Chapter 1: But it Isn't
In the stillness after the kick of the pistol, I entertain a brief feeling that things might be all right now.
I should know better.
The first thing I hear, small and distinct despite the ringing of my ears, is Jeff saying, “Fuck.”
The first thing I see is the empty space outlined by the window frame. The bullet hole is surprisingly neat, surrounded by radiating cracks in the glass that catch the light inside like prisms.
Tell me I didn’t miss.
Jeff has longer legs. He makes it to the door before I do. There is a moment of awkward silence when we stand on the steps, looking at each other, before he pushes it open, standing to one side as he does so. I can hear the tinny, distant sound of someone talking loudly into his earpiece.
As we step inside the flat, I see a gun on the floor. Moran’s of course, but it looks like mine.
“They’re both down,” Jeff says.
Sebastian Moran is closest to the door. He is lying twisted on his side, left hand outstretched. It is immediately clear that my bullet caught him squarely in the temple. He will not be getting up again.
The next thing I see is Sherlock, crumpled against the wall under the window, his hair also dark with blood.
This is why you don’t shoot a man who has a gun to someone’s head, I think, feeling sick.
His eyes are closed, but I still feel a cold needle of fear as I touch his hand. It’s the blood masking his face; it reminds me of the last time I saw him. I note the differences: clothing (commonplace, faded), his hair (fair, short, spiking with blood), but his still, expressionless face is the same.
I remember to breathe again when I realise he has a pulse, albeit a slow one. I push his hair away and see that the bleeding is due to a minor scalp wound. He must have hit the edge of the windowsill when he fell; the dusting of glass fragments from the window is too fine to have done him any harm.
Jeff brings me a dish towel, and I apply pressure to the cut. With the other hand, I lift one of Sherlock’s eyelids, startled by the unexpected brown of his iris. Contact lenses. I could swear his pupil contracts slightly against the light, but I don’t think he’s properly conscious. He doesn’t see me.
In the day I’ve been considering his return, this was never one of the options. We were not supposed to meet in this airless calm with blood on my hands. It’s the silence that disturbs me.
Alan arrives next and takes in the carnage. “He okay?”
“He’s hit his head. I’m not sure what else is wrong yet.”
Alan nods. “Moran didn’t touch him. He just sort of...fell.”
Jeff is crouched down beside Moran’s body. If this were a proper crime scene, everyone would be complaining about the evidence. “No, he wasn’t shot,” I hear him saying into his headset, followed by “Moran is dead. Definitely dead.”
Sherlock still doesn’t respond properly when I check his other eye. Some sort of sedative? Does that even make sense?
“Did you see him eat or drink anything?” I ask Alan. “While you were watching them?”
“Just that,” he says, nodding to a glass on the table. It contains a couple of ice cubes that have melted down to slivers floating in about half an inch of water. There’s an empty whiskey bottle by the sink.
I can smell a faint trace of whiskey on Sherlock's breath, but it’s mostly overpowered by the reek of stale cigarettes. I’ve never known him to drink much; his vices have always tended toward the stimulant end of the spectrum.
“Hm. Right. Can one of you give me a hand here?” Sherlock appears to have lost a good stone in weight since I’ve seen him last, but he’s still surprisingly heavy. I need Alan’s assistance to lean him against the wall in a more upright position. He makes an odd hum of protest when we move him. If I wasn’t pressing my hand to his head, he’d fall forward.
Jeff is still on the phone, but emerges long enough to mouth “He’s on his way” to Alan.
“Who, Mycroft?” I ask.
Jeff rolls his eyes slightly in a gesture I take to mean “Yes.”
The bleeding has nearly stopped under pressure. I know I’ve got some butterfly sutures and antiseptic in the flat across the street. It’s ridiculous, but I don’t want to leave him alone while I get them. “Alan, can you prop him up while I find my kit? I’ll only be a moment.”
The two agents look at me, and then at each other. I have no idea what Mycroft has said to them about me, but apparently, this will be fine. Even though I’ve just shot a man. Possibly because I did. I quickly show them how to continue pressure to the wound, and bolt across the street.
Baker Street is quiet. No cars, no people. Something seems odd about that, but it’s not important.
Somehow, I’ve managed to forget that my hands and jacket are all sticky with Sherlock’s blood. Mrs. Hudson looks aghast when she intercepts me on the stairs.
“Sorry, I have to get something - it’s complicated - we’re fine!” I call, sounding a bit manic. I bound past her into the flat and scrub my hands - probably not long enough - and grab the medical kit I keep in one of the kitchen cupboards.
“John! Is he dead?” she calls, as I surge past her again.
“Yes. I’m afraid so. Sherlock isn’t, though.”
“Isn’t what, dear?”
I really shouldn’t be surprised when she follows me out across the street after that.
Sebastian Moran’s flat seems positively tiny once I’ve returned and we are joined by Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft, and Anthea. Their voices are quiet. I tune them out easily and fall into what I know best.
I am busy sponging blood off of Sherlock’s face and applying the antiseptic when he thrashes convulsively against the wall and comes dangerously close to hitting the back of his head. “Sherlock! It’s me,” I say, steadying him with my hand at the base of his neck. “It’s John.”
His eyes are open now, but they are looking past me at someone who isn’t there. “Don’t,” he says. “Don’t.”
“Don’t what?” I say. “I’m sorry. I know this stings a bit.”
”He’s going to kill you. I have to stop him,” he says, his voice spiralling upwards as he claws at me with surprising strength.
“Sherlock! Sebastian Moran is dead. I shot him.” I hold his wrists, trying to be gentle about it, and lean forward until our foreheads nearly touch. “Look at me.”
He exhales, shuddering, eyes unfocussed. “I can’t see you,” he says, more quietly this time. “Why can’t I see you?”
Mycroft, who has been conferring with Jeff and Alan over the body since his arrival, chooses this moment to join us. “I think Sherlock’s been drugged,” I tell him.
Mycroft plucks at the knees of his trousers and folds himself down onto the floor beside us like an enormous spider. It’s extremely disconcerting. “What with?” he asks me, gently taking Sherlock’s hands so I can apply the plasters to his head.
