"Mycroft spent £3478 on prostitutes over the last month," Sherlock said. "And fourpence. Why fourpence, do you suppose? Can hardly be VAT. Oh. Obvious." There came the sound of tapping on a keyboard. "Tripartite summit in Dublin last week. Eurozone. Currency conversion."
John contemplated life from behind the mercifully ample pages of the Observer. Clearly he was in for a Sherlock conversation. He could not, if asked, have defined how "a Sherlock conversation" differed from "a conversation with Sherlock", but he knew the difference between the two was as wide as the gap which supposedly yawned between genius and madness. He could tell the difference between those, too. At least when the wind was southerly.
"Poor sods," he said. "Hope they got danger money."
He did not lower the paper but got the impression of wide, pale eyes burning through it. He supposed he ought to add some line of explanation, but the only thing which sprang to mind – I would as soon fuck depleted uranium as your brother – seemed a) impolite (even given what he surmised about the relationship between Sherlock and Mycroft); and b) all too revealing about whether he regarded maleness or Holmesness as inherent disqualifications in a bed companion.
Of course, it was always possible that Sherlock was simply looking for congratulations on the brilliance of his deductive reasoning.
If committed to a Sherlock conversation, John had discovered by experience, the safest thing to do was try to unravel the initial chain of logic. So. Finance. Mycroft Holmes. Sex.
Well, at least part of that was obvious. No-one in their senses would go to bed with that reptilian control freak without a substantial incentive in folding money.
No. Not folding. Mycroft's disdain for anyone outside his own charmed circle (consisting of him, not-Anthea and a driver, so far as John could tell) would hardly allow him to use actual money. Not when so many of the great unwashed might have touched it in passing.
Not credit cards, either. Too large a footprint.
"Do they do platinum pre-payment cards?" he asked.
From behind the newspaper barrier he heard a quick, harsh exhalation. Possibly amusement. Possibly commendation. Possibly.
"Matt black, in this case. So much less vulgar. So very much less vulgar."
That didn't sound right. Sherlock conversations shaded exquisitely through obfuscation, exasperation, frustration, contempt and arrogant dismissal. Bewilderment, hurt, anger had no place there. And yet, from the break in Sherlock's voice one might think – almost –
He lowered his newspaper. Across the breakfast table Sherlock regarded him intensely, his skin paler than ever, grey-green, like a drowned corpse.
"Sorry, but is this just salacious gossip, or is it a case?"
John made his voice exaggeratedly patient. "Are the sleazy and, frankly, extortionately expensive ways in which your brother chooses to get his end away something you're interested in because you're a consulting detective and Mycroft is being blackmailed, or because I'm a doctor and this is an oblique way of approaching the question of his tight foreskin, burning sensation when passing water and foul smelling discharges from his nob end? Or is it just a Machiavellian way of making me lose my appetite altogether, so you can sneak the last bacon rasher?"
"So the idea does nauseate you, too?"
That line could only have come from a Sherlock conversation. John coughed.
"Well, um, metaphorically. In practice – well, I think you've forgotten the Army doctor bit of my CV. I mean – large numbers of blokes in their teens and early twenties – constant boredom – constant danger – well, put it this way. Once you've had a patient who's tried to use a live hand-grenade as a sex toy, you end up being pretty thick-skinned about human sexual variation."
"A live hand-grenade? How was there enough of him left to – "
Worryingly, Sherlock's face had lost its corpse-like-pallor, become almost indecently pink and animated at contemplating the minutiae of violent death and destruction. As opposed to sex.
"Dud grenade. Dud batch. Last I heard, the MoD was still exchanging frigid emails with Royal Ordnance about it." John thought for a second. "Christ alone knows what would have happened if the lads had found themselves stuck with them in the field. His unit were all set up to recommend him for a medal. Taken one for the team, and all that. Saved a ton of lives."
"What did happen to him? A dishonourable discharge?"
Sherlock's voice curled around the words, as if they were stinging his tongue, as if his vocal cords recoiled from that too-obvious pun. John shrugged.
"Oh, no. Discharging a man from the Army in Afghanistan for suicidal stupidity takes a very special catch. No. I patched him up and he went back to active service. He got his medal in the end. Posthumously. For covering the escape of a convoy of the wounded from a roadside ambush. And for pulling a wounded officer to safety under intense enemy fire at the cost of his own life. The citation mentioned that, in particular."
"Who was that officer?" Sherlock's voice sounded very quiet, as if he already knew the answer. Which, being Sherlock, he almost certainly did.
John topped up his mug from the insulated coffee pot Sarah had bought them, folded the Observer and decamped to the armchair.
"Look, if you've got a problem with Mycroft, take it up with him. Or tell Anthea if you think he's being ripped off. Bet she vets them all. Gives them little questionnaires. 'Are you, or have you ever been, afflicted with any of the following STIs? How would you describe your political views? Anarcho-syndicalist, Bakuninite anarchist, Marxist-Leninist –' But why now? Why me?"
