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Restoration

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Sherlock was on the verge of dropping off again when Molly finally came home.

He’d been waiting outside her door for hours; it would be too unkind, after everything, to appear at her work or break into her flat. But he had to see her—had to apologize, had to explain—before he could move forward, not that he had the least idea what moving forward would entail. He didn’t even have a home to return to, as far as he knew.

Still: Sherlock had been up for days and he’d already nodded off several times, catching himself just as he started to slump down the wall, when the sound of Molly’s footsteps came close enough to rouse him. The footsteps stopped.

“Molly,” Sherlock said straightening and blinking. Molly was looking straight at him, arms crossed and her mouth a tight line. “I, I…”

“What are you on?”

“What? Nothing, I swear to you, nothing. I’m clean. I just needed talk to you. To apologize. Please, Molly, let me come in so I can explain.”

Molly stared stonily at him another moment, then took him by the wrist and pushed his sleeves up. Sherlock submitted meekly as she repeated the process on the other arm. They both knew he could have easily concealed the needle marks elsewhere, but then they both also knew he’d never bothered to hide or lie before. “All right,” she said finally, dropping his arm and turning to dig out her keys. “I need a cup of tea. You’ve got that long.”

Sherlock started talking before she’d even filled the kettle, desperate to get the story out before she changed her mind and kicked him out. He told her everything up until the point he’d found himself at his childhood home, Eurus and her mad games and the phone call and the dead bodies at Sherrinford and the gun he’d turned on himself, and then he stopped. He stopped because he couldn’t go on. He simply had no idea how to make sense of the rest of it.

“Oh, my God,” Molly said when she realized he’d stopped speaking. “God. And you never knew about her? Were you younger, or—“

“Older by a year,” Sherlock said. “It seems I deleted the first six years of my life. I still don’t remember properly.”

“So where is she now? Did they catch her? What about the little girl on the plane, are they all right?”

Sherlock realized his hands were trembling where they gripped his mug. He tried to take a drink and saw that his cuffs were wet, though he didn’t remember sloshing the tea. He put down the mug. “Yes. Eurus is…safe. Or she will be, Mycroft says. Not sure how he’s planning to manage that; John suggested deaf guards.”

Molly shook her head, her expression still slightly dazed, and Sherlock added, “She will never do anything to harm you again. You’re safe, I swear to you. It was always me she wanted to hurt, not you, but she’s never been overly fussed about collateral damage. I’m—“ horrifyingly, his voice cracked. He swallowed angrily and tried again: “I’m so terribly…” Christ. He squeezed his eyes shut.

He heard a scrape of chair legs and then a tentative hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right. Really, Sherlock, I understand now, I’m not angry.”

Sherlock took in a shaking breath. Molly’s arms went around him, in as loose of an embrace as a small woman could manage with a large man. Sherlock had never been much of an expert on hugging, but in the last month he had hugged two people—an increase over his previous lifetime total of zero—and now for the first time understood the difference between hugging and being hugged. He was in this instance definitely being hugged, and it made him feel hideously embarrassed. He thought about bolting, but where would he go?

“Thank you,” he finally managed, reaching up to give Molly an awkward pat on the back of her arm. Molly let go, looking almost as uncomfortable as Sherlock, and quickly picked up her tea.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Molly asked, safe distance restored. “You look terrible.”

Admitting he had not eaten or slept for the past few days would surely make Molly feel obligated to look after him, which was the last thing Sherlock wanted just then. “I had to talk to you before anything else,” he said, honestly. “But to tell you the truth I’m starving. Can I buy you dinner? It’s the least I can do.”

“You don’t look much like going out,” Molly observed. “But if you really want to make it up to me…I’ve got quite a lot of new messages over the weekend; what if we get a takeaway and you can look them over and make sure none of them are—“ she visibly bit back the word sociopaths—“secretly married?” When they’d been taking it is turns to babysit him Sherlock had helped Molly set up her profile on a dating site.

“Yes of course,” Sherlock said, relieved. A chance to focus on something beside the ruins of his own life: he’d have been delighted even if it hadn’t provided an opportunity to smooth things over with Molly. And to eat. “You choose, I’ll pay. Agreed?”

“Deal,” Molly said, and her smile this time was genuine.

 

Sherlock woke to pale sunlight slanting across his face. For a moment he was completely disoriented, but then he realized that he was on Molly’s sofa, shoes off and a blanket tucked around him. He tried to sit up, wincing at the nagging ache in his ribs, and slid right off onto his arse. Apparently Molly had propped his too-long legs on an ottoman when he fell asleep. Sherlock sat on the rug, thumped his head back, and thought that he was definitely too old to be sleeping on sofas. He wondered gloomily if he still had a bedroom, let alone a bed. On the coffee table was a piece of paper, folded over so it would stand up and covered in Molly’s handwriting: “Gone to work, help yourself to coffee.”

You are a better friend than I deserve, Sherlock thought as he dragged himself to his feet. In spite of the ache in his side—and back, and neck, now—and the fogginess of heavy sleep, he realized he was feeling better than he had the previous night. Unfortunately, this did not translate into looking better. Sherlock frowned at his reflection in Molly’s guest toilet: lank, unshaven, three day old clothes…there was nothing for it, he was going to have to go home and assess the damage.

 

“I had some of that plastic tarpaulin put up over the windows directly the fire was out, so there wouldn’t be any more damage if it rained,” Mrs. Hudson was saying as she set a plate in front of Sherlock. He was feeling better already just from the smell. “The electricity and water are turned off to the upstairs—there was a tap broken off in the kitchen, water spraying everywhere, and the glass! You won’t be cooking in there for a while.”

Sherlock looked up with his eyebrows raised and she twinkled at him: ah, a joke. Sherlock never cooked. He swallowed a large mouthful of bacon, about to ask if she’d mind him turning the whole thing into a proper lab now the kitchen was destroyed anyway, but then he stopped: did he even truly like chemistry? Or had he just pursued it to avoid other people after Victor? Maybe deep down, he really preferred…metaphysical poetry, or reality television. Who was he, really?

Mrs. Hudson refilled his coffee and settled opposite him with her own, unaware of Sherlock’s existential crisis. “The bathroom’s all right, mostly, but there’s no water of course, and no electricity either. There’s the bath in 221C though. I gave it a good clean yesterday so you’ll be able to use that, and I brought down your things.”

“The bedroom?”

“Oh, it’s fine. A bit smoky. And there’s John’s old room as well; the second floor wasn’t damaged at all.”

So he had a place to sleep. One less thing to sort out for now, anyway; that bit at least was a relief. “Have you got any candles?”

Sherlock felt much better after Mrs. Hudson’s fry-up, and better still when he was washed and shaved and dressed in clothes that didn’t seem to carry the reek of the Musgrave marshes. Looking at his reflection, he thought that to anyone he else he probably looked perfectly normal; looked, in fact, exactly like the man he had been a few months ago.

He wasn’t. He would never be that man again. He no longer knew if that man had even truly existed.

Having finally run out of ways to put it off, Sherlock climbed the stairs slowly and peered into the wreckage of his flat. When he stepped inside, ash stirred up from the debris at his feet and drifted lazily in the muted light, like dust motes. He stood for a moment letting his eyes adjust to the dimness. Something bulky was blocking the door and he stooped to touch it: the client chair, now bent and mangled.

Something tickled the back of Sherlock’s mind. The chair. He had been playing his violin Sunday morning—had that really been only two days ago?—and the case had been open on the chair. When Mycroft arrived, he’d put the violin in the case and pulled out the chair…where had he put the case? He moved carefully into the room, trying not to step on anything that might be salvageable, and tugged the sofa away. The wall behind it was crushed, but the floor seemed intact, so Sherlock crouched down and felt around in the wreckage of plaster and paper. There was the case, blackened and sooty but apparently intact, and when he lifted the lid the violin appeared miraculously undamaged. Sherlock felt a surge of gratitude so intense it was almost painful: this, at least, this was his. It didn’t matter how music had come into his life; it didn’t matter even if Eurus had placed a violin in his hands when he was five and commanded him to play. The violin was as much a part of him as the color of his eyes. In the wreckage that was his life—physical and metaphysical—this was intact.

Sherlock reached out a careful finger and brushed it across the strings. Not quite in tune, but not bad, either.

“Is it okay?”

Sherlock jumped a little, startled, and then stood up. John was standing just inside the door, holding a box of bin liners and a battery-operated work lamp.

“What are you doing here?”

John gestured with the bin liners. “Lending a hand. Looks like you could use it.”

“Aren’t you meant to be at work?”

“I took a leave.”

“A leave.”

John shrugged. “Yeah. People have been telling me to for weeks—Mycroft even offered to pay for it, but I’ve got Mary’s life insurance money, so. Seemed like the right time.”

“But where’s Rosie?”

“At nursery, just as she’d be if I’d been at work—but I am thinking I’ll take Mycroft up on his offer to find me a nanny. More flexible, you know? And probably safer for Rosie, if Mycroft does the hiring.”

Sherlock had a sudden bizarre image of one of Mycroft’s underlings, armed to the teeth, wearing an earpiece and pushing Rosie through a park. “You don’t have to—“

“Sherlock.” John cut him off. “This isn’t only for you, all right? Just—you were there for me, when I was at my worst. Your methods were totally mental and almost got you killed, but, you know. I’ve been a shit friend to you, and I’ve been a shit dad to Rosie, and a shit husband to Mary, and from the way everyone reacted when I said I was taking leave I suspect I’ve been rather a shit doctor as well. So. You were there for me, when my life fell apart, every time, and now I’m here for you. Okay?”

Sherlock stared at him. His throat was feeling tight, and he had a terrible feeling if he tried to say anything the tears would come welling up again. “Okay,” he finally croaked.

John gave a brisk nod. “All right. Let’s get started in the kitchen, Mrs. Hudson says the power’s been off for days so that fridge isn’t going to improve if we put it off.”

 

 

“Things with John are much better, thank you,” Sherlock said.  “As you’re already aware, since it’s evident he’s returned to seeing you again. That’s not why I’m here. I’m actually here for myself today.”

“Go on,” Ella said, her tone striking an admirable balance between neutral and encouraging.

Sherlock spoke without inflection. “I have recently become aware that my memories of childhood are incorrect and unreliable. My family is not what I believed it to be. My entire life is, in fact, based on lies, and I require assistance in remembering the truth and in reconstructing my life, if possible.” He shut his mouth with a snap on the last word, hating the way his heart was pounding in his ears. Ella waited patiently, leaving the space of silence for him to fill if he wished, as she always did. Sherlock took a breath: just get it all out.

“I created the person I am now from whole cloth”—or Mycroft did, or Mummy—“when I was six. Following a series of traumatic events my family refused to acknowledge. I need to remember. I need to know who I am. Can you help?”

Ella waited another moment and then nodded, her eyes steady on his. “Mr. Holmes. I know you’re aware that as a patient, you’re rather…unique. But this? Lies and family secrets?” She smiled very slightly. “This I know. Of course I can help you.”

 

“Not the hat!” John said. He neatly snatched the deerstalker from the air where Sherlock had just launched it in a smooth flight toward the rubbish heap. “You can’t bin the hat. It’s only a bit scorched, look, the rest is just soot. I’ll take it to the cleaners and it will be good as new.”

“Fine,” Sherlock said indifferently, turning away.  The Sherlock Holmes who wore the damn hat seemed a distant memory, like a concerto he had once played but now forgotten. He was no longer certain he even wanted to be a detective anymore, when the literal and metaphorical dust had settled; he was no longer certain of much of anything. “You do the drawers then, since you won’t let me get rid of anything.”

The destruction wrought by the explosion had been so random as to seem almost capricious: the rug was essentially unscathed—John’s theory was that all the books falling onto it had protected it from the worst of the fire and water damage—but the desk was demolished. Only the things in the heavy lower drawers had survived in any state and these were mostly case mementos.

“Oh look, here’s that blow dart thing the dwarf shot at us with,” John said with enthusiasm, lifting a blackened object from the wreckage.

Sherlock turned to the window.  The music stand either been demolished or blown right out the window—he couldn’t even see any fragments—and the sheet music he had kept in random haphazard piles was almost entirely ash. He had been working on a requiem for Mary, off and on, not yet happy enough with the composition to play it for John; most of it had been written in the first few weeks after her death, and the piece reeked of his own guilt and desperation. No need to worry about fixing that now.

“Sherlock?”

Sherlock blinked and looked around, realizing too late that he’d been standing there staring into space for several minutes and hadn’t tidied a thing.

John’s voice was just a shade too upbeat. “Why don’t we take a break? We can have those blokes clear this away now, I think I’ve got everything worth saving out, and I could do with a cuppa.”

“Fine,” Sherlock said again, turning away. “They can clear all this too, there’s nothing left.”

 

On his own Sherlock had not been able to get much farther than he had that night at Musgrave Manor. He’d remembered a bit more about Victor, but Eurus remained an enigma: a phantom in a blue dress. His compassion for her had been genuine but somewhat abstract, an adult’s for an unknown child, as one might feel for someone in the news. When Ella suggested hypnosis he had initially scoffed—surely he, Sherlock Holmes, would be impossible to hypnotize—but when no more came back to him, he agreed, somewhat skeptically, to give it a go.

Sherlock had been wrong. On his second attempt, he went under as easily as a stone slipping into a pond.

“Do you see your mother?” Ella asked. She had guided Sherlock into what he remembered as the garden at Musgrave, on a warm summer day.

“Yes. She’s blonde, she has a blue jumper. She’s…beautiful, I suppose, but a bit sharp.”

“And your father?”

“He’s farther away. He’s reading. He’s always reading.”

“And is your brother there?”

“He’s reading too.” Sherlock felt himself smiling. “He’s frowning a bit. Mycroft’s always worrying. He’s soft, though. It’s comfortable.”

“You feel safe with him,” Ella observed.

“Yes.”

“Do you see your sister?”

Sherlock began to shake. “No. I don’t want to. I don’t want to see her. I want to go back.” His voice was rising, sharp and fearful.

“All right,” Ella soothed. “All right. We don’t have to see her yet. Let’s do something else. Where do you like to play in the garden?”

“There’s a swing. Mycroft can push me on the swing.”

“It’s nice on the swing, isn’t it? Like flying. Can you feel the wind on your face?”

“And in my hair…” he was smiling again, relaxed. “My feet can almost touch the branches.”

“Shall we slow down, or would you like to jump off?”

“Jump.” He could feel it, the moment of weightlessness, the rush of the ground, the tumble on soft grass. The impatience to go again. “I want to do it again.”

“And when you turn around,” Ella said softly, “Is Eurus there?”

Sherlock flinched. She was there. She was there with her still face and her eyes that saw into the very back of him. There was no place to hide, no place she couldn’t find him, and he was afraid, he was terrified, he was going to be sick, he was going to piss himself, where was Mycroft, he wanted to go back—

“Let’s go back up the stairs now,” Ella was saying, gently but very firmly. “We’re coming back to this room. Do you see the bottom step? I’m going to count now, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one…open your eyes.”

Sherlock immediately covered his face with his hands, gasping. He was soaked in sweat.  “I remember,” he said, rather inanely; obviously he remembered. “I remember her. It felt as it did when I was a child, that she had total power over me. She’s terrifying. I need to do it again, I need to remember more.”

“I think that’s enough for today.”

Sherlock knew she was right, but he was desperate to remember everything and just get it over with. “Tomorrow then? Can I come tomorrow?”

 

Clearing out the flat seemed to take forever.  The men clearing rubble away could have probably had the place cleaned in a day if they had just shown up with snow shovels and binned it all, but John insisted on checking over every item in hopes of salvaging anything not completely destroyed. It was wearing Sherlock out. As John and the workmen fussed over the fireplace—who cared if the brickwork could be saved, honestly, it clearly wasn’t original—Sherlock sank down into his chair and picked up John’s phone, which he must have been looking at when he set it down to argue about the fireplace. He scrolled idly through John’s texts.

Greg: You think he’s ready to look at any cases yet, I’ve a mess in Crouch End

Not yet, John had texted back. Probably a few weeks. I’ll let you know.

Nettled, Sherlock typed: You know where to find me. SH.

 

The memories hurt.

He remembered the endless night he had screamed. He remembered the knife; of course Eurus had tried it on him first. He remembered the dead squirrel. He remembered things she whispered to him after Victor died. He walked the plank, it was your fault, it’ll be your turn next, you’ll go under the water, down and down where no one will ever find you, you’ll scream and scream and no one will hear you, and the water will fill your mouth and your throat and you’ll be dead too.

“I hate this,” Sherlock said raggedly. He was bent double over his knees, chest heaving and hands fisted in his hair, trying to calm his breathing and force back the tide of tears. “I hate it, I hate it. I wish she’d really died in the fire, I wish she’d never escaped. I wish I never remembered.

“Take your time,” Ella said gently. “Take your time.”

 

“So they’re coming tomorrow to start on the wiring and the plaster,” John said. “Be nice to finally get the lights back, won’t it? And we’ve definitely decided to keep the wallpaper?”

“Of course we’re keeping the wallpaper. The wallpaper is Baker Street,” Sherlock said, earning an approving pat from Mrs. Hudson as she refilled his tea.

“We need to go shopping,” John said. “I still don’t understand how my chair was destroyed and yours is fine—“

“It’s not fine, there’s water damage on the leather and the metal—“

“Well, it’s sittable, anyway, and mine’s kindling. I’m thinking since we’re keeping the wallpaper maybe I’ll go all out this time, completely uber-Victorian, maybe brocade or velvet, but squashy, you know?’

“You should go tomorrow as they’ll be working in that room anyway,” Mrs. Hudson said.

“Lights, we need to get lights for once they’ve got the wiring done. Sherlock? Should we try for the same as before, or—“

“Why bother? It won’t ever be the same as it was.” It came out more sharply than he’d intended.

“Of course it won’t be the same. But it might be even better.”

“Either way you’ll be wanting lights, so best get them tomorrow,” Mrs. Hudson said firmly

“In the morning. I’ve got to take Rosie for her jabs in the afternoon, and Mycroft’s got a short list of nannies narrowed down he wants me to look at. Sherlock? Meet up for dinner?”

Sherlock blinked. He’d been briefly distracted by the small flare of happiness he’d felt at hearing John speak of Baker Street as though he belonged there, as though the flat were once again his as well as Sherlock’s. As he tended to do these days, Sherlock had immediately tuned out the conversation to examine the feeling from every angle, like a squirrel with a nut: real. “Angelo’s.”

John looked dubious. “Are you sure? I’ll have Rosie, I was thinking of something a bit less…”

“Of course I’m sure. Angelo loves children, he’s dying to meet Rosie.”

“We need a new coffee table too,” John said, scratching his ear, “and you’ll need a new laptop, once we get the electricity back, and, oh, the kitchen—that reminds me, Mrs. Hudson and I had some ideas there, and upstairs too seeing as we’re redecorating, but we were thinking if we knocked out the airing cupboard…”

 

The memories were not all bad. Sherlock liked remembering Victor: their elaborate games, Victor’s easy affection and cheerful enthusiasm. He remembered Uncle Rudi and his kind, sad eyes, the sweets he kept in his pocket. He remembered the swing in the garden. He had almost entirely discarded the false past by now: the life in which he had always lived in an ordinary house, always been alone. Only Redbeard the dog proved surprisingly resistant.

“Go to a place you were happy,” Ella suggested gently, and Sherlock was in the library. He touched the great shelves of books and spun the huge globe on its stand in the window. He pulled out the shallow drawers holding the carefully preserved insect collection, a relic of some long-dead ancestor who’d fancied himself a natural historian. He lay on his tummy on the rug with a book. He smelled the unique dusty-book smell, felt the roughness of the wool, and was happy.

“Go to a place you felt safe.”

Sherlock curled small, invisibly tiny under the covers, in a great wooden bed like a ship. It was dark in here and no one could see him. There was a warm bulk next to him, someone soft and comforting, and he heard the whisper of a story: The captain steered into the storm but an East wind followed him and the sails rattled and filled: beware, beware.

Beware.

Be aware. Be wary.

Beware.

“Mycroft,” Sherlock whispered when he opened his eyes. “He wasn’t trying to frighten me. He was trying to warn me.”

 

“Growth charts,” Sherlock demanded.

John fished in the nappy bag and obediently handed them over, retrieving Rosie’s bib as well. “She’s growing fine and she’s meeting all her developmental milestones, and she was brave little soldier with her jabs, weren’t you, pet.”

Rosie banged on her tray with enthusiasm.

“Very good,” Sherlock informed her. “I realize it may be difficult for you to accept that the benefit outweighs the discomfort of jabs, but be aware that widespread immunization has significantly decreased infant mortality and also morbidity in particular from meningitis caused by Haemophilus Influenza and Pneumococcus strains—“

“Look at you,” Angelo said, beaming, as he brought their food. “You’re a natural, Sherlock. You should have one of your own.”

“He’s better at it that I am,” John said wryly.

Sherlock looked at Rosie, startled. One of his own? The thought was instantly revolting, an aversion not to children as such—he adored Rosie—but to passing on his own genes. No. No matter what brilliance it carried with it, the Holmes-Vernet madness ended with him.

“Listen, Sherlock,” John said, cutting into his veal with enthusiasm. “You know I mean it, right? You’re great with Rosie. Mrs. Hudson and I were talking, and, er…”

“John,” Sherlock said severely. He had the feeling John was about to start offering his version of sage advice again, and if John planned to follow up his ridiculous suggestion that Sherlock complete himself as a person by shagging Irene Adler with the even more ridiculous suggestion that he father a child with her, Sherlock emphatically did not want to hear it. “Be quiet. Rosie will never again discover buttered noodles and I do not plan to miss the moment.”

John laughed and took a large bite. “Like I said.”

Rosie had planted both hands in the noodles, fascinated by this new and slippery sensation. She starfished her little hands experimentally, finally managing to clutch one noodle in a tiny fist, and raised it to her mouth. Sherlock watched her eyes grow wide with the delightful discovery of butter.

This, Sherlock thought. This makes me happy; this is real. I can still be happy. He glanced at John to see if he was watching, but John was watching Sherlock, and his face was very soft, and Sherlock blinked and looked away.

 

The memory wing of Sherlock’s mind palace was in much the same state as Baker Street and Sherlock had made no attempt to rebuild it. He pictured his childhood as a map: parts of it clearly delineated—the library, the garden, the shore where he’d played with Victor—and others shading into mystery: here be dragons.

 

Mycroft had brought along a large file, of course, and he spent the majority of the long car ride either making notes in it or holding cryptic conversations on his phone. Sherlock didn’t mind. He stared out the window at the sullen gloom of the day, trying not to think about anything at all.

“So,” Mycroft said, finally closing the file when they turned off onto the long overgrown drive. “May I inquire as to the necessity of my presence on this trip down memory lane?”

Sherlock carried on gazing out the window. “I’ve been seeing a therapist.” Not that this would be news to Mycroft. “She’s been helping me to remember, about Musgrave Manor. About Eurus. And I think I remember now, I have almost all the pieces, and yet they don’t quite fit together. I want you to help me make sense of it.” The house came into view, somehow even more depressing and blackened in the daylight, and Sherlock added, “And I want you to help me find my old room. I can’t seem to picture it.”

“There isn’t much left,” Mycroft said.

“Well, then,” Sherlock said as he opened the car door, “shouldn’t take long.”

They fell into step together, walking up to the huge broken front door. The silence was not uncomfortable. Mycroft hung back a little as they stepped inside, letting Sherlock take the lead, and Sherlock kept walking, allowing his subconscious to guide him.

“Tell me what doesn’t fit,” Mycroft said as they paced along the ruined entry hall.

“I have scars,” Sherlock said evenly. “Behind my ankle. I can’t remember how they got there. I remember Eurus using the knife on me to see what would happen, but that was on my arm, and she didn’t cut very deeply. There are no scars there.”

“She was trying to hobble you,” Mycroft said. They had reached the doorway to the library. “So you wouldn’t run away, I suppose. Fortunately she rather underestimated the tensile strength of the Achilles tendon, so no permanent damage was done.”

Sherlock nodded. That made sense. “This was my favorite room,” he said, looking around at the ruined shelves, the rubble where the bay widow and the globe had stood.

“Mine too.”

They stood still for a moment, just looking. “How did I never wonder why our parents had so few books, when they read all the time? Why there were no pictures of us before we were at school?”

Mycroft lifted an eyebrow, swinging the tip of his umbrella. “Children accept what they know as the norm. I was at university before I realized all uncles didn’t smell of lily of the valley.”

Sherlock couldn’t help smiling. “Do you think Uncle Rudi was really transgender, or just liked ladies’ underthings?”

Mycroft shrugged again. “Does it matter?”

“No.” Sherlock looked around, searching for the way up, and Mycroft and turned and led the way back to the remains of the main staircase.

“What else?”

“She drew pictures. Pictures where I’m dying, where I’m cut off from the rest of the family. She put them over my bed so I saw them when I woke.” Pictures in which Mycroft had been exaggeratedly, ridiculously fat, but that seemed impolite to mention.

Mycroft sighed. “Yes.”

“She used to talk to me. After Re—after Victor died. She told me it was all my fault, that the same thing would happen to me, that I was going to drown and no one would save me.” They had reached a landing and Sherlock found himself turning automatically for the next flight of stairs, but the staircase ended abruptly a few steps up. The part of the house it had led to was completely gone.

Sherlock stood still for a moment, gazing up. “That was my room.”

“Yes.”

“What did it look like?”

Mycroft considered. “There was a window, with a window seat. The trim and the seat were white. You would stand on the seat—“

“—and pretend I was on a ship,” Sherlock finished, his voice rising a little with excitement. “The walls were white too, and there was a blue rug, wasn’t there?”

“And the covers on the bed were blue too. You had a ship in a bottle,” Mycroft said, his voice distant and unexpectedly fond. “And a spyglass.”

Sherlock frowned. “What did the bed look like?”

“It was white, I think. A child’s bed. Low to the ground. Why?”

It seemed right, and yet it didn’t. Sherlock frowned up at the staircase again. “This part of the house is entirely destroyed. I should have died here. Why didn’t I?”

“Because you weren’t there,” Mycroft said quietly.

The place where he was safe. “Your room,” Sherlock breathed, turning to look at Mycroft. “I was in your room that night.”

“You were in my room every night,” Mycroft said. “That summer, anyway, after Victor died.”

“You had a sleigh bed.”

Mycroft smiled, that fond look again. “It was so tall I had to pull you up. I think that’s part of the reason you liked it there, you thought she couldn’t reach you.”

Sherlock closed his eyes. He remembered the bed, and something else: his arms locked around Mycroft’s neck, eyes squeezed tight shut, Mycroft’s terrified panting as he labored down the stairs. “You saved me,” he whispered.

“Yes.”

Sherlock opened his eyes and Mycroft looked at him steadily. “I know what you aren’t asking, Sherlock. I know what doesn’t fit together for you. And all I can say is…I don’t really know. Love is blind, after all, and parental love is surely the most blind of all. And Eurus was always very, very good at misdirection.”

“Misdirection.”

“Well, it wasn’t as though she signed the drawings,” Mycroft said as though it were obvious.

Sherlock looked back up the staircase, at the empty space where his room had been. Without realizing it he stepped closer, one riser, then two. His bedroom. The white room with the white bed, where he’d muffled his tears in the blue bedclothes whilst Eurus whispered, Cry, cry, they know you’re crying because it was all your fault, all your fault, all your fault.

Sherlock swayed and suddenly Mycroft had his upper arm in an iron grip and was tugging him firmly back to the relative stability of the landing. Sherlock blinked, vision clearing, and looked at him. He wanted to say thank you. He wanted to apologize. He wanted more than anything to be lifted up into the great bed again and feel safe.

“I never would have shot you,” he said quietly. “I would have killed myself first.”

Mycroft sniffed. “Do you really think I’d have let you? Come along, brother mine. I don’t think I’m up to carrying you out of this house a second time if you should decide to faint.”

 

Considered objectively, Sherlock thought, his parents’ bias—unconscious though it may have been--was perfectly understandable. Of course they wouldn’t want to acknowledge that their brilliant prodigy was inherently flawed, a generation-defining killer; far easier to assume the bad seed was the intellectual runt of the litter. Sherlock.

“They took me to a psychiatrist,” Sherlock said. He could remember that far, Eurus smiling as he was led to the car, but no further. “I need to know what happened.”

Ella nodded. “All right.”

So she talked him down the staircase and then to the library, where he played with the globe until he was relaxed and ready, and then he got in the car and was driven away.

“We played games,” Sherlock said. “At first.” The games were easy, the sort he’d done with the other doctor, the nice one who’d said he was very clever. He knew he was doing well, and the doctor smiled at him. “But he says we’re going to play a new game now.”

The doctor brought out brightly colored pictures and set them in front of Sherlock. A girl looked down at her ice cream, fallen to the ground. Another girl was hugged by an older lady. A boy ran with a red dog; a boy stood alone as a group of children played with a ball.

What is the girl feeling? The doctor asked.

Sherlock tried to explain, politely, that of course he couldn’t know. One could never know what another person was feeling, not with certainty, although he could extrapolate from the pictures; should he do that? Perhaps the girl with the older lady was happy because the old lady was her grandmother, and she was happy to see her. Perhaps the girl was sad for some reason and the lady was hugging her to cheer her up. Perhaps the lady was actually a stranger who had offered to help the girl find her mummy and was now about to kidnap her, or maybe had already kidnapped her and was checking to see if she were fat enough to eat, like in Hansel and Gretel.

“I’m getting it wrong,” Sherlock said despairingly. “The doctor isn’t smiling any more, even though I’m very polite, and I don’t tell him what he’s asking is impossible. I know he wants me to say the ice cream girl is sad, but I can’t, can I, because I don’t know.” He’d begun to twist himself in his seat, rocking a little.

“Do you want to go back?”

