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Speaker for the Bees

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They were browsing through a rare book shop when John spotted her. He caught a glimpse of a powder-blue floral neckerchief out of the corner of one eye, precisely identical to the one she wore in the client's photo. Mrs. Meredith Crook strolled past the shop window arm-in-arm with a pretty dark-haired lady.  

"Sherlock." He looked over but the detective was turned away from him, examining a faded hardback with mildew damage up the spine. John tapped his shoulder to get his attention. Sherlock glanced up inquiringly.

I just saw her walk past with a young woman, John signed.

Sherlock frowned and glanced over John's shoulder toward the window. He returned the book to its shelf, freeing his hands for signing. Of course it happened right when I looked away. Where are they headed?

West, and quickly.

With a magnificent sweep of his coat, Sherlock immediately whirled toward the shop entrance, beckoning John as if it wasn't obvious it was time to follow. The bell above the door chimed as he pushed his way out. Sherlock looked every inch a bloodhound locked onto his quarry's trail.

Their client, Mr. Albert Crook, had mentioned his wife's penchant for antiquing on Thursday mornings, but it was Sherlock’s homeless network which supplied the exact location. It wasn't yet lunchtime, but the pavement bustled with bargain hunters trawling among the quaint Victorian shops on the row. Their pace, that of the retiree or those otherwise unburdened for time, felt positively glacial, and John could see the mounting irritation in Sherlock's body language as he tried to push past loiterers and lollygaggers loaded down with bags.

Several gave Sherlock sharp looks as he jostled them, and it was left to John to mutter apologies as he followed in the detective's wake. Sherlock tended to get tunnel vision on the chase and probably hadn't noticed their mouths moving, let alone that their messages were directed toward him. Even if he had, John would still be the one addressing the situation or, at worst, acting as translator for the offended party. Running across random people who understood sign language was a rarity.

A few shops down the lane, John again caught sight of Mrs. Crooks' blue neckerchief. She had stopped with her companion in front of a furniture dealer and they now stood deep in conversation. Sherlock saw them too, but rather than charge straight through the intervening crowd to confront the suspected adulterous couple, he abruptly turned and snagged John by the arm.

What with momentum being a law of physics and all, John's failed to magically disappear, which resulted in his colliding straight into Sherlock's custom-tailored frame. Sherlock rocked back on his heels but held his ground, steadying John a bit. John tried not to focus on the sound of their communal heavy breathing, which Sherlock couldn't hear anyway, or the fact of their closeness and how Sherlock's hand was still there on his arm even though John had quite assuredly stopped. Instead he averted his attention to the giant grin spread across Sherlock's face, the one that meant Sherlock had an idea John would find either contestable or borderline offensive. Sherlock motioned toward the open doorway of a nearby shop.  

John was used to not being told what was happening, mostly because it would take far more time for Sherlock to sign it or write it out than actually do it. So John found himself on jogging behind the detective through a historic cafe and not even blinking when they skirted into the restricted kitchen area.

“Oi! Gentlemen, you can’t be back here!” called one of the cooks as they dashed by. Other shouts rang after them but Sherlock sped on, dodging cooks and waiters and steaming pots. John cursed as he chased after him, shooting apologetic glances to the people roughly pushed out of Sherlock’s way.

It seemed all the shops in that particular row were connected in the back, because Sherlock led him through a door and they were suddenly in a vintage tea shop, and after that a milliner's, before emerging into the furniture shop outside of which they'd spotted Mrs. Crook. The shopkeeper behind the counter stared at them, bug-eyed, as they casually entered from the back room. Through the window, the blue neckerchief visibly bobbed as the ladies continued talking.

Sherlock's pale eyes flitted about as he assessed the situation. After a moment, he looked at John and raised his hands to sign. You know what to do. Give me five minutes.

Indeed, today's plan was borderline offensive. John pursed his mouth in disconcertment. Can’t we just talk to them like normal people?

Where’s the fun in that? Sherlock replied, playfully smirking.

"It's not fun," John admonished. His slip into verbal speech was reflexive, as was wont to happen when he truly got annoyed. "Think of all the other deaf people who have to deal with the repercussions of your nonsense."

That's not what you said the last time.