Sherlock's head swivelled towards him and he knew, without any possible shadow of doubt, that he was about to be given what many men ask for and what no man really wants.
An honest answer on a question of relationships.
"I thought he'd just done it to prove a point. To underline an inadequacy. I never thought it was something he actually did. When there wasn't a point to prove."
"Never thought what was what he did? Or didn't?"
Sherlock rose from the table and flumped dramatically down on the sofa.
"Gentlemen's clubs. Very St James's. Very quiet. Very discreet. No-one dreams of saying anything. Payment taken – that will do nicely, sir – on matt black plastic cards. There's a patented algorithm invented by Goldman Sachs for blind trades. They use it to make sure the payments can't be traced. He took me. Mycroft. When I was seventeen."
John tried to parse that, came up wanting.
"To – to a –"
"To a brothel, yes." Sherlock's voice sounded brittle and fragile as a brandy-snap.
Mycroft took Sherlock to a brothel. North of Pall Mall, South of Piccadilly. When he was seventeen.
Mycroft took Sherlock to a brothel.
John rose, selected the magazine from the bits of newspaper left on the table, and flopped down on the rug within easy reach of Sherlock's hand, which swung below the level of the sofa, almost as if disconnected from the rest of his body.
"Did he explain why?" Belatedly, he added, "Apart from the obvious, I mean." Long experience with Sherlock conversations had taught him that allowing any opening for literalism was a supremely bad idea.
"Rite of passage. I gather he thought since I was showing no signs of doing anything on that front for myself, it was his brotherly duty to organise something."
John felt a sharp stab of pain, as if he had bitten down on an abscessed tooth. He was back in an echoing, hostile space, facing down a man leaning on an umbrella furled with indecent tightness, who spoke with the accents of unquestioned privilege and thought he was for sale.
He drew a deep breath. "How incredibly Victorian that sounds. Like a father taking the son of the house to Paris. As a matter of fact, when I passed my first set of medical exams, Harry sprung for a long weekend for the two of us in Paris. She dared me to go round a museum they'd made of one of the old maisons closes, the old state brothels. Of course, I'd underestimated Harry. Turned out she was seeing a showgirl from one of the burlesque houses near the Pigalle. She asked the tour guide questions I couldn't even understand in English, let alone French. We ended up in the street outside, pronto." He smiled. "Still, good story to dine out on. Nothing fixes a man's reputation when he comes to join the Army like being able to drop into casual conversation, 'Reminds me of when I got chucked out of a Montmartre whorehouse because my sister was too lewd.'"
A harsh laugh, almost above his left ear. No real humour in it, though. He reached, almost absentmindedly, to take Sherlock's dangling hand in his.
"Anyway. Enough of my embarrassing sibling brothel stories. Tell me yours."
Sherlock's long fingers tightened in his grasp. "I don't remember most of it. I don't even remember if I – Probably not, on balance."
"You – ah – opted for Dutch courage and overdid it?" John hazarded.
Sherlock's free hand described a semi-circular pattern in the air. It was not difficult to decode.
Right idea, wrong substance.
"It was all unspeakably ghastly. Especially when I couldn't take any more, and made a bolt for it. Got completely disoriented in the corridors upstairs." He sounded affronted at the idea of his sense of direction deserting him, even under extreme conditions. "I wrenched open one door I hoped was an emergency exit and walked in on two boys in sailor suits, a politician and a trained cormorant."
John knew he shouldn't, but – "Which politician?"
Sherlock told him.
"Good grief. What happened?"
"A lot of yelling. So I grabbed the cormorant –"
"Er – why, precisely?"
"It looked miserable," Sherlock said simply.
John nodded. He stroked the smooth skin of Sherlock's inner wrist with the ball of his thumb; small, sweeping movements, like someone calming a startled animal.
"Eventually I found my way out onto the street and just started to walk. When dawn came up, I found myself in Greenwich, sitting next to the Cutty Sark and talking to the cormorant."
"And how was it, after the late night and the excitement?"
Sherlock's eyebrows went up. "Fine, so far as I know. Last seen paddling downriver towards the Thames Barrier with a look of determination on its beak. Why ask?"
"Because there are only two individuals in this story for whose welfare I give a damn, and I can judge your condition for myself." John surprised himself by the grimness of his tone.
There was a pause.
"You wouldn't get away with it, you know. But thank you very much for offering." Sherlock's voice was husky, barely above a whisper. John tightened his grip on his hand.
"Oh, really, don't be an idiot, John. You glanced at the sideboard drawer, then at the door to the stairs. You had your revolver in the sideboard yesterday but removed it to your bedroom for cleaning. Anyway, I don't want to end Mycroft's miserable, self-important existence. Mummy made me promise not to. And vice versa."
"Wise idea. I suppose. On balance. Probably." He risked a glance upwards. Sherlock's head drooped back into the sofa arms, his eyes were closed, his knees bent upwards, his long toes burrowed into the plush of the cushions. His breathing had steadied, his colour returned. John let his hand drop, caught up the magazine and retreated back to his armchair.
A deep Sunday morning silence fell over the living room.
