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Navigating high school hallways is a lot scarier when you're on crutches.

John stands to the side of the classroom door, watching the traffic jam of students that always worsens after the bell. He squints. Two options.

He could duck into the flow and hope no overeager first-years would plow into him, which would result in an inevitably embarrassing situation. Or he could loiter for a while, try and look cool while the flow turned to a trickle, and then take off in the hopes that he wouldn't miss the bus.

He grins obligingly as a few rugby players pass. They whack each other's shoulders with a swagger that John remembers well. Only a few weeks ago, he had been doing his best to imitate it. Then a stray fall, a broken ankle, and he was off the team. His old friends would nod in the hallway, but they didn't understand how friendship worked outside the rugby team, and John hasn't learned yet either.

He is the worst thing you can be in high school—lonely.

He had liked it, the rugby. It was something he knew how to do, and though he wouldn't have admitted it to his team, he'd liked the other aspects as well. Taking care of teammates after they'd been knocked down, for instance. He's entertained thoughts of being a doctor someday. It's nice to help lessen people's pain. He hadn't been able to do it when his mother—

But John checks himself. There's no use letting his mind go down that road.

He leans against the door frame, trying to look unperturbed, until even his professor passes him with a smile. Then he pushes off into the now-emptied hall, flushing at the thought of how stupid his swinging, stilted gait must look. He shoulders open the door, blinking in the sudden rush of bright light. Then his heart falls. The buses are gone. The last long vehicle is drawing away in the distance.

He swallows. Back to the options. He could call Harry. He checks his watch. Already three. Which means she's already sloshed. And anyway, she wouldn't want to drive all the way here from university. That would be a whole hour. And his dad is at work. So…

It's at times like this that he fees the sudden loss of his teammates as friends. Any other student would have been able to phone a mate. He hitches his crutches higher under his arms, feeling slightly abandoned.

And then he spots him—Mark Belham, the rugby team's captain, and a few other guys, all rushing around the corner of the building. Mark has a car, and John can't walk the forty minutes home on sticks. He steels himself, straightening his shoulders as best he can, and rounds the brick building after them.

They've stopped in front of someone, and as Mark moves forward slightly, John gets a glimpse of who it is.

Sherlock Holmes. John winces. This won't end well.

He's never spoken to Sherlock, but he's noticed him. Everyone notices him, but what interests John about Sherlock is that he is alone too—and apparently by choice. Nobody is alone by choice in high school.

It doesn't make sense. Sherlock is good-looking, really good-looking, albeit in a somewhat strange way—almost painfully thin, those impossibly high cheekbones, that ivory skin. He looks like one of the vampires in those books all the girls like now. And he's clearly wealthy enough to dress just as well, if not better, than the rich kids everyone loves to hate. The immaculate uniform, the expensive tailored trousers...

And yet Sherlock has no one.

Nobody hangs around to chat when he opens his locker. Nobody pulls up a seat next to him at lunch. Not even the detention crowd likes him, even though he's in the detention room after class most days, staring distantly out the window. John has never even had a class with Sherlock, much less spoken to him, so whatever it is about the other boy that repels everyone is a mystery to him.

He dawdles, wondering whether to keep on his way and pretend he hasn't seen anything, but then Mark's loud voice floats over.

"Say that again!"

John sees Sherlock give a steady shrug and open his mouth, though his voice is too quiet for John to hear what he's saying.

And then—

John could have predicted it, but it's still a shock, Mark's thick fist slamming into the side of that porcelain face. Sherlock hits the ground rather hard. John sees the other two guys crack their knuckles. John knows what happened next, and maybe later Sherlock will be together enough to stagger home alone, if he's lucky.

John couldn't have explained what made him do it. Maybe it's the fact that he has no obligation to pretend he's one of the guys anymore. Or maybe it's just that Sherlock is friendless, like him. Birds of a feather.

He swings forward—you can move surprisingly fast on crutches if you feel like it—and is by the group in a second.

Mark has Sherlock by the shirt collar. Sherlock's lip is split, and blood paints a broad streak down his white chin. He glances at John, but there's no fear in his eyes—only a slight amusement.

"'Sup, J," says Mark briefly, before turning back to his victim.

"Not much," John grunts as he lets his weight fall onto one crutch, bringing the other up in an arc and cracking it across Mark's shoulders.

Mark lets out a yelp and releases Sherlock, who staggers back. He makes as if to lunge at John, who is suddenly very aware of the fact that he's outnumbered. He backs up, holding his crutch in front of him like a sword.

"What the fuck," spits Mark, rubbing his injured shoulder. "You this freak's new boyfriend or something?"

John says nothing. There's nothing to say, really. He wonders what Harry'll do when she sees her little brother's face all messed up. That's definitely not something to look forward to.

Mark moves forward, jabbing a thumb into John's chest so hard he nearly falls over. "You were on the team, so I'll let you off this once. But if you screw with me again, I don't care if you've got a broken ankle or a broken back, I'll give you a broken everything."

"How thorough of you," John mumbles, and he thinks he sees Sherlock's face twitch into a smile.

"What was that?" Mark snarls.

"Nothing."

With a scowl, the rugby captain turns, motioning to his teammates to follow. They do, shaking their heads in bewilderment at John. One of them gives Sherlock a hard shove before rounding the corner after Mark. John clears his throat. Apparently he's out of a ride home.

Sherlock straightens his shirt, which is torn where Mark has grabbed it. He wipes his mouth, which does nothing more than to smear the blood across his face, and looks intently at John. It's the first time John has met the other boy's eyes. They're bright and hard and clear, just like crystal, and John feels himself wondering if they light up in the darkness. Like a cat's.

He finds he's staring, and clears his throat again, looking down at his crutch. There's a crack near the base. Speaking as if to the crutch, he asks, "So what'd you say to offend them?"

"I merely pointed out that the girl's lacrosse captain, with whom all three of them made out in succession within a period of three days last week, does in fact have a form of contagious herpes and they should get themselves checked."

John looks up in surprise at the deadly serious tone of the deep voice, but there's a hint of a smirk on Sherlock's face.

"How'd you know that?" John asks.

"Three times last week she left our gym class to retrieve sports equipment, and returned with her lip gloss wrong. Not wiped off, but rubbed off clumsily by someone else, for there were traces off it about the skin around her mouth. She left only at the time when rugby practice was ending, but returned each time with her hair mussed and shirt disarranged a different way, indicating engagement with various people of different…styles of interaction. There is also an excess of concealer at the corner of her mouth, indicating a hidden sore. She wears no makeup on the rest of her face, other than the gloss, so it has to be a type of sore she doesn't want other people to know about it."

"And how'd you know it was those three specifically?" asks John, astonished.

Sherlock grins, stretching the cut on his lip. John sees that there's a rapidly-bruising scrape across his cheekbone as well. "I heard them bragging about it in the hall."

"Can't say I'm surprised they decked you, then," says John, shaking his head.

"Indeed."

If this was how Sherlock Holmes talks to people, his alienation makes sense. He shows no sign of pain or embarrassment at having just been punched. In fact, that marble face has yet to betray any other emotion other than the vague interest and amusement. Not a trait that garners a lot of friends, John guesses.

He smiles. "That's amazing, though. Really amazing. I can't believe you notice all that."

"Is that what you think?" says Sherlock, and the change in his tone catches John's attention. There's something new in his eyes—happiness, maybe, though it's hard to tell. And hopefulness.

"Well, yeah," says John, slightly taken aback. "It's really smart. You must get all A's."

Sherlock snorts, pushing his thick, dark hair away from his forehead. "For some reason, professors don't seem to appreciate it when I tell them their husbands are cheating on them. And who with."

"Is that why you're always in detention?"

"One of the reasons."

They're talking quite naturally, John realizes—not something he had ever pictured himself doing with Sherlock Holmes. He's suddenly aware that if anyone sees them, it might push him over the edge from having-no-friends-but-being-friendly-enough-with-everyone to the realm of nobody-speaks-to-you.

But when he catches Sherlock's eye again, it seems like a stupid thing to worry about.

Sherlock hesitates. He seems to have remembered something, and for the first time, John sees his composure slip slightly. "I suppose I should thank you. For…that."

John shoves his bag higher on his shoulder, feeling his face heat up. "Don't mention it."

"No one's ever done that before," he says, almost to himself, and John spots a brief hint of the possibility that maybe Sherlock doesn't like being alone, either.

But then the other boy's eyes narrow. "So, if you don't mind my asking, why? I can see you're not someone who regularly likes to draw attention to himself. You're not a troubleseeker, though you like a thrill well enough. You're not exceptional in any one area, but adequate in most of them. You recently dropped off the rugby team due to an injury, and you're on the lookout for a new set of friends, so I can't imagine why you'd do something as socially problematic as protecting someone like me."

"Wow" was all that John can say. With every second, it's becoming clearer why everyone hates this boy. He's rude, tactless, and invasive—but for some reason, John doesn't mind. For one thing, it's nice to have an actual conversation with someone beyond perfunctory greetings in the hallway.

Also, it's nice to think that someone, albeit someone he's just met, knows him well.

"I don't like to watch people get hurt," says John, surprising himself. It isn't something he would have said to anyone else—it's a weird thing to say—but something about Sherlock prompts absolute honesty.

"And why would a rugby player not like seeing people get hurt?" says Sherlock, again with the tone of talking mostly to himself. "That is one of the points of the game, after all. Oh, I see. Your father wanted you to join the team, didn't he? He doesn't trust you, he wants to keep the teenager out of the house after school while he's at work…but why…oh. Your mother is dead—likely a painful death, and you bore witness to some part of it."

John pulls his crutches up from where they've sunk into the lawn, and moves back. There's a dull ringing in his ears. "I need to go."

For a moment, Sherlock looks bewildered—and then his eyes widen. "Ah," he says softly. "Not good?"

"A bit not good." Without a backward glance at the boy with the bloody face, John turns and hobbles toward the sidewalk, something hurting in his chest.

He'll phone Harry. It won't be hard. Or maybe he'll walk. He'll walk, and damn any doctor who tells him he can't.

Chapter Text

The next morning, John is exhausted.

It happens sometimes, the nightmares. Memories find him in his sleep and grip him hard—the squealing of the brakes, the scream, the crash, the blackness. Always the same. Always nothing he can do.

He'd woken up and found himself thinking about Sherlock.

In general, John tries to be a good person, and he'd started feeling bad about the way he'd just turned and left. He doubts Sherlock had intended to hurt him. The blankness in his face, and then the slow realization—John has a feeling that Sherlock knows very little about human emotion.

He's begun to think maybe the bloke is a high-functioning autistic. He's certainly socially incapacitated enough. There's a couple autistic kids in his grade, though, and John just can't group smooth Sherlock together with Melanie, who sings at the top of her lungs when she thinks nobody's listening, and Caleb, who's obsessed with model trains.

He doesn't see Sherlock in the hall when he pushes through the glass doors. What he does see is the fact that his little rescue attempt has entered the gossip mill. A few people laughs as he passes, and the friendly waves he usually gets from the rugby team have turned into glares. John sighs. This might complicate the matter of finding new people to hang out with.

When he drops into his seat in Calculus, propping his crutches against his desk, Aiden Schwartz leans toward him. John doesn't know much about Aiden except that they occasionally partnered in class for group projects. He's a member of the GSA—secretary or something. He's certainly dressed for the part, his tight-fitting, multicolored shirt stretching as he smiles.

"So. I heard."

"For Christ's sake. It's not a big deal." John dumps the contents of his binder on his desk, riffling through the papers to hide his annoyance.

Aiden flaps his hands. "No, of course not! I totally get it. I just wanted to know if you'd be interested in joining the club."

"What club?" says John slowly.

"GSA, duh. You can invite Sherlock too. He doesn't seem like a club guy, but you never know."

"Why," asks John, with a dawning feeling of horror, "would I want to invite Sherlock to join the GSA?"

"Well, you're gay, aren't you?" says Aiden, dropping his voice with a smile. "You're dating. That's what I heard."

"I AM NOT—" begins John loudly, just as the professor walks in and the classroom chatter falls away, leaving John's voice to echo into silence. The professor stares.

"…Gay," he finishes in an undertone.

For the rest of the day, he finds himself fending off similar rumors. By the time the bell rings, he's wishing he'd never spoken to Sherlock. He yanks books out of his locker with increasing fervor. He hasn't seen Sherlock all day. Maybe he's sick. Or maybe he's secretly a wanker and has started all these rumors himself, and is staying out of sight so John won't—

"Punch me."

"What?" Several books topple from John's locker and onto the floor. He looks at them despondently, but before he can tackle the issue of crouching while on crutches, someone else stoops to get them.

It's Sherlock. Without taking his eyes from John, he pushes the books back in the locker. His cheekbone has bruised, and the mottled coloring stands out strangely on his white face, making him look even less human. "I said punch me."

"Mind if I ask why?"

"You're a rugby player. You express emotion through physicality. I was going to apologize for what I said yesterday, but I decided it would be simpler and easier for you to get rid of your anger through violence. Then we can get on with it."

John presses his hand against his forehead. Autism is looking more likely. "Get on with what?"

Sherlock pauses. His mouth opens slightly. Then he shakes his head, turning to go. "Never mind."

John sighs. "Wait. It's fine. It really is. It's just…you were right. About my mum."

"I'm usually right," says Sherlock, turning back. Then he catches himself. "I am sorry. For your loss."

"Everyone says that sort of thing. Somehow I didn't think you would."

"I generally don't."

John gives a half-smile. He's talking to Sherlock again in public, but it's too late to care now. "Does that mean I'm special?"

Sherlock leans against the row of lockers, his sharp shoulder pressing into the orange paint. "It means I owe you."

"You don't owe me anything."

"A new pair of crutches, at least." He gestures at the deep crack running through the wood. "And a ride home."

"I don't need a ride—" begins John, but when he glances down the hall through the glass doors, he can just see the tail end of the last bus disappearing. "Oh."

"I'll take that as a yes. Coming?"

There doesn't seem to be anything to do but to follow Sherlock down the hall, maneuvering awkwardly on his crutches. "Somehow I'm surprised you have a car. And can drive."

Sherlock slows his gait to keep pace with the injured boy. "My brother has a car. I borrow it. On occasion."

"When'd you get your license?"

"I haven't. It's a simple operation, driving. A license is just a formality."

John stops short. It takes Sherlock a moment to notice, and his strides are so long that he has to backtrack.

"Thanks for the offer, but I think I'll just walk," says John, shuffling.

Sherlock cocks his head. "You walked yesterday. You shouldn't have. Your limp is worse today. I'll drive you."

John lets out a breath. The anxiety he feels when speaking to most people, the anxiety about lying, about making himself seem normal and acceptable, falls away. "It was a car crash. My mum, I mean. I'll get in a car with people who I know won't fly off the road."

"I realize you have no incentive to believe me." Sherlock takes a step forward. John notices his eyes again—glittering, like ice. "But I'll tell you anyway. You can trust me."

Those four words. Promises are meaningless, John knows. But there it is again, that inexplicable thing about Sherlock that clears John's head, makes him a more honest person—a better person. Maybe this John can trust Sherlock.

And he really doesn't want to walk home again.

The moment they step outside, Sherlock plunges a hand into his pocket and withdraws a cigarette. He puts it to his lips, and within seconds smoke is swirling above his head.

John glances at him curiously. "You smoke?"

"Frequently."

"It's bad for you, y'know."

"When has that ever stopped anyone from doing anything?" Sherlock stops in front of a car. John doesn't know enough about cars to be able to name it, but he knows it's expensive—long, black, with bits of silver here and there.

He gapes. "Your brother lets you borrow this?"

"Using the term 'lets' broadly, yes." Sherlock unlocks the door, rounds the car, unlocks John's side and holds the door open for him.

The inside of the car looks brand-new, except for the absence of the new-car smell. It smells instead like brandy. John wonders how old Sherlock's brother is, and if he was like Sherlock. If so, he feels bad for their parents.

He gazes out the window as they pull out of the parking lot. Somehow, his nervousness has vanished. Sherlock drives slowly. For his benefit, John supposes. He can scarcely believe that he's being driven home by his school's resident pariah.

And that his school's resident pariah is surprisingly interesting.

"How's your face?" he finds himself asking, cutting through the silence.

Sherlock doesn't look away from the road. "Slightly sore. But remarkably untarnished, thanks to you. I was expecting worse."

"So why'd you say that stuff to Mark, if you were expecting it?"

"I'm the type of person who says things. If people don't like it, they can handle it in whichever way they please." He takes a hand away from the wheel to draw on his cigarette. The smoke clouds the windshield, and John rolls down his window. Sherlock glances at him sidelong. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"I'm sorry you had to intervene. I've been meaning to learn how to fight. It looks like it would be a useful skill."

"You do seem to have a talent for making people want to punch you," notes John.

Sherlock laughs. His face changes when he laughs, some of the austerity slipping away. He has a surprisingly genuine smile. It's crooked, breaking the symmetry of his face.

"So it would seem."

"I can teach you a bit," says John. He doesn't know what prompts him to say it, but he doesn't like the idea of Sherlock not being able to defend himself. The boy is at least half a head taller than John, but he's thin in a way that seems unhealthy. Breakable. "I mean, I'm no expert, but I've had a few boxing lessons."

"Really?" This time, Sherlock does glance briefly at John, and John sees what he'd seen before when he'd complimented his intelligence—a surprised appreciation. As if he isn't used to kindness. "You would do that?"

"Sure," says John decisively. "Wouldn't be hard. Hey, can I ask—" he hesitates. "I was just wondering how you knew yesterday. About my mum."

"Oh. That," says Sherlock. "You had a hole in your jeans. Easily patchable, but with the look of having been there a while and gotten larger. There was another hole near the foot, but it was patched, albeit some time ago—faded cloth, stiches stretched. There was someone in your family who used to patch your jeans, but they're gone now. Not your father, he can't pick you up after school, he doesn't have time for things like that. Combine that with your expression, and it's obvious. A mother."

John works around the lump in his throat. "You're brilliant. You're like a genius or something."

"I think so," says Sherlock, a note of happiness entering his voice. "You'd be surprised at the teachers in this bloody school. They wouldn't notice intelligence if it told them if their daughter was gay."

"I'm sure it has," says John, raising an eyebrow. "And—what do you mean about my expression?"

"You have a slightly injured look." Sherlock drags from his cigarette. "You see it with traumatized people. Don't worry, it's not obvious."

John falls into silence, expecting anger to wash over him, but there's nothing. Here is someone who can look at him and see straight into his heart, read his life story from a glance—but he isn't upset.

It's nice to have someone know without having to tell them. John isn't the best at telling people things.

"Not obvious," says John. "But you see it."

"I see everything."

John glances at himself in the rearview mirror. Eyes = brown. That's what everyone sees. Eyes = tired of looking and seeing things, people, that mean nothing to him. Bags under the eyes from the nightmares. That's what he sees. And, apparently, so does Sherlock.

Whereas he can see nothing beyond the cold clearness in Sherlock's eyes.

He wonders if Sherlock minds—having nobody who knows him, really knows him. But then, what does John know? Sherlock has a brother, and presumably parents. Maybe they're close. Unable to stand the curiosity, John asks, "What's your family like?"

Sherlock's mouth settles into a hard line. "Not worth discussing."

So. No relief there. "I don't get along with mine either," says John awkwardly. He'd never have said this to anyone else, but he wants Sherlock to know that he's not alone in being alone. "My dad—uh. He's always working, and my sister's at a nearby uni, but she drinks too much, and…well."

He flushes. Sherlock's eyes are still set on the road. John follows his gaze and realizes something—the street they're on is unfamiliar. "Oh, Sherlock—I never gave you my address."

"Don't need it yet," says Sherlock, absently drumming his fingers on the wheel.

"Sorry, but why wouldn't you need it if you're taking me home?"

"We're making a stop somewhere first. I need your help."

"Need my help," repeats John. This part of town doesn't look friendly. Trash cans are overturned on corners. Bail bond offices are everywhere, and drunks stagger along the sidewalk. "Help with what?"

"Oh, a couple of drug dealers I'm fairly certain tried to molest Molly Hooper."

"Molly Hooper? She's a year below us, isn't she?" mutters John, before the words hit him. "Drug dealers? We're going to confront a couple of drug dealers? And you're taking me?"

"Yes. Problem?"

"Well of course there's a bloody problem! Why would you drag me into this?"

Sherlock sighs, his long fingers bouncing up and down on the leather. "As I'm sure you've noticed, I'm not exactly physically formidable. I brought you in case things take a…physical turn."

"A physical turn? Sherlock, I'm not a bloody superhero, I'm on crutches!"

"Which you use quite effectively as a weapon," Sherlock observes.

"Drug dealers—people like that have guns! And knives! Why don't you call the police?"

Sherlock snorts. "Police are useless. And no evidence—at least not evidence they would count. Molly Hooper came to me. And I was bored."

John, stunned into silence, can only shake his head.

"If you really want me to, I'll turn around and take you home," said Sherlock.

"And you'll just go on and confront these people by yourself."

"It's not preferable, but yes."

John lets out a heavy sigh, dragging a hand down his face. He has no obligation to help Sherlock do anything so stupid. He knows that. And yet—Sherlock is clearly useless in a fight. John hasn't met a lot of drug dealers, but he imagines people who could do a lot worse to Sherlock than hand out one punch. There doesn't seem to be any way to stop him from confronting them.

He realizes he doesn't want anything bad to happen to the other boy.

And there is the thrill, the creeping feeling in his legs, something he'd only ever been able to get from rugby. Going to school, coming back to an empty house, going to school again—it's so monotonous. But the monotony is gone now. He wants to keep it away.

"If you think I'm going to let you do something that idiotic by yourself—" John begins, and then pauses. He shakes his head. "You're dumber than Mark Belham."

That crooked smile again.

It's something a friend would say, thinks John. Were they friends now, he and Sherlock? He steals a glance at the profile of the handsome pale face. At what point did you become friends with someone who acts like they've never had a friend in their life?

He supposes he's about to find out.

Chapter Text

They park in front of an abandoned garage. It seems to have been converted into a skate park by the locals, and the rattle of skateboards echoes up the high concrete walls as Sherlock steps out of the car.

John follows, dragging his crutches out and pulling himself on top of them. Already his heart is beating a little faster. He sees something enliven in Sherlock's face as well. The other boy strides toward the garage without a glance at John. John hastens to keep up, the crutches clacking on the dirty ground.

A single broken light, flickering, casts long shadows on the stained gray walls. The echo of shouting and swearing rises from the skateboarders in the distance. John spots Sherlock scanning the walls, where a few people, mostly in black hooded sweatshirts, loiter with cigarettes held to their mouths.

"Hold on," Sherlock mutters to John. John watches in surprise as Sherlock deftly upturns his shirt collar, unbuttoning the top button and purposefully twisting the hem, giving it an unkempt look. He musses his hair and tries opening his eyes wide, giving him a desperate look that unnerves John.

"You okay?" asks John involuntarily.

"Splendid." Again without warning, he strides off toward the people against the wall, this time walking slightly hunched and with neurotic glances over his shoulder. It doesn't seem like the approach of someone about to confront two drug dealers. Bewildered, John follows. The eyes of the dealers slide to him and Sherlock.

"You two," Sherlock croaks to two guys at the end. They're at least twenty-five, taller than the very tall Sherlock and considerably broader in the shoulder. One has hair spiked in a mohawk. The other wears a single long earring.

"You buyin'? If not, clear off," growls Mohawk. His sweatshirt is ratty, but John notices what looks like a very expensive watch on his wrist.

"I was told you guys had snow." Sherlock speaks in a low stutter, still throwing those twitchy glances over his shoulder. He wrings his hands together. John saw that Earring was staring at him and scuffed his own sneaker against the ground, trying to look inconspicuous.

