John ducked into the science lab, dumping his bag on the floor and closing the scarred wooden door behind his back. He leant against it, shutting his eyes and snatching a sharp breath. He didn’t think he’d been seen, not with Bill and the others covering for him, but he’d rather be safe than sorry.
It was probably a new low, hiding from Bethany, who’d been his girlfriend for all of two weeks. However, she’d turned out to be surprisingly unwilling to break things off, and after the day he’d had, he’d rather not suffer another shrill argument in the hall.
He heard her voice: sharp, confident and thoroughly pissed off. He didn’t blame her. He’d not had much experience with this kind of thing, despite what everyone seemed to think. Most of being popular was all about what went on in other people’s heads anyway. He’d moved to this school a year ago, and maybe it was because he was something new or good at the sports he enjoyed, but he’d made more friends than he ever had before.
He kept waiting for someone to figure out that he was just John Watson – nothing special – but it never happened. People still sought him out, shouted his name in the street when they saw him and all that. It was okay. Being liked was better than the alternative, anyway.
A clink of glassware made him open his eyes, his stomach lurching sideways in alarm. He’d thought the room was empty. Only the rugby players and people who wanted to watch practice hung about once the school day was over. Who would bother being in a classroom this late?
As soon as the thought crossed his mind, he knew the answer. Only one kid in the school would bother. He’d moved here at the same time as John, but whereas John had been accepted and liked almost immediately, Sherlock Holmes… hadn’t.
There were plenty of rumours about why he’d had to leave his old school, and none of them were as benign as his dad getting a new job. Everyone agreed Sherlock was expelled for something, but no one had ever worked out quite what it was. Blowing up a science lab seemed likely, and sometimes John heard thrilled, horrified whispers that he’d killed someone by accident.
John didn’t bother pointing out that expulsion would be the least of Sherlock’s worries if that were the case. There was no point. They wouldn’t listen. Besides, it was just malicious talk. No one picked on Sherlock, not anymore. Toffer and his thugs had tried during that first week, but it turned out Sherlock gave back as good as he got. There’d been blood in the corridor and furious teachers shouting across the din. Gossip ran thick in the air, but after whatever happened in the headmaster’s office, no one touched Sherlock again.
Instead, it was as if he was in a bubble, occupying the same space as the rest of them but separate all the same. If Sherlock didn’t seem to put all his effort into maintaining the isolation, John might have tried to do something about it. It made him uneasy, seeing someone constantly and utterly alone.
Sherlock hadn’t noticed him. Either that or he was ignoring the interruption to his solitude, which was fine by John. It meant that while he dithered, trying to work out whether to say something or just leave, he could take a moment to look at the boy who was always little more than a pale figure in the background.
Gangly wasn’t an uncommon look among teenagers. Everyone seemed locked in some kind of physical warfare with themselves, battling acne as puppy fat melted away and the body grew in unsteady fits and starts. Yet Sherlock seemed impossibly thin, all sharp angles as if his skin lay draped over his bones with little else in between. Come to think of it, John had never seen him in the cafeteria. Did he even eat or did he just live in here doing… whatever?
‘Did you need something?’
Pale eyes flickered up to John’s face pinning him in place, and while Sherlock’s body may look weak and stretched to breaking point, that stare was enough to make a cold sweat break out down John’s spine. There was no hiding from a look like that, and he felt his face flush as he stammered out a reply.
‘Sorry I – I didn’t think anyone was in here.’
It was dismissive: a cold sneer of a word that somehow implied that John was inferior in every way. It was enough to make him turn away, his hand outstretched to pull the door open. Alone was clearly what Sherlock wanted, and that was what he would get.
‘What are you even doing in here?’ John demanded. He looked over his shoulder, feeling a petty stab of satisfaction at the way those pale eyes blinked, just once. Apparently, Sherlock hadn’t expected any further conversation. No doubt he was used to knowing what to say to get people to retreat, but John wasn’t about to play by those rules. Not yet, anyway. Something more than curiosity compelled him to stay, casting a pointed glance over the titration array. ‘Do you have permission to use that?’
