Right. So. Um. Hi. This is a thing I wrote to while away the lonely, tea-drenched hours, because hey, I've been more than a little unemployed. Feedback would be GLORIOUS and WONDERFUL and BREATHTAKING and many, many synonyms besides, and would probably give me warm happy feelings, even if it's bad. Seriously you guys, be harsh, I like it.
Disclaimer: I'm on the dole. I own nothing, even this jumper is stolen.
John always thought of dead bodies as empty houses. They were a trifle unsettling, yes, in the way all abandoned things were unsettling; they reminded him of food gone cold, of unmade beds, of music cut off abruptly. They were lived-in places until suddenly the occupants had moved out -taken all of their furniture, cleared out the brain-attic, turned off the central heating, cancelled the milk. Nothing left but blank walls and darkened windows. They made him sad, but they didn't repulse him. I must be careful, he would think. This was someone's home.
It was this philosophy that had gotten him through St. Bart's. He'd never been what his peers called a "squeam"; someone who fainted, or threw up, or cried when they'd had to carve up bodies in the name of education. He'd watched the other aspiring doctors turn white one by one when they were confronted with the absolute end and simply pulled on a pair latex gloves. As he cut and prodded and hypothesised he would tell himself gravely, I must be careful. This was someone's home.
After each lesson, the urge to reaffirm life would kick in—the weightless, breathless feeling of having been submerged under cold water for hours and then hauled back to shore—and each person had their own way of dealing with it. Jenny Chatham chain-smoked for an hour after. Sanjeet Stroud sang karaoke. He was pretty sure Bob Hardwicke put on women's clothes and prowled the streets of Soho. Most stuck to the same Holy Trinity of drinking, shagging and fighting, and sometimes John joined them; but to him these pursuits were less about life and more about living on the knife edge of things, of laughing at death rather than accepting it. Instead John would go for long walks through London and watch the people. He would tell himself that though he'd spent the day with the dead the city teemed with life, full of lit windows and gurgling radiators and the smell of Brussels sprouts drifting through open doors. To John life was a fact that would be true until it was not true, and he would feel a surge of pride at the thought that the skills he was learning would keep these people from a cold metal drawer in a glorified fridge. This was someone's home.
He'd started treating living people, and the was turned to is. He was a good doctor, then he was a very good doctor, and then he was in Afghanistan, minus his tools and crouched behind what used to be a school in a haze of gunfire with blood everywhere. I must be careful wasn't enough, because the walls were crumbling and the pipes had burst and the boiler was fucked and this is where Private Andrews lives until suddenly it wasn't anymore. But he still carried the body back.
You treated the dead with respect. A person's absence from their home didn't give you the right to vandalise it. Anything less than care and consideration was a violation and insult to the person who had left it behind.
That was John's code.
And Sherlock was stamping on it.
"Ha! Bruises forming already! Not a very good imprint, though, I have to say. Impossible to tell this tread from a hundred others. The outline is clearest on the back, of course, but if stamping is to occur anywhere it is most likely to be the face, other parts of the body tend to merit a good kick— like so. Look, that one's indistinguishable from the others. Still, maybe a heavier boot will cause a clearer imprint. We'll try the face again. Pass me a size 12, there's a chap."
He didn't look at John, but flapped a hand vaguely at the pile of footwear in the corner of the morgue. His own shoes were hanging neatly from the toes of the body in question, obscuring the name tag. He stood silhouetted in the buzz of the fluorescent lights, jacket discarded, hair hanging in his eyes, practically straddling the corpse of a young gentleman who'd had the awful luck to die within a twenty mile radius of Sherlock's curiosity. Around him lay various shoes, heels and boots. His own feet were bare, and his toes wriggled impatiently on the frigid metal of the table.
Sherlock's eyes were constantly moving, cataloguing each mark, assessing the size, shape and lividity of each bruise for later reference. He didn't keep notes, he didn't need to—he retained the information automatically and discarded it when it was no longer of use. Had he looked at John, he would have known instantly something was wrong; the set of his jaw, his posture, stiff-backed and upright, the mechanical way he bent to pick up a boot from the pile and practically threw it at him.
"Is this really necessary for the case?"
"Hm?" Crunch. "Ah, you made my foot slip. I may have broken some teeth, there."
