All I meant to do was get a drink.
But--look, I guess the first thing you should know is that I did a tour in Afghanistan and then most of another one in Iraq, and when you come back to America after spending for-fucking-ever in the sandy deserts of hell, a shitty, empty bar is pretty much nirvana. There's something about the dingy, badly cast light and the taste of half-rancid tap beer that really feels like home, don't ask me why. The second thing you should know is that I've got so much shrapnel buried in my leg that I set off metal detectors in the goddamn CVS, not to mention the PTSD and the screaming bitch of a rotator cuff injury that I can't afford PT for right now. So yeah, sometimes it's a little difficult to resist the call of the drink.
And the third thing you should know is that the Tuesday bartender at The Clearinghouse is just the kind of asshole you don't want serving you if you only mean to have one beer.
I'd been going to the same bar almost every night since I moved to the city--not much to do while you're waiting for your transfer acceptance to go through, I guess, except win money off the stupid frat boys at the sports bar down the street. When I didn't feel like going down to The Yard and taking Lestrade for all he had, I ended up at the Clearinghouse; it was usually quiet, and Miles was behind the counter most of the time. He was a big guy, a little bit of a pusher, whip-smart when he bothered talking to me; I thought he owned the place, but I wasn't sure. He wasn't much for personal details.
Anyway, I only meant to get one drink and instead I had about six--the man kept pouring me shots to go with my beers, what could I do--and I found myself telling Miles of my woes. I was living in a motel at that point, pouring more of my saved-up signing bonus than I could afford on the night-to-night rental, looking for digs. City life had turned out to be more expensive than I'd bargained for, and the places I'd found in my price range on Craigslist were either decrepit or infested with undergrads or both; I was starting to wonder if I shouldn't just cut my losses and move home, med school be damned.
"Okay, I'm going to take all the whiny bullshit as a sign that I've given you too much to drink. Summary is that you're looking for a place?" Miles said, when I'd finished. I nodded, scowling, and Miles grinned and ripped a scrap of paper off an order pad.
"It's John, right? John Watson?" I nodded again, and he scribbled my name down on the sheet and tucked it into his pocket. Then he pulled off a fresh page and scrawled S. Holmes and a cell number across the top. He kept writing for a minute, then capped his pen with a satisfied grunt. "Here. I know a guy. He's a grad student, found a place he loves but can't afford it on his measly T.A. salary. He's been harassing me to find him leads for a week."
I glanced at the paper. "Nice guy?"
Miles grinned. "Not at all," he said, "but you strike me as his type. Give it a try, anyway. His next class is tomorrow at three--I wrote down the address and everything."
And yeah, I probably should have been tipped off by how fucking predatory that smile was, and okay, all right, I admit that the whole thing sounds a little crazy, but I'd had too much to drink, and I liked Miles! He'd always been decent, a friendly sort. I figured it couldn't do any harm.
Curse my trusting nature.
The first clue that this was a bad idea--well, okay, no. The first clue that this was a bad idea should have been being told that this S. Holmes was not at all a nice guy, and the second clue should have been the way Miles grinned like the whole thing was hilarious. So really the third clue that this was a bad idea was the fact that the time on the sheet of paper landed me in Holmes' class 45 minutes late.
I was relieved when the guy didn't turn around to yell at me, until I realized he was too busy yelling at everyone else to bother.
"It says elementary chemistry on the goddamn syllabus," he roared, throwing his chalk into the wall. It exploded. "That means it is easy enough for elementary schoolers. Congratulations, you're as competent as a group of children. I hope you're all proud of yourselves." A girl raised her hand timidly, and he turned his glare on her. "What?"
Even from across the room, I could see her quaver. "I, um, I don't think that's quite what 'elementary', in this context--"
"Shut up," Holmes said. He wasn't yelling anymore--his voice had gone quiet, disappointed. "Take a fucking semantics class with the time you're clearly not spending doing the work."
He walked down to the front of the room, pulled out a pile of what appeared to be test papers, and dropped into the desk chair. Then he whipped a red pen out of his pocket and began viciously marking them.
I could feel the classroom holding their breath. All was silent until he looked up.
"What are you waiting for?" he snarled. "Get out."
