Nothing can be certain, when it comes to alternate universes, especially not what causes them to split. Why is the car invented in one universe and not another? Why does a universe remain, struggling for survival in the dark ages while another cures so many diseases that over-population leads to some of the most barbaric acts ever known?
What causes this Sherlock Holmes to meet John Watson ten years before any other version does?
That at least, can be answered.
It begins with a dog in the night-time. A large dog of nervous disposition, it’s startled from sleep by a small noise and it begins to howl. This is the moment - the seventeenth of September 1884 - that this universe splits off and heads down a different path.
The howling wakes a neighbouring baby, Jeannie Boone. Already a difficult sleeper, her cries continue for many hours during that night and cause her father, Alfred Boone, to step out into daylight the next morning bad-tempered and short with everyone about him.
He makes himself no friends that day in his Whitechapel Pharmacy. He snaps at his employees, is prickly with customers, and does his duties with spectacular bad grace.
He doesn’t realise that his final customer of the day will the final customer of his career.
In his haste to get the man out of the door and snatch a few hours of sleep in the backroom, he hands over the wrong bottle of medicine. George Haydock is ushered from the shop, dutifully takes his medicine, and is dead within two hours.
A small tragedy perhaps, but one that never-the-less alters the universe.
Haydock leaves behind a wife, Laura, and as young widows are wont to do, she remarries and becomes Laura King. This marriage creates a child, Peter King, a hearty boy who survives the trenches of the war with all of his limbs and enough of his mind for his wartime experience to be called a success. He proceeds to open a shoe factory in the East End, marries, accumulates money, and rules over his family with an iron fist for the next forty years.
His son Jack is entirely unremarkable, idolising his father, surviving the Second World War, and then attempting to exert the same level of control over his children: Frederick and Lizzie. Freddie turns to drink, gambling, and the general chaos of the late sixties. His sister Lizzie, sober-minded and with the makings of true East End Matriarch about her, keeps her brother in line enough to keep the ailing family business from collapse.
This leads to considerable friction between the brother and sister, ending in 2003, when – after his announcement that he plans to sell the business and move to the South of France – she echoes the very event that had brought their family into existence and swaps Freddie’s heart medicine with everyday painkillers, hastening on a mammoth heart attack.
At this point, the timelines of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson intersect the story. Stuart Jennings, friend of Freddie and regular at one of Sherlock’s favourite restaurants, asks him to investigate the suspicious timing of Freddie’s death.
John Watson, meanwhile, is sleeping with Stephanie King, youngest of Freddie’s four daughters, and though it’s not serious feels obliged to attend her father’s funeral when she asks him to.
It’s there, for the first time, that their paths cross.
Sherlock is pretending to be asleep as the car pulls up.
He is curled-up on the concrete outside the backdoor of Time2, a particularly sleazy Soho nightclub, and he’s waiting for Kris to arrive at his usual spot. Kris is a former miner who has fallen on hard times and who will hopefully be a very useful contact in the future.
Mycroft’s face is such a picture of distaste when he steps out of the car that Sherlock is almost amused. Sherlock can see his eyes flickering to the pools of vomit outside the door and the streaks of piss staining the wall that Sherlock is leaning against. He looks like he’s wishing that he could order a lackey to provide a carpet to protect his shoes, but he merely sighs and picks his way over to Sherlock, where he towers above him. Disappointment oozes from every part of his body.
“Go away!” Sherlock hisses.
“Well I would visit you at your flat,” Mycroft points out, “but for all intents and purposes you don’t actually live there. Tell me, are you planning to adopt the homeless lifestyle permanently?”
“I’m networking,” Sherlock snarls. He pulls the ratty sleeping bag up so that only his glaring eyes are visible.
“Yes. The so-called Homeless Network. And when you aren’t living on the streets in order to build this network you seem to be annoying the police on a daily basis and taking on petty cases from just about anyone who needs help. I’m sure the case of Mr. Killmarsh’s shop graffiti will go down in the annals of history. And that missing watch problem must have kept you engaged for seconds.”
