Four men are lying on the ground in Afghanistan, more or less seventy kilometers southwest of Camp Bastion. The May sky is, of course, cloudless and blue; one of the men is alive, and by chance he is also face-up. In the dirt beside his right hand lies his radio. Gasping, he closes his eyes against the glare. Please, God, he thinks, let me live, but this isn’t a prayer to God, because the man does not imagine either that there’s a god or that if there were such an entity it would respond to prayer. Things in the world respond to what is done in the world. Right now, his body is responding to the fact that a solid object has passed through its left shoulder, so the man is bleeding out into the sand. Maybe it’s his body that the man is begging. Maybe right now his body might as well be God. What his body does before the MERT arrives will determine whether he continues to mutter meaningless prayers to it. The phrase “Cartesian dualism” floats past him, written in black letters on a green banner that flaps in the wind. He took an introductory philosophy class once, but he’s a doctor. He ought to be able to do something about the banner, sew it down or something, stop it moving. He bleeds and gasps. Come on, come on. He’s fairly sure he can hear the rotors now. He called. Didn’t he call? Please—
Sherlock is coming home after a case, nothing much more strenuous than the average: a night of surveillance and videoing, to establish which security guard was being paid off to look the other way while a hacker slipped into company premises to break into the non-Internet-connected systems where the most sensitive product-development data were stored; the shadowing of the hacker to the public library whose computers he used to communicate with his paymasters; a wait for his own clients’ security team to rendezvous with their police liaison, who will arrest the hacker while he picks up breakfast at Pret before going home for an ill-deserved rest.
Getting out of the cab at Baker Street, Sherlock stumbles, catching himself against the cab door as it closes. His legs feel rubbery with exhaustion. He unlocks the street door, breathing hard, and looks up the impossible stairs.
Sherlock never stumbles.
On the fifth step, his left leg folds under him like paper; he catches himself against the wall. His right leg holds. Sherlock sits on the stairs, frowning. After some minutes have passed, he tests the left leg again. It supports his weight but he has to lead with his right leg all the way up the stairs and by the time he reaches the top that leg is trembling too.
This is the third time.
The first time was at the beginning of April, after a long chase on foot. The second time was a week ago, again after a chase. Those two times, he was able to remain standing, shakily.
Sherlock has to lean against the wall to turn the key in the lock of his flat and push open the door. He makes it to the sofa by steadying himself against the walls; No one can see me, he reminds himself, and takes some comfort from this. On the sofa he pulls off his coat and falls asleep, because he cannot do anything else. When he wakes it’s four in the afternoon and he can stand unsupported again.
There’s nothing. There’s roaring. There’s the uncovered face of a woman, which seems odd but he can’t work out why, and a woman’s voice saying “—under now—” but then she is gone. Then he wakes up and there is light everywhere, and shouting. He tries to make a noise, but fails. He awakens and struggles and falls again. Again. Again.
At last he wakes up properly. Everything has been erased since a moment that seems to have taken place a long time ago, when Aspinall fell down and then they all heard a rifle crack. Aspinall didn’t hear it, though. Realizing this makes him feel sick and scared. Someone is looking down at him. “Captain Watson,” the someone says, gravely, and resolves into a woman wearing a camouflage surgical cap. Out of his dry throat, John pushes air in the form of a yes. She holds a straw to his lips; he suckles at it until he has a voice.
“Do you feel able to talk?”
“Nod, smile, anyway.” He takes hasty inventory: eyes yes, ears yes, feet yes, hands yes — but sodding Christ, his left shoulder—
“You have a PCA pump in your right hand.”
John takes a breath and presses the button; relief swims through him.
“All right. I’m Major Steffens. You’re at Bastion, classed as seriously wounded.” She checks the paperwork in her hand. “Your sister is Harriet Watson? She’s been notified that you’re hurt but your condition is stable."
Not that he and Harriet have spoken in years. He wonders, vaguely, what words she found. Whether she slurred them.
“Your left shoulder armor appears to have come loose, or any road the team that picked you up noted you weren’t wearing it.”
“Trouble with the fastening,” John says.