I was nearly knocked over in the ensuing stampede. When the rush of terrified undergrads cleared I was the only one left in the classroom; I moved up to his desk and, not wanting to disturb him, waited for him to look up.
"So," he said, still grading, "you're either a very tenacious new student or the potential roommate Miles texted me about. If you're the former, please don't bother--you're sure to be yet another fucking moron I have to attempt to herd towards competency, and I've got enough of those, thanks. If you're the latter, I can't imagine you want to live with me anymore in any case. Door's that way."
I stared at him. And yes, yes, I know that was when I should have turned around, but you have to understand--the guy was pretty hilarious. Hair standing up all over the place, flushed nearly purple and pissed off, using that red pen like he thought it was a fucking sword; he's not that big a man, and the entire effect made me think of Albert Einstein on meth.
So I opened my mouth and said "I'm shocked you're having such bad luck with the roommate search," and that, for whatever reason, made him look up.
"You don't look like an obnoxious drunk," Holmes said. "Miles oversold you."
I shrugged. "I have my moments. You seem exactly as unfriendly as he said you would be, so I probably got the more honest end of that stick."
Holmes cocked his head. Then, smiling slightly, he held out his hand. "Holmes."
"Watson," I returned, shaking, and he froze.
"Oh, fuck no," he said, wrenching his hand out of my grip. "Miles must be dying over this--no. No. NO. I bet your first name is John, isn't it?"
"I--yeah," I said, "but what does that--"
"Oh my god," Holmes said, "my first decent lead and it's this. Look, man, we can't live together. We can't even consider it."
"Because my name is Sherlock Holmes," Holmes cried. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to be taken seriously with a name like Sherlock Holmes? At least 'John Watson' could have been an honest mistake, parents not paying attention, no one thought about it til later kind of thing. Nobody's going to call you on that--but Sherlock Holmes, my whole goddamn life, and now my fucking brother sends me--"
"Miles is your brother?" I interrupted, because that couldn't be possible. Miles was huge, and this guy looked like a strong wind might knock him over.
"Mycroft," Holmes snapped, "changed his name when he turned 18, but yeah, he is. Our parents were a little off."
"I kind of figured," I said. Holmes ran an agitated hand through his hair; it got stuck there, and he yanked ineffectually at it until it came loose.
"Fuck," he said, "you seem like a smart enough guy, but I really--Holmes and Watson, we can't do that--"
There was a point in my life where I would have agreed with him, but my worry of public opinion had fallen away somewhere in the Afghani deserts. Still, I saw his point. I shrugged, oddly disappointed, and turned to walk toward the door. He caught sight of the cane in my hand then, looked at it curiously.
"Hey," he said, "what's wrong with your leg?"
Used as I was to people dancing around the question, it was actually kind of refreshing to hear someone ask straight-out. "I was an army medic," I said, shrugging. "Caught some shrapnel on my second tour; they got out as much as they could, but--"
"Oh, goddamn it," Holmes said, "now you're a wounded solider too. Tell me you're not a med student, please tell me that."
"Uh, I am, actually. How did you--"
"Is Miles paying you for this?" he asked, eyes narrowed. "Is this another one of his schemes to get me to change my name? Because I've told him a thousand times that it would kill Ma--"
"God, you're paranoid." When he narrowed his eyes further at my lack of an outright denial, I laughed. "No! You're a little crazy, I want you to know that. I don't think your brother even knows what I'm studying; he just said he thought you'd like me."
"Twisted bastard," Holmes muttered under his breath. Then he rolled his eyes and stood. "Come on, then. Best go check out Baker Street."
"Please tell me that's not actually what it's called," I said, hurrying after him as he all but ran toward the door.
"Might as well be," he said, and we were off. To this day I don't know what changed his mind.
The place was nice.
The place was, in fact, very nice, so nice I started worrying about how I would afford it. I mentioned that, and Holmes explained how low the rent was--it turned out Mrs. Hudson, the lady who owned it, had moved to Florida rather abruptly and was looking to nab a sub-leaser ASAP. There was a large living room, complete with cable and ethernet hookup, and two bedrooms with the same, not to mention the spacious kitchen.
