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Animum debes mutare, non caelum

Chapter Text

***

“Oh, Sherlock… oh, you’re already here. That is—” A flush the exact shade of her lipstick flares out of Molly’s frilly collar all the way to her hairline. Coffee sloshes over the rim of her cup. A new one, sporting a picture of that cat of hers, Toby. Wincing, whether from pain or acute awkwardness is open to debate, she hastily puts the cup down on a workbench. Sherlock rips a swathe from the paper towel dispenser and offers it to her.

“Here.”

“Oh, oh, thank you, Sherlock. I was expecting you of course, because… well, you said… Just, I wasn’t expecting you so soon,” blabs Molly, fretfully patting her hands.

Reasoning that offending her at this point won’t serve his objective, Sherlock plasters his most genuine smile to the corners of his mouth. “The wonders of modern transport will never cease to astonish humanity at large,” he murmurs. “You rang and – intrigued by your report – I hastened here as fast as a London cab would carry me, which, it not being the rush hour, took only the ten minutes I’d estimated.”

“Er, yes, I suppose.” After a last distracted swipe at the lab bench Molly bins the towels. “You don’t want coffee, do you?” she asks, hope bubbling in her voice.

“No, I don’t,” he replies and decides on deliberate uncouthness to propel them out of this limbo of sexual longing and expectancy he’ll never meet, even if he’d so desire, “what I want is a look at the corpse.”

“Oh,” Molly gasps, followed by a quick circuit of blushing, blinking, gaping and fumbling with the pen in her breast pocket before mercifully switching to full working mode. “Of course.”

After a fortifying swig of coffee she motions for him to follow her into the examination theatre where she hands him a pair of nitrile gloves before snapping on a pair herself. Sherlock heaves a silent sigh of relief. This Molly: quick, efficient and with a finely honed intelligence that often anticipates his demands, he can at least relate to.

The body is already laid out on the slab. Next to it stands a small platter with a tissue sample. Its scorched appearance has Sherlock huff under his breath, perhaps in unconscious relief at the state of his own lungs which is bound to be infinitely better.

“Didn’t know you run a side-line as a roadwork engineer, Molly. Are you sure that isn’t a piece of the M25 on display?”

Molly giggles. The next instant her hand flies up to her mouth and her eyes widen in shock at her indelicacy. “Yes, it looks horrible, doesn’t it? The poor woman must have been struggling for air every second of her life. Here,” she turns and lifts a closely printed sheet from the bench at her back, “this is a list of her daily medication. And she was on an oxygen tank, of course.”

“Obviously,” Sherlock agrees, eyes flitting from the list to the skin under the woman’s nose, which even in death looks slightly inflamed from the hoses’ constant rub. “And she never so much as looked at a ciggie?”

“So her children claim and well...” Molly gestures at the woman’s hands. “Evidence seems to support them.”

Sherlock whips out his magnifier to inspect the nails and skin of the woman’s forefinger and middle finger. “She could have cleaned them regularly,” he observes.

“Yes, but then the skin would be more brittle, even if she’d applied moisturiser ten times a day. I left them untouched for your inspection but I can take a skin sample if you want.”

“Yes.” He walks around the slab to the woman’s left side and takes up a study of that hand, thankful for the gloves shielding his own, which he gave a thorough treatment yesterday evening, from Molly’s view. “Remarkable.”

“Teeth too,” Molly says, moving to stand next to him. “They’re her own by the way. Quite a feat for an octogenarian.”

“The Vietnamese diet contains little sugar and is considered one of the healthiest in the world,” Sherlock informs her. He pockets the magnifier and bends fully at the waist for a good sniff of the woman’s hands. “Unlike these scented candles you seem to have taken a liking too. What is it with women that they always want the house to smell as if they’ve just engaged in a baking marathon? Isn’t that against the feminist creed? I told Mrs Hudson to get rid of the things. John and I had to fight our way through a choking miasma of artificial vanilla whenever we went up the stairs to our own flat.”

“What?” Molly squeaks. “I never…”

“No, wait.” He wards off her protests with a flick of his fingers. “It isn’t you, it’s her.” Coasting the back of the woman’s hand with his nostrils he feels the body’s clammy coldness seep into them like a fifth column intent on dulling his olfactory receptors. Beneath the veneer of death and a stay in the mortuary freezer lingers a trace of – Sherlock hurries through his inventory of odours; sets with their sub-sets and neatly classified sub-sub-sets – a trace of…

“Incense,” he exclaims. “Here, smell,” he urges Molly, pulling at her arm to induce her into a closer look, or rather, smell.

“Wha… oh, all right.” Tentatively, wrinkling her nose, Molly stoops and sniffs. “Can’t say…” She tries again, the force of her inhale ringing around the room. “Oh yes. Now I do smell it. It smells exactly like my friend Cora’s place. She’s into Buddhism and…”

“Yes, yes,” Sherlock interrupts her. “I’m sure she is. Where are the rest of her lungs? And we should examine the trachea.”

“I took just the one sample. But if you’ll wait I can…” Molly is already in front of the instrument cabinet, sliding open drawers. “Would you like to watch?”

What he would like is to collect the samples himself but since she was reprimanded for allowing him to trash a corpse she has rebuffed all his attempts to touch her patients with any instrument but his hands… and he’s pulled forth every trick in his book to convince her otherwise. Deep down she’s a stubborn creature. Good for her but sadly rather unfortunate for him.

“You’re more than capable, Molly,” he demurs. “I’ll set up the tests in the lab for us.”

***

Night has blackened the lab’s sole window by the time he scribbles the last note into his Moleskine and slams it shut with a satisfactorily loud thud. “That will be all for now. I’ll have to do some more reading first, but it looks like another stimulating little treatise to publish on the website. Thank you for calling me, Molly. I can’t remember the last time I had such fun.”

Molly looks a little doubtful at his definition of fun but her eyes, dulled from five hours of relentless work, acquire a mischievous twinkle and a tiny giggle escapes her.

“It’s very interesting,” she affirms. “You could be on to an important discovery. Fancy me being busy with poor Mrs Nguyen for hours and never even thinking of smelling…”

“Taste and smell are grossly underestimated when it comes to collecting evidence,” lectures Sherlock. “They’re the least understood of our senses, yet affect us strongly and play an important part during development and when it comes to storing memories in the brain.”

“Yeah, like comfort food,” Molly smiles, a little wistfully. “Perhaps she burned so much incense because it reminded her of home. It must be strange living here after Vietnam. The climate so different from ours, it’s in the tropics, isn’t it?”

“Not all of it. And climate is but one factor in shaping us.”

“Yes, well, I still think it’s sad she was essentially roasting her lungs with incense. Once you’ve finished your research you should contact the Department of Health for an awareness campaign. I’ll ring Cora this evening and tell her she’d better bin all the incense she’s got. She’ll be so disappointed but still.”

Sherlock snorts. “As if any government campaign has ever stopped people from satiating themselves. My ridiculous brother is a prime example of the superfluity of those health crusades. He’s the one who organises them and who stuffs himself with cake at every opportunity.”

“He doesn’t get a lot of those then,” Molly retorts. “Judging by his figure.” Her hand is already fluttering in front of her mouth before the last line has properly left it. “Oh,” she gasps, embarrassment colouring her cheeks an unattractive beetroot. “I haven’t…”

“…been ogling my brother,” Sherlock finishes the sentence for her. “Why Molly, nothing to be ashamed about. He’ll be pleased someone fell for the corsetry ruse.”

“Oh.” Molly’s shoulders slump in such acute misery Sherlock has to ball his fists to keep his fingers from reaching out and touching her. His nails’ edges drive sharp crescents of pain into the flesh of his palm.

Why does she insist on taking his every remark to heart and not just ignore them like most people do? “Look,” he tries, “forget what I said. Today we’ve opened a new field of research in life-shortening pollutants. All Mycroft has ever done for science is add proof to the first law of thermodynamics; detracting from the heating bill of offices sprinkled around Whitehall by planting his enormous behind in their chairs.”

“Oh, Sherlock.” She shakes her head but a smile tinges the corners of her lips. “Sometimes you’re plain silly. And I still think the public should be warned.”

Sherlock shrugs. “Be my guest but you’ll be wasting your breath. In my experience there’s no better judge of the stupidity of bad habits than the people indulging them.”

***

Sherlock pulls the front door shut and, as per Wright’s insistent instructions, turns his key twice in the lock. Any moderately competent burglar will still pick it in less than fifteen seconds but the landlord sports the annoying habit of swooping down unexpectedly upon the premises to find fault with his tenants and today Sherlock lacks the energy for a shouting match over mere futilities. Not with the last one just three days ago when the nosy parker busted their fridge and threw half of the contents away, claiming the leaking milk cartons and opened tins of beans were damaging the interior.

The sky above his head looks as dead and leaden as ever over this part of London. A light drizzle, of the kind that’d soak you to the skin were you stupid enough to brave it without protection for more than thirty minutes, loiters over the pavement and darkens the road’s tarmac. Streaks of wetness run down the houses’ soot-blackened brick facades. The windows, some of them boarded up, others rendered sightless by drawn curtains or ragged sheets hung in front of them, appear to weep, as they’ve every reason to.

Shivering in his too-thin coat and driving his hands deep into his pockets in vain search of warmth, Sherlock hurries in the direction of Roman Road. According to the calendar, autumn is still three days away but Sherlock has been feeling cold for weeks. His trousers’ cheap fabric rubs the backs of his knees irritatingly with each step. They make him blend in admirably well with the surroundings but the permanent discomfort is driving him round the bend.

Although the walk is less than a mile, Sherlock’s so chilled by the time he slinks into Bethnal Green tube station that the prospect of spending half an hour packed as tight as a pickled gherkin in one of Cook’s jars with a host of reeking bodies in a train carriage almost cheers him.

Slipping his wallet back into his coat’s inner pocket his fingers brush the stiff square lodged against his heart. After weeks of composing the letter in his head he’d finally taken the tube into the city in search of a stationer last Saturday. Mr Talbot’s former pupil may be following a crash course in lowering general living standards but Sherlock will inform him of the event on good quality paper, not the inferior stuff that draws blots from any pen put to it like a freshly laundered shirt hanging out to dry in this dove heaven’s warren of nooks and crannies inevitably attracts a squirt of guano.

The assistant of the Mount Street shop he’d entered had warily tracked his wanderings from one display case to the next. When he’d finally addressed her his voice’s pitch and clipped vowels had miraculously replaced her chary scowl for a servile mask oozing with desire to please her customer; indicating she’d be happy to beat the rags for their best deckle-edged paper to a pulp with her bare fists should he demand so. Sherlock had disappointed her with buying two sheets of that particular paper, one envelope and the cheapest Parker ballpoint they stocked, which set him back a hefty twenty pounds (quid he mentally corrected) he couldn’t really afford, but was considered a mere pittance in those stately premises, barely worth totalling up on the cash register.

Changing trains at Oxford Circus, he hauls the hood of his jacket over his slicked-back curls, pulling the rim low over his forehead. Keeping close to the walls he traverses the station, gaze flitting everywhere from beneath lowered lashes to take in the corridors flowing with shoppers, tourists, pleasure seekers, the advertisements lining the tunnels, and, especially, the camera consoles mounted high and out of the reach of vandals and other riff-raff.

Two days after arriving in London he first spotted a camera. His mind had instantly flown back to that dull hour whiled away in Mycroft’s office, crumbling biscuits on the Chesterfield and leafing through Mr Boothby’s tedious prose lauding the merits of surveillance. Behind each of those cameras he imagines Mycroft with his eye fixed to the lens in a perpetual search for Sherlock’s face amidst the seething cesspool of humanity spilling across London’s streets day in day out.

He discerns two new ones and fixes their location on his mental tube map. The cameras are cropping up everywhere increasingly fast, though mercifully he hasn’t seen any near Cyprus Street yet. The authorities are likely reluctant to install their expensive equipment in an area where it’s destined to last a very short time. With his decision to take up residence in a less salubrious quarter, Sherlock has effectively withdrawn himself from Mycroft’s scrutiny.

The area around Burnt Oak tube station is the epitome of placid suburbia. For an instant Sherlock is back in the train whose wheels put more distance between him and the home that was his home no more with each turn. He’d travelled to Bristol first, hid for a few days in a cheap hotel and slowly made his way to London after, crisscrossing the Midlands several times. Every city and village the train passed bore its own shell of unattractive boxes posing as houses, perching behind the pathetically small patches of land that served the homeowners for a front garden. It was hard to imagine people living in such conditions. In Bristol he hadn’t slept at all, kept awake both by his grief and by the ribald hilarity ensuing right beneath his window into the early morning hours. He’d tried burying himself beneath the covers but the sheets’ coarse fabric scratched his skin and the unaired blankets scoured his nose and throat with vestiges of dust that had withstood a lifetime of scant housekeeping.

The name of the street he’s been navigating is Gervase Road. From now on it will be etched in his mind for the rest of this life. After passing four letterboxes Sherlock halts in front of the fifth one and lifts his letter to Mr Talbot from his pocket. His fingers caress the heavy, curiously soft handmade paper for what feels like a long time, half a minute at least. Then, heaving a deep breath, he drops the envelope into the box. There’s a dull thud, followed by a rustle of sliding paper.

“Goodbye,” Sherlock whispers. With quick, angry jerks he wipes at the tears blurring his vision as he starts on the trek to Colindale station. It’s quite a way but he’s made it a rule to revisit the same spots as little as possible, especially in areas with so little people milling about.

***

16th September 1994

 

Dear Mr Talbot,

By now Mycroft will have informed you I ran away from home. I hope the news didn’t distress you too much. Please, Mr Talbot, you’re not to worry about me. I am well, though not happy, but, given everything that happened that’s hardly to be expected.

Apologies for having dawdled such a long time before writing to you. I’ve kept off doing so for this will be the last letter I will be able to send you in a while. With this letter I take my leave of you, my dear and most-beloved and respected tutor, for now, that is. Hopefully we’ll meet again one day, when you’ve no longer any obligations to your employer and I don’t have to be on the run from Mycroft any longer. Even in my present surroundings I never feel truly safe though I couldn’t have found a better nook to hide myself if I’d searched all over the country.

Dearest Mr Talbot. You don’t want to know how often I’ve recomposed this letter in my head. In the end I decided to just sit down and let it all flow, as if I were talking rather than writing to you. I’m afraid this letter will be nothing but incoherent rambling. As you’re my oldest, and my only remaining friend (Mr Whitall is decent and amiable but not a friend) you’ll forgive me. My mind is in a whirl ever since Mycroft told me about John’s death.

Has Mycroft told you what he’s done? How he waited for two weeks before informing me of John’s death? Has he told you what Mummy has done? Mycroft doesn't even know what was in that box so he can’t understand the enormity of her crime, but I do. Do you remember how John was always fiddling with wood and how once you told me I shouldn’t pry in John’s secrets? He was making busts, Mr Talbot, busts of Daddy. I once saw one quite by accident and it was beautiful. Those were in that box, together with a photo album from before Daddy’s marriage and some photos from after. Do you have a copy of that photo of the four of us in the orchard? I have a copy in my school trunk and John had another one. That was a good time. Because she was in the madhouse then, where she belongs. And now all those good times are gone, and the busts are gone, and the photo albums are gone because she had to ruin it. That’s all she’s good at, ruining everything.

Dear Mr Talbot, even you, even if you could write back to me, which you can’t for I’m not forwarding an address, even you wouldn’t tell me to have patience and forgive her, forgive Mycroft. I can’t. I won’t! Mycroft explained and I can even understand his decision but it was the wrong one and he should have seen that and he should have rung me straightaway and collected me so I could have said a proper goodbye to my oldest friend and the man Daddy loved so much. I no longer consider Mycroft my friend, nor my brother though we may be tied through blood bonds and are the sons of the same father. Daddy would have despised his actions and upbraided him. Oh, if only he were alive still none of this would have happened.

Please, Mr Talbot, I know it’s pointless to exclaim ‘if only’ and at seventeen I’m far too old to give in to such vain notions but these last few weeks my mind has done nothing but repeat those words. I remember saying, after Daddy died, I hated Daddy for having done his duty and going to London when he promised to stay home for my birthday for it would have meant he would have been alive still. Sadly I don’t remember whether it was you who corrected me, or poor John – and I realise only now how terrible his grief must have been and yet he couldn’t show it openly. And now I remember you arranged for him to sit next to me in the front pew at the funeral. Oh, thank you, Mr Talbot, you truly are the kindest and best of friends. John must have been so touched. Thank you on behalf of my friend. Anyway, I was reprimanded, and justly so, and of course I didn’t mean it but everything would be so much better if Daddy were still alive.

For he was my father, unlike Mycroft, much as that cretin that is no longer my brother likes to pretend otherwise. I’m completely and utterly through with him. He laid his cards on the table and I quit the game. Idespise him! He’s nothing but an interfering machine, always calculating what’s the best approach towards solving a particular problem, whether it is to do with his work, Mummy stirring trouble, or me. But I’m not one of his stupid government projects. Unlike him, and our awful mother, I do have a heart! Together they managed to nearly break it. I’d rather be out of the equation. Now they’ve nobody left but each other to torture and I hope they’ll be very happy together. Nanny doesn’t count. Apologies for sounding dismissive but as long as her precious Valerie is happy, she is happy and I’m angry with her as well.

Oh Mr Talbot, I’d give anything for the chance to speak with you, even for no more than five minutes. I have discovered whose son you’re tutoring. I know where you live. Don’t worry, I won’t approach you because you don’t want me to. Even if I were desperate enough to defy your wishes I’d think twice before doing so after the afternoon I spent in the library browsing newspapers for information on your employer. For all his wealth he strikes me as an uncivil and nasty character, very much unlike the gentleman Daddy was, so I deplore your dependency on such a man’s whims and having to tutor his child for a living. At least the boy is likeable, and the mother, or so John thought. Funny how our family was the other way round. I hate my mother, Mr Talbot. I loathe her with a passion akin to the hate Electra bore Clytemnestra. There, I’ve written it down and I’m not ashamed for it’s true and she hates me as much besides.

As for my future; so far I’ve no firm plans. I have found work and housing which serves for the present. I’m still reeling from John’s death. A month ago I wrote to Mr Whitall to explain and apologise for haring off after him going to such lengths to secure me a place in the Academy. If you say I’m being profoundly stupid I can’t but agree with you. I know I’m failing Daddy, and Mr Mancini, and you and John, but Mr Talbot, right now there is no other way. I must regroup my thoughts and reinvent myself and stay under the radar while I’m at it.

You’re perhaps one of the few people not working for the government or the police who’ll understand the implications of modern computers on our lives. Computers are getting smaller and smaller and they can store more and more information. Mycroft has people working for him to deal with the legal implications of the government spying on us twenty-four hours a day. I saw the files in his room last winter. You may think me paranoid, but I’m really not. And that’s why I’m not giving you my address. Not because I don’t trust you, Mr Talbot, you’re the only person left I know I can trust one hundred percent. But I don’t trust Mycroft. He’ll have the post intercept your letter to me and put someone near the letterbox when I collect my mail and so I can’t, however much I’d like to.

Dear Mr Talbot, the place where I’m currently living is so godawful and the people are so coarse and obnoxious and the streets are always filled with so much noise. It’s far worse than school ever was. My employer is more or less okay, and so are the boys I share a house with, even though one of them is as sex-obsessed as those idiots in school. But at least they don’t drink as much as the rest of the people here seem to do. Honestly, I didn’t know such a place could exist and I don’t see why people would want to live like this, like animals.

I see I’ve nearly reached the end of the sheet. Apologies for this letter being such a dismal one. Hopefully when next we correspond I’ll have heartier news to share with you. Just three more years and you’ll be free to meet me. I do look forward to that moment with all my heart.

Meanwhile I remain my dearest, dearest tutor,

Your more than ever devoted pupil,

Sherlock Holmes

***

Chapter Text

“Yoohoo, it’s me.”

Mrs Hudson’s piercing soprano invades the kitchen. Furrowing his brow in annoyance at the interruption, Sherlock squints even harder into the microscope.

“I made you boys some rock cakes,” she chirps.

Sherlock’s eyes are bothering him, prickly and dry after peering at several dozens of slides of soot-bricked lung tissue. Not that the exercise hasn’t yielded results. The treatise is practically written in his mind, all he has to do is transmit it to the internet. An hour of speed typing and he will have rounded off a nice little puzzle and provided Molly with the evidence she needs to raise a national health alarm on the hazards of incense if she still feels like it. Might help her career. Which will provide him with a bit of future leverage when it comes to stocking the fridge in materials for any experiments she considers too outlandish for the placid confines of her lab. For a doctor, a pathologist at that, she’s morbidly reluctant to consider possible causes of injury or death.

“Sherlock!”

His landlady’s raised voice, tinged with exasperated insistence, warns Sherlock he’s apparently fallen short once again with regard to her social expectations. Why hasn’t John intercepted her? He was here… Sherlock’s gaze swerves from the mesmerising sight beneath the lens of his microscope to the mug of tea John put on the table… oh yes, several hours ago, urging Sherlock to drink it and simultaneously saying he was off to the clinic and wouldn’t be back before tea. Which Sherlock presumes – judging from the quality of the grey afternoon light slanting through the window – will be in half an hour at the most. Hence rock cakes. And a for some indeterminable reason incensed-looking Mrs Hudson.

“I asked what you have been doing to my kitchen, young man?” Hands on her hips she’s doing her utmost to loom over him. Even though he’s seated, she isn’t exactly towering over him but she manages an impressive glower nonetheless. Sherlock quirks an enquiring eyebrow at her, gaze patrolling the clutter on the kitchen table and the part of the sink in his sight. It doesn’t look too bad in his opinion. Just a bit… cluttered. Then he follows the roll of Mrs Hudson’s eyes upward to the ceiling.

Oh.

“I had that redone just a month ago, Sherlock,” Mrs Hudson informs him in a tight voice. “This time I’m really putting it onto your rent.”

Which is what she’s always telling him, only to forget about it later. John won’t, however. Once he catches sight of the state of the ceiling he’ll be haranguing Sherlock about it for weeks as if it is his hair that runs the danger of brushing the sooty layer of smudge currently coating the ceiling’s surface.

“…what your mother was thinking when she raised you,” Mrs Hudson prattles, one eye stuck firmly on the ceiling and the other looking daggers at Sherlock. “Without John this kitchen would be an even bigger mess than it already is and Lord knows I slave hard enough to keep it spic and span. I did your lino only yesterday and just look at it now. Really, Sherlock. Have you ever so much as cleaned a floor in your life?”

“Boring.” It’s meant as a dismissal but beneath the innocuous exterior of doddering elderly landlady hides a core as steely and battle-hardened as a Soviet Politburo bureaucrat so she stays put, arms crossed as severely as the look on her face. Sherlock sighs and lifts himself from his chair. He pulls the bin close and starts scraping tissue from slides. “If you insist on taking up space here you might as well make yourself useful and put the kettle on for our tea.”

“You’re impossible,” Mrs Hudson scoffs. “There’s nothing wrong with manners, you know. And I’m serious about that ceiling, Sherlock.”

“Yes, yes. You’ve made that mind-numbingly clear already. Look, I’ll ask Mycroft to send in one of his teams, all right?”

Mrs Hudson visibly perks at the suggestion. “Now that’s more like it. Do you think I could ask them to have a go at my bathroom as well?”

“Your bathroom?” Sherlock has never entered the confines of his landlady’s bathroom and he’s determined to retain the status quo. “Why would they?” He casts his mind over the last few weeks but can’t think of any experiments resulting in either burst or clogged pipes or other bathroom-wrecking havoc. Not immediately, that is.

“Oh no,” Mrs Hudson hastens to assure him. Her brow puckers in thought. “Well, not this time,” she modifies. A fierce blush overtakes her cheeks and she giggles behind her hand, like a little girl. “No, it was Mrs Turner’s married ones, a few weeks ago when Mrs Turner was staying at her niece’s in Torquay. She showed me the photographs, such a pretty place. The colour of the sea is amazing but the water was way too cold Mrs Turner said. But then, it was only April. Anyway, those lovebirds, having the place all to themselves decided to have a bit of a splash and share a bath...”

At this point in her narrative Sherlock decides to tune her out. Humming and hawing at appropriate times, cued by the occasional interval, he carefully washes the slides and the rest of his equipment, leaving them on the draining board to dry.

“…and now the tiles have fallen off,” Mrs Hudson ends her exposé.

“Fascinating, Mrs Hudson. As Mycroft will insist I repay him with one of those boring government funds embezzlement cases his minions excel at, you’d better get as much work out of them as you can manage. John said something about the rain pipe next to his window last week.”

“Oh yes.” Mrs Hudson looks decidedly happier as she arranges mugs on a tray. “That’s right. And the kitchen door could do with a fresh coat of paint. Do you think they’ll be up for that as well, Sherlock?”

He shrugs. The way he knows her that door will be bright and shiny two hours after Mycroft’s men have entered the premises. “You can always try.”

“I’ll do that.” Downstairs the front door falls shut with a bang, followed by the sound of John’s footsteps clambering up the stairs. “And there’s John, just in time for his tea. Lovely.”

***

The soft drizzle brushes a shiny veneer over the muted orange glow of the London night sky, stretching over streets devoid of life save for the human flotsam winding its way down them like bottles bobbing up and down the Thames’ surface as they’re slowly but inevitably carried towards the sea. Reflected in the pools pitting the tarmac are the figures of the drunks struggling home after a hard night of squandering their money at their local and those of a few straggling prostitutes, so desperate for a hit they don’t even notice the rain soaking the wares they have on display.

Gaze attached to the points of his shoes, Sherlock hurries past these sorry specimens of his fellow human beings, careful to sidestep around the pools. His shoes will get soaked the minute he accidentally places his foot in one of those.

A mere seven hundred yards from the station a girl accosts him. “Hi sweetheart, want some company?” Her hand descends on his arm. Sherlock stares at it in horror before tearing himself free.

“Don’t,” he grits, but she’s already sensed he’s not interested and veered away from him. For a moment he stares after her before shoving his hands back into his pockets and picking up his pace. Hopefully Brian will still be in the pub or else choose to conduct this night’s affair in his partner for the evening’s bed. The last thing Sherlock needs after today is a night of vainly endeavouring to ignore the vigorous banging of the headboard against the wall separating his room from Brian’s.

In the kitchen he finds Jojo hunched over a grease-stained computer magazine, gobbling the last bites of his fish and chips. The sickening stench of overused frying fat drifts up from the table like a slow-rolling attack of poison gas. Sherlock coughs and reaches for his handkerchief, struggling for breath. After a few seconds he’s ready to breach the room.

“’ello,” Jojo greets, not lifting his eyes from the magazine.

“Hi.” At the sight of the kettle on the countertop Sherlock’s throat suddenly feels as dry and parched as the Gobi dessert. He’s been riding the trains for hours, round and round and round the underground in an attempt to drive the memories of Mr Talbot from his mind with nary a thought for sustenance. The idea of solid food revolts him but he could do with a sustaining cup of tea.

“I’ll ’ave some,” Jojo says as Sherlock fills the kettle. He stands to wipe his fingers on the dishtowel, careful to keep his back turned to Sherlock. “Wha’ you’ve been a’ then?”

“Must you?” Sherlock sighs. “I changed that towel only last week.”

“Oh, ’ell. Sorry.” In his haste to rid himself of the item Jojo misses the nail that passes for a hook and the towel drops onto the floor. With considerable difficulty he bends over, the rolls of fat layering his abdomen adjusting to the new position beneath his tight t-shirt. In the short time it’s spent on the floor, the dishtowel has acquired a considerable amount of the semi-permanent veneer of dust, food crumbs, cooking fat and other indeterminate substances that steadily desists Sherlock’s every effort at removal. He’s spent hours on his knees scouring the cheap lino with increasingly aggressive cleaning agents until the skin of his hands burned beneath the protective layer of the rubber gloves he donned, all to no avail. If he had his microscope he could keep himself occupied for days on end discovering forms of life unknown to science in samples taken from the sludge beneath the fridge. This kitchen is solid proof that primitive forms of life will outlive humans in the end, considering their efficacious resistance against all his determined attempts at mass annihilation.

“Oh dam’. I’m sorry, Eddy,” Jojo repeats dejectedly.

He looks up at Sherlock, the hunch of his shoulders rendering him the epitome of misery. The image is enhanced by the purple bruise that blooms over the right half of his face like a vicious tropical flower.

“Good grief,” Sherlock breathes. “What the hell? Stak again?”

Jojo shrugs. “Yeah, waitin’ fo’ me outside the library. I was stupid, shudn’ ‘ave took the shor’ cu’, bu’ i’ we’ pissin’ and I hadn’ seen them. Banged one of them like you teach me bu’ they we’ fou’.”

The heavy Mancunian brawl still puzzles Sherlock at times but one doesn’t have to be a genius at dialects of the British Isles to catch the gist of Jojo’s tale. It’s no different from the lessons Sherlock learned in school: the bullies taking out their frustrations on the weaker and those that don’t fit into the general pattern. Jojo works like a magnet on the various gangs perpetually loitering in the streets. His size alone invites their ridicule. He barely makes it to five foot two inches. Throw in the twelve stones of his weight, his thick glasses, the Mancunian accent and the fact that his IQ easily outnumbers the sum total of that of the gang members using him as their punch bag and his attraction on brainless morons is explained as neatly as Newton’s law of universal gravitation.

“Cowards,” Sherlock hisses.

Again, Jojo rolls his shoulders. The movement is all too familiar to Sherlock, after years of watching Edward drop his shoulders just as suddenly in defeat, and he clenches his fists, driving his nails hard into the flesh of his palms. In many ways life in this slum resembles the life he was forced to lead in school, except everything here is permanently tarnished with a layer of filth that’s visible to the eye as well.

At least Jojo has more pluck than Edward ever possessed. He ran away from home after all, leaving an abusive stepfather and a whoring mother to sort out themselves, and found himself a job at Mr Chopra’s repair shop, and a room at a reasonable rate. No small feat given the house is situated in London where everything is twice as expensive as in the rest of the country, even in this neighbourhood. And if it weren’t for Jojo, Sherlock wouldn’t be standing in this kitchen now, and from what he’s seen these past few months for all its disadvantages he could be worse off. Much, much worse.

