"We Make Our Own Lightning"
all of the continents used to be one body
Vee caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and let loose a string of curses hot enough to blister the ears of anybody lurking in her studio. Not that anybody was. She'd started the day by setting up the mirror in the corner to stay aware of the way the light was falling on the stone, but somehow in the course of working had managed to forget the strict instructions she'd given herself not to relax and let her hands drift toward her back pockets or through the thick mess of her hair; there were streaks of gritty white in her hair, aging her prematurely, and ghostly hand-shaped prints all over her arse.
Too bad she couldn't pretend that the impressions were from Greg's hands, at least not to herself; she knew the weight and shape of them, the roughness and certainty of them, from having enjoyed a certain intimacy with them for the past twenty years. Gemma Ballin, their downstairs neighbour for the last ten, wouldn't know the difference, though, and Vee thought parading by her with the marks on full display might be an effective means of stopping the just thought I'd see if you needed anything, Greg, love and thought you might want a proper Sunday roast, not just vegetables chats that always seemed to occur on Gemma's laundry days, judging by the barely-there clothing she sported.
Bugger it, she'd've enjoyed doing that but she had to get ready, so she legged it the quarter mile back to the flat, thinking as she went. Dinner with the Chief Inspector and his wife meant she had to wash her hair, not just bundle it out of the way and hope the lighting in the restaurant was too low to make out if the white was natural. Percy wasn't all that bad, really, and Bridget was actually rather fun, she reminded herself as she worked shampoo into the unruly tangle of her hair. She was mangling the lyrics to "We Got the Beat" – half of them seemed borrowed from "Leather & Lace" – when she realised what she could do with that smallish piece of marble she'd struck away from the main block. She could make Gemma a reproduction of Greg's lovely cock, something to keep on her mantelpiece or coffee table, as a conversation starter. Though in her experience, when the real thing entered the picture, her side of the conversation was likely to dwindle into incoherent pleadings and satisfied sighs.
She heard him enter the bathroom as she was laughing to herself at the thought of presenting Gemma with such a gift. Maybe with a tasteful bow of red velvet. "Do I want to know?" he called, voice pitched just loud enough to be heard over the pounding of the water.
"I doubt it," she said honestly, diligently working through the knots in her hair with conditioner.
"Yeah, I never do," Greg muttered around his toothbrush, then laughed as she continued with her song.
Greg's arm was warm and welcoming around her waist as they walked to the restaurant; they were snugged so closely together that she had to tip her head back just to see him properly, the setting September sun firing the ends of his hair and smoothing out the few lines he wore on his face. He was too used to the scrutiny to pay her any mind, and she was too used to being struck by his beauty to watch where she was going, so all in all, the arm around her was an effective navigator too.
That arm felt a bit tighter these days, as it seemed like her arse was growing by the hour. Vee frowned to herself, trying to work out if she cared enough about that to give up sweets or to exercise regularly, and Greg dropped one hand to give her backside a good squeeze. Not just a detective and a diplomat, but an arse-man as well. Good thing, too, because the restaurant they were going to had the most divine pudding, ice cream with a hot brandy-and-caramel sauce and a bit of fresh mango, and watching Greg eat his half always gave her a pleasant shiver. She kissed the side of his neck briefly just before they went in and they entered the restaurant smiling.
The cooking at the restaurant had gone sharply downhill, and the three vegetarian items on the old menu had apparently been consolidated into one confused mass; when the curly lettuce in the side salad was the best thing on the plate, it was time to throw in the towel. She raised an eyebrow at Greg, who was tucking into his porterhouse steak with gusto, pausing for a millisecond to grin guiltily at her even though Percy had – as always – picked the place. Well, since Greg was already feeling pangs of guilt, it would be cruel of her to deny him the chance to make it up to her. The place three streets over did gorgeous mini-pizzas.