“I’m not sure,” I say. Sherlock has closed his eyes again and appears to be twitching his fingers in time to a song that only he can hear. “The glass he drank from is over there.”
“I can hear you, but I can’t see you,” Sherlock says abruptly, in what is very nearly a conversational tone.
“What do you remember?” I ask him.
He does not answer in words. He hums a fragment of something I don’t recognise.
“Mrs. Hudson, would you be so kind...?” Mycroft asks, nodding towards the glass on the table.
She hands it to him, and pulls one of the kitchen chairs over towards us. “My hip, you know.”
Mycroft sniffs at the glass and passes it to me. Gingerly, I touch one finger to the liquid and then brush my tongue against it. It tastes very weakly of whiskey, and nothing more. I shrug. “Could be any number of things,” I say. “Might be worth a look in his bins.”
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think my dear brother was drunk,” Mycroft says, dryly.
“Sherlock,” I say, slowly and loudly. “I think you have been drugged. Can you tell me what you’re feeling?”
“Tired,” he says. “Unbearably tired.” He opens his eyes again and makes a face. I can’t tell whether it’s because he sees Mycroft, or because he can’t. “Unstable,” he adds, as his head jerks forward.
Mycroft frowns and suddenly catches his brother’s left hand again. I watch as he rolls the bloodstained cotton shirt sleeve past his elbow. There, in the crook of his arm, is a little red pinpoint. More than one, I note, as I lean forward to examine it. There is also some faint and regrettably characteristic bruising. “What was it?” he asks, sharply.
“What was...what?” Sherlock says, snatching his arm away irritably, eyes screwed shut.
“What have you been injecting?”
I find my own arm stiffening protectively around my patient. “I really don’t think that approach is going to help,” I hiss at Mycroft, just as Jeff appears with a piece of foil in his hand.
“What is it?” I ask.
“It was in Moran’s pocket,” he says, giving me what is clearly the remains of a pharmaceutical blister pack.
“Rohypnol. Two milligrams,” I read, slightly relieved. “Yeah. That’d do it.”
Mrs. Hudson leans forward. “They give it to young girls in clubs,” she says sagely. “I’ve seen it on telly.”
“Sir,” Jeff says, almost pleadingly, and Mycroft unfurls himself into a standing position with a sigh.
“We’ll be discussing this later,” he tells me.
Sherlock surprises me by sagging heavily onto my shoulder without warning. “This is wretched.”
“Well, the worst of it will be over in a few hours,” I tell him. “It’s probably best if you can manage to sleep it off. You really do look awful.”
I think he might see me when he opens his eyes this time. “I know,” he says, and laughs a little.
Sebastian Moran is gone now. I realise I didn’t even see them take him away. I feel a bit strange about that.
Sherlock’s hair is still crisp with dried blood in places, but Mrs. Hudson and I help him to remove the contact lenses after he complains that his eyes feel like they’re full of sand. Apparently this attempt at lucidity is draining. He manages to fall asleep with the pointiest bits of his face poking into my clavicle. I’d like to think he knows who I am, but I’m not sure that he does. It doesn’t seem to matter.
Mycroft and I have a muted discussion that ends in me agreeing to look after his brother for the rest of the night, but accomplishes little else. I have lost circulation to my arm by this point, so I wake Sherlock up enough to get him off the floor. I don’t mention the needle marks, the lies, or anything else of importance. It takes three of us to get him across the street, up the stairs, and onto the sofa.
The Chinese take-away is still on the steps exactly where I left it. It’s cold, but we eat it anyway.
Chapter 2: Packet Loss
I cannot possibly know how to feel until I know what I’ve done.
I wake because it is far too warm. I shift against the worn leather of the sofa, searching for a cool surface to rest my face upon. It is dark, but there is enough moonlight to illuminate the angles of a figure folded into the armchair beside me.
John. So none of this is real.
I listen to the faint, familiar sounds of his breath until sleep claims me again.
I wake with a start, convinced I’ve heard a gunshot in the street outside. I stumble to the window on dyskinetic limbs, but all is as calm and still as London could ever be. I cannot say I feel the same. I sink back down and work to impose order upon my arrhythmic heart. It’s dark, but I can see the familiar outlines of the furniture, the mantle, and the door. I am alone. This is 221B, but 221B as if I had never existed in it.
If I never existed, then perhaps you never existed.
Which of these things is worse? I close my eyes and fall headlong into a sea of progressive tessellations, until there is nothing but nothing.
I wake in a cold sweat, in a spinning room. My throat is raw. I am falling.
Sherlock, he says. There’s his hand on my forehead, warm and dry.
I know you’re not here, I say. You can’t be. I’m dead.
You’re not dead, he says. I am here. You are safe. You are home.
I am bundled together, held down, compressed neatly into myself.
A hand on my face. A weight on my chest. A voice: You’re not dead.
This is a dream.
I wake into sharp-edged daylight, into street sounds, into chaos. I am in 221B, which is not possible, because I am still dead.
Am I dreaming? No: I am in pain. My head, and to some extent, my neck. Something else. Nausea?
My subconscious is inventive, but not, I think, quite this accurate, this specific. The pounding in my head, the dryness of my throat, and the outright violence of the light streaming in the window are all strong arguments for reality. I am lying on the sofa, wrapped in an unfamiliar blue wool blanket.
I poke at the edges of memory, and come up blank. I wonder what I’ve done.
I scan the room as best I can without moving my head. Certain remembered objects are missing. The things that were most, well, mine.
They would be. I’ve been dead for a year. Necessarily dead; expediently dead. I should not be here, of all places, because there is something I have to accomplish first.
Unless I already have. Have I?
What was yesterday?
Sebastian Moran. Bangalore. Bangalore what? Something. Afghanistan. Iraq. Bosnia? No. Iran? Tigers. The Tyger. Moriarty. Tiger. London Zoo. Photograph. Old boots. Scar. Rifle. Kitchen table. Twenty-one. Friendly fire. PE4. Wellington Arch. Mycroft knows. John does not. John-
John is standing in front of me with a glass of water in his hands. “You’re awake. Good.”
There must be something I can say that won’t betray me. I could say nothing.
“How do you feel?” he asks.