"You see the draw," Holmes muttered. "But I can't afford it on my own, the pay as a T.A. is shit."
"Well," I said, "if you think you can manage to get over your literary hang-up--"
"Oh, fuck right off," he snapped, "like you don't think it's weird."
I shrugged. "I've seen weirder."
He looked me over. There's something about Holmes' stare--I noticed it even then--that makes a man slightly uncomfortable. How can I properly...okay. Imagine you're in class, right? And you get that creepy feeling at the back of your neck, like someone's watching you. So you turn around and look, but no one's there, and you feel crazy but the sensation doesn't go away, and you start wondering where this little fucker is hiding, because obviously someone is staring at you? You're there with me? Okay, now multiply it by six and then add the idea that someone is dissecting your brain from the inside out, and then you've got what it's like when Holmes starts with the scrutiny.
I coughed. He looked away.
"Right," he said, "time for a drink."
"It's two in the afternoon."
"Well, you can't expect me to move in with a guy without knowing what he's like after a couple of beers," Holmes said. "I'd ask you to buy me dinner first, but I get the impression you might hit me."
"Astute," I murmured, and he laughed.
"We'll go see my brother," he said, "I haven't harassed him yet this week," and I was following him down the stairs and up the street before I could really think about it.
The apartment was only a quick walk from The Clearinghouse. Holmes talked the whole way there, pointing out the best nearby restaurants, the quietest coffee shops, the tiny private park with the fence easy enough to scale. He spoke with a nearly manic speed, waving his hands, and his hair was even crazier than it had been in his classroom. He looked...well. He looked like a nutcase.
It was at that point that I realized, fuck it all, that I liked him.
"Are you trying to sell me on this idea now?" I asked, a block from the bar. "What happened to 'We can't do this?'"
"'My name is Sherlock Holmes!'" I mimicked, admittedly throwing a bit more drama into it than he had. "'People will judge me! What will I do?'"
"You're a bastard," Holmes said, but the edge of his mouth was curled ever-so-slightly upward.
"Sometimes," I admitted. "You don't seem like the type to care, though."
"Yeah," he said, yanking the bar's front door open, "I'm not."
Miles' face was purple.
"I didn't say I was going to do it!" Holmes snapped, irritated. "We're just talking about it!"
"Holmes--and--Watson!" Mycroft gasped, doubling over and howling with laughter again. "This is the best prank ever, you crazy little shit, you can't honestly be considering-- "
"Shut the fuck up," Holmes said, and there was real anger in his voice now. Miles just laughed harder, and I decided it was probably best to intervene.
"I am taking my beer," I said, "and I am going over there." I picked up my Bud and moved over to a corner booth, and a second later Holmes slid in to the other side, cradling his Dos Equus lovingly.
Yeah, I don't know how I knew he'd follow me either.
"So," he said, taking a pull from his beer, "ignoring my bastard blood relation for a minute, what do I have to know about you to live with you?"
"What do you mean?"
He shrugged expansively. "Well, for example, I play the violin and I won't put up with stupid and I'm not very polite."
"Really?" I said, and then put up both hands in surrender when he glared. "Fine, fine. Uh--once my transfer stuff goes through I'll be a med student, and I won't have time to sleep much--"
"You don't keep normal hours," Holmes said, nodding. "That's okay, me neither. Next?"
"I don't do loud noises," I told him, which sounded idiotic, but was the closest I'd come to admitting PTSD to a total stranger. From the look that flitted across his face I could tell he'd figured it out anyway, but he refrained from commenting, thank god. "And I'm pretty neat--three years in the army will do that to you."
"I'm a fucking mess," Holmes said, spilling beer on himself to drive home this point. "But I don't care if you don't."
"So long as it's not in my room." I pulled a pack of cigs out of my breast pocket, and he grinned.
"So you smoke?"
I stopped myself saying No shit, Sherlock just in time, and then I had to nod an answer to him while holding back my laughter. He gave me a dark look, rife with suspicion, but I met him stare for stare. If I felt a little thrill go up the back of my spine the second before he looked away, I wasn't planning on telling anyone.
"Me too," he said, breaking the moment and bumming a smoke without asking. "These and weed, when there's nothing else to do. Go ahead and light yours, Miles doesn't mind."
