John hissed between gritted teeth as he tightened the bandage around his hand. Just a couple of scrapes and sore bones, no big deal. But the adrenaline pumping through his body was more than enough compensation for the pain.
A thump made him turn around. He hadn't heard Sherlock come up the stairs. Leaning in the doorway, Sherlock looked John over, observed the facts, and drew his conclusions. Did he suspect what John was up to? John didn't know. He hadn't told Sherlock anything about his new hobby. He couldn't say exactly why. Maybe because Sherlock wouldn't understand. Because he'd say it was ridiculous, that it didn't make any sense. And he would be right.
But none of that made any difference. John couldn't resist the high. He'd known from the start that he wouldn't be able to hide the marks, that questions would be asked, but that didn't matter. He didn't owe anyone an explanation. He turned to Sherlock and looked at him, questioning. If he wanted information, he should ask for it, not expect John to spit it out on his own.
"You've changed," Sherlock remarked, crossing his arms over his chest.
A faint smirk played at the edges of John's mouth. He had changed, it was true. Over the past few weeks, his body had undergone a minor transformation. His posture was more erect, more self-assured. His muscles were starting to become defined beneath his clothes. It was obvious he was working out, and he wasn't trying to hide it. But the reason for the workouts... that was what he wasn't telling Sherlock.
"The gym's good for me, I think," he responded. Except it was no normal gym. Of course there were a few pieces of equipment at Smax to work out on, but the fitness studio had an entirely different purpose. Men and women met up there several times a week to test their hand-to-hand combat skills against each other. There was a wide variety of professions represented amongst the members. From uni students to solicitors and everything in between. Some dubious characters showed up from time to time, but it wasn't easy to tell them apart from the others. It didn't matter anyway: everyone was the same there in the smelly, sweaty hall.
John wasn't the only ex-military member to get his kicks there. Bridget had served in the Royal Marines and been released from service after she'd been badly injured in the line of duty. She and John quickly connected due to their similar histories. They exchanged stories, talked about losing buddies, and the nightmares they were both still plagued by from time to time. Bridget was a good sparring partner, and they sometimes went out for coffee after a good match.
But Bridget hadn't shown up this week. Since John hadn't made any other contacts amongst the other members, he was training alone, watching the other fighters in order to determine who would be suited as a sparring partner. He wasn't sure yet. Maybe someone would approach him at some point.
He gave Sherlock an innocent smile and stretched the fingers of his bandaged hand. It would be back to normal in a couple of days.
"Do you also want tea?" John asked and walked past Sherlock down the stairs.
Three days later, on Friday, John shouldered his duffel bag and went down to the living room. Sherlock lay on the sofa, his hands folded over his chest and his eyes closed. He was clearly deep in thought.
"I'm off to the gym," John said shortly, clearing his throat. Since Sherlock didn't react, he turned around and left. It wasn't unusual for Sherlock not to notice whether John came or left, especially when he was working on a case or lost in the depths of his mind palace. John was usually of little interest to Sherlock in those moments anyway, leaving him free to busy himself with other things without his flatmate missing him.
John hailed a taxi and had the driver bring him to the Port of London. Smax had set up shop in an out-of-the-way warehouse. A small plaque at the entrance was the only indication of the name. The fact that such a facility existed was mainly passed around by word of mouth. There was no publicity or internet presence.
Along with two boxing rings, there was a separate area with boxing bags, one with dumbbells and weights, and a couple of rowing machines. All of the equipment was paid for and maintained by the members. John went to the changing rooms, which were next to a storage room. Men and women shared the locker room and showers without any problems. Mutual respect was a top priority and the gym's most important unwritten rule.
John set down his bag on the floor in the back part of the changing room and opened an empty locker, hung up his jacket, and started to change. His hand was more or less all better; all that was left was a scab on his knuckles, which he viewed with more pride than having it bother him. He pulled on his knee-length grey shorts and his well-loved, threadbare college t-shirt, slipped into his trainers, and finally went back into the main hall.
A couple of skipping ropes were lying around by the dumbbells, so he took one to warm up. While he counted jumps in his head, he let his gaze wander across the others he could see in the mirror. Matt, known as a primary school teacher, was lifting weights nearby and followed his line of sight.
"Look at that, John, we have a new member," he said, nodding at the ring.
John did as he was bid without pausing in his activity, and saw a man in black tracksuit bottoms and a tank top with his back turned to them. He wore red sparring headgear and matching gloves. He was of medium height with relatively broad shoulders, and it was obvious that he worked out regularly. He nervously shifted his weight back and forth from one leg to the other.
