The crap daytime telly habit became an ingrained thing. John was deeply sorry he'd ever started it, even if it had been for a case.
So when Sherlock started watching nature programmes, it seemed like a good thing. At least it was - John almost found himself thinking educational but since Sherlock found everything educational unless it utterly wasn't, why was he watching something that he generally considered a waste of time? Where did Sherlock's world end and the solar system begin?
When asked, all he would say was "Bored."
But after a bit, when John was walking past the room, or sitting there reading, or working on his blog when he could get his own laptop for five minutes' use, Sherlock started pointing things out, like any idle person watching telly. The first few times John didn't even realise it was strange.
"Look John. Serpent point of view." And John would glance up and yes, there on the screen was the low-to-ground, slithering perspective of a snake, presumably with a camera strapped to its head. Poor snake.
"Huh," John said in a mild tone of interest, then went back to what he was doing.
"John, look, it's eating an antelope."
Glance up. Yes. Yes it was. Poor antelope.
And that was it for that particular one, though later it couldn't help but strike John as odd. Why was Sherlock letting snakes into his Mind Palace? It must be about the venom. The Speckled Blonde case had at least seemed like a snake job, at first.
Still, it was better than the other things that were on. Sherlock didn't correct the announcers anywhere near so often. He did fact-check from time to time on his phone, or on John's laptop whenever John lost track of it for five seconds. But it was a far less offensive line of preoccupation for a flatmate who was usually using the kitchen to boil flesh off random human bones. John would never want to eat soup again for as long as he lived, thanks to the unpleasantly pleasant smell.
The next time, it was one with penguins and polar bears. This seemed even more out of character to John, and he glanced up more than once, but he couldn't fathom anything that would interest Sherlock in that. Nobody tried to murder anybody with polar bears, did they? Though John seemed to vaguely remember hearing that their livers were poisonous. It must be something to do with that.
The screen was filled with the colours of the aurora borealis. John blinked at it, but then remembered the stars. Doesn't mean I can't appreciate it. "Nice," John said.
There was a sad bit later in that one. A bear with no more ice left, driven into the sea by walruses when it tried to catch one, doomed to keep swimming till it drowned.
"Oh, poor bastard," John found himself saying. Sherlock didn't appear to hear him.
After that, a few days later there was an American one with terrible narration, but lots of footage of prey animals getting away from predators in the nick of time. It wasn't even on telly, it was a video.
"Sherlock, why are you even - OH FUCK YEAH! GO, GO, GO!" as a white rabbit barely evaded the claws of a white leopard and the leopard got a faceful of humiliating white snow.
"Yes!" he said, and then realised Sherlock had turned his head to look at him.
"You don't feel sorry for the leopard?"
"The leopard. You identified with the predator before."
"What...? No I didn't."
"The polar bear. You didn't cheer for the walrus getting away."
"Is it because of the 'cuteness' of rabbits?"
"For God's sake, Sherlock, I don't know, it was just..." On the screen, the clip played over again in slow motion: this programme had a lot of that. John gestured at it. "I mean look, look how sure he is of it, the arrogant sod, then - hah!" Again the rabbit got away, leaping up and twisting free, desperate acrobatics a split-second from death. "I mean come on, that's brilliant."
"Sentiment," Sherlock said in a diagnostic tone, turning back to the screen.
Only then did it occur to John what was going on: Sherlock was experimenting on him. Again.
The next few times Sherlock was watching anything, John tried his best to ignore it all completely. The baby snow geese being eaten by arctic foxes. The wolves taking down the caribou. He found things to do in other rooms. He found things to do outside. He was not going to go through these Blade Runner tests designed to provoke an emotional response.
Only it was sort of the reverse of Blade Runner wasn't it, the hapless human questioned by a merciless replicant. The test in the movie had been about a turtle flipped over. So far there had not been any turtles. But Sherlock didn't ask any more questions at all. Or point anything out. Just watched him watching.
Then there was one about Galapagos and there were turtles then, all right. Baby turtles struggling to reach the sea. Birds swooping and feasting. John went all the way to Liverpool Street that time on the tube, watching human wildlife instead, and didn't come back for hours.
It became such an established pattern in John's mind that he didn't expect it to vary. So when he walked through from the kitchen and saw two lions humping on screen, his feet actually carried him on into the hall before he realised.
