He’d only been back a week when he got the inevitable call.
“Um…is this John?”
“Speaking. Who’s this?”
“Sorry, I’m the bartender at Balzac. Your friend asked me to give you a call. She needs a ride home…”
“Right. What’s the address?”
Harry was lying face down on the bar when he arrived, her hand still clenched around an empty glass. John limped heavily across the room toward her and shook her shoulder. “Harry, it’s John. We’re going home now.”
“Erg, Jaahwn…” Harry slid off the stool and practically fell into his arms. He caught her just in the nick of time.
“Need some help there, mate?” the friendly barkeep asked, nodding towards John’s cane.
“Nah, thanks though.” John carefully transferred the cane to his right hand, steadying Harry with his left. His bandaging caught slightly on her coat.
Once he’d gotten her home, John sat on the edge of the bed and smoothed the rumpled covers up to her neck. Harry smiled wanly at him, the alcohol slowly draining from her system. “Sorry.”
Harry closed her eyes with a frown. Perhaps the light from the bedside lamp was bothering her. John was about the leave when she spoke.
“You know, Clara and I never really matched.”
John looked back at her. He had known, of course. Somehow, he didn’t think that was the right thing to say.
“Clara’s not Chinese, nowhere near. But Ming means “clear,” which is almost like Clara. She had Harry instead of Harriet, but that still could’ve been me. We loved each other.” She took a deep breath, and opened her eyes like it took effort. “I thought, maybe it’s just a little joke. How our names fit but not quite. Something we’ll laugh about when we’re old.”
John took her hand and patted it gently, wondering what to do. Harry closed her eyes again. “I think I’ll go to sleep now. Thanks, bro.”
“It’ll be okay, Harry,” John said, almost wincing at the lack of conviction in his voice.
Harry cracked open one eye. “Fuck off John.”
Once, when he was eight and Harry was eleven, she’d asked to see his and he’d said sure as long as she showed him hers. That was before he knew how rude it was.
They were curled up in his bed, after the lights had been turned out and they were supposed to be asleep. Harry switched on the torch she’d nicked from the kitchen, and pulled off the red polka-dot glove on her right hand. John squinted at the strange pattern decorating the patch of skin just below her index finger. The sharp lines were crossed and bent into elegant shapes, like fish skeletons or tree branches in winter.
“What is it?” he whispered.
“Mum said it’s Chinese,” Harry replied proudly. “She said she’d never met anyone with a Chinese name before.”
“Wow,” he breathed. Harry seemed satisfied with the expression of admiration. She put her glove back on. “Okay, now yours.”
John dutifully removed the matching blue glove from his left hand. The name was hugely out-of-proportion with his small, still-pudgy hand: the black letters spread from the bottom of his thumb across the base of his whole palm. Mum said he’d grow into it someday.
Harry leaned closer, rolling the letters silently in her mouth before speaking. “Sher-lock. Sherlock?” She looked up at John, brows raised. “That’s a weird name.”
John clenched his fist, covering the name. “It’s no weirder than a Chinese name,” he sniped back.
Harry sat back on her heels. “I think it’s a boy’s name,” she announced smugly.
“It is,” she said, really smirking now. “I don’t know any girls named Sherlock. You’re gay.”
“I’m not! And you can’t even read your name!”
At this point things disintegrated into hair pulling and scratching, until their parents came in and broke up the fight. While Mum soothed a fuming Harry, Dad took John aside and explained to him why people wore gloves or wraps to cover their names. For privacy, he’d said, and protection. Words that meant little to John at the time.
John hadn’t needed the typical dose of med school skepticism to understand that naming was a dodgy subject of study. Theories abounded about everything from name location (right hand, left hand, palm or wrist) to color (black, brown, rarely blue) and “font” (script, capitals, messy, neat). He’d nearly laughed his arse off in sixth form when his then-girlfriend, a devoted follower of the monthly naming column in OK! magazine, informed him that his left-handed name meant that he was a sensitive and creative type. Utter shite, he’d thought and told her so. She hadn’t been very understanding.
The scientific study of names was much more dull. Specialists in nominology catalogued trends and proposed theories, but nothing was conclusive. More people had names on their right hands than on their left, about the same as the number of right-hand dominant people versus left-hand dominant, though the two did not necessarily coincide. John learned that the palm was by far the most common location for names, with a sizable minority on the upper wrist. Only about 2% of the population had their name on a finger. Nominologists thought that name location might be genetically determined. Nothing to do with personality.
After graduation, John did several hospital rotations before ending up in the A&E. It was mostly dull, with unpredictable moments of sharply focused excitement that had people running and yelling and adrenaline pumping sky high. During the dull moments, John read the paper from cover to cover, even the obituaries and arts sections.
“John,” interrupted one of the nurses as she dumped a new chart on his lap. “Female, 23. Looks like aspirin overdose.”
John stood immediately, leaving the paper crumpled on the bench. “Stats?” he asked, flipping through the chart as he followed her down the hall.
“160 over 98. 78 bpm. She’s disoriented, but responsive.”
“Good.” He pushed aside the curtains around the bed. The young woman was already hooked up to an IV. Her face was stained red and blotchy with tears. John smiled at her. She was quite pretty, and just about his age. If the circumstances had been different, he wouldn’t have hesitated to ask her out for a coffee. “Sam Neeley?” She nodded, then winced. John frowned. “What hurts?”
“My—my head is sore,” she replied slowly and a little too loudly. “And my ears…it’s hard to hear…”
“Aspirin can cause temporary tinnitus—that’s the ringing in your ears—if you take too much,” John explained gently. “It’ll go away in a few hours. I’m going to listen to your heart and lungs now, and Marie will take your blood pressure. Okay?” She nodded again, more carefully this time.
John pulled the stethoscope from around his neck and pressed the base to her chest. “Breath in, nice and deep. That’s it…” He glanced down at his watch. Her heart rate was elevated, but nothing too worrisome. “And again. Good.”
He leaned back, waiting for Marie to remove the cuff. She nodded at him. Blood pressure was within range. “Well, it looks like you’ll be fine once the aspirin has been flushed from your system. We’ll keep you here for the night, just to be sure.”
Sam nodded, then whimpered. A tear trickled down her cheek. “I really screwed up, didn’t I?” she whispered. More tears.
“Would you like to talk to someone?” John asked. “We can contact a social worker, if you’d like. Or make a phone call.”
“No. I just need to…can you stay?” Her voice was begging. “Just for a little while.”
John shifted uncomfortably and licked his lips. “Well, I don’t know…I need to turn in the chart…”
“No, no, of course I understand,” Sam replied immediately, wiping her tears.
John caught Marie’s eye and handed her the file. “Let me just pull up a chair.” He settled down beside the bed. “So. What happened?”
Sam took a deep shuddering breath. “I was reading the paper on the way back from work, you know. And then, I saw it—in the paper, I mean. My name’s match.” She paused, swallowing. “I never thought I’d find him that way. Iezekiel is such a strange name.” She giggled a little wetly. Then her face crumpled and she began to sob into her hands. John patted her awkwardly on the back, making shushing noises like he’d seen his father do when Mum was having one of her days. She sobbed and sobbed, and he wondered what could be so terrible about this Iezekiel bloke that an overdose seemed like the best option. Was he married? A criminal?
Much later than night, John finally returned to his bench, dying for a quick kip. He tossed the newspaper on the floor, and it fell open to the last page. Obituaries. John froze, then stooped to pick it up. “Iezekiel Michel, 87.” Iezekiel had been a decorated veteran and a successful interior designer. He had never married, always believing that he would one day meet his destined person. Samantha.
According to the literature, names were sometimes indications of mental illness. Nonsense letters or illegible writing could indicate schizophrenia or retardation. John thought that names were just as often the cause of insanity as the effect.
His phone rang early on Sunday. John groaned and rolled over, staring at the ceiling. Cream. Everything in the bedsit was goddamn cream. Or beige. It looked like the desert.
The phone rang again, even louder. “Alright, goddamnit, I’m getting up,” John muttered to himself, heaving himself off the bed and grabbing the mobile vibrating on the desk. He sighed. “Hullo, Mum.”
“John!” She was shrill and worried. John picked up his cane and hobbled toward the electric kettle. This required tea. “How are you doing?”
“Fine, Mum. Same as yesterday.”
“I’m just worried about you! I haven’t seen you since you got back,” she continued, a hint of reproach in her voice.
“I’ve been…” Not busy, certainly. “Tired. I need a bit of a rest.”
“Of course you do, sweetie,” Mum replied more gently. “I don’t want you to be lonely, that’s all. Your sister said—”
John felt a flare of annoyance. “What did Harry say?”
“Nothing, nothing, dear. Just that you don’t get out much. And I was talking to this lovely young man at church, who suggested some internet thing…one moment, I wrote it down…”
John sputtered, almost spilling his tea. “Mum, are you suggesting I try online dating?”
“Now, dear, you should be more open minded. It’s supposed to help you find your name’s match.”
John had heard of such sites before of course. They were becoming more and more common in the age of digital oversharing. He even had acquaintances who’d met online, and they certainly seemed happy. But something in him rebelled against the idea. It was probably the same part that was actively refusing to keep a blog, like his therapist kept suggesting.
“Those things only work if your match is also on the site,” John replied finally. “And frankly, I don’t think I would be a good ‘match’ for anyone who trusts the internet with their love life.” He took a gulp of tea and grimaced. Too weak. Should’ve let it steep longer.
His mother sighed theatrically, but John was sure she was smiling. “It was so much less complicated back in my day. No foreign names. None of this intercontinental, world-wide-web rubbish. People just trusted they’d run into their match one day, and usually they did. I met your father—”
“On a field trip with your form, I remember,” John interrupted, the story so familiar he could practically smell Sunday roast wafting in from the kitchen.
“In the next town over, yes. And that was exotic enough.”
John sat back down on the bed, rubbing his thigh with his free hand. The bandages he used as a makeshift wrap had come loose in his sleep, and were bunched around his wrist. He pulled them off in disproportionate frustration, and stared at the black letters beneath. “What was it like when you first met Dad?”
“Are you asking if I fell in love at first sight?” Mum chuckled. “No, I don’t think I did. I don’t think I would have noticed him at all, honestly, if he hadn’t come over and introduced himself as Harold. That caught my attention. But it wasn’t love. Love took a little while.”
“So, do you think there are name matches out there who don’t fall in love?”
“I don’t know,” she replied honestly. “I think…when you meet your match, it’s not that you’re always going to be happy or in love with that person. It’s just that you’ll be more willing to compromise—being with them is worth ‘sticking it out,’ as your father used to say.”
John hesitated, then plunged ahead. “There are a lot of people who never find their match.”
“And they find other people to love,” his mother said firmly, quashing his self-pity. “It’s not a one-shot thing, dear. No one knows why we’re all born with names, but it’s not a binding contract. You’re free to choose. That’s why people wear gloves and things—to protect that freedom.”
John snorted. “You’re beginning to sound like one of those anti-naming identification groups, Mum. Got something to tell me?”
“Don’t give me your sauce. I love you.”
“Love you too, Mum.”
In the summer of 1993 there were 1,002 people with the surname Sherlock in England. 54 in Scotland. 4 in Ireland. None in Wales. The woman on the other end of the telephone number inquiry service was sympathetic when John explained he was looking for a first name. She must have gotten hundreds of calls a day from people looking for their match.
There was one Sherlock Pritchard living in Hampshire. When the line connected, a man picked up the phone. John hung up and didn’t try again.
In the army, there were a lot of men like him who kept their army-issue microfiber gloves on even at night. They were the same men who stayed in touch with their exes and smiled a little sadly when they got wedding announcements or photos of smiling couples with children. When they gathered for a few drinks on their nights off, they traded stories of conquests, and there were usually many—lonely girls, silly girls, girls who wanted some fun before they met their match. Other soldiers were impressed, but John knew the truth: they were only a phase.
“He’s a bit…well, you have to meet him to understand.”
Mike led the way down the corridor, pausing politely every few steps to let John catch up with his limp. John felt a tickle of recognition—he’d spent many hours here during his time at Bart’s, though that was nearly twenty years gone now. “You’re being so cagey about it, I’m beginning to get worried.”
“He’s a strange chap, but he’s fair. Won’t stiff you on the rent.”
“That’s all I need.”
Mike stopped outside a door. “Here we go,” he said, holding it open for John to enter first.
The lab was new. Computers and an overhead projector mingled naturally with the usual chemical equipment. John shook his head in amazement. Technology had changed so much in the time he’d been away. “Well,” John huffed, “bit different from my day.”
“You have no idea,” Mike chuckled.
“Mike, can I borrow your phone. No signal on mine,” a baritone voice interrupted.
John’s eyes shot to the only other occupant of the lab. The man’s face was long and pale, made even paler by the unflattering glow of the lab’s florescent lighting. Messy black hair fell to his nearly non-existent brows and ice blue eyes. John was forcibly reminded of a shark.
“Sorry, it’s in my coat,” Mike grumbled, dragging John’s attention back to the conversation.
“Uh, here,” John dug into his coat pocket, dragging a long breath as the movement caused his shoulder to pull uncomfortably. “Use mine.” Might as well start off on the right foot if the man was a prospective flatmate.
“Oh. Thank you.”
“This is an old friend of mine,” Mike said, making introductions from across the room. “John Watson.”
The man took the proffered mobile and immediately began typing, his fingers flying over the tiny keyboard in a familiar way that caused John no small amount of envy. He was wearing black leather gloves, on both hands. Odd, and a bit old-fashioned. Most people only wore one. “Afghanistan or Iraq?”
John blinked, cocking his head with a frown. “Sorry?”
“Which was it, Afghanistan or Iraq?”
John caught Mike’s eye in confusion. Mike smirked. Bastard, John thought, he’d been expecting this. “Afghanistan. How did you—”
The door burst open and a small woman in a lab coat rushed in. “Ah, Molly, coffee, thank you,” the man said, waving the woman—Molly—away with an offhand insult. John was still too wrapped up in his own confusion to defend her.
