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The Nature of Tea

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“There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life.”
― Lin Yutang, The Importance Of Living

The real problem is that Victor Trevor does not like tea.

When Victor had been small and his mother still alive, she would sit in the window seat with a cup of tea every morning at ten. Victor would creep up to sit on her feet, rest his cheek against her knees, and they would look out onto the gardens and watch the birds chase each other in the sky. The smell of the tea was dark and smoky, and if he asked for a sip, as he always did, he would make a face at the bitter taste and his mother would laugh at him for forgetting he did not like the flavor.

“You will like it when you’re older,” his mother would say, and Victor wrapped his arms around her legs and held tightly, feeling the silk slip under his fingers, cold against his cheek.

If he stands in the middle of the tea plants after dark, when the breeze blows the leaves softly, and the rustles and whispers surround him, Victor will close his eyes. He will feel the muggy, thick air against his skin, but his cheek feels the brush of cool silk.

*

The monsoon season is half over when he appears at the door. Victor lets him in. Victor had always let him in, even when he knew it was a bad idea gone worse. Bad idea to have asked him; worse that the offer had been accepted.

“Tea?” Victor politely asks his visitor, because that is what one did with visitors.

“Please,” says Sherlock Holmes, politely, because that is what one does as a visitor.

Sherlock stands at the windows, watches the clouds gather on the horizon, his hands clasped behind his back. He is dressed simply, in dark trousers and a pale blue shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and though his dark curls are cut short, they curl at the nape of his neck from the humidity in the air. He stands at a casual sort of attention, with a stillness that Victor doesn’t remember. It’s something Sherlock must have learned along the way, and Victor wonders what has taught him this stillness. It is the sort of lesson a young Sherlock could have used, and the very thing that is hard-won.

Or maybe it is just the shell of Sherlock, the man he has become, a man Victor doesn’t know at all. Sherlock is pale and thin, drained of color, as lifeless as discarded snakeskin. Perhaps, thinks Victor, the rumors about him are true.

Victor heats the water slowly, and selects the darkest black tea he owns. He fills the small pitcher with milk, makes sure the sugar bowl is ready, and sets a few biscuits on a plate. He knows Sherlock won’t touch any of it. Or perhaps Sherlock’s shadow might; it’s been years since uni, and Victor isn’t altogether sure of the man in the room with him.

“Fourteen years,” says Sherlock into the silence. His voice echoes like a deep bell. “You were wondering.”

“More useful if you could tell me if you still take your tea black,” says Victor.

“No point in it, otherwise.”

Victor measures out the leaves, drops them by the spoonful into the pot. The electric kettle clicks off, and he waits a few moments before pouring the water in.

“Time,” he says, more from habit than from challenge.

The leaves swirl and dance, and Victor sets the lid on the kettle and drops the cloth over the tray to keep the flies away before carrying it to the table near where Sherlock waits.

“I was surprised to hear from you,” says Victor, joining Sherlock at the window.

“A bit out of season for visiting a tea plantation, of course,” says Sherlock. The clouds move fast on the horizon; already they are ten kilometers away. The rain will begin before they are done with their tea.

“Generally one does prefer to visit when they’re alive, yes,” says Victor.

Sherlock glances at him. “If this is your way of distracting me—”

Victor shrugs. “Ghosts don’t drink tea. Nor do they ring old mates from uni after fourteen years of non-communication.”

Sherlock’s mouth quirks. “Am I a ghost, then?”

“Ask me after you have had your tea.”

“Time,” says Sherlock quietly, and when Victor glances at his watch, he sees that Sherlock was right.

“Would that I had a mind like yours, old friend,” says Victor quietly, and goes to pour the tea.

“No,” says Sherlock, turning from the window to watch him. “I rather think that you are grateful, as you always were, that you do not.”

“More so now than ever,” says Victor. “Drink while the tea is still hot.”

The tea is bitter, but Sherlock drinks as if it tastes of nothing at all. Victor holds the cup to his lips without sipping, and watches his old friend gulp it down. There is still something of the impatient young man there, and Victor nearly recognizes him.

When Sherlock finishes the tea, he sets the cup down on the table and rests his hands on his knees. He looks Victor in the eye, and says, quite calmly, “I suppose you want to know how it is I am here, when Sebastian Wilkes has informed you of my death.”

“Why would Sebastian have informed me of your death?”

