The first time Lestrade noticed something strange was about three weeks after Sherlock started bringing his new doctor friend along to crime scenes.
Sherlock had stopped by Lestrade’s office late one night to answer questions about a recent attempted burglary he’d thwarted. After the details were settled, Sherlock stood to leave. Lestrade, whose curiosity about the detective’s suddenly nigh-inseparable assistant had been growing since that first evening, decided to broach the subject with Sherlock.
“He’s working out, then?” Lestrade asked casually, shuffling several papers and standing.
Sherlock’s mind was clearly still focused on the case. “Who?”
“Dr. Watson. Your assistant.”
“Oh.” Sherlock’s features abruptly became guarded. He glanced down at his phone. “Yes.”
Lestrade, leaning against his desk and folding his arms, pressed on. “Didn’t he carry a cane?”
Sherlock, closely examining his mobile, edged towards the door. “Hmm?”
“A cane,” Lestrade repeated, more forceful than was necessary. “The first time we met, he walked with a cane.”
“Yes. I fixed him.” The detective nonchalantly looked up from his phone. His confident stare was almost a challenge.
“Fixed him?” Lestrade knew Sherlock preferred blunt terminology, but something about the way he had said it bred suspicion in the D.I.
Sherlock shifted his eyes quickly. Lestrade, having known him for over five years, easily noted the faint discomfort displayed in the action.
“His limp was psychosomatic,” Sherlock explained. “He just needed a slight… correction.” Without waiting for a response, he swept out the door.
Lestrade decided to keep a closer eye on Sherlock and his new companion.
The second time Lestrade found suspicion crossing his mind was two and a half months into Sherlock’s association with John.
Lestrade liked John personally, but he also greatly appreciated the army doctor’s calming effect on the notoriously neurotic Sherlock. The pair had met Lestrade at an abandoned lot where a missing woman’s car had been discovered. Sherlock was leaning head-first into the car, closely inspecting the back seat.
“You mentioned that you found several rare coins in her flat?” John asked, standing aside with Lestrade in the darkened cement plot.
“Yes. We’ve sent them off for identification,” replied Lestrade.
“We’ll need a copy of the report, with photos,” John commented, face growing pensive.
“I’ll be sure you receive one.”
“We’ll need a copy of the report, with photos,” John said again, making identical motions.
Lestrade paused. “What?”
He stared intently at John, watching for any other odd movements. “You’ve just repeated yourself.”
“Did I?” John looked around, clearly confused. “Ha. Sorry. Stress is probably getting to me. Excuse me, Greg.” He nodded quickly and hurried off after Sherlock, who had completed his inspection.
It was an admittedly strange reaction, but Lestrade let it go. He had a missing woman to find.
The third time, it was three months later and Lestrade had almost forgotten his vow to keep an eye on Sherlock and John. They seemed to work incredibly well together, much to Scotland Yard’s benefit. Still, his instincts told him something was off.
He watched from a short distance away as the two trudged around the muddy field, seeking additional clues that might help identify the nearby victim’s killer. Sherlock suddenly crouched low and pointed excitedly to something on the ground. He picked it up and stood, showing it to John.
John turned to look, and a sudden shudder jolted through his right arm. Lestrade stopped, watching them closely. John continued talking to Sherlock as if he hadn’t noticed that one of his joints had just inexplicably spasmed. Lestrade saw Sherlock inconspicuously watching the arm, a troubled look on his face.
This was certainly not normal. Lestrade bid his time, casually waiting near the patrol car for Sherlock to finish his search of the area. Soon enough, he approached Lestrade and flaunted several samples of twine that the forensics team had missed. He patiently waited for the detective to complete his analysis.
Finally, he was done. Lestrade took a deep breath and dove in. “Sherlock, I wouldn’t normally pry, but I think I should know about anything that might affect the outcome of a homicide case. Is John well?”
“Of course,” Sherlock answered dismissively.
“It’s just that, on occasion, it almost seems as if he’s suffering from some sort of neurological problem.”
Sherlock folded his arms, acutely displeased with this line of questioning. “He’s perfectly healthy.”
“You’re not exactly known to pay close attention to people who haven’t committed a crime or fallen victim to one,” Lestrade continued amicably. “Perhaps he’s not telling you-“
“Really, Lestrade!” interrupted Sherlock, throwing his arms up in dramatic exasperation. “Despite what you may believe, I actually do pay attention to John. He’s fine.”
Unsurprisingly, Sherlock abruptly took his leave. “I’ll text you about the case,” he called as he stalked away.
Lestrade was left standing in the muck, thinking.
The fourth time, Lestrade steadfastly refused to let the issue drop so easily.
