Chapter 1: Traces of sorrow
Sherlock is late home again. This is not unusual. In fact it is usual. Everything is fine. It is only midnight. Sherlock will be back in a bit.
John pours another Peroni, although drink is not the answer, and in the glossy tiled kitchen of his and Sherlock's flat, flips the bottle top into the recycling. The bottle follows.
Where is Sherlock?
Rain rattles against the windows. It is a filthy October night out there. Beyond the panes, London is a thousand droplets of orange streetglow, the red flares of brakes and streaks of warm and cool white headlights, as cars lurch along the Euston Road.
John checks his phone, even though he can detect Sherlock's text notification chime from anywhere in the flat, can hear it through Tube noise or the screaming of (the shame!) a Robbie Williams gig. Sherlock has not texted.
A couple of other people have though. Harry. Does John want to meet -
John does not. John's dating days are over. He is middle aged by any statistic, numeric or cultural or medical, and he is done. Plus, his sister. Her idea of John's type is so far outside the ballpark that it would need a map and directions to the game. And if any blind date were John's type he would never live it down. He would be gloated over for the rest of his life.
He texts back, Am seeing someone sorry.
Oh finally, comes the reply. Well, Someone has been pretty obvious.
John deletes the message and walks up and down squeezing the phone.
Then he takes one long breath and replies, Night sis.
Because it would be rude to type Fuck off into the phone and if he did Harry would start another Great Rift and John cannot stand the thought of that right now.
Next message. That girl from the library. He cannot be bothered. He texts her that he's busy.Sorry, etc. Polite, though - who knows when this apathetic phase may pass and he will once again be looking for comfort in the arms of someone who knows the Dewey Decimal System?
Next message. Oh. Why did he give that guy his number? It gave the wrong impression. And also, they met at the bus stop. The bus stop! It might as well have been the gents toilets. Classy it was not.
He was nice though. Gentle smile. Good hair. Hair is important. It has to be the kind of hair you want to bury your face in, the kind of hair you could stroke and smooth and tease with your fingers.
No. Not happening. John is not dating, plus, if Sherlock got one hint that John had met a male - friend - for a pint, then Sherlock would wear his intolerably smug expression for the next hundred years and that face, that specific face, is another thing on the long list of things which John cannot stand.
Where the fuck is Sherlock?
The beer is gone. Time to stop. John is not his sister.
Key turn, metallic scrape in downstairs front door. Sherlock is here. John flings himself into his chair as if carelessly.
The glass panel which is the flat's notional front door fills with the shape of a tall slender man in a large black coat, and then swings open. Sherlock whirls in.
"You're up." Sherlock is unwinding his scarf, scrunching it into a ball, stuffing it into his coat pocket. His dark hair is wet. John registers this as odd. Sherlock has been outside. Sherlock is not an outside person. He moves from indoors to cab to indoors except when necessary for a case. Why is his hair wet, water trailing off the sharp curls onto his cheeks like traces of sorrow, like tears?
"Yeah." Now John can go to bed. John has reflexively grabbed the paper as an accessory to the illusion of unselfconscious occupation, and now folds it up again. He stands. "Night."
"Night." Sherlock pauses in the act of shedding his coat. His eyes narrow. John is arrested in his journey across the living room floor, past the tower of mugs but before the discarded sheets from Sherlock's latest violin composition. John looks up at Sherlock, who has not moved from his spot beside the front door and is now therefore in John's way.
"Don't wait up for me," says Sherlock.
"I didn't," says John.
The deliberate use of the present tense makes it sound like a felony. John is instantly riled. "I'm not arguing about it."
"Ok." Sherlock is focused on John's face, eyelashes flickering, beaming Nonetheless I Am Right into John's eyes.
"Right." John frowns a little and edges past Sherlock. Rain from Sherlock's coat transfers to John's sleeve, heavy and clinging.
"Why do you?"
But John has some traces of dignity still and goes off to bed without replying.
In any case, to a brain the size of Sherlock's, the answer should have been obvious.
Chapter 2: Albatross
The case arrives in the form of a distraught University Dean. John is eating breakfast and Sherlock is opening letters and throwing them on the floor. "There is a bin," John says.
"Too insecure. You can burn them when you light the fire." Rip, whip out letter, look at it for one second, throw letter and envelope aside.
John lifts his chin. "Light it yourself, I'm warm enough."
"It's not about warmth, it's about people going through my post." More tearing, more reading in a single gulp, more dismissal onto the carpet.
John purses his lips.Sherlock has been in a snit for days and John is tiring of it, especially the parts where he is expected to just allow Sherlock to behave however he likes without any consideration for other people.Worse than that is the fact that Sherlock appears not to be talking to John, or only on sufferance as if it is John who is to blame for Sherlock's foul temper. It is reaching the point where John will go out and buy twenty Marlboro Red just to wipe the scowl off Sherlock's face. "It's about your total laziness -"
And then the Dean appears, just ahead of Mrs Hudson.
"Sherlock, sorry, he said it was urgent-"
Sherlock waves her away whilst studying the bald, skeletal man who is now standing in their living room, his woollen coat drooping from his shoulders as if it has given up the fight to look smart.
"Robert Smythe, Dean of -"
"Camford University, yes." Sherlock does not shake hands so John does.
The Dean sits in a chair and John sits opposite. Sherlock prowls the room. "You've come to ask my help," he states.
The Dean hesitates and John says, "Take your time," and Sherlock gives John a maddened look because that is the exact opposite of what Sherlock wants the man to do.
Eventually the story is told. A student. A young man from a wealthy overseas family, come to study at the prestigious university. A dedicated student, even at this early stage in the semester, a quiet boy, likeable -
"Not dead," says Sherlock. "Obviously. So what happened to him?"
The Dean takes an envelope out of his coat pocket. "This."
Sherlock takes the photograph. John stands and looks too. They exchange puzzled glances. Then Sherlock gives the picture his full laser-look.
The picture is a waist shot of an Asian man of eighteen or so, bare chested, with his eyes cast down away from the camera lens. His chest, arms, neck and face are covered in black marks.
Sherlock holds the photo to his eyes. "Writing," he says. "Something about an albatross."
The Dean passes out two more photos. One shows the student in shorts, from the waist down. The final photo shows his back. "He wouldn't let the counsellor take a complete body shot, but I can tell you that the marks - letters or symbols - cover his entire body."
"Not tattooed?" Sherlock says, then shakes his head. "No. It would take so long to do that the earliest ones would shown marked differences to the later ones in terms of ageing and discoloration."
"Permanent marker," says the Dean. "It will take some weeks for the stain to fade. Until then the poor boy has returned home to India. He was too humiliated to leave his room. He couldn't continue his studies. We've held his place for next year of course. He's brilliant, quite brilliant."
Sherlock is frowning. "Humiliated. Why."
"Well - at having had this done to him!"
"Hmmm," says Sherlock doubtfully. "So how did this happen?"
"That's what I want you to find out," the Dean says. "The boy would not give details of his attackers, or where this took place. His friends say he rarely left his room except to attend lectures or go the the library. No one could have done this in public without arousing suspucion. Yet he failed to attend his tutorial last week, and his hall of residence tutor went to check in him and found him -like this."
"Hmm," Sherlock says again. He has his phone in his hand and is flicking through screens. "Wealthy family you say. Enemies? Political, personal?"
"They run a chain of call centres in Mumbai."
"The words appear to be a poem," Sherlock says. "It's not in order, or mostly not, but you can make out a few phrases." He consults his phone. "A famous poem from two centuries ago, about a sailor and a bird. Huh."
His eyes light up as he looks at the pictures again, but he does not add anything.
"The rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," says John. He peers at the marks in the picture "Blimey, it is."
"You know it," Sherlock says in surprise.
"Everybody knows it." Except Sherlock, of course, who if he ever studied it will have removed it as a pointless space eater in his brain. John sighs at him and Sherlock frowns as if John has just made some highly personal and embarrassing comment.
"So what do you want me to do?" Sherlock asks the Dean.
"Find who did this. And make sure they can't do it again." The Dean wrings his hands. John has never seen anyone do that in real life before. "We cannot become known as a place where students are at risk. Our reputation is great, but it is also fragile. One scandal and we would be in every newspaper." He shakes his head in despair. "Please find out who did it, Mr Holmes."
Sherlock paces the room. John and the Dean wait. Will the case pass Sherlock's rigorous test of not-boring-ness?
"I think I can confidently tell you who did it," Sherlock says. He turns the photo so that it faces the Dean. "I can't say he won't do it again, though."
The Dean gasps. "You already have a suspect?"
John knows what's coming, even though he does not yet know why. After a while with Sherlock, you learn his sense of showmanship.
"Look at the poem," Sherlock says. "It starts on the thighs and then goes to either forearm. The later verses are fainter, smaller, crammed in behind knees and elbows. And the last parts are barely recognisable as words." He points to rune-like marks on the boy's shoulder blades. "You always start with the easy stuff - easy to reach. Legs and forearms. You'd leave the back til last, til you really had to. He must have been very supple all the same."
The Dean looks sick. "You're saying -"
"Yes," says Sherlock. "He did it to himself."
Chapter 3: Oxymoron
But why?" asks the Dean.
"I imagine that's what you'll want me to find out."
The Dean hesitates.
"This isn't the first incident," Sherlock says slowly. "There have been other strange events, each worse than the last, and now this." He frowns."You're worried the next incident will ... kill someone... And you think it's going to escalate rapidly, so you came down on the earliest First Class train and you walked here from Paddington because you could not stand the long queue for a taxi." He is on his feet, pacing and scowling but, John sees, in a good way. He is excited. His blue eyes are bright and shimmering and his fingers are clenching and unclenching. John smiles a little because it is the first sign of Sherlock contentment he has seen in ages.
The Dean is less impressed. "You saw my ticket somehow," he accuses. "You hacked into the train company's website-"
"What, while we've been standing here?" Sherlock exudes sarcasm, but John knows that in fact this is exactly how Sherlock confirms many of his theories. Not the hacking - though heaven knows if he set his mind to it Sherlock could be lethal in that arena - but certainly the high speed googling.
Sherlock would never say this to a client, so John just settles back in his chair for the bravura display of deduction.
