“None of this is yours,” his new flatmate declares.
“Of course they’re mine,” John grits out, angling the cardboard box around the landing. “Been in storage for a while, but they’re still mine, Sherlock.”
Standing listlessly at the top of the stairs, Sherlock cocks his head as he peers at things that certainly aren’t his. The box at his feet—now open—has John’s jumpers and a couple of his least worn jeans. The one under that is labelled “books + photos” and seems to have passed the obligatory Holmes judgemental invasion of privacy.
“Yes, yes, possession, ownership, so on and so forth, yes, but you didn’t buy these.”
John shoves the box in his arms against the railing before his left arm can give out. “I.... Yeah, I think those were gifts. No, wait, I did buy one of them.”
“The green one,” Sherlock concludes. “A former lover persuaded you.”
“Ex-girlfriend, Sherlock,” John corrects. “No one calls them ‘former lovers’ in real life. Like how Harry’s my sister, not my nemesis.”
“Sounds boring,” Sherlock dismisses.
“Harry’s exciting enough as she is, thanks.” He readjusts his grip on the box and resumes carrying it up the stairs. “Mind giving me a hand?”
Sherlock doesn’t bother replying, instead wandering away into the kitchen. The git slides the door behind him like a child avoiding his chores.
John frowns and hauls up the rest of his things on his own. Only once he’s finished, his shoulder aching and his leg trying to rebel, does Sherlock come up. Deliberate footsteps on the stairs announce his presence before he pops his head in sans knocking.
“What?” John asks. Not snaps—he’s not annoyed enough to snap, never mind his heavy boxes and the bullet wound in his shoulder.
Sherlock’s eyes flick around the room just the once before making a quick return to John’s face. “Nothing. Curious.”
“I was,” Sherlock explains before blithely adding, “Not anymore.”
“Oh, come on,” John insists and maybe he’s getting a little fed up now. “You barely looked.”
Rolling his eyes, Sherlock promptly gives John his entire biography, which is amazing, but then he explains his reasoning, which is incredible. Standing in front of his dresser, John entirely forgets to put away the pair of jeans he’s been holding for the past three, five minutes. He can feel himself grinning wider and wider, helpless to stop it and not caring, because what else is a person supposed to do when mental miracles unfold in front of them?
“Fantastic,” John says when Sherlock stops for breath. “That is—That is amazing.”
The corner of Sherlock’s mouth pulls in something caught between smile and frown, not quite related to a sneer. John can make neither head nor tails of it.
“We’ll see,” Sherlock answers before swishing away into his second dramatic exit of the afternoon.
John feels as if he’s come up lacking, but he’s not sure how. He looks at his half-filled room and wonders.
Sherlock Holmes is a difficult man to get to know. It’s not like John needs the social interaction, not when Mrs Hudson starts watching crap telly with him before the first week of February is out. Especially not with Harry insisting they see each other, and Mike trying to re-establish that friendship at uni they never really had.
Sherlock is simply there, smack in the middle of John’s life, and the man is absolutely mental. He’s the fine line between fireworks and an explosion. He’s utterly nonsensical sometimes, only to become obvious with a week of hindsight at hand. Sometimes John doesn’t know if he’s living with a mad scientist or an artist of logic and inference. A bit of both, must be, and it’s fascinating.
Watching telly with Mrs Hudson is well and good, but with Sherlock, there’s never a rerun.
“Where was I?” John asks, hanging up his coat. He angles an expectant glance toward the sofa where a blue robe and pyjama bottoms stretch across the cushions. “You are awake, aren’t you?”
“I’m awake,” Sherlock responds, slow and saturated with ennui. He doesn’t move, which John is learning to expect from his flatmate. To expect in the way he expects Sherlock to do anything and almost everything. “You’ve been shopping, but not for groceries. You don’t have much in the way of funds, so something cheap, but not an impulse purchase—you’re much too disciplined for that. Something-”
John puts down the plastic bag on the coffee table.
A palpable shift occurs in the air.
“...You bought a puzzle from a charity shop,” Sherlock states. Fixed on the bag, his eyes narrow.
“Yep. Well, no, not exactly.”
“Ah. They were giving it away, then.”
John shakes his head, not at all about to grin. “Nope.”
Sherlock shifts, head rolling to the side for a glance of listless disdain. He manages to look down at John while lying supine; it’s really quite remarkable. “No?”
“You mean you bought a puzzle missing a third of its pieces for a lark-”
Sherlock’s gaze flicks up to John’s face a second time before re-adhering to the bag. “Plural?”
