Chapter Title: Welcome to London
Fandom: Sherlock (TV)
Genre: Alternate Universe, Drama, Romance
Fic Summary: Journalism AU. John is a former war reporter, newly returned from Afghanistan, who is assigned to work the local beat with Sherlock, a brilliant, but uncompromising photographer. When the two of them end up turning a routine assignment on the late Connie Prince into a solved murder case, however, they find themselves the targets of criminal mastermind, Jim Moriarty, who takes a dangerous interest in Sherlock. Inspired by the part in "The Great Game" where John pretends to be a reporter, and Sherlock his photographer.
"Are you John Watson?" inquired a nervy, pony-tailed brunette, popping her head into the lobby. "Chief said I should come and see if you'd got here yet."
"Oh!" John exclaimed, jumping nervously to his feet, "Should I, um..." It was at this point that his chair, which had been wobbling dangerously since his sudden departure from it, decided to tip over with a crash, giving his already shaky nerves an additional, unwelcome jolt.
"Don't worry," the brunette whispered conspiratorially as she sprinted over to right the fallen chair, "I knocked over the coffee cart."
"Just now?" John asked, glancing around in confusion.
"My first day," she explained, "I was so nervous that I ran into it headlong. Started things off with a bang as they say!" She then followed up this remark with a little, high-pitched giggle.
"Right," John said slowly, not entirely certain what the proper response was to such a confession.
"But you shouldn't be nervous!" she continued, laying a hand on his arm. "They shout a lot in there, but haven't been known to bite...unless asked to!" She repeated her peculiar giggle from earlier before motioning him toward the door to the adjoining room.
The paper's newsroom was abuzz with frenetic activity: phones ringing in seeming competition with one another, the omnipresent clacking of fingers on keyboards, all overlaid with a cacophony of raised voices shouting for everything from a pencil to a rhyming dictionary.
"All right, who finished off the coffee?" a weasel-faced man was asking the occupants of the room as he threateningly brandished an empty carafe. "You all know the rules, if you finish what's left..."
"You make another pot," some of the others answered in unison, adopting the bored monotone of unrepentant schoolchildren.
"Honestly, Anderson, have you nothing better to do than lecture the rest of us on office policy?" inquired a striking woman who was holding her pen like a cigarette as she sprawled herself rather provocatively across her desk. "I'll bet there's a hundred octogenarians in Kensington just dying to be interviewed about their prize begonias."
"You always trivialize my work, Irene," the one called Anderson interjected irritatedly, "I'll have you know that the home and garden section..."
This was all John heard before the brunette ushered him into a smaller room with just enough sound-proofing that the noise from the newsroom was diminished to a dull, homogeneous roar.
Seated in front of John in the center of the room with his legs crossed nonchalantly over his desk was an attractive man in his late forties, whose silver hair would have lent him an aura of distinction had it not been for the restlessness clearly conveyed by his posture, as if being in a sitting position was utterly foreign to him.
"Here he is, chief," the brunette announced cheerfully, "Our lamb to the slaughter." Upon seeing the strange looks both John and her boss were sending her, she added quickly, "Not that we slaughter people here! We don't; of course we don't! It's a newspaper, not some sort of...Roman amphitheatre."
"Yes, thank you, Molly," the silver-haired man interjected swiftly, giving her a pointed look as he swung his legs to the floor and got to his feet in one, smooth motion, "That's all for now, I think."
"Right, then," she said, ducking her head and shuffling toward the door before proclaiming, "If you need me, I'll be sorting through today's round of stiffs!"
She departed from the room before John could inquire further, compelling him to direct his bewildered, marginally frightened look at his new employer.
"She writes the obituaries," the man explained quickly, adding with a nervous laugh, "Molly might be a bit...eccentric, but she's not a serial killer, I promise."
"Now, unless Molly has botched my 'fetch the new employee' directive rather badly, you should be John Watson," he continued, extending a hand and a smile in John's direction. "I'm Gregory Lestrade, your new editor-in-chief. And on behalf of everyone here at The Courier, may I say, welcome back."
