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The Only Emperor

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"John, why is there a small child in here?"

"She probably wants ice cream, Sherlock." John wiped his hands on a towel. "I think that's her mother." He gestured with a jerk of his chin to a woman outside, talking on her mobile but keeping a watchful eye on the little girl who'd just wandered into their shop.

Sherlock eyed the girl--who looked as if she was about seven or eight years of age--as if she was an explosive device, which perhaps to Sherlock she was. The girl pressed her face up against the glass case to peer down at the tubs of ice cream inside, still pristine with the scoops dug into the tops. "Do you have strawberry?" she asked. Sherlock stared at her as if she'd just asked for an ice cream flavoured with used tyres.

"No, we don't, sweetie," said John. "But we have vanilla." He pointed. The sign stuck in the tub of creamy, dark-flecked ice cream read Boring.

The girl stuck her bottom lip out 'til you could nearly hang an apron on it. "What's that pink one?"

"Posh Salad," said Sherlock. John had named that one.

"Creme fraiche and roasted beet," John said.

The girl made a face and ran away.

-----

There is a certain breed of person that is drawn to the professional kitchen. This person never minds having to work Friday and Saturday nights. This person loves working in a four hundred degree kitchen and wielding sharp implements at speed. This person flourishes on the edge of chaos, when all it takes is one dropped pan or one too many orders of the roasted lamb rack to send the line into collapse. This person relishes going until two in the morning, until they're limp and giddy with adrenaline, and then they go out drinking with their mates and crawl into bed just before dawn--and then wake in four hours to do it all over again.

John H. Watson was such a person, until the day a freezer accident broke three bones in his right foot. With physical therapy, they told him, he might walk without a limp, but there'd be pain for the rest of his life.

"Sorry, mate," said Chef Stamford. "The line has to go on, you know that. But you'll be all right. You'll find another berth."

John had smiled and thanked him, but they both knew it wasn't true. No one wanted a cook who couldn't stand up in the kitchen. John's career was solid and undistinguished, consisting mainly of working in various positions at several respectably mid-range restaurants in London, and now it was more or less over, and he was to be cut adrift in London with no skills and few friends. Although not for long, because without a job--and he wasn't going to be able to find another one in hurry--he wouldn't be able to stay in London. He could feel himself lose interest in physical therapy already.

Stamford was not without sympathy, however. "You know, I know a bloke who might be looking for a partner."

John snorted. "Who'd want me for a sous-chef?"

And Stamford took him to, of all places, a little Italian restaurant he'd never heard of, called Angelo's.

"Not here," said Stamford. "What you want's inside. He's borrowing their freezer."

Sure enough, there was a tall, dark-haired man perched on a stool in a corner of the tiny, cramped kitchen. It was between services, so there were no flames, no cooks at their stations, grilling and sautéing and stirring and flinging plated dishes down the line.

He didn't have the smiling, jolly appearance of most pastry chefs, or the manic demeanor of most chefs. He was wearing a suit. A suit! In a kitchen! And it was spotless. And looked like it came from Savile Row, as did his shoes. He barely took notice of them as they entered; he was occupied with a countertop ice cream maker, the sort that you could buy in any department store. The contents were a vibrant bloody colour. He dug a spoon into it and held it out to John. "Taste," he said.

John glanced at Stamford, who shrugged and smiled indulgently, and did as he was told. Bright citrus-berry flavour burst across his tongue, and then he bit down on a kernel of salt. It exploded. It tasted like that feeling behind the eyes when he was working the grill station and got eight orders at once for the seared sea bass.

"Oh my God," he said. "That's amazing."

The man blinked, and a smile transformed his face from something hard and distant to something rather more imperfect. Then it was gone, and suddenly he was the cool stranger again, fitting the lid back on the ice cream maker. "You're a sous-chef, recently injured on the line, looking for a new position, I take it?"

John ran his tongue round his teeth and nodded. Then he blinked. "Wait, how did--"

"I've got my eye on a nice little place in Smithfield," the man went on. "But I need someone to go in on it with me, I'm afraid, my credit's shot. And someone to manage it, I've no room for that sort of thing. It'll be mostly ice cream, although there might be a few other things, eventually."

"What?" said John.

"It'll be a risky venture," said the man. He'd stopped smiling, and his gaze was fixed and calculating. "Ice cream has a certain reputation, and I intend to upheave it. I don't get on with people, my tastes and methods are unorthodox, but I am a genius. There you are. Business partners should know everything about one another."

"I'm sorry," said John, "but what makes you think I'd want to be business partners with you? I don't even know your name."

