The package arrived late on a Monday morning, tall and heavy and worn-wrinkled beige. It had import stamps from ports of call that Mrs. Hudson’s never even heard of, but since Sherlock was off running around London, she didn’t make a point of it. She simply signed for it and let the quiet delivery man set it down by the staircase in 221B. It looked harmless, after all. Much better than the insulated box of spleens she signed for last week.
“What’s he doing, washing his hair?” Donovan muttered scathingly. She punctuated it with a pointed look towards her wristwatch. “You sure that text you sent him went through?”
Lestrade shrugged, though he couldn’t help a faint twinge of concern as well. “He said he was on his way, and not to touch the orchid pots.” How Sherlock knew there were orchid pots at the crime scene at all was beyond him, but questioning things like that had simply become an exercise in frustration.
“Who cares? We don’t need a half-rate civilian looking over our shoulders.” Anderson shoved past Donovan and Lestrade, tugging on a pair of nitrile gloves with a plastic snap. He began rifling through the contents of the purse that had tumbled to the ground next to the body.
With a sigh, Lestrade took the preliminary report from the medical examiner. She would have to confirm her initial findings later in a proper autopsy, but at least they would have an idea to work with for now. He glanced over the notes and diagrams as the medical examiner explained the marks of the attack with a blunt object. Skull partially crushed, thorax bruised, nothing new there.
As the medical examiner trailed off and the crime scene squad began photographing the body to allow it to be moved, Donovan’s head snapped up. “Wait a moment, one of her earrings is in the orchid po-“
There was a clunk from behind them. “I told you not to touch that!” Sherlock strode over and snatched the terra cotta pot out from her hands, bringing it up close to his face where he could examine it more thoroughly. He squinted, then drew his nose towards the Spanish moss and sniffed deeply. Donovan grimaced.
Lestrade was the first one to notice the man-sized mannequin leaning against the wall by the door where Sherlock had set him. “Sherlock, what - … what is that?”
Dismissively, without turning or raising his head, Sherlock replied, “John. Watson. New flatmate. Doctor. I brought him along, since clearly yours is incompetent enough to have actually diagnosed this as an assault. Clearly second opinions are entirely necessary.”
The team swiveled their heads around to the doll in near-perfect unison. John was short, solidly built, but in plastic, it was difficult to tell if that was supposed to be fat or muscle. He had been put into a rather old-fashioned jumper, if the cable pattern was anything to go by, and unobtrusive khaki pants. His smart leather shoes were new, but neatly tied. He had a full head of mousy brown doll hair, and his face stared back at them in an eerie expression of calm.
Donovan opened her mouth, shut it, swallowed, then tried again. “This… is what made you late?” Her expression was clearly repulsed, but Sherlock was far too busy extracting the earring from the Spanish moss to notice.
“Yes. We were forced to take a taxi.”
Lestrade paused a moment to try to parse through that logic. “So that you – wouldn’t have to carry it?”
“Don’t be daft, Lestrade, he has a limp. Psychosomatic, of course, but there you are.”
Sherlock paused to tilt his head as if listening to something just out of the human range of hearing. “Yes, John, but I suppose he’ll use properly gendered pronouns in the future in reference to you.” With that, he raised an eyebrow at Lestrade before returning his attention to the earring.
There was a moment of resounding silence, then Donovan mouthed ‘freak’ silently to the other two above Sherlock’s head.
Anderson stared in wide-eyed agreement, too shocked to make a comment. Lestrade winced and ran a hand through his hair, unsure of exactly how to proceed. Fortunately, Sherlock relieved him of that duty.
“This was no random assault, gentlemen; she was targeted specifically for some object that was removed from her person upon her death. As John pointed out, she died of poisoning, not blunt object trauma. She was being slowly poisoned for the last four weeks, but her killer grew short on time and decided that beating her was more efficient. She was too weak from the poison to fight him off, but the attack didn’t kill her. He left her here to die slowly while the toxins finally did their job.”
Lestrade hesitated, then began jotting notes down in his notebook.
“I suspect your man will be of Eastern European origin, roughly eighty-five kilos, with dark brown hair.” With that, he pocketed the earring, set down the pot, and nodded brusquely at the stunned police force. “I believe that ought to get you started, hm?”
“I… believe it will.” Lestrade managed a jerky nod. “Thank you.”
Sherlock merely headed back to the doorway, put an arm around John’s waist, and lifted him up to walk back out of the flat. “Yes, yes, fine, dim sum, but I hope you don’t expect me to eat any of it.”
The door slammed shut behind him, and in the creeping quiet that remained, Lestrade cleared his throat and began giving orders.
“Of course it’s not always like that,” Sherlock answered, kicking his feet up onto the armrest of the sofa. “Sometimes they’re actually interesting.”
There was a moment of silence, then he snorted disdainfully. “Yes, well, perhaps there is a fairly substantial difference between our standards of interesting.”
