"Arthur, darling, light of my life—if not the brightest of ones—why is there a man asleep on my plane?"
"I don't know, Mum. Gertie was locked when I got here. He must be some kind of magician, and a very tired one at that. I thought it was best to just let him sleep in peace."
No, not a magician, John thought tiredly, though I once knew a criminal mastermind who thought he was. John had no idea where he was, just that he was sitting up in a not too horribly uncomfortable chair and not tied up, which was a nice change of pace.
He'd obviously been kidnapped again; he never forgot the feeling even though it had been over two years since his last kidnapping, and at least this was something interesting. And he was pretty sure he knew who was responsible, although he had to wonder why Mycroft had decided now was a good time. He hadn't spoken to the man in months.
John heard a voice through his headache that sounded a bit like Sherlock's although nowhere near as rich, but he ignored the pang in his heart to concentrate on the situation at hand.
"Carolyn, I had two van jobs scheduled today and you promised me the day off unless the Queen of England called. I'm pretty sure this bloke is not royalty."
"I'm not sure who exactly hired us," said the first voice, "but I suspect it's someone highly placed. He or she has transferred thousands of pounds into our accounts. We're to fly to Belgrade, be on standby for as long as needed, and then fly whoever and whatever we're told to back home."
"Carolyn, if I don't work these two jobs, I'm not going to make rent this month. Which means you will be down one pilot when I freeze to death in the streets," said not-Sherlock.
"Hush, Martin, this will pay enough to clear our debt with some left over to pay you for this job." The man who sounded like Sherlock but who was apparently actually called Martin started to speak again but the woman continued. "Yes, as much as Douglas,
and if we can turn this into a regular client, possibly provide for a regular salary, as well. So I suggest you be a good pilot and go do the walk around."
John heard someone leave and the woman called Carolyn asked, "Where the hell is Douglas? Late as always, I see, but this is ridiculous by even his standards."
"No idea, Mum, but the food's all loaded in. I hope we got peanuts this time. It never quite seems like we're an actual airline without peanuts. Or those little bags of pretzels."
"I'm afraid it would take a bit more than that, dear. And if Douglas doesn’t get here in the next five minutes, I'm docking his pay," threatened Carolyn.
Deciding it was worth the risk, John opened one eye just enough and just in time to see the woman turn around and bump into a middle-aged man in an airline uniform.
"Your co-pilot has arrived, Madame," the man who must be Douglas said, sketching a bow. "And what do we have asleep in our cabin?"
"A client," Carolyn said abruptly. "Now go help Martin with the walk around."
"Already done," said Martin, and John quickly shut his eyes again before he was noticed. He also wasn't quite ready to see what that man looked like. "Wait, does Douglas have anything to do with our mysterious passenger?"
"Why does everyone always suspect me?" asked Douglas.
"You did get fired from Air England for smuggling," Martin pointed out. "And you were very interested in that honey the last time we were in Qinhuangdao."
"Goods Martin, not people. Never people,” Douglas replied, the anger clear in his voice. “Even I have lines and that's one that I have never crossed."
"I’m sorry, Douglas, I…. "
John tuned out the stammering apology in favour of a quick run through of the facts as he knew them. Kidnapped, most likely by Mycroft,; currently the only passenger on a small airplane; not restrained or under the influence of any drugs as far as he could tell; on the way to Belgrade, which was not a place that he'd ever been or where any of Sherlock's enemies were from, he was sure; and with a return flight arranged to boot, meaning he was expected to survive to be on that flight. He was also in the company of a group of people who clearly knew and were comfortable with each other, and who apparently didn't care if he knew their names. John figured they were real and not aliases because he'd bet his last pound that Arthur chap would never be able to remember a fake name. And, best of all, no one was currently threatening to kill him.
Given all of that, John figured he was about as safe as he could be considering he didn't actually know any of these strangers. Worst case, he could always resort to bribery and fall back on the promise of more of Mycroft's money. He had the feeling this group could use it.
John opened his eyes again to see four curious and concerned faces peering down at him. Thankfully, none of them looked at all like Sherlock.
