In the moments before a familiar voice called out to him in the park, John Watson felt sure of one thing: that he knew the end of his own story. Not intimately, not in detail, but all the same he could feel it stretching out before him, a dull and brittle path that couldn't lead very far, or to anywhere worth the bother of going. All of his adventures were behind him. Vivid things, fearful things, passionate things, all these had been leached out of his life after he was shot. All of these things had bled out of him, leaving him dull and dishwater grey and practically invisible.
So when he heard "John!" he did not think it meant him, and even "John Watson!" almost failed to land on him. But his dæmon heard, and when she stopped, he stopped too.
He did not recognise the chubby man in the suit and glasses who came puffing up to him, but his corgi dæmon seemed familiar. She waddled right up to Ferendala and they sniffed each other's noses with casual familiarity. The corgi wagged her tail so hard that her paws were constantly in motion. Feren swished her tail twice, friendly but not effusive.
"It's Mike!" said the man, "Mike Stamford? And Kirianath," indicating his dæmon. "We were at Bart's together…?"
The puzzle piece slid into place, and the stranger transformed in front of John's eyes into something - someone - he understood. Mike. Mike Stamford, who got so heroically drunk that time on New Year's Eve that he fell down the stairs. Mike Stamford, who had helped John study and had once given him a sofa to sleep on, no questions asked, after John had been thrown out by his girlfriend.
"Oh - Mike! Yes - sorry, I didn't - didn't recognise you."
"Well, I got fat," said Mike, ruefully.
He was supposed to deny it, John knew that, but he couldn't quite connect to it in time to make the social nicety happen. Mike was a person with a name and a shared history, but John hadn't been expecting to talk to anyone beyond, perhaps, the bare minimum to a shop clerk or a waitress. John himself was not the same person as when last they spoke.
Mike didn't appear to be offended, though. Not even when John snapped at him for his friendly efforts. And that, he remembered now, was how Mike had always been, almost unflappable. It had made him a good study partner, and it had been the reason Mike had been the one John thought to call on in a time of need.
But it was a whole lifetime ago now. That was a whole John Watson ago.
"I might not have recognised you either if it weren't for your dæmon," said Mike. "She's hard to miss."
This was a given. Ferendala was an Irish wolfhound, one of the biggest dogs in the natural world. She was a bit of a liability on the Tube, but then John with his cane was a liability on stairs.
Mike treated him to a coffee from the nearby shop, and they sat on a bench to drink. Ferendala sat on the ground beside the bench. John could see his own tension and weariness in her body language, and of course Mike and his dæmon could see it too. Kirianath sat on the other side of Mike, near his feet, quietly giving the other dæmon plenty of space.
"Can't afford to live in London," John heard himself saying dully. "Not on an Army pension."
"Couldn't Harry help?"
He snorted. "Yeah, like that's going to happen." He and Harry were not speaking to each other. She blamed him for taking Clara's side, accused him of trying to break them up so he could "have a go at my wife" as she'd shrieked at him over the phone, and he'd hung up on her mid-rant. And it wouldn't have mattered if the pair of them were as thick as thieves, he wouldn't have taken her money.
"You could find a flat share," Mike said, and John snorted.
"Who'd want me for a flatmate?" He couldn't even imagine it. Dealing with another person in close orbit. Repelling intrusions - like this one, calling to him across a park. But all the time, every day. He couldn't ever see it working.
Mike laughed, and his dæmon popped up on her hind legs to rest her front paws on the bench beside him. She grinned at them both, tongue lolling.
"You're the second person to say that to us today," said Kirianath.
John almost didn't go with Mike to Bart's. He almost told Mike that he had to get on now and great to see him and etc., but just as he opened his mouth Feren leaned her head into his hand. Her warmth and her thoughts flowed into him. They did want to stay in London. But they really could not afford it. They could not even afford the wretched little bedsit they had now, and they scarcely both fit in it. Something had to change.
And it could do little harm, surely, to go and have a look at Bart's again, he hadn't been there since the other side of his other lifetime. He could at least meet the man.
"You're being very mysterious about him," he said to Mike as they walked. Mike hadn't even mentioned a name. The corgi dæmon paraded beside him, clearly pleased that John had come along. For every two steps of Ferendala's, Kirianath had to take five or six.
"It's sort of appropriate really," Mike said. "You'll see. Trust me."
And Feren bumped John's hand again with her nose, she was walking just a little taller too and he realised she was right, he was just a little bit interested now, just a little curious. Mike had never exactly been a smooth salesman type. Whatever he was hinting at did exist. Was interesting. Whatever it was.
He'd said to his therapist, "nothing happens to me." While this wasn't precisely true, he was never going to be able to say this again. But he didn't know it at the time.
What happened to him was Sherlock Holmes.
But he didn't get the name till the end of that first encounter, and John's mind was already spinning, his reality knocked a little off kilter by the sudden appearance of this other acquaintance of Mike Stamford's who happened to be looking for a flatmate.