Which was an understatement, to say the least, as Sherlock’s standards of interesting would possibly make most law enforcement personnel weep. But John actually did think that these crimes were interesting to begin with, not just disgusting or overwhelming or, God forbid, pedestrian. And he was actually impressed by Sherlock’s methods.
After all, that was what Sherlock had wanted, wasn’t it?
“Oh, very well,” he sighed, as if put upon, but he sat up and steepled his fingers beneath his chin, belying his pleasure at being able to grandstand his brilliance. “First of all, the marks on the door were entirely the wrong shape and location to signal a random attack, which I deduced from…”
It had been a narrow thing, really. Sherlock almost hadn’t bought him. He had stumbled across the website by chance in the midst of a thorough search on the background of a suspect. He had dismissed the concept as patently absurd at first. But it was no more absurd than people who owned pets and dressed them up in clothes. Certainly no more absurd than talking to a skull. Then it was too humiliating. But then, when had he cared a whit for social norms? Finally, he thought that it would be the first step on the road to lunacy.
But, he supposed, if he was honestly considering buying a flatmate doll on the internet, then he was probably most of the way there already.
It kept creeping into his mind, stealing into that steel maze of his that was supposed to be impenetrable to this sort of ridiculous dream, and he couldn’t quite put it off his mind. He began to ask himself what sort of flatmate he would even get, and from there, there was simply no going back.
It would have to be a loyal man, obviously. Someone in whom he could have complete and total trust. Someone that would risk his life for others, especially those he cared for. And he must have the skills and capacities to do so. But at the same time, he couldn’t be too much of a prude. Sherlock had a busy life, and that busy life frequently involved gruesome death, breaking and entering, and various crimes that ranged the gamut from petty theft to grand larceny – and not all of them committed by the suspects. So a loyal man, but one with a healthy sense of grey, who saw morals as a spectrum rather than a binary.
But that sort of man tended to be popular. That sort of man would never deign to spend time with Sherlock, of all people, a man on the outskirts of society who was regarded by even his ‘colleagues’ in the police as a freak. Sherlock needed someone who would be scarred, a little broken. Someone whose broken edges would fit up against Sherlock’s. Someone who would possibly understand, just a little.
All of that meant military, no, ex-military, from a painfully long tour at war, wounded in the battle and feeling lost in the sea of normalcy that was daily, urban life, after months and months of dodging shells and blood. But he would have to be a doctor, one who could focus on the life and the hope in the situation, rather than looking down sniper sights at men a mile away and snuffing them out. A military doctor, who could kill, but could also save. Was broken, but would never admit it. Who would follow a friend to the mouth of Hell and back, but was more than a dumb dog kept at bay, who could offer conversation and suggestion and, dare he imagine it, companionship.
So he’d placed the order. It wasn’t hard to picture him in his mind. Middling-short, though not abnormally so, spry and muscled, but healthy in practical exercise for combat, not for show. Serious eyes, capable of laughter, but wrinkled from grimaces. Smallpox vaccine scar on the shoulder; he would be older than Sherlock, and they were still giving them out when he would have been a child. Extensive scarring on his shoulder from the attack, though no scars on his leg, as that was entirely psychosomatic. Light brown hair, nothing special, kept short and out of the way.
In fact, there wasn’t much special about him. Except, perhaps, for the fact that in his head, John actually, honestly liked Sherlock, as a human being.
That was fairly special indeed.
The company couldn’t give him the John from his head, of course. They could only do so much with plastic nowadays, especially without charging an arm and a leg. But they got most of the basics down, and what was left, Sherlock was more than capable of supplying with his imagination. It wasn’t perfect. But it was something.
Mrs. Hudson bustled in with a handful of envelopes. “I swear, they keep putting all of your mail in my box on purpose! Here’s the last week’s worth.”
Sherlock glanced up briefly from the newspaper page. “Put them on the counter,” he ordered imperiously, then returned to his sentence. He looked perfectly comfortable splayed out on the couch, across from where John was seated in what was swiftly becoming John’s chair.
“There you are. But you need to come get the next week’s yourself – I’m not your housekeeper.” She smoothed her skirt and stepped over into the living room, one hand gesturing to emphasize her point.
She passed by John, giving him an inspection out of the corner of her eye. “And who’s this?”
“John Watson. He’s going to move into the room upstairs.”
“Oh, well! That’s lovely, isn’t it. Getting yourself a roommate.” She didn’t seem at all fazed by the fact that John could neither see nor hear her, and that his plastic chest didn’t rise and fall as he gazed blankly out the window. “Nice to meet you, John.” She patted his shoulder, then nodded to Sherlock. “I’ll leave you two be, then.”
It wasn’t that Sherlock actually believed John was real. He wasn’t stupid. He was many things, most of which he recognized and accepted with apathetic passivity, but he was not stupid. He was, however, more than willing to set aside the usual social conventions.
