I. Rhotical Pursuits
"I still don't understand how you knew it was Axel and not Bates." Sherlock had dumped his coat on a chair and gone straight to the window; he was now studying the crime scene photographs in the strong natural light. "I mean, why not Bates?" John asked, hating his own plaintive tone. "He had the same motive. A better one, actually."
Sherlock didn't reply. After a moment, he glanced up. "Sorry, what?"
"I said, Bates had the far better--" but Sherlock still wasn't listening; he was biting his lip and scrutinising some obscure portion of the photograph. "Look, forget it," John said, suddenly angry. "Big surprise; you're not listening. You're never--"
"Rhotic accent," Sherlock said absently, looking up. "Strong God-guard merger; father bother." Then he frowned. "Why not Bates?" he repeated, outraged, chucking the photos onto the desk. "Why not Cook or Daniels? Why not anyone? It's not as if we need proof or anything. No, let's continue to entertain broad and bizarre hypotheticals: after all, why not? What a question," he snorted. "It dazzles me with its stupidity--"
"Father bother?" John asked weakly; at least Sherlock had been listening.
"Vowels. Vowels: a merger of the lexical sets 'lot' and 'start.' David Axel claimed not to have scribbled that list, but of course he did: brought up in America, poor bastard; not his fault, really. Did it not strike you as an odd list? Pendleton gets sent to the Nottingham office and asks Axel to nip over to his flat and pack a few things. And Axel writes them down, as you would: white shirt with blue stripes; blue woolly jumper, car keys, trousers, Kindle, toiletry case. Car keys? Why? Pendleton's booked on the 7.15 from St. Pancras."
Sherlock raised an eyebrow and stared at John, who was at a complete loss. Then the candlesticks resolved themselves into a face. "Khakis," John said slowly. "Khaki trousers…"
"Car keys, trousers," Sherlock agreed. "He's been eleven years in England, but acting quickly, under pressure, he writes down what he hears, and his ear was trained in New York. I did a blog post on vowels, if you're interested," Sherlock added, all at once appearing to lose interest himself. "The mp3s are embedded on my website."
John had that queasy feeling he sometimes got when Sherlock was being brilliant. It was a bit like having a nasty blood sugar reaction after eating a particularly rich piece of cake.
"Fantastic," John mumbled, turning away and trying to bite the word back; it was a compulsion to praise Sherlock at times like these and he was trying to break himself of the habit. He took a breath and let it out slow. Tea; he'd ask Sherlock if he wanted--
But Sherlock was looking at him. John sighed in resignation and let his arms drop; he'd long ago let go of any idea of privacy. Still, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up."What?"
"I--" Sherlock came toward him, then abruptly stopped short. "You," he said, and then: "Do you, er." John waited. Sherlock bit his lip, lowered his head so that a curl fell forward to touch his eyebrow. "My ear's not actually that impressive," he said finally, unexpectedly; not least for the modesty. "An expert can trace any speaker's point of origin to within a mile. I've had a look at an isogloss map and got an idea of the evolution, but I don't need to know everything," and damn if his accent hadn't just become broad and flat and perfectly American: ah dun't need tuh no evr-ee-thing.
"Fantastic," John blurted, before he could help it.
Sherlock was looking at him again. "Not really, no," he said. "You were going to make--"
"Why don't I--" John pointed over his shoulder toward the kitchen.
"Tea, yes," Sherlock said, and fell into an armchair.
II. Tropical Sushi Rut
Sherlock always ordered in Japanese, which meant that John had no idea what was coming and still less when it arrived: fishy bits in oil, crunchy things, sticky-sweet pastes on rice. The first time Sherlock took him to Tetsuro's--a cramped, pink-tinted club for ex-pats--John was a bit leery; he wouldn't put it past Sherlock to spike the fishy things, for science. But it had been delicious, not in the least bit poisonous, and while nobody within earshot was speaking English, John had deduced from Tetsuro's body language and the many delicacies he had sent to their table, that he, like so many others, was indebted to Sherlock.
However, when Sherlock suggested Tetsuro's for the third time in two weeks, John realised they must be on a case. He knew better than to bring the matter up over dinner, so they engaged in Sherlock's distinctive brand of small talk, debating the differences between ligature marks made by strangling and those made by hanging. John ended up sketching out three entirely distinctive imprints on his napkin, but Sherlock insisted that, in practice, these were easily confused, since people who hung themselves typically tried several angles before really committing. "Dilettantes," Sherlock scoffed, digging into his ice cream.
"It's not a thing you can practice!" John protested, and then they glanced at each other and giggled helplessly. Their Japanese neighbours eyed them, and Sherlock quickly pressed his napkin to his mouth. John pretended to cough into his fist. "God, you're terrible," John muttered; he was, at that moment, actively trying not to look at Sherlock, because he was sure he would break out laughing again if he happened to catch Sherlock's eye. So he was taken aback when Sherlock suddenly leapt out of his chair and ran into the kitchen.
Immediately, blindly, John followed. The kitchen was chaos, knives flying and giant metal pots letting off giant clouds of steam. The back door was flapping, and John hurled himself through and into the alley beyond, where Sherlock was struggling with a chef in a white coat. The chef broke away and Sherlock took off after him, though he was felled by a stitch a few moments later, doubling over, one hand pressed to his side. John tore past him, then grabbed a half-broken bread crate off the pavement and, grunting, hurled it. It caught the chef in the back, knocking him forward. He stumbled, but kept his feet; still, it slowed him enough that John was able to tackle him to the ground.
