Sherlock had concluded long ago that at the root of most evil there was Mycroft to be found. This was no exception. Just a couple of hours’ work, Mycroft had said. You would do me a great service, Mycroft had said. And Sherlock, fresh from the pool fiasco, had allowed his gratitude to cloud his better judgement. He did owe Mycroft his life. More importantly, he owed Mycroft John’s life. And being able to keep John by his side had seemed—did seem—worth a thousand favours to the devil himself. So he’d lent his brother his services.
The case wasn’t even particularly interesting. Certainly not difficult—not by the Holmes’ standards anyway. If Mycroft hadn’t felt compelled to abide by the rules of his private club, he could have settled the matter without leaving his chair. A book containing highly sensitive information had gone missing from the club’s vault. Members and their families and friends were strictly forbidden to be involved in the very private investigation. Unprecedented allowances were made for Sherlock.
This morning Mycroft had picked them up and driven them to the very inconspicuous door of a terrace house in Mayfair. The foyer, in which Sherlock and John were subjected to an irksome display of paranoia and formalities, was equally indistinctive, just like the corridor and the staircase they climbed. However, the surroundings of the room they finally entered could only be described as opulent.
Four men had already expected them, all exuding luxury to the last manicured nail. Old money, obviously—and not a little new money, either. The tie on the fat blond man must have been worth the equivalent of John’s summer wardrobe. John himself had become self-conscious as soon as they’d entered the premises, his fingers curling around the seam of his old jacket and tugging at it repeatedly. Sherlock should have sent John home. Sherlock should have left John home. But it hadn’t crossed his great useless mind that, of all places, it was in this nest of snobbery and excess that John should find an…admirer. Of course he knew John was—He knew John. But he didn’t expect an elitist to see it, too. It served him right for letting stereotypes get in the way. For letting anything get in the way, when it came to John.
And it had to be the best-looking man in the room. That man would have been the best-looking in most rooms.
Sherlock cursed Mycroft again, this time for the order in which he made the introductions. It meant that when Peter Tobias-Smith was introduced to John, Sherlock wasn’t looking. He would have seen it instantly, he was sure. And if he had seen it, he might have done something to nip the bud. Sherlock’s average withering look had managed to kill the words on people’s lips plenty of times. But as it was, he only heard the posh, drawn-out “My, what a strong handshake you’ve got, Dr. Watson! It’s as if you’re a military man.”
Sherlock had turned around sharply, just in time to catch John’s friendly smile light up his face.
“You’re right, actually. I used to be in the Army.”
“Um, I got—I got shot. I had to come back.”
Tobias-Smith’s voice was all melting butter.
“Mycroft, you never said you knew a real war hero. Afghanistan, I presume?”
John’s eyes shot instinctively to Sherlock, before returning to the man in front of him.
“Yes...How did you know?”
“Oh, I’ve been around Mycroft Holmes for a very long time.”
John had all but winked at Tobias-Smith.
“I see,” he was still smiling. Sherlock frowned.
Tobias-Smith’s posh vowels continued to dominate the air.
“Mycroft’s always been so secretive. In this case, about the impressive company he keeps.”
“My brother,”—Sherlock finally recovered enough to interject—“finds very little importance in the likes of myself and Dr. Watson. Your conclusion about us ‘keeping company’ is wrong.”
“And my brother,”—insufferable Mycroft had to counter—“has just managed to be wrong himself, twice in one statement. I have always found both him and Doctor Watson very worthy of my attention. And correct me if I’m mistaken, Sherlock, but since Peter was obviously referring to the impressive stature of the Doctor, your choice of a collective personal pronoun was…somewhat presumptuous, don’t you think?”
Mycroft gave him the frog smile—as Sherlock called it, and not just privately—and he felt his damn ears burn. Peter Tobias-Smith’s eyes flickered between the three protagonists with unattractive shrewdness. John looked wary.
“Shall we get on with it?” Sherlock said. Words were definitely going to be had left, right, and centre after this.
Over the following half hour he observed with growing displeasure Peter Tobias-Smith’s further attempts to woo John. All construed with an ambiguity only a very careful gay man could master. Testing, laying his foul groundwork. His strategic advancement culminated in an offer to ‘show John around'. Sherlock was in the middle of questioning Morgan Beckett (the fat blond man). It would have been impossible to stop and prevent John from leaving, or at least to go with them. Not without drawing attention to himself. At Tobias-Smith’s suggestion Mycroft had already looked at Sherlock placidly, but his eyes were scanning and storing. The list of words soon to be had grew by a mile. Sherlock turned his back on Mycroft, waved off John’s “Do you need me here, Sherlock?” and went on talking to Beckett.
Nothing Beckett said was of any use—largely because it hadn’t been properly listened to. Most of Sherlock’s energy was focused on suppressing his impulse to sprint through the corridors and find John that very instant. He hadn’t had a very clear idea about what then. Pull John away from his ghastly tour guide? No, no—pull John away and hide him behind his back! Deep down, Sherlock hadn’t even ruled out the possibility of punching Tobias-Smith in the face. There had been a lot of fantasies, but only one certainty: he and John had to leave as soon as possible.