"Last time a man had been murdered!" John said, nearly laughing in his outrage. "This is totally different. No one's going to die if a man's wife cheats on him with a woman."

Sherlock's expression went outright snippy. Not yet, but we've seen lovers' spats turn homicidal. Time is of the essence.

"Since when are you so dedicated to Albert Crook's love life? This barely rates as a four, you said. If it weren't for the drought in cases you'd still be brooding on the sofa."

Sherlock looked out the window at Mrs. Crook again, the removal of eye contact as strong a dismissal as he could impart. You're a terrible actor, he signed, the bloody git pompous enough to assume John was still reading his hands, but you're all I've got for the moment. Just do it.

Sighing, John went to the shop door, Sherlock's footsteps right behind him.

The two ladies, who stood intimately close in John's opinion, were engrossed in their conversation and paid no attention as he sidled up with Sherlock in tow. Sherlock shot him a discreet glare to get on with it.

“Ah!" John said, overly loud, as he patted the pockets of his coat in mock confusion. "Oh, dear." He looked over at Mrs. Crook and her 'friend', who cut off their dialogue to see what was the matter. “Excuse me, ladies, sorry, but I think I’ve left my phone back in the shop. This is Sherlock and he’s— well, he’s deaf, you know. Doesn’t understand a thing, poor chap, and I can’t leave him by himself. Would you mind terribly keeping an eye on him for a few minutes while I pop back inside?”

They both glanced at Sherlock, whose expression had gone blandly pleasant, and going by their reactions neither one found his natural physical endowments off-putting in the slightest. Mrs. Crook, especially, eyed him with the sort of sordid interest that inescapably set John's blood curdling in his veins. He was tempted to step between them and tell her off right there, no matter how stroppy Sherlock might get afterward, but Sherlock hadn't made any attempt to respond to the leering. He appeared happily resident in his own little world, oblivious to everything else.

"Oh," Mrs. Crook's companion said sympathetically. "Yes, of course we'll watch him for you."

"Thank you," John said before turning to him. “Sherlock, I’ll be right back." He made an exaggerated show of the signs. “These nice ladies will stay with you.”

Sherlock blinked at John and nodded. He truly was a gifted play-actor, somehow veiling the fierce intelligence that normally shone through in his eyes.

“I'll be back in a tic," John said apologetically to the women, and strode back into the furniture shop.

He watched from inside as the ladies seemed to gather that Sherlock wouldn't be communicating with them anytime soon. They resumed their conversation as Sherlock craned his head around like a child, feigning enchantment with his environment while furtively reading the women's lips.

John was never entirely comfortable when Sherlock ‘played deaf’. Preying on the ignorant was one thing, but flouting assumptions that deaf people didn’t understand lip-reading, body language, or expressions was just plain regressive. In the minds of the uninformed, deafness somehow translated into idiocy, and once that leap was made it was incredible what people were willing to reveal in front of him. It baffled John, really. What sort of moron must you be to think Sherlock wasn’t just as capable and a hundred times more intelligent?

After the prescribed five minutes of thumb-twirling, John returned outside. A flash of a smile from Sherlock confirmed he'd got what he wanted, so John hastily thanked the ladies and guided Sherlock away by the small of his back.

So? John signed once they'd reached a reasonable distance.

It’s not an affair, Sherlock told him. I should have seen it. She’s her daughter.

John wasn’t sure he’d translated that last word correctly. “Her daughter? Mrs. Crook’s daughter?”

Sherlock nodded.

He glanced down the road after them. They were of a similar build and complexion, but their ages didn’t seem all that far apart.

That woman is far too old to be her daughter, John argued. She’d have been…

Around fifteen when she gave up the baby. Sherlock's face went pensive. Obviously, they’ve only just met and she’s not ready to tell her husband.

Well, that was a morning wasted. What do we tell the client?

We tell him his wife is not cheating, but if he wants to get to the truth of it he should ask her himself.

John gave Sherlock a withering look. Oh, so it’s all right for the husband to ask, but not us. Great. 

How was I supposed to know it wasn't something more sinister? Hence my strategy, Sherlock countered. Here’s a new word for you. Pay close attention.

He neatly signed it, slower than his usual jackrabbit pace, before fingerspelling the associated word.

