The swab smelled of alcohol and left a wet track on the exposed skin of Mary’s elbow.
“I can’t fucking believe you did this,” Janine said. “I don’t plan on forgiving you.”
“I know,” Mary said, and found it was easier to look at the needle than at the mingled fury and anguish in Janine’s eyes. She looked at Janine anyway. Apologies seemed necessary, but at this point, they were a waste of breath, and Mary wasn’t particularly sorry. “You didn’t need to do that,” she said instead, nodding toward the discarded cotton swab on the desk. “No point.”
Janine actually laughed, her voice broken. “Fair enough. Incidentally, if it helps, I’ve been told it shouldn’t hurt.”
“That’s kind of you.”
Janine sighed. “Now I feel like I’ve got to say something meaningful.”
The alcohol had evaporated, leaving only a strip of cool skin and the rapid flicker of anticipation in Mary’s pulse.
“By all means, be my guest.”
Janine shrugged, her eyes red-rimmed. The needle stung the cool skin at Mary’s elbow. “I’m sorry. Can’t think of anything.” She swept a hand over Mary’s forehead. “We’re good, then?”
Something hot flooded through Mary’s veins, slowing her pulse. Her lungs felt heavy. She had a fleeting thought of the small feet pressed against her ribs, and then an odd satisfaction. It would be the last time she’d ever cause a heart to stop.
“Yeah, we’re good.”
* * *
The car crawled away from the suburbs, tinted windows fracturing the sun’s glare into dull grey. The small screen in the passenger cabin was broadcasting a repeating loop of footage. Mercifully, the sound had cut out after ten minutes. Any more of it and John might have ordered Mycroft’s driver to pull over and shoot John on the side of the motorway as Moriarty’s face stuttered in front of them. Did you miss me?
They’d stopped at John and Mary’s house on the way back from the airport, and now, predictably, they were stuck in traffic as the car inched toward Mycroft’s office. Sherlock sat at arm’s length, collar up, texting on his mobile. Not long ago, he had killed a man for John without a second thought. John’s chest still felt hollow, as if the bottom had gone missing. And today, Moriarty’s chattering mug had pulled Sherlock back from the brink of something, but John didn’t want to think too closely about what it was. He wasn’t an idiot. Sherlock’s reddened eyes and the tone of Mycroft’s softened command -- “In the car, please, brother mine” -- told him more than he needed to know.
Did you miss me? John didn’t have an answer.
“Anything?” John said, because it was easier than silence.
“No.” Sherlock didn’t look up from his phone. “No one knows anything. No one’s seen anything. An entire country of idiots. Utterly unsurprising.”
John nodded, feeling his jaw clench.
“Mary okay?” Sherlock’s voice lowered, all cold edges gone. Occupied with his mobile, he’d barely acknowledged Mary’s goodbye when she’d asked to be dropped at home. Take good care of him, Sherlock, she’d said, kissing John’s cheek.
“Fine, I think. She’d have told me otherwise. Just tired.”
“Best for her to rest, I told her we’d probably be a while.”
“A good estimate, yes.”
John fished his mobile from his pocket and tapped out a message. Don’t wait up. No idea how long we’ll be in meetings. Feel better.
His mobile didn’t buzz in return, but that wasn’t unusual. Mary often needed a nap in the afternoon these days, even if she didn’t always get one.
“Likely,” John said, taking some comfort in Sherlock’s guess, their minds briefly aligned. He smiled tightly. “If she’s been listening to her doctor.”
* * *
Hours in a top-security conference room at MI-6 brought no developments. Sherlock spent most of the time on the phone. Mycroft haunted the perimeter, a pale, omnipresent ghost in tweed. John drank tea and absorbed the tension. Sherlock dragged him onto a balcony and sucked down a cigarette, talking at the speed of a bullet train and waving his hands. Sherlock had eliminated most major nodes of Moriarty’s network during his two years away -- well, two years dead -- but apparently there were dozens of possible ways the network could have sprung back to life.
“Cut off an arm, and it will eventually regrow,” Sherlock said, grinding the cigarette butt under his heel. “Even if the pieces have been scattered to the wind. We’re not dealing with the man himself, but it’s someone who wants us to think he’s back, and so it might as well be him.”
“You think there’s no chance he’s back.”
Sherlock didn’t bother to hide his disdain. “I think Moriarty might find survival extremely difficult with the back half of his skull missing. I saw the body. Molly did the autopsy.”
“Yeah, just --” John waved a hand. “Reassure me, all right?”
Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “Dead.”
Sherlock stalked back toward the conference room, coat billowing. “I have two dozen calls out to my network contacts. Mycroft is attempting to track the signal from the broadcast. We’ll need coffee.”
