N.B: Season Four really, really wrecked my enthusiasm for this series, and as such, I don't have an awful lot of motivation to finish this (sorry to leave you on a cliffhanger. I can exclusively reveal that everyone was fine in the end). Leaving the story up here because there's a remote chance I might manage to come back to it one day. Apologies to anyone I've disappointed.
This story is set in the aftermath of Season Three, assuming that Moriarty never made his oh-so-convenient last minute appearance and that Sherlock's exile was never repealed. The characters are probably a little younger than others might write them, but I'm working on the premise that Sherlock and John first met when they were in their mid- to late- twenties and that seven years have passed since then.
Please be aware that this story involves a number of grown-up relationships between consenting adults. There won't be anything explicit, but please consider yourselves warned. Also, relationships between characters are likely to evolve and change over the course of the story (amazing, I know). As such, I won't be telling you who ends up with whom. If you really have to know before you'll consider reading it, please send me a PM or ask me in a review. Cheers, and thanks for reading.
It was six pm on a Friday night, and John was sitting alone on the couch watching telly.
Well, perhaps not entirely alone. His daughter was there too – but he wasn't certain whether the company of a fourteen-month child who was chewing a wooden dog and drooling on the carpet entirely counted. Not that he didn't enjoy his daughter's company – far from it. In point of fact, John suspected that he was more besotted than was quite socially acceptable, even given the gentle leeway usually granted to first-time fathers. He had begun to get an inkling of this the last time he visited Baker Street, when even Mrs Hudson had started to seem bored with baby photos after the first fifteen minutes.
Mary was out for the evening. There wasn't anything sinister in that. It didn't signify that they were no longer on speaking terms or that their marriage was crumbling beneath the smothering weight of domesticity. They'd just made the decision very early on to give each other one night off, alone, per week – a piece of merciful, much-needed sanity in the rising tide of nappies-feedings-pureed banana-bottles-teddies-stretch 'n' grow suits that their lives had become. Mary spent her evenings off at book groups, at yoga, out for dinner or dancing or drinks with the girls. They were nights when John lay awake, listening to his daughter snuffling across the hall, and Mary came home at eleven pm, twelve, one, two… She'd slip in quietly, smelling of sweat and smoke, other people's bodies, and Claire de la Lune. She was better at this than John was. Better at this life, better at passing. But he'd known that, or suspected it, since the day he found a bottle of her perfume resting on the table beside his chair.
John's evenings off invariably followed the same pattern: he took Thursdays every week and played rugby with the social team that he and Greg had cobbled together a few years ago out of coppers and doctors and the odd ex-con. Greg played lock, solid and understated as he was in everything. Angelo was a chaotic, demanding centre. John played first-five – a flash of pride and exhibitionism that he'd thought forgotten. After the game, there was always gentle ribaldry and loud laughter in a changing room that smelled of grass and liniment. John treated sprains and minor injuries (they were none of them as young as they used to be), and there were pints from the tap and packets of salt and vinegar crisps in the clubrooms afterwards. Two pints, no more, and he was usually home for Billie's bed-time at 7.30.
He'd told Mary, after it all, that he wanted to name their daughter Billie. She hadn't thought much of it, at first, but she'd come around. She liked that it was cheeky and androgynous, a little different. Aunt Harry had approved, for much the same reasons.
John hadn't told them why he wanted the name. He regretted it now, in any case. It felt silly, and he was ashamed of it. It didn't feel like a homage and it never had – not when the man she was named for had never laid eyes on her. Not when he was in exile somewhere in Serbia or the Ukraine, or bloody Tanzania, the fuck John knew.
He'd never been able to think of Sherlock as William anyway.
But 'Billie' his daughter was christened, and Billie she would remain. Billie Grace Watson. He thought that 'Grace' may have been a homage of Mary's own – a reference to a time before; to the second of four innocuous-seeming letters scrawled in black sharpie. He hadn't asked, and Mary hadn't told him. So instead, he called his daughter 'Bilbo'. It annoyed Mary, just a little, but not enough to remove the trace of amusement from her eyes.
Billie tossed her saliva-smeared wooden dog across the carpet and it bounced once, hit the couch, and fell back to smack him on the ankle.
"Come here then," he said.
He held down his arms, and Billie totter-tumbled into them.
"Dah," she said, smacking the dog against his knee. He wasn't sure whether that was meant to be 'Dad' or 'dog'.
