Molly was three minutes and forty-two seconds late.
The front door opened and shut—at least she'd finally got over her habit of knocking—and her footfalls on the stairs were rushed but not panicked. Ergo: apologetic about being late, but not worried. The apology would be issued to John, not to Sherlock, as it was John's shift she was meant to be relieving.
Well. That was no longer entirely accurate, as John had departed twenty three-minutes and forty-two seconds ago.
John had said Rosie, and John had said you didn't kill Mary in a forced and halting voice. And perhaps he'd been sincere, but he'd looked terribly uncomfortable to be spending time with Sherlock at all, his gaze had kept skittering away from Sherlock's face, and he'd seemed painfully relieved when Sherlock had assured him that he could last twenty minutes without supervision. He'd looked at Sherlock with a bland and tired face and he'd said tomorrow, six 'til ten, as if spending time at Baker Street had become simply another tedious shift at a job he did not want.
And then John had left.
Sherlock had listened to his steps on the stairs—forceful, hasty, not allowing himself time to rethink his decision—and had flinched a bit at the slam of the door.
He'd spent a few moments thinking about the drugs he did not want in the hiding places no one knew about. And then his phone had moaned—Irene, with a birthday greeting—and he'd welcomed the distraction. He didn't text her back, of course, but running through several hypothetical exchanges as an intellectual exercise had kept him occupied for nearly twelve minutes.
By then his tea had grown cold. And so he'd carried his mug into the kitchen and set it on the counter. He'd refilled the kettle and turned it on, stood tapping his fingers impatiently against the countertop while it boiled.
He'd thought a bit more about cocaine. Then the kettle had clicked off, and so he'd poured himself another mug of tea. He'd waited for it to steep, watching the steam curl towards the ceiling, and then carried it carefully back into the sitting room. Sat down. Looked at John's empty mug on the table by his empty chair.
Molly came in the door. She was smiling, but looked flustered. Strands of long hair had worked loose from her ponytail. It was windy outside.
Her smile fell as she stepped into the sitting room. She looked at John's chair.
"Oh," she said. "Am I very late?"
"Three minutes and forty-two seconds," Sherlock said.
She stepped further into the room, her lips pressed into a tight line.
Sherlock shifted uncomfortably in his seat, feeling strangely exposed. He opened his mouth to speak, not sure, exactly, what it was he intended to say.
"Did John leave, um, three minutes and forty-two seconds ago?" she asked quietly.
Sherlock took a sip of his tea. Swallowed carefully, as it was still hot. Set the mug back down.
"No," he said.
She looked at him. Her face was sad. She saw too much, he thought. She always had.
"Oh," she said. "All right. Um. Are you—?"
"I'm not high."
"I wasn't asking if—"
"Yes, you were."
She bit her lip. Nodded. "All right," she said again.
They looked at each other for a moment. Sherlock tapped his fingers restlessly against his thighs. Molly glanced at John's empty chair as if she meant to sit down, seemed to think better of it. Went to the sofa instead.
"Happy birthday," she said, after a long and heavy silence. Her voice was careful.
Sherlock stopped tapping his fingers. Regarded her curiously. "Thank you," he said.
"I know you don't usually celebrate," she said. She was looking down at her lap. "But. Maybe this year? Since you're still alive. Oh, no—" she stopped, shook her head. "I didn't mean it that way. Of course you're still alive. It's just—well. It's been a hard year, hasn't it?"
He considered. Last year he'd spent his birthday crouched in a skip with John, waiting for a burglar to descend via a convenient overhead fire escape. He'd stepped in a partially rotted banana. The smell had been overwhelming.
There had been very little room in the skip, and John had been very close. His breath had puffed hot and insistent against Sherlock's cheek. Their shoulders had brushed. Sherlock had not cared overmuch about the rotten banana.
Mary had not been dead. Nor had she been with them. She'd been home, heavily pregnant. She'd sent them both a text advising them to have fun. There had been a chase, and a brief scuffle. John had laughed.
He supposed it had, in fact, been a rather long and difficult road between that last birthday and this one. And what Molly said was true: he was still alive.
"Yes," he said, finally, aware even as he was speaking that far too much time had gone by since she'd asked her question. "It has."
Molly gave him a sad smile. She did not seem to mind that he'd taken a long time to speak.
"Cake," she said.
He blinked. "Sorry?"
"Cake. It's your birthday. We should have cake."
"Why would I—"
"Because that's what people do on birthdays, Sherlock. You have cake. Someone puts a candle in it and sometimes there's an entire chorus of waiters to sing to you and it's all terribly embarrassing and you'll absolutely hate it and we should go, we should go right now, and have cake."
He frowned at her. "A . . . chorus of waiters?"
"Yes," she said firmly, standing up.
He hesitated, debated the merits of refusing. She would inevitably invite Mrs Hudson along, and Lestrade, and he'd have to listen to the three of them nattering on.
He looked at John's empty chair. At John's empty mug.
He thought about the cocaine he'd stashed away underneath a false bottom in his pants drawer. Molly could be distracted, he knew. She was sharp-eyed but generally more trusting than John. At some point, she'd let her guard down. He could make a game of it, see how much he could take before she noticed.
He swallowed, hard. Thought of John, stiff-shouldered and reluctant in the doorway. Tomorrow. Six 'til ten, he'd said. That wasn't very far away, really.
"Cake," he said, looking up at Molly. It took more effort than he would have liked to drag his thoughts away from the cocaine hidden away in his pants drawer. Perhaps it would not be much of a fun game after all. "All right."
She gave him a tentative smile, hesitant and genuine. And she had the good grace not to point out that his own answering smile was clearly forced.
He slept poorly.
The cocaine in his pants drawer called to him, but Mrs Hudson had taken the overnight shift and Mrs Hudson was terrifying when she wanted to be. If he slipped up, he thought it likely that he'd end up handcuffed again. Or possibly shot.
So instead he lounged in a half-doze on the sofa and let her carry on about a variety of inane subjects: Mr Chatterjee's fickle affections, the truly appalling price of petrol these days, the state of her bins, Mrs Turner's dubious taste in clothing.
At some point, she cleared away John's empty mug. It rather ruined the illusion that John had simply stepped out for a moment.
It was for the best, he supposed. There was little point in engaging in idle fantasy.
"How's your eye, dear?" she asked him.
He shrugged, stared up at the ceiling. His eye did not bother him, though the skin along his brow pinched and itched where the split skin had been carefully sutured.
She tsked and fussed over him a bit, went so far as to tuck a blanket around his shoulders. He was struck with a helpless wave of fondness for her. He chalked it up to the withdrawal.
The fire cast a warm glow over the sitting room. It was cosy. He watched the flames dance well into the night and did not get up.
Lestrade arrived just before noon the next day, settled in on the sofa and turned on the telly. He left a stack of files on the kitchen counter.
It was clear he expected Sherlock to take an interest in them, blatantly obvious from how conspicuously he avoided mentioning them.
Sherlock did his best to resist, at first. He resented clumsy attempts at trickery or manipulation. Truth be told, he resented thoughtful, nuanced attempts at trickery or manipulation even more. It rarely worked. What was the point?
But Lestrade's taste in telly was atrocious, and the only other thing of interest in the flat was pressed into a small white baggie at the bottom of his pants drawer. And Lestrade would have been easier to fool than Molly, but John had said six 'til ten, and that was only six hours away.
He looked at the first file. And then the second, and then the third.
"It was the brother," he told Lestrade, tossing the first file onto the sofa cushion next to him. "The girlfriend," he said, adding the second to the pile. He held up the third folder, waggled it in the air. "Not a murder at all. Accidental choking. Broken ribs were posthumous, a failed attempt at resuscitation. The witness was afraid of being wrongly accused—correctly, it seems—and fled the scene."