John exhaled and curled the fingers of one hand. “Right.”
Of course, procuring coffee was as easy as mentioning the word “coffee” to one of the silent, well-dressed assistants hovering near Mycroft, but John felt useful for the space of that single word. He settled back into a chair at the long, glossy table and watched Sherlock wave his hands at Mycroft. It was not nearly as entertaining as he’d hoped. Shoulders tight, he shifted in his seat and checked his mobile out of habit. Still nothing from Mary. Maybe she hadn’t gotten his earlier texts; maybe her ringer was off. He had a moment of feeling stupid for wanting to text again, and swallowed it.
Hey, just wanted to check up on you and the little one. Let me know how you’re doing.
John let his phone rest on the table in front of him and waited for it to skitter with vibration. Nothing happened. His stomach twisted a shade tighter. On a screen above his head, Moriarty’s loop played once more, then cut off into static. John picked up his phone and dialed. It rang for a few minutes, and then Mary’s voicemail picked up.
Hello, you’ve reached Mary Watson. Leave your name at the tone. Thanks!
“Hi, love,” John said, blocking noise from the room with one hand over his ear. “Hope you’re feeling all right. Give us a ring when you get this message. Sorry if I woke you.”
He hung up and slid the phone back onto the table. It remained silent. The knot in his stomach curled in on itself, and he pushed back his chair.
“Sherlock,” he said.
Sherlock had the uncanny ability to hear John speak his name through a crowd, and it was this ability that John invoked now. Sherlock appeared at John’s side within moments looking thoroughly hassled.
“Mind palace,” he snapped. “I was --”
“Mary hasn’t answered my texts since we dropped her off,” John said. “She’s not picking up her phone. It’s not like her.”
Something in John’s face must have betrayed his worry, because Sherlock stopped dead and held out his hand. “Show me your phone.”
John scrolled through his text screen and held it up. “I sent one at 1:30. Another at 3. It’s nearly 5 now, I just texted again, then called and left a message.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Look, it’s probably nothing, but maybe you could just have Mycroft check the CCTV?”
“Oh, he’ll love that,” Sherlock began, but Mycroft’s voice issued from near John’s shoulder. “Is something wrong?”
“It’s nothing,” John began, but Sherlock cut him off and turned to Mycroft. “You need to check on Mary,” he said bluntly. “John’s been texting. She’s not picking up her phone.”
“But of course,” Mycroft said smoothly. “We’ll have no problem diverting resources when the fate of the free world is at stake, but then again, you’ve never quite understood that bit of mathematics, have you, Sherlock?”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “It will take one man a total of two minutes. I believe you’ve always taken after our father where mathematics are concerned.”
John exhaled. “Look, it’s really fine. You’re both busy, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Nonsense,” Mycroft said curtly. “It stands to reason that we should monitor the safety of those in our inner circle at this particular time. I’m sure she’s fine, John. I shall let you know.”
“Of course. Sherlock? Downing Street is on the line in the far office.”
An unexpected hand closed over John’s shoulder, and was gone just as quickly. “John. Back soon.”
John felt the still, lifeless weight of the mobile in his pocket, and nodded.
* * *
“What do you mean, it’s not possible? You’ve had their house on surveillance since they moved in, Mycroft, I let you do it, what the hell was it for?”
John’s heart pounded, threatening to explode from the confines of his button-down shirt and spatter panic on the windows. Sherlock, next to him, was a tower of rage, all of it focussed into a single thundering diatribe at his brother.
“Sherlock --” Mycroft began, with infuriating calm.
“Shut up.” Sherlock cut him off with a sharp gesture and began to pace. “The point is that we should have had uninterrupted footage from John’s house this afternoon, and some of it is missing. The Moriarty broadcast had the convenient side effect of shorting out most of the country’s CCTV cameras so those screens could air the footage. We’ve got at least ten minutes of missing footage on every closed-circuit camera in Mycroft’s network. That was clearly the point of the broadcast: to distract us while someone did something they didn’t want us to see. Not one overpaid, so-called intelligence agent in this room thought to check a single security camera all afternoon?”
“You have been leading this investigation,” Mycroft said coldly.
John couldn’t physically handle a second more of this. He slammed a fist on the conference table. Glasses of water and china cups rattled along its length. “I don’t bloody care,” he shouted. Heads swivelled in his direction. “Someone took my wife from under our bloody noses and I don’t care why, you just need to get her back.”
Sherlock stopped his pacing to glare at Mycroft. “We’re going to John’s place. And you’re going to map every significant location where CCTV footage was blocked, I don’t care how many screens --”
John was already out the door before Sherlock had finished.
