The bow of Holmes' lips had begun to move. He started to reach up and find the blood on his face. That was yanking him closer to consciousness.
"What?" John shoved in as close as he could and leaned an ear to listen.
He was saying. "-elect to go out the back – out the back there's no fire yet."
Of course. It hadn't consciously crossed John's mind yet, but of course. John chucked the exhausted extinguisher far off to one side. He inched forward, the heat beating down on his back beginning to feel quite uncomfortable. The whoosh of flames above and behind became unmistakable. The fire had arrived. "Damn! Sherlock, it's do or die time!" He pulled the man out from under the table, reversed his hold on Sherlock's collar, and dragged him clear of the worst of the flames.
That quick rescue proved to be the last straw.
Sherlock barked, "What the hell are you doing!"
A cook and several staff met him half-way across the dining room. "The front is blocked." John shouted over the growing inferno. He was nearly yanked off his feet when Sherlock caught hold of his belt and used John's body to lever himself up. John caught Holmes under one arm and pulled. "All right?"
"It's burning." He glanced around at red cinders the airflow was spreading through the room, seeing patterns.
He was still dazed.
"Stay by me." John told him gruffly, and hacked for air in the first billows of smoke now falling around him. John didn't know which way to go now. The men were no help. They milled, shouting in a language he didn't understand, and gesticulating at the flames, deserted tables, and booths.
Sherlock got a good grip on John and shoved him forward. "Back door. This way," Holmes had to shout above the smoke. Then barked the same command in what sounded like Chinese. Whatever he was shouting at them seemed to shock the staff around.
All eight of them hurried back through the kitchen and out into the alley behind. It was only then that John could hear things like his own laborious breathing, Sherlock swearing under his breath, and the dish-boy sobbing. Two of the young girls who had been waiting for orders kept thanking John and Sherlock, over and over.
Sherlock turned his head to look at the flickering glow staining the cobalt sky. "No, we can't stay here. We need to keep moving, John. We need to stay out of-"
The door on the building opposite them in the narrow alleyway burst open. Several kitchen staff rushed out, all led by an older Chinese gentleman. He spotted one of the chefs and shouted in rapid-fire Cantonese. Then he took in their smoke-darkened, in some cases blood-stained circumstances, and John presumed, realized nothing he was saying mattered. These people had only just escaped with their lives. "Fire Service on the way – come in! Get inside! Come on!"
Along with the staff, John and Sherlock were herded into the neighbouring restaurant. They rushed through the back of the house and into a staff room.
Sherlock caught hold of John and led him around a corner to a men's room. They collapsed against the wall inside and struggled to catch their breaths.
"You've got a-" John pointed at Sherlock's forehead.
"Yeah-I-know," He said in one exhausted exhalation.
Holmes was first to move from the door and start cleaning himself up. As he carefully swabbed his face of gummed blood – his jacket off, as it was still in good condition – John felt along his neck with careful fingers. There was nothing out of place, thank God. He pulled Sherlock's head up a little and felt along the area of the cut.
"Damn-it-John!" Sherlock gripped the edge of the sink and curled over it. Muscle stood out across his wet shirt as he hung on. John couldn't make it hurt any less. He had to know the extent of the damage.
He sighed in relief. "It's a closed head wound."
"Then get your fingers out of it!" Sherlock's voice belled in the bowl of the sink.
John took his hands away and wiped them in a wet paper towel "You need stitches." He went out in search of a First Aid Kit and found one in the room they'd left behind. He dressed a second degree burn there with quick efficiency and took the kit to Sherlock. He was ringing out his shirt over the sink. He looked furious about it.
"Two weeks old. Halston. And I'm bleeding all over it." He flicked the shirt out right and pulled it on with a look askance at the kit. "Oh God I hope you're not thinking of actually giving me stitches. There's not enough Scotch in the building equal to the task."
John winced as he pulled on a pair of the surgical gloves. "Sit still as you can. I'm going to clean it." Sherlock buttoned up as he sat and let John go to work on the cut just above his hairline. "Well, I didn't know you liked Scotch."
"I like Scotch," Sherlock said wincingly. He pushed on against the pain, "But old stuff, really. Otherwise, you know, there's 30 year old Glenfiddich at the flat… you may not be aware. It's not for any occasion…. Just because it's good."
John finished with swabbing and smiled at this. "Sherlock, I can't put a butterfly in here."