Mycroft understands what Sherlock is doing perfectly well and Sherlock doesn’t take the time to remind him of that. Yes the cases are boring, and living on the streets is uncomfortable, but it’s work that needs doing if he wants to succeed in his chosen career. Having contacts in locations and professions where they see and hear far more than most people would suspect will be a great advantage, and Sherlock is more than prepared to spend a few miserable years ensuring that they either work for him or owe him.
Besides, the cocaine helps with the boredom.
“Try and fool yourself all you like,” Mycroft sneers, “but none of this is about connections. Connections are about information and power. This is about being liked. You want to be a hero to these people. Really Sherlock it’s almost clichéd.”
“Why would I care about being liked?”
“For the same reason you cried your heart out over Redbeard and loathed university with such a passion; you never could control your emotions.”
Sherlock grits his teeth. “You’re a fine one to lecture me on self-control from your throne of donuts. If I can’t control my emotions, you are just as much a slave to your body’s whims.”
Mycroft gives that half smile that Sherlock loathes above all because it means he’s winning the argument.
“Yes you can starve yourself and go without sleep well enough, but according to my reports you aren’t quite able to kick one habit.”
“The drugs?” Sherlock scoffs. “You know perfectly well that as soon as I’m occupied-”
“Not the drugs Sherlock,” Mycroft gives that smug smile again. “I’m talking about the sex.”
Ha! So Mycroft isn’t all knowing. The moment of delight at his poor information almost makes up for the fact he is discussing this with Mycroft in the first place.
“I haven’t had any.”
“No, you’re not quite able to bring yourself to do it, are you? You always say something to frighten them away, hiding your true nature until the last second. I must say it’s very telling that the one desire of the body you find so difficult to stamp down is the one so very connected with emotion.”
There haven’t been that many incidents, Sherlock thinks bitterly. Usually they start as part of a case or research, he plays a role and lets it continue, pretending to be someone likeable, pleasant, desirable… it’s almost a game with his own self-control and he always wins. He will not let sex beat him.
“And it’s equally telling that sex is the one desire of the body that you’re so ashamed of,” he bites back. “You do so hate indulging in it.”
“I think this conversation is getting off topic,” Mycroft says tightly.
“The point I’m trying to make is that this ridiculous game of yours serves no purpose. This hobby – especially the drugs - is upsetting Mother.”
“Then stop telling her about it,” Sherlock snaps. “Was that all you came here to say? If so move along. You’re blocking out the light.”
It’s a true cockney funeral in all its glory. The younger men wear new, boxy suits with wide knotted ties, the older ones wear the jackets they bought in their twenties, shiny with wear. Almost every woman there clicks around in black pointed-toe stilettos, their bleached hair tucked under large, showy hats. This is a Family with a capital ‘F’ and every member is present, from the screaming children to the old, papery women in wheelchairs.
Sherlock’s been astonishingly lucky to get in on this murder case. The police haven’t even worked out that it was murder, and won’t make an arrest for days after they’ve figured it out.
He’s here to get a good look at Lizzie King, and he’s hoping he might even get chance for a quick chat. One so rarely gets an opportunity to talk to a murderer. Unfortunately for him, once the service starts he’s stuck there, and it’s proving to be a very long service indeed. The family has paid for the very best and the vicar is inclined to give them their money’s worth. George Haydock’s entire life must be narrated, hymns must be sung, and grandchildren must read out poems in wobbling voices.
He occupies himself in making deductions just from the backs of the people in front of him; it's then that the doctor catches his eye. Sherlock knows he’s a doctor at once (a glimpse of his hand as he reaches across to squeeze his girlfriend’s shoulder tells Sherlock everything) and he realises that he isn’t the only one bored senseless by this service.