If children could have their own imaginary friends, talk with them and play with them, why couldn’t Sherlock have John? He was only explicitly making him tangible by buying the doll. It was no worse than talking with his skull, or worse, talking to himself. And it was strangely comforting to think of what John would say about things. He could almost hear it in his head, John’s voice, soft like worn flannel, comfortable. “Bit not good, ” he would say, and give a twist of the mouth that was somewhere between a scowl and a laugh. And then Sherlock would adjust his actions accordingly.
The miracle wasn’t that Sherlock could picture John’s responses. The miracle was that Sherlock actually listened to them.
Sherlock breezed past Lestrade, clapping his hands together at the sight of the three corpses splayed over each other on the damply glistening tarmac.
“Well, well, what do we have here, hmmm? A triple homicide? How curious.”
Lestrade blinked a moment, then sniffed the air. “Is that curry?”
“Curry vindaloo, yes. Your olfactory recognition is improving. Perhaps someday you’ll actually be able to use it on a case like a real detective.” He offered a brief, tight-lipped smile, thin as a knife, but it was clear that he was offering the backhanded compliment as genuinely well-meant praise.
“I’m sorry, you’ve actually been eating?”
“John insisted,” he said by way of explanation, as if that really elucidated anything at all, and shrugged vaguely in the direction of where John stood against a pile of packing crates.
Lestrade hesitated. There were clearly two roads to take here: he could inform his superiors that Sherlock Holmes was no longer in a stable state of mind, and someone would be sure to put him under proper care; or he could accept the fact that Sherlock was eating and actually attempting to be nice – or as nice as Sherlock was capable of being – and roll with it.
Clearing his throat, he nodded. “Glad to see you’ve got a doctor around with some sense in his head.” Option number two it was. Sherlock was still useful, even if he was descending slowly into lunacy.
“Indeed. The sort of sense that Anderson clearly has none of, or he wouldn’t be writing down that the victims were related only by chance encounter. Obviously these three had met up for an old school reunion.”
Yes. Still useful. Also, unfortunately, still rather obnoxious.
Mummy shan’t like it.
Mummy will like him. Everyone does.
PACKAGE ID# 940W4J-4FF
RECEIVED: 03/07/10 14:23
DELIVERED: 04/07/10 10:41
c/o Sherlock Holmes
221B Baker St.
London NW1 6XE, United Kingdom
020 7224 3688
The usual bitter swallow of frustration at Mycroft’s intervention was ameliorated by a deep sense of gratitude. So often Mycroft attempted to do things ‘for Sherlock’s own good,’ but more often than not, it just got in the way. Not so in this case.
Sherlock crumpled up the unimpressive manila envelope in which Mycroft had sent his olive branch, tossing it aside. Inside was a similarly bland piece of folded up printer paper, upon which Mycroft hadn’t bothered to write a single thing. The message was clear regardless. It was folded around a small laminated card.
A driver’s license.
It wasn’t that it would really be useful, if one was speaking in practical terms. John would hardly be driving, nor would it be necessary to identify his corpse were something to happen. He had an ID number printed on the inside of his wrist. He would be paying no taxes, and he wouldn’t be using a credit card. Which meant that the only reason Mycroft had chosen to go to the effort was simply to show Sherlock that he would stand with him on this one.
He supposed that it hadn’t been hard for Mycroft to have a driver’s license made, though it would have been marginally more difficult to have one made for a man that technically and legally didn’t exist yet. But it was surprisingly accurate. It had John’s name, his address – here, with Sherlock – his date of birth, which Mycroft had doubtlessly had to make up, and even a photo of him, placed just next to the official seal. The photo, of course, had been meticulously blurred and put through a grainy filter so that the headshot of John’s plastic head would look quite real to the casual observer.
Damn. This meant he was going to have to take up the next favor Mycroft asked of him, wasn’t it. He could just hear John saying it now, “Most people generally expect kindness to be paid back in kind. And he’s your brother, anyway.” A thoughtful pause, then with a smirk. “And his jobs are bound to be interesting, aren’t they?”
“I suppose you’re right.” Sherlock sighed. He leaned to tuck it into John’s trouser pocket, where it wouldn’t disappear into the mess that was the living room. And it was funny, when he straightened up, he could have sworn John was smiling, just a little.
After another month, even Lestrade and his crew were beginning to relax about the entire situation.
“John, make sure Sherlock doesn’t give Ms. Rolini a heart attack in the ‘interrogation,’ alright?”
Sherlock rolled his eyes, but headed out with John carried by his side. “I’m sure that between your paranoid instincts and John’s over-protectiveness, she will be so unconcerned as to be no help at all.”
Which was about as close to agreement as he was going to give.
