“Love is an endless mystery, for it has nothing else to explain it.” Rabindranath Tagore
No, I don’t understand the meaning of love,
I do not mind if I die trying.
Maroon 5, “How”
It begins after a case, before the tedium sets in but after the inevitable dim sum and monologue about which violin piece will be played deep into the night. Sherlock isn’t at all put off when John deems Ode to Joy “a tad melodramatic”.
“I have to say, as murders go that one was fairly entertaining,” Sherlock says as they arrive at the flat, and John doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. “I just wish the motive weren’t so...pedestrian. Jealous lover, boring! You’d think someone that aesthetically challenged would be able to cope with his girlfriends leaving him for younger men. A crime that brilliant is wasted on such a mundane purpose, not to mention such a vapid woman.”
“‘Love is an endless mystery’,” quotes John idly, reaching for his keys. He almost misses the moment when Sherlock’s eyes light up.
“John, you are a genius!” he announces, before pausing. “Well, no, but once again you have inspired me to my best.”
John opens the door, and raises an eyebrow. “Are you going to let me in on it this time?”
“Love, John! I have to fall in love!”
Of all the things Sherlock could have said, John is fairly certain that is the most shocking. Which, within that category, is fairly impressive.
“Not sure your wife’ll be too happy with that,” he quips.
“Work. Pfft.” Sherlock makes a vaguely annoyed hand gesture. “Work is fickle, sometimes all-embracing but frequently frigid and predictable. Love, on the other hand... You said it yourself, love is an endless mystery.”
“Sherlock, it wasn’t actually me who said that.”
“What does it matter? You, Shakespeare, Molly Hooper’s cat... If love is an endless mystery, that means that if I fall in love, I will never be bored again!”
John laughs, booting up his laptop and settling down to type up the case. “Sherlock, that is ridiculous. You really have no idea, do you? That might be true at first, but proper long-term love basically comes down to who sleeps on which side of the bed, and whose turn it is to get the shopping. It’s pretty mundane when the hormones die down.”
“Which you would know, having had plenty of relationships that have lasted for more than two months,” Sherlock retorts. “Beside, that wouldn’t be true in my case.” He strides towards his room. “You see, John, my true love won’t let it become like that. He will know that I need to be kept engaged, and will make it his mission always to surprise me so that the mystery never dies.”
There is so much wrong with that sentiment that John doesn’t know where to begin, so he sidesteps the perils of correcting Sherlock by asking, “Wait a minute, he?”
Sherlock sweeps back in, dressing gown covering his still-bloodstained shirt. He pulls it round himself with a slight pout. “Of course he. You know that. You said it was fine.”
“Yes. Yes, I did. But the overall impression I got from that conversation wasn’t that you were gay as a hatter, but that you were asexual with a slight preference for serial killers.”
Sherlock chuckles. “Oh, John, I wish I knew how your mind worked. You make cast-iron connections between data that aren’t even there!”
“Okay, so I assume a vast intellect is on the list of desired qualities in your true love?” John studiously opens a Word document to catalogue the list, but manages to stop himself from typing anything beyond the title “Sherlock’s Man of (endless) Mystery”.
“Naturally. Along with devastating good looks and a healthy inclination towards rebellion.”
“Right. Right, of course. Your ideal man is yourself.”
Sherlock raises an eyebrow. “Contrary to popular opinion, I am not that vain. My ideal man is very like me, of course, but that’s necessary for a couple to be compatible. No, John, I prefer my men short.”
“So the only way in which you would differentiate your true love from yourself is by height.”
“Yes. Physical attraction is very important for a romantic relationship, and I can’t be attracted to someone –”
“You can’t look down on?” John chuckles and types “low self-esteem” on his document.
“What are you writing?” Sherlock leans over and has a look. “This is not a laughing matter, John. This is my key to a life of boundless excitement. Delete that and your ridiculous title and stop wasting time. I am going to present you with the features of my ideal match, and you are going to turn it into an online dating profile.”
“I like the title,” John mutters. And then, “Wait. Online dating? I thought you’d rather meet someone in person.”
“Why? It has been said that people tend to like me until they meet me. If I can get to know them online first, they are far less likely to take against me.”
“But surely your one true love wouldn’t be put off.” John makes sure he puts a mocking lilt in his voice. “And wouldn’t you have more fun meeting someone and deducing everything about him? You’d be able to tell instantly how compatible you are.”
“John, I am working towards a lifetime of figuring out everything about my lover. It’s not worth wasting my time on an endless stream of nobodies. Or even worse, flirting with strangers.” He wrinkles his nose in distaste.
“Right, of course. No blind dates for you, then.”
“Obviously not. He would need perfect vision in order to help me identify evidence.”
John has absolutely no idea whether Sherlock is joking until he sees the start of a smirk. “Hah bloody hah. You really think I’m going to be able to write you a profile that doesn’t make you sound like the tosser you truly are?”
“Of course you are.” Sherlock stretches himself out on the sofa and steeples his fingers. “You are my blogger, after all. Practically a professional fanatic. Besides, although your approach to the content generally leaves something to be desired, your writing is competent enough for the task at hand.”
“Professionals get paid,” John points out. “Right, what are your best qualities, then? I honestly can’t think of anything.”
