Sherlock Holmes knows that kissing John Watson would be a bad idea. He’s even written down the reasons, scribbled on a much-folded sheet, the writing angular and dense, pencil-smudged by repeated revisions.
Item one has been on the list long before it was ever transferred onto paper. It simply reads, “Because John is not gay”.
Detective Inspector Lestrade had called Sherlock in for an odd murder-suicide gone wrong. Now, Sherlock was pacing the length of the dingy flat, mind whirling as he pondered the shattered light bulb.
“The window,” he muttered suddenly, turning to Lestrade. “Was it open when you arrived?”
“No,” said the DI, frowning. “It’s pouring outside, who in their right minds would’ve had it open? Besides, the windowsill and floor are dry.”
Sherlock paid him no mind, instead mentally gauging the distance from lamp to window and the direction of the wind. “It was left open for a while,” he pronounced. “They were expecting someone.”
“It’s not a murder-suicide, it’s an attempted double homicide.” Sherlock clapped his hands together in glee as he strode out of the room. “How’s the wife? When can I speak to her?”
“Still unconscious,” Lestrade replied, apologetic. “Where’re you going?”
“Killer must have left traces outside,” Sherlock called, and then stopped short at the sight of John smiling warmly at one of the new detective constables. She had a hand on his arm; he had an inviting husk to his voice.
“So, Thursday night?” he was saying.
“Yeah,” she smiled, coy. “Call me.”
As she walked off, John watched her go with a hungry look; Sherlock shrugged and filed “straight” under “Things to know about John Watson”.
Months later, Sherlock would recall this fact with more than a little regret.
Item two had originally read, “Because John is not interesting”. It had soon been edited to, “Because John is not special”. Then, “Because John is not extraordinary”.
As of now the entry simple reads: “Because John is not”. The last word has been scratched out too many times to be legible.
Sherlock Holmes had kissed exactly three persons in his life, two women and one man.
The first was a long-legged girl, the daughter of a family friend. She told him he was sweet before backing him into a wall and pressing her lips to his. He stood frozen for a moment before pushing her away in a panic, heart pounding; she pursed her mouth (red, glossy) in disappointment and walked off with an exaggerated sway of her hips.
The second was a classmate in uni named Victor Trevor. He’d ask for Sherlock’s help in chemistry sometimes, without that mixture of curiosity and hatred that most people used; so Sherlock had tolerated him, both his presence and occasionally less-than-dull questions.
And then one day, as he examined precipitates over a Bunsen burner and Victor sat off on a bench, sketching Lewis diagrams, he looked up and asked, softly, “May I kiss you?”, in the same tone he might use to ask, “What’s the triple-point of diethylene glycol?” or “How would you calculate the equilibrium pH of a 0.25 M H2CO3 solution?”
Sherlock stared at Victor in surprise, but he only gazed back, eyes mild and curious, waiting.
In a nearby universe, a version of Sherlock said no, Victor nodded, and life went on.
In a nearby universe, a version of Sherlock never answered until Victor dropped his head back to his books, and life went on.
But here, this version of Sherlock hesitated, then nodded briefly. He stayed still, Victor stretched up, and they met somewhere in the middle with a hint of awkwardness.
At first it was a chaste touch of closed mouths, but then Victor’s tongue flicked out hesitantly against Sherlock’s lips, and Sherlock gasped, “Stop.”
Victor stopped. “Oh, god, I’m sorry,” he blurted out upon seeing Sherlock’s ashen face. “Are you all right?” He reached out, a gesture meant to comfort.
“Don’t touch me,” Sherlock snapped, and Victor froze. “I’m fine. Just...don’t touch me.”
“I’m so sorry,” Victor repeated. “Do you need—want anything?”
“No. Yes. Water.” Victor got up to pour some, and Sherlock started mentally reciting the periodic table, feeling the alarm recede slowly from his limbs. By the time Victor pushed a cool glass of water across the countertop at Sherlock, he’d calmed down enough to sniff, “Stop apologising, it’s boring.”
Victor cracked a half-grin at that. “I s’pose if you were ever to get together with anyone, it’d have to be someone pretty spectacular.”
Sherlock didn’t answer, and life went on.
The third time was in an airport in Karachi. “Your flight’s boarding,” Sherlock said, somewhat stiffly. Because it was boarding, and Irene Adler was sitting much too close.
She stood up, finally, and leaned back over to whisper, “I’m not going to say good-bye, Mr Holmes,” before closing the last of the gap between them, combatively, aggressively, the way she did everything, to leave a sharp kiss on his lips.
Sherlock didn’t even have time to flinch. He swiped away the lipstick from the corner of his mouth and started at her, bemused. “What...was that for?”