Sherlock realized there was a problem when he started debating in the shop whether John would prefer breakfast tea, Earl Grey, or something more exotic, like Oolong. He was being utterly ridiculous, and it didn’t matter that Oolong was far too pretentious and unfamiliar to be a daily tea for John, with his flannel voice and his cable-knit jumpers, and it didn’t matter that breakfast tea would be better with the cream and no sugar John would inevitably add to it, and it certainly didn’t matter that John should really have first say because he would probably be making all the tea anyway while Sherlock refused to get off of the couch.
It didn’t matter because John was a doll, and he couldn’t drink tea, and he couldn’t put cream in it, and he certainly couldn’t stand by the pot and steep tea while chiding Sherlock for being so lazy, but doing it for him anyway. He was made of plastic and his lips were pressed together in an eternal seam of waxy pink, and even if he could open his mouth to drink, the tea would possibly be hot enough to melt and warp his plastic skin, and they certainly didn’t make their dolls with little plastic tastebuds, and - -
Sherlock shoved the tea boxes back onto the shelf with a huff of air, taking a hurried step backwards.
This was going too far.
It was a drastic measure, Sherlock had to admit, but it was necessary. If he could just stop thinking about it like this, if he could just go back to talking to John and enjoying himself and not agonizing over what John would smell like, because oh God, of course he would smell like cinnamon, and Sherlock didn’t know how he knew, but he knew with a certainty that was absolutely terrifying.
He locked John in the storage closet.
It wasn’t, perhaps, the kindest choice, but then again, John was a doll, as he kept telling himself, and he wouldn’t mind that the miniature centrifuge was cutting into his back or that there were a few jars of questionably labeled poisons resting right near his left hand. And even if he wasn’t, John was a soldier, he could man up and deal with standing in a closet, but that was the wrong way to think about this, and he could all but hear John saying “Bit not good, locking your flatmate in a closet.”
He slammed the door shut and locked it tightly.
He didn’t know why exactly a lock was necessary to stop a plastic doll.
It was like that story, the one with the murderer who put his victim beneath the floorboards and thought he heard his heart beating until it drove him mad. John could have told him who wrote it, and probably the title. John remembered things like that.
But then, John was locked in the upstairs closet, and John was also the source of the problem, so there went that.
He made tea. He drank it. Well, most of it. He slept. He checked on all of his experiments growing and decomposing in various nooks and crannies around the flat. He even finished two of them, and he published his findings on his website. The remains went in the bin. He scanned the papers and he watched the couple across the street have a domestic through the window. But the entire time he hated it. There were spiders under his skin, crawling and crackling and just itching to get out, make him run upstairs and unlock the door and apologize. The itch didn’t really go away, and though it would lessen slightly when he got immersed in projects, it was right there, hovering, at the corner of his mind.
Perhaps this was what going mad felt like.
He was at the point of pulling his hair out, a single strand at a time, when another text from Lestrade came.
Sherlock strode into the old warehouse, swirling coat projecting all the confidence that had been leeched out of him over the last four days of itching and waiting and staring at the closet. “What do you have?”
“We’ve got CCTV captures of her leaving a salon four hours ago, and then we-“ Anderson started, but was cut off swiftly when Sherlock made a violent slice of the hand through the air for silence.
“Not you, Anderson! One of you apes with two brain cells to rub together! What do you have?!”
Anderson, ever failing to learn from experience, glowered and protested. “I was just saying that we’ve got her timeline from the salon to her dropping off a package at-“
“ANDERSON! Have you devolved so thoroughly that you can no longer recognize your own name?! Because I do believe I’ve told you before that I would prefer having my eyes gouged out with rusty spoons than listening to your ‘conjectures’ on the subject! If you can’t listen to basic orders like ‘sit down’ and ‘shut up,’ then I can’t think of any further use for you lot, since you’re certainly not making any headway as POLICEMEN!”
Anderson’s mouth worked for a moment in shock before he managed, “I won’t take any crap from you, you cr-“
“Where’s John?” Donovan’s curious voice cut through the shouting, and for a moment, even Anderson paused to rebalance.
“Congratulations, you’ve grasped the basic concept of object permanence; Piaget would be proud, Sergeant Donovan,” Sherlock replied acidly, stepping over to the body. “Now, will someone who is neither Anderson nor Donovan and has a basic shred of intelligence please tell me what it is exactly that you have?!”
Lestrade sighed, pulled out his notepad, and sacrificed himself to the wrath of Sherlock.
“So what’s this I hear about you solving that nasty torture case, hm? I wager that was like an early birthday present.” Mrs. Hudson smiled warmly from where she stood, watering the bushes by the front door.
Sherlock tugged off his gloves to find the housekeys in his pocket. “Yes,” was the terse reply, void of enthusiasm.
“Well, don’t sound too excited, now!”
Sherlock simply shoved the key into the lock.
She seemed to suddenly notice the absence of the doll tucked into Sherlock’s arm. “Oh, dear, didn’t John go with you to the case?”
“Then where is he?”
“In the closet.”
