Right. Where am I?
"You're in a hotel room..."
"... and you don't know how long you've been there, or how you got there."
Not much, then.
Room key on the bureau, attached to a blue plastic fob. Room 21, by the tag. Just an anonymous hotel room. Cheap duvet, empty hangers. Dirty; plaster crumbling in the ceiling. All that and it won't tell you anything. Not you, at least. Sherlock would be able to see things, read facts from the dust, know instantly where he is just from-- Well. He isn't here, is he? Of course not; he--
He fell, even you can remember that much. Even you.
The hell of it is, I know where he is. Well, not his actual grave, of course, though I probably have a note of that somewhere too. But the important bit. That he's gone. That, I know.
I could find him; he could find me. And yet, here I am. But where is here?
You know my methods, John. Apply them.
Use what you know. Come on, Watson; figure it out.
Nothing in the drawers, but I look anyway. Nothing but the Gideon Bible. Test it, just to be sure; pull open the drawer, and-- yes, there. Trust those Gideons; you can always count on them. It might not be much, but it's something, and these days, I take what I can get.
Mine? No, on the bedside table. A proper one with a cord, not a mobile. A proper phone in an anonymous hotel room. No way to know how long you've been here. Answer it, then; might as well get on with things.
The plastic is cold, or my hand is warm. "Hello?"
"Doctor Watson." The voice is a male's, low, posh accent. Doubtless Sherlock would know his entire life story by now, but that's all I can get. I'm not too good on the phone, these days.
"Yes." There's a long pause on the other end of the line. The voice is unfamiliar--probably unfamiliar; I don't recognise it now, at least--and it takes me longer than it should to reach the obvious conclusion. "This is about Sherlock, isn't it?"
Another pause. I listen to myself breathe and consider who would be calling me, now, with information about Sherlock. It's not a long list; Mycroft, most likely, or one of his assistants.
My patience is no longer than my attention span these days--which is to say, laughably short-- and when I finally break the silence it's with a rush of irritation that's audible even to my ears. "Look, if you know something, just tell me, would you? I don't really like the phone, I--"
The man on the other end of the line cuts me off with a sharp exhale. "I know. I have some information you'll want."
"Let me get a pen." There's one on the table next to a pad of paper with the hotel's logo and its name: A to Z Hotel.
"There was only one body, Doctor Watson," the man says, and I feel my fingers clench convulsively around the pen as I form the words on the page. "The wrong body. Make sure you remember it. Write it down."
"Oh, believe me," I say with a laugh. "I already have." It's essential to have a system. "How do I know I can trust you?"
There's a sound that's almost like a laugh. "What choice do you have?"
I don't have an answer to that, but I must have told him about my condition, and he knew to reach me here. My notes don't help me beyond that, not over the phone. I glance down at the page. Fact 5: One body, it says, in handwriting that is recognisably my own. I have to trust my own handwriting, these days. I scrawl TATTOO beside it, just to be sure.
"Don't forget," the man says, after a moment. "I'll have more information next time. Take my call."
I don't even have a chance to agree before he disconnects.
My arm aches. I've been standing here for a while, then, trying to hail a taxi. Long enough that I've forgotten where I was going.
The realisation hits just as one finally glides to a stop in front of me.
"Damn it all, Watson," I mutter to myself, "get it together."
I pull the door open and slide into the seat. The movement sets off a harsh burning sensation in the front of my right thigh, but whatever's happened it probably wasn't a recent injury; my jeans are intact, not torn.
I don't have time to think about it anymore because I can see the driver's eyes in the rearview mirror. "Where to?" he asks. The expectation is reasonable, of course, but it feels like an accusation.
I mutter something about finding the address. I must have it written somewhere; I have a system for these things. I'm disciplined. In my jacket pocket there's a key on a blue plastic fob. A hotel, then, or a B&B. If it's not where I meant to go, it'll serve me as well as anywhere else. I get out my stack of photographs, flick through until I find one that looks like it might be the right place.
"Acton," I tell the driver, reading the address off the back of the polaroid. "150 Horn Lane."
I try not to rub at the burn in my thigh as the cab pulls out into traffic. I watch out the window as the streets slip by outside, one after another. I won't remember them, but sometimes it's nice just to look. To watch. It's still there, I tell myself. All of it. Everything you love about this city, everything Sherlock loved, still humming away, without either of you.
I'm still here, and I'm not, and it doesn't disappear when I close my eyes. It's something, at least, to know that. To remind myself that it meant something, that it still means something; that his jump from the rooftop hadn't shattered everything.
Only him, and me.
I didn't take taxis often, before Sherlock, preferring cheaper modes of transportation, but I'd grown used to them in the time we lived together. Now I take them out of necessity; it's too easy to forget where I'm going on the tube or while walking, too many potential distractions between departure and arrival. A taxi is like a little bubble of purpose; I can relax, knowing it will get me where I want to go without me having to remember. It feels a bit like it did when I used to follow Sherlock around; never entirely sure where we were headed or to what end, but he knew, and I was with him.
It feels a bit like releasing yourself into space and letting gravity take over. The first step is yours, but after that--
Well. After that, it's just a matter of waiting to see where you land.
There's a paper bag on the desk. I unfold it as soon as I hang up the phone, setting the note beside it on the cheap chipboard desktop so that I won't forget.
No, not that I won't forget; that's unavoidable. So that I'll be able to proceed with things when I inevitably do.
It's important to have a system, important to keep focused. Without that, it's easy for someone like me to get lost.
I go into the small en suite to wash my hands, catching sight of myself in the mirror. I'm shirtless, my skin striped with black ink in the form of the words I've found most important, the facts I absolutely can't be allowed to forget. I don't know how long I've been collecting them, how long it's been since-- since.
The last thing I remember is him falling, that wound still fresh though the one on my temple is nearly healed. (Is it? I check with my fingers, because perhaps I've lost track of that, too. Yes; there; shallow ridges of fading scars, paradoxically unfamiliar to my fingertips.) It's a new discovery every time: he's gone, and if I'm going to--
What? What am I even trying to do? Make what amends I can; restore some sort of balance. Move forward, and isn't that a laugh, the thought that this is the way to do it. Well, I certainly can't go back, so maybe what's left--
What's left is this, my own marked body. If I'm to move forward in any capacity at all, it's important to have a system. Essential, even; the only way. The things of greatest significance imprinted not on my mind but on my flesh, these lines of black ink telling a story I can't remember witnessing. I take the time to review them. There, it says it just above my right hip, learn by repetition. Hell, maybe it's working.
Along my abdomen, inverted so I can read them: Eat; below that, buy film. Above my right hip, the camera doesn't lie. (Of course. More trustworthy than pictures snapped with a mobile. Pixels are too malleable; too easy to mistake someone else's thoughts for me own. Where is my mobile?). Below that, habit and routine, then learn by repetition, then notes can be lost. And some notes can. My lip twists at the thought, the image of it reflected back to me in the filthy mirror.
Just below the peaks of my collarbones is a simple letter M. As though I could forget that. Below that, He's dead, an odd sort of reassurance. That's something; his accomplice may still be at large, but at least--
The words carved into my left shoulder catch my attention. Sherlock didn't lie, a line of script wrapping neatly around the bottom edge of my scar. I'd never doubted it, surely, yet I'd thought it necessary to remind myself. Why? I'm glad of it, regardless; glad to see the words carved there, indelible. He didn't. I know that. I know it.
On my right bicep: Don't trust. Hide your weaknesses. Inside my wrist, simply 221b; had I stayed there for a while, after? Or is this simply an expression of sentiment? Odd, to be unable to identify my own motivations. My right forearm is covered by a bandage. I know better than to scratch at it, though now that I've noticed it there it itches.
On my right pectoral, a graphic "IOU" framed by wings. I run my fingers over it. Beneath it, in reversed script: He had help. My left pectoral--not over my heart, not really, it's not as though I've forgotten all my training; still, there's value in symbolism--is blank. I'm saving it for when I've done it, of course. What I have to do. When I've found Moriarty's accomplice and eliminated him, finally. That blank space represents the end of the story I'm telling myself about my life. There's the blog, of course, from before; my body for after. This blank space is for the conclusion, then. Someday I'll be able record it there, know with absolute certainty that I did what I could, even if it wasn't enough, even if-- well. That I've done something.
Goals. Those are essential, too, even for someone like me.
On my left bicep: He is gone. (Oh, that I know. I know.) On my left forearm, MH is manipulating you, and I almost smile at that; of course he is, hasn't he always? There's a reason I've found it necessary to permanently inscribe the words in my flesh, perhaps, but no point in sorting it out right now.
I open my belt, push my trousers down. Along my right thigh are several neat lines of text, upside-down so I can read them:
Fact 1: White
Fact 2: Captain or Colonel
Fact 3: First name S____
Fact 4: Connection to Bart's
Memory's a funny thing; it can distort the shape of a face, change the colour of a car. It's not necessary if you have the facts.
I make my way back out of the bathroom, sit on the edge of the bed with my supplies to hand. Swab my thigh with alcohol, pour more of it over the needle to sterilise it. I let it splash onto the duvet, onto the carpet. I unfold the piece of paper, set it next to me on the bed.
This will hurt like hell, probably. No matter; I'll forget it soon enough. It's important to get the facts down while I remember them. It won't be neat, but then, memories never are, even real ones. Even the ones grounded in the prefrontal cortex instead of this poor substitute of ink and flesh. Sherlock taught me that; the human memory is flawed and, in that respect at least, mine is no different.
Still. I can adapt; I've learned to cope. "One body," I say aloud, as I set the needle against my skin and begin the slow process of creating a memory the only way I still can.
Saints Tattoo Studio, reads the sign, gold letters against glossy black paint, and I'm already digging in my pocket for a note before I reach the door. There's something, maybe; not in the front right pocket, maybe in the left. There's a reason you have a system, it's important to be organised about these things. Your situation might be nigh-on impossible, but if you approach it with enough discipline--
Ah, there. A folded sheet of white paper. The reason I'm here, black ink in my own handwriting:
TATTOO Fact 6: 07793864708
You learn to trust your own handwriting. I push the door open, nod to the woman standing behind the desk.
"Oh!" she says brightly. "Back already?"
I shrug and give her a bland smile. I could try to fake it, I suppose, but there doesn't seem to be much point. Instead, I hold out the slip of paper in my hand. "I really couldn't say," I tell her. "You see, I have this condition--"
"I know, John." She takes the slip of paper from my hand, her bright smile fading into one that seems more genuine as she reads what's written there. "You told me last time you were in. No worries. If you just have a seat, we'll have a chair open for you soon." She hands the paper back to me. "Now don't lose that."
I manage a genuine smile in response. "Don't worry," I assure her. "That's why I'm here."
My thigh burns. I don't mind, really. Pain is temporary, and now it's done. Permanent. Now it can't be lost.
The information is important. It will be safe, here, under my skin.
I'm washing my hands when I notice the writing just over the base of my right thumb: cane. I scrub at it, but it doesn't even smudge.
A reminder to bring mine? I glance around; it isn't here. Had my limp returned? Has it returned? I test my leg but the sensation in it is muddled, confusing, mixed up as it is with what I've just done to my own thigh. I frown at the word again. It's an odd note, uninformative. Must have been from the early days, before I'd worked out my system.
I can hear the voice of my old psych lecturer in my head with enough clarity that, just for a moment, I can believe what he's saying doesn't apply to me at all: A patient with anterograde amnesia will be unable to form new memories, but will gradually be able to improve day-to-day functionality through the cultivation of habitual behavioural patterns.
"This is why you have a system," I say to myself, rubbing at the black lines again in vain irritation. "You have to be disciplined about these things. Habit and routine. Without that you're nothing. Without that, you're lost."
The cafe isn't crowded, which means it isn't difficult to work out who's waiting for me. There's a woman with dark hair sitting at the corner table, head bent low over her mobile, a cup of coffee still steaming gently on the table in front of her. She looks up at me as I approach and I smile at her, tentative; her eyes dart over my face. Pale eyes, just like-- no, not just like, of course not, but close enough to be a shock, white skin and dark hair and pale eyes.
It makes me feel like I know her. It makes me ache.
Instead, I pull my collection of snapshots out of my shirt pocket. No, no-- there, that's her, isn't it? Standing in a doorway but turning back to me, her face in profile. My own handwriting under her image and on the back as well, beneath a scribbled-out line: She has also lost someone. Trust her. She will help you.
"Mary," I say, reading the name aloud.
"Christ," she says, a curl of harsh derision in her tone. "You read that off your bloody photo." She waves her hand impatiently, gesturing at the chair opposite her. "You really don't remember me at all."
"I'm sorry," I tell her, sliding the photos back into my pocket as I sit. "It's not personal. You see, I have this condition. Ever since--" I swallow. "Ever since my accident, I can't make new memories."
"You've told me before." She looks sad. There's a healing split along her lip, a dark bruise over her left cheekbone. If we've spoken before she's probably told me about it, so I don't ask. "Amnesia, right?"
I shake my head. "No. Well, yes, but not in the way you're thinking. Anterograde amnesia, not retrograde like on telly. Who I am, everything from before, I remember just fine. It's just that I've lost the ability to convert short-term into long-term memory." There's a tightening at the corner of her eyes. "And I've... told you this before, too."