The surgeon nods. “A bullet from a sniper rifle shattered your humerus and did various other damage to the nearby bones. It managed to miss the large axillary vessels, which is why you’re still with us. We’ve tidied up the shoulder and stabilized your condition. However, you’ll be needing either a hemiarthroplasty or a total shoulder replacement, probably the latter. In addition, there is almost certainly significant damage to the nerves. So you’re for Birmingham. Expect to fly out later today or first thing tomorrow.”
It’s like being smacked into the dirt all over again. “My mates.”
Surgeons are everywhere alike: she doesn’t quite look at him, so he knows the answer before she gives it. He nods as briskly as he can manage, and as soon as she leaves, he turns his head to the side, swallowing hard.
Sherlock considers. As a general rule he attempts, however reluctantly and grudgingly, to meet the needs of the transport. The transport has betrayed him in many ways: By responding sexually to Jim even after his mind revolted. By undermining the benefits to his thinking that his early use of cocaine had provided. By distracting him with hunger and weariness when all he wanted was to be working on a case. Nevertheless, he is obliged to tend it, because in the transport is housed the mind. Sherlock is well aware of the irony that he, materialist that he is, should separate mind from body in this way, but the alternative, to consider them as one, is unacceptable. His mind is safe, his body treacherous. He stares at his calves and admits to himself that the gastrocnemius muscles are somewhat wasted, more so on the left side, and that whatever this is shows signs of worsening. He sends an email to a former client, a neurologist.
“I’d like to locate in London.”
“You’re sure? It’s not where your salary and pension will go furthest.”
“I haven’t many expenses.” And I want to be invisible. (Not because of the cane. Because of the grief.)
“Fair enough. Certainly it shouldn’t be too difficult finding a post. You’re looking to return to civilian emergency medicine?”
Surgery is out of the question, now.
“No.” John’s vehemence surprises both of them. “Sorry. No. General medicine, please. I’m interested in clinic work.”
The placement counselor gives him a long look, but she’s perceptive enough, or at least tactful enough, not to press. John would barely be able to say it, anyway. He used to feel a savage joy in the urgency of trauma surgery and then, after he joined the RAMC, of medicine on the battlefield. The joy has been replaced by a drumbeat of dead friends, dead friends, dead friends. He has a tremor in his dominant hand. He will be happy to see nothing but allergies and sprained knees for the rest of his life.
That’s what he thinks.
Sherlock’s gait is observed, the muscles of his calves inspected, his medical history taken. He’s tempted to leave out the cocaine, but although he believes himself intimately familiar with all the sequelae of prolonged use, medicine isn’t, after all, his area, so he tells the truth. Childhood diseases? Sherlock shakes his head. “I remember none.” Electromyography. Blood tests.
“The thing is,” says Sherlock’s former client the neurologist, a week later, when the results are back, “your symptoms are a perfect fit for postpolio syndrome. If, that is, you had had polio.”
Sherlock’s hands fly up to his mouth. “Oh.” (An iron bedstead. Mycroft has a cane between his knees. Sherlock opens the paper bag Miss Banerjee brought him from the herbalist, and breathes the herbs inside. Someone is stealing, but it’s important not to tell.)
It’s six a.m. in New York City. While the neurologist waits, Sherlock texts Sarita. She doesn’t text back: instead, Sherlock’s mobile rings. “Of course you don’t remember. It was while your mother was working in Nairobi, and you were only five. It turned out you’d had defective vaccine.” And then, because even half asleep Sarita is one of the least stupid people on the planet apart from Sherlock himself, there is a gasp, loud enough for the doctor to hear on the other side of his enormous desk.
At the physiotherapists’, Sherlock makes himself nothing and no one. He speaks only as much as necessary and does his exercises without remark. He does not deduce. Much.
He needs the transport. Without the transport, he can’t solve crimes. The transport has failed him — again — and he loathes it. Loathing and need hold hands tightly, tightly, with white knuckles; Sherlock is obedient and silent through the exercises that stabilize his ankles and knees, that will help (he doesn’t allow himself to doubt) preserve the function of the long muscles of his legs. He keeps his mind as blank as possible. He never misses the twice-weekly appointments, no, not even when Lestrade phones with a case. The exercises are gentle, to avoid overtaxing his too-scanty functioning muscle fibers, so Sherlock never breaks a sweat; with no need to change out of street clothes, he can show up at a crime scene half an hour later than he otherwise would have, as elegant as always in his disarray, telling lies if he needs to account for the extra travel time. Not that he does: no one ever asks where he’s been or what took him so long. The new orthoses are lightweight arrays of carbon fiber. Sherlock could spot them on someone else in a moment, but with his trousers tailored to fit more loosely than he prefers, eyes not his won’t spot them on him.
