It takes Joan quite some time to see Sherlock, really see him.
When she agrees to take on Sherlock Holmes as a client, she figures he’ll be like most of her other clients—fragile, grinding his teeth with early sobriety, eager to embrace the clean life but also afraid of it. Instead, that first morning she finds a shirtless and tattooed man standing in the front room of an unintentionally shabby chic brownstone and staring at several televisions, each blaring a different channel. He turns around and his two gray eyes focus on her face. She has the fight the urge to squirm under their intensity. Joan straightens her spine and stares back. She never squirms if she can help it. Surgical residency cured her of squirming for life.
At first, being in Sherlock’s company is like the time she stood too close to Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte at the Art Institute of Chicago. Up close, all she could make out was a series of seemingly random dots of paints on canvas. It almost hurt her eyes. And then she took a step or two back and watched the dots transform into a woman with a flower on her hat, a monkey gamboling at her feet.
Joan is only able to see something of the real Sherlock after she notices his socks.
Multicolored Stripes with Gold Heels and Baby Blue Toes
Joan isn’t sure why she notices Sherlock’s socks, of all things, or this particular pair of socks on this particular day. She has noticed his clothes before. It would be hard not to. Sherlock doesn’t seem to shop for and wear clothes like other men she has known. Instead, he appears to carefully curate his wardrobe as if it’s a small, but important, art museum tucked away in a back street in London. A baggy and faded tee shirt is paired with ancient tweed trousers that surely once belonged to a minor baronet of some sort. A gray wool cardigan with an unraveling right sleeve and patches on the elbows. And then a black and red checked wool scarf (that looks to Joan as if it should smell like cigars and maybe something like port or Madeira) is tossed over the whole lot with an insouciance that no American man of her acquaintance has ever been able to achieve. Most of the colors of his clothes are muted—black, slate gray, navy blue, olive green. Somehow, Sherlock manages to blend into the background of wherever he is and stand out at the same time, not a bad thing for a self-professed consulting detective.
On the eighth or ninth morning, just before they’re about to leave to meet Captain Gregson at a murder scene (just eight or nine days in and she’s already almost jaded about finding dead bodies in various stages of decay—life with Sherlock can be frustrating to the extreme but she’ll never say that it’s boring), Sherlock sits down to lace up his oxfords. Her eyes happen to land on his socks, bold multicolored stripes with baby blue toes and gold heels. Interesting choice, she thinks. “Those are some socks,” she says.
He lifts his head and looks at her. “Research has demonstrated that if one owns socks of a singular and memorable nature, one is significantly less likely to lose said socks.”
Joan wonders if this is true. Sherlock likes to casually toss off facts and statistics to prove a point but after-hours Googling on her part has proven that almost a third of the time he’s apparently made up the statistic on the fly. If there’s one thing she knows about Sherlock after eight or nine days (looking at her phone, she determines it has been nine days) is that he always, always has to be right.
Navy, Gray and Red Argyle
While Joan is well aware that being a sober companion is more than a 9-to-5 job, she never expected to spend a Saturday night locked in what seems to be a magician’s trunk. She’s more amazed that she’s found herself in this odd predicament than afraid. A nagging voice at the back of her head does keep informing her that The Great Korkowski, a man not exactly in tune with reality as we know it, could seriously hurt or kill her. She suspects that he drugged her (and Sherlock—was Sherlock there or not?) when he served her tea. Her head feels pleasantly light and she has to fight the urge to sing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
She loses the fight. “The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they called ‘Gitchee Gumee.’ The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy,” she sings. Joan has a terrible voice and never sings outside of the privacy of her shower, but she just doesn’t care right now.
“Watson,” whispers a male voice, startling her. It’s Sherlock. “You need to keep your voice down. And stop singing Gordon Lightfoot. His songs are an affront to all the world's music.”
Huh, so Sherlock’s in there with her. It must be a pretty big trunk. Now she can tell that she’s lying on her side and Sherlock is lying with his toes to her head. His feet are basically in her face. “Are we in danger?” she whispers back.
“Probably, but your singing is the most dangerous thing of all. Also, I don’t know how much air is coming into this trunk.”
“I think he drugged us,” she says, noticing how her words are slurring into each other.
“I’m well aware. It forgot how nice it feels.” Sherlock sounds like he’s been on a three-day bender, too. Does this mean that he can no longer count himself as a sober person? What does the AA Big Book have to say about involuntary drugging?
“And your feet are in my face,” she complains.
“As are yours.”
“They don’t smell bad, though. They smell like Tide and shoe leather.”
“Shut up, Watson,” Sherlock whispers.
