Chapter 1: London
Somehow, Molly always knew it would end like this; her limbs locked in the vice grip of cold, smooth fabric, unable to pull in her next breath. Part of her had been expecting Jim’s fingers to be the device of her demise, but in an act of defiance to her expectations of him, he had simply replaced his fingers with millions of purple threads. There was almost no difference.
It was no surprise that Jim would make a spectacle of her in her last moments, suspended high over the crowd and lit up by the limelight.
What she’d never intended, never anticipated in her worst nightmares, was for him to see her like this. She’d wanted him to remember her as he’d always seen her: ethereal, untouched…his. But he came through the curtains of the tent anyway, defying her thoughts, his face contorting in horror as he rushed towards the center of the ring, screaming at someone she couldn’t see.
“Cut her down!”
No good, Sherlock, she thought. It’s too late.
As her vision started to star and spark, she kept her eyes on him, drinking in the blue of his eyes and the wild darkness of his hair, the pink flush of lips that had worshipped her for one night and never would again. The chaos of the crowd and the shouts of the workmen became a dull roar in her ears and she slipped into darkness, grateful that if she was going to be ripped from this world, she went with the memory of his love.
Two months earlier
The air was…different. That was the only way he could describe it. There was something heavy and warm about it, making anything other than linen trousers and a light shirt unimaginable to wear outside. Streaks of thin clouds covered the sun as he strode across the grass, heading towards the large pen that was erected near his caravan. Three lines of caravans, plus a few permanent wooden structures, stood in the middle of the field that served as home, just outside of London. It was land rented at a bargain from a farmer’s widow; it was owing to the Holmes brothers that she was the one who owned the land in the first place, having been the ones to save her from the abuses of her husband and alert the authorities, and she had gladly agreed to let them use the field for a more than fair price. It was far enough away from the prying eyes of the public, but not so far from the city that they couldn’t take advantage of being so near supplies and transport. The open field was surrounded by old growth trees; a somewhat beatific spot to call home for a collection of unique characters.
The chain link rattled under his hands as Sherlock Holmes pulled his keys from his pocket, inserting one into the padlock and yanking it open. He dumped the canvas bag he’d been carrying on the ground, somewhat piquing the interest of the lazy beasts who were watching him with one eye apiece as they lounged. Pocketing the keys once more, he bent his knees and lowered himself to the ground, making himself comfortable and waiting. In a matter of minutes, his oldest girl casually made her way to her feet, taking a leisurely stretch before jumping down from her box and sauntering across the pen towards him. She curled her lips back slightly and let out a noisy huff, then stepped up to him and butted her large, furry head against his.
He smiled and lifted a hand to scratch behind her ear as she rubbed her scent on him before vocalizing again, asking for her treat. He obliged, reaching into the bag to pull out a chunk of meat that he’d bought off a butcher who owed him a favor and feeding it to her. Apis tossed her head back and plodded away, gnawing happily on her breakfast.
The scent of the meat attracted the others and Sherlock stood up, taking more meat from the bag one piece at a time and tossing it to the other three girls, and finally to the timid male. He accepted his and skulked off to the corner, hoping to be ignored by the women in his pen.
“Coward,” Sherlock said with a chuckle.
Tacitus was a consummate performer for Sherlock, showing his teeth and offering up a thunderous roar in front of the crowds, but offstage, the lion was a kitten. He liked to lean his weight against Sherlock and have his mane combed out and generally pretend that he didn’t let the ladies walk all over him.
“You need to exercise them before we load up tomorrow.”
His brother’s voice came from behind him. He sounded in rather a good mood. Perhaps he’d had a chance to indulge in the chocolates he’d been hoarding in his cottage.
“Fantastic idea,” Sherlock deadpanned. “You start running and I’ll open the gate.”
He looked over his shoulder in time to see his brother’s thin, not amused smile.
“Charming,” Mycroft replied, pulling his pocket watch from his waistcoat and checking the time.
“They’re not the only ones who could use a little exercise,” Sherlock quipped with a pointed look at Mycroft’s midsection.
“They’re also not the only ones who could use a good whipping from time to time,” his brother said, more than a little irritation coming through in his words.
“That will never happen,” Sherlock said seriously, looking back at his beasts. “You know my methods.”
“I do. I know the methods of every damn person in this operation. It’s why we survive, Sherlock. Secrets don’t make money.”
“But cheap parlour tricks do,” Sherlock replied, glancing at the new caravan that had been parked at the far end of the field.
“People believe anything, and you know it. They’re ready for a little magic these days,” Mycroft told him. “Besides, those two are rather good, even for magicians.”
Sherlock shrugged, not entirely sure he believed his brother. He’d never found himself impressed by magicians, able to find the secrets behind their tricks far too easily and generally frustrated when other people failed to see the obvious. Sleight of hand and doves bursting from beneath handkerchiefs did not amuse him. Of course, he hadn’t seen their audition and had yet to see their act, so he could only take Mycroft’s word for it that the magician and his assistant were impressive. Since they’d lost their strong man to a competing company, they really did need a new act to fill the void.
“When you’re done here, find Irene and Janine and tell them to bring the horses to the drive. The farrier is on his way to re-shoe them,” Mycroft instructed, giving Sherlock a half-hearted wave of his hand as he turned and walked back to his little cottage, no doubt to discuss finances with their bookkeeper, Anderson.
Sherlock looked back at his little pride and gripped the bag, walking forward. All five of them lifted their heads, at attention. He stopped in the middle of the pen and centered his weight.
“Up!” he shouted, throwing his hand into the air. As a unit, all five cats stood up, tails swishing and ears pointed forwards. “Here!” he commanded, holding his fisted hand straight out in front of him. The cats loped into position, lining up perfectly in front of him with Tacitus in the middle. He smiled at them. “Now sing.”
The field echoed with the sound of lion roars and he heard the shouted curses of those performers and workers who had had a bit of a lie-in and had been awakened by the noise. He laughed and reached into the bag one more time, tossing a few more scraps to each cat before heading out of the pen.
After he delivered Mycroft’s message to the pair of trick riders and washing up, he made his way through the line of caravans to one at the end. He hopped up the steps, rapping on the wooden door and waiting for a response. For once, there was no shriek of amused embarrassment from the newlyweds who occupied the dwelling. John had made it clear that Sherlock could avoid the awkward encounters if he would leave them alone between the hours of ten at night and nine in the morning, but Sherlock still considered that an unreasonably long time to be chucked away from his friend. The newly minted Mrs. Watson had threatened to answer the door naked as a jaybird the next time he arrived at their stoop at an inopportune time. She was laughing when she said it, but he knew she had meant it.
Fortunately, on that morning she answered the door in her nightgown and robe, her short blonde hair tousled about her brow.
“Lovely wake up call, Sherlock,” Mary said with a grin, leaning her weight on the doorframe. “You trying to lose the few friends you have?”
“And good morning to you, too, Mary,” he said, leaning down to kiss her cheek briefly before nosing his way into the cozy home. “Coffee on?”
“Just finished,” John said from his spot at the little built in stove. He was wearing beige trousers with the bracers hanging loose about his hips, a towel draped over his shoulders to protect his white vest from his morning shave. “Sugar?”
“Two,” Sherlock clarified, plopping down onto their small sofa and making himself comfortable.
“You seen the new ones?” Mary inquired, still standing at the door and looking out across the field to the dark brown caravan a dozen or so meters away.
“Nope,” Sherlock said, popping the p and leaning forward to pick up the previous day’s newspaper from the table. He glanced at the headline. The Custom House in Dublin had been taken and burned by the IRA. Clash with the British Army. Bad news and politics, all around. He tossed the paper down again. “Apparently they are quite the talent.”
“Is Mycroft breaking them in? Or are they going in blind?” John asked, handing Sherlock his coffee before sitting in his chair.
“They’re getting a rehearsal before the first show,” Sherlock explained, leaning his head against the back of the sofa and looking at the wooden planks of the ceiling. “Something to do with ropes and needing to practice the timing.”
“Ropes?” Mary repeated, walking towards John and settling on his knee, one arm wrapped around his shoulder. “For a magic act?”
“Perhaps it’s so they can ‘fly,’” Sherlock said with a chuckle, knowing he was being unkind about people he hadn’t met, but his expectations weren’t high.
John joined in his laughter; Mary simply rolled her eyes, pushing off of his lap and walking towards the stove to start breakfast.
It was on the train north out of London the next morning that Sherlock first caught a glimpse of the Moriarty siblings. He was in the dining car with John and Mary, enjoying a humble breakfast of eggs and potatoes with spices. The couple was discussing adding a new trick to their act and debating whether or not they would need new rope for the trapeze before they returned to London. One of the workers was rotating records on the gramophone and jazz music filled the car. Irene and Janine were dancing between tables and enjoying themselves, humoring some of the clowns (teasing, really) by laughing at their advances and accepting a few drinks here and there. The men stood no chance with the two women, of course, and they knew it, but still tried out of habit. The contortionists were grouped in a corner, playing a game of cards and sharing their last pack of cigarettes. The rest of the car was filled up with the hired hands, shoveling in as much food as they could to maintain their strength for the day to follow.
Sherlock knew most of them would be hungover the next day, the efforts of a large dinner lost and relying mostly on strong coffee to help them with ‘recting the tents.
It was in the middle of all of this that Mycroft opened the door to the car, the sound of the train rattling down the tracks increasing for a moment before the door closed again. Sherlock looked up and saw them. The man was on the shorter side for a magician, but he had a bearing that demanded attention. His black hair was slicked into a fashionable coif and he looked smart in his dark blue suit, a garnet ring glimmering on his right hand. His eyes were dark and sharp, scanning the room with precision as he smiled at whatever Mycroft was saying to him.
The young woman…
She was petite, delicate looking, with serious brown eyes and a thin mouth. Her long hair was curled and swept up into an intricate bun at the base of her neck. She lacked the popular bows and bands that many of the other women used to adorn their hair. Her dress was modest, with a fashionable hemline and drop waist. Mint green with a sequined sash around her hips and three-quarter sleeves. Just like her companion, she scanned the room, but her eyes moved carefully, slowly taking in her new surroundings.
They locked on his and lingered, commanding his focus until she finally looked away and nodded at Mycroft. She took her brother’s arm as they walked further into the car, released by Mycroft to mingle and get to know their new family.
He watched them stop and introduce themselves to the contortionists, who looked at the girl like she was fresh meat.
Sherlock grunted as he felt a shoe collide with his shin. Grimacing, he glared at Mary who had her arms crossed over her chest, grinning at him in complete amusement.
“Stare longer, I don’t think you’ve made her uncomfortable yet,” she said cheekily.
“I’m not staring,” he muttered. “I’m studying.”
“Studying what, exactly?” John asked, cocking his head to the side.
Sherlock didn’t get a chance to answer as the two newcomers made their way to their table.
“Jim Moriarty,” the man said, smiling in an easy way and shifting his weight as he stopped, holding a hand towards Sherlock. “Mycroft tells me you’re his brother.”
“I don’t know why, he also tells people he’s ashamed to be related to me,” Sherlock replied, looking coolly at the proffered hand.
Jim faltered ever so briefly and Sherlock thought he saw a small flash of interest in his eyes. He was amused, that was certain. Sherlock’s eyes flicked over him.
Expensive suit, but not unreasonable. His act had made him money and he had joined the Holmes’ show out of desire, not unemployment. He hadn’t faced the hardship that many performers had, but having started with Sanger (as Sherlock had heard through the gossip line), it didn’t surprise Sherlock that Jim would obviously have his pick of shows.
Next to him, John cleared his throat and extended his hand and shook Jim’s.
“John,” he said, then nodded to Mary. “This is my wife, Mary.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Jim said, his voice lilting a bit with his northern dialect. Pulling his hand back, he placed his arm around the young woman, pushing her forward a step. “My sister, Molly.”
“Hello, Molly,” Mary said kindly with a smile.
Oh, that was interesting. Sherlock had pegged her for a somewhat sharp personality, expecting a drop of acid when she spoke, but her voice was light and almost quavered. She seemed comfortable enough, not very nervous. It had to be a common way of talking, nothing to do with being anxious. Her eyes met Mary’s easily enough, but when she met Sherlock’s once more, her gaze quickly turned to the ground.
“Have you had your breakfast?” Mary asked the young woman. Molly shook her head, her lips pursing into a tight-lipped smile. Mary stood up and held out a hand. “Then come with me. Cooper is a good cook, but he likes to take the piss out of the newcomers. I’ll make sure he doesn’t put spoiled cream on your scone,” she told Molly with a wink, escorting her away from the table and out of the dining car.
The moment the two women had gone, a tense silence fell on the table. Jim shoved his hands nonchalantly into his pockets and glanced between Sherlock and John.
“So what is it you two do, John?” he asked, his voice smooth and friendly.
“Acrobats,” John answered in a clipped manner. “Trapeze.”
Sherlock could tell John was not instantly enamored with this new member of the family, but he had always been far more inclined to act friendly until given a reason to do otherwise.
“And Mycroft says you work with the animals,” Jim said to Sherlock, a glimmer of a joke in his eyes.
His lips curled back slightly at the hidden insult.
“Lion tamer,” Sherlock clarified, his jaw tensing. “Since the age of ten.”
“Charming act,” Jim said with a raise of his eyebrows, his weight shifting as he started to walk away. “Glad to meet you both.”
“And you pull rabbits out of top hats?” Sherlock shot out before he could think, stopping Jim in his tracks. The gentleman turned and looked at him, his eyes scanning Sherlock’s face for several moments. It felt like being inspected by a snake. “Or so I heard.”
Jim smiled at him, a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“You’ll see tomorrow, won’t you,” he said, turning away again and following the path that Mary and Molly had taken.
Chapter 2: Liverpool
The train pulled into Liverpool late in the afternoon and drew the usual attention from the natives. Children rushed the cars and begged to see the animals, pleaded with the performers to show them tricks. Their parents made an effort to pull them away, but truthfully they were just as enthralled as their offspring. They loved to gawk and point and marvel at the curiosities the train held, planning to come back to see the main attraction even as they grabbed the hands of their children and dragged them off. If they were on the fence about seeing the show, Mycroft would be able to turn them. It was his tradition to send out clowns, tumblers, the most beautiful women and handsome men, along with a trolley stacked high with buttery popcorn, bright pink candy floss, and caramel apples out into the high street. The sights, smells, and tastes tended to convert even the staunchest pessimist. It was all free the first night, but they made up for it once people had developed a taste and turned up for the show.
The afternoon was spent attending to his pets as the show blossomed around him. The giant poles of the tent soared into the air, accompanied by the well-practiced chorus of workmen shouting instructions for each orchestrated movement. The snap of the canvas tent as it was unfurled and hoisted onto the center pole traveled through the camp, the flaps of the entrances ruffling in the breeze as the giant structure settled into place. Laughter and raucous conversation floated through the caravan line as the energy of the troupers spiked, getting ready to pull in the crowds and looking forward to a night of heavy celebration afterwards.
Done with seeing to his act for the time being, Sherlock wandered over to Mycroft’s quarters, not bothering to knock and merely letting himself in. He found his brother exactly as he had expected, in front of the mirror and just putting the finishing touches on his bowtie. The sun was just dipping on the horizon outside and once it had vanished, leaving the sky a lush pink and purple, he would don his top hat and lead the march into town.
“You’re not dressed,” Mycroft said, frowning.
Sherlock looked down at his linen shirt and brown trousers.
“I believe I am, actually,” he replied sarcastically.
“You know what I mean.”
“I do and for the last time, I’m not taking part,” Sherlock said firmly. “What’s the point if you won’t allow the whole act?”
“I maintain that lions walking loose down the road is bad for business,” Mycroft said with a sigh, reaching for his cologne and applying it liberally. “You’ll keep an eye out?”
“As always, brother,” Sherlock promised, turning to leave and purposefully disturbing a pillow on the settee on his way.
Right on schedule, Mycroft joined the large group of select performers just as the sky darkened. Sherlock, John, and a few others followed at a distance, branching out into the crowds once the attraction of the group had drawn significant interest. The lights in the streets made the sequins and silk of the costumes glitter and shimmer in the evening light. The troupers spread out, each group enchanting a gathering of onlookers. On one end of the street, the clowns were falling over each other with physical gags and sending a group of children into fits of giggles. Janine and Irene sat perched atop a black Andalusian, barely doing more than smiling and pulling the attention of half the men on the street, as well as some of the ladies. Taking the opportunity to mesmerize as many people as possible, Lestrade and Sally had teamed up, putting on quite the spectacular performance. Lestrade effortlessly tossed six juggling pins in the air while Sally drew excited cries from the crowd by blowing fuel over flames, sending bright yellow plumes into the air. When they felt they had the people sufficiently warmed up, they joined forces, Sally lighting an extra set of special pins on fire one by one and tossing them to Lestrade to juggle. All the while, Mycroft worked the crowd, handing out treats from the trolley to the thrilled spectators.
Sherlock and John watched the proceedings carefully, keeping an eye out for troublemakers and anyone from their own company who would take advantage of the distractions and let fingers slip into pockets to help themselves. It had happened before and Mycroft had no tolerance for it.
At the height of the excitement of the crowd, Mycroft signaled that everyone was to return to the yard. A collective sound of disappointment spread through the crowd and he announced that they could see even more at the show. Sherlock’s lip quirked up as he watched the proceedings. It worked every time.
Once back at the yard, they found the rest of the company already circled around bonfires, cups of whisky being passed around (not the first round). He and John found Mary seated with the other acrobats, and they were soon joined by Lestrade and Sally.
“You get a good crowd, then?” Mary asked, pouring her husband a drink.
“Best we could hope for,” Lestrade said with a smile, settling into a wooden chair. “Packed house tomorrow, I bet.”
“For three days at least,” Sally agreed, sitting down next to him and angling her chair to lift her feet to rest on his thighs.
“Nice start to the season,” John said, taking a long sip of his whisky and tugging Mary into his lap, causing her to let out a laugh. Sherlock rolled his eyes at the display and looked in another direction. “No trouble that we could see, eh Sherlock?”
“Mm,” he replied, resting his chin on his fisted hand and gazing off into the camp. “A few will try to haggle prices. Won’t work, they’ll back down first, not as brave as they think they are.”
“Still don’t understand how he does that,” Sally quipped, shaking her head.
“I still don’t understand how you don’t realize you almost set a man on fire tonight,” Lestrade said as he gave her a pointed look.
“I did not! It’s not my fault if you get too close for your own good!”
Sherlock tuned the conversation out, losing interest quickly. Instead, he let his eyes wander around the perimeter of their little temporary land claim, watching the few last minute preparations before the workmen either indulged in drink or went to sleep. He could hear the odd sound of an animal grunting or sighing from the menagerie tent, and could smell the lingering scent of sugar and popcorn from the food trolley.
Not far in the distance, but just beyond the lights of the small bonfires, Sherlock’s eyes landed on the figure of Molly Moriarty standing on the front stoop of their little caravan. Her arms were crossed on the bit of railing that lined the stoop and she was leaning over, looking out at the new sights before her. Long brown hair spilled over her shoulder, longer than he would have expected. A small smile graced her face, and when her eyes met his it actually seemed to increase, smiling at him across the distance.
The door to the caravan opened and her smile dropped away. She stood upright, one hand gripping the railing as Jim stepped outside, looking around casually as he said something to her. Molly responded, her gaze dropping down to the ground as she gestured out towards the groups of troupers. Sherlock watched Jim laugh and shake his head firmly, grasping her by the arm and guiding her back inside the van.
Sherlock was one of the few who were not nursing a hangover the next morning, up early and tending to his animals before most had managed to crawl from their beds and seek out a drink of water or a coffee with a dash of liquor tossed in to ease their heads. The only other people in the menagerie were Irene and Janine, both dressed in cropped trousers and work shirts as they groomed their horses until they shone. They were able to trick plenty of people into thinking they were girls looking for a good time, but they took their jobs very seriously and rarely indulged in debauchery before shows.
“How are the cats today, Sherl?” Janine called across the tent.
He winced at the awful nickname, wishing it hadn’t caught on quite so well.
“Hungry,” he told her as he dumped a bucket of less-than-choice cuts of meat through a trap door in the top of the cage. He hated having to scrimp while on the road, but there was nothing to be done about it. “Care to make a donation?”
“Not on your life,” Irene said, running her hands lovingly through the mane of her golden Palomino.
“Well if you change your mind,” he muttered, watching the lioness devour the meager breakfast.
“Are you going to watch the rehearsals?” Irene went on, bending to inspect her mare’s hooves as she talked. “Should be interesting to see the new acts.”
“Interesting,” Sherlock repeated, his mind conjuring up the image of Molly from the night before. He remembered how her face had fallen when her brother came out onto the stoop, interrupting what had been a moment of enjoyment for her. Not that Sherlock cared. The personal issues between the brother and sister team were not his concern. All that mattered was that they performed well and did the company proud at the end of the day. “S’pose it could be.”
The turn up for the rehearsal in the early afternoon was somewhat larger than he’d expected. Apparently, the reclusive attitude the Moriarty siblings had taken since joining the company had piqued a bit of interest in them. Even while waiting to start their show, they remained set apart from the others, huddled by the far end of the tent next to the second performance entrance.
There were two grand entrances to the tent, one that led in from the back yard and allowed for dramatic starts to an act – Janine and Irene were fond of galloping in through the tent flaps and stopping just short of the first row of patrons – and one the led in from an official staging area in another tent. The second entrance led out onto a runway and small stage platform where Mycroft often stood and addressed the crowds. It was onto that platform that Jim Moriarty strode through the ring doors when the drumroll started, entering with a flourish and commanding the attention of everyone in the vicinity. He wore what every magician was expected to be seen in: smart black suit, black cape with blood red lining, and a shining top hat.
A few of the musicians started to play once the drumroll came to a crashing finish, striking up a strangely mysterious melody on the violin and flute, completely different from the flamboyant music designed to excite the crowd that was normally played. The atmosphere in the tent changed and suddenly everyone was focused on the act before them. Jim stepped back and gestured to the ring door curtains. They parted and a long box sitting on a table began to roll out. It took Sherlock a moment to notice it, but he soon spotted the pulley system on the ground that was responsible for dragging the wheeled table onto the stage.
A moment after the table settled, the curtains parted again and Molly walked out. Her hair was down as it had been the night before, decorated with a bejeweled hairband and framing her face. She wore a tight green dress that ended at the tops of her thighs, the silk and rhinestones glimmering even in the daylight. Black stockings and heeled shoes completed her ensemble. She looked radiant, exuding a stage presence that he wouldn’t have expected from her.
Walking elegantly up to the box, she paused and waited for Jim to open the top before helping her climb inside. It was a trick Sherlock had seen performed before, but usually at the end of an act. Sawing a woman in half was typically the grand finale for most magicians and it intrigued him that this would be their opening.
The table was pulled back where it had come from when the trick was completed and Jim followed this by stepping out in the main ring and asking for a volunteer, selecting Irene to come down and inspect his top hat. She did so kindly, but with a smug look that said she knew what was coming. Birds and rabbits were the most common choices, though Sherlock couldn’t recall seeing cages for either.
There was a collective gasp after Jim went through the motions of assuring everyone the hat was normal, placing a silk scarf over the top, and asking Irene to remove it for him. A flurry of movement erupted from the hat and two dozen orange and black butterflies spiraled up into the air, gently lifting themselves up and up over the audience until they eventually drifted out through the openings in the top of the tent. The small crowd ooh’d and ahh’d at the sight as the small creatures drifted above them.
Sherlock looked over at Mycroft who was seated not two yards away next to Anderson. His brother caught his eye and gave a small smile of triumph. Two acts in and the Moriarty siblings already had a jaded crowd of performers wrapped around their fingers.
“Oh look,” Mary said next to him, pointing up towards the ceiling.
Hidden amongst the equipment for the tight rope walkers and the acrobats was another table that was slowly being lowered to the stage, two massive ropes looped under the ends to support it. When it landed, Jim gestured again dramatically to Molly and she took his hand. He led her to one end of the table and again assisted her in climbing on top of it. She gripped a rope with one hand and assumed a theatrical pose for the audience before dropping to the surface of the table and stretching herself along the length of it. Jim went through a series of movements designed to look like conjuring before finally standing directly behind the table and holding one hand out firmly towards the table.
A collective gasp went out as Molly ever so slowly levitated off the table.
For a brief moment, Sherlock’s own mouth dropped open before he collected himself. His eyes scanned the contraption, looking for the answer.
“How on earth…” John said, utterly fascinated.
“There,” Sherlock said, pointing towards Molly’s head. “Thin wires, painted black. They’ll be even less visible at night with all the lights for distraction. Likely attached to a thin board underneath her. You don’t notice it with the ropes present and her hair and feet obscuring where they’re attached. Very good…”
“You are amazing,” Mary said, her eyes still focused on the act. “And an absolute killjoy.”
The next trick was another standard, although it was done dramatically enough that it seemed new. After taking off his cape and jacket, Molly wrapped Jim in a strait-jacket and laced chains around him before locking them tightly. She proceeded to help him sit on the ground and attached a set of manacles around his ankles as another large rope was lowered from the ceiling. The manacles were hooked into the end of the rope and, slowly and carefully, Jim was lifted into the air to be suspended upside-down as he made a show of struggling against his restraints. It didn’t take him long to free one arm, reaching for the chains and shoving them off, letting them fall to the stage with a loud clatter, before freeing his other arm and triumphantly shedding the jacket.
For the final act, Jim again asked for a volunteer, pulling a reluctant Lestrade onto the stage as a large wooden box was carried out. Lestrade was asked to inspect the box, even encouraged to step inside of it, to make sure it was solid and secure. He did so, knocking on the sides and the bottom for good measure and generally playing along. Jim thanked him and let him go back to his seat.
Molly appeared from ring door again with a large black velvet sack, a hoop with a cascade of fabric attached to it, and a pair of handcuffs, immediately setting the sack and the hoop on the lid of the box. She presented the handcuffs to the audience with a flourish before locking them onto Jim’s wrists. Grabbing the sack and the hoop from the top of the box, she then lifted the lid and set the sack inside before helping Jim in. She smiled brightly at the audience as she pulled the sack up around him, cinching the rope to close it off over his head. He sank down into the box and Molly closed the lid over his head, pulling a key out from the front of her dress and locking the box. With a final tug to the lid to show the audience it was locked, Molly climbed onto the top of the box, arranged the fabric of the hoop, and stepped inside the circle. She flashed another smile and lifted the hoop over her head, disappearing from sight. The second she did so, the music stopped and the drumroll sprang up. Not five seconds passed before the drum snapped to an end and the cymbal crashed. The hoop dropped to the top of the box and Jim stood where Molly had been seconds before, free of handcuffs as he spread his arms wide to the audience.