John strung the letters together in his head. “Subterfuge?”

Sherlock nodded, so John tried the sign several times until he felt comfortable with the motions. Knowing Sherlock, he’d work the word back into the conversation in a few hours’ time to ensure John had learned it properly.

Sherlock suddenly twitched and plunged his hand into his suit pocket. His phone was still vibrating when he fished it out, the screen aglow with a text notification. John patiently looked on as Sherlock swiped to answer it.

When he was studying medicine in university, John had never imagined a deaf man with a phone, but Sherlock got more use out of his than most people John had ever met. He texted almost as quickly as he signed. Amazingly, the microprocessor hadn't yet combusted from the strain. 

Sherlock stuffed the phone back inside his coat, his grin returned. Finally, something interesting. Lestrade’s got a case.

 


 

The address John read off to the cabbie brought them into Islington. As they pulled up, John had barely touched the door handle before Sherlock was off like a rocket, bee-lining straight for the front porch of the house where Lestrade loitered with a few of his officers. John paid the cabbie and followed.

The architecture of the home suggested it had been built just after the war, although its white paint was chipped from neglect and the overgrown garden was in need of a good weeding. Sherlock and Lestrade were rapidly signing as John joined them, officers Donovan and Anderson having likely fled the moment they saw Sherlock coming. The detective was nearly bouncing on his heels in his eagerness. The conversation ended abruptly and Sherlock spun to go inside the house, his coat in full twirl, but Lestrade caught his sleeve.

Forgetting something? Lestrade signed.

That's what John is for, Sherlock replied, adroitly flippant, before vanishing inside.

John had learned to recognize his sign name long before he knew what it meant. In the early days, Sherlock would impatiently sign it over and over like some long-suffering pet owner trying to impart word association to an oblivious cat. John finally caught on, but even in his inexperience he knew the horizontal swiping motion across the heart wasn’t a literal fingerspelling of his name. He finally stumbled across its meaning while studying a visual British Sign Language dictionary on the internet – Sherlock had combined the word ‘soldier’ with a ‘J’ motion to create John’s sign name.

Sherlock’s sign name was harder to place. He introduced himself with the words ‘consultant’ and ‘detective’ mashed into one fluid sign, and Lestrade called him ‘consultant’ when referring to him, but John suspected the title was a moniker Sherlock had chosen rather than the one given to him at a young age, as would have been done. Mycroft never called Sherlock anything directly to his face, and since he spoke to John verbally there was never any need for him to sign Sherlock’s name.

Sherlock unapologetically used the sign for ‘go away’ when referring to Mycroft, but that was another matter entirely. Then there was Lestrade, who Sherlock simply called ‘wrong’, and the handful of other obnoxious names for the various detectives of Scotland Yard.

Lestrade, bless him, took it all in stride. He was far more fluent than John in BSL, having had over six years of practice. He often said his crash course was a nightmare compared to John's. Sherlock seemed to sign at speeds too fast for the human visual cortex to process when he was onto a promising deduction.

As they went inside the house, Lestrade looked at John with a rather amused expression. “He’s in a chipper mood, isn't he?”

John dug in his pocket for the spare keys to the special evidence locker at Scotland Yard. Lestrade could well get sacked for lending them out to civilians, and the fact that he'd done so spoke to his desperation on that last investigation. Sherlock had been like a child let loose in a sweet shop.

“There was bound to be a bad drop after the inside-out corpses," John told him, handing over the keys. "Nine days of scraps and he's finally got a proper case to occupy himself. Yesterday he was so bored he melted half the shelves in the refrigerator." John shook his head as he remembered the look on Mrs. Hudson's face. "Not on purpose, mind you, but I'd have been less concerned if it was."

Lestrade grimaced. "Acid?"

"An acetone compound he's studying. We're lucky the thing didn't explode."

When they reached the living room, Sherlock was already in the throes of ricocheting around with his collapsible magnifying glass in hand. Several Yarders stood off to the side packing up their equipment as they prepared to leave.

"So what've we got?" John asked as he watched Sherlock scratch curiously at a tabletop.

"Missing person," Lestrade said. He pulled a small notepad from inside his coat. "Christopher Stodge, aged twenty-four. Funny thing is, he's the one reported himself missing."

