As was usual, John was the last one to leave the changing room. His role as captain of the football team required him to make sure that all was left clean and organised after practice. Technically, of course, as a year thirteen student, he could have passed the chore on to a younger boy, but he took his duties seriously. And, also, he rather enjoyed spending some time alone. It was certainly better than being at home these days. If he could have gotten away with sleeping in the changing room, he might well have done.
Finally, when he could not find a single wet towel left on the floor or another forgotten text book under one of the benches, John turned off the lights and stepped outside. With a sigh, he turned to lock the door and mentally prepared himself to go home.
“The duties of leadership must be onerous indeed if that sigh is any indication.”
His first impulse, as always, was to grin. But it had been a fortnight since he’d heard a single word from Sherlock bloody Holmes and he was not inclined to immediately let the bastard know how glad he was to see him. “Didn’t think a posh public school boy knew how to find his way back to this lowly comprehensive,” was what he said. Finally, he turned to look at Sherlock where he was perched on the bicycle rack.
Public school boy indeed.
John assumed that the uniform the other boy was wearing would have at some point included a jacket. Not to mention a tie. But now it had been reduced to a snug white shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows and narrowly cut black trousers that were decidedly not standard issue. The picture was finished off by the unruly dark curls and a cigarette dangling from lips that probably warranted more contemplation than was safe. All in all, Sherlock looked as if he belonged on the poster for a bad boy film. The only thing needed to complete that impression was a shiny motorcycle.
And that image was definitely too much like John’s recent dreams for comfort. Dreams that he was determined not to think about. Which was rather like telling someone not to think about pink elephants.
Sherlock shrugged. “Well, if Mohammed won’t come to the mountain…” He tilted his head back and blew a perfect smoke ring.
John felt a stirring of anger; at least he was self-aware enough to understand that it was mostly an attempt to quench other feelings. The sight of the long pale neck wasn’t helping. “Excuse me,” he said sharply. “I left a message for you ten days ago and got no response.”
Sherlock took the cigarette out of his mouth and studied it as if he planned to write one of his excruciatingly detailed papers [or as he insisted on calling them ‘monographs’] on the subject. “Yes, I got your message. ‘Hi, Sherlock, just wanted to let you know that the team made it into the tournament, so lots of training coming up. And right when I’m trying to get my uni applications in place. Plus there is some stupid dance at Harry’s school and she blackmailed me into taking a friend of hers. And my father walked out again. Looks like for good this time.”
“Yes? That was my message. So? You never replied.”
Sherlock finally took one final drag on the cigarette and then dropped it to the pavement, crushing it beneath his shoe. “I heard the subtext.”
Apparently this was not going to be a short conversation, so John dropped his book bag and sat next to Sherlock on the bike rack. “Subtext? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Surely you are aware of what the word ‘subtext’ means? This may be a comprehensive, but it is a highly rated one.”
To anyone who had not known Sherlock Holmes since he was four years old, the words would have been biting. An insult. But John was clever enough to see beyond the obvious and he could all-too-clearly remember the boy from nursery, who already saw himself as an outsider, unwilling to let anyone pierce his armour. Anyone except John Watson, for reasons that had never really been knowable to him.
So, instead of retorting sharply, he only sighed again. “Enlighten me, please. Just what was the subtext of my really very ordinary message?”
Sherlock took a breath. “You wanted me to know that you are so very busy these days. Beloved captain of the football team. Planning your bright future. A date with a no doubt lovely young lady who will be charmed by your pleasant countenance and future as a doctor, And, finally, with your father gone again, you are the man of the house. As you have been since we were ten, actually. Subtext: you are too busy for the annoying public school boy.”
John could not help giving a snort of derision. “Oh, Sherlock, you have always been an annoying public school boy, even when you were here at the comprehensive with me. Even at nursery, actually.” Then he sobered. “I did not mean to give you the impression that I was too busy. I always have time for you.”
That comment seemed a little too close to the bone, so he shut up. He definitely did not want to even think about what those words ‘pleasing countenance’ were supposed to mean.
The truth was, that over the past few months, John had frequently felt as if he had somehow landed on an alien planet, a new place, where he knew nothing of the society’s rules and customs. When he was with Sherlock, it so often seemed that they were speaking different languages. English and Martian, maybe. Sometimes he felt like Picard trying to communicate with Dathon and only being confused by the conversation.
It used to be so easy.
They just sat there for a moment, listening to the sound of traffic passing on the road beyond the gates of the school. At one point, a motorcycle roared past and John’s mouth went a little dry, which, he supposed, was better than drooling.
Finally, Sherlock cleared his throat. “My final dance recital is on Saturday night,” he said. “I will be doing a solo.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a blue envelope. “I have this for you, if you would like to come.”
John snatched the ticket immediately. “Bloody right I want to come. I haven’t seen you dance in ages.”
“That’s all right. I understand why,” Sherlock said.
John was carefully tucking the envelope into his wallet and just glanced up curiously. “You understand why what?”
Sherlock took out and lit another cigarette, ignoring John’s frown. “Well, I’m sure the testosterone fuelled members of your team wouldn’t like to know that their captain enjoyed watching a poof flounce around a stage in tights.” His voice was flat.
John blinked. “Poof? Who called you that?”
Sherlock only shrugged and took a long drag on the cigarette.
“First of all, I do not let my teammates pick my friends. Second, if any of them called you names, they will be running laps until they drop.” John paused, maybe trying to translate what he wanted to say into Martian, so that Sherlock would understand. “Most importantly, you must know that it doesn’t matter a bit to me. It’s all fine.”
Sherlock inhaled, slowly exhaled. “Thank you,” he said quietly.
The mood lingered briefly.
Abruptly, John punched Sherlock lightly on the shoulder. “Of course, now you have to come watch the championship match.”
Sherlock groaned in feigned agony and John thought that maybe they had managed to breach the gap. To speak the same language again. He was back on earth and everything was fine.
Three nights later, John Watson sat in an auditorium, watching Sherlock Holmes perform. Alone on the stage, clad completely in black, the boy was dancing selections from something called Petrushka and he was, in John’s eyes, entrancing.
His friend was…glorious. Beautiful.
And, once more, those so very ordinary words felt foreign to him. He did not know what they meant.
The dance finished and the room was filled with applause. Sherlock made a movement that might have been a bow and then he straightened, his gaze darting around the auditorium, apparently searching for someone. Although John was unsure if Sherlock could see him with the lights so bright, he gave a double thumbs up.
John knew only one thing for sure: that he was lost in an alien landscape again. More lost than ever. It was a terrain of impossibly high mountains and terrifyingly deep black ravines and it all felt so very dangerous.
Lost on Mars, with no map or guide to help him navigate, John wondered if he would ever be able to find his way home. Wherever home was.