"We got it," Mohawk confirms, stretching his hands behind him in a slightly threatening gesture. "You got money?"

Sherlock's hand darts inside his shirt and withdraws a sizeable wad of bills, which he flashes briefly in the air before stowing them back inside. "Not here. Somewhere…private."

Earring laughs at Sherlock's apparent paranoia. "Whatever, kid." He nods to Mohawk, and they stride together toward a staircase at the end of the garage. Sherlock casts a quick glance around and follows. John, struggling slightly on his crutches, is last when he reaches the top. This second floor is abandoned, silent but for the distant echo of skateboards and the steady drip of water.

"Here." Sherlock shoves the wad of bills against Mohawk's chest. He snorts, withdrawing from his pocket a plastic baggie filled with white powder. Sherlock snatches it, stuffing it inside his pocket.

John squints. Was Sherlock actually going to keep that? Nervousness steals over him—what does he really know about Sherlock? Maybe the guy was a drug addict, using John to—what?He notices that Earring is staring at him again, this time in a particularly unfriendly way.

Sherlock notices too. "He's with me."

"Is he," sneers Earring. "Well, you've got your shit now. So piss off."

"One moment," says Sherlock, the false quiver had sliding from his face and voice as quickly as if he had walked through a door. "Molly Hooper sends her regards."

"Who the hell?" snaps Mohawk, clearly unnerved by Sherlock's sudden change in demeanor.

"Molly Hooper." Sherlock flattens his shirt collar. "You met her at a party two nights ago. You took her to a bedroom and tried to do particularly abhorrent things to her, but she managed to get free and run through the door."

"And who the fuck are you that you care?" Earring takes a step forward, positioning himself only a couple inches away from Sherlock. Their difference in size is alarming, but Sherlock doesn't flinch. John, however, has to stop himself from starting forward.

"Caring is not the word I would use. You might say I was hired," says Sherlock coolly, looking up into Earring's deep-set eyes.

Earring seizes Sherlock's shirt in his fist, dragging him forward. John, unable to stop himself, lunges, but a heavy arm locks around his throat. "Don't move, Doctor Cripple," Mohawk hisses in his ear.

"Hired for what?" Earring spits at Sherlock's feet.

Sherlock closes his eyes in distaste. "Hired to blackmail you."

"Blackmail—?"

"There was a camera in the room. You may have noticed had you not been too busy being animals. There are pictures. Pictures that would quite suffice for the police to pull you in, despite how careful you've been about their not noticing your little business. Pictures along with names that can be sent to the station at a moment's notice. Unless you send your last two weeks' earnings to the address of Molly H. Hooper."

"Oh, really?" Earring releases Sherlock, who drops back, and smirks. From the waistband of his jeans, he pulls a small black pistol, which he points directly at Sherlock's heart. "And you're the one with these pictures, are you? So if we take out you and your gimp friend here, we got nothing to worry about."

Involuntarily, John lets out a strangled cry. It's a stupid sound, he thinks distantly. This is going exactly as he had feared it would. He berates himself for letting Sherlock do something so stupid. And now—he's never actually seen a gun in real life, but he knows exactly what they do, and he does not understand how Sherlock can look so calm.

"Certainly that would be so," says Sherlock. "If the pictures were not actually in the hand of a fr—acquaintance of mine. If I don't return within the hour, the pictures will be sent."

"But you don't expect us to do what you say without proof." Earring gives a cruel smile. "We see one of these 'pictures'. Then we talk."

Sherlock pauses, narrowing his eyes. Apparently, he has underestimated their intelligence. John stares at him desperately.

"Do you really think I would be so stupid as to bring them with me?" says Sherlock quietly. "Either you do as I say, or you get to find out the hard way whether I'm telling the truth or not."

"I think you're going to find something out the hard way, kid." Still smiling, Earring drops the gun's barrel from Sherlock's chest. John sighs in relief, but the sigh catches in his throat as Earring hands the gun to Mohawk instead, who still has John pinned in a headlock. A cold circle of metal presses into his hair. Immediately, his insides seemed to come apart. This is real fear. He recognizes it. He'd hoped he would never have to feel it again.

Sherlock has clearly not expected this. His pale face turns even whiter, and his clear eyes widen minutely. John has already spent enough time around Sherlock to know what this means: that he doesn't know what to do.

Earring cracks his hairy knuckles. "Either you have your 'acquaintance' drive over here and bring you a copy of those photos, so as we can see you're telling the truth, or crutches over here gets a brain full of lead."

"Impossible," says Sherlock. Is it John's fear-addled imagination, or is imperturbable Sherlock's voice shaking a tiny bit? "My acquaintance is too far away to drive here."

"Then have him send you a picture. I bet you got a phone."

"But he doesn't have one."

"Alright, then." John hears Mohawk's raspy voice come from above his head. "Say goodbye to your pal."

The barrel presses more firmly into John's head. John closes his eyes and clamps his teeth together. No point in being hysterical.

"Wait!" yells Sherlock. It's the first time John has heard Sherlock raise his voice. He opens his eyes again. Sherlock has stretched out his hand. "My acquaintance. I'll tell them to drive here. But it'll be an hour."

"We can wait." Mohawk sits on the grimy ground, dragging John down with him. His cast jolts against the floor. He bites back a hiss of pain. Sherlock immediately sits down as well, crossing his legs and shutting his eyes with an expression of deep concentration.

It's one of the longest hours of John's life. The one thing he can do to keep himself from trembling is to stare at Sherlock's face. With Sherlock's eyes closed, he's free to gaze as much as he wants. The perfect pale skin, all the angles, strangely beautiful—John wishes he could send himself through that face and into Sherlock's mind, so he could find out if the other boy was thinking of a way to save them.

After a while, Earring begins to hum a crude song. The sound echoes off the high walls and wakes Sherlock from his trance. He glances up, clearly irritated. Earring sneers, "Been over an hour now. Admit it. You got nothing."

Sherlock is silent. John can see that his plan has failed. Sherlock's face is a mask, but he glances at John, and John can see it—Sherlock is trying to tell him he's sorry.

"It's okay," says John, his voice slightly hoarse from the pressure of Mohawk's arm. He doesn't want the last thing he sees to be Sherlock looking at him like that. "Sherlock, it's okay."

"That's the last thing it is," snorts Earring. "You look like you're in school, huh, kid? They supposed to teach you lessons there. Looks like I'll have to teach you an important one."

He grabs Sherlock's shirt again. John struggles, but Mohawk's grip is too strong. That raspy voice whispers in his ear again: "Just watch. You're next."

Earring's hand closes around Sherlock's throat. He shoves the dark-haired boy against the wall, driving a fist violently into his stomach. Sherlock jerks but makes no sound, even as Earring takes him by the hair and smashes his face into the wall, sending blood flowing freely from his nose. Sherlock falls to the ground as the drug dealer kicks him hard in the ribs. Finally, he gives a gasp.

"Damn it, you'll kill him!" John's voice echoes uselessly, mingling with the thuds of Earring's fist connecting with Sherlock's face.

Mohawk pulls his arm tighter, cutting off John's breath. "That's the point. You two messed with the wrong maniacs."

Sherlock's face is covered in blood. His eyes are open, but barely. Earring slams his head into the concrete again.

The lack of oxygen makes John dizzy. It's happening again. Someone is dying in front of him, and he's powerless. He has to fight the urge to vomit. Two days he's known this boy, and now he is going to watch him die.

Unless he does something to stop it.

The gun barrel is still pressed into his head. John ignores it. Gripping one of his crutches, he swings it up, striking Mohawk full in the face. Mohawk gives a yell and the gun fires, the bullet whizzing harmlessly across the garage. Freed, John flails with his crutch, delivering a lucky hit to Mohawk's throat. He makes a gargling sound and falls backwards. The gun clatters to the ground, and John seizes it. He whirls, barely balancing on his crutches as he aims the weapon at Earring. "Let him go."

Sherlock is lying facedown on the concrete. Earring smiles as he kneels, placing a knee in the small of Sherlock's back and taking a handful of the dark hair. "Drop the gun, or I snap his neck."

John can feel his own pulse hammering in his ears. Sherlock is motionless. No help there. What the hell had Sherlock expected from him? He isn't strong, he isn't powerful, he isn't the kind of person you bring along to protect you from anything. But maybe Sherlock just hadn't had anyone else to ask.

Mohawk stirs behind him. Suddenly, he wonders. Maybe—he swings the gun around, pointing it at Mohawk's head. The man freezes. "Drop Sherlock, or I shoot."

"You won't," sneers Earring. "You're just a kid."

John moves the barrel and fires. The bullet hits the concrete a couple feet from Mohawk, who shrieks. John keeps his voice steady. "Maybe, but that's my friend you've got there."

"Goddammit, man, they're just a couple of stupid kids, I don't want to die over this," Mohawk moans.

"Shut up," Earring snarls, but his eyes fixate on the gun. "Fuck. Fine. You brats aren't worth it. I'm letting go. See?"

He releases Sherlock's hair, standing up and backing away from the body with his hands held up.

John waits until the two men have backed toward the staircase and run down it. Then he has to grab his crutches tightly to keep from collapsing, his legs shaking violently. The gun falls to the ground. He inhales deeply—once, twice. He has to move. Awkwardly, he lowers himself down beside Sherlock's body, the crutches sliding on the ground that John realizes is slippery with blood. Sherlock's blood.

It occurs to John that if Sherlock dies, it will be all his fault. The second life to slip between his fingers.

"Sherlock," he tries to say, but the word won't come. He clears his throat. "Sherlock. Hey. Sherlock."

He turns the dark-haired boy onto his back. Sherlock's face is drenched with blood, most of it apparently coming from a gash above his eyebrow. The sight hits John like a punch to the stomach, and he finds himself unable to breathe. Then Sherlock coughs. It's a weak sound, but anything is better than nothing. The eyes flicker and open, their clearness a strange sight in the dyed-scarlet face.

"John," Sherlock murmurs.

"Okay. Okay. Good." John presses his hand briefly to his eyes, but there is no time for that. "Sherlock, I need you to stand up. I can't carry you. Do you hear me? Can you get up?"

"Yes," says Sherlock, but doesn't move.

John exhales. They need to get out of here. "Okay." By hooking one crutch under his arm, slipping Sherlock's bloodied arm over his shoulder, he manages to drag them both into a standing position. Sherlock shakes his head and pulls away, teetering on his own for a moment—and then he collapses. John makes an attempt to catch him, but he's unbalanced, and they both crash to the ground. John's cast glances off the concrete again, and he forgets to bite back his gasp.

"I apologize," whispers Sherlock, closing his eyes.

John grips his shoulder. "No. Sherlock? Stay awake. Come on."

This time, he keeps them upright. Sherlock is a heavy weight against John's shoulder, so bony that it actually hurts to be pressed into him. His head slips against John's neck, and John feels the wet smear of blood left there.

Shit. The gun. John glances at it, lying on the ground, but he isn't sure if he can reach it and get them off the concrete again if they happen to fall. They'll have to do without it.

He's not sure how he does it, but somehow he drags himself and the half-conscious Sherlock down the stairs. There's no sign of Mohawk or Earring. A few of the skaters stare, but don't offer to help. Fights here were probably common enough.

"Sherlock, I need the key," pants John as they reach the car.

John feels Sherlock's breath against his collarbone. "It's in my pocket."

Plunging his hand into the pocket of Sherlock's pants, John's fingers push past the baggie of cocaine and close on hard metal. He opens the car door and tips Sherlock into the back seat, where he lies sprawled, breathing shallowly. "I'm taking you to the hospital," says John, as clearly as he can. "All right?"

"No," says Sherlock in a normal voice, though his eyes remain closed. "No hospital."

"Sherlock—"

"No hospital."

"Fine. Give me your address then."

"Not there either."

"Then where the hell am I supposed to take you?"

"Your place."

John opens and closes his mouth. His father won't be home yet. Harry's still at uni. It's doable. And yet— "Sherlock, why do you want to go to my place?"

"You'll look after me," he says, his voice barely a whisper.

John stares at the bloodied face, but Sherlock says nothing more. Swearing, John unlocks the front door and slides into the seat, shoving his crutches over his lap. He has his permit, but not his license.

He'll have to be careful.

Chapter Text

There is no car in John's driveway as he maneuvers up the gravel slope. He sighs in relief. He isn't sure how he could have explained Sherlock to his father, or Harry. Even if Sherlock weren't semiconscious, he would probably be a hard person to explain to one's family.

It's already dark when John yanks open the back door. Sherlock has rolled onto his side. John notices a bloodstain on the cream-colored seat. He hopes Sherlock's brother won't be angry. "Sherlock, we're here, come on."

Sherlock is silent. Gritting his teeth, John seizes the other boy's arms, dragging him forward. That seems to rouse him a little. Together, they manage to stumble up the front steps and into John's house. At any other time, John would have apologized for the mess. His father isn't home often enough to clean, and it's rare that John can motivate himself enough to do it. Dishes are heaped in the sink, and newspapers lie strewn across the floor. Somehow, though, he doesn't think Sherlock minds.

He pulls Sherlock after him into his room, closing the door behind them. John's room is just as messy as the rest of the house. He has to shove aside a pile of dirty clothes on the bed to make room for Sherlock, whose limpness is alarming. However, John has taken care of enough injured teammates to know what to do.

"Sherlock," he says, kneeling in front of the dark-haired boy, who is having trouble staying sitting upright. "How's your head?"

"Well. It was just slammed into concrete."

"So not good. Dizzy? Nauseous?"

"Where did the two of them go?" Sherlock's eyes open a little wider, fixating on John. "They had a gun. Are you all right?"

"Oh, Jesus." John wipes his forehead. Sherlock is asking him if he's all right. It strikes him as funny, and he has to swallow a laugh. "Answer my questions, okay, and no sarcasm. Are your ears ringing?"

"Did they get away?"

"Sherlock."

"No. No ringing."

"Okay. Tell me what just happened."

"You were there."

"SHERLOCK."

"I drove you to the parking garage to confront two drug dealers. I…may not have thought things through. But that's a rarity, I assure you."

"A rarity. Huh." John snorts, then turns to rummage through his desk drawer for a flashlight. He shines it in Sherlock's face. "Look at the light. Does it hurt?"

Sherlock squints. "It's bright."

Regular dilation. Good. John switches off the flashlight. "I don't think you have a concussion, but you shouldn't go to sleep tonight, just in case. Does anything feel broken?"

"Only my dignity."

"I'm sure it'll recover." Grabbing a towel from under the bed, John dunks a corner of it in a half-full glass of water on his bedside table. He begins daubing the blood away from Sherlock's face. The cut above his eyebrow is deep, but it doesn't look like it'll need stiches. There are a few other scrapes, but nothing too serious. He'll just have some terrific bruises.

"Thank you, Doctor Watson," says Sherlock quietly.

Doctor Watson. John likes the sound of that. He moves back, surveying Sherlock, who is covered in grime. "You know, I think you'd better just shower."

"Here?" Sherlock raises an eyebrow. "Does your father know you're inviting strange boys over to use your shower?"

"I hope to God not." John pauses. Strangers? Are they still strangers? John likes to know exactly where he stands in a friendship, but this—whatever this is—is nothing like anything he's experienced before. Not exactly categorizable by high school friendship standards. He still knows almost nothing about Sherlock, but after all—and John realizes this with a sudden semblance of pride—he'd just saved the other boy's life. A fact he isn't sure if Sherlock is even aware of.

"I think I'll take you up on those boxing lessons." Sherlock winces as he gets to his feet. He sways, and John watches him apprehensively, but he doesn't fall. His hand closes on the towel that John has been using to clean up the blood. "And the shower as well."

John points at a door at the end of his bedroom. "Over there. And for God's sake, there's a clean towel hanging by the sink."

With his back to John, Sherlock hesitates halfway across the room. "I feel the need to point out that I was right."

"Right?" By what measurements had that escapade been right in any sense of the word?

"About bringing you." Sherlock speaks to the wall. John has a sense that this is easier for him than turning around. "You saved me. Again."

The memory of the parking garage already seems so dreamlike John has difficulty accepting thanks. "You're welcome. Again."

"Perhaps I should start paying you."

"Maybe you could pay me by not getting into stupid situations."

"What else is there to do around here?" Sherlock raises a hand in lazy recognition before entering the bathroom and shutting the door. Moments later, there comes the sound of water rushing.

John lies back across his bed. He puts a hand over his heart. A normal rate. Why isn't he terrified? Why isn't he curled up on a ball? The last time his life had been in danger, he hadn't reacted well. Months of depression. Then again, he supposes, nobody died this time.

Lots of things scare John. High school scares John. Those hallways are cavernous when you have no one to walk down them with. You always know what people want from you, what they expect—someone nice, someone fun, someone simple. Not someone who spends hours at night staring at the ceiling when he can't sleep. Not someone who lives in constant terror of being alone, and yet doesn't know how to have a genuine relationship.

He'd been scared in the garage, of course he had been scared—the gun—but it was a different fear. A fear he could confront. And he had. He had won.

His thoughts turn back to Sherlock. He's different than anyone else at their school, that's for sure. Smarter, for one thing. Much smarter. And not in a way that's just studying and grades.

But there's something wrong with him—something John can't quite put his finger on. Autism is still a possibility. He knows how to talk to people even less than John does—and what's more, he doesn't try. John has never known someone not to try, not to make that soul-crushing struggle of finding the right thing to say, the normal thing, the thing that will make everyone like you and not eat you alive.

He's actually surprised Sherlock has yet to be eaten alive.

Even now, he has a vague feeling that Sherlock is in danger. That people'll be gunning for Sherlock, that Sherlock attracts the crosshairs. That this is the way it will be for a long time. And that Sherlock doesn't really recognize the fact he can be hurt, that he feels invincible from people less smart then him—which, by Sherlock's standards, John feels, is everyone.

If this is the start of a friendship, John has a choice to make. He can cut this off before it got any deeper. Go back to school, make light of his brief association with that freak Sherlock Holmes. Find some people to pretend he liked, hope they'd be willing to pretend they liked him back. Be bored, but be safe.

The idea makes him feel slightly sick.

And apparently, Sherlock needs a bodyguard.

John realizes it had been quite a while. He sits up, hoping Sherlock hasn't passed out in the shower—that would make for an awkward scene—but then the doorknob turns and Sherlock steps out in a cloud of steam, a towel wrapped around his hips.

John nearly falls off the bed. It's a ghoulish sight, the bruises already blooming purple and red across Sherlock's chest and stomach. But that isn't what bothers John the most. Sherlock is thin. Too thin. Count-every-rib, looks-like-he-should-be-in-a-hospital thin.

Sherlock frowns slightly. "No need to stare. I've got nothing worth bragging about, after all."

John chokes. "That's bloody well not it. Sherlock, do you eat ever?"

"Of course I eat." Sherlock gives John another suspicious stare, as if trying to figure out why he is asking such stupid questions all of a sudden. He reaches behind him and retrieves his shirt from the floor of the bathroom. "Your father isn't coming home soon, I can see by the state of the refrigerator."

John doesn't bother asking. He wants to reach out and pull Sherlock onto the bed, the other boy looks so fragile. "What I mean is how OFTEN do you eat?"

Sniffing, Sherlock says, "About every other day. I cannot fathom your sudden interest in such a tedious matter."

"Every—every other day?" John's heard about eating disorders. He'd thought it was just girls who got them—but was this what was wrong with Sherlock? If so, he didn't seem aware of it. "Hasn't anyone ever told you that's not healthy?"

"Isn't it?" says Sherlock idly. "I try to keep such trivial facts out of my mind. They only take up room. Just as much as I try to keep my brother out of my personal matters, unless you expect me to give him a chart of how often I eat and how often I go to the bathr—"

"Your parents, what do they think about it?" John interrupts. He tries to picture an adult version of Sherlock and can't.

Visibly irritated, Sherlock ducks back into the bathroom to dress fully, speaking through the door: "They're generally abroad. And I'm sure they wouldn't be interested in something so inconsequential. Now, about—"

John cuts him off. "Sherlock, you look emancipated—I mean—emaciated. You can't just not eat, there's health problems and such you'll get when you're older—"

The door swings open, and Sherlock stands there with his arms crossed, wet hair trailing moisture into his crystal eyes. He gazes at John inscrutably. "Dear John, do you really think I'll live that long for that sort of thing to affect me?"

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Sherlock regards John with surprise. "My goal isn't to live long enough for my mind to be clouded by age, it's to live efficiently. And that means being straightforward and cutting out silly things like—this conversation."

John feels a little desperate. It's impossible to argue with Sherlock's cool logic, and it seems incredulous that this has to be something to be argued for. "Is that why you let people beat you up and—and don't take care of your health?"

"Health," Sherlock snorts. "Taking care of that is time I could use doing more productive things."

"And has it ever occurred to you that people would be upset if you died?"

"No," says Sherlock, with no sadness—just surprise. "It's not a factor."

"Why isn't it a factor?"

"Because nobody would be upset."

"I would be upset!"

John feels stupid the moment he says it. It isn't something one says to someone one's known for two days. But—it was true. In the garage, during that split second he'd thought Sherlock was going to be beaten to death—he'd known the world would have lost something great. And he doesn't want to lose it, either.

Sherlock turns his head, squinting, as if trying to understand. "You would?"

"Yeah," says John defiantly. "I would."

"You'd put flowers on my grave and wear a nice suit and listen to a minister talk about what an upstanding citizen I was, would you?"

"I'd bloody well order ten baskets of carnations and carry the casket and BE the minister, if it would convince you not to be such an idiot."

For a moment, Sherlock stares. Then he tips his head back and laughs. The ridiculousness of it struck John too, and he can't help but snort with laughter as well. They say nothing for a moment, the two of them chortling.

Then John stands. "Let's go downstairs. I'll make you some toast."

"I'm not hungry."

"You're eating it. Doctor's orders."

And John propels him down the stairs.

Chapter Text

Sherlock had stayed for a few hours, recovering over toast and John's best attempt at scrambled eggs. And they'd talked. No small talk—there was no small talk with Sherlock. His conversation is difficult to follow, always jumping to the next topic with no real continuity, but John likes it. It's honest. Sherlock makes no attempt to hide what he wants to say, and John wishes he could be the same.

Sherlock had left only after John had made him drink several cups of coffee to ward off sleep, still worrying about a possible concussion. John had cleaned up and raced upstairs just in time for his father to open the kitchen door. He'd dragged the blanket over his head and forced his breathing to go deep and silent when his bedroom door had creaked open, just for a moment, before shutting again.

Now, in first period English, it's hard to believe that yesterday had been real.

The bell rings for lunch, and John swings into the hallway ahead of the crowd. It's a nice feeling, to be searching for someone he knows, even if he doesn't know him well. It isn't just that he wants to make sure he was all right, either, although that's definitely a factor. He's looking forward to the company.

He makes his way to the cafeteria, where he'd used to see Sherlock before they'd met. And sure enough, he's there now, in his usual table by the corner. The sight of the lone figure makes John inexplicably sad.

Well, if he's going to commit social suicide, he might as well make it official. He swings determinedly toward the table, slings his crutches to the side, and sits down. There aren't many students in the cafeteria yet, but as more file in, he can feel the eyes on him. The ex-rugby-player and the school loser.

All eyes except Sherlock's. The other boy hasn't seemed to notice he'd sat down.

John taps the table. "Hey."

Sherlock's tray is sitting beside him, laden with food but untouched. It takes a moment for Sherlock to lower the thick book from in front of his face and nod in recognition of John's presence.