The man does nothing as obvious as fidgeting or sighing, but his previously upright posture has become a slouch and whenever they have to stand for a hymn or prayer the lack of enthusiasm practically rolls off of him. Not a relative, that’s clear, but the boyfriend of King’s youngest daughter. A serious boyfriend would have either cared for her father, or at least hid his disinterest better, so he’s either a new or casual boyfriend who is dutiful enough to put himself through this misery.
Another hymn is announced and this time there is a minor moment of interest when the girlfriend (sitting directly in front of Sherlock) tries to stand and realises that her black lace skirt has got caught on the hook that holds the hassock to the back of the pew. She struggles and the doctor reaches behind to help her, giving Sherlock his first proper look at the man’s face as he catches Sherlock’s eye.
The man cleverly recognises another outsider in Sherlock and gives him a subtle, despairing look that Sherlock interprets as a silent wonder as to whether the preservation of the corpse will give up before they are done with the final hymn. Something tightens within Sherlock’s chest at his expression.
Mycroft is somewhat right, when he says that Sherlock finds sexual attraction hard to control. He getting better at it, but now and then he slips up and has an occasional attack of it towards someone. This man is a prime example.
Attraction is a strange thing, Sherlock has always found. It’s a polite form of lust, a day-time echo of the night-time ache for companionship. He wants nothing more than to be alone with this man, to be in his space, to touch him…
The man deals with the caught up skirt and turns back to the front before Sherlock has thrown this sudden upset off. It’s just a mildly pleasing face and a hint of a wicked streak, he tells himself. Nothing worth jeopardising his hard won control for.
It doesn’t stop him staring at the back of the man’s head for the rest of the funeral or from keeping him in sight as the final piece of organ music strikes up and the pall bearers begin their slow march. At last everyone ekes out of the church and into the welcome coolness outside as they wait to move on to the graveyard.
The girlfriend is off providing support to her mother and so the doctor is alone and largely ignored as they wait. Sherlock doesn’t sidle up to the man, but he remains nearby until, as two people not in conversation with anyone else, sheer politeness will force the man to speak.
To his surprise the man doesn’t bow to social conventions. He seems quite at ease with the silence and in no rush to make conversation. Ordinarily this would please Sherlock a great deal and increase his estimation for the man, but as he does want to talk to him this means that he will have to start the conversation which is not his strongest skill.
“So,” he says, “are you a friend of the-“
“-bride or the groom?” the man finishes.
Sherlock tries, without success, to hide the unexpected smile at the weak joke.
“Neither,” the man finishes. “John Watson. Boyfriend of the daughter.”
He doesn’t sound wholly comfortable calling himself the ‘boyfriend’. Reassuring. Even more reassuring is the amused spark in his eyes and the tongue flicking out to moisten his bottom lip. He’s attracted too, on some level. It wouldn’t take much to persuade him into bed. Sherlock could give any one of his alias names, become a person John Watson will be unable to resist…
Control, he needs better self-control…
“Sherlock Holmes. Investigating the murder.”
The man raises a brow. “It was murder?”
Sherlock nods. “The police will work it out soon enough.”
“That’s very reassuring. Have any leads?”
“Oh no. I know who did it. I said the police will work it out. I’m better than the police.”
He winces as soon as the words are out of his mouth. He sounds like the very worst sort of armchair detective. The only way he could sound like more of an arse is if he started mouthing off about the true identity of Jack the Ripper.
“Oh,” says the man. “Is it that guy?”
His eyes are bright as he points his chin towards the braying cousin of the deceased.
Sherlock blinks in surprise. “…No.”
“Am I close?”
Sherlock doesn’t know where the smile that settles on his lips comes from, but it appears and his traitorous voice deepens. “Not. Telling.”
Control. Regain control!
“How many goes do I get?”
Sherlock considers. “Two more.”
At this point the sort-of-girlfriend returns to John with a trembling ever-so-brave smile and presses her forehead to his for some sort of comfort.
“We’re heading to the graveyard now,” she murmurs. “Sorry for just leaving you like that.”
“Its fine,” John says and, with a polite nod to Sherlock, they turn to follow the others.