“Nah,” Jojo says now. “A bloody bunch of propa ’angin’ idiots, tha’s wha’ they a’? Bu’ look?”

With a neat flurry belying his bulk he produces a flyer from beneath the instruction manual. It’s a sheet of cheap paper, printed with a text in block capitals on a printer that reached the end of its life cycle years ago.

 

B A R I T S U

STOP BEING A VICTEM

YOU ARE BETTER THEN THEY ARE

DEFEND YOUSELF

LESSONS START AIGHT PM OCTOBER 1, COMMUNITY CENTRE

PRIZE: THIRTY QUID FOR TWENTI LESSONS

 

Sherlock snorts and hands back the paper. “Idiots.”

“Wha’? Yu’ always sayin’ I shud lea’ fighin’ em,” Jojo says in a peeved tone.

“Nine spelling mistakes in that text,” Sherlock informs him, busying himself with pouring water into their mugs. “Including Bartitsu, which is the accurate term, not Baritsu. The word is a portmanteau of name of the man who invented the technique, Barton-Wright, and the Japanese word Jujitsu, which means gentle art. If they get such a simple thing as the spelling all wrong, I wonder whether they’ll get the basics of actual self-defence right.”

As Jojo accepts a large part of his free time in the library reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica he absorbs the flow of information with a quick bob of his head before latching onto the part of actual interest to his situation.

“Wha’? Yu don’av to be cleve’ to know how to lamp someone.”

“Actually, you do,” Sherlock corrects him. “Provided you’re not a brainless idiot like Stak. Hand me those teabags, will you?” After lowering the bags into the mugs he continues. “Look, forget what I said. Bartitsu might be a good idea. It looks silly but it’s about attacking your attackers when they least expect it so it might work for you. Perhaps I’ll tag along. Better way to pass the time than staring at the stupid telly.”

Jojo’s expression had been brightening only to drop three feet at least at Sherlock’s last sentence.

“I’ broke.”

Sherlock yanks up his gaze from the mugs. “What? How?”

“Brian threw ’is bo’l a’ ’i. Foo’ball,” Jojo explains. “Arsenal los’.”

“Oh, for crying out loud. Why does he have to be such a bloody idiot all the time? Wright will go ballistic once he finds out.”

Jojo winces unhappily. “ ’E already knows, Brian said. Ehh, I think the brew’s properly stewed now.” He nods meaningfully at the mugs in front of them.

“Oh Christ!” Sherlock nearly burns his fingers as he snatches the bags out of the inky black liquid. “Have we got any milk left?”

The fridge’s interior yields an unopened carton after some searching. Jojo opens it and tips some milk into the sink. “Looks so’ed.”

“Let me.” Sherlock sniffs delicately at the opening, instructing his olfactory sensory cells to ignore the host of other smells clinging to the carton.

“It will do,” he decrees and is about to lace their tea when a sudden loud bang over their heads startles him into dropping the carton. It topples over and milk starts gushing out of it, over the sink and falling in a neat waterfall over the edge to splatter prettily into the quickly widening pool that stands out against that scruffy slate-grey of the lino.

“Oh, damn!”

“’Ere.” Being closest to the wall Jojo seizes the towel and throws it onto the sink. As it needs laundering anyway Sherlock uses it to mop up the milk on the sink first and the floor after.

“Now i’ really needs washin’,” Jojo offers helpfully, ‘and tha’ brew will be dead ’angin’.”

“Could you stop stating the obvious?” Sherlock grits, balling the towel and throwing it into a corner. “Here.” Deftly he tips half the contents of each mug into the sink and fills them up with water from the kettle before handing one to Jojo.

“Thanks cock’.” Jojo raises the mug, not to Sherlock but to the ceiling through which another bang erupts, followed by a muffled shout. “Firs’ ye’ screwin’ ou’ telly, then ou’ brew and now we’ve to liste’ to you screwin’ cun’.”

Sherlock wrinkles his nose in disgust. “Do you need to state that out loud? Christ.” He bangs down his mug on the table and marches into the hallway to struggle into his coat and fling himself out of the house.

***

Outside, the drizzle has developed into fast-falling fat drops of rain. It’s a mere matter of minutes before his curls are plastered to Sherlock’s skull. He shivers, exulting in the wetness freezing his skin and his misery. If he catches a cold now and dies of pneumonia Mycroft will bear the brunt of his guilt for the rest of his life. Except young people don’t die of pneumonia. These days even elderly people don’t die of pneumonia, not since the invention of antibiotics. Elderly people die of cancer, all alone and at night, after months of keeping their young friends in the dark about their illness’ severity.

The anger flares sudden and unexpected, to be extinguished just as quickly in the shower that’s coated his face and his clothes with a thin layer of water. He tastes salt when he licks his lips.

The rain has driven all but the most determined vagrants from Meath Gardens’ benches. Sherlock sinks down on the first empty one situated in the semi-darkness outside the circles of light thrown by the streetlamps. A part of his mind notices the park looks much more pleasant at night than it does during the day. The blurry nocturnal gloom spreads over the ill-maintained turf like a fuzzy warm blanket, blissfully hiding the absence of the borders and shrubs deemed so essential in parks in other, more affluent, parts of London.

Wrapping his arms around his knees he concentrates on retreating into the chamber he started building inside himself that first night in Bristol. Over time it’s transformed itself into the shed, with its orderly rows of tools on the wall over the workbench. Sherlock is standing on the threshold, his back toasted by the scattered rays of the sun falling through the big trees that surround the building. Inside, the small aluminium kettle is hissing on the Bunsen burner so John must be nearby, perhaps he’s at the back, cleaning his rakes beneath the outside tap. The air is filled with the warm smell of freshly mown grass and high up in the largest beech two blackbirds have started a warbling competition.

Sherlock takes another step into the room and suddenly John is sitting at the bench, smiling up at Sherlock. “Hello lad. You’re just in time for tea. Now can you keep a secret?”

“Yes, John.”

“All right then. Close your eyes.”

Obediently, Sherlock closes his eyes, excitement over the illegal treat John has procured them coursing through his veins. There’s the sound of a cupboard opening and closing.

“Tada,” John announces triumphantly. “You can open your eyes now.”

Sherlock already knows what he’s going to say next.

“Mince pies. You’ve got mince pies.”

John grins happily and puts his teeth into one with relish.

“Nicked them,” he says, crumbs appearing at the corners of his lips. “Cook went haywire making hundreds for the party. She won't miss these few.”

“Oh no,” Sherlock is quick to confirm. “She never found out, did she?”

John smiles. “She did, actually and gave me a good scrubbing once the guests were gone. She’s got eyes in the back of her head, that woman.” Chuckling, John cocks his head to the side to assess Sherlock, his gentle gaze sweeping up and down along the length of his body. Then he sighs, just once.

“I know,” whispers Sherlock. “John…”

But John’s figure is already blurred and hazy from the steam rising from the mug of tea and before Sherlock has bridged the few yards separating them his friend’s body has turned into a mist that quickly evaporates into the warm air.

***

After a long night of tossing and turning, Sherlock finally fell asleep as the first light of dawn started creeping through the gap that remained between the curtains despite his elaborate efforts to tug them shut. Upon waking in the early afternoon, he felt battered and exhausted, his body ached as if he’d been warding off a horde of demons straight out of hell.

John, he remembered blearily. It must be the grief over John.

In the small reception area, the hotel owner confronted him from behind her desk the minute he set his foot down the last step of the stairs. “Check out time is eleven. You’ll pay me now for another night.”

Wordlessly, Sherlock handed over a twenty and a five pound note. The hotel had been his last resort, the only establishment where they were happy to take him without asking for identification and he’d reckoned beggars can’t be choosers. Besides, he wasn’t going to stay here. Eventually he would make his way down to London.

As he was cycling away from Copperbeech Hall as fast as his legs managed to push down the pedals, Sherlock’s mind was frantically running through his options. In running away he was giving up the Academy and the violin, even though the instrument was pressing against the knobs of his spine. For the briefest of moments he contemplated turning around and going back, pretending he’d just taken a ride through the countryside, but the hated apparition of Mummy, materialising on the terrace against a background of dramatically billowing black smoke put a stop to that notion.

No, never, he thought. Oh, I’m so sorry, Mr Mancini. Forgive me, but I can’t. I can’t. You’ll understand. You hated her as much as I do.

He wondered how long it would take Mycroft to realise Sherlock was gone, and for him to understand Sherlock hadn’t just scampered off for a walk in the woods or a sneak at John’s freshly dug grave.

Hot tears brimmed at the idea of Daddy’s and John’s graves lying unattended, the bulbs over Daddy’s withering and dying from lack of maintenance as weeds rampaged and thrived on the fresh fertilizer from the neighbouring plot. But no, Mycroft would never abandon the graves’ upkeep, appearances must be maintained at all costs. He’d hire a man to keep the plots neat and tidy.

In the far distance the church spire loomed, beckoning him for a quick visit but Sherlock resisted. His face was too familiar there. He gave the village a wide berth, in doing so adding another two miles to his ride. Once he turned eighteen and was his own master he would return for a proper visit. Sherlock breathed a little easier at the thought.

Which brought him back to his current predicament. As his hand clicked to adjust the gears on his bicycle to ease his climb of the hill ahead of him, his mind clicked through the options to ease his disappearance from Mycroft’s radar. London was his obvious destination. He knew the city a little at least and it was such a big haystack Mycroft would never find him once Sherlock had thoroughly mingled himself with the hay.

But Mycroft was much more familiar with London than Sherlock and once he realised Sherlock was gone he’d raise the alarm and have the train stations watched. He’d contact the police and have search warrants issued. Sherlock’s photograph would be hanging on the walls of police stations all over the country.

I need to change my hair… and my clothes. They’ve got public school written all over them.

So no London then, or at least not yet. He would hide in an out-of-the-way place. Large enough not to stand out as a stranger. And approachable by train without the need for a change in London. The notion of hitchhiking as a means to avoiding the trains altogether flashed through his brain but he deemed the risk of recognition too great. Best to mix with the masses. A face buying a train ticket was far less memorable than the person one had offered a ride. Besides, engaging in desultory conversation was an achievement past his abilities in his current mental state.

Three miles from the train station he remembered another little detour would take him through a small forest where he could hide his bicycle.

In the wood – not much more than a copse really, but it served his purpose well enough – he dragged the bicycle into a thicket of hazel and stunted oak trees, taking his time to cover the frame and the handlebars with dead leaves. No doubt it would be unearthed by dogs or wild animals in a few days but those were all he needed for a proper head start.

The tiny station proved to be deserted. Sherlock slicked his hands with spit and drew them through his hair to flatten his curls, which were such a dead giveaway when it came to recognising him.

What he was unprepared for was the ticket seller’s reaction to the fifty pound note Sherlock slid under the window to pay for his ticket to Swindon. Until that moment the man had been ignoring his customer in favour of the scarcely clad charms of a girl spread out over a whole page of his newspaper – and its swift transfer to the person attached to the hand that had passed the note painted Sherlock’s cheeks crimson with guilt. To his relief, the ticket seller seemed mostly bothered by the amount of change he’d have to part with.

“Don’t you have a twenty?” he asked in an exasperated tone.

Sherlock straightened his spine, which added the half an inch he needed to look down his nose on the man’s shiny, bald pate and count the thirty-six hairs draped over it from left to right. “No.”

“Hmm,” the man said but he collected the change and handed it to Sherlock with a ticket, his eyes already slanting back to the two-dimensional abundance of female flesh.

At the first stop, he departed the train and bought a ticket to Bristol. Perhaps the bloody note was even to his advantage. The ticket seller would remember Sherlock’s desired destination and direct search parties the wrong way. Meanwhile, his evident suspicion taught Sherlock the note might be legal tender, but was considered an inordinate amount of cash by most people. He’d have to find a bank and exchange the ones remaining in his wallet for less noteworthy currency.

Thankfully he found one close to the Bristol train station. They were also happy to accept a cheque and he managed to withdraw five hundred pounds from a cash machine set into one of the bank’s outside walls, all in twenties. He felt a flash of annoyance with Mycroft for handing him those fifty pound notes in the first place. Obviously nobody used them, so why had he ever given them to Sherlock? Still, the ease with which he was the sudden owner of nearly fifteen hundred pounds curbed his irritation. Compared to the price of a train ticket it was a ridiculous amount of money and Mycroft had clearly been very liberal in assigning Sherlock so much spending money.

***

On the fifth day, in Birmingham, the machine ate his debit card. After Sherlock pushed it into the slot he waited for the demand to enter his PIN only to have the screen blacken without warning. No matter how often he pressed the cancel button the screen remained black and the machine didn’t cough up his card again. Panic, his constant companion these past few days, jumped from the shadows and for a second he was convinced Mycroft himself was sitting behind the glass plate, staring censoriously at Sherlock from beneath half-hooded eyelids. Heart hammering behind his ribs, Sherlock turned away, deliberating whether he’d give in to his paranoia and make a run for it, stay put and wait for another person to attempt drawing money from the machine or enter the bank to demand an explanation in his haughtiest voice.

A harassed-looking woman pushing a baby stroller with a whining toddler settled his internal altercation by hurrying up to the machine and inserting her card. In less than a minute she stuffed two twenties into her handbag, snarled at the child to ‘shut your bloody trap’ and nearly drove the stroller into Sherlock when she swung it around.

“Fuck off,” she snapped, and neatly circumventing Sherlock, disappeared around the corner, growling at the by now yowling child.

For a few seconds a surge of paralysing fear held Sherlock hostage, gluing the soles of his new trainers to the pavement. He heaved a few deep breaths, the oxygen transforming the fear into a shot of electrifying adrenaline. As fast as the new shoes allowed him – and why someone had seen fit to christen this type of footwear ‘running shoes’ was beyond him, he was twice as fast on his Oxfords – he bolted to his hotel, threw his few meagre possessions in his bag and some money at the clerk and made a beeline for the train station. It wasn’t until he was sitting with his nose buried in a book in a train heading to Derby that he felt safe again.

***

In Norwich, the elderly woman at the pay desk of a department store’s men’s clothing section scrutinised his cheque for a very long time. Sherlock felt if it weren’t for his proximity, with just the desk separating them, she would have sniffed the slip of paper. At long last, suspicion still oozing from every crease lining her face, she handed him the carrier bag containing the hooded jacket, two packets of t-shirts, socks and underwear and the three pairs of flimsy jeans he’d purchased and wished him a good day.

Sherlock counted off thirty-nine steps before chancing a look over his shoulder, just in time to catch her lifting the receiver of the phone that sat next to cash register. Over the sea of clothes racks their gazes locked. The net of creases around the shop assistant’s eyes drew even tighter as she visibly stored cues about his appearance in her memory.

Appreciating his behaviour’s extreme foolishness Sherlock couldn’t stop looking at her. His feet kept moving of their own accord. In fact, his brain appeared to have taken up residence at the end of his legs for, recognising that increasing his pace was a definitive admission of guilt, they maintained the unhurried pace they’d adapted when he first started walking away from the cashier. He waited until he’d reached the stairs before breaking into a run.

Outside, he hotfooted it down the unfamiliar streets, retracing his steps so many times he ended up thoroughly lost in one of the suburbs. On his way back to his hotel he steadily berated himself for losing his head so spectacularly. Mycroft cancelling Sherlock’s debit card was totally feasible. In Mycroft’s mind cutting Sherlock off from resources was the most expedient means of ensuring Sherlock’s return to the fold. Perhaps, if Mycroft were feeling lenient, Sherlock wouldn’t even have to eat crow.

However, the idea of his brother’s talons stretching so far that his cheque would remind an elderly shop assistant in a provincial town of a search warrant for Sherlock’s person a mere week after he’d run off was patently ridiculous. The woman was just more vigilant than most people. Sherlock had been stupid in assuming her grey hair straggling out of an untidy knot and thick reading glasses indicated she was unobservant.

The incident taught him a valuable lesson, he mused. In judging the woman by her looks he’d missed her long service record at the store. Over the years she must have encountered every trick in the annals of thievery. Most likely the disparity between his appearance, his accent and the cheque had led to a peal of warning bells inside her head that was akin to the clamour of Big Ben on New Year’s Eve. He reminded himself to start working on the accent the moment he arrived in London. Remembering to slur his consonants and broaden his vowels would give him a head start.

At last he located his hotel. Exhausted, he collapsed on the haphazard arrangement of lumps and dents posing as a mattress. Early tomorrow morning he’d take the train into London. He’d been fleeing for eight days, too aware all the while that he couldn’t flee forever. If he wanted to sever all ties with Mycroft and prove his independence he’d need to come out of hiding and start supporting himself. The time had come to settle down and find himself a job and a home.

***

Liverpool Street Station was several miles from Connaught Square and Westminster, the twin bases around which Mycroft’s private and professional life pivoted. All Sherlock had to do in order to evade Mycroft was head east, to the poorer districts, and never exit the tube in the city’s central and western parts.

A sound enough plan save for a tiny fact he was confronted with the moment he exited the station. The camera was mounted high on a wall, its lens aimed straight at the station’s entrance and exit doors. Sherlock fought down the instinct to pull the hood of his jacket deeper over his eyes and kept placing one foot in front of the other. Once he was out of the camera’s range he lowered his bag to the pavement and lit a cigarette with trembling fingers.

“Good lord,” he huffed, “you really are as stupid as the rest of them.”

The bloody things were everywhere, he’d passed in front of dozens of them during his jaunt across the middle counties, so there was no reason to be thus affected by another one and yet here he was, rendered so frozen with fear his hand could scarcely lift the cigarette to his lips for a relaxing dose of nicotine.

Such excessive apprehension wasn’t merely ridiculous; it was almost certainly wholly unwarranted. Mycroft might be a formidable figure who easily outdid every adult of Sherlock’s acquaintance when it came to cajoling or threatening others, all for the greater good of course, but that didn’t mean his brother had access to all the CCTV footage recorded twenty-four hours a day all over the country. And even if he did, he definitely lacked the means and the lackeys to comb through the files on the off-chance of catching sight of his little brother.

Still, he’d do well to maintain a wary attitude if he wanted to stay off the radar. He willed himself to imprint the acute sense of terror he’d felt into his brain with each drag of his cigarette, immediately lighting another one for good measure after he’d finished the first.

***

With each step that led him farther away from the centre the aspect of the streets he walked deteriorated further. Graffiti bloomed on walls like a virulent pest, many planters on windowsills sprouting nothing but a few straggling weeds. Traffic rumbled along nonstop, choking the pedestrians with fumes that coasted between the naked buildings lining the treeless roads.

***

“How much?”

Sherlock blinks and shakes his head at the noise disturbing the soft swish of the water pattering on his skull. Eyes still readjusting their focus from inside to the outside world, he peers up in a search for the sound source, which turns out to be a burly man looming over him.

“What?”

“How much?” the man repeats impatiently.

Sherlock sighs and regards the man disbelievingly. He’s just… sitting here. In fact he’s fairly certain he hasn’t moved for an hour at least, given the chill he suddenly notices permeating his flesh. The thin cotton of his shirt sleeves and the denim of his jeans cling to his limbs, uncomfortable and wet. A quick shiver courses down his spine. The image of Percy-Smith’s prick, fiery-red and quivering in eager anticipation of the assault slides across Sherlock’s vision and for a split-second the rank smell of sex pollutes the air he’s pulling into his nostrils.

“Fuck off,” he answers, barely managing to keep his teeth from chattering and almost gagging at the same time.

“Wha’?”

Oh, for God’s sake, a proper idiot. When did he get so lucky?

“Please, do you need me to spell it out for you? I said ‘Fuck off’.”

“Jeez’,” the man says, having the audacity to look affronted. “Wha’s wrong with ya? I’m only asking.”

“And I’m only sitting here. Now get lost or I’ll shout for the cops.”

“Ye listen, ye dirty li’l whore…” His would-be customer starts working himself into a proper rage. Sherlock groans and presses the palms of his hands into his eyes to push back the anger he can feel building inside himself. The prospect of jumping up and beating the man senseless seems unbelievably tempting.

“Look here, you moron,” he hisses, letting his hands drop and squaring the man with his gaze. “I’m not a prostitute looking for a client. I’m sitting here minding my own business on a bench in a park that’s open to the public twenty-four hours a day, which wasn’t a criminal offence last time I looked it up in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. You however, in approaching me are violating that very law, as I’ve yet to reach the legal age of consent. Now piss off.”

“Bloody fucking hell, yer nuts, mate,” the man spits. For a moment he looks like he might try to swing his fist into Sherlock’s face but then he visibly has second thoughts and raising his hands as if expecting a blow starts shuffling backwards, looking like a lizard that’s just realised its mistake and discovered the free lunch of juicy little rabbit sitting in front of a rock is actually the front paw of a puma.

Sherlock remains seated until the sound of the man’s footsteps merges with the soft pitter-patter of the rain. Only then does he rise and, legs numb with cold and exhaustion, starts walking home.

***

Finding a boarding house was easy. Despite the landlady assuring him she was cutting him a deal because she could see he was a nice-mannered boy, the rent was far above his budget, but he decided finding a job had priority over finding cheap ‘digs’ and the house was moderately clean and the mattress moderately straight, both of which were by now considerable assets. The past week had taught him such comforts were far rarer than he’d presumed.

Finding a job turned out to be more problematic. The recruiters seated on the other side of the desk in the various agencies Sherlock visited would smile at him readily enough until they raised the subject of his En Ai. The first one, a young man not much older than Sherlock, sporting an angry rash in his neck at which he kept scratching distractedly for the short time the interview lasted, had to explain what the noise stood for. Apparently NI was an abbreviation of National Insurance number, an administrative nuisance every British-born citizen was encumbered with at birth. It sounded exactly like the kind of wretched harassment he’d wasted a decade outlasting in school. Rules for rules’ sake. He wondered whether John had had a National Insurance number, or Daddy? And if so whether, upon their death, those numbers were destroyed or allocated to a new-born baby, the first one to be entered into the system after the record of John’s and Daddy’s demise. And how about Mr Mancini, whose native Catania his parents had exchanged for Cardiff when he was still in his nappies?

After a day squandered arguing he was interested in getting work, not insurance, Sherlock opted for a change of tack. He spent the morning scanning vacancies in the agencies’ windows and the afternoon browsing the library to determine the identity of the businesses seeking employees. The following morning he presented himself at the first – a small firm that dealt in medical supplies – bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in a shirt he’d charmed his landlady into pressing for him. He never made it past the receptionist’s desk.

Thus Sherlock frittered away another day, traipsing all across Tower Hamlets and Bethnal Green. That evening he sat down and counted his money again, a meagre twenty one hundred thirty three pounds and six pence, an amount that would carry him through the next ten weeks at the most. Perhaps he should start searching at the docks tomorrow; harbours were justly famous for sheltering all kinds and their disdain for interfering regulations.

The next day, Sherlock set off early for the long slouch south to the river. In trailing down the streets by foot rather than taking the Tube he killed two birds with one stone; besides saving money, he entered the fast lane to acquainting himself with the city’s outlay through this slow means of travel.

On a street he’d just learned was called Roman Road, Sherlock’s eye hitched on a sheet of bright yellow paper stuck up against a shop window. Help Wanted, it said. Sherlock stepped back to let his gaze rove over the establishment. It appeared to be some kind of severely understocked household appliances shop. On the planks lining the wall on the left Sherlock recognised a hoover, a television, what looked like a hairdryer and several electric kettles amidst a straggling jumble of electricity cords that climbed up and down like liana.

Tilting back his head he discovered a wooden slat nailed above the window. Beneath a decade of traffic exhaust and the various vagaries of the English climate clung a few chips of the ruby-red paint that had once formed a background for the scarcely legible lettering still emitting a faint golden glow

Deepak Chopra
It Isn’t Broken Until We Can’t Fix It

Sherlock’s gaze was travelling down to the advertisement again when a door at the back of the shop opened to give access to a small, neat Indian man. He was in a drab outfit of dark chocolate trousers and shirt with a pair of reading glasses plunked onto his forehead at a precarious angle and his attention was firmly attached to the newspaper and steaming mug in his left hand. Once he’d safely installed himself behind the old-fashioned counter of glass and peeling walnut veneer, he glanced up and intercepted Sherlock’s stare. Sherlock breathed deeply, put his hand on the doorknob and, bell pealing brightly above his head, entered the shop.

“Good morning,” the man addressed him straightaway in a singsong voice. “How may I help you?” Holding his head at a slight angle to the left, his gaze never left Sherlock’s face. Beneath the glasses’ scrutiny his eyes peered suspiciously at Sherlock.

“Good morning,” Sherlock returned the greeting in as deferential a tone as he could muster. Which wasn’t a whole lot, judging by the man’s stance, which remained rather stiff and distant. “I noticed your advertisement in the window.”

“Are you any good with electricity then? I had eleven boys asking last week and none of them had the faintest.”

“I’ve often helped our gar—,” Sherlock began before hastily interrupting himself, “—our grandfather repairing the lawnmower. I know all about electrical circuits. And I can solder as well.”

“Hmm.” The answer appeared to have mollified the man a bit. “Country lad, are you? You’re not from around here. Aren’t you a bit young to be looking for a job?”

“I finished school this year.”

“Did you now?” After a swig from his mug the man appeared to reach a decision. “All right then. We’ll have a look at what you can do. Follow me.”

He disappeared through the door at the back, not bothering to hold it open for Sherlock who managed to catch it before it swung into his face. Behind the door was a small windowless room, brightly lit by bulbs dangling from the ceiling. The space was largely occupied by a square table heaped with a jumble of dismantled household appliances, tools and rolls of every kind of electrical wiring. The disorganised mess would have had John throw his hands in the air in dismay and roll up his sleeves to start sorting and ordering the chaos. Rising from the heap like one of the moles that were another bane of John’s life was a round head with a wild mop of hair the colour of dishwater and a pair of small glasses through which eyes whose hue bore a remarkable resemblance to the hair falling over his forehead peered myopically at Sherlock.

“Keith,” the man said. “Here’s another one wants to try. Have you got anything for him? How about that iron that came in yesterday?”

“Mrs Mukherjee’s?” The boy levered himself up with some difficulty, revealing the head was attached to a body that rivalled it for rotundity. Although his head no longer appeared to jut out of the small hill on top of the table the resemblance to a mole remained for his jumper matched the walls’ dingy paint flawlessly, complete with stains in whose provenance Sherlock found he held remarkably little interest. “Now, lemme see, whe’ did I pu’ the bloody thing?”

“There’s an iron over there,” Sherlock pointed out helpfully.

“Nah, tha’s Mrs Ealing’s,” Keith dismissed cheerily. “Ah, the’ she is?” With a look of triumph he lifted a flat iron with a cord hanging at an awkward angle from the mountain of electronics. At the front of the building the shop bell rang as if to reward him for this feat of detective work.

“Will you manage?” the man asked the boy.

“Yes, Ma Chopra.” With a grunt at the boy and a glare at Sherlock the man pivoted and ambled out of the room, carefully shutting the door behind him. Through the thin board they could hear him greet the customer.

“Wha’s you’ name then?” Keith asked. A reasonable question and one which Sherlock had prepared himself for on the train to London. “Edmund Norton,” he answered. More than anything he would have wanted to name himself after Mr Talbot, as if in assuming his tutor’s name he was securing his protection but he’d deemed the risk too big. Edmund was a common enough first name, and Sherlock retained fond memories of Mrs Norton, in spite of all the times she had him scrub the showers after he’d come to blows with Warburton and Pleasance.

“Edmun’, nah, tha’s a propa’ angin’silly name,” the boy said happily. “I’m Jojo, tha’s wha’ evybody call me excep’ Ma Chopra fo’ he doesn’ know any be’a. Don’ mind him tough, he’s so’ed.” His heavy accent was already inducing a headache to bloom behind Sherlock’s eyes.

“I’ll have a look at this, all right?” He held out his hand at the boy – ‘Jojo’ – who, after a slight hesitation, relinquished the flat iron. Sherlock studied the awkward angle in the cord where the wiring was laid bare.

“Mrs Mukherjee has a bit of a rodent problem,” he announced.

“Wha’?”

“Rodents,” Sherlock repeated. At Jojo’s blank look he elaborated, “mammals characterised by the perpetually growing pairs of incisors in their upper and lower jaw. Mrs Mukherjee is hosting mice.”

The words were out of his mouth before he knew it and he wanted to smack himself in the head. Moron, he raged inwardly. Going all clever on this boy who got to decide whether he’s offered the job was the stupidest approach towards reaching some kind of understanding with him.

To his relief and amazement Jojo chuckled. “Yu mean rats. Those a’ everywhe’.”

“No, the teeth marks are too big for rats. This is the work of a mouse. The common house mouse, I gather.”

“Rats or mouse, same difference,” shrugged Jojo.

“Not really. They’re two quite distinct families within the superfamily of Muroidea which falls under the suborder of the Myomorpha,” Sherlock said, quickly adding, “sorry.”

“Tha’s all righ,” Jojo dismissed the lecture genially. “Bu’ I don’ think Mrs Mukherjee is interested in wha’ wrecked he’ iron.. “Now, how you go aboa’ fixing this?” He nodded meaningfully at the appliance.

Sherlock scanned the iron to find the wattage and scored the heap of cords for two yards of rubber textile braided flex with three cores. Ignoring Jojo’s protests, he deftly picked the screwdriver out of his hand, grimacing at the warm dampness that clung to it. He unscrewed the flat iron’s plug and attached it to the flex.

“That was the easy part. Now where are your wire cutters and soldering iron? And do you have a hairdryer?”

Instead of answering him the boy began laughing. “Tha’s enough of a demo fo’ me. You’ a quick fucke’,” he said admiringly. “Now, I’ll tell Ma Chopra to give you the job. Bu’ he’ll pay cash. Suits me bu’ I don’ know whethe’ tha’s wha’ yu lookin’ fo’.”

“It is. For much the same reasons.”

“Wha’?”

