The first time she sees him, her Doctor, she is in an unfamiliar part of town.
She doesn't usually take on private students outside of the conservatory, but Lovestruck's run is coming to a close and she likes to squirrel away what she can between shows. Whitshall pays well, but not as well as she'd like. She can just about swing the 360 pound per week on her one bed flat in Shepherd's Hill and the steadily rising monthly cost of her Oyster card, but the breathing room at the end of the month is less comfortable than it might be. There's no accounting for disaster, chance or opportunity.
The Allerton family at Hyde Park Mansions want a private piano tutor for Miriam, age 9. Gifted, she thinks, as she watches the child's fingers maneuver deftly over the keys, but lacking in concentration. Were my fingers ever that small? The child stumbles over a tricky run of notes and lets her exasperation out in a huff.
"Lightly," she says, demonstrating a gentler, less hurried approach. Her hands sweep across the keys, "fingers curved. No need to rush."
After the lesson, she winds her worn, salmon colored pashmina three times around her neck. January is the month of chilled bones; when the wet in the air seems to use every assassin's trick to find it's way beneath the skin. She sets off up the A41, across the busy Marylebone Road and makes her way toward the Baker Street Tube.
The heavy grey city makes the cafe, which she'd normally pass by without a second glance in favor of a more familiar chain, look like an attractive place to score a quick, terrible cup of coffee to warm her fingers. Even as a child, she'd hated cold digits. Her hands, like two cats, longed to curl before the warmth of the fire on even mild days. Gabe never minded when she warmed them on the back of his neck.
Cold made the music sluggish and uninspired.
Heat made it purr.
A carelessly discarded scarf on the floor brings them together in a disastrous collision of hot liquid and fabric. The garment snakes round her left boot as she turns from the counter and inserts itself deftly under her right, making a trip snare. She lets go of the cup instinctively. It's a prat fall worthy of any self respecting second rate situation comedy, but the floor rushing up under her weightless body seems to be moving faster than she anticipated. She closes her eyes and draws herself inward for the impact, but two hands move faster than the ground.
"Jesus! Are you...are you alright?"
There is very little liquid on the floor. Her savior winces slightly, righting her, as most of it now covers him; scalding hot on denim and cotton.
"Oh god," she stammers, finding her voice and her feet, "I'm...I'm so sorry...it's all over your..."
"It's okay, really, no worries. That could have been...much worse." He seems to be trying to distance himself from his sodden jeans, no doubt rubbing against an angry flush on his thighs and groin. A firm hand still rests just below her shoulder.
His smile is unpracticed. It emerges from a cupboard where it's been languishing for some time. "Two day old laundry might not improve the flavor, mind you."
She is still fighting mortification, bending to collect her belongings from the floor, siphoning small streams of coffee off of escaped sheet music. Her purse is mercifully unspilled, negating the need for the undignified collection of wayward cosmetics and feminine hygiene products. She finds her wallet. A tenner.
"Please, I'll get yours, shall I?"
"Only if you'll drink it with me."
He looks as if he's not sure who's spoken. He's fairly certain it was him, but after months of silence, he's not as used to the sound of his own voice as he once was.
She shifts a wisp of hair out from between her lips. Her eyes crease at the corners in answer as she checks the time on her mobile.
"The least I can do, for..." Don't point at his crotch. Oh god, you've just done that, haven't you? "...the damage. I'll keep a better grip on this next one."
He laughs lightly, raising his hand to run it along the back of his neck. A nervous gesture.
She extends hers, hoping to coax it down.
Nothing out of the ordinary this morning, he thinks, that could have indicated to him that today would be the day that he finds his voice again. Same bed. Same trip down the stairs past the vacant room with it's door shut to keep the ghost inside at bay. Same creaky fifth step on the way out of the door for a cuppa at the caff to avoid being alone in an unfamiliarly clean kitchen. And then suddenly, a woman falls out of the sky and he's there to catch her. This time, he's there.
Small ideas first. A doctor, ex-army, Afghanistan, 43. A musician, teacher, West End orchestra, 39.
She tells him the story about the mice. Embarrassing, but a good ice breaker. And it's made him laugh. A tentative sound; a stranger in his landscape.
"I've no idea how they got into the thing in the first place, but the minute I started playing, the whole family of them came pouring out from under the lid."
"God, what'd you do?"
"I probably could have ignored it, to be honest, but one of the little bastards ran straight up my tights. I jumped up so fast, I knocked the bench over, TRIPPED over it..."
He interrupts playfully. "Your signature move?"
"Obviously. I've been practicing it for years in anticipation of using it to get a charming stranger to have coffee with me." She surprises herself. Quick off the mark this morning, are we?
He's not sure what causes the dry tinder in his chest to spark more; being called charming How could anyone find me bloody charming? or how remarkably easy it is to be engaged with this woman when it's so fucking difficult with everyone else.
The last of the steam is rising from their cups. She raises hers to her lips.
"Those are...lovely. Really well done."
He's pointing to the ink on her wrists. Two Sailor Jerry style swallows in blues and pinks. Newish, he thinks, from what he knows of the healing capabilities of skin. He'd seen acres of inked flesh, though not much as artfully executed.
She turns them over, so their flight path is true to one another.
"Thanks. I've never really been the tattoo type, to be honest..." she says, but he finishes her sentence.
"But they're memorials."
The feeling that's been nagging her since she locked eyes with this man suddenly solidifies with startling clarity. They're playing from the same score; he's nearer to the overture. She's closer to the interval.
"Um, yeah." she replies, running her left hand over the bird on her right wrist. "I lost my dad and my brother within a few months of one another...god, I guess it's been a year now." Is it really so long?
"Six months ago, I watched my best friend jump off of a building."
It's come tumbling out without warning. The words hang in the air between them in Times New Roman bold. He doesn't seem to know what to do with them; torn between batting them away until they disappear into their constituent elements or cramming them back into his mouth and returning the agony to it's source.
She blinks. The taste of the language is familiar on her own tongue.
He blinks. His filter, so long unnecessary, is obviously moth-eaten.
"I'm...shit, I'm sorry. A hell of a thing to just throw out there." He purses his lips.
"First time aloud?"
"When you say something that's been in your head for ages out loud for the first time, it just sounds...different." Gabe is dead.
It's not the first time he's said it aloud. He's been forced many times to confront this reality, but only with those that live within the solar system that they both inhabited. This is just the first time that saying it aloud has made it feel so...new.
Their brows make twin furrows as they regard one another. She reaches into her purse for her phone. He watches the tendons in her right forearm set the bird aflight as she moves her thumb over the screen. She turns it toward him.
The photo was taken by someone else. She has her arms wrapped around a man roughly her height and coloring who looks absurdly grateful that she is anchoring him to the earth. Two puzzle pieces, snapped together. A small photo that speaks loudly.
"Last photo taken of me and Gabe. About six weeks before he stepped out onto a level crossing in the middle of the night."
She's often wondered what his last thoughts must have been, watching the blinding light approaching at 90 miles an hour and hearing the shrill, major chord of doomsday filling his ears. In the email that had arrived after the event, he'd said he'd been less afraid at the moment he'd decided on his plan of action than he'd been for years. She likes to think that in his last seconds, lit up like The Annunciation, that there was a smile on his lips.
