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prologue

* * *

 

John Watson is left-handed.

He’s tried not to let it affect his life, but as any Lefty knows, that’s almost impossible.

They’d given him the pamphlets in primary school, at Evaluation. The pamphlets that said it was perfectly normal, that 10 percent of the population is left-handed, that it’s possible as a Lefty to have a worthy career and a house and (right-handed) children. One pamphlet had a cartoon image of two stupidly happy big-eyed kids raising their hands, one left, one right: Lefties Are Just Like Everyone Else, it said.

John wondered why he needed a special pamphlet to tell him he was just like everyone else, if he was just like everyone else. No one else got a pamphlet.

It’s not like he comes from a family with outstanding knacks, but the rest of them are all Right; they’ve all got something. His parents are dead now, but his mother could break eggs perfectly, every single time. And his father, who drove a lorry, never once needed to ask for directions in his life. His sister Harry’s knack caused his mum no end of trouble -- and it continues to cause John no end of trouble -- but a troublesome knack has always seemed better than none at all.

“None” is the four-letter word that follows a Lefty everywhere. On a passport, drivers’ license, taxes, any official form: the checkbox. Knack classification: Mental, physical, elemental, incidental, ornamental, judgemental, transcendental, none. Check.

And there are the glances, the knowing, sometimes pitying glances that John absorbs on a daily basis whenever he picks up a pen or a fork. He doesn’t blame anyone, not really. They’re all conditioned to react, even if they’d never admit it. He notices Lefties too, after all.

So he pretends it’s all fine, that he’s never cared about having a knack, because God knows it probably would have been something useless anyway. It would have been folding origami cranes, or whistling Bach underwater. Cussing in five languages, maybe. He knew a bloke in school who had that one.

A truly exceptional knack is rare, far more rare than being a Lefty. That’s what the Evaluation is for: not to weed out the Lefties, but to find those exceptionally rare knacks. It’s not like Lefties need to be weeded out, anyway; it’s usually pretty obvious by primary school, even if some of them do try to fake being Right. John never bothered. He’s never liked the idea of pretending to be something he isn’t. Not to mention that despite his best efforts, John’s right-handed penmanship has always been comically illegible.

John has never overcompensated, not really. But he graduates top of his class, and he’s offered admission to several med schools. He’s aware that no one else in his family has ever been a doctor. And he’s good at it. Very good. Which is fine.

Things are supposed to be better for Lefties, now, anyway. Outreach, a government program that once placed Lefties in low-paying jobs -- with the implication that Lefties couldn’t get better ones -- has been largely defunct since John was a child. But a thin veneer of equality doesn’t hide the truth John absorbs in med school: his career path will not follow the straightforward trajectory of his right-handed classmates. No use pretending it will.

Instead, the Army comes calling, as John knew they would. The Army has always been an unspoken refuge for Lefties -- never mind the whispers that Lefties are more heavily recruited because they’re seen as slightly more expendable citizens. John doesn’t care. It’s in the Army that John finally finds a group of peers, fellow Lefties who don’t care what hand John uses to pick up his fork. His unit flourishes, turns out to be the best of the best. John is oddly comfortable when he’s deployed, far from home in the sweltering, dangerous desert heat. He learns to shoot, and just for a flicker of time, he wonders if he does have a knack after all. Because he turns out to be a damn good shot. A crack shot, in fact.

But it’s not a knack, in the end. The Army gives him a few standard tests; he even talks to a specialist. He’s naturally gifted, yes, but it’s nothing that registers on the knack spectrum in any official sense.

He shoots left, of course. But it’s okay.

* * *

The bullet that sends John home from Afghanistan tears through his shoulder from an incomprehensible distance.

John remembers peering out of the bunker, wondering if a sniper could reach them from some invisible point across the vast desert plain. They’re on the move now, aware of threats in the surrounding area, but there’s no one within range; it’s been deemed safe to move across the sand. John remembers the prickle on the back of his neck as he shrugged on his pack that day. He remembers the sand under his boots and the scent of sweat and gasoline and metal.

