agreeable, I will come to the flat in two days to discuss the situation.'
John sighed. 'Thank you,' he said quietly. 'Look, I know we're a lot of trouble for you, and you've got, like, the most busy and insane job in the country-'
'You flatter me, Doctor. I am merely a civil servant, as I have said.'
'The civil servant, clearly,' John said with a roll of his eyes. 'If we've stolen ash trays from the palace you've probably got them from...secretly operational torture chambers in the Tower, or something.'
'Smoking is not permitted within any part of the Tower of London, Doctor Watson,' Mycroft interrupted loftily.
John stared at him. 'God, you just can't help yourself, can you?'
Mycroft looked rather pleased.
'Anyway. I know I don't really help make things any easier, or help keep Sherlock out of trouble, and I probably just add to your workload more than anyone else could get away with without being taken out by MI-5, but- I appreciate it. We appreciate it. Really. We'd have been in...unbeatable trouble, I think, more times than we know without your help. Even just with little things like paying rent and Sherlock having clean clothes and me not getting written up as certifiably insane by my therapist. So...thanks.'
There was an awkward silence in which John had to look down at his plate and fiddle with biscuit crumbs, feeling like he was back at school and trying to explain to his English professor that he was really, really, embarrassingly grateful to the man for once again cleaning up his scrapes and not offering any empty platitudes after he'd been beaten up again in the schoolyard by his much taller, much tougher classmates.
Mycroft's voice was as kindly reassuring as Professor Llewellyn's, and John chanced looking up to meet warm blue eyes.
'My brother has always been a...trying person, but he has been a far better one since you came into his life, as I know you have already been told by many people on many occasions. We are a small family, Sherlock and I, as your sister and yourself are a small family; and you have been brought into ours regardless of your intent. I have had no reason to believe that you will betray our trust.'
Simple enough words, really, but given who they'd come from, it felt like just about the highest praise John'd ever had. Even with Mycroft's parting reminder that he was not a taxi service or an on-call PA- oh, but do take the rest of the packet of biscuits, Sherlock might actually deign to eat a few and Mycroft really shouldn't keep such things around- John felt a little warmer all the way back to the flat.