How should I feel? I cannot possibly know how to feel until I know what I’ve done.
“You’ve slept for about twelve hours,” he continues. “Not surprising, really.”
“Why isn’t it surprising?” I ask. My voice sounds dissonant. Too loud.
“Are you asking because you don’t know?” he says, holding out the water.
“It’s not likely I’d ask if I did,” I say. The words sound more savage than I intended them to be.
He looks at the water. “Do you remember coming here?”
“Ah,” he says. “What about the... You hit your head. Do you remember that?”
I take the water, finally, from his hand. I don’t drink it. It is something to hold. It is real.
“Sherlock?” he asks.
“Do you remember what happened before that?”
What is the last thing I remember?
“Do you remember the card game? There was an argument?” My blankness is apparent. He sighs. “What about Sebastian Moran?”
“I - I don’t know. I can’t think.”
Oh. That’s why I’m allowed to be alive again.
“Do you seriously not remember any of this?”
John looks at the carpet. He hasn’t met my eyes once as we’ve been talking. What have I done?
“Okay, well... I suppose that makes sense. It does.” John settles on the chair next to me and scrubs his hand through his hair. “Drink your water. You need it.”
“Tell me what happened.” I inch up the armrest, enough to handle the glass with something approaching competence. I wish I hadn’t. The water is good, but the slightest movement makes me feel unmoored.
He frowns. “Are you going to be sick?”
“Good.” He knots his fingers together.
I wish he would look at me. I need him to, because I have absolutely no idea what he is thinking.
“I shot him,” he says at last. “He was going to kill you.” He very nearly meets my eyes, but then he looks away again. “It was all a bit unexpected, considering you were supposed to be dead.”
This, then, is the bad thing? Of course it is.
“He poured you a glass of Rohypnol. That’s why you don’t remember.”
“Your brother thought you should go to hospital,” he continues. “I didn’t think you’d want that.”
“I know.” He takes the water glass from me. “Maybe you should, though.”
“It’s only a sedative.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Then what do you mean?” Why won’t you look at me?
“Give me your hand,” he says, snapping his fingers at me.
I hold it out to him, trembling more than I’d expect.
He grips my hand with surprising force, pulling me forward into vertigo. It’s alarming.
“What are you-”
He shoves back my sleeve with rough fingers and jabs at the broken skin over my median cubital vein. “This. This is what I mean.”
Now he does look at me, and I wish I were dead all over again.
Chapter 3: Ignorance Without the Bliss
Sherlock takes a bath. John is an efficient emotional disaster. Mrs. Hudson is lovely, and Mycroft makes the author feel like a bit of a dick.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
I shouldn’t have done it.
He jerks away from me as if he’s been slapped - as if I’ve slapped him. We stare at each other in shocked silence for a second. “Ah,” he says at last, apparently confirming something. His face is expressionless as he turns it into the back of the sofa. His cervical vertebrae look as if they’re ready to poke through his skin.
I very nearly put my hand on his shoulder, but the comforting gesture that came to me so easily the night before is impossible now. He’s something I don’t recognise, and I fear that if I touch him, my fingers will leave bruises. I will tear him apart looking for answers and proof. I need him to explain what he’s done. I want to be mistaken about the drugs and right about the rest.
This man is my friend. He thought he had to kill himself to protect me, and I have just killed a man to protect him. I have missed him and hated him and mourned him all at the same time. I’ve been talking to him constantly for a year, and now that he’s finally here to listen, I find I don’t know what to say. We had never apologised to each other much in the past, and I certainly don’t know how to begin it now.
If he had breezed in, collar turned up and giddy with his own brilliance because everything was sorted, I suppose I could have hit him. Later, after much explanation, things would have been okay. He’d push himself right back into my life, and I’d let him. Instead, he’s damaged and blunted and sick. I’m the one buzzing with nervous energy and the need to prove that what I’ve done was right. I should have come clean about Sebastian Moran, but I didn’t; not soon enough. What I did was hugely irresponsible, and it could have killed Sherlock, too. I could have.
It is horrible to see him broken.
It is worse to know we might both be.
I’m doing the washing up when he stumbles into the toilet. Not long after this, I hear him being sick. I knock on the door but he ignores me, even when I say his name. When he starts running the bath, I walk away. He’s burned through most of the sedative by now and I am reasonably confident he won’t complicate the situation by falling on the tile and cracking his skull.
Last night, I called Molly and told her he’d been found. It occurs to me that if there’s a scheme for telling the rest of the world that he’s alive, I don’t know what it is. I imagine telling anyone, even Greg, and it’s impossible. I feel certain it wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
He needs fresh clothing, and he needs to eat. He’s so thin he can easily fit into my things, for all that he’s got half a foot on me in height. I leave a pair of pyjama trousers and a shirt folded outside the door. I can make him some toast when he emerges, but I’m not sure he’ll eat it or even keep it down if he does.
Sherlock’s room is nearly empty, reduced to furniture and dust . Mrs. Hudson and Mycroft stripped it all away while I was in Swindon with Harry. I have no idea where all his things have gone. Now that I know Mycroft was in on the secret, I can only assume he’s got it all waiting somewhere. I will have to ask him about that. Today.
He should sleep in a proper bed tonight. That, at least, is still here, and I’ll have to beg some sheets off Mrs. Hudson; mine are the wrong size. I’ll need to have someone stay with him while I do a shop later. I’ll need to call off work tomorrow. I’ll need to think about how best to manage a drug addict who is legally dead and my best friend and also quite possibly a complete stranger now.
The fifth time I walk by the door, I hear a faint splash and he says,”I’m sorry. Did you need something?”
I think I hear him sigh. I’m not sure. “I’m not going to drown in the bath. Although I’m aware that might make things less complicated under the circumstances.”
An ill-advised attempt at humour? Melodrama? It’s hard to tell through a closed door, so I respond with “I’m going down to get some sheets from Mrs. Hudson for your bed. I’ve put some clean clothes outside the door.”
“You’re very kind.”
And you sound like an etiquette guide. Who the fuck are you? “Do you need some water?”
“I’m immersed in it, John.”
“Fine. If you need to use my things - my razor, anything - that’s fine. I’ll be back in a bit.”