“I don’t think I can,” she says, pushing down a giggle. Sherlock’s body is pressed against hers, which is a lot less personal space than she normally requires, but she finds she doesn’t mind too much. She’s not attracted to him and he’s definitely not attracted to her, so there's little awkwardness there. It’s stuffy in the trunk and a little uncomfortable, and she really needs to pee, but it’s not as weird as it could be. Being drugged with what is almost certainly some sort of barbiturate helps.
“Try harder.” It’s funny having Sherlock be the responsible party for once. He surely has a higher tolerance for tranquilizers.
“What socks are you wearing?” Joan asks. It’s become a daily game with her, spotting Sherlock’s socks. He’s almost always wearing something interesting.
“Why do you care?”
"I like your socks. They’re festive.”
A sigh. “Navy blue argyle. The lozenges are red and gray. Did you know the argyle pattern derives from Clan Campbell of Argyll, Scotland? The Duke of Windsor popularized the pattern after World War I. I obtained the socks from Pringle of Scotland, the official dry goods purveyor of the Royal Family, even though I’m not a royalist by any stretch.”
“Mmm…Pringles.” She’s hungry. While Joan normally shuns junk food, barbecue Pringles sound really, really delicious right now.
Just then there’s a metallic clanging sound and the top of the trunk is removed. The light is much too bright and Joan squeezes her eyes shut.
“Would you look at the two of you? I should take a picture and post it to my Facebook,” says an amused-sounding male voice.
Joan opens her eyes. It takes a while for them to focus. “Detective Bell,” she says, although to her ears it sounds like “Demectib Beww.”
“The Great Korokwski drugged us,” says Sherlock, managing to sit up.
“He did,” Joan says. “And I really, really like your socks, Marcus.” She has a good view of them from the trunk. Bell’s socks are black with understated gray stripes. They go nicely with his well-shined black loafers.
Wait. Is it illegal to call an officer of the law by his first name when he's on duty?
Bell extends a hand and helps her out of the trunk. “My father always said that quality socks are the crowning touch of a man’s wardrobe,” he says.
Sherlock nods. “They are indeed.”
Black with Yellow Smiley Faces
One morning they’re at the morgue and Sherlock leans over the corpse to inspect something. His pants ride up (she’s noticed that several pairs are close to being floods) and Joan observes that he’s wearing black socks with a yellow smiley face on each one. The incongruity of smiley face socks in the morgue almost makes Joan drop her professional mask and burst out laughing. Almost, but not quite.
That is, until she makes it to the women’s bathroom where she laughs so hard she has to splash her face with cold water to make herself stop.
It’s been ages since she’s laughed that hard while at work. Surgery and sober companionship aren’t exactly hilarious professions.
When she walks out of the bathroom, Sherlock is leaning against the wall, waiting for her. “Is everything all right? We need to get back to police headquarters straight away. I now know who killed Otilia Fernandez.”
“I’m fine,” she says. “Who killed her?”
“You’re smiling, Watson,” he says, sounding accusatory.
“There are a lot of things that are smiling today.” She might just burst into another round of giggles again.
"Are you somehow sporting with me?"
"Maybe a little."
Sherlock gives her an annoyed look and strides off down the corridor.
Navy Blue with Swimming Whales
Joan sits on a hard wooden bench in the waiting room of the 59th Street Clinic, waiting for Liam. An hour passes and then two, and no Liam. She’s kicking herself for once again falling into the trap of his addiction. She's kicking herself for hoping.
The door opens and she turns her head expectantly, only to see that it’s Sherlock. He sits down next to her on the bench.
"I'm pretty sure Liam isn’t coming tonight."
"Yet here you sit," Sherlock says.
“I’ll give him ten more minutes." Joan looks at her watch. "There's someplace else you have to be."
"Not tonight, Watson. Not tonight." There's something in Sherlock’s voice that she’s rarely heard. Sincerity? Compassion?
They sit in silence in the chilly waiting room. At one point, Sherlock shifts in his seat and stretches out his legs, bringing Joan out of her reverie. She looks at his socks, the navy blue ones with swimming whales.
Over the last few weeks, she’s noticed a pattern with Sherlock and his socks. Working on a daily basis with a detective has sharpened her observational skills; what she’s observed is that when Sherlock is tired, or not feeling well, or feeling more stressed that usual, he often wears the whale socks. She wonders what it's all about.
Just after one in the morning, Marisa, the admitting nurse, comes out into the waiting area. Joan knows Marisa well after several client admissions. “Honey,” Marisa says, hands on hips. “He’s not coming. If Liam’s not here by now, he’s out there with a needle in his arm. Guarantee it.”