"Sherlock." John's hands twitched at his sides. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and found himself wishing he'd brought his cane; the morgue was cold, and his leg hurt. Sherlock seemed fine; he was oblivious to temperature at the best of times, and all the vigorous beating must've been keeping him warm. He even looked a little flushed.
"I said, is this really helping the case? I'd rather not be spending my day watching you kicking in a corpse."
"Which one?" Sherlock grunted.
"Young lad from Brixton." No answer. "The one Lestrade gave us this morning." Still nothing. A few soft thuds of leather hitting flesh punctuated the silence. "He thought it might be gang related."
"Oh, that. Solved it hours ago. Plain old murder. Domestic. Boring. "
There was a harsh crack as one of the man's ribs gave way. Sherlock wobbled a bit, but managed to stay upright. He chuckled a little. "A bit over-zealous on that one, I think."
"Sherlock." John's voice was tight, and by now Sherlock should have been aware that something was very, very wrong, because this was John's Keep Calm and Carry On voice. "Why, exactly, are we here?"
"I've told you. Honestly John, you should be thankful I don't require an assistant in my experiments. Your memory for data is truly appalling. I wanted to see if it was possible for a bruise to retain an imprint of someone's footwear. The practical application may not be very far-reaching, and as evidence it will never hold up in court, but it would certainly be interesting to see—"
"So what you're saying is, we have no real need to grind this guy into a pulpy mess."
"I would never get involved in an experiment that didn't have SOME use, John. Besides, it's fun. If you squint, he actually looks a bit like Anderson. Especially now his nose is broken."
"Right." There was another few seconds of quiet, of Sherlock's ragged breathing, the creak of the table, and the thump of Sherlock's kicks landing. John stared at the floor. The glare hurt his eyes. He felt sick.
"Sherlock, get down."
And now Sherlock spun round, wide-eyed. This was John's I Am Armed voice, and it meant Sherlock had done something Very Not Good. "Why?" he asked cautiously.
"Because I don't want to be eye-level with your crotch when I punch you. "
And now, finally, Sherlock looked at him, and John felt the now-familiar itch as he was scanned, processed and catalogued.
"You're very upset."
"Sparkling form, Sherlock."
"There's no need to—"
"Just GET. DOWN."
Sherlock obeyed promptly, simply stepping off the table and expecting the laws of physics to accommodate him. It was very graceful, and Sherlock clearly expected John to be impressed, but John remained stoic in the face of his ego.
"Go on then," said Sherlock blandly, lounging against the table. "What have I done?"
Not knowing how to even begin to explain, John counted to ten in his head and wrestled his anger under control. Raising your voice to Sherlock instantly negated whatever point you were trying to make—he simply ruled it as pointless emotional noise and shut it out. He was still stealing glances at the purpling skin on the man's arm. He doesn't even register that as human, John thought in shock. Then hot on the heels of that, a more disturbing one: Does he even know it is?
"I want to look at this poor bastard on the table and tell me what you see."
Sherlock frowned. "I've already told you—"
"Just do it."
The command was quietly spoken, but Sherlock dropped his air of petulance immediately and fell to studying John with an intensity that would have made lesser men sweat. Sherlock did not respond well to being told what to do. Mycroft was proof of that. There was a moment of silence as each of them tried to express their displeasure with the least amount of facial movement possible. John tightened his jaw, Sherlock twitched an eyebrow. Finally he whirled to face the body.
"Male, aged 23, died of severe beating to the torso. Stabbed once in the arm but this was not the cause of death—the stab wound was made before the beatings occurred and the wound slants to the right as if the blade was dragged, so, the killer—one of the killers—tried to get him in the chest but was knocked off course and hit his arm instead. This is the only knife wound, so obviously the force of the blow knocked the knife out of the way where it could not be retrieved and so he was beaten to death instead. Lestrade's discovery of the knife under a bin this morning confirms this theory. He was carrying a wallet containing ten pounds twenty-three pence, a bus pass, a Barclaycard and a Blockbuster membership card, none of which were taken, so, not a robbery. There was nothing taken or left at the scene that points to gang violence—a receipt was found on the body for a café with the insignia of a very active local gang drawn on it, which is why Lestrade called me in, but there were several other receipts on the body with much more inconsequential doodles on them. I went to the café, the gang insignia is graffitti'd on the wall just opposite where he ate. He doodled it absent-mindedly.