If he thanks me, I’m already gone.
Mrs. Hudson is delighted to see me. She’s got one of her most purple dresses on, possibly in celebration. On the whole, she has adjusted to Sherlock’s resurrection with uncanny ease. I wonder if endless viewings of Coronation Street have desensitised her to the impossible. Or perhaps it’s just part and parcel of being our landlady.
“John! I wanted to give you boys some time,” she says, and pulls me into her kitchen before I can get out a word. “But if he’s up, I’ve made you some soup. I know you haven’t had time to get anything in.”
“No, I haven’t. Thank you.”
“How’s his head, dear?”
“Better, I think. Not great. I left him in the bath.”
She purses her lips and says, ever-so-gently, “Have you forgiven him?”
Not our housekeeper, but possibly our mum, I think. “I’m working at it.”
“He’s a trial at times, but he’s got a good heart. He’s very fond of you, dear. It must have been just as hard on him, being away.”
“I think he had other things to occupy him, Mrs. H.” Where to get his next hit of charlie, for one, I add silently, uncharitably.
Sherlock has emerged, scrubbed, shaven, and looking somewhat peculiar in tartan pyjama bottoms and my old RAMC shirt. He’d look odd in any case. The skin under his eyes is dark, and his hair is lighter than mine and somewhat spiked now that it’s clean. He’s pale, but that’s nothing new. If anything, the new hair colour makes him look sallow. He’s in his chair, sitting like any ordinary person might do.
“How’s the scalp wound?” I ask him, trying not to look overtly disapproving. “You should have kept that dry.”
“Sherlock, I’ve brought you some soup, love,” Mrs. Hudson says. “I saw you last night, but you won’t remember.” She slips around me and into the kitchen with it.
My once-and-current flatmate and I are left looking at anything but each other. I feel like I’m in a nature documentary. At any moment, I expect David Attenborough to start describing our discomfort in terms of territorial dispute. Is eye contact a threat display we’re avoiding? I’d give anything for a lion shredding a wildebeest over the rug instead.
Mrs. Hudson returns with blessed rapidity. She sails over to Sherlock and kisses his cheek. He lets her. He even smiles a little. It’s a stiff sort of smile. Not the fake kind; just one that says he’s out of practice and ill. It makes me feel like a bit of a bastard, honestly.
“I’ll, um, make your bed up,” I say. “For later.”
His room looks bare, but then, he never kept much in it or spent much time there. All the chaos occurred in the spaces we shared. Fantastic metaphor, Watson. Put it in your blog, I think savagely, wrestling with the sheets. I can hear voices, mostly hers. I can’t make out what she’s saying, though.
He’s not eating - of course he’s not - when I come out of his room. She is making him drink some Ribena instead, which is what I should have done.
“I’m going to do the shopping,” I announce, and very nearly make it to the front door only to run up against Mycroft. He has an overnight case slung over his shoulder and two carrier bags with food and milk in them. It’s alarming to see him holding anything so pedestrian. We go back upstairs.
Mycroft scans his brother and is not entirely displeased. “You’re looking almost human,” he says by way of greeting. “I’ve brought you some of your own clothing,” he adds, raising an eyebrow at the length of bare, bony ankle Sherlock has on display. Or perhaps it’s the tartan he disapproves of.
Sherlock says nothing, but accepts the overnight case without any signs of hostility. Mrs. Hudson takes the shopping. I can’t quite imagine Mycroft in a Tesco. I wonder whether he went himself or had Anthea do it.
“John, I’d like a word.” In private, he doesn’t say, but it’s implied.
“Yeah, all right. Upstairs?” I suggest. The British Government has to sit at the end of my bed. It’s immensely awkward.
He clears his throat and frowns. “I apologise for my conduct last night. On reflection, I must agree that my brother would be better off under your care.”
“That’s funny,” I say. “Because I’m not entirely sure that’s true, now.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, for starters, it occurred to me that I nearly got him killed.”
Mycroft creases his trouser leg with long fingers and studies my face. “That’s one potential interpretation,” he says. “Because you waited to tell me about your...friend?”
“I was angry,” I admit. “I’d been kept in the dark about too many things. I thought I could take matters into my own hands.”
“I confess I rather encouraged you in that. Things were not going to plan. Sherlock was missing, although I was unable to mention that to you at the time.”
“Molly told me in the end. She thought I knew he was alive.”
“Indeed. And as you now know, his behaviour was no longer terribly rational. He had become desperate. Had you not been present, there is a strong possibility he would have died.”
“Alan was there. He could have taken that shot, and made a better job of it than I did.”
“Possibly. But Alan does not share your unique attachment to my brother. Deliberation was not an option to you.”
I lean into the headboard, remembering the moment I saw Sherlock in the window and the complete certainty I felt with the gun in my hand. “That’s...fair.”
“You and Sherlock have a certain affinity,” Mycroft continues. “You’re more alike than you know. Where you differ, you are complementary.”
“I really don’t-”
“You’re both rash,” he interjects. “Both inclined to act impulsively. Yet on the whole, you function better in tandem than you do alone.”
“Of course you do. Surely that’s obvious. I’m afraid your partnership became a liability once we had to keep Sherlock’s survival a secret." He pauses. "I apologise for what we did. He believed it was necessary for your protection. It may not have been the most elegant solution. I know it was not the kindest.”
“Bit understated,” I say. I wonder what it’s like not to feel anger gnawing at me constantly. I find I’ve forgotten.
“Your friendship motivated him to bring down Moriarty’s empire,” Mycroft says. “With all the resources I could bring to bear, it still took him a year to do it. A year of constant labour, much of it grindingly dull.”
“I’ve nothing to do with that. He would have done it because it was right.”
“Perhaps,” Mycroft allows. “But I know his desire to return here became obsessive." Again he pauses. "He panicked in the end. He turned to chemical assistance when he met a problem he couldn’t solve. He accomplished his goal, but the consequences were dire.”
“You mean beyond what he’s done to himself?”
“I’m not currently at liberty to discuss the matter,” he says. “Under slightly different circumstances, your influence might have prevented him from going off the rails, but our hands were tied. You could not be allowed contact.”