"A little space, please," he asked and they all backed off a few feet. All four of them also began to speak at once and John held up a hand. His head was still pounding and the light wasn't helping.
"Arthur, get him some water," Carolyn, who clearly seemed to be in charge, ordered, and John breathed sigh of relief. Continuing to use names when they knew he was awake was a good sign but he was still glad to see the water was in a sealed bottle.
He also enjoyed the look of surprise on all their faces when he asked, "So, Belgrade. How long's the flight, then? And I hope someone gave you my passport."
"Can I be of any service to you?" Arthur asked, for the fourth time that hour.
They'd been in the air for close to two hours, with about another hour and a quarter to go. John had already consumed four cups of tea and more biscuits than he cared to count. He suspected that the meals on this airplane were best skipped, as the tuna and bean casserole he'd been offered looked fairly dodgy. And that was saying something considering that he'd lived with a man who pureed livers in the blender and boiled toenails in the kettle.
"I'm just as fine as I was five minutes ago," John answered, trying to hang onto his patience. At least his headache was gone. In truth, he was almost glad for Arthur's distraction. Thoughts kept churning in his head as he tried to work out why Mycroft would go to the trouble of hiring a plane to get him out of the country. John didn't think he was in any danger; the closest thing to a threat in his life these days was the random combative patient, and they had hospital security to help deal with that. What John couldn't quite manage to do was to stop thinking of Sherlock, to stop hoping that this was all part of some grand plan and that one day he'd show up, just begging to be punched in the face for putting John through all of this.
"I’m sorry. Mum always says that I talk too much and not to bother the passengers." They both looked a few rows back to where Carolyn was doing paperwork and muttering to herself. "It's just that I'm rather bored, and you, well, I'm not the best at reading people, although they sent us to this course and I'm loads better at it now, but you look sad. The kind of sad where you've been carrying it for a while, like whatever it was happened a long time ago but you never quite got over it. But it's okay if you don't want to talk about it. Mum says people usually don't but sometimes they do, it's just that nobody ever asks. So I'm asking. If you want to tell me about what's making you carry all this sadness around, that is." As soon as he finished saying all this, Arthur took a deep breath and then, to John's surprise, just waited patiently for John's response.
John was quiet for a moment and then the words just came tumbling out.
"He was brilliant and he was mad and he was my absolute best friend in the world."
And just like that, John found himself telling Arthur about Sherlock. It had been a while since John had anyone to really talk to about him.
Arthur was right: John's friends meant well. Lestrade dragged him out to the pub once a week unless he was overwhelmed with work, and Molly often asked him out for coffee, but everyone seemed to think that it would be best not to mention Sherlock and remind John.
As if he could ever forget. And all the stories were new to Arthur, even if they were old and well-loved companions to John. He felt a wave of guilt wash over him; he really should get back to work on writing them up. He'd started working on a few not long after Sherlock died but drifted away from it in favor of long hours at the hospital.
He tried to keep the stories light for the most part. Arthur was fascinated by the dog who didn't bark and the adventure of Thor bridge, although he kept asking when the other Avengers were going to show up. And he never did quite understand why Spaulding and Ross wanted to hire only redheads no matter how many ways John tried to explain it.
Somehow, without even realizing how he'd gotten onto it, John found himself telling Arthur about Moriarty and the game he'd lured Sherlock into, the one that had lasted several years and ultimately cost Sherlock his life.
"The pool was one thing. There's nothing quite as terrifying as having a madman strap a bomb to you and snipers aiming at your head, but at least we were together then. I just can't figure out why Sherlock did it, why he left me. I can't help but wonder why he didn't trust me, why he didn't tell me that he was thinking about doing something so drastic. That maybe if I told him that I loved him, or just listened more, he'd still be here."
"I know I didn't know your friend," Arthur said, "although I kinda do a bit because you told me brilliant things about him. But I know he didn't die because you didn't love him enough. Just like not getting something doesn't mean you didn't pray hard enough. Sometimes it's just the way it works out. But it matters that you loved him. And you went on adventures and wrote them all up. You said he read your blog."
It took a minute for John to translate this, as it all seemed to come out as one long sentence complete with arm gestures.