“No. I can’t. I have to know.”

The doctor asked about Victor.

“He’s not nice at all now,” Sherlock said. The tears were coming, even though he squeezed his eyes tightly shut: he couldn’t cry, couldn’t, he hadn’t cried that day, because if he did the doctor would know he was guilty. “He keeps asking what happened to Victor, and I can’t tell him anything, because Eurus will make me walk the plank. So I go away.”

“Where do you go?”

“Into my head, of course.”

He couldn’t imagine he was playing pirates with Victor anymore, because Victor was gone, so instead he imagined the red dog from the picture. Sherlock would like a dog like that. The dog ran next to him and barked happily and licked his face when Sherlock petted him. He was a good dog.

“I thought I was so clever,” Sherlock whispered. “I made a dog and I thought Eurus could never get him, because he only existed in my head. But she did. When she came back. She did take him.” The tears were running freely now and he could feel his hands clenching.

“Sherlock,” Ella’s voice was gentle and firm. “Let’s come back to the psychiatrist’s office now.”

Sherlock took a deep breath. “I’m to wait outside while he talks to my mummy and daddy.”

“And did you wait outside?”

“Yes. But I listened.” Sherlock had been as polite as he could and the doctor had still frowned at him; so much for manners, he’d decided. “He said I was very clever, but I lacked empathy. I didn’t understand other people’s feelings. He said I wouldn’t admit to knowing anything about my friend, and I hadn’t shown any signs of sadism or cruelty, and I knew that was meant to be good, but that I was likely a…”

“What? What did he say, Sherlock?”

Sherlock couldn’t say it. He put his hands to his face and wept.

High-functioning sociopath.

 

Sherlock didn’t realize he’d gone over his time until Ella followed him out to the waiting area, where a thin young woman perched anxiously on the edge of a sofa (eating disorder, abused by her gymnastics coach as a girl). He heard the murmur of their voices (Ella apologizing, the girl nervously reassuring) as he ducked into the toilet, where he planted himself on the closed lid and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. Christ. He’d have thought he’d run out of tears to shed the past few weeks—oh, all right, months, ever since Mary died—but this was like a dam breaking; he couldn’t seem to make himself stop.

When he finally got himself under control Sherlock stood, looked at himself in the mirror, sighed, splashed cold water grimly over his eyes, and turned up his coat collar to hide as much of his face as possible. Then he left. He had his head so far down trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone that he walked right into the man coming up to the door, who also had his head down to look at his phone.

“Whoops, sorry there mate, are you—Sherlock?”

Sherlock looked up, resigned. There was John, face cycling from shock to confusion to understanding to guilt to concern.

“I’m fine,” Sherlock said shortly when concern seemed to have settled in for good.

“Right, sure you are,” John said. He looped one arm in Sherlock’s turning to walk side by side as he thumbed at his phone with his other hand. “Let’s go for a walk. I’ll just text Ella something’s come up.”

 

Sherlock ended up telling John everything. It took some time. They walked through the park, bought takeaway coffees, and finally circled back round and ended on a bench overlooking the duckpond.

“You know,” John remarked when Sherlock finally fell silent, “this is a bit rude and I apologize, but the longer I know you the less I find myself liking your parents.”

Sherlock felt the corner of his mouth quirk up. “Perfectly understandable.”

“They didn’t even come back from wherever it was they were when you got shot!”

“Possibly Mycroft never told them,” Sherlock said fairly. His mouth twitched again. “What about Mycroft?”

John shook his head. “Rather the opposite, I have to admit…which is really disturbing if I think about it too much.”

“True.”

They sat in silence for a minute, drinking their cooling coffee.

“And you as well,” John said suddenly, not looking at Sherlock.

“What, you like me less the longer you know me? Also understandable.”

“You know that’s not what I mean. I mean,” John took a deep breath, “it used to make me furious, the way you lied to me. I was so angry for…well. For a long time. But I’ve come to realize, lately, that it’s all you know. That for you and Mycroft, anyway, lying is how you show you care.”

Sherlock went quiet, turning his cup in his hands. “My whole life is built on lies,” he said eventually, not looking up. “I hate it.”

John reached over and took Sherlock’s hand, which startled him so much he almost dropped his empty cup. “I know. I thought I understood, because of what happened with Mary, but it’s one thing to find out your wife isn’t who you thought she was. It’s something else entirely to realize you aren’t who you thought you were.”

“You’d think I’d be happy to find out I wasn’t a sociopath at least,” Sherlock said, a note of bitterness in his voice. “Wouldn’t most people?”

“Of course not. Sociopaths don’t have to care about anyone, and they don’t have to care about how other people feel about them. Makes things much easier. I wouldn’t mind being a sociopath some days. But the thing is, Sherlock: we all knew that was bunk. Nobody but you ever believed that you were a sociopath. Not even Anderson. Maybe especially not even Anderson.”

Sherlock swallowed past the lump in his throat. “So you just thought I was a cock.”

“Most of the time,” John said cheerfully.

Sherlock tilted his head in rueful acknowledgement and John squeezed his hand. “But I know you for real,” John said. “A hundred percent. I always have. And I can tell you that maybe Eurus has the biggest brain of your family, but you have the biggest heart.”

“Does that make Mycroft just right?”

No, you tit. It makes you the wisest. That’s why you won that night. It’s why you’re going to come out of this better and stronger.”

Sherlock exhaled, looking out at the pond. “I thought all I had to do was remember everything and I would know what to do next, but I don’t. I know the truth about my past but not the truth about myself. I don’t know who I am.”

John squeezed his hand again. “You’re the best and wisest man I’ve ever known,” John said. “You’re my best friend. You’re…” he hesitated, trailing off, and Sherlock took a deep breath and turned his hand over to clasp John’s.

They sat quietly for a while, holding hands and looking out over the pond, and then John blew out a decisive breath and stood up. “Come on,” he said, tugging on Sherlock’s hand to pull him up as well. “Let’s go get some cake.”

“Cake? Why cake?”

“Because you’re having a shit day, and you love cake.”

“How do you know?” Sherlock asked. It seemed suddenly intensely important that he understand how John knew this, when he himself was no longer sure about anything. “How do you know I love cake?”

John looked at him, puzzled. “Because your whole face does this thing when you see cake. It’s like your deduction face, only dialed back. And also you nick it off my plate when you think I’m not looking.”

Sherlock felt himself smiling. It felt good to be certain of even such a tiny thing. “You’re right,” he said. “Let’s get cake.”

 

 

After everything else, remembering the fire itself turned out to be rather anticlimactic. Surprisingly, Sherlock recalled very little of the actual fire—he thought he had probably been fast asleep when Mycroft scooped him up—only that hazy impression of flight and of huddling in the damp grass whilst his parents and Mycroft engaged in an unprecedented and spectacular row: he was fast asleep, open your eyes for once, she might have killed us.

“And what happened after the fire?” Ella asked.

Sherlock lifted one shoulder. “Eurus was sent away. The evidence was overwhelming and anyway she admitted it, or so Mycroft says. My parents moved house. I went to boarding school a year early.”

“Your idea?”

“My parents’. They thought it would be easier than starting at a new school and then changing again in a year.”

“And was it?”

“For them,” Sherlock said. He was a little surprised at the edge in his voice. “Just as it was easier to pretend Victor never existed, and later, that Eurus never existed. That everything was fine. It was easier to pretend, so I pretended too. And after a while I believed it. Why wouldn’t I? The lesson I’d learnt that summer was that Eurus would destroy anything that I loved. Far better to believe the alternative I’d been so conveniently been provided, that I was a sociopath who didn’t care about anyone. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Ella tilted her head and Sherlock waved it away: “A movie John made me watch once, it doesn’t matter.”

“But you are a legend.”

“And the legend was a lie.” Now he looked away. “What I don’t know is who is left.”

Ella was quiet, letting him sit with that a moment. After a bit she asked, “And your brother? What did he believe?”

Sherlock looked back, considering. “He went along,” he said slowly, “but only up to a point. My parents never acknowledged my drug use was a problem either, you see. When I was…several years ago I overdosed. I liked to experiment, I’d mixed quite a cocktail, and Mycroft found me but of course he had no idea what I’d taken and so I nearly died. I remember him ringing our mother from hospital, her voice was always rather carrying, and her telling him that I was just acting out for attention.” His voice was very flat. “Mycroft wanted me to get treatment. Of course that was the last thing Mummy wanted, to risk dredging up the past. And I was an addict, so…of course I preferred to think he was overreacting,  that he was just meddling.” To his surprise he found himself smiling a bit. “I did agree to one thing, which was to write down whatever I was taking. I’m afraid it only encouraged me in more radical experimentation when I was younger.”

Ella smiled back, encouragingly. “It sounds as though this has strengthened your relationship with your brother?”

Odd how he still balked at acknowledging it, even now. “Yes.”

“And what about your parents? Would it help you to talk to them?”

Sherlock shook his head once. “No. There’s no point. They’re old now, and my mother will never admit she was wrong, so…we’re going to have to tell them about Eurus eventually, and that will be unpleasant enough.”

Ella nodded, waiting. When Sherlock remained silent she said, “So what now?”

“I don’t know,” Sherlock said, looking away again. “I don’t know how to move forward. I don’t know what my life is now.”

Ella was quiet a moment, resting her pen on her notebook. “Have you considered,” she said finally, “that perhaps you aren’t ready to move on yet? You’ve suffered some significant losses.”

“Everything I lost existed only in my head to begin with,” Sherlock said, almost angrily. “What should it matter?”

“Certainly it matters. Why should something intangible matter less? Religious faith, trust in another person: those only exist in the mind as well, and losing them can be devastating. Besides, that’s not even true. Victor’s death, no matter how long ago it actually occurred, is fresh to you, and you recently lost a good friend and suffered significant damage to your closest friendship as a result. Even your home was destroyed. That’s a lot to deal with. Perhaps now that you’ve processed everything you need to allow yourself some time to grieve before you’re ready to move forward.”

Sherlock turned this over. He thought about the way whenever he thought about the future he always seemed to stumble over thoughts of what he had lost, much the same way as he’d stumbled over half-buried rubble in the living room trying to clear it out so they could rebuild. He considered his mental rubble, and suddenly he knew what he was going to do.

“Well,” he said seriously, “all my mirrors were broken already, and my possessions burned; I always wear black anyway. So…”

Ella smiled. “Mourning comes in many different forms. You’ll decide what’s right for you.”

 

“You needn’t be there,” Mycroft said wearily. “I was the one who perpetuated the deception; no reason for you to suffer the consequences.”

“You perpetuated the deception at least partly to keep me safe. Don’t pretend I’m unaware,” Sherlock said. “You didn’t trust them to keep her locked up.”

“No.”

“Is that a concern still?”

“No,” Mycroft said in a much steelier voice.

“Good. Then the least I can do is be there for…moral support.”

And to his surprise Mycroft only nodded. “Thank you.”

 

The meeting with their parents was even worse than Sherlock had expected. He didn’t turn out to be much moral support after all, lurking at the back of the room staring at the floor as his parents waved aside the swath of destruction Eurus had cut and lashed out at Mycroft.  He supposed dully he ought to be grateful his parents weren’t demanding Eurus’ release, just to visit her, which was frightening enough.

“Well, Sherlock?” Mummy demanded, turning on him. “You were always the grownup!”

The grownup? Sherlock met his mother’s eyes for the first time. For once in his life he made no effort to school his face, knowing everything would show there: all the pain and anger and betrayal he’d spent a lifetime suppressing and now couldn’t stop feeling. His mother did not flinch, but he saw a brief flash of grief in her eyes before they went steely once again. She didn’t look away, but neither did Sherlock, and after a moment he simply turned and walked out.

 

In the great city of London lived a consulting detective, the only one in the world. He was larger than life. He was a legend. He could go days without food or sleep; he had no need of companionship—all emotions, and love particularly, were abhorrent to that cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind. He solved the unsolvable, saw through everyone and everything, knew all your secrets. His name was Sherlock Holmes. He was a legend. He was a lie.

Sherlock considered what he knew about himself for certain. He liked chemistry, he liked music, no to Romantic poetry, occasionally to the reality television—it offered such an excellent opportunity to practice deduction without getting slapped. He liked cake. This seemed important, somehow, as though it portended something larger, but perhaps that was only because he’d never realized it before. He was not a sociopath: he cared about other people, certainly, cared quite a lot, but since he still had no idea how interpersonal relationships worked he wasn’t sure what to do about that.

Becoming human was going to take a good deal more work.

 

On the day the wallpaper hangers finished in the lounge, John produced a can of yellow spray paint and, with a deadpan flourish, sprayed a large smiley face on the far wall. Sherlock grinned for the first time in what felt like weeks. “Where’s the revolver?”

After that was finished, and Mrs. Hudson had been calmed down and packed back off downstairs, John filled the kettle in the bathroom—the kitchen, now in the last stages of demolition, was completely unusable—and they shoved all the furniture back into place. John plunked down in his new chair with a contented sigh. “I think you’ve got this too close to the bookshelf,” he said to Sherlock.

“No, it’s centered exactly where the old chair was, this one is just wider.”

“Is it?” John looked down at the red brocade in mild surprise. “Huh. Suppose it is. It’s all right, isn’t it? I like this chair.”

“It’s perfect,” Sherlock said sincerely.

They were quiet a minute, sipping their tea. Sherlock closed his eyes, let himself imagine for the briefest possible instant that nothing had changed and that they were together in Baker Street as they had been years ago, with none of the ghosts crowding the room.

“Nice, having it back like it was, isn’t it?” John said a bit tentatively. “I was thinking…well, Mrs. Hudson and I were talking, and we were thinking maybe since they’ve got the back torn up and running the new pipes, maybe…”

“I’m going away,” Sherlock said abruptly.

“What?” John blinked, taken aback.

“I’m going away. Tomorrow.”

“What do you—is this for a case? Is it a job for Mycroft?”

“Not a case.” This was proving more difficult than he’d expected, John’s bewilderment catching him off balance. “I just…have to get away for a bit. I can’t think here, there’s too much of my old life cluttering it all—“

“No, it’s okay, I understand,” John said, recovering quickly. He leaned forward and laid a hand on Sherlock’s forearm. “Sherlock? I get it, really. Just, I don’t like you going off on your own like this, when you’re…maybe I could see if…”

Sherlock caught his meaning. “John, I assure you, I’ve never felt less like using drugs in my life. The whole point of this is to clear my head, not muck it up further.”

“Oh.” John sat back, looking ever so slightly…disappointed? “Well. That’s good then. Yes. Where are you going?

Sherlock shrugged. “Don’t know. There are a lot of people out there who owe me favors; I’ll hit one of them up.”

“Okay,” John said again and then after a moment: “But you’re coming back?”

“Of course,” Sherlock said, surprised in turn. Whatever his life was now, it was in London. He was sure about that much.

“And will you…will you keep in touch? It’s going to be hard if you just disappear again for two years.”

“It won’t be two years. But if you like, certainly.” Sherlock hadn’t thought that far ahead, but it would be nice to hear from John now and again. Sherlock felt a pang, thinking of all the firsts he would miss with Rosie, but it had to be done.

“Well.” John set his cup down and stood, looking much less cheerful than he had when he’d sat down. “I’d best be getting…Rosie, you know.”

“Yes of course,” Sherlock said, standing up as well and then feeling awkward.

John gave him a strange, stiff sort of smile as he turned toward the door, but then he turned back abruptly. “I hope, er. I hope there will be still be a place for us. For me. In, well. In whatever you decide you want your life to be.”

“John, you are the only thing I am sure of.” Sherlock was a little surprised John could be in any doubt. “You know you are. You are the one fixed point in a changing world.”

John smiled—a real smile this time—and then he stepped forward quickly and gave Sherlock a quick, fierce hug. Sherlock reflexively stiffened, but this was John, after all, and he wrapped his arms around John’s back quickly and squeezed. He could have stayed like that for hours—being hugged by John was infinitely preferable to being hugged by Molly—but John made a little throat-clearing noise and stood awkwardly back. “Take care of yourself,” he said, squeezed Sherlock’s hand one last time, and was gone.

Chapter Text

 

When Sherlock had been dead, he had spent a lot of time as a Norwegian named Sigerson. He hadn’t actually tried to pull this off in Norway—even back then his overconfidence hadn’t stretched that far—but he still knew a lot of people in Norway who thought of him with considerable gratitude, and one of them owned a holiday cottage.

 

Sherlock arrived at the cottage rather later than he’d planned, so the fjord beneath had already slid into blue shadow. The directions he’d gotten from the owner had been of the sort that make sense only if you’ve lived in an area your entire life, and he’d lost his mobile signal shortly after turning off the main road. The cottage was tiny, red-walled, with a turf roof. Sherlock dropped his things in the living room and walked through the rooms, getting the lie of the land: bedroom, bathroom, galley kitchen. Not much in the cupboards. He opened the glass doors and stepped out on the rocky prominence overlooking the fjord. He hadn’t consciously realized, until he looked down at the dark water, why he had come here.

Stairs led off the rocks so Sherlock took them, gingerly descending the steep hillside until he came to the shore of the fjord. There was a red boathouse on the shingle, with a small boat for fishing and a collection of kayaks. Sherlock squatted and dipped his fingers in the water of the fjord: it was freezing. He wondered how deep the water was.

The climb back up was grueling. Sherlock had gotten by most of his adult life through a combination of good genes, regular visits to the dojo, and not caring whether or what he ate, but the double tap of getting shot and then trying to destroy himself with drugs had taken a significant toll. By the time he reached the cabin Sherlock was out of breath and panting, sweat trickling down his back and legs. He shed his coat, thudded into a chair with considerably less grace than he’d have done if anyone had been watching, and took stock. He was all alone on what felt like the edge of the world, his life was in ruins, and he was woefully out of shape. This might have felt like the last straw, but to Sherlock it came as a relief: at least he had a place to start.

 

Next morning Sherlock drove back to town. He bought running shoes and running clothes. He bought hiking boots and thick socks and trousers with big pockets and a wool pullover and an anorak. He went to the shops and bought food: vegetables, tea, things that said things like “wholemeal” and “organic” or that looked like what John used to buy when he was on a health kick. He bought a water bottle and a daypack. Then he loaded it all up and drove back.

The first few days were hell. Sherlock had never thought much about his body except when it made its needs inconveniently known; now it demanded all of his attention. This was a relief, since it kept him from thinking about anything else except one more mile, one more hill. He was sore in places he hadn’t even known he had muscles. He had to drive down the third day to find a shop that sold plasters, since his blisters were starting to bleed into his socks. He kept going. He ran, he hiked, he ran again, he ate, he slept. Each day he pushed a little farther: one more mile, one more hill.

On the fifth day he had just turned back on his afternoon run when the thin misty drizzle began thickening to an outright downpour. Sherlock sighed, bowed his head, and ploughed on. Once, he thought gloomily, he had been fleet and graceful. He had leapt without looking, flown without landing, bounced back on light feet every time like a cat. Now he was an aching behemoth, lumbering along this sodding, sodden mountainside with no higher purpose than to get in out of the rain. Just as he thought this Sherlock came down on his left ankle, which twisted in a spike of agony and sent him crashing to the muddy path.

For a minute Sherlock just lay there, waiting to see how badly he was hurt. His ankle was a nova eclipsing everything in the immediate vicinity, but he knew his ribs weren’t broken; that particular crunching pain was an old acquaintance even before his most recent encounter at the end of John’s foot. His hand hurt. Sherlock blinked rain out of his eyes and looked at it: just a scraped palm. He pushed himself up, wincing, and laced his hands around the injured ankle as though he could somehow contain the pain, and then without even knowing he was going to do it he opened his mouth and howled. It was a wordless roar of pure rage, animalistic and oddly satisfying, and so he did it again, screaming his fury into the uncaring rain and wind. He was suddenly, blazingly furious at everything: himself for falling, the mountain, his parents, his brother, his sister, Mary for dying, John for hating him. When he drew a breath he felt the hot sting of tears in his eyes and that made him even more furious so he screamed louder, over and over and over, because he was just so bloody sick of crying.

He ran down eventually. When his throat was too sore to rage anymore Sherlock slumped, forehead resting on his drawn-up knee, hands still squeezing his injured ankle. His eyes were closed, but he could feel the merciless drumming of rain on his soaked shoulders. A tiny part of him was half expecting Mycroft to pull up in a Land Rover and scoop him up and he felt a last flare of exhausted annoyance when this did not occur.

All right, Sherlock thought, trying futilely to scrub his streaming nose with his wet sleeve. That’s it. I’m done now. No more crying. The only way out of this is forward.

Sherlock took a breath and hauled himself upright. His hip hurt where he’d fallen on it, but he ignored that and tentatively tried his left foot. He could bear weight on it, so that was a relief. Just a sprain, and Sherlock knew how to manage sprains. He looked for the cabin, which was a red blur in the distance, set his teeth, and began to hobble back.

 

Next morning the ankle was swollen and a gratifyingly ugly shade of purple. Sherlock admired it for a minute before ignoring the pain to cram it into his hiking boot. Early ambulation and range of motion exercises: he could hear John’s voice in his head, and the hiking boot was as good as a brace. He might not be able to run for a few days, but he wasn’t going to let this stop him: the only way out was forward.

In the afternoon Sherlock wobbled down the hillside and considered the kayaks. He’d never used one, but he’d seen other kayakers out on the fjord; it didn’t look hard. The storm had rain had blown itself out the night before and the day was clear and bright, light sparkling off the fjord like diamonds. Sherlock wondered again how deep it was. Fjords could be deeper than the surrounding sea, carved out by glacial ice millennia ago. Well: if he’d been meant to drown as a child, then he’d got thirty extra years, and some of them had been good. At least he’d go quickly. Sherlock limped to the boathouse and pulled down a kayak.

He had the wind in his face going out, which produced a whole new ache in his arms and shoulders, not entirely unpleasant. When he finally turned back the wind was behind him and the late afternoon sun lit the water gold and for a moment he was flying again, skimming over the water the way he and Redbeard had in his mind long ago, and Sherlock laughed out loud in sheer, unexpected delight.

 

That night he got out his violin.

 

 

A few days later Sherlock drove back down into town to replenish his supplies. There was no composition paper to be found, but a woman in the shop said she could download some and make copies if he would give her an hour, so Sherlock went to a café and got coffee and cake. Then he settled in to check his phone, which he had charged the night before in anticipation of getting a signal again.

E-mails first: hardly any unopened, why? Oh, John had been sending out some sort of autoreply: Mr Sherlock Holmes is away from London currently but will look at your message directly he returns; if you feel you are in immediate danger please contact the police, well, at least it didn’t commit him to actually doing anything about the e-mails. John had flagged a few he must have considered promising and Sherlock flicked through them out of habit: No, obvious, dull, hmmm. Perhaps. Sherlock checked his voice mail. Molly: Just wanted to wish you a good trip, John says you’ve gone walkabout. He’d ring her when he got back. The nephrologist’s nurse, asking him to reschedule the follow up appointment he’d missed--damn, he had forgotten all about that. Oh well, couldn’t be helped. He had a handful of texts: Mycroft, Enjoying the krumkaker?, which made him roll his eyes, and two from John: How’s it going and Hope you’re doing okay and haven’t got yourself kidnapped or anything, send me a text if you get a chance. Sherlock smiled, finished his cake, and picked up the phone.

John picked up on the first ring. “Sherlock!”

“Sorry I haven’t rung sooner, there’s no mobile signal where I’m staying.”

“Where are you staying?”

“Norway. On the fjords.”

“Norway!” John laughed and Sherlock couldn’t help smiling in response. “Sherlock, it’s September. Nobody leaves England in the autumn to go to Norway! They go to Italy, or Greece, or maybe Ibiza. What are you doing in Norway?”

I needed something to set myself against, Sherlock thought, but all he said was “I’d get sunburnt in Ibiza.”

“I suppose that’s so.” Sherlock could still hear the smile in John’s voice, but then he said more seriously, “You doing okay?”

“Fine.” This reminded him. “Oh, I missed my appointment with the nephrologist though. I’d completely forgotten until I turned the phone on today. That’s not a problem, is it?”

“Mmm….probably not. Tell you what, go to the chemist or whatever they have there and get some of those strips, you remember, the sort you had when you came home from hospital? Check those a few times. If you see any blood or protein, come back to civilization and ring me.”

“All right. How’s Rosie?”

“She’s great—well, actually she’s got a cold right now, bloody thing’s going round the nursery…”

“I thought Mycroft was finding you a nanny?”

“Yeah, I haven’t settled on one yet. So we’ve had a couple of rocky nights, nothing too bad.”

“And you?” Sherlock always felt awkward asking things like this. “You’re okay?”

“I’m good. Keeping busy at Baker Street. Mrs. Hudson and I decided to remodel the rest of the house since you weren’t there to harass the workmen, so I’ve been spending a lot of time helping out with that—“

“What sort of remodeling?” Sherlock said suspiciously.

“We’re not touching your rooms, don’t worry. Well, the kitchen, but you already knew about that, or would have done if you’d paid any attention when we talked about it.”

“What was wrong with the kitchen as it was before?”

“As we said every other time you complained about that,” John said with exasperation, “Mrs. Hudson’s not going to keep cooking for you forever, and since you’d basically turned the kitchen into a lab, you can’t live the rest of your life off tea and chips.”

As Sherlock had recently reached the same conclusion himself, he couldn’t really think of anything to say to this. “Well, I’m certain you’re doing an excellent job.”

“Yep, you’re going to love it,” John said cheerfully. “I’m here right now as it happens, need to get back to the workmen in case they find any more of your drugs stash.”

“I thought I cleared all that out,” Sherlock said in genuine surprise.

“You missed one in the back wall by the fire escape…it was pretty dusty, might have been from before you were away. I took care of it.”

“Thank you. Give my love to Rosie.”

“I will.”

Sherlock had taken the phone away from his ear to disconnect when he heard John say, so quietly he wasn’t entirely sure he’d heard him correctly, “I miss you.”

Sherlock put the phone back to his ear quickly. “Sorry?”

A brief pause and then John took an audible breath. “I miss you.”

“I…”

“Sherlock. It’s okay. You do what you need to do. Just…call next time you’ve a signal?”

“I will.” Sherlock swallowed. “I miss you too.”

 

 

Sherlock fell into a routine. He got up, went for a run, and ate breakfast watching the sun creep down the sides of the hills below. Then he went for a long hike or a kayak, taking his lunch in the daypack. When he came back in the afternoon he had a bit of a rest and then went out again, and in the evenings he worked on his music. It got easier. He was still sore, but now that just putting one foot in front of the other no longer required all his concentration he was able to think about the music, and in thinking about music he was able to think about what he had lost.

 

“I checked the strips,” Sherlock reported. “No blood or protein. Shall I carry on doing them?”

“You did it first thing in the morning, right?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes, even though John couldn’t see him. “I did it exactly as I did when I came home from hospital, yes, it isn’t a complicated procedure.”

“Yeah, okay. Tell you what. Check it once a week or so, when you’re coming down off your mountaintop or whatever to ring me. Then when you get back we’ll get a blood test, check your kidney function, and if that’s okay I think you’re in the clear.”

Sherlock could hear traffic noises, a faint echo to John’s voice: he was on the street, had stepped into a doorway to take Sherlock’s call. “I wrote some music, an adagio, a sort of requiem really. For Mary. I started it before but that version was rubbish and it burnt up in the explosion, so I wrote a new one. I thought, perhaps, someday, if you’d like, I could play it for you. But if you don’t want to hear it that’s fine, I understand. I could copy it out though; Rosie might like to have it someday.”

“Of course I want to hear it!” John sounded more pleased than Sherlock had anticipated, and Sherlock felt his shoulders relax; he hadn’t even realized how tense he’d been. “And I’d love a copy. I still have the wedding waltz, you know. It’s in my safety deposit box.”

“All right,” Sherlock said. He was smiling, and he thought John could probably hear it in his voice. “I’ll make a copy.”

They chatted a bit longer, nothing important, and then Sherlock said, “I’d best be going; I need to ask for more music paper before I get the shopping.”

He had convinced himself John wouldn’t say it again, was prepared for it, would not be disappointed, but John said as naturally as if he said it all the time: “Okay. Take care of yourself. I miss you.”

And Sherlock, grinning hugely, lifted his chin and said clearly back, “I miss you too.”

 

Sherlock copied the adagio out next day, after an autumn thunderstorm curtailed his hike. He made a few last tweaks, but essentially the piece was finished. Finalizing it felt as much like promise as valediction: I will never forget you. I will, to the best of my ability and the extent to which I am allowed, look after your daughter for the rest of my life.  As he folded the papers, looking out at the rain, Sherlock remembered another rainy day long ago at Baker Street, sliding Irene Adler’s phone into the drawer of his desk. He had that same sense of ending, of closing the book on something momentous and yet now complete. Perhaps Ella had been right about the mourning.

 

Sherlock began rebuilding his mind palace in earnest. No cellars or dungeons anymore; everything was above ground and open to the light. He was composing faster than he could keep up writing it down and some of it—the Redbeard music, the Mycroft music—stayed only in his head. He wrote out the music for Victor though. He bought a bottle of rum, emptied it, and let the bottle dry. Then he rolled the paper tightly and pushed it into the bottle. He set out very early in the kayak, pushing against the wind all the way to the mouth of the fjord where it opened into the great North Sea, and then he threw the bottle with all his might. Perhaps it would take on water and sink; perhaps it would wash ashore a few meters away. Sherlock didn’t stay to watch; he turned the kayak and began paddling back, feeling the sun on his shoulders.

 

Now that he was stronger, Sherlock was beginning to enjoy the experience of living in his body. He was sleeping better than he had in years, and the kayaking was turning out to be quite fun. A hot shower, a soft bed: these things were blissful in a way he had never been able to really appreciate before. And food! Food was delicious. Sherlock’s meals were not exactly Michelin quality—he ate rather a lot of them out of tins—but he was always hungry, and they tasted delectable. And there was always the cake down in the café to look forward to, Sherlock thought, curling his toes in unconscious anticipation.  What had he been trying to prove all those years, holding himself above sensual pleasures?