“He is, perhaps, the only other person from uni who remembers we were friends.”

“Do you think of me in the past tense, then?”

“If I am dead, then surely the past tense is appropriate.”

“Ah,” says Victor, and sets down the cup of tea. “I do not believe you are dead.”

“Because I drank your tea?”

Victor shrugs. “Because if you were dead, you would not bother with the pretense of friendship.” He stood and picks up the tray. “There is a room prepared for you; I am sure you are tired after your journey. If you would like to join me for dinner, I eat at nine on the verandah, assuming the storm has passed. You may, of course, watch from here.”

Sherlock rose. “Victor – why I am here—”

“No,” says Victor, and begins to replace the untouched sugar and milk. “Not while the storm rages, please. It will keep, I trust.”

Sherlock hesitates. “It will keep. But not for long.”

“Then hope the storm does not tarry,” says Victor, and pours his untouched tea into the nearest plant.

*

Monsoons are quick and furious, and Victor watches from his room as the rain obliterates the world outside of the house. It is loud and insistent and spares nothing, and Victor throws open his window and puts his head into the spray. Droplets hit him from every direction, some hitting the ground so hard they bounce back up to strike him in the chin. Victor closes his eyes and breathes in the dusty, sweet scent.

“I’m not thirsty,” Sherlock had said on their second meeting, fourteen years previously, and drank all the tea in Victor’s pot anyway, gulping it down without paying attention to temperature or flavor. He didn’t stop talking, his words ran together in a monsoon of syllables, drowning Victor in a spiel of theorems and theories and mathematical equations. The words had pounded around Victor as he watched his classmate – acquaintance? Friend? Something more? – flail around his tiny college room, manic and carefree.

Sherlock never knocked, never arranged a time for meeting, never answered Victor’s messages, never rang, barely looked at Victor in between classes or passing in the hall. But sometimes Victor would return to his room, and find the other boy writing furiously in a notebook, breaking the tip of his pencil over and over in his fury. Sometimes Victor only found the discarded remains of pencils scattered by his desk, and knew Sherlock had been there. He didn’t know how Sherlock got in; he never asked, and Sherlock never told.

“You never drink the tea you make,” Sherlock had said one day, shortly before Victor left school for good. (Sherlock left not long after; Victor never learned the reason why.)

“I don’t like tea,” says Victor.

“But you make it.”

“You drink it.”

Sherlock’s eyes widened, and for a moment, the storm paused. Sherlock, standing still, was different from Sherlock, spinning furiously. He looked smaller, simpler, scared.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” said Victor, wanting to break the fear he saw in Sherlock’s eyes. It worked. Sherlock turned away, finished the tea, accidentally smashed the cup on the floor when his elbow knocked it from the table, cut his foot and the conversation that didn’t happen was forgotten. Easy to forget there was an eye in it at all.

Victor’s father visited the following week, and Victor invited Sherlock to lunch with them. There was a letter and a new employee at the house and two months later, Victor was an orphan standing in a tea field in India. When he thought of Sherlock, if he thought of him at all, he remembered the one moment when he saw the other boy standing still and staring at him in return, as if Sherlock were seeing Victor for the first time, and realizing he was another person entirely.

*

The rain stops, but Sherlock does not appear for dinner, nor for breakfast the next morning. Victor does not see him again until midday, as he inspects the fields. The ground is soppy with mud, and smells like over-brewed tea.

“You didn’t return to classes the next year.”

Victor doesn’t look at Sherlock. In uni, Sherlock had been a whirlwind, light as a feather and somehow still pressing Victor in, compacting him into a small shadow of himself, so that anything Victor had been was insignificant next to Sherlock’s own powerful presence. In the tea fields, if Victor doesn’t look at him, it is easier to pretend that Sherlock’s voice is a ghostly memory without substance.

“You know why,” says Victor, and he crouches near to the ground to examine the soil, wet as it is, and the plant which has weathered the storm. The stalks are broken; Victor isn’t sure if the plant will survive.

“Not really. There was money enough, you weren’t foolish enough to give it all away. No one at school knew the truth, so there would have been no whispers in the halls. Your leaving merely highlighted the mystery surrounding your father’s death.”

“Thank you for not enlightening them,” says Victor, and he digs his fingers into the wet ground, feeling for the roots.

Silence from Sherlock. “There was little point in it,” says Sherlock finally, begrudgingly.