"Yeah, sorry," she says. "It's just... really blank in there, isn't it." She bites her lip. "What's the last thing you remember?" She's almost frowning at me, searching my face, and there's something about the intent in those pale eyes that forces me to look away. Is this why I'm here? I look down; there's a word just above the base of my thumb, in handwriting I don't recognise: cane. I'm not carrying one, which makes this an odd sort of note. I wipe at it with my thumb, but it doesn't even smudge.
"Sherlock Holmes," I tell her without hesitation. "He's been in the papers." Had been, at least; how long ago?
She nods. "You worked with him."
"I remember him dying," I tell her. "He jumped off the roof of a building. I was there to witness it." I don't tell her about the phone call, because if I do that she might ask what he said. "I tried to get to him and I got... knocked down." Mary's mouth compresses into a tight line. "That's when I hit my head. So that's-- that's the last thing."
She's the one who breaks the gaze that time, looking down at her hands folded in her lap. Her hair falls across her forehead. "You miss him."
"Of course I--" I begin, but stop myself when I hear how harsh the words sound. Do I? Of course I do, but without a sense of time, statements like that become more complicated. Everything becomes more complicated. "It's a bit like waking up," I tell her, softening my tone. "Sometimes you remember what happened before you went to sleep right away, sometimes you don't, right? It's always a bit like I've just seen him. Like he's just gone out." My throat feels tight. "I had to move out of our old flat." I think that's likely true; we're miles from NW1 now, and it doesn't feel like I've been walking long. I'm probably staying somewhere else. There you go, Sherlock. There's a deduction for you. "It got confusing, opening my eyes to somewhere familiar, when things had-- had changed."
Somehow I know that's true, even though I don't remember it. Maybe I've told this story before; maybe it's wormed its way into my brain somewhere deeper than the hippocampus.
"It's hard," Mary says quietly, "I know. My father passed away recently." She raises her head again, and I can see that there are tears in her eyes.
"I'm sorry to hear that."
She stares at me for what feels like a long time. I'm missing something. I stare down at my hands, swiping absently at the writing over my thumb.
The people at the table beside us stand up to leave; the scrape of their chairs against the lino seems to jolt something in her, and the lines of her face settle into resolve. "I have something for you," she says, bending to rummage in her handbag and pulling out an envelope which she slides across the table to me. "I looked up that number you wanted."
"Thank you," I say automatically. I don't know what number she means, but that's the sort of knowledge I've learned to fake.
"The number you asked me to look up," she says, almost gently. "I ran a search." She taps the envelope. "It's all in here, but I should tell you, it came back-- odd."
"Well, I couldn't get a name. There's some sort of classification associated with it; I'd need a higher security clearance. Much higher. I don't think anyone in my office could access that information. The records themselves are classified. As it's a mobile number I thought I could get an approximate location where it's being used, but no luck. The best I could do was see that the calls are being rerouted through several service providers across Europe, then I hit a wall."
"That information is here?" I ask, opening the envelope, and she nods. "John." Her voice turns insistent and she reaches her hand across the table. Her fingers are long and thin and I almost cover them with my own out of instinct. Christ. "I don't know what you're involved in, but whoever's number that is, he's not someone you want to get mixed up with."
I scan the contents of the paper inside, and it does seem to say more or less what she's just told me. I get out my pen and scrawl "from Mary" across the top of the sheet.
"No, John. Don't. I could get-- I could get sacked for that." Her voice is sharp with alarm, underlaid by something I can't identify but which makes the back of my neck prickle with sudden apprehension.
"Why did you help me, then, if it could get you into trouble?"
"Because you helped me," she tells me, quirking her lip. The skin around the healing split pulls at the movement and I think, yes, I probably did help her. I tear a sheet of paper out of my notebook instead and copy down the number: 07793864708. This is about Sherlock; this is important. I write TATTOO next to it, so I'll know.
"You're up to six," she says quietly.
"Your tattoos. This would be six. Fact six."
I must have told her a great deal, then. She's been humouring me. I write it down anyway: TATTOO Fact 6: 07793864708, then fold the paper neatly and slide into the front pocket of my jeans.
"Thank you," I tell her. Her eyes are still moving over my face, quick and sharp. Not as quick or as sharp as Sherlock's, of course, but it still hurts. It takes effort not to turn away.
"Oh," she says, reaching down again for her handbag. "You left this at my place." She pulls out a key, on a blue plastic fob with Room 21 embossed in white letters.
I pull out my photographs and flip through them until I find one of a building with ‘A to Z Hotel' scrawled across the bottom of the image. I flip it over to read the address off the back and Mary scowls.
"You're still checked in there?"
I shrug. "Looks like it."
"It's a long walk, but there's a good place to get a taxi if you take a right out the door here and go two streets over," she tells me slowly. I open my notebook, jot that down. Taxis are expensive, of course, but the tube is out of the question. I could end up riding it on an endless loop. With all the distractions around me, it's too easy to lose track of where I'm headed.
When I look up again she's still watching me, her eyes shadowed. "If they're not good to you there, John, you call me. Got that?"
"Got it," I say, but I close my notebook without making a note. There's something about the way she's looking at me--that expression on those features, nothing like Sherlock's yet with so many surface similarities--that makes my chest ache with loss, makes my head buzz with something dizzying and dark. I want her in a way I can neither entirely understand nor justify, which means it's probably best to just let her go. "Just need to make a stop first." I indicate my pocket and her lips quirk into a smile.
It's nothing like Sherlock's, and I push my chair back to stand. I won't destroy her photograph in front of her, but if I'm lucky, I'll remember to get rid of it in time to let myself forget.
"You should have learned from Sherlock when you had a chance," I tell my reflection. "He'd be horrified at how dull it is, needing all these notes. All he'd have to do is take one look around and he'd be able to see."
The thought of Sherlock seeing me like this sends a sudden rush of hot rage up the back of my neck. I smack the palm of my hand against the sink basin, hard enough to hurt, knowing that it will ache later and I won't be able to remember why.
The utter futility might be the worst of it.
"All you have are your little notes, little scraps of paper to help you."
I catch sight of the words on my left shoulder, reversed so I can read them reflected: He had help.
"Get it together, Watson," I tell myself, tightening my jaw. "Smashing the place up will only make things worse. You have a job to do. Pitying yourself doesn't do anyone any good."
And it doesn't, of course. It says it right there, black ink on pale flesh: He had help. It took more than just Moriarty to bring down Sherlock Holmes, and whoever his accomplice was, it wasn't only Sherlock he was up against.
The world doesn't go away when I close my eyes.
I'm still here, and I have a job to do. I have more than just little scraps of paper. I have facts and a purpose and Sherlock doesn't have to see me like this, after all.
It might not be much, but it's enough to be getting on with.
There's a loud knock on the door.
I'm standing in a dingy hotel room, facing Molly Hooper, who has her back to the wall and is watching my face through narrowed eyes.
"I'm sorry," I say, taking a step back. My breath is coming fast and I can feel my heart pounding in my chest, but Molly seems calm enough. Whatever the danger was, then, it must have passed. I take two deep breaths, calming myself by force of will. "I'm not sure what I was. Um."
There's another knock on the door. "John? It's Lestrade. You called me."
Molly is still watching my face. Come on, Watson, I tell myself. You'll only upset her. Just fake it.
"You should get that," she says, holding out my pen and notebook.
I take them from her with a smile. "Thanks. If I lost these, I don't know what I'd do."
Mrs Hudson doesn't seem surprised to see me when I let myself into 221b. I've probably done this before; I've probably done this several times. It's a technique I remember from when I was practicing medicine. Back when I was a proper doctor; when I had a purpose beyond chasing a ghost. Before he lied to me--the only time he did so; his bloody note--and smashed everything to pieces against the pavement outside Bart's.
"Stop it," I mutter to myself. "Don't go down that road."
But why am I here, then, if not to do just that? There's nothing for me here, anymore; just Sherlock's things in piles, stacks of unlabelled boxes coated in dust. It feels like it happened yesterday, but dust can't be faked, and these boxes--
Dust is eloquent; it speaks of years.
Mrs Hudson watches me from the doorway. "You look thin, dear," she tells me. "Are they looking after you, where you're staying?"
"I wouldn't know it if they weren't." I try to smile. Try to turn it into a joke. It fails entirely, but she's kind enough to let it go.
In my mind I haven't been gone long enough to miss her--not on the bone-deep level I miss Sherlock; not with everything else so fresh--but it sends a pang of longing through my chest all the same, to be standing here with her; to see the expression on her face. I know why I left. Or, I think I know. Inside these familiar walls, among Sherlock's things, I'm unmoored, unable to distinguish between past and present with nothing to fill out the gaps between them. I saw her yesterday; she looks aged by years. Sherlock has been gone for years; her eyes are bright with present grief.
He'd sent her to me before he jumped. Now--after--I bring myself back.
The pavement had smashed everything.
"Does it help, doing this?" she asks while I open boxes, pick out small personal items that belonged to him. It confirms my suspicions; I've tried this before. I've probably burned boxes of his things already, trying to-- what? Not forget him. Give myself a sense of finality, perhaps. Make it stick. Knock something loose in my brain; let myself move forward.
If I could forget him, would I? If it meant being free of this, this endless cycle of waking as though he's just slipped away? Or, perhaps, go back twenty-four hours. If I had Sherlock's brain I could just delete that last day, write over his lies. Erase his decision to jump. Just stop the world one day earlier. He wouldn't be dead to me, then; he'd constantly be just outside of frame, in the next room, on his way back.
Would that be better? Would I somehow still feel it, still know?
Genius needs an audience. He'd told me so himself, that first night, and I suppose I'd rather be that for him, even now. Prefer to stand there and watch him jump (once, then over and over again, the last thought upon waking. How many times a day?). Prefer the fresh raw wound to blank oblivion; would return again and again to that pavement if it meant certainty that his last moments wouldn't go unobserved.
I have to believe the world is still there when I close my eyes.
"I don't know," I tell her honestly. "Maybe. Though as I'm here now...."
If I'd known her any less well, I would have believed that the expression on Mrs Hudson's face was a smile. "I've cleared off the back step for you. When you're ready."
Ready. I'll never be ready. What would that even mean, when the last thing I can remember--
I can't let myself finish that thought. Instead, I give her the best smile I can manage. "Thank you."
"I'll leave you alone for it, but I'll keep an eye out. Just to be safe." Her mouth tightens. In case I forget, she means; in case I wander off and leave an unattended flame on the steps. I've probably done it before.
I could close my eyes and burn the whole city down, but it wouldn't do any good.
I wouldn't be able to hold onto that, either.
Eyes open. Sitting on a bed, leaning against the wall. Right. Where am I?
Start with the basics.
"You're in a hotel room."
My body feels wrong, muscles still thrumming with the echoes of recent exertion. When I push myself to standing the change in elevation makes my vision flare, makes my head spin. There's nothing obviously amiss but still, it feels wrong.
Sherlock's voice in my head: You know my methods, John. Apply them. "Figure it out," I urge myself.
Just an anonymous hotel room. The room is dim, the curtains drawn. Cheap duvet, stained carpet. Nothing in the drawers. Nothing but the Gideon Bible, that is, trust the Gideons, but I check anyway, pull it open and--
There's the bible, yes, and resting on top of it is a gun.
I blink at it in confusion. I don't recognise it; it's not my old service weapon. A Glock 19 by the look of it. It's heavy when I heft it in my palm. Loaded. I check the magazine; three rounds missing. It's cold, not recently fired; I sniff the barrel, my own hand, just to be sure. If it was me who fired them, I didn't do it recently.
"Come on, Watson, where are you," I mutter to myself. "What are you doing? Figure it out, come on."
Sherlock would know. He'd be able to work it out from the cracks in the plaster and the eloquent fucking dust, he'd know. I need to think like him, calm down, take the time to assess. I rifle through my pockets. There's my camera, a key on a plastic fob. No mobile; where is it? My stack of polaroids is in my shirt pocket, and Christ, there's blood on my shirt, down the front and on the left cuff. The knuckles of my left hand are grazed and swollen with fresh bruises.
"System, Watson," I say to myself, trying to force my voice into steadiness. "You can do this, just use your system."
I tuck the pistol into the waistband of my trousers, as much on instinct as anything else. The back of my neck is hot and prickling with adrenaline; on sudden impulse I move to the bathroom, yank the door open and peer inside. No one. Nothing on the sink, either, besides a bar of hotel soap and a wrinkled towel.
I pull open the closet door and stagger backward.
There's a man in the closet, sitting on the floor, his head lolling woozily forward. There's a strip of gaffer tape over his mouth, stained by the line of dried blood that runs down from his nose. Strips of the same tape are wrapped around his wrists and ankles.
I crouch down in front of him, fisting a hand in his hair to draw his head upright until he's looking at me. "Who did this to you?" I ask. He just glares at me in response, his dark eyes flashing fire. I yank the tape off his mouth in one quick move. "Who?"
"You did, you daft bastard," he grinds out, coughing.
"This is your room?" I ask him; and he nods.
"Right," I say, and press the tape back over his mouth. He makes a noise of protest but I turn away from him and shut the door. I back away from the closet and freeze as my foot encounters something that makes a harsh crunching sound. I've stepped on a pile of shattered glass I'd somehow failed to notice before, the shards cracking against the sole of my shoe.
The room is spinning. I run my hand over my face. "Right," I say again. "You wouldn't have done this without a reason. There must be a reason. What can you bloody well deduce?" My voice sounds unsteady; I think I'm trying to convince myself as much as anything.
