Nathan Garrideb fired a single shot with the practised speed of a professional Chicago gangster. John Watson moved the moment before the trigger was pulled, tackling Sherlock Holmes to the marble floor of the office.
One second later, Sherlock rolled to his feet and attacked. He punched the ex-gangster in the solar plexus, and the man doubled over, trying to get his bearings, trying to straighten up and aim. Sherlock didn't give him the time, grabbing a wrist (with a fake Rolex on it, how predictable) and twisting hard. Garrideb dropped the pistol with a whimper, but Sherlock didn't feel like being merciful – he felt like being quick. So he broke the wrist, and while the man was disoriented with pain, bowled him over with a firm shove in the chest, then dashed his head on the marble floor, once, twice until the man stopped moving. He didn't check for life signs, instead straightened up, hoping despite all previous information (the short range, the element of surprise) that the bullet aimed at him didn't connect. It did. John was lying on the floor, a quickly growing pool of blood forming around his crumpled figure.
One minute later, Sherlock has already called an ambulance. (It was John's idea to put them on speed dial on both their cell phones, after that near miss in Brixton with the unexpectedly well-armed cigarette smugglers.) He knelt by John's side on the ground to examine the damage, but as he moved to cut the jeans off with his pocket knife, John almost imperceptibly shook his head.
"It's over." he rasped.
"It can't have more than grazed you." Insisted Sherlock, bending over the entry wound.
"Of course not, hold on." Sherlock tore off his scarf – it would be good enough to apply pressure to the wound. "The ambulance will be here in ten minutes."
"You know that. I have two. At most." answered John, and Sherlock knew he was right. Sherlock knew about firearms (Colt M1911, considering the assailant's past he had years of practice with it), knew about cartridges (.45 ACP, considered extremely effective against living targets) and knew about anatomy (the bullet did indeed rupture the femoral artery and it was a miracle Watson was still conscious) and above all he knew about John Watson, about how he wasn't one to panic, or at least panic like this. It was true. John Watson, his roommate, his blogger, was going to die, he was going to die because of Sherlock. When he came to this conclusion, he felt something he hadn't since the whole affair with Moriarty: utterly helpless. He knew there was nothing he could do, or even worse, anything he did from now on didn't matter at all. The best he could do was ease John's pain, but instead he started talking, babbling without conscious thought, bending over John, taking his face between his hands.
"It's OK John, it's going to be all right, it's going to be fine, just stay with me, you just stay right here with me, listen, it's going to be all right, just don't move John, and it's going to be OK and you're going to stay" –
"Holmes. Attention." John snapped. Sherlock fell silent, not because John called him by his family name. He fell silent because he knew what it meant – it meant he was being given an order, and that meant John was going into military mode. He sometimes became the soldier he used to be when in danger, sometimes not even consciously, but Sherlock could always tell. Sherlock knew the way his body and mind focused on a single goal, on making a desperate life-saving effort, shutting off all parts of himself that were not necessary, such as fear and weakness. And the way he would pay for it later, the inevitable collapse either in psychosomatic pain or in hysterical giggles. But this time there would be no afterwards. Captain Watson would take over to make John strong enough to stay coherent under the onslaught of the unbearable pain of a bullet wound. And Sherlock won't get to talk to John, ever again.
"Stay with me, John" Sherlock continued, even though his conscious mind knew perfectly well that his words had no use. "Please, you have to stay, I'm begging you, stay with me, stay."
"No. You stay." John raised a hand to Sherlock's hand on his face, and gripped as hard as he could. "Stay alive. Stay clean. Stay good – police." He bit the words out painfully, they were quiet and tinged with whimper but they sounded like orders nevertheless.
"Why the hell would I? It's my fault that…" snapped Sherlock.
"Not yours." Breathed John, cutting him off. "My choice." He fell silent, seemingly too weak to hold onto consciousness, but gathered his strength to continue. "You live. Promise."
Sherlock could feel Watson's feeble fingers trying to keep a hold on his hand, and the marble floor under his knees and the smell of blood and there was nothing he could do about any of it.
"Promise." He said numbly.
A hint of a fond smile appeared in the corner John Watson's mouth, visible even through his pained grimace. His eyes fluttered close as his lips formed the words, hardly audible -
"S' been great."
One hour later, Sherlock Holmes was leaning against a white-tiled wall in Bromley road hospital, the whole place smelling of death and disinfectant – once he could have listed the specific varieties of both by smell, but now all he was feeling was a strange, uncharacteristic blankness. John was there, on the other side of an opaque glass, with nurses and a doctor bustling around him – it has been like that for the last 43 minutes, even though they must have known that it was an exercise in futility, and the only possible benefit was that they could feel that they have done everything they could. Sherlock did nothing, inhaled and exhaled, stood still. There was nothing for him to do, John was beyond saving and the mistake he made could not possibly be corrected, ever.
When one of the doctors walked out and opened her mouth to say something condescendingly sympathetic, starting with "I am so sorry, but-" Sherlock couldn't bear to hear it.
