Six months after The Reichenbach Fall
"He's going to get himself killed!"
Sally's profoundly disapproving voice was as strident as usual and Lestrade sighed as he turned to face her.
"Aren't you supposed to be working on the robberies?"
His mouth tightened and he looked back across the street, already dark in the late December afternoon, to where John Watson was suffering the ministrations of a pretty paramedic, his rather battered face regularly illuminated by the flashing lights around them.
"You can't let him carry on like this," Sally insisted again. "It's pure luck he isn't dead already – one of these two had a knife, you know." She waved her arm towards a nearby police car, into which the second aspiring mugger was being packed, along with his dreams of life as a kingpin of crime.
"John can handle himself."
Sally shook her head. "You'd think he'd have settled down a bit, now that the…" She broke off, for once seeming to notice the line before she plunged across it.
"Sherlock's name was cleared," Lestrade reminded her tersely. "Why don't you make yourself useful and do some interviews? Apparently the victim has friends in high places."
"Already done." Sally raised the notebook in her hand. "Sir," she added. She flicked back a page. "The old man's all right, just shaken - he was taking a shortcut through the alley when he got jumped by Beavis and Butt-head." She threw a scathing glance towards the delinquents as the car holding them drove past, then turned back to her notes.
"I've got his statement, plus witness accounts from two shop-keepers and a guy who was selling The Big Issue on the corner. They all say the same – John is a 'good Samaritan', just happened to be passing, right place right time, yadda yadda yadda." She looked up. "Sir, it's happening too often."
Lestrade attempted to brush her off but Sally was as tenacious as ever. Being proven wrong in the past had in no way inhibited her suspicious nature… which was what made her a bloody good officer. Most of the time.
Lestrade sighed again. "He's hardly turned vigilante. He just seems to have a nose for dangerous situations, and no hesitation about getting involved." He met her gaze, putting some authority into his own. "He's not breaking any laws and he's actually doing some good. Leave him alone."
"That's an order, Sergeant. Your interference was far from useful last time and it's not helping him now. Back off."
Sally's mouth twisted mutinously but she subsided a little. "You'll blame yourself if he gets knifed one of these days," she muttered. "It's only a matter of time, the rate he's going."
Lestrade glared at her and she huffed before stomping away. He watched her go, then looked back towards his friend, who now had his jaw thrust out pugnaciously and was adamantly refusing a blanket.
"I'm not saying you're wrong," he murmured once Sally was safely out of earshot. "But right now, I'm pretty sure that living dangerously is the only thing keeping him alive."
"All right, Billy?" John enquired of the young homeless lad hunched into a temperature-inadequate hoodie, who was waiting for him as he approached 221B a couple of hours later. "Your wrist playing up again? Want me to take a look at it?"
"No, it's fine, Doctor Watson. Much better, thanks." Billy pulled his arm free of the hoodie's front pocket and twisted his hand around, demonstrating a good range of motion, although his fingers were blue with cold.
"What happened to the gloves this time?" John asked resignedly.
Billy shrugged, scuffing the ground with the toe of one well-worn trainer. "There's always someone colder, you know?" He glanced up, his gaze half-apologetic, half-stubborn.
John tried a frown, but it didn't stick. He sighed, eyeing the thin face and bright eyes before him. "I know." He rooted out his keys, then nodded towards the doorway. "Come on up – think I've got a spare pair somewhere about the place. You can wrap your hands round a cuppa while I find them."
"Er…" Billy was regarding him carefully, no doubt taking note of the freshly taped graze across his cheekbone and the darkening bruise at the corner of his jaw. "I'm sorry, Doctor Watson… I can see you're tired, but there's something…"
John was instantly alert. "News?" he demanded. "Some word on Moriarty?"
Billy shook his head. "No. No, I'm sorry, nothing like that. Still no whisper about him at all. It's just… it's odd, I don't know…" He trailed off. "Can you come and see?"
John hesitated. He was weary… so very weary, and sore - the aches going right down to his bones this time. In his mind he pictured a warm bath, a glass of whisky, an armchair by the fire…
An empty armchair across from it.
He waved an arm. "Lead on."
"It was Myra who noticed," Billy said as they made their way down the street and around the corner.
"Myra? 'I sprained my ankle kicking a groper in the nuts' Myra?"
Billy's grin gleamed in the streetlights. "Only one Myra," he agreed. "She's still grateful for you strapping her up after that, by the way."
"I'd have given her a public service award, if I could," John replied. "An elasticated bandage was nothing."
Billy shot him a glance. "It's not nothing to us, Doctor Watson."
"So, where are we going?" John asked quickly, brushing off the sentiment before it could reach him.
"It's not far," Billy promised, heading for a side street. "The house is virtually derelict, it's been standing empty for years. Myra squats there sometimes."
John nodded, following as Billy kept going and eventually ducked around a piece of loose boarding and into the back yard of a rather tumbledown building. John had to squeeze through the gap - he was quite a bit stockier than Billy's slender figure, despite the weight he had lost in recent months.
An unlatched window gave way to a basement with rickety stairs leading upwards. "Second floor," Billy announced, leading the way. "Somebody's been coming here, but Myra's not actually seen them. Made her nervous, though - she's moved on now."
He pushed open a door and John walked through, his gaze falling on the signs of habitation in front of the window – an upturned crate, cigarette ends, a newspaper… He glanced at Billy, who nodded at him to proceed. For a moment, he flashed back to the many times he had been pointed in the direction of random evidence and expected to come up with something useful… or, at least, something not boring. John closed his eyes, the spectre of Sherlock so vivid in his mind that he could almost hear the whisper of coat tails swirling ahead of him, smell that distinctive mix of chemicals and burning impatience...