Sherlock sighed. “It’s obvious, isn’t it? Please, I actually thought you quite clever. Don’t go and spoil the picture for me now. Your accent tells me you’re not from around these parts and the way you instinctively ducked behind that mountain on the table tells me the memory of all the beatings you endured is still fresh. Abusive stepfather, I surmise. You asked your mother to intervene on your behalf but…ah, she’s being slapped around herself.”

“And she’s a whoring bitch,” Jojo spat. “Seein’ as you know all aboa’ i’ the same holds true fo’ yu’ I suppose.”

“Not really,” Sherlock said. After an enquiring glance he admonished, “apart from the mother being a ‘bitch’ part, perhaps.”

Chapter Text

Hi Eddy, or Sherlock, it seems,

How are you doing, mate? Last week your mug showed on the telly as the missus sat flicking the channels. I recognised you straightaway despite the dozy hat. You look like the same lanky git, even after nearly twenty years. Jesus, time flies and so on. You wouldn’t recognise me I’m sure, I lost nearly three stone since Cyprus Street. I’m still going to the Bartitsu classes twice a week and jog around Victoria Park every Saturday morning.

I’m too busy to read the papers or keep up with gossip, that’s the wife’s department, and she’s been jabbing a lot lately about that clever detective working with the pigs, putting you up as a shining example to the kiddos, and here it turns out the famous Sherlock Holmes is no one else but Eddy Norton. Or the other way round. Anyway, I reckoned Edmund a piss name but Sherlock is even worse. You always said your mother was a bitch and she must have been, saddling you with such a shite name.

You gave us a nasty shock by suddenly disappearing off the map. Seeing as you were such a cold fucker I guess you won’t get how worried me and Brian were when you fell off the radar. At first we thought you’d been arrested during one of the pigs’ raids and we even went to the station to look for you but all we found was that cheap whore. Brian cried his eyes out and paid bail, a hundred quid, can you believe it? Then a week after you were gone a pair of goons that looked like James Bond’s best pals invaded the house and cleared your room. Brian tried to stop them but they beat the living daylights out of him and that was the last we heard of you. That slimy little hoe took over your room in no time. I thought of finding me a new place because he was a housemate from hell and him and Brian were always fighting.

Then, soon after, Stak started hanging around Danny, imagining himself in love with that filthy dizzy queen. Brian was seeing red but the nasty whore just strung him along. He sweet-talked him out of his money and the little sense he got to begin with. God, how I hated that dirty bitch. I mean, Brian is a doofah but he didn’t deserve to be treated like shit by some gutter dreamboat and what for? In the end Danny even didn’t let him fuck him no more while everyone knew Stak was dropping anchor in poobay as often as he liked without paying. One evening Brian caught them at it, in the alley next to the pub, like they were no better than a pair of horny dogs. That’s when Brian lost it. He knifed the two of them, they say Danny was begging for his life but Brian was so mad he kept stabbing the smarmy shit and it took six men to make him let go of the knife. I testified at the trial and tried to tell the judge the wet twat only got what he had coming and this world was better off without him but they never even listened to me and gave Brian a thirty-year-sentence. He’s cool about it, says he actually likes it in prison. I still visit him once a month.

After Brian was locked away I was pretty down. Mrs Chopra really pulled me through, told me I could come and live with them, which I did. She’s doing fine and told me to say hello when I said I’d drop you a note. Mr Chopra passed away two years ago, his heart, and Mrs Chopra drops by more often since then. The missus likes her and she’s a kind of grandma to the kiddos who can do with one as the missus’ mother died shortly after we were married and you’ll understand I don’t want any child of mine to meet the bitch that put me into this world, pardon my French.

Anyways, at last I got Mr Chopra to listen to me and drop the stupid appliances and change to computer repair and once we started promoting ourselves on the internet

A sudden loud noise disrupts Sherlock’s concentration. His mobile. It vibrates insistently against the coffee table’s surface, its shrill ringtone intent on vexing him. He tries to ignore it, willing whoever is trying to reach him to give up, but the phone keeps ringing. Mentally hurling his most caustic abuse at the unknown caller he lifts the mobile to switch it off. In doing so his eyes flit over the screen and he sits up abruptly, nearly toppling the laptop in the process. Sliding it onto the sofa cushions he jumps up to make for his room, taking the coffee table in his stride.

“Lestrade,” he barks into the phone, “what have you got?” He’s already shedding his dressing gown and surveying his sock index for a black pair, the safest choice when Lestrade wants him at a crime scene.

“Them, Sherlock,” Lestrade rhapsodises. “Parsons and Young. Found them exactly where you told us, counting the money.”

“Oh.” Disappointment weakens Sherlock’s knees and he sinks down on the edge of his bed. Lestrade’s tinny voice keeps prattling into his ear. Sherlock lowers the phone and regards it with disgust before lifting it again to snarl: “Is that why you rang? I thought it was something important like a fresh case.”

“Jesus,” breathes Lestrade, unbelieving. “We’re still in the middle of a case and you want a new one?”

“No,” Sherlock corrects him in his most acerbic tone. “I solved the case twenty hours ago and directed you to the culprits’ hideout. God knows what took you so long to arrest them, apart from the general incompetence that’s the one thing you lot really excel at. Luckily for you they’re amateurs, any moderately clever extortionist would have boarded the Eurostar directly after collecting his prize. Now, I don’t do social calls so if you insist on wasting my time with news that comes as no news to me I’d prefer you’d send a text, which I can delete straightaway. Good day.”

He ends the call with a flick of his thumb and flings the mobile on his bed, seething at the stupidity of Lestrade, the Met and humanity at large. To quell his frustration Sherlock throws a pillow at the Goethe bust that sits staring down at him in mild disapproval, carefully aiming it slightly below the shelf so the bust won’t topple and scatter to pieces for that will have Mrs Hudson tutting in that motherly concerned way she has perfected to annoy him. The thud of the pillow against the cupboard is not even mildly satisfying.

Back in the living room Sherlock startles John into quickly shutting the laptop when he enters.

“It’s my laptop,” John says, defensively. His refusal to meet Sherlock’s eyes combined with the absence of his usual exasperation with Sherlock appropriating John’s possessions for personal use conveys he’s read every word of Jojo’s message.

“I’m aware of the fact, John,” Sherlock replies, sweeping his copy of the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine from the table and flopping down in his chair in a pretension of perfect indifference. To his surprise, assuming and maintaining the countenance soothes his nerves, which are still bristling from the tiff with Lestrade.

Out of the corner of his eye he observes John who’s stroking the laptop’s lid with quick, twitchy touches, obviously building courage. At last he sighs deeply and settles himself in his own chair, leaning forward and bracing his elbows on his knees.

“Sherlock?”

“Hmm hmm.” He wets a finger to flick a page and reads on. The report on the study on situational and exposure characteristics of Taser use proves to be fascinating.

“I…,” John begins. “I couldn’t help reading what was on the screen. And, I know I shouldn’t have, but once I’d started—” He breaks off to scrape his throat.

“You just couldn’t stop,” Sherlock finishes the sentence for him. “It’s fine, John. Glad you enjoyed a riveting read. The James Bond reference must have really drawn you in.”

“It’s—” John’s hands grip the chair’s armrests, fingers digging deep into the upholstery. “I hadn’t realised—” Suddenly the dam bursts and disbelief gears his voice up a notch and he gestures at Sherlock with his left hand. “Just look at you with your posh clothes and your posh accent and… Christ, at that age you were supposed to be in that plummy school you went to, preparing for Oxbridge. What am I to make of that message? Who’s that from?”

“Keith Jones,” Sherlock answers calmly, shutting the journal and laying it aside. “He’s a ghost from the past. Not relevant.”

“Not relevant? This guy writes he knew you twenty years ago, when you were what? Fifteen? I know you’ve had some seedy episodes in your life—” A red tinge overtakes John’s ears, further testimony to Lestrade blabbing too freely during one of their monthly pub nights with John greedily lapping up the sordid details. “But I thought that was later, in your twenties. “ When Lestrade rescued you John doesn’t say. “Why weren’t you in school? Where was Mycroft, what were your parents doing?”

“I don’t see how it’s any of your business, John,” Sherlock drawls. “But as I’ve nothing on at the moment I’ll satisfy your unhealthy interest.” Lifting his hands he starts ticking off: “Firstly, the time referred to is almost twenty years ago, I was seventeen. Secondly, I had finished school, got better grades than Mycroft in fact. Peeved him to no end, though I didn’t find out until later. Thirdly, my parents, let’s see. My father had been busy lying in his grave for the last ten years and my mother’s antics were the reason I decided on a change of scene. Mycroft being his usual prissy interfering self spurred things on, obviously. And he was the one responsible for me falling off Keith’s radar. Who do you think sent those James Bond goons? There, happy?” Sherlock meaningfully picks up the journal again and ostentatiously reburies himself in its contents.

“Yeah,” John mutters. “Okay, you don’t want to talk about it. I get that.”

Sherlock hurls the journal across the room with a massive groan. “Please, what is there to discuss? This was, as we’ve already confirmed, nearly twenty years ago. What does it matter?”

“What does it matter?” John’s jaw is working furiously and he’s pushed himself upright in his chair. “Sherlock, this is your past, your history, it’s what shaped you into the person you are today. I shouldn’t have snooped; I’m sorry but…Jesus fucking Christ, Sherlock. When I was that age my main concerns were getting pissed with my friends and finding the fast lane into Amy Jason’s knickers.”

“Why the fuss then? Not much difference with my activities except for the drug of choice and the fact people paid me for the privilege of getting into my knickers.”

“Jesus,” John mutters and shakes his head. “Bloody hell, Sherlock. If you don’t see how wrong that is.”

“Of course it is wrong, but I had convinced myself at the time I didn’t have any better options. You’re afraid that brief episode has scarred me for life. I assure you it hasn’t. High-functioning sociopath, remember? If anything, it helps me with my present work when it comes to handling members of my homeless network. I know what drives these people, unlike those self-proclaimed angels in disguise bothering them with their misguided compassion that’s nothing but an ego-rub.”

That solicits a painful smile from John. “Most of them earnestly want to help, Sherlock,” he admonishes.

“By dressing the wound without purging it. You as a doctor should know that’s a bloody rubbish remedy.”

“Yes, but—”

“You’re my friend, John, not my therapist,” Sherlock cuts him off. Truly, he’s done with the whole unnecessary conversation. “Go read the paper to satisfy your craving for sympathising or make us tea if you need to feel useful.”

“Sherlock…” But he’s already hidden himself behind his journal. It proves a strategy as effective as Tasering one’s discussion partner. For three seconds John tries to stare him down through a quarter inch of glossy, closely printed paper before giving it up as a bad job and huffing and leveraging himself out of his chair.

He ambles into the kitchen. There’s the sound of running water, followed by the distinctive click of the kettle being switched on.

Good.

***
“What’s this then?” Brian brutally spears the slice of green pepper and lifts his fork to shove it, complete with wildly swaying strings of melted cheese, under Sherlock’s nose.

Sherlock sniffs and pretends to study the sliver before replying, “Green pepper.”

“And what’s it doing in me macaroni an’ cheese?” Brian queries indignantly.

“Providing your body with some much-needed vitamins.” Sherlock levers a piece of the offending vegetable onto the end of his own fork and carefully brings it up to his mouth. “You don’t have to eat it. Better for your muscles than those vitamin pills, though. Cheaper as well.”

Jojo snorts but falls silent after a glare shot his way.

“Smarmy git,” mutters Brian, using his fingers to rip the pepper off the fork. Staring at Sherlock he launches it across the table. Sherlock ducks. Behind him there’s a soft plop.

Sherlock wrinkles his nose. “You’re disgusting.”

“So’s yer macaroni an’ cheese.”

“Aww, come on, ma’. I’ ain’ tha’ bad,” Jojo springs to Sherlock’s defence.

“It is actually,” corrects Sherlock. “But not because of the peppers.”

“You tryin’ a’ leas’. All we ge’ when i’s his turn is bloody angin’ takeaway.”

“And what’s wrong with takeaway?” Brian enquires, puffing up his already formidable form. Unlike Jojo, who’s all fat, he’s all muscle, and mightily proud of it. His dumbbells are strewn everywhere across the small house and have Jojo complaining and tripping over them constantly. The weights are an accurate manifestation of their owner’s personality. Essentially harmless, yet obnoxious, and one day they will break someone’s neck.

“Angin’ expensive fo’ starters,” Jojo shoots back, stabbing his fork in Brian’s direction, which sends another piece of their meal flying across the kitchen.

“For god’s sake,” scoffs Sherlock. “Will you stop it? I scoured the place this weekend.”

“Don’t see why ye bother.” Brian uses both hands to push himself off the table, chair legs screeching across the floor. “Right. I’m off to the pub. Seeya.”

“Seeya.”

Rather than answering Sherlock drags his fork through the unappetising muck on his plate. Cooking is nothing but applied chemistry and yet the art eludes him. The image of Cook bustling about in front of her stove leaps up in his mind, stirring in six different pans simultaneously while depositing a freshly baked loaf on the cooling rack. In the end he shoves at his plate.

“I’m done.”

“I’s no’ tha’ bad,” Jojo bucks up. As if to prove his point he empties Sherlock’s plate atop the small hillock of food sitting before him and starts greedily shovelling the mess into his mouth.

By now the sight of Jojo stuffing himself to excess has ceased to appal Sherlock. It ignites a hazy memory of Mycroft and Brussels sprouts, which he’s fond of for reasons he’d rather forgo probing. Still, Jojo is the one making short work of Mrs Chopra’s tiffin during lunch break. Once she found her husband had hired Sherlock she doubled the portions in Jojo’s tiffin boxes, urging him to share. Which Jojo faithfully does – and Mrs Chopra’s palak paneer and curries and naan are very tasty – but they’re also simply too rich and filling. After a few bites Sherlock’s stomach feels like it’s ready to explode and spray the walls and household appliances with a thin layer of barely digested food.

“I’m off to the Baritsu tonigh’,” Jojo says between another two bites. “You comin’?”

“Bartitsu,” Sherlock corrects, automatically. “Yes. Better than watching telly or playing those stupid video games.”

Jojo snorts. “Tha’s cause you always losin’.”

“No. I don’t care give a hang about winning a game that’s nothing but training your hand-eye coordination.”

Another snort and a smile pulling at Jojo’s slowly masticating jowls. “Yeah, cause you always losin’.”

“Oh, please.” Exasperated, Sherlock leaps up to stalk out of the kitchen and up to his room.

***

“Hiya. Happy you could make it.”

The young man proffering his hand looks them over expectantly.

“ ‘ello.” Jojo beams and lets the hand wrap its fingers around his. A wince of pain flits over his face. “Blimey, ma’, tha’s wha’ you’ll be teachin’ us, innit’?”

The man smiles. “It’ll take me a lot of teaching.” The interaction has prepared Sherlock for his bantam stunt. His thumb and fingers lock the other’s hand in a firm crush, which he tightens when the other tries to pull free. A little tug of war ensues until the man relaxes his hand in Sherlock’s grip. “You’re escorting your pal?” he enquires in a neighbourly tone.

“Yes. I’m curious what you make of the art, seeing as you can’t be bothered to spell it properly.”

“Ain’t I?” the man asks carelessly. “I wouldn’t know. Never did well in school.”

“No, I suppose not. Yet here you are.”

This answer causes the man to throw back his head and laugh, his Adam’s apple jumping up and down the tree branches tattooed on his neck like a merry little robin. “Prison taught me something,” he agrees affably. “Aiming for my own school but this will do for now. You paying for the both of you?”

Sherlock hands the man twelve fivers. After counting them slowly he beckons them into the hall at his back with a sharp tug of his chin.

Inside they find a small group of youngsters huddling close in the middle of the room. Ten people. A glance tells Sherlock they’re each of them as defenceless as Jojo. He recognises a few faces from his occasional pub visits. One of the boys hails Jojo and falls silent again.

Tables and chairs are stacked against the far wall; the resulting emptiness highlighting the unbearably bright government posters urging people to better themselves. Eat healthy food, take regular exercise, drink less, smoke less. The chirpy families beaming out of the photographs resemble the actual families sauntering down London’s streets as much as the pictures taken when Daddy was still alive stacked on the yellow drawing room’s sideboard.

The floor’s lino is covered with thick exercise mats. Sherlock drops down on the one furthest from the door. After a moment of awkwardness Jojo follows his example, wobbling down to his knees first before setting onto his behind with an audible “oof.” The others remain standing.

The hands of the clock on the wall in front of them hit five past eight when the man shuts the door and walks to seat himself on the one chair that’s left standing, straight beneath the clock.

“Welcome. Why don’t you make yerselves easy,” he says, gaze straying from one to the other while fluttering his hands to encourage the small clump of people into splitting up and finding themselves a floor mat. “Not exactly a lively bunch, are ye’?”

He waits. At last one of the girls shakes her head.

“Thought so. Well me name is Tom and once I’m done with yer lot ye’ll be a bundle of bloody strength 'stead of nerves.” With a dramatic flurry he pulls down the zip of his hooded cardigan and flings if off to reveal his tattoo-covered torso. Beneath the gaudy display he’s all wiry muscle. Sherlock sighs and rolls his eyes at the gesture’s calculated theatricality. Jojo, however, appears riveted by the performance

“Before they shut me in the cooler…” Here a pudgy red-haired girl’s gasp interrupts the exposé. Undeterred, Tom continues, “…I was a wimp, like ye’re. I was such a chicken I robbed nice little old ladies’ bags at knifepoint and even ’olding the knife me insides were trembling cause I were nuffing than a ninny wimp. I deserved to go to jail. I ’ollered my ’ead off when the judge sentenced me and lay sniffling for me Mum and grovelling afterwards, but ye know, prison was the best thing ever ’appened to me.”

By now Sherlock is contemplating jumping up and stalking out of the hall, for even Mycroft – the ultimate expert with regards to ostentatious posturing – would refrain from such blatant grandiloquence. What a neat and dirty scam; Sherlock almost admits to a grudging admiration. Tom has just lifted three hundred sixty quid of them and after an hour of boring their small group to death they’ll traipse off unsatisfied and determined not show up again for next week’s ‘lesson’; all without so much as a chance at filing a complaint with the police. Meanwhile Tom will move on to another borough to con a flock of trusting and desperate misfits out of their money. As long as he keeps decamping fast enough the steady trickle of cash will ease him along nicely.

“And ye know why?” the fraud enquires of his audience who all swivel their heads obediently.

“Because the jug is overflowing with even bigger cowards than the whole sorry lot of you combined. Murderers, rapists, con artists and all offem as afraid of themselves and the rest of the world as anyone sitting here.”

Good god, now it looks like the setup is going to devolve into a prayer meeting. Five minutes more of this and they’ll be required to start praising the Lord.

Sherlock slants his gaze toward Jojo who sits enthralled, an undulating pile of jelly plonked onto a gym mat. He is afraid, Sherlock realises. Afraid of Stak and his comrades and every bit of riffraff lurking out in the dark, gearing themselves up for a bit of fun. Meanwhile Sherlock fears no one, except for Mycroft. But over the past few months he’s taught himself to deal with that particular problem.

In his mind he’s built himself a map room where he’s working on a three-dimensional map of London, a bit like the UK-map Nanny gave him for his eighth birthday with Snowdonia’s mountains the only snow-covered hillocks. The back of his London map isn’t a curious concoction of white plastic dips and valleys however, but filled with buildings’ ground plans, with fire escapes and balconies overlooking back mews, disreputable alleys a sane person would rather avoid, with the exact location of skips and private car parks, with the position of each newly installed CCTV camera. Walking London’s streets with his hands in his pockets and his jacket hood drawn deep over his head he’s constantly assessing and re-assessing new data to improve the structure. So far the enterprise has proven far more successful than the attempt at crafting Mummy a private burial chamber. He makes use of mind-numbing moments like these to sort and build, adding layer after layer to the ground plans until it spans virtually the whole of London. In keeping his London map up to date will he will outrun Mycroft. And never the twain of them shall have to meet again.

Gradually Sherlock becomes aware of the silence shrouding the room and upon stepping out of the map room he’s dismayed to find himself the centre of general attention.

“Yer name and what ye ’ope to get out of these lessons,” Tom is saying, sounding slightly peeved. Clearly, he’s been repeating himself several times.

Ah. “Edmund. I’m with Jojo.” This draws a giggle from a pink-skirted blonde girl to their left. Sherlock scowls at her. Jojo looks discomfited but then that’s his everyday expression in any group larger than three people.

“Edmund, fancy that.” Tom’s mouth widens in a grin and Sherlock could smack himself in the head. He should have gone with ‘Eddy’, obviously. “Care fo’ a little demonstration, Edmund?”

The invitation piques Sherlock’s interest. Perhaps the man was just impersonating a charlatan and actually knows what the martial arts are about. Sherlock levers himself up and walks between the rows of mats towards the front. Tom awaits him, hands hanging loosely at his sides.

“Attack me,” he orders and bares his teeth in a smirk that offers an excellent view of the rotting, decaying stumps lining his jaws. Perhaps Tom aims to unnerve him with the vista of shabby dentistry. That plan might have worked a few weeks ago but since then Sherlock has become inured to the sight of rows of teeth untreated with a strict daily cleansing regimen and the latest advancements in orthodontics. It serves as a severe reminder, though, that Sherlock hasn’t finished blending posture, slough and general appearance with his surroundings by a long mile. He’s the odd one out, but that’s worked to his advantage before.

The fluorescent lights overhead give way to sunlight glancing off the heaving throng of boys gathered behind the pool house to cheer the school champion. Tom’s stringy body broadens out, his skinny frame acquiring layers of fat and he squints at Sherlock out of Browning’s tiny piglet eyes. A familiar flush of excitement courses through Sherlock’s body, the shocked roar of fifty boys yelling their incredulity to the heavens coasting his legs and right arm in perfect synchrony. Pure elation suffuses his brain for he knows his strike is swift and his upper-cut fearsome.

The next second he’s on the floor, his right arm wrenched below his shoulder blades, his left arm locked in a steely grip and – most mortifying of all – Tom’s knee lodged firmly in the small of his back.

“Baritsu is the art of attacking your attackers when they least expect it,” Tom pontificates from his improvised seat, almost literally repeating Sherlock’s lecture to Jojo from a few days earlier.

“It’s Bartitsu,” Sherlock grits.

“You were saying?” Tom enquires in unctuous tones, relinquishing his hold on Sherlock’s arms. “Here.” Leaping agilely to his feet he holds out his hand to Sherlock, which Sherlock duly ignores, choosing to clamber up by himself instead.

“It’s Bartitsu,” he repeats.

“Whatever,” Tom returns affably, clapping Sherlock on the left shoulder. “I couldn’t ’ave wished me a better assistant for me demo, mate. Thank you.”

Sherlock doesn’t know what rankles more: the veracity of Tom’s words or the geniality of the man’s attitude. He appears to genuinely appreciate Sherlock’s presence in the room and Sherlock can discern why that should be so. Overthrowing any of the severely under exercised lumps of meat currently gawping at them wouldn’t have impressed said lumps as thoroughly as watching Sherlock’s hard strength and confidence wrestled to the floor in the blink of an eye.

Nevertheless, he appears to know his business and could teach Sherlock a few tricks that might come in handy one day. And, for some as yet undiscernible reason, he seems to have taken a genuine liking to Sherlock. So Sherlock drags up a smile and mouths a belated “you’re welcome” before returning to his mat.

***

Mr Chopra’s business is fairly straightforward. People deliver their broken household appliances on his shop counter for an inspection and a verdict. Irrespective of the outcome the appliance will make its way to the backroom. If the appliance is deemed salvageable either Jojo or Sherlock will patch it up, making use of spare parts lifted off items Mr Chopra declared beyond repair. The man’s a good technician; so far Sherlock hasn’t had reason to fault Mr Chopra’s judgment.

The man himself is as routine as his business. No matter how early Sherlock and Jojo arrive, the shop is already open and Mr Chopra installed behind his counter with a thermos of chai, small tin of ginger nuts and his copy of The Sun. Neatly arranged on a tray in the backroom stands the bigger thermos for Jojo and Sherlock, complete with bigger tin and two freshly rinsed mugs. There’s very little contact between the back and the front part of the shop, which serves Sherlock – and Mr Chopra, he supposes – just fine.

Around noon Mrs Chopra will come bustling through the door that leads out to the tiny backyard, hefting two metal tiffin boxes fusing the air with mouth-watering exotic aromas. Mrs Chopra’s person is equally unmistakable, her buoyant personality contrasting with her husband’s severity as starkly as the day’s cheeriness offsets the night’s murky gloom. Chins riding proudly atop her shuddering bosom, flesh toppling over the edge of her sari like the coils of a fat snake coiled tenfold around her waist, she exudes a strong whiff of maternity that has Jojo grovelling at her feet the moment she enters. In her turn she basks in his attention as she coos over Jojo as if he were the prodigal son, returned to the – excessive Sherlock can’t help thinking – fold at last after finally admitting the error of his ways. Childless and thousands of miles apart from her family and native city she’s taken to adopt the waifs that wash up in her husband’s shop as her own.

While Jojo first exclaims over and then delves into the tiffin boxes content Mrs Chopra leverages her ample backside onto a groaning chair with so much huffing and puffing and blowing Sherlock wonders whether she’s attempting to blow down the building’s flimsy walls.

It wouldn’t take much, he muses, eying the flimsy brickwork beneath the thin coat of paint while sampling an aloo samosa. On the other side of the table Jojo and Mrs Chopra – now fully enthroned – sit chattering away even as Jojo crams his mouth with food, which neatly explains the appalling stains on his sweaters.

“Have another samosa, Eddy,” Mrs Chopra urges. “You’re still thinner than a stalk of bamboo. What did your mother feed you when you were a toddler?”

“Thank you, Mrs Chopra,” Sherlock replies in his gentlest tone. “But I’ve already had two and they’re really quite filling.”

Excessively so, in fact.

Mrs Chopra glares and shakes her head at him. “That way you’ll never properly grow up and will always remain such a sorry sight as my Deepak,” she warns, wagging a fat finger at him and her bindi bravely surfing her furrowing brow. “Women don’t want scraggly things like you, they want a man with a bit of heft.”

“I’m not interested in women,” Sherlock sighs. Sooner or later every conversation with Mrs Chopra dwindles down to the subjects of marriage and progeny. Both topics have long since lost their entertainment value for Sherlock. However, it takes more to dissuade Mrs Chopra from her favourite conversation theme.

“Nonsense,” she declares, the red dot on her forehead jumping up and down to emphasise her meaning. “A clever boy such as you has a duty to his country. You have no better way of serving it than populating it with equally clever children.”

“There’s a flaw to your reasoning,” smirks Sherlock.

“Oh yes? And what’s that, eh?”

“There’s no way to guarantee my offspring would be as clever as I am. Imagine the child turns out to be a complete idiot. Most people are, after all.”

“Oh.” She flaps her hands at him. “You’re impossible.”

“Only a few seconds ago you deemed me clever.”

“Eddy,” Jojo cries out, spraying the table with tehari biryani in his haste to defend Mrs Chopra.

“What?” exclaims Sherlock, not bothering to suppress a massive eyeroll. The notion of Jojo jousting on Mrs Chopra’s behalf is simply ridiculous. The woman is at least as formidable as Cook and perfectly able to hold her own against anything Sherlock might wish to deposit on her doorstep.

“It’s all right, Keith. You’re a good boy,” says Mrs Chopra. “And you—” another shake with the finger at Sherlock, “—are very naughty.”

“And clever.”

***

And bored. Oh god, he’s so bored he wants to bang his head against the wall of his tiny bedroom. If only he had a set of plush toys to tear apart.

Each day is the same repetitive drudgery of the alarm clock going off, a slog in the revolting shower cubicle with its perpetual clot of pubic hairs and other indeterminate blobs and splodges swirling around the equally perpetual semi-blocked drain, tea and the traipse to Roman Road together with Jojo. There they engage themselves in mending appliances any moron armed with a proper screwdriver and a roll of insulating tape could easily repair themselves if they weren’t as stupid as they apparently are. Then it’s back to Cyrus Street to find Brian ensconced in front of the telly swilling the last dregs from his second can of beer.

The evenings are just as tedious. Every now and then he attempts playing the violin but this inevitably ends with either Brian or the neighbours shouting to cut out the racket – or worse, drowning the music in the thumping basslines of some inane pop music. Some evenings, for lack of having anything better to do, he and Jojo join Brian in his pub – The Camel. Its close situation to Cyrus Street appears to be the chief reason for Brian’s attachment to the local for he spends his evenings grumbling about the outrageous price of the beer and the dismal quality of the birds before staggering home with one of the latter on legs unstable from the quantity of ale he’s consumed.

The ale upsets Sherlock’s stomach and gives him a headache so he sits nursing a G and T for hours at a time instead. As long as his fingers stay curled around a half-full glass all but the boldest of men and women are discouraged from offering to buy him a drink. Sherlock considers it an excellent strategy to keep unwanted attention at bay. Sadly, it also continues to provoke Brian into issuing a stream of bitter comments.

“You some fuckin’ dickweed?” he enquires, his voice high with indignant disapproval. “She’s gagging for you to trek up salmon canyon and you tell ’er to go stuff ’erself? Ye could ’ave thought of your mates, shithead. Jojo ’ere is up for it.”

“I’m no’,” protests Jojo. “You' off ya trolley, ya righ’ idio’.”

“Why don’t you go and sit somewhere else if my behaviour oppresses you,” Sherlock tells Brian whose answer consists of swigging half his glass and burping loudly before announcing he’s not going to waste another second in the company of two bloody pervs and heading for the loo.

“He’s a perv himself,” Jojo says hotly.

Sherlock shrugs. “He’s boring. Everyone here’s boring.”

“Well.” Jojo licks his lips. “Tha’ blonde ove’ the’ has nice boobies.”

Sherlock drowns his groan in his G and T.

“Wha’?” Jojo asks in a defensive tone. He lifts his glass of ale and drinks. When he puts it back on the table he gulps, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down on the fat of his neck. It’s a busy night and the steam rising from the heaving throng of bodies assembled in the small room beads on the windows. However, the heat isn’t the only explanation for the blush that has overtaken Jojo’s face when he turns to Sherlock.