Decision made, she rejoined the conversation Percy was dominating, about the elections and French films and football, but had one eye on her plate as she separated out ingredients based on colour and texture, admiring the patterns her fork was making. When Percy finally wound down his oration and started talking shop with Greg, she and Bridget breathed simultaneous sighs of relief and got down to proper conversation.
"That colour really suits you," Vee said, spearing another bite of her deconstructed salad to appease her stomach. "I had a scarf just that shade once – it looked ghastly on me, of course, all wrong for my skin tone – so I ended up pinning it to the wall of the wretched flat I lived in at the time."
"Oh, dear," Bridget said, amusement heavily implied in her voice. "This isn't going to end well for the brave little forget-me-not scarf, is it?"
"Marble dust." Vee pronounced the scarf's death sentence with all appropriate solemnity. "Cashmere doesn't wash well."
She knew she had to eat more if she didn't want her White Russian to go straight to her head, but there was no more lettuce to be had, and in any case, Bridget had pushed her plate away – Vee didn't blame her, as she wouldn't have wanted the wide eye of the fish she'd been eating to be fixed on her – in favour of her Gibson. Getting down to drinks and brass tacks were one and the same with Bridget, so Vee sipped her drink and leaned in a little for discretion's sake.
"Of course I don't have to worry as much, now that Perce is doing what amounts to a desk job, but that strangling case that wrapped up last month? Terrifying. I kept having visions of him with his eyes bulged out and tongue gone stiff." Bridget shuddered minutely. "I wish sometimes he'd let me keep my job; things were so much easier when I had numbers to wrestle into submission and could take my mind off his work once in a while. Now all I do is give luncheon parties and stand around at charity dinners looking decorative." Bridget tipped back the rest of her drink with an air of grim dissatisfaction. "When Greg does get the bump up the ladder, you have to make sure you keep what's important to you."
Vee rested her hand lightly on top of Bridget's and squeezed gently. The men looked over at that, and she felt a protective urge come over her, determined that neither of them should see Bridget just then, when all she needed was a moment to pull herself back together. "Oh, Greg knows better than to expect me to be decorative," she said softly, rewarded by the amused laugh that followed the slight widening of Bridget's eyes.
"Plotting, I expect," Percy said genially as he looked them over. "Now, who's for pudding?"
"Mmm, you smell gorgeous," Greg said, burying his nose in her hair and inhaling. That shampoo she'd used smelt of coconut, the cool scent always pleasant on the warm cloud of her hair. It smelt divine on him too, and these days she could catch his scent more easily, now that he'd given up cigarettes and there was no cloud of smoke dulling everything about him. A trace of caramel still lingered inside his mouth when he kissed her, each of them relying on the other to hold them steady as they walked back to their flat, dodging the other pedestrians on the pavement who were shivering in the dark.
They weren't twenty-somethings ready and able to have marathon sex on the stairs – she wouldn't have trod barefoot on those steps unless she'd cleaned them herself, so anything further was definitely out of the question – but there was no such thing as a wrong place for some proper kissing with the best man she knew. She had her hands on his biceps, firm through the warm cloth of his striped Oxford and thick topcoat, and his hands were back on her bum, and their mouths found each other effortlessly.
He was lovely, and he was hers. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of Gemma staring enviously at them; she closed her eyes and kept going.
the boundary of his two bare arms
John had never been one of those chaps with a head for figures, facts, or anything else dry. When questions like which team had the most tries at goal during World Cup play came up, he was content to sit silently with his pint and just listen to competing voices until blood and beer were spilt.
That was when he sprang into action, because for John, something only stuck in his brain if he'd tried it himself. He never had problems memorising all the bones or muscle groups in the human body because he'd treated injuries to most of them in his time at clinics, on rugby fields, and under combat conditions. Once it was in his memory, it was there for good.
