I own neither the show nor any of the characters.
I'd had the first 500-odd words gathering dust on my hard drive for months: decided a week ago that I was going to finally sit down and write the thing, and the other 12,000 words emerged in the six days since then. So here you have it - 13,000 words of insomnia h/c, starring our four favourite boys.
Hope you enjoy - do leave me a review if you did, or even if you didn't: I'm always looking for ways to improve. :) Ta.
"The best cure for insomnia is to get a lot of sleep." - W.C. Fields.
Sometimes it is Sherlock.
John woke at two in the morning, blinked slowly at the ceiling, and gradually heard the faint strains of repetitive violin plucking drifting up from the lounge. Sherlock was still at it, then.
They'd been on a case for the last six days straight, running on caffeine and sugar and pure adrenaline, snatching naps when they could, wolfing a sandwich on their way out the door. They'd finally found the tiny ethnic foods shop off a side-street in Hammersmith, and had called in Lestrade to make the arrest. The owner's daughter had failed to hide the murder weapon successfully after killing her boyfriend in the bathroom at his mid-year work do, thereby leaving a definite if complex trail for them to follow. She had been packing for the Continent even as police stormed the flat.
John and Sherlock had stayed long enough to get the standard 'well done for not doing anything too stupid this time' lecture from Greg before hailing a cab for the ride to Baker St. They'd almost fallen asleep in the backseat, Sherlock slumping against John slumping against the door, heads nodding wearily. In the door, up the stairs, coats off, and John had squeezed Sherlock's shoulder in silent acknowledgement, good job, another case closed, we're both done in, I'm off to bed, before plodding up the next flight, stripping off as he went. He'd barely taken time to pull on pyjama pants and an old t-shirt before falling into bed.
And now, it seemed, Sherlock was not only still awake, but playing the violin. Well… John winced as the sound from downstairs turned discordant… doing something to the violin, anyway.
He suppressed a groan. He just wanted to sleep. But it was no use trying to go back to sleep while he knew Sherlock was still awake - concern for the man would keep him awake even if the sound of the violin didn't.
John heaved a sigh, rolled over, and slipped out of bed. He reached blindly for a jersey on his way out the door, pulled it over his head as he descended the stairs to the lounge, opened his mouth to yell at Sherlock to put the blasted violin away and go to bed -
Sherlock was lying full length on the couch, staring at the ceiling, clear lines of exhaustion around his eyes and mouth; the violin was held loosely against his chest, one hand idly plucking the strings, but he obviously wasn't in the throes of a magnificent fit of boredom.
"Sherlock?" John pitched his voice low, walking further into the room, "Are you okay?"
Even as Sherlock shook his head infinitesimally, John was answering himself in the negative. The tension lines around his eyes and mouth, sagging shoulders, frown lines on his forehead… his weariness was evident.
Even accustomed as he was to following Sherlock's trains of thought, John couldn't decipher that without more information. "You can't what?"
Sherlock slid his gaze toward John, and then slowly levered himself off the couch, "I…" he paused, a lost look in his eyes, "I can't - it's not - "
He waved a hand through the air, but even that movement looked as if the energy had been sucked from it. He swallowed and moved slowly toward John, dressing gown lagging behind him, not floating as it usually did but weighing him down, being weighed down by his tiredness. "I can't sleep."
"Ah," John nodded soberly, eyes flicking over his frame, cataloguing symptoms. "You've tried - "
"Just about everything short of certain substances that you wouldn't approve of? Yes."
John held his gaze, caught off balance by the casual reference to that period of Sherlock's life before Baker Street. They'd never really talked about it: John had assumed that it was years in the past and therefore not worth worrying about, and furthermore that Sherlock knew him well enough to deduce what his reaction would be to any hint of a relapse. It wouldn't be a good one, that was for sure, and John hoped that Sherlock valued their friendship too much to let an old addiction ruin it.
"Alright," he said finally, "Why don't you sit back down on the couch for now, and we'll - we'll get something sorted out."
Sherlock just looked at him for a long moment - the depth of utter fatigue in his eyes was startling - before letting his head loll forward in a half-hearted nod and retracing his steps. John let him get curled into a corner, violin safely away in its case, before perching on the arm of the couch and resting a hand lightly on his shoulder.
"Why can't you sleep?"
The question took a moment to sink in, and then Sherlock murmured, "My mind… will not shut up."
His head tilted sideways to rest against John's knee, and his eyes slid shut. Taking advantage of his flatmate's apparent need for physical contact, John moved his hand to rub lightly at the nape of Sherlock's neck as the drowsy genius continued, "The details of the case… are going around and around and around… and I've tried going over and over what happened tonight so that it knows the case is closed… but it just won't listen."
He opened his eyes blearily for a moment before closing them again, "It won't listen, it won't shut up, and I need to sleep."
John frowned. Sherlock actually admitting that he needed sleep was unprecedented: usually the man simply disappeared for eight hours, re-appearing as fresh and alert as always. It seemed the situation was dire.
The obvious solution was sleeping pills, but no. With Sherlock's history of drug abuse, that would not be a good idea. Not to mention his earlier comment of tried just about everything - it was possible he'd already taken a dose (or two), and they'd had no effect. He couldn't risk over-dosing the lanky git, especially when neither of them were in any condition to respond to a potential medical emergency.
He sighed. Time to call in some support.
John kept his right hand massaging Sherlock's neck as he reached into his flatmate's dressing gown pocket with his left and retrieved the man's phone - his own was still on his bedside table upstairs. Taking a moment to recall the directory of numbers - there were only four, it was just a matter of which order they were in - he hit speed dial.
It rang for a good thirty seconds before there was the beep of an answered call, and a groggy voice said, "Sherlock. You alright?"
Of course that would be Greg's first thought, John reflected. Sherlock only called if it was urgent, and considering the time of night - morning, rather - it was only too logical to assume that something had happened.
"It's John," he answered, voice quiet. "Listen, can you come 'round? I need your help with him - " and even as he heard the sharply drawn breath on the other end of the line he was adding, "No - no, it's not the drugs. I'll explain when you get here. You might want to pack a change of clothes, I don't know how long this will take."
If Greg was puzzled (he was bound to be) or reluctant (he'd been woken up at two in the morning, what sane man wouldn't be?), it didn't show in his tone. "Alright, then. See you in a bit."
He ended the call and put the phone down on the side table.
"You think he can help?" came the mumbled inquiry from the tousled head resting against his knee.
"I'm hoping so," John said, taking care to keep his concern - and his own tiredness - hidden. "Will you be alright like that 'til he gets here, or do you want to lie down?"
There was a grunt in reply, and a movement that could almost have been Sherlock settling his head more comfortably against John's leg.
John took that to mean "Yes, John, I will be perfectly fine here, thank you for asking. Your leg makes a fine pillow, by the way, and while you're sitting there, could I trouble you to continue the neck massage, if you'd be so kind?"
He rolled his eyes, lips twitching, and resumed rubbing the nape of Sherlock's neck.
By the time Greg arrived John had fallen into a half-asleep doze, eyes closed as he slumped back against the wall. His hand had migrated to the top of Sherlock's head, running gently through the curls in hopes of calming the racing mind beneath; but judging from Sherlock's uneasy movements it was having little effect.
There was a soft knock on the doorframe, and John looked up to see Greg enter the room. He wouldn't have rung the doorbell - they'd given him his own key to the front door months ago - but John should have at least heard him coming up the stairs. He blinked tiredly at Greg and frowned, reflecting dismally that it was a jolly good thing he'd called in for backup - Sherlock was unusually vulnerable, and John himself was obviously in no shape to be doing bodyguard duty should it become necessary.
"Greg. Hi," he eased his leg out from under Sherlock's head and slid off the arm of the couch, stifling a yawn, "Thanks for coming."
