Historian's Note: The events in this story take place approximately four years prior to those depicted in the Sherlock episode "A Study in Pink."
"The Distance Getting Close"
Time brought healing, people said. He had his doubts. Time seemed to offer perspective, at least, but then a week like this past one came along and ripped the bandages from old wounds, proving them to be as gaping and bloody and tender as they were when fresh.
He needed distance – he would gladly give a week, a month, God, a decade of his life to gain it right now, this night – but such relief, if it did exist at all, refused to be rushed.
With a hand that shook from far too much caffeine and nicotine and far too little sleep, he reached for the next best alternative and poured himself a glass.
Tonight he had no team of professionals for whom he needed to remain steady and focused. He might be too dedicated to his work to drown himself in a bottle permanently, but he wasn't above taking a bloody swim once in a while if he needed it badly enough.
When the muted complaint of metal against metal announced that someone was picking the lock on his door, Detective Inspector Gregory Lestrade merely sighed.
"Now's not a good time, Sherlock," he said to the shadows, half in apology and half in warning.
The trust he showed this eccentric and troubled young man was a risk, he knew, but he took chances every day, putting his life on the line and relying on his instincts. This self-appointed assignment wasn't so different. On the worst days, it felt like a solemn responsibility. On the best, a rare privilege.
Of course, it was a risk he'd never have taken – or, at least, never have brought home quite so literally – if Jenny were still alive. But she wasn't, was she? And perhaps risk itself didn't concern him so much now that his very worst fears already had been realised.
Besides, there was so much to be gained, for Sherlock Holmes as a person and London as a whole, if Lestrade could help the genius finalise his ugly divorce from recreational drugs. Sherlock might have fled the posh grounds of every private rehab facility to which his brother sent him, but he had come willingly – and returned repeatedly – to Lestrade's far humbler door.
Lestrade wished with all his heart, though, that Sherlock hadn't chosen this night for an impromptu visit.
"If I'd wanted you here, I would've given you a key," he said without heat.
"If you hadn't wanted me here, you would've changed the lock."
With a snort, Lestrade took another drink. The exchange was as familiar as the call and response of a liturgy. Comfortable. Mutually fond, he might call it, if this were anyone else but Sherlock.
"Come closer, yeah?" Lestrade motioned toward the lamp by his armchair, currently the only source of illumination in the darkened room.
"I'm still clean." He heard the petulance of a wronged child in Sherlock's tone.
With a shrug, he said, "I need to go through the motions sometimes to maintain the elaborate self-deception that I have at least a little common sense. Humour me."
Sherlock moved forward into the light. His pale eyes reflected fierce intelligence, nothing more. They narrowed as he studied Lestrade in turn. "You're drunk," he accused.
"I'm not, but I am purposefully, willfully headed in that direction."
Disgust from Sherlock was never unexpected; when it came, Lestrade took it as his due, as another idiot among billions who had the poor taste to be born a lowly human being rather than a brilliant Holmes. It wasn't personal.
Disappointment, however, was something else entirely. It implied expectation. Lestrade dropped his gaze once he recognized the expression playing across the young man's gaunt features.
"This isn't like you," Sherlock said.
"Boring you, am I? I told you, this isn't a good time."
"On the contrary, boring is very much like you. Pathetic isn't." Biting. Wounded.
Lestrade held his tongue and closed his eyes. Sherlock wouldn't understand; he'd never had and never needed what Lestrade now missed. Not for the first time that night, Lestrade tried to recall what it was like to have a family to remind him that home could be more than a blank screen on which to replay the horrors he witnessed on the job. He failed.
"Detective Inspector, do I need to remind you that your line of work requires every single one of the undoubtedly few brain cells you possess?
How very well he knew it. "That's rich, coming from you." The parry was half-hearted at best.
"I have them to spare. You don't." The scathing baritone grew soft, almost diffident. "That said, I'm not using now. We had a deal."
The lost note in the normally arrogant voice roused Lestrade. He straightened in his chair and met Sherlock's stare. "We still have a deal. My getting pissed for one night in the so-called privacy of my own home doesn't affect a thing. Not my work. Not yours."
Sherlock raised an eyebrow, eloquent in his wordless scorn.
"Excuse me if I don't model ideal behaviour for you every single moment of my life. I may be pathetic, but I'm not irresponsible. The day I show up drunk at the office or a crime scene, you have my permission to feed me my warrant card."
