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The Call Of The Wild

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“The call of the wild lingers in every human heart.” - Anonymous

~~~

Hate was insidious, creeping in around the edges of people’s lives, curling inside them like a parasite and multiplying until it consumed them. It could fill a person’s every moment until their existence became nothing more than a nest of vile resentment, and this was the result.

Arcs of blood spatter stained the walls like something out of the Tate Modern – red on white. It wrote its testimony on every surface – overwhelming, even to him. In comparison, the bodies looked insignificant. A man and a woman: husband and wife. Gold rings shone like brass around their fingers and wedding photos stood on the mantelpiece. They were not newlywed, but he estimated they had not been married much more than a year. An extravagant bouquet in a vase on the table had not yet wilted: anniversary, perhaps?

Sherlock’s nose itched, the iron tang of blood warring with the scent of roses, all underwritten by the leaden odour of distress. That, at least, did not belong to the victims. Not anymore. It was the scent of the living – Lestrade and his men, Donovan, Anderson… John. It permeated the air, undetectable to the human nose, but for Sherlock it was impossible to ignore.

‘You’re looking for two attackers,’ he said, lifting the woman’s necklace aside and reading the silhouettes in the mist of blood. ‘One held her down while her husband was murdered. Here.’ He splayed his gloved hand over the phantom of a void. ‘Her cheek’s abraded where it was pressed against the carpet. Her head was forced to the right so she had no choice but to face her spouse as he was killed.’

John made a faint sound, his empathy in overdrive. Was he imagining having to watch someone drive a knife, time and again, into the person you loved? Would John do that, watch, or would he close his eyes to block it from view? Would he reach out, as she had done, desperate to stop the inevitable but powerless to do so?

Sherlock’s tail twitched, and he terminated that train of thought as he forced his body still. He swallowed, trying to think around the sudden swell of emotion. He didn’t like picturing John so helpless; his future contracted to a few grief-filled moments before his own existence crashed to a brutal end.

‘This is a hate crime, just like the others,’ he managed at last. ‘The mutilation alone indicates as much, tails and ears sliced off. You might find them in a nearby bin, or in the Thames.’ Sherlock glanced at Lestrade. ‘You should have called me sooner.’

Normally, the D.I. contacted him whenever a murderer escalated into a serial killer, if only in the hopes of solving the situation promptly, but this time he’d held back as the body count mounted. Was he trying to spare Sherlock’s non-existent sensibilities? Did he think that because the victims were like him – Felisian, human-but-not – that Sherlock would lose his rational approach?

Lestrade’s brown gaze darted over to John, and Sherlock hurriedly recalculated. No, the DI knew him better than that. He understood that Sherlock had mastered the art of compartmentalisation decades ago, but John was another matter. A soldier and a doctor, he was used to violence and its resulting injuries, yes, but that did not mean he was immune to it.

Sherlock was not sure why Lestrade thought this particular spate of killings would be more upsetting for John than others that they’d seen, but it was clear he was right. He could sense the ragged edge of John’s misery: a bitter, flat scent that strafed across his palate. Perhaps he could not usher John away from the scene but he could give him a purpose, and with it, some element of control.

'John, look at this.' He gestured towards one of the stab wounds in her chest, his gloved fingertips hovering above the crimson-stained fabric of her blouse. Carefully, he parted the cloth enough to expose the skin beneath. 'What do you see?'

'Er.' His brow creased and his lips pursed in distaste as he approached, but John was a consummate professional. He wouldn't hang back for the sake of his peace of mind if he thought Sherlock required his expertise. 'Stab wound between the fourth and fifth rib. It's deep, but there's not much to set it apart from the others.' He crouched down at Sherlock's side, pointing to the injuries that littered her body. 'They're all roughly the same size, which implies they used the same blade, but...' He narrowed his eyes, his gaze flickering to the breach Sherlock had indicated before he reached out, carefully parting cloth to examine the other wounds.

'But?' Sherlock prompted, his ears pricking forward, alert for John's next words.

'This is deep. Forceful. It's probably at least cracked the rib and -' He palpitated the skin. 'Blood's pooled in the body cavity, more so here than under the other injuries. If she wasn't already dead when they stabbed her again, she wasn't far off.'

