It starts with five words.
“Is my father really dead?”
Or maybe, that’s how it ends.
In any case, it’s when he hears these five words that it dawns on Sherlock: the man lying next to him is, indeed, dead. Not a very terribly difficult fact to ascertain; after all, Sherlock’s hands were on his skull just seconds ago, and the crack of his broken neck reverberated through each of Sherlock’s fingers, through his arms, his entire body. Or maybe that’s the pain of the gunshot still lancing through him. Maybe it’s that same pain that’s slowing his brain, making the obvious hard to recognize.
Sherlock closes his eyes, focuses his mind until the pain is nothing but a dull echo in his side, then lists the important facts.
Fact #1. Sebastian Moran – the last of Moriarty’s hired guns, the very last piece of his fallen empire – is dead.
Fact #2. Sherlock is wounded, but not to such an extent that his life is in danger. He’ll probably be able to patch himself up. He’s become fairly good at it, these past three years.
Fact #3. Sherlock will not, in fact, need to patch himself up. He could go to a hospital. Or even go ask for the help of a friend well versed in the art of tending bullet wounds. He could. It’s over now. He doesn’t need to hide anymore.
Fact #4. Knocking on John’s door at two in the morning after three years of pretending to be dead, covered in blood and already-forming bruises – and with a bullet wound in his side on top of it – might not, in fact, be the smartest thing to do at the present moment. Maybe Sherlock should clean up first.
Fact #5. There is a child looking down at him. Presumably the same child who asked about his father being dead. That’s… rather unexpected. And inconvenient.
Sherlock has been ruthless as he tracked his prey throughout Europe, Thailand, Brazil – and finally back to London. He’s confronted many men – and more than a few women – who were definitely not on the side of the angels. But the dark-haired boy peering down from the edge of the mezzanine directly above him is the first child he’s come across. And Sherlock apparently killed his father in front of him.
Bit not good, Sherlock.
He gives an involuntary shake of head at the familiar echo-memory. He’s heard it quite a few times since that day at Bart’s when he last heard John’s actual voice. Sometimes, it’s even been enough to make him change his plans. There isn’t much he can change now, though.
“Did you hear me?” the child asks, now frowning. “Are you concussed? Is that why you’re not answering? He did hit you pretty hard over the head. He always hit pretty hard.”
Stifling a groan, Sherlock sits up, then stands. He looks up warily. From where he is, he can’t see much more of the boy than his face: he’s lying on the floor, arms pressed along the edge of the mezzanine, his eyes bright as he observes Sherlock. He can’t be much more than… ten? Eleven, maybe?
“He is dead, yes,” Sherlock says calmly, his eyes flicking between Moran and the child.
He can’t see much resemblance there. Hard to believe they are related. Physiognomy isn’t always a help in matters of parentage, but—
“I didn’t mean Sebastian.” The child rolls his eyes. “I can see clearly he’s dead. The angle of his neck makes it rather obvious. I asked about my father.”
Sherlock isn’t used to being talked to like he’s exceptionally slow. He’s not used to craning his neck to look at people, either. He doesn’t particularly enjoy either thing. Pressing a hand to his side under his jacket, he walks to the ladder that leads to the mezzanine.
“As I have no idea who you are,” he says as he climbs, “it would be rather difficult for me to hazard a guess about your relatives’ health.”
By the time Sherlock reaches the top, the child is sitting on the floor, cross-legged but his back very straight, both hands clutching one ankle. His jeans are too short, exposing skin between the hem and his scrunched socks; old bruises peek through, already yellowing. His jumper, on the other hand, is too large, falling past his wrists and hiding the shape of his body.
He’s frowning again, more deeply than before. “You haven’t figured out who I am, yet?” He sounds almost disappointed. “Father said you were the smartest man he knew. How can you not know who I am? I even look like him. Sebastian said so all the time.”
Annoyance flares through Sherlock: annoyance that his intellect is challenged by a child, annoyance that no, he hasn’t figured out what apparently should be obvious – and then annoyance when he does figure it out that it took him so long.
“Yes,” he says sharply. “Your father is dead.”
