John woke up with only one thought in his head, a thought that stayed firmly in place through his shower, drummed against his mind while he dressed, and refused to budge while he was having breakfast.
Sherlock killed himself a year ago today.
Technically, it should have been Sherlock faked his suicide a year ago today, but John still found it difficult to get his head around that after so many months spent saturated with grief. It still felt real, even after Sherlock had been back for over a month.
He'd booked the day off work months ago, long before Sherlock had arrived home. After breakfast, for want of anything better to do, he sat down with his laptop to check his email but he couldn't keep his attention off Sherlock as he huffed around the flat. He was hoping to see some sign that Sherlock had realised the significance of the date but apparently, he was far too caught up in sulking over the lack of interesting cases to notice the anniversary.
“I don't know what's wrong with criminals lately,” he said, flinging himself backwards onto the sofa. “Nothing even a little bit clever! There hasn't been anything truly worth my time since-”
He cut himself off, but John could hear the end of sentence as loudly as if he'd kept speaking.
John paused, wondering if Sherlock had censored himself because he'd suddenly become aware of the date, but the expression on Sherlock's face was instantly recognisable, at least to John, as I shouldn't admit to having enjoyed any part of Moriarty's reign of terror rather than a year ago today I played one of the cruellest tricks possible on my supposed best friend.
Anger rose up in John, the same anger that he had been suppressing since Sherlock's return one month and four days ago, which was another date his brain wouldn't stop keeping track of. He drew in a long breath through his nose and then let it out his mouth, settling the feeling back down. What was the point in being angry with someone who would never understand the reasons behind it, let alone apologise? Since he'd come back, Sherlock had shown absolutely no sign that he had any idea how over-the-line it was to fake your suicide in front of your best friend. He'd given John a brief explanation of why he'd jumped, a longer explanation of how he had pulled it off, and left it at that. He'd settled back into 221B as if he'd never left, apparently having decided that the events were irrelevant and not worth remembering.
John had spent those first few days torn between joy at having him back and blinding anger at the deception, all mixed up with a whole host of other emotions that seemed to change hourly. In the end, it had just seemed easiest to fall in with just ignoring the whole thing had happened. It wasn't as though he wasn't already ignoring certain other feelings about Sherlock, after all. Repressing his anger would be nothing compared to repressing less-than-platonic affection, surely?
He hadn't realised just how long the anger would linger, though. Today was a case in point; just knowing that Sherlock hadn't even stopped to think that the date might affect John was enough to make him feel as if his blood was boiling in his veins. He could feel his hands tingling with the desire to shake Sherlock and his throat filling up with angry words he wanted shout at him. Words about just how it had felt to watch his best friend plummet to his death, and how much worse it was to think they had done it deliberately, that they had felt their life was so awful that they had to end it. John couldn't count the hours he had spent going over everything he could have done or said to make Sherlock realise that he was worth so much more than his reputation, and that death was never the answer.
“It feels like my whole brain is atrophying from lack-of-use,” moaned Sherlock. “How is anyone meant to stand this?”
John thought about spending whole days just sitting in his chair, staring at nothing, while the memory of Sherlock's body toppling through the air repeated itself endlessly in his mind's eye. A few days without a case was nothing compared to that.
This was no good. If he stayed here, feeling like this, he was going to explode. He needed to get out of the flat.
He shut his laptop down and stood up. “Going for a walk.”
Sherlock made a pathetic noise, tipping his head back so that he could keep John in view, exposing the long, pale line of his neck. John wasn’t sure if he wanted to lick it or choke it more. Both, probably. He could bite his anger into it with his lips, leaving red marks to prove he’d had some impact on Sherlock, even if it hadn’t sunk below the surface.
“You can't leave me alone when everything is so boring,” whined Sherlock.
John thought about being left alone for nearly eleven months and about how dull and empty his life had been without Sherlock in it. “I'm sure you'll cope.”
He headed for the door, but was cut off by footsteps hammering up the stairs.
Sherlock sat up, his face transforming with excitement. “A client! You'll stay for this.”
John had to bite his tongue to stop himself from yelling with frustration.