 

“Big news,” John said. “I hired a nanny. You’ll never guess who.”

Sherlock grimaced. Had John at some point discussed the candidates with him? If so he had paid absolutely no attention. “Who?”

“Talitha.”

“Which one was Talitha?”

“None of them. Talitha was the girl who had the slot between you and me, at Ella’s.”

Sherlock blinked. The anorexic ex-gymnast? “You can’t hire her!”

“Why not?” John said, clearly alarmed.

“She’s broken! She goes to a therapist! Rosie needs somebody perfect for her nanny, you’re broken enough.”

“Your interpersonal skills really need a lot more work,” John said. “But as it happens I understand exactly what you mean. And you’re wrong. All of Mycroft’s candidates were perfect, that was the problem: just looking at their files made me feel a total failure. If I’d hired one of them I’d have been back on the booze in a week. Talitha…she’s actually a pretty good nanny, her references are brilliant; that job she had was just a bad fit: four kids, crazy mum, chaos all the time. She needs someone who can look after her a bit, make sure she eats. I can do that. I want to do that. I meant what I said before, Sherlock; I don’t want to be that guy any more, the one who can’t remember his neighbors’ names and hurts his best friend. I want to be…I want to be more like a man who would walk all night with a woman he didn’t know just because he knew she was in trouble.”

Sherlock discounted this immediately—John was always believing him to be nobler than he really was—and considered the rest. John had a point; he had always been better when someone needed him. Probably why he’d developed the wandering eye, Mary’s supreme self-sufficiency leaving him feeling subconsciously superfluous…John certainly wouldn’t appreciate hearing that insight.  “I suppose she’ll be all right,” he said finally. “Eating disorders tend to overlap with perfectionist tendencies and obsessive-compulsive disorders; you could do worse in a nanny.”

“And she won’t nick my biscuits,” John said. “Unlike some people.”

Sherlock frowned. “Weren’t they our biscuits?”

“And there’s my best friend in a nutshell,” John said affectionately. “No.”

 

Back in London, even thinking about Eurus had seemed dangerous: something to be undertaken only in controlled circumstances, with Mycroft or Ella present. Now that Sherlock was more thoroughly grounded in the physical world, though, the monsters in his head no longer seemed as frightening.

He began with music, as he always did, but he couldn’t seem to get it right. Eurus was his dark shadow, a part of him in a way no one else ever had been—not even Moriarty—and the music always sounded wrong: a second violin without a melody. So he returned to pushing himself as he had at the beginning, one more mile, one more hill, letting his mind palace reconstruct itself around him as he sweated and toiled. It worked. I have a sister, he thought as he bent to the paddle; I have a sister, as he labored along the steep trail. I have a sister. She is mad, and brilliant, and destructive, and dangerous, and she loves me in a strange and twisted way. She isn’t what I would have wanted. But she is what she is.

The music began to come to him, seeping into the edges of his consciousness, and as the days grew shorter he began to see how he could bring his family together again, if he wanted.

 

On a crisp day in October Sherlock scrambled up the last bit of path--more of a climb than a hike—and stood at the top of the crest overlooking the end of the fjord. He was a good ten kilometers from the cabin, the farthest he had ever gone, and definitely the highest altitude. He could see all the way to the hazy mouth of the fjord where he had gone in the kayak to throw Victor’s requiem into the sea. Sherlock grinned, taking a long pull off his water bottle. He had gone all the way to both ends of the fjord, from the tallest mountain to the vast cold sea: he had taken everything it could throw at him and conquered it.

Then he looked down into the fathomless depth of midnight water and thought, not quite.

 

That night Sherlock stood by the glass doors with the lights off, looking out at the night sky. The moon had not yet risen and the stars were a blazing glitter, so bright they reflected off the still surface of the fjord below. Sherlock had his violin on his shoulder with the bow resting loosely on the strings. He wasn’t composing, or thinking about what to play next; he was waiting to see what the music had to tell him. He closed his eyes, listening, and then drew the bow softly across the A string: a question. Something about the intonation tripped something in his memory and he pushed the bow back up, placing his finger on the string halfway through, A-D, then the E string, E-G. Yes. He paused, then went back to the introductory adagio. Sherlock hadn’t played the piece in years: he preferred the livelier pieces of the classical repertoire, Bach and Mozart and Vivaldi. He was probably making a great many mistakes, but that didn’t matter. He played it all the way through, from the slow pleading through the desperate run of chords, and when he had finished he drew the bow all the way off the strings and let final note of longing linger in the air.

Sherlock stood quietly, eyes still closed. He felt intensely aware of everything, every cell and molecule in his body: he could feel the vibration of the music against his eardrums, the prickle of the starlight on his skin.

Sherlock was not an idiot. He knew, this time, the question he hadn’t been asking. Every time he luxuriated in the touch of warm water on his skin, stretched the pleasant ache of sore muscles, licked cream from his fork, it had been hovering there, unasked.  He thought he might finally be ready to ask.

 

Next day Sherlock followed his usual routine: run, breakfast, kayak, run. He took the path toward the sea on his afternoon run and on the way back veered off the ridge trail onto the one that snaked down to the fjord. He rarely ran on this trail, since the footing was uneven and risky, but he knew it came out on a rocky promontory overlooking the water just before the boathouse. When he got to the long ledge he didn’t slow down, didn’t speed up, just ran right off the edge and plunged straight into the water.

Sherlock had three thoughts simultaneously as the icy water closed over his head.

  • FUCK
  • This was a grave miscalculation. My muscles are going to seize from hypothermia and I am going to drown without ever breaking the surface.
  • MOVE

 

Sherlock moved. He didn’t make any effort to swim toward the shore because he had no idea in which direction the shore lay; he just kicked in a frantic, spasmodic effort to get his head above the water. Fortunately the tidal current shoved him in the right direction and in the moment that he broke the surface his shin struck rock, hard enough to hurt even though he was rapidly losing feeling in his extremities, and he clambered onto the rough shingle and collapsed face down.

For a few minutes Sherlock just lay there, quivering with cold and residual adrenaline, before common sense got him to his feet. Of course he hadn’t brought any towels or dry clothing, so he needed to get back up to shelter before he froze his bollocks off. Clambering up the rickety wooden staircase Sherlock realized, improbably, that he was giggling: shock, maybe, or just the wild exhilaration that the water hadn’t beaten him, he was alive.

By the time he made it back to the cottage Sherlock’s fingers were too numb to undo any fastenings, so he just kicked his shoes off and fell into the shower fully dressed.  He couldn’t even tell how hot the water was—what skin he could see was mottled an interesting assortment of white and red with select areas of blue—so he prudently turned it down a bit to avoid inadvertently scalding himself. It was a full ten minutes before he could get his clothes off. Naked, he stood there grinning for a moment with his face turned up into the spray, feeling again that tingling sense of being vibrantly alive, and then for the first time in his life he reached down and touched himself.

 

Sherlock padded out to the kitchen, warm and dry and marvelously hungry. He dumped soup into a pan and ate an apple whilst it heated, piling a plate with bread and cheese and another apple to eat when he’d finished the soup. He still felt pleasantly tingly and at the same time deeply relaxed. What a delightful feeling! No wonder people had sex.

When the soup was hot Sherlock carried the whole lot to the table, gazing meditatively out at the sunset as he ate. Sherlock honestly couldn’t remember making a conscious decision to eschew sex any more than he could remember making a decision to avoid interpersonal relationships altogether; there had just always been the sense that such things were for lesser beings. (Presumably Mycroft still felt this way, although Sherlock decided he really didn’t want to know.) The handful of previous orgasms he’d experienced had been a lifetime ago and mostly of the nocturnal emission variety: furtive, shameful and more mess than pleasure. What, Sherlock now wondered again, had he been trying to prove?

Well. He’d asked the question, and now he had more questions. Sherlock definitely knew that he wanted, even if he didn’t know exactly what he wanted, but that was all right. He knew someone who did.

 

“I’ve decided to take your advice,” Sherlock announced into the phone. “I’m leaving Norway.”

“Oh yeah? Are you going someplace warmer?”

“Yes.” Almost certainly true; not many places would be colder than Norway. “But I don’t know where yet. I’ll ring you once I’m there. Oh, and I’m having my violin sent back to London—I’m taking it to the embassy in Oslo tomorrow, and Mycroft’s made arrangements to have it brought to Baker Street. The Mary music is in the outside pocket of the case and there’s a bit of a present for Rosie as well.”

“She’ll like that,” John said, sounding pleased. “So are you going someplace rough, or…?”

“No, I don’t need it now. The violin helps me think, but I’ve finished with all that; I’ve laid the past to rest for good, I hope.”

“Okay,” John said. Sherlock could hear his carefully-hidden curiosity, his unwillingness to pry. “Okay then. Go somewhere warm and have fun. Go a bit crazy. Have a second piece of cake, if they have cake.”

“That doesn’t sound like very doctorly advice.”

“It’s your best friend’s advice. You deserve it.”

“All right,” Sherlock said, smiling. “Maybe I will.” He took a quick breath—he’d planned this, actually practiced saying it out loud in the bloody car, he wasn’t backing out now—and said, “I’ll be back soon. I miss you.”

He could hear the warm smile in John’s voice. “I miss you too.”

Sherlock rang off, still smiling, and set the phone carefully on the table. He considered a minute. Then he went to the counter to get another slice of cake.

Chapter Text

 

“I can’t believe we’re actually doing this,” Irene said.

Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “Doing what?”

“Having dinner.”

I’m having dinner. You’ve had two pieces of sushi and a glass of wine.”

Irene smiled behind her wineglass, showing her teeth: the same wicked grin he remembered so well. “I told you, I’m working later. When one’s livelihood depends on appearing exquisite whilst scantily dressed…”

“You always appear exquisite,” Sherlock said. He meant it. The new tiny lines around her eyes just made her look more experienced, and therefore, objectively, more enticing in her line of work.

“You’re not so bad yourself, although from what I’ve heard it’s been a rough few years.”

Sherlock waved this aside. “Oh, you know me, can’t bear to be bored. What I can’t believe is that we’re having dinner here.” He gestured out the huge window of the penthouse suite, the glittery jumble of neon and lights below. “I never pictured you ending up in Las Vegas. It’s so…”

“Tatty?”

“Obvious.”

Irene grinned again. “I don’t actually live here. I just wasn’t going to tell you over the phone. I haven’t lived this long by being careless…or trusting. Of anyone. No offense, of course.”

“Quite understandable. But I’m here alone, and you’ve nothing to fear from me. So what are you doing in Las Vegas?”

“I told you,” Irene said. “Working. One of my special friends has a trade show with important clients, and he wants them to experience some…unique entertainment.”

“You’re doing well then.”

“Oh, quite well. I’m actually based out of Los Angeles, and I’m moving more toward the management end of things. Better money, but I still keep my hand in.” That smile again. “For those who can afford it.”

“Clever.”

“Yes.” She leaned back and took another sip of her wine. “So. I’m well aware I still owe you a favor. As we’ve established you didn’t ring me under duress to hand me over to some old enemy, and since you’ve managed to withstand the temptation to join me for dinner for some years now, I assume you’re here to collect.”

“Yes.”

“So…?”

Sherlock lay down his fork and looked at her directly. “I want to have sex.”

The flash of disappointment was masked so quickly that if he hadn’t been watching her eyes he would have missed it. It made him glad. He said swiftly, “Not with you, obviously. I haven’t many real friends, don’t fancy taking a chance on losing one.”

He smile this time was different, warmer: her real smile. “Besides, I’m hardly your type, am I?”

“No.”

“And you’re not mine, though there was a time I’d have made an exception. But in that case…why come all the way here? I’m not exactly a madam—not for what you want, anyway—and you could easily find someone closer—“

“No.” Sherlock shook his head. “I don’t want a professional, it has to be real. That’s why I’ve come. I’m well aware a lack of experience in someone my age isn’t usually looked at as an asset. But you know what people like, so…”

“You’re hoping I know someone with a kink for thirtysomething virgins?” Irene said, raising her eyebrows. “Hmmm. It’s not a bad thought. I can’t think of anyone right off, but I have a lot of contacts. Let me make a few calls…I’m not likely to reach anyone tonight, you understand, but they’ll get back to me.”

“All right.” Sherlock pushed his chair back and stood, buttoning his jacket. “I’ll leave you to it then, I’m sure you’ve preparations to make for tonight. Thank you for dinner.”

“Where are you off to?”

“The casino. I want to see how much I can win at blackjack before they throw me out.”

Irene laughed and leaned up to kiss his cheek. “You can buy the next dinner then.”

 

Sherlock woke before dawn—jet lag—and lay for a moment in the unfamiliar hotel bed, feeling an old sensation of disconnected emptiness. He got up and went to the window, looking out at the fading lights below. He remembered this feeling from his younger days, and from when he was dead: that he was not really here, that if he disappeared no one would even notice he was gone.

Enough. In the old days he might have fled the feeling with drugs, but that was not an option now, and anyway he had a better method. Sherlock turned to his suitcase and pulled out the running shoes.

 

Running in Las Vegas turned out to be unexpectedly pleasant. The air was cool and dry, sky gradually pinking with desert sunrise, and the paths were gloriously level: Sherlock thought he could have gone for miles. Eventually he made it back to his hotel, where he went for a swim, showered, and then took himself off to the lavish breakfast buffet, feeling much better.

Sherlock was flipping through the newspaper and nibbling at a pastry when Irene appeared, sliding into the seat opposite with a bowl of fruit. “Good night?”

“Quite good. I made enough to cover my room for a few more nights…although perhaps not this buffet. You?”

“Of course. Coffee, please.” This was to the waiter. “Did you try the smoked salmon quiche? It’s delicious.”

Sherlock had had enough smoked salmon recently to last him the rest of his life, but he didn’t feel like talking about Norway, so he just said, “Waffles.”

“Sweet tooth, of course.” Irene speared a bit of fruit and nibbled delicately. “So I might have something, but I need to run a few things first by you first. You don’t mind traveling, I assume?”

“Of course not, I came here.”

“That’s what I thought. I was also told to ask if you had any specific physical preferences.”

Sherlock frowned. “What, do I have a fetish or something of that sort? Of course not.”

“Oh, everyone likes something,” Irene said. “Big breasts, small breasts, gingers, bears. Good that you’re open minded at this stage though. Who knows what you’ll end up liking—just try it all out in the beginning and see what sticks.” She laughed. “Like the buffet.”

“Yes, that’s why I’m here,” Sherlock said a little snappishly. Bears?

“All right, all right. I have a friend who runs a very exclusive escort service and who also has a bit of a sideline in high-end hookups. A sort of matchmaker, I suppose. Most of those clients are extremely prominent and extremely closeted, and don’t want to use professionals for various reasons, so they pay Viv a large amount of money to introduce them to someone else in the same position.”

“I’m not in the closet, and I’m certainly not prominent,” Sherlock said. “At least not here.”

“Yes, but you’re a virgin,” Irene said, her tone implying that this was a level of perversion so far outside the norm as to need special handling. “And Viv knows just the right match. He’s a professional basketball player—“

“A basketball player?”

“Yes, and apparently he’s a perfect gentleman, very charming. Viv sometimes gets first-timers—so far in the closet they’ve never been with a man at all—and she says he’s always her first choice, if he’s available. So given your unique circumstances…”

Sherlock narrowed his eyes. “Just how did you explain my ’unique circumstances’?”

Irene smiled brilliantly. “I told her you’d just left the priesthood.”

“Oh God.” Sherlock rested his forehead in one hand. “You’ve waited all these years to get back at me for that, haven’t you?”

“I assume you still have the collar, don’t you?”

“I think I left it behind in your house,” Sherlock said. “It had your teeth marks on it.”

“What a loss,” Irene said archly.

 

Sherlock caught a plane to Chicago, where the gentlemanly basketball player—whose name was Michael Rhodes—was playing that night. Michael Rhodes was a forward for the Los Angeles Lakers. He was six feet seven inches tall, weighed 231 pounds, averaged twenty-seven points per game, had been Rookie of the Year, and won multiple MVP awards. His endorsement deals were reputed to be worth millions. Sherlock had looked all this up on his phone, and had also found a vast number of basketball statistics that meant absolutely nothing to him, although he assumed he could work it out if it proved important.

Sherlock took a cab to his hotel and checked in under his nom de tryst, wincing a little—Irene had made the reservation—but the hotel staff didn’t bat an eyelash; either illiterate or very discreet, Sherlock supposed. He went up to his room, felt twitchy, went back out, walked around. He went to the park and looked at the big mirror bean statue, wondering if Rosie would like it. He looked at the lake. He thought about dinner, knew he wouldn’t eat, and had a drink at a bar instead. He thought about another drink and decided against it. He looked at the river. Finally, when he judged enough time had passed, he went back to his room to shower and shave.

Good thing he had such a limited selection of shirts, Sherlock thought, staring at himself in the mirror; as it was he’d tried them all on anyway, spending an inordinate amount of time waffling between white and black. (White.) He had arranged and rearranged what felt like every individual hair. Should he have had another drink? Should he have eaten something? What if he got light headed? Sherlock never got light headed. Wouldn’t do to start now though. Sherlock dug in the minibar, gulped down a bag of trail mix and a chocolate bar, and then his text alert chimed with a room number.

For a brief moment Sherlock froze, then dashed back to the bathroom to brush his teeth. Were there bits of nut in his teeth? He couldn’t see anything in his teeth. Maybe he should have worn the black shirt? Sherlock stared at himself another moment, indecisive, then thought of John saying soldiers and made himself march out.

In the hotel corridor Sherlock had a brief flash of déjà vu: he’d been here before, back when he’d been dead, slipping along a posh hotel under a false name, stomach fluttering with nerves. Oddly the thought calmed him. What was the worst that could happen? Well, total humiliation, he supposed, but that was better than dead. Surely one couldn’t actually die of humiliation, could one? Certainly not.

Thus emboldened, Sherlock rode the lift up, strode along the corridor, and rapped briskly on the door. His mouth was completely dry.

The door opened.

“Seamus, hey!” Michael Rhodes stood in the door, smiling broadly, and before he knew it Sherlock found his hand clasped and he was being drawn into the room. “I’m Michael.” He bent to kiss Sherlock’s cheek.

Sherlock stood frozen.  He had, of course, known that Michael Rhodes was seven inches taller than he was; he just hadn’t bothered to imagine it. Sherlock had never felt dwarfed like this in his life. It was terrifying! Was this how Mrs. Hudson felt?

“Come on in,” Michael was saying, tactfully ignoring the fact that his guest was rooted in place, staring up at him. “I’ve got a bottle of wine here, can I pour you a glass? Are you hungry?”

“Thank you,” Sherlock managed, allowing himself to be steered to the sofa. “A glass of wine, please.”

“You’re English!” Michael said, apparently delighted. “Viv didn’t say anything about that. Do you still live in England?”

Sherlock took the glass Michael handed him and tried not to gulp the whole thing in one go. “London,” he croaked.

“Great city,” Michael said, settling into the seat opposite. “Viv said that you’d left the priesthood? I’ve got to say, I went to a Jesuit high school, and that sounds like the kind of line we would have used at a party, with the Ursuline girls: aw, baby, come on, he’s going to seminary, you wouldn’t let him go off like that without ever knowing what it’s like, would you?”

Sherlock took another drink and managed to smile. He thought with grudging respect that Michael was very good at putting people at ease: years of intimidating everyone he met, with his size and celebrity; he’d worked at this. “Not exactly,” he said, relieved to hear his voice sounding more natural. “I was at a Buddhist monastery, in fact. In Nepal.” He’d decided to go with that as soon as he’d heard Irene’s ridiculous story—he actually had spent time in a monastery whilst being dead, so he had a much better chance of pulling it off.

“No!” Michael sat forward. “That’s really cool. I’ve dabbled in Buddhism, a little—I go to a meditation center in LA. It was Vajrayana, right? What was it like?”

“It was an offshoot, a breakaway sect…”

They talked about Nepal and the meditation center in Los Angeles (“I’d like to be a vegetarian, but, you know, it’s hard…”) and the warrior monks at Sherlock’s monastery, which fascinated Michael. Sherlock forgot his nerves and began to relax. He looked Michael over covertly—he was a little easier to take in sitting down—but there wasn’t much he could read; Michael might as well have come from another planet.  His clothing was excellent, Sherlock could tell that much, and he was impeccably groomed, with hair so short as to be nearly shaved. His skin was very dark and his eyes crinkled when he smiled.

Michael leaned forward to refill his glass. “So you must have joined really young though, right? I mean.” He ducked his head as he refilled his own glass, as though embarrassed to have brought up the subject of Sherlock’s presumed vow of chastity. He looked up at Sherlock. “Why’d you do it?” He shook his head quickly. “Sorry. Too personal.”

“No, it’s all right,” Sherlock said. He looked away, thinking. For some reason he felt compelled to answer honestly, possibly due to the wine...was he on his second glass, or his third? “I don’t remember consciously deciding, really, I just knew from a very early age that I wanted a life of the mind. But now…I now I realize that it wasn’t so much about choosing something I wanted as it was about fear, about running away from the real world. It was a sanctuary. But the thing about a sanctuary is that it’s also a prison. And I realized I didn’t want to be a prisoner anymore.”

“Wow.” Michael was staring at Sherlock, his glass of wine forgotten in his hand. “That’s…that’s amazing, I know exactly what you—“

Sherlock narrowed his eyes, immediately regretting his openness. “Of course you do. You’re probably the most prominent closeted celebrity in America, at least that I know of, not that that’s saying much, and you hate it. You loathe being in the closet; it’s ridiculously obvious. So what’s stopping you coming out? The money, the fame? The fear that you’d have to give up playing basketball?” He heard the bite of his voice on the last word and winced. He was meant to be being...not himself. “Sorry. Too personal.”

“No, it’s okay,” Michael said. He looked stunned. “That’s not…I mean, you’re right but you’re not right about...” He took a long drink and set down his glass to look directly at Shlock. “Okay. When I was a kid? I didn’t want to be a basketball player. I wanted to be the guy who did the weather on TV. Used to put on my church suit and pretend like I was doing the forecast, you know, ‘We’ve got a cold front moving in late tonight…’” He flapped his hand at an invisible map. “And my family would roll their eyes at me and the other kids laughed but I didn’t care, cause I was a little kid. But then I got older and I did care. And then I got tall. And I get recruited for an AAU team in the fourth grade and my dad was so proud…” He shook his head, remembering. “And the other boys were impressed, like I was some big shot cause I could throw a ball into a hoop. So I kept playing. And then I got offered a scholarship to St. X and I thought, yeah, I can go to a good school, get a real education, maybe the other kids will be cool there, not like my old neighborhood, go to college. So I went. And I got good grades at that school, but I also got better and better at basketball. And I got a scholarship to Duke. Duke. I graduated with the highest GPA on the team. All that time, basketball protected me, because I was a big shot and so nobody talked about me, but I had to be careful that nobody found out.” He shook his head again. “I thought college would be the end of all that, end of hoops. It is for most guys. That I’d get a great education and then I’d be done, could figure out what I really wanted to do with my life.”

“And instead…”

“Instead I was a first-round draft pick.” Michael blew out a breath. “Yeah. I could go on about my family needing that money and all, but yeah. It was more money than I’d ever imagined. And I thought about the grad students I knew in the black student union, always worrying about their loans, and I decided I’d play ten years or until I got cut, whichever came first.  And I would take every endorsement that came my way. I would plaster my name on every shoe and jersey and Dick’s Sporting Goods in the country and I would save up my money and buy my mother a house and then when the ten years were up I’d have a press conference to announce my retirement and I’d come out, that day, and then I’d go to law school.”

Sherlock was really interested now. “Are you going to do it? This is your tenth year.”

“Yeah, I know.” Michael sighed. “The truth is I could have been done this year but a couple years ago we were renegotiating and if I agreed to another year I got a lot more money, so…I was chicken. The game had been my sanctuary, and you were right. I let it be my prison.”

“It’s only one year.”

“I know. And as soon as I signed I regretted it. So I decided it was time to buckle down and commit, and I did. I take the LSAT next spring—I’ve got the review book in my bag over there, I read that thing every chance I get.”

“That’s why you do this.” Sherlock’s gesture took in the hotel room, himself. “You’d rather a real relationship…”

“But I won’t ask someone else to live a lie.” Michael grinned a little ruefully. “Kind of hard to meet interested guys in this profession anyway.” He picked up the bottle and then looked at it in astonishment: “This is empty!”

“I think we might have drunk it all.”

Michael began laughing. “I’ve never finished a bottle on a date. Usually we don’t even finish the first glass.”

“And I assumed we wouldn’t have anything to talk about.”  Although he’d also rather thought that it wouldn’t matter; his plan had been to get to the sex as quickly as possible, since it seemed less likely that Michael would throw him out if he didn’t talk.

Michael reached out a hand and took Sherlock’s, pulling them both to their feet. “We could get another bottle, but then we might never get around to anything else,” he said, and then he pulled Sherlock closer and kissed him.

Sherlock stool stock still, paralyzed with shock. Of course he’d known in a vague sort of way that this would happen; it was the whole point of the proceedings, after all. He’d just never tried to imagine it. He’d told himself that this was because he had no data from which to extrapolate, knowing full well that the real reason was that picturing any physical contact was likely to send him into a full-blown panic. Now he’d been thrown into the water without a life jacket and was sinking fast.

Michael pulled back a little. “Hey, we don’t have to do this. We can—“

“No,” Sherlock said sharply and pulled him back. He mashed his lips into Michael’s, too hard and too fast, but apparently Michael was good at kissing too; he cupped the back of Sherlock’s head in one massive hand and slowed them down, wrapping the other arm around Sherlock’s back. Sherlock, having no idea what to do with his hands, clutched Michael’s arms. It kept him from falling over at any rate. Words rolled around in his dazed mind like tumbleweeds: kiss, embrace, snogging. Was this snogging? What differentiated kissing from snogging? He’d kissed Janine, of course, but that had been quick, just hello and goodbye really--

“You really haven’t done this before,” Michael said in wonder, “have you.”

“Obviously,” Sherlock said, aiming for haughty but probably just coming off defensive.

“Wow. Your first kiss. That’s…wow.”

Sherlock resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Clearly Michael was the romantic type. Just as well, or he might have abandoned the whole endeavor after Sherlock had displayed all the snogging skills of an autistic badger. Michael smoothed his hand over Sherlock’s hair, brushing a thumb over one cheekbone. Sherlock resisted the urge to bare his teeth and made himself meet Michael’s gaze, but what he saw wasn’t pity or gauzy-eyed sentiment but genuine admiration. “You are so brave,” Michael said. “And so…” His thumb stroked Sherlock’s cheek again. “…beautiful.”

Sherlock had no idea what to say, but fortunately Michael was drawing him in again, and suddenly it all clicked. It was like learning to swim, or ride a bicycle: the knowledge impossible to impart in words, but unmistakable once acquired. Sherlock knew how to kiss.

Things went much better after that. Sherlock slid his arms up and around and now they were slotted together, pressed against each other everywhere Michael’s body didn’t have to curve to reach his. The tight knot of anxiety loosened. Sherlock was able to focus now, to pay attention to what Michael did and mimic it back, although each new sensation would set his brain dazed and scattering again: hands, tongue, skin. The touch of Michael’s tongue against his was like an electric shock and Michael squeezed him tightly at the breathless noise of surprise Sherlock made. When Michael moved his mouth over Sherlock’s jaw and down his neck Sherlock’s knees shocked him by going abruptly weak and useless.

Michael pulled him upright and kissed him gently. “You want to lie down?”

Lie down. On the bed. Michael was asking if he wanted to go to bed. Bed. Sherlock’s guts knotted again and he didn’t trust his voice, so he just nodded.

Michael slid Sherlock’s jacket off him and placed it gently over the chair back and then tugged Sherlock toward the bedroom, pausing in the doorway to kiss him again. He toed off his shoes and Sherlock followed suit, then let Michael pull him down on the bed. He was a little panicky, but at first it wasn’t any different from kissing standing up—only better, because Michael didn’t have to bend down. They were could wrap around each other completely now, chest to chest, and in spite of trying to ignore them new words began to marble around in his head again, words like arousal and want.

Michael slipped a hand between Sherlock’s buttons and tugged at his shirt. “Is this okay?”

Sherlock brought his own hand up and fumbled with the button of Michael’s shirt in answer. Michael with his shirt off was intimidating, even in the darkness of the bedroom, and Sherlock couldn’t stop touching him: he felt like silk over steel, as though he’d been sculpted by Michelangelo out of the finest marble. It hadn’t occurred to Sherlock until this moment to feel insecure about his own appearance—not that he’d exactly anticipated doing his experimenting with a professional athlete—but fortunately Michael seemed just as taken with touching Sherlock as Sherlock was with him. Good thing he’d done all that kayaking. Michael slid down and kissed his chest and Sherlock sucked in an astonished breath: he had never thought of such a thing, that a man might kiss his chest, that someone might fasten their lips over his nipple and it would feel like that.

Sherlock felt a brief flash of self-consciousness, moaning and arching as Michael suckled at his nipples, but Michael obviously loved it. Every noise Sherlock couldn’t stop himself making made him grip Sherlock tighter, until his hand slid over Sherlock’s still-clothed arse and the only word in Sherlock’s mind was YES.

