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Without Beauty

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"Men aren't beautiful. What they do isn't beautiful either. Women do everything beautifully, especially when they die. Men feel far too much. Feeling ruins the effect. Feeling makes it ugly. Perhaps that's why I could never pull off the death scene. I--could never feel it in a way that wouldn't mar the-- I couldn't let the beauty die. Without beauty there's nothing. Who could love that?"
                                                                                        --Ned Kynaston, Stage Beauty

When Joan comes home three hours early the first thing she notices is the smell of warm sugar and butter. She’s following her nose to the kitchen when she notices her second and third things: 1) Sherlock is baking, and 2) Sherlock is wearing a dress.

It’s a long, 50s-style dress that hugs his torso and fans out from his hips, floral and pretty, tied around the waist with a ruffled apron that Joan had seen stuffed in a drawer when she first moved in—she’d assumed it was a gag gift or something left over from the last tenant. On his feet are soft pink, kitten-heeled shoes, ankle socks with a scalloped edge, and tights that do nothing to hide the fact that he hasn’t shaved his legs. The neckline is fairly modest, but she can still see the edge of his shoulder tattoo peeking out.

Music is pounding through the flat—some top 40s station that Sherlock has sworn gives him invaluable insight into the hive mind of pop culture—and they’re going to get another noise violation at this rate; Joan hangs her purse on the wall and turns it down by half, saying, “I really don’t understand your love for Lady Gaga—“

Sherlock yelps and spins, snapping his wrist against the still-hot muffin tray she hadn’t seen in his hands—he drops it with a crash.

“Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” Joan says, rushing over, “I didn’t mean to—here, give me that.” She pulls the hot pad out of his hand and carefully picks up the tray, depositing it gently on top of the stove. At least it landed right-side-up; the cupcakes look a little startled, but no worse for wear.

“Watson,” Sherlock croaks.

“Let me get a look at that burn.” She tugs him over to the sink and he trips along unwillingly, barely letting her shove his wrist under cold running water from the tap. “It doesn’t look too bad. Maybe we should invest in some actual oven mitts, you know? The kind that go all the way up to here.” She marks how far with her thumb on his forearm, and he yanks his hand away.

“Watson,” Sherlock growls now, “even with your startlingly limited powers of deduction, you cannot possibly have missed the fact that I am wearing a dress.”

“It seemed a little less important than checking if you were going to have a lifelong scar on your arm, sue me.” From here she can see the effort he put into his makeup, just a touch of mascara and rouge on his stubbled  cheeks and a shade of pink on his lips that’s all wrong for him, too pale. “You know that lipstick isn’t really your color,” she starts, and Sherlock rears back like he’s been struck.

His hands are tearing at his apron and balling it up before she can even say, “Hey, hey, calm down, what—“

“You shouldn’t even be here,” he snaps, flinging the apron on the ground, contorting his arms to reach the zipper on the back of the dress and forgetting there’s an eye-hook at the top. “You were meant to have lunch with a friend downtown, even if they’d stood you up it would take you another forty-five minute tube ride back—“

“My friend canceled before I got on the first train,” Joan says as calmly as she can. She wants to reach out and gentle Sherlock’s hands, but it’s slightly outside what companion/client privilege allows—more importantly, probably outside what their slowly burgeoning friendship would stand. “I went to Lacy’s Café for lunch since I was already out, then I walked back along 31st.”

She can see him mapping it out in his head, doing the calculations. His hands have gone still, twisted up behind his neck. “I should’ve planned for that variable.”

“You can’t plan for everything, Sherlock,” she reminds him.

“I,” he starts; she can see his Adam’s apple bob from this angle but not his face. “I feel I should tell you that I’m not transsexual, per se, though some aspects of the costume do—it’s not important. Nor do I feel that I’m trapped in the wrong sexed body, so you needn’t fear.”

Joan’s eyebrows arch up. “Why would that be something to fear?

“Ah, so you are as progressively-minded in this as in all things, good.” He nods, like he expects her to believe this was all a test.

“Sherlock,” she says, because maybe it needs saying, “I’m really not here to judge you.”

That seems to make him hesitate, but in the end all he does is shake his head, every line of him tense. “I think I would just like to change.”

“Okay.” Joan tries to let him know in that one word that it really is okay, but in the end it’s only a four-letter word; she doesn’t know how much Sherlock lets himself hear. “Let me get the hook for you, you don’t want to hurt your dress.”

He holds painfully still just long enough for her to unhook the eye, and then he bolts up the stairs in a clatter of flat heels and taffeta.

Knowing that Sherlock needs some space, and also that he’ll have to come down sooner or later, Joan nabs one of the more-smushed cupcakes and sits down at the table, carefully peeling the paper away. It’s still a little too hot for eating so she blows on it to cool it down, breathing in the vanilla and brown sugar smell of it. It looks so delicate, but when she bites into it she finds a cake that’s sturdy, denser than it appears.

