It was 4.28am, and there was a corpse under Blackfriars Bridge.
It was 4.28am on a Tuesday in the middle of January, with a fierce, driving rain that struck the churning river with single-minded force. It had been raining solidly for five hours now, and had swelled the puddles in the choked gutters and along the muddy footpath so that passing cars sent up fountains of frigid spray.
So: cold; driving rain; corpse under a bridge in the small hours of the morning. Check, check, check.
In attendance were Detective Inspector Greg Lestrade, Detective Sergeant Sally Donovan, Police Constables Hugh Lockwood and Ahsan Kamal, and the singular entity known as Sherlock Holmes. At present, the two senior police officers, having given up any pretence of engagement in proceedings, were huddled together in the meagre shelter of a bridge support. Their two juniors were employed more gainfully, but no more enthusiastically, in bystander-duty (Lockwood) and in attempting to raise someone from forensics who felt like leaving their bed at 4.28am on a Tuesday morning (Kamal).
Sherlock Holmes was the only one of the aforementioned quintet engaged in anything that could remotely be described as useful activity. Indeed, he was a whirl of it, bending over the corpse with the delighted grin of a connoisseur, then springing upright and pacing wildly. He paused at an unremarkable section of tunnel wall and pulled a dress-maker's tape measure from one capacious pocket. A few measurements later, and he was probing delicately at the corpse's lower incisors. Then examining a cobweb with a magnifying glass. Then sniffing the corpse's sodden and mud-splattered socks. Then back to the tape measure again.
Too used to Sherlock's idiosyncrasies to pay much attention, Sally Donovan pulled her coat tighter about her torso and slipped into a wistful daydream involving a fire and a large fluffy throw rug. Repressing a yawn, she edged fractionally closer to the warn bulk of her superior officer, against whom she was most-definitely-not leaning, and whose own coat was folded tightly around himself. Mournfully, Sally eyed the thick, dark wool of Greg's sleeve, and wondered whether insinuating herself beneath his arm technically counted as 'snuggling a superior officer'. Regretfully, she decided that it probably did.
In lieu of such unprofessional conduct, Sally wrapped her arms more tightly about her chest, stuffed her gloved hands beneath her arms, and bounced briskly up and down on the balls of her feet. Greg pointedly didn't look at her, but performed a kind of shuffling manoeuvre that placed his broad chest considerately at her back and somehow managed, with his hand still firmly in his pocket, to curve his arm and shoulder around her, providing a solid bulwark against the wind. Sally smothered a grin. For the millionth time she wondered exactly what she had done to deserve a boss who just happened to be the world's single most lovely human being. She should get him a novelty mug.
Greg gave her a not-quite-hug, his hands still firmly and respectfully pocketed, his eyes fixed with grave attention on a brick in the opposite wall. A mug and a bottle of scotch, she amended internally.
At that point, Sherlock's phone rang again. It had been ringing, off and on, for the past twenty minutes, and the consulting detective had been ignoring it with equal dedication. The plaintive shrill formed a persistent counterpoint to the thudding rain and the grumble of cars passing overhead. Sally ground her teeth.
Sherlock spun away from the corpse again, coat-tails flying, and looking, Sally thought irritably, unreasonably gorgeous for 4.30 in the ack emma. The mad genius now appeared to be examining the growth of moss on the wall of the tunnel. Sally yawned.
Sherlock's phone shrilled itself into silence, and for a moment there was only the pounding of the rain and the rush of the fast-ebbing Thames. Then Greg's started up. With a muffled curse, he tugged off one glove with his teeth, while fumbling in his trouser pocket with his other hand.
"Lestrade," he answered. You'd never guess from his tone, Sally thought wonderingly, that he'd been hauled rudely from his bed two hours after midnight.
Greg stepped a little away from her, huddling further into such shelter as was provided by the lee of the bridge support; Sally could still hear his side of the conversation, intercut by what sounded like large amounts of shouting from the other end.
"Oh, hey – yeah. Yeah, sorry about that… Look, it's not like it's my bloody job to – Yeah I know he's a bloody great prat. Yeah, of course, hang on."
