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Sky on Fire

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After John’s wedding, Sherlock catches an overnight train to Scotland.

Margaret Arkwright has the hands of a gardner who refuses to acknowledge her arthritis, the steel spine of a survivor of the Blitz, and eyes that hold the sadness that comes from a lifetime of choosing the happiness of others over her own. They are not, Sherlock notes, unkind. In the past two years, he has learned the consequences of unkindness about the eyes.

She lives in a cottage on the border, just outside Berwick-upon-Tweed, and over the past forty years her accent has taken a lilting turn for the northerly. But she’s in there, Sherlock can tell: Mrs. Hudson’s girlhood chum, southern and soft, and he has a flash of the two of them twirling in outrageous clothes, 1962, a train down to London and away from their parents’ watchful eyes, smeared make up, swimming vision, faces and bellies that ache from laughing, brightly painted nails on small fingers clutching, clutching before they knew that anything would ever slip through them.

With a shake of his head Sherlock clears the image from behind his eyes.

“All right, love?” Ms. Arkwright asks. Sherlock focuses on the clouding green of her eyes. Cataracts, diabetes, controlled by diet and medication but not insulin just yet. She’s set a cup of tea before him, and the steam rises like smoke signals.

“Thank you,” Sherlock says, because John would like that. Ms. Arkwright takes a moment to assess him, white brows kitting together, before she settles in with her own mug across the table from him.

“You’re that detective from London,” she says for the second time that morning, and Sherlock would like to scoff at her, would like to snap at her about redundancy and using her brain, but he can’t bring himself to expel his breath that way. When confronted with a little old lady who wishes to feed him, Sherlock, as ever, caves more quickly than Mycroft threatened with fieldwork.

“And you’re a retired mayor’s aide who never married and used the mildly neglected neighbor children as stand-ins for the ones you never had, but now that they’re grown they don’t visit. There now, we’re all introduced.”

And Ms. Arkwright’s mouth performs the small miracle that Sherlock is still not accustomed to receiving for his deductions: it quirks into a twist in one corner and deepens the crinkles around her eyes.

“Close, but not quite,” she says.

“There’s always something,” Sherlock says. He raises his eyebrows. “Well?”

“I was the mayor,” she says, and her smile widens when Sherlock curses under his breath. “For, oh, a long time. But it’s a sleepy town, Mr. Holmes. People just want their peace and quiet.”

“And a Seabird Centre.”

“And a Seabird Centre.” she says with a nod. “Have you been?”

“Maybe I’ll pop round after,” Sherlock says. He pours too much sugar into his tea and stirs.

“What’s this all about then, Mr. Holmes? Is there a case?” Pink in her cheeks, pulse beating quicker beneath papery skin, eyes bright. It thrills her, that Sherlock could have followed the trail of some criminal to her little cottage by the sea. Sherlock’s ribcage feels tight.

“I’m afraid not, Ms. Arkwright,” he says. “Though I do have an opening for an assistant, if you care to relocate.”

She laughs and clinks her mug against his. “Och, I’m too old for all that,” she says. “Dodgy knees, these days. Wish you’d asked me thirty years ago.”

“I was three.”

“Somehow I can’t imagine it stopping you,” she says, and now Sherlock smiles back. He should have known. He should have known Mrs. Hudson would never pick someone boring. Mrs. Hudson has good taste, even if her husband did turn out to be a murderer in the end.

“We have a mutual friend, Ms. Arkwright,” Sherlock says. He straightens up and squares his shoulders, curls his hands around his scalding mug and looks her in the eye.

“Margaret, please.”

“Margaret,” Sherlock says. “I understand you once knew a Martha Hudson.”

Margaret does not react in any of the three ways Sherlock postulated she would: with anger, with joy, or with hysterical grief. Stupid, he thinks as her cup clatters too hard on the tabletop and her face drains of color. In a single instant, she looks old, the weight of time settling into the lines of her face. She is completely devastated, and Sherlock did that to her. His ribs threaten to squeeze his insides beyond repair.

“Oh, God,” she says with a gasp, “is she all right? What’s happened?”

“Nothing, nothing,” Sherlock says hastily. His hand darts forward and he gives her two quick pats on the wrist before he draws back. “She’s fine. Herbal soothers, you know.”

Margaret resumes breathing with a great heave of her chest. Her mouth pinches into a tiny, colourless bud and she averts her gaze to her tea.

“Good,” she says. “That’s good. Then what is this about, Mr. Holmes, really? I am busy, you know.”

“Sherlock,” Sherlock says, and he closes his mouth before he can say anything about the relative busy-ness of someone whose schedule consists of reading some novel and then taking a nap. “I just — needed to understand.” And he thought he would. He thought, on the train, that he could barge into this cottage and observe everything and make the connections, but now all he sees is an old woman, alone.

