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Paler Than Grass

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Joan knows that Sherlock is not easy to live with. In fact, of all the people Joan has lived with throughout her life, Sherlock is without a doubt the most difficult. For a lot of reasons, but especially because he avoids all the issues she sets in front of him for discussion and then shoves his nose into everything that’s none of his business.

So when Joan wakes up one morning to a text message from Jeremy, the guy she’s been dating casually for the last couple of weeks, which reads, No problem, I understand. It’s been fun, she knows that Sherlock is at fault. The text is obviously a response, but not to anything Joan has written, and every other message she and Jeremy have exchanged throughout their relationship has been mysteriously deleted from Joan’s phone.

She heads out of her bedroom, phone in hand, and soon finds Sherlock engaged in his usual morning ritual: standing in front of seven blaring TVs, gaze flickering from screen to screen.

“What is this?” she asks, standing in front of him and holding up her phone.

He doesn’t even look at her, but she knows he doesn’t need to. His peripheral vision is as sharp as his foveal. “Science-fiction film from the early 1990s on the far right, infomercial to the left beside it, sitcom rerun—”

Joan whirls around and begins to jab the power button on each of the TVs until all seven screens are black. Then she returns to her spot in front of Sherlock and brandishes her phone again.

“Please tell me you didn’t use my phone to text Jeremy and tell him I don’t want to see him anymore.”

Sherlock stares somewhere above Joan’s head, lips pressed in a thin line, as though carefully orchestrating his response. Then he sighs and throws up his hands like he’s bored of the effort. “Well you don’t want to see him again,” he says. He turns on his heels and leaves.

Joan hurries after him. “I’m sorry, what? When did I ever say that?”

“You didn’t have to. You spend little time preparing for your dates, put only a small amount of effort into your hair and makeup, and leave dressed like you’re meeting a friend for coffee, not dinner with a man you’re romantically interested in,” Sherlock says, heading downstairs and into the kitchen. “When you return—always well before nine—you’ve been kissed, yes, judging by the state of your lips and your hair, but you don’t smell of his cologne, and you show no indications of arousal or recent—”

“Remember our agreement?” Joan reminds him, loudly and quickly. “If you can’t stop yourself from making personal deductions about me, that’s fine, but I don’t want to know about them.”

“The point is, you weren’t the slightest bit interested in or attached to him.” Sherlock fetches a bowl from the cabinet and begins to pour himself some cereal. “Even now, you’re more angry that I—in your estimation—overstepped my boundaries and invaded your privacy, than you are that I ruined your relationship. In fact, we both know you were already intending on ending it; I merely hastened the inevitable.”

With that, Sherlock leans back against the countertop and shovels a spoonful of cereal into his mouth, staring at Joan like he’s just daring her to try and argue with that.

And she could, easily. “Intending” is a strong word; “beginning to consider” would be more accurate. But that isn’t the point.

“No, Sherlock, we both don’t know, and it’s not just ‘in my estimation’—you did overstep your boundaries and invade my privacy. No matter how much you think you’ve deduced about me, you are still not as familiar with my thoughts and feelings as I am. And even if you somehow were, you don’t get to act on them—I do.”

Sherlock looks away, chewing furiously, and Joan steps forward until she is firmly within his direct line of sight again.

“If you have concerns,” she continues, “or thoughts or anything about the men I date, you are welcome to talk to me like a rational adult, but you do not ever do this again.” She wiggles her phone in front of his nose, which wrinkles in displeasure. “Are we clear?”

“Quite,” says Sherlock. “Feelings, actions, talking, never again. Quite clear.”

He roots around in his cereal for a moment, spoon chinking loudly against the ceramic bowl, while she watches him patiently. She knows that he knows what she is waiting for, just as she knows that her own patience outweighs his by spades.

“Yes, all right,” he says eventually, his expression somewhere between a pout and a scowl. “I apologize.” He lifts another spoonful to his mouth and says, still chewing, “I was only trying to be helpful.”

Joan doesn’t doubt it. It’s just that Sherlock’s attempts to be helpful fail spectacularly almost as many times as they succeed.

“Next time, just double check with me that you’re actually being helpful first,” she says, in her firmest no-nonsense voice, and waits for him to nod solemnly before she turns to go back upstairs.

*

Sherlock seems to take her words to heart.

Joan’s next date is over a month later, with an accountant named Sean, whom she met on one of her morning runs. They go to dinner at a little Italian place a few blocks from the brownstone, and afterward he walks her home. She likes him all right. Not enough to be tempted to invite him in for coffee—literal or figurative—but enough that she gives him a chaste kiss on the doorstep before she unlocks the door.

Sherlock is waiting for her. Joan knows because less than a minute after she closes and locks the door behind her, he saunters downstairs, trailing one hand down the railing and taking each step leisurely, too casual to be anything but fake. He watches silently as she takes off her jacket and then steps out of her heels. The look on his face is like the one he wears when he’s solved a puzzle and is waiting for someone to ask him how he did it.

“Just spit it out,” she tells him. “Whatever it is you want to say.”

“I have concerns about your burgeoning relationship which I would like to discuss with you like a rational adult, Watson,” Sherlock says. “If you are amenable.”

“‘Burgeoning relationship’,” she echoes. “It was only one date, but okay.”

Joan bends to pick up her heels, and Sherlock steps aside quickly to allow her to pass him on her way up to her room. She hears the heavy thudding of his feet on the wood as he practically bounds up the stairs after her.

“If at all possible,” he calls, his voice much louder than necessary, “you might want to avoid becoming too attached to him.”

Joan pauses at the top of the stairs and turns. Sherlock stops a few steps down, so that he remains about a head shorter than her, looking up at her with wide, earnest eyes.

“I suspect,” he continues, “his interests might lie with a different gender than your own.”

“You think he’s gay.” Joan sighs and leans against the railing. “Why do you think he’s gay? You’ve never even met him.”

“I observed him from the window,” Sherlock says, bouncing on his feet. “He thought there was a chance you would invite him into your bed for the night, but when you kissed him outside, it became clear that you weren’t intending to. He was relieved, then angry at himself for feeling relief. It’s an unmistakable expression. You see it a lot with—”

“I’m sorry,” says Joan, “did you just admit to spying on me while I kissed my date goodnight?”