Lestrade muted the telly, looked up at him. "What? Really?"
Sherlock rolled his eyes, tossed the third folder on top of the pile. "Try harder next time."
Lestrade looked at him for a moment. Smiled, looked back at the telly.
Sherlock sat down in his chair, bored again. He checked his watch. It was five-thirty. John had said six 'til ten, and John would know immediately if Sherlock had got into the cocaine. And Sherlock did not have to be a genius to know that, if that happened, John would not come back again.
He fidgeted in his chair. Stood up. Walked to the sofa.
Lestrade looked up at him. "What are you doing?"
Sherlock ignored him, moved the files to the coffee table. Sat down and pulled his knees under his chin. Stared at the telly.
"Hm," Lestrade said, and then blessedly fell silent.
At exactly six o'clock, the front door opened.
Sherlock stood up, smoothed his hands down his dressing gown. Hesitated for a moment, and then crossed the room to his chair. Sat down again. He was aware of Lestrade's eyes on him and refused to acknowledge him.
Footsteps on the stairs.
Sherlock sat forward, frowning, because they were all wrong. Instead of John's steady stride, these were lighter, quicker. Almost like—
Molly pushed through the doorway into the sitting room, her face pale and pinched with sorrow, and Sherlock knew without her needing to say a word.
"Oh," Lestrade said, standing up, scratching at the back of his head. "Hi. Wasn't—?"
Sherlock tuned him out. Stood up. Brushed past Molly and went through the kitchen, down the hall into his bedroom. Shut the door.
His room was quiet. Clean, uncluttered. He stood for a moment with his back to the door, staring at nothing. He felt quite calm.
That was it, then.
He and John had traversed separate hells, had come out the other side with a gap too far between them to be bridged. All of the years they'd known each other, all of the things they'd done to each other, all of the things they'd done for each other, all culminating in one painfully polite afternoon and a shared pot of tea.
John would not be back.
The truth of it was written in Molly's briefly glimpsed face, twisted and apologetic. And it had, Sherlock supposed, been written in John's face as well the day before, uncomfortable and grim.
I'm six 'til ten, John had said in that flat voice, and he'd not been lying at the time—Sherlock was quite sure of that. He'd intended to follow through on his promise. Not lying, no, but certainly unenthusiastic. It hadn't been hanging out, after all, it had been working a shift. An obligation. He'd been dreading it. He'd been dreading it and so he'd changed his mind.
And he'd sent Molly in his stead.
Save John Watson, Mary had begged, and Sherlock had, in the only way he knew how.
He now found himself forced to admit that saving John Watson was not the same thing as keeping him.
He cursed his own weakness, his own helpless affection. John had seen Mary's message, after all, had heard her say the man we both love, had seen the pathetic wretched truth of it written on Sherlock's face.
And still John had left.
Don't go, he'd wanted to say, but instead he'd looked up at John standing stiff-backed and uncomfortable in the doorway, had choked the unwelcome words down. John had not wanted to stay. John no longer believed him responsible for Mary's death, but that did not mean that John wanted anything more to do with him.
Their friendship had died on the floor of the London Aquarium. Sherlock had been the only one foolish enough to hope it could be revived.
He tugged open his pants drawer, felt around for the false bottom and popped it loose.
Is this what you've been reduced to? Mycroft's voice drawled from somewhere in his mind palace, bored and utterly unimpressed. Throwing away your hard-won sobriety because someone's hurt your feelings? Dreadfully cliché, don't you think?
"It's only been a week, I'm hardly sober," Sherlock said out loud. He felt around in the compartment, cupped the little baggie in his palm.
It was the wrong texture.
He knew it as soon as he touched it, but he withdrew his hand from his drawer anyway, peered down at it to get a better look.
Sugar. Someone had replaced the contents of his stash with sugar.
Mrs Hudson, of course. It couldn't have been anyone else. Mycroft would have simply taken it. Lestrade would have had him arrested, for his own good, before making the charges disappear. And John would have—John would have attempted to talk to him about it.
She was the only one who'd have dared to be cheeky.
It was a bit distressing that she'd managed to do so without him noticing. He really had been slipping.
He threw the baggie at the wall. It landed with a halfhearted thud, slid to the ground without even giving him the satisfaction of splitting open. He wanted quite badly to be angry, but did not have the energy.
He could go out the window, he knew. Could find someone to sell to him. Wiggins was likely being monitored, but Wiggins was hardly the only dealer in London.
The thought did not hold any real appeal. He was tired. His limbs ached. His heart ached.
I'm six 'til ten, John had said.
And now it was past six, and Molly Hooper was the one in his sitting room. She'd pulled her hair back in a messy ponytail. He had not paid her any mind at all as he'd brushed past, not consciously, but some part of him had noted and catalogued it regardless. She normally took more care with her hair. She'd rushed to make it on time. She hadn't been expecting it, then. John had given her no warning.
Sherlock hadn't been expecting it, either. Foolish. He'd even been given a warning, but he'd ignored the signs.
He wondered if Lestrade had left yet, or if he was still out there, sharing tense concerned words with Molly. Any moment now, one of them would feel the need to check on him—
"Sherlock?" Molly’s voice, a tentative tapping on his door.
Ah. Right on time.
He sat down on his bed, put his head in his hands. Did not answer. He could seek out all the drugs he wanted, but there would be no escape from this.
The doorknob turned. He lifted his head. He could banish her with a shout, he knew. She'd leave him be if he carried on enough.
The door eased open. Molly in the hallway, Lestrade behind her. Two for one. Delightful. He must have looked worse than he'd thought.
"I’m sorry," Molly said. Her voice was grave, as if someone had died. She looked as if she wanted to cry.
He supposed he could deduce the entirety of her conversation with John if he tried. And if he asked, she'd tell him. Though he had been rather badly stung the last time she'd passed along a message.
"Oi—" Lestrade said. He'd spotted the baggie on the floor.
"Oh, use your eyes," Sherlock snapped, because anger was easier. He did not need to dig very far to find it. "It's sugar. Clearly Mrs Hudson's been in my pants drawer."
Molly and Lestrade exchanged glances.
"Sugar?" Lestrade stooped to retrieve the baggie, frowned doubtfully at it. Put it in his pocket.
Sherlock studied him. He'd clearly changed his plans in order to remain at Baker Street for the remainder of the evening. He'd done so quickly, quietly, and without much complaint. Not work—he'd not have begged off a shift no matter how guilty or obligated he felt. A social engagement then. And not one he was particularly attached to.
I'm six 'til ten, John had said.
Sherlock shut his eyes, attempted to banish John from his head. "Did you tell her you weren't keen when you cancelled? Otherwise you'll get her hopes up and she'll just keep trying to reschedule."
Lestrade made a garbled sound.
"Second date. Obvious. The first didn't exactly light your fire, but as it clearly wasn't an absolute disaster you felt obliged to try again. Not that obliged, though, since you jumped at the first chance to call it off."
"You know, even after all this time, that's—"
"Yes, I know. Astonishing. Impressive. Amazing. Unbelievable."
"Bloody annoying, actually," Lestrade said.
Sherlock opened his eyes. His mouth attempted to form a smile without permission.
"Do you want—?" Molly started.
"You can hardly drag me out for cake every time you want to distract me," Sherlock said. He tried to sound bored, but feared the end result was rather brittle. He looked away.
"I could try," Molly offered. She sniffed, a miserable little sound that might have started as a laugh.
Sherlock smiled at her, because she was kind, and if he'd learned nothing else it was that kindness should not be met with derision. And he shook his head, because what she wanted for him was impossible.