"How does one do that, exactly?"

"It came as an anonymous tip, but we looked over the CCTV footage. Two of his childhood friends and his own sister identified him."

Sherlock rapped sharply on a wooden bookcase, drawing John and Lestrade's attention. He signed something John didn’t recognize.

Lestrade frowned. Are you sure?

Sherlock nodded.

“What did he say?” John asked. Reading signs came easier to him than making them, but there were plenty he hadn’t yet learned. He and Sherlock had reached a point of relative comfort in their communication, with Sherlock largely aware of John’s vocabulary constraints, but he wasn’t afraid to delve into larger words when the work demanded it.

“He says Christopher Stodge is an anarchist,” Lestrade translated.

How do you know? John signed.

Rolling his eyes, Sherlock pointed at the books beside him. Library.

Sherlock moved on in his inspection of the room as John and Lestrade stared at the collection of books. Countless foreign names graced their spines, almost all of which John did not recognize, with titles likes The ABC of Communist Anarchism and No Gods No Masters. A number sported political and revolutionary themes, inspiring more concern.

John tilted out one book that seemed to advocate for a mass uprising of the people. "Do you think his political associations have got something to do with his disappearance?"

Flipping through a few pages of his notes, Lestrade did not look optimistic. "He's got a history of juvenile delinquency, a few ASBOs. Family says he's mostly kept to himself since university. Graduate engineer. Clever lad, but they’ve no idea what he gets up to or with whom."

"Which means he could be off somewhere preparing to violently dismantle the government," John supposed.

"Maybe," Lestrade said. "It's also possible he pissed off the wrong people."

A loud banging interrupted the conversation. Across the room, Sherlock's fist was on the wall, accompanied by a displeased frown that he hadn't their strictest attention.

Have there been any renovations to the building? Sherlock quickly signed.

Lestrade shook his head. Nothing on record, but the neighbors say they've heard noises come from the house.

Sherlock steepled his fingers and pressed them to his lips. He spent a long moment lost in consideration before suddenly reaching out to press both hands to the wall, moving his palms the way a doctor might use a stethoscope's chestpiece.

“We’d best pay attention before he decides to punch a hole through the wall,” Lestrade remarked in a low voice.

“He’s more likely to break a window,” John said. “Nothing more dramatic than razor-sharp glass flying through the air.”

"Maybe we should get him a bell," Lestrade suggested. "Or a whistle."

John turned toward him as he snorted a laugh. “He'd never use it, if only to be contrary. You should hear the racket he makes at home when he wants my attention. Utensils on a plate are a favorite right now. I’ll know I’m in trouble when he takes to carrying around a chalkboard for scratching.”

"I'm surprised the neighbors haven't filed a complaint."

"I think Mrs. Hudson keeps them in a shoebox by the fireplace," John reflected. "Makes for a steady supply of kindling."

Lestrade tucked away his notebook. "She's a saint, Mrs. Hudson, to put up with all that."

"She understands the necessity, and besides, her hearing isn't what it was. I'm all for auditory signals, but Sherlock doesn't like to be burdened with accessories. He wants to be self-sufficient. A soft whistle or a fingersnap is usually enough to alert me, but sometimes I'm distracted or—"

“JOHN!”

The voice was loud and deep, startlingly so, and John immediately spun around. Sherlock glared testily across the room, clearly irritated that John had turned his back and nullified most of Sherlock's means to get his attention.

Half the Yarders had also turned at the sound. Few, if any, had probably ever heard Sherlock use his voice; he rarely did it, and only then as a last resort. During the long gaps between its appearances John himself often forgot its resonant baritone timbre.

For having never heard words spoken aloud, Sherlock was an excellent mimic. The limited number of times John had heard him speak sounded no worse than a hearing person with a minor speech impediment. Still, when he spoke John’s name the consonants were a little too rounded, the ‘o’ off key, the volume too high. Collectively, it was enough to make his disability obvious.

"Sorry, be right back," John said to Lestrade, feeling a bit sheepish for his momentary insensitivity to Sherlock's needs.

A smug smirk emerged on Sherlock's face as John came to him. Do you hear it? he signed.

Hear what? John inquired. What are you on about?

I can feel it. Surely you can hear it.

