She puts him in his own cuffs, hands behind his back, wrists through the slats of the chair. The lock picks are lined up on the table in front of him, as out of reach as if she had taken them to the top of the stairs.
"This is exciting," he says, his shoulders tensing as he tests the hold. "Also excessive."
"Be quiet." She studies him the way he would. "Pupils dilated. Respiration rate increased. Pulse rate, too, by the way you're flushing."
"I'm caught out," he says, rolling his eyes at her. "Being put in bondage makes me nervous."
"Right. This is nervous." She tilts her head and walks a slow circle around him. "I don't think so."
"You can't tell from the physical signals. All bursts of adrenaline look alike. Like how all cats are grey in the dark."
He's tracking her with his eyes, wide and unguarded, smiling, and she almost smiles back. "And if I make an informed judgement based on my knowledge of your tendencies?"
"Oh, well." He shifts his weight, testing the chair this time. "Who am I to argue with your judgement, Watson?"
"Right." She takes a silk scarf from the table and steps toward him. "Any objections to a blindfold?"
"Only on behalf of my dignity."
"So no, then." She ties the scarf carefully around his head, tucking the edges of the fabric in so it's bunched over his eyes, cutting out every scrap of light. "Acceptable?"
"Good." She steps back and sits down on the floor, cross-legged, spine straight. Her her book-in-progress is just within reach, waiting with a straw wrapper marking where she stopped.
"Question," he says when she's turned the page three times. "What is this a test of?"
"It's not a test. It's an exercise."
She holds her place with her thumb. "Endurance. And also silence."
"I sit quietly until you let me go?"
"Yes. And you just reset the clock to zero, by the way."
"What am I counting up to?"
"That's for me to know," she says patiently, "and you to wait for."
He sighs, soft and just on the good side of impatient, but he falls silent.
Joan turns pages and listens to him breathe. This is her discipline, too.
The next day he buys the coffee, placing hers in front of her precisely an inch from her hand. "Thank you," she says, as he rounds the table and sits down. He's wearing a button-down shirt a size too large, the cuffs falling down over his hands. Camouflage, nicely done.
"You're welcome." He takes a sip and watches her over the edge of the cup. She waits, tapping her fingers against the table.
"Was it an intellectual exercise?" he asks. "Or an emotional one?"
She takes a drink and raises her eyebrows. "Does it matter?"
"I'm not sure." He says it honestly, without reserve. It's still a surprise when he gives her honesty so easily, without misdirection or an effort to hold back. She half-smiles at him from behind her cup.
"Can you assume it doesn't, for now, without it being a whole thing?"
"For now." He takes another drink and frowns at her. "I'll allow it."
"Oh, you'll allow it."
"See, this is where I'm not sure--" He cuts himself off and drums his heels against the legs of his chair. "Right. Existing in a state of uncertainty. Is that the current exercise?"
"I'm glad you figured that out." She gives the praise easily, too, without her own misdirections. The startled flash of pleasure in his eyes sparks a cautious, warm throb in her chest. "Well done."
"I'm sure you've noticed," he says a few evenings later, when she stops him from picking a piece of chicken out of a hot pan with his fingers, "my deep and abiding interest in pain."
"That's from The Princess Bride." There's a wooden spoon on the counter, and part of her itches to pick it up and smack him across the back of the hand. Bad behavior can't be rewarded, though. "You're not going to fool me with that."
"Maybe I meant for you to get the reference." He snatches up a bit of broccoli and pops it into his mouth, hissing and pressing his fingertips to his chest. "Ow."
"No one could have guessed that that would happen."
"Maybe I need an exercise in paying attention."
She meets his eyes over the pan and it's an odd moment, charged and humming like the air before a hurricane, smelling like garlic and chicken and the combination of herbs he insists is a family secret and she thinks comes from a Trader Joe's jar.
"That's not your decision to make," she says finally. "Turn the heat down."
He does, picking up the spoon to stir. "So we're not going to discuss this, then?"
"Do you want to discuss it, or do you want to find a way to give yourself the upper hand?"
He frowns down at the food and turns the heat all the way off. "This is ready."
"So we're not going to answer that question, then."
He turns to take the plates from the cabinet. "I'm not at all used to sparring with someone who punches above their weight."
"Is that a complaint?"
He dishes the food out, each serving precisely equal, before he answers. "An observation." He picks the plates up, balancing them against his fingertips. "May I carry these to the table?"
She nods and steps out of his way. "I'll bring the water."
This has been an exercise in communication, she thinks, a moment too late.
Determining their edges, how they orient to each other, how they fit, is more engrossing than she thought it would be. It's like plotting out the moves of a chess game, on a board that flexes and rolls and changes shape at whim.
She has to think two steps ahead all the time, knowing not only what she's going to do but the most likely and second-most-likely ways he'll react to it. It's bending and stretching her brain in ways it hasn't been in a while, now. Exercising it.
She can't remember when she's had this much fun.
He solves the case. She thinks he might actually be less devastated by it if he hadn't put the pieces together at all, instead of simply being too late.
Devastated is really too strong a word. Disoriented. Knocked off-kilter. From the moment it's over he keeps looking around like he's lost something fundamental, like he's adrift at sea.
She walks him from the cab to the house, her hand on his elbow, and he doesn't pull away at all, doesn't twist to face her while he speaks. He doesn't speak. He just walks inside silently, hangs up his coat, and stands by the window, looking out at the muddy-grey sky.
"Sherlock," she says after a moment.
He shakes his head.
"Sherlock, come here please."
He laughs, a dry and brittle sound. "It's Watson, come here please, I need you."
"Alexander Graham Bell." She leans against the doorframe. "Clever."
"I don't feel very clever right now."
"You solved the case."
"He was already dead." He doesn't shout it. His voice doesn't crack on the cold last word. He simply states the fact: the victim was already dead.
"Come here, please," she says again, and because third times are a charm, he does, standing an arm's length in front of her and staring at her like she might have answers, or at least a way to look at things that doesn't hurt so much.
All she has is an exercise. "Sit down."
"On the floor, right where you are."
He drops like a puppet with cut strings, kneels folding up under himself. "Are you going to tell me a story?"
"No." A pair of handcuffs is lying on the bookshelf, debris tossed and turned by the storms of the two of them moving through the house. She takes them and curls her fingers around the metal. "Hands behind your back, please."
He does as he's told, shuffling around to present his back to her, and she does up the cuffs with a solid click. "Blindfold?"
"Please." His voice still doesn't ache, doesn't break. It's an exercise. They're going through the steps together. When they're done, they'll know something new.
When the scarf is knotted over his eyes, she sit down carefully in the armchair and snaps her fingers. "Come to me."
She's only a few feet away, but he shuffles along on his knees not knowing how far to go, lost and blind. She reaches out and catches his shoulder when he veers off-course, guiding him to her side.
"Sit quietly," she says, letting the backs of her knuckles brush over his cheek as she moves her hand to rest in his hair.
"For how long?" he whispers.
"Until I tell you."
And they wait.