John shouldered aside the door to 221B Baker Street, breathing out a sigh of relief as he closed away the outside world. His day seemed to have gone on forever thanks to a conference in central London about reproductive health and surgery. Not that it was of much use to him, but attendance was compulsory to maintain his license. Therefore he had endured it, reminding himself more than once that most of it was relevant to a GP, at least to some extent.
'Have fun?' Sherlock's laconic question greeted him. John glanced over to see him at his laptop, his fingers dancing across the keyboard and his eyes glued to the screen.
'It was a waste of time. Useless.' John muttered, heading for the kitchen and making a noise of surprise when he saw the takeaway on the table. 'How long's this been here?'
Silence followed, but John was used to it. Sometimes it took Sherlock a while to extract himself from his train of thought. He flicked on the kettle, grabbing two mugs without thinking and going through the motions of making some tea. He was just adding milk when Sherlock emerged from whatever he was doing, blinking at John as if he had barely realised he'd come home.
'Chinese?' John prompted, gesturing to the cartons. 'Days old and toxic, or edible?'
'I got it a couple of hours ago. I was hungry.'
'So you've eaten?' John rolled his eyes, realising the question was stupid. None of the packages were open and the chopsticks lay unsplit on the kitchen table. 'No, of course not. I suppose you got distracted.'
Sherlock stretched in his seat, lifting his arms above his head in a gesture that made his body seem to go on forever, all lithe grace and elegant length. Like fine art or a good sunset, it was hard not to appreciate Sherlock's aesthetic, even if his personality sometimes left a lot to be desired. He was dressed, which suggested he had probably been out at least once, though God knew where. Now his jacket shifted on his shoulders and his shirt buttons strained as he hummed a vague affirmative.
'Why useless?' He got to his feet, strolling across the room and wrinkling his nose as John began opening packages and examined the microwave for anything unsavoury. 'It's not like you to disparage the merits of medical knowledge.'
'Too much generic Omega focus.' John shook his head. 'As if anyone in the NHS ever claps eyes on them. Let's face it, if one of them needs a doctor, they'll be seeing the best of the best, and that's not going to be on the government's bill, is it?' He shoved a couple of cartons in the microwave and pressed the buttons, starting it up. 'Even if it was, it's not like they could visit an Alpha GP like me.'
'True.' He passed John some chopsticks, his eyes narrowed in a familiar deductive manner as he no doubt read all the new data John had accumulated about his person since he left that morning. 'It bothers you.'
For someone so intent on the minutiae of everyone's existence, Sherlock treated gender, both primary and secondary, as irrelevant, and John shrugged as he tried to explain. 'There's a whole section of society that the general populace never gets to see. They're segregated before they present, take part in arranged bonds soon after and spend the rest of their lives in the home of whichever Alpha was wealthy or important enough to win them as a prize.' He shook his head, wondering why he expected Sherlock to empathise with this when he could not bring himself to show outward concern for even the most brutally murdered victims. 'I've never seen one, except at Bart's, and even then he was a corpse donated to medical science.'
Sherlock raised an eyebrow at that, probably aware of how unusual John's fleeting glimpse of that rare body had been. 'I suppose few people have an Omega parent these days. Yours were both Betas,' he said a moment later – a statement, not a question. 'They were fortunate to have both you and Harry with only a three year age gap. They must have –'
'Stop!' John shook his head, practically dropping the Lo-Mein into Sherlock's hands. The conception rate of a Beta couple was notoriously low, and he did not need Sherlock commenting on his parents' sexual frequency. He had been trying not to think about that ever since finding out about how sex worked. 'Just – don't finish that sentence.'
Sherlock chuckled as John smiled, quickly altering the course of the conversation. 'I don't see the point of focussing on Omega reproductive health at a general assembly, that's all. The biology is –' He shook his head, knowing he didn't need to explain it to Sherlock. '– frankly miraculous, and it's interesting theory, but ninety-eight percent of the doctors there will never put any of it into practice. They just won't get the chance.'
'There must have been something you can use? Surely as a GP you get sexual queries?'
'Betas needing help to conceive. Young Alphas worried that they'll hurt their definitely-not-Omega lovers... STDs and straightforward Beta pregnancies. That's it.'
'Alpha-specific physiology only responds to an Omega in heat. That's basic biology. Have none of your patients attended school?' Sherlock asked, taking his meal and settling on the back of the couch, his feet on the seat and his elbows propped on his knees as John slumped in his armchair.
'Oh, come on. It doesn't matter what they tell you in a classroom. Every Alpha is going to wonder about it. You can't tell me it never crossed your mind.'
Sherlock shook his head. 'I can honestly say it's never been a personal concern. Unless faced with an Omega, an Alpha's nodal ridge or ciliac rise remains unchanged. There's no knot in the male or penile extrusion in the female. The tissue might as well be an appendix.'
John grunted in agreement, eating in silence as his tired thoughts went around in circles. The truth was, most people forgot Omegas even existed. People knew of them, of course, but they were rare, something valuable and precious to be coveted and hidden. These days it wasn't about fighting to the death; it was about having the money. Alphas of the aristocracy and the elite frequently paid millions to an Omega's family for the right to bond, regardless of what the Omega might want, and it was that which John found nauseating.
An Omega would go to the highest bidder, end of story, and the Alphas who were left? Well, they struggled through like everyone else, looking for love, possibly having a kid or two with a Beta and, for the most part, forgetting all about knots and bonds.
His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the front door, and he glanced over as Sherlock lifted his head like a dog catching a scent, alert and curious with a hint of enthusiasm in his eyes. Lestrade then; he never looked so keen to see anyone else, even a client. A second later, John's suspicion was confirmed as the DI's gravelly voice drifted upwards, accompanied by his cigarettes-coffee-and-muscovado smell as it permeated Baker Street and over-rode Mrs Hudson's lighter, Beta fragrance of bluebells.