What, after all, is another secret?
There’s little to interest him in the other patients doing their physiotherapy during the same hours. Most are regulars: the middle-aged woman with sacroiliac pain and bad knees, the elderly man whose left side is weak in consequence of a stroke, the surprisingly young man who’s also had a stroke — yes, that would have been secondary to the sickle-cell anemia … No criminals, no one who looks clever or even, for that matter, halfway alert. During the first session of the fourth week, though, a newcomer catches Sherlock’s eye.
He isn’t sure why, at first. Then he sees it’s the man’s very mildness that has drawn him, as if the man is trying to make himself small; in contradiction to or concealment of … what? The man is of average height, sturdily built, with cropped dishwater hair and, Sherlock supposes, a pleasant enough face. Like Sherlock, he does his exercises (shoulder; bone, muscle, and nerve damage; gunshot wound; add to that the truncated, fading hands-and-face tan: invalided soldier, then) in silence. Unlike Sherlock, he musters a smile for the physiotherapist when he’s done. He walks with a cane but doesn’t do physiotherapy for the leg — odd, that. He looks — the fanciful thought annoys Sherlock even as it crosses his mind — like someone standing erect, by sheer force of will, under a weight too heavy for him.
After the very next session, however, Sherlock looks up from fastening his braces to find a gaze on him, unguarded, curious, and entirely unpitying. At the other end of the gaze is the not-actually-all-that-small-or-nondescript man; in response to Sherlock’s glance he gives a brisk little nod and half a smile, apologetic. Sherlock stands, shaking down his trouser legs, and finds his iciest tone. “Well spotted, Doctor. Postpolio syndrome, quite correct. I contracted the illness in Kenya, when I was five years old, and, yes, I received both batches of adulterated vaccine and was thus left vulnerable to infection. Anything else you’d like to know?”
During this speech the man’s expression has transformed itself into one of astonished delight. He holds up a hand. “Sorry, sorry, it was obnoxious of me to stare. But that was amazing! How did you do that?”
Sherlock snorts. “It’s a physiotherapy clinic — pardon me, you will of course have been aware of that. No one pays more than casual attention to anyone else’s condition here.
“But you were fascinated. Why, then? A medical professional would know that most people of my apparent age cohort who are referred for physiotherapy have vocational or sporting injuries, or were hurt in accidents. But you must have watched as I did today’s round of the exercises meant to preserve muscular function, and perhaps identified the braces as specialized for postpolio joint stabilization. Postpolio implies polio. I look like what I am, a native of western Europe, where polio was essentially eradicated before I was born. How does someone like me come by a case of polio? The question was plain on your face.”
“You called me ‘Doctor.’ But I might as well have been a nurse. Or a physiotherapist, for that matter.”
Sherlock draws back his head and narrows his eyes. There’s always something. “Are you?”
“No, you were spot on.” The man’s smile has taken over his whole face. Soon it will be planting flags on foreign soil. “I’m John Watson. I’m pleased to meet you and I apologize for my nosiness.”
Possibly Sherlock’s ears are ringing. Possibly he himself is the foreign soil upon which that smile has planted a flag. “Sherlock Holmes,” he says, and shakes Dr. John Watson’s extended hand.
And … that’s all. Dr. Watson says, “Well, I’m off. See you next time, I guess?” and stumps out of the changing room, leaning on his cane. Sherlock dismisses him from his mind. It is true that people have occasionally seemed friendly before, but more than a few minutes in Sherlock’s company has put paid to that. He makes sure of it.
