John had closed his laptop and gone into the sitting room and flipped on the television. Sherlock was moving listlessly between his bedroom and the kitchen and the sitting room, supposedly working on some experiment that involved oil paint, human hair and what John suspected he’d recognize (if he chose to look closely enough, and he didn’t; sometimes willful ignorance was the best policy when it came to living with Sherlock Holmes) as marijuana. John didn’t ask, didn’t look too closely, certainly didn’t blog about it.
He’d been trying to blog about how their last case had wrapped up, but he suspected, even as he drafted it in his word processor, that he’d never feel comfortable posting about Irene Adler and the cell phone full of photographs and least of all how it had so profoundly affected Sherlock Holmes. Maybe in a few years, but certainly not now. It wasn’t that Sherlock hadn’t successfully solved the case. John had taken great delight in posting about Sherlock’s, admittedly infrequent, missteps. But this one had been different for Sherlock.
John had been impressed with the number of languages Sherlock could curse in when sufficiently stymied by an opponent, his anger usually spurring him on to find the right track or at the very least, to learn something from his mistake. Now, though, Sherlock was morose and sluggish. Given his admittance to John not long after they’d met and moved in together, that he wasn’t completely averse to mind- and mood-altering substances, John was fairly sure that Sherlock was sliding back into some less than stellar habits.
Mycroft had taken to texting John a list of things Sherlock was likely to do when depressed. It had included everything from taking apart the microwave to see if he could convert it into a radio that would send a signal to Singapore to memorizing the populations of every city in the state of Oklahoma in the year 1972 to the use of cocaine and other illicit drugs.
Hence John’s deliberate avoidance of Sherlock’s latest experiment, and also his hesitancy to leave the house. He couldn’t imagine telling Sherlock that ‘drugs were bad for him’ would have anything other than the opposite effect intended in Sherlock’s current state, so John just made himself available to clean up after any kind of accidental overdose or injury sustained in the throes of … whatever Sherlock was letting throw him.
There had been an undercurrent between them lately that had made John wonder, before Irene even came into the picture, whether or not Sherlock’s professed disinterest in sex or at least in some of the benefits of close, personal relationships wasn’t as set in stone as he’d have John believe.
There had been that episode five or so weeks ago when Sherlock had been playing with chemicals before John had come home. John hadn’t even had a chance to ask what the chemicals were before Sherlock staggered into the sitting room holding his head and opening every window he could get to. John coughed a few times at the noxious fumes filling the flat and helped with the windows. Once the slightly yellow cloud had dissipated, Sherlock sank to the floor, his arms wrapped around his head.
“What did you breathe?” John asked as he urged Sherlock to sit up and breathe in the fresh air. The fresh November air that meant they’d be freezing their arses off for at least twenty minutes while the room cleared completely.
“Just some fumes. I’ll be… oh my head.”
No amount of cajoling would get Sherlock to talk again – apparently speech aggravated the migraine he’d given himself. John took his pulse and checked his respiration. He checked to make sure Sherlock’s lips weren’t turning blue and that his eyes were dilating properly. When it seemed like there wasn’t any immediate danger to Sherlock’s health, John sat down on the floor next to him. The most immediate danger seemed to be to his hair, as Sherlock was pulling on large handfuls of it like he could expand his head by pulling the sides out. John had tugged Sherlock over until his head rested on John’s lap and pushed Sherlock’s hands back to his sides. When Sherlock kept trying to reach back up John began gently running his hands through Sherlock’s hair and saying – very quietly – that if he’d just be still and take deep breaths of the clean air coming in, he’d feel better in a minute.
A minute became an hour, which became most of the evening. John was pretty sure the headache Sherlock had given himself had actually abated, but Sherlock seemed pretty content to lay on the floor, under the blanket John had eventually pulled off the sofa for him, and let John run his fingers through his hair and gently rub his shoulders, so they stayed there late into the evening.
And there had been that night just the week before when John’s nightmares had been so bad that he’d actually tried to run in his sleep, causing him to trip over the bedclothes and land hard on the floor, knocking the wind out of himself. Sherlock, awakened by all the noise, had called up several times to check on him. When John hadn’t answered Sherlock had come up, untangled the sheet from John’s feet and got him installed back in bed without once asking what had happened (John figured it was obvious even to someone not of Sherlock’s keen senses) or if he was alright (clearly not, since he was still laying on the floor having a difficult time catching his breath and shaking in remembered terror).
Once Sherlock had shaken out the sheets and blankets and covered John with them, he had, without asking or looking the least bit hesitant about it, crawled in next to him and wrapped his arm around John’s middle.
“There are eight distinct species of zebras,” he told John apropos to nothing. “I think most people think they’re all just one big group of horses with black and white stripes, but there’s eight different kinds. Well, seven, one is now extinct, but there were eight…” He went on with the most ridiculous list of facts about zebras that John could ever want to know. When he got to the end of what he knew about African equids, Sherlock started on giraffes.