By the time the profile is complete, the laptop has been forcibly shut down three times, Sherlock has paced from the window to the kitchen table forty-six times, and John has acquired a splitting headache. Sherlock, however, is positively beaming, and downloads the Match.com app.
When John comes in for breakfast in the morning, Sherlock is still perched on the arm of the sofa, pressing buttons apparently at random on his phone.
“No.” Sherlock is practically growling, and glares at his phone as if it has just confessed a crime to Scotland Yard before Sherlock has even got to the scene.
“Well, you did ask for people in greater London, and I imagine that most of them have been asleep for the past six hours, at least.” John puts the kettle on and turns on the computer. “What do you reckon for yesterday’s case, then? “Poker Face”?”
Sherlock gives John a look not unlike the one he’s been giving his phone. “Excuse me?”
“A title. Because he jammed fire pokers through their temples?”
“You’re boring me, John. Bor-ing. I thought you were making tea?” He drops his phone and reaches for John’s laptop.
“I was using that!”
“No, you weren’t, you were in the kitchen. Perhaps there’s a problem with the app. I’d like to use a proper browser instead.”
“No, no, no, you are not spending the day using my laptop to find men. I have a case to write up, and you have that shipment of human thumbs from Molly waiting in the morgue.”
“I’m not trying to find men, John; I am trying to find the man.”
John stirs the tea a bit too hard and his spoon hits the edge of the mug loudly. “Because it worked out so well with the woman,” he mutters.
Sherlock makes no indication that he has heard. “No responses. None. For me.”
John brings over his tea. “Perhaps all the eligible men in London are intimidated by your devastating good looks and extremely witty and incisive profile.”
“Please, John, the writing style clearly won’t have come into it. A tricolon crescendo is the way to precisely nobody’s heart.”
“Says the man who frequently refuses clients on the basis of their grammatical prowess. Can I have that back now, please?”
“Murder. We’re going out.”
Sherlock relays the basic information to John in the cab: young woman stabbed repeatedly at home, no sign of forced entry. It sounds quite banal – not that John ever thought he’d think of a murder that way. His impression is reinforced by the fact that Sherlock seems far more interested in Match.com than in the case.
“One new notification,” he informs John proudly as they pull up at the scene.
They have the pleasure of bumping into Donovan almost immediately. “Oh, here he is, right on time. Couldn’t resist a sneaky peek at a corpse, could you?”
“Good morning, Sergeant Donovan, nice perfume. Black Orchid, I believe. I wonder for whose benefit you are wearing it?”
“Don’t mind him,” says John, “he’s a bit keyed up this morning. Stayed up all night on the internet.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Really? Wouldn’t have pegged him for the type. Necrophilia sites easy to come by?”
“Worse than that,” John replies darkly.
“Come on, John, the body won’t stay fresh forever!” Sherlock calls, and John follows obediently, leaving Donovan to her speculations.
Lestrade is giving Sherlock the basic details when John catches up. “Caucasian female, twenty-five, lived in this house her whole life, inherited it from her parents three years ago when they died in a car crash. Locks weren’t forced, killer must have been someone she knew. Can’t get hold of any of her siblings. Neighbour heard a commotion and called 999 but the killer was gone by the time someone got here.”
Sherlock narrows his eyes. “What’s interesting about it? There must be something out of the ordinary or you wouldn’t have called me.”
“Well, we don’t have any leads to go on, and...”
“She’s got siblings, none of whom are answering their phones. I said interesting, Lestrade.”
Lestrade opens his mouth again, and Sherlock raises an accusing eyebrow. “Either you’re feeling unusually lazy this morning, or you’ve finally decided to admit to your inferiority when it comes to criminal matters, or someone else has got involved. Who was it? Mycroft?”
“Okay, John texted me last night and said you’d embarked on something stupid, and could I let you in on a case sooner rather than later.”
John stands his ground under Sherlock’s threatening gaze. “We’ve just dealt with three private clients back to back, and I know you like a chance to belittle the professionals.”
“‘Embarked on something stupid’?” Sherlock pulls out his phone and shows three new notifications on his app. “The love of my life is stupid? John, do you care at all about my happiness?”
“Wait a second, love of your life? What’s he on about?” Lestrade seems to be waiting for John to translate.
John just shakes his head, since the whole idea is basically insane. “Sherlock has decided that if he falls in love, he’ll never be bored again.”
“That’s bollocks,” replies Lestrade. “I spend every minute with my wife bored out of my mind.”
“You spend hardly any time with your wife, and the boredom is probably because she’s no longer in love with you in return. I am looking for true love, someone who wouldn’t cheat on me with a lawyer, a PE teacher and two tree surgeons.”
“That’s because only a coroner would touch someone you’re interested in,” Donovan adds from the doorway.
Anderson chuckles in response, and Lestrade calls over, “Sensitivity training next week, you two!”
John turns to face Sherlock, folding his arms and squaring his shoulders. “Look. I’m not saying you’ll never find someone you love enough to forget what it’s like to be bored. I’m just saying that without this case, you would have spent the whole day in your dressing gown on the sofa pining like a Victorian heroine and refreshing Match.com every five minutes. On balance, I decided that obsessing over a corpse is probably the better option, or at least more productive.”