Dr. Watson seems to be permanently on the same appointment schedule as Sherlock. He always says hello first, which leaves Sherlock without the option of ignoring him — well, no, Sherlock admits to himself, he could ignore the greeting if he chose to, and put up with a few instances of puzzled repetition for the payoff he should want: the shrug, the dismissive look, an end to these tiresome pleasantries. Instead, he returns the hello. And then, a month after that first conversation, Lestrade texts with a case just as Sherlock steps out the door after his session, and wouldn’t you know it, Anderson is the SOCO on duty, and Sherlock has a flash of inspiration that makes him giddy. He bangs back through the clinic door and straight into the changing room, where Dr. Watson is in the middle of pulling on his pants. Interesting: his legs are symmetrical and the supposedly game one appears unscarred. His penis is sturdy and neat. Irrelevant. He’s already got his vest on, pity that, Sherlock would have liked a look at the site of the wound — anyway:
“You’re not a complete idiot.”
Watson gapes, pants halfway up his hairy thighs. Maybe he is a complete idiot. Dammit. Sherlock hates being wrong.
“You were an army doctor.”
Eyebrows up, head cocked, bit challenging that, double nod. Seems to remember his pants; finishes pulling them up. Stands evenly balanced. So the leg is psychosomatic.
“Seen a lot of violent death, then?”
Nod. Back straight.
“Want to see some more?”
“What. Ah, what are you proposing, exactly?”
“A crime scene.”
“Really. Creating one?”
“No, I—” Sherlock narrows his eyes. “You’re making fun of me.”
That smile, the one Watson gave him when he deduced the man’s train of thought. “No. Well, yes, perhaps just a bit. What about a crime scene, then?”
Oh. Yes, yes, of course. Watson may not be a complete idiot, but Sherlock has been proceeding as if the man had deduced Sherlock as thoroughly as Sherlock had deduced him. “I’m a consulting detective. Scotland Yard calls me when they’re out of their depth, which is any time the pond is deeper than an inch. In this case not literally. Man bludgeoned to death, where did the diamonds go.”
Watson frowns. “He was bludgeoned with diamonds?”
“No no no no no, don’t be stupid, he was bludgeoned with an object suitable for use as a bludgeon.” Sherlock waves his hand: the specific nature of the bludgeon is almost certainly irrelevant. “But there were some diamonds and they’ve gone walkabout. Well?”
“Who could resist being called stupid and invited to a murder scene? Not John Watson, I’ll tell you. Only, give me a tick. I don’t look my best in bra and bloomers.”
Mocking him again. Sherlock draws up all his venom, but is stopped by that full-body smile, which seems to have wrapped itself around him like a shock blanket and is impeding his movements. Meanwhile, Watson has finished dressing and picked up his cane. “Lead on, Mr. Holmes.”
“Sherlock,” says Sherlock, a bit stunned.
After all that volubility, Sherlock says little on the cab ride over, but by the time they arrive John could swear he’s vibrating. Their destination is a straining-for-luxury apartment block, newly developed, glass front, Thames views, fitness center on premises, polished gimcrack construction: home of money managers, up-and-coming stockbrokers, and, apparently, n minus 1 gem dealers. Flat 16A is guarded by a detective sergeant who looks John over warily; she and Sherlock have a snarled exchange about her sex life and his unhealthy interest in murder, which ends in his lifting the crime scene tape and practically hauling John through. Well, that was odd.
The minus 1 is lying facedown in his lounge with his head comprehensively bashed in and a heavy vase lying tritely nearby. “It’s supposed to be personal hatred, isn’t it,” John tries, “overkill?”
Sherlock actually rolls his eyes. “Yes, or the killer panicked — the choice of murder weapon makes it clear this wasn’t planned. Or was not surpassingly clever and didn’t realize he’d got well past the point of enough to make Mr. Tomasello here stay down.”
As his nonexistent forensic skills will be no help to Sherlock, what is John doing here? He’s feeling more than out of place, seeing the frosty reception Sherlock got despite the presumable invitation from the Metropolitan Police. At least the exhausted-looking DI is civil — though: “Sherlock, you’ve got two minutes. I shouldn’t even have you here and you know it.”
Sherlock ignores him, turns in a slow silent circle around the room; John follows his gaze.
Funny, that: there’s a hoover shoved into the corner. “What d’you think, Sherlock, he was expecting a guest, did a spot of tidying first, got caught short when the killer showed up?”
Sherlock’s survey has passed the hoover but now he spins back. “Oh! Brilliant!”