"The name is Sherlock Holmes," said the man. "I think that's quite enough to be going on with, don't you?"

-----

"Very nice," said John as he surveyed the storefront. "Very nice indeed." It was bare and white, with black and white tile flooring, very old-fashioned. It also had a cow's head mounted up over the door, with headphones on, and a grinning skull staring from atop the freezer display case. "Previous owners had a macabre sense of decorating," he noted. "No wonder they didn't sell much ice cream."

Sherlock shifted his weight from one foot to another.

"Oh," said John. "Oh. Really. This is?"

"It's so frightfully dull," Sherlock muttered.

Well, people were very into "character" and "personality" these days. Quirky ice cream surely deserved quirky decor. It'd be thematic.

"Come," Sherlock said imperiously, striding through the swinging door in back to the kitchen, and John followed with dull thumps of his cane. It was rather cramped, with a large, long table in the centre, but had all the accoutrements necessary for an ice cream shop: namely, a walk-in freezer that dominated most of the kitchen's square footage. Sherlock flung it open, and in with the industrial-sized ice cream makers was a row of Sherlock's little countertop ones, hilariously dwarfed by their 50-litre cousins.

"How do you know which one's which?" John wondered. There were easily half a dozen ice creams there, and none of them were labeled.

"Well, it becomes obvious when I taste." Sherlock tapped his lip, then seized the fourth one and dragged it forward. "This one ought to be ready." He prised it open, produced a spoon from--somewhere? his pocket? his sleeve?--and dug out a taste.

John inspected the ice cream first; food was savoured with the eyes as well as with the tongue. The ice cream was a golden creamy colour, quite usual, but he could discern tiny red flecks. "What is it?"

"Just taste," Sherlock said, sounding bored and put-upon.

He did. It had an amazing texture: cold and rich and creamy, like sucking luxury off a spoon, if luxury was sweet and floral like wildflower honey. Warmth lingered on the back of his tongue when he swallowed. He blinked furiously. "Oh my God, that was amazing."

When he looked up at Sherlock, Sherlock was staring at him with a curious expression on his face. "Do you know you do that out loud?" he queried, as if he thought John might really be unaware.

"Er," said John. "Sorry. I can stop."

"No," said Sherlock. He stuck the spoon back in the ice cream--augh, food safety and hygiene, but John supposed it was just a test batch--and dug out a taste for himself. "That's just not what people usually say when they taste my ice cream."

"Why, what do they usually say?"

"Ew." Sherlock stuck the spoon in his mouth and sucked. "Mmm. Needs more pepper." John couldn't help but smile.

-----

"Chocolate," said John.

"No," said Sherlock.

"And vanilla," John pressed.

"No." Sherlock looked irritated. He hunched protectively over the ice cream maker and shook habanero pepper into it with quick, vigorous movements. "If people want pedestrian, they can go to Sainsbury's."

"But we want them to come here," John said, patiently. And then, because he was beginning to realise you could never be sure with Sherlock: "You do, don't you?"

"I really couldn't care less," Sherlock replied. "That's not what I'm here for."

John put his hands on his hips. "Then what are you here for? And you should really have measured that pepper."

"Two tablespoons," Sherlock grunted, "or close enough as makes no difference. I'm here to elevate ice cream. There's so much you can do with a simple base of sugar, cream, and eggs, and it's overlooked in favour of sweet treats for children. Pass me the honey. No, not the clover honey, the blue borage honey."

John also passed him a measuring cup. He watched as Sherlock carefully measured out 3/4 cups of honey and poured it into the cream base. Sherlock's sleeves were rolled up, and John could see the pinprick scars on the inside of his elbow. He leaned with his back against the counter, arms crossed, and addressed his next question to the cabinets. "Why do you want to open an ice cream shop, then? If all you wanted to do was make weird flavours, you could have done that for Angelo. Or at home, for that matter."

Sherlock didn't answer, but then, John hadn't really expected him to.

-----

At 11am on the first day of June, John flung open the doors, set up the sandwich board on the pavement (UNIQUE ICE CREAM--->), and settled in behind the counter to wait. Sherlock prowled the floor with his shoulders hunched and hands behind his back, like he was pondering a great mystery. Outside, people heading out for early lunch breaks passed the store without so much as a glance.

An hour later, a young woman peered in the window, then stepped back to read the sign, and then finally set foot in the shop itself. She was a mousy looking little thing, with hair pulled back into a sensible ponytail and desperately red lipstick, wearing a black skirt and a red top, with a little black purse slung over one shoulder. "Er, do you sell ice cream?"