“How do you feel about the violin?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“I play the violin when I’m thinking. Sometimes I don’t talk for days on end,” the man turned abruptly to face John. “Would that bother you? Potential flatmates should know the worst about each other.” The smile was predatory.
John’s eyes narrowed. He was being tested. Well, he’d had enough of that in the army, thanks. “You told him about me,” he said, ignoring the man’s question and turning instead to Mike.
“Then who said anything about flatmates?” John looked back at the other man. He was pulling on an expensive-looking black coat, and John could see Mike was right about the rent. If this man could afford designer clothes, he could sure as hell keep up with a flat share.
“I have my eye on a nice little place in central London, together we ought to be able to afford it. We’ll meet there tomorrow evening at seven o’clock. Sorry, I’ve got to dash, left my riding crop in the mortuary.” He pushed past John towards the door.
John rotated slowly, gripping his cane so tightly the bandaging on his left hand crumpled. “Is that it?”
The man twirled around, circling the door like a dancer. He hadn’t even bothered to reach for the handle, and John considered the possibility that the man had planned the whole thing for maximum drama. Absurd. “Is that what?”
“We only just met, and we’re going to go look at a flat.” A statement, but the man saw the question in it.
John shared a disbelieving grin with Mike. “We don’t know a thing about each other. I don’t know where we’re meeting. I don’t even know your name.”
The man stilled, those chilly eyes penetrating John’s mild exterior like an x-ray. “I know you’re an army doctor, and you’ve been invalided home from Afghanistan. I know you’ve got a brother who’s worried about you, but you won’t go to him for help because you don’t approve of him, possibly because he’s an alcoholic, more likely because he recently walked out on his wife, and I know your therapist thinks your limp’s psychosomatic, quite correctly I’m afraid.” John glanced down at his leg, shifting uncomfortably under the man’s stare. “That’s enough to be getting on with, don’t you think?”
He was halfway out the door when he paused. “The name’s Sherlock Holmes, and the address is 221b Baker Street.” And with a smarmy wink, he was gone.
John sent a shell-shocked glance at Mike. He shrugged. “Yeah. He’s always like that.”
He should’ve been angry. John was reserved by nature, didn’t like sharing more personal information than necessary, even with friends. But there wasn’t even a trace of annoyance. Was it because his name was Sherlock? Not a common first name by any stretch of the imagination, John knew that from experience. But this Sherlock hadn’t paused when he’d heard John introduced. John was a common name though—he couldn’t get excited over every John he met, it would be exhausting.
Maybe there was something to what his mum had said, John thought. He wasn’t in love with the man, but John already knew where he’d be waiting at seven pm the following day.
John was still breathing a little hard from the stairs when Sherlock stood, snapping off the latex glove covers with a pleased little smirk on his face.
“Got anything?” the DI beside John prodded. What was his name again? John wondered.
“She’s German.” John turned. It was the obnoxious forensic technician from before. “Rache. German for revenge. She could be trying to tell us something—”
“Yes, thank you for your input.” Sherlock slammed the door in Anderson’s face. John tried to be shocked. He wasn’t.
“So she’s German,” the DI commented.
“Of course she’s not. She’s from out of town though. Intended to stay in London for one night, before returning home to Cardiff.”
“But what about the message?”
Sherlock ignored the detective. “Dr. Watson, what do you think?”
“Of the message?”
“Of the body, you’re a medical man.”
“We’ve got a whole team outside,” interrupted the DI, exasperated.
“They won’t work with me,” Sherlock returned acidly. Wonder why, John thought.
“I’m breaking every rule letting you in here—”
“Yes, because you need me.”
The detective’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “Yes, I do. God help me.” He turned to John, who was still looking at him for permission. “Oh go on then, help yourself.” He stomped out into the hall, leaving the door ajar behind him.
John knelt beside the body. “What am I doing here?”
“Helping me make a point,” Sherlock replied in an undertone.
“I’m supposed to be helping you pay the rent.”
“This is more fun.”
“Fun?” John’s brows shot up his forehead. He pointed at the prone body between them. “There’s a woman lying dead.”
Sherlock didn’t miss a beat. “Perfectly sound analysis, but I was hoping you’d go deeper.”
John sighed and turned his attention to the woman on the floor. She was in her mid-thirties with light brown hair, not fit but not overweight. Pretty average overall. She was lying on her stomach with her arms above her head, the right palm up and the other down. The pink leather glove on her right hand had been pulled up, exposing the name printed across her palm; but the final letter of the name had been obscured, leaving only “Rache” legible. The long pink nails of the woman’s left hand were bloodied. She’d scratched part of her own name off before dying.
John leaned forward and sniffed at the woman’s mouth. The sickly scent of gastric juices stung his nostrils. “Yeah,” he said, pulling back. “Asphyxiation. Probably passed out, choked on her own vomit. Can’t smell any alcohol on her. Could’ve been a seizure. Possibly, drugs.” John glanced back. The detective inspector had reentered the room whilst he’d been bent over the body.
“You know what it was. You read the papers,” Sherlock replied in a low voice, his gaze never wavering from John’s face.
“Oh it’s one of those suicides—”
“Sherlock, two minutes,” the DI interrupted brusquely. “I need anything you’ve got.”
“Victim is in her late thirties,” Sherlock began, rising from his crouch and circling the room as though searching for something. “Professional person, going by her clothes, something in the media given the frankly alarming shade of pink, planning to stay in London for one night, obvious from the size of her suitcase.”
“Suitcase, yes. She’s been married at least ten years, but not happily, she’s had a string of lovers, but none of them knew she was married.”
The detective crossed his arms. “For God’s sake, if you’re just making this up—”
“Her wedding ring is at least ten years old. The rest of her jewelry,” Sherlock waved a hand over the woman’s bracelet and earrings, “has been cleaned regularly but not her wedding ring. State of her marriage right there. The ring reads ‘Martin,’ so obviously she’s not married to her match. She could be having an affair with ‘Rachel,’ but the inside of the ring is shinier than the outside, meaning it’s regularly removed. She couldn’t keep up the fiction of being unmarried for long, so she has a string of lovers not just one. Simple.”
“Brilliant,” John said before he could stop himself. Sherlock gave him an odd look. “Er, sorry.”
“No, it’s fine.” Sherlock spoke slowly. He seemed at least as surprised at the admission as John was.
The DI coughed slightly, causing both men to turn their attention back to him. “So, on her hand—it’s ‘Rachel’.”
“No, she was leaving an angry note in German,” Sherlock sneered gracelessly. “Of course its Rachel. She had a suitcase with her,” he continued, his eyes jumping from corner to corner, stalking around the room, “and she must have had a phone or an organizer somewhere.”
“Why do you keep saying suitcase?” the DI asked patiently.
“Yes, now where is it, what have you done with it?”
“There was no case.”
“Say that again.”
“There wasn’t a case, there was never any suitcase.”
“SUITCASE!” Sherlock bellowed, dashing from the room and down the stairs. “Suitcase, did anyone see a suitcase?”
“Sherlock, there’s no suitcase!” The detective leaned over the banister, John stumbling to catch up in his wake. “What’s going on?”
Sherlock paused on a landing halfway down the stairs. “It’s murder. I don’t know how, but they’re killings, serial killings.” He clapped his hands together in undisguised glee. “We’ve got ourselves a serial killer, I love those, there’s always something to look forward to.” Then he disappeared down the stairs and out of sight.
The detective beside John slumped wearily against the banister. “Goddamn him,” he muttered resignedly.
“Er—” John started, unsure of what to say. He still couldn’t remember the man’s name. Had Sherlock even bothered introducing them? The DI turned to him as though surprised to find him still there. “Should I—I’ll just go, then.”
“Yeah, that’d be a good idea,” the detective said. “Thanks for your help.”
“I didn’t do anything,” John replied, because he really hadn’t. “Thanks, um…”
“Watson. John Watson,” John said. They shook.
“Well, I’d better—” Lestrade waved a hand vaguely behind him. “Got to start looking into this Rachel person. Might be a lead.”
Lestrade nodded and turned back to the scene to consult with Anderson and some of the other technicians. John turned back to stare down at the long, long staircase. He sighed.
John was sweating by the time he exited the building. His cane was slippery in his right hand, and the bandaging around his left was damp. He made his way slowly towards the police barricade, taking in the unfamiliar rows of condos. He hadn’t even noticed them on his way in with Sherlock.
“He’s gone,” one of the detectives—Sally, he remembered—said as he approached uncertainly. She didn’t look particularly welcoming.
“Who, Sherlock Holmes?”
“Yeah, he just took off, he does that.” She fiddled with her bag, not looking at him.
John shifted off his bad leg, wincing slightly. “Is he coming back?”
“Didn’t look like it.”
“Right.” John looked back at the house for a moment, then made up his mind. “D’you know where I can get a cab? It’s just,” he looked down at his damn cane for a moment, “my leg.”
Sally sighed. “Try the main road,” she said, pulling up the police tape to let him through. John was already two steps away when she continued. “But you’re not his friend.” John stopped. “He doesn’t have friends. So who are you?” She frowned at him with something close to pity in her eyes. He bristled.
“Well, here’s a bit of advice: stay away from that guy.”
She paused, examining him. “You know why he’s here?” She didn’t wait for a response. “He’s not paid or anything. He likes it. He gets off on it. The weirder the crime, the better. And you know what? One day just showing up won’t be enough. One day we’ll be standing around body, and Sherlock Holmes’ll be the one that put it there.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Because he’s a psychopath. Why do you think he wears two gloves?”
Of all the places John might’ve anticipated being stripped bare—metaphorically speaking, of course—and ogled that evening, a deserted underground car park was not one of them. Nor could he have predicted that the person doing the stripping would be a tall, frightfully posh man accessorized with an umbrella. No, the umbrella was definitely unexpected.
“You’re very loyal, very quickly,” the man observed, swinging the aforementioned umbrella in an unnecessarily Freudian manner.
“No, I’m not, I’m just not…interested,” John stuttered.
“Never mind, then. I know people have already warned you to stay away from him, but I can see from your left hand that that is not going to happen.”
Those words were still ringing in John’s ears several days later, when he stepped into the glover’s shop on Balcombe Street. He selected a nice tan leather hand wrap that hugged his thumb just right, but wouldn’t interfere with daily activities. Forty pounds was a bit dear, but he thought he deserved the treat.
John uncrossed his legs again. He felt twitchy, like he always did when someone was paying too much attention to him. Ella sat serenely across from him, placid and immovable as always. John wondered briefly whether therapists went through special training to be able to sit perfectly still for long periods of time.
After what seemed like eons, she broke the silence. “I read the update on your blog.”
John shifted in his seat. “Yeah?”
“It was very interesting,” she said, flipping a page in her notebook and glancing down at the writing.
John leaned forward surreptitiously, but she had it angled away from him. Damn.
“Your flatmate in particular seems…unusual.”
Yet another trait that therapists seemed to have drilled into them: the art of the understatement. “You could say that, yeah. Others might call him a smarmy git.” Like John had just that morning, upon discovering a pair of moldering kidneys in the brisker.
Ella fixed him with a gimlet eye, then flipped another page in her notebook. “You seem to like him.” The tone of her voice suggested that John’s taste in acquaintances was suspect.
“It’s not—I don’t know if I like him, per se. He’s just…” John trailed off, fumbling for words. What was Sherlock exactly? Brilliant? Mad? Irritating? My match, but John would never in a million years say that out loud. “He’s fascinating,” he concluded a bit lamely.
“Yes, you mentioned that.” Ella gave John another hard look. “You also called him ‘not safe.’” She closed the notebook, settling it on her lap in a way that clearly said, okay now we’re getting down to business. John instinctively straightened in his chair. “John. I know that you’re intrigued by this man, but I cannot hide my concern from you. Chasing after killers? Getting involved in unauthorized criminal investigations? This—”
“The police came to him,” John corrected with some heat. Ella’s eyes narrowed at the interruption.
“As I was saying. This is not going to help you adjust to civilian life. It will just be putting off the inevitable.”
The inevitable what? John felt his ears flush with anger. Before Sherlock, he’d been hiding in his bedsit, staring at the sandy décor and thinking circular thoughts about the illegal Sig Sauer P226 semi in his desk drawer. Before Sherlock, he could barely get to the bathroom without his cane. His hands clenched unconsciously into fists, so that the new leather around his left hand crinkled stiffly. Maybe Mycroft was right.
“I’ve already moved in with him,” he said finally, when he was sure he had himself under control.
Ella was unfazed. “I know,” she replied. They glared at each other for a few seconds—well, John glared, Ella watched calmly—before she continued. “Maybe you could tell me what you find fascinating about him. So I can understand a little better.”
John settled back into his chair. What the hell, he might as well give it a go. “I don’t know, really. He’s clever, really clever, but he has the strangest interests. I mean, he doesn’t know who our prime minister is, but he can identify different bath tile manufacturers by the distribution of mica in the paint.” John felt himself begin to grin, caught Ella’s eye, and forced himself back into a frown quickly. “He can be a pain in the arse at times, but who doesn’t have a few bad habits? Overall, I’m just happy to find a flatmate who can live with me.”
Ella arched an eyebrow encouragingly, but didn’t say anything. John sighed. “What else…I guess it’s a bit weird that he always wears his gloves around the flat, but then we don’t know each other that well. I wear my wrap at home too. But he wears two of them. Bit old-fashioned, don’t you think?”
“Why do you think he wears two gloves?”
John licked his lips. He knew what he thought, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to tell Ella just now. She seemed to read his reticence, and she leaned forward, elbows braced against her knees. After nearly three quarters of an hour of motionlessness, the movement was jolting. “John. I know we don’t have the best relationship, but I hope you can trust me with this. Nothing will leave this room. It’s a safe place for you to air your thoughts and ideas. I won’t judge you."
Of course you will, the cynical part of John hissed, but he ignored it for the moment. The truth was, he really did want to talk to someone about this, especially a mental health expert…just not necessarily Ella. He wanted to know what a medical professional would make of Sherlock. He couldn’t trust his own opinion—even he had to admit, his objectivity was compromised. But the very idea of Sherlock reclining on a shrink’s couch, spilling his guts to a therapist was laughable. Ella’s indirect opinion was as close as he was going to get.
