Sherlock snorted humourlessly, throwing the photo on the desk and taking a notepad and a biro from it. He held the paper close to his chest while drawing on it.
"It's not one sign. It's three," he mumbled. After a moment he presented his art work to John, who inhaled sharply.
The notepad showed a swastika, formed by the central vertical and the horizontal lines of the mysterious branding; an S, the first vertical line, and an H formed by the central, right and horizontal lines. It stroke John that it was a possible breakdown of the four lines.
"A swastika! Why a bloody swastika?!" John exclaimed, although the answer was already creeping into his conscience. With dawning realization he slowly responded to his own question, looking at his flatmate intently. "A Nazi-symbol – it's a reference to the times when Tabun was invented, you think."
Sherlock just nodded.
"And an S and an H for Sherlock Holmes…." John's sentence trailed off. "Are you sure, Sherlock? I mean, couldn't there be a hundred other possibilities? Couldn't it just be another ancient Chinese figure system, any random cipher?"
"Ciphers on a dead body are never random."
"Ah, you know what I mean! Random in the sense of not meant for you!"
Sherlock put on his this-is-all-so-obvious look and took a deep breath.
"Somebody put the body right around the corner of 221B; he's not someone, nobody knows him, nobody misses him. The murderer didn't kill him because of himself. He just served as a useful body to put a cipher on. The perpetrator is neither a good shot nor a professional criminal going by the ammunition he used. The man was shot from short distance, but from behind. A professional always shoots from the front to make sure he succeeds. This shot, however, was more or less incidentally lethal. He must have lost a lot of blood before he died eventually. The killer had waited until the man was dead; only then did he apply the branding. Cowardice. That and the ammunition used prove that he's an amateur. Why should any amateur put so much effort in a killing, if not to make someone curious? If he had wanted to kill this particular person because he had had a feud with him, he would have done it secretly."
Sherlock had rattled off his deductions in his usual manner, the words fired like machine gun bullets, leaving trails in John's mind that altogether formed one word: Danger!
A little more slowly he added, "There are other possibilities for putting the sign together, but they don't make sense. And this pretty much looks like kind regards from my enemy. People don't have enemies, you think? I have; an inherited enemy, so to say, who can't set foot on British soil, however, without signing their own death sentence, conducted by my dear brother. The ammunition wasn't purchased in Britain, and if we checked world-wide, I am absolutely sure we would find that it was bought where that particular family now live. This is a warning for me, John. However, something of such amateurishness can't be taken seriously!"
As if to conclude his speech Sherlock briefly raised his eyebrows and tilted his head just a little bit, looking provocatively at John, who didn't understand how his flatmate could just dismiss a threat to his life that he had just proven himself, with only a wink.
"Sherlock, that guy did kill a man, so despite all his unprofessionalism, I do consider him dangerous. We have to call Lestrade and Mycroft."
"What for?" Sherlock asked mockingly.
"To protect you. If you are sure that everything is like you've just said…"
"Of course, I am, I wouldn't have said it otherwise!" Sherlock interrupted.
"… yes, so ,… I don't want that bloody recreational and obviously mad shot to succeed!" John finished his sentence, clenching his fists and staring angrily at his flatmate. He wasn't angry, though, he was scared.
"You are a crack shot, you are a thousand times better and faster shot than this amateur, you are trained to watch out for suspicious persons, movements, noises – so, what better person could there be to protect me than you?"
Sherlock gave John a smile that was obviously meant to be charming in a way, but didn't quite reach his eyes and failed its aim completely. Although John would normally have been flattered by the Consulting Detective's words, he was aware of the purpose they served, and therefore, they just bounced off him.
"Well, thanks for the acknowledgement, but you forget that I was trained in Kandahar, not really a place comparable to the streets of London, you know? This madman could be hiding anywhere and I simply wouldn't be able to spot him unless I kept my finger on the trigger and shot everyone who came within lethal shooting distance of a sports gun. I really doubt that that's a good plan, Sherlock."
"You are better than that, John. We can tell Mycroft and Lestrade tomorrow. I just have to do some more research tonight among the homeless network and I'll be able to tell them who is threateningme, or at least who the dead man is."
"I'm not happy with that, but I assume that it doesn't make any difference. I'll take my gun with me and try not to shoot around me wildly, although that might take a lot of effort!" John put on a smile that was meant to hide his rising panic. This was entirely not good. He should probably inform at least Mycroft secretly, just to have some backup if needed.
He hesitated for a brief moment, then mumbling "…bathroom," absentmindedly, he turned around and headed to the aforementioned room, leaving a frowning Sherlock behind.
