The sound of a teacup hitting the floor and shattering drew Sherlock’s attention to the ceiling. Rather than hearing John’s muffled curse and a shuffle to clean up the mess, Sherlock heard him start to laugh. Sherlock’s eyebrows came together.
John’s laughter increased in volume as a response, taking on a slight edge of hysteria. Sherlock set his laptop aside and stood, moving for the stairs. John didn’t sound like he was laughing at something inane and stupid, like a .gif of a cat falling from a shelf. It sounded incredulous, like he’d just discovered something so shocking that he could only respond to it by laughing. Sherlock ascended up the stairs and wandered into John’s room, finding him standing before his open wardrobe. There was a beaten cardboard box on the floor at John’s feet; Sherlock could see an old rugby ball and jacket inside, and another rugby jacket on John’s bed. The right pocket of the jacket had been turned out, and whatever was inside was clutched in John’s hands, and whatever was written on it was making him laugh.
“What’s that?” Sherlock asked curiously.
“Oh my God, Sherlock,” John said, shoulders shaking with suppressed giggles. He extended the paper to Sherlock. He was grinning so widely that Sherlock would have been surprised if his cheeks weren’t aching. “Do you recognize this?”
Sherlock took the paper and looked at it. It was slightly wrinkled from being handled extensively, but all at one time, not over the several years he could see that John had had it—at least twenty, judging from the yellowing. Three sheets of copier paper, crisply folded together before John had unfolded them. On each sheet were two Punnett squares, drawn crudely with black crayon in the clumsy handwriting of a child. On the back of the last sheet, written in the same crayon and handwriting in all choppy capital letters were the words IN CASE I NEED A REFERENCE. The word “reference” had been misspelled, scribbled out, and then written correctly.
The drawings stirred something blurrily in Sherlock’s memory, indicating that these papers had once been important to him, but he had since then deemed them unimportant and deleted them. He peered at the little drawings, struggling to recall. “This is…”
John’s finger appeared on the paper, pointing. He was still laughing. “You drew this. You gave it to me.” Sherlock looked up, startled. John’s grin stretched impossibly wider. “When you were five. I babysat you.”
“…and he seems to have recently taken an interest in his father’s photography, and we’re trying to encourage that, so if he wants to take some photos, please make sure he’s careful with the camera,” Mrs. Holmes says, shrugging on her coat and securing her earmuffs snugly over her ears.
“I will,” John says with a nod, sixteen years old and used to acting as a nanny. “Valuable parts and…all that other stuff…”
Mr. Holmes smiles. “He knows to be careful. Just keep an eye on him if he wants to take some photographs.”
“Yes, sir,” John promises.
“Thank you again for looking after Sherlock, dear,” Mrs. Holmes says kindly. “I know a boy your age must have plenty of things he’d rather do than babysit, but our usual girl is ill, and your parents said you were free—“
“Don’t worry about it, it’s fine. I’ve got a little sister, I used to babysit her.” Granted, Harry’s only two years his junior, but that never stopped John from bossing her around when they were younger. “And my girlfriend’s got a million little sisters I help look after. Really, it’s fine, I’m happy to babysit Sherlock.”
“Well, good, good. Anyway, we should be back before four o’ clock,” Mrs. Holmes says, looking at the clock on the wall that reads 9:00 AM. “His naptime is at two o’ clock, and normally if he’s hungry he’ll ask for something, but he refused to eat breakfast this morning, so if he hasn’t asked for anything by noon, make him something anyway; he needs to eat.”
“All right, darling, I think the boy’s got it under control,” Mr. Holmes chuckles. “You don’t have to worry. You’ve got to have a lot of patience to deal with Sherlock, and John’s a very patient young man.”
John smiles easily at Mrs. Holmes to back up Mr. Holmes’s claim, because it’s true—John has dealt with plenty of children and has developed an admirable amount of patience from dealing with countless brats. If Sherlock turns out to be a brat as well, John can handle him. Hell, he’s even gotten a good amount of the insufferable children he’s babysat in the past to actually like him without being a pushover.
Finally Mrs. Holmes calls up the staircase for Sherlock as she and her husband prepare to leave. John hears a door slam, followed by little footsteps coming down the stairs, and there stands little Sherlock Holmes, five years old with big, ice-blue eyes and an explosion of curly black hair in need of a good trim.
The boy pauses briefly at the foot of the stairs when he sees John, then looks at his mother and says, “Is Stacey ill? I told you it was gonna happen, ‘cos that boy who picks her up when you get home, his nose was all red and he was ill last time he picked her up. I saw them kissing.”
“Yes, Sherlock, very good. This is John,” Mrs. Holmes says, pointing to John, who smiles at waves to Sherlock. “He’ll be staying with you while we’re out. You’ll be a good boy for him, won’t you, Sherlock?”
“All right, now come give us a kiss, love, Mummy and Daddy are leaving.”
Sherlock goes to kiss his parents goodbye, and when they leave, Sherlock turns to John, studying him.
“You’re a boy,” is the first thing he says to John.
“Er, yes, that’s right.”
“All my other sitters have been girls,” Sherlock says, dark eyebrows coming together as he frowns at John.
“Boys can be sitters, too,” John points out. Sherlock’s expression clears; John has apparently answered an unspoken question.
“You know how to call 999, right?” he asks curiously. “’Cos a while ago I accidentally set the curtains on fire.” He points at the dining room window. No curtains hang there, but there’s a patch of conspicuously burnt, black ceiling directly above the window. “I’m not gonna do it again, but babysitters should know what to do in those situations.”