There was a stunned silence for a moment before applause ripped through the tent, which Jim took in with a small bow before gesturing for silence. He stepped down off of the box and deposited the hoop off to the side. Pulling a key from his pocket, he unlocked the box, tipped the lid open, and stepped back. The entire box fell apart, each side collapsing to the ground, revealing the inside to be completely empty except for the velvet sack and the handcuffs displayed primly on top of it.
If they had been impressed a moment before, the company went absolutely wild for the act then.
Chapter 3: It's Just A Trick
“So,” John said later that evening as Sherlock sat in his caravan, watching his friend adjust the wrist braces on his arms before the start of the show. “Have you figured it out yet?”
Sherlock grumbled and sank further into the couch. He could hear Mary snicker from behind the curtain that separated the living space from the bed.
“Well it’s clearly not real magic,” Sherlock snapped. “They’re doing it somehow.”
“That’s a very technical explanation,” John said, a smirk creeping onto his face. “’They’re doing it somehow.’ Did you find that in Einstein’s latest publications?”
“Shut up,” Sherlock muttered, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Why can’t you just admit that they’re really good and have you stumped?” Mary asked as she emerged from the bedroom, pulling the strap of her white leotard onto her shoulder.
“Because she can’t have just disappeared from the box and reappeared backstage miraculously. She had to get there somehow!”
“No one saw her,” Mary reminded him for the tenth time. “She was on stage one minute, and the next she was in the staging area putting away their things. No one saw how she got there.”
“Oh the crew are all idiots, they wouldn’t notice an elephant wandering around if we suddenly acquired one, what makes you think they paid proper attention,” Sherlock reasoned.
“Oh, Sherlock,” Mary said comfortingly, putting a hand on his shoulder. “This must just be eating you up inside.”
Flicking her hand away in annoyance, which only caused her to laugh, Sherlock stood up and grabbed the leather whip he had tossed onto the side table. It was never actually used on the animals, but it pleased the crowd to no end to see him brandish it for some reason.
“Easy enough to stand backstage and watch,” he informed them. “Should reveal a few things about the trick.”
“And give you good reason to gaze at Molly,” Mary said under her breath, busying herself with getting their things ready.
“I do not gaze at Molly,” Sherlock said firmly, wrenching the door open and storming out of their van.
The comments left him in a sour mood as he marched over to the menagerie, flinging the canvas aside and startling the horses in the process, which in turn set off the monkeys.
It wouldn’t be hard to figure out how the trick was done. He’d managed to decode plenty of magicians’ tricks before and that was all it was – a trick. Nothing special about it.
He flung the whip to the ground in front of Noctis’ cage and went to reach for her leash. She was the one he paraded during the grand entrance, being as easy going as she was and never a threat to have out of the cage. The lioness must have picked up on his temper, holding perfectly still for him when he opened the door and hooked the chain to her collar. It wasn’t until he had her outside her pen that he noticed the figure at the other end of the line of cages.
“Sorry,” Molly said softly, her hands tucked behind her and her dress glittering in the artificial light. “I didn’t want to startle you. You looked…distracted.”
“It’s fine,” he replied roughly, tightening his hold on Noctis’ chain. “But you shouldn’t be in here. The show’s about to start and the animals get agitated easily with all the fuss. Wouldn’t want you to get maimed before your debut performance.”
She bobbed her head once in understanding, heading towards the exit.
“I just like to look,” she told him as she went. “They’re lovely creatures.”
He watched her leave, her words stilling him for a moment until other performers began to enter the tent, gathering their animal partners and making their way to the main tent. The din of a large audience was starting to grow and he could hear the candy butchers calling out their offerings of sweets, popcorn, and souvenirs. Shaking himself out of whatever momentary lapse he’d fallen into, Sherlock led the lioness out of the tent and joined the processional waiting to entertain the crowds.
The show went off spectacularly. John and Mary stunned the crowd with their trapeze tricks, seeming to defy physics altogether as they spun in the air. Lestrade’s juggling drew loud cheers as he balanced on a plank of wood stacked on top of a sphere, tossing the pins high and catching them with ease. When Sally had finished mesmerizing with her fire tricks, she further enraptured the audience by skillfully throwing knives along the outline of Lestrade’s body. The acro stunts that Janine and Irene performed in unison were always pleasing, walking a fine line between elegant and dangerous as they tumbled around on horseback.
As for his own act, the cats behaved beautifully in the cage and they followed his every command, offering no attitude when he herded them out of the ring and back to the menagerie tent. Which meant he had plenty of time to dash to the staging area during the middle of the clown stunts to watch things from another angle for the magic act.
He pushed at his rolled up sleeves agitatedly as he waited in the shadows for the pair to show up, crossing his arms over his chest and shifting his weight. Workmen and other performers bustled around him, moving props and racks of costumes every which way. When Jim and Molly finally appeared in the minute before they were to go on, Jim led his sister straight up onto the runway, checking to make sure that their pieces were ready to go just to the side of the platform.
Workmen set themselves at either end of the staging area to peek out at the act and give cues to those hoisting and lowering the lunge ropes backstage. Sherlock saw the men tugging on the pulley system that was hooked up to the levitation trick and smiled, pleased that he had been correct about the wires. Their unusual act was met with thunderous applause from the audience, culminating in gasps and cheers when the final trick was completed. Sherlock watched the ring door curtains. He watched the corners of the staging area.
He saw nothing.
A moment later, the curtains opened and bright lights from the main ring spilled backstage briefly, silhouetting Jim as he left the stage. Then they were closed again and the magician casually made his way to the end of the runway and down the stairs, tugging off his cape and folding it over his arm.
He stepped forward and met Jim as he walked into the thick of the backstage bustle.
“Where did she go?” he demanded.
Jim cocked his head and looked at him in amusement.
“Where did who go?”
“Your sister,” Sherlock clarified. “I didn’t see her come back here. Changed the trick already?”
A smile slowly spread across Jim’s face and he looked beyond Sherlock into the dressing area.
“She’s right there,” he told Sherlock, nodding to indicate the direction.
Sherlock turned around, absolutely dumbfounded to see Molly sitting at a dressing table, shedding her shoes and stockings and putting them in a pink box.
Oh, this was going to drive him mad…
“Do feel free to offer your apologies anytime,” Mycroft said the next morning at the breakfast table outside his van.
“For what?” Sherlock asked disinterestedly, pushing at the sausages on his place.
“For being completely wrong about bringing in a magic act. May I remind you, there’s a reason I run the show.”
“Oh, congratulations, Mycroft,” Sherlock said in mock admiration. “You are the shrewdest of them all.”
Giving his brother a thin smile, Mycroft lifted his tea to his lips and took a sip, looking around at the members of the company slowly waking up and arriving at breakfast. It certainly wasn’t any jealousy on Sherlock’s part that made him goad his older brother. When their parents had retired, too worn out from a life of traveling to continue running the operation, Mycroft had eagerly stepped forward to fill in the role. Sherlock had been fine with that. His disdain for responsibility was only slightly less than it had been when he was a teenager, and he didn’t envy Mycroft the task.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t push his buttons from time to time.
“Although,” Sherlock started, lifting his fork to take a bite of sausage. “The tricks are horrendously easy to figure out…if you know where to look.”
To his surprise, Mycroft fixed him with an unusually stern look.
“Leave them alone, Sherlock,” he warned, his tone stringent. “I don’t want to catch you sniffing around their act just to prove you’re clever.”
Sherlock sighed heavily, pushing his plate away.
“I mean it,” Mycroft pressed. “Just because you can’t figure out how they do something - ”
“Fine,” Sherlock snapped as he stood up. “I’ll leave it.”
But if I just happen to be in the right place at the right time and manage to see something… he thought to himself as he started to walk away. No harm there.
“I’d advise you of what else to leave alone,” Mycroft called after him, though he kept his voice low enough so as not to be overheard by others. “But seeing as you’ve never taken advantage of those situations in the past, I’m confident this is the only time I’ll need to make mention of it.”
Sherlock forced himself to keep walking. If he stopped and addressed the comments, the brothers would be in for a row that the entire company would get to witness and enjoy.
There was no need at all to suggest that it was anything more than the mystery that had him interested in the act. Some might use the excuse of living in tight quarters and long weeks on the road to wind up in kips that were not their own, but he had never been one to indulge. The mess and the complications afterwards never seemed worth whatever momentary pleasures could be gained from coupling. In the rare instance that it did work (such as with John and Mary, or Janine and Irene, for those who were privy), it seemed to be pure dumb luck. Most of the time it was days or weeks of awkwardness and avoidance that made life in the caravan and performances hell for everyone.
He could very well do without all of that.
Molly sat at the little table inside the tiny, sparsely furnished caravan she shared with Jim, her fingers prying back the white curtains to look out at the dining tables filled with performers. They looked like such a nice group, and had ever since she’d stepped aboard the train to meet them. Laughing and joking around, they were everything she’d learned to love about being in a company. Not to mention they’d been impressed with the act, something that was often rare when working with people who had seen it all. She smiled a little, remembering being a small child and running amongst the performers’ tables, being rewarded with a smile from the elegant gymnasts or a goofy face and a flower from the clowns. It made her ache to be a part of the group.
“Stop pulling at your collar.”
Jim’s voice was kind, but firm, reprimanding her over the breakfast table. She pulled her hand away from her lilac dressing gown, making a conscious effort not to let her hand wander back to tug at the soft fabric.
“Sorry,” she offered, reaching for a scone and jam to occupy her hands. Taking a bite of the warm bread, she glanced outside once more. “Don’t you think we should join them? Get to know them better?”
“We’re not here to make friends, Molly, I told you,” Jim reminded her, flipping to a new page of his newspaper. “It’s just a job.”
Molly slowed her chewing and looked down.
“Doesn’t seem right. It’s not the way I was taught,” she muttered.
“It’s not the way I was taught. It’s not the way either of us was taught,” she repeated, louder, setting the scone back on her plate and looking him in the eyes. “That’s not how things should go in a company.”
Jim looked at her over his paper, very still, his mouth set in a grim line.
“You’d do well to remember that I’m the reason you’re in a company at all,” he said, his tone darkening.
Molly tensed. She hated that it was the truth when he said those things, reminding her how dependent she was on him. She’d never intended to become so reliant. For years, he’d been her protector, her source of life and safety in an often unkind world. With no one else for her to rely on, Jim was Molly’s only choice. But that didn’t mean she had to like it when he brought it up.
Pushing her chair back, she stood and walked towards the door.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded.
“I’m getting some air,” she said, looking at him over her shoulder. “I assume I’m still allowed outside when I want?”
Not waiting for an answer, she stepped out onto the stoop and shut the door for a little privacy. The morning air was just starting to warm, the sun encouraging the wildflowers that dotted the field to open and turn towards its rays.
There were many times before when she had considered disappearing from this life, starting over somewhere far from the confines of shows and rail travel and never making any friends, ever. But where would she go? She had no real skills, no ability to do anything except lock Jim in restraints and charm a crowd; nothing that would help her survive in the real world. Besides, this was the only world she had ever known. And she did love it. And even if she did manage to get out, he would find her. It certainly eliminated any hope that she could make it on her own in a company of her choosing…
Abrupt movement from the dining tent caught her eye, disrupting her thoughts.
She watched as Sherlock emerged from the rows of tables, his stride strong and quick, making his way towards the edge of the camp.
Oh, Jim would be incensed if he knew what she thought of the lion tamer. Never in her life had she looked at a man and felt the way she did when she looked at Sherlock.
From the moment she had laid eyes on his dark, curling hair and grey-blue eyes, she knew she was in trouble. It wasn’t hard to figure out that, within the first few minutes of meeting him, she felt differently towards him than any other man, and there had been a few men in her life. Jim’s tight control of her life did not work all the time, and she’d found her moments to slip into train kips or meet in secret behind the elaborate props and parade wagons stacked behind the main tents, concealed in the dark after a show. They’d mostly been passing fancies – a dashing young man who trailed the company briefly with grand dreams of living free before realizing life on the road was not easy, or a seasoned trouper with dark good looks and strong arms, enough to catch her attention for a few weeks before she grew bored. It was all a bit of fun, and an excellent way to claim some of her freedom back; a little secret from Jim that left her feeling just a bit smarter than him.
But when she’d seen Sherlock…well, honestly, her heart had flipped in her chest and she knew that there was something different about him, something that would be her undoing if she let it. There was no denying the visceral reaction she had to the sight of him, the way her skin tingled and a flutter of energy unfurled inside of her, making it hard to breathe. From what she could tell, he wasn’t attached to anyone in the company – that was usually absurdly easy to judge. The only thing he seemed focused on was his act and caring for his animals.
And possibly her.
Well, Jim, really, and the whole of what they did as a team, but that included her in the equation. She’d seen him snooping around backstage, watching and waiting to discover their secrets.
She smiled to herself as she watched him stop just steps away from the last caravan, dropping to the ground and collapsing onto his back in the green grass, letting out a sigh that she could hear from the stoop. He was a tight bundle of vexation most of the time, that much she could gather.
She wondered what it would be like to see all of that tension released, to see the constant crease between his eyes fade away.
She suspected it would be a glorious thing to behold.
Her lips parted slightly as she watched him press his palms together, the tips of his fingers running along his lips thoughtfully as he obviously lost himself in meditation. Feeling a telltale warmth spread low in her belly, Molly turned away with a gasping inhalation of breath, trying to turn off her thoughts of him.
If Jim even suspected the direction of her thoughts, she could forget ever seeing the outside of the caravan again.
Chapter 4: Leeds
At every other first night in a town or city, Mycroft sent his lookouts to the high street ahead of the parade. On the off chance that anyone from the previous town noticed his people arriving after the attractions to police the crowd and managed to spread the word, the individuals with sticky fingers in the next town would let their guard down at the wrong time. He usually reserved the tactic for the larger towns – much easier for them to blend into the crowd and not stand out as strangers. On their first night in Leeds, Sherlock walked down the high street with John just before sunset, pretending to be interested in shop windows and the evening post. The town seemed somewhat sleepy on that evening – a bad sign if they wanted to entice as many people as possible. Fortunately, the music and the spectacle of the march did its job and curious onlookers made their way out onto the pavement before long.
Unbeknownst to Sherlock, Mycroft had decided to add the Moriartys to the collection, and they worked the crowd, dressed in their performance finest. It surprised him, at first, to see them out amongst the crowd, performing sleight of hand and generally charming people with the simplest tricks. Sherlock found himself watching their tactics, noticing the easy way that Jim flicked his cape and tipped his hat to the ladies, and how Molly tilted her head coyly while simultaneously pushing her chest out. The movement combined with the encouraging lift from her bodice certainly made it look like she had more to work with than she actually did. Not that he cared. If it put people in the seats, what did it matter to him what she did with her breasts?
When the march was over and most of the company had retired or gathered in small circles to drink and talk each other into tiredness, he found that neither seemed to be an enticing option. He was nowhere near needing sleep and anyone worth talking to had gone to bed. Deciding that checking on his animals was the only thing that would properly occupy his mind, he wandered over to the menagerie tent.
Most of the animals were sleeping, a few cracking open an eye and staring at him as he walked in, his lantern casting a golden light about the space. One of the horses let out a heavy sigh, turning so the light wouldn’t bother him.
The small voice came from the corner and Sherlock turned to hold up his lantern, his gaze landing on Molly, still in her black satin dress, sitting on a hay bale with her legs tucked up under her. She had a red and white box of popcorn in her hands.
“Sorry again,” she said with a smile. “One of these days I won’t sneak up on you in here.”
“Mm,” he replied, his eyes narrowing.
He still didn’t like the idea of her poking around the animals alone. Some of the troupers were rather protective of their pets. Stepping up to the lions’ cage, Sherlock set the lantern on the top bars, peering into the cage to see that everyone was all right.
“Care for some?” Molly asked, holding up the box of popcorn.
“No,” he replied curtly.
“Don’t like it? Neither does Jim. That’s why I’m out here.”
“What’s why you’re out here?” he asked, hardly listening to the words she was speaking.
“He doesn’t like for me to eat popcorn around him in the van,” she explained. “He hates the smell.”
This stopped him short. He turned his head to look at her, his mouth quirking up in amusement.
“He works in the circus and he hates the smell of popcorn,” he asked for clarification.
Molly smiled and shrugged as she popped a kernel into her mouth, clearly agreeing that she thought it was ridiculous.
Thinking on the man for a moment, Sherlock realized he had never seen him overindulge on food. He often stayed in his bunk during the train rides, and never did anything that wasn’t perfectly calm and calculated.
“He got sick on it as a child, bad association,” he deduced.
Molly laughed, then closed her mouth quickly into a delighted smirk.
“You’re quite good at that,” she told him, leaning back against the pile of hay bales and stretching her legs out before her.
“How bad was it?”
“He went on the scenic railway after eating a whole box. They had to stop selling popcorn for a week so that he wouldn’t get sick in front of the flatties,” she said with a giggle. “The smell set him off for days.”
Sherlock smiled briefly before letting his mouth set in a neutral line once more. He wasn’t often skilled at talking to people he barely knew. He was hardly skilled at talking to people he did know, for that matter, but he realized that he should be doing something so that the tent was not filled with an expectant silence.
As if on cue, Tacitus stood up and stretched, his eyes bleary as he padded over to the side of the cage and rubbed against the bars in front of Sherlock.
“Care to meet them?” Sherlock asked as he reached down and ruffled the lion’s mane, offering something to her in return.
He looked over in time to see her expression tense.
“Ehm,” she said, hesitating. “No, thank you.”
“You said you liked them,” he stated, his brow furrowing.
“I said I liked to look,” she explained with a frown, her gaze settling on the lion.
“He’s an overgrown kitten,” Sherlock told her with some agitation for her uncertainty. “If you’re going to keep invading their space, at least come say hello. It’s the polite thing to do.”
Molly fixed him with a look of annoyance before slowly setting the popcorn down and scooting off of the hay bale. Her fingers interlaced anxiously as she made her way over to him. He stepped aside slightly to allow her better access to Tacitus’ neck, demonstrating exactly how to scratch at his fur so that the lion would close his eyes and huff happily. He watched her nose scrunch up as she moved closer, her fingers curled against her palm as she lowered her hand. Waiting til the last moment possible to reach out and touch the animal.
When she finally did, the lion let out what could only be described as a purr. She bit her lip and smiled, her shoulders bunching up with a short laugh.
“There,” Sherlock said. “Just as I told you. Overgrown kitten.”
“He’s a handsome lad,” Molly noted. She gave the lion one more scratch before pulling her hand back. “I should go back. Jim thinks I’ve gone for a wash. He’ll be in a fit if I come back smelling like popcorn and cats.”
“You might wash your hands, but I wouldn’t worry about the rest of it, you smell like…” He leaned closer and sniffed. “Roses.”
If it hadn’t been for the sudden wide-eyed look she gave him, Sherlock would never have known he was standing just a bit too close…and had probably made an observation that was a little too personal. Most of the time he didn’t have the chance to be this close to anyone and therefore didn’t have to worry about knowing how close was too close. John always shoved him off and Mary teased him until he figured it out. No one else bothered being in his near vicinity.
Molly took in a sharp breath and stepped back, her eyes dropping to the ground.
“Thank you,” she murmured. “For…that. I…thanks.”
She walked away, exiting the tent quickly and the leaving the smell of roses in her wake. He had to smoke three cigarettes that night before going to bed just to erase the scent from his mind.
It wasn’t until the sound of heated yelling penetrated his dreams that Sherlock woke up the next morning, realizing he had slept far longer than he normally did. The sun was high in the sky, blasting light through the cracks in the curtains of his van. He groaned as the shouting continued, pushing himself up off his mattress and slinging his legs over the side of the bed to stand up. He grappled for his trousers on the floor and tugged them on, barely checking to make sure they were buttoned before stomping towards the door and heading out onto the stoop. Blinking rapidly to clear his vision, he saw a large group of people in the back yard. Half were troupers and workmen with Mycroft at the helm, and the other half were obviously natives. Natives who looked very angry.
He stepped down the stairs and walked a bit closer, though he could hear plenty well from where he was.
“Gentlemen, I’m sorry if you find that you’ve been taken advantage of, but I guarantee that it was not one of our company,” Mycroft said to the man who was at the forefront of the natives.
“How can you be sure?” the man demanded. “Did you check their pockets? Search their bunks? Hm?”
“There’s no need for that,” Mycroft assured him. “We keep a tight watch on - ”
“Not tight enough!” another man shouted, jabbing a finger towards Mycroft. The others around him agreed, the energy in the crowd darkening even more.
“You lot came into town last night and nine pockets get picked,” the first man said, holding up his fingers for numerical emphasis. “I don’t know what kind of operation you think you can run in this town, but we won’t stand for it!”
Sherlock watched his brother take in a deep breath, his hands going to his hips before letting the breath out evenly. He could see the frustration seeping into his body.
“If you’ll tell me what everyone lost,” he said in his best manner, “We’ll be happy to compensate you all. And please consider yourselves and your families as our guests for tonight’s show.”
“Unlikely,” the man said with a laugh. “Who do we see about our money?”
“Anderson will take care of you,” Mycroft said, gesturing to his bookkeeper. “Follow him.”
Anderson motioned for the group of people to follow him, but it was clear by the look on his face that he felt they didn’t deserve a single pound that would be coming their way. Sherlock couldn’t say he blamed him. He’d been watching the entire time and hadn’t seen a bloody thing. If money had been stolen, it had been after the company left the high road, but of course they were the ones that were going to pay for the crimes, the way it always happened. They had all seen shows fold because of gaffs and rigging, or pure misfortune.
Which was probably why Mycroft was currently storming towards him, the threat of a long lecture in his face.
His brother didn’t even break stride as he reached Sherlock, leading them towards his caravan and away from the prying eyes of the rest of the troupe as they watched from their living quarters. Sherlock closed the door behind him, waiting for the reprimand he knew was coming.
“Tell me, Sherlock, do I need to find someone else to do your job?” Mycroft asked unkindly. “Have you forgotten how to do everything we’ve ever learned when it comes to this life?”
“Oh stop being dramatic - ”
“These are not histrionics, brother,” Mycroft snapped. “These are the things that end companies. You know that all too well.”
“It’s not the bloody end of the world,” Sherlock said, leaning against the wall and crossing his arms over his chest. “These things happen sometimes, once we’re onto the next town it’ll go away. Because it wasn’t us.”
“But you know who’ll they’ll blame. So tell me now: have I lost your capabilities? Are you too distracted by other things?”
Lowering his head slightly, Sherlock felt the sting of disapproval that he’d not been subject to for many years from his older brother. In all the years he’d been entrusted with watching for thieves and rigging, utilizing the skills that had been passed down to him in order to ferret out the secrets of every person he saw, he’d never missed a single troublemaker. It left him disturbed that the events of last night could have occurred right under his nose and it was why he was inclined to believe that wasn’t exactly the case.
“Nothing is distracting me,” he told Mycroft.
“You’re sure of that, are you?”
Sherlock looked up to see him staring doubtfully, his jaw tense and his eyes narrowed. When Sherlock said nothing, his brother rolled his eyes and walked towards the door.
“Put a bloody shirt on,” were his parting words as he left the van.
Whether Sherlock remained convinced that it was outside hands that were the cause of the thefts or not mattered very little when it came time for the show that evening.
Word had spread through Leeds and a pitiful amount of patrons arrived to watch the acts, and money purses were kept tightly closed. No one indulged in sweets or souvenirs, and most spent half the show looking over their shoulders as though they would be robbed right there in the stands.
Sherlock, Mycroft, and Anderson stood at the corner of the tent, looking out from between the canvas at the performance and the crowd.
“All that lost revenue,” Anderson said with a defeated sigh, looking around at all the empty benches from the curtains. The patrons barely filled the lower gallery.
The contortionists were doing their very best to entertain, twisting themselves into impossible positions and trying to ignore the less than enthusiastic applause. Sherlock scanned the crowd and suspected that the few people in the seats had been dragged by their children, no doubt thinking that taking in the show was considerably less risk than a tragically disappointed youngster.
“What do we do, boss?” Anderson asked Mycroft.
The ringmaster turned his top hat over in his hands as he examined the scene in front of them.
“Day of rest tomorrow,” he said decisively. “Tell everyone to lay low and for God’s sake don’t leave the yard. Post notices that further shows are canceled. We’ll leave the morning after.”
Anderson nodded and the two of them walked away, leaving Sherlock to look out from behind the curtains as the contortionists finished their act and Jim and Molly took the stage. In spite of themselves, the crowd seemed to like the tricks, although Jim was barely successful in convincing anyone to volunteer to join him. He had to make do with wide-eyed children, one of whom asked if he could keep the top hat. Jim didn’t even bother to ask for anyone to inspect the box, choosing to complete the trick without that particular aspect.
A wise choice, Sherlock thought to himself.
He fought the temptation to look around when the trick was finished, his brother’s words echoing in his head as motivation enough to refrain from “sticking his nose in,” as John had called it.
But he watched as Jim left the ring, catching his eye as the magician came down the wooden steps, tugging his cape off as he went.
They locked eyes, passing a moment in the dimly lit backstage, staring, as other performers moved around them. Before Sherlock could register more than an odd feeling about the encounter, Jim had moved on, striding towards the dressing area. The light from the bare bulbs caught the gems on Molly’s hairband and Sherlock glanced at her, not even realizing how quickly she’d made it to the makeshift row of vanities.
Her large brown eyes, made even more defined by the stage makeup, looked up at Jim as he entered the dressing area. She frowned at him briefly before her gaze shifted to meet Sherlock’s from across the tent. He couldn’t place the look on her face, couldn’t understand why he suddenly wanted to pull her from the tent and run off…somewhere with her.
His view was blocked a second later by Jim stepping in front of Molly, his hand dragging the curtain of the dressing area closed. A smile that did not reach his eyes adorned his face. It was directed at Sherlock, communicating a warning far more serious than Mycroft’s to leave things alone before the curtain was closed, shutting them both away from view.
Chapter 5: Sheffield
There was nothing good about rest days.
They were called for any number of reasons, but the notorious causes were unfortunate circumstances. Injuries, accidents, troupers or workmen inexplicably running out on their responsibilities. Or, as was the case on that particular day, hostility from the natives. It so rarely happened to the Holmes brothers that the shock of being marooned with nothing to do had left the entire company in a sort of still state of uncertainty. Most everyone stayed inside their quarters, playing countless rounds of card games and passing the time with stories and drinks.
Sherlock and John had found refuge on the top of a cargo train car, stretched out in the sunshine and quite literally watching the clouds pass by. Sherlock was taking long drags from his cigarette, enjoying the way the smoke looked against the blue of the sky as he exhaled.