Sherlock purses his lips in indignation. “I assure you that any invasion of privacy on my part was unintentional. I heard only your shoes on the steps outside, assumed you were alone, and became concerned when the sound of your key in the lock didn’t immediately follow. When I realized what I was witnessing—”

“Right,” Joan says with another sigh. “Fine.”

“You needn’t quit seeing him, of course. The two of you are still quite capable of developing a satisfactory sexual relationship, but I would, as I said, advise you against becoming too attached to him. Serious, long-term relationships between heterosexual women and homosexual men in denial often come to very messy ends.”

Joan doesn’t know what to say—to any of it—and nearly turns to leave without further comment, but then she takes another long look at Sherlock’s eager gaze, the way he’s practically thrumming with anxious energy as he waits for a more substantial response. Positive reinforcement, she thinks.

“Thanks,” she tells him, sounding more grateful than she feels. “I appreciate you talking to me about this instead of acting on your own.”

He nods solemnly, and doesn’t follow when Joan continues to her room and shuts the door behind her.

When she meets up with Sean the following weekend, she tries not to think about what Sherlock said. Not all of his deductions end up being correct, after all, and anyway, it’s not right that her view of Sean should be altered by a five-minute conversation with Sherlock. But any attraction she’d felt seems to have been eradicated, and at the end of the night, she tells him she just wants to be friends, which he accepts easily and—she can’t help but notice—with not a hint of disappointment on his face.

*

Her friend Emily introduces her to Dylan, who is far, far from what Joan would consider her “type.” Dylan was a linebacker in college and, over ten years later, still has a linebacker’s build: over six feet tall, broad shoulders, thick biceps. His voice is loud and booming, and when he laughs in public, people turn to look at him. But when Emily introduces them, Dylan is kind and fun to be around, so Joan sets aside the idea of “types” and agrees to a second date, then a third.

On the fourth, they go to dinner, after which they are supposed to catch a play—free, courtesy of one of Joan and Sherlock’s grateful recent clients, who is one of the actors—but halfway through dinner, Joan realizes that she left the tickets at home. So she and Dylan have to rush out of the restaurant and back to the house to retrieve them.

Sherlock is in front of the computer, the police-scanner app blaring while he snacks noisily on a bag of chips. He whips around, wide-eyed, when Joan hurries into the entryway, Dylan trailing behind.

“I forgot the tickets,” she calls to Sherlock, and nearly dashes straight up the stairs, but then she remembers her manners. “Oh, right. Sherlock, this is Dylan. Dylan, this is my roommate, Sherlock,” she says. “The tickets are in my room. I’ll be right back.”

As she heads up the stairs, she hears Sherlock turning down the volume on the scanner, followed by the familiar tone of his voice. For a moment, Joan is concerned—highlights of Sherlock’s least tactful comments flash through her mind—but she forces the idea from her head. Sherlock interacting with someone for a case is much different than Sherlock interacting with people in Joan’s life; after all, Sherlock apparently still exchanges pleasant biweekly emails with her mother.

Except that when she returns, tickets in hand, the atmosphere is tense, and Sherlock is turned pointedly away; Dylan’s gaze is on his own shoes.

“All right. Ready to go?” says Joan, and they leave.

For the rest of the night, Dylan is oddly quiet, almost cold, and by the time Joan gets back to the house after the play is over and they’ve parted ways, she’s in a foul mood because of it.

The police-scanner app is still blaring, but Sherlock is seated cross-legged on the floor, an array of papers and crime-scene photos spread out in front of him. Joan steps around them to turn the volume down on the scanner, then drags the armchair closer to Sherlock.

“Cold case,” he says without looking up. “In Westchester County, but it’s quite interesting: all the evidence investigators seem to have overlooked entirely. In the 1990s a woman was found dead on a walking trail in—”

“Can we talk for a minute, actually?” Joan says. She perches at the edge of her chair and leans forward slightly. She realizes, as she watches Sherlock tilt his head to assess her, that this is the most serious of her companion-client serious-conversation poses, and if she realizes it, then Sherlock surely does too.

He slides the closest papers and photographs about a foot away from him. His shoulders are tense. “Certainly. Talk away, Watson.”

“Did you say something to Dylan earlier? When I came downstairs and after we left, he seemed… subdued.”

Instantly, Sherlock relaxes. “Ah, that. I said nothing to offend him, if that’s what you mean. I merely greeted him, offered him a seat—which he declined—and explained what I was doing, since he seemed puzzled by it. When he seemed disinclined to engage me in small talk, I went back to my work.” Sherlock drags the documents back toward him, although his attention stays on Joan. “As for his change in mood, I believe your boyfriend-to-be was taken aback when he realized I was a man.”

“What? That’s impossible; he knew who you were. I’ve mentioned you plenty of times—”

“By name or by pronoun? ‘Sherlock’ is far from a common name, so if you didn’t explicitly say ‘he’ when referring to me, he likely assumed your roommate was female, since people tend to share platonic living quarters with members of the same sex. In fact, some people would consider it inappropriate for a man and woman to live together when they are not romantically involved. Your Dylan is clearly one of them.”

Joan racks her mind for every instance she has ever mentioned Sherlock to Dylan. She can’t recall if she ever said “he” or “him,” or if she only ever referred to Sherlock by name.

After a few seconds, Sherlock continues, “In an hour or two, he’ll send you a text which subtly expresses his concerns about you rooming with a male. He’ll cloak it in humor, I imagine, which you—considering you missed the many overt signs of jealousy he displayed—will likely not see through and thus respond, in his view, badly to. In a few weeks he would accuse you directly of adulterous intentions, but I suspect his sudden possessiveness after tonight will drive you away before it gets to that point.”

With a deep sigh, she rolls her eyes to the ceiling. “You know, Sherlock, not everyone wants to know the ending of their relationship before it’s even begun.”

“Really?” he says, and Joan can’t tell if his surprise is genuine. “You haven’t ever lamented having wasted your time on a man?”

Joan tries to decide which angle to respond from—that a failed relationship isn’t a waste of time, that the strong emotional response a breakup inspires doesn’t usually make for reliable conclusions—but before she’s decided, he continues. “Don’t worry, it wouldn’t have worked out anyway. Every aspect of his body language screams not only ‘dominant’ but ‘mild sadist’ as well, and he would react exceedingly poorly to your attempts to, well, top him.”

