Victor was the first to coax desire out of Sherlock, one evening as the autumn term drew to a close.
‘God I hate Kant,’ Victor groaned, glaring at the computer screen and his philosophy paper. He adjusted his glasses, leaving fingerprints all over the lenses. Sherlock, sprawled on Victor’s bed with a chemistry book, smiled at this.
‘I thought you loved Kant,’ Sherlock said. ‘He made you rapturous. His moral vision was impeccable –’
‘Oh shut the fuck up Sherlock,’ Victor said, not without affection.
Sherlock listened to Victor fret and type. Sherlock lay parallel to the radiator, heat steaming over the window. Outside, he saw the blurry outlines of buildings, university campus empty as the leafless trees. Everyone was shut up with their end of term exams and papers, or had already gone home for the holidays.
Victor’s bed was the standard student pallet, laid over a crude frame. Too slender for a single student to lay comfortably upon, much less with two, or more, as the case may have been.
Coupling, Sherlock mused, turning the page. It was something of a practice for other people. Something he’d never acquired a knack for. He understood it, of course.
Biologically, heterosexual bonding and mating was required for the survival of the species. Though, Sherlock would argue that some people who had children were, in fact, actively contributing to the destruction of the species. He could think of very many people this would be true for. Victor would have chided him, saying he was getting into a ‘eugenics’ argument, so best not.
Psychologically, bonding and mating seemed to satisfy some people. If satisfaction was landing a mate one could have uninspired, insipid sex with for the rest of one’s life. Or being attached to someone who liked to hurt, with hands or words. Or simply pairing off because mummy and daddy would adore it and society radiated with messages about its absolute necessity. Or because it was too hard to feel alone.
Physically, there seemed to be some benefits, but that wasn’t conclusive.
People even used God and spirituality to justify coupling. Sherlock found that most irrational, if only because – if there was a God – Sherlock didn’t think God gave a fuck who fucked who or why.
But as he would later do to corpses, Sherlock took each reason, each argument that could be used to justify the idea of ‘coupling’, examined it closely, then tagged it and put it away when he was done with it. Sherlock, then twenty-two, was satisified immensely in thinking that he had escaped them all.
He turned the page again, basking in this triumph. He became aware of how Victor’s bed smelled like Victor. Musky, with a hint of his soap and the cheap cologne he wore out to the pubs. He’d worn it less since Sherlock complained about it. But Victor’s scent was familiar. Like the sigh after a long, hard day.
Victor made a frustrated noise and Sherlock looked at his friend. He wasn’t handsome, by any means, with that shaggy brown hair, awkward chin and nose. But his mind, Sherlock knew, flowed like quicksilver and his laughter was like the first buds of spring. These things, combined with the smell of Victor and his currently fret-some presence, glowed in Sherlock. A hot, incandescent point. If Sherlock were interested in astronomy, he might compare it to a supernova. It had been flickering and steadily growing in him for months now. Ever since the day Victor approached Sherlock at the end of their philosophy class, declaring his love of the subject, even as Sherlock growled about how he despised it.
But because he had not felt this before, he hadn’t recognized it, couldn’t. He had no data to compare it to. It was something new and though he liked new things, he wasn’t sure about this one. It made the whole world tilt a little.
Victor was looking at him.
‘You look – a bit paler than usual.’
‘Alright,’ Victor turned back to his computer. ‘But if you’re sick, you’d better not give it to me.’
‘I don’t think I’m sick,’ Sherlock said, half to reassure himself.
That night, in spite of his own unease, Sherlock decided to conduct an impromptu experiment. Victor, engrossed in his paper, didn’t seem to notice, or, didn’t protest when Sherlock yawned and pulled his long, slender body underneath the covers.
At 2.56 am Victor gave up on finishing his paper. Sherlock, feigning sleep, pretended to wake as Victor pulled the covers back.
‘Move,’ he said. He looked ragged. Sherlock squeezed against one edge of the bed. Victor slid in. It seemed like a very long time before Sherlock’s heart stopped skittering or that he could breathe. He realized he enjoyed the sensation of being pressed next to Victor, the closeness of him. He could feel Victor’s breath on his throat.