Greg set his overnight bag down by the door and approached the couch, taking in the situation in one swift glance, "John. Long time no see." It was gentle irony - he'd seen the both of them only that evening. "Sherlock, how are you doing?"
The cat-like eyes opened, brows lowered in a frown, "Lestrade. Is it entirely impossible for you to refrain from asking imbecilic questions?"
John tightened his hand in the black curls for a moment in a non-verbal be nice, but Greg just shrugged and retorted lightly, "Sorry for being concerned about you, mate."
"Your concern is neither necessary nor helpful," was the rather weak rejoinder, as Sherlock chose that moment to pass a shaking hand across his forehead, applying pressure at the temples before letting it drop back into his lap.
John and Greg exchanged a glance.
"He can't sleep," John explained, "I thought we might get him settled in his room and go from there."
Greg nodded, "Sounds like a plan. I'll get him up; can you make sure his bed's clear?"
Just what John was clearing away was left unspoken: they both knew that Sherlock's bedroom was at times scrupulously clean and at times an unmitigated hazard site of not-strictly-legal materials and substances. Of course Greg would never say anything about what he saw, whether it was legal or not, but it was better not to put him in that position.
By the time they shuffled through from the lounge, Greg's arm at Sherlock's back and Sherlock's head almost drooping onto Greg's shoulder, John had the covers turned down and anything of dubious legality safely out of sight. They managed to keep him upright long enough to strip his dressing gown off, revealing - thank goodness - pyjamas, not day clothes, before he crawled into the bed. John, still in his pyjamas and jumper, settled on Sherlock's right so as to be nearest the door - even exhausted as he was, his protect Sherlock instincts should be good enough that anyone intruding would be met with a fist to the face - leaving Greg, in sweatpants and a t-shirt, to sit back against the headboard on Sherlock's left.
John had a sudden mental image of the three of them in the bed - we must look like a bunch of teenage girls at a sleepover - and fought back a chuckle.
"Something funny?" Sherlock was lying flat on his back, tense lines around his closed eyes, lips compressed in a tight line; the utter stillness of his body was a stark contrast to the clearly churning mind beneath.
John shook his head, "Not really. I was just thinking."
"Well, don't," came the thoroughly predictable reply, "it's annoying. Are you going to help me or not?"
He could see Greg's sympathetic wince in his peripheral vision even as he resolutely quashed a flare of irritation, saying only, "What do you think we're trying to do, you git?" and before Sherlock could reply he continued, "Why don't you start by filling Greg in so he knows just what's happening, hm?"
There was a sigh that was equal parts impatient and fatigued, but after a moment Sherlock said slowly, "I told John earlier… I can't sleep. My mind is racing, going over the details of the case, over and over and over…" his throat worked for a moment, eyes sliding open to look at Greg: he looked impossibly young and vulnerable. "It won't shut up, I've told it to stop and it won't, it just keeps on churning. What if I've made a mistake, maybe she wasn't the murderer, there might have been some evidence I missed… What if my mind is telling me I'm wrong? But I need it to stop… I need to sleep."
"Okay…" Greg frowned thoughtfully as he mulled this over, "You've tried - "
"Everything safe," John said firmly.
"Right." His head tipped backward to stare at the ceiling, eyes narrowed.
Sherlock groaned and rolled over, nudging his head against John's thigh until John took the hint and started running a hand through his curls again. There was silence for a good five minutes, and then Greg said softly, "Data."
John nodded, "That was my thought, too."
He would have mentioned it soon if Greg hadn't got there on his own: but as it was, two people arriving at the same conclusion by two different trains of thought stood a better chance of succeeding than one person being railroaded toward that same conclusion. Especially, John thought, when it was Sherlock who was the focus of the problem; you needed to know the problem to work out the solution, and he and Greg knew Sherlock best out of anyone except perhaps Mycroft.
Sherlock half rolled onto his back and frowned, puzzled, "Data?"
"Data," John confirmed. "We go back to the start and take you through the case step-by-step, giving you as much data as we possibly can so you'll know you got the right person and your massive intellect will finally shut up."
Sherlock's brows twitched and then cleared, and he rolled back onto his side with a muffled noise of agreement. After a moment he said suddenly, "We."
John exchanged confused glances with Greg, "What about us?"
"We, not you. We got the right person."
John bit his lip to suppress a grin, settling his hand back onto Sherlock's head. Eight times out of ten Sherlock would be an insufferable git, and then he'd go and say something like that and John would be abruptly reminded of just why the man was his best friend.
"Right. We," Greg agreed, not bothering to hide his own grin. "Now. Six days ago, the squad got a call-out for a body found in the bathroom of the reception rooms at Strand Palace…"
As often happened between the three of them, once they were decided on a course of action the rest flowed smoothly. Greg went over the preliminary details of time, location, and people involved, letting his voice rise and fall in a deliberately calming rhythm; he let John take over at the point where they arrived on the scene, knowing the doctor's knowledge and description of the dead body would be far nearer Sherlock's level than his own. The tale switched back and forth between them, depending on when John was at work (Sherlock had been in Greg's office, harassing him about nail samples) or Greg was asleep between his shifts (Sherlock had been breaking into a house belonging to a security guard while John kept watch), and who had the most knowledge of that particular aspect of the case.
Sherlock kept his head pillowed against John's thigh, glazed eyes blinking and blinking again and finally sliding shut; his hand crept across the bed to tangle in Greg's shirt, anchoring him to his two friends as the data flowed over him in gentle waves, concrete fact stilling the ricocheting thoughts of what if and but and maybe, pulling him slowly out into a sea of sleep.
By the one-hour mark, the tense lines around his eyes and mouth had eased enough for John to slide down in the bed, offering a jersey-clad shoulder as a replacement pillow. By the time two hours had passed his hand had loosened on Greg's shirt, features slackened fully into sleep, and John caught Greg's eye and nodded.
Greg paused in his description of the interior of the guard's sister's car, took a sip from the glass of water on the bedside table, and tilted his head. You're sure?
John ran his eyes over his resident genius' frame, registering breathing rate and the relaxed lines on his face, and then looked up. I'm sure.
The older man checked his watch and winced. Well and truly time for us to go to sleep.
John agreed with a yawn, half rolling onto his side while taking care to not disturb Sherlock. He waited until Greg was comfortably situated under the duvet to mouth, Greg. Thanks.
Instead of taking the easy way out - shrugging it off with an easy don't worry about it - Greg held his gaze and nodded, mouth quirking in a sincere grin. Anytime, John. You're welcome.
John closed his eyes and slept.
Late the next morning, John emerged to find Greg and Mycroft seated at the kitchen table, cradling steaming mugs and talking softly. There was no point in asking how the elder Holmes had gotten in. It was possible Greg had let him in, but more likely he'd simply walked in: the man had obtained his own copy of both the front door key and the flat key without a week of Sherlock's move from Montague St.
"Morning, Greg. Mycroft," he nodded in greeting before turning to the coffeepot.
It was two-thirds full. And hot.
He hadn't thought they'd had more than a tablespoon-full of coffee grounds left.
His eyes closed in a silent sigh, but he managed to refrain from glancing at the two suspected perpetrators - obviously that wasn't Earl Grey in their mugs - and poured himself a cup.
There was cream in the fridge. Real, freshly-whipped cream.
That definitely hadn't been there the night before.
Oh yes, this was Mycroft's doing alright.
"So what's the occasion?" he asked, gesturing lightly with his mug as he sat down.
Mycroft regarded him inscrutably, "Occasion, Doctor Watson?"
"The coffee," John said bluntly, "the cream; you being here. Why?"
"Perhaps I simply wanted to check in on my little brother and his flatmate."
