Sherlock all but ignores his numbers. Not the veins, no: those he traces with a magnifying glass, those he pricks at with a safety pin, watching the dark blood well and dot his skin, red the colour of dark, dusty bricks, not blue. He reads in Mycroft’s biology text how they work, interwoven capillaries and valves composed like an LED clock, but that’s not how they work, how the numbers are chosen or choose themselves. It’s not why they work, why people fall in love on time and break apart when the numbers change.
It’s not why his family falls apart when he notices something everyone else is too stupid to see, or dull enough to ignore. He was five and the collar of his shirt itched under his seersucker suit, the babyish bright blue cuff – which he hated – making his wrist sweat. He dashed between the bodies spread across the lawn, everyone talking and laughing in the bright sunlight, pretending each was a hazard to avoid as he traversed the sea in search of treasure: the tea table laden heavy with cakes and biscuits.
He zoomed around Mummy, who laughed and patted his hair. With a snarl, he shook her hand off, brushing his hair away from his eyes, ignoring the polite titters of her friends. He was running backwards when he smashed into Father, who cursed at his spilled drink but masked his annoyance with a too-bright smile. It was the same smile Father always wore when Grandmere came to visit.
Sherlock tried to scramble away, but Father caught him by the arm and swung him up, holding him against one hip though he tried to squirm away. “Sherlock,” he said, in his voice that meant listen, that meant behave, that meant be normal for god’s sake, though Sherlock didn’t know why god would care. “Sherlock, say hello to Mr Carmichael.”
Sherlock muttered a surly hello, which the adults ignored, and tried to kick his way out of his father’s grasp when they both looked away to where a woman – Mr Carmichael’s wife – was striding across the lawn to join them. There were more introductions, his father reaching out his free hand to take Mrs Carmichael’s and tightening his hold on Sherlock with the other.
In his arms, Sherlock felt his father stiffen, then shiver, saw his hand still holding Mrs Carmichael’s, saw her eyes go wide and Mr Carmichael redden and turn away with a cough. Sherlock saw all of it but no one said anything, even when Papa dropped his hand and said something about having the Carmichaels over for dinner, even when Mrs Carmichael answered in a voice a touch more breathless than before.
His father’s hold loosened and finally Sherlock wriggled free. No one followed as he dashed toward the tent housing the bounty. No one saw as he crept up behind the table and, with one snaking hand, grabbed the fairy cake he had had his eye on. No one noticed as he took a second, and a third, because no one looked.
Later, at dinner, he asked Father loudly why nobody had talked about his instant earlier. Because that’s what it was, Sherlock knew, Mummy had told him stories and he’d read in books about how you feel it like a pulse in your body. Mummy turned grey and Father yelled and Sherlock ran away from the table, Mycroft following grimly, and slammed his door in Mycroft’s face.
“Sherlock,” Mycroft said through the door, “Sherlock, you must learn to control what you say.”
“No!” Sherlock yelled, “No, no no no no –” flat on his back, he drummed his heels against the mattress, loud enough to nearly drown out his own voice. “No!” He kicked, violently, once more, as Mycroft opened the door and crossed to his bed.
“You really must,” Mycroft said, his voice patient and grown-up and – “No no no,” Sherlock yelled. Mycroft sat next to him but didn’t interfere as Sherlock kicked and writhed and snapped his teeth around the short, sharp word, repeated.
Mycroft waited until Sherlock’s legs turned leaden and his throat raw and hot, until his kicks fell slow and stopped. He touched the back of Sherlock’s shoulder, briefly, and stayed even when Sherlock flinched away and curled close to the wall. “When you see – so much,” Mycroft began, slowly – “you must learn to filter what you say, to choose your words with some care.”
Sherlock shook his head, tightly. “I didn’t lie – I didn’t!”
“I know,” Mycroft said, “but sometimes you shouldn’t tell all of the truth.”
“That’s stupid,” Sherlock said, and Mycroft sighed. “You’re stupid, and you’re just like them!”
“You’ll learn soon enough,” Mycroft said, and stood.