"You sure?" I asked, bringing the cig to my lips anyway.
"Worst he can do is throw us out for ten minutes." Holmes lit his own--well, my own--cigarette, and took a long draw. I followed suit, mostly to appease him.
Sure enough, Miles wandered up a minute later. "That shit'll kill ya," he said, dropping two more beers on the table. "So, you boys roommates yet?"
Holmes looked at me, and I shrugged. "If he wants to be, I guess. I've been living in a hotel, so really I'd move anywhere--"
"Aww," Holmes said, "your enthusiasm is touching."
"Let me try again. Ohmygod, HOLMES, I'm just SO excited--"
"Fuck off!" he cried, laughing and leaning away, and then--
Well. Here's what I remember: Miles brought up a bottle of some kind of champagne from the basement while Holmes called Mrs. Hudson, and we drank that. And then Miles brought out a bottle of tequila and we drank most of that, and people started filing in to the bar and someone said something about Irish Carbombs and--
--then I woke up on the floor of an apartment I'd only seen once before, with a vicious hangover and wreckage around me.
"Holmes?" I called. I don't know what made me say it. I hadn't known him long enough to know that where he went, wreckage followed--instinct, I suppose, really is as strong as they tell you in Basic.
There was a groan from around my left knee. It was fucking deafening.
"Goddamn," I said, "can't you be a little quieter?"
"Maybe if you'd try being a little less bony, you shithead," Holmes muttered back, and it was at that point I realize his head was on my leg. My bare leg. My totally pants-free, open-to-the-air leg.
In retrospect, scrambling away that quickly and letting his head thunk into the hardwood like that was probably not kind. In my defense, though, the girlish scream he uttered on impact was really a little over the top. I cocked my head, looking him over.
"Shit, man, sorry--"
"You dropped my hangover on the ground!" he hissed, clutching his head. "...No, wait, that's not right. Fuck. Where'd I leave--"
He clawed himself to his feet, using my unsteady body as a ladder.
"You dropped me," he growled, still holding a hand to his head. "Not a word."
"Not a fucking word, man."
I shut up and glanced around as Holmes disengaged himself from my arm and wandered toward one of the many cardboard boxes. He unearthed a jar of Advil first and whipped it at me without turning around; I caught it and threw back three before he could ask for them back. He didn't, though, just kept rummaging, and a second later he'd pulled out a long glass bong, walked to the sink, and filled the bottom with water.
"Ice," he said. "Need ice. You remember to make ice before Lestrade and his boys left?"
"Lestra--ice--Holmes, did we move in here last night?"
He gave me a bleary, exasperated look. "Hangover first, questions later. Ice?"
I wandered over to the fridge; there was indeed ice in the tray, although I had no recollection of making it. I offered it to him and he grabbed three cubes, shoving them into the mouth of the bong. They hovered there; the opening in the bottom wasn't big enough to allow them through, so they piled on top of each other in the tubular chamber.
"Softer," he explained. "The hit. Tore my throat up something awful last night." He walked over to the coffee table--where had we gotten that coffee table?--and pulled the slide out of another, smaller bong. He peered into it curiously, mixed the remnants with his lighter, shrugged, and popped it into the one he was holding.
"Bottoms up," he said, putting his lips to it. He lit the slide and pulled in a long breath, gathering smoke into the chamber. Then he removed the slide and sucked in, taking the massive hit cleanly and releasing in one smooth breath.
He sank onto the couch and offered me the bong. I shook my head.
"Suit yourself," he said, shrugging, and took another hit. "Best hangover cure in the world."
"I'll stick to the legal stuff, thanks," I said, brandishing the Advil bottle, and he smiled brightly at it.
"I forgot about that, give it here." Three Advils and two hits later, he was looking a little less wild around the eyes. "So, what do you remember about last night?"
"Not much," I admitted, plopping down next to him. The couch creaked ominously, but I ignored it. "Something about Ikea, and the people at the motel being really bitchy--"
"Yeaaaah," Holmes said, coughing a little. "You probably shouldn't go back there any time soon."
"What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything. You decided it would be hilarious to have a spitting contest over the balcony. I just went along with it."
