Chapter 1: The Last Straw
One: The Last Straw
The idea, when it came, really was inevitable. Honestly, after the severed head incident, John was already desperate for some relief from Sherlock’s obsessive devotion to his experiments. And all the fancy microscopes and intricate computer simulations in the world could not hope to remedy the fact that human flesh, when left to its own devices, does what all dead flesh does.
And Mrs. Hudson, God bless her, really didn’t deserve to lose sleep over the foul stench of rotting toes in her tennants’ breadbox. Indeed, it was the sight of her with a lacy handkerchief clamped over her nose as she greeted him after he came home from the surgery that clinched it. Sherlock, and his experiments, needed a bloody holiday. And John? Well, John had connections.
“Oh, damn this weather!” Sherlock was moping again, his eyes glued to the window pane and the endless descent of snow outside it. John rolled his eyes and let the door shut behind him, reveling in the warmth of the flat.
“Hi, honey. I’m home.” John quipped.
Sherlock turned to look at him, his face wrinkled up in confusion.
“Pop culture reference, Sherlock. Nevermind it.”
“Oh. Alright. It’s snowing again.” He turned back to his window pane vigil.
John, who was in the act of brushing a small drift off of his coat and stamping the accumulated inch of white fluff off his boots, just glared at his flatmate’s back.
“Yeah, you know I had noticed.”
Sherlock flicked his gaze back to John, returned to the window and, in an instant, seemed to realize there was something expected of him. “Sorry, John, how was the surgery?”
John sighed. Well, Sherlock was making an effort at least. He rolled the stiffness out of his wounded shoulder and shrugged out of his coat. “Oh, bloody brilliant. It’s cold and flu season, you know.”
“Oh, yes.” Sherlock groaned. “More’s the pity.”
“Why do you care? You’re not sick.”
Sherlock flopped onto the sofa, his body limp and loose. “No, but they are.”
“Oooh.” John said, comprehension solidifying itself in his brain. They always meant “the criminal element” when Sherlock said it like that.
“I don’t understand it!” He moaned. “A bit of inclement weather and the murderers and miscreants all vanish! It’s like they--” His hand flapped dismissively in the air. “--fly south for the winter or something. Like geese.”
John sighed. “So no new cases, then?” Oh Hell, he’d dreaded this.
“Lestrade has been aggressively silent.” Sherlock confirmed.
“Nothing on the site?”
John winced. It was his a last ditch effort, but he had to do something. “You could try to find Moriarty again.”
Sherlock turned to regard him with a poisonous glare. “John. I do advise you to stop talking now.”
John deflated. Oh God. It was come to this. It was drastic. So very drastic. But he was running out of patience and Mrs. Hudson could only take so much before even she reached her breaking point.
Maybe he wouldn’t have to do it. Maybe Sherlock would get a case. Lestrade could call any minute with some snow-covered corpse wrapped in cellotape or something. Anything. Wearily, he trudged up to his room to change into some dry trousers and maybe rub something soothing onto his shoulder. He opened his door, and an involuntary scream tore out of his throat just as his body hurled him back against the far wall of the corridor.
“Bloody Hell!” He shouted. For there, on his bed, sitting atop a large sheet of thick plastic, was a complete human torso. Male, for what it was worth, and it was oozing.
“Problem?” Sherlock’s unpurturbed voice drifted up the stairwell.
John swore again, slammed his door and leaned heavily against the wall.
“That’s it!” He called down, malice and exasperation edging his words. “We’re going to America!”
There was a lengthy pause, then: “...what?”
Chapter 2: Destination: Knoxville
Two: Destination: Knoxville
“It’s warm there, even this time of year. Well, warmer anyway.”
“John, I have no interest in anything the United States have to offer.”
“Sherlock, I promise you, this is so far up your street it’s sitting in your chair.”
“What could there possibly be in the whole of...Tennessee that could possibly draw me away from London?”
John sighed. “Sherlock, what am I?”
He closed his eyes. Patience, John. “Other than that.” He said through gritted teeth.
“And doctors do...?”
“John, please just get to the point!”
John threw up his hands and spun away from the kitchen table. “We work with bodies, Sherlock! Human bodies. Our stock and trade, our very reason for employment, is the human body.”
“As is mine. Just after the human has vacated it.”
“Yes, well, we don’t all work with the living ones.”
“Well, no. There are medical examiners. Molly Hooper for all she’s frighteningly...damp, is actually quite competant in that area.”
John leaned against the back of his favorite arm chair and crossed his legs, his arms braced against the chair top. “Not just ME’s. You have heard of Forensic Anthropology, haven’t you?”
Sherlock gave him one of those withering why do I even bother? looks. “John, please be aware to whom you are talking.”
“Look, you’re obsessed, yes obsessed and don’t give me that look, with the decomposition of human remains. You’ve put this poor flat and our poor landlady through Hell trying to understand the things that can happen to necrotized flesh and organs.”
“You’re stating the obvious, John. It’s annoying.”
“We’re sick of it! I’m tired of coming home to the smell of rotting fingers. I’m done finding dismembered former people on the sofa or in my bed! Ever since your cases dried up, you’ve lost all sense of boundary and personal space, what little you had of it to begin with. And I know, really I do, that Mrs. Hudson would go to the moon for you. And I also know that you do, in fact, care deeply for her. But Sherlock, you’ve gone too far. Even she can’t keep turning a blind eye to you and your insane need to push everything to the limit. So I’m taking you to the one place, maybe in the entire world, where you can be just as morbid and curious and obsessive as you like without putting anyone out.”
Now Sherlock looked intrigued. His eyes began swiveling back and forth in their sockets as though he were undergoing REM sleep. He was compiling data, sifting through memories, dragging his collosal brain away from the boundaries of England, past the limits of Europe, across the Atlantic and finally into the very heart of what might be the civilized world’s greatest ongoing headache.
His mouth went slack, his eyes shone, his breath quickened. His pale, smooth, expressive face split into a wide, predatory smile. Most people only ever saw a smile like that on the other side of the glass at the aquarium.
“Oh, John.” He breathed, and it sounded downright sensual. He stood, lithe and deliberate as a snake, and clapped his hands to John’s shoulders. His eyes were smouldering. “John, I swear, if you’re talking about what I think you’re talking about, I am going to kiss you.”
John blanched at the thought. “That...really depends. What are you thinking?”
“John.” He lowered his head, his eyes flashing and hungry. “Do not. Toy with me.”
John could only move his gaze to his laptop. Sherlock followed his eyes, sprang on the machine and yanked it open. John had stopped bothering with a password, so Sherlock only had to hit the return button to see what John had last been viewing. It was the Univeristy of Tennessee Knoxville website, specifically the page devoted the their Forensic Anthropology department, the one housing a facility colloquially known as “The Body Farm”.
Sherlock looked up, his eyes blazing, and stalked over to John. True to his word, he grabbed John’s face with both hands and planted an enthusiastic smooch right on John’s lips before spinning on his heel and jumping around the flat like a four-year-old on a sugar high.
“Oh yes! Oh, thank you! We’re...and we’ll actually...? And this is real?!” Morbid as it was, John couldn’t help but grin at his flatmate’s glee.
“Ho-how? I mean, they don’t just open this to the general public! You...and we...and I...and...and...oh, John!”
“Slow down, Sherlock. You’ll end up hurting yourself. I know people.”
He froze, and stared at John intently. “People? What people? How long have you known people at the bloody Body Farm?!”
“Technically? Since Afghanistan. But he didn’t work at the University of Tennessee then. He was an army medic like me. We met at a seminar they gave us before we deployed. His name is Anthony Bruges.”
“And how long has he worked...there?”
“A few months now. We keep in touch, some of us. Just a nod to say we’re still alive. Still sane. More or less.”
Sherlock had his hands in his pockets, and his whole body was attentive, leaning toward John and all but vibrating as he listened.
“He decided he’d had enough people die on him. He didn’t want to risk losing another patient, so he figured he might as well work on the ones who are already dead. Took up Forensic Anthropology because it let him work with the police, and it felt more like action than medicine.”
“So he’s pretty much back to basics. He’s studying at the University and working with the cadavers to get the required doctorate. I told him about you, what you do and how you do it, he passed it on to the faculty and administrators, and you’ve got something of a standing invitation.”
Sherlock frowned. “And how long have I had this invitation?”
John shrugged. “A couple weeks. Molly gave you a glowing reccomendation, by the way. We’re going to Bart’s tomorrow so you can thank her.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Sherlock demanded.
“Because I don’t particularly relish the idea of leaving London. Because I’d hoped you could pull yourself together before it got this far. Because I’ve never been to America and I’m not exactly over the moon about traveling to another foreign country where the natives enjoy brandishing guns at people they don’t like. If I wanted that I’d go back to Afghanistan.”
Sherlock’s face wrinkled up in a knowing grin. “But you do want to go back to Afghanistan. That’s the whole reason you’re with me.”
John sighed. “We’re leaving in two days. I suggest you start packing.”
He turned to go to his room, thankfully Sherlock had removed the torso after only a few expletives and some minor screaming from John, when the detective’s voice stopped him in his tracks.
“You’re not telling me everything, John.” The doctor turned around to face his friend. Sherlock went on, “You can’t even afford this flat without my help. You row with the chip and PIN machine when your balance is low. You make some money at the surgery but not enough to waste on extravagences like an overseas flight to the United States. How did you afford this?”
John placed his thumb and forefinger on the bridge of his nose. Oh this would be painful. “Mycroft thinks you need a holiday, too.” He said, and he turned on his heel and tromped upstairs, leaving a sputtering, red-faced Sherlock behind him. It was a hollow victory, but he’d take it.
Chapter 3: Farewell, Brittania!
Three: Farewell, Brittania!
“So, you’re really leaving then?” Molly’s smile was so fragile a breeze would shatter it. She clutched her clipboard with white knuckles and her eyes shone wetly as she gazed at Sherlock. It really was painful to watch.
“Yes, Molly. In fact, Sherlock has something he’d like to say to you.” John pushed heavily against Sherlock’s shoulder.
Sherlock’s head snapped up, as though John had woken him from a trance. “Hm? What? Oh, yes. Right. Thank you, Molly. For your...help. With the...Thank you.”
Molly’s thin veneer was cracking as she stared at Sherlock uncertainly, her smile stretching into what looked frighteningly like a death rictus.
“Sherlock means thank you for your reccomendation to Dr. Collet, Molly. It helped him get invited to the facility.”
“The Body Farm, yesss.” Sherlock still grinned manically at the very mention of U. Tennessee’s unique program.
“Oh. That. I just...they asked and, I thought...”
Sherlock looked at John, imploring. John waved his hand in a “go on” gesture. Sherlock furrowed his eyebrows in a silent “do I have to?” John nodded, smirking.
Sherlock sighed heavily and stepped close to Molly. With obvious reluctance, he wrapped his arms around her in an awkward but forceful hug. She squeaked, quite literally, and her own arms tentatively wrapped around his torso, patting gently at his back. She smiled a genuine smile then, and tilted her head to rest against Sherlock’s chest. If she’d been a cat she would have purred.
Sherlock broke away abruptly and spun to face John, his eyebrow cocked in a tacit there, you happy? John smiled.
“Um.” Molly fumbled. “You’re...you’re welcome. Really.”
“Good!” Sherlock clapped his hands together and rubbed them eagerly. “Shall we go, John? I really can’t wait to see Anderson’s face when I give him the news!”
“You, an ocean away for an entire month? I’m fairly sure he’ll throw a parade.”
“A month?!” Lestrade’s face was white, tinged purple. Honestly, John really should be a better man than this, but he was fighting back a giggle at the sight of an apoplectic DI.
“You can’t be gone for a month! What if I need you?”
“Oh, nonsense Lestrade. The criminal classes of London are a joke these days. I’m sure even you lot can handle what little action there is this time of year.”
“Sherlock, crime does not take holidays!”
“Well, apparently, I do.”
John decided then that he really did have to intervene. If only to keep Lestrade from a heart attack. “It is only a month, Detective Inspector. And he’ll have his mobile and his computer. If you really need him, it’s not like you can’t get in touch.”
Lestrade glared at him. “Why are you doing this John? He never took holidays before you came along.”
John shrugged. “If you had to live with him, you’d need a holiday too.”
Sherlock glared at him. John met his gaze and held it, until the lanky detective had to look away and shrug.
“Is it true? The sociopath is leaving?” Anderson poked his head into Lestrade’s office. “Is it permanent?” There was no missing the eagerness in his voice.
Sherlock turned his wolfish smile to the forensic detective. “Sorry, Anderson, but it’s temporary. John has managed to get us invited to the University of Tennessee. Knoxville” His voice dripped with smugness, and Anderson’s face blanched.
“You mean the place where they take the bodies and...”
Sherlock’s smile widened, and his eyes gleamed.
“Good Lord.” Anderson breathed. “Only you would consider that place a holiday.”
Sherlock whirled around on Lestrade, his coat swirling around his legs like something out of a Victorian romance. “Lestrade, just think of all I can learn there! All those bodies, all those conditions. Time, environmental factors, insect activity! All those little things that murderers think can hide the evidence, and I’ll be able to see right through them. Come on, this is invaluable!”
Lestrade sighed, his fingers rubbing hard at his forehead. “Well, I don’t suppose I can stop you.”
“The tickets are paid for. I’ve taken some leave from the surgery. There’s really no turning back now.” John confirmed.
“Where will you be staying? A hotel is pricey for a month’s stay. You’re not holing up in one of the dorms are you?”
John smiled faintly. “No, no the University has on-campus housing. They’ve arranged to give us a flat--”
“Apartment.” Sherlock corrected automatically.
“...an apartment, while we’re there.”
“When do you leave?”
“Tomorrow morning.” Sherlock all but crowed. “Oh I can’t wait! It’s like Christmas. Every Christmas. All at once!”
“You are a sick, sick man.” Anderson sneered.
Sherlock ignored him, instead grabbing John’s arm and dragging him out of the DI’s office with a cry of, “Come on, John! We need research!”
John gaped, mouth practically unhinging itself, at the state of their flat.
“Sh-Sherlock?” He stammered.
“Yes, John.” Sherlock’s head popped up from behind the arm of the sofa. His hair was dishevelled, his eyes fever-bright, and his lips were stretched in a truly horrifying cheshire grin.
“Why is every flat surface, and I’m including the floor in that, covered in magazines?”
Sherlock’s grin, impossibly, grew wider. “American magazines, John! I’m learning how to be an American!”
John’s brain went blank for a moment, and he could only sputter, “What...Wh--Why? We’re going for a visit, we’re not moving there!”
Sherlock quirked an eyebrow at him, knowingly superior. “John, you didn’t go off to fight in Afghanistan without learning at least some of the language, did you?”
“Well, no. I mean, Pashto, a bit of Dari to get by. But Sherlock, they speak English over there.”
Sherlock scoffed. “Hardly. Listen to this.” And he opened to a page in something called Wire Tap. He read aloud in a strange, flat voice, and John realized to his horror that Sherlock was attempting to imitate an American accent.
“Think your calls are safe? Think again. That flashy new headset you’ve got suction-cupped to your face may actually be one of the least secure devices on the market. And if that’s not enough, Uncle Sam seems determined to get a look at your memory. Every text, pic or stupid chain message you send could be re-routed to a government database near you.”
John just stared for a moment. “That...was truly horrifying.” He managed.
“I know, isn’t it? You might as well take the English language and beat it with a hammer.”
“No, not the article, you git! Your voice! Never do that again!”
Sherlock looked wounded. “Was it that bad? I admit I haven’t studied the inflections as much as I’d like. American tel-TV is just so...tedius.”
“Oh, God, what have I done?” John muttered.
“I must be an absolute idiot, letting you loose on an unsuspecting foreign country. There’ll be another war.”
“Oh I doubt it, America is already struggling on at least two fronts and it would be monumentally stupid to start yet another conflict with a current ally.”
“No, not--” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Different war, Sherlock.”
The detective looked blank. Dear lord it was the solar system all over again. “Sherlock, a few hundred years back there was a war between America and England. That’s how America happened. It’s something of a big deal over there, I understand.”
“Really? There’s no mention of it in these magazines.”
John let out a breath. “I’m honestly surprised. Those damn marines couldn’t shut up about it in Afghanistan.”
“So...it’s something an American would know a great deal about?”
“I guess so. At least they’d be pretty familiar with it.”
John frowned. “I don’t know much actually. The American War for Independence. Happened...late eighteenth century I think. Something about tea...”
“No, John, they prefer coffee over there.”
John cleared his throat. “Yes, well. I’m sure Tony can tell you everything you want to know. Or if he can’t I’m sure Dr. Collet can fill in the gaps.”
“John...John...John...” Sherlock’s rasping stage whisper was punctuated by a soft yet persistant knocking on John’s door.
John reluctantly relinquished his hold on sleep. “Sherlock?” He mumbled. He couldn’t seem to find his hands. Oh, there they were. Stupid blanket had them.
“Oh, good, you’re awake. Can I come in?”
“To my room?!” Oh, ow. Much, much too early for shouting. How early was it?
“Yes. Obviously. Are you decent.”
“Sherlock, it’s three in the morning. No one is decent at this hour. I am homicidal at this hour.”
There was a very lengthy silence on the other side of the door.
“Hm? Oh, sorry. I was just trying to imagine if you’d give me any trouble solving your crime. If you commited one, that is.”
“You’re already in prison, John. Sorry.”
“Too right I am.” John muttered. “I don’t supposed if I ignore you you’ll go away?”
“And if I tell you to go away?”
He groaned. “Then come on in, you absolute madman.”
Sherlock all but hurled the door open, glanced disinterestedly about the sparsely furnished and even more sparsely decorated bedroom and threw himself onto the foot of the bed. He was fully clothed, but they weren’t the clothes he was wearing the night before. Ah, so he’d decided against sleeping tonight. Lovely.
“Here.” He said, handing John a piece of paper. It glowed spectrally in the weak light coming in through the window. “Quiz me.”
John blinked blearily at the paper. The letters, hard to distinguish in the very poor light, seemed to swim in front of his eyes. Resigned, he flicked on the lamp by his bed and stared at the words until they finally settled down, like they were supposed to.
“Sherlock, what is this?”
“Parlance. Go on, quiz me.”
John shook his head and gave reading another go. “Uh...lift.”
“Elevator. Too easy, next.”
“Cookie, Dutch origin I believe. Continue.”
“Sherlock do we have to do this?”
“Fine, fine. Lorry.”
They went on like that, honestly for hours, until the sun came up and John reluctantly crawled out of bed and got dressed, Sherlock pouring over the list as though he had exams the next day.
“Tests.” Sherlock said absently. How did he bloody do that?
By the time they got to the airport, John had worked himself into a foul mood. He repeatedly checked his pocket for his passport and constantly checked and re-checked the list he’d printed out detailing the frankly absurd security restrictions imposed by the American airports. Jesus, were they honestly expecting some unhinged zealot to fly in from Heathrow? He glanced at Sherlock who was tapping his fingers together in front of his lips, his eyes gleaming with a terrifying light.
Okay, point U.S.
Chapter 4: Café Americana
Four: Café Americana
Oh, yes. John decided it was good to have an in with the British government...British secret service...CIA...whatever Mycroft was this week. First class was definitely the only way to fly. John snuggled soundly into his cozy cocoon of a seat and did his level best to forget the morning thus far.
Sherlock had, bizarrely, slipped through airport security without so much as a second glance. John, on the other hand, hadn’t been so lucky. He wasn’t detained or anything, it was far worse. He was recognized.
He’d been only a private when John knew him. His name was Aiden Warwick, and he was a chatty sort. Or, rather, talkative as Sherlock would say these days. And John was pleased to see a familiar face that wasn’t riddled with scars or plastered with a vacant, haunted stare. Warwick had been something of an office boy in the war, not likely to see action while there were generals needing their washing. He’d gotten past the metal detectors easily enough, but Warwick was determined to go over every minute detail of their lives since they’d last spoken. Sherlock hadn’t been amused. And an incensed Sherlock is an observant Sherlock. The consulting detective had gotten as far as Warwick’s newfound impotence before John had grabbed him by the arm and bodily moved him to the terminal entrance.
John had hoped after that to just get to the gate and board the plane already, but Sherlock naturally had other ideas. He’d flown to the Duty Free, perused absolutely every item on the shelves only to stock up on Toblerones (apparently a favourite, John couldn’t abide them. Something about honey and chocolate together seemed just a little wrong) and waltz away toward a bloody Starbucks. For God’s sake.
By the time they finally reached the gate, Sherlock was trembling visibly around his styrofoam cup, had a bit of chocolate smeared around the corner of his mouth, and had managed to make them late for their boarding.
But now it was over. They were in their seats, the plane was in the air, and there was nothing Sherlock could do to muff things up.
“Fuck...Fuck off...” He heard the unmistakable baritone beside him. He groaned.
“Sherlock, what are you doing now?”
“Collquial profanity, John. Very important. One might even go so far as to consider it the backbone of communication.”
“Okay, but do you have to do it aloud?”
“Oh, shut it.”
Sherlock glared over at him, his face a study in impatience. “John, this is actually far more complex than you’d imagine. If you’d kindly let me work, I hope to have the phraseology well in hand before we arrive.”
“Why is this so important to you?” John demanded. “Even if we don’t sound like Yanks we can still get our point across.”
“The art of disguise, John. You said yourself the United States can prove hostile to outsiders. Only a fool would go unprepared for unforseen complications.”
John sighed. “Alright, give me the list.”
Sherlock gave him a tight smile and handed over the paper. There were several hand-written additions to it, and it had pages now. John groaned quietly.
“Yes, keep going.”
John shrugged. “Take-away.”
And on, and on, until they both fell asleep to a truly heinous film. Oh, pardon. Movie.
“At this point your pilot would like to welcome you to Knoxville, Tennessee. The local time is 1:26 p.m. and the temperature is a mild 57 degrees. We are approaching our final descent into Tyson McGhee Airport, we hope you have enjoyed your flight and have a wonderful stay.”
“Fifty-seven degrees...?” John breathed, disbelieving.
“Farenheit, John. Do wake up.”
“Our flight was delayed by almost two hours, apparently. I gather we were flying above a storm.”
“Oh. We were?”
“Great.” Sherlock said automatically.
“Oh, please don’t start. I’ll use the lingo if and when it becomes necessary, not before. I’m English. Geography won’t change that.”
“You’re grumpy when you wake up.”
“Grump...oh piss off.”
“Buzz off, here. And it’s rarely used. Oh, look, you can see the buildings now.”
“You can, Sherlock. I don’t have a window seat.”
“Turbulance coming, John.”
“How can you--” He was cut off by a sharp juddering in the plane. He felt vaguely as though he were a tossed salad. After several bone-rattling moments, the plane eased from nearly vertical back to horizontal. There was a sharp jolt as the landing gear made contact with the runway, and after a time the plane came to a slow stop alongside their gate.
Sherlock was on his feet before the pilot had finished his speech, and John barely had time to blink before his carry-on bag was thrust painfully into his chest and Sherlock’s spider-like fingers were clenched around his arm and he was yanked to his feet.
“Are you getting off the plane? Or do I leave you here for the flight attendants to sort out?” Sherlock demanded.
Wearily, John fell into step behind the detective and was soon jostled from behind by a very impatient line of travellers waiting to disembark. With a deep, long-suffering sigh, he made his way clumsily to the front of the plane so he could take his first steps on American carpeting.
Oh. Thought John as a burly, tanned man in a security uniform patted him down. So this is what a criminal feels like. Another man, smaller in stature, was riffling through his bags with surgical intensity. A deep, rolling laugh from just ahead caused him to lift his head. Sherlock was recieving similar treatment at an identical table just up the corridor from John, but rather than grumbling or pouting about it, he seemed to be striking up a conversation with his detail. John saw him tilt his head back and laugh that low, rich laugh of his that made women like Molly misplace their centre of gravity. The security guard patting down Sherlock’s jacket was grinning madly, his teeth a blazing white against his deep black skin. The man pawing through Sherlock’s suitcase looked to be snorting back laughter. Damn you, Holmes. John seethed.
They were finally released from the inspection, only to find themselves trapped at the back of a seemingly endless queue of impatient men and women shifting their weight from foot to foot.
“Hey, what was that back there?” John asked.
“Hm? What? Oh, the search. I was just explaining the dangers of riding atop a double-decker bus in the rush hour to Cecil and Riley. They’re very fond of first names here, did you know? I honestly don’t know what their surnames are.”
“What is it with you?” John demanded. “Back home you can’t manage two words of conversation before making someone contemplate murdering you, and here you’re Mr. Popularity.”
Sherlock beamed. “New country, John. Whole new horizons.” And he strode off to cover the distance that had suddenly opened in front of them. John, naturally, followed.
“Name?” The woman demanded. Her voice was tired, her eyes puffy. She held out her hand expectantly.
“Sherlock Holmes.” The detective didn’t miss a beat, and he handed her his passport.
“And your reason for visiting the United States of America is business or pleasure?”
“Oh, most definitely pleasure. Perhaps a dash of business if it comes up, but I’m not actively seeking it out.” He was being a complete idiot, but the woman seemed to be eating it up. She lowered her eyelids a bit and curved her lips into a shy smile. It made her burgundy lipgloss sparkle in the flourescent lights.
“And...how long will you be staying?” She asked, coyly.
“Oh, just a month. Can’t have too much of a good thing, can we...Shanise?” John could hear the raised eyebrow. Dear, God he’d slipped into another universe, it was the only explanation. The woman, Shanise, tittered at Sherlock and gently pressed a stamp against a page in his passport. John heard the familiar click that accompanied one of Sherlock’s puckish winks just as his flatmate marched on, his coat tucked firmly under on arm.
John approached Shanise’s desk, his passport at the ready.
“Name?” She asked. Her voice was distant and distracted, and her eyes kept glancing in the direction Sherlock had gone.
“Are you with him?” She asked. Somehow that did not seem standard procedure.
John sighed. “Yes, I am. I’m his minder.”
“His doctor.” John slipped into the familiar excuse as easily as pulling on a glove. Doctors, eh? Necessary evil and all that.
“Oh...” Shanise seemed to be calculating something. “So, business then?”
“Not if I can help it. I’m hoping he manages somehow to stay out of trouble for a bit.”
“I’ll put you down for both.” She said warmly. Oh, well. Perhaps Americans at home were a bit more genteel than the ones on holiday.
“One month, right?”
“Enjoy your time in the United States Dr. Watson.” She said, handing him back a freshly stamped passport.
“Thank you, Miss...”
“Shanise, sweetie. Just Shanise.”
“Shanise.” He nodded. It felt strange to have a complete stranger treat him so...well it was just strange. And “sweetie”? Did people actually say that? He grabbed his bag and followed in Sherlock’s endless wake, shaking his head as though he could rattle some comprehension into it.
He found Sherlock flitting about the luggage claim, no doubt piecing together everyone’s life stories from the colour of their suitcase or the amount of wear on the handle or something. John knew he was being unreasonably tetchy at the moment, but just then he couldn’t bring himself to care. He was tired, he was sore, he was jet lagged and Sherlock was somehow managing to be a completely different person and yet more Sherlock than John had ever seen him. It gave John a headache, quite honestly, and he just wanted to get to the fla--apartement and collapse onto the nearest bed until the world came back into focus.
“Ah! John, there you are. I’ve got your bags here. Are you ready to go out on the town?”
“I’m ready to collapse, Sherlock. Let’s just get to the university and call it a day.”
Sherlock looked puzzled. “John, it’s barely gone two and you want to sleep?”
John grumbled. “No, Sherlock, it is not two. It is, in fact, seventeen hundred hours. It is evening, in the sane world, and you’ve kept me awake since three this morning. Sleep on an aeroplane--”
“Shut it! Sleep on a plane is hardly sleep at all. I’ve got a crick in my neck, my shoulder is on fire, I’m completely exhausted and I just. Want. To. Lie. Down. Can you accept that, Mr. American? Or am I going to have to find my way to the university on my own?”
Sherlock sighed and jammed his hands into the pockets of his jacket. “Fine. We can go to the apartment and meet Anthony Bruges and you can be boring and predictable all day long, will that help you turn back into John Watson again?”
“Oh for Christ’s...let’s just go Sherlock.”
And together they stormed out of the terminal, out of the airport, and onto American soil, where Sherlock still managed to hail a cab on the first try. Tosser.