It’s a long while before Joan brings her subsequent dates anywhere near Sherlock Holmes.

*

Martin Morstan is an English teacher at P.S. 12, and during the summers, he volunteers as a tutor for United Way. In his spare time, he says, he likes to write. He’s published a handful of essays online and in lit journals, and he runs a blog, where he writes about both his childhood when he was a ward of the state and his recent experiences as a teacher. He also collects individual packets of tea, although he prefers coffee, and he is being treated for a mild case of OCD.

“I’ve also got oral herpes, by the way,” Marty tells Joan on their first date. His leg bounces beneath the café table as he swirls the remains of his coffee in its cup. “I don’t know where I got it.”

Joan blinks, taken aback. “What, cold sores? Anywhere between 80% and 90% of the population will be infected by the virus at some point in their lives, so I’m not surprised.”

“Yeah, but I believe in being honest and upfront. You should also probably know that I had a mullet well into the 2000s, and I used to think trucker hats were cool.” He shrugs with an exaggeratedly abashed grin, and Joan finds herself smiling back.

She is smitten. She hasn’t met anyone this interesting since, well, Sherlock, really. He seems to think out loud more than talk, and following his mind from topic to topic is like searching for pieces of a puzzle and slotting them together. Plus, not only is he unfazed to learn she lives with her male friend, but he listens to stories about her and Sherlock’s cases with an expression of genuine, intense interest.

“You should write about them,” Marty encourages her, a few weeks after they’ve made their relationship official. He’s practically vibrating enthusiasm, drumming his fingers on the table. “Seriously, you’re building a collection of stories that are just begging to be written. You could start a blog. I can even set it up for you if you’d like.”

“I’ll think about it,” she says with a grimace, which makes him laugh.

Then he asks, “So when do I get to meet Sherlock?”

Joan doesn’t know what expression is on her face—she is imagining all the ways that Marty meeting Sherlock could end in disaster, and then she is berating herself, disappointed in herself, for even hesitating to introduce her new boyfriend to the man who has become her best friend—but Marty surges forward in his chair, face twisted in concern, and tries to take it back.

“I mean, I know he’s not really big on people, and if it’d make him—or you—uncomfortable, then obviously—”

“No,” says Joan. “No, he should be fine with it. I’ll talk to him.”

*

“Of course,” Sherlock agrees, before Joan has even finished articulating the question. “If you want to invite someone over, Watson, you needn’t ask my permission first. The house is yours as much as it is mine, after all.”

“Yeah,” Joan says, “I know, but… the thing is, I’d be inviting him over to meet you.”

Sherlock lowers the police report he is perusing, and considers her carefully. “Ah,” he says. “I see.”

Joan stares back, eyebrow raised, knowing exactly what he sees and willing herself not to feel embarrassed that he sees it.

“Of course, Watson,” Sherlock says finally. He lifts the police report again, blocking her view of his face entirely. “After this case. I can’t afford any distractions right now.”

*

A week later, Marty and Joan catch a film, and afterward she invites him to the house for tea.

“We don’t have much tea in bags,” Joan tells him, “but one of the ones we do have is some Earl Grey from London. It might make a nice addition to your collection. Plus, Sherlock should be home.”

Sherlock is home—and, for some reason, shirtless, standing in the middle of what looks like the scene of a tornado, train wreck, and hand-to-hand struggle all at once. Books have been removed from their shelves and strewn across the floor, amidst a mess of scattered papers, some crisp and whole, but most torn and crumpled. The computer mouse lays a good ten feet from the computer, next to a toppled kitchen chair.

“Ah,” Sherlock says when he spots them, and his face twists into the most genuinely alarmed and embarrassed expression Joan has ever seen on him. His cheeks even flush, followed by the tops of his ears. “Well. Forgive me, I was meant to be tidying up, but then I seem to have lost track of time when I became—” He spins in a quick circle, surveying the disaster. “—distracted.”

“Doing what?” Joan asks. She is very aware of Marty, standing beside and just slightly behind her, silently taking in the mess along with Sherlock.

“Research,” Sherlock answers, and seems to dismiss both the wreckage around him and his own embarrassment in favor of striding over to them, eyes on Marty, hand outstretched. “In any case, hello. I’m Sherlock Holmes, Joan’s roommate.”

“Marty Morstan,” says Marty, clasping his hand in greeting. “It’s great to finally meet you. Joan’s told me so much about you.”

“Has she?” Sherlock’s gaze flicks to Joan’s for a moment before it returns to Marty. He drops his hand. “I’ve heard quite a bit about you as well. Although—” Sherlock gestures vaguely behind him, in the direction of the computer. “—more from your blog than Joan.”

“You read my blog?” asks Marty, looking as surprised as Joan feels. She hadn’t said a word to Sherlock about Marty having a blog.

Sherlock makes an affirming sound. “You’re rather fond of adverbs, and you have an impressive comprehension of English grammar. I counted no less than three correct uses of a colon.”

Marty, to Joan’s immense relief, laughs. “Fair enough. Glad to know I impressed. I tried googling you, but the only hits I got were newspaper articles about your previous cases. I was surprised; I thought you’d at least have a Facebook.”

“I do,” answers Sherlock. “I just make it very difficult to find.” He seems to puff up a bit at the admission, like having a private Facebook profile is something to be smug about, before he offers, “Tea?”

“Please,” says Marty, but Joan feels it’s necessary to add, “After you put a shirt on.”

Sherlock blinks, then stares down at his own bare chest with wide eyes. “I hadn’t realized I was missing one. I was wearing one earlier, wasn’t I?”

“Yes,” Joan says, not sure if she wants to laugh or grimace at the way Sherlock casts his gaze around the wrecked room, searching for his shirt. She tries not to wonder what Marty is thinking.

“Right. Well. I’ll just go find another then.” And with that, Sherlock sprints toward his room, calling back over his shoulder, “Just a moment!”

After a brief, almost awkward silence, Marty says, “He’s… different.” But there’s a smile in his voice; it’s a compliment. “I like him.”

Oh, Joan recalls in a warm, happy rush, that’s right; this is why she is fond of Marty. “Yes,” she agrees. “He is.”