He crossed to Sherlock, and forced the mobile into his hand.
"John," he said, succinctly.
Without pausing to acknowledge him, Sherlock had taken the phone and loped off down the tunnel, talking volubly and animatedly. Greg raised his eyebrows at Sally, indicating the now-abandoned corpse with a shrug of one shoulder.
"Want to take a look?" he suggested. "Now that his nibs is otherwise occupied."
In companionable silence, they crouched down at a discrete distance from the body, mindful of the forensics that their consultant so blithely ignored. Their scrutiny moved slowly from head to foot and back again, taking in the small details that they hadn't had a chance yet to observe. Greg indicated the torn fingernails on the left hand, and Sally nodded absently. In return, she indicated the scuffed edge on the right sleeve, and Greg gave a low hum of agreement.
Sharp footsteps on the cobbles indicated the return of their consultant. His tone was petulant, verging on the edge of a whine.
"I can't, John. I'm on a case. It's important... Jo-ohn… You don't need me; you need Mrs Hudson – But John…"
Sally looked up in time to catch Greg's wink.
"Looks like John's putting the boot in this time," he told her, in a stage-whisper.
Sherlock's footsteps turned away again, and his voice was lost once more in the rush of cars overhead. Sally went back to her examination of the corpse. There were small flecks of blood visible about the exposed gums. That must've been what Sherlock was looking at then, not the incisors.
Footsteps returning again, Sherlock capitulating gracelessly.
"Alright. Fine. Yes, I told you. I'll be there." He jabbed the end-call button on Greg's mobile with unnecessary violence.
"Alright sunshine?" Greg asked mildly, holding out his hand for the phone. "What's up?"
Sherlock's face worked fiercely, contorting through a variety of unpleasant expressions before settling on a sneer.
"What's up," he informed Greg, scowling, "Is that John requires my presence at the hospital." His nose wrinkled. "It appears that his offspring has arrived."
It took a moment for the two police officers to translate, and then process the Sherlock-speak.
"What… Mary's had the baby?" Sally asked eagerly. She felt a sudden warmth and delight tingling through her chest, combating the damp chill of the tunnel. Greg was beaming, looking suddenly twenty years younger, as proud and paternal as if the baby were his own.
"Yes, Mary's had the baby," Sherlock reiterated, rolling his eyes. "That's what I just said."
"Boy or girl?" Greg asked eagerly.
Sherlock's brow creased.
"Judging by his tone of voice, I'd say female," he rattled off at speed. "John has a regrettable tendency towards chivalry where females are concerned that leads him to modulate his tone and slightly alters his inflection. Add to that the fact that Mary is in her mid-thirties, which is late for a first child, and a woman of that age is statistically more likely to bring a female embryo successfully to term than a male. Furthermore, I believe pre-natal scans indicated that the infant was female though the margin for error with such technology may be relatively high depending on the orientation of the infant in question."
There was a pause, as Greg and Sally once more endeavoured to translate the flood of information into Standard English.
"You mean you didn't even ask him?" Greg managed, in disbelief.
"No. Should I have?"
"Of course you should have, you inconsiderate arse!" Sally exploded. "You're supposed to ask everything! Whether it's a boy or a girl, what they've named her, who she looks like, weight in pounds and ounces, what time she was born – down to the minute, Sherlock!"
Sherlock stared at her.
"Why would you possibly want to know the child's weight in pounds and ounces? You don't even understand pounds and ounces. Metrification began in the 1960s; you're far too young to work in anything other than kilograms."
"Just the way it is, Sherlock," Greg grinned. "Metric for everything else maybe, but beer comes in pints and babies in pounds. Trust me on this one."
"I suppose you didn't ask how Mary's doing either?" Sally enquired.
"No of course not. She was clearly fine. John would have mentioned it otherwise."
Greg and Sally exchanged their usual 'he's an idiot' look.
"Well, come on genius," said Greg. "Best get going. Chop chop!"
Sherlock glared at him, and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like "Et tu, Brute?" Greg's delighted grin only widened.