They paused at the doors to a lab. Mike just said, "Brace yourself," and they went in.
John noticed first that the lab had been greatly upgraded since the days when he and Mike were here as students, and he said something to that effect as they walked in. At the far end of the worktop sat a dark haired man doing some chemistry procedure, and his cat dæmon was sitting beside him. Both pairs of eyes flicked up briefly, in unison, before returning to gaze intently into a petri dish.
Before any introductions could be made, the man spoke up abruptly. He wanted Mike's phone to send a text. His voice, a smooth deep drawl, moved through the room like an arrogant burglar, turning all the lights on and smearing its fingerprints all over the glassware.
Ferendala stood up very straight beside John. He was short for a human, she was tall for a dæmon; her head could eclipse his heart. He could feel her attention engaged, as though her pale fur were standing up on end.
Mike could not oblige him with a phone. John wondered ever afterwards if he'd been telling the truth about that, or had expected John to offer his. Which he did. At this, the man and his dæmon looked at John and Ferendala again, and John felt an intense spotlight of attention that went all the way through to the back of his head.
"Thank you," the man said, and approached John to take it. Mike introduced John to him, but instead of doing the expected thing by filling in that blank in return, the man took John's phone, started texting on it, and asked with frightening casualness,
"Zoroastria or Sawad?"
Again the voice took over the room, and John's thoughts also, because Mike made it clear with a shake of his head that he hadn't told, and who else could have?
John's dæmon lifted her head and stared straight into the pale blue eyes of the tawny cat. It was a warning, but she need not have given it, John was entirely capable of making it clear when someone was pushing over the line.
But the man didn't care about lines, he cared about details. He talked about playing violin, he talked about not talking for days, though this seemed fairly unlikely to John, given how much talking he was suddenly doing now. And yet every word was incisive, his tongue was as subtle as a knife, with a perfectly sharpened blade that cut but did not hurt.
Did not hurt John, anyway. He saw it hurt the pathologist with the raven dæmon on her shoulder who came to bring the man a coffee.
"How do you know about Zoroastria?"
And at last the man turned and just… summed John up as though he were an item on a menu illustrated with helpful photographs. His tan line, his haircut, his limp, his dæmon's stance at a stranger's approach.
It was terrifying, in one way. It trickled down over John like freezing rain, the thought that he could be taken in at a glance like that, devoid of secrets.
And in another way, it was liberating. It could be liberating to be without secrets to keep. An empty safe, standing open. Nothing left to steal.
And he supposed the violin was okay.
And then right at the end of this baffling encounter, he got the name and address of the rest of his life.
"The name's Sherlock Holmes. The address is 221B Baker Street," he said in that weapon of a voice, and the cat on his shoulder winked at John before they turned away.
After the door swung shut, Ferendala wagged her long, feathery tail, once. Just once, to make a point.
John looked at Mike, feeling as though he'd just been narrowly missed by a high speed bullet train.
"Yeah," said Mike, both fond and apologetic at the same time in that way that he'd always had, even at the bottom of a flight of stairs. "He's always like that."
Back at the dreary little bedsit again that evening, John thought to check the sent texts on his phone.
If brother's dæmon cannot fly,
arrest brother. SH
John sat down with his laptop and did a bit of googling. 'The Art of Deductive Science.'
Was this guy for real?
Feren leaned against his leg, and he stopped what he was doing to turn his full attention to her. They leaned their foreheads together, an abbreviated hug.
"You're interested in this," she said.
"Yes, of course. You are too."
"He's interesting," said the dæmon.
"His dæmon is interesting too," said John, and thought about it for a moment, trying to ignore the overwhelmingly Sherlock Holmes portion of his memory and focus on the cat instead. "Something… unusual about it. Her." Now why would he have said 'it'? Almost all men had female dæmons. There was a small percentage who didn't. Not that there was anything wrong with that.
Funny that Holmes hadn't introduced her when he introduced himself, though.
But rather than answer this, his wolfhound dæmon said, "You liked the way he knew everything without your having to tell him. You hate talking about yourself," and he had to laugh, because of course she was right.
That night, again, dreams of the war. The war, everpresent and neverending, smearing his dreamscape with loud noises and blood. His waking was as miserable as it always was.
Something had happened to him once, over there; he'd been shot, then suffered a bad infection recovering. Thanks to that he'd had to leave the war zone of Zoroastria and come back to London. The life he had chosen, hellish though it may have been, and incomprehensible as a choice to Harry or his mother, was forever closed to him now.
When he woke, he gasped for breath, and Ferendala was there with him as she always was in waking life, never further away than he could see her. He hugged her, shaking, eyes squeezed tightly shut, his face pressed into her soft fur. Her slow and steady heartbeat brought him back.
In dreams John was alone. In dreams, he didn't even have a dæmon. He had to carry his spirit all by himself.