"No," says Sherlock scathingly, "I know because you have croissant and egg crumbs on your tie, and only a train chef would think that a scrambled egg croissant was a suitable item for a breakfast menu. There are no dedicated dining cars on the line between Camford and London and it is not on the regular buffet car menu, so you aquired the revolting meal from the at-seat service in First class. Your right shoe sole has a scrap of the free Metro paper stuck to it - a paper strewn around the exit to most London stations in the morning, but not inside the concourse or at the taxi rank. Now: are you going to tell me what's really been happening with your students or shall I return to my very absorbing violin composition?"
Please, the first option, John thinks. Sherlock's current piece is a horror of discord and screech, painstakingly repeated in exact and ear-splitting precision, and John would honestly flee the flat rather than endure the birth of the next movement.
"I will tell you," says the Dean. He took a deep breath. Looked from Sherlock to John. "It started three weeks ago. Freshers week. There are always plenty of hijinks and we generally turn a blind eye to everything non criminal, so long as the college is not brought into disrepute."
Sherlock rolls his eyes. John frowns a shush at him. Sherlock gives him a microsecond dark smile. For a moment, all is well and John has forgotten about the case in the gladness that they are friends again. Tension drains from his shoulders. Sherlock spins away and stares out of the window as the Dean continues.
"This was different," says the Dean. He describes a series of bizarre incidents which have each led to danger and disgrace.
The new first year English undergraduates, hurling pennies from the roof of the Library. A French and Business Studies student climbing the ancient gate of the city, filmed by his friends. He fell, but was not badly hurt, and the internet was riddled with cinematic records of the incident. Five Theology students dangling from the famous city centre bridge. A positive tide of hair dye across History, Philosophy and Sociology - men and women.
The list is baffling and diverse. Tutors have had strong words. Halls of residence have threatened eviction. Yet still, midway through the term, pranks and trespasses persist.
At the end Sherlock nods, tells the Dean he believes he can help him, and ushers him out.
Silence in the flat. John waits for Sherlock to speak. As with much else, this is his decision.
"We need to go to Camford," Sherlock says. "Mature students."
"Oxymoron," says John, but Sherlock cuts his eyes at him. John sighs. "All right. What are our subjects? Medicine and..." He thinks Sherlock did biochemistry, but it has never been clear. Sherlock does not talk about his past, and John gets the impression that university was, firstly, something which began aged fifteen, and secondly, involved every subject which happened to catch Sherlock's eye.
Sherlock curls his lip. "Honestly, John, were you not in the room just now? The students were all Arts students. You will be a historian, and I will be a geologist."
John starts to protest - Geology is not an Arts subject - but stops. Sherlock has his reasons. Plus, John cannot picture Sherlock in any form of French literature or philosophy course. Or maybe Sherlock thinks Geology is just more cool. "Ok," he says. "When?"
Sherlock looks at his watch. "The incidents have tended to happen at weekends. Today is Monday, so if we go down tomorrow we should still have plenty of time to solve the case before there is another one."
"Right," says John.
And again, as he agrees with whatever plan Sherlock is proposing, John catches that tiny smile, before Sherlock turns away. And all is right with the world.
Chapter 4: Quad
Next morning John emerges from the shower to find Sherlock in the living room with a rucksack and walking boots on. The rest of his outfit is a rainbow mixture of green woolly jumper, yellow corduroy trousers, long pink scarf and a small square red neckerchief knotted under his chin as well. "Beret or no beret?" he asks John, applying and removing a navy blue fisherman's cap.
"Um. With?" Either looks bizarre. Bohemian Sherlock. Just to see him in colour is odd.
"I just wore my normal clothes," John says.
"That's all right," Sherlock says reassuringly. "Historians are very dull."
"Huh." But Sherlock is Sherlock, oblivious to the need for tact, and John is John and he knows, which means Sherlock also knows, that it does not materially affect anything and that John will follow Sherlock into any danger, smarting from careless insult or not.
They grab bags and get a train to Camford.
The town is beautiful even in late October, golden sandstone buildings mingling with half timbered ones, the town to the east of the river, the University itself off to the west, a series of small colleges among pleasant wooded grounds. The Library and other central facilities stand on a massive lawn with gravel paths criss-crossing it to the various ancient colleges. The sun is shining and the leaves are yellow and green on the oak and chestnut trees as Sherlock leads the way from the station through a standard UK High Street and towards the pleasanter narrow streets surrounding the campus.
A small sandstone arch marks the entrance to Grisham College. "This is it -" Sherlock steps beneath the archway and then leaps aside as a car screams towards him, braking to a stop in a spray of tiny pebbles with its front bumper six inches from his shins. "Hey!"
John runs forward but Sherlock is untouched. The car, a dull grey colour with the low stance and bulbous shape of the Fifties and Sixties, now rests with its nose in the archway. It cannot pass through without losing its wing mirrors, but now all pedestrian traffic into the college has to turn and shuffle past it sideways.
"I'm all right," says Sherlock as John's gaze travels over him. "Startled me, that's all."
"Another foot and you'd be mangled on his bonnet," John says grimly.
They stand shoulder to shoulder as the driver of the car switches off the engine and nonchalantly climbs out.
"Ford Popular 1961," says Sherlock automatically.
"Moron," says John.
The driver runs his hand through his hair and strolls over to them. He is thirtyish, tanned, with brown hair and lively green eyes. His clothes suggest that he has recently stepped from a yacht. He is wearing deck shoes, certainly, and although it is October the sleeves of his white linen jacket are rolled up. Sunglasses and the car keys dangle from his slack fingers.
"Oh my god," says John to Sherlock. "You were nearly killed by the Man from Del Monte."
"Rather careless," Sherlock comments as the man approaches. "You almost knocked me down."
"Not careless at all," counters the man in a sing-song voice. "The car is exactly where it should be." He eyes Sherlock. "Though I'm not so sure about you." He smiles and John sees small neat teeth, rather yellowed. He could swear it was a double row like a shark. "You're not students here," the man says.
"Wrong," says Sherlock. "Just arrived." He smiles nastily back at the man and it is hard to say whose grin is the more menacing.
John says, "Are you a student too?"
The man has not taken his eyes off Sherlock. "I am a student of life," he answers, his mouth twisting sideways to address John while his gaze is rigid on Sherlock's face. "I suppose I am more postgraduate than fresher..."
"Meaningless posturing," says Sherlock. "Come on, John." He elbows past the white suited man, who makes an oooh face and steps aside in an exaggerated manner.
"Bye," calls the man. "See you around no doubt..."
"God I hope not," mutters John as they squeeze past the antique Ford and into the quadrangle of Grisham college.
John looks around admiringly. It is a far cry from his own modern medical school in the heart of London - but it has much charm, and a wonderful sense of learning for learning's sake.
It is mid-morning, so not many students are about. Either they are in lectures or (more likely) still in bed.
"The Dean has supplied us with student union cards," says Sherlock, handing one to John. "And he has promised not to question our activities in solving this puzzle. He wanted us to stay in the pub in town, but I think it will be better to be close to the action." He leads them around the grassy quad to a low, wide door wooden in the corner. Each corner of the quad rises to a small tower - the students' rooms. Corridors link the rooms around the quad, and one side is taken up with shared facilities - canteen, laundrette, common room and most vital of all, bar. "I know the porter here," Sherlock says. "Well, I say know. I bribed him. He has put us in a vacant room at the end of the corridor where all the affected students live. The key, he tells me, will be in our door."
John had not realised the students described by the Dean all lived in Grisham. He comments to this effect, while noting that there is only one entrance to the quad, the archway, and that black cast iron drainpipes climb to the mossy slate roof at regular intervals all the way around it.
"Yes," says Sherlock, "all Arts undergrads, all at Grisham. The problem is, for some reason, centred here."
Then John hears what Sherlock said before. That their accommodation. will be one room.
He sighs inwardly. Are they going to have the double room conversation again? John has asked Sherlock on several occasions to request twin rooms in hotels or, imagine, just get two separate rooms, but Sherlock is deaf on this point. "I forgot," he would say vaguely, even though he can recall every pattern of tyre tread used in the UK and Europe over the last fifty year, and could tell you the details of every criminal case currently in the high courts without even trying.
Today, though, Sherlock turns to John and gives him a hard glare. "John," he says even though John has yet to open his lips. "This is a popular and heavily oversubscribed university. All the rooms are shared. There will be two beds."
He strides ahead and John follows him.
There are three beds in the magnolia-painted, linoleum-floored room. Three bedside cabinets, one sink with a mirror, one door to an ensuite shower and lavatory and three small, bare bookshelves. One window, three bedside rugs, three doors into a fitted wardrobe, three coat hooks. "Great," says John. "We can have people over."
Sherlock does not laugh, however, just slams his rucksack down on the bed nearest the window with such force that the bedside table rattles. He sets about examining the cupboards and drawers with many bangs and crashes.
John steps to the window. Their room faces into the quad. Wisteria climbs almost to the windowsill and the window is fixed so that it only opens a portion of the way. "Health and safety gone mad," mutters John.
Sherlock, his drawer rampage apparently complete, opens his bag and takes out the list of students known to have been involved in the pranks, or stunts, or whatever they are. "Here are the people we need to find. We're going to befriend them, get inside their social circles and find out why they did all this stuff. I have an idea or three already, but it would be a mistake to speculate further without more data."
"Right," says John. "Gatecrashing lectures?"
Sherlock shrugs. "If you like. Or there's the Library." He hands John a copy of the list.
"This is weird," says John. "Trying to find out why freshers are freshers."
"No," Sherlock corrects him. "Trying to find out why they did these specific things. I did some research last night. These activities are out of the ordinary pattern of mischief. Most stuff seems to involve beer, theft of clothes, minor burglary of personal items or occasional sexual flaunting." He wrinkles his nose.
Sherlock looks pained. "The so called Ladies' Hockey Club. Famed for, I quote, getting their tits out in the bar."
"Oh yes," says John. "I remember that."
Sherlock looks appalled.
"Come on," says John. "I bet you got up to plenty in your student days."
Sherlock looks both smug and shifty. "I suppose," he says, flipping through his list of targets. "But I never got caught."
And that makes John wonder. Even though he has promised himself that he will not wonder. Even though he knows that wondering is what starts wishing, and that wishing leads to wanting.
He stares at Sherlock, and Sherlock looks up from the list, and for a moment they gaze into each other's eyes, blue and blue, long seconds when John thinks nothing except Sherlock, and can believe that Sherlock is likewise focused only on him.
