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Biscuits and the Essentials of Forensic Anthropology

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~*~

"—lack, Adidas Samoa sneaker, size 8.5 containing one severed foot wearing a teal sock..." Donovan muttered aloud to herself as she laboriously translated her own, cramped handwriting from her notes into an official report. "Bone was visible, indicating the foot was at least partially decomposed—" With a hiss of frustration, Donovan put her pencil aside and began rifling through the mass of papers currently cluttering her desk, looking for the photographs Forensics had taken of the scene.

"Excuse me, Sergeant Donovan?" a soft voice interrupted.

"What?" Donovan snapped, still thumbing through the developing file. Where were they? It wasn’t like pictures of severed feet were a dime a dozen...

"Ah...never mind. I can see you’re very busy. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you."

Surprised, Donovan looked up to see the Freak’s kid—no, Donovan mentally corrected herself—Holmes’ kid—watching her. James was standing a short distance away from her desk wearing what was clearly some sort of school uniform, even though it was past six. When Donovan made eye contact, James backed up even further, clearly wary of her mood.

Donovan grimaced. She would never like the Fre—no, Holmes—but his kid was steadily growing on her. James was bright and certainly had much nicer manners than his father did. Though, to be fair, she’d noticed that ever since Holmes had returned, he’d been far less likely to bait people or insult them for no reason. It was subtle behavioral change and people who weren't used to Holmes probably wouldn’t notice the difference, but Holmes’ new inclination to bite his tongue and act less like a complete dick all the time made him at least moderately more tolerable to be around.

"Oh, I didn’t realize it was you, James," Donovan began, making a conscious effort to smooth her expression into something less intimidating while simultaneously moving to shield the open file. "What do you want?"

James swallowed. "It’s nothing," he began diffidently, still edging backwards.

Donovan leaned back in her chair with a snort and tipped her head to indicate the collection of empty Pret a Manger to-go cups cluttering up her desk. "Stop. If you’re brave enough to approach me when I’m on my fourth Macchiato of the day, it’s clearly something," she informed him drily as she twirled a pencil in one hand. "Besides, I could probably use a break from this report anyways. So, what did you want to ask me?"

James’s eyes flicked over the papers she’d partially covered and then her, no doubt deducing something about the condition of her stomach acid based on the colour of her teeth, or perhaps some key clue regarding the case file she was building. Lestrade had complained to her about the missing van James had pointed out over coffee one morning, and had gone on to speculate aloud about the potential case closure rate if they had two consulting detectives to call on at some point. It was all Donovan could do to keep her scathing opinion to herself. Genius genetics or no, it would be several years before James was an adult and she’d be damned if she’d let a kid look at her files. Policy was policy.

But James didn’t say anything rude about her potential weight gain, or coffee breath the way his father might have four years ago. Instead, his shoulders relaxed and he offered her a shy smile.

"Sherlock said it’s going to be a while before he’s through yelling at Inspector Lestrade. I noticed some of the books you keep on your desk and I was wondering—if you don’t mind, that is—if I could read the blue one? Please?" James asked, pointing at a battered volume tucked off to one side of Donovan’s desk behind a framed photograph of a cat and a coffee mug stuffed full of pens.

Donovan blinked in surprise. "What? This one?" she asked, reaching out and picking up an extremely worn copy of T. D. Stewart’s ‘Essentials of Forensic Anthropology’.

James nodded excitedly.

Donovan raised an eyebrow. "It’s old," she warned him. "I think the copyright’s from the seventies. A lot’s changed as far as how skulls and skeletons are reconstructed. Holmes will probably throw a fit if he sees you reading outdated science."

James shrugged. "That’s okay. I've finished all of my homework and reading about the early days of forensic science seems less boring than reading ahead in my geography assignment."

Like father, like son, Donovan thought silently to herself. "Alright, suit yourself," she said aloud as she handed the book over. "Just be careful with it; it belonged to my mum."

"Oh! Your mum was a detective too?" James asked, looking surprised as he accepted the proffered book with appropriate reverence. "I didn’t know that."

Donovan snorted. "My mother was an artist—a sculptor, to be specific—" she corrected brusquely. "Mum used to keep all sorts of bones and skulls around the house for reference; she even boiled roadkill in the kitchen to get at the skeletons."

"That doesn’t sound so bad," James replied, his lips twitching in a quick smile. "I’ve told Inspector Lestrade about what sorts of things Dad tends keep in the fridge."