Victor snorts. “Yes, keeping my secret because it didn’t serve you to tell.”

“I meant there was little point in running.”

“You would know about running,” says Victor, and doesn’t regret saying it, even when he turns to look at Sherlock’s face, and sees the thin press of his lips, the quiet cold of his eyes.

“I ran to save lives,” says Sherlock, so quietly that Victor almost can’t hear him.

“Who says I didn’t?”

Victor stood, and brushes the wet dirt from his hands. The plant might live, or it might not – but he isn’t going to uproot it on suspicion.

“And I didn’t run. I committed suicide,” says Sherlock.

“Running away is only a different kind of suicide,” says Victor. “You might not be dead, but you’re gone all the same. You have more experience with running away than I do.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“There’s a first.” Victor crouches down again and inspects one of the battered, bruised leaves. “You weren’t at university more than six months after I left. And I heard about the drugs and the arrests. You were running then. You were always running. You were probably running right before you jumped off St Bart’s, too. How’s it feel to be dead, Sherlock? To finally be able to stop?”

“So now you think I’m dead?”

“I really don’t care,” says Victor. He drops the leaf and stands. Sherlock hasn’t moved, and Victor stares him in the eye. “Does it matter what I think?”

“Yes,” says Sherlock, softly. “It does.”

Victor huffs quietly. “Why?”

Sherlock looks away, his eyes sweeping the fields slowly. “You never liked tea.”

“No, never.”

“But you hid yourself away on a tea plantation as a young man. Penance of some sort, I always thought.”

Victor shrugs. “Believe what you like. I always wondered what you were running from.”

“Maybe I was running from you.”

“Can’t run from someone who isn’t there.”

Sherlock closes his eyes. “Yes,” says Sherlock, his voice thick. “You can. You know that. You ran from your father and he wasn’t alive anymore.”

Victor knows better than to argue. And he’s caught the bitterness in Sherlock’s voice, because it tastes the same as the scent of the tea in the air.

“Who died?”

“An enemy,” says Sherlock, and he opens his eyes. “Why did you run to something you hate?”

“Is that what you did?” asks Victor, not wanting an answer. “Run to something you hate?”

“It worked for you,” says Sherlock.

Victor turns and walks away. His heart pounds in his ears, and the scent of tea fills his nose and his throat. His eyes water from the strength of it.

And then he stops and turns. Sherlock’s hands are in his pockets, half turned from Victor, still looking out on the fields.

Victor’s heart clenches.

“I might have run to something I hated,” Victor calls to him. “But I ran from something I loved, too. I don’t forget that. And you’ve never loved anyone or anything in the world, so don’t go thinking you’re anything like me.”

Sherlock’s back stiffens, just enough. Victor leaves him standing in the field, alone.

*

The rain starts again after midnight. Victor listens to the pounding on the roof, against the windows, and he rises from his bed and throws open the shutters. All he can hear is the whispering roar of rain, and the air is cool and wet against his skin. He smells the dust of the rain and the dry scent of tea in the air.

Movement, on the porch outside. Victor goes still, and waits.

“It’s not true.”

It’s impossible to see Sherlock through the rain, but Victor knows he can’t be far away, even if he’s shouting to be heard.

“What’s not true?”

But Sherlock doesn’t answer. The rain doubles in strength, its own kind of answer, and after a while, Victor closes the shutters and returns to bed.

*

In the morning, Sherlock’s bed is empty, the covers thrown back. His things are scattered around the room and the windows are wide open. There is water along the floor, where the rain came in during the night, and no sign of a struggle. Sherlock is simply gone. Victor instructs the housemaids to mop up the water and straighten the room, and he goes out to inspect the fields for damage.

The morning is half gone when he sees the man on the road that winds through the tea fields. He has a bag slung over one shoulder, and he walks with a determination that Victor half recognizes. Victor stands and watches the man come closer, picking up more and more of him with every moment. Stocky but not sedentary; strong but not buff; determined but not inflexible. Blonde, a bit sun burnt, and his legs shake, as if he’s been walking a long while.

“Hello,” calls Victor when the man is near enough to hear him, and the stranger turns to Victor, pausing.

“Hello,” he says. He’s not young, though he looks it. But his cheeks are pink from exertion and there’s an unbridled energy, a sort of nervous kinetic tick under his skin that reminds Victor of someone else. “Sorry, I - I’m looking for Terai Plantation?”