John had a clear memory of his first match. He'd been nervous too, hadn't known what to expect. Of course he'd watched a couple of other fights beforehand, but it was completely different to stand in the ring himself and prepare to slug it out. Taking hits had been relatively easy, on the other hand. The whole thing had taken him back to his days in the military, where they'd often had training fights. He'd always felt wonderfully free afterwards.
The new fellow was fighting against one of the solicitors. It was immediately obvious that this wasn't his first fistfight. He danced around his opponent with clever footwork, swerved sideways to avoid the first few test punches, and slowly inched his way forward. The solicitor used the opportunity to follow up with a right hook, but the new man was able to deflect him, countering with a left. Hit by the unexpected force, the solicitor staggered back and crouched down, one leg extended behind him so as not to lose his balance. Then the new man made a classic error. He had underestimated the force of his own blow and was now concerned that he might have injured his opponent. He bent over him apologetically, only to feel the solicitor's knee in his gut a moment later. He fell to the floor, gasping and holding his smarting abdomen.
John had to grin.
The members of Smax were used to taking quite a lot, and wouldn't have been upset by a punch like that – even though it had been remarkably powerful. But they'd all had to learn not to get slowed by their own control mechanisms, because the opponent would leap on a weakness like that and turn it to his or her advantage. The new man was panting when he took the solicitor's proffered hand and let himself be helped to his feet. They shook hands and clapped each other on the shoulders. Then he took off the headgear and ran a hand through his silver hair.
John gaped and forgot all about his skipping rope. He knew that man. Not well, to be sure, but they ran into each other frequently, more or less worked together, even if Sherlock was always the link between them. Detective Inspector Gregory Lestrade of Scotland Yard had come down to mix with the members of Smax, and to judge by the look on his face, he'd just found himself a new hobby. John let the skipping rope drop to the ground and went over to the ring.
"Lestrade," he said, raising his hand in greeting. Greg turned to the ex-soldier, his surprise giving way to a friendly smile.
"Watson, what are you doing here?" he asked and climbed out of the ring.
"The same as you, I assume. Who brought you in?"
Greg pointed to two men talking next to the ring. John knew that one of them was a police officer, but he'd never seen him at the Yard.
"Work buddies. More or less. Different division, but we sometimes meet up for a pint," Greg explained, giving John an assessing look. "How long have you been doing this?"
John shrugged. "Maybe a couple of weeks. It all reminds me a little of the military. I used to do stuff like this fairly often and I'm just glad to have found these guys here. How about you?"
Greg scratched the back of his head and searched for words, apparently embarrassed. "Well... I don't know how to say this without it sounding negative... As a D.I. I don't see as much action as I used to, which should be a good thing. I used to get into quite a few scuff-ups, but that's changed as my career has progressed. As a police officer, you usually need to try to avoid situations like that, or rather, it can make for a lot of trouble if you injure a civilian. Not that I'm planning to injure anyone," he rushed to clarify, raising his hands in a defensive gesture.
"I get it. Just letting loose, working off steam, and if you find yourself a worthy opponent in the ring... I reckon lots of us feel that way. In that case..." He reached for Greg's hand and gave it a squeeze. "Welcome!"
John turned away and went back to his skipping rope. After he'd warmed up sufficiently, he went over to Matt, who didn't have a practise partner at the moment, and asked him for a match. They'd never matched up against each other before, and John felt the buzz of a slight case of nerves. A new opponent was always a special kind of thrill, since you never knew what to prepare for, where his or her strengths and weaknesses lay, and which moves you needed to watch out for.
They entered the ring and John pulled on the headgear, adjusted his gloves, and rolled his neck a few times to stretch. Matt was half a head taller than he was and at least fifteen kilos heavier. A well placed blow could easily put John out of commission. But John knew his strengths; he was light on his feet and skilled at quickly identifying his opponents' weaknesses. He therefore noticed right away that Matt's balance leaned heavily toward the right, and his left foot always dragged a little behind. It was a simple matter to concentrate on his left side and eventually lead him into attempting a kick with his left leg. As expected, the force was negligible, and John easily blocked the attack, let Matt's ankle slip up under his armpit, and pushed his knee away where it hung suspended in the air, such that the other man lost his balance and fell to the floor. Still holding firmly onto Matt's leg, John landed a targeted blow to his head. The round went to him. He helped Matt up, then they separated and started the next round.
This time, Matt was more careful, dancing around John and trying to pinpoint his weak spot. He kept his left side protected and dished out a few quick, pointed jabs. John was able to avoid the first one, but he was pushed into the defensive more and more, until eventually one punch landed and hit him in the left shoulder. Pain seared through him, a lingering hum in his old war injury. Knocked off balance, he was no longer able to prevent Matt from putting him in a headlock. With remarkable presence of mind, John wrapped his arms around the other man's hips and rolled backwards, heaving Matt over him and coming back up onto his knees. Another well placed blow decided this round for John as well.
