"Really, I'm perfectly fine," John said.
"Not true. If you were perfectly fine, you wouldn't be in a hospital bed," Sherlock told him.
John just shook his head, exasperation colouring his face, tinting his cheeks with a red that was a welcome change from the extreme pallor he'd shown earlier. "I may be operating at less than optimum levels, but I will be perfectly fine in a few days. The bullet missed everything important, and, yes, there was some blood loss, but that's been taken care of. I'll be home soon. I'm fine.
"Okay, mostly fine, then," John said, "But that's still the opposite of mostly bad, and very definitely not dead. So you can stop looking at me like that."
Sherlock just blinked. "Looking at you like what?"
"Like I was about to die. Because I wasn't. Not at any time during this whole event. The kidnapper was incompetent. The bullet grazed off my rib—it's only my bad luck that it managed to get my arm, but that'll be okay, too. At least it's my right arm this time. Not being able to use my primary hand is a pain."
Sherlock was having trouble focusing on the words, and barely noticed when John trailed off. "Sherlock?"
He just shook his head, struggling to his feet as he heard other people entering the room.
He pushed his way past Harry and John's assistant and made his way into the hallway. (Had the entire city come by to check on John? Weren't there supposed to be rules to limit the number of guests? How did they even know John was here?) Why was he feeling so … uncertain? He knew full well that John was going to be fine. The injury was trifling, as gunshots went. John was awake, alert and would be fine. So why was he upset?
He groaned to himself as he saw Mycroft walking up the hallway. Just what he needed, his condescending brother here to chastise him for putting John at risk. He'll probably lecture about John taking unnecessary risks now that he's an Earl and naturally it will all be Sherlock's fault, just like everything else in the world that wasn't specifically under Mycroft's control, and let's face it, the reason he IS the British Government in the first place is because he's forever trying to control and correct Sherlock's supposed faults, but it wasn't his fault that John got shot, or, well, not really, because okay, he might have tackled the shooter causing the gun to go off, but it's not like he had tied John up in the first place…
He blinked and found Mycroft standing directly in front of him, a look of concern on his face. "Has there been bad news? I was given to understand the injury wasn't serious."
"What?" Sherlock said, trying to get his brain in gear. "No, he'll be fine. He's in there with his sister and his assistant. I was just … giving them room."
"You were panicking, you mean," Mycroft said, scanning his face.
"I don't panic," Sherlock said, biting the words off sharply as they left his mouth, as if by making them crisp and sharp, he could keep Mycroft away from them.
"You do," Mycroft said, "But it's rare. If John is not seriously hurt, what caused it this time?" He glanced toward the room. "Did they chase you out?"
Sherlock shook his head and fought the urge to wrap his arms around himself. "No. I was being nice."
Another glance into the room past his shoulder. "By the looks of things, I don't know that John would agree. He's looking a bit bullied."
Sherlock resisted the urge to look, and just shrugged his shoulders. "Family intrusions at times like these are unavoidable."
Mycroft's eyes narrowed. "That doesn't explain why you're out here looking like a gun-shy rabbit while your best friend is suffering a familial invasion in there."
He drew a breath, wishing it weren't so shaky. "It's not like he needs me … in there, I mean."
He saw a look of understanding cross Mycroft's face and just barely resisted the temptation to kick him for comprehending any of this before he did.
"You're afraid he's going to send you away—for good."
"Don't be silly," Sherlock said, but his heart wasn't in it. Even as he said it, he knew Mycroft was right. It wasn't like John needed him anymore. He had money of his own, now. Not one, but several homes were his for the taking and he didn't even need Sherlock's cases to keep busy. There were plenty of things for him to do just for being an earl—boring, dull, tedious things, but they would at least fill his time. What did he need Sherlock for?
"John Watson is not the kind of man to slough off his friends just because something better came along … even assuming he considered taking over his grandfather's title was 'better'."
"John Watson might not have been, but he's John Brandon now."
Mycroft lifted one eyebrow. "As if there's a difference? Call him what you will, he's the same man."
"Even I know that names affect things, shape events, Mycroft. I have always thought it's ridiculous that people are so easily swayed by a title or a slogan instead of actually thinking for themselves, but that doesn't change the facts."
"Are you saying John is so shallow as to be misled by, what, his own title? Even I know him better than that, little brother."
Sherlock shook his head. Mycroft was missing the point, as usual. "No, brother. It's not that John is shallow—quite the contrary. It's that he'sbrave. He'll sacrifice himself for the greater good, and has already done so. It was one thing for him to help me, to risk himself, when there was nobody relying on him, but…"
He shook his head again, unable to finish the sentence, and then pushed his way past Mycroft and disappeared down the hall, telling himself the entire time that he was not running away.