Don't turn back, he tried to tell himself, fiercely. Stupid experiment. How embarrassed can you get, sort of thing.
But he turned back. He couldn't really help it.
"All right," he said. "Now what?"
"Lions." Sherlock's bland, innocent face fooled nobody. It didn't fool John, anyway.
"I know it's another experiment," John said. "So you may as well give it up, since I know you're doing it."
"Test subjects can know they're being tested. As long as they don't know the nature of the test."
"Emotional response," John said, thinking again about Blade Runner.
Sherlock never turned his face from the screen, and despite himself John kept looking too. The lion was biting the lioness in the back of the neck. The lioness appeared to be enjoying it. Surprisingly nice moment compared to stuff like the turtles.
"Since when are you interested in -" vague handwave at the lion afterglow, "that sort of thing?"
"I'm not. But you are. It's interesting."
"What? You're the one watching the whole parade of animals every day, I didn't - "
"You walked all the way into the room to see it."
John felt himself getting red in the face. What was he being accused of here exactly?
"You worry all the time about these little interactions with people," Sherlock said, "making me thank them and apologise for things and so on, but you don't actually care about them, you're distanced from them, because you've fought people and healed people both and you have to be distant to do those things." He was speaking fast, in his showing-off, summing-up way. "But animals are different, you not only anthropomorphise them but you sympathise with them, much more than with people. You felt more about that lioness just now than any of the assortment of blondes on your laptop."
The scene on screen changed to one of spiders while John stood speechless. A monstrous female waited for the little male to finish his business, then killed him and wrapped him up to eat later.
"Going out now."
"Don't, it's boring when you leave."
It was also pissing down out there.
"Going upstairs then," snatching his laptop back yet again, and marching out. Today I am all too happy to bore you, he thought. Up in his bedroom John stared at an empty text field and listened to the rain overhead.
Why was this so exceptionally annoying? Well, but why was Sherlock doing this? Didn't he have real experiments? There was at least one spleen in the crisper.
Sherlock was either listening for him or had known exactly how long it would take for John to give up and come back down. The timing was impeccable for the peak of the bonobos' performance.
"Right, that's it, that's enough. And for the record AAAAAGH." The remote was in reach. He grabbed it up and killed the screen at last. The sudden lack of monkeys was a godsend.
"Why, is it that they're males?"
"JESUS." John rounded on Sherlock and would have pointed with his finger, but still had the remote in his hand, so he ended up pointing with that. If only the Mute button could work!
"Look! I could understand you experimenting on me at Baskerville, all right, I don't like it but I understand it, at least it was for a case though you were wrong about the fucking sugar -"
The sugar was almost the most insulting thing about the whole business. He couldn't stand sugar in coffee. Really hated it. But the most insulting thing had been the way Sherlock manipulated him into drinking it anyway. And thanking him for it!
"- but there's no excuse for this, this watching me sympathise with things, have you got nothing better to do - What are you even trying to find out??"
Sherlock was letting him go on a long time. Usually John would have been interrupted by now, diverted from the main thrust of his rant by some non sequitur or insult or insulting non sequitur.
"What the hell is it you want to know? Can't you just ask me?"
When he said this he started getting a feeling in the pit of his stomach, like a premonition of incoming fire. So instead of waiting for Sherlock to answer he kept going.
"You've been at this for days now, why aren't you bored already?"
"I'm bored now."
"GOOD!" He threw the remote down to land bouncing on the sofa. Sherlock had the worst kind of eyes on him, flickering and assessing, reading him whether he wanted to be read or not. John turned away.
"I've been wrong before," Sherlock said, "about your sister, you've never brought that up to me, so why are you so angry that I was wrong about the sugar?"
"You manipulated me, you shamelessly manipulated me into taking it, that's why."
"Of course I did."
"We'd just been fighting and you let me, no, made me think you were trying to be nice for a change - no, just shut up!- and then when I tasted it and it had sugar in it you put this look on your face, all hurt like 'oh but I was trying so hard' and I fell for it. So stupid! I mean, as though you would even be able to make a mistake about something like that. AND you looked all pleased when I gave up and drank it anyway, well of course you did, you thought you could get on with your experiment, but then... argh, I told you it was good, which it wasn't, and I thanked you for it. I feel like such a tit."