"I'm sorry," he says finally. "Did he...give a reason?"
"He'd struggled with bi-polar disorder for most of his life. The medication made it hard for him to play, so he stopped taking it a lot."
"A concert cellist."
She finds she doesn't know how to return the question. He senses this and digs his phone out of his pocket, scrolling through menus.
It's hard to believe that he only has this one photo, taken in jest at a moment of vulnerability. All of the others, splashed across the tabloid sheets after his death made him into a work of marble or a splash of conceit. This one alone made him look young. Assailable. Unguarded.
He places the phone on the table and swivels it round.
The photo was taken in a taxi. The subject is leaning against the window, asleep. No, not asleep, unconscious. Sleep implies restfulness. His posture alludes to an abrupt exit from awareness, mouth slightly slack, dark curls covering one eye.
He inhales sharply. He's not allowed himself to look at it since.
"He, uh...got into a bit of bother with a woman who had his number. So to speak. I was just taking the piss."
"Did HE give a..."
The Doctor takes another deep breath. His hand darts to the back of his neck again.
She raises her hand; she doesn't need details. It's rawer for him.
"It's bound to be."
Focus narrows between them.
I know you.
Time, which seemed to have slowed, suddenly jump starts. Afternoon clinics. Responsibilities.
"Oh hell," she says, the meaning of the numbers on her screen suddenly crashing home, "God, totally lost track." She sweeps her pashmina around her neck again, gathering her coat, her satchel. She stares from beneath her lashes at him, hopeful.
He clears his throat. Don't go. "I don't suppose you...um...have anything on this evening?" Have I forgotten how to do this?
YES. "I've got a performance tonight, but if you don't mind, you know, a late dinner...drinks...?"
"No, no, late's fine. Good. Great." Stop talking, you twat.
She scoops up his phone from the table, opens a new contact and taps in her details, offering him hers to do the same.
"10 o'clock? Outside The Aldwych?"
"Great." STOP SAYING GREAT.
The smile he's rewarded with is so blinding he nearly blushes. A rush of warmth.
"I'll be seeing you then, John Watson."
As early as she could remember, their differences had always been solved in the practice room.
Any spat, name calling or hair pulling had landed them in the small space their father had set aside for them; a third bedroom, stripped bare to the walls, barely able to contain the piano and a chair.
"You two work it out in here," he'd say sternly, before shutting the door, leaving the two of them to create harmony in the only way they knew how.
She could shut her eyes sometimes and be able to hear the way the cello sang in that tiny enclosure. Devastatingly loud, vibrating through her breastbone with it's almost human sound. As a child, she almost wanted to plug her ears, but her fingers had their own melody to create. She wondered sometimes if they'd learned it all in the womb; humming and keeping time in some secret language of the unborn.
Together, they were a novelty. But it was obvious to anyone where the real talent lay.
She let him go on to all of the better things that came his way. He always came back. To that room. To the music they made together.
Until he didn't.
Familiarity bred in wine, lager and deep conversation. So long since he laughed, it feels like oxygen.
Hands that emphasize words by touching.
The lights outside the cab, blurred, starlike.
Over far too soon.
The cab pulls up outside her flat. He opens her door and takes her hand, motioning for the driver to wait. His fingers nestle between the two delicate bones in her wrist; pulse like bird's wings. His own takes flight behind it.
They both start to speak at once.
A nervous laugh. She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. His stomach swoops. Sixteen doesn't feel quite so far away, standing here under the streetlight with her.
But it's a night of bold actions. Sixteen would have been a very different place for a boy with courage like this.
"Can I kiss you?" Did we only meet this morning?
"I think I'd be a bit disappointed if you didn't." Can't believe this is happening.
He slides a tentative but steady hand along her cheek, feeling her hair fan out through his fingers as he pulls her to him. Her lips part a fraction; an invitation he accepts, tracing the edges of them with the tip of his tongue. He feels a shiver run through her. Tentative flies through the window, heading for parts unknown.
For the first time in half a year, he isn't aware of the pain in the center of his chest; she, the marvelous anesthetic. There is only her. Her arm snaking around his neck. Her mouth, her tongue, her scent.
They emerge from one another dizzy; part wine, part absurd requital. Eyes dark. More.
She finds her voice first; low, quiet.
"I dont suppose you...?"
Every molecule of him does. And yet.
"You have no idea but...it's...kind of...I just don't..."
The haze she's in eases slightly. You don't do this kind of thing.
"No, it's fine. Really, it is. Probably best."
He runs a thumb along her cheekbone. A tender guesture.
"Can I call you?"
"Are you really asking if you can call me?"
"I'll call you."
"You'd better do."
He brings his lips to hers once more, gently, before ducking reluctantly back into the taxi. As it pulls away, he curses himself using some of the more creative epithets in his vocabulary for his cowardice? Moral code?
His head falls heavily against the seat back and he shifts from one side to the other in an attempt to relieve the discomfort of trousers suddenly rather over tight.
He is unprepared for the cab driver's voice. It startles him out of his trance.
"I don't usually like to butt in or nothing, but that, back there? I think that could 'ave gone a bit differently, don't you?"
She's barely kicked her shoes off, feeling breathless, idiotic and seriously considering a cold shower when there's a knock at the door.
His eyes are jet in the dim hallway and she decides in that moment that she has never been so pleased to see anyone in her life.
"Hi," is all he manages to get out before her arms are around him and her teeth are tugging at his bottom lip.
She'd always been the plain one. The dizygotic lottery had given Gabe greener eyes. A nose more streamlined than flat. A jaw without a tendency to use his neck for camouflage. Nature had offered her only one large concession; an absence of the mental ilness responsible both for his extraordinary life and inexpressibly awful death.
He was the sun, burning from the inside out. She was the moon, bathed in reflected light.
As her Doctor's hands burn trails across her she feels the first stirrings of internal combustion.
Burning of her own volition.
He watches the sun rise in a different part of the city. The first streaks of orange and pink come through the leaves of trees. Cloud cover will obscure it soon enough, but for now, he savors the early sky. It suddenly occurs to him how little he's ventured outside the flat; the rather ordinary phenomenon of light being framed by moving greenery seems somehow miraculous.
Her kitchen is disorganized, but there seems to be some universal rhyme and reason to where one keeps the tea, so he boils the kettle. Does she take milk? Probably. Who doesn't take milk? Sugar? There's a knotty one.
Laden with two cups, he quietly steals down the hallway and into the bedroom, taking an indulgent moment in the doorway to drink her in.
He muses that there is little in nature more beautiful than the shape created by the curve of a sleeping woman's neck and shoulder, faintly illuminated by the nascent light creeping in the window. He sets the tea on the dresser and slides back beneath the duvet to luxuriate for a few more moments in the warmth and symmetry of her body. He traces, with his fingers, the line he admired from the doorway, from just below her ear down to her elbow. She stirs, turning into his touch. The urge to spend all day in his moment (one that he's been resisting since his alarm went off around 4) is almost overpowering.