Michael, accurately reading his enthusiasm, slid his hand around until he was cupping Sherlock’s erect penis though his trousers. It felt shocking, like nothing Sherlock had ever experienced before, simultaneously alarming and incredibly arousing. Sherlock let himself push into that big hand and Michael groaned and pulled Sherlock’s hips flush against his, wriggling around on the bed to get them aligned. Sherlock found his leg sliding up over Michael’s as he tried to get closer. Now he was the one with his face pressed into Michael’s chest, mouthing over those astonishing pectorals—it was proving embarrassingly difficult to find a black man’s nipples in the dark, but Michael seemed to be enjoying his efforts, clutching at Sherlock’s head with one hand and his arse with the other. Sherlock kept wriggling, trying to grind closer, every nerve ending in his body turned up to maximum.

Michael slid his hand around again to the front of Sherlock’s trousers and whispered, “Okay if I take these off?”

Sherlock’s stomach flipped, adrenaline and fear mixed, the way it did when he was about to do something spectacularly dangerous, so of course he nodded. It was only sex, after all, something normal people did every day, and anyway he felt certain by now that Michael wasn’t going to flip him over and shove anything…anywhere.

Getting their trousers and pants off was a bit more awkward than the shirts had been and they bumped heads more than once, which made Michael laugh, and that turned into kissing and soon they were back down on the bed again, pressed together, only this time skin to skin. Sherlock had never felt anything like this. He couldn’t seem to get enough, pressing closer, sliding one leg up over Michael’s so that Michael’s hand caressed down his arse and then stroked him there and Sherlock made an embarrassing whimpering noise.

Michael whispered something but Sherlock didn’t hear it; he was busy disentangling himself to keep from rutting against Michael like an excitable house dog. Michael reached down and wrapped one large hand around Sherlock and Sherlock forgot to breathe. No one had ever touched him there, not in his memory, and Michael’s hand was so big…this thought filled him with sudden curiosity and he fumbled to find Michael’s cock. Predictably, it was huge, long and gratifyingly solid, which made Sherlock feel ridiculously pleased with himself: he couldn’t be too terrible at this.

They fondled each other rather awkwardly for a bit and then Michael rolled to his other side, saying, “Hold up,” and then after a moment, “Give me your hand,” so Sherlock did. Michael squeezed a dollop of something cool onto his palm. “It’s lube. Let it warm up a little.”

Sherlock closed his hand loosely over the lube as Michael replaced the tube and turned back, reaching for Sherlock with his own slick hand. Sherlock’s head fell right back on the bed with a thump and he felt his toes curl so he clenched them, trying desperately to keep from coming on the spot.

They ended up with Sherlock half on his back and half on his side and Michael half on his side leaning over him, both their slicked hands wrapped around their aligned cocks, pushing and sliding in absolutely no coherent rhythm. It didn’t matter. Sherlock was already close, pleasure gathering low in the centre of him, and Michael unerringly let himself slip free at exactly the right moment and stroked Sherlock alone, his big hand entirely enclosing him. Sherlock thought oh God oh God oh God then he was coming, crying out in short staccato gasps with every spurt. Michael groaned too, apparently aroused even further by bringing Sherlock to orgasm, and just as it became too much he let go of Sherlock and reached for his own leaking cock. Sherlock, still shuddering, reached too—a bit clumsily, but Michael didn’t seem to mind—and began to pump his fist. Sherlock had his forehead pressed to the junction of Michael’s neck and shoulder and part of his mind couldn’t help cataloging: soap, traces of cologne, sweat, even as he tried to focus on how Michael liked it, what made his breathing pick up. Sherlock had exceptional powers of observation. It did not take long before Michael too was tensing, groaning in shameless abandon as he came all over Sherlock’s hand.

They both collapsed back down to the bed, breathing hard, and then after a minute Michael rolled over again and handed Sherlock a hand towel.

“What’s this?”

“You can wipe off with it…I put them by the bed ahead of time. Like to be prepared.”

Sensible, Sherlock thought, wiping the mess of semen off himself. He followed Michael’s lead and dropped the towel onto the floor when he was done and then Michael tugged him into his arms and pulled the covers over them.

Now what? Sherlock wondered. He’d assumed he would take his leave after the sex concluded—wasn’t that the point of him getting his own room?—and was unsure how to proceed from here. Perhaps Michael wished to get his money’s worth, as it were, and planned to engage in a second round after a bit of rest? Or was it considered rude to abandon one’s sexual partner without a specified period of…what? Cuddling? Was this cuddling? Was it an essential part of the experience? Sherlock could see no point to cuddling after a one night stand, but he had to admit this was rather nice, his head resting on Michael’s chest whilst Michael’s big hand rubbed gentle circles on his back. It was very nice. Sherlock closed his eyes to enjoy the sensation, and promptly fell asleep.

 

Sherlock woke in the dark, briefly disoriented, and realized he badly needed a piss. All the wine he’d drunk, probably. Michael lay next to him, still fast asleep. Sherlock slid out of bed as quietly as he could and made his way to the loo. When he’d finished he washed his hands and drank a glass of water from the tap, then opened the door as quietly as he could, wondering if he could find his clothes in the faint light from the outer room.

Michael propped himself up on one elbow when Sherlock tiptoed in and said, “Hey…” so warmly that Sherlock stopped, and then Michael lifted the covers in clear invitation and somehow Sherlock found himself sliding back in, more than willing for another go if Michael was up for it. Michael, however, did not immediately move to initiate another go. He tugged Sherlock against him, as he had the night before. Sherlock knew he wouldn’t fall back asleep—jet lag again—but it felt incredibly warm and relaxing to be wrapped up in Michael’s big arms, especially since Michael was now stroking his back and his hair. If Sherlock had been a cat, he would have purred.

 Michael whispered, “Sherlock?”

“Mmm?” Sherlock said and then realized what he’d just done. Caught by a trick so old it was barely a trick at all; Mycroft would laugh himself sick. He exhaled, a long resigned sigh through his nose, and said, “How did you know?”

“I didn’t know last night,” Michael said. He had tightened his arms around Sherlock, as though afraid he might flee. “Well, I knew you weren’t Seamus Heaney. I read him in college. Besides, the dude’s dead.”

“The desk staff didn’t notice,” Sherlock said drily.

“Yeah, I think they get paid not to notice.”

“How did you know though it was me, though?” Sherlock asked. He was genuinely curious. “I’m not known here.”

“I read a lot. Always have, especially since I got signed. It was a way of keeping my eye on the prize, not being one of those guys who don’t read anything but their stats on ESPN. I have a digital subscription to the New York Times, some other papers, and I always read the local papers on the road. I was in London a couple years ago, some kind of endorsement thing, when you busted that politician spying for Korea after you’d supposedly been dead. It was all over the papers. That was crazy! That’s probably why I remembered, because it was so crazy, and also I might have thought you were hot. I’ve got kind of a thing for light eyes.”

“My eyes,” Sherlock said incredulously.

“Yeah, okay, I just do, okay? I forgot all about it for a while. But then I started reading the Guardian last year after the Brexit thing, figured if Europe was going to fall apart I maybe ought to pay attention, so I saw when you got into it with that guy who turned out to be a serial killer. I was like hey, that’s my boy, back with the crazy. All last night I kept thinking you looked familiar, like I’d seen you before, but I couldn’t remember where, and then when I woke up I just knew. It was those eyes.”

Sherlock sighed again. “I’m not insensible to the irony that it was you who recognized me when you’re one of the best-known people on the planet.”

“Well, you know I’m not going to tell anybody.” Michael’s arms tightened again.

“It’s all right. I don’t care if anyone knows I’m gay…and given the rubbish that’s been printed about me over the years probably no one would believe it anyway.”

Michael chuckled, a low rumble under Sherlock’s cheek. “All that stuff you said last night, about choosing a life of the mind when you were young…that was all true, wasn’t it?”

“It was true,” Sherlock said quietly. “And I really did spend several weeks at that monastery…although I was undercover, and it didn’t really stick. I’ve never been very good at meditation. That story about being a priest was my friend’s idea; she spread it around because she thought everyone would be put off otherwise.”

“Nobody would be put off once they got a look,” Michael said. He shifted, bringing Sherlock’s face level with his and cupping his cheek. “Those eyes,” he said again. “Even in the dark. It’s like you can see right through them.”

Sherlock had no idea what to say in response to that, but it didn’t matter, because Michael was kissing him again. They were both still naked, so the kiss heated up fast, and before he knew it Sherlock was squirming against Michael as desperately as if he hadn’t just got off a few hours ago. Sherlock was underneath Michael this time, which he quite liked: Michael was supporting most of his own weight, but the sensation of being pressed down was still unexpectedly exciting. He could feel Michael’s erection pressing into his thigh and own cock was beginning to throb. Michael suckled a gentle trail down his neck and chest and Sherlock arched his back, pushing up into him and moaning, digging his fingers into Michael’s hard biceps. Then Michael slid lower and licked, a long swipe of his tongue up Sherlock’s cock.

Sherlock inhaled sharply and Michael looked up. “This okay?”

Yes,” Sherlock said immediately, God yes, of course, but, “I don’t—you’ll have to tell me what to do.”

“Aw, man,” Michael groaned and Sherlock felt Michael’s cock twitch against his leg. Apparently the unknown Viv had been right: Michael did have a kink for thirtysomething virgins. Or perhaps only virgins with light eyes. Was Sherlock still a virgin? Shut up, Sherlock thought irritably to himself.

“Okay,” Michael said. He sat up, straddling Sherlock’s hips, and reached for the bedside table where the lube was stashed. “First thing. I was a little sloppy just now cause of being your first time but most important, use a condom, always. Okay?” He opened the packet and rolled the condom onto Sherlock, which was probably more arousing than it should have been.  He slid back down again, holding Sherlock’s hips in his hands. “Try not to shove up too much. I mean, you can move, but not so it cuts off my air, you got me? Some guys like that but if they do they’ll let you know.” He took Sherlock’s sheathed cock in one hand and slid his mouth over it, bobbing up and down a few times before pulling off to say. “That’s about it. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

Sherlock was already enjoying the ride. The feel of Michael’s mouth was incredible, all heat and suction and slide, and he’d fisted his hands in his own hair at the first touch.  Michael teased him a bit, sliding down all the way and then licking up the underside of his shaft, caressing his bollocks and spreading Sherlock’s thighs wider, but then he settled down into a steady rhythm that nearly drove Sherlock mad. It occurred to him, belatedly, that he ought to be reciprocating in some way, but he couldn’t think of any way to do it, so he settled for resting one hand on Michael’s shoulder and running it occasionally over the rough texture of his scalp. He was getting close now and Michael got his hand into it again, enclosing Sherlock in pure pleasure, and he could hear his own voice; oh, oh, oh.  When the orgasm hit he couldn’t help thrusting up but Michael had his hand on him, so hopefully he didn’t go too deep.

“Oh,” Sherlock gasped, coming down. “Ohhhh.” His hands were on his face, in his hair; he was still shuddering.

“Hey,” Michael said tenderly. He had knelt up and was leaning over and Sherlock blinked up at him, dazed. Michael leaned over to kiss him and Sherlock opened his mouth instinctively, melting into liquid shivers beneath him, although the residual taste of latex made his nose wrinkle a bit. Every part of his body was still quivering with little aftershocks of pleasure.

Michael knelt back up again, still straddling Sherlock’s hips, and began to stroke himself, eyes holding Sherlock’s. Sherlock tried to push himself up—“my turn”--but Michael pushed him back easily.

“You want to work up to that,” he said. “Just keep those eyes open for me.”

Sherlock kept his eyes open, but as his brain came back online he reached out as far as he could and just caught the edge of the lube. He pulled it to himself, eyes still fixed on Michael’s, opened the cap, and squeezed a generous dollop into his hand. Michael groaned, his own eyes falling closed, as Sherlock wrapped his slippery hand over his cock. He had perhaps overdone the lube, Sherlock thought with some annoyance. It dripped a bit but the glide was excellent, and remembering some of the things Michael had done with his tongue Sherlock dared to get a bit fancy: adding a little twist on the upstroke, squeezing, alternating long slow strokes with fast little flurries.

“Oh my God,” Michael said, back arching, “I’m going to—“

“Do it,” Sherlock said. “Come on me,” and Michael did, liberally spattering Sherlock’s taut abdomen and chest.

When Michael sat back groaning Sherlock leaned over and retrieved the towels; the condom was still on his softened prick but it was beginning to slide off, so Sherlock removed it with as much care as possible and gingerly tied it off to reduce mess. In spite of this the bed had somehow become a disaster, wet spots of lube and semen everywhere.

Michael scooted up and leaned back against the padded headboard, grinning at him. “You are a fast learner,” he said. “You’re going to do just fine after this.”

Sherlock blinked at him. It had not occurred to him to think past this night.

“C’mere,” Michael said so after a moment's hesitation Sherlock went, sitting next to him and leaning back against the headboard as well. Michael was sprawled out completely unselfconsciously, legs splayed and softening cock on prominent display, but Sherlock couldn’t help pulling his knees up to his chest. Michael reached out an arm and tugged Sherlock down so his head rested against Michael’s shoulder. Sherlock’s mind felt utterly, unprecedentedly blank, as though all the things he was thinking simultaneously had simply cancelled each other out.  

“I had a really nice time with you,” Michael said softly. “Really nice. I don’t usually say this, but if you’re ever in LA…”

Sherlock was quiet, but he did not pull away. They sat together for few minutes, watching the edges of the blackout drapes turn from dark to pale grey. Sherlock pulled his watch up to look at it in the dim light.

Michael looked over his shoulder and sighed. “I better get moving,” he said. “I hate to make you do the walk of shame, but I’ve got an early flight—the rest of the team went back last night and we have practice today.”

“What did you tell them?” Sherlock asked, curious.

“I’ve got family here; said I was going to see my mom.”

Sherlock pushed himself upright and collected his crumpled clothes, thinking with wry amusement that he was glad of his unused hotel room after all; being seen like this would definitely qualify as a walk of shame. One of his socks seemed to have gone missing, but he finally found it in the mess of smelly bedclothes.

“I’d better leave a big tip,” Michael said, surveying the bed. He turned as Sherlock stood up from putting on his shoes and Sherlock hesitated, feeling awkward.

“Thank you,” Sherlock finally managed stiffly. 

“Hey,” Michael said softly. He crossed to Sherlock and put a hand on his shoulder, leaning in to kiss him lightly. “It was a pleasure. I mean that.” He smiled, eyes crinkling, and pushed Sherlock’s messy hair back with one hand. “Seamus.”

Sherlock felt himself smile back slightly. Michael took his hand and he squeezed back, and then he turned and left.

Sherlock didn’t feel shamed as he got himself to the lifts and back to his room; he didn’t feel much of anything, still dazed from the events of the night. In his bathroom he stood staring at his reflection in the mirror. He had had sex. Was he different now? He didn’t look different—except his hair, which was a fright. Would Eurus be able to tell? Was he a complete human being now, or did that require a romantic relationship? Was Sherlock even capable of a romantic relationship? He’d rather thought not, but those bits—the talking, the holding—that had been…nice. Awkward, but not unpleasant. And the sex, that had been astonishing, nothing at all like touching himself. He was going to need a whole new wing of the mind palace for this, but it was going to take time, it was all so overwhelming…

Sherlock shook himself out of his daze. He needed to process. He’d have killed for a cigarette, but that was right out—he’d quit when Rosie was born, not that John had ever noticed—and anyway he was in a nonsmoking room. Back to the running shoes.

 

Sherlock followed the concierge’s directions to the trail that followed the lakeshore and set out briskly in the grey morning. The sight of the water was oddly soothing, the endless space of it ordering the tangle of his thoughts. He liked sex. He wanted more of it: more data points, more activities, more people; he wanted to know what it felt like to give a blow job, wanted to find out what he liked. He turned around, seeing the enormous lake from a new angle and feeling the old childish longing to set sail into the unknown, and then inspiration hit.

Chapter Text

Two days later Sherlock roared out of Chicago heading west on I-90, riding a black-and-gold Harley-Davidson sharknose with an engine that could wake the dead. Sherlock was roaring too, so giddy with excitement and anticipation that he was whooping out loud, the wind tearing the laughter from his throat. He was going on a road trip to the Wild West! He was going to see mountains and plains and that ridiculous mountain with the presidents carved on and buffalo and cowboys and Indians! And he was going to shag them! (Not the buffalo.) Not quite the same as setting off to sea in a pirate ship, perhaps, but a very close second.

Sherlock had rung John before he left but had got his voice mail, so he’d left a message telling John he was setting off on an adventure and would be in touch and, in a flash of inspiration, would send postcards to Rosie. He’d already posted one from Chicago showing the shiny bean. Sherlock had no intention of spelling out exactly what he was up to, so hopefully John would too distracted by pictures of the OK Corral to wonder what Sherlock was doing.  Wait, where was the OK Corral? Was he going the right way? Never mind, he’d find it later.

Late that afternoon Sherlock cruised into a city in Minnesota big enough—according to his phone at least—to have a few gay bars. He idled past two based on reviews and was pleased: nothing too dodgy. He found a chain motel amid a cluster of chain restaurants, where he checked in, got some diner, and took a shower. Sherlock had arranged to have his things shipped to Irene’s, and now he was wearing jeans, boots, and a black leather jacket (pockets stuffed with lube and a generous handful of condoms). He’d had his hair cut before he left Chicago—nothing drastic, just enough that he didn’t look ridiculous when he took his helmet off. The overall effect was rather good, he thought as he surveyed himself in the mirror: hard and lean and just a bit dangerous.

 

The place he chose had filled up since Sherlock cased it earlier and he had to squeeze past knots of people to get to the bar. He easily identified the most popular beer by the shine on the tap and ordered that, then turned and wedged himself more comfortably against the bar so he could watch the crowd. Sherlock was, of course, familiar with basic homo sapiens mating rituals, but he had never observed with an eye to partaking himself, and thought he probably had a lot to learn. Was he going to have to dance? That might require switching to something stronger.

Sherlock drank and watched and tried to listen to people talking next to him, but the music was too loud. When he’d finished his beer he turned back to the bar and was surprised when the bartender immediately handed him a full glass: “From that guy down there.”

Sherlock looked without thinking, immediately cursing himself—he probably looked a complete neophyte—and caught the man’s eye. The man nodded at him and Sherlock nodded back in thanks, lifting his glass, and the man tilted his head: come over here.

Finally! Sherlock made his way to the far end of the bar, where there was a bit of space near his admirer. He deduced the man in glimpses on his way, mostly habit but also to distract himself from his nerves: worked in IT, liked to build things, not a dancer. Then he was there.

“Thanks for the drink.”

He saw the man clock his accent and smile, liking it. “You’re not from around here.”

“No. I took a bit of time off, wanted to see the west.”

The man cocked an eyebrow. He was about Sherlock’s age, with narrow glasses and lightly frosted hair and the last remnants of summer tan; it was an appealing combination. “Midlife crisis?”

“Something like that,” Sherlock said. He took a long drink of his beer, holding eye contact as he swallowed and watching the man’s eyes follow the motion of his throat; oh, this was easy, of course he could do this. He lowered the beer and licked his lips, wondering fleetingly if he were going too far.

“So,” the man said, He had moved closer, but subtly, still leaning back with one elbow on the bar. “Seen anything you like yet?”

Definitely not too far. Sherlock looked the man up and down deliberately: the biceps visible under his shirt, the bulge in his trousers. “Yep,” he said, popping the p with all the swagger he could muster. “I rather think I have.”

 

The man’s name was Will. Sherlock had been dying to get a man’s cock in his mouth since Michael had done it to him, and Will had absolutely no objection, so he did. It turned out to be a lot harder than it had looked. Just getting the condom on was a challenge—Michael had made it look easy, but Sherlock somehow got the wretched thing backward and had to fumble around to get it right. Will also didn’t follow Michael’s rule about not thrusting, but Sherlock remembered how Michael had used his fist and he tried it, with good results. He also realized rather quickly that, except for the tendency to gag, he didn’t actually mind. Michael had said that as well, hadn’t he? Some men liked it? Sherlock definitely did. He loved when Will fisted his hands in his hair and shoved into him; he almost wished he’d left his hair long. He’d dropped to his knees on nothing but instinct and he loved that too; it gave Will so much more leverage.

Sherlock was trying, simultaneously and without much success, to remember what Michael had done while also paying attention to what Will seemed to like and keep himself from being asphyxiated by Will’s driving cock. It was challenging but also incredibly arousing. When Will seemed to have finally settled into a shallow pounding rhythm Sherlock braced himself with one hand on Will’s hip and reached down to jerk himself with the other. Fantastic! Sherlock was so turned on he actually finished first, gasping for air as Will groaned, fingers tightening in his hair as Sherlock spurted onto his legs. Then Sherlock gripped Will’s hands with both hips and held on as Will really let go, humming encouragingly—“Mmm, mmm, mmm”—as Will drove into his throat. “Fuck,” Will muttered, “ah, fuck, fuck—AH.” He groaned, pulling out and pushing back in hard, and Sherlock felt the heat on his tongue and suddenly he wanted it, wanted the hot spurt of semen down his throat, wanted to lick it from his lips and swallow it down. Thank God he hadn’t actually had sex when he’d been young and stupid, Sherlock thought as Will eventually moaned his way still; he’d be dead by now.

 

Next day Sherlock established what would become his routine: he woke up, went for a run, and then had an enormous breakfast at the best diner he could find (he was developing an algorithm for this). Then he set out. If there was an interesting sight near the motorway he might stop, but mostly he followed the sun, heading west. At night he went out. No cowboys yet, but he met a Sioux man with whom he shared a cramped but enjoyable handjob in the cab of the man’s pickup, so that was one to cross off the sexual bucket list.

As he rode Sherlock worked on the new wing of his mind palace. He was beginning to get a feel for what he liked now: the Sioux man, for example, had been a bit too young and pretty, and Sherlock thought that perhaps he was not much interested in young and pretty. Besides, he smoked. Sherlock had had to take another shower when he got back to his motel just to get the smell of the truck out of his hair; at this rate he was going to run out of shampoo, and where would he get more of his shampoo out here?

On the third day Sherlock was cruising through South Dakota, ruminating on whether he really wanted to see Mount Rushmore or just buy Rosie a postcard at a petrol station. He’d already sent one from the Corn Palace, and if he detoured to Mount Rushmore, he would probably be stuck in Rapid City, where the gay scene seemed to be iffy at best. Sherlock was still mulling his options when the light around him abruptly faded, as though from a sudden eclipse. At the same time the temperature seemed to drop twenty degrees. Sherlock looked up, frowning, and saw that the sky had gone the livid indigo of a fresh bruise. What was going on? The air was still getting colder, and an icy wind had begun blowing into his face. Then the blizzard hit.

Sherlock thought he knew snow—he’d spent a miserable January in Russia when he’d been dead—but he’d never seen anything like this. Within a minute of the first feather-sized flake hitting his face the mountains in front of him had simply disappeared; everything had disappeared, vanished behind a white wall of whirling snow. Sherlock coasted to a stop on the shoulder and pulled out his phone, huddling over it an effort to shield the screen from the snow. He was still a good forty miles from Rapid City, and that was due west—he’d be heading straight into the storm. If he turned around, could he outrun it? How far would he have to go? Sherlock poked the “search around here” without much hope but there: Moose Mountain Lodge, a few miles back and seven miles north. Could he make it? Well, there were only two options: stay here and freeze or turn around and get moving before the motorway disappeared. Sherlock sighed, wheeled the motorbike around, and set off, grimly hoping he wouldn’t miss the turnoff.

He didn’t. Bumping along the narrow road Sherlock began to worry that the lodge would be closed for the season; would he be able to pick a lock? His hands were frozen. Then he rounded a curve and saw the welcoming lights of the lodge, whose parking lot seemed to be entirely packed with snow-covered humps of cars, and instead began worrying he wouldn’t be able to get a room.

“You’re in luck,” the cheerful woman behind the desk said. “A lot of hunting parties leave from here—you know, multi-day camping trips. There’s hardly anybody booked in tonight, although that’s probably going to change; a lot of groups are going to be hightailing it back here and then we will be full.”

“Then I’ll take the smallest thing you have that comes with a hot shower,” Sherlock said, teeth chattering.

The shower was bliss. Sherlock remembered the other shower, from the time he’d jumped into the fjord; that seemed a lifetime ago, but when he calculated in his head he realized with surprise it had been less than two weeks. And he was meant to have gone someplace warmer!

When he finally stopped shaking Sherlock toweled off and put on his backup jeans, then wrung out his sodden clothing, collected his dirty pants and socks, and went off in search of someplace to do his laundry. The lodge lacked a guest laundry, but the front desk lady offered to take it home and do it herself for twenty dollars, so Sherlock handed it over.

“Any chance of a hot coffee anywhere?” he asked without much hope. He still felt cold.

“Sure, right over there,” the woman said, pointing with her chin. “The dining room doesn’t open til five, but you can get coffee at the bar.”

The bar and restaurant turned out to be one big room, with an enormous fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows, which currently revealed only a wall of whirling snow. The décor heavily featured antlers, including an enormous taxidermied head over the fireplace. Moose? Elk? Oversized ugly deer? Sherlock didn’t know. A large and disgruntled party—thwarted hunters, presumably—had commandeered the tables in front of the fire, so Sherlock sat at the bar. “Coffee please,” he said.

The bartender brought over a large mug and Sherlock wrapped his hands around it gratefully. “Get caught out hiking?”

“No, I was on the road. On a motorbike. I was lucky this was close by.”

“A motorcycle! Yeah, you were lucky. Where you trying to get to?”

“I was going all the way to the sea. I didn’t expect it this though.”

“Yeah, this is crazy, we don’t usually get a big snow this early. When you get to the mountains, though…that’s going to be nasty. Are you trying to get anyplace in particular? Like, are you going to Seattle, or are you just heading west? Cause if you’re just trying to get to the Pacific you might want to drop down south to Denver, go through the southwest.”

“Hmmm,” Sherlock said. He pulled up the map on his phone, but he had to zoom out too far to find Denver. “Hang on.” He went to the gift shop and found a map, which he bought from the cheerful front desk lady, and went back.

“See, here’s where we are, up here,” the bartender said, leaning over and turning the map toward himself. “You can go down here and cut over to Salt Lake City, or you could cross the mountains on I-70—that still might be chilly but better than up in Montana—or you could go farther south, see the Grand Canyon.”

Sherlock got another cup of coffee and pored over the map, looking places up on his phone and getting intermittent advice from Mitch, the bartender. The bar felt comfortable; the honeyed wood and clink of glasses reminded him of pubs back in London. As the gray light outside thickened to darkness the room began filling up; hunting parties returning, just as the desk lady had predicted. The dining room was open now so Sherlock ordered a bowl of bison stew. A second bartender had joined Mitch, but he was still kept busy--the hunters had all apparently decided to take their enforced return to civilization as occasion to get roaring drunk.

“Another coffee? Or you want a drink?”

Sherlock had warmed up now, but he still didn’t fancy a cold beer.  He ordered a whisky without ice and went back to considering his route. Having got bored with looking up natural wonders, he began investigating which cities had the best options for gay bars. Leather? Hmmm.

“Are there any bars around here?” Sherlock asked Mitch.

“You’re in a bar,” Mitch said. “And I can make pretty much any drink you want…or are you wanting, like, a British bar?”

“No, a gay bar.”

“Ohhh.” Mitch rocked back a little, thinking. “Sorry, man, I don’t think so. You’d probably have to go back to the Twin Cities for that.”

Sherlock didn’t bother to correct him. “Oh well, didn’t think so. Another whisky then.”

“You’ve got the app, right? Did you try that? Maybe one of these guys is looking to get lucky.”

“What app?”

“That hookup thing, you know…Macey, what’s that hookup app for gay guys?”

“Grindr,” the waitress said, setting her tray on the edge of the bar. “Why, are you switching teams? I need another Moose Drool.”

“And break the ladies’ hearts? Hang on.”

Sherlock knew about Grindr. It had never occurred to him to try it, but what did he have to lose? It wasn’t as though anyone would recognize him out here. He downloaded the app and began setting up a profile.

“Find it?” Mitch asked, setting the glass of whisky down in front of him.

“I need a profile picture,” Sherlock said, frowning at the screen.

“I can take it,” Macey offered, coming up again. Macey was young, with wide green eyes and pale hair wound up in a bandana. “It’ll look better than a selfie. Let me just take these over, I’ll be right back.”

“Take your sweater off,” Mitch advised him.

Sherlock pulled off his jumper, under which he was wearing a black T-shirt, and felt self-conscious. At least Mitch hadn’t thought he ought to strip to the waist, which was how a lot of men on the site had posed; Sherlock didn’t fancy exposing the scar from when Mary shot him. It occurred to him for the first time that Michael must have noticed. He had never mentioned it.

“Okay,” Macey said, coming back and taking Sherlock’s phone. “Lean into the bar a little bit, you look too stiff…yeah, that’s good. Okay, smile.”

“No. I look frightening when I smile,” Sherlock said.

Macey looked up, frowning. “Really? Let me see.” Sherlock bared his teeth and Macey said, “Right, don’t smile.”

“Shit,” a large and highly intoxicated man said, bellying up to the bar behind Sherlock. “Stop showing off. Did you actually bag something out there?”

“Not yeeeet,” Mitch sang and all three of them laughed and then Macey said, “Oh, that’s good.” She turned the phone to show Sherlock and Sherlock blinked in surprise: it was good. The camera had caught him just in the instant before he laughed and he looked relaxed and open, not frightening at all.

“Oh yeah, use that one,” Mitch said, looking over Sherlock’s shoulder as he handed the large man his drink. “I mean, I don’t know what guys like, in guys, you know, but that’s a good picture.”

Sherlock looked at Macey, who shrugged and said. “Same, but I’d look at your profile, for sure.”

“All right,” Sherlock said, taking the phone back. “Thank you.” He put his jumper back on and settled back to finish his profile. He was briefly stymied by Grindr Tribes, even after he looked them up, and finally decided to skip that one. Tribes indeed! Sherlock was unique. Finished. He tapped hopefully and looked at the screen, but sadly, it appeared he was out of luck. The nearest online interested party was 182 miles away. If any of the hunters had any interest in bagging something with two legs and a cock, they weren’t sharing it here.