It takes an enormous effort for John to not laugh aloud at that. For a little kid, Sherlock has a fairly impressive vocabulary. John manages to say seriously, “Yes, I know how to call them.”
“Do you know the number for poison control? Can you do CPR?”
“I’m qualified for this job, don’t worry,” John snickers.
“Okay.” He fidgets with the hem of his T-shirt, which is smudged with what looks like chalk powder. “Can I leave now? I’m testing something upstairs.”
“By all means,” John says, lips twitching up a bit as he gestures toward the stairs. “What are you testing?”
Sherlock is already dashing upstairs at top speed, but he’s shouting something over his shoulder that sort of sounds like an explanation, which John interprets as an invite to follow him. Sherlock’s speaking very quickly but, like most five-year-olds, his mouth can’t quite keep up with what he wants to say. John hears lots of erm’s and and-and-and’s, and few mentions of the name Mycroft (John vaguely recognizes the name as Sherlock’s brother, who’s somewhere around John’s age but probably a little younger and stays at some sort of gifted academy).
Sherlock’s door is flung wide open to reveal a bedroom that’s very different from a typical little boy’s bedroom, like John’s old room. It’s rather plain, with light blue walls, a white carpet with a few stains on it (no doubt from Sherlock spilling things on it as children are wont to do), a bookshelf filled with startlingly thick books despite Sherlock having only just begun primary school, a writing desk with a cassette player on it, and, on the north wall, a wall-length chalkboard. The board is scattered with a few large drawings of squares and bits of writing that, upon closer inspection, John realizes are supposed to be lists. Sherlock is standing on a chair in front of the chalkboard, dividing one of the squares into fourths. On the floor beside the chair is what appears to be an open textbook.
“What’s all this, Sherlock?” John asks, baffled. Is he doing Punnett square diagrams? It sure looks like it.
Sherlock turns to look at John, frowning. “I just told you.”
Right, so he was explaining. John smiles sheepishly and says, “Sorry, couldn’t hear you. Care to explain again?”
Sherlock huffs, annoyed, and says, “My big brother Mycroft was home from school for Christmas and left just yesterday, and yesterday he was being a prat—“
“Language,” John chides mildly, trying not to snicker. Prat wasn’t too terrible a word, but he’s fairly sure Sherlock’s parents wouldn’t want him calling his brother that.
“Well, he was—he was being mean and he wasn’t listening to me when I was trying to talk to him, ‘cos—‘cos—“ He drops his chalk and hops down from the chair. He strains to heft up the heavy book from the floor and show it to John. “’Cos this used to be one of his school books that he had when I was still a baby—he gives me all his old books when he goes into a new year ‘cos he knows I like when he reads them to me and I’m pretty good at reading them by myself now—“
“Wait, you can read that? Your brother’s old—“ He takes the proffered book and looks at the cover, “—advanced Biology textbook?”
“And you understand it?” John stares at Sherlock.
“Most of the time,” Sherlock says.
“That’s very impressive!” John says, mildly amazed. Five years old, really? The kid’s a genius!
Sherlock takes the book back, blinking as though surprised by John’s praise, then finally John sees a smile before he gets that serious look on his face again and continues, “Anyway, Mycroft was being a—he was being mean and ignoring me when I was trying to talk to him about what I was reading in here, and he always listens to me, but he was reading a book and he kept saying ‘not now, Sherlock, I’m reading’—“ His little disgusted expression makes John grin, “—but the books he reads for fun are so boring, and I reckon what I’ve got to say is loads more important than what his stupid book’s got to say, and I said so! I said, ‘Mycroft, listen to me! I wanna talk to you, put down your stupid book!’ ‘cos it is stupid, and Mycroft got annoyed and said I was adopted and then made me get out of his room. So—“ He takes an enormous breath and finally finishes, “Reginald C. Punnett.”
John blinks rapidly, his brain churning in a mad attempt to follow Sherlock’s words. The kid talks so quickly! But John thinks he gets it.
“So you’re…doing Punnett squares to prove that you’re not adopted,” he says. Sherlock’s eyes widen.
“Yes! You know Punnett squares too!” He looks excited, but then his expression evens out. “Well, of course you do, you’re big like my brother, you’ve probably learned all about genetics already.” John smiles; he’d almost impressed the boy, there, before he remembered John was average. Oh well.
“Sherlock, I highly doubt you’re adopted,” John says, amused. “You’ve got your mum’s eyes and your hair’s curly just like hers, and you’re the spitting image of your dad.”
“I know,” Sherlock mutters, climbing onto the chair and turning back to his chalkboard. “That’s why I’m testing it. ‘Cos—‘cos Mycroft said—“
“Shall I leave you to it, then?” Sherlock ignores him, which John takes as a yes. “I’ll be downstairs if you need me. Try to work up an appetite by noon; your mum said you haven’t eaten today.”
Sherlock ignores him again, so John leaves him with instructions to keep the door open, before heading downstairs. He stands in the living room, hands shoved in his jacket pockets, and looks around before settling on the sofa and turning on the television.
The house is fairly quiet for about half an hour. Then John hears Sherlock trundling noisily down the stairs at top speed. He zooms past the couch without acknowledging John and disappears into the master bedroom.
“Sherlock?” he calls after him, puzzled. When the only response he gets is the sound of a door within the bedroom creaking open and the sound of something scraping against the hardwood floor, John gets up and goes to investigate.