Bristling with indignation, Sherlock threw a last, scornful look at the pair of them. He spun abruptly on his heel, coat flaring behind him as he strode away, calling back over his shoulder as he went:
"You're looking for two women, Lestrade. Caucasian, one considerably older than the other, likely mother and daughter. Both overweight, low income, probably homeless. The mother's a heavy smoker and the daughter's wearing green nylon track pants; victim was dragged here post-mortem and had a history of alcohol abuse and petty crime."
Greg's only response was a chortle of poorly-supressed laughter.
Head held high, the consulting detective strode off, the light of the street lamps glinting in his hair.
"Oi, Sherlock!" Greg called after him. "Don't forget to buy a present, will you?"
"And a card!"
"And take photos!"
Giggling helplessly, the two police officers watched their consultant retreat. All of a sudden, the night seemed rather brighter.
"John Watson," Sherlock told the man at the reception counter (wanted to be a pilot, but not clever enough; his mother still told people that he was "in medicine", in the hope that they'd think he was a doctor).
"I can't find a John Watson in the system, Sir," the man told him, frowning. "Are you sure you've got the name right?"
"Cretin," Sherlock snarled. "I have no interest whatsoever in the status of your system. Just tell me in which ward I can find him."
The man stammered.
"Do you… um… do you know what he's in for?"
"Regrettably." Sherlock grimaced. "Try looking under maternity."
"A John Watson in maternity?" the receptionist tried again, clearly out of his depth. "I don't think – "
But Sherlock was no longer listening. His sharp ears had caught the familiar tread, and all other sounds had become superfluous. He turned to see John barrelling towards him, his face transported with delight.
"You prat! I've been waiting for you forever."
"Patently untrue. You called me 43 minutes ago. I would have been here sooner, but Lestrade impressed upon me that a gift of some description was mandatory."
He thrust a paper bag from the hospital gift shop into John's surprised hands.
"Felicitations. Though what possible use you could have for a stuffed toy resembling some sort of anthropomorphised lagomorph is beyond me."
"It's a rabbit, Sherlock." He told his own personal idiot-savant, as he drew from the bag a really rather lovely toy made from soft, pale blue towelling. There was a card, too. A card with a picture of a duckling, and with the same short message scrawled inside:
John's smile stretched even wider, his eyes crinkling softly.
"Thanks, Sherlock." His voice was suspiciously rough. "You didn't have to."
He flashed Sherlock one of his luminescent smiles. "Though you do know that blue is for boys, right?"
Sherlock's frown deepened.
"Lestrade intimated that it was compulsory," he said stiffly. "And I fail to see what the colour has to do with anything. I'll grant you that it's not very realistic, but it was either that or a ghastly shade of magenta."
"Pink for girls and blue for boys, Sherlock," John informed him (his how-can-you-not-know-this? voice). "Not that I buy into it. I'd rather my daughter wasn't indoctrinated to expect the life of a Disney princess from the moment of her birth, thanks."
"Ah," Sherlock said, frown easing. "Then your previous comment was a reference to outmoded gender norms perpetuated by marketing companies in order to instil a sex-based purchasing mentality in potential customers."
"Something like that, yeah." Then: "I'm glad you got the blue one. It's nice."
"Good. That's… um… good."
"So – it is a girl then? What about –" there was a momentary pause – "name, time of birth, inherited phenotypic traits, and weight in pounds and ounces?"
One of John's eyebrows inched upwards.
"Did you get that off a website?"
John laughed out loud.
"I'll tell you on the way," he said. "Come on, come and meet my daughter."
John ducked eagerly around the curtain, smile stretching his face once more, and Sherlock knew that the muscles in his cheeks would be sore by the end of the day. With rather more reluctance, the detective followed his friend around the curtain and into a screened-off alcove.
His eyes roved quickly over the small space: cream-coloured walls; warm, yellow light; windows (curtains mostly drawn, sliver of dark sky); drawers; night-table; standard hospital bed; female occupant (sleeping); small, standard-issue cradle alongside.
"Mary looks tired," he remarked, for something to say.