Sherlock put his arm around Victor as he slept. His excuse was that he kept Victor from rolling out of the bed and onto the floor.
At 6 am, not precisely by Greenwich Meridian Time, Victor’s alarm went off. He mumbled something about finishing his paper. But he lingered for half an hour, stroking Sherlock’s pitch hair.
Victor cupped Sherlock’s face in his hands, stubble scraping. They were kissing. Sherlock gaped and fumbled. Victor laughed.
‘What?’ Sherlock demanded.
‘Had much practice?’ Victor said, putting his arm around Sherlock. The possessiveness, the tenderness of the gesture made Sherlock feel briefly, unexpectedly, lightheaded.
‘No,’ Sherlock huffed. He could have added: ‘You’re the first.’ But instead he grabbed Victor by his exquisite angora jumper and kissed him again.
It was still another month before Sherlock thought sex an approachable idea. Victor was, as usual, entirely alright with letting Sherlock dictate their pace. Sherlock ended up dictating it quite enthusiastically sometimes, which shocked him. It didn’t stop shocking him, in fact, even after he and Victor had been together for nearly a year.
To say Sherlock disliked women was redundant. Women were people and Sherlock disliked people in general. Ergo, disliking women was not a special feat, or remarkable, or out of character.
Women did not especially strike him, either. He knew he could feel the occasional attraction for men, given the right set of circumstances. Usually those circumstances seemed to hinge on the other man possessing both intellect and a certain brightness of spirit that Sherlock admired.
But Irene was different. Something new.
Sherlock had thought it would be easy to make Irene reveal her secrets. He’d examined the evidence and concluded she was not just an open and shut book, but a slender one (metaphorically speaking). Simply the ex girlfriend of an acclaimed film producer. An ex girlfriend who wanted to keep having her fifteen minutes of fame through blackmailing the producer as his wedding approached, of course. The producer, who had hired Sherlock, claimed she had some kind of scandalous photos in her possession. Probably pornographic in nature, Sherlock had mused. Petty motives, petty desire, petty relationships. He would find Irene, find where she kept the photos, collect them and delete any copies from her computer, her phone and her camera. The producer would pay him and John would be pleased to have extra milk money for the month.
It did not turn out this way. She’d slid from Sherlock’s grasp – his keen mind – so easily – vanishing with the photos. She left a few mementos and her presence in Sherlock’s memory, like the lingering scent of her rosy perfume.
On reflection, it made Sherlock laugh. He laughed about it for hours, in fact, chuckling in that dark baritone.
‘What’re you going on about?’ John asked him once. Sherlock sprawled on the sofa and John sat in the easy chair, reading a newspaper.
‘The Woman,’ Sherlock replied. John smiled and rolled his eyes.
‘You would. She made a right fool of us.’
‘Yes. She did make a fool of me,’ Sherlock smiled. As he did, a supernova blossomed inside him again. It was not as wild or as vibrant as Victor’s had been, but it was bright enough, strong enough to be noticeable.
John studied Sherlock for a moment.
‘Should I be jealous?’
‘Possibly,’ Sherlock said.
He didn’t tell John; John wasn’t the jealous type. But this felt personal, private, and alone to Sherlock. Something he wanted to keep for himself. He had her photo and her note, addressed My Dear Mr. Sherlock Holmes, tucked away in an old copy of The Critique of Practical Reason. Sometimes at night when he didn’t sleep, he padded quietly to his bookshelf, drawing out the photo and the note. He would sit in the easy chair and study both for hours. Ran his sharp eyes over the delicate lines of her face. Appreciated how she wore that multicolored dress with conviction, despite the fact, he guessed, she’d been teased and chided about her weight for years. Adored her knowing smirk, green eyes flashing and cat-like as she turned towards the camera. Shaking his head to himself, he read and re-read the note. It was written in an acrobatic, soaring hand, black ink. He traced the words Very truly yours over and over, until the paper became translucent as onion skin.
