It’s considered impolite to leave your wrist bare, to show the world the numbers etched in your veins, making, as they do, the social niceties of each day fraught with implication. Cuffs, wristbands, watches, bangles – there’s a whole fashion industry around it. As he dresses, John glances at his dresser where, tucked in one corner, is the familiar military-issue identification cuff.
Ripstop canvas with a fine, embedded metal mesh, his name, company, and blood type stamped on the metal plate on top, two snaps to secure it in place. He’s unsnapped dozens off of limp, bloodless wrists, recording the tiny numbers before the blood drains away and they fade.
He never knows what to hope for in those cases – zeroes mean there’s likely someone at home, waiting, someone to notify, someone whose heart will be broken and whose numbers will never reset. But if there’s time left, years and months and days and hours and minutes and seconds frozen at the instant of death, it’s sometimes worse. Because somewhere else in the world, another set just froze, and another person is about to feel the sudden chill of loneliness, the heartbreak of what will never be. Their numbers might reset – or they might not.
He pulls his gaze away, settling it firmly on the top of his wrist. Numbers down, he holds out his hands, one after another, to button his cuffs. This is how he hides it now: checked shirt, buttoned securely, down the wrists, up the neck, jumper then jacket. Layers, armour.
He leaves just to get out. Nowhere to go, now, no mission to accomplish or job to be done. He walks as far as he can bear, until the real pain in his phantom wound aches and forces him to retreat, to fall back. He eats a perfunctory but filling meal and sits at his desk. He stares at his computer and doesn’t write in his blog.
The flat is quiet and lonely. When he showers, he doesn’t look at his wrist.
Life works in mysterious ways, as the phrase goes, and so there’s nothing straightforward about the way the clocks work. For some, the timer counts down to a meeting, a thrill of discovery as eyes catch and hands touch. Others will wake with a pulse of realization, knowing suddenly that the person wrapped in their arms, or in the next room, or across town, is the person. For some, he knows, it stops, never fading, when the one they haven’t even met or the love they haven’t yet discovered is wrenched from the world.
Doctors are some of the few who see other’s numbers, sometimes at routine examinations, but all too often at the moment of death. Wristtime is always recorded alongside time of death and, unofficially, those in the medical field place each patient into categories. Naughts for those carrying a row of zeros, misses for the stopped clocks, arrested in time. There are resets and multis and even urban myths of blanks – rare individuals born without numbers at all. Opinions vary on the nature of such people; poor sods, some say, psychopaths say others.
John’s seen many numbers in his day, small tangles of capillaries, the formation of digits created by microscopic valves controlling the flow of deoxygenated blood. He’s even seen the instant, once, the moment when one’s clock ticks to zero. It’s said to feel like a pulse of blood through the body, like for a second your heartbeat is twice its strength.
He’d brought home his girlfriend for Christmas. They’d been dating for a few months only but he knew, from peeks at her wrist in the lazy, quiet moments after sex, that her clock was winding down. His own had years still, but he carefully hid that from Clara. She had soft eyes and a sinful laugh.
When she and Harry shook hands, Clara shivered and couldn’t let go and John knew.
He’d seen, too, the moment when the numbers didn’t zero when they should have. That broke his heart far more.
The dry desert winds shook the canvas sides of the hospital tent. A body lay in front of him, placed on a cot only a moment ago, clothing crimson with blood. John reached for the soldier’s wrist and checked the ident plate: Lt D Whitaker. With a deep breath, he unsnapped the band and steeled himself. 00:00:00:00:55:27. Less than an hour. John frowned, rubbed the skin with his thumb. Still warm; his life pulled out of him only fifty minutes ago so the numbers were still vivid blue, not yet faded. But how - ?
John was still wondering moments later when jostled by another man rushing past him, falling to his knees next to Whitaker, grasping the body’s blood-stained right hand. The pale stripe where the band had been seemed vividly, starkly white against the blood.
“God, Daniel, oh god, oh god, you can’t, don’t, please.” His voice was hoarse, pleading, his armour strapped on clumsily like he’d thrown it in place while running. He looked up at John, tears marking his face, and John’s breath caught in his throat.
He thought of near-misses, of bullets knocked off course. If this one had torn through Whitaker just an inch to the right, into his armour rather than sneaking through the tiny sliver of exposed flesh under his arm, he might have lived. Might have lived for this moment, for this man clutching his hand like it was the only thing keeping him alive. Might have felt the pulse as his time struck zero, realization washing away the pain and the fear.
The numbers can’t guarantee happiness, reciprocity, or even fidelity. They’re just a fact of life. Some people are even born with two, one on each wrist, with enough love to share twice over. Some have their numbers tick down but their love never returned, the zeroes on their wrists an aching reminder. Others still have many in their lifetime, the numbers resetting as lovers die, as spouses drift apart, as love cools. It’s not always about sex, or marriage; there’s companionship, friendship, love that fits no existing labels.