Chapter 5: Decompose Yourself
Extremely graphic and disgusting depiction of a decomposed human body in this chapters and others to follow. Brace yourself.
Five: Decompose Yourself
The cab was...small. It was also silver and completely unadorned save for a small placard on the roof. John felt like he was sitting in some bloke’s car, rather than using public transport. It vaguely unnerved him. Taxis should be black and boxy and spacious on the inside, with little plastic windows separating the front from the back.
Sherlock was silent in his seat. That wasn’t so unusual, he often spent their cab rides staring out the window in deep contemplation, his hands constantly in motion either tapping against his chin or flexing against one another as he pieced together some puzzle or clue buzzing in his head. What was unusual was the tall man’s singular concentration on the contents of his own wallet. John stared at him, baffled, until a jittery little thought made its way into his jet lagged brain.
Money! He had about sixty quid in his wallet just then, but nothing in American currency. Oh hell. Oh bloody, bloody hell! He hadn’t gone to the exchange! And Sherlock had been more or less in his sights the entire time they were at the airport, so it was unlikely he’d gone.
The detective began muttering. “Bucks...twenty bucks...no, that’s not right. Twenty dollars fifty...no...”
“Sherlock.” John hissed. “Sherlock?”
Sherlock jerked his head up, looking at John. “What?”
“How are we going to pay? Do you think he takes cards?” John nodded toward the cabbie.
Sherlock wrinkled his brow. “What? No, John, don’t be stupid. I have cash.”
Sherlock tilted his open wallet toward John. Sure enough, it was full of rather dirty looking greeny-brown, yellow-orange, and greyish bills. John had seen American money, of course, but never up close. Were these bills new? They looked positively...grimy.
“Where did you...” but he let the question fade off. Of course Sherlock had American money. He probably collected foreign currencies or something just to pass the time.
“But the money itself isn’t what’s important, John.” Sherlock was off now, one of his machine-gun oratories. “It’s the method by which you discuss the money. Now you already understand the discrepancy between a currency’s label and it’s name. What is the label of British currency? The pound. What do we usually call it? Quid. Now it’s similar here, substitute dollar for pound and buck for quid, don’t ask me why though I haven’t yet found the origin. But it goes further even than that because money is such a constant staple of conversation that a whole plethora of slang has developed around its use. Say you’re in a coffee shop, that one round the corner from our flat for instance where the lady behind the counter has a squint and always calls you ‘love’, now you buy a coffee, maybe a scone if you’re peckish, and you get your total, say four pounds and eighteen pence. Well, we don’t say that, do we? Takes too long, you’ve got your coffee and your pastry and you want to be off. She’s got a line of impatient customers behind you and she needs to keep things moving, so, economy of language, what does she say? Not four pounds and eighteen pence, she shortens it, then, to four pounds eighteen. I hazard it’s similar here, but how would they shorten a similar phrase? Four dollars and eighteen cents becomes what? Four dollars eighteen? Four bucks eighteen?”
“Just four-eighteen, actually.” Came a voice from the front seat. John and Sherlock both looked up to see the cabbie smiling at them in the rear view. “We don’t use anything but the numbers, for the most part.” There was laughter in his voice. Was he mocking them? No, no he seemed genuinely amused.
“Really?” Sherlock slumped against his seat, suddenly boneless in the absence of a puzzle. His eyes were positively starry. “How...efficient.”
John rolled his eyes and snatched up Sherlock’s wallet, riffling through the money inside. Green...green and white...grey-green...ugh, this one with the ten on it looked a downright toxic shade of orange. Was that purple on the five? How did they manage to make purple look depressing? The overall effect was of something green, but not a nice green, more the green of pea soup that’s been left in the sink for a few days.
Sherlock took the opportunity to strike up a conversation with the cabbie, sorry, “cab driver” about everything from the most popular mobile phones to Knoxville’s best restaurants to which music he liked to listen to on the radio.
“Man are you kidding?” The driver asked. “This is Knoxville!” And with that he pressed a button on the car’s radio, and something twangy, nasally and loud blasted out of the speakers. John took a moment to let his ears adjust, and the cacophony resolved itself into something that rocked steadily to a persistent beat, mingling shivery high-noted trills with deep, staccato bass notes. He heard liberal use of a violin, but the musician seemed to be teasing notes out of the instrument that even Sherlock had never managed to find.
And just as he thought that, the violin suddenly leapt into something complex, dizzying and seemingly impossible. The notes followed one another in rapid-fire succession, careening chaotically from one end of the musical scale to the other, dipping and jumping and racing and sliding all at breakneck speeds. John glanced up at Sherlock, who had his eyes fixed on the radio, his mouth slightly open and his face flushed. The violin gave a last flourish, and calmed to a more sedate melody as it was joined by the rest of the band and the singer, who was doing something with his voice to make it both flat and shifting at the same time.
“What is that?” Sherlock demanded when the song was over, and the driver had turned off the stereo.
“That was Jimmy Bowers. He’s a legend, man. Best fiddler in the state. Probably in the country. That song is called Dark Rivers. It’s a huge hit around here.”
“And clearly a favourite of yours going by the regularity with which you listen to this song since you bought his CD. Probably directly from him, I’m guessing at a street performance or a small venue.”
“How’d you know that?” The driver asked, smiling. Odd how he didn’t seem irritable. Most people did when Sherlock started observing them. But then, Sherlock was being mild.
“You clearly have an appreciation for music, unlikely in this day and age then that you wouldn’t have an mp3 player, rendering discs obsolete. Obviously, though, you’d refrain from using a personal music device during work, so you’d keep CDs of your favourites on hand to listen to between fares. The track you just played was the seventh on the disc, yet you didn’t have to navigate to it. That says were listening to the song before you picked us up and paused it just before Mr. Bowers’ admittedly astonishing solo. You had to have known the exact time to pause, that indicates you’ve become very familiar with the timing of the track, so you’ve listened to it repeatedly. The sound quality, while quite good, is far from professional or polished so it’s a self-publication. Clearly you got the CD from Mr. Bowers’ band at a small concert, probably one of the street fairs I’ve seen advertised on just about every vertical surface since we reached Gay Street. Obvious.”
“Whoa. I think I just got whiplash from that conversation.” The driver said. “How do you know I paused it before the solo?”
Sherlock smirked, and John couldn’t help but feel cheered. He loved Sherlock’s deductions. They were dizzying, impressive, and by the end of it they made the world seem so...logical. But Sherlock was talking again.
“When I asked what the music was you responded with the violinist’s name, rather that the band’s. Clearly you value his performance above the rest of them and wanted and didn’t want to be interrupted while he was playing.”
The man grinned. “Guilty, guilty. Boy should have a record deal by now, but he’s still slumming around the street fairs and bars, playing for tips, barely getting by. It’s like he doesn’t want to get Noticed.” John could hear the capital N in the man’s voice. Like when Sherlock used the word “Game”. Lovely.
They spent the rest of the ride chatting companionably with the driver, whose name was Derrick. He, and apparently most of Knoxville, was a budding musician who played the bar circuit on the weekends and drove a cab to pay the bills. When he asked what their business was at the university, Sherlock’s answer and accompanying glee made his face turn green.
“Dude, are you serious? The Body Farm?”
“Oh yes.” Sherlock replied breathily.
“That’s messed up.”
When they pulled up to the campus, a lean, balding man with a tanned face was waiting for them. John hopped out of the cab, grabbed his proffered hand and pulled him into a firm hug. The man responded in kind, patting John’s back and beaming.
“John!” He grinned.
“Tony!” John smiled back. Sherlock popped up beside him, suitcase in hand. Derrick was busily pulling their luggage out of the boot of the cab, shaking his head and glancing uncomfortably at Tony’s white coat.
“Tony this is the man I wrote you about, Sherlock Holmes.” Sherlock extended a hand, which Tony shook warmly.
“Dr. Bruges.” He said, his voice clipped and businesslike.
“Oh, Tony, please. I won’t feel like a doctor again until I’m done with these bloody tests.”
Sherlock raised an eyebrow at John, who rolled his eyes.
Derrick slammed the lid down on the boot and Sherlock spun round on his heel to pay. John watched the following exchange with some interest, and when Derrick had driven off and Sherlock was again at his side he said, “You paid too much. I saw the metre in the cab, it didn’t come out to that much.”
Tony snorted, and Sherlock smirked. Oh, lovely. Now they were both taking the piss. “Tipping, John. It’s why he pulled our bags out of the trunk there.”
“The tr...you know, never mind. Let’s just go.”
“Good idea. You’ve got to be exhausted from your flight.” Tony said. “Let’s get you settled in then I can take you to meet Dr. Collet. She’ll tell you all about the facility and what you’ll be doing while you’re here.”
“Oh, identifying bodies I should think.” Sherlock responded.
Tony only smiled. “That, Mr. Holmes, and so much more.”
The walls were pale blue or white. The carpet was a blue so dark it was almost black. The kitchen gleamed with stainless steel appliances, the lavatory likewise in sparkling porcelain. There were two bedrooms, both spacious and both with large windows letting in the dazzling sunlight. It wasn’t, by any means, a grand flat, but it was open and well appointed and bright. It was everything the flat at Baker Street was not, and John found he simultaneously missed their dim, antiquated little home and yet revelled in the modern airiness of this new space. He collapsed on the sofa, which was beige and soft and didn’t squeak when he touched it, which was nice. The upholstery was lush and velvety to the touch, and he silently apologized ahead of time for all the horrible things that were likely to happen to it in the month to come.
“Hm...it’s clean.” Sherlock said, spinning round in the sitting room. It did not sound like a compliment.
“Consider it a challenge. We’ll see how messy and chaotic you can make it by week’s end.” John said absently. He hadn’t bothered to open his eyes.
“Mm. Quite.” There was a pause, and John heard Sherlock’s shoes against the carpet. He was heading for the door. “Well, I’m off to meet Dr. Collet. Do enjoy your nap, John.”
John sighed. Sod it all. He groaned at the sharp, protesting pain in his left shoulder and rolled himself up into a sitting position. He sat there for a moment, letting his head swim back into order, and braced himself to stand.
A pale, elegant hand appeared in front of him. He looked up to see Sherlock, wearing one of his rare genuine smiles, offering his help. John took it, unspeakably grateful, and felt Sherlock’s surprisingly strong grip help to pull him to his feet.
“It’s better to put off sleep when you’re jet lagged.” Sherlock said. “You’ll feel better in the morning.” John smiled. Coming from Sherlock, it was as good as home-made chicken soup brought to him in bed with piping hot tea and a little daisy in a glass vase. It was his I care about you gesture. He was full of them, really, you just had to know where to look.
John had never met Dr. Collet, head of the Forensic Anthropology Department. He’d never spoken to her, never even seen her picture. So he really, really wasn’t prepared for the woman he saw walking toward them though the rows of research tables with her hand outstretched and a warm smile on her lips.
She was tall, and slim. She had skin the colour of caramel with wide red lips that arched perfectly into a dimpled smile. Her hair was a gleaming dark chocolate, and it was pulled back from her face in an artfully simple twist. There were two pencils poking out of it. The pencils were blue. John felt his legs go to jelly, and briefly wished he still used that blasted cane. He gulped and forced himself to remember the gorgeous, vibrant, patient Sarah waiting for him back in London. Well, okay, maybe not exactly waiting. They hadn’t really settled on a definition for their...relationship? Though it had been a couple months now...and after that thing at the pool with Moriarty...
Oh, right, Dr. Collet. She was shaking Sherlock’s hand now, and he was smiling warmly. Were they talking? Oh, yes. Time to talk, now. No staring. Think of Sarah. Good John.
“Dr. Andrea Collet, Dr. John Watson. I believe you’ve spoken.” Sherlock was saying.
“Only e-mail. It’s nice to meet you Dr. Watson.” She took his hand. There were faint calluses on her fingers, small echoes of some of the ones on his, the result of years handling surgical tools.
“John, please.” He responded, taking her hand and shaking it firmly. Yes, colleagues. Perfectly professional. Nothing more.
“John. You might as well call me Andrea. But not Andy, or I’ll be forced to kill you.”
John chanced a glance at Sherlock, who had his eyebrows raised in that infuriating way of his. He flashed the detective his best oh, shut up! look and followed the retreating form of Andrea Collet.
“Can’t think of a better place to do it.” Sherlock commented. Andrea laughed.
“You’d think.” She said. “But every body here is catalogued, placed and monitored with absolute accuracy. We’re very invested in treating our subjects with dignity, and that includes knowing which is which and where we left them.”
They followed Andrea outside, to a mildly wooded area. It wasn’t overly large, but it wasn’t small either. In the middle distance, John could see a tall fence topped with some kind of swirling wired. Barbed or razor. He wondered if vandalism was a common problem at the body farm.
“Do you often get trespassers, Dr. Collet?” He asked.
“Andrea.” She corrected him. “And no, not really. It’s more of a precaution. The relatives of the people we study here want to know their loved ones’ remains are protected. Now, this is the part where I have to warn you about what you’re going to see.”
Sherlock went still, his body all but vibrating again. John could see through the blank expression to the barely suppressed joy beneath. He forced himself not to shudder.
“I understand from Dr. Watson that the both of you have seen your fair share of corpses, right?”
“Oh yes.” Sherlock smiled. His voice was snake-smooth. John just nodded.
“I have to ask if you’ve ever seen a body in a state of severe decomposition before.”
Sherlock shook his head. “Usually I get there fairly soon after the death took place. And the bodies at the morgue tend to be kept in as good condition as possible.” He seemed genuinely disappointed.
“I have.” John said. Sherlock rounded on him, his gaze intent. John felt a bit overexposed by that stare and he shrank into himself a bit.
“You have?” Andrea asked.
John nodded again. “Afghanistan. The sun, all that gear. There was an attack on one of the camps. By the time we got there they’d been sitting in the sun for just over a week. It was...”
Andrea’s face softened, and Sherlock placed a hand on John’s shoulder. John looked at him, and his face was calculating. The way it had been when John had stepped out into the pool wearing the SemTex coat. John though of it as his “this isn’t fun anymore” face. He shrugged away.
“But, it was a while ago.” He said briskly. “So, shall we?”
Andrea collected herself, and put on a smile. “Well, okay. From this point on we are in the body farm proper. Now, there are forty bodies currently under observation at the facility, all being exposed to various environmental conditions. We have one inside of a trash can, another is buried in a shallow grave. We have one in standing water, another in moving water. We have a body covered in organic refuse and another in synthetic refuse. We try to test as many possible scenarios as we can think of in order to identify as many post-mortem factors as we can. You, Sherlock, will be working with the students and doctors here to measure everything from decomposition rates to the metabolic systems of whatever insect life is present on the body to the relative soil conditions around the decomposing flesh compared to the soil further away.”
“And what about identification? Are there any cases currently under investigation?” Sherlock asked.
“Not at the moment, no. But we do have a couple of students here who are eager to show you some of the methods we’ve used in the past to identify compromised remains. You know how it is, when you’ve learned all you can you have to start teaching.”
“Indeed.” Sherlock nodded. “And John?”
“Er, is on holiday.” John supplied. “This whole...thing is really just to keep you from going starkers and destroying all of Mrs. Hudson’s furniture.”
Sherlock’s face fell. “Oh. So...you won’t...”
“No, Sherlock, I fully intent to lounge about the flat, eat far too much food, buy gifts for the folks back home and not spend my days ogling decomposed flesh.”
Sherlock looked positively miserable at that prospect. But Andrea piped up.
“I’m sure we’ll be able to keep you occupied, Sherlock.” She said. “You’ll hardly miss him. And besides, you won’t be able to use the facility outside of business hours, so you’ll have plenty of free time yourself.”
“Yes...yes, of course.” Sherlock still seemed uncertain, and John began to vaguely wonder when and how he’d managed to become Sherlock’s security blanket.
“Great. If you’ll follow me I’ll take you to our first subject.”
They followed her to a small, red shack surrounded by scraggly brown glass. She lead them around the side of the tiny building, and in all honesty neither man was prepared for what they found.
The first thing. The only thing. The every thing. Was the smell. Oh, good, sweet, merciful God that smell! Toes in the breadbox? Severed head in the fridge? Torso on the bed? Nothing! This smell was tangible. John could feel it clinging to his skin, his throat, his tongue. He felt his saliva glands kick into overdrive in a desperate attempt to wash all traces of it from the roof of his mouth. He gagged, and his stomach did flips inside his abdomen. His skin crawled, his hair stood on end. Oh God. Oh God. Oh Jesus bloody GOD!
Sherlock was faring better, but not by much. His already pale skin was now the precise shade of paper, his breathing shallow. His mouth was set in a very thin line, and his cheeks were hollow with the effort of holding back his breath.
John’s knees buckled, and he leaned heavily on the wall, torn between gasping for air and expelling every noxious molecule from his lungs. Sherlock briefly closed his eyes, clenching them slightly. Andrea, damn her, stood unfazed. No, correction, she did wrinkle her nose a bit.
“I’ll give you a moment to collect yourselves.” She said. “And here. In case you need it. The students refer to this as the VOMbucket.” She proffered a large, red, plastic pail. The letters V.O.M. were written on it in black marker.
“VOM?” Sherlock asked. His voice was slightly hoarse.
“Violent Outward Movement.” She smiled. “It’s silly, but it’s been called that for years. We’ve got VOMbuckets on hand at each research station. They...tend to get a lot of use. Especially at the beginning of the semester.”
“May be needing that.” John forced the words out, past the rising bile. His voice was tight, like he’d been punched in the stomach. Andrea nodded kindly. Sherlock just fixed his eyes on the pail longingly. That man and his bloody pride.
“I’ll keep it on stand-by. Come on in.”
Inside the building, the smell was, impossibly, worse. John choked on the air, and even Sherlock clutched at his stomach. Andrea held a hand over her nose and mouth and opened a drawer in a nearby cabinet. She handed Sherlock and John each a medical mask and a pair of rubber gloves before donning a similar set herself. John fumbled with the mask until it covered the lower half of his face, thankful for even its meagre relief from the stench. Sherlock simply kitted himself out with brisk, efficient movements.
Andrea moved to the middle of the small room and stood beside a large, dark pit. She reached down to a thick industrial cable running along the ground and flicked a switch on an attached control box. Light flooded the hole, and Sherlock curiously made his way to the edge, John reluctantly in tow.
The corpse that awaited them could not have been human. It had to be some sort of alien or demonic creature. There was no face. There was no skin. There were dark, festering chasms where the eyes should have been, a triangular depression that once had been a nose, and a wide, gaping grin of brown and black-stained teeth lacking anything to make it a mouth. The whole body heaved and seethed with movement. Things flitted and crawled and slithered over every available centimetre of rotting flesh. They gorged on tissue. They gorged on muscle. They gorged on each other. The pit wasn’t terribly wide, so the arms were forced up and out, away from the rest of the body, as though the wretched form was asking for a hug--John shuddered at the thought--and the knees were bent at right-angles. One of the hands had fallen off, all connecting tissue having been eaten away since the body was deposited in the ground.
John couldn't take anymore. He turned away, ran for the door, flung it open and gasped. The disgusting air seemed downright sterile compared to what he had been breathing in that room.
“John?” Sherlock’s voice was full of concern.
“I’m fine, Sherlock. I’m...I’m fine.” He was impressed by how strong he managed to make his voice.
“He’ll be okay. I did the same thing my first day here.” Andrea said. “Do you need the bucket?” She called.
“No. No, I think I’m alright.”
“Good.” Sherlock said. “Now, what am I looking at?”
John rolled his eyes. A dead person, you prat. He thought. But he turned back to watch the other two from the doorway.
“Jeffrey Saunders, age twenty-three. Died of leukemia. His uncle works for the police department in forensics. Jeffrey decided he wanted to help the police even if he couldn’t become one, so he donated his body to the Forensic Anthropology Department. I met him a couple times while he was in the hospital. Bright guy. Sweetheart. Broke my heart to see him in that bag.”
And you did that to him? John wanted to demand. He kept his mouth shut.
“Today is his last day on the farm. He’s the second part in a multiple-variable test. We’re analyzing the impact of depth on subterranean decomposition. Various strata holds various insect life, and creepy crawlies are a major factor in post-mortem change. We’ve got another body already moved inside from a much shallower pit, and since we’ve gathered just about all the data we’re gonna get from that one, it’s Jeffrey’s turn.”
“You keep referring to the body by name. Why?”
Andrea let out a breath. “Only while he’s here, Mr. Holmes. When we bring him inside and start cutting and classifying, he becomes ‘the subject’. But out here, while its happening, I prefer to remember that this was a person. It helps me cope. Not everyone does, but I met Jeffrey. He wanted to be here, to help us. So while he’s in the ground, he has a name. When he’s on the slab, he’s anonymous. And when we bury him again, he’ll be Jeffrey again. It’s...sort of my ritual.”
John waited for the inevitable onslaught of Sherlock’s criticisms on human frailty. It didn’t come. Instead, Sherlock was silent for a moment, then said, “Ah. Yes. I understand completely. Very commendable, doctor.”
When Sherlock called John “doctor” it was usually a tease or sarcasm. With Andrea, it was sincere and admiring. What was it with these Americans? It was like they had access to a side of Sherlock all of Britain never even got to glimpse.
“Tomorrow when you come in, Jeffrey will be waiting for you. Tony and I will show you standard procedure, and you’ll be allowed supervised access to the body and you’ll help us compile the data. When we’ve got everything, we’ll begin the comparisons between Jeffrey and Subject A to see what discrepancies we can find. Sound good?”
“A bit...structured, but I can appreciate the value of protocol when entering a new field of study. What time shall I arrive?”
“Ten a.m. sound good?”
“Perfect. And now I think it’s past time we got out of your hair. I’ll see you tomorrow, Andrea.”
“Till then, Sherlock.”
They returned to the flat in silence. It wasn’t terribly far, but it did make for a long walk, both of them moving at a sedate pace. John was tired, and ill, and that smell still clung to his clothes, hair and skin. A chill wind sprung up, and he wished he’d brought a jacket.
Sherlock was uncharacteristically still, his tread heavy. For all his bravado, that corpse had effected him deeply, John could tell. Sherlock never did get to see the whole thing, the real, visceral proof of the temporary nature of human beings. They still looked like people when Sherlock got to them. Or else, he saw them in bits when it was possible to distance the humanity from the object before him. He never got to see them in this in-between stage, when they looked just recognizable enough to be clearly labeled as Homo sapien, but were so completely altered that you couldn’t really call them a person anymore.
When they got inside, Sherlock let himself fall gracelessly on the sofa. John similarly collapsed into a chair. Neither man spoke for a good length of time. At long last, Sherlock spoke up.
“Sherlock, not now--”
“Please, John. I need to think of something else.”
John sighed, got up, searched through Sherlock’s bag for the list and plopped back onto the chair, his limbs heavy.
“Really?” John couldn’t help but snort. Sherlock responded in kind, and soon they were both wrapped up in hysterical laughter. The kind you only do when you’re desperate to keep from screaming.
Chapter 6: When You Walk
Six: When You Walk
“John, you need to wake up.”
Reality crashed into John’s brain, shattering his nighttime terror. His chest burned, his eyes stung. His throat was sealed around a painful, solid lump. And there were strong, wiry arms wrapped around him, pulling him up. A firm hand with long, tapering fingers stroked his hair and he sobbed brokenly into a steady chest.
“Shhh. Shhh. It’s over, John. It’s over.” Sherlock’s voice was a whisper. John let his hands go to Sherlock’s arms, gripping him just below the shoulders. He wept and heaved and gasped until his body eased back into his control. Dear God it had been a bad one. The worst since he got out of the hospital.
“Was I screaming?” He finally managed to ask.
He felt Sherlock shake his head. “Thrashing. Talking. I wasn’t sleeping.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
“No. You shouldn’t have to--”
“John. Shut up. I told you before, I don’t mind.”
“Yeah, well, I wish it wasn’t necessary.”
John felt Sherlock’s hand on this chin, his grip firm. He allowed his head to be tilted upward, and waited for Sherlock’s clinical scrutiny to come to an end. When his flatmate was satisfied that John’s mental state was once more stable, he let go and turned away, walking from the room as though nothing had happened. As though John had not all but suffocated himself in the cocooning sheets. As though the nightmares hadn’t returned.
“What was it this time?” Sherlock asked. He was standing at the window, watching the sun rise, his hands pressed together beneath his chin as though in prayer.
“Sorry?” John asked. He was still towelling his hair from the shower, and he hadn’t yet put socks on. It was too early and he was too out of it to deal with Sherlock’s cryptic moods.
“Your nightmare. It’s the first one you’ve had in a while. It was particularly volitile. It featured me.”
“How did you...?”
“You were muttering, John, I did tell you.”
John slumped against the wall, silent. He didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to talk about this. It had been a silent agreement between them. And if Sherlock was going to break his part of the deal, John would have no choice but to break his.
“Can we not do this today? I’m tired, you have work in a few hours, we’re meant to be on holiday.”
“John, you haven’t had a nightmare like that in more than two months. We need to talk about this.”
“Oh that’s--that’s rich Sherlock. Now you’re the authority on mental health, are you? I’m sorry, which of us is the sociopath again?”
“Stop it, John. You’re trying to put me off, and you’re doing a piss-poor job of it. It’s insulting to us both.” Sherlock’s voice had gone tight with impatience and anger. Good. An angry Sherlock was an off-balance Sherlock. If John played his cards right, he had about two seconds to re-route his flatmate’s train of thought.
“Yeah, well, hopefully you’ll be able to pull yourself together by the time you start cutting into young Jeffrey back at the lab.”
“Subject B.” Sherlock corrected. “And I know what you’re trying to do. I’m not letting you slip out of this, John. You need to talk about it.”
“Why?” John demanded. “I had a dream. It was bad. You helped. Can we just let it lie?”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because you knew it would happen!”
John froze, glaring at Sherlock. After a moment, he let his body relax, and with a resigned sigh he dropped limply to the sofa, one arm draped over his eyes. It was still soft, still beige, still unscathed. He wished it could stay that way.
“I don’t want to do this right now.” He said, but there was no force behind it.
Sherlock didn’t reply, just sank down into one of the armchairs, his elbows resting heavily on his knees. He let out a long, deep breath, then, “It wasn’t just the experiments, was it?” He listened to John’s silence for only a moment and went on. “They were part of it. Mrs. Hudson, that was true, too. You didn’t lie, you just omitted. It was clever of you, making me figure out our destination on my own. Using Mycroft. You wanted me distracted, so I wouldn’t guess why you really brought us here.”
John didn’t lift his arm, didn’t move an inch when he responded, “Don’t do this, Sherlock. Just enjoy the break, indulge your curiosity. Please, please don’t bring this out.”
“So you think I’ve figured it out.”
“You’ve been alone in this room for nearly an hour since you woke me. If you couldn’t deduce everything in that time you’re not the Sherlock Holmes I moved in with.”
“How long have you been worrying about it?” He asked, his voice uncharacteristically small.
John sighed. “Since you nearly drowned that time in the tub.”
“I was merely trying to determine--”
“I don’t. Care. Sherlock. You’re too cavalier with your own well-being. It’s bad enough you don’t eat or sleep when you’ve got a case, but the risks you’re willing to take when you’ve got nothing on...you can’t tell me I’m wrong. That it’s not just a matter of time.”
“Yes, I can.”
“You’d be lying.”
“Sherlock.” He finally moved his head and lifted his arm so he could see his flatmate. Sherlock was curled in on himself in the chair, hugging himself tightly and looking very small. Shame didn’t sit well on Sherlock. It changed him on some fundamental level. It made him too small for his skin, turned his pale eyes into dull iron. It crushed him.
“I won’t.” His voice was barely above a whisper. “I promise.”
John shook his head. “I wish I could believe you.”
“I’m clean!” Sherlock protested desperately. “I’ve been clean! For years!”
“And I aim to keep it that way. Even if it means flying all the way to America and looking at very, very dead people and having nightmares again because I’m not going to let it become an option, Sherlock. Whatever it takes.”
And that was it. The closets were open, the lights were switched on and the skeletons were high-stepping into the light of day. They had crossed their respective lines, and there was no going back now.
“Why can’t you trust that part of my life is over?” Sherlock asked.
John sat up. “Why? Why?! Because the day I moved in I saw half a dozen of London’s finest going through the flat. Because Lestrade isn’t a stupid man, for all you treat him like an imbecile. He wouldn’t have bothered setting up a drugs bust if he didn’t know there was something to find. If you were really as clean as you claim, you wouldn’t have cared. You wouldn’t have reacted the way you did. But you were thrown, Sherlock. You were scared. Because there are drugs in our flat. There always have been. Do you know what that means to me? Do you even care?
