(Originally written and posted long before the publication of a book of the same name!)
A podfic of this story, narrated by VerityBurns, can be downloaded here.
A Study in Sherlock
“John, why am I attractive?”
John peered into his mug and thanked the gods that he had only been lifting it towards his mouth and hadn’t been drinking from it, or he would have sprayed tea all over the living room. He was used to Sherlock asking strange questions of him, but there were still times when he couldn’t predict what might come next, especially when a question like that was delivered after several hours of silence.
He carefully put his mug down on the carpet beside his chair and turned to the six feet of flatmate draped along the length of the sofa.
“Why are you asking?”
“Last week when we were interviewing the residents of Colliers Lane, Mrs Seabourn kept saying that the man who had talked his way into her house was ‘utterly dishy’, and I realised that I don’t know what that really means.”
Sherlock grimaced and briefly pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. “I don’t understand what makes some people attractive and others not,” he admitted, “and yet it’s obvious that some people find me pleasing to look at. Molly Hooper can’t stop looking at me whenever I’m at Bart’s and follows me around all the time – and she keeps asking me if I want coffee like she’s a waitress instead of a professional mortician. I’m fairly sure she only does it so that she can spend more time looking at me.”
John smirked, but let his friend continue.
“Then at Lestrade’s birthday drinks last month a rather drunk Sergeant Fries kept trying to get me to dance with her and told me I was ‘drop-dead gorgeous’; and Daniel in the café does what I believe is ‘undress me with his eyes’ almost every time I’m in there.”
John glanced along the length of Sherlock’s body and wondered what Molly, Fries or Daniel would do if they were ever given the opportunity to look at him lying there in his night clothes and silk dressing gown with one arm dramatically draped along the top of the sofa and the other flopped on the floor on its back, the fingers curled upwards invitingly as if begging for someone to entwine their own fingers into them.
“You obviously think I’m attractive,” said Sherlock abruptly. “Tell me why I am.”
John glanced down at his mug and mentally reminded the tea just how lucky it was not to be splattered all over the walls by now.
“I need to understand why some people look at me and desire me,” Sherlock continued. “Or at least tell me why I’m attractive to some people and not to others. Once when she was particularly annoyed at me – even more than usual, anyway – Sergeant Donovan told me that she didn’t just call me the Freak because of my behaviour; she said I was ‘weird looking’ as well.”
“So what is it that some people see in me, and why do only some people see it – whatever ‘it’ is – and not others?”
John tried to keep his expression neutral but he could think of approximately eighty-six reasons why he didn’t want to be having this conversation. However, Sherlock’s look of bewildered frustration told him that he shouldn’t just try and shrug him off, especially as he genuinely seemed to want to improve his understanding of the human condition.
John got to his feet. “Come with me,” he told him and promptly turned and left the room, heading up the stairs and into his bedroom. If he waited to see whether Sherlock got up, an argument would immediately ensue as to why John couldn’t just tell him straightaway but by walking out and leaving Sherlock alone, the detective’s natural curiosity would force him to follow; and sure enough a few moments later his friend padded up the stairs and then stopped in the doorway, looking in at John a little warily.
“Here,” John said, gesturing towards his wardrobe which he had opened to reveal the almost full length mirror on the inside of the door. “Come and stand in front of this.”
Sherlock frowned and hesitated for a long moment before walking into the room and stopping in front of the wardrobe door, standing side-on to it and looking at John, obviously puzzled by the request. John licked his lips, trying to keep control of his thoughts, then took hold of Sherlock’s upper arms and moved him around to face the mirror. Sherlock scowled at his own reflection as John released his arms and turned to stand beside him.
“Now, I don’t claim to speak for every person who finds you attractive, OK, but let me tell you what I see when I look at you.”
He looked into the mirror for a long moment.
“Well, you’re not classically good-looking. There are men who pretty much everyone would admit are good-looking even if they’re not their own cup of tea – George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Hugh Grant ...” He giggled briefly. “Other actors are available ...”
Sherlock fidgeted and John realised that he wasn’t being helpful – Sherlock probably didn’t even know what those actors looked like. “What I mean is that some people have a general level of attractiveness that most of us acknowledge, and others are only attractive to some people while everybody else can’t see what the fuss is all about, so that’s why Fries thinks you’re gorgeous while Donovan doesn’t.”
He went on with his general explanation, trying to put off the moment when he would have to begin discussing Sherlock’s own attractiveness.
“With some people it’s one single thing that makes them attractive to others: they might have a fantastic face, or perhaps they’ve got unusual eyes or a particularly fit or elegant body. With others it’s a combination of several different things, and that applies to you, I think.”
