John was beginning to question the science of dating websites.
Amelia had been a 93% match — she was a sweet-faced, willowy doctor appreciative of 19th century novels and 21st century true crime television — and still she had dashed from the restaurant before the entrée could arrive. She was the third this month alone.
John racked his brain for a reason. The restaurant was a nice place, modest but nothing to scoff at — he’d been with Sherlock several times, and the waiters were obliging and agreeable. He’d worn the jumper Sherlock had once declared “not the most hideous thing ever to have offended my eyes.” He’d opened doors, listened intently, dispensed compliments he’d divined through Sherlock’s methods as the ones she’d most enjoy. He thought conversation had been going pretty well — the Lake District, the RAMC, the latest case — and Sherlock hadn’t even found it in his busy lounging schedule to perform a long-distance cockblock. Nothing had gone wrong, and thus John had to conclude that the website’s matching software was hopelessly flawed.
He trudged up the stairs to 221B and pushed the door.
“I think I’ve got to change websites again,” he announced as it swung open. He paused when he saw not one set of pales eyes turn to dissect him on the spot but two. “Ah.” He valiantly reined in a sigh. “Mycroft. Hello.” He glanced at Sherlock, who looked in that moment like nothing so much as a startled rodent. He didn’t even do a cursory sweep of John’s person — the usual deductions. John frowned before taking a seat beside him on the sofa, since Mycroft occupied John’s usual chair.
“John, how lovely. You have the most impeccable timing.” Mycroft’s smile was the typical oily affair. He fondled his umbrella even as he tucked his chin inward and drew breath to speak. “It is our mother’s seventy-fifth birthday do next week — I hope you can convince my recalcitrant brother to do the proper thing and attend such an auspicious event. You are, of course, personally invited.” He leaned over, plucked an envelope from Sherlock’s lax fingers, and handed it to John.
In green ink and flowery script were his name and Sherlock’s, flowing together like a single, calligraphic entity.
“Mycroft,” Sherlock said, voice like whiplash. “Don’t you have any monarchies to topple?”
Mycroft exhaled through his nose and stood to loom imperiously over the both of them.
“Do consider it, Sherlock. She does so like to see you.” He pinned John with an icepick gaze and nodded once. “John.” He turned his back and left the flat. In a whirl of silken dressing gown, Sherlock was up and slamming the door behind him.
“That utter bag of anuses!”
“That what?” Unbidden, a giggle escaped John’s gullet.
“You heard me!” Sherlock whipped back around and pulled his dressing gown tight around himself. He drew himself up to his full height and attempted to gain back his dignity, but John saw the flush high on his cheeks and the vertical cast of his lawless hair. “That sphincter emporium is trying to manipulate me through guilt like a rank amateur. Who does he think he is? Who does he think I am? Guilt, John! Me! Ha!” With that, he fell twirling back into the sofa, his big, ridiculous skull colliding with John’s thigh. John winced, but Sherlock gave no indication of having caused or incurred injury.
John pursed his lips. “Yes, I can see that it’s not working at all.”
Sherlock popped up to look John in the face.
“Are you being sarcastic? You’re being sarcastic. Tedious.” He threw himself face first into John’s lap, arm dangling over the edge of the sofa like a picturesque consumptive. John rolled his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest, which resulted in his elbow resting on Sherlock’s head. Sherlock squawked but made no attempt to extricate himself.
“Are you going to tell me why you won’t go to your mother’s seventy-fifth birthday, Sherlock? Because if it’s just to be contrary, I’ll have to inform you that I’m perfectly capable of rendering you unconscious and presenting you to your poor mother with a big red bow on.”
Sherlock was up again, and now his face was so close to John’s that one deep breath from either of them would have sent their noses into collision. John could have catalogued all the colours in the freckle in Sherlock’s right eye.
“John. You mustn’t make me go. You mustn’t.” Bony fingers curled hard around John’s wrists. Narrow eyes had transformed into wide pools of imploring adorability.
“Now who’s an amateur?” John shoved at him. “Don’t sham me, Sherlock — I see right through you, you know.”
Sherlock’s eyes shuttered and his mouth turned downward into a mathematically perfect arc.
“Fine,” he said. “Fine. But John, I’m being serious. I can’t go to Mummy’s birthday. I just can’t.”
John shifted to see Sherlock better. He took in the unhappy mouth, the gaze trained not on his eyes but on his forehead, the deepening furrow between Sherlock’s eyebrows.
“Hey,” he said softly. “What’s wrong?”
Sherlock turned from him and slouched backwards into the cushions.
A sigh. “It’s not what you think.”
“Then what is it?”
Sherlock sighed again and closed his eyes. “Oh, John. You care far too much, and it absolutely pains me not to exploit it.”