Sherlock’s eyes narrowed, and if John had thought he had Sherlock’s full attention before, he was mistaken. That had been a glance; now he was suffering some kind of visual interrogation. It made him painfully aware that he was still in his rugby kit, smeared in mud and sweat.
He folded his arms and turned back, lifting his chin as he met that look head-on. The cleats on his boots scraped on the floor as he moved, the sound aggressive in the peaceful lab. His hair flopped into his eyes, but he ignored it as he waited for some kind of reply.
‘I’m working,’ Sherlock said at last, his lips parted around a sigh. He’d been biting them, worrying the flesh as he conducted his experiment, and John tried not to stare. He’d never seen a bloke with a mouth like that before. ‘You are interrupting, no doubt in order to hide from Bethany Hughes.’
‘I –’ John winced, because while it had sounded bad in his head, it seemed a hundred times worse in Sherlock’s icy tones. ‘That’s not exactly…’
‘Yes it is. You ended things with her, she doesn’t agree. Your enjoyment of conflict is strictly limited to the playing field, as demonstrated by your current borderline obsession with rugby and your previous enjoyment of other, high-adrenaline sports. Emotional dispute makes you uncomfortable, probably triggered by the breakdown of your home life and your mother’s absence. She’s not dead; she left. That’s why you moved here in the first place.’
John choked, his words caught in a knot at the back of his throat. His arms fell slack at his side, his hands curled into loose fists as he stared, uncomprehending.
He didn’t talk about his mum. All his friends knew there was some kind of deal with that, but they never had the guts to ask. Now this… this boy had spoken as if it were common knowledge.
‘How?’ He clenched his jaw, narrowing his eyes as Sherlock straightened up. He’d moved around the lab bench while he was talking, each stride long and deliberate like some kind of predator stalking its unsuspecting prey. Now, though, John saw the confusion. Sherlock hadn’t expected much of a response. ‘How could you possibly know any of that?’
Sherlock looked pointedly down at John’s kit. ‘The rugby doesn’t require much explanation. You’re out on that pitch most days. It’s obvious to anyone.’
‘And the rest?’ It felt like his spine had turned into a live wire. His whole body thrilled with some odd mix of anger/fear/fascination that he couldn’t figure out, and every time Sherlock spoke, the sensation resonated to the tone of his voice.
‘Your boots. They’re top of the line, the same as the rest of your equipment. Bought by someone who knows a great deal about rugby and wants to help you achieve success by providing you with the best they can possibly buy. It’s a tell-tale sign of a parent attempting to overcompensate for missing affection through material goods.’
Sherlock shrugged, as if everything he said was written all over John’s face for anyone to read, clear as day. ‘All your things are labelled with your name.’ He pointed to the bag at John’s feet. ‘It’s not your handwriting, you’re left-handed and this person is not. The lettering is sharp, masculine, but the devotion and attention to detail is more unusual in a father figure, once again suggesting a parent working hard to make up for some perceived deficit. If your mother had died, it’s unlikely your father would have the mental and emotional capacity to deal with such minutiae. He would be too busy with his grief. Instead, his devotion to you is an act of rebellion against his wife’s desertion. A way to prove to himself that he is not the failure she said he was.’
John blinked beneath the onslaught of information, his whole life this past year laid out by this boy, this almost stranger, as if it were no secret at all. He thought of Michael, trying his hardest, breaking himself apart in the face of Harry’s almost-an-adult rebellion and doing whatever he could for them both. He’d moved heaven and earth, all the while trying to work a full time job and keep the house in order. Proving himself, Sherlock had said, and John could see that. The last thing his mother had shrieked before she’d stormed out was that they’d fail without her.
Instead, thanks to Mike, they hadn’t just survived. They’d begun to thrive.
‘And –’ He licked his lips, swallowing hard as he glanced away before staring at Sherlock again, unable to take his eyes off of him for long. ‘What about before the rugby? You said I enjoyed high-adrenaline sports?’