Once, he had thought about introducing his daughter to Sherlock. Had fantasised, really, in his quiet moments, at work or on the tube. He'd imagined trying to teach her to say his friend's name, or the lectures he'd give Sherlock regarding bio-waste and chemicals and age-appropriate playthings.
He'd never had the chance.
Six months, Mycroft had said; and Mycroft was never wrong. But it had been closer to sixteen, and John had heard nothing. Not a whisper, not a word.
He settled his daughter in his lap and turned his attention back to the television. John knew that this was the worst of clichés – a retired veteran at home on the couch on a Friday evening, watching M*A*S*H. It was a show that old men watched – men who served in WWII; in Korea; in Vietnam. And now John.
That wasn't why he watched it though. The show didn't remind him of the war. Or at least, not of Afghanistan.
On the screen, Hawkeye had passed out at last into a drugged oblivion after five increasingly-manic days without sleep and an insomniac haze that had him trying to ship the Officers' latrine to North Korea.
"McIntyre, why does he do these things?" Henry Blake asked plaintively, in a voice that reminded John of Greg Lestrade.
Onscreen, Trapper John McIntyre shrugged, rolling the stem of his glass between his fingers. "He's just unstable."
Secretly, John had begun to despise Trapper. There was no rhyme nor reason to it. He was an intelligent character, witty and worldly: a doctor, a surgeon, a captain. Yet he was content to follow at Hawkeye's elbow, to act as foil and comic stooge, to play the sidekick to his more eloquent, more mercurial, more passionate friend. John hated him.
The episode finished, and the theme music started up, soothing and familiar. Billie's bed-time, or near enough. John slung his daughter over one shoulder and carried her to her cot. She was burbling cheerfully at him, but she went down with barely a whimper. He stroked a hand through the baby-fine curls and was rewarded with a dazzling sunny smile.
The next episode was already playing by the time he re-entered the lounge. On-screen, Hawkeye was ranting, superbly arrogant, all fierceness and motion ("You don't understand. I need those ribs!"). John stifled a bitter smile. He knew that he would watch the episode through to the end. And the next, and probably the next as well. He'd watch the slight, dark-haired madman as though, if he watched long enough, he could absorb the flash of his eyes, the quicksilver mind, the rapid-fire beating of his heart. Not a genius, of course, but close – so close, sometimes, that John could almost taste the adrenaline upon his tongue. God help him, he was practically in love with a fictional character. There really was no hope for him.
He wondered what Ella might make of that one.
It had been sixteen months, and still, John missed him. It wasn't as though he saw Sherlock in his dreams or woke every morning calling out his name; he didn't see tall figures in dark coats on every street corner, and only once had he made the mistake of handing his wife a cup of coffee that was black with two sugars in it. He hadn't resorted to stealing Sherlock's dressing gown, or to standing his unlikely silver cigarette case like a touch-stone on his desk at work. It wasn't like that time at all. Then, John had been devastated; now, he was just missing. He thought of Sherlock at the strangest times. When bored and waiting on a patient he'd flip his phone over and over in his hand, wishing for a text that he knew would not come. When doing the laundry he'd wonder, half-distracted, where all of Sherlock's pants had got to.
John looked at the television, scarcely seeing it. He wasn't interested in the plot – he'd seen it before. He was only watching it for Hawkeye – for the weak, vicarious thrill to be found in that larger-than-life character – the sort of man who'd steal an artery from a corpse or walk naked through a tent full of people to stave off boredom.
Mercifully, perhaps, John's musing was interrupted by the arrival of a visitor. Three knocks, very genteel. Even as he switched off the television and clambered to his feet, John knew who it would be. Harry would have rung the bell; Greg would still be pounding the door; Molly or Mrs Hudson would have called first.
The figure on the stoop was a tall, wavering silhouette against the frosted-glass pane of the door as John reached for the latch.
There was an expression of polite surprise upon Mycroft's face. It was affected, John could tell. He doubted whether anything he did would really surprise Mycroft Holmes.
"Good evening, John. Your powers of observation are improving, I see."
"It wasn't that difficult."
Mycroft's smile was small and urbane. "You are well, I trust?"
He stepped inside at John's invitation. He hung his coat on the coat rack and put his umbrella in the umbrella stand. Mycroft was the only person John knew who ever used the umbrella stand.
"Well enough. You want tea?"