*

“So, let’s hear it,” Joan says later, after Marty has left and she is brewing a new batch of tea—loose-leaf vanilla and peppermint tea, this time—for her and Sherlock.

“Let’s hear what?” asks Sherlock. He’s sitting on the floor, rounding up the scattered books and papers at Joan’s behest.

“Marty.” Joan raises an eyebrow at Sherlock’s back. She can’t believe he’s not hovering around her, silently begging for her to ask him what he thinks. “Is he gay and repressed, too possessive and dominant for me, what?”

Sherlock crumples a paper in one fist and throws it into the trash bag at his side, then tilts his head so she can catch his gaze with hers. “On the contrary, by my estimation, Martin Morstan is not only heterosexual but quite interested in you in particular, and he is sufficiently submissive as well.” There is a pause, and he purses his lips, seeming to carefully consider his next words. “And I suppose his personality is… not entirely disagreeable.”

“Wow, what a ringing endorsement,” Joan says flatly, but she’s relieved and even a little pleased. It must show on her face, because after a moment, Sherlock’s lip twitches up in a half-smile as he watches her.

Then the kettle begins to whistle, and she goes back to the stove to finish making their tea, while Sherlock lowers his head again and returns to his task.

“Congratulations, Watson,” he says, voice soft. “It seems you’ve finally found a match.”

*

Joan doesn’t realize how often Sherlock texts her until she and Marty start spending more time together. He sends her ones that read, Melted measuring spoon. Don’t ask; and, UPS pckg 4u—book? In ur room; and her (least) favorite, BORED.

When Marty is cooking her dinner at his apartment one night, Sherlock texts her to say, LF new comp mouse. Logitech ok y/n??

“Does he always text you like that?” Marty asks when Joan shows him.

She doesn’t know if he means the number and frequency of texts, or the borderline incomprehensible content, but it doesn’t matter; the answer is the same.

“Yes,” she admits, “but you get used to it.”

*

During a coffee date, Joan finds herself noticing that Marty makes three slow circles in his steaming coffee with his spoon and then taps it against the rim of the cup three times before he takes his first drink. When he pulls his phone from his pocket to check the time, Joan sees that he presses the button to unlock his screen three times (unlocking, locking again, and finally unlocking) and three times again to lock it.

“Three,” Joan realizes. “Your number is three.”

“Down from twelve,” Marty agrees as he slides his phone back into his pocket. His shoulders are suddenly tense, his expression slightly pinched. Joan’s never seen him look uncomfortable before, and the sight crushes the budding of pride she’d felt at being correct, replaces it with horror at herself for blurting out something that might understandably be a sensitive subject. “Is it that obvious?”

“No,” Joan assures him. “No, god, sorry. It’s not obvious at all. I guess I just… subconsciously noticed a pattern and… deduced?” She covers her face with her palms, wishing the floor would open up beneath her chair and swallow her, and wonders if Sherlock has ever felt like this after one of his deductions. “Apparently I’ve reached the point where I’m picking up Sherlock’s bad habits.”

“Don’t worry about it. I just… don’t like the idea that it might be obvious to everyone. And let’s be honest, there are worse habits you could pick up from Sherlock.” One of Marty’s hands—warm and gentle—circles a wrist and tugs it away. He looks entirely calm again, and he smiles at her as she lowers her other hand. “You could start taking off your shirt without realizing it.”

Joan laughs and gratefully embraces the subject change. “True. Thankfully he doesn’t do that very often. Usually only when he’s been awake for 36+ hours and is determined to stay awake for at least another 24.”

Her phone chimes with an incoming text, and when she digs it out from her handbag, she’s utterly unsurprised to see that it’s from Sherlock. “Wow,” she says dryly as she opens it. “It’s almost like he timed that.”

YT? Wht does this look like 2u?

There’s a photo attached, which Joan opens. It’s a close-up of human skin with a puncture wound in the center, but the picture is too small and out of focus for her to answer in the level of detail that he no doubt wants. She can’t even say for sure what part of the body it is or how serious the wound.

Not a lot. You couldn’t get a better picture?

“Is something wrong?” Marty asks, and Joan shakes her head and shows him the picture.

“I don’t know. He must’ve gotten his hands on a new case.”

Marty squints at the screen. “What is that?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

The phone chimes again.

Pic of a pic. WWYBB?

“W-W-Y-B-B?”

“‘When will you be back’?” Joan translates, and ponders how she should respond to that.

After a moment, she decides on: I’m with Marty right now.

He probably already knows where she is, of course, but he’ll also be able to read in that one line what she doesn’t say: that she’d been hoping to stay here for quite a while longer.

“If you need to go,” Marty begins, but Joan shakes her head.

“Sometimes he gets really excited for cold cases. If that’s what this is, then there’s no rush; it can wait for a little longer.”

Her phone chimes.

W/ Bell. Nd ur med exp.

“Medical experience?” asks Marty.

Close enough, but Joan still feels like she has to correct him. “Expertise.” She deposits her phone back in her bag with a sigh. “Crap. I’m so—”

“Don’t apologize. I understand.” And he seems genuine, his smile dimmed for only a second in disappointment. “Besides, it’s getting close to the end of the school year, so I’ve actually got work to do too. Go. You can tell me about it later.”

She kisses him goodbye, standing while he stays seated so he has to tilt his head sharply up to meet her lips. She lets one hand linger for a moment on his jaw, tracing the curve with her thumb, before she finishes gathering her things and leaves.

On the street, she pulls her phone back out and quickly texts Sherlock.

I’ll be there soon.

*

“Why can’t you pick up any of my habits?” Joan wonders.

The floor is littered with cans of aerosol hairspray, and the entire downstairs smells so strongly of the stuff that Joan has to cough immediately after walking through the front door and getting her first whiff.

“You smelled it just as well as I, Watson,” says Sherlock. He’s fitting the cap back over a can of TREsemmé, which he then tosses to the side. It makes a loud and unpleasant clang when it hits the wooden floor. “It was a very distinctive and very pungent odor. I tried sampling the scents of various brands in the shop, of course, but the employees got a bit… tetchy.”

“So you bought them all.”

“Of course not.” He pops the cap off a can of Redken next, generously sprays the area three feet in front of him and closes his eyes as he breathes in. “I couldn’t carry them all. I’ll have to go back.”