Or at least that's how it had once been. Before he'd been shot and shipped off to an underfunded hospital, his brain in a muddle, his shoulder in a worse one, and no one to answer his questions, pointed or delirious, about the soldiers in his unit who might have survived. There was no information to be had about Dunn's hand or Elsman's spine, and the case histories John had been keeping safe in his brain swirled away, starved into nothingness and beaten into meaninglessness. He lay there in his hospital bed, looking up at the pitted ceiling and hating everything about the war, especially himself; those soldiers had been hurt in the line of duty, and John couldn't even remember them properly. There was no decency in him, no respite against himself. When a new kind of statistics was fought over, on topics like the most devastating surgery endured without anaesthetic, he'd be that silent lump again.
He didn't want to think about his leg. Not that thinking about his shoulder – and what that tremor in his hand meant to his career as a surgeon – or thinking about Harry, steadily drinking herself to death, was any better. So he thought about his leg, it being the safest option of the three. Well done, idiot, he thought when he woke tiredly the morning after a bad night, just looking at it and waiting for agony to hit, and of course it refused to oblige him – not a twinge, not a lick of pain.
John outsmarted his blasted leg by seizing the chance to do some walking through London, Oyster card carefully tucked in his nearly empty wallet as a lifeline against the moment his leg would remember its old tricks and collapse beneath him. It was sad, he thought, that parts of his body were at war with his brain, but the idea was darkly amusing too, and it kept him from considering his hand as a casualty; he could so clearly picture the puffed-up little general who was in charge of his leg.
He made it all the way down to the South Bank before the bastard of a general triumphed, then wanted to scream when a pretty girl, her eyes softening as she took in his cane, offered him her seat on the bus back across the bridge.
He stayed home – that was as good a word as any, he supposed, even if it did, in this instance, mean Harry's well-appointed flat – on the days it was absolutely pissing outside; he'd learnt the hard way that he couldn't count on staying upright in the wet with one leg liable to go rogue at any moment, and, in a rather hilarious reversal of a lifetime's habits, Harry screamed like the very devil if he tracked in mud over her kitchen floor. It wasn't like Clara was around to see any of it – she'd carefully occupied herself with a court case that took up her days and nights, for which John could hardly blame her.
The whole world wallowing in wet outside, John stayed tucked up inside, making his way through Clara's well-stocked library. Twice he found himself reading books he'd read before but hadn't recognised simply because the editions wore different covers. Both times he ploughed through, arguing to himself that the books had to be worth rereading if both he and Clara had found them good enough to keep; there was a value, too, to finishing something he'd started, a satisfaction that glowed in him even though he knew it was a meaningless feat.
There had been days, weeks, spent like this when he'd been little, back pressed against the rough bark of a tree in his mum's back garden, legs either straddling a thick branch or propped against the solidity of a sizeable crotch, a book in his hands. He missed the rustle of whispering leaves, but at least Clara's office was painted a soft green, and with his eyes half-closed the illusion held, if only for a moment.
Right on cue, his leg seized up and he lunged desperately for his loathsome cane, just out of reach. Fucking Christ, not even forty and he'd already become the evening portion of the Sphinx's riddle on the ages of man. Harry came home from work – no, not straight home, but rather by way of a happy hour at the posh wine bar near her office – to find him on the wood floor of the small, dim room that housed Clara's books, laughing like a machine-gun, rat-a-tat, like he couldn't stop.
When Vee Met John
the coefficient of the body is another body
Greg had his hands cupped around the porcelain beer stein that Tony had brought back from Germany. It was as tall as his forearm was long, and the size of it was supposed to be a joke, she remembered, frowning, knowing that Greg would have filled it with bitter black coffee and that he'd be irritable all day because of the caffeine.
Even good men were prize idiots.
Seeing him being diligent and going through his case files meant she had no excuse for lounging about like an odalisque. Vee wrapped herself up in her warmest cardigan and puttered around the flat, gathering up the clothes and towels and sheets that needed laundering, and set the first load going in the washing machine. Feeling virtuous, she rewarded herself with the last of the Christmas chocolate, setting aside one sturdy chunk of Dairy Milk for Greg when he emerged from whatever pernicious file he was currently buried in, then made toast and tea for a light breakfast.