When John fell asleep again, nearly an hour later, he dreamed of quiet plains full of herds of grazing animals (and Sherlock trying to interrogate one of them about some poor donkey who was now missing his stripes), but that was infinitely preferable to the dream of a mad man strapping him into a coat of bombs and leaving him on an Afghanistan roadside as an I.E.D. for his company to discover.
The next morning John woke to find Sherlock downstairs with both tea and toast on. Sherlock never made food for the both of them – most days John put something in front of Sherlock around noon just to make sure he wasn’t starving himself on accident – but that morning there was tea and toast and decidedly no talk of nocturnal tumbles or nightmares or even zebras or giraffes.
John had never been so stupidly grateful in his life. For all of it.
He had been turning things over in his head for the past few weeks, asking a few innocent-seeming questions and making observations of his own. But there hadn’t been enough time for him to make any conclusions he felt safe about before there had been the railroad through Sherlock’s life named Irene.
“Why are you staring at me?” Sherlock finally asked on one of his passes from the kitchen.
“Am I?” John asked, realizing, that he had in fact pulled his feet up on the sofa, draped his arms over his knees and perched his chin on his knees, watching as Sherlock passed back and forth in pursuit of whatever he was pursuing. “Sorry.”
He put his feet back on the floor, which had the effect of turning him back to the telly so that Sherlock wasn’t in front of him any more. A few seconds later he found that he hadn’t clue one who any of the people in the movie he’d been watching were and even more, he didn’t care. His head had drifted right again, and he was watching Sherlock, who was now at the table studying something with a hand lens.
Irene Adler was a formidable woman. One who was never once put off by Sherlock’s wild observations and insanely blunt manner of speaking. She was as brash and slick as Sherlock was clever, making them at once best friends and grudging adversaries. John had never seen Sherlock show as much respect for someone’s intellect as he did hers. No wonder she also roused more than just his curiosity.
Mycroft had intimated that Sherlock had never had significant other in his life. Hell, Sherlock had as much as admitted it early on when they’d been at the restaurant and he’d said he was married to his work.
“You’re staring again. Have I got something on my face? My clothes?” Sherlock made a show of wiping his face with his hand and checking his shirt for a stray piece of the spaghetti John had made him eat at lunch.
John made a face wondering if he could get Sherlock to talk about it or if it was best to just let this funk run its course until a new case gave Sherlock his spark back. John turned the volume down with the remote. “Was Mycroft just winding you up or was it the truth?”
Sherlock looked up from the glass and gave John an exasperated look. “Which of all the infuriating things that my brother has said recently could you possibly be referring to?”
John wondered if it was too late to back-pedal out of the conversation. Before he could decide he heard himself stammering, “You know… when he said… implied… when he mentioned that you’ve never, you know… had a significant other…” He trailed off at the incredibly lethal glare Sherlock was sending his way.
John stopped for a second and studied Sherlock. He wasn’t quite sure if the look was meant to convey, “Do you seriously think that I have gotten to this point in my life without ever once having had sex; just how pathetic do you think I am?” or just as easily, “Like I’m going to tell you I’m a virgin.”
“You know what, nevermind,” John said picking up the remote with the intent of at least pretending to watch the end of the movie he hadn’t really seen the beginning of. Before he could actually put the sound back on, Sherlock threw himself into the armchair next to John, his long legs stretched half way across the room, arms hanging limply at his sides. John raised an eyebrow as Sherlock turned to look at him with a look of keen interest. Normally the only way he got Sherlock to give him his undivided attention that way was to tell him that he needed to sit and listen to him for five minutes – really listen – and to hold something Sherlock held dear, like his skull or his violin, hostage for the entire five minutes.
John put the remote back down and shifted to face his friend. “Sherlock, I’m sorry, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
“Nintey-nine percent of adults in the world are preoccupied – if not occupied – with sex. I can’t afford the distraction.”
John raised an eyebrow, not at the typical response, but at the atypical frustration in Sherlock’s voice. Normally when someone confronted him on the way he spoke to people or the way he solved crimes by doing things that were just a hair to the left of completely legal himself, Sherlock smiled and made a cutting remark and kept right on going. Now he sounded somewhere between defensive and despondent.
“Why not?” John challenged carefully. “What would happen if, instead of… whatever the hell it is you’re doing with those beauty shop clippings, you took half an hour out of a day with no cases to have sex?”
Sherlock shifted uneasily, staring ostensibly at the carpet in front of his bare feet, but John knew he was being watched out of the corner of Sherlock’s eye. He was silent for a long time and John wondered if he was going to ever get an answer when Sherlock muttered something John couldn’t quite hear.
“Say that again, Sherlock, I can’t hear you.”