"Thank you, sir," John said, accepting Lestrade's hand in a brisk shake, "It's, um, good to be back."
"Big fan of your work over there, by the way," Lestrade added, motioning John toward the well-worn chair opposite him, "Gripping stuff, very visceral...but human, too - like you never forgot that they were real people doing those extraordinary things. That is exactly the kind of perspective I've been looking for around here."
"The stories were always there," John said, rubbing a hand self-consciously over the back of his neck, "I was just the one with the pen, paying attention and trying not to get shot."
"I gathered from our friend Mike over at the BBC that you weren't entirely successful on that front," Lestrade said with a slight frown. "How's the shoulder doing?"
"Nearly healed," John said, reaching up subconsciously to brush his fingers over the still tender spot just beneath his collarbone. "Except the limp and a bit of ache in the morning, I'm back to a hundred percent."
"Glad to hear it," Lestrade said, nodding briskly. "Now, there is the small matter of what beat you'll be covering."
"Mike said the opening was for local interest," John began hesitantly. "Obviously, if there's something else you'd prefer, I'd be more than happy to -"
"No, no," Lestrade interrupted quickly, "Mike was absolutely right about that. Fact is, our previous man on local left us rather in the lurch, so Mike giving me your name was a much needed spot of luck."
"I'm sorry," John continued, still hesitant, "but I don't quite see..."
"The local job is yours if you want it," Lestrade finished, "but there is one...condition that may make you wish to reconsider."
"A condition which my predecessor found...unacceptable?" John inquired, reading between the lines.
"Exactly," Lestrade said, nodding slowly, "You see -". Suddenly, Lestrade's head jerked up at the sound of voices raised above the hum from next door. "I think," he said, taking a few long strides toward the door and opening it just far enough so they could both see what was going on, "we may be in for a demonstration."
As soon as the scene became visible, John easily discerned the epicenter of the shouting: a tall man with flashing eyes was towering over Anderson, his dark black curls spilling over what was surely a usually pale face, but which was currently flushed with temper.
"Even keeping in mind that your job could be done equally well by one of the ferns you're so fond of rhapsodizing over, provided it had a keyboard," the man was shouting, "I would have assumed, incorrectly as it turns out, that it would require you to have the bare minimum of intelligence to know that if a sign says, "Do Not Enter!" you should, in fact, refrain from entering!"
"I hardly think that tone is necessary," Anderson said with a sniff, drawing himself up to his full height - which still fell a good two inches shy of the other man's lanky frame. "All I wanted to know was whether or not you'd finished working up my photos of the Regent's Park daffodils."
"Daffodils?" the other man exclaimed, spitting out the word as if it were some sort of obscenity. He backed away from Anderson and ran a hand agitatedly through his hair before continuing, "God, what is it like in your funny, little brain? In addition to nearly ruining the prints I have been working on all day, you actually think I have nothing better to do than develop your weekend snapshots!"
"Now hold on just a minute," Anderson objected, "I don't think -"
"That's right," the other man cut him off, "You don't think. If you did, you would understand that a darkroom is supposed to be kept dark! Or is even that too much for your feeble mind to handle?"
"All right, Sherlock, all right," Lestrade interjected, rushing into the room when it looked like Anderson might just take a swing at him, "I'm sure Anderson will think twice before barging into your darkroom again."
"As I have said, that is incorrectly assuming that he is capable of rational thought," Sherlock said sulkily.
"Yes, thank you, Sherlock," Lestrade said quickly, "Since we have that settled, why don't you go finish those prints?"
"I'll need an assistant," Sherlock said after a minute, still shooting dark glances at Anderson, "The double exposure needs two sets of hands. Do try and send me someone at least moderately competent this time." Having apparently tired of the conversation, he whirled around and disappeared behind a door labeled "Darkroom" without another word.
"And that," Lestrade said, walking back toward John, "is your condition. And your new partner, if you don't already want to run out the door screaming."
"Who is he?" John asked, leaning out of the office to glance curiously at Sherlock's retreating back.