Then Sherlock blinks, and touches John lightly on the arm and says, "Come on, it's almost lunchtime. We can start in the refectory."
Chapter 5: Lily livered
The refectory is chock-full of eighteen year olds. It is peculiar to be surrounded by people young enough to be your own children. Sherlock gets plenty of stares, and grins around in a terrifying impression of chirpy friendliness.
"Mind if we join you?" he asks, fractionally after sitting down at a table crowded with young men dressed in black t shirts and grey jeans and sporting a range of unflattering hairstyles.
John looks at them. Pale skin. Terrible skin in some cases. Flattened pads on the fingers. Hunched shoulders. "Computer science," Sherlock mutters.
"I know," says John, but Sherlock has moved on and is enthusing about the new something or other chipset which enables even faster in-memory processing.
The boy next to John asks grudgingly what course John is on, and looks repelled when the answer is History.
John senses that breaking into the inner circles of these teenagers is going to be a tough assignment.
He eats the excellent risotto, washing it down with equally high quality apple juice. If nothing else, their case here will ensure decent nutrition for a day or two. He gives a wry inward smile.
And looks up to see Sherlock, his plate abandoned untouched, deep in conversation with a thin boy whose hunched shoulders and frightened eyes tell of expected unkindness. Sherlock is nodding earnestly and hanging on the lad's every word. Around the table other conversations have moved on, but this one remains, and John knows better than to disturb Sherlock at work.
How does he do this, bend people to his will? The man who cannot remember that murder is both exciting and horrific, is personal to the victim's family, is the end of their world: how can this man ease into a heart-to-heart with a stranger half his age, with seemingly no more effort than others would expend on a bus stop chat about the weather?
John thinks of his own recent bus stop chat and flushes. It must have been painfully obvious to that guy that John was looking for comfort, for a hand to hold, for something more than a friendly pint, and John instead ditched the guy who no doubt now thinks John is a twat for giving out his number and then refusing a date.
John should have gone. Men are uncomplicated. -Most men are uncomplicated. A little light relief at the hands (mouth?) of a guy with soft luscious hair would probably sort John right out just now. No emotional ties, no relationship chit chat, just a bit of action, fun, just some -sex -because it has been a stupidly long time, to the point where the idea of hands on his body is enough to get him salivating.
So why did he reject the offer?
-Some relic of loyalty to an idea whose time has come, gone and which is now so far in the past it can be safely classed as mythological. A while ago, Sherlock seemed interested, or at any rate, curious, and John banged on, hah, Freudian slip, hilarious, about not being gay. To be fair, he is not gay. But it's kind of a semantic distinction. He knows what people mean and chooses to reply with an absolute truth instead of an honest answer.
Sherlock, now doing a rather convincing impression of a shy but eager twenty-something Geologist with a deep interest in scientific computing, was obviously intrigued by John from the very start. It was mutual. They agreed that nothing was going on and then - Sherlock started looking at John, and John looked back, and instead of just asking, or, imagine, reaching across the stack of morning papers and touching, testing the water, trying it out, oh no, instead of that John withdrew, ignored it, protested very obviously too much earning the scorn of everyone he knows, and Sherlock shrank back into himself again, and the looking became layered with sadness and bewilderment, and this is why John cannot move forward or back, because he has hurt his best friend, and to take up with some other bloke now would be tactless, and yet not to would be weak and cowardly.
Those medals for selfless bravery which live in his bedside cabinet. What a pile of crap. He is too lily-livered to just tell Sherlock he's sorry, to just explain, to just - anything.
Their friendship is stumbling along on long association and habit, and although friendship is enough for John, is more than he ever hoped for when he came back to London, he needs to get this other business cleared up. Yay or Nay, the thing needs to be out in the open. But he cannot bring himself to do it. John Watson, apparent hero, actual ditherer. And Sherlock Holmes, apparent genius, actual total idiot, or at any rate... cautious type, not a crime.
John attacks a lemon cheesecake. Right. This has to stop. He will just talk to Sherlock after this case. That's all. Simple. just do it. Sherlock reckons he will clear it up in a couple of days and Sherlock's estimates are rarely wrong. Therefore, by next Monday they will be back at home John will have said what he needs to say and Sherlock will have replied (laughed, sneered, run away horrified, remained coldly indifferent) and they can return to what John can attempt to categorise as normal.
Chapter 6: Mundane details
"He was dared to do it," Sherlock says as they dump their dinner trays in the trolleys. "The Albatross boy. Someone challenged him to fit the entire poem on his body and he accepted the dare."
"I don't know." Sherlock's face is set as they cut across the quad to their own little tower. "He did it but then regretted it. Ran home humiliated. Not the usual behaviour for someone who has successfully answered a challenge."
"Maybe he didn't realise the marker was permanent." John climbs the winding wooden stair behind Sherlock. There are narrow windows in the stairwell, reminiscent of a castle. This building is only a hundred years old, but it is built to echo its medieval surroundings.
"He was a brilliant student. He must have known the own would stain." Sherlock's long legs take the stairs two at a time with creaks of pain from the old steps.
"Sometimes brilliant people don't notice mundane details," John says.
Sherlock gives no sign of having heard. John rolls his eyes, following stick-thin yellow corduroy legs up a narrow staircase. "There is a darer on campus,"Sherlock says. "I would like to meet him."
John has their doorkey in his pocket. "Or her," he suggests as he unlocks the door.
"Possible," says Sherlock. "Not likely. The conversation I have just had was very interesting...but had too few details. I am going to go and mingle with less socially-excluded undergraduates."
He starts tearing off the scarf, the rainbow jumper. Rummages in his bag for black everything.
John checks his watch. Two pm. Lectures will start again in a moment.
Sherlock is in black t shirt, black jeans and, now, a long black scarf. "Better," he pronounces, checking the mirror.
"Mad geologist not working for you?" asks John.
Sherlock smirks. "I am now a philosopher. If anyone asks."
John looks at the raven hair, the throat white against the scarf, the legs slender in midnight denim. "They won't."
"Ha." But he looks, momentarily, pleased.
"Where are you going anyway?" John asks as they descend once more. "I thought I'd hit the library."
"All right," says Sherlock. They emerge from their room and cross the quad once more. "Good plan. Find out anything you can about dares on campus. I'm going to go where all the cool kids hang out." He twists his mouth ironically.
"Sports hall?" asks John. He cannot be sure where is cool on campus. He spent his years either studying or drinking. Not much sleep between the two.
The vintage car still blocks the arch. Sherlock pauses before he and John part to go their separate ways. "No," he says. "Pub." And with a wave he is gone.
Chapter 7: Wary doubt
"The other incidents were dares too," Sherlock announces over dinner. "I suspected as much, just needed to confirm." He is not eating the pasta bake on his plate, just pushing it around. Strings of cheese join his fork to the mass of tuna and vegetables in the centre. He does sip his beaker of water from time to time, either through thirst or the need to establish some evidence of consumption.
"Mass daring?"John asks, thinking about the leaps from bridges, the lurid hair colouring.
"Yes. Exactly." Sherlock gives him a significant look.
It is lost on John. John knows it, he knows that Sherlock knows it too, and so he is obliged to say,"Ok. That doesn't sound like anything too bad. I mean, weird, but not - dangerous."
"On the contrary. I think this is one of the most dangerous cases we've dealt with yet."
John likes that Sherlock includes him in the case-cracking credit, however minimal his contribution. And he likes the word 'yet', too. There will be more.
"Right... So is it just a craze? This kind of thing can sweep through an enclosed society like a university campus, you know."
"I don't think so. Normally I would say, dares, dull, who cares. But these dares are very weird, not particularly funny, and most significantly of all, have been issued by a single darer."
Ah. "All right...who?"
Sherlock frowns. "If I knew that I probably wouldn't be sitting here pretending to eat a plate of murdered provolone with you."
John acknowledges this. "So how are you going to find out? Find the darer...how?" He pictures Sherlock issuing some reckless challenge, a poster on the noticeboard in the bar, Dare me anything, oh god.
"There are dare parties. To the latest of which, I have secured an invitation. You're my plus one, if today's students have plus ones. If not you're my mate."
The pasta landslide is abandoned and Sherlock stands. He is attracting attention. Of course. John sees heads turn across the room. One of them is the man who parked his car across the arch. He gives Sherlock an upwards nod, then turns back to his earnest conversation with three young girls.
Sherlock smirks. "I've got it now. Him. Tutor. But only just. Used to be a postgrad here, can't quite bear to move to the senior common room with the grown ups."
"He was fairly unpleasant," John says. "In a minor way." John has been covered in dynamite by a madman. Mere creepy lecturers don't come close.
"Nice car though," Sherlock says. "Shame about the upholstery," he adds obscurely as they leave the refectory. "Come on John! You can iron our t shirts!"
John rolls his eyes as Sherlock bounds across the quad towards their little tower and the three-bed room. "I must do this for the glamour."
"No, the glory," calls Sherlock, who has excellent hearing. "Come on, John."
The whole college has heard Sherlock treating John like his personal valet, like his - housewife. Teenagers are gawping and nudging each other. And yet -
John doesn't care. He knows his friendship with Sherlock will easily withstand slight embarrassment, also major humiliation and outrageous neglect. Sherlock does not have friends. He just has John. And that, that exclusivity, that sense of being special (yeah, special enough to do the housework) is a privilege.
Dressing for a party where you already know you are uncool is extremely dispiriting. John is not on the pull - it would be practically criminal to consider it - and yet needs to fit in. But he is so obviously a dad figure in the eyes of these youngsters that anything he puts on will look sad and desperate.
Sherlock stares at himself in the mirror over the sink for a long time. Then he starts tearing his clothes off and hurling them across the room onto John's bed. John ducks a spinning jumper and watches in fascination and horror as Sherlock removes t shirt, jeans socks, and eventually stands in navy blue jersey trunks before the sink, frowning at himself in seeming pain.
John looks. Sherlock is so pale-skinned. If his hairstyle was less expensive he could pass for one of the geeks he was chatting up earlier.
Sherlock moves. Steps masterfully to his rucksack and removes dark items. Scowls at John. Why?
John takes a breath. Yes. He was. And for once he cannot be arsed, seriously cannot be fucking arsed to deny it. "So?"
Sherlock blinks. Shrugs and snorts. Waves a hand.