“Any luck?” Mitch asked, coming over. “It’s just about stopped snowing, if there’s anybody…”

Sherlock showed him the phone. “I think he’s in Canada.”

Mitch peered at the screen. “No, that’s North Dakota…shit, it practically is in Canada. You might as well just go to Denver, it’s not much farther. You want another drink instead?”

“No, I’m done for tonight.” Sherlock had already decided to go back to his room and watch porn on his phone; it would be a good opportunity to do some research. He left a large tip for Mitch and, on his way out, found Macey and slipped two twenties into her apron. Then, motivated either by gratitude or the second whisky or possibly both, he murmured into her ear, “Go back to college. Your boyfriend’s never going to commit to you and just because he wants to throw away his life out here doesn’t mean that you should.”

 

The storm blew itself out overnight. In the morning Sherlock stepped outside to a world so sparkling white it made his eyes water…although that might have been the cold as well. He decided to forego his morning run. Sherlock collected his laundry (washed, dried, neatly folded and even, judging by the scent of deionized water that had been in contact with hot metal, ironed) and stopped by the gift shot on his way out, where he bought gloves, a balaclava, and an enormous hooded sweatshirt emblazoned with “Moose Mountain Lodge”. He also bought a postcard of a bison herd, which Rosie would like better than Mount Rushmore anyway. Time to head south.

 

Sherlock had planned to go all the way to Denver and start Grinding, but the trip took longer than he’d expected—he had to take a lot of detours because of the snow—and by the time he reached Fort Collins it was already after dark. He knew from his previous day’s researches that Fort Collins had at least one gay bar, so he decided to stop there.

The bar was lively—it was the weekend—and the crowd considerably younger than Sherlock had previously encountered. It did not take him long to deduce that Fort Collins had both a university and a community bizarrely obsessed with the brewing of craft beers, and he started to wonder if he’d made the right choice after all. The weather wasn’t even that much warmer.

By the time he was on his second drink Sherlock had settled on an affable, tweedy man with a ginger beard named Jeff, both because he was the only person over thirty who hadn’t immediately started talking about beer and because he hadn’t yet been with a bearded man and wanted to see what it was like.

“Philosophy!” Sherlock said suddenly. He’d just gotten close enough to catch a whiff of pipe tobacco. This was not a deal breaker; Sherlock rather liked the smell of pipe tobacco. “I’d narrowed it down to philosophy or linguistics.”

Jeff looked startled and then pleased. “That’s right. Have we met before? Maybe a conference someplace?”

“God no,” Sherlock said, recoiling at the thought of an academic conference.

“Are you visiting then? What field are you in?”

“Economics.” Sherlock knew absolutely nothing about economics, but nobody else did either, and the subject was guaranteed to induce instant catatonia in any reasonable human being. “I’m on sabbatical.”

“So what are you doing here?”

“I’m on a tour of gay bars of the American West,” Sherlock said, truthfully enough.

Jeff burst out laughing. “Fantastic! So how does this one measure up?”

Sherlock knew his cue by now and so he looked Jeff up and down lasciviously: “Oh, quite well.”

Jeff laughed again and looped an arm around him. “Slow down, there’s no rush. So a sex tour, huh? Are you doing it in a convertible?”

“No, a motorbike, that’s why I headed south.”

Jeff seemed to find this funny as well, which was beginning to annoy Sherlock. Hadn’t they flirted enough? “No offense, but you seem kind of young for a midlife crisis.”

Oh, not this again. “It’s not a midlife crisis. It’s not a crisis at all, and as you’ve correctly pointed out, actuarial estimates—“ a thought occurred to him. “Do you know what, strike that. It’s not a midlife crisis, it’s a post life celebration. I was never meant to live this long.”

“Positive?”

Sherlock frowned at him. “Am I positive I’m alive or that I wasn’t meant to be?”

And Jeff laughed again. “No, I mean are you HIV positive?”

“Of course not. I was meant to die as a child and someone else died in my place. I’d been attempting to rectify that by my own death ever since and have now decided to stop.”

“Well, fantastic,” Jeff said, drawing him in closer. “That does call for a celebration. Let’s go back to my place and fuck.”

 

Sherlock’s stomach had flipped again at the word fuck, but he was bound to try it sooner or later—right?—and thought he could do worse than Jeff, who seemed the considerate type, if a little chatty. Nonetheless he was surprised to find himself just a little disappointed when it transpired that Jeff intended to bottom. Of course, there was also the fact that Sherlock had no idea what to do. He’d watched videos, of course, but they had a tendency to pick up in media flagrante.

“Tell me what you like,” Sherlock whispered when they were naked and under the covers. Jeff had turned out to be hairy all over; Sherlock was going to have head-to-toe beard burn by the time this was done. (Bear Tribe, Sherlock thought knowledgeably.)

“Mmmm.” Jeff kissed him again, with a lot of tongue. Jeff was the kissy sort. Unfortunately, he wasn’t as good at it as Michael had been. “I like a lot of fingering first.”

Fingering? Sherlock almost recoiled. Did that mean what he thought it did? Was he really meant to put his fingers up there, where he might encounter the remains of one of Jeff’s recent meals? Jeff rolled to the side and said “Here, I’ve got everything,“ and returned with a handful of condoms and a bottle of lube.

Condoms. Excellent. Sherlock opened one of the foil packets, felt around in the semidarkness, and rolled a condom over his index finger. Then he slathered lube over the whole thing. Jeff, who had predictably found this procedure amusing, kissed him again and hitched up one leg. Sherlock took a deep breath and pushed in slowly. Once he’d got over the weirdness of the whole thing, it wasn’t so bad—something he’d never done before, anyway, and after rubbing around a bit he encountered the curve of Jeff’s prostate, which produced some satisfying gasping and wriggling.

“Okay more,” Jeff panted, long past the point that Sherlock had gotten bored.

“More…”

“Another finger.”

Sherlock sighed, pulled his finger out, and slid his middle finger into the condom alongside it. At least with two fingers it was a bit easier to set up a sort of in-and-out rhythm once Jeff’s body had relaxed around the increase. He pumped away until his wrist began to ache, drizzling more lube on whenever things began to get sticky and letting Jeff occasionally pull him in for another sloppy kiss.

“Three,” Jeff said and Sherlock nearly groaned aloud, but obediently added another finger. Surely that was sufficient girth for preparation purposes. Sherlock was going to put his foot down—well, his hand—if Jeff demanded four, and his own erection had long since wilted, so he pulled the lube over one-handed and began working himself back to full hardness.

“Oh yeah,” Jeff said, his interest in moving on apparently piqued by the sight of Sherlock’s resurgent cock. “Give me that bad boy, I’m so ready for you…”

Shut up, Sherlock thought, pulling his fingers out with relief. He dropped the condom without looking at it and unrolled a fresh one, pleased that he’d managed it smoothly this time, and rearranged himself. Oh, that felt quite good. Now if Jeff would just stop talking so he could concentrate on how good it felt.

“Go slow, I want to feel you,” Jeff groaned and Sherlock gritted his teeth and went slow. Actually, maybe that wasn’t so bad. The tight slickness around his cock felt incredible, every long push a flare of escalating pleasure; he might have embarrassed himself if he’d gone too quickly. He moved in a slow languid rhythm, a long pull out and exquisite push in, over and over, losing himself in the sensation.  Then Jeff hooked an arm around his neck to draw him in for another kiss and Sherlock faltered, thrown out of the moment. He had a brief horrible sense of wrongness, like the emptiness he sometimes felt in a strange hotel room: unmoored and adrift.

Sherlock extricated himself from the kiss as quickly as he could and straightened up out of reach, pretending he was getting a cramp, and clenched his eyes tightly closed. Focus on the sex. He let the pace pick up a little, concentrating on the heat in his groin. He did wonder briefly if he was neglecting any topping responsibilities, but his porn-watching hadn’t indicated much was required of him, and besides he rather felt he’d done his bit. Jeff didn’t seem inclined to do much but lie there, moaning and stroking his cock occasionally and telling Sherlock harder, slower, yeah, like that.

“God, you’re good,” Jeff moaned. “I’m getting so close but I really want it to last longer, can you…”

Oh, enough. “Do it,” Sherlock growled, in his lowest, fiercest voice. “Do it now, I want to see you come with me inside you.” He really just wanted to see Jeff come, period, so he could finish himself; he could only imagine what Jeff would demand of him if Sherlock came first. To his surprise Jeff breathed “Oh God yes” and began jerking himself faster—he hadn’t really expected it to work. So he ordered, “Do it. Harder. Make yourself come. Now,” and for the first time let himself really go, snapping his hips and throwing his head back in mounting pleasure. Hurry up, he thought and thank God Jeff groaned under him and stiffened, spurting onto his own stomach. Sherlock squeezed his eyes shut, hoping Jeff wouldn’t try to grab him again, and tried to think of something else: a cowboy, a big hard cowboy, pushing him up against a wall and taking him from behind while Sherlock’s cock rubbed against the wall—where was he, a padded cell?—and that did it; he was coming, burst after burst in the tight heat of Jeff’s body.

Sherlock couldn’t get away fast enough. Jeff wanted to cuddle afterwards—he kept trying to pull Sherlock in for more slobbery kisses—and never knew how close he came to being evisceratingly deduced. Sherlock finally escaped to the loo, where he washed off quickly and found a hand towel which he dampened and took back out for Jeff. This wasn’t consideration; he just wanted Jeff distracted whilst Sherlock threw his clothes on.

“If you’re going to be in Denver a few days,” Jeff said, after pouting a little that he hadn’t managed to convince Sherlock to spend the night, “you should give me a call—I don’t mind coming down. Here, let me give you my number.” He handed Sherlock a business card and Sherlock tucked it into his back pocket, extricating himself with difficulty from what threatened to become another prolonged embrace.

Finally free, Sherlock fled back to his motel in an almost panicky haste, where he took a long, hot shower. His felt scraped raw all over—literally; Jeff had the coarsest body hair he’d ever encountered—but also figuratively: overexposed and overtouched. Afterward he paced the room restlessly, still feeling that awful hollowness. He knew he wouldn’t sleep. He looked out the window, but his motel was surrounded by strip malls and there was no place to run; besides, it was the middle of the night. Finally he packed up his things and left, leaving Jeff’s card abandoned in the bin.

 

Riding cleared his head. On the outskirts of Denver Sherlock spotted a 24 hour diner and decided to stop for breakfast; now that he’d outrun his flight instinct he was tired and hungry and running on fumes.

Over a mountain of pancakes and bacon Sherlock carefully ordered the night’s experience into the new wing of his mind palace.  Easy part first: Sherlock did not like bears. The beard itself hadn’t been so bad—Sherlock had no inherent objection to beards; he had seen pictures of John with a beard in Afghanistan and he’d looked quite good, better than that horrid moustache anyway. Still. Sherlock slotted “Bears” into the Dislikes section, right next to the young and pretty men (which in compliance with Grindr nomenclature convention Sherlock had now relabeled “Twinks”).  The kissing and so on was harder to parse; Sherlock had quite liked kissing Michael, but Michael hadn’t been so…clingy? Sloppy? He had certainly not been so fussy and demanding. And there had been that strange moment of almost revulsion, that wrongness that had continued to linger and finally driven him back onto the road. Sherlock thought he knew: he just didn’t want to face it. The act they’d been engaged in had been intimate, far more intimate than anything he’d done with anyone else—he’d been inside Jeff, joined to him in the deepest physical sense, and Jeff had been someone to whom he had no desire to be joined in any other sense. And that meant…well, it meant a question that Sherlock was not ready to ask yet.

So. For now the answer was easy enough: he’d stick with non-penetrative sex. Aside from anything else last night had left him with a fairly strong suspicion that he’d prefer bottoming, and he couldn’t even imagine how awful that would be with the wrong person. Besides, he had a long way to go with his database—he’d only been with four people so far, which as statistical samples went was pathetic. John had been with more people than that on a good month back when they’d lived together!

This thought reminded Sherlock that he hadn’t talked to John in over a week. He pulled out his phone to check the time, calculated, and pulled up John’s number.

The phone rang so many times Sherlock was resigning himself to leaving another voice mail when John finally picked up. “H’lo?” John said, sounding muddled and half asleep.

“John? Are you okay?”

“Sherlock! Hey. Hungozamint.” There was a clunk—John dropping the phone, evidently—and then a brief silence followed by a distant sploshing: John had gone to urinate and was now splashing water on his face, Sherlock deduced.

“Hey,” John said, sounding much more alert. “Sorry about that. I just woke up.”

“Did I get the time wrong?”

“No, no, I was working last night. Mycroft put me on to some locum work, moonlighting at one of the A&E’s. It’s…good. More like what I was doing in Afghanistan, you know. And now that I’ve got Tal…”

“Yes. Much better than the surgery,” Sherlock agreed. He’d never understood why John stayed on there; he’d obviously hated it.

“Yes, so—how’s it going? Wild west road trip, right?” Sherlock could hear the smile in his voice. It made him smile back. He told John about the Harley-Davidson, the blizzard, the beer-mad denizens of Fort Collins.

“I’ve been sending postcards to Rosie—you should start getting them soon.”

“Oh, that reminds me. Your violin came, it’s all in one piece and everything, and Rosie loves that little horse you sent. It’s her new favorite teether. And I’ve put the music in my box, until you get back. I can’t wait to hear it.”

“You can keep it put away. I won’t need the music to play it.”

“So you’re still doing okay? You eating plenty of cake?”

“Yes. Well, some places seem to specialize in pies. I don’t really like pie, although I had a chocolate one that was quite good. I have eaten quite a lot of pancakes, though.”

“That counts.”

“Yes.” Sherlock was feeling much better now; he was still smiling, and the hollow feeling was gone. Now that he’d eaten he was beginning to feel sleepy. He was going to go and see the sights of Denver, he decided, and then find a motel and take a nap, and then give Grindr a whirl. No bears. Outside the sky over the flat plains to the east was turning pink, and the diner was beginning to fill up with lorry drivers. “I should probably be going. Enjoy the job. And John?”

“Yeah?”

“I miss you.”

He could hear the warmth in John’s voice. “I miss you too. Be careful.”


Sherlock spent two enjoyable nights in Denver before heading south. He went to Santa Fe and then hopscotched his way west: Albuquerque and Roswell (disappointing) and Las Cruces and Tucson and Phoenix and the Grand Canyon (boring) and then Las Vegas again, and then up through the desert to Carson City and Reno and finally over to San Francisco. He sent Rosie postcards of aliens and cliff dwellings and Joshua trees and the Grand Ditch. He had sex with men he met in bars and on Grindr; Grindr definitely had its advantages, but on the whole found he was better able to find a desirable partner in person. So much more data available. He tried tequila and didn’t like it and tried tres leches cake and loved it. He got sunburnt. He considered abandoning the sweatshirt, but shipped it home to London instead: he could see lounging around in it on cold winter nights, over his pyjamas, when there was absolutely no chance of anyone seeing him in it.

Sherlock finally landed a cowboy in New Mexico, a swarthy man named Angel who spoke very little English but had many other satisfactory skills. He picked up a trans man, partly out of curiosity—of course he knew—though he did wonder if he’d be able to get him off, but the man was humorous and unselfconscious and generous with his coaching; he gave Sherlock the best blowjob he’d ever had and was happy to share tips after. In Las Vegas he had his first ménage a trois, and that was highly educational. He was able to observe the two men having anal intercourse and also had his first experience with anilingus. He met up with a German at a campsite in Death Valley and had sex on a blanket under a sky filled with astonishing stars.

Sherlock never thought about the past or his family, but he thought about John quite a bit: biting into a slice of cake, curling into the cool, neutral-smelling sheets of a motel bed, riding out of Death Valley under that dazzling glitter of stars. He called him: from diners, from rest stops, from the side of the road near Panamint Springs when he finally got a signal. “I remember stars like that in Afghanistan,” John said, wistful, and “I miss you.”

“I miss you too.”

 

By the time Sherlock reached San Francisco, he’d ticked off everything on his mental list (enhanced and reorganized by Grindr Tribe) except “Leather”. He assumed he’d have no trouble knocking that one out in San Francisco, and he was right: he wouldn’t even have to use Grindr. There were multiple leather bars and even a gay biker bar. That was certainly tempting, but Sherlock decided he wanted to give the full fetish experience a go first.

It did not take Sherlock long to settle on an intense, unsmiling Asian man named Paulo. (Early forties, interventional cardiologist, originally planned to go into research but followed the lure of money instead; now bored to the point of madness by his job and seeking distraction in ever-edgier sex play.) “What do you like?” Paulo asked.

“Don’t know yet,” Sherlock said. “That’s why I’m here.”

Paulo’s lip curled. “I’m not interested in newbies.”

“Fine,” Sherlock said, already turning away. He didn’t think he’d get far—Paulo was very fit but not terribly good-looking, and he’d been watching Sherlock from the moment he came in—and sure enough Paulo said, “Hold on. What are you up for trying?”

Sherlock looked over his shoulder, projecting impatience: “As I said, I don’t know.”

“Impact play?” When Sherlock raised an eyebrow, playing dumb, he clarified, “Can I hurt you?”

“Isn’t that the point? No marks.”

“Bondage?”

“No.” Sherlock was 95% sure that Paulo was safe, and though that 5% would have had him holding out his wrists ten years ago, he was wiser and more cautious now. Or perhaps simply biased from his day job. In Sherlock’s personal experience, nothing good ever resulted from being tied up by a stranger.

Paulo narrowed his eyes again and Sherlock added, “But I’ll keep my hands where you tell me,” and clasped them behind his back. He’d seen Paulo look at his mouth. He had found that most men who were interested tended to look either at his lips or his arse, and refined his selection process to favor the former; now he ran his tongue just along the inside of his lower lip. He knew Paulo’s imagination would fill in the rest: Sherlock on his knees, hands behind his back, mouth open and waiting for Paulo’s cock.

Paulo considered a moment—for show, obviously—and then said, “Toys?”

“Absolutely.”

Toys!

 

Sherlock found masochism to be something of a mixed bag. The nipple clamps were distracting and just unpleasant, and he refused the paddle outright after the first blow: too much like Serbia. The sting of the riding crop, on the other hand, was oddly pleasurable, and for some unfathomable reason he got a huge erotic charge out of being slapped on the face. Especially kneeling. Why he didn’t know, but when Paulo slapped his face stinging red and then grabbed him by the hair and shoved him onto his cock, it was all Sherlock could do to keep his hands behind his back. He was one good stroke away from coming himself.

The toys, on the other hand, were fantastic. Paulo trussed him up in some kind of complicated cock ring and had him spread-eagled on the bed—of course Paulo had a rubber-sheeted dungeon bed. Sherlock had finally consented to have his ankles bound, as the cuffs were padded leather he could get out of in half a second with his hands free, and he found the sensation of being spread wide simultaneously disconcerting and arousing. Paulo had made it clear he had no interest in anal intercourse, which was just as well, but he had a great deal of interest in what he could do to Sherlock’s arse by other means. He started with a slim little dildo, then moved up to a thin-tipped vibrator that quickly had Sherlock squirming and whimpering, then switched to a thicker, flared-base plug that vibrated just below the level of actual pleasure. He left this in place for a bit as he strolled around the bed, pinching Sherlock’s nipples and flicking his inner thighs with the crop, so lightly that the sting only heightened the desperate not-quite-enough sensation in his groin.

Sherlock thought he had reached his limit—he was clutching the bars of the bed so fiercely his hands would be bruised the next day, thrashing and pleading and thrusting into nothingness, desperate to get off—but Paulo leaned over, considering him with clinical detachment, and tightened the cock ring another notch. Then he turned up the vibrator. Sherlock wailed and Paulo, having got hard again whipping Sherlock’s thighs, put on a fresh condom and straddled his face.

By the time Paulo finally let him come Sherlock was exhausted. The orgasm itself was almost painful in its intensity, but the sensation of relief was so strong that fresh tears streaked their way down his cheeks. When it was over, he lay collapsed and limp on the dungeon bed and could muster only two coherent thoughts: he was going to need a lot more data to work out how he felt about this leather business, and he really needed a vibrating dildo.

 

Sherlock spent another two days in San Francisco, gathering information and going for long runs to organize it. His second experience was not as successful. The man he picked up, lacking Paulo’s focus and intelligence, was far less satisfactory; he was also overly theatrical, which left Sherlock with the feeling that he had been kidnapped by a horny thug with frustrated acting dreams. (Sherlock had stopped holding back after the third time the man shouted “Do you like this, bitch?”, but his acid commentary had simply inspired the man to stick a ball gag in his mouth, to Sherlock’s annoyance.) On the third night he went to the biker bar and ended up with a hulking, feral man who flipped mystifyingly from taking Sherlock so roughly he left his face bruised to caressing him tenderly as he murmured, “baby rabbit, baby rabbit”. Enough, Sherlock decided, was enough. Under highly specific circumstances he would enjoy a little roughness, but it was not something he was going to pursue for its own sake. He still wanted a vibrating dildo, but after browsing the shops had prudently decided to postpone that purchase until he no longer risked having his bags searched at the airport.

He almost forgot to look at the ocean before he left.

 

 

Irene’s house in Los Angeles had the same professionally tasteful, un-lived-in quality as her house in London, though the décor was far more Californian. There was even a swimming pool.

“Do you actually swim here?” Sherlock asked. They were sitting out back on the terrace drinking gin and tonics, as Irene said hearing Sherlock’s accent made her homesick.

“Oh yes. Not as much as in the beginning, but after a workout it’s lovely. I’ve a pool service who takes care of the maintenance, of course.”

“I don’t believe you’re really homesick. Can you imagine what it’s like in London right now?”

Irene smiled but changed the subject smoothly. “What I can’t believe is that you went to a bunch of amateurs in San Francisco. I’m insulted! How would you feel if I came to London and asked the police to solve a case?”

“Well,” Sherlock said drily, “if the police had something essential to the process that I couldn’t provide, perfectly fine. In this case that was a penis.”

Irene laughed and Sherlock grinned back at her, taking another sip of his drink. It was lovely here; he wasn’t feeling much inclination to go home himself.

“So what are your plans now?” Irene asked as though reading his mind.

“Not sure.” Sherlock hadn’t really thought much beyond reaching Los Angeles, which had always been the intended terminus of his journey, but he didn’t feel ready to return to London just yet. He looked out at the blue stillness of the pool. “I was thinking of going south, maybe down to Mexico, spend a few days by the sea.”

“Well, you’re welcome to stay here as long as you like,” Irene said. “Did you find your things from Chicago?”

“Yes. Thank you for having them cleaned.”

“Not at all…although I rather like this look on you. Bit edgy.”

“Bit dusty.” He really should get these clothes cleaned as well, but he wasn’t quite ready to give up his motorbike clothes. They weren’t too bad—he’d been throwing out the t-shirts and pants and socks after a few days and buying new; it was easier than finding a place to clean them.

“Oh, I almost forgot. I had a call a few days ago, from a friend of yours.”

“John?”

Irene looked at him a little strangely and Sherlock blushed; of course that was ridiculous. John had his number, he could call Sherlock any time; why would he ring Irene? “No, Michael Rhodes. The basketball player?”

“Michael! What did he want?”

Irene raised her eyebrows. “He asked if you’d gone back to England and I said I really had no idea. So he gave me his number and asked if I’d pass it along if I happened to talk to you, because he’d like to see you again if it could be arranged.”

Sherlock blinked at her a moment, took a long drink, stared at the pool, and looked back. “Why would he want to see me again? Doesn’t that usually imply some sort of interest in a relationship? Michael doesn’t want a relationship.” Did Sherlock want a relationship? Sherlock wondered, and immediately shoved the thought away.

“It implies he wants to see you again. I wouldn’t read too much into it. Maybe you have a natural talent for shagging. He didn’t ask me for permission to marry you, he might just want a…friends-with-benefits type of thing.” Irene was still watching him closely, though he couldn’t tell why.

Sherlock drained his drink and looked at her. “So what should I do?”

“What do you want to do? Do you want to see him?”

Sherlock thought about it, turning the glass in his hands. The truth was that he would like to see Michael again. Michael was still his gold standard, the measure by which all the subsequent men had come up short in various ways; it would be interesting from a scientific standpoint to see if this still held true now that Sherlock was so much more experienced. Besides, he’d liked Michael: far more than he’d expected to, and far more than he’d liked any of the others he’d been with. It would make a fitting end to his journey, closing the circle, so to speak. “All right,” he said. “Give me his number and I’ll make us another drink.”

 

Freshly shaved and showered, Sherlock stood in the guest room of Irene’s house and dressed in his clean black suit. Then he looked at himself in the mirror, considered a moment, and took off the jacket and pants, replacing them with his jeans and leather jacket.

Michael lived closer to the city proper than Irene, in a gated community of identically pricey townhomes and condominiums. Sherlock cruised slowly along the quiet street, watching the numbers, until he found the right one. Michael was out the door almost before Sherlock turned the engine off. “Have you got a motorcycle? Is that what you’ve been riding around the country on? Let me see! Hey, you cut your hair!”

“Helmet,” Sherlock said, shaking out his hair. They stood around the bike for a minute, talking about engines as Sherlock pulled the wine out, leaving it in the bag so it wouldn’t look too much like a date if the neighbors happened to be watching.

“Come on in,” Michael said, leading the way. When the door had shut behind him he turned to Sherlock, beaming, and said, “It’s really good to see you.”

“Yes,” Sherlock said, trying to remain impassive but feeling the foolish smile threatening to break out on his own face, and then they were kissing. Sherlock had forgotten how huge Michael was—it was like being kissed by an exceedingly gentle earthquake—but he’d not misremembered Michael’s skill. Michael was still the best kisser Sherlock had ever been with, and Sherlock was now experienced enough to recognize the frisson of attraction as well.

They kissed until Sherlock became so distracted that he dropped the wine, which fell to the carpeted floor with a soft thud, startling them apart. “We’d better stop,” Michael said, smoothing Sherlock’s rumpled hair with one big hand. “Or we’ll never get to dinner, and I’m making my special salmon for you.”

“This won’t go with salmon,” Sherlock said ruefully, pulling out the wine. It was the same bottle they’d drunk in Chicago.

“You remembered,” Michael said, his face softening into that adoring smile again, and then he shook his head at himself. “Damn, who am I talking to? Of course you remembered. I’ve got a white for dinner and we’ll have this one after—we can call an Uber, or there’s plenty of room if you want to stay over.”

 

Michael’s salmon was simple but perfectly cooked, and he had made salad and asparagus as well. They talked about Los Angeles and places Sherlock had been on his travels and then, when they were into the second bottle of wine, about his more colorful adventures.

“’Baby rabbit’,” Michael said. He was helpless with laughter, his hand pressed to his mouth and tears standing in his eyes. “No, no, no, no, no. This was a white guy, right? No. If anybody’s going to make you his little white bunny that’s going to be me.”

“I’m starting a new Grindr tribe,” Sherlock said. “White rabbit.”

“Shaking that fine white cotton tail,” Michael said and Sherlock had to put his glass down because he was laughing so hard. “I’ve been thinking about that cotton tail,” Michael said. He reached out, took Sherlock’s hand and tugged; Sherlock came willingly and Michael smoothed his hands down his back and over his arse, squeezing, and Sherlock forgot everything but the desire to get his clothes off and Michael’s hands on his bare arse now. “Thinking about it a lot.”

The kissing earlier had been lovely but this was a different thing entirely, deeper and more reckless. Michael’s hands did not remain decorously at Sherlock’s waist but moved lower, gripping and squeezing and stroking, and Sherlock’s hands slid under Michael’s shirt to grip the smooth hardness of his back.

Michael groaned and broke off where he was sucking at Sherlock’s earlobe to breathe into his ear, “Somebody’s been practicing.”

“That’s not all I’ve been practicing,” Sherlock said. He did not say it as he usually would, teasing and flirtatious; he was beginning to understand, dimly, that the honesty was what made things so much better with Michael. “Let me show you.”

Sherlock liked Michael’s bed, which was enormous and had excellent quality linens. He also liked what Michael could do in it, especially since Michael had abandoned the handle-with-care caution of their first encounter. In the first flush of having their clothes off and pressing against each other he almost offered himself, almost crossed that last invisible line and let Michael take him, enormous cock and all, but in the end he didn’t. He really did want to show Michael what he had learned about blow jobs, after all.

“Oh sweet Jesus,” Michael gasped. “Sorry, breaking my own rules, I’m trying to hold back but you’re just—“

Sherlock pulled off long enough to say smugly, “Go on. I can take it,” and Michael flung his arms out, groaning and arching his neck and Sherlock sucked him down again. Sherlock was cheating, a little: Michael was lying on his back, so it was easier to control how deep he could thrust. Still, he was huge and Sherlock was a perfectionist, so his throat was aching by the time he brought Michael to a roaring climax. Michael was lavish in his praise and also in his reciprocal attentions, and Sherlock’s orgasm was highly satisfactory, if a lot quieter.

Afterward they both lay panting and sweaty for a few minutes until they gathered themselves enough to tidy up, and then Michael reached to tug Sherlock into his arms. “You know I didn’t really mean it about that Uber, right,” Michael murmured. “Just didn’t want you to feel any pressure.”

Sherlock had wondered if this would happen again, the holding thing; he’d wondered if he would still enjoy it, having had no desire to linger with any of the others he’d been with. Strangely enough, it felt just as nice as if had before. His head was nestled on Michael’s solid chest and he could feel the rumbling vibration when Michael spoke. “I never stayed with anyone else,” he said. “I never wanted to.”

“Tell you the truth, me neither. Not since college.” Michael was quiet for a moment. “Never called anybody for a second date either.”

Sherlock smiled against his chest.