He discovers that Sherlock has stacked two chairs on top of each other in front of his parents’ open closet, and Sherlock is currently trying to climb to the top chair. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.
“Whoa, whoa, not good, hang on!” John cries, rushing forward to pluck Sherlock from his makeshift tower and then disassemble it. “Don’t do things like that, Sherlock; that’s very dangerous! What were you doing?”
Sherlock points to the shelf above all the clothes hanging in the closet. “Daddy’s camera is up there. I was trying to get it.”
John laughs breathlessly and asks, “Why didn’t you just ask me to get it for you? I can reach it, no Leaning Tower of Chairs required.” He nudges the chairs out of the closet doorway and reaches up to the black camera case Sherlock had pointed to and hands it to him. “There you are. Next time you can’t reach something, just ask and I’ll get it for you, all right?”
“Okay.” Sherlock looks back up at the shelf. “Then can you get the stand, too?”
John smiles and pulls it from the shelf for him. Sherlock turns away and marches purposefully from the room, clutching the camera case. After a moment’s pause, John follows with the tripod over his shoulder. Halfway up the staircase, Sherlock stops and whirls around, camera case swinging haphazardly, nearly clocking John in the face.
“John!” Sherlock gasps, blue eyes wide as if John’s existence has suddenly surprised him. “Will you be my assistant?”
“Er, what?” John is suddenly struck with the image of himself fetching coffee for the child and following him around doing a lot of clipboard work for some reason.
“Yes, that’ll make the process go by much faster!” Sherlock is scurrying up the stairs again and when he reaches the top, he looks back down at John and hops up and down impatiently. “Come on, come on! Please? I need an assistant, I need one.”
“You’re five and you need an assistant?” John grins, reaching the landing. “What for?”
“For taking photographs,” Sherlock says insistently. The idea of having an assistant makes Sherlock much livelier than John had imagined he could be; the child had practically been a Vulcan up until now. Sherlock runs around behind John to throw his shoulder into the back of John’s legs, urging him into his room. “Please?”
“All right, all right, quit shoving,” John laughs, reaching behind to ruffle Sherlock’s fluffy hair. “I’ll be your assistant. What do you need me to do?”
“Set up the camera on the stand,” Sherlock instructs at once. “Daddy doesn’t let me do it by myself.”
John unfolds the tripod before pulling Mr. Holmes’s camera from the case. It’s a nice Polaroid camera, so John makes sure to be extra careful as he sets it up on the tripod. Once that’s done, he steps back and says, “Now what?”
“Okay. Now. Nowww…” Sherlock positions himself right in front of the camera. “Take a picture of me. My whole head is in the shot, isn’t it? Make sure. My head’s important here. Crucial.”
There’s something mildly hilarious about a five-year-old using the word “crucial”, especially using it correctly. John peers through the viewfinder to make sure Sherlock’s whole head is in the shot.
“Close enough.” John presses the shutter button. The camera flashes in Sherlock’s pale face and then spits out the square photograph. Sherlock snatches it and studies it closely.
“Good,” is all he has to say about it before laying it carefully aside. Then he turns sharply to the side and says, “Do you have a good—what’s it called—pruh—“ He puffs out a breath through his nose, irritated as he flounders for the word.
“Profile shot?” John supplies, looking through the viewfinder again.
“Yes, I’ve got your profile. Ready?” He doesn’t bother with the cheese this time, just takes the picture.
The process repeats as Sherlock demands photos taken of his hair, his chin, his mouth, his eyes, and even his earlobes. John is glad when it finally ends, because he was beginning to think he ought to tell Sherlock to give the camera break and not waste his father’s film.
“Okay,” Sherlock mutters to himself, gathering up his little stack of photographs as John puts the camera back in the case and folds up the tripod. “I think this’ll be good.” He takes the pictures to his chalkboard and begins taping them to it. John notices several sets of pictures already taped to the chalkboard that must have been taken some other time. Those photos are of Sherlock’s parents and brother’s face, profile, hair, chin, mouth, eyes, and earlobes.
Strange child. John hefts the tripod over his shoulder, grips the camera case in one hand, and asks, “Am I dismissed?” He isn’t surprised when Sherlock doesn’t even acknowledge him. He trots back downstairs and puts the camera and stand back Mr. and Mrs. Holmes’s closet before settling back down onto the couch to watch some telly again.
Again, the house is rather peaceful for about thirty minutes. Then John hears footsteps at the top of the stairs. They pause, and he hears Sherlock mutter in a small voice, “John…” And then, to John’s surprise, he hears a damp little hitch of breath (oh no…) and then Sherlock wails, “JOHN!”
John stands up, and Sherlock must have bounded down the staircase six stairs at a time because John hasn’t taken three steps when Sherlock barrels into him and then falls right on his bum. His face is flushed red and a little surprised to have been knocked down, and John counts one, two, three before Sherlock finally bursts into tears.
“Sherlock, Sherlock!” John crouches beside him, worried. “Sherlock, what’s the matter? Why are you crying?”
“Be-because—‘cos—the photos a-a-and the—the Punnett squares, it’s all—i-it’s all—“ He sucks in a sharp, shuddering breath, and for a blindingly hopeful moment John thinks the waterworks have stopped as suddenly as they started. But anyone who’s ever dealt with children knows that the enormous breath children take mid-cry is not a sign of stopping, but rather a sign that they’re preparing an even louder, shriller sob. John is almost certain he’s lost the hearing in his left ear as Sherlock cries, “Mycroft said I’m adopted but all the diagrams and testing show that I’m not but Mycroft said I am and Mycroft is always right!”