“Don’ you eve’,” he says. “You know? I mean, ’e’s a prope’ ’angin cak but ’e’s righ’. Ye could ’ave anyone you wan’. You could ’ave ’er. The blonde with the ti’s. She’s checkin’ ye ove’.”

“Oh please, not you as well,” Sherlock grouses. “How often do I have to repeat myself before you all get it into your thick skulls I’m not interested.”

“Bu’.” If Sherlock weren’t so exasperated Jojo’s expression of utter befuddlement might amuse him. “I’s only na’ural,” the boy bursts forth. “Hormones. I was readin’ all abou’ i’ las’ week in the library.”

“Can we change the subject?” Sherlock arches his eyebrows. “Hormones are boring.”

“No they’re no’. You think everythin’ is borin’.”

“Everything, not necessarily. Hormones, definitely.”

“Awlrigh’.” Jojo scrubs a hand over his face. “Wanna play ba’l ships Go’ a pen with you?”

Obediently Sherlock flips over one of the beermats on the table and starts drawing a grid. Jojo has already become completely absorbed in the task, tongue peeking out as he sits contemplating the best way to arrange his ships. He’s so bent on his task he’s unaware of Sherlock’s scrutiny of his face. It’s like reading a book for the visually impaired with half-an-inch high lettering. Briefly Sherlock considers telling Jojo to screen his face as well as his beermat. However, Jojo’s sincere awe and astonishment at Sherlock annihilating one ship after another is one of the few true pleasures he’s enjoyed in over a week. The moment passes far too quickly but at least for as long as it lasted he didn’t feel bored.

Not that bored.

***

Chapter Text

Usually John caves in first and endeavours to restore their easy intimacy but this time he doesn’t budge. The moment he enters the living room its surfaces disappear beneath an invisible layer of frost that’s nowhere like the bracing sparkling nip of a perfect winter day but rather resembles a gloomy fog that seeps slowly into bones already so numbed from cold the body has stopped shivering half an hour ago.

Sherlock remembers what it feels like; when the skin of your fingertips is insensate even to the warmth of your own breath.

Each morning they sit at their own side of the breakfast table, with Mrs Hudson flitting about and trying to draw them into a mutual conversation.

“It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” she says, as she has for the past one and a half weeks. Ignoring the pointed silence, she blathers on blithely, “pity I have to go to my quilting class. The weather is much too lovely for hanging about indoors.”

“I’ll take you out for a spot of tea at the Boathouse Café this afternoon,” John proposes gallantly. Meanwhile he’s glaring at Sherlock who assumes strategic cover behind the The Daily Telegraph.

“Oh, I’d love that,” Mrs Hudson jumps on the offer. “Sherlock—”

“No, thank you, Mrs Hudson,” Sherlock cuts her short. “I need to run a couple of experiments.”

“Oh.” Her face falls. “I had a go at your kitchen only yesterday. It took me hours to remove those spots from the lino.”

If anyone knows how to work on his conscience through sheer exaggeration it’s Mrs Hudson. Sherlock’s determined not to give in. Not this time, when John really ought to be the first to apologise. After all John’s the one who decided to inflict his unsolicited opinion upon Sherlock.

“Molly has arranged a lab for me at Bart’s,” he tells Mrs Hudson. “I’ll be gone for the rest of the day.”

“Oh.” Their landlady wouldn’t be their landlady if she didn’t know how to deal with unpleasant surprises. “Well. I’m sorry to hear that, dear. It seems like a waste of the first fine day we’ve had in weeks. At least take her out for lunch to thank her. She’s such a nice girl.”

Once he’s standing on 221’s doorstep Sherlock heaves a deep breath, pulling London’s polluted air deep into his lungs. For good measure he lights a cigarette. An elderly gentlemen walking past sniffles disparagingly. As if the smoke from Sherlock’s cigarette will do more damage to his lungs than the exhaust fumes of the bus rumbling past them.

Moron.

Mrs Hudson is right, though. The weather is indeed unexpectedly pleasant after the fortnight of wind and rain that has been swathing London in sodden blankets of all too real murk. On the spot, Sherlock decides to forgo flagging down a cab and to travel the three miles to Bart’s on foot. It’s not as if he’s in a hurry; the experiments are a face-saving excuse to escape the flat’s unhealthy atmosphere, rather than a necessity. Typically, Lestrade has called only once; for a case where the solution was so blindingly obvious Sherlock had already solved it before the DI finished speaking.

And now, to add insult to injury, the DI is holidaying in Greece with his wife in yet another doomed attempt to save his marriage. Of course Sherlock told him to save himself the money and them all the bother and accept the inevitable, but that had only ended with Lestrade informing him in a quiet voice he could shut it right now and get the hell out of his office. Obviously, once he returns he’ll admit freely that Sherlock was right all along – unlike some people Lestrade isn’t one to hold a grudge – but in the meantime his absence is inconvenient, and that’s putting it mildly.

After a last drag of his cigarette, Sherlock flicks the dog-end towards the ashtray on the nearest table outside Speedy’s. Childish pride swells his chest when the butt lands smack dab in the middle of the ashtray. Shoving his hands deep into the Belstaff’s pockets he marches off in the direction of the Marylebone Road.

If only John wasn’t more stubborn than the average donkey.

***

“…all I’m sayin’ is we should branch ou’ to compu’ahs,” Jojo is complaining. “I’ve bloody ’ad i’ with these dead ’angin’ ’oovers and irons. He’s a righ’ idio’ fo’ ignorin’ me, is Choppy.”

“What does it matter?” Sherlock answers, listlessly. It’s only eight fifty-five and they have nothing to look forward to but the infinite drudge of the day unrolling itself minute after interminable minute. The loud toll of the doorbell in the shop announces yet another customer and another dreary patch-up job. He snips off two inches of electrical tape and folds it neatly around the wire of the iron in front of him. Having a dig at a computer would indeed be more interesting than tackling broken household appliances but he’ll manage to survive another few months of utter boredom before confronting Mycroft and claiming his part of the inheritance. The Academy is a forgone write-off – he absolutely refuses to reflect upon the matter. Later, perhaps – but Mr Talbot will help him with his Cambridge application. Once he has the free range of some of the world’s most extensive chemical labs this dingy backroom will be nothing but a dim memory, soon to be forgotten.

“Wha’ does i’ ma’e?” parrots Jojo, waspish disbelief undertaking serious attempts at wiping the usually benign expression of his round cheeks. “Wha’ does i’ ma’e? Ou’ jobs, you righ’ idio’—”

“Hush,” hisses Sherlock and perks up his ears, a shiver of indeterminate unease running down his spine. Somehow the sounds from the front of the building are off-beam.

“Wha’…?”

At Sherlock’s glare Jojo cuts off and starts listening instead. His eyes widen and he shoots Sherlock a gander that Sherlock acknowledges with an equally quick bob of his head.

Given the amount of time that has passed since the doorbell rang they should by now intercept the gentle murmur of Mr Chopra’s voice and that of the customer, wrestling for the correct price for the service to be rendered rather than the tense silence that comes billowing down the tiny corridor in waves. Something’s definitely off.

Slowly, Sherlock unlaces his trainers and motions for Jojo to do the same. Jojo’s eyebrows climb all the way up to his hairline but he complies, suppressing his huffs as he bends with some difficulty. His hard graft almost comes to nought when his head jerks up at a sudden bellow from the direction of the shop, causing the back of his skull to collide with the edge of the table.

“Shut yer’ fucking trap, ye’ smarmy wog, and hand me the cash!”

“Bollocks.” The pitch of Jojo’s voice has risen two octaves from sheer panic. And the pain, perhaps, for he winces as he rubs his head fervently. “They’re muggin’ the shop.”

“Seems like it,” whispers Sherlock. “For God’s sake, keep your voice down. You’re hollering loud enough to alarm them.”

“Bu wha’ do we do?”

“Stop them, obviously.” After easing a couple of tie wraps and a stanley knife from the jumble of cords, wire and tools on the table Sherlock leverages himself up from his chair. His stockinged feet slink over the scruffy floorboards, careful to avoid the fourth from the door, which has a tendency to creak.

“Eddy?” Although his body trembles like a jelly pudding Jojo rises as quietly as Sherlock, circumvents the table, and slithers to stand beside him. “We should warn the police,” he says under his breath.

“The cash, ye’ stonking sad Paki, this is a piece and I’ll use it if ye’ don’ gimme the cash right now! Jesus motherfucking Christ, are ye’ crackers, or wha’?” Mr Chopra’s unwelcome guest is shouting.

Respect for Mr Chopra’s aplomb flares up in Sherlock in parallel with Jojo grabbing his arm in a death grip.

“There isn’t time to go to the police.”

“Bu’ ’e’s go’ a gun.” Jojo has ambled so close to Sherlock his knees are knocking rhythmically into Sherlock’s calves. Sweaty fear oozes from his skin and beads his forehead with translucent pearls. He will be as much use as a new-born kitten helping to overcome Mr Chopra’s attacker.

“He’s more afraid than you are,” Sherlock says in an undertone. “You can tell from the pitch of his voice. Remember what we practised in class yesterday?”

“Yeah, bu’ the’ weren’ no bloody ’angin’ guns in class.”

“You don’t say,” scoffs Sherlock. “But we have surprise on our side. Here, take these.” He squashes the knife and tie wraps into Jojo’s trembling hands. “I’ll take them down and you tie them up. Come on.”

The dense stench of terror permeating the corridor slaps Sherlock in the face as he yanks open the door to sprint to the front of the building. Through the frosted glass of the window in the door that separates the shop from the back loom the silhouettes of two figures in dark clothes with balaclavas pulled down over their heads. One is threatening Mr Chopra, waving with his right hand over the counter separating them, while the other has remained near the shop door. Even as Sherlock tries to get a measure of the figure there’s a sudden flicker of metal in front of his chest.

Without further ado Sherlock dashes through the door and vaults straight for the man threatening Mr Chopra. He launches himself with a leap into the small of the man’s back, reaching with outstretched hands for the balaclava. The man grunts and collapses, his buckling knees aiding Sherlock in grabbing the wool covering his skull to bang his forehead against the counter top – hard. The clatter of the firearm hitting the floor is nearly drowned in the heavy thud of bone on MDF. Sherlock lifts the man’s head and slams it into the counter top again. There’s a loud crack.

Mr Chopra’s face is an ashen mask, waxen and glistening with mortal dread, its colour merging fluidly with the drab wall he’s supporting himself against.

“Edmund, behind you!”

His chin lifts in quick warning. Sherlock pivots and springs aside, out of reach of the maniac lunging at him with the outsized knife raised high over his head. It is clearly too heavy for him to wield properly – and the blade could do with some sharpening Sherlock concludes as he observes the blunt edge – but it’s a formidable weapon nevertheless. Together with the worry for his associate and confusion at the unexpected turn of the tables the man is as dangerous as a tortured bull driven into the arena. Except in the dingy shop there’s no one to cheer on the toreador, only the beast’s disgusting snorts.

“Jack,” the man is shouting even as Sherlock ducks to avoid the arm and the knife. “Jack!”

Shiny steel flashes past Sherlock’s left side far too close for comfort. Sherlock slams a fist into the man’s sternum. His opponent is a bull in strength as well for he doesn’t so much as gasp but stabs the knife wildly at Sherlock again. The blade glances off Sherlock’s shoulder. Had it been sharpened it would have sliced straight through his jacket’s thick fleece. Sherlock barely has time to breathe in relief before the man thrusts at him again.

Always fight fair, John’s voice warns Sherlock, incongruously. Surely not when I’m fighting for my life?, he answers and as he rolls himself onto the floor and out of the knife’s reach. No. John smiles and winks. But then you should go for the groin. Grab him by the jewels.

An unappetising prospect but a kick will serve the same purpose. Last Tuesday the whole lesson was devoted to jumping to one’s feet and kicking out in one smooth motion. Sherlock just wishes he were wearing his leather soled Oxford’s for good measure. The knife slips from the man’s hands as he folds and clutches at his genitals. Sherlock scoops it up from the floor and slams the haft onto the top of the man’s skull to render him unconscious.

High above their heads the clock over the corridor door starts chiming the hour. All in all the tussle lasted less than five minutes.

“Eddy!” Jojo hurls his weight into the room and throws his arms around Sherlock. “Eddy! A’ ye’ all so ‘ed?”

“Of course.” Sherlock tries to wriggle out of Jojo’s grasp. A sour odour wafts up from the great lump of meat and hits his olfactory nerves. “For god’s sake, Jojo. Don’t tell me—”

A deep blush overtakes Jojo’s round cheeks. “Yeah, yeah, I was so scared I pissed myself. I’m sorry.” But then his whole face lights up. “Bloody ’angin’ ’ell, Eddy. You lamped them.”

“So it seems.” Suddenly he’s trembling on his legs and glad for Jojo’s support, unappetising as it is. Perhaps the subsiding adrenaline, draining as quickly as it was roused, has momentarily dulled his sensitivity.

“We need to cuff them before we can call the police.” Mr Chopra’s voice cuts in. He’s let go off the wall to rest his right hand on top of the man laid prone over the counter. “Tie wraps will do. Go fetch a few, Keith.”

“Go’ them.” Jojo produces the plastic strips with a triumphant flourish. “Le’ me. I saw how i’s done on telly.”

“The great educator.” Sherlock rolls his eyes but his eyebrows rise in admiration for Jojo’s swift and assured handiwork. After cuffing each wrist with a tie wrap he secures them with the aid of a third before proceeding to rope the forefingers and middle fingers of both hands with a fourth.

“Neat,” praises Sherlock. Jojo flashes him a smile comprised of pure adoration mingled with gratitude. “Min’, inni’? You can take you’ ’ands of ’im, Ma Chopra. Tha’ bastard isn’ goin’ anywhe’ soon.” To prove his point he tugs at the strip linking the bound wrists before turning his attention to the man prone on the floor.

“Not anytime soon.” Mr Chopra has wrestled the balaclava from the man’s head and lifts an eyelid to confirm he’s still unconscious. “Except for the police station.” He bends over to pick up the gun. “You best ring them, Edmund. My—”

Peering closely at the gun he starts chuckling, a reedy false giggle devoid of true merriment. “It’s false.” He cocks the trigger and pretends to shoot the ceiling. From the nozzle a small flame leaps up, splutters and dies. “Can you believe it?” Mr Chopra aims the lighter at himself and pulls the trigger again. The flare is refracted in the rivulets of perspiration crisscrossing his face. “Boom. And here I was praying to the Lord Shiva to preserve me.”

His eyes lift to settle on the poster of the terrible god – eternally young and beautiful, dancing in his circle of fire – that takes pride of place between the posters of Lakshmi showering the onlooker with gold, and jolly Ganesha, nearly squashing his poor vehicle from which he looks down on the small tableau of human folly laid to waste with amused indifference.

“The police, Edmund,” he repeats. “The telephone is over there in the corner, where it always is. What’s the matter with you, boy?”

Both he and Jojo stare at Sherlock who hasn’t moved since Mr Chopra first told him to contact the police.

“Are you all right, Edmund? Here, perhaps you should sit down?” Mr Chopra rounds the counter in unison with Jojo leveraging himself up with some difficulty from his position next to knife man who’s still passed out. “Y’awlrigh’, Eddy?”

“Yes, yes,” mutters Sherlock. “I…” He turns on Mr Chopra and grabs his hand. “Please, Mr Chopra, the police mustn’t know I’m here.”

“Why?” Mr Chopra frowns. Then he seems to become aware of the fast tremors running up and down Sherlock’s body, from the top of his head down to the edge of his limbs and back up again. “Edmund, you’re shaking all over. Come here and sit down. Keith, go fetch him some chai.”

“Bu’ the bloody ’angin’ bastards!”

Mr Chopra looks up from guiding Sherlock to his chair. “Keith, go. I trust you did a good job trussing them up.”

“Please, Mr Chopra,” Sherlock supplicates once Jojo has pulled the door shut behind him. “Let me go home before you ring the police. I didn’t turn up for work this morning. You can detract two days from my salary, I don’t mind...”

“Nonsense,” Mr Chopra cuts in. “Stop this. You told me you ran away from home. Keith did the same but he has no trouble with the police. What didn’t you tell me?”

“I can’t.” Desperate, Sherlock shakes his head. “It’s better if you don’t know.”

“Your name isn’t Edmund Norton, is it?”

“No. Yes!” By now Sherlock is panicking. More than anything he wants to jump up shove Mr Chopra out of the way and make a run for it. Except he doesn’t know where to run to. Oh, why did those stupid morons have to ransack Mr Chopra’s emporium now? If only they’d waited another three months. He wails in despair. “Yes it is, Edmund Norton, that’s who I am. But I don’t want to see my family ever again and they’ll come after me once they find out where I am. Please, Mr Chopra.”

“Your family might be looking for you, unlike Keith’s?”

At Mr Chopra’s question a vision of a wrathful Mycroft, wielding the sword of rectitude with his lips drawn in a benign smile of forgiveness leaps to the forefront. Sherlock can barely contain a shudder.

“Jojo – Keith that is, is the one who’s better off,” he pleads. “In three months I’ll be eighteen. Please, believe me, Mr Chopra.”

“Well, I don’t,” Mr Chopra says and folds his arms. “But it’s your life and your decision. Ah, Keith… good.”

Jojo has returned with a mug of chai and an offering of ginger nuts. “He’ Eddy. ’Angin ’ell, you look like ye’ve jus’ seen a bloody ’angin’ ghos’.” With surprising tenderness he lifts Sherlock’s hands from his lap and folds them around them around the comfortingly warm ceramic. “The’ ma’,” he says.

“We’ve just decided Edmund called in sick today,” Mr Chopra informs him.

“Wha’?” Solicitude forgot, Jojo jolts up like he’s been hit by a bolt of electricity. “Bu’ wha’ abou’ those two?” he gestures wildly. Beggin’ you’ pa’don, Ma Chopra bu’ the dibbles neve’ goin’ to buy you lamped those.”

“No,” concedes Mr Chopra, seriously. “The police probably won’t believe that. But according to Mrs Chopra you and Edmund follow some martial arts course, Baritsu or something?”

“Bartitsu,” Sherlock corrects over the rim of his cup. His lip curls at the despairing gander Jojo throws him. “You can do it, Jojo,” he encourages in his most convincing tone. “Those kicks we practised last Tuesday would take down anyone who’s unaware. Especially such a pair of profound morons.”

“Bu’,” Jojo whines.

“We’ll have no buts,” Mr Chopra decides. “You’ll be a hero, maybe even have your photo in the paper or on the telly. It might lead to those ruffians always pestering you giving you a wide berth in the future.”

“No one will believe I walloped a dead ’angin’ bloke twice my size. With a knife!”

“Not a very sharp knife,” Sherlock mitigates. “Jojo, please. Remember my mother?”

The question is rhetoric for Sherlock has never clarified Jojo’s assumptions about the woman, only added through vague hums and nods to the horrific facsimile Jojo has drawn – modelled upon unpleasant personal experience. The mere mention of mothers in general however, has Jojo up in arms pronto.

“I really don’t want her to find me…,” Sherlock goes on in his most beseeching tones, “…and she will if it’s my face in the evening news. Please, you’re my friend, aren’t you?”

More than ever Jojo looks like a giant, friendly teddy bear, stuck between a rock and a hard place by a cruel four-year-old. “Yeah, bloody ’angin’ hell.”

“Prove it, then.”

***

After escaping through the backdoor, Sherlock heads straight for Cyprus Street. There he burrows in the sanctuary of his bed with the duvet pulled over his head and clasping the Guarneri tight against his chest, ears sharpened to intercept the tiniest noise. Below the window, ordinary life continues, male voices arguing, a whining child, cars rumbling past, the inane blather of skiving teenage girls, the blare of an ambulance hurtling down Old Ford Road. Each second he expects the wail of a police siren and tires screeching to a halt in front of the house.

The scratch of a key in the front door has him whimper in fear until the soft tread on the stair tells him it’s Jojo.

“Eddy,” Jojo hisses outside his door. “Eddy, a’ you in the’?”

Sherlock scrunches his eyes shut so tight it hurts. After a knock the screech of unoiled hinges reveals that Jojo has opened the door. He approaches the bed. The sour smell of fear, urine and sweat is so strong Sherlock has to hold his breath to prevent himself from gagging.

“Oh,” Jojo says, disappointment added to the mix. “You’ sleepin’.”

He sighs and exits the room, leaving Sherlock a smelly souvenir of his visit. Once the gurgle of the pipes in the kitchen below informs Sherlock Jojo has decided upon a shower he dares sneak out of bed and open the window for some fresh air. The bang of the front door falling shut soon after tells him Jojo has returned to work again.

Sherlock buries himself even deeper beneath the duvet.

All the afternoon he waits for the discreet purr of an expensive car drawing to a halt beneath his window, the scornful slap of leather soles on the pavement, the loud and insistent ring of the bell followed by the order to breach the front door. Instead, around four thirty the door is flung open with such force it crashes into the corridor wall to admit Brian, home the earliest as usual. Sherlock lies listening to the compilation of noises Brian produces. There’s heavy grunting as Brian works his dumb bells, followed by the sound of running water which means he’s showering. The loud thud of the fridge door and the indeterminate garble of the TV announce Brian has installed himself on the sofa with his beer and his feet up on the coffee table.

Half an hour later the doorbell is pulled twice sharply, the front door forcibly dealt with again and the racket of a bitter clash tells Sherlock that Wright has come to collect the rent and find fault with his tenants.

“It’s you that gives me grief, Mr Taylor,” Wright is shouting. “Not the other two. First the bloody telly and now those dents in the laminate. Those damned weights of yours.”

“Hey, look, ye old fool,” Brian is roaring, no doubt spraying the floor and the furniture with beer as he brandishes the can to bolster his claim of innocence. “Do ye’ fucking twig my measure? I could crush yer’ filthy neck with my scuddy mitts, ye’ scum bag. I never dropped those dumb bells.”

“Who’s the scum bag here, I wonder, Mr Taylor. Who’s the scum bag?”

“I shell out the fucking rent, don’t I?”

So the shouting continues for another half hour until Sherlock is so weary from listening he carefully transmits his violin back to its case before dropping off into a deep, dreamless sleep.

***

“Hey, Eddy.”

Irritated, Sherlock swats at the fat blue bottle fly on his shoulder. It buzzes off, only to return in less than a second, droning even more insistently.

“Eddy! Hey, wake up. It’s Jojo.”

Still half-asleep, Sherlock squints for a disconcerting eyeshot of a widely grinning Jojo. “I’m famous,” the spectre announces. “Look.”

He shoves a copy of the Evening Standard into Sherlock’s face. The top half of page three is devoted to a huge full colour photograph of Jojo and Mr Chopra in front of the shop. The shop’s lurid slogan Deepak Chopra It Isn’t Broken Until We Can’t Fix It wars with an equally lurid headline on the page, that reads Go ahead. Make my day!. In overworked language the main article renders the story of Jojo’s valiant vanquishing of the muggers who threatened his boss. A quarter column is devoted to a short exposé on the history and technique of Baritsu.

“Idiots,” Sherlock scoffs, before handing the paper back to Jojo. “So they lapped it all up. The police too?”

“Yeah, they we’ awlrigh’. Jus’ noted i’ all down. Bloke said the’d been lots of muggings lately and they hoped they’d caugh’ the blokes wha’ did them. Everyone believed tha’ piece was fo’ real.”

“I thought it was a real gun as well.”

“Ye’ totally off you’ rocke’ if you did and still wen’ for those cun’rags,” grins Jojo. “I still feel like a prope’ ’angin’ idio’ fo’ goin’ alon’ with you’ cak plan. Tom’s neve’ goin’ to fall fo’ i’. And…” His face muscles work through a range of awkward gymnastics. “I feel rotten fo’ stealin’ you’ thunde’.”

After propping himself up on his elbows, Sherlock fixes Jojo with a steady look. “Believe me, right now Tom’s opinion on the matter is the least of my worries. And I would be in dire straits if it were my face in that paper.”

Jojo sighs and scrubs a hand over his forehead. “Yeah, you’ Mum. She’s go’ to be chums with some really importan’ fucke’—”

Whatever Jojo was planning to say next is drowned in Brian’s mighty bellow that comes crashing up the stairs with the inexorable force of a tsunami.

”Jesus suffering fuck, Jojo!. Yer on telly!”

“Yeah,” Jojo shouts down, winking at Sherlock. “I banged ou’ two blokes today. So you be’e think twice befo’ slaggin’ me off next time, you spaz.”

“Sod you too, lardarse.”

Sherlock groans. “Either pack it in or get out, will you?”

“Awlrigh’. Scran’s ready in ’alf an ’our. And hey, did you clock? I said we do computahs and they pu’ i’ in.”

“That’s great,” Sherlock mutters at Jojo’s retreating back. To ward off further visits he jumps from the bed to lock the door. Back beneath the duvet he puts dusk’s dying light to use for an extensive scrutiny of the ceiling’s cracks. A fresh one has appeared since last week, in the corner nearest the door. At present it’s not more than a hairline but its already considerable length promises over time it might become a chasm as deep as that running from the window to the sink.

If only Sherlock could enter that chasm, like Alice climbing through the looking glass, to hide from the world, and Mycroft. This afternoon holed up under an inadequate duvet has taught him he won’t feel safe until the sixth of January 1995, which is still ninety-two days away.

For now it looks like both Mr Chopra and Jojo have given the police and the press the run-around. Rather than assuaging Sherlock’s unease, Jojo’s information terrifies him. If he’d been either a constable or a journalist one look at Jojo – so patently unable to hurt a fly, let alone hold his own in a fight – he’d have put the squeeze on him and Mr Chopra to get the truth out in the open. Which only goes to show people, even people paid to be inquisitive and wary, are nothing but idiots.

But then, Sherlock already knew that, didn’t he? The same hot blush of fury and indignation warms his cheeks again at the memory of his smaller hands tearing open the envelope to uncover that stupid balloon and novelty key ring with a little plastic police hat and the accompanying letter that was like a slap in his face. Four grammar mistakes and the cretinous moron who’d crafted the epistle – a Sgt Barnes Sherlock now remembers – hadn’t even done Sherlock the courtesy of spelling his name correctly.

Dear Sherlok,

And he was right. Is right. It is odd that the shoes weren’t in the locker.

For now, the police’s arrant asininity is to Sherlock’s advantage. If he hadn’t interfered this morning he would never in his life have been able to look into a mirror without a sense of shame. But in rushing head over heels to Mr Chopra’s aid he’d almost blown his cover. The moment either Jojo or Mr Chopra refuse to carry the can any longer and reveal who really worsted those numbskulls, he’ll be in over his head.

***

When Sherlock and Jojo enter the backroom the following morning, they find Mr Chopra waiting next to the thermos and an enormous cake.

“Edmund. Keith. I trust you both had a good night’s rest,” he greets them. “Take a seat. We must have a little talk.”

“Wha’ did Mrs Chopra say?” Jojo enquires. Focused on pouring chai and cutting slices of a dense cake, their employer refrains from answering. After carefully arranging the slices on bright crimson paper plates he stands and bows to Sherlock and Jojo.

“Mrs Chopra baked a Kerala plum cake to thank you both for your valiant behaviour yesterday.” He hands them each with a plate of cake and a mug of chai. “She will thank you in person later today but asked me to accept this offering as a token of her gratitude.”

Despite having breakfasted on two baked eggs and three rashers of bacon less than an hour ago, Jojo attacks his plate with a ferocious abandon Sherlock would have appreciated as backup yesterday morning. He sighs and sips at the treacly chai, wondering again when it will cause his teeth to drop from his jaws.

Mr Chopra waits patiently for Jojo to finish, his head bobbing on his long and scrawny neck like a child’s wiggle toy. “That was the good part,” he says, when Jojo sits licking the last crumbs from his fingers. “Keith, Edmund, I sincerely regret everything I’m going to say to you now. You’re both good boys and you don’t deserve this. But Mrs Chopra and I had a long talk yesterday evening and we agreed honesty is the best policy.”

A jolt of anxiety charges down Sherlock’s spine. With difficulty he swallows the sip of chai he’s just sampled and lowers the cup into his lap.

“I don’t pay your NI contributions, you’re aware of that, aren’t you?” Mr Chopra continues. “I can’t afford to, that’s the long and the short of it. So you’re not insured but at least you earn money and we all benefit, right?”

“ ‘Angin’ righ’,” Jojo confirms eagerly.

“Sadly yesterday’s events have lifted us from the shadows and into the spotlights. I didn’t want to disturb you straightaway, Keith, not after the morning we’d had and talking the situation over with Mrs Chopra but the police asked many questions about what you were doing here. I told them you drop by occasionally and help out a bit but I suspect they’ll send down someone to investigate. If they find out you’ve been working here without insurance I’ll get fined. I don’t have the money for that fine.”

Mr Chopra heaves a deep breath, as if gathering courage and settles his full attention on Sherlock.

“Mrs Chopra and I agreed it would be best if you, Edmund, make yourself scarce for a week or so. I’ll pay you half your wages for as long as you need to remain in hiding. We both feel very bad putting you in such a position after what you did but we see no other way. Meanwhile I will register Keith with the authorities and once the coast is clear you can come back. if you want to. Mrs Chopra and I do hope you will.”

“Course Eddy will, won’ you?” Jojo bursts forth. He’s been wriggling on his chair all through Mr Chopra’s carefully rehearsed speech. “O’ you could give them Eddy’s name.”

Sherlock stares at him in open horror but thankfully Mr Chopra has more sense than Jojo and he graces Sherlock with a wistful smile. “I don’t think Edmund would want that. Besides, he’d need an NI number. Have you got an NI number, Edmund?”

“No”, Sherlock splutters, “not now. And even if I did have one…”

“…you wouldn’t use it,” Mr Chopra finishes for Sherlock. “Not until you’re eighteen. So I reckoned.”

“Ah,” Jojo catches up sagaciously.

“Exactly. But let us return to the matter at hand.” Contrary to his words Mr Chopra appears unwilling to do so. Seconds drag by while he engages in an elaborate study of the tableau of his neat small hands, welded tight in the prayer position amid the perpetually untidy jumble atop the table. When he starts speaking again his voice is so soft Sherlock has to strain his ears to catch the words.