"Hey." she murmurs sleepily, her eyes catching the steam rising across the room. "You made tea." She smiles. "I bet you put sugar in."
He laughs. "Well, I had a fifty percent chance of getting it right."
She stretches, turning toward him, eyes soft with sleep and infatuation. "What time is it?"
"Nearly 5. I'm on the early shift at today. I've got to get back across town to get some clean clothes. I'll get the mickey taken something rotten if I do the walk of shame. I mean, I'm not ASHAMED or anything, I didn't mean THAT, but..."
She stops him talking with a kiss. He feels the heat curling through his chest as he slides his hand around her bare back. Have to go, have to go now or it just won't happen.
He smiles against her lips. "Honestly, I couldn't be less inclined to leave this room if I tried."
"Got to. But I'll be back. That's okay, yeah?"
Another ravishing smile. His resolve nearly falters again.
"Another late dinner? Providing you're not sick of the sight of me yet?"
"You know where to find me, Doctor."
He kisses her again and holds her gaze as it follows him from the room.
The early street is mostly deserted and he relishes the moments alone with his feeling of euphoric and unbelievable good fortune. Compounding it, there is a cab approaching.
He flags it down and embarks. The pink fog that wraps his head makes him overlook the fact that there is already another passenger. In the front seat.
"John," says The Civil Servant lightly, "how very nice to see you."
He is not heard of again for a fortnight.
The stage door swings open and she steps out onto the pavement.
Stragglers at the stage door look on in eager anticipation, hoping to be graced by the sight of one of the show's two headliners, (gone half an hour already) so she is a let down, but her mind is focused solely on crawling into bed.
Her eyes flick momentarily to the bollard at the end of the alley as as she passes, just they have for the last two weeks. Traitor, she tells her brain. Her scalp prickles with shame; how did I get it so wrong?
She has a three text rule. It has never let her down. Dating at the cusp of middle age has enough pitfalls without the inevitable time spent playing games best left in one's 20's. She can't waste time on more than three silences. She absolutely couldn't believe she'd been such an idiot. Worse still was feeling disappointment as keenly as she had almost 20 years ago before she'd learned what real disappointment felt like.
She'd have gone crying to Gabe, no doubt. The resulting lecture regarding the untenability of one night stands and assertions that the cad obviously didn't know what it was he was missing out on would have been immediately forthcoming. He'd have gotten on a train and they'd have spent hours sprawled on the couch in the sitting room watching rubbish telly. And then they'd have played until it annoyed the neighbors because it was the balm that soothed all ills. The thought brushes the loose thread ends where the seam between them used to be. She pushes it away.
The pedestrian signals turns and she pauses in the mass of humanity that is Piccadilly Circus.
The voice in her ear makes her start. It is close and familiar.
He's standing at her elbow, eyes scanning the crowd. The disorienting light display plays across features that have seen too little sleep. She thinks she can make out a bruise high on his cheekbone, near his hairline.
Embarrassment swamps her all over again.
"Ah. The disappearing doctor. The evening is complete.."
The crowd surges forward as the signal changes. She moves with it.
"Do you often use that whole damaged, sensitive bloke bit? If it's not part of your regular repertoire, you should definitely incorporate it, because it's really good."
Her heels strike the pavement hard enough to spark. "And that whole bit about your mate. Was any of that true? Because if it wasn't, it was a hell of a story to make up. I completely spilled the entire contents of my life into the lap of someone I barely knew."
To her shame, her bottom lip is trembling. "I don't DO what I did with you. I honestly don't. And wouldn't again if I had any idea it meant so little."
"Can we...get off the street? Just for a second? Please?"
She turns to properly look at him for the first time. This is not the same man she made such a fool of herself over nearly two weeks ago. His sunken eyes spoke of a weariness that wouldn't be resolved in one good night's rest. And the way that they darted back and forth was discomforting.
She allows him to take her hand, leading her into a gap in between buildings that the gaudy electric pageantry of the Circus can't penetrate. The back of her neck prickles; this is a completely witless act. Her fingers lightly pass over scrapes on his knuckles. Uneasiness stirs darkly in her chest. He's seen violence since they were last face to face.
He gives her a wasted smile.
"God, it's good to see you."
She is furious at her heart for leaping as it does, and at her skin for singing where his fingers meet hers.
He talks quickly, still keeping one eye on the entrance to the alley. "I totally understand if you don't want to speak to me, but you've got to know that...I didn't intend to leave it this long. I'm not...I'm really not that sort of bloke."
You silly cow, why are you standing here listening to this?
"I've had my phone taken off me. I can't...I can't quite explain that either. But what I wanted to tell you was that I've not meant...god, this is hard...what you've got to believe is that nothing, short of the weirdest two weeks of my life thus far could have kept me from your door all this time."
Before she has a chance to respond, she's interrupted by a derisive snort from further down the alley, in the shadow of an industrial skip.
It's hard for her to tell exactly what happens first. His left arm whips behind his back, coming up with the unmistakable glint of a pistol aimed in the direction of the sound while his right sweeps her behind him. A GUN. HE'S GOT A GUN. There is nothing of the gentle soul she took to her bed in him at this moment. He is flint and steel; an immovable object.
"Oh, GOD, John"
Every impulse is to run for the brightly lit, winking safety of the Circus as a tall silhouette is faintly illuminated by the white blue electronic glow of a mobile phone screen; angular, dark, bruised and every bit as weary as the man who's put his body in between them.
The Doctor is breathing heavily, angrily, but the firearm promptly vanishes.
"Did I not...I DID say wait somewhere else for five minutes, didn't I?"
"This IS somewhere else. I've been waiting here. You're the one who decided to come blundering down this alley with a holdall full of cliche."
He flexes his fingers, swallowing back a wave of rage so tangible that it has a color and a taste. It mixes with her own adrenaline, tying her stomach in knots. She can't seem to tear her gaze away from the figure in the gloom because she has seen him before. But not like this.
"Is that..." she ventures, in a whisper.
"The weirdest two weeks of my life thus far, yes," His voice is strained. He is a man who's had the door of his existence kicked in. "Look, I can't even begin to explain what this is all about or where I've been, but I'm sorry and I just...when this...whatever THIS is, is over...can I find you? Please?"
She feels the eyes of the resurrected Detective on her, no doubt attempting to determine the source of his friend's irrational need to seek her out. The Doctor had gone on at length of his skills in the field of observation. It made people bloody uncomfortable sometimes. She feels laid bare by the gaze. The tender thread ends twitch; perhaps he can see those too.
She can only guess at what's transpired between them because he gives nothing away other than an impatience with a foolhearty exercise.
The Doctor is looking at her too, expectantly. The hardness is gone from his face. She draws in a breath that robs the alleyway of it's atmosphere as she reaches across to his cheekbone and brushes it lightly. He shivers.
"I promise you one thing. You will not get to make an idiot out of me twice." She gestures to where she believes the firearm appeared from. "And don't bring that fucking awful thing anywhere near me ever again. I honestly don't want to know."
He lets out the breath he wasn't aware he was holding.
The Detective's voice in the alley is low and commanding.