"That's a fool's errand," he said.
Lestrade shifted where he stood, his hand pressed against his pocket as if the little bag of sugar might leap out. He looked uncomfortable and unhappy. And half-bewildered, but that was his default state and, as such, not particularly remarkable.
"Well, I—" Lestrade said. He hesitated, looked at Molly, then at Sherlock, seemed to rally. "I already cancelled my date. So there's no need for me to rush off."
"Oh," Molly said, her face lighting up. She nodded, a bit too enthusiastic, a bit too earnest. "Good, then. That's—that's good."
"I'll call for takeaway, yeah?" Lestrade said. He patted his pocket, frowned. "And—er—I'll just flush this."
"Just put it in the sugar bowl," Sherlock said.
"Just in case."
"In case it spontaneously turns into cocaine? That would be a good trick."
Lestrade sighed, put his hands up. Went out of the room muttering to himself, but there did not seem to be any real heat to it.
Molly did not leave.
Sherlock looked at her. There was a determined twist to her mouth.
"I told John—" she started.
"I don't think it much matters what you told him," Sherlock said, not unkindly. "Do you?"
She looked down at the ground. "We're not—this isn't an obligation. We're not here because—because we're supposed to be, or because it's the right thing to do."
He stared steadily back at her, not speaking, not acknowledging the way his gut had twisted at the word obligation.
"We're here because we care. About you. And we'll be here as long as you need. You do—you do know that, right?"
He blinked. Blinked again. His face felt hot, his skin uncomfortably flushed. He swallowed. "If you use dishes, be sure to do the washing up. Mrs Hudson has been on the warpath."
Molly shut her eyes. "Sherlock—"
"Good night, Molly," he said, and steered her towards the door. He shut it behind her. Stood listening as she hesitated and eventually made her way down the hall.
He went back to his bed, flopped down on his back.
There was a room in his mind palace where John lived, a John who was both quick-tempered and quick-witted, who offered praise when warranted and guidance when necessary. Sherlock went there, now, trailed his hand along the wall as he moved through the familiar corridors.
The door was locked.
There was a shop sign hanging from the door, swaying gently against the wood. CLOSED, it proclaimed in bold white letters against a red background. Beneath it, in smaller print, it read: HOURS 6:00 - 10:00.
He touched the sign, ran his fingertips along the print. The neatly lettered hours flaked away, crumbling and drifting towards the ground, leaving nothing in their wake but an expanse of smooth red.
CLOSED, the sign now read. It seemed a more permanent proclamation. The door remained locked.
He blinked back to awareness, looked up at the ceiling of his bedroom. His eyes stung.
Outside, in the sitting room, he could make out the low murmur of voices, the quiet drone of the telly. Lestrade and Molly, settling in for the evening.
He looked at the window. He could leave, he knew. Could slip out and vanish into the underbelly of the city without either of them realising until it was too late.
He was tired. It all seemed like far too much effort.
He turned away. Listened to the muffled telly, the familiar voices. Closed his eyes.
Culverton Smith was on the telly.
John had the volume muted, but could not bring himself to look away from that smug, leering face. The news stations played an endless cycle of clips—Smith at charity dinners, Smith cutting the ribbon at the grand opening of his hospital wing, Smith smiling for the camera, Smith at bloody Wimbledon.
And Sherlock, of course. There was no escaping Sherlock. Not after this.
He was the hero of the hour, so the media had chosen flattering photographs. There was only one short clip of him looking . . . unwell. And even then, the angle and editing managed to make him look less like an out-of-control junkie and more like some kind of unshaven avenging angel striding into St Caedwalla's Hospital to slay a dragon, John at his heels.
Except—not always. Not really. Not anymore.
Outside, the sky had darkened. The clock ticked past five o'clock.
"John," Mary said.
He ignored her. Poured himself a drink.
Rosie was with the sitter. He'd made arrangements for her so that he could take his turn at Baker Street, relieving Molly or Greg or whoever had taken the shift before him. He was due there by six.
Babysitting Sherlock. Keeping an eye on Sherlock, as if any such thing could possibly matter, as if he couldn't run circles around all of them if he wanted to.
So what it really amounted to was simply keeping Sherlock company. Hanging out, as Sherlock himself had said.
The last shift had been unbearable. Sitting awkwardly in his chair and sipping tea and making stilted conversation, all the while trying not to look too closely at Sherlock's mangled face.
Sherlock had been hunched and wounded, unshaven and miserable. An injured animal curled in on itself. Cautious. Diminished. He'd been polite, for God's sake. He'd looked at John with a searching, pleading expression, and John had no idea what it was that he wanted, what on earth he thought John could possibly give him.
It hurt, looking at Sherlock. It made John feel like his own skin had been stretched too tightly over his frame, tugged over his bones and stapled crudely in place. Like whatever was roaring in his chest was too big to contain, like one twist in the wrong direction might split him open, spilling his wretched core out onto the ground for all to see.
He had already seen what was inside of him, had got a good close look at it, and it was ugly. It was ugly, and what was worse, it had felt good to let it out.
He did not want to see it again. He did not want to feel it again.
There had been a time, years ago, where he'd thought Sherlock brought out the best in him.
Now, Sherlock did not even have to speak, the very sight of him was enough. It made John want to scream. It made him want to throw things, to kick, to shatter, to tear apart. To hurt.
And at the same time, he wanted to fall to his knees in front of his friend and beg forgiveness, wanted to wipe away the whole of the last terrible year, wanted Sherlock close, wanted his inappropriate comments and sly little jokes, his cleverness and audacity and entirely misplaced devotion.
He could not go on like this.
"John," Mary said again. "What are you doing?"
He finished his drink, chanced a glance in her direction. She was wearing the grey t-shirt she'd died in.
He looked away from her, picked up his phone. Dialed.
"John?" Molly's voice. She'd picked up midway through the first ring. "Is everything—?"
"Look, something’s come up," he said, cutting her off. "I'm not going to be able to make it tonight. Sorry. For the short notice. I hope it's not too inconvenient."
"It's five-thirty," Molly said. She sounded startled. She should not be startled, he thought. She should have seen this coming. "You're supposed to be there at six to—"
"Yes, well, I'm not. Someone else will have to do it." He looked at his empty glass.
"John," she said. She'd gone from startled to pleading. "You can't do this. He's been—he's been waiting for you. He needs you."
"Ha," John said. "He doesn't need anyone but himself."
He clenched his hand around the phone. Walked back into the kitchen and poured himself another drink. Set the bottle down on the counter with more force than necessary.
"You don't mean that."
"What's he ever done for us?" John asked, bracing his hands on the counter, the phone tucked against his ear. "He does what he wants, damn the consequences. And he just expects the people around him to pick up the pieces. He—he—" he did not know what he wanted to say. His throat burned.
Go to hell.
He could hear Molly breathing, short sharp shocked little huffs.
"I have my own child to consider, now. I can't take on another. Sorry," he said.
"How can you even say that? How can you—after what he did for you?"
"What, exactly, did he do for me, Molly? Dive headfirst into a pile of drugs? Somehow I don't think that was much of a sacrifice."
Go to hell.
Save John Watson.
He hung up without waiting to hear what she had to say. Set his phone face down on the counter. Picked up his drink.
He did not sleep well.
When he closed his eyes he was back in the morgue at St Caedwalla's. Sherlock was on the slab, slack-faced and grey-skinned. His eyes were closed.
Doesn't he look peaceful? Culverton Smith asked. Lucky boy. Not everyone gets the chance to stay in my favourite room.