"I am aware of that." – he snapped. He was unsurprised by the relief in her eyes at not having to provide comfort or witness tears. But instead of finally leaving him alone, the doctor (her nametag said Kells but it was new, much newer than the time she spent at the hospital, judging by the wear and tear of her white coat as well as the familiarity with which the nurses addressed her, it was also newer than nametags of other employees, therefore it must have been changed at marriage, in the last two months as one can tell by the fading of print) kept talking.
"As he left no will, it will be your decision to dispose of the organs respectfully. If no personal or religious reasons prevent it, your permission for transplantation would be greatly appreciated."
Organs. John's organs, John's lungs that he breathed with, John's heart that pumped his blood, John's warm grey eyes, even his kidneys, they are going to be cut out and used to fix another person, a boring person, a person who is not John. But instead of blurting this out, he questioned another part of the sentence, a part that was less likely to make him feel like it was his lungs, heart and eyes that were being cut out.
"He has a sister, Harriet Watson, she is next of kin, ask her. She should be notified first of course."
"No "– answered the doctor, taking a piece of paper from her clipboard and scanning it. "The document specifically appoints you. It is unusual, considering he ticked none of the boxes when asked what relation you were – not a relative, not a spouse, not a caretaker – wait, there it is – he ticked other (please specify): cohabitation."
Cohabitation. Not a very strong word, but a true one. They lived together, and if no other word was applicable for the past five years, this one at least was. Sherlock turned towards the opaque glass, which had less human movement behind it now, and more steady beeping. He pushed Doctor Kells aside and walked in despite her protests. Watson was lying on a bed, but he didn't look like he was sleeping. Machines were connected to him everywhere, his lungs were being filled and emptied, his blood was being pumped, his eyes were open. Sherlock stared for a second then jerked his eyes away, looked at the floor. He had always been able to delete useless memories, but he doubted he will ever be able to erase this, to stop seeing it with absolute clarity as long as he was alive.
"Do whatever you want with the organs." He rasped out. He quickly signed his name on the form Doctor Kells pushes in front of him – his signature was like it always has like it always has been, theatrical and showy with a large curved S and a downward twist on k. He was sickened to realise that he was showing off, he had the audacity to show off now, when there was no one left to show off to.
He turned on his heels and walked out without saying goodbye, without looking back. The body on the bed was not John Watson anymore.
One day later, Sherlock was sitting across Lestrade in a windowless police interrogation room, doubtless meant to be intimidating. Lestrade looked ten years older, the lines of exhaustion around his eyes more pronounced than ever, and his movements were sluggish as he lifted his head from his hands.
"I think we should be able to make them drop the investigation." Lestrade said with a sigh. "I mean the wounds on Garrideb's body could clearly result from self-defence, and if you could repeat testimony with the recorder on, sounding a little less glad he's dead, we could both be out of here."
"But I am glad he is dead." answered Sherlock, irritated despite himself, but at Lestrade's frown he added. "I understand you require me to act."
"Damn right." after a moment of hesitation, Lestrade gruffly added "I can't afford to send you away to prison."
Sherlock would have normally felt smugly proud of this blatant admission that he was needed – he probably did feel it, somewhere underneath the numbness.
"Take your time, witnesses are expected to be a bit shaken."
Sherlock was of course anything but shaken, and witness is not the most accurate word for someone who just beat another person to death with his bare hands. He opened his mouth to say that when Lestrade continued.
"I expect you have already heard about what happened to Garrideb's accomplices."
"It is still an ongoing investigation, so I shouldn't legally tell you, but all eight of his London contacts were found dead this morning. Not simply dead, but tied up, repeatedly stabbed and partially dismembered, then dumped in a skip in Shepherd's Bush. This wasn't a murder, this was an execution, and the modus operandi points to a certain renegade branch of the Russian mafia. The branch that owes you a favour since you had their Armenian rivals arrested last March. Any comments?"
"A man like Garrideb is bound to have enemies." answered Sherlock, not even bothering to keep the disdain out of his voice. He already threw away the untraceable phone he used to make the brief call – a street name, a flat number and a specific quote from Pushkin. "And any idiot knows that the Russian mafia doesn't take revenges lightly."
Lestrade took a deep breath, opened his mouth as if to say something, then shook his head, and only murmured.
Then he pushed a button on the recorder, and started talking in a steady, professional voice.
"Interview with Sherlock Holmes, witness in the murder of John Watson, M.D. Mr. Holmes, what was your purpose in entering the building in which the shooting happened?"
One week later, Sherlock Holmes was standing in the back row at John Watson's funeral. Far more people turned up than he expected – then again he didn't really pay attention to the formalities. Maybe he shouldn't have left Mrs. Hudson to take care of all the funeral arrangements alone. But the entire process of negotiating the price of the wooden box you put the dead decaying body of a person in, of buying flowers that are not frivolous but expensive enough to be acceptable for the occasion, of inviting all his friends as if there was some sort of a macabre party, it just seemed unbearably tedious to him. No, not tedious, simply wrong, like a drawn-out false note on a violin. John Watson should not be dead, but if he is dead he should not be surrounded by the paraphernalia that placed the absence of a real, necessary person into the context of futile social rites. Watson's body should be thrown into an erupting volcano, or used to build a barricade that protects the last surviving members of a hopeless revolution, or left on a street corner to be eaten by stray cats and pigeons, but it shouldn't be decorated and put in the ground. And if it had to happen that way, he wanted no part in it. He only turned up because he knew his absence would cause Mrs Hudson unnecessary pain.