"This is an unconscionable risk. We have to go. Now."
The Doctor looks back at her, pained, unsure if he's done enough. When she speaks, she is not able to summon more than a whisper.
"If Gabe turned up at my door tomorrow, I would drop my entire life on the ground and follow him to the end of the earth if he asked me. So...we're okay."
Hoping for forgiveness if his impulse is inappropriate rather than asking permission, he takes her face in his hands and presses his lips to her forehead. The hum under his skin, like a cider rush, begins in earnest and it takes all of his will not to press their bodies together against the brick wall only inches away and cover her mouth with his. She is the first soft thing to cross his path in two weeks of hard, jagged edges, but tentative, unspoken forgiveness is not necessarily an invitation for using tongues.
He gives her hand a grateful squeeze before joining the Detective in the shadows and disappearing from sight altogether.
She is left alone in the alley. Lights behind. Darkness ahead.
His friend pulls up the collar of his borrowed coat; a poor substitute for his own. The Doctor isn't in the mood for explanations but the formerly dead man feels the need for the confirmation of at least one certitude.
"This one is different."
The Doctor stares straight ahead.
"The one's different."
He's waiting outside the theatre, as usual. His dark angel isn't about tonight. He's there for her.
They have a game. She pretends to forget her jacket. He offers her his.
He keeps tiny offering in his pockets for just such occasions; Wine Gums, usually- her particular favorite. She happily works her way through the reds, oranges and yellows, popping leftover greens and blacks in his mouth when he's trying to say something. No matter how many times she does it, he's always surprised and can't help but laugh. He hates blackcurrant, but he eats it anyway.
Sometimes it's a clipping from an old magazine from the surgery's waiting room with a poorly written title that makes her giggle. There was one from an American publication (left behind by a patient back from holiday) that boasted, Five Quick Fixes For A Flabby Fanny! that had them both doubled over in the street for what seemed like ages.
Tonight, she links her left arm through his and snakes her talented fingers into the pocket only to encounter an object more ridgid than she's accustomed to.
It is a box. It is most definitely promise shaped.
He is looking at her from one knee in the middle of the pavement. A gaggle of Hens in sparkling, pink cowboy hats and little else have stopped and, in their alcopop haze, are clucking like the proverbial.
There are tears.
And a Yes.
And, oh, there is a kiss.
A smattering of applause erupts from onlookers. They don't hear it. In their ears, there is only the sound of, Him. Her. Until the end of our days.
Less than two minutes after they've resumed their journey dinnerwards, giddy in their newly minted status, starlight glittering on her finger, the text arrives from the Civil Servant.
Many congratulations to you both. -M
He looks up, scanning the rooftops. The camera beside the bank. The one on the front of the takeaway. The third on the lamppost, all noted their path with intent. If that bloody nosy bastard knows, he thinks, odds are good that his brother does as well.
Not that he could hide anything from his flat mate, even if he wanted to. No doubt he could already, after the most cursory glance at the ring (which, after being left on the kitchen table in the flat for 15 minutes, he most certainly would have taken) tell with certainty the diamond's country of origin and that the lapidary had a mild to medium tremor in his left hand.
They haven't spoken about it. It's been the elephant in the room for a few weeks. (An actual elephant in the room would have created less tension) He's been spending more time with her in Shepherd's Hill, leaving the Detective to his own devices more often if they weren't actively working on a case. When he DOES come home to Baker Street, he finds new divots in the floor, mysterious burn marks on the walls and twice, the entire flat smelling of a strong disinfectant, leaving him to wonder what catastrophe had warranted such a deep cleanse. It's like living with an animal who worries at the furniture when left for extended periods.
Leaving the ring was the closest he could come to a declaration of intent.
Things will be different from now on.
He wasn't sure what it was that he'd been expecting. Having not ever had someone he'd considered indispensable before, it was all trial and error when it came to pushing boundaries.
It's not as if he'd been given a choice in the matter. He'd been thoroughly staggered to discover that he had instincts strong enough to override reason and they said Protect. It was the only option open to him at the time. Protect also entailed the rather elaborate deception he'd been forced to perpetrate.
He had been nervous. (Stupid. New. Irrational) Crouched in a dark corner of the warehouse. Waiting for his brother and his Doctor to arrive. All of the breathing exercises, all of the meditation techniques, all of the logic at his disposal had done nothing to still him, because all depended on cor humanum; the human heart. The least predictable variable, providing the least expected results.
He thought he'd been prepared for the full force of the Doctor's ire, but defending against a brutally betrayed ex-combat soldier had taken more of his effort than he'd bargained on. Determined, in some small way, to do penance, he'd blocked the worst of the blows, allowing the less damaging ones to land and the epithets to pierce him wherever they struck. Even after the marks faded, he still felt the bruises as keenly as the day they were dealt.
They ask him to come. Small do. The registry office. Islington. Lovely for pictures.
He sends his apologies.
The smell is faint, but unmistakeable. Musk base. Floral notes. Hint of sandalwood. She has been here. Is here. Somewhere.
Steps, two at a time, avoiding the fifth. Key in the lock.
The flat is dark. She is curled up in the chair favored by her Doctor, (who's key she has obviously palmed) head resting on the faded arm.
She doesn't wake immediately, giving him a chance to make a quick study, draw conclusions. Window seat, left side of the train. Crisps, salt and vinegar. Blister, right heel.
She stirs, starts.
"Sorry, I...I didn't want to turn on the lights and alarm Mrs. Hudson."
"Miss Morstan. To what do I owe the honor?" His coat is a dervish as it is flung unceremoniously to the back of the couch. "Hope you haven't come all this way to bring round a Christmas card."
She lets it go, this first shot across the bow. Outsider. She doesn't have a good enough idea of what she wants to say to engage in pettiness, so she takes a running leap.
"Do the names Anderton, Curphy and Macmillan mean anything to you?"
She feels a tangible electric charge in the air as he circumnavigates the vast ocean of information upon which he sails in a matter of seconds. He then begins to rattle it off like gunfire.
"Richard Anderton, Donal Curphy and Joshua Macmillan. All deployed to Afghanistan with the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers, February, 2009. On patrol at 13.26 on the 28th of August 2009, their combi hits an IED. Macmillan is killed instantly. Anderton and Curphey are transported back to base only to die within 35 minutes of one another due to massive chest and head trauma. The surgeon that fought to save their lives was Captain John Watson."
He turns so that his sharp profile is illuminated by the yellow street light outside the window.
"Contacts in government can prove invaluable," he adds as an afterthought.
We don't talk about the war is what he means. She knows.
"His three closest mates. In one day. On his watch."
A slight inclination of the head. A long tendon shifts in his neck. Names on a paper don't speak to the heart of the matter.
She has to press ahead. She'll lose her nerve.
"I know the night terrors are all part and parcel of the PTSD. I'm sure for a long time after he came back those three shattered men are all he saw when he closed his eyes."
He thinks of the nights of muffled thumps and cries above, feeling uncomfortably and uncharacteristically helpless.
"But, since I've known him I can guarantee that yours is the only face in his nightmares."
Icarus. A man in flight. A man broken on the ground.
