Summary: “John stares blankly at the detonator in his hand. He knows he will never live to be eleven or twelve or thirteen. He deserves to die, but the man standing next to him doesn’t. Sherlock doesn’t deserve this.”
AU – The British Empire spans the globe; her greatest threat is not foreign enemies but domestic terrorists, killing in the name of freedom. Mycroft Holmes leads the grim war on terror and Sherlock is his best secret agent: cold, calculating and obsessive. He is hell-bent on destroying the rebels – until one explosive day when he meets a child soldier named John.
Chapter 1 – To Free the World
John couldn’t remember the first time he set foot in the vast network of abandoned London Underground tunnels. He might have been an adventurous toddler who wandered away from a distracted mother, or an unwanted bastard unceremoniously abandoned in a disused tube station – but how he came to be Sergeant John Watson of the Liberty Resistance Army didn’t matter. He had a sacred purpose in life: to liberate the world from the tyranny of the British Empire.
John had spent his entire life in the tunnels; they were the only home he had ever known, and he’d studied their history avidly. Taken over by the war effort during the Second World War, the London Underground had served as the main military base during the German invasion. A complex and highly sophisticated set of bunkers, command centres and strategic defence platforms had been built deep within the Underground system. At the end of the war the extensive network of tunnels, tracks and stations were condemned and abandoned, the official reason being that the cost to dismantle the military installations and return the Underground to working order was too high for the bankrupt nation. This had been a blessing for the LRA, who since then had turned the empty, discarded tunnels into a giant complex of military bases from which to launch attacks against the tyrannical government just metres above them.
John often thought that a normal person, like the characters in the tattered books he loved, would want to know more about his own history. A normal person would care whether he had a family who loved him, who still prayed for his safe return…but John had long since concluded that he wasn’t normal. While the characters in his books spent their time worrying about parents and school, his life was occupied by war.
His waking moments were dictated by the necessities of survival and by uncompromising orders from above. This was the only life he’d ever known, and while he understood that there was another world above the concrete ceilings that bounded his own, he had no desire to experience it for himself. Life in the Underground was good. He enjoyed being the youngest platoon commander, and he loved his fellow soldiers. They were all the family he would ever need or want.
But there was one man who would always hold a special place in John’s heart: his captain, Sebastian Moran. Seb was his hero, his idol, the man John wanted to resemble above all others. Not only was his captain the bravest of men, but he possessed an inhuman ability to know what people wanted, often before they knew it themselves.
Today, in the artificial gloom of his billet, Sebastian had demonstrated his unusual gift by presenting John with the one thing he’d always wanted.
“It’s a dirty bomb,” said Seb, pointing at the footlocker lying on the table, which was the sole piece of furniture in the room.
John stared long and hard at the battered lid of the footlocker, as if he could actually see through the metal to its contents. The soldiers had been talking about a nuclear strike against the Government forces for months now. It was automatically assumed that the seasoned veterans of Company A would be the heroes of this mission, but John had held a glimmer of childish hope that maybe, just maybe, somebody in the high regions of command would remember him.
Today John’s fervent prayers had been answered. Suddenly, within the space of a few seconds, John was about to get exactly what he’d wished for.
“You’re going to detonate it,” continued Seb solemnly as he reached over to clasp John’s shoulders like a proud parent.
John fantasized sometimes that Seb really was his father, and in his fantasies he liked to imagine the two of them fishing in rivers and camping in huge forests, like he had read in the storybooks.
“The Imperials are going to have a high-profile meeting right above Westminster tube station,” said Seb, “but you knew that already, didn’t you?”
John nodded, arching his neck back to look at the gaunt face of his pretend father. Company C had run out of razor blades several months ago, and Seb now sported a thick beard a hand’s-breadth long, which John rather liked. He was beginning to remind John of the Huntsman in Snow White, or perhaps the Woodsman in Little Red Riding Hood. Either way, Seb looked like a hero.
“Here’s your mission brief.” Seb produced a tattered folder, covered with crossed-out titles of previous projects. A thick, uneven wad of yellowing paper protruded from the top. “You’re expected at HQ for a full briefing at 08:00 tomorrow.”
With a curt military nod, Seb released John’s shoulders and walked out of the billet. For a moment, John wanted to grab his arm and hold onto their precious time together. He wanted desperately for the man, who was the closest thing he had to a father, to actually wrap his arms around John’s shoulders and hug him, but Seb was already out of the hatch, leaving John alone.
By the time he’d finished reading the dossier, the other members of his platoon had returned from duty. They were affectionately called the “baby squad” by the rest of the company, as all the members were pre-pubescent boys. The platoon used to be much larger, but accidents and the bleeding sickness had whittled their number down to just four, commanded by Sergeant John Watson. Unlike their commander, the other boys all had stories to tell: tales of abuse, severe neglect, homelessness, and finally being rescued by the Liberty Resistance Army. Occasionally John would feel a twinge of envy: although the other boys’ life stories were filled with pain and betrayal, they at least had the comfort of knowing where they’d come from.