John had some choice words about Sherlock’s version of not exploiting him, words about the laundry and the tidying and the pouty lip, but before he could get them out, Sherlock continued.
“No, I wasn’t abused or neglected or otherwise traumatised by my mother or anyone likely to be at the party. Other than by the simple fact of being related to Mycroft, of course.”
John clenched his jaw. “And yet you deliberately led me to that conclusion. Why?”
Sherlock looked everywhere but at John. “I don’t want to go, John.”
John huffed and stood.
“I’m making tea — Lady Grey, thank you very much, and you can’t have any because you’re a turd.”
In the kitchen, John was banging around preparing the tea when Sherlock sidled up to him.
“Sherlock, honestly. I’ve been ditched on a date for the billionth time and I just want to relax without my flatmate using me as some kind of elaborate social experiment for once. Can I have that? Can you give me that, please?”
“I’ll help you change your dating site profile. You’ll attract women who are less dull.”
John turned to level an unimpressed look at him.
“In exchange for what?”
Sherlock pressed his lips together.
“In exchange for what, Sherlock?”
“For ringing Mummy and telling her you’re terribly sorry but neither you nor I can make it.”
John turned back to his tea and poured a splash of milk into it. He pushed past Sherlock and made his way back into the lounge, where he settled into his usual chair. Sherlock trailed after him, then stood awkwardly to the side of John’s seat.
“Unless you can give me a good damn reason, Sherlock, then no, I’m not doing that, and yes, I am making you go see your mum on her birthday.”
“She thinks we’re dating.”
John gaped at him and tipped half his tea into the carpet. He swore, and before he could even get up, Sherlock had swept out and then back in, rag in hand to cover the spill.
“So you see now,” he said. “Why we can’t go.”
“Jesus Sherlock! Why the hell does she think we’re dating?”
“She thinks we’re affianced, actually.”
“Oh my God!”
Then, all protests to the contrary, Sherlock looked guilty. He fidgeted, dressing gown belt worried between his fingers, preposterous toes wiggling away into the Oriental rug.
“You told her. You bloody well told her we were together, Sherlock, why?”
“I had to!” He dropped to his knees and put his hands on John’s armrests, effectively trapping him. He was close again, eyes big again, mouth wet and pursed again. “She —” He dropped his voice and leaned in even farther. “She cried at me, John. She despaired of my being alone. I couldn’t bear it. I did the only thing I could.”
“To spare her! Don’t find some arbitrary point on your moral compass from which to condemn me on this one, John, because I will never believe you’d do differently.”
John rubbed his eyes and left his hand to cover them. He hissed a breath out from between clenched teeth before dropping his hand again.
“I would have made someone up if I absolutely had to, Sherlock.”
“I live with you.”
“I bring you along on cases.”
“You make my bed.”
“For fuck’s sake.”
“It made the most sense. It was the most convenient explanation. Making up an imaginary boyfriend who also tolerates me would be too easily spotted as a ploy, John. It had to be you. It had to.”
John blinked into Sherlock’s face. Soon he had a frown to match the one he saw there.
“I don’t tolerate you, Sherlock,” he said. He cleared his throat and drew up all his nerve. “You’re my best friend.”
Sherlock held his gaze for a fraction of a second before he rocked back and stood in one fluid, enviable, hateful motion.
“Then you know,” he said. “You know how unlikely it is for there to be anyone else. She’s not stupid, John. You’ll call her, then?”
John stared up at him. He took in the tense shoulders, the singular eyes, the strange, dear face in that strange, dear skull. The layers of hurt he refused to acknowledge.
“You love your mother, Sherlock?”
John watched the muscles in Sherlock’s jaw jump. He nodded in one sharp jerk.
“Then we’re going to her party and making her happy.” John let out a resigned sigh. “As a ruddy couple, you bastard.”
Sherlock stared at him, and then said, “John. It’s not just a party.”
John groaned. “Christ, Sherlock. What now?”
“It’s five days’ travel. Anywhere she wants to go, with anyone, which includes Mycroft. Mycroft, John.”
It was John’s turn to stare.
“You owe me a lot more than a profile-revamp, Sherlock.”
“John. I appreciate your offer…”
“Does it physically hurt you to say that?”
“…but you don’t have to do this. You can say you have a job, she’ll never know you’re technically unemployed and haven’t actually done—”
“Yes, Sherlock, all right, I get the picture.”
Sherlock issued a gruff, exasperated little sound and John could see him just barely contain the stomp of his foot.
“John — I’m trying to be kind. You could help me out.”
John’s mouth twisted into half a smirk.
“Not a chance,” he said. “Now sit down and tell me what our story’s going to be.”