“The NI will cost me and I won’t be able to pay your present wages. You’ll both have to accept a cut. I’m sorry.”

Apparently Jojo is rendered speechless for once so it befalls to Sherlock to enquire, “By how much?”

“Oh.” Keeping his gaze locked firmly on his hands Mr Chopra sighs deeply. “I’m not quite sure yet, it depends. Anything between ten and twenty percent.”

“Tha’s bad,” Jojo mutters. “Tha’s bloody ‘angin’ bad. And all fo’ some crackpo’ taxes nobody wants.”

“Grousing isn’t going to help us,” sallies Sherlock. Mr Chopra’s explanation has shaken him to the very core. Any moment ‘the authorities’ can come swooping down on them even while they’re sitting here discussing the situation. And all because people insist on being stupid all the time. “I wish I had broken those godforsaken morons’ necks,” he cries out.

“Edmund!” Lightning-fast, Mr Chopra raises his chin to eye Sherlock as sternly as the gods he worships. “All life is sacred and not ours to decide upon. Even that of thieves and murderers.”

“For god’s sake, Mr Chopra, they tried to steal your money! They threatened you!”

“And you saved me, Edmund. Shiva himself must have sent you to us.”

“I’d rather he’d have kept those idiots from entering the shop,” Sherlock mutters under his breath. “Perhaps it’d be best if I don’t return at all,” he proposes.

Two mouths almost simultaneously issue a loud “No”.

“Out of the question.” Indignation furrows Mr Chopra’s brow. “Never, Edmund. Mrs Chopra and I won’t hear of it.”

“I’s ’angin’ ro’en bu’ we’ll make do. Now i’s been in the news we do compu’ahs as well, pe’haps we’ll earn mo’,” Jojo chips in, looking, as ever, on the bright side of life.

***

Contrary to Sherlock’s expectation his week of tactical leave passes by swiftly, far quicker than the average working week.

After waking like clockwork at seven Sherlock lies listening to the sounds of Jojo readying himself for another day. The knowledge he can linger amongst them the whole day if he wants to softens the feel of the coarse cotton sheets against his face. Once their right-hand neighbour has pulled his front door shut he kicks the duvet off and rises.

At first the Guarneri’s wood met his touch with aggressive hostility, stubbornly resisting his finger’s caresses and outright refusing to nestle itself properly in the crook of his neck. Coaxing the instrument back into compliance took him the better part of the morning. His heart leapt up when at last it yielded and offered him a soaring sweet note that ripped like a golden ray of the summer sun through the dismal grey rags of drab daylight mashing the window.

Now the violin is completely his again and he spends the mornings waltzing from his bed to the cheap clapboard wardrobe to the sink and on to the small desk on the snatches of music – long-remembered and improvised – that soar up and lend a glow to every object touched by the notes.

In the afternoons and evenings Sherlock wanders around London, filling in the gaps on his mental street map. Sometimes he pauses in an inconspicuous spot – a doorway or a bench on the South Bank to observe the throngs of people milling past. Whatever time of day, the multitude is as numerous as the flocks of doves squirreling between their feet and each person as intent on their individual ambition as the gulls scavenging the river shore and squabbling over a rotting piece of fish.

Sherlock listens in on snatches of conversation, watches the pickpockets and street cons at work, is asked for directions by addle-brained tourists with their nose stuck in a city guide. Blending into the walls of a parking garage with graffiti sprawled over every vertical surface like a curious disease eating away at the concrete he studies the punks on their skateboards and the junks methodically checking the car locks.

In a quiet back alley, hidden behind a skip overflowing with garbage, Sherlock encounters the bizarre vision of an immaculate Bentley, its silver coating shimmering like a jewel in an incongruous box of crumbling, soot-stained brick and potholed tarmac. Curiosity piqued, he ambles up to the car for a closer look, to hastily avert his eyes when they fall on the amorous couple in the backseat, the woman’s legs draped over the man’s bespoke-clad shoulders. His prime instinct is to run; the chalk stripe of the man’s jacket reminds him of the suit Mycroft was wearing on that hateful day and for a split-second he’s afraid he has indeed chanced upon Mycroft having it off with one of the girls in the typing pool until he realises the notion’s foolishness. Mycroft would never lower himself to the indignity of sexual intercourse in the back of a car.

The fact that other people would is disturbing enough and Sherlock flees from the spot. He doesn’t stop running until he reaches the safety of a busy thoroughfare where he collapses against a lamppost. London’s perpetual crowd files past him, never gracing him with as much as a glance, until his breathing is regular again and his hands are steady enough to light a cigarette with the required air of nonchalance.

Self-control restored, he proceeds to recover his bearings (a sign tells him Tooley Street and the sudden sharp whiff of brackish air in his nostrils informs him he hasn’t wandered too far from the river) and commences his patrol of the streets again, noting new cameras surmounted on facades and traffic signs, and discovering old mews and byways that allow him to avoid them.

***

Then there’s the NI problem to consider. If anything the incident has driven home the message that he needs some form of ID that proves his false identity, if only long enough to fool the police into turning him loose again. The second evening of his temporary freedom, Sherlock watches from a safe distance as the Met blocks in a street to round up the streetwalkers and their clients. If he’d rounded the corner three minutes earlier he’d be caught in the skirmish and a constable would be asking him to identify himself.

Unfortunately, Sherlock’s list of acquaintances working in the ID forging business is woefully short. The only person he can think off is Tom, whose list of acquaintances stretches far and wide and – as Sherlock has gathered in their brief conversations during classes – sports quite a few individuals who might be able to help Sherlock. He spends an evening on his favourite Meath Gardens’ bench debating the pros and cons of taking the man into his confidence. Caution battles with audacity and paints lurid scenarios of betrayal; complete with a larger than life tableau of Tom counting his thirty pieces of silver with Mycroft’s heavy-lidded withering glare grazing his back from high above. Audacity strikes back with a loathsome image of Sherlock seated in a dingy office at the local police station. The particulars are a little hazy as he has no idea what such an office would look like. Perhaps a bit like that of Mycroft’s PA except smaller – and without the walnut wainscoting. He replaces the picture with the interior of the countless job agencies he visited, the cheap carpet floor tiles, the metal desks with their dull grey formica tops. In the end, Sherlock decides the details aren’t that important. What is important is the picture of Mycroft staring down on Sherlock through a circular window in the door, the corners of his lips lowered in disapproval.

Sherlock watches himself jumping up from the office chair and striding to the door to close the blinds that have suddenly appeared in front of the window. The blinds merge with the door and turn a pale periwinkle, the colour of the blue morning room.

“Audentes deus ipse iuua.” Over the top of Sherlock’s head Daddy’s voice rumbles deeply. The tip of Sherlock’s finger traces the path of the first golden apple Hippomenes has rolled in front of Atalanta’s swift feet while Daddy’s points out the words in the poem on the page opposite the illustration.

“Now Hippomenes took a huge risk when he asked for Atalanta’s hand. So what do you think Ovid is saying here?” Daddy enquires.

“God himself helps…” begins Sherlock and falters.

“Very good,” praises Daddy, his other hand rubbing Sherlock’s shoulder encouragingly.

“Dauntless people?” Sherlock ventures and Daddy laughs and kisses him on the top of his head.

“Well done, my clever, clever boy. Now what do you think of ‘God helps those that help themselves’? Or even better; ‘Fortune favours the bold’. For Hippomenes was brave and clever. Mere valour wouldn’t have served him as the long list of his unfortunate predecessors showed. Hippomenes dared to accept his inadequacy, and ask the gods for help. Now that requires courage, and insight.”

“But Daddy—” objects Sherlock for Daddy’s words don’t make sense. Surely only the weak need to ask others for help, or very small children and Sherlock loathes being the youngest and Nanny always reminding him of his age. As if it is his fault he’s only five years old. He lifts his eyes from the illustration and turns his head…

“No.” Daddy’s fingers stiffen around Sherlock’s upper arm. “No, don’t look at me.”

But Sherlock must look, despite Daddy’s imploring him not to and he realises his mistake even as his lashes continue their sweep upwards.

Fat globules of blood splatter his face and the room’s tapestry blurs into a liquid veil of brimming tears. The briny taste of salt and iron fills his mouth. In his agony Sherlock has bitten the inside of his cheek. He rocks back and forth on the bench, holding himself, until at last he can breathe freely again and the drops of water coursing down his cheeks consist of nothing but filthy London rain.

The loss of control is worrying but for now Sherlock welcomes Daddy barging to the forefront without an invite for he has just handed Sherlock sound advice. In placing his trust in Tom, Sherlock will take his fate into his own hands rather than allow fortune’s fickle waves to toss him around at their leisure.

When Sherlock opens the blinds, Mycroft’s face looms larger than before. His features are twisted in a grotesque display of outrage, as if he were an actor in an early twentieth-century expressionist film.

Right there on the park bench in the sodding rain, Sherlock bursts into laughter, exulting in Mycroft’s impotent anger. A drunk shuffling past salutes him. Sherlock ignores the sorry figure, concentrating on his memories of Daddy instead.

Maybe he ought to build Daddy a room as well, next to John’s. Or – even better – an annexe. The blue morning room for consultations and the music room – the room that was the music room before she had to spoil it – for pleasure. Oh yes, that would be fantastic, to carry this chamber, this untainted memento, within his mind. Inside Daddy will be waiting for him, the amber glints in his eyes will sparkle as he regards Sherlock over the bridge, bow poised at the ready whenever the boredom threatens to suck him under.

***

The door to the bathroom doesn’t budge when Sherlock shoves at it. He pushes a little harder, putting his weight behind it, and finally it gives a little to reveal a rumpled bulk hugging the toilet bowl. Pathways of dried vomit lead from the island of regurgitated fish and chips floating in the bowl, over the acrylic jumper to Jojo’s mouth. Sherlock gags and claps a hand over his nose to block the acid stench that rises from the floor.

“You encouraged him making a fool of himself, didn’t you?” he snarls at Brian whom he finds in the kitchen with a scantily clad girl perched on his lap.

“Course, why not? Are ye off yer rocker?” Brian enquires and the girl snickers in a glaringly artificial manner. Sherlock wishes she’d properly do up the buttons of her blouse. “ appy as a pig in shit, ’e were. Mr Roman Road Superman.”

“You’re utterly disgusting,” declares Sherlock and turns his back on the revolting pair to prepare himself a mug of fortifying tea.

“ ’e were drunk as a skunk,” Brian presses on. “It were infuckingcredible, the whole pub stood him swipes. I pissed myself laughing.”

“It were a scream,” the girl puts in her two-penn’orth. “He were shitfaced, puking his bleeding guts out.”

“Could you two cut it out?” Sherlock grits between his teeth. “I’m not interested in your sorry tales of depravity.”

“Wha’ the fuck is he going on about?”

“Oh, dinghy,” Brian assures the girl. “ ’e never shuts that posh trap and it’s all total crap.”

“Whereas you would astonish the bard himself into awed silence with the gracious flow of your prodigious wit,” Sherlock responds in the archest tone on his repertoire.

“Huh?”

“Wha’s he waffling now?”

“Point proven, I’d say.”

The stunned hush that accompanies Sherlock on his sweep out of the kitchen is but a minor victory but he savours its sweetness nevertheless.

***

When the noises of retching coming from the corridor drown out the arpeggios Sherlock’s pulling out of his violin he stows it back into its case and sets forth for an inspection of the bathroom and its occupant. Jojo has levered himself up to his knees and hugs the toilet bowl; the very essence of abject misery.

“Still bad, I see,” Sherlock says.

“Go’ buzzin’ leathered,” Jojo mumbles. “My bloody ’angin’ ’ead ’hurts so much I wan’ to chop i’ off.”

“You’re a moron for trusting Brian,” Sherlock scoffs. “Wait here.” That admonishment, he muses, while retrieving his Marigolds from the kitchen, was perhaps unnecessary. Indeed, back at the loo he finds Jojo hasn’t budged by as much as an inch and is still gripping the bowl with the desperation of a shipwreck survivor holding onto a piece of flotsam for dear life.

“Come on.” Sherlock peels off Jojo’s right arm and yanks at it in an endeavour to leverage the smaller boy to his feet. “Up you go.”

Moving a Jojo-sized granite rock would be easier for at least the stone wouldn’t actively resist the attempts at manoeuvring. Sherlock is sure he’s sprained every single muscle in his back by the time Jojo gives up and lets Sherlock manhandle him to his feet.

Shower first, Sherlock decides, and propels Jojo towards the shower cubicle. The notion of peeling Jojo out of his vomit- and piss-stained clothes is so unappealing Sherlock doesn’t even pause but shoves the stinking heap straight into the tiny booth. There’s a brief but valiant struggle about self-support between Jojo’s dignity and his legs. The legs win for Jojo totters on them like a monstrous toddler straight out of Brobdingnag before collapsing onto the floor. Thankfully not on top of the drain.

“I’m putting on the water now,” Sherlock warns.

Jojo groans when the water hits him. Sherlock pulls the doors to the cubicle shut – after toeing an elbow out of the way..

The living room is mercifully empty as he heads through it to Jojo’s room at the back of the house. One look in Jojo’s wardrobe reveals who initiated the filing system in on the worktop in in the back of the shop. At least the clothes smell fresh; a boon as Sherlock has to spend considerable time rooting through the jumble to find a pair of matching socks. Revulsion ripples up his arm when his questing hand brushes a porn magazine.

Back in the bathroom he hangs clothes and towel over the edge of the sink and waits near the open door for Jojo to gain control of his senses again.

At least three minutes pass before the mound on the shower floor moves and starts making noises more or less resembling human speech. Sherlock ponders what would irk him more; the total loss of decorum or the slowly dawning realisation after. Oh, the shame of it.

“Eddy? Eddy, is tha’ you?”

“Yes.”

“Wha’s bloody ’angin’ goin’ on?”

“You drank yourself into a stupor yesterday evening,” explains Sherlock.

“Wha’? Why?”

“Perfectly sound questions the answer of which only you can provide. What and how much did you drink, I wonder. Two pints of ale leave you relatively unaffected. Five down and you start exhibiting signs of signs of mild euphoria. At eight you’ve lost all signs of your usual inhibition. The most I’ve ever seen you consume was nine pints and I was the one ending up with a headache then because you kept on blathering like a hermit freshly returned from his half a century in the desert.”

No elucidations emerge from the shower booth so Sherlock plods on. “Those nine pints consumed in the course of four hours were an impressive feat, not easy to surpass. Which suggests you have succumbed to the dubious pleasures of hard liquor, which you usually avoid, and for good reason. Seeing as the news of your heroics was three days old yesterday evening and thus forever lost in the realms of ancient history to The Camel’s habitués, Brian was the one to remind them of their obligations to the pillar of society you’d proven yourself to be. How could you be so thick-headed? You don’t have to explain. I just hoped you were smarter than that.”

Jojo disregards these observations to remark, “ ’Angin ’ell. My togs a’ all we’.”

“I considered leaving them on the most expedient means to ridding both you and your clothes of the worst of the smell.”

With what looks like an enormous effort even through the fogged-up opaque glass of the cubicle doors Jojo hauls himself into a more or less upright position. “Chris’ on a bike. You’re bloody ’angin’ off your trolley, Eddy.”

“I’m not the one who ended up vomiting all over himself,” Sherlock points out. “I suggest you rid yourself of your clothes and get out of the shower. The loo needs a scrubbing.”

“I, I… awlrigh’.”

The sounds and occasional flash of a sperm whale and a giant octopus locked in mortal battle rise from the murky depths of the shower booth, enhanced by the occasional wet sally of an article of clothing over the top. Sherlock retrieves his rubber gloves and stashes the clothes into a plastic bag.

“Towel?” Jojo enquires at last.

Sherlock hands him the towel. “I’m up in my room,” he says. “Brian and his trollop left an hour ago. He’s managed to find himself an especially ghastly one this week.”

“Mint,” mumbles Jojo.

***

Later that evening the sounds of Brian and Jojo laughing together floats up to Sherlock’s room. He lowers the book he’s reading and waits for their voices to subside and the rumble of the TV to take over. Instead the merry noises increase, until a loud “cheers ma’ ” sends Sherlock scurrying for his trainers and his jacket.

The slam of the front door is accompanied by another howl of comradely laughter.

Sherlock shivers.

***

Typically, Mrs Hudson pounces on Sherlock the moment 221’s front door falls shut behind him.

“Sherlock!” she calls out from the kitchen. “Can you give me a hand, dear?”

He pads into the frilly room to find her bent over the sink with a plunger. “It’s the drain,” she explains superfluously.

One look at her face tells him the drain is functioning as perfectly as may be expected from mid-twentieth century pipes. “Oh,” she exclaims, exposed. “The silly thing was gurgling like it was about to blow up just a second ago. But why don’t you sit down, dear, and have a cuppa? You look a bit pale. You didn’t take Molly out like I told you to, did you, silly boy. And it being such a nice day. Me and John had a lovely time in the sun feeding the ducks.”

“Good for you,” Sherlock says and pivots on his heel to march into the hallway to find his egress blocked by an uncommonly forbidding Mrs Hudson.

“I said sit down, Sherlock, and remember to take that stupid coat off first. You’re not leaving this kitchen until you’ve had your tea with a slice of Victoria sponge and listened to what I’ve got to say to you.”

Protest is as futile as instructing a raindrop to withstand the sun’s blinding heat. However, Sherlock may have to endure his landlady force-feeding him but that doesn’t mean he also has to listen to her. With a long-suffering sigh he sheds his coat and perches on the edge of one of her kitchen chairs.

“Sit properly,” commands Mrs Hudson. “Really.”

Sherlock slightly adjusts his seating.

“There.” A cup of tea is deposited on the table. “Tea in first, just the way you like it. Now John has told me what your squabble is all about and I think you’re being a bit harsh, aren’t you?”

He’s known her long enough to know he doesn’t have to answer her… yet. Instead he spoons sugar into his tea and starts stirring.

“I mean, you and I are old friends, Sherlock, and the Detective Inspector knows all about you as well but even you’ll admit finding out about your former career must have been a nasty shock for poor John,” Mrs Hudson continues in a gentle tone. Cunningly, she uses the excuse of placing a platter heaped with cake on the table in front of him to briefly rest her hand on his shoulder. Sherlock shrugs it off, a gesture that doesn’t daunt her at all.

“There.” She takes the chair on the other side of the table. “Now dear, John is your best friend and we both know those are a bit thin on the ground. Why are you in such a fuss over his chancing upon that time you did those nasty drugs? That fake drugs bust the Detective Inspector didn’t faze him and you’d only just run into each other then.”

Pointedly ignoring her, Sherlock sips his tea.

“Oh.” She laughs in that knowing manner she has. “You’re going to give me the silent treatment, aren’t you? Well, that’s all right as long as you listen to what I’ve got to tell you. Here.”

Quick as lightning she reaches over the table to grab his hand, surprising him again. “Oh, Sherlock,” she says, and squeezes his fingers. “You’re such a silly boy sometimes. Of course John was shocked when he read that email. And of course he shouldn’t have but he’s not the only one to poke his nose where it isn’t wanted. You should know.”

Mrs Hudson falls silent and gives his hand another squeeze, a deliberate cue that he’s allowed to speak up for himself. For a moment Sherlock wavers between keeping up his sullen contemplation and confiding in her. After all she does, indeed, know everything about him and she’s never so much as batted an eyelid, only held him close and comforted him when he was at the end of his tether.

In the end he settles for a sniff and a bite of her cake. It actually tastes good but then that was only to be expected.

Mrs Hudson sighs. “Desperate people do desperate things, don’t they, dear? John knows that all too well. Do you two ever really talk, I wonder?” After a short pause she carries on, “no. I suppose not. Men are such silly creatures. Did you know John was thinking of doing himself in, when you two first met?”

Sherlock’s head shoots up. “Ah, see, I thought not,” she prattles on, unabashed, pooh-poohing Sherlock’s ferocious glare with a flick of her wrist. “Oh, don’t give me that, young man. He thinks you’re actually clever and sussed it out a long time ago but were too delicate to refer to it. You and delicate.”

Her snort is a close imitation of the most derisive ones in his repertoire but her tone is gentle as she continues, “I won’t let the cat out of the bag, don’t you worry. No use in dashing your high standing even further. But you could try and get your knickers out of a twist and say you’re sorry.”

I’m sorry?” Sherlock repeats, yanking his hand free from Mrs Hudson’s grip and stabbing the cake to vent his anger. “Whatever for? For not wanting to discuss my swish career as a rentboy, swapping tales from the times of yore I was so strung out I didn’t care half the time whether the men rogering me were actually wearing a condom. What’s the point? That’s not who I am now.”

“No, it isn’t,” Mrs Hudson agrees, “and yet it is, Sherlock dear. Don’t you see? We can never remake ourselves in a new image. I’m your dotty landlady who likes gossiping with the neighbours and the cashier at Tesco’s and Mr Chatterjee but you and I know better.”

“And would it make you feel better if they knew you were married to a murderer who ran a syndicate exploiting every human vice and weakness?” he asks, pinning her with the scowl that had Molly beat a hasty retreat less than three hours ago. Typically, Mrs Hudson doesn’t even blink.

“There’s no need to get shirty with me, Sherlock. I’m not ashamed of the mistakes I made in the past. And you shouldn’t be, either. You’re a good boy at heart, but you’re also an addict. You’re a pillock if you think I don’t know about that secret supply you’ve got stashed beneath the third floorboard under your bed. I may be old but I know this house like the back of my own hand and there’s nothing wrong with my eyesight, you know.”

“Wh… what?” splutters Sherlock.

“Oh, cheer up. I bought a set of those under the bed storage boxes at Ikea and filled them with old blankets so you’re probably safe if the Detective Inspector decides you could do with some breathing down the neck again. I trust you not to cave in. Frank always slept with his gun under his pillow, though I hated it. Made him feel safe somehow.”

“Yes,” he admits, flabbergasted by the conversation’s unexpected turn. It serves as a sharp reminder to never, ever underestimate his landlady.

She winks at him and produces a packet of Windsor Blue Superkings, the real thing; unlike those wishy-washy low tar gaspers Mycroft employs whenever trying to inveigle Sherlock into accepting yet another tedious job for some stuck-up acquaintance of his.

“Just the one, mind you,” Mrs Hudson wags her finger at him. “Those things are lethal, according to the packet. And open the window while you’re at it.”

Sherlock’s up and reaching over the worktop in one mighty leap. The first drag deep into his lungs is glorious.

“So,” Mrs Hudson says. “I’ve been greasing the skids for you but you’ll have to help John bury the hatchet yourself.”

Sherlock grins and shakes his head, going to great lengths not to look at her. “You’re a star, Mrs Hudson.”

“Oh,” she dismisses the praise. “One does one’s best, you know.” The empty teacups rattle in their saucers as she piles them in the sink. Sherlock flicks cigarette ash onto her bins before squashing the cig next to the cups. Then he reaches for her and wraps her in his arms and they remain standing like that for a long time.

***

Chapter Text

***

“… and I went to Cambridge,” Sherlock rounds off.

That moment, a volley of hailstones pelts 221B’s windows, underscoring the end of his tale in a fittingly grand symphonic farewell. Drawn curtains and a carefully fed fire notwithstanding, the loud rattle chills Sherlock to the bones; a frigid reminder of that bleak spring nearly half a lifetime ago when he was so miserably cold, so often.

He watches the finger of whisky waltzing around in the tumbler John rocks back and forth, back and forth, his attention seemingly riveted on the liquid’s ebb and swell. The tiny waves glow like fluid gold in the muted light thrown by the flames leaping in the hearth. In his head, Sherlock counts the passing seconds.

That afternoon, as he drew Mrs Hudson’s kitchen door closed and began his ascent of the seventeen steps to 221B, he felt the chasm of dread burst in his breast and widen with each step. The flat was devoid of John. Once his initial flush of relief abated, Sherlock grew increasingly anxious for John’s return. Now his courage was up and he was ready to disclose everything to his flatmate, no questions barred. Let him know the worst and prove himself the friend Mrs Hudson purported him to be, and if not—

—then their acquaintance had been fine while it lasted and good riddance to John Hamish Watson, Sherlock had told himself, not fully up to facing the deliberate falsehood of such a bluff.

Because, where John Watson is concerned Sherlock’s heart – and thanks to the man Sherlock must now admit he does have one – just doesn’t work that way. ”I need an assistant,” he’d told Lestrade the day he and John moved into 221B, and his assistant had been sitting there in what had so obviously been his chair even then, gaze hopping from Lestrade to Sherlock and back again with an intensity most people reserved for Wimbledon. An assistant – but more than just the average helper, John has proven himself to be Sherlock’s strength – and also, unfortunately, his greatest weakness. How did this all happen in little over a year?

When John eventually turned up, Sherlock suggested they order a takeaway – his treat. He refrained from smirking patronisingly upon hearing John’s desire for rogan josh, chole and bhatooras; just hit the send button on the text he’d composed earlier. When it comes to Indian food, John is as predictable in his choice as the average Briton and thank God for that. Thank God for good, steady, reliable John Hamish Watson.

Cartons cleared away, Sherlock busied himself laying the fire while John made a last half-hearted swipe at the kitchen worktop. Only once that was deemed clean enough did Sherlock produce the bottle of forty-year-old Laphroaig Lady Levison had presented him with after their return to London and invited John to join him in a drink.

That was two hours ago. Sherlock hasn’t looked John in the eye once while recounting his story. He has refilled their tumblers twice, restocked the fire with a fresh log ten times and tried to shut down the unease growing steadily from the crevice that had sprung up in his chest that afternoon.

I warned him once not to make me into a hero. No chance of that now. After hearing this he can’t but despise me. He thought me a clever genius. Some genius… A whoring addict. Well, not whoring any longer but an addict all the same. I should go searching for a different hiding place. Somewhere on the roof perhaps—

As in so many things with John this is a first, the first time Sherlock has voluntarily unveiled a less salubrious period in his life. Lestrade is all too aware, as is Mrs Hudson but they were there, later, when he’d sought solace in the cocaine and morphine again. Mycroft is a nuisance, insisting on poking his prying, pointy nose into Sherlock’s private life without an invite, and Victor… dear God in hell – what would have Victor made of that part of his history… Before and after?

At the edge of Sherlock’s vision, John’s hand lifts the glass. Sherlock’s eyes lift in unison to observe John’s lips pursing for a sip, and circle the edge to meet his eyes over the crystal’s rim. Their gazes lock, for an instant. Then John lowers his eyelids and the tumbler. His other hand comes up to rub his face.

“Christ.”

Mentally, Sherlock had braced himself for every conceivable reaction except the snort of laughter that shakes from John’s throat. Stupid oversight on his part. A giggle is John’s secret weapon. That’s why he’s such a great asset at crime scenes. Sherlock waits patiently for John’s fit of gaiety to subside. At last John hiccups and searches Sherlock’s gaze again. “I still say Mycroft is an insufferable git with a brolly stuck straight up his arse but right now I’m glad the snooty bastard exists.”

A heady sense of relief quells in Sherlock’s breast. John is not going to run out on him. Not yet, anyway.

“If it hadn’t been for him, if he hadn’t found you—” John’s merriment has vanished as abruptly as it erupted.

“Yes,” Sherlock says, simply. He takes a fortifying swig from his own tumbler, swills the peaty sweetness around his mouth before swallowing and appreciating the slow burn as it courses down his throat.

“Although I still think he’s partly responsible,” he adds. “He should have told me straight away… about John’s death. If he had none of this would have happened. Really, he’s pathologically determined to treat me like a child.”

“A dire trait in all elder siblings it seems,” John agrees easily, being the youngest himself. “Still, can you be so sure? Not about… well, those places you lived, but about the drugs themselves?”

Sherlock sniffs, considers, sips at his whisky again, sighs, “No, I suppose not. Sometimes, even now… the hateful boredom—” He presses his lips together, gathering courage to explain about his secret stash, but John is already nodding, head bobbing up and down fervently.

“I see. But…” For a moment John falters. “…you’re older now. Sadder and wiser. Isn’t that the expression? Though God knows when Harry will ever get wiser.”

Not now, Sherlock thinks. Some other time. If he were a brave man – if he were really, really brave – he would confess… But no, best not put fortune further to the test. Bravery is too often confused with outright stupidity and Sherlock won’t fall into that trap. Tonight John has taken much in his stride admirably and Sherlock enjoys bathing in the warm gaze of his compassion too much after the antagonising week they’ve had. Besides, he’s only caved in the one time since they took up residence in 221B and then it was for a case.

“That case we had with those Ukrainian teenagers—” John is chasing his own thoughts. “That… that must have been killing you. Brought it all back.”

“Yes.” Sherlock nods. No use denying the truth. He may not be totally honest but in this, at least, he can afford to be. “Except for them it was even worse. Those children had been deceived, smuggled to this country to be exploited. Everything I undertook, John, every vile act… I did it of my own volition.”

“You were a slave of the drugs.”

“True. But I chose that enslavement. If I’d wanted to, I could have quit.”

“Spoken like an addict.”

“Oh, please.” Sherlock angles his glass towards John. “Not on my own, I realise that. But all I had to do was ring Mycroft, I had his number, and he would have walked out of a meeting with the Queen herself to fetch me. Instead I waited until he found me. I relished wallowing in the filth and wretchedness too much. I imagined Mycroft finding me, belly-up with the knife still in my stomach. Lots and lots of blood and gore. I had quite a flair for drama in those days. The school rag had hailed me as one of the best Juliets in decades a few years previously so it only figures.”

“I’m convinced Mycroft matched each and every of those gruesome scenarios in his head while he was looking for you. Christ, this explains so much,” John groans. “You and Mycroft really should have a long heart-to-heart one day.” His smile is sad, showing he already anticipates Sherlock’s answer. “But that’s never going to happen, is it?

“Not if I can possibly avoid it.”

“Yeah, so I feared,” sighs John. His chin drops. “Please, I get your point but… I almost feel sorry for him.” His demeanour is so embarrassed and apologetic Sherlock has to put up a hard fight to suppress an amused huff. Still, he manages.