A copper materialised at the alley end. John recognised him: Fitch. John was just about to begin explaining when the last few seconds flashed through his mind: Sherlock slowing down, doubling over-- "Fucking idiot!" John burst out, and raced back up the alley.
Sherlock was nowhere to be seen; John banged back into Tetsuro's kitchen and found him standing beside a huge tank of fish. "John," he said, turning, and John immediately spotted the wince--and the bloodstain, high up on his left side. "Look: a bony-tongued Arowana!"
John ignored this bizarre statement. "Ambulance," he said to the nearest waiter. "Hurry." Nobody moved; John quickly hustled out his own phone. Sherlock was somehow still on his feet, peering into the tank. "At least five, actually," he was saying, "so roughly £25,000--"
"Sherlock, sit down." John took hold of his arm. "Chair!--will somebody please get a--"
Sherlock pushed at him. "I'm fine. Leave me alone. Just get a plaster and--"
"You have been stabbed, you idiot!" Miraculously, one of the waiters had produced a chair, and John tried to coax Sherlock into it. "Sit down before you fall down!"
"I've already been stabbed seven times," Sherlock replied irritably. "It happens with discouraging regularity in my line of work. Believe me: he didn't hit anything."
"You're treading on my area," John said dangerously.
"I've studied anatomy," Sherlock huffed.
"You've poked a load of corpses, you stupid bloody amateur!"
"If I were losing too much blood I'd be in shock," Sherlock said, and then: "Oh." He sat down, violently pale, hands shaking. John exhaled in relief and quickly set to work, applying pressure with makeshift bandages made out of clean cotton napkins.
Sherlock's self-diagnosis was pretty near right, damn him. The wound was ugly, but not deep; the knife had hit a rib. He'd need stitches and there was a significant chance of infection, but he'd likely be all right. "I feel sick," Sherlock muttered, eyes closing.
"Yes, well," John said. The ambulance came.
John's next couple of hours were pretty boring: he left Fitch in charge of the crime scene, which included the handcuffed perpetrator, the bloody knife, and a tank full of fish, and got a cab home to pick up a few things for Sherlock on the way to hospital. Lestrade was already there, waiting for him; he was irritated that John had left Tetsuro's without giving them a statement. "Knew it would take a while," John sighed. "Better here," and he tried to make it up to Lestrade by taking him down to the canteen and buying him a coffee and a piece of double chocolate fudge cake. It was horrid. They ate it anyway.
"Okay," Lestrade said finally, setting his notebook down on the melamine tabletop and pushing his fingers through his hair; he had a brown smear of chocolate at the corner of his mouth. "That's a clear enough description of events, as far as it goes--"
"I'm a professional," John said with a wry smile.
"--but what on earth's it about?"
"Fish, I think. Stolen fish? Fish smuggling? Whatever it is, he said it's worth twenty five thousand. I suppose we won't know until he tells us." John thought about it for a moment and then said: "Perhaps they've got something inside them."
"Hm. Defra uses microchips to track endangered species." Lestrade frowned down at his notebook. "I suppose you could put anything on a microchip and stick it in a fish."
"I've heard madder things," John agreed and got up to get another coffee.
"Yeah, sure; there was last week." Lestrade sighed. "Bring me back crisps and some coke."
"You've had yours," John replied, walking away from the table.
"You left a crime scene!" Lestrade called after him. John sighed and bought him the crisps.
When John went up to see how Sherlock was doing, he noted a particularly smug expression on the face of the nurse on duty. He didn't need to be Sherlock Holmes to know what that was about. "You've drugged him?" he asked, looking around for his chart.
"Had to," she replied, badly concealing her triumph. "He wouldn't let us--"
"He likes it," John interrupted, snapping into his most authoritative doctor-mode. "Check out his medical history. What did you give him, dihydrocodeine?"
The smug expression fell off the nurse's face. "No," she said uncertainly. "Morphine," and when John groaned, she protested: "He said he was allergic! He's got a red wristband!" John stopped himself from telling her that a fortnight ago, Sherlock had successfully persuaded the French ambassador that he was the nephew of the Sovereign Prince of Liechtenstein. Obtaining an allergy alert wristband was child's play: possibly an insult to children.
"Right, let's discharge him," John said. "Otherwise he'll get completely off his face rather than talk to any of you people; he's got almost no tolerance for stupidity," and two years ago, John might have felt bad about saying this, but he didn't feel anything now.
Sherlock was well into the euphoria stage of things. "John! Hello!" he said. "Look, I've got a red bracelet!" He raised his arm and waggled his wrist at John.
John didn't know whether to laugh or start shouting. "Yes, I see that," he said, amusement winning out: Sherlock just looked so--unwound. "How did you manage that?"
"I told them I was allergic. They never check. They are morons. If I were a drug addict--"
"You are a drug addict," John said gently.
"If I were a professional drug addict as opposed to a mere hobbyist drug addict I could have a field day. All the paperwork's on actual paper!" Sherlock looked terrified and delighted, like someone enjoying a horror movie. "I could prescribe myself anything--at least until my notes arrive. They must be on the honour system," he said, and broke into giggles.