Mycroft followed at a polite distance as John led the way down the hall. He flicked on the kettle, and chucked the old leaves from the teapot into the sink. Mycroft took tea the same way John did, the same way Sherlock had. Milk-and-no-sugar, like Englishmen. Mary preferred hers black, with mint or honey or lemon. It was almost the only tell she had.
"I presume you've got news?" John asked, once they were seated. Mycroft smiled again, neat and precise, an implied compliment to John's deductive skills that John found rather grating.
"I received a communication from Sherlock yesterday," Mycroft confirmed. He reached into the inner breast pocket of his jacket and withdrew a postcard, which he slid across the table to John. "I thought you might like to see it."
John's first thought, curiously, was disappointment. It was a small postcard; smaller than standard. The picture was nothing more exciting than a nondescript hillside, autumnal trees in shades of sepia and faded gold. Then he turned it over, and his heart flipped painfully at the sight of Sherlock's unmistakeable scrawl. There was a moment of puzzled, heart-plunging disappointment before his senses caught up with him.
"I presume this is code?"
"Indeed." Mycroft looked pleased and proprietary, as if John were a particularly feeble-minded student finally grasping a simple fact. John scowled.
As far as he could make out, the card was meaningless. It was a cypher for which he didn't have the key, and the thought stung more than perhaps it should.
In Copenhagen. I have climbed the stairs to the top of a nearby hill in order to write this. When first I came here, the leaves were falling and the mornings were misty and beautiful. It reminded me of the illustrations of Camelot in a book I owned as a child. Flying out to Puerto Rico tomorrow. I love you.
There was no signature. The last three words looked strange and unnatural in Sherlock's handwriting.
"Ok, so all that I get from this is that he's definitely not in Copenhagen," John said. "Care to translate?"
Mycroft chuckled. "You are correct, of course. The code is one that we invented as children. It relies on key-words or associations. Very simplistic, but it has proven useful because the associations are specific to us – they are illogical in the extreme and contain no point of reference for an outside party, which makes them surprisingly difficult to unravel."
When John only looked confused, he elaborated. "If Sherlock were to send you a message stating that he had found a lovely cameo brooch in Vatican City, you would understand it to be a warning of danger, yes?"
"Well, this code is similar. Copenhagen, to me, implies Amsterdam because as a small child Sherlock once made the error of asserting that Hans Christian Anderson was Dutch. It is thus a simple substitution of one capital city for the other, though one which would be incomprehensible to anyone who had not shared our childhood. Do you follow?"
John nodded slowly. "Yeah, ok, I get it. But it's not a direct translation, right? I mean, you haven't agreed on code-words beforehand. You're just guessing based on what you think he was thinking when he wrote it."
"So how do you know he was thinking about Hans Christian Anderson? What if he was thinking of, I dunno, a type of shoes they only make in Denmark or something?"
Mycroft looked amused. "You forget, I know my brother well, and I know the way his mind works. I am very much afraid that I teased him horribly at the time. He won't have forgotten it."
A slow grin made its way across John's face. "It's a joke, isn't it? You and Sherlock have private jokes."
Mycroft huffed. "Nothing so commonplace, I assure you."
John's grin only widened. "Ok, sure. Whatever you say. So the bit about climbing the hill then?"
"He has finished what he came there to do," Mycroft translated.
"So he can come home?" John winced internally at the eagerness in his own voice. Get a grip, Watson.
"He could." Mycroft said, softly. John's excitement dipped a couple of notches.
"But he appears disinclined to do so," Mycroft said, with a sigh. He gestured to the postcard. "The reference to falling leaves means that he has been hearing rumours; the mist indicates that the source may be untrustworthy. Camelot is a reference to a particular British agent, so it is reasonable to presume that the rumours concern him, and that Sherlock intends to investigate. Puerto Rico is Cuba." He paused, and the corner of his moth twitched momentarily. "That one was from a game of Risk."
John grinned. A heady sense of relief was filling him. Sherlock was alive. Not coming home yet, not coming back to John, but alive and on a chase nonetheless. And John would have the pleasure, when he finally came back, or smacking him for being such a bloody great berk.
"And the last bit?" he asked, grinning. "The 'I love you'? I'm guessing that doesn't exactly mean what it says it means." His mouth twitched. The thought of Sherlock proclaiming his brotherly love was the mental equivalent of a Hell, not just frozen over, but colonised by waddling pink puffins in fluffy hats.
Mycroft did not appear to share John's amusement. His expression was grim, and the eyes with which he fixed John were grey and cold.
"No." He spoke carefully, his enunciation precise. "It means that he is about to die."