He remembers a creeping feeling under his scalp, a sharp tickle at the back of his throat, and the way his imagination flashed images of guns and sights and bullet casings. He had to stop and cough; he was the last out of the bunker. And then: John’s vision blurring into red streaks, an echoing crack across the open plain. His knees hitting sand. His scalp, still prickling as everything tunnelled into a dwindling point of darkness.

They never got the sniper. Half the unit died that day.

John might have made it back to serve in some capacity if it hadn’t been for the infection. He is helicoptered to a hospital, and most of an entire month is a blur of white beds and mumbling faces and nightmarish shadows of the attack replaying itself in John’s mind. John slips in and out of the blur, shoulder throbbing, knowing with a doctor’s certainty that his own body is shutting down.

He remembers a voice, a particular doctor in the hospital. He doesn’t know the doctor’s name, but he can tell she’s a good doctor, like John. A very good doctor. After her voice drifts into his nightmares, things get a bit better. The blur starts to shift into focus, and one day he notices the frayed edges of a blanket on his hospital cot, a swathe of bandages around his still-sore shoulder, and John knows where he is.

But he’s terribly weak. He’s fought off some sort of dysentery on top of an infected bullet wound, and he’s lost nearly two stone. His hands have started shaking.

Then the limp sets in.

“Psychosomatic; no actual physical damage. This happens sometimes after traumatic incidents, and you’ve seen plenty of trauma, Doctor,” the GP explains, and although her smile is polished and cheery, the apologetic crease in her brow tells John all he needs to know. PTSD. Possible mental instability. Even if he recovers from the bullet wound, his time in the Army is over.

They send him back to England.

 

* * *

chapter one


* * *



“Harry. I can’t stay with you.”

John’s tired of this argument, but that’s not going to stop his sister from starting it again, apparently.

“John, I won’t have it. You’re all alone in that ghastly bedsit, you can hardly walk. Why don’t you kip on my couch? I’ll take you out, introduce you around. I can set you up with someone, I know loads of lovely girls. You shouldn’t be sitting around by yourself, in your state --”

“I won’t be your excuse for firing up that knack of yours. Clara’s at her wits’ end, I’m sure.”

“Clara --” Harry’s voice falters.

“Harry.” John sighs. “What’ve you done?”

“She didn’t want me to use it, John, and you know that’s not right. It’s who I am --”

“So you can find parties. Fantastic. Crash a bloody garden party. Or a six-year-old’s princess tea, for God’s sake. You don’t have to use your knack to stay out all hours every night until you can’t remember your own bloody name. Clara loves you, Harry, you can’t treat her as if --”

“John, look. I don’t expect you to understand, right? The way you are. I mean --”

John’s stomach twists. He feels cold. “No,” he says. “No, I don’t expect I do understand,” and hangs up the phone.

* * *

Some nights John wakes up from the nightmares and isn’t sure if waking up is worthwhile.

When he can’t sleep, he cleans his gun.

* * *

John takes a long walk around London each morning. An hour, sometimes two.

When Harry bothers him about his empty days, he tells her he walks because he needs fresh air, because his leg could use the exercise. He doesn’t tell her about the quiet desperation that drives him out of the bedsit, away from the soothing finality of his Sig. She doesn’t need another reason to worry, honestly; the situation with Clara is enough on its own, and Harry’s method of handling stress has always involved an empty bottle.

Sometimes John walks all day, the faces and buses and taxis swirling into a blur as his steps hitch awkwardly against the pavement. It’s no more real than the nightmares that rip his breath to shreds, all part of the same haze, a strange boundless purgatory. Half-asleep, half-awake, fingers wrapped around a gun or a cane. One and the same.

Which is why Mike Stamford’s cheerful shout of recognition startles John as if he’s waking up from a deep sleep.

“John. John Watson!”

They sit side by side on a park bench some time later, sipping hot coffee that soothes John’s raw throat and sharpens the world back into something resembling reality.

