If Sherlock hadn't been able to find respite in his Mind Palace, surely he would have slaughtered every human he'd encountered between London and Mozambique. Over the past twenty-six hours, mode of transport rapidly declined from jet plane to a craft held aloft with a rubber band motor to what the French military escort assigned to him called "TA." It took half a mile -- ten minutes, honestly he could have walked faster if only the bloody Red Cross hadn't laden him down with two ridiculous crates of God knew what -- in a cart pulled by a stinking, lumbering creature better suited to stew, for Sherlock to catch on that TA meant "alternative transport." As in, you're on your own now.
Why were the French always so bloody French when they had the option to be suitably British.
Sherlock checked his phone for the fifth time. Noon, local time. The sun: approximately one mile above the surface of the earth. A haze, tinged brown at the horizon, hung in the air. Sweat ran off his fringe and dripped in his eyes if he didn't tilt his head back and stare into the whitish sky. He was in hell. John had brought him to purgatory to share out his sentence with company. Wasn't there a myth about one goes in, one comes out? John Watson had made a deal with a demon and Sherlock was his tribute.
He needed a cigarette, a dozen cigarettes, real ones, not these filterless things he bought from a stall in South Africa. (Hand rolled from a boy aged thirteen years. Very talented. Good he was learning a trade.) He needed his sofa, his dressing gown, he needed to take his skin off and shave his head and drown himself in ice water. It's too damn hot, too damn hot. Corn husks poked his spine. He was wearing cargo shorts and felt naked but not naked enough.
A cadre of little boys at the edge of the "road" -- aged unabashedly holding his penis through why aren't you in school -- succumbed to tonic immobility as the cart passed. It had been Sherlock's experience, since arriving on the continent, that slack-jawed terror-staring was the typical African child response to his presence. At the airport -- airplane shack? -- Sherlock had cut through a sea of humanity and felt he glowed in the dark. He'd always prided himself on his self-awareness; he'd never felt his ethnicity so much in his life. He didn't care for the feeling at all.
He made a terrible face at the boys. They screamed and ran from the road. He smirked.
Sherlock arrived atop the weekly vegetable delivery like some deposed raja, defaming the digestion of Mrs. Tchome's old ox. He acknowledged the staff and lifted down enormous crates filled with presents from the Red Cross. John ducked his kiss and first welcomed Mrs. Tchome and then crowed over the piles of impossible, sterile, useful things. Boxes of drugs, the pediatric sphygmomanometer his predecessor asked for a year ago, hard packs of 4x4 gauze, disposable speculums! Cascades of condoms, those brilliant Red Cross -- the religious groups wouldn't send them. Endless white and pastel packs of supplies they would ration and scrimp for months. Supplies he went through like water at home. Even the crates were valuable to someone around here.
"I did good?" Sherlock stood a bit aside from the doctors and nurses swarming the supplies like flies, and John knew from a good fly swarm by now. One of the American nurses stood on her toes and kissed Sherlock's jaw. He stiffly dispatched her with a pat to the elbow. She was too excited by her bouquet of toothbrushes to notice that smile he gave Molly when she felt her useful work had chipped away Sherlock's stubborn shell.
John gripped Sherlock's arm and looked him hard in the eye. "You, mate, are everybody's hero today. You've no idea."
Sherlock folded his arms. He looked like a chicken cutlet without his layers of wool and silk. Kermit legs stuck out under his shorts. "The Red Cross made the arrangements. I'm only the pack mule."
"You're brilliant. And don't say 'mule' in regards to flying in and out of third world countries. Someone 'round here will insist on giving you an internal checkup." People laughed.
"That's not --"
John took Sherlock by the arm, hefted his enormous student-style backpack, and pulled him into the vestibule to the dormitory. It varied from the other, squat, cement buildings by having a floor. He closed the door, glanced about, and pulled Sherlock down for a long, tingling kiss.
Sherlock wrapped his arms around his waist, those strong, long arms -- big hands on John's back, then sliding up his side to cup his face.
This this this -- John had missed this . . . this and things he listed in his head on prickly nights spent alone on his frame and rope-strung bed. This was them. This was the aspect of himself he'd been denying for three hot, exhilarating months. He wrapped his arms around Sherlock's neck and held on.
Sherlock frankly reeked. Mycroft's emailed itinerary listed twenty-six hours of travel from cushy London, a layover in Germany, another in Casablanca, a sleeper to Johannesburg, then a slow, cramped charter to Maputo. He could have taken the train up from South Africa, but that was more dangerous in terms of other humans, so John convinced him to take the risk with planes that sometimes crashed into the woods. John wasn't sure why Mycroft's connection with the French military unit that was expected to escort Sherlock into the field had become a Mozambican ox cart. John would have to remember to buy Mrs. Tchome something pretty at the market.