"So you're not even angry with me. "
"No." Well, yes. Well - no.
"Then stop nagging me about the sugar and just pay more attention."
How could I possibly pay you any more attention than I already do, John thought but did not say.
"If I put the bonobos back on, will you mention anything else you're angry about? You seem so keen to avoid them."
"Oh no, please do put them back on and then enjoy watching them yourself. " It was past time to go back upstairs. He was disgusted with everything and all the shouting had made him tired.
"But my experiment isn't finished."
"Fuck your experiment, stop experimenting on me. I'm your friend. I'm not a fucking rabbit," a pronouncement which would have gone much better if he were still shouting and not sighing in weariness.
"The rabbit gets away from the leopard," Sherlock said, and to his horror John felt himself smiling, involuntarily, at the thought of it. It could only have been better if the rabbit had managed to kick the bastard right in the nose while getting away -
"Argh, stop that!"
Really kind of scary, how well that worked.
"You like lots of things that make you angry," Sherlock said. "How am I to know when you mean it? It has been a useful experiment, whatever you think of the method."
"Like things that...?"
"Obviously. Do you want the list?"
"No." He knew what was at the top of it. "Can't you just... stop... manipulating me?"
"But that's on the list. You like it when I do that. Pretending to be angry about it is just part of the game. Am I wrong."
So calmly asked there wasn't even a question mark.
"I SERIOUSLY DON'T LIKE THE SODDING MONKEYS," John shouted. "You can take them right off the list."
"Oh, they're not on it. - Apes, by the way. - They were a control group. An extreme to calibrate against. You couldn't watch something like that alone in a bunker miles underground without worrying about someone calling you gay."
"That's not - " Oh. Really, it was true.
"Wait. Are you saying that you're doing this because you think I like it?"
"No," after a slight hesitation that made John wonder a little. "I'm doing something for my own reasons and I'm observing that you do like it. You asked, why couldn't I just ask what I want to know, but I'm not asking anything. I'm telling you."
"Telling me what?"
Oh, so stupid. He just walked right into it.
"The lion bites the lioness in the back of the neck," Sherlock said in that wonderful, awful voice, and by the time John realised he was in trouble it was just too late to do a thing about it.
His heart started pounding, arousal response, Sherlock was looking right into his eyes, and John knew his pupils must be dilating. He tried to catch his breath. He tried to control it. Failed. Of course he failed. He was the sort that blushed all the way down his arms and chest, there was no way to hide it.
"That's what I thought," Sherlock said.
"Stop this." John wanted to hit him. He wanted to grab him. He wanted - He wanted to be in that bunker miles underground. "Stop playing with me." That simple suggestion, that single invoked image of the lions and here he was, as hot and bothered as if someone's warm hand had slid down into his trousers. Someone's. He turned away. Then back again.
"I'm not your pet!"
"No, you're not. I never called you that. Moriarty did, remember? He said it for your benefit. He planted that idea in your mind."
Sherlock got up from the sofa. John backed up a step.
"And now you're planting ideas in my mind. Rabbits. Lions." Gritting his teeth, "Apes."
"They're just associations, John. You're the one having all the sentimental feelings about pictures of animals."
"Blaming me for taking the sugar," John said, "that's nice, that's great."
He turned away, walked a step toward the hall, but turned back. Again.
"You know," said John, "what you're doing is so stupid. I've never seen anything so stupid."
That got Sherlock's attention in a different way than he'd had it for weeks. "Stupid." Flat voice. Freezing eyes. "How is it stupid."
"When you want someone to sleep with you," John said, his voice rather cold-sounding despite the rapid fire of his heartbeat, "you don't DO EXPERIMENTS. You might try just getting drunk with them. It's a time honoured method."
Sherlock just stared at him. Unnervingly. No sign of life.
"Just so you know," John finished lamely, and escaped up the stairs.
He did wonder if he would be followed. He was not.
John sat down on his bed and put his head in his hands. Why had he said that. The thing about getting drunk. Why to God had he said anything like that. He ought to have said something different, oughtn't he. He ought to have said a No, a Never, a Forget It. He ought to have said, When you want to sleep with somebody, well, find somebody else who'll have you. That's what I try to do - then he caught this thought in himself and had to wonder at it.
But he didn't feel bad at all about saying it was stupid. It really was.