'What does that mean?' Lestrade asked, folding his arms across his chest.

'The killers knew what they were doing.' Sherlock indicated the husband. 'They came here intending to commit murder and felt justified in their actions. The first blow would have been fatal within minutes. The rest of it is just gratification for the murderers’ hatred.' He pressed his fingers together in thought. 'However, this isn't about humiliation. Both victims are still clothed, and there are no obvious signs of sexual abuse. What about the others? Were they couples?'

'Yeah.' Donovan reached into her pocket for a notepad, flicking the pages. ‘Man and woman at each scene. Not all were married, but they were romantically involved. Our first thought was a jilted lover.' She scowled as Sherlock snorted in disgust. 'However, we ruled that out pretty quick. Everyone we spoke to said the same thing.'

Sherlock looked up, narrowing his eyes as she shrugged. 'They were loyal, loving. The perfect couple. All of them.'

'Sherlock.' John's voice sounded odd, flat and stale in a way he'd never heard before. His head snapped around, noticing John's pallor before he followed his gaze. In his quest to examine her other injuries, John's fingers had pushed back the collar of the woman's clothes. There, at the junction where the shoulder strap of her brassiere joined the cup there was a small hook looped through a fabric eye. While Sherlock's understanding of women's underwear was perhaps not as complete as John's, he still recognised it.

Hastily, he flipped back the lower edge of her blouse to reveal her stomach, uttering a curse at the dusky, rippling lines that charted the skin between her hips and across the sides of her abdomen. 'I thought you said your men had cleared the scene?' he demanded, getting to his feet and turning to glare in Lestrade's direction.

'We did!' he protested. 'Why, what have you found?'

'This woman's wearing a nursing bra to allow an infant better access to feed, and her stretch marks are still vivid.' He spun around, raising his voice as he headed away from the scene, his eyes darting in their sockets as he took in the details. 'That woman has a baby, probably no more than three months old. So where is it?'

He took the stairs two at a time, paying no mind to the clamour behind him. Lestrade and Donovan were both giving orders, organising their force to repeat their search room-by-room. While there was a slim possibility that the parents had a few seconds to hide their child, it seemed unlikely. The angle of their bodies, the frenzy of the blood spatter and the lack of meaningful defensive wounds all indicated that they hadn't had the opportunity to react to the cause of their demise. The question was, had the baby been in the house when the attack occurred?

If so, was it still here?

Sherlock paused at the top of the stairs, skirting the canvas of the carpet. There was more than one set of footprints, and no doubt Anderson's inept team had not yet had the opportunity to process. While the disturbance of evidence was acceptable in the act of preventing an additional crime, Sherlock would rather not make the job any more difficult, especially as it would fall to him to put the pieces together.

The doors around him lay open, parted after the rudimentary search conducted by the officers from the Yard. They would have been looking for other bodies or potential suspects, but a baby was easy to miss. The bathroom earned little more than a fleeting glance, and the second bedroom was bare-walled: home to tins of paint and nothing else – probably the nursery, still waiting to be completed.

That left the master bedroom. As soon as Sherlock stepped over the threshold, he noticed the open window. The soft veils of the curtains fluttered in the night's breeze, and the city's nocturnal cacophony assailed his ears: sirens and laughing pedestrians, traffic and music from a nearby club.

The old sash sat crooked in its frame, pushed aside in a hurry, and a glimmer of fresh blood gleamed on the sill. The bodies downstairs had not been dead for more than an hour, but did this come from them or someone else?

Something white caught his eye and he sucked in a breath, ripping off his gloves as he approached the basket. It had been overturned, hidden from the line of sight by the expanse of the bed. To Sherlock, the basinet was ominous, tilted drunkenly on its side: empty.

'Anything?' John asked, stepping into the room behind him. Just like Sherlock, he noticed the open window and the blood, and his lips tightened as his eyes turned hard. 'Christ.'

Sherlock splayed his palm across the little foam mattress, picking up the residual heat. 'The baby's not been gone more than twenty minutes. Whoever did this left out of that window, probably as Lestrade and his men were breaking through the front door. Look at the scuffs on the paintwork and the angle of the sash: they were in a hurry, perhaps thrown off by the existence of a baby and interrupted before they could decide what to do about it.’

