“Did you dream last night?” Dr. Taylor asked in her quiet, cajoling way.
John stared resolutely out the window, watching crows flock in the alleyway below. Someone had knocked over a bin and the garbage made them a feast.
“How are you doing in school?” She tapped her pen against her notebook.
The room was decorated in bright cheerful colors and filled with the kind of toys that would appeal to young children. He liked the space. He even liked Dr. Taylor. It was only that she was so earnest about helping him. Healing him. As if he were an open wound that only needed the right stitches instead of a living boy struggling with too much loss and anger.
“All right, tell me anything then. Anything that’s on your mind.”
There was a boy wearing a public school uniform standing at the lip of the alleyway and though he couldn’t have been more than fourteen, pulling a cigarette from his pocket. When he lit it, smoke billowed around the dark, curly hair in a ephemeral halo.
He stood there for the rest of John’s session, watching the birds. John couldn’t make out his expression. It was a good distraction and made the usual hour of silence pass by much quicker.
“Whatever you say in this room stays here.” Dr. Taylor repeated at the end of their hour as she always did. “You can always call me. Any time, John.”
“Thank you.” He said politely, picked up his book-bag and left as quickly as he dared.
The boy was still watching the birds though the cigarette and all evidence of smoke was long gone. Now that his face was no longer an indistinct smudge, John could make out sharp cheekbones, thin lips and darting eyes that took in all of the feathery carnage.
“You all right then?” John asked conversationally.
“Dr. Taylor’s five p.m.” The boy didn’t so much as look up.
“Was it arson or accident?”
John froze, his blood turning to ice.
“How did you-”
“I observed it. Obvious.” The boy snorted and finally turned to look at him. There was something curiously still about his face, except for those eyes.
“Not to me. If you’ve seen me, how come I’ve never seen you?”
“Dr. Wilcox, four o’clock. We’ve passed each other in the hallway, but you always look straight ahead. You don’t seem to see anything.” He shrugged. “Well, come on then.”
“Come on where?”
“You were about to walk home. You’re three blocks from me. It’s inevitable that we walk it together.”
“How do you know where I live? Who are you?”
“Sherlock Holmes.” Sherlock didn’t offer his hand to shake, instead he started to walk away. “Are you coming?”
“Should I tell you my name or do you already know that too?”
“Not a clue. Probably something bland and traditional.”
“It’s John.” He muttered.
“John.” Sherlock repeated, a faint smile on his lips. “You didn’t answer my first question, arson or accident?”
“None of your bloody business.” John spat, but didn’t break pace. Sherlock was a few inches taller than him and walked with intention. It took a little effort to keep up. “How’d you know about the fire then?”
“You’ve got burn scars on your hands. Recent. Six, seven months? Probably where you put them up to protect your face. There’s some scarring in your hairline and chin, but none around your eyes or nose. You're wouldn’t be here seeing a psychiatrist who specializes in traumatized children.” Sherlock spoke so quickly that it came out a little smeared. “You don’t have any of the tells of someone who’s been abused, ergo it was most likely a single event on a large scale. Burn marks say fire, recent too. A near inferno, the type of thing that would send a fifteen year old to therapy.”
“Sixteen.” John corrected absently. "My birthday was last week."
“Sixteen.” Sherlock shrugged. “But the fire?”
“Yes, there was one.” John glanced over at him. “Why does it matter to you?”
“Liar.” John laughed surprising both of them. “It’s probably been driving you mad for weeks. You’ve practically been stalking me.”
“I have not!” Sherlock’s nostrils flared in irritation. “Only took me a quick look to figure you out. You’re not a complicated person.”
“Guess not. So what about you then?”
“What about me?”
“You know so much about me and I don’t know anything about you. Let’s make it fair.”
“Why?” And now those clever eyes were narrowing in suspicion.
“That’s how you become mates, isn’t it?”
“Is it?” Sherlock said dryly.
“Way I’ve always done it. Look, I’ll even give you a freebie. I’ve got a little sister named Harriet. She’s pretty cute when she’s not being a nutter.”