"I can only imagine," Donovan said dryly. "I’ve been to your father’s flat—" she deliberately omitted the mention that it had been for a drugs bust/evidence hunt, because there was no reason to drag the kid into her long-standing feud with the Freak "—and I’ve seen the jar of human eyeballs he keeps in the microwave."

James grinned this time. "Oh, John made him get rid of those ages ago. He complained that they were more off-putting than the hand sandwiches Sherlock brought home one time—"

"Wait, did you say hand?" Donovan interrupted, appalled and yet strangely unsurprised.

James nodded. "Something about a movie promotion. John showed me pictures." James’ expression shifted slightly, taking on the slightly manic edge of a research junkie who’d just gotten a fix. "Chemistry is fascinating. Did you know there’s this enzyme called transglutaminase that binds proteins together by creating cross-linked, insoluble, irreversible protein polymers? Molly—I mean, Doctor Hooper—was telling me that it occurs naturally in the human body in blood clots and skin, and she showed me an interesting article about how scientists are working on combining it with bioplastics for clinical use. Some chefs use transglutaminase to glue different pieces of meat together, like lamb and scallop, or tuna and salmon, but it's mostly used in commercial food processing for stuff like holding processed meats or fish balls together. For the zombie butcher shop, though, some food artists used it to glue different strips and pieces of meat together so that they looked like skinned hands, degloved human feet, offal, eyeballs, tongues and even a life-size model of a—"

"Nevermind," Donovan cut him off. "I don’t need to hear anymore." She spared a depressed thought for the meatloaf sandwich waiting for her at home which would now be going to her neighbor’s dog. Oh well. Her GP had been urging her to eat less red meat anyways.

James was still thumbing slowly through the book, and his obvious fascination prompted a little more generosity on Donovan’s part. "Here," she said, reaching for another book which she then passed over. "You might as well look at this one too. It has Krogman’s tissue depth charts which forensic sculptors use to recreate faces."

"Oh, thank you," James exclaimed as he accepted the second edition copy of ‘The Human Skeleton in Forensic Medicine.’" He flipped slowly through the pages until he came to one describing the placement location of tissue depth markers. "Oh, this looks interesting," James remarked, taking a moment to read the text. When he looked up at Donovan, it was with a slightly wicked grin. "My school does a five-week art seminar during the summer holidays. Maybe I’ll take up sculpting if I can borrow a skull from somewhere."

Donovan reached up and pinched the bridge of her nose in an attempt to stave off the impending headache James’ words were causing. It was hard to believe, that after all of the lectures that she’d given Holmes that she might somehow end up accidentally contributing to the delinquency of a minor. "No grave robbing," she warned, "and no breaking in to any mortuaries, either," she added as an afterthought, thinking of Holmes’ and Watson’s tendencies to pick locks and otherwise snoop in places where they had no authority to be.

"I didn’t say I would steal a skull," James immediately argued, looking indignant that she’d even suggested such a thing. "Besides, Billy’s already at 221b."

"Billy?" Donovan asked, already knowing she was going to regret the question.

"The skull. On the mantelpiece. That's what Sherlock named it," James explained at Donovan’s blank look. "Did you know that the Natural History Museum has a whole collection of human remains from all over London that are broken up into sub-collections? Doctor Hooper promised to take me some time if it’s okay with Sherlock. She told me that there’s the Cannon Street collection with Roman remains, and the St. George the Martyr collection which is a post-medieval graveyard. She said that there’s also a special collection devoted to bones found in the Thames. Sherlock said that based on the mineral traces revealed when he did a chemical analysis of one of Billy’s teeth, Billy probably came from—"

"Stop," Donovan ordered firmly, holding up a hand. "I don’t want to know any more. I’m sure it’s fascinating," she continued, seeing James’ crestfallen expression, "but I’m trying to remain on civil terms with your father. This sounds like something you should probably keep to yourself. I’m just going to trust that he isn’t doing anything that will endanger your health and wellbeing." Plus, what I don’t know, I don’t have to answer questions about, she mentally added.

James gave her a scrutinizing look that felt disturbingly familiar—as if he were eavesdropping on her internal arguments—before nodding once. "Yeah. Okay," he agreed, giving a little nod identical to the one that she’d seen Doctor Watson give countless times before. There was a moment of silence as James looked down at the books he was still cradling, before he looked up at Donovan again with a question in his eyes. "Can I ask—"

"Let me guess, how did my mother get started as a forensic sculptor?"

James nodded.

"Back when she was a student, my mother used to work a second job as a custodian at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge to help make ends meet. She liked to practice drawing different skulls and skeletons on her breaks. One night, she accidently left her messenger bag in one of the Archaeologist’s offices. The woman who found it was really impressed with Mum's work and asked if she could hire her to recreate a face of based on this Saxon skull they’d found for some upcoming exhibit. Mum agreed. She was good and eventually one thing led to another."