“Here’s to long-suffering elder brothers,” he offers instead, and raises his glass. John copies the gesture and they drink simultaneously.

After lowering their glasses they stare into the fire whose cracks and leaps and cheery noise emphasises the companionable atmosphere between the two men seated in front of it. Thus a quarter of an hour passes before John suddenly asks, “Have you replied?”

Sherlock, startled, blinks and shifts in his chair. “What?”

John gestures with his tumbler at the coffee table and Sherlock’s laptop perching on top. “Your housemate, Jojo. Did you reply to his email?”

“Not yet. Think. Who would we rather not be reminded of? Certainly those that witnessed our fall from grace. Most of all those attempting to prevent it.”

“He was a true friend then.”

“I suppose he could have been if I’d let him. If I hadn’t been a supercilious moron to begin with. And then suddenly it was too late…”

“You mean?” John looks confused.

“You know the saying, don’t you?” Sherlock gestures at himself. “What’s bred in the bone must come out in the flesh.”

“Meaning?”

“Mycroft inherited our father’s talent for shady backroom deals; I inherited his talent for the violin. But Mycroft and Mummy have nothing in common, that’s why they’re so devoted to each other.”

For a second John just looks bewildered, until understanding sweeps over his face. “She’s still alive, your mother, isn’t she?”

“I suppose so. Mycroft would pull out all the stops for me to attend the funeral, complete with ambushes and hostages. If he dares so much as lay a finger on Mrs Hudson he’s a dead man.”

Apparently the outline strikes John as quite feasible for he merely tips his head and murmurs, “She never charged you for that wall, did she? Do you think that means she wouldn’t object to us booby-trapping the landing?”

Relief billows over Sherlock and bathes his limbs, which, he realises, are as snappy-tight as over-tensioned violin strings. He ventures a tentative grin and then they’re both giggling, helpless and unable to stop, like that time Sherlock ripped Anderson’s elaborate theory to shreds less than three seconds after having ducked under the police tape.

“So you will answer this… Jojo’s…letter?” John enquires as Sherlock had known he would. Trust John – that best and most loyal of friends – to try and encourage others to uphold the same high standards of commitment to an honourable cause.

Sherlock stretches out his legs to the fire, luxuriating in its toasty warmth and inviting the flames to lick at the layer of hoar frost coating the inside of his ribcage. “I might, no, I will. He was going to go places and it’s good to know he got what he wanted. Brian always was an idiot. Just goes to show Jojo really is far too kind for this world if he’s still visiting him in prison.”

“I still can’t imagine you living like that.” John shakes his head. “Amidst such squalor. I mean,” here he inserts a tiny snort, “what the bloody… your shampoo! I actually looked it up on the internet, forty quid a bottle. That’s bloody insane, you know, who the hell washes his hair with shampoo that’s forty quid a bottle?”

Sherlock smirks. “Looked it up on the internet? I’m flattered.” Lifting the bottle of whisky he cocks his head and wriggles his eyebrows to ask John whether he wants a refill. “Who the hell drinks whisky that’s almost four thousand a bottle?”

“Wha—?” John raises his glass to goggle disbelievingly at the last few drops clinging to the bottom. “You don’t mean—?”

“Why don’t you look it up on the internet?” Sherlock suggests innocently.

“Jesus bloody Christ,” swears John and holds out the tumbler. “We drank… how much did we just down?”

Sherlock pours and checks the remaining level of liquid in the bottle through half-lidded eyes. “I’d say, about fifteen hundred pounds, more or less.”

For a split second John looks like he’s been hit over the head with a hammer. Then he chuckles, “Well, it was a worthy occasion.”

“And a lot cheaper than cocaine,” endeavours Sherlock, clinking his glass to John’s.

***

Late that Monday evening Jojo enters Sherlock’s room after a short knock. Having checked the door is closed properly he announces in hushed tones, “A plod dropped by today.” His fat cheeks wriggle dramatically.

Slowly, Sherlock lowers the copy of PC Advisor he’d been reading, inviting Jojo to spill forth the details. Taking the hint, Jojo shuffles a little further into the room and Sherlock’s personal space; eyes flicking from the violin to the improvised lab on the desk and small collection of soil samples Sherlock has obtained during his wanderings along the riverside; and on to Daddy’s plastic magnifier and the copy of The Computational Brain nicked from the Bethnal Green library. Curiosity sated, Jojo finds a tentative perch on the room’s only chair. Meanwhile Sherlock has used Jojo’s distraction to slap on a sufficiently aloof and disinterested front.

“Nosy bugge’ with some fa’ off name. Lesta’ o’ somethin’, real knotty.” Jojo’s brow knots in disapproval over the intricacies of pronouncing exotic-sounding names. “The bloody basta’ raked me ove’ the coals. Kept raggin’ me whe’ I learned to ban’ ou’ like tha’. I sa’ shittin’ a brick. If Choppy hadn’ come to the rescue I’d ‘ave given the game away.”

“Seems they’re not all idiots then.” Sherlock straggles to appear casual. “What else? Anything about the muggers?”

“Tha’s who go’ him snoopin’. Seems one of them said the bloke tha’ floored them was skinny as hell. My mug didn’ fi’, he said.”

Blind panic slams Sherlock straight in the solar plexus. Privately, he considers the nonchalant hum he produces his greatest acting feat. Mr Harrow would be ever so proud if he could see Sherlock now; slung languidly on top of a sagging bedstead without a care in the world, save for the tell-tale beating of his heart, thumping so loudly Sherlock is amazed the noise doesn’t appear to alarm Jojo. However, Jojo’s fidgeting is no worse than usual, intent as he is on his juicy piece of news, impatiently bouncing for Sherlock to coax him along to the next bit.

Heaving a deep breath Sherlock obliges. “What did Mr Chopra say?”

He prays for the imperturbable, small man to have retained his customary cool.

“Bawled him ou’ fo’ wastin’ ou’ time and tax payer’s money buggin’ law abidin’ citizens while criminals run rogue on the stree’ o’ some such cack. Said ’e was offended to hea’ the police paid mind to some bloody ‘angin’ scally’s glarin’ porky pies. I we’ almos’ sorry fo’ the dibble, excep’ he’d been givin’ me such a ribbin’ I we’ a well ’angin’ bundle of nerves. Then Mrs C. popped up…”

A wicked gleam sparkles in Jojo’s eyes.

“…and goodnight Lesta’,” Sherlock ends the sentence and the spark in Jojo’s eyes ignites and lights up Jojo’s whole face.

“Lamped by a sharabang ‘e looked.” Unholy glee paints Jojo’s features providing Sherlock with a faithful image of the unfortunate policeman cowering before the onslaught of Mrs Chopra’s unleashed fury, hurdling from one apex of maligned righteousness to the next in mind-boggling leaps that must have had the man hanging in the ropes and fervently wishing he’d never entered the premises by the time she was done with him.

“Do you reckon he’ll come back?” he enquires nevertheless. After all, once he’d made it out of the shop the man might have rallied his nerves and decided to pursue his intuition, a disconcertingly sobering thought, but valid. It’s what Sherlock himself would have done. For he may have counted on the struggle’s adrenaline surge and the following brief black-out to blur the image of his attacker in the mind of the second robber, the one that had the chance to observe Sherlock before he was knocked to the ground but now it seems that was a severe underestimation of the man’s acuity.

Jojo shrugs. “Dunno. Choppy said we should all stick with the story. Oh, and Mrs C. told me to ge’ you these and say you’re no’ to worry.” From the pocket of his hoodie Jojo pulls forth a small plastic bag. “Oh damn.” Lifting the bag he peers at the contents before handing it to Sherlock. “They go’ crushed. Sorry.”

Warmed by Jojo’s body heat, the polyethylene clings to Sherlock’s palm. His hand shakes with the discomfort, causing the ginger nuts crumbs to slither over the skin. Revulsion creeps up his arm and settles at the back of Sherlock’s throat. “Thank you,” he manages to gasp.

“I’ll tell ’er.” Mission accomplished Jojo resettles in the chair. “Do you reckon Tom’s goin’ to give us grief? I mean, if some plod can work ou’ wha’ happened,..”

More than anything Sherlock wishes Jojo would lift his behind of Sherlock’s chair and make himself scarce so he can ponder the implications of today’s events in private. If Jojo were anyone else Sherlock would have told them to get lost but somehow Jojo’s cheerful bonhomie disarms him. Vaguely, it whips up memories of the shed with John’s head bent closely over Sherlock’s and his broad steady hand guiding Sherlock’s as he wielded the soldering iron. Of course, the smells are all wrong, London’s tired exhaust fumes, the greasy takeaway Jojo had for dinner, the stink of the skip in the side alley and a bracken whiff of the river, carried all the way up here by the Regent’s canal perhaps, rather than John’s freshly-mown grass and moulded-leaves scent, overlain with a faint tinge of honey but Jojo’s ample frame emits the same sense of innocence. His soul is clean, Sherlock decides, and the only harm Jojo is capable of he’ll inflict on himself, as John did.

“Would you mind?” he asks, his voice swollen with tears brimming threateningly in his eyes. Angrily, he swipes his hand in front of his face, swatting at irritating flies.

“Err, Eddy?” Jojo’s expression is all shocked concern.

“Just go,” Sherlock grinds out. “Please.”

“Awlrigh’ bu’—”

“Go!”

Muttering apologies, Jojo propels from the chair and out of the room with bulk-belying swiftness, leaving Sherlock exhausted and drained. He hurls the repellent bag of crumbs across the room into the wastebasket next to the sink and wipes his hands on the duvet cover. When he lifts them to his face they still reek of plastic and Jojo and ghee turned rancid. Heaving a sigh of annoyance, Sherlock climbs to his feet to scrub his hands at the sink. He devotes minutes to the task, ferociously attacking his nails with the brush until the skin is soaked with the soap’s cheap, artificial fragrance. Which is debilitating in its own way but a nuisance he has learned to cope with at least.

***

Over the course of the past week, the community centre has transmogrified into the buzzing hive of public activity the architects no doubt envisaged while designing the building. A swift head-count adds up to forty people keen to acquire a deeper knowledge of the intricacies of Bartitsu. Near the main hall’s door Tom takes stock of the burgeoning mass. When he notices Jojo and Sherlock a wide grin splits his face.

“Ah, me fav tyro,” he greets Jojo. “Ye’re the single fuckin’ best ad for me business, mate. We got twenty extra people, this evening. Sixteen yesterday a’ Southwark, twenty-four a’ Hackney Friday las’. I’ll stand ye a pint after class.” A meaningful wriggle of Tom’s eyebrows includes Sherlock in the invitation. Instantly, Jojo’s colour flashes from its everyday pastiness to a vividly glowing red, as if he’s swallowed a 100 watt light bulb and someone has flicked the light switch. “I’ is…,” he mutters.

“…none of me business,” Tom brushes aside whatever explanation Jojo meant to sell. “We’ll giv’ ’em a demo. Doesn’ matter if you’re the one tha’ goes arse over tit coz’ I’m the guru, savvy?”

“So’ed,” Jojo agrees readily; the relief Sherlock feels etched onto features gradually assuming their natural hue. Stoically, he undergoes Tom’s introduction – “the Roman Road hero hisself. Two armed lags tha’ neve’ knew wha’ hit ’em and he ain’t half started his courses here” – and the carefully staged demonstration for which forty pairs of hands reward him with warm applause further embellished by whoops and catcalls from a few daring individuals.

The evening unfolds into a particularly refined form of emotional agony that easily tops the ancient Chinese water torture method for the sheer mental distress it inflicts on the victim.

“Perhaps you should le’ me win this time,” Jojo whispers when Tom divides the group into pairings to practice a new grappling technique. The rational part of Sherlock’s mind may readily sanction the suggestion’s logic but the lowest, most primitive part – that part he likes to pretend doesn’t exist – bristles as he suffers Jojo’s clumsy attempts to wrestle him to the ground. By the time Tom calls it a day Sherlock’s poise is chafed raw and a fierce headache taps a slow and sonorous drumbeat of doom against his cranium.

Thankfully, Jojo is surrounded instantly by half of the class anxious for a straight-from-the-source version of last week’s events, which provides Sherlock with a chance to approach Tom unobtrusively.

“Eddy, mate.” The grin reappears, as sharp as shark’s teeth and for an instant Sherlock tethers on the brink – debating whether he wouldn’t better try and search elsewhere for a solution to his particular problem – before heaving a deep breath and taking the plunge.

“I need some kind of ID.”

“Ah.” The grin widens and Sherlock finds himself racking his brain for the most aggressive shark species, was it the great white or the tiger? Not important, he inwardly slaps himself.

“So I we’ right in me fancy. You two almost had me. Excep’ I reckoned… how’s the sayin’? Ah, yeah, the mind is willing bu’ the flesh is weak. Fits, eh?”

“Not a difficult leap. You’ve had the advantage of seeing both of us in action.” Sherlock shrugs, deliberately careless. “The police hasn’t, fortunately and I need to stay below their radar. So do you know someone who’ll help me acquire an ID? Passport, driving licence, anything?”

“Do I ken anyone?” muses Tom, stroking his chin with gentle fingers in preparation for a thorough analysis of every conceivable aspect of Sherlock’s character. Or rather, Edmund Norton’s. “Funny, I we’ wondering what’s yer story? Who’s ever heard of some fuckin’ weirdo name like Edmund. Then there’s yer colour, that’s all wrong and yer lingo, like ye’re one of them fancy toffs from telly. Ye’re not real, mate.” Head cocked, he looks Sherlock up and down as if calculating his net worth.

Fear slams into Sherlock. Christ, what has he done? Has he made the wrong decision after all and is Tom going to run straight to the police? Already a sleek black limo pulls to a halt in front of the community centre in his mind’s eye. He concentrates on not blinking and answering in a steady and natural voice. “Perhaps. But that’s hardly the point. Look, are you willing to help me out or not? That’s all I’m after.”

Folding his arms over his chest, Tom returns Sherlock’s stare a good few seconds until he relaxes his stance and chuckles. “Hang loose, buddy. I won’ snitch on ye. It’s yer life and ye can screw it over six ways from Sunday for all I care. Savvy?”

Sherlock swallows the bile in his mouth and nods once, quickly, to indicate he understands.

“Word. Now, fake IDs are easy but ye’ll want a good one and those cost serious money. I bet that wog pays ye dirt all so how much can ye shell out?”

“That depends. What’s the cheapest option?”

“A UCL card,” Tom answers immediately. “Won’ cost ye a packet and will do you fine long as you don’ do something daft like bashin’ the heads of some skint muggers jus’ tryin’ to make a livin’. Jus’ wave it under a pig’s nose and they won’ harass ye. Driving license is a shite idea, everyone is carryin’ those so if ye’ flash it the pigs will double-check ye’. And wha’ do you need a passport for? Visitin’ the fuckin’ frogs?”

“Fine. A student card. Does your acquaintance need a photo for that? I’ve had some taken this afternoon.” Sherlock digs in his jeans’ back pocket for his wallet and phishes out the set of four tiny pictures. Two of them are slightly blurry, even though he followed the instructions on the outside of the booth in the tube station to the letter but the other two will do, he thinks.

“Me akwaintens,” Tom parodies, inspecting the photographs. “Chris’, yer one hundred percent off yer rocker, mate. Me pal will need five tenners to get him started and another five once he’s done. But, as we’re such great pals I’ll give you a cut price on me rake-off and I’ll just lift two of ye. Deal?”

“Deal,” Sherlock agrees.

“Righto’. Where’s your local? I can drop it off Friday and stand Jojo tha’ pint.”

“We visit The Camel sometimes.”

“That rat arsed pisshole? Well, each to his fuckin’ own, tha’s my phrase.”

“So you’ll have the card then?”

“I told ye’ so, didn’ I. Fuckin’ Chris’, Eddy, have some faith.”

***

Have some faith.

With a sudden jolt, Sherlock remembers when he last saw Tom’s face. It was fourteen years later, in Montague Street. Sherlock sat leafing through the third cold case file of the stack Lestrade had delivered in response to Sherlock’s pesky demands for entertainment, together with the injunction to stop pestering Lestrade or face permanent banishment from the NSY offices.

An unknown body washed up on the Thames shore on the Greenwich Peninsula, little more than a wasteland at the time.

Having recently completed his study of the Thames currents and tides, Sherlock had deduced the body had entered the water in the proximity of Vauxhall Bridge. The body displayed no signs of a struggle and the autopsy had revealed the man had swallowed an inordinate amount of Thames water.

“Since when are you idiots interested in arresting self-murderers?” Sherlock snorted when Lestrade came to exchange the pile for a new one. Clearly he hadn’t been in the pink back then, which, considering the fact he was still recuperating from the savageries of the Florida climate and his latest forced stint in rehab, could be viewed as a perhaps unforgivable but nevertheless understandable lapse of his usual prowess.

But now Sherlock’s sure it was Tom’s photograph in the file, dating back to when… 2002? Somehow the idea of Tom deciding to take his own life doesn’t fit in with Sherlock’s memories of the man. As far as he recalls there was no mention of drugs or alcohol in the autopsy report, but the details are a bit hazy. He’ll need to look into the case again.

A thorough search of the boxes piled next to his wardrobe yields the six notebooks he filled with observations that year. Fifteen minutes later he’s found the file’s number and texted a survey request to Lestrade.

Unknown Caucasian male.

It was Tom. He’s certain of it. And if so the least he can do is find his murderer, for Tom has been nothing but decent to him.

***

“Edmund. It’s good to have you back again.”

Clasping Sherlock’s right hand in both of his, Mr Chopra beams up at Sherlock, his large dark eyes radiating a joy that’s not any less sincere for its singularity in the small and diffident man.

“Thank you,” Sherlock answers simply.

“And I believe Keith has a surprise for you. Keith?” Mr Chopra turns to Jojo, who’s been hovering in the background impatiently; apparently waiting for this cue to bend over and start hauling an obviously heavy box onto a cleared spot on the table Sherlock had been wondering about. Manic grin nearly splitting his face, he shoos off Mr Chopra’s offer for some help, sinking back to the floor instead to drag up an even bigger box and stash it next to the first.

“Computahs, Eddy,” he crows, “we go’ fou’, and a gamin’ console and a printah’.”

“And the Lord Shiva grants you know how to repair them or I can pack up this business and will never hear the end of it,” grumbles Mr Chopra.

“Mrs Chopra said i’ we’ a min’ idea,” Jojo objects to Mr Chopra’s objections.

“Mrs Chopra is the best of wives,” Mr Chopra returns, “but I’m afraid her main expertise regarding electrical appliances lies in wielding them. I wish that bothersome journalist had never listened to you.”

“Computahs a’ the futu’,” argues Jojo. “And between us Eddy and I a’ smarte’ than the bloody ’angin’ lot at Cambridge o’ whateve’.”

Mr Chopra sighs. “Well, you’ve got your chance to prove it. Don’t forget about Mrs Brown’s toaster, though. The woman’s been hounding me like Ravana himself. Oi…”

The last is exclaimed at the chime of the shop’s doorbell. Sherlock freezes in response, his gaze darting from Mr Chopra to Jojo and back again.

“We do have the occasional customer, Edmund,” Mr Chopra observes mildly.

“Yes.” Sherlock nods.

“Don’ worry, Eddy,” Jojo consoles. “I we’ jumpin’ my skin like a dead ‘angin’ moron the firs’ days i’ happened.”

“Any thief will know better than try his luck here,” Mr Chopra adds. “All right, boys. I’ll leave you to it. And remember, Mrs Brown’s toaster or the woman is going to have me for toast.”

***

He doesn’t really look like a student, Sherlock decides, but he supposes the small laminated piece of thin cardboard will serve well enough if flashed quickly in front of an overly inquisitive, law-enforcing nose.

“And?” Tom buries his grin in a swig of his pint and pulls the girl at his side a little closer. “Neat job, eh?”

“It will do,” Sherlock acknowledges grudgingly. The boy blinking out of the photograph has nothing in common with the boy that relished the noise of the gravel crunched by the soles of his Oxfords as he traversed the lanes of the school terrain for what he knew was the last time ever… Should the fates decide to conspire against Sherlock and have a photocopy delivered to Mycroft’s desk his brother won’t recognise the face as belonging to his brother. He hardly recognises his own face himself.

The girl is fidgeting beside Tom. As she lifts her left hand to brush at the hair falling over her forehead, a thin gold wedding band on her ring finger flickers in the light cast by the wall sconces, meagre as it is. “I wanna go, luv’,” she whines. “Ye know this hole’s fuckin crawlin’ with Tim’s chums.”

“Yeah, I know, puss. But I gave my word to delive’ the goods to Eddy he’ and I always keep my promises, all righ’?”

The girl shrugs and looks away. “I don’ wan’ grief, tha’s all.”

“Then you shouldn’t have taken up with your brother-in-law,” Sherlock informs her. “That’s assuming your husband doesn’t approve.” Apparently, it’s possible for all the blood to drain from a face in under three seconds. Oops, and flow back again with a vengeance in perfect imitation of a flashing traffic light. Fascinating… and telling. “He doesn’t,” Sherlock concludes, voice dripping with satisfaction over this neat deduction. Beside him, Jojo splutters in his glass. “Whoa, Eddy.”

“What?” Sherlock lifts an enquiring eyebrow at his housemate, to feel it freeze right there, as a sure sign announcing his idiocy for all the world to see. Good Lord, what has he done, calling attention to himself by antagonising his self-proclaimed ally. Tom may not be the police’s best friend but that won’t stop him from selling Sherlock down the river if he has a mind to and he’s just stupidly handed the man a perfectly sound motive on a silver platter. Why can’t he keep his big mouth shut for a change? Even as he sits berating himself his eye records the girl shoving back her chair and leaping up to loom over the table. The slap she delivers still catches him unawares. Tom’s tutting doesn’t stop her from doling out a taste of the same medicine to him as well.

“I told ye I don’ wanna come he’,” she hisses before pivoting on her heels and striding out of the pub. The door swings to behind her with a bang.

So much for a subtle exit, Sherlock thinks. Though, obviously, right now he isn’t best endowed to start chiding others for opening the kimono. As Sherlock’s fingertips explore his smarting cheekbone, Tom mirrors his gesture with an equally tentative hand.

“I’d bette’ go befo’ she heads home. Damn ye’ Eddy, she’s a tigress in the sack and I can use a prope’ good shag,” he grumbles.

“He’s sorry,” Jojo says hastily. “You sorry, Eddy?”

His beseeching expression confirms Sherlock’s supposed to be sorry for stating what’s plain as day for any idiot with eyes in his head to discern. Which is perhaps the best course of action if he wants to claw his way out of this hole his sheer asininity has dug for himself. A proper show of remorse with some grovelling thrown in might convince Tom that Sherlock is essentially harmless and not worthy of further attention and most definitely not worthy of dobbing in to the authorities.

“Oh, yes,” Sherlock mouths duly, “I am, enormously. Perhaps if you run after her she’ll forgive you. You know, if…” – here he catches himself – “…I mean, your company must be infinitely preferable.”

“Don’I know I’? My brother is a righ’ dickhead,” Tom discloses.

“Oh yes. Aren’t they all?” Sherlock ventures with his broadest smile. “Please, if he’s every inch as loathsome as mine I don’t envy you.” Apparently this is the remark is reconciliation enough for Tom, who pats him on the shoulder to confirm they’re comrades in arms against the brotherhood of annoying brothers.

“Yer’ righ, buddy. Apologies fo’ the blow. See ye nex’ Tuesday.”

“Tuesday,” Jojo chimes after his departing figure, together with Sherlock’s hearty, “Seeya.”

“Fuck a duck,” Jojo whispers dramatically as they watch Tom disappearing down the street. “Fancy doin’ the dirty with you’ own sis-in-law.”

“I’d rather not,” scoffs Sherlock. Beneath the table he’s pinching his leg – hard – to remind himself to never ever make such a patent mistake again. Perhaps engage in a more elaborate show of camaraderie on Tuesday. Or would that be overdoing it?

“Yeah.” Jojo interrupts his musings, swilling the last dregs of his bitter and pushing himself to his feet. “I’m a dead ‘angin’ hundred percen’ with you there, mate. No’ worth the trouble, but tha’s jus’ my opinion, mind?”

***

On his descent down the stairs early the following morning, Sherlock grinds to a halt as his olfactory nerves encounter the glorious zing of a smouldering Windsor Blue Superking wafting down the hallway.

Trailing his nose, Sherlock ambles into the kitchen to find the fumes swirling in graceful curlicues above the head producing them. Its back is facing the kitchen doorway. Sherlock surveys the thatch of brightly glowing orange hair hovering above a narrow set of shoulders swathed in shocking pink faux silk, instantly cataloguing this particular specimen of Brian’s floozies into the drawer marked ‘worst’. The cigarette’s heavenly tang, however, has him hooked and another puff of smoke reels him in as inevitably as a marlin fighting the line ends belly-up on the bottom of the angler’s boat. Suddenly he’s gasping for a breather – and not one of the below par obscenities posing as the genuine article upstairs in his room – and he needs it now.

He could go out and buy himself a packet at the corner shop and not consider the serious hole they will leave in his pocket. One look at the window sheathed in a thick layer of water steadily sloshing down the glass dampens that prospect. Especially as instant gratification is within easy reach, literally not ten feet away from him. What are a fake smile and the barter of a few inane sentences – those, Sherlock estimates, can’t be dispensed with – in exchange for a taste of pure and unadulterated tobacco?

“Hello,” he greets the girl, just as she flicks a page of the dog-eared women’s mag she’s perusing. Her nails flash, perfectly colour-coordinated with the blouse, indicating an attention to detail uncommon for the type of wench Brian usually pulls. Slowly, the girl lifts her chin to reveal a carefully made-up face that could easily rival Mummy’s in her heyday for sheer finesse. Not a blemish on the skin and the ice-blue eyes raking Sherlock from top to bottom and back up again are surrounded by elaborately styled fans of lashes, each individual hair meticulously curled and parted from its neighbour. Pearly-white teeth, as tiny and pointed as a piranha’s, blink behind perfectly applied pink lipstick.

“Hello.” The voice is a wonderfully smooth, yet unmistakeable heldentenor, definitely not to be confused with a dramatic contralto. Even if the girl had started smoking cigarettes in the cradle she wouldn’t have been able to produce such a timbre. Or if she would, Sherlock imagines her anywhere – in a room at the Dorchester preparing for that evening’s recital in Covent Garden for instance – rather than lounging in a grotty kitchen in dingy Cyprus Street.

“Mind if I cadge a fag? Windsor Blue Superking, my favourite brand.”

“Hmm hm,” the boy purrs, looking faintly amused. He cocks his head and lifts the cigarette in his right hand to his lips in a languid imitation of the movement ’s observed over half of The Camel’s female clientele resort to when on the pull. Yet, there’s a certain refinement to the calculatingly seductive gesture, an echo of the Christmas parties Sherlock had to attend when he was younger. How he had loathed those people leering at each other behind the screen of their artificial bright smiles. For all their sense of entitlement and claims of gentility, Sherlock now understands, their primal urges were as primitive as those of the riffraff they looked at down their patrician noses.

Vile, and – ultimately – boring.

“You can have one, if you learn me to talk like you do,” the boy answers eventually, covering the packet with his carefully manicured hand. His accent is much like Mr Whitall’s, a solid base of Estuary overlaid with the results of a tireless and fastidious self-study of RP’s idiosyncrasies. Despite himself the creature intrigues Sherlock. It’s refreshing to discover another person exploring society’s boundaries he supposes. Also, how in heaven’s name did this particular specimen wash up in their kitchen?

“Oh please,” he objects. “That’s inherently impossible in every sense of the verb. I could try and teach you, perhaps. Though I fear a carton wouldn’t even begin to put a dent in those broad vowels. You want them nice and clipped.”

“Like your manners?” the boy returns, teasing a cigarette out of the packet and offering it to Sherlock. Accepting it, he gives the boy’s fingertips the widest possible berth. The boy snorts.

“My name is Danielle, by the way, but all the fuckwits living around here insist on calling me Danny, so I won’t spit in your eye if you do. And you must be the non-famous housemate.”

“Edmund,” Sherlock hums around the business end of the cigarette. The brush of the paper against the skin of his lower lip already has him quivering in anticipation. “Conveniently shortened to Eddy.”

“Here.” The boy strikes a match and holds it out for Sherlock. None too high, Sherlock will have to bend over quite deep to apply the tip to the flame or grasp the boy’s hand to drag it closer to his mouth.

“Thank you, Daniel, but I’d rather light it myself.” Which he does. With his own lighter. The first drag is every bit as marvellous as envisaged.

The rudeness seemingly doesn’t faze the boy at all. “Independence,” he smiles. “I like that. Just a test, you know.”

Sherlock sniffs and makes for the door. “So thrilled I’ve passed. Well, thanks for the cig.”

“You’re welcome, Edmund,” the boy chirps. “See you again soon.”

***

Chapter Text

“Lestrade,” Sherlock answers his phone straight away.

The DI sounds like his customary befuddled self, except a little tinnier, “Err, yes, Sherlock. Look, this cold case file you asked for…”

“Tom, yes.”

“Who?”

“Thomas William Peterson. The victim.”

“Thomas Peterson? Victim?” Lestrade parrots, his voice ratcheting up a few notches in disbelief. Or anger. “Look here, I don’t know what you’re up to this time, Sherlock, but it turns out you already had a go at this file in in ’09 and you ruled it a suicide. Your strongly-worded opinion is staring me in the face, in indelible ink.”

“We’re all fallible, Detective Inspector. The very worst of humanity’s many weaknesses; according to my insufferable brother, that is.”

Lestrade huffs. In his mind’s eye Sherlock can see him drag a tired hand over the wrinkles that line the DI’s brow as thickly as a parasite straggling upon a sturdy oak. The man really ought to divorce that adulterous wife of his. The current semi-permanent battle of the spouses chips away at the DI’s logical thought processes, never Lestrade’s strongest suit to begin with. Ultimately, the marriage’s imminent collapse leads to Lestrade’s marital problems interfering increasingly with The Work; an unforgivable offence in Sherlock’s opinion. Mostly the wife’s fault, he’s willing to concede that, but Lestrade could try and make more of an effort at compartmentalising.