“Since I moved in I’ve seen you nearly drown yourself in the bathtub, almost garrot yourself with a violin string, narrowly avoid falling from your bedroom window when the rope around your ankle snapped, attempt to take a pill from a serial killer that was probably poison, get strangled by a foot soldier for a Chinese crime syndicate, engage in a battle of wits with a psychopathic murderer, and very nearly blow us both up in that bloody swimming pool! If you’re willing to do all that just because you’re bored, or curious, or frustrated, how can I ever discount the idea of you jabbing a needle into your arm just to see what happens? Tell me. Tell me what makes it so different, so impossible. Tell me how not to worry, Sherlock, please. Because I’d really, really like to know.”
He hadn’t shouted. He’d hardly raised his voice. But Sherlock had flinched from his words as if they were physical blows. John felt like an ass, but he’d needed to say it. It couldn’t stay tucked away in the shadows forever, and if Sherlock wanted to bring John’s subconcious battles into the light, he had to accept everything that came with them.
“I scare you.” They weren’t the words John was expecting. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting, but he knew it wasn’t that. He didn’t know how to respond, so he just let Sherlock talk. It was what he did best, after all.
“You’re terrified of me. Of the risks I’m willing to take. Because you think you’ll lose me. You think I’m eager to press my limits. That I’m reckless, careless, a danger to myself and the people around me. And maybe you’re right. I don’t think much beyond the immediate. I don’t know how to factor other people into my thoughts when I’m experimenting on myself, or working alone. I...forget. That there’s more than me.” He dragged his gaze up to John, locking his steely eyes on the soldier’s tired ones.
“But what I am now, the thing you’re so scared of, is nothing to what I was. You didn’t know me then. You never saw what I was like. Lestrade did. Mycroft, obviously. You can’t imagine how desperate I was. You have no idea how hard I worked to get clean, to earn the right to work. And you can take me at my word, John. I will never, never , risk going through that again. It wasn’t fun . It wasn’t interesting . It was painful, and it reduced me to nothing. And worse...” His mouth pinched as though he tasted bile. “I was forced to accept help from Mycroft.”
“He got you clean?”
“He assisted. And if you think for even one moment that I would willingly put myself back in a position where I need help from my brother, you don’t know me at all.”
John nodded. “Okay. Okay.” He got up and went to his room to grab a pair of socks and his wallet. When he returned to the sitting...sorry, the living room, Sherlock was once more at his window-pane vigil. John smiled thinly and grabbed his jacket from the hook on the wall.
“Well, are you coming?” John asked, his voice as light as he could make it. The olive branch. The delete key.
“Coming where?” Sherlock asked, turning to face him.
“Breakfast. Tony reccomended this diner down the way, says we have to try something called biscuits and gravy while we’re in the states. I figure it’s best to get it over with as soon as possible.”
Sherlock wrinkled his brow. “Do I get to refuse?”
John smiled more widely this time. “Oh, you don’t want to do that.”
“I struck up a deal with Dr. Collet.”
“With Andrea, why? What for?”
“We’ve come to a little arrangement, to keep you from keeling over this month. You’re to have a minimum caloric intake every morning, verified by me, or she won’t let you near the corpses.”
Sherlock’s eyes widened, his face couldn’t have looked more wounded if John had just drop-kicked his violin. “That’s not fair! You’re cheating!”
“I wonder where I learned that from. Come on, you can think of it as an experiment.”
Sherlock made a big show of grumbling, but John could see the smile just barely plucking at the corners of his mouth as he snatched his own jacket off the wall and followed on John’s heels.
They stared. What else could they do? Intellectually, John knew that Americans had their own bizarre, alien idea of what a biscuit was, but this ? This was just...odd. He’d heard people before describe the American biscuit as a kind of dense, flavourless scone. Those people were wrong, or at least not trying very hard. No, this thing on John’s plate wasn’t anything like a scone. He seriously doubted the hand that made this thing could even identify a scone, much less bake one. It was vaguely cylindrical, and very, very lumpy. It ranged in colour from a golden brown to a dusty yellow to a pale cream, but there was no flow to it. The colours just sort of...blotched over each other like the markings on a calico cat. It sat there, heavy and thick, on his plate. He glanced up at Sherlock, who was inspecting his own breakfast with the same critical eye he lent to caustic chemicals and analyses of pollen.
John hesitated. The thing...the biscuit, was imposing. Daunting. And it was positively drenched in a thick, pale sauce full of ground sausages. He held his fork uncertainly, unsure how to go about attacking this yeasty foe.
“Fascinating. It’s a very hardy foodstuff, don’t you think?” Sherlock’s eyes were sparkling. Did everything about America fascinate him? Hadn’t he said just a few days ago that nothing in this strange country held his interest?
“It must be a residual element from the frontier era. I could imagine something like this would provide sufficient nutrition and caloric content to stave off some of the hazards of pre-industrial travel.”
“Sherlock, are you serious? It’s a lumpy tower of bread.”
“You haven’t even tried it.”
“Oh, for Heaven’s...” Sherlock rolled his eyes and stabbed at the thing with his fork, breaking off a piece and dragging it through the sauce until it was completely coated. He popped it into his mouth without a second’s hesitation, and John waited.
A strange look came over Sherlock’s features as he ate. It wasn’t a look of disgust, or even displeasure. It was a look of...uncertainty. Such a rarity in this man that John had a sudden and powerful urge to snap a photograph with his phone.
“Well? How is it?”
Sherlock frowned. “I can’t...really describe. It’s...”
“Good or bad Sherlock?”
Sherlock levelled his gaze at him. “Really, John, I can’t presume to tell you how your own taste receptors will interpret any given food item. I can’t for the life of me understand what you see in sweet and sour chicken, for instance.”
“Just tell me if it’s edible Sherlock. In your opinion.”
Sherlock’s face brightened. “Oh, yes. Exceptionally so, in fact. Try it.”
John took a deep breath and let it out. Gingerly, he used his fork to work a bit of the biscuit away from the rest, and tentatively dipped it in some of the gravy that had flowed over the side to pool in his plate. With an anticipatory grimace, he took a bite.
It tasted...contradictory. There was a sharp bite from the spices in the sausage and gravy, but it was balanced by the soft, almost imperceptible savoury taste of the bread. There wasn’t much in the way of flavour from the biscuit itself, rather it served to both compliment and tame the riot of flavours in the surrounding sauce and meat, which was somehow spicier than he’d anticipated. The texture wasn’t rough, but sort of gentle. Inside of the lumpy crust, the biscuit was actually remarkably soft and flaky, prone to excessive crumbling, and it clung to the smooth sauce of the gravy and kept the tiny bits of sausage in place.
“Oh.” He said, when he’d swollowed the bite. “Wow.”
Sherlock grinned, already tucking into the remainder of his breakfast. They ate in silence as John tried to formulate a coherant opinion on the meal. Finally, when their plates were almost empty and Sherlock was industriously mopping up the last puddles of gravy with the scant remains of his biscuit, John voiced his conclusion.
“It’s a helper food.”
“Hm?” Sherlock said, his focus intent on the remaining sauce.
“It’s a helper food. It’s there purely for substance. Like pasta. It sort of...fills out the sauce and gives it something to work with. It’s not really something you eat on its own. It needs stronger flavours to sort of...play off of.”
Sherlock drained the last of his coffee with a gulp. “Fascinating John, really. What time is it?”
John glanced at his phone.
“Uh, it’s just gone nine.”
“Perfect, finish up and we can head to the lab.”
“You know I’m not staying, don’t you? I’m just going to pop in, say hello to Andrea, see you settled in and I’ll be on my way.”
Sherlock deflated slightly. “Yes, yes I know. I understand, John.”
They said no more about it. Instead, John finished his breakfast, drank his coffee (he was already painfully missing tea) and flagged down the waitress to get the bill...cheque...check. Sod it. Sherlock snatched the little folder out of his hands, read the slip of paper inside, and furrowed his brow for a moment, as though calculating in his head.
“Sherlock, just pay so we can go. Or shall I use my card?”
Sherlock ignored him. He fished in his wallet for a few bills, slipped them into the folder and left it on the table’s edge. The waitress returned in short order, picked up the envelope, disappeared and returned very quickly with the change. John, satisfied, started to get up, but he froze when Sherlock counted out the change, pulled another greeny-grey bill out of his wallet, and set the lot down in the middle of the table. Then he stood and spun on his heel, heading for the exit. John scrambled to catch up.
“Tipping, John. It’s very nearly mandatory.” He said without turning round. John hated it when he did that. Sometimes.
“Oh. Right, I forgot about that. Why?”
He could hear the smirk in Sherlock’s voice. “Because waitresses in America, on average, make slightly more than half of the nation’s minimum allotted wage hourly. The remainder is expected to be made up in tips, supplied by customers. At best, I would call it a rudimentary institution for quality control, because the general belief is that customers tip more generously for superior service, a system which invites service staff to strive to perform at their best at all times. Sadly, the system fails to take into account the cornerstones of any service economy.”
Sherlock turned to smirk at John directly. “Skinflints, cheapskates, and foreigners who don’t know what tipping is.” And he spun round again, striding off in a way that would have made his coat twirl and flap around him impressively...if the weather had been cold enough to merit a long coat rather than a light jacket.
“Good morning Sherlock. John.” Was he imagining things, or did Andrea say his name just that bit more warmly than she did Sherlock’s? Did her smile actually grow wider? Was it in his head? Sarah, think of Sarah. Good God, Andrea was beautiful. And she worked with dead men. Nice.
“Andrea.” He said, trying to maintian an aloof, cool disposition. He probably sounded curt.
“So, how are you doing it? Is it verbal or do I need some sort of slip?” Sherlock asked caustically. Well, maybe America was due for some Grade-A Sherlock cynicism after all.
“I’m sorry? What are you...oh!” She smiled, unfazed. “The deal. John said you’d be...what was the word? Tetchy?”
Sherlock glared at him. John blushed. He really should have known from her e-mails. They’d been so witty and wry and fun to read. Of course she’d turn out to be a complete knock-out.
“Yes. John says a lot of things, doesn’t he. Well, I’ve been a good boy and cleaned my plate, now what?”
Andrea’s eyes twinkled, and she pulled open a desk draw, removing a stack of printed cards the thickness of a biro. She handed them to John, who showed them to Sherlock.
I, Dr. John H. Watson, MD, do hereby confirm that the person of Sherlock Holmes has achieved his minimum caloric intake to date and is cleared for participation in any and all forensic activities deemed appropriate by the University of Tennessee Anthropology Department staff.
There was a space below the paragraph for John’s signature, and another beside it for Andrea’s initials. With a smug, satisfied look at Sherlock, John took a pen from his jacket pocket and signed on the line. Andrea dutifully watched him, then scrawled her own initials on the smaller line beside his signiture. Naturally, her handwriting was lovely.
Sherlock sulked through the entire proceedings, his eyes glaring daggers at John. “This is entirely unnecessary.” He protested. “I don’t need to be babied.”
Andrea giggled. “I have to admit I did think it was a bit unorthodox. But having met you...well, you are as skinny as a rake. I can see why he worries.”
John smirked and leaned against the desk, crossing his arms over his chest. “You should see him when the police call him in on a case. I’ve seen him go five days without so much as a sandwich or a cat nap.”
Andrea’s eyes widened. It made the sunlight from the windows glisten off her irises. John felt heat pool in the bottom of his stomach. Dear God...
“Digestion slows me down, and sleep wastes valuable time. I will remind you that I got on just fine for several years before you showed up, John. I managed to survive even without your dictatorial mandates about my health.”
“Yes, clearly you’re a picture of wellness, Sherlock.”
Andrea snorted, and both men turned their heads to look at her.
“I’m sorry. You two just sound like an old married couple.”
John rolled his eyes. An entire ocean away and still this stupid innuendo managed to follow them? He caught the devilish gleam in Sherlock’s eye and turned the full force of his military glare on his flatmate.
“Don’t you even think about it, Sherlock. Or do you want another black eye?”
Sherlock pouted. “Fine. It’s not as much fun without Anderson around, anyway.”
Andrea looked confused, but she visibly pushed it aside. “Well, I think we’re all set here. Subject B is prepped and on the table, we’ve got Subject A’s results and relevant samples set up for comparison. We can start whenever you’re ready.”
Sherlock gave Andrea one of his warm, open smiles. John had seen him manipulate widows and bribe officials with that smile. He probably practiced it in the mirror or something.
“Certainly, doctor.” Sherlock said. And he strolled gracefully toward the door to the lab. As he passed John, he casually slipped his hand along the hem of John’s jeans, dragging it lightly across his waist and then up across his chest, swiveling to press his lips against the shoulder of John’s jacket before spinning away and continuing his stride.
John gave Andrea a thin-lipped smile and said, “Excuse me a moment.” He put a bit of a march in his step, overtook Sherlock and with practiced precision, jabbed his elbow forcefully into Sherlock’s solar plexus. The detective doubled over, clutching at the worktop beside him to steady himself. He gasped and clutched at his abdomen, then managed to wheeze, “Worth it.” Before tumbling onto his arse with his back against the cupboard, breathing laboriously.
“Right, have fun then.” John said, barely glancing at his crumpled friend. He turned and nodded to a stunned Andrea, “Good morning.” And he strode, okay strutted, out of the classroom and into the open, sunny Tennessee air.
This close to the wooded enclosure, he could still faintly smell the decomposing bodies, but he forced himself not to think about it and made an effort to whistle jauntily as he made his way to the edge of campus, the road, and all that Knoxville had to offer a man with time, curiosity, and a pressing need to forget about dead people.
Chapter 7: Acclimatised
John was surprised at how lonely it felt in the cab. Sure, Sherlock wasn’t exactly chatty during their frequent rides about London, but his presence had seemed to fill the space so completely that John had an accute sense of vertigo at its absence. He spared a moment to worry about this troubling new co-dependance they seemed to be developing, then shook it off. He could spend a day without Sherlock. He could spend several days without Sherlock. He’d find something to do.
He thought back to his last conversation with Sarah before they’d left. It had been the morning of the torso incident, when John’s plans had still been a semi-cohesive potentiality, rather than a concrete itinerary.
“I think I’m gonna do it.”
“What’s that then?”
“I think I’m gonna take Tony up on his offer. A month in the states, pouring over cadavers, could be just what he needs. It’d get him out of Mrs. Hudson’s hair for a while, anyway.”
“A month? As in...an entire month?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, that’s what this Dr. Collet wants. She says anything less is too abridged.”
“And I don’t suppose you would consider letting him go alone.”
John had blinked at that. Sherlock? In the states? Alone? The thought hadn’t occurred to him and now that it had...he’d shuddered.
“Well...no. I mean, he’s not exactly the most amiable of people at the best of times. He’ll need a translator at the very least.”
“D’you know he is a grown man, John. You don’t need to mind him all the time.”
The conversation had gone downhill from there. He hadn’t even called her from the airport. He should e-mail her at least. Say sorry. It couln’t be easy for her, trying to make a go of it with him. When had he and Sherlock become a package deal?
“So, where you headed?” The driver asked, snapping John out of his reverie. It wasn’t Derrick. This man was older, with a ruddy tan complexion and a receeding hairline.
“Uh...I’m not quite sure.” John said. “I really only just got here.”
The man smirked into the rear view. “You’re from England, right?”
John frowned. “Yeah. London.”
The man chuckled. “Fancy shmancy, got an Englishman in my cab.” He grinned. “Hey, you guys drive on the wrong side of the road, right?”
John narrowed his eyes. “Um, no. No we drive on the right side of the road.”
John sighed. “Look, can you just take me somewhere I could do a bit of shopping? I need to get groceries.” It was painfully pedestrian, as Sherlock would say, but the flat was barren of foodstuffs and John didn’t think he could stand starchy, dense meals like he’d had at breakfast three times a day. Besides, maybe he’d find some adverts there for nice little touristy things to do. Hadn’t Sherlock said something about Gay Street to Derrick? Maybe John should have picked up a few of those magazines after all.
The cabbie chuckled again. “Sure. I’ll take you to Fresh Market. That sound good?”
“Sure. Fine. Hey, what is Gay Street?” It couldn’t hurt to ask.
“Oh, that’s our big business sector. It’s one of the most historical streets in the city, big tourist spot. There’s a bunch of high-end stores and some historical landmark buildings up that way. You wanna go there instead?”
“Um, no, no I think I’ll stick to the shopping, thanks. But I’ve got nothing on tomorrow. Might check it out.”
“Try Old Town and Market Square. That’s where the music scene is.”
“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.”
“We got lots of museums too. And a concert hall, you like classical music?”
“A bit more than I thought I did, lately.” John admitted. But, then, anytime Sherlock played something with an actual melody was a vast improvement on the tuneless screeching he tortured out of that poor violin when he was in a mood. John had developed a slight anxiety response to the sight of Sherlock holding his bow, both anticipating a moving solo and dreading a mindless cacophany. He hadn’t yet worked out how to tell which to expect at any given time.
The driver just shook his head. “Yeah, okay man. Here we are, Fresh Market.”
John was just looking through his wallet when his phone chirped. He pulled it out and read the text.
Don’t tip. You don’t have luggage.
How did he bloody do that? John payed the fare, pleased that he’d managed to work out the American money on his own. He was still a bit confused about the coins, though. Why exactly was the ten cent piece smaller than the five cent piece? Was it necessary to put a teeny tiny image of a sitting-down man in the centre of the one cent piece? You could barely see it without a magnifying glass. And why did every single quarter-dollar seem to have a different backside? The one in his hand had a picture of two trains about to ram each other, separated by a railroad spike. It said “Utah, 1896, Crossroads of the West”. Did they have quarter-dollars for every state? That seemed a terrific waste of time.
That social hurdle navigated, he turned to face a large, red brick building. High over his head, cheery white letters spelled out “Fresh Market”. The exterior was comprised of massive, towering arches which stood a good three metres beyond the shop windows, creating a wide alcove away from the weather. There were two doors leading in, one on the ground level and another further down the alcove with a ramp leading up to it. John headed for the ground level door.
Holy...big. Very...big. So...frightfully...big. John felt a bit dizzy. The ceiling towered high above him. The shelves stretched on into what he could swear was a horizon. There were two dozen clerks at their tills, all of them busy handling the scores and scores of shoppers. This place positively dwarfed the Tesco back home.
He scanned the signs hanging from the ceiling, uncertain where to begin. He’d exchanged his sixty quid for just under ninety U.S. dollars, but he wasn’t sure how far that money would go. He’d have to be cunning about this.
Okay, first things first, he needed calories. Sherlock was bound to be distracted tonight, so if he had any hope of keeping the excitable detective in a healthy state, he needed to stock up on high-calorie, small portion foods. Biscuits would do nicely. Sherlock had something of a sweet tooth, and it was possible to nudge a plate of digestives up to his elbow whilst he poured over a microscope and more often than not find him absentmindedly nibbling away between slides.
Bread, too, they’d need some of that. Milk...but what about tea? Could he honestly hope to find anything decent here? He scanned the aisles. Well, there seemed to be room for any kind of product imaginable here. Maybe there’d be some honest-to-God tea buried in the stacks.
He decided to start with the aisle that advertised “snack cakes, chips, pretzels, cookies”. It stretched on and on, and it was chock-full of boxes, bags, plastic sleeves and tins of sweet and crumbly snacks. He passed by Oreos and Chips Ahoy! and Milanos, stared in astonishment at a truly gargantuan bag of animal crackers, pondered pretzels of every shape and size, and found himself at a complete loss. What on Earth did he buy?
“Can I help you?” He turned to see a small, dark girl with long black hair pulled back into a tail. She had dark, slanted eyes and wore a red smock. She couldn’t have been more than twenty, and she made John feel tall. She was also smiling, warm and encouraging.
“Oh, uh, I’m not sure what I’m looking for.” He confessed.
She grinned. “Omigosh, your accent is so pretty!” She all but exclaimed. John blinked. Pretty? Did she really just say that? But before he could work out what to say she started talking again.
“Well we’ve got a little of everything. What kind of snacks do you like?”
John thought. “Um...no real preference I guess. Just something simple, sweet, not too expensive.”
She paused. “Hm...we have some black and whites. They’ve got chocolate on one side, vanilla on the other, and cream in the middle. Like oreos, but less expensive and not as rich.”
“Yeah, okay.” John said, and he watched her swivel away, returning in a second with a large sleeve of bi-coloured biscuits. He peered at them. They looked...okay.
“I can’t seem to find digestives.” He ventured. “Are you out?”
She blinked. “What are digestives? It sounds like something you give babies when they’re teething.” God she was so young. John felt like an old man standing beside her.
“Oh, guess it’s a UK thing. They’re sort of thin, dry, very sweet.”
Her eyes widened and her mouth made a perfect circle. “Oh!” She said. “I think I know what you’re talking about.” She made a bee-line for the other end of the aisle and came back with a bright yellow box. On the cover was something oblong and brown with little holes all across the surface. It sparkled.
“Guess you call ‘em something else.” She said. She handed him the box.
“Graham crackers.” He read. The thing on the box looked nothing like a digestive. It was a perfect rectangle. It looked a bit like cardboard. “No I can’t say as I’ve seen anything like this before.”
Her eyes went wide, and she stared at him. He didn’t meet her gaze, but he did finally notice that her nametag read “Kelly”. How...fitting.
“You’re joking.” She said. John shook his head.
“But that’s...that’s awful!” She insisted. “Wait...have you ever had s’mores?”
He furrowed his brow. “S’mores? What are they?”
Really, her eyes were liable to pop out of her head at this rate. “Come with me.” She commanded. John, completely against reason, followed her. She took him to the sweet aisle, which was labelled “candy” and snatched up an entire tray of chocolate bars.
“Only Hershey’s, you got it? Accept no substitutes. And no dark chocolate. It’s gotta be milk.”
“Alright.” John had tasted Hershey’s chocolate before, in Afghanistan. One of the American Marines had gotten a bunch of it in a care package and shared it with everyone. John hadn’t been impressed. It was a bit on the bland side, and not nearly as creamy as a good Cadbury’s button.
But Kelly was already off again, and John followed in her wake. No wonder Sherlock got on so well with people here. They were just as pushy as he was!
Kelly took him into yet another aisle and grabbed a pillow-sized bag of marshmallows. Big ones. She shoved them at John who numbly let them tumble into his bright red basket. He was beginning to despair of ever finding any food of substance on this trip.
“Okay.” Kelly said with the air of a university professor. “This is how it works. You take the graham cracker and you break it in half. It’s perforated halfway down, so it’ll snap easy. Then you break the chocolate into pieces. They’re already divided, so they’ll come apart easy, like the crackers. You but the pieces of chocolate on one piece of the graham chracker, two if you’re conservative, four if you’re a chocolate fiend.”
“Got it.” John nodded dutifully. He really didn’t.
“Then you toast the marshmallow. Usually you only eat s’mores in the summer, so you can toast the marshmallow over a campfire, but you’ll have to make do with a candle or a gas stove. Just stick it on the end of a barbecue fork or a skewer or something and hold it over some fire until it’s golden brown. You can light it on fire, too, but you have to blow it out immediately or it’ll melt off the stick. You take the marshmallow off the stick by sandwiching it between the two halves of the graham cracker so the chocolate is on the bottom.” She demonstrated with her hands, pressing her palms and fingers together with her hands parallel to the floor.
“Then you just slide it off. The hot marshmallow melts the chocolate and the whole thing squishes into a gooey sandwich. Trust me, it’s amazing.”
John blinked. “O-okay.” Kelly beamed.
“Anything else you need?”
John looked down at his accumulated junk food. “A bigger basket?”
Kelly laughed. It was musical, and sweet. For all her assertiveness, she really was a charming little thing. And so helpful...in a way.
“How about we get you a cart, and then we can see about getting you some actual food.”
John nodded, relieved. Kelly lead him back toward the front of the shop and left him standing by the tills while she trotted off to a field of trolleys made of green plastic and shiny metal. She pushed one over to him and transferred his biscuits, graham crackers, chocolates and marshmallows into the large space behind the little seat.
“Okay, what else do you need?” She asked.
“Um...bread, milk, porridge...tea?” He asked hopefully.
She seemed to consider for a moment. “Bread and milk is easy, but unless porridge is the same as oatmeal or cream of wheat you may have a problem. We have lots of tea though.”
She led him around the shop, helping him choose from the dozens of different milks (what on Earth was “lactaid”?), the scores of different breads (“Texas toast. Trust me.”), and the dizzying array of breakfast foods (why was the man on the oatmeal box smiling at him?). When she brought him to the coffee aisle, with it’s wall o’ tea, he found himself faced with the solution to a personal mystery.
“Oh. So that’s why.” He muttered to himself.
Kelly looked confused, but he waved her off. He grabbed some Earl Grey, and on a whim he snatched up a few other flavours, ones he’d never considered before. And that was largely because Americans seemed to favour Middle Eastern and Asian teas. There was green tea, jasmine tea, chai tea and any number of sharp, robust brews which did not invite the addition of milk. No wonder those American soldiers had looked at him funny.
He managed to keep his purchases under eighty dollars. Barely. And he was leaden down with more than a half dozen bags as he made his way to the car park. Unwilling to flag a taxi, he pulled out his phone to call Tony for a lift.
Before he could dial the number, though, he got a text message alert.
It’s sloughing, John. How novel.
John gagged. He’d worked on cadavers in medical school, so he knew what Sherlock was talking about. He still flashed back sometimes to that fateful day when a twenty-three year old John Watson had the misfortune of seeing a dead man’s hand slip clean off his bones, like a glove. He shuddered, and pretended it was due to the sudden drop in temperature outside.
He dialed again, this time there was no text to interrupt.
“Hi Tony. D’you think you could come to Fresh Market and pick me up? Great. Ta. I’ll see you in a bit.”
He sat down on a bench by the window, his sacks nestled beside him. At least with this chill there was no worry about the milk going off before he got back to campus. Another text chimed on his mobile.
They’re laughing, John!
He frowned. Was Sherlock upset? Was he making a fool of himself? No, Sherlock never minded when people poked fun at him. Still...
Laughing at what?
At me. I mention things I find amusing, and they laugh. No one’s told me to buzz off.
You mean you’re trying to be funny?
Yes. Obviously. But no one’s ever laughed before. Usually they sneer.
Oh. Good for you then.
Yes. Yes I rather think it is.
By that time Tony had pulled up in his shiny white car, and John only took one step in the wrong direction before remembering which side was the passenger side door.
“So, how’s he doing?” John asked.
Tony sucked air through his teeth. “It was rocky at the start. He’s very imposing, your mate. And they’re all very self-sufficient. But I think they could tell he was trying. He kept saying “please” and “thank you” all the time, like he was worried he’d forget them or something.”
John laughed. “Yeah, he doesn’t tend to pay much attention to nicities.”
“But he’s really one of the team now. I think it was the pen that did it.”
“Yeah, he asked for a pen and one of the students tossed it over to him. He caught it without looking. Impressed the boys, I’ll tell you.”
“He does that.”
“Then there’s his voice.”
Tony just smiled. “You’ll see.”
By the time they reached the on-campus apartment, John was actually eager to return to the cadaver lab. He made a brief stop in the bathroom where he applied some vaseline to the skin around his nostrils. It was a trick he’d learned as a medical student, and while he doubted it could do much to stave off the stench of Subject B, it at least felt productive.
Just before he left he exchanged his light jacket for his bomber and snatched up Sherlock’s long coat. He was already coming to understand how unpredictable the Tennessee weather could be, and he didn’t want Sherlock walking back to the flat in that suit jacket of his.
There was no sign of Sherlock in the classroom. John hadn’t expected there to be. If Sherlock was at the university, he would be in the gross anatomy lab, the door of which was down the corridor on the other side of the classroom. John took a steadying breath and marched to the door, opening the way to the student labs.
The smell permeated every inch of the walls, the floor, the air itself. The vaseline did help, but it couldn’t stop the endless rolling stench. John took a moment to wait for his head to stop spinning and slowly made his way to the door labelled “Gross Anatomy”. Before he was within five paces, he could hear voices from the other side.
There was a young woman, she had a slight accent. Vaguely Spanish, but lower and smoother. Mexican, probably. There was a young man, too. He was quiet and John couldn’t make out his words. But then he laughed, and the sound was explosive and genuine. There was another young man, too, and he...hold on.