John gives one more Paddington stare then turns away in silent amazement. Has he just sideswiped Sherlock?
Of course, Sherlock is the one who never denies that they are a couple. And maybe he enjoyed having his ego stroked just now with a glance which must have been, if not obviously appreciative, then at least rather awed. Sherlock likes to be praised.
Of course he does. Everyone does. John does (could stand a bit more of it in general, if anyone is listening.)
When John looks back, Sherlock is in his usual dark jacket and trousers but with a black t shirt underneath. He has ruffled up his hair and, John notices, squinting a little, is unshaven. Just a bit. That is a bit more than John has ever seen on him. Sherlock is obsessive about shaving and personal cleanliness in general. The stubble has appeared in the last few moments.
"Is that make up?"
"Yes of course. Look all right?"
John peers. "Pretty good. Unless someone touches it."
Sherlock grabs John's hand and presses it against his cheek. Sherlock's skin is smooth and hot. "People are hardly likely to do this, are they?"
"I guess not." John keeps his hand passive, his fingertips n the curls under Sherlock's right ear. Sherlock's skin is so soft. The stubble effect make up will smudge if John moves. He doesn't move. His heart is racing. Sherlock holds his hand in place, staring in his turn, and then drops John's hand and fiddles with his jacket, smoothing the lapels.
It is disturbing how much younger Sherlock seems. He has loosened his jaw, John realises. Made his face slack and open. He now looks about nineteen. Older if you gaze closely at the fine lines around his eyes, but who, seeing him, will look for flaws? His skin has lost the luminosity which blesses the very young. but there is no silver in his black hair, and when he smiles he could be a teenager. But he rarely smiles.
"Come on," says Sherlock. "Let's go and act as if we've never been let off the leash." He gives John a sneering glance. "Not such a stretch for some of us."
And with a distinct flounce, he stalks out of the room.
John follows him off campus and through the narrow streets of Camford to the rows of Victorian red brick terraces close to the station.
What the fuck is going on now?
It is not the nastiness. John lives with the nastiness. Sherlock is a child and throws tantrums at minor irritations. He can be hurtful and mean when things do not go his way. His spite is a very unpleasant thing to be on the reeving end of. Mostly John just ignores it, tunes it out. Sometimes he gives it right back and then they have stand up rows in which they scream into each other's faces until one of them (John) turns and stamps off. Then whoever is left (Sherlock) sulks until something happens to distract him and then he will usually text John as if nothing has happened and John burns with the frustration of it all and then decides that it is better to forget it and texts back and then eventually returns to the flat where Sherlock is eager and anxious to please and then they have a cup of tea and the row is not mentioned until next time.
No wonder that Mrs Hudson is convinced they are a proper couple, hearing all that through her ceilings. Except that a proper couple would follow a massive barney with a massive bout of make-up sex, but all John gets is the chance to admire Sherlock's latest discovery, and occasionally - very occasionally - a sideways glance which tells John that Sherlock is checking John is all right and has forgiven him. This is not exactly an apology but shows that Sherlock knows perfectly well that an apology is supposed to occur, that he has pissed John off and hurt his feelings into the bargain. The look - that heart-melting look of wary doubt, is what prevents John from actually decking Sherlock during the row, or afterwards when he fails to aplogise. Plus, if they ever resorted to violence, it would be the end. John does not believe in relationships based on physical power.
Not that he is in a relationship with Sherlock.
Exceopt that he is. Obviously. But -
"Are you joining me or just staring vacantly into the middle distance?" Sherlock asks sarcastically.
John glares at him and follows him through the door of the three storey terraced house.
Chapter 8: Grunge
Author's note: This story is meant to be on hiatus while I do Nanowrimo, but I took a break today from writing and wrote this. :-). This story is definitely about being middle aged in a young person's world... I must be feeling old. Anyway, hope you like this, and there will be more after Nano. -Sef
Inside the party house there is noise. Hideous noise. John has forgotten how terrible modern music can be. Then he feels ancient for even thinking that. He should be cool. He should be down with the kids. He's pretty sure he used to be cool. Back in the day. Oh God.
If he even has to think that, then he is twenty years past his sell-by date.
He has made Sherlock buy beer to bring. Sherlock apparently thought it was sufficient to bring his own beautiful self. John thinks they will need a bribe not to get turned away at the door as predators.
For once John is dead right. And as the lad on the threshold hesitates, swaying in the deafening roar of the Glastonbury-level rave happening behind him, John has a stroke of inspiration. "We're with Compton," he bellows.
Compton, Sherlock established earlier with a swift hack of the DVLA vehicle registration database, is the name of the owner of the belligerently-driven Ford Popular. Compton Mears, soon to receive a parking ticket in the post.
The youthful gatekeeper reacts at once. "Oh, ok then, he's upstairs."
The door is opened wide and Sherlock and John are admitted, despite the obvious handicaps of age and John's dress sense.
The house is packed. There are people leaning against the walls of the ground floor landing, and more people crouching on the stairs, conducting conversations up and down through the bannisters with the occupants of other floors. At the far end on the hallway John can see bright white striplights: kitchen. Off to the left are two chipped and scored panelled wooden doors. A different barrage of music throbs behind each and coloured light leaks out into the hall. Glitter ball, John thinks. Are those cool again? Or is it retro ironic chic?
Sherlock eases into the crowd without hesitation, but stops when John grabs his arm. "Beer," says John. He has to put his lips practically to Sherlock's ear to make himself heard.
"I don't really drink," Sherlock says, wincing at the can of supermarket lager John is proffering.
"Authenticity," insists John.
"Oh. All right." Sherlock watches in glum anticipation as John cracks a can. He leans into John in turn. "Good point. Thanks." His mouth actually touches the outside of John's ear, and his nose presses John's hair.
Bastard, he is enjoying it. Why does Sherlock feel no guilt at anything he does? He exists in a world without shame.
-Sherlock is at the centre of Sherlock's world and like the kings who believed they were gods, all his actions are considered valid. And Sherlock is at the centre of John's world, and John feels a crippling responsibility for him, and cannot behave as he would with anyone else.
John ducks away and thrusts the open can into Sherlock's cold fingers. Sherlock smirks and seems pleased with himself.
John watches as Sherlock swigs from the can, wrinkles his nose at the taste, and then swarms up the staircase, dodging its occupants' legs and hands with effortless grace. He disappears into the throng on the first floor landing, and John is left holding the carrier bag full of beer.
Right. Well. He knows what to do. He says "Excuse me, excuse me," a hundred times and finally shoulders his way past couples who have not waited for a slow number, and emerges into the blinding brightness of the heart of every party John has ever been to: the kitchen.
The kitchen is almost empty. A girl - woman, John thinks, she is over eighteen therefore in her own eyes she is an adult - leans against one counter, sipping red wine from a white plastic beaker and staring bleakly at a boy and girl snogging up against the elderly fridge.
There is a Formica table in the middle of the room, covered in carriers and bottles. John dumps his contribution, and opens a beer. "Want one?" he says to the girl, since the other two are clearly busy.
"Beer is for losers," she says as he takes his first sip.
"Thanks a lot."
She shrugs, but now her attention is on him. Figuring that he had better start working since he is here, he studies her in return.
She has black hair, pulled up in dry tufts and spikes all over her head, the strands dull and straw-like from harsh dyeing. Make-up is caked on her face as far as the jawline. Loads of mascara but lips stained only with dark wine. A red mark shows up starkly on either side of her nose: she wears glasses but has taken them off for the party. Her clothes are baggy and drab, a long black sleeveless tunic and khaki combats. Grunge, thinks John and on impulse says, "Deliberate circumvention of the expected female appearance."
She grunts in surprise. "Rebecca, actually. But good guess."
John offers his hand. "John."
"Who are you, somebody's dad?"
She clearly enjoys a non-answer, so he supplies one. "Every female mammal is born with a million eggs in her ovaries. Males have to grow into fatherhood."
This is a rather creepy idea but luckily Rebecca likes it. "You're different," she pronounces as if this is the highest compliment.
They stand sipping their drinks and watching the snoggers. "Do you know them?" asks John.
"My twin sister," says Rebecca. She curls her lip in extreme distaste.
"Sorry about that," says John, and gets a smile in return. "Listen - my friend is looking for someone. Someone he heard about. Something about - dares?"
Instant wariness. "Are you police?"
"No. I was Army though."
"Wow. A trained killer." She seems horrified and impressed. A standard reaction and one John used to milk for all it was worth in his pulling days. "What are you doing here? Special ops, Jason Bourne?" She is trying for blase and cynical, but John can hear the eagerness underneath. It is rather sweet.
"Baby sitter," he tells her. She blinks. "Not my kid. My mate. He's a bit - mad. He heard about the dares and reckons he can beat anything that's thrown at him."
"Yeah, right. Is he like a total nutter?"
She sounds eighteen now.
"Yes," says John. "I'm just trying to stop him making a total arse of himself." He gives a rueful grin. "This is not the kind of party I normally go to," he adds in his most disarming tone.
"No shit," says Rebecca, eyeing John's jeans.
"How does this dare thing work? If you know who to avoid, I can just drag him away before he causes any trouble." Not very subtle, but this ploy might work.
"Wow. Random." She seems to be considering it. "Ok," she says, and puts down her glass. She comes over to John and takes the can from his hand. "I can tell you. If you just -"
She wraps her arms around John's neck and kisses him.
He jolts in surprise and pushes her away. "Er -Rebecca -"
John gets a vision of an irate set of parents bursting in and threatening to thrash the man who has laid hands on their daughter. He slides away from her and wipes her red wine taste from his mouth.
Rebecca is smirking and pouring another brimming beaker of Cab Sauv. John sees that the bottle on the counter is almost empty. Jesus. It is not even nine pm. "Drink up," she says, pointing with her own drink at John's. "You haven't earned your information yet, Mr Bond."
"You're mixing up your international playboys," says John lightly.
"Bourne isn't a playboy. The Bourne Girls would make a very short line-up." She smiles in what she probably imagined is a voluptuous way and pushes off the counter again for a further assault on John. "Anyway. You want something from me, I want something from you. Come on, it's just a bit of fun..."
Her hand is on his belt, giving it a playful tug.
