In a city, after midnight
'Neath the halo of a streetlight
Where the dreams die, as the blood dries
On the wounds we keep hidden from view
— "Dreams We Conceive", Night Castle
For him, Afghanistan wasn’t brown. It was green that he remembered — the scant cover of small-leafed trees, irrigated fields where sluggish brown river water flowed in channels over clay-hard earth. Crawling on his belly in green weeds, hidden in the sliver of noon’s shadow cast by a broken stone wall.
Strange that his memory of Afghanistan wasn’t stained red. Drops fell from the cuts in his face and hands, staining the weeds with scarlet specks that were unnaturally ruby-bright in the glare of the Afghan sun. But it was the green he saw, green that drew his eyes and attention. Green had promise — the promise of shelter, of concealment, of cool shadows and water.
Over there, green was memory’s promise of home.
But here at home? Green was just... wrong. It was wet and overcast and limned with steely grey sunlight filtered through mist and smog. Night was better, when green and red and brown all turned to charcoal and shadow. But even night was wrong, with rain glittering like diamonds strewn everywhere. Diamonds, not blood. Horns honking, not gunfire clattering and bombs shaking the earth. People laughing, not screaming.
God, he needed to get out. To get back. To escape his own damned head.
“Start over. Go somewhere new. Somewhere fresh. Take a couple of years. Travel — see the world.”
“I have seen the world.”
“I know, John. Through a gunsight.”
Thanks to a simple accident of birth, it took less than a week before John was flying across the Atlantic, bound for JFK and a new life, far from everything he knew. Everything he remembered.
After the pilot released the passengers, John levered up and out of his seat. He wasn’t in first class — no money for such luxuries — but his ‘special circumstances’ status had landed him a front row seat, giving him ample room to maneuver, awkward as it was with his cane stowed overhead. A flight attendant was at his side, giving him a pretty smile as she said, “Here, love, let me get that.” She reached to get his laptop bag down from the bin, and John couldn’t help but admire the effect of her uniform moving over her trim, athletic body.
She caught his admiration and smiled, all bright-eyed and professional, but her blush was for him alone.
He eased back into his seat and got his laptop set up on the flimsy tray table. While it was booting, he found the printout he’d tucked carefully into an interior pocket of the bag: an email from a colleague he knew from his old student days back at St. Bartholomew's. Mike Stamford had some small measure of notoriety as a professor, and had done a visitor’s stint at NYU, which meant he was the closest thing John had to a friend familiar with the city he intended to make his new home.
Though he himself was back in London — at Bart’s, in fact — he offered to get in touch with some of his contacts and see if he couldn’t get John introduced to someone who could help him settle in, maybe find an affordable flat, if such a thing existed. It was a fragile, tenuous connection, but it was a bridge all the same, a thin thread stretched between his life before Afghanistan and his new life, after.
The city was new, with gleaming silver and steel claws thrust into the sky. Even the old parts were new, barely a hundred years old. In London, you could feel the history with every breath. Every footstep was in the shadow of kings and queens.
Afghanistan was even older — the land that time forgot, except to modernize the weapons.
He’d sent his qualifications to a half dozen clinics, but hadn’t waited for a response before booking his flight. One hotel room was much the same as another, the way he figured. And maybe the change of scenery was a change of luck, too, because he got a call back on his second day.
“Dr. John Watson? This is Dr. Rebecca Levine, with the Henriksen Medical Group.”
The voice was warm and friendly and female — just what John needed. He found himself grinning, walking somewhat blindly, letting the pedestrian flow carry him along. “Dr. Levine. How nice to hear from you.”
She had a pretty voice, one that got John’s imagination working in a way that was highly inappropriate for a man talking to his next boss, or so he hoped. “I was hoping we could set up an appointment to talk. That is, if it’s a good time there? I’m sorry — it must be close to dinner time for you.”
“Actually, it’s right about lunchtime,” John said, feeling some of the tension ease away from him by another notch, as if the time zone difference — New York City, London, Kabul — had moved him into some new dimension, full of potential. He glanced up at the midday sky and green caught his eye, a thick wash of deep, living green that looked even more out of place here than in Afghanistan. “Good heavens, I think I’ve found Central Park,” he remarked absently.
Dr. Levine’s voice surprised him, reminding him that he still held his mobile to his ear. “You’re right by the office! But your address on your resume...”
“Oh, that. I’ve been here two days,” he said, wishing now that he’d scouted the city better. He wanted to ask her to lunch, but had no idea where to suggest. He’d taken his meals by chance — bagels at the hotel for breakfast, hot dogs and pretzels out of street carts, and pizza. As a physician, he was appalled at his own behavior.
