It was there again, John realized, as he reached the seventeenth stair. It was odd that something so faint and tasteful should be so noticeable—so annoying, to be honest—but there you were. A light, expensive-smelling, entirely masculine cologne, wafting out of their flat. Again.
Sherlock didn’t make friends, but every once in a while—every once in a great while—someone befriended him. Or, to put it more precisely, someone became fascinated with him and followed him home like a besotted puppy, hanging on his every word.
John supposed that that’s what people said had happened to him. Though of course his situation had been completely different. Sherlock had needed a flatmate; John had needed a flat. Everything else had followed quite naturally. More or less.
In any case, the latest of these rare occurrences had happened about a fortnight ago. Lestrade had been called in to consult on a murder scene deep in the East End. It had sounded like the handiwork of a killer they’d been tracking for months, so he’d brought Sherlock (and thus John) along with him.
The site had been full of the ordinary controlled chaos of nighttime crime scenes: tents and floodlights and rumpled policemen clutching paper cups of coffee. But then, swooping in on top of all that—literally on top, he’d been that tall—had sailed a figure right out of a recruiting poster for the fox-hunting classes. In the mess of wrinkled raincoats and baggy jumpers that constituted detective haute couture, the man’s sharply-cut dark gray, three-piece suit had stood out as sharply as the Rover he’d apparently arrived in. The suit was bespoke, if John wasn’t mistaken, and he was rarely mistaken about such things these days, now that he shared a flat with Sherlock Holmes.
John had half-expected the man, who seemed to be in charge, to tell Sherlock to stop poking around and shove off. But instead he’d cocked his head, listened to some of Sherlock’s more grandiose theories, and promptly attached himself to him like a very tall, very blond limpet, shadowing him as he poked through seemingly irrelevant bits of detritus. The man was as smooth-faced and fair as Sherlock was angular and dark, and when he leaned close trying to comprehend Sherlock’s impenetrable mutterings they looked a bit like each other’s funhouse reflections.
And honestly, John’s first response had simply been happiness that finally someone from NSY other than Lestrade had recognized Sherlock’s brilliance. He’d trailed after them for a bit, but they were of a height—the man was tall, had he mentioned that?—and loped along together at a surprising pace. John had felt more and more like a terrier nipping at the heels of a pair of pedigreed setters, and he’d eventually fallen back to stand with Lestrade at the edges of the crime scene.
“Who is he?” John had asked, watching the tails of the man’s overcoat fly out in unison with Sherlock’s as they walked, their absurd crimson lining flaring in the halogen torches.
“Chandler,” Lestrade had answered, voice flat and not entirely approving. “Detective Inspector Joseph Chandler, works out of the Whitechapel Station.” He drew several circumspect but precise circles in the air next to his left ear.
John had raised his eyebrows. For Lestrade, who consorted with Sherlock on a regular basis, to call someone crazy seemed remarkable.
Lestrade had nodded. “Oh yes. Completely bloody barking. Bit of a shitstorm magnet, too.” He’d touched his finger to the side of his nose.
John had narrowed his eyes at DI Chandler, now squatting next to Sherlock as the latter sifted some kind of suspicious mud through his fingers. He already had his very own shitstorm magnet, thank you very much; he didn’t need another. But it was too late, Chandler’s fine strong jaw had been hanging slightly open, and he’d been gazing at Sherlock with a look John had seen only rarely but recognized at once: pure bloody love. If Sherlock had had feathers he would have been preening them in pleasure.
And, sure enough, Chandler had taken to coming ‘round Baker Street every few days. Not every day, thank goodness, but often enough that John had started picking up enough to feed three for dinner. Sherlock loved it—of course he did. He loved an audience, and when people listened to him adoringly he positively glowed.
John tried to take it in stride. After all, Sherlock mostly told stories of past deductive triumphs—stories John had heard many times before. When he had Chandler to tell them to, it let John off the hook—left him free to ring Sarah, or even catch up on medical journals. Though, to be honest, he mostly just flicked on the telly and interjected any details Sherlock happened to leave out.
It only really got bad when Chandler and Sherlock discovered they knew people in common. People with horrifying nicknames like “Bunny” or “Whiffers.” Those conversations made John shudder down to the roots of his ineradicably middle-class soul. He lived in fear that they would suddenly launch into a discussion of polo ponies or picnicking at Glyndebourne.
But he’d been safe so far. The only mutual passion they’d discovered—aside from crime, that is—had been boxing. Or at least John assumed that’s what it was. He’d come home from the clinic one day to find the furniture pushed back from the center of the sitting room and Chandler and Sherlock both stripped to the waist, fists up, circling each other, feet in that peculiar fighter’s stance.