What was he supposed to do now? He couldn't stay up here forever. And he shouldn't have to. And. He didn't really want to. He just didn't want - He just wanted - He only wanted -
He'd only said the thing about getting drunk because - because it would be so much easier than this. Because he'd rather that sort of thing happened than - this - strange slow pursuit that couldn't be explained away later, couldn't be forgotten.
Do I want this?
What do I do about it if I don't?
...What do I do about it if I do?
He sat this way for a good long time, cradling his poor befuddled head in his hands. The clock on the bedside table ticked louder and louder in his ears.
Then he went downstairs. He was braced for practically anything that could possibly be on the telly, up to and including frisky apes, but there wasn't anything.
Sherlock was gone.
John looked around, as though clues would be clearly marked in the air, but he was not Sherlock and all he could tell was that Sherlock wasn't here and neither was his coat.
Did he leave because of - all this? Or is it something else completely and he forgot I was upstairs and I couldn't hear him say 'going out'?
So John got out his mobile and sent a text. 'Get milk while you're out please.' He knew he wouldn't get a response, and that the manoeuvre was also highly unlikely to result in the actual purchase of milk; but it meant, Come back.
He did get a response, though, less than a minute later. The soft sound of it from his pocket made him jump. Pulling the phone out he read, 'Not liquor?'
His mouth fell open. Then he shut it again with a snap, setting his jaw in its stubbornest mode, and texted back: 'Not necessary.'
Though he would really have loved a drink now, as a matter of fact.
It took Sherlock some time to reappear, though. At first John was keyed up and nervous enough to pace around, listening for the door downstairs, but without hearing it for some time he made himself shrug and go upstairs to his room again. Watched pot taking forever to boil. - A shower. Surely a good idea. That's what he'd do if - that's what he'd do for a date, anyhow.
John ducked his head down under the water and let a wave of embarrassment just roll over him and pass through. If you decided to do something you did it. If it took a very long time to decide it, then second guessing was even stupider than usual.
I don't have any idea what exactly he wants to do.
Perhaps he should assume the worst and hope to be pleasantly surprised?
This almost made him laugh at himself, but not quite. Then it occurred to him that Sherlock really might not know either, and then he did laugh. Either he had some elaborate plan or no plan at all.
The whole animals-experiment thing had been a very elaborate plan, come to that. But what now? It was already a product of Sherlock's spectacular lack of experience in human relations. Was it over, though? He'd said it wasn't -
A cold, awful thought poured down over John as though all the heat had leached out from the water. What if he had been wrong -
What if the object of it all was just to make John admit that he wanted - That's what I thought, he'd said -
What if Sherlock had stared at him like that because he was appalled that John would even suggest he could want -
It was too much. It was not fair. If that was what it was, all it was...
Well. It was too late. If he was going to be humiliated, then it was already in progress. If it wasn't, he would sort that out then.
Toweled, dressed, he went back down the stairs. But he was wary again.
Sherlock was back, sitting at the desk with his computer casting cold light up into his face. He looked exactly the same as on any other day, but John found he could hardly look at him for more than a second or two at a time. He went into the kitchen and looked in the fridge. No milk. Oh well.
"I've been thinking."
What a strange thing for Sherlock to say: when had he ever not been thinking? But John was bracing himself for some kind of pronouncement about the experiment's results and what Sherlock had really been trying to prove. So his voice was cautious when he said "Okay..."
"About the lions."
Sigh. Gritted teeth again. Just the word lions, in context, was apparently enough to invoke heat for him now. "What about them."
"You..." Long pause. Uncharacteristic. "You... don't have to be... the lioness."
This unexpected remark changed everything. In a moment, John's fear of being played to no purpose evaporated completely. In the next moment he blushed very hard and very hot as the picture in his mind caught up.
"I don't?" Just another reflexive question. John had heard and understood what was said to him. He just had to check anyway.
"Oh." John struggled with the effort of lifting his gaze from his hands. It seemed to take more effort than moving his entire body against the force of gravity.
"If that's all right."
Now John looked up. Sherlock, however, was apparently having the eye gravity problem himself, staring down at his own fingers on the keyboard.
"You are just unbelievable," John said, and he laughed. Hard. So hard he had to sit down. So hard it made his stomach hurt after a bit. So hard there were tears in his eyes. But in all that time, Sherlock did not move.