He exhaled slowly and with deliberation. "Right then." He gritted his jaw, gathering the scattered threads of himself and pulling them in again. "What am I looking at?" It came out a little more abrupt than he had intended but Billy took it in stride, indicating the window.
John stepped forward briskly and looked out over the London skyline.
John brought his eyes down to below rooftop level, immediately noting the familiar red awning of Speedy's café. Automatically, his gaze slid up and he could see the windows of 221B, which were dimly illuminated – Mrs Hudson must have left the door to the stairwell open again.
"You see what I mean?" Billy spoke up. "It's just a house which is more or less opposite your house. Could mean nothing - but why has someone been sitting at this window? There's nothing else in here and Myra says the back rooms are warmer." He shrugged. "I'm sorry if I've wasted your time, Doctor Watson, but it's been worrying me."
"No, you did the right thing, Billy." John frowned as he turned slowly around, surveying the rest of the room. He pulled out his torch to supplement the light coming through from the street lamps, then turned back and focused on the area immediately around him, squatting down on his haunches to examine the floor and window ledge, the phrase 'dust is eloquent' echoing in the back of his mind until he blocked it out.
There were a couple of marks on the ledge, he noted, peering more closely at them. Symmetrical and quite distinctively shaped...
Somewhere in his head an alarm bell was ringing, but the association was so unexpected it took him a while to make it.
"I think someone's coming." Billy sounded a little nervous. "Shall I go and see…?"
"Wait." John's voice was quiet but extremely authoritative as he moved forward, taking Billy by one skinny arm and pushing him behind the door. They stood together silently, listening… traffic noise, a distant siren, then a definite creak from the stairs below.
John spoke close to Billy's ear. "If someone comes up here, I want you to stay put until he's in the room, then sneak out behind him. Get out of the house, do you understand?"
"Billy." John's hand tightened in warning. "I'm serious. Get out of the house and don't come back. If I'm not home in an hour, get a message to D.I. Lestrade, all right?"
Billy's face screwed up in worry. "Do you know who it is?"
John shook his head. "I don't know who, but I've got a fair idea of..." He broke off as there was another creak, much closer this time. "I need you to do this for me, Billy, all right? Don't let me down."
Billy's eyes were wide and alarmed, but his shoulders straightened and he nodded.
"Good man." With a last squeeze to his shoulder, John released him and backed away into the shadows, running a mental inventory of anything he was carrying which could be used as a weapon. Sadly, the list was not long. He focused on his breathing, a familiar calm descending over him as the door swung wide, although concern for Billy was central in his mind.
The figure that entered was tall, broad-shouldered, and moving with a confident athleticism which spoke of advanced training. 'There would be no shame in…' Ruthlessly John pushed the thought down. He watched with relief as Billy slipped silently out of the door then dismissed the boy from his awareness, concentrating on the intruder who was carrying a holdall and seemed oblivious to his presence.
Heading straight across the room, the man set his bag down on the crate and unzipped it, his moves practised and automatic as he looked out through the window. John waited, wanting to be absolutely sure, but he couldn't leave it too long… As soon as the first part of the disassembled rifle appeared he made his move, exploding from his corner and crashing into the man with the maximum momentum he could build up over such a short distance, his arm swinging the torch he held in a vicious arc.
He had the advantage of surprise, and the man was clearly shocked as he staggered backwards, but his reactions were phenomenally fast… he was already twisting away and John's blow whistled through empty air. He was forced to swerve to avoid the hand grabbing for his wrist, getting in just a single sharp jab before backing off, looking for an opening.
The man grunted and moved forward. "You don't fight like a squatter." His voice was flat and unaccented. Cold. The light from the window fell across John's face and his opponent stopped abruptly. "Well, this is convenient." He sounded amused. "Very obliging of you, I'm sure." He leaned over, setting down the rifle parts onto the crate before straightening up and cracking his knuckles.
John held his position, confident that he was out of reach for the moment. "So, who sent you?" he demanded. "What's this about?"
The man shrugged. "Fulfilling a contract," he said. "Honour amongst thieves, and all that. You understand."
"Not my problem." He lunged forward and John was in trouble.
He did his best. Knowing the temptation he constantly fought, he did his absolute best, pulling out every trick he'd ever learned, drawing on all his experience and expertise, fighting with everything he had… but the other man had a good forty pounds on him and all of it muscle, backed up with a level of training which John had seldom encountered before.
The end was inevitable, only the method in doubt, until John finally stumbled, his foot landing on the torch he had dropped at some point and twisting under him as he fell heavily onto his back. His opponent was on him immediately.
John tucked his chin down against the fingers forcing their way around his throat, but he knew it was hopeless. 'No shame in this…' The thought came again, the thought which he had every time, but which the soldier in him could never accept. This time was different. His hands scrabbled across the floor, searching for anything he could use as a weapon, but there was nothing.
His vision was darkening, bright spots of light flashing across his eyes until the man taking his life was nothing but a blur… a conduit… a door opening to the path he had wanted to walk for the last six months. Walk? Hell… run. Strong thumbs reached the ridged cartilage of his larynx and John relaxed, already able to hear Sherlock's voice calling his name.
He smiled, peace descending on him for the first time in far, far too long. He was so tired, so heartsick, so echoingly empty and alone. He let his head fall back in acquiescence as his consciousness at long last slipped blessedly away.
'See you soon…'