“All right, all right,” John sighs, standing up and hoisting Sherlock up with him. He returns to the sofa and sits, situating the sobbing boy in his lap. “Sherlock. Sherlock, stop crying and listen to me for a moment, okay? You’re not adopted.”
“B-but Mycroft said—!”
“Mycroft is a prat,” John says firmly, and is pleased when that makes Sherlock’s sobs stutter. He stares up at John’s face, amazed; his sobs return, but this time they’re quieter. “You did the Punnett squares, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” Sherlock says thickly.
“And all the alleles from your parents’ traits you gathered matched up to create your traits, didn’t they?” John says. He chooses not to point out that a five year old doing Punnett squares rather than geneticists doing real tests isn’t the best way of confirming whether or not someone is adopted; nothing to frighten the poor boy with.
“Y-yeah,” Sherlock whimpers.
“Well, why would you think that you’re adopted if all the evidence seems to prove that you’re not? Hm?” John gives Sherlock a small smile. “Just because your brother said you were?”
“He—but—M-Mycroft is really clever,” Sherlock says tremulously. “He’s cleverer than me—and I’m really clever.” (At least he’s honest, John thinks, and remarkably self-aware.) “And he’s just—Mycroft knows everything ‘cos he’s…he’s Mycroft, he’s my big brother and he’s never wrong.” John can hear more sobs threatening in his voice.
“Sherlock, listen to me,” John says. “Just because Mycroft is intelligent doesn’t mean he knows everything. Nobody knows everything, and nobody ever will know everything. Albert Einstein didn’t know everything. Not even Stephen Hawking knows everything.”
“He doesn’t?” Sherlock whispers. “Stephen Hawking doesn’t?”
John has to laugh this time, ruffling Sherlock’s hair (he hopes he won’t get into the habit of doing that). “Of course not! It’s impossible. I promise you—Mycroft does not know everything. You are not adopted. And when your mummy and daddy get back, I assure you they’ll say the same thing if you ask.”
Sherlock’s eyes have welled up again. “Th-then why did Mycroft say—?”
“Big brothers do that sometimes,” John sighs. “They get annoyed with their little siblings and say something mean so they’ll go away. I’m a big brother, too, you know. I’ve got a little sister, and sometimes I’m mean to her when she annoys me. But I never mean it. And I’m fairly certain if Mycroft knew you’d be so upset about what he said, he wouldn’t have said it.”
Sherlock’s bottom lip wobbles, and he locks his little arms around John’s neck and rides out the rest of his panicky tears in the crook of John’s shoulder, sniffling and hiccupping. Eventually his breathing evens out and he removes his head from John’s collarbone, tiny hands wiping at his eyes and nose.
To hell with it, I’m getting a new rugby jacket anyway. John uses his sleeve to help dry Sherlock’s face. When Sherlock sniffles one last time, John smiles at him and says, “Better?” Shelock nods mutely. John glances at his watch and says, “Good. Now, what do you say to some lunch? Are you hungry?”
Sherlock nods silently again. John carefully slides him off his lap and stands up, wandering to the kitchen. Sherlock stays in the living room, sitting in the spot John has vacated.
“What do you want to eat?” John tosses over his shoulder.
“Sandwich,” Sherlock says. “I like peanut butter and honey.”
John gets the food from the pantry and a knife from the cutlery drawer and waits for Sherlock to come into the kitchen. When he doesn’t, John calls, “Come in here so you can show me how you want it made.” He unscrews the lids from the jars of honey and peanut butter and gets two slices of bread. When he glances up, he sees Sherlock’s eyes, still a little puffy, peeking at him from the opposite side of the counter.
“Stacey doesn’t ask me how I want it made,” he tells John.
“Do you want it a certain way, or does it not matter to you?”
“I like them a certain way. Mummy makes them how I like them, but Stacey doesn’t ask. She just makes them.”
“Well, I’m asking,” John says kindly. “How do you want it?”
Sherlock blinks at him slowly before coming around to join John on his side of the counter. He has to stand on his tiptoes to see the countertop, so John picks him up under his arms and sitting him on the counter. Sherlock points to the slices of bread and says, “The right halves have peanut butter on them, and the left halves have honey, so when you squish them together,” he claps his hands together as if that’s how a person would normally assemble a sandwich, “they mix all up.”
John follows his directions patiently, and when the sandwich is put together, he asks, “Do you like the crusts?”
Sherlock surveys him for a moment, as if John has asked him a trick question. He says, “Mummy makes me eat the crusts, but I don’t like them.”
John grins and makes a show out of peeking out the kitchen window before returning his attention to Sherlock’s lunch and whispering, “We’ll just keep this our little secret then,” as he cuts off the crusts.
“Okay.” Sherlock’s voice is mildly amazed, much to John’s amusement. Children can be so easy to please, even little strange ones like Sherlock.
John finishes, slicing Sherlock’s sandwich in half diagonally, and presents it to him. “There you go. Hopefully it’s better than Stacey’s.”
“Obviously it will be, ‘cos this time it’s been done right,” Sherlock sniffs, clearly disdainful of his other sitter’s sandwich-making skills. John laughs as Sherlock haughtily takes his sandwich and starts eating.
John puts away the bread and peanut butter and honey, and when he comes back to join Sherlock at the table, he glances out the window again to see three little boys on tricycles pedaling down the street. They look to be about Sherlock’s age.