Sherlock needs to go. He must go. He stands there, watching John lead his girlfriend away, arm around her waist, and plans to go.
Ten minutes later he’s standing in the crowd around the grave.
Annoyingly John seems focused on rubbing his crying girlfriend’s back, if he’s not busy reaching down to squeeze her hand. Sherlock is just beginning to regret wasting his time when the man catches his eye and tilts his head in the direction of a pasty employee of King’s.
Sherlock shakes his head and holds up a finger.
One more guess.
There are no more guesses for the rest of the burial and Sherlock has enough restraint not to immediately seek the man out once they are free to move around again. He needn’t worry because John finds him first. He looks pleased with himself.
Sherlock’s pretty sure he’s going to name him as the potential murderer. Not a bad guess - he’s easily mistaken for a serial killer - but a bit disappointing. Almost certainly not serious; John doesn’t look like a man who thinks he’s confronting a murderer.
“It’s not Stephanie is it?”
The girlfriend. Sherlock practically glows with pleasure at this willingness to put logic before blind faith in a romantic interest. It’s almost a shame that it’s not her.
“No. It’s not me either, if you were wondering.”
“I wasn’t. You’re a bit chatty for a secret murderer.”
Sherlock acknowledges this.
“Oh well. I suppose I’ll have to find out when the police make their arrest.”
“Yes, I won’t spoil the surprise.”
John laughs. “Are you coming to the wake? It would be nice to have someone to talk to.”
No. No. He can’t. This isn’t like the other times, he’s not pretending to be someone else. John Watson’s attracted to him even though Sherlock is behaving in a way that usually puts people off. Every second he lingers in John’s presence is destroying all the self-control he’s spent years building up.
But then again, it’s a wake. How much trouble can he get into?
For the first hour he’s right; nothing of importance happens at all. The wake is at King’s local pub, which has been taken over for the event. Family and friends stand around in little groups, pretending King was more interesting than he really was and bowing their heads whenever the mood becomes too light, reminding each other what an awful shock it all is, how devastated they all are. The flowers are discussed in great detail (with quiet speculation as to price) and the buffet is complained about by everyone who didn’t actually pay for it.
Now that the official mourning is over, the family start to show an interest in Stephanie’s new man. John commandeered by sisters and cousins and gets involved in quite a long chat with Lizzie King, who is the second most interesting person in the room as far as Sherlock is concerned and looking wonderfully calm about the murder she’s getting away with (for now).
Sherlock stands alone by the wall, avoiding any interaction with mourners. Despite all the attention, John keeps glancing over at Sherlock in a way that suggests he’s as interested in Sherlock’s presence as Sherlock is in John’s.
Fearing that they might spend the entire night without talking, Sherlock heads towards the toilets not long after John heads in that direction. Grimy pub bathroom or not, the chance to be in an even semi-private space with him is too good an opportunity to miss.
He’s going mad, some part of himself thinks, but he can’t resist.
Inside John is just coming out of a cubicle and goes to wash his hands. He smiles with genuine pleasure at catching Sherlock.
“There you are,” he says. “That’s not a family you can say no to. The old dear in the wheelchair will tell anyone who listens that she slept with Ronnie Kray. Don’t think she realises he was the gay one.”
Sherlock goes to the sink as if washing the greasy remains of the buffet from his hands was his motivation all along.
John leans against the sink next to Sherlock, in no rush to go back out while Sherlock begins what will be the most leisurely paced and thorough hand wash of all time.
“So have I talked to the murderer yet?”
Sherlock’s smiles, and his surprise at seeing his own smile reflecting back in the mirror almost startles it off of his face.
“I’m not giving you any clues.”
“It’s not the old dear with the Kray obsession?”
“Is that a fourth guess?”
“Oh no, I'm waiting for the big reveal.” John holds up his hands innocently. “Anyway, at least we can hide out of the way in here for a bit.”
Sherlock raises a brow. “What about Stephanie?”