“I’ve been thinking about you a lot,” Michael said quietly. “Not just about, you know, the sex, or your eyes or your ass or whatever. Although I did think about that. But about talking to you. I went back and looked you up, you know, in the Guardian, read everything they ever wrote about you. Man…” he shook his head. “Was all that real?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t read most of it.” That was John’s job, Sherlock thought but didn’t say. “Probably. Well, not the bits about Janine. She made up a different story every time and no one ever noticed; they just kept paying her for interviews. She got a house out of it.”

“And you were okay with that?”

“Yes.” He was. “I used her, so she was entitled to whatever she could get in return, and besides…why should I care what people who don’t even know me think?”

“See, that’s the thing. Everyone else does care. You’re the only one I know who just doesn’t give a shit.”

“Most people don’t think that’s an asset,” Sherlock said drily.

“Still.” Michael stroked Sherlock’s hair, absently, and Sherlock closed his eyes. “I want to be like that. Like you. I mean, I don’t want to be you, I want to be me.”

“Mmm.” Sherlock was not really sure what he was supposed to be contributing to this conversation, so he settled for vague encouragement.

Michael took a breath. “When I called her, that friend of yours, asked if she’d have you get in touch with me. It wasn’t only because I wanted to see you again, although I really did want to see you again. A lot. But that wasn’t the whole reason.”

Sherlock opened his eyes and tipped his head back to try to see Michael’s face. “What was the other reason?”

Michael’s arms tightened. “I want to hire you.”

Chapter Text

“I talked to the attorney, about what you said about needing a local investigator,” Michael said, settling himself slightly awkwardly into his seat—even in first class, he didn’t quite fit. “She’s already on it. The firm has a guy who’s a retired sheriff’s deputy and he’s getting the police files, all that. He’ll be at the meeting today.”

“Good,” Sherlock said. He looked out as the plane banked, turning smoothly over Los Angeles. “You should bear in mind…we might learn things that were kept from you, in the past. Things you might not want to know.”

“Yeah,” Michael said. His voice was calm. “I’ve thought about that.”

Sherlock nodded; there really wasn’t any more to say. He looked out the window as they turned into the sun, heading east, back the way he had come.

 

Michael had told him his story in the dark, a low murmur as they lay in each other’s arms.

“When I was fifteen, my father went to prison for murder. He could have taken a plea bargain and he’d be out by now but he swore he was innocent, so he wouldn’t take a deal. What happened was, a man driving an ice cream truck got shot in Price Hill. Price Hill’s a mostly white neighborhood but not a good neighborhood…I don’t know if you have white trash in England, but that’s what it is. And a guy in an ice cream truck in Price Hill, chances are he’s got a little bit of ice cream and a whole lot of drugs. So the guy gets shot, a black guy, police figure it’s a drug deal gone bad or a robbery. The neighbor who heard the shots and called the police was looking out his window and saw a black man run into the building across the street. The police got there pretty quick, I guess, and when they pulled up with the lights and sirens there goes a black man running out the back of the same building. That was my dad. He swore up and down he didn’t do it, but he wouldn’t say what he was doing in the building—I guess he thought he didn’t have to, no evidence, but the police figured they had all they needed and wouldn’t let him go, kept questioning him. So finally he wised up and asked for a lawyer and they got him down one from the public defender’s office, and my dad told the lawyer he’d been visiting his girlfriend. His white girlfriend. That’s why he hadn’t wanted to explain.” Michael sighed heavily. “My mom was…they’d been married a long time, and I don’t think he’d ever stepped out on her before. She was so mad she didn’t even care whether he killed that guy or not; in her mind he already deserved to go to jail. Wanted to move us right back to Chicago where she came from but, you know, I had that scholarship…” He was quiet a minute. “She always put us first, you know? So we stayed. Had to move our house, everything. I had just started at St. X and I didn’t say a word to anybody…bad enough I didn’t have a dad; didn’t want anybody knowing he was in jail. It’d be almost worse if I went around saying he was innocent. I was almost as mad at him as my mom was. My uncle took me to see him a couple times after he got moved to a prison closer to home, but then I went to college and my mom moved to Chicago…I haven’t been to see him in three or four years, probably. But I did a lot of thinking, after I was with you. And I really don’t think he did it. I called my mom—she’s moved on, you know, she got remarried, all that—and she said she didn’t think so either, not deep down.”

Sherlock had listened with what he thought was really commendable patience, but now that Michael finally seemed to have paused, he said, “But what about the girlfriend? I assume she gave him an alibi?”

“She didn’t do anything. She disappeared. Turned up dead a while later.”

Sherlock had been preparing to let Michael down as gently as possible but at that all his instincts came to full alertness, like dozing hounds hearing the call to the hunt. “What?”

“She died. That didn’t help; they didn’t couldn’t charge my dad with it, but everybody thought he had something to do with it, maybe had his drug buddies kill her so she couldn’t talk.” Michael’s voice took on a bitter edge for the first time. “Thing was, my dad didn’t have drug buddies. Or criminal associates, or anything like that. He was an electrician. Worked at GE my whole life. But none of that mattered, I guess; all that mattered was that he was a black man running away.”

Michael’s assessment of his father’s relative criminality was of no interest to Sherlock, but the dead girlfriend…a dead girlfriend implied someone killed her, and that implied….

“All right,” he said. “I’ll take the case.”

 

When they landed Sherlock took charge of the bags and Michael hired the biggest SUV available, and then they drove over the river to Cincinnati. They were early, so Michael got lunch and Sherlock got coffee, and then they went to meet the extremely expensive lawyer Michael had retained to represent his father.

The lawyer’s name was Lauren Aronson. She was remarkably short, even in her admirably crafted five-inch heels, which might not have been as noticeable if Michael were not so remarkably tall. There were three other men in the conference room: a nervous young idiot who was clearly some sort of forgettable underling, a middle aged man who could not have looked more like police if he had been flashing a badge—obviously the investigator—and an elfin pensioner in a natty three piece suit, whom Sherlock couldn’t identify at all.

“Mr. Rhodes, it’s a pleasure,” Aronson said briskly, seeming not at all discomfited at having to crane her neck to look at her client. “This is Joe McGinty, our investigator, and I don’t know if you remember Phil Schneider—“

“Mr. Schneider, sir, of course,” Michael said warmly, bending to take the elderly man’s hand. “You were my father’s attorney. I remember you came to the house.”

“And I remember you were a giant even then,” Schneider said, beaming. “You and your sister both! And smart, too. Michael went to St. X,” he said to McGinty. “How is your family?”

“Very well, thank you, my mother is in Chicago now. Mariah was the smart one, she went to Walnut Hills; I was all set to put her through college but she got a full ride to Ohio State. She got married last summer and I did get to help with that.”

Sherlock was already getting impatient but fortunately Aronson was too. “Phil retired a few years ago but we knew each other from the PD’s office, so when I saw his name I gave him a call to see what he could tell me and he volunteered to come in.” She gestured at the table and then, apparently noticing Sherlock for the first time—going around with an oversized superstar instead of a diminutive Army doctor certainly made him less conspicuous—reached out a sharp-nailed hand: “You’ll be Mr. Rhodes’s investigator, I assume.”

“Sherlock Holmes,” he said, approving of her get-this-show-on-the-road efficiency.

“All right, anyone need anything? Coffee? Then let’s get started.”

“This is the file from the original investigation,” McGinty said when they were all settled. “We’ve also got the trial transcript—“

“—which is a lot thinner than it ever should have been,” Schneider said, shaking his head. “I’ll tell you, Mr. Rhodes, I was a defense attorney a long, long time and I haven’t had many clients I was as sure were innocent as your father. This was a travesty. I’ve never forgotten it. That’s why I was glad to come in when Lauren called me.”

“I appreciate that, sir.”

Sherlock was getting the bad feeling that Phil Schneider was going to spend the entire afternoon reminiscing, but McGinty wasn’t the sort to yield the floor that easily. “Anyway, the police file is a little easier to follow. So. March 23, 2001, 11:23 PM. 911 takes a call from a Mr. Wallace Stegman that he heard gunshots outside his residence in Lower Price Hill. Mr. Stegman looked out the front window while he was on the phone with the dispatcher and reported that he saw a man running from an ice cream truck into a building across the street. He was able to give the street number as well as a description of the running man, who he described a black, big, and ‘pretty fast’. A squad car had been parked on the main drag a few blocks over watching for drivers leaving the bars and arrived on the scene at 11:27. The officers exited the car and approached the ice cream truck, where they found the body of Levon Singleton, 24, who had been shot twice in the head. A handgun which proved to be the murder weapon was also recovered at the scene; it was lying in the street next to the truck. One of the officers returned to the car to call for backup and heard a rattling coming from the back of the building, which he identified as the sound of someone descending a fire escape, so he circled around the building and saw an African-American male drop from the fire escape and sprint away from the house. The officer apprehended this man who was, as we all know, Darnell Rhodes. Wallace Stegman would later identify Mr. Rhodes as the man he had seen running toward the building.”

“Which was ridiculous,” Schneider said. “Mr. Stegman only ever saw the running man from behind; he saw Mr. Rhodes as he was brought around the building to the squad car.”

“Additionally, Mr. Rhodes is 6 feet three inches and quite slender while the man Mr. Stegman saw was described by him as ‘big’, not tall; also he was 42 years old at this time and easily caught, so not ‘fast’,” Aronsen said crisply.

“Mr. Rhodes protested his innocence and claimed that he was just going out the back because he saw the lights and sirens and was afraid he would be caught up in a crime scene as a witness, and he needed to get home. The police detained him in the car to await questioning.”

“One moment,” Sherlock said. “Were his fingerprints on the gun?”

“No,” Schneider said.

”Was he wearing gloves when he was caught?”

“No,” Schneider said again.

“Were there any fingerprints found on the gun?”

“Yes, but they did not match Mr. Rhodes’s, nor anyone in the system.”

“Were any gloves ever recovered?”

“No.”

Sherlock gave him an And you still couldn’t get him off? look which Schneider returned with interest: “I know, right? I’m telling you, a travesty.”

“More police arrive, the detectives arrive, officers canvass the house and the street,” McGInty said. “To cut to the chase: the building was a four up-four down. Of the front downstairs units, one tenant was at work and the other side heard the gunshots as well as footsteps running up the staircase in the center of the building. Zoran and Marija Radojovic. They had actually called 911 a minute or so after Mr. Stegman, saying they were afraid there was a shooter in their building. The back downstairs units heard nothing. Upstairs, the front right unit—that would be Deana Clark—told the police she was watching TV and heard nothing. The left hand unit, Kelly Lewis, stated she heard gunshots, someone running up the stairs, and then a few minutes later someone running down the hallway toward the fire escape. The back units were asleep and did not hear the gunshots but one, Edith Chester, thought she heard the window being opened on the fire escape.”

“Why didn’t Miss Lewis call the police?” Sherlock asked.

McGinty nodded at him. “She said she was scared; she locked her door and was pressed up against it listening; her phone was in the other room. If he ran back downstairs she was going to call, but then he went to the back and she heard the sirens before she could get to her phone.”

“Poor Mr. Rhodes,” Schneider said, “continues to think he’s going to be released any minute once they realize he’s not the guy, but of course that doesn’t happen, and eventually he’s brought back to the station by the detectives, where he finally realizes they aren’t going to let him go and asks for an attorney. Which is where I come in. He tells me about Miss Clark and I’m able to convince him to tell the whole story to the detectives.”

Sherlock raised his eyebrows.

“According to his statement,” McGinty said, “Mr. Rhodes had been at a meeting of his local union, which was corroborated by multiple witnesses. Instead of going to a bar with his buddies afterwards he drove to Price Hill and parked around the corner from the street in question in the parking lot of a convenience store. A security camera verified that he parked there at approximately the time given. Mr. Rhodes stated that he was getting ready to leave Miss Clark’s home when they heard the gunshots, though he was unsure if he heard anyone running up the stairs. He was worried that the police would take his name and his wife would find out where he had been, so he decided to go out the back.”

“Obviously, the police went back to talk to Deana Clark again,” Schnieder said. “But she wasn’t there, And she wasn’t at work. They decided, not without reason, that she’d skipped out to avoid getting caught up in anything. Her mother actually reported her missing the next day, although no one put that together until the body was found a few days later.”

“Behind a convenience store,” McGinty said. “Different convenience store. Gunshot wound to the head. Never solved.”

“Convenient indeed,” Sherlock said drily.

“Her apartment was searched thoroughly and no drugs or significant amounts of cash were found, so the assumption was that she had taken off with whatever Levon Singleton had been shot for, either hiding it for Mr. Rhodes or double crossing him, and someone else took it off of her.”

“And he was convicted on that?” Sherlock said. “There’s absolutely no evidence that ties him to the shooting!”

“Not a shred,” Aronsen said. “Unfortunately he had a record, though.”

“What?” Michael said, looking startled. “My dad didn’t…”

Schneider patted his arm “It was before you were born. In 1983. Your dad was busted in a bar fight and had some drugs in his possession, so he was arrested for battery and possession.”

“1983,” Michel said and sighed, long, rubbing his forehead with his fingers. “Darnell Junior.”

“Mr. Rhodes and his wife lost their infant son that year,” Schneider explained to the rest of them. “He had been struggling with guilt and anger and the court agreed to probation, which he scrupulously adhered to, and even attended group counseling classes as part of an anger management program.”

“He never had any problems again, I’m pretty sure,” Michael said. Schneider sighed and Michael said, “What?”

“The police were called for a domestic disturbance a few months before Singleton’s murder,” McGinty said. “No charges were filed.”

Michael stared a few seconds and said, “You mean that time he got into it with me? But that was nothing! Cops came to the door, talked to him a minute, drove off. It wasn’t like he ever beat on my mom or anything. He was just hollering at me over some stupid thing I’d done when I was a teenager.”

“Still,” Schneider said. “We know your father was a hardworking, devoted man who turned his life around and was devoted to his family, but the way the jury saw it…”

“Was wrong,” Michael said. Sherlock knew he was angry, although Michael’s face and voice were as calm as ever. “He loved us, he loved my mom. He was sorry for stepping out on her; he told me that every time he saw me.” Michael looked at Sherlock for the first time. “He didn’t do this,” he said, and Sherlock heard the tiniest hint of uncertainty in his voice.

There was no uncertainty in Sherlock’s. “Of course he didn’t,” he said to Michael. “And I’m going to find out who did.”

 

Aronsen had made arrangements for them to visit Michael’s father the next morning, at the Warren Correctional Facility. She offered to pick them up but Michael declined, explaining he would have to leave directly to catch a flight to Toronto.

“Besides, you drive a Prius,” Sherlock added. “Michael won’t fit.”

Aronsen looked startled but McGinty said to Michael, “I wondered how you were pulling this off, being here during the regular season. You played last night, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, back at home. I’m lucky, they were okay with me taking today for personal business cause we’ve got an extra day, as long as I make it there by tomorrow afternoon, but we play in Boston after that. So I’m leaving Sherlock in charge here.”

“No problem,” McGinty said, giving Sherlock’s hand an overly firm manly-man squeeze. “See you tomorrow.”

The forgettable young man helped carry the case files down to their car and then Michael and Sherlock drove to their hotel—which was all of two blocks away; it took longer to get out of the parking garage than to drive there—and then went to dinner. Sherlock would have preferred to get right to work on the case file, but Michael insisted that he eat.

“So what do you think?” Michael asked when he’d finished smiling and signing autographs and the restaurant finally settled back down and let them alone.

“Aronsen’s good,” Sherlock said. “Whoever steered you to her knew what they were doing. She never wanted to leave the public defender’s office; her husband is more observant and wanted their sons at a religious school, which is expensive…this is her dream case, a miscarriage of justice with a client who can actually pay. McGinty’s exactly the sort who would have put your father behind bars in the first place: no imagination, overly reliant on what he believes is the wisdom of experience but is actually small-minded bias. It’s fine. Most police are somewhat like that and I’m quite used to managing them; it’s easy as long as they get to take all the credit.”

Michael was grinning, really smiling for the first time that day. “How do you do that? Do it some more. Tell me about the people in here.”

Sherlock did, in some detail, although he candidly admitted there was much he couldn’t decipher easily outside his native turf. He was also…wiser? better? enough now to be kind instead of focusing solely on showing off: he didn’t mention the couple clearly engaged in an extramarital affair, for instance.

Michael shook his head, still smiling, but the smile faded as he looked down at his plate. “That time they were talking about,” he said. “When the police came? That was about me. My mom found me looking at some porn. If it had been girls she probably wouldn’t have mentioned it to my dad—might have whupped me herself, even though I was twice her size—but, you know it was guys, and…” He looked up again, pain visible in his eyes. “I thought he would kill me. I don’t know what he’ll think, if he ever finds out. My sister knows, she’s cool, always wanting to set me up. I think my mom does too, but we’ve never talked about it. They’re okay. But my dad…” he shook his head again. “I don’t know why I even care. Are you out to your family?”

“Hardly,” Sherlock said. “We aren’t exactly close.”

Michael cocked his head. “You never talk about them, do you? Tell me about them?”

“Absolutely not. Trust me, you don’t want to know.”

“My dad’s in prison!”

“So is my sister,” Sherlock said. “Since the age of five. And my brother once started a war on purpose. I’m the underachiever.”

Michael blinked. “Shit! I’m not even going to ask about your parents.”

“Best not,” Sherlock agreed.

 

Michael had booked two hotel rooms, of course, but Sherlock had given absolutely no thought to the actual sleeping arrangements until they were in the elevator and Michael said, “Stop by my room a minute.”

When he’d shut the door behind them Michael leaned against the wall and said, “Look…I know you need to work tonight. You’ve got to keep your head in the game; I respect that. But if you want to come back after you’re done…” He took his key card from his pocket and handed it to Sherlock. “Doesn’t matter if it’s late. I’m not asking for anything, I just like sleeping with you.”

Sherlock folded his hand over the card doubtfully. “I’m going to be quite late working.”

“Do you need any help?”

“No, I work better alone.” Not true of course, not always, but Michael wasn’t John; nobody was John.

“Okay.” Michael touched the tips of his fingers to Sherlock’s cheek and Sherlock tipped his face up and kissed him. It was just a good-night kiss, or at least Sherlock thought it was to Michael, but it stirred heat low in his groin all the same and he broke off as soon as he could.

“Get to work,” Michael said, smiling, and gave him a little swat on the arse.

When Sherlock let himself into his own room he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirrored door of the wardrobe and stopped, disconcerted. From the neck down he looked as he had most of his adult life: the black-suited armor of the consulting detective, untouched and untouchable. But his hair was cropped and his face was tanned and weathered, the face of a man who had ridden across mountains and deserts and blizzards, who had had sex with strangers, who fantasized about letting a man come down his throat.

Sherlock looked at himself, feeling slightly disoriented. The two parts did not quite match up. He did not look like a complete human being, not yet: he looked like a mismatched pair of shoes.

Well: that was a matter for another day, Sherlock decided, turning away and dropping his jacket across a chair. Right now he had a case.

 

Sherlock had learnt the hard way that hotels tended to be disapproving of guests sticking case notes all over the wall, so he swept the pillows off the king-sized bed and used that instead. When he’d finished, in the wee hours of the morning, the bed was almost entirely covered, so he rang for another blanket and slept on the floor. He never even thought about Michael’s key.

 

The Warren Correctional Institution was located about an hour north of downtown Cincinnati. Michael knew the way—it was a straight shot up I-75—so Sherlock was not needed to navigate; he sat back with his coffee and let Michael point out the landmarks: Fountain Square, the Art Deco train station, his old neighborhood, the GE facility where his father had worked. City gave way to suburban sprawl and finally, as they turned off the motorway, to farmland. The prison itself was easily recognizable, high fencing and lights and overall aesthetic of Penal Ugly. Michael turned the car off and they both sat looking at it a minute.

“Is your sister really in prison?” Michael asked without looking at him.

Sherlock nodded. “She’s in an ultrasecure facility for highly dangerous criminals. It’s mostly underground, and government clearance is required to visit. All prisons are unpleasant.” He opened his door. “So let’s go get your father out.”

 

Aronsen and McGinty were waiting for them in the visitor’s area. When they’d shaken hands Michael said, “I’ve been thinking—it might be best if I go in first, make the introductions and get the personal stuff out of the way, and then I’ll head on out and let you all get to work.”

This sounded like a good idea to Sherlock—he was impatient to get started, but he’d be even more impatient if he had to sit through the “personal stuff”—but Aronsen said, “I don’t know if they’ll let…”

“Give me a minute,” Michael said and strolled over to the guard. The guard, Sherlock had already registered in the way that he automatically registered everything, was divorced, had two sons, a large dog, and a difficult girlfriend, and had been staring at Michael slightly slack-jawed since he’d walked in.  Sure enough, within minutes Michael had the guard smiling and nodding. Michael signed what was clearly a pair of autographs and then another for the other guard, and then strolled through the door to the consultation room with a nonchalant wave back at the rest of them.

“Wow,” Aronsen said a little enviously. “Wish I could do that.”

“He’s planning to go to law school when he retires from the NBA,” Sherlock offered. “Maybe you could hire him.”

“Really? He wouldn’t want to work for us. People join Taft to make money; he already has money. I bet he’ll do civil rights, something like that.”

“Probably correct,” Sherlock said. “Maybe you could work for him.”

“Not a bad idea,” Aronsen said thoughtfully.

Michael returned fifteen minutes later. Sherlock spotted him through the glass panel in the door, head down and looking a little slumped, but when he came through the door he was erect and smiling with his superstar persona fully in place. “Okay,” he said to Aronsen, “He’s all yours.” He tilted his head and Sherlock walked with him toward the door.

Michael stopped a bit short of the exit and touched Sherlock’s arm lightly. “I’ll call you tonight, okay?”

Sherlock looked up at him and saw how badly Michael wanted not to go; saw, too, that at the same time he wanted nothing more than for the two of them to simply walk out, go someplace far away from everything, where the only truth that mattered was that they made between their two bodies.

He met Michael’s gaze steadily, conscious of McGinty’s curious eyes on them. “I’ll have this resolved before your game tomorrow.”

That made Michael smile. “You telling me to get my head back in the game?”

“We both have a job to do.” Sherlock flicked his eyes back toward Aronsen, a reminder that the clock was ticking. “I’ll talk to you tonight.”

“Okay.” Michael squeezed his arm again, briefly, and then let go. Sherlock was already halfway back to the others when the door closed.

 

Darnell Rhodes was sixty but looked older, face lined and eyes slightly reddened—he had become somewhat emotional meeting with his son. But his spine was straight and his eyes were clear, and any remaining doubts Sherlock might have had about his innocence evaporated.

“Mr. Rhodes, I’m Lauren Aronsen,” Aronsen said briskly. “Your son has retained me to reopen your case. I have to tell you, I’ve been over the trial transcript with a fine tooth comb and it’s watertight—there’s no grounds for a legal complaint there. So before we get started I just want to be sure: is there anything at all you can remember that did not come out at the trial? Anything you may have learned later, or remembered, that might have bearing on this?”

“Only that I didn’t do it,” Rhodes said. “I did not kill that man.”

Aronsen nodded. “In that case, our best case is to find out who did. That’s where these two gentlemen come in. This is Joe McGinty and Sherlock Holmes; they’ll be conducting a brand-new investigation.”

Rhodes’ eyes lingered on Sherlock a minute. Michael must have mentioned him, although in what context Sherlock had no idea. “I’m happy to answer any questions you all might have.”

McGinty took the lead, which was fine with Sherlock. “Mr. Rhodes, can you take us through the night that the murder occurred? Just tell us what happened in your own words.”

Sherlock only half-listened as Rhodes went through the course of events; he’d clearly retold it so many times that the story was worn smooth, no new edges to catch hold of. When he’d finished McGinty asked a few follow up questions, absolutely nothing imaginative, just as Sherlock had suspected.

“Well, I think that’s all I’ve got for now,” McGinty said, shuffling his legal pad with an air of finality. “Sherlock, you got anything to add?”

“Yes,” Sherlock said, sitting forward. “Mr. Rhodes, can you recall where Deana Clark’s daughter was on the night of Levon Singleton’s death?” He felt McGinty startle slightly beside him but Aronsen didn’t move a muscle, which raised her in his estimation.

“Her daughter,” Rhodes said in a tone of mild astonishment. “My God. I’d forgotten all about her. I never met her; Deana was careful about that. She usually stayed over at a neighbor’s when I was there…wait! She wasn’t over there that night, I remember! That’s why I was in such a hurry! She usually went over to Kelly’s but when I got there Deana said her daughter was at home that night, Kelly couldn’t take her. She’d put the little girl to bed but she wasn’t asleep yet so we had to stay out there in the living room, you know, have a drink and watch some TV til she was asleep. Usually I’d be gone by eleven but that night we were late because of that, that’s why I was in such a hurry, went out the back—I knew my wife would already be wondering as it was. What was her name, Jayla?”

“Jayla Cornett,” Sherlock said. “She was eight years old.”

Aronsen was scribbling on her own notepad. “Is there any chance she saw anything, heard anything?”

Rhodes shook his head, looking crestfallen. “No, I never saw her, like I said. She didn’t call out for her mother or anything after we heard the shots. Deana’d made sure she was asleep before we went back.”

“She didn’t hear anything. She was asleep,” Sherlock said. “That’s not why she’s important. What’s important is why she was there.”

 

“Well, that was interesting,” Aronsen said when they were outside. Her sharp eyes bored into Sherlock in a way that reminded him oddly of Mycroft. “I don’t remember seeing anything about Deana Clark having a daughter in the file.”

“You didn’t,” Sherlock said. “She wasn’t mentioned. But the police interviewed her when they investigated her mother’s murder, and you gave me that file as well. The police had assumed they were linked.”

“So we need to talk to Jayla Cornett,” McGinty said.

Aronsen nodded. “You’re going with Joe?” she said to Sherlock. “I’m heading back, so keep me posted.”

“I’ve got him,” McGinty said. “Let me put in a call to Sheila, and then we’ll go back to my office and see what she can dig up.”

 

Four miles down the motorway McGinty exited and pulled into the parking lot of a large strip mall.

“You have another office?” Sherlock said, surprised. He knew McGinty worked out of the law firm.

“Every half mile in the greater Cincinnati area,” McGinty said cheerfully. “Starbucks. Good coffee and free wifi; what more does an investigator need?”

This seemed a good philosophy to Sherlock, who was always happy to get more coffee. By the time they had their drinks and McGinty booted up his laptop there was already an email waiting.

“Not a lot here,” McGinty said, skimming it and turning the screen toward Sherlock. “No arrests, clean driver’s license. She lives about…twenty minutes from here, Forest Park. You want to finish that or take it with you?”

 

Jayla Cornett was twenty-five but, like Darnell Rhodes, looked older. She lived with her three children in what Sherlock assumed to be the American equivalent of a council flat. The flat itself was none too tidy, but the children were clean, and Sherlock noted that the little girls had hair so precisely parted it might have been sectioned with a ruler.

“I don’t know if I can help much,” Jayla said. “I told the police back then, I was asleep all night. I didn’t know anything happened until I heard about it on the school bus the next day.”

“And was that the last time you saw your mother?” McGinty asked in what Sherlock assumed to be his gentle-with-the-witness voice.

“Yeah. She worked at the Dollar Store, second shift, mostly. Everything looked normal when I got home from school, just…she never came back.”

“And before the shooting? Did you see your mother’s boyfriend?”

“No, she sent me to bed before he came over. I remember I was mad about having to go to bed early. I usually went to Miss Kelly’s and I liked that, but she had company that night, so I couldn’t go.”

Yes. Sherlock kept his face still, but inwardly he was exulting: Kelly Lewis had told the police she was home alone.

“Tell us about Miss Kelly,” McGinty said. His tone was of only mild encouragement, but Sherlock could tell he’d caught the importance of her words as well.

“She was nice,” Jayla said. Her face had softened with fond reminiscence. “She used to paint my nails. And then she’d let me stay up late so they could dry. She’d make us root beer floats.”

“Mmmm. Anything else you remember?”

“She was pretty. Really pretty, and she had nice clothes…she had some fancy dresses in the guest room where I stayed when I was over there and I used to look at them.” Jayla’s face suddenly lit with an almost mischievous smile: a child’s glee at knowing an adult secret. “She had a fake dresser!”

“A what?”

“A fake dresser. Like, it looked like a dresser, with drawers and everything, but the drawers didn’t open. It was just a big hollow box. I remember I thought it would be a great place for hide-and-seek.”

“What did she have it for, do you know? Did you ever find anything hidden in it?”

“No…” Jayla shook her head. “I just thought it was one of those things, you know, like how people have those fake drawers in their bathrooms. Now that I think about it I guess it’s kind of weird.”

McGinty changed tack smoothly. “What about the company she had that night? Did you see anyone, or did she have a boyfriend?”

“She had a lot of boyfriends. Well, maybe not, but a lot of guys came to see her. There was a white guy in a suit, I remember him because he looked like a principal or something, and then there was the guy with the ice cream truck…”

“Levon Singleton?” McGinty said in surprise.

Jayla shrugged. “I don’t know his name. He was a young skinny black guy. There were a lot of those who came by, but I remembered him because of the ice cream truck.”

“Did you see him that night?”

“No, I got sent to bed. The reason I saw them the other times was because I’d be waiting for my mom to get home, and if I heard any noise on the stairs I’d look out the peephole, you know, to see if it was her. I got scared by myself.” Jayla’s eyes suddenly widened. “I almost forgot. There was the scary guy, the guy who looked like a monster.”

“A monster?”

“Yeah, like there was something really wrong with his face. Not like a scar, like he was born that way, and it made him look like a monster. He scared everybody, even the grownups. Like in the summer we’d be outside playing in the street and the grownups would be out in lawn chairs, you know, drinking beer or whatever, and he’d show up and everybody would get all quiet and, I don’t know, polite.”

“Was he a white man or a black man?”