“You’re better at pretending than I am,” she tossed as she walked out of Sherlock’s life. “I’ll keep that in mind, the next time we meet.”
The third item says: “Because after cases we order Chinese and watch crap telly. And sometimes I fall asleep with my head on his shoulder. (The right one.)”
What it really means is this: “Because I like how ‘personal space’ for John means something different with me than with anybody else. Because I like the way he lets me touch him and he touches me. And that’s enough.”
Sherlock took John to a gay club, once. For a case. They sat at the bar: Sherlock with fingers steepled and eyes flicking around the room, John with a drink and scanning the scene with something like curiosity.
It wasn’t long before an attractive, dark-haired man (mid- to late-twenties) sidled up by John. “Hi, I’m Carl,” he said with unconcealed interest. “Can I buy you a drink?”
“John,” he replied, a bit wary. “But...um, sorry, I’m not really here to—” He was unconsciously sliding towards Sherlock, gesturing vaguely.
“Ah,” Carl nodded, disappointment and understanding warring in his voice. “You with him?”
“What? No. I mean—no, we’re not—”
But John was still much too close to Sherlock, and Carl just winked. “It’s all right. I get it.” He got to his feet. “But now I’ve got to find another bloke as fit as you. Wish me luck?”
While John was stammering out some sort of response, Carl disappeared into the crowd. “Why does everyone think we’re together?” John demanded, turning to Sherlock. (Close, so close – close enough to send a thrill through Sherlock.) And then Sherlock spotted his target.
“Quick, John, after him,” he whispered, and the chase was on, the moment forgotten. (Though it wasn’t, really.)
The fourth item only says, “Because there’s still a choice.”
If Sherlock ever kisses John, he’d like it to have happened because the circumstances, the trajectory of atoms, have all aligned; such that the act is not so much a choice as a necessity.
Because choices may lead to regret.
He almost kissed John, once. At a crime scene. In front of Lestrade and Donovan and god-knows-who.
A serial killer had been making his way through London, leaving corpses behind, sometimes with the strangest of artefacts. One man was found with five playing cards near his head; another, with a press-tag and camera. There had been no apparent motive, no pattern among the victims. Until...
“Everyone, shut up, I can’t think. John, what are you humming?”
“I dunno, it was playing in the cafe.”
“On the radio...pop song...” There was something there, he could almost see it, just nudging out of reach— ”The victim, show me his chest.”
“His chest?” Lestrade complained, but John was already kneeling, unbuttoning the top three buttons of the man’s shirt. Yes, as he’d expected, a neat, raised scar along the sternum.
“A median sternotomy,” John muttered. “In a man this young...transplant? CHD?”
“A bad heart,” Sherlock’s lips quirked up. “That’s it! Oh, John, you are brilliant!” He’d grabbed John’s shoulders then, spinning around delightedly, and then he’d had the sudden thought that it would be so easy to lean down, a slight tilt of his head—
Sherlock twisted away, leaving John half-breathless. “Killer must be a doctor, or some sort of hospital employee: someone who has access to medical records. Start investigating, get me data.” He snapped at Lestrade instead.
“What are you on about?”
“Victim has had heart surgery previously, and the killer knew it. How could he have known?”
“How do you know?” Lestrade had folded his arms, expression sceptical.
“John, the song from before, hum it again.” John shrugged and complied, a few notes that vibrated pleasantly in the air. Sherlock stared at Lestrade, triumphant. “‘Poker Face’. ‘Paparazzi’.” He nodded towards John. “‘Bad Romance’.”
“What, Lady Gaga songs? Sherlock, I don’t—”
“The victims, Lestrade, that’s what they’re based on.”
Understanding finally struck. “What’s the next one going to be, then?”
Sherlock pulled up a page on his phone and examined it, frowning. “They’re all singles, and if we order them by date of release...” He frowned in slight consternation. “‘Telephone’.”
The fifth item says, oddly enough, “Because I want to.”
Sherlock Holmes tries not to want, you see. He gave that up along with the cocaine.
“I can stop any time.”
“Oh, really?” Mycroft gave him a small, sceptical smile. “I’d love to see that.” He got to his feet, daintily picking up his umbrella and stepping across the mess that was the flat on Montague Street. “I’ll send someone next month,” he said at the door.
“Fuck you, Mycroft.”
The first day, Sherlock impassively flushed the last of the cocaine he’d stashed underneath the floorboards and picked up his violin. It took just three hours before he could no longer focus on the music.
He paced about the flat, turning to on-going experiments only to abandon them again. He felt jumpy, restless in his own skin.