“As your former sober companion, I have concerns that what you’re doing right now might constitute inhalant abuse.”

“Notice,” Sherlock answers, eyes still closed, “that I am not even stepping into the mist, Watson. I doubt I am inhaling any more of the spray than a hairdresser on an average day. Besides, I never found inhalants to be very stimulating.”

“Fine. But you stop the moment you start to feel any physical effects.”

The Redken must not be a match either; he recaps and tosses it to the side as well. Joan can’t imagine how identifying the scent of a particular brand of hairspray—distinctive and pungent though it was—is going to get them any closer to catching a killer, but she says nothing; she’s learned by now to have faith in Sherlock’s methods.

“Which of my habits have you picked up this time?” Sherlock asks, after he’s sprayed a mist of John Frieda.

“Nothing new,” Joan admits. “Just more of the same. Noticing things, minute details I probably wouldn’t have picked up on before.”

The John Frieda is discarded, but he doesn’t immediately pick up another, just looks at her with an unreadable expression. “Did someone take offense to your deduction?”

“No. I mean, he seemed surprised and a little uncomfortable at first, but then… no.”

It seems to take Sherlock a moment to digest that—making deductions of his own, probably—and then he returns to the collection of hairspray, picking up a can of Aussie. “And who,” he asks as he sprays, “says I haven’t picked up any of your habits?”

“Really?” says Joan, wryly. “Which ones?”

“Where are your newfound observational skills, Watson? Deduce it.” His grin is cheeky, and she feels herself smiling back.

“Fine.” Joan steps deeper into the room, and picks up a pen and paper from one of the bookshelves. “In the meantime, though, I’m going to write down which brands you got, and then I’ll head to the store and pick up some more.”

*

“Hairspray?” Marty says. “Really?”

“Believe me,” answers Joan, as she unlocks the front door to the brownstone, “I know. And now we have over two dozen cans of it stacked in neat little rows along one of the walls. The store refuses to take any of them back. At least the smell’s faded.”

She opens the door and waves Marty inside, then follows.

“This’ll just take a second,” she assures him, then stops when a couple steps closer to the parlor grants her a glimpse of Sherlock hanging by his arms from one of the rungs of the ladder.

No, she realizes, after taking several more curious steps: handcuffed to one of the rungs of the ladder.

“Wow,” Marty murmurs, coming to stand beside her and then quickly averting his eyes, “a little awkward.”

“Good evening, Watson, Martin,” Sherlock greets cheerily. “Don’t worry, I assure you this isn’t the slightest bit sexual. Your arrival is actually quite fortuitous. I’m testing how inconspicuously I can escape a pair of handcuffs when I am experiencing mild physical discomfort. You can tell me how obvious my escape attempts are—and perhaps take a few notes as well,” he adds to Joan, “for when you’re ready to move on to intermediate escape attempts.”

“You can get out of handcuffs?” Marty asks her.

“On the first try,” answers Sherlock, beaming with no small amount of pride. “She’s a natural.”

“Huh.” Marty looks intrigued, the sort of intrigue that makes Joan simultaneously want to blush and look away, and give him a small teasing smile.

Although not in front of Sherlock, of course, whose gaze is now sharp and considering. “If,” he says slowly, “I am interrupting your schedule for the evening—”

“You’re not,” Marty assures him, “but I do have to….” He makes a vague gesture in the general direction of the bathroom, and when Joan says, “You know where it is,” he heads off that way.

Sherlock waits a moment, presumably until Marty is out of hearing range, before he says, voice low, “I’m sorry for any discomfort finding me in this position might have caused, Watson. I was expecting to spend at least most of the night alone, if not the entire night, since you often sleep elsewhere when the two of you go out on Fridays.”

Joan braces herself for some sort of comment, and Sherlock seems startled by the reaction.

“No judgment intended,” he tells her. “It should be obvious by now that I am a proponent of extramarital sex, Watson, and if anything, I’m pleased that you—”

“I got it, thanks.”

“Ah, are you in search of a change of scenery? I can make myself scarce for the night.”

Joan shakes her head. “No, I’m just picking up a change of clothes. One of Marty’s friends is in town, and in the morning we’re going to—”

There’s a soft click, and Sherlock’s hands fall from the ladder, the handcuffs now dangling from only one wrist.

“That took a bit longer than I had hoped,” he says thoughtfully, “but I blame that on the surprise of being interrupted.” He easily unlocks the other side and holds the open cuffs up triumphantly. “Conversation, Watson, is always the most effective distraction.”

Joan can’t help but smile at his pleased little grin. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Sherlock lifts his arms again and closes one of the handcuffs back around the rung of the ladder, then just lets it hang. “Now go get your change of clothes, and have a good night.”

*

They’re on Marty’s loveseat, Joan in his lap with her knees on either side of his waist, as she sucks at his bottom lip. One of his hands palms her hip, and the other is under the back of her shirt, his thumb making slow passes up and down her lower spine.

He’s bending back for her, letting her press his shoulders into the upholstery and run her fingers through his hair, scraping lightly at his scalp while he sighs into her mouth.

When Joan hears the chime of a phone, it takes a moment to register. In fact, it’s the feel of Marty’s muscles twitching in surprise more than the actual sound that makes her pull back.

“Was that yours or mine?” she asks.

Marty swallows before he answers. “Yours. Mine’s more of a beep.”

With a sigh, Joan considers ignoring it, leaning back in, and taking Marty’s mouth again. It’s almost certainly Sherlock texting her—who else would it be after 11 on a Friday night?—and she knows that no matter how inane, how unimportant the message, it will suck at least a fraction of her attention.

But not knowing is sucking her attention even more; already the ache between her thighs is beginning to fade, and the pleasant haze in her mind beginning to recede.

“Check it,” says Marty, sounding—bless him—not even the least bit upset or put out by the interruption. “It might be something important.”

So Joan climbs out of his lap and fishes her phone out of her handbag, which is hanging from one of the kitchen chairs.

As suspected, the text is from Sherlock. It says: brown.

It knocks the air from her lungs as swiftly as a blow to the diaphragm, makes everything around her swing from sharply in to out of focus. She gathers her things and sits to put on her shoes.

“Code word,” she tells Marty, who’s watching her in concern, pale and wide-eyed. “Sherlock’s in trouble.”