The flash of relief on Sherlock's face rebounded on Lestrade, who managed to scavenge something of his characteristic humor. "Or try to, anyway. Not going to happen."
"Your showing up drunk, or my feeding you your warrant card?"
Sherlock's smirk was welcome, but it disappeared a heartbeat later as the young man began to pace. Moving jerkily, all elbows and knees and agitated energy, Sherlock reminded Lestrade of the addict who had trembled and thrashed and keened his way through withdrawal scant months ago, often in Lestrade's spare room. A few times, in the very bleakest of hours, in Lestrade's arms.
"I came here to see if you had anything for me. Anything new. Even the rumour of anything new. Or the memories of anything new to me. I'm bored. And you're no help at all."
Lestrade fought the urge to stumble to the nearest wall and beat his head against it. "Look, Sherlock, in the last three days I've slept maybe seven hours combined, and now I'm too exhausted to make it to my bed, much less sleep. Give me one night to lick my wounds, then things'll be back to normal, yeah?"
Sherlock continued his pacing.
Scrubbing his free hand through his hair and over his stubbled face, Lestrade bit back a groan. "You have complete run of the place. Amuse yourself. You know where to find clean sheets for the spare bed. Just leave me a quiet corner and let me be for a bit. All I'm asking is a few hours."
Pausing, Sherlock blinked at him. Thinking, obviously.
"Don't worry: I won't sing maudlin songs or wear the lampshade on my head or put my fist through the wall. I'm just as uninteresting after a few as I am sober."
Sherlock remained still and silent.
"And stop staring at me like I'm under a bloody microscope!"
Lestrade hunched over his glass, wishing he had the energy to locate and light a cigarette. The packet on the table beside him was empty. Tossing back another mouthful of whiskey instead, he did his best to ignore Sherlock as the young man began to move amid the shadows, examining possessions he'd seen countless times before while treating Lestrade's space as his own.
When Sherlock hissed with sudden understanding, Lestrade flinched at the sound.
"Of course! Of course. Why didn't I see it?" Sherlock tangled his fingers in his curls.
"You closed the Skidmore case today. Fine, yes, you close cases routinely. But in this one, the final victim bore more than a passing physical resemblance to your late wife, if the pictures are any indication. Like your wife, this woman too was pregnant when she died. And if you'd made it to the victim's flat only two-and-a-half hours earlier–"
"Yeah, thanks for the historical reenactment, mate," Lestrade mumbled. Failure and whiskey burned together in his belly like acid.
"But surely you don't…" Long strides put a scowling Sherlock directly in front of Lestrade, looming over him, well inside his personal space. "There wasn't enough data. You couldn't have… After all, you did move in immediately after you intercepted that last call–"
"Sherlock!" Lestrade raised his hand as if to deflect a blow. "I'm not a mystery that needs solving, all right? I didn't ask you to make sense of this." He was fraying. Christ, he needed to hold himself together, at least until he had the luxury of breaking down without an audience.
He drew a deep breath, sighed it back out like a prayer, inhaled again. "The fridge is reasonably full. Get something to eat. Several somethings – God, look at you. Go hack my computer or reorder my bookshelves or do whatever it is you do. Please."
The young man retreated a few steps and then shifted where he stood, his sharp angles suggesting first defensiveness and then frustration.
"Tomorrow, Sherlock." Lestrade softened his words and turned them into a reassurance, summoning the voice of the father he'd never had the chance to be. "I've got nothing now. And I'm not due in 'til late morning. But if something new hasn't turned up by the afternoon, I'll have a look through the cold case files. One way or another, I'll find something for you. Tomorrow."
Sherlock stared down at him, as inscrutable and cold as carved marble. Then he turned on his heel and left without a word.
When Sherlock returned more than an hour later, Lestrade was still peering sightlessly into the darkness, feeling nearly as mangled as the glassy-eyed victim he'd so recently failed to save.
Despite his stated intention to get drunk, Lestrade had nursed his whiskey sparingly since Sherlock's departure. Perhaps this had less to do with his self-control than the fact he scarcely had the energy left to bring the glass to his lips.
"If humans could perish of their own dullness, you'd be long since buried, Lestrade."
Too surprised by Sherlock's reappearance to think of any comeback, Lestrade offered only a shaky two-fingered salute in reply.