"I should hope not," the man sniffed, but he knew that John meant butterfly tape. He cleared his throat a little. "Will it hurt a lot?"
"It will sting, but I'll be quick." John said ruefully.
To his credit, Holmes didn't make a peep during the entire process of suturing the cut. His fingers, on the edge of the bench, were white-knuckled, but he bore it. With Sherlock squared away, John started cleaning himself up. This was quicker, more efficient, and yet somehow as thorough as when Sherlock had done the same. He was used to blood and war.
"All right?" Sherlock came back into the men's room with bottled waters. He set one on the counter beside John and looked at him curiously.
"Well enough," John knew he was bruising badly across his ribs and side, but that information would do nothing to help Sherlock, so he withheld it. "So…. What the hell was that?"
Sherlock uncapped his drink. "Exactly what you think it was. Now we have to quietly get out of here. We can't try the roof with so many firefighters around. The crowd is pretty thick though. We may be able to use them as cover to get to a cab."
"Particularly if they think we're both grilling next door," John smoothed his shirt and pulled his jacket on over it again. Not as pretty as Sherlock had come out of it, but not at all bad. "And I don't mean grilling in the good way."
"There's a good way?" Sherlock's brows rose.
"Oh God, you're not handy at all, are you?" It made John grin. "Let's go."
"Stay by me."
"Don't worry," John's hands flexed in air, avid for the feel of his gun. "I will."
Smoke funneled down the alley outside the restaurant. Sherlock brought John to the right and they trotted through smoke and shadow, hands over their faces to keep from breathing in the soot, cinders, and motes of ash. It looked to John that the whole building was to be a loss. They exited into the flow of foot traffic headed away from the building, and the general milling of curious onlookers. Sherlock bobbed and darted, and John lost him for a number of seconds.
He crossed the street following his flatmate's sudden reappearance in a sheltered doorway. John joined him in the narrow awning and they leaned there, gathering themselves, both of them sore and greatly battered.
John swigged the last of his water and laid the empty on the stoop, hoping someone would take it for a recycle. He looked at Holmes' pale, tight expression. "Head hurting then?"
"I'll live." Sherlock looked him over critically, in two sweeps. "Side?"
"Honestly? Hoping to get back to the flat." He had a little something in the fridge, and by 'something' he meant he'd seen Sherlock take enough of a pounding – had endured enough himself in the course of investigations – that he kept local anesthetic and syringes about. Lidocaine and very tricky bupivacaine phials sat in two of the egg cups in the fridge. In his own way, he was becoming as bad as Sherlock Holmes.
"Dangerous place for us to go right now." Sherlock felt along his brow line, which was burningly tight with pain.
"We need to rest and think."
"And we'll do that," Sherlock continued to watch him. His head tipped off to one side. He sped out the door.
"You see something?" John called after him, loath to move from that very spot.
"Yes," Sherlock dropped his gloved hand and indicated the taxi pulling to the curb. "Our ride." It was uncharacteristic, but Sherlock opened the door and waited for John to climb in first. He slid into the cab afterward, with a wince.
On the way to… wherever they were going… John had no idea and was in no fit condition to argue.
The cab hit a red light and Sherlock stepped out. "Go around the block. Pick me up on the other side." He tapped the cab.
"Sherlock!" John growled, but there was a light rain going now, and John didn't want to have to deal with the chill. He sat in the cab and worried, but it was as simple as Sherlock's statement. They went to the next light, and around the block, and there he was, waiting.
He climbed inside, smelling of the freshness of rain, and they were off again.
Within thirty minutes, Sherlock let the way into Sofia's apartment. "I stole her spare keys from her night-table." The lights were still on in the sunken dining room. The heat – never adjusted by the police – kicked in. It spread the steely smell of blood around the apartment until Sherlock opened a window.
"We can't stay here." John opened his arms and exclaimed.
"You think she'd have a problem with it?" Sherlock took off his gloves and looked in the fridge. He took out the milk carton and gave it a shake, then opened it for a sniff, and checked the date: perfectly respectable milk. Setting it on the table, he continued on with a bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice. "We've come to help her, John. I assure you, if she could, she'd put us up."
Oh, she'd put Holmes up, all right. That was no kind of secret.
"You can't just do that – go through her fridge like that." John told his flatmate, but, honestly, was already sinking down on the couch. He sat warm, tired, and badly banged up – and not in the sense for which Sherlock would have used the term. His entire body throbbed with pain.