He has to stop this. She might be over the age of consent, but to agree would be wrong in three different ways and he hasn't even begun to contemplate how this memory will haunt him every time he sees a bottle cheap red. "Rebecca. Stop. Listen. This won't work on me." She is slipping her hand around his waist and pressing her hips against his, breathing wine into his face. "Stop. Please. Rebecca. It won't work!"
She tilts her head and says, "Yeah?"
"Yeah," says John firmly. "I like men."
She does stop then.
John stares her down. It is an absolute truth if not a complete one, and he knows she can hear honesty in his tone.
"Well," she says, drawing back and swallowing more wine. "Ok then. -What, snogging men? Shagging men?"
God, kids today. Straight to the point. John would not last five minutes on the undergraduate dating scene. "Yes," he says.
"Hmmm. What's it like? Shagging a man?"
A snort of laughter from the couple by the fridge. John had totally forgotten about them. "What's up, Becs, can't you remember?" asks the girl before controlled suction resumes.
"Fuck off. So, go on, what's it like?" persists Rebecca.
"You really want to know? Ok then." John swigs his beer and eyes her in some amusement, now that the immediate danger is past. He fixes her with a steady gaze and says, "Shagging a man is exactly the same as shagging anyone else. Slippery, messy, funny, sexy."
Rebecca's eyes go out of focus. Surely he cannot actually have freaked her out with that snippet of triteness?
Then he realises that she really is looking over his shoulder, towards the kitchen door.
"I see you've met the Tongue Twins," says a condescending male voice.
John spins round and sees Compton Mears, he of the badly parked car, standing in the doorway, a cigarette in one hand, and his other arm conspiratorially and possessively around Sherlock.
Chapter 9: Kestrel
Sherlock looks wrong. John tries to process how wrong he looks whilst also replaying in his head what he just said about sex with men that Sherlock must have heard.
"As you were," says Compton, using the crook of his arm to draw Sherlock after him into the kitchen. "Just popping in for some refills..."
He scoops up a bottle of vodka from the table and proceeds, Sherlock in hand, to the fridge. "Shift!"
Rebecca's twin, and attachment, shuffle to one side to allow Compton to open the door. "How's it going?" Compton enquires as he rummages and discovers a jug of cherry-red liquid.
"Fifteen," says Rebecca.
"Not bad," says Compton with a twist of his lips. "Tweet me." The way he says it, drawled out carelessly, with a bat of his blonde lashes, makes John want to throw up.
Sherlock is leaning on this man's shoulder. His eyes are dull and his mouth is set in a sullen droop. His arms are limp at his sides.
"All right?" says John to Sherlock in as neutral a tone as he can manage.
Compton plus accoutrements sidles back across the kitchen. "We'll be upstairs. Don't wait up!" he cries in a hideous pastiche of camp, mingled with equally unpleasant threat.
As they swing back into the hall, Sherlock turns his head and looks over his shoulder at John and gives him a lightning wink.
00:49 Party over. In cab. Pay for me. S
John sighs, throws down his mobile and climbs out of the bed he has been in for less than a minute. He abandoned the party in disgust and returned here determined to get some rest and not worry about Sherlock, but failure on the second point has led to failure on the first.
After Sherlock vanished into a glitter ball room with Compton and a mass of giggling teens, John tried to strike up conversations but with zero success.
He was loitering on the first floor landing, pained by noise and rejection and on the point of texting Sherlock when Sherlock himself appeared.
"Hey," was all John managed before Sherlock wrenched open the bathroom door and bundled them both inside.
There followed a weird conversation in a very compressed space.
"You're a handicap," hisses Sherlock. "You just look too old. Like I've got my dad with me." He rolls his eyes. "No one would believe you would take a dare."
This is more hurtful than John would have thought possible. Especially as he knows it to be absolutely true. "I can't just leave you," he says. "I don't like you being the bait."
"I've just told you why it has to be me. You look too" - only Sherlock could make this an insult - "competent."
"So what then?"
"You go home. Leave me to it. Compton is at the centre of all this. His car proves it but I need a closer look and I need to catch him in the act, making the next dare, the one which this whole thing has been about."
"So it's him?"
"No conclusions. Evidence suggests it though. Remember the upholstery, John."
"Right." John cannot think of anything about the upholstery except Sherlock commenting on it after nearly being squashed. "The car interior."
"Exactly," says Sherlock and does not explain.
"Mmn." It is flattering to be assumed to be as clever as Sherlock but simultaneously it is frustrating because in the arena of deduction, John is not. But this is not the moment to confess this, because John needs to ask Sherlock how far he will go to persuade Compton of his willingness to participate in the dare madness. "What if he doesn't go for it, doesn't dare you? What if he just wants - a piece of you, and it's nothing to do with dares?"
Sherlock shrugs. "So what? We'll start again tomorrow."
"That's not what I meant." He gives Sherlock a meaningful glare.
Sherlock puzzles at him. "What did you mean?"
This is stupid, having this surreal conversation in a tiny upstairs loo with the toilet rim digging into the back of John's knees and Sherlock flat up against the door. "I mean - he's vile."
"It's for a case, John."
"Oh, right. The ultimate excuse."
"Why do you care?" Black t shirt, black shirt, black hair, black fire in Sherlock's eyes and he is poised like a kestrel hanging in the air a hundred feet above the quivering prey, the decision hanging too, plummet or soar, plummet or soar...
"Because," says John. "I just do."
"Well don't. I am working. I am fine." Lift of the chin and the kestrel wheels away to impossible heights, catching a thermal, pinpointing more intriguing targets.
"Fine." John folds his arms and scowls. He is not kidding himself that he has won, or even drawn, this argument. Sherlock will do whatever he wants, as usual. John will be left on his own, as usual. Partnership this is not.
But Sherlock grabs John's shoulders. Gives him a small shake. "What is your problem? We are working. At least I'm not in the kitchen watching teenagers groping each other. Or being groped."
"Is that a joke?" John does not know where to put his hands. He is clenched in Sherlock's surprising strong grip and has nowhere to escape to.
"Sort of. What the hell were you saying to that girl?"
"She's sex obsessed," says John.
"Everybody is," says Sherlock. "It doesn't mean you have to go into the gory details."
He lets go of John and sighs. For a second he seems about to speak again, to say something - what? - but then he just shakes his head. "Right. Back to acting dim and rather vulnerable, the kind of person who desperately needs to be in with the in crowd in order to feel that their time on the planet is justified."
"Not exactly like you then." Sherlock is his own clique. Sometimes John is in it.
"Not exactly. I avoided the in crowd like the plague." Sherlock is already moving on, his eyes scanning over John's shoulder to where an open window is barrelling a draught down John's neck.
"I bet it was mutual."
"Oh yes." A smile, and John snorts laughter too.
"Right. I will go home," he says. And here is one of those gaps in their friendship, a space which a lover would fill with a kiss goodbye or an embrace, a quick exchange of promise and intent. But John does not dare, and this, in a cracked-plaster student loo, is not how he pictures it, anyway.
"I just need him to make the crucial dare," Sherlock says then, as if realising reassurance is required.
"I can hang around in case Compton needs decking," John offers hopefully.
"No thanks. I can handle it."
That was three hours ago. John grew very sick of waiting and was relieved to get Sherlock's text. He sprints down to the archway - now free of ancient car - and there is a cab. The door opens and Sherlock falls onto the gravel. John hands the driver a tenner and picks Sherlock up.
"Jesus, what did he do to you?"
Sherlock tries to speak and fails. His phone is still welded to his hand, though: it can't be too serious. Can it?
It is midnight. John drags Sherlock upright and then hefts him over his shoulder and bodily carries him across the quad. Sherlock weighs an absolute ton. It is the pointless giraffe legs. It's certainly not excess fat. The stairs are a challenge but John manages it. Army training and sheer bloody mindedness.
At last John manoeuvres Sherlock into their room, kicks the door shut and lowers Sherlock onto the nearest bed. Sherlock is now mumbling but John cannot make out any proper words.
"Sherlock. Sherlock, speak to me." For once, a valid opportunity to shake him like a wayward teenager.
"I'm ok." Consciousness is returning. "Fell asleep in cab," Sherlock says. He tries to stand.
"What the hell did he do to you?" John demands again.
"Clearly not nothing - "John staggers back as Sherlock collapses against him. Sherlock's head just misses the sink. John swears and drags Sherlock's limp body back onto the bed. Fuck, shit, fuck. Yet although he is furious and terrified, battle instinct kicks in and he methodically examines Sherlock for signs of poisoning.
There are none. Sherlock just appears to be very, very drunk.
"What the hell did you do? Cocktails?"
"Jelly shots," mumbles Sherlock.
"Oh for fuck's sake."
"I'm all right. Stop fussing."
"I thought you'd done a dare! I thought you'd killed yourself with your stupid arrogance and your complete and utter refusal to accept any help from me-"
He is so angry and relieved that he cannot continue. Instead he just starts pulling off Sherlock's shoes, socks, jeans.
"What are you doing," Sherlock slurs.
"Putting you to bed. But before you pass out I want you to drink this." John pours a glass of water and holds it in front of Sherlock's mouth. "All of it. Now!"
Sherlock manages about half and then goes green.
"You're all right," John tells him. "Drink the rest. How many shots?"
"Strawberry," says Sherlock.
That explains the sickly sweet smell on his breath. "I said how many."
"Lime. Blackcurrant. Orange. Lemon."
"Well, that's at least five. Pretty stupid for someone who doesn't drink."
Sherlock shakes his head. "Lychee," he slurs and now he is definitely winding John up. "Mango. Dragon fruit."
"Huh. Maybe you've escaped climbing up a pylon or jumping in the river but alcohol poisoning is still a thing. Lie down."
"I said don't fuss."
John takes the glass and then, as Sherlock is now sitting up, removes his shirt as well. The t shirt can stay. He heaves back the covers on the bed - blankets and sheets tightly wrapped around the mattress, like childhood, like prison - and then pushes Sherlock down onto the pillow. Sherlock grumbles and then wriggles into the bed.
"Now sleep," says John. "Sleep it off, and I am going for a walk."
"Stay with me, " Sherlock says pathetically. "I might die."
"No you won't. You'll just have a massive hangover. Which serves you right."
"I might pass out and drown in my own vomit." He is blinking at John like an owl that only wants a tiny favour.
"Wow, sell it to me. -All right, I'll stay. Now just sleep."