Sherlock nods. “Fine. But if this is solved within twelve hours, you are buying dinner and picking up my thumbs from Barts.”
Ten hours later, Sherlock is waiting for his experiment on the dry rot in the victim’s attic to be complete when his phone beeps and he calls out, “John! John, I have a date!”
“That’s nice,” John replies from the living room. “Be back before midnight and make sure you use protection.”
“What kind of degenerate do you take me for?” Sherlock asks, leaning against the kitchen table with his arms folded. “We will have dinner, I will work out whether we are meant to be, and I will be home by eleven to check on the dry rot results.”
“Surely,” John begins jokingly, “if you meet your true love, you will be so wrapped up in each other that you won’t be obsessing over dry rot.”
“Don’t be preposterous; he will respect the work and appreciate its priority.”
“Right, of course.” John re-opens the Word document where he started the list of qualities for Sherlock’s man, and adds that to the end. “That’s twenty criteria now.”
“I am hardly going to choose just anybody,” Sherlock responds proudly. “Now get your coat, we’re meeting him in Mayfair.”
John shuts the lid on his laptop before he realises. “Wait, what, we?”
“Nice alliteration,” Sherlock smirks. “I maintain that if writing style were a recognised fetish, you would have had far more romantic success.”
John tries again. “Why am I coming with you?”
“And he follows up with a rhetorical question, lovely.”
“Not rhetorical, Sherlock. Why am I coming on your date? I can’t exactly afford to go out for dinner again this week.”
“Because, John. You’ve dated people. Incredibly unsuccessfully, but you have been on dates. You have also managed to sustain relationships, albeit short-term ones, on the foundation of said dates. I therefore believe that you can offer valuable input.”
“I’m pretty sure my seduction techniques won’t be necessary for someone with your cheekbones,” John says with a grin as he pulls on his coat.
“I don’t need you to tell me what to do.” Sherlock ties his scarf and puts his phone in his pocket. “I need you to tell me how the other person feels about me.”
“And you can’t do that with your amazing deductive skills?”
“The problem is flirting, John. I cannot abide flirting, nor can I decipher it unless it is as blindingly obvious as when it comes from Molly Hooper. You, on the other hand, spend a lot of time flirting and being flirted with.”
“Are you saying you need my help?”
Sherlock ignores his question completely and gestures for a cab. “In addition, if my date makes an attempt to assault me, the presence of someone with military experience will be greatly reassuring.”
John does laugh, then, long and loud, because if anyone can hold his own against an inept internet sex pest, it’s Sherlock. “You’re nervous. You could have just said.” They get into the taxi. “You’re paying for my dinner, though. I will keep the bill and you can reimburse me when the cheque from Poker Face clears.”
“I still think that’s a stupid name.”
“So’s Sherlock bloody Holmes,” John mutters as they pull away.
The date, it turns out, is a bit less exciting than dry rot. If John’s being charitable, he’d describe Thomas’s frame as stocky and his hair as dark auburn. He’s not feeling particularly charitable, so he goes for “fat ginger”, and glowers at him from two tables away. However, it seems that Sherlock is similarly unimpressed: by the time John’s starter arrives – quite late on, his waitress has apparently been put off by the glaring – he has received no fewer than twenty texts from Sherlock detailing observations about Thomas’s “poor grammar”, “banal anecdotes” and “evident hypochondria brought on by his father’s late-diagnosed cancer”.
In spite of this obvious disdain, John’s stomach twists a little when Sherlock tilts his head almost coquettishly and licks his risotto spoon. It doesn’t help that he’s been on the receiving end of a lot of sympathetic looks for dining alone: he must admit that it probably does look as if he’s only playing with his phone in order to appear popular. Eventually, though, Thomas goes to the loo, and Sherlock appears in the seat opposite.
“This is tedious,” he announces, taking a bite of John’s mushroom polenta.
“Why are you still here, then?”
“Practice. I need to hone my dating conversational skills so that I don’t put off my true love when I meet him.”
“I thought,” says John, snatching back his fork and gesturing Sherlock towards the unused cutlery on the other side of the table, “that your true love would accept you just the way you are, and wouldn’t expect you to conform to the conventions of dinner date conversation. Besides, you tend to stay off politics and religion anyway.”
“Yes, but even you, who are actually my friend, find me to be at times...lacking in propriety.”
“Yeah, but it’s part of the package, isn’t it? Sherlock Holmes, completely oblivious to the existence of Primark, Jeremy Kyle, and basic manners.”
Sherlock’s expression changes to the special brand of irritation he reserves for someone who has underestimated him. “I am well aware of Primark, thank you very much: a number of cases rest on minute clothing fibres, and their quality can be pivotal. There is an article on my website detailing the tensile strength of denim from a range of sources.”
John nods and has his fork almost to his mouth when realisation strikes. “Is that why there’s a hole in my favourite jeans?”
“The hole is from the fall you took pursuing that suspect through the Tottenham Court Road building site. I merely enlarged it.”
“Just out of interest, will I get an unexpected answer if I ask you to replace them?”
“Probably not, no.” Sherlock makes an irritated noise when he realises the polenta is finished, and takes a gulp of John’s drink instead, then winces. “This is horrible, John, is it grapefruit juice? I thought you had far better taste than that.”