John hisses through his teeth. "I'm sure it looks worse than it really is, but…"

"Oh, don't stare. It's tedious. I've been getting stared at all morning." Sherlock returns to his book, listlessly thumbing through the pages. The gash on his forehead is swollen and scabbed, and one of his eyes is blackened and half-shut. There's a broad scrape across his cheek.

"Feeling all right, then?" John makes himself stop staring, digging a fork into his mashed potatoes with what he hopes is cool casualness.

Sherlock's silvery eyes rise above the page. "You're sitting with me. At lunch. That's when everyone marks out the group they belong to. It means you've decided to be my—"

"Friend," finishes John cautiously. The word, out loud, is strange. He feels less like a high schooler and more like a kindergartener making a proposition on the playground. "If that's okay."

The corner of Sherlock's mouth quirks up. "Never had one before. We'll see how it goes. Call it an experiment."

"Do you like to…experiment?"

"It's one of the few things worth doing."

John waits, but Sherlock doesn't seem to recognize the innuendo joke. He lets it go. "Sherlock."

"Yes?"

"Eat. Your. Lunch."

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

"So, Mrs Holmes. How does it feel to be a newlywed?"

"Sod off," growls John, hoping nobody will notice that his ears have gone pink. He and Sherlock had been heading for the parking lot—apparently, Sherlock has 'borrowed' his brother's car again—and they're being trailed by a few members of the rugby team.

"Going off for a nice after school fuck, are we?"

"Do we like it rough? Is that what happened to your pretty face, Sherlock Homo?"

"John, is this upsetting you?" asks Sherlock in a low voice. Some of the boys hoot and elbow each other.

"What do you think?" hisses John, scarlet with humiliation and the effort of propelling himself along on crutches as quickly as possible.

"I just thought it prudent to make sure." Without breaking stride, Sherlock whirls and begins walking backwards, hands hooked together behind his back, facing the rugby players. "You. You steal your mother's panties and sniff them at night. Your mother who's dating a man twice her age—for his money, which you steal from his wallet to buy marijuana. And you. You're a chronic bed-wetter. You see a therapist every weekend about it. And you—ahh. You're gay, and you feel the need to distance yourself from that fact by making fun of it in other people."

John feels his stomach sink into his knees. "Sherlock."

"Yes, John?"

"Car. Now."

Luckily, the car is only a short distance away, and the rugby players are so stunned that it takes them a moment to give chase. Even so, John has to fend one of them off with a crutch as he falls into the seat, motioning frantically at Sherlock to drive.

As soon as they peal off, they both sink into laughter. Sherlock's laugh is surprisingly deep and warm. John likes the sound of it.

Eventually, John clears his throat. "You're not taking me anywhere I'll have another gun pointed at my head, are you?"

"Not unless someone at your house is likely to do that."

"And your brother doesn't mind you swiping his car two days in a row?"

"I noticed you have a habit of missing the bus," says Sherlock, taking one hand from the wheel to fish inside his jacket pocket for a cigarette. "And, thanks to me, you can't get rides with the rugby team anymore."

"And the whole thing with the—mother's panties, and the bedwetting, that was because they made me mad?"

"You were mad, weren't you?" Sherlock slides the cigarette between his lips, lighting it. "I haven't known you long and I'm not intricately familiar with what it means, for instance, when your face turns red."

"Either I'm mad, sunburnt, or being strangled."

"The first sounds least unpleasant, so I'm glad it was that."

"Thanks," said John, and means it. If this is Sherlock's way of showing friendship, well…there are worse ways to do it, though probably not weirder.

"Friends do things like that, don't they? If I don't at least try to get it right, the experiment will be useless."

John is about to question further into the matter of this 'experiment', but then he remembers something. "Oh…Sherlock. I was wondering. My, uh…well, my sister's coming home for the weekend today, and I was thinking maybe…"

"It's after three so you think she'll be drunk, and you want to avoid an awkward situation by going to my house." Sherlock glances quickly at John.

"Yeah." John gives a laugh, shaking his head in marvel. "You really are amazing."

"Not at all," says Sherlock, though he sounds delighted. "And you're welcome to come over, but I must warn you—my house is a bit…intimidating. And my brother might be home. In which case you will be treated to a thoroughly unpleasant encounter."

"It won't be as unpleasant as the one with my sister. Promise."

"You may wish to hold off with the promises."

As they drive, the lawns get larger and greener. The houses grow taller, and the fences whiter. John realizes they were heading into a rich part of town. The house they finally stop at looks like a mansion. There's even a gate at the end of the drive that swings open as they move forward.

"Has your brother seen your face yet?" asks John as the tires ground on the pavement. If John had shown up with a face like that, Harry would have been furious.

With the hand holding the cigarette, Sherlock traces the scrape on his cheek. John notices how long and thin and white his fingers are, like reeds from a pond. "He hasn't been back."

"Bloody hell, if I knew you were going to be on your own last night I wouldn't've sent you back." John pictures Sherlock alone in the huge house and feels a wave of guilt.

"I was quite fine. Thank for your…concern."

"Aren't you worried about your brother? For not being back?"

"Circumstances to make me worry about my brother would have to be very extreme indeed." Sherlock stops the car, pushing the door open in one easy movement. He drops the cigarette, grinds it under his heel, and stares at his house as John pulls himself out on his crutches.

Sherlock seems to be waiting for something, so John says "Wow." It's certainly warranted. The house has a balcony and several floors. Something in Sherlock's face relaxes. He turns up his shirt collar against the slight breeze.

"Come on then."

In contrast to John's house, the inside is completely clean. Too clean. It looks as if it'd never been lived in. The couch cushions are perfectly arranged, there are no dishes in the sink, and all the pictures on the wall hang straight. The tidiness feels clinical.

In an attempt to break the silence, John says, "Do you have any food? I'm starving."

Sherlock moves toward the couch and rolls onto it, slouching on his back. "Check the fridge."

The only thing in the fridge is some day-old milk. The cupboards are in a similar state. John knuckles his forehead. "Sherlock, when your brother's gone, who does the shopping?"

"Shopping. Dull." Sherlock's hand dangles over the edge of the couch, fingers digging into the carpet.

John sighs. For reasons that he can't comprehend, Sherlock is in a bad mood. "This is ridiculous. I'm going out to get you some food. Is there a grocery store around here?"

"Two blocks down, if you insist."

"I do. Be back soon."

John angles the door open and slips through. A while ago, two blocks would have seemed like a long way to walk on crutches, but now he cares little. He wonders where Sherlock's mysterious brother has gone, and if he knows how little effort his sibling takes to care for himself when he isn't there.

Halfway to the store he stops, realizing he knows absolutely nothing about what Sherlock likes to eat. Well, he thinks, starting again, he'll just have to guess.

At the end it all comes to a decent sum, the couple bags of bread and cereals and other bland things John thought it was unlikely Sherlock would turn his nose up at. He's glad he'd been saving his allowance. He's proud of himself as the cashier rings him up. He thinks maybe this is what it would feel like to look after a younger brother.

It's somewhat more difficult to maneuver back to the house with bags dangling from his elbows, but in the end he manages it, shouldering the door open.

What he sees makes him drop the groceries.

Sherlock is still lying on the couch, sleeve rolled up. He's flexing his arm, which has a needle syringe plunged into it. On the table is a glass of cloudy water and the open bag of cocaine he'd gotten yesterday.

John is no stranger to the simpler substances. His sister drinks more than anyone he knows, and he would admit to having stolen spare bottles of gin from her bedroom during his more depressed periods. He'd tried weed too, once with the rugby team, but it'd just made him anxious. The more mysterious drugs, though—cocaine and heroin and LSD—freak him out. They're too extreme; there are too many stories of people shriveling away because of them, and it alarms him considerably to see the needle in Sherlock's skin.

"Oh, hello." Sherlock's pupils are dilated, more so than when John had looked for a concussion, and a rare smile appears on his face. "How was the shopping? Stimulating? Educational? I would imagine not."

Lying there with his face covered in cuts and bruises, so thin, he looks like a junkie someone'd decided to dress up in nice clothes. John swallows. "Jesus, Sherlock, what are you doing?"

"Clearing my mind." With a quick movement that turns John's stomach, he tears the needle from his arm and drops it unceremoniously on the table. He turns to John with his eyes alight.

It's such an intense look that John felt a flush spread over him. "Do you do that sort of thing…a lot?"

"Does it bother you?" asks Sherlock quickly. "I can see that it does. I may not be the best at interpreting emotions, but yours fortunately are written all over your face. It's a mistake, to betray that much about yourself so easily. Anyone could use it as a weapon. There are different ways to protect yourself, John, and you may give me boxing lessons, but I should give you lessons in concealing your hand." He laughs.

Warily, John nudges the bags toward him. "I got…um…cereals, and things…"

"Illustrious John! Buying cereals and things. If not for people like you, the market for cereals and things would collapse. There would be total anarchy. People like me would rule. We can't have that. We would tear the world apart between our teeth."

Sherlock's face has gone even whiter beneath the bruises. John feels as if he'd stumbled in on the private reverie of a monster that had stopped trying to make itself seem safe. "Sherlock…"

Sherlock jumps up, burying his hands in his hair. "I need a problem, John. I need something to solve. If this world is so dull that it cannot keep my brain from withering, there's no point in keeping in it, is there? I'm dying for a challenge. I would kill for a challenge."

His silver eyes flash. John stepped back.

Sherlock cocked his head. His hair spills over his forehead. "Are you afraid? You needn't be. You're not a challenge. Or are you? I haven't decided yet. You see, I like you, John. How novel! Out of all the useless people milling about, I happen to like you." He snorts, almost in disgust at himself.

"Sherlock—"

"But I don't need you. Don't make the mistake of thinking that. I don't need any of you little…insects. I am on an entirely different level than you, do you understand? I am alone on a whole other plane of existence. You would not last five minutes there."

Something in John's head snaps, spilling anger through his neck and into his chest. "You don't need me?"

"Certainly not."

"Then you can just drag yourself out of the parking garage next time you get half beat to death, hmm?" Delivering a swift kick to the bag of groceries with his uninjured leg, John wrenches open the door. "I'm going home."

Sherlock's eyes focus slightly. "It's an hour to walk."

"I don't care. You're insane and I'm not going to listen to you rant."

Without waiting for a response, John propels himself through the doorway and down the steps. His heart is pounding furiously, and he finds that he's gritting his teeth with rage. It's a couple blocks before he can calm down enough to slow his pace.

A coke addict, then. Somehow John knows this isn't the first time. His new—and only—friend is a coke addict. The brilliant things he says—maybe Sherlock isn't a genius at all. Maybe it's just being high that made him seem like one. For some reason, John feels betrayed. Lied to.

One thing was for sure. He flashes back on his sister. He isn't going to let another addict control his life.

Sherlock can bloody well take care of himself.

After forty minutes of walking, John has to stop. He's gasping, and his face is red from the heat and exhaustion. His foot throbs in a way he doesn't like at all. If he doesn't stop doing things like this, he thinks bitterly, he'll never get off the crutches.

He sinks to the curb, throwing his crutches to the pavement and dropping his head into his hands.

A few minutes pass before he hears the sound of an engine purring nearby. He looks up. A familiar car—long, black. The window rolls down. Sherlock is sitting behind the wheel. His eyes are mostly back to normal. He looks slightly haggard. "John."

Furious at having been caught sitting despondently on the sidewalk, John seizes his crutches and struggles upright. "I don't want to talk to you."

"The effects generally wear off after about half an hour. I'm no longer…I promise you, I'm fine now."

"Fine," John snorts. "How often do you use that stuff."

"A few times a week."

"Jesus."

"John. Please. Let me drive you home. You'll reinjure yourself."

"Sherlock, you're bloody high!" John explodes. A passerby stares. "Do you really think I'm going to get in a car with you?"

"I told you, the effects have worn off," he says with minor impatience. He sighs. "I did not anticipate your reacting this way."

"Because you didn't think, did you? For all your thinking, you didn't think. And besides, what do you care? You don't need me." John hobbles off with as much dignity as he can manage. Sherlock is forced to drive slowly alongside the sidewalk. Someone honks. John curses at them.

"I do need you. For my experiment."

"For Christ's sake—" John actually turns and strikes at the car with a crutch, before remembering that it isn't Sherlock's car. Luckily, he doesn't leave a mark. "An experiment. I'm not going to be part of a damn experiment. What are you doing, secretly putting something in my food to see if it turns my hair blue?"

"No," says Sherlock, in a voice that John can only describe as small.

"Then what? Measuring how long it takes your—your craziness to drive people away? Because when you average me in with everyone else, I'm pretty sure you've got about a one-point-one second time frame before you make everyone want to get as far away from you as possible—"

John stops. Sherlock's face is as inscrutable as ever, but the corners of his mouth are tight. He's hurt. "That's…a fair assessment."

John squeezes his eyes shut. Guilt. He doesn't want to feel guilty. Anger is much easier.

Sherlock's hands tighten on the wheel. "My experiment. It, ah…I was seeing if it were possible. For me."

The sound of the always-articulate Sherlock failing to string a sentence together is bizarre, and somehow it lessens John's aggravation. "Possible for you to what?"

"To have a relationship with someone. Of any kind," he mutters. "To be fair, I did predict this result. So that does strengthen my hypothesis that I'm right most of the time. It wasn't a complete waste."

Oh, great.

John stands hopelessly on the sidewalk, unsure of what to do. He's still mad, but what he'd just heard Sherlock say is possibly the saddest thing he's ever heard from the mouth of a human being. You can't just leave someone like that.

"Unlock the door," he mumbles finally, crossing to the other side of the car and letting himself in.

"I'll take you home." Sherlock pulls back into the road. "And then I shan't bother you again."

"No…Sherlock." John sighs. "That's not what I want, you…you freaked me out, is all. It's just—if we're going to be friends, you'll have to do some mundane things."

"Such as?"

"Eating. You have to eat."

"Very well."

"And you have to go shopping to make sure you have things. To eat."

"You're really expecting quite a lot."

"And the cocaine." John is firm on this one. "Less of it. Preferably none."

"I'll make an effort."

John supposes that's the best he's going to get. "Good."

"Is your leg all right?" asks Sherlock as they drive back in the direction of the Holmes house.

"It's fine, don't—" John smiled to himself at the thought of Sherlock doing this— "worry."

They're silent the rest of the drive back, but it's a comfortable silence. Discreetly, John checks Sherlock's pupils. They really were back to normal. That was a relief.

But when they pull into the driveway, Sherlock's hands fall from the wheel. He goes suddenly whiter than John has ever seen a human being, except the corpse of his great-uncle at a funeral when he was little. Could cocaine make your heart suddenly stop? He puts out a hand, fearful. "Sherlock…?"

"My brother." Sherlock speaks through gritted teeth. "He's home."

Chapter Text

John sits silently for a moment, startled by the sudden change in Sherlock's expression. Then, Sherlock throws open the door and sprints up the walkway, so quickly John hasn't even managed to struggle out of the car before the dark-haired boy flies into the house.

When he gets inside, he sees Sherlock standing stiffly beside the couch. Facing him is someone who bears very little resemblance to Sherlock. It's a man, mid-twenties, John thinks. The man is only slightly taller than Sherlock, but much fatter, although this is partially disguised by the expensive suit he wears.

"What were you doing, Mycroft? Consulting for the government again? You know how Mummy feels about that," Sherlock sneers. John has never heard this much acid in his voice before.

"Don't change the subject." Mycroft's voice is supercilious, drawling. He's holding up something. It's the baggie of cocaine. "Were you planning on explaining this to me?"

"I hadn't put it in my schedule. Give it back."

"Oh, yes, return to you your drugs. What a reasonable suggestion." Mycroft jerks it back as Sherlock makes a grab for it. "I can see you're as self-sufficient as ever, little brother. You even went shopping! Although you apparently forgot the part where you put the groceries away instead of leaving them on the floor."

"That wasn't me."

"Who was it, then? Have you hired a housekeeper in my absence?"

John thinks it might be time to make his presence known. He clears his throat. As Mycroft looks his way, John spots Sherlock snatch the bag of cocaine from his brother's slackened grip, stowing it in his pocket.

"A housekeeper on crutches. How very…useful." Mycroft's eyes, which are beady and dark and not at all like Sherlock's, run over John. "You go to that high school, don't you? You must be the one who sold it to him. I'm afraid I must inform you that if you give drugs to my brother again, you will be much the worse for wear."

John splutters. "I'm—I'm not—Sherlock, explain?"

Sherlock draws his sharp shoulders back with a semblance of defiance. "He's a friend."

"Oh, a friend." Mycroft smooths his tie, raising a contemptuous eyebrow. "I've known you to put much more effort into your lies than that, Sherlock. At least pick something believable. And what, for God's sake, happened to your face?"

Sherlock glares. "If that's any of your business I would be rather surprised."

"It happens to be my business if my younger brother shows up looking like he's been through a meat grinder. With whom did you pick a fight this time, may I ask? A particularly easily offended gorilla, perhaps? Again, your sense of self-preservation is admirable."

"Maybe I should go?" offers John, edging toward the door. Something about standing near these two feels like being caught in a rapid-fire hail of bullets.

"Stay," says Sherlock sharply, at the same time as Mycroft says, "Yes, feel free."

"I did get the groceries," says John, feeling as if Sherlock was expecting him to weigh in. "And the friend thing's right."

Mycroft squints and cocks his head, in the same way as Sherlock sometimes did, and John sees their first resemblance. "You? Is he paying you?"

"No—"

"Good lord. Do you have any mental deficiencies, beyond the obvious mediocrity?"

Sherlock seems to take offense at this. "He's utterly normal. And he likes me. Do you see, Mycroft? I get along with ordinary people just fine."

"Years of evidence to the contrary," drawls Mycroft.

John squares his shoulders. "He's got loads of friends at school."

Sherlock shoots him a sudden, startled look. Mycroft breaks into laughter. "Sherlock, you've got yourself a loyal little lapdog! A poor puppy with an injured leg that you've dragged home. One who is not very good at lying, I might add. Is he the reason you've been stealing my car so often?"

John waits, but Mycroft looks amused rather than angry. Sherlock, however, looks furious. His eyes have taken on a quality akin to ice. "Don't pretend you're interested in my affairs, Mycroft, because even if you were, you wouldn't be privy to them. Come on, John."

Without waiting to see if John would follow, Sherlock swings around and stalks out of the room.

John swallows. Mycroft is still staring at him. Then, suddenly, he sighs, flicking a bead of sweat from his broad forehead. "Things always get so heated. I can't imagine why. You really are a friend, then?"

"Yeah."

"Well, you're the first. And I mean the first. Being someone who's had to deal with Sherlock since he was in preschool, I can tell you that there's no predecessor to that title."

John remains quiet, wondering what Mycroft expects him to say. There is the steady sound of the wall clock ticking. He makes a motion to go after Sherlock. "I'll just—it was nice meeting you, then."

Mycroft's mouth sets into a hard line, and for the first time, John wonders if Sherlock's crack about consulting for the government hadn't been a joke after all. "To what end are you interested in my brother?"

"Er—"

"I have some advice for you," the older Holmes says curtly. "Stay away from him."

"Sorry?"

"You seem normal enough. Enjoy high school. Date some girls. Go drinking with your classmates. Because I can promise all that will be taken away from you if you remain friends with my brother. He'll suck your life away from you. People like us—like that—aren't meant to have friends."

This annoys John, if only because it sounds like a line from a cheap drama on telly. "Yeah, well, like Sherlock said, his…er…'affairs' aren't really your business."

"That's by no choice of mine." Mycroft stands back, stroking his tie. "He doesn't let me know what's going on. He could be dying of an incurable disease and not send me a note until after the funeral. That's why I worry when I come home to check on him and find things like—that." He points at the syringe lying on the table.

"So—you do care?"

"Well, of course." Mycroft releases his tie, defeated. "He's my little brother."

John rather thinks he can be forgiven for misinterpreting Mycroft's feelings toward Sherlock. Then he glances at the bag of groceries on the floor, remembering what he'd seen when Sherlock had stepped out of the shower the day before. He feels strangely guilty, as if it were some kind of betrayal, but if Mycroft didn't know… "I guess I should probably tell you. I think maybe Sherlock has some…problems."

"He's quite excellent at solving problems."

"I don't mean like that. He doesn't eat. And I don't know if you've ever taken him to see a—a psychologist, or something—"

Mycroft chortles. "Are you honestly suggesting that I put Sherlock in therapy?"

Admittedly, John can't think of a therapist he'd wish that on.

"Let me tell you something." Mycroft draws slightly closer, lowering his voice. "There are many diagnoses you might think fit my brother. Autism, obsessive-compulsivity, asexuality, anorexia, addiction, even sociopathy—they have all been suggested to me and my parents before. Mostly by first-grade teachers, I might add. But no. He is undiagnosable. He is a category unto himself. What do you suggest I do? Commit him? Medicate him? He already self-medicates quite regularly, though perhaps not effectively. Somehow I don't think a prescription would solve that."

"No—just maybe keep a closer eye on him."

Mycroft laughs again. John is beginning to dislike the sound. It's wheezy and condescending. "If Sherlock doesn't wish me to keep an eye on him, my eye won't be able to do anything about it. You might consider the job. As he says…you like him. And you wouldn't have had the chance to feel that way if he hadn't liked you first."

That's too much responsibility, John thinks, and suddenly he's indignant. "I mean, I'm not stupid, but if he's got all those—disorders, I'm not really equipped to make him better."

"He doesn't have disorders. He is a disorder." Mycroft picks a crumb of dust from his shoulder. "Which isn't something you can fix. You may try accepting him as he is. That would probably do more good than foisting him on some hapless therapist."

As if to save him from the conversation, John's phone gives a loud beep. He digs it from his pocket and glances at the screen.

Come upstairs. –SH.

John looks up at Mycroft. "One more question. Where are your parents?"

"Abroad," says Mycroft, just as elusively as Sherlock had.

"Well, why the bloody hell aren't they home when their son is—" he pauses. "If I were them, I would want to look after him."

"You can hardly blame them for being escapists." Mycroft actually reaches out and ruffles John's sandy hair. John feels suddenly reduced to the status of a three-year-old. "With children like us."

John meets Mycroft's deeply inset black eyes and bites his lip. No, he can't blame them.

Another beep.

If you're not upstairs in the next minute I will assume Mycroft has killed you and will take it as permission to kill him back. –SH.

"I'd better go," says John hastily, swinging towards the stairs.

Mycroft eyes him with deep irony. "Thank you for getting the shopping."

When John makes it up the stairs, he's at a loss as to which room is Sherlock's until he notices that one door is slightly ajar. From within it comes the sound of surprisingly perfect violin music. Tentatively, John steps inside.

It's like entering a whole different building. The room is even messier than John's, which he finds gratifying. He'd pictured Sherlock living in something like a jail cell—stripped, just the essentials. When more closely examined, however, the mess is just as alarming.

Beakers encrusted with dried liquids cluster atop the dresser. A jar full of flies, some of them dead, sits above a smelly aquarium populated by a single boil-covered toad. Stains of all colors coat the desk. To John's alarm, there are several knives strewn over the floor.

As carefully as one can when on crutches, John picks his way over the filth and kneels awkwardly, gathering the knives. Sherlock does not turn. He's standing in front of the window, back ramrod-straight, playing something frantic but flawless on a violin propped against his chin.

It isn't until John pokes a finger cautiously inside the toad's cage that he turns. "I wouldn't do that. May be contagious."

John hurriedly withdraws his appendage. He places the knives on the beaker-covered dresser. "So that was your brother. Bit of a strange bloke, isn't he?"