"Yeah," John said softly. "She's been working hard. First baby's always the most difficult; and – well, at 37..." he trailed off
"You were worried." And then, measuredly: "You didn't want it, did you? You were worried about what might happen to her."
"Yeah." He said, tightly. "To her; to both of them. It wasn't – something I planned, Sherlock."
Sherlock only nodded.
"Come on," John said at last. "I got them to hold off on giving her a proper bath; I wanted to wait 'til you were here."
Sherlock stared at him in frank astonishment.
"Me? Why? What on earth did you think that I could contribute to proceedings?"
There was a trace of tension in John's shoulders, and he ducked his head a little awkwardly, but his smile was fond.
"It's hard to explain," he said, softly. "The birth, the first feed, putting her down for her first sleep – that's – those things are all about the mum. And it's only fair. Her work, her payoff. But the first bath… Somehow, that seems to be a Dad thing. It's the first chance, for a lot of guys, to be with the baby on their own… to take responsibility… share something with them, y'know?"
Sherlock had gone very still. His eyes were fixed on John's face. His teeth touched his lower lip, very lightly, and withdrew.
"And I want you to be there," John finished, levelly.
With the utmost delicacy, John slid his hands beneath the baby and lifted her from the cradle, allowing Sherlock to see her properly for the first time. Beneath thin, shadowed eyelids, her eyes flickered rapidly in sleep.
She was wrapped in the light blanket that Mrs Hudson had crocheted, and there was a plastic hospital bracelet around one minute ankle. She was pink and clean, though only superficially so: there was a faint, reddish tinge still to her skin, and traces of amniotic fluid remained about the corner of her nose and in her fine, fair hair. Small; smaller than average. Dangerously so? No – both her parents were small also.
He could see nothing of John in her. Nothing at all. The infant was so clearly a distinct individual, her every feature novel and entirely without equivalent. But then he noticed her hands, tiny and pink – the fingers more tapered, but the proportions unmistakeably John's; broadest just below the thumb; long palms, longer than the fingers; the same overlap of the second and third digit where they curled into the blanket.
And then, other similarities. He had been misled in looking for replicates, when in fact there were only resemblances; but still John, John's genetic influence, John's child. With her eyes screwed shut, the crinkle at the corners was like his. Different lines, different texture and tensility of skin, but the effect was the same.
"So what do you think genius?" John prompted softly. "Definitely mine?"
"Hmm… Oh, yes, definitely. Yours or a close relative's. The proportions of the feet and hands are almost identical, and the similarity in other aspects is far greater than would be expected by chance – arrangement of the features, slope of the forehead, shape of the earlobes –"
"Most people just say 'she's got your mouth' or 'your nose'".
"Hmm… No. Those are distinct. Quite clearly. Although now that you mention it, her mouth is the same colour yours is when you've been kissing someone. Similar activity to nursing, I suppose."
And there it was. One of those typical Sherlock statements, delivered with such cool frankness that John could not help but be stunned. Because how could Sherlock remember things like that, how could he possibly know? Not the nursing thing – that, though interesting in a Freudian kind of way, was not what troubled John. But how was it possible that he could have lived with Sherlock for four years and not understood this? How had he failed to recognise that this was the kind of man who thought the colour of John's mouth worth memorising? Not only an abstract, not merely data, but necessary.
Unable to speak, John indicated the corridor.
Outside, they found a nurse whom John appeared to know. She smiled and cooed at them, allowing Sherlock to immediately classify her as extraneous. The nurse led them a small way down the corridor to something designated the "Family Room". It was large and warmly lit, adorned with a mural of jungle animals bearing unlikely smiles. There was a play-pen on the floor (mercifully devoid of squalling infants) and cheap imitation-Lego blocks strewn over much of the furniture. In one corner was a settee on which a young woman, with the aid of a stereotypically plump and motherly-looking nurse, was endeavouring to persuade a particularly idiotic child to suckle. At a low table some way apart from them, an elderly Chinese man was drinking coca cola with a small boy. The boy was swinging his legs, trainers ringing dully on the metal legs of his chair. Both of them looked tense and unhappy.