The DI's footsteps were quick on the stairs, and Sherlock was already reaching for his coat when he knocked on the door and pushed his way inside. Greg looked tired, with deep shadows and puffy bags under his eyes. His hair was dishevelled, his tie lay askew, and his smile was strained at its edges as John got to his feet.
'Need your help,' he said by way of greeting. 'We've got something – I – well actually I'm not sure what we've got, but we needed it solved five minutes before we even found it. If the press get wind of this...'
Sherlock cocked his head, no doubt reading everything off of Greg in the space of a heartbeat. 'An Omega victim. You wouldn't look so pale for anything else. Not even a child.' He glanced at John, who had flinched in repulsed surprise at the deduction. 'Perhaps that conference won't be so useless after all, John. Where is it? We'll take a taxi.'
'Hyde Road,' Greg supplied, putting his hands on his hips and ducking his head before looking at John. 'I'd suggest you stay behind, but the whole situation appears sort of – medical. I hope to God it's not what it looks like.'
John nodded, grabbing his jacket as Sherlock trotted down the stairs, calling to Mrs Hudson and stepping out onto the pavement to hail a cab. 'Anything I need to be aware of?' he asked, watching Greg's face as they followed Sherlock out. 'You look –'
'Sick?' The DI nodded, swallowing tightly as if he were still fighting nausea. 'It's the stench. Most of my team aren't bothered; they can't detect anything. They're all Betas except for one tech, who knew what it was before we'd even clapped eyes on it. His retch brought him to his knees half a street away, and I wasn't much better. A dead Omega –'
'I know.' John swallowed. He'd told Sherlock about the body wheeled out for the benefit of his class at Bart's. It was a rare treat for students and staff alike, yet the Alphas, about a quarter of those present, couldn't stand to be in a well-ventilated room with it. The stink had embedded itself in his memory. Sickly sweet rot, for all that the flesh was preserved. It was pestilence and misery, greasy and choking. He had stood in the shower for an hour afterwards, and still the odour had clung to him. 'Thanks for the warning.'
'Cover your nose with your sleeve on the approach. You can have a mask at the scene.'
'John!' Sherlock shifted impatiently by a waiting cab, standing back to let him climb in first as Lestrade went to his own vehicle. A moment later they were on their way, and John fidgeted, trying to ignore the churning concern that bubbled through his stomach.
Not for the first time, he wished he'd been a Beta like his parents and Harry. Normally, he was happy with his lot in life, but there were times when his own biochemistry worked against him. Never had it been more apparent than when that dead Omega's fragrance had caused such a visceral reaction. It wasn't just the repulsion, but the horror that went with it. A deep, putrescent certainty that somehow he had failed to protect something vital. Never mind that he had never met the person, never shared a bond with him and didn't even know his name. It still mattered to John on some illogical level that he was dead.
It made him wonder what it would be like to scent one who was in heat. There were rumours, legends almost. Words like irresistible and maddening were whispered like a pornographic fantasy, but he had never experienced it first-hand. Few people had. Alphas cropped up in the general population at random, but only an Omega could birth an Omega child, and these days that invariably meant they were from posh families: the landed gentry and the like. There were never any cases of accidental or spontaneous presentation in an uncontrolled environment; that kind of thing happened in films, not real life.
About the only thing anyone could agree on was that if an Alpha was in the company of an Omega in heat, they would know it. Their noses were too sensitive to deceive, and John rarely had trouble identifying anyone's secondary gender. He knew Lestrade was an Alpha just from sitting in his car and that the cab driver was a Beta by the sweeter, vanilla fragrance that permeated the atmosphere. There wasn't any need to ask when the truth was written in the airborne chemicals around them.
Of course, Sherlock wouldn't be himself if he weren't the exception to that rule. When John had limped into the lab at Bart's with Mike that first time after Afghanistan, he had to admit he had been too overwhelmed by the man in front of him to notice any scent. Sherlock wasn't classically beautiful, but his presence jolted through John's entire body, stirring up interest in a way he had begun to wonder if he would ever feel again. Then he had been pinned by those diamond eyes, sharp and intelligent, and Sherlock had seen everything.
“Afghanistan or Iraq?”
The question had shocked him, causing him to drag in one deep breath through his nose, and the resulting uncertainty over what he could sense had left him almost incapable of answering. There were lab chemicals and the strange, artificial edge to the air treatment system, Mike's ashy Beta scent half-covered by cologne and then... something.
Not a bad perfume, but more the absence of one. The truth was that, even now, unless Sherlock stood particularly close or they were within their own territory of Baker Street, John could barely smell him at all. His first thought had been Unpresented, but the doctor in him had written that off almost immediately. Sherlock was physically developed, whereas those who didn't mature sexually retained childlike, androgynous physiques. With large hands, stunning, obvious facial structure and his looming height, there was no way Sherlock fit the bill.
His next thought had been a Beta, but then Sherlock had moved and blown that idea out of the water. Too much confidence and swagger, too much presence and certainty. No Beta John had ever met before could prowl like that or command the attention of a room so thoroughly. That left one viable option: Alpha.
More than once, John had considered just asking, but in the end it didn't matter. Sherlock was, beyond everything else, himself – the single most fascinating person John had come across in his life. John never saw him with a lover, and generally, Sherlock seemed as disinterested in sex as he did in gender, though John was fairly sure it wasn't just him who felt the hard, sharp pull of attraction when their eyes met and lingered for a little too long.