Sherlock's lip curls. "If by 'strange' you mean 'hellish.' What was he telling you about me? That I'm more neurotic than a rabid housecat and less delightful to live with? Has he turned you off me? That would please him more than anything else, I'm sure. He does love ruining my experiments. Do you know when we were little, he took my very carefully selected set of earthworms and—"

"Sherlock," John interrupts. The other boy is speaking too fast. John flashes a quick look at his pupils, but they're normal. So he hadn't been shooting up while Mycroft had been talking. He's only upset.

Sherlock throws the violin on the bed, with relative disregard for what looks like a fairly expensive instrument. "I heard your conversation."

John winces. "Then why—"

"Why ask? I wanted to see if you'd be honest." He tosses himself on the bed with equal disregard as he'd shown the violin. "Are you so concerned about my habits that you'd tattle to someone like Mycroft?"

"I wasn't tattling—"

"Really? Because here's what I heard: 'Dear responsible Mycroft, your freakish relative is up to no good and I quite think we should shut him away until he learns his lesson—"

John whacks his crutch against the floor. The noise does what he had intended, which was to shut Sherlock up. The appearance of his brother seemed to have worked the taller boy into a frenzy. Even his hair stands on end, giving him a deranged look. "I'm not going to apologize for telling your brother you don't eat, anyone would have done, it's the normal thing to—"

"Oh, the normal thing!" barks Sherlock. The toad in his cage shifts wetly on the pile of leaves. "Why should the normal thing apply to someone like me—after all, you've both had such a nice time discussing what a freak I—"

"I don't think you're a freak!"

Sherlock goes silent. He plucks absently at one of the violin strings. "No? Then what do you think I am?"

"Why do I have to think you're anything?"

"Everyone else seems to have picked out a nice little category for me."

"I—I think you're a bloody genius then. And melodramatic," John adds firmly. "Apparently it runs in the family."

"Not so much the genius part, I would hope. That's just me." Sherlock twirls a lock of hair around his thumb in a self-satisfied way.

John isn't so sure, remembering the glint of intelligence in Mycroft's eyes, but now doesn't seem like the time to say so. He takes a seat gingerly on the edge of Sherlock's bed, avoiding what looks like a patch of burned blanket. "How long d'you think he'll stay?"

"Oh, not long. He never stays long. Too busy interfering in the government's business, I expect."

Just as he says it, there comes the sound of a door opening and closing. John leans over to peer out the window, spotting the large figure of Mycroft disappearing inside the garage. He rolls out inside another car—nicer than the one Sherlock has been 'borrowing'. "Why's he got two cars?"

"To impress the ladies, doubtless. Something's got to distract from the fact that he's a lumbering rhinoceros with an ever-destructive penchant for cake."

John suspects that the two cars have more to do with providing Sherlock with transportation, but again, he says nothing. It's remarkable how quickly the subtle lines vanish from Sherlock's forehead as soon as Mycroft is gone. The dark-haired boy sits up, pushing the violin to one side. "I'm sorry you were subject to that."

"No, it's fine. So, er…what do we do now?"

"Do? What do you mean?"

John suddenly realizes that this was likely the first time Sherlock has spent any time with someone from school. For some reason he finds it amusing rather than awkward. "Well, we're hanging out now. Generally when people hang out alone, they do something—watch a movie, play a board game, make out—"

Sherlock rolls onto his stomach, propping his angular jaw in one hand. The bruise under his eye stands out clearly. "Make out? Is that what you're expecting, John? Because if so, you should know by now that I'm always open to an experiment."

John stares, his mouth suddenly dry and his tongue useless.

Sherlock is watching him expectantly. Then he sighs, suddenly irritable again. "What's the point of making a joke if you're not going to laugh? I thought it seemed like your brand of humor—"

John lets out a noise halfway between a laugh and a gargle. "Sherlock, when you're making jokes, you have to let people know with an expression or a tone or something—you can't just stare at them all deadpan."

Sherlock pulls a horrible grimace, made worse by the cut stretching on his lip. "Like this?"

"If you want to make children cry, maybe."

"That's not generally the goal of comedy, is it? Although I do have an established talent for making children cry. They assume such outlandish things; I can't believe their parents don't correct them. I always have to do it. Imagine, a stork." Sherlock shakes his head in horror.

The idea of Sherlock explaining sex to someone's seven-year-old makes John splutter with laughter.

Sherlock grins as well.

Chapter Text

It's been two days, and John hasn't seen Sherlock in school.

It'd been about a week and a half since the episode with Mycroft. Since then, they had grown tentatively closer. They sit together at lunch, and the jeers have faded quickly enough to an acceptance—they're both outcasts now. The whispered accusations of "homo" in the hallway no longer bother him. Sherlock always thinks of something witty enough later to say about it that makes John laugh and forget, for a moment, that he is now ostracized.

Funny that it should mean he's now less lonely than he's ever been.

John makes sincere attempts to listen to Sherlock's analyses of different types of tobacco ash. Sherlock, in exchange, keeps John from being bored. John tries to do the same, but he knows he isn't enough to keep the boredom away.

And he can see how boredom is corroding his friend. Sherlock isn't meant for a small high school in a small town. He'd taken to wearing long-sleeved shirts, despite the heat wave, and John knows it is to conceal from him the fresh puncture marks on his friend's arm.

What infuriates John is that there was nothing he could do about it. He's not good enough, though he wants to be. He can only hope that Sherlock will survive the next two years of high school with enough of himself to find someplace where he would be of value. But two years is a long time.

Two days seem even longer when there's no Sherlock to eat with at lunch, no Sherlock to laugh off the stares and comments with. He wonders how the other boy has survived it, years with nobody to help hold back the curtain. But then, of course, they have very different constitutions.

Sherlock still isn't answering his phone.

John has taken to sitting in the back of the classroom. It's good for two things: nobody can throw spitballs at the back of his head, and he can text undisturbed.

 

It wouldn't kill you to text me back, you know. –JW

If it would kill you, you should see someone about that. –JW

Or just see me. –JW

 

John scrolls through the wealth of texts that he'd sent Sherlock over the past two days. Great. He sounds exactly as annoying as a lovesick character in a romance novel. No wonder Sherlock's been ignoring him.

But he can't shake the feeling that something's wrong. He'd tried to convince Harry to drive him past Sherlock's house, but Harry'd insisted on having a pint first, and John had given up.

What if Sherlock has overdosed? He's so precise that John has difficulty imagining that happening, but you never knew. Or maybe someone Sherlock had offended had happened to have a knife. Or maybe he's forgotten to eat one day too long and just collapsed. Or maybe—

"John?"

"Sherlock," John answers promptly. Then he realizes the question is from his professor. A flush spreads from the base of his neck to his ears as a rash of giggling overtakes the classroom. He hastily slips his phone under his binder.

"I was asking you, John, what the third known dynasty of China was called?"

"Um…Wang?" he answers, picking the most Chinese-sounding word he could think of.

"'Sherlock' and 'wang'. We can see where his mind's at," whispers someone in the front row. The laughter increases.

The professor frowns. "Let's keep our minds off our boyfriends and girlfriends and on the subject material, please."

Oh, God. Even the professor was in on it. John waits until she moves to the Qing Dynasty to pull out his phone again.

 

Sherlock, if you bloody well don't contact me within the next hour, I may just jump off the roof because I can't handle this school by myself anymore. –JW

That was too dramatic. Sorry. –JW

Okay, nope, someone just slipped me a doodle of the two of us snogging. Going to the roof now. –JW

 

John rests his head on his desk, no longer caring what the professor thinks. Then, in his peripheral vision, he sees the screen of his phone light up. In his haste to open the message, he nearly knocks over his crutches, which are propped against the wall.

 

Don't jump off the roof. The mess would be appalling. –SH

I won't if you tell me where you've been for the last two days. –JW

Come over. –SH

I'm in the middle of class, Sherlock, the prof might notice if I just waltzed out. –JW

Don't waltz, then. Walk. –SH

What's gotten into you? –JW

I was hoping you could tell me. –SH

If you're trying to make another innuendo joke, that's possibly the worst one I've ever heard. –JW

It's not that. –SH

Tell me then. –JW

I may be dying. Need you to deny or confirm. –SH

I'm the one dying of exposure to this damn school. –JW

Sherlock? –JW

You're not serious, right? –JW

How do I get to your house? I don't have a car –JW

Fucking hell –JW

 

He is going to get in serious trouble for this. Inhaling to strengthen his resolve, he stands, pulling his crutches toward him and sweeping his binder into his shoulder bag. For the second time that class period, everyone turns to stare at him.

"I'm not feeling well," says John loudly, hoping his red face will lend some credibility to this. "I have to go to the nurse's office."

"You look fine to me." The professor returns to her notes.

"No, I mean, I really think I'm going to puke." Oh, Jesus. Is he really going to do this? Sherlock had better be drawing his last breath. Inhaling, John leans over slightly and forces himself to make the fakest-sounding retch he had ever heard. Muffled snorts echo around the room.

But it works. The professor looks up, her forehead creased. "Very well. Bethany, would you escort John to the—"

"I got it," grunts John before she can finish, throwing his bag over his shoulder and swinging out of the room.

At the end of the hall, John stops. What was he planning to do? Walk all the way to Sherlock's house? If Sherlock is well enough to text John, he can bloody well call an ambulance if he needs one, can't he?

But he won't. He would be too stubborn. If something really is wrong with him, John knew, he was likely to just lie there until he expired from sheer laziness.

Swearing, John pushes open the door and moves into the bright sunlight.

An hour later, John is ready to either keel over or murder Sherlock. One of the two. The crack in his left crutch has gotten bigger, and now it wobbles dangerously whenever he puts weight on it. The heat has soaked him with sweat, and he's tired it's all he can do, when he finally reaches the Holmes house, to plop down on the front porch and pass out.

But he doesn't. He shoulders the door open, nearly falling. "Sherlock?" he wheezes.

No response. And then John realizes that the house is freezing, cold enough to chill the sweat on his body. Shivering, he makes his way into the living room. Spotless. No Sherlock. He glances at the stairs, and then the kitchen. The latter seems more unlikely, but it's nearer, so he goes in.

Sherlock is lying in a limp heap on the glossy kitchen floor, his phone inches from his outstretched hand.

"Oh, Jesus," John breathes. Something like ice splinters in his head. But there's no blood on the white tiles. What, then? Overdose? Mind numb, he kneels on the floor, which is also freezing, and gives Sherlock's shoulder a sharp shake.

Please, Sherlock-

The silvery eyes flash open. "John. You got here quite fast. Has Mycroft developed some sort of teleportation technology he's let you in on?"

John sits back with a thump. "So you're alive, then."

"Not sure. I was hoping for a second opinion." Sherlock doesn't lift his cheek from the cold tiles. "What do you think?"

John surveys the outstretched form. His heart sinks. Now that Sherlock is awake, he's shaking rather violently. His face is white apart from two red spots of color that burn beneath the fading bruises in the hollows of his cheekbones. There are dark circles under his eyes, and he's just as sweaty as John, despite the chill in the air.

"It's debatable." John puts out a hand, resting it on Sherlock's high forehead for barely a moment before jerking it away with a curse. "Sherlock, you're on fire! How long have you been like this?"

"Five years. No, three. I don't know. Ask someone who's been paying attention. I can't be bothered."

Fear spreads across John's stomach. "You're rambling."

The pinpointed pupils swing up towards John's face. "You're sweating."

"I walked here."

"Impossible. I texted you and a moment later you were in my kitchen."

"Sherlock, I think you passed out."

"Well. That would explain the sudden headache."

John moves two fingers along Sherlock's hairline, checking for injury, and finds a swollen bump. He's hotter than John is certain any human being should be. "Do you have a thermometer?"

"Yes. But it's covered in substances I don't want in or around my mouth. Or wherever you were planning to stick it." Sherlock coughs. The sound is full of nails.

John is growing increasingly apprehensive. "Have you had anything to drink lately?"

"Lately? Define lately."

So he was dangerously feverish, apparently severely dehydrated, and who knew what else. John reaches for his pocket. "I'm calling an ambulance."

A slender white hand grips his wrist. "I thought I told you I detested hospitals. They always try to diagnose you. And if I'm injecting myself with something, I want to be the one who decides what it is."

"Then what do you want me to do?"

The pale hand waves weakly before dropping back to the tiles. "I simply needed your professional opinion as to whether or not I was dying. You're free to leave."

"I haven't given you my professional opinion yet." John stands, moves to the sink, and begins to fill a glass of water. He notices that his own hand was trembling slightly, though he doesn't think it's from fever.

"Pray tell, then."

"I think," says John, crouching, "you need to go to the hospital." He holds out the glass, but Sherlock is either too weak or unwilling to take it. Deciding on the spot that any awkwardness this might elicit is worth Sherlock not expiring of dehydration, he kneels again, slides his arm under Sherlock's, and pulls him into a half-sitting position.

Sherlock's shoulder presses into his chest. His head lolls back. "If you take me there, I'll die on purpose and haunt you. Imagine how annoying that would be, me reciting my study on cigarette ash every time you go to the loo."

"I thought you didn't believe in ghosts."

"It was one of those joke things. You have my permission to laugh."

"Your fever jokes are even worse than your cocaine jokes." John pushes the glass toward Sherlock's face. "Drink."

"Not unless you promise not to take me to the hospital." Sherlock closes his mouth tightly, staring up at John with burning eyes.

John splutters. "Are you five? There's a reason dehydration is something people try to avoid!"

"There's a reason the hospital is something I avoid. I stay here." Sherlock coughs again, his body shuddering.

Exhaling, John shakes his head, privately swearing to call an ambulance if Sherlock collapsed again. "Fine! Fine. Just drink. Slowly."

Sherlock manages a smirk as he swallows, water spilling down his chin.

John pulls it away. "Okay. Now up. It's bloody freezing down here."

"I was too hot. I turned the air conditioner up." Gripping the countertop for support, Sherlock's legs shake furiously as he hauls himself upright. John hopes he won't have to carry his friend—he isn't sure his cracked crutch will submit to the strain—but Sherlock remains standing, though he has to cling to the fridge in order to do it.

"And a lot of good it's done you. When did you last eat?"

"I fail to understand why you constantly go off on that subject." Sherlock's face shines with a slick sheen of sweat.

"Trust me, it's relevant."

"Three days ago, if it's so very relevant."

John has to resist the urge to seize Sherlock and shake him. "Well, then it's no bloody wonder your body wants to quit its job—"

"Just one moment." Sherlock holds up a finger, leans behind the counter, and vomits thin fluid. John blanches. Sherlock resurfaces with a grim expression, his eyes red-rimmed, looking at John accusingly. "You said the water would help."

"I said to drink slowly!"

Bickering, they make their way into the living room, Sherlock holding on to whatever was nearby in order not to fall, which was sometimes John. John makes a mental note to make fun of him for it later, Sherlock's grasping John's arm like an invalid. Surprisingly, he doesn't mind.

When Sherlock finally pitches forward onto the couch, he lies facedown, head buried in the pillow. John flicks his back. "Nope. Face up. You need to breathe."

"Breathing's boring," says Sherlock, muffled.

"I bet dying's boring to, but I don't think you want to find out for sure."

Sherlock rolls onto his back, interlacing his fingers over his chest and closing his eyes. John takes a moment to scan him. Generally the dark-haired boy had somewhat of an undead appearance, but now he could have been a corpse someone had laid out on the couch, if not for the very slight rise and fall of his narrow chest. Even his lips are pale. His hair is plastered to his forehead with sweat.

But John isn't panicked. This happens to him when someone else is hurt. He goes into damage-control mode. Phone in his pocket if he decides to ignore Sherlock's pleas and dial 911. Soup—it doesn't seem likely that Sherlock would be able to keep it down, but he has to try and get something inside his stomach. Water. Slowly.

Suddenly, Sherlock's eyes fly open. "John!"

John slides off the edge of the couch, cursing. "What?"

"You walked here," says Sherlock, breathing hard. "All the way here. Are you all right?"

Despite himself, John is slightly touched. "Yeah. 'Course."

"Excellent," Sherlock murmurs, slipping back into a stupor.

Fortunately, there's one can of chicken noodle left in the cupboard, and it hasn't expired yet. John boils it over the stove, stirring it experimentally every so often. When it's done, he loads it on a tray with two Advil from the bottle in his own backpack, another glass of water, and a spare ice pack he'd found in the fridge.

"You're eating this," John announces, dropping the tray with a clatter on the table beside the couch.

Sherlock cracks an eye open. "The ice pack too?"

"If you want."

"Mm. I'm not hungry."

"Sherlock, I swear to you I will call up Mycroft right now and tell him you're—"

"I knew you two never should have met. You're remarkably devious, John, I wouldn't have expected it of you." He takes a swallow and grimaces at John, who crosses his arms firmly.

When the bowl is empty, there's more color in Sherlock's face, although that might have been due to annoyance. Pushing the bowl away, he grabs the ice pack, holds it to his forehead, and rolls onto his side.

John watches him carefully, cataloging the rise and fall of his chest. "You could've responded to my texts earlier, y'know. You don't need to wait until you drop dead."

"I was busy. Working," says Sherlock, eyes closed.

"Working? On what?" John takes a breath. "It doesn't matter. This is dangerous, what you did. You have to look after yourself. Do you really want to die in your own kitchen?"

But Sherlock doesn't respond. The movement of his chest settles into a slow, even pattern, and John realizes he has fallen asleep. Gingerly, he reaches over and puts his hand on Sherlock's forehead. It seems slightly less hot than before.

Sighing, John hooks his elbow over the edge of the couch. He's still exhausted. And he hadn't slept well the night before, kept up by worries and bad dreams and Harry banging around in the kitchen at the three in the morning. His eyelids slipped lower at the soothing sound of Sherlock's deep breathing. He fixes his gaze on Sherlock, determined to keep an eye on him, but he doesn't even realize it when he drifts into sleep.

Some time later, he awakens blearily to the sound of Sherlock saying his name.

"John. John, I hadn't planned on waking you, but unfortunately functions of a bodily nature are requiring that you move aside."

John cracks an eye and squints. He's on something very warm and is looking at Sherlock from a strange angle. Then he notices where he is—sprawled across Sherlock's legs, his cheek resting on the dark-haired boy's thigh.

"Oh, f—" John springs back, nearly pitching himself off the end of the couch.

The corner of Sherlock's mouth twists up in amusement. "Problem, John?"

"Oh, shut up," says John in disgust. "How are you feeling?"

"Distinctly less like dying. And with a notable urge to pee." Tipping the now-unfrozen ice pack onto the floor, Sherlock rolls off the couch and stands.

His legs promptly buckle. He crashes hard into the corner of the table, causing the glass of water to spray its contents over the floor.

"Jesus!" John grabs Sherlock's arm. There's a tiny cut on Sherlock's collarbone where he's struck it on the edge of the table. "I don't care what I said, I will call the hospital if you can't even stand."

"It's not-"

"Are you okay? You dizzy?"

"It's not that," snaps Sherlock. "You've cut the circulation off in my legs. They're asleep."

John flushes. "You could have woken me up!"

"You looked like you needed the rest." Sherlock leans against the bottom of the couch, tapping his numbed legs impatiently. "Nightmares still keeping you up, I see."

John draws his knees to his chest. "I haven't told you about that."

"Not with words. But it's obvious. From the veins under your eyes to the fact that you just fell asleep in such a peculiar position, one could assume that you haven't slept well in some time. Insomnia or chronic nightmares or night terrors. The latter is more likely, presumably stemming from trauma due to your mother's death. Your voice is slightly hoarse, but you haven't been sick, and you don't generally speak loudly. It's hoarse from screaming at night, and as your family gets home so late, there's nobody to wake you."

Sherlock steeples his fingers, looking proud of himself. John reddens. It's embarrassing, hearing it all laid out like that. "Yeah, well. Didn't you have to piss?"

"Thank you for reminding me." Sherlock stands again, bending his knees experimentally. He looks at John and hesitates. "Incidentally, John, if you ever feel inclined…there are several spare beds here, in case you decide you want someone. To wake you."

He tips two fingers off his brow and strides off in the direction of the bathroom.

John sighs, sinking back into the couch. Admittedly, he hasn't known Sherlock for long—and still knows very little about him—but he's beginning to see that behind the cool superiority, there are flashes of kindness. You have to pay attention to notice them.

It's a shame he doesn't have anyone else on which to exercise those flashes of kindness, John thinks. John hardly deserves them. He's rather useless, after all. Mediocre in every sense of the word.

John had thought it was that nobody at school was willing to stoop to speak to Sherlock, but now he knows that it's Sherlock who is unwilling to lower himself to speak to them. So why John? What is the thing in utterly average John that Sherlock finds so interesting?

John doesn't think he can ask. He's afraid of the answer—that there's nothing about him to interest Sherlock Holmes. That he really is nothing more than an experiment; that he'll be abandoned as soon as he proved or disproved Sherlock's ability to have a friend.

When Sherlock returns, John hastily casts around for a question to disguise the confusion on his face. "So what was it you were working on?"

Sherlock's face lights up. "The murder of one Carl Powers."

John can only hope he isn't being literal.

Chapter Text

"Now hit me."

John rocks back on the balls of his feet, palm held up as a target. The previous day, his doctor had said there was no further need for the crutches—which was lucky, since repeated use of them as clubs had splintered one—and now he only wears a sort of hard sock. He'd thought his regained mobility would make it easier to give Sherlock boxing lessons, but he is quickly learning that nothing in the world can alleviate the difficulty of that job.

Sherlock extends his long fingers, examining them. "And if I break my hand? What of my violin?"

"Your violin won't be any use to you next time you tell someone their—their underwear's inside out, or something, and they happen to be in a bad mood," says John stoutly. "You've got to learn to defend yourself."

"I wonder if Carl Powers knew how to defend himself. If so, it didn't do him much good, now did it?" Sherlock, at John's insistence, is wearing gym clothes. They hang off his frame considerably less gracefully than did the expensive clothes he normally wore. He insists his good taste is due only to Mycroft's shopping for him, but his nose wrinkles in clear dislike as he fingers the hem of the long white shirt. "I was thinking—"

"Oh, thinking. God save the queen."

"God saves nobody, the queen least of all. Anyway, I was thinking that we could go to the police later. Inform them of my findings. They're as useful as sheep in a pen without a shepherd." Sherlock smiles, clearly enjoying the thought of himself as a shepherd.

"We? Your Carl Powers thing is your business, not mine. How is it, again, that you know it wasn't really just an accident?" John shifts. They were fortunate enough to have the school gym to themselves so far, but you never knew when some sports team might show up and take issue with the sight of Sherlock in baggy gym clothes. "Wait, don't answer, we have to get back to—"

"The shoes, John!" Sherlock's face is positively glowing. It's been a couple days since the fever that had left him paler than ever, and John finds it slightly disconcerting that only the idea of murder can make him look, for the first time, like a healthy human being. "Where are the shoes? He was alone at the pool, the rest of his clothes were found, but the shoes were gone. Did they walk off on their own? Were they abducted by extraterrestrial life-forms? When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains must be—"

"So you think the killer stole this kid's smelly gym shoes," concedes John. "Why?"

"The shoes must have implicated the murderer in some way. Or they were used to execute the murder itself. But how does a pair of shoes in a locker cause the death of a boy in a swimming pool…"

Suddenly, John lunges, directing a punch at Sherlock's face that he withdraws at the last second. Sherlock stumbles back, his composure momentarily gone. "John—"

"You're not doing the blocking. And you're posture's all wrong. I said weight on the back foot, and forearms up to protect your face—and bend your knees, you're too bloody tall…"

John hesitates for a moment and then puts his hands on Sherlock's torso, correcting his position. Sherlock scarcely seems to notice. His eyes are narrowed in thought. "A swimmer from another school district…who would be gunning for someone like that?"