"Only the best damn photographer in the business," Lestrade said with a frustrated sigh, running a hand through his hair. "You know he's won three British Press Awards for Photographer of the Year? Didn't come to a single one of the ceremonies, either - I've still got three bronze statuettes gathering dust in the corner of my office."
"Anything I might have seen?" John inquired, intrigued against his better judgement by his probably highly unstable potential colleague.
"The photo that lit the fuse on the Stephens scandal last year?" Lestrade volunteered, "All him."
"My God," John said in wonder, "They're calling that the photo coup of the decade!"
"Fifty journalists at that press conference, and only Sherlock thinks to snap his shot at the precise second the MP's coming out of the room," Lestrade said, shaking his head with admiration. "Storms into my office two hours later, slams the photo on the desk and proclaims, 'He was sleeping with her, Lestrade!' as if that explained everything."
"So it was Sherlock who ran down the story?" John asked, brow furrowing. "Isn't that a bit...unorthodox for a photographer?"
Lestrade let out a brusque laugh, inclined his head toward the door, and asked, "Does he really seem like the orthodox type to you?"
"Fair point," John ceded, adding after a second, "But that story ended with an MP getting convicted for murder! I mean that wasn't all...he didn't..."
"Once he gets an idea in his head, no amount of prodding will get it out again," Lestrade said, shaking his head, "not from me, not from his co-workers, and apparently not even from the British government."
When John's eyes widened, Lestrade went on, "Oh yes, they tried. Had the most infuriating man round here two, three times a week to tell us, very politely of course, that our government was not terribly pleased with the story, and would we be so kind as to halt all work on it immediately."
"What did you do?" John inquired.
"I told him, very politely of course, to get stuffed," Lestrade said, his voice tinged with pride, "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's the boys at Westminster telling me I can't do my job because they haven't been doing theirs."
"I'm sure he loved that," John observed dryly.
"Oh, believe me, it was nothing compared to what Sherlock told him," Lestrade said with a smile, "I've spent two decades in journalism, and he still managed to come up with obscenities I'd never even heard before. It was only later that I found out the full truth of it: thinking it would soften him up a bit, the ministry decided it would be wise to appoint his brother as the liaison. No doubt the same geniuses who thought that an MP sleeping with his researcher and then murdering her was the kind of secret that could be kept."
When John smiled ruefully at this, Lestrade continued, "Look, the only reason that I'm telling you any of this is to make sure that you understand - getting involved with Sherlock is always, always complicated; he is very much the sort where, if there's any trouble hanging about, you can rest assured he'll find his way straight to the middle of it."
"Sorry," John said after a minute, "did you want me to accept the position?"
"Believe me," Lestrade assured him quickly, "Nothing would make me happier. I just want you to know what you're getting into - if it's a break from the war you're looking for, Mr. Watson, I am here to assure you, Sherlock Holmes is not it."
Whatever response John might have made to Lestrade's warning was cut off by a quick knock at the door, followed by the entrance of a perturbed-looking, middle-aged woman who said, "Oh chief, I'm sorry to interrupt, but Sherlock's shouting about an assistant again, and..."
"Yes, thank you, Mrs. Hudson, I'll take care of it," Lestrade said with a sigh, throwing an apologetic look at John and striding into the newsroom. John followed just in time to hear Anderson exclaim, "Well, it's about time. There are people trying to work out here!"
"Oh, don't worry yourself on my account, sweetie," Irene called out sweetly, "I don't mind."
"All right, people, that's enough," Lestrade said, raising his hands in a calming gesture. "Now, somebody's got to go in there and help him or we're not going to have a photo feature for tomorrow's edition. Whose turn is it?"
When this announcement was met with only silence and averted glances, he started, "Mrs. Hudson?"
"Oh, I would, dear," she said, gesturing helplessly with her hands, "but with my arthritis..."
"Molly?" he tried again, spinning to face her.
The obituary writer ducked her head before mumbling, "The last time I helped him, there may have been a slight, toxic liquid spillage incident...the words, 'A double amputee would be a preferable assistant to you' may have been used..."
