Rating: Might be verging into M (15+)
Disclaimer: I do not own these characters, and am making no profit from their use, more's the pity.
Warnings: Eventual slash, Sherlock/John.
Summary: HDM AU. John and Amarisa try to survive their abduction, Sarah takes a long, hard look at her relationship with John, and Sherlock and Raniel want to take a significant step in their relationship with John and Amarisa...
(Title page by birddi )
Part One: The Architecture of Our Lives
Part Two: Stepping Stones
Part Three: Foundations
Part Four: Shadowed Archways
Part Five: Buried Labyrinths
Crossing The River
John could admit he'd had some rather selfish reasons for asking Sarah out. He'd been feeling rather bitter towards Sherlock and his dæmon lately – refusing to let John and Amarisa into apartments, treating him like a burden rather than a colleague or friend or whatever the hell John had thought they were. John felt like screaming at them to back off, that he and Amarisa got the message; they clearly weren't important in Sherlock's life.
John knew it was human for him to be pleased at Sarah's attention, but 'hah, someone wants me' wasn't the best reaction to her acceptance of his invitation. But he'd kept it under wraps, and anyway that reaction had only been that selfish inner child everyone had and no one truly outgrew.
He hadn't been pleased that Sherlock and Raniel invited themselves along on the date (even if Amarisa had wagged her tail at them, the traitor). At least the fight at the circus hadn't scared Sarah and Vassilian off, and she even took Sherlock's entirely irrational dislike of her in stride.
Besides, she'd only been chatting with Sherlock for a few moments before the man rushed out the door searching for the book that was the key to the cipher. While Sherlock might regard digestion as a waste of energy, John had been rather hungry by that point so he and Sarah had ordered Chinese.
The doorbell rang, and John made his way down the stairs, Amarisa trotting at his heels. He was hoping the evening could be salvaged when his dæmon suddenly came to a halt on the last two steps, her nose twitching.
“What's wrong?” John asked, looking back at her even as he unlatched the door.
“No!” Amarisa cried. “John, it's-!”
Something smashed into John's temple, pain exploding like fireworks inside his skull. He fell heavily to the floor and automatically tried to rise, but his body was limp and uncooperative, as though all his muscles had turned to water.
There was something wrong with his vision – shapes and colours flew past his eyes, but he couldn't focus on any of them. His left hand was fisted in Amarisa's ruff and John had no clear idea how it got there, only that it was very important he keep it there.
He was aware of movement and voices around him, but he couldn't make his brain concentrate long enough to figure out what was going on. He'd try to think about what had happened and why he was in this state, but his mind would just float away from it like a piece of driftwood spinning through the ocean. Nothing made sense, and every time John blinked it seemed like an age passed between closing his eyes and opening them again.
He was just so tired. He wanted to go to sleep, but something told him that would be a bad idea. John shook his head, knowing it wouldn't make the frustrating fog around his thoughts recede, but unable to shake the idea that his brain would start working properly if he just gave it a jolt...
Predictably, it only made things worse – the world swam away in whirls of colour and sound and vertigo so extreme that for a moment John actually didn't know which way was up. He lay still after that, keeping his eyes closed and hoping he wouldn't vomit over Amarisa.
He was vaguely aware time was passing, but he had no idea how much; John's awareness was limited to the pain in his head and the definite sense that something was wrong, though he was having trouble figuring out exactly what.
He didn't make a true effort to clear the haze he'd descended into until Amarisa's fur slipped from between his fingers. He grabbed clumsily after his dæmon but couldn't find her, and John belatedly realised some kind of cord was being wound tightly around his wrists.
Someone was tying him up.
John made a Herculean effort to open his eyes, pleased when the world seemed to be resolving itself into a scene that made sense instead of a sickening mash of out-of-focus shapes and muffled sounds.
Of course, that didn't necessarily mean it would be a good scene. He was tied to a chair in something that resembled an underground dungeon, complete with flickering torches. Sarah was bound and gagged beside him, Vassilian at her feet, locked up in something suspiciously similar to a cat basket.