Taking a sip of his coffee (and oh it was delicious), John was about to scoff aloud at that when he caught Greg's eye.
Huh. So Mycroft had a heart after all. Who would've guessed?
The scoff emerged much quieter than he'd originally intended, and was followed by, "Well, he was pretty out of it last night; I wouldn't hold your breath on him waking up anytime soon."
"You did," was the calm observation.
"I was a soldier, and" not to beat around the bush, it hadn't just been him and Sherlock in the bed last night, "Greg's a cop. We're used to waking at a decent time. Not to mention we've actually slept more than a few hours total in the last week."
Mycroft acknowledged the point with a tip of the head before draining his mug and standing. "Well, there is that. My brother does tend to be rather… focused on his work." He favoured them with a bland smile, "I must be off, we're dreadfully busy at the office, I'm afraid. Do tell Sherlock I popped in to see him, won't you? John. Greg. Good to see you both."
When he was safely down the stairs, John and Greg exchanged glances before simultaneously breathed sighs of relief and slouching in their chairs.
"He may be younger than me, but the man scares the life out of me sometimes," Greg confessed.
John snorted, "Only sometimes? Anyway, you two were looking pretty cosy when I first walked in."
"Nah," Greg shook his head, "I mean sure, there was a bit of shared concern over Sherlock, but mostly it was all 'good morning Detective Inspector, I trust you slept well?' and then me trying to work out if he was asking if I'd slept with his brother."
"Well, technically - " John began, and broke off with a chuckle as Greg socked him in the arm.
Sometimes it is John.
It was one of those nights. He jerked awake after a scant forty minutes of sleep to find a sob caught in his throat, tears running unchecked down his cheeks, memories of blood and sand and death playing ceaselessly behind his eyelids. Even though the bed felt warm, he was shivering, and he didn't need the automatic doctor's analysis running through his mind to know that the cause was the nightmare concoction of memories supplied by recurring survivor's guilt.
He stared at the darkened ceiling for three hours before giving up, dragging on a jersey, and trudging downstairs.
John looked at the kettle blankly for a while before deciding against making tea - he didn't need the caffeine, he needed sleep, and anyway, he'd prefer to make as little noise as possible. He slunk through into the lounge, bypassed his armchair, and nearly sat on Sherlock before he realised just what the dark form on the couch was. Too tired to actually verbalise a reaction, his sharp inhalation must have nevertheless roused the man: there was a muffled grunt, and then Sherlock sat up and swung his feet onto the floor, reaching for the lamp beside him, mouth opening to drop a caustic remark -
Light flared, and the room dissolved in a flood of sand and gunfire and bloodbloodblood, men shouting and artillery firing overhead and he couldn't move, he couldn't speak, his heart was pounding in his ears -
He blinked and London reappeared. There were hands grasping his upper arms, a low voice in his ears, and in the hastily-dimmed light he could see the collar of a grey t-shirt, the curve of a long pale neck, the angle of a stubbled jaw; he frowned in confusion and raised his eyes to meet Sherlock's. The man looked positively shaken, his earlier tiredness and irritation buried beneath concern for his best friend.
"John, it's alright, you're in London, at our flat on Baker Street. You're not in Afghanistan, John, you're in London; it's alright, you're safe, John, you're safe here - "
John raised a hand to grip Sherlock's shirt, using the texture of the fabric and the warmth of the body beneath to ground him in the here and now. His voice, when it came, was a rasp, "Got it."
The words ceased their endless tumble from Sherlock's lips, but the grip on his arms didn't ease, for which John was grateful. Those quicksilver eyes took him in from head to toe, flashing in momentary panic as they traced the tear tracks on his cheeks (help John crying emotions I don't do sentiment John what do I do help), before that deep voice observed, "You haven't only just woken up."
He blinked groggily (no, bad move, because when he blinked all he could see was the faces or other remnants of the men and women and children he'd failed to save: the dark behind the eyes was still not a safe place to be) and managed a faint, "Three hours. Couldn't - can't sleep."
He was shaking again, trembling like a canvas sheet in a sandstorm.
Sherlock absorbed that; his eyes darted down and away, jaw clenching (and John could see when he made his decision; as much as it obviously hurt his pride to admit he needed help, his blogger was more important), and he dropped a hand to reach for his mobile, offering awkwardly, "Shall I - do you think - Lestrade?"
John had long since learned to swallow his own pride. He nodded, blinked, flinched, and stared resolutely at the wall behind Sherlock's shoulder. His hand twisted further in its grip on the younger man's shirt, and he murmured, "Please."
The call felt like it took an eternity. Sherlock held the phone to his ear for what seemed like an age before speaking urgently, "Greg - "
A pause, then, "Yes, it's me. I'm fine."
Another, longer pause, and his eyes rolled toward the ceiling before he said in clipped tones, "Mango. Umbrella. Sesquipedalian loquaciousness. I am sober."
"Apologies. Slip of the tongue. Lestrade - "
"Greg, then. Can you come to Baker Street?"
"Bring an overnight bag - "
" - It's John."
"Of course now!"
Yet another pause, and then he unceremoniously ended the call and slipped the mobile back into his dressing gown pocket, "He's on his way."
John swallowed, shoving back images of young Montgomery, who had also been on his way, courtesy of a sniper shot to the lower left lung.
Dimly he became aware that Sherlock was guiding him to sit on the couch, prying John's hand away from his t-shirt and crossing the room to pull an orange shock blanket from somewhere - ah, nostalgia - before returning to the couch and wrapping it firmly around him. The lanky genius sank down beside him, sitting close enough that they were pressed together knee to hip to shoulder, and John's hand snaked out to once again latch onto his shirt as he silently endured another round of let's watch how long it takes someone who's had their arm blown off to bleed to death.
He could feel the pressure of Sherlock's gaze on him as he sat there, straight-backed and square-shouldered, feet flat on the floor; his eyes were fixed on the far wall, and the inside of his lip was going to have permanent teeth marks in it soon if he didn't stop worrying at it.
They sat in silence until Greg arrived.
In that time, John watched six people die.
This time he heard the stairs creak before there was the familiar tap of knuckles on the doorframe. Greg dumped his bag and approached the couch, eyes dark with worry.
"Hey, Johnny," The words were soft. "You alright? What's going on?" This last was directed at both John and Sherlock.
"He can't sleep," was Sherlock's reply, adding succinctly, "Afghanistan."
"Ah." Greg's mouth turned down in a sympathetic grimace, "Gotcha."
There was a long pause. John could see them looking down at him in his peripheral vision; finally he raised his eyes from the far wall, glanced between the two detectives, and shrugged miserably. "What is there to say?"
"Well - " Greg began, but before he could continue Sherlock jumped up and offered John a hand.
"Bed," he commanded.
John just stared at him.
"You need to sleep, and sitting upright on the couch is hardly conducive to doing so. Come on."
John turned blank eyes toward Greg, but the older man just compressed his lips and nodded tightly - we're worried about you, Johnny; better do as he says. He turned back from his initial start towards the bedroom, "Ah - "
"It's clean," was Sherlock's only comment, steadying John with a hand at his back and straightening the blanket across his shoulders.
Soon the three of them were once more ensconced in Sherlock's bed: Greg was nearest the door, John in the middle, and Sherlock on the far side. The lights were dimmed, and the shock blanket had been spread over the foot of the bed; the orange contrasted strongly with the plain white of the duvet. John was staring at the ceiling, body finally catching up with his mind and realising it could stop shaking because he was not cold.
There was another flash of memory: Dunbar lay on a blanket, shaking with feverish chills, eyes glazed with delirium even as the infection in his leg wound spread, and John could do nothing to help him because they were out of antibiotics, out of disinfectant, out of pills that would help bring the fever down. He was helpless.