"I'm going to gun for you if you don't pay attention. Now, hit my hand already. As hard as you can." John proffers his palm again, waiting. It annoys him that Sherlock is paying so little attention to something that could perhaps save him from getting beaten up again in the future.

Sherlock sighs theatrically. He tucks his hand into a thin fist, striking out at John's palm. It has about as much impact as a high five.

"Okay. I know what your problem is." John prods Sherlock's slender upper arm. "No muscle. You need to start working out."

"And divert blood flow from my brain to my body? Foolishness." Sherlock smooths back a curl of his dark hair. "These lessons are useless. I have you to protect me, haven't I? I'd be lost without my rugby champion, after all. Although I don't know what you'll use to hit things with, now that you're off your crutches."

"Hmm, where could I possibly find another long, thin, sticklike object? I'll just have to use you."

"Clever, clever. It would seem I'm rubbing off on you."

There comes a loud creak as the gym doors are pushed open. John winces, awaiting the distant snorts of whomever is witnessing the admittedly hilarious spectacle of Sherlock attempting to hit something, but there's no laughter. Only a drawn-out:

"Hii-iii!"

It's a boy. He's shorter than John and much slenderer, with a silk shirt that looks distinctly out of place in the gym. His face is small and pointed, but his eyes are large and dark, giving him the look of some sleek animal—a mink.

John recognizes him. It's the new kid, Jim something—McCarthy, maybe, or McMorty. He's in one of John's classes, and despite his newness, he'd already garnered a substantial group of friends, who sat around him during break, laughing at something John can never hear.

Jim's presence, however, is less welcome to John that it would have been if the entire rugby team had walked in instead.

Jim has been at their school for four days. In that time, he's done something nobody but John has dared to do—he's repeatedly approached Sherlock, asking him for help with his homework, praising every comment he makes. Sherlock has been so absorbed by the Carl Powers issue that he's paid Jim little attention, but John has seen in his face that he enjoys the compliments. Sherlock has also mentioned, in an off-handed way, that Jim is in nearly all of his classes, while John is in none. Something about that makes him uneasy.

Though he usually considers himself a fairly polite person, John can't help but turn and say shortly, "Sorry, we're busy."

"Oh, I don't mean to interrupt!" says Jim brightly, his eyes flashing to Sherlock, who has disappeared once again into deep thought. "I just noticed—are you practicing boxing?"

There doesn't seem to be any reason to lie, so John says, "Yeah." He glances at Sherlock, hoping that his friend will deliver some sort of scathing comment that'd send Jim running, but he doesn't.

"I thought maybe I could help!" Jim presses his fingers together in what is clearly meant to be an entreating gesture. For some reason, John can scarcely stand the sound of his voice, though Irish accents had never bothered him before. "Are you the one being taught, Sherlock?"

John doesn't like the way his eyes rove eagerly over Sherlock's face. Something about it seems less puppylike and more…predatory. Like a wolverine in a sweet mask.

Sherlock snaps out of his reverie. He regards Jim with an unreadable expression. "Taught, yes, you could call it that."

"Then…if you don't mind…" Jim sidesteps John, barely sparing him a glance. "I have some tips you might find useful."

John folds his arms. "I've got it under control, thanks—"

"Someone like you can't box in the ordinary sense," Jim breathes, drawing close to Sherlock, who is nearly a full head taller. "You're not meant for something so brawny and brainless. What you need to do is target weak spots. Find the buttons and push them. May I?"

Jim whirls on John, who'd have taken a step back except for the desire not to appear intimidated. Without waiting for an answer, Jim touches the edge of his small hand to John's throat. Then he moves two fingers level with John's eyes. "You don't need to overpower someone if you can cut them down where it counts."

"Unless you want to fight fair. Then that doesn't work." John glances at Sherlock, hoping his friend will notice his discomfort and find some pretext for getting rid of Jim—for once, Sherlock's skill of repelling people could come in handy—but Sherlock isn't looking at John. He's looking at Jim.

"And this method would require no…John, what was the urban term you used…'working out'?"

"None whatsoever!" Jim flashes an impossibly bright smile. "I'm not particularly impressive in stature myself, but when it works…allow me to demonstrate."

Quick as a flash, the Irish boy turns. Alarmed, John raises his forearms, but something hits the side of his knee, unbalancing him. A sharp punch lands somewhere in his side, hitting a place that sends pain ricocheting through his abdomen. He crashes to the ground.

Jim turns to Sherlock, the charming smile larger and more pointed. "You see? Even our boxer here—"

But Sherlock isn't listening. He kneels swiftly over John, who finds his arm in the grip of that lily-white hand. "Are you all right?"

John had come to give Sherlock boxing lessons, not be flipped on his back like a pancake by someone he had a good couple of inches on. Nevertheless, he's pleased with Sherlock's concern, and even more so when he sees the look that crosses Jim's face—sour, like a child denied their dessert. John stands as casually as he can manage, despite the ache in his side. "M'fine."

Sherlock turns the look on Jim that John had been hoping he would—that scathing, penetrating scan. "I fail to understand your interest in my boxing lessons. It can't be the fact you have a younger brother who lives with one-half of your divorced parents—a far less wealthy half, I see—a mother who married for in hopes of riches but was bullied into signing a prenuptial agreement that proved to be rather unfortunate for her. Your clothes suggest it's the father you live with, but your bearing indicates that he was rarely around in your youth and you were raised primarily by your more uncouth mother—something that you resent, as you've chosen to live with your oft-absent father and have effectively disowned your mother and brother."

John swallows, gaping. It's at times like this that Sherlock reminds him of a sorcerer, the wielder of some dark power—or, perhaps, a computer, mercilessly calculating facts with no heartbeat to power it.

"Really?" says Jim softly. There's something in his eyes that John finds deeply alarming—an imperceptible depth, a poisonous whole. John feels a sudden desire to leap in front of Sherlock and spread his arms wide. He doesn't think Sherlock senses the danger. "All because I struck that?"

He flicks a forefinger in John's direction. That. It's chilling. Somehow John knows Jim isn't trying to belittle him. He genuinely sees him as less than human. A That.

"'That' happens to be something of value to me." Sherlock's eyes are hooded. John feels a surprising rush of warmth.

Jim's strange, feral expression is gone in an instant. It's replaced by the charming smile that suffuses the whole face with harmlessness. "Of course! I didn't mean to intrude. You guys have fun."

He salutes with two fingers, a gesture that's surprisingly similar to Sherlock's, and walks smartly across the waxed floor and out into the hall.

John waits. Sherlock says simply, "Fighting fair. Is that what I should do?"

"It's what everyone should do."

"Is it what you want me to do?"

It's so uncharacteristic of Sherlock to ask what anyone wants of him that John hesitates, staring at the doors left swinging in Jim's wake. "I want to know your face isn't going to be bashed in the next time I'm not there to fend people off with crutches."

"Hmm," says Sherlock darkly, staring at John so intently that he suddenly feels exposed in his own gym shorts. John knows what follows that stare, and he waits for the stream of analysis and conclusions drawn as if from thin air, but Sherlock is silent.

"Take a picture, why don't you? It'll last longer."

"You're not terribly photogenic, going by your pictures on Facebook."

"Oh, thanks. I'm flattered."

Sherlock falls silent again. Finally he says, "Are you sure you're all right?"

"Of course." John scratches the back of his head. Sherlock wears an expression that is, for once, confused, and John can't help but find it a little funny. "What are you so worried about?"

"Nothing. But I think I'm beginning to understand." Sherlock stares distractedly at the door.

"Understand what?"

Sherlock waves a hand at John. "This preoccupation you have with my not getting hurt. I haven't been able to understand it—it's been bothering me. But just now, you—" Sherlock breaks off and blinks. "When he hit you. I didn't like that. It's an unpleasant feeling; I can see why you'd want to avoid it by advocating for my safety."

It's at times like these that Sherlock really seemed less than human. "Do you generally like it when people get hurt?"

"Not 'like', no. But I'm neutral. No point in being horrified by every little misfortune that befalls people. I'd never get anything done." Sherlock shifts to his back foot and tries, almost absently, lifting his arms the way John has shown him.

John isn't sure how to take this. On one hand, it's nice to think that the imperial Sherlock has a care for John's safety. On the other, it's disconcerting to think about anyone who holds that much disregard for other people. "Is that why you've been so…ecstatic about this Carl Powers guy getting murdered? Because it's not a good thing, you know. He was just a kid. Probably with a family that's…messed up now." John flashes back on his father, always at work, and his sister, drinking herself into a stupor every night.

Sherlock frowns. "Hundreds die every day, John. Caring about it isn't going to stop that."

John thinks of his mother. Of how Sherlock wouldn't have paused to regret her death. "That's…not normal. It's not human."

"You're angry."

John looks at Sherlock, at his thin wrists, at the traces of the bruises finally fading on his cheek. "No. Just…" The question leaps to the tip of his tongue, the 'Why me? Why did you pick me?' that has been stuck in his head like the tune of a bad pop song for the last couple days. But he holds it back. "I think that's enough boxing for today."

"I'll keep practicing," Sherlock offers. He's watching John very carefully, something nervous in his clear eyes.

"Yeah. Practicing. That's good." John forces a smile. He moves in the direction of the door, jerking his head for Sherlock to follow. "Come on. I'm starving."

"I still have some of that cereal you bought. Shaped like dinosaurs, for some unimaginable reason."

"That's good enough for me."

Chapter Text

That night, John dreams. He's in the car. It's going fast—too fast, he thinks vaguely, but it's not a real problem. Because someone he trusts is driving.

It's Sherlock. Sherlock is driving the car. He turns to look at John, who's in the backseat, and John wants to tell him to look at the road, the road moves but John's going nowhere. Sherlock smiles. His eyes flash. He opens his mouth and blood slips out from between his teeth.

And the car is spinning, going supernova, studding John's face with glass and Sherlock disappears under a wall of flame—

"John."

The flames shudder, fizzle, and John's throat hurts. The tail end of his scream catches in his lungs. Sherlock's face swims together above him, pale and beautiful and not on fire. John has never been gladder to see something not on fire.

"Sorry," John gasps. The fire has seared his throat. He's been loud, and he's sorry because Sherlock always looks like he needs sleep. Like he needs a thousand years of rest, and then maybe those lines would disappear from that high forehead, and the lips could smile like they meant it.

Sherlock's hand is pressing John's wrist to the bedsheet. They both notice at once. Sherlock lets go. "You were flailing. Was it the car? I heard something about going too fast."

John had taken Sherlock up on his offer to let him sleep over. Because why not? Normal kids had sleepovers all the time. Normal kids, though, didn't wake up with their heart between their teeth. He exhales, shuddering, aware of the sweat soaking his body and the sheets of Sherlock's guest bed. "Yeah. The car."

"You said my name." The shadows in Sherlock's angular face are lengthened by the dark. His eyes are half-lidded with sleep and curiosity.

"Probably because I'm in your house," John lies. "Subconscious influence and all that." He attempts a smile, hoping it doesn't look like a grimace in the moonlight.

Sherlock draws back from his perch at the foot of the bed. He's wearing a loose, soft shirt unbuttoned at the neck. His collarbone stands out sharply. "This is Mycroft's room. That's enough to give anyone nightmares. Come with me."

John lets himself be pulled out of bed, following Sherlock through the huge dark house. He feels like he's following a wraith. Sherlock stops in front of his own door, pushing it open, and tells John to sleep on his own bed; he has a craving for the couch anyway. John tries to protest, but arguing with Sherlock is a challenge even when he's not heavy with exhaustion, and eventually he finds himself tipping onto that chemically discolored mattress. It doesn't smell like chemicals, though. It smells like wood and the earthiness of the toad in its cage and Sherlock, who closes the door softly behind him.

John sleeps deeply for the rest of the night.

 

~

 

Are you at school? –JW

Yes, unfortunately. Professor Helms and Professor Cohen are sleeping together again. I asked Helms how long his wife is away. Detention later. Sigh. –SH

You're at school. I am in your house. Why did you go to school and leave me in your house? –JW

Don't worry. I called in as your father. You've a terrible case of the flu. –SH

Waking me up would have taken a lot less effort. And I know how you hate effort. –JW

Don't get angry, John, remember you're ill. –SH

Hilarious. Oh, by the way, I found your experiment with the egg salad and the grape juice. Inside your mattress. –JW

Best place to incubate bacteria. I hope you haven't gone through my things. –SH

They'd go through me first. Some of your 'things' are alive, I think. –JW

Thank you, though. For last night. –JW

Taken out of context, that message is quite amusing. –SH

I'm glad you've found your sense of humor. –JW

Anyway, no need to thank me. I needed to test a new sort of gas I've discovered that produces a state of calm and drowsiness. It does have some other effects, though. I'd keep an eye on your buttocks for the next couple of days. –SH

Sherlock –JW

I will kill you –JW

Touchy, touchy. I was kidding. Didn't I just tell you how nicely my humor is coming along? –SH

Very nicely. If I compliment you on it, will you forgive me for accidentally setting your toad free? Oh, and I knocked over a few of those beakers. You've got so many I'm sure you won't miss them. There's a hole in the floor now, though. Acid? –JW

John, stay out of my room, it is quite possible you've combined substances that will produce a toxic fog. Don't touch the toad without gloves. I'm coming over now. –SH

I was bloody kidding! Revenge and all that. Don't skive off your detention, they'll put you in three more. –JW

How charming you are. Did you know you say 'bloody' about as often as you breathe? –SH

I heard you say it the other day too. Now I'm the one rubbing off on you. –JW

The fact that your bizarre language is infecting my perfect vocabulary is nothing to be proud of. –SH

I'm proud anyway. –JW

Get dressed. Whether you've freed the toad or not, I'm skipping detention. –SH

Why would I not be dressed? The toad is fine. One of the boils popped, though. Not my doing. –JW

Why would I know why you wouldn't be dressed? And we're going to Scotland Yard. –SH

Scotland Yard? Because of the Carl Powers thing? –JW

No, it's ridiculous and I'm not going. –JW

Sherlock? –JW

 

~

 

John trails behind Sherlock as they enter the police station. The last time John was there was when the police questioned him briefly about the crash—So nobody else hit you? Was there anyone in the road?—and the memory surges in his stomach before Sherlock gives him a glance, just one glance, and the feeling disappears.

Sherlock grabs the arm of a young man leaving an office. "You. I need to see the Detective Inspector."

The man is clearly a fresh recruit, the back of his neck newly shaven to match his short haircut. He shakes off Sherlock's arm. He looks alarmed, and John knows why—there's a manic glint in Sherlock's eyes. He's wearing a short-sleeved shirt, and the needle marks are visible. John wonders if he knows how much he looks like an insane junkie.

"Detective Inspector Allen is—" The man darts a glance at the door he's just exited. "Out."

"Not too busy for this." Sherlock turns and tries the handle to the office door. Locked. He heaves an impatient sigh. "It's about Carl Powers."

"Carl…" The young man's eyebrows lift in recognition of the name. "That swimmer. I was there."

"You were on the scene? After it was reported?" Sherlock grabs the man's shoulders. John thinks about intervening, as Sherlock doesn't seem aware that seizing a policeman is a bad idea, but the man merely looks bewildered.

"Yes—he had convulsions in the water. An accident."

Sherlock snorts, releasing him. "What's your name?"

"Lestrade—"

"Well, Lestrade. It may interest you to know that 'accident' does not in the least apply to that case. It was cold-blooded murder."

John is struck by the note of happiness in Sherlock's dramatic declaration. Lestrade draws back, clearly alarmed for the same reason. "That's impossible. We have surveillance. Nobody else was—"

"Surveillance of the pool, or the locker room as well? It was mentioned in the article, a tiny detail—the shoes. Missing. Does the footage tell who took them?"

"There weren't cameras in the locker room. School policy, er, boys changing and all that." Lestrade laughs uneasily.

John notices two other policeman standing nearby, gazing at Sherlock with increasing suspicion. John's pulse quickens. He steps forward. "Sherlock, maybe we should—"

"If he were alone, if nobody else was there, who took the shoes? And why? You people aren't asking the right questions—"

The two officers move up. One of them takes Sherlock's arm, pulling him back from where he's moved too close to Lestrade. Sherlock blinks at them as the first officer turns over his arm, lets out a derisive snort, and releases it. "Another user. We lock kids like you up every day. Maniacs."

John looks at Sherlock, who flexes his fingers. "Maybe you two will listen, then. Carl Powers didn't die of an accident. It was murder—"

"We've found a bloody psycho," laughs one of the officers. The use of the expletive seemed to have reminded Sherlock of John's presence, and he looks briefly at his friend before returning his sharp gaze to the policemen.

"The psycho is the one who killed Powers."

The first officer straightens the front of his uniform superciliously. He plants a finger in the center of Sherlock's chest, giving a little shove that unbalances him. "Get out of here or we'll throw you in with the other junkies, freak."

Sherlock's forehead crinkles minutely at the word. His shoulders fall.

There's heat in John's ears. He can feel it, like a warm compress. All thoughts leave his head, leaving a sweet iciness. Crystalized, like Sherlock's eyes. He moves forward.

The officer is still chortling. "Put your pal in rehab, kid—"

John's fist bounces cleanly off his cheek with the most satisfying smack.

 

~

 

Two hours later, John's wrists are still sore from the handcuffs.

Sherlock is driving. When they near a small café perched atop a hill, he pulls over. "I'll buy you dinner."

"What's the occasion?"

"It's not every day someone punches a police officer for my sake."

John is still somewhat in shock, not because of what he'd done, but because Sherlock had called Mycroft. One word from the older Holmes, and John had been released without mention of pressing charges or permanent records. John wasn't even sure he wanted to know what Mycroft's job was.

The sun is setting. John sits at the picnic bench outside the restaurant, chin on his hands, until Sherlock reappears with two sandwiches wrapped in foil, carrying fizzy drinks in the crooks of his arms.

John takes his with mild surprise. "You're eating, then?"

"I thought it would make you happy." Sherlock sits on the bench with his back to the sunset. He tears the foil from his sandwich and takes a bite.

"Remind me to thank your brother," says John, popping the tab on his Pepsi.

"I'll remind you to do no such thing. He's such a giant annoyance, I'm entitled to whatever small use I can get out of him. How are your knuckles?"

John had bruised them—on the face of a police officer, he thought with some small hysteria. He held them against the cold metal can. The slight ache vanished. "Fine. I knew there was a reason I didn't want to go to Scotland Yard."

"A good one, as it turns out. May I ask what possessed you to punch one of our wonderful upholders of the law?"

John busied himself by taking deep gulps of his drink, but Sherlock didn't stop staring at him. "Is 'he was being a wanker' a good enough reason for you?"

"It's because he insulted me." Sherlock tilted his head to the side. "All right. I've understood your interest in my not being hurt. Words, however, do no harm to me."

"There are different kinds of hurt, Sherlock," John muttered, pulling his jacket up to his chin to hide the flush spreading down his neck.

"I see."

"It's a friend thing. Defending your honor and all that."

"A friend thing," repeated Sherlock. He pulled a cigarette from his jacket, lighting it and holding it to his lips. "Interesting."

"We are friends," says John. It's a question.

"Yes." Sherlock doesn't look unhappy about this.

"Can I ask why?"

"Why?" Sherlock frowns. A breeze crosses the top of the hill, pulling the dark hair over his eyes and raising goosebumps on his thin arms. John wishes that Sherlock would wear a jacket.

"I thought I would ask," says John bravely. Yes, he's being brave now, braver than when he stopped his old rugby captain from breaking Sherlock's nose or pointed a gun at a drug dealer or punched a police officer in the face. Those things were easy. This is hard. "I mean, I look at it scientifically, like you. Usually people pick friends who're useful to them."

"John—"

"I'm just curious." The adrenaline rush from earlier has left John tired, with a drowned feeling. He doesn't bother worrying about how awkward and strange and maladjusted he sounds. It wouldn't be something you could ask an ordinary friend, but then—Sherlock isn't. "Comparatively. You're the genius. I can't even pronounce half the things you're growing in your room. You're clever and I'm—er…"

"John, if you would—"

John picks up again, more firmly. "I'm not smart. Not like you. I'm depressed half the time and I don't know much and I'm not—exceptional, and you only care about things that are exceptional or weird or interesting and I'm not any of those things."

"If you would," says Sherlock slightly more loudly, talking over him, "stop your nonsense for a moment, I could answer you."

John hadn't really expected an answer other than 'you're an experiment' so he stops.

Sherlock hooks his elbows atop the table, leans back. The sunset glows against his forehead and eyes. "You are exceptional. And interesting. I don't think you'd like if I called you weird, so I shan't. And no, your intelligence doesn't particularly exceed that of the masses, but it's nothing to be ashamed of. If everyone were like Mycroft and I—well. You see the effect just the two of us have."

"Go back to the part where I'm 'exceptional.'" John is rather expecting a joke. More evidence of Sherlock's new sense of humor. John was so average he was almost a caricature—what he ate and did and thought. He was lonely? Everyone's lonely—but no, that was wrong. He looks at Sherlock. He isn't lonely any more.

"Yes. I wouldn't have been interested in you if you weren't." Sherlock raises an eyebrow, as if to point out the obviousness of this. "You did something nobody else has ever done before. That's the definition of exceptional."

"And what might that be?"

"Well. You defended me." Sherlock closes his eyes against the sudden glare of sun slipping knifelike through the clouds. His lashes brush against his cheek.

John crumples the foil from his sandwich into a ball. "I mean, I'm sure half the school would've liked a shot at that guy, so it's not exactly—"

"Then," Sherlock continues, still with his eyes closed but with his voice louder, "you were willing to speak to me, the next day, despite my…tactlessness. And then you saved my life. Showed concern at my illness. Generally speaking, acted as no other person had. When one encounters an anomaly, one naturally wants to observe it more closely."

"So it was just an experiment, then." John means to sound off-handed, but something in his diaphragm feels tight and uncomfortable. He breathes out to loosen it, but nothing happens.

"It was—" Sherlock broke off with a shrug. "It's not now."

"Conclusions drawn? Hypothesis proved?" John is surprised to find an edge in his voice.

"Not quite. I like you," said Sherlock simply.

"You like me."

"Yes. You are a person whom I find pleasant and whom I do not want damaged. That counts as friendship, doesn't it? You're brave and trustworthy and startlingly kind—and these are traits I've never particularly valued before. Now I rather know what everyone makes such a fuss about."

"Oh."

"As established, your intelligence isn't pushing boundaries, but I still cannot imagine why you would ask such a stupid question as why someone like me would want to be friends with someone like you." Sherlock cracks an eye open. "Seems obvious. Anyone would. I just seem to have had the particular fortune of being the one who gets you."

John laughs. Everything in his body suddenly feels weightless. He's full of light. "You know you talk like some bloody eighteenth-century snob, right?"

"Do you know you swear like a sailor?"

"Sailors have nothing on me. Finish your sandwich."

Sherlock smirks, drawing deeply from his cigarette and exhaling a gray swirl of smoke into the sunlit air. It hangs there for brief moment, beautiful, before fading into mist.

Chapter Text

John wakes up to a darkness blacker than sleep. He strains his eyes wide, but there's no pinprick of light. He's dreaming, he thinks. A nightmare, but without the car. That's nice. Variety is nice.

But he's never felt pain like this in a nightmare. It's his head. Something is clawing at the side of it, some animal, spitting and biting and drilling. The side of his neck has been painted with something wet and warm. The pain fills his ear, fills his thoughts. Not a nightmare, then. Something real.

If it's real, he can move. He pulls forward. Doesn't work. His hands are tied, twisted behind him. Ankles bound to the foot of the chair he's sitting in.

Now he really starts to worry.