At last John said, trying for a question in the range of normalcy, "You didn't get milk then?"
"No, I'd run out of money."
"You - What do you mean, what did you...?" And then John noticed the bottle on the mantel.
"I... said it wasn't necessary," he said in a small voice.
"I'd already bought it by then."
It was a bottle of thirty-year-old single malt Talisker. John stared at it. It may or may not have been staring back at him.
"You... bought this... to get drunk with me?"
"To drink, yes, I'm not promising to get intoxicated."
"To get me drunk then."
"If that's what you want. You did say - "
"I know what I said," John said, and getting up, he picked up the bottle to look at it. This stuff was ridiculously expensive. It might well have been Sherlock's half of the month's rent there in that bottle.
"This had to have cost two hundred quid at least!"
"Four hundred and fifty," said Sherlock calmly, and John clutched the bottle in a spasm of fear that it might drop shatteringly - and shatteringly expensively - from his hands.
"What, that's - are you - Sherlock."
Cool eyebrows. "Problem...? It's supposed to be the best."
"That's what they say," said John, who had never even smelled such good whisky, let alone tasted any. "You do realise that people can get just as drunk on beer. Or wine. Or even - "
"John. Just open the bottle."
John hesitated with the bottle of Talisker in his hands. He put it down. He went into the kitchen. He found two glasses, and found it advisable to wash them. All the while he felt himself being watched, but it didn't fluster him anymore, not even now. He was in his own nature programme. The lioness, apparently, had hunted down and provided top shelf sustenance, and the lion, well, the lion liked a clean glass.
He opened the bottle. Poured. And again. Handed a glass over to Sherlock. Took a sip from his own. It was not a time for toasting.
Oh. That was... really... awfully... Good.
It was like liquid golden smoke. That punched you gently in the face.
"Wow," was all John managed to say. A tiny glow of warmth radiated out from his stomach. Golden warmth. Like a tiny sun. Just amazing.
"I'm pretty sure this really actually is. The best. It is brilliant." He looked up at Sherlock, who still sat at the desk, holding his glass, as yet unsipped. Watching John's face.
"Um. At this point," John suggested gently, "you ought to drink some yourself. Doesn't have to be a lot. It's more a sort of gesture."
"What sort of gesture," Sherlock asked his glass.
"A sort of 'I'm not creepy' gesture, to say: 'I won't be completely sober while getting you drunk' and, well, 'see I haven't put anything in it'."
Sherlock's eyes flicked up to John. It looked like surprise.
"I don't really think that. And it's not because I think you couldn't have, by the way. I'm sure you could have if you wanted to. I just don't think you did."
"I don't really like alcohol."
"I know. And have I mentioned how glad I am you don't? The fights you'd get in. - Just taste it. It's nice."
It ought to be nice. For what it cost. But it was good, too, to be considered worth plying with the best. Flattering, wasn't it? John took another sip. Delicious. And the resulting heat was greater this time, the pilot light glowing a little brighter inside him.
Sherlock lifted up his glass, tipped back his head, and poured two ounces of neat Talisker straight down his throat.
It would have been hard to say which of them sputtered more as a result. After a full minute of wheezing and shaking his head and strangled noises, Sherlock managed to say, "That was painful."
"I'm not surprised, you just swallowed more than thirty pounds. You're not supposed to drink it like that! You're supposed to savour it."
"It smells funny. I don't want to savour it." Sherlock licked his lips. "Feels kind of nice, though. I don't usually like depressants." The slight flush that had risen to his face was... very... Attractive. John took a considerably larger sip from his glass.
"You savour cigarettes, and they smell worse."
"Oh! Cigarettes!" Sherlock jumped up, wild eyed. "Yes! Brilliant. Must have cigarettes. Whisky tastes like smoke. It'll go well with it."
"No! Dammit," not again with the horrible fucking cigarettes. If only it weren't necessary to keep some in emergency reserve, for those times when it came down to a choice between a cigarette or something worse, and for a cigarette to be the lesser of two (or more) evils was just ridiculous, and he'd thought maybe they were over all this now.
Of course the hiding place was no hiding place to Sherlock, he went straight to it without a moment's hesitation, and he actually had one in his mouth and a match poised to strike when John said,
"If you smoke, I won't kiss you."
