John isn't sure when he first notices it. He can't remember if it started shortly after their first, memorable case, or if it was later than that. All he knows is that at some point – some time after he stopped being 'John Watson, flatmate' and started being 'John Watson, friend' – Sherlock started getting more comfortable around him. Comfortable enough that he would sit slightly closer when in a taxi – comfortable enough not to flinch instantly when they accidentally touched.
John also isn't sure when he realises this matters. Somewhere in between the chases, the arguments, and the body parts in the fridge, John realises that Sherlock isn't good at affection. That his awkward way of standing slightly too close, and the occasional grab of his wrist as he sprints off are the only ways Sherlock knows to express his concern. The more John thinks about it, the more he begins to wonder whether Sherlock has ever had a friend before. John's certainly had to restrain himself in his own affection somewhat – the military unit he was part of was full of backslapping, punches in the arm, and the occasional rough hug when things didn't work out they way they should. He's not 'touchy-feely' by any means – Harry used to laugh at how he'd stiffen when she would pull him into a drunken hug (though whether that was the contact or the alcohol he'd never quite worked out). But compared to Sherlock? John knows he's practically clingy.
He puts it out of his mind, and it stays there – at least, until the incident at the pool. Sherlock had pulled the trigger – John knew he would, and had positioned himself, a mass of coiled muscle, waiting to spring and pull them both into the pool the moment his finger even twitched – and then there was fire, and water, and rocks and ohgodpleaseletussurvivethis, and finally, silence. He'd clambered out of the water, dragging Sherlock's heavy form after him, and lay, gasping for breath on the side. He'd helped him sit up, wary of the blood pouring from the side of Sherlock's head, matting in his dark curls. "Sherlock," he'd said, waving a hand in front of vacant eyes, watching as they'd snapped into focus. "Hey, hey Sherlock, look at me…what's my name?"
"John Watson, you imbecile," Sherlock had replied, and cracked a weary smile. It was only when the sirens came, and Sherlock was helped to his feet by the paramedics that John realised Sherlock had been clinging to his wrist so tightly his hand felt numb.
"John!" Mycroft said, seemingly pleased to see him. "What was it you wanted to talk to me about? I kept meaning to visit – I wanted to thank you for looking after my brother. Honestly, if it wasn't for you, I don't think we could have kept him in that hospital for more than an hour." John can't help but smile at the memory of Sherlock's petulant expression as he was informed he had to stay in 'for observation'. "Yes. Well." He coughs, suddenly wondering if talking to Mycroft (Mycroft, of all people!) is the best thing to do.
"Mycroft, has Sherlock ever had…well, friends?" Mycroft looks down at his umbrella, and twirls it thoughtfully, scratching out meaningless symbols in the dust. "Some." There's a long pause, and John keeps his gaze fixed on the elder Holmes brother. "He had a few, in primary school, before the others realised he was different. And then there was one, Victor Trevor his name was, who he met in university. Bloody brilliant man, I offered him a job as soon as we met, and unlike a certain ungrateful brother of mine, he accepted. He lives in Moscow currently." There's another silence, more awkward than the last, and this time it's Mycroft who asks the question, "Why?"
"He's…" John coughs again, and outlines his line of thinking.
"Ah," is all Mycroft replies, and then he looks around. "I think this might take longer than a short walk in the park – may I buy you dinner?" John half-laughs, wondering if either of the brothers realise just how strange it is for a man to ask him that with no hidden intentions. Or at least, no hidden intentions of the sort you would expect from an offer of dinner. Plenty of intentions regarding illegal, dangerous and fascinating things…his mind wanders back on track, and he agrees.
They end up in an American style diner that Mycroft swears Sherlock would never dream of entering, and John finds himself making a mental note to get in touch with Mycroft more often. "So," Mycroft says. "What do you know about my brother?"
"How much do you know about his past, beyond what I told you earlier?"
"He's a recovering addict, is rather fond of his mother, rarely mentions his father, and studied at Cambridge – purely to avoid you, as you went to Oxford." John shrugs. "I never really asked."
"I assume you've figured some parts out for yourself?"
"Like what? I'd assume he had few friends, spent a lot of time in the library, and got bullied throughout high school, especially if I'm right in thinking you both went to a boys' school." Mycroft smiles.
"Well done," he says, and John is certain he's trying his best not to say 'good boy' too. "My brother was never one to pretend he wasn't intelligent. I think it's one of the reasons he is rather bitter about me – I managed to avoid the bullying he suffered daily, because I was willing to compromise somewhat. Sherlock's early years were somewhat…difficult. His main source of comfort was from mother, of course, but soon enough the torments started when the other boys would see him hold her hand when leaving school. He withdrew then, and there was a point at which I'm relatively sure the only contact he was receiving was kicks and punches." John notices the way Mycroft won't meet his eyes, and he comes to another realisation – Mycroft doesn't enjoy interfering in Sherlock's life, he just worries.
"Go on," he says.
"You've met one of his university 'friends', have you not?"
"Sebastian? Yes." John realises his voice sounds a little harsher than it should, but Mycroft only laughs.
"A good example of them. Victor Trevor, however, was fiercely intelligent, and took the time to actually speak to Sherlock. Shocked as he was by what Sherlock could tell him, he didn't consider him a freak, but rather, someone interesting, and that was that. They would visit each other often out of term, and though they grew apart when Victor married, I believe they still keep in touch as often as their jobs allow them." John couldn't help but be surprised at this news – until just a few hours ago, he hadn't even heard of this Victor Trevor. "Victor, however, was similar to Sherlock – not one for affection. And so, my brother, up until this last year, has had very little physical contact with anyone who wasn't out for blood beyond the occasional mothering hug from Mrs Hudson." Realisation floods over John, and Mycroft smiles. "You, Dr Watson, stepped into my brother's life and reminded him of a very simple, very human need, and I'm not sure exactly how he plans on deal with this. However, there is one more thing you should know about my brother." John raises his eyebrows. "He is very similar to me in more ways than he will admit, and one of these ways is how he responds to the world. You see, Dr Watson, Sherlock's mind never stops. It is why he struggles to sleep, and why he spent a large portion of his life 'drugged to the eyeballs'. Whereas I have spent years learning to control this, he basks in it. However, we are both rather…sensitive." John snorts involuntarily, and Mycroft glares. "Dr Watson, amusing as this may be, this is important. You see, to Sherlock, and, to a lesser extent, me, physical contact is somewhat overwhelming. If we are concentrating, it is fine, but it can overtake the way we process the world, and, in some way, give us a sense of peace. Sherlock used to delight in his mother, and still does, because her constant affection allowed him in some ways to switch off."
And suddenly, John understands. He understands Sherlock's desperate grip on his wrist in the pool, and the way it's always during the most difficult part of a case that Sherlock will tug on his wrist and break into a sprint, and most importantly, why when Donovan and Anderson are there, he stands that bit too near. Mycroft nods at John. "Now, if Sherlock asks, I was enquiring about the pool, yes?"
John walks back to 221B, his head swimming with the new information. How had he not realised? Of course that was what it was – it was something he'd seen before, people who were so touch-starved that they didn't know how to react, how to initiate the simplest of things. His phone buzzes twice, and, sighing wearily, he pulls it from his pocket, expecting the usual BORED – SH he receives regularly. Instead, he finds one from Mycroft saying:
What you learned might come in useful soon. There's a reason I told you. Look after him. – MH
And another from Sherlock, saying simply:
CASE – SH.
More to come soon :)