"He says he's a sociopath," John mumbled at last. He stared down at his gloved left hand, waiting.
"And sociopaths don't have names," Ella concluded. “So he wears gloves to cover the lack.”
"But I don't think he really is!" John burst out. "A sociopath, I mean. I think he just says that."
"Why do you think that, John?"
John struggled to marshal his thoughts. Why indeed? There wasn't any evidence to the contrary--Sherlock's behavior, thus far, was certainly textbook personality disorder. There were the gloves, the secrecy, the difficulty understanding emotions...the events of the past week had driven the point home time and time again.
“We found Rachel, but she’s dead.”
“Excellent! Where when and why? There has to be a connection!” Sherlock’s nose was barely ten centimeters from Lestrade’s face, his eyes blown wide with excitement. John’s shock at the discovery of Sherlock’s “recreational” history lessened significantly.
“Well I doubt it, given she’s been dead for thirty seven years, technically she was never alive.” Sherlock jerked back. “Rachel Ewart, Jennifer Wilson’s match, was still born.”
Sherlock’s forehead crinkled in confusion. “No. No, that’s not right. Why would she do that, why?”
“Why would she think of her match in her last moments, yeah sociopath,” Anderson called snarkily from the kitchen.
Sherlock rounded on him. “She didn’t just think of her match. She scratched her name off with her fingernails. She was dying, it took effort, it would have hurt.” He clenched his fist, swinging it as he paced the room in a frenzy of frustration.
John licked his lips, forcing his sluggish mind to reconsider the facts. “We know they take the pills themselves. Maybe he talks to them, maybe he used the death of her match somehow.”
“But that was ages ago!” Sherlock exclaimed, turning back to him and Lestrade. “Why would she still be upset?”
The flat fell silent. Sherlock blinked at John. “Not good?” he asked tentatively.
Bit not good, yeah, John thought. At the time, everything had been overshadowed by Sherlock’s genius: the discovery of the suitcase, the realization that “Rache” was a password, the trace on the phone…but in the cold light of day, the excitement dissipated and John couldn’t make himself forget the bewilderment in Sherlock’s eyes when faced with the tragedy of losing a match. All John was left with was a deep sense of wrongness, like the diagnosis just couldn't be right.
The silence lengthened. "You know,” Ella spoke gently, “it's alright if the reason is simply that you don't want him to be."
But it wasn't alright. Because wanting something doesn’t make it true.
It was the scratch on the kitchen table that was the last straw, for some reason. It appeared without notice, after even the chip-and-pin machine had rejected him, like it knew something he didn’t. John went back with Sherlock’s platinum VISA and was unreasonably irritated to find he had no trouble with it. The cheery blonde hovering near the automatic tills (Hello! I’m Cheryl) smiled but had no reason to come over and assist him. John was too busy feeling annoyed to even notice the loss.
He trudged up the stairs slowly, weighed down by groceries and self-pity. Even sniping at Sherlock for stealing his laptop and never helping with the chores did little to alleviate his worries. The case was a relief: anything to drag him away from the stack of bills piling up in the sitting room.
When he finally trudged back up the stairs for the fifth time in what seemed like an endless day, there was the scratch on the kitchen table. “Sherlock, what the hell happened here?” He pointed at the table. “This furniture isn’t even ours, you know? It’ll come out of our rent.”
Sherlock groaned and collapsed onto his favorite sofa with his hands raised in a lazy prayer position. “Bills, bills, bills. Boring. Is money all you ever think about?”
John felt a shiver of pure rage pass through him, starting in his tailbone and gaining strength until it shuddered out of his mouth as a resounding “Fuck. You.” He slammed the door on the way out.
The last rays of light had faded from view, and street was dark. John shivered, cursing himself for forgetting his coat, but there was no damn way he was going back upstairs now. He struck off in a random direction, letting the punishing cold cool his temper as he walked. He knew he was being an arse. He’d been feeling out of sorts all day, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on why. Bills, Sherlock had said. Boring. They were, but they were necessary for normal sods with real lives and real jobs and no omnipotent brothers in obscure government jobs or families whose lineage traced back to the Domesday book. And that was it, wasn’t it? Because he’d been poor before, grown up that way in fact, and it hadn’t bothered him then. There had always been months when his mother would peer out the peephole before opening the door for anyone, and his father would duck into the kitchen to avoid the mailman. Just another fucking fact of life.
So there was something about being with Sherlock and his money that pissed John off. Maybe it was the sheer fact of his wealth: the expensive clothes, posh accent, Harrow and Cambridge and a sense of entitlement the size of the Thames. Maybe it was the gnawing sensation that the man didn’t really need a flatmate (for God’s sake, the number of zeros on that cheque from Sebastian alone!) to make ends meet. What was John there for? To help him make a point?
“You left this.”
John was startled to find himself nose to nose with a handful of fabric. He glanced up. Sherlock was holding John’s coat out towards him whilst meditatively studying the ground under his feet. John felt everything in him deflate suddenly, and he took the proffered coat with a mumbled “thanks.”
Sherlock fell in at his side, and they walked together in silence for a while. When they stopped, John was surprised to find himself standing in front of Angelo’s. Sherlock cocked his head at John, a soundless question. John thought about the groceries and the money, but then he sighed and shook his head. Sherlock held the door.
“You’re not eating anything?”
“We’re on a case, John.”
“But—I could’ve just made something at the flat, you know.”
“The flat’s a bit occupied at the moment. The Yard is delivering some books, I thought Angelo’s would be more pleasant.”
“Books? What, for the case?”
“Eat up, John. You’ll need your strength.”
By mid-March, John was longing for the distance even a part-time job could provide, so he sent his CV around for the first time since his return to England. The response was lukewarm. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting, really. Job offers left and right? Hospitals falling over themselves to hire a beat down ex-army medical officer with a bad shoulder and a history of PTSD? Right. Does glorious things for the résumé, war.
When he got a call back from a small general clinic nearby, he felt somewhat relieved. The job was underwhelming, but it paid. The woman who interviewed him, Sarah, seemed impressed by his credentials.
“It’s just locum work. Might be a bit dull for you,” she’d commented as they sat across from each other in her office. She tucked a strand of chestnut brown hair behind her ear. John couldn’t quite stop himself from following the gesture, lingering slightly over the smooth whiteness of her neck where it met her jaw.
“No, dull’s good!” he replied eagerly. Damn it, not too keen John. “I mean, dull’s fine. Dull works.”
“Says here you were a soldier,” she continued, glancing down at his CV.
“And a doctor.”
She set the paper down and smiled. A good sign, John thought. “What else can you do?”
“I played the clarinet in school.” John smiled back at her, more confidently. Talking with Sarah was like sinking into a warm bath: familiar and comforting. He knew exactly how to talk to a rather pretty woman at work, just the right mix of flirtation and formality. In all likelihood, that’s as far as it would have gone if things had been up to him. But when the opportunity arose a few days later, he wasn’t about to turn it down.
“Sorry, I had a bit of a late one, last night,” he apologized, stifling a yawn.
“It was a kind of book event.”
“So, she likes books does she? That’s, well, that’s nice…” Sarah sucked her lip in as she shuffled some paperwork around on the desk. It was adorably self-conscious.
“No, it wasn’t a date,” John was happy to correct her assumption. “And I don’t have one tonight, either.” Her gaze caught his and held.
The torch wavered in John’s hand as he strode along beside the train tracks. The thumping of his feet matched his heart and the little mantra he had taken to repeating in his head whenever the world needed a quick dose of sober reality: left, right, left, right. What the fuck, What the fuck. It calmed him. Ella would be proud.
A glitter of something gold caught his eye, and he paused, directing the torch down at the tracks. A spatter of yellow paint, and suddenly the pounding in his chest outpaced his internal chanting by a margin of three. Fuck, Fuck, Fuck…
He raised the torch. The brick wall in front of him was covered in symbols just the like ones at the bank, the library and the museum, so many that he couldn’t catch them all with his torch at the same time, so many he could never remember them. Thank god for Harry and her smart phone.
“Answer your phone, I’ve been calling you!” John gasped, slowing as he reached Sherlock. The detective’s eyes latched onto his. “I found it.” Sherlock didn’t betray any emotion, just slid his gaze in the direction John had come and then they were both running back down the tracks. John refused to feel proud that he was in the lead, for once.
They crossed the bend in the tracks just before brick wall within minutes, and John immediately raised his torch. His feet fell heavily to a stop, heart sinking as he shone the torch this way and that. Sherlock panted behind him, contemplating the blackness before their eyes.
“It’s been painted over!” John said, shock coating his voice in disappointment. Sherlock turned, shining his own light around the abandoned train yard.
“I don’t understand,” John muttered, frowning at the wall. “Ten minutes ago. I saw it, a whole lot of graffiti.”
“Someone doesn’t want me to see it,” Sherlock said. “Damn!” His voice hit a lower register than usual, John noticed distractedly, maybe it was still scratchy from the cold he’d picked up earlier. I’d better get some cough syrup on the way home…
A theatrical swish of coattails was the only warning John got before a pair of gloved hands dragged him forward. He winced and automatically tried to wrench himself free. “What are you do—”
“John! Try and concentrate,” Sherlock ordered, clamping his hands tightly over John’s ears. “I need you to concentrate, close your eyes.”
“No! What—why? What are you doing?” John stared into his flatmate’s face, so close he could feel Sherlock’s heated breath on the tip of his tongue.
Sherlock let go of his face to grip his forearms, turning in circles so John was forced to do an awkward two-step to keep his balance. “I need you to access your visual memory,” Sherlock said, his eyes never leaving John’s. “Try to picture what you saw. Can you picture it?”
John gaped at him, his concern melting away into amusement and something like affection. Sherlock, so intense, so focused on him. It was such a pleasant feeling not to let someone down. “Yeah,” John replied, wondering how long this would go on.
“Do you remember it?”
“You remember the pattern?”
“Look, don’t worry—”
“Because the average human memory on visual matters is only 62% accurate.”
“Yeah, well, I remember all of it.”
“At least I would, if I could get to my pockets,” John grumbled, pulling out of Sherlock’s grasp. He rummaged in his back pocket, transferring the torch to his right hand. “I took a photograph.” He wrestled his phone free at last and handed it to Sherlock.
The dumbfounded look that swept the man’s face (only for a second) was almost worth ending their dance. Sherlock was immediately engrossed in the photo, and John took the opportunity to move a few steps apart and close his eyes. His cheeks and arms burned like the handprints had sunk in.
Sherlock paused in his incessant pacing to look down at John. “What?”
They were sitting on the curb beside the police van draped in shock blankets. Well, John and Sarah were. Sherlock had abandoned his blanket the instant the officers’ backs were turned, and was now pacing and muttering to himself. John was positive he’d heard him mutter “PA” a couple times, and “soap” at least once.
Sarah lifted her head from his shoulder, her eyes worried. “No, nothing to worry about,” John said hurriedly, rubbing her back in an attempt to soothe her. She gave him a watery smile, and John was forced to crush the sudden urge to kiss away the tear tracks on her face. “I just remembered that I forgot to take a picture for Harry.”
Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “A picture of what, exactly?”
“Of the circus, of course. She has a thing for Chinese stuff. Damn, she’ll be in a right tip when she finds out.” John caught Sherlock’s eye, and began to giggle.
Sarah sat up, a bemused look on her face. “You two are barmy, do you know that? Completely cracked.”
“Yeah,” John gasped, still laughing. “S’better than being boring though, isn’t it?”
“I guess,” she replied, smiling.
“You mean, you know,” Sherlock added with a smirk.
Back when John was in secondary school, there was a particular day every year in April when all the students in each form were gathered to receive The Talk. Who knew if they still did it now—The Talk was already outdated by the time John was in school, in the eighties. It was a rite of passage for the students, and everyone always awaited the specified day with a mixture of anticipation, dread, and raucous giggling.
Poor Miss Davies, with her floppy pork-pie hat and shapeless chintz dress. It was hopeless from the moment she stepped into the gymnasium. A wave of tittering and gossiping would arise from the female side, and a stonily amused silence from the male. She would totter over to the lonely chair planted in the center of the gym, and seat herself facing the two hundred or so fresh-faced savages on the bleachers.
“Ahem,” she always began in a surprisingly low voice. “Let us begin. Who here knows why we wear gloves?” Without waiting for the inevitable silence, she would shuffle through the list of attendees and pick on some unfortunate sod. “Mr. Fenton, what do you think?”
“’Cause we don’t want nosy gits to see our names. Miss.” A ripple of laughter.
“Indeed. Thank you Mr. Fenton,” Ms. Davies would say with unwavering calm. “We do this to protect the name of our soul mates, chosen from birth by Providence and revealed to each of us on our hand. This is one of the great mysteries of life, and we must each cherish and protect the name of our God-given soul mate as our dearest possession…” And she would continue in this strain for the next forty minutes, as the entire form slowly sank deeper and deeper into an inert torpor.
Except for one time.
“…and our soul mates—”
“Excuse me, Miss.”
Everyone turned. It was Marvin Goodman, a quiet and rather forgettable boy with wire-rimmed glasses and a pronounced Adam’s apple. John knew him vaguely from the locker room—Marvin was on the swim team, and John did rugby. He blushed slightly under the weight of the attention centred on him, but stood his ground.
Miss Davies looked mildly startled at the interruption, but recovered admirably. “Yes, dear?”
Marvin licked his lips. “Miss, people don’t call them ‘soul mates’ anymore, they say ‘matches.’ Look, even the curriculum has changed,” he stated, holding up the class syllabus, emblazed with the words Name Match Seminar, April 24th.
“Has it really?” Miss Davies sighed.
“Yes,” Marvin answered firmly. “ANIL lobbied Parliament a while ago to change it to something more politically correct.”