Startled, she accidentally watered the sidewalk for a moment before adjusting her aim. “Why would he be in the closet?”
The lock clicked open. “Because that’s where children’s toys belong. Good day, Mrs. Hudson.” The door slammed shut behind him.
But telling himself that he could function on his own and believing that John really belonged in the closet were harder to do than he expected. He spent most of his time outside of the flat, running around the city and doing his damned best to forget that he ever placed the order. Forget that John was still lying shoved in the closet. Forget that he missed him more than any real person he’d ever known.
He worked constantly, but the friction between Sherlock and Lestrade’s crew increased tenfold, and it was only Lestrade’s sharp looks that kept them from making snarky comments about replacement Barbies. He felt like there were sparks in his veins, slipping out of his fingertips every time he touched something, raising his hair on end.
At the times when he ran out of excuses to stay outside, he curled up on the couch with his knees to his chest, the AC on high, nicotine patches plastered over his arms. He went over tobacco brands in his head, listing the color, texture, odor, and heat retention of each, but his mind kept slipping to the closet door upstairs. “I forgive you,” John would say, “but you owe me. Maybe cleaning out the fingers in the breadbox would do the trick.” And he would laugh just a little, and he would help John up and maybe he would actually clean the fingers out without needing to be reminded five times.
Because that’s what people in love did, and even Sherlock knew it.
He was in love.
He was in love with a figment of his imagination that he was projecting onto a man-sized lump of plastic locked in his closet.
He hadn’t complained of being bored in ages. He was too busy with desperation to care a whit for boredom.
He could almost hear the creak of the wearied floorboards in the upstairs closet as John paced, which was ridiculous, because his plastic legs didn’t come with poseable joints. There was a menagerie of mugs on the end table, empty-ringed by tea and cream on the bottom, with a forest of spoons jutting out here and there. He felt like he was drinking tea for the both of them, and though he supposed the last thing he needed to do was to add caffeine to his already delicate state, he kept finding his feet shuffling into the kitchen while his hands turned on the kettle of their own accord.
He wrote a thorough treatise on the field identification of falsified fingerprints for his blog, typing it up all in one manic go. Instead of posting it, he held down the backspace key for a full four minutes and watched every letter disappear, one by one, as if time turned backwards. It was so easy to take things back.
The key had stayed in his pocket all along, and though he half expected it to stick in the lock, it opened cleanly, the door swinging with only the barest protest. The tepid light through the rainy windowpanes caught on floating motes of dust in the storage closet, disturbed by Sherlock’s entry. Some of the dust had settled over John’s face, John’s hands, John’s cable-knit jumper. Sherlock swallowed, brushing a hand across too-stiff acrylic hair, pushing it back into order.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
He gently took John’s hands, heaving him up off of the centrifuge. He wiped the dust out of John’s face and carried him downstairs, setting him down in the corner chair Sherlock hadn’t been able to bring himself to sit in during John’s absence. He knelt down on the rug and buried his face in the fabric of John’s trousers where they creased at the shins, and for what felt like ages, simply sat.
John smelled of cinnamon.
He no longer brought John to crime scenes. It was one thing to tolerate looks behind his back and amused curiosity about John when he had simply brought him around as a proxy. A stand-in flatmate. A symbolic friend. But to drag him around town now would be unthinkable. Now it was nearly too painful to touch him, to feel the soft-slick skin, too hard, denting under pressure like the hood of a car, no warmth at all, or the slender crevices of seams where the molded parts met together at his elbows, shoulders, neck. It was easier not to touch, but to simply hover nearby. And exposing John to the world at this point, too sacred for contact, would have been blasphemous and shameful.
Lestrade came very near to asking after John several times, but the grey-bruise bags under Sherlock’s eyes always stopped him. Sherlock still did his job, he never made a mistake, and if things were really that bad, Mycroft would have stepped in.
But there was nothing at all Mycroft could do. He could conjure birth certificates from thin air, make men disappear, mysteriously teleport shipments of weapons across entire continents, and start international wars. But he was only human. He could no more make a man of John than make gold of lead.
By way of expressing his condolences, he had Sherlock’s flat rebugged.
The tenuous peace that Sherlock had painstakingly made, walking on the knife’s edge, crashed down around him with the simple beep of a text.
Watch the footage in your inbox ASAP.
Sherlock was pushing through a crowd of tourists at the Tower Hill subway station when the message pinged into his phone. He shoved past a loud woman complaining on her Bluetooth to reach a patch of clear space by the wall. A few flicks of the fingers, and he was logged in remotely to his email. Attached to an email from Mycroft was a brief clip of the surveillance footage his bugs had picked up shortly before.