“Well, then, let’s meet,” she offered, making him smile again. “Do you like Thai? There’s this great Thai place not too far from here.”
The restaurant was neither intimate nor romantic. It had plastic booths that John handled awkwardly, given his cane, and the tables were chipped. There were no menus — just a garish set of photographs over the register, so tourists could order by number. John impressed Dr. Rebecca-call-me-Becky Levine by ordering by name, identifying the dishes by sight.
The food was excellent. The interview, fantastic. Except that the Henriksen Group was less about trauma recovery and more oriented toward sports injuries. “You wouldn’t believe what some of these idiot stockbroker types do to themselves. They only think they know how to play racquetball. And don’t even get me started on the ones who do yoga.”
Maybe John needed to get out of trauma. He lived for the rush of struggling against death, of losing himself in the battle until nothing existed but the race to stop a life from slipping away. But maybe that was too much the old John.
Too bad he had no idea who the new John really was.
But while the Henriksen Group might not be a good fit for Dr. John Watson, Becky was definitely a good fit for John. Petite, dark hair matching eyes so dark you could get lost in them, with the sprinkle of freckles across her nose and cheekbones more usual to redheads. Her lips were full and her eyelashes very long. She wore no cosmetics and kept her nails trimmed very short and neat. No wedding ring and no tan line from one, either. That suited John just fine.
She seemed genuinely regretful when her BlackBerry went off, summoning her away. “Oh, damn. Consultation. Thanks so much for accommodating the spur-of-the-moment interview, Dr. Watson,” she said, getting to her feet.
She put out her hand at an awkward moment, just as he was levering himself upright with his cane, but he managed to keep from falling and looking like an idiot. “A pleasure, Dr. Levine.”
“I’ll call you very soon, I promise,” she told him, a sparkle in her eye.
She wasn’t talking about the job.
He put on that shy smile that had always worked so well for him back home, when he’d been the modest, bright young doctor who’d volunteered for the worst postings, who’d signed up for a life of service, who’d dedicated himself to the wellbeing of his fellow humans. “I’d like that very much,” he told her.
He wasn’t talking about the job, either.
His reward was a faint blush and a knowing smile. Then she was gone, leaving John to contemplate the remains of his food before he decided he’d had enough calories for one meal. With his limp, he was at risk of packing on the pounds, and that was the last thing he wanted to do.
She’d insisted on paying the server, making a joke of taking the receipt ‘for tax purposes’, so he was free to leave. As he did, picking his way slowly through the crowd, his phone buzzed. He fished it out and saw he had a text:
Found flat and flatmate, Baker building 221-B 7pm tonight, best of luck!
The return number was Mike Stamford.
The cabbie didn’t know the Baker Building by name, though John had googled for a proper address, and managed to make it to the building at ten minutes before seven. The drive had him nervous, and it had nothing to do with meeting a complete stranger. No, this was purely the neighborhood, all posh shops and elegant buildings with handcrafted brick walls, stone details, and wrought iron railings. He’d told Stamford he was on a military pension, and obviously he’d forgotten, damn the man! Now, he was spending money on a cab ride and wasting not just his time but someone else’s, all to look at something he’d have to turn down anyway.
The cab stopped in front of a five-storey building in the middle of a one-way street. Trees grew from brick-covered square patches cut in the sidewalk. Two more trees fronted a little café with a red canopy over the door and a window display of sinful-looking pastries. The building entrance was three steps leading up to a little foyer. John limped up and let himself in, mostly to get out of the nighttime chill. There were five brass mailboxes set into the left wall of the foyer, and an ancient-looking intercom system. He reached for the ‘Apartment B’ buzzer, then hesitated, looking the mailboxes over instead. The only listed residents were Hudson (Apt. A) and Turner (Apt. D).
Before he could choose which one to buzz — one of the occupied apartments or the apparently vacant Apartment B — the outer door opened and a tall, thin man swept in. He wore a dark charcoal overcoat and blue-grey scarf that only highlighted the pale skin of his face beneath a disarray of neglected black curls brushed to one side, over his right eye. His gaze pinned John, an electric shock that paralyzed him, stealing breath and words, leaving him gaping like an idiot.
“Good. Very good,” he said, and one corner of his pale lips quirked up. He reached past John, brushing a sleeve right over his chest as he stepped close, pressing one gloved finger into the buzzer for Hudson (Apt. A).
“Sorry,” John said, finding his voice. He tried to back away, but he was trapped between the man and the mailboxes. “I’ll just — That is, I’m waiting...”
It took him that long for the man’s accent to cut through John’s sudden confusion, because to John’s English ears, the man had no particular accent. But here in New York...
“Did Mike send you?”