"Read it and laughed and pointed out how much I left out and how it was overly romantic and not nearly educational enough," John said, almost smiling at the memory of Sherlock leaning up against him to read over his shoulder. He missed that warm weight more than he ever thought possible.
"But he read it, and he knew you loved him," Arthur told him as if there could be any question at all.
"Still do," John said quietly "But I never actually told Sherlock that. One of the last things I did was accuse him of being a machine. I'd give anything to take that back. I was so angry at him and sometimes I still am, even though I miss him so much it hurts."
"But you said he was a genius, right? He knew you didn't mean to call him a machine."
"Sherlock was so smart in so many ways but not when it came to understanding people. And I was supposed to be his friend. I hope he knew that he mattered, and for more than just that incredible brain of his. Bad enough that he died with everyone thinking he was a fraud, but if he didn't know he was loved... " And that was what John kept circling back to: that it was their fault, his fault, because he hadn't made sure that Sherlock had understood how much he was loved. "Wasn't just me, either. Sherlock had more friends than he knew."
"How many times did you call him brilliant? That's one of my favoritist words, and you've used it loads of times just now telling me stories about Sherlock. You must have told him that he was brilliant all the time, right?" Arthur persisted, clearly not willing to give up on John. Although it seemed Arthur was the type to see the good in everyone.
"Yeah, he said I was the only one who did," John said quietly.
"That counts for more than one time you said something not so brilliant. Maybe he was just hurting so much that he couldn't see past that just then. But that's not your fault. You can't help how other people feel."
John looked out the window over the clouds and tried to convince himself that Sherlock, as he always said, had not only seen but observed and understood. But John was having a hard time reconciling that with the pain and the despair that Sherlock had clearly been suffering. And John couldn't forgive himself for not seeing it.
"I don't know much about, well, much except for maybe Toblerones, and I've learned a lot about polar bears recently, but I kinda know some stuff about people. And I know it's never just one thing; it's always a lot of things. But you guys were friends."
"Best friends, yeah," John agreed, still looking out at the endless sky.
"I think he had to have known. You should hear Skip and Douglas. If you didn't know them you'd say they couldn't stand each other. Even their games turn into arguments. But they're best friends and nothing's going to change that. Not even them."
They lapsed into a comfortable silence underscored by the background noise of the hum of the engines. After a while, in an attempt to get himself out of his own thoughts, John attempted to change the subject to football. It turned out Arthur knew next to nothing about the sport save for some of the team names, and somehow they got on the subject of the aforementioned polar bears and then on to otters, which made Arthur's face light up and helped to while away the remaining time until they landed.
Once they were safely on the ground, John stood up and stretched, smiling at the good-natured bickering he could hear from the now open cockpit door. Something about a word game, cities containing fruit, and a cheese tray.
John scanned the tarmac at the rural airport they'd landed in, completely unsurprised to see an unmarked black car parked at the end of the terminal. Shaking his head in resignation, John headed for the stairway. He stuck out his hand to shake Arthur's but found himself pulled into a hug instead. As they pulled apart, John offered a heartfelt thank you. He would have loved to have seen Sherlock and Arthur try to figure each other out. Arthur would be fascinated but Sherlock would be annoyed and probably more than a bit frustrated, probably writing Arthur off as an idiot. But Arthur's intelligence was with people, a mostly foreign language to Sherlock.
"You're welcome. Oh, and don't forget your bag," Arthur told him, reaching up into a bin.
"I didn't have the chance to actually pack anything, what with the being kidnapped and all," John told him.
But Arthur thrust his medical bag into his hands. "The instructions said to give you this and then wait. I love layovers; gives you time to explore the city and find all the best chocolate. Although nothing's ever quite as brilliant as Toblerones. Then we're supposed to fly you and whoever else you bring with you back to Fitton. I usually can't remember things like that, but this seemed to be important."
"Bloody Mycroft," John swore. He was going to kill him, just as soon as he kissed the hell out of his brother and brought Sherlock home.
"Are you going to be bringing someone back, then?"
John didn't even try to hold back the joy that was spreading though him. Sherlock Holmes, all around git and miracle worker.
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure I will be."