"How could you let this happen, John? It was bad enough when you were a soldier, but now?" Harry's voice was shrill as she leaned over the bed. For a moment, John was afraid she was actually going to fluff his pillows, but instead she sank down into the chair Sherlock had abandoned and just gave him that look, the one that always broke his heart. "How could you do this to me?"
He stifled a sigh. Typical Harry, making this all about herself when he was the one in a hospital bed. "I didn't exactly go out of my way to get shot, Harry. And it's nothing, just a flesh wound. I'm fine."
"You're in hospital!" she said, voice rising, and he winced on behalf of his eardrums, fighting off a sense of déjà vu. Hadn't he just had this conversation?
"It's nothing," he told her in as soothing a manner as he could. "I don't know why they even called you … how did you find out, anyway?"
"Margaret called me," Harry said with a sniffle as she dug into her purse for a tissue.
John lifted an eyebrow. "And how did Margaret know?" He was really quite sure that she was not listed as his emergency contact.
"I received a text alert, my lord."
"From whom?" John asked, trying not to flinch at the title, wondering if he would ever get used to hearing it.
"I assumed it was an automatic alert tied to your NHS details, my lord. When I saw you were in hospital, naturally I immediately contacted your sister."
"And you can imagine how horrified I was," Harry said, taking up the tale. "Especially so soon after Father … you could at least have called to tell me you were all right. I was frantic!"
John tried to sit up straighter in his bed, but gasped at the pull on his stitches. Damn bullet. And where had Sherlock disappeared to, anyway? Abandoning him to these two? "I would have called," he said, "But it wasn't urgent. I was going to wait until I'd been discharged so as not to worry you."
"Not worry …? You would have left me to find out on the news?"
"Don't be silly, Harry, this wouldn't be on the news. It's not like it was a major shoot-out, or something…" He trailed off as he saw Margaret shaking her head.
"That's not exactly true, sir."
"You mean this is on the news? But why?" John resisted the urge to scream into his pillow.
"You have achieved a certain notoriety of late, and as Ms Brandon says, coming so soon after your Father's tragic death…"
"Oh, Christ," John said, suddenly realizing the scope of this disaster. "I suppose they're staking out the exits?"
Damn it, he thought as she nodded. This was the last thing he needed … and where the hell was Sherlock? If anybody was going to get him out of here in one piece, it would be his flatmate.
It was the other Holmes brother who appeared at his doorway next, though. "John," he said in greeting (since John had finally gotten him to stop using his title outside the most formal, public occasions). "How are you?"
Why did everybody keep asking him that, John thought as he ground out another "I'm fine" through clenched teeth. If this kept up, he was going to need some extensive dental work.
Thankfully, Mycroft didn't respond with the gem about his being in a hospital bed, but instead just nodded. "I'm glad to hear it—as, no doubt, will the press be."
"Yes, Margaret was just telling me that they've heard—though I think you're mistaken. The press would be much happier if I were on my deathbed. It makes for a better story."
Mycroft's lips turned up in that sly smile of his as Harry squawked in dismay. "Indeed. Luckily, some of us are more concerned for your welfare."
"Ta for that," said John. "Did you see Sherlock out there?"
"I believe he went for some tea," Mycroft said, but John hadn't spent the last six months living with Sherlock Holmes for nothing. He recognized a stalling tactic when he saw one.
"Tea sounds excellent. Would you go get me some, Margaret, please? And take Harry with you?" Harry protested, but his assistant proved her worth by recognizing he needed a minute alone with Mycroft and, in a few minutes, it was just the two of them.
"Where did he go, Mycroft?"
"I told you, John. He went for tea."
John just fixed him with his Captain look. "Really? Sherlock? I'm not on my deathbed and didn't have to beg—and I saw the look on his face when he left the room. Where'd he go?"
Mycroft met his gaze calmly. "It's possible he's getting tea," he finally said, "Though it's purely speculation. I believe he needed some time."
"Time? For what?"
Instead of answering his question, Mycroft asked, "Did you ask my brother to leave, John?"
"What? No, of course not. One minute I'm telling him that I'm fine, and the next he's practically sprinting out of the room. And while I'll not deny that's a reasonable response to Harry walking into it, it doesn't explain the look on his face."
"What look was that?"
John shook his head. "Why am I the one answering your questions, Mycroft?"
"Humour me, please. What look?"
He stifled a sigh. "Desperate, though I'm not sure why. It wasn't a serious injury, after all. I never lost consciousness and didn't even need surgery, just some stitches—if more than I'd really like. He's overreacting."