Breathing hard, he got to his feet and took off the protective headgear. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Greg, who had been watching the match and now whistled approvingly. John had to grin. He tossed the helmet to Greg and slipped out through the ropes.
"I've still got it," he preened proudly, loosening his gloves.
"I can see that! I have to admit I didn't expect it of you, Watson. You always make such a peaceable impression when I see you together with Sherlock."
"Maybe we should dispense with the formalities. Everyone's on a first-name basis here, and it seems weird for us to call each other by our last names. John," John said, reaching a hand out to the Detective Inspector.
"Greg," he replied with a friendly smile. "Do you want to maybe go grab a pint afterwards? It seems I got the wrong impression of you, and I'd like to update it."
John agreed. Once they'd changed and showered, they went to a pub not far from Smax. They ordered pints at the bar, then sat down at a table in order not to be in the middle of the press of other guests. Curious, John examined the Detective Inspector's face as he took a sip of his beer.
"What is it?" Greg asked, digging into the bowl of peanuts that stood on the table.
"How do you feel after your first match?"
"Good! I mean... you know, I've learned my lesson. I won't hold back next time. But I'll probably be stiff in the morning," he said, rubbing his shoulder demonstratively. "I could really go for a nice massage right now! But no one's waiting for me at home who'd want to do that."
John didn't miss the teasing undertone in Greg's voice. He cleared his throat loudly and drew his eyebrows together. "Me either," he said firmly, giving Greg a slightly irritated glare.
"I'm not gay, Greg," John cut him off.
"But Sherlock..." Greg said again, this time not as a question but as a statement. John shook his head wearily and drank some more of his beer. Several moments passed before he returned his attention to the other man. "I don't know if Sherlock's gay or straight or anything else. And I don't care. We're friends – no more and no less. But mainly, I'm – not – gay."
Silence fell. Greg leaned back in his chair and let his eyes roam through the pub. He'd clearly gone too far. He hadn't intended to insult John at all. The fact that pretty much everyone assumed the ex-soldier was in a relationship with Sherlock must annoy him awfully. Maybe it wasn't possible to accept such a close relationship between two men these days without turning it into a romance. Greg had to admit it was hard for him as well, especially since he wasn't so sure whether both of the men saw things quite so platonically...
John looked over at him after a few minutes. "So you think Sherlock really is... gay?" he asked, unable to suppress the uncertainty in his voice.
"Well..." Greg began, leaning on his forearms. "I know him pretty well... known him over five years now. I've only seen him in something like a romantic situation with another person once in all that time. That was way back at the beginning. I was getting on his case because he kept backsliding into the whole drugs thing. I couldn't get him out. It was probably all down to this fellow... what was his name again... V... Vincent, no, Victor. Victor Trevor."
Greg took a sip of his beer while John watched him attentively. He didn't know much about Sherlock's past, since Sherlock didn't talk about it. When they'd met, John had asked whether he had a girlfriend, but he denied it with the remark that it wasn't his area. The follow-up question as to whether he had a boyfriend had been answered with a simple no, and with that, the entire topic had been closed and never touched on again. The conclusion that Sherlock was gay was a rather obvious leap to make, but John hadn't wanted to think about it any further. At the same time, Mrs Hudson's constant comments about their relationship would support the notion. The likelihood that she had witnessed some aspect of Sherlock's love life was rather large. And the fact that his new flatmate might also be gay was certainly within the realm of possibility. John sighed.
"Not that I ever caught them in the act or anything... they were just kissing. But... it was pretty hot," Greg confessed, taking another sip of his beer. John was just barely able to refrain from spitting his drink out all over the table and ended up swallowing the wrong way. He coughed and glanced up at the other man. Greg grinned at him knowingly.
"I thought you were married? I mean to a woman..."
"I was. Not that that means anything. I'm bi, always have been and probably always will be," Greg replied with a shrug. "Is that a problem for you?"
"No..." John's answer didn't sound very convincing, but he did mean it. He didn't honestly care who amongst his acquaintances was straight, bi, or gay; it just bothered him when people assumed things about him that weren't true.
"I'll get us another couple of pints," Greg offered and stood up. John watched him go, his brow creasing in thought. So Sherlock really was gay. Not that it surprised him. It was more the fact that John couldn't imagine him in a relationship. On the other hand, he'd obviously been single for quite a while now, and might be very happy that way.
Why am I even thinking about this? It's none of my business! John thought, and continued with his observations. Without even really intending to, he started to imagine Greg with another man at his side, but the image didn't want to fit into his head. Enough! This was far too much useless wool-gathering for what was intended to be a relaxing night out. He firmly swept all such thoughts under the rug and reached for the second pint that Greg handed him.