"However there are two photos in his in his wallet of himself and a blonde girl. In the first they're standing next to an art piece put up on London Bridge a month ago, and in the second they're standing by the new roadworks on Piccadilly but this time she is wearing an engagement ring, so, engaged for no more than a month. I did some asking around this morning, turns out the girl's family were very opposed to the match, lots of threats had been thrown around, and the prints on the knife match to one of the girls' brothers. Like I said, open and shut domestic."
John listened patiently for Sherlock to finish, and for that too sharp, chrome glint to leave his eye. Sometimes just standing next to him was frightening; it was like being close to a very dangerous, very unstable machine full of intricate moving parts that no-one quite understood the workings of. Half-heartedly, he tried, for a moment, to see what Sherlock saw, to see how Sherlock saw, but it made his teeth hurt and he had to stop.
He was being stared at.
"How did I do?"
"Well, Sherlock. Really well. However, you managed to miss everything of importance."
John knew that he had, at least temporarily, caught Sherlock's undivided attention- his fingers began to clench and unclench, playing imaginary chords on his absent violin. He'd adopted an air of studied indifference by the time he spoke again. "Go on, then. What do you see?"
"Well, the first thing I see," John said quietly, "is his name." John pulled Sherlock's shoes off the toes of the victim, tilted his head slightly to read the tag. "It's Lewis. Lewis Ford."
He paused for a moment to let this sink in. Sherlock's face was inscrutable.
"Male, 23, good. Died of massive internal bleeding, but other than that lab report says he was completely healthy. Stomach contents consist of cornflakes, coffee, Fanta and chips. His bladder's empty, he pissed himself before he died."
"That's hardly relevant. He was being beaten to death."
"Yes, he was. He pissed himself. He was bloody terrified. They took their time, stuck to his stomach, ribs, back. He would have been conscious for a lot of it. He's very young, his face is still pockmarked. He had acne as a kid. There's a scar on his stomach, not very visible now under all the bruising, from at least 10 years ago. He had his appendix out at about 13, and his tonsils, and his arm and leg show signs of having been broken. He was very brave, then, when he was little, to go through all that. You mentioned doodles—I've seen them, some of them are very good. He liked to draw, but he worked for a temp agency in Brixton. He didn't get paid much. The art was probably just a hobby. He has a tattoo on the inside of his left forearm, look. It looks a lot like one of the doodles, so he designed it himself. And there's a name underneath, Katie. That must be the girl in the photo. Let's look at that.
"There they are, next to that art installation you mentioned. She's very pretty. He was a lucky man. And look at that ring. Look at the size of the diamond. Okay, yeah, it's not that big, but it's bigger than a temp should be able to afford, and he only had a tenner on him when they found him. So, he saved up for it. Possibly for years; if that tattoo is anything to go by, he loved her very much, and for a long time. When she said yes it would have been the best moment of his life. The very best.
"She'll be on her own, now. Her family killed the man she loved. He died alone next to some bins in Brixton, covered in his own piss, and only caught your attention because someone thought he was tied to something interesting.
"And now you're telling me. That you're going to carry on beating this man…because it's fun?"
Silence fell in the mortuary. Sherlock's toes clenched and unclenched on the white tile floor. John tried to listen out for the minute sounds his joints made and was dimly surprised when he could hear them. Behind him Lewis Ford probably would have shifted uncomfortably at the tension, had he been alive. "Well, I'll just. Erm. I didn't mean to cause any trouble." John's leg hurt.
Sherlock stared at him as if he would very much like to crawl inside his skull and peer through his eyes as through the portholes of a submarine. John hadn't really expected him to look ashamed, or abashed, or even sorry. He'd have settled for slightly repentant. He didn't expect anger.
"John," he said quietly.
"I know what you're trying to do. It's written all over you. You're trying to make me care. You're trying to make me see the body on that table as a person with thoughts and feelings and all the trappings of human existence. You're trying to make me feel sorry for beating it and kicking it and cutting off bits and whatnot.