At some point a priest started talking, clichéd non-denominational drivel about a life well-lived, about grieving friends and family, about how he changed everyone's life for the better and about a vague promise of resurrection. Sherlock tried to tune him out, looked at the crowd instead. Half of Scotland Yard was there: Lestrade, Donovan, even Anderson and six others whose name Sherlock already deleted. There were lots of soldiers and ex-soldiers, he didn't know them but their bearing betrayed them even if they were wearing civilian clothes. Mike Stamford from Bart's was there, he seemed deep in thought, maybe he regretted introducing the two of them, there was Sarah and some other doctors and hospital workers. There was Molly too, tears silently running down her cheeks. In the first row, a short-haired woman sat, sobbing messily into Mrs Hudson's shoulder, red veins standing out in her cheeks, so Sherlock could tell she had been drinking heavily in the last few days. She must have been Harry. Everyone was quiet and respectful and sad, and Sherlock didn't know most of them, didn't know how they knew John and why they were sad, and he could have deduced it but it was too late for that anyway, and that thought was unbearable. He stood frozen in the last row, looked straight ahead and started calculating the Fibonacci sequence. He got as far as 8670007398507948658051921 when somebody gently shook him his shoulder. The others were already gone, and it was just Molly standing beside him. For a second, he was terrified that she would try to offer him emotional support, but all she said was "Let's go." and it was side by side that they walked out of the cemetery gates.
Outside the cemetery gates, there was a crowd of at least two hundred uninvited strangers waiting for them. They were talking quietly amongst themselves, and seeing Sherlock approach they fell absolutely silent and stood to some semblance of attention. The crowd was rather peculiar – most of them were young, in their teens or twenties, all of them were wearing black armbands over their street clothes, and at least twenty of them had deerstalkers on. Sherlock wanted to ask if this was some sort of inane prank, or a ridiculous but tediously normal funeral tradition he never thought necessary to remember, when Molly nudged him and said "Look at them!" The two teenage boys she was pointing to were holding up a placard - "John Watson, Rest in Peace". Sherlock looked, and saw other placards, banners and T-shirts, all saying some variation of "WE ‹3 JW" or "John Watson Forever". He spotted a lanky, awkward-looking young man holding up a piece of cardboard, with the words "John Watson got me into Med School" crawled across it. And even further back there was a large sheet with the words painted on it "Keep blogging in heaven."
Looking at the crowd, this crowd of loyal followers, of fans who valued John's storytelling more than his own deductive reasoning, Sherlock knew something was expected of him. What could he possibly say after causing the death of the person these people came here to say farewell to? Sherlock lacked the energy for pretense, he found there were no kind, polite words left in him, and no insults either. Instead he faced them, turned up his collar, gave a brisk nod, and walked away with Molly running after him. Even after they turned the street corner, he could hear the crowd cheering.
One month later, Sherlock was sitting in an overstuffed armchair in one of the rooms behind the Diogenes Club. He curled up, pulling his feet underneath him, partly to see if Mycroft will react to him treading mud on the priceless upholstery. He did not.
"I would not have bothered to contact you in person if you had only answered your messages." – started out Mycroft in his usual lecturing tone.
"I would not have ignored your messages had they not been thinly veiled attempts to learn whether I am" – Sherlock had to think about the phrasing for a second – "caught in a downward spiral of drug addiction."
Mycroft scoffed. He was really good at scoffing in a politely condescending way.
"I think you are too old for games now, or at least these sort of games. And you know my concern is entirely reasonable, considering you have contacted no less than fifteen street drug dealers only in the last week, and purchased large quantities of goods from all of them."
"It is clear that you are more familiar with bakers than dealers, Mycroft. I did not buy them for personal usage, as the amount of drugs I now have is enough for a lethal overdose twenty times over."
Sherlock saw something shift in Mycroft's expression, as if he wanted to say something but thought better of it very fast, so he added, redundantly "And no, I am not planning on anything that predictable."
"So what then?"
"I needed to enter the market myself." Sherlock dug into the briefcase at his feet, and lifted out a sheaf of papers. "I meant to give these to Scotland Yard, but you can have them, the net result is the same."
Mycroft took the papers, glanced them, and his expression changed from incomprehension to disbelief to wonder. The papers were meticulously collected and ordered evidence of the activities of four major drug-dealing operations in London. There were charts, receipts, transcripts, photographs – and these facts didn't stop at the pathetic small-time dealers like the majority of police intelligence did. They were sufficient to convict the drug lords themselves, the cases watertight and the arguments foolproof.
"Why?" was all he asked asked, looking up.
