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Love or What You Will

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Dearest Charles,

  I found a box of this paper at the back of a bureau so I must write to you as I am mourning for my lost innocence. It never looked like living. The doctors despaired of it from the start,  

Soon I am off to Venice to stay with my papa in his palace of sin. I wish you were coming. I wish you were here.  

I am never quite alone. Members of my family keep turning up and collecting luggage and going away again but the white raspberries are ripe.

  I have a good mind not to take Aloysius to Venice. I don’t want him to meet a lot of horrid Italian bears and pick up bad habits.

Love or what you will.

S.

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited   


 A sharp rap at the door.

“Come in!”

A man with a shock of black curls falling artlessly over one eye strides into Dr. John Watson’s office, a worn leather bag slung over one shoulder, his slim figure clad in well-fitted slacks and a neatly tucked-in collared shirt.  He has carelessly shoved his sleeves up to his elbows, baring his pale forearms, and his gaze is haughty, eyes scanning John’s office.  John smiles – so this is the infamous Sherlock Holmes. 

“Mr. Holmes?” he asks, rising from his desk and extending a hand in greeting. 

“Sherlock,” the man corrects tightly, his voice about three octaves lower than John had expected for a twenty-eight year old Ph.D student.  He hesitates briefly, glancing down at John’s outstretched hand (as if inspecting it for poison) before taking it quickly yet firmly in his own. 

“Sherlock,” John repeats before retracting his hand warm from the other man’s touch.  He motions to the chair in front of him.  “Please, have a seat,” he offers as he sinks back down into his own chair, the plush leather welcoming him back to its soft embrace.

Sherlock remains standing.  “I suppose you’re the unlucky one I’ve been passed off to, then,” he remarks coolly, gliding over to John’s bookshelf and running a hand over the titles. “What did you do?” he asks over his shoulder, “Lose a bet?  Owe someone a favour?”

Sherlock’s dialogue is rapid-fire and it takes John a moment to adjust to the pace of his speech. “Sorry. What are you talking about?” he asks, eyebrows knit in confusion.

“Me,” says Sherlock simply, casting John a withering glance that seems to say: Keep up.  “I’m not stupid – exceedingly far from it, in fact.  There’s a reason I’ve been assigned to be the TA for a professor who is not in my own department.  The lot of them can’t stand me.”  He says this as if stating a fact – cold and sure.  “They can’t get rid of me because I’m too big of an academic asset to the university and so they have passed me off to you rather than deal with me themselves.  You poor, unfortunate man,” says Sherlock lightly, mockingly, “Stuck with me.”

John is dumbfounded by this speech – he had been utterly unprepared for the man’s sharp tongue despite Molly’s warning – and he hardly even knows where to begin.  “Sherlock, I don’t –”

“Oh, don’t bother reassuring me to the contrary,” he continues, careening over John’s words, “I know it’s true.  And I don’t need someone pretending to like me – I just need someone to give me tasks to do.  That’s all.  The quality of my work is the reason people keep me around and that is perfectly amenable to me.”  Sherlock looks at John, eyes intense and boring into the professor’s. “You do have work for me to do, I presume, Dr. Watson?”

“Of course,” says John, feeling almost affronted that he had to ask.  “What else would I have for you?”

Sherlock stares at him for a half-second longer than is comfortable before he shrugs, looking back at the bookshelves before him.  “Some professors I have worked for in the past have hired me and not given me a scrap of work to do, so that they do not have to interact with me.  They were most likely afraid that I would tear their flimsy arguments and pathetic assignments to shreds.”  Sherlock runs a finger over the spine of John’s coveted first-edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, his expression hard.  “Getting paid for doing nothing is an insult,” he hisses, eyes still fixed on the book, “My brain stagnates without constant stimulation.  I get so bored without a constant supply of work to do.”

John is transfixed – this man with the baritone voice has actually waltzed into his office and is currently giving him nothing less than a soliloquy of Shakespearean intensity, his voice filled with a cold rage reminding John momentarily of the wronged Edmund from King Lear. Clearing his throat, John speaks up. “Well, I promise you won’t be bored,” he affirms, “I have lots of work lined up for you – I know how brilliant you are.”

Sherlock turns to him as if stung.  “Brilliant?” he repeats cautiously, “How do you know?  Why do you think so?” He asks his questions as if interrogating John.