"I'm sorry, John." Sherlock murmured as he took down glasses. "She's not here to drink it, and might never be again." And they needed it, given what they'd been through. Otherwise, every scrap of food would end up in the rubbish. When you died, it wasn't as if someone was assigned to come in and clean up the blood, or donate your perishables to charity.
Sherlock's hand froze on the bevelled glass before him – pale orange glass. She had green, yellow, and purple of the same stamp. Sofia found clear glass uninspiring.
Motivated by diversity.
Sherlock touched his forehead and cussed at his mind Oh shut up.
Getting it to stop made his head ache. Having won this single, non-essential, principally Pyrrhic victory against the prevailing avalanche of his thoughts, Sherlock decided to carry the milk and the painkiller to John and count himself as lucky. The pain in his head was bad enough to be nauseating, something he would need to hide from John right now, lest he do what so many loyal men would – forget his own comfort, and serve his liege. John Watson was annoyingly like a medieval knight in his altruism.
John opened his eyelids slowly to find he'd slumped against the large pillow at the end of Sofia's futon. Now he rubbed his lids and looked at Sherlock. "Sorry. I'm sorry."
Why was he…? Sherlock dismissed the bewildering comment and handed John a glass of milk and a white tablet. "Painkiller."
"You should have it." But John picked it up and took the glass of milk. He was in too much physical distress to argue. It was down the hatch before the next thought occurred to him. "Sherlock… what did I just take?"
"It's 15mgs of co-codamol."
"Ah, could you check again, Sherlock? She couldn't have that in the house unless it was by prescription, because you can't get that dose over the counter in this-" he froze and looked up at his flatmate, stretched tall overhead, sipping a pulpy glass of orange juice. After a moment's loaded silence, Watson got up, strode to the door, and stuck his hands into the pockets of Sherlock's long coat hung on one of the hooks there.
Holmes actually jumped. "What are you doing? Or… what do you think you're doing?" He set his glass down on the brevity of a living room table and stalked over to yank the coat away from John.
"You bought drugs," John said curtly. "You got out of the car, you walked down the block, and you bought drugs." He held up the baggies he'd found. "You know how I feel about this!"
"John," Sherlock held up his hands and spoke slowly. "Those are not for me."
"Is this all? Is there some cocaine on you?" Honestly, he felt he was about to pitch a fit. "Empty your pockets, Sherlock."
Sherlock dropped the placating pose and fired back, "No!"
"So help me God," John heard his voice rise, "if you don't empty your pockets right now, I will walk out of here and go straight to Mycroft with these – these… what are these?"
"The first two are both co-codamol; a baggy of 15mgs and a baggy of 30, and low-dose, slow release hydrocodone." Sherlock considered John quietly. "You're in pain, John. Actually, you're like a dog in pain: happy enough when someone looks in on you, but otherwise beset."
"I'm like a what?" John said shortly. It didn't help that his voice was practically a snarl. "Did you just compare me to a dog? Really?"
Sherlock blinked at him like he was an operant chimp behind glass: something in a study.
Observational skills. Matchless. Social skills. Also matchless. In that they were nil.
Sherlock walked back and picked up John's abandoned glass of milk. He brought it over. "If somehow… that's bad… it's still not all bad. Dogs may be stupid, but they're stupidly loyal. That is terribly valuable. Besides, John, you think you suffer quietly, but to me, your behaviour screams the difference. Since supper was ruined, you've tried not to move. That's not who you are. Pain is changing who you are. Therefore-" he offered John the milk and took back the baggies of illegal pain meds, which he tucked into his coat pocket.
Sherlock was trying to help. Sherlock was being rational, and to his mind, John's reaction was incoherent. Holmes had even drawn up a large glass of milk so that John wouldn't feel nausea on taking the codeine. John took a slug of that milk, thinking of his stomach and how he'd always hated throwing up. "And… and you didn't buy cocaine. I mean… did you know the person you bought this stuff from?"
"Yes, I did," Sherlock's expression became solemn. He motioned at the coat behind him. "I… couldn't risk something unforeseen, like accidentally buying from police. I needed someone reliable for this."
"And your… friend-"
"-didn't offer you cocaine?"
Sherlock's gaze averted and he spoke breezily. "Of course he did. He handed me an eight-ball. For free." Then Holmes' great green eyes came up and fixed on John. "I just didn't take it."