John shrugs. “Asked for the worst of the incomplete ones all in the same box.”
“Unemployment suits you very poorly,” Sherlock replies. “If you’re that bored, there are other things you could be doing. I am something of an expert.”
“It’s for you,” John says. He digs his hands deep into his pockets and tells himself he doesn’t look like an idiot. “Thought you could sort them out, and I could time you.”
Sherlock somehow conveys the impression of blinking without moving his eyelids. It’s a bit like how a snake might look if a mouse asked to see its fangs.
“Or not,” John backpedals. “It was just a thought.”
Instead of immediately mocking him, Sherlock sits up and frees the box from the bag. Jigsaw puzzle pieces shift inside thin cardboard as plastic crinkles. Sherlock’s eyes narrow and remain narrowed as he listens to the sounds. “Seven,” he says without so much as opening the unmarked box. “Approximately. Depending on the size and the average number of remaining pieces, five to nine puzzles, most likely seven to nine.”
“You’re guessing,” John tells him.
“Can you prove it?”
Sherlock can and does. It takes twenty-one minutes and thirty-nine seconds.
There are eight puzzles.
After that, they play.
Which feels like a childish word, which should be the wrong word entirely, but it’s the only word John has for this. It’s focused and overly serious, and yet it’s the most fun John’s had since chasing a cab across London. They clear off a space on the floor, dump out the box, and try variations of the same game. They turn the pieces blank-side-up, and Sherlock assembles them with ever-increasing speed. He never pauses, never has to try any piece twice. They invent puzzle piece Jenga, Sherlock creating interlocking towers and smirking as John brings them crashing down. John scrambles the pieces around and takes one while Sherlock closes his eyes, and Sherlock shows him which piece he’s taken, drawing the correct shape every single time.
They don’t play every day, but they do play often. There comes the afternoon when Mrs Hudson comes in carrying tea and biscuits for them and fondly says, “Oh, boys,” at finding them on the floor like children. “I wish I had my camera.”
“It was John’s idea,” Sherlock deflects immediately. “He’s timing me. It’s practice.”
“What are you, five?” John can’t help but ask.
Sherlock sulks until he has the chance to dunk a biscuit into John’s undefended tea, littering the mug with mushy crumbs.
In other words: Yes.
It’s not so bad, being five. John doesn’t remember much of literally being five—it’s mostly a blur of playing with sticks and that one disastrous time their dad took them fishing—so it’s possible this is even better.
As it turns out, this is not a very clever thing for a veteran with PTSD to say to a therapist. Attempting to qualify the statement only makes it worse. There is no good way to explain two grown men being a step above playing with blocks, which is what puzzle Jenga more or less is. John tries to explain it to her, he really does, but once he starts on Sherlock’s observational skills, he goes on for a bit longer than he should.
The theme of his therapist’s notes changes from regression to obsession, and John decides he’s past the point of caring. If John wanted to return to a safe place from his childhood, he certainly wouldn’t do it with Sherlock Holmes. If John talks enthusiastically about his flatmate, that’s how people talk about things they find remarkable. Sherlock’s as amazing as he is bizarre, and between those two facets, John has infinite talking points.
Maybe this isn’t the normal way of reacclimatizing to civilian life, but it is a lot more fun.
One afternoon in early March, Sherlock stops wanting to play. “No challenge left,” he drawls derisively, sunk into the sofa.
“Blindfolded?” John suggests.
Sherlock considers this, thumb marking his place in a book about bees of all things.
“Bet you it’ll take you half an hour to find which one’s missing,” John dares, not at all bouncing on the balls of his feet. “At least half an hour.”
Sherlock slaps the book down on the coffee table, too offended to be serious. “It won’t take half that, give it here.”
Fourteen minutes and fifty-four seconds later, Sherlock is as good as his word. He even draws the missing puzzle piece with his scarf still tied over his eyes.
“Incredible,” John says for what must be the thousandth time. Or maybe just the hundredth. It might really be the hundredth. They’ve been living together a month, and it isn’t beyond Sherlock to do three incredible things before lunchtime. And then five infuriating things before dinner, but that’s beside the point. “I mean it, this will never stop being amazing.”
Sherlock gives him that look, the one where somehow John is the odd, childish one who keeps doing inexplicable things all over the kitchen.
John forces a smile rather than get embarrassed, although he’s sure Sherlock can tell anyway. Does Sherlock find it strange the way John’s therapist does? John’s never wondered before, but enthusiasm can be blinding.
“I’ll clean up,” John says rather than let the conversation continue. Then he adds, “Thanks,” which makes it awkward again when Sherlock frowns at him.