Sherlock pursed his lips, his shoulders tense as he flicked a finger in the direction of John’s elbow. ‘Scars. That one’s the oldest. They’re distinctive. Deep and directional, suggesting high velocity impact, but uneven, which rules out the likelihood of a collision with a paved surface. You’ve similar, newer marks on your knees, so they were injuries sustained over a period of time, rather than all at once. Probably BMX bikes or something similar, until you had one accident too many. You don’t have a limp or any indication of a severe bone break, so I would assume a head injury. Someone, probably your father, asked you to stop. Got you interested in rugby instead.’
He shrugged, finally falling quiet so that the only sound in the lab was the steady rush of their breathing and the occasional drip from the experiment at Sherlock’s back.
‘That was –’ John stepped forward. It was only a half stride, but Sherlock flinched all the same, as if he was expecting John to punch him in the face. It was enough to bring him up short, and he concentrated on smoothing away the strange, vibrating tension in his muscles. He wasn’t angry, though it almost felt like it: a hot, turbulent surge of surprise that he’d never really felt before.‘– That was amazing.’
Sherlock looked at him as if he’d grown another head, his body weight tipped back to avoid the blow he thought John was about to throw his way. His expression was one of dubious disbelief, as if he were waiting for the other shoe to drop.
‘That’s not what people usually say.’
‘I bet.’ John grinned, a faint huff of laughter escaping him. He could imagine how most people would react to Sherlock’s monologues, but honestly, John had never heard anything like it. Once he got over the shock, all he wanted to know was how. How did Sherlock look at people and just… see.
‘You’re – not going to punch me?’ Doubt lay thick in Sherlock’s voice, and John was aware of that gaze, intent now, as if he were something truly interesting. Not a collection of details and facts, but an anomaly, and he’d be lying if he said he didn’t stand a bit taller under Sherlock’s cautious scrutiny.
John thought about it, not wanting to lie. In that first, horrible moment of exposure, it had been tempting to lash out, but he’d held back. Sherlock’s delivery may have been without compassion, but it was also without judgement. He was stating fact, and John liked to think it wasn’t in him to bully someone into silence just because he didn’t like the truth.
‘No.’ He shook his head. ‘No. Why would I? You’re right. Everything you said was right. My mum walked out a bit over a year ago now, and I gave up BMX when I hit my head and didn’t wake up for two days.’
‘Because your father asked you to?’
John winced, running his tongue over his teeth. ‘Yeah, sort of. Except he’s not my actual dad. I mean he may as well be; he’s been around forever, but he’s my step-dad.’
Sherlock made a tight, exasperated sound, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. It was the most expressive and unguarded John had seen him, neither cautious nor indifferent. ‘There’s always something that I miss.’
‘Well, nobody’s perfect.’ John grinned as Sherlock shot him a look of pure affront, but before he could say anything in reply, he heard someone calling his name in the corridor. Bill’s loud, brash tones were easily recognisable, and with a start John realised he’d been in here for the better part of half an hour.
It was a crack in the moment, as if he’d been allowed to share, however briefly, the bubble Sherlock occupied, and now it was gone. Sherlock was already stepping back behind what he was doing, withdrawing again, but looking more fragile now, as if one strong word might break him.
John didn’t have the time to question that right now. He couldn’t stay here, no matter how curious he was. It occurred to him that Sherlock seemed to know everything about him, but John knew nothing in return except that he was clever and, at times, not nearly as distant as most of the school believed.
‘I have to –’ He jerked his thumb towards the door, nodding to himself when his only reply was silence. However, when he stood on the threshold, the corridor open and empty before him, he turned back, Sherlock’s name a soft question on his lips.
‘You’ll be here tomorrow, right?’
Sherlock’s gaze flickered up to him, a puzzled frown creasing his brow. ‘Undoubtedly.’
There was no point making any promises. Something told him that if he swore he’d be here again, then he’d only turn up to find the lab empty. Yet as John closed the door behind him, he knew he’d be back.
He doubted he could stay away from Sherlock Holmes if he tried.