The child doesn’t react with anything more than a blink. Soon, he asks, “Are you sure? Sebastian said you were there. Were you? Did you do it? He wouldn’t say how Father died so I thought maybe he was faking. Like you. Sebastian didn’t know you were faking but I thought you might be.”
“I was there,” Sherlock says. “I didn’t do it. And yes, I am sure.”
He’s about to explain he had a very clear view when Moriarty stuck the gun in his own mouth and pulled the trigger, but the echo-memory of John’s voice stops him. Not good? Why not? The child asked. Truth is best in these matters as in most. Hiding things from him serves little purpose.
And still, Sherlock doesn’t elaborate. Instead, he watches with mild curiosity as the child’s tense shoulders relax a little as though in relief and he breathes a quiet, “Oh, good. That’s good to know for sure.”
It’s… not the reaction Sherlock would have expected if he’d stopped long enough to expect anything.
The child stands, holding his hand out to Sherlock.
“My name is James,” he says gravely. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Holmes. I’ve heard all about you.”
Another flash of memory surfaces. On that roof, before he shot himself, Moriarty held his hand out to Sherlock. Sherlock hesitates, eyes scanning the child’s form for a weapon. He finally offers his hand gingerly, remembering halfway through the movement that it’s covered in blood. It doesn’t seem to bother the child, who takes Sherlock’s hand and gives it a pronounced shake, like he’s seen it done but never done it himself.
“You’re bleeding,” he says, letting go of Sherlock’s hand and looking at the drying blood that transferred to his palm. “I can help.”
And again, if Sherlock had expected anything, it wouldn’t have been this. As he watches James hurry to the lone piece of furniture in the mezzanine – a bed – and kneel next to it, he raises a hand to the back of his head. He winces when he finds what he’s looking for. There’s a definite bump there, as well as dried blood. Does he have a concussion, like James suggested? It’d certainly explain why he’s feeling so slow at the moment.
Either that or three years of never turning his brain off are catching up with him.
James has pulled a child-sized carry-on suitcase from under the bed and set it on top of the rumpled blankets. He flips the top open. There isn’t much in there as far as Sherlock can see: the corner of a book peeks through under neatly folded clothes. Half the space is taken by a white case with a red cross on its side. That’s what James pulls out.
“I don’t have much practice with stitches,” he says, “but I can clean wounds real good. And I’m okay with bandages, too.”
“Really well,” Sherlock says absently, watching those small hands work over a tube of waterless antibacterial foam. “Not good. Well.”
James freezes. For the space of three heartbeats, he remains absolutely still, then says in a very small voice, “Yes, sir. I can clean wounds really well.”
He’s still not moving, his breaths shallow and quiet, as though by being immobile and silent he can become all but invisible. Sherlock grimaces. It explains why James has a first aid kit, and why he’s supposedly so good at administering help. Practice on oneself does tend to be an excellent incentive to get better, as Sherlock has learned himself.
Say something? Say what? To one notable exception, people never appreciated when he gave away that he knew something important and personal about them. He can’t imagine it’d be different for a child.
“I’m sure your skills are excellent for someone your age,” he says, turning away, “but I’ll take care of it myself.”
He goes down the ladder again. Back on the ground floor of what was once a factory but has been converted into living quarters for criminals on the run, he throws a glance at the body and pulls the disposable cell phone from his leather jacket. He’ll be glad to return to a device on which typing is not so tedious. And he’ll be glad to get back into a proper coat.
Glad to get back into his life, period.
He hesitates before sending, and, for the first time in three years, adds two more letters to the message. They’re as unneeded as ever, but it’s still oddly pleasant to see them on the screen.
As he waits for an answer that shouldn’t take long despite the hour, noise behind him causes him to turn. James is coming down the ladder, his progress barely hindered by the fact that he’s carrying the suitcase in one hand. Clearly he’s done this before.
“Where are you going?” he asks when James reaches the floor.
Now wearing white sneakers as well as an unzipped parka over his jumper, James turns a puzzled look to Sherlock. “Well, with you,” he says like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
“No, you’re not. Who takes care of you?”
James’ raised eyebrows turn meaningfully to Moran’s body. Sherlock rolls his eyes.