To his surprise, Mycroft nodded. "Of course he is. He's afraid he's losing you."
"But I'm not that hurt!" John all but shouted, and then winced, pressing his hand against his side.
There was a faint hint of a smirk, but then Mycroft said, "No, thankfully you're not—but you could have been, and my brother is afraid you're going to decide that the work you do with him is too dangerous for your new … position."
All John could do was gape at him as his brain tried to assimilate that. "That's ridiculous."
"Is it?" Mycroft asked, one eyebrow lifted. "Your sense of duty is one of the hallmarks of your character, John, and you have responsibilities now that you didn't have when you met Sherlock. You've rearranged your schedule to fit in your new obligations. You spend hours away working on other projects. You worry about the people in your employ. It's reasonable to assume you might take this danger to your life as threatening to your obligations."
Had they slipped him a hallucinogenic while he wasn't looking, John wondered. "But that … that doesn't make sense. I mean, yes, I've had to put a few limits on working with Sherlock, but that's solely because of the time, because I need to make appointments with other people. But I also make sure everyone from my lawyer to my tailor knows that all bets are off if Sherlock needs me."
"Yes, and that's worked admirably so far," Mycroft agreed. "But until today, your life has not been endangered."
"So? What difference does that make?"
Mycroft tilted his head. "What would happen if you were to die, John?"
"I…" He stopped, unsure how to continue. "You mean the earldom? Without an heir of my own, the title would go to my cousin David. He'd likely be a better earl than I am—not getting distracted by master criminals and kidnappers."
"And that wouldn't worry you? Failing your obligations like that, having put your life at risk?"
"I've put my life at risk before, Mycroft," John said bluntly. "And my obligations would be taken care of. I don't know how Harry would handle it, but … it's not an issue. It's dangerous enough just riding in a car."
He watched Mycroft's eyes narrow as he took in the implications of that. "I was sorry to hear of your wife and son, John."
"You didn't already know?" John asked, surprised. "But then, I suppose if you didn't know about the earl thing, as Sherlock calls it, you couldn't have known about Mary. It just reinforces my point, though—going by my family track record, I'm more at risk getting into a car than I am following Sherlock around. You don't need to worry. I'm not going to abandon him."
"And if your obligations make working with him untenable?"
John just sighed and tried to shift to a more comfortable position. "I don't see that happening, Mycroft. Other than that first month, there haven't been any conflicts we haven't been able to work around. The 'earl thing' takes care of itself to a large degree, and Sherlock isn't just my flatmate. He's my friend. As you say, I meet my obligations."
"Then I suggest you reassure Sherlock that he is one of them," Mycroft said. "He doesn't deal well with emotion, my brother, and might not realize."
"No kidding," John said with a smile. "He's one of the most emotionally inept people I've ever met, but that doesn't mean he doesn't care. I saw that at the pool with Moriarty. He just doesn't seem to realize that other people care about him, too."
Now Mycroft shifted uneasily. "No, well, it's always been one of his blind spots."
"And you Holmeses aren't exactly the warmest of families," John said, leaning his head back on his pillow. "Now, if you could find him and send him back in here, I'd be grateful. Not only are they letting me go tonight, but I could use a buffer when Harry and Margaret get back."
There was a real look of amusement on Mycroft's face. "You think adding Sherlock to the mix will make things more restful?"
"What? God, no," John replied with a crinkle at his eyes. "But if Harry's picking on him, it will give me a chance to catch my breath. Isn't that what friends are for? To run interference for each other—especially when siblings are involved?"
Mycroft smiled as he pulled out his phone. "It works both ways, you know. I'll see what I can do."
Hours later, John eased down onto the couch with a sigh. "Did they add extra steps while we were out? I swear I don't remember that many stairs."
"Seventeen, same as always," Sherlock said as he shrugged out of his coat. He hesitated, and then turned down the hallway. A moment later, John heard the latch click.
He sighed. Sherlock could try to avoid it, but this was a conversation they were going to have. Carefully, he sat up and started to shrug off his coat, then swore as his good arm got caught in the sleeve. Between that and the sling on the other arm—which, in retrospect, he really should have taken off first—he was effectively immobilized.
He waited a minute, but there was no sound of movement from the hallway, so he shouted again. "Sherlock! I need your help!"
With relief, he heard the door open, and tried not to look too embarrassed as Sherlock came up the hall, face carefully neutral. "Can you help me with my coat?"
A mostly hidden smile pulled at his flatmate's lips as he moved forward. "You've done almost as good a job as your kidnapper did."
"And all without trying," said John with a sigh as Sherlock eased the coat away from his shoulder. "It was stupid not to take off the sling before I started, and then I was just too sore to wriggle my way out of it."