There was a small kitchenette-type arrangement in one corner of the room, and towards this they proceeded. John's nurse friend (not so stereotypical as the other; slim and spiky-haired) procured a small plastic tub from beneath the sink, which she filled with lukewarm water.
"Best put it on the lino," John told her. "We might splash a bit."
The woman obeyed these instructions, produced flannels and fluffy towels from another cupboard, and left them to it. John, seemingly quite at home, had eased himself down onto the floor beside the tub, settled the infant comfortably atop her blanket, and was in the process of removing her nappy with utter, sanguine competence. Sherlock stared.
"Well, come on then," said John. "You're not going to be much use all the way up there."
Sherlock, moving rather dazedly, stepped closer. Then he paused, eyeing the tub of water, the baby, and, rather belatedly, the sleeves of John's jumper pushed halfway up his arms. With careful dignity, Sherlock halted. He removed his scarf, laying it fastidiously across the back of an armchair. It was followed by his coat and his exquisitely tailored jacket. It might have had more of an effect, John thought, if he hadn't seen Sherlock toss those same garments hither and yon across the flat. And, indeed, most of greater London.
Levelling a rather baleful expression at his friend, Sherlock unbuttoned his cuffs, and folded the sleeves of his claret-coloured shirt crisply to the elbow. With a put-upon sigh, he hitched up his trousers and subsided gracefully to his knees beside John.
"Did you know you look just like Mycroft when you do that?"
There was a tiny noise, something between a hiccup and the sneeze of a cat. The baby was awake, Sherlock realised, with a start. Awake and moving, her tiny feet kicking at the air, unfocussed gaze roving ceaselessly. She hadn't cried. Why hadn't she cried? They were supposed to cry, weren't they?
"Yeah, she's a phlegmatic wee thing," John chuckled, correctly interpreting his thought process.
Tenderly, he lifted the baby again, and she made a soft noise like the call of a bird.
"Ready to hold her, genius?" he asked.
Sherlock nodded warily. John only called him 'genius' in that tone of voice when experiencing alarming levels of sentimentality. Twice in one morning was unprecedented.
Sherlock held out his hands. They were cupped, palms-upward, fingers splayed, rather in the attitude of Oliver Twist. John considered. It was not the easiest way to hold a baby; certainly not recommended for someone who had probably never done it before. But Sherlock's hands were the most dexterous that John had ever seen; his hand-eye co-ordination bordered on the impossible.
John eased forward until they were kneeling almost chest to chest, and placed the baby gently in Sherlock's outstretched hands. Her head and shoulders fitted comfortably into one long, white palm; the other managed to span the tiny body from her chest almost to her heels. Delicately, Sherlock raised the baby to eye level, his fingers braced against her small weight; his eyes were fixed on the rise and fall of her chest. John let his hands rest upon Sherlock's forearms; watching him; not moving away. He felt a fierce spike of love shoot through him, though whether for the baby or the man, he did not know.
The baby's head was heavy in the palm of Sherlock's hand; defenceless, and so utterly without tension.
"Oh!" He said. "She does have your eyes."
His voice was startled, and very young-sounding in his own ears. John's answering laugh was soft, and a little shaky.
"Most babies have that eye colour," he said. "They'll probably change as she gets older."
But Sherlock was convinced. Fundamentally, the pigment was the same as Mary's or Harry's or Sherlock's, or even Mycroft's, but the baby didn't look like any of them. She looked like John.
They bathed her; Sherlock holding the baby, John running the flannel over her tiny body, cleaning gently between fingers and toes, caressing her softly with damp hands. Water ran down Sherlock's arms, dripping into the basin and onto his lap with equal impunity. John's hands ran lightly over the baby's head, ruffling the fine, silken hair, then ran with equal tenderness over Sherlock's forearms, over his hands, touching him lightly on the elbow and in the crook of his arm.
"I want to call her Billie," John said, quietly. "I don't know if Mary will go for it; but just so you know – that's what I want."