Mike is warm, grounding, solid, much as he always has been. Naturally, now he has a wife and kids and a steady job at Barts. Right-handed like most everyone else, although John’s never known him well enough to ask about his knack. It doesn’t matter much. Next to Mike, John feels like a shell, a hollow alien being stranded on a distant satellite.

“I’d ask you to dinner, but we’re going to a wedding reception later,” Mike says. “Wish we didn’t have to, but I introduced the bride and groom, so... obligation, really. Students of mine.”

“No, no. It’s fine. This is great. It’s nice to see you again.”

“I’m glad I bumped into you, John. Let’s do this again sometime? Go for coffee, I mean.”

“That’d be good.”

There’s a heavy pause while Mike sips his drink. “You’ll be in town for a while? Just staying around until you get yourself sorted?”

“I don’t know. I can’t afford London on an army pension.”

“Couldn’t you get a flatshare, or something?”

John shakes his head, gives Mike a wry look. “Come on. Who’d want me for a flatmate?”

Mike's eyes glint, and John gives an unsure smile; and then John’s shoulder twinges, hard, as if to echo his thoughts. He winces, shifts uncomfortably on the bench, but Mike is chuckling, almost as if John isn’t there at all.

“You’re the second person to say that to me today,” he says distantly, and John blinks.

* * *

The lab at Barts is ordinary, much the same as John remembers, but the man inside is not ordinary. He is the equivalent of a bullet tearing through flesh, and John would know.

Mike smiled quite contentedly through their brief meeting, as if everything was perfectly normal. But the air in the lab felt heavy, metallic with magnetic charge, and John felt his life ripping, tearing away into questions, shaping itself around the possibility of this new person.

Sherlock Holmes, apparently.

The man had stared at John and calmly recited all the relevant facts of John's existence: the war, the limp, his left hand -- point being, he'd looked at John and instantly known everything. His piercing blue eyes had locked with John's, and John had felt something strange prickle up his spine, a jolt of adrenaline, pure electric nerve. Like staring into the scope of a rifle: impossible to look away.

And they're looking at a flat tomorrow. A bloody flatshare with this man. John, ordinary, left-handed John, sharing a flat with a man who is either a mad genius, or has an outrageous knack, or both.

Sherlock Holmes is so unusual, so spectacular, that as John shakes Mike’s hand at the front door of Barts, he can't stop the question before it tumbles clumsily out of his mouth.

"Is that his knack, then?"

Mike raises his eyebrows, and his dimples deepen.

"I didn't mean -- " John says hastily, but Mike holds up a hand.

"Understandable," he says. "And I don't pretend to know Sherlock very well, but anyone who meets him knows what he can do. Yes, I'm sure it's a knack of some kind, although I'm not sure how it's officially categorized. He's not any sort of Analyst, that much I can tell you. He gets all of that just by looking at a person. Observation only."

"And you think someone like that would want to share a flat with me."

Mike shrugs, still grinning. Christ, he hasn't stopped smiling the entire time they've been at Barts. It's slightly unsettling.

"He didn't seem opposed to the idea, did he?"

"I guess not. God." John rubs the back of his neck. "Well, thanks, Mike, really. Above and beyond the call of duty."

"Don't mention it," Mike says, giving a wave as he turns back toward the hospital. "Email me, right? Let me know if it works out."

"Yeah," John says, his mind drawn inexorably to the man who'd blotted out the dull fog of the morning with his dark wool coat, the man who'd left his riding crop in the mortuary. "Yeah, will do."

* * *

221b Baker Street feels like home to John before he even gets halfway up the stairs. It's like his entire life has warped into one big foregone conclusion in less than twenty steps. Of course he's moving in; it's cozy and messy and warm and absolutely everything his bedsit isn't, and, most importantly, it's got Sherlock Holmes in it.

John can only sit in the surprisingly comfortable armchair in 221b and watch as Sherlock throws off energy in waves, pulling at John like the tide. He seems more alive than any other person John's ever met, every last molecule charged with purpose.

So when he asks John to go with him -- actually go with him somewhere, John has no idea where, but it has to do with a murder, of all things -- there's no way John is refusing. No way John could ever refuse. In the back of the taxi, John feels light, nearly drunk with the sheer rush of Sherlock next to him. With the sheer improbability of it all.