“The Anti-Name Identification League,” Marvin clarified. “You know, the organization behind the Right To Choose campaign.” Right To Choose, John mused, that rang a bell. He’d seen a poster for it outside Tesco’s on Sunday, something about the right to choose one’s partner, rather than simply going along with whatever name you’d been born with. He sat up a bit straighter, craning his neck to get a better view of Marvin. “I don’t believe in soul mates,” Marvin continued, ignoring the stares of his fellow students stoically. “Lots of people never find their name’s match, and they do alright. And lots of matches don’t work out, in the end.”
“A soul mate is not always a gift, indeed, sometimes it will seem a great responsibility,” Miss Davies intoned solemnly, bypassing Marvin’s point with relentless indifference.
“But, Miss,” Marvin interrupted again. He was red to the tips of his ears now. “What if you don’t want to fall in love with your match?” He clenched his hands into tight fists. John thought that he might love Marvin, just for a moment.
Miss Davies smiled serenely. “Don’t worry about it, dear. You’ll understand when you meet her.”
“I’ll get a candle for the table. S’more romantic.”
“I’m not his date!”
John liked Molly. She was smart and hardworking, and if she was a little awkward, she made up for it with good cheer. And sometimes it felt like she was the only person in the whole fucking world who believed that John and Sherlock were not an item. The fact that John liked Molly made it all the more painful to watch Sherlock play her like his bloody violin, while she smiled obliviously.
“So. What do we have?” Sherlock demanded, striding over to the body without sparing a glance for Molly.
For once, she didn’t seem to mind. “Dead two days. Initial autopsy indicates tetanus poisoning,” she stated dully, holding her clipboard like a barrier between herself and the detective. She was even more ill at ease than usual today, John noticed, and he thought he knew why from the pinkish tinge and slight swelling around her eyes. He guessed that “Jim from IT” wouldn’t be showing up around the morgue anymore.
“According to one of her staff, Raoul de Santos, she cut her hand on a rusty nail in the garden,” Sherlock muttered, ignoring Molly.
John leaned forward to get a look. “Nasty wound,” he commented, nodding at the woman’s right hand.
“Tetanus bacteria enters the bloodstream, and it’s Goodnight Vienna,” Sherlock concluded, circling the body like a hawk. He frowned. “Something’s wrong with this picture.”
“Eh?” John looked up.
“Can’t be as simple as it seems, otherwise the bomber wouldn’t be directing us to it,” Sherlock spat the words out quickly, loathe to waste breath on tiresome explanations. “Something’s wrong.”
John walked around the table, trying to coerce his exhausted brain into working, but all he could see was Dead Connie Prince and some black blotches that meant he could probably use another cup of coffee. The last few days had been a marathon of death and destruction. If the past was any indication, today would be the same. He roamed over to the woman’s other side, wearily noting the shallow scratches on her upper arm. Sherlock tensed and grimaced.
“Go away John. Your thinking is annoying,” he complained without looking up. He popped out his pocket magnifier, peering through it at woman’s forehead.
John sighed and sidled over to Molly, leaving Sherlock to contemplate the dead talk show host on his own. “Molly.”
She blinked at him, smiling wanly. “Hi. Does Sherlock need something?”
John felt a guilty pang. He realized that he didn’t really talk much to Molly outside of requests (or apologies) for Sherlock. Of course she would think that he “needed” her something. “No, nothing. Just wondering if you’d like a coffee.” She gave him an odd look, and John hurried to explain. “No, I didn’t mean…to be honest, I just want to get away from all the dead bodies for a moment. Maybe you could just point me towards the cafeteria?” Not that he needed direction, of course. The number of years he’d spent practically living in that cafeteria—he could probably find it in his sleep.
“Oh,” Molly brightened slightly, an understanding smile crossing her face. “Actually, coffee sounds lovely.” She peeled off her latex gloves, dropping them in the biohazard bin beside the disinfecting station before turning on the taps. John leaned against the counter, waiting as she washed her hands for the prescribed one-and-a-half minutes. It occurred to him that he’d never seen Sherlock use the disinfecting station before, but he shoved that disturbing thought down as quickly as he could.
“Ready?” he asked when she’d finished. She nodded. “Sherlock, we’re going for a coffee. Want anything?”
There was no response from Sherlock, but then John didn’t expect one. He shrugged at Molly, who smiled again, and they headed out the door.
They didn’t talk for bit, but it was a nice kind of silence. Molly seemed to relax the moment she was out the door—whether due to the absence of dead people or the absence of socially maladaptive detectives, he couldn’t tell. He certainly relaxed a bit when Sherlock wasn’t around.
Maybe it was the thought of Sherlock that led him to ask, “How did you meet Sherlock?” before his brain could mount a proper defense. He tensed, worried that he’d ruined their comfortable moment of quiet.
But Molly didn’t seem upset. Her lips even turned up a bit at the edges. “We met a few years ago, when I first started working here,” she replied, actually chuckling. “It’s a pretty funny story, actually.”
John raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “It was my first day,” Molly continued, “and Ted—he was the department administrator back then, passed away in January actually—was giving me a tour. We walked into one of the storage rooms, and Sherlock was in there.”
“Of course he was,” John commented, rolling his eyes. “I’ll bet he was nicking some body parts for his collection.”
“No,” Molly corrected, grinning now. “Even better. He’d gotten out all the feet—still attached to the bodies, of course—and was measuring their toenails. Ted went ballistic.”
John snorted. He could imagine the whole thing perfectly. “Typical. What happened?”
“Well, Ted was yelling about reporting him to the board or calling security, I’m not sure, but it was something like that. So he ran off.”
“Leaving you alone with Sherlock?” John was so horrified he stopped in the middle of the hallway and stared at her.
“I think he was so mad he just forgot about me,” Molly said, smiling a bit at John’s expression. “But it wasn’t that bad. Sherlock took me around to see the rest of the facilities. He seemed to know the place better than most of the employees.” Her eyes slid past John and she raised her right hand, unconsciously it seemed, to twirl the end of her ponytail. “Though, I’m not really sure whether he was giving me a tour or whether I was just following him around. He didn’t really say anything to me after the introductions.”
She looked vulnerable standing there with her hand in her hair. Fine brown strands kept getting caught in the girlish pink knit hand wrap, and John suddenly had to look away. There was something about the moment that was so revealing, so intimate. He kept his eyes safely pinned to the floor until she came back to herself. Her hand fell limply to her side and she huffed a sigh. “Sorry, what was I saying? My mind just wanders off sometimes…”
John shifted uneasily, licking his lips. “Nothing important, just how Sherlock is an arse.”
“Yeah,” she agreed with a smile, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes this time. “He can be a bit mean, sometimes.” The accusation held absolutely no venom, merely resignation and maybe, just maybe, a little bit of affection.
John had the sudden and overwhelming desire to apologize to Molly about something. Anything he said would be inadequate, but still he opened his mouth. “Listen, I’m so sorry about Jim. I know Sherlock…I’m sure Sherlock feels the same.”
Molly’s eyebrows raised skeptically and John cringed. He really was a rubbish liar. Harry had always said so. “Don’t worry about me,” Molly said with another one of those fake smiles. “I’m not really that broken up over Jim. Really, I should be thanking Sherlock for, um, letting me know.”
“No,” John said fervently, “you really shouldn’t. He was a prick, saying it like that.”
Molly tilted her head to one side, her fingers in her hair again. “But if he didn’t say it like that, he wouldn’t be Sherlock, would he?” she mused, twirling away. “Besides, it wasn’t like Jim was my match or anything. I’d choose Sherlock over him any day.” She raised her eyes to John's. "Just like you. Right?"
Sherlock burst into the hall behind them, and they both started. Molly immediately pulled her hand out of her ponytail and tucked it into her pocket. “The cut’s too clean!” he announced, striding over to the pair of them. They’d only made it about ten yards from the lab, John realized. “How long’s the bacteria been incubating inside her?”
“To reach a toxic level, the bacteria would require at least—” Molly began, but Sherlock cut across her.
“John. Answer. Now.”
John looked helplessly at Molly, his gut twisting with pity. “Eight or nine days, probably,” he mumbled.
“Yes!” Sherlock nearly shouted in triumph. “And the cut was clearly made after death. So the only question now is: how did the tetanus enter the dead woman’s system?” He grabbed John’s arm. “You wanted to help, didn’t you? I need Connie Prince’s background, family history, everything, get me data.”
“Right,” John answered brusquely. He turned back to Molly. “Sorry about the coffee, Molly. Another time?”
“Yeah,” she replied tremulously. “That’d be—”
“Enough flirting!” Sherlock interrupted rudely, dragging John down the hall. “I know Molly tends to gravitate towards entirely unsuitable men, but you shouldn’t encourage her,” he scoffed, loud enough that the whole hall could hear. John didn’t look back, but he thought he heard a little sob of “okay” before they turned the corner.
By the time John and Sherlock returned to the flat, the sun had set at least twice, and it was dark yet again. John looked at the date on his watch. Still March 31st. He shook it and held it to his ear, whilst Sherlock watched him in amusement from the sofa.
“That doesn’t work on digital watches,” he commented, stretching his long frame luxuriously against the cushions. “And the date is correct. It only feels like three days since this morning.”
John sighed and collapsed into his armchair. “I can’t believe we were looking at Connie Prince less than twenty-four hours ago.”
“Indeed.” Sherlock steepled his fingers and drew his knees up to his chin. His “thinking” pose. John reached for the remote. He knew better than to try and pursue a conversation when Sherlock got that look.
There was nothing much on the telly. John flipped channels for a while before settling on a rerun of EastEnders. He’d seen it before, but it didn’t bother him. He was the kind of man who reread his favorite books and rewatched his favorite movies or television programmes constantly—despite his supposedly risk-seeking ways, he craved that kind of familiarity. Not that EastEnders was a favorite, or anything.
When he got back from making tea during one of the commercial breaks, he was surprised to find Sherlock had taken over his armchair and was staring at the television with hitherto unsuspected enthusiasm.
“No, no, no!” Sherlock yelled, punching the union jack pillow at his side in frustration. “He can’t be the boy’s father! Just look at the turn-ups on his jeans!”
John circled around the back of armchair to plop down in Sherlock’s usual place on the sofa. “Dangerous thing, getting you into crap telly,” he commented with a straight face.
“For a case,” Sherlock replied defensively. His eyes didn’t stray from the screen though, and John had to hide a smile.
“Admit it, you’re enjoying yourself.”
“Hardly,” Sherlock sniffed.
John returned his attention to the telly. Onscreen, a slightly chubby but overall attractive blonde was trying to prevent her unsympathetic husband from leaving. “But we’re each other’s match,” she sobbed, tugging on his shirt. “You can’t leave me!” John snorted into his tea. He’d forgotten how over-dramatic this part was.
Sherlock seemed to agree. “John, who writes this drivel? Star Battles—”
“Star Wars,” John muttered, but Sherlock was on a roll and didn’t notice.
“—was bad enough. How can they possibly sleep at night knowing they released this—this barbaric perversion into the world?” His lip curled, as if the words were barely enough to encapsulate the cultural devastation wreaked by the BBC.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s idiotic, trite, banal, and riddled with faulty reasoning.” Sherlock kneaded the union jack cushion in his hands energetically as he spoke, punctuating each adjective with a particularly vicious squeeze. “A better question might be what isn’t wrong with it.”
“Well. It’s not supposed to be clever, just entertaining.”
“John. Do you seriously expect me to believe people are entertained by this?” Sherlock jabbed at the telly.
“It’s kind of melodramatic, yeah,” John replied, watching as the blonde woman lay, prostrate and wailing, at the feet of the male protagonist. “But the sentiment’s good,” he added, trying to be fair. “She’s just found out she’s pregnant, she’s desperate. And the husband’s being a right wanker.”
Sherlock looked pained and closed his eyes in a dramatic bid for patience. John suspected (not for the first time) that Sherlock and EastEnders had more in common than the consulting detective would like to admit. “It’s the sentiment that’s the problem John,” He explained. “Look at her. Just look.” He grasped John’s right forearm with one pale hand and dragged him towards the telly.
“Okay, looking. Christ, Sherlock, there’s no need to be so grabby,” John complained, reclaiming his arm.
“Observe,” Sherlock began, reminding John so inexorably of his first year Chemistry tutor at university that he couldn’t help but grin. He watched, rather than listened, as Sherlock gesticulated wildly through his explanation, a warm feeling glowing in the pit of his stomach. This was what he lived for: the funny little moments that were purely his. Sherlock sleeping on the sofa, one arm wrapped around the skull like a teddy bear. Sherlock rushing out of the bathroom to complete an experiment, fully clothed (pity) but still with shampoo in his hair. Sherlock deducing the entire plot of a crime drama before the theme song even ended. Sherlock sitting at the kitchen table, sunlight pouring across his face making his eyes gleam silver. John had built quite the collection.
“—not to mention the fact that her pink and utterly unflattering dress matches the stationary she used to write to her lover, an unsubtle reference to her complete inability to remain faithful for the space of a single episode. I think we can safely assume that the prop and costume designers should be added to the list of people to be rounded up and shot over the production of this travesty.”
John blinked. Sherlock was watching him like he expected some kind of reaction. “Right. Yeah,” he managed. “So the characters aren’t that likable, but you kind of root for them anyway. Everyone wants to see a name match work out, in the end.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “John. There is absolutely no scientifically proven evidence that name matches are anything but a genetic fluke exploited by religious and political institutions in order to keep the majority of the population as docile and bovine as possible. A relatively easy task, if this programme is any evidence.”
John frowned. “I’m all in support of the right to choose, but I think name matching is a little more complicated than that. Science hasn’t figured out everything.”
“Because there’s nothing there to figure out,” Sherlock scoffed. “The whole concept is entirely ridiculous. I don’t get it.” He hit the power button and tossed the remote carelessly onto the floor.
“You don’t get it,” John echoed, barely registering Sherlock’s aggravation at the repetition. “You don’t understand names at all, do you.”
Sherlock scowled. “Of course I understand names, I just see no reason to obsess over them like everyone else. Dull.”
“It’s not an obsession to care about names, Sherlock, it’s human,” John growled. “God, why do you think M—why do you think people do things for you?”
Sherlock snorted. “If you’re talking about Molly, I am perfectly capable of apprehending her motivations.”