More specifically, he’s at the brownstone and in trouble; Sherlock had come up with a whole rainbow of emergency text codes, but this is the first time any of them have been put to use.

“What can I do?” asks Marty.

That he asks makes her feel warm, but Joan shakes her head. “Nothing.”

She promises to call him later and rushes out of the apartment.

*

The house is silent and dark except for a single light in the kitchen. Joan does her best to slink from room to room, biting her lip to ensure she doesn’t forget herself and call Sherlock’s name and thus eliminate the element of surprise.

It’s empty, though, and she can’t tell if the mess is more of Sherlock’s usual chaos or indications of a struggle. Would Sherlock struggle? She supposes it would depend on the situation, which raises another question: What could’ve happened? To the best of Joan’s knowledge, he hadn’t been in the middle of any cases, and, although he’s probably angered enough people during previous cases to form a small army, she can’t think of any from recent ones.

She mounts the stairs slowly and then searches the upstairs, but it’s empty as well. Abduction? She should call Captain Gregson and then search the house for clues.

On a whim, she checks the roof first, and finds Sherlock seated in front of his bees, alone, not even a hint of tension in his body. He half turns at the sound of the door clicking shut behind her and looks, of all things, surprised.

“Watson?” he says. “I wasn’t expecting you back tonight.”

“You texted me,” Joan reminds him, taking one step closer. Her heart is still pounding, her muscles still tense enough that it feels like any one could snap at any second. “You were here and in trouble.”

“Ah.” Sherlock nods, but still looks puzzled. “False alarm. I thought I sent another text to inform you.”

“No,” Joan says. “No, you didn’t.”

She has to close her eyes for a moment to gather herself, to try and slow the rush of adrenaline. Sherlock texts when he goes somewhere, when he buys something, when he needs to buy something, when he makes a particularly clever leap in logic, when he’s bored, but when he needs to let his partner know she doesn’t need to rush to his defense, Sherlock forgets to text.

Joan thinks about the number of texts she gets when she’s with Marty, and suddenly a new thought occurs.

“I apologize, Watson,” Sherlock is saying, “but I’m sure—”

“Sherlock,” she interrupts, “is there something you want to talk about?”

Sherlock’s eyebrows rise, and his forehead wrinkles. “You realize that by asking that question, you are in fact telling me that there is something you wish to discuss.”

“All right, yes, there is. The texting. Until now, I’d thought that I just had never realized before how often you text me. That it was one of those things you don’t think about until someone else calls your attention to it. But it’s not, is it? You have been texting me more in the three months that I’ve been dating Marty.”

“Of course I have been. Before that, I rarely had to text you because you were always nearby.” There’s an edge to his voice, and he scrapes a palm along his jaw and averts his gaze, looking increasingly uncomfortable.

“Oh my god,” says Joan. “I’m right, aren’t I? You’re jealous.”

“Jealous?” Sherlock echoes with a smile like Joan is ridiculous, but his shoulders are hunched, his body rigid with tension. “Of what? A schoolteacher with a pretentious blog and a—”

“No, jealous that I’m spending time with him instead of you.” Joan shakes her head at herself. She can’t believe she didn’t see it before: texting Jeremy, making deductions about Sean and Dylan, and now this. “You text me knowing that I’ll come running if you need me, and you texted me tonight knowing that I’d drop everything if I thought you were in trouble—”

Sherlock stands so quickly that his chair topples backward, and Joan is so startled she takes a quick step back. But he doesn’t so much as look at her, just stands with his back ramrod straight and his eyes fixed somewhere over Joan’s head, his chest heaving with each deep inhale.

In this new position, Joan can see now that there’s a long, dark bruise on his cheek, beginning by his mouth and arcing up over his cheekbone, stopping just before it reaches his hairline. He didn’t have it when she’d seen him earlier in the evening. She can imagine at least a dozen ways he might have gotten it, and the rush of shame and regret nearly makes her sway.

“Congratulations, Watson,” says Sherlock, still staring over her head. “You have the distinction of making the most illogical statement I have had the misfortune of hearing in some time. If I, as you say, had texted you our precontrived code word without cause, simply so that you would ‘come running’, then I would have been effectively ignoring everything about your personal character that I know to be true. Specifically, you possess an acuity and talent for observation that could nearly rival my own; you would have seen through the pretense immediately. Based on that fact alone, my endeavor would have been destined to fail.”

He swallows thickly; Joan can see his throat bob.

“I realize,” he continues, “that I am, at times, petty and selfish. But there are limits to my pettiness and selfishness, and sabotaging any of your relationships for my own gain is one of them—as I thought that you knew.”

She does. Sherlock can be thoughtless and clumsy and boorish, but he has limits. “Sherlock—” she starts.

“Besides,” he says, speaking loudly over her, “you forget that I am a recovered drug addict, Watson. I am accustomed to wanting even when I know I have no chance of obtaining.”

Joan couldn’t respond to that even if she tried. Luckily, Sherlock doesn’t seem to expect a response.

“Now,” he says, and catches her gaze for a second before he looks away again, “unless you’ve something else to accuse me of, I would be grateful for some privacy for the remainder of the evening.”

Joan doesn’t even think to argue. As Sherlock rights the toppled chair, she turns and leaves, shutting the door gently behind her.

*

She goes downstairs, where her handbag still sits by the door where she dropped it. She picks it up and takes it into the kitchen, where she deposits it on the table as she drops into one of the chairs and pulls out her phone.

To her surprise, she has two unread text messages, both from Sherlock.

The first was sent seven minutes after his text of distress. It reads: False alarm!! No cause for concern. TYL!!!

The second, one minute later: Sry 4 interrupting ur evening.

Had she just not heard the chime earlier? She had been outside, she realizes, and also panicked. Between the noise of New York and the sound of her own blood in her ears, it’s not inconceivable.

Joan sets her phone down on the table and wishes she could take everything about the last thirty minutes back.

‘I am accustomed to wanting when I know I have no chance of obtaining,’ Sherlock had said. There are layers to that statement that Joan isn’t sure she wants to peel back, but she finds herself doing it anyway.

It doesn’t take her long, and once it’s bare, exposed, Joan sits back and wonders what she’s supposed to do with it.