"Oh," I said. A vague memory filtered through the haze of my headache. "Did we hit--"
"The manager of the motel?" Holmes laughed. "Yeah, and since we were only two floors up--"
"Shit, right." Shaking my head, I unearthed a pack of cigarettes from under the couch by dint of muscle memory alone, and that's when I actually got a good look at my left arm. "Uh. I'm sure I'm going to regret asking, but why does my arm say Johnny Appleseed?"
"You got everyone at The Yard to call me Sherwood Forest," Holmes muttered darkly, in the tone of a man brooding on his wrongs. "I had to retaliate."
I licked my thumb and wiped at the words; they didn't even smear. "Fuck, man, did you write this in Sharpie?
"Maaaaaaaybe," he hedged. When I glared he broke and cracked a smile. "Alright, yeah. It was the first thing I found in the boxes, and you needed to pay."
I flipped him my middle finger. He made an exaggerated gesture that mimed putting it in his pocket, and I rolled my eyes at him; if I'd known then exactly how many times in the course of our friendship we would unwittingly reenact that little moment, I might have taken it a bit more seriously. As it was I leaned my head against the back of the couch--futon? It was hard to tell--and stared up at the blissfully dull ceiling.
"So," I said, already kicking myself for doing so, "what else happened last night?"
Holmes shrugged while I lit my cigarette. "Mrs. Hudson got really bitchy when I called and said we were moving in, and then you swayed her somehow. I think something about a cake? And your war record or something, I don't know, I was drunk."
"And then we went down to the Yard because you said you could gamble free movers out of it and you were right--I think you won a bunch of other shit too, by the way, check your pockets--and then that Lestrade guy made all his pledges come move our boxes around--"
"--please tell me that's not a euphemism--"
"--and I got them all really stoned!" Holmes finished, grinning. "The little redhaired one is really funny after a few hits. It was a good night." He snatched the cig from me, took a contemplative puff, and then looked at me with wide eyes.
"Shit, dude," he said, "I think I'm high."
"Wasn't that the goal?"
"Yeah, I just thought it would take more," he said, grinning when I stole the cigarette back. "D'you know your mustache is kind of weird?"
"My mustache is not weird, Holmes. It's a mustache."
"Yeah, but you're under the age of, like, 80," Holmes said. "I think you've gotta be 80 for that kind of 'stache."
"Old man Aaaaappleseed!" he cried, leaning toward me. Then he stilled and looked at the bong like it had betrayed him. "Fuck, this is embarrassing. I'm not usually like this, man, I swear, I think I'm still a little drunk--"
"It's fine," I tried. He looked at me then, a little freaked out, and for whatever reason I remember that moment like it happened yesterday; I think it's because it was the first time I'd seen an honest emotion on his face.
"Really," he said, "I'm not like a, uuhhm, like a fucking novice smoker, I just, uh--"
"Holmes," I said, mostly to shut him up, "do you want to get some food?"
He brightened at once, grinning happily. "Dude, it's like you know me."
The first lesson of the Holmesian credo is this: do not take him to a restaurant high. He wasn't lying to me when he said he wasn't usually a rambling, obnoxious stoner; generally speaking, when not nursing a hangover, that shit just makes him less uptight. But fuck, get the man around food and it's an entirely different story.
"...and the sausage, and the hashbrowns, and I think another egg," he said to the waitress, snapping his menu with finality. She gave him a look that indicated very clearly that she knew what was going on, and he glared right back at her. It would have been very effective if not for the stifled giggles.
She sighed and turned to me. "And for you?"
"Is there anything he didn't order?" I asked despairingly. She glanced over the ticket.
"Corned beef hash?"
"That," I said wearily, handing her my menu. "And coffee. As much as you can legally give me. More, even."
She patted my arm sympathetically and was off; Holmes leaned across the table and grinned at me.
"I think she was checking you out," he said, in what he obviously fondly imagined was a whisper.
"I think you're out of your mind," I shot back, in a much more discreet tone. "And anyway--"
"Do you think it would be possible to design a universal palate?" he asked suddenly, picking up the salt shaker. "Like, a nationwide survey, and universally season foods accordingly. Do away with salt and pepper."
"Why would you want to?"