The party. The memories swim hazily before his eyes. He's still a little drunk and lot dizzy, probably due to whatever's wrong with his head. The party—

His heart makes such a shuddering, slicing leap that for a second he's utterly convinced that he'll be killed by the sheer force of it.

Sherlock. Sherlock and—

He tries to tip the chair, but it's bolted to the floor. He doesn't know where he is. He doesn't know where Sherlock is, either, and somehow that's infinitely worse.

All he can do is wait.

 

~

nine hours previously

~

 

"So, the party's at nine—"

Bzzzt.

"and you're invited—"

Bzzzzzzt.

"definitely bring Sherlock—"

BZZZT.

Is it John's imagination, or has the buzzing of his phone grown louder as Sherlock's texts get more impatient? Recently, his friend had taken to texting him incessantly every time he noticed something. Which was constantly.

 

Professor Wilkins shaved her armpits for the first time in a month today. Her brother's wife is coming over for dinner tonight. Let's infer. –SH

Your rugby team captain's girlfriend is sleeping with her math tutor. Should I inform him? Please advise. –SH

Informed him. He's just as touchy as you. Don't worry, I slipped away. Waiting for you by the car. –SH

You're an idiot. Coming. –JW

 

"Sorry," says John, stowing his phone back in his pocket. Shannon Ellis, head of the tennis club and the person he's been talking to for the last five minutes, eyes the phone curiously.

"Was that him?"

"Who—Sherlock?" John thinks about lying. Decides against it. "Yeah."

"He texts you a lot, doesn't he?" John says nothing. She smiles. "It's okay. I'm not like, phobic or anything. Anyway, you guys should totally come to the party. It's the end of the year and we decided, what the hell, we're curious about you two."

She elbows John lightly in the chest. He feels heat fill his face. And ends up nodding. "Yeah, sure. We'll be there."

She claps her hands, like a kid, and slips John a piece of paper with an address written on it. "Great!"

When John makes his way into the parking lot, he's still glowing from how nice it is to be shown any attention at all from members of the opposite sex. Then he spots a tall, dark-haired figure by Mycroft's car.

Sherlock sports a smallish scrape above his brow and a guilty expression. The expression is one John hasn't seen before, and it's almost cute. He smiles, thinking of what Sherlock would do if he called him 'cute'. "I would have advised 'don't say anything' in case you're curious."

Sherlock slouches against the side of the car, scowling. "What took you so long?"

"Shannon Ellis was inviting me to a party. Us. Inviting us to a party. Why, again, was it so important to tell my old team captain what his lady friends are up to?"

"Shannon Ellis?" Sherlock's eyes darken with suspicion. His gaze finds the lingering flush on John's neck. "Why would she invite us to a party?"

"Dunno. I told her we'd go. You're avoiding my question."

Sherlock pulls out a cigarette. It's his third one of the day. John saw him smoking before lunch and after first period. "He said something unpleasant about you. I thought it was a friend thing. 'Defending your honor and all that.' Remember?"

John knuckles his forehead. It's hard to argue against himself. "You're hijacking my logic. No fair."

"I don't play fair." Sherlock shakes ash onto the pavement. "And I'm not going to a party."

Having prepared for this, John inhales. "Think of it like an experiment."

"That's not going to work."

"Fine. Think of it as making up for all your stupid things I've gone along with."

"That might work," Sherlock concedes. He grimaces. "But I'll hold it against you. If anyone tries to dress me up in a lampshade and a bedsheet, you're responsible."

"Yet another reason why you should go to a party. You clearly don't know what they're like."

"Neither do you."

"I do!" says John indignantly. "I went to a couple with the rugby team. And I watch Skins."

Before Sherlock can mock him for the Skins comment, John jumps inside the car, locking the doors after him. Every time Sherlock presses the 'unlock' button on his key, John presses the 'lock' button of the door right back. It's not until Sherlock collapses against the window, gasping with laughter, than John finally lets him in.

~

They stop at John's, at his insistence, to pick up something suave for the party. John isn't actually sure that he owns anything suave, but he definitely isn't going to appear drunk in front of Shannon Ellis in a jumper.

For once, John's dad is home early. He greets John with the usual wariness. John hates the wariness—he knows what it means. It's the fear that he's going to slip back into the depression he fell into after his mum's death, and his father doesn't know how to handle that. The wariness increases when his father spots Sherlock, trailing John like an overgrown shadow. He says hi, perfunctorily, and later John sees him watching their car pull away from the window.

It's a relief to reach Sherlock's house, big and empty as it is. They decide on microwaved popcorn. Sherlock volunteers to make it, but after listening to him ramble on about the dynamics of the microwave, John pops it in himself.

John was right—he doesn't own anything suave. He tries on a couple of Sherlock's shirts, which are all suave, but they're too long and they strain miserably at the buttons over his chest and stomach. They both snort with laughter at this.

"Shannon Ellis will be delighted."

"Shut up."

Eventually, at Sherlock's wicked suggestion, John pilfers something old from Mycroft's closet. At John's not-wicked suggestion, Sherlock wears a slim button-down black shirt. For good measure, John makes him unbutton the top button.

"There. Someone'll make out with you tonight."

Sherlock's lip curls. "I'm not interested," he says, "in that."

"I bet your mind'll change when someone actually goes in for it." John pushes his cheeks together, making a grotesque kissy-face, and Sherlock drops onto the bed in alarm, upending a smelly bowl of fungus. John's throat is already sore from laughing, but that doesn't stop it from having another good one at the sight of Sherlock scrambling on the floor in his stylish black shirt, scraping up mold with his fingers.

John is happy. He's grown to love the days and evenings and sometimes nights that he spends at Sherlock's house. What at first seemed intimidating now feels like home. He likes watching Sherlock insult the telly. He likes joining him in his mad-scientist games, occasionally setting things on fire and producing small explosions. He likes just being there, checking Facebook on his laptop while Sherlock lounges upside-down on the couch and drapes himself across things and bemoans his boredom. He doesn't like it when Sherlock disappears upstairs with that look in his eyes, but it's part of it, and he knows to hold his annoyance until the high wears off and Sherlock is himself again.

Things aren't all okay, but for the first time since the crash, John feels like they're getting there.

~

The house is crowded as they push through the door, narrowly avoiding someone spilling beer on the porch. Kids push against each other, laughing and gripping beers. When they walk in, Sherlock draws very slightly closer to John. He almost doesn't notice, but then he does and it warms him with a surge of feeling. If anyone tries to give Sherlock any trouble tonight, he thinks suddenly, they'll answer to me.

"John!"

Shannon Ellis shoves drunkenly through the melee. John laughs and holds out an arm to stop her from falling. Sherlock looks offended.

"You came!" Her face is flushed. She grabs two beers from a nearby table and shoves one at John, the other at Sherlock, who looks as if he doesn't quite know what to do with it. "You drink it," she says, giggling. "Here." She pushes his hand up towards his mouth.

Everyone's too drunk or high to remember that Sherlock and John are losers. Instead, hey're a novelty. John finishes his beer and then dunks a cup into the large bowl of pinkish mixture by the couch. It's sweet. He gives the cup to Sherlock, who stands like a dark cloud in the corner, tapping his foot irritably in time to the bad music.

Quickly, John feels loose and relaxed and right. He's laughing with everyone else. He dances with Shannon Ellis. He's normal. God, he's bloody normal, after all. He loses track of Sherlock, but finds him again in the center of a ring of people in the living room. For a second, he worries, but then he hears approving whistles.

"You," Sherlock is saying, "have two Labradors, one smaller than the other, one yellow, one black. They belong to your sister, who's away at uni, but she's left them with you even though your stepmother's allergic. Right?"

A stunned girl nods. Everyone applauds and hoots. The girl draws closer, awkwardly, her eyes trailing over Sherlock's slim neck to the flash of his white chest above his shirt. "How'd you do it?"

"Dog hair on your leggings. Obviously Labrador, there's a sticker of the breed on your phone, someone's a fan. Not you, the phone's a hand-me-down, the SD card's been switched. Shirt's a hand-me-down too, a little too large, so an older sister, probably at uni. There's a stub for a receipt for tissues and allergy medicine sticking out of your purse—someone asked you to pick some up, someone's who's new enough to the family that they don't want to offend anyone by kicking out the dogs based on their own allergies."

The girl stares in a glazed way, mouth slightly open, and suddenly plants a kiss on Sherlock's cheek. Someone John's never met elbows Sherlock in a friendly sort of way. John stands to the side, momentarily forgotten, momentarily jealous.

But then Sherlock glances up, gives him a what-am-I-doing-here-this-is-your-fault look, and John laughs and waves his empty cup and grins.

Two hours later and John's so drunk he can barely find his own feet as he swings around hilariously with a couple girls to the music. He's lost Sherlock again, but it's okay, since everything's okay right now.

"Hullo, John!" comes a very bright, very familiar Irish voice.

"You!" John reels to a stop, stumbles. It's Jim, small and perfect in his expensive clothes, holding a drink but clearly sober.

"Me!" he agrees cheerfully, but through the haze John can still see the flash of fangs.

"Omigod, Jim," gasps a girl, flinging herself across the shorter boy's shoulder. "Great party. You should just—" She rolls away, giggling.

John squints, stymied. "This is your party? But Shannon invited me—"

"I asked her to." The girls drag themselves, laughing, from the kitchen, and suddenly John is alone with him. He's still smiling. There's something behind it. "Felt bad and all about the way I treated you. I thought I'd make it up to you, Johnny boy."

John wobbles, but he doesn't want this right now, so he tears his gaze from those bright green eyes and weaves back into the living room, where everyone likes him, everyone grins with him. He's likable. He is. Dead mother or not. It's such a relief that he could collapse with it.

The room is packed. Bodies press against him. Someone brings out a tray of grapes and John is opening his mouth obligingly as people throw them, trying to catch them as they ping off his chest and shoulders, when Sherlock careens into his side.

"Sherlock!" John nearly crashes over, is heaved upright by a snorting group of people to his left. He beams, a shred of grape skin clinging to his chin, and suddenly throws an arm around the dark-haired boy.

Sherlock sways, presses his forehead against John's temple as if in a dream. His eyes are a little unfocused. He breathes into John's ear, "Something's wrong—"

"Too much to drink, Sherlock?" booms someone else, clapping him on the shoulders. John is inclined to agree with that assessment. He finds it hilarious, Sherlock falling-over drunk. Almost sweet, like the taste of the grapes.

Sherlock struggles with words, fumbling with them in a way he's never done before. "No—I have not had—that much—listen—not right—"

John doesn't want another crisis. He won't let anything else be ruined by one. He laughs—Sherlock's just too drunk.

A girl squeals. "You two are so cute!"

Sherlock pulls back a little, making an effort to stand up straight. John just looks at him. At his eyes, deep and cold like mountain pools, at his slender torso, the haphazard way his hair curls darkly over his ears, the way his face looks sharp to touch—

John's happy, he's fucking ecstatic, and he's drunk, and everyone likes him, and everyone likes Sherlock too. It's perfect. And there's only one thing he wants to do. If he doesn't do it now—it won't ever happen. He doesn't think about it. He does it.

He grabs Sherlock by the shirtfront, drags him forward, and kisses him hard with his own eyes squeezed shut.

The room around him erupts in cheers and hollers and drunken catcalls. Everyone claps, screaming. John releases Sherlock, panting, grinning broadly. It's okay because this is what people do at parties. Even as he says that to himself, though, there's already that tiny pinprick of apprehension in the pit of his stomach.

He waits for Sherlock's half-smile. Prays for it. Stakes his life on it. It doesn't come. Instead, Sherlock's eyes focus the tiniest bit, just enough for hurt to flash there. His face slides into an indecipherable mask. But it's decipherable to John. Because he knows what it means. He knows what it hides.

Without a word, Sherlock turns and half-strides, half-staggers away through the mass of people until he vanishes.

John stands there, forgets to relax his face from the fixed grin. He should go after Sherlock. He knows that. But he doesn't. He feels even more like an asshole, but he doesn't. It's so much easier to shrug and slip back into laughter with all the people from school who'd ignored him at lunch.

Because he doesn't want to face how badly he's fucked up.

~

Half an hour later, John can't stand it anymore. He flees to the bathroom, shuts the door and sits down for such a long time that he can hear the clamor of the line that's formed in the hall. He's staring at his phone. A blank message. He doesn't know what to write.

And suddenly, the phone buzzes.

He can't breathe. It's from Sherlock. He jams his thumb against the button, but it's not words. It's numbers.

 

356854399999999 –SH

 

He recognizes them. It's Mycroft's phone number, despite the mistakes and all the nines on the end, as if Sherlock's fingers had gotten stuck on the keypad. Sherlock, who never calls Mycroft, is trying to call Mycroft—the one other person besides John whom he could possibly contact if he were in trouble. But he'd texted John by mistake, because the only thing he ever does with his phone anymore is to text John.

John's chest convulses. He nearly throws his phone against the wall. Instead, he shoves it into his pocket and pushes through the door, ignoring the people complaining outside the bathroom. He roams through the house, searching the crowds for a tall figure with a pale face and dark hair. He doesn't find it. He asks around. People make suggestive noises in their throats. They haven't seen him since John k—he swallows.

John hopes he hasn't tried to drive himself home. Then he spots the stairs. Ignoring his own discomfort at the idea of sneaking around in someone else's house—which, he realizes with a jolt, is probably Jim's—he climbs them. Up here, it's dark. A giggling girl drags a boy—not Sherlock—behind him as John passes. Only one door is closed, the door at the end of the hall. He walks there quickly, pushes it open.

He can hardly understand what he sees.

Sherlock is on the bed, half sitting up, half falling back. His eyes are closed, but the corner of his mouth is drawn back in that crooked-half smile—but now it's wrong, drugged. There's a shallow, ruler-straight cut down the side of his neck, and across his jaw. Jim is sitting close to him, his arm around the thin shoulders. He's holding the knife. As John watches, he puts it to Sherlock's forehead, reverently, and starts to draw.

John makes a choked sound. Jim turns. His smile widens. "Dear me, Johnny boy, dear me."

Frozen with shock, John notices one thing. Probably because Sherlock's always bugging him to pay more attention. There are fresh puncture marks on Sherlock's arm, inflamed. His left arm. Sherlock is left-handed. He always puts the needle in his right arm—

Jim's eyes flick to a point over John's shoulder. John doesn't have time to turn before something detonates against the side of his head, knocking his eyes back into his skull and sending darkness shattering across his range of sight. Just before he sinks to the ground, he thinks—

I'm sorry, Sherlock.

Chapter Text

It's John's first day at school after the crash. It happened over the summer; he hasn't told anyone. He can't. The rugby boys jostle his shoulder and grin at him. He tries, hard, to keep grinning back.

There's a distance between him and everyone else. It's oceans deep. He's never imagined that he could be this isolated, that other people could be such aliens to him. He doesn't understand how they can talk and laugh and move around. He feels dull. Empty.

At lunch, he spots a boy sitting alone. A tall, pale, dark-haired boy, absorbed in a book even as someone pitches a French fry at him. John sees him later, by himself in the library, and again walking distractedly down the hallway with no one beside him. He's always alone. He doesn't seem to mind.

He makes John feel that maybe being alone isn't so bad after all.

 

~~~~~

 

Light floods the room, rising spikes behind John's eyes. He's got a hangover and a possible concussion. Bad combination. He squints, wishing he could rub his face, but his hands are still tied back. Someone, large and masked, unbolts his chair from the floor. He begins dragging it. It's a very heavy chair, and John can hear the legs screeching on the ground, as if in pain.

As the whiteness fades from John's vision, he realizes he's in a supply closet. The man hauls the chair into a larger room. It's a pool, dimmed, with reflections from the chemically blue water glittering on the curved ceiling.

The chair's screeching echoes in the larger room as the man pushes John to the edge of the pool. For one heartstopping moment, he thinks he'll be thrown in, but then he stops moving forward. The man—John has to marvel at his strength—lifts the chair, slips some sort of contraption underneath it. John strains his neck to see it, but he can't.

He turns to face forward. A spasm grips him. Sherlock is sitting on the other side of the pool. He's bound to an identical chair as John's—heavy, iron. He's sitting up straight, breathing evenly, but his eyes are closed. The straight, thin cuts on his face have begun to scab over. John's stomach overturns. How long have they been here?

"Sherlock?" John tries, but it comes out mostly as a rasp. His throat feels stuffed with cotton. He's never been this thirsty in his life.

Sherlock opens his eyes. His face is still, expressionless. "Hello, John."

"Isn't anyone going to say hello to me?" comes a whining Irish voice. John twists. It's Jim, appearing as if from nowhere at the head of the pool. He paces, his fingers climbing adoringly over the butt of a gun in the back of his pants.

"Hello, Jim." Sherlock, still with that cool, empty tone of voice. It makes John want to scream. Sherlock has to be terrified. He can't be the only one terrified. "The pool. I see. Nice touch."

"Where little Carl died." Jim skips over to Sherlock's side of the pool, stroking the dark hair almost lovingly. The sight makes bile rise in John's throat. Then Jim buries his hands in Sherlock's hair, grips it, wrenches his head back, exposing the pale throat. "It was perfect. And yet you meddled. I left nothing behind."

"That was your first mistake." Sherlock coughs, pulls his head away. "You took the shoes. Poison, I imagine?"

"Botulism," says Jim, delighted. "In his foot cream. Clever, yes?"

"Very clever," says Sherlock. Jim almost skips with happiness.

"I thought so. I'm generally clever. Too clever for other people to notice when I kill. But you, Sherlock…you. You're just as clever as me, aren't you? Tell me, when did you realize it was me?"

"I wasn't quite sure. While I was waiting for you to start your little game today, however, I had some time to think. I remembered someone mentioning the school you had transferred from. The same as—"

"—Carl's school," finishes Jim. "You can't blame me, Sherlock. He laughed at me. He deserved it. You know what's it's like to be laughed at, don't you?"

Sherlock is silent. John clears his throat. "What the bloody hell is going on?"

"Shut up, John," Jim hisses with sudden venom. "Little pet. You stupid, insipid toy. That's all he is to you, Sherlock, isn't he? What would a brilliant mind like you want with someone as mind-bendingly ordinary as him? I came here. I observed you. You and I are the same. It's us who should work together. He has no place in that picture."

John stares at Sherlock desperately. He's so scared, but Sherlock won't look at him. Sherlock, whose face is so calm. "And that's the point of this game, I suppose."

"Yes!" Jim actually pats Sherlock on the shoulder. "You clever thing. You know it's a game already."

"Everything's a game to you."

"Yes. Well, no. You're not a game to me, Sherlock. You're something worthy. But I have to make sure first." He nods past them, up toward a high window. "Sebastian?"

John's breath catches. A small dot of red light has appeared, hovering over Sherlock's chest. He's seen enough spy movies to know what it is. By the way Sherlock's eyes move to him, for the first time, he knows there must be a bead on him as well.

"Oh, don't get distracted by that," says Jim impatiently. "That's just insurance. In case you refuse to do what I say."

Sherlock hasn't taken his eyes off the place on John's chest where the dot must be. "And what is it you wish us to do?"

Jim places a small remote on Sherlock's lap. There's only one button. John realizes that there's an identical remote taped to the arm of his own chair, just within reach of his fingers. "This is a good pool to drown in, I've heard."

Sherlock closes his eyes, very briefly, and then opens them again. "I see."

"You do! Excellent. I'll explain, for the sake of the stupid puppy," says Jim, his voice going suddenly cold. "Each remote connects to the device under the opposite person's chair. So, for instance, John, if you press your button, Sherlock will tip forward. You have ten minutes. If one of you doesn't go under within that time, you'll both be shot. And no tricks, Sherlock, or you'll both die. That's the game."

John stares at the soft blue water. His head pounds, and he isn't sure if it's from the blow or from fear. He imagines Carl, whom he's never seen, slipping beneath the same blue water. Imagines his body stiffening, thrashing, going still and limp.

"Be back in ten," sing-songs Jim, moving toward the wall and disappearing through a side door.

John's still staring at the water. He thinks of everything he knows about drowning. During one of his morbid periods, he'd researched ways of dying, and drowning had been one. Words like mammalian diving reflex and hypoxia jump through his mind. He doesn't remember what they mean. Sherlock would know. He could ask.

"John, are you all right?" Sherlock's voice is low and urgent. The inexorable mask has slipped from his face. "You've been bleeding—"

"Some party, huh?" John laughs, a horrible dry sound. Why did they have to go to that party in the first place? Oh. John remembers. It was his idea. He made Sherlock go. It's his fault that Sherlock is sitting there, tied to the chair of a madman.

"At least they didn't put me in a lampshade."

A magnified voice floats out over the ceiling. Jim's voice. "Nine minutes."

John's hands start to shake.

"John." Sherlock's voice is urgent again. He leans forward, as much the shackles will allow. "Use your remote. Now."

"No. You'll—" John can't talk. Why is Sherlock suggesting this? He must still be drugged. "I won't."

"Now is not the time to be stubborn."

"You're lecturing me about being stubborn?" John gives a cracked laugh.

"Please," says Sherlock. John has never seen him look like this before. His entire face is drawn, his voice wan. "You have to."

"Eight minutes."

"And why do I have to?"

"Because there's no way I'm using mine. Either we both die, or just I die. The second option is logically superior." With incredible care, Sherlock manages to nudge the remote on his lap down the length of his leg, where he drops it gingerly to the pool tiles and gives it a light push.

It slides out of his reach.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

It's the day after Sherlock's illness. John had stayed the night. They'd fallen asleep watching James Bond movies Sherlock had claimed never to have seen, Sherlock on the couch swaddled in blankets, John on the floor. When John wakes up, his cheek patterned with the carpet, the blankets are dumped on top of him. Sherlock is fast asleep, his knees drawn up to his chest.

John gets up, goes to Sherlock, puts the blankets back over his friend while shaking his head in annoyance. Then he holds a palm lightly to Sherlock's forehead. The fever is gone, and the other boy's skin is cool and normal. John's hand lingers there.

Sherlock opens his eyes. For a second, they look at each other, both still hazy with sleep. Then Sherlock says,

"Thank you."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

It hits John like a sledgehammer, what Sherlock has done. Desperation clenches his stomach. He wants to scream and swear and rage, so he does. "You fucking idiot, you moron, what the fuck did you just do—"

"Worse than a sailor," Sherlock reminds him. There's a tremor in his voice, a slight one, but his head is high and he's clearly fighting for the calm he's holding on to. "Shall we get this over with, John?"

He can't do this. He's not strong enough. His voice comes out reedy and dogged, like an obstinate child. "I won't."

Sherlock's voice is patient, for once. "John. I already explained it to you. Either way, now, I'm going to die. We might as well—"

"Seven minutes."

"—not draw it out. I told you when we first met, I'm not meant to live long anyway."

It's this that pushes John over the edge. He doesn't want to cry, he's not the type of person who cries, but he bows his head anyway, shoulders shaking. For some undeterminable reason, he says, "I'm sorry I snogged you at the party."

For the first time, Sherlock's voice wavers. "I thought you were mocking me. Like everyone else."

"No, Sherlock, no—" He swallows. It's hard, so hard, to talk. His lungs feel smaller, as if they can't give him the air he needs to propel the words. "And I'm sorry for—for always nagging you about eating. And for not talking to you, ever, until that one time. And—"

"Six minutes."

John has nothing left.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Once, John goes through Sherlock's phone. It's an idle day, the rain beating itself against the windows, and Sherlock has shouted about being bored and gone upstairs to use the one thing that drives the boredom back. John doesn't like it, but he can't begrudge him it. Everyone needs something to keep the monotony away. For Sherlock, it's cocaine. For John, it's Sherlock.

It's almost all texts from John. He smiles to himself as he goes through them. Objectively, they're pretty funny. And then he comes across some messages from Mycroft.

 

How's your new pet? Don't forget to feed him. Some people like to eat. –MH

Don't speak to me about John like that. He's not my…pet. –SH

Then what is he, dear brother? We both know you have no use for friends. –MH

Please, continue to showcase how little you know about me. It's fascinating. –SH

You'll only hurt him, you know. It might be kinder to take him to the pound now. –MH

I would not hurt him. –SH

Yes, you would. And you will. Intentionally or not. –MH

I know. –SH

But I can't just –SH

 

The messages end there. John sits on the couch, listening to the rain, listening to his own pulse.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

"You can feed the toad with the blue liquid under my desk." Sherlock's voice is definitively quavering now. John has never seen him truly afraid before. "Don't let Mycroft interfere with my experiments, for God's sake."

There will be no one to wake John up from his nightmares. No one to drive him to the store when he suddenly has a craving for bagels. No one to beat the fire out of the hem of his shirt, laughing madly, when an experiment goes awry. No one to—no one to—no one.

There will be no one.

"Five minutes."

"Use the remote, John."

John's voice is strangled. His heart is strangled. "Sherlock—you know you're the best—the best person I know. The smartest, and—and the kindest. The most human."

"John, please just—"

"You're my best friend."

Sherlock stops. It could be the reflection of the pool, but John thinks he sees wetness in the corners of his eyes.

"Four minutes."

And suddenly, John knows what he has to do.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Come get me. Harry's being an ass. –JW

 

The sleek black car seems to materialize in John's driveway almost instantly. He doesn't stop to say goodbye to his drunken sister as he flies outside, slamming the car door after him with unwonted venom.

As they drive away, Sherlock says, "Can I ask?"

John is bubbling with fury. "She comes home every night like this, trashed. And then she starts talking to me about mum, and how she's so jealous I got to be in the car with her when it happened, and how she wanted a chance to say goodbye too, and I—" He buries his face in his hands suddenly, feeling stupid. "She's jealous. Of me. For that."

"According to my deductive reasoning, she's probably actually jealous of you because of your good looks."

John looks up, surprised. Sherlock is wearing something of a hopeful grin. John laughs, and Sherlock looks gratified.

"She's probably just jealous of my chauffeur," says John.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Three minutes."

"John." Sherlock's gaze is boring a hole in him. "The remote. You must trust me."

Trust him? John's head is spinning. He knows that look. Is it possible that Sherlock has some sort of plan that involves pitching himself into the water? A plan to get them out of this? But then—what if that's what Sherlock wants John to think? What if he doesn't actually have a plan at all?

John could trust Sherlock.

Or he could save him.

It's something only John can do. Sherlock, with his wasted appearance and undernourished limbs, wouldn't be able to manage it. But John's played rugby for two years. He inhales, feeling the oxygen hydrocharge his blood. He feels calm. "Sorry, Sherlock."

John leans forward, straining at the chair. Not good enough. He begins to rock, pushing the chair back with his legs as hard as he can, gathering momentum. The legs tip back, then forward. It's heavy. It's hard. John doesn't stop.

"John, no." Sherlock's voice is ragged. "No—"

John can't believe he ever thought Sherlock didn't care. It's so obvious. He almost laughs at himself.

"Two minutes."

The chair legs hit the floor hard, and for a second John is terrified that that he'll tip the wrong way, fall backwards, but then the chair comes forward again and it's all momentum and it lifts off, falling falling falling—

"John!"

It's the plunge.

He sinks fast, bubbles speeding up past his face toward the surface, where he can't go. For a moment he's afraid he'll hit the tiled pool floor face first, but somehow the chair rights itself and hits the floor with a muted thud.

The water isn't too cold. Pressure builds inside John's chest. He tilts his head back, squinting as the chlorine stings his eyes, looking up toward the blurred dark shape at the edge of the pool. He wishes he could see Sherlock more clearly. It might make it easier.