"Right: which is why I'm taking you out of here," John said. "Oh, and Lestrade's downstairs. He wants to know what's in the fish." Sherlock raised his eyebrows. "The fish," John repeated. "The fish from Tetsuro's."
"I don't remember." Sherlock frowned. "Mirin? Miso paste? I thought it was delicious--"
"No, I mean the bony-tailed whatever it was. In the kitchen, in the--"
"Bony-tongued," Sherlock said, sticking his own tongue out at John. "And not just any bony tongued arowana, but red and platinum ones. Most expensive. A collector recently turned down £20,000, but he was mostly showing off. Even conservatively, though, they're worth a packet: they're nearly extinct, and illegal to import. Whoever is in charge of importing fish for Tetsuro's found a way to distract the authorities: call it a red herring."
John groaned; Sherlock was delighted with himself. "Come on. I'll help you get dressed."
Sherlock was unusually cheery and clingy and grabby as John muscled him out of the hospital and into a taxi. They passed Lestrade, who was on the phone at reception.
"Hello, Greg!" Sherlock chirped; Lestrade immediately ended his call.
"He's high," John explained. "Also they're exotic fish; illegal to import. Worth thousands."
"Greg, there's an amazing thing," Sherlock happily interjected. "It's called a search engine."
Lestrade sighed. "Do you need any help getting him into a cab?"
"You ask it things, and it tells you all about them! It'll revolutionise police work--"
"No, I'm all right," John said. "I'll ring you later." Lestrade waved them through the automatic doors, and John stuffed Sherlock into a cab and collapsed beside him.
To his surprise, Sherlock slid over and snugged against him. "My head feels heavy," he said, letting it rest against John's.
John smiled. "All those brains probably."
Sherlock's mouth twitched, but his eyes were half-lidded; he had reached the drowsy stage and was feeling no pain. "Thank you for getting me out of there so promptly," he said. "If you weren't so damned useful I would," and then he reached up and turned John's head and kissed him. John, shocked, just sat there as Sherlock's mouth firmed, and then softened, against his, and he just kept sitting there as Sherlock surged in for one last intense kiss before pulling back and absently tucking his head against John's shoulder. "I'm having a strange craving for Branston pickle," he said. "I hate Branston pickle. Have we got any in?"
John looked out at the passing London streets; same London, same streets. "I don't know," he said. "I'll check," but Sherlock seemed to have forgotten about the pickle by the time they arrived at Baker Street. John helped him up the stairs to his room and pulled the bedclothes back; Sherlock, stiffly holding his torso, let his coat slide off his shoulders to the floor, then grimaced and began unbuttoning his shirt. John hesitated, averting his eyes--he was a doctor, for God's sake! This was his friend!--and then bit his lip and helped Sherlock undress. Sherlock crawled into bed wearing only underpants and socks. "I'll, er, get you a--" T-shirt, he was thinking, looking at the strapping, but somehow not able to put the sentence together. He went to the chest of drawers. I'll get you a t-shirt. So that you don't pull off your dressing.
"You can get me some pickle," Sherlock said, half into his pillow. "Bit of cheese, some bread if we've got it," and dazed, John went first to the kitchen and then to the nearest shop.
When he returned, he put a plate together for Sherlock and brought it to his room. Sherlock was fast asleep, mouth open, a little drool at the corner. John hesitated, then put the plate on the bedside table. Outside, he leant back against the wall and touched two fingers to his lips. Jesus, he thought. How had he missed that? Feelings were his area. Sex was his area, not that he'd had any, not lately; not since--well, damn. John closed his eyes and drifted back to the cab: Sherlock's mouth against his.
That kiss had turned him on; was still turning him on, as he thought about it. How had Sherlock known this about him, when he hadn't known himself?
Right: stupid question.
III. Artistic Soup Hurl
John decided that his best strategy was to swim with, rather than against, the tide of Sherlock's deductive genius; therefore, he bathed and shaved and wore baggy cords and the blue jumper that Sarah (or Jasmine? one of them, anyway) said brought out the colour of his eyes. He phoned for a curry, and when it came, he unpacked it carelessly and opened a Tiger. He was determined to be relaxed, natural; on autopilot. That morning, he'd finished three quarters of the crossword; now he drank his beer and worked on the rest, waiting to be stumped. It was Araucaria; it didn't take long.
Paper in hand, he went to knock on Sherlock's door; that morning, Sherlock had announced his intention to hole up all day reading the book that had come in the post from Amazon: a thick textbook written in French. From behind the door came a mumbled, "Go away," but John ignored this and knocked again. Sherlock needed interrupting; he'd been at it all day.
Finally, Sherlock yanked the door open; he was casually disheveled, shirttails hanging out and blotches of ink on his right cuff, which meant he was engaged in some serious maths.
"12 across," John said, waving the folded newspaper. "Superficially attractive deception largely after pool with promises of payment: twelve letters. Also, there's curry."
Sherlock's eyes flicked from his eyes to his jaw, to his neck, his wrist, his belt, his shoes, the paper, and then to his lips. John quickly swiped the back of his hand over his mouth, but there didn't seem to be anything untoward there. Sherlock kept staring at it though.
"Meretricious," Sherlock said, not taking his eyes off John. And then his hand seemed to move of its own accord, touching John's ear, the side of his neck, before settling on his shoulder. John held his breath. "Mere for pool, plus part of a trick and an IOU. Did you get saag lamb?"