Here, here! Sherlock was here! This was madness!
John pulled back. Sherlock whined low in his throat. He held him at arm's length.
"God, you look like hell."
Sherlock laughed, scruffed at the messy hair at the back of John's head. "You look delicious. Look, you're bronze all over."
When Sherlock gave a compliment, you knew it was sincere.
"Where is your room?" Sherlock purred. He nudged his pack with his toe.
John cast about. "Ah. My room is that way, and yours is two down."
Storms and violence crossed Sherlock's face. "I thought you worked it out."
John sighed. He really didn't want to start with an argument. "Sherlock, this is an ecclesiastical hospital. In sub-Saharan Africa. We're guests here. We need to respect the local --"
"We need to curb our natural behavior for their natural bigotry." As predicted, Sherlock had gone from seductive to chilly in two whole seconds.
"Yes, it's wrong, Sherlock. But what are you going to do? Take on every Christian backer in America? A hundred thousand years of African culture and history?"
John ran his thumb over Sherlock's crinkled brow. "I'm not saying we can't be together. I do have a photo of us taped up in the clinic beside all the other family photos. Everyone who isn't African knows, and if they care, they haven't said anything."
"Because we're British instead of American?"
"In part, yes. But also that there's fuck-all more going on here than a few blokes shagging one another in their private time. But that's what it's got to be: private. Discreet."
"Men have died for it, Sherlock. They go to prison and --"
"I said all right. I don't need a list of gay-related atrocities in Africa."
"Because it's disturbing?"
"Because it's irrelevant. If . . . if we are discreet." He sighed.
"Thank you." John leaned up and kissed him.
Sherlock slipped their hands together, leading the way to John's room because Sherlock Holmes always knew his way. "You put up our photo?"
John smiled. "Yep. The one Molly took when we had Lestrade's birthday at O'Malley's. D'you remember? The day after the row about --"
"Yes. You were going to leave me."
"As I recall," John said with the tranquility of a man who'd had years to think it over, "you were the one who built an impressively architectural pyramid of my belongings in the hall."
"I spent the better part of a day working on that," Sherlock said mournfully. "You might have let me finish before you decided to fall in love with me."
"Mm, you're right, what a waste. How often does one get to barricade anything after the age of six?"
Sherlock's boots clicked on the concrete as he slowed his pace, eyes flicking between the rusted open transoms and the centipede having a sit near the ceiling above the toilets. It was longer than John's hand. He'd starting naming them. Mortimer lived in the shower and peered at him when he wanked. It was possibly a Catholic monk reborn as a monstrous bug, which was the sort of children's book character John would write if he were anything of an illustrator.
Sherlock sniffed audibly. The air was filled with the sweet, tomatoey spice of the kitchens. No meat tonight, but hopefully cashews. John was looking forward to a bit of dinner theater when Sherlock was introduced to African-Portuguese fusion overlaid with rural poverty flair. He was fully prepared to step on Sherlock's ankle if he behaved like . . . well, like John had done at his first dinner after twenty hours in the air. Three months ago . . . everything had been different. There was so much to tell Sherlock, but where to start? Could a man like Sherlock understand? More importantly, would he care?
"And to think," Sherlock said. They stopped at a utilitarian, sienna painted steel door. An enormous chip bloomed from the lower half, revealing sky blue beneath. John's keys were clipped to his belt loop. "If I'd thrown you over then, I wouldn't have been on this grand adventure."
"I'll choose to believe you mean our silly life, not your African holiday."
John looked him over as he unlocked the door, curious. Sherlock met his gaze -- was that nerves? Nonsense, they'd only had sex thousands of times. John tugged him inside. Their lips crashed together, Sherlock's backpack clattered to the floor. John kicked the door closed. And the hot, sweaty pair came together on the matzo-thin mattress.
The rope matrix supporting the mattress creaked against the frame as Sherlock rolled to one side. John's fingers knotted in his hair, legs still draped about his waist, as they kissed. Sherlock ran his hands down those muscled thighs, beloved appendages, and brushed back briefly to where he and John had just been connected.
"Ooh," John said. "Missed that."
"Me too." Sherlock snuffed into John's neck, making him giggle. He was so ticklish where he smelled the best. He licked down the sweaty column and felt for John's heart beat, telling himself to always remember that pulse. He caused that that fluttering like butterfly wings to startle under his tongue. "I love you."