He strode across the room, ducking out of the window as the breeze lifted his curls from his face. The fire escape led down into a back alley, the floor of which was thick with autumn leaves. To John, and probably the killers, no doubt the narrow space looked dim and ill-defined, but to Sherlock it was like an overcast day, his night-vision eliminating most of the shadows. 'They ran. Skidded. Look at the mud, and that bin's been overturned recently: no scavengers have got to it yet. One's moving awkwardly, probably carrying the baby. The other one's more purposeful. They're heading somewhere to regroup.'

‘Where are you going?’ John grabbed his elbow as he went to slip out of the window, one foot already on the metal platform beyond and his head ducked through the gap.

Sherlock looked at him, feeling the twist of electricity in the air. Over the past few months, their friendship had taken a turn, heading towards something else entirely. It bloomed between them, powerful but unacknowledged, an undeniable magnetism that grew more impossible to resist with each day.

This was not the first time that Sherlock had felt the breathless potential between them. However, now was not the moment for such a conversation.

Later, he promised himself, just as he always did. Later, he would address the possibility, but not now.

‘I need to get a closer look,’ he pointed out, his voice husky as he tore his eyes from John’s gaze to scan the ground below. ‘A high vantage point will give me some insight into where they might be going. I need to get on the rooftops.’

‘Can’t you track them from the alley?’ John sounded hopeful, and his expression sank as Sherlock shook his head.

‘Too much foot traffic. The chance of picking up a false trail is too high and we don’t have that kind of time to waste.’ Sherlock reluctantly slipped his arm free of John’s grasp, giving his wrist a quick squeeze. ‘Get Lestrade. Start at the back door and follow the evidence as best you can. As soon as I know which direction you need to go, I’ll tell you.’

John pursed his lips, the temptation to argue only outweighed by the knowledge they had to move fast. He would follow if he could, of that, Sherlock was certain, but that wasn’t an option. Sherlock needed to race over the tiles as fast as his Felisian physiology would allow, and as long as John was with him – far less graceful and incapable of long jumps – then Sherlock would be too worried for his safety to act with haste.

‘All right, go, but for fuck’s sake be careful. Don’t face off against whoever’s doing this alone.’

John turned away, darting out of the room and clattering down the stairs, calling Lestrade’s name as Sherlock slipped through the window and considered his options. Looking up, he scaled the fire-escape. The gabled roof loomed above him, and he hauled himself onto the slate tiles, his tail whipping out behind him as he broke into a sprint.

London’s roofscape was a glorious nest of hidden places and treacherous ledges. In his younger, less sensible days, Sherlock had spent hours running from one street to the next, risking life and limb as he cut out the limitation of the city’s meandering roads and instead revelled in the forest of chimney pots and the gurgle of the gutters.

It was like shrugging on a well-worn coat. His skills, ill-used these days but still present, melted to the front of his mind as his body began to respond to muscle memory. He leapt to the next ledge and ran along its peak like someone on a high wire, never putting a foot out of place. The earthy fragrance of rotting leaves and slick moss tickled his nostrils, but he breathed past it, searching the fog of odours for the thin thread that could guide his footsteps.

Copper and iron caught in the back of his throat, a dim note in the plethora of London’s miasma, but it was enough. It glowed in his mind like molten gold, and he took a sharp left, catapulting himself around a chimney and over a patch of broken tiles as his mind fell into the calm, still purpose of the hunt.

Instinct was a glorious thing, and one he did not allow himself to experience too often. Now, however, it was stronger than logic and more powerful than any of his deductions. He could ignore the rest of the city: the far off sibilance of the churning Thames and the growl of passing traffic. All of his observations narrowed down to the linear trail the murderers had left in their wake.

A loose slate slipped under his feet, and he corrected his stride without thinking, ignoring the smash of thin stone on the unforgiving earth below. A twitch of percussive sound – racing footsteps – indicated that John, Lestrade and his men were nearby, doing their best to follow the evidence. Perhaps there were some visual cues to guide them, but it would be challenging in London’s midnight gloom.