"No. Rogan josh," John murmured, and leaned in to--
Sherlock looked away, blinked twice, and yanked his hand back. "I've run out of chlorophene," he said, shoving past him.
"Fuck," John muttered, leaning against the doorjamb.
Sherlock had already snagged his coat off the rack. "I'll need some if I'm going to get anywhere tonight. I'm just going to nip down to the shop before it closes." He paused halfway down the stairs and looked up at John. "Do you need any chemicals?"
"No, I'm full up," John replied and went to get more beer out of the fridge.
Well, that was definitive: Sherlock had obviously understood him perfectly and, for whatever reason, was having none of it. John debated provoking an argument when Sherlock returned, except what could he say that didn't sound stupid? "Oh, so you're the only one who gets to instigate kissing?" wasn't exactly winning, and "But don't you want to have sex?" was pathetic. He ate his rogan josh and turned his attention back to the crossword; 12 down: smashed up or artistic lush.
Any attempt at a Plan B was foreclosed by the sound of a second footstep on the stair: Sherlock had Mycroft in tow. John's initial thought – dear God, he'll do anything not to shag me--was banished by the pure misery of Sherlock's expression. "Look what the cat dragged in," Sherlock sighed, and if he was acting, he was making a good job of it.
Mycroft held up a plastic bag, which clinked; John knew from experience that they were likely to be ridiculously expensive bottles. Sherlock knew as well and practically snatched them from him. "Oh, curry," Mycroft said, as Sherlock went hunting for the corkscrew.
"Are we celebrating?" John asked, being somewhat facetious – celebrating was the last thing he felt like doing – but in fact, Mycroft beamed at him and nodded vigorously.
"We are, in fact. I'm aware that I all too rarely take the time to thank my little brother--"
"Whatever I did," Sherlock muttered darkly, "I already regret it."
"--but he does routinely provide a great service to this country," Mycroft said.
"Oh my God, I don't do it for the nation!" Sherlock yelled and John glanced at his watch: one minute and twenty-six seconds, which was probably a record.
Mycroft was long-practiced at ignoring these outbursts. "No saag lamb?" he asks, looking over the spread of leftover curry and taking a seat. "Never mind; I'll struggle through it." John glanced over Sherlock, who was pouring the wine, and saw him glance briefly, longingly, at the parcel he'd dropped on the sideboard when he'd walked in. Frowning, John shook his head sharply. Sherlock sighed and carefully brought over three glasses.
The wine was fantastic; the atmosphere, awkward, as it always was when Sherlock and Mycroft were in the same room. John tried to think of something to say that wouldn't immediately lead somewhere unpleasant, since Sherlock clearly didn't want to talk about whatever he had done for--or in spite of – the nation. "This wine is fantastic," he said.
"Yes," Mycroft agreed. "Amarone; I got a taste for it last time I was in Italy. Speaking of which," he said, turning to Sherlock, "her Majesty's Ambassador to the Italian Republic--"
Sherlock said savagely, "I didn't do it for the nation."
"--wishes me to thank you for--" Mycroft continued serenely.
"Or for you. I did it because it was interesting." Sherlock drained his glass and poured another.
"Yes, Sherlock," Mycroft agreed. "We know. Luckily for Italy, your interest and its interests were momentarily aligned. In consequence of which her Majesty's Ambassador has asked me to present you with--"
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Sherlock said, and let his head fall. "I've told you: I'm not interested in service or rewards or even in positive outcomes: a keen observer can find answers, but no one can predict a positive outcome unless they're a fraud or in the government--or was that redundant? I am completely uninterested in your network of mediocre dignitaries with their little favours and pats on the back and service certificates and 'would you please find Timothy a place in the foreign service?' I loathe them; I despise them; and you, most days. And her Majesty's Ambassador to the Republic of Italy in particular can go fuck himself."
"--this paperweight in the shape of a gondola," Mycroft said, producing it. "I think it would look very nice over there, by the bookcase."
"John should have let me poison you," Sherlock said, and downed another glass of wine.
"Obviously," Mycroft agreed. He handed the little boat to John; it was surprisingly heavy,and inlaid with gold. "You take it, then, for putting up with him. It's really quite unprecedented. I couldn't manage it and we grew up in the same house."
"We did not grow up in the same house," Sherlock said fervently.
Mycroft gave Sherlock a sharp look. "Don't be ridiculous," he said.
But Sherlock was addressing himself to John. "When I was eleven I discovered that my father had another family. In Worthing. Another wife, another child. A girl, I think."
"Oh," John said.
"So?" Mycroft said; he looked suddenly huffy. "It's not an uncommon practice among men of the world. The Mayor of Warrington had a second family in Birmingham. No one knew about Mitterand's daughter until after his death. It happens with sufficient frequency among our European nobility as to not be worth noting--except of course, as a matter of history--and Charles Lindbergh actually maintained four families, though obviously a man of his extraordinary talents appears only once in a generation."
The room fell silent. And then Sherlock said,"You can keep the world, Mycroft. It's all you're fit for." He got up and left. The door slammed behind him.
"Sherry?" Mycroft asked, already helping himself.