“Other than him. Do you have a nanny? Babysitter?” He wants to say ‘parents’ but knows half the answer to that question and amends, “A mother?”
James shrugs. “If you’d called Sebastian my nanny or babysitter, he wouldn’t have liked that at all. And I suppose I have a mother, yes. Everybody does, don’t they?”
From his tone of voice, it’s obvious he has never met the woman who gave birth to him. Sherlock is about to ask if he knows anything about her when his phone rings. Not a text, but an actual call. He’s not surprised.
“Mycroft,” he says as he picks up.
“Sherlock,” Mycroft says on the other end of the line. “You took your time.”
A wry smile tugs at Sherlock’s lips. If he’d had his way, he would have kept all this from his brother, but unfortunately a few weeks in he needed Mycroft’s assistance. Ever since, every time they’ve been in contact, Mycroft has offered to help to speed up the process – and every time Sherlock has refused.
“Haven’t we already had this argument?” he says with a sigh. “I needed to do this myself.”
“No, you wanted to do this yourself. It’s different.”
“We’ll agree to disagree on that. Not that it matters anymore.”
In his mind, he can see Mycroft incline his head ever so lightly, conceding the point.
“We have your location,” Mycroft says. “I have people on the way. I assume you need someone to clean up after you?”
“Just one body, and...”
Sherlock’s eyes fall on James, who is listening to the conversation with one hand clenched so tightly on the handle of his suitcase that his knuckles are white. His other hand is by his mouth, and he’s worrying his thumbnail with his teeth. When he sees Sherlock watching him, he pales and lowers his hand to his side.
“And what?” Mycroft asks sharply. “Are you hurt? Do you need—”
“I’m all right,” Sherlock cuts in. “Although if you would be so kind as to bring me back to life, it might certainly make things easier.”
He doesn’t bother reminding Mycroft the part he played in starting all that mess. He’s sure his brother remembers quite well that he owes Sherlock. Eventually, Mycroft will feel he’s repaid his debt in full, but until then Sherlock intends to take full advantage of his guilt.
“It’ll be done by midday. Text me where to get it sent.”
As Sherlock hangs up and pockets the phone, doubt creeps in – and if he’s doubting himself at this point, it’s definitely another checkmark in the possible concussion column.
He should leave the child here for Mycroft’s people to deal with. They can probably figure out if he has living relatives, and either return him to them or place him somewhere. Then again, it’s not just any child. It’s Moriarty’s child. Sherlock had many questions, and even taking the man’s empire apart, he hasn’t found answers for all of them. And after all, if James wants to come with him… why not? If Moriarty told him ‘all’ about Sherlock, what else did he say? And how much does the child remember three years after his father’s death?
“You should know that I’m not a patient person,” he says, observing James closely. “I will not answer idiotic questions. Sometimes I require complete silence. I don’t know a thing about children. I don’t cook. I’m likely to forget you have needs so you’ll have to take care of yourself. I’m always coming and going at all hours and since I’m not leaving a child alone near my experiments, you’ll have to come wherever it is I’m going until I can arrange for a babysitter.”
At the back of his mind, he’s already sure Mrs. Hudson will spoil the child. But no, James won’t stay with him that long. It’ll only be a few days, just long enough to get a few answers.
“Does that mean I can come with you?” James asks, sounding excited. His lips are twitching, although he’s not smiling. His eyes are a little wider, a little brighter. How bad was it, really, for him to be so glad to leave with the person who just killed his caretaker?
Sherlock lets out a heavy sigh. “I suppose. We’d better go before Mycroft’s people get here.”
He starts toward the exit. James runs to catch up, his suitcase bouncing on its wheels behind him.
“Father was gone for a long time, once,” he says. “When he came back, he told me about your brother.” And then, after a pause, “Are you really sure he’s dead? Maybe your brother has him in a cage again.”
The tidbit is filed for later. It’s not like Sherlock cares what a dead man once said about his brother, but he’s curious. For now, Sherlock merely glances down at James.
“Here’s something else you ought to know,” he says. “I dislike repeating myself. You already asked if I was sure and I already answered, did I not?”