“Really? I’ll have to try that sometime.” The voice was low. A rich, soothing baritone. But the words were flat, the vowels unstressed and the consonents sharp. It made the familiar deep tones seem higher.
John peeked through the small glass window on the door. What he saw made him gape. Sherlock was wearing a lab coat. His feet were covered in blue plastic which cinched at his ankles with elastic, not totally unlike the booties John had to wear at crime scenes but Sherlock always refused.
The detective was also wearing goggles. Honest to goodness goggles. He never even protected his eyes when he was playing with acids round the flat! He warily pushed the door open, and all three heads swivelled to look at him.
“John!” Sherlock said, grinning. Only, when he said it it sounded like “Jahn”. He recalled that mortifying incident with the magazine article, and Sherlock’s disastrous attempt at an American accent. Apparently, he’d been practicing.
“Sherlock.” He replied. And if he put a bit more roll in the O and swollowed the R a bit more, well, he wasn’t going to dwell on it.
“John,” (“Jahn”) “This is Maria and Cal. They’re working on Subject B with me.”
“Good to meet you.” He said. Maria and Cal both waved. He turned to Sherlock. “Are you going to talk like that all day?”
Sherlock looked confused. “Like what?”
Maria cleared her throat. “Shawn.” She said, softly.
Sherlock stared at her, then blinked. “Oh. Ohh.” He looked back at John. “Sorry. I forgot.”
“Forgot? What? Wait, who’s Shawn?”
“Nobody.” Sherlock said, standing from his stool and snapping off his rubber gloves. Thankfully, he sounded normal again. “Is it time to go?”
“Are you finished?”
Sherlock grinned. He smiled a lot here, John noticed. “Hardly. But I am waiting on a few tests, and Andrea promised me a look at the fresh corpse on the farm if I have a proper lunch. So, shall we?”
“Uh, yeah. I’ve been to the shop. We’ve got food at the fl--” Sherlock glared at him. “At the apartment.”
“Perfect. I can work while we eat.” And Sherlock snatched up a thick folder from one of the work tops, tucking it under his arm. “Maria, Cal, see you in a bit.” He said, slipping out of the lab coat, goggles and shoe covers.
“Bye Sherlock!” Maria said, Cal parroting a moment behind.
John waved to them both and fell into step with Sherlock. As they walked down the corridor, John handed Sherlock his coat, and together they stepped into the chill wind outside.
“I figured we could just do sandwiches for lunch.” John was saying as he rummaged through the bags of shopping. He’d already put the parishables in the fridge before going to the science building, but he’d left all the dry goods in their bags rather than take the time to sort them. “They had a massive deli at the shop. I’ve got honeyed ham and there’s some roast turkey. I’m told the pastrami is fantastic, so I thought we could try--” His voice petered off. Sherlock wasn’t paying him any attention.
The lanky detective had buzzed like a hornet from the moment they walked through the door. He’d set about with his thick manilla folder, pinning things to the wall and spreading various forms and documents along the coffee table. Within minutes there were papers strewn about the living room and the new space just was starting to acquire a faint glimmer of Baker Street.
But Sherlock wasn’t pacing now. He wasn’t staring at his wall of data, nor was he pouring over the detailed lists and summaries on the low table. He was sitting on the sofa, his dark suit a sharp contrast against the light, sunny beige, and his knees were tucked up to his chest. He was staring into the middle distance, as still as a statue. But it was his hands that set John’s nerves on edge.
They were still. And limp. They hung lifelessly at his sides, no twitching or flitting, no pressing together under his chin or ruffling his chaotic hair. Those endlessly expressive hands were dead.
“Sherlock?” John kept his voice calm and gentle. There was no sign of recognition, nothing to indicate Sherlock had heard him.
“Sherlock?” He said again, louder this time. He moved over to the sofa and kneeled in front of his friend. Still nothing. John took a breath and laid one hand on Sherlock’s knee, hoping the intimacy of the contact would jar Sherlock enough to rouse him.
“ Sherlock .” And finally he got a response. Sherlock’s head snapped back and he looked at John.
“Hm?” His face betrayed nothing, no hint of what had caused him to go so quiet. John took the hint.
“Uh, sandwiches for lunch. Sound okay?” John stood slowly, tilting his head toward the kitchen area.
“Yeah, sure. Fine.” And John fought the urge to cringe. Fine was never a good word to hear from Sherlock. It was the one lie he had never managed to make sound believable.
“So, ham?” John asked.
“Sure. Sounds good.” Sherlock said. His voice was a bit distant. “I’ll just...wash up, shall I?” And he unfolded himself from the sofa, making his way, trance-like, to the bathroom.
John fretted. He couldn’t help it. He’d seen Sherlock like this before. Probably, other than maybe Mycroft, he was the only person to see Sherlock in this state. The first time had been through a window, looking into an identical room to Sherlock standing across from a man John would soon shoot dead. John hadn’t been able to see Sherlock’s face, but even from that distance he’d seen the way his friend’s hand shook as he brought the pill to his lips. The second time had been in that infernal pool, after the shouting and the splashing and the bleeding was done, and Sherlock’s already frayed control had snapped. The detective had simply siezed up, his entire body going rigid. He hadn’t blinked for such a long time, and his lips were moving slightly over gritted teeth. Only John had been close enough to hear the faint, unconcious whispers.
“Not him...not him...not him...”
John was not a stupid man. He never asked what it meant. But he had come to the conclusion that this was the state of Sherlock when his addiction made him cross a line even he respected. It was how he reacted when he was forced to accept how powerless he was to resist his obsession. John was beginning to think that the remains of Jeffrey Saunders had pushed his friend too far.
He had just finished assembling his own sandwich (pastrami because why the hell not?) when he realized that Sherlock had been in the bathroom for quite a while. John was a meticulous sandwich maker, and he took his time assembling the perfect meat to cheese to bread ratio, so Sherlock should have been done washing his hands by the time the first plate was ready. John was nearly done with the second, and there was no sign of his flatmate.
Gingerly, John walked to the bathroom door. There was water running inside, and a strange, erratic sound just barely audible beneath the sound of the tap. John knocked on the door.
“All right Sherlock?” He asked. No reply. “Sherlock?” Nothing.
“Right, I’m coming in.” John warned, and he tried the handle. Unlocked. He pushed the door open, and didn’t hesitate.
He rushed to the sink, shutting off the water and pulling his friend back. Sherlock’s hands were red and raw all the way to his forearms. His shirt and jacket were soaked down the front, and he was breathing raggedly. There were flecks of blood in the sink from where Sherlock had rubbed the skin off his knuckles. Oh God.
John didn’t talk. He didn’t shout or ask questions or try to sooth him with hushed words. He just put a firm hand on Sherlock’s shoulder and gently guided him out to the sofa and sat him down. Then he fished around in one of his suitcases for his medical kit and extracted some rubbing alcohol and cotton balls. Sherlock didn’t move an inch as John disinfected his bleeding hands, didn’t protest when John wrapped a thin bandage around the knuckles, didn’t look at him when John gently pushed him back so he was reclined against the back of the sofa. He made no move, spoke not a word, and just kept breathing those ragged, tearing breaths.
After a moment, John finally broke the silence with a gamble.
“Loft.” He said.
Nothing. John sighed and turned back toward the kitchen. He’d just loaded up the second plate with crisps and an experimental graham cracker when Sherlock’s voice stopped him in his tracks.
John smiled and returned to his friend. He cleared a space on the coffee table and set down the plates before tidying away the papers into their folder.
“Oh, John...” Sherlock sighed, his voice weary and low. “I’m so tired.”
John just looked at him and moved his plate to his lap. He’d never tried pastrami before. He wondered why. “It’s no wonder. You didn’t sleep last night.” He said, taking a bite of his sandwich. Not bad.
“What? Oh, that. No, that’s nothing. It was the coping.”
“Coping?” John asked through a mouthful of crisps.
“Coping, yes, obviously. Unfortunately Subject B’s condition affected me more than I’d anticipated. It took a lot of effort to keep my emotional reactions suppressed.”
“Supp--Sherlock, you can’t do that.”
“Hm? Why not?”
John goggled at him, then reached over and siezed one of the red-skinned hands and waggled it about in front of Sherlock’s face. “ That’s why!”
Sherlock blinked and stared at his own hand, as though he’d never seen it before. He raised the other one and stared at them both. “Oh...” he said. “Oh.”
“No I’m...fine.” Sherlock managed a forced smile and reached for his plate. “Everything’s alright, John.” He picked up his sandwich and stared at it. His hands were shaking, and as John watched one of them dropped to clutch at his stomach. There was a wet, sharp sound from Sherlock’s throat and John quickly took the plate and the food from his hands, setting them on the table carefully and watching his flatmate.
The change in his mental state was visible in every inch of his body. His eyes went wide, his mouth slacked. His whole body went tense and started to tremble. His breath hitched. He clutched his head and moaned. John automatically gathered him into his arms, pressing him to his chest and stroking his hair. Sherlock didn’t fight him.
“It’s okay, Sherlock. You don’t have to eat. I understand. It’s okay.”
Had Mycroft ever done this? Had Sherlock ever had someone to hold him through the backlash before? Had he been forced to go it alone? Christ, if that was the case it was no wonder he’d turned to drugs. Anyone would.
John knew better than to ask what had done it. Maybe it was the sight of Jeffrey Saunders, or what was left of him. Maybe it was the knowledge that this was one death Sherlock could never avenge, one killer he couldn’t best. Or maybe it was the knowledge that all he was, all he did, every brilliant, fascinating, mad thing about him would one day be reduce to...that. Maybe it was all of those. Maybe it was none of them. But whatever it was, Sherlock had forced it into the back of his brain, where it had festered and seethed and built up steam until the moment Sherlock let his guard down.
When Sherlock awoke, bleary-eyed and dishevelled, it was to the sight of John getting into his coat.
“Where are you going?”
John smiled. “Oh, good, you’re up. Come on, get your hair sorted and get your coat. We’re going out.”
“Out? What about...what time is it?”
“Almost seven. Don’t worry, I called Andrea. She says she understands, and you held up exceptionally well for your first day.”
“No more corpses tonight, Sherlock. We’re going out. We’re going to eat a massive American dinner, get drunk on weak American beer, leer at beautiful American women...well okay I will, and then we’re going to come back here and collapse into our beds so we can wake up with excruciating hangovers and have breakfast and you can go to the lab and have fun with science. Sound good?”
Sherlock smiled. “Do I get to refuse?”
John shrugged. “You could...but then you’d miss out on all the fun.”
Sherlock looked at him sidelong. “So you’re not going to try and make me talk about it?”
“Talk about what?”
Sherlock smiled and got up, grabbing his coat and running his fingers through his hair, somehow manageing to make it look stylish. John just shook his head and reached for the door handle.
“Come on then, let’s see what these Yanks have to offer.”
Chapter 8: Play On...
Eight: Play On...
They met up with Tony at a local pizza joint. There was a large window showing off the kitchen where young men with bared forearms were tossing and flipping the disks of dough with manic precision. John gaped, Sherlock shrugged.
“There they are! I was worried you’d chicken out and stay cooped up in that apartment all night.” Tony beamed. He gestured for them to follow him as he made his way through the gathering crowd of diners to a secluded booth. The seats were made of polished wood, and had been worn smooth and comfortable by time and repeated use. The table was covered in carved initials and other graffiti, which Sherlock immediately began to study once he took his seat beside John and across from Tony.
“Why here?” John asked. He practically had to yell over the din.
Tony winked. “Two reasons. One, the pie is amazing.” He gestured to the other tables where people were busily devouring their pizzas with gusto. “And two, the garlic masks the smell of dead people.”
John frowned and sniffed at his clothes and skin. Sherlock leaned over to talk into his ear. “Shoes, John.”
“Now, you’re in America you’ve got to learn the finer points of excess. So I’ve ordered us a Motherlode.” Tony damn near shouted.
“What’s that?” John asked. Sherlock just kept his eyes fixed on the carvings in the table top.
“It’s a bit of everything, actually. Sausage, peppers, bacon, ham, pineapple, mushrooms--”
John held up a hand. “Alright, alright. You do realize this one’s been fiddling with corpses all day?”
Sherlock glared at him. Tony just smiled.
“Exactly, so I figured best to order something that doesn’t look even a bit like actual food.”
John couldn’t help it. He laughed. A glance at Sherlock showed a slight upward curl at the corners of his mouth. Thank God.
“You alright, mate?” He asked, keeping his voice low enough that Tony couldn’t hear.
Sherlock nodded. “It’s like hieroglyphics...” He muttered. John could only barely hear him.
But Sherlock ignored him. He was tracing one long, tapering finger along the carvings in the wood, mouthing silently to himself. Suddenly, he smirked. “He was planning to propose. “
“What’s that?” Tony asked.
John raised his eyebrows. “Oh, you’ve not seen it? Didn’t you two spend some time together today?”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “John, contrary to what you might type into that ridiculous blog of yours, I do not, in fact, trot out my deductive capabilities for everyone I see.”
“Yes you do.”
Sherlock glared at him. John just grinned.
“Go on then. Show him.”
Sherlock sighed, but fixed his gaze on Tony in the way concert musicians tend to do before launching into something complicated and delirious. It was sort of a by your leave look. Tony nodded.
“This carving, it was made with a pocket knife, obvious from the slight bevel and the width of each line. Pocket knives aren’t generally the accessory of choice for modern women, so it was more likely made by a man. He wrote his own initials first, the cuts are much more shallow and the letters are poorly formed, clearly he considered his own identity relatively insignificant. Her initials, on the other hand, are carved deeply, he dragged the blade through the same lines several times. Clear indications of points where he repositioned his initial cuts, he wasn’t satisfied with the letters’ appearance at first, so he was clearly thinking about her to some great extent.
“The heart drawn around the pair is even deeper than the woman’s initials, but there are signs of numerous paths along the same general route. He carved the symbol several times, but he didn’t trace over his previous lines, that indicates several returns to the design over a period of hours. No one needs that amount of time just to eat a pizza, he was waiting then. He got to the table quite a bit earlier than her, indicates he was nervous. His scrawl is clearly present on a similar design further along the wood, this one much older. Obvious, then, they came here regularly, presumably during an event of some importance, say their first date. That says this was a place of significance for the pair of them, the similarity of the two designs says he was contemplating their relationship, past leads to present leads to future, conclusion: he was planning to propose.”
John peered at the engraving, secretly swelling with pride at Sherlock’s titanic intellect. “JB and KM.” He read. “D’you think she said yes?”
Sherlock smirked and pointed along the table to another design, this one right in front of the salt pot. “JB and KB 4ever”.
“I’d say there’s a good chance.” Sherlock said smugly, stressing the final syllable.
Tony goggled at him. “You worked all that out from a doodle in the wood?”
Sherlock shrugged. “It’s plainly obvious to anyone who looks.”
Tony grinned. “Yeah? Do me then, let’s see what you can see.”
Sherlock opened his mouth. He was really going to do it. He had just started to form the first syllable when John spotted their salvation: bastardized Italian food.
“Ah, pizza! Come on, lads, dig in. Sherlock, try and eat something will you?”
“Look at you, John. Fretting over him like a mother hen.” Tony crowed. Thankfully he seemed to have forgotten the whole deduction lark. That sort of demonstration never ended well.
“Yes, he is a bit tenacious about it. I maintain that I consume plenty of calories when I’m not working. Enough to tide me over during cases.”
“Sherlock, the last time you finished a case I found you sitting in the bath and eating from a bowl of icing sugar.”
“Whatever it was, it was in your hair. You looked like my gran!”
“Nonsense, your grandmother has been dead for years. I’d hazard Jeffrey Saunders more accurately resembles her these days. Ow!”
There was a faint sting in John’s palm where it had connected with the back of Sherlock’s skull. It felt satisfying. Sherlock frowned. “Not good?”
“What do you think?”
“Do I have to apologize now?”
John rolled his eyes. “Eat now. Apologize later, when I’m dangling your violin out the window.”
John became aware of a slight choking sound. He looked across the table to Tony, who was desperately trying to suppress a laugh. In measures, he managed to collect himself. Still struggling to keep a straight face, he said, “So, Sherlock plays the violin?”
John cut the detective off before he could speak. “He eviscerates the violin.”
“You said I was an exceptional musician.” Sherlock sounded wounded. John knew better than to believe it.
“Well, I didn’t lie.” Sherlock shot him a death glare. He resisted the urge to preen. It was getting easier and easier to one-up Sherlock. Especially in company. Of course, he always paid for it sooner or later.
“I swear you two are worse than me and my brothers.” Tony chortled. His tone was light, but the comment sent a pang through John, anyway.
“How is Edmund, anyway?” He asked.
Tony shrugged. It was that shrug. “He’s alive.”
“And his leg?”
“He’s gotten used to it, mostly. Forgets to take it off some nights.”
“Right. Yeah.” John shifted uncomfortably. He regretted asking.
“Right.” Tony echoed. John was aware of Sherlock’s calculating gaze switching between the pair of them, but he didn’t much care. He tucked into his pizza, scarcely bothering to notice the taste, which was chaotic at best, just eating for an excuse not to talk.
“So. Tony.” Sherlock said, startling John. Sherlock was never one to bend to awkward silences. “How do you like living in the states?”
Tony smiled, and it was very nearly genuine. “Oh, it takes getting used to, I tell you. So easy to get your signals crossed here. I swear sometimes it was like learning a new language.” John ignored the haughty, self-rightous look he just knew Sherlock was sending his way.
“But,” Tony continued. “I like it here. Everything is so...expansive. It’s so easy to be odd because there’s room for just about anyone. And you can’t argue with the music.” A real smile this time.
“No, you can’t.” Sherlock said. “We were treated to a bit of the local specialty on the way to the university. A violinist of some skill.”
“Fiddler, I’ll reckon.” Tony supplied. “It’s very different to the violin, your fiddle. Same instrument, different sound, it’s incredible. You might like to try your hand at it, if you’re up to the challenge.”
John looked round in time to catch the gleam in Sherlock’s eye. “Oh, I think I am.”
John glared at Tony. “I will get you for this.”
“Do your worst.” Fearless Tony.
Sherlock took a bite of his pizza and frowned. But he gave a slight shrug and ate anyway, then asked, “And do you have any intention to return to Cornwall?”
Tony’s face went blank. “I dunno. I think about it, sometimes. But I’m happy here.” He didn’t sound it. “Now, I know John’s never been across the pond before, but is this your first trip to the States, Sherlock?”
“Yes.” Said Sherlock.
“No.” Said John at the same time. They looked at each other, their faces mirroring baffled expressions.
“Yes you have.” John said. “Florida, remember? Mrs. Hudson’s husband, you got him executed by the state.”
“I only ensured the conviction, John. Anyway, that trip doesn’t count.”
“Why the hell not? It’s the whole reason we have the flat in the first place.”
Sherlock pretended to study his pizza intently. Tony shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“Because I don’t remember most of it.” Sherlock muttered and took a large bite, silencing himself.
“Oh.” John decided to drop the subject. At least until he and Sherlock were alone.
The rest of the meal went by in a haze of pleasant if shallow conversation, truly heroic volumes of watery cola, and the curious mingling of flavours in their hodge-podge pizza which somehow managed to grow more and more enjoyable with each bite. Sherlock, true to form, devoured enough food for two men. His lengthy fasts during working days meant he had the appetite of a rubbish compactor. His frankly alarming thinness meant there were no solid walls of fat to impede his expanding stomach. John had learned almost immediately following the death of the cabbie that it could be damnably hard to keep the kitchen stocked with food during Sherlock’s days off.
Sherlock had just polished off his eighth gargantuan slice of pizza, and John had just finished grilling Tony about the state of American football (soccer, sorry) when Sherlock’s mobile suddenly buzzed furiously and emitted a shrill beep. Moments later, John’s did the same.
Irritated, John checked his phone. It was the alarm function. He switched it off.
“Hm?” Sherlock was busy disabling the alarm on his own phone and didn’t even look at John.
“Did you set an alarm on my phone?”
“Redundancy is key in ensuring proper device function, John.”
“I understand that. But it’s my phone.”
Sherlock scoffed. “I use it more than you do.”
“You could’ve asked.”
“And you would have said yes, why bother wasting time?”
John resisted the urge to slam his head against the table. “Why did you set an alarm for ten at night?”
Sherlock just looked at him with that expression that always made John feel like he’d just dribbled all over himself.
“John, I haven’t slept since England.” He pointed out. Tony goggled at him.
“You haven’t?” Tony sounded incredulous.
“No, he hasn’t.” Said John absently. “But that’s not unusual, why do you care?”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “No case, John. And there’s a limit to how much time I can spend going over my research. If I put off sleeping another night I’ll begin to lose focus at work. Besides I need to delete some things and that’s usually easier if I can rest afterwards.”
John just gaped at his friend. “Who are you? What did you do with Sherlock Holmes?”
Sherlock threw his hands up and stood from the table. “Settle the bill, John. I’ll be outside.”
John sighed and didn’t bother watching Sherlock go. He looked at Tony apologetically.
“He’s not like that at the lab.” Tony remarked.
“No, I gather he isn’t. I think he’s trying to impress them for some reason.” John said.
“Are you, er, are you alright? I mean, he seems a bit...pushy?” Tony looked supremely uncomfortable, the implication hung in the air.
John smiled sadly. “Imperious, more like. Look, I’m not some sort of lackey, Tony. And I’m not a victim. Sherlock is just...Sherlock. Trust me, he doesn’t get away with it.” Tony nodded but he didn’t look appeased.
“Don’t worry about me, Tony. I can handle myself.”
“Yeah, I remember. Just...keep your head up, okay?”
John and Tony split the bill and John said his good-byes. Sure enough, he found Sherlock waiting outside.
“You alright?” John asked. Sherlock was standing stone still, his eyes on the ground.
“We need to stop at a shop on the way home.” Sherlock said. “I don’t have enough patches.”
“Sherlock. Are you alright?”
Sherlock hissed in annoyance. “I’m fine, John. I’m just tired.”
John blinked. “Well I guess that’s getting drunk off the agenda.”
Sherlock smirked. “You were never going to get me drunk, John. You know better.”
“Yeah, I do. You’re...actually tired, then?”
Sherlock leaned his head against the rough bricks of the restaurant wall. “I’m exhausted, John. Can we just go, please?”
John fought back the tremor of worry creeping up his spine. “Yeah, alright. We can go.”
“And we’ll stop for patches, yes?” Sherlock pressed.
“Yeah, yeah. We’ll stop and get patches and we’ll watch TV and you can get some sleep.” John hailed a cab and guided Sherlock to the door. Once inside, he turned to his friend.
“So, what do you remember? About Florida, I mean?”
Sherlock shrugged. “Not much.”
“You...deleted it, then?”
“Most of it.”
“What did you keep?”
Sherlock leaned his head against the window and smiled wistfully. “Her.”
True to his word, no sooner had Sherlock dropped his coat on the floor of the apartment than he disappeared into his bedroom. Irritably, John picked up the coat and put it on the hook by the door. He settled down onto the sofa and turned on the telly, sifting through seemingly endless news programmes before he found something mildly interesting.
He didn’t really watch it though. His mind was busy decoding Sherlock’s behaviour over the past few days. He was beginning to wonder if he’d done the right thing, bringing him to the States. Sure he seemed to get on well enough with the people here, and sure he seemed to be enjoying his work at the university...to an extent. But...
Exhausted? John did a bit of calculating, and the last time he’d seen Sherlock sleep had, indeed, been before they left England. Four days, he reckoned. At the very least. But he’d seen Sherlock get on with less sleep than that, and he never admitted to being more than a little drowsy.
I need to recharge for a few hours
Think I’ll lie down for a bit.
But exhausted? Never. And certainly not after a few days. A week maybe, and John had seen him go that long. During a particularly stubborn case Sherlock would only consent to brief and strictly timed naps to keep himself from hallucinating or passing out while working. He would no sooner admit to being exhausted than he would to being starved or lonely.
Had John just made things worse? This was meant to be a holiday, a chance to relax and unwind. Instead, it seemed to be wearing Sherlock out. But why? Yes, the state of the corpse had sent him reeling, but Sherlock got over such things quickly. He was a master of acclimatization. So what was tiring him out? What was Sherlock doing that took so much out of him? What didn’t John know?
He fought the urge to phone someone at home, not least because it wasn’t yet four in the morning in London. Even so, he was tempted to ring Mycroft or Mrs. Hudson. They seemed to know Sherlock best, and were the two people he held in highest regard. For all he detested Mycroft, it was plain to see Sherlock respected the man. And Mrs. Hudson, well, if Sherlock was capable of loving another human being, it was their landlady. And she’d been with him the last time he was in this country.
He resolved to send her an e-mail or phone her if Sherlock didn’t improve or even out or whatever it was he needed to do. For now, though, he would wait. And watch.
The next day they stayed in for breakfast. John took Kelly’s advice and made Texas-style French toast, referring to a recipe on his computer and using the very thick bread she’d made him buy. They really were massive, and very fluffy. He ended up with something golden-brown and intimidatingly large, which he indulgently smothered in icing sugar and maple syrup, as per the website’s instructions.
Sherlock sat at the table, still in his pyjamas and dressing gown and still blinking sleep from his eyes, and stared at the breakfast incredulously.
“Calories?” He asked.
John nodded, smug. “Calories.” He confirmed.
Sherlock sighed and picked up his fork. With obvious reluctance, he speared his French toast and began to eat, sullen and quiet.
John wanted to ask him...something. Anything. But he kept his worries to himself and they ate together in silence. John kept flickering his eyes at Sherlock, taking in the slump of his shoulders, the weariness of his eyes, the lethargic pace at which he chewed his food. Finally, he just couldn’t take it anymore.
“Do you want to go back?” He asked, startling himself as well as his flatmate.
“What?” Sherlock snapped his gaze up to look at John.
“Do you want to go back to England? I’m sure we can call Mycroft--”
“No!” Sherlock cut him off, showing more enthusiasm in that word than he had all morning. He visibly calmed himself. “Why would I want that?”
John shrugged. “You haven’t been yourself lately. You just...don’t seem to be having much fun here.”
Sherlock dropped his gaze and bit his lower lip. “I am, John. Really. I’m--I’m working on something, and it’s taking longer than I anticipated. But I’ll be finished soon, don’t worry.” He smiled, but it was the fake smile. John could tell, even if no one else could. “I am glad to be here, John. I’m grateful that you brought me. Don’t start thinking you’ve done something wrong just because I’m a bit preoccupied.”
John frowned. “Since when do you keep me out of your work?”
Sherlock shrugged. “I keep you out of a lot of things. You can’t help me with this one, and you probably wouldn’t want to.”
“Even so, Sherlock, if it’s anything like what happened yesterday afternoon--”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “That wasn’t important. I’m not going to have a mental breakdown, I’m not going to run out and find some dealer so I can start jabbing myself in the toilet, and I’m not going to run to my brother so he can bundle me onto a plane and send me home to mummy. I’m fine, John. I will be fine.” He was irritated, and John felt relieved. Irritated was good. It was familiar and comfortable.
“Okay.” John sighed. “Okay. What time are you due at the lab?”
“Nine.” Sherlock grumbled.
John looked at his watch. It was half seven. “Okay. Let’s get ready.”
Sherlock stared at him. “You’re...coming with me?” He narrowed his eyes. “No, you’ll just sign the slip and be off again.”
John sighed. “What would I do with the cadavers?” He asked.
Sherlock shrugged. “You’re a doctor. You might learn something useful.”
John set his jaw. “I’ll stay for a bit, okay?”
Sherlock smiled, genuine this time. “Great. You can see how it’s getting on.” And he spun to his feet and away from the table, striding off to his room to get dressed.
John stood to clear the dishes and froze. “How what’s getting on?” He called. No reply.
Oh. My. God. John though, gaping at his friend. The change in Sherlock was astonishing. He’d gone from sullen, critical and normal to...this in moments. And John was feeling an acute sense of vertigo from the sudden shift.
Sherlock’s mood had completely transformed the second he stepped through the door to the lab. His steps became lighter, his expression happier and his shoulders straighter. He walked differently, too, holding his arms more loosely, his back less erect. Andrea greeted him with a smile that included John in its warmth. John felt his abdomen go a little tight.
“Morning, guys. Got the slips right here.” She beamed.