John looked away, dizzy and sick. There was a small puddle of congealing blood on the tile floor by the wall of drawers. He stared at it.
It had come from Sherlock, he knew. Sherlock's nose. His mouth. The split skin over his eye. It had run down and pooled there on the ground while John went on kicking him.
I told housekeeping to leave it, Smith said, following John's gaze, pointing a gloved hand at the blood. I like the way it looks.
John sat up, breathing hard, his skin cold and clammy.
Mary was at the foot of his bed, watching him.
"You've had too much to drink," she said. "It's interfering with your sleep."
"I know that," he said. "Doctor, remember?"
She looked at him for a long time. Her face was expressionless in the darkness. "You owe Molly Hooper an apology."
He passed a shaking hand over his face.
He did not have it in him to argue. He would, after all, only be arguing with himself. "I know," he said.
He breathed out hard, through his teeth. Said nothing.
"He didn't want you to leave," Mary said. "It was written all over his face. He wanted you to stay."
John had not wanted to stay. What he had wanted was to escape the choking atmosphere in the flat, to get away from Sherlock and his bruised face and his hurt eyes.
"Why should he always get what he wants?" John asked. He supposed he would be arguing after all.
"You could have talked," Mary pressed.
John shook his head. "Shut up," he told her. "I've done enough talking."
"And using Rosie as an excuse?" Mary's voice went hard. "That was low. Where is Rosie now, John?"
Something flared in him, something that might have been alarm. It was dulled, suffocated by drink and exhaustion and the ever-present hum of anger.
"Shut up," he said again. His voice was hoarse, his mouth dry. He closed his eyes, swallowed painfully. He felt as though he had been dropped from a great height. "You're not my first ghost."
There were four missed calls from Rosie's sitter when John picked up his phone in the morning. He swallowed hard, dread pooling in his stomach.
The morning sunlight filtering in through the windows hurt his eyes. He closed the blinds.
The house was quiet around him. The door to the empty nursery yawned open, accusatory.
He dialed in to his voicemail. The messages started off concerned, progressed to annoyed.
He got dressed without meeting his own gaze in the mirror. Went to pick up his daughter.
"I'm sorry," he said, when the sitter opened the door. "I know I was meant to pick her up last night. There was a medical emergency at the clinic—"
He knew his unshaven face and red eyes branded him a liar. It would not take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the only emergency he'd tended was at the bottom of a bottle.
"We won't be able to continue this arrangement, Dr Watson," she told him. "You'll need to find someone else."
Rosie cooed and babbled at him, unaware that anything was amiss.
"I've got work today," he said.
"Not my problem," she said.
He went home.
Mary was waiting for him in the kitchen, arms folded.
He ducked his head away from her accusing stare. Prepared a bottle of formula for Rosie, who permitted his attention for a moment before snatching the bottle away and cradling it in uncoordinated hands. She grinned triumphantly at him.
"Stubborn," he told her. He wanted to smile, but he was too tired.
His stomach rumbled. He strapped Rosie into her highchair, watched her as she lifted the bottle and resumed drinking. When he was satisfied that she was not going to drop it, he turned away.
He made himself toast and ate it dry, standing over the sink. Anything more felt like too much effort.
"John," Mary said.
"I don't need to hear it."
"Apparently you do."
"I fucked up," he said, pushing away from the counter. He went to the kitchen table, sat down. He'd sat at this very spot in the kitchen when he'd made the decision to text the pretty stranger on the bus. When he'd decided to cheat on his wife. "I forgot about Rosie. I'm failing her. I know."
"Then stop. Stop this."
He shook his head, pinched the bridge of his nose, turned to look at Rosie.
She dropped her half-empty bottle onto the tray of her highchair. It rolled and then stopped before reaching the edge, trailing a thin dribble of milk. She squealed, reached for it, pulled it back towards her mouth. Gummed at the nipple.
"I don't know how anyone is meant to do this alone," he said.
"You're not alone."
He glanced sharply at Mary, but she shook her head.
"Not me, John. I'm dead. Please try to remember that."
"Believe me, I remember," he said.
"You've got work," she said. "And your appointment. You need to keep your appointment. It's important."
"There's no one to watch Rosie," he said.
"You're not alone," Mary said again.
He took his phone out of his pocket, looked at it. The minutes ticked by in silence.
When he looked back up, Mary was gone.
Rosie dropped the bottle again. This time it rolled off the edge of the tray and clattered to the floor. She strained to reach it, tugging against the straps that held her in place. She began to cry.
John watched the bottle roll across the floor, did not bend to pick it up. His head throbbed. He needed coffee. And a shower. And—Rosie. He needed to do something about Rosie.
He looked at his phone again. The taste of bile was bitter in the back of his throat as he dialed.
Molly was prompt.
She stood at the door in a thick winter coat, a woolen cap pulled over her ears. She did not smile.
"Sorry," he told her. "I'm sorry. I know—I know being stuck with babysitting duty twice in a row wasn't what you—"
"It's not babysitting," Molly said, pressing her lips together so hard they turned white. "I mean. This is babysitting. But yesterday wasn't— not with—not with Sherlock. He's my friend."
She took a deep breath, stepped past him into the house. Began unbuttoning her coat with some force.
"He's my friend, and he's going through a bad time," she said, not looking at him. "It's not babysitting. It's support. I'm—we're—supposed to be there for him. Like I was for you. After."
John winced, reached out an automatic hand to take her coat.
"That wasn't babysitting either," she said.
Of course it was, he thought, but didn't say. She'd spent more time at his house than her own in the days immediately following Mary's death. She'd tended to Rosie, she'd wordlessly cleared away messes, she'd done laundry, she'd arranged meals. He'd done absolutely nothing to help, had wandered around numb and bewildered and furious. Insubstantial. A ghost in his own home.
"Thank you," he said cautiously. "I—I don't know that I've properly expressed—"
"You don't need to thank me," she said. "That's not—I didn't do it for thanks. I did it because. Because that's what friends do. And I'm Rosie's godmother, and I love her, and she needs—" Molly paused, bit her lip. "I mean, she needed someone to—"
She did not seem to know how to finish what she was trying to say.
"Thank you," John said again, and the words felt wrong, all wrong. "Thank you for being here for me, I—"
"I'm here for Rosie," she said, finally lifting her gaze to meet his. There was steel in her voice. "Not for you."
"You were in the news recently," his therapist said, watching him carefully from her chair. "You and Sherlock Holmes."
John sniffed, frowned. There was a faint odour of rot in the air, sickly sweet. Like she'd failed to empty the rubbish bin.
"I'm—not—is it all right if we don't talk about that?" he said. He looked down at the rug, all vivid reds and uneven edges. It reminded him, uncomfortably, of the pool of blood in his dream. Sherlock's blood.
He thought of Culverton Smith and his favourite room. Sherlock, gasping and choking in his hospital bed.
She tilted her head, looked at him. "You are free to speak about anything you choose."
"Good," he said, pressing his palms against the tops of his thighs. "Yeah."
"Is there a particular reason you are avoiding the subject of your friend?"
He thought of Sherlock as he'd last seen him, sitting in his chair with the late afternoon sunlight slanting through the windows. Thought of his bloodied eye, the ugly black stitches marring the fair skin above his brow. Thought of the expression on his face as John had moved towards the door, pained and confused and achingly hopeful all at once.
Go to hell.
"You know what?" He stood up. Reached for his coat. "I don't think—I think I need to take a break. From this. From all of this."
She started to speak. He ignored her, struggled into his coat as he hurried down the hallway towards the front door.
"Wait," she said.
"Sorry," he said without looking back. "I'll call. For another appointment. Some other time."
He let the door fall shut behind him. She did not follow.