John listened, but nothing stood out to his ears beyond the low scuffling sounds of the nearby Yarders. I don’t know what you mean, John told him.

Sherlock swept around behind John, pressing up to his back. A pleasant tingling sensation crawled up his spine at Sherlock's touch, not at all the first time it had happened, and John uselessly tried to tamp it down before his face grew red. This close, surrounded by Sherlock's wonderful scent, it was a tall order.

Sherlock’s height allowed him to lean his head comfortably over John's shoulder. He did that sort of thing on occasion – getting too close and staying there. John wavered back and forth about whether the teasing was intentional or simply a byproduct of how he interacted with his world. Sherlock relied tremendously on his remaining senses; John had seen him lick and sniff and touch all manner of strange objects in his quest for data.

Deciphering Sherlock's signals made for an aggravating endeavor. Sherlock signed all the time, of course, but never in the way John wanted.

Apparently John hadn't grasped the intended goal of this exercise, because Sherlock let out an impatient breath and nudged him toward the wall. His long fingers skirted up under John’s right arm, taking up his hand and pressing it to the cool surface.

John wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be feeling, but it probably wasn’t the steady pulse in the hand covering his, the brush of Sherlock’s coat against the back of his thighs, or the heat growing in his cheeks.

“I don’t—erm,” John said, clearing his throat.

Sherlock tapped him on the shoulder, indicating he’d felt John speak but hadn’t seen his mouth move. John tilted his head back so Sherlock could lip-read. “I don’t feel anything,” he said, clearer and stronger but thankful Sherlock was unaware of the embarrassing fluster in his voice.

Nodding slowly, Sherlock pondered a moment before crowding John yet again, maneuvering him until John realized Sherlock wanted him to press one ear to the wall. He did so and sure enough, the distinct sound of a water pipe gurgled on the other side.

John lifted his head away and looked at Sherlock in amazement. “You felt the vibrations from that?”

Sherlock vigorously nodded.

“It sounds like pipes."

Yes, it does, but the water's cut off. Puzzlement eclipsed Sherlock's expression as he finally backed away from John, providing him a much-needed berth to recover from the close encounter. Which means it’s an entirely separate system, but why would—

John never tired of Sherlock’s silent epiphanies. His mouth fell open and his eyes lit up as if the world had profoundly shifted beneath his feet. John held his gaze for one beautiful, fractious second before, in a sudden flare of dark coattail, he was sprinting out the front door.

“What in the bloody hell has got into him now?” Lestrade called.

“I don’t know,” John said helplessly.

Sherlock suddenly shot back into the room, spinning and staring up at the ceiling, ignoring Lestrade’s interrogatory signs before quickly disappearing outside once again.

“He’s insane,” declared Donovan, over near the kitchen. “He’s finally gone round the bend.”

“Did he find something?” Lestrade asked.

John nodded. “A pipe not connected to the main.”

Sherlock reappeared with an enormous grin plastered on his face. He signed at lightning speed to Lestrade, the same phrase over and over. It’s bigger on the outside!

“There’s a Doctor Who joke here somewhere,” Lestrade grumbled.

“Don’t bother,” John said. “He’s deleted it.”

Motioning fervently to the walls, Sherlock struggled to communicate his meaning. Lestrade stared at him, skepticism written in the furrow of his eyebrows, as John tried to make sense of his erratic signs. The house was bigger on the outside? What was he implying?

Evidently, they were too slow-witted to draw the correct conclusions from what Sherlock was telling them. Sherlock huffed loudly and threw up his hands, dismissing their questions and shooting them a resigned, I'll show you.

He was out the door again in a flash.

"Did you get any of that?" Lestrade asked John.

"No. I think his brain's about five steps ahead of his hands," John said.

As they reached the door, a visibly anxious forensics officer met them en route from the front garden. "Sir, you've got to get out here," he said to Lestrade. "He's on a rampage!"

Where Sherlock had discovered a wood axe, John could not fathom, but when they got outside he was brandishing it with enough enthusiasm to justify the man's nervousness. The other officers watched on in alarm as Sherlock scampered around the building, knocking against the siding every so often with the blunted end of the axe head.