Someone was talking. John was trying to mark their words, trying to pay attention to anything that might help get them out of here, but it was difficult to concentrate.
He knew he had a concussion. The fact that he couldn't remember exactly how he'd got here, the way Amarisa lurched and wobbled dangerously any time she tried to stand, the blood that had dried on the side of his face...it all told John he'd suffered a blow to the head. So, he was concussed and had possibly cracked his skull, check.
The woman at the circus was in front of him, her crocodile dæmon beside her. Or maybe it was an alligator, John wasn't too clear on the difference, though admittedly he wasn't too clear on anything at the moment.
Clarity came rapidly, however, when the woman – Shan, as she'd named herself – pulled out a gun.
John leaned back automatically, trying to move his head from the pistol's immediate range. It did absolutely nothing, of course, and only made Shan's dæmon laugh.
This was usually the point at which the hostage told their captor all the reasons they shouldn't kill them. John was quite willing to play the game, if he could only make his stupid brain work. He was still dazed, and his unhelpful mind kept cycling through one word, over and over.
Gun! Gun, gun, gun!
“What does it tell you when an assassin cannot shoot straight?” Shan asked, with a smile disturbingly similar to the one permanently adorning her dæmon's face.
John scrabbled to come up with some kind of reply, his thoughts feeling as slow as if they were moving through syrup. He was still trying to lean away from the gun – futile, really; it wasn't as though a few extra inches of space between him and the muzzle was going to make a bullet to the head any less devastating.
Shan squeezed the trigger and John's heart thundered in his ears for long moments, until his sluggish brain realised that the firing pin had clicked harmlessly – the pistol wasn't loaded.
The Black Lotus general smiled again. “It tells you that they're not really trying.”
John was still trying to figure out what was going on. They'd obviously been kidnapped, but why?
He became aware that Shan was speaking once more, and struggled to make himself pay attention.
“If we wanted to kill you, we would have done it by now. We just wanted to make Mr. Holmes...inquisitive.”
In that, John had to admit they'd succeeded.
“Do you have it?” she queried, voice polite but hard as bedrock.
In spite of the concussion, John thought he was beginning to understand what was going on – they'd been kidnapped for information. Or possibly ransom, if Shan thought Sherlock had...whatever it was they were after.
Which meant that ignorance was probably his best option.
“Do I have what?” he asked blearily.
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
While John did know that either Lukis or Van Coon had stolen from the organisation, something told him it would be best not to mention this. He really hoped they didn't know Soo Lin had told him and Sherlock about the alethiometer.
John squeezed his eyes shut for an instant, hoping to make his surroundings come into clearer focus, but it proved to be a bad idea when vertigo swamped the world in a spiral of blurred colour as soon as he opened them. He furrowed his brow and blinked furiously, trying to hear past the rushing in his ears and hoping he wasn't about to pass out and leave Sarah alone.
His vision slowly cleared and sharpened once more, to reveal Sarah now sitting directly in front of what looked like the enormous crossbow from the circus performance.
'Not good,' was all John thought. 'Very much not good.'
“Where's the hairpin?” Shan hissed, her dæmon snapping its teeth menacingly.
“What?” This time John's confusion wasn't feigned. A hairpin? Had he missed some very important exposition while he was out?
“The Empress' pin, valued at nine million sterling – we already had a buyer!”
'Nine million?' John thought, dazed. And for some reason, his brain chose that moment to point out, 'Whoever created this smuggling ring is making out pretty well...'
Amarisa could have chewed through the cords around his wrists, but she wasn't in any fit state to provide help (drugs and injuries altering the mental state always affected dæmons much more than their humans), so John was rocking back and forth in an effort to wiggle free. The motion was making him dizzy and nauseous, which was why he missed whatever Shan said next, but John thought it was safe to assume they thought he and Sherlock knew where the hairpin was.
Given that he'd been on tour in Afghanistan, John knew the basics of what to do in the case of capture by the enemy. And one of the most important lessons had been to do whatever it took to keep himself alive and postpone torture.
It was hard to think through the pain in his head, but John had a feeling Shan might be one of those people who were pleased by their victims begging and pleading. So that was what he did.