John groaned and brought his hands up to press against his closed eyelids, rolling instinctively to curl into Greg's side, inhaling the scent of paperworkcoffeecomfort and trying futilely to stop the parade of images and memories.
Sherlock's voice was confused, exasperated, "I don't - ".
Greg cut him off, bringing a hand up to card through John's hair as he made soft hushing noises. One of John's ears felt the vibrations coming up from his chest; the other heard the words drifting through the air, "It's alright, Johnny. You're safe with us. Talk to us, mate: what's going on in that mind of yours, hm?"
John stayed where he was for a long moment, struggling to regain his composure. When he was ready he turned his head to the side, took a trembling breath, and said hoarsely, "I couldn't save them. I couldn't - I knew what to do, I could have done it, I could have at least saved some of them, but I didn't have the supplies, I didn't have the facilities, I couldn't - " he broke off, a low moan clawing its way up from his gut, and he ended despairingly, "There's so much blood."
He watched the steady rise and fall of Greg's chest, letting the sound of the man's heartbeat fill his ears, letting it muffle the screams of the dead. Sherlock was warm and solid at his back; there was an inhale of breath and then a gusting release as an idea was considered and promptly discarded.
After a few minutes, the genius spoke, voice low and calm. "John… a week after we met, there was that case with the slightly psychotic step-brother, do you remember?"
At John's murmur of puzzled affirmation, he continued. "We caught up to him in the alley behind his workplace, and he pulled a knife."
Greg's heart rate accelerated suddenly: the story was obviously new to him.
"'S alright, Greg," John mumbled, "We're right here. No one died."
A calloused hand came up to brush through his hair, the heartbeat calming slightly.
"As I was saying," Sherlock continued, "he pulled a knife. There was a bit of a scuffle - you didn't have your gun on you, John - "
There was a rumble from Greg, "The gun that doesn't exist, of course: as an police officer I can't possible condone civilians running around London with loaded firearms."
"You didn't have your non-existent gun on you, and he caught us a bit by surprise. You managed to disarm him and get him on the ground, but not before he'd taken a slice out of my arm."
Great, now there were two of them with accelerated heart rates. Almost unconsciously, John reached back, tangling his fingers in Sherlock's shirt.
Greg stirred uneasily, "Sherlock, I don't know that this is - "
"Just let me finish, would you? John. We were closer to Bart's than Baker Street, so we ended up in the lab there, raiding the medical cupboards so you could stitch me up."
"Mmm," John made a noise that roughly translated as got the picture, what's your point? He could see the sterile lab in his mind, all cool metal and clean surfaces, not a speck of blood or sand to be seen. There was a satisfying lack of screaming about the place, too.
"Can you picture it?"
"It was after hours, so there was no one else around. It was so quiet and still…"
There was a soft exhale of breath from Greg as he caught on to what Sherlock was trying to accomplish.
"And then we crashed in there like a pair of lunatics - my arm was bleeding all over the floor - and you spread some towels out and forced me to lie down on the desk, told me keep still while you sorted out the equipment. You flushed the wound with water and then with antiseptic…"
John could see it clearly in his mind as Sherlock took him step-by-step through the procedure. The recent calm sanity was slowly overwhelming the distant chaotic mess of Afghanistan. Memories of not enough supplies and no facilities were buried beneath a logical progression of remove any visible debris, flush the wound, rinse it with antiseptic, prep the syringe for a local anaesthetic; sand and blood and screams gave way to metal and bandages and painkillers. By the time Sherlock finished, he had relaxed somewhat, shoulders easing out of their defensive curl, breath coming a little easier as he dared to blink more often.
Greg took over with the story of "the time you had to fix Anderson's shoulder after he dashed into that half-collapsed building, the idiot", and then Sherlock started talking again, and he must've gotten hold of John's prescription pad at some stage because they were tales of the clinic, pedestrian sprained ankles and ear aches; but by that time John was hardly listening to what they were saying, he was just letting the words wash over him, smelling of morphine and antiseptic and perfectly normal domesticity.
While Sherlock was relating the Saga of Mr Thompson's Hip ("Not Mr Thomson; Thompson With A P"), John fell asleep.
He wasn't surprised to wake to an empty bed the next morning; he was, however, surprised to find that Sherlock's side was still slightly warm. And when he wrapped the shock blanket around himself and wandered out to the kitchen, he was even more surprised to discover Sherlock and Greg sitting at the table with mugs of cream-topped coffee, a third (now empty) mug bearing witness to Mycroft's recent presence and hasty departure. He'd probably left soon after Sherlock had made an appearance: the two could barely be in the same room for more than ten minutes without squabbling over something or other.
He poured himself a cup and dropped into Mycroft's not-long-vacated seat, mumbling a semi-articulate greeting as he did so.
"Alright there, John?" Greg was smiling even as his eyes skimmed John's frame in calm assessment.
"Yeah, I'm good - " John lifted a hand to cover a yawn, "Best sleep I've had in a long time, actually."
"Good to hear."
"What did Mycroft want?" He pushed the empty mug further across the table to make more elbow-room.
There was an impatient noise from Sherlock, "Oh, the usual."
John blinked (and oh, the freedom he felt, being able to do that without flinching), "What, offering you a case that involves - " he lowered his voice and adopted a disdainful tone, corners of his mouth lowering slightly in an irreverent imitation of Mycroft, "legwork?"
The look from Sherlock told him he'd missed the point completely.
"No," was the firm reply.
Greg interjected patiently, "John, think about it. Coffee. Cream. Mycroft. What do those three things have in common? Remind you of anything?"
John's mind flashed back to the night they'd solved the Strand Palace Murder, when Sherlock had been unable to sleep and he'd called in Greg for support. That was right, Mycroft had been there the next morning, coffee magically appearing in the coffeepot and cream just-as-magically showing up in the fridge; he'd said something about just checking in and for once it had appeared to be the truth.
"Oh. But… I'm not Sherlock…"
"Stunning observation," came the dry comment from the so named.
"I mean, last time he was just checking on you, wasn't he? You'd had a rough night, that was understandable. Why would he show up today, it's not like he'd be - "
"Concerned about you?" finished Greg, with a pointed look.
John shrugged and took a sip of rather excellent coffee, "Well, yeah. I'm just his brother's flatmate."
There was a thoughtful noise from Sherlock, "You know, sometimes I think he's a bit more interested in you than he lets on."
"Uh - "
"Greg, too. The two of you aren't just my flatmate and my handler anymore. You're my friends, and Mycroft would have to be blind to not see it."
A pause as they digested that, and then John said slowly, "Heartwarming as that is, I still don't see what - "
"Oh, do keep up, John!" Sherlock snapped, "You two are my friends, therefore I worry about you, therefore whatever effects you effects me. Mycroft knows this. No doubt at first he kept an eye on you simply to judge those effects, but now he's coming to see you as not just individuals in your own right, but as associates - you're connected not just indirectly through me, but directly to him. One could almost say he thinks of you as friends."
The last word was an ugly sneer, but John didn't take offence - it was plain as day that Sherlock was jealous. He retorted mildly, "Alright, you muppet, keep your hair on. We're your friends too, y'know."
Sherlock slouched down in his chair and crossed his arms defensively.
"So you're saying," John continued, "that Mycroft was here this morning because he wanted to check on me. He was making sure that I was okay. Because he, uh," and wasn't that a weird thought, "worries about me."
"Constantly," Greg added, tone perfectly balanced between sincerity and sarcasm.
He winked at John, and John wondered how long the cop had known Sherlock before he'd gotten abducted off the streets so that Mycroft could give him the I will pay you a considerable sum to spy on him spiel. He was certain he knew what Greg's response had been - there wasn't a corrupt bone in the man's body. Besides which, John had a sneaking suspicion that anyone who actually accepted the offer was removed from the picture soon afterward; not permanently, and not in such a way that Sherlock would notice, but enough to stop them getting any closer to the genius.