He went back to work, spent the rest of the afternoon seeing patients who did not seem to mind his distracted demeanor. Or, if they minded, they did so quietly and without complaint. He found he did not much care which.
The nurse on staff was young and brunette and nothing at all like Mary.
That was fine. Mary stood just behind her, her back against the wall, her arms folded across her chest.
"I'm not really here, John. I'm dead," Mary reminded him.
He ignored her. He had not yet slipped and spoken to her in public, and he would not do so today. The majority of the staff already tiptoed around him. He did not need to give them any more ammunition.
"Dr Watson?" the nurse—he'd not bothered to learn her name—held out a chart towards him. He took it.
"You left your appointment," Mary said. "I don't think that was a very good idea."
"You can send the next patient in," John said.
The nurse nodded, ducked out through the door. She was timid, John thought. Mary had been a lot of things, but she'd never been timid.
"Her name is April," Mary said. "And she's not timid, she's just nervous around you because you shouted at her last week."
Ah, that was it. April. He remembered now.
"You can't do things like that. And you shouldn't have left your appointment. You need to talk to someone, John, it's important."
For a brief, terrible moment he thought of Sherlock. He wondered what Sherlock would say if he sat down across from him and announced that he was occasionally conversing with his dead wife.
"You aren't, really," Mary said. "I'm in your head, John."
"I know," he said.
"You need to—"
"Talk to someone," he said. He smiled tightly. "Mm. You've said, yeah."
He'd talked plenty, he thought. He'd talked to Sherlock for months after he'd—
After. He'd talked to Sherlock for months, after. He'd never felt the need to share that fact with Ella, and Sherlock had not encouraged him to do so. In time, he'd just . . . faded away. That was what they did, the dead. They faded away.
Well. Sherlock hadn't, not really. He'd come back. Except he'd really come back, and so that didn't count.
April was in the doorway, the patient behind her. She was frowning at him, turning to follow his gaze to the empty space against the wall where Mary stood.
"Yeah," John said. He offered a bland smile. They seemed to find the bland smiles reassuring. Less so when he showed too many teeth. "Come on in."
April hung back, still looking at the wall. "Something wrong?"
"No," he said. "Of course not."
He was finished with patients by five-thirty.
He stripped off his latex gloves and binned them. Washed his hands. Listened to the indistinct chatter of his coworkers down the hall.
Thought about Molly, waiting back at his house with Rosie.
He swallowed, hard.
He'd have to find a new sitter. It would be a bit of a struggle getting Rosie acclimated—she tended to be wary around strangers. And he'd have to find someone flexible, someone who understood the occasionally unpredictable nature of his work schedule.
His thoughts unspooled, stretching ahead. He saw himself researching sitters, interviewing, finding something suitable. Dropping Rosie off on his way to work, picking her up on his way home. Tedious, meaningless days at the surgery. Sleepless nights in his house, Mary watching him wordlessly from the shadows.
All at once it was too much.
He sagged, pressed his hands against the edge of the sink to catch his weight. He was tired. He was so very tired.
Go to hell.
"I'm sorry," he said out loud, his voice cracking. He pressed a trembling hand against his mouth. "Oh, fuck. I've gone and cocked it all up."
"John," Mary said, voice low. She was standing very close, her hand on his shoulder. If he thought about it hard enough, he could almost feel it. "You haven't—you can still fix this. You can—"
A soft noise behind him, the shift of fabric.
John turned off the tap, took a moment to dry his hands. Turned around.
Dr Reddy, one of the partners, stood in the doorway. She smiled at him, though it was a tight smile, pinched with concern.
"All right, Dr Watson?" she asked.
"Fine, yeah," he said. He cleared his throat.
"Good," she said. "Just wanted to let you know, we'll be having a cleaning crew come by on Tuesday to—"
"Actually," John said. He frowned, looked down at the ground.
Dr Reddy stopped talking. She folded her hands in front of her, studied him. The gesture reminded him, sharply and uncomfortably, of Sherlock.
"I think—yeah," John said. He nodded, mind made up. "I can't do this anymore."
"I quit," he said.
He wanted to walk, wanted to tug his coat closed and move until his muscles burned, until his cheeks were red and stinging from the icy January air. Until his thoughts were no longer so jagged and painful, until Mary no longer kept pace at his side.
Instead, he went home.
Molly was on the sofa, Rosie on her knee, a book open across her lap. She looked up as John came in.
"Oh," she said. She sounded surprised. He did not have it in him to wonder at her assumptions.
Rosie flailed at the sight of him, her face crinkling up into a gummy smile.
"Hi," he said. He took off his coat, bent to pick her up. She fussed at the touch of his cold hands, but nestled her head into the crook of his neck.
Molly stood up, set the book on the coffee table.
"She just had a bottle," Molly said.
"Thanks," John said.
She looked at him, then dropped her gaze. "I'll just—"
"Molly," John said.
She stopped. Waited.
"I'm sorry," he said. He cleared his throat, shifted Rosie in his arms. "For—um. For this. For all of it, really."
Molly pressed her lips together. Nodded.
"I've left my job," he said. "Wasn't planning on it. But. I think—I think I need to make some changes."
"Okay," she said.
"Be good to leave London, I think," he said, and he found it was not as difficult to say those words as he'd thought it might be. "Change of scenery for Rosie. Maybe we can—it's just—too many ghosts here, yeah?"
"Leave London," Molly echoed. Her mouth tightened. She shook her head. "I—"
"Thank you," John said. "For everything you've done. I know you don't want to—I know that's not what you want to hear from me. But it's—it's the best I can do, right now. So."
"John," she said. She'd softened, slightly. Her eyes were damp. "Listen to me. Don't—"
"Tell him I'm sorry, yeah?" John closed his eyes, pinched his nose. Breathed. Thought about Sherlock's face, bruised and open and searching. "If you could just—"
"Tell him yourself," Molly said, and her voice had hardened again.
He opened his eyes. There were tears on her cheeks. She stood, shoulders squared, stubbornly not wiping them away.
"No more messages," Molly said. "I won't do that again. I won't."
He nodded, looked down. In his arms, Rosie wriggled and strained, oblivious to his distress.
Go to hell.
"Yeah," he said. "All right. I—yeah."
They regarded each other for a long moment.
"Well," Molly said, when the silence had grown thick between them. She looked at the door. "Um."
"Good night," he said.
She paused to kiss Rosie on the cheek as she passed. He watched as she put on her coat, her hat, her gloves.
She closed the door softly behind her. Somehow, that was worse than a slam.
In the morning, he called a realtor and put his house on the market.
Rosie screamed in her nursery while he sipped a drink and boxed up Mary's things. He carefully folded her dresses, her shirts.
This was the shirt she wore on the first day they'd met, he noted absently, the warm soft fabric slipping through his fingers. And this is the one she wore the day she put a hole in Sherlock's chest. There's the red turtleneck she favoured at Christmas time.
Down the hall, Rosie wailed and wailed and wailed.
When he'd finished, he went into the kitchen. Poured the remainder of his glass into the sink, watched the amber liquid circle down the drain.
Mary leaned against the counter, said nothing. He felt her eyes on him.
He went into the nursery, scooped Rosie up into his arms. She was flushed hot from screaming, and he bounced her on his hip until she calmed.
"We can't stay here," he told her. "I can't stay here."
She snuffled against his neck, whimpered a little. He had no illusions that she understood his words, but she seemed to settle more, relaxing into his arms.
He loved London. He always had. He did not know if it would help, leaving.
He thought about Baker Street. He'd felt like an interloper the last time, perched uncomfortably in his chair, muscles tensed, ready for fight or flight. Sherlock across from him, subdued and miserable and wanting.