His jaw tenses visibly.
She almost can't bring herself to betray her Doctor's unconscious litany but it's clear it needs to be heard.
"No...god, please, don't, Sherlock...DON'T."
A small sharp exhalation through his nose.
"He's still mourning you."
She's no longer looking at his back. He turns sideways to rest against the window frame. His eyes are still in shadow.
"I don't know if it's the part of him that's still a soldier. The part of him that would have rather taken a bullet- taken a dozen bullets- in order to face an enemy with you shoulder to shoulder like a brother in arms rather than being forced to watch you...do what you did."
"He wasn't the only one in danger." Defensive. His voice has edges designed to keep it all at arms length.
"I know. So does he. A broken heart isn't a rational thing."
He is rattled now. His words are projectiles, spat across the space between them.
"For pity's sake, if there IS a point..."
"Fix it, Sherlock."
"Fix HIM. Fix YOU. Fix the both of you. You think just because you let him pummel you a bit that all is forgiven? You don't know the fucking HALF of it."
He winces; he despises profanity and she knows it. A vulgarity is the hallmark of an unused mind. Her Doctor forebears, to spare his sensibilities, but she doesn't feel the need to.
"Anyone who knows the two of you can see that whatever it was working between you before isn't working now. And as much I hate to leave this up to you, because honestly, you're terrible at it...you broke it. So you have to fix it."
She doesn't remember getting to her feet, but she's there now. His eyes are blazing as he vaults over the arm chair and, landing in the seat, fixes her with a stare than can melt bone.
"You, Miss Morstan. What do YOU want?"
That's twice. A second cannon barage. I don't have to acknowledge that you belong to him.
His stare is unabated. Challenging. She returns it with as much strength as she can muster. The thought of her Doctor gives her courage. He is awaiting a return salvo; the full incendiary force of an irrational, angry female.
"I'll tell you something that may shock you, you absolute arse, but I like you."
She watches the tension desert his neck almost instantly. His stare loses it's thousand degree heat capacity. Is it actually possible to shock him? And if so, have I just done it? She presses ahead, focusing on the pulse in the hollow of his throat.
"Maybe it's just that there's no pretense to you. I mean, you're pretentious, but whatever you're going to say is just going to fall out of your mouth, whether it's terrible or no. Maybe it's because I married a very good man and he seems to be under the impression that you have qualities worth admiring. But probably, it's because you cared enough about him to be willing to smash him to pieces in the hopes that at some point in the future, you'd be able to put him back together. Frankly, I don't know if I'm attributing a nobler motive to you than you deserve, but if I am don't tell me- I'd rather think the best of you."
The guns have stilled.
"I suppose want I want is for you to know that if I'm to be one of those women who resign themselves to sharing the throne of their husband's affections with a second party...I'd just assume it was you I was fighting for the arm rest."
Detente. Half of what I am, I will share with you. Let the ink dry on the paper.
The well of her intentions is empty. She reaches for her coat. He sits, indecipherable, digesting.
"I told John I'd be on the 9.20. I need to get back to the station."
The heels of her boots sound like retreating artillery on the wood floors.
Still he sits, immobile as one of the Burghers of Callis.
"Merry Christmas," she offers over her shoulder at the threshold.
The street is mostly deserted. She can hear festive revels spilling out of a pub the other side of the intersection. The mist from earlier has turned to drizzle.
She unfurls her umbrella and mounts the pavement. Home. Him.
He is standing in the doorway. The edges of his tone have been blunted.
An accord in the offing, apparently.
He says nothing, but proffers his hand, his long arm extending into empty space.
She completes the circuit. His palm is cool against hers.
There are a thousand more things to say.
But for now, this is enough.
"Is this alright?"
"Love, we're going to look at a flat. The only fashion statement you need to make is "We don't own pets" or "We haven't any intention of growing pot in the closets."
He is trying to put on a tie, but she slides it off through his collar and kisses him just below the ear before throwing it on the bed.
"Is this the one in Acton or Leytonstone?
"Ah. Well, this is where you need to keep an open mind."
"See...see, this? This is what I was afraid of. You don't want to tell me because this flat has at least one or more of the qualities that we agreed we definitely didn't want."
She is giving away nothing. She laces her boots quietly, keeping her cards close to her chest.
He is undeterred. "It is either a, too far outside the city, b, in a basement, c, too pricey or d, smells strongly of cats."
"Right," she finally declares, getting to her feet and noting the arrival of the taxi outside the window, "Listen to me, pickyboots, I'm not having you make any snap judgements. And to be sure you don't, you are wearing a blindfold in the cab."
He is appalled.
"I bloody well will not."
She is suddenly millimeters from his face, their lips almost touching. Her voice is low and full of the promise of things to come as her fingertips grip the edges of his collar.
"You bloody well will."
He feels a right tit, blindfolded and clambering blindly into the waiting car, able to feel the incredulity of the driver as strongly as his wife's grip on his upper arm. She doesn't speak to the man, but he hears a slip of paper being passed forward and a grunt of acknowledgement.
As they begin to move, he tries to employ the Detective's unerring sense of direction. Feeling the weak sunlight move from side to side of the car. Trying to catalog the endless successions of rights and lefts. Listening for the telltale rumble of an overground train. Are we South of the river now? Or North? He soon gives up, admitting that his internal map will never be as complete or as useful as his comrade's.
After 20 minutes, he begins to wonder if they're still in the city at all.
She is sitting beside him, her fingers wound though his, flexing them almost imperceptibly; in her mind, she's playing something. Her hands obey, even unconsciously. Distracted as he is, he loves these tiny movements, allowing him to feel the melody inside her head, in whatever small part. Today, it's fast. Flighty.
He can hear the smile in her voice.
"Feeling a bit lost yet?"
Their journey finally ends and she grasps his arm to lead him. His toes bump against a step. A heavy door opens. The smell hits him right away.
"Ah HA. Cats. Didn't I say cats?"
"Can you forget the cats for a minute?" she replies as they begin to descend a stairwell. She backs down, holding both of his hands. The temperature drops by a fraction.
"And this IS a basement, yes?"
"Seriously...listen, just two more seconds, alright?"
He hears a key in a lock and is lead forward once again. Her fingers are suddenly at the back of his head, slipping off the black scarf and illuminating him once again.
There is no word to describe the room they're standing in other than friendly. There is a fire burning merrily under the mantle. An over stuffed sofa and love seat dominate the room, inviting and warm; their pattern complimenting the deep blue feature wall perfectly. The sitting room leads into a galley kitchen, with tasteful modern cabinetry and gleaming new appliances. One bath and two bedrooms stretch out further down the hall. It's small, but utterly perfect.
"Blimey." He's found his mind rather uncommonly open suddenly.
She leans against the doorframe, watching him drink it in.
"What's the rent like?"
"Do you like it?"
"Well, yeah, of course, but..."
"Do. You. Like. It?"
He looks at her for the first time since stepping into the flat. She is invested; her eyes say as much.
Her shape in the doorway strikes a chord of memory. He has been here before. The room is different suddenly; peeling wallpaper, stained beige carpet, ruined windows and, placed carefully in the center of the space, a perfectly groomed pair of trainers.