"You don't see the world as I do. You have no idea what it looks like inside my head, and I don't for a moment expect you to try and imagine it. For you to expect me to just turn it off, to flip a switch and become human—because that's what you're aiming for, isn't it John, human—is not only impossible, it's quite frankly insulting. "
He turned back to Lewis, and more importantly, away from John. He felt the force of it like a slap.
"When I look at the body on that table, all I see is data. Everything you just described to me is lovely, yes, it was all very romantic and sentimental and human, but it's just useless data. For goodness' sake, none of it matters anyway. So Lewis had a girlfriend and he liked to draw. Lewis isn't on the table right now, what's on here is a body, and that body can be useful to me. If it's difficult for you to see, then in the future you can wait outside."
"You don't understand."
"Of course I don't."
"I don't mind you doing what you do. I just. You're… you're breaking windows and you don't…"
For a moment John considered explaining to Sherlock about the empty houses, but what would be the point? Sherlock would no more understand the moral implications of vandalising someone's home than he did putting eyeballs in the egg box or stealing Anderson's medication. This was a man who solved murders out of obsession and beat corpses for fun.
He didn't need Sherlock to adopt his perspective. It was cruel to ask him to do so—it would be like putting him in a cage. Sherlock was… well, he was brilliant. He was a living equation, a chemical reaction, the bloody Large Hadron Collider in the shape of a man. If he wasn't the way he was, he couldn't do what he did. But he wasn't incapable of feeling. For all he used the word "human" like a swear word, John had seen an extraordinary range of emotions from his friend, many of them directed at himself. Of course Sherlock couldn't care about everyone, but he cared about John, and that was something. John helped keep him human, had to keep reminding him that he was human.
There was another steel table on the other side of the room. John crossed to it. He pulled off his jacket, folded it neatly, put it in the tray on his left that he firmly told himself wasn't for stomach contents. He took off his shoes and socks and put them in another tray. His bare feet hit the floor and he squirmed. No wonder Sherlock keeps wriggling his toes, he thought. This floor is bloody freezing. The jumper joined the jacket in the tray. He started unbuckling his belt.
"John? What are you doing?"
I will not look up, John swore to himself as he undid his trousers. If I look up I will have to acknowledge that I am stripping in front of my flatmate. The trousers, too, were folded. Meticulously. Along the seams.
He looked down and watched his hands unbutton his shirt. Suddenly everything was too bright. His flesh was uncooked meat in the glare of the fluorescent lights. Each individual hair gleamed unnecessarily. There was a yellowish stain on his shirt and John focussed on that rather than the way his stomach looked now he wasn't training every day. Everything blurred and sharpened, took on an abattoir feel. He tasted metal and laid the shirt over the tray. A thought occurred. Are there cameras in the morgue? There mustn't be, the amount of stuff Sherlock got away with. Or maybe Molly just kept an eye on the security feed, hoping for a glimpse of Sherlock bending over. She'd be getting an eyeful now. Oh well. In for a penny. He had to lift his head to pull off his vest and when he emerged from the swathe of cotton Sherlock was looking at him oddly. He appeared to be holding his breath, and his angles were all different. He was confused.
"I'm assuming there's a point to this," he drawled, but John wasn't fooled. He could read the uncertainty in his friend's lines. It felt thrilling, for a moment, to have shocked him.
"Shut up," he said. "Come over here."
Sherlock crossed the room, but stopped several arm's lengths from John and eyed him warily as if he might bite.
"Right," said John, and because that seemed like a solid place to start, said it again.
"Right. Erm. You're probably wondering—"
"Right." He was losing the upper hand, here. Sherlock was starting to feel on firmer ground, and John would not be made to feel foolish for what could possibly be a very good idea. For something to do, he hopped up onto the table. It probably didn't look very dignified with his legs swinging over the side, but hell.
If the floor was freezing, the metal was arctic. It was bloody sub-zero heart-of-a-glacier back-of –the-freezer COLD. He could feel goosebumps all over his skin and he'd probably start shivering soon. Dignity was just going to have to be discarded for a while.
"I want you to do your thing."
"What?" Sherlock looked positively alarmed, and John thought he'd better explain quickly.
"What you did on the body over there. On Lewis. I want you to… to make deductions. About me."
"You don't know what you're talking about."