The self-deprecating smile slid off John's face, his distracting train of thought stuttering to a halt as something vile curled in his nostrils and the back of his mouth. It was just a hint, but he quickly pressed the backs of his fingers to his nose to try and block out the odour as every revolution of the taxi's wheels brought them closer to the crime scene.
By the time Sherlock climbed out of the cab, John had given up and crammed his sleeve so hard against his mouth that he could barely breathe. Every instinct was screaming at him to get out, and he caught sight of the Alpha lab tech Lestrade had mentioned, sitting on the pavement upwind with his head between his knees as he took steadying breaths.
'How can you stand it?' John asked Sherlock, squinting at him in the encroaching dusk. The amber street lights cast his face into strange shadows, but John noticed that his skin seemed bloodless, even if he wasn't desperately trying to block out the fragrance.
A frown pleated Sherlock's brow as Lestrade trotted over. 'Mind over matter,' he said at last, watching Greg give a treated cloth mask to John before securing one over his own face. It was only when Sherlock held out an imperious hand that Greg seemed to remember he would need one too and relinquished a third, talking all the while.
'Someone working at a nearby warehouse reported it. The place is meant to be derelict, but, well...' Lestrade shrugged, motioning for them to follow. John ducked under the police tape as Sherlock held it up, inspecting the scene. Anderson and his team were standing to one side, looking petulant, but there was an undertone of curiosity to their restlessness. Just because Betas were not attracted to Omegas, it did not make the sight of one, even a dead one, any less fascinating.
Stepping through the door, John felt his blood run cold, leaving him clammy and frigid as he took in the room beyond. It was a makeshift operating theatre, crude and dim. Various bloody tools lay abandoned as if people had simply turned tail and fled, abandoning the body on the bed. Her hospital gown was stained and the incision in her lower abdomen gaped like the split skin of a ripe fruit.
'Please tell me my first impression is wrong?' Greg sounded more than just sick. There was a thick vein of grief under his words. The same thing clenched like a vice around John's heart, and he swallowed, forcing himself to listen as Sherlock spoke.
'Chop shop,' he said succinctly. 'Profitable to the extreme for all involved, most of the time.' With a flick of his fingers, he indicated the surgeon's tools. 'High-grade equipment for the extraction; they were after the supra-ovarian structure, I imagine.'
'What's that?' Greg asked, looking at John, who could at least find some distraction in the facts.
'All Omega women have it. It's the glandular network that sustains the health of their eggs. It's part of the reason Alpha-Omega couples enjoy such a high conception rate,' he explained. 'Rather than a store of ovum that has been in the woman's ovaries since birth, like you get in a Beta, these are constantly constructed and replenished. It means she would be fertile for longer than a Beta counterpart, and she has a greater chance of twins or triplets.' John drew in a breath and coughed, wishing he could retreat further, but his back was already pressed against the wall. 'Omega males have a similar system, but it's harder to extract. An Omega man is unlikely to survive the procedure.'
'It's not like she did so well out of it,' Anderson said from the doorway where he and Donovan were peering over Lestrade's shoulder. 'So what was in it for her?'
'Money,' Sherlock replied, putting on some latex gloves and stepping towards the body, his fingers tentatively parting the incision to reveal the bloody mess inside.
'Why would she need that?' Donovan demanded. 'She might not be that pretty, but she was still an Omega. Her Alpha would have given her everything she wanted.' Sherlock's snort of derision was surprisingly subtle, but it still reached the sergeant's ears. 'Oh, what? You expect me to feel sorry for some girl who's had the world land in her lap just because she can pop out a kid every nine months like clockwork?' Sarcasm dripped from her next words. 'Imagine how awful that must be.'
'Donovan...' Lestrade's voice held a warning, but it was nothing compared to lethal, silken darkness of Sherlock's as he began to speak.
'Yes, how awful to have no choice in the matter. To be seen as merely a means of producing children and sold into a bond she had no desire to form.' He brushed the woman's hair back from her shoulder and turned her head, revealing the circular wound of an Alpha's bite. It was still raw and healing, a week old at most. Only Omegas bore a mark like that. Thanks to the chemicals in an Alpha's spit, it would scar as it healed: a symbol to show she belonged to someone. For as long as her Alpha lived, the rough circle of teeth marks would remain there for the world to see.
'She'll be little more than property, and any beneficial treatment she received was not to ensure her happiness, but to allow her Alpha to prove themselves to their peers. She could not vote or be employed, and her only method of acquiring self-sufficiency would be to sell what society views as her primary asset.' He looked back at the surgical slice in her stomach. 'She thought the risk was worth it, not only that of being caught, but that of losing her life as well. Imagine how desperate she must have been.'
John had forgotten to breathe. Sherlock's words were not impassioned, but they did not need to be. He laid each sentence down as fact, unassailable, and John was reminded that Sherlock was far from middle class. For all he knew, Sherlock had more experience of Omegas than anyone else here. One of his parents could have been one; he certainly sounded like he was speaking from experience, rather than repeating rumours.
'So, she agreed to this?' Greg asked, swearing as Sherlock nodded his head. 'Then what?'
'She would probably have made an effort to leave the country or blend in as a different gender if she could. Her Alpha would be unlikely to pursue her, since her desertion would be considered a poor reflection on them; they would not want to admit it. Better that people thought her dead than realised she had escaped.'
'Who's buying these things?' Anderson asked, his face wrinkled in confusion. 'I mean, if there wasn't any demand for it, then it wouldn't be worth doing, but who's going to want her parts? It's not like it's a matter of life and death: a liver or something.'
John blinked, rubbing the back of his hand across his brow. 'Wassinger syndrome. Sometimes an Omega's supra-ovarian structure atrophies, and they're rendered sterile. Transplant's risky and has a low survival rate, but most Alphas will pursue that option if they find out their Omega is barren.'