“Ah.” There was a brief, tense pause before Sherlock finally said, “Older brother away at college. I loathe him.”
“I plan to go to war with him as soon as we’re both influential enough to have armies.”
“Huh.” John didn’t doubt for a second that Sherlock meant it. “That’s some bad sibling rivalry.”
“And your sister? Why is she a nutter?”
“Tell you what, why don’t you come in and find out?” They weren’t far from John’s apartment now. Much closer than three blocks. Beyond the street was a local park and stores. He couldn’t imagine someone as posh as Sherlock living above shops. It seemed the other boy had already decided to follow him home whether he realized it or not.
“All right.” Sherlock agreed tentatively like he might be agreeing to an execution. “Just for a few minutes.”
The apartment was tidy enough though it was cramped with the three of them. John wasn’t ashamed of it anyway. Harry was sitting in the kitchen spreading jam thinly over a piece of toast. She had her hair up in pigtails, one slightly higher than the other.
“Johnny, do you know how to make jam?” She asked immediately, wielding the butter knife like a weapon.
“Not the faintest clue.” He waved in Sherlock’s direction. “This is Sherlock.”
“Hello.” Harry looked Sherlock over then turned the knife on him. “Do you know how to make jam?”
“No.” Sherlock looked annoyed by this admittance.
“Then what use are either of you?” Harry sighed and turned back to her toast. “Mum says she left dinner to heat up and don’t wait up for her, it’s a school night John Hamish Watson and she’s a grown woman etc.”
“Lovely.” John blushed faintly before grabbing Sherlock’s sleeve, pulling him towards his bedroom. “Do your homework, I’ll check it over later.”
“Homework is oppression of my natural curiosity!” She called out to his closing door.
“Why jam?” Sherlock asked, even as he turned a slow circle around the room.
“Who knows? She gets like that. She’ll forget about in a day or two then it’s a new obsession.”
It was a small room, but John didn’t own very much, so it never mattered. A bed neatly made, bins underneath to store books, comics and some lego. There were no posters on the walls or photos on his desk. Just a typewriter and a stack of papers next to it. He wondered what Sherlock could tell from the barren space and for the first time since they’d moved here, wondered what he made of it himself. It was sort of depressing on the whole.
“Do you like card games?” He asked, drawing out a deck more to occupy his hands then anything else.
“Chance.” Sherlock sniffed, but he shrugged out of his blazer and sat down in the office chair. John perched on the bed. “I prefer games of skill.”
“Yeah, bet you’re a regular beast at Risk.” He shuffled idly. “How about Rummy?”
“It’s my Mum’s favorite.” John rattled off the rules as he dealt out the hand. Sherlock seemed to be only half-listening, but as they started to play it was clear he had already mastered the rules.
“Remind me never to play poker with you.” John laughed as he lost another round.
“I’ve no interest in poker.”
“What does interest you then? Besides crows and me?”
“I like chemistry.” Sherlock said cautiously as though the conversation itself was a kind of chemical reaction that might go up in smoke at any moment. “I like figuring things out. Not like logic puzzles or crosswords, but real puzzles.”
“Like a locked room murder mystery?” John was more than a little fond of such books himself.
“Yes, exactly.” He looked surprised and looked John over more intensely. “I want to solve the unsolvable.”
“So you’re going to get on the force then?”
The conversation flowed more easily after that as John explained about the cheap paperbacks under his bed. Sherlock made him dig them out and started to flip through them, explaining the endings with unerring accuracy after only a few pages.
“That’s amazing.” John laughed after Sherlock tossed another one aside.
The next book came up quickly, hiding the lower half of Sherlock’s face, but John could make out the pleased grin and returned it with one of his own.
“Oh hey, it’s nearly seven.” John commented a little later. “I’ve got to take care of dinner.”
“Right, of course. I should-”
“Eat with us.” John supplied. “I mean, unless you have to get home. You can call your parents if you want. Only Harry never eats what Mum leaves us.” John usually wound up eating it for lunch to keep it from going to waste.
“I don’t eat much.”
“Yeah, I can tell.”