“Just what are you trying to understand, Mr. Holmes?”

“You left her wedding early.”

“And what, she’s still angry about it? My God, I never thought she’d be the type to hold a grudge, but I suppose things change.”

“No,” Sherlock says. “Not at all. Just. You left early. She went on with things, and you stopped speaking. That’s — that’s how life works, yes? People come and go. People — people don’t stay, and you still get up and go to your job and read your book and smile when a stranger comes to your door. I want to understand. I want to—” He shuts his mouth with a snap of his jaw, and when he stops staring into the oblivion of Margaret’s wall, he finds her gaze flooded with damnable sympathy.

“It’s almost like the body doesn’t know the world ended,” she says, quiet. “There it goes, keeping time even when the sun may as well have gone out.”

Yes.”

The smile she sends him now is sad. Funny, how no one ever told him how painful a smile can be.

“I was a coward, Mr. Holmes,” she says. “Make no mistake. I took myself away because it was easier. And I’ve had a good life. But we all live with our regrets, don’t we?”

“Which manifestation of your cowardice do you regret more?” Sherlock says. “Never saying anything or leaving in the end?”

Margaret doesn’t say anything for a long moment, and when she gets up and disappears into the sitting room, Sherlock thinks that’s him dismissed. His mug is still full and steaming, but if he weighs the importance of things according to some nebulous social contract, he believes the waste of tea is of less concern than his persistent presence in Margaret’s home after it’s been made clear he’s unwanted. He stands up and loops his scarf around his neck before reaching for his Belstaff, and he’s already shrugged half his way into it just as Margaret comes back in with a slim shoebox haphazardly cleaned of the decades worth of dust it had gathered.

“Stay, Mr. Holmes,” she says. “Sherlock.”

Sherlock swallows, but off comes the coat and scarf, and he places himself back in the chair. She pulls hers round to join him, and then they are looking through pictures that span from 1956 — they would have been seventeen — to 1970, when Mrs. Hudson got married.

Margaret has a brief anecdote about each photo. Martha loved the treacle from this particular sweet shop, or yes, we once touched George Harrison’s baby finger. On and on she goes, and Sherlock listens intently to all of it. Some of the pictures feature Mrs. Hudson and Margaret together. Three show a group of girls from school. But most are of Mrs. Hudson alone, often unaware of the gaze of the camera. Wildly, Sherlock thinks he could love her this way, love her like he loves John, but it’s only an echo. It’s only because Margaret took these photos.

In the end, Margaret packs them all back up, and Sherlock wonders if she’ll ever take them out again, but he manages to lock his tongue behind closed teeth before the question can slip out.

“She wanted Frank,” Margaret says abruptly when she seals the box. “Who was I to ruin that? But neither could I stand by to watch and smile. I regret neither my silence nor my leaving, Sherlock. I regret only that circumstance consigned me to years of pining, and that I let it lie. It’s not good, you know, pining. You think it’s a thing that keeps you safe, when really it’s eating at you, bit by bit.”

Margaret sets dry fingertips on the back of Sherlock’s hand.

“Don’t be like me,” she says. “There have been others, over the years, but I always kept my heart locked away. I thought it made me loyal, or noble, or something. All it did was make me an arsehole who hurt the people who wanted to be close to me. I am an old woman now, and that’s what I regret, Sherlock.”

“Frank is dead,” Sherlock says, and Margaret’s hand slips away. “Also a murderer and the head of a drug cartel, but mostly just dead these days. Mrs. Hudson is seeing a man named Mr. Chatterjee, but he has a wife in Doncaster and Mrs. Hudson’s only in it for the sex.” With a flourish, Sherlock produces a pen and tiny notebook, on which he writes Mrs. Hudson’s address and phone number. “She would like to hear from you.”

Margaret has more manners than to gape at him, but it’s a close thing.

“How could you possibly know that? Did she tell you? Did — did she have you find me?”

“She’s my landlady. Ten minutes in her flat to deduce your surname, and three minutes on the internet to find where you lived. It was distressingly simple. And I don’t have to be told things to know them, you should realise that much by now.”

He stands and twirls the coat back up around himself. He takes three strides and he’s at the door, swinging it open, letting the cool of the morning inside.

“Sherlock—”

“Thank you, Ms. Arkwright, this has been very informative.”

“Wait!” she calls at his back. He pauses. “What about you?”

“What about me, Ms. Arkwright?”

“Are you —” She clears her throat. “Are you going to leave the wedding early?”

Sherlock flips up his collar and tips his face up into the breeze.

“Look at how the sun keeps on burning, Margaret. Isn’t it galling?”

 

End