IV. Coital Rush Purist
They could probably just have gone on as usual if Molly hadn't turned up one evening wringing her hands. Sherlock had gone out, and John had taken advantage of his absence to have himself a relaxed evening at home, reading a book by the fire. He was just thinking about turning in when there was a knock at the door and Mrs. Hudson poked her head in. "It's Molly," she said, glancing over her shoulder, "and she looks ever so upset."
"Molly," John said, immediately finding himself with two armfuls of Molly Hooper. He gave her a baffled hug. She squeezed back, sort of hopping up and down. "What's wrong?"
"He's not here, is he?" Molly asked, looking around. "I--don't want want him to hear."
"No, he's not. Can I help?"
Molly bit her lip. Her hands were a blur of motion: flexing, clasping, twisting her fingers. "Oh, John, I didn't know where else to go. I'm so embarrassed. It's so embarrassing."
"It's all right," John said, using his most soothing bedside manner. "Come, sit down: can I get you something? Cup of tea, or maybe something stronger?" She shook her head, so he sat down across from the chaise. "Then take a breath and tell me what's the matter."
She took a breath. "It's my brother, Paul. He's broken up with his partner."
"I'm sorry to hear it," John replied automatically.
"And since then, I've been his--emergency contact. Oh, you know," Molly said, though in truth John had absolutely no idea. She covered her face with her hands. "His safety call. His phone-a-friend. His panic line. You know: 'If I'm not back by 11:30 call the police.'"
It was getting a bit clearer now. "You mean, like on a date?" John asked.
"On a date or, you know: whatever. Singles night. Grindr." She smiled apologetically and flung her arm about. "Paul's done the same for me; after Jim, you know, I thought--better to take precautions. I haven't exactly got the best taste in men," she sighed. "They're all married or gay or psychopaths: sometimes two out of the three."
"Yeah." John shuddered; they'd all been taken in by "Jim."
"See, I knew you'd understand," Molly said, abruptly grabbing his hand. "You know what men are like," and John blinked and said, "Wait, no, I'm not commiserating; I mean, I am, just--" but what Molly said next stopped him: "I think it's a sex club. Where he went."
"Somewhere in Shoreditch. Oh, John, he said for sure he'd check in by ten." She looked at her watch, and John glanced at the wall clock: it was creeping up to midnight.
"Er," John said, and coughed, "if it is a sex club, his mind, er--may well be on other things."
Molly shook her head. "He was, like, madly insistent about it. It's a new place; he's never been there. Just--we hadn't exactly fixed up what to do if he didn't call." She looked at John helplessly. "It's never happened before. He always calls when he says."
John pinched the bridge of his nose. "And I assume he's not answering his phone."
"No," Molly said. "But I've got the address. I thought, you know: we could go down there. Check things out. I just didn't want to go alone--"
"You shouldn't go there at all," John said, standing. "If it's nothing," John blanched at the thought of having his sister turn up when he was, er, compromised, "best to let him apologise in the morning. If it's something--well, we are going to have a firm plan. If you don't hear from me within the hour, I want you to ring this number and tell DI Lestrade that John Watson needs his help." John texted her the number; she pulled out her phone and texted him the club's address. "And a photo," John told her, "if you've got one."
She had. Sitting in the cab, John studied the picture on his mobile: Paul looked like Molly, with more freckles--or less makeup, he supposed. The address was more Hoxton than Shoreditch, a grotty narrow building wedged into a run-down street, impossible to find if not for the square painted sign above a flight of descending stone stairs: Belle Reprieve, with an arrow pointing downward to a low brick archway.
Telling the cab to wait, he went down the stone steps, old and worn hollow in the middle. A few feet along the dank walkway he found a latch and walked into a long, low, poorly-lit room. A bar ran along one wall, and even at this hour, there were customers: men leaning against it, drinking, arms around each other's waists, hands in each other's pockets. John averted his eyes but the view on the other side was even worse. Along this wall ran the heavy old timber frame of stables. The stalls, partly enclosed, filled with heavy leather seats, seemed partly designed for privacy and partly for―well, either voyeurism or exhibitionism, John couldn't quite tell. Through the gloom, John dimly caught a glimpse of bodies lying in strange fantastic poses: bowed shoulders, bent knees, heads thrown back.
He turned away quickly and went over to the bar.
He waved the barman over, held up his phone and said, in his softest, most authoritative voice: "Have you seen him?" The barman stared into John's eyes for a moment and then jerked his chin toward the back of the club. "Third door."
"Alone?" John asked.
"No," the barman said, but then added: "No one to worry about." Now it was John's turn to look hard at the bartender, but he seemed truthful enough: maybe even a little amused.
"Thanks," John said, and went back. He paused to debate the merits of knocking vs. the merits of surprise, then steeled himself and flung open the door.
Thankfully, the scene that met his eyes was relatively tame: Paul Hooper was sitting on a bench with one wrist cuffed and chained to the wall, but he was fully dressed aside from his unzipped trousers. Across from him sat a smirking young man in an armchair, one leg jauntily crossed over the other. They both started in surprise at the sight of John. "Oh thank God," Paul Hooper said, just as the other man said, "Excuse me, this room is--"
"Tell this unbelievable wankstain to unlock me, will you?" Paul Hooper demanded.
The wankstain in question relaxed back into his chair and said, in an smarmy, we're-all-men-of-the-world-here tone, "Ignore him; this is just our little game--"
"Like fuck it is!" Paul rattled his chain. "This arsehole's kept me in here for hours!"