John found himself relaxing in Andrea’s company, letting go of the tension he’d accumulated since the previous night. Until Sherlock did something completely unsettling.
“Morning, Andrea.” The detective said. Only he didn’t, because Sherlock didn’t usually stress his r’s that much, or clip his syllables, or speak with a bloody convincing American accent. John groaned silently to himself. Was Sherlock intending to do this every day? “How’s the subject?”
“Dry. For the most part. We’re pretty much down to the bone at this point.” She raised her eyebrows approvingly. “Coming right along, I see.”
Sherlock did a very authentic impersonation of a sheepish grin. He even rubbed the back of his neck. “How was I?” He asked, still in that ridiculous voice.
Andrea tilted her head as though considering. “Not bad. I’d almost believe you were from here.”
“Almost?” Sherlock seemed genuinely miffed at that.
Andrea smiled apologetically. “You’re still holding onto the o a little too long. And your ‘ing’ is too defined.”
Sherlock cursed to himself. “You people mutter, you do realize?” He accused, thankfully in his real voice. “Have you never heard of enunciation?”
She shrugged, unfazed. “And you have an unhealthy obsession with vowels. You’ll get the hang of it soon, I’m sure.”
“Damn right.” Sherlock mumbled. American again.
John shook his head. “Stop that, or I’m leaving.”
Sherlock looked stricken. “Sorry John. I was just--”
“Being a git, I know.” He sniped and scrawled his name on the slip for the day. Andrea smirked and initialed dutifully.
John followed Sherlock into a little room full of cubbies bearing lab coats. Sherlock donned one and handed another to John. They both dressed in companionable silence, then Sherlock kitted himself out with goggles, a surgical mask which he let hang loosely around his neck, and more of those plastic, cinched booties that covered his shoes. With a sly look at John, he reached into the upper compartment of the cubby that had held his coat and pulled out a large triangle of fabric. With deft, sure motions he wrapped it around his head, tying it in the back so it confined his dark, chaotic curls.
John was astonished. Sherlock never, never observed this kind of protocol back home. And like this, with the coat hiding much of his sleek and stylish suit and his highly recognizable profile, the boots covering his shining leather shoes, the bandanna concealing his unruly mop and the goggles partially obscuring his intense, cat-like eyes, Sherlock became anonymous. And when he turned and left the room in that curious, loose-limbed gait, John had to force himself to recall that this was, indeed, his best friend and flatmate, and not some unknown scientist or doctor passing by.
John slipped a pair of booties over his own shoes, not terribly eager to reinforce the scent of decay still on them, and followed.Sherlock into the gross anatomy lab.
He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but it wasn’t this. The body of Jeffrey Saunders (Subject B) was laid out on a plain metal operating table, and it had, indeed, been reduced almost completely to the skeleton. There was still quite a lot of cartilage present, though, so the bones retained their formation sturdily, only the severed right hand echoing the conditions of the pit. The copious insect life had been tidied away somewhere, and what remained was something pale, clean and decidedly un-disturbing. John had seen plenty of skeletons in his time as a medical professional. He had gotten up-close and personal with people’s bones on a fairly regular basis. True, they were usually still inside their bodies, and he’d merely had to re-align them before hiding them behind the skin where they belonged, but all in all the skeleton was a definite improvement over the corpse in the hole.
The floor was another matter. There were stains and splotches all over it, and though someone had obviously tried to mop it up, residue remained. The smell lingered, too, but it was diluted, hovering behind the more potent scent of antiseptics and floor cleaner like an onlooker at a crime scene. John was able to ignore it almost completely.
He watched Sherlock sweep into the room, pulling the mask over his nose and mouth and snapping on a pair of blue rubber gloves. Maria and Cal were already there, and John watched Maria’s eyes crinkle behind her own eyewear as she smiled. Cal was more subdued, but he did nod at Sherlock in greeting. Sherlock wasted no time in perching himself on an uncomfortable-looking metal stool beside the table. He reached down to a set of surgical implements arranged nearby and plucked out a pair of minute tongs. John had to wonder just how much experience Sherlock had with surgery. He certainly wouldn’t trust the detective at an apendectomy, but perhaps with the already-dead...
John was snapped from his reverie by the sound of clicking footsteps. He turned to see Andrea, her mask draped around her neck and her eyes bare. She gestured for John to follow and slipped behind a windowed partition. There was a bay of microscopes, much like the one resting in the kitchen at 221b, and a shelf containing jars of samples John would really prefer not to look at. Some of them were still moving.
“How is he?” Andrea asked, her eyes fixed on the trio at the table.
John considered. “He’s better. It was a bit rough yesterday, but he dealt with it.”
Andrea didn’t make any visible sign of disbelief, but her voice was unsure when she asked, “He can do that?”
John smiled. “I’ve learned never to put anything past Sherlock.”
There was a pause. “I read your blog, you know. You called him a madman.”
John blushed. “That was...a long time ago.”
“Not really. It’s only been a few months, going by the post dates. But the way you talk about him. It’s like he’s not human.”
John shruggged. “He is, really. I don’t generally write about the in-between stuff.” He smirked. “You should’ve seen him eat biscuits and gravy yesterday morning.”
Andrea giggled. God she was beautiful. That laugh, that smile, those lips...Sarah, think of Sarah .
“So what are they doing in there?” John asked.
“Cartilage samples, skeletal markers, trace evidence embedded in the bone...a lot of people fail to take the skeleton into account, but for a lot of the cases we work on, it’s very nearly all that’s left. Subject B died of natural causes, so they’re not looking for evidence of a murder weapon or anything incriminating. Right now they’re examining his skeleton to determine his age, sex and cause of death.
“But you already know all that.”
Andrea nodded. “Yes. Now they have to find evidence to support it. Eventually there will be a case where the remains need to be identified. They start with a body where all the answers are already there, and figure out how to use the evidence in front of them to arrive at the correct conclusion. Eventually, they’ll be able to do it blind, but for now they still need training wheels.”
“And Sherlock, how’s he doing?”
“Brilliantly. He asks amazing questions. I doubt any of the professors here could have gotten Cal and Maria to think as abstractly as Sherlock does.” She beamed. “I can’t wait to get him at the bugs.”
“You’re enjoying this.” John accused.
She shrugged. “What’s not to like? We’re solving mysteries, taking what was once a disgusting mess of tragedy and death, and turning it into clean, reasonable data. Subject B is going to help us bring killers to justice, reunite anonymous bodies with the families they left behind, even save lives.” Her eyes were starry, and John felt a surge of heat in his chest as he remembered why he’d gone to med school in the first place.
“Sherlock doesn’t see it that way. The justice and all that.” He pointed out. “All he cares about is the puzzle. Being right.”
Andrea nodded. “Yeah, that’s kinda freaky I’ll admit. But he’s doing good anyway. I’m glad we can help.”
“Are all of you Americans so insanely sanguine?” John demanded.
Andrea snorted. “Just those of us who work with dead people, John. It takes a type.” She seemed to be bracing herself for something, and after a moment she turned to face him.
“Listen, John. Um...if you’re not busy...tonight. I mean there’s this place off North Central I’m sure you’d love and--” She broke off with a blush.
John’s heart was doing flip flops in his chest. Yes, yes, God yes! His body screamed at him to take her up on the offer. He felt his head and his loins going at it in an all-out brawl.
He cleared his throat. “I’m...flattered--and tempted--” he added quickly. “It’s just there’s this woman back home and we’re kind of...” Kind of what? He hadn’t even talked to Sarah since that last almost-fight, and they hardly saw each other out of work and dear God Andrea was attractive...and temporary. It wasn’t like they could become an item. He was leaving in a few weeks. An ocean and six time zones away.
She looked down. “I understand.” She worried at her lower lip. It made John’s imagination conjure up a lot of very inappropriate images. “It’s just you barely ever mentioned her in your blog and I was kind of hoping...I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have presumed.” She looked away. John had to force himself to keep his eyes on the lab, where Sherlock had removed his goggles and was studying Subjet B’s femur from about two centimetres away, to keep himself from snapping and snogging Andrea’s brains out right there. Christ, what was he? Seventeen?
He sighed, but didn’t look at her. “No, I’m sorry. I do find you very attractive, and I must’ve been giving you all these signals and...I’ll shut up now.” He lowered his head to try and hide the blush.
She gave a little ( adorable ) laugh. “Well, if you change your mind you know where to find me.”
“John!” The imperious voice travelled to him from the table, deep and commanding and with bloody perfect timing, thank God! John smiled apologetically at Andrea and slipped away, grateful and regretful all at once.
“What did you need?” John asked, arriving at Sherlock’s side. Maria and Cal nodded at him. He waved.
“Nothing, Maria saw you talking to Andrea. Though you could use an out.” His eyes never once left the metatarsals he was prodding.
John flushed. “Well that was very...thoughtful of you. Why?”
Sherlock continued not to break his optical lock on the skeletal foot and smoothely produced a small piece of paper from his coat. Handing it to John he said, “So you’d feel inclined to come with me to this. Turnabout is fair play and all.”
John took the slip. “I’m not sure you’re using that phrase correctly.” Sherlock just shrugged, unconcerned.
John looked down. It was a ticket. The Knoxville City Showcase. He groaned. “Sherlock!”
“It’s Saturday. I’ve already purchased a ticket for us both, I have the day off, you obviously have no plans and now you owe me.” He finally turned his head to look at John. His eyes glittered malevolently and even through the surgical mask, John could tell he was grinning like a hyena.
John gritted his teeth. He could already hear the three a.m. recitals as Sherlock taught himself to play like the bloke from the CD. Still, even if he refused Sherlock would probably go on his own anyway. At least John might get an entertaining evening out of it.
With a long, weary sigh he hung his head and handed the ticket back to Sherlock. “Alright, fine. You win. You always bloody do.”
Sherlock pulled his mask down and smiled. “Great. Let me finish extracting this marrow sample and we can go.”
Sherlock beamed. “Shopping.”
John’s blood went cold. Oh. Dear. God.
What had he gotten himself into?
Chapter 9: Glimpses of Home
Nine: Glimpses of Home
John Stood At Ease. He knew he Stood At Ease. He was at all times perfectly aware that, in the absence of movement, he defaulted to At Ease, or at least to Easy (though, he was in America now, so shouldn’t it be Parade Rest?). Legs apart, knees straight, feet at shoulders’ width, hands behind back and elbows at forty-five degree angles, chest out, shoulders back. The only time John didn’t Stand At Ease was when he was making a conscious effort not to, like when he was on a date or trying to look harmless in front of a suspect while Sherlock snuck round behind with a blunt object. Or when he was standing at Attention and giving away absolutely nothing, you bastard, you’ll get nothing, I swear it! He shook his head, clearing away memories best left buried in sand and Semtex.
But this was the first time since he’d last donned fatigues that John deliberately set his body to military-grade At Ease, with his shoulders squared and his back straight and his neck stiff, his eyes staring blankly ahead and his face set in an expressionless mask. And he did it because Sherlock was standing three feet away from him and examining himself in the mirror wearing bloody skinny jeans.
“No it’s not...not quite right, what d’you think John?” Sherlock was saying. John endeavored to straighten his spine even more and said nothing. Sherlock paid no mind.
Out of the corner of his eye John watched Sherlock shrug, turn on his heel and disappear back into the dressing room. Several moments later he heard a triumphant “Aha!” There were quite a lot of loud and disconcerting crashing noises from inside the changing room and John was sure he heard fabric ripping, then Sherlock appeared back in his Spencer Hart regalia with a veritable mountain of clothes in his arms.
“Yes, I think that should do it. No, wait. Jackets. I need jackets.” And he wandered off, dropping the clothes unceremoniously into their trolly without so much as a parting glance. John jutted out his elbows a little more, then sighed and slumped into the “boyfriend chair” (according to Sherlock), cradling his head in his hands.
“John?” Sherlock appeared in front of him, looking slightly perplexed. “Are you okay?”
“Not. Your. Boyfriend.” John gritted out.
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “For god’s sake, John, it’s just a local idiom! If it makes you feel better, you can call it the ‘flatmate chair’ or the ‘tetchy best friend’ chair. Honestly, I regret mentioning it now.”
“That’s not the point, Sherlock!” John hissed. “This? Right here? This is something boyfriends do. They sit and suffer while their whatever-it-is tries on frankly irresponsible amounts of clothing until their brains start dribbling out their ears! Why the hell am I here?”
Sherlock frowned. “Cal insinuated it wouldn’t be a problem. I specifically asked if this type of activity was heteronormatively acceptable.”
“Oh, God, Sherlock...just shut up, please?”
Sherlock was eyeing him. He could feel it. He always got that uncomfortable hot feeling on the back of his neck, like sun-stroke, or standing too close to an open flame. “What’s going on, John?”
“Nothing. I just don’t particularly enjoy shopping.”
“But it’s essential. My project--”
“Oh, yes, the top-secret ‘let’s drive John insane’ project. How’s that coming?”
Sherlock knelt in front of him, close but not touching. “John. What’s really wrong?”
With a weary, aching sigh, John dug in his coat pocket for his mobile. Wordlessly, he handed it to Sherlock.
“Text.” He spat.
Sherlock opened John’s message inbox and sucked a breath through his teeth. The words flashed across the inside of John’s eyelids, still just as dark and prescient as they were when he first read them.
We need to talk.
Sherlock stood and started to pace. John knew better than to expect condolences, or compassion, or anything even remotely best-friend-like from Sherlock. He was not, absolutely not, prepared for what Sherlock did say.
“This is my fault, isn’t it?”
John jerked his head up. “What?”
“It’s because of me. I’m the reason she got abducted on your first date. I nearly got you blown up at that swimming pool. I’m the reason you sometimes fall asleep at work. I keep calling you away when you’re with her. This is because of me.”
John sighed. “No, Sherlock. It’s not because of you. It’s me. I could’ve said no to you, at any time. I always pick you, though. I know I do. Danger over romance, that’s me all over.” He drooped in his chair. “I knew this would bloody happen. I knew she could only stand so much. What was I thinking, coming to America like this? I didn’t even invite her! I barely gave her any warning. Oh, God, I’m an idiot!” He moaned, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes.
Sherlock, for once, didn’t agree with him. That was...worrying. “Maybe she’s not ending it. Maybe she just wants to talk.”
“For a genius, you’re incredibly stupid.”
“I’m just saying, it might not be as bad as you think.”
John smiled a very fake smile. “You’re just trying to cheer me up so I’ll keep shopping with you.”
Sherlock nodded. “Yep. But I’m not lying. Sarah isn’t quite as infuriatingly obtuse as other women. She might be willing to work things out. And if not, there’s always Andrea.”
John widened his eyes. “Sherlock, I’m not going to hop into bed with Andrea the moment things get rough with my girlfriend.”
“Why not? You’re clearly infatuated with her, she’s shown a clear interest in you, if things with Sarah really are over, I don’t see why you shouldn’t pursue Dr. Collet instead. She’s obviously a beautiful, intelligent, amiable woman. If I had the inclination for that sort of thing, I suppose even I would consider entering into a relationship with her.”
“Oh, God, that poor woman.” John chided. “Sherlock, no. It wouldn’t be right. It’d be a rebound date, those are never good. You can’t make anything lasting on the rebound.”
“We’re leaving in a few weeks, John, you can’t make anything lasting anyway.”
John paused. “Wait, why am I taking relationship advice from you ? That’s like getting hang-gliding tips from a blowfish!”
Sherlock looked genuinely affronted. “John, I do have a functional knowledge of the concepts. At the very least I know any number of ways a relationship can end in murder.”
“That’s so very reassuring, mate.”
Sherlock put his hands on his hips and blew a stray bit of fringe out of his eye impatiently. “Well there’s nothing you can do about it at the moment. We may as well get on with our day.”
He spun round, diligently pushing the clothing-laden trolly toward outerwear. After a moment’s fuming, John got up and followed him.
“So I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me what that little spree was about.” John said, tucking into his tandoori. He had Sherlock had managed to stumble upon a nice little Indian place near the university and they were taking a break from Sherlock’s mad shopping run.
“The clothes make the man.” Sherlock said, his face blank.
“Yeah, but you always dress to the nines.”
“Exactly, and look at how I stand out. That’s all well and good when you’re meeting clients or humiliating the constabulary, but sometimes I need to blend in. I can’t do that with my current wardrobe.”
“Blend in? Sherlock, there’s no case here. Why would you ever need to...oh my God. You’re planning on finding work here, aren’t you?” John pointed his fork at Sherlock accusingly. “You are! You want to look for a case!”
Sherlock averted his eyes. “People die all the time in America.” He said, as though that explained everything.
“Sherlock, we’re on holiday! And you don’t have an arrangement with the police here. I doubt they’ll consent to phone Scotland Yard so Lestrade can vouch for you.”
“Well, no, but they might consent to call Florida. If I play it right. But I’m hoping I won’t need to. No, I’ve got a plan.” His eyes flashed in dangerous delight.
“Oh, wonderful. A plan. Because those never foul up on us.” John sniped. Sherlock glared.
“Look, why can’t you just take it easy for a bit? Analyze insect poo or whatever it is you do in that lab.”
“Entomology is the next step, John, we’re on skeletal markers at the moment. And you know that’s not enough to keep me occupied.”
John hung his head. “Sherlock, I have handed you, literally, a field of corpses. I gave it to you on a bloody silver platter! What more do you need? What more could you possibly want?”
Sherlock widened his eyes suggestively. “Danger! Risk, the potential for greivous bodily harm. The same things you crave. You’re quite right, you have handed me an intellectual feast. How can I call myself your friend if I neglect to feed your addiction the way you fed mine?”
“My add--Sherlock, this trip isn’t about me!”
“Do you really mean to tell me you can stand a month of ease and luxury, trolling about the city like a garden-variety tourist? All your needs met, all your comforts provided? It’s your idea of hell.”
“So, you’re doing all this for me.”
“No, don’t be foolish, I’m being partially selfish as always. You moping about and bemoaning your existence would quite put me off my fun.”
John shook his head, exasperated. Sadly, Sherlock was right. John was already feeling antsy about the lack of action. Bloody brilliant they were, a pair of addicts and enablers living under one roof. They would be the death of each other.
They arrived at the apartment several minutes later. John immediately flopped onto the sofa, claiming it before Sherlock could get his corrosive clutches on it. Sherlock, for his part, simply slid out of his jacket and settled onto the floor with his shopping bags strewn about, pawing through his purchases with the single-minded concentration of an archaeologist on a dig.
The world settled into a quiet, contented hum as the two men quietly inhabited the same space, connected and separate and silent. John was just this side of a happy doze and idly contemplating tea when a sudden and jarring movement snapped him to attention.
Sherlock was ramrod stiff, his eyes open wide in...what? Terror? Shock? His mouth worked futilely for a few seconds before he snapped his gaze to the man on the sofa.
“John! Quickly, tell me what day it is!”
John blinked. “What? Why?”
“It’s Wednesday, Sherlock.”
Sherlock closed his eyes and cringed, as though in pain. “Christ. Christ.” He hissed through gritted teeth. “What time is it? Quickly!”
John checked his watch. “Uh, it’s about twelve past three.” He had to blink the bleariness out of his eyes to see the hands properly.
“Shit! Shit, shit shit!” Sherlock spat, vaulting to his feet. John was unaccustomed to Sherlock using any profanity outside of an adopted persona. This was throwing him, and he felt the familiar worry start to bubble up in his chest.
Sherlock snatched up his jacket and frantically dug through the pockets until he located his mobile. He brandished it in triumph for a moment then irritably stabbed at three buttons before holding it up to his ear.
Wait, wait, what? He was phoning someone? Not texting? John felt his body tense, and he automatically started to sit up, ready to spring from the couch if need be.
Need didn’t. The next words out of Sherlock’s mouth were frantic, insistent, annoyed and...confusing, but did not denote any danger.
“Put me through, Mycroft!” He spat. “Yes, I know it’s...I’m aware --...oh shut up Mycroft and put me through! ...No! No, she doesn’t pay a dime!...Ugh, penny then, you know what I meant!...Stop being an arse for once in your life and--... Thank you !”
Sherlock was agitated, pacing up and down the living room, absentmindedly stepping over his bags as he went. John felt the beginnings of a giggle, but he suppressed them. This? This was interesting. He wanted to find out more, and the best way to do that was to stay silent and still, keeping Sherlock’s attention away from him.
A few moments passed with Sherlock anxiously running his free hand through his hair. A voice drifted faintly from the phone. A woman’s voice. And Sherlock’s whole body relaxed, his face softening until a smile started to play at the corners of his mouth.
“You weren’t sleeping were you?” He asked by way of greeting. The reply was a bit on the sharp side, and he flinched. “I know! I know, I’m sorry!” Oh, a sincere apology from Sherlock Holmes? Was this another dimension? John peered at the flat, but everything seemed normal.
More indiscernible talking, then: “I am sorry! I lost track of time! ...Yes, I know I said six o’ clock. Well, it’s only quarter past three here...please don’t be angry!”
Christ, who was he talking to, his mum?
“Wait, what ? ...no, no of course not...Well, nine...Of course I didn’t actually go to them...But they’re useful ...Oh, you know what I mean...No, I promised, didn’t I?...Yes, well, John’s here to keep me in line so you don’t have to worry about it...Yes, yes he knows. We talked about it and everything...Yes, thank you, because I needed your approval so badly.” There was a sharp retort, and Sherlock cringed away from the phone.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Hudson, that was rude.” He said sheepishly. John’s eyes damn near popped out of his head. Mrs. Hudson ? He was phoning Mrs. Hudson ? And he was acting like a naughty schoolboy caught out by his teacher. Or his mum. Nanny. Something.
“And you? How’s your hip?...Oh, that’s...that’s not good...Yes, I’ll have Mycroft look into it...No, don’t be stupid, I like putting him out...No, I’m sorry, you’re not stupid...Yes, I know...No, it’s lovely! I’m having a wonderful time...Yes, I do...Well, I don’t think you want to hear, really. It’s a bit my side of things...Well now that you mention it, there is this one fascinating sample of intestinal lining that--...Well I did warn you!...Yes, he’s fine. A bit bored, but...” he chuckled “...Yeah, I know. I’ll take care of it...No, no I’ll pay more attention next time...six o’ clock, not a minute later...Yes I promise...Mrs. Hudson! I promise !...I miss you, too...I will...I will...Yes, ma’am...Brilliant...Yes, okay, fine, but no setting a limit, you know how I hate those...No I most certainly will not get you a t-shirt!” His face contorted as though he had just eaten something foul. John forced back a snort.
“Yes...no, I mean, I will but...okay...okay, fine ...I understand.” He pouted for a moment, then turned slightly away from John, lowering his voice. But John was already listening so intently, and the flat was so quiet, he heard him clearly just the same.
“Okay...okay...I’ll phone again soon...Love you, Maggie.” And he hung up. John exploded.
He could barely breath, his chest heaving with the force of his laughter to the point of physical pain. He arched up on the sofa, gasping and tearing up, his grin so wide it hurt. He put a hand on the stitch in his side and struggled to get his breath under control. His vision was so blurry when he finally managed to open his eyes that he barely made out the furious blush painting Sherlock’s cheeks.
“Yes, yes, got that out of your system now?” Sherlock snapped. John was still gasping at air, his lungs aching, and wiping tears out of his eyes.
“Not hardly.” He answered. “Oh, Sherlock, I am going to have so much fun with this! Next time you set the table on fire or blow up the oven I’m going straight downstairs and having her sort you out!”
Sherlock shrank into himself, glowering and still blushing like a virgin in an adult toy shop. “Oh, for...” He threw up his hands and stalked to the kitchen. Moments later John heard the tell-tale racket of Sherlock making tea. Fearing for UT’s housing budget, he quietly followed, stopping to lean against the doorway where he could keep an eye on Sherlock without hovering over him.
“So...you love her.” He said innocently, a smile tugging at his lips.
“Yes.” Sherlock said in his isn’t-it-obvious-you-moron voice.
John cleared his throat awkwardly. “Why am I just now finding out about this?” He asked.
“I’m fairly sure it was none of your business. In fact, I’m almost positive it still isn’t.”
“You’re right.” John admitted. “Still, I mean, you’re not...it’s not a disguise, is it?” He rubbed the back of his neck in discomfort.
Sherlock froze, his body tense like a snake about to strike. “John. Stop. Talking.” His voice was very low and very dangerous. There was a pause, and then Sherlock visibly forced himself to relax.
“I’m not...using her, if that’s what you’re afraid of. I know I’m not very good at...” he waved a hand vaguely, his back still to John. “...at being with people. Mrs. Hudson’s the exception. I killed a man for her. I wanted to do it myself, but I had to get the state of Florida to do it for me.” His words came out harsher, probably through gritted teeth. “I would have burned him alive if I had the chance.”
“Her husband.” John said, puzzling it out aloud.
“Yes, obviously. John...you can’t tell anyone about this. Please. It’s bad enough people know about you, you at least can defend yourself. Mrs. Hudson is...she’s strong, but not in the way that you are. She can’t protect herself if someone like--” His voice broke off. Moriarty’s name hung in the silence.
John walked over and put a hand on Sherlock’s shoulder. Sherlock leaned into the touch and put his own hand over John’s.
“I understand.” John said. “I won’t tell.”
Sherlock slumped in relief. “Thank you.”
They made tea, which was somehow less tea-like than the stuff back home, and settled in for the evening. John felt that divine, summery glow that came from cracking another part of the mystery of Sherlock Holmes. He rarely got to feel that sensation, but when he did he savoured it.
“So, are you going to call Sarah?” Sherlock asked, peering over his computer.
John sighed. “Not tonight. It’s nearly eleven in London by now.”
“What are you going to say?”
He shrugged. “Whatever I have to. I don’t want to think about it too much just now.”
Sherlock frowned. “Do you regret choosing me over her?”
John tensed at the question. He thought about it. “I regret...that it ever felt like a choice at all. I mean, if we were really, I don’t know, right for each other, wouldn’t I have chosen her out of hand? If we were as solid as I thought, helping you wouldn’t have felt like an option, would it?”
“So you want her to end it?”
“No, I...I don’t know.” John hung his head. “Hell...maybe this is it. Maybe I’m ruined for relationships now. I wouldn’t be the first. I mean...what if there’s no one, Sherlock? What if I never meet a woman who I can prioritize over this?”
Sherlock frowned. “Then...you’ll be like me.” He said it without emotion, as though he were simply stating a variable in one of his experiments. John felt himself go pale anyway.
“What, you mean married to the work?” He grimaced.
Sherlock nodded. “It’s not so bad, John. I’ve managed pretty well.”
“Sherlock, you’re a sociopath with the inter-personal skills of a wood louse who keeps body parts in the kitchen and shoots the wall when he’s bored. You haven’t ‘managed’ well or otherwise! You have one friend in the world, you never speak to your family save on Christmas or whenever Mycroft decides to pop round and annoy you, and the people you work with either can’t stand you or assume you’re bound to become a homicidal maniac. What part of that ‘isn’t so bad’? What part of that sounds like a life I’d want to lead?”
Sherlock tilted his head to the side, thinking. “Well, you wouldn’t be exactly like me. Anyway, I’d like to think I’ve mellowed considerably since we moved in together.” He idly sipped his cooling tea.
John dropped his head into his hands and whimpered. “Torso, Sherlock. On my bed.”
There was a pause. John looked up to see Sherlock worrying at his lower lip in thought. “I take your point.” He stared into his mug for a while. “Are we still going to the concert?”
And that was it. Moment over, time to move on. Sociopathic geniuses wait for no man. John sighed.
“Yeah, yeah, we’re going.”
“Excellent. I’m told Jordan’s Ford is playing. Maria implied it was something of a coup to get them.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Jimmy Bowers’ band, John. Remember? In the cab?”
“Oh. Right. You’re not seriously going to try and learn how to play like him?”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
John groaned and rubbed his forehead. “Because I actually enjoy sleep on a nightly basis.”
With a withering you-idiot look, Sherlock stood and drifted to one of his many suitcases. He opened it almost tenderly, revealing his violin case surrounded by a bespoke foam liner. With practiced, ritualistic movements he opened the case and pulled out his violin, then freed the bow from its own special indentation. John cringed. Which would it be this time? Haunting beauty or mindless racket?
Neither. Sherlock simply stood, violin perched under his chin, bow at the ready. He stared at the neck of the instrument, his fingers resting ever-so-lightly on the frets. He didn’t move. Didn’t blink. He simply looked at the strings and the wood, and slowly, very slowly, his fingers began to slide gently along the strings, almost petting them. He closed his eyes, breathing slow, measured breaths. And then...