A pair of men in nondescript black pants and shirts entered through the window, picking the lock dexterously and sliding in. They wore large, childish masks that bore giant yellow smiley faces on them, and it would have been comical if they weren’t acting so sinister. They glanced around the flat for a moment, then one of them headed for John, lying in his usual chair, unmoved from where Sherlock had left him that morning. He heaved him up over his shoulder like a sack of unwieldy potatoes, legs sticking out in front of him and head behind. A nod to the second man, and he moved to the door, shoving John through it and letting him tumble down the fire escape below before he followed more carefully.
The other made a beeline towards the nearly invisible camera set inside the remains of the reproduction-Ming vase. He must have been warned of it. He pulled a yellow sticky note out of his pocket and stuck it up in front of the camera, blocking off its view. On its surface was scribbled, Olly-olly oxen-free! Come out, come out, wherever you are! Mwah, M
There was a moment of eerie calm as even the noise of the commuters ceased, silence spreading over the station, if only in Sherlock’s head. But it was a terrifying counterbalance to his racing thoughts. He threw out rational counterarguments as if to weigh down his fear until it sank away to the bottom of his brain, but it simply kept on running.
Moriarty can’t hurt him, he thought. Not even if he tries. He’s a doll.
And, There’s no rush. What are they going to do with him?
Or, I could just get another.
And, I could let him keep him. Maybe this would all stop.
But Moriarty didn’t really care about hurting John, he cared about hurting Sherlock, and all the logic in the world wouldn’t stop Sherlock from a heart-stopping wrench to see Moriarty put a bullet through John’s plastic skull. And there was always something Moriarty could think of to do, something creative and horrifying but also brilliant, but it was decidedly less impressive when it was against John instead of against some stranger from Chiswick he’d never met before. And the company could make him another, exactly the same, down to the exact hair fibers, but it wouldn’t be the same. Sherlock would know. Sherlock would always know. And as attractive an idea as it was to allow Moriarty to put an end to all of these ridiculous feelings, somewhere down inside, he knew it wouldn’t really stop. Not like this.
The world began to move again, a bustle of breaths and white noise. Sherlock ran.
The taxi moved as quickly as it could, but the streets were clogged with the sort of traffic that never seemed to appear when Sherlock was dealing with matters that weren’t life and death. He muttered curses under his breath about the combined brainpower of the entire population of London, tossed a handful of bills at the cabbie, and scrambled out of the cab. It was faster running. But it was also much more stressful. His mind was flying along at the speed of sound, ricocheting off of the inside of his skull, sending pings of steel along the inside of his bone, but as hard as he tried, his feet simply couldn’t keep up with his thoughts.
The glimpse of the man holding John as he left down the fire escape showed him going east. That was twenty-three minutes ago. The map inside his head bristled with routes running to possible tradeoff locations like mice along its streets, only to spike and die, sacrificing themselves for the one last available choice that kept speeding along. His brain knew where to go, and his legs followed after.
St. Anges’ Academy for Girls was empty for the late hour, and the dim auxiliary lights reflected shallowly on the cheap tile floors as Sherlock stole down the hall, ears alert, checking for signs of life anywhere and everywhere. There was the smell of old disinfectant and the faint remains of cheap, fruity perfume, but he couldn’t let it distract him.
There was nothing in the most likely three places for staging a hostage situation, the gym, the auditorium, and the cafeteria. But he finally threw open the doors to a classroom, just like the others. There was nothing visibly out of order, but on the chalkboard was another yellow sticky note. This one read, Bravo! But this isn’t Hide and Seek – this is Monkey in the Middle! And I’ve got the monkey. LOLLERSKATES! -M
The door opened behind him with a shriek of protest. Moriarty stepped in, clapping slowly with a too-wide grin. “Not bad! Not bad at all! Total time of forty-eight minutes from the heist. You, my friend… you are cert-if-iable!” He giggled manically.
“Possibly. You are, after all, the expert on psychoses.”
“Oh, this is beautiful! Look at you, trying to hold it all together! Too precious!” He leaned forward a few inches, cocking his eyebrows and putting a finger to his lips. “Tell you a secret. It won’t last long.”
Sherlock simply scowled. “What is it that you want, exactly? It’s rather unlike you to miss a chance to play the archetype.”
“Oh, oh, oh, no rushing the storyline, Sherlock! Spoilers ruin everything, don’t you know?”
“Just get on with it!”
“And there it is. You’re cracking like a little egg. Let me just … help that along, shall I?” He reached out into the hall and grabbed John’s shoulder, dragging him inside. John’s leg clunked against the doorframe on the way, and Moriarty gave a little snicker. “Oops! My bad!”
“What. Do you want.”
“I SAID, NO RUSHING!”
Sherlock’s knuckles whitened, but stayed silent.
Moriarty cleared his throat. “There, that’s better, isn’t it?” He smiled, setting John’s feet on the ground, sliding his arms around John’s waist. “Now…”
It was a conscious effort for Sherlock to bite back a growl. He was touching John. Nobody was allowed to touch John.