The door burst open to reveal an extremely panicked-looking woman. “Sherlock Holmes?” she asked. “You have to help me! I’m Jill McFarlane. I’m in desperate need.”
Sherlock looked her over with a quick glance. “You look it,” he said, with far more glee than was called for. “Sit down and tell me all about it. Shut the door, John.”
John paused for a moment by the door, still tempted to go out of it, but the lure of a case was too much. He shut the door and returned to his chair while Jill McFarlane collapsed into what was usually Sherlock's chair. “You don't recognise my name, do you?”
“No,” said Sherlock. “Other than that you're single, a shop assistant, a gambler, and asthmatic, I know nothing about you.”
John had reached the stage with Sherlock's deductions that he was usually able to locate the observations that had led to them, particularly when they were easy ones like that. Jill McFarlane wore no wedding ring, had a Debenhams name badge and a couple of scratch cards sticking out the top of her handbag, and was breathing with a distinctive wheeze after her run up the stairs. None of it was particularly startling to him, although he caught Sherlock glancing at him as if looking for approval. John resolutely gave him no reaction.
Jill was far more impressed. “Oh, wow,” she said. “You are as good as they say! Please, you have to help me. Let me explain my situation – if they come to arrest me before I get through it, you have to make them let me finish. You need to clear my name.” She glanced over her shoulder as if expecting hoards of police to burst in at any moment.
“Arrest you?” said Sherlock, sitting forward as his eyes lit up with interest. “Fascinating. On what charge?”
“Murder,” said Jill, with desperation.
Sherlock made an extremely pleased noise. John glared at him until he plastered on a falsely sympathetic look instead.
“It's been on all the news sites already,” said Jill. “Especially the tabloid ones – The Sun won’t leave me alone. There was a murder at Lower Norwood last night, and all the evidence points to me. I came straight here when I saw about it, but I'm sure I was spotted at London Bridge and followed. Oh god! They're probably already on their way to arrest me!”
“Laptop,” Sherlock demanded, holding out his hand. John glared at him. Sherlock narrowed his eyes. John resolutely sat further down, trying to make it very clear that he wasn't moving to pick up Sherlock's sodding laptop from the table barely a metre from where he was. Sherlock huffed out a sigh and held his hand out slightly higher, as if that would make a difference. John just glowered.
“Oh, for-” muttered Jill, and got up herself to hand Sherlock his laptop. Sherlock looked briefly startled and then turned a betrayed look on John. John cleared his throat, embarrassed to have been caught out in such a childish moment of stubbornness, even if it was Sherlock who had started it.
Sherlock didn't bother thanking Jill. Instead, he just started typing, no doubt looking for the news story she had mentioned.
“Thanks,” John said for him as Jill sat back down. The look she gave him in reply was exhausted, and he thought that they should probably try to avoid taxing her patience too much. Maybe he should be offering tea.
Sherlock found the relevant story before John could speak.
“'Is this bikini babe hiding a murderous heart?'” he read.
“They stole that photo off my Facebook page,” interrupted Jill. “They’re not allowed to do that, are they?”
“There’s nothing to stop them. You put in the public domain,” said Sherlock, and then read on. “'Jill McFarlane (23) is wanted in connection with the murder of Joanna Oldacre (57) of Lower Norwood. Ms. Oldacre is feared dead after police discovered she was missing late last night.
“'At approximately 3.14 last night, a fire was reported at Deep Dene House, where Ms. Oldacre lived in the South Wing. Firemen attended the scene and extinguished the fire, and discovered human remains amongst the ashes. At the same time, it was discovered that Ms. Oldacre's rooms were empty and her bed had not been slept in. Police officers are looking for the whereabouts of Jill McFarlane, a shop worker, whose umbrella was found at the scene and who was reported to have met with Ms. Oldacre late last night. If anyone knows her whereabouts, they are asked to contact Scotland Yard immediately.
“'What possible motive could this attractive young woman have had for such a terrible deed? Jill McFarlane, shown here enjoying a Mediterranean island holiday, has been described as bubbly and vivacious.'” Sherlock made a face. “And the rest is tabloid nonsense. This was posted very early this morning. How have you avoided being arrested so far?”