The truth is, I don't know anything. Sherlock's voice is in my head again: I didn't know, I observed.
"Well, I'm not you, now, am I," I mutter "and you're not here to help."
I wouldn't have left myself like this without any notes, without any clues. My hand is steady as I pull out the polaroids and flip through them. A hotel, a woman named Mary, and-- there. A poorly-lit photograph of a man's face, gaffer tape over his mouth and blood running from his nose. Underneath it, in my own handwriting, a name: Jonathan Small. I flip the photo over but that's all there is; no other notes, nothing to give me context.
Jonathan Small--if that's who he is--has started kicking against the inside of the closet door, a rhythmic thumping sound that contrasts dizzily with the pounding of the blood in my ears.
I'm fumbling the phone out of its cradle before I even realise what I'm doing. I dial the number for the Met switchboard from memory. "Detective Inspector Lestrade," I tell the woman on the other end of the line. "Please, it's important. Tell him it's John Watson." I read off the room's phone number penciled on the cradle and she promises that they can trace my location from there, that Lestrade is on his way.
I hang up the phone and stare at the polaroid. Just the face and the name. I've hurt him, either for a good reason or a bad one. He's still kicking against the inside of the closet, thump, thump, thump. I sit on the edge of the bed and force myself to take deep breaths.
There's a sharp rap on the outside door.
Even Scotland Yard's finest isn't that quick. I drop the photos on the bed and put one hand on the grip of the pistol, still resting against my low back. I keep my eye on the point of light at the peephole as I edge toward the door. It darkens abruptly and I freeze, flexing my hand.
It's a woman's voice, familiar. I blink, trying to place it.
"John, I know you're there. I'm-- it's just me. Molly. Can I come in?"
I peek through the peephole and it is her. I can see that she's alone, so I take my hand off the gun, pull the door open and usher her inside.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
"I don't know how you find these places," she says with a nervous almost-laugh while I lock the door behind her. "It's a dump."
Thump, thump, thump.
"And amorous neighbours as well?" she says, with a glance at the wall by the closet. "I mean, nothing wrong with that, but it's the middle of the day."
I snatch the polaroid off the bed and practically shove it into her hand. "Who the fuck is Jonathan Small?"
She blinks at it for a moment in surprise, then up at me. "I don't know," she tells me. "Why? What happened to him?"
The unknowing expression on her face makes me abruptly furious. It's not fair, living like this, minute to minute, with nothing--
Fine. Fine. I stride over to the closet and pull the door open. Molly makes a strangled sound of surprise at the sight of Small, now half-lying on the floor, struggling against the tape holding his wrists behind his back.
"He says I did this," I tell her, my voice sounding strained as I force the words out from between clenched teeth. "And I don't even know who he is. So. I need you to tell me what you're doing here. Now."
She just shakes her head until I shut the closet door again, blocking Small from her sight.
"I've already called Lestrade but please, Molly, if you know anything, you have to tell me. You must know something or you wouldn't be here."
"Mycroft," she says distractedly, finally meeting my gaze. "Mycroft Holmes sent me."
"He sent me to check on you. I should have known there was-- he's been asking me to, since I. Well. Since Sherlock." She sits on the bed. "He's not going to be happy about you getting the Yard involved."
"Whether Mycroft Holmes is happy or not is just about the least of my worries."
Her mouth twists into a wry smile at the sharp edge to my tone. "I know, John." She pats the bed beside her. "Sit down; you look like you're about to fall over."
She's right, as demonstrated by the way my knees all but collapse under me as I move to sit beside her. I rest my elbows on my knees and drop my head into my palms. My hands are shaking, the bones of my fingers rattling against the top of my skull.
"I'm sure there was a good reason," Molly says. "You're a good man, John. You wouldn't do something like... like that... without a reason." I look up at her; she's watching my face. "I know it's hard."
I don't mean to laugh, not really. "It's not hard," I spit out, "it's impossible." A shadow passes behind her eyes, making the way she's looking at me abruptly unbearable. I fish my notebook out of my pocket and begin to flip through its pages randomly, just so I don't have to meet her gaze.
Neither of us say anything for several long minutes.
I'm the one who finally breaks the silence. "Maybe I wrote something down," I say apologetically, even though I know that, if I did, it would be on the polaroid. That's the system; I depend on my system.
Her smile is tight, and kind, and more than a little pitying. "Don't worry. Lestrade will sort it out. He always does."
"Yeah. Wait, no. What do you mean, he always--"
I'm brought up short by something I see in the notebook: Molly knows something. It's the only writing on the page, a hurried scrawl, but obviously my own writing. I hold it up so she can see it.
"What's this? What aren't you telling me?"
Molly leans back slightly and shakes her head. "John--"
I flex my jaw forward to keep my teeth from grinding together in frustration. Inside the closet, Small is making muffled grunting sounds, and the situation is abruptly, unbearably overwhelming. All I can hear is Sherlock's voice in my head. No one's that clever, John. I'm certainly not; not clever enough to live like this. He would be. Sherlock. But he jumped and I hit my head and everything--everything--had shattered against that pavement, all at once. My chest feels tight; I can't seem to catch my breath. I can't do this. It's too much, I can't.
"Molly, if you know something--" My voice sounds strained, even to my own ears. "Please don't keep it from me. There's already enough I don't know."
"I-- it's to keep you safe, John. I'm sorry."
"Safe," I echo. "Does this seem safe to you? As it is now?" I wave my hand at the closet. "Christ, Molly, I'm a danger to others, never mind myself."
She tilts her chin up and regards me through narrowed eyes as she considers. "No," she says, after what feels like a long time. Then, as if it's just occurred to her: "You miss him."
"Of course I miss him." We both know who she means, without having to say his name. "It's-- I don't even know how long it's been. It feels like it just happened." I look down at my hands. Someone has written cane just above the base of my thumb; talking about Sherlock, it feels like an accusation. I try to wipe it away, but it doesn't even smudge. "I don't think it did, though."My notebook is almost full of my own writing; page after page of scraps of information, just enough for me to get by. "Please, Molly. Don't do this."
"Would it--all of this--be easier? If he were here?"
She reaches out to take the notebook out of my hand. Her lips tighten into a thin like as she looks at the page, reads what I've written there. "Who told you this? Why did you write it?" I shrug; of course I don't know. "Give me your pen," she says, and I comply with fingers that won't stop shaking. She tucks them both into her back pocket, beneath her where she's sitting. "John. What I'm about to tell you, you can't-- it really is for your own safety. It's what he wants."
"I told you, I really don't care what Mycroft--"
"Not Mycroft." Her voice is sharp. "Sherlock. He had to let you believe it, John. It was to protect you."
I shake my head. "I know he was lying. None of it was fake. None of it."
"No, John. Listen to me." Molly's eyes are bright with tears, locked on my own. "Listen. He's not dead. Sherlock. He's not. He's okay. He had to let you believe it to protect you, he had to let everyone believe it, because he needed to--"
There's a rush of heat up my throat, up the back of my neck. My limbs feel, suddenly, very far away. "What?" It doesn't sound like my voice. "Why-- what--"
"I'm so sorry, I've told you before. There was a while I couldn't stand it, I told you and told you, but it wasn't safe for you to remember, I can't let you--" Molly's talking quickly now, the words spilling out as though she can't contain them. "He didn't know what had happened to you, at first, but he had to let you believe it so they would believe it, do you understand?"
No, no, I don't understand at all. "He jumped. I remember it. It's the last thing I-- he's dead. Molly. What are you telling me?"
I can still see it, when I close my eyes. See him falling.
Molly is shaking her head. "No, John. He isn't. I helped him. You have it... just there." She reaches out her hand toward my chest; I flinch away from it, still reeling. "I didn't want to keep it from you. I never have."
"You've told me this before." The realisation is sudden and sends a bright flare of panic through my chest. I can't let myself forget this; can't let it slip away. "Christ, Molly, give me my-- you have to--"
She stands up, hurriedly, and backs away toward the wall. "No. I promised him. To keep you safe. To keep him safe. I promised."
My vision has narrowed down to her face, the harsh lines of her jaw, the hard set to her eyes. I look around, frantic; I don't understand what she's telling me, but if it's true I can work out the details later. If Sherlock's alive, then I have to get it written down, I have to remember. I will remember, I'm sure of it, I just need to keep it in my mind, I can't stop thinking about it, just remember, just until I get it down, write it down, find a pen, come on, I--
There's a loud knock on the door.
"Doctor Watson," says a male voice on the other end of the line. I don't recognise it, which doesn't mean we haven't spoken before. "Do you remember what I said last time we spoke?"
The question sends a spike of suspicion through my chest. "Of course not." I pull the curtains back, glance out the window. Old paranoia, but all that's down there is the street, the few parking spaces allotted for guests at the hotel. All seemingly normal, as far as I can tell. "If we've spoken before, I'd have told you about my condition."
"Of course," the voice goes on smoothly. Whoever he is, he's trying to placate me. "I thought perhaps you had written yourself one of your little notes."
"One of my little-- look. I'm not too good on the phone, so maybe we should meet in person. If you have something you want to tell me."
"I told you I'd have information for you. Information about Sherlock."
I freeze. "About Sherlock?" That's good; that's what I'm after. I'm shirtless, and even from across the room I can read the tattoos adorning my chest. My purpose right there in black ink, under my skin. I shift the phone receiver to my right hand, which aches as I curl it around the hard plastic. I balance the receiver on my shoulder and examine my palm, but there's nothing there to indicate what I might have done. "What about Sherlock?"
"Why don't you tell me? I know you like to talk about him." It's both true and it isn't; talking about Sherlock just deepens the dizzying sense that he's just stepped out, that he'll be back at any moment to resume his life; it makes me feel anchored in my own past, true, but it also rips it open again. "Tell me, Doctor Watson. What do you remember about that last day?"
Everything. Like it were yesterday; and for me, in a way, it is.
How am I supposed to heal if I can't feel time?
I'm sitting on the edge of a bathtub. Not mine, that I know of. Nothing on the counter but a bar of hotel soap. I'm holding an empty wine bottle by its neck, the glass grown warm with the heat of my hand. I stand and stretch stiff legs. I don't feel drunk, but--
Outside the bathroom I hear the sound of a door closing, footsteps across carpet, something being dropped heavily on a bed, the opening and closing of a drawer. I flatten myself against the wall, holding the bottle close to my chest, trying to calm the pounding of my heart. It's always an odd sensation, experiencing physical aftereffects with no understanding of why. So much of emotion feels the same, really, out of context.
Oh, but this one I know: adrenaline. Danger. This could, indeed, be dangerous.
I have a system. I trust my handwriting; I trust my body. There's something wrong.
I take a deep breath and step out of the bathroom, trying not to seem immediately threatening so as not to provoke an incident unnecessarily.
There's a man standing in the room. He's just thrown a black duffel down on the bed, and is in the process of peeling off his jacket. He's a bit taller than me, with dark brown hair which is sticking up wildly at odd angles. I don't have time to take note of anything else, because as soon as he catches sight of me he launches himself in my direction, snarling.
I must have been anticipating this; the bottle is a handy weapon, smashed against the edge of the television console.
Whoever this man is, he's not much of a fighter, at least not barehanded. I sidestep his first attack; he's off-balance, aiming a wild swing at my head which I dodge easily. I back him into the corner with my bottle and get in a good hook to his nose which starts the blood flowing; get my fingers in his hair and smash his head against the wall. Again and again until the capillaries burst in his scalp, until it dazes him. He slithers down to lean at an awkward angle with one shoulder propped against the edge of the bureau.
I'm out of breath and I know I don't have much time to figure out what's going on before he gathers his wits again. I wrench open the duffel bag he'd carried and find myself immediately in luck; there's a stack of fifty-pound notes in there, grouped into neat bundles, jumbled in with balled-up clothing and several rolls of gaffer tape.
"That'll work," I mutter to myself. I tear off strips and wrap them around his ankles, pull his wrists behind his back to pin them there.
"I'm not sure who you are," I tell him, though I don't know that he's conscious enough to hear me, "but I need a few minutes to sort it out without you jumping at me again, right?"
There's no response from him, so I set to work rifling through my own pockets, trying to turn up some information about who he might be and why I might be there. I start with my stack of polaroids; there's no picture of him, but I do find a note clipped to the back of a photograph of a woman whose picture bears the name "Mary:" Jonathan Small - City View Hotel, 113 Roman Road, room 9. He's threatening me because I know what he did to my father. Below that, a phone number.
The note isn't in my handwriting. I check the back of Mary's polaroid and there's a message in my hand: She has also lost someone. Trust her. She will help you.
"Trust her," I say to myself. Then, louder, to the man on the floor, "Small? That's you?"
He groans something that sounds like agreement.
Right, okay. So I need a minute to think, to work out who exactly Mary is and what I should do next. Small is starting to squirm, on the floor, and I realise the gaffer tape isn't going to hold him for long; not to mention, all he'd have to do is wait a few minutes then ask me to let him loose and I'd probably do it, though he may not realise that. I just need him out of the way until I can get someone here who has a better idea of what's going on.
He's heavy and loose-limbed and it's awkward work that wrenches my shoulder painfully, but in the end I manage to drag him into the room's closet, propping him upright in the corner so he won't choke on the blood that's still seeping from his nose. As an afterthought, I press a strip of tape across his mouth. I have to wipe away the blood that's flowed down onto his lip to get it to stick.