He refused to give in; clenching his teeth, he tried to pay attention to the day-old newspaper on his coffee table.
Five minutes later, he was circling the living room again.
Sherlock spent the next three days searching all his hiding places. (Futile, he knew, but his hands were reaching for the slipper anyway.) “I don’t need it,” he muttered to himself, over and over again. “I don’t.”
He didn’t step foot outside the flat, though he never admitted it was because he was afraid of failing.
At the end of the week, he received a voicemail.
“Hey, Sherlock, it’s DI Lestrade. Haven’t seen you in a while. You doing all right? It feels weird when you’re not around making all your smart remarks.
“Well, uh, we’ve got a murder that’s a bit weird. Suspect’s alibi checks out, but everything else says it’s him. Give me a call when you can, will you?”
Sherlock threw the phone at the wall; it shattered and slid down in a cascade of glass and plastic.
Weeks two and three passed in a dizzy haze of want. He never quite remembered the hours he spent on the bathroom floor, folded inward and rocking back and forth. (There might have been tears on his face. He never bothered to check whether that was true.)
At the end of week four, Mycroft walked through the front door without even bothering to knock.
“Get out,” Sherlock snarled weakly.
“My God, Sherlock.” Then Mycroft was hauling Sherlock out of the bathroom, setting him down gently on a chair. A moment later, a damp washcloth was running over Sherlock’s face, his neck, his arms. “Have you eaten?”
“No food,” Sherlock rasped. “Disappointed?”
Mycroft ignored the jibe, instead disappearing into the kitchen. There was the rush of the tap, and then something cool was tipped at his lips. “Drink.”
Sherlock swallowed down the liquid and felt his head clear slightly. “Promoted again, Mycroft?” he commented, raising an eyebrow. “Do you control the entire government yet?”
“Get dressed, Sherlock,” was Mycroft’s only reply. He gave Sherlock a light push towards his bedroom. “You need food.”
It took far too long for Sherlock to button up a shirt and slide into a pair of trousers, but Mycroft didn’t comment on the delay. The two of them went to a nearby cafe (at Sherlock’s insistence), and Mycroft only watched as Sherlock choked down a slice of something warm and toasted with a cup of weak tea.
“Are you finished?” Sherlock asked, leaning back and wiping his mouth with a napkin. “You can go now.”
“Yes, I think I am,” said Mycroft at last, clearing his throat. “Now, I do have a rather delicate matter to attend to. Do you want an escort back?”
“I’m fine,” Sherlock said irritably.
“Of course you are.” Mycroft’s voice held a sardonic tinge. “Well, then, Sherlock, I shall see you later.”
“Not if I can help it.”
As Sherlock walked back to his flat, he could just make out the sound of footsteps behind him, almost perfectly synchronised with his. He didn’t try to shake off his tail; he merely flicked a rude gesture behind him and hoped Mycroft would get the message.
The sixth item is crammed right underneath the fifth. It reads, “Because I don’t know why I want to.”
“...earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Earth hit the lid of the coffin. Sherlock shook the last bit of dirt from his palm and stared straight ahead, entirely ignoring the minister’s final blessing and dismissal.
In his peripheral vision, he could see the precise creases running up a pair of trouser legs. He shifted slightly until they were no longer in view.
“Sherlock, stop being so dramatic. It’s time to leave.”
“I don’t want to go anywhere,” Sherlock snapped out, in the most severe tone a seven-year-old boy could muster.
The man beside him let out a heavy sigh. “What is your plan, then? Will you continue to stay here?”
There was only sullen silence on Sherlock’s part. As the cemetery emptied of mourners, the murmur of sympathy grew fainter and fainter.
“Sherlock,” said the man sharply. “This is irrational. Your mother is gone now, and there’s nothing to be done about it.”
“I know that.”
“Well, then, I don’t understand why you’re acting this way.”
“I—” Sherlock started, but he couldn’t put into words the reason he wanted to stay, by the patch of ground that held his mother, and never leave. With a frustrated sigh, he finally looked up at the figure next to him. “I don’t know,” he mumbled.
“Reason is the highest faculty we have, Sherlock. Always use it.”
The man began to walk away. With a final look at the headstone, Sherlock followed his father.
It takes Sherlock several days to formulate item seven. In the end, he settles with, “Because it’s dangerous.”
John likes danger. That just makes it worse.
“Sherlock, watch out!”
Sherlock ducked, but not quickly enough; the thrown can clipped the side of his head. He could feel the first drops of blood beginning to trickle down his face.
He didn’t care.
“That way,” he called to John as the suspect shot down an alleyway. “Around there, then cut him off from the other side.” Without waiting to see if John had changed his course, Sherlock dashed after the man.