*

She half expects Sherlock to still be on the roof the next morning, but he isn’t. He’s sitting at the computer with a bowl of cereal, and when she comes downstairs, he thrusts his bowl aside and swivels his chair around to face her. In the light, Joan can see that the wound on his cheek isn’t a bruise at all, but a cut, crusted with dried blood, a stark contrast to his pale skin. Joan sucks in a sharp breath at the sight of it. It doesn’t look shallow.

“I believe I owe you an apology,” Sherlock says solemnly.

For a moment, Joan can only stare, struggling to push past her concerns about the wound and focus on his voice. “You owe me an apology? For what? I was the one slinging unfounded accusations at you.”

“Yes, but in my defensive and somewhat emotional state, I made… certain comments which I realize might have made you uncomfortable. And for that I wholeheartedly apologize. I never intended to burden you with… that knowledge, and it is my sincerest hope that we can agree to forgive and forget everything which transpired last night.”

His expression is part grimace and part pleading puppy-dog eyes. Somehow, it’s more pitiful than full pleading puppy-dog eyes. Joan sighs and drags her usual armchair a reasonable distance away, then drops down in it with another huff.

“I owe you an apology too,” she admits, drawing her feet up onto the cushion and folding her legs beneath her. “What I said was way out of line.”

“But understandable, I suppose, given the circumstances.” Sherlock slouches further in the chair and rubs his palms uncomfortably against his knees. “After further consideration, I’ve realized the frequency of my texting might indeed be excessive. Therefore, in the future, I will endeavor to restrict myself to texting only in emergency situations—”

“No, Sherlock, it’s—” Joan says, but she can’t continue. She’s not sure that it is fine. She doesn’t want Sherlock to text her less. The idea of Sherlock reining himself in—the image of him pulling out his phone, only to reconsider and pocket it again, excitement bleeding out of him—it bothers her, and suddenly she’s not sure that that’s fine at all.

“I don’t know,” she admits. “I think… I need some time to think.”

Sherlock looks momentarily stricken, and then the expression is wiped clean, replaced with an impassive stare. He nods slowly and lowers his gaze to the floor. “Of course.”

It’s her cue to leave, Joan knows, but there’s still something else she has to deal with.

“Come on,” she says, standing. “Let me look at that cut.”

*

The cut is far less alarming up close and in the brighter bathroom light. It’s clearly a knife wound, but it’s shallower and a cleaner slice than it looked earlier. It just needs a decent cleaning and a bandage, and it should heal nicely; it might not even scar.

Sherlock sits calmly on the toilet seat while Joan works, tilting his head obediently and not even twitching when she dabs a damp washcloth along the cut’s length, cleaning away the dried blood.

“So what happened?” she asks.

“Attempted robbery.”

In her surprise, Joan presses a bit too hard with the cloth, and Sherlock grimaces at the pain but stays otherwise still. “Someone tried to rob our house? And that counts as a ‘false alarm’?”

“When I texted you our code word, I misjudged both the identity and intent of the intruder. Instead of a skilled, clever criminal seeking revenge, I found a clumsy teenager trying his hand at a new trade, and I realized your assistance was not required.”

“And yet you confronted him alone and got this,” Joan points out.

“It was a calculated risk.”

She switches out her washcloth for a cotton ball soaked in peroxide, and begins to dab at the cut with that. “You couldn’t have just called the police?”

Sherlock scoffs and casts his eyes to the ceiling. “He was a boy, Watson, and even someone with no skill at deduction would have been able to tell that he reeked of fear and reluctance. A scared boy in an unfortunate situation, desperate for a solution within his reach—he’s lucky, really, that he chose our house in which to begin his life of crime. Someone else might have simply called the police, ignored all of the potential he holds to do good things in the world…. A bit like your Martin must have been in his youth, actually, now that I think about it.”

Joan tosses the used cotton ball into the trash with a frown, and racks her brain for a time Marty has mentioned dabbling in juvenile delinquency, in Sherlock’s company or not. She opens her mouth to tell Sherlock that she can’t recall any time, but then she catches his eye, watches his eyebrows climb his forehead in surprise, and snaps, “What?”

“‘First Times’, published in the fall 2005 issue of the Harvard Review,” he says. “Not to mention he’s made passing references to his momentary brush with the criminal underbelly of New York in a number of blog entries.”

Joan should not, she knows, feel embarrassed. If anything, Sherlock should, for having looked up and read at least one of Marty’s published essays, but he stares at her without a hint of chagrin at the admission. “Ah, I see.”

She finishes her task in silence, while Sherlock watches her, his eyes narrowed in thought.

“May I ask a question?” he says when she’s done. “Does he know you haven’t read anything he’s written?”

With a sigh, Joan folds her arms across her chest and rests her hip against the sink, at a loss.

“If the woman I were dating,” Sherlock continues, “showed little interest in what I considered to be a substantial—”

“Do you need anything else?” Joan asks, pushing herself from the sink and standing straight. Sherlock shakes his head, his eyes wide and his mouth small, part disapproval and part concern. “Then I’m going to go….” She gestures toward the door.

“Of course,” says Sherlock, and she turns to leave.

*

Joan sits on her bed, computer open on her lap, and starts to read Marty’s blog. It was easy to find, a simple Google search, and Marty’s full name is right at the top of the page, above a small picture of him that looks like it was taken from a scanned and cropped photo.

‘A schoolteacher with a pretentious blog,’ Sherlock had said, and he was at least a little right; it does sound a bit pretentious. The entries are long but fragmented, and his language straddles the line between beautifully creative and poetic affectation.

Marty mentions Joan more than a few times in recent entries, always calling her simply ‘J’. He describes her hair as it tickles his cheek, her weight in his lap, and he makes her sound like some… seductive beauty. It’s flattering, and at the same time it makes her think of Sherlock, sitting downstairs alone in front of the computer, reading these same entries, seeing Joan as Marty apparently sees her. The thought makes her wince.

‘I am accustomed to wanting even when I know I have no chance of obtaining.’

She closes her laptop and sets it aside. She’s read no more than a handful of entries, but she has no desire to read any more.

Joan takes out her phone and discovers she has an unread text from Marty, sent a little over an hour ago. Hey, haven’t heard from you since last night. Everything OK? :)

She sets the phone down with a sigh. She needs to talk to someone. About Sherlock, about Marty, about herself. This might be a good time, she thinks, to try what Sherlock does: to think aloud and see what connections reveal themselves.