They had—in just ten minutes, after Sherlock had called John on his mobile and sent him running back worried. He didn’t mean to scare him; he’d only said “Come back.” and hung up. It wasn’t Sherlock’s fault if John found an actual call instead of a text message such cause for alarm.
Very little case data was collected during their visit. A waste of time, though evidently not for everyone. In the five minutes they’d spent alone, Peter Tobias-Smith had managed to obtain John’s mobile number.
Only six hours later, at the shockingly inappropriate hour of nine in the evening, use had been made of that number. Sherlock and John were at home, discussing the case. Sherlock had just congratulated himself privately for regaining his wits and making some first-class deductions. John had gawked at him in fair reward.
There was another reason for Sherlock to be self-congratulatory. He’d managed to refrain from pushing John into a corner and looming over him as soon as their door had shut behind them, even though he longed to coax out every single word the snake Tobias-Smith had poured into John’s ear. And yes, he’d been afraid that numbers had been swapped, but he kept himself in check. For once he hoped he was wrong. Wrong and paranoid. It would only have been proper, after he’d failed to be paranoid, after he’d let John leave that night—
Sherlock stopped himself in time. Six weeks had passed since the pool and, unlike the number of actual words exchanged between them on the topic (nil), his thoughts of it had threatened to block his hard drive with their volume. Now there was the case to think about. And John was with him, alive and well. They worked together again. In fact, they’d been looking at John’s laptop, Sherlock over John’s shoulder. Every time John turned to look up at him, his unremarkable, precious face had been only a few inches from Sherlock’s. Enough for Sherlock to be content with the world and his place in it.
Then John’s phone had rung.
The small crease between John’s eyebrows when he’d heard who it was had spoken volumes to Sherlock. This was unexpected and slightly awkward for John—but not unwanted.
John hadn’t left the room during the conversation. Sherlock took that as a good sign. It was quickly cancelled out by the very bad sign that arrangements were being made right under his nose. After hanging up, John’s expression had turned even more awkward. Distractedly he straightened a couple of magazines and picked up Sherlock’s empty cup of tea. Then he’d cleared his throat.
“That was Peter Tobias-Smith. He said—He mentioned earlier that he’s been thinking about doing a charity event for our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’m meeting him tomorrow; he reckons I could, I don’t know…offer some advice.”
John’s responses during the conversation had been enough to inform Sherlock about the vile, brilliant plan Tobias-Smith had come up with. But hearing the earnest chime of naivety in John’s words had made it a thousand times worse. Still, it wasn’t his place to say anything. Maybe it would be better for John if he found someone who treated him well and didn’t put him in danger for the sake of playing games. Oh, Tobias-Smith was a player, too. But John didn’t stand to lose his life by getting pulled in. Instead, John was the prize.
Sherlock had somehow managed a distant “Good, good. Fine.” as he kept a steady eye on the laptop screen. John had continued shuffling uncertainly in his small, unique ways for some long seconds, until suddenly Sherlock had wanted to slam the laptop shut and yell at him—he didn’t know what. Or grab him in a crushing embrace, branding all those small, unique ways of shuffling hot onto his own skin. The intensity with which Sherlock had wanted to grab John since the Moriarty business, had long since barrelled across the threshold of any reason.
He’d had to crush all these fragile, raw emotions instead. Get rid of them like Nan used to sweep the spider webs from the ceiling: the expanse of their wide, beautiful symmetry reduced to a thin black smudge at the end of a broomstick. Sherlock had let his eyes close for a second past normal—imperceptible to John, but enough for him—and had continued perusing the open browser, the epitome of indifference. John had stilled, watching him for a few moments. Then he’d walked into the kitchen and the clink of china in the sink had echoed through the space, followed by the sound of a running tap.
Sherlock had let his eyes close for longer.
By early afternoon the following day the case of the missing book was solved, John was finishing his undoubtedly sumptuous lunch with Tobias-Smith, and Sherlock was looking forward to finally having those words with Mycroft. As he stood by the window at Baker Street, willing his brother’s car to show up from around the corner, Sherlock wondered what the world had come to.
It was highly disconcerting to want to see Mycroft, but there was no denying it. He relished the opportunity to lash out at the only person in the world who had proven he could stand anything Sherlock threw his way. Their relationship was tricky at best, but in this instance the complexity was outstanding! Sherlock was angry at Mycroft for dropping Tobias-Smith into their lives. He continued to feel obliged to him for his and John’s uninterrupted existence. He was grateful for the chance to take his frustration out on someone. And on someone who would give him a run for his money, who would likely exhaust him and leave him with no energy to torture himself further with conjectures about John’s ‘meeting’. Sherlock was irritated with Mycroft for his attempts to observe and deduce Sherlock’s feelings—doubly so, for his ability to do it with subtlety. It was infuriating; Sherlock envied him for it. Finally, Sherlock was just…off with Mycroft for being Mycroft.
Once his brother arrived, it was all normal for a while, refreshing even: showing off, bickering, exchanging sophisticated witticisms. Sherlock felt the tendrils of nerves loosening their grip along the length of his spine.
Until Mycroft didn’t comment on John’s absence. Sherlock should have kept his mouth shut. But it was like the tender scab of a fresh cut: itching and burning and wanting to be picked. He made it bleed.
“John is having lunch with one of your fellow club members.”