They didn't usually tell each other when they needed to use the bathroom, and John didn't normally leave what felt right in the middle of a talk, so Sherlock might be suspicious anyway, but John didn't care. He shut the door behind him and dropped heavily on the toilet lid, leaning over and breathing deeply to get his fear under control. He hoped so much that Sherlock was wrong, but he felt that he wasn't. Sherlock pretended to be indifferent, but that wasn't true. His reactions and his eyes proved him otherwise. John turned on the tap and hastily typed a text to Mycroft telling him that Sherlock was in danger and he needed extra surveillance – it felt ridiculous that he was asking for it now although he usually hated the constant feeling of being observed. He added that he would provide the older Holmes with more details the following day and Mycroft wasn't to tell his brother about the text. After all that had happened lately he could be sure that, although most likely they wouldn't notice anything, Mycroft would have his best people placed around 221B.
John put the mobile back into his pocket, splashed some water in his face, quickly wiped his face and hands with the towel and left the bathroom, hoping that Sherlock wouldn't be too suspicious and question him.
Surprisingly enough, the Consulting Detective had already put the kettle on and taken two mugs from the cupboard.
"Tea?" he asked.
John accepted the offer, a little surprised that Sherlock didn't want him to prepare the hot drinks, and dropped into his armchair. His mind was roiling and he couldn't understand why Sherlock could be so outwardly calm.
The younger man handed his flatmate the cuppa and went to the window with his own mug in his hand. While observing the traffic in Baker Street and taking small sips of the still burning hot tea, he suddenly asked, "What did you tell Lestrade?"
John looked up from his own tea to Sherlock, baffled. He hadn't expected that his flatmate would want to talk about his slip earlier that day at the Yard.
Sherlock was standing with his back to him, but John could see how tense he was.
"I told him nothing, honestly. He did check on you a couple of times, but I didn't tell him anything about your wrist and your mental condition."
"Mental condition…," Sherlock spat, "…that sounds as if I had gone mad."
"Mind you, Sherlock, your behaviour was a bit scary, to be honest." John told him, knowing that he was entering dangerous terrain. He didn't want the Consulting Detective to shut himself away again, now that he had started this conversation himself. He had to seize the moment to find out a bit more about the talk between Mycroft and his brother, so he added cautiously, "It seems you're a bit better now, aren't you?"
"It's… strange. I'm more scared of my emotions than I am of this ludicrous threat against me."
"I fully agree with that. That is strange. What did Mycroft tell you, Sherlock?" John was fully aware of the fact that this was a walk on the edge of a cliff. A little gust of wind from the wrong direction would knock him off it and he would have a lot of trouble re-climbing it to the point where he was now. If Sherlock rejected him, it would become quite difficult to reach this stage of the talk again. It was, however, the perfect opportunityand who knew when it would come again?
Sherlock had turned around, but hesitated. His face was screwed up in what looked like concentration, which was quite atypical, because normally his face was rather relaxed when he concentrated on something.
"Nothing," he replied.
John didn't say anything, because he felt that "nothing" wouldn't stay "nothing". Sherlock's hesitancy had revealed that he was fighting an interior fight: the wish to open up and probably find some relief was struggling against his normal reserved self.
Sherlock was fidgeting with the mug in his hands, rubbing the porcelain with his thumb and circling his index finger around its rim.
"He… found out," he said.
John waited, just looked at his flatmate attentively.
"You were right, John. He's not stupid. I was, though, because I got myself into a fury and the sleeve didn't cover the bandage anymore. He knew right away what had happened. He thinks I wanted to kill myself."
The doctor frowned. "You didn't tell him?"
"Did you believe me when I told you that it had just been an accident?"
John was slightly taken aback by Sherlock's question. It hadn't crossed his mind so far that he might doubt John's honesty.
"I thought he wouldn't, so I let him believe what he wanted to believe."
"Sherlock, you must tell him. He's worried out of his wits, you know? It's not just his big-brother-compulsion to know what you are doing, he's afraid of losing you."
Sherlock cleared his throat. "He… cried," he said sheepishly, feeling obviously uncomfortable that this fact had finally slipped from his lips.
John almost choked on the sip of tea he had just taken. So that was why Sherlock hadn't wanted to tell him about the talk between the brothers. John had seen how Mycroft had been agitated by the numerous almost-losses of his brother, so he could very well imagine that even a cold and composed person like Mycroft might occasionally lose control over his emotions. A situation, however, in which two brothers united in their sentiment-is-a-chemical-defect attitude, were facing each other, the one right after an emotional breakdown and the other in the middle of one, would have made John chuckle if it hadn't all been so serious.
"It happens to all of us, Sherlock, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. It just shows how much he cares, you know? Believe it or not."
"I'd rather not believe it."
"That, dear friend, you have to explain, because I don't get it! Why do you still insist on the arch-enemy Mycroft thing?" John said with a hint of irritation in his voice.