"Christ, isn't this is a sight for the neighbors," Lestrade sighed. He chased after Sherlock, signing abuse, but Sherlock had resolutely decided to ignore him until his point was made.

Halfway round the back of the house, Sherlock got his opportunity. He knocked again with the metal head and this time something in the feel of it seemed to confirm what he was looking for, and before anyone could stop him Sherlock swung the axe and brought the blade down hard against the wood. The head of the blade disappeared entirely in the siding, as though it had met cheap particleboard instead of solid wood, and Sherlock looked up in triumph.

He yanked it out as John and the others cautiously approached. Bits of wood spilled into the weed-ridden flowerbed.

There was a dark hole, about the size of two fists, in which sat no wiring, no insulation, no construction materials of any sort. Someone produced a torch and directed the beam inside, revealing a wooden skeleton of a stair and just beyond it, a second wall of exterior siding.

"That's not supposed to be there," Lestrade said, an egregious understatement if John had ever heard one.

Sherlock dropped the axe and stepped back, dusting splinters off his sleeves with a self-satisfied smile. A false wall, he explained. There's a secret loft in this house.

As the astounded Yarders crowded around the hole to peer inside, John caught Sherlock's eye and shook his head in disbelief. You are completely mad, did you know?

Good mad or bad mad? Sherlock replied, beautifully aglow with the thrill of his accomplishment.

John couldn't suppress the adoration undoubtedly showing on his face. Brilliantly mad.

Spots of pink bloomed high on Sherlock's cheeks, and he quickly looked away to the hole he'd just made. It could inflate one's ego with power, knowing how to make Sherlock Holmes blush. John contentedly folded his arms and set to watching the Yarders puzzle over Sherlock's improbable wall.

 


 

They discovered the true entrance to the secret stair in the rear of the boiler cupboard, concealed by a series of latches and a sliding trap door. It was a clever device but required a fair bit of contortion to successfully navigate, so to gain entry the false outer wall was targeted for manual demolition.

With Lestrade busy overseeing the entire operation, John took up his role as intermediary while Sherlock flitted around and pestered the non-signing Yarders for information. Sherlock often chastised him for softening the tone of his words in translation. It was an ongoing battle, with Sherlock insisting his exact meaning was of paramount importance and John pointing out that insulting people wasn’t the best way to procure their cooperation.

John had been told that, prior to their partnership, Sherlock had been forced to smash out his rants on his phone’s tiny keyboard. Unfortunately, Sherlock's reliance on visual cues allowed the Yarders to effectively ignore him whenever they wished, which in turn led to nasty confrontations. Lestrade was the only one among them who had bothered to learn how to sign. Just imagining how frustrated Sherlock must have felt made John want to thrash the whole lot of them.

Of course, getting locked up for assaulting a police officer wasn't helpful to Sherlock, so as consolation John generally stuck to him like glue whenever they visited a crime scene. Besides speeding up communication, it enabled John to address the situation if anyone felt inclined to disrespect or ignore Sherlock. People tended to rethink their attitudes when the Captain Watson voice came out.

By the time the Met officers carved a big enough hole for a human to fit through, Sherlock was growing restless with inactivity. There wasn’t much to be done until the police had their go at the hidey hole, so Sherlock resigned himself to fiddling around with his phone.

As they waited on the outskirts of the back garden, John's own phone suddenly went off. He pulled it from his pocket and saw that the clinic was calling. He usually made a point of not answering unrelated calls during casework, but he glanced at Sherlock and received an indifferent nod. Nothing was happening. Might as well.

John took it around the front of the house, away from the noise, but by the time he'd resolved the scheduling mix-up and returned, Sherlock was nowhere to be seen.

Young officer Farley stood scratching out notes on his clipboard. He looked up as John came over.

"Sorry, do you know where Sherlock got to?" John asked.

Farley pointed at the hole in the wall with the tip of his pen. "Forensics just pulled out. I think he went up, Dr. Watson."

A touch of anxiety rippled up John's spine. "Without me?"

The young man blinked uncertainly. "He was eager, sir, and I-"

"Yes, it's all right, Farley. It's empty, then?"

"There's a room up top but no one's in. Found Stodge's fingerprints all over. It's definitely his hideout."

"Thank you," John quickly said before jogging toward the house.