John tries not to laugh at the fact that a man who will happily beat up a corpse is so disgusted by juice. “I don’t have to have a bucket of sugar in everything I drink. Which is why, with the army out of the way, I am not going to die young. Unlike some people.”
“I eat far less than you do, therefore am less likely to succumb to obesity and its myriad effects.”
“Yes, it’s a toss-up between that and the lethal cocktail of nicotine, fortnightly binges on Chinese food, and a predilection for serial killers.”
“You’re right, I’ll probably die first.”
They pause, and John ventures, “This really isn’t the kind of thing you talk about on dates. Just so you’re clear.”
“Perfectly. Ah, Timothy, you’re back.”
“Thomas,” corrects John, and Thomas glares at him.
“Who’s this? I pop out for five minutes and see you sharing some other bloke’s food.”
“I’m his flatmate,” John says diplomatically. “Sherlock asked me to come along just in case. Better safe than sorry with these internet things; I’m sure you agree. Dr John Watson.” He holds out his hand but Thomas ignores him.
“Flatmate, eh? One bedroom or two?” he asks icily.
“Two, obviously,” Sherlock replies. “Not that you’ll be getting to see either after your rudeness, and your frankly soporific conversation. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to be having my meal over here, I think.”
Thomas glares. “I’ll bring your food over, then, shall I?” He practically sprints to their table, grabs Sherlock’s risotto, and pours it straight down the front of Sherlock’s suit.
Three waitresses descend on them at this point, and Thomas mutters something about lying bastards while they practically throw napkins at Sherlock and apologise profusely.
John says diplomatically, “To be fair, I’d have probably done the same, but it would have been more effective if the food had still been piping hot,” and at this point Sherlock takes a large gulp of grapefruit juice and starts to list all the ways in which his true love would have handled the situation better. This culminates with, “And he would have felt comfortable enough wiping food from my lap that I wouldn’t have to have a shameless waitress groping away down there under the pretext of decent customer service,” which gets the two of them kicked out of the place moments later.
Sherlock at least has the decency to pay for the three unfinished meals, and John is feeling amused and charitable enough to pay their cab fare home. That is, until they actually manage to find a cab: the driver takes one look at the stains and remaining pieces of rice down Sherlock’s front and moves off. Four failed attempts later, it seems clear that London cabbies think risotto bears an alarming resemblance to vomit. Judging by the smell and how little Sherlock deigned to eat of it in the first place, that may not have been entirely unfounded.
“Not your true love, then,” John concludes as they start the walk to Piccadilly Circus tube.
“No, apparently not.” Sherlock smiles back, and it becomes a broad grin. “But wasn’t that fun?”
The dry rot gets them nowhere, and the second day is full of following fruitless leads.
“Her nail polish? Utterly idiotic. Atomic Orange is a disturbingly common colour and that brand is used by practically every salon within five miles of the house.” John refrains from asking precisely how many salons that is, largely because he’s certain Sherlock would actually know, and that idea is more than a little disturbing.
Besides, Sherlock seems more entertained by sending messages to an plethora of potential dates, from Albie, forty, a city worker with a handlebar moustache (amusement at which, John hopes, is the only reason Sherlock has responded), to Jeremy, twenty-four, who confesses to having “got around a bit” before he decided to join the priesthood. He insists that since he’s not Catholic, anything goes, and Sherlock seems entertained by the paradox for about forty minutes. When John has talked him out of a range of similarly inappropriate prospects, Sherlock goes to bed in a huff, and on the third day seems far more intent on the murder investigation. Sadly, after an optimistic morning in which Sherlock insists on trying on at least fourteen different disguises, they discover that the neighbour is smart enough to notice that the photo on Lestrade’s badge looks absolutely nothing like Sherlock, however much talc he tries to streak through his hair.
Sherlock decides this can only be a bad sign, but without Scotland Yard “getting their act together and just accepting that I’m right!” he can get no further on that line of enquiry, having set off the burglar alarms twice in his subsequent attempts to break in to the house. Instead, he throws himself into messaging someone new. He shows John the picture, and John has to acknowledge that the man is not bad looking. “And he’s French, John! Many people find foreign accents erotic, and if he truly does look like this, I may well become one myself.”
John thinks about mystery man criterion number nine (speaks at least three languages) and debates breaking into some of the dodgy Pashto he picked up in Afghanistan, but decides against it. “So where are you taking him?”
“There’s a lovely bistro in Hampstead, very elite. The owner’s daughter was implicated in a drugs raid and I managed to differentiate between two different sources of crystal meth to clear her name.”
“As long as you didn’t have to sample the drugs to prove it,” John jokes. He is met with silence.
“Okay then. I think that and the cocaine addiction need to remain firmly on the ‘not suitable for dates’ list.”
Sherlock looks at him earnestly. “But what if he asks how I managed to book a table at such short notice?”
John gives him an appraising glance and notices his lip starting to quirk at the corner. “You’re messing with me.”
“You’re getting more difficult to fool.”
“Must try harder,” John replies. “Now, which of your indistinguishable suit and shirt combos are you going to wear?”
