When Joan met Sherlock Holmes, she had not been at a place in which she expected her life to amount to anything. She'd lived in a musty flat on a pension which did little aside from keeping her out of the gutters. Leaning on her cane, she kept her head up and her shoulders strong— she could hardly take a walk along the street without people glancing, and the only appropriate reaction was to take the looks with her dignity intact. There was a mixture of opinions in those sideways peeks from passersby: pity, condescension, confusion. People didn't usually expect to see a woman hobbling unaccompanied about London, especially not a woman like Joan. Unassuming at best, she draped her body in loose-fitting fabrics, wore her dishwater hair in a fine-cropped pixie cut, and on a good day might be called petite (on a bad day, "short" or "boxy" were better characterizations). Her weathered face could still muster an open smile once and a while, but for the most part her frown lines had deepened prematurely. She supposed that someone who didn't know her might see her and be swept up in the assumption that she was a weak, broken woman. God knew that wasn't the case. Scar tissue stretched over the great expanses of her bleeding heart, making hard what had once been the seat of soft sentiments. She was rough at the edges, not overtly upset, but certainly a bit disgruntled at— well, everything.
She'd been that way for long enough now that she was unsure if the condition was reversible. It wasn't that she hadn't opened herself to change, only that she wasn't expecting the healing of harms to come any time soon, much less at the hands of a self-proclaimed high-functioning sociopath.
Five minutes of fruitless waving passed before she successfully hailed a cab. She welcomed the sweet respite of not walking, allowing her leg to loll to one side as it throbbed in relative peace. No matter how she herself— or her therapist— bullied her into exercising her lame limb, she would believe firmly that stumping around London in sprinkling rain was a sodding awful idea.
"Where to?" the cabbie inquired.
It was then, before she could answer, that the door across from her was thrown open and the human embodiment of tall-dark-and-handsome slid into the cab. In the fleeting seconds after her eyes fell on him, she moved rapidly from attraction (dear god he was gorgeous and she had not had a date in ages what if what if what if) to incredulity (what kind of person leapt into an occupied cab while it was moving?) to sheer bewilderment when the cabbie reacted with, "Sherlock Holmes! Where to, today?"
"Keep driving, I'll point out the destination when we reach it." And as if the alien-cheekbones-shampoo-commercial-hair-Michelangelo-sculpture-skin aesthetics weren't enough, his bloody voice was— hot chocolate. It was stupid and Joan immediately questioned her sanity for thinking it, but hot chocolate was the only thing that seemed a suitable juxtaposition.
The man, Mr. Holmes, apparently, turned to her. "No hard feelings, I hope. Henning," he indicated the driver with a nod, "owes me a favor or two and my business is quite pressing."
"Oh," her mouth said without consulting her. She probably should have followed with something like, "That's all well and good, but I hailed this cab myself so get your own," or at least, "Good, then, I'll be going," but instead she just sat and blinked at him. It was obvious that this fellow was an inconsiderate wanker at best, but that would not stop her staring.
"Good, then." Mr. Holmes smiled, artificial and toothy as the Cheshire cat, before whipping out his phone and immediately becoming absorbed in it. Joan continued staring. She made an almost-genuine effort to stop, but her eyes refused to move on, as if a physical connection kept her focused on the fine planes of his profile. She knew she was more reasonable than this. This was stupid.
Abruptly he looked up and she jumped a little, finding his cold gaze particularly uncomfortable to be under. For the first time she realized just how tall he was, even sitting. Then, hot chocolate again: "Can I borrow your phone?"
Joan licked her lips. "Uh," she tried. She cleared her throat, tried again. "Why don't you use your own?"
"Can't, always a chance the number will be recognized." He straightened his shirt collar in a manner that would have spoke of condescension in another, but catered more towards neuroticism in his case.
"Why don't you wait and use the landline wherever you're going?"
"I prefer to text."
They stared at one another for a long moment, but the gaze didn't quite feel mutual— Joan was vaguely aware that she was not being looked at, but through.
"Sure," she conceded finally, drawing the phone from her pocket. The baggy loop of her sleeve slid down as the phone changed hands, and Mr. Holmes's eyes raked attention over her evanescing tan. It was a look intense enough to evoke in Joan a feeling of violation, but before she could say anything he was flipping open the phone and asking, "Afghanistan or Iraq?"
Joan blinked, bewildered. "Sorry?"
Mr. Holmes didn't look up. "Which was it, Afghanistan or Iraq?"
She weighed the likelihood that she'd just stepped into the twilight zone as she glanced to the cabby, who grinned in the rearview mirror. "Afghanistan," she managed. "Sorry, how did you—"
"Your posture says military and so does your skin. Dark, so you've been abroad, but no tan below the wrists, so you haven't been sunbathing. There's your limp— saw it as you were getting in the cab— clearly psychosomatic as you only expressed pain while walking, so it must've been a traumatic injury. Trauma, wounded in action. Wounded in action, Afghanistan or Iraq. Wasn't a difficult leap."
Joan almost choked on her own tongue. "God, are you stalking me?"
"Of course not." Mr. Holmes snapped the phone shut and passed it back, giving her an appraising look.
"Then how could you possibly know all of that!"
"I didn't know, I observed."
There was a long moment when Joan half-expected for the cabby to turn and shout, "You're on candid camera!" but when that didn't happen, she took the bait.
"What do you mean, observed?"
He snorted. "I looked at you."