John went very cold, and then very hot. A fresh film of sweat gathered in his palms. “What do you mean by that?” The words came out crisp and detached through his clenched jaw, as close to Sherlockian as he was ever likely to get.
For once, Sherlock seemed blissfully unaware of the effect his words were having on his flatmate. Either that, or he just didn’t care. “She has my name on her right hand, probably along the side of the palm in brown, though I can’t be certain. She prefers to wear brown tones to work, possibly a premeditated choice as that is where she sees me most often, but more likely an unconscious connection. It’s obvious,” he concluded with an airy wave in John’s direction.
“Right. Obvious.” John fisted his hands in his pockets before standing abruptly. “I’m going to bed.”
“Already?” Sherlock asked, looking up at him. “It’s barely nine, John.”
“It’s been a long day,” John bit back tensely, stalking toward the staircase. He had his foot on the bottom step when he heard Sherlock groan and sit up straight.
“Oh John. Don’t be silly.” The patronizing tone stopped John dead in his tracks.
John turned, rounding on him. “Oh, I’m being silly,” he ground out forcefully, though with no idea as to the follow up.
“Yes, you are,” Sherlock replied. “As if I didn’t know from the beginning.”
Sherlock gifted him with a pitying look. “John. Do you really want me to say it?”
John clenched his fists. “Since I’m obviously too stupid to read your mind,” he spat.
Sherlock sighed. “You are fairly conservative on the subject of name matches, which is surprising given your otherwise liberal stance on sexuality, politics, et cetera, suggesting that the source of your discomfort is of a personal nature. This is compounded by the fact that you take care never to remove your hand wrap around the house when I’m around, even in your own bedroom.”
“You never take yours off either,” John objected, grimacing at the thought of Sherlock sneaking into his room at night to find out whether John wore his glove while sleeping. Privacy was nothing in the face of Sherlock’s ruthless curiosity.
Sherlock continued as if the interruption hadn’t occurred. “On the subject of hand coverings, the day we met you were wearing nothing but bandages wrapped around your hand. While it is true you care little for appearances, bandaging is an inefficient covering—slips easily, prone to tearing and sticking to rough surfaces. Not your usual choice of hand covering, then. That kind of willful sloppiness indicates that you had given up on finding your match and just didn’t care. Yet within a few days of our meeting, you bought your current hand wrap. A great improvement, if you ask me.”
I didn’t, John thought, but the words stuck in his throat. He was frozen. He could see where this was going, had known, in fact, from the moment Sherlock had opened his big mouth and told him about Molly. They were hurtling towards an inevitable conclusion, but Sherlock was taking his time because he couldn’t resist a big reveal. It was strange, but even as John felt the knife twisting in his gut, he loved Sherlock in the midst of a deduction. He was beautiful with his eyes blazing and his face animated.
“And finally, there’s the fact that you always wank with your right hand, though you would clearly prefer your left—you abhor the idea of that name being involved in something so intimate and revealing. Also further evidence of repressed homosexual tendencies, though I could deduce that from other sources.”
A desperate giggle escaped from between John’s slightly parted lips. He wanked with his right hand. Of course Sherlock would know. Probably could tell from certain overdeveloped muscles in his non-dominant hand, or something.
“All of this points toward the obvious conclusion: I am your name’s match.” John’s hand twitched convulsively in his pocket as though responding to a call. “I would guess it’s somewhere on your lower palm in black, though that is mere conjecture,” Sherlock concluded breathlessly. He leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees as his eyes dissected John. “Well? Am I right?”
Emotions, John thought, are traitorous things. He’d been expecting anger, rage even, had been prepared for it—he was halfway across the room, his gun was out of reach—but strangely, it eluded him. Perhaps he was in shock, and the whole thing would hit him tomorrow like a bad hangover. For now, what he felt was—disappointment. And despair. Accompanied by the depressing sense that this had all been predestined somehow, like the moment they had met had set in motion a chain of events leading towards this inescapable collision of mind, and heart, and hand. John thought how ironic it would be if he took that hand, his hand, with Sherlock’s name, and punched the detective right in his beautiful, upturned face. But what he did instead was turn on his heel and walk out the door, not even bothering to close it behind him.
Around the corner from 221b, John paused to take a long breath. He leaned against the solid wall of the building behind him, the damp stone slimy under his fingers. He couldn’t go to Sarah’s, they’d been over for weeks now. Harry had her Mandarin class on Wednesdays.
He would go to the pub, kill a few hours, then go to Harry’s. John was about to move when he felt a prick of steel on the back of his neck. He didn’t even get his eyes open before the drugs kicked in.
She was an only child born to elderly parents, who worried constantly that they were not providing adequate stimulation for their sensitive, serious little daughter. But Molly was a quiet child, almost painfully shy, and no matter how many polite and “well-bred” playmates they selected, she always preferred to be alone. As a young teen, she would secret books in the disused rabbit hutch at the back of the garden—fantasies and sci-fi mostly, though a few of the naughtier kind of romance as well. There she would read and cry a little, daydream a lot, and spend the of the time tracing the lovely, curling script letters on her palm with the tip of a finger.
When she was twenty-five and considering a career change, Molly’s parents found her match. They waited until she was home on holiday to tell her.
Her mum was excited. “I spoke with him over the phone! He seemed very sweet, lives in Hampshire. Said he’d be happy to meet you,” she chirped, fluttering around the kitchen.
Molly sat at the kitchen table, chewing a biscuit. She swallowed slowly. There were crumbs stuck to her fingers. She hated that. “I don’t know, Mum. Might be awkward.”
“Don’t be silly Mol, he said he just wants to get to know you.” The tone was light, but Molly wasn’t fooled. Mrs. Hooper ruled her house with an iron fist. The crocheted doilies were just for show.
So Molly went. They met at a restaurant in nearby Woking, which had the advantage of being neutral territory. It was three in the afternoon on a sunny Saturday, but he said the trip as no trouble at all. He was older than Molly by at least ten years, but looked fit. They ordered coffees and made small talk. He reminisced about his uni days, telling her about the scrapes he and his friends got into. She spoke about studying medicine, and made it sound like she was happy as a regular GP. He played college football. She liked classical music.
Finally, when the conversation was beginning to wind down, he smiled tentatively and said, “Um. Your parents did mention that you…or rather your…” His voice trailed off and he gestured mutely at her right hand. “I was happy to hear about it,” he admitted, blushing charmingly. “It’s not easy to meet someone with a name like mine.”
He hadn’t said anything about her name. Molly wondered briefly if that mattered, if it was weird that he’d come all the way out here to meet her because matched him, when he didn’t match her. She concluded it probably was, but that that wasn’t the reason she would have to say no. Molly looked at him and saw a station wagon, three kids, suburban security, a nice house with a mortgage and a quiet family medical practice that got busy around the holidays. He was a chartered accountant. He liked to play football with his mates on weekends. He wanted to get to know her better.
She wanted flashy and dark, romance and a bit of danger. She wanted to long for someone, and she wanted him to be just a little hard-to-get. The best things always are.
“I’m sorry. They must have been mistaken.”
When Molly got back, she told her mother that it hadn’t worked out. “Why?” her mother asked, sounding suspicious.
Molly shrugged. “I wasn’t his match.” It was even the truth.
“Well. He should have said so in the beginning!” her mother clucked in irritation, oven-mitted hands on her hips. The egg timer dinged, and she hurried back into the kitchen to check on the casserole. Molly’s father cast her a worried glance over the top of his paper.
“Are you alright then?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine Da.” At thirty, she sometimes wondered if she’d made the right decision.
“—you shouldn’t encourage her!”
The words echoed down the empty hall. “Okay,” Molly whispered, blinking. Her eyes burned. You will not cry, Molly Hooper, a steely voice that sounded disturbingly like her mother ordered. Don’t you dare cry. It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t even John’s fault, though it would be easy, so easy, to let herself believe it was. Poor John, beleaguered, henpecked, pitied. What she wouldn’t give to be him. She bit her lips, and the sharp pain brought her blurring vision sharply back into focus. That’s it.
Her pocket buzzed. Molly pulled out her phone to read the text.
>Sorry about earlier. Meet for coffee? Our usual place? –J
She sighed, pressing a button to clear the screen. She just couldn’t face Jim right now, especially not after what Sherlock had said. They were over. She’d been very clear on that.
The phone buzzed again.
>Let me make it up to you. Please? Let’s be friends.
The screen changed suddenly to show that “Jim” was calling, though there was no sound. Molly always kept her phone on silent at work. She stared hard at the screen, her finger lingering over the “ignore” button. It was about to go to voicemail when she made up her mind.
“Jim? Yeah, I’m at work. How about seven?”
John woke in pitch blackness, lying face down on the ground. The floor was cold and slippery—tiles, he realized—and when he groaned softly, the sound echoed off the walls. He rolled onto his side with difficulty, fighting nausea. His hands and feet were bound, so all he could manage was an undignified wriggle. He inched backwards, hoping to find a wall or similar surface to push himself into a sitting position. Instead, he encountered something soft that squeaked when he touched it. He recoiled instantly.
“Who’s there?” he called, sounding bolder than he felt.
“J-John?” a quavering voice replied. “John? Is that you?”
“Molly,” he breathed, relief blooming in his chest like a hothouse flower. “What happened? Are you hurt?”
“No, just groggy. And my hands are tied.”
“Mine too,” John said. “But I’ve got an idea.” He shuffled closer to her, until he felt the press of her back against her own. He felt around, apologizing when he accidentally elbowed her, until he reached her hands.
“Can you get me loose?” she asked.
John tugged at the ties, but their captor had been well prepared: these were not ropes but plastic guard ties, the kind used in law enforcement. Nothing would remove those things except garden shears. “No,” he said finally. “Sorry to get your hopes up.”
“S’fine. I wasn’t too hopeful anyway, to be honest.”
They both fell silent. John strained his eyes and ears, trying to discern something, anything about their location that might help them escape. Adrenaline was pumping uselessly through his system, making his hands cold and shaky. Was it Mycroft who had said something about London being a battlefield? Or had it been Sherlock? This was nothing like the straightforward antagonism of war. Danger, he was familiar with. Captivity, not so much.
“Has it ever happened to you that…someone matched you, but you didn’t match them?”
“What?” John frowned, confused. He tried to turn to look at her, causing his shoulder to wrench against the plastic ties. He bit back a shout of pain. “Ugh…”
“Are you alright?” Her voice was tinged with fear.
“It’s just my shoulder. You’d think after all this time with Sherlock I’d be used to being tied up by now,” John chuckled, but the joke fell flat. “Sorry, what were you saying?”
“It’s nothing important,” she said, still sounding worried. “I was just wondering if you’ve ever, I don’t know. Dated someone who matched you, when you didn’t match them.”
John thought about Sarah. It was almost ironic, considering their current circumstances. “Yes. Several times, in fact. With a name like mine, it’s hard to avoid.”
Molly stayed silent, so he continued. “I know it works out for some people,” he said, turning the words over carefully in his mind before speaking, “but I always feel guilty when I find out. I start thinking about how they’d be better off with their real match, that I’m keeping them from meeting the right person. I even set up one of my girlfriends—well, ex-girlfriend, really—with her match. Stupid, huh? Sometimes I wish I’d just settled down when I had the chance.”
“I think it’s kind of chivalrous, actually,” Molly commented quietly. “But why give up on your match? Unless, something happened?” Her voice fell to a hush.
“No, nothing like that.” John struggled to keep his voice even. He felt a flare of anger even just thinking about Sherlock at the moment. It was Sherlock’s fault he—they—were in this mess to begin with. “It just wouldn’t work out. Not all matches do.” He paused for a moment. “Why do you ask?”
She took long enough to answer that John began to wonder if he’d offended her in some way. He drew a breath, prepared to tell her it didn’t matter, when she finally spoke. “I don’t know really. What are you supposed to talk about when you’ve been kidnapped?”
There was a hint of a pout in there. John smiled in spite of himself. “Fair enough,” he said. What was the appropriate conversation to have with a fellow abductee? It hadn’t really been an issue the last time this had happened…
“How did you end up here?” Molly asked.
Well. That was relevant at least. “I had a fight with Sherlock,” John admitted. “I rushed out of the house, and they got me right around the corner. Must have drugged me, because I lost consciousness. I didn’t see anything.” A tiny spark of hope ignited. “What about you? Did you see where they’d taken you?”
She hesitated a moment before saying no. “It was basically the same—I was going to, um, meet Jim for coffee after work. Just as friends,” she added. “But he was late. When I got up to leave, someone bumped into me and I guess I fainted? When I woke up I was here.”
“Yeah.” She sighed, tipping her head back against his. “What do we do now?”
John shifted, trying to take some of the strain off his bad shoulder. “I don’t know. Wait, I guess. Moriarty will turn up eventually.”
“Yeah,” she repeated, resigned.
John was a bit surprised. “You’ve heard about him then?”
“Oh, well, yes,” she sounded slightly guilty. John couldn’t guess why. “Moriarty is…well, I read about the bombings and heard you and Sherlock talking about him. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together.”
“Ah, right.” He knew Molly was smart, he really did. Why was he surprised that she’d figured it out? And when exactly had Sherlock and he talked about Moriarty in front of Molly? He tried to remember, but couldn’t recall any specific time. Though Molly did tend to fade into the background at times. He felt a faint flush of shame light his cheeks for taking her for granted. It was hardly Molly’s fault.
Molly shivered slightly, and John shuffled a bit closer, trying to keep her warm. He hadn’t noticed how cold it was in the tiled room until now, and she was only wearing a thin blazer. “What do you think he wants with us?” she continued, shivering again.
John wasn’t sure what to say. Honestly? Moriarty probably wanted to wrap them up in Semtex and continue his little game with Sherlock—upping the ante for the fifth and final pip. John suddenly wished he could see his watch. What time was it? How long would it take for Sherlock to realize that he was gone? Would he even notice at all—or would it be just a waste of time, another dead end clue to the identity of his nemesis?