~~~~~

"I like you."

~~~~~

John's chest shudders involuntarily. He clamps his mouth down tighter. Not yet.

~~~~~

"That counts as friendship, doesn't it?"

~~~~~
Time speeds up. He should think of something. But his mind is blank. He should pray. He prays, for Harry to stop drinking and find herself, for his father to move on with his life, for Sherlock—

—he prays for Sherlock to remember to eat without John to remind him, to get along with Mycroft better, to be careful when he plays with chemicals, to not leave knives on his bedroom floor, to get enough sleep even when he's excited about a problem, to call someone when he gets sick, to smoke less often, to wean himself off cocaine, to not make personal comments to people who could hurt him, to learn how to defend himself properly, to remember that he's cared for, to find a place in the world where he won't be bored, where he can make proper use of that goddamned beautiful brilliant mind—

It hurts now. His lungs, his chest. Everything is shriveling, tightening. There are black and yellow spots mottling his vision. He's fading. He thinks of Carl Powers, who's in the water too. In his mind, Carl Powers holds out a hand. They embrace.

Then, as if from a million miles away, he hears dull bangs. Sounds that have no meaning to him. He's too far gone. Then something splits the golden rippling surface of the world. Dives toward him.

It's Sherlock, pale and haunted-looking underwater. The ghost of Carl Powers vanishes. John wants to vanish with him. But Sherlock won't let him. The long fingers work furiously at the shackles. Not quickly enough. John's head floats back. Everything is soft and sweet and nice.

The shackles loosen, slide off. John is dreaming something dark as he suddenly hurtles toward the surface of the pool.

The next thing he knows, he's coughing, coughing hard, gasping as hands press down on his chest. He's dizzy, wants to vomit, but he doesn't. "S—Sherlock?"

Sherlock's face is white, his hair soaked and dripping. He doesn't respond, but grabs John's arm, half-dragging, half-carrying him away from the edge of the pool.

John is just conscious enough to see the red dot flicker on Sherlock's forehead. John is just alive enough to move, lurching forward and shoving Sherlock over. This time, the sound of gunfire is clear and distinct. The bullet buries itself in John's thigh.

Sherlock makes a sound, pulls John after him as quickly as he can. Another bullet breaks the floor inches away from John's forehead, but they make it, they're moving so fast. Sherlock yanks him behind the narrow row of orange lockers, out of the reach of the sniper.

The pain is a glowing nucleus of energy, the white-hot center of a boiling star exploding slowly outward. It's stealing John's breath. There's blood everywhere, blood marking the long red streak of their trail, blood pooling in a precious scarlet halo beneath them. John knows a little about arteries in thighs. He doesn't think about it. He doesn't think about anything, much.

Sherlock has his phone out. Somehow it's working despite the water. Liquid-proof case. He's dialing a number.

"Send an ambulance—"

There's so much blood. John can see it in the corner of his eye. It amazes him.

Sherlock grabs his shoulders, almost roughly. He presses his wet forehead to John's. John can nearly taste his breath. "John. Help is coming. Talk to me."

John smiles in a vague way. His fingers twitch.

"No, John, I said talk. Tell me—tell me about what an idiot I am for not realizing earlier about Jim. You love to call me an idiot. Tell me."

Everything's emptying out, the last dregs. John's emptying out onto the floor. Sherlock's eyes are emptying out, if it's not pool water, the clear liquid running down his face. "Talk to me or—I won't eat for days. I'll offend everyone within a five-mile radius who could possibly punch me in the face. I know it angers you. Please, John."

John just wants to sleep. He knows, this time, there will be no nightmares. He won't need anyone to wake him up. Sherlock won't have to worry.

"No—wake up—"

It's the easy way out.

John takes it.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWELVE

How We Come Back




When John wakes up, there's no one in the room.

His mouth is dry, arid. The hospital room swims together as his vision clears. His head feels thick. It's bandaged, he realizes as he turns it, feeling the crinkle of the stiff white cloth against the pillow. There's a plastic bag feeding deep red blood into his arm through a tube. Harry would be grossed out.

The door swings open. A doctor in a white coat walks in, holding a clipboard. He smiles. "I'm glad to see you're awake."

There's a glass of water by John's bedside. Shifting awkwardly, he grabs it, drinking deeply. His leg is weighted and numb. It's splinted. "What happened?"

"The bullet fractured your femur and hit your femoral artery. You're lucky to be alive, son. Immediate blood infusion saved your life."

"Bullet," John mumbles. It's probably the pain meds, but he's confused, his mind fogged. "What bullet?"

"Drive-by shooting, I'm afraid. A freak occurrence. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time."

John turns his head again, trying to clear it. Drive-by shooting…it doesn't sound right, somehow, but it's all he's got to go on, so he accepts it. "Will I be okay?"

"You'll be just fine. Might need some physical therapy. You'll be on crutches for a while, though. Apologies—I know you just got off them."

"No," says John. He frowns. Everything is misty and strange. "I'm still on them."

The doctor pages through the sheets on his clipboard. "It says here you got off them a couple weeks ago…oh." He glances, very briefly, toward the curtained window of the hospital room door. "Yes. Still on them. Of course."

John follows his gaze toward the window. For a split second, he thinks he sees a tall, dark silhouette beyond the curtain.

But then it disappears.


"So," says Sherlock. There is a sharp pain in his chest, somewhere under his breastbone. Strained muscle, perhaps. Best to ignore it. "Your serum works, then."

"It's highly experimental." Mycroft pulls a watch from his pocket, checks the time. He sneaks a glance at his brother, who seems paler than usual, more tired than usual. "I had to pull a rather large amount of strings to get a vial. The effects could wear off within a few days, or they could last a lifetime. You'll need to—"

"I plan to disappear." Sherlock throws a seemingly inconsequential glance over his shoulder, toward the hospital door. "Even if he remembers, he will not be able to find me."

"I warned you, little brother." Mycroft makes a movement as if to place a hand on Sherlock's shoulder, and then thinks better of it. "I told you not to get in too deep."

"So you did." Sherlock puts his hands in his pockets. "I suppose you expect thanks."

"Not at all," says Mycroft, watching him, "not at all."


Sherlock walks home alone. On the way, he lights a cigarette. The smoke escapes above his head, slipping into nothingness. The sky is darkening, and the cars that pass wear their headlights bright. They blind Sherlock as they fly by, each vehicle a sparking star.

He's been trying to track down Jim. His best efforts have unearthed nothing. He could have told Mycroft, could have enlisted his brother's considerable resources in the hunt, but he has not. He doesn't want Mycroft to know about Jim. Mycroft hadn't even asked for much of an explanation. It hadn't seemed to him like much of a surprise that someone had gunned for Sherlock, and that John had been caught in the crossfire.

He doesn't want to think of John, but his mind leaps at the name, wrapping itself around it. He's never known his mind not to obey him before. It's ridiculous. Sherlock knows obsession, feeds on obsession, but now the object of his obsession is John. But John's not a problem to solve. John's in the past now. No use dwelling on him. But something in him wants to dwell.

Is he doing the right thing? Sherlock nearly laughs. It's a question he never would have asked himself before. It's a very Johnlike question. He'd tried to think like John when he'd decided. It was strange, trying to think like John. Everything was morality and self-sacrifice and strength. Sherlock wasn't like that. He was selfish and nefarious and—weak. Weak in the areas that John would consider important.

He'd had to pretend to be John to find the strength to leave him.

It would be quite simple. He'd return to the way he'd lived before John. It did not matter how terrible a prospect that now seemed. He was merely being dramatic. Foolish, affected, like the blundering rest of humanity he so frequently mocked in his head.

He was losing his touch. He'd have to get it back. Mycroft had already found him a place at a new school, a ways away. He would leave the old house. Money was no object. He didn't know why Mycroft was going to such trouble to help him when he'd advised against John in the first place.

John, who'd been willing to die for him—and nearly had. Sherlock couldn't understand it. What had he done to inspire such loyalty? Had it been the annoying texts? The rides home from school? The movies at night, the trips to the store, the—

Sherlock stops. The headlights of passing cars light up his thin frame briefly, making him glow, before letting him fade into darkness. The pain is back in his chest. Not so sharp now. More of an ache. It is so incapacitating that he can scarcely move.

If this is love, he's glad he's been able to avoid it thus far.


John goes home. Everyone takes time off—John from school, Harry from uni, his father from work. It's nice. They begin to function again as a family, gingerly feeling out each other's limits and expectations. They're all worried about John. John's worried about himself.

Ever since he woke up, things have stopped feeling real. His nightmares have changed. No more car crashes. Now he dreams of a pool, of being underwater, of gunfire. When Harry or his father wake him up after he cries out, he expects to see someone else. He doesn't know who.

Everything is hazy and false. The last few weeks are a blur. The doctor told him some memory trauma isn't too unexpected, with the concussion. John doubts that he's missing anything, anyway. His life has been the same repetitive motion for so long that he cares little about the lost weeks.

He feels like he's lost something else.

He keeps checking his phone, although he rarely gets texts. No messages from the past few weeks at all. He finds a burned shirt on his floor and can't remember how it ever caught on fire. Without knowing how he learned, he finds he knows quite a lot about cigarette ash.

He goes back to school eventually, on crutches, his leg wrapped up. A few things have changed. People look at him strangely now, where before they hardly noticed him. John supposes being shot makes you interesting. He notices one day that the school loner, Sherlock Holmes, has vanished from his usual table in the cafeteria. John always found him vaguely interesting, and he supposes that's why he feels inexplicably sad when he hears that the dark-haired boy has transferred.

John has no real inclination to talk to anyone. He takes up Sherlock Holmes's old table, sitting by himself, reading. He remembers how badly he used to want to be accepted. Now he hardly cares. Everyone seems so bland.

Then, one day, Molly Hooper approaches him.

She's a year below him, a timid, mouselike girl with her bookbag clutched to her chest. John has seen her around enough to know to wave and smile as she approaches, but she doesn't smile back.

"You don't look well," she says.

John doesn't feel well. He feels broken, like he did when his mum died. Like nothing is worth caring about. He's been trying to make sure this doesn't show on his face, so he can't imagine why this girl he barely knows would see. He taps his leg, smiling again. "Yeah, well. Shot and all."

She sits down, her large dark eyes creased. "I have to tell you something."

John feels a flicker of interest, the first since he woke up in the hospital. "Go for it."

"He paid us off," she says in a rush. "Every single person in the school. I don't know how he did it. Told us not to talk about him. But I'm so worried. He's gone. I just want to know he's okay."

"Who?"

"Sherlock."

Something swoops in John's stomach. He's not sure why. "Sherlock Holmes?"

She watches him carefully. "Yes."

He shakes his head. "Sorry. Didn't really know him."

She's silent for a moment, staring at him. Then she stands. "Let me take you somewhere after school. Meet me in the south parking lot."

She leaves before he can answer.


She drives him to a rich neighborhood, one that John has never been to before, but it's strangely familiar. Her face is tense, and she doesn't talk until they pull into a particular driveway. The house is tall and austere-looking, but for some reason, John isn't intimidated in the least. There's a For Sale sign on the lawn.

"Come on." She hops out of the car, runs up the front steps, her long brown braids bouncing behind her. She's tiny, and the door's locked, but three minutes with a pick and she's got it open. John swings up behind her, amazed.

"He taught me how to do it," she says, slipping inside like a quiet creature.

John follows. The house is large and dark and empty. John feels so odd the moment he enters it, as if he was having the same dream as one he'd had long ago. Before he goes into the living room, he knows exactly where the couch will be. In the kitchen, for a split second, he envisions a body on the floor.

"Can you make it up the stairs?" Molly is watching him.

"Yeah." John doesn't know why he should do it, why he's here at all, but he propels himself clumsily up the stairs, into a hallway. He's drawn to one door in particular. He maneuvers to it, pushes it open.

It's almost entirely empty. It looks unkempt, unlike the rest of the house. There are discolored patches on the floor. Holes in the wall where it looks like knives have been pushed into it.

Only one piece of furniture has been left behind. A stripped bed, shoved into the corner. It's just as stained as the floor. Without knowing why, John goes to it. He sets his crutches against it, climbs on top of it. He buried his face in the mattress, inhales the scent of earth and dust and something that he knows very, very well.

And, so suddenly a headache like a thunderclap splits his forehead, John remembers everything.


At first, John is furious. For a moment, he's so angry that he's fine with the idea of never seeing Sherlock again. Then he realizes that he needs to, because if he doesn't, he'll never be able to punch that self-satisfied, bigheaded idiot in the face.

He calls Mycroft, using the emergency number that Sherlock gave him that he'd memorized. No answer. Number not found. He goes to nearby high schools, lurking by the doors when the bell rings, searching the crowds for the tall figure. Every time he spots a shock of dark hair, his heart leaps. Every time it's not Sherlock, which is always, his heart settles right back down in the pit of his stomach.

He texts Sherlock. The number has been deleted from his phone, but he remembers it.

I don't know what you bloody did to me but it didn't work, I remember, and I'm going to finish up Jim's work and murder your stupid face if you don't tell me exactly where you are right now. –JW

Re: 245782918 Number not registered. Please contact your phone company for assistance.

John hurls his phone at his bedroom door. It shatters into a hundred pieces of plastic. His dad runs in, asks if he needs pain meds, does he want to sleep, is he not feeling well, should the doctor be called. John breathes in, smiles. He's fine.

He's not fine. He goes to the police. Of course they can't help him. He spies Lestrade, the rookie officer who was there that time John decided to punch a policeman for insulting his best friend, and they exchange awkward smiles. John leaves feeling a little gratified.

No one at school will talk about Sherlock, even when John pushes them. They mutter excuses and flee. It's the money, Molly tells him. Molly, the second-year who tells him she owes Sherlock for helping her, is the one person who sits with John at lunch now. They don't talk, bound only by the person they miss.

John's nightmares mutate once more. This time, they're everything that might be keeping Sherlock from getting in contact with him. Sherlock tied up in a basement, water dripping down the walls. Sherlock in a ditch with blood coating his head. Sherlock with a bullet hole through one of his vivid eyes. Always, Sherlock sits up and smiles at John. "After all that, you couldn't save me. How dull."

Nobody in the Watson household sleeps well anymore.

John spends hours sitting on the porch of Sherlock's old house. He can't go inside. He searches "Holmes" on the internet until his eyes burn from the bluish glow in the darkness. Nothing that could help him. He doesn't know where to look. He's out of ideas.

Molly Hooper finally tells him to give up. She smiles gently, sadly, and moves her tray back to the table where her old friends are. John gets up, gathers his crutches, walks straight out the front door of the school. Nobody will give him detention. He's traumatized, after all. Poor John, mum's dead, now this, how on earth is the father handling it, perhaps someone should put him in therapy, how long can someone go without sleep, how long can someone go without their other half—

John wonders if Sherlock knows how slowly he's killing him.


Sherlock almost overdoses.

Mycroft's been keeping a closer eye on him. He finds him just in time, his little brother with the blood under his nose, his lips white, eyes rolled back. Mycroft pulls more strings. The hospital doesn't ask any questions.

Mycroft is angry. He's got a life, he's got things to do, he doesn't have time to babysit Sherlock. He doesn't have time to watch while Sherlock drifts about the house like a ghost, eyes blank, spending most of his time in a comatose state on the couch. He watches a lot of James Bond movies. Mycroft has to threaten him with an IV to get him to eat.

Mycroft is worried. Something that ran deep inside Sherlock has been snapped. Perhaps irreparably. It's all that blasted John Watson's fault. Mycroft wishes fervently that John Watson had never been born.

Sherlock can't find the energy to speak to Mycroft, the only person he sees. Can't even find the energy to smoke. He's never had a heart before, and having grown one just to have it broken is too much for him. He doesn't see the point in anything. He's cold and biting and insolent and condescending to everyone, about everything.

Mycroft slips antidepressants into his food. Sherlock retaliates by disappearing for three days during a cold snap. Mycroft's contacts find him semiconscious in an opium den. Mycroft is enraged. Sherlock finds this hilarious.

Sherlock thinks about John. Slips into periods of self-loathing whenever he does, about how ridiculous he's being, how illogical and weak and preposterous he is. He thinks about John anyway. About his smile and his frown and the range of expressions in between. He replays the episode at the pool over and over again. Tries to analyze it, figure it out. Can't. There is no reason, no reason at all, anyone would want to die for him.

He is, after all, an idiot.


One day, John has an idea.

It's a stupid idea. A shot in the dark. Nevertheless, he spends hours on the note. Throws in as many details as he can, making the bait enticing.

SEARCHING FOR: Consulting detective. References/identification not required.

DETAILS: Need assistance in unraveling a murder from within a locked room. Windows bolted at the time. Strange noise heard by maid in neighboring room. Victim expired of a bullet wound to the head. No gun found in the room. Following sound of gunshot, room was entered in moments. No perpetrator found. Police no help.

INQUIRE: For legal reasons, personal address not included. Interested parties please meet at 28th South Barton St., park bench at 3:00 p.m., October 31st.

He puts the ad in the newspaper a week before the meeting date. For the next seven day, he's on tenterhooks. His father brings up the subject of moving. Too many memories here. John refuses. Sherlock needs to be able to find him again.

John has barely noticed that the date he's set for the meeting is Halloween. On October 31st, when he pulls on the oversized brand-new red sweatshirt and swings down the street on his crutches, trick-or-treaters are already everywhere. Kids, dressed up like ghouls and bloodstained ghosts. It's a cold afternoon, and mothers hurry their children along, wrapping jackets over costumes despite the protests.

John reaches the bench an hour early. He's terrified. This is his last chance, and he knows it. The bench is on a hill at the edge of a park, high enough for John to watch the costumed kids traversing the street from a distance. He glances at his crutches. Too much of a giveaway. If Sherlock sees them from a distance, he might leave without approaching. John half-stands on the bench, throws them like javelins into a nearby dumpster. Perfect.

At three, he's freezing. He's pulled his knees up to his chest, the huge sweatshirt stretched over the bulging cast, the hood low over his eyes. He doesn't want Sherlock to recognize him right away.

At three oh five, John is sorely tempted to pitch himself into the dumpster as well.

At three oh seven, John sees everything he wants.

Everything he wants is rounding a building at the opposite end of the street. John stops breathing. Sherlock Holmes doesn't look both ways before crossing the road. Despite the cold, the T-shirt he wears is threadbare. He's thinner than John has ever seen him, thinner than John had thought a person could be and still live. His face is all shadows. He walks like he's about to be blown away.

John doesn't move until Sherlock is right behind him.

"Excuse me," Sherlock says. His voice has gotten hoarser. And harder. And colder. "I'm here about your advertisement. I have a few theories—"

John pulls himself free of the sweatshirt. He turns, straightens. Looks Sherlock in the eye.

Sherlock goes rock-still. His skin whitens beneath the sleepless bruises under his eyes. He turns and runs.

"Sherlock!" John yells. No. He won't lose him again. He leaps off the bench, or tries to leap, but his crutches are in a dumpster. He lands on his bad leg, which wrenches an agonized grunt from his lungs and collapses him on his side. White spots flash briefly in his vision.

And then there are hands on his arm, pulling him up. Familiar long fingers. As soon as John is upright, they drop his sleeve as if it were burning hot.

John stares at Sherlock, who looks tattered. Frayed. He looks worse than John, but John can't keep the flatness from his voice when he speaks. The tightly controlled anger. "Did you drug me?"

"Yes," says Sherlock. His voice is cold, distant. Careful. "Well. Technically, Mycroft drugged you."

"Even better. Tell the government they have to work on their magic memory-loss vitamin, or whatever. Clearly it's got some bugs."

John doesn't know why he's making jokes. The air is awkward and tense. He hadn't imagined them meeting like this. He thought maybe he'd hit Sherlock, and then they'd hug and cry. Something like that. Something Hollywood. Something easy.

"You almost died," says Sherlock. And John sees him, really sees him. Sees all the myriad ways he's failed in keeping himself from falling apart. "I decided it would be safer, this way. I'm a dangerous person to be around. You must understand this, this meeting, doesn't change anything. Don't expect—"

"Don't bloody well tell me what not to expect!" John is practically spitting. "I wake up, got no idea what the hell happened to me, no idea where the last few weeks've gone. Then I remember you, and you've vanished, and I'm alone, and I don't know whether you're alive or dead or safe or—"

He draws his fist back. Sherlock flinches but doesn't pull away. John can't. His hand drops loosely to his side. "You look like shit."

"You, also, have an appearance similar to that of shit," Sherlock counters, tentatively.

It's such a ridiculous statement that John laughs. The sound blows a hole through the wall that's built up between them. He can't stop laughing, bending over his stomach. Can't tell if he's laughing or something else. He looks up. Sherlock is staring at him with something like concern.

Ignoring his leg, John lurches forward and grabs Sherlock in a fierce hug, drawing him close. John can feel their heartbeats mingle. Sherlock's is practically jumping out of his thin chest. Sherlock is here. He's here, and none of it matters anymore.

"You haven't been eating," John sighs, resting his head in the nook of his friend's bony shoulder.

"No."

"Been shooting up too much too, I bet."

"Yes."

"Like I said," John breathes, "idiot." And he doesn't let go and Sherlock doesn't let go. John decides it's a fine thing, to not let go.

He'll keep doing it as long as he can. It'll be difficult. It's not the easy way out.

John takes it anyway.

Chapter Text



CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Epilogue

How We Resolve


 

"You're getting love letters."

John shoves the note in his pocket so hard he nearly tears through the fabric of his jeans. "And you're getting a punch in the face for looking through my biology folder."