Slightly, the tallest of the baby squad, gawked at the footlocker still lying on the table and stumbled over his own feet to get a closer view. He was a lanky boy who had a habit of wetting himself at night: hence he was always slightly wet.
Murray was the next to appear, glancing at the object for a moment before dumping his gear on his patch of floor and crawling into his sleeping sack. “Good luck with that,” he muttered from inside the thick blanket, “you’re gonna need it.”
Zero came in last, as usual, and walked straight up to John to hand him a hard-tack biscuit wrapped in a dirty handkerchief.
“Thanks, man,” said John, and swallowed the evening ration in three bites.
“Is that –?” asked Slightly, sounding both awed and afraid. “We heard that you’d been chosen to….”
“Yep,” replied John, sounding for split second like the child he was. “I’m going to be fully briefed tomorrow morning.”
“So – so you’re going to blow up the government?” stuttered Slightly.
“No, he’s just going to put on a fireworks display for those fat idiots,” snapped Zero sarcastically. Slightly shrank back as if he’d been slapped.
“Cut it out, Zero,” said John in a firm voice.
“I bet you think you’re such a hotshot now,” sneered Zero, his dark eyes roving over John’s face as if looking for some sign of arrogance or contempt.
“No, I don’t.” At times like these John knew better than to become angry. Zero had a bad temper and what Seb termed “low self-esteem”. It made him sensitive and paranoid, hearing insults in every remark, however casual.
“You’re acting like it,” sneered Zero, “you’re behaving like you’ve already become a hero!”
John couldn’t understand how sitting on the floor while reading a file could be deemed arrogant, but he shut the folder anyway and levelled a glare at Zero. “If you have a problem with this, go talk to Captain Moran about it.”
Zero slunk away, but continued to glare at John from the opposite corner, where his bed roll sat. John pulled his gaze away deliberately and paid him no further attention.
He had been given the greatest honour that could be bestowed on a soldier, a chance to bring an end to the government. He’d been singled out above all others to perform this task. The weight of this grave responsibility coupled with the unspoken exhilaration and pride he felt was a glorious sensation.
He was going to free the world from tyranny.
Sherlock Holmes tapped his elegant fingers impatiently on the empty desk before him. He despised waiting, and there was no form of waiting more despicable than waiting for Mycroft. His brother, the effective ruler of the largest Empire in history, had clearly never learnt to tell the time.
The office where Sherlock had been forced to wait was just one of many official rooms designated for Mycroft’s use. It was sparsely furnished; the only decorative item was a painting of the young Queen Elizabeth hanging prominently behind Mycroft’s large, polished desk. Sherlock leaned back in his brother’s chair and propped his feet on the desk, making sure to leave a mark on the gleaming surface. He glared up at the ornate cast-plaster ceiling, imagining all the things he would rather be doing, as the grandfather clock in the corner slowly ticked away the seconds.
“Sorry I’m late,” drawled Mycroft as an aide opened the door for him. “I was caught up in a meeting with MI5’s counter-terrorism branch.” The British Government was dressed, as usual, in an impeccably tailored suit, and in his left hand he carried an unassuming leather briefcase – doubtless containing the most valuable state secrets.
“You’re not sorry,” snapped Sherlock. “I’ve lost nearly an hour of my time, when I could be chasing terrorists!”
“Moriarty again, dear brother? Do remember what your obsession with him led to. You lost your position at MI5 because of your rabid hunt for this madman.”
“He’s dangerous and he’s planning something, something big. I just know it.”
“Moriarty is dead,” said Mycroft firmly. “He has been confirmed dead for over two years now. Sherlock, you promised me you had moved past this.”
“Fine, fine,” grumbled Sherlock, throwing his arms up fitfully, “don’t believe me, but there are rebels in London –”
“There was no evidence –”
“– there is evidence!” snarled Sherlock, jumping up from his seat and stalking towards his brother. “There are rebels living down there, in the Underground, like so many rats in a sewer!”
“Sherlock,” chided Mycroft, “please listen to me. I said there was no evidence; I didn’t state there is no evidence.”
Sherlock took a step back and searched his brother’s expression for any sign of sarcasm. For ten years he had been trying to make the government take his theory seriously, but no one, including Mycroft, wanted to believe that rebel insurgents were living right beneath their feet. An endless list of dull, repetitive questions had assaulted him from all sides:
Where would they get water and food supplies? How can they light the tunnels without electricity? How have they managed to evade all the surveillance drones patrolling the Underground?
Those fat bureaucrats in their bespoke suits couldn’t comprehend life without the creature comforts. They simply wouldn’t believe that people could live on dried food and rainwater, that they could survive without lighting or heating. Now it seemed the terrorists had finally made a mistake, and Sherlock was about to be vindicated.
Mycroft placed the heavy leather briefcase on the table and opened it without haste. “A surveillance drone operating in the service tunnels under the old King’s Cross Station took these photographs just moments before it was destroyed by enemy fire.”
Three astonishingly sharp black and white photographs showed the same detailed view of a semi-circular concrete tunnel, at five second intervals. At the very edge of the illuminated area was a humanoid shape, indistinct at first, but coming into focus in the last picture. The figure was wearing what seemed to be a military uniform and holding an assault rifle.