“My influence? What the fuck was I supposed to do? I thought he was dead.”
Mycroft sighs. “My brother has done some remarkably foolish, impulsive, and self-destructive things over the years. That said, in the time you’ve been his flatmate, his friend, cocaine has not been one of them. I cannot solely attribute that to his work with New Scotland Yard. Sherlock has, it seems, come to rely upon your perspective and companionship. He became obsessed with returning home, but he could not do so until he had solved a specific problem. He found the problem insoluble without assistance. It was a bit of a vicious circle. Under the circumstances, relapse was almost inevitable.”
I shudder, thinking of that brilliant mind spinning out of control like a Catherine wheel. I wonder which was worse: the restlessness, the drugs, or simply being alone for too long. I think about what that year has done to me, believing he was dead, and wonder what I would have done if I’d known he was alive from the beginning. I wonder whether grief is worse than ceasing to exist, knowing that almost everyone who remembers you believes you to have been a fraud.
“I am hoping,” Mycroft says, sounding uncharacteristically tentative, “that you will be willing to see him through the next few weeks.”
“Through the withdrawal, you mean.”
“Or it’s rehab in hospital? Those are the only two options, in your opinion?”
He looks out the window and says, “I am not capable of helping him with this again.”
I think of Harry’s drinking. I think of my father’s, which ultimately proved fatal. I wonder whether the brothers’ traditional enmity can be attributed to Sherlock’s chemical indiscretions, to Mycroft having to rescue him from himself. I wonder whether he will come to hate me as well.
I nod, and go over to the wardrobe. “I need you to take something out of the flat for me,” I say. I pull out a small red leather box. I place it in Mycroft’s hands.
The title of this chapter is derived from the song “Choice in the Matter” by Aimee Mann.
Grateful thanks to all of my faithful readers for your continued interest in my work. You encourage me to Do All the Things. I don’t always respond quickly, but I always appreciate your words. Truly.
Coming up next: I think I’m about to do something very, very wrong to The Sign of Four - quite possibly beginning in the next chapter. I am still trying to decide how far I want to take that madness, so expect it tomorrow... or in two weeks. Reviews might help me focus. :)
Finally, if you still haven’t read Things to Do When You’re Alone, this must have been extremely confusing.
Chapter 4: Get Some Sleep While You Can
Sherlock's putting himself back together. John meets a woman called Mary Morstan. The game is on.
“Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear.”
― Edgar Allan Poe
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There is no mystery about this process, this gradual reassertion of ordinary neurochemistry. I’ve experienced it before, and will not, I think, be doing it again. To be fair, I intended that the last three times, so this, too, is the same. The burning compulsion will be the same. The frustrating unpredictability of focus will be the same. If I’m honest - if the symptoms are applied stripped of causality - I live in a perpetual state of withdrawal from something.
It is ironic, perhaps, that the first day is softened by the benzodiazepine. Nice of Moran to have chosen a hypnotic. Like most hypnotic subjects, I remembered nothing about the experience afterwards. I’ve tried, but the data simply isn’t there. The unexpected benefit, the irony, lies in the drug’s effect on the GABA neurotransmitter. Having lived, it is something I might be prescribed briefly to ease the effects of dopamine depletion caused by withdrawal.
He didn’t expect me to live. Obviously.
I would like very much to see the bullet, to note the subtle loss of energy, the slight distortion caused by its trajectory through the glass as it reached Sebastian Moran.
Failing this, I should like to see the wound, entry and exit, in his skull.
Above all, I should like to have seen John shoot him.
My brother has brought me clothing, and shockingly, a toothbrush. The clothes are the sort I used to wear, before I was dead. It is easier to remain in John’s things for now. I smell very strongly of him at the moment: the detergent residue on the fabric, the soap, the shampoo. These things are labelled Clean and Masculine by the manufacturers, although each product approaches the problems of cleanliness and masculinity differently. Most favour citrus, some attempt vetiver, and still others intend pine and remind me of Dettol. I prefer the latter, if anything.
I did not use John’s toothbrush, although I’ve sometimes appropriated them for various purposes in the past. It is one thing to borrow his scent. It is quite another to inoculate myself with his internal bacteria or to inflict mine upon him. There are supposed to be boundaries.
I did use his razor. The bristle and itch of my own hair is simultaneously compelling and repulsive. I categorise it as masculine: not clean. John’s razor is electric, and thus both the process and results are unsatisfying. It appears to work along the principles of a belt sander: hair removal per abrasion. Given the state of my hands, it is the safest option. A subtle change in angle or pressure will not slip the edge of a blade between the layers of skin. This razor demands very little of its operator. I’d prefer something that requires precision.
Details of speech and expression are polished fragments in the tangled wreckage of social dynamics. I can’t remember what it was like to see his face for the first time after nearly a year. I don’t know what, if anything, was said. What was done. Lacking this, it stands to reason that I cannot accurately interpret his speech and expression now.
Myself, I find it seductively easy not to speak.
I am analysing the scratches on the kitchen table when he smashes his mug down in front of me.
“If you’re not planning to invest in a set of semaphore flags, I would appreciate it if you could manage to open your bloody mouth and say something. This week would be nice.”
He’s started looking at me more often recently, and that should be good, but it’s unsettling instead. There’s a deep vertical crease in his brow and his mouth turns down more than I remembered it doing.
“Sherlock? Sleeping all day I can accept. But what the hell is this? Four days without a word?”
Now his face is very close to mine. I can feel his breath displacing my hair, and it’s unpleasantly like the wings of a moth on my skin. I blink and scrub my hand over my face to banish the crawling sensation.
“Fine,” he says, slumping into his chair.
While I was dead, I sometimes didn’t speak for nearly a week. As a child, I managed two weeks once. I hadn’t realised it was four days this time. I’ve clearly miscalculated something.
“There’s little point,” I say.
He laughs, but not as if I’ve been particularly funny. ‘Well. Thanks very much for that.”
“I assure you: when there’s something worth saying, you’ll be the first to know.”
I go back to bed before he attempts to draw me into a conversation. As I’ve said, there’s little point.
Molly comes to see me one afternoon. I’ve been awake for six hours.