"That's what it says on the sign outside," Sherlock drawled. John could not actually leap over the counter and strangle Sherlock, who was slouched in one of the colourful little chairs John had procured for customers, so he settled for giving his so-called business partner a stern glare.

She looked at the menu, which was on a blackboard on the wall behind John. He'd written it in his best handwriting (which was still not very good, but a sight better than Sherlock's) in colourful chalk, but even fully legible it was not very elucidating. She looked down at the tubs of ice cream, but the little signs stuck in them were not any more enlightening. "Er, what's in A-Levels?"

John opened his mouth to say that it was mostly coffee, but Sherlock snarled. "Just try it. It won't kill you."

"You never know," she said, looking a little hurt. "I've a coworker with a peanut allergy."

"No peanuts in A-Levels," John interjected before Sherlock could open his mouth and bully away their first customer. "You'll want to stay away from Bangkok, though."

"Just try it," Sherlock said through his teeth.

"Taste it." John dug a spoon out of his apron. "Samples are free." He dug the tip of the spoon into the packed tub of A-Levels and held it out over the counter. "You don't like it, you don't have to buy it."

He sent her on her way with a scoop of A-Levels and closed the cash register with a triumphant clang. He turned to grin at Sherlock, whose smile stretched his face into something crooked and imperfect. It made him look less like an untouchable 14-year-old and more like a human 30-year-old.

"This is the maddest thing I've ever done," John said, conversationally.

"I shouldn't think so," said Sherlock. "After all, you went into professional cooking in the first place."

-----

Matters continued apace through the summer. John's bank account dwindled even as the piles of papers on his desk increased, bills and overheads and codes and ordinances he'd never even considered--Christ, why had Sherlock ever thought he could handle the business side of things? But Sherlock was worse than useless: when he wasn't lounging about on the floor making unhelpful remarks, he was in the kitchen measuring and dumping and pouring and churning, and grunted at John if he came close enough to ask a question.

Finally, one day in late July, John closed the shop doors, stood just behind Sherlock in the kitchen and repeated his name until Sherlock snapped, "What?"

"We've been operating at a deficit the entire summer," said John. "That's not unusual for a startup, but it's hardly going to get any better over the winter, and--" John sighed. The thought of giving up after all the work they'd put into this made his throat close. He'd have to throw himself on the mercy of his sister, and while she'd help him, of course, he'd have to put up with her drinking and she'd look at him with pity and offer him a job at the firm, and the thought of working in an office made him want to curl up and die, or hurl himself out of a fifth-floor window.

If Sherlock noticed any of John's distress, he gave no sign. He was looking at his phone, which he abruptly shoved back in his pocket. "Come with me."

"What?"

"The shop's closed, isn't it?" Sherlock stood and swept past John, somehow giving the impression of a cloak fluttering after him. "Come on."

Once outside, Sherlock thrust out his arm and summoned a cab. John winced at the expense. Maybe Sherlock was paying. He hoped Sherlock was paying, because he gave an address in Westminster and traffic was going to be brutal.

Their final destination turned out to be a restaurant that John was only vaguely aware of, one of those posh, gimmicky venues. The sign above the restaurant featured a fat, suited bloke wearing a blindfold: The Blind Banker. Funny name for a restaurant, but John wasn't one to judge.

Sherlock, unsurprisingly, sprang out of the cab without a backwards glance, leaving John to root through his pockets for his last few quid. He found Sherlock in a room that more closely resembled a hotel lobby than a restaurant, with marble floors and some sort of waterfall and a chandelier. Through a door to the side John could see a full bar, plush red chairs and small tables. A few patrons were seated there, heads bowed over menus. The women were in pretty, well-fitted dresses and tasteful jewelry, the men in suits and neckties. John was suddenly very aware of his high street khakis.

He found Sherlock standing before the host's podium, hands in his pockets. "He's expecting me."

The host frowned down at the computer screen. "Mmmm, I don't have you down for a reservation."

"I'm not here to eat. If I wanted your cuisine I'd pop over to the nearest Pret," Sherlock growled. "Well, if you don't want to call for Sebastian I don't blame you. But I'd hate to be in your shoes when he finds out that I was here but wasn't let in."

John felt a bit sorry for the host.

A few minutes later, a pretty young woman with an unfocused stare dressed in a server's black and white appeared from the curtained doorway behind the host. "I'll take you to the chef," she said. "Stay close--you might want to hold hands."

Sherlock's cool, dry hand seized John's wrist, and they stepped through the curtains.