The morning light was cold and thin, and her fingers itched to hold a pencil or charcoal. The last time she'd sketched Greg, it had been midsummer, sunlight as heavy as syrup pouring over him, his sleepy bedroom eyes smiling at her. Looking at him now, hair still a bit damp from his shower, the barest hint of a belly stretching his thin collarless shirt out, he looked vulnerable in a way he hadn't been then even though he'd been naked in a puddle of light.
It was because he was vulnerable, she saw once she had her sketchbook in her hands and his familiar outline on the page; he was only human, but still throwing himself into protecting the world, and he would suffer if he couldn't catch whoever had committed crimes, if he couldn't keep everyone on his team safe and happy and clever. It would show on him in the form of bags under his eyes, lines on his face, or just heaviness in his step, and he would rebuke himself for it like it had been his choice to let that killer walk free.
She put down the pad and kissed the top of his head, lending him some of her warmth.
"How hard do you think it would be to teach myself to knit?" she asked as she gave the rice a quick stir, tapped the flat spoon against the rim of the pot, and replaced the lid. Three more minutes and it should be done.
"Not hard enough, so you'd get bored with it," Greg answered, ceding his bottle of beer to her and peering over her shoulder as if he hadn't been watching everything that went into the pots on the hob. "You don't have time anyway, not if you want to finish that piece for the school next month." He took his bottle back when she held it out to him.
She poured half the pot of sambar into a separate container for him, then cracked dried chilli peppers into the liquid still cooking. "Ugh, it's so terrible. Nobody is going to like it – I don't even like it – and then they'll spell my name wrong on the plaque, and it's just so boring. They commissioned me to sculpt 'Academia' and then handed me a design! What's the point of hiring someone with ideas, then?"
"They're idiots, yes, but idiots with deep pockets, and you've got the skill to do exactly what they want, so they'll be impressed. And maybe one of them with a little more imagination will say, 'Oh, I want her to make something just for me.'" His accent slid from normal to ultraposh as he did his impression of a school trustee on the cusp of discovering he had the makings of an artistic soul. Greg took a long swallow of his beer and made a face. "Christ, I sounded just like him, then."
There was only ever one him, but she liked saying the name anyway, just because it was so absurd. "Sherlock Holmes?"
He nodded. "Poshest bastard I've ever met."
"Worse than Percy?" she asked dubiously. "I have to meet him."
"No!" Greg said, then jumped just a little when the pressure cooker let out its shrill whistle. "I don't even want to know how he'd insult you, but I know I'm not up to hearing it."
She was going to argue that she could take care of herself, that it would take more than clipped consonants coming from someone behaving like the world's lord and master to hurt her, but Greg was already looking upset; for five years, he'd been looking upset every time he thought of Sherlock Bloody Holmes, and if he wanted her to stay untainted by him, she'd keep away.
She slid the bottle out of his hand, set it on the worktop, and nudged her way into Greg's arms, kissing the side of his neck, reminding him that this space was his oasis, free of screaming horrors and posh bastards alike.
She wished she could have extended that safe space to the press conference that was being televised because one of the news channels had got wind that two of the suicide victims were important people. Greg was wearing his dark coat like it was proof of his respectability and her heart ached at the thought that it wasn't enough – the Met putting his face out there only meant that he was the one who'd be blamed if the suicides continued, but if he stopped them it would be just one more statistic used for end-of-year begging for budgets.
At least he had Sally by his side, a good and proper second, her voice crisp and clear and authoritative, her respect for Greg evident just from her posture. Vee had often wanted to use Sally as a model, but it seemed that no one was interested in a modern take on allegorical figures like Strength and Mercy and Discipline. Or at least not her modern take.