He turns back, his mouth open in surprise. She is no longer the only one in the doorway.
"What do you think, lovey?" says the Landlady, "Will it do?"
"This is 221C," he blurts out.
His wife smiles abashedly.
"The cab took us by way of Southwark. I hoped it would help turn you round a bit."
"Baker Street," he says again, as if he hasn't quite grasped the concept. A stray thought makes it's way to the front among all of the others, crowing for attention.
"Where on earth did the cat smell come from?" Why that matters above all other things, he's not sure.
"Oh dear, it's awful isn't it? I didn't like to ask," chimes in the Landlady, "but he promises it'll be gone by tomorrow. Threw you off, didn't it? But, tell me, my love, what do you THINK?"
He looks at his wife, dumfounded. She anticipates his question.
He's at war with himself. He realizes the part of him hoping to make a break with this place, with the Detective, is less assured than it was in the beginning. The wound, papered over by his friend's dramatic reappearance, still runs through him like a raw seam. The betrayal is still penetrating. The Landlady senses that the question might not have an easy yes or no answer and quietly slips out the door to await a final verdict.
His wife crosses the room and slides her arms under his.
"At the end of the day, he's going to find you anyway, when he needs you. He'll drag you across town to open a crisp packet if need be. And it doesn't matter how badly it hurts, you'll always go. Always."
He opens his mouth to protest, but she won't hear it.
"I married that, and I have no regrets. So, I would rather live under the same roof as your madman and save you the trip."
They stand in the middle of the room, arms wrapped tightly round one another. He buries his face in her hair.
"He did this, you know," she says after a time.
"Just after Christmas. The renovations. Insulation, sound proofing, carpeting, the whole thing. Hired in the contractors, paid for it in full."
Although she can't see him, she can feel the Detective's presence in the hallway above, waiting for confirmation that his efforts to retain the piece of himself that he can't live without haven't been in vain.
Her husband is undone. The shallow breaths that skim past her ear are holding back tears. Pain. Gratitude.
They are home.
The nightmares begin again.
It's been a while since she was last woken in the night by his thrashing and muttering; the back of his neck slick with cold sweat. But tonight, it's particularly bad.
He cries out, wordlessly. He is helpless against these nocturnal horror shows; sight of blood on the pavement and the sightless, extinguished beryl eyes staring up at him.
She moves her body around his. This technique would be more effective if the blast came from without; she could shield him. But it's within and all she can do is try to convince him that the explosion never happened in the first place.
A part of him is still fighting. The wound, still festering. Six months of struggle. It is not so easily forgotten or forgiven.
She feels him surface, heart racing, the heels of his hands digging into his eyes to banish the vision. Her heart aches as he turns in toward her, allowing her to wrap both arms around him. She feels the rise and fall of his chest gradually slow, his breath hotly brushing her collarbones.
There is a siren somewhere in the distance, muffled effectively by the flat's new double glazing. As it fades, they can hear him playing. The door is obviously ajar.
Mendelssohn. Violin Concerto, Movement 2. She would know it anywhere. Gabe arranged it for cello when he did a stint with the Leeds Philharmonic. The instrument's voice had turned mere melancholy into wrenching tragedy. Her heart rises in her throat, remembering.
She feels a knot between his shoulder blades release beneath her fingertips. He fills his entire chest cavity with air and lets it out slowly as the melody rushes in.
"Go on, love," she murmurs, running her fingers through his hair.
He hesitates, then traces her jawline with his thumb and kisses her before swinging his legs over the side of the bed and pulling on his dressing gown. She can hear his bare feet pad quietly up the short hallway and the front door open and close. His steps retreating, she hears him mount the main stairwell, avoiding the fifth step. Knock. Enter.
She sees it all in her minds eye.
The Detective pauses, mid phrase, turning slightly from the window, before continuing. Her Doctor drops into his chair. Heavy. He rubs his eyes, puts his head back and listens; content to simply be in his friend's presence.
This is an this art for white noise; a canvas against which to organize his thoughts, but tonight, he sees a rare opportunity and changes direction. Playing outward rather than inward. He's been given this chance in the wee hours to say everything with the instrument that he can't articulate with his magnificent command of language. I'm sorry. Forgive me. I need you.
The music is scalpel sharp. The tears that have been restrained these many months with mercenary efficiency finally burst free and the Doctor buries his face in his hands.
The musician drops to his knees before his friend, wrapping his wiry arms around him. No blows land on him this time; this is the welcome he's been waiting for. Hoping for. He has had absolution in blood. Now he receives it in salt water.
The Doctor moves his fingers through the dark curls of the head resting against him, trying to bring himself under control.
"One more miracle," he mutters.
Downstairs, she smiles as she drops back off to sleep.
There is a knock at the door.
Urgent. Impatient. A knock that will have admittance whether the occupant will have it or no.
As she drifts upward, her first thought is that the opposite side of the bed is cold. A rare, out of hours shift has kept him from it.
It is harder to get out of bed than it was 26 weeks ago. Round ligament pain and sciatica necessitate a body pillow. Her Doctor has nicknamed it "Raoul" and jokingly declared it a third wheel in their marriage.
A fourth, she thinks muzzily, jamming her arms through the sleeves of her dressing gown and sweeping her hair up into an elastic band. There is no mistaking this knock.
He's through the door and sweeping past her into the sitting room before she has a chance to bar his way, his head skimming the low doorframe. His blue dressing gown is open, revealing that he is still in pajamas. She knows from experience that she's fortunate that he is wearing anything at all. (The truth does not wait on pants.) The whirlwind has switched on every light in the flat.
Painful. Too early.
"It's half five, Sherlock."
He thrusts an open, worn red book into her hands, a long finger stabbing at a point within.
"Read. From here."
She blinks, trying to rid herself of both sleep and disbelief.
"This is..." She holds it at arms length; her glasses left behind on her bedside table. A recent necessity. "...a script. Taming of the Shrew. You going out for the local Am Dram?"
"Read," he says again. It is unlikely she'll be able to make out the stage directions (the actress to whom it belongs uses an appalling chicken scratch) but he'll lead her if needs be.
It is an astonishing metamorphosis; she has seen him do it before, but it is always disconcerting. A maniacal, bed headed lunatic swept through her front door. Now he draws himself up, breathing deep into his diaphragm. Suddenly, she is in the presence of a wolf.
"Good morrow, Kate; for that's your name, I hear."
Even this early morning incursion has not been enough to jump start her thought processes. She stares at the page. What matter do you read, my lord? I have no flipping idea, since you ask, Polonius, old stick.
The madman is back, in a huff of frustration.
"You DO know how a script works? You spend all of your weekend evenings in the company of actors. It can't be THAT mysterious."
She realizes she has been biting the inside of her cheek. There was something, earlier this week, her Doctor had mentioned. A play. A murder backstage. She feels fortunate to have picked this out of her memory, because the Detective never offers a preface. Not expedient enough.
This impediment standing between her and her bed is not going away. Humor it, like the child that it is and there is at least the possibility of an hour's kip before John's home.