* * *
John could feel Mary’s absence under his shirt, the wrongness of it prickling the back of his neck. Nausea fought its way up his throat and lodged there. He watched Sherlock prowl the house as if he’d never visited before, as if he hadn’t sat on John’s sofa a few weeks ago and complained about John’s taste in furniture.
When Sherlock pulled the magnifying glass from his pocket, reality hit like a tidal wave, taking John’s bad leg with it. This was a case, except they were in John’s home. The case of his missing, pregnant wife. Here’s one for the fucking blog. John put a hand against the doorframe as his leg buckled and the edges of his vision swam.
“No one else has been here,” Sherlock said, his certainty holding John upright. “No one but Mary has been in this house this afternoon. There are absolutely no traces of any other visitors. Has anything moved?”
John pushed away from the doorframe to straighten up, but Sherlock’s eyes read John’s movements faster than John could correct them. John lifted his chin resolutely, but it was a second too late.
“Leave, John.” Sherlock motioned at the door. “Have them take you to Baker Street.”
Sherlock swore under his breath. “I’m an idiot. I should’ve sent you there --”
“I said, I’m fine.”
Sherlock studied him. “If it’s too much, promise you’ll leave.”
“Yes, all right.”
Silence stretched between them, and then Sherlock nodded.
John cleared his throat and stepped into his own living room. Mary’s living room. John’s crime novels stacked next to a chair, a few of Mary’s glossy magazines on the coffee table, everything neatly put away. Mary’s natural tidiness suited John’s military sense of order. Without Mary to warm the space, however, it seemed stark, impersonal. Only objects in a room, evidence, like any other case. Evidence, that’s all it was.
“I dunno, she’s -- she’s quite tidy, you know that,” he said, starting to take stock of the room, peering into their small, cheerful kitchen. “She -- she did the breakfast dishes, maybe she watched a bit of telly -- the remote’s over there, next to the sofa.”
“Good. Anything else?”
John walked once around the kitchen and back into the living room, glancing up at the stairwell and the row of coat hooks next to it. “Maybe if we go upstairs -- oh. Oh God. Sherlock --”
“Her coat,” Sherlock said, as if seeing through John’s eyes. “Her red coat is missing.”
“And -- Jesus. Look.”
The two of them converged on the small table next to the door. Placed there, seemingly quite deliberately, was Mary’s phone. It pinned down the corner of a small, folded piece of white paper, the type Mary usually used to write grocery lists. Sherlock held up a hand and examined the table minutely with his magnifying glass before picking up the phone and turning it over.
“She left this here,” he said. “No other fingerprints that I can see. We’ll need the crime lab to confirm, but it appears Mary put the phone here herself. Pregnant woman, leaving the house without her phone in case of emergency? Not likely. Might be attributed to absent-mindedness, but not our Mary. She could have been coerced, but if she’d been in a hurry, she wouldn’t have placed it so carefully, so we can theorise that she left these things purposefully, and she had time to do it.”
“Okay,” John said, blowing out a breath. “Okay. That doesn’t make sense.”
“Not enough facts yet.” Sherlock picked up the paper and unfolded it. Written on it in Mary’s neat handwriting were three strings of numerals.
“That’s Mary’s writing,” John said, “unless it’s a damn good imitation.”
Sherlock held the paper up to the light. “Stationery from a notepad in your kitchen, written with the same blue ballpoint pen kept next to the pad of paper. Her hand was very sure, not shaking. Her writing is quite fluid and calm. This wasn’t done quickly.” He glanced at John. “It’s entirely possible that Mary’s background and training enabled her to write this way, even if being held against her will, but it’s looking likely that there was no one else in this house when she wrote this note. We’ll need to look at the pad, of course --”
John had worked enough cases to know this much. He was already halfway to the kitchen before Sherlock took a step. “Maybe she did just forget her phone,” he called back, but knowing Mary --
Knowing Mary, was this surprising? Was any of this surprising?
This domesticity John had fought for, had so aggressively sought, had always been an illusion. Lurking underneath the pots and pans and Sunday night telly was the constant hiss of something else, the sharp fangs of the past that might at any time sink into their lives. Somehow, John had known that he could only swallow the shining promise of the suburbs with a decent chaser of suspense.
There was a baby now. Surely that would be a guarantee that they were ordinary, respectable people. Surely that would guarantee that Mary would walk through the door at any moment and apologise for having given them such a scare.
But that would be too easy, and apparently John’s subconscious had chosen a life that didn’t fit that description.