He made sure he rolled the sentence in a thick coat of spite. Mycroft just glanced at him unperturbed.
“Ah. That would be Peter.”
Sherlock tried not to flinch at the name. Mycroft pursed his lips and looked at the ceiling.
“He was obviously taken with John. Peter has always had such fine taste.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know perfectly well what it is supposed to mean.”
Sherlock knew that to try and deflect with talk about the charity event would be as efficient a distraction for Mycroft as throwing a carrot to a wolf. He chose to glower at him instead. Mycroft sighed and stretched his neck in the way that announced he was preparing to be nice. Sherlock shuddered.
“Have you considered addressing this issue with John?”
“John is my flatmate. It’s none of my business to—“
Mycroft looked at his watch with a gesture befitting the stage of an amphitheatre.
“Don’t waste our time, Sherlock.”
Sherlock tried looking petulant and forbidding at the same time, but only earned himself a glance of warm—he shivered again—condescension.
“If it isn’t Peter, it will be someone else. You must deal with this, if you wish to save everyone a lot of inconvenience.”
“And how do you propose I do that?”
“In the simplest way: Talk to John.”
Sherlock hadn’t planned on actually being honest with Mycroft. Nor on sounding so subdued. Mycroft kept his voice neutral, but Sherlock could see the look in his eyes both sharpen and soften.
Unable to stand the pressure, Sherlock got up from his chair to stand by the fireplace. His voice came out more urgent and desperate than it had been for his brother in years.
“Because it’s complicated.”
The gentleness of Mycroft’s voice made the journey through the years too.
“All close relationships are.”
Sherlock shook his head.
“This is different. There’s too much at stake. His life is already—“
“The doctor likes it.”
Sherlock started at the dulcet tone of the sentence. Mycroft took advantage of their eye contact to press further.
“There will always be too much at stake. Fine, sustain this heroic suffering. Soon you’ll find your mental faculties overdrawn by the constant demand on them to process your frustration and unhappiness. It will be very difficult, Sherlock.”
Sherlock stared stubbornly at the skull.
“Speaking to John, on the other hand, is your only chance of resolving this successfully.”
Sherlock kept silent. He hadn’t stayed that kind of quiet in his brother’s presence for…oh, he couldn’t remember how long. His silences were usually of the demonstrative kind. Mycroft understood the difference. He got up, too, and stood by the skull, his finger absentmindedly checking it for dust.
“You continue to underestimate John. If he found your…appreciation of him undesired, he would never let that harm you. I cannot recall you having a more loyal person by your side. He is practically ready to die for you.”
Sherlock felt a lump forming in his throat. He walked to the window and looked out, unseeing. Neither of them said anything for a long minute, then Sherlock heard the rustle of Savile Row cotton and silk and Mycroft’s voice floated to him from the door.
“One cannot reason with fears, of course. Thank you for your assistance in this tedious affair. Don’t forget the dinner on the nineteenth.”
Then he was gone.
Ten days later the charity event looked like it was going to be unprecedented. At least if the amount of planning that went into it was anything to go by. John’s first meeting with Tobias-Smith was quickly followed by a second, both lunch. The third and the fourth were dinner. Of course they were dinner. And not at just any places, Sherlock was sure. The trouble was that he wasn’t exactly sure. He’d avoided the topic with John like the plague and he couldn’t ask Mycroft for information, not after their talk. No one from the homeless network could help him, either; it was enough that two people knew what John meant to Sherlock. The rest of the world—John included—had to remain oblivious to this fact at all costs. Sherlock had never felt vulnerability on the scale of what he felt, where John was concerned.
Naturally, after he returned home John had tried to tell Sherlock about the first meeting—only to be met with more disinterest and silence. Sherlock expected irritation or long-suffering huffs in reciprocation, but none came. Instead, John quietened and left the room. Sherlock suspected he was upset. Not at Tobias-Smith unfortunately—no, that had gone swimmingly well, judging by John’s animated expression at his return. He’d been positively bursting to share. Sherlock had felt his toes curl in forbidden anger.
No, if John was upset, it had to be with something else.
The same scene had been repeated after the first dinner, with even more distressing results. Sherlock hadn’t had the heart to be cross with John for trying to engage him again. Obviously the alcohol untied John’s tongue—he certainly hadn’t repeated his attempt to talk to Sherlock after the second lunch. But that night, eyes glowing and figure sinking into his armchair, John had chatted happily for a couple of minutes in the direction of the sofa. Sherlock had thrown himself on it and assumed the position of a nonchalant sprawl as soon as he’d heard John’s key in the front door.
John’s little speech had focused on the details of the charity event, and that made it tolerable. But Sherlock gave silent thanks for the lack of strong light in their sitting room; he doubted anyone could have missed the novel written on his face when he’d heard how “Peter thinks…” or “Peter says…”.
He tried to block it, to concentrate on John’s voice and not on the words. Helplessness had been a constant companion for Sherlock since the moment John walked out of that hateful booth. Now, as he listened to his friend’s soft voice, Sherlock felt like one of the strings of his violin, pulled tauter and tauter by incompetent hands, ready to tear. It hurt him to make that comparison: if anyone, John had been the person who knew instinctively how to play him. Now he was just as clueless as everyone else. Can’t you see what this is doing to me? Sherlock wanted to howl. Can’t you use your brain to deduce it?