Vee thought back and realised it was her turn to call Sally for coffee. She ought to do it before the week was out, given how stressed the sergeant was looking onscreen. Her sketchpad lay forgotten on her lap as the press conference was interrupted by Greg and Sal and all of the reporters receiving text messages simultaneously; Greg's lips tightened and Sally's jaw clenched ominously. All the way across London, Vee could feel her own fingers clutching her pencil in a death grip. Sherlock Bloody Holmes making things difficult, she'd bet her life.
Vee loved making lists and checking things off them. Except, of course, when the only item still unchecked was the one thing she had been putting off for far too long, and the list turned into evidence of all the things she'd rather do. She cleaned off the toilet brush and sighed, facing the facts.
That thrice-damned school commission needed to be finished, and quickly, so that the marble had some time to settle into its new shape and she had time to polish the surfaces to different grades of fineness to catch the lights of the school atrium.
She stripped off her scrubbing gloves and texted Greg that she was heading down to the studio. When his shift was over he'd text her back, even if he were on his way home; that was the deal they'd struck, and it worked well enough to keep worry for him segregated to one corner of her mind.
Duran Duran was the right call if she had to sculpt beautiful boys – she detested the automatic association of white marble with Greek male forms, particularly in this case given that the students at the school, boys and girls alike, came from Africa and Asia and the Americas as well as western Europe, but the design had not been subject to her approval – so she set her iPod in its dock, put her mobile near the mirror to heighten her chances of seeing its lights blink when Greg checked in, and got to work.
The playlist was on its third, or maybe fourth, repeat and she was considering the way Roger Taylor had looked, all sleepy and surprised and gorgeous, in the video for "Hungry Like the Wolf" as she finished carving the last of the scrolls that lay at the boys' feet. She straightened up and winced as her back cracked in protest at the odd poses she'd forced herself into. God, how had it got to be well past midnight already? Wiping herself down with a damp rag and hoping the bandana had kept most of the marble dust out of her hair, she hurried over to check her mobile.
As if he'd been waiting, Greg sent her a follow-up text just then. Still working. New crime, shooter. Home by 3? Right. That meant he hadn't eaten, had been pouring coffee down his gullet and wondering vaguely why his stomach was always rebelling, and would be exhausted enough that his eyes were close to crossing. Food would be the first order of business, no matter how much he protested that he needed a shower or their bed; he wouldn't sleep properly unless his stomach was at least partially appeased. She considered the options, then decided on that Chinese on Baker Street, which was open until two.
The aromas of the place made her abruptly aware of how badly she needed food as well, so she scanned the menu and considered the merits of noodles versus rice and black bean sauce versus garlic sauce. "Broccoli with garlic sauce, bean curd with black bean sauce, sesame chicken, steamed pork dumplings, vegetable fried rice, and pork lo mein, please," she said. The man behind the counter looked so deeply uninterested that she thought he might keel over from ennui until the door behind her opened, letting in a sharp draft of brisk midwinter air that woke him up. "Ten minutes," he promised, already looking behind her for the next customers and smiling when he evidently recognised them.
She turned to see who could have made him perk up enough to paste a smile on his face and saw two men, utterly mismatched. The one who exuded an air of absolute competence was trim, blond, and professional-looking, and the other was tall and skinny and looked like a complete loon. The one with the wheat-coloured hair nodded at her without really looking, too intent on his conversation with the other one to pay her any mind. "No, but Sherlock –" she heard as they walked past her to get to the counter and place their order.
Sherlock. That gangly nutjob was Sherlock Holmes. No wonder Greg groaned at the mirror and proclaimed that his hair would still be as dark as it'd been the day he'd picked her up at Nanette's party were it not for Sherlock Bloody Holmes.