Lestrade groaned and attempted, "Irene?" though by this point he seemed in desperate straits.
"O for three, I'm afraid, darling," she said, leaning forward and running her manicured nails through her hair, "He won't work with me. Says that I'm 'too distracting'."
"There has to be someone in this building who can work with him!" Lestrade exclaimed in frustration, running a hand through his hair.
"I'll do it," John volunteered pleasantly, popping his head out of the office.
Lestrade stared at him in amazement for a second before asking, "I couldn't...I mean, I shouldn't...I mean, are you sure?"
John just gave him a small smile and shrugged before gesturing to the corridor and asking,"This way, is it?" to which Lestrade responded with an automatic nod.
The gathered staff watched in awe as he made his way haltingly down the hallway, rapped twice on the darkroom door, assured its occupant that he was not, in fact, "that damned fool Anderson," and slipped inside.
"Well, would you look at that!" Lestrade exclaimed, placing his hands on his hips and looking utterly astonished.
"Don't get your hopes up too much," the curly-haired woman next to him said, crossing her arms haughtily, "I give him three days."
"I don't know, Sally," Irene said to her, a curious look passing over her face, "I wouldn't underestimate this one. Something tells me he might just be sticking around."
"Care to put a fiver on it?" Sally asked, drawing one from her purse and waving it in the air.
"Make it a tennner, and you're on," Irene countered, eyes gleaming in anticipation as she deposited a note in an inconspicuous jar on her desk.
"Feel like a wager, Anderson?" she added tauntingly, hopping onto his desk and scattering a pile of annotated articles which appeared to be on classifying different types of roses onto the floor.
"Although I would normally refuse such a prurient offer," Anderson said primly, glaring at Irene as he bent to pick up the fallen papers, "I make it my policy to never turn down free money. Sally says three days - I'll make it one. Put me down for ten pounds on six o'clock tomorrow."
"And how about you, Mrs. Hudson?" Irene inquired, more playfully this time, "Want to show us how it's done again?"
"Oh, no, dear," the older woman said, waving her off, "I'll leave the gambling to you young people today."
"She knows better than to waste her grocery money on the likes of Sherlock," Sally sneered.
"On second thought," Mrs. Hudson said decidedly, shooting Sally a cold glance. "Irene, dear, put me down for ten pounds in favor of that nice young man being a permanent addition to our little family."
"Oh, and how long do you think he'll last with our resident psychopath?" Anderson asked sarcastically.
Mrs. Hudson merely smiled enigmatically and said, "Long enough to earn me that brand new copper kettle from Marks and Sparks I've had my eye on, and that's all I care to say on the matter."
"I have now received kind donations from all of us here in the bullpen," Irene announced, before she turned to Lestrade and inquired, "so how about you, oh captain, my captain? Care to toss your hat in the ring?"
Lestrade took one long look down the empty corridor, then another at the crowd of faces surrounding him, before saying, "Oh to hell with it. Twenty on Watson to win. If I lose another man on local, I'll have more to worry about than paying for Anderson's tickets to the Chelsea Flower Show."
While all this was going on in the newsroom, John Watson, completely unaware that anything at all was riding on his victory or defeat, was occupying himself with trying to adjust to the dim red light providing what minimal illumination there was in the darkroom.
After standing for several minutes in silent expectation, John had begun to entertain the possibility that the room's other occupant had not noticed his presence when he suddenly disproved this notion by speaking.
"How long?" his new partner asked, not bothering to tear his eyes from the roll of film he was examining intensely.
"How long...for what?" John asked slowly, racking his brain for any possibilities.
"The office pool," Sherlock elaborated with a touch of a patience, adding briskly, "Developer."
"Oh, um," John stalled, looking around frantically until his gaze lighted upon a jug with letters scrawled across it that, though faint, looked enough like Developer that he could hand it to Sherlock with sixty percent certainty that he wouldn't be mocked, "Here."