“You’re not meant to eat them without frosting.”

Joan looks up, and Sherlock is at the bottom of the stairs in dark blue jeans and a Grateful Dead t-shirt. She sees the damp washcloth in his hand before she notices the makeup still on his face. He holds the cloth towards her, doesn’t come any closer. “You have more experience removing this stuff than I,” he says, not meeting her eyes.

“Sure.” She hooks the chair opposite their tiny table and drags it closer with her ankle, gestures at it for him to sit.

He comes warily, like a dog expecting to be hit. Joan keeps her eyes on the cupcake and focuses on keeping her body language as non-threatening as possible. When he’s finally close enough he sits like his strings have been cut, like his joints are wooden.

“Tell me about the cupcake,” she suggests, tugging the washcloth from his clenched grip—he doesn’t seem to know he’s holding on so tight, lets go with a startled twitch. “It’s really good, what’s in it?”

“Usual cupcake things. Flour, eggs, butter.” He lets her tilt his head back, and she goes to work on the faint powdery traces at his jaw line. “Vanilla extract. Butterscotch flavoring. Brown sugar, white.”

“Where did you get all the ingredients?” Sherlock never does the grocery shopping by himself, he comes back with candy and nothing else. Plus, “You couldn’t have had time to do a grocery run and bake them in the time I was gone.”

“I’ve been stock-piling for weeks.” He sounds a little like his old self, shifting a little in his seat in lieu of his usual full-body wiggle of pride. “Sneaking them into the trolley when you weren’t looking. And three days ago you brought home a whole carton of eggs! Perfect timing, or—so I thought.”

“Why all the secrecy?” She drags the cloth up higher on his right cheek to where the blush has turned his stubble rusty.

“It was meant to be a surprise,” Sherlock says. “Just. Not quite such a surprise.”

Joan is quiet for a moment, turning things over in her head. There’s still something…off. She’s slowly putting together the pieces that make up Sherlock, and this one doesn’t fit. “Why did you feel you had to hide that part from me?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Isn’t it natural for a man to be embarrassed by getting caught wearing lady’s clothing?”

She hums, discontent. “You don’t seem embarrassed. You seem—“ Frightened. Joan shakes her head, sure she can’t say that out loud if she doesn’t want him to bolt. “Well, not embarrassed.”

Sherlock is quiet long enough that she looks up, and finds him watching her. The makeup makes his eyes look alien and strange, distant and still piercing. “Could you—wash here next,” he says, gesturing to his eyes as he slams them shut, tight. “The mascara is clumping, I’ll go blind any second.”

“You will not,” she counters, reluctantly fond. “Relax. I can’t get all the makeup if your face is scrunched up like that.”

“Oh.” He relaxes in increments, with each gentle swipe of Joan’s fingers pushing the cloth. She doesn’t realize she’s holding Sherlock’s chin still with her free hand until he moves it to talk. “I should—This was the first time in years—“

“Sherlock.” Joan shifts the wash cloth over both eyes accidentally, but it seems to settle him. “I’m really not judging you. I promise it’s okay.” He swallows, hard, and she shifts the hand on his chin down to his shoulder to give it a calming squeeze. “If you want to talk about it, I’m here to listen. But don’t feel like you have to.”

He takes a quiet, shuddering breath, and nods against her hand.

“Okay.” Joan takes a moment to gulp reflexively at the sudden tightness in her throat. She isn’t—isn’t sure how far past the line she’s pushed, and she’s basically blindfolding her client. But Sherlock doesn’t look like he finds it sexual, he looks like…like she’s giving him permission to show how distressed he is, like if he doesn’t have to see anything then he can show his worry in his expression.

“Okay,” she says again, and then, “I’m going to keep cleaning. Keep your eyes closed. Let me know if I’m pushing too hard, or if your eyes start to sting.” When in doubt, act like you know what you’re doing.

The mascara is a cheap kind that likes to smear around his skin, so she uses soft, efficient brushes of her fingertips with the cloth as a barrier. She’s not sure when she shifted to her feet, but standing puts her at a better angle to see the dark smudges she missed, and keeps Sherlock’s head tipped far, far back. She can see him relaxing muscle by muscle, and she can see the way his fists are still clenched on his knees.

“When I was nine,” Sherlock says; Joan is very careful not to pause in her task, “there was a boy, Gunther Carlyle. He was much bigger than I, and very popular. I was new to the school and a few years younger than others in my class, and I thought if I could get Gunther to be my friend then all of his friends would like me, and I wouldn’t be quite so alone. Turns out the only use Gunther had for a boy my size was a—a punching bag.”