The kind-looking man placed an order and then was promptly backed up by Sherlock into a corner of the takeaway shop while they waited. She frowned, trying to work out who the man could be; Greg hadn't mentioned getting a new team member, and he would have rolled out the red carpet for anyone who could keep Sherlock as calm as this fellow evidently could. She looked over at them and thought that the man had a lovely smile, one that involved his eyes and cheeks as well as his mouth. And Sherlock – she snuck another glance, hoping he was paying more attention to that very nice smile than he was to any outside observation – Sherlock didn't have a smile so much as an expression of deranged delight, if the unholy light in his eye was any indication.
The man behind the counter held up a carrier bag full of food and pointed at her, so she made her way back up to him, brushing against the rough tweed of Sherlock's gorgeous coat on her way. Even turned away from him, she could feel his assessing eyes on her, poring over her from her dusty hair to her battered green trainers; she resisted the urge to surprise him by whispering his name as she walked away.
There was only one detective whose attention she wanted at the moment, and she texted him as she left the shop: Come home.
"Were you going for Bohemian or were you just feeling too sodding lazy for words?" she asked when she got home to find Greg on the floor of the sitting room with an old tablecloth in front of him. There was a jug of water, two of the stainless steel tumblers they'd bought from the spice stall in the Portobello Road market, and two sets of polished chopsticks resting on the tablecloth.
"A little from column A, a little from column B," he said with a tired laugh.
"Poor love," she said, commiserating. "Eat up while it's hot." She set the bag down and headed for the kitchen.
"No, stay," he protested. "What did I forget?"
"Napkins, extra duck sauce, and spicy mustard, and anyway I want to wash my hands." After she shut off the water, she gathered everything and went back to where he was sitting lopsidedly, too exhausted to keep his spine straight. "Want to tell me what happened?" she asked, unpacking the food.
It took him several moments to work up the energy to speak. "They weren't suicides." She paused with a cube of bean curd halfway to her mouth. "Sherlock figured it out, of course, and to prove it, he went off to have a face-to-face challenge with the killer, the sodding git."
Watching him struggling to sit up and feed himself, she crawled over to him and took the box of sesame chicken out of his hands and got him to drop his lacquered chopsticks. She shifted until he was pressed up against her side. "Bean curd and broccoli," she announced, offering him a bite for each one she took herself. "Then what?" she prompted. "Presumably Sherlock triumphed and made a grand speech about his brilliance and left you with a mountain of paperwork, not remembering or caring that you'll be back at your desk by eight."
He burrowed into her side like a small, sleepy child, and she could feel him grin against her belly when his movements tickled her and made her giggle. "Was more exciting than that. Sherlock evidently has to show off, even to fucking killers, so he was playing the man's game and was quite possibly on his way to being 'suicide' number five when some bloody nut with a gun popped up from nowhere and shot the killer. The first killer. There are now two killers in the case plus Sherlock. 'Mountain' of paperwork is an understatement."
She'd got vegetable fried rice everywhere. "Who's the second killer?" she asked. "What did Sherlock say?"
"He spouted off a string of deductions like he'd been waiting for days to reel them off, because it really is his only party trick, and then suddenly said he was entirely wrong. Never heard that from him before." Greg snuffled into her breast, warm breath heating her skin through her thin shirt, and suddenly she could feel his entire body stiffen. "Oh, God, it was Watson. Military man, sharpshooter, moral principles – Sherlock said it himself before recanting."
She wondered if Watson was the man with the wheat-coloured hair, the one who'd stood next to Sherlock at the Chinese takeaway shop and smiled at her with kind eyes. She remembered his hands, which had certainly looked strong and decisive enough to wield a weapon. She stopped chewing, considering. "No," Greg said softly, as if he'd forgotten she could still hear him. "Couldn't have been him. He needs a cane to get round and his hands have a tremor; I saw it when Sherlock had him examine the last suicide." He blew out a gusty breath. "Thank God."
"You liked him," Vee said, putting down the food to cradle his head against her. She waited until she felt his nod. "But then you like everyone." He laughed, the sound rusty in his throat, and she held him to her for a moment longer.