Sherlock had the same gangly slenderness of many of John’s classmates though all of them usually ate like it was their job. John had yet to have the same kind of growth spurt and was starting to doubt it would ever happen.
“I’ll need to make a brief call.”
“Sure, phone’s in the kitchen. I’ve got to check on Harry.”
He couldn’t make out Sherlock’s low voice on the phone, but he sounded tense. John frowned as he went over sheets of multiplication for Harry. She leaned heavily into him until he put an arm around her shoulder.
“He’s strange.” She whispered directly into John’s ear.
“I know, but I like him.” John grinned when she frowned at him. “Well I like you and your strange.”
“I am not strange.” Her fist drove right between his ribs and he couldn’t hide the wince. “Sorry.”
“S’alright. You’re getting to be a strong one.” He rubbed the tender spot. “Though you still can’t figure out your 12 times table.”
“It is.” Sherlock agreed as he hung up the phone. “Dull stuff. Calculators can manage it. They only make us learn it to take up valuable space in our heads.”
“Why would they do that?” Harry’s forehead wrinkled.
“Because then you can’t think about why none of it makes sense. School is a mad concept. Everyone has to learn everything despite clear indications that some are not equipped to learn certain subjects and should be allowed free reign on what they’re naturally good at.”
“Without trying a little bit of everything, how would people know what their good at?” John asked, signing a permission slip in a messy blur that had been stuck among other papers. “You’ve got to try things first.”
“That wouldn’t take long. By the time the average person is seven all their personality traits are set. Why bother with anything past that?”
“I like him too.” Harry announced. “Also, I don’t want eggs now. I’d like pancakes.”
“I...what?” It was Sherlock’s turn to wrinkle his brow.
“Welcome to the Watson Cafe. Short order cookery at it’s finest.” John crossed to the fridge and rooted out the preserved dinner. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. The meatloaf was burnt and the potatoes looked weirdly solid. It would do for lunch for him, but he wouldn’t inflict it on Sherlock. “Pancakes for everyone.”
“I want a skull and crossbones!” Harry chimed, already opening the draw with cutlery to set the table.
“I’ll do my best.” He took down the skillet and turned on the electric stove-top. “Any requests, Sherlock?”
“Johnny makes the best face pancakes.” Harry explained, folding the napkins into hats.
“The best?’ Sherlock raised an eyebrow.
“Well, it’s not hard.” The butter sizzled over the cast iron before John carefully daubed batter in the approximate shape of the Jolly Roger. “As long as you don’t expect too many details.”
“Why would you bother?”
“Why not? It’s fun.” He watched the pan carefully, flipping when the edges began to bubble. Harry’s insistence on consuming only breakfast foods the last few months had made him an expert. “Regular pancakes are boring.”
“They’ll taste the same.” Sherlock pointed out. John reached for a banana and cut off two slices, placing them on the skull for eyes.
“Don’t you ever bite the arms off a gingerbread man first?”
An artless bored shrug met the question, leaving John puzzled as he handed Harry her dinner.
“How about this then?”
Making a magnifying glass was actually pretty simple, but the twitch of Sherlock's lips when he accepted his plate increased John’s satisfaction threefold. They ate gathered close around the table. Sherlock took neat bites, not touching the syrup or butter. He barely seemed to notice he was eating, paying more mind to John and Harry’s conversation which quickly degenerated into a fork fencing battle.
“Enough of that!”John protested when she came near to stabbing his hand. “Go wash up.”
“You parent her.” Sherlock observed after Harry had sulked her way into the bathroom.
“Mum is a nurse and she works a lot of night shifts. I’m home, so I do it.” He waited for the next question, the one that still hurt every time someone asked it. It never came.
“Mycroft used to do the same.” Sherlock poked at the remains of his pancake. “He wasn’t nearly as good at it.”
“Ta, I think.” He picked up the plates and piled them into the sink.
“I should go.” Standing abruptly, Sherlock nearly tipped the chair over.
“You don’t have to.”
“No, I...” For a moment he seemed to waver, then he was gone retrieving his blazer before heading out the door. “Good night, John.”