This reminded John exactly why he was angry in the first place, and that gave him some warmth. He glanced over at Lewis, covered in bruises, and spotted a tooth on the floor.
"No, Sherlock. I know exactly what I'm talking about. This can't go on. Look, you deduced loads of stuff about Lewis, about how he died. Now I'm just asking you to do the same to me."
"But you're not dead, John."
"Brilliant! See, we've started already."
"No," ground out Sherlock in frustration, dragging a hand through his hair. "I mean there's no evidence. You haven't been murdered. There's nothing for me to see."
"Exactly. There's no evidence. It's not about filtering out what's unimportant. There's no ultimate goal. I just want you to look at me and tell me what you can deduce about my life. Look, you've never seen me in my skivvies before, that's loads of new data. And I know you've always wanted to see my scar."
"Everyone wants to see my scar."
Sherlock's eyes narrowed, and John saw them flick down to his left shoulder. He tried not to twitch, and wondered if Sherlock knew how uncomfortable he still was about the twisted bunch of skin the bullet had left behind. He glanced around for some kind of dimmer switch on the lights, it really was murderously bright in here. But then maybe that was a bad idea. Wouldn't it be kind of like setting the mood? What mood? What?
"Come on. Don't pretend it's difficult for you. You're Sherlock fucking Holmes."
He lay back on the table, tried not to visibly shudder as his back settled against cold metal. A moment later Sherlock loomed above him, silhouetted in the fluorescent lights, and John was eerily reminded of one of those alien abduction films.
I'm having close encounters of the third kind, John thought hysterically. He'd have to close his eyes, the glare was too bright. Maybe that's better anyway. Make me look… well, deader. He closed his eyes. Out loud, he said. "It's fine. Just treat me as you would any other body."
"But you're not just any other body, John."
That's the point.
John breathed deep and retreated to the warm red space behind his eyelids. He still wasn't entirely sure what he was doing. Teaching a lesson of some kind? Or just stripping almost naked and lying on a slab for his friend to inspect? Forcing himself to remain still was going to be an issue; he could feel a muscle in his leg beginning to jump already.
"I'll presume you'll want to know how figure all this out. You always want me to explain everything. But in return you have to tell me if I'm wrong. I'll stop every now and then; give you a chance to correct me. I'm sure you'll enjoy that."
Bastard. John bit the inside of his cheek to keep from scowling.
"Male, forty. Ex-soldier stationed in Afghanistan for thirty-two—no, thirty-seven months. Exceptionally good shot, and enjoys handling a gun." A hand picked up his own, splayed his fingers. "There are calluses on the heel of the hand, thumb and forefinger, old calluses but unhealed—shows you fired a gun often in combat but also after your return to England, probably on the shooting range, for fun. "
"For practice," corrected John. And he wasn't forty, he was thirty-nine, but that seemed a petty thing to quibble over.
"Mhm. There are track-marks on the inside of your arm. You wouldn't touch drugs with a ten-foot pole, so these are from blood tests, painkillers and the like. Faded. You were very ill upon your return and had to be kept in hospital for some weeks. There are other scars, quite a few. Many on your legs, on your shins and knees. You were a very active child—these were all probably made when crawling over rough ground, over fences, into buildings; something which hasn't changed much as you grew older as there are fresher ones overlaying them, from combat. And there's another scar just under your ribs on your left side."
John heard the click of Sherlock's pocket magnifying glass being slid open, felt the the table creak as Sherlock leant down to inspect John's scar. He didn't realise how close Sherlock was until he felt his hair brush against his chest. He jumped, and practically heard Sherlock smirk.
"Corpses don't jump, John."
Course they bloody don't. And of course he'd have his eye pressed against that damn thing. He's probably trying to figure out—
"The size of the wound indicates it was a small knife, with a thin, straight blade. One of those old-fashioned flick knives. You were in a bar fight, John? Did you start it, try to pull the wrong girl? Or the wrong man, even? Or were you just scuffling in an alley somewhere after a few drinks?"
John kept his mouth shut.
"Come on, you have to let me know if I'm right, at least."
"Interesting. You have to tell me the story one day."
"No, I don't."