I grab the duffel from the bed and toss it into the closet after him, then take my camera and snap a photo of his face, writing his name on the white strip below the picture. I shut the closet door and set the polaroid on the bed to develop while I wash the blood from my hands. My shirt is stained, but there's nothing to be done about that at the moment.
When I call Mary, she picks up the phone on the second ring, sounding genuinely surprised to hear my voice.
"I'm going to ring the police," I tell her. "I have a friend with the Met, he can help you."
"The police," she echoes, sounding hesitant. "Okay." There's a long pause before she continues. "I ran the number you asked for."
"The phone number. Don't worry, John, you told me about your condition." We set a meeting time for later that day, which I jot down in my notebook along with her name and phone number. She asks me to destroy her note, which I do as soon as we've disconnected by flushing it down the toilet.
I sit down on the bed to call the Yard, tucking the photo of Small into my pocket with the rest of them, and it's only then that I realise how exhausted I am. My hands are shaking and my legs and hips are stiff, as though I've been running. There's no noise coming from the closet. It's hard to know how long it's been since I've rested, never mind eaten.
My time with Sherlock, at least, trained me for this. Still, the adrenaline crash is hitting me hard; it wouldn't hurt to grant myself just a few moments of rest, just to pull myself together.
"All right," I say to myself. "You can have just a minute, then you have to call Lestrade and get this whole mess untangled."
Just for a moment, then. Just to catch my breath. I lean my head back against the wall and close my eyes.
"You read about him in the papers, right? He didn't have much patience for the reporters, so he tended to come across as a bit. Well. I think he was a hard man to write about, if you didn't know him as I did."
"Was he different, at home?"
"Oh, sure." I flex my sore hand again, scowling at it. "Well, yes and no. It wasn't an act, you know, the way he was, but sometimes--" Sometimes he let his guard down, I think, with me. It's true enough, but it still feels too private to admit out loud. "Look, I probably shouldn't-- who are you?"
"An interested party."
"Interested in what, exactly?"
"Interested in seeing that Sherlock Holmes is given the legacy he deserves," the voice continues smoothly. "I know you like to tell me about him, John."
And that feels true, somehow, even though I can't verify it. Sherlock might have claimed not to care about his reputation but I'd seen the anger in his face when he'd had to witness Moriarty's act first-hand, I'd read the way the papers had turned against him. I'd seen him scowl and carefully avert his gaze in those last few weeks when we passed a newsagent's, avoiding looking directly at the bold headlines visible on the racks: Internet detective proven hoax; The Science of Deception. I can feel my face heat at the injustice of it all.
Maybe it's the soldier in me, echoes of the old epics; glory after death to justify the ultimate sacrifice. It won't justify it. Nothing could. If I could ask for one thing, one thing for myself, I wouldn't ask that I'd never been invalided, that my shoulder would stop aching. It wouldn't be for my mind to be intact again, that I might be able to-- no. I could handle that, even that, if he were here.
I'd just want him to-- to stop. To stop being dead, stop all of it. To come back. For his own sake, of course, and for mine.
"What do you want to know?"
What am I doing?
Running. I'm running down a pavement in-- Christ, where am I? Past shuttered windows, shops with the metal gates drawn down in front of the doors. It seems I've been at it for a while; my breath is coming in harsh gasps, my chest aching with the effort.
I round a corner into a side street just in time to see another man do the same, entering the side street from another corner a few dozen metres down. He has dark hair and a face that's flushed from exertion. Am I chasing him? If so, no time to consider; I shove off from the wall and start in his direction, only to be brought up by a bright flash of metal in his hand. A gun.
Ah. He's chasing me.
I spin on my heel and sprint back the way I came.
I hear his shout behind me, echoing off the bricks on either side of the street."Oi! Stop!"
I turn back onto the main road just in time; there's a loud crack and I hear the bullet hit the brick to the right of where I'd just been. That'll bring the police, at least. The road is mostly deserted. From behind me there's a curse and a clatter of metal against metal; I don't hesitate, just keep moving forward, wanting to put as much distance as possible between myself and the dark-haired man whoever he may be.
A lorry passes, its tyres rumbling loudly against the uneven pavement, and I use its cover to duck through an archway into a small grassy space behind a row of houses. I press my back against the wall and try to muffle the sound of my own breath until I hear the man run past me.
I wait a few more seconds to be sure he isn't about to double back, then dig in my pockets in hopes of finding a note to tell me just what sort of mess I've landed myself in this time. There's a stack of polaroids in my shirt pocket. I flip through them until I find a photograph of a woman in profile, standing in a doorway. My handwriting below the image tells me her name is Mary. On the back are two lines of writing, in two different hands: She has also lost someone. Trust her. She will help you.; and below it, in an unfamiliar script, Don't trust her.
You learn to trust your own handwriting, in a situation like mine. Still, no point in taking a chance of getting confused. I fish a pen out of my pocket and cross through the second line of text, obscuring it entirely.
There's a note clipped to the back of the polaroid; a man's name and what I assume is information about where he's staying, a hotel and a room number.
It doesn't explain much, but it seems as likely a place to start as any.
I'm still trying to work out just where I am, patting my pockets in search of a key--there's one, but the number on the fob is different than the one on the note--when a door opens behind me. I tense, preparing to run again, but it's just an elderly man in a dressing gown taking a bag of rubbish out to his bin. I consider the likelihood that I'm in danger from more than just the dark-haired man with the gun, and decide it's probably safe enough to ask.
"Excuse me," I call. The man turns his head with a jerky motion to squint in my direction. "Can you tell me where to go from here to get to Roman Road?"
"You're taking the piss, right?" He cocks his head. "Are you daft? Bloody hell. You've just come from there. You must have walked right by it." He waves a hand at the archway, indicating the road I've just come from.
"Right." I feel a hot flush of shame make its way up my throat, but-- no, I don't have time for this. "And the City View Hotel?"
He scowls. "Left. It's right there. Less than a quarter of a mile away. Not that I know why I bother." He fixes me with a sour expression, then turns and disappears back inside, slamming the door behind him.
A quarter of a mile. I look out onto the road and-- no, no sign of the dark-haired man. I run anyway, just to be safe, and reach it almost immediately: a white building painted inexplicably red to the top of the ground floor. I pause beneath the torn awning and consider means of getting into the room.
Well. I've seen Sherlock do this sort of thing often enough, after all. I can hear the sound of approaching sirens. Someone must have called in the gunshot. It's now or never, then; I pull open the hotel door and go inside.
There's a slight woman with dark hair sitting at the front desk, attention absorbed by the telly playing against the back wall. She glances in my direction, takes in my dishevelled state without comment, and turns back to her program.
"I left my jacket on the Tube," I say, playing up the way my recent exertion has made my breath come ragged, letting it strain my voice. "My room key was in the pocket."
She doesn't look at me. "There's a charge for lost keys."
I shrug. "I'm going to file a report, maybe it'll turn up." She breathes out a quick laugh at my naiveté. A sense of relief washes over me; she's bought it. "If not, I suppose I'll have to pay it."
"Small," I tell her. "Room six." She bends to check her paper register just as two police cars speed by outside. She doesn't seem to notice; she grabs a key off the wall behind her, handing it to me without a word and returning her attention to the telly.
I climb the stairs to the first floor. Room 6 is at the end of the hall. I pause briefly before entering, but there's no sound coming from the other side of the door, so I let myself in. I'm assuming this room belongs to the man who was just chasing me; if so, I need to be ready--whatever that means--before he gets back.
"You know what to do," I tell myself, my voice harsh with frustration. "Don't waste time, just find a weapon."
I cast my eyes about the room until I spot an empty wine bottle in the bin. It's not ideal, of course, but it's better than nothing. I pick it up and move into the room's en suite, pulling the door almost shut behind me and settling on the edge of the the stained, cracked tub to wait.
"How do I know he wasn't faking?" The question is so absurd I almost laugh. "Do you have any idea what he was like to live with? There were things no one could possibly-- right. I have nightmares sometimes, you know. Ever since Afghanistan." Do I still? It's an odd thought. Do I remember them, when I wake? Does it matter if I don't? "Some mornings, he'd come home--he'd have been out all night, you know, sometimes for days--and he'd take one look at me and know. You should have heard some of the things he said to the paying clients, when he was in a strop. Or to my girlfriends, christ."
"So that's your evidence, then? That he noticed bags under your eyes and was rude to strangers?"
Evidence? What evidence did I have? I might not have been clever, by Sherlock's standards, or so quick to see, but I'd had eighteen months to gather data. Eighteen months of little moments and heroic leaps of logic. He'd gone to meet Moriarty at the pool, and before he left he promised to do the shopping. He'd drugged me in that lab in Devon, experimented on my brain--and christ, wouldn't he love to get his hands on me now--and afterward he'd asked about my leg. He'd pointed a gun at my head--in the street; in front of half the Met--and it didn't feel anything but safe.
I shake my head, though I know he can't see me. "No." That he noticed the bags under my eyes doesn't prove anything; it's that he thought to look at all.
"How do you know, John?" The voice on the other end of the line is insistent. "Do you have any proof?"
"No. It's just--" I swallow against the tightness in my throat. "All can tell you is that I knew him. I knew him. He was a flawless liar and a manipulative bastard and mad as a cracked pot, but the part you mean, that was all true."
I'm standing on an unfamiliar street, holding a piece of paper in my hand. The street itself is nearly deserted; there are a few shops but they all seem to be closed. Across the street an elderly man in a brown suit is rolling down the metal grate in front of the door to a chemist's.
"Excuse me," I call to him. "I think I'm a bit lost. I'm looking for--" I glance down at the note in my hand. "--the City View Hotel. Do you know it?"
He gives me a small smile. "You're on the right street. It's about half a mile in that direction," he tells me, pointing. "I hope you aren't planning to stay there, though. It's horrid."
"Thanks," I tell him. My note says I'm looking for someone there, but It hardly seems prudent to tell him so.
I turn in the direction he'd indicated and walk until I find it, a white building with its name in big silver letters painted red to the top of the first floor.
As I'm standing on the pavement considering my next move, a man with close-cropped dark hair exits the front door of a small cafe a few doors down and stops short, staring at me.
I give him a half-smile, prepared to fake recognition, hoping I can avoid getting drawn into a conversation and losing track of what I'm doing. "Yes?"
I sigh inwardly and tuck the slip of paper back into my pocket among the polaroids, where I know I'll look for it first. Maybe he doesn't know about my condition, or I told him and he doesn't quite believe it. I've seen the friends and family of patients with memory disorders, from Alzheimer's to amnesia. Often enough they might intellectually understand their loved one's difficulty without being fully prepared for the emotional impact of not being remembered themselves. It's never a pleasant scene. I try to prepare myself.
"I'm sorry, do I know you?"
"No," he says slowly, "but I know you, you freak."
It isn't until he lunges at me that I realise I need to run.
"How do I know I can trust you?"
"You told me about your condition. You told me about Sherlock."
"Everyone knows about Sherlock. He's been in the papers. Maybe you just read my blog."
"I know other things," the man on the other end of the phone says. "Things you know are true."
"Me?" I laugh, the sound of it tight and bitter in my mouth. "I don't know what's true, minute to minute. I don't know anything."
"I know there was only one body, John."
"What are you talking about?"
"It's on your thigh. It's okay if you want to check; I'll wait."
I set the phone on the bed and press myself to standing. I watch my own image in the mirror over the bureau, eyes skittering over the words on my chest. He had help jumps out, written in reverse so I can read it easily.
I drop my hands to my belt, get it open, undo the button and flies on my jeans. My hand aches; I flex my fingers, examining my palm, but can't see any physical explanation for the pain. I step out of my jeans and pull the leg of my boxers up, let my eyes skim past the writing on my abdomen--Eat; Buy film--to read the words written on my right thigh.
Fact 1: White
Fact 2: Captain or Colonel
Fact 3: First name S____
Fact 4: Connection to Bart's
Fact 5: One body
He knows something. The man on the phone knows something about Sherlock. I leave my jeans where they are and sit heavily on the bed. My fingers are shaking when I pick up the receiver and hold it to my ear.
"It fits," I tell him.
"Of course it fits," he says. "I wouldn't lie to you. I can help you, John, but there's something I need you to do for me first."
I nod, even though he can't see me. I still don't trust him, exactly, but if he knows something about what happened to Sherlock--about Moriarty's accomplice--then it's worth the risk.
"Do you have a pen?"
Of course I have a pen. I always have a-- no matter. I open my notebook. "I'm ready."
I come to a halt when a black car pulls up beside me. The door opens to reveal a young woman I don't recognise.
"Hello, John. Won't you get in so we can talk?"
"Cheers, but I'm not really in the habit of getting into cars with strangers." Not when I can help it, at least.
I pull out my stack of polaroids and flip through them, but-- no, none of her, or of this car.
"Mycroft Holmes sent me."
I've fallen for that one before, of course. I don't bother giving her a response.
"Check your notebook," she says, with a sigh. "It's... toward the beginning, I believe."
She sends a message on her blackberry while I flip the pages until I find a page with my own handwriting on it: Mycroft will verify his agents by moving the cameras. Then, at the bottom in the page, in much smaller letters: Be careful; he's using you.