Out of curiosity, John drifted to the window and watched as the lean figure appeared on the steps outside. Another cigarette had appeared, already lit and between thin lips. He turned back towards the doctor’s office and started walking at a brisk pace, trailing smoke behind him. John wondered at the sudden pang of loss that overtook him then. It happened like that sometimes. He wouldn’t even be thinking about his father and then the grief would come over him all at once.
“Did he go?” Harry poked her head into the living room.
“Yeah. Come on, let’s take a crack at that book of yours.”
They pressed together on her bed, The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White spread open between them. Switching off pages, they read aloud until Harry’s eyes started to droop. John tucked her in and headed into his bedroom to start his homework. It wasn’t hard stuff and soon finished. Eventually, he wandered back out into the living room. He pulled an afghan over his legs, switched on the telly and waited for his mother.
A calloused hand brushed over his forehead in the wee hours of the morning.
“Johnny.” She chided. “You’re not to wait up for me.”
“I have too.” He protested, too sleepy to turn away from the caress. “What if something happens? I wouldn’t know for hours.”
“You worry too much.” She settled in next to him on the couch. “Did you have a good session with Dr. Taylor?”
“Fine.” He opened his eyes slowly to take in the unearthly predawn light. His mother was a delicate woman, yet in her nursing whites there was something strong, if weary about her. Loss had etched fine lines around her eyes and mouth. Some tiny part of him longed to crawl into her lap and be soothed, but he was too old for such things and anyway, he worked hard not to add to her burdens to ruin it all now.
“I had a friend over.” He blurted out and watched her smile emerge. He’d had a lot of friends once, boisterous rugby boys that left the house a mess. Since the fire and the move, he’d become more solitary and it was another thing to gnaw at her.
“Sherlock. I met him at Dr. Taylor’s. He doesn’t live far from here.”
“You should have him over to supper tomorrow. I’ll be home.” She reminded him. “You could have an evening to yourself, if you like. Go see a film.”
“That’s all right. I didn’t remember to get his number, actually. I will next time.”
Which wouldn’t be until Wednesday if he could catch him. John found himself looking forward to his appointment for the first time since the therapy sessions had started in September. Not that he had much time to think about it between school, managing Harry and earning a few quid running errands for the landlady. He wanted to get a proper job, but his mother wouldn’t hear of it.
As it turned out though, he did see Sherlock before Wednesday. It was Sunday and Mum had sent him out to get milk and fresh air, so he took the long meandering way home. He spotted the wind tousled black curls from a few blocks away. Sherlock wasn’t alone though. At first, John thought it might just be a group of mates gathered up to talk, but as he got closer it became clear that the tenor was quite different. Four boys, shorter than Sherlock, but far bulkier, were gathered round him and drawing in closer. Sherlock had been backed up to a wall with a careful veneer of indifference painted on his face. Even from this distance though John could spot his hands clamping into tight fists.
“Freak!” A punch flew catching Sherlock on the jaw and John broke into a run. He could see Sherlock fighting back, not random flailing, but sharp deliberate hits. There were too many against him though and by the time John reached him it was already turning from a fight to a beating.
John didn’t bother announcing his arrival. He jumped in and started throwing punches, a maelstrom of fists and feet. The thrill of the fight surged through him as they turned on him. Another tactical mistake as Sherlock was still on his feet. They corralled the bullies between the two of them and soon had them on the run.
One of them yelled a weak, “Watch your back, Holmes!” before disappearing around the corner.
John bent over double, regaining his breath. When he looked up, Sherlock was leaning against the brick wall of a shop, staring at him.
“Your lip is bleeding.” John commented before pulling a tissue from his pocket. He’d meant to just hand it to the other boy, but somehow he was crossing the space between them, reaching up to press it to the wound. Sherlock’s hand shot up, fingers circling John’s wrist as it to throw him off. Instead, they rested there, almost tender. “Looks like you pissed them off.”
“I’ll bet. So what’d you do?”
“No idea, actually. Could be any number of things.” As he spoke the cut on his lip spilled bright red blood onto John’s tissue and fingers. “Why did you join in?”
