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He was blond, but otherwise the man was nothing like John.

Tall, when John was short. Muscular in an athletic, showy way, whereas John kept his surprisingly-powerful physique hidden away under ridiculous jumpers. Outgoing, gregarious, touching Sherlock’s hand over the café table to make his point. John had often smiled at people, yes. He’d been more extroverted than Sherlock, but that wasn’t much of a concession to anything. However, John hadn’t told long – and clearly-rehearsed – stories meant to entertain Sherlock, to catch and hold his attention. John had had Sherlock with a glance. With a cup of tea and an affectionate, offhand, “You idiot.” At least that’s how it had been, before the Fall.

Sherlock shook his thoughts away.

Philip was still talking: this handsome, fit man, his hair swept back with more product than even Sherlock would ever use, telling a clever, amusing (many-times-told-already) tale about an experiment gone awry in a university physics lab. It was the third time they'd met this week. Why hadn't Sherlock rebuffed him yet? He wasn’t John.

Yet Sherlock found him oddly compelling, just the same.

The man paused in his storytelling, waiting for a response. For a millisecond Sherlock halted the cataloguing taking place in his brain, rewound the conversation (monologue) until he pinpointed what was required of him, and answered with the barest of hesitations: “So he neglected to rotate the chamber to ‘closed’ on the air gun he was using to measure the Rutherford Scattering? I can see how that would be a problem…”

Philip nodded, smiled even more broadly, and continued, not realizing that Sherlock was barely paying attention, only the most insignificant fraction of his mind engaged. No one noticed, usually, that Sherlock was taking mental snapshots, sorting and filing information, analyzing in the moment, deciding what to save and what to synthesize later – if he even needed to return to it. No one noticed besides John, of course. John was always the exception.

And John was gone. He’d been gone for years.

The man – Philip – reached out and touched Sherlock again. Typically no one touched him (no one except John, Sherlock’s traitorous thoughts reminded him, again), or, at least, no one touched him more than once. His usual reaction was to pull back, to cut the person off, to cut them with his words or to snarl his displeasure. But this man prompted none of those reactions. Sherlock watched, almost dissociated from the scene, as the man’s hand stroked Sherlock’s forearm and wrist through his suit jacket. Why was Philip touching him again? And why was Sherlock not recoiling in anger or disgust? For some reason he couldn’t answer that in the moment. Too much sensory data flooding his system? He filed all the information away to analyze, later, at his leisure.

“…and, as I always tell my students, the moral of this story is, ‘Keep your limbs out of the scattering apparatus!’” Philip finished, squeezing Sherlock’s arm in emphasis.

“Amusing,” Sherlock said. He meant it. He found the man vaguely amusing. Faintly appealing. Why was that?

Perhaps it didn’t matter. Perhaps what mattered was the fact that this man was looking at Sherlock with the kind of affectionate understanding that no one since…no one ever looked at him with. Anymore. Perhaps this man would be a friend. So Sherlock told a story to the man, not even as grudgingly as he’d though he would. “That reminds me of a time when I was measuring the diffraction levels of the microwave and had a…slight mishap with the klystron transmitter…”

Philip laughed in all the right places. He continued to touch Sherlock. Repeatedly. And when Sherlock was done telling about the explosions and the mess and the resulting histrionics of his landlady, Philip shook his head and said, “I really don’t want to go but I’m going to be late for my office hours! This has been great. I mean it, Sherlock. Thanks so much for meeting me again. Would you maybe…would you like to come over to my place for dinner on Saturday? I’m a decent cook. Not that you eat much, I know…”

A friend. Someone to break the monotony of alone with his thoughts. Someone who could – perhaps? Would it be possible? – disrupt the constantly-spinning cycle of missing John, wishing for John, I hate myself for losing John.

A friend. So Sherlock said, “Yes. All right.” And even, then: “Thank you.” Because he had learned a few things, after all, since John.