No, Mycroft would not take kindly to anyone agreeing to sell out the British Government's little brother.
"That's exactly what I'm saying," Sherlock confirmed, looking somewhat pacified by John's reaction to the news.
"Right. Well, that's - " John cleared his throat, thoughts whirling, and took another mouthful of coffee, concluding with, "Right."
Sometimes it is Greg.
John woke in the small hours of the morning to the buzz of an incoming text on his mobile. He groaned, rolled over, and burrowed further into the blankets, resolving to ignore the phone in favour of more sleep. Whatever it was could wait until a decent hour. Sherlock probably wanted to know where the bleach was (in the cupboard under the toaster), or was asking him to run down to the shop and pick up some tartaric acid (yeah, not going to happen), or else demanding a human sacrifice in the name of science (You want to do what with my toes? While they're still attached to my feet? Sherlock… no. Just no.)
The plan of ignoring his resident genius was scuppered by the ring of an incoming call - three seconds exactly of one of Sherlock's violin pieces before it was disconnected. That was Sherlock's way of saying yes, it is important enough to have to ring you, now check your phone, John.
He rolled back over and reached blindly for the mobile, hitting the button to wake it up and squinting against the glare of the screen.
The text consisted of two words and the ever-present signature.
Greg's here. - SH
Well. That was enigmatic at best. He'd better go down and see what had brought the older man to Baker Street at this time of the night.
John tugged a jersey over his head as he padded downstairs. He entered the lounge to find Greg slumped on the couch, Sherlock standing nearby and looking unaccustomedly lost.
"Greg, hey," he said softly, glancing between them, "um… tea?"
The man raised his head wearily, looked at John through red-rimmed eyes, and muttered, "Got anything stronger?"
A shiver ran down John's spine. He'd seen Greg confident in charge of crime scenes, exasperated in charge of Sherlock, and comfortably tired in charge of storytelling in Sherlock's bed: he'd never seen the detective like this, barely even in charge of himself. What on earth had happened?
He mustered his thoughts enough to answer cautiously, "I'm not sure that would be a good idea right now."
Greg snorted and tilted his head back against the couch, glaring dully at the ceiling, "Right. 'course you'd say that."
John suppressed his first impulsive response (Yeah? Just what is that supposed to mean?) and turned to Sherlock, hoping he could shed some light on the situation.
The genius just shook his head and mouthed Don't know.
John raised an incredulous eyebrow. You don't know. You.
Sherlock widened his eyes. Even I can't make deductions when there's next to no data.
Have you looked? John flicked his eyes toward the couch and back to Sherlock.
A stony stare. Obviously.
Have you tried asking him? Exaggerated patience.
Sherlock was in the middle of rolling his eyes when there was an outburst from the couch, "Oh for flip's sake, you two, I'm right here! Stop talking over the top of my head, would you?"
John's head swung around of its own accord to look at Greg, aware that Sherlock's had done the same. He blinked, taken aback, and managed an embarrassed, "Sorry, mate."
Beside him, Sherlock was scanning the older man again; the presence of his conductor of light must have had an impact, because he said abruptly, "You closed the case, then?"
Greg barked a harsh laugh, looking entirely unsurprised at the question. "Oh yeah, we closed it. Not before the," he snarled a word that John had last heard when his squad was under fire in Afghanistan, "got another victim, though. That was hours go: haven't been able to sleep, so I came here." His head came up, glaring at Sherlock, who seemed to be attempting to vivisect him through sole use of his eyeballs, "And if you don't stop doing that, genius, I will punch you."
He was reminding John more and more strongly of a hurt animal, a fox maybe - lashing out defensively in an effort to cope with the initial onslaught, then holing up in its den to lick its wounds. It was all too easy to look past the exhausted sprawl and see a whimpering ball of fur, curled nose-to-tail to try and shut out the rest of the world.
But if Greg had wanted isolation, he wouldn't have come to Baker Street.
"It's okay, Sherlock," John murmured to his flatmate, who was looking so utterly neutral that he knew the comment had scored a deep hit, "He didn't mean it."
Greg maintained the glare for another long moment, then it faded and he seemed to deflate, head returning to its previous position on the back of the couch, and he admitted tiredly, "No, I didn't mean it. Sorry."
One of the more subtle aspects of friendship was knowing when to pull back and when to push forward: this was clearly one of the latter times.
"So what's the problem?" John prodded gently, perching on the arm of the couch, "Talk to us, mate. Let us help."
Greg looked sideways at him. The anger was mostly gone from his face: it had been replaced by a heartbreaking vulnerability. Finally his eyes slid shut, and he began to speak.
"Sherlock was right, we closed the case tonight. Didn't call you guys in on this one - it was straightforward enough, just a matter of gathering enough evidence before we pulled our man in." The words stuck in his throat for a moment; he swallowed and continued, "The victims were kids. The perp - he belonged to one of those rich babysitting services, where they pick the kids up from school and keep them entertained at the house until the parents get back from another late night at the office."
He shuddered, "The bodies… you don't want to know. He was a molester, he'd - he'd beat them, like it was some sort of sick discipline thing… the bruises on them… and then he'd touch them, rape them, force them to - the boy had traces around his mouth - "
Greg broke off, and John could see him desperately forcing his thoughts away. His breathing calmed somewhat, and he continued, "He'd struck twice in the last fortnight, both times from the same school, both times on a Thursday - the parents found the bodies when they arrived home. Couldn't close the school of course, there would've been mass panic in no time. So we knew when and where, but it took time to work out which company and then which person, it took time to triangulate his position, to know which kid, which house he was taking her to…"
His jaw clenched, throat working furiously, and he rasped, "We were too late. Even five minutes earlier and we would have - we still got him, but the kid…" he shook his head. "She stopped breathing, we tried CPR, I think I broke a few of her ribs… she died at the scene."
John closed his eyes for a moment, absorbing the weight of the news; then he looked over at Greg and said soberly, "I'm sorry."
That was all it took: Greg made a choked, inhuman noise of anguish and doubled over, face buried in his hands as his shoulders shook.
John was at his side in an instance, hand on his back in silent support. It was no use saying anything - there was nothing to say. Sometimes there were just no words.
Sherlock was hovering uncertainly, eyes darting from John to Greg and back again. John caught his eye and jerked his head toward the bedroom in a silent inquiry. Sherlock nodded understanding and swept out of the room.
John stayed until the worst of the storm had passed, and then got up to fill a glass with water. By the time he came back to the couch Greg had control of himself again: he dropped his hands to reveal tortured eyes and muttered despairingly, "Sometimes I hate my job."
John proffered the glass.
Greg took it, sipped, and added savagely, "Wish I get my hands on that - " he swore and shoved a shaking hand through his hair, making it stick up in all directions, and then the vengeance turned to confused disbelief in the blink of an eye, "I just don't - I mean - why? What makes someone do that, what makes them so twisted, so evil that they get pleasure out of doing that to a child?"
John shook his head wordlessly.
"The girl… she was only eight. Had the softest brown hair, done up in two little plaits… what sort of a monster does that? What sort of beast kills a kid? And what she went through before she died…"
He shivered, teeth clenching as he fought against the overwhelming flood of emotion.
Sherlock came back into the room and nodded the all clear.
John placed a hand on Greg's shoulder and squeezed gently, "C'mon, Greg. Bed."
For a moment he looked like he might protest: then he sighed and stood. "Yeah. Thought you might say that. Let me get changed and I'll be right with you."
Sherlock took the left-hand side of the bed. Greg emerged from the bathroom, face freshly washed, and slid into the middle; John took the side closest to the door.