A gap loomed up ahead, and he quickly judged the distance. They were coming out of the narrow backways now, and the buildings were further apart. With a burst of speed and a flick of his tail, he leapt, reaching out to clutch the gutter with his fingertips before springing upwards into a crouch.

One brief second to catch his breath and he was on his way again, ignoring the sting of bloodied cuts on his hands and the faint protest of muscles he had not used for far too long.

Spikes, meant to deter roosting pigeons, made each step more treacherous, and Sherlock grumbled under his breath at the rooftop furniture of these more presentable, higher-quality buildings. More than once, he was almost dumped unceremoniously through a half-open skylight, and by the time the trail came to an end, he was sorely reminded why he no longer took to London’s skyline as often as he once had.

His coat settled around him as he came to a halt, his unblinking gaze fixed on a shop on the opposite side of the street. A large bin to the side overflowed with cardboard boxes meant to store pharmaceutical supplies, and the door stood ajar, as if someone had lunged through it in a panic.

No alarm rang out, suggesting whoever they were chasing either had previous knowledge of the building or were authorised to be within its walls, but why had they come here?

Looking up, he examined the horizon. A brief glance at the case notes earlier had fixed the details in his mind, and the location of every murder fell within a half-mile radius. With a quick grimace, Sherlock eyed the scene, realising that this simple shop was likely to be a base for the killers. Without more evidence, all he could say for sure was that the pharmacy was significant, and that the murderers were probably inside.

The temptation to leap down and confront them sang through his veins, but he remembered the urgency in John’s voice as he’d pleaded for Sherlock not to go in alone. Perhaps it was just nebulous concern on John’s part, but Sherlock suspected that there was more to it than that. These people hated Felisians, and they were more likely to react to Sherlock’s presence without thought or mercy.

For once, he could see the need for backup.

A sharp sound caught in his throat as he retraced his steps, sprinting over the rooftops until he came across the stumbling, slow progress of Lestrade and the others. Fearing pursuit, the killers had made their job difficult, over-turning bins to block anyone behind them and obscure their tracks. It would probably have worked, but they hadn’t counted on a Felisian being part of the team.

Reaching out, Sherlock gripped the edge of the roof, his fingers tight around the tile before he swung himself over and dropped to the ground. His knees and hips took the shock, the bones shifting in a distinctly inhuman way as his hand splayed on the alley floor to steady his equilibrium.

It wasn’t effortless, but he dismissed the arrows of pain that shot up his legs as he straightened, noting Lestrade’s wide-eyed amazement and John’s expression, torn between admiration and disapproval. One or two of the officers had let out faint cries of surprise, but Sherlock ignored them, grabbing John’s wrist as he set off.

‘This way. Come on!’

Something fluttered in his chest as, after a couple of stumbling paces, John found his stride. It was an easy tandem, their footsteps no longer quiet as they pounded along the alleys. John’s arm flexed in his grip, and Sherlock released him only to find a firm grasp capture him, palm-to-palm and utterly trusting.

John was half-blind in the darkness, but he never faltered, letting Sherlock lead him without question. Puddles splashed underfoot, soaking Sherlock’s trousers, but he ignored the discomfort as he called out warnings to those who hurried along behind him.

At last, he skidded to a halt a short distance away from the pharmacy, allowing himself a few panting breaths as he squeezed John’s fingers in quick reassurance. Here, the darkness bled away as more streetlamps and shop lights penetrated the night. It meant John no longer needed his guidance, but he didn’t let go of Sherlock’s hand, choosing to let his touch linger before he finally stepped away.

‘They’re in there?’ John asked, gesturing to the door. His voice was a hoarse whisper, adequate for Lestrade and his men to overhear, but too quiet for anyone else to make out.

Sherlock took a deep breath through his nose, his lashes fluttering as he analysed the scents around him: human sweat, the filth of the alleys, the noisome poison of car exhaust and there – something milky and clean that reminded him of baby powder.

His ears flickered, but he couldn’t pick out any noises that might indicate the presence of an infant. Surely, the child would be in distress? It might be too young to comprehend the danger, but instinct was a powerful thing. Did the silence mean they’d taken the baby somewhere else, or had it suffered the same fate as its parents?