“This is so getting to you!” Moriarty tittered. “You’re jealous! I have to admit, you are making this way more fun than it was in my head!”
Sherlock sniffed, schooling his features into a blanker expression. He usually never had a problem keeping a stony face. “Well? Isn’t this the part where you threaten him with bodily harm or somesuch?”
Moriarty rolled his eyes. “Oh, fine! But you should be flattered; I didn’t want this to be boring. No guns or bombs or anything.” He drew a cloth glove out of his pocket, then reached into one of the desk’s storage boxes and pulled out a large thermos. “I’m sure you can recognize what this is made of.”
“Polytetrafluoroethylene. Teflon,” Sherlock answered automatically.
“Gold star! So I bet you can guess what I’ve got in here. But I’m going to tell you anyway. It’s more fun this way. Trifluoromethanesulfonic acid. Try saying that five times fast! Trifluoromethanesulfonic acid, Trifluoromethanesulfonic acid, Trifluoromeganosu- ohh, so close!” He chuckled, untwisting the cap. “Anywho! You probably know the drill. I pour this all over your little Ken doll, and he melts into the floor. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?”
It was suddenly rather difficult to breathe. All of this made no sense at all, and if he was smart like he always said he was, he would just walk right out of the room. There was nothing stopping him. But if he tried, he would lose John. He had the sickening realization that he wasn’t sure he could recover from that.
“At least, I know I’ll enjoy it. Probably watch the camera feed for months. Might even post it on youtube. That’d be a kick!” Moriarty widened his eyes comically, stroking John’s hair. Sherlock took a few automatic steps forward, but Moriarty tilted the teflon thermos dangerously, and he froze. “Ah-ah-ah! Not too close, now.”
Sherlock gritted his teeth. “What do you want? You know I can give it to you.”
“I know. But taking it is so much better!”
With a last laugh, Moriarty tilted the thermos to pour. In a flash, a protractor from the nearest desk was in Sherlock’s hand, and he threw it at Moriarty as hard as he could. He didn’t have the best aim – his technique was far superior for hand-to-hand combat than thrown improvised weapons – but it managed to strike on his forearm, digging its point in painfully. It was hardly a major wound, but it was just enough to make Moriarty stumble, and with that, the thermos went tumbling.
Acid was everywhere.
The smell of burning flesh filled Sherlock’s nose. There were splatters of droplets hissing all around the room, on desks, the walls, tiny specks burning holes into Sherlock’s coat even from such a distance. Moriarty was screaming, a high-pitched shriek that wavered and died off into swallowed sobs. The thermos clattered to the floor, and Moriarty clutched his blackening hands to his face, covering a hideous bubbling of white and putrid puce. It was in his eyes, in his hair, in his skin and clothes, and he stumbled blindly for the door, crashing into the walls and furniture as he went. He crumpled to the floor just inside the hall.
The soles of Sherlock’s shoes fizzled against the splashes on the tile as he ran for John. John lay on the ground, acrylic hair dissolving in a puddle of acid. He had patches of him slowly melting; a splash across his shoulder and chest was working through the wool jumper while his arm was speckled in sizzling pockmarks. The acrid scent of melting plastic surrounded him, a miasma of choking fumes and death. Sherlock knelt in a dry patch next to him, hands fluttering like helpless birds, alighting for the shortest instant on John’s knee, his elbow, his cheek.
“John – John, don’t, you can’t - …” But he could. He could no more hear Sherlock than stop what was happening. Wishing couldn’t reverse science. Science was eating John alive. And as much as Sherlock loved science, loved its rigors and its exactness and its constancy, he wanted nothing more than to smash it into little pieces if it would just stop.
“You can’t leave me. I love you. So you can’t leave me,” he concluded thinly. He knotted his fingers in the woolen jumper, then bowed his head until his forehead bumped against John’s stomach.
There was a moment of silence, punctuated only by breathing, before Sherlock raised his head slowly and dropped it very purposefully again onto John’s stomach. No – he wasn’t imagining it! The sound was different somehow; it used to be a hollow tapping noise that echoed dully around the cavern of John’s plastic interior. But now, now it was some sort of strange thud. It gave ever so slightly beneath the pressure of his forehead. It was different, indeed, but how could it be?
Sherlock’s head snapped up, and his fingers raced across John’s body, skipping over patches of acid damage without a thought. It was everywhere, this strange, heavy solidity. He wasn’t hollow anymore. Something was inside John’s body now. Finally, he turned his attention to the holes in his shoulder that were just beginning to wear through the last layer of polymer plastic. There was something beneath it, something tan, the same color as the doll’s skin. Sherlock tugged out a handkerchief and wiped the last of the acid off of the wounds, then brushed his fingers over it inquisitively. It was cold, completely still, no movement or sign of the possibility of it. But it was what it was, without a doubt.
It was flesh.