He licked his lips again, realising that he had no choice but to start with the specifics.
“OK, let’s start with your height. You’re not enormously tall but you’re at least, what, six foot?”
“And a half inch,” Sherlock clarified.
John hesitated, wondering whether he should ask. Clearly the half inch was important and maybe there was a story there which would distract his friend from this impending awkwardness. Then again, it would only put off the inevitable and so John reluctantly continued.
“OK, like I said, it’s not massively tall but for most women ...” (and me, he added silently) “... it’s tall enough to make them feel protected when you stand close. Then add to that how thin you are and it makes you look taller than you actually are.”
Sherlock grumbled. “When I was at school I was always ‘the skinny one’,” he said, “and you and Mrs Hudson seem to spend all your time trying to feed me up, so I assumed that I still look too thin.”
“It wouldn’t hurt if you put on a few pounds,” John told him, “but you’re not painfully thin, just really, really slender. A lot of people like slim men. And it gives you some kick-arse cheekbones too.” He grinned. “Lestrade said once that if their paper shredder stopped working they could probably use your cheekbones in an emergency.”
Sherlock didn’t smile, seemingly lost in concentration as he looked at himself in the mirror. John carried on with the worryingly long list that was in his head.
“Then all your extremities seem to be enormously long. You’ve got legs that go on for a fortnight, and long arms to match, large hands, long fingers ...” His voice shook momentarily as he tried not to even think about the neck. Sherlock frowned at the hesitation and John pushed onwards rapidly.
“It’s the protective thing again: large hands are going to be protective. Women in particular might feel that if you’ve got big hands you’re going to be able to hold onto the baby safely.”
Sherlock snorted but seemed to understand. John continued.
“OK, this is a purely personal thing, but I happen to think that a combination of dark hair and pale eyes, especially eyes like yours which change colour depending on the light, is attractive. Plus I don’t think I’ve actually seen someone with what they call ‘almond eyes’ before – I’ve read descriptions of them in books but you’re the only person I’ve met who really has them.
“And then you’re the only person I’ve ever known whose hair is long and short at the same time. From the back it’s really short on your neck, but there’s so much of it that it seems a lot longer than it probably is, and that makes it intriguing to look at.” He refrained from adding that he would cheerfully invade several more countries if he would only be given the opportunity to run his fingers through those curls.
“And surely even you must know that you’ve got an amazing-looking mouth. Most of the women who know us have told me at one time or another that they’d kill for a cupid’s bow like that.” Sherlock’s frown deepened and John quickly tried to reassure him. “No, that doesn’t mean you’ve got a girly mouth. It works on you – you look good with it. It goes with all the other features and makes you look exotic and unusual – but not in a weird way. You’d probably be an amazing model – if you ever need to pretend to be one for a case, I bet any fashion house would snap you up.”
As if really seeing himself – or perhaps observing himself – for the first time, Sherlock shifted his position and turned at more of an angle to the mirror, looking up and down his own body several times. The look of distaste that had been on his face ever since he had faced the mirror lifted a little and he raised his hand and absently began to run his fingers back and forth over the bow of his top lip, tracing its line as if he had never seen it before. John watched him for a long moment, his eyes fixed on the hypnotic slide of Sherlock’s long fingers as they trailed slowly across his mouth.
If this was a really bad romance story, his mind wildly told him several seconds later, right about now I’d be releasing a breath I hadn’t even realised I’d been holding.
Shut up! he answered himself silently. Talk about something else before it does turn into a bad romance and you swoon at his feet!
Sherlock’s gaze drifted away from his own face and moved across to John’s reflection. The frown began to creep back as he lowered his hand, apparently wondering why John had stopped talking. John made a valiant attempt to pull himself together.
“I mean, the words that come out of it usually leave a lot to be desired – and let’s be honest, they often ruin the whole image ...” He grinned at Sherlock’s indignant look, but his smile quickly faded as he realised that there was one last thing on the list to talk about, and this one was going to be the most difficult of all.
“But anyway, even if the words are a bit dodgy sometimes, there’s your voice ...” John paused and tried to draw in a deep breath: if he was going to keep his own voice steady, he definitely needed a lot of air.
“It’s really ... distinctive,” he said finally, having rapidly flicked through his mental thesaurus and rejected all the more appropriate but emotive words which would have betrayed his feelings. “It’s deep, it’s got undertones that make it carry for ... miles, probably; your accent is just the right side of being too posh but you’ve got this brilliant ability to change it when you’re faking it for other people ...” and now John’s mouth took over and began to run ahead of his brain ... “When we’re on a case and you’re hyped up you’ve got a really intense way of saying my name that makes me feel like I could fight giants; plus when you laugh and talk at the same time you’ve got a bit of a lisp which is pretty adorable ...”