"Talk to him," Mary said.
John glanced up. She had followed him into the nursery, stood leaning against the doorframe.
"Tell him what you're planning," she said. "Tell him you're selling the house. Tell him you're—"
"Why?" John asked. He smiled, a painful thing, with too many teeth. "Think he might offer me a flatshare? I think that ship has sailed, yeah?"
He needs you, Molly had said.
But that, he thought, couldn't be farther from the truth.
A cacophony in the kitchen brought Sherlock out of his bedroom.
Mrs Hudson stood at the counter, fussing noisily with two teacups. She turned as Sherlock came into the room.
"Oh, Sherlock, glad you're up," she said, sweetly, as if she hadn't just been crashing about in the kitchen with the specific intent of driving him from his bed. "Would you mind—"
He tuned her out, glanced into the sitting room. It was golden with morning sun. Molly and Lestrade had gone.
"I'm fairly sure I would," he said, distracted.
"Mind," he said.
Mrs Hudson made a huffing sound that was either a sign of genuine amusement or deep irritation. He often found it difficult to distinguish between the two.
He went into the sitting room, perched at the edge of his chair. His chest felt curiously hollow.
Across from him, John's chair stood empty, caught in a shaft of shifting sunlight. The fabric was comfortably faded and worn in all the places John had touched.
"Mrs Hudson," Sherlock said. He swallowed, unable to tear his gaze away from the chair. "Fetch me my revolver."
"That was confiscated, dear," she said.
He exhaled in disgust, turned his attention to the mantel, to the knife driven into the much-abused wood. Thought about getting up and fetching it. Thought about stabbing it into the aged, sun-worn fabric of John's chair. Thought about ripping, thought about tearing, sawing the blade through the heavy upholstery, letting the stuffing spill out. Thought about driving his foot through the seat until the springs snapped free to lurk sharp and dangerous amidst the tattered remains.
The fantasy was at once alluring and unsettling.
It was, he thought, what John had done to him. Sliced and sawed through his armor, turned him inside out, left him unzipped and exposed, raw and ruined. The pitiable, pathetic soft core of him spilled out for all the world to see.
It wasn't John's fault, not really. It was his own. He'd seen his own disaster bearing down and had welcomed it, had not bothered to step out of the way.
And now John was gone. Really gone, this time. Not coming back. No more cases, no more takeaway and crap telly, no more hanging out. Gone.
He looked away from the knife and nestled back in his own chair, drew his knees up under his chin.
Mrs Hudson came into the room with two cups of tea. She handed him one and sat down in John's chair without any hesitation.
Sherlock let his feet drop back to the floor.
It was all right, he thought, looking at her against the faded red fabric. She often sat there. She'd never treated it with any particular reverence.
Thinking of it as John's chair was just sentimental drivel, anyway. It wasn't John's chair. It was just a chair. Just a chair that John used to sit in. That was all.
It was good to see it occupied.
He lifted his cup, sniffed at the tea. She'd not made it to his liking.
"I'm afraid I've completely run out of sugar," she said, eyeing him over the rim of her cup.
He looked at her. There were dark circles under her eyes. She had not slept well.
"Sorry," he said, finally. He took a too-bitter mouthful. Swallowed. "I don't have any to spare."
He thought of the baggie, the one she'd carefully concealed in his pants drawer, the one he'd cupped in a trembling and desperate hand.
She was very good at appearing both doddering and unthreatening, when really she was neither.
"No," he said. "I don't think I'll be needing any sugar. Not anymore."
He almost meant it.
John took Rosie to look at a two-bedroom flat in Chelmsford.
It was a bit cramped, he thought, but it would do. The walls were white and smelled of fresh paint. There was not a scrap of wallpaper in sight.
"You're running away," Mary said.
"Like you did?" He smiled without any warmth, turned away from her.
"It's small," the realtor said. Her smile was pinched, a bit apologetic, perhaps in response to the look on his face. "But it's in your price range. There's good light in the bedrooms, and—"
"Yeah," John said. "Yeah, all right. I'll take it."
She faltered, looked down at her clipboard. He'd surprised her. "Er—are you sure you didn't want to discuss some other options first?"
"I'll need to sign something, yeah? Can we do that now?"
"Don't you at least want to see the—" she stopped, looked at him. "No, all right. How about we sit down in the kitchen. I have a copy of the lease right here."
They sat in cheap folding chairs that had been set up against the wall in the tiny kitchen. The realtor took a folder out of her briefcase and set it on the table.
Rosie squirmed in her stroller, made a discontented noise. John bent to unbuckle her, lifted her into his lap. She wriggled, reached a straining hand towards the papers on the table.
"No, no," he said. "Don't do that."
She grunted, reached for the papers again. He shifted her on his lap so she was facing in a different direction.
"How old?" the realtor asked.
"Eight months," he said. Rosie reached up and pinched his nose.
"Ah," she said, and smiled. "My nephew's two. You should enjoy the calm while it lasts."
"Calm?" he looked at her, a little incredulous.
She raised her brows. "At this age, she pretty much stays where you put her, yeah?"
"More or less," he agreed. She was not crawling yet, though she seemed close to putting it all together.
"Well, once she gets her legs under her, it's all over."
"Ah," he said. He looked down at Rosie in his lap. His mouth had gone dry. "I—um. Haven't been thinking that far ahead, really. Been focused on the day-to-day."
"Living in the moment," the realtor said, smiling again. "That's sweet."
More like surviving the moment, he thought but did not say. Instead he shifted Rosie on his lap again, cleared his throat. "All set with the paperwork?"
Sherlock was halfway through his third cigarette of the morning when he heard Mycroft's unmistakable tread on the stairs.
His hand twitched, and he cursed the hesitation as he brought the cigarette to his lips. He did not lift his head from the sofa.
"Really, Sherlock, hasn't this convalescence dragged on long enough?"
Sherlock said nothing. He took another pull on the cigarette.
An icy February rain beat relentlessly against the windows. The weather meant Mycroft would have had to use his ever-present umbrella. The thought was nearly enough to make Sherlock smile. Mycroft hated opening his umbrella.
On the other hand, Mycroft bothering to venture out in foul weather meant he considered his visit too important to put off. Which meant he was concerned, which meant he was about to either A) issue a lecture to Sherlock about proper behaviour, or B) attempt to recruit him into assisting the British government with some excruciatingly dull problem.
"I'm told I was at death's door," Sherlock said. He slowly exhaled a ribbon of smoke. "Surely I'm entitled to a recovery period."
"It's been more than a month," Mycroft said. "The stitches are out, the bruises have faded, and you've been issued a clean bill of health—" he paused, wrinkled his nose and waved his hand through the smoky air, "—somehow. Even your dedicated team of babysitters seem to have relaxed their vigil."
Sherlock sat up, stabbing his cigarette against the coffee table to put it out. "Why are you here?"
Mycroft favoured him with a thin smile. "Just checking in. Mummy is ever so worried."
"A phone call would have sufficed."
"You don't answer your phone."
Sherlock stood, stepped over the coffee table, went to the window. Behind him, he heard Mycroft sigh.
"Culverton Smith is dead," Mycroft said.
"Oh?" Sherlock kept his voice light. He stared out the window. The street below was blurred, indistinct.
"It appears a fellow prisoner knew one of the victims. He saw an opportunity for revenge and took it."
"Mm," Mycroft said.
"That's the story you're telling?"
"It's the most palatable option for the general public, yes. Appearances must be maintained, after all."
Sherlock turned around. Behind him, the rain went on droning against the window glass. "Well," he said. He clapped his hands together, gunshot loud. "That's that, then. Was there anything else?"