"Aren't you satisfied that I have done my civic duty, for once in my life?" asked Sherlock. At Mycroft's silence, he added "Four networks that regularly cut their goods with something life-threatening just for a little extra income, all off the street in one fell swoop. I may not have a good grasp on traditional morality, but I would say this qualifies as a good deed."
Mycroft gave shook his head with a look of tired disbelief, but took the files and silently handed them over to Anthea who materialised from the background and discreetly melted back into it.
"There is a case that would be of interest to you." continued Mycroft. "The parties involved have not contacted the police yet, as the scenario involves a number of high ranking diplomats, and an embarrassing amount of –"
"Boring." spat Sherlock.
"Nevertheless it is a dire matter concerning national security, and you should not so flippantly refuse an opportunity of this magnitude. Please, consider it."
Mycroft wasn't offering the case out of genuine concern for the safety of Britain, that much was obvious – if he thought it was at all important, he would have already done it himself. He was also intelligent enough to know that Sherlock would be aware of this immediately. There was only one explanation: he was trying to give Sherlock something to occupy himself with. He was worried about his brother, and he wasn't even very subtle or sarcastic about it. He even said please.
"Fine, I'm taking the case. Doubtless you are going to inquire about my health now." Said Sherlock, breaking the silence.
"No need. Mrs Hudson keeps me suitably well informed. I'm sure she has informed you that she's informing me, seems like a rather loyal woman."
"And were you satisfied my her reports?"
"She said you ate three meals a day, slept every night from 11pm to 6am, made and drank lots of tea and watched at least an hour of television a day. No discernible drug usage. I would say your behaviour is quite balanced regarding the circumstances. In fact, it's more balanced than it ever has been. Can I ask you what you are doing?"
Sherlock didn't answer. He has spent weeks like that before, settling into new, alien habits, usually when trying to understand the daily routine of a victim or imitate the mindset of the killer. The theory was simple – our personality is partially defined by the stimuli that affect us, therefore if we expose ourselves to a set of stimuli as close to the original as possible, we can internalise the decision-making processes of another person. John's daily routine, of course, would have been unbearably boring, had it not been John's – as it was, it was merely unbearable. By re-enacting John's days, he came closer to being able to predict how he would react to a given situation, and having a theoretical friend was still better than not having one at all.
"I… I am coping."
One season later, Sherlock was lying on the sofa with the laptop on his chest, staring at a string of emoticons on the screen of his phone. It was of utmost importance that he decipher the message sent to Mrs Cubitt before whatever was implied in it actually took place. The parties involved were not even aware that Sherlock had taken the case – these days it seemed he did more and more work pro bono. But he couldn't help it, he was bored, worse than bored if he didn't fill his every waking moment (and there were many of those, as he didn't fully succeed in adopting John's sleeping pattern) with some project, he could feel futility rushing in. Only last week he revealed an international human trafficking ring, saved the life of a teenage celebrity and refused a knighthood, at which point Mycroft strongly suggested that he lay low for a while.
In a sudden burst of inspiration he decided to find out what happened to John's organs, knowing full well that there was nothing of John in these strangers, apart from in the literal sense. They received parts of his body, but none of his warmth and his fierce loyalty. He knew he wasn't looking for John, or trying to atone for his part in John's death, instead he thought of this exercise as some sort of homage. The organ recipients were every bit as ordinary as he expected them to be, with their ordinary lives and ordinary problems. A banker (left kidney) was overworking herself for a promotion, a waiter (heart) was pushing his children to do better in school than he ever did, a teenager (corneas) was writing terrible poetry. The man who got the liver, Mr Hilton Cubitt seemed similarly boring with his 9 to 5 job, his 3 piece suit, his comb-over and his entirely reasonable suspicion that his trophy wife was cheating on him. Sherlock only decided to look further into the case when one of his sources, a rather talkative homemaker living in the house opposite the Cubitts' (contacted through a fake telephone survey) revealed a certain detail amidst a torrent of gossip and rumour. The unusual detail was the reason for Mr Cubitt's jealousy, as apart from her changed behaviour and irregular spending, Mrs Cubitt kept receiving text messages composed entirely of emoticons.
He did not think it necessary to contact the couple personally, instead he called in a favour with a rather dubious telephone company employee to get first-hand access to all of the messages. After having a glance at them, Sherlock wanted to shake Mr Cubitt for being so idiotically out of touch that he could mistake something like smile-frown-smile-big smile-wink-sad face-heart for flirtation instead of the code which it clearly was. After twenty minutes of examining, rearranging and substituting the little faces, he was no closer to deciphering them and felt almost as foolish as Mr Cubitt. Instead of admitting defeat, he started copying all five messages into a Word file, but it went frustratingly slowly, because he had to find extra characters, as on the computer the semicolons and parentheses were not automatically converted into tiny faces like they were on the phone. But who said they needed to be – maybe the cipher used the separate constituents to convey the meaning, and the rest just served to mask it. The number of images was a multiple of three in each message. After another ten minutes of experimentation Sherlock knew that three emoticons could be converted into six characters, and blocks of three characters formed the actual meaning, which could then be resolves like a simple substitution cypher. The messages were revealed to be rather unsubtle threats, issued from some sort of a smuggling organisation that Mrs Cubitt was apparently previously involved in, when she was still living in the US. Sherlock sent two texts - one to the police, alerting them that a notorious gang of smugglers was about to turn up in a certain abandoned warehouse in Shepherd's Bush; another to the number Mrs Cubitt's texts came from, telling him in a string of emoticons that she has stopped hiding, and is willing to give him the information and money demanded, setting up a rendezvous in Shepherd's Bush, in an abandoned warehouse.