He scrambled to his feet frantically and raced over to the thermos of acid that Moriarty had dropped. It was damp with acid, unable to eat through the tough teflon, but hanging on persistently nonetheless. He untied the scarf from his neck and folded it around his hands so that he could grasp it, then lifted it. Damn, there was little left. It would have to be enough. He turned back to John.
He swallowed hard, steeling himself. It was a doll. That was it. If he was wrong, then the doll was already ruined. And if he was right - … If he was right, then he wouldn’t regret it. Gritting his teeth, he tossed the remainder of the acid over John. It immediately burst into bubbles, eating through his clothing, slowing down as it reached the plastic skin. It ate entirely through in places, but merely weakened the plastic in other spots.
He waited until the sizzling noise crept to a halt, then knelt again to clean off the weakened acid with his well-abused scarf. Grabbing the edges of the acid holes, he ripped as hard as he could, tearing the thinned plastic back in ragged chunks. He fought the instinct to set them down reverently, instead tossing them aside in favor of moving faster.
He was right. It was skin. It was cold, clammy, worryingly unresponsive to the touch, but it was there. Here was a pectoral muscle, there was a belly button, a clavicle, a sternum. Sherlock tore apart the doll desperately, his determined silence begging the air. John had hair, real hair, soft and mousy and well kept, tucked damply beneath the plastic scalp. His eyes were shut, feathery eyelashes unmoving against his cheeks. Sherlock chose to ignore it pointedly, pulling off whatever he could get his hands on. The rough edges of the plastic were cutting into his skin, but all he could think about was the face and the body that were appearing before him.
It wasn’t until he removed the last piece of plastic that John gasped in a sharp breath of air, eyes snapping open and muscles spasming in shock. Sherlock immediately pulled John up against him, burying his face in John’s hair, his real hair, hands grasping at his shoulders and back, at skin that was soft and warming slowly beneath his fingers. He had fingernails and freckles and his scars and even cracks on his lips, and he was real, and he was perfect. He inhaled slowly, cinnamon and salt and heat, mumbling into John’s hair, “John, John - !”
John allowed Sherlock to hold him for a moment, then slowly, ever so slowly, tried to move. Each and every tiny myosin head in his body grasped at actin filaments, sliding muscle fibers, pulling with sinew at bone, moving the solid, full weight of him. His fingers found their way to Sherlock’s collar, grasping there as if to an anchor. He opened his mouth, and after a moment of mere air, discovered that he could speak.
“Sherlock - ?!”
“Yes! Yes, John, yes.”
“Sherlock, this isn’t – I’m not…. I don’t understand!”
Sherlock’s grip tightened momentarily in John’s hair, before he managed with careful control, “Given the circumstance, I think this might perhaps be one situation in which it would be… forgivable to accept ignorance.” John seemed momentarily at a loss to respond to that.
Sherlock instead pushed John back several inches so that he could better look at his face. He examined John with minute care, the depths of observation only afforded to the most important of puzzles. He brushed a half-disbelieving thumb across John’s cheek, feeling the stretch and give of John’s skin, wrinkles and pores and oils. It was glorious. He was glorious. He brought his other hand up John’s face to join the first, then leaned in and kissed him hard. John froze for a moment before softening, then returning it with matching force.
Above them, the fire alarms went off from the fumes and smoke, beginning to wail a siren call. The fire sprinklers burst, showering them and soaking through clothes and skin. Neither seemed to care.
Their first real case together arrived four days later. Lestrade and the team were already on the scene by the time they arrived. Lestrade was watching Donovan pick through the remains of a charred computer when Sherlock threw open the door, striding in and rubbing his hands together. John stepped in after, more sedately, glancing around the crime scene with a curious eye, hands in his pockets.
“Right then! Break-in, torch-and-burn, discovered by the neighbors. This one was really rather a Neanderthal, wouldn’t you say?”
“Oh, doubtlessly,” John agreed. “No style at all.”
“My thoughts exactly! But more luck to the greater police force of London, I suppose, as Neanderthals tend to leave the most obnoxiously obvious evidence behind.”
Sherlock began rifling carelessly through one of the burnt bookcases, oblivious to the dead silence that had descended over the room. Anderson appeared to have been struck dumb, a mercy that Sherlock doubted he could ever reproduce again, much the pity. Donovan’s mouth was working like a fish, but nothing was actually coming out. Lestrade looked as if his eyes were about to fall out of his head.
“Well? What are you lot staring at? It’s not as if you haven’t seen John before. I believe you have jobs to do, don’t they, DI Lestrade?”
Lestrade stared, shook his head briefly, then cleared his throat. “I… yes?”
“Then go on. You haven’t hired me as a sitter. While I am perfectly capable of solving this crime on my own, and will likely do so, as a matter of fact, it would probably look better for your superiors if you had at least made some attempt to log evidence analysis. Chop chop!”
And if he shared a bit of a smirk with John over his shoulder while the team returned to their tasks, nobody else noticed at all.