“He did? I am?”
“No no no, of course not.” He dives for the hoover, pulls the canister open, hoists the whole thing aloft: “Yes!”
Everyone in the room stares at him. “Look!” Sherlock cries. “Look at the carpet! Masses of great clomping footprints, yes, but wherever you lot haven’t trod you can see it’s been freshly hoovered.”
General gaping. Sherlock emits a huge “Ohhhhhhhhhh. How do you bear it? How? Look!” He shakes the hoover. “No bag. There is no bag in the hoover. Therefore the diamonds were spilled in the struggle. How many are missing?”
“He checked two dozen out of inventory at his shop.” The DI, Lestrade.
“Two dozen diamonds. Strewn over a white carpet. How do you retrieve as many as possible as fast as possible? You hoover the carpet. And then you take the bag out of the canister, and off you go with your diamonds. Well, not exactly your diamonds, of course.”
So, John thinks, basically you’re looking for someone with a hoover bag full of diamonds.
“Obviously,” Sherlock tells Lestrade, as if reading John’s mind, “you’re looking for a London diamond merchant in financial trouble. If you look very quickly you’ll find him bearing traces of dust from the hoover bag on his clothes and hair, and, if you’re lucky and he has an allergy to mites, he may be sneezing as well. Of course, we can hope for blood spatter on his clothes.”
“Right,” says Lestrade. “And how, of all the diamond merchants our man here knew, which is presumably most of the high-end ones in London, do we quickly identify the one in financial trouble?”
“Check the airlines, Lestrade! The airlines! Start with Emirates, BA, Virgin.”
“All right, Sherlock, explain all that.”
Sherlock tears at his hair. “Place not ransacked. Therefore our killer didn’t have to search the place for the diamonds, and in any case had he found them stored away somewhere after he killed Tomasello they would not have finished by being scattered on the carpet. That must have happened during their struggle. Therefore, diamonds on view. Why? A business meeting. Improbable he’d be meeting someone in his flat to make a retail sale, not when he has, no had, you can’t still have things when you’re dead I’m given to understand, a perfectly adequate retail shop. Therefore, meeting a business colleague. The legal diamond business is intimate, done on trust, et cetera. Hence the informality of the venue. But the business colleague is in financial trouble. Well, he stole the diamonds, didn’t he?
“Now he’s got to flog them, and in a hurry, too. Where? Not Antwerp or any of the other more or less law-abiding diamond centers where he’d have to show provenance. He doesn’t want to get himself murdered, though, so it has to be somewhere with a semblance of government. Not Zimbabwe. I’d bet on Dubai; the diamond trade there is highly corruptible and also safe at the high end. As a starting point you might compare Tomasello’s contacts with the past couple of hours’ ticket sales.”
Lestrade gets on the phone to the Yard for someone to obtain passenger lists. Alas, Tomasello’s mobile is nowhere to be found, so instead of going through his contacts there’s nothing for it but to get the records of his recent calls and texts from the carrier. This goes with surprising speed; John makes a mental note to have been murdered next time he needs customer service. The numbers most recently called or texted belong to: a gem dealer, another gem dealer, the reservations desk at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, a third gem dealer, someone named Anastasia Liveright who says she’s “in public relations” and sounds thrilled to be able to go around telling people that her boyfriend has been gruesomely murdered (“Tell her to cancel the dinner reservation,” Sherlock mutters; John nearly collapses trying to stifle his laugh) and then the first gem dealer, the first gem dealer, the first gem dealer again.