“I live in Blackheath with my dad,” said Jill. “By the time I'd left Lower Norwood last night, it was way too late to get home. I found a Travelodge and then headed to work from there this morning. I only saw the news reports when I was on the train and I realised I was likely to get arrested the moment I got to work. I came here instead. Please, Mr. Holmes, you have to- oh god, they're here!”
She jumped up as two cars pulled outside the flat, red and blue lights flashing through the window. The doorbell rang violently and she started, looking around as if for an escape. “Shit, shit! They're going to arrest me! You have to make them wait until I've told you my side of the story. I can't go to jail without knowing I've got someone working for me on the outside, not when the papers are being so awful!”
“That’s what they tend to be like,” said Sherlock, shutting his laptop and putting it to one side.
John felt himself twitch at the reminder of the witch hunt just before Sherlock had jumped.
Jill cast a wide-eyed look at Sherlock. “You understand, right? You’ll help me?”
Mrs. Hudson opened the door downstairs and heavy boots pounded up the stairs. A moment later, Lestrade burst in, followed by two uniformed officers.
“Jill McFarlane?” he asked. “I'm here to take you in for questioning in regards to the murder of Joanna Oldacre.”
“Oh god,” she said, turning panicked eyes on Sherlock.
Sherlock let out a long sigh. “Lestrade, she was about to give me her account. I'm sure you can wait ten minutes before marching her off.”
Lestrade gave him a hard look. John wasn't the only one who hadn't forgiven Sherlock quite yet, and the official stance at the Yard was still that officers shouldn't work with Sherlock. That was the main reason why Sherlock hadn't had a proper case since he'd come back.
John pictured how Sherlock's mood was likely to disintegrate and poison the rest of the day if he got shut out of the case at this point, and reluctantly stepped in. “Come on, Greg,” he said. “It won't hurt. You'll need to hear it at some point anyway.”
Lestrade let out a sigh. “Oh, fine,” he said. “I'll be staying though, and anything you say will be going on the official record,” he warned Jill.
“That's fine,” she said. “Thank you. I promise, what I am about to say is the absolute truth.”
Lestrade raised a sceptical eyebrow, but sat down on the desk chair that wasn’t stacked with newspapers to listen.
The two uniformed officers stood awkwardly in the doorway, glancing at the only free seat in the room, which was next to Sherlock on the sofa. Sherlock subtly shifted to be closer to the middle, widening his stance and leaving his dressing gown draped across the cushions in a clear marking of territory.
John took pity on the officers and waved them at the kitchen. “There are more chairs in there,” he said. “Just don't touch any of the equipment.”
“Right you are,” said one of them, popping in to grab himself a chair.
“We've heard the stories,” added the other as he followed him. Sherlock looked rather satisfied at that, as if having a reputation for filling kitchens with safety hazards was something to be proud of.
“Right,” said Jill when everyone was settled and staring at her expectantly. “Well, I suppose I should start by saying that I'd never met Joanne Oldacre before two days ago. I knew of her, because my parents had mentioned her as I grew up. She shared a flat with my mum for a year or two before she inherited Deep Dene House and, um, she dated my dad for a bit. Before he got with Mum, of course. At any rate, I was very surprised when she came into my shop the day before yesterday, and even more surprised when she told me why. She wanted to leave me everything in her Will. She had a draft of it with her, and she showed it to me. Actually - hang on - I think I've still got it here.”
She reached into her bag and pulled out some crumpled bits of paper, which she smoothed out and handed to Sherlock. He glanced at them and then nodded at her to continue.
“I asked her why she’d picked me and she just said that she didn't have any children or other relations of her own, but that she still remembered my parents fondly and had heard I was a decent sort. I was really excited – it's a lot of money, and all the property as well. I mean, I’m just a shop assistant, I wasn’t ever expecting that much money. She waited until my shift finished, then we went to a solicitor who sorted it all out for her.”
“Just like that?” asked Sherlock. “Usually these things take longer than one short visit.”