There was silence for a few minutes as the bed warmed up and they got comfortable, then Sherlock asked softly, "What can we do, Greg? I know all of this… emotion, sentiment… it isn't really my area, but I… we want to help. What do you need?"
Greg blew out a gusting sigh, shrugged, and muttered despondently, "A bit of faith in the human race would be good. I'm stretched pretty thin at the moment."
Silence as they pondered this, and then he added, with the look of a man at the end of his tether, "Yeah. Hope. Give me some hope."
John met Sherlock's eyes across the bed, and for once the roles were reversed: a lightbulb switched on in his mind, everything falling into place, and no wonder Sherlock kept darting glances at him during investigations, if this was what having a conductor of light felt like.
He clasped his hands behind his head, relaxed further into the bed, and started, "Alright then. There was a case of O'Donnell's a week or so back involving purse snatchings from tube stations. The guy would target people who looked rich, grab their wallet, clean it out of any cash, and then dump it at the nearest information desk or with a security guard, pretending he'd found it lying around and was just being a good citizen."
At Greg's surprised glance, he grinned and explained, "Ritchie - you'd know him as Constable St. Vernon, I suppose - comes to the pub with us some weekends to watch the game. He's in O'Donnell's squad."
There was a silent well, what do you know? look from Greg, and a reluctantly proud mutter of networking, excellent from Sherlock, who couldn't stand pubs, beer, or football and preferred to sit at home and watch fungus grow.
"Anyway," John continued, "it didn't take long to catch the guy - he'd started out in some of smaller stations where there weren't any cameras, but he escalated and they caught him on CCTV at Clapham North. Pulled him in for questioning and the whole story came out. He was targeting not just rich folk, but people who looked like they'd be able to spare the cash. He didn't take their cards because he wasn't interested in big bucks; he just wanted a bit of money that wouldn't be missed too badly. Said he was leaving the wallets at the info desk because he didn't want to inconvenience them - he knew the victims would likely just give the wallet up as completely gone and wouldn't bother going looking for it, so he had to give them some way of knowing where it was. The people at information or security could use the drivers license or other I.D. cards to call them over the loudspeaker."
"Yeah?" Greg prompted.
"So he really was something of a good citizen, in that respect at least. And then whoever was doing the questioning asked him what he wanted with the money - you'd expect drugs or 'I was bored' or something, wouldn't you? - and it turned out his wife had just been diagnosed with some sort of operable malignant tumour. He didn't have the funds for the operation, himself, and he genuinely didn't want to have to steal the money, but he was a bit desperate. So he'd target people who could afford it, only take whatever cash they had on them, and leave the rest."
John could see a hint of a smile playing about Greg's mouth; the haunted, cynical look was half gone from his eyes as he breathed, "An honest thief. What are the chances?"
"It seemed to hit home for a few people - once the squad heard about it, they took up a bit of a collection, got him enough money that his insurance should be able to pay for the rest."
From there the stories flowed like water. Sherlock launched into the tale of a vicar who'd been working overtime of late - "his wife thought he was having an affair, and hadn't bothered actually asking him what he was up to; in reality he'd been a concert pianist before he became a vicar and he was going around retirement homes offering his services as both a man of the cloth and a man of the ivories." Then came a group of older school kids who had simply vanished from school one lunchtime ("parents were involved in politics, thought their children had been kidnapped en masse and were half-frantic anticipating a ransom demand"): they'd been bunking class in order to conduct an intervention for a suicidal school mate.
Greg's mouth twitched in a grin; his eyes regained a hint of their usual good humour, wrinkling at the corners and finally falling shut; and after another three stories his breathing evened out into gravely-needed sleep. John watched him for a few minutes before concluding his current tale with, "You see, Greg? There are good people in this world."
In the morning, he awoke to the scent of coffee drifting through from the kitchen. An automatic check on the other two people in the bed - Sherlock had flipped onto his stomach during the night, face turned away from John, and Greg was quietly snoring into the tousled curls - and he slipped from the bed. Mycroft was perusing a file when he entered the kitchen: by the time he'd retrieved a mug from the cupboard, filled it from the coffeepot, added a dollop of cream from the fridge, and joined the older man at the table, the file had disappeared and both hands were clasped around his own coffee cup.
"Good morning, John," though smooth as ever, the words were quieter and somehow more human than usual; perhaps this was Mycroft's way of confirming that yes, I do see you as more than just Sherlock's flatmate, "How is he?"
John bypassed the obvious (he's still sleeping), skipped the sentimental (he was pretty distraught last night), and went for the honest, "He'll be fine. Just needed a bit of moral support."
He blew on his coffee and took a cautious sip as Mycroft nodded, then nearly spat it back out in surprise when the man followed the nod with, "I'm glad to hear that. And how are you?"
Managing to keep from gaping open-mouthed (he could hear Sherlock's voice in his head complaining about his lamentable lack of subtlety), he blurted, "Me? Uh, I'm okay - good, really. Same as ever," and bless his mum for the ingrained response, "How's yourself?"
A flicker of a smile, "Oh, you know. Busy."
Yet here you are, having coffee with your little brother's flatmate - sorry, with your, ah, friend, John thought, and then remembered that Mycroft was a Holmes and could read thoughts as easily as John read medical shorthand.
The flicker grew slightly. "Yes, well, one makes time for these things, especially when said things - or people, rather - are one's friends."
John swallowed, feeling a weight settle in his stomach - friends with the British Government was hardly something to be taken lightly - and abrupt decided that if he was going to do this, he should do it well. He met Mycroft's eyes frankly and said suddenly, "How are you really? What've you been up to lately?"
By the time Greg emerged, they were getting on like - well, like old acquaintances exploring a new and somewhat tenuous level of friendship. They drew him into a discussion on gun legalisation; John let Mycroft carry the flow of it while he ran practiced eyes over Greg, estimating resting heart rate and noting the ever-so-slightly shaky hands, and then he waited for a lull in the conversation and said, "You haven't started smoking again, have you, Greg?"
The detective frowned, "No, I haven't. Why?"
"Hmm. I'd cut down on the caffeine consumption, then."
"You're one to talk," came the mild retort.
"Just some friendly advice, considering - " he launched into a detailed list of barely-noticeable symptoms that pointed to a developing caffeine addiction and current withdrawal, concluding with, "How often are you passing urine? I'd cut back to three cups a day maximum if I were you."
Greg looked completely stunned.
Mycroft hid a smile behind his cup.
Sometimes it is Mycroft.
The night had ended in an adrenaline-inducing chase through Camden Town. John and Greg had kept on their woman - Greg was there by necessity, as neither Sherlock nor John were authorised to pursue suspects - while Sherlock split off and circled around to ambush her from a convenient side-street. The rest of the squad arrived to find Greg reading the perp her rights while John sat firmly on her legs to keep her from running again and Sherlock inspected a minor graze on the doctor's shoulder. Once the arrest was made and the formalities were over with, they'd piled into Greg's car for the ride back to Baker Street.
"You want to come up?" John offered as they pulled up outside the flat. "I was thinking of cracking a beer and putting on a movie to wind down."
"Beats the debrief I'd have to sit through at the office," muttered Greg dryly, nodding acceptance, "Let me just ring Donovan and let her know I'm, ah, unavoidably detained."
They flooded up the stairs, trying to stifle the last of their adrenaline-laced chuckles, and entered the lounge in a flurry of discarded coats and scarves, only to stop short at the sight of Mycroft seated in Sherlock's armchair.
"Mycroft," it was more an accusation than a greeting coming from the mouth of the so-named's brother, "What are you doing here?"
Mycroft surveyed them for a moment before saying, "Oddly enough, I came to see you, Sherlock."
Sherlock scoffed openly, "At this time of the night? Shouldn't you be tucked up in bed in your silk pyjamas, sipping German hot chocolate and bemoaning the state of the world economy?"