Sherlock huffed. Now that, that gave John some satisfaction. If he could keep this one mark secret, he thought, he'd always have at least an inch of himself that was truly his. The thought made him smile.
"And then, of course, there's the scar…" a cool finger touched the dead space between his shoulder and his collarbone, the no man's land where the bullet had torn through his skin and nerve and sinew and left behind an invalid. He hated it. It was a tiny thing, really, couldn't even make up a fraction of his entire body, couldn't even be seen as long as he kept wearing jumpers and shirts. But it had managed to spread and mark every unblemished surface of John Watson until he was just one big scar. Sherlock pressed gently, and John's leg jerked. It was absurd, and he felt like one of those dolls Harry had had as a child, the ones that had kicked their legs or karate-chopped when you pressed a button in their back. Action Man, the greatest hero of them all.
"Hmm. You were a runner, before all this. Long distance, it's all to do with the build-up of muscle in the legs. You're especially good at diving, swimming, underwater sports. Your shallow breathing is very good, John, I'd almost be convinced that you were a corpse if it wasn't for the thousand different signs telling me otherwise. Turn over."
"I'm done with the front, turn over. "
What? Really? "Corpses don't move." He protested lamely.
"They don't talk, breathe, or make excuses either. Or do you want me to try and heave you over?"
Trying to keep his eyes closed as much as humanly possible, John flipped himself over on his front and rested his forehead on his crossed arms. The comforting red space behind his eyes was replaced by blackness and the damp feeling of his own breath trapped between the cold metal and his face.
"Ah." The voice behind him was cold. "Now this… this is interesting."
John knew what he was looking at. The tattoo. He wished for the thousandth time that he'd got it removed years ago, when he was younger and it wasn't quite as embarrassing to wander into a specialist's and admit a mistake.
"Who's Jenny? Childhood sweetheart? Long-term girlfriend? Was she the girl who waited patiently behind when you went off to war? No, before that, childhood sweetheart's looking more likely. Maybe you met her in medical school and—oh."
John shifted uncomfortably. Truth be told, he'd forgotten he even had the damn thing—it wasn't that often he had occasion to look at his own back. But now Sherlock knew it was there he'd be damned before he told him the story behind it. Theirs was not the kind of friendship where you dragged out your romantic history over a few pints. If Sherlock even had any romantic history.
"Of course. There wouldn't be a tan line if you stopped wearing the ring before you went off to the Middle East. An ex… Fiancée?"
There was a very awkward silence.
"Are you ever going to get rid of it?"
The question surprised John, but not unduly.
"The thought had crossed my mind."
"Good. Turn back over, I'm done here."
John sighed with relief and pushed himself back up into a sitting position. He turned to face the opposite wall as he dressed, checking furtively for security cameras and wondering what he'd do if he actually saw one. A few times he thought he felt Sherlock studying him, but when he turned back he was playing his imaginary violin and staring into the middle distance.
"So… that's it, then."
"That's all the relevant data I could gather, yes."
"Hang on, no. I told you. This isn't about irrelevant data. People aren't… people aren't made up of stuff that's relevant and irrelevant. Everything's important, in a way. What else did you see?"
Sherlock looked uncomfortable. "It doesn't matter, believe me."
"Just tell me anyway."
He pulled out his Blackberry, started tapping away to someone who was evidently more important than John, and much more important than the conversation they were having here and now. The sight of it enraged him and, worse, cheapened him. It felt like being dismissed.
"You haven't had sex in over a year."
Oh. Well this was unexpected. John felt the blood rush to his face, and realised that Sherlock had picked up the Blackberry to spare him some embarrassment. Maybe he should just walk out—this was not a conversation he wanted to be having. With anyone. Ever. Fuck it. "How'd you reckon?"
"There's a bite mark between your left shoulder and your neck that's been there for a while. It's very faint. It must have been deep in the first place to have lasted so long."
"I could have had sex since then."
"But you haven't."
"How could you possibly—"
"The way you reacted when I touched you."