True to form, Sherlock wanders off while John puts the puzzles away. The pieces are of different sizes, different thicknesses, so many different colours, and they’re beginning to become bent around the edges. Three are landscapes, one an intricate geometric design. Another has birds and another is a flower made out of a collage of tiny flowers. When assembled, the most incomplete puzzle shows an underwater scene with a scuba diver and half a shark. The most complete only lacks two pieces and is a Monet painting. Even John’s beginning to memorize them by now.
As he returns them to their box, he wonders who owned these before giving them to a charity shop. What can be gleaned from how a person treats a piece of cut-up cardboard?
No idea, he concludes after a moment of thinking. He’s not Sherlock, though Sherlock has never said anything about the former owners. And if Sherlock had deduced anything, he would have told John.
At least, he probably would have.
John glances toward the abandoned sofa and finds Sherlock has taken his bee book. He’d heard Sherlock’s bedroom door shut, too. He should probably stop bothering him, he decides. He puts the box away on the bookshelf and joins Mrs Hudson downstairs for a night of telly.
Over the next week or two, Sherlock never brings up the puzzles. Which is fine, particularly as John has monetary concerns that he has to dedicate more time to, but it does underline how much the puzzle games were John’s idea.
Thinking back, he doesn’t think Sherlock ever instigated. It’s always been John pushing his flatmate into showing off, as if Sherlock’s talent is a toy to be played with. He thinks about the way Sherlock reacted to Mrs Hudson seeing them and the way Sherlock never really responds whenever John jokes about putting him on YouTube. He thinks about the way Sherlock and his dignity are as inseparable as the man’s coat and scarf, the one always tucked into the other. He thinks about the way Sherlock indulges John’s fascination but never comes close to matching it. Of course he doesn’t. Why should he? For all Sherlock is vain, the man isn’t entertained by anything less than a convoluted murder.
John begins to have the uncomfortable feeling that the only five-year-old present is him.
The next convoluted murder is fairly well-timed, as morbid as that sounds. Sherlock goes a bit comatose without a case on, John’s had ample time to discover. Without anything to do, Sherlock has a tendency to attack, specifically targeting the furniture and John’s taste in music.
With something worthwhile to do, Sherlock is a flurry of motion. He hauls John along with him this way and that, and there’s a bit of an awkward moment where John thinks he might not be allowed in on the case: a stockbroker worried about break-ins isn’t about to give security clearance to his hired detective’s random friend. The surprise and confusion on Sebastian Wilkes’ face had been enough to attest to that. Still, John smoothed it over nicely enough. They’re both on the case, and that’s what matters.
By the time Sherlock has turned their flat into a used bookstore and turned John’s date into a calamity, John is a bit fed up with the case. One night off isn’t much to ask, not when he’s running on empty.
Speaking of empty, there is a disturbing lack of food in their kitchen when John tries to salvage his date. Not a bit of what he bought at the shop yesterday would he feed to a guest. For her part, Sarah tries to talk to Sherlock about his work. Sherlock counters by trying to, well, to be Sherlock, and of course he succeeds.
There is one fine point John hears, eavesdropping from the kitchen, that cheers him up greatly: “So this is what you do, you and John. You solve puzzles for a living.”
“Consulting detective,” Sherlock counters, grievously offended.
John can’t help but think it serves him right. God, he wishes he’d just taken Sarah to the cinema like a normal bloke.
After that, the evening gets a bit busy, but as no one John cares about has died and the concussion is only minor, he’s had worse nights.
Because Sherlock doesn’t need sleep, ever, he prods John on the sofa as they watch a Bond film, keeping him awake until morning. It almost feels reconciliatory, save for the fact that Sherlock doesn’t apologise.
“You’ve still some blood on your cheek,” Sherlock says instead.
“Makes me look dashing,” John replies absently.
“The hematoma doesn’t.”
The goose egg on the side of his head is noticeable, there’s no denying. “I’m sure that’s what frightened Sarah off. Doesn’t like my lumpy head.”
“Some people have no taste,” Sherlock deadpans.
It’s not funny, except most everything is funny at four in the morning to a bloke with a head wound. He laughs and laughs, gasping through giggles. Sherlock only sits there beside him, mouth curled at one corner. Sherlock’s eyes stay on the film, but John doesn’t doubt for a moment that he’s looking at much more than James Bond.
“Speaking of which,” John says.
“You have crap taste in circuses.”
Sherlock glances at him. His mouth doesn’t move, but he might be smiling. “Don’t tell me you didn’t have fun, John.”