“I don’t know,” he murmured without conviction. He was glad he couldn’t see the disbelief on Molly’s face. Luckily, she didn’t press him further. Maybe she could guess the reason. Or maybe she already knew.
A loud creak interrupted their separate thoughts. Molly immediately stopped shivering and lay still as a doll beside him. The long stream of faint moonlight coming from the doorway widened, falling across their prone bodies hunched in the middle of the tiled room. “I’m sorry, John,” Molly whispered, so softly that he could barely hear it. He was confused and wanted to ask her why, but he never got the chance.
Fluorescent overhead lights flickered, then snapped on, burning into John’s retinas and leaving him temporarily blind.
“Hello, pets.” The voice was strangely familiar. “Daddy’s home.”
Molly sighed as she settled into a chair. The Criterion was fairly quiet—she supposed that was to be expected around dinnertime. She wasn’t hungry. Even the hot chocolate she had so optimistically ordered looked unappetizing.
She sipped it anyway, knowing that the sugar and calories would at least give her a shot of energy. Which she would need whenever Jim showed up. She sighed again, wondering what had possessed her to agree to this meeting. Maybe it was just because he’d said he wanted to be friends. Surely it would be rude to turn down such a reasonable request; he’d even said please. She swallowed the mouthful of chocolate. It left a disgustingly sweet taste on her tongue.
The shop’s door chimed. She turned and saw Jim shaking droplets from his small purple umbrella as he entered. He noticed her and smiled, mouthing that he’d “be right over,” before heading towards the counter to place his order. Her heart sank.
It wasn’t that she hated Jim. Quite the opposite actually, she’d liked him the moment she’d met him. He was kind and shy, a bit soft-spoken. When he laughed it was awkward, but he never laughed at her. Mostly they’d gone for lunch, dinner sometimes at her place, or coffee at the Criterion. They talked about work. They didn’t have much else in common, really. Once, after a bottle of wine and five episodes of Glee, he’d done her hair. “A side part is much more flattering with your face shape. See?” Maybe she should have figured it out then.
Molly shook herself. What did it matter if Jim was gay? It wasn’t like there’d been much chemistry to begin with. Friends could still have lunch and eat ice cream and catch up on the latest crap telly. Friends could still meet for coffee.
“Hullo.” Jim set two steaming coffees on the table. “Oh s-sorry—I didn’t realize you’d already gotten something,” he stammered, apologetically indicating her cup of chocolate.
“Oh no! I was just thinking it was too sweet anyway,” Molly returned hurriedly, smiling up at him reassuringly. She pushed the chocolate aside, accepting the coffee from him. “This is perfect. Thanks.”
He pulled up a chair and sat opposite her. “Had a bad day?” he asked. His head was cocked to the side, and he was watching her intently. It was this—his intense way of looking—that initially attracted her to Jim. Molly had tried to dismiss the thought that it reminded her of Sherlock, but really, what was the point? She was in love with him. She knew it. Even Jim knew it.
“Ah, Sherlock again,” Jim concluded for himself, stirring his coffee slowly, his eyes still fixed on her. “Was he picking on you again? Naughty, naughty boy.”
“He wasn’t picking on me, exactly,” Molly replied, the defense rising automatically to her lips as it had so many times before. “He was—”
“And was his little doctor friend with him too?” Jim interrupted dreamily.
She sighed. “Yes,” she said, wincing guiltily as anger stabbed at her belly. “Of course.”
“They’re always together, aren’t they,” Jim mused. “Don’t you think that’s strange?” He lifted the coffee to his lips.
“They’re friends,” Molly responded uncomfortably. “Like us,” she added, taking the opportunity to change the subject to something more relevant. This was what they were here to discuss, wasn’t it? Their friendship.
Jim returned his coffee to the table. His lips curled upwards, but Molly sensed that what he was doing couldn’t quite be called a smile. He seemed annoyed. “Yes. Just like us.” His pocket buzzed and he groaned, rolling his eyes. “Sorry, one moment.” He pulled out his mobile, pouting at the screen for a moment before typing out his response so quickly that his acid-green nylon glove seemed blurred. He caught her curious glance.
“Just work,” he said, putting the mobile away. “I’ve got a little project due tonight, and it’s been hell keeping all my co-workers on track.”
“Must be hard, working in IT.”
“Oh, very.” He picked up his coffee again, eyeing her untouched cup. “You don’t like it?”
“No! No, it’s fine,” Molly said quickly, bringing the coffee to her mouth and taking a large gulp. He watched her greedily. Molly smiled. “Hazelnut. You remembered.”
“Of course, darling,” he replied smoothly. “Anything for you. Now, tell me more about your day. How was Dr. Watson?”
Molly frowned. “Fine, I guess. He asked me about how I met Sherlock.”
“Ooh, that story,” Jim cooed. “Did you tell him the part about the feet?”
Jim smirked. It wasn’t anything like a smile. “That’s my favorite part.”
“Is it?” Molly blinked, feeling a little sleepy. She sucked down another mouthful of coffee, hoping to stave off a yawn.
“Yes. I found it quite…inspiring.” He drummed his fingers against the tabletop with musical precision. “It’s only a matter of time now,” he murmured, his gaze pensive. “But, first—” his eyes snapped back to hers, sharp and insistent. “There is something you simply must tell me, my dear. Tell me, what does the good doctor have on his hand?”
Molly jerked back. “What…”
Jim seemed to sense her resistance. He changed tactics. “Haven’t you ever wondered who he’d choose? You—” he ran a finger around the rim of his coffee mug, then raised it to his mouth, tasting the tip. He smacked his lips. “Or the doctor?”
“I—” Her lips parted but no sound came out. Her lashes flickered. “I can’t…”
“No, no, you must choose a side!” He beamed. “Team Hooper, or Team Watson?”
“It’s not like that!” Molly tried to shout, but sound came out weak and breathy. She wanted to stand and run, just get out of there. Her legs stuck numbly to the seat.
“Oh, is this a game?” There were Jim’s eyes, wide and mad, and her own face reflected in them. His brow furrowed, a parody of someone thinking hard. “Show and tell! I remember!” He reached down and, to Molly’s horror, peeled off the green glove with a flourish. He grinned. “I show,” he hissed, shoving his hand into her face, “and you tell.
Molly focused sluggishly on his palm, her pupils strangely hesitant as though afraid. The scars were fresh, angry purple and red, the barely-healed skin puckered around the letters “R” and “K.” It was both embarrassing and terrible, like someone forced to strip naked in public.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Jim smirked at her appalled expression and removed his hand, stroking the scars much as Molly used to do her own name all those years ago. “I’m special, don’t you see Miss Hooper? I chose him myself. Not like you, just going along,” he spat, glaring at her. “Isn’t that right? Now, who is Dr. Watson’s match? Tell me!”
The edges of her vision were darkening. Molly felt her sweating palms slide forward against the table, her muscles seemingly unable to hold her upright. Jim leaned in, his breath tickling her ear. “Tell me, Molly. You know you want to.” The words came out in a reptilian hiss, all traces of his usual affability gone.
Her eyes closed. “Sher…” she slurred.
“No need to call me, ‘sir,’ darling,” he replied, jaunty smile back in place. “Jim Moriarty is fine.”
“Jim?!” Incredulity rippled through John’s voice. “Molly’s—”
“Ah ah ah!” Jim waved a finger, startling John into silence. “Not any more. Though Molly has been so helpful.”
Molly felt John tense and shrink away from her at the words, as though he couldn’t bear to touch her. Her heart squeezed. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, John,” she whimpered softly.
“Darling Molly! So eager to take responsibility,” Jim crooned, striding around the pair. His designer pumps—shoes she’d never seen him wear before—clacked on the tile floor. “But I can’t let you have all the credit.”
He stopped beside her and bent over. “Shall we give him a little surprise?” he whispered in her ear. “Hmm?” She pressed her eyes shut, trembling.
“What do you think, Dr. Watson?” He straightened and circled around to John, out of Molly’s range of vision.
“I don’t like surprises,” John replied in an impossibly calm tone of voice.
“Ooh,” Jim sounded pleased. “Aren’t you good! A real soldier.”
There was a rustle near the door. Molly strained her ears, trying to hear what was going on. Jim must have made some kind of signal, because suddenly she and John were wrenched apart. She cried out in surprise. John didn’t make a sound, though she was sure his shoulder must be hurting.
A thump and wet smack resounded through the room and she heard John groan. Molly tried to twist around to look over her shoulder, until she felt a pressure against the back of her neck. She didn’t need to see to identify the cold metallic kiss of a gun barrel.
“Now,” she heard Jim begin from the other side of the room, “we’re going to have a little talk.”
“No thanks. I’ve hit my limit for psychopath this month.”
There was another smack and a groan. “Not so rough, Seb darling,” Jim chastised the invisible assailant. Molly could hear John’s ragged breathing. She bit her lip, tears stinging her eyes. “No matter. You just need to listen.”
There were several soft clacks as Jim paced. “I always wondered what it is that he sees in you. Soldier, doctor, servant…an ideal pet on paper. And yet here you are, so disappointingly average.” He paced back. “What could have caught Sherlock’s attention? Why is he so interested in you?” Jim drawled the questions softly and slowly, almost seductively, drawing out each syllable for an unnecessarily long time. Molly bit down until it hurt. The wait was excruciating.
“But I had made a mistake. Oh yes, it happens,” Jim mused. “What do you think my mistake was, Dr. Watson? You can answer.”
There was a silence, then an agonized gasp. “I said, you can answer,” Jim whispered, the sound carrying easily in the still room.
“I—I don’t know.”
“Of course you don’t!” Jim announced, triumphant.
Don’t ask me, Molly begged. She could taste blood in her mouth. Don’t ask me Don’t ask
“But Molly does. Why don’t you tell us what you know, darling?”
The gun disappeared from Molly’s neck to be replaced by a rough grip on her shoulder, and someone forcefully rolled her over to face the two—no, three men in the corner. An involuntary groan left her lips. A bruise was rising on John’s left cheek, and his lips were compressed into a hard, thin line. The sharp shadows created by the fluorescents cast the back of his head into darkness, but she could smell the scent of the blood matting his hair. Her only comfort was that his eyes were bright and focused, so at least Jim hadn’t hurt him badly enough to cause a concussion.
John was sitting slumped against the wall with Jim standing a few feet away, whilst the third man—tall and bulky in black leather and fatigues, his chest festooned with ammo—hovered over the captive. Molly shivered. As mad as Jim was, he was still familiar to her. This man, with his military bearing and dead eyes, was a stranger.
Her guard prodded her again, and she squeaked. “I—I didn’t…I won’t…”
Jim let loose an exaggerated sigh of displeasure. “Molly, Molly,” he said, shaking his head sadly. “You do disappoint me. After all the fun we had together.” He sighed again. “I’ll just have to explain it to the good doctor myself, shan’t I?” He flicked a finger at Molly’s guard.
The guard grabbed her arms and jerked her to her knees with a violence that would have dislocated her shoulder had her hands not been tied. As it was, she couldn’t stop herself from crying out nor prevent fresh tears from coursing down her cheeks. The guard dragged her across the room, scraping her knees against floor, and dumped her at Jim’s feet. She collapsed forward, still on her knees, her face pressed into the cool glazed ceramic.
“Untie her,” the order came from above. There was a rustle and someone tugged at the binding, before—snip!—her hands were free. Her elbows nearly sighed in relief. Before she could really move however, she found herself pulled upright, and her wrists were pinioned again by a pair of glove-covered hands. Then someone pulled her hand wrap off and threw it to the floor. It skimmed across the tiles, a tiny spot of pink against the oppressive grey. She sucked in a sob as she felt the cold air of the room hit her bare palm.
“Turn it around, so he can see,” Jim commanded.
“No,” Molly whispered. “Please, Jim…”
“Poor, poor darling.” A hand cupped her cheek and lifted her face. Jim was smiling down at her. “But you brought it upon yourself, didn’t you?”
Molly bit her lip again, trying to control her sobbing, but the tears continued to drip down her face in silence. The guard pulled her hand up, forcing the palm open before John’s face. She stared at her lap, unable to meet his eyes. She listened for his reaction instead, but heard nothing but a soft, resigned sort of sigh.
“You see it now,” Jim addressed John. “I had assumed something—an understandable mistake, I’m sure you agree. I assumed that you couldn’t be Sherlock’s match, dear doctor. Because I already had her.”
“I’m not—” John growled, but Jim interrupted.
“DON’T DENY IT!” he shrieked, throwing something in his hand. Tile cracked overhead, and a pair of shears fell broken to the ground. Molly cowered, her eyes glued to him unwillingly. Jim took a deep breath, smoothing the lapels of his suit. He cocked his head smiling again, and somehow it was scarier than the yelling. “I don’t like you, dear doctor,” he said sweetly. “You don’t deserve him. You don’t deserve to have his name on your hand.”
He leaned forward standing behind Molly, until he was almost nose-to-nose with John. His gaze was intense and familiar to her, and she felt a shiver of some unidentifiable emotion as he focused it on the doctor. His lips pursed. “I could kill you now,” he murmured. “I could kill you, and no one would stop me.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Molly saw John’s Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed.
“But I won’t.” Jim stood abruptly and moved away, heels clacking. “Not yet.”
Another unspoken signal passed between Jim and his lackeys, and Molly was hauled to her feet. She stumbled, clumsy after over an hour of immobility, and they shoved her towards a door at the far side of the room.
“Where are you taking her?” John exclaimed, and despite everything—the kidnapping, the bondage, the pain, the doubts he must have about her—there was a threat in voice. Molly looked up, catching his eye for the first time since Jim entered the room, and an unvoiced understanding passed between them. They were bound, the look said, by the name they shared, by the man they protected, by the sacrifices they had made. It was beyond guilt and beyond forgiveness; it contained hate and love and jealousy and pity. It contained worlds.
It was the last thing they ever said to one another, and possibly the first thing either ever said that mattered.
“You have to go get ready, my dears,” Jim chirped, and the moment was broken. “It wouldn’t do to be underdressed when the party begins!”
“Are—are those vests for me and John?”
“Why are they…oh. Oh. I see.”