"Did she ever do reconstructions for modern cases?" James asked.

Donovan shook her head. "Not at first. For years, her work was strictly archaeological, but sometimes she’d get a cast of a skull that had some sort of trauma—an arrow wound, trepanning, getting hit with some sort of weapon. Wondering about how the person died was what got me initially interested in becoming a detective. When I was probably around twelve years old, the local constabulary approached my mother about doing a facial reconstruction for a set of remains that had been found near Boscombe Pool out in Herefordshire. It was enough to get an ID on the murdered man and led to an eventual arrest and conviction."

"Is she still working as a forensic sculptor?"

"No. She died about three years ago from cancer."

"Oh. My condolences."

The phrase came out awkwardly, as if James had never said it to somebody before, but Donovan could sense the sincerity behind it. "Thank you," she said simply.

James looked down at his feet for a moment, and then up at Donovan again. "Sergeant Donovan, I was wondering if sometime I could—"

"James!"

Donovan and James turned as one to see Holmes scowling in the doorway, both hands thrust into his pockets. "We’re done here," Holmes announced when he saw that he’d successfully secured their attention. "Come on, get your bag so we can go."

James blinked several times, seemingly unfazed by Holmes’ dark expression. "Is Inspector Lestrade cooperating already? That was quick," James commented, sounding a bit disappointed to be leaving so soon and making no move to pick up his belongings.

Holmes snorted. "No. Lestrade is persisting in being unreasonably difficult. I’ll come back and deal with him later."

"Why are we leaving, then?” James asked, tilting his head to one side. “It’s not like you to just stop in the middle of a case."

"Normally I wouldn’t, but John just texted me. He’s cooking risotto and is making threats about what will happen if we allow it to grow cold," Holmes replied, holding up his phone by way of example.

James leaned forward to read the text. "Wait, John ordered a chocolate caramel cake from Primrose Bakery?!"

"Yes, and he is threatening to invite Mycroft over to split it with him unless we hurry home right now," Holmes confirmed with a growl.

"I like Uncle Mycroft," James said in a chiding tone as he picked up his school bag and slung it over one shoulder. "He’s nice. He tells me funny stories about the ways you got in trouble growing up."

"I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that," Holmes sniffed. "What are those?" he demanded, raising one eyebrow at the sight of the tomes in James’ arms.

"They’re books about forensic sculpture that Detective Donovan was going to let me read while I was waiting for you," James explained as he made to return the books he was holding to Donovan. "Here. Do you think I could read them next time I’m here?"

"Go ahead and borrow them," Donovan offered.

"Really?"

Donovan nodded, slightly surprised at herself. "Just bring them back in one piece when you’re done—that means not letting Holmes do any experiments on the pages to find out what type of clay my mother used or what have you."

James smiled as he shot a sideways look at Holmes. "Don’t worry, I won’t. I’ll be careful. I promise. Thank you!"

Holmes rolled his eyes at Donovan’s half-joking warning, but didn’t say anything else as he led James through the door and presumably towards Baker Street.

~*~

Two weeks later, Donovan walked into work and found a small pile on her desk consisting of her books, a card, and gift-wrapped box which turned out to be full of Russian tea cakes decorated to vaguely resemble skulls, complete with raisin eyes.

Donovan smiled to herself as she read James’ neat handwriting thanking her for the loan of the books and his hope that she would enjoy the biscuits he’d made with Mrs. Hudson’s help. Better manners indeed, she thought as she picked up her books to reshelve them. To her shock, there was another envelope tucked underneath, this one with ‘Thank you,’ —SH scrawled across the front in Holmes’ weird, spiky handwriting. Inside was a gift card to the Pret and a small note scribbled on a piece of moleskine paper.

There was no need for me to conduct a chemical analysis on the traces of clay remaining on your mother’s books. I already have an extensive analysis of different clay types on my website. Your mother prefered to use grey, Van Aken Plastalina Non-Hardening Modeling Clay, before switching to medium and hard grades of Monster Clay, a sulfur free, professional oil/wax based sculpting medium with a low tack and a lower density, resulting in reduced clay weight. —SH

Donovan snorted as she tucked the gift card into her purse for safekeeping. Perhaps Holmes hadn’t changed as much as she thought he had. He was still fully capable of being a dick, but as odd as it was, he was starting to grow on her. She’d just have to make sure she never, ever mentioned it to Lestrade.

~Fin~