“I believe he sent you,” the tall man corrected, turning that subtle little smirk on John again. “Do you like the violin? I play when I think. And I sometimes don’t speak for days on end. Flatmates should know the worst about each other from the outset, don’t you think?”
“Flatmates — Hold on,” John protested, wondering exactly what Stamford had said. “We’ve only just met. I don’t even know your name. And I certainly can’t afford even a share here, in this neighborhood. Sorry to disappoint.”
“Not a disappointment at all,” the man informed him, as though disregarding everything else as unimportant. Then his smile turned up another notch as the inside door lock rattled moments before it swung open, revealing an older woman with frosted blond hair cut fashionably short. She wore what John would have described as a little black dress, only done in deep violet. Her makeup was applied carefully for a woman ten years younger, and John could see the subtle signs of cosmetic surgery along her jaw and around her eyes. She wore a small fortune in diamonds at her throat, ears, and fingers, but a wedding ring was conspicuously absent.
“Sherlock!” she purred, holding out her arms to embrace the taller man. She kissed the air by his cheeks. “How are you?”
“Mrs. Hudson, this is Dr. Watson,” Sherlock said, releasing the embrace. Apparently, Stamford had neglected only half the introductions.
Mrs. Hudson looked John over quickly, smiling in a way that would have sparked John’s interest if she’d been a good twenty years younger. Well, maybe fifteen — she obviously was one of those yoga practitioners that Dr. Levine had been complaining about. “Dr. Watson, how nice to meet you. Come in, both of you,” she invited, and John helplessly followed along. Obviously this ‘Sherlock’ fellow seemed accustomed to getting his way, and John didn’t see any graceful way to argue his point in the hallway. Besides, the building was much nicer than his hotel across the city (and, more importantly, out of the cold that made his whole body ache) and he figured he might as well have a quick tour, and then stop at the café for one of those pastries before venturing back to his hotel.
Mrs. Hudson ushered them into a lobby floored in black and white tile, with art deco fixtures casting diffused light onto the white plaster walls. There was a lift to one side and a metal fire door barely visible at the far end of the foyer.
Leading them into the waiting lift, Mrs. Hudson pressed the ‘3’ button. “The ground floor’s taken up by the café and some storage. Basement’s for the boiler and utilities — I don’t expect you’ll need to go down there. I’m on the second floor, apartment A, if you need anything. And here we are.”
The lift door slid open, revealing another black and white tiled hallway, this time with a somewhat faded red Oriental runner down the length. “The building was divided fifty-odd years ago. It was one property all the way to the corner, before my husband bought it in seventy-nine.” She spun the keyring on one finger before flipping through the dozen or so keys until she found the one that unlocked the dark wood door with a brass ‘B’ above the peephole.
Beyond was a spacious sitting room with dark hardwood floors, crown molding, and other elements of architectural detailing that added up to John’s apprehensive tally of the rent. Mismatched furniture was scattered throughout in no logical order, no sense of groupings or function of space — not that it mattered, since virtually everything was hidden beneath boxes and papers, clothes, and all manner of equipment better suited for a laboratory.
“Oh, Sherlock,” Mrs. Hudson sighed, exasperation and fondness warring for dominance in her voice. “Couldn’t you have straightened up before showing the apartment? Never mind,” she dismissed with a wave at Sherlock, who was already digging into one of the boxes. Apparently, he’d already moved in.
It felt like events were quickly moving beyond John’s control — a feeling he definitely didn’t like. He drew a breath, prepared to protest, when Mrs. Hudson took the reins again, saying to John, “Let me give you a quick tour, and then I’ve got to run. Theater date tonight.” Her smile flashed, taking years off her appearance.
Still in a daze, wondering how he’d ever afford even half of this — or if he even wanted to, given the disaster Sherlock had made of things — John followed her through the cluttered living room, through a dining room, and into a well-appointed kitchen that Sherlock had apparently attempted to turn into a chemical laboratory. The stainless steel appliances were all but lost under bottles of chemicals, analysis equipment, and reference journals. Windows in the kitchen and dining room looked out into a narrow little garden tucked up against a high brick wall. Beyond, John could barely see an alley.
“The master bedroom’s back this way,” she said as they returned to the living room. She pushed open a doorway, revealing a spacious room dominated by a massive four-poster bed. Clothes were scattered everywhere. John froze in the doorway, wondering precisely why Mrs. Hudson was showing him Sherlock’s bedroom.
She turned, suddenly right in front of him, standing an inch taller in her substantial heels. Her lips quirked up and she lowered her voice, saying, “There’s another bedroom in the back, if you’ll be needing it. Or it would be perfect for storage. I’m afraid I can’t give you room in the basement.”