“Black. Really black, not mixed like me. He was bald, I think, and big—like, big muscles.”

“Can you remember anything else?”

Jayla shook her head. The brightness had drained from her face now, leaving her looking worn and tired again, weighed down by a lifetime of disappointment and abandonment. “No. Just that I was scared of him.”

 

“Well, that was very informative,” McGinty said when they were back outside.

“We now know three things,” Sherlock said, not bothering to respond to such a self-evident statement. “One, the monster man matches Wallace Stegman’s description of the man who fled the scene of the shooting, at least from behind. Two, he had been visiting Kelly Lewis, who possessed a hiding place sufficient to store a decent amount of cash or contraband, since at least the previous summer.”

“And three, he was bad news,” McGinty said. “I don’t know about where you come from, but what she said about the way the grownups got? I’d say he was a drug dealer.”

“We need to talk to Kelly Lewis,” Sherlock said. “Back to the office?”

“Let’s get some lunch. I saw a place back by 75 next to a motel so we can use their wifi—let me just call Sheila and get her on it.”

McGinty talked briefly to the unseen Sheila and then, just as he was about to end the call, said, “Wait a minute—is Rick in there? Put him on.” To Sherlock he said, “Rick used to be with the Cincinnati Police. Hey, Rick? Did you ever hear anything about a dealer, late nineties early aughts maybe, who was scary ugly? Yeah, very funny…okay, thanks a lot. Yeah, you can give out my number.” He disconnected and said, “He doesn’t remember, but he worked property crimes. He knows some people from vice though and says he’ll call around.”

At the diner McGinty ordered a patty melt and Sherlock a hot fudge cake and coffee, and they opened up the laptop to find an email from the ever-helpful Sheila with everything she could find on Kelly Lewis.

“Huh,” McGinty said, studying the screen. “Sealed juvenile record, couple of busts for possession but they got dropped…that’s interesting. And then in 2004 she went down for possession and accessory to murder but it looks like she got rehab instead of jail time…I bet she turned state’s evidence against whoever committed the murder.” He pushed the laptop toward Sherlock, who turned it and considered the photos on the screen. Kelly Lewis had indeed been very pretty, her blonde hair falling in perfect waves and the elegant bone structure of her face evident even in the unflattering mug shots.

McGinty’s phone rang. He peered at it, said, “Huh,” again and answered: “This is Joe McGinty…yeah, I work with Rick. Thanks for the call. So what I was looking for…”

Sherlock tuned him out. He studied the screen for another minute, then went back to the email and sent a reply, which would presumably reach Sheila, asking her to get details about the murder charge. Sheila was quick: Sherlock only had time to take a few bites of cake before a reply arrived, with a file attached.

“Got it,” McGinty said with satisfaction, disconnecting. “The scary guy’s name—“

“—is Curtis Antoine Harmon,” Sherlock said. He turned the laptop around so McGinty could see the mug shots.

“Jesus,” McGinty said, staring. “What would do that?”

Sherlock shrugged. “Birth defects. There are a number of craniofacial dysmorphologies that could cause this…judging by the lack of hearing aids and presumably normal intelligence, probably Crouzon syndrome.”

“I can see why he’d scare a little kid,” McGinty said. “And looking at this record, why he’d scare the grownups too. That murder charge was his third felony; he was going away for a long time no matter what, so it made sense for Kelly Lewis to sell him out. Well, he’s at Lucasville now—that’s the maximum security prison down toward West Virginia—so we’re not getting there today. I’ll let Lauren know so she can start working on getting us in.”

“Do we have Kelly Lewis’ current address?”

“Yes we do,” McGinty said. He swallowed the rest of his sandwich in two large bites. “Let’s get rolling.”

 

Kelly Lewis lived in a well-kept little house in a working-class neighborhood. The front porch was crowded with decorations, including a wreath of autumn leaves, a banner reading “Give Thanks” and, for some inexplicable reason, a goose dressed as a pilgrim. Kelly was not at home, but fortunately she had a neighbor of the elderly nosy ilk, who told them Kelly was almost certainly at work.

“She’s a beautician,” the neighbor said helpfully. “Does a real nice job too. She did my granddaughter when she got married and she looked so nice…”

They got free eventually and Sherlock plugged the name of the salon—Shear Perfection—into maps and found it quickly, in a strip mall a mile or so away. The front parking lot was full so they pulled to the overflow parking around back and saw a blonde woman leaning against what was evidently an employee entrance, smoking a cigarette.

McGinty squinted out the windshield. “Is that her?”

“Yes.”

Kelly Lewis’s hair was highlighted now and there were lines around her mouth and eyes, but she was still undeniably pretty. Sherlock studied her a moment and then said, “Let me talk to her first.”

“How come?”

“She’ll know you’re police. If I can get her to warm up first, she might talk anyway.”

McGinty considered this and nodded. “Yeah…she’s got nothing to gain by talking to us, you’re right. Go ahead.”

Sherlock got out of the car and strolled over to where Kelly stood, tapping ash into a small receptacle. She watched him come, her gaze curious but not unfriendly, and when he stopped in front of her she said, “So are you going to ask for one or just, what, try to eye-smoke it?”

“I’d love to,” Sherlock said, “Can’t though. I gave up smoking six months before I gave up drugs. Biggest mistake of my life.”

Kelly laughed, and he saw the beautiful girl she had been. “That was a mistake. How long?”

“Five months for the drugs.” And three days, and five hours. “About ten for the cigarettes. I miss the cigarettes more.”

“Yeah. I put down more than ten years ago, and I still haven’t managed to quit smoking. I mean, I can quit, I just can’t stay quit.” She stubbed her cigarette out and looked at him directly. “So if you’re not here to bum a smoke, what are you here for?”

“I was hoping to talk to you. Maybe we could buy you coffee, or dinner after you finish up here.”

Kelly looked behind him at McGinty in the Cherokee and then back to Sherlock. “He looks like a cop, but you don’t.”

“I’m not a cop. I’ve no legal standing here whatsoever. Sherlock Holmes.” He hoped she understood the implied lack of a threat he posed. “My partner’s name is Joe McGinty. He used to be a cop, but not anymore. We’re investigators.”

“What, like private eyes?” She looked at him skeptically. “What do you want to talk to me about?”

“Jayla Cornett.”

Kelly’s shoulders slumped a little and he knew he’d played it right, the guilt still eating at her after all these years. “Jayla…” She sighed, tapped the pack of cigarettes against her palm, and then slid the cigarette back into the pack and looked up. “Okay.” Her voice was resigned. “We can talk now. My five o’clock cancelled, I was just going to run some towels but that can wait. Let me get my purse.”

 

They ended up at another Starbucks, of course, nursing large coffees and, in Kelly’s case, a scone. Sherlock thought she’d got it so she would have something to worry with her fingers. He got a biscotti himself, but he intended to eat it.

“So,” she said finally, breaking a bit of scone off and nibbling at it, looking at Sherlock with a challenge in her eyes. “What do you want to know about Jayla?”

McGinty leaned back subtly, letting Sherlock know he had the lead.

“I want to know about Jayla,” Sherlock said. “But it doesn’t really start there, does it? It starts with Curtis Harmon. You remember him. Also known as Note, also known as C-Note, also known as C? You were together a long time. How did that happen? Because it wasn’t just the shock value, was it, Beauty and the Beast, it was much more than that. You weren’t just his girlfriend, you were his best lieutenant, his right-hand girl. Did he realize you were more than just a pretty face? Was it because of his own outward appearance that he—“

“Okay,” Kelly said sharply, cutting him off. “Okay. Shit.” She glared at him, crumbling another bit of scone between her fingers. Sherlock raised his eyebrows politely and waited, all gracious patience.

“Okay,” Kelly said again after a beat. “Yeah, I’ll tell you about Note. But it doesn’t really start there either, you know? It starts with me.”

Sherlock nodded. “All right.”

“I was in the system from the day I was born,” Kelly said. “Literally. My mom had already had three kids taken away. I got bounced around my whole life: aunt, mom, foster care, group homes, facilitated independent living. So I need you to know, I would never have done anything that meant that little girl would lose her mom. Never. Okay? I had nothing to do with that.”

Sherlock nodded; he saw no reason not to believe her.

“I ran off when I was sixteen with the first guy who said he’d take care of me. And when that guy didn’t work out, I moved on to the next guy.” She shrugged. “What else was I going to do? I mean, I worked, but I never even finished high school. I could barely make rent. And then I hooked up with Note.” She looked down, pinching crumbs between her fingertips.

“Note was a big deal. I mean, you know what he looked like, right? He wanted people to think that nickname, Note, came from C-Note, like it was a joke on his name, like he was money, but it wasn’t. It was because he looked like the guy from that Disney movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” She pronounced it Noter. “But he was big time, the biggest chance I was going to get, so yeah, I jumped on it. The way you land a guy like that is to have his baby, that’s how you hook them long-term. Note, though, he was crazy careful. Right away he was like ‘I want you on birth control, I’ll pay for it, and you better be taking it or using it or whatever’. He didn’t want to risk passing it on, you know, what he had. But I can’t have kids. Too scarred up, too many infections. I had my first STD when I was thirteen, thanks a lot, foster dad.” The mockery in her voice was lacerating

“I’m sorry,” Sherlock said quietly.

She shrugged. “It happens. But I loved that girl, just so you know. Jayla.”

He nodded.

Kelly sighed, after a minute, and picked up her narrative again. “So yeah, you were right, he did think we had this bond because of that, I guess. And he did figure out I was smart. I got us out of a bad situation one time—long story, I’m not telling it now—and he realized I was good in a jam. I was already holding for him; all the girls do, that’s how most women in prison get there; but he started having me take the money too. Turned out I was good at math. And I was good at spotting why if someone was short, if they were skimming or dipping into the product or what.”

“And who was he paying off?”

“Now that I don’t know. I really don’t. I tried to find out, but Note said it was better if I didn’t know, and I tried to push it a little and he got pissed, so I gave up. I just knew the guy who came to collect, P.J. God, what an asshole that guy was! Always trying to talk street, you know, like he was some kind of gangster. He tried to get us to call him some tough-guy nickname he said he had but we never did, we called him Pajamas behind his back.” She rolled her eyes. “He was such a little prick. He tried to put the moves on me once but I shut that down in a hurry. He was scared shitless of Note, so, that was all it took.”

“What happened to P.J.?”

“I don’t know. He stopped coming around before we got busted, but I don’t know why.”

“How long before?”

“I don’t know…a year maybe? Little less?”

Sherlock filed this away for further investigation. “All right. Who was there the night Levon Singleton died?”

Kelly looked at him imperturbably. “Like I told the police, I was home alone.”

“And you told Deana Clark you were expecting company, so what happened? Were you expecting Levon Singleton? He was one of your dealers, obviously, almost certainly one of the ones who was using; did you shoot him for that?”

“Jesus, no!”

“I know you didn’t,” Sherlock said more gently. “And remember, we’re not the police. You’ve nothing to fear from us.”

Kelly eyed him warily for a moment and then her shoulders slumped in defeat. She took a long drink of her coffee. “Okay,” she said finally. “Yeah, I was expecting Levon, but a lot earlier. What happened was, Note had some kind of cash flow crisis a couple days before and he came and took all the money I had stashed to give P.J. Levon was due that afternoon and Note told me to just take that money to give P.J. when he came over that night. Only you were right, Levon was getting unreliable, and he didn’t show up. I was calling him, I was paging him—this was back before you just texted everybody—and he wasn’t answering, and when P.J. got there he was pissed. Usually I tried to handle stuff like that on my own but P.J. was getting all antsy and threatening to make calls and everything so finally I called Note and told him what was up. He was like shit, okay, keep him cool until I get there, I’ll find Levon, so I told P.J. Note was on the way and gave him a drink. So Note gets there and P.J. starts trying to get into it with him, his time is so valuable blah blah, and I’m over by the window trying to stay out of it and I saw the ice cream truck and I was like, ‘Hey, he’s here.’ Note told P.J. to stay put but of course as soon as he was out the door P.J. decides he has to go too, prove what a big shot he is or whatever.” She rolled her eyes. “So I’m thinking good, this is finally done with, and I go to the kitchen to wash out P.J.’s glass, and I’m wondering if Note’s coming back up and if I should fix him a drink, and is he going to stay over, like that, and I’m not paying any attention to anything else at all, and then I hear the shots.”

“You didn’t think Harmon would shoot Levon?”

“God no. I thought it was Levon that was shooting.” Kelly looked at Sherlock, her eyes wide with remembered shock. “Like I said, he’d been pretty crazy, so I thought he shot P.J. And first I thought good and then I thought no, shit because that would be a world of trouble, and then Note came flying up the steps and in my door. He goes Goddamn that little fucker, I gotta make a call, and I still thought he was talking about Levon, and then he went down the hall so he could call whoever, and he was still back there and I was in the kitchen when I heard the sirens.”

Sherlock was really interested now. “What did you do?”

“Note comes back up the hall, still got the phone, and I was like, get back there baby, I’ll take care of it. I told you, I think fast. I poured myself a drink, and when the cops turned up I was all…” She shivered exaggeratedly, popping her eyes in sham terror. “’I heard him, officer! He ran right by my door! I was so scared! But then I heard him go out the back!’”

Sherlock nodded. “You thought they’d assume he got away before they arrived.”

“Yeah. I didn’t know about Deana’s boyfriend then. But later on…Note was still back there when Deana came over panicking. I told her to chill, the cops didn’t have anything on him, but then she started asking, ‘What about your boyfriend, Kelly? Was he here tonight?’ And I told her to just keep her mouth shut and everything would be fine, but if she wasn’t careful then word would get out to his wife and…” She looked down and smashed the pulverized scone into a small flat disk. “When it came down to it, it was her man or mine. And I was hanging onto mine. Even if he did it.”

“But that wasn’t enough for Note, was it,” Sherlock said.

Kelly shook her head. “No. He came out after she left and I told him I had it covered, and I thought he believed me. I really did. I thought so right up until I heard about them finding Deana’s body on the news.” She folded the crumbs into her napkin, tucking the ends over precisely. “I never saw her again. Never saw Jayla either.”

Sherlock stayed quiet a minute but she didn’t go on, so he asked, “Did you ever confront him?”

“No.” Kelly did not look up from her napkin folding. “I couldn’t, you know? I had to let it go. But it was never the same. I started drinking more, after that, and then I started using. Not a lot, I was always more of a drinker, but enough. I think maybe Note knew, but he never said anything.” She smiled without humor. “Keeping our little secrets, just like a nice married couple in the suburbs, right? Went on like that for a couple of years, I guess. But things were getting…that night, the night we got arrested, I was driving. I knew the cops were looking for Note, looking for the car, but I was high, and…I just didn’t care. When I heard the sirens I thought about flooring it. Not to get away, just going as fast as I could til I crashed the car and killed us both. But I pulled over instead.” She began rolling the napkin into a cylinder. “My lawyer convinced me that I couldn’t do anything to help Note—I felt guilty he got caught, can you believe that?—but I maybe had a last chance to help myself, so I took it. I said I’d help. I answered every question they asked. If they’d asked about Deana, I would have told them. But they never did.”

“The case was closed,” Sherlock said. “They never connected anything about Deana or Levon to Curtis Harmon.”

“Yeah. And then after that…” Kelly shrugged. “I went to rehab. Got my GED, got my license. Stayed clean. It’s pretty good, now; I’ve got my job, my friends, Bunco night, boyfriend, house, cat. It’s good. It’s better than I deserve.” She kept her eyes on her napkin, which she had now begun to twist. “Was it Jayla that hired you?”

“No.”

“If it would have made a difference, I would have told the cops,” Kelly said. “But it wouldn’t have brought her back, you know?”

“No,” Sherlock said. He took his notebook from his pocket and tore out a page, writing on it: Jayla Cornett’s number and address. “You can’t bring her mother back. But Jayla has three little girls of her own now. She could use a friend, and a root beer float…and her daughters would love to have their nails painted.”

 

“So you think you can get him to confess?” McGinty asked, maneuvering the car back onto the freeway. He’d called Aronsen from the car to catch her up and was now headed back downtown to drop Sherlock at his hotel. “Curtis Harmon?”

Sherlock chewed his lip a minute, thinking about his answer. “I think I can get him to talk,” he said finally. “But I’m going to need to do some research. Is there somewhere we can stop to get a laptop? Nothing fancy, a Chromebook will do.”

“Sure. They sell those at Wal-Mart. Anything else you need?”

“Just a laptop.”

 

When the phone rang that night Sherlock almost didn’t register it, thinking illogically John will take care of it and then, when he remembered, thinking even more illogically that it would be John on the line. It wasn’t, of course; it was Michael.

“I can’t believe how much lonelier this hotel room feels knowing you aren’t just a couple floors away,” Michael said.

“I know what you mean,” Sherlock said, even though he didn’t.

“So are you getting anywhere?”

“Actually yes,” Sherlock said. He told Michael about the day in some detail—talking to him wasn’t the same as talking to John, but it still helped clarify his thinking.

“Aronsen talked to Harmon’s attorney, and got someone at her firm to pull some strings, so we’re set up to meet with him tomorrow,” he said when he’d done.

“Do you think you can get him to confess?” Michael asked, just as McGinty had earlier.

Sherlock hesitated. He told himself he didn’t want to get Michael’s hopes up, but he knew perfectly well that wasn’t the reason; Sherlock had just never liked showing his hand. “I think I can get him to talk,” he said finally, as he had to McGinty. “And I think that will help us, yes. But I need to do some more research.”

“Okay, I won’t keep you,” Michael said. “Back to work, little rabbit.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes but he couldn’t help smiling as he turned back to the laptop. He’d never had a nickname bestowed in affection before, and besides, he rather liked the image of himself hopping busily from clue to clue, nibbling away at the internet until he found what he needed.

 

The Lucasville prison was far enough away that Aronsen rode with them this time. She was already ensconced in the front seat when McGinty picked up Sherlock the next morning, deep into what Sherlock assumed was paperwork for some other case. He got in behind her—she had obligingly pulled the seat all the way up—and settled in for the ride. The scenery was pretty enough, mostly rolling countryside, but the day was dull and overcast and Sherlock soon dozed off. He’d been up most of the night before.

Sherlock woke up when they bumped off onto a secondary road, feeling stiff and somewhat cotton-mouthed.

“Doing all right back there?” McGinty asked, glancing into the rear-view mirror. “We’re okay on time if you need to stop.”

“No, I’m fine.”

Aronsen turned around in her seat to look at him. “So do you have any more surprises up your sleeve?”

“Mmm?” Sherlock said, knowing perfectly well what she meant.

“Any more little bombshells like you did yesterday.”

“That wasn’t a bombshell,” Sherlock said. “It was in the files that you gave me. I have access to the same information you do. The police looked at those pieces and saw one picture; my job is to look at them and see a different one. ”

Aronsen’s sharp dark eyes did not waver and Sherlock found himself thinking of foxes and minks, small soft things that looked like prey until they showed their teeth. “Joe said you were planning to do some research last night.”

“Cincinnati Enquirer website mostly, all public record,” Sherlock said. “Look, I know what you’re asking, but it doesn’t work that way. I may see a picture, or sometimes more than one, but it’s all theoretical until I can ask more questions. I don’t know what’s going to hold up until I’m there.” This was true, of course, but it wasn’t the real reason he didn’t want to tell her what he’d found out. He was a show-off, a drama queen, and after staying up all night, he was bloody well going to get to do this his way.

“Let him try it, Lauren,” McGinty said unexpectedly. “He got Kelly Lewis to spill her guts when she had absolutely no reason to. I can’t believe anything is going to make Curtis Harmon confess to those murders, but if anybody has a shot at convincing him, it’s this guy.”

“Thank you,” Sherlock said, slightly taken aback but pleased nonetheless.

“Well, okay,” Aronsen said, turning back around in her seat. “But if you do manage to get him to talk, don’t be surprised if his attorney shuts you down.”

Sherlock didn’t answer. He was looking out the window at the looming prison and thinking about McGinty’s words, feeling slightly unsettled. He was thinking about McGinty’s assertion that he could make people talk when they didn’t want to, and about his sister, and he wondered for the first time in a long while if he were really on the side of the angels after all.

 

Curtis Harmon’s attorney met them in the prison reception area. He was a young man, wide-eyed and idealistic, wearing too much aftershave and trying hard to behave as though Aronsen didn’t intimidate him. Sherlock shook his hand politely and promptly deleted him; he wasn’t going to be a problem. A guard recited the rules in a bored tone and took them through a metal detector. The security procedures were a good deal stricter that at Warren, Sherlock observed, although still laughable by Sherrinford standards.

Finally they were escorted into a bare cinderblock room where Curtis Harmon sat waiting, shackled to a chair.

Aronsen faltered for a brief instant, just the slightest hitch in her stride, and Sherlock could hardly blame her. Harmon was massive, not as tall as Sherlock but so bulging with prison muscle he appeared almost square, and his glowering misshapen face might have been designed expressly to terrify. Sherlock had a fleeting moment of respect for Jayla Cornett: if he’d seen this man coming up the stairs when he was home alone as a child, he might have gone under the bed and never come out.

“Mr. Harmon, nice to see you again,” Junior Lawyer squeaked.

Harmon’s gaze flicked away from him contemptuously, slid across the others, and finally settled on Aronsen. Cleverer than he looked then, Sherlock thought with rising hope.

“Mr. Harmon. Thank you for meeting with us,” Aronsen said briskly. “I’m Lauren Aronsen and these are two of my firm’s investigators, Sherlock Holmes and Joe McGinty. We’ve been hired to reopen an investigation into the murder of Levon Singleton in March 2000.”

Absolutely nothing moved in Harmon’s face. He stared at Aronsen in silence.

“I’ve spoken with the district attorney’s office,” Aronsen plowed on, “and they have no interest in retrying the case. You do not need to fear that you will be prosecuted. On the contrary, if you can provide us with information that may free an innocent man from prison, this will carry considerable weight when you come up for parole.”

Something flickered behind Harmon’s eyes then, but it wasn’t interest; Sherlock thought it more likely to be contempt. He already knew this angle would not play. Harmon would not come up for parole until he was well over sixty years old; what appeal did the outside world have for him? His mother had been his only visitor—the prison still had paper logs, easy to read upside down—and she had not visited in three years; dead or disabled then, and his legal next of kin, a sister, had not visited at all. She had cut him off. Probably to protect her own child, almost certainly a boy, from his deleterious influence.

“So.” Aronsen folded her hands on the table and looked at Harmon expectantly. “What can you tell us about the night Levon Singleton died?”

Harmon returned her look flatly, bored. “Don’t know nothing about that.”

Aronsen took a breath and then paused, let it out, and leaned back in her seat. She flicked a bare hint at a glance towards Sherlock. It surprised him; he had thought Aronsen would pound away at Harmon for much longer before giving up, but this was good; Harmon had not had time to get annoyed yet. Sherlock leaned forward, every nerve quivering with anticipation. He felt alive in every fibre of his being, as alive as he had been when he flung himself out of the icy waters of the fjord, maybe more.

“Mr. Harmon, do you follow the Cincinnati news?”

Harmon looked at him with open disdain. “The news?”

“Yes. From Cincinnati, do you still keep up with it?”

Harmon pitched his voice to a high falsetto, mimicking Sherlock’s accent. “Of course I do, old chap. They deliver the papers every morning with my fresh-squeezed orange juice.” His voice dropped to its usual growl. “Course I don’t get no news.”

Sherlock nodded as though he had expected this. “Anything you see on the telly would likely be local, I take it.”

Harmon just looked at Sherlock as though he were a piece of gristle he had found in his meat.

“So,” Sherlock continued, “you aren’t aware, then, that John Beerman is standing in the special election for the eighth congressional district. He’s widely considered to be the front runner.”

That got a reaction, a shift behind the dark eyes, but Harmon’s face remained impassive. He stared at Sherlock without answering a long moment, Sherlock tracking his thought processes effortlessly until he finally said, as Sherlock had known he would: “Who you working for.”

“I don’t—“ Aronsen began but Sherlock, talking over her, said, “Darnell Rhodes’s family. His son’s come up in the world and wants to clear his father’s name. He has no interest in protecting Beerman…quite the contrary, in fact.”

Harmon regarded Sherlock, eyes narrowed. “So he’s running for Congress. So what? He’s not after my vote.”

“Bit unfair, don’t you think? Two men have an arrangement, and the arrangement falls apart. One man ends up here, and the other goes to Washington.” Sherlock had no illusion that this appeal to Harmon’s sense of justice would be effective; he was just leading him where he wanted Harmon to go.

It worked. “You think you going to change it? Even if I talk to you, nobody cares about all that anymore.”

“Oh, not the corruption, you’re right about that,” Sherlock agreed. “But the rest of it? I’m no expert on your legal system—but murder for hire, that’s a crime everywhere, isn’t it?”

Aronsen didn’t miss a beat. “Absolutely. My deal with the DA applied only to you, Mr. Harmon.”

“Murder for hire, and I imagine everybody will care about what Beerman was covering up.” Sherlock still wasn’t certain, not a hundred percent, but he was all in now: time to show his hand. “Another murder, this one committed by one of his own associates. His wife’s brother, in fact. Peter James Conley, better known as P.J.”

Harmon shot forward so fast that the guard shouted, “Hey!” but Sherlock didn’t even blink. He was fairly vibrating now, humming with the fierce joy of knowing he’d been right. “How the hell do you know about that?” Harmon hissed. “I ain’t never told nobody about that.”

“Oh, come now, Mr. Harmon. You’re clearly intelligent, and back then you were at the top of your game. You hadn’t been arrested in years—not arrested and got off, like Kelly Lewis, because you were paying off Beerman; you never got caught, because you were too smart and too careful. You never would have shot Levon Singleton in the middle of the street and if you had, you wouldn’t have bothered to cover it up. You’d have left Deana Clark alone. Of course it was P.J. And you called Beerman right away, to let him know what a colossal mess his idiot brother-in-law had just left on your doorstep, and he couldn’t take any chances that P.J. would actually get caught, could he? So persuaded you to make sure of Deana Clark’s silence.”

Harmon had settled back into his chair again, a look on his face Sherlock knew well: half astonishment, half fear. Sherlock sighed. “It’s obvious.” He glanced at the others; Aronsen and McGinty had got the whole picture, or close enough, but Junior still looked bewildered. “Shall I spell it out for the new boy? He looks as though he might have still been in nappies back then. John Beerman was quite the public figure in Cincinnati twenty years ago. On the police board, served several terms on city council.  He and Mr. Harmon here had a mutually beneficial arrangement which for obvious reasons he kept out of the public eye. Unfortunately in 2003 the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a series of stories detailing an investigation into allegations of corruption involving Mr. Beerman—nothing to do with Mr. Harmon here; Beerman had his finger in quite a lot of pies--and he resigned to avoid criminal charges. Bit of a double blow to you, I imagine,” he said to Harmon. “He couldn’t protect you anymore, and you had no leverage against him, since he was no longer in office.”

Harmon nodded. “Lot of the police were still loyal to him too,” he said. “All those guys, they all went to school together; he was still connected.”

“So Beerman went back to his family’s business, which had benefited extensively from Beerman’s connections, and got rich,” Sherlock explained to Junior. “Moved out to the suburbs; became a township trustee and then a county commissioner, and now he’s running for Congress. Short memories out there.”

“But the murder for hire,” Junior said, still looking utterly bewildered.

Sherlock sighed. “Beerman’s brother-in-law P.J. was the bagman. He shot Levon Singleton, because he was a hotheaded imbecile—you have got that much, right? So Beerman had to cover it up.” He glanced at Harmon with his eyebrows raised; Harmon would have to tell this bit.

Harmon nodded heavily. “I told him we was fine. Kelly would have taken care of that girl; she wouldn’t have talked. But he insisted. Offered a lot of money.”

“And you needed the money,” Sherlock said softly.

“Yeah. One of my guys…he was in the wrong place at the wrong time; lost a lot of money. Couldn’t pay my suppliers and those guys, you don’t pay, it’s not like they compound your interest, you hear me? So, yeah. I needed that money.” He exhaled out his nose. “I took care of it.”

“I don’t suppose he wrote you a personal check,” Aronsen said drily.

Harmon actually cracked a smile at that. “Naw. It’s my word against his.”

“Not quite,” Sherlock said. His smile was all teeth. “Because we have something we didn’t have seventeen years ago. Evidence.”

 

“The gun used to shoot Singleton was found at the scene,” Sherlock explained. “Unregistered, no serial number. I assume you got it for him?”

Harmon scowled. “Said he needed it for protection, going to that neighborhood. Only person ever fired a gun on that street was P.J.”

“The gun was covered in fingerprints, but they didn’t appear to match anyone who was there. They didn’t match Darnell Rhodes, and they didn’t match Levon Singleton. Deana Clark was ruled out even before her body was found, because she’d been fingerprinted to be a volunteer at her daughter’s school. The prints were run through the database but found no match, which meant they didn’t belong to you or Kelly Lewis; you’d both been arrested before. The only person there whose prints weren’t checked was P.J.”

Harmon was skeptical. “You think he gonna…”

“He doesn’t have to agree to anything. P.J. was arrested twice later on, once for driving under the influence and once for domestic violence. Both charges were dropped, of course, but his prints are in the system now. Deana Clark’s murder is still an open case.” He looked at McGinty. “How hard would it be to get the prints run again?”

“One phone call,” McGinty said, an undercurrent of excitement audible in his voice. “Take five minutes.”

“Do it,” Aronsen said and McGinty nodded at the guard, standing. “Mr. Harmon. Would you be willing to give us a deposition?”

Chapter Text

The mood in the car was very different on the ride back to Cincinnati than it had been in the morning. They were all ebullient and chatty, Aronsen intermittently shushing the others as she worked her phone: her friend in the prosecutor’s office, the DA, her boss. At one point, holding for a call that had just come through, she turned in her seat and peered at Sherlock. “Did you really find all that on the Enquirer website?”