“What about her?” John frowns. “Oh. That. It’s honestly a casual thing, she just wanted some company and someone to act as a buffer between her and her more overwhelming relatives. She’ll be fine.”
John clears his throat and Sherlock reluctantly reaches for the paper towels to dry his hands.
“In, uh, fact. About that. I was wondering if you’d like to get coffee sometime?”
It’s almost the last thing Sherlock expects. Everything he knows about this man tells him that John Watson would not make that offer to another man.
“What do you mean?” he asks, feeling stupid.
“Ah. It doesn’t matter… I just thought you might be-”
“I am,” Sherlock says quickly. His brain helpfully supplies that it might have been better to make apologies, claim to be married to his work, anything but the stunned, desperate look on his face at the moment. “You just… I wouldn’t have thought you’d be the sort to… ask.”
In fact everything he’s learned so far suggests that John is interested in other men, but has never considered acting on it until now. To go from that to outright asking out a person of the same gender seems… unfairly easy.
“I’m not! I mean-” John swallows, “-I’ve never… with a…” he stops, rubs his hands over his face, and tries again. “I’ve always just gone for it when I fancy someone. And even though I’d not normally be interested… I just thought I’d… regret not asking you.”
He swallows and scrubs at his face again. “Oh god, I’m blushing. I’m standing here, in the gents in a Whitechapel pub, asking out another man and blushing.”
Sherlock’s self-control is long gone by this point. Hunger, sleep, and pain he can ignore for as long as he needs, but he’s finally met someone who seems to like him.
His next movement is almost a… surge. He has John Watson crowded against the cubicle door in seconds and he is sliding his hands around John’s torso, pulling him up to kiss him as hard as John is tugging Sherlock’s shirt – a whole fistful of fabric – down to meet his lips.
And then they hear footsteps outside the door.
They part only for the time it takes to pull and drag each other into the cubicle and click the lock shut as the outer door opens inwards. A rabble of noise from the pub can be heard for a second and then it’s muffled again as the person enters the cubicle next to them and starts to pee.
John is pressed against the wall now and Sherlock is close enough to feel the heat radiating off him. He wants to kiss, to touch, but instead they stand there in absolute silence as the unwelcome guest finishes, zips up, and staggers back out to the bar.
Alone again, John starts to laugh and it’s infectious enough that Sherlock joins in. It doesn’t hide the fear though, this small pause may have given John time to reconsider. He still might push Sherlock away-
The hands return to Sherlock’s body and his eyes close involuntarily as John begins another hard kiss. He can feel the flush of heat across his cheeks and the adrenalin trickling down to pool in his stomach. He’s hard, John’s hard, and they are rutting against each other. He wants to do everything possible to John, have John do it all to him, but they are hardly in the right place.
John seems to have the same idea.
“Hang on,” he whispers.
He brushes past Sherlock and the sudden coolness of the air leaves Sherlock bereft; he forces himself to stay where he is rather than follow pathetically. There’s a whisper of fabric and then a clink of coins. There’s a thunk of a two pound coin dropping into the machine by the door and Sherlock realises what’s happening. John returns with the packet of condoms a moment later and Sherlock all but snatches it. He knows exactly what he wants to do.
He pushes John back against the wall, kisses him again and nips at his neck. He wants to make a whole project of John’s neck, an art of it, but there’s no time. John will be missed and probably very soon. Reluctantly Sherlock pulls away, kisses him for a moment, just long enough to grind against him again and feel the satisfying hardness against his own, before he drops to the floor in front of John and begins to tug at his belt.
It makes perfect sense, he thinks as he rubs his hand against the bulge and watches with fascination as John’s head arches back. John hasn’t given much thought to gay sex before, is likely to be spooked by it, more likely to reject Sherlock and walk away if he has to face the realities of it. This way Sherlock can do the work and gain the satisfaction and pleasure of watching this extraordinary man come apart.