I do my best to keep my face neutral. "The cameras?"
She nods, indicating up and over my left shoulder. When I turn to look at it, the lens swivels away, then back again. "And across the street," she tells me, and I watch a CC camera mounted above a bank entrance do the same. "Now will you get into the car?"
"He's sent you before." It isn't quite a question, and her half smile isn't quite an answer. "And he sent you for a reason. I do actually have my own things to be doing with my time, you know,"--whatever those things were, I'll have a note about them somewhere; I have a system for a reason--"so I'd appreciate you getting to the point."
"Mr Holmes is worried about you."
"He worries about a lot of people," I spit back. "It seems it doesn't always do much good." Someone has written the word cane in black ink just above the base of my right thumb. I try to wipe it away, but the ink doesn't even smudge.
"You spoke to a woman today who goes by the name of Mary Morstan."
"I'll have to take your word for it."
"You have her picture in your pocket." She's right about that, as it turns out. The photograph shows her with her head turned in profile, standing in a doorway. "She's asked you to do something for her. A favour."
"Don't trust her, John," she says, leaning forward on her elbows. Her eyebrows have been sculpted into perfect arches; beneath them, her brown eyes are trained very intently on my own. "She's dangerous. Trying to use you for her own ends."
"That, coming from your employer, is one of the funniest things I've heard in a long time."
"My employer, as you put it, has a vested interested in your safety." I don't laugh, exactly. She leans back in her seat. "This is no joking matter, John. I've been instructed not to let you out of my sight until I can be assured that you are prepared to take adequate precautions where Ms Morstan is concerned."
"And what, exactly, would constitute adequate precautions?"
"Just make a note, John. Write it down. Don't trust her." She looks pointedly at the car door. "Once I can be sure you won't allow yourself to be manipulated into performing the task she set for you, you're free to go."
A hot flood of rage rushes up my spine at the hypocrisy of it; Mycroft, sending one of his lackeys to manipulate me like this. I have to trust my system, and I can't do that if he's trying to muck it up, making me write things that aren't true.
Think it through, Watson. Trust your system; trust your handwriting.
"Fine," I tell her, forcing the word out from between clenched teeth. I dig out a pen and make a note on the back of Mary's photo. I write Don't trust her below my earlier note to do just the opposite, holding the pen at an awkward angle. My hand is shaking with rage and I make no effort to control it. The result is a messy, unfamiliar script that no one familiar with my handwriting would ever attribute to me. "There. Happy now?" I wave the photo in front of her, then slide it into my pocket.
"It's not my happiness that should be your concern." I slide my camera out of my pocket and she puts up a hand to push the camera back into my lap. "No. Mr Holmes wouldn't allow it. You know that."
"Mycroft Holmes knows I don't know any such thing," I say, though I suppose I could have anticipated as much. "If my happiness is of such concern to him, maybe he should stay the hell out of my affairs and stop preventing me from making use of the few tools that have made this all--" I wave my hand in frustration, encompassing her, myself, the car. My entire life.
She gives me a tight smile. "Have a good afternoon, Doctor Watson," she says, and leans forward to open the door.
"I've located the man you're looking for. You have all the relevant information there in front of you. Check it against your tattoos."
I look down at the piece of paper in front of me and read Captain A Morstan. "Why are you doing this? Why are you helping me?"
"I told you, I'm an interested party. I want to see justice served to... those who deserve it."
"And you think Sherlock deserves it?"
There's a pause before he answers; when he does, there's a note in his voice of something like regret. "Sherlock Holmes deserves a great many things, Doctor Watson. As do you."
"And if I find this man," I ask. "How will I know him?"
"Trust in the facts. You'll know."
The facts. The few things I've known well enough to record in a way that can't be lost. The few absolute certainties left to me.
I hear, in memory, Sherlock's exasperated exclamation: What's it like in your funny little brains?
And the hell of it is, if he were here now, he'd have his answer. He'd be able to read it right there on my thigh, black letters against white flesh. Human memory is fallible but this is truth made manifest, memorialised in ink. Under my skin.
I can picture him, suddenly, looking down his nose at me, lips quirked into a smile: I've always been able to read you, John. And maybe if he were here I wouldn't need this, but-- well.
If I can't trust my own mind, then I don't really have a choice.
I take a deep breath, focusing my eyes on the blank page in my notebook. "Tell me where to go."
I look up at the sound of the door opening to see a slight, dark-haired woman enter. She's visibly upset; she has the end of her shirtsleeve bunched in her palm and is pressing it against what's obviously a recently-split lip. She turns, angling her head to the side to try to hide it from me.
I don't recognise her, but that hardly seems a consideration under the circumstances. This is likely her flat; likely her sofa I'm sitting on, I suppose. Sherlock would know instantly, he'd know her entire life story from a few seconds spent here among her things, from the dirt on her shoes and the way she closed the door behind her, but all I can see is that the blood from her lip has stained the fabric of her sleeve, that her eyes are red with recent tears.
"Are you hurt?" I'm off the sofa and moving toward her before I can even get the words out. My heart is pounding in my chest; maybe I've been here for a while, maybe the door opening was a surprise. "What happened?"
"It's nothing." She takes a half-step back from me and I freeze, giving her space. "Really, it's-- it's fine." She edges around me to move toward the flat's small kitchen.
She doesn't respond to that, just grabs a tea towel and wets it at the tap.
"Careful with that," I say as she begins to dab at her lip. "May I?" She narrows her pale eyes at me and nods with a quick jerk of her chin, letting me take the towel from her hand. She watches my face as I clean her lip. The way her pale eyes track mine edges close enough to something familiar that just for a moment I allow myself to imagine that I'm back on Baker Street, with Sherlock. I doubt I've done this before, here, with her, and yet this all feels somehow routine. It's dizzying,
"I'm sorry," I tell her when I finish. "I just need to, ah." I set the towel aside and have to force myself to tear my eyes away from the sight of the blood soaked into its fabric. I pull the stack of photographs out of my pocket; it's only then that I notice my hand is shaking. "It's just-- I have this condition."
"I know, John. I'm Mary," she says, almost gently, though there's something tense lurking below her words. "There, see, that one's me." And there she is, on the top of the pile; caught in profile against the front door of her flat.
I've told her about my condition, then. It's possible I've known her for a long time. I pull my notebook out of my jeans pocket and flip through the recent pages but there's nothing there that seems to pertain to her. Inside my left front pocket I find a folded piece of paper with a phone number.
It's not my usual system, but I have to ask. "Is this yours? Or... familiar to you at all?"
She frowns at it for a moment, then shakes her head. "No." Her voice cracks slightly on a sob and I feel a pang of regret at how lost I am. How useless.
Nothing for it but to ask, then. I clench my jaw in frustration, but one look at the rising bruise on her face reminds me that there are things more important than my pride.
"Well, you're obviously upset. Is there something I can do?"
She touches her fingertips gingerly to her lip. "God, you really don't remember at all. I'm sorry, I know it's just-- I just thought. Maybe you'd remember, and I wouldn't have to--" She sinks into one of the kitchen chairs and drops her head into her hand; I can't help reaching out to place my hand against the back of her shoulder.
"I really am sorry, it's not personal."
"No, I know that, I really do. I'm sorry, it's not your fault." She lifts her head and I can see that her lips are twisted into an approximation of a smile, though her eyes are bright with tears. "It's just-- since my father was killed I've been getting these threats, and I thought, since you used to work with that detective, who solved all those-- I thought you'd be able to help me. But now I-- I don't know."
I have to swallow against a sudden tightness in my throat at the mention of Sherlock. I may not have his skill with reading people but she's so obviously frightened, so obviously desperate if she's reduced to asking me for help, now, as I am. "I really am sorry if you've told me all this already." It's a fight to keep my voice even. I want to help her; I hope, fervently that I can. "Why don't you start from the beginning."
She slants her face upward and the hopeful expression in her pale eyes makes my chest ache. She doesn't look anything like Sherlock, really, but there are just enough similarities--pale skin, pale eyes, dark hair--that it almost hurts to be so close to her.
Right. Well, if I want to help, I can't go about it the old way. Sherlock isn't here, and I-- I need to ask for information. I'll have to write it down. There's no pen in my pocket, nor in my other one when I check. Shouldn't there be? I have a system for these things. I'm sure I carry one. Almost sure. Have I lost it? I can feel a tight spiral of panic beginning in my chest. How long ago? How much have I missed?
"Here," Mary says, fishing a pen out of her own handbag. "You can keep it."
"Thank you." I take it, touching my tongue to my lip. My mouth feels dry. "Must have lost mine somewhere." She huffs out something that's halfway between a laugh and a sob, and I slide a hand forward across the table. Not actually touching her, just-- an offering, if she wants it. "You know they'll catch him. Whoever it was who killed your father, whoever it is that's threatening you. He'll get what he deserves."
"Yeah, maybe." Her shoulders jerk and her voice breaks, but the tears in her eyes don't spill over her cheeks. "I hope so."
"I'll do everything I can," I say, helplessly, and watch the movement of her throat as she swallows.
Two shuddering breaths later and she seems to have regained at least some of her composure. "You know," she says slowly. "If you need that number for something, I can-- I work for the police." I can feel myself frowning at her. "That's how we met, you know. You came in to-- to return a lost wallet." Her eyes darken briefly but she continues nonetheless. "If you could help me I'd be so grateful, John. I'll run the number for you, find out whose it is."
"You don't have to." The intensity with which I want to help her is surprising. If this were Baker Street and she had come to Sherlock, we'd have been able to help. I want that again. To be useful, to have a purpose. To be able to do something positive, something that will last.
I look at the note sitting on the table. It's just a number, no other identifying information; obviously written by me, likely in a rush. Likely important, then. Is that the conclusion Sherlock would have reached? I wish I knew. He's not here, and it hurts to know that, if he were, he could help her. He could help me. That it's the best I can do, with my whole life reduced to notes scribbled on scraps of paper, in danger of being erased by the lack of a pen. A sudden spike of hot rage surges up my throat and I swallow against it, clenching my right hand into a fist against the side of my leg to stop it from shaking.
Mary doesn't seem to have noticed; instead, she just shakes her head. "I know I don't, but-- you told me about Sherlock, what you're trying to do." My hand is resting on the tabletop. She covers it with her own. "Really, John. If I can help you in any way, it's... it's the least I can do." She pulls a folded piece of paper out of her handbag and holds it out to me. "If you really want to help, here's his information. The man who--" She breaks off with a wry twist of her damaged lip.
I take it from her with a nod. Wanting to reciprocate; I can understand that. Christ, I can understand that. "Right." I take a deep breath and force myself to relax the muscles of my right hand. "You've been nothing but kind to me, really, and this is what I do." Used to do, I think, but that won't be true anymore, will it? If I can help her? "I don't know how much I'll be able to do, but know that it will be everything I can."
I'm down in the hotel lobby before I have a chance to think twice about it, the metal body of the Sig Sauer warming slowly against my lower back.
The man behind the desk smiles at me as I pass. "Where are you headed in such a hurry, Doc?"
Best not to raise any suspicions. Just in case. "No idea." I flash him a smile and he believes it because-- well, why wouldn't he? "Let the cabbie sort it out."
He laughs as I step out the door onto the street. "You're going to get yourself into trouble one of these days."
I'm lying on a sofa in an unfamiliar sitting room, facing a switched-off telly. Through the windows, I can see the sky is just starting to lighten toward morning. There's the click of a key in a lock and I push myself to sitting as the front door opens and a slight woman with dark hair enters. She's visibly upset, her posture radiating tension; she hurries around the room, snatching up small items and dumping them into her handbag while I hurriedly flip through my stack of photographs for some clue as to who she is or what might be going on.
Ah, there, her photograph. Mary. "What's wrong?" I flip the polaroid over. There, in my own writing: She has also lost someone. Trust her. She will help you.
She spins on her heel to face me, fists clenched at her sides. "You," she spits out. "You have the nerve to sit there, and ask me that."
Her eyes are red, and there are bright spots of colour on her cheekbones, a flush against the pale skin of her throat. Sherlock would know what was upsetting her, if he were here. He might not understand it, but he'd know. But I'm not him; I'm at a loss. My tongue feels thick in my mouth. "I'm sorry if I've done something to upset you. I have this condition--"
Her laugh is hard-edged. "Oh, John, I know all about your condition. I probably know more about you than you do, right now." She narrows her eyes at me. "I asked you back here because I thought maybe you did know what happened to him, maybe-- but no, you don't know anything. You're useless."
We stare at each other as a long, tense silence stretches between us until she clears her throat.
"Do you have a pen I can borrow?"
It's such an abrupt switch, such a laughably incongruous request, that it takes me a moment to realise what she's asked. I fumble my pen out of my pocket and hold it out to her. She snatches it away as she brushes past me on her way to the kitchen.
"What's this all about?"
From the kitchen I can hear the sounds of drawers being yanked open, slammed shut again. "Do you want to know what I learned today, John? About you?"
I don't answer her. There's a familiar feeling of anticipation beginning to gather at the base of my spine, dark and electric. My skin feels like it's buzzing with energy. I tip my chin down, clench my hands into fists at my sides. Prepare to hold my ground. The note said trust her; I have to trust my system.