“How bad do you think this’ll be?” John asked.
“Companies’ve managed through worse,” Sherlock replied, feeling bored with the drama of the previous day already. “One good run in the next town and we’ll be in good graces once more.”
“Yeah, but what if - ”
“You didn’t let me finish,” John said crossly, turning his head to look at his friend.
“Didn’t need to,” Sherlock said, flicking ashes off the end of the cigarette over the side of the car. “No ‘what ifs’ to worry about, John.”
John shook his head, adjusting his arms and reclining once more.
“You always think you know everything,” he said with a smile.
“I do, usually.”
“I think that’s quite sufficient as far as standards go,” Sherlock quipped. “Wouldn’t want to be right all the time, Mycroft would have me working as a fortune teller. Horrible thought.”
John chuckled at that.
“You two are far too cheerful.” Mary’s voice came from behind them. Sherlock craned his neck to watch her climbing the last few rungs of the ladder to join them on the top of the car. She crawled the yard or so to get to them on hands and knees, stopping above John. She hovered over him as she continued in a teasing tone. “Haven’t you heard? We’re going under. Finished.”
“I might need consoling,” John said with a pitifully fake pout.
Mary obliged, lowering her head to give him an upside-down kiss.
Sherlock let out an irritated sigh and sat up, grinding his cigarette out on the roof before flicking it over the side to land in the dirt.
“Sorry, are you feeling left out?” Mary teased, settling herself behind John’s head and running her fingers through his hair. “Because I think I might know of someone who could help with that…”
“Not interested,” he snapped, the tone a great deal harsher than he intended.
“All right then,” Mary said gently after a moment’s silence. “Consider it dropped.”
“You all right, mate?” John asked.
“Fine,” Sherlock replied, pushing himself to standing and walking towards the ladder. “Spectacular.”
The iron bars burned his hands slightly on the way down, heated by the sun. He jumped the last few feet, wiping his palms on his trousers as he walked towards the main tent. Mycroft had already told the workers to start packing things up; they would move out in the dark of night and be steaming away on the rails by sunrise, hoping to find friendlier faces in Sheffield.
Sherlock decided it was worth checking to see if they were doing their jobs correctly and not taking the opportunity for a late afternoon nap.
Pushing aside the canvas flap of the main door, he stepped into the stuffy air of the ring. Workmen were pulling down the benches and risers and dismantling the small stage, pulling at ropes and hollering at each other as equipment flew down from the top poles of the tent. He moved along the edge of the controlled chaos, skirting towards the staging area as he narrowly avoided the masses of wood and steel being carried outside.
He flicked the curtains to the staging area aside, relieved to find the space a good deal quieter and lacking people.
Sitting there next to the pile of props and equipment waiting to be loaded onto the train was the box, shining in the daylight with a new coat of lacquer to make it gleam during the show.
Sherlock glanced around. Not a bothersome soul to be seen. The temptation was tremendous. Slipping his hands into his trouser pockets, he walked casually over to the box, giving it a cursory look. He could see a mechanism attached to the lock that, when properly manipulated, triggered the release of the hinges, making the box collapse at the end of the act. A wire was threaded through each hinge and connected to the lock, easily loosed for the dramatic finale. He couldn’t see anything attached to the bottom or the top panel, nothing that would release to trigger a trap door.
Slowly, he stepped closer, pulling a hand out of a pocket and allowing his fingers to tentatively brush along the edge of the wood towards the lock. His fingers landed on the brass and tested the lock, tugging gently.
“It’s not fake.”
Jim’s tenor voice nearly made him start. Forcing himself to move calmly, Sherlock turned his head and gave the man a disinterested smile.
“I didn’t assume it was,” he replied, pulling his hand away and tucking it back in his pocket.
“Checking it for craftsmanship, then?” Jim asked with a smirk, strolling towards him and taking a protective stance next to the box.
“If that’s how you want to think of it.”
“I don’t blame you for your curiosity. I don’t, really,” Jim said, walking around the box towards a basket of packing tarps, pulling one out and draping it over the polished wood as he spoke. “After all, that’s what keeps us in business, isn’t it? Entertaining the curiosities of the people. Bringing a little whimsy into their dull lives. We all need a little new stimulation every once in a while.”
“Is that why you left Sanger?” Sherlock asked, watching as the tarp was secured with a length of rope, effectively hiding the entire piece from view.
Jim smiled up at him, his dark eyes sparkling with some little amusement.
“In a manner of speaking,” Jim told him, lifting himself to standing. “You know what it’s like, don’t you, Sherlock? I can tell. That feeling that you’re just…bored. You’ve conquered all the mountains you can, so you just go looking for new ones.”
Sherlock’s eyes narrowed as he watched the charm in Jim’s eyes gradually drop away, his face settling into an apathetic expression with a tinge of anger. It surprised Sherlock; put him on edge to see the somewhat threatening set of the other man’s features.
What was his aim? Why the aggressive need to keep moving when he had a good thing going with another company?
Desperate to dominate and succeed. Overindulgent to the point of making a fool of himself as a child, according to Miss Molly Moriarty. Plenty of talent, but plenty of years spent trying too hard and getting laughed down by those around him. Or receiving the correction of the back of a hand. There were unpleasant memories swimming in those dark eyes, for certain.
“I don’t know which mountains you’re aiming to conquer,” Sherlock replied, turning to leave as he heard the workmen making their way into the storage area. “But if you’re looking for guidance, it won’t be from me. I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
Jim was nearly at his heel, leaving the care of his magic box to the workmen.
“No,” Sherlock repeated, feeling his irritation rise.
“Ah, come on now, Sherlock,” Jim said, smiling up at him as they made their way out of the back of the tent and onto the grass outside. “Nothing to be ashamed of. No insult to your brother if this operation bores you to death. I’m amazed you’ve lasted as long as you have without finding things to keep you occupied before now.”
“There’s plenty to keep me occupied,” Sherlock said, gritting his teeth and attempting to walk even faster towards his van.
Jim quickened his pace easily, jumping in front of Sherlock and holding out a hand to slow him as he walked backwards.
“Those lions aren’t enough for a man of your caliber, and that’s the truth,” Jim said knowingly, slowing to a stop. “Keeping pickpockets away isn’t doing it either. And I’d venture a guess that you’re not finding any relief in someone’s kip…”
Sherlock glared down at him.
“Is that what you want?” he spat out. “Tips on how to get into the few unoccupied knickers in this company?”
“Hardly,” Jim said with a derisive laugh, his grin turning into to more of a sneer. He looked at Sherlock for a moment, his eyes bouncing over his features. “Your method seems to be staring at women from a distance and doing nothing about it. Not exactly my style.”
The personal attack didn’t take him by surprise, but it pricked his ego nonetheless. A dark wave of aggression rolled through Sherlock and it took every ounce of self-control not to land a fist right in Jim’s smug grin. He wanted to knock him to the dirt, wanted to enjoy seeing those pristine, pressed clothes ruined.
“Shame about what happened here, eh?” Jim said with an overly sympathetic nod and a glance at the workmen who were now emerging from the tent and carrying boxes and crates to the train cars. He pulled a cigarette and a packet of matches from inside his coat pocket, lifting the cigarette it to his lips. He struck the match and cupped his hand over the flame, exhaling a large puff of smoke a moment later as he turned away from Sherlock. “Fingers crossed for a bit o’ luck in the next town.”
Sherlock narrowed his eyes, watching the magician stride across the grass with his nose in the air like he owned the place. He didn’t have a reason for it, couldn’t pinpoint it any more than he could for the desire to strike him, but Sherlock felt uneasy at Jim’s words. The man almost seemed...pleased.
The crowd in Sheffield seemed blissfully unaware or uncaring as to the events that had taken place in Leeds. They thronged the high street parade and were a mass of energy and eagerness at the ticket booth on the first night, cheering with great enthusiasm as the company made its grand entrance. Molly had managed to slip away from the dressing area at the start of the show, brushing off Jim’s look of reproach as she firmly announced she didn’t care to spend the entire time shut away in a stuffy, glorified closet. She might pay for the outburst later, but for the moment she was tucked in the corner of the staging tent, well hidden by the parade wagon, fingers curled around the canvas as she peered out into the brightly lit ring.
She hadn’t seen much of the rest of the show, only catching glimpses of the performers as they went to and from the ring, and only just having the chance to watch them on the high street.
The acts were nothing that she hadn’t seen before. The tricks were the same as the ones she’d grown up watching, perhaps pushing the bounds of safety here and there to entice a thrill from the crowd. She didn’t mind that she’d seen it all before. The sight of the tumblers leaping through the air, the acrobats balancing on wires and swinging from the trapeze, the clowns stumbling and flailing with practiced precision, the monkeys and dogs besting their handlers – it was home. It was comfort.
Molly found herself gasping along with the crowd when the plumes of fire shot up from Sally’s torch. That was an act that she wasn’t entirely used to seeing, and it still made her pulse jump to see the woman manipulate the flames with such abandon. And the way Greg trusted her when it came time for the knife-throwing act…it was sweet, really, in a strange sort of way.
The crowd ooh’d as each blade whizzed through the air, landing with a thunk in the wood plank behind Greg.
It took her a moment to realize why the reaction after Sally threw the sixth knife was louder and more shocked than the rest. Her brow furrowed as she watched Greg lurch away from the wood, retrieving the knife that had, supposedly, landed above his shoulder. He tucked it quickly behind his back with one hand and lifted the other high into the air, taking a quick bow with a grin forced onto his face. His actions seemed to be the only thing that stopped Sally in her tracks as she took a few steps towards him.
The knife-thrower joined in his bow, though she had four knives left in her hands. It was enough to satisfy the crowd and they clapped and cheered, believing the act to be over as the performers raced towards the ring door.
Molly let go of the canvas and hurried out from behind the wagon in time to see the duo come backstage, Sally nearly holding Greg up as he practically stumbled down the steps and collapsed to the ground, groaning in pain and holding his shoulder.
“Oh my god, Greg, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Sally said, her voice shaking as she cradled his head, trying to make him comfortable.
A dozen performers crowded around them, asking what had happened, trying to offer help. Mycroft appeared from nowhere, barking at them to back up and give the poor man some air. Molly could hear the thunder of hooves from Irene and Janine’s horses from the main ring, knowing that the show had gone on with the audience none the wiser as to the drama unfolding backstage.
“Did it slip?” Mycroft was asking Sally, looking down at Greg’s injury with concern.
“No,” Sally insisted, glaring up at the ringmaster. “Everything was fine, I don’t know how…”
Whatever she thought may have gone wrong, she was unable to say as a pair of workmen jogged backstage, leading a portly looking man wearing a tweed suit and carrying a black bag. He wiped his brow with a kerchief as he stopped in front of Mycroft.
“Doctor Tillman,” he introduced himself, reaching for Mycroft’s hand to shake, huffing slightly as he tried to catch his breath. “Was watching the show. That didn’t look good. Fortunate I had my bag in my auto car.”
“Fortunate indeed, doctor,” Mycroft said, looking genuinely relieved.
“We’ll have him comfortable easy enough,” the doctor said as he knelt down, pulling Greg’s hand away from his shoulder and assessing his injury.
There was a lot of blood. Molly could see that it had soaked most of the front of his shirt. His face had grown ashen and sweaty, though he was perfectly lucid as he spoke to the physician about his state of pain. She felt her heart thump in her chest as she watched the doctor begin to pull out linens and a bottle of antiseptic alcohol, her ears ringing slightly at the sight of the medical supplies.
“Are you all right?”
The deep voice made her start and she turned to see Sherlock standing next to her. She’d not even felt his hand on her arm.
“I’m fine,” she said quickly.
“You’re white as a sheet,” he told her matter-of-factly.
“Your friend was hit by a knife and you’re worried about me?” she questioned him, gathering her nerves together.
“He’s being looked after, there’s nothing I can do for him,” he replied.
She gaped at him, completely unsure of how to respond. She’d known these people for a little over two weeks and yet she apparently felt more concern for them than he did. It utterly confused her. Did he have no compassion? Or was he really just being practical about the situation?
The sound of Greg swearing turned her attention away from Sherlock. Doctor Tillman was wiping the blood away from his wound.
“You’ll be just fine lad,” the doctor told him, reaching into his bag for a hypodermic needle. “We’ll set you up with a little morphine for the pain. A bit of stitching, rest it for a few weeks, and you’ll be good as new.”
Molly swallowed hard, shutting her eyes against the procedure and trying to focus her mind away from the thoughts the whole process brought to her.
She heard Mycroft snap at Sherlock to get ready to perform his act, and realized that she would have to go on soon after him. She needed a quiet place to steady her mind.
“Whatever it is you are trying so very hard not to remember,” Sherlock said, his mouth unnervingly close to her ear, “might I suggest you deal with it quickly? Distractions can be hazardous in our line of work.”
With that, he was gone from her side and she was left to watch as people helped to lift Greg and carry him to one of the cots that were kept in the back of the dressing area. Sally lingered, a fisted hand lifted to her mouth as she worried the nail of her thumb. Molly walked carefully over to her, feeling the panic begin to recede.
“Can I help?” she asked gently, noticing for the first time that Sally held the knife in her hand, bits of blood still clinging to the tip of the blade. “Do you need anything?”
“Sherlock,” Sally said quickly, looking up at Molly before glancing around as the others began to return to their duties. “Where’s Sherlock?”
“He’s in the ring,” Molly told her, her brow furrowing as Sally frowned down at the knife. “What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know,” she muttered. “But I need to talk to him.”
She gripped the knife tighter and walked away, the beads and tassels of her costume swaying and tinkling slightly as she moved with a purpose towards the exit and out into the night. Molly bit her lip, feeling useless after all that had happened. She could hear the cheering of the audience and a few roars from the lions, knowing that she only had minutes before she had to have herself collected and ready to perform. Turning towards the prop area, she sucked in a breath of surprise when she saw Jim standing just a few feet from her, fully dressed in his attire and an unreadable look on his face.
“Getting involved after I warned you not to?” he asked, tutting at her as he walked closer. “Darling sister, how many times must I remind you?”
“We’re not here to make friends,” Molly said quietly, tilting her head to the side and unable to make eye contact with him as she spoke words she didn’t believe.
“Right you are,” Jim praised her, holding out his gloved hand for her to take. “Shall we show them some magic?”
Chapter 6: There's Something Wrong
Sherlock didn’t bother to join the rest of the company for the final bow that night. His mood had been darkened by the events of the evening and he chose to put his animals away for the night and seclude himself in his van. The first thing he did when he entered his little home was open a window to let the cool breeze in. He felt too warm, to wound up, and immediately shed his white shirt, kicking his knee-high boots off and letting them all fall where they may. Grabbing a box of matches, he pulled the kerosene lamp down from the hook on the wall and lit it quickly, returning it to its place before pouring himself a glass of water from the pitcher he kept handy.
The water was barely enough to relieve him.
Though it had been nearly three days since his encounter with Jim, he couldn’t shake the conversation from his brain. The way he’d hounded Sherlock about his activities, what kept him occupied, what kept him sane…
His hand went subconsciously the inside of his left arm, rubbing at the skin and wondering for the hundredth time if he really felt the prickle in his arm or if it was all in his imagination. It never seemed to go away completely, even though it had been years since he’d last given in to a habit that had left him careless and nearly gotten him killed. Mycroft had made sure to put a swift stop to it when he found out.
He even reminded his little brother of the consequences should he make those choices again from time to time. Not that he needed the verbal reminder; the claw marks across his back that had left angry, pink scars were enough of a reminder.
But that didn’t mean nights like this weren’t a tempting excuse, nights when he saw his friends hurt and his brother suffering and he couldn’t shake the taunting words or the feeling that ever since the Moriartys had joined them things had been going wrong and damnit it was so bloody hot -
“What?” he snarled when a knock at the door broke him from his own mind.
Molly’s small voice made him take a deep breath, collecting himself. He crossed the small space, pulling the door open and looking out at not only Molly, but Sally as well, both still in their show attire.
“I need to talk to you,” Sally said seriously.
“Why is she here?” he said, nodding at Molly and taking quick note of the way she averted her eyes from his bared chest.
“Because she saw what happened out there,” Sally explained, having none of his nonsense. “And what happened wasn’t an accident.”
Despite his better judgment, her words made him curious. Sally wasn’t one to exaggerate. She was usually very straightforward and to the point. And she usually didn’t bother with him. For her to be standing on his doorstep, asking for his help, something must have set her off.
He stepped to the side and nodded his head, encouraging the two of them to come in. He closed the door behind them and turned, waiting to hear what she had to say.
“Nothing went wrong,” Sally told him, producing a cotton scarf that held two of her knives. “It didn’t slip, I didn’t falter, everything was exactly how it was supposed to be.”
“It’s true,” Molly chimed in. “I was watching the whole thing.”
“So it all went according to plan,” Sherlock said, crossing his arms over his bare chest and squinting his eyes. “Up until the part where the knife lodged in his shoulder.”
Molly’s nose wrinkled at his bluntness, but Sally plowed on, holding the knives up towards him in the palm of her hand.
“There’s something wrong with the knife,” she insisted. “It’s not balanced properly.”
Sherlock’s mouth pulled back in a doubtful frown and he turned to pick up his boots and shirt, tossing them over to the chair in the corner.
“You check them before every show, I doubt you would miss something like that,” he said, losing interest in her plight.
“Would you just look,” Sally demanded.
Sherlock turned, half hoping that if he gave her the attention she needed she would just leave, satisfied that she’d been listened to. She lifted her left hand and held two fingers up, placing the blade of one knife atop them and balanced it easily enough. Giving him a look to emphasize that that was how the knife was supposed to behave, she then removed it and replaced it quickly with the culprit of the evening. The second she let go of the knife, the whole thing tipped towards the handle and made a thunk as it hit the floor.
“I check them all the time, as you said. They’re all balanced…or at least they’re supposed to be.”
“You think someone tampered with them?” Sherlock asked, bending forward and retrieving the knife from the floor, inspecting it.
“Or replaced one,” she offered as a possible scenario.
Sherlock’s eyes flicked up to meet hers, simultaneously amused and intrigued by the possibility. He knew Sally well enough to know that she would never risk going into a performance if she thought there was something wrong. Which meant that whatever had happened, had occurred in the moments before she went into the ring, when her eyes might have been elsewhere and someone could have taken the opportunity to tamper with her things. To take advantage of that exact moment of distraction, someone would have to be a part of the company. No one would have that access unless they were known and welcome backstage.
“May I keep these?” he asked, holding his hand out for the second knife that Sally still held.
She nodded, handing him the blade.
“You’ll let me know if you find something out?” Sally said, giving him a genuinely concerned look.
Sherlock gave a sharp nod and the discussion was closed. As the two women walked towards the door of his van to leave, a sudden jolt of curiosity hit him.
“Molly,” he said, his voice louder than he’d intended. Both women stopped and turned, somewhat surprised. “Stay a moment.”
Molly’s mouth dropped open slightly, but she took a step or two towards him after a self-conscious glance at Sally. The fire-artist, to her credit, simply quirked an eyebrow at him before leaving them alone.
Molly smoothed her hands over the green satin of her dress and looked up at him expectantly. For a brief moment, Sherlock was entirely too aware that they were alone in his caravan, with only Sally to know enough to fuss about it. And she could generally be counted on to not care much about him or what he did. He was reminded all too quickly that it wasn’t rumors that he should be worried about.
“I can’t stay long,” she told him, glancing out the small window by his bunk. “Jim only let me come with Sally in the first place because she practically stuck him with a knife.”
He smirked, picturing the scene, before he found himself turning her words over in his mind.
“Does he control everything you do?” he asked. Molly blinked a few times, her expression steeling under his gaze.
“No,” she told him firmly, allowing the determination of her answer to sink in before she spoke again. “Is that all you wanted to ask me?”
“No,” he said, mimicking her tone. He considered the knives in his hand again, feeling the slight differences they possessed. He would need time to look at them, to analyze…but there would be time for that later. Placing the knives on the small table, he looked at Molly. “You saw everything that happened, from the moment they entered the tent?”
Her brow creased and she faltered for a moment, clearly not expecting to be grilled like a witness to crime.
“Y-yes,” she said.
“Sally always sets her knives out in two rows on that rolling tray and picks them out left to right without fail every time,” Sherlock explained, his eyes narrowing as he visualized exactly how the act went. “First two throws are to the tips of the fingers, third and fourth are either side of the abdomen, fifth is below the groin, and the sixth…”
He trailed off as the knife in his mind whizzed through the air and landed above Lestrade’s head.
“It was the sixth knife,” Molly said, her voice intense, though soft. “The one that hit him – it was the sixth throw. Where is it supposed to land?”
“No wonder she was upset,” Sherlock muttered to himself, barely hearing Molly’s question. “If she’s right, if someone tampered with her knives…he could have died.”
The sharp intake of breath drew his attention back to the woman in front of him. She looked understandably upset. He stared at her, scrutinizing this small woman who held mysteries beneath her surface, but who also seemed incapable of removing her heart from her sleeve. She and her brother were entirely different creatures, but they were still tightly bound. He didn’t like to think that she could be part of what was going wrong in the company, and yet…
“Is there anything you need to tell me, Molly?” Sherlock asked.
The pale skin of her throat rippled slightly as her pulse clearly jumped, and she stared at him with a combination of trepidation and longing. He felt a tingling warmth spread throughout his torso, filling him with anticipation that she might be about to confide in him, about to –
“No,” she said, barely above a whisper. “Nothing.”
In the next moment, the door was slipping shut and she was gone.
Sherlock spent the rest of the night sitting at his little kitchen table, turning the knives over and over in his hands, staring until he could conjure an image of each into his mind without effort. He memorized every detail of each blade, the way the leather of the handles was cracked or stained with oil from the hands of their owner. It was more than wanting to solve the mystery that drove him to spend the dark hours of the night doing this. If he didn’t fill his mind with the details, it began to fill with large brown eyes looking up at him, wanting something he wasn’t sure he possessed the answer to.
Finally, the faintest hint of sunrise appeared through his window, casting grey light into the van. Sherlock dragged his hands over his face and stood up, pouring a fresh glass of water and rinsing his mouth out quickly before grabbing the knives and heading out the door. Not a soul was outside save for him and he walked straight for his brother’s quarters.
He found Mycroft exactly where he expected, perched primly in his wingback chair with a cup of tea in one hand and yesterday’s paper in the other, his eyes scanning the latest news.
“You’re up even earlier than usual,” Mycroft commented as Sherlock let himself in.
“Never went to sleep,” Sherlock corrected.
“I know. You’re getting older, the sleepless nights don’t sit as well with you as they once did, brother,” Mycroft quipped, taking a sip of his tea and readjusting his paper without giving him a second look. “What do you want, Sherlock?”
Perhaps it was the barb about his looks, or perhaps it was the sleepless night not knowing if he wanted something much stronger than a cigarette to calm his nerves (a pair of soft arms, maybe, or something else if that could not be had), but Sherlock temporarily lost his carefully crafted plan for approaching his brother on the subject of the accident. He forcefully tossed the pair of knives onto the small table beside Mycroft’s chair, causing his brother to finally look up.
“I spent all bloody night looking at those,” Sherlock said rapidly. “There is a significant weight difference between the two hilts that could easily have caused the knife that hit Lestrade to go off-course and no, Sally could not have made a mistake, she’s far too careful to allow something like that to happen. This was deliberate sabotage. That knife was not a part of her original set. How do I know that? Because while all of her knives are worn on the hilt in the particular pattern that reflects someone who is right-handed grasping them and throwing them over and over again, this new knife has indentation and oil patterns on the handle from someone who is clearly left-handed. We don’t have many of those in this company. I suggest you start by questioning those who are.”
Mycroft listened to him raptly as he spoke and continued to stare in wide-eyed amazement for several moments after he’d finished. He carefully set down his cup and folded the paper, setting it in his lap before lacing his fingers together on top of it. The smile he gave Sherlock was one of complete condescension.
“You are telling me the someone in this company intentionally replaced on of Sally’s knives with a heavier one in order to ruin the act and possibly hurt Greg,” he said.
“No, I think they intended to kill him,” Sherlock clarified.
“Because the knife looks like it was used by someone who is left handed?”
“It was, look at it!” Sherlock snapped, pointing at the items in question.
“Do I need to inspect your van for hallucinogens again?” Mycroft asked, obviously only half joking.
“Well then, how do you explain it?” Sherlock demanded.
“Most likely some rummy trouper accidentally broke one of the knives and replaced it before anything was noticed,” Mycroft replied, reaching for his tea again.
“Oh please,” Sherlock groaned, making a face. “He just happened to find an exact replica in the moments before the act?”
“The knives she owns are common.”
“Are you being deliberately blind or are you just becoming stupid with age?” Sherlock snapped, perfectly aware he was being unkind. It got his brother’s attention, either way. “Have you failed to realize that ever since the Moriarty siblings have joined this company, things have been going wrong? That knife was used by someone who is left-handed…want to hazard any guesses as to whom that might apply?”
Mycroft paused only for a moment as he lifted his cup to his lips for a sip of tea. Then he placed the cup back in its saucer on the table and stood up, tossing the paper into his chair. He stood level with Sherlock, hands in his pockets, as he looked at his little brother.
“I don’t know what this fascination is that you have with the Moriartys,” Mycroft said slowly. “But for the final time, I will warn you, leave them alone. Accidents happen from time to time, but this is not sabotage.”
“How can you be so sure? How well do you know them? They came out of Sanger and they have an act no one can beat…but beyond that, what does anyone really know about them?” Sherlock challenged his brother, stepping closer.
“I know enough,” Mycroft said, his voice bordering on threatening. “And it is time for you to stop prying, brother mine.”
Four successful shows in a row had the company celebrating as they steamed from Sheffield to Derby. Molly could hear the revelry from her bunk. It kept her eyes wide open long after Jim had nodded off, influenced by the effects of his nightcap. She had watched him carefully, calculating that he had had more that night than usual. If she was right, she suspected she would be able to slip out of the cabin without rousing him. It had always been easiest to slip away when he’d had too much – he slept like the dead until the sun rose on those nights.
Easing gently out of her bunk, Molly reached for her cream colored dressing gown, slipping it over her nightgown as she tiptoed towards the door. When she was on the other side and the door had slid silently shut, she allowed herself a celebratory smile and hurried down the corridor to the end of the train car, eager to escape.
The dining car was packed with people and she could barely squeeze through the groups that were talking, drinking, dancing, and gambling. On one side, she could see Greg sitting in a chair like a monarch, surrounded on all sides by troupers (mostly women, she noted). He proudly showed off his arm, wrapped in a sling, as he recounted the drama from several nights ago for the hundredth time.