Since clearly John wasn’t able to feel it.
At one point he’d heard the kind of silence that rings at the end of a question.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“I said to Peter that maybe you could join us for dinner, too, tell us what you think. I mean, I know you don’t care about war invalids—“
“I care.” Sherlock heard the words topple out of his mouth. John mirrored his bewildered expressions for a moment, but recovered first.
“Oh. Good. Good. You’ll join us then?”
Sherlock reached for a magazine.
“I’m busy. I’ve got another case lined-up. You just tell me where to donate the money.”
John didn’t say anything for at least thirty seconds. Sherlock read the same sentence through each one of them.
“This new case—anything interesting?”
“Not enough data.”
He didn’t mean to sound so brusque. He often sounded brusque without meaning it, but now his lack of intention made all the difference in the world. The strain had taken its toll and his voice had got up, opened the door, and handed John his coat.
John said goodnight and went upstairs.
Sherlock turned onto his left side, curling up with his knees pressed to his chest. He lay like that for hours, wondering what happened to a person when his feelings became too much for him to understand. Or bear.
Tonight was John and Tobias-Smith’s sixth date.
Sherlock had noticed John’s insistence on correcting people who thought he was Sherlock's date. Whether it was because John wasn’t gay or because John didn’t want to be considered Sherlock’s date had been immaterial. Sherlock just didn’t care about that sort of thing, full stop.
But now questions were gnawing at him. Would John object if a waiter considered him Tobias-Smith’s date? It was almost a certainty—they were likely dining at places where this sort of assumption would be the norm. Would there be a flower on the table, too, together with the candle? Would John be uncomfortable with it or would he like it? Would he smile across the table, would the flame make his eyes dance…Would Tobias-Smith reach out and brush John’s fingers or maybe hold them for a moment, caressing them with his thumb—
Sherlock got up from his chair and walked quickly to the kitchen, put the kettle on and drummed his fingers. He’d not had more than a few sips of tea all night, but the sitting room looked like the Queen had hosted a grand tea party there. Cups of cold tea populated the entire room in an erratic manner. One sat right next to the pen holder on the desk, a solitary pencil was sticking out of it. Sherlock didn’t remember putting it there. But he did remember trying to scribble some chemical formulas, failing miserably, and abandoning the desk. He couldn’t do any real work in this state. It was embarrassing.
He took his freshly brewed tea in the sitting room and dropped onto the sofa this time, tucking a cushion lower under his neck. His back and shoulders were beginning to ache too much even for him to avoid paying attention. Sadly, they didn’t hurt enough to be totally distracting. Sherlock’s thoughts returned to John’s date.
He hadn’t wondered a great deal about John’s sexuality. At least not until recently, when all of a sudden he’d started wondering about John’s everything. Very early on Sherlock had concluded that John wasn’t gay and that he had a higher than average libido—and had left it at that. But now a reassessment had become necessary.
Over the years Sherlock had done some research and conducted observations of sexuality. Sex was one of the prime motives behind all kinds of crimes; it deserved attention. And from what he’d gathered Sherlock was able to surmise this: It wasn’t impossible for a heterosexual individual to experience strong feelings for a person of the same sex once in his or her life, or to have one relationship of that kind.
The possibility that Sherlock was in the process of witnessing John finding his one of a kind had made his vision blacken.
And what if this wasn’t just feelings? What if this did become a relationship? What if Tobias-Smith took John away and to nice places, and they moved in together in that chic, airy apartment in Chelsea, and went to the flower show together like that gay couple Sherlock had seen at the orchids display when he was very little and he had asked his mother about—
He shot up and started pacing. This was really getting out of hand. What would John do at a flower show? The only plants John had shown any interest in were the coriander and dill pots Mrs Hudson gave them. Sherlock was losing his mind. It had always been a trusted ally, and even now it was only following its old, tested patterns: breaking down, questioning, inferring. But there was absolutely nothing productive in its work this time. He didn’t want to theorize about what happened on their dates. He didn’t want to deduce—he had abstained from deducing, in fact. He had continued acting as if Tobias-Smith and his loathsome charity event didn’t exist. John seemed to have caught up and didn’t broach the subject in any way other than to say words to the effect of “I’m out with Peter. Don’t forget to eat the lasagne.” Sherlock had found it exceedingly difficult to juggle his responses to John. Hardly any of them were authentic anymore and not being himself had never been Sherlock’s strong suit. He was keeping his big secret under his hat. In addition, he was hiding a swamp of feelings on the Tobias-Smith affair, plus his blinding curiosity, plus his supreme frustration.
And if one of these days—nights!—John came back with his lips not just tinted with wine but slightly swollen, too, well…Sherlock was going to need a much bigger hat.