Sherlock finally decides on a dark grey shirt, which John must admit will probably go down well with his sophisticated French date (and most of the population of North London), and practically bounces down the stairs to the front door, where Mrs Hudson is coming home laden with shopping.
“It’s a wonderful day, Mrs Hudson!” Sherlock announces, taking the bags and dropping them at her door with a flourish.
“Another murder so soon? Oh, Sherlock, you are lucky, aren’t you?”
“Still working on the same murder, painfully slow and entirely too dependent on Scotland Yard. No, I’m going to find my true love.”
Mrs Hudson gives John a worried look. “Well, dear, you’re going to have to give me some warning if the two of you are breaking up. Need to advertise the spare room, you see.”
Sherlock frowns at her. “What? Oh, no, John’s not moving out. Not until I’ve found my soulmate. He’s my wingman.” He looks proud to have picked up some dating slang, and John shakes his head.
“In a manner of speaking. I wrote his online profile and I get dragged along to all the dates in case he gets assaulted.”
“Now that’s just unfair, Sherlock,” Mrs Hudson says. “Making poor John watch you cosying up to other men. And you’ve got a good eye for criminals, I’m sure you could tell a rapist the minute you saw him.”
“Go on, you can tell her.”
“I don’t want to.” Sherlock folds his arms.
“I’m a better judge of people, when it comes to this sort of thing,” John says with pride.
Mrs Hudson nods sagely, and Sherlock grudgingly. “Well, I’m glad you two are still working together if nothing else. Still, it’ll be a bit lonely for me here when John goes. I reckon your Mr Right will be just as bad as you are, with all the explosions and whatnot. Probably won’t be interested in putting the world to rights over Come Dine With Me.”
Sherlock nods abruptly. “Probably not. Come on, John, we’re going to be late to meet Guillaume.”
“Maitre d’ at a three star restaurant, designer stubble,” John gives in summary.
“Ooh, he sounds nice.” Mrs Hudson smiles indulgently as she closes the door.
“He sounds fantastic.” Sherlock impatiently holds out his arm for a taxi.
They notice Guillaume through the front window of the bistro. John can see him tugging at the sleeves of his shirt nervously, and opens his mouth to make a witty remark about Sherlock being intimidating even through Match.com; but Sherlock is looking at Guillaume too, and obviously doesn’t like what he observes. His jaw tenses slightly and for once he doesn’t instruct John about where to sit or how long to leave it so their arrivals appear unconnected.
“I was in the army, Sherlock. I can do stealth,” John replied indignantly the first time Sherlock patronisingly advised him as to the best vantage point in a restaurant.
“Really? The gunshot wound would beg to differ,” Sherlock said with a grin, either forgetting or ignoring basic compassion. John has been “accidentally” leaving the sugar out of his tea since then.
Sherlock beckons him with a tilt of the head, and sweeps through the door, ignoring the hostess to march straight over to Guillaume’s table. He gives a small, clearly false smile, and holds out his hand. “Guillaume, I presume? Sherlock Holmes, your date.”
Guillaume half stands and wipes his hand on his trousers before shaking. “Lovely to meet you. You look, I mean...wow...” Sherlock winces, and even John can tell that the French accent is exaggerated, if not entirely spurious.
“Thank you. You, sadly, don’t look the part at all.”
Guillaume tilts his head to one side, quizzically. “Excuse me?”
“Yes, you resemble your online pictures – that would have been a mistake too simple for even someone of your limited intellect – but I’m afraid the rest of your story does not fall into place. It is clear from your arms and hands that you are not, in fact, a maitre d’, but rather a simple waiter, and nowhere high-end, either: you clearly feel uncomfortable in that suit, and have just used the trousers to wipe the sweat from your hands – if you moved in higher-class circles, you would either possess a suit of such good quality that you would be fearful of soiling it, or have at least a modicum of respect for fine tailoring. As for the accent, even John here can tell it’s put on, and I would say that you’re actually from south-west England, Portsmouth most likely. Your name is therefore not Guillaume at all, but William, probably known as Will given the thickness of your neck. None of which would have been at all a problem for me if you hadn’t felt the need to fabricate an entirely transparent identity. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed this opportunity to demonstrate to you exactly what you are missing out on through your chronically low self-esteem and poor acting.”
Before Guillaume – Will – can reply, Sherlock has flagged down the hostess and demanded his table for two, name of Holmes: “There must have been a mistake: he is not in my party and, I believe, is ready to leave.”
While Will waits for a cab outside the restaurant, John observes that he is swallowing rather a lot and his shoulders are shaking, fists clenched with the effort of not bursting into tears. He decides not to tell Sherlock; he will probably say that the humiliation is necessary if the boy is ever to realise his stupidity.
“Now, Jean,” Sherlock says with a mocking French accent. “Care for some steak?”
Sherlock has a lunch date the next day for which John “isn’t required”: “It’s a coffee in the middle of Regent’s Park, there’s nothing to be worried about.”
John still keeps his phone with him, and receives some messages about hair gel and bluebottles while he sets about tidying the kitchen in an attempt not to reply, or, even worse, decide to go for a relaxing walk in that general direction. He doesn’t pretend to understand it, but something about the dry rot seems to have attracted a range of bugs, and even though he is usually tolerant, the presence of an army of ants in his bread is beyond the pale. He gets so involved in his battle against the insects that he manages to block out the knowledge that the date has been going on for a full fifty-three minutes.