But if she wants to talk to someone, Joan realizes as she scrolls through her address book, her options are limited. In fact, they’re more or less restricted to Captain Gregson, Detective Bell, and Alfredo.

“Wow,” she mutters, and drops her head back with a sigh, resting it against the wall behind her. “That’s a problem.”

When she finally gets around to texting Marty back, she says: Yeah, I’m fine, but I think we need to talk.

*

When Joan returns from Marty’s, she finds Sherlock at the table with a screwdriver, in the process of dismantling the old computer mouse that Joan is sure she threw in the garbage days ago.

“I’m seeing if I can fix it,” Sherlock says, while Joan is still stopped in the doorway, watching him. “I don’t like the Logitech. I want this one back.”

“Then you shouldn’t have thrown it against the wall,” Joan reminds him. She walks past him, on the way to the kitchen. “I’m going to make some tea. Do you want any?”

“Tea would be very much appreciated, Watson,” he says, still without looking up. “Do you have a nail file and a set of tweezers that I might borrow, by any chance?”

“Check one of the inner pockets in my bag for the file. It’s by the stairs. My tweezers should be in the bathroom,” she calls back.

Joan fills the kettle and sets it on the stove to heat. After a moment, she can hear Sherlock rummaging loudly through her handbag, receipts crinkling, keys and coins chinking.

By the time the tea is finished, he’s returned with both tools and is prodding at the mouse’s circuit board with her tweezers. She sets a steaming mug on the table by his left arm and her own mug a few inches away. When she drags another chair over—beside Sherlock, instead of across from him as she might usually have done—he finally looks up from his task, blinking at her like he’s only just realized she’s home.

“You went to Marty’s,” he says. “The visit mustn’t have turned out the way you liked—you’re tense.”

“It went about the way I expected it to go, actually.” Joan slides her mug closer to her and sits quietly for a moment, breathing in the steam. “I told him I thought he and I should take a break.”

And he’d taken it remarkably well. He didn’t get angry, didn’t try to change her mind, just accepted it sadly and told her to keep in touch even if the break ended up being permanent.

The tweezers hit the table with a quiet clang, and Sherlock stares at her in growing panic and what might be horror. “I assure you, Watson, that I was being entirely truthful the other night. It was never my intention to create a rift between him and you. If your decision was influenced in any way by my actions—”

“It wasn’t,” Joan assures him, “not really.” Sherlock’s arched eyebrow asks her to explain, and she acquiesces, trying to put her tangle of thoughts, feelings, and impulses into words. “I think I might like Marty less for who he is and more for, well, what he is, I guess.”

“And what is he?”

“Someone who isn’t you and doesn’t seem to mind always coming in second.” Joan lifts her mug and takes a sip; the tea burns a little on the way down, so she sets it back with a grimace. “I realized yesterday that a lot of what Marty and I talk about is you. Well, actually, I talk and he seems happy to listen. Plus, even though I like spending time with Marty, the idea that you’ll stop texting so often and stop giving me so many opportunities to come running… isn’t a pleasant one.”

“I’m familiar,” argues Sherlock. “You’ve known me longer, and our friendship has been unique. It’s understandable if, as a result, you prefer me to him, but that will in all likelihood change as the degree of intimacy in your relationship deepens.”

“Sherlock, what have I said about you and my thoughts and feelings?”

“That no matter what I’ve deduced, I am not as familiar with them as you.” Sherlock waits for Joan to nod in satisfaction before he continues. “Watson, if you’ve ended one relationship with the intention of entering into another one, with me, then you must understand that I am not good with… romance. In fact, a number of your needs would likely go unmet, as it is not in my nature to—”

“Sherlock, I’m not saying that you and I should date.”

Sherlock’s mouth snaps shut so forcefully that Joan’s almost surprised she can’t hear his teeth clack. Then his brows knit, and a hint of disappointment flickers across his features. “Ah, my mistake,” he says, pressing his lips into a thin line and turning away.

The sight gives Joan the extra push she needs to add, “Not now, anyway,” and Sherlock spins back to her, perking up like a dog who’s just heard the squeak of his toy. After a deep breath, Joan continues, “First thing tomorrow, I’m going to start looking into getting my medical license back.”

She’s not entirely sure what reaction she’s expecting—although she gets a flash of Sherlock’s sad, sad eyes when she’d initially told him she’d accepted a client after him—but it’s certainly not Sherlock positively beaming at her.

“What?” she asks. “You’re not… disappointed?”

“Of course not,” Sherlock answers. “Why should I be? This is excellent for you. Your return to medicine means returning to the field you love. It will also be the first step in building a life outside of me and my work.”

Joan’s stare no doubt becomes incredulous, and, seeing it, Sherlock rolls his eyes, though his enthusiasm doesn’t dim in the slightest. “You’ve just told me, Watson. You realized your attraction to Martin Morstan was due in part to the fact that he is not me—hence, part of you subconsciously desires something in your life that is not me. Being the ‘rational adult’that you are, you recognized the unhealthy relationship dynamic for what it is and now seek to remedy it.”

Sherlock pauses what has become a rattling monologue to suck in a breath, and then continues. “Besides, after you have your license again, I’ll be able to introduce you as ‘Dr. Watson’ during our investigations, which will garner us a certain degree of respect and trust. People tend to trust and respect doctors, after all, simply based on their title. So, really, Watson, I see no reason why I should respond to your decision with anything other than ardent encouragement.”

Put like that, Joan can’t remember why she expected him to respond otherwise either. She smiles at him, enjoying the way he seems to glow and preen at having inspired her smile. Then she brings her mug of tea to her lips and takes a hesitant sip; it’s cooler now and doesn’t burn. “Drink your tea,” she orders, “before it gets cold.”

He obeys happily, still grinning, and they sit quietly for several seconds.

“So you’ll get your license back,” Sherlock says, cradling his mug in both hands and watching her almost coyly over the top of it. “And then what?”

“And then,” Joan answers, slowly, “we’ll see.”

The look Sherlock gives her—warm and adoring—is as good as a physical touch. He might as well lean over the distance between their chairs and lay his head on her shoulder. Joan hopes that the look she gives him back is as good as resting her cheek on the top of his head.

They finish their tea in silence.