At that image, pacing stopped having any effect. Sherlock would have run out of their flat and into the streets: diving and turning and flying. But he couldn’t. The only thing worse than the potential sight of John’s swollen lips was Sherlock not being able to see them. He had to see. He had to know. Oh God, let there be nothing to know tonight. Maybe next time. Maybe by then he would have somehow managed to accept that John was Tobias-Smith’s to wine and dine, and look openly at, and taste…
Sherlock crossed the sitting room in three strides and stormed into his bedroom. He stood in the middle, feet slightly apart, face straight and pale, a look of menace directed at the three boxes in the right corner. He hadn’t touched the contents of the folders with his first cases for a decade. Now their thorough archiving became a must! He had to think of something else; he couldn’t bear the thought of Tobias-Smith touching John’s face in the car at that very moment, and pulling him closer—What time was it? Ten forty-five. Last time John came back at ten o’clock, the time before that at nine fifty, the time before that at nine thirty. For the umpteenth time, Sherlock reproached himself for his lack of organization with this. He should have made notes for all the dates; he should have put down all departure and arrival times plus the variables of traffic and supposed distance to the restaurant. The impending doom of John not coming home at all one night—and the paperwork in all the boxes in the world could not distract Sherlock from the pain of that notion—had to be faced with some remnants of control. If he kept notes, Sherlock could at least give himself the nod of accurate prediction as to when that night might occur.
A horrible thought struck him. What if there was no logical pattern to be found? What if tonight was that night?
Sherlock lifted the first box forcefully, but his fingers clasped firmly only around the lid. The box slipped out from under them and dropped onto the floor, a sea of paper spilling out like a wave crashing to shore. The thud coincided with a pop in Sherlock’s guts—or maybe it provoked it. Either way, it was good to hear, it felt good to twist his face freely—
The familiar succession of noises announcing John’s return reached Sherlock’s ringing ears. He took a step back from the mess and put the lid aside, then brushed his palms over his chest to smooth down his shirt. He took a breath in and out of his nose and headed toward the sitting room.
They both reached it at the exact same time and stopped in their tracks.
“Hi,” John said.
They watched each other for a few seconds; finally John tore his eyes away and looked around, frowning.
“What happened here?”
“What? Oh. I had tea.”
“In fifteen different cups?”
“Yeah, that makes all the difference.”
John shook his head and started collecting the cups. Sherlock observed him from the kitchen doorway. Relief to see him back, lips tainted with nothing but wine, washed over Sherlock like a small, warm waterfall. John reached for the third cup—
And the water turned to icicles, dropping all over Sherlock and stabbing him repeatedly. On John’s left wrist, binding it smugly, was a new watch. Sherlock lost speech; he lost all thought. He walked over to John and grabbed his cheating arm, yanking the cuff up in the process. Tea rippled in the cups and soiled their sleeves with mud-coloured spots. John scowled at him in protest and started saying something, but Sherlock only had eyes for the obnoxious luxury circling John’s wrist.
‘Baume & Mercier’, Riviera, at least a grand and a half. Sherlock pulled John’s wrist under the light on the desk and squatted to examine it closer. Made to measure. Brand new, taken out of the box tonight. Not that he needed light to know that. No, he didn’t need to even look at the watch to know everything, to picture the scene. He was going to kill Tobias-Smith; he was going to find him—
“Sherlock! Let go, for goodness sake!”
Sherlock looked up to find John’s scrunched face speaking at him with urgency. There were a lot of other emotions written on it, but Sherlock didn’t know what they meant. He looked back at the watch to see his hand wrapped around it and pressing it into John’s skin; it had gone white where the little sharp points dug into it. Sherlock realized John had been talking for some time, only when he stopped. The silence was deafening. John continued trying to wriggle his arm out of Sherlock’s grip. Sherlock released it as if it was scorching and stood up abruptly; John swayed a bit and looked at Sherlock in dismay. Tea was splashed all over them.
“What in the name of—“ John started, but in that moment instead of his voice, Sherlock found his hiss.
“Is this the first act of charity for war invalids? What next? A car? A house in Surrey?”
John’s face transformed like a summer sky. With a storm taking over it.
“Peter had my name engraved on it, Sherlock! He’s planning to make a donation beyond—It would have been downright offensive if I—“
“Oh God, how, how can you be so stupid? It is astonishing!” Sherlock laughed and looked at John wild-eyed. “Everyone would be able to see it, but you’re just—”
“—blind! It is beyond obvious, it is the equivalent of Capital Bold Underlined, yet you—“
“—are just falling for the oldest trick in the world! Or maybe you don’t want to see it, maybe you—“
John stepped right into Sherlock’s space and the look on his face was like nothing Sherlock had ever seen before. Sherlock’s mouth shut. He was still breathing heavily. The movements of John’s chest confirmed he wasn’t the only one.
“What can’t I see?”
Sherlock had gone too far now. There was no manoeuvring back from here. Because in spite of what Sherlock had just said, John Watson really wasn’t an idiot.
To hell with it then.
“Tobias-Smith doesn’t care about your troops or about your war invalids. He doesn’t care about charity. It’s you, John. He is text-book seducing you and you are either mind-bogglingly stupid or…” Sherlock swallowed, “you are interested.”
John’s face had turned crimson by the end of the sentence. His jaw was clenching and unclenching. It was hypnotic; Sherlock moved his face closer. Now that the words had at last come out, they’d freed some space in his processor and a reality check was taking place speedily. Panic. Panic and desperation coloured Sherlock’s irises. He bore into John’s eyes and prayed. Please John! Please. Understand.
“This,” John began, voice rough “was one of the most offensive things you’ve ever said to me. I am not even going to dignify it with a response. I only want to know why is it that you feel you need to humiliate—”
John’s voice broke. Still looking at Sherlock, he slowly shook his head again, in disbelief and something akin to anguish.