Sherlock does learn: to hold his tongue, to wield the truth as a hammer, or a crowbar, or the most delicate of scalpels.
Love, companionship, partnership, lust are motives all, and evidenced by each person’s veins: so much ruled by the pulse of blood. He makes great study of human numerological behaviour: of his peers at secondary school, then university; so distracted by coupling, by sex and by zeroes imminent and remote; of users and addicts, of the addled and the hard-on-their-luck, of the lost of society who fall in love and are broken like anyone, even as their veins fade or shrivel, are slashed and scarred and infected; of all those who keep their wrists covered yet reveal so much. The touch of a fingertip, the cant of a hip, the flicker of a gaze: they expose the truth of the numbers though they’re hidden.
His numbers tick down, slowly, evidence on his own betraying body that he’s not special, that he’s just the same. Once he leaves university, he begins to leave them uncovered, his unfettered limbs less of a reminder.
The crime is boring, pedestrian, but Lestrade is sick of Sherlock’s barrage of texts demanding access to cold cases and brings him in. Sherlock wanders leisurely through the room, stepping over the dead body and ignoring Anderson’s exasperated sigh.
Anderson kneels, flips the man’s wrist over. “A reset,” he declares. “Recent, too.”
“The wife, then,” Donovan says. “Do we have her whereabouts?”
“It’s not the wife,” Sherlock says, idling at the window.
“Statistically –” Lestrade begins, and Sherlock interrupts.
“How many of your wives have killed you, Lestrade?”
In the face of Sherlock’s snide tone, Sally begins to protest, but Lestrade shakes his head. “Alright, what have you found?”
Sherlock picks a postcard up off the windowsill, gloved finger and thumb on the edges; it bends slightly between them. “Postmarked two days ago, though by the look of the furniture she moved out at least a fortnight ago. Dear Marcus,” he begins to read, “Conference is dull, food wonderful, blah blah, etc, Missing you terribly, in all ways, though I know it’s for the best. They parted amicably,” he concludes. For the best, better for all involved, on to better things: the things people say to console themselves. As if every decision marks the start of a newer, a better path.
“Could still be –” Anderson begins, and Sherlock snaps, “Don’t be an idiot, though I know the request is nearly an impossibility for you.”
Lestrade sighs. “Fine, Sherlock, not the wife. Any ideas for us, then?”
“At the moment? Five.” He sweeps his eyes across the room: the sofa, moved back an inch and a half; the bare spot on the mantle; the opened mail on the sideboard. He strides out the door without another word.
At the kerb, he looks up and down the street for a cab but none are in sight. Lestrade’s huffing, relapsed-smoker breath sounds behind him.
“You can’t just rush off like this,” he says: a common refrain.
Sherlock tugs his glove off with his teeth to send a text and glances at Lestrade. “Have you told your wife yet? That you’ve reset again?”
Lestrade blinks at him, grits his teeth. “Listen –” he says, then shakes his head. “You know what, never mind. Any chance you’ll tell me where you’re off to?”
“Do they always forgive you?” Sherlock’s not particularly interested, but he’d rather not have to tell Lestrade exactly what he’s planning to break into as soon as a damn cab arrives.
“Eventually,” Lestrade says, staring absently across the street. “I don’t –”
“Mean to? Of course not.” Ah, finally, a familiar black shape rounding the corner.
Sherlock’s stepped up to the kerb to open the door when Lestrade speaks again. “I haven’t, by the way. Reset.” Sherlock stills, glances at him over his shoulder. “Scrambled,” he says, with a quick shrug.
Oh. That is interesting. The cab comes to a stop, idles. Sherlock half-turns, looks to Lestrade’s wrist. “May I –”
Lestrade pulls his shoulder back, unconsciously sliding his wrist behind his thigh. “See it? No.” He nods to the waiting cab. “Now fuck off. And keep me informed, mind!”
In the back of the cab, Sherlock drums his fingers against his lips. Scrambled. Slang for a fairly rare transitive state: the numbers reset from zero, but do not immediately settle into a new sequence. Shifting, uncertain, amorphous. New data, that. He’ll have to observe Lestrade, to see why this reset is different from the three Sherlock has seen him manage in the five years they’ve known each other.