"And you know exactly what you need to do to--" but John strode over and hauled him up, out of his chair; he'd heard just about enough of this twattery.
"Where's the key?" John asked, searching his pockets.
"And my phone, he's got my phone," Paul said urgently. "iPhone, green neon cover. Mate, I don't know who you are but I love you."
"I love you, too," the wanker said, fluttering his eyelashes as John searched his pockets. "You're more fun than he is--"
"Oh, fuck off!" Paul Hooper shouted.
"Just shut up," John said, finding Paul's phone in his jacket pocket. The handcuff key, sadly, was in his front jeans pocket. John sighed and fished it out while the wanker writhed and moaned. "You'll be lucky if he doesn't press charges."
The wanker rolled his eyes. "He'd have to admit that he'd been here."
"I'd have to admit that I know you! That's the real problem--"
"Just get out." John grabbed him by the collar and shoved him out the door, then went over to unlock Paul. His wrist was badly chafed. "I'm a friend of your sister's. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Paul said, going pale. "Oh God. She must be going mental."
"She is a bit, yeah." He gave Paul his phone back. "You should phone her straight away. Come on, I've got this taxi waiting."
"Seriously, mate," Paul said fervently, as they headed out through the bar, "I owe you one. If you ever need anybody killed or anything," and John grinned and looked away--and immediately looked back at Paul again, smile frozen in place, because--well.
Something in him went on autopilot. "Paul," he said, putting a hand on Paul's shoulder, "don't judge me, but I think I might stay for a drink. I need to ride out the adrenaline rush--you know: one way or another." He smiled and tilted his head toward the booths.
He could see Paul putting it together, debating offering to stay, deciding that it wasn't his company that was wanted. "I--yeah, of course." He rubbed his wrist. "Thanks – or, I don't know – whatever you say when someone uncuffs you from a wall! Thank fuck Molly has some proper mates." He gave John a last, embarrassed smile, then went out.
John went straight to the bar. "Pint of IPA," he said, and drank half of it straight off to calm his nerves. He sat at right angles to the bar and made himself concentrate on drinking. Because if he looked too far to the left, he might see something in the giant, gilt-framed mirror hanging behind the bar, and if he looked to the right, he might see--
slouched deep in the oxblood leather, arms hanging over the chair's sides in a languid pose John had seen literally hundreds of times, except now someone was kneeling between the carelessly sprawled legs; John saw hands, pale fingers spread against the black twill fabric of his trousers, a blond head moving slow and steady in his lap.
John closed his eyes as he took another long draught of beer. Nothing to see--
except he's arching back and clutching the blond's head, fingers gripping his hair, yanking him down, hips shoving up up up--
"Cunting cunting hell," John heard himself say, and before he even consciously understood that he was angry, he had clanked his glass to the bar and gone to stand, cross-armed and glowering, over Sherlock as he came. He was beyond angry, actually. He was enraged.
For a great detective, it took Sherlock a surprisingly long time to grasp the situation. He lay there, panting and blinking up at John, for a while before saying, finally, "Er, hello."
"What the fuck are you doing?" It was none of his business. He couldn't care less.
"John, this is--I don't know who this is." The blond lurched across the stall to put himself together; he fumbled around for a drink and took a swig, straightening his oversized collar: apparently trying to look like he hadn't just been sucking Sherlock's cock. He gave John an awkward smile and then looked meaningfully at Sherlock, who only frowned at him and said, "Sorry, does there need to be talking now? I like your shirt. Now fuck off."
He immediately fucked off, much to John's relief. "Have you gone totally off your rocker?" John demanded. "What are you pratting about with here?" He was shouting stupid things he didn't mean, letting his anger ride him, he couldn't stop. "He could be anyone!"
Sherlock rolled his eyes and zipped up. "He's clearly a graphic designer from Luton, Polish mum, with a fiancee who's only now beginning to get the idea that he's--"
John wanted to punch him. "You could get a disease."
Sherlock was looking at him strangely. "The chances of my getting AIDS from him are infinitesimal, and I know I'm clean so no moral issue there. Look, I like this place: someone's always willing to give you a blowjob and you can get a very good glass of Malbec for less than a tenner: it's the deal of the century. What on earth are you doing here?"
"Can't you deduce?" John asked bitterly.
Sherlock tilted his head to one side, but had the good grace not to launch into a detailed explanation of his deductions, though John had no doubt he'd know everything. "Not looking for me," he murmured finally. "An unhappy coincidence. Shall we go?"
Sherlock had some local minicab firm on account. John sat in the back and fumed.
Sherlock was frowning out the window. "You're really angry."
"No," John said shortly, to shut down the conversation.
Sherlock managed to hold his tongue for two whole minutes. "You're not even gay."
"No," John said. "No. I wasn't."
V. Courtship Rituals
"This is intolerable," Sherlock said, bursting into John's room a few days later. John put down the book he was reading and stood up, resisting being cornered. Sherlock was pacing to and fro before his armchair. "It's worse than the situation I was trying to avoid!"
"Which was what?" John asked neutrally, eyeing the door; he'd be happier having this conversation – any conversation with Sherlock, really--in a larger, more neutral space.
"Fucking you," Sherlock said. John stopped like he'd been clocked. "And now you're holed up in here, where you're of no earthly use to me, and I'm wasting brain space on it!" Sherlock gestured wildly, as if his head might explode. "Can you believe it?"