“You’re going to get me horribly killed someday.”
John thinks about it with all the gravitas a concussed, sleep-deprived ex-soldier can muster. “Not really,” he says. “It’ll have been a pleasure working with you.”
The next day—the same day? The continuing day? John can’t tell any longer, blame the concussion—Sherlock throws out the puzzles.
At least, that’s the only reason John can think of for the puzzles being in the recycling bin. Sherlock could probably think of five more. Hurt and confused—again, blame the concussion—John pulls it out of the bin. The contents of the cardboard box shift with their familiar weight. Not just the box being thrown out, then.
“Sherlock?” John calls. His flatmate isn’t in the sitting room, isn’t in the kitchen with John, and his bedroom door is closed. John goes to it. He knocks. “Sherlock?”
He stands there for too long, exhausted and slowly tilting. He hears footsteps on the stairs and nearly mistakes them for his flatmate’s.
“John, are you all right?” Mrs Hudson calls.
John comes out to the hall. His body is heavier than it should be. Being unconscious soon would be a good idea. First things first. “Where’s Sherlock?” he asks.
“Out at St Bart’s, I expect,” Mrs Hudson answers with a particularly compassionate look up the stairs at him. “Would you like to come down? Connie Prince is on. You can nap through the adverts.”
“I can sleep for an hour and a half if someone wakes me up,” he says.
“We’ll do that,” Mrs Hudson decides. “I have my chair, you can have the sofa. You look like you need it.”
John may or may not be hugging the box like a teddy bear. “Okay,” he says. “Yeah, sure. I’ll be down in a minute.”
“No rush, dear.”
He puts the box down on the coffee table and points a finger at it as if commanding a dog to stay put. It’s not to go anywhere until he can ask Sherlock what the hell is in his head. Maybe this is some kind of experiment. Most things found in their kitchen usually are.
That settled, he goes downstairs and gets his nap. If he’s lucky, Mrs Hudson might even give him dinner.
After dinner, two naps, and far too much telly, John staggers upstairs. Sherlock’s back in. John’s not sure when this happened. He’s across the sofa without book or laptop. It’s a bit warm in the sitting room with a fire going. It’s nice. Sleepy. The box on the coffee table has been moved somewhere. Back to the bookshelves, John hopes.
“Evening,” John says, then yawns.
Sherlock doesn’t respond. That’s not unusual.
“How many patches?” John asks. Sherlock’s nicotine intake is oddly important at the moment. Too much time spent as patient instead of doctor today.
“None,” Sherlock answers, voice blank. Again, not unusual.
“All right,” John says. He turns to go, then remembers. “Are you going to sleep? It’s been days.”
Sherlock doesn’t answer.
Too tired to pull teeth tonight, John gives a mental shrug and says, “Fine, good night,” before heading up to his room. It’s been over twenty-four hours since an assassin-turned-circus-performer knocked him out, which means sleep. Sleep is magnificent.
A nagging thought in the morning makes him check the bookshelves.
The box isn’t there.
He double-checks, and it still isn’t there.
On a hunch, he checks the fireplace.
His hunch confirmed, John goes into the kitchen and clears his throat. When that doesn’t work, he says, “Sherlock.” When that doesn’t work, he says, “Sherlock, why did you set the puzzles on fire?” When that doesn’t work, John is somewhat annoyed.
He goes over and flips the light off on Sherlock’s microscope, which does work.
“What?” Sherlock snaps, glaring up at John.
“The puzzles, Sherlock,” John says. “Why did you burn them?”
Sherlock rolls his eyes and flips the microscope light back on.
The look Sherlock levels at him is worse than any drill sergeant’s glare. Sherlock must practise to have an expression of such unparalleled disdain. The feigned confusion, the condescending challenge, the absolute derision; it’s enough to make John want to punch him.
“John, are you really about to yell at me over three pounds worth of charity shop cardboard?”
John takes a deep breath, because no.
No, he is not.
“Fine,” he says, his throat a bit tight. Holding back anger has that effect on a throat. “I mean, it was yours. It obviously doesn’t matter if you start setting your things on fire, carry on.” Which is the wrong thing to say, because anything in front of Sherlock Holmes is the wrong thing to say. “I’m going out,” he continues. “Try not to get scorch marks on any of my things while I’m gone.”
“You’re going to leave in a huff over this?” Sherlock asks.
“Me in a huff?” John asks. “Me in a huff. That’s a bit rich.”
“I’ve upset you,” Sherlock surmises.
“Yeah,” John admits. “Yeah, okay, fine. I’m annoyed.”