He smiled. It was a wicked, triumphant, giddy smile. He positioned his fingers, readied his bow, and played.
The sound Sherlock produced from that violin was unlike anything John had heard him play before. He gaped, wide-eyed, as the mad genius coaxed a long, mournful wail from the strings. His fingers and bow conspired to craft notes John hadn’t even known existed. It was sharp, yet oily. High, yet somber. And it gave way in the space of a heartbeat to something as frantic and whirling as a hurricane. Sherlock’s fingers danced across the frets, his bow almost writhing against the strings. He yanked and pushed and slid and dragged until the notes were all but tripping over each other in their rush to meet the air. It lasted moments, just a handful of breaths, but it left Sherlock breathless and he very nearly staggered when he lowered the bow and violin to his sides. His chest heaved, and his mouth was open slightly.
“What...was that?” John demanded.
Sherlock was panting as though he’d run a mile uphill. “ Lost Horizons . The opening movement. From Jimmy Bowers' early years. Maria played it for me yesterday. I downloaded it last night from his website before I went to bed.”
“And in that time, you learned to play it?”
Sherlock shook his head. “Approximate it. I don’t have his technique. He’s far less technical, more organic than I am.”
John rarely got to see this side of Sherlock. The musician. It was very, very rare for Sherlock to encounter music that stimulated his mind, especially in this day and age. John had made the mistake of playing a Beatles CD in the kitchen one day...it hadn’t been pretty. John kept his music in his room after that.
“Alright, fine. You win. I’m not...sure what you win, but you win.”
Sherlock smirked. “I win the right to practice my violin whenever I like. You can buy earplugs.”
John scowled. “Not bloody likely. You can practice when I’m at work.”
“Not bloody likely.” He mocked. John slumped.
Sherlock snatched a bag up off the worktop and thrust it in John’s face.
Life settled into a bit of a routine after that. John and Sherlock would get up and have breakfast together, usually at a restaurant because neither of them knew how to make American biscuits and both had grown rather fond of them (John with white sauce and sausage, Sherlock with honey). Then both men would make their way to the lab, where John would sign off on Sherlock’s calorie card and perhaps hang around to watch Sherlock at work, then they would part company. John wandered the city, taking in the vast excess of American life and the perplexing adoration the locals seemed to have for his accent.
John took in museums, films, shops, landmarks, anything a tourist could take in. And it was boring . He was seriously considering the prospect of joining Sherlock in the lab, mutilated corpses or no, just to get away from the tremor in his left hand, the ghostly ache in his right leg, and the fuzzy film that had settled over his brain.
Three days passed, and John still hadn’t worked up the nerve to ring Sarah. He knew he should. He had to man up and face the music. But he couldn’t. And certainly not now . It was Saturday, and he and Sherlock had a date with the city of Knoxville’s finest musicians.
He looked around the flat and sighed. Three days. Three bloody days and already Sherlock had managed to leave his mark on the place. There were laminated bone samples, thin as paper, mounted on the wall. There were jars of various squelchy substances carefully lined up on the half-wall between the living room and kitchen areas. There were pages and pages of autopsy reports, toxicology reports, test results and whatever else posted around the TV. No body parts yet, but John knew it was only a matter of time before the lab people decided he was trustworthy enough to bring all of his work home with him.
The sofa, though, by some insane miracle, was untouched. Sherlock rarely even sat on it. If John didn’t know any better, he’d think Sherlock was... respecting his personal space . And that was just...impossible.
He collapsed onto the plient, welcoming cushions gratefully. With a strange upswell of pride, he noted a tiny curry stain from his dinner the night before on the arm. True, the sofa was now marred, but it was marred by him , not Sherlock. Nothing corrosive or acidic or...suspicious. Just honest, simple curry from an over-zealous hand wave during an argument with his flatmate over, of all things, sparrows. Don’t ask. Really, don’t ask. Anyway, it made the sofa feel almost his, a sanctuary of John in the middle of this chaos of Sherlock . Maybe he’d sleep on it after the concert if he was knackered enough.
His phone chimed.
Busy with project. Sending a cab round at 6. Concert starts at 7.30. Will meet you there. It’s almost ready.
John stared at the text for a moment. He could imagine the heady, breathless anticipation in Sherlock’s last sentence. The project. That damn, secret project. John shook his head and looked at the clock on the DVD player. Nearly half five. He started to get ready.
As he riffled through his clothes, trying to find something suitably casual yet exceptional to wear, he started to ponder Sherlock’s behaviour. The man had been spending more time at the lab over the last three days, taking a break only to join John for a quick lunch before flitting back to the corpses. Apparently he’d already exhausted his analyses of Subject B and had moved on to a new corpse, one which had been exposed to simulated heavy rainfall whilst partially buried in peat.
As disturbing as that was to contemplate, it was somehow preferable to thinking about what else Sherlock had been getting up to in that lab. Those furtive, smiling glances from Maria and Cal, that knowing little quirk in Andrea’s lips ( God those lips), the way he always managed to leave them smiling. Even Tony had warmed up to him, after that whole pizza parlour thing. It was odd. Sherlock never got on with people for an extended period of time. Sure, he could charm the socks off anyone he pleased for a few minutes, long enough to get inside a locked house or a sealed building for instance. But for days ? What was he playing at?
Several minutes later, John studied himself in his bedroom mirror. He looked...well, there was no other way to say it, he looked British . He’d always been rather proud of his understated, considered style. He’d enjoyed the knowledge that he looked, at all times, respectable and decent. He wasn’t posh, not by any stretch, but he did put a little though into his appearance. He’d just never realized before now just how...English his wardrobe really was. His hair, too, come to think on it. Maybe he should have actually shopped with Sherlock the other day, rather than just following in the madman’s wake and moping over Sarah’s text.
Sarah ... He shook his head, pushing her out of his mind. He jerked at the lapels of his bomber jacket, fussed a bit with the collar of his rust-red shirt, and slipped his hands into the pockets of his dark blue jeans. Maybe if he wore trainers...? No. John Watson was many things, but he was not the sort of man to wear trainers in a non-athletic situation. Sturdy brown shoes, slightly dusty and well worn, that was John Watson.
A sharp beep from outside made him jump. He peered out the window to see a small, black car idling in the drive. Taxi. But in name only. He took the ride in silence, wondering what awaited him at the concert hall, only slightly apprehensive. Honest.
Predictably, the theatre was on Gay Street. Predictably, John had no sooner stepped out of the car before his phone chimed at him.
Hurry up. I’ve been waiting.
John sneered at the screen for a moment before jabbing out a reply he knew would irritate his friend.
K, b rite in m8.
The reply came seconds later.
I’m laughing. This is me laughing. Get your arse inside.
John snorted. Never got old. He went inside, presented his ticket and looked around. The place was massive. It was a modern, gaping area with massive photographs dominating the walls of musical acts past and present. John recognized some of them, but several were completely foreign to him. And there were people everywhere . The place was more crowded than Picadilly in the rush hour. How was he ever going to find Sherlock in this mess?
Found you. Don’t move. We’re nearly there.
We? What we? He spun round in place, trying to locate the lanky detective. No luck. It didn’t help that this side of the Pond, Sherlock wasn’t as noticably tall as he was back home. America seemed to mass produce bean-poles.
“John.” Ah, but there was no mistaking that voice. Even if it was saying “Jahn” at the moment. John turned to greet his flatmate and found himself gaping instead.
Sherlock was...not Sherlock. He was grinning, for one thing, and grinning in a dopey, childish kind of way. Not that smart-arse grin he had during a case, not that surprised, unconcious grin he got when John managed to make him laugh, but a soft, easy grin as though his was a mouth used to smiling.
His hair was straight. Actually straight . It hung loose and fluffy around his head, and it was gleaming in the overhead lighting with recently acquired highlights. It somehow made his skin look a little darker, less noticably pale.
And his clothes . He wasn’t wearing a suit. He wasn’t even wearing slacks. He was in a pair of faded jeans, slightly baggy from the knees down, a t-shirt that clung slightly to his abdomen under an open black shirt and a canvas jacket in a pale shade of brown. His feet were encased in a pair of black and grey trainers which peeked out from under the denim as Sherlock shifted his weight from foot to foot as though brimming with excitement.
And maybe he was, because more than his thoroughly American outfit and shockingly altered hair, John was rendered near-catatonic at the sight of Sherlock’s arm wrapped posessively around Maria’s slim waist. Their body language was easy, comfortable and thoughtless, as though they’d done this same thing a million times. It was utterly remarkable. Sherlock had done less than nothing to disguise his face, had barely altered his voice, and yet this man standing not two feet away was, in John’s mind, completely and utterly not Sherlock Holmes.
“Who...who are you?” John demanded. Maria burst into laughter and Sherlock flashed a sly smile, pure Holmes, and that made John relax. A second later, however, the sly look was gone and the stranger’s face was back.
“Shawn Harris.” He announced, slipping his arm off of Maria’s waist and extending it to John.
John took it automatically, and istantly felt like an idiot for doing so. “Shawn...?”
“The project, Dr. Watson.” Maria chimed in. “Cal and I have been helping with it.” Sherlock beamed at her.
John nodded dumbly. “And Shawn Harris is...?”
“A music student.” Sherlock informed him. “Attending UT to get my bachelor’s degree.”
John just kept nodding. It seemed to be working so far. “And Maria?”
“My girlfriend. Three years.” Maria nodded in agreement.
“What? Why?” John sputtered.
“Because Knoxville is not Nashville.” Maria explained. “The music program is good here, but Nashville has much more exposure. Shawn needed a reason to choose this school instead.”
“Cal’s idea.” Sherlock supplied.
“Again, why?” John demanded. “Why is any of... this necessary?”
Sherlock smirked. “To prove I can. And because foreigners stand out. You know I want to find work, John. Best to establish an alias as soon as possible.”
John eyed the pair. Well, it was a good alias. Sherlock looked like he belonged, completely at his ease. Maria was breathtaking, her milk-coffee skin luminous under the barest touches of make-up, her glossy hair pulled back artfully in a cascade of curls and combs. She wore a red fitted top with straps that fell off her shoulders and a pair of black, clinging trousers that showcased her frankly gorgeous legs. She balanced expertly in a pair of high-heeled sandals with what looked like cork soles. She was smiling in Sherlock’s arms, her head leaning effortlessly against his shoulder. She was almost of a height with John in flats, those sandals put her a couple inches above him. He didn’t like to think about that too much.
“Come on.” Shawn said. In that accent it was hard to think of him as Sherlock. “Show’s about to start.”
Mutely, John followed the couple into the performance hall. He felt old, with Sherlock dressed like that and Maria clinging to his side. The consulting detective looked about twelve as a matter of course, now that he was dressed like a university student even John would balk at letting him into an over-eighteen club back home. In comparison John must’ve looked like a withering British grandfather.
Though there were seats, tonnes of them, everyone seemed to prefer standing. John followed Sherlock to their seats, sitting himself down partly out of a desire to sit, and partly to be obstinate. Sherlock and Maria remained on their feet.
Some time later, after the music had started, John joined them. He had little trouble believing that this was, indeed, the best Knoxville had to offer. The music, covering dozens of styles and genres from bluegrass to jazz to speed metal, was delivered with absolute dedication and skill. John found himself unconciously observing “Shawn” and his reactions to the music he knew damn well that Sherlock hated. The lanky young man had starry eyes and a rapt expression even in the face of pop music. He swayed and jumped and grooved in time with Maria, who John suspected was giving him direction, but a casual brush against Sherlock’s arm revealed that the detective’s body was stiff and trembling, as though he were lifting a very heavy weight.
The concert was going to go on for hours. John began to seriously wonder if Sherlock could manage to keep up this facade for that long. Sure enough, the moment intermission hit Sherlock was off like a shot. John followed him, expecting to see him disappear into the men’s, but Sherlock bypassed the toilets and bolted to the exit. Picking up on Sherlock’s turn of speed, John hurried after him, picking up his pace so that he was just in time to catch his flatmate before he collapsed in the carpark.
“Steady on, mate.” John muttered, gingerly pulling Sherlock to his feet. “You alright?”
Sherlock nodded, his neck loose and his eyes closed. “Jus’ tired.” He opened his eyes and blinked a few times. “Jus’ need...” He looked around the carpark, as though he might find something among the flatbeds and sedans that would reinvigorate him.
“Sherlock, why are you doing this? There’s no case, you don’t need to act here.”
Sherlock looked at him, his expression baffled. “John? Have you been paying attention?” It should have sounded normal, just another Holmesian slight, but Sherlock sounded genuinely confused, almost worried.
“Paying attention to what?”
Sherlock smiled, but it was wobbly and weak. “Shawn’s just phase two. I’ve been acting since we got here.”
And John understood . The security guards, the passport girl, the total-body shift when he walked into the lab, the laughing and joking with the students, the vocal coaching from Andrea. Sherlock hadn’t let up since the plane landed, only ever dropping his disguise when he and John were alone.
I’m so tired .
Stupid John! Stupid! How hadn’t he seen ? Why hadn’t he put it all together? He hadn’t even noticed Sherlock’s slip at the pizza place, he’d just thought Sherlock was being Sherlock. But Tony had never even met Sherlock. He’d only ever met “Shawn” 1.0 before.
“Sherlock, stop this! You don’t need to do this!” He insisted.
Sherlock nodded, pulling himself up straight but still looking pale. “I can do it, John. Stop fussing over me.”
“You’re dead on your feet!”
“It’s worth it! Look at me, John! I fit! You wanted me to care? I’m caring. This is me, giving a bloody damn what they think! Just once, John. I just wanted to know, just once. No one thinks I’m a freak here. Isn’t that what you wanted? Isn’t that why you shipped me off in the first place? Well look: It worked. I’m not a freak. I’m normal. I’m just like everyone else. You got what you wanted, so stop whinging and leave me be!”
If Sherlock had slapped him, John couldn’t have felt more stung. His mind was reeling. It didn’t make sense . Sherlock didn’t care, he never cared what people thought of him. And yet...everything was different here. But there was one thing that John could rely on, whatever side of the Atlantic they were on, and he clung to it as he watched “Shawn” stride off toward the concert hall.
Sherlock Holmes was a bloody good liar.
Chapter 10: Masked Man
X: Masked Man
It hurt. Oh, God it hurt. The pressure in his head was making his vision blur, so he had to blink 3.7 times more frequently than usual. He hoped it looked endearing. John blinked a lot, and nobody thought less of him. It had the added advantage of making him look harmless and slightly bemused, a fact which both he and Sherlock delighted in exploiting. People always underestimated John Watson, hopefully these people would underestimate Sherlock Holmes as well.
He hated Shawn. He hated everything about Shawn. Shawn was simpering, vacant, self-concious, obsessed with human contact, everything Sherlock wasn’t. Everything everyone had always told him he should be.
But he loved being Shawn. He loved the way people looked at Shawn, as though he were in the background. He loved how women would eye him, assessing, rating, then moving on. People never looked at Sherlock that way. People looked at Sherlock as though he were an animal in the zoo, one of the species they secretly feared might one day break out of the cage. Sherlock was intense. Shawn was cute.
To everyone but John Watson, apparently. John hadn’t liked Shawn, Sherlock could tell that the instant they met up at the concert. It felt strange, seeing John so uneasy around him. Sherlock had come to take John’s calm, steady acceptance for granted. Losing it was like losing the railing on a flight of stairs. Sherlock was suddenly very, very aware of how far he was from the ground.
But Maria helped. God bless Maria and her cool, systematic mind. Maria very nearly understood him, came so close to being brilliant. Maria understood detachment, knew how to keep emotional involvement at a minimum. Even as they moved and swayed together, he constantly felt her hand on his hips, his shoulder, his arm, guiding him and checking his movements to keep them naturalistic. Maria knew how to exaggerate her facial expressions just enough that Sherlock could functionally mimic them and disguise the disgust he felt at some of what passed for “music” in this place.
Even so, by intermission he’d felt like his brain would burst. He knew it would be difficult, even phase one had worn him down to the point of exhaustion. But he hadn’t anticipated strain of this magnitude. He had to constantly self-monitor every move he made, every modulation of his voice, every muscle of his face to make sure the mask wasn’t slipping. So much easier back home, where the mask only had to fit for a few moments and he could maintain the reserve of typical British masculinity. This...this was so much more difficult. Shawn had to be American, completely and without exception. He had to be open and emotional and obvious to a degree Sherlock had never reached before, even when he’d made himself sob like a child in front of witnesses and suspects.
And thank God for Mrs. Hudson . He thought. I never could have learned to cry on command without those damn soaps. The memory of horrible daytime telly and pervasive heat and rose-scented perfume very nearly made him smile. Only he couldn’t. Because he could still feel John’s stricken gaze between his shoulder blades. It took all the focus he had left to force his limbs into the loose, careless stride of an American youth.
Well, it had been necessary, hadn’t it? He’d had to throw John off the scent, if only for a little longer. It was still easy, too easy, to manipulate the doctor’s emotions. A half-desperate confession, furious self-deprication, and finally turning it around on John, as though it were his fault, as though Sherlock was doing this for him .
But what could he say? That he didn’t really know why he’d created Shawn? That it was so much easier to be here if he was someone else? That it was even harder to be Sherlock? How could he explain Shawn to John, when he didn’t really understand it himself? He couldn’t very well tell John about some nameless dread he’d been carrying in his chest since the pool. He couldn’t let John know about the shadows always at his back, the phantom snipers trained on his heart.
Shawn was useful. Shawn was work . Keeping Shawn believable and solid occupied his mind, sometimes too much of it, and if he was focused enough he could keep the fear away. With Shawn at the forefront of his mind, that constant terror retreated back to his hindbrain where he couldn’t hear it so loudly. And if John knew...Christ, if John knew he’d want to help, and that couldn’t happen. Sherlock didn’t crumble. Sherlock didn’t fall. Sherlock didn’t care .
Until he did. He’d gone to such lengths to protect Mrs. Hudson. Always kept her at one remove, forced her into the background so no one would realize. But John...John would rail against him, if he knew Sherlock was protecting him. He’d fight and claw his way into the firing line. That couldn’t happen again. Certainly not here, where the enemies that lingered were so much less elegant than...than back home. London’s criminal geniuses were schoolboys next to the height American brutality. No, best to keep out of the light here. Best to inhabit mediocrity, keep their eyes from landing on him.
He shook his head, dislodging thoughts best left in the subconcious. The less he thought about it, the less it would torture him. He could save that for bed, when sleep eluded him and his thoughts whirled through his head like a maelstrom. Maybe John would have another nightmare. That would provide a good enough excuse for Sherlock to be awake. He could claim John had cried out and woken him. He’d have to remember to change into his pyjamas and lie down long enough for his hair to muss so he’d look believable. John may be slow, but he had a nasty tendancy to get there in the end. As it stood, Sherlock knew it was only a matter of time before John realized he’d been lying in the carpark. And if he started prying, well, John was a bit like a terrier. Once he got his teeth in, he never let up.
Sherlock let the noise and chaos of the concert hall wash over him, the sheer rush of data buoying him up, giving him the energy to slip into Shawn again. He strode with a flushed eagerness to his seat beside Maria. She gave him a questioning look, then tilted her head to John’s empty seat. Sherlock just shook his head and slipped an arm around Maria (shoulder, not waist, intimate without being posessive) and leaned in to kiss her (shallow and quick, closed lips, for God’s sake don’t tense up!) She very casually pressed a hand to his cheek, seemingly an act of intimacy, the signal that his performance was satisfactory. He felt himself relax. She’d been right, it was a good idea to practice various forms of PDA before taking the mask public.
Each new band seemed a new torture. He had to keep up appearances, though, shouting and cheering and moving appropriately under Maria’s direction. She really was good at this. Cultural Anthropology had suffered a great loss when she’d switched majors.
Finally, at long, long last, Jordan’s Ford took the stage. There he was, the man with the bow, the man who made the strings dance. Sherlock felt a surge of...something at the sight of Jimmy Bowers and his violin. He didn’t even glance at the other men on the stage, he only had eyes for the nimble, calloused hands carressing that beautiful instrument. The violin gleamed in the stage lighting, seemingly alive with the pulse and vigor of the crowd and Jimmy’s own passion. He knew that look in Bowers’ eye, the look of an addict on the verge of a fix, the look of a lover on the verge of making love, the look of a musician about to play .
And thank you, thank you it was a slow song. Maria had played it for him in the lab, and he’d listened to it in bed six times. It was called My Hands , and it had the perfect tempo for what Sherlock wanted to do, which was close his eyes and let the music slip under his skin. Maria wrapped her arms around his waist and leaned her head against his chest, slowly rocking her body back and forth, leading Sherlock in a sway that kept time with the rest of the audience. He didn’t have to focus on his motions, didn’t have to worry about his face, all he had to do was close his eyes, tune out the smells and the voices and the other instruments and the sensation of bodies so close to his, and just listen as the violin whispered to him.
The song was something about love and the act of making it, the singer droning on and on about the sheer nirvana of simply touching his beloved whoever, but Sherlock didn’t give a toss about the lyrics. Not when the strings were teasing him so much more explicitly. Not when Jimmy Bowers was telling his own story.
My hands. He said with a tricky descent down the scale and halfway back. My hands can turn wood and metal and horse hair into peace or anguish. My hands can take the inanimate and make it breathe. A low, mournful chord that wrapped around the singer’s voice and made it sob beautifully. My hands are not my own, I carry them and care for them and they in turn guide me to rapture. My hands are capable of feats you can never achieve. A high, shrill cascade of notes, a fever-pitch of longing and pain. My hands can express love and anger and jealousy and pain and joy beyond what you have ever felt and will ever feel. My hands can bridge the gap between knowledge and understanding.
A sharp crescendo, a mollifying descent, a gentle whisper of bow against strings. My hands will be the death of me.
Sherlock’s eyes shot open. His body was shaking, as though the notes had pierced his flesh and saturated his blood. He felt heat beside him, and he turned to see John standing at his side, his face utterly transfixed on Sherlock.
Maria placed a light hand on Sherlock’s right pectoral and pressed her lips to his shoulder. Time to come back. Time to focus. But Sherlock couldn’t tear his eyes from John, who was looking at him as though he’d never seen him before. It wasn’t a bad look, more a stunned one. He felt Maria’s hand on his jaw, a pass of her index finger from his ear to his chin. Losing focus, concentrate, it said. He let her finger guide his head back into place and tried to blink away the haze of the song and John’s expression. The band was about to play again, something fast and frantic this time, and Sherlock had to have his grin and eyelids ready to imitate giddiness so he could focus on the fiddler without having to spend too much time maintaining Shawn’s outwardly visible enthusiasm. Thankfully, Sherlock was exceptional at multi-tasking.
“I’ve never seen you like that.” John said as they walked away from the hall. Both men were eager for the cool night air to strip away the cloying heat from the concert, so they were walking back to the university.
“Few people have.” Sherlock admitted.
“Well, I’m glad you’re you again. Maybe that fiddling was just what the doctor ordered.”
Sherlock shrugged. “Maybe. You’d know.”
“Ha, ha.” John mocked. “Are you feeling better?”
Sherlock considered. “...yes. Yes I think I am. Sorry...about eariler.”
John came to a halt and put a hand over his heart, swaying unsteadily on his feet.
“A genuine apology from Sherlock Holmes!” John breathed. “This is it...it’s the end!” He regained his balance and snickered.
“Oh, you’re a riot, you are.”
John just shrugged. “Serves you right.” He licked his lips. Honestly, did he even realize how often he did that? “Look, for what it’s worth...I never thought you were a freak.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “You called me a madman in your blog.”
“I’d just met you! I also called you fascinating. Anyway you don’t have to keep this...thing going.”
Sherlock dismissed him. “I intend to keep it up anyway. It’s useful.”
“It’s driving you to exhaustion.”
“At least I sleep.” Sherlock quipped, walking backward for a bit so he could give one of his thin-lipped smiles of superiority (of which he had sixteen).
“Sherlock, I mean it. You don’t have to change for me.”
“As if I would.”
“But you said--”
“Yes, I said you had what you wanted. I never said that was my primary motivation.”
“Then what is?”
Sherlock shrugged. “A few things. It’s useful to keep the lab staff at their ease. They could throw me out at any time if I became...disagreeable.”
‘You never worry about that at Bart’s.”
Sherlock smiled wolfishly. “I own Bart’s.”
A pause. Oh, he hated those pauses. It always meant John was about to be difficult . And, inevitably: “Is it worth it?”
Sherlock growled. “Try to be a bit more specific, John.”
Oh, for crying out loud, he could hear John wincing.
“All of this. Shawn. The corpses. Leaving London. Is it even worth it?”
Sherlock rounded on him, ready to snap...but John looked so, so...so fragile just then. Why did it have to be this way? Why did Sherlock have to connect with this man? Why had his chest constricted so painfully at the sight of John in that parka, the harsh light of the pool muting the colour of his skin, his hair, making him look worn and flat? Why had he needed to understand, in that one terrifying moment when the sniper’s lazer lighted on the Semtex coat, just how much John meant to him? Why couldn’t he just have stayed the amusing, dependable man who fetched him his tea and complimented his genius? Why did John Watson suddenly have to become real and important and too precious to lose?
“It’s worth it.” Was all he said. “I am glad we’re here. And grateful. You did good.”
John smiled. “Good. But please tell me you’re changing out of that rediculous getup as soon as we get back. You look a proper git.”
Sherlock snorted. He couldn’t help it. John was just so...easy. So willing to put the past in the past. And he made Sherlock laugh. That alone was reason enough to keep him around.
“I do look stupid, don’t I?” He said, grinning and holding his canvas jacket open and giving a little spin on his heels.
“You look like an infant.” John smirked. “And your hair looks moronic.”
Sherlock didn’t even try to stop John ruffling his artificially straightened locks, but he did give a token protest and swat at John’s arm.
“Oh, I’m hungry.” John said absently.
Sherlock nodded. “Late dinner at the flat?”
John cocked an eyebrow. “Don’t you mean ‘apartment’?”
Sherlock shook his head. “Not tonight. No quizes, no fake accent, no stupid American clothes. Just us Brits. Deal?”
John frowned, almost pouting.
“Oh, nothing. Just...I quite fancy a go at making s’mores.”
Sherlock couldn’t help it. He laughed until his sides hurt. And, blessedly, John joined him.
“I’m relocating.” John announced, futilly trying to lick the sticky mess from his fingers. “I’m moving here permanently and I’m keeping these bloody things on stand-by. I’ll eat so many I won’t fit through the door.”
Sherlock giggled, struggling to deal with his own marshmallow-and-chocolate-encrusted hands. “Are there any more?” He demanded.
John reached for the yellow box and turned it over. A few disappointing crumbs fell out, but nothing else. “Fresh out, my friend.”
Somehow they’d ended up sprawled on the floor, the telly turned on to American Idol but summarily ignored. John was sitting up with his back resting against one of the armchairs, while Sherlock was on his back, his hands resting on his stomach and his head lolling to the side.
“What time is it?” John asked.
Sherlock peered at the display on the DVD player. “Um...gone two.”
John groaned. “Good thing you’re off tomorrow, then.”
Sherlock nodded. “You wouldn’t beleive the hell I went through to get into the lab today. I had to sign release forms!”
“Whose signature did you use? Yours or Shawn’s?”
Sherlock glared at him, completely devoid of venom. “Mine. Prat.”
“Yes. Yes you are.”
Sherlock threw a marshmallow at him, which John caught and popped into his mouth, smiling like the cat that got the cream. Sherlock kicked him.
“Ow!” John protested, kicking back. “Arse!”
They burst into giggles again, high on sugar and reconciliation. Sherlock eyed the TV. “I think I’m ashamed to be British.” He commented.
“What? Why?” John followed Sherlock’s gaze. “Oh. Him.”
“Why do they spend so much more time on him than the others?” He demanded.
John shrugged. “Because he’s popular.”
“He’s a git.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Arrogant, self-absorbed, superiority complex, constant need to belittle the people around him...”
“I know where you’re going, shut up. It’s not a complex if you’re genuinely superior.” Sherlock jerked his head at the screen. “He’s just deluded.”
John snickered. “So, how did Jimmy Bowers measure up?”
Sherlock closed his eyes and tilted his head up, listening to the gosts of the strings. “Beautifully.” He breathed. “I would kill for his hands.”