‘Yes. I don’t know about the child. I think it was here, but…’ He shook his head, watching John close his eyes and rub his hands over his face. Behind him, Lestrade looked grey and grim, and he quickly began issuing orders to his men. They fanned out, some slipping along the alley to circle around the front of the pharmacy while others lingered at the back, waiting for the signal to make their move.

Abruptly, Sherlock heard it: a thin, high cry carried along by the breeze.

Static buzzed down his spine, surging along his legs as he leapt forward, giving chase. His body moved like a well-oiled machine, far beyond the reach of logic. John would follow; he always did, but Sherlock couldn’t bring himself to look over his shoulder and check. He needed his eyes upfront, focussed on the world ahead of him where his quarry lay in wait.

A fresh wave of blood assailed him, burning his nose. The cries grew shrill, and behind him, Sherlock heard John swear. They had to be close if John’s normal ears could pick up the sounds, but which way? The data overwhelmed his senses, sharpened as they were by adrenaline. Sherlock’s head began to pound in protest, and he came to a halt, his hands flying to his temples as he tried to sort through the mess.

‘No time for that.’ John grabbed his sleeve, yanking him along the path to the left. ‘It’s this way.’

He was right. After less than a minute, they staggered onto the scene. A sallow lamp flickered, making the small, forgotten space seem otherworldly. It was little more than a gap between two abandoned buildings, where mounds of rubbish gathered against the dilapidated walls.

Sherlock stared at the young man, haloed as he was by the sickly illumination. A bloody knife lay at his feet as he pressed one hand to the squirming bundle in his arms, trying to stifle the child’s screams. Crimson smeared his fingers and bare forearms, and his grey eyes were huge as he looked up, staring at them in horror. For a split-second, no one moved, frozen in a tableau of uncertainty and disbelief.

Sherlock’s tail twitched, and the moment was broken.

A snarl crossed the man’s face as he threw the baby aside and scooped the knife from the floor, darting forward in one swift motion. The blade glinted in the light, angled upwards to drive into his chest, but Sherlock whirled aside, letting the attack pass him by as he planted himself firmly between the man and the helpless child.

The infant’s cries, pained and furious, seemed to fill the narrow space. It had landed in the rubbish, which, while far from clean, was softer than the unforgiving paving beneath their feet. Sherlock could smell its blood: a treble tang, like that of its parents, but he didn’t dare check on it, not with one of the killers so close, panting and wild-eyed.

John shifted, clearly torn between facing their attacker and helping the baby, and it was as if the murderer snapped out of a daze. He had been too focused on Sherlock to give anyone else a moment’s thought; a mistake he would no doubt regret. John may not have the ears and tail of a Felisian, but he moved like one: predatory and lithe. He walked in a steady motion as he circled around, cutting off escape routes as best he could.

The killer watched him, mesmerised. The only sign of life in his face was the quick flicker of a mind at work. He was recalculating the chances of success, and Sherlock saw the precise moment when their culprit decided to flee.

He didn’t give him the chance.

One pounce was all it took. The man collapsed with a faint cry of horror; face down amidst the rubbish with Sherlock on his back. The knife fell from his grasp, and Sherlock wasted no time in flicking it away before restraining the hands that groped fitfully for a weapon.

‘Freak! You fucking freak! Get off of me!’ He struggled, spitting a stream of muffled obscenities as he thrashed around, desperate to get away.

‘John, see to the child,’ Sherlock ordered, ignoring the protests of the man beneath him as he grappled to keep him still. ‘Quickly!’

With a sharp movement, the suspect bent his knees, slamming both heels into Sherlock’s back in an effort to dislodge him. The blow was hard enough to bruise, and a growl bubbled in the base of Sherlock’s throat. It rumbled in his chest and seeped from between his clenched teeth: a long, low sound like a lit fuse burning its way towards the inevitable explosion.

The young man froze, all efforts to escape falling still as his breathing turned shallow and thin.

Of course, Sherlock mused, he should have known. Hatred often stemmed from fear, and the man in his grasp reeked of terror. It poured from him in thick waves, oozing from every pore and catching at the back of his throat: intoxicating.