'Unless they have the funds to purchase another Omega with whom to bond,' Sherlock added. 'Then the infertile one is just a broken toy to be ignored.' He quirked an eyebrow and looked at Sally. 'Now why would anyone want to escape a life like that?
She didn't respond, pursing her lips and looking away. John was gratified to notice the belligerent shame on her features, even though she couldn't be blamed for her assumptions. They were shared by most of the population, after all. Even John hadn't been aware of most of what Sherlock had said.
'John, look at this.'
Reluctantly, he peeled himself away from the wall and approached Sherlock's side, pressing the mask tight against his face with one hand as he examined the details. The woman was young, eighteen perhaps, small-breasted and long-limbed. Her face was plain and slack, and her brown hair was pulled back in a severe ponytail. Yet all that faded into insignificance when compared to the putrid aroma emanating from her skin. It made his stomach give a threatening roll, and a rough noise caught in his throat.
'I need you to take a look at the surgical site.' Sherlock sounded genuinely apologetic as he removed his latex gloves and passed a fresh pair to John before he continued, 'Your knowledge of anatomy is more intricate than mine, but she appears to be missing more than just the supra-ovarian structure. If I hold the mask tight against your nose, can you manage?'
He tried to speak, but the taste of bile at the back of his throat warned against it. Clearly Sherlock's approach was working. He seemed, if not immune, then at least better off than both John and Greg.
With a nod, John held his breath and dropped his hand, tugging on the gloves as Sherlock kept his promise. He pulled the treated mask as taut as possible over John's face, his fingers warm through the cheap cloth. The next, tentative breath John drew in was better – still greasy and vile – but improved by the proximity of Sherlock's scent. It eased some of the jangling discomfort that ricocheted through John's frame and allowed him to focus on what he was doing.
'She's still warm,' he croaked as he slipped his fingers into the incision. Core body temperature could take hours to cool, but if it wasn't for the lack of pulse, he could almost believe she was still alive: that he was just a surgeon and that she would wake up and smile.
'Omegas produce necrotonin – the scent hormone that's making you nauseous – from within sixty seconds of brain death. An Alpha found her?' That question was directed at Greg, who replied in a cracked voice.
'Yeah. Time of death's estimated at, what, three hours ago now?'
'Two,' Anderson replied primly. 'Should he really be doing that? Isn't that the pathologist's job?'
'If you want to wait days for some kind of answer to this case, then yes.' Sherlock's curt retort was met with silence, which only came to an end when John pulled back.
'They've taken the whole thing. The entire reproductive system. Done in a hurry, too.'
'A spur of the moment decision, probably made when she died on the table.'
'It's hard to tell, but from the blood in the cavity I'd say they went too deep – possibly nicked the mesenteric artery.' John shrugged, peeling off the gloves and leaving them at the side of the body. Sherlock's palm was still over the mask, muffling his words, and John carefully replaced his grasp, letting his thankful smile crinkle his eyes – the only way Sherlock would notice its existence. 'It's an amateurish mistake.'
'Yet the skill required to successfully remove what they wanted intact is not inconsiderable.' Sherlock stepped back from the bedside, and John could see that precise attention growing wider, taking in the room, the tools and the data available. 'Most likely a skilled surgeon had assistance from students: perhaps with the offer of a cut of the pay. Check hospitals, this equipment had to come from somewhere, and whoever took it had to be high enough on the staff that it was not immediately missed.'
'What about her?' Greg asked from where he leant against the threshold. 'What can you tell me?'
Sherlock rolled his shoulders, the information pouring forth. 'Eighteen is late to bond for a female Omega. It suggests delayed presentation; she may have been under the care of a reproductive specialist. The size of her bond-bite demonstrates her Alpha was a woman. It's a week old, still healing, but relatively shallow. The Alpha's considerably senior with a weaker jaw, and this is unlikely to be her first bonding.'
'What happened to the others?' John's question curled like smoke in the air, and he watched something complex shift around Sherlock's eyes, impossible to read with half his face still covered by the mask.
'The bond is young, yet already the Omega has taken this step.' He gestured to the bed. 'I imagine any other Omegas bound to the same Alpha came to the same decision. Though whether they shared her fate or made their escape is another matter.' He cleared his throat, turning his back and heading for the doorway. 'Conjecture, of course, but the assumptions are logical. Look through the bonding registries for the last week. It's likely her Alpha's home is local. Omegas aren't permitted a driving license, and Alphas tend not to provide a cash allowance in the hopes of preventing independent behaviour. The Omega shouldn't be that hard to identify.' He hesitated, glancing over at Greg. 'Call me if you find any more.'
'Where are you going?' Greg demanded, raising his voice as Sherlock led John away.
'To get rid of this smell.' He peeled off the mask and handed it to a disgruntled Donovan, who only glared when John apologised as he did the same thing.
The mild air outside was a relief after the humid closeness of the murder scene, but the fragrance remained, forcing John to take in shallow snatches of evening air through his mouth as he hurried to keep up. 'Aren't we taking a taxi?'
'No.' Sherlock's phone was in his grasp, the glow casting a waxy light over his face as his fingers skimmed the screen. 'The chemicals in car exhaust react with necrotonin, stripping it from skin and clothing. If we walk back to Baker Street, we won't stink up the flat.'
'It feels like it's stuck to the inside of my nose,' John complained, rubbing at his face before shoving his hands in his pockets, grateful that at least it wasn't raining. He matched Sherlock's pace, trying to suppress the buzz of questions that hummed in his mind, like the string section of an orchestra gone mad. Normally, Sherlock picked up on his discomfort and challenged it, but this time he was too intent on whatever he was looking for on his mobile, and when he took an abrupt right turn, John frowned in confusion.