“Still lying low?” she asks. It occurs to me that she doesn’t know. An odd feeling of relief accompanies that thought.
She has brought me hair dye. “Not that it doesn’t suit you-”
“It really doesn’t,” John interjects, arms folded.
“-but I thought you might like to be more yourself again.”
“That’s kind,” I say, looking at the box. The woman depicted on it looks smug and oddly plasticised. Her hands have been airbrushed into inhumanity. Nothing to deduce there, really.
I can hear John laughing on the stairs. He’s responding to a female voice (not Mrs. Hudson).
They come into the living room, and he’s still smiling. “Here he is,” he says easily. “Don’t let him put you off.”
Her name is Mary Morstan, she says, and she has found me through the Science of Deduction.
Blonde hair, sun streaks, freckles. Schoolteacher on summer holidays. No makeup, hair and fingernails well-maintained but not attention-seeking. Thirty, happily unmarried, lives alone. No pets. Bruises on her arm, rather a strange shape.
“Paintball,” I say. “Interesting choice of weekend entertainment.”
She smiles. “Yes. You’ve rumbled me.”
Her teeth are very white, and John seems to find them fascinating, judging by the way he keeps looking at her mouth. Typical.
“Let’s skip to the part where you tell me why you’re here.”
“How do you feel about leaving the police out of this?” she asks.
“Confident,” I say.
She laughs. “What do you make of these?” she says, pulling an envelope out of her pocket and handing it to me.
Cheap grade of paper, faint green crayon streak on the top left corner. School supply cupboard.
Six large pearls tumble out onto the table. Quite old, very faintly irregular. Not cultured, seldom worn. Part of a bracelet. Silver tarnish around the holes.
“Quite old. Probably Indian. Valuable.”
“They’ve been sent to me in the post, one every year, for six years,” she says.
“I take it you don’t know the sender.”
“No,” she says. “There’s no name on the return address, and the street doesn’t appear to exist. I’ve checked it on the Internet. Different post codes each time.”
“A client with a brain. Refreshing.”
John shoots me a warning look. “Sherlock.”
Surely that’s a compliment? I ignore him. “Why come to me now?”
“I’ve received a text this morning.” She pulls out a mobile phone, quite an old model, lacking in smart features.
Covt Gden TS em strs 7 PM 2NTE. No police. FOAF Re: dad
She nods, no longer smiling.
“Sherlock!” John is giving me a more intense version of the Not Good look.
“No, it’s all right.” She sighs. “He’s been dead for ten years.”
“Has he. Interesting.”
“He died in prison, actually.”
“What was he in for?”
This might be interesting.
"Will you come?”
“God, yes. Be here at half six.”
John sees her out, and returns looking pleased with himself. I am already looking through prison records.
“Don’t forget the last one, John.”
“Jesus Christ. She’s a client.”
I look at him.
“Okay, okay. What did the text say?”
“The abbreviations were painfully inept, but the gist is that we should meet this gentleman on the Covent Garden tube station emergency stair case at 7 tonight. He’s a friend of a friend, whatever that means.”
“Absolutely. Bring the gun.”
“Only if you leave the coat at home. That’s the one with 193 steps, so if you pass out with heat exhaustion half way up, I’m leaving you on the stairs.”
“Your concern is touching,” I say.
Mary arrives, and immediately scores points by being dressed in paint-stained fatigue trousers and a tee shirt. Her hair is pulled back and she’s got trainers on.
“And what kind of knife does the well-protected lady carry these days?”
She starts and pulls a cheap and blatantly illegal balisong out of her pocket. ‘How did you know?”
“The bulge in your trousers, of course.”
The word for John’s expression is, I think, gobsmacked. Quaintly vulgar. Fitting.
“John’s got a gun, so we should be well-equipped. Coming?”
Our progress is impeded slightly by a large group of Spanish tourists who have been unable to translate the cautionary signs and have attempted to heave their luggage up the spiral staircase. Pushing past them, we encounter a blonde youth of about twenty-five dressed in a cheap blue suit. Office worker.
“He’s my brother. I’m Chad.”
Damn. Nearly had that.
Mary introduces herself and we follow him up the rest of the stairs.
It becomes apparent that Chad reeks of something acrid and familiar.
‘Cannabis?” I ask.
He frowns. “It’s medicinal.”
John raises an eyebrow, and the corner of my mouth twitches faintly. “Clearly.”
Bart Sholto, who we are now going to see, lives on the Alton Estate. Plenty of time, then, for me to explain my deductions. Particularly as we’ve been doomed to public transportation, which I loathe.
“Your father was incarcerated for smuggling,” I begin. “At Wormwood Scrubs.”
“Yeah. But he’s dead now.”
“As of yesterday, yes. You don’t seem terribly bothered. Cancer?”
“Yes. Systemic. Bart was our Dad’s favourite. I wasn’t terribly welcome anymore.”
Strange to feel a moment of...solidarity. Interesting. “Why the text to Mary? Her father was in business with yours, I know.”
“Business makes it sound legit,” he says. “It wasn’t.”
Mary leans down. She’s standing and clutching a handgrip, precariously, I note. One good bump and she’ll fall into John. He’s noticed that potential, I can tell. “Did you know my father?”
“No. Never met him. Dad wouldn’t shut up about him, though.”
“The text,” I prompt.
Chad avoids looking at Mary. “Dad had some...loot he managed to hide before prison. He wanted Mary to have it.”
“He felt guilty,” John suggests. I swivel to look at him.
“False charges?” I ask Chad.
“How did you know?”
“Obvious. Sholto’s recorded offence occurred well after Morstan’s imprisonment. Morstan was his business partner, but was innocent of wrongdoing, despite the evidence against him. Your father couldn’t resist another go, and was caught.”
“Who has been sending me the pearls?” Mary asks. “It was you, wasn’t it.”
“Yeah. Dad fell ill six years ago, and he felt gutted about what he’d done. He wanted you to have everything, but Bart wouldn’t agree to that in case the NHS wait was too long. The bracelet was already in pieces, so...Dad thought they might bring you some money.”
“I’m sorry about your father,” Mary says.
“Sorry about yours,” Chad says.