“No,” Sherlock says, as if John’s intentionally persisted in having an IQ of 40 just to be contrary. “I’ve upset you.”
“Immolating gifts is a bit rude, that’s all—”
“No,” Sherlock repeats. And his face lights up. Completely lights up, more than four suicides and a note could ever accomplish. It is, infuriatingly, the happiest John has ever seen him. “I’ve upset you,” Sherlock proudly proclaims.
John does not punch him.
Instead, John grabs his coat. He says something with swears in it. He leaves, quickly, down the stairs and out the door. He walks far, very far into Regent’s Park before he calms down enough to think.
What he mostly thinks about is his flatmate being an utter prat, but it’s a start.
The sun sets while he’s wandering around, searching for a cheap restaurant. It’s less about being hungry and more about finding a warm place to sit while he convinces himself that bodily harm is not the answer. He thinks his therapist would be proud. Then he thinks his therapist would have a field day with this, and it only annoys him more.
He might be overreacting.
Is he overreacting?
Every time he thinks he might be, he sees Sherlock grinning again, practically triumphant over bothering him.
John’s upset and he can’t seem to stop being upset. More than a bit aggravating, that.
He checks his phone a bit, not entirely sure what for. Not an apology, but something. He types out a text a few times but ultimately leaves them in his drafts folder, each one some variation on What the hell was that about? It’s not exactly what he wants to say, but I thought we were friends is too childish.
Outside the restaurant, there is a red phone booth. When John exits the restaurant, the phone rings.
John glares at it. He turns around and waves to the CCTV camera he knew would be directed toward him. He pulls out his own phone and points at it, attracting some attention from passersby, particularly when his mobile rings an instant later.
“Hello, Mycroft,” John says, mobile against his ear. He doesn’t recognise the number, but he can certainly guess. He begins to walk rather than stand idly on the pavement. It’s a bit eerie, the way the CCTV cameras turn to follow him.
“Hello, John,” Mycroft greets almost jovially. “How are you this evening?”
John responds rather bluntly.
“I was asking after you, not my brother,” Mycroft corrects. “I do understand he can be... temperamental.”
“That’s one word for it.”
“I’m sure you have others.”
“I do,” John agrees. “Why are you calling? I assume this isn’t a social call.”
“A gentle reminder, Dr Watson.”
John nods, sure Mycroft can see.
“What Sherlock cannot deduce, he discovers by experiment. It would do you well to keep this in mind.”
“I’m not—” John lowers his voice. “I’m not angry over the experiments.”
“Of course you aren’t,” Mycroft replies smoothly. “Good night.”
“What?” John asks, but the mobile has already gone silent. He looks at it for a moment, more confused than angry. Not much of a change, that.
Back at 221A Baker Street, cooling his heels with Mrs Hudson, John understands with a bizarre clarity. Mrs Hudson speaks on for a moment longer, all words of encouragement, before noticing his distraction. He stares into his tea for a few seconds and takes his time mulling it over, but he’s fairly certain he’s right. He chats with Mrs Hudson a few minutes longer before heading upstairs.
He goes directly to Sherlock’s door, closed and possibly locked. He knocks.
“What?” Sherlock snaps from within.
“Yes,” John says simply, then walks away.
He’s halfway up the second flight of stairs to his room before Sherlock catches up to him. “What do you mean, yes?” Sherlock demands.
“Yes, we’re friends,” John answers. Two months, a multitude of corpses, and there they are.
“I determined that,” Sherlock confirms. “I thought you’d be back an hour ago.”
“Talking with Mrs Hudson.”
John comes down the stairs to the landing.
Sherlock holds his ground in the kitchen doorway.
“You could’ve just asked,” John points out.
“But that would have involved talking about feelings.”
“I was irate for hours.”
“Yes, but you didn’t have to talk about it,” Sherlock counters.
It’s probably a bad sign, how much sense that makes. All the same: “I started this week shouting at a chip-and-pin machine. I’m angry enough, thanks.”
“How else was I supposed to quantify sentimental value?”
“Not with fire— Oh, God, no.” He’s not starting on that again tonight. “Never mind, forget it. I’m going downstairs. You’re coming with me.” A few steps down and Sherlock hasn’t budged. John looks at him expectantly.
“What for?” Sherlock asks.
“Mrs Hudson and I invented a card game, and we’re not telling you the rules,” John answers.
Sherlock scoffs, arms folded across his chest. “Child’s play.”
“C’mon,” John dares him. “I’ll time you.”
Rolling his eyes, Sherlock follows him down the stairs.