"Let's get up now," she said, and he knew it wasn't just to divert him, she was excited about today, that today would bring change, and that they would see Sherlock Holmes and his dæmon again. As he got up and limped across the room to get his cane (there was nowhere right next the bed to keep it, another little detail that made the bedsit feel so very unwelcoming) she moved as close as a shadow with him, and her tail gave a lazy swish now and then.
It was a long way from there to Baker Street. But John was stubborn, and taxis weren't cheap. Ferendala might not be a real dog, but she had settled in a dog form for a reason. It suited her to be outside, in motion, seeing and smelling and hearing new things all the time. She always measured her pace to John's, though he could see how much she longed to run. He understood it completely, it was his own wish. But the doctors and his therapist and Sherlock Holmes could all call it 'psychosomatic' as much as they liked - his leg did not work as it should, not anymore, and running was in his past. Their past.
He watched her tail droop a little and felt obscurely guilty. She was him, but she was also herself, and he didn't like to hurt her or see her sad, even if he didn't care about his own hurt or sadness. At least he knew that wasn't logical, but there still wasn't anything he could reasonably do about it.
He'd known how far it was in theory, but knowing the route and limping along it every step of the way were not the same thing. He hated his cane, his good leg hated his bad leg, his feet hated everything.
He had to stop and rest more than once. He would have loved a coffee, but it was impossible to drink it while walking with a cane.
At last, before him, lay his destination. There was a red awning beside it for a sandwich bar, and the warm smells of toast and bacon wafted to his nose and made his mouth water.
He had just rapped the knocker against the door when he heard the voice behind him.
John turned. A cab was pulling away, and there he was again, in his dramatic coat. The cat dæmon clung adroitly to his right shoulder, disdaining to walk on the pavement.
"Mr Holmes," said John, struggling for some kind of formal dignity.
They shook hands. And then the cat on Sherlock's shoulder said, "And I am Vyarosse."
This was a little shocking. It wasn't as though other people's dæmons never spoke to people, Mike's dæmon had spoken to John once yesterday, but they did not introduce themselves, and definitely not in a tone which implied that they should have been introduced first.
But John recovered himself and said, "Nice to meet you. This is Ferendala," with his hand on Feren's back, and she wagged her tail once, politely, but her ears were perked forward a bit and her eyes were bright.
"Well, this is a prime spot," John said, glancing around the street. It really was. It was too good, really, he had no idea how they were to afford it even with two. "It must be expensive."
"Well, Mrs Hudson, the landlady, gave me a special deal. She owes me a favour. A few years back her husband got himself sentenced to death in Tegesta. I was able to help out."
"You - stopped her husband being executed?"
"Oh no," said Vyarosse. "We ensured it."
The door opened, and John exchanged a glance with Ferendala.
An older lady came gushing out, "Sherlock," fondly hugging Sherlock with one arm. Her dæmon was a little brown owl which perched on her shoulder. John could see that her dress had reinforcements on both shoulders for just such a use.
"Mrs Hudson, Waldzell, this is Dr John Watson and Ferendala."
The flat was at the top of a steep flight of stairs. John struggled to navigate them quickly enough to avoid anyone commenting on it. Maybe something in his expression forbade sympathy, but whatever the reason, the others never mentioned it.
The flat itself - well. A book-bearing bomb appeared to have gone off in it, every surface had both papers and dust, and the kitchen… John remembered seeing Sherlock in the lab at Bart's and had a sinking feeling about the kitchen.
And yet, for all that, for all there was a human skull on the mantel and some kind of an animal one on the wall, the place felt… Good. And it wasn't that even just the sitting room here was so much larger than the whole bedsit. It just felt as though this flat were somehow glad to see him.
No one was ever glad to see him. Feren's tail wandered lazily back and forth.
Then the landlady thoroughly embarrassed him with her not so delicate questions and assurances about the number of bedrooms needed. John turned scarlet and became defensive as her owl dæmon stared at him, and tried not to think at all about the fact that his bedroom was going to be up yet another flight of stairs.
Because there was never any question really, once he got there. He was going to stay. That was clear when Ferendala went to sit in front of the (currently cold) fireplace, and Vyarosse jumped down from Sherlock's shoulder to sit beside her.
"Oh Sherlock, the mess you've made," tsked Mrs Hudson, braving the kitchen.
John sat down in the nearest chair and felt a bit as though his compass were finding true north for the first time.
He did not get a chance to bask in that feeling. But it didn't matter, because it was still there every time he sat down in his chair.
And then, right then, their first case beckoned. Detective Inspector Lestrade and his osprey dæmon came personally to ask for Sherlock Holmes, and Sherlock went away but came back almost at once to ask John to join him. Vyarosse's pupils were dilated with predatory excitement and his tail-tip was twitching, and Sherlock only lacked a tail of his own.
Ferendala jumped up from the rug, John shoved up out of the chair and reached for his cane, and the game was on.