“I’ve never expected any real—I’ve never expected you to care or show any real interest in my—and I don’t expect anything in return when—“
John clenched his jaw again and blinked a few times. His nostrils flared; he blinked again and swallowed.
“But I expected some respect from you.”
Sherlock’s eyes grew wider.
“What? More deductions on my stupidity or on other people’s ulterior motives? Thanks, I’m sorted for tonight.”
John turned to leave. Sherlock reached and dug his fingers into him again, this time targeting his shoulder.
Sherlock searched frantically for words, some pacifying, clever words to undo what they’d said, this entire evening, the last two weeks, or better still, the last two months. Nothing was coming. He didn’t let go of John, but didn’t speak either; he only stared at him. John watched his expression and something softer flickered in his darkened eyes. But John banished whatever it was. Only his voice betrayed that Sherlock hadn’t imagined it.
Sherlock just kept on staring, waiting. A phrase had begun forming somewhere deep in him and it was slowly shimmering into existence; yes, it was becoming clearer, the only phrase that his brain seemed to be repeating over and over again. Sherlock opened his lips in preparation for it, there it was…
John didn’t move, but Sherlock could feel emotions resonating through his body and pricking Sherlock’s fingers. He saw John’s eyes dart between the two points of his own eyes, searching. Sherlock was very careful not to move.
Then he felt John’s shoulder shift for real under his hand. It was as if it…sagged. That was wrong. It had to straighten or relax, not sag. Why did—
Seven hours of writhing under relentless self-torment. There had been many sleepless nights in Sherlock’s life, but few filled with such exclusive content. He had berated himself both for the sum total of his personality and for some particular deficits. The thought that John would pack and leave had stabbed him repeatedly like midnight toothache. And of course there’d been a wealth of seething at Tobias-Smith and his audacity. How dare he give something so luxurious to John?! How dare he touch him?! He must have! He must have put the watch around John’s wrist and pressed the clasp with a click, as if attaching John to himself...
It was the image of that proprietary gesture that finally catapulted Sherlock out of bed in a blur of limbs and curls.
Next thing he knew, he was turning around in the kitchen, aimless. It was six in the morning and he had very few ideas about what people did at six in the morning. But his bewilderment was short-lived: A couple of minutes later John’s steps padded down the stairs. Sherlock stilled and just waited, feeling his feet grow cold.
John walked in and stopped, caught off guard. The first thing Sherlock noticed was that he was wearing his old watch.
“Morning,” Sherlock said.
“Mor—“, John cleared his throat and tried again “Morning.” He looked terrible. “Bathroom,” he mumbled as he passed Sherlock.
Sherlock made two cups of tea and took them into the sitting room. Now that he’d seen John, he felt strangely blank. He sat in the leather chair to wait for him so that the two of them could have their morning tea together. Nothing else existed outside that moment. It was blissful.
John emerged from the bathroom and headed in the direction of the kettle.
“I made you tea,” Sherlock said.
John looked up sharply, then his eyes followed Sherlock’s vaguely pointing hand to the cup. He cleared his throat again.
As soon as John’s fingers closed around the cup, Sherlock spoke.
“John, I think I need to apologise agai—“
“No, wait. Let me—“John lifted his old-watched hand. “Sherlock, I’ve been thinking…I know what’s going on.”
Sherlock’s voice filled with awe.
“Yes.” John paused; he had his ‘doctor’s eyes’ on. “You’ve been married to your work for too long.”
“What are you saying?” Sherlock asked, holding his breath.
“I’m saying that you can’t see the world like everyone else anymore. Everywhere you look, you see something wrong and you see…hidden motives. You spend all your time at crime scenes or dealing with the worst of humanity—it’s affected your perspective.”
Sherlock battled his deep disappointment and the multitude of answers he had for John. Best to keep quiet. At least John was talking to him.
But not at the moment. It was obvious John wanted to say something else, but had come to a hurdle. His eyes skimmed over various points, briefly stopping at Sherlock’s face.
“I know I said last night I wasn’t going to respond to what you said about Peter and…and me. But I just wanted to tell you that I’m not blind—“
Yes you are, Sherlock didn’t say.
“—and I have been in situations where there’s been flirting and, you know, getting off—“
But always with women so your experience counts for naught here, Sherlock didn’t say.
“—and I can tell that’s not what’s happening here.”
Yes, it is.
“Peter’s just…a nice man. He’s a bit like you, actually, I like him a lot—I mean to say he’s very intelligent! He was right that he’s spent too much time around your brother,” John’s grin was weak but genuine. Sherlock willed his lips to stretch horizontally. John’s defensive tone suggested the effect hadn’t come off quite as intended.
“You two would get on very well, if you bothered to spend a minute with him. Which reminds me,” John’s voice rose slightly, his temper making an early morning appearance, “I haven’t been like—You made it sound like I was some sort of dumb girl who was taken to places and given gifts by this guy so that he could get me into bed—no, no, let me finish! That watch is the only thing Peter’s given me and there was a big argument about it, because I didn’t want to accept it. But he got—I mean, I felt like a right ungrateful bastard until I agreed. I’m not going to wear it. I just didn’t want to offend him. And just so you know, half the time we’ve been out, we’ve gone to places I chose and I paid the bill, and that’s why I was free to invite you. So if you’d agreed to come, you’d have been able to deduce everything with that brain of yours and not jump to the wrong conclusions!”