Molly got a few odd glances as she made her way through the car, though no one stopped to talk to her. She worked her way through two more train cars filled with bunks. Most everyone there was sleeping, though a whispered conversation and a musical instrument being quietly played could be heard from a few bunks. Her cheeks flushed with heat when she inadvertently heard the unmistakable sound of barely contained panting breaths from a corner kip, and she quickly moved along, leaving that car behind as she finally reached a cargo car.
The second she shut the door, the sound of voices being shushed and suppressed giggling came down from the storage loft. It was far too many voices to make her think she had stumbled upon another rendezvous…or so she thought. She’d seen plenty of things in her time with companies and she knew better than to think any activity was out of the realm of possibility.
“Would you be quiet?” a female voice whispered.
“We are!” another replied.
“Gimme that bottle, would you?”
Molly’s brow furrowed in curiosity and she smiled, looking up at the loft, lit gently by the glow of a lantern. That was definitely Mary’s voice. The trapeze artist was one of the few Molly had spoken to at any great length since joining the show and she was fairly confident she could recognize her voice.
Mind made up, she walked over to the ladder leading up to the loft and hoisted herself onto the first rung. Several dramatic shrieks and laughter met the sound of the ladder shifting under her weight.
“It’s just me,” she called up. “It’s Molly.”
A moment later, Mary’s blonde head popped out from above and she grinned down at her.
“Hello down there,” Mary greeted her cheerfully. “Not under lock and key tonight?”
Molly shook her head and smiled back.
“Come on up, then,” Mary encouraged.
A hand holding a bottle of something clear and no doubt devastating to one’s constitution dangled out over the edge next to Mary.
“We’ve got gin!” the disembodied voice sing-songed.
When Molly reached the top of the ladder, she was greeted by the sight of Mary, Sally, Irene, and Janine lounging amongst trunks and piles of blankets and pillows. They looked about two hours ahead of Molly in regards to celebrating. She had some catching up to do, and apparently Mary agreed.
“Here,” the trapeze artist said, grabbing the bottle from Irene and pouring a generous helping into a glass, which she thrust at Molly. “You look like you could use this.”
“Are you sure the little bird can handle it?” Sally said, taking a sip from her own glass.
“What?” Molly said as she sat next to Mary on the blanketed floor.
“That’s what some people are calling you, darling” Irene informed her, leaning back against a trunk and pulling in a drag from her cigarette.
Molly looked to Mary for an explanation. Mary shot the others a chastising look.
“’Delicate little bird in a cage’ is what I’ve heard. Don’t you mind it,” she told Molly firmly, refilling her own glass. She settled back onto the floor, tucking her pale pink dress beneath her. “It’s just stupid curiosity that they don’t know what to do with. Besides, I have the suspicion our ‘little bird’ can hold her own.”
She held out her glass and Molly brought hers up as well, letting them clink together before taking a grateful drink. Her eyes scrunched at the sharp taste of the bathtub gin, but it went down smooth and warmed her immediately.
“Whose is it?” she asked, indicating the drink.
“Billy,” Sally told her. “Friend of ours in London. Gives us a fair price, doesn’t skimp on the road supplies, and it’s always quality.”
“It’s good,” Molly said honestly, taking another sip.
“Where’s that brother of yours tonight, Molly?” Irene asked, smiling at her in a sly way.
“Um, one too many,” Molly explained with a smirk, holding up her glass. Irene laughed, stretching her bare legs out in front of her and crossing them at the ankles, her blue dress pooling around her thighs elegantly.
“Don’t worry, we won’t tell him you snuck out,” the trick rider said with a wink.
Molly smiled back, happy to be among them but still a bit uncertain. She’d had so little chance to form any bonds, to make friends, that she wasn’t entirely sure how to go about it. She didn’t want to appear desperate to them.
“Did you come through the dining car?” Janine asked purposefully. Molly nodded. Janine grinned and looked straight at Sally. “Is Greg still down there telling everyone how he almost died?”
Sally let out a snort and rolled her eyes, taking a large swig from her glass, earning a laugh from the others.
“If he would rather show off his little scratch than see the new night dress I bought in Liverpool, then that’s his business,” Sally said crossly, adjusting the straps of said nightdress, the red satin practically glowing in the lamplight.
Molly thought she saw a bit of sadness flick across the woman’s face. Whether it had to do with memories of that performance or the fact that the man she fancied was not with her at the moment, she wasn’t sure. Everyone knew it wasn’t her fault that the accident happened. Though Sherlock had been avoiding her ever since that night, Molly had guessed that he agreed with Sally’s suspicions. It was only a rumor in the company that the injury wasn’t entirely accidental, but Molly knew there was more than a little truth in that rumor. She’d been worried for Sally ever since that night in Sherlock’s van.
“I’ve never seen an act like yours,” she told Sally, looking down at her hands holding the glass of gin. “The fire, the spectacle…it’s beautiful. Where did you learn it?”
Sally’s brow lowered for a moment and she licked her lips, clearly trying to assess if Molly was sincere.
“My dad,” she said simply. “He did a bit of busking when work was hard to come by. I had a talent for it and figured this was better than being a maid in some hotel.”
The other women nodded in agreement, taking gentle sips of their gin. Irene lit up another cigarette.
“Learned from my parents, too,” Mary joined in, smiling as she remembered. “They retired some years back, but they’ll come to see a show in London when they can. If money’s not tight.”
“Money’s never tight for my parents, they just like to pretend their little girl didn’t run away to join the circus,” Irene said as she exhaled a plume of smoke.
Janine looked at Molly and mouthed more than whispered the word ‘posh.’
“Shut it,” Irene reprimanded, elbowing her partner in the side. She gave a deep sigh and looked at nothing in particular with disinterest. “I grew up wearing velvet jackets and jodhpurs and…well, this life held more appeal than wearing velvet jackets and jodhpurs and having to bed some rich, boring husband every night.”
She finished with a sad smile, but Molly could tell there was nothing about her current life that brought her sadness.
Molly glanced at Janine, who looked right back at her, expecting to share as well.
“I grew up in it,” she said. “Me mum an’ dad are in America now. They want to start a riding school.”
“And what about you, Molly?” Mary asked, reaching across Sally to pluck the cigarette from Irene’s fingers, taking a long drag.
Molly froze internally for a moment. She knew the question was coming; she’d been asked many times before, it was natural to handle people’s curiosities.
“Same,” she said, glancing at Janine. “Grew up in it.”
“Really?” Sally said, somewhat incredulous, as she cocked her head to look at Molly more closely. “Who were your parents?”
“They’re dead. They weren’t magicians. It’s always just been me and my brother,” she explained softly, taking a large drink from her glass and feeling the gin burn her throat slightly. The room got suddenly quiet. It was why she hated telling the story. She told as little of it as possible for that very reason.
“No wonder Sherlock likes you.” Irene broke the silence, staring knowingly at Molly. “He never could resist a good mystery.”
Her words ended the uncomfortable silence and made Molly blush down to her toes.
“Sherlock?” Janine scoffed. “He doesn’t like anything except his lions and being a general pain in the arse.”
“It’s true, you should see the way he stares,” Mary jumped in, grinning at Molly and making her blush even more.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him with a woman, does he even know what to do with one?” Sally asked with a laugh.
“Ohh he does,” Irene said, smirking.
Mary kicked at her playfully, giggling. “And you would know, would you?”
“It was a looong time ago,” Irene confessed to the total surprise of the others. “He probably doesn’t even remember it, not with the way he blocks things out. We were very young and stupid and thought we knew what we wanted.”
“You’re sure about what you want now, aren’t you,” Janine said as she leaned into her partner, resting her head against her breast in contentment.
“More than sure,” Irene replied quietly, tenderly wrapping an arm around her waist.
“John certainly knows what to do with a woman,” Mary said wistfully after a moment’s silence.
“We know, you leave your windows open on hot nights,” Sally teased her with a grin, reaching for the bottle to top off her glass. Mary let out a scandalized yelp before breaking into fits of laughter.
Molly listened to the women tease and gossip, discussing everything on earth until the late hours of the night. She joined the conversation when she felt comfortable, slowly melding into the little group and feeling genuinely happy for the first time since she could remember. She slipped back into her bunk in the early hours of the morning, Jim still sleeping like a rock and none-the-wiser, and fell asleep content and with one thought repeating itself in her mind: Sherlock liked her.
Chapter 7: Derby
The first night in Derby, the company played to a packed house and the troupers were working double time backstage to make things run smoothly. It was for that very reason that Sherlock found the opportunity to make himself useful after his act, helping a few of the workers to carry some props to the staging area. There was a bustle of people flying around as some of the acts had to get used to preparing in a shorter amount of time now that Lestrade’s act had been temporarily cut.
There was an out of the way spot on one side of the dressing rooms that was half in shadow, unoccupied, and Sherlock slipped into it, tucking himself against the hanging fabric.
It afforded him the perfect view of the main curtain. He could hear the crowd’s reaction to the magic happening in the ring, the ooh’s and ahh’s and applause sounding almost like clockwork. He heard the drumroll start for the final act and the snap of the sticks, the momentary pause of awe, and then the thunderous reaction as the disappearance was revealed.
Even with his eyes glued to the entire area, he could not find a single anomaly.
And then he saw a dark figure emerge from behind the stacks of crates on the far left side of the platform. His eyes tracked the figure’s movement, and he realized that it was undoubtedly Molly covered head to toe by a black cloak, making her almost impossible to see in the shadows. Smiling to himself, he lifted a hand to the fabric wall of the dressing area, pulling the edge back carefully with one finger. Sure enough, Molly appeared, hanging up the black cloak and sitting down at her makeshift vanity.
So there it was, a partial answer to his burning curiosity. There was no real magic involved, just as he knew there wasn’t. She didn’t miraculously appear in the dressing room like some mystical creature.
The smug feeling was quickly replaced by irritation when he saw Jim walk into the dressing room, tossing his cape, gloves, and top hat onto a chair. He and Molly stared at each other for a moment, Jim saying something that Sherlock could not make out. Molly nodded contritely, and Jim smiled somewhat tenderly at her before leaving the space.
Sherlock couldn’t help lingering on the sight of her, trying to see if she changed when out of the presence of Jim. He was tempted to say that her face softened, that she dropped some of the constant strength she carried around with her at every moment of the day. The business they were in was not for the faint of heart and he knew that she would have to be tough as nails to survive this long. She’d been through…something traumatic. It kept her vulnerable, despite her strength.
He got so lost in wondering about Molly’s past that he barely registered what was happening in the here and now. He blinked and quickly let go of the fabric when he realized she had stood up and started to lower the straps of her dress, undoing the buttons on the side and letting it fall open. He glimpsed only a small expanse of her skin before the fabric fell in front of his eyes and he turned away.
The feeling deep in his stomach was one he hadn’t felt in years. It was a sensation he had learned to hate, associating it with a time in his life when he had been weak and a failure. There were many vices he had fallen victim to in an effort to keep his mind engaged, but some he blamed more than others for the embarrassment that was his accident. It sent alarms off in his mind to have those sensations stirred by the likes of Molly.
But no matter how he felt, it didn’t stop him from standing right by the platform at the next night’s performance, waiting until backs were turned and attention was elsewhere before dropping to his hands and knees and hurrying under the wooden planks. He crawled forward, and between the general stuffiness of the tent and the added heat of the electric lights it was nearly stifling under the platform. Fortunately, he had a high tolerance for discomfort and he lowered himself onto his stomach, waiting patiently out of sight of the audience.
A part of Molly still couldn’t believe that people would hand over their hard earned money to watch a group of troupers bound around in a tent for a little over an hour. She constantly wondered about the people watching her – what they thought of her, if they wanted to know about her or just wanted to know how she and Jim managed the tricks. She wondered if they would remember what they did for the rest of their lives or if they would forget all about her by the next week once the train had pulled away and the taste of popcorn and spun sugar had left their mouths.
She assumed that none of them figured those were the thoughts going through her mind as she smiled out at them, holding the hoop of fabric and pulling it over her head when she felt the tap of Jim’s finger on her ankle. She straddled the trap door of the box when she felt the signal, allowing him room to stand up in front of her and take hold of the hoop himself. In one swift movement, Molly jumped down through the hole and quickly replaced the door, latching it from the inside.
She arranged the black sack and handcuffs, then reached under to find the hinged door in the bottom of the box that was positioned exactly over a trap door in the platform. With one flick of her wrist, the almost imperceptible latch on the floor gave way and the floor dropped out just as the audience began to applaud for Jim’s sudden appearance on top of the box. When Molly heard him begin to climb down onto the platform, she slipped through the hole, dropping below the stage and landing on the rough ground. The dry straw scratched her arms and legs, but she ignored it for the moment and pushed the planks up and re-latched the door.
Turning over onto her forearms, she grabbed the dark cloak waiting for her and tossed it over her shoulders, scrunching her nose at the smell.
“Yech,” she muttered.
It smelled particularly bad that night, stuffy and dusty under the platform. And hot.
She lifted herself onto hands and knees and began the crawl back to the staging area. She nearly yelped when she lifted her eyes and came nose to nose with Sherlock not five feet from her landing spot. He was lying prone on the ground, his chin propped in his hand and a smug grin on his face. A small trickle of sweat was running down his brow and she realized he must have been waiting under there for her the entire act.
“Parlour trick,” he said, his voice almost drowned out by the cheers of the crowd. “Just as I suspected.”
A smile slowly spread across her face and she laughed. In all the years they’d been doing the trick, not a single person had bothered to see how she made it out. Most of the performers and workers just didn’t care. They brought in a crowd and that was all that mattered. A few had inspected the box and couldn’t find the trapdoor (all Jim’s doing, he was a master at trick construction) so they hadn’t bothered to look any further.
Sherlock returned her smile, the corners of his eyes crinkling. She swallowed when she saw his eyes flick down to her mouth, then back up again. The space suddenly felt much smaller than usual.
The platform shook above them as Jim took his final bow, moving around on the platform as he grandstanded to each side of the ring. Molly panicked, beginning to crawl again.
“I have to go,” she explained unnecessarily. “If I’m not there when he gets off…”
“He’ll what?” Sherlock demanded, stopping her briefly.
Molly looked back at him, not sure how to answer.
“Don’t let him see you crawl out of here,” she muttered, hoping he heeded her warning.
She started to move again, but as she passed him his hand shot out, grabbing her wrist. The contact stopped her cold, sending a shiver through her body. When she looked up at him, he was so very close…close enough that she could see the small flecks of gold in his blue eyes, the inviting curve of his cupid’s bow lips…
“Are you okay, Molly?”
His question held the tone of sincerity, but part of Molly knew that he was just plain curious. He wanted to know every bit of detail about everyone around him, things that he couldn’t ferret out with his own mind.
“I’m fine, Sherlock,” she told him firmly. She looked down at his hand on her arm, wishing momentarily that she could stay right there with his fingers gently touching her. “Really, I am. But please, he’ll be furious if he knows you’re down here…”
Sherlock looked at her, his eyes narrowing. His fingers slipped away from her arm and he glanced away.
“Go,” he told her.
Her brow furrowed and she stared at him for a moment before hurrying out from the platform, pulling the cloak over her head as she prepared to crawl out from below the wooden planks and slip along the canvas walls of backstage. Though she was prepared for it, it still made her heart jump into her throat when she crossed into the dressing area and saw Jim standing there, his eyes dark and his mouth turned down. Molly tried to ignore the queer feeling in her stomach, choosing to walk straight to her vanity and pretend as though everything was normal.
“What happened?” he asked, far too casually.
“The cloak got caught on some splinters,” she told him quickly, grateful that her mind could come up with the lie so swiftly. “Took a moment to untangle myself.”
She looked up at his reflection in the mirror. He blinked slowly, studying her. Molly raised an eyebrow and shrugged. Jim hummed, sparing her a final reproachful look before turning away and leaving.
She could barely sleep that night, her mind whirling with the never-ending, nagging thought that Sherlock saw something she didn’t. He was worried about her, about the company. And he was smart, so very much smarter than anyone she’d ever met before. If he was concerned for her…did it mean there was actually reason for him to be?
She remembered the way his hand felt on her skin, his fingers surprisingly soft. Her mind started to wander in a new direction as she lay in the dark. She imagined what those fingers would feel like on the rest of her body, his intense eyes looking into hers as his strong hands touched her. Her heart started to beat a little faster and she squirmed a bit under her blankets, suddenly feeling too warm. If it hadn’t been for Jim lying in his kip on the other side of the van, she would have indulged herself with the image of blue eyes and curling dark hair spurring her on.
It was unbearable to have to lie there with those thoughts and have no way to deal with it.
When the sun rose and she heard Jim stirring, she pretended to be asleep. He fussed around in the little van for a while before stepping out onto the stoop and chatting with some of the workmen. Molly couldn’t quite make out what they were discussing, but she caught some babble of the workers knowing a good shop in town for cigarettes and liquor and other fine things.
She heard Jim walk back into the van.
“Since you’d decided to have a self-indulgent sulk this morning,” he muttered as he collected his things, “I’ll be going into town for a while. Do fix your attitude before I return.”
Molly waited several minutes after he’d slammed the door shut before she rolled over, tossing the blankets back and hopping out of her kip. Moving hastily, she searched under the bed, shoving a few boxes and odd items out the way before finding the box she wanted. She slid it out in front of her, caressing the lid slightly before lifting it. Her eyes watered a little as her hand moved over the purple silk. She felt overwhelmed with emotions all of a sudden, incapable of dealing with any of them in the ways she wanted to.
After changing out of her nightdress, Molly grabbed the box and left the van.
There were advantages to not sleeping sometimes. He knew his limits, knew how long he could go without resting and still be able to do his job safely. He’d been without sleep more times in the past week than was usual, but it hadn’t reached dangerous levels yet.
And luckily for Sherlock, spending the night on the roof of his van, staring at the stars until they disappeared in the dawn, allowed him to witness Jim leave his van with a group of workers. Minutes later, Molly emerged, dressed in tight trousers and a blue top, with a large box in her arms.
He watched her walk quickly towards the main tent, glancing over her shoulder a few times as she went. She ducked through the ring door, and he continued to watch that spot for a while, mentally debating if he really wanted to follow her.
Of course you do, a little voice in his mind said. You want to discover every little thing you can about her. Last night was only a small taste of what you want…
He couldn’t exactly argue with that. He’d thought that solving the way they did their trick would satisfy him for a bit. Things had been quiet for a few days; quiet enough that he was starting to wonder if Mycroft was right to tell him to piss off (much as he hated to admit it).
But there was something deeper to his curiosity that he couldn’t ignore, couldn’t lessen. That was what eventually drove him down off the roof of his van and across the yard towards the tent. What he found when he parted the curtains enough to peer into the ring was the last thing he ever expected to see.
With the morning sunlight streaming through the slits in the canvas, casting her in an otherworldly light, Molly was thirty feet in the air, twisting herself around on two very long strands of silk fabric. He watched her, completely transfixed, as she stretched and spun gracefully, the strength of her body on display. He lost track of how long he watched her, not wanting to move when she finally slid down the silk, her feet lighting on the ground. Still holding onto the fabric, she looked up and caught his eye. It was then that Sherlock realized he had stepped fully into the tent, completely visible to her.
He didn’t say a thing as Molly calmly walked over to the rigging area, loosening the ropes that had been holding the long strips of silk above the ring. He moved forward when he saw her begin to untie the fabric, pulling it to gather it up and fold it. Kneeling down opposite her, he mimicked the way she handled the silk, helping her to clean up. She took the folded fabric from him with a murmured thank you and slipped it into a box covered with paper printed with flowers.
Sherlock waited silently until her brown eyes looked up at him.
“I suppose you want to talk?” she said quietly.
“If you like,” he replied, just as quietly. “There’s tea somewhere in my van. Can’t guarantee it’s to your liking, but it should do.”
Molly nodded, accepting his hand as help to stand up and gathering the box up in her arms.
He held the door of his van for her when they reached it and took the box, placing it on his table before holding a chair out for her to sit in. She sat quietly, watching him as he rummaged through the things in his cupboard looking for the one good box of tea he owned. There were still a few hot embers in the cast iron stove and he tossed a bit of kindling and a log on, waiting for it to catch before closing the door and placing the kettle on.
Once he had nothing left to prepare, he sat down opposite Molly.
“Not many people know that about me,” she started to explain after a few moments. “Not many people know much about me anyway, but least of all that.”
“I do believe that’s one of the only things I didn’t figure out about you in the last few weeks,” Sherlock told her.
Molly looked up at him when he said this and gave him a coy smile.
“And what do you think you know about me?” she asked.
“I know you hurt your knee not so many years ago,” he began, revealing what he’d gathered about her with keen observation. “You favor it when you walk, but not when you perform, so it’s not so bad that you can’t pretend it doesn’t bother you from time to time. You aren’t new to this profession, obviously, otherwise you wouldn’t have the skill you’ve demonstrated. And you certainly wouldn’t be able to do what I just saw. People don’t just pick that up, it’s learned from childhood. And yet we’d never heard of you before you auditioned for us with Jim. But we’d heard of him. And I know that he’s not your brother. He’s done a very good job of covering up the Dublin accent he picked up when he was young, but it lingers. You’re Northampton, through and through.”
He watched Molly’s face drop into astonishment at every deduction, her mouth opening and then snapping shut at his last statement.
“We’re not sleeping together,” she said abruptly.
He had to fight the smirk that was threating his lips. Even if it felt good to have her confirm it, he’d already known their relationship was platonic at best. She was very eager to make sure he knew there was nothing sordid going on between them.
“So, most definitely not your brother,” Sherlock said. His eyes narrowed as he studied her. “Where did you come from, Molly?”
She bit her lip, her brow dropping as she contemplated him, deciding if he should be trusted. He hoped she knew that anything she had to tell him would be safely confessed. Clearly coming to a decision, Molly stood up and walked over to the box, pulling the lid open and pushing the fabric to the side to extract something from the bottom. When she sat down again, she handed Sherlock a well-worn photograph, one that had been treasured and kept for years. In it, a man sat on the platform of a high wire, looking up and beaming at a woman who was balancing on the wire on one foot, a lace umbrella in her hand.
“It’s my mum,” Molly said, leaning in close to him as she gazed at the picture. “And my dad.”
He had to force himself to focus on the photograph she’d handed him, somewhat distracted by the delicate scent of flowers coming from her. Roses, again. He swallowed and looked down at the faded photo, crinkled and softening with age and love. On second look, he realized that the woman looked just like Molly. And the man had her nose and eyes. They looked to be having the time of their lives.
On the billboard behind them, he noticed the insignia of the circus.
“She was with Sanger?” he asked, impressed.
Molly nodded, looking proud.
“He hired her on the spot,” she told him. “She could do anything on that wire, more than anyone else. She never fell.”
Sherlock took in the information and looked at the photo again; realization dawned.
“Your mother was Adeline Hooper,” he stated. Molly’s eyes dropped and she bit her lip, but she nodded. “You’re one of the Hoopers.”
“Dad never was as good as mum, but I think he liked it that way,” she said softly. “He loved to watch her shine.”
He studied her face for a moment, noticing how her eyes shone as she remembered the fame that her parents had shared. Everyone in the industry had known about Edward and Adeline Hooper, and they’d all known about the tragedy of the sweep of typhoid that had taken not only the high wire couple, but many others in the business.
He’d never known they had a daughter, but it had been before his time, really. He’d only been thirteen years old when it had happened, too focused on his own burgeoning skills to really notice beyond the most basic details.
“How did you end up…”
“With Jim?” she finished for him. He nodded, and she let out a sigh, brushing her hair behind her shoulder and shifting a bit in her seat. “I was only nine. The ringmaster said I could stay, but I had to earn my place. His magician was in need of an assistant. He was training his protégé – Jim, obviously. I was small and adorable and not afraid of the big crowds – people loved it. We made a smashing little trio.”
“So where, my Molly, did you learn to do what I saw?” he asked with a little grin, handing her the photograph.
“Mum was experimenting with it before she died,” she said, her mouth turning up in a smile at the memory. “And some of the other girls, the acrobats. No one gave one snit that I was joining them when they practiced, climbing thirty feet in the air. Until I was about fourteen and…”
“Jim took over the act,” Sherlock deduced.
“Yeah,” she sighed, looking down at the tabletop. Taking in a sharp breath, she looked back up at him. “He’s not as bad as he seems. Really. He took care of me when no one else did. Looked out for me. He just…has a different way of running his act than most.”
“And if he knew that you were in here now, talking to me about all of this, alone, he wouldn’t be bothered?” Sherlock asked with a bit of malice.
“Maybe. Maybe not,” she snipped back. “What does it matter, it’s not like we’re going to make a habit of this, so why should he have a reason to be mad?”
He knew it shouldn’t have struck him in the way it did, but her words felt like a challenge. The way she looked when she let a bit of fire slip through…it enticed him far more than it should have.
The sound of water spilling over from the kettle and hissing on the stove as it hit the hot iron distracted him. He pulled his eyes away from hers and stood up, grabbing a towel to remove the kettle. Molly’s chair scraped on the floor and he watched her pick up her box.
“I need to go,” she told him. She nodded at the kettle. “Thanks for the offer. Maybe another time.”
He let out a frustrated groan after she left, closing his eyes and tipping his head forward, allowing his forehead to smack against the wooden cupboard. Contrary to his intentions, the action did not shake any sense into him at all.
Chapter 8: The Things We Love
The afternoon sun came through the window of Sherlock’s van, breaking through the thin material of the curtains and picking up specks of dust. He lay on the bed, flat on his back on top of the rumpled blanket. His lips closed around the tip of his cigarette, pulling the smoke in slowly and watching the tip burn red for a moment before letting it go. The smoke rose up into the rays of sunshine, straight for a moment, then swirling into a cloud.
It looked like…ribbons.
It looked like Molly.
Molly in the air, in the sunshine, her hair whipping around as she wrapped and unwrapped herself in the lengths of fabric. He’d hardly been able to think of much else in the days following that moment in the tent. A part of him had hoped that the more he found out about her, the less he would care. It was the mystery shrouding her and Jim that tugged his attention most of the time. He just wanted a little bit of the mystery to dissipate and relieve his curiosity.
He’d found out more about her than he’d hoped, really. It should have been enough.
For three days he walked around in a sort of intense haze, hardly leaving his van unless it was to eat (rarely) or perform. He was almost certain John had dropped by at one point, but it was hard to remember what he the purpose of his visit was. Chatting or small talk or something. For the most part, Sherlock had been left alone, as was normal.
It was why the sudden, furious knocking at his door drew his attention rather than fading into the background as an irritating interruption.
“Sherlock!” Irene’s voice was slightly panicked, demanding. “You need to get out here…now!”