Traps laid, John sits down on his chair with yesterday’s Evening Standard, and is relishing an opportunity to do the crossword with no one telling him the answers when Sherlock gets back. John studiously ignores him as he rants about men who believe flip flops are appropriate attire in spring – “no, at any time of year” – until he hears an exclamation from the kitchen.
“What is this?”
John puts down his newspaper and tries not to laugh. “Ant poison. But surely I don’t have to tell you that.”
He can practically hear Sherlock scrunching his face in distaste. “Why is it in my petri dish?”
“I needed a shallow container. It’s your fault we have ants anyway, you know.”
“But John, I need that dish to examine the bacteria in dog saliva. The neighbour has a Weimaraner!”
He spins round to face John, looking perplexed that John couldn’t possibly have anticipated this need.
“You know the way you feel right now?”
“Irritation, frustration, a desire to shake you violently.”
“Yes, that. That, Sherlock, is exactly how I feel when your experiments take up residence in my mugs, bowls, and cereals.”
Sherlock smiles wistfully. “My true love won’t object to my experiments; he’ll think they’re brilliant. He’ll let me experiment on him.”
John rolls his eyes. “I’m sure even your true love will encourage you to occasionally label the body parts.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, John, he’ll have an expert knowledge of human biology.”
“Of course. I’ll add it to the list, shall I?”
“That brings us to twenty-six criteria.”
Sherlock looks pleased. “The more specific we are, the fewer failed dates I will have to endure. Who’s lined up for tonight?”
“No one tonight; we’re reviewing the autopsy report and staking out the neighbour. You also wanted to ambush the brother off his train at Liverpool Street – he should be arriving on the 20.57 from Shenfield, though he might decide to get off at Stratford.”
Sherlock nods and puts on the kettle, and John flicks through the messages on Match.com, smiling slightly as he notices Sherlock using a clean petri dish for the saliva. “Tomorrow you’ve got Paul. Sports physiotherapist from Barnet. You were impressed by his knowledge of ligament strain but unsure about his connections with celebrity footballers.”
“Ah, that’s right. He offered to massage my groin muscles.”
John coughs on a sip of coffee and scans the message history. “Yes. Yes, he did. To which you responded, “The penis is not a muscle, as you well know, but congratulations on being arrogant enough to make that joke without a hint of irony. I do hope you haven’t been getting confused and giving Premiership footballers hand jobs”. And he’s still willing to meet up with you? Ticking a lot of boxes already.”
Sherlock practically beams and presents John with a cup of tea before settling down with a microscope and an array of reagents. John doesn’t have the heart to point out his coffee, and resigns himself to a caffeine buzz, which can surely only help if he ends up in a chase round Liverpool Street station.
Paul, it turns out, is gorgeous. John knows it, and if John is aware then certainly Sherlock is too. He’s blond, tanned, muscular, and oozes charm: he even holds Sherlock’s chair out for him, as if he’s a swooning damsel in distress and not an irritable genius. He also doesn’t seem in the least put off by Sherlock texting at the table, correcting his grammar, or wrinkling his nose every time Paul turns his fork over to shovel his peas. “While still holding the knife,” Sherlock texts, “like he was raised by ill-coordinated wolves. S”
John picks at a plate of bruschetta on the other side of the restaurant, attributing his lack of appetite to the fact that there’s not enough goat’s cheese, and notes every movement from Sherlock’s date in the hopes that the guy will turn out to be abusive, criminal, or – best of all – some sort of associate of Mycroft’s. Sadly, the only boxes Paul seems to be ticking are the ones that suggest he could put up with Sherlock’s idiosyncrasies for more than one evening. He’s leaning forward, laughing, touching Sherlock’s arm, and carrying on a conversation even when Sherlock gives up on subtlety and moves his phone onto the table.
John seizes on this detail, and shoots off a message to say, “Doesn’t seem to mind you texting another man all through dinner. A bit relaxed about monogamy?” It’s a long shot, but he sees Sherlock’s posture change as he sizes up his date. He can make out Paul saying the word “casual” with an overblown wink before Sherlock strides out of the restaurant. Number fourteen, John thinks: devoted only to me. He shakes off the brief worry he felt watching them together, and pays for his starter and tap water with Sherlock’s credit card and a satisfied smile before following.
“As pained as I am to admit it, there are some things you are far better at observing than I,” says Sherlock, leaning against the window as John joins him outside.
“I know. But one of these days I’d like to be able to finish a whole meal before you decide it’s time to go.”
“Don’t be silly, you weren’t even hungry. You’d barely eaten half of your starter and hadn’t ordered a main course because you paid the bill far too quickly to have gone to the trouble of cancelling it.”
Sherlock flags down a cab and they climb in. “221B Baker Street.”
“Well, I can’t eat, text, and keep an eye on you at the same time, can I?”
“You manage fine on cases.”
“Yes, but cases are quite often life-or-death scenarios that involve me popping into Gregg’s for a quick sausage roll so I don’t keel over while I’m trying to chase an assailant through the streets.” John doesn’t like to think of the time he decided to go for a panini instead, and Sherlock somehow managed to get three broken ribs while it was being toasted.
