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Variations on a Theme

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She traces the lines of the name on her palm before she can even read, following the curve of each letter – the ornate capital and the a, r, r, first a loop then up and down, up and down before the final plunge, like on a roller coaster.

Sherlock Holmes has no name on either palm. Sally assumed they were just rumors at first, or some of her more stupid colleagues wanting to have a laugh at the expense of the rookie. She tried not to peek at his hands, but it’s very hard not to notice when the freak doesn’t wear any gloves. Oh, he wears black leather gloves when it’s cold, and latex gloves on crime scenes when he doesn’t deem it too inconvenient – but he doesn’t wear anything to keep his palms covered, as if he didn’t care. Perhaps he doesn’t.
She tries not to look at his hands too much. She finds the sight of his blank palms slightly disturbing.

They meet because of Sherlock Holmes, and isn’t that hilarious?
It’s John Watson that opens the door when she and Anderson arrive at Sherlock’s flat. He’s already wearing the expression of weary resignation Sally has become familiar with – in fact, it would almost seem weary resignation is John Watson’s default emotional state. She’s not sure if it’s due to an innate trait of his character or to the fact that she’s always ever seen him in the company of the freak.

“Is this really necessary?” John asks, though he does step aside to let them in. They see Sherlock cross the living room with a few angry strides, violin in hand and dressing gown billowing in his wake. He drops the instrument unceremoniously on a chair before stomping upstairs. If there had been a door on his path, Sally’s sure he would have slammed it for good measure.

“Oh, I’ll take care of it then, shall I?” John shouts in his general direction.

“You know, none of this would be necessary if he stopped withholding evidence,” Sally says, while Anderson snaps on a pair of latex gloves with obvious glee.

“He’s not withholding anything, he probably forgot he even took it in the first place–”

“Yes, yes, alright,” Anderson interrupts, walking towards the kitchen door. “I’ll start from here Sally, you can search this room.”

A short blonde woman exists the kitchen just as Anderson walks in. She looks annoyed but not particularly surprised by the interruption, as if drugs busts for her were just a common inconvenience.

“I’ll take it as my cue to leave,” she says to John, and he sighs.

“Look, I’m sorry…”

“No, it’s alright,” the woman says. She walks to John and kisses him on the cheek.

Sally turns to the bookshelf, trying to push down the feeling of being an intruder. It must be trying to live with a madman that sabotages so many of your dates (she’s read John’s blog, but well, everyone at the Yard has.) Then again, no sane man would choose to live with him in the first place. Maybe they’re just as bad as each other.

“We can meet for that coffee, okay? Catch up a bit,” John’s saying, looking at the woman as she takes her coat off the coat stand.

“Yes, alright Johnnie. Give me a ring. You never do,” she says with mild reproach, buttoning her coat up.
John walks her to the door, kisses her goodbye before she leaves.

“Bye, Harry. I promise there won’t be cops next time,” he says.

In the corner of the room, Sally freezes. Harry? She’s so startled by the name she almost drops the stack of books she’s holding. She probably heard that wrong. She puts the books on the floor, starts clearing another shelf. Yeah, of course she heard that wrong. What woman’s called Harry? She absentmindedly curls her fingers on her palm, almost protectively.
John stands in the middle of the room, arms crossed on his chest. He turns to look at Sally stacking books on the floor.

“Do you enjoy it?” he asks.

“A bit,” she replies with sincerity.

Upstairs something hits the floor with a loud noise of shattering glass. John pinches the bridge of his nose, seems to count to ten, and walks up the stairs without saying a word.

They meet a second time in front of New Scotland Yard. Sherlock marched out of her boss’s office with no explanation as per usual, leaving his sidekick to trail after him after throwing a hurried apology their way. It must be nice to look grand on crimes scenes and take all the credit for solving cases without having to do any actual paperwork, Sally thinks. She tried talking to her boss about it but he just shrugs it off, as he does with many other things.