Sherlock raised his chin and stared John square in the eyes. “You seem to be overlooking the most obvious obstacle in your grand plan to cure my mood.”
“I’m not trying to cure your –“
“Who would have me, John? Who would want me for a partner, really? Molly? After what I said to her on Christmas? Irene? She’d expect a certain remittance for her services, and honestly if I thought that what you’re suggesting would be the solution to all my worldly problems… well, I was in Amsterdam just last month. It wouldn’t have even been illegal.”
“Sherlock…” John wasn’t sure where to start. He’d suspected for a long time that even the great Sherlock Holmes had insecurities. He’d been caught between expecting them to be the exact same ones most men had and surprised that he could be affected by anything so mundane.
“Maybe… you,” Sherlock continued. “You who like to point out to anyone who’s listening that we aren’t sleeping together and that you aren’t gay.” He was actually staring at the floor when he said that, like he couldn’t bear looking at John as he made the accusation.
“Sherlock…” John began again, “Look. For what it’s worth, and since I’m asking you to spill your secrets… I’m not gay. I’m bisexual. And I’m sick to death of defending my life to people who see the world in shades of black and white. Perhaps I’ve chosen less than brilliant words in the past to do that. And seeing as we aren’t sleeping together, I just… didn’t want to limit my options. I didn’t want others to think that I wasn’t available. I happen to like sex a great deal. I won’t say that I’d turn my back on an emotional attachment if one presented itself, but until that day… I’m fine with just ‘hooking up’ as the kids say these days. And everyone – apparently including your brother – thinking that we’re in a romantic relationship really wouldn’t do much to help me in those endeavors.”
Sherlock was looking at him again, this time the look was clearly made of equal parts confusion and incredulity. “Why do you think I need this information?”
John felt the space grow between them again. Sherlock was pulling back, protecting the one weak spot John had found. “Just thought … I don’t know… that if we were both sharing it would be less awkward.” He fidgeted before mumbling, “Clearly wrong about that.”
“I attempted to date a woman I went to university with for about three weeks. As you yourself are fond of pointing out, I tend to say what I think with little regard to how what I will say will be perceived. She did… not appreciate that fact about me.”
“So one serious run at a relationship goes badly and you gave up the whole thing as a bad idea?” John pressed, taking advantage of the fact that Sherlock was opening up even a little.
“About four years ago someone else suggested that the problem was that… for the most part… women expect a level of deference and…”
“Civility?” John supplied when Sherlock didn’t seem inclined to finish the sentence for himself.
“Highly over-rated,” Sherlock groused. “I don’t understand the value of lying to someone to be ‘nice’. How is it ‘nicer’ to tell someone their new hair or their dress or their jumper looks good when it doesn’t? Why let them go out in public and look ridiculous where everyone else will see them and while they may not say it looks hideous, they’ll be thinking it. Isn’t it better to tell them that it’s awful in the first place so they are spared the embarrassment of everyone seeing them in a jumper with a herd of moose or squirrels or whatever on it?”
“It’s about how you tell them that, Sherlock, but that’s not the conversation we’re having right now.” John took the remote and turned the telly off now that they were clearly having a discussion. “So anyway, someone suggest-“
“Mycroft,” Sherlock cut in.
John blinked, trying to decide if that bit of information actually surprised him or not, but plowed on. “Mycroft suggested you should try dating men. Did you?”
“Did I try or did I date them?” Sherlock split hairs.
“I suspect the fact that you want me to differentiate the two, means yes to the former, no to the latter,” John observed.
Sherlock smiled despite himself, “You are learning! Fantastic!”
“With you Sherlock, listening to what you say and how you say it is an art, I’m … starting to appreciate it. And you’re not getting me off the subject. Yes to the former, no to the latter?”
“You know when I’ve asked you to apply yourself to deducing the answers from the information available, I wasn’t expecting to become your first subject,” Sherlock answered sullenly.
“Why not? The first time we met you gave me my life story before we’d so much as traded pleasantries.”
“Pleasantries,” Sherlock sneered. “Over-rated.”
“Along with manners, subtlety and tact,” John put in to cut Sherlock off. “So you’ve said.”
“Has this discussion served to do anything other than to reiterate what you have had no problem explaining to anyone and everyone – that I have no use for social niceities, even to the exclusion of the kind of relationships that you apparently think will solve all my ills?”
“You didn’t tell Mycroft where to shove the idea of dating men?” John asked, ignoring Sherlock’s mini-rant.
“I told him where to shove the idea of dating,” Sherlock retorted.
“Ah back around to that, are we?”
“Have you?” John pressed.
“I have other things to occupy myself with. Things that will actually prove to be productive and useful.”
“Things that you don’t have to have a partner for?”
Sherlock sighed. “What are you getting at?!” he snapped, tired of a conversation he’d been wary – at best – of getting into in the first place.