“Friends of yours?” John asks. “Do you want to go out and play when you’re finished eating?”
“Friends?” Sherlock repeats cluelessly through a mouthful of sandwich. When John gestures out the window, Sherlock sets his sandwich halves aside and crawls across the counter to peer through the glass. He immediately pulls a face. “They’re not my friends. I don’t like them.”
Surprised, John asks, “Why? Who are they?”
“That’s Adam and Lee and Sean,” Sherlock says distastefully. “I go to school with them and they all live on this street. They’re really stupid. They like to make fun of me at school and Stacey doesn’t know I don’t like them and they know that she doesn’t so they come over when she’s here and since I’m always in my room when she’s here I’m never there to tell her I don’t like them, so she thinks they’re my friends and lets them come inside to play with me until I can tell her I don’t want to play anymore.” He finishes his long sentence with a casual bite of his lunch.
“Well, that’s not very nice,” John mutters, looking back outside at the little boys. “How mean are they to you?”
“No meaner than any moron who can’t spell his own name,” Sherlock says hotly. “Stacey made me go outside and play with them last Saturday and Sean pushed me down on the street.” He pulls up the legs of his jeans to show John his scabbed knees, and then holds out his hands to show him the scraped palms.
“Why haven’t you told Stacey about that?” John demands upon seeing Sherlock’s healing abrasions. Irritation at the little bullies outside turns his voice sharp. “Or your mum?”
Sherlock is eating again and scratching his nose, less bothered by his tormentors than John is. He shrugs one shoulder, “I dunno. ‘Cos Adam and Lee and Sean are stupid and I don’t care about them.” He joins John in looking out the window again to see the boys are closer on their trikes, clearly aiming for the house. “They like to come over to tease me when Stacey’s here. They know my mummy and daddy aren’t here but they don’t know Stacey isn’t, even though a turtle could’ve figured that out.” He takes another bite of his sandwich easily, swinging his legs, and then pauses. “You’re not gonna let them come inside, right?”
“Of course I’m not!” John says incredulously, frowning out the window as the abandon their bikes on the sidewalk in front of the house and sprint up the yard. When the doorbell rings, he says, “Wait here.”
The doorbell chimes again just as John opens the door and looks down at the three children on the front porch. He privately enjoys the look of surprise they simultaneously adorn as they crane their heads to take in his 5’8”-tall frame (and hopefully still growing) and ominous rugby jacket. He doesn’t smile at them.
“Er,” says the boy in the middle, “is Sherlock in?”
“Er,” the boy says again, “can he come out and play?”
“I’m certain he can,” John says mildly, “but I’m also certain he doesn’t want to. I understand the three of you have been bullying Sherlock. Care to explain?”
There’s a chorus of panicky, “Nuh-uh! We have not!” from each boy.
“Oh, I reckon those scrapes on his hands and knees would beg to differ,” John says, crossing his arms and leaning against the doorway. “I want you three to listen to me very carefully. I don’t want you coming round here asking for Sherlock again, I don’t want you bullying him here in the neighborhood, and I don’t want you bullying him in school. I will have a nice chat with Sherlock’s parents about you lot, and they will have a nice chat with your parents after that. Now clear off.”
They stand there dumbly, staring at him.
They scurry off down the yard and mount their tricycles, pedaling quickly away from the house. John snickers quietly and shuts the door. He moves away from the door and nearly trips over Sherlock, who had been lurking behind him in spite of John’s instructions to wait in the kitchen.
“Problem solved,” John says cheerfully. Sherlock stares at him, eyes the size of dinner plates. “Finished your lunch, then?” Sherlock nods slowly. “Fancy some hot chocolate as a follow-up?”
“We don’t have hot chocolate,” Sherlock says in a quiet voice, still awestruck.
“Yes, but that coffee shop within walking distance of the neighborhood has hot chocolate,” John smiles. “And your mum said if you behave, I could take you if you’d like some.”
“Have I behaved?”
“I think so.”
“I’ll get my coat.” He bounds up the staircase and John sniggers, checking his wallet and confirming he has money for Sherlock’s treat. He shoves it back in his pocket when Sherlock comes back downstairs, jumping the last four steps. “I’m ready.”
The coffee shop isn’t two miles from Sherlock’s house. The walk there is surprisingly quiet, because Sherlock doesn’t feel the need to talk the entire time, unlike most five-year-olds. He does, however, tell John as they walk, “They’re still gonna bother me in school, you know. Adam and Lee and Sean, I mean. ‘Cos it’s not like you’re gonna be there to scare them away when I’m in school.”
“Your parents may go up to your school and talk with your teacher about them,” John says. “Your teacher should keep an eye on them and make sure they leave you alone.”
“It’s obvious you haven’t been in primary school for a very long time, ‘cos idiots like those are hardly scared of teachers,” Sherlock sniffs airily. “But it doesn’t matter ‘cos I asked my daddy if I could take MMA classes. You’re only supposed to use martial arts in self-defense, and that’s what I’ll do.”
“Don’t hurt anyone,” John chuckles. “In a couple of years I may wind up with someone who’s gotten into a row with you as a patient.” At Sherlock’s questioning look, John explains, “Once I get my A levels I’m going to Uni to study medicine. I want to be a doctor.”
“You’ve got an impressive brain in that head of yours,” John grins, lightly tapping his knuckles on Sherlock’s forehead. “So I would hope you know better than to be stupid.”
