Sherlock was sulking. And it wasn’t one of his run-of-the-mill sulks. It was an epic sulk. Complete with a lower lip jutting out so far he could barely walk without tripping over it. Okay, perhaps that was a bit of an exaggeration, but John had just about had enough of the whole thing.
‘I’m taking you away for the weekend,’ he snapped, gripping the steering wheel so hard his knuckles went white. ‘I mean, most people, most decent people, would be grateful. Some people might even say thank you.’
‘I don’t see why we have to leave London,’ Sherlock growled, fiddling with the cigarette lighter. John batted his hand away from the knob.
‘Don’t break that,’ he snarled. ‘It’s a hire car, for God’s sake, I’ll have to pay for the damage!’
‘I didn’t ask you to hire a bloody car,’ Sherlock countered.
‘Okay, just shut up, Sherlock. Just shut up. Because we are going, whether you like it or not, and we are going to enjoy ourselves. Period.’
Sherlock muttered something under his breath and started fiddling with the radio. Once he had found Radio Three, he seemed a little happier. He sat huddled down in his seat, his hands tucked around his body under that huge overcoat, pouting from under his dark fringe and periodically sighing loudly.
‘You’re such an ungrateful bastard, do you know that,’ John shouted after ten minutes of a Bach cello suite and accompanying huffing.
‘I repeat, at the risk of being a cracked record, that I didn’t ask to be taken away for a dirty weekend.’
‘It’s not a dirty weekend. It’s a romantic weekend. It’s entirely different!’
‘I can’t imagine how.’
‘Jesus, you have no imagination, do you? Not one iota!’ John slapped the steering wheel. ‘Well, one thing I can promise you, if you keep this up it’s not going to be either, because trust me, Sherlock, I’m not feeling very affectionate towards you right now!’
Sherlock huffed with a little less conviction, and John felt a pang of guilt at having lashed out. His lover was so sensitive about rejection.
‘Oh, God, come on! Look, it’ll be fun!’
Sherlock was staring out of the window at the flat terrain over which they were travelling. ‘Where are we anyway?’
John had cut east out of London and taken the A12 through the undulating fields of Essex. Half way up the Suffolk coast, he had turned off the trunk road and struck out through the heathlands, skirting empty expanses of horse pasture, pig fields and gorse stubble. The sky was a milky grey, a faint mist riding the wind-sculpted pines on the distant horizon.
While it was certainly true that Sherlock hated leaving the city, there was more to this trip than the simple weekend away that John protested there was, and Sherlock could sense it. While he could not read his lover the way he could virtually everyone else he had ever met, he knew from John’s intense expression when he talked about the adventure that this was extremely important to him. Sherlock was sure that people only came to remote places like this to impart momentous information. He was convinced that John was about to announce that he was leaving Baker Street. Either that, or that he was seriously, or even terminally, ill. Either way, Sherlock was going to lose the only person he had ever loved, and he could barely contain himself at the horror of the thought. He felt like this nasty little plastic hire car as conveying him inexorably to his fate, and he could not escape. It was making him wretched and vicious. He hated the way he was behaving towards John, and that made it even worse, because he couldn’t stop himself, much as he wanted to. So he sat miserably in the passenger seat, curled up in a ball, and waited for the clanging chimes of doom to envelop him.
The little car park was more like a patch of bare earth in the middle of a scrubby, empty landscape. John parked and they got out. There was barely any wind, but their nostrils were immediately full of the pungency of the sea. The doctor pulled his jacket from the back seat and shrugged it on, while Sherlock strode out into the bracken and found the edge of a crumbling cliff.
‘This way!’ John called to him. He was already half way down the cliff path when Sherlock caught up with him. He instinctively reached behind him to catch up the detective’s fingers in his own as he walked. Sherlock’s hands were icy, and he instantly stopped and imprisoned them in his own, chafing them briskly.
‘You poor love, you’re freezing!’
Sherlock grunted. John looked up at him and saw his miserable expression.
‘It’s alright, Sherlock,’ he coaxed. ‘Really it is.’