It wasn’t as good as speaking with her would have been. It wasn’t as good as interrogating her, dissecting her, cracking open her mind and learning what she thought about God and chemistry, about philosophy and humanity, or telling her how much he admired her; but sometimes it was enough.
Six. Sherlock tried to calculate that in his mind. Of course it wasn’t that much. It wasn’t a number like pi, for instance, or the number of people, per year, born in the city of London with red hair, or like calculating the number of seconds which pass during a five year period (approximately 2,628,000, give or take).
But six was quite a lot to Sherlock. He felt that once the number of one’s sexual partners exceeded the number of fingers on one hand – this was too many. His hard drive, while vast, had only so much room. He catalogued people for cases, out of habit, for practice and for the sheer pleasure of it. He hoarded facts about them in his mind, each quirk, each foible, each tiny detail, the way some people collected stamps or buttons. But these were people he rarely knew well, at least beyond his usual deductions. Often, they were people he actively did not want to know, much less carry on a conversation with. Even less kiss or sleep with. Most of the time, he deleted them when they ceased being useful.
For each of his lovers, he’d wanted a whole new hard drive to catalogue, to store. With Victor, Sherlock had spent hours simply watching him. He’d memorized the thin, jutting lines of his body, the number of freckles scattered over his back, the way the coarse hair between his thighs was a slightly different brown than the hair on Victor’s head. Catalogued and parsed the different kinds of laughs he had (seven, eight counting the low, grumbling chuckle which he used exclusively when excited about baked goods and sex); how best he liked his tea (three sugars, but with the teaspoons 2/3 full, not heaping, and the bag soaked exactly three minutes and thirty-three seconds); his favorite color (yellow, bright, canary yellow) and, eventually, how much control Victor’s father had over him (enough that he’d left Sherlock because his father disapproved of ‘that lifestyle’).
All of the things he memorized about his lovers were not things that could be stored or examined objectively, like most of the facts he collected. They were exactly like knowledge of astronomy and the solar system: completely irrelevant. Knowing Victor liked colorful socks or that he liked it when Sherlock ran his knuckles gently across the back of his neck, for instance – neither of these things were going to help Sherlock capture murderers and thieves. Sherlock wanted to keep all of those details despite this, wanted to hoard each and every one. But there came a point, for Sherlock, when these details, these minutiae about how Victor had smelled, or how John sighed during sex, a low, murmurous, sensual sound, like surrender – there came a point when Sherlock felt overwhelmed. That there was too much information to keep track of.
‘Six?’ Sherlock repeated. He stopped climbing up the stairs to 221b and John ran into him.
‘Yes, Sherlock six. Including you,’ John said wearily.
They were both bruised, beaten and exhausted from the last case, a murdered barrister. They’d had to go through a list of the man’s lovers, eight in all. Sherlock had been frustrated with the whole business more than anything. Interviewing all those women was dull and the case was stagnating right in front of him. Annoyed, Sherlock couldn’t help making a derisive noise at one point and commenting on the liberties of the modern age.
‘Eight is not that many,’ John reiterated. ‘I mean – that’s not even counting casual shags, right? The occasional pull?’ John’s voice was joking, albeit half-heartedly.
Sherlock shuddered. The idea of casual shagging made him want to peel his skin off. It was – not impossible for him – but once all the reasonable, logical arguments had been discarded, highly improbable. More improbable than the possibility of God, for instance, or the continued survival of the human species.
Sherlock pulled his coat tighter around him.
Entering their sitting room, Sherlock flipped through the mail, because it was something he could do with his hands. Six, he thought again. And how had he not known? Probably because he had and then deleted it. There was him and John, they were together, and any more information would have drowned him. But six, his hands trembled.
‘Sherlock, what’s the matter –’ John put his hand over Sherlock’s. Sherlock jerked away.
‘I’ve only had two partners. Including you,’ Sherlock snapped. He hadn’t meant to sound so disgusted. He knew the average number of sexual partners, for heterosexual men, was around seven. The average number for homosexual and bisexual men probably wasn’t that much different, though, reliable statistics had yet to be compiled. Sherlock had once read an article which had said that men who had sex with men, on average, had fifty or more sexual partners a month. The article had been riddled with faulty logic, the credibility more than questionable, not the least of which because Sherlock’s personal experience contradicted it. But he’d never quite been able to purge that from his hard drive. The number fifty astounded him. He kept thinking of it now, as he watched John, in the dim light of their flat, blink slowly.