Joan stands up. “He’s not coming,” she says, repeating Marisa’s words. He’s not coming. Hoping and wishing won’t make Liam walk through the doors, no matter how much she wants him to.
The cab ride home is silent. A few blocks from the house, Sherlock tells the driver to pull over. They’re outside of Morrie’s Diner, a 24-hour joint that has surprisingly good food. “I’m hungry and I expect you are, too,” he says.
“I’m not,” she says but her stomach rumbles in response.
They get a booth near the frosted-over windows. Sherlock orders a cheeseburger and Joan orders French toast. When it comes, she pokes at it with her fork. She’s definitely hungry but it somehow seems like too much work to cut it up and eat it.
“You know that Liam won’t get help unless he really wants it,” says Sherlock, after they’ve almost finished their meals.
“That’s my line,” Joan mutters. What's left of her French toast has cooled and the butter has congealed on the top. She pushes the plate aside.
“Or maybe I sometimes listen in meetings.” He takes a last bite of his cheeseburger.
“I highly doubt that.” She sighs. “Intellectually and professionally, I know what you’re saying is true but I spent so many years thinking Liam was finally going to get clean. I thought maybe this time would be it.”
“You have to let go, Joan.”
This conversation is getting too personal for her. She knows Sherlock a thousand times better than she did a month or so ago, and she might be starting to actually like him as a person, but she doesn’t want to talk about the twisting path of her relationship with Liam. Not tonight, and not with Sherlock Holmes, who is her client and not entitled to know about the darkest, most personal recesses of her heart.
“Tell me about the whale socks,” she says to change the subject. “I noticed that you seem to wear them when you need comfort.”
His eyebrow rises. “Someone’s turning into a detective.”
“Maybe it’s time for a third career,” she says, aiming for a joke. “So, tell me about the socks.”
“They’re socks. With whales on them. Very comfortable.” He won’t meet her eyes.
“Who gave them to you?” Joan is aware that it’s hypocritical for her to press Sherlock when she won’t talk about Liam.
He looks down at the table, traces the pattern on the Formica with his fingertip. “I had to let go of someone, too. The socks are almost all I have left.”
“Yes,” he says. His voice is badly audible. “She knew how much I enjoyed reading Moby Dick.”
“I’m sorry for bringing it up.”
“It’s all right,” he says. He throws a twenty on the table and stands up. “It's late. Let's go home.”
Buying a Christmas gift for Sherlock is not an easy task. First of all, he’s clearly not into Christmas. When Joan asks him if he’d like to get a Christmas tree, he shoots her a withering look. Still, she feels like she should get him something. Nothing too big or too fancy, nothing too personal. But it seems like the holiday should be marked somehow.
A few days before Christmas, she happens to be in the East Village meeting a girlfriend for lunch when she comes across the perfect store and the perfect gift on Saint Mark’s Place.
On the night before Christmas, not a creature is stirring except Sherlock, who is standing on his head and reading a book on Tibetan mythology at the same time. She's sure the head standing has something to do with increased blood flow to the brain. Joan orders in Thai food and settles down for a Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and pad thai party for one. Both of her guilty pleasures at once.
This Christmas Eve feels like most nights when they’re not hot on a case. She hopes that nobody is feeling murderous in New York tonight. The night passes uneventfully until almost midnight, when she’s reading in bed and almost asleep. Her phone makes the dinging noise that tells her she has a new email. She sits up to read it.
After reading the email, it's a long time before she's able to fall asleep.
The next morning, Joan wakes early. She looks out the bedroom window and it’s snowing, soft flakes drifting lazily to the ground. She wraps herself in her bathrobe and puts on a pair of warm socks, since the brownstone is invariably cold in the morning, especially the wood floors.
Christmas day with Sherlock Holmes. Joan isn’t sure how she feels about that. Not that her family has made a big deal of the holiday in years. Her mother flew to Hawaii three days ago to spend the holiday with her sister. Oren is in Seattle with his new girlfriend’s family. She has no idea where her father is and she doesn’t care. She hasn’t spoken to him in months.
She creeps downstairs and heads into the kitchen. Joan is surprised to see that the pot in the coffee maker is almost full and hot to the touch. Sherlock is up already. Or did he not go to bed at all?
Sherlock is in the front room, sitting in a lotus position in front of his array of TVs. “Good morning,” she says. “Or Merry Christmas?”
The televisions are playing How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and It’s a Wonderful Life. All at once.
“Good morning!” he says, sounding uncommonly chipper. “Would you like to watch Christmas programs? Pretend to get into the spirit of things?”
She sinks into a chair. “Could we watch one show at a time? Like normal people?”
“If you want to be dull and unoriginal we could.” He shrugs and starts to turn off some of the televisions.