Then Sherlock laid back on the sofa, satisfied at having solved a case without even getting up. His grin lasted until he started wondering what ridiculous name John would have given this one.
One year later Sherlock was waking up in a hospital bed – he could tell that immediately from the smell of disinfectant, the thread count of the sheets and the distant beeping of life support machinery. His chest and his head hurt horribly, but he also felt a comfortable fuzziness he associated with a rather high dose of morphine. He remembered he had dreamed something, something quite brilliant, but he couldn't for the life of him recall what it was about. Opening his eyes he saw that he indeed was in in an unpleasantly white and well-lit hospital room. He also saw Sergeant Donovan sitting by his bedside in a plastic chair, engrossed in a paperback with a bare-chested pirate on the cover. After a few seconds she realised that Sherlock was awake, and looked at him, quickly slamming the book shut.
"What happened?" croaked Sherlock.
"Oh, look who's back!" she grinned. "You had most of a burning house collapse on you. Luckily you only have three broken ribs, a serious but treatable concussion and of course, the aftereffects of smoke inhalation. The Munroes both got out alive."
"What?" asked Sherlock, aware that his mental capacities were mostly occupied by trying not to vomit.
"Don't you remember the Norbury case?"
Sherlock rolled his eyes, but stopped when it made his headache even worse, with a wave of nauseating dizziness rolling over him. He closed his eyes instead, blocking out the glaring midmorning light that sent stabbing pain through his brain. Of course he remembered the Norbury case. Some lodgers called him about mysterious comings and goings in a flat that almost always had its windows shuttered. It took Sherlock less that five minutes to figure out that the disturbance wasn't caused by a secret criminal gang or a satanic cult, (or as some of the residents feared, a ghost,) but by a woman named Effie Hebron visiting her hidden child, a rather serious-looking little girl with enormous brown eyes. Apparently her mother kept her a secret because she didn't want her husband to know that she had a baby as a teenager. The child was returned to the family, the parents reconciled, the residents appeased and apologetic, the mother thanking Sherlock in tears, the father asking to shake Sherlock's hand then opting for a bonecrushing hug instead – it was rather gratifying for such an open and shut case. But less than two weeks later, the child, Joanna Hebron, was reported missing. The police immediately suspected Jack Munro, the step-father, and it did seem both statistically likely and absolutely feasible: after all the mother found it necessary to hide the child in a separate flat, almost in full isolation. They were entirely convinced of it once they realised that Munro was also gone, having abandoned the off-licence he owned without a word, and they started a city-wide manhunt.
"Do you remember ?" repeated Donovan when Sherlock didn't speak. She sounded almost anxious.
"I remember perfectly." Answered Sherlock, as haughtily as he could manage considering he couldn't even raise his head without excruciating pain.
"But how did you know it wasn't Munro?" asked Donovan, taking out a notebook.
"His hand. Oh, isn't it obvious? He almost always stood with his hands in his pockets, and he avoided the handshake because there was a bandage on it, and he tried not to draw attention to it. A wise choice, as the bandage was on the back of his hand, a spot where it is extremely difficult to cut one's self, even considering that he is left-handed. I initially assumed it was some sort of embarrassing incident, and ignored it. But once I had a look at the photographs the police confiscated, I saw that he is either hiding his right hand or wearing a bandage in the same spot in all of the pictures going back more than five years, and there are no photographs of him in older than that. It clearly wasn't an injury, he was covering something up. And the story didn't fit together in the first place, teenage mothers may be discriminated against, but not to the extent to merit hiding all traces of a child for three entire years. She was afraid of something else, something far worse. Also the way she was hidden, in a separate apartment with a paid nanny, there is no way the mother could afford it on her teacher's salary alone, but the couple together could easily spare the money."
"So we have a biracial child hidden entirely from the outside world by her white parents, and a man who grew up in Manchester and takes great care not to show the back of his right hand. This clearly points to the involvement of the Purity Patrol."
Sherlock could hear Donovan gasp.
"But I thought they were disbanded in '87, after that police raid destroyed their headquarters. I mean I'm used to unlikely and outlandish crimes cropping up around you, but an actual Nazi gang that specifically targets interracial couples, how could that possibly exist today?"
"It does, and if you took the bandage off Munro's hand, you would find the wave-and-lightning symbol of the Patrol."
"So the father is guilty."
"No, he is in hiding himself." Sighed Sherlock, slightly irritated at her slow pace. "He quit the patrol five years ago, when he came to London. But it seems like quitting wasn't as easy as he thought it would be."
"Why couldn't you tell us all this back then?"