Unless it was John's imagination, the elder Holmes' bland smile was slightly strained, "I am well aware that this is not the usual time to visit one's family, but the matter could not wait. Unfortunately, fraternal duty knows no bounds - or visiting hours."
"Fraternal - ?" Sherlock strode forward, brows drawn, and stared down at his brother.
There was silence for a long, long moment; giving up on hopes of the matter coming to quick resolution, John gathered the various coats and scarves lying about and hung them up behind the door. Greg shrugged out of his suit jacket and crossed the room to sling it over a dining chair, then leant a hip against the table and rolled up his shirt sleeves as he watched the scene.
There was a very soft "Oh," from Sherlock.
He was still looming over Mycroft, but where before he had been glaring ferociously at the man, now his gaze was scanning him in a very thorough data collecting exercise; John didn't think he'd ever seen Sherlock look so intently at his arch-nemesis.
Mycroft was calmly allowing the inspection; John wondered just how often they'd played out this same scene in their childhood, one of them waiting patiently while the other examined and deduced and honed their skills. And once they'd grown bored with that, he had no doubt they'd played the same game on strangers, picking out someone on the street or the tube or the bus for the other person to deduce.
"She has a boyfriend - he's an only child, is blond haired, and has two dogs."
"That's clearly cat hair, Sherlock."
"Oh yes, of course."
"And furthermore, the quantity of an output is no guarantee of the quantity of a source. It might just as well be one very furry cat, or three rather bald cats. It's a mistake to theorise without adequate data. Don't worry, you'll get there in time."
John was about to interrupt the silence to offer Greg a cuppa when there was an inhale of breath from Sherlock.
"So when you said fraternal duty - "
"I meant yours, yes."
"Of course you did," even with Sherlock's back to him John could see the aborted eye roll, and then Sherlock was moving, striding across the room to the couch, "John, I'm afraid you won't get your movie night after all. Greg, might have to kick you out sorry, unless…?"
Mycroft waved a hand, "No, it's fine. They can stay. What are friends for, after all, but to see one through troubled times."
"Troubled - ?" Greg looked quizzically from Mycroft to Sherlock, who was removing the detritus of newspapers, crime scene reports, medical journals, empty tea mugs, and John's laptop (John hadn't used it himself in the last four days) from the couch and transferring it to the end table.
"Mycroft's computer," said Sherlock, with every sign of unholy glee, "has a virus."
"Oh, for the love of - "
"My own computer," he went on, cutting off Mycroft's protest, "hasn't had one in fifteen years."
He regarded Mycroft with an air of utter superiority; this was reinforced by a muttered, "I bet you run Windows Vista. That would explain a lot."
The elder Holmes cast him a look of supreme irritation and said icily, "If I ran any operating system at all, it would be one you had never even heard of."
"Wait - hang on a minute," John interjected, "Mycroft didn't even bring a laptop with him, how do you know it has a virus? And how can he run it without any operating system at all? Not to mention you've only had your Macbook for six months, never mind fifteen years - "
"Slow up a second, Johnny," Greg murmured, gazing with narrowed eyes at Mycroft, "I don't think they're talking about physical computers."
"Oh, well that clears it up," he retorted, turning to look at Sherlock, "D'you want to explain, maybe?"
"Hard drive," was the genius' only comment as he returned to his brother's side.
Hard drive. Mental computer. His mind.
"Oh," John blinked, "Wait, you're saying his mind has a virus?"
Obeying Sherlock's commanding tilt of the head, Mycroft stood up from the armchair and started to move toward the couch, making a disapproving noise in the back of his throat as he did so, "Some would say so. I, however - Sherlock Holmes, I am not an invalid: get your hand off me."
Sherlock removed his hand from Mycroft's elbow as if he had been scalded.
Mycroft cleared his throat, stepping around the coffee table and halting beside the couch, "As I was saying. Sherlock prefers to use analogies for these things: he seems to find it easier to handle. I am utterly against such things, as I do not believe that the brilliance of the human mind can in any way, shape, or form be reduced to mere plastic and metal hardware or to bricks and mortar, even if one does call it a palace. To give the mind any label other than what it is is to give it boundaries. Without the analogy the mind is truly infinite: with the analogy it becomes finite. Constrain it to act in a certain way and it will: call it a house long enough and it will spring a leak or grow mould, call it a computer and the memory will fill up or it will, yes, get a virus."
He slid out of his suit jacket and handed it to Sherlock. His tie and waistcoat followed, and then he finally lowered himself to sit on the couch. Sherlock disappeared into the bedroom (and John had no doubt he was actually hanging the clothes up) as Mycroft concluded, "But that is of course just my opinion. Sherlock is determined to have his own."
"Right," John said slowly, "But your mind is having, er, trouble?"
"Oh yes," came the calm reply. "In fact, if I had imposed something as restricting as a palace on my mind, I have no doubt that it would be crumbling right now. As it is - " Mycroft lifted a hand to gingerly massage his temple; it was the first sign of anything other than good health he'd shown since they'd come barrelling in the door, "I merely have a rather chaotic headache."
"Mycroft, stop talking," Sherlock snapped, sweeping back into the room. "John, painkillers. Greg - "
"On it," and he vanished into the kitchen.
"How bad is the headache?" was John's first question, "I've a shot of morphine in the med kit if it's too excruciating."
Sherlock was shaking his head even as Mycroft answered, "Thank you, but Panadol will be fine. I have a fairly high pain tolerance, and it's nothing too torturous."
"And morphine makes him go loopy," Sherlock added, ignoring his brother's glare by dint of much experience, "nothing too talkative, but he does have a unfortunate tendency to become obsessed with peanut butter."
John smothered a grin, "Med kit's still in the bathroom?"
"No, I put it back in your room. Second shelf of your bedside table."
Greg returned as John hurried out of the lounge, and by the time he got back half the glass of water was gone.
Mycroft murmured a "thank you," as he took the pills, swallowed them, and chased them down with the last of the water.
"Do lie down, Mycroft," was Sherlock's next impatient demand, "You need to sleep, and you can hardly do so sitting up."
The elder Holmes adjusted the Union Jack cushion at his back and followed the order with an air of forbearance. Sherlock shoved the coffee table back against the dining table and sat on it at the end nearest his brother's head; Greg pulled a chair out from the table and slouched into it; and John perched on the coffee table between them.
"Now," Sherlock said, resting his elbows on his knees and steepling his fingers at his lips, "Talk."
"You told me to stop talking," Mycroft returned mildly.
"And now I'm telling you to start again." At the thoughtful expression that crossed Mycroft's face, Sherlock added, "Don't make me call Mother."
John was starting to wonder if the Holmes matriarch even existed, considering the number of times she'd been invoked by her sons and had never appeared.
Mycroft sighed, "You know that feeling when you have a big case - and I do mean big, James Moriarty big - and it has a million different threads in a thousand different places at a hundred different times and possible ten different dimensions, and you have to slowly draw them together to form a single whole picture, and while you're doing it one hand is tied behind your back and you're staring directly into the sun?"
"It is almost exactly the inverse of that."
John's eyebrows rose involuntarily.
"The single whole picture is what I have to deal with every moment of every day… and tonight I found the threads unraveling." He brought his hands up, unconsciously mimicking Sherlock's pose, "It's too big, it's too much… except it's not, it can't possibly be, I know it's not… and yet there it is." He dropped the pose, hands clasping together over his abdomen, and admitted frankly, frowning slightly, "I don't quite understand it."
Sherlock hummed, "You've tried to remedy the situation, I assume?"
His brother nodded, "I started with Rameses IV, slipped into the Siege of Tyre, and progressed through Demosthenes to the World Bank and then Leviticus. No effect whatsoever."