"You… okay. God. Thank you," John sighed. He shut his eyes and felt himself relax. The pill was taking hold. His grinding pain was lifting so that he could move more freely. When he opened his eyes again, Sherlock was gone.
He could hear rustling, and then the tapping of Sherlock's fingers on the keys of a laptop. Fine. That was fine. John checked the lock on the door, finished his milk, and kicked off his boots. It was dark in the front room, anyway. He silently thanked Sofia for the use of her futon, and pulled the blanket at the foot of it up over him.
A little late on, he thought he heard Sherlock run the shower, but, for the most part, John was heavily asleep. He didn't dream about the war. With the drugs in his system, he didn't dream about anything.
But he thought about Sarah.
When John woke, he found Holmes staring at the unfinished painting.
The coming sun folded back the haze and brought the lighting up on their night out now frozen on canvas. Sherlock's head drooped a little. He was perched on the lone stool in the grey predawn.
"You haven't been to bed." John sat up with great difficulty and found a chilled glass of milk with another pill beside it, waiting. This, John thought, must be how gods feel when man leaves wine and cakes on their altar. It hurt to stretch, to move enough to pick up the milk and take the pill. Only when he'd hungrily finished the glass, did it occur to him this also meant Sherlock had thought of him.
John was the type who returned favours. Underneath it all, John sort of dreaded that he was exactly the loyal dog Sherlock had compared him to. Deep down, under the lessons life drummed into him, was a reservoir of his unconditional feeling. Pass through the houses of razors and jaguars, and one could reach it. Just where on that long walk was Sherlock? In the gloom? In the cold?
It made John wish he could help, because as hard as it was to get through to John Watson, was as difficult as it was – given Sherlock Holmes – to so much as find the first door.
He got stiffly to his feet and walked over to Holmes. His eyes were closed. Was he asleep sitting up? Precarious on the narrow stool! He shouldn't startle the man. But he had to check the sutures, so John moved delicately.
There was blood in his hair. So there had been some bleeding in the night. If he'd showered, as John remembered, it had probably happened then. He took hold of Sherlock's head and gently tipped it down a bit. Better angle for someone shorter than he was, perched on a stool.
Sutures were holding. There was some pinkness on the edges of the scar – a good healthy colour. It wouldn't hurt to give it a little disinfecting. John touched the skin of Sherlock's forehead right below the wound. It was bruising. This was expected. But the wound itself didn't have that hot flush, or pale greenish glow he saw with infections.
Doing well. Thankfully.
"When the truck came through the window, according to what I've been able to put together, I struck the windshield. At that point, I started to black out and lost my grip on you. I'm aware, because of the physics involved, that you would have gone over the cab. I imagine you were thrown clear, out into the parking lot. I'm forced to assume that I rolled down the bonnet and was thrown into the tables. The table edge was how I hurt my head. I'd say we got very lucky, John. That wasn't an accident."
"We got lucky because you can't sit still for a minute," John stuck his hands in his pockets and told the man. "You have to be doing something at all times, even if all you seem to be doing is looking around."
John felt envious. Holmes was neat, smelled fresh, and was cleanly shaven, even if his clothes smacked a bit of smoke. He still slumped with his arms crossed tight on his chest and his eyes closed. Because… he'd taken nothing for pain, John guessed. He'd caved in a windshield and been tossed into the furnishings. He needed to take a God damn pill. For that, Sherlock would need convincing. John had just the thing.
Sherlock's eyes pricked wetly when John daubed the wound with alcohol. This was involuntary, and caused by the sharp sting. That didn't make it any less strange.
Sherlock's lips tightened. Muscles in his jaw worked, he was so angry.
John brought him a pill. "You have to take this, okay?"
His green eyes opened. Sherlock gave the stool a push, and pivoted away. He'd turned his back. "Those aren't for me."
John's lip curled. Damn stool. He walked around it. Sherlock looked steadily at his chest rather than at the pill in his hand. For a moment, John Watson found nothing useful to say. Sherlock could be so difficult; things rested like a feather on a pin. He was so conscious of everything anyone said. John lowered his voice. "Don't be a martyr, Sherlock."
Dammit. John sucked a long, steady breath. "You can take this and nothing bad will come of it. I'm saying it's okay."
There was some small pause during which Sherlock's hands flexed to wrap his arms tighter around the pain that had him hunched up. "What if I like it?"
"What if you…?"
"What if I like it a lot?" He looked at the floor off to one side.