"No worries, John. I should have asked if you needed anything before I left," Sherlock said. He looked toward the kitchen. "Tea?"
"Okay, that's it," John said abruptly. "We need to talk."
"What? All I did…"
"Sit down, Sherlock." John waited until his friend had sat down with a huff in his chair. "First, I'm not dying. Because, unless I ask, you only ever get me tea when the world's about to end, and since that's decidedly not the case here, you're freaking me out."
"I was just trying…"
"Trying to be nice, yes, I know, and it's very thoughtful of you, and all, but that's not the Sherlock Holmes I know, so cut it out."
John leaned back, resettling his arm in its sling. "Second, I'm sorry I let myself get shot tonight."
Sherlock blinked. "You were tied to a chair, John. It's not like you had much choice in the matter."
"Maybe, but I still put myself in a position to be captured in the first place and I wasn't able to distract him well enough for you to make your move. It wasn't your fault."
Now Sherlock was staring past him, not meeting his eyes. "I disagree. It was my clumsiness that caused the floor to creak, my tackle that made the gun go off."
"You can hardly be held responsible for the shoddy craftsmanship that went into that pathetic excuse of a warehouse," John said firmly. "But this was no more your fault than mine, and either way, it doesn't matter because I'm fi…"
"Fine, yes, you keep saying," said Sherlock curtly. "I'm well aware. Is there anything else? Because I would actually like some tea."
"One thing," John told him. "Tonight was an accident—none of us were at our best—me, you, or, thankfully, the kidnapper. It doesn't matter, though. If Jim Moriarty couldn't scare me away from working with you, tonight's idiot who could barely even hold a gun certainly isn't going to."
He watched as Sherlock flinched at Moriarty's name, and hoped he hadn't just made a mistake. Unlike the inexperienced thug tonight, Moriarty was a villain to be feared—or who at least deserved a wary respect.
"Things have changed since the pool," Sherlock said after a minute, fingers picking at the buttons at his cuff.
"My title," John said.
John watched his friend, trying to judge the man's feelings by the (lack of) expression on his face. He really wished they could have had this conversation when he wasn't so tired. Finally, though, he just asked, "Do you want me to stop? Helping you?"
Sherlock glanced up, meeting his eyes for just an instant. "Do you?"
"I asked first."
There was a long pause where John thought the conversation had ended, then Sherlock said, "No. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't."
John considered that that was probably the most self-sacrificing thing Sherlock had ever said. "Why? It's not any more risky now than the night we met. I'm always going to come running when you tell me it's dangerous."
He was surprised to see the conflict in Sherlock's face. "But that's just it. Of course you'll come running. That's what you do, but that doesn't make it right for me to ask you. Nor is it necessarily right for you, now that you have other obligations."
"Bollocks," said John. "Nothing really has changed, Sherlock—or not any more than absolutely had to. I thought we'd been doing really well, working around my meetings and things?"
Sherlock nodded. "We have."
"So, what's the problem? I'm sorry I got shot and worried you, but…"
"It just seems to me," Sherlock said in a stiff voice, "That it would be best to be prepared. I'd hate to grow dependent on your contributions toward The Work only to have you leave."
"I don't … I'm not going anywhere, Sherlock," John said, trying to remember what Mycroft had said earlier, wishing his brain was clearer for this conversation.
"Not tonight, no, but can you promise you'll be here a year from now? Five? Eventually, you'll lose interest in the cases and start focusing on your family obligations. I'm just trying to plan ahead."
"Sherlock," John said, starting to lean forward and then falling back with a wince. "Nobody can make guarantees. Moriarty could come back, you could slip and fall off a roof, I could get hit by a car … which is almost a statistical probability with my family's track record. Nobody can see the future. But what I can tell you is that if I had nothing to do but attend boring, earl-related meetings, I'd be thinking of shooting myself again. I have obligations to my family and my title, it's true, but that doesn't supersede my duty to my best friend. Unless you're kicking me out, you're stuck with me."
He watched as a hint of colour graced Sherlock's cheekbones. "Best friend?"
"Of course, what did you think? Who else would put up with all your nonsense?" John asked with a grin. "I mean, there are things I need to do, but—we've been managing so far, haven't we?"
Sherlock nodded, still not saying anything, to John's surprise.
"And, even if something unforeseen were to happen to make me need to spend more time doing boring, dull, tedious earl things, I'd still help you out. I'll be the peer with the oddest hobby—collecting criminals beats stamp collecting, any day. I'll be the envy of all at the secret Earl meetings."