“I want that one.”
“You don’t get to choose.”
“I can’t let you choose.”
“It’s out of my hands. The boss already decided.”
“But you think he picked the wrong one, don’t you?”
“I’m doing this is for Jim too.”
“Open the door,” the silky voice murmured in his ear. “And repeat after me.” John swallowed, then pushed open the changing room locker. The rusty hinges creaked and echoed deafeningly in the silent pool. He turned slowly, the bulky vest and anorak impeding his movements. “Evening.”
“Evening.” His voice sounded alien even to his own ears, flat and toneless.
Sherlock froze, his arm still upraised like a dancer poised onstage. Come on, Sherlock, realize something’s wrong…
“This is a turn-up, isn’t it Sherlock?”
“This is a turn-up, isn’t it Sherlock?”
“John,” Sherlock choked a bit on the name, and John felt a strange leaping sensation in the pit of his stomach at the sound. The detective’s face was blank with shock edging towards disbelief. It was inexplicably comforting. “What the hell—”
“Bet you never saw this coming,” Molly interrupted in a brittle voice, stepping out of the change room on the opposite side of the pool.
Sherlock’s head whipped around to stare at her, his eyes widening in sudden comprehension as he took in her matching anorak, the hood up and the front open to reveal a wired Semtex vest beneath. “You,” he hissed, his gaze darting around the pool. He started towards Molly, but stopped when he saw the pinpoint of red light dancing on her chest. He whirled around to look at John again, fixed on the sniper’s mark now glowing there too. “Who are you? Show yourself!”
A door opened behind John.
“I gave you my number.” He twitched as the flirty whinge of Jim’s voice echoed twice as loud through his earpiece. “I thought you might call.”
Sherlock glared over John’s shoulder at far corner of the pool, his hand itching towards his back pocket. “Is that a British Army Browning L9A1 in your pocket? Or are you just pleased to see me,” Jim said, and John could hear the smirk in his voice. It appeared he’d turned off the microphone. It was a small comfort.
“Both,” Sherlock replied, drawing the gun in one smooth movement. Molly gave a strangled little gasp from across the pool.
“Jim Moriarty. Hi.” The crisp clack of Jim’s shoes echoed against the tile as he walked nearer. “Jim? Jim from the hospital?” He gave a little laugh. “Did I really make such a fleeting impression? Although, that was rather the point.”
Sherlock spared a glance for John, noting the position of the sniper’s sight against his neck. John tried to catch his eyes, but they were already glued back to his target. Sherlock palmed the Browning in both hands, steadying the weapon.
“Don’t be silly, someone else is holding the rifle. I don’t like getting my hands dirty.”
“What do you want?” Sherlock growled, pistol still at the ready.
“Patience, patience, darling,” Jim admonished. His steps were receding now, back towards the side of the pool where Molly still stood, silent and quivering in her oversized anorak. “We wouldn’t want the end to come…prematurely.” He chuckled at the pun. “I have loved this. This little game of ours. Playing ‘Jim from IT.’ Molly was such a useful little doll.” He had reached her side by then, and he tweaked her ear as he spoke. She bit her lip, her face twisting in pain or disgust, John couldn’t tell.
“People have died,” Sherlock said.
“That’s what people DO!” he screamed. Molly jumped, nearly slipping, her face pale and bloodless beneath the hood. Even Sherlock started at Jim’s sudden vehemence. “Playtime’s over Sherlock,” the man continued, softer and more serious now. “I can’t let you keep getting in my way.”
Sherlock’s lip curled. “I’ll stop you.”
“No you won’t. You won’t even leave this pool,” Jim dismissed him blithely. He raised a hand and brought it down on Molly’s shoulder. She shuddered at the touch. “Raise your hand, Molly dear.” The words were whispered, but in the still pool they carried. Molly closed her eyes. “Molly.” Slowly, she raised her right hand.
Jim smiled. “Good girl,” he said, patting her on the head. He stepped away from her, facing across the pool. “Now you, Dr. Watson,” he called.
John clenched his fist tighter in the pocket of the anorak, feeling the rasp of bare, callused skin rubbing against itself. “Don’t fight me,” the earpiece hissed to life again. “Or you know what I’ll do.” John grimaced, then steeled himself. Fuck all. He raised his left hand, trying not to see Sherlock staring at the name printed across his palm.
“My, my!” Jim squealed with girlish drama. “Two name matches, Sherlock? What a greedy, greedy boy you are.”
“I’ve been reliably informed that I have no names,” Sherlock answered, nearly monotone. John raised his head only to find Sherlock looking straight at him. A hand squeezed his heart.
“But we both know that’s not quite true.”
Sherlock did not reply.
“I know how much you enjoyed my little deal with the cabbie and the pills,” Jim continued. “Elegant, wasn’t it? The choice.” He walked back to the deep side of the pool, facing Sherlock at the other end. “So I thought you might enjoy the sequel!” He swept his arms wide, like an actor preparing for his grand bow.
“Behold, your choices,” he began. “Behind door one, the gimpy GP and his brainless blog!” He snapped his fingers at John. “And, behind door number two, the spineless spinster and her stupid morgue. Choose the right one, and you might just walk out of here alive. Choose the wrong one and… everyone goes boom!” He giggled. John felt his pulse thudding thickly in his ears.
Sherlock shifted his stance, his eyes narrowing at the man across from him. “I could just walk out now. What’s there to gain from choosing?”
“Oh, Sherlock, you are suspicious. Don’t worry, I play fair.” Jim paused. “Well. No I don’t. But just this once, for you, I’ll make an exception.” John heard a shuffling noise, like someone removing a jacket. “See?” Jim said. “If you pick the right one, you get me too. Good, isn’t it?”
“What if I were to shoot you now? Right now.” Sherlock raised the gun.
“Well, then you could cherish the look of surprise on my face,” Jim said, mocking. “Because I’d be surprised, Sherlock, I really would. And a teensy bit…disappointed.” Sherlock’s aim wavered, as though Jim had struck a chord. “And of course, you wouldn’t be able to cherish it for very long.”
Sherlock let out a hiss of breath, his face distorted into a mask of hate. “I’ll kill you,” he snarled, his smoker’s voice cracking over the words. “I will kill you.”
“If you like, dear,” Jim replied lightly. “You know what to do.”
Sherlock hesitated, the Browning still pointed at Jim, but John knew he wouldn’t shoot. As if responding to John’s thoughts, Sherlock lowered the pistol to his side. John could practically see the wheels turning in the detective’s head, spinning through every possible combination of action and conclusion, endlessly searching for a way out of this impossible situation. John prayed for him to find it, without any real hope of a solution. The thought crossed his mind that they needed a miracle. Sherlock didn’t believe in miracles.
Sherlock took a step left, bringing him to the center of the shallow end, John and Molly facing him on opposite sides of the pool. He raised the Browning again, letting it track slowly to one side—John’s pulse raced as the muzzle inched closer to him—then to the other. John chanced a look sideways at Molly. She was starkly white and beads of sweat were dripping down her face, soaking the collar of her blouse where it stuck out above the anorak, but she stood straight and still. Her eyes were locked on Sherlock.
Sherlock stopped, the gun poised. Molly’s lips parted, mouthing something. John strained to see, but the angle wasn’t right.
He heard the safety click.
Gun shots. People diving for cover. The ground running up to kiss his face. Pain. Smoke. The world exploding in a shock of color and blindness. The copper-and-shit flavour of blood. Bill Murray hovering over him, It’ll be okay, hold on Watson! What do you say before you die?
The climax of the evening was still echoing through his body like a physical pain. Shock, the doctor in him managed to recognize, but still, he couldn’t quite keep himself from shuddering as the police car—even Sherlock hadn’t been able to get them out of some basic questioning—pulled away from the remains of the pool. John clenched his arms around his chest, reminding himself over and over that the Semtex was gone. That Moriarty was gone. Oh god, if only that had been the only thing they lost.
He felt, rather than saw, Sherlock lean toward him, the springs in the seat shifting as he scooted closer. Before John could quite process what was going on, Sherlock had pulled him—roughly and efficiently, because the man had absolutely no sense of a bedside manner—tight against his side. John opened his mouth to protest, but Sherlock forestalled him with an annoyed “tch” and pushed John’s head down to rest on his bony shoulder.
“It has been medically proven that physical contact can stimulate a temporary release of dopamine, thus decreasing anxiety and its accompanying physical discomfort,” Sherlock announced to no one in particular.
John considered this fact for a moment. “So…you’re acting as a substitute shock blanket?” he asked, raising his head to inspect Sherlock’s haughty profile.
Sherlock forced John’s head back to his shoulder. “Perhaps.”
It felt odd to be held by Sherlock. Most of the time, he was the one trying to do the comforting, “trying” being the operational word. Despite Sherlock’s gruff manner, John found himself relaxing against the narrow chest. Slowly he uncrossed his arms. One fell to his lap whilst other found itself wrapped tightly in the folds of Sherlock’s coat.
John laughed suddenly and Sherlock started, jolting John’s nose painfully against his collarbone. “What is it?” he rumbled.
“I should be the one comforting you,” John replied, trying to get his giggling under control. He hiccoughed. “You’re the one who shot—” his voice failed him. “…someone.”
Sherlock grunted his assent.
John should ask. He had to ask, it was his obligation as a friend, as the only person who had any possibility of asking the question that needed to be asked. “Are you okay?” Three little words, yet they stuck in his throat. There was really no good answer. If Sherlock wasn’t okay, what was he supposed to do? Pat his head and say it was all fine? Sugarcoat the situation in platitudes about how he wasn’t responsible? John was too shell-shocked himself for that kind of artifice, not that lying to Sherlock had ever worked before. He couldn’t even sort out his own feelings—relief, grief, guilt—let alone someone else’s. And what if Sherlock was okay? Somehow, that would be even worse.
Sherlock sighed, and John felt the air ruffle his hair. Then there was a slight pressure, and John realized that Sherlock was resting his cheek against the top of his head. John swallowed. He nestled deeper into Sherlock’s neck, allowing the detective to rest his weight fully against him. Coward, he thought, closing his aching eyes. Oh, god, but cowardice felt so good.
Molly’s memorial was held nearly two weeks later at a tiny parish church in Islington. It was packed. John wasn’t surprised. He did wonder though, how many people would have turned up for his. His mum and Harry, he supposed. Maybe Mike and Bill, some people from the Met, if he was lucky. He sat at the back of the church and left soon after paying his respects.
Sherlock didn’t come.
He’d had his own memorial of sorts a week before, with only John in queasy attendance. He supposed that he’d seen worse, technically—though you can’t really rank these things. No matter how many victims of roadside bombs and mines he’d witnessed, he was never completely prepared for the job of identifying and collecting the remains. The Yarders—even Donovan—had seemed relieved to hand the job over to the two of them, bowing to John’s supposed expertise and Sherlock’s…whatever it was. Sherlock had been grave during the process, latex covered fingers deft and careful, his low baritone gentle as he recorded voice notes throughout the process. He took no notice of John except to issue occasional orders, directed generally at the opposite wall: “I need that scalpel” or “this fragment matches the left tibia.” John followed Sherlock’s directions silently, arranging, photographing and sealing the body—if it could be called a body—to be cremated.
Sherlock spread his hand across the too-small box once they were finished. He took a breath and then stopped, apparently unsure of exactly what he wanted to say. John couldn’t begin imagine what would be appropriate: Thank you? Sorry? Goodbye…
“Molly Hooper,” Sherlock said finally, his tone gravelly rather than smooth. John looked down and blinked away tears.
Afterwards, they went home and John made tea. They sat in silence for the evening, John flipping slowly through an old copy of National Geographic, Sherlock curled up on the sofa in his dressing gown. The room felt fuller than usual.
“The memorial is next week,” John said finally, closing the journal and letting it fall to his lap. It wasn’t like he’d been reading it anyway.
“Yes,” Sherlock replied without looking at him. He hadn’t really looked at John since the incident.
“Are you going to come?”
John watched Sherlock curl tighter against himself, shifting onto his back to stare at the ceiling. This had gone on long enough. He steeled himself, sucking in a breath.
“Are you…are you okay?”
Sherlock continued to stare at the ceiling. “Sherlock.” John leaned forward, elbows on his knees, willing the detective to respond to his stare. He wasn’t going to give up this time. “Sherlock, I can keep this up all evening if you want. But I think it would be faster if you just answered me.”
Sherlock groaned and made a grab for his phone, but John whisked it out of his reach and stuck it in his back pocket. “Nice try.”
“That was childish,” Sherlock accused, his face creased in a disdainful frown as he glared across at his flatmate. But at least he was looking at John now, which was more than he had done in the past week.
“If you’d answered the first time, I wouldn’t have to resort to childish things.”
“Why should I answer?” Sherlock growled, standing all at once in a silky swirl of dressing gown. John rose too, in case Sherlock tried to escape, but the detective only paced around the room like a caged animal. “It’s a stupid question. ‘Am I okay?’” he mimicked, drawing jerky quotation marks around the question with his fingers. “It’s just social convention to ask someone about their emotional state following a traumatic experience, it provides no societal benefit—”
“—it won’t aid the legal process—”
“—it’s not even psychologically useful,” he spat.
“I’m asking because I’m your friend,” John said desperately.
“You’re asking because you think you’re SUPPOSED to!” Sherlock shouted at him.
He stood there, panting slightly. John stared back at him open mouthed. Sherlock closed his eyes with a groan, then collapsed back onto the sofa, covering his face with his hands. John sank slowly back into the armchair opposite.
“I don’t get it."
John leaned forward carefully. There were a lot of things that might mean. Why Jim had been obsessed with Sherlock. Why he’d made Sherlock choose. Why Molly had said… Well. John didn’t get it either. “What exactly don’t you get?” he asked gently.
Sherlock’s voice came out slightly muffled through his fingers. “I don’t understand why Moriarty chose Molly instead of you.”
John jerked up. “What?”
Sherlock raised his head. “Don’t you see?” he said, his eyes burning like flecks of dry ice. “He must have known I would never have chosen you. So why would he wire himself to Molly?” The words tumbled from his lips, fast and furious. “It makes no sense. He should have picked you, he must have picked you, every sign pointed towards it…”
“So why did you shoot Molly?” John said, softly.