"I… was perfectly fine, living on my own, apparently offending people with my … my way of stating the obvious facts. I got along with Mycroft. It wasn't in the sense that you would probably imagine what "getting along" means, but we were fine. It was just as it was. After years and years of trouble, things were settled. And then… "
"… then a limping ex-army doctor moved in with you and spoilt everything, eh?" John wasn't sure at all how he was supposed to understand what Sherlock was just telling him. Was he trying to say that he should move out? Was it his fault that the world of the oh-so clever and emotionally cold Consulting Detective had been turned upside-down? John realized that it was his fault. He had been insisting on Sherlock dealing with sentiment, forcing him to empathize with people, to see what made them vulnerable, to try to understand it and, therefore, had pushed him off the emotional edge.
Sherlock ignored his flatmate's remark.
"… it's just that – that it's so confusing. It's like typing in a computer that only understands binary codes - ones and zeroes … you type in a row of twos and threes. It doesn't make sense and the computer doesn't know what to do with it, so it just says "error" – and that's how I feel with all this. I mean, the nightmares and Mycroft caring. I need ones and zeros, I can process them. This is… nonsense to me."
"Well, I could try to talk in ones and zeros, but the message would probably be the same: Everyone sometimes struggles with emotions, Sherlock. You and me and also Mycroft. You might not want to see it and you might not like it, but you know the chemistry behind emotions, so there is nothing to suppress them – apart from probably some drugs that might be of temporary help. The only thing that really helps is to face them and try to cope with them. Talking is an excellent strategy to come to terms with emotions."
"… says someone who didn't tell his therapist a single word and had trust issues until the end?" Sherlock teased.
"Where the hell do you know that from, eh? Mycroft told you, didn't he? That bloody git!" John was furious.
"No. You told me your therapist advised you to write a blog, but you hadn't even started it when we met, so why didn't you? Trust issues. You didn't believe that what she told you would be true. And you didn't tell her anything; otherwise she might have been able to help you with your nightmares and your psychosomatic limp earlier."
John gritted his teeth. Damn, it; Sherlock had seen right through him from the very beginning, he should have been aware of it. He was, on the one hand, but sometimes it still surprised him how the younger man could read people like books, but wasn't able to even open the cover of his own book.
"Right. Yes, right." he replied, defeated. "What's your plan, Sherlock?"
The question earned him a frown and a brief shake of the head from the Consulting Detective.
"I thought I had sufficiently explained my plan. Spread some change among the homeless network and find out who the body and the shot are."
"No, no. I'm not talking about that. Although I think that your plan is not the best – but I have said that already. No, I'm talking about the nightmares, your emotional disaster."
Sherlock turned to the window again, the mug still in his hands. The tea was very likely already cold.
"Mycroft says he can't tell me anything," he said with suppressed anger, clenching his teeth.
"Yeah, he keeps telling me that, too." John stated, a little disappointed that apparently Mycroft stuck to what he had said to him: "Nothing in the world can make me tell him anything".
The Consulting Detective suddenly turned around, shouting. "What difference does it make, though, if he can't or doesn't want to, eh? The outcome is the same! If he does care so much for me, why doesn't he want to help me? It's just words, for goodness sake!"
"Maybe, Sherlock, it's more for him. You can't recall the abduction and the time after, but he at least knows about your state when you had returned home. It must have been a terrifying experience for him, don't forget that. Have you ever thought that it might probably be even more than words for you as well? I mean, I don't know. Maybe there is a reason why he can't tell you other than his stubbornness." John shrugged his shoulders. He didn't have the faintest idea why Mycroft didn't want to talk and insisted on it, even though he knew that his brother felt worse every passing day. Additionally, there had to be a reason why Mycroft of all people lost control over himself and cried in the presence of his brother. John was convinced that if he had had a choice he would rather have started a war in some part of the world than to admit to his brother that he was obviously deeply shaken by what he had gone through.
Sherlock stared at the older man. It seemed as if he was putting together rows and rows of ones and zeros that made sense to Sherlock.
"What is it, Sherlock?" John asked after some time when he found that his flatmate's absent-minded gaze was becoming a little odd.
"You… might be … right," he replied slowly.
"Right about what?"
Sherlock dropped onto the sofa, swinging his feet on the seat and steepling his fingers under his chin.
John didn't get any response to his question and he realized that it would be in vain to probe any further. The lanky man on the couch was already far away digging for particular memories in the depth of his mind palace. The doctor briefly shook his head and decided that it would be useful to rest a little as the night would be quite exhausting with contacting the homeless network and trying to find information on the dead man and his killer. He would clean and check his gun and take a nap to be fit later.
In the early evening John prepared a light curry for them and forced Sherlock to eat at least a little bit. The Consulting Detective behaved like a toddler when it came to eating – always up to anything but the ingestion of food. The whiff of normality, however, which came along with the eating-matter, felt somewhat reassuring for John. It was almost as if Sherlock was just on any case, refusing to eat while working on it, and not on this particular case that was probably set to have him as a victim in the end.
When night had fallen over London, Sherlock and John put on their coat and jacket and went down the stairs of 221b, heading for a hunt in the cold rain that was incessantly pouring down on the metropolis.