“He gets the job done, doesn’t it?” he said. As if that was an excuse.

She walks out of the Yard after spending two hours filling in forms and getting creative when typing up a report of a case since Sherlock omitted details he considered too dull to be explained.
When she finally walks out of the building there’s a blonde woman standing near the entrance, and Sally recognizes her as John Watson’s lady friend from the drugs bust. She turns just as Sally spots her, frowns and waves at her. Sally stops.

“Excuse me,” the woman says, walking towards Sally. She smiles at her a bit nervously. “I’m sorry but, you were at my brother’s flat the other day, right? Do you know if he’s still in?”

She must see the look of confusion on Sally’s face since she adds quickly: “John Watson, I mean. He, uh, works with that Sherlock Holmes guy. We were supposed to meet here.”

“Oh,” Sally says. She can’t make sense of the relief that blooms in her chest at those words – my brother. “I– yes, I know him. I’m afraid he already left. Dashed out after the madman.”

“Right,” John’s sister says. On her face appears a resigned expression that reminds Sally of that of her brother. She finds herself smiling without quite meaning to.

“Oh, sorry. I’m Harriet Watson, by the way,” John’s sister says, holding out her hand. “Well, Harry. No one ever calls me Harriet.”

Sally didn’t hear it wrong then. She tries to keep a neutral expression, which isn’t too hard – lots of practice at work, what with interrogating suspects and all.

“Sally Donovan,” she says, shaking her hand.

“Do you happen to know where my brother rushed off to?”

“Uh, he didn’t say. Though to be fair I suspect he didn’t know.”

“Figures,” Harry says, shaking her head. There’s the sound of a doorbell – a text alert noise – and she fishes her phone out of her coat pocket. “And that’s the tosser,” she adds, glancing at the screen, but puts the phone back in her pocket without reading the text. “Second time he stood me up this week.”

“He seems a decent bloke, your brother,” Sally says. “I think the freak must’ve rubbed off on him a bit.”

Harry looks at her. “Sherlock Holmes, you mean? He is a bit… odd, isn’t he?”

Sally laughs. “You have no idea.”

Harry looks at her watch. “My shift starts in less than an hour,” she says. “I think I’m going to get myself a coffee. Want to join me? You can tell me what my brother’s up to these days since I hardly see him anymore.”

Sally’s never been one to take impulsive decisions, but she agrees before she can even think about it.


Harry’s about to start her new job as a cashier at a nearby Tesco (“Hardly my dream job but, you know. Beggars can’t be choosers and all that.”) Sally, as it turns out, has quite a few anecdotes about the mad consulting detective and his loyal assistant (“…so your brother fishes the idiot out of the Thames, right? And instead of thanking him, like any normal person would, the freak turns to him with an affronted look and splutters: ‘I told you to wait for me on the bank, John! Now you ruined my phone!’ As if he hadn’t been flailing in the water like a drowning rat! I don’t know how your brother keeps from punching him sometimes.”) Harry laughs as Sally talks. She’s easily amused. When she smiles, tiny lines appear at the corner of her eyes and her irises seem to get a deeper blue. Sally steals glances at the hand Harry’s curled around her cup, the one covered by a beige fingerless glove.

“I’ve got to go,” Harry announces after a while, glancing at a clock on the wall. “Have you got a pen?”

Sally rummages in her handbag and passes her a biro. She watches as Harry scribbles a phone number on a paper napkin.

“Give me a call if you ever feel like doing this again,” Harry says, sliding the napkin towards Sally. “Chatting with my brother is usually a lot less fun.”

“I will,” Sally says.

She feels a surge of excitement as she watches Harry walk away. Her heart beats so fast she feels her blood thrumming in her fingers – they tremble a bit when she squeezes them around her cup.
In the Tube she takes the napkin out of her bag three times, just to look at the squiggly figures.