It took very little effort to inject fear and desperation into his voice. “Please, listen to me,” he gasped. “You have to believe me – I haven't found whatever it is you're looking for!”
Doing that rankled, but if he scraped and grovelled it might delay them long enough for him to think of a plan. Or, failing that, for Sherlock to work out what had happened and call the police.
Shan gave a very dramatic, grandstanding speech before she pierced the sandbag to allow the weight to lower onto the trigger, a speech John had peppered with some more helpless begging. At that point, he'd accepted that it wasn't going to outright stop her, but he'd been hoping it might at least delay her for a while.
Except the weight was slowly lowering, Vassilian's screeches echoing off the tunnel walls like a deafening police siren, and John almost felt like begging the dæmon to shut up so he could think. His brain wasn't very good at multitasking right now, which was deeply frustrating as he was usually pretty good in crisis situations.
They didn't seem to believe John's claim not to know anything, so he was desperately trying to come up with some kind of convincing lie, but a concussion didn't exactly make it easier to think. If he said Sherlock knew where the pin was he suspected they'd just kill Sarah (and probably himself as well) and then go after Sherlock. So he needed to bluff, somehow let them believe they'd found it and then taken it elsewhere.
“All right, all right, we found the pin,” John choked out.
He was about to attempt to spin a good story out of thin air, when a familiar and very welcome voice rang out.
“I wouldn't trust him on that if I were you!”
John's vision still wasn't perfect, but for a moment he caught a glimpse of Sherlock silhouetted at the end of the tunnel before the other man darted into the shadows.
“That's a semi-automatic,” Sherlock called. “If you fire it, the bullet will travel at over a thousand metres per second...”
The echoing was making John's skull throb again and he closed his eyes against the pain, only vaguely aware of Sherlock going on about ricochets. He wanted to yell at the other man to shut up, but he suspected that if he opened his mouth he'd vomit.
Something boomed and John cringed, opening his eyes and trying to blink past the lights and shadows dancing across his vision.
Sherlock was struggling with a man John assumed was Zhizhu. Raniel was trying to chew at the ropes holding Sarah in place, but it was difficult with the water rat/vole/whatever-that-dæmon-was attacking him at the same time.
Sarah was rocking back and forth as though trying to tip herself over, but there was sandbags on either side of her chair to hold her in position – she was still sitting directly in the crossbow's path.
Breathing slowly and deeply in an effort to control the urge to throw up, John rocked forward onto his toes. Still bound to the chair, he shuffled awkwardly forward – even though his hands weren't free, he could at least turn the bolt away...
He managed to get perhaps four paces before the dizziness from the concussion took its toll. John mis-stepped and went down heavily, scraping open knees, elbows and wrists on the rough ground.
But the fall seemed to have cracked something in the chair – John's legs could move much more freely, and he ignored the renewed aching of his skull in his efforts to wiggle forward. He didn't even let himself look at the weight – he couldn't.
His depth perception wasn't the best at the moment, but when John judged himself close enough he lashed out awkwardly with his leg, catching the edge of the device and swinging it almost ninety degrees...
Given that he'd felt as though his desperate crawl had sapped the last of his strength, it was only several moments later that John realised the bolt had caught Zhizhu in the chest. John would have liked to take credit for that, but with his vision and coordination problems it had been more chance than anything else.
And considering where Sherlock had been in relation to the assassin, John had come frighteningly close to impaling his friend, something he'd rather not think about right now. Or ever, come to that.
He was vaguely aware of Sherlock untying Sarah, and he even appeared to be bringing himself to say the usual reassuring platitudes that he used to scoff at. Raniel's sharp teeth set to work on the plastic twist-ties securing Vassilian's prison, and within moments the pigeon dæmon was comforting his human, nuzzling into her hair as she clutched him against her chest.
A streak of white blurred along the edge of John's eye as Sherlock bent to untie him from the ruined chair – Raniel was going to Amarisa.
“Thanks for reassuring Sarah,” John said quietly (and perhaps with a bit of a slur), feeling the need to let Sherlock know his gesture had been appreciated. “That was sweet of you.”