“Mostly, and Beerman’s campaign site. The tricky bit was finding someone with power who fell from grace sometime between 2000 and 2004, and who had a plausible connection to a man who might have been P.J. I actually found P.J. in the wedding announcements.”

McGinty glanced in the rearview mirror. “Did you find me?”

“What?” Sherlock said, genuinely surprised.

“I’m pulling your leg…mostly. What he said back there about the cops—all the West Siders--knowing each other is pretty true. I went to Archbishop Elder with Patrick Conley, and my wife’s nephew Kevin is married to the Beermans’ cousin—“

“Doesn’t matter this time, Beerman is still going down,” Aronsen said. “The firm is connected too—yes, hello, I’m still here. Thank you…Senator, good afternoon.” She raised her eyebrows in an I-told-you-so gesture at McGinty and turned back in her seat. “You won’t remember but we met at the partner’s dinner last year…oh, thank you, you’re very kind. Yes. Yes, it’s true. The DA will be giving a press conference tomorrow. Yes. Absolutely. You too.” She disconnected. “The word’s going out now; after the press conference tomorrow every politician in the state will be denouncing Beerman, saying he should drop out.”

Aronsen would like Mycroft, Sherlock thought. “Do you think the charges will stick? Against P.J.?”

Aronsen made a face. “After all this time? It’s a long shot. But Beerman’s never holding office again, I can promise you that. And Darnell Rhodes is getting out of jail, with his conviction voided and a full apology from the city, for whatever that’s worth. That’s what we were hired for. Did you reach Michael?”

“Not yet,” Sherlock said. Michael’s phone had been answered by some sort of assistant with strict orders to pull Michael out of whatever basketball-related activity he was involved in if Sherlock called, but he was supposed to finish in half an hour, so Sherlock told the assistant to have Michael ring him back.

Sherlock’s phone rang a few minutes later.

“Sherlock,” Michael said. He sounded breathless, as though he’d run straight off the court. “Talk to me, man, what’s happening? Did you get him to confess?”

“No, because he didn’t do it,” Sherlock said. “P.J. did.”

Michael whooped. “I knew it!” he shouted. “I knew you knew something you weren’t saying, I could tell last night.”

“I didn’t want to get your hopes up,” Sherlock said with dignity.

“Yeah, right. You get him to talk?”

“I did, but better yet, he verified P.J.’s identity and the prints are a match.”

Michael whooped again and then said, “Okay, tell me everything, but fast, I’ve only got a minute here.”

Sherlock told him, concisely, and Michael said, “You are amazing, you know that, right? So what happens now? When does my dad get out?”

“Let me give you to Lauren,” Sherlock said and passed the phone up. They talked for a few minutes, and then Aronsen handed the phone back to Sherlock.

“Wow, I just can’t believe this,” Michael said when Sherlock put the phone to his ear. “You—“

“Listen,” Sherlock said quietly. “Curtis Harmon has a sister who cut him off years ago and at least one nephew, possibly more. He doesn’t want anything for himself but she should know what he did, that he did the right thing. Do you understand?”

“Absolutely,” Michael said immediately. “I’ll take care of it. I’ll talk to her myself, set the boys up, whatever they want, all right? I’ve got to run, I’m already late and I’ve got to call my sister, but I’ll call you tonight before the game for sure, okay? Thank you.”

Sherlock disconnected. They had reached the outskirts of the city now, and the early winter darkness was closing in. Sherlock felt strangely empty, as though filled with a vague longing, but for what? For Michael? Home? An after-case celebration, cake, sex? Perhaps this was just post-case letdown, magnified by a sense of homesickness. Well, he could find cake easily enough, and surely Cincinnati had gay bars or, if not, there was always Grindr.

When they reached downtown McGinty passed Sherlock’s hotel and turned instead into the Fountain Square garage.

Aronsen looked up in surprise. “Where are we going?”

“Graeter’s,” McGinty said. “Sherlock here has a sweet tooth, and we can’t let him leave town thinking the best we can do is Frisch’s hot fudge cake, can we? I’m going to buy him the world’s best ice cream sundae.”

“But which do you think is the best sundae?”

“The 1870 tower! Everyone knows that.”

“No way. The best sundae is the cherry cordial.”

“You’re crazy, woman. That has vanilla ice cream! The 1870 tower has the black raspberry chip…”

They argued about it all the way up the stairs and out onto the square until Sherlock said, “Fine, I’ll have them both.”

So they got both sundaes, and a scoop of chocolate chip for McGinty, and a nectar phosphate for Aronsen, who claimed not to want any ice cream but who ended up eating almost half of Sherlock’s cherry cordial. Secretly Sherlock agreed with her that it was better, but they were both magnificent. He was already wondering if he could make it back for a banana spit before he left.

When they’d finally finished Sherlock shook hands all around and set out across the square toward his hotel. He had to detour around where an outdoor ice-skating rink was being set up and ended up crossing right in front of the fountain, which was how he came to glimpse a plaque bearing its name: The Genius of Water.

Sherlock tilted his face up, curious. Now that he was looking properly, he saw that the little figures around the fountain were, in fact, all using water: drinking, bathing, irrigating crops. The falling water caught the rainbow lights of the square and glittered like diamonds in the darkness; it was beautiful. Sherlock looked at the fountain, thinking. He thought about the well where Victor had been lost and John found; about the pool; about the aquarium. The freezing waters of the fjord, the expanse of Lake Michigan, the uncaring immensity of the Pacific. About Eurus saying deep waters, Sherlock, all your life, all your dreams. He thought about how the molecules of water that currently raged around Sherrinford would one day flow through this fountain, in a city at the center of a vast continent, a thousand miles from the sea.

Sherlock looked at the water and thought: it’s time to go home.

Sherlock was smiling as he walked back to the hotel. He no longer felt empty; he felt filled—well, of ice cream mostly, but also with a sense of having completed his journey. He was still smiling as he stepped out of the lift and felt his phone buzz in his pocket.

“Hey,” Michael said. There was a great deal of noise in the background, but muffled, as though from the other side of a door. “I’ve only got a minute—I forgot the game’s on ESPN tonight, so we have to do some interviews, but I had to thank you. You don’t know what this means for me, not just for my family, but for me—you made me remember the person I want to be, the person I meant to be, I can never thank you enough and I owe you so much—“

“No. You don’t,” Sherlock said, cutting him off. He shut the door to his room behind him and crossed to the window without turning on the lights. “It was I who owed you. If it hadn’t been you, that night in Chicago, I never would have gone through with it. I’d never even know the person I was meant to be—in more ways than one, because I wasn’t even sure I wanted to carry on being a detective until I did this case. We’re even now. No one owes anyone anything, we’re friends.”

“Just friends?” Michael said, teasing.

“Well…friends with benefits.”

“So what happens now? Where do you go?”

“Home.”

There was quiet for a moment, and then Michael sighed. “Damn. I knew it could never have worked between us, but…I kind of wanted to try, you know?”

“I know.”

“Little rabbit,” Michael said, very softly. “You take care of yourself, okay? Don’t be too crazy. I know how you get.”

”I’ll try. At least until you’re out of law school. It will be such a comfort to know a good lawyer.”

Michael laughed and then there was the sound of a door banging open and the background noise suddenly got much louder. “Rhodes! You coming? They’re waiting for you.”

“Coming,” Michael shouted and then, clear and strong into the phone, “Gotta go. I love you, man. Be careful.”

Sherlock stood at the window for a moment, turning the phone over in his hand. He remembered again doing the same thing with Irene Adler’s phone, all those years ago in Baker Street. He’d thought never to see her again, and yet he had; they were friends now, would always be friends. He thought Michael would as well. They would always be a part of each other, just as it was with Irene, and even Victor.

For the first time in a long time Sherlock thought about the list he had been keeping back at Baker Street, the things of which he was certain. He liked chemistry and music, ice cream sundaes and cake. He liked sex. He liked extremes of sensation: the icy shock of the fjord, the utter silence of the desert, the wind in his face on the open road, the ache in his muscles after a hard run. Soft sheets and hot showers. Cases and the exhilaration of deduction. What he had told Michael had been true: he was who he was meant to be, Sherlock Holmes, the world’s only consulting detective; but he was also more. A brother, a son, a friend, a godfather. And one day, perhaps, he would have a partner of his own. He understood now that it had never been sex that alarmed him. Sherlock had tried, all his life, not to love, because to love was to risk, and yet love and loss and pain had found him anyway. The last question, asked and answered: he could fall in love, and someone could love him back. Not Michael, but because of Michael, he now knew that he could.

Sherlock turned from the window. He plugged his phone into the charger, switched on the light, and hung up his jacket; then he unceremoniously swept all the case notes from the bed into a bin and stacked up the pillows. Out of a sort of nostalgic affection he turned on the television and flipped around until he found the game in Toronto and settled back against the pillows, half watching the game—he’d never seen basketball before, but it wasn’t hard to work out—and half thinking about going home. He would get a flight tomorrow, after the banana split of course, buy a postcard for Rosie, and probably he should call Irene to let her know, and tell her she could sell the motorbike…he’d get a new one back in London, maybe a Ducati. When things got dull he could simply take off, go wherever he liked, find a gay bar…why not just go to a gay bar in London? Sherlock frowned, distracted. It wasn’t as though he cared what the general public thought about what he was up to; he’d never cared before, and none of that nonsense had even been true. Whose opinion was he worried about? Mummy’s? Certainly not Mycroft’s. Sherlock had gotten adept by now at recognizing his own mind’s peculiar sleight of hand: there was something he was hiding from himself, but he couldn’t see what it was.

A knock came at the door.

Sherlock looked up in surprise. What could that be? He certainly hadn’t ordered any food. Probably some unnecessary token of gratitude from Michael, or maybe the firm. Sherlock slid off the bed and padded over to open the door, and there stood John.

Sherlock was so taken aback that for a moment he just stood there gaping.

“Hey,” John said. He was smiling, though he looked tired—just arrived from the airport, at least one flight delayed or rerouted—and slightly nervous for some reason Sherlock couldn’t fathom. “Are you, er, in the middle of something? Have you got company?”

“No, why would I have—“

“Good,” John said decisively, and he pulled Sherlock’s head down and kissed him.

Sherlock’s brain went completely offline for at least three seconds before everything crashed into place with a force that physically jolted him, so that he gasped in John’s arms: “Oh!” Then he threw his arms around him, kissing John back as though to somehow compress all the missed kisses into this one moment, all the days and months and years he should have kissed John and hadn’t. Of course, of course, this was why he hadn’t fallen in love with Michael, because he was in love with John. Had always loved John and never known until somehow, miraculously, John had appeared. Now that he was kissing John back the kiss was exhilarating, transcendent, life-changing, completely and utterly right, because it was John. John who knew him for real, a hundred percent; Sherlock had been his best self with Michael but with John he could be his real self and John would still want him, would travel across an ocean and half a country to kiss him.

After a few minutes they came up for air, John chuckling. “You really don’t have company?”

“Of course not, why would I?”

“Can we go inside then?”

Sherlock realized they were still standing in the corridor, his back pressed up against the door. Fortunately his key card was still in his pocket. He opened the door and held it open for John to haul his case in. The tiny part of his mind that was not intent on getting his lips on John’s again suddenly snagged on the fact that John was actually here. “What are you doing here?”

“Irene called me,” John said, shucking his jacket. “Gave me a bit of a start; I keep forgetting she’s not dead. She asked if I’d got my head out of my arse and realized I was in love with you yet, and I said yes, ages ago, not that it was any of her business, and she said in that case I’d better get over here because you’d gone off with a superstar athlete and she thought you might be falling for him.”

“That was for a case,” Sherlock said. “I couldn’t fall for Michael, because I’d already fallen in love with you. It’s always been you; I just didn’t realize it until now.”

“So you two weren’t…”

“Not in the way that you mean, no.”

“But you hooked up,” John said, not a question.

“Well, yes.”

John raised his eyebrows. “And were you or were you not actually on a massive sex tour whilst you were cruising around on your motorbike?”

“Yes,” Sherlock admitted.

John began laughing. “I knew it! I knew there had to be something. You of all people going to the Grand Canyon!”

Sherlock couldn’t help smiling as well. “I did get a terrific blow job there.”

John wrapped a hand around his upper arm. His face was a mix Sherlock couldn't begin to read: not quite still laughing, not quite a question. "Did you mean that? What you just said? How you feel about...this. About me."

"Of course I meant it. Why would I say such a thing if I didn't mean it?"

"After everything? All you've done and seen?" John took a deep breath and reached out with his other hand, almost but not touching the thin scar at the edge of Sherlock's left eyebrow. "Everything I've done to you. You still want me?"

Sherlock looked at him, genuinely puzzled. "How could I ever want anyone else?"

John's face cracked into a smile as brilliiant as a desert sunrise. "Getting on that plane and coming here...it was the craziest thing I've ever done, I thought I had to be mad to think you could ever..."

Sherlock was smiling back; he couldn't help it, seeing John beam at him with that radiance.  "And you invaded Afghanistan."

John pulled him into his arms again, laughing now, and began kissing him. “Irene says you did things I haven’t even done.”

“Mmm.” Sherlock began walking backwards, pulling John with him toward the bed. “I’m looking forward to finding out. You know how curious I am…”

They hit the bed and fell onto it, bumping the remote and somehow turning the volume on the television all the way up. John sat up and froze, looking over Sherlock’s shoulder. “Wait, is that—is that the guy you were with? Are you watching him on telly? Which one is he?”

“Er…the one who just caught the ball.” On the screen Michael made a spectacular shot from halfway down the court and Sherlock said, pleased, “Oh look, he scored.”

The camera briefly showed a close-up shot of Michael’s beaming face and John’s jaw dropped. “Him? But he’s incredible! He’s so fit, and he’s young, and tall, and--”

“—not you,” Sherlock finished, flicking off the remote and pulling John back down with him again. “And therefore of no interest whatsoever. “

They kissed and they kissed and John threaded his fingers into Sherlock’s hair, and Sherlock turned his head to nuzzle his palm. “Are you going to keep your hair like this?”

“Why, do you prefer it?”

“No, I miss the curls. I used to fantasize about those curls.”

Sherlock smiled against his hand. “I’ll grow it back.” He kissed John’s fingers, one at a time, and sucked the tips into his mouth to see how they tasted. John groaned and pulled him tighter.

“What else did you do on that road trip?”

“Mmm.” Sherlock slid John’s fingers out of his mouth and kissed his way down John’s wrist, unfastening the button of his cuff. “I worked my way through all the Grindr tribes, I had a menage-a-trois, I let a very strange man in San Francisco spank me…” a thought suddenly occurred to him. “John.” He slid up so that they were face to face again. “There is something I haven’t done. Well, I tried it the other way, but I don’t really like topping, and that was…I was waiting. I didn’t know why then, obvious now really, I was waiting for you.”

John held Sherlock’s face in his hands and looked deep into his eyes. “Really?”

“Really.”

“Sherlock Holmes, are you saying that after all of that, you’re still a virgin?”

“For one very narrow and specific definition of the term, I suppose so, yes.”

John grinned, his whole face crinkling into such beautiful lines. Sherlock wanted to kiss every one of them. “Will you think it’s creepy if I say that I might have fantasized about that too?”

Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “I’m still extremely experienced.”

“I can tell,” John said. “No virgin could suck my fingers like that. Do it again.”

Sherlock did it again, and then he unbuttoned John’s other cuff and pressed kisses into the pulse at John’s wrist, almost drunk with the scent and feel of him. John was working his way down Sherlock’s neck at the same time, which was so distractingly nice that Sherlock kept throwing his head back to moan and then had to nose around trying to find John’s hand again. There was a tiny stain on John’s cuff—beetroot, his mind automatically supplied, strained—oh! “John! Where’s Rosie?”

“At home,” John said, busy trying to work Sherlock’s shirt buttons open. “With Tal.”

“Tal? Talitha? What, at your house?”

“I sold the house. They’re at Baker Street.”

“At Baker Street?”

John pulled back to look at him. “You weren’t listening any of those times I tried to talk to you about the remodeling, were you?”

“Er,” Sherlock said, trying to think of a single thing John had mentioned and failing utterly.

But John only grinned. “Quite all right, Mrs. Hudson and I gave up on you a long time ago. We decided since we were running water lines up for the new kitchen we may as well redo the top floor as well, where my old room was. There’s two bedrooms there now, with a bath in between—that’s where me and Rosie are—and then we turned the old box room into a sort of suite; there’s a bedroom with a sitting area and a little fridge and a hot plate and kettle, with an en suite bath, for Tal. I thought Rosie could have it when she got older.”

“You knew,” Sherlock said in amazement. “When I wasn’t sure of anything, you already knew.”

“Not exactly,” John said, still smiling into Sherlock’s eyes. “I didn’t know this for certain, although I had hopes. But I knew you wanted me back at Baker Street and I knew that’s where we belonged. I moved my things into my old room, but…”

“But you will be moving into mine,” Sherlock said with certainty. “Please,” he added quickly.

John smiled again, stroking Sherlock’s cheekbone with his thumb. “I’d like that,” he said, and pulled Sherlock into a long kiss that made Sherlock feel as though he were melting like chocolate.

Just when Sherlock was thinking they’d best be getting back to the business of his buttons John pulled away again and said, “Do you mind if I just freshen up a bit? This is a momentous occasion. I’ve been on planes for bloody ever, and I don’t want to spoil things being all stubbly and smelly.”

“You could never spoil it, but be my guest,” Sherlock told him.

When John had closed himself into the bathroom Sherlock hopped off the bed and retrieved the lube and condoms from his suitcase, where they had been packed away since he left California, and placed them on the bedside table. He’d been using a roll of towels for a pillow when he slept on the floor so he fetched one of those as well. The shower was still running so he surreptitiously turned on the television to check the score—the Lakers were winning, excellent—and then turned it off again and stuffed the remote away so it wouldn’t get in the way. When John came out, wearing only a towel and smiling all over his face, Sherlock said, “Might just pop in as well,” and nipped into the bath behind him.

Sherlock showered quickly but very thoroughly and returned to the bed, dropping his own towel to crawl in naked beside John, who was beginning to look alarmingly sleepy.

“Oh, hey,” John said, waking up when Sherlock wrapped his long legs around him, “now there’s a warm welcome.”

“Oh, I can be very warm,” Sherlock purred. “Should you like me to show you?”

“I would like that very much,” John said and reached over to switch out the light.

If Sherlock had had things all his own way, he would have stayed up all night, mapping every precious newfound inch of John’s body, learning what pleased him the most, showing off every skill he had acquired on his travels and encouraging John to show off his own bag of tricks. But John was clearly tired and anyway, they had all the time in the world; they had the rest of their lives. So after Sherlock spent what he felt was a criminally short amount of time reveling in the feel of John’s body against his he guided John’s hand between his legs—where he was already rock hard and damp at the tip—and pressed in unspoken invitation.

“Have you, er, done anything before…”

“Toys--that was quite good.”

“Let me know if you don’t like it, okay? We don’t have to keep going. We can do anything you want.”

“I want to know what you feel like inside me,” Sherlock said. He was impatient, with lust, mostly, and curiosity, but also nerves; he had a strange urge to rush, as though John might change his mind. It came out hoarse and so low his voice sounded like a distant rumble of thunder in his own ears, and John groaned, “Oh, Christ.”

Sherlock remembered to breathe out and bear down when John’s first finger pressed inside him. He was a little surprised at the automatic clench of resistance—he wanted this—but John moved slowly and carefully, and he soon relaxed. John kissed him and murmured to him, a warm litany: “You’re amazing, you’re brilliant, so hot, is this good, do you want more yet” and when he reached Sherlock’s prostate on the second finger Sherlock cried out and spread his legs wide and wanton. He was suddenly greedy for more, and felt a momentary twinge of sympathy for Jeff the Bear: it really was fantastic being fingered, if the person doing it cared about how much you enjoyed it.

John definitely cared, and he was clearly enjoying himself as much as Sherlock. He groaned every time Sherlock whimpered and arched, rubbing his own erection against Sherlock’s outflung thigh; he kissed him long and deep, stroked his aching cock, and crooned as he pushed three fingers deep into Sherlock’s body: “Look at you, you’re incredible, I can’t wait to be this deep inside you.”

Yes,” moaned Sherlock, half out of his head with pleasure and desperate to feel John’s thick cock stretching him wide.

“Yes?” John said slyly, twisting his fingers so that Sherlock’s whole back bowed off the bed.

“Yes, God, now, yes,” Sherlock shouted.

“Okay, okay,” John said, laughing. He slid his fingers free, which made Sherlock arch his back again, and arranged Sherlock’s hips where he wanted them. Then he fumbled for the supplies on the nightstand. “Nice work this,” he said, flipping a condom out of a package with a dexterity Sherlock couldn’t help but envy; he wasn’t that smooth yet. “You’re quite a good student.”

“Get in me,” Sherlock demanded. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.”

“Then you can wait another minute,” John said, maddeningly cheerful, as the lube squirted noisily into his palm.  Sherlock writhed until John’s slick fingers stroked over him and then around his loosened opening, groaning and trying to push himself down onto John’s fingers. Sherlock heard the lube being replaced, the sound of John’s hand slicking his own cock, infuriatingly slow.

John—“

“Shh,” John’s voice came, inches from his own mouth, and then John kissed him, and when Sherlock took a breath to demand that John fuck him right now John pushed inside and all the air rushed back out of his lungs in a whoosh.

“Okay?” John asked, sounding a bit short of breath himself.

“Oh my God,” Sherlock gasped. “Oh my God.” The feeling of John’s body in his was overwhelming, exhilarating, like the rush of discovery but better, his mind and body all lit up with sensation. It was nothing at all like sex with Jeff. That had felt all wrong: too close, suffocating, like being caught in a trap, but this made him feel…doubled, somehow, as though he were himself and yet also John, and all he wanted was to be closer. “Deeper, more, I want…”

John pushed in slowly, all the way, Sherlock seeing sparkles and clutching him when John’s body was pressed against his as tightly as it would go. “Oh, you’re so beautiful,” John breathed, “fantastic, keep breathing for me…”

“I am breathing,” Sherlock hadn’t been. He could just barely see John in the dark but he was as acutely aware of every inch of him as if John had been bathed in floodlights. “I….”

“I know.” John nuzzled against his cheek, brushing his lips across Sherlock’s lips and cheekbones. Sherlock closed his eyes. People weren’t meant to feel this much, at least not Holmes people, and he was already so full of feeling that if he kept looking into John’s eyes he was going to come apart at the seams.

John laced their fingers together and rocked slowly, just barely moving inside him. The sensation was not entirely comfortable, the drag a half step below a burn even with all the lube John had used, but Sherlock breathed in and out and concentrated on the feeling of John’s hands holding his and after a bit his body began to relax.

“Better?” John asked.

Sherlock opened his eyes so he could roll them. “You didn’t attract all those women with your sparkling conversation. Show me what you’ve got before I fall asleep here.”

John raised his eyebrows as he shifted up, obviously not fooled in the least. “Oh, I’ll show you…if you think you can handle it.”

Sherlock scoffed. “I told you—fuck!

John taken hold of Sherlock’s thighs and thrust with unerring precision over Sherlock’s prostate. Sherlock’s entire body convulsed and he saw stars.

“Thought that would shut you up,” John said cheerfully and set to it in earnest.

Sherlock thought, vaguely, that he was meant to be participating in some way—had Jeff the Bear done anything, or just talked incessantly?—but he couldn’t seem to manage anything beyond clutching at the sheets and gasping for breath as John pounded him.  It was fantastic. Just as sex had been better than he’d ever imagined, sex with John was better than anything he’d ever experienced. Sherlock felt a moment’s gratitude that he’d spent so much time experimenting with people he didn’t care about, so that he could appreciate how much better it was with someone he loved.

Sherlock slid along the bed on a particularly vigorous thrust and John slowed—“Sorry, you okay?”

“Harder,” Sherlock gasped.

“What?”

“Harder. Hard as you can.” Extremes of sensation, Sherlock thought vaguely as he got his hands up over his head and braced them against the upholstered headboard. “Harder!”

“Ooookay,” John said. He pushed himself a bit higher on his knees, gripped Sherlock’s leg with one hand and the top of the headboard with the other, and slammed in. Sherlock howled like an alley cat, half out of his head with pleasure and the knowledge that this was John holding him safe as he fucked him senseless. It was as though John were made for him, a bespoke sexual partner, a Grindr tribe of one: Perfect for Sherlock. John would be game for anything Sherlock wanted. He would spank him, slap him, tie him up, fuck him into the ground; but he would also make love to Sherlock with all the love and tenderness in the world. John hit a particularly good angle and Sherlock howled again, arching his back and pulling his own leg back with one hand. John’s thrusts were getting faster and shallower now and Sherlock knew he was getting close. He would have loved to have gone on all night, but a tiny prudent part of his brain thought he’d better let things finish so that he had a chance of being able to walk tomorrow.

Sherlock dropped his leg, braced himself again, and reached to wrap his free hand around himself. The lube had gone tacky, but it didn’t matter: his hand was sweaty and his cock was leaking and he was so turned on he probably could have got himself off with sandpaper. The knowledge that John would feel him come—that John was about to come, inside him, inside Sherlock, tipped him over and he lost his breath entirely, head thrown back and suddenly silent, crying out soundlessly, as heat rushed through his groin and shot wet over his hand.

“Oh Christ,” John groaned, “so beautiful, you’re so…” he let go the headboard and wrapped both hands around Sherlock’s thighs again, pulling out almost all the way so he could push in hard, shouting out his own climax as though to make up for Sherlock’s voicelessness.

When he had finished John draped himself panting over Sherlock for a moment and then straightened, pulling out carefully and stripping off the condom before gently straightening Sherlock’s legs and reaching for the towel to wipe him off. Sherlock still felt shattered: eyes closed, gasping, shuddering with aftershocks. John cleaned him up and then tugged him close, cradling him tightly against the hollow of his shoulder in a way that Sherlock immediately decided would be the only way he would sleep for the rest of his life.

“Good thing that headboard’s attached to the wall,” he finally managed, when he thought he could speak a full sentence again.

“Nope,” John said, threading a hand in Sherlock’s too-short hair and tilting his face up. “Not doing that. Look at me.”

Sherlock looked. It was not as hard as he’d thought. In the warmth of John’s eyes he felt the last of the armor of his self-possession crumble away like frost in the sun.  He looked at John and John looked at him, at his vulnerable unshielded face, and he knew that John had always seen him.

“I love you,” he said. A simple statement of fact, but it seemed the moment to say it.

“Yeah,” John said. He smiled. “I love you too.”

Sherlock smiled and then he nestled his head back against John’s shoulder and this time John let him. John wrapped his arms around him and in a minute his breathing evened out, slow and steady and regular. He was asleep.

Sherlock himself was far too happy to sleep. He wrapped himself entirely around John, as though trying to absorb him through his skin, and beamed into the dark. John! Here, with Sherlock, naked! After all of his searching and questing, the thing he needed most in the world had been right in front of him all along.

And he didn’t just have John now, Sherlock realized abruptly: he had Rosie as well. He had gained a partner and a child all in one night. He, Sherlock Holmes, had a family. Sherlock shut his eyes and let the full weight of joy and awe and responsibility settle over him. A family. No more risking his life to prove he was clever; only to protect them, or to make the world better and safer for them, for Rosie. John had taken care of him, and now he would take care of John and Rosie, and Talitha and Mrs. Hudson, and Molly and Lestrade, and Mycroft, and even his parents and sister, for Mycroft’s sake.

In saving my life she conferred a value on it, Sherlock had said to John, so many months ago. It is a currency I do not know how to spend. Now he knew. He and John would live at Baker Street with Rosie, and they would solve crimes and help people. He thought that Mary would have approved.

Sherlock wrapped his arms even more tightly around John, who said, “Mmf,” wrapped his own arms around Sherlock, and promptly began to snore softly. Poor John, who had been through so much…Sherlock’s eyes snapped open as a brilliant idea struck him. They needn’t go back straight away! Rosie was well sorted with Talitha and Mrs. Hudson, and Sherlock could have a word with Mycroft to keep an eye out. John needed a holiday. He hadn’t even had a proper honeymoon, what with Mary pregnant and being sick every morning and unable to get soused on tropical drinks, and that was well over a year ago.

Yes. A holiday. They would sleep late and have lazy sex, and eat ice cream, and then they would head south—someplace warmer, John had said. Maybe follow the Mississippi down to New Orleans; John had never been, they would need a car, not a motorbike…a convertible! They would hire a convertible. Everyone always thought he should be driving one anyway. They would go to New Orleans and have hurricanes and mad drunken sex and then go for beignets and café au lait to soothe the hangover. When that got old they would head east, stopping at Waffle House every morning for breakfast—Sherlock dearly loved Waffle House—and down into Florida until they reached Miami. He’d show John Frank Hudson’s old nightclub, and go to South Beach, and Sherlock would burn and John would tan and they’d have sex with sand in their hair and it would be glorious. And then maybe they’d drive back up—no, then they’d fly back, over the sea and home. It would be December soon, Rosie’s first Christmas, their first Christmas together, and everything would need to be perfect.

Sherlock closed his eyes again, feeling blissfully happy. It won’t be the same as it was before, John had said, but it might be even better. Clearly John wasn’t an idiot after all, which was good, as Sherlock intended to spend the rest of his life with him. He couldn’t wait to get started. What time would Graeter’s open? How many different types of ice cream could one put on a banana split? Maybe they should get two. And toppings…they would need hot fudge, of course, and perhaps marshmallow, or maybe butterscotch?…and a cherry on top, John would put it into Sherlock’s mouth and then he could lick whipped cream off John’s fingers, discreetly of course, and…Sherlock fell asleep.

 

They got hot fudge and marshmallow, and it was delicious.