“What, in a jar?”
Sherlock smirked. “Hardly. It would be criminal to still those hands. He’s an artist John.”
John snorted. Sherlock frowned. “What?”
“You’ve got a crush!” John chirped.
“Have not!” Sherlock opened his eyes and propped himself up to glare at his best friend.
“You completely do! You’re going all soft and wobbly over this man!” He clapped his hands together. “Well, that’s it, you have to marry him now. I think it’s legal in Utah, that’s not too far away is it?” His smile was so wide it had to hurt.
“Shut up, John! I just appreciate his talent, that’s all.”
“Look at you, getting all defensive. Just wait till I tell Mrs. Hudson.”
“ Don’t you dare !” Sherlock snarled, lunging for his flatmate. John slid away easily and Sherlock ended up collapsed onto his front on the carpet.
“It’s not a crush!” Sherlock insisted. “I told you, I’m--”
“Married to you work, yeah, yeah.” John drawled. “But even the most faithful spouses are tempted occasionally.”
“Not. This one.” Sherlock snapped.
“Relax, Sherlock, it’s okay. I was completely in love with at least eighteen singers when I was a kid. Everyone gets crushes on musicians.”
“You’re wrong. I don’t give a damn about the man. Just his hands. Just the music.” And it was true. Sherlock had barely even glanced at the man’s face, beyond the cursory catalogue of features, scars, blemishes and other telling hints he gathered as a matter of course.
But those hands...Sherlock was enraptured by those hands. They’d fit the violin so perfectly it was as though they’d been made for it. Crafted in the service of music. Sherlock ached to have those hands, even though his own were more than satisfactory, in his opinion. But to have hands with that kind of skill, that kind of muscle memory. How had he navigated those frets so effortlessly? He’d pulled off a few contortions that made Sherlock’s fingers throb just thinking about it. No, no Jimmy Bowers was surplus to requirements. But his talent took Sherlock’s breath away.
Sherlock left John behind, making awkward conversation with Andrea, and darted into the storage room to dress. He secretly liked the lab coat. It was long and impressive and if he moved just right it billowed behind him when he walked. The rest of it...that was a different story. He hated the booties, even hated their name. He despised the goggles, though the mask was a bit too useful to actively dislike. But the bandanna, that was just insulting . He ran a hand through his hair, curly again since his shower that morning, and regretfully crushed it under the hunter green fabric.
Anonymity achieved, time to play.
“Morning Sherlock!” Maria sang. She was ebullient and glowing. Hm. Must’ve heard from Gabby.
“Maria. Cal.” He remembered to smile warmly. “What do we have today?”
“We’re walking.” Cal said. He didn’t sound to pleased.
Maria nodded, enthusiastic. “Subject Y17 should be entering into phase two of decomp. We need to measure the rate of bloat, see if the water exposure has sped the process of gas buildup, or retarded it.”
Sherlock nodded, trying not to let his eagerness show too plainly.
“How was your weekend?” Maria asked. There was no leading in her question, as there would have been from Molly. Just curiosity.
“Fine. John and I made s’mores after the concert, and on Sunday we went to a cemetary.”
It was a testament to this environment that neither of them thought this odd.
“Gravestone rubbings or stratigraphy?” Cal asked.
Sherlock shrugged. “Bit of both. There were a lot of urns...” There had been a lot of going to restaurants and popping into shops to look for souveniers as well, but the cemetary had been Sherlock’s high-light, so he discarded the rest.
Before they left the lab to walk the grounds, Sherlock pulled Maria aside, letting Cal go on ahead.
“How did I do?” He asked.
She smiled and patted his cheek. He didn’t mind. “You did very well. It was convincing, don’t worry.”
She laughed. “Sherlock, I told you not to worry about that. I didn’t run home and scrub my mouth out with soap if that’s what you mean.”
Sherlock felt relieved. John would go completely mental if he though Sherlock had taken advantage of Maria in any way. Even if it was her idea.
“How was it for you?” She asked, blushing a little and smiling self-depricatingly at her choice of words. Sherlock fidgeted.
“Wet. A little cold. Mostly smooth, but your lips are a little chapped. I guess it’s the weather, all this fluxuation between warm and cold--”
She laughed and cut him off. “Wow. I regret asking.” She shook her head. “Just remind me never to ask for your insights next time I put my tongue in your mouth.”
Sherlock’s stomach flipped in his abdomen, and not in a nice way. It must’ve shown on his face, because Maria patted his cheek again, their signal for “it’s good”.
“Don’t worry, hon. We can stop the experiment if you want. I’m sure Gabby would prefer it if I didn’t go around pretending to be some guy’s old lady.”
Sherlock shook his head. “No, no it’s fine. I mean, if you’re uncomfortable we can stop, but I want to keep going.”
And he did. He didn’t necessarily dislike kissing Maria. He just didn’t particularly like it either. And he’d never gotten used to the idea of letting someone inside his body, in any capacity. He tried it, of course, empirical data necessary to his work. He’d needed, on several occasions, to ape physical intimacy in order to get inside his opponents’ heads, or else to allay their suspicions. But he’d never enjoyed it. With Maria, it was okay. She understood his reservations and didn’t push him beyond his capabilities. He suspected it had something to do with her girlfriend, Gabby. Maybe dating an actress made her more aware of the difference between performance and intimacy. Or maybe it was her background in Cultural Anthropology before she’d switched to Forensic. Either way, she was a godsend. He never would have consented to this aspect of Shawn’s character if she hadn’t proven so reliable.
“I’m good if you are.” She said, and as though to prove her point she slid her arms up and around his neck, pulling him closer. Dutifully, Sherlock inclined his head and captured her lips with his. He felt the gentle tug of friction and closed his eyes, focusing on the sensations, closely monitoring her movements so he could match them with his own.
She ran her tongue along his lower lip and he suppressed the urge to jerk back, instead parting his lips and wrapping his arms around her waist. With a gentle shake of her head, Maria lowered her arms to reposition his hands, lower and slightly farther apart, before returning to her original position. He noted the difference, and made a mental note to position his hands over her hipbones in future.
He let Maria’s tongue past his lips and teeth, paying close attention to her technique. He noted which parts of his mouth she touched, the duration of each advance before the retreat, the interactions she made with his own tongue, and mimiced them as best he could. He really didn’t like slipping his tongue into her mouth. It always felt too warm and a bit slimey, and he was never quite sure he was doing it correctly. Maria being a lesbian and he being...whatever he wasn’t, neither of them had the advantage of arousal to tell them if they were doing it right. Maria’s technique was more a result of repitition and memorization from her kisses with women, which Sherlock worried might skew the data but didn’t think it wise to mention, than any genuine stimulation.
He, on the other hand, had no similar history to rely on. None of the kisses he’d ever participated in had managed to affect him, physically or emotionally. And generally the people willing to fake a kiss were either as withdrawn as he was, or else found satisfaction in just about any physical contact and were thus useless to measure against.
Maria drew back and Sherlock, as per instructions, followed her retreating mouth with his. He timed his motion, 2.6 seconds, before pulling back and breaking the kiss entirely. He remembered just in time to follow up with a close-mouthed kiss before stepping away, gradually removing first one hand, then the other from her waist. He let his index and middle fingers linger a second longer than the rest of his hand, then dropped them, too.
Maria stepped away and placed a hand on his cheek. Performance acceptable. She smiled. “Good. You did well.” She lowered her hand, opened a nearby draw and snapped on a pair of rubber gloves. “Now, let’s go see about a dead body.”
John would say it wasn’t normal to prefer the overpowering odour of decomposing flesh to the heady aroma of Maria’s perfume. John would be right. None of that changed the fact that Sherlock felt far more stimulated examining the bloated abdomen and genitalia of a former 42-year-old contractor, currently decaying in a simulated peat bog, than he had about the feel of Maria’s tongue probing the interior of his mouth.
But this, this was pleasure for Sherlock. This was the kind of thrill other men could only get from pliant bodies and breathy moans. Sherlock just needed dead people.
His brain was going at a thousand kilometres per second, noting the distended stretch of the stomach, marking the waxy gleam of the skin. He’d already started sloughing, the skin on his fingers coming loose and limp, ready to glove. Soon, oh yes, whole sheets of skin would slip off the body, like a sheet being pulled from a bed. Sherlock was calculating fiercely, trying to determine the rate of bacterial reproduction, the speed at which the amino acids were eating away at the internal organs, building up gasses the body was unable to purge without working muscles. What would be significant? What would be telling? What would be evidence ?
Harry Altman, according to Sherlock’s chart, had died of chronic bronchitis and related complications. He’d been a chain smoker for more than twenty years, but had apparently developed the infection more as a result of breathing too much fuel exhaust from the machinery at work, rather than cigarettes. Dull. With a sharp, resonant pang, Sherlock thought back to London and Scotland Yard and murderers trying so desperately to hide their incompetence.
After this...how much more challenge would there be? If he could identify a victim whose skin had slipped from their liquidified carcass, what was left? What killer could beat him? But then...there were the serial killer cabbies out there. The building-scaling acrobatic assassins. The masterminds. No, he’d still have his fun. Just whole new kinds of it. And he’d be able to work with England’s own forensic anthropology experts. People like Andrea, Maria and Cal. People who wouldn’t call him “morbid” and insist on constant insipid interaction and continually get in his way or distract him from the work. People with brains . And not just their own.
Dear God he was grateful for this. Grateful to John for giving him this. Grateful to the university for creating this. Grateful even to Mycroft for enabling this. Althogh, he’d never admit that out loud. There was just so much! So much to do, so much to learn, so much to connect! And these cadavers...they were the best kind of puzzles. The ones with missing pieces and no reference picture. The ones where the only way to put it all together was to figure out what wasn’t there. And soon, so soon, he would be back in the Game. Once John was safe, anyway. Once Sherlock could move through the Tennessee streets undetected, with no discernable connections to the ex-army doctor from Britian. He and Maria would stage their break-up soon, now that Shawn had had his public debut, and that would (he hoped) remove her from the line of fire as well.
“How’s it coming?” Andrea’s voice snapped him back to alertness. He’d gotten lost again, the flood of data and reverie overwhelming his brain. He took a fraction of a second to run through a list of acceptable responses, settling on the enthused and keen one that usually made Andrea react favorably.
“Well.” He said. “Really well. There’s a slight increase in distention compared to the registered median, but the discolouration has advanced exponentially. Gloving has already begun on both hands, similar sloughage present on both feet and up to the mid-calf.”
“Subject’s internal organs at an advanced stage of liquification.” Maria added. “Material already present in the back of the throat.” She was shining a small, powerful torch into Y17’s mouth, much like John when he checked small children for sore throats.
“Subject likely to enter stage three of decomposition in approximately 72 hours.” Cal finished. “Insect activity within the average, though with a higher beetle ratio than previously observed.”
As they talked, there was a sort of ripping sound, and part of Y17’s abdomen began to cave in, like a deflating soufflé. Sherlock stared at it, entranced.
“48 hours.” Cal corrected.
Sherlock finished his reports quickly, too wrapped up in the flood of information to get distracted as his hands flew over the keys. He still had a good twenty minutes to spare, and decided to spend them walking the Farm. He didn’t often do this, largely because the experiments going on were delicate and because willingly wandering around the field, peering at various stages of decomp as though they were particularly skillful works of art in a museum, might well tarnish his carefully crafted reputation with the lab staff. But it was quiet and interesting and it gave him time to be alone and to focus on the whirlwind of ideas and questions and inferences in his head.
So it was a complete shock to see John approaching over the crest of a hill while Sherlock peered into a make-shift salt pit with a partially mumified subject inside.
“There you are! I’ve been looking for you.”
Sherlock rounded on him. He was wearing a light brown jacket over his blue-and-grey checked shirt and heavy jeans. His feet were wrapped in plastic booties (ugh) just like Sherlock’s own. Sherlock had removed everything but the lab coat, gloves and shoe protection in an effort to regain a bit of his equilibrium. He wished he had his great coat. The collar on this standard-issue piece just didn’t want to turn up!
“John? Why are you here?”
“Well, I was going to suggest an early supper but I think I’m a bit off that now.” He said with a grimace and a side-long glance at the pit. His nostrils were very shiny, too. Sherlock realized he must’ve put vaseline under his nose to cut the smell. Clever.
“Oh. Right. Sorry.”
“Eh, don’t worry. I think I’m just about getting used to it.”
“D’you want me to leave?”
“You’re distracted. You always go all monosyllabic when you’re distracted.”
Sherlock blinked, and dragged his focus to John. “Sorry. I’ve just never seen natural mumification of this magnitude before. Fascinating.”
John, bless him, smiled. “Andrea says the Farm’s closing in ten. You ready?”
Sherlock nodded, though he was reluctant. “You’re wearing the shoe covers.” He commented.
John looked down. “What? Oh, yeah. Stuff’s brutal, isn’t it? My shoes still stink from the first time we came here.”
“Mine too. Otherwise I wouldn’t have put these on.”
“They are a bit stupid-looking, aren’t they?”
“I feel like Anderson wearing these things.”
They laughed, and it felt good. Things with John had been tense for the past few days. It was wonderful to have their relationship back to normal.
“Why am I not surprised to find you out here?” Andrea’s voice cut through their mirth. She was carrying her clipboard, to which she seemed nearly as attached as Mycroft to his umbrella. While she was working, at least.
“Sorry, are we intruding on something?” John asked.
She shook her head. “Not unless you jump in.” She waved to the salt pit. “But the facility is closing down, we need you out before we set the proximity alarm.
John nodded and the two men fell into step behind Andrea. Sherlock kept his eyes trained on the field around him, taking in the scenery and the ongoing experiments with varying degrees of fascination. He loved this place. He loved the way he fit this place. He loved--
Wait just a tic. “Andrea?” He asked.
“How many ongoing decomps are running at the moment?”
“Forty.” She didn’t even need to check her clipboard. “We’re at capacity. Our most recent is a 26 year old female, she’s replacing Jeffrey Saunders. We’re running her through acid corrosion.”
“And are any of the current cadavers clothed?”
“No. That experiment ended...last July, I think.”
“And nothing about facial trauma?”
“No. All of our cadavers are intact. Why are you asking?” She was looking at him with furrowed brows, and John was standing silently, a twisted, sick expression on his face.
Sherlock tried oh-so-very-hard not to smile as he tilted his head in the direction of the razor-wire-topped fence in the distance. A lumpy, suggestive shape was just visible against the metal.
Chapter 11: The Good Doctor
11: The Good Doctor
This was wrong. He should not feel this way. It was Sherlock, it had to be Sherlock. He’d infected him somehow. There was no way, none, that a respected member of the medical community, a proud soldier in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, and an all-around decent bloke like John Watson could actually be glad to see a murder victim.
But he was. God help him. His blood was singing and his pulse was racing and damn it, it felt good. So good. But if he was glad, Sherlock was ecstatic.
He knew his friend wanted to run to the body. He could feel the tension radiating from Sherlock’s muscles, the strain very nearly making him tremble with the effort of keeping in step with John and Andrea’s slow, sedate pace. By the time they reached the poor bastard, Sherlock was ready to jump out of his own skin.
“John.” Sherlock said. It was imperious, a command, and John obeyed it because this was work. Sherlock’s word was damn near law when they worked. John knew anatomy, injury and illness, but Sherlock knew murder.
John knelt by the body. He felt his stomach roil and groan at the sight, but he pushed it away. Focus, Watson.
“He’s dead...I’d say twelve hours. Maybe ten, but no less. He’s thin, not emaciated, but he lacks muscle definition so not terribly active. Youngish, mid to late thirties. There’s bruising along his neck, ligature marks it looks like. His face--” John swollowed against the rising bile. “His face has been crushed, something blunt and heavy, probably round. Heavy bruising, crushed bone, but little blood so he was already dead. One side of his neck is blistered, but that’s mostly healed...” John reached a hand up and found a pair of rubber gloves pressed into his grasp. He put them on and gingerly prodded the body, checking for abnormalities.
“What? Cause of death?” Sherlock’s voice was sharp. A scalpel rather than a razor.
“His chest is caved in. Multiple rib fractures...no...they’re broken. I’d say he was crushed, ribs pressed too far against his organs, one or more punctures to the heart or lungs, bled internally.”
“I’ve called 911.” Andrea informed them. “The cops will be here soon.”
“Excellent.” Sherlock said, his voice flat. “I always work best with a time limit.” And he crouched beside the body, gloves already on his hands, magnifier at his eye. He frowned at the man’s neck, ran light fingers along the length of his shirt, checked his pockets, inspected the hems of his trousers and the bottoms of his shoes, sniffing critically. As he flitted about the body, his demeanour became more and more agitated. Whatever conclusion he was drawing, he didn’t like it. After a thorough examination, Sherlock paused. With obvious and uncharacteristic reluctance, he lifted the corpse’s left hand. The moment he saw the fingertips, his eyes went wide, his breath caught, and he shot to his feet, stumbling back into the fence, a look of abject horror on his face.
“Sherlock?” John felt something squeeze and twist in his chest. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t the Game.
“No.” Sherlock’s voice was a low, anguished wail. “No. No!” He slid down to a crouch, resting his weight against the chain link fence so that it bowed outward. He buried his face in his hands and shook his head as though trying to shake off a bad dream. “It’s not fair! I worked so hard! Dammit!” John rushed to his side, wrapping an arm around the shaking shoulders.
“Sherlock, mate, tell me what’s wrong. What did you see? What happened?”
Andrea shifted her weight nervously, clearly unsure what to do.
John put on his military voice. “Andrea, go meet the police, show them where we are. I’ll watch him.” As soon as she was gone he turned back to Sherlock.
“Sherlock, tell me what’s wrong.”
Sherlock let out a grating sob. “His hand, John, look at his hand!”
John turned around and lifted the victim’s left hand, the one that had upset Sherlock so much. He didn’t see anything special about it. It was tan, lined and nicked around the knuckles with dozens of scars. Defensive wounds, but not many. His palm was smooth and soft, but his fingers were rougher. There were pale, subtle pads of callus on all but his thumb, but other than that...it was just a hand.
“Sherlock, I don’t--” He began, but when he turned back to his friend the words died on his lips. Sherlock was holding up his own left hand, stripped of its glove. His other hand still covered his face, and his body was still shaking. With a growing sense of cold dread, John took Sherlock’s hand in his own and inspected it.
Pale, slender, elegant, with smooth skin and faint scars from burns and cuts long healed, and pale, subtle pads of callus on all but his thumb.
“Oh, God.” John said, feeling ill.
Fingers on thin metal, pressing string to unyielding wood, pushing and holding and moving and sliding, fixed against constant vibration. Tender skin growing hard under pressure. Time and repetition building up a shield against irritation.
It would be criminal to still those hands.
“Oh, God.” He said again. “Is it..?”
Sherlock lowered his hand, leaning his head against the fence so his tear-streaked face was bathed in cold sunlight.
“It’s him, John. It’s Jimmy Bowers.”
It was the worst deduction John had ever seen. The entire time, Sherlock stood against the fence, his arms crossed over his chest, his eyes fixed on the middle distance. His voice was a dead monotone, flat and emotionless. There was no performance, no flair, none of the swirling, dizzying thrill of a Sherlock Holmes crime scene. There was just death, and facts, and a voice that never raised or lowered.
“You mean to tell me you identified this man because of his hand?” The detective demanded. He was older than Lestrade, but not by much. His hair was still mostly brown, and he had a short beard. His suit was brown and ill-fitting, but his boots were sturdy and looked new.
Sherlock only nodded.
“His left hand has distinctive calluses, formed on his index, middle, ring and little finger from repetitive playing of a stringed instrument. The pads are too small and too light to be from a guitar, his muscles are too underdeveloped to be those of a cellist. Could be a viola, but the blister on his neck is too small to have come from anything other than a violin. He frequently played in hot weather or under harsh stage lighting, the blister formed from sweat and repeated chafing of the wood against his skin. His clothes haven’t been laundered, he’s worn them for at least two days. Residue from alcohol and soft drinks on his shoes and trousers, so he’s been in a public venue recently. There’s a reciept in his pocket dated Saturday night from a local bar that serves the same street as the the back entrance to the theatre where Jordan’s Ford played two nights ago, the length of time the residue has been on his trouser cuffs and shoes. Violinist, public venue, was definitely in the vicinity during the Knoxville City Showcase, has the right height, build and approximate age, this man is James Bowers.”
The detecive let out a long breath. “Shit.” He hissed, only it sounded like “shyit”. He kicked at the turf under his foot. “This is gonna be hell. If that’s Jimmy Bowers, the press is gonna have a field day.”
“It is.” Sherlock said, his voice devoid of inflection.
“Detective,” John said tentatively. “Sherlock here is a consulting detective. Now I’ve worked with him on several cases back in London, and if you could grant us the clearance--”
“No.” The man’s voice was firm and dismissive. “No civilians are gonna inerfere with my investigation. We handle murders all the time here, we know what we’re doing.”
Sherlock said nothing. He really, honestly said nothing. He didn’t insult the man or contradict him, he didn’t use sarcasm or fire a scathing retort. He leaned against the fence and said absolutley nothing.
“Detective Morley--” John tried again but was cut off.
“I said no, Doc. And that’s final. We appreciate your help identifying the body, but we’ll take it from here. We’ll have forensics confirm his identity and we’ll handle the investigation ourselves. Legitimate law enforcement only.”
“This is the Body Farm, you lot use this place all the time to identify bodies!” John protested. “Sherlock works here, why not let him help?”
“Because we don’t need him. We can confirm his ID just fine on our own. If we require the lab’s assistance, we will ask for it. Until then, you and your friend can enjoy your time in the States and keep out of our way.”
John seethed. He was being dismissed! Ignored! And Sherlock, who had the voice and the presence and the sheer, overwhelming arrogance to get his way was doing nothing.
“Sherlock!” John cried desperately, begging his friend to do something.
Sherlock glared at him, seeming to look right through his skull to something far, far away. At long last, he spoke.
“Don’t leave yet, Detective. You haven’t asked for my number yet.”
Detective Morley rolled his eyes. “And why would I want that?”
Sherlock rolled his shoulders, pushing himself off the fence, and faced the detective. Morley was actually a bit taller than Sherlock, but under that glare the man seemed to shrink and Sherlock towered over him. When he spoke, his voice was as low and dangerous as an adder about to strike.
“Because the killer somehow managed to sneak this corpse into a secure facility in broad daylight. Because the victim was left brazenly in the middle of the world’s largest centre of forensic science. And because Jimmy Bowers is my favourite contemporary musician, whose mutilated corpse was dropped onto my lap the very first day I returned to work after seeing him play. This isn’t just a murder, Detective Morley, it’s a message. And it’s addressed to me.”
John had thought that returning to the flat would ease Sherlock’s mind. True, it wasn’t 221B by a long shot, but it was familiar and by now it was chock-full of Sherlock’s medical, chemical and empirical detritus. It might just feel like home.
Twenty minutes after they walked in the door, he banished that theory to the nethermost pits of Hell, where it belonged.
It had started simple enough. Sherlock had stalked into the living room, phone in hand, jaw set. John closed the door behind them and leaned against the wall, waiting for the tension to ease from his flatmate’s shoulders. Apprehensive, he watched Sherlock make a measured, blank-faced circuit of the space, kicking aside anything that stood in his way. After a few moments, he made his way to the half-wall/work top separating the living room and kitchen and picked up one of his specimine jars, setting his mobile down in its place. He hefted it for a bit, feeling its weight, and studied it intently. It was full of something brown and pink and gelatinous. John preferred not to think about or look at it too much.
Sherlock turned toward his microscope and took one purposeful step toward it. Then his face sort of...mutated, was the best John could describe it. His brow furrowed, his lips curled back in a sneering snarl, his eyes narrowed so the whites and irises were shrouded in shadow, making Sherlock look like some sort of demon from the pit. Then he swiveled in place and hurled the specimine jar with all his might. It smashed against the far wall, leaving a dripping, congealed patch of goo and a rain of glass in its wake.
John jumped. “Sherlock! What the hell?” He shouted. Sherlock ignored him. He picked up the next specimine jar, this one full of something green and watery, and hurled that as well, just barely missing the window.
John tried to shout again, but the sound caught in his throat. He pressed back against the wall, wary of projectiles.
Sherlock began to pace like a caged animal. He ripped papers and photographs off the walls by the handful and threw them to the ground, crumpled and torn and pathetic. He snarled and glowered. Then the screaming started.
“What more do you want?!” Sherlock demanded. John started, and began a slow, careful side-step toward the corner. Sherlock wasn’t looking at him, didn’t even seem to know he was there. His voice was cracked and raw with fury and despair.
“I’ve given you EVERYTHING!” Sherlock screamed. “I’ve done everything you wanted! I’ve given up my LIFE for you! I got clean for you! I’ve devoted every waking moment to you! What more can I give? What more will you TAKE?” He bent down and swept every folder, file and notebook off the coffee table, hurling them to the floor with all he had.
“Why can’t you just let me be?!” Sherlock shrieked at the ceiling. “Just this ONE THING! I never asked for ANYTHING from you! I just wanted this ONE! FUCKING! THING!”
He tore through the flat, ripping books from shelves, hurling objects to the ground. He picked up his jack knife and plunged it into the wall by the TV.
Oh God. John thought. He’s going to hurt himself. He felt paralyzed, almost in shock. For the first time in their shared life, he was genuinely afraid of Sherlock. This wasn’t a tantrum. This wasn’t Sherlock losing his temper. This was a rage, primal and bestial, and it was dangerous.
John took a breath, setting his fear aside. It slipped neatly into its little cage in the back of his mind, closing the door behind it. He squared his shoulders, raised his head, and marched to his friend.
Sherlock had resorted to hurling himself by now. He slammed his body against the wall, crashing his head to the plaster as though desperate to cave in his skull.
“GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!” He kept screaming. John was on him in a heartbeat, dragging him away from the wall, pinning his arms behind his back. He hooked a leg around Sherlock’s calf and yanked back, forcing his knee to buckle. It threw the younger man off balance, and John carefully rode him to the ground, making sure he didn’t hit the carpet too hard and keeping his head up.
“NO! NO GET OFF ME! LET ME GO, LET ME GO!”
“Sherlock!” John shook him, his arms still wrapped tightly around his flatmate’s chest, keeping his arms and hands secured.
“Let go of me, John! Leave me be!”
“What, so you can bash your head against the wall some more?! Get ahold of yourself, Holmes!”
Sherlock thrashed against John’s hold, but the former soldier held firm. Gradually, after John’s arms began to ache and his legs began to cramp, Sherlock’s movements grew weaker and more shallow. He’d stopped screaming, and switched to something worse. Small, high noises were coming out of his mouth. His voice, such as it was, was broken. Shattered. His shoulders shook. He was whimpering. He was crying.
“Oh, God, Sherlock.” John whispered. “What can I do?”
Sherlock heaved with a painful-sounding sob. “Nothing.” His voice was flat. Empty. “Just go, John. Just go away.”
John released him, and Sherlock slumped to the floor. “Sherlock, I...”
“Please, John. I don’t want you here. Please. Just go.” He curled in on himself, holding himself tight, his fingers pressed painfully into his arms as though he were afraid of flying apart.
“Just go away!” He screamed. John stumbled back.
“Okay, Sherlock. I’ll go.” He retreated to the door and let himself out. Just before he closed it again, he heard Sherlock’s voice, tiny and tired and defeated.
“Okay.” He said, addressing nobody. “Okay, you win. I’m sorry. I’ll play.” He let out a shuddering breath. “I’ll play.”
“You don’t understand! It wasn’t him! I’ve never seen him like that. He was insane, Mycroft!” John hated calling Sherlock’s brother behind his back, but he had to do something. He couldn’t stand that he’d left his best friend alone like that. He needed to help. He needed to be useful.
“He’ll be fine, Dr Watson.” Mycroft assured him, his voice as light as ever. “He had a similar reaction when our father passed. He doesn’t like death to be personal.”
“But he didn’t even know the victim.” John pointed out.
“No, but he did admire him. Sherlock never obtains legally what he can get by more devious means, yet he made legitimate purchases of each of Mr Bowers’ songs. That says quite a lot, coming from my brother. Music is one of Sherlock’s very few vulnerabilities. He’s been using it to ape emotion since we were children.”
“You mean he feels by playing the violin?”