"Actually, I can't." John needed a cup of--no, what he really needed was a drink. Whiskey would do it. He headed down to the kitchen, Sherlock following, talking and talking.
"No, look, it's a terrible idea," Sherlock said, proving yet again that he always knew what John was thinking. "It's not even particularly clever of me to think so. It's common wisdom; there're aphorisms about it. 'Don't shit on your own doorstep--'"
"Were you going to shit on me, then?" John slopped some whiskey into a tumbler.
"Don't be stupid. You write that blog, you smooth my way with the police and witnesses, you contribute the occasional astute observation to our cases. You point out the wrong thing, which helps me see the right one. You're a doctor who doesn't mind causing injury, or even death where appropriate. You get all the shopping! You do the boring bits of the crossword so that I get only the good clues. You know when to shut up--"
"--oh my God, are these human hands?" John asked, fascinated and revolted.
"So why would I ever want to risk--yes, of course they're human hands." Sherlock said.
"Right." John took a swig of whiskey. "Royal College of Surgeons?"
"London Anatomy Office," Sherlock replied. "I thought you might help me examine them."
"Give you a hand, you mean?" John asked cheerfully.
"John," Sherlock said raggedly, and John stopped.
"It's all right," John said quietly. "I get what you're saying; I do. This isn't a friendship I want to risk either. Odd as it is, it's vital to me. You are. Our whole arrangement. It's a new life for me, and a better one. And anyway," he added, gingerly moving one of the hands into a dissecting tray with tongs."I don't want to fuck you; it would make my complaints banal."
"I do want to fuck you," Sherlock muttered; the words sounded ripped out of him. "I didn't at first, but that was stupid: theorising before data. I didn't know you, I hadn't read the papers. Forums. Twitter. Oh No They Didn't. Everyone said; everyone--oh, people are morons individually," he said, answering John's incredulous look, "but they do sometimes get it right in aggregate."
"You're crowdsourcing the decision to fuck me?" John was incredulous.
"No! I'm trying to explain that I--wanted to. I stopped myself; the risk simply wasn't--the numbers--fuck," Sherlock swore as John mimed theatrical levels of interest in this new and exciting combinatory mathematics of shagonics. "You're making this very difficult."
"You're a twunt," John replied sincerely, and Sherlock kissed him, thrusting a hand into John's hair, angling their mouths together, pressing him back against the table. They stumbled; there was a clatter of surgical tools; something fell over. John ignored it and flung an arm around Sherlock's shoulders, yanking him closer, locking them together. Sherlock seemed electrically alive in his arms, raw current surging through him, and John felt himself helplessly turning on, lighting up. Sherlock palmed his erection and sighed contentedly when John moaned, which made John break out into disruptive giggles.
They broke apart. Sherlock stared at him, unsure.
"Data," John explained, grinning, and gestured down at his cock. Sherlock cracked up and said, "Well, yes."
"Anything else you'd," John began, just as Sherlock said, "I wasn't sure you'd-- I mean, you said you were--" "I was," John said. "I thought I was. Stupid. Theorising without--" He slid his hand over the soft-hard bulge in Sherlock's underpants, his mind flooding with the image of Sherlock's head rolling back, lost in orgasm, and him the cause of it.
"Yes," Sherlock said, and then, shockingly: "Please touch me."
John felt lightheaded. "Yes," he said, and began roughly fondling Sherlock through his clothes.
Sherlock's eyelashes fluttered, breath speeding into ragged, hitching gasps. John bit back a moan as Sherlock frantically shoved down his underpants, spilling his cock into John's hands before reaching for John's zip. Dumbfounded, John stroked Sherlock's warm, silky cock, squeezed his tightening balls; he'd never touched another man before: not like this. "I think," John began--and gasped, because Sherlock's hands were on him, Christ, so good: kneading and pulling and squeezing, his brains leaking out of his ears – "I think we should go somewhere," John managed to get out. "Quickly. Before I fall down."
But it was Sherlock who was falling. John made a panicked grab before he realised that Sherlock had deliberately gone to his knees and was now sloppily mouthing his cock. "Oh God," John said, in a voice higher and a bit more hysterical than was properly sexy, but Sherlock's mouth was wet and moving over him, working-- John flailed, looking for something to hold on to, but Sherlock caught hold of his open hand and brought it to his head, coaxing him to – Jesus: Sherlock's eyes were on his, mutely pleading – fuck his face.
He didn't think he could do that, but he was already stroking Sherlock's cheek with his thumb, and his cock was already filling Sherlock's mouth. "I--can't," he whispered, but Sherlock coaxed him to it, petting his thighs, encouraging him to rock and tilt his hips, and then he felt the delicious drag of Sherlock's lips and stopped thinking. His fingers knotted in Sherlock's hair and he thrust helplessly, encouraged by Sherlock's moans and the way his throat opened, in and out, fuck, wanting, wanting-- He shouted and came in Sherlock's mouth, his whole body vibrating. Sherlock clutched his hips hard enough to leave bruises, then, pulled off and pressed his cheek against John's softening, glistening cock.
"Come upstairs," John said softly; shaken, and Sherlock nodded and followed John into his room. John looked at his book, lying abandoned next to the armchair: fifteen minutes ago he'd been reading. Now Sherlock was standing before him, lips swollen, trousers buttoned but not zipped, watching him carefully for cues.