Sherlock didn’t look convinced, but he followed him down onto the strand and they crunched across the mountain of shingle to the water’s edge. It was flat calm. The surface of the sea had a sinuous ripple to it. It barely made any noise as it lapped the shore. A single gull skimmed a foot or two above the water. A cloying sea fret hung over the channel, concealing the distant horizon. The day was still, as if holding its breath.
John broke away from his lover and crouched amidst the pebbles, searching out a flat one. He skimmed it, one, two, three, four bounces, out over the silvered water, where it dropped, making concentric circles in the meniscus. John laughed and threw his hands in the air in triumph.
‘Four! Not bad when I’m so out of practise!’
He scrabbled about for another stone.
He stood up and turned, saw Sherlock standing there on the crest of the shingle ridge, hands buried deep in his pockets. His face was grey as the sky, riven with despair.
‘Oh, God, what is it?’ He scrambled up the beach until he was inches from the man who had become the centre of his world. ‘What’s wrong?’
Sherlock’s eyes were filling with tears. ‘Just tell me. Please? I can’t stand it any longer.’
John gripped Sherlock’s biceps and examined his face tenderly. ‘Tell you what?’
‘Oh, come on! People only come to godforsaken places like this when they need to tell you bad news! Don’t you think I know that? You’re going to leave me, aren’t you?’
John hugged him in panic. ‘That’s what you thought? Oh, love.’ He reached up and stroked Sherlock’s cheek, but the younger man couldn’t meet his gaze.
‘Then you’re sick. I should have noticed, I should have realised-‘
‘No – God! No! Look, I wanted to bring you here because it means so much to me! I wanted to show you this place because I love it, not because I’m leaving you. You have to believe me, Sherlock. Please. Look at me. Look at me, Sherlock?’
Sherlock sniffed and nervously raised his eyes, looking like a frightened six-year-old.
‘Sherlock, I am not leaving you. I love you. I am not sick. I am not going to die.’
Sherlock nodded, mute, a single tear dripping from the rim of his lashes and trickling down his cheek. John felt his heart writhe in his chest.
‘Oh, love,’ he whispered, and kissed the man who had captured that heart so completely.
Sherlock pulled back, blinking. ‘Promise?’
They held one another for a while. John could feel Sherlock’s heart galloping inside his bony ribs through the tweed of his coat. He could hardly believe Sherlock had got himself into such a state about this. He wished he had talked about it more, explained why he wanted to bring him here, to this special place, but he had wanted to keep it a secret. He should have known that secrets for Sherlock were a form of torture. He was so used to knowing everything that a fact concealed by one he loved was instantly interpreted as rejection and disaster. John mentally kicked himself, and kissed Sherlock’s tears away.
‘There. Better now?’
Sherlock nodded. There was still a bit of a pout there, but nothing a few cuddles couldn’t solve later, John decided. And a little distraction in the meantime.
‘Now,’ he said, adding his sweetest smile for good measure. ‘Look around you. What do you see?’
‘Empty shore. Abandoned fishing boats – no, not abandoned, but the fishing isn’t good, they are barely used. Pulled up on the beach, so no decent inlet or port available. Crumbling cliff, coastal erosion, common for the east coast. Miserable cold weather and a freezing consulting detective who wants to go home.’
‘Leaving aside the latter for a minute,’ John grinned,’ would it surprise you to know that this place used to be busier than London?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’
‘It’s true! During the medieval period, it was one of the five busiest ports in England, much busier than London at the time. And then there was a terrible storm. It lasted for three days. And when it blew out, most of the town had been washed into the sea. Half a dozen churches, a monastery, the harbour, houses, the town hall, everything. A few more winters, and it was all gone!’
Sherlock raised a quizzical eyebrow. ‘And this is interesting why?’
‘Well, it proves that coastal erosion isn’t a new phenomenon, for one thing,’ John pointed out. ‘And the fishermen say that if you sail past here when the moon is full, you can still hear the church bells ringing.’
‘I know how you like ghost stories, John, but is this really important enough to drag me all the way out here?’
‘Sherlock, look at this place! It’s magical!’