"What? I didn't—"
"Calm down, I don't mean in the way you think. You tensed. You were clearly uncomfortable with being touched, and not just by me, by anyone. That coupled with everything else—"
"Do you really want me to go on? When I touched your shoulder your leg twitched. It hurt. We both know your limp and your leg pain is psychosomatic. You're very uncomfortable with people seeing and especially touching your scar. Not just because you think it's ugly—and you do- you view it as a badge of failure. And you're ashamed of your body since you stopped training every day; you were holding your stomach in practically through that entire examination. With self-esteem as low as that, John, of course you haven't had sex in over a year. You haven't slept with anyone since you got shot."
John rolled his eyes helplessly. "Is that everything?"
"I could also gauge your erogenous zones from here. But yes, that's it."
"For God's sake!"
Sherlock put the Blackberry away, looked up mildly. This was all going wrong. He'd wanted to teach Sherlock something, something to do with the sanctity of life or respecting the dead or some rubbish. On the table one of Lewis' eyes—tenderly closed, no doubt, by Katie when she identified him—had popped open, and it stared blearily at John. It looked like a broken window and it felt like an accusation. He felt stupid. He'd used to fix people for a living, then he used to kill people for a living, and now he just… what? Picked up the pieces? Held the coat of the man who did? He'd always tried to stand for something, wore his principles like a bullet-proof vest when everything else had been stripped away. But now, standing next to a man who dismembered the dead, John Watson didn't think he stood for very much. He had been reduced to a petty string of insecurities. He wasn't even sure he had the right to be offended. Sherlock Holmes didn't just make you feel stupid, he made you feel unqualified.
Rather than say any of this out loud—or say anything at all, really—he bent to tie his laces. He heard Sherlock clear his throat.
"Your freckles don't make any sense."
John glanced up. Sherlock was staring at him openly now, looking annoyed and somehow insulted.
"Freckles. You have them. It's important, but I can't figure out… there isn't a point to them."
"So, I don't retain useless information." Sherlock snapped. "Everything else makes sense. There's a point A and a point B and sometimes several letters of the alphabet but there's always a meaning behind everything. Your freckles mean something. But I don't know what."
"They're just freckles. If you stood in the sun long enough, maybe you'd get them too. They don't mean anything."
"No!" Sherlock scrubbed through his hair, frustrated. "You don't understand."
John licked his lips, tried to navigate the tangled mess of his friend's mind. It was like walking twenty miles to get to a corner shop that was half a street away; figuring out the most complicated route to familiar destination.
"Maybe…maybe they're important because… because without them I wouldn't be John?"
Sherlock's eyes lit up. "Yes! It's like you were John before, and that was fine, but that was before I knew about them. But now I do, and you can never go back to being pre-freckle John. You're not more John now, but if you were to somehow lose them, you'd be less John. Do you see?"
"Yes, I see. So say I was dead."
The change in direction threw Sherlock for a loop. "What?"
Small victories. "Say I was dead, really, really, dead-as-a-doornail, pushing up the metaphorical daisies dead. Would you peel off my skin to get a closer look?"
Sherlock suddenly looked ashen. "Of course not."
"Really? They obviously interest you. Would you not want to just cut off a patch, shine a UV lamp on them, see if I'd freckle after death?"
"Or maybe just peel a bit away, see if I was freckled all the way through to the bone? Would that be alright?"
"Well not if you were dead. I mean it'd be alright if you were still alive—"
John skipped right over the "alright if you were still alive" part and plunged on. "But I don't understand. I'm dead, what does it matter? I'm not going to need the freckles anymore, am I? And I've donated my body to science anyway, so it's not even against my wishes. Wouldn't you want to cut me up? Beat me? You could see if the freckles show through bruises. Or maybe you'd like to slice off my scar, hang it on your wall—"
"Would you do it?"
"But why not? I'm gone. I'm dead."
"Yes, but…" And here Sherlock appeared to be working out something very difficult, brow furrowed, face carved from stone. If he'd suddenly hunkered down into the posture of the Thinking Man John would not have been surprised, and he held his breath, because this was very important. This was a gap being bridged before his eyes, one he thought they would never be able to cross.
"But it's… it's still… it's not you," Sherlock said hastily, brow furrowed. "But it's what you wore when you were you. Breaking you apart, it wouldn't be… it'd be…not good."
Hallelujah. He felt giddy. Can grown men be giddy? Yes, they can, because I am. I'm giddy. John fought the urge to dance around in excitement, because this was still a Very Serious Moment.