Harry is a boy’s name. This is a fact.
Life has a knack of surprising you – like God, it works in unexpected ways. This is also a fact.
Did Sally ever think her match could be a woman? No, she didn’t. The idea never crossed her mind.
Is her match a woman? Maybe. It could be.
Could it be that woman?
She takes off her glove as soon as she’s home, goes lie on her sofa, tracing the familiar letters with a finger as she did so many times when she was a child. It looks like it might be hers. Does that sound crazy? She doesn’t get much sleep that night.

She waits three days before calling Harry. It’s pure agony.

“I’m Sally. Sally Donovan?” she says, when Harry answers the phone. “I was wondering if you’d like to meet for another coffee.”

There’s a pause on the other end of the line. “There’s this film I’ve been wanting to see,” Harry says. “How about tomorrow night?”

Sally laughs and nods, even if Harry can’t see her. “Yeah, works for me. Tomorrow’s fine.”

“I haven’t told you what it is yet,” Harry says. She sounds vaguely amused.

“It doesn’t matter,” Sally says. “I mean, I’m fine with anything. You choose.”


“Is it… that superheroes film?” Sally asks in a dubious tone as they stand in front of the cinema.

“You had your chance, remember,” Harry reminds her. “You gave up your right to veto.”

There are statistics, of course – hundreds and hundreds of studies.
What happens most of the time is this: people meet their match, start dating, get their happily ever after.
What happens equally often is this: people think they’ve found their match – lots of Maries and Toms and Georges around – give it a try and either realize their mistake or hold stubbornly onto the wrong person.
Some live in the hope of meeting the right one. Some content themselves with casual relationships, waiting to stumble upon the one whose name they carry on their palm.
Then there are the rare cases. People who meet their match but somehow can’t make it work.
Matches that don’t quite… match.
And of course there’s people like Sherlock Holmes, too – exceptional, in every sense of the word.

“Just enough to keep life interesting,” Sally’s grandma used to say.

Harry lives near Totting Bec, and she walks Sally home. As she fiddles with her keys in front of the door Sally wonders if she should invite Harry in – can’t even use coffee as an excuse since they stopped for one of the way – but Harry relieves her of that choice.

“Thanks for, you know. Suffering the evening through,” Harry says.

“I didn’t,” Sally says. “I had fun.”

“We should do it again, then,” Harry immediately says. There’s a playful grin on her face. Sally might be grinning back. She’s isn’t sure.


Harry smiles, then places a hand on Sally’s shoulder, stands on her tiptoes and presses a gentle kiss on her mouth. It’s a brief kiss and relatively chaste, but it sends Sally’s heart aflutter.


They meet again a few days later for dinner at a pub a couple of blocks away from Sally’s place.

“Look at you,” Harry says, giving Sally an appreciative look. “You’re beautiful.”

Sally isn’t wearing anything particularly special, but she did put on a nice silk shirt and one of the skirts she almost never wear because they’re not very practical for work. She wasn’t trying to dress to impress but – well, it is a date after all, isn’t it? There’s no point pretending.

They chat of this and that – Harry talks about her new boring job, Sally complains about the paperwork and her boss and the madmen she’s forced to work with, which now include Harry’s brother. Harry sticks to cola and then orders a ridiculous non-alcoholic cocktail with a ridiculous name and ridiculous little umbrellas sticking from the glass, while Sally gets a bit tipsy after her second beer. At one point during the evening she reaches across the table and places a hand over Harry’s. She doesn’t stop talking but she smiles her beautiful smile, and her blue eyes glint.

This time when they arrive to Sally’s door she turns to ask: “Would you, er, would you like to come up?”

And Harry says, “Yes, I would.”

They are kissing before Sally can even close the door of her flat. Harry takes Sally’s face in her hands, gently, and presses her lips against hers like she did that first time, only she doesn’t keep it brief now and it doesn’t stay chaste for much longer. Sally runs her hands through Harry’s short hair, cups them around her face.

“I don’t,” Sally gasps when they separate to breathe. Harry looks at her, hands still around her face, breathing against her mouth. “I’ve never. With a woman.”