His name is Max d’Orsay Wellington — “Assumed name?” John asks Sherlock; “No, what a grotesque notion; who’d concoct a name like that?”; John thinks, Says the man named Sherlock Holmes, but keeps his mouth shut — and the police, Sherlock and John naturally mingling among them, find him at home with, how cozy, a fire in the grate. Sherlock whirls back toward the foyer, seizes the heavy overcoat hanging there, dumps it onto the fire, and then piles on as many couch cushions as he can grab to finish the job of smothering it. The place fills with the reek of scorched synthetics. “John, water,” Sherlock orders over the expostulations of Lestrade, d’Orsay Wellington, and the assembled multitudes, and what the hell, so John fills two enormous pasta pots he finds in the enormous kitchen; when he staggers back into the lounge, Sherlock has cleared the still-smoking textiles out of the fireplace and is stabbing at the ashes with a poker. D’Orsay Wellington is screaming about a lawsuit. John and Sherlock each empty one of the pasta pots onto the hot ash. Now there’s not only smoke but ash and filthy water everywhere. Sherlock drops to his knees, though not (John keeps feeling entirely inappropriate giggles rise up) before setting down an unused cushion to keep his trousers clean, peers into the fireplace, cries “Aha!,” sticks his left hand into the mess — “Jesus, Sherlock, that must still be hot!” — and comes up with a melted, twisted, discolored ring of beige plastic. Slight though his acquaintance with Sherlock is, John is frankly surprised that he should know what the valve on a hoover bag looks like, or for that matter even that hoover bags have valves. “I think,” Sherlock says, “that if you check the dust in the turn-ups of Mr. d’Orsay Wellington’s trousers against a sample of dust from Mr. Tomasello’s apartment, you’ll find they match nicely.” And then he gets up — John notices how well he disguises the fact that he puts more weight on his right leg than on the left — hands the bit of plastic to Lestrade, dusts off his hands dislodging almost none of the wet ash with which they are smeared, and says, “Come on, John. You’re famished, and there’s a quite good Thai place a couple of streets away.”
Behind them as they go they can hear Lestrade saying, “Right. Mr. Max d’Orsay Wellington, I am arresting you on suspicion …”
“But what about the diamonds?” John asks once they’re outside again. Did he really just go in two hops from a physiotherapy session to the arrest of a murderer?
“I expect they’re in his luggage, unless he decided to keep on being too clever and swallow them. Hm, that’s quite likely, in fact. I wonder who’ll draw the short straw at the Met.”
“Right, I was famished.”
“That’s a very poor joke, John,” Sherlock says, severely, so that now they have to stare at the pavement the rest of the way to the Thai place, because every time one of them catches even a glimpse of the other both of them burst out laughing.
But at the door, Sherlock straightens, nods abruptly, and strides off down the road. “Sherlock, wait!” John trots to catch him up. “Aren’t you going to eat?”
“I wasn’t planning on it, no.”
John opens his mouth, closes it again. Sherlock’s face is the one John sees during their simultaneous physiotherapy — blank and remote. “Come in the restaurant and let me have a look at your hand, at least, before you go. That ash was still hot.”
Sherlock looks at his sooty hand. “Oh. No, I’ll take care of it. If that’s all?”
“Now hold on. I’m Dr. Watson, remember? With a medical degree and everything. Come on, take a minute and save yourself a trip to the clinic and a course of antibiotics.”
Sherlock looks down at John for a long moment before turning back to the restaurant with him.
In the loo, which is thankfully clean, John scrubs his hands, then cools the water to below body temperature and soaps and rinses Sherlock’s left hand. “Really wish I had my kit, or at least exam gloves for this.” He bends close in the muted light of the loo, looking for bits of ash in the burn. “Yeah, mostly first-degree but here, at the tips of your fingers, I expect you’ll see some blistering. That’s got to hurt, Sherlock, fingertips are heavily innervated.”
“I’m aware,” Sherlock says. He hasn’t flinched. He’s watching John closely, head drawn back.
John barely hears him and doesn’t look up. He gets the water a little cooler and positions Sherlock’s hand so the fingertips are in the flow. “Should have done this for you right away, at Mr. Poncy Name’s, before we left. I’m a crap doctor, I am. Let me see your other hand.”
“I didn’t have it in the fireplace.”
“Yeah, even so. … Okay then. Why don’t you stay here, keep running the cool water over the burns, that’s what you’re meant to do for first aid anyway, and I’ll go order us, I don’t know, some dumplings. Then I’ll come back and wash your right hand for you so you don’t have to use your left, and we’ll have a bite, yeah?”
The pause is long enough to make John wonder. “All right.”
John comes back to the loo holding a clean white cotton towel, a sterile packet of gauze, and a roll of surgical tape. At Sherlock’s look: “What? Restaurant kitchen, they must get burns that need care half a dozen times a week. All I had to do was ask. Okay, hold up your burned hand.” He wraps the towel around Sherlock’s palm to catch the dripping water. “Let the fingers air dry, that’ll help keep the burns cool. They’re going to hurt some under the bandaging once that’s on.”