This time his visitor appeared to be carrying something, although Lestrade's bleary eyes couldn't make out what it was. Perhaps a small piece of luggage? Fair enough, Lestrade thought. At least he'd know that Sherlock had somewhere clean and safe – and, more to the point, free of illicit substances – to stay.
For no reason his weary mind could grasp, however, it looked like Sherlock was unpacking on the far end of the sofa, in the middle of the sitting room, in the dark.
"You can have the spare room, y'know." Then, "What're you doing? And why don't you turn on a light?"
"Shut up, Lestrade."
At last Sherlock presented himself, perching on the nearer arm of the sofa and glowering into the dim lamplight as though daring Lestrade to mock him.
It had never occurred to Lestrade that Sherlock might play a musical instrument. Yet the elegant violin now resting against Sherlock's collarbone, balanced between shoulder and hand, seemed to be a natural extension of the young man's body, an integral part of a now-complete whole.
After several seconds and a pretentious sniff, Sherlock purposefully rearranged himself to face the opposite direction, turning his long, narrow back to his audience of one. And then, without preamble, he began to make the most haunting music Lestrade had ever heard.
Sherlock didn't play the violin: he breathed life into it; he communed with it. The instrument sang with all of the feeling he seemed unwilling or unable to express in other ways, by turns demonstrative in rapid, skipping successions of sounds and empathetic in the slow pulsation of a single, melancholy note.
Soon the young man slid off the furniture, his slender limbs swaying like a dancer's as the melody rose and fell. Lestrade set his glass aside and crossed his arms over his chest, as if mere muscle and bone could contain the swell of emotion that the music evoked.
While he watched, the restlessness bled out from Sherlock's frame. In place of the manic former junkie stood a virtuoso, fluid and graceful and consumed by inspiration.
How mad, Lestrade thought, that Sherlock would choose this empty shell of a home as the place to abandon himself to his genius. How incomprehensible, that Sherlock would decide to share this startling and intimate beauty with, of all people, an exhausted and heartsick copper – one who couldn't, despite his damnedest efforts, keep any of the people around him from dropping like flies.
Ah, but Sherlock was alive, wasn't he?
Not a corpse with a needle in its arm, cold in some gutter. No longer curled into a miserable, sweating knot in the tangled sheets of the spare bed, or heaving over Lestrade's toilet, vomiting up strangled breath.
Sherlock was alive.
The violin beckoned Lestrade from a distance, drawing him in and away, far away, from the shadows encircling him. He had never heard the likes of it. Without asking, he knew that this music had never been composed or published or rehearsed; it simply was happening. Now. Spontaneously.
An offering, meant for him.
He didn't realise he was weeping until he tasted the salt of tears on his lips.
The violin spoke. Lestrade understood its message.
Humbled and overwhelmed, he closed his damp eyes, uncrossed his empty arms, and surrendered himself to the sound.
When Lestrade woke from a sound sleep, stiff and awkward in his armchair, he found a duvet from his airing cupboard draped haphazardly over his body. Sherlock and his violin were nowhere to be seen.
A frozen pizza, an electric can opener, and a half-eaten jar of marmalade appeared to be missing from the kitchen. In the rubbish bin Lestrade found two handwritten pages in what was likely the Tsalagi syllabary (or so a Google search informed him), but might have been an elaborate secret code instead.
A hand-drawn, exceptionally detailed, and extensively labeled cross-section diagram of the bowels of a wharf rat was taped to the refrigerator door, not unlike a child's finger-painting proudly brought home from school for parental display.
All of Lestrade's books had been rearranged in their shelves according to some obscure logic that he couldn't begin to fathom. And his computer sported a new wallpaper: a screen capture of security camera footage from the office, showing one of his fellow Yarders investing great determination and industry in picking his nose as he waited for the lift.
Lestrade chuckled aloud as he discovered Sherlock's parting gifts.
The pain of past loss and recent failure had not disappeared, not even diminished, but after several hours of untroubled sleep he found it to be a weight that he could shoulder once more. His heart felt full now rather than simply heavy.
What Lestrade craved more than anything was his purpose, his work. Maybe, just maybe, he and his team and his new consulting detective might solve a murder this day. The pale grey glow of a rainy morning shone through the window like a promise as he waited for the kettle to boil.
Echoes of remembered music filled the emptiness around him.