He hadn’t investigated. He’d closed the door carefully, turned on his heel, and headed straight to the pub, only emerging when he’d imbibed enough liquid courage to deal with whatever carnage or ecstasy might await him at 221b. But by the time he’d mounted the stairs all the furniture had been returned its rightful places, and the sitting room had been, if anything, rather tidier than before. Sherlock and Chandler’s shirts had returned to their backs, and they’d been engaged in nothing more risque than a discussion of decomposition rates for severed limbs, although the skin had been suspiciously discoloured under Sherlock’s right eye for days.
Now, John took a deep breath, tucked the briefcase full of paperwork from the clinic under his arm, shifted the bag of groceries to the hand that also held the bag of Chinese take-away and opened the flat door.
Two heads, one dark, one fair, were bent over the sitting room table. John had just time to notice that not only had the irrepressible clutter of said table been corralled into neat symmetrical piles, but that the random pens that resided there had also been lined up in the sequence of the color spectrum before both heads turned to look at him.
“John,” Sherlock said. “Not before time. I’m famished.”
Chandler fairly leapt to his feet. “Dr. Watson. Here, let me help you with those.”
“Much obliged, DI Chandler,” John muttered, reluctantly parting with the groceries and take-away.
“Joe. Please call me Joe,” Chandler said, looking down at John spaniel-eyed. If he really had been a spaniel he’d have been waggling his tail by now, John thought sourly.
But he smiled when he said, “Alright then: ta' very much, Joe.”
Chandler put the bags on the counter and said, almost shyly, “Right, then, I’ll be off—leave you to your dinner.”
And there really must have been something winning about him, or at least John had gotten used to having him about, because he found himself saying. “No need. There’s plenty. I even got those steamed vegetables you like. And I remembered the brown rice this time.”
Later, though, after Chandler had laid the table with mathematical precision and they’d worked their way through soup and dumplings and half a bottle of red plonk, he almost regretted his generosity.
Chandler fixed him with eyes both shrewder and colder than John had come to expect. “Sherlock’s just been telling me about the fascinating case of the murderous cabbie,” he said. “But he seems reluctant to explain precisely how the man died. Shot down by an unknown gunman, I take it. Must have been quite a marksman, if I’m understanding the scene correctly.”
John choked down a mouthful of General Tso’s Chicken. “Mmm,” he muttered. “Police were baffled.”
“But, I wonder—“ Chandler started.
And then John was literally saved by the bell. The doorbell, that is.
“I’ll get that,” he said, shoving back from the table with somewhat impolite haste.
He opened the door to a dour and diminutive personage and breathed a sigh of relief. One of Chandler’s virtues—and John was prepared to admit he had several—was that he came with a reliable sidekick. Such men usually did. They needed them. John should know.
And he quite liked DS Miles, even though the man had yet to favor him with more than a skeptical sneer. He’d known a few men like him in Afghanistan—one or two women, too. Natural sergeants. Kept the army running, people like that, without anyone knowing that they were really the ones in charge. Apparently the Metropolitan Police Force wasn’t any different.
“‘E ‘ere, then?” Miles growled.
“Of course.” John stepped aside so that Miles could stomp his way up the stairs.
“Miles!” Chandler’s delighted greeting filtered down from above. It softened John’s heart a bit more towards him. If anyone undervalued DS Miles it certainly wasn’t his commanding officer. “Sit down—have an eggroll—they’re excellent.”
“Sir.” Miles managed to sound both reproving and respectful. It was a neat trick, John thought. “Your mobile turned off again?”
“No, of course not.” John entered the room just in time to see Chandler digging in the pocket of his ridiculous coat. “Oh.”
“Mmm.” Miles snagged an eggroll off the table after all. “I’d listen to your messages if I were you.”
Chandler stared at him. “Right. Yes. Okay. Right.” He tapped at the phone, then held it closely to his ear, his face going from relaxed to interested to grim in the space of about twenty seconds. “I supposed we’d better be off, then?” he asked Miles when he’d clicked the screen dark.
Miles merely tilted his head, mouth full of eggroll and seemingly disinclined to state the obvious.
“Care to come along, old boy?” Chandler asked Sherlock, shrugging into his coat. “This one looks interesting.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Sherlock answered, licking a spare drop of soy sauce off his fingers, fastidious as a cat.”
John shook his head, getting ready to demure, but Sherlock’s hand landed on his shoulder and squeezed. “Of course John’s coming. He wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
And he was right.