Now there was a real smile on Sherlock's face, as he stood and headed toward the kitchen. "I know," he said, "You're fine, you're not dying, but I think that deserves some tea, don't you?"
Sherlock lifted his glass and surveyed the room. John had pulled out all the stops for this Christmas party, his first as the Earl of Undershaw. It was tradition, he'd explained to Sherlock. There was a summer fete at the country estate—which they'd bypassed this year due to the old earl's recent death—and the Christmas party. It was one of the few social obligations he had to meet as earl, and he was determined to do his grandfather, his family, and his house proud.
His grandfather had adored Christmas, he told Sherlock. "He was playing carols in November way before all the shops started doing it. Frankly, I was surprised he didn't push the season even further and start in October."
Some years, apparently, were celebrations just for immediate family, and some opened the doors to a wide range of associates and colleagues, and it was this latter type of party that John had thrown.
Sherlock maneuvered among the throng (and throng was the correct word, he thought), listening as people gushed about the decorations and gossiped about the new earl.
"He's so dashing, don't you think, Beth? And such a fascinating history! Going to war, being a doctor, and all that crime-fighting. He's like a superhero."
"Mmm. I wonder what colour his costume is. I wouldn't mind wrapping myself in his cape," Beth said, her tone lascivious.
"Oh, you! But you're late. I heard he used to be quite the ladies' man, but all that changed when he moved in with Sherlock Holmes. You want John Brandon's cape? I'll take Holmes's coat, any day. He's so dreamy, and those cheekbones!"
"Are the two of them, you know, together? I've heard so many rumours."
"That's the problem. It depends who you ask," the first woman said. "But, it's suspicious, isn't it? That he chooses to live on Baker Street with his 'friend' instead of here? I mean, what other reason could there be?"
Sherlock couldn't help himself. He stepped forward and gave a polite smile. "Purely logistics, I assure you. If John lived this far away, we'd lose far too much vital time catching criminals. The commute, you know. Really, though, you should be looking closer to home for your entertainment." His eyes flicked over their clothing, noted how the two women angled themselves together. "If you're looking for a model for gay rights, you might start by talking about your own relationship—and figure out how to break the news to your husbands. Do enjoy the party."
He eased away to the familiar sound of shocked gasps, but couldn't help his smile. The variety of women who had thrown themselves at John since his ascension to the peerage was an ongoing source of amusement for both of them. John had said quite clearly he wasn't interested in fathering an heir. Some people, of course, persisted in the belief that he and Sherlock were a couple, which they continued to deny. Instead, John frequently played the Widower card, telling people he was still devoted to his late wife.
To a degree, that was true, Sherlock mused as he edged around the room. The wedding photo of John and Mary now held a proud place in the living room, right across from the painting of his grandfather. John might not be pining, but he hadn't tried dating since assuming his new title. ("When would I even have the time," he had asked when Sherlock brought it up. "Even assuming you wouldn't sabotage every single date I tried, just like you've always done.")
No, John was busy focusing on being a good earl and helping Sherlock these days—in as equal measure as he could manage.
Ahead, Sherlock could see Mycroft and shrugged off the immediate inclination to flee in the other direction. "Have you tried the canapés? They're delicious."
"I'm not surprised," Mycroft said. "John's cook is excellent. He's looking well."
Sherlock looked across the room to the door where John was welcoming guests. "His smile hasn't frozen yet, which is something. I think he enjoys Christmas as much as his grandfather did."
"He's doing a fine job," Mycroft said, sipping at his drink. "I'm continually surprised."
Sherlock nodded. "John is an ongoing source of amazement. No wonder neither of us spotted this when we met him."
"How so?" Mycroft asked, and Sherlock hid a smirk, knowing how it rankled his brother that his intelligence people had missed so much.
"Because, no matter which face he's using, it's always authentic, and it's always John. If we had met him at one of his grandfather's parties, we never would have suspected he had a whole, separate persona. And the amazing part is that he's never duplicitous about it. He's entirely authentic within each moment. There are just always unforeseen … facets."
Mycroft watched John for a few moments, correct in his bearing, manners impeccable. "I see what you mean," he said. "A force to be reckoned with."
"He assures me that he has the best stories to tell at the secret Earl meetings," Sherlock said with a grin.
"One would certainly hope so," Mycroft said. "You must be proud, little brother."
"Proud?" As if Sherlock could take any credit for John Watson Brandon?
"Of course. Doesn't John give you the best bragging rights at the secret Detective meetings?"
Sherlock just smiled as he watched his friend across the room. "Indeed he does, Mycroft."
Note: I'm not perfectly happy with the last couple paragraphs, but I wanted to put you out of your cliffhanger misery, so ... Hope you enjoyed this!