“So how…?”

“My insalubrious past does have its advantages,” Sherlock cuts short Lestrade´s attempts at probing Sherlock´s motivations in a circumspect manner. Distinguished career at the Met notwithstanding, the DI has never fully grasped this aspect of detective work. The man is simply too straightforward and decent to lure a suspect into a confession by spinning a credible falsehood. “I’ve only just realised I knew the man back in my early London days. Petty criminal turned self-proclaimed master of the martial arts. Quite talented, in fact—”

“Was that an actual compliment?” Lestrade enquires.

“What does it matter? The man has been dead the past decade—”

“Just looking forward to my funeral speech, that’s all.”

For an instant, Sherlock suspects Lestrade is losing his marbles. Or is this an attempt at what John would term ‘humour’? Whatever it is, it’s distracting and hence annoying.

“You’re rambling, Lestrade. Can we please return to the matter of this murder?”

“What makes you so certain it’s murder all of a sudden? And why now?”

“Because of a conversation John and I had recently. It made me remember the man. Not the suicidal type. But anyone trying to attack Tom Peterson would have had a hard time overpowering him and there was no mention of signs of a struggle in the file.”

There’s a rustle of paper in the background, followed by a grunted, “No nothing. Damage to the head, but that could have been incurred when he hit a bridge pier. Err, he’d had a few drinks, I see, nothing too damning though, and there was plenty of Thames water in his stomach and lungs.”

“There you are,” Sherlock says triumphantly. “So, will you send someone over to deliver the file?”

“You can come and collect it yourself, Sherlock,” the DI replies in a gruff tone. “It’s awaiting you patiently, right on the edge of my desk. Say hello to John and Mrs Hudson from me.”

A soft click ends the call, leaving Sherlock staring disbelievingly at his phone.

“Anything wrong?” Yawning and scratching the back of his head John pads into the living room on his way to the kitchen. He casts Sherlock an enquiring look.

“What? No… nothing.” Sherlock recovers himself swiftly. Lestrade really should get a grip on himself before he turns into an insufferable prat. Expecting Sherlock to trundle down to New Scotland Yard like some errand boy. He must have gone off his rocker already.

“Damn,” John swears, contemplating the open fridge. “What happened to the milk, Sherlock?”

“Mrs Hudson had run out and didn’t fancy a round of the shops. It was cats and dogs outside this morning.”

John sighs deeply and flicks off the kettle switch. “No tea for me then. Nor you. Hey, it looks fine now. I don’t suppose you…”

“Oh no.” Sherlock grabs the book at the top of the pile next to his chair. “I’m swamped in some very important research.”

“You’re aiming to solve the most famous double murder in history now?” John raises an incredulous eyebrow.

“Pardon?”

“Your research,” John gesticulates. “The princes in the Tower.”

As unobtrusively as he can manage while being watched like a hawk Sherlock slants his gaze at the volume’s frontispiece. Apparently, it’s a history of the Wars of the Roses. He hasn’t the faintest where he picked up the book and what it is doing next to his chair. Luckily, he can satisfy John’s curiosity with a set answer. His mouth’s left corner curls in amusement.

“That’s hardly a mystery, John. Just think, who stood to gain the most? But, if you’re going to get us milk perhaps you could do a stopover at Broadway and pick up a file? Lestrade’s expecting you.”

“Is he now?” But the hunch of John’s shoulders indicates doesn’t object to paying the Yard a visit. “Care to enlighten me?”

“What? Oh, Buckingham, of course. He disposed of the bodies in the Thames; small chance of identification should the corpses wash ashore. Not after the fish had had a proper go at them.”

John looks disbelieving. “Aren’t you theorising before the facts?” he asks. “You’re always telling off Anderson for jumping to conclusions without properly turning over the evidence.”

“What evidence?” enquires Sherlock. “Lacking reliable data one has to resort to logic. I do hope you rate my capabilities in that aspect higher than Anderson’s. Well, actually, in every aspect.”

“ ‘Course I do. Still, it’s strange,” John muses.

“What?”

“Your total indifference about everything most people consider important and your interest in outlandish subjects.”

“Now you’re capricious. A moment ago you claimed it was ‘the most famous double murder in history’. Bit trite for a blog title so you needn’t announce I’ve solved the case. But can we return to the matter at hand? My file.”

John huffs.

“And your milk,” Sherlock adds thoughtfully. Because John likes diluting his tea with way too much milk.

My milk?” bristles John. “You take milk in your tea as well in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“I notice everything,” Sherlock declares. “But whether you lace my tea with milk or lemon is all a one to me, John. I’m flexible.”

This time, John’s huff sounds even more exasperated. “You know, heading back to bed seems like a really good option all of a sudden.”

Ah, got you, Sherlock thinks and buries his nose in medieval interfamilial relationships. “There’s no hurry. It’s a cold case so a few extra hours won’t make much of a difference.”

“Oh wow, I’m so glad.” And then John does the impossible and rather than start shouting at Sherlock, pivots on his heel to head up the stairs and back to bed. Really, the man is full of lovely surprises.

***

The living room door slams into the rickety TV cabinet reclining against the wall, cruelly yanking Sherlock from the self-created bubble where he’s been happily floating on air, buoyed by the lingering aftertaste of that fantastic smoke.

“Chris’ on a bloody ’angin’ bike!” Jojo bursts into the room. “Do you know wha’ tha’ righ’ idio’ is doin’?”

Reluctantly – and deeply annoyed – Sherlock slants his gaze towards the door where Jojo is hovering like the very epitome of misery. Hair plastered to his forehead, water is dripping in a steady trickle from the shopping bags dangling at the end of thoroughly wet jacket sleeves. The mere sight of him sends a chill – and a sudden desire for a cup of searing hot tea – shivering down Sherlock’s spine.

“What he’s doing every weekend from the sound of it,” he says after a while, his ears having picked up the rhythmic thumping in the background. “Why?”

“In ou’ bloody ’angin’ kitchen! I jus’ came in with the shoppin’ to find tha’ fuckbag bangin’ away righ’ on our 'angin' table!”

“Not very hygienic,” Sherlock ventures. He scrubs his hands over his face to clear his thoughts. “Well, we know he’s a moron. Let’s hope he finishes soon and will disappear to his own room afterwards. We better wipe the surface before putting anything on the table. Somehow I don’t think Brian will do us the courtesy.”

“Wha’? I didn’ even tell you the wors’,” Jojo overrides these observations. “ ’E’s screwin’ a bloke, straigh’ in the arse.”

“Great,” Sherlock grits. “Thank you so much for that anatomical detail I could totally do without. Not many other options, biologically speaking, are there?”

“A’ you buzzin’?”

Sherlock’s pleasant mood is definitely gone now. He wants tea, another cigarette, something to fidget with and warm his fingers. Exasperated with Jojo for intruding, with stupid, obnoxious Brian and his man whore for having it off in their kitchen, with himself for forgetting about the tea, with the perpetual rain, with the whole sorry world, with his life, he swings his legs off the sofa and pushes himself up in order to cast Jojo a disapproving glare. “Oh please. What does it matter whether that braindead moron chooses to have intercourse with a boy or a girl?”

If Sherlock had suddenly turned into a cobra poised ready to attack Jojo couldn’t have looked more alarmed.

“Nowt’,” he shrieks. “Bu’ this is Brian, innit’? ’E’s nevah even took a gandah at a buggah.”

“A rather unfortunate choice of words under the present circumstances,” Sherlock comments. “In fact—”

Right that instant the noises from the kitchen swell into a duet of debauchery that reduces each and every one of Wagner’s orgasmic overtures to the gentle undulations of a nursery rhyme.

“Jesus dead ’angin’ Chris’!” Revulsion and envy twist Jojo’s features, clear evidence of the Freudian battle raging in his chest. In the end, for all his cleverness he’s but a boy and as prone to these low cravings as their beastly housemate.

“Quite,” agrees Sherlock, as grateful as Jojo that part of the morning is over at least. If only the same were true for the everlasting rain and for the time he’s whiling away here, subsisting hand-to-mouth in this morass of dissolute morals.

That imprudent mistake at The Camel may have cost him and frankly, right now, with those animal noises bellowing in his ears, he’s at the end of this tether. How he’s even going to survive the next two months he can’t imagine. The mere idea of those weeks stretches ahead like an endless desert he’ll have to cross without a precious drop of sustaining water.

“Righ’. I’m goin’ in now,” announces Jojo. “Tha’ milk’s goin’ spoiled.”

“Oh, we can’t have that, can we?” Sherlock murmurs. Eyelids descending and shutting off the world he sinks back into the sofa and turns his back on Jojo.

***

Brian’s ‘infatuation’ – for lack of a better word – outlives the weekend and the following week. The following Saturday Sherlock enters the kitchen to find the creature ensconced in a chair, occupying the space as if he owns it.

“Care for a fag?” he asks, shoving the packet in Sherlock’s direction.

“Fine.” Like last week Sherlock lights the cigarette himself; draws the lovely smoke deep into his lungs. “Those don’t come cheap,” he comments.

The boy – Daniel – lifts his hand, nails flashing as red as freshly drawn blood, and shams giggling behind his fingers. “Oh,” he crows. “Now you’re trying to talk like we do. Adorable. Darling, never worry about the money. I make lots.”

Rather than answering Sherlock busies himself with filling the kettle.

“You could too, you know?” Daniel has lowered his voice to a confidential whisper. “More than that Paki is paying you for sweating away in that backroom all day, next to that fat lump.”

Through the thin terrycloth of the sorry excuse for a dressing gown Sherlock is wearing he can feel the boy’s gaze raking up and down his back, assessing the lines of Sherlock’s body hidden beneath the folds. Murky memories swim upwards from the bottom of the lake where he’s attempted to drown them. LeFeuvre’s scrutiny, the way he’d drunk in Sherlock’s face as they pressed hands during the rehearsals. Suddenly the fag tastes like it were indeed a nail in his coffin and he’s close to retching.

“I don’t think Mr Chopra is from Pakistan. And I don’t like your way of earning money,” he wrenches from his throat.

“Don’t you?” Daniel shrugs, eyes spread so wide the tips of his mascaraed and curled lashes brush his carefully plucked eyebrows. “Pity, but to each their own as long as they pay up, that’s my motto. I say – that’s what you posh gits say, isn’t it? I say, if you’re making tea you can do me one as well. Just milk, no sugar. The figure’s my asset.”

“Make your own.” Sherlock plunks a teabag into a mug, adds milk, pours in boiling water. Then, determined not to appear riled by the boy’s insinuations and allusions he perches on a chair.

“Why, thanks, sugarnuts,” Daniel tuts, shaking his head ruefully. “No more ciggies for you.”

“Fine.”

“Aww, you tease.” The boy sniffs and lights another cigarette. “Don’t worry. I fancy you even without you bugging me. That plummy voice just does me.” To illustrate the point he wriggles his fingers up and down from the top of his head down the part of his torso visible above the table. “What are you doing here anyway? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“I mind your grammar. And, unlike you, I happen to live here.”

“Yeah.” Languidly Daniel tips his head into his neck to send a wreath of smoke spiralling towards the ceiling. “I get that. You scarpered, same as I did. Now, I was done with my old man beating the living daylights out of me, but you?”

Determined not to be drawn out Sherlock sips his tea.

“Oh, fun. You’re not going to tell me. Brian said you were dull.”

“And he’s the king of wit,” Sherlock can’t help replying.

“Ah, no.” Gaze slanted modestly towards the table top, the boy sighs. “He has, let’s say, other qualities.” He smiles. “He beat his governor before he cleared off. Now, what’s your secret? Does the upper crust lay into their rug rats too?”

Sherlock picks up one of Jojo’s computer magazines from the pile on the chair to his left and pretends an interest in its contents.

Daniel laughs and leveraging himself from the table shoves back his chair. The half-empty packet lands on the mag, under Sherlock’s nose. “There, you deserve them for being such perfect wank fodder.”

***

How? Sherlock thinks and he can’t conceal the inadvertent quiver of disgust slithering down his spine as his mind’s eye summons the picture of that seedy kitchen and focuses on the boys seated either side of the table.

Thankfully John’s attention is hooked on the inane sequence of bad acting and plot holes flickering on their telly screen. Earlier he had thumped a mug of tea on the coffee table and warned Sherlock against spoiling his evening. Naturally, Sherlock has huffed and pointedly flung himself onto his side on the sofa, pulling his dressing gown tight around his shoulders as a shield against the onslaught of wilful idiocy.

How is it possible he can’t remember the moment he first gave in to Danny’s continuous cajoling? “I’ve deleted it,” he would have asserted just a few months ago but such self-deception no longer holds as a viable strategy. For the past few months he’s recalled – relived – every detail of his past, both the good memories and the unpleasant ones: Mycroft quickly devouring his Brussels sprouts while Daddy distracted Mummy, Nanny and Mr Mancini’s continuous quarrelling, Mr Talbot’s praise as he handed back the sheet with one hundred perfectly executed O’s, the first time John let him handle the blowtorch, Mummy taking Michael into her confidence. And the really, really bad ones he’d rather stayed buried: Mr Talbot’s face draining of every colour as he stood in the hallway with the receiver in his hand, Mummy turning her back on him in her bedroom, the burning touch of drunken hands, eagerly stripping his pyjamas and the horrible taste of Percy-Smith’s flesh in his mouth, rinsed by the coppery tang of blood. And the worst of all; his last day in school which ended in the fight with Mycroft and his brother’s definite betrayal of their bond. And each and every single time Mycroft twists the truth that’s been staring them in the face since the day he informed Sherlock his best friend had died a fortnight ago and Mycroft the God, Big Brother Mycroft in his omnipresent wisdom had decided poor feeble Sherlock was better not informed of the devastating news. Never will he stop driving home the message: in the end I’m the one who’s there for you, will always be there for you, I’ll be your beast of burden, I’ll be the one to protect you, even – especially – against yourself.

Just then, as if to underscore the point, Sherlock’s mobile starts bleating the first notes of Handel’s Coronation Anthem, Mycroft’s ring tone. John’s focus veers away from the telly towards Sherlock and the phone perched atop the coffee table. His friend’s obvious irritation is a further incentive towards annihilating the source asap and – face drawn in genuine contrition – Sherlock swipes Mycroft’s summons into oblivion and switches off the phone.

“More tea?” he suggests by way of a peace offering. John grunts and Sherlock is off the sofa and into the kitchen, turning off John’s mobile, just coming to life to announce Mycroft's attempt at reaching Sherlock through an intermediary, along the way. Triumph sends its perverse little thrill along his nape and up his scalp. Mycroft knows better than to try and contact Mrs Hudson. She will simply tell him she’s neither his gofer nor Sherlock’s housekeeper and hang up on him. So it will be either a black car and a couple of minions bustling their way up the stairs or Sherlock will have escaped a spot of nuisance and vexation. Either way he’s one up on Mycroft and that’s always a cause for a minor celebration.

Back on the sofa, nibbling one of Mrs Hudson’s rock cakes and sipping tea, his thoughts drift back to their original contemplation: Danny, or, more importantly, the first time he pushed down the plunger and injected the heady rush of fire into the vein that beckoned naively from the crook of his elbow. What provoked him into an act of such profound stupidity, enslaving him for life to a chemical solution? Even now, though he’s been clean since the day before Mike ran into John and had the wit to introduce them, the memory of that initial blast of elation, pure and primeval sensation spreading from the tiny puncture and hitting his quivering limbs – his brain – with the force of a tidal wave, has him longing for the vial with ten CCs of the precious liquid stashed for emergencies inside the hollowed-out Goethe bust in his bedroom.

Was it boredom? For he had been bored in that tiny, dilapidated Cyprus Street hovel that barely warranted the epithet ‘house’. Was it despair, his grief for John? John with his soft and patient voice, guiding Sherlock’s hand wielding the handsaw. Was he mourning the loss of home, the one place where he’d always felt safe – even with the monster lurking in her lair and even after she had spoiled, ruined his beloved music room. Every room at home had breathed the memory of Daddy’s presence, and Mr Talbot’s.

‘Perhaps they still do.’

Undoubtedly, Sherlock scathingly rebukes the tiny voice speaking up inside his head, but what’s it to him? He glares at the skull, fixing it as the source of such undermining notions. The skull bares all of its thirty-two teeth in an innocent grin back at him. An impatient sigh erupts to Sherlock’s left.

“Can’t you and your ‘friend’ sod off and have at it elsewhere?”

“What?”

John heaves another deep sigh and hits the pause button, freezing his action hero mid-jump from an exploding building. Such a scenario lacks feasibility on a basic scientific level but John’s obvious exasperation informs Sherlock a lecture will probably go wasted on his one-man audience.

“You and the skull,” grouses John, gesturing at Sherlock with the remote control as if he’d like to switch him off. “You’re practically screaming at each other.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” sneers Sherlock. “That skull is a mass of inanimate tissue. Carbonated hydroxyapatite with some calcium and phosphate and trace minerals, potassium amongst them.”

To underscore the point he’s making Sherlock quirks a meaningful eyebrow, encompassing both John and the skull.

“Yes, Sherlock,” John grits his teeth. “I know. I’m a doctor, remember? Not a ‘Bones’ doctor perhaps but a bloody good one all the same. Now, before I started sharing a flat with you I’d have said it’s impossible to have a chinwag with a dead thing but I’m not actually a complete idiot and I’ve watched you exchange more significant glances with that skull than I’ve witnessed between my parents for the whole ruddy twenty-five years their marriage lasted after I was born.”

That Bones thing must be another of John’s obscure references to popular culture, Sherlock decides and deletes it immediately, “Really, John—”

“No,” John warns. “Just, whatever you two are talking about. Stop it.”

“Fine.” Drawing his knees up against his chest Sherlock slumps sideways on the sofa, carefully blocking out the room and his flatmate. Behind his back the telly starts blathering again.

Naturally Sherlock would rather cut out his tongue than reveal this particular episode of his past to John. Or anything more, actually. John chancing upon Jojo’s email was a singularly bad stroke of luck. Or singularly stupid of Sherlock actually. Added to the far too many hints his contemptible brother continues dropping in John’s vicinity, aiming to undermine the single meaningful relationship Sherlock has managed to maintain...

Resolutely, Sherlock cuts off that line of reasoning. He’s not going to think of Victor, not now. Not yet… First he must come to terms with Danny slumped in a chair in the Cyprus Street kitchen with his skirt hitched high around his waist and a needle dangling from his thigh.

***

Downstairs the kitchen door crashes into hallway wall with such force Sherlock’s bow skitters on the strings. Suppressing an irritated sigh he reapplies the bow, breathes deeply and concentrates on re-living the notes of Brahms’ wild gypsy dance. Agitato indeed.

The music mingles charmingly with the agitated thuds and loud wheezing of Jojo scaling the stairs two steps at a time. Sadly, at the top he makes a beeline for Sherlock’s room and bangs the door into the wall after a perfunctory knock, inconsiderately granting Sherlock a margin insufficient for lifting the bow and applying a proper scowl to his face. Jojo’s is crimson with indignation and stumbling into the room he nearly trips over his toes, his favourite expression tumbling from his lips, “Chris’ on a bloody ’angin’ bike!”

“Quite so,” Sherlock answers and begins to tidy away the Guarneri. “What is it now?”

“I’s… i’s…” Spittle sprays from Jojo’s mouth in a fountain of lava-hot fury. “Tha’ dead ’angin’ twa’ down i’ our kitchen, tha’s wha’. If Wrigh’ pops in he’s going to go spare.”

“Isn’t he always? Last time he was nattering about switching off the boiler.”

“This is differen’. Tha’ ’angin’ cun’ is usin’ in ou’ kitchen. In ou’ home. ’E’s veggin’ ou’ the’ with a needle stickin’ ou’ of ’is skinny arse.”

“What? Where’s Brian?”

“ ’Ow should I know?” Jojo replies, surprisingly querulous. He buzzes around the few square feet between the door and the desk and Sherlock’s bed like an unhappy jumper-clad bumblebee caught beneath an upside down glass. “And I don’ ’angin’ care. I wan’ tha’ slag ou’.”

“And where are we supposed to put him?” Sherlock asks, wryly.

“I told ya’. I don’ ’angin’ care,” Jojo replies, mid-flight between the desk and Sherlock. He’s about to spin on his heel for another turn when his arm shoots out and a meaty hand lands on Sherlock’s shoulder and pasty sausage fingers start digging into the trapezius muscle.

“ ’E’s nothin’ bu’ a chea’ and a crook, Eddy. I know you like him bu’ ’e’s bad news and ’e gives me the creeps.”

“I don’t like him,” Sherlock contradicts, annoyed by what feels like an unspoken accusation. Deliberately staring Jojo in the eye he peels his housemate’s fingers one by one from his shoulder and carefully folds them into Jojo’s sweaty palm before letting the hand drop. “I’ll come with you and have a look if you insist.”

“Mint,” croaks Jojo. His Adam’s apple skips erratically along the layer of folds that serves him for a throat.

Loath as Sherlock is to admit, Jojo is actually right and Wright will throw a fit if he chances upon the local catamite on the premises. Which may be a convenient means to once and for all ridding themselves of their tiresome landlord but will probably also lead to them turfed out of the house and onto the streets, two months before Sherlock means to leave forever.

Daniel appears to be the quietest thing sitting in their kitchen until Jojo prods him – quite hard – in the ribs and their unwelcome visitor lurches up like a phantom princess rising from the deep. A tiara of sweaty pearls beads his handsome brow above eyes empty and leached of all colour; two stark and relentless oceans about to swallow the pinprick rafts of his pupils. Grateful for the support of the doorpost Sherlock sucks in a gasp of bewilderment.

Last Saturday – and at the mere memory a tingle of joy slithers across his scalp and down his nape, all the way down to the small of his back – those pupils were huge, deep pits of warm molten tar, reflecting Sherlock’s eyes as faithfully as an untainted mirror. Hot lava had rushed through Sherlock’s veins and he’d caught sight of his reflection – laughing and careless and free – in Daniel’s pupils as their foreheads bumped into each other and Daniel had whispered, “Nice, eh?”

Definitely better than nice. First class, top of the world didn’t even come close to describing the experience. Mummy’s uppers where a far cry from this, the real thing. The last time Sherlock felt this happy and confident – and loved – was that autumn day spent gathering walnuts with Daddy and Mr Talbot and John. Outside, a joyless drizzle was leaching from a bleary London sky but beneath the dour flickering of the fluorescent fixture over their heads Sherlock’s skin was glowing from the exercise and the warm sun that basked the orchard in a gentle golden radiance.

Over the course of the week the rain has never abated and without the make-up Daniel’s skin has the texture and colour of a discarded ball of putty.

“Hello darlings,” he slurs, propping up an elbow with obvious difficulty. The pinpricks gyrate slowly from Jojo to Sherlock and back to Jojo again. A lazy grin pushes at the slabs of clay, remodelling his features into a death mask. “For you it’s fifty quid, fatso. And I’m not going to suck you. No way I’m digging my nose into that blubber.”

“Jesus 'angin’ Chris’, I’ ratha’ hack i’ off firs’,” Jojo replies. Nose scrunched in preparation of a foul task he plunges his hand into the waves of flaming-red hair and pulls Daniel’s head back sharply. There’s an audible crack.

“Listen ye nasty scrubbah. You’ can’ use ou’ kitchen fo’ you’ filthy habi’. You smokin’ i’ ’ere is already pas’ the limi’. Find one of them doss ’ouses down the road fo’ you’… you’ business. Me and Eddy won’ stand you’ cak.”

At the last word Jojo slams Daniel’s head into the table three times in quick succession. The jerking of his arm is uncharacteristically fast and vehement, his eyes are scrunched up and his upper front teeth are chewing his lower as if he’s biting back sharp stabs of pain. Blood spurts from Daniel’s nose when his head is yanked upwards for the third time. Initially rendered immobile by Jojo’s swift action Sherlock now leaps across the kitchen and wrenches Jojo’s hand from Daniel’s hair. A sizeable tuft, blood clinging to the roots, comes away. Freed and unsupported, Daniel topples face-forward into the splatter of blood covering the oil-cloth.

“Jojo, for God’s sake, calm down. You’re killing him.”

“I don’ ca’,” Jojo shouts. “ ’E’s vermi’, a bitch, like… like…” He doesn’t finish the sentence but opens his hands and the hairs flutter down into an uncommonly vivid bowerbird nest. Usually cheery round cheeks lined and haggard with revulsion he brings his hands up to his nose and sniffs at them like a reluctant Pug confronted with a bowl of cat food. “Dead 'angin’ Chris’. I need ai’. I’m sorry Eddy.” He shoves past Sherlock to the sink, scrubs his hands clean and dashes through the door into the hallway, never once looking at Sherlock. Three seconds later the front door falls shut.

At the table Daniel’s shoulders are beginning to shake. For an instant Sherlock fears he’s seizing but then the unmistakeable noise of a chuckle fills the room.

“Well, that was enlightening. Not exactly fairy tale material, our Keith. And here he fits nicely. Mirror, mirror on the wall. Whose Ma is the greatest bitch of them all? Oh.”

He groans and brings up a hand to his nose. It swings uselessly back and forth before dropping back onto the table and slipping off into his lap.

“I suppose it should hurt but I don’t feel a thing. Which is good, I don’t like pain. Thank God for the old horse. Had a client who got carried away a bit. Never doing that again. But I must look awful. Bad for business. Stupid snotty sod.”

He sniffs. Thankfully the nosebleed has stopped. Sherlock turns and heads to the loo for some toilet paper. Back in the kitchen he wordlessly hands it to Daniel who accepts the wad with a bashful smile.

“Thank you, Edmund. Nothing beats a proper upbringing, eh?”

“Don’t,” Sherlock warns. “And Jojo is right. Our landlord will evict us if he finds you here. You’re a nuisance and you should leave.”

“Edmund darling? Are you really going to throw me on to the streets?” Daniel simpers, eyes wide in despair that might be genuine. It looks genuine, every bit as genuine as Mummy’s acting. “After last Saturday? I have some, you know. Smack isn’t my fave but my hole’s smarting like hell, pardon my French. The crap helps better than coke. You can have it. Here.” His hands wander across the hitched folds of his skirt. “It’s good stuff.”

“No.” Determined, Sherlock locks his fingers around Daniel’s upper arm and hauls him from the chair. “Nothing you say will convince me,” he grits as he shoves and tugs at the limp form, dragging Daniel into the hall.

I’m better than her.

Daniel’s been moaning and vainly trying to resist but now his head whips up and he focuses on Sherlock, pinpoint pupils hooking themselves into Sherlock’s eyes. A searing chill freezes Sherlock. Has he spoken out loud? He hasn’t, has he? And even if he had, he’s still given nothing away.

Softly, disconcertingly, Daniel begins to laugh. A mirthless chortle that halfway dissolves into a hacking cough. Sherlock yanks at his arm again but he’s suddenly pulling on a boulder of lead.

“Prove it then,” Daniel hisses, wringing his arm loose and clawing at Sherlock’s shirt. Tottering on his heels to straighten up so he can thrust his face into Sherlock’s and challenge him into a contest of wills. Stale breath wafts into Sherlock’s nostrils. “Prove you can beat her at her own game. But it’s not fair bending the rules.”

Sherlock takes an involuntary step backwards, fighting the shivers slithering up his nape and all the way to the top of his scalp. He remembers talking a lot last week but Daniel had been equally loud and forceful and not a jot of that rubbish has stuck with Sherlock so how come Daniel seems suddenly so knowledgeable about his history and background? An overwhelming urge to spin on his heel and flee up the stairs careers around his skull like a racing car gone berserk. For all the stupid things he’s done – flooring those robbers, taking Tom into his confidence – blabbing about Mummy must be the most asinine trick he’s ever pulled off.

“I’m not bending the rules,” he protests, drawing himself up and aiming for his haughtiest and frostiest tone. “I’m refusing to play. It’s pointless.”

Through the thin cotton of the barely adequate t-shirt Sherlock can feel Danny’s long (disconcertingly pink) nails rake at his skin. Danny’s laughing again and he whispers a word into the fabric, too soft for Sherlock’s ears to pick up.

“What?” he demands, slotting his hands around Danny’s wrists and tearing the gripping fingers away from his body. With a grunt and a hard shove he pushes the limp form into the wall. “What did you say?”

Danny stares up at him out of the black-rimmed swimming pools of his eyes. He looks like he’ll be going under any second. There’s even blood in his eyebrows, Sherlock notices. Then, unbelievably, the chuckle is back. “Oh, you heard me, Edmund.”

“No. What?”

Danny swipes at his nose, huffs, then suddenly tilts up his head and locks eyes with Sherlock, his gaze as sharp and concentrated as a laser beam.

“I said, ‘Coward’.”

Chapter Text

“So, what exactly are we doing here?” John enquires, but his tone is affably indulgent and the look he sends Sherlock from beneath the dripping umbrella screen is both trusting and patient. Which means Sherlock is still very much in his good books.

***

Earlier that week Sherlock saved the day and the lives of two young girls in yet another family kidnapping tragedy. What is it with people and their messy divorces becoming a trending topic of late? The mother’s Facebook page was a torrent of virulent acerbity and verbal abuse of the children’s father, littered with misguided attempts at solace and equally dubious encouragements from so-called ‘friends’. Initially the father had struck Sherlock as slightly more sensible – the man didn’t sport a Facebook account for starters – until they’d learned he didn’t exactly mince words while denoting to his colleagues and pub mates what he’d like to do to the nasty b— that was his ex. The kidnapping had ended with Sherlock and John bursting into the dilapidated shipyard shack where the man was bending over his daughters’ small frames, filling their pockets with stones while downing the remainder of the Zopiclone tablets he’d used to drug them first.

Case solved as far as Sherlock had been concerned – barely a three in his opinion. When Lestrade had come to ask for assistance, Sherlock’s first urge had been to rebuff the request as a matter of course. He was about to huff that he didn’t consult for the Met’s Lost and Found Department when Mrs Hudson’s quivering bottom lip persuaded him to leave the flat and find the girls; he even submitted to the enormity of actually going with Lestrade in a police car.