He took the time to grind out his cigarette before sitting up and crossing to the door, flipping the latch open. Irene stood on the top step, her long hair flying wild in the slight breeze that graced the afternoon. Her eyes were wide and her breathing was labored.
“You need to come with me,” she said, already halfway down the steps as she looked at him with a pleading expression.
His eyes flicked past her as he took in the sound of voices off in the yard, the sight of whatever was going on blocked by the row of vans. Adrenaline spiked through him.
“What is it?” he asked, a dozen scenarios shooting through his mind.
Irene’s brow dropped in concern and she looked pained to have to tell him what she knew.
“Tacitus is out of his cage,” she said as gently as she could. “He’s…something’s not right.”
Sherlock’s feet had already hit the ground by the time she finished her sentence. He was aware of Irene running along behind him as he bolted for the yard, ignoring the startled shouts of people as he shoved his way through the gathering crowd and towards the form of his lion collapsed on the ground. The animal’s body was nearly rigid, his limbs taut and shaking sporadically. The muscles beneath its skin rippled in an unnatural way. Sherlock fell to his knees at Tacitus’ head, smoothing a hand over his mane as he looked into the lion’s wide, rolling eyes. His breath came in short, tortuous bursts.
John and Mary were suddenly at his side, a safe step away from the lion, but close enough to be in his line of sight.
“What happened?” Sherlock demanded. “How long has he been like this?”
“We don’t know. Couple of workers saw him come out of the menagerie,” Mary said. “He just…fell over.”
“It…looks like - ”
“I know what it looks like, John!” Sherlock shouted, his mind trying to catch up to the situation. “If he’s not too far gone, there might still be time…”
Has to be time, he thought frantically. If he was walking just a moment ago, the effects are still developing…seizures, rigid muscles, could have an hour, could have minutes…
“Sherlock there’s nothing - ” John’s voice interrupted his thoughts.
“Get charcoal,” Sherlock ordered. “Bring it here, now!”
“Charcoal?” John asked, utterly confused.
“Get a bloody piece of burnt wood from a fire and bring it here!” Sherlock shouted, cradling Tacitus’ head in his lap. “Mary, find a bucket and fill it with water.”
The couple took off in opposite directions to search for the items he needed, followed by the baffled stares of the company as they watched the drama unfolding in front of them. Sherlock carefully watched Tacitus’ eyes, fear gripping his heart at the dull, unfocused way they looked. The weight of the lion’s head in his lap was too much…it was the weight of a dead sleep. He closed his eyes, head dropping briefly as he gathered himself and swallowed down the threat of bile rising in his throat. When he looked up again, his eyes caught Molly’s. She was standing at the front of the crowd, her face dropped in alarm and worry.
John returned within moments, a darkly charred piece of firewood in hand. Mary was close behind him, placing the bucket on the ground next to Sherlock when he indicated where he wanted it. Taking a pocketknife from his trousers, Sherlock chipped at the burnt wood, shaving off chunks of soot into the bucket of water next to him until it turned into a black slurry. He looked up again, straight at Molly.
“Molly,” he pleaded, and she was at his side in an instant.
He handed her the bucket, then placed both hands on the lion’s jaws.
“When I open his mouth, you need to pour the water in.”
“What?” she exclaimed.
“He won’t hurt you, I promise,” he said, looking her in the eyes and imploring her to do this for him.
After a moment’s hesitation, she nodded, finding a better grip on the bucket and readying herself. He pressed his fingers between the lion’s lips and gently pried his mouth open, whispering words of encouragement. Molly leaned over and tipped the bucket, emptying the mixture of water and charcoal into Tacitus’ throat. The lion shuddered, muscles twitching at the intrusion of liquid. Sherlock quickly forced his mouth closed, holding his head close to ensure he would not spit the liquid back out and running a hand along his throat to encourage him to swallow.
A few minutes passed and the lion let out a few heaving breaths and closed his eyes. But he kept breathing.
Day passed into evening, and then into night, the tent of the menagerie darkening and only dimly lit by a few lanterns once the animal acts were over for the night. Sherlock could hear the crowd and the music, the cheering for the performances swelling and dying intermittently as the night progressed.
The chain attached to Tacitus’ back ankle rattled gently as the lion shifted in his sleep, resting well since recovering and being given a mild sedative. Sherlock only kept them on hand for emergencies and veterinary examinations. He’d been hesitant to administer one so close to the episode, but Mycroft had insisted that if the animal was to be kept of out the cage for the night, away from the others for safety, a sedative and the blasted shackles were the trade off. Still, Sherlock insisted on staying with him, forgoing the show, much to Mycroft’s resentment. He understood his brother’s annoyance. The missing acts were cutting the show short and people expected certain spectacles.
Perhaps in Bristol he would bring the lions back to the ring. If Tacitus continued to improve, that was.
He looked down at the giant face of the lion, his head butted right up against Sherlock’s hip and thigh like a common housecat. He’d been given to Sherlock as a gift by his parents when he was fifteen; a yowling ball of fur and claws that had been the start of his very own act. He’d been warned by those with much more experience that the males were the hardest to train, that they needed a hard hand to keep them in line. That had never been the case. None of his animals needed that, though some blamed his leniency for his accident. Not many knew the truth about why one of his females had gotten the better of him.
It was your own damn fault, Mycroft’s voice echoed in his head. You lost your focus. Let yourself get distracted, and for what? A little bit of pleasure. Now you see what that got you.
He ran his hand through the dense fur of the lion’s mane, trying and failing not to feel guilty all over again.
The flaps of the entrance to the tent opened and John and Mary walked in. Sherlock caught sight of the stream of performers and workers making their way through the yard behind them before the flaps closed again. The show was over, then.
“Doing all right, mate?” John asked, slipping an arm around Mary’s shoulder as they walked forward.
John tipped his head slightly with an amused smirk.
“I actually meant you, but good to know,” he said, amused.
“Why wouldn’t I be all right, I’m not the one who was poisoned,” Sherlock said tersely.
Mary looked at John, sharing an unspoken moment of exasperation with him. Sherlock was not unused to the exchange.
“Do you know what it was?” Mary asked.
“Stiff movement, rigid limbs, muscle spasms, respiratory problems,” Sherlock rattled off the symptoms he’d witnessed, as well as though seen by the workers who’d first found Tacitus. “Strychnine, most likely. It fits.”
John blinked, looking at the lion and then back to Sherlock.
“How did he get out?” he asked.
“How indeed,” Sherlock said, gazing off into space. “And more importantly, how did the cage get closed behind him?”
The tent flaps rustled again and they all turned their heads to see Molly. She looked startled to see John and Mary, clasping her hands in front of her as she hesitated in the entrance.
“Sorry,” she said meekly. “I just wanted to see…how he was doing.”
John and Mary looked back to Sherlock, who kept his face neutral, neither welcoming nor rejecting Molly’s presence.
“We’ll see you at loading, then,” Mary told Sherlock, taking John’s hand and leading him out of the tent. “G’night.”
Molly watched them go, and then turned back to Sherlock. She always looked so timid in the menagerie, certainly more so than anywhere else he’d seen her. Curious, since he’d found her in there twice…
She took a few tentative steps forward, smiling a little.
“He looks better,” she offered.
“He is,” Sherlock replied curtly.
She stopped moving, blinking rapidly at his sharp tone.
“Are you angry with me?” she asked.
“Do I have reason to be?” he shot back.
Molly gaped at him, looking between him and his lion as she shifted on her feet.
“What are you suggesting?” she said defensively.
“You’ve certainly been very keen on them,” Sherlock said, pushing himself to his feet and walking towards her. “So even though you can’t go near the cage without shaking, perhaps you were able to tell someone else when people are here and when they aren’t and how the cage opens.” His voice dropped as he stepped within a foot of her. “Because unlike the pick pocketing and the knife…this…was clearly not an accident.”
He could see the muscles in her jaw constricting and her eyes glinted with bitterness.
“I had nothing to do with this,” she hissed. “I would never. But if it makes you feel better, if it makes you feel so clever, search my van. Check every nook and cranny to try to prove whatever it is you’re so eager to prove about us. I can promise you, you won’t find a bloody thing, because I would never do something like this.”
It hurt him to follow through. But even Mycroft couldn’t deny that, at the very least, someone had been careless with rat poison and almost cost him a prized act. So before anyone was allowed to pack in and board the train, every van and bunk was turned upside down by Anderson and Mycroft, every bottle and tin of food inspected. The way Molly looked at him as she stood outside her van, waiting for them to finish going through her things, was enough to make him hate himself for thinking what he did. Because in truth, he knew that she hadn’t done anything. Of course she hadn’t. But she was close to the one person he had every reason to believe had…
The train rocked back and forth gently, making the curtains that surrounded Molly’s bunk sway. Through the break in the curtains, she could see Jim sitting at the small desk in their private train compartment. He was busy tending to the chrysalides inside their wooden box, making sure they had enough stock to get them through the next few weeks.
It wouldn’t be a long ride to Bristol, but Molly already felt that she couldn’t survive the entire journey trapped in the cabin. She pulled back the curtain and swung her legs over the side of the bed, slipping her feet into her heeled shoes.
“Where are you going?” Jim asked dully, not even looking up.
“Hungry,” she said, straightening her linen dress as she stood.
“You just had dinner.”
“Hungry still, then,” she said, reaching for the door handle. “Want anything?”
“Mm-m,” Jim replied, which Molly took to mean no.
She hopped between cars until she reached the kitchen. It hadn’t exactly been a lie. She was still hungry, unable to stomach much of dinner after the day she’d had. And the night before. All of it had been horrible. She’d been so afraid that Anderson (or worse, Mycroft) would find her box of things while ripping their van apart. It wasn’t as though she was ashamed of her past or truly wanted to hide it. But it was so very long ago that her parents had died, and everything she had she owed to Jim. It had all worked very well for her for many years and the last thing she wanted was anything rocking the boat.
Luckily for her, they’d dismissed the silk as random scraps of fabric and had missed the photograph altogether. Nothing at all had turned up to implicate anyone in the company of any wrongdoing.
Just as she’d told Sherlock.
Oh, the nerve of that man to insinuate she would do anything as despicable as that. What would ever drive her to be that malicious, or to help anyone who would hurt those poor creatures? She’d felt that never seeing his face again would be too soon for most of the day, but as her anger slowly tempered and she was forced to lie in her bunk with nothing to do but think, she began to forgive his words. He’d been scared out of his mind, which was honestly something she never thought she’d witness from him.
She knew the feeling. She understood how it was to feel that nothing seemed too insane if it meant keeping the ones you loved.
Finding the kitchen car empty, she helped herself to a slice of bread and jam before pulling a plate off a shelf and loading it with the same, plus a few spoonfuls of cold beans and potatoes that had been left over from dinner. She covered the plate with a clean towel and grabbed a fork before making her way through to the end of the car.
He hadn’t eaten in two days. Possibly more, but he’d nearly been a ghost after their encounter in his van and she hadn’t seen. His friends chalked it up to a quirk, assuming he’d come around eventually, but Molly wasn’t so sure.
She pushed her way into the first menagerie car, finding him easily enough. He was sitting against the wooden wall of the car right next to the small cage that held Tacitus, a lantern next to him on the floor and a book propped against his knee. His black curls swayed slightly with the movement of the train.
Sherlock glanced up at her when he heard the door shut. She smiled briefly, lifting the plate up.
“Peace offering?” she said uncertainly.
He stared at her for a moment, his expression set in its usual scrutinizing way.
“I rather think it should be the other way around,” he said, placing a thin string in the book before snapping it shut.
Molly took that as a sign to move forward, and so she did, placing the plate of food down next to him and finding a comfortable spot to sit.
“It takes more than a plate of beans to win me over,” she said teasingly.
“And what makes you think that’s good enough for me?” he asked, lowering his brow and fixing her with those knowing blue eyes.
“You haven’t eaten in two days, you must be starving,” Molly replied, nudging the plate towards him.
Sherlock pinched a corner of the tea towel between his finger and thumb and lifted it, taking a look at what was on the plate. Molly watched him hopefully.
“Perhaps later,” he muttered, letting the towel go. “Though the fact that you brought this to me leads me to believe that you’re not as mad at me as I thought you were. Or at least, you’re not anymore. Good thing, animosity within a company is a disease that only spreads.”
Molly glanced at the lion, who chose that moment to stretch and yawn, rumbling a little as he did so. He rolled onto his back with his paws dangling in the air and promptly fell back asleep. She smirked and looked at the ground.
“We do desperate things for the ones we love,” she told him. He snorted a bit at her choice of words. “You do love them. Otherwise you wouldn’t go half mad for a day when one of them… gets hurt,” she finished awkwardly. She took a quick little breath. “The point is, I understand.”
“My accusations were still inexcusable,” Sherlock said firmly. “For that, I apologize.”
Molly pursed her lips slightly, nodding.
“You haven’t told anyone about me, so…thank you,” she said sincerely.
He gave her a small smile and tipped his head towards her. Out of things to say on the topic, Molly looked towards the book in his hand.
“What are you reading?” she asked, reaching out and plucking it from his hand. “On the Origin of Species…”
“It’s a publication by a renowned biologist - ”
“Charles Darwin, yes, I’ve read it,” she interrupted, flipping through the pages and looking at the handwritten notes in the margins.
“You’ve…read it,” he said, sounding more than a little surprised.
“Yeah,” Molly said with a smile, handing the book back to him. “I do read. Shock, I know.”
“No, no, I didn’t mean that I thought you don’t…” He cleared his throat, correcting himself quickly. “It’s just that not many people have bothered…”
“Well,” Molly said, standing up and brushing the stray bits of straw off of her dress. “I did bother. I think you’ll find I bother with a lot of things no one else cares to.”
She smirked as she turned and walked toward the door of the car, leaving him slack jawed and without a smart retort on his tongue.
Chapter 9: Bristol
Bristol brought a small amount of relief to the heat of the summer, the ocean breeze making the tent more bearable and the night easier to sleep through. To delight of Mycroft and Anderson’s money box, Sherlock deemed his lions fit to perform in the first show.
It was only an hour after sunset that they finished, and after a quick wash up and a change of clothes he headed straight for his van, for once eager for a rest – it had been three days since he’d slept in his own bed. He’d tipped a few pounds into the hands of one of the workers in exchange for their keeping watch in the menagerie for the night.
He only made it halfway to his van before he was accosted by Mary, Sally, Lestrade, and John, already changed into their day clothes and clearly a drink or two into some hidden-away liquor.
“There’s a fête just outside of town, Sherlock!” Mary called, her hand wrapped firmly in John’s. “Do come with us.”
He opened his mouth, about to reply in the negative, when he looked over Mary’s shoulder and saw Irene and Janine across the yard, pulling Molly between them as they practically skipped towards town. It shouldn’t have been so damn cliché, her dashing across the grass in a light pink frock, her hair curled and tucked against the base of her neck.
He could hardly say no to the invitation.
It seemed that half the company got the idea to be the entertained rather than the entertainer for the remainder of the evening. Amongst the locals walking through the booths of games and food, their children running wild and eating every sweet in sight, the performers joined in the fun. There were colored lanterns strung up between the trees of the green, adding an element of whimsy to the regular electric lights in the row of booths. Behind one row, a rickety looking carousel and a small Ferris wheel spun people around, eliciting a shout of excitement every once in a while. At the far end of the festivities, a band was set up in a gazebo, playing catchy tunes as couples danced on the grass.
It didn’t take long to lose Sally and Lestrade to the dancing, difficult though it was with Lestrade’s arm still in a sling. John became distracted with some game that involved throwing rings at a target, determined to win a prize for Mary.
Sherlock wandered off, looking around and pretending he wasn’t looking for anyone in particular. He spotted that no-one-in-particular looking at the offerings of an ice cream vendor. Pushing his way through the crowd of people, he found his way to her side, looking down at the cold cream.
“Are you buying or admiring?”
She started a little, but quickly smiled.
“Oh, just admiring,” she told him. “Janine grabbed me so quickly, I didn’t have time to get my purse.”
“Then let me,” Sherlock offered, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a few shillings. “Which flavor?”
“Strawberry, please,” Molly said, looking happily at the vendor.
“And you, sir?” the gentleman asked, scooping a generous helping of strawberry ice cream into a small paper dish.
“Oh, uh.” Sherlock waffled, clearly not expecting to join Molly in enjoying the treat. “Vanilla…”
“A classic,” the vendor smiled, handing Molly her dish before preparing his.
“A classic,” Sherlock repeated as he and Molly walked away, heading down the path towards the band. “Was that a polite way of saying - ”
“Boring, yes,” Molly confirmed for him, trying to hold back a grin.
“Boring?” he said, frowning down at the dish. “I like vanilla.”
Molly leaned over and bumped his arm with her shoulder.
“It’s a fine choice,” she assured him.
Sherlock looked at her skeptically for a moment, but she had already turned her attention towards looking at the rest of what the fête had to offer and spooning delicate portions of the strawberry ice cream into her mouth.
“Where have your chaperones gone?” he asked finally, guiding them towards a short stone wall that bordered the back side of the gazebo. They slipped behind it, away from the press of the crowd.
“The last I saw, they were scandalizing the sensitivities of the locals on the carousel,” Molly laughed, leaning against the stone.
“Mm. Hopefully not too strongly, we still want to make sure people buy tickets tomorrow.”
“If anything, I think they’re ensuring that people come,” Molly said, placing the nearly empty dish on the top of the wall.
She licked the last remaining bits of ice cream from the corner of her mouth, making Sherlock entirely too aware of that part of her anatomy. What was wrong with him? One day he was half convinced that she was helping Jim to ruin their company, and the next he was feeling things towards her that he swore long ago he would never allow himself to feel again. Except, it seemed to be more than just lust, more than the heady carelessness of a first love that had plagued him when he was an idiot youth. No one had infiltrated his mind as fully as Molly had managed to.
Molly glanced at him and his eyes darted away, realizing he had been staring. He took a large spoonful of his ice cream and shoved it into his mouth, almost immediately regretting the choice as the cold seized his head and throat.
“You okay?” Molly asked with a little giggle.
“No’ used to ea’ing ice cweam,” he said around the mouthful, afraid to swallow more of it. “Been yea’s.”
“Give it a moment, it’ll get better,” she told him.
Sherlock placed the dish on the wall as well, rubbing the bridge of his nose as the sensation abated slowly.
“Well that’s nothing I ever want to experience again,” he muttered.
“Oh, everyone should know the feeling of eating ice cream too fast,” Molly said. “It’s one of those things you just have to experience in life. Like jumping into a cold stream or burning your tongue on chestnuts as Christmas or getting thoroughly kissed for the first time. Anyone who goes through life without all that, well, that’s just gin rummy.”
“That’s relying on external sensation to get you through life, to provide the impetus to get from one day to another, when simple mental stimulation is a far more reliable and beneficial activity” he argued, gesturing to his head. “Not to mention less hazardous.”
“Maybe. But there are certain things your brain can’t help you pretend to experience,” she said with a mischievous grin, grabbing his hand and leading him away from the fence. “Like dancing.”
Sherlock was too stunned to do anything other than go along with it when Molly pulled him to her, her right hand grasping his left and her other resting on his shoulder. Out of habit (or perhaps instinct), he encircled her waist with his left arm, only stumbling a little when she led him in a slight sway to the music.
“Do you like this song?” she asked, smiling up at him.
“I…I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” she said with a small laugh.
“I don’t listen to records,” he told her, frowning. “Or the radio. With the exception of classical pieces, music doesn’t interest me.”
“You don’t know any songs on the radio?” she asked with a curious smile.
“What for? They change every year and everyone forgets what was popular the year before. Pointless,” he answered, shrugging.
“It is not,” Molly said indignantly. “They’re fun and lovely and sweet. And I like to sing.”
“Ah yes, singing along,” he interrupted. “I almost forgot. What an incredible waste of space, remembering song lyrics.”
“A waste of space?” she repeated, her nose scrunching up, looking at him as though he were insane.
“The human brain can only remember so much,” he explained. “Why fill it all up with meaningless, ridiculous frivolity.”
“I happen to like frivolity,” Molly defended herself, imitating his haughty tone with the last word. “So if my brain is chock full of this month’s favorite tune, then so be it.”
The musical interlude of the song came to an end and the singer started up again. Sherlock glanced in the direction of the band and then back at Molly.
“You know this one, then?” he asked, raising an eyebrow in a silent challenge.
Molly smirked, waiting for the right moment to join the song. Her voice was nowhere near as strong or elegant as the woman in the gazebo, but she sounded sweet and managed to carry a tune.
“And when my baby smiles at me, there's such a wonderful light in his eyes. The kind of light that means just love. The kind of love that brings sweet harmony. I sigh, I cry! It's just a glimpse of heaven, when my baby smiles at me….”
The last lines she sang a little more quietly, a little slower than the performer on stage. The mirth in her face dropped as he slowed them, staring intently into her eyes. Sherlock had always been under the impression that a moment like that would be filled with pounding hearts and shaking hands. Countless first hand accounts from acquaintances and passages in books had implied that was what would happen, should he ever find himself in the position to experience it.
He felt none of that. His hands were sure and steady as they held her waist, and her hand. His heart beat strongly, but there was nothing excessive about it. His mind was quite clear.
Sherlock lowered his head, pausing only long enough to watch Molly’s lips part expectantly, her eyes darkening. His eyes closed as their lips met, given over completely to physical sensation. Perhaps, he thought vaguely as he felt her velvety lips move against his, still tasting of strawberry cream, perhaps she’s right. No amount of imagining could ever compare to this…
He heard her let out a pleased sigh as he slid his hand along the nape of her neck, tightening his hold on her waist in an attempt to be closer, to feel more of her. Her skin was smooth and warm to the touch and he could feel her taut muscles beneath the chiffon fabric of her dress. His whole body flushed when her small, strong arms wound around his back, her fingers gripping his shirt. Almost without thinking, he pushed her backwards a few feet until her back was against the trunk of a nearby tree. Shrouded in the darkness of the canopy and out of sight of the fête, he let his hands roam over the curves of her body, let his lips and tongue caress hers, felt the thrum of her pulse beneath her skin as he kissed her neck, and tried desperately not to think about rucking her skirt up right there and relieving the tightness in his trousers. She wasn’t making it easy, boldly pressing her hips against his and holding him impossibly tight.
After what seemed like an eternity, he broke away from her, pressing one last gentle kiss on her lips before resting his forehead against hers. Her lips were pink and full, her eyes closed dreamily as she composed herself. In that moment, she was all soft curves and flushed skin, and he’d never wanted anything so badly in his life. When her eyes fluttered open and she looked up at him, he knew for certain that he was in trouble.
He jumped a foot backwards at the sound of Mary calling his name, obviously not far off. Molly’s eyes widened, but she giggled at him, raising her hands to cover her mouth in embarrassment.
“Where’d you go, mate?”
John this time, and if they didn’t move quickly, John and Mary would walk right upon them.
“Looks like we’re caught,” Molly whispered. “Will they say anything?”
“Not if I have anything to do with it,” Sherlock promised her.
Together, they stepped out from behind the tree trunk, expecting to go have a little space between themselves and the trapeze couple. They stopped short when they saw John and Mary only ten feet from the tree. John looked them up and down, doing a poor job of hiding his amusement, while Mary looked pleased as punch.
“Did you get lost?” John asked slyly.
“No,” Sherlock said abruptly. “Just needed a little air away from the crowd.”
“Uh huh,” Mary replied doubtfully, turning back towards the avenue of booths. “Well you’d better come along, most everyone is heading back. Wouldn’t want either of you to be missed.”
Sherlock fell in step with John, and Mary and Molly followed closely behind.
“What happened to your hair?” John asked, furrowing his brow as he looked up at his friend.
“Nothing. Wind,” Sherlock said quickly, reaching his hand up to run his fingers through his curls, trying to tame whatever Molly had managed to do with her perfect hands.
It was then that he glanced down and noticed the top two buttons of his shirt had been undone. When had she done that?
John and Mary broke off to go to their van when they all reached the yard. Mary gave Sherlock very pointed instructions to get Molly back to her quarters safely, which he was perfectly happy to do - with one small detour.
Looking around quickly to make sure none of the busybodies in the yard were paying them any mind, he took Molly’s hand and pulled her into the darkness behind his own van, pressing her against the wooden planks. She looked at him with heavy lidded eyes, reaching up to lace her hands into the hair at the nape of his neck, pulling his head down and kissing him until he could hardly breathe. She nipped as his lower lip, ran her tongue along the sensitive skin, making him moan against her mouth. There was no protest when he smoothed his hand over her bum before squeezing the soft flesh, simultaneously pushing a knee between her legs as much as her dress would allow. Molly whimpered and clung tighter to him, her head dropping back with a small thunk against the wall of his van.
“Sherlock,” she moaned as he kissed her collarbone. “I can’t stay…”
“I know,” he rumbled, lifting his head and claiming her mouth again.
“I have to go,” she muttered between his kisses.
“I know,” he repeated, slowing his movements until he simply hovered over her lips. He closed his eyes. “I know…”
Her hands slid away from where they had been holding his shoulders, then rested gently on the front of his shirt.
“I wish that I could,” she whispered. “You have no idea how much.”
“Oh, my Molly,” he murmured, pressing his lips to her forehead. “What have we gotten ourselves into?”
Chapter 10: Birmingham
It was a dangerous game they were playing.
Molly had felt Jim’s eyes on her every moment since the night of the fête. Maybe it was the flush in her skin or the state of her hair, though she’d done everything she could to compose herself before walking into their van, but she was certain he knew. The way he had looked at her when she walked inside, the disappointment and the judgment…there was little chance he didn’t suspect what she’d been up to. He’d not let her go anywhere alone, placing a firm hand on her back as they walked to the main tent, and again on the way back. He stayed up late and rose early, keeping tabs on her every second of the day.
“Because you don’t know what you’re doing,” he’d said firmly when she demanded to know why he was behaving that way. He’d caressed her cheek at the sullen look on her face and suddenly he was the protector she’d grown up with. “I don’t want to see you hurt, Molls…ever.”
She knew that Sherlock was aware of the game Jim was playing. He hovered just on the edge of the duo, catching her eye when they passed each other backstage, watching them from across the dining car as their train rattled its way to Birmingham. He was biding his time.
And so was she. For whatever reason, Jim was more determined to control her behavior than ever before, but she’d skirted his watchful eye in the past and had no doubt she could do it again. That night in Bristol had lit a fire in her she didn’t know existed and the only thing she wanted was Sherlock’s touch, his lips, his mind focused solely on her. What they had started was nowhere near finished. Molly never wanted it to be finished; she wanted his arms holding her every day until she died. There was something a bit frightening in that thought; the intensity of her passion was something she’d never felt before and it left her all at sea. But overriding that feeling was the thrill of knowing that he wanted her as much as she wanted him, and trusting that he would find a way to her.