At times like this, with his every nerve alight with the rush of pursuit, it was a challenge to cling to his humanity. Saliva flooded Sherlock’s mouth, and he was more aware of his teeth than usual as he acknowledged his body’s desire to bite. Logically, he knew that the creature at his mercy was a human suspect and not something that should be termed as prey, but a small, dark part of him cared little for the distinction.

The blood didn’t help. The air was rank with it, all over the suspect and flowing fresh from the infant’s wounds. John would be trying to help the child, but Sherlock couldn’t bring himself to look. His whole world had narrowed down to the existence of his captive, and it felt as if something critical hung in the balance.

A hand on his shoulder made him flinch, and the killer whimpered like a man expecting the death-blow. Something in Sherlock snarled in vicious satisfaction to see such submission, and he stamped down on it heavily as he sucked in a breath of the sharp peppermint fragrance that surrounded Lestrade.

The oil was still fresh, no doubt smeared liberally over the pulse points at his wrists. It was a crude technique, but over the years the two of them had learnt a few coping strategies for this kind of situation. Anything that overwhelmed the smell of fear was a good start. The astringent peppermint cleared Sherlock’s head, allowing reason to claim superiority once more.

‘All right, we’ve got him,’ Lestrade promised, reaching down to help Sherlock up while Donovan and a couple of officers hovered nearby, cuffs and truncheons at the ready in case their suspect tried to run. He wouldn’t. He complied with his arrest, limbs weak and pliant like a rag doll before he was dragged away.

‘What about the other one?’ Sherlock asked, rubbing one hand over his eyes and trying to ground himself in the here-and-now. It was always like this after an intense chase – a bit like coming down. He felt heavy and disorientated, and he struggled to focus on what Lestrade was saying.

‘She didn’t come without a fight, but we got her. She was trying to clean herself up, but most of the evidence is still intact.’

‘I assume she worked at the pharmacy?’ Sherlock shrugged at Lestrade’s quick glance in his direction. He knew him too well to be surprised any more, but there was a healthy dose of respect in the DI’s expression.

‘Go on then. Tell me how you knew that.’

‘All the victims lived nearby. It’s logical to extrapolate that they were targeted because of their Felisian characteristics, and the perpetrators must have had access to their private details, such as residential addresses. I imagine that, with a bit of digging, you’ll find they all had prescriptions for something.’

‘Contraception.’ The filth on the floor muffled the tapping of Donovan’s heels as she picked her way back to Lestrade’s side, no doubt having left their suspect in the custody of the other officers. ‘The woman’s pretty talkative. That’s why they weren’t expecting the kid. The mum went in to pick up the pill a couple of days ago.’

Sherlock nodded, feeling the last of his energy drain away. It had been a long time since he had found himself in a scenario as overwhelming as this. Perhaps the fact that the brutal murders were Felisian had more of an impact than he thought.

His legs ached with the urge to leave and he looked around, trying to make sense of the scene. ‘Where’s John?’

‘Once he knew you were in good hands, he went with the paramedics and the kid.’ Lestrade pointed to the right. ‘The ambulance is down there.’

Now that Sherlock thought about it, he could still hear the baby’s cries. The infant barely seemed to pause for breath. Even as he listened, the pitch changed, becoming something that bordered on a scream.

His body moved on autopilot, his long stride eating up the distance as he surged down the alley Lestrade had indicated and out onto the open street. An ambulance stood at the kerb, its blue lights flashing and filling the air with stuttering shadows. One paramedic was laying out supplies while the other tried to approach the thrashing child in John’s arms.

The sight was almost amusing, but Felisian infants were not as harmless as their human counterparts. More coordinated, they were able to bite and claw at a potential attacker from as early as four weeks old. The strong fingernails and needle-like canine teeth present at birth might be the only weapons available to the baby, but Sherlock suspected they had already been put to use.

‘We’ll have to swaddle her,’ John said to one of the paramedics. He sounded like it was the last thing in the world he wanted to do, but bloody lines already marked their way over the backs of his hands where he had been scratched. Besides, for every moment the little girl struggled, her injuries continued to bleed. ‘We need to get this treated. See what we’re dealing with.’