“I’m not stupid,” Sherlock insists.
“I know. You’re very clever. Cleverer than I am, I’d think.”
“Probably,” agrees Sherlock, and John tries not to snort mirthfully. “But that’s all right. I’m cleverer than a lot of people your age and older.”
The rest of the walk is peaceful as Sherlock entertains himself by trying to take the same number of steps in each square of pavement and then running ahead to try to leap over a full square. John smiles and remembers doing those very same things when he was Sherlock’s age. Sherlock may be a genius and a prodigy, but he’s still a kid.
They reach the intersection in front of the little coffee shop, and Sherlock reaches for John’s hand without any prompting before they cross the street. The café isn’t terribly busy, but busy enough for a small queue to form at the counter. The shop is warm and smells like coffee and chocolate; John lets go of Sherlock’s hand to rub his together, warming his fingers from the chill outside as he and Sherlock take their place at the back of the queue.
“All right, now, what do you want?” John asks. “Anything special, do you want it plain, what…?”
“Can I have whipped cream?”
“’Course you can,” John says brightly.
“There’s a girl from your school staring at you,” Sherlock announces suddenly. John furrows his brow and looks around the shop.
“I don’t see—“
“The girl at the other register,” Sherlock says, pointing. John looks, and the girl behind the counter drops her eyes. John doesn’t recognize her.
“It’s rude to point, Sherlock,” he says gently, pushing Sherlock’s hand down. “And I don’t know her. Why do you think she’s from my school?”
“She keeps looking at your jacket ‘cos it’s got the name of your school and rugby team on it. Everyone’s always going on about your school’s rugby team, and since you’re a player, people know you. She’s got little clips in her hair, too, and they’re the school’s colors. She looks like she’s your age. She recognizes you ‘cos you’re popular, right?”
John looks again, muttering, “I wouldn’t say popular…sounds a bit juvenile, but—“ The girl looks up and catches his eye before quickly looking away again, and then looking back and offering a nervous smile. So she does recognize him. “Nice deduction, Sherlock.”
“I think she wants to kiss you.”
“She keeps glancing over here at you and she’s smiling ‘cos she’s gotten all shy like Stacey does when she wants to snog that boy who picks her up when she’s done babysitting me—and that got her ill, so don’t kiss that girl, John, snogging never leads to anything good—and Mycroft’s boyfriend Tom looks at him like that when he wants to kiss him.”
“I don’t know her,” John reminds Sherlock. “Now, let’s stop analyzing the poor girl. Look, she’s waving us over. Hot chocolate with whipped cream, right?”
John smiles at the girl as he and Sherlock approach her register. She’s blushing, which John pretends isn’t happening because she is pretty but as flattering as her interest is, John is quite content with his current girlfriend. He sets about his order, deciding to go ahead and get a hot chocolate for himself.
“And a smaller hot chocolate with whipped cream,” he finishes. “Not too hot, please; my friend here doesn’t want to burn himself, I would imagine.” He grins down at Sherlock, who blinks up at him with enormous eyes like he had after John had sent his bullies on their way.
The girl rings up his order, and John plucks the money from his wallet. He pauses before handing it to the girl, recalling similar instances when he’d visited a shop with a child. He’s not sure it’ll be as much of a delight to Sherlock as it tends to be with other children, but John offers the money to Sherlock anyway and says, “Want to pay?”
He tries not to laugh when Sherlock’s wide eyes grow even larger, and he all but snatches the money away. He stands on his toes to slide the money across the counter to the girl, obviously quite proud of himself. The girl giggles as she takes the money and turns away to prepare their orders. A minute later she returns, and John gives her a smile before leading Sherlock to a vacant little table by one of the windows.
“And there’s your hot chocolate with whipped cream,” John presents to Sherlock, pushing his lightly steaming cup across the tabletop to him. Sherlock drinks eagerly.
“You know,” Sherlock mumbles from behind his drink, eyeing John seriously over the cloud of whipped cream rising above the lip of the cup, “you’re just my sitter. You’re not supposed to be my friend.”
“And where in the Babysitter’s Rule Book does it say that?” John replies easily, sipping from his own, much hotter drink.
“Stacey isn’t my friend,” Sherlock points out. “Neither were any sitters before her. I don’t have any friends.”
John frowns. That doesn’t seem right. “Not one?”
“Not one. I don’t need them,” Sherlock says. He doesn’t seem at all melancholy or even remotely bothered by this. “Just ‘cos you’re my sitter doesn’t mean you’re my friend.”
“Hmm,” John hums into his hot chocolate, as if he’s thinking this over. He hadn’t meant Sherlock was his mate, like the kind of person he’d hang out with on a Saturday night or invite to a party, but more like the kind of friend a person says a small child would be. John has a necklace at home that his little friend Meredith, his girlfriend’s youngest sister, had made him. Meredith isn’t his friend-friend, but she’s his friend.
It would be a very complicated thing to explain to one of these little kid friends, and John decides that he will never explain that to a child who has no friends at all.
“Hmm,” he says again, and he sets down his cup, steepling his fingers and peering somberly at Sherlock, who stares right back just as seriously. “You make a very good point. But—“ He points a stern finger at him, “it doesn’t apply here. Yes, I am your sitter, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be my friend. And that’s what you are. You’re my friend even if I’m not yours.”
“Oh…okay.” His puzzled expression makes it very clear that Sherlock doesn’t entirely understand what John is saying. “So…theoretically…” (John still gets a kick out of hearing these types of words come from such a young mouth) “…you could be my friend if I wanted you to be?”