It didn’t surprise her in the least to pass Irene on the way to the loo as they traveled to Birmingham and have the other woman press a slip of paper into her palm, smiling knowingly before walking on.
Once inside the privacy of the loo, Molly unfolded that paper and immediately recognized the script – it was exactly the same as the margin notes in his book.
First show. Under the left risers. After the parade.
She took extra care applying her makeup that night in the dressing area, making sure that the curl in her hair stayed put. When no one was looking, she reached into the top of her dress and gave her breasts a tug, hoping that would do the trick for a little while at least. Not that Sherlock seemed the type to care about those things, but it made her feel better and she needed something to do to distract herself from the thought of what Sherlock had planned. She was nervous. Ecstatic, but nervous. She reached for her lipstick again, spreading it over her lips carefully for the second time since sitting down at the vanity.
Mary appeared in the mirror behind her, leaning down next to Molly so that they were side by side.
“I don’t know why you’re bothering, that’s coming off if you do things right,” she said.
“Mary!” Molly cried, seeing her own face flush in the mirror.
“She’s right,” Irene chimed in from her spot in the corner.
Molly smiled, shaking her head in disbelief as she put her makeup back in its box. She and all the others froze in place when the curtain to the dressing area was pulled open and Jim stepped inside, dropping his things on a chair next to the entrance. Molly’s head snapped forward, her hands scrambling for anything on the table to keep them occupied.
“Oi,” Sally said, standing to her full height and staring him down. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Jim glanced at her.
“Waiting for the show to begin,” he said with a false smile, spreading his hands wide.
“I think what she means is, what are you doing in here?” Mary said, her voice unfriendly.
“My dear ladies, I come in here every show,” Jim told them, looking amused. “Don’t tell me you are all suddenly shy.”
“Yeah, you can come in here when you’re act is over, like is usual,” Sally said crossly.
“But it’s not after your act at the moment and we want our dressing room. So get out,” Irene added.
Jim looked between the women, his mouth set in irritation, but he relented, roughly pushing the curtain aside and leaving it open as he stormed off. Janine reached out and yanked it shut again, then looked at Molly and winked. At the other end of the row of tables, Mary held open the curtained wall and smiled delightedly, nodding towards the outside of the dressing area. Molly didn’t wait for a second invitation.
She slipped out, keeping to the darkened walls of the tent as she hurried towards the big top. She was well hidden in the corner and in the blink of an eye she was through to the other side, finding herself immediately in the shadows behind the raised rows of patrons, who were too busy watching the show to look back and notice her.
Clearly she wasn’t the only one they had missed.
Waiting for her in the darkness under the rows of seats was Sherlock, sitting on the straw-covered ground with a smug smile on his face and his hands clasped over his raised knees. Molly walked over to him, pretending not to be terribly impressed with his plan as she knelt down.
“Romantic spot,” she said.
“It was the only place I could think of where we wouldn’t be stumbled upon,” he replied, dropping a hand to the ground behind her and leaning closer.
“A likely story,” she murmured teasingly. “I bet you bring all the girls here.”
“Just one,” he assured her, his lips meeting hers as the crowd cheered and laughed at the antics of the clowns in the ring.
Molly’s body fairly sang as Sherlock pressed into her, slipping an arm across her stomach to pull her closer. If only his mouth touched hers she would have been reduced to a puddle, but his hand on her waist and his torso flush with hers made her desperate from the pleasure. It had been years since anyone had made her feel so overwhelmingly consumed with want. Molly slid a hand over his shoulder, along the muscular curve of his beautiful neck, and anchored herself as she rose up on her knees.
Sherlock groaned an almost incomprehensible ‘yes’ when she straddled his lap, watching the lights from the ring hit his face in random patterns, lifting him out of shadow one moment and leaving him in darkness the next. The crowd above them clapped enthusiastically, sending a jolt of reverberation through the seats just feet above their heads.
“Gorgeous,” he whispered, taking her face in both hands and pulling her mouth back to his.
Her breathing turned ragged as he deepened the kiss, his lips crushing hers in the most delicious way, his hot tongue dipping into her mouth to taste her briefly. She squirmed in his lap and was rewarded by a deep growl from his throat, one hand dropping to her arse to grip her while the other fell to one breast, massaging her flesh firmly. Molly’s blood coursed through her body, her center absolutely thrumming with anticipation, feeling Sherlock’s own hot arousal through her knickers.
The band began playing a new tune, setting the pace for a new act, which was met with cheers.
His fingers began to play at the fabric over her hipbone, ever so slowly collecting the satin as it rose on her thigh. She moaned quietly and arched into him, her head dropping back as he dragged his lips across her neck, leaving her shivering from the sensations. Oh, she’d spent hours remembering the way he touched her, and even more imagining what it would feel like to have his hands in other places…
“Please,” she whispered desperately. Oh God, please, Sherlock…just a little more…
Reading her thoughts, he ran his hand over the top of her thigh, and his thumb disappeared under the hem of her dress. Molly bit her lip to hold back a shout, her head dropping to his shoulder and her whole body tensing when his thumb pressed against the bud between her legs.
She whimpered as he continued to rub his thumb in small circles over her, feeling her muscles flutter in response. Although her last few encounters with men hadn’t been lacking, few of them knew to bother with touching her in that way. It wasn’t at all a surprise that a man like Sherlock would not only know, but would so it so well. Her hips rocked slowly against him, her body tightening as he brought her closer to her release…
Shocked gasps and cries from the crowd caused them both to stop, freezing in fear for a moment, breathing hard. It only took Molly a second to realize that the reaction was not to them, but to something happening in the ring. Someone shouted and she heard a loud snap. Her eyes met Sherlock’s and she saw her alarm reflected back at her. In the next moment, frightened cries arose as something hit the ground with a sickening crunch.
She was on her feet in an instant, pulling Sherlock along with her, and they ran towards the edge of the seating platform, slipping between the wood and the tent wall. They strained to see what had happened over the patrons standing and moving around. Being taller, Sherlock realized what had happened first.
“No. No, move!” he yelled, dropping Molly’s hand and pushing at flatties in order to get into the ring.
Molly followed as best as she could, clearing through the crowd just at the edge of the ring. Workmen were rushing forward, stretching a blanket between them and looking up to center themselves under Mary, who was still clinging to the rope suspended from the rigging. The second the blanket was in place, Mary dropped down from what remained of the trapeze, landing in a heap before scrambling off the blanket. One rope of the trapeze was broken in two, the cutaway bar dangling from only one side.
Swallowing the sick feeling rising in her stomach, she steeled herself and looked down. Sherlock and Mary were hovering over John. He wasn’t moving and his arm was bent at an unnatural angle.
Many of the members of the company had emerged from the staging area to find out what had happened and she vaguely heard their voices behind her, most asking if anyone had seen what caused the accident.
“Looks as though the rope snapped.”
She heard Jim’s voice off to her right and she turned to look at him, her stomach twisting as she realized she might as well have been caught red handed with Sherlock as far as Jim was concerned. It was obvious enough that she hadn’t emerged from backstage with the rest.
“Pity when an act can’t keep their equipment up to standard,” he added, earning a hesitant nod from one of the contortionists.
Jim’s eyes flicked over and locked with Molly’s. He stared her down for a moment, and then he smiled – a casual, light smile that was wholly out of place considering what was happening. He looked her up and down once before turning and disappearing behind the group of troupers. Molly felt an odd shiver creep under her skin.
In the three seconds it took Sherlock to run to John, dozens of thoughts shot through his head. The distance from the trapeze to the ground was approximately twenty feet, survivable in almost every scenario but severe injury was a certainty. No blood. Possibly unconscious due to lack of movement. If the wind was knocked out of him, he could be struggling to breathe.
When he reached John, he quickly realized that the man’s arm was broken, possibly dislocated. He was definitely unconscious.
“John!” Mary cried, falling to her knees and leaning over her husband, taking his face in her hands. “John, can you hear me?”
“Go and fetch a doctor,” Sherlock ordered one of the workmen.
Sherlock looked up when he heard Anderson volunteer and noticed the bookkeeper and his brother standing nearby. Anderson turned away and rushed out of the tent. In the next moment, John groaned, stirring a little before Mary placed a hand on his chest, the other stroking his face.
“Lie still, love,” she said, her voice shaking.
“Don’t let him move that arm,” Sherlock told her, eying the injury with trepidation. Thinking quickly, he pulled his shirt off, leaving him in his vest as he fashioned his shirt into a sling. Mary caught on to what he was doing, gently slipping an arm under John’s shoulders and coaxing him to sit up.
It was then that Sherlock became acutely aware of how very quiet the tent was. Close to two hundred people were nearly silent, watching with a combination of fear and rapt curiosity. He looked up at Mycroft and was taken aback to see the frozen look of distress on his brother’s face.
Gingerly as he could, he looped the shirt under John’s arm and tied the sleeves behind his neck, forcing himself to ignore the grunts of pain from his friend.
“Can you help him stand?” he muttered to Mary.
“I think so,” she said, looking to a nearby workman for help.
As they carefully lifted John to his feet, mindful of his arm, a few dozen people in the audience began to clap, shouting words of encouragement for them. ‘Good lad!’ and ‘Steady on, then!’ came from the mouths of those surrounding the ring. Sherlock watched John limp out of the tent, Mary’s arm firmly around his waist, and then turned to look at Mycroft. The show was stopped, the crowd was standing stagnant, the company was waiting at the edge of the ring, and his brother was locked up.
Sherlock stepped into the center of the ring.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we do apologize,” he boomed, smiling his most endearing smile and turning to all sides of the gallery. “It is not always champagne and roses under the tent, but rest assured, he will be well looked after. Just as we wish to look after you fine lot, with the best show the world has to offer! Please, take your seats as Sally the Spectacular thrills you with her command of fire!”
He looked over to see Sally staring at him in disbelief, but she walked forward out of the crowd of troupers. The rest of them began to applaud, stirring the audience and lightening the mood.
“Sally the Spectacular?” she muttered at him as she passed him on her way to the center of the ring.
“I was winging it,” he ground out, motioning for the trouper working the rigging to lift the trapeze out of the ring.
“Clearly,” she said, plastering on a fake smile and waving at the crowd as she waited for a workman to run towards them with her things. Her tone turned concerned as she went on. “Is he okay?”
“No,” Sherlock said seriously, relieved when the workman reached them and he could escape the ring.
He ignored the hounding questions from those waiting backstage, barking a quick order at someone to save the trapeze ropes for him. In the silence of the yard as he walked towards the Watsons’ van, he allowed a momentary rush of dread to take over his body. For one horrifying moment, he’d looked at John lying on the ground and hadn’t known if he was dead or alive. He never thought he’d face a moment like that. John was supposed to be there with him. Always.
Mary was helping John to settle into the little bed at the back of their van when he walked in. She had steady hands and a soothing voice as she arranged the pillows to keep him as comfortable as possible, but Sherlock could see that her face had been nearly drained of color, her brow taut with worry. His own breathing increased as he watched John struggle to bite back the curses that he wished to unleash, his eyes tightly shut and watering at the corners.
The uselessness that Sherlock felt was agonizing.
A few minutes later, the van door opened and Anderson led in a tall, bespectacled doctor. The man rushed to the bedside, unfastening his black bag and extracting a bottle and a needle. After administering the dose of morphine to help with John’s pain, he untied the sleeves of Sherlock’s shirt and let it drop away, gently inspecting the break in John’s arm.
Mary watched, her thumb nail in her teeth and her body rocking side to side slightly with anxiety.
“It’s not good,” the doctor said. “But it can be set. It should heal all right, with proper care.”
Mary smiled weakly, looking down at her husband as the doctor rummaged for the things he needed.
“I knew we should have bought new rope in London,” Mary lamented, gently carding her fingers through John’s hair.
“’S freak accident, Mary,” her husband said, reaching up with his good hand and gently placing his palm against her cheek. “Could happen with new rope…old rope…jus’ an accident…”
He drifted off as he closed his eyes, the effects of the morphine taking a stronger hold.
Sherlock couldn’t watch or listen to any more of it, turning and brushing past Anderson and out into the night. He walked beyond the lights of the caravan, seeking solitude in the field beyond the camp. Collapsing at the base of a tall oak tree, he raised clenched hands against his forehead and pressed down, trying desperately to relieve the pounding that was starting below his skull.
The sound of the grass rusting forced him to look up. Molly was standing before him, her concerned eyes flicking over him.
Oh Christ, he’d just abandoned her. Left her to the proverbial wolf in the middle of the chaos.
He raised himself up, his back scraping against the bark of the tree as he leaned on it, his legs not fully supportive of his body at that moment.
“I’m sorry,” he said hoarsely.
“I didn’t mean to leave you like that…did he…the show, did it - ”
“Sherlock, oh, stop,” she told him softly, stepping forward and smoothing her hands up his chest, finally resting them alongside his face. “No one cares about the show. Is John going to be okay?”
“Likely,” he replied, unable to bring himself to elaborate.
Sensing his hesitation to keep talking, she wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close, simply holding him in a way he hadn’t experienced for a long time. It soothed him, slowed his breath and his heart until he no longer felt as though he would combust. Sherlock closed his eyes, resting his cheek against the top of her head.
“I saw the rope,” Molly whispered cautiously.
He didn’t say anything, worried that if he did, the stream of accusations against Jim that ran through his head would come pouring out, and not kindly.
“What do you need me to do?” she asked him quietly after a moment’s silence.
The question stopped the barrage of thoughts in his mind. What did he need her to do? Was she offering what it sounded like she was offering? Jim had been the only person she could call family for nearly fifteen years; she’d made it very clear that he was the reason for her survival in the aftermath of her parents’ death. She was loyal to a fault. So then what was it that had her suddenly placing her loyalty in his hands?
“Sherlock?” she said hesitantly. “I know things aren’t right. Tell me what you need.”
He blinked, running a hand over her back.
“Watch him. Watch his every move.”
Chapter 11: Norwich
The people of Norwich didn’t let the slight drizzle of rain stop them from lining up outside of the tent, brollies aloft and money in their hands. Sherlock and Mycroft stood to the side of the ticket booth, wrapped in their long coats and listening to the people as they walked by. Sherlock avoided looking at his brother as he counted the number of people who had shown up hoping to see more than what the show usually had to offer.
“I ‘eard someone ‘ad ‘is arm cut off…”
“Didn’t a bloke fall and die?”
“Nah, mate, no one’s died…yet.”
After ten minutes of observing their patrons, Mycroft turned away and headed for the yard. Sherlock followed dutifully, reaching into his pocket for a cigarette and a match when they walked under the awning of the dining tent. Mycroft chose a table on the far end of the tent, sitting heavily in a chair and glancing around at the few troupers who were gathered for a quick bite to eat or a card game to pass the time before the show. Striking the match against the metal bracket of the table, Sherlock lit his cigarette and sat next to his brother.
“Do you have a spare?” Myrcoft asked casually.
Sherlock coughed, pulling the cigarette away from his mouth as he stared at Mycroft.
“You never smoke,” he said.
“I’m making an exception,” Mycroft told him, holding out his hand and nodding when Sherlock handed him a fag.
“You’ll be drinking next, I suppose,” Sherlock said, watching him take a long-missed drag, his eyes closing in relief.
“Not a chance,” Mycroft said quickly. “Some things should be given up permanently.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, letting the smoke curl around them and listening to the patter of rain on the tent above their heads. Sherlock knew the topic hardly needed discussion, but it had been a long time since he’d seen his brother off-center. As much as they butted heads, he still relied on Mycroft to be the steady one, to be the one in charge, because God knew that if he failed at that, Sherlock would be the one to have to step up. That would spell certain disaster for everyone. He didn’t want that control.
“We’ve done well before all of this started happening,” he said, keeping his tone mild. “Good profits to great profits and back to good is nothing to worry about.”
Mycroft said nothing, simply inspecting the burning tip of his cigarette for a moment, tapping it to deposit the excess ash on the ground.
“They’re coming to see us fail,” he finally said slowly, reaching up and running his other hand along his jaw. “I don’t think I need to tell you what happens to companies that become known for the macabre.”
“Momentary boom before bust,” Sherlock replied bluntly.
“We can’t afford that reputation,” Mycroft said with a tone of finality on the subject. “No one will work for us. No one will risk it.”
“I think you know my opinion on the solution to the problem…”
“There’s no proof, Sherlock,” Mycroft said, exasperated. “And if there was, what do you suggest I do? Fire half the act? Because I know you’re only interested in eliminating one of them. What good is half a magic act when we’re already down a juggler and a trapeze act?”
Sherlock chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment. Molly had never explicitly told him not to tell anyone about her skills. And it wasn’t as though he was blabbing it all over the camp; it was only Mycroft, who would either take advantage of it or chuck it away and never mention it again.
“She can do more than magic,” Sherlock said slowly.
Mycroft looked at him.
“What do you mean?”
Sherlock’s nose wrinkled as he contemplated how to describe what he’d seen.
“Aerials,” he said. “Not ropes or hoops or anything like that. She uses silk…long stretches of silk.”
“Silk?” Mycroft said, amused.
“Suspended from the rigging,” he went on, remembering the hypnotizing sight. “Climbing and manipulating and tumbling…”
“How do you know this?” his brother asked.
“I saw her do it,” Sherlock explained, fidgeting slightly in his seat. “In Derby. Early morning, when the tent was empty.”
“And is it the act that has bewitched you,” Mycroft said tartly, “or the woman doing it?”
Shoving the cigarette into the tabletop, Sherlock stood up abruptly.
“Your company is losing acts at every turn and I’m only trying to offer a solution,” he bit out. “But if you prefer to let it all go under - ”
“Sherlock,” Mycroft said contritely. “While I appreciate your input, I sincerely doubt that adding an act like that will be the solution to our problems. And I am not about to ask Jim Moriarty to exhaust his sister on two acts. Not if it means his would suffer.”
Sherlock glared down at his brother.
“What if he agreed to it,” he said.
“We could discuss it when we return to London tomorrow,” Mycroft told him, stumping out his own cigarette and standing. “Now go get ready.”
Sherlock did as he was told, but not without great effort. More than anything, he wanted to be alone with Molly, to find out if she would be willing. But his own request that she stay as close to Jim as possible to keep an eye on him had meant that they’d barely spoken in over a week. He knew her routine, though, and he knew that he would be able to find her on the way to the water pump car a few hours after the show ended.
She was hurrying along with the bucket of water, holding a shawl over her head as the rain began to come down in earnest.
“Molly,” he said, catching her attention.
“Sherlock? What are you doing out here?”
“I need to speak with you,” he said, placing a hand on her elbow and guiding her towards the nearest car.
He pulled himself up onto the ladder, yanking the door open before holding his hand out for her. She took it, holding on tightly as she climbed into the dry space. He followed, not bothering to shut the door; he had no ulterior motives, but it was an encounter he preferred have away from any curious troupers.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, sensing his mood.
“Your act, would you be willing to place it in the show?” he asked quickly.
“My…Sherlock, I’m already in an act in the - ”
“No not the magic,” he corrected himself. “The silk.”
Molly stared at him, her eyes narrowing.
“Why?” she asked flatly.
“We may need something new. Something to fill the gaps that are opening.”
She shifted a little, glancing around as though afraid that the walls had ears.
“Who knows about it?” she said quietly.
Sherlock felt his stomach tighten, knowing she wasn’t pleased. He stepped forward, but refrained from touching her.
“Only Mycroft,” he said reassuringly. “If he sees you, if he knows how good you are - ”
“It wouldn’t matter,” Molly interrupted sharply. “Because Jim would never let me. He doesn’t even know I still have them.”
“What does it matter what Jim says you can or can’t do?” he said, absolutely confused by her reasoning. He hated the man more than ever for the effect he apparently had on Molly. “He can’t stop you if Mycroft agrees - ”
“No, but he can very well kick me to the rails and find someone else,” Molly said through gritted teeth, taking a step closer to him and increasing her grip on the water bucket. “And if I’m not good enough on my own, then where am I? Without an act, without a talent, and without a home.”
“Do you honestly think I would let that happen to you?” Sherlock asked, finding himself hurt by her assumptions.
“This isn’t your company,” she told him with a look of pity. “If Mycroft didn’t like what I did, I suppose…I suppose you could keep me, but as what? Your bride? Living on charity while someone else takes my place next to Jim?”
The thought hadn’t even occurred to him and he knew she was right as soon as she said it. Just like the rest of them, Molly was too proud to become a burden to the company – a mouth to feed without being able to contribute. Not only that, but he knew she was far too talented to sideline simply because of his brash ideas.
“Do you even want to stay with him?” he asked her honestly.
Molly’s face fell.
“I don’t know,” she whispered, obviously feeling overwhelmingly guilty for admitting it. “He’s been acting so… but I haven’t seen anything to prove that he’s done these things. He’s all I’ve ever had, Sherlock… how could I live with it if we’re wrong?”
Giving in to the sight of her so visibly upset, Sherlock reached out and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close and placing a kiss on top of her head.
“I’m sorry, Molly,” he said gently. “I never meant for this to happen to you.”
Molly hurried back to her van to escape the rain, still shaken by her encounter with Sherlock. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust him or believe him that had her feeling like a boat in a storm. It was the fact that, for the first time in years, she was seeing a side of Jim that had her doubting the person she thought she knew. The more trouble the company faced, the more carefree he became when it came to their presence in the ring. He looked forward to shows. It was the only time she saw any mirth in his face.
His behavior had been odd…but did that mean he was capable of trying to hurt people?
Molly walked into the van and was startled out of her thoughts when she saw Jim going through the things under her kip.
“What are you doing?” she asked in surprise, dropping the bucket of water carelessly to the floor.
Rather than acting guilty for having been caught, Jim looked at her with accusatory eyes.
“What do you have these for?” he demanded, holding up a pair of French letters.
Molly went red, charging forward and snatching the packets out of his hand.
“You have no right - ”
“I have every right!” Jim shouted, standing up to face her. “When what you’re doing behind my back could ruin us, it is very much my right!”
“It’s not what you think,” she said sharply, shoving the French letters into the pocket of her coat.
“How long has it been going on?” Jim asked, his lip curling. “He’s been sniffing around you from the beginning…how long did it take for him to get what he wanted?”
“Jim, stop,” Molly begged.
“What do you think is going to happen when he eventually gets you up the duff? Hm? Who’s going to take care of you? It certainly won’t be me.”
“He would take care of me,” Molly argued, hoping deep down that she was right about that.
“No, no he won’t,” he laughed, looking at her as though she were stupid. “The Holmes Brothers only take care of their own. You’re daft if you think otherwise.”
“Then why did you bring us here?” she questioned him, following close behind when he turned away from her and braced himself on the small counter by his bed.
He said nothing for a moment, simply breathing hard, his head dropped down and his shoulders hunched.
“I had to,” he told her, quiet but intense. “I had no choice.”
Molly swallowed. He was hurting. She was never good with people hurting in front of her; it pulled at her heart far too much. Stepping closer, she smoothed a hand along his back.
“I know things aren’t like how they used to be,” Molly said softly. Jim tensed, his breathing halted for a brief moment, and she knew she’d hit a nerve. “But it’s been a long time…surely we can move on now that we’re here. Properly.”
“You want to just move on?” Jim asked quietly. “You, Molly, want to just forget everything he did for us and pretend that this cheap operation is a gift?”
“Seb - ”
“Don’t you dare talk to me about him,” Jim said, his voice dangerously low and even. “Not now.”
“Fine,” Molly said, hurt.
She let her hand drop away from his back and stood awkwardly in the middle of the van, unsure of what to do. If he didn’t want her comfort, then she wasn’t about to spend a whole evening handling his temper. She turned and walked towards the door.
“You think you’re leaving?” Jim said, looking at her with a sneer.
Molly felt her heart pound a little faster at his words.
“You obviously don’t want me here,” she told him.
“That doesn’t mean you get to leave,” he said, pushing up from the counter and taking deliberate steps towards her. “You don’t get to run to him. You’re staying right here.”
“I don’t have to listen to you,” she warned him, stepping backwards towards the door. “You’re not my father, you’re not my husband. You’re not even my brother. You don’t get to tell me what I can and cannot do every single bloody second.”
Jim looked her up and down, his jaw working as he assessed her. His tongue clicked against the roof of his mouth and he raised his hands in surrender.
“Get out, then,” he said, far too lightly.
Molly didn’t give him a chance to change his mind, storming out of the van and running across the puddle strewn yard, her heart hammering in her chest.
The rain pounded on the roof of Sherlock’s caravan, almost deafening in volume. He leaned against the pillows of his bed, one knee raised to prop the book as he read about the recent accomplishments of physics.
His eyes flicked up to the door when he heard his doorknob turn. The wood creaked open and in his doorway stood Molly. She looked at him, eyes filled with a desperation that made his heart speed up, her lips parted as she took deep breaths. She stepped inside, closing the door behind her, and dropped her coat. Underneath, she was wearing a thin yellow frock. She toed out of her shoes and crossed the small space to him in a few strides.
He sat up in alarm when she quickly climbed onto his bed, ripping the book from his hand and tossing it to the floor before leaning over and blowing out his lamp. The caravan was engulfed in darkness, but his eyes quickly adjusted as lights from outside filtered through his curtains. It was just enough to see her as she moved over him, one knee on either side of his thighs, her hands gripping his shoulders. His eyes moved everywhere, hardly at a loss as to what she was doing, but still wanting to watch her every movement as though he needed to predict what she would do next.
When her head bent forward and she kissed him, he found himself momentarily paralyzed. She was everything he wanted and suddenly she was right in his arms, waiting to be his. Her body felt delightfully heavy on his and her lips were soft and inviting, and she still smelled of flowers. Flowers and rain. Without thinking, his hands moved up to her waist, pulling her closer, and his mouth moved against hers, slow and gentle.
When her hands began to work at the buttons on his shirt, he broke away, reaching for her wrists and stilling her movements. There was something in her demeanor that was sending off alarms in his mind. He’d left her barely a half hour before, conflicted and upset, and now she was…well, she was inexplicably focused and determined.
“Molly,” he murmured, looking into her eyes. “Why…”
“Because I want to,” she whispered. “I need to.”
Sherlock refrained from saying anything, continuing to stare at her to seek out the truth. Her head dipped as her gaze dropped down, collecting herself before she looked back up at him with clear eyes.
“I’ve wanted you for a long time,” she confessed quietly. “Why not now?”