‘Give her here.’ Sherlock held out his arms, meeting John’s gaze and seeing the critical look that swept his frame. From anyone else, he would assume it was doubt over his ability to hold a fretful child, but he knew John better than that. The doctor was checking him over for injuries, taking in everything and reassuring himself that Sherlock was relatively unharmed. ‘If this doesn’t work, you can swaddle her, but confining her further will only make things worse.’

‘Careful, then. She’s almost wriggled right out of my grip more than once.’

John surrendered the squalling girl, and Sherlock tucked her against his chest, half under the wing of his Belstaff. The heat and shelter would help calm her, as would the beat of another heart close to her ear. Then there was the smell of him. His shirt was damp with perspiration, and with that came the added benefit that, to her nose, he would smell right. Not human, like her attacker, but Felisian. It wasn’t much, but sometimes the simplest things could offer comfort.

Her cries continued, her face screwed up and red with the effort. Blood matted her downy blond curls, and Sherlock eyed what appeared to be her main injury. One of her ears had been cut off, leaving a ragged, tattered bit of flesh behind. The wound was clotting, but it had to hurt, and Sherlock didn’t bother trying to hide his wince of sympathy.

He didn’t rock her; there was no point. At this level of distress, it would make no difference. Every mother learnt a gamut of tricks to try and calm a weeping baby, but Felisians had one distinct advantage, and Sherlock put it to use.

His purr was soft and intimate, little more than a bubbling whisper of sound that gradually gained strength. Normally, any such noises he made were for his own benefit: an expression of comfort and contentment. He did not often indulge in such behaviour, at least, not until recently.

John had changed all that. Over the past few months, his reaction to Sherlock’s purrs had been satisfying in ways that escaped definition. The audible sign of Sherlock’s happiness seemed to demand a mirror response, putting John at ease without fail.

Now, the baby girl began to quieten, her wails dimming until she was grizzling and whimpering against his chest. Blue eyes opened and looked up at him, hazy and wet. She probably couldn’t focus much, not yet, but he allowed the rumble in his chest to grow more confident as the paramedics cautiously advanced.

Latex sheathed hands wiped away blood with competence and care, and Sherlock didn’t falter. The baby cringed against him, but her struggles had faded, allowing the paramedics to do what they could.

Sherlock was aware that they had gained an audience. He could sense Lestrade and Donovan nearby, their surprise an acrid spike of odour in the air. He had never felt the need to purr in their presence, and the sudden strength of their fascinated attention crawled like ants across his skin. It was tempting to snap something insulting, but he reined in the urge, settling for one dark, threatening glare in their general direction before glancing at John.

What he saw was enough to make him forget about the aches in his bones and the stares of the officers from the Yard. Warm blue eyes watched him, lit with pride, and a secretive smile curved those thin lips. Despite the tension and horror of the night, John’s stance was loose and relaxed, and the lines of stress had faded from his expression.

The emotion on his face was plain for anyone to see, and Sherlock’s breath caught in his throat. He had seen glimmers of John’s affection before, but nothing like this. Part of him wanted to lower his eyes, overwhelmed, but he couldn’t tear himself away. Instead, he drank it in as something desperate and wild fluttered in his chest.

‘Sorry sir.’ The paramedic’s soft voice made him jump, and he looked over to see she was waiting patiently, her arms held out for the baby. ‘We need to get her to hospital for treatment. Social services can take it from there.’

‘Of course.’ He winced at the roughness of his voice, clearing his throat as he relinquished the child. She began to cry anew, but he steeled himself against her distress. There was nothing more he could do for her, not now.

Turning back, his heart sank as he took in John’s restrained expression. The tenderness was gone, locked up so thoroughly behind a mask of friendship that Sherlock feared he had imagined that glimpse of aching devotion. Only the lingering light in those blue eyes suggested otherwise.

‘Home?’ John asked, tilting his head towards the wide panorama of the street and the distant sprawl of London.

Sherlock nodded, sucking in a breath that smelt like fresh air and John’s shampoo, yet all the words that had clamoured so eagerly in his chest were gone. The opportunity had passed and his courage had fled, leaving them both in the comfortable, well-known territory of the relationship they’d always shared.

They were Sherlock and John: friends and flatmates, nothing more.

At least not yet.