John pulled back and caught Sherlock's eye. It had taken a long time, almost a year of physical intimacy, before Sherlock had abided so much eye contact during sex. Hell, it had taken three months before he realized he was avoiding eye contact and another two before he admitted it was necessary and that John wasn't staring at him for some freakish, demanding purpose.
"I love you too," John whispered. "I'm so glad you're here."
Sherlock ducked his head against John's chest, under his chin, and curled up against his side "Really? What if I get bored." What if I embarrass you.
John shrugged. "You'll find things to do for the week before we go on holiday. We're putting you to work, you know. There's a whole lab here --"
Sherlock looked up, hopeful. "Really? How many tropical diseases have you catalogued?"
"Mostly just the AIDs and the TB. We don't catalogue them, we treat them."
"Excellent. Might I assume that there are notes from previous physicians? Can I get in contact with them?" Sherlock sat up. Several projects had just entered his head at once. "Do you have the Internet here? I brought four or -- no, it came to seven journal articles I was hoping --"
Sherlock gave John's moan its own thought thread, along with the four or five currently running around his brain, and promoted it to third priority. Third. He wished John understood how flattering that was.
Which meant Sherlock spared three seconds' glance at John in the middle of reaching into the laptop compartment of his backpack. John was leaning on his elbow in bed, shaking his head at him fondly. Sherlock scrolled through his catalogue of 'John's facial expressions during arguments' and didn't find that one, precisely, but did find it in 'John's facial expressions before an argument.' Hm. Yellow alert. Proceed with caution.
"John?" Sherlock hovered between pack and bed, aware he probably resembled a fashion model as directed to imitate a deer frightened by a car. ". . . Sweetheart?"
John snorted. Sherlock was confused. Perhaps he'd been bitten by a tsetse fly, or an intestinal worm. Sherlock had compiled a database of four hundred and thirty three human-specialized African parasites and was secretly hoping for an opportunity to share it with John. There was one that, in the egg and larval stage, embedded beneath the skin and had to be removed with long, slender forceps. Infection could only be prevented by ironing all of one's washing, including pants -- especially pants. It was Sherlock's current favorite parasite, although his pet entries changed weekly.
"John, I hope you realize that I didn't come here on holiday or to be 'dead weight.' I plan to learn as much as possible and to provide my services as an educated and capable individual, even without formal medical -- what are you giggling at?"
A day ago, Sherlock had been anxiously stalking his flat, wishing he could beam to Mozambique and into the life which John selfishly doled out bits of in emails and far too infrequent video calls. In a way, the long journey had been psychologically useful in that John had made nearly the same journey; he felt he could now deduce why John spoke in reverent, almost religious tones about practicing medicine in Africa. And as Sherlock stood there, a man changed, eager to get to work, he was being laughed at!
John sat up properly and wrapped the sheet around his shoulders. He held out his hand. Warily, Sherlock returned to the side of the bed, not ready to give John the satisfaction of placating him.
"I'm not laughing at you, love. I'm just chuffed you're here, honestly, I couldn't sleep last night. I just can't believe it. You're real and you're you being all -- all deductive and -- and you're wonderful. Sherlock Holmes out of London -- out of our flat, even. It's a bit weird."
If Sherlock sat just so on the bed like a bird lighting a wire, perhaps John wouldn't go off like a Christmas cracker again.
Sherlock wrapped the sheet tail around his finger. "The trip was horrid."
"The ox smelled of dung."
John smiled. "He's a good ox. Keeps us in vitamins every week. Can't help the smell."
Sherlock looked up through his fringe, wondering if he should even bother to mention it. If it was appropriate. "I felt . . . extremely Caucasian from Casablanca on. It got increasingly . . . . unpleasant when everyone was . . ."
John was John because he knew when not to speak.
Sod it all. "I was hungry when I landed in Johannesburg. I thought, it's a modern city, it looks -- normal. No reason I oughn't be able to venture off Mycroft's itinerary and find myself a tea and sandwich, even if it's all in Dutch. I speak German, you know, even if I've never had use for Dutch, the two are suitably similar."
"It was noon on the high street. Lots of business people, very busy, like London. I was tired, I'd run out of tolerance for crowds or lines. I asked a woman -- an African -- I mean, everyone there except me was African. I asked a black woman if there was a sandwich shop nearby. I didn't even think about her appearance -- her skin. Who does, in London? We're all just British now, aren't we? With Sally -- well, the first year I worked at the Yard I frequently forgot if I was speaking to her or Anderson because they're completely interchangeable."