Oh for God's sake. What could he say to that? You won't wasn't going to cut it, not for this guy. So John did the only thing he could think of. He put out his left hand and wrapped it over the crown of Sherlock's head. His curling hair was warm. "If you turn out to like these a lot, then we'll handle it, but for Christ's sake Sherlock… will you just do what I say?"
John could feel Sherlock sigh against the front of his shirt. Then Holmes extended a long hand. Victory. John put the pill into it and went to pour milk.
"Yes, and strawberry?"
"You want them together?"
"John, please," Sherlock looked at him reproachfully. "Unless she has banana, it's the best game in town. Everybody knows this."
Everybody age 10 and under. John grinned as he poured up some chocolate-strawberry milk. He shuddered to imagine the sugar content. But then, his friend was so very thin, and needed sugars so very badly. John stood, hands on his hips, to watch Holmes take the pill. He knew exactly how fast the pain would begin to recede. Sherlock, poor sod, was in misery.
"So. What do we have?" John asked. "Why would someone, under any circumstances, ram their truck through a restaurant and burn up?"
"Oh. Bad job, John. Saw it on the news. No one burned up in the truck. In fact, the thing was stolen from a worksite. The driver was never caught. One witness describes seeing a relatively tall Caucasian man with brown hair exit the cab. A second describes a black haired man, shorter, possibly Asian."
"Eyewitness testimony," John rubbed his stubble and checked his watch.
"And it was smoky, and there was panic, ad nauseam." Sherlock hugged himself again and shut his eyes. John got him off the stool and walked him to the futon.
"Look. Try to rest until the pill takes hold. I need a shower… and a shave too. God."
Sherlock grinned at this. "Even your stubble is blond."
John gave him a look. "Lie down and don't take the piss out of me." It amused Holmes. Not the desired effect. The genius laughed as he settled on Sofia's futon.
"The loo is well stocked, you'll find. Extra toothbrushes; extra god-awfully twee soaps; there are plenty of fresh razors," Sherlock's voice bubbled with mirth and a long hand flipped in air, "but they smell like candy-apple, or Creamsicle, or… estrogen. And they're pink." He settled back into the large pillow and sucked a breath that he held a moment before he exhaled slowly.
The pill was hitting.
Well, John didn't give a damn the colour, as long as a razor worked. He wasn't partial to two-tone brown and heaps of camouflage either, but it emphatically beat getting shot, so he'd worn it for years. Maybe the hot water would help with the stiffness.
He'd just cut the water when the door opened. "So fire. Either Sofia is psychic, it's coincidental, or there is a possibility of more than one meaning to that clue of fire." Somewhere out beyond the shower smoke and the steamy shower glass, Sherlock opened his hands in air.
"Trying to take a shower." John pulled the towel on the door down into the stall and tossed Holmes a cross look.
"No you're not. I waited until you were done. Now shut up, John, this is important. Hear me out. I searched. There's no living record of Sofia Rothingham. Our Sofia Rothingham. There are two, but one married into the name, is 44, has two children, and is living in Leeds, and the other is in first school in Cornwall. No wonder I couldn't find any mention of a Sofia Rothingham in reference to Ark-Co. I think she made herself up. There is, however, a Sophie Rothingham of Bedale, North Yorkshire, died when she was 7. That's as close to our girl as I can come. These two could have lived within streets of one another, in fact, been childhood friends. Sophie would have been 21 later this year. But our girl… who knows how old she really is… well, I do. But I've been over her bedroom, and I can estimate her at about 24. But who cares – not relevant right now," his long hands waggled in air at his temples a moment, as if erasing a whiteboard between his ears.
John smiled in spite of himself. That was the same age range he estimated to be Sherlock's as well. Cozy. Well… it might have been. His expression darkened. Sherlock seemed to be thinking for a moment. Though his muscles protested, and his flesh was painted black and white like a pinto horse's, John used the time to dry as economically as he could. Without the pills Sherlock had thought of, John knew he wouldn't have been moving around right now. He would have needed to let the air passively dry him off. Speaking of which. "Time to go away, Sherlock. In light of this, we probably need to discuss this whole idea of me time-"
"Ohhhh, I've been a twit. Ark-Co. Fire." Sherlock's deep voice rolled through the shower all the way from the doorway. "What's the obvious connection between these words, John?"
If he didn't give this answer some thought, Sherlock wouldn't go away.
"Well… if she's 24 or so, she could have…." John straightened up and blinked. "She worked for them and they fired her."