Sherlock sits up and points at the empty glass. In his world, victory equals total victory and John will obviously not only stay but also will provide room service.
John grits his teeth, refills the glass, hands it to him. "There." Sherlock drinks, keeping John's gaze over the rim of the glass. John makes his face set and stern. No chink in the armour. No sympathy. Not when Sherlock has been so utterly, dangerously idiotic.
Sherlock gives the glass back. "Thank you," he says in a small voice but John is having none of it. The charm, the crocodile apology, will not touch him tonight. I thought you might die, he thinks at Sherlock.You stupid, stupid -
"Stay with me here. Please," Sherlock says, reaching out his arms to John.
"I said yes just now -"
John is in the act of putting the glass back on the sink when Sherlock grabs him round the waist and pulls him onto the bed. "Stay with me," he mumbles into John's hair and the glass smashes into the basin with the sound of a thousand resolutions breaking.
"God, let go. All right. All right! Let me get my shoes off..."
Despite the unbelievable amount of alcohol Sherlock has consumed, he still smells fresh and clean. How the hell does he do that? John is pretty sure he himself reeks of cheap cigarette smoke and student union beer, but Sherlock still has the faint fragrance of rare flowers - his particular shower gel - and hair product, the hair product which he pretends not to use but John knows better. And his arms are still around John and he is shuffling down the bed so that he can rest his head in John's armpit - surely the least savoury part of John right now - and saying, "John, John," in a sleepy baritone which John cannot resist but absolutely must. "All right, all right," John says, and puts his arms round Sherlock too, and it is so right, to be holding him and comforting him, even though obviously it is completely wrong because John is enjoying it in ways Sherlock cannot comprehend, and because Sherlock is incapable and in the morning will spring up with hisses of outrage at the liberties John has taken.
John heaves a sigh. Sherlock does too and John wants to laugh, and cry. They said they never would but here they are and it only took jelly shots. That is so ridiculous and sad.
John lies with his heart racing and his arms full of drowsy Sherlock and makes a decision. If he is going to be bawled out tomorrow for liberties taken, he may as well take some. He stays still, daring himself to do it, and Sherlock is right, there is something about the psychology of a dare which means that normal considerations (their friendship, their tacit pledge against intimacy, the fact that Sherlock is off his face and John is taking advantage of him) simply do not apply. The challenge has been thrown down: it will be met, or not.
John dithers over emotional choices, but not action ones. And so -
He rubs the back of Sherlock's neck and makes comforting wordless sounds, and lets the silky touch of Sherlock's hair be the only reciprocation he needs. He has him, right here, right now in this moment, his to cherish and scold, and thoughts of the consequences will have to wait. For a time it is just him, and this man, this infuriating and amazing man...
John leaps, but Sherlock's tone is only curious. He cannot have failed to notice the wandering hands. Can it be that he does not mind? "You," says John, and that is all, it sums up everything, especially at midnight in a three-bed room where two people are sharing one tiny mattress.
Sherlock huffs. Not affront. more like - acknowledgement.
He turns his face into John 's bicep and for some reason mumbles, "Ultraviolet," and then his body goes limp. He is asleep, or drunk asleep.
John puts his lips once, silently, against the soft black curls and then closes his eyes too.
Author's note: I can only apologise for how pathetic John is in this story. He's just rather wet. I will attempt to introduce some BAMF but given what I've got to work with, it won't be easy. -Sef
Chapter 10: Rumpled folds
"A blacklight, sir?"
"Yes. Ultraviolet. UV. Blacklight." Sherlock scowls and drums his gloved fingers on the scratched and thinning counter of Camford's only ironmonger's.
"Very good, sir." The man in the brown storesman coat bows and retreats through an arch draped with those strips of coloured plastic which John hasn't seen since 1979.
"Very good, sir?" mutters John. "Who talks like that? Have we stepped back in time?" The shop is crammed with brooms, buckets, packets of nails, tubs of Polyfiller and blister packs of electrical parts which John cannot identify. The mode of shopping is a la 1930s Cotswold village: approach the counter, request what's needed, and allow the man to fetch it for you.
This style naturally suits Sherlock, who believes that all transactions should work that way.
"Trained as a butler," Sherlock says vaguely. "Still wears white gloves when handling silverware. John."
Sounds of rummaging emerge from behind the arch. John pokes at a tin of screwdrivers on the counter. They are labelled by size.
"-Sorry, what?" He turns and finds Sherlock six inches away, projecting irritation.
"I feel stupid about last night," Sherlock says. "I was wrong. I was completely off the mark."
John stares at him. An apology. Sort of. That was the last thing he was expecting. "Um."
John woke that morning, still in darkness, to the rhythm of Sherlock's thumb on the nape of his neck, and Sherlock's even but distinctly wakeful breathing. John lay still and the absent-minded caressing ceased, and John slid out of Sherlock's bed and went to stretch out, cold and uncomfortable, on the bed nearest the window.
Sherlock rose and showered at seven, and drank water as John surfaced to consciousness, and then sat tapping on his phone, finally rattling John's shoulder at around nine thirty to get him to dress and accompany Sherlock into town as soon as humanly possible.
And here they are. John is frankly incredulous that Sherlock would ever apologise for his behaviour. And especially to John. It is an accepted fact of their relationship that Sherlock acts however he pleases, John must not mind, and Sherlock refuses all idea of compromise.
Of course, getting off your face by downing fruit-flavoured shots with the chief suspect in a sinister case, then insisting on lying in bed with your flatmate all but naked - maybe even Sherlock would concede that this behaviour required acknowledgement.
"It happens to the best of us," John says after all these thoughts and more (his own guilty compliance) race across the rumpled folds of his brain.
Sherlock's frown deepens. "Not to me. I should have realised sooner."
He grips John by the shoulders and says earnestly, "Of course the dares aren't handed out personally. It's all online. Compton was laughing at me the whole time, texting on his phone and letting me think I was going to witness a dare at any moment. He was probably facebooking or tweeting those dares as I sat next to him. God, what a fool he must think me. And rightly."
John blinks a few times. "Right. The dares." Of course. Sherlock has not broken form. The supposed foolishness of last night is related to work, not, obviously, to anything personal.
"There's a website. Or a Twitter feed. I just need to find it." Sherlock releases John, shaking his head in frustration and self despair. "God I was being thick."
John says,"If it's Twitter I can probably find it." He sets aside the non-apology, in fact, total non acknowledgement of anything having occurred the night before. That is normal. It is almost comforting. And the silver lining is that if Sherlock thinks nothing of it, then nothing (John's fingers on the soft skin of Sherlock's neck, his arm holding Sherlock in protective intimacy) can have offended Sherlock. So. Status quo maintained. A relief.
Ignoring all such events, past and future, could work well as a Sherlock strategy, in fact.
"Find it how?" demands Sherlock.
John pulls out his phone. "I got Rebecca's number."
"Who? Oh, that person trying to assault you and being rebuffed by your confession of a preference for men." Sherlock says this in the most off hand way imaginable, but John thinks, Aha, so you did hear every word then.
"It struck me after I left that she not only knew about the dares - which she told me - but she was actually doing one as I was talking to her. -Snogging people," he adds to Sherlock's raised eyebrow.
"How revolting," Sherlock says, taking John's phone and typing the number into his own.
"Yes. But I bet she has a Twitter account. And I bet she won't think it weird if I want to know what it is. She was convinced she could pull me, after all. I'll ask." John sends a text.
The curtains part and the ironmonger appears. "We have these, sir," he announces in a lugubrious tone. "Relatively portable, sir."
Sherlock inspects the UV wands and takes one. He lays his debit card on the counter and the ironmonger picks it up.
Sherlock is right, as usual, John thinks as the man places the card into the reader with reverent care. All that is missing are the white gloves. Sherlock smirks and John rolls his eyes.
John's phone buzzes as he and Sherlock leave the shop. "Rebecca."
"And Compton," says Sherlock as his own phone beeps. He reads the message. "How specially unpleasant." A picture message. Compton with his arms around the shoulders of young men and women. One of those in the photo is Sherlock.
John watches Sherlock wrinkle his nose. Sherlock doesn't delete the message though. "Evidence?"
"Possibly. Here's our bus."
"Told you," John says as they sit at the back of a bendy bus for the trip back over the river to Grishsm College. He shows Sherlock his phone. "Rebecca's Twitter account."
Sherlock grabs the phone. "Who does she follow...aha!"
John sees WhosBetterHoosBest in the list of accounts that bex1995 is following. "Jesus. 1995," John exclaims, but Sherlock flicks his fingers impatiently."Ok, why that one?"
"Look at the tweets. They are all challenges."
"Ok. So can we just track down the owner of this account and get them to stop?"
Sherlock is scrolling through pages of dates and triumphant shout-outs on date completion. "Not that simple. Firstly, nothing so far dared has been outright illegal. Perhaps minor trespass. But that's it. And the owner can't easily be held responsible for how readers of his tweets choose to interpret them."
The bus lurches around a corner and John is thrown against Sherlock. Sherlock completely ignores that and continues speaking. "These dares. They are only the start. Testing the waters. Setting the scene. Getting Camford accustomed to outbreaks of mass craziness."
He picks John's hand off his knee as the bus veers again. "There is a big dare coming. And a big crime. And this time, I think people are going to get hurt." He gives John a serious look.
"Time to involve the police?" John suggests.
"Oh god no. Let's get something concrete on him first. I need to catch him in the act, the criminal act, before we even think about allowing the constabulary to go stumbling around this."
John braces himself as the bus crosses the ancient stone bridge and heads for another bend to avoid the modern library block which stands on the other side of the river. But the bus swings right instead of left and it is Sherlock landing against John this time.
"Gerroff, you weigh a ton," John says, levering Sherlock upright again.
"What's the latest dare," Sherlock asks.
"Buying green paint."
"Already? Well, we've still time. I imagine things won't heat up until tonight. I could use some lunch, how about you?" He gives John his sociable smile, a terrifying expression to one who knows that Sherlock eschews all non-expedient facial motion.
"Food? You? You're on a case."
Sherlock laughs, actually laughs. It lasts less than one second but still John is amazed. "I solved the case this morning," Sherlock explains, patting John's thigh reassuringly. "Now we're just tying up loose ends. We can certainly afford to have lunch. -But you're right. First we ought to sweep a certain Ford Popular with this UV lamp."