John received a few begrudging looks as he hopped across the debris pile and into the building. Someone had obviously found the power switch, because light spilled into the narrow passage from a naked bulb screwed into a socket overhead. The stairs were unfinished but solid enough, and John took them two at a time as they twisted up around the original corner of the building. At the top, a full-sized door was cracked open.

Inside, John began to understand the reason for the separate power and water lines. It was the sort of over-the-top conspiracy bunker one might see in a film, complete with overhead light strips, long fitted worktables, and what appeared to be a small loo complete with sink and toilet. The walls themselves sported posters espousing revolutionary slogans and clippings highlighted in angry orange streaks, emphasizing the financial and social injustices perpetrated by the government. The worktops were covered in assorted computer components, including circuits, bits of wiring, metal casings, and few stained technical manuals. Spreadsheets filled with ridiculously tiny print were pinned to the wall surrounding a high-end computer with four monitors, all of them dark. In one corner, soldering equipment was piled on the floor.

Sherlock, hands folded contemplatively behind his back, stood in the middle of the room examining the detritus scattered over the worktop. John flicked the light switch on and off to catch his attention, and Sherlock turned around.

He had the gall to look exasperated that John had taken so long to arrive. He wasn’t missing, Sherlock signed excitedly. He was hiding up here as recently as this morning.

John studied the mess. He faked his disappearance? Why?

He's either a genius or a complete idiot, Sherlock decided. He swept around the room, peeking into the loo and taking it all in. He must have known this is the first place the police would check. They'd miss this room and move on, giving him time to enact his plan. I suspect he intended to go missing indefinitely and join up with a militant anarchist group.

John was leaning toward idiocy on Stodge's part, personally. He approached the work bench and glanced over the components, unsure what half of them were meant to do. The faint sound of clockwork emanated from somewhere in the pile. But why go to all the trouble?

Sherlock shrugged and frowned, indicating that they had moved into the realm of speculation. Presumably to preserve his good name in the event he needed to resurface. He could be trying to safeguard his family. Perhaps he cares about them after all. Either way, it will be simple enough to catch him now that we have control of his base.

He was no expert, but it looked as though several computers had been ritually sacrificed for their valuable innards. I wonder what he was planning to make with all this, John mused.             

What does any lonely, outcast young man wish to build? Sherlock signed.

John felt a grin coming on. Robot girlfriend?

Sherlock's laugh wasn't like other people's. He kept it contained in his chest, a great shaking of his diaphragm that spread up through his shoulders until his mouth split wide and his eyes sparkled with amusement. If John was particularly witty or lucky, it was strong enough to escape in short, audible bursts of air; not quite a vocal laugh, but the closest thing John was ever likely to hear.

I was going to say a more accepting society, Sherlock signed as his chuckles died down, but I suppose that's equally possible.  

By the time forensics handed over a crime scene to Sherlock, touching things was fair game. John picked up what appeared to be a palm-sized battery. The metal felt dense and cold to the touch.

The curious, repetitive sound from within the mess was still going. John looked up and caught Sherlock’s gaze. “What’s that noise?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. Well, I can’t hear it, can I?

“It’s like a clock.”

He’s built a number of mechanical devices. Possibly he left something on.

John turned and examined the computer components again, a tense feeling twisting in his gut. He’d heard something like this before but was having trouble placing it. He’d—

A sudden memory erupted through his brain, vividly intense. Hot sun on sand and shifting the rifle in his arms, fear gripping him as he motioned for the other soldiers to back away from the dud IED until the disposal squad arrived. Turning to Murray and remarking on the unnervingly soft ticking coming from inside—

The present crashed back around John and the battery plummeted from his hand. A bomb. It was a bomb. Of course it was a bomb. John spun on his heel, but Sherlock was facing away from him now and inspecting the documents pinned to the wall. “Sherlock!” he barked out of instinct, never mind that Sherlock couldn’t possibly hear him, couldn’t know the danger they were in.

It was as if something else had removed John from his own body and taken control; in an instant he was lunging toward Sherlock, the impact of full-body contact a distant sensation as he tackled him to the floor. Panic mired all thought and brought time to standstill, each passing second stretching longer than an hour.

That was when the walls exploded in from every side.