An ambulance carted the girls to Barts’ A&E to have their stomachs pumped while Lestrade escorted the father to Broadway with John and Sherlock following in a cab. At the Yard, Sally’s crumpled face set the alarm bells in Sherlock’s head ringing. Triggered by Sherlock’s stream of deductions about the mother’s abusive new boyfriend, who’d promptly rewarded this performance with an attempt to punch Sherlock in the face, she’d made good use of her time digging through the man’s past. Not that she’d had to dig deep to confirm that the boyfriend had indeed spent the lion’s share of his adult life as a guest of Her Majesty for his inability to keep his hands to himself. Dreadful base innuendo definitely fully intended.

Figured, really, given the man’s slovenly tied laces.

“Those children can’t go back to the mother. Not with that absolute creep living there!”

Gone was the competent Detective Sergeant, always prone to slag Sherlock off for unprofessional behaviour. That version is unpleasant enough but one Sherlock can cope with. Women verging on the cusp of hysteria are a different matter entirely. Too many unpleasant associations. Lestrade and John shared an uneasy glance.

“Donovan,” Lestrade warned but the outer corners of his eyes drooped, always a sure sign the DI isn’t happy with the situation himself.

“Sir— Greg— you can’t!” Sally wailed, eyes flicking round in search of a supporter and settling on John straight away. John, who was looking concerned, because he’s John H. Watson, ex-army doctor and he always looks concerned when confronted with people unable to defend themselves.

“The dad seemed a decent enough bloke. Although I suppose—,” John suggested tentatively, but Lestrade wiggled his wrist and groaned, “Not a chance in hell.”

“Well, you’re the police. You’ll think of something.” Sherlock leapt from the corner of Lestrade’s desk where he’d been perching and clapped his hands together. “Come on, John.”

“Sherlock.” There’d been a warning in John’s voice. Not quite a growl but a hint of displeasure all the same. Even more ridiculous was the echo of the sentiment radiating from Lestrade’s face.

“What?” Sherlock demanded, genuinely bewildered and rounding on the DI. “What else do you want me to do? I’m a consulting detective which means I basically do your job while you sit here gossiping and letting your brains atrophy from sheer idleness. It’s not like I’m offering babysitting and protection of idiots’ offspring against their atrocious progenitors. Not on my website and neither did I find any such advertisements on John’s blog last time I looked. Surely there must be some government agency for all that? Guidance for the braindead public or a total moron caretaking department stuffed with overbearing nosy do-gooders and worse?”

“Of course there are,” John snaps. “But these girls are severely traumatised and in the short term they’re not going to benefit from a stay in an institution, no matter how kind and well-meaning the staff may be.”

“Oh, so you suggest we take them home then? Have Mrs Hudson pamper them with tea and biscuits?”

“No, Mrs H has enough on her plate already,” John deadpanned, which provoked Sally into an oafish little snigger of her own. Which meant she was back to normal at least. Thank God for small mercies. Sherlock glowered, first at her and then at Lestrade who at least put up a pretension of struggling with the smile on his face. Really, the pair of them were insufferable.

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Fishing his mobile from his pocket Sherlock pointed his most withering glare at Sally, mentally injecting it with the deadliest venom in the collection hidden at the back of 221B’s left-hand kitchen cupboard. After three rings Mycroft answered the phone.

“What is it now?” he sighed. “You found those children, didn’t you?”

“Naturally,” Sherlock replied archly. ”But Sergeant Detective Donovan—” here Sherlock indulged in gracing the odious woman with another scornful glare, “—and John have latched onto the notion that through finding them their care has somehow become my concern.”

“And you can’t have that.” Mycroft’s chuckle lacked all sense of merriment. “Responsibility for another human being. Now, what’s that expression you’re so fond of? Ah yes, not really your area.”

Struggling hard to stifle the irritation mounting in his chest, Sherlock added a pint of clotted cream to his tone. “Mere courtesy on my part, brother mine. Paying tribute to your fondness for meddling and sticking that spiky gob of yours where it’s definitely not wanted.”

“Your current approach towards charming others into doing your bidding fails in several aspects. If you behave very well I may be willing to offer a few pointers in the right direction. Luckily for you, two unsavoury files landed on my desk today. Nothing too difficult, not for you that is. Fraud and extortion, rather tedious. All we need is to acquire the actual proof…”

Mycroft didn’t continue the sentence but let the suggestion hang heavily in the air. If nature’s laws had permitted, Sherlock would have dragged his brother bodily along the signal wave so he could strangle the pretentious bore right there and then. Succumbing to reality and the blackmail he gritted his teeth instead. “Fine. But I’m not collecting them.”

“They’re being delivered right now,” Mycroft replied, not bothering to suppress the infuriating smugness that dripped from his voice. “Consider your little problem solved. I look forward to reading the blog post.” With that quip he rang off.

Sherlock glowered at his phone and violently shoved it into his coat pocket. “Mycroft is dealing with it, happy now?” he almost snarled at John.

In half an hour, a social services official contacted Lestrade for the girls’ details. A couple in their early forties, tried and tested through many years of putting children back on their feet again, were already on their way to Barts’ A&E. John gave Sherlock a look of profound gratitude and even Sally’s leave-taking had lost much of its usual acerbity.

***

Three days later, Sherlock is still milking this fortuitous outcome of the case. The files with the dull misdemeanours of Mycroft’s boring minions lie gathering dust atop the cabinet on the landing, where Sherlock can continue to ignore them.

Despite the weather forecast, John readily consented to the casual suggestion of a stroll. By the time they reached Great Eastern Street a frown had settled between his eyebrows but Sherlock managed to whisk that away with the suggestion of lunch.

Although three years have passed since Sherlock got the man’s son off a charge of stealing from his employer, Mr Kubar’s eyes lit up when they entered the small Libyan restaurant. Spreading his arms wide in welcome the man hurried towards them and practically bowed them to a table, whose frail legs were soon staggering under an astounding array of dishes from which mouth-watering aromas wafted and tickled their olfactory nerves. All through the meal Mr Kubar kept popping up to recommend a particular delicacy and shower Sherlock with an embarrassing show of obligation. If it hadn’t been for John’s almost equally loud praise of the food and the amusement crinkling the corners of his eyes Sherlock would have left halfway through.

At long last they were allowed to depart, with many an entreaty for a speedy return.

“That was amazing,” John said. “Best meal I had in months. So, what do we do now? Back to Baker Street?”

“Not really,” Sherlock answered, heading in the direction of Anning Street. “Don’t worry, we’re nearly there.”

Appropriately, Bethnal Green Road welcomed them with a fine pitter-patter of rain. Sherlock delved into his coat pocket and produced a folding umbrella, which John accepted with a huff and a pointedly lifted eyebrow.

“Is this for one of those cases of Mycroft’s?” he asked.

“No, but all will become clear soon,” Sherlock promised.

***

“So,” John says, once he’s let Sherlock’s explain the objectives of their excursion. “We’re going to call on a woman you met briefly more than fifteen years ago? And you didn’t bother to phone first and check whether she’s in.”

“She is,” Sherlock replies. “You know my methods, John. I’ve done my research.”

Given the old village’s central location in modern London Sherlock has of course revisited these streets plenty of times since traipsing down them on a scuffed pair of trainers. Fittingly, each trip featured a form of precipitation from the wide range the English climate stocks. So much so, he’s gone as far as to check whether Bethnal Green is indeed cursed with more than off-chance adverse weather conditions. Today the rainfall, slowly but undeniably saturating the Belstaff’s fibres, carries an almost benign aspect, which Sherlock can’t remember encountering before. Perhaps John’s gentle presence has a moderating effect on the atmosphere. An entirely ridiculous notion, obviously. Scientifically impossible, in fact, but the idea has the corners of Sherlock’s mouth quirk in amusement.

Meanwhile John appears oblivious to the enormity of this undertaking, or rather, the significance of Sherlock inviting John along. Apparently for John, being taken into Sherlock’s confidence comes part and parcel with their sharing a flat. He seems to assume Sherlock has already deduced his whole past, from six-year-old John’s terror as his father started smashing the furniture again in a drunken rage right down to the disastrous Benidorm holiday that ended with Harry breaking up with her girlfriend and seducing John’s to prove a pointless point. Actually, Sherlock has done exactly that, in addition to putting the time John insists on flitting away at the clinic to good use. He’s spent hours sifting through the meagre assortment of boxes and John has stashed in the attic and the contents of his wardrobe drawers and the suitcase underneath his bed. From these Sherlock has probably gained a deeper insight about John Hamish Watson’s triggers and life choices than the man himself has at disposal.

Which would have been incredibly dull if it had been anyone else.

Perpetual rain notwithstanding, the swell of gentrification is sweeping over this area as irrevocably as the incoming tide that rolls up the Thames twice a day. It’s an infection spreading across the tight ring of piss-poor boroughs hemming in the City on the East and South. Cosy cafés with pretend seventies wallpaper and the requisite tall ficus benjamina have sprouted along Old Ford Road, organic grocery stores and tiny boutiques catering to the sartorial fads of the ecologically challenged. Several pubs have even gone to the trouble of adorning their façade with hanging baskets. True, the trailing lobelias and petunias seem locked in an endless struggle for some nice unpolluted carbon dioxide, but then, Mrs Hudson would likely declare with the undeterred optimism perfected over thirty-two years of marriage to a serial adulterer and murderer that it is the thought that counts.

Somehow, after trudging along street upon street of sham respectability the sight of their ultimate destination comes as a relief. Hammering at the grey clouds like an angry fist, as dark and insurmountable as a medieval fortress, the towers rise from a sea of trodden turf speckled with dainty little atolls of rubbish. An impromptu Atlantic wall of sodden mattresses provides a formidable bulwark against snooping intruders or well-meaning altruists foolish enough to believe the towers’ inhabitants would profit from a little polishing.

John blinks but then he follows in Sherlock’s stride, skipping along from one islet to the next until they arrive at the third tower’s front door. Its lock has been picked so often the tumblers fall into place the instant Sherlock inserts his lock pick. Inside, the hall lights have been smashed. There’s a lift with a notice stating it’s out of order that was put up over eight months ago judging by its state of deterioration and the draught patterns that are swirling between the boarded up windows and the front door.

“Tenth floor,” Sherlock says after a study of the name board and heads for the staircase that predictably reeks of stale piss and the clichéd plaques of vomit.

“Jesus,” John complains. “Lunch was an hour ago, Sherlock.”

“Not much more recent than whatever this was,” Sherlock comments, rounding a corner and confronted with a particularly pungent whiff of regurgitated stomach contents.

Their inverted descent into lower class hell meets an unlikely end. The surface of the doorbell resting against Sherlock’s glove was wiped four days ago at the latest, together with the woodwork of the door and jambs and the casement of the kitchen window to the right of the door. The frilly lace curtains behind the window are a dreadfully cheap and highly inflammable polyester blend but they’re spotless which means they’re washed once a fortnight at least as the kitchen is so small the curtains are dangling dangerously close to the hob.

During his search for her present-day whereabouts, the picture of her clinging to Tom’s arm was as sharp as his memory of that visit to The Camel. Thus, when the woman opening the door lifts her face to peer at him he’s confused for a quarter of a second, until the shifting half-light falls on the yellowish agate of her irises. The furrows lining her mouth belong to a much older woman.

“Yes, how can I help you?” she asks. At his side Sherlock feels John startle at the question’s civility. Blunt senses assaulted by the dismal abundance of poverty he’s never even spotted the clues this flat’s occupant is actively battling her class and former poor life choices.

“I’d like a word about Tom,” Sherlock answers, observing her narrowly for a reaction.

It’s immediate, a crimson flush dotting the sharp ridges of her cheekbones.

“I don’t know anyone by that name,” she says and starts putting the door to until it hits Sherlock’s foot that’s stuck against the doorframe.

“But you did once,” he tells her. “And a DNA test would probably reveal what his brother suspected, that Tom Peterson fathered your eldest. Now you know our business you might as well ask us in. John here definitely could do with a cup of tea and he isn’t particular so Tetley will do.”

***

“Why don’t you have another samosa, Edmund? I made them especially for you because I know you like my chickpea samosas better than anything.”

Mrs Chopra dumps another of the neatly folded triangles on a plate and shoves it under Sherlock’s nose with an uncharacteristic air of aggression.

“I’m worried about you,” she continues, ignoring Sherlock’s grimace. “You never had much meat on your bones to begin with but now you’re even skinnier, if that’s possible.”

Bangles jingling emphatically she circles Sherlock’s wrist with a chubby thumb and forefinger. “Your wrist is thinner than that of a Bihar peasant. You’re never going to find yourself a girl that way. Take an example from Keith. He knows what makes a woman happy.” She beams at Jojo who’s saved from commenting by the fifth samosa he’s just crammed into his mouth. That doesn’t stop him from looking daggers at Sherlock for the grief he’s causing Jojo’s surrogate for a loving Mum.

Once there was a time, and really, it’s but a few weeks ago, Sherlock not only didn’t mind Mrs Chopra’s attempts at stuffing him but actually enjoyed her cuisine. He’s spent enough time in Cook’s vicinity to appreciate fresh produce and high-quality condiments and the ample love and hours invested in cooking a meal that pleases the eye and nose while satisfying the taste buds. tickling the sense of smell. Mrs Chopra’s cooking supplies all of these in abundance but since he began shooting up in earnest the mere idea of consuming anything but toast and weak milky tea makes his skin crawl.

By the time Mrs Chopra rolls into the shop on a tumultuous wave of tiffin boxes, extraneous chatter and aggravating concern the salutary effects of his morning hit have long worn off, leaving him irritated and restless. He tries distracting himself with work but his fingers, which were flying deftly between the boxes of spare parts and the printer he’s currently fiddling with a few hours ago, have turned twitchy and uncoordinated over the course of the morning. He desperately wants another hit. Instead he has to endure Mrs Chopra’s lectures and Jojo’s glares while literally sitting on his hands for fear their random twitching will draw unwanted attention.

Worse than the lectures and the glares are the reproachful hangdog looks Jojo keeps shooting him whenever he thinks Sherlock’s attention is directed elsewhere. He obviously hasn’t the faintest about coke’s stimulating effects on any brain, let alone one already as switched-on and hyperactive as Sherlock’s. Even during the afternoons, which easily match the grimmest hours Sherlock suffered at school, Jojo’s surreptitious glances set his back aflame.

Yesterday evening Sherlock declined to accompany Jojo to their Bartitsu class. This had earned him a disgruntled scowl that clashed so violently with Jojo’s usually cheerful appearance Sherlock would have laughed out loud if he hadn’t been too intent on squirming out of the kitchen and up to his room where half a packet of fags and another carefully prepared syringe awaited him.

Daniel had declared himself impressed by Sherlock’s dexterous handling of the needle and the undaunted concentration of his fingers as he pressed the plunger.

“You doing that is a whole new definition of sexy, Edmund darling,” he’d whispered in Sherlock’s ear, mashing his crotch against the small of Sherlock’s back.

“Don’t,” Sherlock had snarled and shoved at him and Daniel had flopped onto the sofa cushions, giggling, pushing his legs up in the air in glee and swinging a flaming red spike heel sandal from an elegantly stretched big toe.

“You’re such a sweet little tease, Edmund,” he’d taunted or words to such effect for Sherlock had ceased listening but was riding the high that whipped through his body and fired up his brain.

Bearing up with the mind-numbing drudge that’s an excuse for existence is so much easier after a shot. The cocaine glowing in his veins amply compensates for Jojo’s and Mrs Chopra’s useless worrying in addition to the trepidation he has to battle every weekday afternoon. If only the drug wasn’t so outrageously expensive in addition to being so highly addictive. He’d complained to Daniel about the (his, their) dealer ripping them off but Daniel just had laughed and rubbed some of the white powder onto Sherlock’s gums, a gesture both too unhygienic and disgustingly intimate for Sherlock’s liking and he’d batted Danny’s finger away from his mouth. Besides, rubbing cocaine onto your gums was akin to entering the fast lane into the dentist chair with a set of false teeth at the end of the journey. Given that risk – and the lesser high – it was a stupid thing to do.

Apart from that, rubbing and snorting are such primitive means of applying the drug, lacking finesse. There’s a certain scientific satisfaction to the elaborate ritual of preparing the solution and drawing it into the syringe. Watching the level rise in the small tube. Drawing a belt tight around his arm and pumping his fist to bring out the veins.

And then…

…nothing, nothing on Earth, from Mummy’s dull pills, to swimming, to solving one of Mr Talbot’s intricate puzzles to playing the Guarneri while basking in the fierce glow of Mr Mancini’s warmth, can compare to the liquid bliss suffusing every nerve in his body and igniting the synapses in his brain until he wants to shout with the joy of simply being alive.

He hates the stuff.

He loathes his body for its weakness and the speed at which it has capitulated to an external stimulant. Until now he’s cherished his physical brain almost as much as the mind it houses. His wits helped him through the daily atrocity that was life at school and in dealing with his mother’s vicious mood swings. His cleverness is a suit of armour and a source of satisfaction. In demanding a constant renewal and increase of dosage, in virtually refusing to function properly and command the rest of his body like it has always done as long as Sherlock hasn’t fed it a fresh round of stimulant, his brain hasn’t merely forsaken him, it has stabbed him in the back.

Small wonder Sherlock hates those long afternoon hours in the backroom of Mr Chopra’s repair shop with the ants crawling under his skin. The insistently loud and regular tick tock of the mechanical clock on the wall behind Sherlock slowly but certainly drives him mad. Whoever designed this particular time-keeping device unwittingly created the twentieth century version of Chinese water torture.

Retreating into what’s left of his mind doesn’t work. Firstly, constructing anything bigger than the gatehouse is almost beyond his current capabilities. In addition no matter how many new foundations he painfully constructs next to the cellar where Mummy lies buried, how many steep flights of stairs he builds leading to endless corridors that end up at the bottom of more stairs winding up hastily erected towers there’s no escaping the appearance of Mycroft in the last room he enters. Mycroft’s expression isn’t merely stern, it’s positively thunderous. Still, an incandescent Mycroft is infinitely preferable to chancing upon the projection of John or Mr Talbot or Mr Mancini, Cook and even Nanny. They all look infinitely sad with Cook invariably opening her arms in an invitation to hide at her bosom. Nanny’s mouth is twitching, a sure sign she’s about to start scolding him, but her eyes are soft and liquid.

More than anything Sherlock dreads the encounter with Daddy. For Daddy wraps Sherlock in his arms and lifts him, as effortlessly as if Sherlock were still a six-year-old, and he’s rocking Sherlock and shushing him and telling him he doesn’t mind Sherlock has been naughty because he knows Sherlock can do better when suddenly an explosion shakes the building. Sherlock plummets to the floor, covered in the blood and scraps of bone and flesh that made up Daddy less than half a second ago. Scrabbling to his feet he flees the structure, straight into a wall of lamb curry and aloo gobi aroma wafting from Jojo’s mouth.

“Must you?” he enquires in the iciest tone he can muster and peels Jojo’s clammy fingers from his forehead.

“Jesus dead ’angin’ Chris’, Eddy, you’re blubbin’,” Jojo asserts and lets his hand drop, defeat dragging down his shoulders.

“I hate tha’ vile buggah,” he adds. The set of his mouth conveys that he knows he’s lost Sherlock, lost what Sherlock realises is the only friend Jojo has ever had.

Sherlock screws his eyes shut and grits his teeth. Under different circumstances – if he’d bumped into Jojo at school for instance – Sherlock would not have minded the acquaintance. He might even have encouraged it for the inquisitive mind hidden beneath the homely exterior, so preferable to the blunt understanding of his fellow pupils. There’s a down-to-earth tenacity to Jojo, a determination to succeed, no matter how low the odds. At school he would have been the perfect sounding board. But here, in the backroom of Mr Chopra’s shop he’s nothing but yet another inconvenience to be endured. Which is wickedly hard without a sustaining shot.

The stage at which Sherlock still lamented his stupidity at succumbing to the poisonous mix of boredom and curiosity has long since passed. Whatever coaxed him into agreeing to Daniel’s suggestion for Sherlock to give in to his impulse is no longer important. Whether it was a doomed experiment in restraint or misguided bravery, the point is moot.

Fact is, soon after waking Sherlock decided he can’t make it through another afternoon on his morning dose. So first thing after arriving he headed for the miserable outhouse at the back of the building that serves them for a toilet and buried a syringe beneath one of the loose floorboards. He’d let his hand rest on the scuffed wood for an instant, telling himself he could still choose not to go there after lunch.

This is another step away from the goal he’d set for himself on the now fast approaching sixth of January. If… when he digs out the syringe he’ll be taking another step back from the confrontation with Mycroft and the demand for his inheritance. Whatever else he may have discarded, his sense of shame has been drilled into him too thoroughly by that kindest of tutors.

The thought of confronting Mr Talbot in his present state is so horrible Sherlock doesn’t even want to contemplate it.

“Mrs Chopra’s bloody ’angin’ righ’,” Jojo comments, bitterly. “You’ sta’vin’ you’self to death, Eddy.”

***

Well, perhaps he’s lost some weight but Daniel assures Sherlock this actually works in his favour as they sit discussing additional means of support for Sherlock and his addiction.

Brian’s – boyfriend, lover, flame? – has taken up semi-permanent residence at Cyprus Street, claiming the house is much more conveniently located to his place of work than his own flat. Sherlock grasps why Danny – with his elaborately styled coiffure the colour of a bright-hot fire and his shocking pink three-inch heels – is more than happy to put up said heels on one of their kitchen chairs rather than showing them off at the more hostile environs east of Bow Creek.

On one of his long Saturday rambles back in August – during that brief period he was the sole master of his own life – Sherlock ended up close to the complex of tower blocks where Danny claims he rents a room and observed the area and the people scurrying about with a mixture of fascination and revulsion. Scruffy jeans, worn hoodie and well-trampled trainers notwithstanding Sherlock still stood out from the locals like a fashion advertisement for a Jermyn Street tailor’s flirt with pop culture. Watching the throngs of tiny figures swarming up and down the buildings and scrambling over the wasteland surrounding the towers he’d wondered how people could bear living packed so closely together. Sherlock counted the number of flats crammed into one floor and calculated the floor space of each apartment. Compared to the outcome, that awful dorm room where he’d been incarcerated with the abominable Warburton and Pleasance and miserable Edward seemed as large as the central hall of the Science Museum.

A bin bag released from the top floor exploding into a chaos of greasy food wrappers, mouldering leftovers and broken glass but four feet from the tips of his shoes had woken Sherlock from his reverie. Tilting his head into his neck he’d felt a chill slither down his spine as he caught sight of his assailant’s face. Was this creature with its wisps of unkempt grey hair clinging to a sickly white scalp a human being, like Sherlock, or a ghost of a farmer murdered long ago in this very same spot? He’d instantly dismissed the notion for the nonsense it was but pivoted on his heels nonetheless and fled to Cyprus Street’s more affluent surroundings. Their tiny, grubby kitchen had almost felt like home that evening.

Now Sherlock is sitting in that same kitchen with his face buried in his hands. Jojo has run off to his room in disgust after yet another shouting match, Brian is thumping his dumbbells and the neighbours are pounding the wall with a broomstick and yelling for him to stop. Normally the racket would drive Sherlock to despair but he already reached that stage an hour ago as he checked his cache of pound notes. A mere eleven fivers was all he scooped out from behind the loose brick in the corner at his bed’s headboard, where he’d counted thirty-two just a week before. Wright will come collect the rent in three days. And his remaining stash of cocaine is barely enough to last him another two days.

If only he’d manage to wean himself of the stuff, same as he’d weaned himself off the pills for the sake of his exams. That had been so ridiculously easy. Will power had sufficed to overcome the distress signals his body had transmitted to his brain. Whatever will power he’s ever harboured has vanished without a trace – diluted as diligently as the working ingredients in a homeopathic draught by the sequent shots inserted into his veins.

If only…

Sherlock swings his head from side to side, as if shaking it will chase off the poisonous fog of despair clouding what’s left of his ability to think. A tinny traitorous voice tells Sherlock all his troubles can be over in the two hours it will take him to walk from Cyprus Street to Connaught Street and deliver himself into Mycroft’s hands. It might be unpleasant, the voice whispers, but you know Mycroft’s anger will burn off faster than a gasoline-soaked stack of hay.

Which is true but Sherlock refuses to eat crow and Mycroft will expect him to apologise for creating unnecessary hassle that would have been avoided easily if only Sherlock would have consented to staying put until the crisis had been dealt with so they could have talked over the situation like grown-ups. That realisation already contains too many stipulations for Sherlock to assess properly – especially given the fact that the effect of his last hit is already tapering off. But that’s Mycroft in a nutshell, always expecting the best of others, and invariably failing when confronted with a delicate situation. Sherlock outright refuses putting up with the inevitable look of disappointment Mycroft will cast him if he winds up at the glossy black railing guarding the immaculate white front of Mycroft’s residence. In addition Sherlock still hasn’t forgiven Mycroft for treating him like an irresponsible child incapable of managing his own life.

If only…

Well, you haven’t exactly made much headway so far, another voice, sounding suspiciously like Nanny’s, advises sternly.

“Shut up,” Sherlock growls and digs the heels of his palms so hard into his eye sockets the kitchen explodes in a starry haze of brightly coloured fireworks.

Over the past few weeks the knowledge he’d hit this point sooner rather than later has been his constant companion, even simmering in the back of his mind during the few hours of sleep he snatched some nights. Every time he sat counting his steadily decreasing stack of pound notes, every time he stood haggling with the shifty individual that supplied Sherlock and Danny with ‘the fuckin’ best snow this side of the ocean’ his mind skipped frantically between possible sources of a larger income than Mr Chopra’s meagre wages.

He wasted a whole afternoon at Harrods observing a gang of shoplifters at work, safe in the knowledge Mycroft would rather forgo a helping of Cook’s apricot cake than be caught roaming that mansion of faux-luxury and bad taste. The gang’s leader was a thirty-something brazen woman whose Italian accent was so end-of-the-pier Sherlock was amazed none of the personnel staffing the counters alerted security the moment she opened her mouth. The elderly assistant in the Norwich department store who’d scrutinised his cheque so suspiciously would never have fallen for the act Sherlock considered idly while his attention honed in on the pseudo Italian’s accomplices. There turned out to be five of them, revealing themselves by a shammed nonchalance that made Sherlock shake his head in dismay over people’s stupidity.

Keeping an eye out for security cameras and the plainclothes security guards attempting to blend in with the crowds of gaping tourists amongst whom mingled a few genuine shoppers Sherlock followed in the gang’s wake on their survey of the wares on offer. They ended up at one of the in-store women’s fashion boutiques that seemed to specialise in particularly flimsy and lurid attire. Both Mummy and Nanny would spurn the fabrics’ sub-standard quality and crinkle their noses over the slipshod stitching but Sherlock send a mental salute as he scanned the price tag hanging from a sleeve before beating a tactical temporary retreat. By now he’d watched enough shop windows, and women and girls lingering in front of those with a faraway look in their eyes, to realise three out of ten would jump at the chance to get their hands on a blouse or dress displaying that particular designer label, no inconvenient questions asked.

In front of a mirror he mussed his hair until his curls sprang free from the thick coat of cheap hair product he’d slicked them with, flipped up his coat collar and imagined he was staring down the despicable Fyfe-Rief. The effect was like donning a cloak of time-hallowed privilege. A salesclerk bustling his way, determined on telling yet another loitering skiver to skedaddle, skidded to a halt and almost dropped a curtsey when he pivoted and gauged her through drooping lashes.

“Can I help you, sir?” she breathed. Behind the woman’s back the gang was busy loading a wheeled clothes rack they’d procured from a fitting room with the most expensive items. They picked out a garment, pretended an interest before changing their mind and deposing the piece on the rack. Nothing in their bearing indicated a sense of unease. Sherlock couldn’t help but admire their sang-froid. “Anything you’re looking for in particular?”

“Not really, no,” Sherlock drawled, refraining from rolling his eyes over his accent’s lowering effect on the woman’s already deferential slump. “Unlike those people over there, it seems.” He nodded in the direction of the rack, which was by now bulging with clothes. The woman followed his gaze in time to catch the helpers dispersing like a pack of wolves slinking away from their kill at the alpha male’s approach – the ersatz Italian, rigged out in modest shop assistant garb replete with a nametag pinned neatly atop her chest and hurrying out of the fitting rooms with a purpose.

“Bu… but,” the woman stuttered, her blush deepening as confusion was replaced with comprehension.

“Yes,” Sherlock confirmed, against the sudden pang of nausea tightening a fist around his stomach. “That man over there is security. Best warn him.”

He turned and fled towards the stairs, careful to retain his arrogant posture even as he fought the convulsions gripping his throat. Upon reaching the staircase Sherlock pulled up his hood and checked the area for cameras before allowing himself to collapse against the wall. What on earth had he been about, assuming he could pull off thievery?

Sherlock had never had any qualms about nicking Mummy’s pills, especially as the drawer was brimming over with a fresh collection every time he opened it. On the Tube into the city centre he’d ratiocinated stealing from an anonymous entity like a warehouse was different from robbing Mr Chopra’s down at heel shop but the woman’s reaction had made him see the error of his theory. Hundreds of people depended upon the giant for their livelihood and in swiping its wares, no matter how insignificant, Sherlock would be endangering their jobs for the sake of feeding his dependency. Every trace of honour left in his soul bristled against such depravity.

He briefly toyed with the notion of offering his services as a security guard who was actually up to the job. For it had been fun pursuing the thieves across their hunting ground and learning their tactics. But that line of work had never been a viable option, even before he’d picked up an expensive habit. Sherlock still hadn’t the faintest about average wage levels but it seemed unlikely those of a security guard would be top of the range.

Rather than catching the Tube back to Cyprus Street Sherlock decided to walk, winding a way down the maze of alleyways and backstreets that made up London’s nervous system and remained blessedly free of CCTV surveillance.

He’d cast his own die and thus it befell to him to deal with the consequences.

***

Easier said than done, especially when the moment of truth is still weeks away. But no matter how many tears he spills, they won’t offer a solution. There’s nothing for it but to face the music – and dance.