His brain screamed at him that he was revealing way too much information and he tried to slam on the brakes but Sherlock tilted his head and his eyes met John’s in the mirror and John couldn’t help himself as the truth continued to flow out of him. “If a hundred people were all talking in a room, I would still hear your voice over all of theirs,” he admitted.
They stared at each other as John tried to think of a way to backtrack. He forced a smile in a desperate attempt to look nonchalant. “So there you go. That’s why you’re attractive to some people.”
He lowered his head, trying to keep his thoughts under control but aware that there was a slight shudder in his breathing. There was movement beside him and he raised his head again and looked at Sherlock’s reflection as his flatmate half-turned towards him, looking directly at him rather than into the mirror. Even only half visible, Sherlock’s gaze was intense.
“How long have you known?” Sherlock asked him softly.
John made himself frown, momentarily believing that he could bluff his way out of this, then he shrugged, lifted his chin and faced his fate.
“Pretty much ever since we met,” he said. “At least, I realised you were gorgeous the moment I saw you, but there was something ... else. I don’t know – I can’t even describe it.” He shrugged again. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. I came into the lab with Mike, and you just glanced up and then looked away again and all I could think was, ‘Oh, there you are.’ I didn’t even know what that meant but the words were in my head and they made perfect sense. And when you came over to borrow my phone I wouldn’t have been the slightest bit surprised if you had said, ‘Hello, where have you been? I’ve been waiting for ages,’ or something but you just took the phone and used it. But then you started saying all that amazing stuff about me and I was convinced you knew it all because you knew me – because you recognised me the way that I had recognised you and that’s why I came to the flat the next day, but then I realised that you didn’t ...”
He clenched his fists in exasperation.
“I don’t even know what the bloody words are. I realised that you didn’t know me the way that I felt I knew you. I mean, obviously you knew all sorts of physical things about me but you didn’t have that same sense of ... recognition that I was feeling. And it took a while for me to come to terms with that but it’s OK.”
He stopped, frustrated – though hardly surprised – that yet again he had let his thoughts spill out so easily when Sherlock had simply asked one question. But now that he had said more than he had intended, it was important to make sure that Sherlock wasn’t spooked by his revelations. He tried to smile.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s not a threat. I’m not asking for anything more than what we’ve got. I like living with you; I like the buzz of the mad things we get up to; I don’t need anything more, Sherlock. Don’t worry about it. I’m not pining for you – I don’t cry myself to sleep every night or anything stupid like that. I don’t need anything more than what we’ve got right now.” He looked directly at the reflection of his friend’s eyes in the mirror and let the truth of his words show in his smile as he deliberately brought out the classic phrase. “It’s all fine.”
He started to turn away, intending to offer to go and make more tea – or to do anything normal that would take away any awkwardness between them, but Sherlock’s voice pulled him to a halt partway through the turn.
No. He didn’t need to hear Sherlock saying his name in such a soft voice right now. He shook his head and mumbled, “It’s fine, Sherlock. Forget about it. Or, you know, don’t, but it’s fine. Nothing’s changed.”
He could sense that Sherlock had stepped closer to him; knew that if he turned to look at him now he would be locked straight into those eyes and would reveal far too much about the depth of his feelings. He couldn’t stand it; he just needed things to go back to normal. He had said too much and couldn’t withdraw the words, but he didn’t need Sherlock feeling sorry for him or – far worse – thinking he was a romantic fool. John didn’t even believe in reincarnation or the idea that people were destined to be together lifetime after lifetime, and Sherlock would be utterly disdainful of such an idea anyway, and so couldn’t possibly understand the sense of belonging that John had felt from the second that they had met.
John’s chest hurt at the mere sound of Sherlock’s voice. Concentrate, Watson, he told himself angrily. You’ve got one chance of keeping your friendship undamaged here and if you muck this up in any way, I swear to God I will personally shoot you in the head.
Almost groaning with the effort, he turned back towards the mirror, looked at their two reflections for a moment and then forced himself to turn and face his friend. He hauled his chin up, looked up into those devastating eyes and tried one more time.
“It doesn’t matter.”
Just as he had feared, Sherlock’s eyes locked onto his. The intensity of his expression was unlike anything that John had seen from him before and his voice was soft and hypnotic as he lowered his head and breathed the words achingly close to John’s mouth.
“What if I want it to matter?”