“Absolutely. It’s entirely up to you. I’ve decided you’re my friend, and you’re free to decide whether or not I’m your friend.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter to me,” Sherlock says bluntly. “But…I guess you could be my friend. ‘Cos you’re nice. And you don’t talk to me like I’m stupid just ‘cos I’m five. And you made Adam and Lee and Sean go away. And you make my sandwiches the way I like and then buy me hot chocolate. So I like you.”
John laughs quietly at Sherlock friendship logic as he drinks. “Well, good.”
They while an hour away in the shop, with Sherlock alternating between regaling John with tales of his allegedly very stupid primary school teacher or of the trip to California his family took last autumn where the sand was yellow and it was warm even though it was November, and sitting in contemplative silence, drinking his hot chocolate and swinging his legs as he stared out the window and watched the people in the shop and peered curiously at John a lot. He finishes his drink before John does, and when John is done, he checks his watch and stands up.
“All right, I think we’re finished here,” he announces, throwing away his and Sherlock’s empty cups. “Shall we go back home? You’ve got a nap to take.”
Sherlock whines, and while whining children tend to grate on John’s nerves, the fact that it’s taken this long for Sherlock to whine at all leaves John more impressed than annoyed.
“None of that,” John says smoothly. “You’ve had your lunch and your hot chocolate. It’s nearly two; you’re taking a nap.”
“But I don’t want to take a nap.”
“You’ll miss naptime once you’re my age,” John promises. “Now let’s go. No whining; you’ve been very well-behaved so far, so let’s keep the record going, yeah?” He smiles at him as they leave the shop. “Don’t worry, it’s not like you’ll miss anything exciting. I’ll just be finishing up some homework while you’re asleep.”
“I could always help you. I’m probably better at Calculus than you are.”
John doesn’t doubt that, but says with a little laugh, “Mmm, tempting offer…but no, thank you. I don’t need a tutor.”
Sherlock grumbles, but he grasps John’s hand willingly to cross the street again, and they set off for his house. When they return, Sherlock goes upstairs, making sure to stomp his feet as John follows him up but neglecting to voice any actual further complaints. He kicks off his shoes and sheds his jacket and onto the bed in his jeans and T-shirt while John looks at the little cassette player on Sherlock’s desk.
“Do you like music when you nap?” John asks.
“Tchaikovsky,” Sherlock says glumly.
Sherlock huffs impatiently. “That’s the name of the composer I want to listen to. Honestly, John.”
“I’m not sure I like that attitude,” John says, trying to be firm but it’s too damn funny and rather adorable. He finds the cassette labeled Tchaikovsky in one of the desk’s drawers. He inserts it into the player and starts it. When he turns to look at Sherlock, the boy’s got his face planted in his pillow, not even underneath the covers.
“It’s not the end of the world to take a nap, I promise,” John laughs lightly, strolling over to the bed and tugging the covers loose. Sherlock, in his rebellion, offers no help, forcing John to slide them out from underneath him as well. He drapes them over him, tucking them in around Sherlock and ruffling his hair for the third time that day. “Now, try not to pout and try to go to sleep. I’ll be downstairs if you need me, all right?”
“Nngh.” John catches a glimpse of a blue eye glowering at him. “You’ll still be here when I wake up, right?”
“If you’re not awake by the time your parents come home, I’ll wake you up to say goodbye.”
“Okay,” Sherlock says sulkily. John smiles and leaves the room, pulling the door to behind him. He goes downstairs and, true to his word, busies himself with the weekend homework he’d put off finishing. It takes up about an hour of his time, with small breaks to go upstairs and check on Sherlock a few times. Despite the boy’s protests against naptime and lack of any signs indicating that he was sleepy, Sherlock sleeps very soundly. The third time John checks on him, the cassette had stopped playing and John quietly flips it to the other side. Sherlock’s only response to the revival of Tchaikovsky is to snuffle mildly and roll over with a wordless murmur.
It’s just after 3:30 when Mr. and Mrs. Holmes return from their day out, and Sherlock hasn’t come downstairs yet.
“We’re back,” Mrs. Holmes chirps, removing her coat and taking Mr. Holmes’s as well and hanging them on the hooks by the front door. “Did the two of you have fun today?”
“We did,” John confirms. “He hasn’t woken up from his nap yet, but I told him I’d wake him up before I leave.”
“Was he too much trouble?” Mr. Holmes asks.
“He wasn’t any trouble at all,” John says truthfully. “He was very well-behaved. We did have a mild crisis earlier; he would probably appreciate it if you confirmed to him that he’s not adopted. Apparently his brother told him he was, and Sherlock had a bit of a meltdown.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Holmes sighs with fond exasperation. “Those boys.”
“Yeah, I got him calmed down about it, but it probably wouldn’t hurt for him to hear his mum and dad say it’s not true as well. Also, er…are you familiar with the boys down the street? Adam and Lee and Sean?”
“Yes, we’ve exchanged hellos with their parents once or twice,” Mr. Holmes says. “Why?”
“Well, your other sitter doesn’t know this because Sherlock hasn’t told her, but those boys are not very nice to him,” John says. “Not here, nor at school. He doesn’t like them at all, but Stacey made him go out and play with them last weekend and they pushed him down. Cut up his hands and knees. They came round today looking to bully him, but I sent them on their way with a promise that you’d talk to their parents.”
“We certainly will!” Mr. Holmes insists, looking mildly outraged that these boys had been bullying his son.