Sherlock sat, but his eyes bored so hard into John’s that John considered checking for dents or third degree burns or some other kind of impact injury.
“Our story,” Sherlock said faintly.
John took a cleansing breath and then a sip of his tea.
“How we got together, what we like to do in our spare time, general couple stuff. It has to be convincing, and Mycroft will probably need, I don’t know, a memo in triplicate about it if he’s going to help with the ruse. Which I assume he is, considering how he postured like an obnoxious peacock in here.”
“Peacocks are spectacular to look at, John, you should work on craft of metaphor.”
John snorted. Half of Sherlock’s mouth quirked up in one of his particular, peculiar smiles.
“I’m serious, Sherlock. We go in a united front or this whole thing falls apart.”
Sherlock looked intently at his nose. When he took a deep breath and opened his mouth, John knew he was in for it.
“Getting together’s easy — it happened within two months of meeting and was a natural progression of our living as flatmates. I hurried the process along by going nude beneath my dressing gowns because I liked you but I have poor flirtation skills — something we turned into one of those annoying private jokes couples have — and finally you took pity on the both of us and ravaged me most thoroughly. When we’re not out on cases or conducting experiments or doing up your little blog, we enjoy a reasonably adventurous sex life and non-British food and deducing passersby and exploring hidden places in London. You proposed to me over bibimbap one night after closing a case and I accepted, but we’re both quite committed to having a long engagement. You watch crap telly and you think I enjoy it secretly but really I’m just humouring you, which I’m willing to do now but monogamy tends to beat such things out of one, so don’t expect it to go on for much longer. I pore over your old textbooks looking at medical oddities and you pretend it irritates you but really you find it rather charming even though you’re the one who will have to put the books away later, and monogamy never quite manages to beat that out of you.” Sherlock blinked, and John clapped shut his hanging jaw. “Is that sufficient?”
John tried to keep his mouth from further flapping. He set his tea down and glared.
“No!” he said. “You lose interest in ten years but I still moon about after you like a pathetic lapdog? No, if we’re going to make up some kind of fantasy togetherness narrative anyway, we might as well both be delirious on oxytocin for-bloody-ever. You are gone on me, Sherlock Holmes, and you’ll bloody well act it. And! I get to be narked about your socks on the floor and how you never do the washing up and the residue your experiments leaves wherever you happen to conduct them and the nature of your farts every time we eat at that one place by the dentist’s office—”
“Don’t deny it!”
“Fine, but what about you and that place with the waiter who didn’t know his parents were on the verge of divorce? You’re like a malodorous one-man symphony!”
They were locked in a moment’s mutual scowl before they both dissolved into a fit of giggles. An eternity later, still choking on the remnants of his laughter, John said, “You know, I think we might actually be able to pull this off.”
“We’ll never convince anyone of our mutual devotion if you spook at my touch like some kind of ill-tempered Shetland pony, John.” Sherlock pulled his hand closer to his face, inspected the tips of his fingers, made a considering sound.
“Oi! Why am I a Shetland pony?”
“Shut up I’m memorising your fingerprints.”
John saw it as if in slow-motion — the tender pink tip of Sherlock’s tongue emerged from his mouth and made contact with the pad of John’s index finger.
John yanked his hand back.
“Okay, you definitely don’t have to memorise the taste of them,” he said. “Jesus, Sherlock.” He wiped his hand on Sherlock’s shirt and sent him a sour look.
Sherlock rolled his eyes — John had catalogued many of Sherlock’s eye rolls, and this one was, “It’s not my fault you don’t understand science, simpleton.” John flicked Sherlock on the ear and got an offended grimace in return for his efforts.
“Do you even know what kinds of substances the human tongue can detect?” Sherlock asked. “And its sensitivity, its capacity for detecting nuance —”
“Stop right there.” John held up a hand and raised his brows. “Are there any circumstances under which your mother would need to know what my fingerprints taste like?”
Sherlock was still for a matter of seconds.
“At least thirty-seven. Wait! Forty-one.”
“Are any of them likely to occur on our trip?”
Sherlock pinched his lips together, eyes shuttering.
“I thought so,” John said. “Okay. Just. Sit there and hold my hand and don’t be so you about it.”
Sherlock did. John stared at their hands entwined, pale and long and slender around his own, worn and square and callused. He wondered if Sherlock moisturised.
“Of course,” Sherlock said into the silence. “Dry skin is so uncomfortable.”
“Maybe we should try a cuddle with the telly on.”
“There’s nothing good on.”
“A film then.”
“Well, what do you propose then, if you’re so full of good ideas?”
“We should find Lestrade and hold hands during a case.”