“Are you saying my true love isn’t as important?”
“As your life? No, Sherlock, no he isn’t.”
“But he’s part of my life. Without him, I am only half a person.”
John shakes his head. “Okay, now you’re just being dramatic for the sake of it. You’re already more
like five people’s worth of intellect and ego rolled into one.”
Sherlock smiles, a genuine smile. “That might be the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
“Well, then, I can’t wait to hear what your true love will say when he sees you face to face.”
“Me neither,” Sherlock replies wistfully.
“Okay, you are being even more sappy than usual this evening. What’s wrong? Is it because the case was boring?”
The case was indeed boring in the end: the neighbour’s dog hadn’t been a lead at all, but a piece of thread caught in the victim’s bracelet that could only have been from her sister’s coat. Sherlock was so annoyed that Anderson had overlooked this when he’d bagged up her jewellery that he insisted on answering all Lestrade’s questions in monosyllables “So the thick man there gets it.” He had seemed quite smug that his research into clothing fibres wasn’t entirely unjustified, though.
“No. Maybe. I’m just so sick of dating, John. I thought it would be easier than this to identify my soulmate.”
“Have you ever thought that maybe this whole one true love thing isn’t really realistic?” John knows he’s said the wrong thing, but is finding it hard to curb his frustration.
He finds himself on the receiving end of one of Sherlock’s most frustrated glares. “John, I am not the kind of man who compromises, as well you know. If my love is to be all-consuming enough to keep me from boredom forever, it must be both real and eternal. Have you got any change?”
John pays for the taxi – again – and catches up with Sherlock at the door to the flat. “Yes, but you aren’t necessarily going to be struck by a lightning bolt of revelation as soon as he walks into a restaurant. It may be that you grow to love him over time, as you get to know him.”
“That may be true of normal people, but I will certainly be able to identify him as soon as we meet.”
“I thought you yourself acknowledged that you were somewhat less than extraordinary when it came to this kind of thing.”
“I know my own heart, John!” Sherlock snaps, stalking into the bedroom for his dressing gown. John idly wonders when it was last washed, but knows better than to ask.
“Really?” John leans back against the kitchen table, putting his hand into something sticky but resolutely not moving it: he realised early on that the more disturbed he seemed by Sherlock’s experiments, the less seriously Sherlock took him. “Is that why you spent a full half-hour with Paul the sleazy physio?”
“Shut up and order some takeaway; you’re a lot less annoying when you’ve eaten a proper meal.”
“And you’re a lot less annoying...never.”
“Now you’re just being immature.”
John resists the urge to stick his tongue out, but does finally move his hand out of the sticky patch. Jam, thank goodness, not that it helps with the ant problem.
“I’m immature? You’re meant to be the most logical, rational person in London if not the universe, and yet you’re looking for your “one true love”! Your IQ is through the roof, but your EQ barely exists.”
“If I am so emotionally stunted, why would I be going through this ridiculous process just so I can be happy?”
“You don’t want to be happy, you just don’t want to be bored!”
Sherlock waves dismissively. “It’s all the same for me.”
“And that’s the problem. Happiness for you is a puzzle that no one’s solved yet, regardless of whose life is in danger or whose feelings you’ve hurt.”
“The men I’ve dated? Their feelings have hardly been hurt, John, no one’s that emotionally invested after a few e-mails. And I do care when people’s lives are in danger. Sometimes.”
“Yeah, my life. A caring capacity of one, very healthy. And some of those men were upset, Sherlock. Not heartbroken, but definitely humiliated. Guillaume or whatever his name is left in tears; Thomas wouldn’t have thrown food all over you if he were unmoved; and I’m not even getting started on Ricky.” They both shudder. “It’s no wonder you haven’t found your true love yet, you’re just so...callous.” John’s fists are clenched with rage, and Sherlock’s expression changes from irritation to curiosity.
“Why are you so angry? You’ve accepted my callousness in the face of far more serious situations than this, so that alone can’t be the problem. Is it because you’re used to being rejected? All of your girlfriends have dumped you, and you believe you have some kind of affinity with all the idiots I’ve met. I didn’t lead them on, as those girls did you. I certainly didn’t tease or provoke them. Surely you can’t see yourself in their shoes?”
John is suddenly very tired, and very unwilling to talk about this, and his tone brooks no argument.
“I’m off to bed. I’ll have cold chow mein for breakfast if you’re ordering.”
By the time John gets up the next morning, Sherlock is long gone. An untouched container of Chinese food is sitting on the side with a pair of chopsticks and three Post-It notes.
Brunch date – Fabio, 32, media analyst. Breakfast Club, Shoreditch (his choice, pretentious). 10am.
Lunch date – Adam, 29, rugby player (long shot, he used text speak). La Bottega Del Caffè, Regent St, 2pm.
Dinner date – Iusuf, 35, British Museum education department. Inamo (the one with interactive tables), Soho branch. 8pm. See you there?
John sighs, because of course he’ll be there, if only for the interactive tables. Molly of all people recommended it: “I’ve been on a lot of...disappointing dates. At least if the conversation’s awful, you can just play computer games.”