John brought the pad back into the living room and handed it to Sherlock. “I can’t see anything on here. You look.”
Sherlock went through his usual ritual of rubbing pencil across the surface of the pad to reveal impressions of past notes. “Just groceries, and the three numbers,” he said. “An unusual amount of ice cream, but nothing else of interest.” He glanced at John and half-smirked. “No wonder you’ve been putting on weight.”
John laughed in spite of himself, in spite of the rising gorge in his throat, the knot at the back of his neck. He needed to see Sherlock’s eyes crinkle and glow, just for a moment. “Two words: Pregnant. Wife.”
Sherlock’s eyes crinkled just as John knew they would. “It shows.”
John felt immeasurably better. “Oh, fuck you.”
They fell silent again, but it was more comfortable this time. She could be all right. This note was calm, deliberate; Sherlock had said so, and he was rarely wrong. Mary was sharp as hell, and she’d left them clues. They just had to focus on tracing her path. She’d be all right.
Sherlock put the pad back in its place and picked up the note again. “First number is ten digits. Second is seven digits. Third one is three digits.”
John peered over his shoulder, his head a bit clearer. Numbers. Why would Mary have written a set of numbers? “First one could be a phone number.”
“No recognizable area code,” Sherlock replied, nonetheless fishing out his mobile to dial it. “Still --”
And then, temporarily freed from panic, John’s brain made an unexpected leap. “NHS number,” he said. “Sherlock, that’s Mary’s NHS number, I’ve seen her charts a hundred times.”
Sherlock’s eyes widened. “Brilliant!” he exclaimed, clapping John on the shoulder. For a half-second, forgetting everything, they grinned broadly at each other. Abruptly, Sherlock’s expression sobered. “Let’s check the rest of the house, but we need to decipher the rest of this note quickly. We’ll leave the phone with Mycroft, MI-6 has better tools to analyse it. We need to get home.”
“To Baker Street, I mean,” Sherlock amended.
John wondered later, as the black car sped toward Baker Street, why he hadn’t caught Sherlock’s slip at all.
* * *
A single overhead light buzzed in the otherwise dark lab. The floor smelled strongly of disinfectant; the janitor had been through not long ago. Sherlock’s shoes squeaked against it every so often as he paced the room’s perimeter. John sat on a stool at the lab table and tried to behave as if his life wasn’t collapsing like a house of cards.
The puzzle had proved surprisingly easy to solve, designed, as it seemed, for John and Sherlock’s eyes only. Mary’s NHS number was a clear clue to pull her medical files -- which, as interpreted by Sherlock, meant breaking into Mary’s OB-GYN office at 11pm. There, John leafed through Mary’s folder and lifted out a single sheet he’d never seen, a surprise that somehow wasn’t one, another prize in the Christmas cracker of their imaginary life. She’d undergone a round of prenatal testing without John’s knowledge.
John didn’t even bother wondering how she’d concealed the test. Plenty of ways, and honestly, he didn’t much care. Mary’s voice echoed: Why don’t you boys go out on a case? I’ll be fine at home, plenty to do here. John swallowed hard and pretended he hadn’t heard it.
From there, the second and third numbers hadn’t been difficult to decipher. John recognized the second number as the ID of a sample marked for cold storage in a laboratory, which turned out to be the laboratory at the OB office itself. Sherlock fashioned a makeshift cold pack using his scarf and some ice from the fridge in the office kitchen, and they escaped with the tiny vial labelled “MARY WATSON / AMNIO” wrapped securely in Sherlock’s pocket.
The third number was simple: a physician’s referral code for a paternity test.
“I’m texting Molly,” Sherlock had said, as they sped away from the scene of their crime. “She’ll meet us at Barts.”
“No, God, don’t --”
“Molly is more qualified. Less margin for error.”
Technically, Sherlock could do it. John was sure of it. But he didn’t argue. Mary had given them the means to carry out this test themselves, knowing they wouldn’t trust a result unless they supervised the testing. That she had specified this particular test meant only one thing. It wasn’t right to make Sherlock read that result, to force Sherlock to be the one to put a bullet in Mary’s illusion. He had already shot a man in the name of John’s house of cards.
Something loomed in front of them, a greater picture John resolutely did not want to see.
Molly met them at Barts, bleary with sleep. They must have looked terrible, because she took one look at them and went white.
“Mary,” John had said, and it was enough.
Molly had drawn John’s blood while Sherlock spoke in somber, hushed tones on his mobile to someone who could only be Mycroft. She’d wrapped John’s arm with a rubber tie and swabbed the crook of his elbow with alcohol, and John had sat and wondered what Mary might be doing right now, whether she’d guessed exactly how long it would take them to get here.