John looks him straight in the eye.  “I know because I looked you up after you were assigned as my TA.  I think so because I’ve read your work – your Honours and MA theses, your papers, your contributions to various scholarly journals, and even your blog.  You’re a brilliant scholar and a leader in your field.  I’m honestly honoured not only to have you at this university, but also to be working with you and I hope that you won’t find the work I give you too mundane in comparison to the cutting edge stuff you’re used to.”

John says all of this straightforwardly, honesty plain in his words.  For a moment, Sherlock looks absolutely bowled over – his expression softening into one of surprise – before his face reverts back a mask of indifference.  He turns back to John’s bookshelf, back straight and mouth set stoically, but glances over at the professor after a moment.  “You really think so?” he asks in a rush, tone attempting nonchalance. 

John cannot help but smile.  “I do,” he affirms, nodding, “You are extraordinary, Mr. Holmes.”

“Sherlock,” the other man corrects reflexively, his voice sounding faraway as he continues to stare at John.

“Sherlock,” John repeats apologetically, still grinning.

There is a moment of silence that passes between them, but – for some reason – it doesn’t feel as uncomfortable as it should.  “It’s very rare that I… receive such accolades,” says Sherlock finally, his gaze skittering away from John’s, “I am thoroughly unused to it.”

“What do people normally say?”

A grin flickers over Sherlock’s mouth and he looks up to catch John’s eye at this.  “Best not to say in polite company,” he quips and John chuckles.  They regard each other like this – both smiling and looking wonderingly at the other – before John clears his throat and stands. 

“Well, for starters, I have a slew of quizzes for you to grade and an annotated bibliography for you to put together for my each of my four upcoming courses,” says John, pushing the bulging file folder on the corner of his desk forward.  “I’ve attached the grading rubric and some sample comments for common mistakes that students tend to make on this introductory assignment.” John opens the file and lifts the top page to show Sherlock the rubric. “If you have any questions about anything, of course, just send me an e-mail.”

Sherlock walks over to cast an appraising eye over the proffered papers. His lower lip juts out ever so slightly in approval. “Thorough,” he notes with a nod and John feels something in his chest spark at what he imagines is rare praise from the man. “The details pertaining to the four courses for which you need annotated bibliographies are in this folder as well, I presume?” he asks without making it sound like a question.

“Yes. Beneath the essays,” says John, flipping through the stack of papers to the bottom to show Sherlock.

The younger man tilts his head to look, nodding again. “When would you like me to finish it all?” Sherlock inquires as he reaches forward to take the folder, long-fingered hands brushing past John’s in the process.

“M-Monday, if that suits you,” says John, hoping the younger man misses the catch in his voice. “I was thinking we could meet at the beginning of every week to go over your progress and chat about what’s coming up next. That way, I should be able to keep you adequately busy.”

Tucking the folder carefully into his bag, Sherlock looks up and addresses John a lopsided smile that looks surprisingly genuine. “I look forward to it, Dr. Watson,” he says, buckling down the flap of his leather bag and readjusting the strap cutting across his chest. “And, should I finish this all earlier than Monday, may I –?”

John chuckles. “Yes, you can e-mail me for more work,” he cuts in, anticipating Sherlock’s request. “I don’t mind delegating more tasks to you. It will certainly make my life a Hell of a lot easier this term.”

“That is what I’m being paid to do,” Sherlock reminds him, deep voice curling around each word.

Smiling, John sits down, threading his fingers together on his desk. “And I have no doubt that you’ll earn every penny of your salary,” he answers with a laugh.

Sherlock waves this off with a impatient gesture, but looks pleased at the compliment nonetheless. “The salary means nothing to me,” he says firmly, “Like I said, it’s all about the work.”

“I know,” John replies, nodding.

A momentary yet comfortable silence falls between them during which they both regard one another, each with a curious glint of something new in their eyes, the air in John’s small office tasting vaguely like promise.

Sherlock is the first to break the silence. “Well, I’m off,” he says suddenly, turning on his heel to open the door. He pauses, however, halfway through the threshold to poke his head back into the office to inform John that, should he wish to find him, his office is number 221, cubicle B in the Chemistry building. “Afternoon!” he calls over his shoulder in farewell.

And, just like that, he is gone.