"Right. So why is it okay to do that to Lewis over there?"
"Oh, that's fine." Sherlock shrugged.
"I'm no different from him."
"Don't be an idiot, of course you are. You're John, you're not like everyone else." Sherlock flapped a hand dismissively, but John shook his head.
"No, no. Listen. I know what you mean. I think. But… what you said just then, about how breaking me apart would be… not good. That's how I feel about everyone, Sherlock."
The stricken expression on Sherlock's face was priceless, a mixture of horror and pity. "Oh, please. You can't expect me to—"
"I don't. I don't expect you to understand, and I certainly don't expect you to change. But I do want you to respect this, because God knows I accommodate you often enough. I know that your… experiments are important, and I don't mind finding severed heads in the fridge or eyes in the egg box or whatever that thing was in the breadbin. Just so long as you have a damn good reason for putting it there, because that, Sherlock-" he pointed over at Lewis, bloodied and torn on the morgue table, gazing obliquely—"that is Not Good."
He wandered over to Lewis and used his thumb and forefinger (callused from gun use, he thought inwardly) to close Lewis' eyelids. They felt waxy, like petals.
"We must be careful," he said quietly. "This was someone's home."
And miraculously, Sherlock nodded.
Two weeks later they were huddled in the rain just off West Hampstead, trying desperately to gather evidence before the heavens truly opened. John's nose was dripping, his socks were soaked through, and he would have gladly murdered someone for a cup of tea. If that someone could possibly be Anderson, well, that would be even better.
"What the hell are you doing now? Are you… are you sniffing the body? You sick freak. You know, regular perverts just stick to women's knickers."
"I'll take your word for it. I notice Sergeant Donovan isn't wearing any today."
A distant "Fuck off!" echoed from further down the street and Sherlock smirked.
"John, what do you smell?" John obediently hunkered down, nose inches from the woman's lips. Nothing. Just the rain, getting into everything. And, just faintly…
"Coffee?" he asked hesitantly.
"Coffee," confirmed Sherlock, "Though obviously your nose isn't as sharp as mine. Or hers, for that matter."
"Why?" A very bedraggled Lestrade pushed his way through the crowd. "What else d'you smell?"
"Almonds." Sherlock beamed with barely suppressed glee. "Very traditional, I like this one."
Next to John, Anderson rolled his eyes. John considered, for a moment, just how much better his face would look if his nose was broken. If he ever got the opportunity John would be glad to do it as act of charity.
"Oh, yes, there we go. You should start a bloody club. That's if you catch him."
"On the contrary, I already know who did it. You can move her now."
Anderson sneered. "You're just being cocky. You can't know that. Any evidence will be long gone by now." He nudged the corpse with the toe of his boot a little harder than necessary, and she rolled over. Her skirt blew up in the wind, and her mud-stained pants flashed the world. "Shit," Anderson said, and made as if to kick her back into place. A rough hand on his arm stopped him. "Be careful," said John quietly.
"Right," said Anderson. "Wouldn't want to contaminate your crime scene." He shook his head in disgust and wandered off, leaving John and Sherlock with the body. John gently maneuvered her back into place. Her blank gaze mirrored the sky. The rain filled her eyes and ran down her cheeks like tears, and John was reminded of gutters and drainpipes and leaking roofs. He wiped at the rainwater trickling down his face and when he looked back, a gloved hand was hesitantly closing the eyelids of the woman on the pavement. John stared at Sherlock in surprise. There was the weirdest expression on his friend's face, like he was in pain or just extremely uncomfortable. He darted a glance at John, then cleared his throat loudly.
"Well," he said hesitantly. "That felt…" he struggled for a moment, then his face twisted in disgust. "Contrived," he admitted. He looked sideways at John, waiting for his disappointment with his lack of empathy, but John was too busy trying not to giggle.
"I'd have gone with meretricious," John said, "you great prat." He grinned, and Sherlock grinned back, and suddenly, despite the rain and the mud and the dead woman on the pavement, everything was just brilliant. At least he was trying, and that was a bloody miracle. Sincerity would have been… well, uncharacteristic.
"Cheers anyway," John said. "Come on, it's pissing down."
He clapped Sherlock on the back, and could have sworn his sodden wool coat squelched. "Let's get inside."