John took off his clothes. Jumper. Shirt. Jeans and underpants together. Sherlock's eyes flicked over him – over and over him – gathering information, making inferences; concluding. More data, John thought, and felt his face crack into a smile.
Sherlock eyes immediately snapped to his face. "What?"
John raised his arms – half answer (go on: look) and half surrender – and then went to Sherlock and started unbuttoning his shirt. He'd seen Sherlock's body, he lived with the man, and tended to him, but he'd never really looked: not like a lover would look. Now he tugged the shirt down the pale shoulders, noting a spray of freckles. Light brown chest hair: so light as to be nearly invisible. A slight softness at the belly. John's throat closed as he skimmed his hands over Sherlock's smooth, cool flesh; so strange to be able to acknowledge this want. He tilted his head up slightly and Sherlock's mouth caught his.
They kissed for a long time, stumbling to sit on John's bed and then falling down, over, mouths still pressed together. John was surprised to find himself on top, pushing Sherlock down onto the bed. He rubbed his cheek, hard, against Sherlock's, and felt his beard burn, the sharp angles of his cheekbones, his jaw. Then he kissed him again; hard, deep.
Sherlock was hard against his thigh. "Er, look," John said, wanting to move things along, but suddenly all too aware of his limitations, "I don't really know what I'm doing, all right?"
Sherlock squinted up at him, his face flushed against John's white sheets.
John bit his lip. "Obviously, I'm hoping that willing will go a long--"
"You don't know anything about detective work either," Sherlock said. "Hasn't stopped you. Which is to say, anything you fancy throwing in would be―fuck, just let me touch you," and then Sherlock's hands were stroking down his back, over his arse, gripping the backs of his thighs: John couldn't ever remember anyone touching him there before. Then Sherlock rolled over him, on top of him, and buried his face in John's neck. He rubbed his prick frantically against John, then groaned and came on his stomach.
John rubbed the back of his fingers against Sherlock's hair, overcome by tenderness. He let himself enjoy it--the warm weight of Sherlock's body, their entangled legs – while waiting for Sherlock to recover from his post-coital collapse and shrug him off. But Sherlock didn't, and didn't, and just when John assumed that he'd fallen asleep, and was on the verge of drifting off himself, sticky as he was, Sherlock murmured, "I'm staying, all right?"
"Mm-hm," John said, trying for noncommittal, but he had to look away to hide his smile. "Here," he said, shifting to tug the duvet up over their legs. "Why don't you..."
"Wait." Sherlock carelessly wiped John's belly and his cock with what John pretended not to notice was his t-shirt, then threw all of their clothes onto the floor. "Lamp," he said, stretching awkwardly over John to switch it off.
"Ow," John said, into the darkness. "You're on my--"
"Sorry," Sherlock said, and moved the wrong way.
"Hand. Wait." John yanked it free. "Okay, here," he said, tugging the covers up. "Get under," and Sherlock settled beside him--abnormally, astoundingly close, snugged up hard against his left side--and tucked John's pillow under his head. "Good--" Sherlock dropped a single, brusque kiss onto his shoulder. John's throat closed up. "G-goodnight," he managed.
Sherlock mumbled something back in reply. John closed his eyes, the kiss burning on his shoulder. And then-- "Oh, bollocks," Sherlock groaned.
"The hands," John said, opening his eyes. "You've got to--"
"Leave them." Sherlock put the pillow over his head. "We'll throw them away in the--"
"Human hands? On the table, rotting all ni---I'm not having it." John switched on the lamp and swung his legs out of bed. Sherlock growled and put the pillow over his head.
"You do it, then. I'm sure you've got it well--"
"--in hand?" John snatched up the pillow. "Evil bastard. You should keep your hands to yourself."
Sherlock sighed but got up, rudely commandeering John's dressing gown. "Fine. Consider it handled."
"On the other hand," John said, pulling on a pair of shorts, "many hands--"
"God, I hate you," Sherlock said, and stomped downstairs.
John followed, and cleared up some stray mugs and plates while Sherlock packed the hands into a coolbox. "I can't believe they sent you a box of hands. Jesus."
Sherlock shrugged. "They're only second-hand. And I'm an old hand at--"
"Oooh, a last minute rally: four-three. Seriously: what'd you want a box of hands for?"
"I didn't, in this case," Sherlock replied irritably. "They sent them to me. It's a dare disguised as a request for help: they say they want me to help establish practices for identifying the indigent dead, but what they really want is for me to get these IDs wrong."
John smiled. "But you won't."
"No. I won't," Sherlock agreed. "I'm an old hand at--"
"You did that one already," John objected.
"It's not the game, it's true. I've made an extensive study of hands: hands are possibly the most revealing parts of the body. So they've--well, played into my hands. No, I'm serious! In any case, I welcome your input, you might see something I--" Sherlock frowned down at the table. "I've only got nine, that can't be right. Where's the one you--"
"Are you asking for my hand?" John asked sweetly, and Sherlock broke up laughing against the worktop. His dressing gown fell open. John grinned at him.
"No!" Sherlock shouted at him and then: "Yes! I'm asking for your hand: I'm putty in your hands, you've got the upper hand, whip hand, I come to you cap in hand, just please, for fuck's sake--"
"You're bloody fantastic," John said.