“Very touching,” I say, to speed them along. “When you say loot...”
“It’s all jewelry,” Chad says. “Thousands of pounds worth.”
The estate is surrounded by panda cars and a crowd. As we push our way through, an elderly Pakistani woman seizes Chad’s arm. “It’s your brother! He’s been shot.”
“The jewels were in the flat, were they?” I ask him, over her head. “Did anyone else know?”
“No. Maybe. I don’t think so.” He’s in shock. Clearly not going to be of much use now. I make my way towards the yellow tape, John right behind me.
“Oh hell,” a familiar voice says. It’s Sally Donovan. “Who called the freak?”
“Good to see you, too, “ I reply, pleasantly.
“You can’t be here,” she says. “Piss off.”
“Well, I am,” I say.
“We’ve got useful information,” John says. “The victim’s brother came with us.”
“Did he. Well, thanks, but we’re not having him,” she says. Meaning me.
Two hours later, John notices we’ve lost Mary in the crowd somewhere along the way. He insists on seeing her home, so I take my own cab.
Irksome, but predictable.
She’s an heiress, so he’ll agonise over that, but attractive and adventurous will make up for it, I suspect.
Pity. I very nearly liked her.
The jewels are gone, of course. I spend the rest of the night lost in thought. The killer had entered using a window-cleaning harness, but left us a nice calling card in the form of a footprint coated in tar.
John doesn’t come home at all, but I’ve got evidence to examine.
He doesn’t answer my texts, anyway.
I don’t remember going to bed. Odd.
John may have a valid point regarding blood sugar levels, although I’m never going to admit it.
I roll out of the sheets, which have somehow got all tangled, and get dressed as quickly as I can.
I can only find one pair of shoes. No idea what I’ve done with the others. Strange.
This shirt doesn’t fit terribly well; it’s far too loose. As are my trousers. How have I managed not to notice before now? Unimportant.
I know where I need to be.
He’s in the kitchen, making toast. It can wait.
“John! We’ve got to go. I’ve worked it out. The killer was in Docklands. Get my phone. I need you to text Mary with some names.”
John turns and smiles at me. It’s the smile I categorise as you’re mental, but I’m strangely fond of you.
“Good morning,” he says. “Who the hell is Mary?”
I let Sherlock drive and the strangest things happen.
Please do feel free to tell me what you think. I imagine the apparent continuity problems made sense after the last section. :)
Chapter 5: If You Didn't Blame Yourself
Catharsis, to some extent. It's not tidy. How could it be?
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
He stares at me, frozen in mid-arc. I see it. He’s going to shut down. He’s going to turn and leave and take whatever this was away with him, and - no. Not this time.
“Stop.” I halt him with my voice, and before he can even think of anything else, I’ve got his arm. I shove him into a chair.
“Sherlock Holmes, I saw you for a second, the you I know, and if you think I’m going to let you disappear again, well, you’re wrong. So sit down and tell me what that was.”
He opens his mouth and nothing happens.
“Start with Mary,” I suggest, more kindly. “Who’s she?”
“What if...What if it wasn’t real?” He runs shaking hands over his face and says in a stifled-sounding voice, “It wasn’t. Oh, hell, John.”
“Sherlock?” I say, not sure what to do with this.
And then, of all the strangest things, he starts to laugh. Uncontrollably, almost sobbing with it.
“I...I made up a case, John. I dreamed an entire case.”
“You... Wait. So, everything? A crime, and evidence, and deductions, and... everything?”
“Yes! Now that I think of it, some it was exceedingly unrealistic.” He wipes at his eyes, and then chokes, “Mary...Mary was your perfect girlfriend.”
And that is so beautifully absurd, I start laughing with him.
He gives me the entire story, and it’s strange, and brilliant, and well, yes: funny. Funnier than it has any right to be. It is funny in the way that the very saddest things sometimes are.
This dream of his reveals so many things he’d never be able to say. He thinks I can’t stand him anymore. He thinks I’m going to leave. It would be easier, tidier, if he could believe I was happy somehow. Mary was his childishly symbolic parting gift. There’s more, of course, but these, I think, are the important bits.
He really doesn’t know me as well as he thinks he does.
After I’ve made us some tea, I look at him and say, “I’ve missed you, you mad bastard.”
I’m not sure he knows what to do with this. “You’re my friend. My best friend, actually,” I continue, because it’s true and must be said; bloke code be damned.
He swallows. “I’m sorry. All of this was...not what I wanted.”
That’s...not surprising. “Can I ask you some questions? About the last year?”
“Can I have a cigarette?”
How did he know I kept them, the ones he had when I found him? I shouldn’t have. Yet another reason why he shouldn’t be with me, I think. But hey, here we are. Sod it.
“Yeah, all right. I imagine they’re rather stale,” I add, and pull the packet out of the bucket under the sink where I’ve hidden them. I find some matches in the designated chaos drawer and throw them on the table.
I watch him light one, and I really cannot, do not approve, but he makes it look like sleight-of-hand, and it’s oddly compelling. “Here, give me one,” I say.
I really can’t say why I do it. Perhaps it’s the strange alchemy of sympathy. The sulphur of the match makes my eyes water, and when I inhale, the smoke tastes the way the pesticide section in a garden centre smells. There’s no way I’ll make it through all of this, I think.
“That tastes foul,” he says, of his own. “Still.” He closes his eyes in practiced bliss.
“Don’t think this means I approve,” I say. “Because I don’t.”
“I know,” he says. “I used to think about that while I was dead. You disapproving.”
“I thought about you frequently,” he adds. “I tried not to, but I did.”
“Be careful. That’s bordering on sentiment.”
He flicks some ash into his teacup and frowns a bit. “True, anyway.”
“Well,” I say. “Give me the short explanation of the...you dying. I know Molly was in on it.”
He does. His motives were honourable, if not entirely wise or sane. It is strangely gratifying to know that I was right about quite a lot of it. At the same time, it’s extremely hard to hear.
It’s easier to focus on tangential details. “Show me how it healed,” I say.
“It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”
It’s a black shirt, one I’ve seen a thousand times, but it certainly doesn’t fit the way it used to (like a second skin). He undoes two buttons rather clumsily and pulls it aside. “There.”