Jill frowned. “I don't know. I’ve never had enough money to bother with a Will. Joanna was in with him for ten minutes or so, then they got me in to witness it and we were done.”
“Interesting,” said Sherlock. “Go on.”
“Right, well, she said she wanted to get to know me a bit – which seemed fair under the circumstances – and that she wanted to go over the details of the estate with me. A company leases most of the house and all the grounds from her, and some of the details are a bit fiddly. She wanted to make sure I understood it all, so she asked me to visit her, where she could get all the paperwork out and we could go over it. That seemed like a good idea, even if I wasn’t sure I’d understand it all. I thought I should try though, even if I had to get my dad to go through it again after. We arranged that I'd come to dinner at nine last night.
“So, I went out there. I was a bit late; the bloody trains were all delayed. I was let in by one of the staff of the company that use the house to run couples retreats. Then-”
“Which staff member?” interrupted Sherlock.
Jill stopped. “Um, I think he said his name was Chris,” she said. “Maybe Carl? He said he was the general manager.”
“Chris Greenstock,” supplied Lestrade.
“Yes, that was it,” said Jill. “Does it matter?”
“He's the one who told the police you were there,” said Sherlock. “I don't know, do you think that matters?”
“Well, I was hardly going to keep it a secret,” said Jill. “I'm an honest person, Mr. Holmes.”
“How prosaic,” said Sherlock. “Go on.”
Jill gave Sherlock the disbelieving look that people used after a few minutes in his company, the one that meant she was trying to work out if he was deliberately being that rude or if he just didn't realise how he was coming across. After a moment, she continued.
“We had dinner, and then she took me to her study and we went over all the documents to do with the property. It took ages; I didn’t get some of it at all. I thought she was going to get impatient with me but she was so nice, she just kept explaining it until I got it. By the time we were done, all the lights in the rest of the building were out. She let me out of her French windows because the entrance would have been locked by then.”
“Were the French window curtains open?” interrupted Sherlock.
“Um,” said Jill, clearly having to think back. Sherlock let out an impatient sigh. “Uh, yes, yes I think they were. I couldn't find my umbrella, but she told me not to worry about it, it wasn't raining, and she told me we were bound to see a lot more of each other. That's all I knew until I read about it this morning. I didn't kill her – you have to believe me!”
“Right,” said Lestrade. “Well, if you’re innocent, you’ve got nothing to fear. We want to find the truth just as much as you do.”
Sherlock let out a snort. Lestrade shot him a look and there was an awkward pause during which everyone was clearly thinking the same thing.
A year ago, John thought, and the emotions that Jill’s arrival had pushed aside began to rise up again. A year and a day ago, they’d all been in this room together so that Lestrade could take Sherlock in for questioning.
He pulled in a ragged breath and then had to stand up to escape the moment.
Sherlock’s head snapped around to stare at him and John plastered on an apologetic expression. “Sorry, excuse me,” he said, and escaped to the bathroom.
He sat on the toilet for a minute or two, taking deep breaths, then flushed it, washed his hands, and headed back to the sitting room to find that Jill and the constables had disappeared, and Sherlock and Lestrade were having an argument.
“Lestrade, don't be so-”
“No,” interrupted Lestrade. “I've told you this, Sherlock. There are strict instructions about letting you get involved with any of our cases. If you're seen anywhere near this investigation, I'll be the one getting it in the neck. I'm doing the best I can to get it sorted, but it's taking time. If you interfere with this, it'll set back all the progress I've made.”
“By 'interfere', I suppose you mean 'solve',” said Sherlock. “I thought the police were meant to want to uncover the truth, not hide behind 'procedure'.” He said the last word in a deeply scathing voice.
“I do,” said Lestrade. “That's why I've been working so hard to get them to let you back in, but you have to prove you can follow the rules, and messing about with this case will ruin that. I just need a couple more weeks to get them onside, and then I can consult you again. You need to stay in the background until then. If you've got anything on this, then tell me and I'll look into it, but you can't be seen investigating.”
Sherlock let out a very long sigh, and then gave a short nod. “Fine,” he said. Lestrade's shoulders slumped in relief.