Sherlock tried to contain his shock, but his sharp intake of breath upon seeing the last image was enough to show his hand.
“It’s a child,” muttered Sherlock, taken aback by the strength of his own surprise. The first glimpse he’d had of an actual Underground terrorist, and it was definitely not what he had been expecting. A flood of questions poured through his mind even as it rapidly filed away all the facts this single black and white photograph presented.
“From the original image, our experts have managed to produce this.” A fourth photo, this time of the two metal dog tags around the boy’s neck, was shoved under Sherlock’s nose.
“John Watson,” he read, marvelling at how banal the name sounded. This boy could have been any small child running around in the suburbs of London – but instead he was holding an assault rifle, staring down a surveillance drone without a hint of fright.
“He doesn’t match any missing person reports from the last fifteen years,” said Mycroft. “We have to assume that, whoever he is, his family didn’t miss him.”
“Why does that matter?”
“We have reason to believe from our sources within the LRA that this boy is going to be detonating a nuclear bomb under the Houses of Parliament.”
Sherlock blinked, his mind unable to process the information for a split second. It was no surprise that Mycroft had agents inside the LRA, but this terror network spanned the globe and had footholds in almost every British colony. Each terror cell was almost completely isolated from the others, making the loss of one group much less damaging to the overall organisation. The culture of secrecy within the LRA meant that there were potentially hundreds of cells that still lay undiscovered. So how had Mycroft’s source found out about the operations of a secret cell that the government didn’t know existed until now?
Mycroft was scrutinising him again, so Sherlock covered his curiosity with a sneered, “MI5 have become even more stupid since I left. No one with a remote semblance of a brain would give that mission to a boy. He’d probably wet his pants and run away crying.”
“I wouldn’t write him off if I were you,” responded Mycroft with a note of superiority in his tone, “this boy is responsible for the Canary Wharf sniper shootings last year.”
Sherlock felt his jaw opening of its own accord, before he ruthlessly forced it shut again. “Says who?”
“Our sources, who shall remain anonymous,” replied Mycroft with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
Although Sherlock knew he was unlikely to find out anything more, old habits insisted that he probe further. “Your sources may have gotten the same name for the bomber and the sniper, but unless you have actual evidence that they are the same person, or that either of the terrorists is this child….”
“I assure you, dear brother, that you need not worry about the accuracy of the intelligence,” replied Mycroft, putting on another false smile.
Sherlock raised an appraising eyebrow, then turned back to the pictures to analyse their subject.
John Watson: small – 4ft 3in – thin, malnourished, light-coloured hair, mostly likely blond; experienced with an assault rifle, possible kill count; has some knowledge of military tactics, indicated by standing to the left side of the drone to give maximum area of target fire; has some knowledge of drones: can tell the difference between armed drones and surveillance ones.
“Do you have anything else on him?” demanded Sherlock.
“No, this is the first and only visual we have; the rest is entirely up to you”
“Your mission, should you choose to accept it,” said Mycroft, although his tone left no possibility of actual rejection, “is to infiltrate the LRA’s nuclear strike mission.”
“You’ve gone mad,” replied Sherlock incredulously as he stared back at his brother.
“Hardly. You will be replacing Dr Sigerson, who has been hired by the LRA to set up their dirty bomb. This will give you all the access you need to the key players. Your objectives are two-fold: first, to ensure that the bomb cannot be detonated; and second, to capture John Watson.”
“Capture him? Whatever for?”
“He’s an easier target than any of the generals. The child is one of their best snipers, and a proficient bomb maker. His loss will be more of a blow to the LRA than they could possibly realise, and he can provide us with intelligence on the logistics of living in the Underground that our current sources cannot.”
Sherlock stared back at the photograph of the boy holding his assault rifle at the ready, eyes hard and expression blank. For a moment, he wondered just what was going on inside the child’s mind as he held the gun up to take down a machine three times his size.
“You might have a problem breaking him,” stated Sherlock flatly as he grabbed his coat from the back of Mycroft’s chair.
“You just suggested he would lose control of his bladder at the slightest provocation.”
“I never said you shouldn’t also buy a supply of nappies,” sneered Sherlock – but he pocketed the photographs as he stalked out of the room.
In his silent flat, Sherlock lay on the sofa and stared into the eyes of a child soldier whose mere presence was going to shake the world. This mission was going to be his opportunity to vindicate himself.
He was going to free the world from terror.
AN: Firstly an enormous thank you to my beta readers:trishkafibble and dioscureantwins
Hopefully that was an interesting enough start for my readers, and there was enough background information to suspend your disbelief in this alternate universe and give Sherlock and young John a chance. There are plenty of stories about Sherlock/John adopting a child but I really wanted to have Sherlock interact with John as a child. I wanted Sherlock to be John's father figure and not the other way around as is so common in fanfiction.
Of course John has to be a soldier even as child and this took me down the route of child soldiers and the trauma, brainwashing and abuse they suffer. In a way this fic is dedicated to all of the children who are forced to be come combatants or are caught in a war zone. Children who never had the chance of being children.
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