"It's not an answer to anything, you know," Sherlock said abruptly.
"What isn't?" John, caught off-balance in the midst of Jay Rayner's excoriating review of a restaurant he wouldn't have visited in a million years and couldn't have afforded if he had, let the words come out with more of a snap than he'd intended.
"Traumatic experiences in youth. Get subject talking, dig down to repressed event, drag event into light of day. Subject magically develops ability to lead normal, happy life. Doesn't work."
"Tell that to my therapist. I already know. Who the hell would serve 'an amuse-bouche of squid sashimi, cut fine enough to read a newspaper through, garnished with slivers of raw asparagus and jelly beans?'"
Sherlock considered. "Moriarty."
"Would he be running a Michelin-starred restaurant just outside Chipping Sodbury, do you think? Aren't you happy?"
"Quite plausible. Fast train service to London; proximity to GCHQ and royal residences; rich, hard-drinking milieu; good comms infrastructure – a few discreet mikes concealed in the table decorations and light fittings might garner hints for any number of future coups. Yes, oddly enough. More than I'd ever expected. But I'm not going to change, John. Even for you."
Light suddenly flooded in. Of course Sherlock would have decoded how he felt. But, being Sherlock, adrift on uncharted seas of human relationships (and, again being Sherlock, without even a star to steer by) no wonder he'd been thrown into panic at the thought of submerged reefs and the risk of shipwreck.
He dropped the magazine, marched across to the sofa, caught Sherlock by his ankles and swung his legs down onto the floor. He dropped into the vacated space and slid his arm round Sherlock's shoulders.
"Oh, so that's what this is all about? It's not just you freaking out over discovering that your brother has an interest in sex? Come to think of it, given his level of investment, probably a controlling interest by now."
"That would be Mycroft's style, yes," Sherlock murmured. He half turned away. "Hugging. People never seem to want just to stop at hugging. Better not to start."
The hesitant, wistful note in his voice shattered some last barrier of inhibition. John reached out, pulling Sherlock down, into the curve of his arm, holding him tight against his chest. He wanted to reach back through the years and hold the messed up kid sitting by the Cutty Sark, too.
"Look," he hissed. "What people want is their business. Until it starts screwing with someone else. At which point they can stuff what they want, and start thinking about what the other person needs. I may not be a genius, Sherlock, but I'm neither an idiot nor your brother. I'm not bloody presumptuous enough to try to change how you're wired. You're you. So tell me where the lines are, and trust me not to cross them. But anything you want; suppose you ask?"
With a determined wriggle, Sherlock snuggled – really, there was no other word to describe it – down against his chest.
"Hair," he announced.
"Wha -? Oh." It was not, of course, as if the temptation had not occurred to him before. The possibility of being allowed, though -
His fingers reached down to twine and stroke, burying themselves knuckle deep in soft curls, twisting in the whole blue-black mess, movements languorous, gentle, undemanding. Sherlock went boneless against him, almost purring, his eyes unfocussed. Even his voice sounded softened.
"Mycroft said you were one of the few people he'd met who should have 'Man of Honour' engraved on his tombstone." He twisted his neck round, looking up into John's eyes. "I don't expect he meant it as a compliment."
Of all the people John might want to make suggestions for his epitaph, Mycroft Holmes came close to bottom on the list. Mycroft was the sort who, if someone promised to follow him to the ends of the earth, could almost certainly arrange it.
He shrugged, difficult as that was to manage with an armful of flatmate who was currently channelling his inner cat.
"Oh, I'd settle for 'no cormorants were harmed in the making of this production'. If you get any input on the matter."
Sherlock wrenched himself free of his embrace and sat bolt upright, his eyes sparkling, his grin stretching from ear to ear.
"Dinner!" he said, as if it was a shiny new concept he had just discovered for himself. He reached for the discarded supplement, muttering furiously, stretched his hand down among the sofa cushions, pulled out a mobile phone (John's, its owner noticed with some annoyance, given the radio silence Sherlock had maintained on its whereabouts when questioned over breakfast) and began texting. "I'm taking you out to dinner. Tonight. In Chipping Sodbury."
"Er, which part of 'pretentious, over-priced and misconceived' didn't you get from that review?"
"Always best to get raw data for oneself, rather than relying on secondary sources. Also, we can check for ourselves the possible Moriarty connection."
"Great. We'll make that 'pretentious, over-priced, misconceived and possibly the brainchild of a crazed criminal mastermind', then. Just my idea of an evening out. But you've still got to get round the 'over a hundred miles from London' and 'inexplicably booked up three months in advance' problems."
Sherlock brandished the mobile phone. "Influence. Mycroft could easily arrange a table, a driver, and, for that matter, pick up the tab. I've suggested it."
The phone went 'ping'. Sherlock scrutinised the text for a moment, then passed it across to John.
GIVE ME ONE GOOD REASON WHY I SHOULD. MH
Sherlock's smile was all angles and points. "John. Do the honours."
He took a deep breath.
"£3478.04," he tapped in. And hit send.