‘You mean, before me,’ John said, ‘there was only one other person you’d –’
‘Yes.’ Sherlock ripped the envelope with the electric bill inside. More numbers. He hated numbers right now.
John swallowed. ‘Oh,’ he said. And then ‘oh,’ redundantly. ‘Right.’
‘It’s alright,’ Sherlock said, because that was, he thought, what he was supposed to say.
John looked at him sharply.
‘How is it not alright?’ He looked fierce, dark semicircles under his eyes, face rough and unshaved. ‘It’s just the way it is, isn’t it?’
Sherlock was not immune to tiredness. Was not immune to spout illogical, inane, emotional things when he was both exhausted and annoyed enough.
‘Yes.’ He throws himself onto the sofa. ‘Though your shagging around –’
‘You said that didn’t even include casual shags –’
‘I was joking.’ John rippled with anger. ‘Six is all I’ve ever slept with. Two men and four women. Do you want me to tell you their names and addresses? Oh no, you want me to tell you how many times I had sex with each of them and how many times each of us came? Then you could compare notes, right? Something like that? No? Christ, you have got some nerve.’
Sherlock steepled his hands and remained quiet; it seemed like the best idea. John bustled around, grumbling, tugging angrily on his coat. Finally, he said: ‘I’m going out.’
Sherlock listened to his footsteps thudding down the stairs.
When John returned the next morning, rubbing the crick in his neck from Sarah’s sofa, Sherlock was in the kitchen. He’d taken the body parts out of the fridge while John was away, bundling everything up to the morgue. He was scrubbing the crisper drawer as John came in. John stood in the doorway, tilting his head at Sherlock as if he were some strange, alien creature come down to earth. Probably because Sherlock was actually cleaning something.
John cleared his throat. Sherlock didn’t look up.
‘Can you explain to me why it bothered you so much?’ John asked.
‘Nothing. It’s illogical.’ Sherlock said to the crisper drawer.
‘Not if it upsets you.’ John cocked his head.
‘I simply don’t have the room for it on my hard drive. Take you for instance. I can hardly keep track of everything I know about you. And I mean everything,’ he looked at John. John nodded. ‘So six – six is an impossibility.’
He scrubbed a little while, felt a split opening in his right forefinger from the harsh cleaning chemicals. It burned and reminded Sherlock of yet another reason he didn’t much care for this cleaning business. (Well, primarily because he couldn’t be bothered, but vanity was a good secondary reason.)
‘I’m not like you,’ Sherlock said finally. ‘I can’t just have sex with anyone.’
John crossed his arms and his tongue touched his lower lip, the expression he had when Sherlock was infuriating.
‘I don’t mean you do, either,’ Sherlock said. ‘It’s just different for me. I –’ he struggled. Straightening, he went to John. ‘Desire is in here for me,’ he tapped his head. ‘Not the body.’
John looked surprised. This pleased Sherlock.
‘You could’ve fooled me on that last bit,’ John said.
‘But I love your – mind. Don’t you see? You’re like – a red diamond – there’s only four of those out there, but you’re even rarer,’ Sherlock supplied when John looked confused. ‘You’re so rare and brilliant and stunning it makes it hard for me to breathe sometimes. I love your body because it’s yours, because it’s part of you. But I’d still love you if you were a woman who smelled like – boiled cabbage –’
‘Boiled cabbage – ’
‘It wouldn’t matter. If you were still you, if you had the exact same mind, the same personality, I would still want you.’
Sherlock’s hands waved wildly now, words spewing out of him. John caught his hands mid-pinwheel.
‘I have never, in my life,’ John said, ‘had anyone tell me they loved my mind.’
Sherlock braced for John to express confusion, bewilderment; to tell Sherlock that didn’t make any sense, that the way desire worked for him was, at best, strange.