"Yes, but how do you observe that I'm home from Afghanistan with just a look?"
"The same way I've observed you're a doctor living on a pension who won't go to her brother for help. Is the divorce or the drinking your objection?"
"What— God, how—?"
"You've got the calluses and the motor mannerisms of a surgeon, and the haircut and clothing of a woman who's being frugal with expenses in addition to smelling of low-rent flats, no perfume." He punctuated this point by sniffing deeply, then snatched the phone back. "This isn't something you'd waste money on, so it's a gift. Scratches on the exterior say previous owner, model says fairly new, a young man's gadget. Could be a cousin's, but a cousin would take in a war hero, so this must be someone closer— your brother, Harry. Inscription says he wanted to get rid of it; if she left him we would have kept it— people do, sentiment— but he wanted rid of it, so he left her. Scratches around the charging port suggest the shaking hands of a drunk plugged this in every night, but not your hands since the most recent ones are a few months old, judging by the overlaying wear."
It took Joan a full ten seconds to realize she was slack-jawed. She closed her mouth. It fell a bit open again.
Mr. Holmes's eyebrows raised. "Really?"
"Yeah! Bloody amazing!"
"That's not what people usually say."
"What do they usually say?"
He laughed. "Piss off."
"Oh," she nodded, because that was a little understandable.
Something dangerous flickered in Mr. Holmes's high gaze. "You've seen a lot of violence. Traumatic deaths, that sort of thing."
The subject change was the least-disorienting occurrence of the cab ride, so Joan went along with it. "Yes, of course."
"Bit of trouble, too, I'd expect."
Joan's brow folded. "Enough for a lifetime."
Mr. Holmes was suddenly grinning. "Want to see some more?"
"No," was supposed to be the answer that came out of her mouth, but instead her lips ignored moral norms and said, "Oh God, yes."
"Then get the cab fare and come with me." Without warning he threw open the door and leapt out. Joan nearly tumbled into the seat in front of her when the driver slammed the brakes, and found herself watching in bewilderment the long-coated figure that ran down the sidewalk, dodging pedestrians.
For a fleeting moment she considered closing the door and going on with her life. She could see herself reaching her flat, could feel it turning stale without a miles-tall alien-faced man dashing about it. Common sense pandered half-baked reasons why it would be right to go home to that insipid flat and stupid follow Mr. Holmes, wherever he was going, but her loneliness and curiosity and boredom all screamed dear lord go after that man. If anything, she just needed to know what was going on with him. What kind of person told strangers their life story in a ten-minute cab ride? Surely that warranted finding out. If anything, it was worth it to shake the awful cloak of nothing that had burdened her since the bullet tore her shoulder open.
"That's £2," the cabby said, bringing reality back to her in a rush of city sounds and the image of Mr. Holmes's coat vanishing around a distant corner.
"Right!" she cried, flinging a few notes at him. The concrete was slick when she stumbled out, crutching in the direction the phantom man went, and before she was able to react she was stumbling and losing grip on her wallet. It hit the pavement with a slap. She had barely thought to pick it up when a gloved hand snatched it from the concrete by the spine and flipped it open. She looked up, where Mr. Holmes stood, shuffling through her wallet. He lifted out a paper card, translucent with dampness.
"John Watson," he read aloud.
Joan laughed, a bit hysterically. "Oh— no, that's a misprint, I've been meaning to get it fixed. It's Joan, Mr. Holmes." She extended a hand for shaking. He eyed it a moment then slid his gloved hand over hers, giving a firm shake.
"Sherlock, please, John."
"Joan," she corrected. He paused a moment, glancing off, and when his gaze returned to her he carried the slightly smug air of someone who's just solved another man's problems. "How do you feel about the violin?"
Joan was broadsided. "Hold on, what?"
"I play the violin when I'm thinking. Sometimes I don't talk for days on end... Would that bother you? Potential flatmates should know the worst about each other." He followed this matter-of-fact statement with an odd sort of smile, not quite genuine and apparently conjured with the intent to beguile. Joan looked on in bemusement. She perched on the edge of her defenses, unsure whether to be threatened or not. Though she by no means disliked men, she'd been groped without invitation one too many times to be boundlessly trusting of the entire sex— she'd known this man for less than half an hour, after all. "Who said anything about flatmates?"
"I did. You're an experienced army doctor struggling to make ends meet and I'm a consulting detective who could use someone like you— your gender and injury will make me hard to reject if you accompany me to crime scenes," he said, as if the whole matter were simple and tedious. "The DI who handles the interesting cases is far too sympathetic to turn away this." He gestured to her general patheticness and she frowned.
"Oh, that's nice. Look, you, I— wait." She paused, allowing curiosity to in her over. "What's a consulting detective?"
Sherlock grinned and began walking.
"Oh, you'll see, John."
Sherlock glanced over his shoulder. "What?"
"Joan. My name's Joan, not John."
"Irrelevant," he scoffed. "Teaching yourself to respond to John will be much simpler reconditioning myself to know you by another name." She was perturbed by this answer, but she already knew there would be no changing his mind.
"Have you read about the serial suicides in the papers, John?"
"Joan. And yes, I have. Three victims, yeah?"
"No, four!" The unconcealed look of glee he produced should have frightened her, but it was a bit enthralling. "And this one left a note! It's Christmas!"
Joan seemed to remember Christmas containing fewer dead bodies, but she didn't say anything. She knew already that this would not be the wildest thing that happened so long as she was with Sherlock Holmes.