Her words won out over the part of his brain that was calling for better judgment. He couldn’t think of a single reason why not. Letting go of her wrists, he slid his hands around her waist again, thrilling at the feeling of her lips once more pressed to his, her nimble fingers undoing the buttons of his shirt.
He deepened the kiss, letting his tongue slip along hers as she pushed his shirt away from his shoulders, her hands, still cold and damp from the rain, moving gently over his bare skin. He shivered, gathering the fabric of her skirt up and nearly gasping when he found her completely bare beneath her dress. Their movements grew frantic, each pulling at buttons and hems until her dress was flying over her head and his trousers were being shoved down his legs, kicked off inelegantly and landing on the floor.
His hands dragged across her silky skin, pulling her body up against his before dropping his head and sucking one breast into his mouth. Molly arched against him, her hands threading through his hair and her nails pressing deliciously into his scalp as he flicked his tongue against the pearl of her nipple.
She moaned his name, reaching between them and sending stars bursting in his eyes when she grasped him, giving him a few strokes before guiding him towards the slick center of her body. His head lifted from her breast, eyes catching hers just as he felt her heat begin to envelop him, her body lowering onto his.
They stilled when she had taken him fully inside her, breathing equally unsteady.
Sherlock swallowed deliberately, trying to gain a little control of himself. She felt too good wrapped around him, her body pulsing around him and holding him tight. Looking into her eyes, he raised his hands and held her face, bringing her mouth to his and kissing her tenderly before allowing his hips to begin rocking against hers.
Chapter 12: Things That Were
Molly closed her eyes, her lips parted as she dropped her head to rest in the curve of Sherlock’s neck while he thrust into her. Oh, he was everything she’d ever imagined he’d be, and more. He held her with one arm, the other braced on the bed to give him more leverage. His breath was hot against her skin and she could feel every muscle in his body straining, holding back to give her pleasure. Almost involuntarily, her hips rolled against his, the friction adding to the sensation of him inside her tenfold. Her fingers dug into his shoulders and she whimpered, her body tingling with the promise of relief.
Her eyes snapped open when she felt him grip her harder, lifting his body and rolling them until she lay beneath him. His eyes, nearly engulfed by their black centers, looked down at her and she trembled at finding herself the center of Sherlock’s undivided focus and desire. With his new position, he drove into her with renewed energy, grinding against her for good measure, his kisses drowning her cries of pleasure.
Molly’s hands grappled for purchase on his hips as she felt her body tensing, every muscle on the precipice, until finally, finally, her body shook with waves of release and she gasped his name. With a desperate groan, he joined her, his hips crashing into hers a final time and his body collapsing onto her as he held her close. His heart thundered against her chest and she wrapped her arms around him, little aftershocks of her climax spreading through her every time she felt him pulse inside her.
Some moments later, she felt him pull back, one large hand caressing her rain damp hair as he lifted himself off of her. He tucked up against her side, one arm looping lazily across her stomach and his sweaty forehead resting on her shoulder.
“Ten years since I’ve done that,” he offered idly.
Molly smiled up at the ceiling.
“You did well,” she praised him, reaching for the quilt that had wound up rumpled against the wall, pulling it over them as the air cooled.
He chuckled lowly, giving her side a squeeze.
“Very happy to meet with your approval.”
“Me too,” she said with a teasing smile, turning on her side to face him.
His eyes were heavy lidded as he smiled at her and for once his brow was relaxed. He looked magnificent. Molly ran her fingers through his hair and down his shoulder, slipping her hand under his arm and around to encircle his waist.
“We go back to London tomorrow for the last few shows,” he said. “I hope you reconsider what you have to offer the company…”
She sighed, but smiled at him. “I will.”
“And if you need to find other accommodations to travel… well, I’m sure we could arrange something.”
“Oh?” she said, giving him a smart look.
“It’s not something that comes easily to me, Molly,” he said, looking down at his arm around her. “Sentiment is not second nature. But I would make every effort…”
Molly felt a lump rise in her throat and she leaned forward and kissed him, grateful that he would put himself in that position for her. He kissed her back, deeply, before breaking away and tucking her against him. She felt safe in the cocoon of his arms, closing her eyes and easily drifting into sleep as she listened to the patter of rain on the roof and the beat of his heart next to her ear.
A thin darkness still encompassed the van when Molly slowly woke, reluctant to leave the tender sleep she had been in, wrapped in Sherlock’s embrace. She let her limbs stretch out gently, worried she would disturb him. She should have known that he would be awake already, simply resting against her while she slumbered.
Turning in his arms, she buried her face against his chest, smelling the sweat from the night before still clinging to his skin and mixing with the scent of his soap. She hadn’t had many morning afters, and she felt somewhat nervous, worried that she’d overstayed her welcome despite his words to her.
Sherlock’s hands ran over her back, his muscles flexing as he pulled her closer, dropping lazy kisses on the top of her head. She could feel him against her belly, hard and warm, and it made her yearn to be joined with him again. Fortunately, he seemed to be of the same mind, gently coaxing her onto her back and lifting himself over her. Even in the dark, she could tell that his hair was wild and tousled. She ran her hands through it as he began kissing his way down her body, lingering to whisper sweet words against her breasts before dropping to her navel and continuing…
“Oh,” she sighed, her eyes dropping shut as his mouth landed between her legs, kissing her between tentative licks to her skin.
It wasn’t something she was used to, but it felt wonderful, right, to have him lavish this sort of attention on her. It made her hum with pleasure and she had to fight the urge to press her hips against his face too strongly. His ministrations became bolder with her encouraging reactions, and she thought she would float right off of his tiny bed with the pleasure. Just when she began to feel her release building, Sherlock lifted his head and moved up her body, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand before lowering himself over her and kissing her lips.
Molly could still taste herself on him, and she moaned, wrapping her arms around him as he pressed into her. He slowly made love to her, drawing her ecstasy out as he gave her just enough to ride the crest but not quite tip over the edge. She would have been happy to live in that moment forever, safe in his bed and living in that delicate space reserved for lovers.
Her release spread through her body leisurely, a tightening that warmed her right down to her toes and lingered for quite a while as Sherlock sought his own relief. He moaned her name into the crook of her neck when he emptied himself into her, impossibly deep.
As he did the night before, he rolled to her side and dragged her with him, not ready to let her go. They lay quietly for a while, content to just breathe and revel in their shared gratification.
Molly ran her hand over the skin of his back, waiting until he had settled into a focused state. Her fingers trailed across the scars and she looked at him in silent question.
“Accident,” he told her.
“An accident? You?” she said in surprise.
Sherlock sighed, unable to look her in the eye as he spoke.
“Eighteen years old. I had the misfortune of making friends with someone who touted the benefits of opium,” he said quietly. “Which led to the benefits of cocaine…and morphine. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I can tell you that attempting to train a new lioness while under the influence of opium is not wise.”
“Oh, Sherlock,” Molly said sympathetically, flattening her hand over his skin and caressing him.
“Mycroft sent me home. Rightly. I was locked in my parents’ flat in London for months recovering. Haven’t touched any of it since.”
Molly looked at him for a moment. He was unsure of himself in telling her; embarrassed.
“I’ve heard of much worse,” she said. “Not exactly uncommon, is it…for people like us.”
“And what about you, Molly Hooper,” he said, obviously enjoying saying her full name. “Have you ever given in to what ails the world of the ring?”
“Oh,” Molly laughed softly. “Um…nothing like that, but, for a time I was a little obsessed with dangerous tricks. High wire, knife throwing, aerials…anything to do with fire. Not exactly good to have a ten year old running around trying to do those things.”
“It was after you lost your parents,” Sherlock stated. “You were working through the loss and the reality of mortality.”
“Very clinical explanation,” she said, ducking her head and pulling herself closer to him.
The scent of his body was intoxicating. Musky and spicy. She didn’t know if it was the fact that he knew more about her than anyone had since she was a child or that he’d just flooded her with emotions, but she felt the need to tell him more.
“They took my father away in the middle of the night. He died quickly. My mum was in hospital for a few weeks, so I was able to visit her. And one day… one day they told me it was time to say goodbye. I didn’t want to leave. I’d stolen a pair of trick handcuffs and chained myself to her bed. It took them hours to undo it, and by that time she was gone,” Molly said quietly, sniffing at the memory. She shook her head a little as she went on. “I think everyone thought I didn’t understand. That I didn’t know they were dead, or that I was traumatized or something. That wasn’t it. Death didn’t bother me. Doesn’t bother me. It…it was what happened to them before that scared me.”
“The sickness,” she echoed his words, her eyes looking at nothing, turning hazy as she remembered. “The way they suffered. The fevers and the pain and the sodding country doctor who thought bleeding them would help…”
She felt a tear escape her eye and she quickly wiped it away, sniffing again. Sherlock lifted his hand and cradled her face, dropping his head and pressing his lips to her forehead.
“I miss them,” she whispered shakily.
He held her for what must have been an hour, not saying a word, but running a comforting hand along her back, her arm, threading his fingers gently through her hair.
When the sun began to cast a grey light as it crept towards the horizon, Molly stirred reluctantly.
“You could stay, you know,” he offered, sitting up as she slipped from his bed.
“I know,” she told him, reaching down to grab her dress and pull it over her head. “But the longer I put this off, the worse it’s going to be. Besides, I’ll need some things. Can’t just walk around your van without a stitch on.”
She laughed when his eyebrows rose and his head cocked to one side, obviously thinking that wasn’t the worst idea she’d ever had. Stepping between his knees, she took his face in her hands and kissed him.
“I’ll find you on the train,” she promised.
The yard was fairly quiet when Molly left and she crossed the dewy grass in relative peace. Her stomach started to tighten in knots as she walked closer to her van, staring at the wooden door with trepidation. She hesitated below the steps, considering the fact that she could just leave and the confrontation would never have to happen. But she would still face him if they both stayed with the company. And her box of treasures still resided under her kip and she would be damned if he kept those.
Taking a steeling breath, she walked up the steps and opened the door. Jim was sitting on the edge of his bed, looking worse than he had the night before. She didn’t smell liquor on him, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t had a few after she’d left.
His eyes stayed on her as she moved bravely into the room, pulling a carpetbag from under her bed and yanking it open to begin packing.
“Oh, this is too rich,” he said slowly. “You’re running away with him?”
“Who said anything about running away,” she said firmly, taking a few dresses from the small wardrobe and folding them before placing them in the bag. “We don’t intend to go anywhere.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jim stand up.
“I’ve turned a blind eye to every other idiot you’ve decided to give yourself away to,” Jim snarled. Molly stopped what she was doing, surprised at the intensity of his voice, and turned to face him. “But this…why him, Molly? Why did it have to be him?”
“I don’t understand, Jim,” Molly said, her voice quavering.
“Of course you don’t, because you never bloody listen!” he raged at her, closing the space between them in a few menacing strides and grabbing her wrist.
“Stop!” she shouted, twisting her arm in a mad attempt to break free of his grasp.
When he tightened his hold, Molly did the only thing she could think of: she lowered her head and bit him, shoving hard at his chest when he shouted and released her. Her escape was short-lived, however, as he quickly recovered from his shock, raising his arm and bringing his hand down hard across her face.
Molly let out a pained wail, turning away from him and cradling her cheek as she plastered herself against the wall. She took several shuddering breaths, willing the stinging in her face to stop and the tears to stay at bay. When she finally risked a glance over her shoulder, she saw Jim standing with both hands covering his mouth, his eyes watering.
“I’m so sorry, Molly,” he said shakily, his hands dropping away from his face and reaching out to plead with her. “Darling, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean - ”
“You promised,” she seethed. “You promised you would never do that again…”
“I lost my head,” he practically whimpered, trying to caress her arm. “It won’t happen again.”
“Don’t touch me,” Molly commanded harshly, slapping his hand away and feeling her whole body shake with anger.
Jim blinked rapidly, swallowing hard and seeming to shift between guilt and fury for several moments. He turned away from her, grabbing his coat and storming out of the van.
Molly stood in the middle of the van, shaking and trying to get her breath back under control. Her face still throbbed, a pain she hadn’t experience in years. When the silence stretched out and the reality of the situation settled in her mind, she let out a desperate gasp, sinking to the floor and letting the tears come.
Chapter 13: Home to London
The dining car was unusually quiet on the way to London. Normally it was a celebratory journey, with pockets lined and food and drink flowing amongst the tables, everyone knowing they were almost done, almost home. But the worries that plagued Mycroft had trickled down to the performers, and tight quarters always amplified rumors.
Sherlock slipped his pocket watch out of his waistcoat and slid the cover open.
More than halfway to London.
“They’re worried,” Mary muttered to him, lifting the teapot on their table and pouring a second cup for herself and John.
“Mm,” Sherlock responded, putting the watch back in its pocket.
“Do you think we should be?” John asked.
“Sorry, is that a yes or a no?” his friend said tersely, using his good hand to lift the cup of tea to his lips.
“You saw the state of your rope,” Sherlock replied, glancing around the room and rubbing at his chin. “A few nice, clean cuts…enough to weaken it.”
John and Mary looked at one another. They had been hesitant to believe Sherlock’s assertions that the mishap was deliberate, but it was hard to look at the break in the rope and not see what looked like precise cuts to the fibers. A person would have to be blind to miss the signs that something very dangerous, and possibly deadly, was happening.
That was why it worried him that he hadn’t seen a hint of Molly on the train ride yet.
Without a word, he abruptly stood up, ignoring the surprised questions of his companions, and strode from the dining car.
Sherlock shoved through the passageways of the train, pushing past other performers until he made his way to the end of the car. He opened the door, feeling the momentary rush of wind as he hopped to the next car. He found the passage empty and made his way swiftly to Molly’s cabin door.
Knocking gently, he waited for several moments before he finally heard the door unlatch and slowly open. Molly’s face appeared in the small space between the door and the frame, her eyes downcast as she kept the door mostly closed to prevent his entrance into the room.
He felt a rush of hot blood in his chest and face as his eyes locked on the purple and green bruising on her cheek, the colors creeping up towards her eye. He had to fight back the urge to barge into her cabin, ready to tear Jim apart.
“He’s not here,” she said quietly, reading his thoughts.
“What the hell did he do?” he growled, carefully lifting his hand and touching his fingers to the underside of her chin, lifting her face up to look at him.
“I’m fine,” she said, her delicate features resolutely firm as she looked him in the eye. “Believe me, it’s not the worst.”
Somewhere in the rush of angry thoughts bellowing through his mind, he managed to register her claim that Jim was not present, only slightly deterring his desire to lay the man flat out on the ground. Only slightly.
“Where is he?” Sherlock asked darkly.
Molly shook her head, shrugging.
“He disappeared this morning before we loaded up,” she said, folding her arms across her stomach. “Might still be in Norwich for all I know.”
She was sad. He didn’t completely understand why, when she’d obviously suffered at the hands of someone she trusted, but the fact was undeniable. He wavered in the hall as one of the monkey trainers emerged from his cabin and walked past them with hardly a second glance. Not sure how to handle her suddenly self-protective demeanor, Sherlock swallowed and looked around, feeling stupid.
“Do you… can I… help?” he asked slowly.
The corner of Molly’s mouth quirked up and she peered at him with a sort of affection that made him simultaneously frightened and pleased.
“Thanks,” she said sincerely. “But I’m okay. Honestly, just a bit tired.”
“Mm, yes, well,” Sherlock said with a barely contained smile. “There wasn’t much sleep involved in last night.”
“No, there wasn’t,” Molly agreed with an equally mischievous smile.
They swayed gently as the train rocked down the tracks. Sherlock stared at her dumbly, for once at a total loss as to what he wanted to say. There was a great deal that still eluded him about the workings of romantic relationships, things he wasn’t sure he would ever get right. He mentally waded through the multitude of thoughts he could express and focused on the one that seemed most significant.
“You could… come back tonight. If you wanted,” he suggested.
Her smile broadened and the sight made his pulse jump erratically.
“I’d like that,” Molly said.
They both glanced away from each other sheepishly when a small group of the acrobats came through the door of the car, snickering as they passed the pair.
“Til tonight, then,” Molly told him quietly, slowly closing the door as she smiled at him.
Sherlock took his time wandering back to the dining car, lost in thought. While he was still in a considerable daze about the rush of new feelings regarding Molly, at the front of his mind were questions about Jim. If Molly was correct, then he had abandoned the company in the middle of a run. Why? Was he afraid of being caught and held accountable for what he had done? It didn’t seem like the man to shove off without a hint of well-earned notoriety. Jim liked the spectacle; he liked the high of illusion and deception.
For the sake of covering every angle, Sherlock momentarily entertained the idea that Jim really was innocent, that he was simply ashamed of what he’d done to Molly. It made him no less despicable in Sherlock’s mind. No matter how it was spun, Jim was not wanted.
And of course, the only two people who knew that he had skipped out were Sherlock and Molly. Mycroft would find out within a day, and his ire would land on Sherlock, there was no doubt about that. No matter that Mycroft had begun to realize something less than honorable was afoot, there would still be hell to pay for ruined acts and damaged reputations. His brother took his position seriously and there was pride in the fact that their company existed generally free of controversy.
It didn’t occur to Sherlock that he’d sat back down with the Watsons until he heard John nearly shout his name, poking him in the arm.
“Anything you’d like to tell us?” John prodded. “You’ve been sitting there like a stone for almost five minutes.”
“The best acts are ones that continually top themselves,” Sherlock stated, his eyes narrowing as he looked at the rough surface of the tabletop. “Just when the audience thinks there couldn’t be any more, couldn’t be any better, one last trick is pulled out to stun them. You wait until they think it’s over, and then…” He lifted one hand and spread his fingers in a small gesture of showmanship. “One last spectacular exhibition.”
The trio sat in silence for a moment until Mary leaned forward, stretching her hand across the table as if to touch him.
“Is everything okay?” she asked seriously.
Sherlock’s eyes flicked up to meet hers.
“Everything could be fine. Or it could be disaster,” he said unhelpfully. “Either way, keep a weather eye.”
They didn’t ask him to elaborate. They simply nodded earnestly and left him to think.
There was no first night parade on the street that night. Mycroft deemed it unnecessary, and Sherlock could see the nervous air that underscored the decision. Most of the company retired early that evening, secluding themselves in the train cars and vans.
Sherlock made himself comfortable on the tiny stoop of his van, occasionally actually reading the book in his hands as he watched the figures of workers and troupers go about their evening business in the yard, highlighted by the yellow glow of lamplight. It didn’t take long before the now familiar figure of Molly appeared out of the dark, walking towards him.
He stood up unhurriedly, happy to watch the way she moved as she came closer, her hair flowing down her back and a gentle smile on her face.
She stepped close to him after climbing the few steps to his stoop.
“Hello,” she said coyly.
“Hello,” Sherlock parroted, closing the distance between them and slipping an arm around her waist as he lowered his mouth to hers.
She sighed against him, sinking into his body, her fingers curling into his shirt. He liked it. All of it.
Molly whimpered a bit and winced as he cupped her face. He pulled back immediately, frowning.
“It still hurts,” she explained, gently pressing the back of her hand to the bruise, testing where the tender part remained.
Sherlock took her hand in his, kissing her fingers purposefully before leading her inside the van. He could tell she was exhausted despite her contented demeanor, and with the pain still bothering her, he came to the conclusion that they would have to wait for any further exploration of intimate activities. Instead, he settled them in his bed, Molly’s head resting on his shoulder as they talked into the night about anything and everything. She didn’t object when he stripped out of his clothes, easily following suit by removing her dress and lingering in her slip. He brushed his fingers along her arm, across the silky expanse of the garment that covered her curves, fully enjoying the simplicity of being with her. She fascinated him in every way – her experiences, her mind, her body.
They drifted off in the middle of the night, sleeping until the sun was high on the horizon, and even then neither felt the urge to move. The camp was still and the light was gentle and he was in no rush to have Molly out of his arms.
The peaceful moment was rudely interrupted by his van door banging open and Mycroft stopping abruptly just inside. His eyes practically rolled out of his head with the expression of disbelief and frustration on his face as he took in the sight before him. Sherlock felt Molly tuck up against him.
“For God’s. Sake,” Mycroft said harshly.
“Good morning, brother,” Sherlock said flippantly, pulling his arm from behind Molly and tugging the bed sheet around his waist as he sat up further, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.
“I implore you not to make another move until that sheet is secure,” Mycroft ordered.
Sherlock smiled slowly at his brother, making a show of tying the sheet snugly around his waist before standing up.
“It’s a risk you take when you go barging into other people’s rooms,” he said, walking towards him.
“What is the one thing I asked you not to do?” Mycroft lectured. “I told you to leave well enough alone.”
“And I told you to do something about him when things took a turn for the worse,” Sherlock snapped back, pointing at Molly. “Look at her. Use your massive brain and work out how that happened.”
“Sherlock, please,” Molly said, somewhat crossly, from the bed.
He turned and looked at her. He’d embarrassed her. Hadn’t meant to, but he’d done it nonetheless. Her mouth was turned down in discomfort and she held the quilt to her chest despite being covered in her slip.
“Are you in need of a doctor?” Mycroft asked, struggling to show concern when he was clearly more interested in berating Sherlock.
“No,” Molly said quickly. “Really, I’m not.”
It struck him, not for the first time, how very brave she was. For weeks, he’d felt the need to protect her, to rescue her from the situation he thought she was in, when really she’d been capable of looking after herself all along.
But that didn’t mean a few extra measures couldn’t be put in place to protect them all from what he now knew was a certain threat. He turned back to his brother, stepping closer.
“You need to post a watch at all hours,” Sherlock told Mycroft, lowering his voice though he knew Molly would hear anyway. “Do not let Jim Moriarty back into this company.”
“Let him back?” Mycroft repeated, narrowing his eyes.
“He’s gone,” Molly said from behind Sherlock.
He glanced over his shoulder and saw her standing next to the bed, his dressing gown pulled around her body.
“What do you mean he’s gone?” Mycroft asked with mild concern creeping into his voice.
Molly’s eyes flicked to Sherlock’s and he could see the exhaustion of keeping up the façade of the act with Jim. She ran a hand through her hair and tucked it neatly behind the shell of her ear before looking at Mycroft again.
“He ran out yesterday,” Molly said. “He’s not returned. I doubt he will in time for the show.”
“What happened?” Mycroft pressed, looking increasingly worried.
Molly looked down and shrugged.
“He gets…mad, sometimes,” she said, her voice almost a whisper.
“So what you’re telling me is we have no magic act tonight,” Mycroft clarified.
“Oh Christ, Mycroft, is that all you’re worried about? The damn show?” Sherlock barked at him.
“I am worried about a great many things, little brother, things you can not even begin to understand,” Mycroft practically shouted, startling both of them. “And yes, losing three very important acts in a matter of weeks does happen to be one of those worries!”
“Maybe you should be more concerned about why,” Sherlock suggested critically.
“Believe me, it is at the forefront of my thoughts.”
“Do you need the act filled tonight?” Molly’s quiet interruption stopped the brothers’ argument.
Mycroft’s harsh gaze broke away from Sherlock and he looked beyond his brother to Molly. Ever the businessman, his first priority was to find a way to let the show go on. It helped that his main opposition to letting her perform had been removed from the equation.
“Sherlock has mentioned you have another talent,” he said slowly. “If you’re sure that you’re willing…”
“I’ll do it,” she said flatly.
Mycroft lifted an eyebrow.
“If you like,” he said. “You’ll go on after Sally.”
He spared one final critical look at Sherlock before leaving.
An uncomfortable silence filled the van. Molly’s arms were wrapped around her middle and her mouth was drawn in a tight line.
“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” Sherlock said, feeling that she was angry with him.
“It’s not that,” Molly said, trying to find the words to explain. She sat down on the edge of his bed, running her fingers across the silk tie of his dressing gown. “Well it is, sort of. I just mean…I’ve kept it hidden it away for so long. Kept her talent hidden away, like it was something to be ashamed of. And now…”
“You’ll get to share it for everyone to see,” he finished for her, hoping he was right.
Her mouth turned up in a wistful smile and she nodded, looking up at him. He moved in front of her, placing a hand gently along her neck, his thumb rubbing against her jaw.
“You’ll be magnificent,” he promised her.
Molly couldn’t remember the last time she felt nervous to perform in the ring. She’d been part of a company for so long that it never occurred to her to worry. But as she searched through her wardrobe looking for a suitable outfit to wear for the show, she bit her lip and had to force her heart to slow down. It would, after all, be the first time she ever went into the ring alone, relying purely on herself to get through an act. There were still a few hours before the show started and she wished they would just disappear. The wait was torture.
Finding what she’d been after – a white, bejeweled leotard with matching shorts – she laid the costume on her bed before kneeling down and pulling her box out from beneath her kip. She unlatched it and swung the top open, a moment of alarm gripping her as she stared into the empty container.
“No,” she whispered.
A blind panic took over her body as she knelt down again, swiping her arm under the kip in a desperate attempt to find her belongings, hoping against hope that they’d simply fallen out during the train ride. Her hands found nothing. Swallowing and fighting back tears, she turned and rushed to Jim’s kip, pulling up the blankets, the mattress, everything to see if he’d hidden her things.
Molly dropped on hands and knees, pulling everything out from below his bed, opening trunks and boxes as fast as she could.
How dare he take them from me, she fumed. He has no right to them...
She stopped cold as she pulled a trunk from the recesses under the kip. The wood boards of the floor rattled and jumped when she dragged the trunk over them. Her heart sank, not quite wanting to believe that her worst fears were correct. Shoving the trunk to the side, she carefully ran her fingers over the boards until she found the indentations. Her fingernails hooked into the slots and she pulled up, easily lifting the boards and revealing a hidden compartment.
Jim always was a master of trick construction.
Her hand shook as she reached into the hidden space. She brushed past silk fabric and her hand landed on something cold and solid. She pulled up a dark bottle and sat back as she brought it out into the light, looking at the label.
Tears pricked her eyes and her teeth clenched.
In a way, she knew that he was capable of everything that had happened. He was ruthless in his drive for success and fame. And she’d suffered his fits of anger many times in the past.
But he was the only one who had taken care of her when she’d been left as an orphan. He was the reason she hadn’t been turned out and reduced to begging. Or worse.
What he’d done to this company, though…no amount of gratitude for her security could make her ignore what that made him. He was mad. Dangerous. And she was the only one who could prove it beyond a doubt.
Chapter 14: The Final Act
Molly stood outside of Mycroft’s spacious caravan, her fingers sliding nervously along the worn wood of the box in her arms. A box that held a multitude of items that Jim had kept hidden away; items that showed just how far he had been willing to go to ruin the Holmes brothers, for reasons that Molly still didn’t fully understand. She’d pulled a leather bound scrapbook from beneath the floorboards under Jim’s kip and flipped through the pages with numb fingers. Her eyes had lingered over blurry pictures of their act, taken several years before, when Sanger was still attempting to advertise their skill.