“Make sure you go and interview Jill's father, will you?” said Sherlock. “He knew Oldacre in his youth, there might be something there.”
“I'll go myself,” said Lestrade. He gave John a nod goodbye and left.
Sherlock let out a disconsolate sigh and slumped onto his side, sprawling back into the position he’d been in before Jill arrived. “I'm not sure what's worse: no case at all, or a case that I'm only allowed to glimpse from the sidelines.”
“It'll be worth having been on the sidelines for a bit once Lestrade gets his bosses to agree to let you consult officially,” John reminded him.
“Yes, yes,” said Sherlock. “That's the only reason I'm not already on my way to Blackheath. Doesn't stop it from being completely hateful, though.”
He curled up on the sofa in his classic sulking pose. John looked at him, wondering what right he thought he had to sulk over this when he’d faked his own death a year ago and left John alone.
Not helpful, he told himself, and escaped the flat to go on the walk he’d been planning before Jill McFarlane turned up.
He spent over an hour walking aimlessly around London, trying to get his head back in order.
He looked up to find his feet had taken him, on automatic, to the graveyard where Sherlock’s grave had been. His headstone was gone now, but John knew exactly where it had stood. He stared at the empty place for several minutes, then took a deep breath and turned around again. This wasn't getting him anywhere.
When he got back to the flat, Sherlock didn't look as if he had moved. He looked up at John's arrival, eyes tracking rapidly over him, and John waited for some pronouncement about where he'd gone and what he'd done, but Sherlock just frowned and slumped his head back down.
“Yes, I do want a cup,” he said.
John was about to make tea and he had been about to ask Sherlock if he wanted one as well, but hearing the lazy arrogance in Sherlock's voice made him abruptly change his mind.
“Good for you,” he said, then turned around and went up to his room instead. Let the bastard make his own sodding tea.
She was a cunning and malignant witch, and she always was, ever since she was young. I broke it off when I heard she'd set a cat in her aunt's aviary, just to see what would happen. When I started seeing Carol – my wife – she told us that she would see us both rot in hell. She set all the things of mine that I'd left at hers on fire, and then sent me all the photos she had of us together, but she'd scratched my face out with a knife first. It was horrific. Carol moved out of the flat as quickly as she could, and I spoke to the police, although I never bothered getting a restraining order.
Lestrade pointed out that she seemed to have forgiven them both by the end, as she'd left all her money to their daughter, but Geoff wasn't convinced.
She was a crazy bitch. Neither I nor my daughter want anything from her, alive or dead.
John thought that Geoff's hatred for Joanna was only making the case against Jill worse. If she'd heard her parents talking about Joanna in such a way, surely she'd been predisposed to hating her?
He read it over one last time and then went downstairs to make sure Sherlock had seen it. Halfway down, he heard Sherlock's violin start to play and when he got to the sitting room, Sherlock was stood in the window, playing in the frenzied way that meant he'd hit a stumbling block. His laptop was open on the desk, showing the email from Lestrade. Clearly, he hadn't seen much more in the interview than John had.
John watched him play for a few minutes, watching the movement of his shoulders and back as he swept the bow back-and-forth, before he realised he was mooning again and went to make the cup of tea he'd been craving since he got home instead. He made one for Sherlock as well and then settled down to listen to him play.
A year ago, I'd have done anything to be able to hear this, he thought, remembering how alone he'd felt that first, terrible night after Sherlock's suicide. He'd sat in his chair for nearly seven hours without moving, unable to think beyond the memory of Sherlock's broken body and all the recriminations he was already starting to heap on himself. Why had he left him alone? Why hadn't he made sure Sherlock knew how loved he was, and how much there was for him to stay alive for?
Sherlock didn't play for long before he put the violin aside in favour of the tea.
“Thank you,” he said after he'd taken a sip.
John raised an eyebrow. “I'm sorry, was that actual manners? From Sherlock Holmes? Are you feeling okay?”
Sherlock made a face at him. “If you're going to be sarcastic, I won't bother in future.”