"Do you know what this is?" She reappears in the kitchen doorway, brandishing a piece of paper in her hand. "This is the name of the man you're going to kill for me. Well, unless he gets to you first." She waves it again. "I'm showing it to you now because I want you to know what it is. When I give it to you again you won't have a fucking clue, though, will you? You won't even know that you could have stopped it now."
I tighten my jaw. I can't seem to get enough air into my chest. "What are you talking about." It doesn't sound like a question.
"I know where you got the wallet, John." Her eyes are red with recent tears. "Oh, for fuck's sake. My father's wallet. It was you, wasn't it. You did something to him, or you know something. And now his partner's after me--the only one who's left; they were all gone but my father and Small and now it's just him and me, and I don't--fuck." At that she turns and slams her hand into the top of the TV console. I take a step toward her and she spins, the expression on her face wild and somehow lost. "It's just me left. How do you think that's going to end for me? I'm already getting threats, I--"
I can't seem to take my eyes off her face, the slant of her pale eyes, the waves of dark hair. She's furious, and she's beautiful. She doesn't look like Sherlock--not really; not much--but it's just enough that I hold myself back from-- what?
"John Watson," she says with a bitter laugh, "I have a problem, and your fucked-up brain is going to be my solution. That's what you want, isn't it? To save me?" The last words slide into a sneer. My chest feels too tight to speak. I don't know what she's talking about but everything in my head is screaming at me to get out of there, to run. But there's a suspicion, something nagging at me--
She takes another step closer, near enough now that I can see the rapid thread of her pulse in her throat. "I know what you did."
"I wouldn't," I say, but it sounds hollow. "I'm not-- I wouldn't." But even as I'm saying it my mind is racing backward; is it possible? Could I have been convinced, manipulated? Find the right pressure point, push the right button....
She doesn't laugh, exactly. "You don't know that. You can't know that. You don't know who you are anymore; you told me so yourself. He set my father up, you know. Set him up, used you to take him out. Found someone who knew you well enough to feed you your little clues."
"Who?" It's a stupid question, really, in the face of everything else, but it's a solid enough detail that my brain latches onto it and doesn't want to let go.
"My father's partner. Oh, don't worry," she says, patting her pocket. "I wrote it down for you. You hurt me, John, and I'm going to hurt you back. I mean, I already know you're capable of it, right?" Her lips twitch, her eyes glistening with tears. "Oh, I know you were careful, I know about what you used to do. You used to run around with that liar, that fake detective--"
Christ. Sherlock. I'd told her about Sherlock.
"--and I'm sure he taught you a few of his tricks, but this time, there's plenty of evidence. I'll be sure you'll spend the rest of your miserable life locked up for what you did."
"I won't." My voice sounds tight, choked, even to my own ears.
"I'll have to remember him every day, but you. How do you think you'll fare in prison, John? Hmm? Day after day, for something you can't remember doing? What do you think they'll do with you? Maybe they'll give you another freaky tattoo. As a reminder."
She reaches out to fist her fingers in the fabric of my shirt, yanking the collar roughly aside to expose a few inches of my collarbone. I react without thinking, snapping my elbow sideways to break her grip on me and shove her away. My forearm catches her awkwardly in the shoulder and she pitches forward, jaw meeting the edge of the TV console with a harsh crack.
She presses the back of her hand to her lip; when she pulls it away, it's smeared with blood, already beginning to swell. There's a bright shock of red along her chin when she grins up at me, the expression on her face almost manic, and all I can see is Sherlock on the pavement outside Bart's, the blood pooling around his head, staining his cheek. I grab for the wall and my legs choose that moment to dump me, hard, on the armrest of the sofa.
"Oh, John," she says, righting herself with one hand on the wall, letting the trickle of blood run freely from her lip. "You should see your face. I think I might actually enjoy this." She moves to the door, snatches up her handbag and turns back to look at me over her shoulder. Just like in her photograph, I note, but it's a dizzyingly nonsensical observation. "See you soon," she says, and she's gone.
It takes me a moment to catch my breath, to realise the implications of what just happened. Pen, I think, fumbling in my pocket, but she's kept mine. I cast my eyes wildly around the room. I need to write it down, write it down, come on, don't forget, don't--
I haven't even made it off the sofa when a loud thud from outside catches my attention, and I turn my head to find myself sitting in an unfamiliar flat as the door swings open.
Taxi. Alone, moving through unfamiliar streets. Outside the main parts of the city.
"Where are you going?" I ask myself, quietly enough that the driver won't hear.
I shift in my seat and feel something hard and metallic digging into my low back. My gun. I fall still, not wanting to draw any undue attention from the cabbie, and have to trust that I thought to leave myself a note.
"How long do you think it will take you?"
I smile at the woman standing in front of me. I don't know her, or I don't think I do, but we're standing together in the sitting room of an unfamiliar flat. Likely enough that it's hers. Sherlock would be able to deduce her entire history from the way she's organised her books on the shelves and the placement of the sofa, but I don't see much to go on. It's a smallish place but clean, neat enough.
"You told me you were looking for someone. The accomplice of the man who killed that detective."
"Sherlock." I swallow; it still hurts to say his name, somehow, even after-- well. It's no surprise, I suppose, that it still feels fresh and new and raw. "Sherlock Holmes."
How am I supposed to let it heal when I can't feel time?
"But couldn't you ask the police directly? If you used to work with them, there must be someone who'd be willing to help you."
I shake my head. "They don't believe--" For a moment, my certainty wavers. Is it that they don't believe the second man exists, or that they don't believe Sherlock was murdered? Both seem equally true, both explanations resting on the tip of my tongue, twin impulses like double vision. "Me," I say at last. "They don't believe me."
She smiles in a way that doesn't quite reach her eyes. "I can put the kettle on, if you'd like." There's a wariness about her, something restrained in the way she's watching me. No wonder, I suppose; it's possible that we've just met, that she doesn't know how to talk to me.
"No, I'm fine." Better to just get on with it. "Look, I'm sorry, I'm afraid I don't remember your name. I might not have told you. You see, I have this condition. Anterograde amnesia."
"Don't worry, you told me. My name's Mary." She plugs in the kettle. "Look, I'm just going to try to reach my father again, okay? He was supposed to meet someone this morning and he hasn't been answering his phone. Make yourself at home."
I nod and sit down on one of the kitchen chairs. The sky outside the window is dark and yellow with streetlights. I flip idly through my notebook as she dials, number after number, but there's nothing there to tell me why I might have found myself in her flat at this hour; nothing to say what she might expect from me. (What we might expect from each other.)
The kettle has boiled and is beginning to cool again by the she slams her mobile down on the kitchen worktop. She pours the tea; mine white with no sugar, which she makes without having to ask, and it's simultaneously grounding to realise I've known her at least long enough that we've had tea together before, and disconcerting to be confronted with the fluctuating impermanence of my relationships. I could walk away from her, now, and in an hour it would be as though we never met, while Sherlock--
She sits down across the table from me with a sigh. "You look miles away," she says. "What are you thinking about?"
I give her the most disarming smile I can manage, and what I say is very nearly even the truth. "Just... sifting through to see if there's anything I can remember about you."
She raises one perfectly-arched eyebrow at me, lifts her cup to blow across the steaming surface of her tea. "And?"
I shake my head. "Nothing, sorry. It's not personal."
She sets the cup down again with a sharp click against the chipboard tabletop. "What's the last thing you do remember?"
And oh, that's easy. I'm always halfway there. It's the feeling of the day that's with me the most, really; I can still feel the hard plastic edges of my mobile pressing into my palm where I'm gripping it too tightly, the sun on the back of my neck. The impact as the cyclist hits my back, the disorientation of falling. (God, of falling.) I don't remember my own head hitting the pavement, but that's not exactly in doubt, is it?
What I say is simpler: "The accident."
"What happened?" Across the table, her eyes are pale, not quite the right shade but close enough that looking at her is a bit too much like being seen. Seen by him.
"That day." I swallow. I don't mean to say it, really, but I can't seem to stop myself. "When... Sherlock. When he jumped." I blink against the sudden heat that springs up behind my eyes and I can still see him there on the inside of my eyelids; his outline against the blue of the sky. I hadn't seen sky that clear since Afghanistan; a fragile peace in a space so empty, so fraught with potential. "He'd told me to stay back, but when he-- there was blood, a whole pool of it on the pavement, and I wasn't watching where I was going. I was knocked down."
Mary nods in sympathy. "Losing someone is always hard," she says. "Especially when it's suicide like that, it's--"
"It wasn't suicide." The flush of heat up the back of my neck takes me by surprise, and I dig my fingers hard into the tops of my thighs. "I don't know what you read, but it was all lies, just a smear campaign. He tried to convince me, but--"
Her mobile rings and she lunges for it. "Sorry, but if it's about my father, I should really take this."
"Of course," I tell her, because I'm already miles away, I'm already back there, Sherlock's voice in my ear. No one could be that clever but he could, he was. And suddenly I'm back at that bloody pool, watching his eyes when he considered, just for a moment, that I might not be who he'd thought I was, but when I told him to run he'd stayed.
It wasn't even a question. And I'd know; I'd seen him. I'd been watching.
I know you, Sherlock Holmes; I know you too well for that. I stood there and watched you jump, listened to you tell me it was all a lie, but you forgot that I've been watching all along. Genius needs an audience, you told me so yourself. I'll stand where you tell me and watch you smash yourself to pieces, but that means I get this. Consider this my testament: you can tell me it's all been a trick, tell me over and over again in my memory until there's no air left in your lungs, but I don't believe you.
It isn't until Mary touches my shoulder that I realise that I'm shaking, my breath ragged in my throat.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I didn't mean to upset you."
I touch my tongue to my lip, blink hard several times. "No, it's fine." Try to force myself to take deep breaths.
"I'm sorry to do this, but I have to go. It sounds like something may have happened to my father, and I need to-- I need to try to find him." She twists her lip into a wry approximation of a smile. "You can stay here tonight, if you want. Sleep on the sofa. Who knows, maybe we'll both find who we're looking for."
She's almost out the door before I remember that there's something I need to do. I can't neglect my system or I'll be lost.
"Wait," I call to her, and fish my camera out of my jacket pocket. She pauses in the open doorway, turning her head to look at me over her shoulder just as the camera clicks. "To remember you by," I say.
"Pillows and blankets at the end of the hall." She gives me a tight smile. "My name is Mary," she says, and she's gone.
I write the name carefully below the developing image, then flip the photograph over to make a note of the important things, before they slip away.
She has also lost someone. Trust her. She will help you.
"Want me to come back for you in a bit, mate?" the cab driver asks amiably when we pull up at the wharf. "I can go get a coffee and circle back around."
"No thanks," I tell him with my most disarming smile. "I wouldn't want you to be stuck waiting here if I forgot."
He shrugs and accepts the cash I hand him in payment. I watch him drive away before opening my notebook to figure out what I'm doing here. Relying on my system; without it, I'd be lost.
There, on the last page: Trinity Buoy Wharf. Then, below it: Morstan. He's the one.
He's here. He's here.
I slide my service weapon out of my waistband. The fingers I wrap around the grip have never been steadier.
I'm looking up at the front door of a police station. There's nothing to indicate what I might be doing there, but I don't recognise the street I'm standing on, so it seems as good an idea as any to go inside.
The file clerk at a desk behind the entrance asks if he can help me.
"Honestly," I say, "I'm not too sure. Let me just, ah--" I slide my hand into my pocket in search of my notebook and my fingers come into contact with an unfamiliar bundle of leather. I pull out what turns out to be a man's wallet, brown, cracked and folded. I hold it in my hand for a second, wondering what Sherlock would be able to deduce about its owner from its wear, the way it's folded.
Then again,there's always the old-fashioned way.
There, as expected: an ID card in its clear plastic sleeve. "Arthur Morstan," I read. What might I be doing with someone else's wallet? "I think I-- I think I found it."
The clerk's forehead creases into a frown. "You think you found it?"
I shake my head. "I'm sorry, I'm not too good with-- I have this condition. It's not amnesia like you think of it, but since my accident I can't make new memories, and sometimes--"
"Arthur Morstan?" says an unfamiliar female voice. I turn to locate the speaker and see a short, dark-haired woman standing behind me.
"Yeah, Mary, isn't that your dad?" asks the clerk. "Looks like this bloke found his wallet."
She takes it from me, turning it over in her hands, then opens it to examine the contents. "Yeah, looks like," she says. "Where did you find it?"
I shrug at her. "No idea. I was just saying, I have this condition. Anterograde amnesia."
"How do you know you found it, then?" She's watching my face with a sharp, suspicious look in her pale eyes, and I realise what it is about her that's so familiar. Sherlock. It's not his face at all, of course, but the similarities are enough that I'm slightly dizzy with it nonetheless.
"I... don't," I manage. "I just suppose. I mean."
Her lips twist into something like a smile. "Come on," she says. "I think one of the back rooms is open; let's sit and talk for a bit." She smiles at the file clerk, who shrugs, and leads me back past rows of desks into what appears to be an interrogation room.
She must have read some surprise on my face, because she laughs. "Oh, don't worry. I'm not a cop; I just do the typing. Have a seat. How do you take your tea?"
"Er," I say. "White, no sugar."
She gives me a quick smile and disappears back into the hall, only to return a few minutes later with two steaming mugs. She sets one down in front of her. "I didn't ask your name."
"John. John Watson."