Free of his trousers, John’s cock is fully erect – thick and long - and Sherlock admires it for a moment before stroking it firmly, causing another delicious reaction from John. He’s technically new at this, but he doesn’t want John to suspect as much. He wants to please him. If this is going to be the only time John ever does this with him, he wants him to think fondly of it. He strokes the hard length a few more times and slips the condom on without too much fumbling.
He doesn’t want the condom, he’s clean and he wouldn’t mind the risk, would almost enjoy the risk, but he knows better than to argue with a doctor. He leans forward, rubs his cheek against the shaft - to get John’s full attention more than anything else - and then gently runs the very tip of his tongue up the length.
John hums in pleasure at the teasing touch, his eyes close and he drops his chin down onto his chest, lost in the sensation. Sherlock continues the movement, waits for the tension to drop from John’s shoulder and for John to get used to the sensation. Then, without warning, he opens his mouth and takes him in.
The reaction is wonderful. John, shocked at the sudden heat and pleasure, gives an almost shout which he quickly stifles with his own hand. His eyes snap open and he looks down, only to groan again at the sight of Sherlock’s mouth around him. Sherlock’s almost annoyed because he wants to hear John’s reaction, but having those eyes watching him with such desire is almost as good.
He reaches down and releases his own cock, stroking it lazily as he moves his head back and forth. He won’t come until John does; the sight of it alone will be enough to finish him.
John’s hands suddenly reach out and he runs his fingers through Sherlock’s hair. It’s an affectionate, restrained touch, as if he’s preventing himself taking a handful and fucking Sherlock’s face. Just the thought of it has Sherlock’s hands moving faster on his own cock and if his mouth was free he’d tell John not to hold back at all.
If someone comes in now, there’s no way Sherlock can stop and no way of keeping John quiet. His hips must ache with the force of not bucking and Sherlock tests him further, moving faster, pressing his tongue more firmly against John’s cock. When he adds a low moan of his own, the vibration raises an actual whimper from John.
He ignores his own aching cock and moves his hands to John’s balls, tugs at them. His movements are getting sloppy but John doesn’t seem to mind; his own control is breaking down and he thrusts into Sherlock’s mouth. Sherlock’s greedy response sends John hurtling towards the edge; he grips Sherlock’s hair and fucks Sherlock’s mouth as orgasm washes through him. John moans and his movements slow, but Sherlock keeps his head and tongue working for a few moments longer - teasing every last bit of pleasure out - until John is slumped against the wall, sensitive and trembling.
John is wonderfully quick at what he does next. Despite his own satiation he all but hauls Sherlock up and backs him against the cool, tiled wall. Sherlock - awash with pleasure and satisfaction even as his cock throbs with need - is sure that the second John touches him he’ll come.
He’s good at controlling his own body though. At John’s first stroke – confident despite this being his first time – Sherlock forces his body not to be overwhelmed. This may be the only time he ever does this, he absolutely has to make it last. He closes his eyes, revelling in the sensations of John’s hand pumping his cock, of John’s breath against his neck, the sensation is too much and his orgasm overwhelms him. He comes harder than he’s ever achieved by himself.
Sherlock isn’t wearing a condom, but clever, quick thinking John moves his hand just in time and saves both of their suits. Sherlock is still, shivering as John steps out of the cubicle again to wash his hands and then comes back to kiss Sherlock hungrily. Eventually he pulls away and just stands, breathing hard against Sherlock.
“You. Are. Amazing.” John says against his neck. It’s almost a growl.
The condom is gone but his trousers are still open and have slipped down to sit low on his hips. His eyes are heavily lidded and it makes Sherlock want to push him onto the floor and live out every single fantasy he’s ever had…
Yet Sherlock knows that John will have to go back soon, knows that this might be the only time John does this with him. This has been a fantasy of sorts, an encounter with a man who is interested in the idea but not the reality. John would be scared away in the end, by Sherlock’s gender, his personality, and his lifestyle, even if he’s more tolerant than most.
Even so, here and now in this cubicle, Sherlock knows that what little heart he has will always belong to John Watson.
A/N: Chinese Translation (by Karoliner) now available HERE.