John snorted. “Yeah, that'll be the reason,” he said. “It won't be because you've completely forgotten politeness exists.”
“Politeness,” said Sherlock with a sneer. “Waste of time.”
Like sending a quick text saying 'By the way, not actually dead. SH' would have been? thought John and took a careful breath. Enough. He needed to stop letting this anger control him and move past it, at least for today.
“Well then,” he said, “I suppose we'll have to talk about the case instead. Go on, what did you get from Lestrade's email that I missed?”
Sherlock made a face. “Almost nothing,” he said. “Lestrade sent me the initial forensics report as well and there are definite traces of human organic material in the ashes from the fire. They also found a handful of buttons, ones that are identical to those on the cardigan Joanna Oldacre was reportedly wearing that evening. It’s so frustrating! There must be something they’ve missed, it’s just too distant for me to see it.”
“You can't investigate too closely,” John reminded him.
Sherlock waved an impatient hand. “I know, I know. No getting in the way of the police until they give me permission, even though that could mean an innocent person ends up in prison.”
“It's only for a bit longer,” John reminded him.
The scowl on Sherlock's face only deepened at that. “A bit longer is all it takes to make a case cold. The evidence will all have disappeared.”
There was nothing John could say to that and they sat in silence for a few minutes, while Sherlock glared at nothing as if that would pull new evidence out from thin air. When it became clear that the conversation was over, John picked up his book.
It was half an hour before Sherlock spoke again. “Will you tell me what was wrong with you earlier?”
John looked up to find that Sherlock had shifted his gaze to John, and was giving him the intense look that meant he was trying to read his mind. “It was nothing,” he said.
Sherlock's gaze only grew stronger. “Don't insult my intelligence, John. You've been in an odd mood all day. What is it?”
John looked at him for a long moment. There was no point in reminding him of the date, especially not now the day was mostly over. What would be the point in complaining about it when he had spent eleven months desperate to have an evening like this one?
“It's really not important, Sherlock,” he said.
Sherlock made a disbelieving noise, but didn't push the issue. “Hand me my laptop, then,” he commanded.
John looked at it on the desk, and then back at Sherlock with a raised eyebrow. “Yeah, I'm not getting up for that. You can move your lazy arse and do it yourself.”
It took Sherlock another ten minutes of huffing and whining to actually get up for it, by which time it felt like a victory for John. He smiled down at his book as Sherlock flipped the laptop open and turned it on, letting the anger and old grief that had been preying on him all day settle back down into his stomach where, hopefully, he'd be able to ignore them until they'd gone away for good.
“John! I know what we're going to do!”
“Well, you're going to have a nap,” said John. “Jesus, Sherlock, is it so hard to just go to bed like a normal person?”
Sherlock made a face. “Normal,” he said. “Hideous concept. Besides, I have slept. I napped between two fifty-six and six eighteen.”
“In a bed?” asked John, without much hope.
“God no, why would I bother moving?” asked Sherlock. He was curled up in his chair in a position that should have given him some kind of permanent back strain. God only knew how he'd managed to sleep like that. “Stop wasting time with trivialities and listen. I've worked out how we're going to get close to the scene of the crime.”
“Oh no,” said John immediately. “We're not going to sneak onto Lestrade's crime scene. He'll kill us.”
Sherlock let out a long sigh. “We won't need to sneak; we'll be right there on site. It's brilliant, look!”
He held out his laptop to John, who took it warily, and looked at the screen. Love Builders Inc. Couples Retreat said the website. Strengthen your relationship though our shared activities and counselling sessions; all while enjoying the privacy and beauty of Deep Dene House, an historic stately home surrounded by 18 stunning acres of land. Let your love be rebuilt!
“What's this?” asked John.
“It's the company that lease the majority of Deep Dene House and the grounds from Joanna Oldacre,” said Sherlock. “Keep up, John.”
“Yes, fine, but what's it got to do with us getting onto the scene?” asked John. “I mean, it's not-” A terrible realisation came to him. “Oh, no,” he said. “Sherlock, no. We're not-”
“We’re booked in for this weekend,” said Sherlock, confirming John's fears.