The look Sherlock gave him suggested neither he nor Raniel had ever been called 'sweet' before.
Leather-gloved hands tugged John upright, but he'd barely gained his feet before he started listing dangerously. His brain had apparently given up his sense of balance as a bad job, and his legs felt decidedly wobbly. When John's right leg bent like wet spaghetti – his injury picking the worst time to act up – Sherlock gripped him beneath the shoulders to support him.
He wanted to go to Amarisa. She was limp and panting on the ground, obviously dazed, but John was reassured to see Raniel hovering over her, nuzzling and licking at her head and neck as though trying to reassure her.
John was a proud man, but he knew when to accept help. He leaned against Sherlock's chest as he tried to coordinate his rubbery legs so he could move and not trip the other man up at the same time. The first wavering step was a disaster and he ended up having to grab Sherlock around the waist to stay upright.
'This feels nice,' John thought absently. 'Sherlock smells nice, too...'
As soon as that thought passed through his head, he groaned – his date had almost been killed by some sort of Chinese mafia, he was probably bleeding in his brain even now...and all he could focus on was how good Sherlock smelled? Why did his libido have no sense of decency?
He shook his head against Sherlock's chest, then hissed when the motion sent a fresh wave of pain through his head.
“I need an ambulance,” John muttered. “I'm probably bleeding in my brain.”
Sarah knew she was smart. Not a genius, perhaps, but certainly a cut above average – the fact that she'd graduated from medical school proved that.
And she wasn't just smart; being a local GP gave you a knack for sizing people up, a way to tell the hypochondriacs from the truly ill, and Sarah had found those sort of instincts came in handy in her forages into romance. They told her when a guy was serious about her, when he might be fooling around, when to stay...and when to get out.
Like now – now was the time to get out. One date with John Watson, and she already knew they wouldn't be going anywhere.
Strangely, though, it wasn't being kidnapped by a crime syndicate that put her off, but what had happened afterwards.
They'd gone to the hospital as soon as they could – Sarah hadn't needed the paramedics to tell her John had a concussion, that had been obvious from the first. It didn't seem to be severe, but certainly enough to warrant overnight observation.
Sherlock had paced around John's bed like a paranoid bodyguard, and Raniel had perched on the bedside table and fretted over Amarisa.
And in response to their obvious concern, John had turned and spoken, not to Sherlock, but to the man's dæmon.
“Don't worry," he'd said, trying to smile. “We'll be all right.”
Raniel had crept onto the bed, on top of the sheets, and for a moment he was so close to John's hand Sarah had thought John was about to touch the polecat.
And the strange thing was, she didn't think she would have been surprised if he had. She'd already seen John address Sherlock's dæmon without even a hint of awkwardness, and it was probably safe to assume Sherlock did the same...so exactly how deeply were they attached to each other?
Touching someone else's dæmon was something of the last bastion in any relationship. Everyone speculated on what it would be like, but few people actually did it – in spite of her varied romances over the years, Sarah had never felt comfortable enough with someone to try it. She'd only once seen someone touch another person's dæmon, and that had been her parents.
That was why she was going to break up with John. Because if you saw two people who looked as though they'd be perfectly comfortable touching each other's dæmons...well, there was no possible way you were getting in the middle of that.
John had required a night of observation, and was discharged at one thirty in the afternoon – when it was proven that his coordination was getting better, not worse, and the MRI revealed there was no bleeding in his brain. The gash on his head had been closed with four stitches, and was expected to heal without complications provided John kept it clean.
Sherlock, however, couldn't quite relax. He knew it was ridiculous, knew that John and Amarisa were safe and sound...but he kept remembering that moment when he'd rushed into an empty flat to find yellow paint on the windows...
“That'll take forever to get off,” John grumbled as he followed Sherlock's gaze.
Raniel giggled disbelievingly and Sherlock was half-inclined to join him. Only John would look at the signature of the syndicate that had kidnapped him and comment on how long it would take to tidy the place up.
“We'll have time,” Amarisa pointed out. “Sarah gave us the next day off.”
“She did?” Raniel asked. “Why?”