Sherlock took the bottle and began pouring it into another jug already half-filled with water, adding more of each with graceful recklessness until he seemed pleased with the result.
When it became clear that Sherlock had little to no intention of elaborating further on his previous outburst, John prompted him with a casual, "The pool?"
"Mmm," Sherlock said, flipping both taps on the sink. "For how long our partnership will last. What did you say - a few hours, one day, two, a week?"
"I - I didn't bet," John said after a moment, feeling like he was behind again. "I - hang on, how did you know?"
"About the pool?" Sherlock asked, sounding thoroughly bored with the whole matter, "Hardly impressive reasoning, it is my understanding that they usually conduct one. The only wild card was you. Stop bath."
"What?" John asked frantically, wondering if this was part of some sort of strange code he was utterly unfamiliar with.
"The second jug," Sherlock said impatiently, rolling his eyes, "do try and keep up."
"Right," John said quickly, locating this one with more speed than the last and then handing it to Sherlock, "Stop bath."
"Er, anyway, not about the pool," John said after a minute of watching Sherlock thoroughly agitate the bottle of stop bath, "About me being your new partner."
"Oh, that," Sherlock said, sounding thoroughly disinterested, "Who else would you be? I've never met you before, so you must be new - Lestrade is unlikely to send an outsider after...last time."
John felt a sudden rush of certainty that he didn't want to know what had happened "last time" and so let it pass with a slightly deflated, "Oh."
After a few more minutes of concentrated silence, it was once again Sherlock who broke it by asking, "So...Afghanistan or Iraq?" before adding in the same cool tone, "Fixer."
"I'm sorry?" John asked, absently handing him the third bottle.
"Your previous assignment," Sherlock said, plunging the bottle into the now full sink, "Afghanistan or Iraq?"
"Afghanistan," John admitted, now thoroughly startled, "But how did you -"
"I'm a photographer," Sherlock said impatiently as he fetched a roll of film from a box next to the sink, "I see what no one else does - it's my job. Lights."
"What?" John asked, trying once again to catch up.
"This next part requires complete darkness," Sherlock responded, laying out a few strange-looking tools on the small table to his left.
"Oh," John said, pivoting to switch off the sole source of illumination, "Er, right." He initially thought about asking how exactly Sherlock planned to work in complete darkness, but ultimately concluded that this would probably not be charitably received.
"And what exactly did you see?" John asked instead, trying not to sound as desperately curious as he was, "about me, I mean."
"Your hands are callused, but all over, not just along the ridge of your thumb," Sherlock said from out of the darkness, "That means manual work, not typing. Then there's your breathing."
"My breathing?" John asked, blinking in surprise as the red light suddenly came back on. "What's wrong with my breathing?"
"Nothing," Sherlock said, moving with lightning speed to dunk the strange contraption he was holding in the sink, "now. In fact, it's slowed by nearly half since you've been in here. Most people it's the other way around - small, dark space with a stranger, increase in stress, but you, no, this is comfortable to you, much more comfortable than standing out there with that lot pretending everything's normal."
"Clearly that makes two of us," John observed quietly.
Sherlock paused for only a split second before continuing, "So, that speaks of a man who's spent enough time in unfamiliar, enclosed spaces that more conventional social loci seem alien and discomfiting, so a soldier or, taking into account your hands and the fact that our employer knows better than to send me a layman, a war reporter."
"That...was amazing," John said after a moment, shaking his head.
A small smile appeared on Sherlock's lips as he flipped open a stopwatch with one hand, and began to pour liquid from the contraption back into the sink. "Do you think so?"
"Of course it was. It was extraordinary," John insisted, "It was quite extraordinary."
Sherlock said nothing, but a ghost of the smile remained as he emptied the contents of the other bottles, one after the other into the sink, pausing only to occasionally stir the mixture surrounding the film.
Finally, however, he pulled the plug on the drain and retrieved the now fully treated photographs. Sherlock's eyes flicked over the scattered pile of them, and eventually he selected a single one to hold up and ask, "Tell me, hero reporter John Watson, what do you see?"