“Why not? Couples do that — I’ve seen them. Doing basic activities, only hobbled by the irrational need to claim physical ownership over another person’s body. It’s perfectly normal.”
John used his free hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. He used a breathing exercise Ella once told him he should try.
“We’re putting the show on for your mum, Sherlock, not all of Scotland Yard.”
Sherlock pulled John’s hand closer. John opened his eyes to find Sherlock inspecting his knuckles now. He turned his hand over to squeeze Sherlock’s, and Sherlock looked up. John lifted one corner of his mouth in half a smile.
“They’d take the piss. And we’re just trying to do something nice for your mum. It’s for her, not them, do you see?”
Sherlock dropped his eyes and nodded.
“I suppose,” John went on, “for the next few days, the best plan of action is just to get used to being near each other like this so it doesn’t seem forced when we’re with her. That’s all. No one’s expecting us to plaster ourselves all over each other. We’re English, and we’re men, after all.” Even if we’re playing gay, John thought. Well. Even if I’m playing gay.
“When Mycroft was seventeen and terribly spotty, Mummy somehow got a photograph of him kissing a girl from town. She distributed it gleefully with the Christmas cards.”
John felt the conflicting needs to laugh and to crawl somewhere dark and hidden.
“Bloody hell, why?”
Sherlock let go of his hand and flapped his own about dismissively.
“Oh, she thought it was sweet and wanted everyone to know. And then she found a formula of some sort and forgot about it. Mycroft was summarily dumped, though, that was hilarious.” He stood and whirled about as if trying to find something. “John! If we arrange a similar picture and gift it to her in advance, maybe she won’t lurk about with her cameras trying to catch us unawares!”
“Oh my God.”
“We’ll make it quite soppy, too, she’ll like that.”
Sherlock darted into his bedroom, and John heard the rustling of a man trying to find a camera amid God knows what else was in his closet.
“Sherlock!” John called. When he got no answer, he went over there and hovered in Sherlock’s doorway. Sherlock was on his knees before the closet, half inside and rummaging. John rolled his eyes to see Sherlock’s trouser-clad bum bobbing about with the effort. “You can forget it. I’m not…fake making out with you for a picture.”
Sherlock popped up, hair a mess.
“But John! She’ll find a way. She always finds a way.”
“Mycroft came by his predilection for spying honestly, then?”
“John.” A trembling lip.
“Sherlock.” John held up his hands as if to ward off from the big imploring eyes Sherlock was trying to manipulate him with. “It’ll be much more convincing if it happens organically, if she can see real evidence of us… being like that and put it together herself. Giving her a picture is far more suspicious than it is convincing.”
Sherlock dropped the look and stood, suddenly himself again.
“Your logic astounds,” he said.
Sherlock began to pace.
Sherlock snapped his fingers.
“I know just the thing,” he said. “Matching underwear!”
“Just a bit, peeking out from our trousers; it implies intimate his and his shopping excursions. So simple — so elegant.”
“There’s nothing elegant about pants, Sherlock.”
Sherlock’s face screwed into a scowl and he threw his hands up.
“Well what then? For a serial monogamist you’re not bringing much to the table here, John. Why do your girlfriends put up with you?” He flapped a hand and scrunched his nose.
John flushed. This entire, preposterous endeavour… What was once funny now felt like something heavy and hot in his stomach. Sherlock was the one always interrupting John’s dates, driving his girlfriends away, deducing them into the Stone Age. Sherlock was the reason John hadn’t had sex in at least six months. Sherlock was a presence that loomed so large there was room for nothing else in John’s life.
“I wouldn’t know, since you make damn sure I never have any!” John whirled around to stomp up the stairs and into his own bedroom, where he could slam the door quite dramatically, but he was yanked backward before he could enact his plan and enveloped in a surprisingly warm though unsurprisingly bony embrace.
“How about this?” Sherlock said low into his ear. Without his volition, John’s body sagged into the hug. Sherlock smelled good — a familiar smell that hung about the flat, but one to which John had never quite been so up close and personal. It was nice. Warm. Uncomplicated. He fit perfectly into Sherlock’s shoulder. He struggled a bit in the circle of Sherlock’s arms, but it was mostly for show. “We can do this,” Sherlock whispered. “We can put on a proper show, like this.”
John turned to face Sherlock and his arms came up loosely around him. “And then afterward you’ll fix my profile and promise not to be a shit to the girls I take out.”
Sherlock released him, brow furrowed, scrutinising.
“If you like,” he said.
John cocked his head, but suddenly that expression was gone and Sherlock bounced from heel to toe and clutched at John’s shoulders, a madman grin stretching his face. One of his shamming expressions.
“Practice kissing!” he said.
John blew a raspberry at him and ran away.