“Do you always do this?”
“Do what?” John has warmed the water and is soaping Sherlock’s right hand.
“Keep up a stream of patter during treatment.”
“No. Only when I’ve an anxious patient,” John replies absently, rubbing at Sherlock’s knuckles. How fine-grained his skin is; John hopes those burns don’t scar. Wait, what did he just say? The little loo seems very quiet. He dares a glance at Sherlock: there’s that remote look. John’s face feels hot; he refocuses on getting the ash off Sherlock’s knuckles. “Sorry, it’s just —”
“Dumplings?” Sherlock interrupts. This is fortunate, because John has absolutely no idea what he was going to say after “Sorry, it’s just.” It’s obvious that, compared with Sherlock, he’s as thick as two short planks, but he also knows, as surely as he knows his own limp is psychosomatic, that his intuition of Sherlock’s anxiety is correct, and that Sherlock really, really doesn’t want John to have registered that anxiety; he feels as though he’s spied on someone naked.
“— Yeah, I ordered shrimp. … There, that’s both hands clean.” As delicately as he can, he pats the last traces of water off Sherlock’s burned hand, then gives him the towel to hold in his left while John bandages up the already blistering fingertips. At last it feels safe to look at Sherlock’s face again. “You know not to break the blisters, right?”
Sherlock might not have been planning to eat, but he does manage to put the food away when it’s set in front of him. Good thing, too, because if anybody idles high and needs calories, John thinks, this is that man. “So you’re — what, a private detective?”
No, no, nothing so mundane as a private detective — a consulting detective, the only one in the world, the one the Met calls when baffled. He invented the job. Well, yes, he does take private clients as well. That would make you a private detective, then, wouldn’t it? John doesn’t say this. He’s tempted to tease Sherlock, tempted to flirt, but something is percolating in the back of his mind that comprises Sherlock’s nearly leaving him at the door of the restaurant and trying to refuse care for his burns, the hostile detective sergeant at Tomasello’s flat, and his own intuition in the loo. Sherlock is a posh and arrogant show-off, isn’t he? Nevertheless, that something in the back of John’s mind says Gently, gently.
Before they part, he makes Sherlock take his mobile number in case he has any trouble with the burns. He’s turning the key in his door at one in the morning when he realizes he left his cane in d’Orsay Wellington’s flat. And he’s not limping.
Sherlock’s hand hurts. It’s distracting. He’s too tired and he can feel the weakness in both legs; it’s an effort to get up the seventeen stairs to the flat. There’s an involuntary flash, himself in two years’ time, say, with forearm crutches, struggling to lower himself to the floor to look at a corpse, struggling to rise. He shuts the image down hard, shuts down the remembered sensation of lying in the dirt of a playing field with Sebastian Wilkes sneering above him. How many more years of work remain to him? And when he can’t do the work, what? Just his mind, spinning tighter and tighter. The obvious thing is to kill himself — so easy to blow out his heart, it needs only a couple of grams and Sherlock always knows where to get cocaine, he can’t help it any more than he can help knowing where his own elbow is — but he promised Sarita. “I loathe you, Sarita Banerjee,” he tries to tell her, aloud, but finds it impossible to complete the sentence. Maybe he could explain how it was all impossible? Perhaps he could make her understand and then she would release him from that infuriating promise.
John Watson said he was a crap doctor and he is. He should have let Sherlock go home as Sherlock meant to do. He should have seen that Sherlock was exhausted and he should have known that the postpolio syndrome would be exacerbated by exhaustion. Why did he insist on bandaging Sherlock’s hand and forcing him to eat? Irrelevant that Sherlock is also not supposed to go long stretches without eating, now that he has to coddle his stupid muscle fibers. John Watson is stupid. Why did Sherlock know all evening exactly where John Watson was in space, the way he knows where to find cocaine and his elbow?
Sherlock falls asleep on the couch, still wrapped in his greatcoat, thinking in fury of stupid, slow, deliberate John Watson, how he picked crumbs of ash out of the burns on Sherlock’s hand.