Victor’s breath leaves him for a moment, as the other man shifts his bag on his shoulder, and then he nods. “Yes,” he says. “You’ve found it.”

“Ah. Good. That’s…right.” He laughs a little, glancing around. “Not sure what to do now…”

“In that case,” says Victor, because this is what one does with visitors, “come in and have a cup of tea.”

*

John moves around the room as if he is trying to determine if it would suit him. He examines the paintings on the wall, the photographs, the view from the window. He rests his hands on the backs of the chairs, sweeps his gaze over the rugs, and finally stands near Victor and watches as his host prepares the tea. It is the exact same brew that Victor made for Sherlock, prepared in exactly the same manner.

Victor cannot decide if he likes John Watson, or likes the idea of John Watson. John’s face is quiet, stoic, self-assured, but he moves as if he has been walking so long, he can’t remember how to remain still. He reminds Victor of Sherlock, fourteen years before, except John’s energy is focused instead of manic, though the direction changes frequently.

“How do you know him?” asks John when Victor drops the cloth over the tray.

“University,” says Victor. “And you?”

John doesn’t answer. Instead, he moves back to the windows and look out onto the plantation. He stands in the same place Sherlock stood just a day before, in nearly the same position, and for just a moment, Victor thinks he understands.

“He’ll return,” says Victor, and John’s back stiffens.

“Then he’s gone?”

“He wasn’t in his room this morning. But he left his things and there was no sign of a struggle.”

John snorts. “What’s it say about us that our first thought, on hearing he’s gone mysteriously in the night, is that he was taken by force?”

“More commentary on him, I should think.”

“He’s dead, officially,” says John, and moves away from the window. He crosses to the chairs and sits for a moment, but then is up again and pacing. “Bloody wanker jumps off a building and that’s a pretty final thing. For most people, anyway.”

“Then why are you here?” asks Victor.

“Fuck me if I know,” says John, weary and wanting and nearly undone, and the tea is ready. Victor lifts the cloth and pours it out. John shakes his head when Victor lifts the sugar bowl. Milk, no sugar, but John doesn’t drink it. He holds the cup in the palm of his hand, and Victor sits on a chair and watches as John breathes in the scent of the tea. It seems to steady him.

“Took me three weeks,” says John finally. “He planned it in an hour. Took me three weeks to untangle it. Typical.”

“Typical of…”

John doesn’t answer; he gulps the tea and sets down the empty cup. “Do you know where he’s gone?”

“No.”

“Right. Wanker. Let me see his room.” John stands, not ready to accept anything but acquiescence, but there is movement at the door. Victor sees and says nothing, because there’s no point in saying anything.

There’s a moment before John realizes this, and his mouth opens first to repeat his request – and then closes as he realizes it is no longer necessary. His shoulders soften with relief, and then his back stiffens again, as his hands tighten into fists.

“John,” says Sherlock. He stands in the doorway, one hand on the doorjamb, ready for flight. His shirt is creased and worn, his trousers are stained with mud at the knees. His feet are bare – the shoes would be in worse shape, left at the door, Victor imagines, and he thinks he’ll likely never learn what Sherlock has been doing. He hopes that whatever it was doesn’t result in destroyed tea plants.

“You—” John closes his eyes, takes a breath, steels himself, and then opens his eyes again. “You’re a mess.”

Sherlock says nothing. But as Victor watches him, he sees his eyes brighten and his skin become pink. It’s as though Sherlock, previously dead, is coming back to life as they watch. His back straightens from the weary slump, and his toes press against the floor, steadying himself.

“I am,” says Sherlock.

And Victor sees it then, sees Sherlock’s lips turn up, his chest rise and fall. He sees Sherlock’s muscles twitch with renewed energy. He sees John grow steady and sure, quiet and calm, suddenly become comfortable in his own skin. He watches the two men blend themselves together, without moving a muscle, and he thinks he understands.

They say nothing else. Victor sets the cup of tea on the table and rises from his chair. Neither John nor Sherlock notice when he slips from the room, but as Victor closes the door on them, he hears them begin to speak again.

“There’s tea,” says John. “If you want some.”

“The very thing I need,” says Sherlock. The door clicks shut. Victor’s shoes echo on the floors, and he returns to his plantation and his tea.