"Oh yes, I thought I recognised you. The doctor, right? Well, John," she says, her eyes very intently locked on mine. Then she leans forward and spits, deliberately and precisely, into the cup in front of her. She gives it a quick stir with the spoon and sets it aside. "You'll have to forgive me," she says, "My father isn't always-- I mean, he's a good man, but he's got wrapped up in a few things lately that it's probably better for my colleagues not to hear about, if you know what I'm saying."
I don't, really, but I nod anyway.
"He went to meet someone this morning, and I just want to be sure--" She trails off, narrowing her eyes at me. The intensity of her gaze is unnerving; it's all I can do not to turn away.
"You're worried about him." I drop my eyes to my own hands on the table. Someone has written cane on the back of my right hand; I swipe at it, but it doesn't even smudge. It isn't my handwriting, and just for a moment I get the disconcerting feeling that my hand is not my own. "Um. That's understandable."
"So you see why I'd be curious about where you found his wallet."
I shrug. "I'm sorry. I wish I could help you, but I really don't know--"
"Do you want to come back with me?" she says, interrupting, breaking my train of thought. "After I get off work, I mean. I just have to finish processing a few files, then I can get out of here. You can come home with me, if you'd like."
"Well," she says. "You must know a bit about investigating, since you used to work with Sherlock Holmes."
Sherlock? I blink at her. We're in a police station; why am I in a police station? Has something happened to-- oh, god. He'd fallen, and now we're--
There's an unfamiliar woman sitting across the table, watching me closely through narrowed eyes. I look down at my own hands gripping the table.
I have to force myself to breathe. I can see it, vivid as anything against the inside of my eyelids, but-- no. No, it didn't just happen. I hit my head. I touch my hand to the spot, under my hair, and find whole skin, the slight raised edges of long-healed scars. I'm in a police station, but not because Sherlock's dead.
I don't know why I'm there at all. "I'm sorry," I tell her. "I don't know if I've told you, but I had an accident a while back and my memory isn't... isn't so good, anymore."
She smiles. "I know, John. You told me." She reaches out her hand and grabs a mug of tea from the corner of the table. "Here, this is yours," she says.
She watches me as I take a sip. Milk, no sugar, just the way I like it.
"Thanks," I say. "Ah--"
"Mary. I'm Mary."
"In that case, thank you, Mary." Her face lights into a smile as I take another sip. "I'm not sure how much I can do, but I'll be happy to help in any way I can."
I'm staring at a pool of blood.
There's a spray of it on the wall, low down where it meets the floor. It's thick with bits of bone and my heart is pounding so fast I can see it, see my vision wavering around the edges.
I'm breathing, though, which feels like-- like an accomplishment, really, with the pressure in my chest. My legs feel as though they might dump me to the floor at any moment. I edge away, let my back slide down the wall. It isn't until I hear it clatter against the floor that I realise I'm holding my service weapon in my hand.
"John, I need you to-- just put the gun down, okay?"
The words finally register and I look up to see Molly Hooper standing on the far side of a large, empty room, her eyes wide and hard-set with determination that barely conceals her nerves. Where the hell are we? Concrete floors, plastic sheeting over the windows; leaves and twigs and animal debris in the corners. I take in our surroundings with the wide-angle vision of adrenaline, but that doesn't mean I understand.
I force my fingers to release the grip of the pistol, use the heel of my hand to shove it a few feet away from me. The grip is warm from my hand but the barrel is cool; how long have I been standing here? As soon as I release it Molly moves toward me; she's at my side before it even stops sliding across the floor. She's got one hand on my shoulder, the other on my thigh, and I want to tell her to get away but my hands are shaking and I can't seem to organise the words in my mouth.
This close, her eyes seem huge. I want to tell her not to look at me, but when I turn away I see the blood, and just for an instant the images exist together, superimposed, this man and Sherlock, Sherlock on the pavement outside Bart's.
Molly cups her hand to the side of my jaw and I jerk back in surprise. "Don't," I hiss, and she pulls both her hands away again. It goes a long way toward relieving the pressure in my chest, and I take in a breath so full it aches.
"Are you hurt?" she asks, her voice so strained I force myself to look at her, though I ignore her question.
"Is that him? Moriarty's second, is that-- is that."
Her face crumples and she makes a breathless sound that's almost like a laugh. "Don't you have a note?" Her voice is tinged with bitterness.
"Your book, John. Check it."
I flip pages, the words in my own writing: Morstan. He's the one. "Where are we right now?" I demand, and when she tells me the name of the wharf I almost laugh in relief. "I've done it, then. It's over."
"Is that what it says in there?"
She's backing away from me now, looking over toward the body.
"Of course it-- I mean, I wouldn't just--" The words come out too fast. I take a deep breath, force myself to focus. "What are you doing here, then." The last comes out steadier. Good.
"Oh, me? I'm just the clean-up crew. Just here to make sure none of this can come back around on you." She waves her hand, encompassing the whole space. "Mycroft Holmes sent me, did you know? Sends me. Every time you do this. I'm supposed to make sure--"
My hand reaches out, almost of its own accord, and grips her arm hard enough that I can feel the tendons grind against the bone. "What," is all I manage.
She doesn't try to pull her arm away, just turns to look me in the eye. "John," she says, and there's a note of something almost like sadness in her tone. "This has to stop."
"I don't know what you're talking about." There's something very like panic beginning to bubble up in my chest.
"Mycroft Holmes. He's done it before. He'll do it again. Do you have any idea how many men there are in London who meet all the criteria for your clues?" She tugs abruptly at the front of my shirt and I look down to see the edges of letters inked into my skin. "Hell, I think I meet the criteria; I even have an S name." She laughs, a harsh sound. "He's using you, John, and he's going to go on doing it, using you and using you. And you don't even know-- I mean, it's all backwards. It has to stop."
"Mycroft," I repeat, because nothing she's saying is making any sense. My eyes settle on the upturned soles of the man in front of me, the man whose skull has been shattered, who's lying in a pool of blood mixed with what used to be his brain. The man I'd put there. "That's-- not him. Moriarty's man. That's not."
"Probably not," she says. "Oh, Mycroft has his reasons, I've no doubt--he's probably a bad man, one way or another. And I think in his own twisted way he's trying to help you; give you a purpose. But he's not even--"
"To. Help me." I can't seem to think straight. I've just killed a man, and if he isn't Moriarty's accomplice then I don't even know who he is. Was. Don't know why, or-- "Molly. How many. How. Many."
She just shakes her head. "I'm not sure I even know the answer to that." It's absurd, absolutely absurd, that we're having this conversation here, now. "You're perfect for him, you know. Deadly aim and so easy to-- " She breaks off. "He just sends me out afterward, to make sure there's no evidence that can tie... it... back to you. But it might not even be me every time; how would I know?"
I need to get out of there. I can't sit there, I need to-- I push myself to standing and lean against the wall while my head spins.
My voice, when I speak, is choked. "He's going to keep doing it." It isn't quite a question, and Molly just nods, the lines of her mouth drawing tight with strain. "Then we have to-- take a picture. Of me, with-- with him. Take a picture, and send it to Lestrade. I'll go turn myself in; Mycroft can't keep using me for this, not if I'm-- not if I'm in prison."
She's just staring at me now, but she gets out her phone and takes a picture of me kneeling down beside the body, holding the gun. "Send it," I say. "Do it now, Molly, please."
"No bars here," she mutters. "But I will, John. I promise."
From somewhere she produces a fresh shirt and a pair of jeans. I take them, mechanically, and she helps me pull them on, undoing the buttons when my shaking fingers won't manage it.
"I can't forget this. Molly. Don't let me." Christ, I need to write this down. But I can't; I know I can't do that, not now. I need a clear head, I need to make absolutely sure I have it straight before I commit it to paper. "Molly." I grab her hand. "You need to tell me this again. When I'm not-- later. You need to tell me again later. Please. I need another chance to remember this, to know. To get it right."
She just nods. She looks like she might cry. I pull my notebook out of my pocket and scrawl a note to myself, with fingers that won't stop shaking: Molly knows something.
Molly watches me write, biting at her lip. "John, I--" She reaches her hand out as if to grab my wrist, pulls it away at the last moment. "Look, there's something else you should know."
Christ, what else. I can barely breathe, I can't imagine--
She runs her hand over her face, through her hair. "Look, there's-- it's. Sherlock. It's about Sherlock." I hear myself make a choked sound at the mention of his name. Christ, what would he think of me? He'd never make a mistake like this; he'd be able to see through it, he'd know. "John, he's--" Her eyes are intent on my face, and she must read something there because she turns away, pulls out her mobile. "Maybe now isn't the time, but-- write this down." She reads off a mobile number and I write it quickly, hurriedly. "Call it," she says, her voice low and urgent. "John. Promise me."
"But-- John. Mycroft Holmes, he's-- you need to stay off the phone, okay?" She hands me a new pair of shoes and I slip them on, fingers fumbling with the laces.
"It won't matter, once I-- I'm going to the police."
She swallows, kneels down in front of me to do up the laces herself. "I know, but Mycroft could still-- he could still reach you there. No more phones, John. You're too easy to confuse over the phone."
She's right, of course. I need to cut off all ties to Mycroft now, make it impossible for him to get to me. I pull my mobile out of my pocket, thrust it into her hand. "Take it," I tell her. "Destroy it, or-- just. Get rid of it."
She nods, tucks it into the pocket of her jacket. "No phones, John. Be sure not to forget."
I laugh, bitterly. There's a body slowly cooling behind us and I'm going to prison and I probably won't even remember what I'm in for, but I have a system for these things, after all. I tear a page out of my notebook and write TATTOO: No phones, hold it up so she can see it. "I'll write it down."
She nods. "I'm just going to... tidy up here. Don't forget your gun."
"It's evidence." I bend to pick it up, tuck it back into the waistband of my jeans. I'm going to take it to the police, show them--
Her mouth twists into a bitter smile. "Right," she says. "Evidence."
"Thank you, Molly. I should go before I-- before I lose track." Of what I'm doing, I mean; please, God, don't let me forget. Not if it means this. "I'll just--" I wave back in the direction of the road. "Send the picture to Lestrade."
"I will, John." Some of her hair has escaped its braid; she tucks it behind her ear. There's a hard, determined set to her eyes. "I'll just finish up here, first. You... you take care of yourself."
"That's what I'm trying to do," I tell her, and turn to walk away.
I don't recognise the street I'm on. My legs feel heavy; in fact, my whole body feels worn-out, as though I've been walking a long way. I must have been going somewhere specific, but-- where?
Where are you, Watson?
From across the street I spot the sign, gold letters against glossy black paint: Saints Tattoo Studio. I dig in my pocket for the note, there might be something, but-- ah, here it is. No phones.
There's the jingle of a bell overhead as I push the door open. There's a heavily-tattooed woman behind the desk who smiles brightly at me when I enter. "What can we do for you?"
I show her the note, and she frowns at me. "I could do this for you, but-- well, if you don't mind me asking, why would you want to ink something like that?"
"I have this condition," I explain. "It makes it difficult for my brain to shift information from short-term into long-term memory. Well; not so much difficult as impossible. Sometimes it's a good idea to leave yourself a note."
She returns my smile and beckons me back into one of the rooms. I turn my back on her to remove my shirt - Christ, the buttons are stiff; why are my fingers shaking?
"What's that?" she says, her voice sharp with alarm, and I freeze.
"Your-- is that a gun?"
I put my hand instinctively to the small of my back, and yes, there, the weapon of my service pistol. Christ, why do I have my weapon? I take a deep breath and turn to face her. "It's a fake," I say with my most disarming smile. "I don't think they'd let someone like me carry a gun, do you?"
"Fuck," she says. She's staring at my chest, the jumble of words and phrases that adorn my skin. "I mean, sorry but-- I should hope not." She raises her eyes to meet mine with an obvious effort. "I guess I don't need to ask if you've ever had one before. Where do you want it?" She gestures toward the clear space on the left side of my chest. "There?"
I shake my head. "No, that's-- I'm saving that. For something special." I glance down. "Here would do." I indicate my right forearm, which, apart from a small tattoo reading 221b on the inside of my wrist, is clear.
"It's your skin," she says with a shrug. I look down again, reading the messages there, the scraps of information too vital or precious to carry in any way but beneath my skin, and wonder if any of it is really mine, anymore.
Mine? No, on the bedside table. A proper one with a cord, not a mobile. A proper phone in an anonymous hotel room. No way to know how long you've been here.
"Doctor Watson?" It's an unfamiliar male voice, low, with a posh accent. Sherlock would know his entire life story just from the way he said my name, but it's not enough for me to go on. I'm really not too good on the phone, these days.
"Who is this?"
"We've spoken before, Doctor Watson."
"Have we?" There's the smell of burnt plastic coming from the bin beside the desk; a glance inside reveals that it's empty apart from the charred remains of a photograph. "You'll have to forgive me for not remembering." There's a bandage on my right forearm; the skin beneath it itches. I know better than to scratch, so I balance the receiver on my shoulder and press the palm of my left hand against it.
"I'm afraid we don't have time for the usual drawn-out dance, Doctor Watson, so I'm just going to tell you this. We've spoken before. I was the one who told you that there was only one body that day at Bart's."
"One body? But that doesn't--"
"You can verify it for yourself. Check your thigh."
I set the phone down and pull open the flies of my jean, peel them down until I can see the lines of black ink. There: Fact 5: One body, right above Fact 6: 07793864708.