"Well have you heard, but something hard of hearing. They do call me Katherina, that do talk of me."
He circles her, his usual intensity raised mildly beyond her comfort zone. The dialog is Shakespeare at his crackly best; parry and thrust. The self assured suitor, with everything to win. The sharp tongued spinster, with everything to lose. She's no actor, but the part is perfect for her and the annoyance she'd sooner be rid of in this pre-dawn hour.
"If I be waspish, best beware my sting."
"My remedy then, is to pluck it out."
He wraps his tongue around the words with an almost indecent relish. He could have been anything, his Detective, she muses, absolutely anything he chose. The stage would have been a perfect venue for his intense self-love; his mastery of voice and movement. Instead, he chose to stand outside and just drink it all in.
"Nay, come again, good Kate; I am a gentleman."
The kiss is a surprise. The long fingers dart quickly behind her neck, pulling her to him roughly. It is an act of provocation. A declaration of war. His eyes are open. He smells of leather and solvent.
He pulls back just as suddenly. Braced.
"Now slap me." A command.
Her hand moves almost before he can get the words out, open and flat. It's impact is electric and stinging, knocking him slightly off balance.
His head snaps back, his whirlpool eyes blazing. He is unconcerned about his caustic, freshly pinked cheek.
There is a roaring in her ears.
"Oh come ON, you mean to tell me what with that excess of hormones rampaging around your system, you can't manage..."
He does not get to finish his sentence, because this time, when her hand flies, it is closed.
It has been an exceedingly long shift. Out of hours work pays marginally better than his normal locum wage, but it's hardly worth it for spending an evening away from his bed. If he's lucky, perhaps she's not awake yet, and he can slip under the duvet (carefully negotiating Raoul) and curl around her, enjoying these last, fleeting moments as two before they are three. He'll slide his hand under her shirt, round the swell of her belly and feel the child dreaming in the deep.
The door is unlocked. He feels a momentary twinge of alarm until he steps through the threshold.
They are standing on either side of the kitchen and both look up simutaneously; like two guilty dogs who've destroyed the carpet on the landing in their master's absence. The Dectective's right hand is wrapped around a cup of tea while his left nonchalantly presses a blue gel pack just under his eye. That's going to be one hell of a shiner tomorrow. She has a tea towel filled with ice wrapped around her right hand and cradles it gingerly with her left. They are not speaking when he enters, nor does he get the impression they have been for a few minutes. The making of tea and the licking of wounds has been conducted in a conciliatory silence.
"Well." he says, unsure of what to do with his face. Can't laugh. What the hell did he...? Oh dear god, mustn't laugh.
He tries again.
"Well, this little tableau tells an interesting tale, doesn't it?"
There are raised voices in the hall. Her husband uses words like "inappropriate" and "very pregnant". The Detective's silky barritone responds with ones like "misconstrued" and "overreacted". But perhaps, most astonishingly, so quietly she can barely hear through the door, "apologies". (To him, not to her) He is likely one of the only men in London who could kiss his best friend's wife and get away with it. Then there is silence. It is not silence, of course, but she can't make it out.
They are having one of their moments.
It would be easy for someone looking in from the outside to get the wrong idea, but after all this time, she knows better. She also knows that although her hand hurts like hell, she would dearly like to have another crack at one of those cheekbones.
He comes in, shutting the door. She can hear the Detective taking the stairs two at a time.
He sits down on the couch next to her and lifts the ice pack off. He frowns, but she can detect a hint of amusement in his eyes as he examines the extent of the injury.
"You may have got lucky. I don't THINK you've fractured your metacarpal. You see it a lot in A&E on a Saturday night. Comes from trying to lump someone and, well, failing. Looks like you might have done some damage to the knuckle of your index finger, though." He slides his fingers gently round hers, kneading the tissue delicately. "We'll head over to Bart's this afternoon for an x-ray, just to be sure. Might be we can just tape it up and you can keep playing."
She can feel the pent up laughter behind his half smile.
"Next time, make sure to use the flat of your knuckles like this." He balls his hand up into a fist and presses the flat expanse to his opposite palm. "And go for a softer target. Bridge of the nose, eye socket. Although, come to think of it, he's pretty much all edges, so probably better to go for a knee to the knackers if it comes to that."
She is cross. Pain in her hands makes her aware of her limitations.
He pulls her to him, wrapping his arm around her shoulders so she can rest her head on his chest.
"Love, we live downstairs from a man who set light to his coffee table last week trying to determine the precise temperature at which a name brand furniture polish ignites. There will probably be a "next time"."
He lowers his voice, teasingly. "This living arrangement WAS your little brainchild, I hate to remind you. Yours and his."
She doesn't answer. The clock in the kitchen quietly beats out the seconds.
"It was in the stage directions, you know. The kiss and the slap."
She still has nothing to say.
"If it's any consolation, you helped him work out that the murder must have been committed by the props mistress rather than the ASM."
She reaches under his arm, grabbing a pillow to hit him with. His laughter finally escapes; a great roar, straight from the gut. She feigns a sulk, making him helpless. He wipes his eyes.
"Oh...oh, god, the look on your faces when I walked in...Brilliant. Just brilliant. I almost, ALMOST wish I'd been here to see it."
She regards him out of the corner of her eye, arms crossed firmly over the rise of her belly. He rests his head on her shoulder in supplication, his eyes still shining with both mirth and affection. He threads his fingers through the ones on her good hand. One corner of her mouth twitches, relenting.
"What did he say?" he ventured after a moment or two, "After you clocked him?"
"It sounded like, "Oof."
He laughs again letting his head fall back against the couch. She is beside him, warm, flushed and smelling of home. His Detective is above, alive, mad and within arm's reach.
He has never, in his life, been so content.
She is terrified of the chunk of metal she's holding in her hand. Cold. Angular. Awful.
She hates that it's in her house; that it lives in a bedside drawer like a pair of earplugs or a mass market paperback. As if it's not something that can kill. As if it's not a thing that could put him away for five years for possessing it. She's extracted a promise from him that a discreet safe is forthcoming, to keep it away from small, interested fingers. But for now, she looks away when he tucks it into the waistband of his jeans at the small of his back on his way out the door with the Detective. Why would anyone choose to keep death that close?
But it DOES live in her house. And he's made sure that she knows how to use it.
The Landlady was out, as was her most troublesome tenant. He'd taken her upstairs, justifying it by explaining that as there were ALREADY holes in the wall, one or two more weren't going to make a damned bit of difference.
His arms had been around her shoulders the last time she'd held it; his hands sure and steady around hers as she felt the powerful recoil. But now, she is crouched in the hallway, by the staircase; unwieldy, front heavy and sweating. Cold metal in her hand.
The door upstairs was wide open when she'd struggled in with the shopping. A raised voice stilled as she entered. Waiting for her next move.
Through the doorframe, she could see that The Detective had his hands laced behind his back, immobile. She'd seen him in this posture before, but the tension in his shoulders made it obvious it was not a choice. A second man crossed in front of him, obscuring her view. He was heavyset and stocky; hair cropped close to the scalp. A glint of metal in his hand was all she caught before disappearing and quickening her pace down the stairs into the basement flat. A knife? A gun?