'Diversion,' Sherlock replied, turning his phone around to show John the bonding announcement in the Times. 'Teresa Karndine bonded to Annaliese Ducart. Look at the financial value of the transaction.' He passed the device to John, who pursed his lips at the price listed at the bottom of the text. He could work a dozen lifetimes and never see that much.
'That's a lot of money.'
'Teresa Karndine is the owner of Karndine International, one of the leading manufacturers of car components in the world. An exceptionally wealthy woman; she's had two other Omegas that I know of. Both of whom she had stripped from her dynasty when they were proven barren by doctors on her own payroll.'
'So – what happened to them?'
'Chances are they had already fled at that point and undergone surgery, successful or not. Karndine would have protected herself from the stigma of an Omega escaping her possession by lying about their fertility.'
Sherlock's voice was steady and calm, as if he were talking about the weather while John's stomach cramped at the world that was being revealed so brutally before his eyes. 'The Ducart family are prominent jewellers, hence the price on their Omega daughter. Karndine paid for the name. It's possible she owned Ducart for years, but a bond can only be placed once presentation occurs. What do you want to bet that Karndine made Annaliese see one of the best reproductive specialists in the country in the hopes of hurrying along her maturation?'
'Christ,' John murmured as he tried to take it all in. 'Is this really what it's like? Omegas treated like things? How come no one's tried to stop it?'
'Who creates the legislation?' Sherlock shrugged, shaking his head. 'The powerful Alphas have been at the top of society for centuries, first through strength and then through money. Every law they make is done to keep the Omegas out of the main populace and under their control.' He tightened his grip on his phone, looking down at it thoughtfully. 'For the most part, it works. An unbound Omega isn't safe. By arranging a bond to a strong, wealthy Alpha, they're protected. In many cases, Donovan's assessment is correct. They are – should be – treated like treasures: valuable and precious. They are respected and cared for. Sometimes there is even something like love.'
John watched the twist of Sherlock's face, vaguely repulsed and dubious, as if he questioned the existence of such a sentiment. 'However, occasionally the Alphas are cruel or indifferent.' There was a hint of something in his voice, a hairline fracture that John could almost convince himself was a figment of his imagination. 'In that situation, there aren't many options left open to an Omega but to endure, or do something desperate.'
'How do you know?' The question slipped through his lips – a silken strand that he could not pull back. Somehow it felt like taking the first step into forbidden territory, entering the convoluted arena of sex and Sherlock's past that John had never before dared to breach.
'Did you –?' God, he had wondered earlier if one of Sherlock's parents had been one of the rare few, but he had not considered the next obvious step. Had there been an Omega to whom Sherlock had bound? The thought made his stomach lurch, hard and hurting, and he wished he could take his words back. He would rather remain oblivious.
Too late now.
'There were always rumours,' Sherlock said at last. 'My childhood was full of it. Tit-for-tat; who owed whom, who owned whom. My parents' bond was arranged.' His voice became flat: a closure of conversation while the words themselves made John want to reach out and offer comfort. 'Relatively speaking, it was a happy one, but it was still far from ideal.'
'So you and Mycroft don't have – I mean you're not...'
'Are you going to actually finish a sentence?' Sherlock spoke with his usual smug tones, which was just as well. John was certain that if he had implied to any other eligible Alpha that they might have had an Omega and somehow lost them, he'd be carrying his teeth home in his hands. Yet now he looked closer, something darkly amused shadowed Sherlock's gaze, something that made John's spine tense. 'Mycroft's too busy running the country, and I have better things to do with my time. Like finding the doctor responsible for the death of Ms Ducart.'
He gestured to the building in front of them, all shining glass and smooth stone. It looked discreet, private and medical in the evening gloom, and John glanced over at Sherlock. 'You think Annaliese Ducart went here?'
'Almost certainly. Teresa Karndine can afford to throw money at her problems. The Avery Institute is the leading centre of reproductive medicine. I imagine if we find Ducart's doctor, we find the man behind the chop shop, or at least one who could point us to the colleague who is.'
John cocked his head, his gaze sweeping over the dim plate-glass panes. 'It looks like it's shut.'
'Clinic hours will be brief.' Sherlock crooked his finger, leading the way through a small patch of landscaped, urban garden and around the back. The building seemed to go on forever, losing its modern aesthetic as it fell into the tangled twist of hospitals everywhere. There were disposal bins and back doors, narrow windows and the pervasive scent of antiseptic coming from the air treatment vents.
John followed wordlessly, glancing around for CCTV as Sherlock extracted his picks and set to work on a ground floor office door. 'Won't a place like this have some kind of security?'
'Motion sensors,' Sherlock muttered, jerking his head to indicate the hub on the ceiling, visible through the window to the side of the door. 'As well as an access point alarm system, but it's deactivated. Someone's still here.'
'Maybe there's a ward with staff? Do they operate here?'
Sherlock shook his head, licking his lips as the lock clicked open and the door swung outward on oiled hinges. 'This is an administrative building with laboratory facilities. They conduct surgery at the Wellington.'
John sucked in a breath at the mention of one of London's most prestigious private hospitals. 'I guess they're not so keen on Omega organ removal, or whoever did this would have done it in their operating room. Think that's where the surgeon got the equipment?'
'It's possible. Of course, he could have bought some of it himself considering his illegal side-line. No doubt he would have made the money back in a month or two if he made a habit of offering his patients this kind of treatment.' Sherlock slipped his leather gloves on and idly investigated the desk before glancing in John's direction with a frown. 'Besides, the punishment for being caught enabling this kind of surgery is life imprisonment. Even the Wellington's reputation would not save it from closure if it was found that such things were taking place within their walls.'