He's known this man all of twenty minutes, in total.

The sun dips down between the rough stone and glass spikes of London buildings as they sit in silence in the cab, Sherlock soaked in shadow, all dark curls and coat.

"In the lab, you said Afghanistan or Iraq," John says at last.

"Obvious," Sherlock's answer is cool, but quick, as if he's been waiting for John to speak. "Your haircut, the way you hold yourself. You're left-handed. A large percentage of Lefties are either drawn to military service or recruited straight out of school." Then, a list of rapid-fire details: tan lines, the limp (psychosomatic, complete with therapist, of course). John feels his jaw go slack with the intimate assault of information.

"You have questions," Sherlock says, eyes glinting blue in the fading daylight.

John is too genuinely stunned to be anything other than direct. "This is your knack, I take it. But what is it, exactly? How is it categorized?"

Sherlock's mouth quirks. He doesn't seem offended. "Considering I knew your knack status from a moment’s observation, it seems only fair that you should know mine." His eyes flick, once, to John's left hand. "My knack is difficult to explain. The closest way to describe it would be... deduction. The ability to draw conclusions, to connect the dots between disparate bits of information. But it doesn't all come easily. I have to work at it. To observe." He looks out the window. "And it's... not categorized."

"Not categorized." John swallows. This is almost unheard of.

"Believed to be unique, yes." Sherlock turns back, regards John with a measured look. "Problem?"

John realizes he's been staring. He exhales quickly, shakes his head. "No. No problem. It was just -- that was brilliant. Amazing."

Sherlock's eyes glow, corners crinkling. "You think so."

"Yeah. I mean, can you -- could you do a bit more?"

This earns John a genuine, shy grin. John is baffled. It's almost as if Sherlock is rarely praised for this extraordinary ability. Impossible.

"Your brother," Sherlock says. "Your brother has a drinking problem. Look -- give me your phone."

* * *

It comes as no surprise to John that Sherlock abandons him at the crime scene.

It makes more sense, honestly, than Sherlock inviting him there in the first place. It seems perfectly reasonable that a man capable of deducing a woman's adultery habit from the state of her jewellery should realize that he's brought an entirely useless third party to a classified Scotland Yard location.

John limps down the endless staircases in the abandoned house feeling invisible. Members of DI Lestrade's team shrug past him with equipment and cameras as John's cane thumps against the creaky floorboards. Back to the bedsit; wait to hear from Sherlock, perhaps, although John's not counting on it. Perhaps this was a test of some kind, to see if John could be useful in Sherlock's line of work? John can't imagine he passed, unless offering a single obvious observation and a handful of glowing compliments qualified as usefulness.

All things considered, though, the day was a brilliant distraction from John's usual routine. The reality of the drab bedsit starts to encroach on John's thoughts, the memory of dull beige carpet starting to erode the bright hour spent in Sherlock's company. It was too good to be true, really. And if he'd let himself get a bit carried away with the fantasy of living with Sherlock -- well, that was the only damage done. Alone, at the end of it: utterly unsurprising.

The ringing phones, the security cameras, the black Jaguar that slides to a halt to pick him up -- all of that is a surprise.

The man standing alone on the slick, glossy floor of the warehouse is leaning on an umbrella; he regards John with an oily stare. John's neck prickles in suspicion as this odd, dapper penguin of a man gives him a searching look that feels almost as if John is being X-rayed.

John's left hand clenches, unclenches. He waits for the man to speak.

"Dr John Watson," the man says, syllables dripping with polish. "Interesting."

"Not really, no," John says, squaring his shoulders. "If you think so, you've probably got the wrong man."

Umbrella Suit raises an eyebrow. "I never get the wrong man," he says smoothly. "What can you tell me about Sherlock Holmes?"

"Almost nothing. Met him yesterday. He invited me to look at a flatshare."

"And you’ll take it, I assume."

"How is this any of your business?"

"Everything about Sherlock Holmes is my business, Dr Watson. And now, it seems you fall under that category."