"One might wonder why I bothered with it all," Sherlock said. Something hot and angry burned at the back of his throat. He swallowed, hard. "The subterfuge, the investigation, the general unpleasantness of extracting his confession. Why, when I could have just asked you to have one of your pet assassins dispatch him for me? Suppose I'll keep the option open for the next serial killer I encounter. They have been getting tedious these days, much as it pains me to say. Everyone wants to be clever about it—and, let's face it, they very rarely are."
Sherlock hesitated, looked at him. He did not like what he saw in his brother's face.
"Well, you could hardly have come here expecting me to thank you," he said.
"I'm not in the habit of utilising pet assassins," Mycroft said. He tapped the tip of his umbrella against the floor. "Not anymore." He paused, his expression troubled. "This was personal."
Sherlock scoffed, looked away.
"I listened to the tape," Mycroft said.
"Why? The police report contained everything you could have possibly needed to know."
"Not everything." Mycroft's voice was soft, weary.
Sherlock went to his chair. Sat down with what he hoped was an air of nonchalance. Thought about Smith's hand against his face, the smothering odour of latex as his nose was pinched shut. "Wanted to hear me beg for my life again? Didn't get enough of that in Serbia?"
"I saved your life in Serbia."
Mycroft pressed his lips together, looked up at the ceiling, the very picture of irritated restraint. There was an amusing predictability to his responses when frustrated. Sherlock often enjoyed provoking the reaction. If pushed further, Mycroft would take a threatening step forward, his hand tight on the handle of his umbrella. He'd never once swung it at him, though undoubtedly he'd imagined doing so.
"Fine," Sherlock said, after a long silence had stretched. He let his head loll back against the headrest. "You listened to the tape. Satisfied your curiosity. Exacted your revenge. Blah, blah, blah."
Sherlock had also listened to the recording. Once, and only once.
He did not have any reason to want to relive the experience, to hear his own choked and frightened voice, the muffled sounds of his own near-murder. He did not want to revisit the moment where he'd lost faith, where he'd realised that he'd failed, that John was not coming for him.
Because John had come. In the end, he'd come.
That was all that mattered, wasn't it?
Just in to say goodbye, John had said to the nurse when he left his cane behind. Sherlock had not been conscious at the time, and the sound of John's voice—clipped and unhappy and slightly muffled on the tape—had surprised him.
It should not have surprised him. When he'd initially decided to go after Smith, he'd considered the variables very carefully. He'd planned for John. He'd planted the recorder in his cane.
Granted, he'd been quite high at the time.
Still, the entire miserable scenario had unfolded exactly as he'd expected it to, in the end. More or less.
Just in to say goodbye.
John had not said anything else on the tape. If he'd said any goodbyes, if he'd made any speeches, if he'd issued any parting words at all, he had done so silently.
And then there had been Smith, gleefully whispering in Sherlock's ear while he slowly cut off his air supply. And Sherlock had been confident, he had, he'd set it all up perfectly, and all John had to do was walk through the door.
Sherlock blinked away the memory. Mycroft was staring at him. There was something uncomfortably close to pity in his eyes.
Mycroft, he realised, would have heard all of it. He'd have noted the exact moment that Sherlock realised John was not coming for him, that John was not going to save him. He'd heard Sherlock's failure, there in the symphony of muffled grunts, in the huff of Smith's laughter, in the broken rasp of his last breaths.
It didn't matter.
His loss of faith had been premature. His confidence had wavered, that was all. John had come.
It was fine.
Well—it wasn't fine. But it was enough.
"I don't want to die," Mycroft said. He spoke slowly, drawing out the words, his gaze never once leaving Sherlock's face.
Sherlock swallowed, looked away. It was bad enough that all of Scotland Yard had heard the recording. They were idiots, the lot of them, even the ones he liked. They could easily be led to believe that his weakness, his desperation had all been an act.
But Mycroft would have known the truth from his first gasped breath. And his last.
"No need to relive the greatest hits," he said, keeping his tone mild, a little bored. "I assure you there's nothing wrong with my memory."
Mycroft sighed. It was a quiet, private sound. "I have failed you terribly."
"Ah, you admit it at last," Sherlock said breezily. Then he frowned, sat up straight. "What do you mean? What are you talking about?"
"Do you remember Redbeard?"
"Why are we talking about this?"
"No reason," Mycroft said. He smiled again, but it was a weak smile. For a moment it looked like he wanted to say more. Then he turned, went to the door.
Sherlock listened for his tread on the stairs, but it did not come.
After a moment, Mycroft reappeared in the doorway. He withdrew leather gloves from his coat pockets, pulled them on slowly. He did not make eye contact.
"Was it really worth all this, in the end?" he asked.
"Was what worth it?" Sherlock frowned.
Sherlock swallowed. Across from him, John's chair sat empty.
Silence stretched between them.
"Take care, brother," Mycroft said. He turned, went back through the door. The stairs creaked as he descended.
"You've recently relocated."
The therapist's name was Edward, and he was young—perhaps mid-thirties. Male. John had chosen him deliberately.
You can't predict everything, Sherlock, he'd thought at the time.
The room was comfortable, if a bit impersonal. The wall colour was a muted beige, the furniture in varied shades of dark brown. There was a landscape painting hung up over Edward's desk. The work was at once competent and entirely uninspiring.
Mary leaned against the desk, her arms folded.
"Are you going to tell this one about me?" she asked.
"Yes," John said, and he folded his hands in his lap and tried to look like a reasonable person. He carefully ignored Mary, focused on the man sitting across from him. "From London. Just last month."
"What drew you here? Family? Work?" Edward prompted.
John pursed his lips, considered.
He thought about Sherlock, about dark stitches and bruised skin and searching eyes, about blood on the floor of Culverton Smith's favourite room. Thought about Mary, gasping her last breaths on the ground. She had died jetlagged and tired. She had died believing him to be a good person.
He shied away, thought instead about the house he'd left behind in London. Thought about his new flat (too small, too dark, too bland). It was less expensive, living in Chelmsford. His army pension covered the rent. The sale of the house left him with a comfortable balance in his bank account.
He'd need to seek employment eventually, if only to keep from going mad with boredom, but he could find something part-time or even return to locum work. That had worked out well, back when he'd still lived with Sherlock. And living with an infant was not so different, really, when it came down to it.
Sherlock's eye, red and bloodied. The look on his face. I thought we were just hanging out.
Sherlock was the genius, and yet sometimes he looked at John as if John were the one with all the answers. He did not know what to do with that.
Go to hell.
Mary had believed him to be a good person. Mary had sent Sherlock down a path believing that John would act a certain way, and instead he'd—he'd—
Sherlock, on the floor in the morgue. Not fighting back. Sherlock, frail and helpless in a hospital bed, Smith looming over him. Killing him.
It shouldn't matter. Sherlock was alive. Smith was dead, some kind of prison accident. It had been in all the papers. The news had stopped John cold when he'd first heard it.
I might even move him to my favourite room.
John had almost reached out, had almost sent a text. He'd had his phone in his hand, had Sherlock's name pulled up in his contacts before he'd even thought about it.
And then he'd stopped, because what was there to say? He hadn't known what to say that last day at Baker Street, and he didn't know what to say now. There had been things, he knew. Things he'd wanted to say. Things he'd assumed he'd get to, eventually. But he'd put it off. And a day had turned into a week which turned into a month which turned into two. He'd left London behind. He'd left Sherlock behind. There was no place left for him in that world.
No reason to reach out, now. His text would most likely sit unread and unanswered, and it would be exactly what he deserved.
Go to hell.
