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Two Men Started to Unpack

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“Dead.”

 

Just one word. Holmes turned on his heel and strode away and Watson’s startled gaze chased his retreating figure. Lestrade called out frustratedly, “Oi, I was hoping for a bit more than that!"

 

Holmes’ pace slowed then stopped. He stilled for a moment and took a slow breath, his filling lungs causing his coat to rise softly at the back. His words floated on the exhale.

 

“Quite dead."

 

Drawing his shoulders back and his chin up, Holmes started off again, continuing his path down the cobbled street until his footfalls fell silent and his form was consumed by the grasping shadows.

 

Watson felt as if the air had been sucked from his lungs. Never before had his friend’s examination of a corpse been so cursory nor his deductions so abrupt. His sharp gaze had seemingly raked the girl’s prone form from head to toe in a matter of seconds, pausing only for a moment on her right hand. And never before had Holmes taken leave of a scene so quickly.

 

What had Watson missed?

 

Ignoring Lestrade's questioning gaze and his own confused concern, Watson crouched down by the body and carefully removed his gloves, stuffing them in his coat pocket. If Holmes’ would not be forthcoming with an answer, perhaps the body would.

 

Dressed in a scullery maid’s plain attire, she was no more than 15 or 16 Watson surmised. Her long dark hair, having escaped from her cap at some point, swirled through a pool of congealing blood beneath her neck as the spaces between the cobblestones drew the remainder away down the street. On her back, head tilted to the right and right arm stretched out, fingers gently curling in her palm, she looked serene, peaceful, asleep.

 

The wound at her throat, the same as the previous four. A deep, clean slice, wider on the left; he was left handed and stood behind. Slight bruising from widely placed fingers on the the left side of her jaw; he had held her head still and her mouth closed tight.

 

Watson took her small pale hand gently in his, out of habit, searching for a pulse. None would be forthcoming, her lifeblood having drained from her veins some time ago, but as he eased her hand back down onto the damp stone, her fingers unfurled and a simple silver necklace bearing a Trinity knot fell out. Watson picked up the delicate piece and placed it carefully back in her palm (noting absently where the three corners had indented the skin), and tucked her fingers back around it.

 

“So?” Lestrade’s frustration bubbled as he loomed over the body. Watson straightened rose from his position. He regarded the detective inspector for a moment before concurring. “Dead; just like the others".

 

Lestrade groaned as he rubbed his hand across his forehead. He heard what Watson was not saying. Exactly like the others. No clues as to the identity of the assailant, no new leads. Four bodies in as many weeks and nothing to go on. “Take her away," he ordered, and jerked his head resignedly to the hearse standing on the corner. His two constables moved to assist. Watson took his leave as they lifted her carefully into the back. He glanced at Lestrade as he left, and the Detective Inspector looked as Watson felt.

 

Lost.

 

Watson took solace in the enveloping darkness as he made his way slowly, carefully back to Baker Street. The streetlamps cast an unnatural glow and the fog caught in his lungs, filling them with a thickness that rivaled that of his thoughts.

 

Watson found Holmes sitting in his favourite chair before the hearth, regarding the fire, letting the flames lick at his thoughts. Watson closed the door quietly behind him, removing his gloves and placing them on the side table. Then his coat and hat, hanging them on the hook behind the door.

 

Watson contemplated joining Holmes by the hearth but could not tell, from this distance or the back of his head, whether he would welcome the company. However, Holmes’ next words beckoned him closer.

 

“You have known men of faith.” A statement and a question, spoken to the fire.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Soldiers?”

 

“Yes, some.”

 

“Did it save them?”

 

“Sorry, did it what?”

 

“Save them. Did it save them? Did believing in the existence of some imaginary higher power spare their life in battle?”

 

“No, not always, no,” Watson agreed, crossing the room to reposition the second chair next to Holmes’ at the fireside. Sinking into its its wide arms, stretching his legs, Watson too regarded the flames. “Men with faith died. Men without faith died. War doesn't discriminate, neither do bullets.”

 

Watson didn't ask the question that stood between them. He was content to wait for Holmes’ to give it voice. But Holmes didn't speak again. He didn't glance away from the fireplace when Watson moved, an hour later, to pour himself a Whiskey. He didn't flinch when the groan of Watson’s chair announced his return, tumbler in hand. And he stayed silent when Watson drained the last drop and set the glass aside, pushing down on the armrests to take his leave to bed.

 

“She didn't struggle.”

 

It was said in a whisper, on a breath. Watson sank back into his chair. “She didn't struggle," Holmes repeated more firmly, eyes still fixed ahead. “The ones who fight I understand. The ones who don't I always understood not wanting to live or being too scared to fight. She was neither.”

 

Watson cast his mind back to the body. Exactly like the rest, he had thought; same wounds, same bruising, same assailant. But she had been different. He considered the peacefulness. Giving it over to the repose of her body, he hadn't thought much of it at the time. But upon reflection, with the exception of the marks on her throat and jaw and the evidence of her blood loss all around her, she hadn't looked like her last breath had been taken in fear.

 

“The Triquetra, in her hand, you saw it."

 

Holmes turned to look at Watson for the first time since the crime scene. Now he looked lost.

 

“Yes.”

 

“She didn't pull it off in a struggle, the indents in her palm would have appeared at the top of she had. It wasn't ripped from her, she held it secure. She held it at her neck, the pressure of the three points even on her skin. It only came away from her neck when her hand went limp and pulled it free.” His words came faster now, agitated.

 

“She didn't let go of it to struggle against him, or to try and stop the blade, she let it happen. Why? Why would she do that. It doesn't make sense.”

 

It was the first time Watson had heard his friend so troubled, so doubtful, so unsure. He looked pained; the world as Holmes knew it wasn't adding up. The rationale was flawed and he struggled to understand, to make sense, and to return order to his brilliantly sharp mind, his world.

 

His breath hitching at the loss he saw in Holmes’ eyes, Watson suddenly felt the full burden of explaining the unexplainable, of rationalizing the irrational, of providing sense where none was possible. And as Holmes’ gaze regarded his, searching desperately for the answers in the steadfast eyes of his loyal doctor, Watson considered.

 

Watson considered telling Holmes’ of the lives of the men he had taken, of the lives of the men he had tried to save, of their words when they knew death was near and the fear in their eyes when they realised theirs would not be a swift end. Of the prayers he had heard muttered and the curses shouted aloud. Of those who had gone silently and those whose anger only left with their last breath. Watson turned his mind to the ones who held their faith to the end; loud, soft, scared, resigned, rich, poor, they had nothing in common save their trust in their gods. Watson wasn't a spiritual man but he appreciated the comfort that their beliefs provided them all as they faced their end.

 

Watson considered how he could possibly express the complexity of such an emotion. Faith had no rationality. It had no sense. Instead, he held Holmes’ gaze, placed his left hand gently on the extraordinary mans forearm and replied softly, “neither does love.”

 

The confusion didn't clear entirely from Holmes’ eyes, but it softened in appreciation as he took in his equally extraordinary companion’s touch. He eased himself back into his chair and let his eyelids slowly drift shut. Watson felt the constriction in his heart lessen. He left his hand where it was until the glowing embers in the hearth had faded and the calm of sleep finally took them both.