He twists his fingers in his lap like a convulsion. Joan pushes an edge of the washcloth higher, up near his hairline, and drags the back of her nails across it. Almost soothing, and maybe not enough for Sherlock to call her on it.

“Well, one day,” he continues, voice too controlled, “I overheard some other children talking about something completely unrelated—they said: no one hits a girl. And I thought. Maybe all I needed for Gunther to realize I was someone not worth hitting was if I could be a girl. So I stole a dress from a shop down the block and I practiced. All weekend.”

He stops, and she can hear his throat click. “I bet you were really good at it,” Joan says when she can, smiling encouragingly even though he can’t see it.

“I was, yes,” he almost laughs. “My brother Mycroft was already away at uni and Mum had some sort of charity event, so I had the house mostly to myself. I found it oddly…freeing. There were things I was allowed to like as a girl that would have been frowned upon as a boy. I found I liked baking. Edible chemistry.” He smiles, strained. “I made a plate of cookies and brought them to school in my new dress. Gunther broke the plate over my head and gave me this scar.”

Sherlock touches his throat, high up where it meets his jaw. Joan knows exactly how many inches it is from his jugular, and it isn’t many. Anger wells up, hot and violent, threatening to make her surgeon’s hands shake.

“Ruined the dress,” Sherlock says, “I bled all over it.”

It’s enough to startle Joan out of her fury at some stupid asshole of a kid, who is probably just as much of a bully now that he’s an adult. “What a shithead,” she mutters out loud for Sherlock’s benefit.

He barks out a laugh. “Good to know your empathetic streak runs deep.”

“I empathize with people who deserve it,” she counters. “That little shithead does not make the list.”

Sherlock reaches up to fumble a squeeze around her wrist, the hand that’s still touching his shoulder. “I appreciate you rushing to my defense,” he says.

She blinks. “You do?”

“But it’s unnecessary. I learned many important lessons from the exchange, not least of which is never try to force a friendship.”

Joan’s cleaning hand stops moving. “Do you think that’s what I do?”

“No.” His mouth twists. “Not anymore.” 

Not when his childhood instinct isn’t screaming at him to run. She goes back to work on his left eye. “And the other lessons?”

He takes a considering breath. “Hmm. That snickerdoodles are always better than sugar cookies. That cold water is best for removing blood stains, but it’s not a miracle worker. That dresses were to be worn in secret, where nobody could see.”

A disbelieving noise slips out of Joan’s mouth before she can stop it; she tries to hide it by finishing with the last of Sherlock’s makeup, lowering the cloth. He blinks his eyes open so slowly it’s like he’s waking up—it takes him a second to focus, and then he’s locked his gaze with hers, open and vulnerable and unafraid.


“Well.” It’s her turn to fidget a little, fingers tangling in the mascara-stained washcloth. “It seems to me that the lesson should’ve maybe been ‘dresses are to be worn around people I can trust not to be shitheads. People I’m comfortable with, who accept me for who I am regardless of what I’m wearing.’ Or, alternately, ‘Fuck what everyone else thinks, I’ll wear what I want,’ which honestly seems more like you.”

She tries a smile, and shouldn’t probably be so surprised when Sherlock mirrors it. “I do trust you, Watson,” he says. “To a degree that frightens me sometimes.”

“Thank you.” There’s something caught in her throat, bigger than a cupcake crumb. It seems stupid now to realize just how close she’s standing, knees against his chair, between his splayed legs. She takes a deliberate step back, and instantly feels a little chillier.

“Also,” she says to cover her shiver, “I don’t know what century you were brought up in but men are totally allowed to bake, these days.”

“I’ve heard. They call it ‘being secure in their masculinity.’ I much prefer the idea of getting in touch with my feminine side.”

“Well, your feminine side is super cute, even if you really need a brighter shade of lipstick, no offense.” Joan tells herself she feels better now, back on solid ground, where they’re allowed to joke and tease each other.

“Maybe you could take me shopping,” Sherlock suggests, almost off-hand. He sounds so hopeful, though, wet lashes blinking up at her even though she’s stepped away.

“I’d like that.” She smiles because it seems like she should be reeling—an hour ago if someone told her she’d be picking out makeup for Sherlock Holmes to wear un-ironically she’d have laughed—instead all she feels is happy, and relieved that he let her in. “I really, really would.”

He’s blushing a little, or maybe his cheeks are still red from Joan’s scrubbing. “Good.”

“Now, I think you said something about frosting?” she prompts.

“Ah. Yes.” He grabs a bowl off the counter and she fishes out two spatulas from a drawer. “So we each get our own to lick, after,” she says when he gives her a look.

Sherlock smiles and starts telling the story of how he ‘acquired’ the dress and heels from a case back in London. Everything smells like cupcakes.