Never had he been in such utter darkness: not the time his neighbourhood suffered a blackout, not that time someone had shut him in the pantry as a prank, not even when he had his eyes closed at night. At those times there were stars, light from a crack under the door, streetlamps outside pressing on his eyelids. Here there was only black, the feel of Sherlock's fingers against his pulse point, the rustle of his own clothing. Sherlock, and presumably the server in front of him, moved with studied assurance, even though John himself felt that at any moment he might walk off the edge of the world. All around him was the gentle susurration of voices, the clink of cutlery against plate: once, a high, girlish giggle, quickly stifled. How did people even pick up their food? Did they just jab their forks against their plates until something squished? And people paid £80 for this?

"Right this way, gentlemen," said a disembodied voice before them, and John felt the quality of air change that meant they were moving from a larger space to a smaller one. They passed through several more curtains, and then a doorway opened at the end of the corridor. John shut his eyes against the glare, his pupils screaming, and had to blink rapidly until they adjusted.

They were in an office. Now that his eyes had adjusted, John could see that the lighting in the room was actually quite dim, most of it provided by a shaded desk lamp on a huge, heavy, four-footed desk. Rising from the shiny leather chair now was, John assumed, Chef Sebastian, who bore a certain resemblance to the smug, fat banker of the restaurant sign. He shook Sherlock's hand, then John's. He gestured for them to sit in the chairs in front of the desk. "So glad you could come," he said in an oily voice. "And you are--?"

"My colleague, John Watson," said Sherlock.

"How d'you do," John said.

Sebastian broke into a wide, incredulous grin. "A colleague! Never thought I'd see the day when Sherlock Holmes would find someone willing to work with him. He was always too good for the rest of us at culinary school."

John had difficulty imagining him enduring the rigors of culinary school, where the emphasis was on efficiency, perfection, and standards, with zero tolerance for defying authority. Sherlock, already slouched low in his chair, drumming his fingers against the armrest, seemed to curl in on himself.

"Yes, well," said John. "We get on quite well."

"Delightful," said Sebastian, like his pedigree poodle had just taken Best in Show. Actually, he probably would have sounded more delighted by that.

Sherlock curled his fingers into a fist. "Get down to business, Sebastian."

"Right," said Sebastian. He drew from his desk drawer a checkbook. He picked up a big shiny pen and wrote something in it, signing with a flourish that ended with his arm in the air. He tore the check out and pushed it across the desk. Sherlock didn't move, so John took it. His eyebrows tried to cast themselves off his forehead. "That's the amount I'm willing to offer for a year's supply of ice cream. If it goes well, I'm willing to extend the offer for a second year, or even for the life of the restaurant."

"Six months," said Sherlock.

Sebastian's jaw dropped. So did John's.

"Deliveries will begin tomorrow, six am," said Sherlock. "You'll get whatever flavours I send you."

"Hang on now." Sebastian's face took on the appearance of a dyspeptic pug. "I'm the Chef here--"

"And I'm the one with the ice cream." Sherlock stood. "Those are my terms. If you don't like them, you can go elsewhere."

Sebastian opened and closed his mouth several times. His hands clenched into fists. "Fine," he ground out.

"Excellent. Come, John." Sherlock swept from the room. John stared at the check in his hand, at the purpling Sebastian, and then finally lurched from his seat to follow Sherlock back down the dim hallway, where the server from before awaited them.

"Er," said John, once they were back in the cab. "What just happened?"

"I just made us a substantial amount of money," said Sherlock. "Assuming you kept ahold of that check."

"Yes." John stuffed the check into his coat pocket. "Yes, I did."

Sherlock didn't need him at all, did he? He'd said all that stuff about needing a business partner and having no head for management, when he'd just made them a four-digit sum in the space of a cab ride across town, not to mention exposure with one of the most well-known restaurants in town. So why did he really need John? For his name on the lease? For an extra pair of hands in the shop?

John licked his lips. "So. You went to culinary school together?"

"Le Cordon Bleu." Sherlock drawled out the name, nasal on the end of Cordon and throaty with the Bleu. "Don't look at me like that. A half-trained ape could train there, so long as it could pay and wield a knife. Look at Seb." He sniffed. "Anyway, it was a very tiresome business. I learned what I needed to learn and left."

"You learned to make ice cream."

"Ice cream is chemistry." Sherlock's eyes went half-lidded as he spoke, lazy fingers tracing through the air. "Liquid ratios and freezing points. It's elementary. It's precise and elegant and beautiful."

John, studying Sherlock's profile in the fading light, could see what drew Sherlock to that.