Sherlock stilled, meeting John’s eyes. “Because she asked me to.”
The silence between them lengthened. Sherlock looked away first. His hands twitched in agitation, first pulling at the ties of his dressing gown, then picking lint from his pajama bottoms, unable to settle. John watched him tug at a loose thread, unraveling it. His face was drawn. He hadn’t been sleeping, John knew, nor eating much either. The texts he’d been receiving from Mycroft were increasingly sharp and worried, but the flat was clean. That wasn’t the problem.
“You know,” he started finally, and Sherlock jumped. Shit, John thought, but he continued. “You know, I don’t…blame you. For that.”
Sherlock stared at him. “I know you don’t,” he answered uncertainly.
John felt his lips tug upwards in a crooked smile. “Yeah. Course you do,” he said. He stood, stretching the ache out of his back. “I think I’ll get Indian. There’s nothing edible in the flat.” He paused by the door, pulling on his jacket. “Want something?”
Sherlock was still sitting on the sofa, just watching him. “No.”
“Well, you’ve got my number. If you change your mind.”
He was just approaching the restaurant, debating the merits of chicken tikka masala versus tandoori, when his phone dinged announcing the arrival of a new text message. John paused at the corner, reaching into his pocket.
> What is the average rejection rate of non-related kidney transplants? SH
The phone rang again as he finished reading the first message.
> The chicken tikka masala is a better bet. Also, vegetarian samosas. SH
John snapped his phone shut, trying not to grin.
John was scribbling a prescription for Mrs. Toddlin’s asthma when he heard a commotion coming from the waiting room. “Excuse me,” he said, putting down the prescription pad. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
“Take your time, dear,” the elderly lady said cheerfully, her nose buried in the latest issue of GQ. John pushed open the door and strode quickly in the direction of the noise.
“I’m sorry sir, but you’ll have to make an appointment. Dr. Watson’s all booked for today,” the bubble-headed young nurse Carrie was insisting.
“For God’s sake woman!” The male voice sounded harassed and vaguely familiar. “I don’t want an appointment, I just need to see him! Look, I’m with New Scotland Yard—”
John winced, pausing just around the corner from the waiting room. Just what he needed, Dimmock barging in at work and announcing in front of all his regulars (not to mention the most gossipy nurse in the clinic) that he needed John. For something at Scotland Yard. Lovely.
“John, what’s going on?” Sarah had come up behind him whilst he’d been skulking.
“Eh, it’s someone from the Yard looking for me,” John said, wrinkling his forehead apologetically. Sarah sighed.
“It’s Sherlock, isn’t it?”
“Is it ever anything else?” John drawled sarcastically. He was pleased when that teased out a smile. Things were still a little awkward between the two of them; it would be nice if they could remain friends.
The moment they stepped into the waiting room, Carrie launched herself at Sarah. “Dr. Sawyer!” she moaned, “this man” (glare at Dimmock) “has been asking for Dr. Watson, but he doesn’t have an appointment, and he’s being disruptive, and—”
“It’s fine, Carrie, don’t worry,” Sarah said firmly, putting a placatory hand on the nurse’s shoulder. “Now don’t leave the desk unattended, look, there are some patients waiting.” She chivvied the nurse back towards the waiting area with a practiced air John couldn’t help but admire. Carrie went without complaint, though she sent the detective another hair-raising glare on her way.
“Detective Inspector,” John called, and Dimmock looked up with relief. “I didn’t expect to see you here,” he added, stressing the final word slightly to emphasize his displeasure.
“Didn’t have a choice,” Dimmock responded grimly, drawing closer to John. “I need you now. There’s been a kidnapping and we’ve contacted Sherlock, but he won’t go anywhere without you.”
John sighed. “I’m in the middle of work…”
“Please.” The detective looked strained.
“Just go, John.” Sarah rolled her eyes with exasperation. “Lord knows it won’t be the first time.”
John’s lips quirked in a rueful smile. “Thanks, Sarah.”
Dimmock started and his eyes widened for a moment. Then he seemed to catch himself and straightened quickly, a little life returning to his tired eyes. He put his hand forward. “Excuse me, I don’t think we’ve met. Miss—?”
“It’s doctor, actually,” Sarah returned with a bit of spark. “Doctor Sarah Sawyer. And you are?”
“Sorry, it’s DI Dimmock. John Dimmock,” he added hastily, smiling at her. He held her hand just a few moments too long, and she let him. John looked back and forth between the two of them, and had to cover a smile.
That evening, John was humming as he reheated three-day-old pasta for his and Sherlock’s supper.
Sherlock raised an eyebrow at him from his perch on the kitchen table. “You seem to be in an unusually good mood. Generally, kidnappings make you tetchy.”
John frowned. “Kidnappings are terrible. Thank God we got there in time.” The microwave beeped. He pulled the dish out, stirred it a few times, then returned it for another minute. “That’s not why I’m in a good mood.”
John couldn’t help a little nudge. “Can’t you deduce it?”
Sherlock grimaced, crossing his arms. “Just tell me,” he ordered. John took that as code for “No.”
He shrugged. “I guess it’s nice to have a reminder that there are such things as happy endings, sometimes.”
Sherlock grumbled something about “cryptic,” and slouched off to the sitting room, probably to sulk on the sofa. John hummed happily as he piled the pasta into two clean bowls, then topped Sherlock’s with a bit of nutritional yeast. Just in case.
They met in one of those stuffy little cafés, the kind where the waiters ignore you because they think it’s more French. John arrived a bit late, a bit damp, and alone.
“Sorry, said he couldn’t leave his experiment.”
Harry arched a knowing eyebrow at him. “I can tell when you’re lying, you know. He thinks that I’m being an idiot, doesn’t he?”
John shrugged out of his wet jacket and hung it on the back of his chair. “He said that there are more than 1.3 billion people in China and that the likelihood of locating your name’s match in that communist sinkhole is about nil.”
Harry sat back, crossing her arms. John swallowed a sigh. He’d known her for nearly forty years, and he still couldn’t tell if that smile was real or pasted on. “Sorry, but you wanted the truth…”
“Don’t be an arse John, I’m not upset,” Harry replied, and she actually wasn’t. “You know what they say about the Watsons.”
“That we’re stubborn bastards?”
“That we never give up.” She leaned forward and plucked one of the fancy menus off the table. “You order the strawberry Martini with an orange twist. I want a sip.”
It happened one scorching Sunday in July. There was a heat wave, and the air was hot and still in the flat, despite opening every window and door in hopes of a cross breeze. John had finally capitulated to Sherlock’s endless moaning and bought a fan. The two of them spent the day sprawled on the sofa, as close to the fan as they could physically get. Both were stripped to the waist, John in shorts. Even so, it was hot. Sherlock’s thick locks were soaked with perspiration and stuck to his forehead in a most unflattering manner. He kept trying to brush them off with quick, irritated swipes of his fingers, to no avail. John simply lolled against the sofa, trying to ignore the sticky, itchy feeling of sweat trickling down his arm and into his hand wrap.
“We’re out of tea.”
John groaned and scratched at the leather wrap. “Sherlock, why would anyone want tea in this weather?”
Sherlock paused. “Iced tea, then.”
“Get it yourself.”
Sherlock grunted and fell silent, staring out the window. He was probably trying to work out the best way to trick John into making a trip to Tesco. John let him think he had a chance.
He wriggled one finger under the edge of his hand wrap, scratching. It didn’t help. John sighed. He never thought he’d miss his army glove, but at least the microfiber was breathable and sweat-wicking. The leather just sat there, wet and uncomfortable against his palm. Fuck it, John thought. It’s not like he hasn’t seen it before.
He reached down and unbuttoned the wrap, letting it slip to the floor. John nearly moaned with relief as the cool air from the fan hit his hand. He let his eyes slide shut. Ahh, it was glorious.
“John, I was think—” Sherlock stopped abruptly.
John cracked open an eyelid. Sherlock was staring at him—no, Sherlock was staring at his hand, lying palm up and naked on the sofa between them. John fought the instinct to flip it over. There was no point in hiding it now.
“It’s not like you haven’t seen it before,” he said, a tad defensively. “And it’s too hot for leather.”
Sherlock pulled his eyes away from John’s hand so slowly he seemed almost reluctant. “Is it?” he murmured thoughtfully.
They had never spoken about names, not after that night. It was one of those taboo subjects that friends always accrue after a while, things you know will press the other person’s buttons and vice versa. John was okay with that, he really was. He didn’t need to talk about every little thing. He was English, after all.
Sherlock stretched beside him, and John tried not to stare as lean muscles shifted beneath the damp, pallid skin. Sherlock paused for one second, arms still outstretched—and then, in one fluid movement, he pulled off his gloves.
John had to work very hard not to let his jaw drop.
“What?” If he hadn’t known the man better, he would’ve said Sherlock was nervous. “It’s too hot for leather, you said so yourself.”
John nodded dumbly, swallowing. It wasn’t that Sherlock’s hands were strange. They were actually quite pretty: long, slender fingers and slightly knobby knuckles, the skin even paler than the rest of him from lack of sunlight. His nails were perfect ovals, and John found himself wondering rather hysterically if Sherlock had ever gotten them manicured. “Nothing,” he said finally. “It’s fine.”
Sherlock let his hands fall to his lap, where they rested lightly on his trouser-clad thighs, palms down. “You want to see them,” Sherlock stated, watching his face.
“My names,” Sherlock replied.
Before John could respond, Sherlock flipped his hands over. John’s eyes fell instantly upon the writing instantly.
There were two. Names, that is—if they could be called names. On the left, in black letters so sharp and clear they might have been printed, was the word “NO.” On the right, in matching font, was “NOMI.”
John felt confusion and disappointment uncurl in his gut, followed immediately by annoyance. He’s known they didn’t match already, why was he reacting like this? He licked his lips, hoping desperately that his feelings hadn’t shown on his face. “I’ve never seen—I mean, it’s unusual…”
Sherlock let out a long breath, and John suddenly realized he’d been holding it. “You’re disappointed.”
John winced. “I’m not. Really,” he added, catching Sherlock’s disbelieving look. “They’re nice. Nice, um…handwriting.”
“Block capitals?” Sherlock sounded amused.
“Well. They’re very legible, aren’t they?”
Sherlock chuckled. John looked up at him, relieved, but the smile was already fading from the detective’s face, and he looked pensively back down at his hands. “I meant what I said, before. You are disappointed.” His fingers curled in on themselves, not quite enough to cover the words. “You expected something different.”
John paused, but he owed Sherlock the truth—or at least, a version of it. “I’d thought…perhaps, Molly…” he admitted, rubbing his own hand along the top of his knee.
Sherlock snorted. “Molly? Surely not.”
Molly. Yet another topic they didn’t talk about. John frowned, anger nipping at the surface of his thoughts. “Why not? She was lovely. And she did so much for you.”
Thankfully, Sherlock didn’t roll his eyes, but his exasperation showed. “I get it,” he said in a bored tone. “She had my name, and people do things for you because they have a name match. You’ve said.”
“No, you idiot.” John stared at him. “People do things for you because they love you.”
Sherlock shut his mouth with an audible click.
“And Molly,” John continued, his eyes locked on Sherlock, “definitely loved you.”
Sherlock stared back at him, unblinking, with an intensity only matched by the focus he applied to crime scenes and dead bodies. John felt a shiver pass through the hair on the back of his neck, despite the heat. He gritted his teeth and ploughed ahead. “Love is…well, it’s complicated. People usually fall in love with their name matches. Not always, but often enough that it’s expected. But they don’t fall in love because they’re name matches, you know? It’s just that it turns out that way, most of the time.” John rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, struggling to find the right words. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that people fall in love, name match or not,” he shrugged inarticulately. “Matching someone and loving them aren’t the same thing.”
Sherlock was still watching him, but his expression had changed. It wasn’t softer, per se, but perhaps more vulnerable—as if the jagged edges of his thoughts, normally coated in a layer of sneering arrogance, had been laid bare and delicate before John. When Sherlock next spoke, the words cut the air like broken glass. “Could you love someone who isn’t your match, John?”
John opened his mouth, but there seemed to be nothing in his lungs to use for speaking. It occurred to him that it really wouldn’t take much movement at all for them to kiss.
But neither of them moved, and for a few minutes the only sound in the flat was the incessant whirring of the fan and the ticking of the clock on the bookcase. Then Sherlock shifted on the sofa, bringing his right hand up to wipe his fringe off his face, and the moment seemed to pass.
John bit his lip, the sudden desire to get up and do something warring with a general feeling of heat-induced sloth. Perhaps iced tea wasn’t such a bad idea after all. He was about suggest something of the kind, when Sherlock spoke again.
“No one could figure out what they mean.”
“What?” John said blankly.
“My names,” Sherlock replied, his gaze fixed on the wall opposite. His hands twitched open again on his lap, as though daring John to take another look. He frowned down at the letters. No nomi…
“As you know, having two names is abnormal,” Sherlock continued tensely. His hands rose from his lap to punctuate his speech with sharp, spiky gestures. “Let alone two unidentifiable, potentially foreign, words. Some of the specialists just thought they were simply nonsense words, indicating retardation, but Mummy didn’t like that. She thought they were Italian. No nomi means ‘no names’ in Italian—”
The sound of the words spoken aloud in Sherlock’s deep voice stirred something in John’s memory. His eyes widened in realization.
“—which would fit my overall profile of a sociopath.”
“Alternatively, they could be Japanese, but then there’s the question of why they’re not in kanji…”
John grabbed Sherlock’s windmilling hands and crossed them, palms up, right over left. Sherlock stared down in stunned silence. John thanked god (for the first and probably last time in his life) for those Latin classes he’d been tricked into taking during secondary school.
Sherlock swallowed, glancing at John. “John,” he called softly, like a question.
“Yes, exactly,” John answered, and kissed him.
NOMINO | nōmĭno (v.) from NOMINARE
I. to call by name, to name, to give a name to