“We should probably find a new sitter as well,” Mrs. Holmes says, miffed. “Stacey does fine, but she’s not incredibly attentive.”
“That’s good,” says John. “Sherlock doesn’t seem to like her much. I’d offer to babysit again in the future, but my family’s moving closer to London in a week or so, so I can’t.”
“Yes, your mum mentioned something about that,” Mrs. Holmes says, nodding.
John and Mr. and Mrs. Holmes all look toward the staircase, where Sherlock’s little voice had sounded.
“Hi, darling,” Mrs. Holmes greets with a warm smile. Sherlock barely glances at her.
“I want John to be my new sitter,” Sherlock says. “I don’t like Stacey. I like John.”
“I’m sorry, Sherlock,” John says gently, eyeing Sherlock’s increasingly upset expression carefully. “I’m moving very soon, so I can’t be your sitter again.”
Sherlock jumps off the last stair and hurries closer. “B-but I want you to be my sitter!”
“We’ll find you a different sitter, dear,” Mrs. Holmes says. “Stacey won’t be your sitter anymore.”
“But—but I don’t want a different sitter, I want John!” Sherlock shouts, and John’s heart sinks when Sherlock starts to cry, reaching for the hem of John’s jacket and burying his wet face into his hip.
“Oh, dear,” John sighs, dismayed. He pries Sherlock’s fingers from his jacket and kneels down to get level with him. “Don’t cry, Sherlock, it’s all right, come here—“ Sherlock throws his arms round John’s neck and sobs into his shoulder. John looks up at his parents, who grimace at him apologetically.
“He does this each time Mycroft leaves for school again,” Mr. Holmes says. “He’ll get over it.”
John chuckles, rubbing Sherlock’s back and saying, “Shh, come on, Sherlock, don’t cry, it’s all right…”
“I don’t want you to leave,” Sherlock mumbles miserably. “You said we’re friends.”
John very gently pulls Sherlock’s arms off him and holds him away a bit to look him in the eye. “Just because I’m leaving doesn’t mean we’re not friends, all right? You’ll always be my friend, even if I don’t see you till I’m forty.”
Sherlock looks gloomily at the floor, wiping his eyes. After a moment of quiet hiccupping, he says, “Wait here,” and turns to run upstairs to his room. He returns two minutes later with three pieces of paper and holds them out to John. John takes them and sees that Sherlock has copied all the Punnett squares from his chalkboard in black crayon. On the back of one, he’s written IN CASE I NEED A REFERENCE.
“So if Mycroft says I’m adopted again, I’ll have proof that I’m not and a witness,” Sherlock says, his voice clogged.
“Good,” John laughs. “I’ll keep these.” He folds the papers and stashes them in the pocket of his jacket before holding out his arms for a hug. “Come here. I’m about to leave.” Sherlock’s face falls and he shuffles dismally forward into John’s embrace. John releases him but keeps his hands on his shoulders as he says, “Be good for your next sitter, all right? And be sure to tell them just how you like your sandwiches.”
John smiles and stands up, shaking Mr. and Mrs. Holmes’s hands in goodbye, and ruffles Sherlock’s dark curls one last time.
“What an amazing coincidence, right?” John concluded enthusiastically.
“Very amazing,” Sherlock muttered, staring down at the yellowed paper in his hands. He looked up at John, puzzled. “I delete things all the time, not to mention I was five; how did you manage not to remember me the day we met at Barts?”
“I babysat plenty of children,” John shrugged. “They all eventually blended together.”
“But you kept my Punnett squares. Why?”
“To be honest, I probably didn’t mean to,” John confessed. “I got a new jacket just a few days later and never looked at that one again. Didn’t wash it, didn’t take anything from the pockets—it’s probably still got your snot on it.”
Sherlock made a face.
“Amazing,” John said again, looking at the papers Sherlock held. “Now that I look at those Punnett squares, I remember you very clearly. You were the best kid I babysat.” At Sherlock’s derisive little snort, John insisted, “You were! You were the cutest thing.”
“Oh God,” Sherlock said, rolling his eyes to the ceiling.
“Oh, don’t act like that,” John laughed. “I liked you! You were the sweetest thing, obnoxious intellect aside.”
Sherlock picked up the rugby jacket from the bed, eyed it critically, and then held it to his nose, breathing deeply. Underneath the slight, stale smell of age and cardboard closeness, he could smell the faint, lingering scent of cologne. It was different from what John wore now; it was a younger, brighter aroma. The memories John had recounted to him stirred again, blurry but insistent in the back of his head. He couldn’t remember everything John had mentioned, but fuzzy silhouettes of the past moved around in his brain. Vague recollections of standing away from a front door as tormentors scurried away, a sense of firm pleasure brought about by a perfect meal, a feeling of security and relief as someone big and warm and soft cradled him kindly.
“Hm,” Sherlock muttered, putting the papers on the bed and inhaling the jacket a second time. “I do remember you. Sort of.”
“You do?” John’s face lit up.
“I don’t remember you, specifically,” Sherlock clarified. “But I do remember liking you very much. I remember feeling safe.” He tried not to cringe the moment those words left his mouth; that sounded ridiculous.
“Aw,” John grinned. Sherlock glared.
“What do you plan on doing with all this rubbish?” he asked, pointedly changing the subject.
“I was going to throw it out, but I think I’ll keep it.”
“Can I keep the jacket?”
John blinked at him, surprised, but then smiled. “Sure.”