"There was no time. The police was looking for a jealous, potentially abusive man kidnapping a child, and expected him to act on impulse, therefore stupidly. I was looking for a man and a child being kidnapped together by a gang that aimed to make an example of a former member gone astray, a gang that has is efficiently organised large-scale crimes in the past and has the modus operandi of burning people alive."
"How did you know where to go?"
"They needed a secluded place where no one would notice a fire, or no one would think it's a cause for alarm. In Manchester they used to stage executions near waste disposal sites where the smoke was masked by the smoke from the burn pit, but there are none in London today. However, the rangers in some parks often get rid of the fallen leaves by burning them. South Norwood Country Park is the closest such park, it is also large enough to make goings-on towards the centre difficult to see from anywhere outside, and has a number of small two-story outbuildings that can potentially used to set the fire. That's where I went."
"You could have shared your gloriously complicated thought processes with the police, too. At least you texted us the location."
"Yes, so you could be there, picking up the pieces afterwards." - murmured Sherlock, exasperated. He has already explained the case, he didn't see what else was there to talk about.
"No need to be an asshole about it, there were lots of pieces that needed picking up. When we got to the building, or what remained of it, the girl and the father were already freed, but they needed medical attention. Munro was severely beaten, with cracked ribs and all fingers in his left hand broken, and had a large number of cuts and burns, I mean they really went all-out on him. He'll live, but he's still in sedation. The kid was mostly fine, apart from mild dehydration and the understandable shock. Also there were insane arsonists running amok, although they were in the process of panicked escape, three of them wounded. We caught five of them, but they didn't give us anything, they didn't even say if there were more of them, but they probably will once we use what you told me."
"As I said, picking up the pieces. It was over by the time you got there."
"Oh, that reminds me of something." Sherlock could hear Donovan closing the notebook and putting it down on her lap – she was clearly trying for a personal conversation. "By the time we got there, the perpetrators were running and the victims were out of the fire, laid down safely on the grass. So how come you were still in there?"
Sherlock cursed the police for managing to be observant only in the moments when he didn't want them to be. Thankfully he could talk circles around any of them.
"I wanted to examine the scene, there are not many opportunities to witness premeditated arson as it is happening."
"Sherlock, you must have ran back there after getting those people out, and I know for a fact that you had absolutely no rational reason to do that. If you wanted to learn more, you could have examined the perpetrators or the victims. Instead you walked back into a burning building, and apparently went up to the attic, essentially putting yourself into a dead end, with rising smoke, no windows and collapsing stairs. These are not the actions of a self-professed genius."
Of course Sherlock walked into a burning building. At the moment it seemed like an entirely reasonable thing to do. No, it seemed like the only thing to do. He laid the victims on the grass and called over his shoulder for John. He wanted to ask him to give them first aid while Sherlock pursued the running gang members. But there was no one there, and it had been a year and he still expected John to be there, and if it didn't get the least bit better for an entire year, it would be unlikely to change in the future. He could see nothing in his future, not a single moment that wasn't dulled by missing John, wasn't blackened by knowing it was all his own fault. There were a precious few moments in his life when he didn't know how to go on, but for the first time ever, he didn't even see a reason to. He checked the vital signs of the man, he laid his coat over the shivering child, and he walked back inside the burning building. But annoying, pushy Donovan did not need to know about any of this.
"I do not believe you possess the intelligence to question my investigative measures." Said Sherlock in his haughtiest voice, aided by the fact that this was actually true.
"I know, us mortals may not be as clever as you, but even I know that it has been one year. I know that it's hard, and if you need to talk to someone…"
"I don't see how any of this concerns you, apart from providing you with an opportunity to gloat. I know that you would not be here of your own will. Probably the police wants to keep an eye on me, and Lestrade sent you because he was busy."
"Don't flatter yourself, the police doesn't give a damn where you are. I'm here because the hospital has told me to stay for a few days of observation, and if I'm stuck here, I might as well visit."
"Observation? What for?"
Sherlock forced his eyes open, and realised that Donovan wasn't wearing her civilian clothes but a bathrobe over hospital scrubs. He must be more affected by the sedatives than he imagined not to have noticed that. It was obvious, embarrassingly obvious that she was there at the crime scene – no, that she actually entered the building. But she had no motive to do that, considering the victims were already out. No reason, unless… oh. Unless she was the one who carried him out of the burning wreckage of the building, despite the fact that she clearly resented him.
"Why?" he asked in the end.
"Lestrade was busy." She answered with a wry smile.
"Still, you did not need to do that."
"I did." Donovan ran a hand over her face – the gesture was so familiar she suddenly looked like a younger, female version of Lestrade. "The firemen weren't there on time, the building was collapsing and I knew you were in there."
Both of them fell into an uncomfortable silence, Sherlock looking at the ceiling while she looked at the floor.
"I know it's very bad." She started speaking tentatively. "But I really think you shouldn't do that – or something like that again. I mean, you are an insufferably obnoxious freak of nature and I really shouldn't care what you do with yourself, but you did save two lives today. And you saved God knows how many in the past few years, and I don't really like the way you do it, and I think you don't even like doing it, not anymore. But you are going to have to keep doing it, because you live in London, and London needs you."