“Give it up, Winter!” he called.
There was a half-muffled shout in front of him.
“Yes, that’s right. Aliases are rather dull things, easily discovered. James Winter, alias ‘Killer’ Evans. I seem to recall that we do have an extradition treaty with the United States...”
“Stop!” John’s voice suddenly rang out.
“Oh, fuck.” And with that exclamation came two quick cracks of gunfire, and then John’s gasp of pain.
Sherlock dove for Winter’s feet; the revolver clattered onto the ground as they both fell. “That,” Sherlock panted, “was a mistake.” As Winter tried to climb back to his feet, Sherlock hooked an elbow around his neck and jerked, hard.
In a few seconds, Winter slumped against Sherlock. Letting the unconscious man drop onto the pavement, Sherlock scrambled towards John.
“John. Are you all right?” His hands encountered the fabric of John’s jeans and came away with blood on their tips. “You’re bleeding. Where are you hit?”
“Sherlock, I’m fine,” John protested, struggling up. And then, unexpectedly, he began to giggle. “It’s...just a flesh wound.”
He looked at Sherlock, snickering, and Sherlock felt his own laughter rising. “John Watson,” he declared, attempting to sound solemn and failing, “you are a logical impossibility.”
“Yes,” John grinned, breathless. “But you like it that way.”
The eighth item says, “Because I don’t know what it would mean.”
Sometimes a kiss is an invitation. Or a question. Or a declaration.
But that’s all subtext. Sherlock Holmes is not good at subtext.
“Sherlock, what have you done to the microwave?”
Looking up from the laptop, Sherlock found John standing in front of him holding a frozen curry. He thought for a moment. The microwave...
“Oh, experiment. I was testing a new adhesive. It reacts badly upon heating, apparently.”
“Okay.” John’s words were measured, but his left hand was flexing in a way it always did when John was upset. “Let me rephrase that. Why did you feel it necessary to use the microwave – our microwave – to run an experiment, especially when you didn’t know if it was safe?”
“The probability of actual, physical harm to either of us was extremely low.” Sherlock shrugged. “It wasn’t worth making a trip to Barts.”
“Not worth making a trip—” John started. “You—you’re unbelievable, you know that?”
“John,” Sherlock sighed. “If you want curry there’s a nice Indian place I know around the corner. Owner owes me a favour. Let me finish this, and then we can go.”
“I—what?” John blinked.
“Shouldn’t take more than ten minutes. You can wait that long, right?” He turned his attention back to the analysis, but above the screen, he could see John’s fingers still moving restlessly. “What?”
“This isn’t about the curry! This is about you, always jumping into—” John stopped abruptly, taking a couple of harsh breaths. “Sod this, I’m going out.”
“I told you, ten minutes.”
“Not with you,” John shot, pulling on his jacket.
There was a loud slam. Sherlock stared at the closed door, bewildered.
The ninth item reads, “Because John wouldn’t like it.” It doesn’t say, “Because John might like it.”
Regardless, both of these things are true.
John Watson was an easy man to read. He lent out his phone to strangers. He joined the army to bring healing instead of death. He said “There’s a woman lying dead” and sounded like he cared. He endured Sherlock’s barked-out orders with only a mild roll of his eyes.
He also shot a cabbie and slept fine that night.
All right. Maybe he wasn’t that easy of a man to read.
The very last item is almost illegible, its letters hastily formed. But with some effort, it is possible to make out this: “Because I am about to die.”
Sherlock Holmes had always suspected he would meet an early death. In fact, he’d been courting it for most of his life.
It seemed a bit cruel, then, that it would claim him at the moment he would regret leaving the most.
He knew it was coming; he could feel its shadow, dark and cold, even before they’d left the Devon moor. And for the first time, it occurred to Sherlock that he would leave words unsaid, words that should have been said.
Words like, “John, sometimes when you’re looking at me with that look, it’s all I can do to stop myself from kissing you and stealing the words straight from your lips. Does a ‘fantastic’ taste different when we’re both breathing the same air?"
Words like, “John, I don’t want to have sex with you. But I could try.”
Words like, “John, it would be comforting if I could always wake up with you beside me, warm and there and mine.”
Words like, “John, I’m not a good person. I would consume you from the inside out. But despite that, I think we could still be happy.”
So when death arrived with insanity in its wake, Sherlock didn’t bow his head in surrender; he fought. And won.
All for the sake of things not spoken.
Somewhere in 221B Baker Street, there used to lie a short list, its creases near tearing due to repeated readings.
It now lives in John Watson’s pocket.