Scotland Yard arrived at the scene a good ten minutes after Sherlock and John, per usual. As expected, the maniac and the good doctor had already recklessly entered the hideout of several notoriously disreputable fellows.
After the arrests were made, however, Sherlock wasn’t at all interested in loudly enlightening the entire Yard as to his brilliant deductions. Instead, Lestrade found him around the back of the building trying to quietly leave the scene with John.
“Sherlock!” Lestrade yelled after him, jogging to catch up.
Further down the alleyway, the detective turned slightly and spotted Lestrade. He quietly said something to John.
Lestrade quickly caught up with the duo. John had one hand pressed to his jumper, under his coat. Sherlock seemed to be attempting to place himself in front of his friend, blocking Lestrade’s view.
“Where are you going? Is – John, are you injured?” Lestrade asked worriedly.
“It’s nothing,” Sherlock answered tensely. “We really must be going.”
“I didn’t ask you, Sherlock.” Lestrade tried to lean over and get a better look. Sherlock sidestepped with him, still covering John.
“I assure you, we’re fine,” Sherlock tried again.
Lestrade shook his head. “Sorry, but I’m not taking your word on that.”
“Don’t worry, Greg,” John finally answered from behind Sherlock. “Just need to get home.”
Sherlock’s eyes were ablaze, trying to ward him off. Lestrade frowned. “Fine. We’ll need your statements tomorrow morning.”
Sherlock nodded, then turned and placed a hand on John’s shoulder to shepherd him away. In that moment, Lestrade caught a glimpse of John’s hand covered in a dark substance where it was held against his chest. Too dark to be blood, Lestrade realized. The same fluid stained the soft fabric of John’s jumper. He didn’t seem to be in pain, or even bothered in the slightest.
It was time Lestrade got to the bottom of their strange behavior.
An hour later, as Lestrade drove his car through darkened London roads toward Baker Street, he considered the oddness of the past six months.
Lestrade had never known Sherlock to get along with others. Over five years of working together on crime scenes confirmed that. But, out of the blue, Sherlock suddenly had a perfectly acceptable assistant? Someone whose company he enjoyed enough to spend time with both professionally and at home?
He parked in front of 221B and exited the vehicle. Mrs. Hudson cautiously answered the door.
“I need to see Sherlock,” Lestrade announced. He pushed into the hall and began climbing the stairs. Mrs. Hudson followed, pelting him with excuses about the late hour and how Sherlock was incredibly busy with his experiments and didn’t want to be disturbed-
Lestrade was not prepared for what he found in the flat. Sherlock, obviously hearing the loud noises coming up the stairs, was standing frozen in front of the couch. His t-shirt was covered in oily black stains. Behind him, lying down on the couch and not moving, was John.
The front of John’s torso was, for lack of a better description, swung open. Lestrade stopped abruptly at the completely bizarre image. Inside John’s abdomen, a complex metal mechanism of shining gears, springs, and ratcheting arms was ticking, whirring, and rotating away.
Lestrade could only stare in disbelief. Sherlock, recovered from his momentary paralysis, grabbed Lestrade’s arm and pulled him into the kitchen.
“Sherlock… what…?” Lestrade began. He had been expecting something strange going on, but nothing like this.
“Yes, Lestrade. As usual, observational analysis is serving you well. And yes, John is not human.”
Lestrade lifted a hand to his head. “What in the bloody – where… how?”
Sherlock, arms folded defensively, scowled at the inarticulate statements.
“Did you build him?” Lestrade managed, finally.
“Yes and no. I found him, barely functional and abandoned. You may recall I was absent on an errand for my brother some months ago.”
“That’s right! Over in Eastern Europe. Classified, I expect?”
“Very much so. Let’s just say I returned with more baggage than anticipated. Mycroft was hardly pleased.” Sherlock smirked. “I called on a few discrete associates to acquire custom-made cognitive software.”
“As I said to you at the time, I need an assistant.”
Lestrade simply stared, a wash of sympathy overcoming him. It was so obvious. Sherlock had intentionally designed John’s personality. How else would he manage to find the perfect assistant? Someone who complemented him and would spend time with him? Sherlock was a difficult person. Meeting someone so sublimely compatible in real life was an astronomically long shot. Lestrade didn’t need to do the math to know as much.
They crossed back into the living room. John, unmoving where he lay, continued to stare blankly up at the ceiling. Lestrade found the image disturbing.
Naturally, Sherlock noticed. “I think he prefers it if he’s not awake while I tinker with his systems.”
“He looks like the inside of a watch.”
“Clockwork, yes. His creators were quite nostalgic, I think.”
Lestrade leaned forward to get a better view. “So, when you mentioned that you fixed his limp…”
“Yes. I was rather eager to get him up and running. He had trouble with one of his legs for a bit, but everything got sorted in the end.”