Sherlock took a deep breath. The wording was a little too melodramatic for his taste, but the point was valid. London needed him.
"So, do you think-" started Donovan.
"Yes, now stop talking about it." He snapped.
Donovan nodded and got up.
"Fine, I will. Now I'm going to go and tell the nurses you are awake and feeling better."
As she walked out, Sherlock realised, almost with surprise, that he indeed was feeling better. He was no less aware of John's absence, but the all-encompassing despair from the night in the park was gone. He suspected it had something to do with the morphine-fuelled dream he had. He still couldn't recall the details, and as soon as he forced a blurred image to the forefront of his mind, it was gone. He was certain that John had been there with him, but that in itself did not explain the strange sense of peace and almost-contentment he felt. Now that he didn't have to talk, the medication took its toll, and he felt his eyelids go leaden with sleep. A machine started buzzing in the neighbouring room, and Sherlock pursed his lips in concentration, trying to remember something before the last vestiges of memory slipped away.
"Bees." He murmured, on the verge of falling asleep again. "It had something to do with bees."
One year and thirty-seven days later Sherlock was walking home alone, after the trail that lead him to an Ealing and a used electric appliance salesman turned out to be a dead end. A steady rain pattered on the pavement, the kind that soaks you to the bone, and Sherlock had brought no umbrella. The late-evening streets were empty, apart from a tall, bony young woman wearing a worn leather jacket suddenly appearing from a side street and starting to walk parallel with him. The sky was a dark-blue, twilight creeping in, and as the lamplights switched on, the woman shuddered, almost imperceptibly. Sherlock looked at her for a split second, and then started speaking, almost involuntarily.
"You shouldn't have pawned it."
The next thing he knew was an elbow in the solar plexus as the woman turned on him. He dodged a punch in the face but couldn't avoid the boot in the groin, and it took all his willpower not to fold up like a ragdoll. He defended himself as well as he could, but she had caught him off guard. Analysing her fighting style yielded nothing, as she was absolutely inconsistent in her attacks, punching, kicking and clawing without respite. He failed to dodge a kick to the ribs, and he heard the recently mended bones cracking, he could hear himself cry out. This moment of distraction allowed her to knock him off his feet, kneel on his chest and get her hands around his neck. She had no discernible training, and no remarkable amount of muscular strength – she simply fought with the absolute relentless determination of someone who is unable or unwilling to stop, someone who does not care if they kill someone, someone who does not care if they die.
But tonight, Sherlock didn't want to die. He stopped struggling, allowed himself to relax underneath her hands, opened his eyes wide and mouthed the word "sorry". It took the strange woman a little over three seconds to register that her opponent has ceased to move, and when she did, she blinked like she was coming back to her senses. Nevertheless she did not entirely relax her grip on Sherlock's neck, only enough to let him have a few shallow gasps of air.
"Explain." She hissed.
"My name is Sherlock Holmes, I am a consulting detective. You may have heard of me in the news."
"Try again, mate. I'm not falling for such obvious bullshit." Her hands tightened a fraction.
"I assure you, Miss Smith-"
"How do you know my name?"
"The signature on the piece of paper that fell out of your back pocket while you were, well, strangling me, quite clearly reads V. Smith."
"And it has to be your signature, as it is obviously a receipt for the motorcycle you just pawned."
"How could you possibly now that?" By now Smith sounded more curious than obviously hostile, which impression was aided by the fact that she removed her hands from Sherlock's throat, but remained kneeling on his chest with her full weight. His newly-healed ribs protested under the weight and breathing proved to be challenging, not to mention the fact that the icy puddle underneath him slowly soaking through his coat.
"You arrived here on a motorcycle," - continued Sherlock. ", that much is obvious from the mud splatters on your boot and jeans, and the patterns indicate something built in the early eighties, yet still easily capable of breaking all London speed limits. I would say it's a vintage bike that's been kept in perfect repair, not something an amateur would be capable of, not on this level. Also, while you were attacking me I had the opportunity to observe that the distribution of your muscle strength was consistent with a daily six to eight hours spent riding."
"That much is true, but you did not have time to read through the receipt. And you already said I pawned the bike before you even saw the paper. It could have been some other receipt and maybe my bike had simply broken down."
"If it had broken down, you would have tried to fix it. No oil on your hands, not much dirt either. No, the real question is why you decided to pawn it."
"I needed the money, but a posh git like you would obviously never think of that."
"This bike was not only your passion in life, it was also your primary source of income. You do need the money, I can see that – your clothes are quality but not exactly new, and you have healthy musculature but show signs of recent vitamin deficiency that border on quality starvation. Your current life is one of abject poverty, but it clearly wasn't always so, not until approximately four months ago."
Smith smiled grimly.
"You may be that Holmes guy after all." Smith got up off of Sherlock, and sat on the kerb, glittering wet from the cold rain. She waved her hand towards him. "Keep going."