John shrugged. “No outward symptoms of a concussion, but it's still not a good idea to have me diagnosing people.”
Sherlock snorted. He'd been beginning to think Sarah might not be as dim as the majority of the population (though he still maintained she and her stupid dæmon were far too dull) but then John had told him Sarah had declined to go out with him again. As far as Sherlock was concerned that put her firmly back in the category of 'idiot'.
“By the way,” John said abruptly, as though something had suddenly occurred to him. “What was that message? I'm assuming you translated it somehow.”
“Oh, that.” Raniel rooted around in the pile on the kitchen table until he tugged out the photo.
John's brow furrowed. “Nine mill-”
“Million,” Sherlock cut in.
“Yeah, I figured that, thanks, Sherlock. Nine mill for jade pin dragon den black tramway...?”
“I get it,” Amarisa chimed. “Put it by the train tracks, and the message gets out to anyone associated with them, without the bother of having to actually get in contact with them.”
Sherlock nodded. “Precisely.”
“I think I vaguely remember that Shan woman saying something about an Empress' pin,” John admitted. “But then again, I was concussed at the time, so everything was pretty hazy. And I have to wonder, if they were looking for this pin, why didn't they just use the alethiometer?”
“Because at that point, they didn't have it any more,” Sherlock explained. “It had been passed on to whoever created the organisation. And if they refused to use it to find the pin...”
“That means nine million quid is pocket change to them,” John finished, catching Sherlock's train of thought in a way that never ceased to be amazing.
“And Shan got away,” Raniel half-snarled.
Sherlock felt his own lip curling. The woman had ordered John and Amarisa abducted, and apparently hadn't been picky about the condition they arrived in – for that alone, Sherlock wanted her locked up.
To him, the truly concerning aspect wasn't that Shan got away, but that they still didn't know who she worked for. And if this faceless person could create an entire smuggling ring just to hide an alethiometer...what else could they do?
Of course, dwelling on that kind of thing was pointless, and they still had to actually locate the pin. Fortunately, Sherlock knew where it was – complimenting the hairstyle of Van Coon's ex-girlfriend.
“We're going back there?” Amarisa growled as they approached the bank.
“We're going back there,” Sherlock agreed, deliberately making his tone light and frivolous just to see the dæmon huff and shake herself.
“Cheer up,” Raniel offered as they stepped inside. “You get to take money off Sebastian this time.”
John chuckled, and Amarisa grinned her wolf-grin.
Sherlock and Raniel informed Amanda of what she was wearing, told her she'd likely be eligible for a finder's fee, and left her with her dæmon zipping in enthusiastic circles around her head. He found John and Sebastian just after the pompous tosser had handed John the cheque, and felt a surge of amusement at the way Amarisa was deliberately showing just the tips of her teeth to Netheirya.
Netheirya's unease was making Sebastian discomforted and resentful, while John was grinning broadly, clearly enjoying himself. Sherlock didn't know exactly what made John dislike Sebastian with such fervour, but he couldn't say it wasn't gratifying.
Amarisa had let more of her wolf nature loose than usual to intimidate Netheirya, and it showed. She was still stalking along like a predator when they left the bank, head low and tail still. The dæmons they passed glanced at her with poorly-disguised fear before hurriedly looking in the other direction.
Raniel, of course, was staring at her like the wolfdog was the most fascinating thing he'd ever seen.
“Stop that,” Sherlock whispered, hoping Amarisa's keen ears wouldn't hear them.
A wolfdog's hearing was extraordinary, but if they kept their voices low, there was a chance Amarisa would just ignore them like she ignored the background noise of the city.
Raniel, predictably, ignored him. “She's beautiful...”
Sherlock grit his teeth against the urge to huff in frustration. “You could at least try to look a little less infatuated.”
“Like you're not in the same boat with John,” his dæmon muttered.
Sherlock did his level best not to flinch.
Part Six: Crossing The River (contd.)
Part Seven: Glimmers In Darkness
Part Eight: Perdition's Bridges
Part Nine: Building The Republic
Part Ten: Lit From Within
Part Eleven: Structrual Integrity
Part Twelve: The Reader