John lifts his chin, looks this man in the eye. "What is it you want from me, exactly?"

"You may have already gathered this, Doctor, but Sherlock Holmes has no friends. And yet... after meeting him yesterday, you're moving in with him, and now you're solving crimes together. Curious."

"How do you know I'll be moving in with him?"

The man gives John another long, studied look, sweeping from John's worn oxfords to his close-cropped haircut. It's more than slightly unnerving. John waits, eyes fixed straight ahead, and says nothing.

Umbrella Suit, brow furrowed, seems to be satisfied with whatever his gaze has revealed. He smiles placidly. "I imagine people have already warned you to stay away from him, but I can see from your left hand that's not going to happen."

John swallows against a surge of biting anger. He grips his cane tightly. "Bit rude, don't you think?"

Another simpering smile. "Apologies. I was not referring to your left-handed status, merely that you have a tremor in your left hand. Your therapist noted it too." He holds up a familiar bound notebook that John has only seen in his therapist's hands. During their private appointments. Jesus. John feels his entire body go rigid.

“Hold out your left hand, please.”

"Who the hell are you?"

"Your left hand, please, Dr Watson."

John's phone chirps once, in his pocket.

John Watson holds out his left hand, the hand he tries not to resent. Right now, he thinks, if he were right-handed, he might have some sort of defence against this man. Some sort of spectacular trick. In another life, he might have been like Sherlock; he would stand here and take this man apart with the power of his mind. But he's got nothing.

His hand is perfectly steady.

The text is from Sherlock Holmes.

* * *

Sherlock claims he likes company when he goes out, which is interesting, really, for someone who says he doesn't have friends. He does like to talk to the skull on the mantelpiece. John figures he can fill that role without much effort.

In the course of standing in for Sherlock's skull, John abandons his cane to chase a cab through London's back alleys, moves into 221b, and kills a man.

It's been a while since John has killed anyone, but the decision takes shockingly little thought on John's part. There is only one impulse: Sherlock is about to die. Every fiber of John's consciousness flares into focus, soldier reflexes humming high in his veins as his vision narrows to a single point. It's a good shot. It's actually a breathtaking shot, a fatal hit through two separate panes of glass, but John doesn't stick around to see the results. He knows as soon as the cabbie crumples, and he's gone before Sherlock can turn around.

As his feet echo through the slick, empty hallways he hears his heart pound and feels his legs work, both legs, his body tuned to its familiar military frequency. No pain, no limp, just a clear head and the zing of adrenaline and the comfortable grip of a gun in his hand. His left --

No. His right. His gun is in his right hand.

John skids to a halt outside a toilet and tries the door; it's open. He flicks on the lights, which buzz an uneven undertone as he stares at his reflection in the mirror.

He stares back at himself, reflected. He raises each hand. His mirror image has it wrong, anyway. Left is right. Right, left. But he's not wrong: his gun is definitely in his right hand. He must have been in such a hurry to take the shot that he didn't even realize which hand he was shooting with.

Hurriedly, John clicks on the safety and shoves the Sig in the back of his trouser waistband. He washes his hands in the sink under the greenish-yellow institutional lighting and pumps out a generous handful of nauseating pink almond-scented soap. He scrubs, hard, left and right tangled together. Maybe he was mistaken. Maybe it was nerves, PTSD. A particularly vivid hallucination. He flexes his hands under the stream, shuts off the tap, and flicks off the lights.

He's been alone for months, days stretching into endless purgatory, a numbing sameness that always ends in nightmares. And then, in the space of a day, he's met Sherlock, gotten tangled in a murder investigation, and shot a man without even thinking about it. Right-handed, no less.

Left, right; John doesn’t care. Tonight John would have shot that cabbie with a gun between his teeth if it had been necessary.

He jogs downstairs, out the rear door of the empty building. He's alone. He can see reflections of flashing police lights on the uneven bricks of the alleyway; Lestrade's brought his team.

John leans against the wall and catches his breath. He shifts from one leg to another, marvelling that his weight is supported evenly. Nothing gives way.