“Don’t like seeing anyone get roughed up.” John tried not to pay attention to the quick pink dart of Sherlock’s tongue testing the wound. “Especially if the odds were bad.”
“That too.” John frowned. “Come on, then. Let’s get you back to my place and we can get cleaned up.”
“What about your mother?”
“She’ll scold me than dote on you.” John pushed Sherlock to take control of the near useless tissue. “Don’t worry.”
“I am not worried. I simply don’t require medical attention.”
“Well then she’ll make us tea.” John set off and wasn’t much surprised to find Sherlock keeping pace with him. “Are they likely to try again?”
“Probably. It’s hardly the first time.” Sherlock said carelessly. “Idiots.”
“You go to the Academy, right?”
“Mmm.” Sherlock’s attention was already elsewhere.
“John!” His mother tsked as soon as they walked in the front door.
“Mum, this is my friend Sherlock. Some local kids were beating him up. Can you look at his lip?”
“Jackals.” She hissed, already placing a proprietary hand on Sherlock’s chin. His friend stiffened, but her hold was sure. “Did you get a good look at them? I’ve a mind to call the police. If adults do things like this its called assault!”
“It isn’t worth it, Mum. They’ll only make his life harder afterwards.”
“Mrs. Watson-” Sherlock began.
“Please, call me Emma.” She shooed him into the kitchen. “Let me clean that out for you. It’s not deep enough for stitches. Should I call your mother?”
“No.” Sherlock sat down carefully, eyes glued to John’s Mum as she took out a first aid kit. “I’ll tell her when I get home.”
“John, put the kettle on.” She tsked as she set about cleaning the cut.
After more maternal fussing they were allowed to settle onto the sofa, cards flashing between them as they shared a peaceful silence of a kind long ago perfected by all young men. Sherlock left reluctantly when the sun started to set.
“Let me walk you home.” John reached for his jacket, but Sherlock shook his head once curtly before disappearing out into the lengthening shadows.
“What an odd boy.” His mother clucked. “But I’m glad your making friends, Johnny.”
“Yeah. Me too.” He didn’t dare cross to the window to catch a trace of Sherlock on the sidewalk, too afraid of what he might give away.
The next day he put his plan into action. The Academy started later than his school, so there was nothing to be done in the morning, but in the afternoon, he easily slipped away at the first possible moment and headed up the hill to wait by great iron gates. He leaned against a stone pillar, not quite hiding as cars pulled up to gather in uniformed boys. If Sherlock was picked up then John could walk home and lose nothing.
The last of the cars were gone and all the other boys dispersed in groups, talking and laughing like a river of hormonal humanity, before Sherlock emerged through the gates, a tight caution in his step.
“Hullo.” John smiled. Sherlock whirled on him, a flash of silver taking him off guard. “Jesus, is that a knife?”
“Yes.” Suddenly relaxed, Sherlock opened his palm to reveal a tiny penknife. “You can relax. It’s hardly dangerous.”
“Just enough to scare someone off.” He shook his head. “Come on then.”
“We live three blocks apart. We’ll inevitably walk home together anyway.” John parroted.
“Your school is entirely the other direction.” Thin lips tightened into a hard line. “I don’t need a bodyguard.”
“Good thing I’m just a mate then, isn’t it?” He pulled a ragged paperback from his bag. “Anyway, I thought you might like to read this. Finished it at lunch today and I bet you won’t guess the ending before chapter three.”
It turned out Sherlock could read while walking and that John had been wrong. He knew within fifteen pages. When he was finished tearing the poor thing apart, he mimed tossing it over his shoulder. John didn’t quite catch the moment when he made it disappear nor did he hear it hit the ground.
They wound up standing in front of John’s building again.
“Am I ever going to find out where you live?”
“Perhaps.” Sherlock shoved his hands in his pockets. Above them a window flew open and Harry stuck her head out:
“I need you both to pretend to be Romans!” She called. “For a diorama!”
Only John wound up in a sheet toga, but Sherlock agreed to wear the construction paper laurels. They suited him. When the shoebox was filled with modeling clay and uncomfortable looking action figures, John made omelets.