‘You came here as a child, didn’t you?’
‘Yes,’ said John, somewhat deflated that Sherlock couldn’t share his delight.
‘I went to the Bayreuth, but you don’t see me dragging you out there, do you?’
‘Please, Sherlock, just try?’
‘It does have a rather desolate beauty about it,’ the detective conceded.
They stood side by side for a while, watching the water lick the empty beach.
‘I fell in love for the first time here,’ John said, conversationally, feeling a little as though he might as well have been talking to a wall. He pointed back at the cliff. ‘Up there, actually. Her name was Alison. I was eight and she was nine. We used to come here every year on holiday, to a campsite on the heath. Her family used to hire the pitch next to ours. Every year, from when we were babies. I asked her to marry me on this very stretch of beach. And she said yes.’
‘What happened?’ Sherlock asked, glancing at the buff coloured ramparts.
‘The hire of the pitches ran from Saturday to Friday. We always came for a fortnight. The second week another family arrived with three sons. Bigger lads. One of them, his name was Keith, he had a skateboard. Alison announced at breakfast one day that she was going to marry Keith and not me.’
‘And broke your heart.’
‘Smashed it to bits.’
Sherlock nodded sagely. ‘Women. The skateboards always get them.’
‘Not that you could ride a skateboard round here, not on these dirt tracks. I suppose he was just older and cooler than me. But I always swore that when I met the love of my life, I’d bring her back here.’
‘I wish you luck with that one,’ Sherlock said, with a rather wry tone.
‘You’re the love of my life, you idiot,’ John said. ‘You’re not quite what I pictured, but then I’m not what I pictured either.’
And since that seemed as good a time as any, he turned to Sherlock and lowered himself down onto one knee in the pebbles. Sherlock stared down at him, his eyes bulging.
‘Don’t you dare be so pedestrian,’ he said.
‘Why not? You know I want to spend my life with you. And you led me to believe you wanted the same. It may be Platonic, but it’s none the less passionate for that.’
Sherlock opened his beautiful mouth, but nothing came out.
John gripped his hand with both of his own. ‘Marry me, Sherlock? Make me the luckiest and happiest man in the world?’
‘Yes,’ Sherlock finally croaked. ‘Now get up.’
John climbed awkwardly to his feet again. ‘You don’t have a romantic bone in your body, you realise that, don’t you?’ he told Sherlock, but they were both grinning. Then he remembered something rather important. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a small leather box. ‘I had this made for you. I hope you like it.’
He opened it and held it out to the detective. Sherlock’s eyes widened as he saw what was inside.
John had spent several hours at a little diamond house in Hatton Garden, trying to describe Sherlock to a petite young woman who turned out to be the firm’s chief designer. Her response to his explanation of his love’s extraordinary personality was so inspired that John had been incapable of speech when he saw her design.
It was a sliver of diamond, a shard of ice, imprisoned diagonally in a wide band of platinum, like the lightning strike of inspiration, the electricity of being in Sherlock’s company when his mind was doing it’s incredible, inspiring, dazzling thing. It described perfectly the feeling John had experienced that night in the back of the cab, when Sherlock had first deduced him, that sensation of being rooted to the spot with awe at the sheer splendour of this incredible man’s brilliance. As it turned in the light, the stone glittered blue and yellow, hard and bright and breath-taking.
‘Oh, John,’ Sherlock whispered. His fingers shook as he touched the metal. Tears gathered once again in his beautiful eyes. He swallowed awkwardly. ‘You’d better put it on me.’
‘Not till you say yes properly.’
‘Yes, I will marry you, John Hamish Watson. Yes, I will spend the rest of my life with you, my every last waking hour loving you, and when the time comes, I will go down into the dark with you, because you mean more to me than all the world.’
Now it was John’s turn to become tearful.
‘Promise,’ Sherlock whispered back.
Fumbling, John slipped the glossy band over Sherlock’s bony knuckle, and they both laughed with shock at what they had done. And hugged.
‘Next time you’re planning some big romantic gesture, do you think you could do it somewhere warm?’