“It’s okay,” Harry says, stroking her thumbs soothingly on Sally’s cheekbones. “It’s all right, darling. I can show you.”

And so she does. They don’t even make it to the bed.

Later, when Harry is nuzzling her neck as they sit on the sofa, Sally takes Harry’s gloved hand and squeezes it with hers, the one with that roller coaster of a name inked onto her palm. Harry squeezes back.

Is this what falling in love feels like?

Sally hasn’t thought of telling Harry yet, but the decision must’ve been already made, on some unconscious level at least.
Harry’s on her back on Sally’s bed and Sally’s kissing her throat, holding her hands above her head by the wrists.

“You have no idea,” she whispers against her skin, “how long I’ve waited.”

Harry laughs. “We’ve practically just met.”

Sally sighs against her neck. “That’s not what I meant.”

“What did you mean, then?” Harry asks, playful.

Sally sits up. Her muscles moved almost on their own accord.

“I…,” she says, and stops, clearing her throat. Harry looks up at her and seems to sober up.

She’s not sure why she does it. For a moment she feels that it might make everything clear, explain everything better than any word could. She holds her right hand up and tugs off the black glove.

“I mean this,” Sally says.

Harry sits up slowly. She covers Sally upturned palm with her hand but doesn’t even looked at it. Why doesn’t she?

“Sally,” Harry says, voice slightly unsteady. “I don’t think it’s me, dear.”

“It must be,” Sally says. This feels all wrong. It isn’t going like she thought it would.

Harry looks at her, then down at their linked hands, one bare and the other covered. She lifts her hand, takes off her own glove and turns her palm up.
Sally looks at it, uncomprehending. It takes her a few seconds to make out the name on Harry’s palm. Clara. The black letters stand out on Harry’s pale skin.

“She’s my ex-wife,” Harry says. “We’re a match.”

People say they can tell when they’ve met their match. . For many it might be just a case of wishful thinking. There’s no sure way to prove it, obviously, apart from seeing if a particular bond will withstand the test of time. But well, many say it feels sort of like a pull. An irresistible force, like gravity.
Someone comes along, and you’re dragged into their orbit.

“I thought it was a casual thing,” Harry says.

She’s sitting at the small table in the kitchen while Sally puts some coffee on, just to have something to do with her hands, just so she doesn’t have to sit at fidget and look at Harry’s face when she tells her why this thing between them could never work.

“You could have mentioned it,” Sally says, still facing away from Harry. She has to keep the bitterness out of her tone, even if rationally she knows Harry couldn’t have known, that none of this is her fault. She’s not feeling very rational at the moment, though. “About your wife.”

“Ex-wife,” corrects Harry.

Sally turns to look at her. She looks tired and older under the harsh yellow light of the kitchen.

“What happened?” she asks. It’s like walking through a minefield, she knows, but she can’t help herself. She senses there might be some tragic story behind – why else would she be here? Why, when there is someone out there who was always destined to be with her?

Harry smiles, bitterly. “I messed it up,” she says. Her voice is filled with self-deprecation. “I tend do that. Perhaps you’ve noticed.”

Sally sits on a chair across from her. Harry looks at her, and her gaze turns sad.

“Look,” she says with a sigh. “I really like you, okay? But if you thought that I was… I understand. If you don’t want to see me anymore.”

The thought almost chokes Sally up. “Of course I want to see you.”

Harry nods, thoughtful. “It’s probably not even me, darling. Lots of Harrys out there. Common enough name.”

And how can Sally explain? How can she put it into words in a way that could make her understand?
She knows it is her with a certainty she can’t explain nor make sense of. It’s the same certainty that told Sally she had to see that woman again, it’s the way the thought of Harry with someone else felt so wrong, how she fell head over heels for her even though she knew almost nothing about her life, even though she had never felt that kind of love for another woman.

“Who knows,” Sally says. “Maybe you are right.”