Sherlock scrambled up too, feeling his ribs and finding with relief that none of them seemed to have re-broken, tugging his coat back into its proper shape, starting to stand up, then thinking better of it, he sat down next to her on the kerb. She looked at him expectantly, her arms crossed and her hair plastered to her face.
"You worked with your bike, so obviously you lost that job. But I think there is more, something happened to you back then. Your hair has been cut quite recently, and in a purposefully unflattering way, and a patch behind your right ear reveals that it was dyed brown at the same time, and, although the original colour can only be guessed at, it was previously dyed a rather glaring shade of violet, with permanent dye. Your cuticles also have minuscule traces of paint, also months old, I cannot be certain in this lighting but I suspect your nails were painted the same colour. You had an expensive bike that you were also emotionally attached to; a steady income and a consciously constructed look that screamed confidence. You were unable to continue your job, unable or unwilling to seek new employment, changed your entire look to be as unremarkable as possible – all markers of psychological trauma. Apart from the fact that you have until quite recently been sitting on me, your body language indicates that you are quite lacking in confidence and certainty, and when the streetlamps came on, you startled and started walking faster, like someone who just realised how late it was, and was for some reason terrified. I'd say whatever happened to you happened somewhere on the streets of London, after darkness fell, the most statistically likely option is a mugging.
"Rape." Said Smith, quietly, unemotionally. "You see, my boss at Charlington Express Delivery took quite a liking to me. He kept hitting on me, I kept turning him down, I mean I had a boyfriend and I didn't like him anyway. So one night, he got one of his friends to order a delivery to an empty parking lot in the ass end of nowhere, and there they were, the boss and two of his mates. I didn't go easy, it took all three of them to hold me down. They took turns, then they left me there to ride home as I was. You can imagine, getting on my bike and crossing London at night in the pouring rain, with a concussion to boot. I don't know how I didn't fall off. The next day Kirill, my boyfriend, found out, so he went and beat one of the bastards up, with a wrench. The guy, Woodley was his name, he died, thank God, I would have killed him myself but at the time I was not able to walk, and then the police got involved. I reported everything, went though with the medical bullshit and the legal bullshit so the other two, Carruthers and Williamson got put away for five years each. But Kirill got life, with no chance of parole for twenty years, and I can't do the slightest thing about any of it. Liked the story?"
"No. I'm an absolute idiot, I should have been able to deduce that you were raped. Now I'll need to read up on the manifestations of psychological trauma."
"What?" Smith looked intently at Sherlock, scrutinizing him for a reaction. "No I'm so sorry? No uncomfortable avoidance of eye contact? No pity?"
"I can pretend to feel pity for you, but you clearly would not care for it."
Smith almost smiled.
"Damn right I wouldn't. The only thing worse than people throwing a full-on pity party is when they try to be subtle about it, and I catch a "poor girl" when my back is turned. Like I am some helpless little fragile flower, instead of a fucking biker that just got jumped by three men with two crowbars and rope. But unfortunately the only person who seems to get that is a terrifying emotionless psychopath."
"I am a sociopath, not a psychopath. And I was fortunately prevented from perceiving you as helpless when you assaulted me."
"I'm kinda sorry about that. But if you go around blurting out people's secrets, you absolutely deserve getting the shit kicked out of you."
The woman dropped her hands on her knees- her knuckles were bleeding. Sherlock almost reached out before realising she wouldn't accept his offer to bandage them.
"Remember to disinfect those." – he said instead.
"You too, wanker. I busted you up pretty bad."
A moment passed in silence, with only the ever-present hum of faraway traffic, under a streetlamp with the starless London evening falling around the two of them, sitting soaking wet and bruised and bleeding and somehow, still alive. Smith shook herself.
"I still need to get home. Well, you can hardly call it home, it's a hellhole I share with four Polish migrant workers and a dying heroin addict, but it's not like I can afford a proper flat without getting a normal job, and that seems unlikely." She smiled bitterly. "It's going to be a long day tomorrow, avoiding people I know, looking for minimal wage work and jumping at shadows." She stood up. "Good bye, and despite common sense and rules of propriety, it's been nice talking to you."
She turned around and started walking away. Sherlock thought about this woman. She was a highly proficient and fearless biker, and her delivery job meant that she knew not only the exact map of Greater London, but also had a familiarity with the ebb and flow of traffic, the exact timing of rush hours and the specific routes of commuters. She did not have an active social life, but retained a strong emotional connection with her imprisoned boyfriend, meaning that she could be fully committed to detective work without developing an unnecessary romantic or sexual attachment. She fought with a ruthless efficiency, and thought with the same. She had an unspoken thirst for justice, and a willingness to follow up on it given half a chance. Of course, she was quite obviously broken, but she broke with a sharp, jagged edge that would cut anyone who touched her, cut them down to the bone. She was not John, but she was someone useful and terrifying in equal measure, someone who could help London, someone who could help him. At the same time, perhaps even more importantly, she was someone in dire need of a flat and a job. He couldn't ask for a better accomplice than this solitary biker. He started walking after her.
Hearing his footsteps she turned back to look at him, this time without fear or anger.
"What is it now, Mr Holmes?"
"Miss Smith. How do you feel about the violin?"