John shifted his shoulders, hating his own ignorance. 'I've heard rumours, but not for years. Mostly it was while I was doing my training. A few people I knew were approached to conduct...' He shrugged. 'Unspecified surgery. We all pretty much assumed it was black-market organ harvesting.'
'That's precisely what this is in the eyes of the law. It doesn't matter if the Omega volunteered for the procedure. Legally, they're not considered capable of making that choice for themselves.'
John clenched his jaw. That, he had known. Omegas and children alike were considered unable to make medical decisions. For kids, that changed when they were twelve. Omegas would go their whole lives without the final say in their own treatment. 'It's not right.'
'Going to do something about it?' Sherlock's question wasn't accusatory, but the eyebrow he raised was mocking. 'No, I thought not. Neither's anyone else. Some boats aren't worth rocking. Most people are content to leave things as they are.'
Sherlock did not reply as he led the way out into the corridor, looking along its length before turning left. John followed with a sigh, modulating each footstep so it would not echo. He kept waiting for a shout of alarm or any sign of life, but the whole place seemed eerily quiet.
Finally, Sherlock paused, squinting through the narrow glass panel in a wooden door. Light spilled forth from behind its pane, clerical and harsh, and John could just make out the lab equipment from where he peered over Sherlock's shoulder. It looked almost identical to Bart’s, and it took only a moment for John to realise Sherlock had seen a computer, still turned on, unlike the one in the office.
'Sherlock!' he hissed as the door was eased aside and that pale gaze swept the interior. 'For God's sake; you said yourself there was someone still in the building.'
'Yes, and whoever it is, they're probably our killer.' The grin Sherlock threw in John's direction was pure exhilaration. 'The Omega reproductive structure is fragile. It needs to be treated for transit and transplant, and this lab is the ideal place to do it.' He gestured to the pipettes on the side and bottles of solution left open – used in a hurry. 'It looks like we just missed them.'
He whirled around in front of the computer, his fingers clattering over the keyboard. There was no password protection, the previous user still being logged in, and John watched as Sherlock began to absorb the information on the screen. 'They've not exactly covered their tracks in here. What if they come back to clean up?'
'I'm counting on it.' Sherlock drew in a breath – the sharp, euphoric sound of success catching in his throat. 'Doctor Kirkpatrick was treating Ms Ducart for delayed presentation. He was her surgeon for more than two years prior to her reaching sexual maturity nine days ago.' He made a disgruntled noise. 'Tell me, what kind of diagnostic regimen would require weekly visits to a specialist?'
'Monitoring an emerging cycle, perhaps?' John shrugged.
'For eighteen months?' Sherlock shook his head, rolling his eyes as if something intriguing had resolved itself into the banal. 'Dull. They were lovers. They planned to run away together. His salary and funds from the organ sale would assist with supporting a new life elsewhere.'
'So why wait?' John asked, abandoning his nervous sentry duty to glance at Sherlock. 'Why not leave before that Alpha bound her?'
'This way, her family get to keep the money Karndine paid for her. If the bond never took place, she could get it back. The only person to lose, in theory, would be Karndine herself.'
'Until it went wrong.' He watched Sherlock hit another button, and the thrum and click of the printer filled the room, shocking after the peace of their hushed conversation. Quickly, he snatched free the pages, rolling his eyes at the tiny text as it kept coming. 'Christ, Sherlock. Do you really need all this?'
'It could be –'
Abruptly, Sherlock's head lifted, looking towards another exit from the lab. John did not bother to try and catch whatever Sherlock had heard. Instead, every muscle braced, taut and ready to fight. He gave a brief, longing thought to his gun, still locked away out of Sherlock's reach in Baker Street, but there was no time for regrets now.
The door swung open, and a man froze on the threshold, his face slack as he stared at them. Slender hands clenched fitfully, slipping into his pockets, and John saw his eyes dart to the open bottles on the bench.
'Doctor Kirkpatrick.' Sherlock straightened up, his body language relaxed and confident as Kirkpatrick – middle-aged and balding, his eyes red-rimmed – flinched. 'We're here to talk to you about your patient, Ms Ducart.'
John would have been happy to bet that the name would cause the doctor to either break down or do a runner. Yet tepid brown eyes turned cold, and thin lips pulled back over a snarl as the Beta strode forward, limbs rigid and furious. 'I don't know who you think you are, but if that bitch Karndine sent you I'll...'
'You'll what?' Sherlock cocked his head in enquiry, and John fought not to clench his jaw. No amount of lectures in self-preservation ever seemed to get through to him, and just because this doctor was not obviously armed, it didn't mean he wasn't dangerous. 'I think you've done enough damage for one day, don't you? An unfortunate accident, though I doubt the courts will see it that way. Was Ms Ducart the first Omega you – helped?'
Something ugly twitched across the doctor's face, his weak chin shuddering as he blinked, though whether the threatening tears were sorrow or fury it was impossible to tell. 'Don't. I don't know what you're implying –'
Sherlock flicked his fingers in the direction of the man's hands. 'You conducted illegal removal of an Omega's reproductive system less than three hours ago. Nervous sweat caused caking of the talc from the gloves between your fingers. There's blood by your temple. Unexpected arterial spray. More on the collar of your shirt. No doubt it will be a match for Ms Ducart.'
He drew a breath, and John saw the moment Sherlock decided to lie, falsifying his conclusions in the hopes of having the perpetrator correct him and prove his theories. 'I assume without the organs you've already dispatched to the waiting client, she was worthless to you.'