Sherlock blinked. His eyes raked rapidly over John's face. For a long, frozen moment, they stared at each other.
"I see." Sherlock said at last. "Of course. You consider Willa, Wilhelmina and suchlike to be too old-fashioned; Sheryl, Shirley and other such derivatives are all ghastly; and Sherlock, in your mind, is too inescapably masculine. Obvious really."
John laughed. There were tears in his eyes.
"Your arrogance knows no bounds, it really doesn't."
"Naturally," Sherlock agreed, smiling. His fingers caught John's and pressed them; John sucked in a soft breath. Studiously, they avoided eye-contact.
Then: "Are you sure you won't relent and name her after Mycroft?"
"Does he have an actual name? Another one, I mean."
Sherlock's lip curled.
"Edward Mycroft George. Inevitable, really, with a name like that. It's like having a Union Jack tattooed on his backside."
John chuckled. The baby, as if sensing their amusement, kicked her feet in the air and gurgled.
"Mycroft got off lightly though," Sherlock continued, after a momentary pause. "Our other brother got stuck with Theodore Sherrinford Ross." His eyes glinted. "It always amused me that I could abbreviate both of my brothers to Teddy."
John snorted with laughter, forbearing to mention the possible abbreviations of 'William'.
"Your parents are really something."
John retrieved his daughter and laid her on a towel, leaving Sherlock to sponge morosely at his sopping shirt-front. He was more than a little surprised, therefore, when having dried his daughter, he turned to find Sherlock holding out his hands for her. And John really should teach him that a baby was not meant to be held like that, like some relic, some votive offering, some strange artefact laid across spread and suppliant palms. But there was something about the image that touched him, something deep and complex than he was unable to articulate. He could not tear his eyes away from them; from the sight of his daughter's tiny head cradled, lightly and easily, in that single, enormous palm.
With a hiccupping whimper, the baby began to cry. John half expected Sherlock to panic – to yelp, or fidget, or freeze, or try to hand her back. But he did none of those things. Instead, very intently, he raised the baby until her thin, pink chest was within inches of his nose. Sherlock regarded her with an intense scrutiny, a degree of focus usually reserved for blood stains or bacterial cultures. It was a look so endearingly familiar that John, to his own surprise, felt a lump forming in his throat.
Skilfully, Sherlock shifted the baby until she lay balanced along his forearm. And that really was unsafe, and no matter how good Sherlock's reflexes were he couldn't do things like that, not with John's newborn daughter for Christssakes, not with a baby who was squirming and squalling and drumming her small heels against his bicep; but John made no move to stop him. With exceptional delicacy, Sherlock lifted his free hand to her face. He traced her pink, bawling mouth, and prodded daintily at her small, scrunched nose. The baby let out a sniffling wail, and Sherlock, with an expression of absorbed interest, popped one elegant white forefinger into her open mouth and prodded softly at her tongue. With a slight, choked-off gasp, the baby stopped crying. Astonished into docility, she stated up at them. Her eyes were wide and surprised-looking, her little mouth open in an expression of perfect bewilderment. John, amusement already curling in his belly, found himself in the peculiar, unprecedented position of wanting to apologise to his newborn daughter for his friend's childishness.
Sherlock tilted his head sideways, looking up at John from under his brows. His eyes glinted with delighted mischief, and a suppressed smile curled at the edges of his mouth. And suddenly, there was nothing John could do but lean forward and encircle them in his arms.
Sherlock's back was solid and strong beneath his hands, and his shirt was damp. Sherlock's forehead was bowed against his temple, and his breath was on John's neck, and the baby was a warm, soft, sweet-smelling weight pressed gently between their chests. Sherlock's low chuckle reverberated through them until John was laughing as well, and they were tangled together and laughing, and the baby was nuzzling in perplexity against Sherlock, mouthing at his chest through the fabric of his shirt – and that set them off laughing again, giggling like idiots; and somehow, John knew that everything was going to be alright.
The thought slipped into his mind so gently and naturally that he almost missed it:
The people I love most in the world.
He didn't mention it, of course. Sherlock was arrogant enough without that.