She’d swallowed against the lump in her throat when she found the newspaper clippings announcing Sebastian’s death. It had been so long ago, but the sadness still lingered as though it had all happened yesterday. The loss of their mentor had been so unexpected, though, looking back, they should have seen it coming. The way he’d been forced to leave, all of his secrets exposed and too tired and set in his ways to be able to fashion a whole new act – they should have known the disgrace would end him, one way or another.
The newspaper gossip columns had been very generous in their accounts of his death. ‘Unfortunate melancholy,’ they had called it.
Molly had her suspicions about what those words were alluding to. The fact that Sebastian had locked himself away in his flat, refusing to see her or Jim in the months leading to his death, was enough to convince her that he had neglected to care for himself.
It might not have been intentional, but it was far from accidental.
Feeling that she had stalled enough, Molly stepped forward and made her way to Mycroft’s door, shifting the box so that she could knock.
A clipped, “Come in,” was the reply.
She turned the doorknob and stepped inside the dimly lit van. Just inside the door, Mycroft sat at a round table, papers spread before him on the surface. He was making notes in the pages of a notebook, barely glancing at her as she approached him.
Molly cleared her throat and set the box down on the table.
“He’s responsible for all of it,” she said, trying to keep the emotion out of her voice.
Mycroft’s pen stopped mid-word and he looked up at her, his eyes shrewd but attentive.
“Sorry?” he said.
“Jim, he… well, maybe you’d best take a look,” she trailed off, unlatching the box and shoving it closer to the ringmaster.
Mycroft’s brow dropped and he set his pen aside, pulling the box closer as he peered down into it. He pulled out the bottle of strychnine, the hilt of a knife, a small bottle of pills (God only knew what he had intended to do with those), and, finally, the scrapbook. Molly watched him become absorbed in the photos and the clippings he found inside.
“So,” she said, unsure of herself now that the items were in his possession. “You’ll watch for him?”
“Mmm.” Mycroft lifted a hand and gave her a half wave of acknowledgment, then covered his mouth, his fingers pressing into the hollows of his cheek. He never looked up from the articles. “Yes,” he muttered half-heartedly.
She couldn’t help feeling as though she’d been dismissed, although she’d hardly received any sort of an answer from him. It left a sick feeling in her stomach to think of Jim coming back now that she knew the truth, and Mycroft didn’t seem as concerned as she thought he should be. But she had Sherlock, and Mary and John and a whole host of others who would surely be by her side that night. It eased her worry.
“Okay then,” she replied, turning and slipping from the residence.
She was met at the bottom of the stairs by an unnervingly motionless lion tamer.
Molly blinked up at Sherlock, feeling her heart lurch into her throat.
“I was just seeing your brother,” she explained, forcing calm into her voice. “I found…some things.”
“What sort of things?” he asked, his voice deep.
“You’re welcome to look,” she said, gesturing behind her at the van. “I have nothing to hide from you. But…you were right about Jim. About all of it.” He said nothing, his blue eyes shifting back and forth between hers. For some reason, his silence was worse than any emotional reaction she expected. “I didn’t know,” she went on quietly. “Really…I had no idea he would ever…”
His gaze darted away from her and he looked past her to his brother’s door. There was an intense focus in his eyes that let her know she had all but disappeared in his mind. Molly pulled her bottom lip between her teeth and nodded.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” she whispered, brushing past him and practically running towards her van.
Her wish that the time would go by quickly was granted with the revelations and her subsequent inner turmoil about turning Jim in. Before she knew it, Molly was in the dressing room, trying to pretend that the other women weren’t watching her smooth cream-colored makeup over the bruise on her face. Most of them simply looked troubled. Mary and Sally looked murderous.
“All right, since no one else is going to bother,” Sally finally said, pausing only momentarily from polishing her knives. “Was it your brother?”
“Sally,” Janine hissed.
Sally lifted her hands in disbelief, scoffing.
“What? She’s hurt,” she said firmly. “And I’ve known Sherlock for a long time and while I think we can all agree he’s a complete arse most of the time, he would never do that.”
“That doesn’t mean you should - ”
“It’s fine,” Molly cut Janine off, loosening her white-knuckle grip on her jar of makeup and reaching for the fine powder to brush over her skin. “I don’t mind. It was Jim. He’s gone now and he’s not coming back.”
The four women stared at her, none quite sure what to say. Molly pulled at the neckline of her dressing gown, feeling the nerves start to bubble up inside her again.
“If he’s not here, then why are you…?” Irene trailed off, gesturing towards the makeup on Molly’s table.
“Something different,” was all that she could manage to say, taking one last look in the mirror and feeling satisfied with the finished product.
She stood up, walking towards the back of the dressing room with the intention of leaving and holing away in the dark until it was her turn to perform. A gentle hand landed on her arm, stopping her retreat.
“Are you okay, love?” Mary asked quietly, her blue eyes questioning and concerned.
“I am,” Molly said, giving her a small smile. “Really, Mary. For the first time in a long while.”
It seemed to be enough to satisfy Mary. She gave Molly’s arm a supportive squeeze and let her go.
Molly kept to the dark edge of the tent while the show came to life. She listened to the crowd – the ooh’s and ahh’s, the laughter and clapping. It was a sound that had been one of her earliest memories. She couldn’t remember a time without the smell of the canvas, the straw, the popcorn, or the sound of a cheering crowd.
And to think the person she had trusted the most in the world had almost brought all of that to an end for the Holmes Brothers.
She was almost embarrassed to admit how sad she was that Sherlock didn’t materialize backstage to be near her as he had so many nights before. She hadn’t seen a sign of him since their encounter outside Mycroft’s van. Perhaps her connection to Jim had been too much for him to reconcile.
She watched Sally enter the ring and realized she only had minutes to compose herself, to pretend that it wasn’t breaking her heart to think of possibly losing Sherlock.
She dropped her robe in the dust, making a few last minute adjustments to her outfit and flexing her hands. The trouper who had been assigned to bring her the silks took his position at the ring door. A moment later, the flaps were pulled open and Sally strode through, her batons still smoldering and trailing smoke. Molly took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, walking towards the ring. She took the silks from the young man with a small smile and stepped up onto the platform. The ring door was opened again, and she was momentarily blinded by the single spotlight from across the ring. The crowd murmured and then fell silent.
Her body moved of its own accord while her mind took in the moment. She thought of the fact that she’d never requested music for her act, but a single violin from the band started playing a haunting melody for her nonetheless.
As she came to a stop in the middle of the ring, a rope was lowered from the rigging. Very carefully, Molly tied the end of her silks to the prepared loops in the rope. The silk slipped through her hands as the rope was raised once more and she watched it ascend into the darkness above her. When the fabric stilled, she gripped the strands and hoisted herself up, twisting and climbing her way through a routine she knew by heart. The crowd gasped as she performed spins and drops, eliciting applause as she used her momentum to swing and fly across the ring, using only arms to hold herself up. She began the intricate process of climbing high on the fabric, ready for her final trick, wrapping herself in one of the silks in order to secure her fall.
The rope jerked.
Molly’s heart stopped and she grasped the silks. She felt the entire rigging pull upwards and the fabric tightened around her, trapping her legs and one arm, the momentum of the pull combined with her body weight encouraging the fabric to tighten even more. Her head twisted around as the rope lowered once more for a few seconds before lurching up, knocking the wind out of her and pulling the fabric closer to her neck. Molly strained to see what was going on, the glare of the spotlight making it impossible to see the ground.
But she could hear that something was wrong. The crowd had become too quiet, some audience members beginning to mutter in concerned voices as they stared with wide eyes.
Finally, Molly was able to catch a glimpse of the rigging line at the back of the tent. It wasn’t so much that she could see through the roustabout attire or that she could properly see his face at all; it was the fact that he was the only one at the rigging, looking straight at her as he played with the rope, letting her drop feet at a time before yanking her skyward again. Molly struggled for control of the silks, using her only free arm to try to stop its advancement towards her head. But the lurching of the rope was too much, the angle of her body completely wrong, and before she could prepare herself, the fabric had gripped her throat.
Molly gasped for breath as she watched Jim tie the rope off on the rigging rail before disappearing out of the tent.
Sherlock heard the change in the tone of the crowd and knew instantly that the precautions he had set in place had failed.
The afternoon had been spent selecting the most trustworthy of the troupers to stand guard along the perimeter of the circus, once Mycroft had finally come out of his fog and agreed to more drastic measures. Sherlock had never seen his brother truly distraught before, but that was the only way he could describe his state. He’d told Sherlock to take the box of things Molly had left if he wanted to inspect them, keeping the leather bound book for himself and instructing Sherlock to do whatever needed to be done and leave him alone.
John and Lestrade had volunteered to help Sherlock as best they could; they were standing by his side when the change in the crowd occurred, the cries of shock reaching out over the yard. Sherlock glanced at John, then turned slowly towards the tent, his senses on high alert. He started running, his feet moving instinctually, knowing that the others would follow him. Tossing the ring door open, he swallowed the wave of fear and anger that hit him as he saw Molly suspended above the ring, trapped in the silk and grappling for freedom.
“Cut her down!” he shouted to the troupers who had followed him inside.
Lestrade and John clearly anticipated his thoughts, racing backstage and returning moments later with a catch-blanket, shouting at other troupers to help them. Sherlock was peripherally aware of other performers emerging from the ring doors, the crowd suddenly becoming panicked as they watched two troupers put a saw to the knotted rope. Every rip of the blade into the fibers was agonizing as he watched Molly go limp, her eyes locked on his as they slowly closed. It was an eternity before the jarring sound finally stopped and her body fell down to the blanket, the purple silk trailing in the air after her. He pushed his way to her, unraveling the fabric from her neck and telling himself to remain calm at the sight of the angry red marks on her neck, her chest, her arms…he had to remain calm, it was the only thing that would keep her alive.
His fingers slipped along the soft skin below her jaw, and he held his breath as he waited to feel the thrum of life. It was there. Faint, but it was there. He held his fingers over her lips and could feel small puffs of warm air. For one small moment, he let himself rejoice in her survival, let himself imagine how he would hold for days and kiss her tenderly while the marks faded from her body until she was whole again.
But then his thoughts turned towards the person who had done this to her… to all of them.
He looked up and saw Mary standing nearby.
“Take her to my van,” he told her, somewhat surprised by the calm of his voice. “Carefully. Call a doctor. Keep her awake if you can.”
Mary nodded, stepping forward and kneeling at Molly’s head as she instructed others to help carry her.
Sherlock stood and turned away from the scene, trying to shut down the emotion and refocus on what he needed to do. Some members of the company were already escorting patrons outside, attempting to clear the tent so that the crisis could be dealt with without an audience. In the midst of people exiting the ring door, he caught sight of Mycroft pushing his way through.
“Edward and Daniel were found tied up and stuffed into a cargo car,” Mycroft told him once he’d reached him, referencing the men who were assigned to the rigging rail. “A few troupers saw someone run from the tent and head towards the Thames moments ago. Some gave chase - ”
Sherlock didn’t give him a chance to finish, taking off in the direction he had mentioned. The park surrounding the circus was mostly dark, intermittently splashed with light from streetlamps. He could only guess the direction he should go, but if he was correct, Jim would find the shortest way towards the denser parts of London – Putney Bridge. His feet pounded on the pavement as he ran, his lungs beginning to burn as the minutes dragged on. The closer he got, the more he noticed people along the road peering towards the bridge with curiosity, and he knew he had it right. Soon, the bridge came into view and he burst through the small crowd gathered at the edge of it to find three troupers poised along the road, watching Jim like hawks. A few motorcars had stopped on the bridge, their occupants watching the scene before them with a fearful curiosity.
The man in question was standing on the stone ledge, holding onto a lamppost. A mad grin was on his face as he saw Sherlock approach.
It wasn’t until Sherlock had come to a halt that he realized Mycroft was just behind him, having followed the entire way.
“We’ve come to the end of our little game, haven’t we boys?” Jim said, letting go of the lamppost and stepping away from it, teetering on the edge of the stone. “It took you a little longer to figure things out this time, Mycroft. I’m almost disappointed. After all, it was… so absurdly easy,” he said with great emphasis. “Anyone with half a brain could see how it was done.”
“Don’t,” Sherlock said firmly when he saw the troupers start to advance towards Jim.
The magician laughed at the gesture.
“I’m guessing she’s still alive, otherwise you would let your dogs go ahead and rip me apart,” he said to Sherlock. His eyes flicked towards Mycroft once more and his face dropped into a dark expression. “No need.”
“You’ll step down and face the punishment for your crimes,” Mycroft commanded.
“Why?” Jim spat out, pulling a pistol from the waist of his trousers and pointing it towards his own head. “You didn’t.”
“Stop!” Sherlock shouted.
Too late. The pistol went off with a deafening bang and Jim Moriarty fell backwards into the Thames.
Sherlock stood by Mycroft as the two of them watched a few Bobbies scan the water from the bridge. A few more moved alongside the river, their torches glinting off of the dark surface. The brothers had been interviewed, as well as several of the witnesses, and had quickly been dismissed when it became clear they were not involved in any wrong doing. There was no sign of a body, but the police expected they might receive a call the next morning once daylight arrived and more people were on the lookout.
Sherlock itched to get back to the camp.
“They’ll let us know if they find anything,” he told Mycroft. “Unless you plan on taking a swim, we’re quite useless here.”
Mycroft said nothing, but nodded solemnly and followed Sherlock as he started the slow walk back towards the tent.
Mary and John were the first ones to rush towards him as they emerged from the dark and into the lantern light of the yard. The rest of the company was either milling about or trying to get the last of the curious patrons to leave.
“What happened?” John said breathlessly, clearly reading the distress on Sherlock’s face.
All he could do was shake his head, looking grim.
“He’s…” Mary trailed off, looking to Mycroft.
“They’re hoping to fish him out of the Thames by the morning,” Mycroft said flatly. “If not, it’s just one more unresolved suicide.”
“Oh, god,” Mary exclaimed, covering her mouth with her hand.
“How is she?” Sherlock asked, unable to hold back the question any longer.
“She’s all right, mate,” John told him with a comforting smile. “Resting. The doctor is still with her.”
“Good,” Sherlock muttered. “Excuse us.”
He gripped Mycroft by his elbow and steered him away from John and Mary, away from the rest of the company, and towards his van. It spoke volumes that Mycroft let him manhandle him in that manner. If he were in top form, he would have tossed Sherlock to the ground in two seconds flat.
When they were alone with the van door shut, Sherlock lit the kerosene and took a seat at the table, waiting.
Mycroft licked his lips, hovering in the middle of the van for a moment before rolling the sleeves of his shirt up.
Sherlock watched him step up to the cupboard doors, hand shaking as he pulled them open to extract a bottle of dark amber liquor and a glass. Sherlock’s eyebrows rose in surprise as Mycroft poured himself a generous portion before looking to Sherlock and raising the bottle with a questioning look. He nodded slightly and his brother took down another glass, methodically filling that one as well.
Once he was seated and had taken a long drink, grimacing as the liquor hit him, Mycroft took a weary breath.
He stared down into his tumbler of whisky.
“Ten years ago, there was a magician with Sanger named Sebastian Moran. Sebastian the Great. Cliché. Everything about him, cliché. His name, his tricks, his black and red cape and top hat and white rabbits. But he brought in an audience, you know, people loved the stupid simplicity. He had a few unique bits, but overall… Well, there was… one day when their show was performing and we weren’t, so…a few lads and I thought we’d stop in and take a look at what Sanger had to offer. He’s always been known for putting on a good show and we didn’t know any other way to spend an off day.” He paused and took another long pull from his glass, coughing slightly. “I figured out every trick Sebastian had, of course, it was absurdly easy. But there is a code, as you well know, a code that everyone follows that you don’t reveal the secrets of a show… Did you ever wonder why I don’t drink, Sherlock?”
Sherlock blinked, almost startled to hear his name, and shook his head.
“It never crossed your mind, did it. It was a night down the pub in London, those ten years ago, and I’d had one or two too many. Generally being an obnoxious arse with people I considered my friends. People from other companies. And I wanted to show off, young idiot that I was. So…I told them everything. Every trick, how it was done. What do you think the chances were that those secrets didn’t spread like wild fire by the very next day? Sebastian the Great was ruined. People stole his ideas and he was incapable of coming up with anything new. He was effectively useless to Sanger after that and, from what I heard, was encouraged to retire. He was found some six months later, dead. No one ever said it, but we all knew how he’d met his end.”
“I don’t remember any of this,” Sherlock said slowly.
“You wouldn’t,” Mycroft replied acerbically. “You were out of your mind on opium for a year and locked away with mummy and daddy for another during the whole affair.”
Sherlock’s head tipped back slightly as the realization of it all dawned on him.
“Jim Moriarty was his protégé,” he said.
Mycroft nodded, downing the rest of the whiskey.
“He took over the act and turned it into something unique. It worked for quite a while. But a few years ago, Sanger decided the magician act was on its way out. He could bring in better crowds with elephants and half-naked women. Charge them to the gills to glimpse a freak show. Jim and Molly were facing being left on the rails,” he said with a sigh. “I’d been following his career for some time. They had talent, unquestionably. I thought… well, it eased my guilt in a very selfish way to think that I could save their act. I didn’t know…I had no idea that he’d been in that pub, that he’d heard me telling anyone who would listen how the acts were done. That he knew it was my fault… ‘It was so absurdly easy. Anyone with half a brain could see how it was done.’ My exact words that night.”
Sherlock sat quietly for a long while, giving Mycroft time to decide if he wished to share any more. It was partly because he was genuinely at a loss as to what to say. For their entire lives, his brother had been a pinnacle of perfection. Not a toe out of line, always doing the right thing. Of course, he did all of that to highlight his superior intelligence and to put everyone around him to shame, but it still left him with a perfectionist persona. It was part of what drove Sherlock crazy about his stupid big brother and also part of why he (secretly) looked up to him.
“Molly said that they were a little family,” he said, nearly without thinking.
“Children who wind up as part of an act that they are not born into are usually orphans,” Mycroft stated the obvious, reaching for the bottle and tipping it. The neck of the bottle clinked against the glass and liquid splashed into the tumbler. “Jim Moriarty’s origins remain a mystery. Much like where he has ended up now. Clearly, Sebastian Moran meant more to him than I ever anticipated.”
“You couldn’t have known,” Sherlock said firmly. “How it would end for Moran. Or what it would do to Moriarty. Impossible to predict any of that.”
Mycroft smiled slowly as he lifted his glass to his lips.
“You’re far too quick to defend me, little brother,” he marveled.
“Not defending you,” Sherlock replied quickly. “Just pointing out the obvious. Madame Leota might argue differently, but no one can actually predict the future. You included.”
This earned a small chuckle from Mycroft. He sobered fast.
“It wasn’t good, Sherlock…what I did.”
“I know,” Sherlock agreed, lifting his glass to take a small sip of the excellent liquor his brother had been storing for years. “But your crime, if you can call it that at all, was limited to our world. Jim’s were not. He would have paid a heavy price.”
“Theft and attempted murder, several times over,” Mycroft murmured, looking at the light shining through the glass he held. “The degrees of separation are small.”
“But you are separated from him,” Sherlock insisted, finally pulling his brother’s eye and holding the contact. “At the end of the day. You are different.”
Mycroft blinked and continued to stare at him for a few moments before breaking his gaze, leaning back in his chair.
“Don’t you have someone to be seeing to?” he asked Sherlock.
“Only if you’re sound,” Sherlock said, narrowing his eyes as he looked for any tell that Mycroft was covering a deeper pain.
“You’ve wasted enough time with me,” his brother said with a knowing smile. “Go to her.”
Sherlock stood up, resolving to drop in on Mycroft before the night was over and first thing the next morning.
A small crowd was gathered outside his van when he reached it and he breezed past all of them, ignoring questions, only intent on getting inside. Janine and Irene were sitting with Molly on his bed, speaking softly to her and gently holding her hand and caressing her hair. Sally was fixing a few cups of tea. They all looked up when he stepped inside, their eyes full of anxious curiosity. He glanced at Molly, noting that she seemed nearly asleep, and then looked at Irene, giving her a quick shake of his head.
That was all that was needed. The women looked at each other solemnly and took their leave.
He stood still once they had gone, looking at the young woman lying in his bed. They’d changed her into a modest cotton nightdress. Her face was pale and it only made the red marks on her neck stand out all the more. Bruises dotted her arms and there were grey circles under her eyes.
He should have done more for her when he still had the chance. Perhaps then he would only be relaying the charges Jim would have been facing, rather than informing her of his death.
Walking softly, he crossed the van and sat gently on the edge of the bed, looking down at Molly. Her eyes fluttered open and she shifted, giving him a weak smile.
“You know, the term ‘show stopping act’ is only figurative,” he murmured, laying a hand softly along her face and caressing her cheek. “You didn’t have to actually stop the show.”
He didn’t know why he was making jokes. Perhaps it was so that he could see her smile, hear her laugh, however weak, before he had to break her heart.
She must have seen the conflict in his eyes, because her laugh turned to a frown in seconds and she reached out to grasp his arm.
“Just tell me,” she whispered.
“He had a pistol,” Sherlock said slowly, unable to meet her eye. “It all happened very quickly… we tried to stop him. He’s gone, Molly. I’m sorry.”
She blinked up at him, swallowing hard, and then her mouth contorted and her eyes filled with tears and she was crying, wailing, sitting up and reaching for him. Sherlock felt a lump rise in his throat as he supported her, holding her as tenderly as he could as her mourned the loss of the man she had called a brother.
Three Months Later
Molly woke to the sounds of songbirds singing in the trees just outside the caravan. She could hear voices and laughter in the distance, the early risers already tucking into breakfast or starting their daily chores. She stretched and shut her eyes again, curling into Sherlock. She felt him sigh and his arm wrapped tighter around her waist.
They hadn’t had a morning apart since she’d nearly met her end. Sometimes he would rise before her and the fire would be stoked with coffee or tea brewing by the time she woke, but he was always there. The first few weeks, she’d desperately needed that closeness. The nightmares had been nonstop and her body ached for the longest time while she recovered.
She grieved Jim. Or at least, the idea of him. There was nothing of what he’d become that she lamented or felt sorry for, but it still left her sorrowful to know that he had been so maddened by the events of their early life.
When Sherlock had revealed the truth of everything to her, she’d been shocked, amazed that all of their lives had been so intricately tied for so long and had culminated in such disaster. It had taken her some time to sort out how she felt about Mycroft and the part he had played. For a small time, she doubted that she would be able to stay with the Holmes’ company after everything that had happened.
Once the shock had worn away and the days didn’t seem so dreadfully daunting to get through, the hurt lessened and Mycroft’s mistake became just that – a mistake. He’d done what he thought best to rectify it and she found she couldn’t hate him.
And so, she continued to wake up in Sherlock’s bed, choosing a life she never thought she would have the chance to lead.
When his fingers began to trace the curve of her hip, Molly knew that he was awake and the warm press of his hand on her flesh left little doubt as to what was on his mind. She hummed and pressed her lips against his shoulder, peppering his skin with soft kisses until he shifted and rolled over her, returning the favor.
Molly’s legs easily fell open and wrapped around his, welcoming him into her body in a way that had become as natural as breathing. He kissed every part of her his mouth could reach as he moved inside her, quickly causing her to gasp into the curve of his neck as her muscles tightened around him. He grunted in a way that she loved and dropped his forehead to the pillow beneath her, his hips grinding into hers as he reached his pleasure.
Minutes later, while Sherlock was still hovering over her and kissing her neck between words of morning conversation, there was a knock at the door.
“Bugger off!” Sherlock bellowed, causing Molly to laugh.
“Annoying, isn’t it?” John shouted from the other side of the door.
“They can wait ten minutes,” Sherlock replied.
“It is exactly nine twenty-three, you have seven minutes,” John said. “And just so you’re informed, Mycroft gave several of us permission to drag you bare-arsed from the van if need be.”
“Something I’m quite looking forward to,” Mary chimed in.
Molly giggled again, sliding her hands alongside Sherlock’s face.
“We really should try to hurry today,” she said in mock seriousness.
“So tedious,” he said, dropping his head to kiss her throat again, pressing his hips into hers. “I’d much rather stay right here.”
“Oh,” Molly sighed, feeling her muscles flutter as he began to fill her again. “Oh, so would I, but… we made them wait yesterday… and the day before that…”
“So they should be used to it by now,” he said logically.
“Five minutes!” John shouted from outside.
Sherlock growled, looking absolutely pained to pull away from Molly.
“All right!” he hollered. “When did you become the bloody town crier?”
Molly brushed her hair away from her face and sat up, watching as Sherlock stalked around the room looking for a fresh set of clothes. Her head tilted slightly as she slyly took in the sight of his naked form.
“Only three more days of it,” she said soothingly. “Then we’ll be on the road again. Less interruptions.”
“Mm.” He nodded, finally finding a pair of brown trousers and a white shirt. He tossed the items over his should and walked over to the bed again, sliding a hand beneath her hair and pulling her in for a solid kiss. “Couldn’t be soon enough.”
She bit her lip to hold back the grin as he turned and strode out of the van with nothing at all covering him where he should have been covered. It only took a few seconds before she heard the hollers and whistles from people outside as he headed towards the bathing area.
After a quick wash-up (Molly had the decency to wear a dressing gown on her way to and from the baths), they walked hand in hand towards the practice tent. Mycroft was waiting for them just outside, his top hat in hand.
“How kind of you to join us,” he said, his small smile more teasing than chastising.
“Oh come now, Mycroft, surely even you can appreciate taking the time for a little pleasure before business,” Sherlock said with a grin.
“Yes, well, it would be best not to press your luck.”
“Or you’ll find yourself the owner of a new top hat,” Mycroft said, twirling the hat in between his hands before placing it atop his head. He nudged it to a jaunty angle and smiled again, turning to walk inside the tent.
Molly looked up at Sherlock, quite amused by the look of disgust on his face.
“I think he’s ribbing you,” she said.
“I don’t,” Sherlock muttered. “That’s what worries me.”
She smiled at him, tugging his hand and shifting the grip on her silks with her other hand.
“Oh it wouldn’t be so bad,” she said. “And you would look wonderful in the hat.”
“I might look wonderful in it,” Molly added, stepping forward and turning to look at him. “In that red slip you like…”
Sherlock’s expression didn’t change, but he blinked and his eyes darted to hers.
“We’ll talk about it.”
Thank you to each and every person who followed this fic and encouraged me by leaving kudos, comments, and sharing. And thank you a million times to MizJoely, a great beta and an even better friend. I am going to miss this one tremendously, it's been a great little world to play in!