He didn't answer me, but licked the edge of his thumb and ran it across the few salt grains he'd shaken loose into his palm. "I have this theory," he said absently.
A word to the wise: "I have this theory" are the four most ominous words in the English language. Every time he says them he does something crazy--that time? The time with the salt shaker in that restaurant? Yeah, three weeks later he developed an automatic calling software that he ran off of an old laptop and actually surveyed five hundred people. And then he concluded that everyone liked too much salt on their food and that was disgusting but couldn't be helped, and scrapped the whole thing.
He's a crazy person. Allow me to repeat: he is a crazy person. Never in my entire life have I met anyone so crazy--and, actually, part of what makes it so insane is how committed he is to being insane and--
Anyway. I didn't know about "I have this theory" then, but my niggling instincts of terror had been right up til that point, and I was idiot enough to think I could distract him. Naivety is another curse of mine, I guess.
"So tell me about your thesis," I said. "You are writing a thesis, yeah?"
"For my PhD, yeah," Holmes said. "And it's--how much do you know about organic chemistry?"
"Enough to get me into medical school."
He smirked at me. "So as much as the underspawn, then?" He laughed outright at my horrified face. "Sorry, sorry. Okay, so, uh--okay. You know how molecules, atoms, have charges?"
"I think fifth graders know that, Holmes."
"Elementary," he agreed darkly. "You'd imagine everyone would know, and then you'd be really fucking surprised. But anyway--what I'm trying to do, basically, is find an interaction strong enough between the field and the induced charge to immobilize the molecule without permanently affecting it. And then I could wash it across--"
He stopped, looked at my face, and sighed. "I see I've lost you."
"Are you sure you're explaining it right? I mean, maybe I'm not stupid. Maybe you're just high."
"I eat, sleep and breathe this shit," he snapped, "I could explain this underwater. But don't feel bad; you're a little smarter than the gene pool rejects they give me to teach. I can show you."
"I'm touched," I muttered. He ignored me, glanced around wildly, and snatched two empty coffee mugs from the next table.
"Right," he said, turning them on their sides. "So, in organic chemistry, the point is to go from compound A to compound B in a series of chemical reactions, right?"
"Oh, look, you're making sense again."
"It's a gift." He twirled one of the coffee cups absently with a few flicks of his index finger. "So--imagine this cup is molecule A, and this other one is molecule B. Now, if they're just rotating freely all they're going do is--"
He spun them both at once and released them; they crashed together, making an upsettingly loud noise. Holmes and I, still hungover despite our best efforts, both winced; the waitress glared at us from behind the counter.
"They're going to get us kicked out of a restaurant?" I asked, catching one and stilling it. "Who knew a little molecule could do some much damage?"
"I am not even going to dignify that with a response," Holmes said. "As I was saying, they're going to bump together. Random motion. But if you could attach a charge to molecule A," and here he grabbed the first coffee mug and held it firmly in place, "you could orient it, and give it a set position, thus allowing you to guide molecule B into the right spot." He took the second coffee cup, pulled it back, and released it, sending it sliding indelicately into the first one.
They fit together perfectly, and held.
"Is that really all there is to it?" I asked, and picked up the cups bemusedly. "It's just...really?"
"No," he said, laughing on it, "that's actually not at all what it's like, but it was the easiest way to explain it. And there's nanotechnology and quantum and shit, and the problem of how to create a temporary magnetic pull, and it's basically impossible, actually. But if I can figure it out it could create a wave of new drugs--a cure for cancer, maybe, or for Alzheimer's. New vaccines. The possibilities are pretty fucking endless."
"That's," I said, at a loss for words. He rolled his eyes at me.
"Try not to fall all over yourself in worship of my genius," he advised, "that'd be disgusting. We're roommates, dude! Get your shit together."
"You know what it's like?" I said, as the waitress came back to our table with a laden down tray. "It's like going out to breakfast with Albert Einstein and a five year old at the same time. How do you do that?"
He ignored me in favor of making rude gestures at the unimpressed waitress and then falling on more food that anyone--let alone anyone that skinny--should have been able to consume. I sighed and sipped my coffee and watched him, half out of affection and half out of terrible, morbid curiosity.
It was going to be interesting, living with him.