Resets are common enough on the force for it to be nearly unremarkable: workaholics, more in love with the job than any partner. Still, Lestrade tries, and hopes, each time.
The definition of insanity, Sherlock thinks.
Each time he inadvertently calculates his zero hour, he deletes it. The mathematics are involuntary, an instinct, and happen whenever he catches sight of his numbers, which is often. He refuses to wear a wristband unless he’s being someone else, and with his mobile in his pocket a watch is largely unnecessary. His limbs feel looser that way: unrestricted, unencumbered. He also finds that a sliver of skin, the right sliver of skin, exposed and flashed, is more potent than nudity in unnerving new acquaintances.
They don’t stay acquainted with him for long, at any rate.
Nonetheless, for a few brief moments every day he knows: at age thirty-two, three weeks, two days, five hours, fifty-three minutes, and approximately twenty-three seconds, he will be partnered. Or meet his companion, or fall in love, or realize his ardour is hopeless, or even possibly be, by that point, frozen, never to find a partner. It’s maddeningly imprecise and therefore unnecessary.
He sees the man’s eyes sweep to his bare wrist, but doesn’t look himself. He’s already deleted it once today, no sense in adding extra effort while his mind is so deliciously engaged. The man’s own wrists are buttoned up, hint of a distinctive tan line suggesting the absence of a standard-issue military ident cuff. “Afghanistan or Iraq?” Sherlock asks as he takes the phone.
He reels off his observations, aware he’s showing off a bit: Dr Watson is bewildered, but neither frightened nor angry, and Mike merely amused. He tells him about Baker Street, and gives him his name, and then winks – winks! – and sweeps off. He puts his mind to the case at hand, wondering just how soon Lestrade will let him in on these strange suicides, but at the back of his mind remains Dr Watson’s straight back and remarkable limp and the curious way his eyes tracked Sherlock’s movements.
He’s certain the man will be at Baker Street in the morning.
John does come to Baker Street, then he comes to Lauriston Gardens, then returns to Sherlock on the whim of a text, and it’s all very unusual, having a body to talk to, a person that listens and responds and laughs and sighs and asks all manner of questions. It’s all very strange and Sherlock’s thinking that John may, in fact, turn out to be useful when the cabbie calls to the door and Sherlock’s off again, alone. Habit, instinct.
At the training college, the shot rings out and the shooter’s nowhere to be found and Sherlock’s bewildered, which is hateful – and wonderful.
The paramedic drapes a blanket over his shoulders and Lestrade bothers him with questions and his mouth reels off thoughts while his mind skips forward. He sweeps his eyes across the crowd: police tape at the perimeter, paramedics and officers and so-called forensic experts milling about. The rain and the late hour makes everything slick, black, and his eyes slide, slide and catch on John Watson, standing behind the tape and looking away, shoulders parade-straight, and his thoughts stop, abruptly.
“You know, what, ignore me,” he says, and Lestrade says, “What?” and Sherlock ignores him, steps away and ducks under the tape and tosses the shock blanket aside.
“Good shot,” he says to John, who glances up and away and touches his hand to his wrist, and oh, what an awful and wondrous liar he is. His stance, his clothes, his no-longer-extant limp all colluding to deceive, while his face reveals all.
“Yes, must have been,” he says, and Sherlock bites his lip.
“Are you okay? You have just killed a man.” For me, he thinks, and isn’t that fascinating?
“Yes, well.” John swallows. “He wasn’t a very nice man.” Sherlock wants desperately to grin, to laugh, to grasp John by the arms and tell him what a wonder he is. He confines himself to peeling off his gloves, pulling the fingers off individually.
“Bloody awful cabbie, too,” John adds, and Sherlock coughs to hide a laugh but can’t keep back his grin. His hands, now bare, move of their own volition. He clasps John’s shoulder, the canvas of his jacket warm under Sherlock’s hands, and John’s eyes track the movement. His muscles shift and Sherlock feels a pulse and he thinks, oh.
Oh, this is interesting.