He grins at John and settles back in the seat for the rest of the ride. And John is so busy piecing together dares, tweets, lamps and cars, that Sherlock has reached up to ding the bell before John notices that until that moment Sherlock has been still holding, actually grasping, John's leg.
Chapter 11: Hoard and horde
It is night, and John is waiting for Sherlock outside the five-storey library block.
Sherlock has been out for much of the day, leaving John to his reflections and his frequent checks of whosbetterhoosbest's Twitter feed. There has been some action on the dare front. Twice John has texted Sherlock asking if a particular dare is The One. Sherlock has not replied directly, only messaging to tell John where to be and when, and what to bring.
"Have you got the paint wipes?" Sherlock asks when he appears.
"Yes. The shop assistant gave me some weird looks." The shop assistant clearly thought John was insane, asking for a very specific thing without knowing what it was for or where it was to be used. Of course John is used to this feeling. People tend to think you are mad if you hang out voluntarily with Sherlock. John is fine with this. He doesn't care what people think of him.
Sherlock glances at John as if to ask if his remark was in any way relevant, and of course it is not. John dumps his bag in a mournful concrete planter and stands, arms folded, on the Library steps.
Sherlock is edgy and nervous. John keeps quiet and lets him get on with it. Sherlock is not a man to interrupt at the best of times. When he is about to bring a case to fruition is the worst moment you could choose to make inane chitchat. So John makes none.
"OK," says Sherlock, stuffing his phone in his jacket pocket. He has abandoned the student costume and now appears as ferociously formal as ever. It is a vast improvement, John thinks. Jeans may show off the legs, but there is no substitute for Sherlock in that coat. "We should start to see some movement now."
Sure enough a low hum resolves into the excited chatter of a large group of students, surging along the street. They congregate all around the library.
John checks the whosbetterhoosbest Twitter feed. Green siege, it cries. The first retweets and replies are coming in. John blinks and looks from his phone to the kids thronging around them.
Yes. Green faces. And hands.
Despite the October chill, some of them are bare chested. Girls have come in bikinis. Their skin is green, a vile bottle-green like the worst school uniform imaginable.
"I was afraid of this," Sherlock mutters. "Be on your guard, John. There may be casualties."
John watches the crowd. He sees Sherlock's point. It is easy to overdo it with body paint. Especially if the paint specified by the dare is a shade of green only available as masonry paint and never designed to be on skin at all. The Goldfinger effect, never mind allergies.
Is this a mass poisoning attempt? If so, John with his bag of commercial wipes will not be able to do much. He has the emergency services on speed dial, as per usual.
"Right," says Sherlock. "I think the building is surrounded. I believe part two is going to go off... About now."
There is a cry from above. Then everyone's phone buzzes. Game of catch, Twitter blurts.
Figures, also green-faced, appear on the floodlit parapet five storeys above. A cheer goes up as everyone watches to see what will be thrown.
"Into the foyer," murmurs Sherlock to John.
They weave through the crowd and into the Library. The night security guard is standing unhappily by the entrance, walkie talkie in hand, looking out at the human moat around his building. "It's usually mostly postgrads at this time of night," he says plaintively. "But look at this lot! A load of them have just gone up to the roof!"
"Never mind the roof," Sherlock tells him. "You have something valuable on the fifth floor, with fancy display cases and climate control."
"The Saxon hoard," the guard confirms automatically. "-You can't go up there out of hours, mate. Locked."
"Not any more," Sherlock says. "I imagine the door has been forced and the display case smashed."
"But it's got security -"
"Yes, yes. But I would check anyway, eh?" He fires the guard a commanding glare.
Sherlock prowls the foyer as the guard disappears into his tiny glass office to look at CCTV cameras. "John. Check the back stairs, would you? We mustn't let Compton get away."
But before John can take the first step, the lift dings, its doors open and Compton is standing there with a satchel slung over his shoulder.
"Well," says Sherlock, darting forward and peering at the bag. "Been shopping?"
Compton's face shows alarm and then he composes himself and calls up an outraged tone. "Hey. That's private property!"
Sherlock smirks nastily. The limp and pliant boy of the party is quite gone, and John sees the sharp, cold blade which is Sherlock's mind. "Yes, but not your private property, is it. -John. Don't touch him!" John halts in the act of taking Compton's arm.
Sherlock blocks Compton's path and John presses Call on his phone. Compton steps side to side but cannot dodge past Sherlock.
John threatens Compton with a glare as Sherlock checks the bag with gloved fingers. He opens it very carefully, using his fingertips only.
"Housebreaking tools," he pronounces. "The Saxon hoard will have been thrown from the roof to one of the darees. We can retrieve it later. Call the police, John."
"Already have," says John, earning a look of simultaneous approval and annoyance.
"Hmm. Excellent. Now, Dr Mears, stand there. Mind my coat, please."
"It's gone," yells the guard, bursting from the office. "The Saxon silver, it's been stolen!"
Sherlock smiles. He likes to be right. "Yes, yes, don't worry, we can find it easily enough. But you might want to ring the Dean."
"I haven't done anything wrong," says Compton. "I could just walk out of here."
"I doubt that," says Sherlock. "Your car can incriminate you in your absence if you try."
Compton blanches. "You're bluffing," he says.
"Am I?" Sherlock smiles. "John, signs of stress."
"Rapid breathing pattern, dilated pupils, pale complexion, perspiration," says John, peering with distaste at Compton.
"Am I exhibiting any of those stress reactions?" asks Sherlock.
Cool, challenging gaze, quirk of a smile, gloved fingers steady and all Sherlock's vivid male energy gathered into a calm centre. "No."
Sherlock's eyes take in John for an extra, unnecessary second. It is so rate and intense that John experiences it as a shot of heat through cheekbones, stomach and down to the soles of his feet. "Then I think it far more likely that you are the one doing the bluffing " Sherlock says to Compton, and the police arrive.
As Sherlock explains that the hoard is gone and that Compton is a suspect, the timbre of noise from outside the Library changes. John's doctor instinct tells him something is wrong and he is at the front door before the first scream rips the night.
He has a sense, in the foyer behind him, of Compton making a break for it and being handcuffed by the police, but John's attention is on a bikini-ed girl lying coughing in the arms of her friends.
John pounds down the Library steps to her.
"She can't breathe!" shrieks the nearest friend, another youngster in a bikini, and John recognises the twins he met at the party. It takes him a moment to sort out that the one in trouble is Rebecca.
John snatches up his bag and pulls out paint wipes. "Clean her up," he instructs the twin, while he checks Rebecca's pulse and listens to her chest. "Allergic reaction," he says. "Someone dial 999. Here." He tosses his phone to another wide-eyed kid and wipes Rebecca's face himself, not with the industrial wipes but with muslin soaked in baby oil.
The paint is thick and clinging and her skin is coated in it. Of course. She is one of Compton's keenest followers, believing herself to be worldly and ironic but actually being used by a manipulative predator.
"Oh my god, oh my god," says the twin, being so useless with the wipes that John gives the task to a nearby boy. At least his obvious interest in Rebecca might encourage him to do a thorough job.
"Get yourself cleaned up," John yells the crowd, as more cries of distress erupt from the mass of green, sticky bodies. John guesses that the paint has a curing time, and the next stage of hardening has just begun.
Rebecca loses consciousness as the first ambulance arrives and her twin has hysterics and faints in sympathy.
John loses track of Sherlock for a while as he works with the ambulance crews to help the stricken kids. By the time the worst cases have been shipped to hospital and the rest sent home to clean up, the Dean has arrived, incongruous in opera dress, and is arguing with Sherlock, the police and Compton in the Library foyer. John wipes his hands and moves to stand beside Sherlock.
Sherlock's explains again, with steely patience, that he has caught Compton with house breaking equipment, attempting to leave the building. The display case has been smashed.
"I have been in the Library working on my research project," Compton tells the detectives who question him. "This man is a prankster and not even a student here!"
"He is here at my invitation," says the tall thin Dean, imposing in black coat, white tie and - really? - monocle. "Mr Holmes, what makes you so sure that Compton has stolen the silver?"
Sherlock smiles, a dangerous smile which John has seen many times. He think it is probably his favourite Sherlock's smile. He could honestly look at this all day, Sherlock doing his thing. "Well," Sherlock says, twiddling with some item in his coat pocket. "Compton is the only one here, us aside, without a green face."
"That doesn't prove anything." Compton appeals to the police, who look suitably confused.
Sherlock continues. "If Compton," spoken with an apparently involuntary lip-curl, "had been spattered with green marker paint from the university's security system, we would see."
"But we don't," begins the security guard.
Sherlock's smile broadens. "No. You don't use a paint spatter system. You use SmartWater. Which is invisible to the eye, but which..."
He whips the UV torch out of his coat and points it at Compton. Compton's face, hands and clothes instantly light up bright green.
"Ah," says the police detective.
"Yes," says Sherlock. "It coats the thief with dye which is only visible under ultraviolet light. Now, you'll probably want to round up the helpers outside and find out which of them is holding a glow-in-the-dark bag of thousand year old coins."
Chapter 12: Dare
"I knew as soon as I saw the upholstery on that Ford Popular," says Sherlock.
It is midnight, and they are back at Baker Street. No more masquerading as students, no more hanging out in the weird world of youthful parties, no more three-bed bedrooms. Sherlock has had a shower and changed into a fresh (identical) suit as if ready to carry on crime solving. John has made a cup of tea and drunk it, plus he has paced up and down a lot, holding his phone and refusing to text his sister a gloating end-of-case message because it would lead to taunts about the other thing.
And because Sherlock emerged from the shower with his hair tousled and still damp, just as it was the night John definitely did not wait up for him, there is a heavy atmosphere of deja vu in the living room, as if, once the post-case exposition is finished, John will fall back into the mire.
Sherlock smirks at John now, waiting for the question. And John asks it. He has to know. And Sherlock has to tell him. That is how this works. It is the one known and certain factor in their friendship.
"The car. Compton's car. What was wrong with it?" John flops in his armchair, exhausted from pacing, and watches with his head flung back on the cushions, as Sherlock darts around the room, expounding.
"Nothing. It was new. All of it. The entire interior had been recently refitted. I noticed that, and then I saw that the steering wheel was still original - and it had a tiny green mark on the rim, on the side facing away from the driver. It was only a speck, but that and the complete refit of the rest of the car - plus the strange, self-decorative nature of the pranks thus far, told me that the aim of this escapade was theft, and bold theft too."