"So there is more than one, and that's where you've been storing them. Excellent." And before John can stop him, Sherlock has seized his bag, upending it on the floor and riffling through his biology folder until the notes fall onto his lap. "You really should learn to stop smiling like a fool at a piece of paper unless you want everyone nearby to know what it is."

It's been seven months since John had tricked Sherlock into coming out of hiding. Seven months since John had hugged him by a park bench on Halloween, gripping his shoulders to stop both of them from falling apart. Seven months since John had decided he never wanted to be somewhere that Sherlock Holmes wasn't.

A lot had happened in seven months.


 

Five months ago

"Calm down," John whispers as he rings the doorbell. "It's just my family."

Sherlock is standing to his left on the porch, holding the casserole. John had rather thought his strange best friend would be more palatable to his relatives, Aunt Linda especially, if he was holding some kind of baked dish.

"Childhood influences, primarily familial ones, are the number one determinant of who we're drawn to later in life. As you are drawn to me, John, I can only assume that your family is comprised of high-functioning, drug-addicted sociopaths."

John rings the doorbell again. "You're not addicted anymore, we agreed that you weren't. And who says I'm drawn to—"

"Jooohn!" Aunt Linda throws open the door, nearly crushing John's skull, and proceeds to crush the rest of him in a hug. Aunt Linda was poofy-haired, knitting-obsessed, and an ex-bodybuilder, a fact of which John is acutely aware as he strains to breathe.

"I'm Sherlock Holmes, John's friend from school," he hears Sherlock's voice come from behind him. They'd rehearsed that. Good. "I don't mean to criticize Watson family traditions, but I believe you may be slowly suffocating him to death."

They hadn't rehearsed that, but John is grateful anyway as Aunt Linda releases him, scrutinizing Sherlock. Sometimes John forgets how he appears to other people. His alien beauty, his crystal-clear eyes, his slightly alarming thinness—though it wasn't as bad as it had been seven months ago.

Aunt Linda, though, doesn't know that. "Good gracious, boy," she says, actually pinching Sherlock's upper arm. Good thing John had warned him about the pinching. "You're skin and bones. We'll have to feed you up. Our John's boyfriend deserves the biggest slice of pie."

"He's not my boyfriend," John says loudly as they follow her into the house filled with people and noise.

It doesn't go as badly as John feared it would. Even though Aunt Linda spreads the word quickly that Sherlock is John's boyfriend, and refuses to be dissuaded. Even though Sherlock immediately obliges when several of the little cousins ask him to define "decapitation." Even though Grandma Watson keeps making that clucking sound.

Sherlock is trying. John can tell. Every so often, he'll feel Sherlock's eyes on him, asking him for reassurance. John finds himself touching Sherlock's wrist under the table laden with ham and potatoes more than once. Just so he knows he's doing all right.

"That wasn't so bad, was it," says John, after the desserts, after the inevitable drunken a capella from the uncles, after Aunt Linda winks and tells him he's found a keeper.

"Surprisingly, it wasn't." Sherlock pulls his scarf higher on his neck as they walk down the porch steps together. "I've never had a family Christmas dinner before."


"Girl, a senior, blonde, left-handed. Dots her i's with hearts—boys don't dare do that. Handwriting very messy. Classic senioritis. And there's a blonde hair stuck to the tape used to attach it to the envelope. Additionally, she's riddled with venereal diseases and has a fetish for hot-dog costumes."

"You made that up." John snatches the letters back, gripping them tightly. There's only four of them, anyway. He hasn't even memorized the most recent one yet.

"Only the last thing."

"The last two things."

"You're getting better at noticing when I'm lying." Suddenly Sherlock vaults off the bed, and then he's very close to John, close enough that John can see every centimeter of the high-cheekboned face that had filled out a little over the past seven months, but still not enough. For a second, the stare burns him. Then Sherlock swears and turns away. "Flushed, dilated pupils, breathing fast. You can't fall in love with someone because they've handwritten you a few Hallmark clichés, John."

"I'm not in love with them! Or—her." John scoops up the letters and stuffs them in his bag as if he doesn't care if they get crumpled, but secretly he folds them against his biology textbook so they won't. "I don't even know her name. It's just a little exciting, you know? I've never gotten a love letter before."

"I've never gotten a love letter before and that doesn't mean I would turn into an idiot if I did." Sherlock tosses himself on the bed, slouching angrily on his side, and takes out a cigarette.

"That'd be an interesting experiment. Maybe I'll write you one and see whether or not you're right. Dear Sherl, your eyes are like the moonlit sea— are you an idiot yet?" John is laughing, but Sherlock, unusually, isn't laughing with him. He stops. "Are you okay?"

"Of course I'm okay. Why wouldn't I be okay?" he snaps, lighting two cigarettes and putting both between his lips.

John reaches over and confiscates them. "You seem pretty upset about this."

"I am naturally upset by the butchering of the English language. She spelled heart without an e. Clearly she hasn't actually given hers to you if she can't be bothered to spell it right."

John plops onto the bed beside Sherlock, causing enough of a dip in the mattress that the taller boy slides toward him a fraction. "You know what I think? I think you're jealous."

"You shouldn't think, John, it's dangerous for people who aren't me." Sherlock feels for his cigarette pack, finds it empty, and swears again.

Leaning over him, John pokes him once in the side and then in the forehead, smirking. "You're jealous that someone else wants a piece of the magnificent man-meat that is John Watson."

"Please don't describe yourself as man-meat unless you expect me to buy you in a deli." But Sherlock is smiling, albeit resentfully.

"You couldn't afford me anyway."


 

Five months ago

Of course Sherlock hadn't shoveled his steps.

John curses and kicks aside snow before shoving open the door, his cheeks red in a way that was only partially from the cold. "Drunk! Christmas morning and Harry's drunk. She can't even take one day off. And then she blew up at me, and then I blew up at Dad, and it's half an hour after we've opened presents and everything is ruined already—what are you doing?"

The kitchen is a disaster zone. It looks like a bomb filled with candied fruit, flour, and sugar had been dropped, coating the countertops and the floor and Sherlock Holmes, who is as frozen as if John had caught him naked.

"Cooking," he mutters, slamming the oven shut.

"Since when do you cook?" John completely forgets about Harry and sits at the counter, dipping a finger in a pool of batter and licking it. "Blech. I rephrase my question: who are you trying to poison?"

"You're welcome." Sherlock sweeps up the heaps of dishes and measuring cups, depositing them unceremoniously in the sink.

"You're trying to poison me?" And then it dawns on him. "Sherlock, were you making me a fruitcake?"

"I've never gotten anyone a Christmas present before, I don't know what I'm bloody well supposed to do. I watched a few movies and fruitcake appears to be a tradition."

He's snapping, so it takes John a second to figure it out: Sherlock is embarrassed. And he'd watched Christmas movies for present ideas. Which was basically adorable. "A Christmas Carol? Love Actually? Miracle on 34th Street? I need details."

"Shut up."

John dips his finger again in the batter, forcing himself to suck it off. "I was kidding before. This is actually really good."

"Are you being serious?" Sherlock stops his half-hearted attempt at cleaning, scrutinizing John intensely.

"Yeah." John smiles. "Thanks, Sherlock."


 

Mary Morstan. SH

WHAT. JW

Yes, I listed out all the girls in school who fit the criteria and proceeded to narrow it down. Mary Morstan is your bad speller. SH

You mean love-note-writer. JW

No, I mean bad speller. SH

John is just stepping out his classroom, eyes glued to his phone, which is why he knocks into the nearest person in the hallway. "Oh, sorry, I was just—"

He glances up. And his heart stops. It's Mary Morstan. One of the few girls short enough to be shorter than John, Mary is cute, a grade above him, and eons out of his league. And, apparently, she'd been writing him love letters.

"John!" Mary grins and hooks her thumbs into the pockets of her oversized sweater. "I was hoping to run into you."

"And you did. Literally." That was almost suave. Is John being suave? Is his hair appropriately ruffled? Could he reach up and ruffle it without being obvious?

"I was actually wondering if you wanted to go to prom with me."

John freezes with his hand halfway to his hair. Prom. Prom is in three weeks. Prom is for people with dates. Someone is asking John to prom. "Just—just like that?"

She tilts her head to the side. She's so ridiculously cute. "Just like that."

Be suave. Be suave, you bloody sodding idiot. "Then I'll say yes. Just like that."

"Cool. I'll meet you there. Find me in the crowd." She winks at him, turns, and strides off. And suddenly, John has a prom date.

Sorry, Sherlock, our plans of watching crappy romance movies and making fun of love on prom night are canceled. JW


 

Four months ago

"Do you know what I think?" John drops himself onto Sherlock's couch, slinging his backpack onto the floor and stuffing his face into a pillow. "I think love is stupid, and pointless, and it's probably better to die alone, and anyway pink is gross, and hearts are gross, and I don't even like chocolate that much."

"Ah." Sherlock glances up idly from his microscope. "Is it Valentines' Day already?"

John sits up. "How hard is it to keep track of the days?"

"I do keep track of the days. You're my calendar. On Monday you complain about your weekend homework being due, and on Tuesday you complain about being in that class with the girl who smells like tomato sauce, and on Wednesday you complain that we don't have late-start Wednesdays anymore, and on Thursday—"

"Okay, okay, I get the point. I'm basically your sun dial." John leans down and peers at the microscope. Something that looks like a toenail clipping is on the tiny glass slide. "I just don't get why nobody left me a Valentine. I'm moderately to extremely attractive—"

"Mildly to moderately." Sherlock twiddles with a dial on the side of the microscope.

"Gee, thanks. Anyway, what I'm thinking is, statistically I should have received at least one Valentine. Aidan Baker got two and he has that mole issue. I have no mole issues, Sherlock. It's like they all think I'm taken or something."

"Maybe they do think you're taken." Sherlock takes the slide out from under the microscope. "Good news, John. You don't have a toenail fungus."

John stares. "Where did you get a piece of my toenail?"

Sherlock smiles and tosses a pair of clippers in the air. "You sleep with your feet out from under the blanket."

"…Ignoring that, I think the more important question is why would anyone think I'm taken? I must have yelled at half the people in the school by now that you're not my boyfriend."

"I think they've heard you over in Africa as well. You're certainly loud enough." Sherlock begins packing up his microscope.

"What I want to know is when are people going to start believing me."

But Sherlock doesn't respond. He just picks up his microscope and walks into the kitchen.


 

Sherlock is missing.

And John is panicking. He's checked all of Sherlock's usual places. Nothing. It's only been a day, he knows he should calm down, but all he can think about is the last time Sherlock went missing and how it nearly broke him. Nearly broke both of them. Sherlock must have taken one of his lungs with him. It's that hard to breathe.

He's about to call Mycroft when he figures it out.

He wraps up in his rattiest jacket and takes his dad's car. He remembers the way, even though it's been more than seven months since he was there. He parks a little ways away and has to walk to get there, the sun baking him. He doesn't need his jacket. Spring is here.

It's the abandoned parking garage where Sherlock had nearly been beaten to death. Just the sight of it makes John shudder. There's a notice on the front—it's being torn down—but people are still skateboarding inside.

John finds him exactly where he expects to.

"Get up." He kneels on the concrete and grabs Sherlock's shoulder, noting the marks on his arm, noting the other people lying around as if comatose. "Now."

"Ah. John." Sherlock sits up, blinking. John checks his eyes. They're nearly normal. It's almost worn off. "Was wondering when you'd show up."

"You promised." John wants to hit Sherlock, wants to shake him. Mostly he just wants to take him away from here. "If you felt like you needed to do this again, you could have called, you could have talked to me."

"That would have distracted you from your prom preparations. What's on the table now? Color of the corsage? I suggest you try a muddy unappetizing brown, it matches her eyes."

"That's what this is about?" John's fingers dig into Sherlock's shoulder. "Mary?"

"Your deductions are improving." Sherlock leans his head against the grimy, graffiti-splattered wall and closes his eyes.

"Wait." John hadn't expected to be right. "It really is about Mary?'

Sherlock's eyes snap open. "Didn't say that. You may want to get your ears checked out. As well as your taste in women."

"Sherlock—"

"She has a secret, John. She's keeping something from you, it's obvious from her voice when she talks to you. And she has a unicorn on her backpack, that's really all that needs to be said—"

"Sherlock!" John is just as anxious as he is furious and it's a bad combination, it's making his voice sharper than it should be. "You can't do this. It's not fair. You've been acting like I'm—like I'm cheating on you and you made it clear, you've always made it clear, you made it really clear at that party, that you're not interested in that type of thing. I need to go out with other people, I can't always just—"

"Can't always just what?" Sherlock's eyes are completely clear.

John rubs his forehead hard. He's lost track of what he was saying. "Nothing. It's fine if you can't…I don't know. I accept you as you are. That's what I meant."

"And what am I?" Sherlock is watching him carefully, almost curiously.

"An idiot." John stands up, pulling Sherlock with him, ready to support him if he needs it, but he doesn't. "Let's get the hell out of here."


 

Two months ago

"Happy birthday!" John sets the overflowing tray of pancakes on Sherlock's bedside table, careful not to spill several beakers of suspicious-looking liquid, and whips the blankets off Sherlock's sleeping form.

And shrieks.

"You're almost as annoying at the alarm clock." Sherlock opens his eyes sleepily. "I put the alarm clock in the oven. Count your blessings."

"You—you didn't tell me—" John hurls the blanket back at Sherlock, but it lands mostly on his head. He shuts his eyes. "Since when do you sleep naked?"

"I don't usually. But last night I burned a hole in my pajamas with diluted acid and my other pair was in the laundry. Really, this is your fault for doing my laundry." Sherlock pulls the blanket off his head and covers himself with it. "You made pancakes?"

John is bright red and spluttering. "I—I—yeah, I made pancakes."

"Why?"

John rubs his eyes like he can make himself quit picturing Sherlock naked. His torso is still exposed—the pale chest, the narrow shoulders that have gotten a little broader since John has met him. "It's your birthday."

"Then I suppose I'm dressed appropriately."

John gazes at him blankly.

"Birthday suit," Sherlock prompts.

"Oh. Oh, right. Good joke. Very good joke. Yes." John tries to pour out a little maple syrup, but his hands are unstable and he ends up dumping out nearly the whole bottle.

"What are you so flustered about? You have one too. Unless you covered your crotch with your binder on the way to the blackboard in math class last week for the sake of misdirection." Sherlock takes a bite that's mostly maple syrup. "Why would you make pancakes for my birthday?"

"For the same reason you made me a fruitcake on Christmas." John stands up, his face still flaming. "I'm going to go take a shower."

"I suggest a cold one," Sherlock calls out, smirking. "And you may need that binder again."

John slams the door.


 

Sherlock, would you come over? I'm panicking and I don't know if this tux fits right and my hair is doing something that should be illegal. JW

Can't. SH

Why not? It's prom night, I know you haven't got a date. JW

As ever, you know very little. SH

Wait, you have a date? JW

Will I see you there? JW

Sherlock? JW

No response. John tosses his phone on the bed and groans. Sherlock has to be kidding. Who would ask Sherlock Holmes to prom? More importantly, who would Sherlock Holmes say yes to?

He doesn't need this right now. What he needs is to calm the hell down. He flattens out his hair, adjusts the tux and stares at himself the mirror. It's Sherlock who would look good in a tux.

But Sherlock doesn't have a date. He couldn't.

Why does John feel so queasy? It must be nerves about Mary. But strangely, he hasn't been thinking about Mary much. He'd been hoping Sherlock would come over before he left.

Oh well.

He goes downstairs, warding off Harry's fervent attempts to photograph him, and takes his dad's car. Maybe after prom, he could stop by Sherlock's. They might have time for just one corny romance movie.

It isn't John's fault that Sherlock is alone on prom night. Sherlock could have gotten a date if he wanted. He's definitely attractive enough.

Fifteen minutes later, John parks next to the school and gets out. Prom's taking place in the gym. Their school isn't fancy enough to rent out a hotel ballroom. But they'd made an effort—there are balloons tied to the front doors, the music is spilling out into the night air, and at least one person had been cliché enough to rent a limo. He takes a deep breath and goes inside.

They'd gotten one of those machines that spills colored flashes of light on the walls and ceilings. Tablecloth-covered cafeteria tables are in one corner, laden with punch and appetizers. There are chairs against the wall for the lonely students. Most everyone else is dancing.

John is late. He maneuvers through the crowd, narrowly avoiding smashing into an obviously drunk couple. Mary had to be here somewhere. But he doesn't catch a glimpse of a short blonde girl with an interesting smile.

Instead, he catches a glimpse of his best friend.

"Sherlock! Sorry," John adds quickly to the two people he'd accidentally knocked into in his haste to reach the tall, dark-haired boy. Sherlock is wearing a sleek black tux that fits him perfectly. John has no idea where he got it. It's definitely not Mycroft's.

"Ah, John," says Sherlock as John finally catches up to him. Is it his imagination, or does Sherlock look nervous? He keeps adjusting the buttons on his cuff, the light playing over his face, highlighting his cheekbones. "I thought you'd be here before me."

"I didn't think you'd be here at all." John catches hold of him and pulls him to the side of the gym, away from all the dancers. He has to speak loudly to be heard over the music. He tries to hide his grin. He's so glad Sherlock won't be alone tonight. Less danger of him catching the stove on fire with some insane experiment. "Who's your date?"

Sherlock won't look at him. He keeps folding and unfolding the cuff of his sleeve. "You."

John can't have heard him right. It's the music, that's why. The music is too loud. "What?"

"I told you Mary was keeping something from you." Sherlock's speaking quickly, almost too quickly for John to follow. "I didn't know what she was planning until this afternoon, I promise. She and Molly Hooper showed up at my house and said if I didn't go along with it, you'd be alone tonight, so—"

"Wait." John rubs the back of his head unconsciously, ruining his carefully smoothed-back hair. "What you're telling me is—"

"Mary didn't actually want to go to prom with you. Apparently—and these are her words, not mine—everyone at school is sick of seeing us essentially dating without actually admitting it, so she concocted a plan to make sure we'd end up at prom together—"

John stares at him. A laugh bubbles out of his chest. "Oh."

"You're not angry?" Sherlock squints slightly as a slash of green light falls over him. "We can go home if you like. I told Mary you'd want to. It's the sensible thing to do, considering proms are a meaningless tradition adopted from the U.S in order to—"

"No, I don't want to go home." John isn't sure why he's not furious. Or disappointed. For some unnamable reason, he's relieved. Maybe it's just because he gets to see Sherlock in a tux. "I want to dance."

Just as he says it, the music changes from a quick pop song to a slow one. A waltz. Sherlock raises an eyebrow. "Do you still want to dance?"

It's prom night and John's date has stood him up and really, does it matter what he does? "Yeah. But I don't know how to dance fancy."

"I can show you how to 'dance fancy' as you so elegantly put it." And then Sherlock has his hand and he's leading him out onto the dance floor. Which is not something John ever thought would happen. "Although nearly anything we could do would be more impressive than the standard put-your-hands-on-each-others'-shoulders-and-sway."

"Since when do you know how to dance?" John asks to distract himself from the fact that Sherlock is putting a hand on his waist.

"Since I got bored and looked it up on YouTube."

John laughs, but then he has to stop because Sherlock is leading him, whispering to him gently where to put his feet. For a second he tenses, waiting for someone around them to start laughing, but then he remembers that the entire school had apparently been conspiring to get them together.

Sherlock is an excellent dancer. How has John never known that about him? He knows everything else, like how Mycroft had destroyed his earthworm collection when they were little, and that his favorite composer is Bach, and that he's never dated anyone before…

"All right?" Sherlock asks quietly. The waltz is soft enough so that John can hear him.

"Why are you doing this?" John asks as they rotate again to the music. "You hate this sort of thing."

"Maybe you don't know everything about me, John Watson."

"Of course I do." John adjusts his fingers within Sherlock's. Their hands are interlocked. "You're the only thing I'm an expert on."

"You're also an expert on being uniquely oblivious." Sherlock is so close, the warmth of him almost tangible.

John can't look away from his eyes. "And what the hell am I supposed to be uniquely oblivious to?"

"Oh, come on, John." Sherlock's grip tightens. "I would think the signs have been fairly obvious."

"You think everything's fairly obvious."

"That's because everything is. Especially this." Sherlock falls silent, his expression unreadable, though his hand is steady against John's skin.

And John understands. It hits him with the force of a gale of wind. He nearly falls over, except Sherlock's still leading him. "You don't mean—that you—but I always thought—you weren't into that sort of thing—"

"If you'd cared to pay attention, John, you'd have noticed that you were always the one barking 'not gay!' at everyone. Never me."

"But—I mean—I'm not—"

"I know." A sliver of pain enters Sherlock's voice. "That's why I knew this could never—anyway. I just wanted to tell you. There's only so long I can watch you blunder around, missing the obvious."

"What do you mean, this could never work?" John breaks free. There's an explosion inside him. "I kissed you, Sherlock! You hated it! I didn't want to do anything like that to you again."

A couple people are staring at them now. Sherlock clears his throat, his brow furrowed as if he's facing a puzzle. But he's only facing John. "I had the wrong idea then. I thought you were mocking me."

"I'd never mock you." The waltz is dying, fading out.

"So," says Sherlock slowly. "What you're saying…is that we both…"

"…Feel the same way?" John finishes. Suddenly he's blushing ferociously. Blushing. Like a cartoon character. God.

"Oh, just kiss already," someone says, and John realizes there's more than a

couple people watching them.

"Can't disobey a direct order," Sherlock murmurs, and suddenly he's inches away from John, his hand slipping around John's back.

"But you never do what people tell you do." John can't catch his breath. This isn't happening. Is it? He really hopes this is happening.

"I usually don't want to." And then Sherlock is kissing him. Sherlock. Kissing him. His lips are soft. Everything about him is soft and warm. The exact opposite of his personality. Or at least the personality that John had thought he'd understood.

There's a hunger in his kiss, something starving. It's almost desperate. John slips his hand around the back of his best friend's neck and holds them together, tightly, like they'll never break apart.

When they do, people are clapping.

And Sherlock Holmes is smiling.