Sherlock blinked at John. John took a breath.
“That’s all,” he said.
They looked at each other for a moment, John clearly expecting some response.
“I’m sorry,” Sherlock stuck to safety. In all fairness, he hadn’t anything else useful to say. He needed to think.
John waited a few more seconds.
“I’m going upstairs to get ready, double today,” he said more quietly. “Thanks for the tea.”
At six o’clock in the evening Sherlock felt like a general who had planned a military operation. The TV schedule had been checked for suitable entertainment. There was a film on ITV that looked like something John might like. But Sherlock walked to the big HMV on Oxford Street and bought an ecclectic selection of DVDs just in case. He’d cleared the table and made space for dishes, then placed three take-out menus in the middle of it, awaiting perusal. He’d aired the flat. He’d done the washing up—yes, it consisted of two plates, two cups and a knife, but the sink was empty. So was the right bottom compartment of the fridge.
When John walked in, Sherlock found with relief that greeting him with a warm smile wasn’t going to require any effort whatsoever. The words felt odd, but he was sure he’d get used to them soon.
“How was your day?”
John slumped in his chair and squeezed his neck, making an almost audible moan. Sherlock’s hairs lifted to attention.
“Long. Boring. Over.” John smiled at him. Sherlock’s eyes glowed with his own smile.
“Shall I order some dinner? Are you hungry now?”
Startled, John peered under the palm of his left hand. He looked like he was shielding his eyes against the sun. Sherlock worried he’d overdone it.
“Er…I wasn’t going to go out tonight, but Peter called. There’s a place he wants us to look at, a hall or something—for the event. He might be leaving for Brussels tomorrow for a few days and he said he didn’t want to postpone…” John’s voice trailed off.
Sherlock felt like a general who had just been told the battle was lost before it had even begun; his men were taken prisoner, down to the last one and the enemy had arrived before his HQ. All he had to look forward to was summary execution.
He heard himself say faintly “Fine, sure. Of course,”, then made his way to the kitchen.
“Sherlock,” John called after him.
“I don’t plan to be long. And it’s a viewing, not dinner. So we could have a late night supper when I come back…if you’re still awake.”
“I’ll be awake.”
At nine-thirty Sherlock wasn’t too worried. John had only left at seven-thirty after all. ‘Peter’ had sent a car this time.
At ten Sherlock was a little bit worried. At ten-thirty his shoulders and neck were hurting again, as if someone had injected a slow paralytic into them.
At eleven he got the text message.
‘Sorry, won’t make it home tonight. At Peter’s house in Kent. Long story. see you tomorrow. Sorry.’
He should have known as soon as he’d seen the car.
The world had turned into a cauldron of thick, brown-grey glue and Sherlock was at the bottom of it. His own personal cauldron in hell. He had been forced to watch hours of vile fantasies: John leaning into Tobias-Smith’s touch, John smiling at him over his glass of wine. John gasping, John panting, John moaning. Tobias-Smith having John.
At long last he heard John’s keys in the front door: 6:50a.m. He forced his eyes to look at the door. He wanted to be sick. Time slowed; Sherlock listened to his own heartbeat slow, too, until all he could hear was high-pitched silence.
John walked in—and Sherlock could see nothing of him. Nothing but the light blue cashmere v-neck not-his sweater John had on. Something tore in Sherlock. He found himself crowding John, staring down, eyes huge and full of someone else’s blue. There were no words at first. Then Sherlock found just three.
“Take this off.”
“What?” John’s voice didn’t sound quite normal, but Sherlock was experiencing such an overload, he ignored it.
“This.” He pinched a bit of the material by John’s shoulder and held it as if it were a cockroach. “Take it off. Now, John, now!”
“What? Okay, okay! Hey, it’s fine. Okay, see?" John’s voice was still off, but now the familiar ring of worry was in it. It was better to look at John's plain white t-shirt, but Sherlock eyes still throbbed. He hadn’t lifted them to John's face yet. He realized he couldn’t, he couldn’t. He couldn’t.
“Sherlock? Sherlock, look at me.”
Sherlock closed his eyes.
“Sherlock.” Gentle. So gentle. No one ever said his name like John. Sherlock wanted to weep.
“Sherlock.” He felt John tug at his arm. He opened his eyes.
Relief—so powerful it was physically weakening—surged through him at the sight of John’s lips: thin, the upper one still curved the lovely bare way it had always been. Untouched. Untasted. Sherlock scanned John’s face quickly. No, nothing to suggest that he’d—
But Sherlock hadn’t slept for nearly fifty hours. And his judgement was severely compromised by his own emotional involvement. He couldn’t be sure. His eyes returned to John’s lips.
They opened and Sherlock’s reprieve came out of them.
“No, we didn’t.”
Sherlock’s eyes jumped to John’s. Only now he noticed they were…withdrawn? Subdued? Puffy and murky for sure. Very tired. Sherlock needed more light. There was something else in there, something sharp.
John licked his lips—the movement drew Sherlock’s gaze back to them. He’d heard John’s denial, but he had to be sure. He couldn’t bear this anymore.