“I’m getting at this: What if the one person who takes you as you are, who didn’t expect social niceities and who wouldn’t get offended… well, terribly offended… when you start rattling off statistics and bizarre observations just as things started getting interesting were to … offer?”
Sherlock’s face went through a number of interesting contortions as he processed what John was saying. “I can actually think of three people who have sufficiently learned that my lack of manners or what some in the psychology field so charmingly call an ‘internal filter’ is not personal. I can hardly believe you’d be suggesting I have sex with my brother. So that leaves two. Given that Lestrade has recently announced that he is attempting to reunite with his P.E.-teacher-screwing wife and your tendencies towards believing that long-term relationships are not only possible but a good idea, I’m guessing you don’t mean him either. Which leaves us with… oh.”
There was another long awkward silence. John watched as Sherlock thought – really thought – about what John was offering.
“What if I’m incredibly bad at it?” Sherlock asked the carpet.
“Truth is, most people are the first few times. I promise not to laugh. Well… too much,” John answered with a soft smile.
The little barb made Sherlock smile. This was how they communicated. Little jokes and comments out of the side of their mouth. He wondered if most people would be more offended than comforted by John’s words. He thought about looking into it later, but for now he still needed to answer the immediate question. Did he want to investigate sex from a first hand perspective at all? If he did, did he want to do it with John?
John’s being male certainly wasn’t a strike against him. In some ways it was much more logical choice for him to start such experiments with. At least with John he’d know what to expect when they got undressed. It wasn’t like he hadn’t seen naked women before (there had been, most recently, a naked Irene Adler climbing all over him, and before that there had been that folder he wasn’t supposed to be able to find on John’s laptop. Before that there had been the foul-up with the cable service that had caused the pay-per-view pornography channel to play where the Italian language channel was supposed to be for three days straight before someone was notified and they’d been able to fix it) but if that were to be the case, he’d only know what he’d seen and the few medical journals and the occasional internet detailing of a ‘truly special’ encounter to base his actions on. With another man – with John – he’d at least be able to assume that the things he enjoyed on his own would be a good starting place with a partner.
With John he felt like he could keep things compartmentalized. John knew him well enough to leave him alone when he was working. One reason he couldn’t imagine that he’d ever be able to have any kind of on-going relationship with Molly was the fact that she tended to need constant attention and reassurance and would not respond well to him saying, “If I’m not stopping long enough to eat breakfast, what would make you think I would stop long enough to sleep with you?” while he was working a hot case. John would know better than to even ask for a shag while Sherlock was absorbed with a case. Why set them both up for frustration?
And, Sherlock began wrapping up his internal monologue, if it really were as useless and superfluous an activity as Sherlock had always thought, he was fairly sure that while John wouldn’t be thrilled at him saying so and ending that part of the relationship, John wouldn’t leave him because of it. John wouldn’t whine or beg for Sherlock to reconsider and he wouldn’t mock him for returning to a celibate state.
If this was going to be a monumental mistake, Sherlock couldn’t think of anyone who he’d find safer and more comfortable to make it with.
“I can’t promise that I won’t decide it’s all a waste of time after all.”
“I know,” John said. “I like a challenge,” he added with a sly smile.
“And if I’m working –“
“Oh please, if you’re working, I’m working two jobs. One: the case we’re given and two: keeping you from starving yourself, forgetting – or simply forgoing – your pants, and apologizing to whomever you’ve just insulted. Who has time for sex among all that?”
Sherlock couldn’t help but grin at that less than flattering, but ultimately accurate description of the working habits they’d fallen into. He sobered though as he took a deep breath, “And as you and Mycroft have so accurately surmised, any information I have on the subject is second-hand at best.”
“So I gathered,” John said as he stood and went over to straddle Sherlock where he was still slouched in the chair. “I promise not to go too fast,” he said sincerely. “But with someone as smart as you, I suspect you’ll pick up quickly enough.”
“Well, if those pictures on your laptop are to be believed, apparently the best place for discussions like this to end is in bed. Well, in bed or in a field of wild flowers. Why do you have so many pictures of –“
“Sherlock… go upstairs. I’m going to make sure the doors are locked and the lights are off. I’ll join you shortly.” John leaned in and kissed Sherlock softly on the lips to keep him from responding. While Sherlock blinked and processed everything that had happened that evening, John got up and began to putter around getting 221B Baker Street ready for the night. John knew Sherlock would need a few seconds to sort and analyze everything they’d discussed, so he found little things that needed doing while Sherlock shuffled up the stairs.
He knew Sherlock was ready to press on when he heard him holler down the stairs, “John, I may not know everything there is to know on this subject, but I do suspect it works better if we’re in the same room.”
“Right behind you,” John hollered up as he finished rinsing out the teakettle. Under his breath he added, “Next week, we introduce you to phone sex.”