“If I’ll — Of course I’ll be needing it, if I take the flat,” John said, just a bit helplessly, following her back into the living room. He nearly tripped over his own cane when his gaze met Sherlock’s.
The tall man smiled, barely a curl of his lips, and looked down at the phone he held in his long, graceful fingers. His eyelashes were very dark against his pale skin, shadowing his equally pale eyes.
“Bathroom’s through here — shared, I’m afraid, only one per apartment, but it’s spacious,” Mrs. Hudson was saying, opening the door into a tiled room that felt nearly the size of John’s tiny hotel room. The back wall was dominated by a huge, claw-foot bathtub. A toilet and sink were built against one wall, opposite linen cabinets that Mrs. Hudson helpfully opened, showing empty shelves ready for towels and toiletries. Tucked away in the back corner, as though a later addition, was a narrow shower stall with a glass door.
Exiting the bathroom, she turned right and opened another door. “The second bedroom is just through here, though really, I don’t mind if you two would rather share.” She gave him a conspiratorial smile and patted the hand that held the cane. “This is Manhattan, after all.”
John’s attempt at denial fell on deaf ears. He showed himself the bedroom, since Mrs. Hudson seemed to believe it was extraneous. The bed was significantly smaller, and the room was entirely devoid of clutter. Still, it seemed comfortable and cozy, at odds with the rest of the cluttered flat.
Assuming — and it was a virtual impossibility — that he could afford it, did he really want to live with a mess like that? And he could already tell that Sherlock was insufferable and domineering, precisely the opposite of the quiet and professional type of flatmate John had idly pictured. Perhaps Stamford had set this up as a prank of some kind.
John wandered back out to where Mrs. Hudson was looking in the mirror mounted over the fireplace that dominated the front wall of the living room. She was touching up her lipstick and talking softly to Sherlock, who seemed to be ignoring her as he stared at his laptop, long legs sprawled out beneath the coffee table in front of the sofa.
“Mrs. Hudson, this is truly a beautiful flat,” he said as soon as she paused for breath.
Delighted, she smiled. “I could listen to that accent all day. Try not to lose it, no matter how long you’re here. Promise me that,” she said, finally turning away from the mirror. “So! Will you take it?”
“Yes,” said Sherlock without looking up.
“Now, wait. We still haven’t talked about the money,” John protested.
“No time. Your pension can cover it. Mrs. Hudson has made us quite a generous offer.” Sherlock snapped the laptop shut, his head coming up sharply. His eyes gleamed wickedly as he all but bounced to his feet. “No time! Doctor, go fetch your things. Make yourself comfortable.”
The buzzer at the apartment door sounded. Sherlock was already there, pressing a button, presumably to remotely unlock the downstairs entry. He threw open the apartment door and turned to Mrs. Hudson as he pulled on his overcoat. “I’ll be home late if at all, Mrs. Hudson. If you could stop by the café downstairs and pick me up something that will keep — something cold, thank you.”
“I’m not your housekeeper, Sherlock. I have a date tonight.”
He pressed on, saying, “Just leave it somewhere in the kitchen. I’ll find it.” With a practiced flick, he doubled his scarf, twisted it around his throat, and tucked the ends through the loop. “John, help yourself to anything you’d like.”
“Sherlock, we haven’t —”
John’s protest was interrupted by the sound of feet pounding on the stairs.
“No time!” Sherlock gave a manic grin and then disappeared, bellowing, “Lestrade! Call me a taxi! I won’t ride in a police car, even one of your unmarked ones!”
As the echoes died out, Mrs. Hudson let out a sigh. “And he’s off. Why don’t you have a seat, take the weight off that leg? I’ll call down to the café and have someone bring up something. Maybe some soup? They do a wonderful matzo ball.”
Normally, John would have asked what on earth a matzo ball was, but his mind was racing. Lestrade? An unmarked police car? What had inspired Sherlock to such a sudden frenzy of activity?
Before he could do more than settle into an armchair, cane tucked close against his knee, Sherlock appeared in the doorway, manifesting out of nowhere like a summoned demon. “You’re a doctor. In fact, you’re an army doctor,” he all but purred.
Stamford must have mentioned John’s military service. “Well, yes —”
John blinked. “Very good,” he said, rising to his feet.
“Seen a lot of injuries, then? Violent deaths?”
“A bit of trouble, too, I’ll bet?” he said, moving closer, stopping at the edge of John’s personal space, staring right down into his eyes.
“Of course. Yes. Enough for a lifetime. Far too much,” he said automatically.
“Want to see some more?”
John’s blood surged, and suddenly he was back. “Oh, God, yes,” he said steadily, as something deep inside him awoke with a roar.