John began to ask, "How on earth did you...?" before he held up his hands, laughed and said, "You know what? I don't want to know."
He could not, however, stop himself from muttering, "Just fantastic," as he took a few steps forward so he could examine the photograph from over Sherlock's shoulder.
As John took in the beautifully rendered street scene, full of Londoners going about their day, he was drawn to the action in the lower right hand corner. "My God," he exclaimed, "That man, there by the telephone booth - he just stole that woman's purse! See how he's running?"
Sherlock's head whipped around, and John could see a flash of surprise in his startlingly blue eyes before their expression returned to one of cool appraisal.
Still, Sherlock did not respond, but simply fetched another photo from the sink and asked, "And this one?"
"There must have been some sort of accident," John said after a second, pointing to an area near the right edge of the scene, "Right there by the statue of Nelson - paramedics trying to weave through the tourists with a body bag. No one's looking...but how can that be? Why is no one looking?"
This time the flash in Sherlock's eyes was unmistakably one of interest as he pulled one final shot from the solution. "What about this one?"
John had barely glanced at the photo before exclaiming, "That's a bomb squad! Creeping into that building from the alley by the Sommerfield's. Christ, and still those people don't notice! That building could explode at any second, blowing them all into miniscule pieces, and they're too busy with their shopping and their cell phones to even look up!"
After hanging the photo carefully on the clothesline snaking its way around the room, Sherlock stared at John for a long moment, his expression inscrutable. Finally he gave a brisk nod and announced, "I like to get a jump on the day, so be at my place at 7:00 tomorrow morning. Lestrade will give you the address," before grabbing his coat from a nearby hook and opening the door.
"Your place?" John asked, as he hurried to follow, "But...shouldn't I just come here?"
"Here?" Sherlock called over his shoulder with a snort of derision, striding through the newsroom, "Oh, I only come here on Sundays to use the darkroom. What's the use in being cooped up in a badly lit room with little ventilation when there's a war going on just outside those doors?"
He spun round and clasped his hands together gleefully before turning his back once more to John and shouting, "See you at seven!"
Before John could think of anything further to say, Sherlock was gone, having disappeared into the hallway with only the swoosh of his long, black coat announcing his departure.
"Well," Lestrade said, coming up behind him, "I think that went very well."
"How can you tell?" John asked, still feeling somewhat like he'd just been sucked in and spit back out by a very powerful whirlpool.
"Oh, believe me," Lestrade said ruefully, clapping him on the shoulder before turning to walk back to his office, "when Sherlock doesn't want to work with someone, everyone can tell."
"But tomorrow," John shouted after him, "what should I do?"
"Find me a story," Lestrade called back firmly, adding, "And try to avoid getting sued or murdered while you're at it."
While John was standing in the middle of the now deserted newsroom, trying to figure out if he had somehow failed to wake up that morning, and was simply in the middle of a very strange dream, his new partner was busily engaged in a covert conversation with another co-worker a few feet down the hallway.
"What are odds looking like on this one, Mrs. Hudson?" he asked quietly.
"Anderson and Sally both have ten pounds against," she said, "while Lestrade and Irene are in for that much on him staying."
"And what about you, Mrs. Hudson?" Sherlock asked with a smile.
"Oh, you know I always bet in your favor, dear," she said, patting his hand.
"I seem to remember you pocketing quite a bit when I sent that Oxford fellow with the manicured fingernails packing," Sherlock remarked.
"Well," she said mischievously, "Let's say 'almost always' then and leave it at that. Now, did you want me to add a little something to the pot for you?"
Sherlock reached into his jacket to retrieve first his wallet, then a twenty pound note, before handing it to Mrs. Hudson and saying, "Twenty on him staying."
"Twenty?" Mrs. Hudson asked, surprised, "Why, Sherlock, I've never seen you bet more than five!"
"There's something different about this one," Sherlock said, glancing in the direction of the newsroom before returning his gaze to her and saying. "I think that the game, Mrs. Hudson, may at long last be on!"