Sherlock turned his head, hands frozen in position. "And if I don't, you will?"
Bad enough he blurted out the phrase, kiss you. Not enough whisky in him yet for the return volley to be as easy to handle. "Maybe."
Sherlock struck the match.
"All right, yes!"
Sherlock blew the match out.
For just a moment, John thought about Daffy Duck shouting "Duck season! FIRE!"
John looked down at his glass and, lifting it, tossed the remaining contents down his throat the way Sherlock had done. The resulting fireball put tears into his eyes, and glowed like a coal in his belly. The biting taste of golden smoke lingered on his tongue as he set the empty glass down.
Sherlock took the cigarette from between his lips, opened the pack, closed it, and handed the pack over.
"Thank you. Let's have that one you just slipped into your pocket, as well," said John.
Pout. "I don't want to put it back in there, it's been in my mouth."
"What does it matter, I'm going to throw them away."
"No you won't, they cost money, you'll try to hide them again."
"You don't even want that cigarette," John said firmly, holding out his hand, "you're just teasing me with it. Hand it over now."
"You're wrong. I do want it. Kiss me first and then I can smoke."
The tension in the room, the heat in his chest, ratcheted up another notch together. Now the phrase kiss me was in play.
"No, I won't at all if you're going to smoke at all. Give it."
"No." Firmly. "Give it."
He looked like a big sulking child when he stepped close enough to put the cigarette into John's waiting hand.
But he did give it.
John turned away to crumble the thing to death over the wastepaper basket. When he turned back, he found Sherlock right there.
"Now, please. I wanted that cigarette."
It's not a transaction, John was going to say, but he didn't, because it was. It was really a pretty straightforward one at that.
Up until this moment there was still, still a sliver of a chance that this was in fact a humiliating experiment about to conclude in shouting. Or silence.
"Sit down, then. I'm not going up on tiptoes."
Sherlock backed up and sat down at once on the chair by the desk, obedient as a terrier. Unnerving. Really. He looked up at John the way some patients did, timid, some of them, pleading with their eyes not to be hurt, when all that was needed was their temperature and pulse and a few questions asked.
While John knew well that Sherlock could manufacture any expression, imitate any emotion he wanted, up to and including impressively copious crocodile tears, he thought that perhaps, just this once, he was seeing the real thing. Feelings. Anxiety. Maybe even - ? Sherlock did go to a lot of trouble. He was risking a lot for this.
John only hoped it would be worth it.
He leaned down. He reached out. His hand came to rest on Sherlock's shoulder, the slippery silky fabric of his blue dressing-gown under his fingers making them slide. They slid all the way to Sherlock's neck, and then wrapped around his nape. Warm skin, soft curls under his fingers now. This tactile sensation - and hard on its heels, the thought of the lion love-biting the lioness - made John tighten his fingers, and that made Sherlock draw in his breath in surprise, lips parting, and then John kissed him.
He’d never had someone’s first kiss before. Sherlock’s mouth had not the least idea what to do with someone else’s. It was as though they were complete strangers all over again, rewound to the first day. What could be learned in this fleeting contact, and what could be taught? All John could ever do was his best, and he did that now. Their mouths tasted of smoky gold and though Sherlock jerked back fractionally the first moment their tongues touched, it was startlement, not distaste. John went slowly and gave him time to learn, and Sherlock learned.
He kept his eyes open the entire time, too. John noticed, through his lashes, but it wasn’t as though there were a rule about it, and anyway they weren’t focussed on anything. It was his Mind Palace look. Maybe that was where they were right now.
It was a long, slow kiss. It had after all been very expensive.
But there came a moment when it just naturally spun down to an end, and John straightened up, his hand falling reluctantly away from the back of Sherlock’s neck.
Sherlock pressed his palms together in that priestly gesture against his face and stared off into the middle distance, ignoring John completely.
"Okay," John said, and turned away. That was that, then: experiment ended. There wasn't any good reason to feel... disappointed about it. Things would be as usual. Time to go and hide the cigarettes again -
But he no longer had them. He whirled, outraged.
"You complete and utter shit, you picked my pocket!"
Sherlock looked up at him over his steepled fingers. "I now have nineteen cigarettes in my possession." He was smiling in a way that John had never seen or thought possible. Playful. Challenging. Hopeful. "You may reclaim them at the same rate."