Lestrade glanced at the oily stains all over the couch and Sherlock’s clothes. “What’s all this mess, then?” he asked.
“John was shot trying to protect me. He can’t die, not truly. But he started leaking lubricant, and I knew a critical component had probably been hit.” Sherlock kneeled down next to the couch, reaching a hand deep between the gears in John’s chest. Lestrade grimaced.
A loud click sounded, and suddenly all movement of John’s mechanical parts ceased. Sherlock removed his hand, which clutched a small metal gearbox. A bullet hole sheared through half of it.
“This is certainly not good.” Sherlock flipped it around in his hands. “Useless.”
“Can you fix it?”
“No. That’s the problem with smuggling a classified experimental robotics platform into the country; it’s rather difficult to find replacement parts. This happens to regulate his power. It will take considerable effort to track down someone who can rebuild it.” Sherlock grew thoughtful. “I’ll probably need to search several maximum-security prisons…”
Lestrade held his hands up. “I don’t want to know.”
“No, you don’t,” Sherlock affirmed. “Well, there should be a few minutes of power left. I think John deserves to know what’s happening.”
“But he’s not real,” Lestrade stated flatly, puzzled.
“Perhaps not to you,” Sherlock said as he reached back inside John’s chest, “but we’ve come to an understanding.”
Another click sounded, and the mechanical parts began turning slowly but steadily. The detective removed his hand, then gently flicked a switch nestled in the upper right quadrant of John’s chest. A small green light shone deep within the machinery.
“John,” Sherlock said.
John’s eyes moved suddenly, a flash of life present that wasn’t there before. He looked at Lestrade, then over at Sherlock.
“John, can you hear me?” questioned Sherlock.
“Yes,” he answered.
“Listen, there’s been a problem with your system.”
John tried to sit up, arms stuttering erratically in his attempt to grip the back of the couch. Sherlock pressed him back down. Lestrade couldn’t help but marvel at how incredibly lifelike John seemed. Even though he was artificial, he made expressions like any flesh-and-blood human.
“There’s a problem, and I can’t fix it. You’ll stay functional longer if you lie down,” explained Sherlock.
“What’s wrong with me?” John asked, a hint of confusion in his voice.
“I’m not going to be able to bring you to crime scenes with me. Not for a while. Probably a long while.”
John furrowed his brow. “But who’ll help you?”
“No one. I’ll repair you as soon as I can. Then we can continue on as normal.”
“No one?” John scoffed. His expression softened. “It’s not safe for you to be alone.”
“I’ll watch after him, John,” replied Lestrade, stepping closer. “I promise.”
John’s systems seemed to be slowing. It took him several seconds to process his response. “Thank you, Greg, but you can’t be here all the time.”
Sherlock gazed down at his friend. “I’ll make do, John. We’ll see each other soon enough. It’ll be just like going to sleep.”
“I don’t-” John began, pausing lengthily before trying to speak again. “I don’t want-”
His joints seized several times, contracting and shaking with intermittent power. John silently looked up at Sherlock. Finally, he stopped moving altogether.
Sherlock sat back on his heels. A strange expression passed over his face. Lestrade didn’t like it at all.
“Can you transfer his programming into something else?” he tried, hopeful.
“There are, unfortunately, very few systems in the entire country that could possibly store such enormous amounts of data and process it quickly enough. Most are owned by the government. It’s unfeasible. Besides, something could happen. Data corruption or partial loss.” Sherlock glanced at John again. “No. It’s safer this way. I want him to remember everything we’ve done when he wakes up.”
Lestrade nodded. Why did he feel like he was standing next to a coma patient?
The detective stood suddenly. “Well. We should probably put him away.”
Sherlock removed the broken component again. Together, they carried John upstairs to the second bedroom, which turned out to be more of a workshop. A hard countertop ran across one half of the room. It was littered with tools, pieces of metal mechanisms, and several large schematics that seemed to be annotated in some Slavic language.
They sat John against the wall on top of a waterproof tarpaulin. Sherlock carefully wrapped it over John, securing him tightly in the protective shell.
“I’ll tell everyone at the Yard that John is off taking care of a relative with a long-term illness,” Lestrade offered.
Sherlock remained quiet, staring at the still form under the tarp.
Lestrade stepped closer. “He trusts you.”
“He trusts me because he was programmed to do so,” Sherlock answered, narrowing his eyes.
“Does it really make any difference?”
Sherlock stared hard at Lestrade for a moment, then pulled out his phone. “I may be unavailable to help you for quite some time, Lestrade. I’ll be out of the country.”
As he left Baker Street, Lestrade reflected on his odd reversal of perception. The man had become a machine, and the machine was now a man.