He breaks open the cold Chinese, which is the nearest he’ll ever get to an apology. Frankly, it’s a damn sight better than any of Sherlock’s previous gestures, and is enough to make John try his own mind-palace tricks. Take last night, put it into a tiny box, lock it up, throw it into a dark corner. It doesn’t really work.
Sherlock is halfway through his Cobra, frowning, when John finally moves into the seat opposite. “It happens to everyone, you know. Online dating isn’t exactly reliable.”
“It doesn’t happen to me, John. Me. The most remarkable man in London, stood up.”
“Maybe it’s that modesty that’s causing you problems.” John smirks and looks through the menu.
“It’s not funny! My life is ticking away, second by tedious second. And this attractive man who works at the British Museum has rejected me by text half an hour into a date on the grounds that he doesn’t like Asian fusion food. The fact that such a lack of taste is possible makes me despair of humankind.”
“You’re just a ray of sunshine tonight, you know that? Want to share some pork belly?”
“I think I’d like the scallops, too. And gyoza?”
They order in silence, and Sherlock starts to fiddle with the computer. “I think it’s time to change the background to something other than red roses,” he says with distaste.
John flicks through idly, and selects a stormy lightning scene. “Suits your mood?”
“Perfectly. I’ve heard there are games. Pitifully easy, probably, but perhaps diverting enough to pass another evening without my true love.”
“They’re only easy if there’s a trick to them. Battleships.”
“Please, you’re predictable enough.”
John gives his best approximation of a teasing smirk, which he feels misses the mark somewhat but still gets the point across. He starts to place his boats, swatting Sherlock’s arm when he sees him looking over at his screen.
About five minutes later, Sherlock is making pouting while eating sashimi look almost attractive. “It’s not fair.”
“All’s fair in love, war, and board games.” John takes a self-satisfied bite of pork belly. “You really should have some of this, it’s delicious.”
“My true love would have let me win.” Sherlock reaches his chopsticks over to take some pork anyway.
“No, he wouldn’t. Number six, competitive; number eleven, unrelenting in most if not all areas of life.”
“True. But he wouldn’t look so smug about it if he did win.”
John shakes his head and takes one of Sherlock’s scallops. “Admit it, you’re having fun.”
“I would have had more fun if Iusuf had showed up.”
“But only because you would enjoy mocking him. I think you can go a couple of hours without indulging your superiority complex.”
“Of course I can. I just don’t think it can take the onslaught of being beaten at Battleships by someone of moderate intellect.”
“Don’t forget the military experience. There’s no shame in losing.”
“Yes, I forgot, you were responsible for the entirety of the Afghan war’s strategic planning.”
They laugh and both reach for the last crispy prawn. Sherlock’s eyes light up. “First to three games wins the prawn.”
“It’ll be cold by then,” John protests, already moving towards the games menu.
“I don’t believe it’ll take long to defeat you.”
“Well, that was certainly a far better dinner than I would have had with Iusuf,” Sherlock announces as they leave.
“Do I get a second date, then?” John grins, and then realises what he’s said a little too late.
Sherlock gives him a sidelong glance. “You’ve had quite a number of dates by this point, John. In fact, I think it’s about time you came home with me.”
“I expect a goodnight kiss at the very least. I’ve been very patient, and one expects that progression after three dates so we’re a little behind already.” Sherlock’s stopped walking now, and is standing in John’s way with his arms folded and a small smirk on his face.
John steps a bit closer and takes a deep breath. “Let me get this straight. You think that you and I have been dating.”
“Of course I don’t think that, I know it. I’ve bought you dinner, we’ve talked all evening...” Sherlock moves his hands onto John’s forearms and looks him straight in the eye. “We’ve had fun. As far as am aware, that’s more than enough to constitute dating. And it’s been going rather well, in my opinion.”
“Yes,” John replies, tilting his head up slightly. “Yes, I suppose it has. Does that make me your one true love, then?”
“Well, I’m not sure you meet all the criteria. Number two, intellect significantly above average; number three, devastatingly attractive; number nine, speaks at least three languages; number fifteen, not at all self-righteous – I shan’t continue, you’re doing that face that means I’m being insensitive.”
“Well, it’s not a great move, telling someone you think you love them and then listing all the reasons why you probably don’t after all.”
“That’s not what’s happening at all, John. Keep up.” Sherlock’s smile is somehow both softer and more predatory than it was moments before, and also much closer. “I’m saying that, as amused as I am by the array of hurt and murderous facial expressions you employ when I’m speaking to other men, I would rather like it if we put an end to this whole charade and just acknowledge that we’re the only people in the world who’ll put up with one another.”
John wants to laugh, but finds himself too wrapped up in weird tension to do so. Instead, he inches even nearer to Sherlock and whispers, “I love you too, you mad wanker.”
“I know,” Sherlock replies, and John can feel Sherlock’s breath on his lips. “Now, I just need to find the answer for the only variable I couldn’t predict myself.”
All manner of horrifying possibilities fly through John’s brain – number of previous sexual partners? Penis size? The exact definition of John’s sexuality? Those are all things that Sherlock has probably already worked out somehow. He raises an eyebrow in question.
Sherlock pulls away from him and grins broadly, stepping into the road and gesturing for a taxi. “Your room or mine?”