He straightens up, tugs down his jumper, and strolls out between the police cars, thankful for once to be invisible.

* * *

Umbrella Suit is Sherlock's brother. Stranger things have happened.

For one, Sherlock wants to get dinner. With John.

They walk in companionable silence towards Baker Street, Sherlock's tall, dark form a comfortable presence at John's shoulder. As if there has always been a Sherlock-shaped hole next to John that has only just now been filled.

The Chinese restaurant is, as advertised, delicious. They've eaten their way through two plates of appetizers and have just started on the wonton soup when Sherlock abruptly puts down his spoon and leans back in his chair, steepling his fingers.

"Your sister's drinking," he says. "It's got something to do with her knack."

John finds it hard to swallow his bite of wonton. His eyes water with the unexpected gulp of soup. "Now that is -- How did you know?"

"When you talked about your sister earlier, in the cab, you kept flexing your left hand. I've noticed that other topics of conversation don't trigger this response, so it's possibly a stress-induced reaction, maybe something that's subconsciously linked to your feelings. Since you're left-handed, a knack issue starts to look likely. So your sister's marriage troubles, caused solely by her drinking habit? Maybe not that simple. Maybe it's somehow linked to a knack, and since you don’t have one, hers is the most likely culprit."

John tries hard not to look utterly gobsmacked and fails.

Sherlock studies John's slack-jawed amazement and lifts an eyebrow. "Am I right?"

"Christ." John sits back in his chair. "Yeah, you are. Bloody amazing."

Sherlock's mouth twists. "You've expressed that sentiment already."

"Bears repeating. Still no idea how you do that."

"As with anything, some days it comes more easily than others. Had a hunch just now. I'll admit it was a bit of a shot in the dark."

"And you said I was a good shot."

Sherlock smiles. He leans forward, chin on folded hands. "Your sister's knack, though."

"Oh. Right." John sighs. "Pain in the arse, is what it is. My dad never got lost, could always find his way home, or to wherever he was going. Harry can find places, too. Only she has a talent for finding... parties."

"Parties?"

"Yeah, social gatherings of any kind, but the better the party, the better Harry is at finding it. Or, the better the party is at finding Harry, more like." John shakes his head. "Wasn't so bad when she was little, except she'd disappear, you know, run off down the road if another kid had a birthday, things like that. She still disappears. Never stopped doing it."

"Harry grew up, and so did the parties."

John sighs. "Exactly."

"And she won't stop, is that it? Doesn't want to stop using her knack. Understandable."

John feels his jaw clench, and he swallows. "Not understandable to me, but I guess it wouldn't be."

A weighty pause. "This is why you won’t stay with her."

"This is why we've never gotten on, yes. Whenever I visit, she gets even worse. Wants to -- show off, I dunno. She’s never been able to resist rubbing it in, that I’m -- you know.” John gestures faintly with his left hand. “Clara got fed up too. About two months ago."

Sherlock hums in understanding. They sit in silence broken only by the clink of silverware and glasses in the half-empty restaurant. John prods a wonton with his spoon until he works up his nerve to ask the question burning a hole through the rest of his thoughts.

"You're, er -- okay with this. With me. Moving in."

"Why shouldn't I be? I asked you to."

"Not -- not exactly," John says. "You told Mrs Hudson I'd take the flat."

"I was right, though."

"Yes, but -- I'm not -- I mean. You've got your skull," John finishes lamely. "You hardly know me."

"You hardly know me," Sherlock counters.

"I don't really need to." John stirs his soup. He's not quite sure how to express the difference between an evening with Sherlock and a night alone in his old bedsit. He's not sure he has words to do it.

"I think your work on the cabbie's given you a bit of a leg up. The skull has no aim whatsoever."

John's eyebrows shoot up, and he looks up at Sherlock. Sherlock is grinning.

John grins back. There’s a long pause.

“What are you so happy about, then?”

Sherlock’s grin widens. “Moriarty.”

The waitress puts down a plate of steaming chow mein between them, but it goes unnoticed.

* * *