There’s a psychopath on the rampage, murdering red-haired men and leaving pages ripped off from the Encyclopædia Britannica on the crime scenes. They try to keep things quiet, but of course it ends on all the papers’ first pages, and they have to deal with the press and panicked citizens on top of trying to make sense of the clues the madman is leaving behind. They have to call in Sherlock Holmes – though to be fair, he had been pestering Lestrade about this case for days.

He arrives on the crime scene of the fourth victim with an excited look on his face and hair dyed a ridiculous ginger. (“Don’t ask,” John tells Lestrade before he can even try to articulate a question. “I don’t know, I’m not even sure I want to know.”)

Sherlock starts examining the scene, collecting evidence and insulting the forensic group with evident relish. He’s in top form today. John watches from the sidelines, only stepping in when Sherlock starts to shout at the victim’s neighbor he’s interrogating.

“Okay, that’s enough,” he tells Sherlock sternly. “Take a break, okay?”

The neighbor looks at John, relief evident in her eyes. Sherlock stomps away, muttering the word break under his breath over and over in an affronted tone.

“Keep an eye on him,” Lestrade tells Sally wearily. “Just… make sure he doesn’t squirrel anything away.”

She finds him in alley a couple of houses down the street, leaning against the brick wall with a cigarette dangling from his fingers.

“Thought you had quit,” she says.

He exhales a cloud of smoke without looking at her. “Last time I checked, it was none of your business.”

The thing is, John Watson has made Sherlock more bearable, but only just. Most of the time Sherlock Holmes still behaves like an arrogant dick.

“Indeed. If you’re finished with your tantrum we’re about to wrap things up here.”

He straightens and drops the cigarette on the ground, crushing it under his foot, and walks past Sally without saying a word. When they get back to the crime scene John is still talking with the victim’s neighbor who looks – understandably – a lot more relaxed. John leans towards her confidentially and whispers something, and she laughs, covering her mouth with a hand.
Sally sees Sherlock narrow his eyes as he takes in the scene and then strides away. She would’ve found it funny once, maybe. Now she notices how Sherlock looks both angry and hurt when he walks away, and feels an echoing pang of sadness in her chest.

That night she calls Harry as soon as she gets home.

“Can we talk?” she asks. She hears Harry hesitate.

“Yes, of course,” she replies after a few seconds.

Sally sits on the sofa and drags a cushion onto her lap. “I know this is personal but I need– I want to know.”

“O-okay,” Harry says, tentative.

“Do you still love her? Clara.”

Sally heart starts beating a bit faster. She clutches her phone tighter, presses it harder against her ear, as if afraid the answer might slip away.

“I do,” Harry says, voice rough. “I don’t think I’ve ever stopped.”

“Then why,” Sally starts, and then blinks, trying to bat away unexpected tears. “Why did you break up?”

She hears Harry take a long breathe, then a rustling sound that might be her rubbing a hand across her face.

“Because…” she says wetly. “We tried, God knows we did. But sometimes… sometimes love isn’t enough.”

Sally closes her eyes and presses her lips together.

“I want to see you again,” she says, which isn’t what she planned to say but it’s good, because it’s true. “I still want to give it a try. If you want to.”

Harry laughs, sounding startled. “Okay,” she murmurs. “Okay.”

Sally’s never thought about what it could be like, to be one of those out of the ordinary.
She always thought she would meet a man, and they would fall in love and get married and have kids, like most people did. Just one of life’s surprises, as her grandma would say.
It might take her some time to accept the fact. She didn’t have all of her life to get used to the idea.

She whisper the question one night, as they lie together in her bed, faces hidden by the shadows of the room.

“Do you think you’ll ever get back together?”

Harry sighs and rolls on her other side, draping an arm around Sally’s waist, drawing her closer.

“I don’t think so. I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it. Who can say?”

Who can, indeed? Sally embraces Harry tighter, pressing her face into her hair, and hopes that love might be enough to resist a pull like gravity.