Sherlock reaches the window, spins round, fixes John with a glittering smile, and continues. "That particular shade of green is used in marker paint - the stuff still used by some banks and other secure places to spatter any would-be thieves with a dye which won't wash off. It's an old technology but pretty effective if the thief tries to open a box he has stolen earlier...say, in his car."
"Ah," says John as lightbulbs go on.
Sherlock flicks his eyebrows at John. "Yes. That immediately told me that Compton Mears had already been involved in a theft, or an attempted one, and come off the worse for it. He must have hidden himself away for a long time while his skin and clothes got clean - say, the student summer holiday - and then got his car redone. But the fitters didn't spot the mark on the steering wheel. I only saw it because I was practically pinned against a wall staring in at the driver." He pauses but John only narrows his eyes at the mention of the incident. Sherlock goes on, "That, plus the dares involving dye and hurling coins off roofs, told me everything I needed to know."
Sherlock twirls again and faces John in triumph, flipping the blacklight over and over in his right hand.
"Hang on," says John. "It didn't tell you what was going to be stolen -?"
Sherlock nods. "Before we went down there I did a bit of research on Camford, its staff and its assets."
Of course he did. The magic of Google, once again. And yet it was not so much what he did, as the fact that he thought to do it. Sherlock is not supernatural. He just thinks harder than most people. John smiles at him and sees Sherlock falter a little. Hah. This thing is not one-way.
Good. That's good. John turns the smile up a notch and then stops. Easy to overdo it.
Sherlock frowns uncertainly and goes on. "Camford's Dean was in the news earlier this year, taking delivery of a rare Anglo Saxon hoard of silver coins and necklets, to become part of the University's historical research collection. And the lecturer with special interest in Anglo Saxon artefacts is..."
"Right. And wrong. He has that period as his special subject. You probably saw his thesis on the use of precious metals as symbols of status and the sacred when you were in the Library."
"Mmmn." Of course. Between fighting with the ID card system and marvelling at what no doubt passes for casualwear in the undergraduate sphere.
Sherlock says, "But Compton didn't get the job. It was given to a visiting professor from Germany."
"More than sour. I looked into his personal history. He has a reputation for cut-throat competition to get the juiciest research scholarships and the cushiest teaching posts. There have been fisticuffs over it, even as a postgrad. Compton regarded Camford's snub of his application for the Anglo Saxon job as the final straw."
John nods. Embittered bloke looking at mediocre middle-age while bright young things come up through the ranks and overtake you. John gets it. "Wait though. How did you connect Compton and the online dares?"
Sherlock snorts. "The idiotic Twitter account name. Whosbetterhoosbest. Sutton Hoo was a famous Saxon burial site, excavated in the Seventies. Compton could not resist the in-joke."
"God, academics. Hilarious. So he decided to take the hoard, ruin the other guy's research project, and...wreck Camford's reputation at the same time." John shakes his head.
Sherlock waves the blacklight disdainfully. "Universities do not have a great track record in caring for precious artefacts. Durham especially seems to leave Shakespeare folios and Chinese treasures lying around on a regular basis for the casual thief to snaffle. To lose the Anglo Saxon hoard would damage Camford's ability to attract research funding, probably for years."
"But what about Compton?" John asks. "So he walks away and isn't noticed escaping...then what?"
Sherlock chuckles. "That was his mistake. He thought he would be joining a horde, pun intended, of others with green faces, like the one he suffered during his earlier attempt. But once again he came unstuck, because he didn't do his research."
"It justifies the university's decision not to give him that post, certainly. Camford doesn't use the old style paint-spatter method in its secure display cases. It uses SmartWater."
"I googled that." Yup, Sherlock is not the only one with a phone and fingers. "It's a mist. Transparent. Sometimes the thieves don't even know they've been sprayed."
"Exactly. A vast improvement. So Compton stood out because he was there and not green. It made him easy to spot." Sherlock's smugness is unconcealed. Why would he need to hide it, from John? He knows John will admire the work and get the jokes. -Sherlock only makes jokes to John.
John nods. "And the coins - thrown off the roof."
"Yes. The earlier dare tested to perfection the places where contraband might land...Compton planned to pick up his booty and join the phalanx of green-faced people." Sherlock rolls his eyes. "He put such a lot of effort into creating the culture of dares, but failed to spot the giant flaws in his actual crime. First, it would leave him covered in the wrong sort of dye. And second, it would endanger a large number of suggestible young people, raising his crime from one against property to something far more serious."
John ponders this. Rebecca is recovering in hospital and developing severe hero-worship for John, which John will be quashing as soon as she is safe and well. The other victims suffered minor allergic reactions and some distress at trying to get the paint off. Lectures will be literally colourful for the next few days."The treasure. Is it ruined?"
Sherlock shrugs. "Nail varnish remover and bleach should fix it. Two teenage girls literally laundered a load of stolen cash with that method in Liverpool last year."
"You've thought of everything," John says admiringly.
"Which is more than Compton did," Sherlock says, and chuckles.
At last Sherlock is still and silent, his story complete. John gets up and flips the kettle on again. He wonders how long it will be before the closeness between him and Sherlock fades, before the heady excitement of an adventure dissipates and leaves Sherlock moody and remote, and John lonely, wishing for something they agreed would not happen.
He stands watching the kettle bubble and hiss, and remembers his decision to say something to Sherlock once the case was over.
It is over now.
He glances across at Sherlock, who is hovering by the window, flicking at the sheets on his music stand and ignoring John. His hair is still gathered about his face in wet curls, as if he has been out in the rain.
John frowns. There was never any explanation for the late-night stroll. Just Sherlock appearing, soaked, with water trailing off him like tears, like sadness made liquid. And Sherlock being vicious to John.
John was pretty cold in return. They just bashed each other with harmless banter which wasn't, until the case came along to unite them.
Then the student party. Sherlock's drunk act, perfectly performed, Sherlock having effortlessly identified a persona which would appeal to the manipulative Compton. Sherlock never acts like that around John - all smiley and soppy. It is a compliment, John realises, about a day and a lifetime too late. Sherlock does not patronize John, although god knows he could justify it half the time.
Then afterwards - the drunk not-act. The clinging and dragging John into bed. Natural excess-of-alcohol reaction. Except that the affection, the tentative caress on the nape of John's neck, was next day, when the worst of the vodka jelly had worn off.
John stands with his hand on the cool metal tea-caddy and experiences a moment of realisation. This whole sniping and nastiness thing. This constant putting John on the back foot, setting off his defensiveness. It is not meanness at all. Sherlock is not cold, or unaffectionate. He is just nervous. He is as hesitant as John of breaking the rule they first set themselves.
But John knows a way to crack open inner defences. And for this one discovery, he has the Camford adventure to thank.
He shoves aside the tea caddy and goes across the living room to where Sherlock is, now, standing at the table, turning the pages of yesterday's newspaper, drawing each page up and letting its own weight tip the balance until the sheet collapses onto the opposite side.
John stands in front of him. Sherlock's spiced-citrus aftershave tingles in John's nostrils. "Sherlock."
Sherlock lifts his head. There is the start of petulant defiance in his face.
John stops that with his right hand firm on Sherlock's left shoulder.
Sherlock's eyes widen.
"I dare you," says John, and his other hand creeps across the gap between them and slips into Sherlock's.
"You don't need to dare me," says Sherlock at once.
Has he only been waiting for this? His fingers are warm in between John's.
"Well, I can't rely on jelly shots," says John. "Your liver wouldn't take it and I am too old to babysit a drunk. I dare you."
Sherlock narrows his eyes. John sees that he is breathing through his mouth. "You haven't said what."
John shrugs. "I'm not a control freak. You choose."
There is a moment there, a potential escape, a get-out clause where Sherlock could deliberately misunderstand John and choose a dare about tattoos, or hair dye, or anything except their true challenge.
The moment passes, and Sherlock's palm is firm and sure against John's own, and John breathes again.
Sherlock nods with just eyelashes, and says, "I choose this." He lifts his left hand, languorous like opening a broadsheet to a new page, and rests his thumb on the back of John's neck. He keeps eye contact with John and just lets his thumb be there while his grip on John's hand tightens into certainty.
John tilts his head, leans across and brushes Sherlock's cheek with his lips. "OK. You win."
"Yes," Sherlock says, blinking at the kiss.
"Or I do," John says, and jumps as Sherlock places a lightning kiss on his mouth and whips back again.
They stare at each other, everything acknowledged, nothing yet said or done. But it will be.
And then it is too intense, and neither of them are any good with strong emotion, so John walks away with careful nonchalance and puts the kettle back on, and Sherlock opens his laptop and pokes at it, scowling.
Not tonight. But soon. Something simple and easy will happen between them, an expression of love, a hope for their future. Their friendship, and this change to it, will still be complex and hard and impossible to define to other people. And Sherlock, too, he is not an easy person to love, plus John knows he himself has plenty of faults. There will be affection and passion and fights and sulks and eventual reconciliations for the sake of cases. But for the moment, a longstanding puzzle has been worked out, and all the parts are in place.
John picks up his phone.
"I dare you," commands Sherlock's voice from the sofa end of the dim living room. "And then come over here."
"All right." John types rapidly. You win Sis. It Happened. No details. J x
He presses Send and switches off the phone before the text squeals can begin. And then he turns his back on the kettle and walks into the living room.
Author's Note: This story was a little different to my others. It was my attempt to write a Conan-Doyle-shaped mystery, in which Homes has all the answers and Watson comes along for the ride. Let me know if you think I pulled it off!
The university thefts are based on true events - really do not leave your precious stuff at Durham or any uni in the north-east. Similarly two teenage girls were recently prosecuted in Liverpool for washing a load of stolen notes with nail varnish remover. And finally, a thief was caught this year covered in SmartWater spray after a robbery. He was unaware he had been sprayed with the mist, but he lit up bright green under UV light. Google any of the above for more details! Sutton Hoo was a famous archaeological discovery when I was a kid.
This is the end of my year of writing fanfiction, though I am sure I will return. I don't think I will be able to resist! But I have original fic projects to pursue now so will not have as much time. I will still take requests though so let me know if there is anything you would like to see. And thanks for all the reviews and all the support. -Sef