John lunged the moment he saw the break in the doctor's eyes, but he was too slow. The scalpel pulled from his pocket slashed in a brutal, vicious arc, making Sherlock stagger back beneath the onslaught. John did not hesitate as he threw his full weight at the surgeon, bearing him down and holding him there, sobbing and insensate against the linoleum. One burst of rage, and the fight was gone from Kirkpatrick. Every breath sounded like a heave as John pinned him, hearing the wail of sirens as he desperately sought out Sherlock.
'You all right?' A growl trembled in his voice, feral to his ears, and he tried to put a lid on the surge of restless adrenaline that throbbed through his body. For a minute, his mind was suffused with self-blame. He should have been quicker, moved faster, neutralised the threat before Kirkpatrick could lay a finger on Sherlock. Rational thought had little to do with it, and he bit his lip to choke back furious, fretful words of reproof as Sherlock pulled his fingers away, examining the blood staining his gloves.
'Clumsy. He missed anything of importance.' Sherlock frowned down at the Kirkpatrick. John expected nothing more than his usual disdain or puzzlement at what sentiment could bring, but when he looked closer he could see a flicker of something else, shadowed and secretive.
The sound of footsteps in the corridor made them look up, and John took a deep breath as the police barged in, rapidly taking control of the situation. Judging by the lack of surprise on Sherlock's face, he had texted Greg his suspicions about the Avery Institute before breaking in: his one concession. Lestrade knew them too well to ignore the information by now. No doubt he and his men had come running.
'An hour!' the DI shouted, waving a finger in Sherlock's face. 'I leave you on your own for a bloody hour and this is what happens!'
Sherlock shrugged. 'You wanted the case solved quickly, didn't you?'
'There's such a thing as process, Sherlock. So far, all we can charge him with is what –' Greg gestured to his neck. 'Assault?'
'Don't be ridiculous; he's wearing enough evidence for you to acquire any further, relevant data. Assuming Anderson can interpret it correctly, of course. Besides,' he added as Kirkpatrick was pulled away. 'His distress may be adequate to lead to a confession and the identity of his accomplices. Guilty conscience, broken heart, whatever you want to call it.'
Lestrade threw his hands in the air, briefly curving his fingers into claws as if he would like nothing better than to throttle Sherlock. However, he restrained himself, clenching his jaw as his voice emerged in a snarl that suggested he was in no mood to take shit from anyone. His gaze flickered down to Sherlock's neck again, and he half-ripped a first-aid box off the wall and thrust it at John. 'Sort him out and get him to the Yard. If you're not both there in twenty minutes, I'll find you and drag you in myself.' He glared at Sherlock. 'And no sending John in on your behalf. It doesn't work like that!'
Sherlock frowned, pulling free a dressing pad and glaring when John took it from his hands. 'Just patch it. I'll sort it out when we get home.'
John wanted to argue, because the chances were good that Sherlock would forget about it as soon as it was covered, but something about the edge in Sherlock's voice made him bite the words back. He sounded tired, as if the shine of excitement had faded to leave tarnish in its wake, and John did not miss the way Sherlock's shoulders were rounded and slumped.
He cleaned away blood with quick proficiency, checking that Sherlock's evaluation of it was right before taping a dressing in place. He had better supplies at home, but at least the wound was too shallow to require stitches: a lucky escape.
'Come on,' Sherlock ordered, stepping back out of John's reach in one fluid motion and turning away. 'I suppose we had better hurry so that we can hold the Detective Inspector's hand while he struggles to close the case.'
'Sherlock...' John's weak reproach fell on deaf ears, and he held in a sigh as he followed Sherlock's departing figure from the hospital to the Yard. They only spoke for brief, half-arguments about whether helping Lestrade was really necessary, and John got the impression he won because Sherlock didn't trust the force not to let Kirkpatrick get away with it.
They walked together, side-by-side, through the doors of New Scotland Yard, and John knew they wouldn't be leaving any time soon. It was the start of several hours of interminable statements and explanations. Sherlock's patience, never an abundant resource, expired within ten minutes, and John found himself playing mediator between a bored flatmate and a frazzled DI.
'You gave me a crime scene and I handed you a murderer. What more do you require?'
'There are rules!' Greg scrubbed his hand over his face, his shirt-sleeves rolled up and his elbows on his desk, balanced on leaning slumps of paperwork. There were at least four coffee mugs in amidst the mess, and John wondered when the DI last got a good night's sleep. 'A case like this? It's too high profile to chuck away because you couldn't cooperate!'
'Karndine will throw everything she has at a private prosecution. She has to in order to protect her name. Embarrassing enough that her Omega was running, worse that she was chasing after a Beta as well.' Sherlock folded his arms, leaning back in his chair and staring at the ceiling. The white scrap of the dressing covering the cut stretched in sympathy, and John could see the claret staining its gauze. 'The only thing you'll get from this case is a commendation for solving it so swiftly – it was hardly a challenge after all. Next time you call me in, make sure it's for something interesting.'
'Murder isn't there for your entertainment, Sherlock,' Greg growled, but there was a softness to his voice, and John frowned to see something like regret carve a brief epitaph across his face. Those dark brown eyes were watching them both carefully, and while Lestrade was not as observant as Sherlock, there was clearly something he could see that made him pause before asking, 'You going to be okay?'
Sherlock got to his feet, furling his coat around him as he nodded his head. To John, it looked like they were talking about more than the cut on the pale column of Sherlock’s throat. There was a meaningful edge to Greg’s gaze, one that only intensified when Sherlock met his eyes.
A moment later, the impression fled, leaving the DI drained in his chair while Sherlock stood, distant and indifferent, at the doorway. 'Go on, get out of here,' he ordered, giving John a weary little smile. 'I'll call you if we need anything else.'