“Did you—Did he…Did anything happen?”
John licked his lips again.
“No. He tried, he—nothing happened.”
“What did he try?” Sherlock’s growl was so low it was barely articulate.
“What. Did. He. Try?”
John sighed and passed a hand over his face.
“The usual stuff. I don’t want to talk about it. Nothing happened. I left and walked to the station, and stayed there until I caught the first train to London at 5:30.”
Sherlock didn’t know which was more blinding: his hatred for that venomous reptile or his anguish for John, waiting at remote train stations alone in the middle of the night.
John was watching him very carefully; suddenly his chin lifted and he shot:
Sherlock was taken aback.
“Why do you want to know?”
Sherlock’s face froze. Was this—Had John just asked—Did John know?
John was looking at him intently. His next words were almost a whisper.
“Sherlock, it’s very important that you tell me.”
Sherlock’s eyes filled with words, words, words—all cluttered at the wrong exit. He swallowed and fluttered his eyelids closed again.
He heard John sigh. “God, you’re an idiot.”
And then the back of John’s fingers touched the side of his face for the lightest caress. Sherlock squeezed his eyes tighter and leaned into the touch. He wanted to hold John’s hand there and weave around it the way soft, pink strands of candyfloss tenderly wove around a stick. And then melt onto John’s tongue, sweeten and tint his mouth...
The touch withdrew. Sherlock frowned and opened his eyes to find John looking at him with unguarded affection.
“Do you mind moving a bit? I bought a coffee at Victoria, but it was bloody awful. I’m dying for a cuppa.”
Sherlock nodded and stepped back. John headed to the kitchen. Sherlock followed and stood by the door, leaning on the frame. He was still dazed. Dazed and the happiest he’d ever felt.
“Do you want a cuppa? Have we got some biscuits? I’m starving, ah! You need to eat something—how long has it been since you put any food in your mouth?” John was rambling while he extracted custard creams from the packet and shoved one whole in his mouth. “Here,” he spat a few crumbs, then swallowed hastily “have these.”
Sherlock obediently stuffed the two biscuits in his mouth. He’d have gladly taken cyanide at this point, if it was coming from the same source.
His brain had smelled the prospect of fuel—food and possibly sleep at some point—and was stirring.
“Why were you wearing his things?”
“Oh, wine all over my shirt. He gave me the jumper. Forgot I was wearing it.”
John paused in the middle of adding sugar to their cups. He looked like he was bracing himself. There was some sadness in his posture, but he straightened his shoulders and turned to Sherlock.
“You were right. I don’t think he cares much about the charity. He said we were going to see this hall, and then it was shut for building works. I mean, it must have been shut for a while. The mess around it didn’t look very recent and the completion date on the sign said July 2010—that’s what, in a month? You can’t do the works on something that big for less than three months so it must have been closed for at least eight weeks.”
John was rambling again, a thin line of concentration between his eyebrows. Sherlock decided to postpone grabbing him and doing unspeakable things to him. John had observed. His John had observed.
John snapped out of it, clearly determined to get the topic over with.
“Anyway, he said his country house was near-by. It was in Rochester; we had dinner in town, I wanted to leave—you know, to come back. But he insisted…And then he spilled the wine all over me.”
John let out a bitter laugh.
“I’m such a fool.”
“No, you’re not!” Sherlock was beside him, urgent. “He is the lowest, most manipulative—“
“I am though. Wine on the shirt! ‘Let’s go to my place, I’ll give you something to wear’. I mean, come on!”
John was giggling now, eyes sparkling at Sherlock and Sherlock couldn’t believe his ears, but he had joined John with his own deep chuckle. They laughed together for a few moments then John shook his head and went on to stir the sugar. It was clear he didn’t intend to elaborate further.
Sherlock moved behind him and tentatively wrapped his arms around his waist, then rested his chin on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he said truthfully. He was more than sorry. The dismantling of Tobias-Smith’s entire life had to be looked into, but Sherlock didn’t want a single further thought of him polluting this wonderful day.
With his chin he could feel John nod, his hair brushing Sherlock’s nose. He smelled of trains and cheap coffee, but they couldn’t cover John’s natural scent. Sherlock had caught just the barest swishes of it—this close, John was exuding it like earth exuded warmth after a summer downpour. Sherlock inhaled covertly. His head swam; his body did, too, at the prospect of what other John-indulgences lay ahead.
John wriggled and Sherlock loosened his hold, but John only wanted to turn around to face him. Sherlock let his arms entwine across John’s back. John looked up at him and this time his eyes seemed to be fascinated with Sherlock’s lips. Sherlock felt heavy, like a pear drooping on a branch. They both leaned in, in unison. The first touch of John’s lips was warm and timid. Sherlock shook into it in desperation. John’s fingers slid behind his neck; he pressed Sherlock down and opened his mouth to let him in. They kissed on and on, slowly and lusciously, and John tasted of pears.
‘Since neither of you is answering his phone, kindly inform John that after my conversation with Peter Tobias-Smith he expressed a wish to make a very generous donation to a charity of John’s choice. Please make use of that information yourself. I am pressed at the office and can’t afford to waste time dealing with any unfortunate results of your recklessness. Don’t forget the dinner on the 19th.”