‘That is about the sexiest thing I have ever heard. Even the boiled cabbage bit.’
John cut Sherlock’s reply off with a kiss. He even went so far as to bite Sherlock’s lower lip a little, which meant he approved, very much, with something Sherlock had said or done. Sherlock thought, perhaps I should clean the crisper drawer more often.
John lead them to the couch. The kissing turned into simply lying there, holding one another. Listening to John’s heart, Sherlock reached beneath his jumper and stroked his stomach. With Victor, kissing had usually led straight on to sex, which had been fine with Sherlock. But John seemed to have an even better understanding of Sherlock, something which he had not thought possible. He would never know for sure with Irene, though she had outwitted him. She was, in some ways, a pleasant fantasy and a dream. But John understood Sherlock and understood there were ways to make love to Sherlock that didn’t even involve sex. Like the debate they’d had in the kitchen last Sunday night, fencing with words and minds. Or how they could kiss and caress each other for hours without taking their clothes off. Once, they’d been naked under the sheets of John’s bed and John had spread kisses all over Sherlock’s body, not a single one erotic, but each so sweet and so tender it had made Sherlock hurt.
This is part of what made John different. Victor had been kind, of course, and good, but John was radiant and better. He made Sherlock better, if cleaning out the crisper drawer was an indicator. Also, John bought the milk and milk was sometimes good for experiments.
Red diamond, Sherlock thought as John ran his fingers through his hair. That was really a bad analogy for John. He wasn’t a supernova either. After their solar system argument, he’d been quietly studying astronomy, just to make sure they never again had an argument about the earth going round the sun. Though the information was obnoxious and not useful, John felt it was important. Sherlock justified it this way, filing astronomy with the plethora of information about John.
John was a whole galaxy. He was a sea of stars and planets, of light and dark, of lethal gasses and meteors and moons and planets with rings and planets baked dry and planets of liquid and stars, pulsing, exploding. No – that wasn’t it. John was a whole nebula, where stars were born, a nursery of light and heat. No, John was a fucking quasar. Scientists could not decide what the quasar’s essential nature was, continued to be mystified by it. But they were the most luminous objects in the universe and John was more luminous still to Sherlock. He wanted his brightness, his goodness, his tenderness, needed it, burning him up from the inside. It made him feel transparent. It was a weightless and unburdened feeling; it lacked the hard edges of logic and reason and instead, transcended. It was something else altogether. Something new. And Sherlock loved new things.
Sherlock smiled into John’s shoulder.
‘I’m honored, you know,’ John said finally.
‘About being your second.’
Sherlock didn’t know what else to say to this. For a moment it was confusing and overwhelming, because there was simply too much to say, just like there was too much to know about John. And Victor. And even Irene.
John put his arm around Sherlock, holding him there, presence bright and steadying.
In the afternoon, John said he was hungry and going to Tesco’s. Sherlock accompanied him, thinking he still owed John some domestic servitude on behalf of his earlier, poor treatment.
They took the bus for once. John argued it was less expensive and successfully bribed Sherlock with the idea of people watching.
On the bus, Sherlock studied an elderly woman and an elderly man. They hunkered down in their seats, snowy heads turned to one another as they spoke. They were so quiet no-one else could hear them. They’d had children, three. He’d gone to war right after their marriage and she had waited. Not in the desperately hopeful way movies seemed to depict, if trailers were anything to go by. It was with discipline that she had waited, a kind of fervor that, to Sherlock, suggested she was a woman of faith. But she was not the kind of person who used faith as a crutch, or something to hide behind. She had used faith to give her the discipline and strength to do what was necessary. To keep calm and carry on. She’d doubtless prayed for her husband to come back to her, but prepared to carry on without him if she had to. She probably still had their letters, in an old shoebox, tucked under the bed, next to the box where they’d stored his uniform. And he had come home. So she’d used her faith and discipline to nurture their love in new ways. They both had. Yes.
Usually Sherlock would brush these kinds of sundry details aside like dirt on his trousers, deleting them from his hard drive. But today, Sherlock decided to keep them. To file them away, somewhere.