'We'll be lucky to get as far as the reception desk,' Sherlock retorted in a mutter, whirling out into the corridor and leaving John and Greg to share a brief, commiserating look before John followed, captured as always in the wide ripples of Sherlock's wake.
A taxi was already waiting by the time John caught up, and he slipped into the back seat, telling the driver where to go as Sherlock kept his attention fixed out of the window, his fingers curled over his mouth and his eyes glazed: lost in thought.
John pursed his lips, reading the silence and deciding to respect its boundaries. He knew Sherlock well enough to realise that, when a case ended, there were a variety of possible reactions: elation and euphoria, if it was a good one and Sherlock could bask in his own success, or pensive aggravation if he thought the police could have solved it themselves. This one seemed to fit more into the latter than the former, but there was something else – something that, on another man, John would have labelled as pity.
Except Sherlock didn't care about the victims, and there was no reason for that to change now. Perhaps the dead Omega had bothered him more than he had let on? The image of her certainly still hovered in John's mind, greying skin and the striking dark contrast of her blood... but it was quickly overwritten by his more immediate concern for Sherlock: the slash of a scalpel and backwards stagger. It could have been so much worse. He itched to peel back the dressing and take a proper look at the wound, and his fingers curled into fists as he restrained himself, waiting until they were back at Baker Street.
As soon as they were through the door to the flat, John allowed the silence to wither, his own voice shattering it apart. 'Get that off,' he ordered, gesturing to Sherlock's scarf where it was wrapped around his neck. 'Let me see how bad the damage is.'
Sherlock pulled a face, waving John away. 'Don't be ridiculous. It's fine.'
'It needs cleaning.' He wandered towards the kettle, flicking it on before grabbing the first aid kit from above the microwave. He grunted in annoyance when it proved empty: its supplies no doubt cannibalised for one of Sherlock's experiments. With a quick glare at his flatmate, John rummaged under the sink for the spare he had hidden there six weeks ago, ignoring bottles of various chemical suspensions and a slew of Petri dishes in his quest.
'I'll have a shower later and deal with it then.' It was an idle promise, one John did not believe for a minute. He tugged his prize free before turning, effectively blocking Sherlock's retreat and trapping him in the corner made by the kitchen counter before reaching up to drag the scarf away himself. 'John, honestly, it's –'
'John –' Sherlock tried to step around him, grumbling in annoyance when the pressure of John's hand on his chest blocked him. His next trick was to stretch upwards on tiptoe, trying to put the wound beyond his reach.
'I'm not that short,' John muttered, snatching at the scarf and tugging it free. 'God, you can be such a child sometimes. Come here, you great prat. What are you playing at?'
With a huge, put-upon sigh, Sherlock did as he was told, his arms folded and his lips tilted in a petulant grimace as John peeled free the dressing and peered at the wound. His assessment at the lab had not been wrong, but he still felt a glimmer of relief to see that it was relatively minor, slicing across the ridges of the tendons. However, nothing was severed except the neat slice of skin, deeper than John would have liked, but still superficial.
Reaching for an antiseptic wipe, he gently banished the patina of fresh blood. It was in an awkward place, the flesh constantly disturbed by the movements of Sherlock's neck, and he considered the relative merits of steri-strips versus skin adhesive to aid the healing.
With competent hands, he decided on the former. One of the benefits of being a doctor was having a well-stocked kit on hand. If the strips refused to hold, then he could try the glue. Either way, there was a chance Kirkpatrick would leave them a scar to remember him by, not that Sherlock seemed fussed about that kind of thing.
He twitched as John eased the edges of the cut closer together and bridged them with a strip of tape. Absently, he cupped the nape of Sherlock's neck, holding him steady as he continued to work.
John expected some kind of protest about being manhandled, but Sherlock's response was opposite and instantaneous. He froze, muscles locked solid with tension and his indrawn breath loud in the silence of the kitchen.
He looked up from what he was doing, taking in Sherlock's abrupt pallor. He looked dead-white, cringing and panicked, so unlike his normal confident self that John almost recoiled with the shock of it.
Yet before he could so much as twitch, he registered the sensation beneath the splay of his hand against Sherlock's nape. Not smooth skin, but something gnarled hidden by the soft, overhanging twist of those dark curls.
John stilled, the cut forgotten as he concentrated on the exploration of his right hand. His fingers moved, tracing the shape and picking out the echoes of shallow pits and ridges. It felt like – but, no, that made no sense. It must be something else.
'Lean forward.' It didn't sound like a request, not in that voice: clipped and tight. 'Let me see.'
Initially, he did not comply. His pulse thrummed beneath John's left hand, fast and frightened for reasons John didn't understand. They stood there, neither of them moving as the air coiled tight. Yet this was not the familiar, unobtrusive desire John had experienced a dozen times before, when he looked at Sherlock and saw the potential for something more than friendship. This felt heavier and more dangerous, as if the world were about to change.
At last, with the air of a man resting his head on the executioner's block, Sherlock obeyed, his lips parted around shallow, fretful breaths. He was like a wild animal itching to take flight, but John did not give him the chance as he pulled down the collar of his shirt and swept up the serpentine twist of his hair.
The kitchen light drained what little colour remained in Sherlock's skin, turning it paper-pale, but John barely acknowledged the change. He was too busy staring, shocked, at the ragged ring of scar tissue framed by his tanned fingers.
His breath caught in his throat, choking and tight. He'd seen a similar wound not two hours ago on the neck of the corpse, bloody where this one was silver with age, but he had never, ever imagined seeing such a thing cutting its way into Sherlock's flesh.
An Alpha's bite.