"A clean slate," John said, finally, aware that far too much time had passed. He rubbed at the back of his neck, then let his hand fall back into his lap. Offered a bland smile.
Mary huffed and pushed away from the desk. He managed to keep his eyes from tracking her movements, but only just.
"Yet you say you grew up in Chelmsford?" Edward asked. He took off his glasses, massaged the bridge of his nose.
"Hm? Yeah. Yes." John shifted in his seat, frowned. "Why?"
"Only—generally when people talk about a clean slate, they are using the term to describe moving forward. Not necessarily going back."
John clenched his hand, looked away.
When his hour was up, he did not book a second appointment.
Sherlock followed the swirl of red and blue lights to an alleyway, neatly sidestepped the police tape. No one made any effort to stop him.
Lestrade was crouched next to a skip, frowning over a corpse on the ground.
Sherlock only tended to frown over corpses if they were boring (or people he knew—no—delete—delete).
This one, at first glance, was not boring.
(Well, perhaps a bit boring. But certainly not as boring as his empty flat with its empty rooms and its empty chairs. There were plenty of dust motes swirling in the air and dust was eloquent, but it seemed the dust in his rooms had very little to say and he'd grown terribly sick of all the quiet.)
In any case. The corpse:
Male, late twenties, clad head-to-toe in colour-coordinated workout attire. Grit in the meat of his palms—he'd stumbled forward while fleeing and had tried to break his fall. A drying bloom of blood at his temple—hit his head on the skip on his way down. That had given the killer ample opportunity to bury a knife in his back.
The knife was still there, protruding grotesquely between the victim's shoulder blades. It was a large knife, with a carved wooden handle. A chef's knife, if he was not mistaken (and he rarely was). An unusual choice for an alleyway murder.
The drying bloodstain clashed with the neon colours of the dead man's pricey moisture-wicking t-shirt.
Not a mugging—joggers rarely carried valuables, and the man's shoes and watch were untouched. Not premeditated—the killer had made no effort to hide the body or dispose of the murder weapon.
Panic. The killer had stabbed and fled.
Sherlock swept his gaze along the ground, then glanced up at the darkened windows overlooking the alley. He felt a pull at the corner of his mouth, a smile that badly wanted to make itself known. He flattened it into submission.
He'd missed this. He had.
He turned his head, just slightly, glancing to his right, seeking to catch John's eye. Stopped.
six 'til ten)
There would be no shared smiles in the darkness. Not anymore.
"I'd stop wasting your time on him, if I were you," he said. "He's not going to tell you anything you need to know."
Lestrade startled badly, almost toppling forward onto the dead man. He swung the torch he was holding so that the beam flared into Sherlock's face, then stood up, put his hands on his knees.
"Jesus, Sherlock, I didn't even—" he breathed out, hard. "Give me some warning next time, yeah?"
Sherlock tipped his head to the side, waited as Lestrade eyed him in the torchlight. There was poorly disguised concern in his expression, in the way his gaze lingered first on Sherlock's face, then swept him up and down.
There was nothing to see. Sherlock was bundled up tight in his greatcoat, scarf wound carefully around his neck. Still, he bristled at the invasion.
"When you're done wasting time," Sherlock said, glancing meaningfully towards the corpse. "Perhaps you'd like to know why this man had to die."
"It's good to see you," Lestrade said. He reached out, as if to clap Sherlock on the shoulder, then seemed to think better of it and froze with his hand halfway extended.
Sherlock blinked at him.
Lestrade shook his head, smiled. He took a step forward, went ahead with clapping Sherlock on the shoulder. It was a hearty thump, a far more robust greeting than the situation called for.
"You all right?" Lestrade asked, stepping back. His attention was still irritatingly on Sherlock and not on the crime scene.
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"No reason," Lestrade said, still smiling. He gestured back towards the crumpled body. "Surprised this one interests you—our best guess right now is a mugging gone bad."
"Wrong," Sherlock said.
Lestrade leaned back on his heels, looked between the corpse and Sherlock. Infuriatingly, he did not stop smiling.
"Not a mugging. Nothing's been stolen—those sneakers cost a hundred quid at least and they've not been touched. He's still wearing his watch."
"Well," Lestrade said. "That's where the gone bad part comes in, but—"
"No," Sherlock said, reaching out to pluck the torch from Lestrade's hand. He aimed the beam up at the darkened windows overhead, illuminating an open window. A wispy curtain fluttered in the light breeze.
"That's—" Lestrade said.
"Bad timing," Sherlock said. "The victim came through the alleyway—this is a fairly secluded area, I suspect he cut through here as a shortcut home after completing his workout, you'll be able to confirm once you've discovered his address—and surprised his killer emerging from the flat above. The killer panicked, stabbed him and ran. Didn't even bother to take the knife."
"Seems a bit of an overreaction to being caught housebreaking, yeah?"
"Perhaps," Sherlock said. "Or, more likely, you and your team failed to take into account a key piece of evidence."
Lestrade sighed. "What evidence?"
"What about it?"
"Why would a man breaking into a flat be carrying a large kitchen knife?"
Sherlock rolled his eyes. "Look at it. It's a chef's knife. An expensive one, at that. No one would carry that around for a bit of housebreaking."
"Sherlock," Lestrade said, shifting a bit where he stood. "I'm not entirely sure where you're going with this."
"He wasn't breaking into a flat with a knife, he was fleeing the scene of a murder with the murder weapon. In this case, a knife he picked up from the victim's kitchen."
"So that—" Lestrade looked back towards the corpse.
"Bad timing, as I said," Sherlock said. He shrugged. "The killer couldn't risk being recognised and tied to the murder he'd just committed, hence the—" he mimed stabbing, perhaps a bit more forcefully than necessary.
"You're telling me there's another dead body up there," Lestrade said. He did not look particularly enthusiastic to receive the news.
"Almost certainly," Sherlock agreed.
"Well—shit," Lestrade said. He turned towards the entrance to the alleyway, where several coppers were milling around, their faces briefly illuminated by the flashing lights. "Oi—Gregson! Donovan! Get someone up to check out those flats!"
Sherlock watched them go. Donovan glanced at him as she hurried past, but did not say a word.
He slipped his hands into his pockets, tucked his chin into the folds of his scarf. He missed John at his side. He missed him terribly.
He drew in a sharp breath, banished the thought. He'd worked alone before. He'd simply have to relearn how, that was all.
Lestrade sighed, ran a hand through his hair. "I think I'm about done here. If you're right, they're going to need me upstairs in a few minutes."
"If I'm right?" Sherlock raised his brows. He waited for John's muffled snort of amusement, or perhaps a gentle nudge against his arm admonishing him to play nice. Nothing came. Of course, nothing came.
Lestrade looked at him, shook his head. In the shifting blue and red light his expression was almost fond.
"Yeah, well, nobody's perfect. But you might as well come along."
Sherlock blinked at him.
Lestrade inclined his head towards the row of darkened windows. "Up to the flat. We're only going to wind up calling you in on this later, so let's save some time, yeah?"
"What happened to if I'm right?"
Lestrade shrugged. "We both know you probably are."
Lestrade shrugged again, looked away. The gesture seemed practiced, a forced attempt at nonchalance.
Trickery, manipulation. He was being goaded.
It should bother him. It was the sort of thing he resented, after all. Being managed, being handled. What had Mycroft called them? His dedicated team of babysitters.
"Flattery's the last thing you need," Lestrade said. "You're arrogant enough as it is."
Sherlock glanced sharply at him, surprised. Lestrade had been terribly gentle with him in the past months.
"Better arrogance than incompetence," he said. His voice almost sounded like his own.
"Yeah, all right," Lestrade said. "Then come show us how it's done."