Next morning, John woke with a headache. He grudgingly turned onto his side, away from the sunlight streaming into the room through the window, and hid his face under the cover, moaning. He'd had at least two pints too many last night. After they'd finally put the topic of sexual orientation behind them, they'd talked about all sorts of things and John had had a good time. Greg had talked about his marriage, about how his wife had become more and more unhappy the further he climbed the career ladder and consequently had less time for her. And whenever they did see each other, they'd done nothing but fight and vent their frustrations until she'd decided to try to find what she was missing with another man and had an affair. Greg had never forgiven her for that.
Ever since the divorce, he'd thrown himself even harder into his work and basically had no more free time between his bed and his desk. That was another reason he'd been so happy to accept the invitation from his co-worker to join him at Smax. John was fine with it too, given that the Detective Inspector made such a good impression on him. He didn't have many friends at the moment, come to that. It would be good for him to spend time with someone who wasn't named Sherlock and didn't drive him up the wall.
After he'd shaved and showered, John went down to the kitchen, put the kettle on the stove, and dropped a headache tablet into a glass of water. As he drained the glass, he watched Sherlock, who was using a pipette to drip a pink liquid into a Petri dish. The strip of white paper lying in the dish turned green when it came into contact with the liquid. John didn't want to ask what Sherlock was determining the pH value of, or whether he was doing something else altogether. His head still hurt like the dickens, and he wanted to spare himself his flatmate's snarky retort. He took a slice of toast and put a generous spoonful of strawberry jam on it, spread it around, and licked off the rest before he dropped the spoon into the sink. With his tea in one hand and the toast in his mouth, he went into the living room and sat down in front of the television to watch the news.
"You shouldn't drink so much, John," Sherlock said eventually without looking up.
"What's 'much'..." John muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose. The headache was horrible, but he wasn't in the mood to agree with Sherlock.
"Too much. Enough that you need to be brought home and can't remember anything next morning."
"Who says I don't remember?" John asked in a derogatory tone. He didn't feel like confirming Sherlock's assumption this time either, even though no matter how hard he tried, he had no recollection of how he'd got home the night before.
Sherlock set aside his pipette, took some tea for himself and came into the living room. He drank a sip and gave John a searching look.
"So you do remember then? That Greg brought you home?"
John regarded him silently. He presumed Greg had made sure the ex-soldier had found his way home despite his drunken state. Greg seemed to be able to handle more when it came to alcohol, and as a well-meaning, all-round good guy, it would be in his nature to make sure that his new buddy got where he was going safely.
An undefined smile slipped onto Sherlock's face and he turned away to return to his experiment in the kitchen. "You don't remember..." he sing-songed, giggling darkly.
John stood up, annoyed, and stalked after him. "Tell me – what terrible thing am I supposed to have done? Spit it out so you can rub my nose in it already then," he demanded, his arms crossed over his chest.
Sherlock picked up a pair of tweezers and held the piece of coloured paper up to the light. "It's none of my business," he replied after a few seconds. Without changing his position, he let his gaze slide over to John, who was stubbornly awaiting a more adequate answer.
"Has it been going on long?" Sherlock asked instead.
John returned his gaze, irritated. "What?"
"I must admit, I had no idea. Didn't see it on you. Especially as you continued to maintain your facade. Including around me." A flash of disappointment was audible in Sherlock's voice, but John had no idea what to make of it. In the meantime, his headache was now concentrated in his right temple, as if it were trying to drill a hole in his skull.
"Could you please just tell me what you're talking about? My head is about to split and I have exactly no interest in playing guessing games. You're right, I don't remember anything, drank too much, shouldn't have done it, yadda yadda. Help me out here, yeah?" John asked, aggravated, and used his fingertips to massage the spot where the pain lurked.
Sherlock gave him an amused look, a winning smile on his face. "I'm talking about you and Graham."
"Graham?" John wasn't following him. Who was Graham and what had been going on for a long time? The pain was horrendous.
Sherlock tapped his index finger against his chin thoughtfully. "Gavin?" he asked, but John still didn't seem to have made the connection. He sighed with exasperation. "Lestrade!" he blurted out impatiently.
John, who had been trying to control the rising vertigo by squeezing his eyes shut and scrunching up his forehead, grunted darkly. "His name's Greg."
"And how long have the two of you been together?" Sherlock finally asked straight out.
"What kind of bloody... ow..."
"The way you were pawing each other last night... don't tell me that was the first time?"
John froze. Had he heard that correctly? Greg and he... last night... drunk... pawing... each other?!