“...no. But it does allow him to better understand emotion in others. I hypothesize that is why he so frequently plays during a taxing case. It’s easier for him to empathize with his opponent if he puts his or her mental state to music. I would hazard it to be invaluable to his work.”
“And the work is all that matters to him.” John supplied.
“Quite. Much to his dismay.”
“You’ll figure it out, Dr Watson. I have absolute faith in your abilities.” And with a muted click, the line went dead.
“That makes one of us.” John breathed.
After a lonely walk around the campus, John returned to the flat. He braced himself before opening the door, and was glad he did.
The place was a wreck. The floor was covered in ripped paper, shattered glass, the disgusting remnants of Sherlock’s research, and any number of things John really didn’t want to contemplate.
Sherlock was sitting on the couch, his knees tucked up to his chest, his hands pressed together under his chin, his coat and jacket strewn on the floor with the rest of his mess. “You came back.” He said, not looking at John.
“I always will.” John assured him.
“Don’t tell me that, John. I’ll only use it against you.”
“I’m sorry. For your loss.”
Sherlock blinked and turned his head slightly to look at him. “What?”
“I figured it out. You’re grieving.”
“Don’t be stupid, I never even met the man.”
“No, not for Jimmy Bowers. For the music he made.” John gingerly picked his way across the floor and sat down beside Sherlock. “You loved it. I could see, at the concert. And whenever you talked about him. Music is...it’s personal. For you.”
Sherlock hugged himself tightly, as though cold. “It was.”
“How do you mean?”
“I was stupid. It was a distraction. It’s not important, I should’ve remembered that. Music doesn’t matter.”
“What, to the work?”
Sherlock nodded. “It’s always the work. I can’t lose focus like that. I shouldn’t have let myself get sidetracked. Music was a liability. I should’ve remembered..”
“Don’t do that.” John scolded.
“Don’t delete your violin. I won’t have you invalidate all those times you woke me up at three in the morning with all that practicing. Okay, Bowers is dead. But you still have his music. It won’t disappear just because he can’t make any more. It’s okay to mourn, Sherlock. It’s human.”
Sherlock winced. “You don’t understand, John. I want to grieve for it. But I can’t. All I can think about is the case. I want to be miserable and mope and do all the stupid things people do when they’re sad. But I can’t. I can’t mourn, John, because I want to know how he got past the gate!”
Chapter 12: Don't Stop Me Now
12: Don’t Stop Me Now
When John returned the next morning, he very nearly dropped the bags of shopping in his hands.
The apartment was...tidy. No, it was utterly spotless . Even the walls were gleaming. John gaped, at a complete loss for words. He let his arms fall to his sides, the bags hanging limply from his fingers.
Sherlock appeared, coming out of the toilet and wiping his hands on a flannel. He barely glanced at John before swooping in and snatching the shopping away from him.
“Ah, John, good you’re back. Tea’s on. Yours is on the table.” He gestured with one shopping-laden hand to John’s RAMC mug, steaming quietly nearby. John picked it up numbly while Sherlock began sorting through the bags, moving parishables to the fridge and putting everything else in various cupboards.
“You bought biscuit dough.” He commented, peering at a cardboard tube adorned with a freakishly cheerful humanoid, made of what looked like white plasticine and wearing a chef’s touque. “Brand name, too. I’ve seen adverts for this in dozens of magazines.”
“Er, yeah, well I figured I could handle the baking if I didn’t have to actually mix the bloody things.”
John shrugged. “You like them. I bought some honey, too. I...thought you might...”
Sherlock smiled at him pityingly. “John, please don’t treat me like an invalid. I don’t want to talk about last night. I don’t want to think about it, I don’t want to remember it, and I don’t want you to remember it. I fully intend to delete it as soon as this case is over.”
“So...so you’re going to investigate then?”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Yes, obviously. As if I could do anything else. This case was tailor-made for me. It’s an engraved invitation.”
“Do you think it’s him then?”
Sherlock shook his head. “Dangerous to jump to conclusions. Our friend has been silent for months now, there’s no reason to assume he’d pop back up just because we’ve temporarily relocated.”
“Sherlock...who else would do this?”
“John!” He sounded exasperated. “I can think of five people in this country alone who would come after me like this. Expand that to Canada, Mexico and Guam and the number quintuples.”
“Irrelevant. Now, how they knew about Bowers, that’s a real question. Where did I slip up? Was it before Shawn? Obviously someone’s been watching me, probably you as well, but I need to know how closely.”
“Could be your internet records.” John suggested.
Sherlock rounded on him, his gaze intent. “Say again?”
John flinched back. “Um...My-Mycroft. He said you bought Jimmy Bowers’ records online. Maybe the killer hacked into your account?”
Sherlock turned away, his eyes focused on something John couldn’t see. “Possible, I may have been lax in my usual encryption...possible too that our killer is exceptionally skilled with comput---wait, Mycroft?”
“You rang Mycroft ?! Why?!”
“I was worried! I didn’t want to rack up Mrs Hudson’s phone bill!”
“And it never occured to you that I might be able to handle it myself ?!”
“Sherlock, you stabbed the wall! Look at you! You’re helping with the shopping, you’ve cleaned the flat, you made me tea for heaven’s sake!”
Sherlock looked around, his expression was very nearly guilty.
“I...I just wanted...I thought if I helped...”
“What, that I’d just forget what happened?”
“That you’d leave me be! I thought if I erased the evidence, kept you happy then you’d drop it and move on instead of pestering me! But if I’d known you’d run off and tattle to my brother of all people--”
“Stop being so childish!”
“Stop mothering me!”
“I’m trying to be your friend!”
“Then maybe it’s best if you stop trying!”
John felt cold. It was as though liquid nitrogen had been pumped into his veins. Sherlock just stared at him, his eyes wide with panic. “John, I...”
“What, Sherlock? You what?” His first instinct was to turn around and storm out of the flat, but he quashed it. No, Sherlock wasn’t getting out of it that easy, not this time, and John wasn’t leaving him.
Sherlock floundered, lost inside his own head, and he turned away. “I...you shouldn’t have done that.” He picked absently at the edge of one of the bags on the table. “You know what he does to me. I’m not...”
“For fuck’s sake, Sherlock just say it! Just say it and mean it for once in your life!” John snarled.
Sherlock lowered his head. He was silent for a very long time, and John was just turning to stomp over to the sofa when Sherlock’s voice, soft and fragile, said, “I’m sorry.”
John turned round, stepped up to Sherlock and hugged him, tight and brief, and when he pulled away Sherlock was ramrod straight, looking shocked.
“What was that?”
“A hug. They’re not just for nightmares and meltdowns.”
“You never hug me. We don’t hug.”
“And you never apologise. See how that works?”
“And...if I apologise again, you’ll hug me again?”
“And you wonder why I never apologise.” He was smiling, though, and John rolled his eyes.
“So where do we start?” He asked, and he went into the living room and flopped down on the sofa. Sherlock followed.
“With Jimmy Bowers last known whereabouts. Someone had to see him leaving the theatre. At the very least, his bandmates will know something.”
“So we talk to Jordan’s Ford. Then what?”
Sherlock shook his head. “No, they won’t talk to us. Why should they? We’re not affiliated with the police, we’re not from round here, no. We’d get nothing.”
“So what do we do?”
Sherlock smirked. “They won’t talk to me. But they’ll talk to Shawn.”
John rolled his eyes. “No. No, no, absolutely not! Sherlock, you’ve got a case now, can’t you drop that rediculous disguise?”
Sherlock looked affronted. “John, think about it! Maria is a long-standing Bowers fan. She’s been seen at his concerts before, so if she shows up at his memorial do, they’ll think nothing of it. And if she should bring her boyfriend along, who is also a fan, who happens to be an aspiring musician,” and he gestured at his violin in its foam liner. “Shawn is already part of their circle, it’d be child’s play to endear him to the group.” His eyes lit up. “Maybe even as a replacement fiddler!”
“Wait, are you saying you want to replace Jimmy Bowers in Jordan’s Ford? That’s insane! You can’t join a band three weeks before we leave the country!”
He waved a hand as if swatting the words away. “Oh, please, bands go through members like tissues. You’ve already seen how I can imitate Bowers’ playing, not perfectly but still. John, it’s perfect!”
“Yeah, almost too perfect. Did it ever occur to you that this is all part of the murderer’s game? What if he knows about Shawn and he’s trying to lure you into the open? You’ve never seen what a sniper rifle can do, Sherlock. You absolutely never see it coming. Trust me.”
“We have no evidence to suggest this is Moriarty.” Sherlock protested.
“Moriarty does not have a monopoly on snipers, Sherlock!”
“Irrelevant. I’ve been hoping to infiltrate the music scene since we got here. Now I can do that, and work a case. It’s brilliant!”
“And what about Maria? I don’t mind if I get pulled into the crossfire, but she’s not a part of this.”
“Oh, that. We’ve been planning our break-up since we started. I’ll simply implement it after she’s accompanied me to the memorial concert. As long as it’s public and messy, it should do the job.”
“You can’t guarantee that.”
“No, but I can guarantee that she goes to stay with her girlfriend for a few days afterward.”
“And what will that do?”
“Her girlfriend lives in Memphis.”
“I’ll need to be seen, first.” Sherlock muttered absently, pulling out his mobile. He began to type industriously, flicking through web pages and scrolling through text. “John, look in that leaflet Tony brought by, will you? See if there are any open mics on or around campus tonight.”
John looked around and spotted a bright yellow newsletter on an endtable. He picked it up. “Um...there’s a BASIC rally in the quad.”
“Irrelevant.” Sherlock interjected.
“Coffee house nearby is having its bi-monthly poetry jam.” John winced just thinking about it.
“No, Shawn wouldn’t be caught dead there.”
“Hm...only other thing in here is some sort of drive for Amnesty International.” He blinked. “And the GSA is holding a bake sale. Do people still do bake sales?”
“Tolerance and turn-overs, John.” Sherlock smirked. “They go hand-in-hand.” He waved his phone. “And there’s an all-comers at a bar in Old City tonight. Help me with my hair, would you? Shawn needs to be there by two to sign up.”
John rolled his eyes. “Where is your morbid lesbian girlfriend when I need her?” He quipped.
“She’s dissecting blow fly larvae this morning.” Sherlock responded. John’s stomach lurched a bit, but he suppressed the urge to gag and stood up, making his way toward the bathroom with Sherlock right behind.
John was waging battle with the stubborn curls at the nape of Sherlock’s neck when his phone went off. Not a text, a call. He picked it up, cradling it against his shoulder as he struggled to tame Sherlock’s intransigent hair.
“John Watson.” He grunted, trying to keep the hot metal of the straightening iron away from his fingers as well as Sherlock’s neck.
“John, it’s me.” John froze, and his grip faltered. There was a sharp hiss and Sherlock gave a startled cry. John quickly jerked the iron back and set it on the sink.
“Sarah!” He said, and it was nearly a shout. Sherlock whipped his head around to stare at him.
“I’d hoped you’d call.” Sarah said. “It’s been a week and...”
“I know, Sarah. I’m...I’m so sorry. It’s been more than insane here and...” He sighed. “I meant to call.”
Sherlock was glaring at him now, tilting his head toward the iron and tapping his watch. John gave him A Look and he turned away, glowering.
“Look, John, we really do need to talk.”
“Sarah, it’s not the best time right now.” He said, swatting Sherlock’s hand away from the still burning iron. With a scolding frown, he yanked the plug out of the wall socket and glared at Sherlock, who huffed and crossed his arms over his chest.
“I know.” Sarah sounded resigned. “It never is, is it?” John felt something go slack inside, and he reached up to hold the phone properly and turned away from his flatmate, giving himself the illusion of privacy.
“Sarah...” but he had no idea what he was going to say.
“Are you my boyfriend, John?” She asked suddenly. John’s whole body went tense.
“I mean, when you think about us, do you see yourself as my boyfriend? Or are you just this bloke I rather like and sometimes go out with? I’d like to say you’re my boyfriend, and that this is a relationship, but it doesn’t feel like that, does it?”
“Because, John, I never see you. And I know why, and I understand. You and Sherlock, you do amazing things. I can’t say I don’t enjoy being a part of that, even just peripherally. But...” her voice got quiet, and very soft. “I’m lonely, John. And I don’t think I should be lonely, if this is a relationship. If it’s just sort of us having a bit of fun, then I can understand it. But if we’re together, I mean, everyone’s lonely now and then but I’m lonely all the time. Even when I’m with you I’m lonely.”
John said nothing. Christ, what could he say? Sorry I’m a gargantuan tosser? Please forgive me for ruining your life on a daily basis? What did he have the right to say?
“I do care about you, John. I honestly do. And I like Sherlock, even if he snaps at me or rolls his eyes whenever I talk. I’m not unhappy with you, and I don’t resent what you have with him. I really, honestly understand.”
Still John said nothing. There was nothing at all in his head but regret and resignation.
“But I think it’s time for me to be selfish now. There’s no one else, you understand, but...” and John could see her, in his mind’s eye, her teeth tugging absently at her lower lip the way she always did when she was unsure about something. “But I want to start looking. And probably you should, too. I don’t think we’re enough for each other, John.” There was a long pause. “Please, say something.”
John took a ragged breath, and he was aware of heat at his back, radiating from Sherlock’s body as he hovered worriedly. “I...I am so, so sorry.”
“I know. I’d rather you weren’t, but that’s you. It’s not your fault, John. If I wanted this, really wanted it, I would’ve fought for you. But I didn’t. I think that’s telling, don’t you?”
“I don’t know. I think I did have something to do with it, though.”
“Well, yes. That’s unavoidable.” There was a smile in her voice now, a sad one. “But, this doesn’t have to be horrible, does it? You can come into work when you get back and we can look each other in the eye, can’t we?”
John managed a small laugh, but it was more than a touch on the pathetic side. “Not at first, I don’t think.”
He nodded, then remembered she couldn’t see him and amended, “Yeah. I think. I hope so, anyway.”
There was a prodding at his shoulder, and he swatted Sherlock away. “Sarah, look, there’s sort of a situation here. We’ll talk, if that’s what you want, once I get back. But right now there’s a dead violinist in the morgue and I think I just gave Sherlock a second degree burn, so I have to go.”
She laughed at that, and something eased in his chest. “I figured you’d find something like that. Be careful, John. And watch out for him. He needs you.”
“I know.” John said, and he looked over his shoulder where Sherlock had started to pace and pull faces. “God help me.”
They said their good-byes, so much more definite this time around, and hung up.
“Finally!” Sherlock hissed.
“Sherlock,” John sighed, but Sherlock pre-empted him.
“Yes, I know, not good. I’ll give you a hug or whatever you want later, but right now I think you were right about the second degree burn bit.”
And for the first time John noticed the twisted expression on Sherlock’s face, and the way he kept his chin tucked in an effort to lift the hair away from the back of his neck.
“Oh, bollocks! Sherlock, I’m sorry! Here, sit yourself down, I’ll take a look at it.”
Sherlock heaved a sigh of relief and slumped onto the lidded toilet. John snatched up his med kit and guided Sherlock’s head down so he could see the ugly red mark just beginning to blister.
“Christ you’re a walking disaster area, you know that?” He muttered. Sherlock snorted.
“True, but you’d be lost without me.”
“Too right. Now shut up and let me work.”
“Whatever you say, doctor.”
The truly jarring thing was that despite wearing Shawn’s clothes and sporting Shawn’s hairstyle, Sherlock was still acting like Sherlock. John kept expecting an American accent and a shy, heart-stopping smile whenever he spoke, but he got the clipped public school voice and blood-chilling wolf’s grin instead. It was eerie.
They were outside a bar called Tavoy’s. John was standing still, Sherlock was pacing. “No, no it’s no use . Dammit! Come on, Sherlock, you can do this!”
“I honestly never thought I’d hear you give yourself a pep talk.”
“I’ve never had this much trouble assuming a persona before.” Sherlock froze, then rounded on John. “It’s you . I can’t be Shawn because you’re watching.”
“What? That’s rediculous!”
“Oh, come on, John, think . I’m too complacent with you. You’re likely the only person in my life for whom I don’t have to act. Even Mycroft gets a performance. You, on the other hand...” He frowned. “I knew trusting you would come back to haunt me.”
“So you have to leave. Go somewhere I can’t see you. Once I’m Shawn, you can come back, but you’re mucking with the transition and my head hurts enough as it is!”
John sighed. “Fine. Fine. But just so you know, you’re the only man I’ve ever met who can make a compliment sound like an accusation.”
“Who said it was a compliment?”
“I did. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go inside and pretend to like brown, foamy water maskerading as beer. I’ll see you when you’re ordinary.” And he pushed the door open to go inside.
The beer really was weak. And pale. And smelly. John drank it anyway because tonight seemed like a really good night to get drunk. There was a shuffle of movement nearby, and someone sat on the stool beside his, so close he could feel body heat. He rolled his eyes and turned to tell the stranger to piss off, and froze.
It was Andrea. And she was smiling.
She was also wearing a very fitted black top and a grey skirt that didn’t quite reach her knees. John’s heart skipped a beat or two, and he managed to croak “...how?”
Sher smiled wider. “Sherlock texted me.” She said. “Something about ‘now’s my chance’ and I should ‘get to you while your defenses are down’.” She raised an eyebrow.
John groaned and let his head drop down onto his forearms. “That incredible git!” He snarled.
Andrea laughed, and John looked up, his face apologetic. “I...my girlfriend, well, this woman I was seeing...we broke up today.” He explained. Andrea’s eyes widened.
“Wow. Sherlock doesn’t really put much stock in coping, does he?”
“No, he doesn’t.” John agreed, thinking back to Sherlock’s first day at the Farm, and his reaction to Bowers’ murder.
Andrea ordered a scotch and soda and sat for a moment, looking at her hands. “Do you want to talk about it?” She asked.
John let out a breath. “I...” he shook his head, his thoughts a jumble. “No. No, I don’t. It’s...crap. It’s all just...crap.”
She smiled sympathetically, only looking away to accept her drink from the bartender.
“Anyway there’s a case.” John went on. “Nothing else matters until it’s done.”
She nodded. “We missed him at the lab today.”
“He won’t be coming in. Not while he’s working.” He took another drink, and really, he should at least be buzzed by now. How did Americans manage to get drunk on shit like this?
Andrea looked down at her glass. “That’s a shame. He really seems happy there.” She paused. “So what are you doing here?”
John shrugged. “Working.”
“Really? How? Where’s Sherlock?”
John nodded his head toward the small stage against the far wall, where a couple of young men in black t-shirts were struggling with large cables and a standing microphone. “Give it a minute.”
Andrea’s eyes widened. “He’s going to be in the open mic?” She asked. “Doing what? Can he sing?”
John paused and considered that for a moment. “You know, I haven’t the slightest idea.” Although, secretly he feared for the collective female population if Sherlock ever put that rediculously deep voice to music. He hoped fiercely that Sherlock couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, or else no bloke in this bar stood a chance in hell.
The stage was set, and the open mic began. It was...interesting. Okay, it was horrible. But Andrea was sitting beside him and his weak beer had been replaced with an astonishingly strong whiskey that was burning through his bloodstream in the best way. With fortifications like that, it really didn’t matter how heinously bad the various singers and garage bands were. He and Andrea chatten amiably but shallowly until a lanky, dark-haired young man shuffled shyly to the stage.
Andrea followed John’s gaze, and her eyes widened. “Is that...?”
“Nope. Not tonight it isn’t.” John said, and he was only a little smug. Sherlock was beautifully transformed. He gave every impression of being awkward and unsure in his own body, his eyes were lowered and shy, his mouth quirked almost constantly in the beginnings of a self-depricating smile, and he was holding his violin loosely by the neck, in a way Sherlock never would have done, but Shawn seemed to do as a matter of course.
He spent several unnecessary moments struggling to adjust the height of the microphone, and when it was level with his mouth the bar filled with the sound of his laboured and uneasy breathing. He licked his lips, quite a lot like John tended to do, and smiled tightly, as if apologisin in advance.
“Holy mother of...I can’t believe that’s him.” Andrea breathed. John was right there with her.
“Um.” Sherlock said, his eyes shifting. “Hi. My name is Shawn Harris, um.” There was a new twang to his voice now. He’d altered his American accent to sound native to Tennessee. Oddly, it suited him. His voice had sounded strangely higher with the stifled vowels and soft consonents, but the southern accent was much richer and lower. John heard Andrea take a sharp breath, along with several other women in the room. He cursed inwardly. Fuck singing, Sherlock talking gave him an unfair advantage over the rest of the male population, and he didn’t even use it!
“I’m sure most of you know by now we’ve just lost one of the greatest men Knoxville has ever seen.” He drew a ragged, nervous breath. He was standing too close to the mic, one hand clutching the stem as he shifted his weight from one leg to the other. It was a beautifully organic motion, and it humanised him.
“Jimmy Bowers was an inspiration to me, and I thought tonight I’d show my appreciation for all he did by...by playing one of his songs. It’s, um, a personal favourite of mine. From the earlier stuff, ‘cause I can’t sing to save my life.” He huffed a suppressed chuckle at that, and there were encouraging laughs from the audience, who were hanging on his every word.
“So, I hope you folks don’t mind an instrumental, and I hope I can do it justice. So if you’ll bear with me, this is ‘Last Night I Lay Dreaming’ from Jimmy Bowers’ debut album, Chasing the Smoke . Here goes.”
“Oh, wow.” Andrea whispered. “He and Maria play that song all the time at the lab.”
John raised his eyebrows, but didn’t say anything because Sherlock, no, Shawn had just raised the violin to his shoulder and poised the bow over the strings. He arranged his fingers on the frets, and with a slow pull he produced one long, low, mournful note that filled the air around him and seeped into every corner of the room.
A hush fell over the crowd, and Sherlock played. For John, it was as though Shawn melted away and Sherlock rose from somewhere deep inside. He saw the shoulders square, the spine straighten. He saw the timid, unsure expression fall away, leaving something calm and sharp and very, very old in its place. His eyes were closed, but John knew if they were open he’d be able to see the diamond-edged scalpel-sharp intelligence glittering out at him from clear across the room.
The song was low, and rich, and sad. At times, it almost seemed to wail as Sherlock dragged the bow over the strings with more force than finesse. At other times, it seemed to weep as Sherlock’s fingers skittered over the frets, and he just barely touched the bow to the quivering metal, delicate as the wings of a moth. The pace was always sedate, and yet Sherlock’s fingers never stopped moving. The rapid shifting in pressure from one note to the next seemed to make the sounds blend together into the musical equivalent of a whistful sigh. The stage lighting glittered off of his face, and John drew a sharp gasp at the realisation that those were tears running down Sherlock’s face. He wondered briefly if it was Sherlock crying, or Shawn. It was, he decided, probably a bit of both.
The song came to an end, and Sherlock deflated, the Shawn persona crashing over him until it seemed it had always been there. John joined in the uproarious applause, and Shawn grinned shyly into the stage lights, bowing his head almost apologetically. His muttered “Thank you. Thank you” was barely audible above the clapping and cheering, and he didn’t linger to bask in it. He simply gathered up his violin and bow and clambered off the stage, disappearing out the back. John tracked his movements, noted the unsteadiness of his steps, the looseness of his limbs, the way his arm shot out to brace against the wall for a moment.
“I have to go check on him.” John said to Andrea, who nodded, her eyes still wet with tears.
“Tell him he was incredible.” She said as John slid from his barstool.
“He knows that.” John smirked, and he hurried off to find his friend.
Sherlock was slumped against the grimy brick wall behind the bar, breathing deeply and clutching his head with one hand, his stomach with the other.
“Shawn?” John asked tentatively.
Sherlock shook his head. “Couldn’t. Hurts.” His voice was British, but his body was still loose and uncertain and awkward. He was breathing hard, and he kept blinking his eyes.
John moved on automatic, pressing Sherlock’s shoulders against the wall so he could peer into the hooded eyes. They were bloodshot, the pupils dialated. John could feel Sherlock trembling under his hands.
“Sherlock, tell me you didn’t take anything.”
“I didn’t. I promised. God it hurts. My head.”
Sherlock shrugged. “Don’t know. Five minutes. Ten. Don’t know.”
“Okay.” John breathed. “Okay. Sit down, we’ll wait it out.” And he helped Sherlock slide down the wall until they were both on the filthy pavement, Sherlock sitting and John kneeling, his hands still on Sherlock’s shoulders.
“I love that song, John.” Sherlock admitted. “I couldn’t play it like him.”
“You were extraordinary.” John assured him. “Getting any better?”
Sherlock lolled his head from side to side, a no. “I hate him. He’s so...feeble.”
“Shawn. Blocks everything. I hate him.”
“Then stop being him! Be you. You’re incredible. Shawn’s a tosser.”
“Shawn is useful. I just...I just need to find a balance. He takes up too much space. I can’t work when I’m him.”
“Or play.” John supplied.
“I saw you. Really you. Up there. That wasn’t Shawn playing.”
Sherlock smiled at that. “Clever you.” He muttered. His breathing was evening out, and his eyes were clearing. “You’re right. I couldn’t keep Shawn in my head and play at the same time. I thought I could. Shawn’s an idiot.”
“I bet he’s rubbish at the violin, too.” John said, and Sherlock giggled. John joined him, and soon they were laughing from their bellies, crouched on the dirty pavement beside the door, their voices mingling with the night.
At some point, John’s legs began to cramp and he shifted himself so he was sitting beside Sherlock. “Feeling better?”
Sherlock smiled a tired smile. “Much. Thank you doctor.”
John leaned his head back against the wall. He was quiet for a time, then, “This is gonna get bad, isn’t it?”
“It already is.”
“I never asked. I never wanted to. At the end, when I stepped out in that parka,” he licked his lips. “Was it still fun? For you?”
Sherlock narrowed his eyes and looked at John. “Why are you asking that?”
John shrugged. “It’s just, sometimes I can’t tell. If you’re happy or not.”
Sherlock fell silent, then he said, “No. When I saw you at first, it wasn’t fun. At all. And then you showed me the bomb, and it was worse.”
John nodded, but Sherlock wasn’t done.
“Then Moriarty came out, and it was fun again.” He looked down. “I’m sorry.”
John nodded. “I understand.” He really, really wished that he didn’t.
“If it helps, I didn’t want it to be. I didn’t want to enjoy seeing you in danger. And I didn’t, really. I hated it. I wanted to save you, like you keep saving me.” He looked at his hands. “But Jim was so interesting. And brilliant. I wasn’t happy, but it was exciting. As long as I didn’t look at you, it was fun. But every time I saw you, everything went cold. It was like being two people. I hated it.”
“Are you having fun now?”
Sherlock managed a smile. “I really am two people now, aren’t I?” He sighed. “Yes. I am. And I hate myself for it. I could be putting you in danger again. It could be Moriarty, it really could.” He tilted his head up and gazed at the black sky, the stars obscured by the city lights. “But I can’t want to stop. I need to know. I need to figure it out. No matter what happens.”
“I know.” Said John with a sigh, and he put a hand on Sherlock’s knee. He looked up as well, watching the invisible stars beside Sherlock.
Sherlock nodded beside him. “Yes. He’s gone. I’m okay now.”
“Will it get easier?”
“I hope so. Shawn is exhausting, but he’s useful.”
“So what do we do now?”
Sherlock pulled out his phone and fiddled with it for a bit. “Bowers’ memorial is two days from now, according to the band’s website. I have to rehearse. Ah!” He beamed. “And the bouncer just sent me his video of my performance. I need to put that online. Come on John, work to do.” He stood, and John rose with him.
“Let me just say good bye to Andrea. I sort of abandoned her after your set.”
Sherlock smirked. “John?”
“If you don’t ask her out by the time we solve this case, I will hack into your blog and post that picture of you I found in your foot locker.”
“What in our history together gives you any doubt?” Sherlock blinked innocently.
John smiled. “You are far too invested in this.”
Sherlock shrugged. “I think she’d make you happy. You’re more fun when you’re happy.”
John shook his head. “You know what would make me really happy?” He asked.
Sherlock tilted his head. “What?”
“A fridge full of nothing but food, and getting through an entire Indiana Jones film without any snide commentary.”
Sherlock looked stricken. “But, John , skin simply doesn’t melt like--”
John held up his hand. “Save it! I’m going in to say good-bye to Andrea, then we’re going back to the flat. I’m thinking The Last Crusade tonight.”
“You’re cruel to me, I hope you know it.”
John grinned as he walked away, his hands in his coat pockets. “I learned from the best.” He called without looking back.