“This won’t hurt,” Molly had said automatically, and then met John’s eyes and turned white. “I -- I mean --”
“It’s okay,” he’d said, and the needle slid in with its expected sting. “It’s fine.”
And now they waited, and Sherlock paced. Ironically, it felt a bit like a scene from an old movie, the men exiled to a waiting room while mysteries of birth happened behind closed doors, aided by ether and forceps. They should have brought cigars to mark the occasion.
Sherlock’s pacing stilled. “John.”
“John, I want you to know, I --”
They were crap at this, the two of them. Utter failures at this sort of speech.
“I’m fine,” John said shortly, and glanced up at Sherlock, whose gaze was fixed on the slick floor. “Fine.”
The lab door opened and Molly walked in, head down, intently studying the printed results. It was the feeblest ruse John had ever seen, but he didn’t blame her. When she finally did look up, her eyes were wet.
John held out a hand and shook his head. “Don’t say it,” he said. “You don’t -- it’s okay.”
Molly handed him the sheet and pinched the bridge of her nose to stop from crying. John read the results as if he was standing outside the room, as if all of this was happening to someone else and he’d just looked in the window on his way down the hall.
It was identifiably Mary’s sample, her blood type -- John had seen the rest of her prenatal tests -- this was definitely Mary. Charts, alleles, rows of numbers. Mother. Child, it said atop the middle row. Father. Probability of paternity: 0.00%.
John cleared his throat. It was a very loud sound in a nearly silent room.
“She’s not mine,” he said.
The baby, or Mary, it wasn’t clear to John, and it no longer mattered. The paper in his hand felt like something he’d peeled away, a thin film, brittle and dry.
Sherlock stood behind him just at his shoulder, but didn’t lean in to read the results. John handed him the paper and rested his elbows on the lab table. He leaned forward on the stool and dragged his hands across his face.
“Oh, John,” Molly said, voice wavering.
There was nothing worth saying. If someone had been shouting at him, John would have shouted back. Your wife is a fucking liar. You’re an idiot, you should have known. And John would have yelled, it would have felt good. Don’t you fucking talk about my wife that way. But there was nothing to say. He had somehow always known and yet the shock came anyway. This must be shock, arriving just as he’d known it would.
Because there was something else under the paper, the next thing that would peel itself away. There had to be a reason Mary would send these numbers, the logical progression, A to B to C, the next shock on the line. It had already happened, or was happening, and John was powerless to stop it, just as he’d been powerless when Mary Morstan opened his office door two years ago and said Next one’s a hypochondriac, but you didn’t hear it from me.
Denial was a funny thing.
John had suffered a week of confusion and backtracking after the wedding, but Mary waved him off. How had they managed to slip up? “My cycle’s always been irregular,” she’d said one evening as she settled against him, skin hot and salty with sunburn. “It was probably that night -- you know, the night we’d gone again? After the dinner party.”
“I remember.” John’s hands roamed, and he squeezed her hip teasingly. “You said we didn’t need anything. I trusted you.”
Her smirk was clear even in the dark. “That’s your favourite mistake, isn’t it?”
John smoothed a hand over the curve of Mary’s belly and chuckled. “Well, nicely done, nurse. I was going to marry you, you know. No need to tie me down.”
“I thought you liked being tied down.”
John laughed, nuzzling a gentle kiss against her neck. “Don’t change the subject.”
Mary pulled back a bit. “You’re nervous.”
“Of course I’m bloody nervous. It’s not like we planned this.”
Mary’s eyes darted away from his in the dark. “You’re not -- We don’t have to go through with it. We can think about it. Let’s take some time.”
John tipped her face toward his. “There is literally,” he said slowly, “nothing in the world I want more than to meet our baby. Yours and mine, Mary. Never think for one minute I don’t want this with you. I married you. Of course I want to meet our child. Of course I do.”
Mary shut her eyes, and John kissed away the tear that escaped.
“John.” Sherlock’s voice sounded far away, as if John was still outside the lab.
Molly’s voice. “You should go home.”
“Sherlock -- tell me -- tell me if you need anything.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“I’m -- I’m okay,” John said, trying to remember what the right thing to say might be in this situation, which -- no. He stood up and straightened by degrees, the core of his spine undamaged and whole. His body fought its way into position.
“Sorry to bring you in at this hour,” he said, meeting Molly’s eyes with a quick nod. His breath hitched before he caught it.
“Don’t worry about it at all.”
“John,” Sherlock said again.
He may have followed Sherlock into a cab, may have walked up the stairs. Sherlock swam in his peripheral vision, always at the edges.
* * *