James looks at his feet and falls a little behind. Sherlock lets him. They reach the street. It’s quiet and deserted, with little to indicate that, only three streets over, London’s heart beats as quickly, as loudly as ever. He’s mapping in his head the way back to his flat, taking in consideration the pain radiating from his side, the short legs behind him that take five strides for every two of his and the need to remain hidden… and then it dawns on him again. That need is gone. He can take the first cab that presents itself. Oh, but he has missed cabs… Such a small thing, and yet…
Frowning, he glances back. Three strides for each one of his, now; apparently the suitcase doesn’t roll all that well on the uneven pavement.
“Give it to me,” he demands, holding out his hand.
James’ eyes widen a little. “It’s fine,” he says quickly. “I can carry it. I promise, it’s not too heavy at all.”
There’s something there, a fear Sherlock would dissect in a second if he wasn’t so bloody tired. But tired, he is, and impatient to get home.
“Come on. You’ll walk faster if you don’t have to drag that thing behind you.”
James’ jaw flexes visibly. He swallows hard, mutters a quiet, “Yes, sir,” and starts to push the handle toward Sherlock. He doesn’t let go, though, and asks in an equally quiet voice, “May I take the book out? It’s just… I didn’t finish reading it yet. I promise I’ll throw it away too when I’m done.”
Sherlock frowns. Why is every other word coming out of that child’s mouth a riddle? He never liked riddles. He still hasn’t learned to like them.
“Why would you…”
And then he gets it. God but he is slow tonight. Appalling.
“I’m asking for your suitcase to carry it for you,” he says calmly. “I am tired, I want to get home, the suitcase is slowing you down, it’s only logical I carry it so you’ll walk faster.”
Something flickers in James’ eyes; disbelief, maybe? Confusion? He finally releases the handle. Sherlock pushes it down, locks it, flips the suitcase on its side to take hold of the second handle. When he starts walking again, James walks faster, remaining at his side.
Having seen it open, Sherlock knew the suitcase didn’t hold much, but even so it feels extraordinarily light. A limited number of possessions, quickly packed when needed. James’ certainty that they’ll be taken away if they’re a hindrance. His acceptance of that fact… It’s easy to figure out James has been dragged from place to place before, and has learned the hard way that being too slow has consequences.
“What book?” Sherlock asks as they continue down the street; the lights are brighter already, the sound of traffic growing, even as late as it is.
“I’m sorry?” James asks.
“What book is it you didn’t finish yet?”
“Oh. Il Principe by—”
“Machiavelli,” Sherlock finishes thoughtfully. “How old are you?”
Twelve. And reading Machiavelli. Interesting.
When they get to a busy street, Sherlock is satisfied to find his ability to summon cabs is still intact. He climbs in, James right behind him.
“Who chose that book for you?” Sherlock asks after giving the address to the cabbie. He almost said Baker Street. Not yet, but soon.
“There’s a list with all the books I’m allowed to read. Sebastian had it.”
Sherlock nods absently. A list drawn by Moriarty, evidently. And of course The Prince would be on it.
“Since there’s no list anymore,” James asks after a few seconds, “does that mean I can read other books now?”
Sherlock’s mind starts to drift to his book collection. The Prince is in there, of course – although in English, not Italian. There are a few other books that might be suitable for a twelve year old. The only issue is that all these books are currently in storage, having been handed along with the rest of Sherlock’s possessions to Mycroft’s care.
“I don’t see why not,” he says absently in answer to James’ question.
“Thank you, sir.”
The fervor in those words surprises Sherlock, especially since he hardly promised James access to new literature, just stated he wasn’t opposed to the idea. He glances at the child and finds him smiling. From what he remembers of regular twelve-year-olds from the endless days when he had to sit in school and die of boredom, teens are not usually so enthused at the thought of reading. Then again, none of his peers enjoyed political treatises in a foreign language to the point of pleading to be allowed to finish reading them.
“No need for ‘sir’. You can call me Sherlock.”
“Yes sir,” James says promptly, then grimaces. “I mean, Sherlock. Sorry, sir. Sherlock.”
Sherlock turns his face to the window to hide a smile. It’s been a while since he shared a cab with anyone. He could easily get used to it again.