His clavicle is not perfectly knit together. There’s a slight protuberance where there never used to be one before. I can only imagine he was dreadful about immobilising his left arm while it healed. Not bad, though. Considering.
“Molly set it for me,” he says.
I push aside It should have been me, and offer, “Well, now we’ve got something in common. Of course, mine was a bullet.”
He buttons his shirt closed again with a look I can’t begin to interpret. One of the blank ones. “Such a little thing to show for being dead,” he says, at last.
“But you’re not.” He doesn’t know, can’t know, how many times I told him this in the dark once he’d returned: You’re not dead.
“No.” He crushes out the remains of his second cigarette, pushes the packet away across the table.
Good. “So, then. What else?”
He rubs his fingers together. “I had to bring them down. All the rest of them, I mean.”
He hasn’t said, and I shouldn’t ask, but I do. “But before that. Who did they bury?”
“Not my idea,” he says, and pulls the cigarettes back towards him, lights one again.
I feel so very sick, and it’s not the smell of stale tobacco, of burning. It’s the memory of standing by that lying headstone and pleading with him not to be dead. Pleading with -
He exhales in a shudder and says, “I think you know.”
I do, of course. Of course I do. My eyes burn. My throat closes.
“I didn’t, at first,” he says savagely, mouth twisted. “She told me afterwards.”
I can’t speak.
“I know,” he says, long fingers whitening at the edge of the table. “I can’t even...” He closes his eyes, and says, all in a rush, “It was wrong. I know that. I do.”
“Yes,” I say. “But...It was convenient.”
Something about that, what I say, makes his face crumple, the cigarette fall from his hand. I take it, drop it into the cup of cold tea, where it sighs and goes out. “I’m sorry,” I say. And because it’s the thing that rises in my throat, that presses behind my eyes every time I see him, I add, “I’ve done something awful.”
He looks at me, eyes dull, and I go on, because it hurts, because it’s stupid and shameful and wrong. It’s a confession and an offering. A poisoned gift.
“I knew Sebastian Moran,” I say. “I knew him before I knew who he was, and he was my friend.”
His face is so still.
“He was my friend because I was so fucking alone, and he seemed all right at the time. I didn’t know who he was. I thought his name was Bill. So we were friends and I bloody well drank tea with him on Sundays and then one day your brother showed me his picture and told me about the Arch.”
He opens his mouth, and before he can say anything, I add, “And he told me my friend was going to kill me, but I still didn’t tell Mycroft I knew him. So Sebastian Moran nearly killed you, instead. All because I was an idiot.”
“But the Arch,” he says. “That was...That was Moriarty’s phone.”
I stop, breathing hard, because I wonder if he’s heard me. That I made friends with a murderer. I haven’t even got to the part about -
“No. That was my fault.” He crushes the cigarette packet in his hands, and throws it at the wall. “I broke into Moriarty’s phone, and when I did, it triggered the explosives. I did that.”
He’s shaking now. Because he thinks -
“No!” I slap my hand down over his. It’s cold. “Stop. You couldn’t have known that. It was a trap, wasn’t it? It’s not your fault you set it off.”
His fingers stiffen under mine, and he says, very low, “No. I should have... I couldn’t think anymore. It was a problem I couldn’t solve, and I...You know what I did then. All possible consequence became irrelevant.”
“So. That was the cocaine.”
“I needed to remove the filters from my thinking. I was bogged down in pointless detail and I couldn’t make connections anymore. So yes, I did. It wasn’t ideal. Clearly. It wasn’t good.”
“No. I can’t imagine that it was.”
I’ve wondered whether he knows this about himself; that for all of his insistence upon logic, what he really does is art. Inspiration is fickle, as every artist knows, and he wouldn’t be the first to try to invoke it via chemistry. God, that’s terrifying, though. For him, brilliance itself is the addictive substance, not some alkaloid that offers a momentary high. That’s probably incurable, that need.
I am disgusted with myself for sounding like a badly-written anti-drugs pamphlet, but I have to say something. “You know that there are always better options than that.” I still have his hand trapped, and that’s starting to feel strange and uncomfortable.
“Sporting activities? Friends?” he suggests scornfully. “God, perhaps? Don’t be ridiculous.”
“If it’s just to help you think -”
“You helped me think,” he says bitterly. “Under the circumstances, that was not an option.”
“You can’t lay that at my door. It wasn’t my choice,” I say, and he tears his hand away and smashes it into the table.
“I know. I’m not!”
I am so sick of this; of this horrible thing inside me that makes me savage and tear at him, as if he doesn’t feel or care, as if I can make him.
He’s sitting there, white with self-loathing. It’s real and it’s ugly and it’s human. Distressingly human.
“Everything I do,” he gasps. “Everything.”
“No,” I sigh. “Not everything.”
And because I’ve been wrong about so many things, I take the chance that I am also wrong about this, about putting my arms around him and letting him cry.
So, I’m sorry that took forever. Is it what you wanted? Possibly, possibly not. Your honesty is appreciated, as always.
I would like to offer heartfelt thanks to my readers. Most of all to those who comment and review. You keep me honest and reasonably disciplined. GOOD. I’d also like to thank my silent (but not invisible) subscriber/alerters. Just knowing you’re out there is helpful at times. Particularly as I don’t write the sort of things that tend to invite squeeful commentary. :)
I’m aware that this series has been slow torture. It is human nature to seek closure, and many people read works of fiction for those qualities that real life fails to provide. That said, I don’t believe there is a magical word or action that resolves loss, that quells anger. I’d feel like a charlatan if I pretended that there was. In the words of Shakespeare, “What is done cannot be undone.” But it is beautifully human to attempt the impossible, isn’t it? That interests me.
John Watson and Sherlock Holmes are not people who define happiness in ordinary ways. One cannot burn for experience, for knowledge, for adventure and force that need to square away with the trappings of an ordinary domesticated life. Their ongoing story may have its moments of relative calm, but I don’t think it’s likely to resolve in anything tidy. I wouldn’t care about them if I thought it could, really.
Update: I have started the next story. It is called "A Thing Without a Name."