John exchanged a why do we even bother trying to keep up with them look with Greg.
"The human voice has a calming effect on the mind," said Sherlock, apropos of nothing.
"Yes, so I've heard," Mycroft replied, "I take it you have an idea, then?"
It took a moment to sink in, and then John's head snapped around to stare at his flatmate, "What?"
Sherlock ignored the half-panicked look on his face (because the Holmes brothers were approximately a million times more intelligent in him, medical Ph.D or no, and even the thought of trying to dive into the depths of Mycroft's mind was enough to make him start sweating) and asked, "How in depth could you go if you had to describe a surgery session?"
"Uh…" he thought for a minute, "Depends on the sort of surgery, really. If it was removing a kidney I'd be a bit rusty, haven't done that in years, but if you wanted a bullet removed from some idiot's calf I could describe that in excruciating detail - had to do it only last month."
Beside him, Greg snorted a grin.
"Excellent," Sherlock muttered, ignoring the jibe, "Greg."
"You've got the details of a fairly complicated case stored in the not-completely-hopeless brain of yours?"
"Yeah, mate, I'm sure I can dig something up, but shouldn't that be your job?"
"Afraid not," the younger Holmes murmured, "I have to recall every move in our last game of Civilisation."
John shot him a look of disbelief, "You play Civilisation. With Mycroft."
"Not in the last six years," was the reply. "And that was Civ IV, we haven't had the time to try Civ V yet."
"Considering I beat you four games out of every five…" Mycroft trailed off.
Greg was looking utterly flummoxed, "Hang on - computer games? You?"
"I do believe I've made that clear, yes," said Sherlock impatiently, "Now if you don't mind, can we get started before Mycroft becomes completely unbearable?"
"Well if you'd care to explain just what it is we're meant to be doing - "
"He appears to be gradually losing control of the big picture, as he said," was the rapid answer, "Too much time spent handling individual threads while keeping the whole thing together, I think. It would be like having permanent double vision at two different scales, building a car engine from scratch while making sure traffic flows smoothly on every highway and road and side-street in Great Britain. The strain was bound to catch up with him eventually."
"So we take the load off his mind for a while. Give it something of reboot. Start small, at a micro scale - " he nodded at John, "let him get the feel of an individual strand again without the strain of having to see the big picture as well. Build up to a larger scale - that would be your case, Greg - with several relatively static threads weaving together to form a picture, nothing too taxing. Then I come in at the macro level, with hundreds of threads changing all the time, manipulating them to form the big picture - but he's still only observing, not having to do any of the work himself. If I'm right, the whole thing should ease him back into the job of being the British Government."
"And if you're wrong?"
Sherlock flashed a grin that was one part mischief and nine parts arrogance, "I'm never wrong. John, time for you to start, I think."
"Right," John shifted around for a moment to find a comfortable position, ending with his shoulder pressing against Greg's leg on one side and his knee brushing Sherlock's on the other. It had been a straightforward operation, but it had still been Sherlock he'd been digging a bullet out of: recollecting the procedure in minute detail would only exacerbate the emotional fallout, and the physical grounding would help him detach until he had time and space to deal with the memories.
"How good is your knowledge of medical terminology, Mycroft?"
"I'm fairly Well Up on it, John," the politician answered, capital letters clanging into place, "No need to dumb down your vocabulary on my behalf."
Fairly well up on it from Mycroft likely meant at your level, Doctor: the man was both a master of understatement and a Holmes.
Leaning his head back against the desk and closing his eyes, John summoned the memory of the brightly-lit kitchen and slid into his observation session for the med students voice, "Doctor John Hamish Watson, Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers, operating to remove a 9mm bullet from the upper lateral gastrocnemius in the left calf of Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective and Reckless Idiot Extraordinaire…"
Time flowed. The operation itself hadn't taken long, perhaps half an hour, but transforming actions into words more than doubled the time. Propped up by Greg's leg on one side and Sherlock's steady breathing on the other, he led Mycroft step-by-step through the operation, keeping his voice calm and clear, as steady as if he was narrating for a group of trainees. Sherlock disappeared at some point, reappearing with a giant glass of water shortly after. John took the glass, nodded his thanks, and kept on talking.
Mycroft lay still for the entire operation, eyes closed and hands clasped loosely over his abdomen. Finally the surgery was through: John drained the last mouthful of water and sat back, himself drained.
And then Greg was talking, his low voice rising and falling in a steady cadence. John wondered idly if the man had actually had speech training of some sort in the police force, whether for the purpose of talking to traumatised witnesses or for negotiating hostage situations; but soon he was simply caught up in the events of a case that spanned nine months and four counties as it twisted and turned and thwarted expectations at every corner.
Surprisingly, Sherlock didn't pass any comments on the incompetencies of the police force. But then he did look rather withdrawn: he was probably busy digging through his backup drive and restoring the memories of his last Civilisation game with Mycroft.
Just when John thought the case was going to grow its own Moriarty in the background, Greg drew it to a conclusion involving two fledgling street gangs, one national pride group, and the corrupt CEO of a major London bank. They had time for a brief breather - Sherlock cast a weather eye over his brother before retrieving the orange shock blanket and tucking it around him, receiving a half-hearted eye roll in response - and then the younger Holmes was launching into the tale of Civilisation IV: Holmes, M vs Holmes, S (2007).
And John had thought Greg's case was complicated. He supposed he ought to have been warned by Sherlock's outline of the situation, really.
They began with a game of chess in order to decide handicaps: this was recounted rapid-fire by Sherlock, a constant stream moves and countermoves, Queen's pawn to D4, Kingside bishop to H6, falling from his lips as he sat unmoving, eyes fixed on the wall above his brother's head. Mycroft won that round; now the game began in earnest.
Ten minutes in and John was completely lost. The chess match seemed to have been something of a warm-up for Sherlock: he was in his element now, rattling off every action and person and building on the map, every foray into enemy territory, every technological advancement and territorial expansion. By the half-hour mark there were three players left of the original eight; by the forty-minute mark the two Holmes' were battling it out between themselves.
It lasted two hours.
Blinking tired eyes, John listened as the tale wound down, and was brought out of his half asleep daze by, "And victory was mine. Game to Sherlock Holmes."
Sherlock raised an imperious hand, halting the question on John's lips as he gazed at Mycroft. They sat in silence for another three minutes until the younger Holmes was certain that his brother was fully asleep; then he nodded and led the way to his bedroom.
"He'll be alright?" John asked quietly as the door swung to behind them.
Sherlock nodded, "He'll be fine. Nothing to worry about."
"Great - " Greg broke off to yawn, "Well, I'd better be going."
Sitting on the bed to take his shoes and socks off, Sherlock cast him a patented you're an idiot glare, "Don't be daft, Greg, you're staying the night."
"I don't have any gear here - "
"Actually, you do," John broke in drowsily, "You left your bag here last time, I put it up in my room so Sherlock wouldn't decide to experiment on it."
"Ah." Greg considered this for a moment before nodding gratefully, "Alright then."
Pyjama'd and be-jumpered (it was practically tradition for when they were sharing Sherlock's bed), John arrived back at Sherlock's room to find the lanky genius already under the duvet, arms and legs splayed across the bed as if to take up as much space as possible.
John prodded him in the ribs, "Oi. Budge up."
Sherlock grumbled a protest and retracted the offending limbs. He rolled over long enough for John to slide in before resuming his previous spot in the bed, head now pillowed on John's shoulder.
Greg emerged from the bathroom and slid in on Sherlock's other side; a pale hand promptly darted across the bed and tangled in the older man's shirt.
"Well, this feels familiar," John remarked lightly.
"Go to sleep, Johnny," came the sleepy command from the other side of Sherlock.
John smiled and closed his eyes.
There were four people around the breakfast table the next morning.