Her heart had been racing. Not daring to utter a sound, her hands flew to her phone.
Police. Home. Now. Her Doctor wouldn't question. Nor would the DI.
She didn't remember retrieving the weapon from her husband's drawer, nor did she remember climbing the stairs to the hallway with as much stealth as a woman carrying nearly 34 weeks worth of separate human being could muster. But here she is. Safety off.
The weight of the two men descending the steps makes the Victorian staircase groan. She presses her back against the wall. The child in her belly beats a fierce tattoo against her ribs, spurred by the wild rhythm of her heart. This is undoubtedly the stupidest thing she's ever done.
The Detective betrays little concern over his situation, but he must be able to feel the wicked blade pressing lightly against his kidneys through his overcoat. She can see it now. It is an ugly thing; fat, serrated. A tool for gutting fish or livestock. The two men, oblivious to her presence reach the ground floor. He is on his best footing here. Once outside, it's anyone's guess.
She steps forward, pistol raised, gripped firmly in both hands with an assurance that she doesn't feel. She speaks, hoping that actual words come out rather than the dusty squeak that's settled in her throat. Oh god oh god oh god.
"I don't think so, do you?"
The Detective and his assailant both freeze momentarily. The shorter man turns his head round slowly to regard her, an ugly smile crossing his face. His grip on his hostage's arm does not loosen.
"Oh, little girl," he growls, "I think we both know that you ain't going to use that."
With remarkable speed, she pulls back the slide. Bullet in the chamber. Mean it.
"You don't honestly think I'm going to let you walk out of here with him, do you?" She can feel a small hysterical smile tugging at the corners of her lips.
The taller man turns slightly. She can't read his face, but his eyes are moving furiously, assessing a situation that not even he could have predicted arising. She has never seen him express worry. Is this what it looks like?
"Drop it." She has to bring this under control before the tidal wave of fear crashes over her.
Her tone puts enough doubt in her target's mind to give the Detective the opportunity he's been waiting for. There is a blur; a whirl of cloth and a vicious elbow to the gut. The knife skitters across the landing and he is beside her, the gun in his infinitely steadier hands. She feels her knees buckle underneath her, but his free arm is suddenly around her waist to prevent the fall.
His eyes and his aim don't leave the miscreant, who's doubled over and throwing up in the corner. His voice is quiet; gentle, almost. She almost can't hear him over the sirens that are growing louder.
"Go downstairs. Stay there."
The room is swimming, but one request grabs hold of something that floats.
"Don't tell him. He'll be so angry."
He pockets the weapon. It's no longer necessary. She leaves him advancing on the incapacitated malefactor on the floor like an avenging angel; the wail of the cavalry nearly upon them. Her jellied limbs carry her down the stairs and as far as the inside door of the flat before giving up completely. Her legs disintegrate and she folds up gently against the threshold, shivering uncontrollably.
There are voices above. Heavy footfalls. The DI and the rest of his squad. Her Doctor won't be far behind, frantic, no doubt. Deep breaths, Mary Alice, deep breaths. She won't have him find her this way. He is a soldier. He will guess.
She and the Detective won't speak of it again. It won't guarantee a future devoid of withering contempt, midnight incursions or muffled explosions from above but he will not betray her foolish mettle to her husband. Even if he did, she could explain it simply enough.
You belong to him. I belong to you. And for you, there is nothing I wouldn't do.
Sleep is generally impossible now. Two or three hours at a stretch before the discomfort is unbearable in a horizontal position.
She doesn't have to worry about waking him. One last out of hours shift; accruing karma for all the ones he'll turn down after the world changes again in a week or so. She half rolls, half slides from the bed and fights evolution and gravity to stand straight.
Her dressing gown doesn't even remotely tie shut anymore, so it hangs to her sides as she sweeps up her hair and pads into the sitting room.
She sits at the bench and runs her hand reverently over the nameboard rail. Steinway & Sons. K-132. A reconditioned model, but still a treasure beyond imagining.
The bench is not any more comfortable than the bed. In many ways less so; no back support and the hard wood digs into her pelvis, which has become the center of her universe. But, sitting here, the discomfort fades into the background, replaced with a sense of worshipful veneration.
The magnificent thing had appeared two weeks ago, around the time she went on maternity leave from the conservatory. She'd practically ruined a corner of the carpet dropping a hot chocolate she'd been consuming when she walked in the door and beheld it. It dominated the sitting room, it's polished, ebony surfaces defying the eye not to slide over it immodestly.
Everything about it created a trancendant musical experience; The weight of the keys, the vibration of the hammers striking the strings making the whole body of the instrument ring. It was an altogether magical object. (So much so, that she'd forgotten to ask what actually became of her old keyboard.)
It had come, undoubtedly from contacts; favours owed, debts quietly requesting repayment. A thing requiring no acknowledgment save for use, so her Doctor advised.
"Just play it."
A stray heel presses hard against her side. She presses back gently with her left palm. Something quiet, something restful; make it sleep.
A guilty pleasure. Einaudi. Due Tramonti. D major. Runs of 16th triplets ringing like ripples on the surface of a pond. She'd long ago incised the string part from her memory. Gabe loved the evocative nature of the composer's work; drawn to the emotional nature of it, no doubt. The piano part was meditative, repetitive, deep. The viola (the cellist could transpose on the wing) skimmed the top like a waterbird, dipping and weaving before diving into the shallows.
She closes her eyes, letting muscle memory take over, breathing with the phrasing. Still. Abyssal. She uses it as a prayer wheel, repeating over and over. So the third time round, when the first note of the melody suddenly rings out, she is so shaken, she nearly jumps to her feet.
He is standing by the window, bow in hand, staring incredulously.
Her husband has taken to leaving the door unlocked at night if he's out. He feels better, in these last weeks, knowing that she'd within shouting distance of help, should it be necessary and that her deliverer shouldn't have to deal with a lock. He's not worried about security; he knows the man upstairs would sooner put his own eyes out than allow anything to happen to something his Doctor values above all else. Of course, his thinking didn't necessarily include this precise situation.
"CREEPING JESUS." She grips the bench, white knuckled, belly clenching with fierce Braxton Hicks. "How in the hell do you manage that?"
He wrinkles his nose in disapproval.
"Please don't stop on my account. Einaudi may be dreadfully...cinematic," (clearly meaning "new age", clearly meaning "shite") "but I can understand it's appeal to the more...effusive palette." He lifts the instrument to his chin again, gesturing at her.
Her heart rate stills. There is some comfort in familiarity, no matter how peculiar.
She begins again.
The violin's voice is different from it's cousins that inhabit the alto clef. It is no less human, but more untouchable. The melody is different than she's heard it before, being coaxed from this instrument by it's master. It's an exercise in precision rather than an exploration of the heart.
They play side by side, though not necessarily together. The violin, high, celestial, cerebral. The piano, low, reverberating. This is how it will be, she thinks. So long as we love him, this is how it will be.
This is the practice room, stripped bare to the walls. This is the negotiating table. This is the battlefield, at rest.
A sustainable peace.