Without clubs or other friends, it was easy for John to meet Sherlock at the gates every day. It took two weeks before Sherlock stopped looking startled that he was there. They always went back to John’s house, ate dinner there and spent the evening doing homework together or having long arguments about things that had once seemed simple to John. If nothing else, Sherlock was good at muddying the waters.
On the third Thursday of their arrangement, Sherlock deviated from their usual path to duck into a Chinese take away shop. He emerged with a bag full of fragrant food.
“I saved his son from drowning.” Was all he would say on the matter and after that, he procured dinner every other night. It was a strange menu with John’s runny eggs one night and Indian the next, but the gesture was clear. They were partners and Sherlock would not stand for anything less than equal footing.
It took two months for someone to work up the courage to attack them again. This time they were ready for it. They ended the fight bruised, but unbloodied and their would be assailants in far worse condition. John couldn't say which one of them started laughing first, but the giggle fit saw them all the way home where John set about making tea.
“Back in a moment.” Sherlock called out and the door to the loo banged shot.
“Did you kill someone?” Harry asked, wandering in with a smear of paint over the bridge of her nose.
“Don’t you have homework to do?” He handed her a mug of tea and a biscuit. “You’re not supposed to paint until you finish it.”
“You’re not my father.” Her eyes widened in horror as soon as the words had left her lips. “I.. Johnny.”
“It’s ok.” He squatted down and opened his arms up. “I know I’m not.”
It was horrible timing, but he couldn’t very well order her to have a cry later. Instead they held carefully onto each other as she sobbed. Sometimes he forgot that she was nine not ninety or that she grieved as strongly as he did and in the same choked straight-faced way. Apparently it was genetic. By the time he had her sorted, it occurred to him that Sherlock had never reemerged from the bathroom. His stomach sank as he took up his cup and walked slowly to his room.
Sherlock had settled in John’s office chair as if he owned it, the damning folder spread across the bed. John pressed the hot cup of tea to his shoulder where a bruise was doubtlessly blooming.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You left it out for me to find.” Sherlock gestured at the pile of school assignments next to the typewriter. “The paper smells of dust and damp, you don’t keep it out in the open often and you would never forget to put it away.”
“It was an accident.” John fingers itched to snatch the papers from him, but the damage was already done. “Please just don’t say anything to my Mum, she’s already upset enough and-”
“I wouldn’t!” Sherlock protested. “Why would I?”
“Most people would.”
“I’m not most people.”
“Just forget them, all right?”
“I can't.” Sherlock reached out and flipped one glossy photo over. “I don’t forget things. Is this what it seems to be?”
“Yes.” He moved the mug to his forehead as if the warmth might scare away creeping hope rising in him. “I stole it.”
“From the police?”
“I didn’t think you had it in you.” Sherlock looked nearly impressed.
“It wasn’t hard and it didn’t...well. They had closed it, hadn’t they? Only going to file it away and forget it.”
“You couldn’t let that happen.”
The images laid across the table were uniformly horrid. The burnt remains of his father stretched out on the ruined couch that once had held a happy family as they watched cartoons. Nothing remained to obviously mark the corpse as James Watson, but his son could imagine the flesh back over blackened bones, put loving brown eyes back in the emptied skull. He often did in his screaming night terrors, the ones that had put in him in Dr. Taylor’s incapable hands in the first place.
“You asked me a question...the most important question the day we met.”
“Arson or accident.” Sherlock repeated, almost reverently.
“The police said it was an accident.” The words were distant as if someone else spoke them. “That he fell asleep holding a lit cigarette. Open and shut. ”
“It isn’t.” Sherlock flipped over another photo, those quick cutting eyes moving inhumanely fast. The hope surged free, blossoming for the first time in months.
“I know.” He leaned into Sherlock’s side, violating all laws of personal space in his eagerness for confirmation and comfort. One long arm snaked out and wrapped around John’s waist, stiff and awkward, but unmistakably there. “Arson, Sherlock. It was arson. Someone murdered my father.”