"What happened?" John asked with a five years cultivated blank expression.
He shrugged. "Nothing. Except her emotional reaction. I didn't noti -- no. I didn't care that she had her son with her, in a school uniform. Her business that moment was taking her little boy to school and a tall, well-dressed white man asks her a question in perfect Dutch and by her society, she cannot ignore him. Her respond in fear to me, John, and I felt sick -- not because of her fear of me, she didn't know me, but sick at a culture that instills in its citizens that a black woman's needs and preferences are so insignificant as compared to a white man's passing question. No woman -- no human can thrive under such -- such mindless oppression."
John nodded, expression some twist that Sherlock couldn't entirely deduce, but he felt he'd passed some test.
"In her world," John said, "if a white person makes a request of her, there is no polite way to back out without getting some sort of --" he waved a hand -- "recourse, I suppose. Some sort of abuse. Even if it's just verbally or emotionally."
Sherlock snapped his fingers, pointing at John's chest. Trust John to grasp it; his skills at observation had grown robust in recent years.
"And she didn't want to show that world to her son," John added.
"Why do they do it?" Sherlock asked. "The Africans, the black and the white. It must stop, immediately, for the betterment of their countries."
"I think it's very, very complicated."
"Things involving emotions usually are," Sherlock said. If only more people could delete them.
The sheet around Sherlock's finger reminded him of long-ago days, the pain-pleasure of holding off the circulation before the rush of drugs. John took the twitchy hand in his. "So what did you do?"
"I said 'Never mind', turned around, and walked the other way."
"Why? I ask only to be nosy."
"Because. The situation was . . . disturbing." He laced their fingers tighter together. "It was a poor choice, the entire interaction. I was off-kilter from the flight. "
"Did you ask someone else?"
"No, I wasn't hungry anymore. But if I had been, I would have asked a white person, and I would have spoken rudely."
John laughed. "Love, it's a learning process. They actually trained us on 'how to be white in Africa.' Half the class was learning how to get your own head 'round it."
"What did you learn? Tell me."
John cocked his head in that way that made Sherlock feel off-footed one moment and challenged another. That was a learning process, too. How not to "behave unpleasantly" when his intellectual inferiors knew something he didn't. Well, the four who had value in some other way. Five, if she was making tea or it was Christmas.
John wrapped the bedsheet around both their shoulders, nudging Sherlock into a less cat-like perch so he could fold their legs together. Sherlock wound the sheet so the ends met over John's shoulder in a two-person toga. The Celts had used marriage shawls in their bonding ceremony, he thought. Russian Jews, too. Congolese. There was no one else in the world who was more important than the two persons in this bed.
"Hmm? I'm here."
Sherlock didn't want a wedding, but John did want a marriage. And that was reason enough to start talking about it again. Soon.
John stroked Sherlock's cheek with the backs of his knuckles, down the column of his throat. Sherlock kissed him.
"I'm sorry you had a bad trip," John said.
"I'm here now," Sherlock said. He kissed him again, lingering.
John hoisted himself into Sherlock's lap, hugging him tight with arms and legs. "I can't wait to take you on holiday. God, do I need a break. We've got a whole continent to conquer! But not, you know, in the manner of our ancestors."
Sherlock stuck his nose into John's ridiculously attractive, wildman hair.
Outside in the compound, a noise like someone attacking Mrs. Hudson's bins with a field hockey stick rattled Sherlock to his teeth. Voices floated down the hall.
"One of the children?" Sherlock said.
"No, that's our dinner bell. C'mon, we'd best have a wash. Cor, I didn't realize how late the clock had gotten."
John's gone native, Sherlock thought as he watched him at the buffet line. A plate of rice, a heaping of unidentifiable brown sauce, a chat with the African cooks. He had friends. He was happy for the bits of protein and the unfamiliar fruits that weren't unfamiliar, not to John.
Sherlock leaned over John's shoulder and asked him to define the taste of an unfamiliar vegetable. John blushed and turned away from the blonde girl with whom he was speaking. Stood a proprietary distance from Sherlock. Gave a cursory response. Invited the blonde girl to weigh in on the discussion.
The girl wore bougainvillea in her yellow hair; it drooped unattractively over her shoulder and reminded one of her looming middle age, her distant girlhood.
Sherlock thought of the solitary dorm room to which he was expected to return tonight.
Romance, he thought bitterly. You alluring minx.
He'd orchestrated the perfect disaster.