Partners – soulmates, some romantics say – don’t always zero out at the same time, even, as people grow and change and fall in love at different rates. It’s all enough to keep hope alive, to let people date and marry and flirt and wonder when the numbers will align.
He steps into the lab behind Mike, wondering aloud about the new equipment. At a lab bench, a man hunches over a light box, pipette poised above a petri dish. Later, John will think of his expression, studious and composed, and his hair, a riotous tangle, and his hand, precise and controlled.
At the moment, though, all John sees is his bare wrist. Sleeves pushed sloppily over his forearms, pale, lightly freckled skin, and blue veins forming numbers, indecipherable from where John’s standing.
His eye wants to focus on the unexpected blue, the glorious taboo numbers written in his veins, stark and unapologetic against fair skin, but John looks away. He keeps his eyes resolutely on the man’s face, not watching the rotation of his wrist as he tips the pipette with precision. The man asks Mike about a phone, eyes flicking up from the petri dishes, and when Mike gestures toward the door, indicating his coat somewhere in his office, John reaches for his pocket without thinking.
“Here, use mine.” He extends his hand – wrists covered, cuffs buttoned – and the man’s gaze slides to him. He stands, steps, and reaches with his right hand, with his marked wrist.
Without his control, John’s eyes fall to the space where their hands nearly meet, where their fingers almost brush on the cool plastic casing of Harry’s phone, where the man’s wrist, bare to the world, tilts toward John. He’s not sure what to expect, but is still surprised to see 00:00:01:05:24:42. Just over a day, soon.
The man’s saying something about Afghanistan and John glances between him and Mike, confused. Mike only shrugs and John, cautiously, answers his questions. Soon the stranger’s offering up a flatshare, in a way, and striding from the room. John stops him and he looks back, fingers curled around the door, and says his name like it’s a gift.
Sherlock Holmes. A wink and he’s gone and the air feels unsettled in his wake.
John feels a low pulse, like an extra heartbeat, and thinks oh.
He confirms it later, alone in his bedsit that evening. He unbuttons his cuff with steady fingers and, with a deep breath, turns his hand over, baring the soft part of his wrist where the delicate capillaries form a neat row of numbers.
He sits for a few long minutes on his hard single bed before pulling his laptop to him. May as well find something out about the man who might be his partner.
He has to go, of course, the next day to Baker Street. He watches Sherlock as he struts and whirls and exclaims, a manic tangle of energy. As the man insults police officers, reels off observations like it’s nothing, then leaves John behind to make his own way, John feels annoyance ebb at the edges of his mind.
When the car pulls up next to him, purposefully, on the darkened street, the annoyance becomes more of a wave. If Sherlock is his soulmate, his life is going to be troublesome.
The man who greets him, in the almost comically sinister storehouse, wears a neatly tailored three-piece suit, a heavy watch just visible on his right wrist. His comments are pointed and John wonders if he knows, has somehow discovered the blank sequence on John’s wrist. John panics for a moment when he asks to see his hand, clenching his cane tighter and thinking of the layers of fabric smoothed over his limbs. Enough to deter most people but easily wrenched free.
The stranger looks meaningfully at his left hand, though, and John holds it up with a small shudder of relief. He knows it’s not shaking – hasn’t been since yesterday afternoon – doesn’t need this sinister stranger’s pointed psychology to tell him the tremor has gone still.
How many people have to save their partner’s life a day after meeting them? John’s not sorry he did it and he finds, as he looks across the crime scene to see Sherlock in the back of an ambulance, safe and alive and decidedly not in shock, his annoyance receding as fondness sets in. He looks away, schooling his expression, trying to look as mild and unthreatening as possible.
Moments later, Sherlock saunters over to John, ducking under the crime scene tape and tossing the orange shock blanket into a parked squad car. John looks up at him, keeping his face carefully blank as he inquires about the cabbie, as if he didn’t already know. Sherlock just stares at him, undisguised surprised writ large on his face, eyes widened slightly and lips softened.
“Are you okay? You have just killed a man.” There’s no hiding it, then, and John’s relieved to have it in the open, between them. I killed a man for you, he thinks, and I would again.
“Yes, well, he wasn’t a very nice man.” John straightens his shoulders and watches as Sherlock pulls his gloves off absently. Sherlock’s lip twitches at the corner and suddenly John wants desperately to make him laugh, to earn a delighted grin. “Bloody awful cabbie, too.” Sherlock’s eyes fly up to his face and there it is – wide smile, eyes amused – and Sherlock clasps one hand to his shoulder.
John smiles back, shrugging, and the movement makes Sherlock’s coat sleeve pull up a bit. Blue flashes in the corner of John’s eye and he turns his head, slightly, unconsciously.
The world slows and he watches as the numbers