“We need to talk, Sherlock.” She takes a sip of his coffee. She doesn’t know what he does when he makes it (and, truthfully, she doesn’t really want to know) but when he bothers to make it, it’s delicious.
The last TV stops blaring. He turns to her. “What do we need to talk about?”
Might as well get it all out. “Your father emailed me last night.”
“And he wants to spent the symbolic day of Christ’s birth with his adored son?”
She shakes her head. “He wanted to know if I would stay on as your sober companion after the six weeks are up. Indefinitely.”
“Indefinitely? He wouldn’t dare.” His eyes narrow.
“He wrote that this is the longest you’ve gone without getting into some sort of significant trouble. And credited me with this transformation of yours.” She rolls her eyes so he will know that she thinks it’s sort of ridiculous. “But he wouldn’t put any conditions on you. You would be permitted to retain my services only as long as you cared to.”
“I don’t need a sober companion anymore. You know that, Watson. I know that…”
“I agree,” Joan interrupts. “I think your sobriety is solidifying nicely. You go to meetings, you have Alfredo as your sponsor. You’ll never be a model Twelve Stepper but I don’t think you’re at great risk of relapse. Plus, I don’t think it’s healthy for anyone to have a full-time sober companion for virtually their entire life.” She thinks about her apartment, which she hasn’t slept in for more than five weeks. About a whole weekend to herself to do whatever she wants to, when she wants to and not be at the beck and call of a low-grade lunatic genius and the entire New York Police Department.
“I don’t need a sober companion anymore,” he repeats. “But I do believe I need an investigative assistant.” He looks straight at her but his eyes haven't made her want to squirm in a long time. Now she knows something of the man behind those eyes.
“An investigative assistant. What would that involve?”
“Exactly what you’ve been doing for the last five-and-a-half weeks but with significantly less blathering about sobriety.”
Joan thinks about what her mother said, about how Joan seems to come alive when talking about investigations. She doesn’t always want to admit it, but her mother is often right. Nothing since medicine has felt as exciting and right as working with Sherlock. “Could I blather about sobriety from time to time? You’ll still need a little.”
“At least eighty percent less blathering.”
“Seventy percent and you have a deal.”
“Deal,” he says.
“Things will have to change. I’ll need more space. More than two hours off at a time for starters.”
“Of course, of course,” he says. “But will you continue to live here?”
Her own apartment means a place that’s entirely her own, where Sherlock can’t intrude, even though he probably will mange to anyhow. Living here means saving thousands of dollars of rent a month and living in a significantly nicer neighborhood. She’ll need to make a pros and cons list. “I don’t know. Can we talk about it later? I haven’t even finished my coffee.”
“Then we have a deal. At least, a tentative one.”
"Wait." She holds up one hand. "I'm not sure if I like the title of investigative assistant. It's a little subservient."
"You can't possible think of yourself as my equal in the investigative arena," he says with a sniff.
"How about investigative associate?"
"That would be acceptable."
They solemnly shake hands.
“Oh wait!” Joan says, suddenly remembering something. “I have a Christmas present for you.”
“You shouldn’t have,” says Sherlock.
“But I did.” She retrieves it from its hiding spot in another room.
He opens the package, wrapped in festive green and red paper, to find:
Sherlock starts laughing, the kind of joyful, non-cynical laughter she’s almost never heard from him. He laughs harder than the time she lost it in the bathroom at the morgue, laughing until tears stream down his red face.
“I know it’s kind of a silly present,” she says defensively.
“No, no,” Sherlock gasps, still heaving with laughter. “It’s not that. It’s an absolutely perfect gift. You’ll see…” He reaches under the chair and hands her a small gift bag patterned with snowflakes.
She reaches in the bag and pulls out:
Joan apparently wasn't the only one who took a shopping trip to The Sock Man in the East Village.
“What made you buy these for me?” she asks.
“You seem to have an odd fascination with socks. At least, my socks. It's bordering on the obsessive, really.”
Her face turns pink.
“And I observed that while you are normally fastidiously dressed when we go out into the world, at home you shuffle about in those disgraceful crew socks. With giant holes, no less.”
Joan looks down at her feet and, sure enough, her left big toe is sticking out of her sock.
“Now we can both look like gay unicyclists in a Venetian circus,” Sherlock says. He puts the rainbow toes socks on and flexes his toes. A look of bliss crosses his face. “Marvelous."
She removes the crew socks of disgrace and slides her own pair of toe socks on. Sherlock’s right, marvelous. They’re warm and soft. And they fit just right.
She looks over at Sherlock, who is now lying on his back on the floor, pretending to pedal an invisible unicycle.
They fit just right, she thinks.