I pick up the receiver again and read off the number. "Is that you?" I demand.
"No, but well done for finding out about that. Your investigation is going quite well."
It's such a transparent attempt at flattery that I nearly roll my eyes. "So, fine, we've spoken before. What do you want from me?"
"It's about Sherlock."
"What about Sherlock?" The bandage on my arm is driving me mad; I hook a finger under the tape and yank it free.
I blink, disbelieving, at the words revealed there. No phones, in black ink under my skin. The tattoo is obviously still fresh, the skin around it still red and just beginning to scab. A response to something recent, then. Something immediate.
The voice on the other end of the line is still speaking, but I hear it distantly. "I need you to come meet me, I--"
I have a system. The tattoos are important; I trust them. I must.
"Who is this?" I demand, gripping the receiver tighter. "Who are you?"
"I told you, we've spoken before, I have information--"
"I don't want information, I want your name."
"John, you know I can't--"
I don't wait to hear the end of that sentence before slamming the phone back in the cradle. No phones. Why? There must be a reason for it, I wouldn't write it there without a reason.
I look around the room. There's no information here, really; nothing to tell me how long I've been here, what I've been doing. Its anonymity might be a comfort, under some circumstances, but at the moment it feels sinister and confining. I feel too insubstantial, too malleable. I don't want to be there anymore.
I pull a vest and jumper over my head, stash my photos and camera and notebook-- wait, where's my mobile? No, no mobile; in light of what I've just seen on my arm, I shouldn't bring it anyway, even if I knew where it is--before digging my service pistol out of the drawer to slide it into the waistband of my jeans. I'll go downstairs, tell the desk to have my calls held. It's a small step, maybe, but even just planning to do it makes me feel a bit safer, a bit more secure. I leave the room in a hurry, my feet skimming down over the stairs; it's a small step, but it feels like a start.
I enter the lobby and make a straight line for the front desk. I've only just managed to convince the man working there that, yes, I really do mean I don't want to receive any calls, not even if I come back later and say I've changed my mind, when I hear Molly Hooper's voice behind me.
"Good to know you're taking my advice, John," she says.
When I turn around she's standing to the doorway leading out to the street. For just a moment there's something about her appearance that is jarring. She's dressed in a skirt, her hair pulled half up, her makeup just a touch too severe mid-afternoon on a weekday. Sherlock would know exactly where she'd just been, where she was going. Me, all I can see is that she looks nervous. She looks, more than that, completely exhausted.
"It's good advice," I tell her, though I'm not sure to what she's referring.
"Look, John, I need you to--" She brings her arm across her chest, clutching at her other shoulder in an oddly self-conscious gesture. "You need to come with me, okay? There's something I want to show you. Something you need to see."
She turns, and on the street behind her I can see one of Mycroft's black cars. "I suppose I don't have much choice."
"Not really, no." It comes out as something very near a laugh, and I feel an odd surge of protectiveness toward her. It's probably just the draw of having known her since before, of feeling properly connected to someone, but all the same I have to actively stop myself from taking her hand as we leave.
Molly is watching out the window, turning her mobile over and over in her hands and avoiding my gaze, when we pull up to what seems to be an empty storage facility.
She still doesn't look at me when the car glides to a halt in front of a side entrance. There's a rough edge to her voice when she speaks. "Ready, John?"
"No idea," I shrug, and that at least gets a nervous giggle out of her. "I don't suppose it'll do any good to ask what we're doing here."
Her lip twists into a wry smile. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you. Or...."
"Or I wouldn't remember," I finish, sparing her the necessity of saying it aloud. "Fair enough."
Her phone chimes and she glances down at it, setting her jaw resolutely in response to whatever she's reading there. "Okay," she says to herself. "Okay." Then she looks over at me with a smile that's only slightly strained. "Well, I hope you're ready, because it's time."
I follow her across a small expanse of gravel and through the door to a loading bay, watching the tense line of her neck and shoulders as she picks her way across the uneven floor in her heels. The storage facility is, as I'd thought, largely empty; we cross the space and go through another door, down a set of stairs to a windowless basement. There's a dark curl of anticipation just starting to stir at the base of my spine.
Through one more set of doors, and I try not to jump as I hear an unfamiliar male voice call out. "Ms Hooper, Doctor Watson!" A man in a navy-blue suit is walking toward us.
To my puzzled look, Molly whispers, "One of Mycroft Holmes' assistants."
The man catches up with us and holds out a hand for me to shake. There's something about this whole situation that just isn't sitting right with me; apart from the surroundings, both he and Molly seem apprehensive, and I can feel an echo of their anxiety racing along my spine, beginning to burn up the back of my neck.
"So just what exactly are we doing here?" I say to the man. "Who are you?"
He shakes his head. "You know I can't tell you that."
"You can't tell me why you've brought me here?" He opens his mouth as if to speak, then seems to think better of it and presses his lips tightly together. "Right. Well, I'd say, Mycroft, but." I wave my hand at the surroundings, shift my feet apart to widen my stance. "Doesn't much seem like Mycroft's sort of place, does it?"
The man shrugs. "Check your notebook," he says. "There's some sort of signal, I think, if you want proof."
I pull the notebook out and find the page: Mycroft will verify his agents by moving the cameras. Then, below, in much smaller letters: Be careful; he's using you. Right.
I take a deep breath.
"The cameras," I say, looking around.
The man shifts nervously, taken aback. "Of course, there aren't any cameras here, we couldn't do this where--"
Every instinct I possess has been screaming trap since we first walked through the door of this place, and I'm on him before I even consciously formulate the intent. He's caught off guard; I ram my shoulder into his solar plexus, winding him. From there it only takes a few seconds of grappling before I have my arm around the back of the man's neck, pinning him so that he's bent awkwardly at the waist, still dragging in air in ragged gasps.
"John," Molly says, with her hand to her mouth. "Don't."
"If he's one of Mycroft's boys he should be able to prove it," I tell her. "He can't just-- I mean, he can't expect me to--" I'm having a surprising amount of difficulty catching my own breath, come to that, against the tightness in my chest.
The man is still struggling in my grip; he gets one arm around to elbow me below the ribcage, a weak imitation of what I've just done to him. He doesn't have enough leverage to do any real damage, but it's sufficiently jarring that I react instinctively, pivoting to bring his head into contact with the cement wall. It collides with a harsh crack, and I release my grip as he slithers down to the floor.
"Right," I say to Molly, "come on, we need to get out of here." I get one hand around her upper arm but she shakes it off.
"No, John, listen to me." She backs away. "We're here to-- Sherlock--" She shakes her head. "Check your notebook, or your-- your tattoos."
"My what?" She reaches forward to pull up my left sleeve, and I see the words MH is manipulating you in black ink. I pull the other one up to read No phones just as Molly's own mobile begins to ring.
"Don't answer that." My voice sounds harsh, even to my own ears. On the ground, the man in the suit is making small groaning noises, and I'm finding it hard to concentrate.
"Don't." I snatch it from her and shove it into my own pocket, where it rings twice more before falling silent. I'm staring at my own left forearm. MH is manipulating you.
It's to much decision as instinct that makes me reach for the Sig Sauer still tucked into my waistband. It's already warm from my body, its unyielding grip a point of steadiness in my hand.
"MH," I say aloud, and Molly gives me a wide-eyed stare, backing away until she's against the wall.
"What is this? Molly. What. Is this. Is he here?"
"Moriarty's man. The accomplice." She shakes her head and I snap, "Why did you bring me here?" I can hear the rising tension my own voice, but it's as though it's coming from a great distance. As though it isn't really mine at all.
She just keeps shaking her head, her eyes growing wider, her face and throat splotched with red. "I don't know what you're talking about, John." Her phone begins to ring again and she makes a motion as though about to try to grab it.
"Don't move. Just. Just back, stay there."
Run, Watson, but I can't. I'm lost.
System. I have a system for these things. You don't need memory if you have the facts.
My hands are shaking and it's awkward still holding the pistol but somehow I manage to get my belt open. Molly's talking but I can hardly hear her, her voice mere background sound as I undo the button and flies on my jeans. I slide them down until I can read the writing on my thigh and Molly seems to follow my gaze, falling silent as she reads what I can see there.
Fact 1: White Fact
2: Captain or Colonel
Fact 3: First name S____
Fact 4: Connection to Bart's
Fact 5: One body
Fact 6: 07793864708
"MH. Molly Hooper." I take a step toward her. She shrinks against the wall. "What happened with the bodies? At Bart's?"
She holds up her hands, palms facing me. Beneath the splotches, her face has gone deathly pale. "John, I couldn't tell you, I--"
I reach out and grab her handbag, pull out her wallet. There, in the plastic sleeve, is her ID.
"Seraphina," I read. "Seraphina Hooper." First name S_______.
"Molly is my middle name," she says, in a small voice. "John, you need to calm down, I don't think you're thinking properly."
Her phone begins to ring again, the mechanical sound jolting me into action. I hadn't been pointing the gun at her, not directly, but I do now. "Stay where you are."
I kick off my jeans and step out of them, then stoop to shake the mobile out of the pocket into my palm. I stare at the screen, recognition dawning slowly but finally, finally, it all becomes clear. The number is the same as the one on my thigh. The facts, there in black ink. They've been leading me here.
I drop the phone, hearing its screen crack as it clatters against the cement floor.
"It's you," I say, bringing both hands up to grip the gun properly. "I've found you."
"No, John, listen to me. You're confused, you aren't--"
"Shut up," I growl at her, and she brings a trembling hand up to press against her own mouth. "You had us all fooled, didn't you, but-- of course, you had access, access to everything. Christ, you were dating him, how did we not see it?" The realisation hits with a rush of fury, hot blood and a surge of adrenaline. "And he trusted you, we were with you all day, he--"
It takes me a moment to realise that the voice isn't inside my own head, and then everything starts to go dark and hazy around the edges because I know that voice.
At first I can't make out more than the line of him in the doorway: the slope of his shoulders, the long lines of his legs. My own limbs feel very far away and I let my arms fall to my sides, the gun forgotten. My fingertips are tingling.
His face is wrong; too tanned, too thin, his hair cropped into close spikes. But still, it's him.
"Sherlock." I try to say his name, but I'm not sure any sound makes it past my throat. There's a tightness in my chest that won't let me get a proper breath, darkness closing in on the edges of my vision, the ground beginning to waver dangerously beneath me.
I see his lips move, but can't hear his voice over the hammering of my own pulse. I shake my head. Oh Jesus, oh Jesus god, what--
Sherlock is holding his mobile in his hand, staring at me, at what he can see of me, and suddenly it's all so absurd--he's reading the tattoos on my thigh; I'm in my boxers, Christ--and I stumble backward, catching my back against the wall, pressing a hand to my chest.
"John." His own voice sounds breathless. Beside me, Molly makes a small sobbing noise; I'd forgotten about her. It's not that I don't care, precisely, but-- but I'm not exactly moving toward her, am I? Trying to fix what I've done? Is there any fixing what I've done, what I might have been about to--
Sherlock reaches his arm out toward her, long fingers suspended in the air, but his eyes--pale, sharp; achingly familiar-- are locked on my face as he takes a step forward. My fingers ache to grab him, pull him close and feel his warmth, his pulse, but if he were to touch me I'd crack to pieces. The contradiction is so absurd that my throat convulses around something that's halfway to a laugh, hard and bitter enough that I choke with it.
He takes another step forward and brings his arm around as though to reach for me. I flinch, taking an involuntary step back. Everything seems to be happening in slow motion. Sherlock's face darkens but he lets me draw away. He keeps his eyes on me but he moves away. To Molly, crouching down to her level where she's leaning against the wall.
Sherlock doesn't stop speaking to me, the words pouring out of his mouth, low and rapid. None of it makes any sense; I can't breathe. "John, it's going to be all right, I never intended-- we'll, I'll fix it somehow, I will, but I need you to understand that I didn't know, not at first. I never would have--"
He's looking at me as though he's never seen me before. No, worse; as though he doesn't know me. Of course he doesn't, how could he, he's-- no, he was. He was dead.
That pavement smashed everything. I can read it on his face.
The man in the suit is awake now, beginning to move properly. I should do something about him--remember, Watson, you're a doctor--but all I can think is that there are too many people in this room now, too many living bodies moving and breathing and there isn't enough air, not enough air in this room, this little underground chamber. I can feel the weight of the building above us, the earth on either side, pressing in like a tomb.
Sherlock is still talking. Sherlock. I can't hear him over the buzzing in my ears. The last thing I remember is him falling, and it's a lie. Not his words, but--
There's not enough air here. There might not be enough air anywhere to combat this tightness in my chest, the dizzying confusion in my skull.
My limbs still feel disconnected from the rest of me as I stumble out the door. I can hear Sherlock calling after me, but I don't stop. I'm not going far, just upstairs. Just to breathe. Sherlock will need to do it too, now; he'll follow me.
By the time I make it up to the ground floor my vision has darkened to brownish-grey, but there's a square of light and I move toward it. Then I'm leaning my forehead against cool glass, breathing in deep gasps that shatter into sobs in my throat. It's better here so I force myself to keep breathing, a compulsory contraction of muscle that draws my ribcage together, forces it apart. It's not impossible, but it hurts. Below my feet, Sherlock's lungs are performing the same vital mechanical process of breathing, counterpoint to my own.
In, out, in--
Now. Where was I?