Chapter the Eleventh
Sherlock half-smiles apologetically as he whispers, "Your next class starts in five minutes."
"Mm," John grunts, and he really ought to stop staring at Sherlock's mouth but he can't quite bring himself to do it. But as he watches, Sherlock's faint smile slips away, and when he raises his eyes Sherlock won't meet his gaze.
"You want to stop," John says quietly, and Sherlock sort of flinches but doesn't correct him.
"I'm sorry, John," he murmurs, and there's a kind of defeat in the slump of his shoulders that makes John's heart go small and tight as a fist in his chest. "It's not…it's not that I don't—I mean, it's all very-"
"It's okay," John interrupts him as gently as possible, stroking a mussed curl back from Sherlock's temple with one thumb. "Really, Sherlock, it's-"
"It's not that I didn't like it," Sherlock blurts out, and in his eyes there's a kind of desperation, a need for John to understand that would almost be cute if it weren't quite so sad. "I just—it's all very new, you understand, and I, I need time to, to…process it. I don't mean to offend you, and we can certainly try this again later, but-"
"Sherlock." His hands slide out of Sherlock's hair to land on his shoulders, which he grips as firmly as he dares. "It's okay. I understand. It's alright."
Sherlock opens his mouth to say something else, to clarify further, to pick apart his own fumbled words and re-explain what's already been explained, but before he can get out a word John gets to his feet and holds out his hand. When Sherlock takes it, still apparently bewildered that John isn't yelling or stomping off or hitting things, he pulls him up beside him and doesn't let go, retains those long, chilly fingers in his tight, warm grasp.
They walk in silence for a little while, the wind at their backs and the castle looming over their heads. Internally, John's organs are practically jumping for joy, and he could swear that he can still feel the ghost of Sherlock's lips against his. On the outside, though, he does his best to present a façade of reassuring calm, and after a few minutes Sherlock's mouth softens out of its tight, anxious line.
It's only then that John dares to ask, "It was alright, wasn't it?"
Sherlock just looks at him, and his heart leaps into his throat as he blunders on, "I mean, as kisses go I know it wasn't particularly fantastic, I mean, I'm not particularly fantastic at that sort of thing, but I hope it wasn't completely disappointing as a first kiss. And, like, it'll get better, y'know, and easier, and I'll get better and it's really not-"
"I did say we could try again later, didn't I?" Sherlock interrupts, a faint frown creasing his forehead.
"Um, yeah." John frowns, too, because now Sherlock's got that I-am-a-space-alien-and-I-don't-understand-you-strange-humans face on and as things go John doesn't think he's being particularly mystifying at all.
Cocking his head to one side, Sherlock says, "Is it customary, then, for people to request repetitions of activities that they didn't find enjoyable?"
John blinks at him for a moment because his admittedly makeout-dazed brain takes a bit longer than usual to process. When the penny finally drops, though, a slow grin finds its way onto his face before he punches Sherlock in the arm.
Making a faint noise that anyone else might allow to be ow but sort of comes out as a grunt of pain, Sherlock cradles the injured limb and demands, "What was that for?"
"You could've just said that you liked it, you git," John exclaims in exasperation, but he can't stop smiling because Sherlock is such a stupid, brilliant, ridiculous, beautiful bloody idiot and he's so in love it's kind of embarrassing.
"Fine," Sherlock sniffs, rubbing his bicep. "But if you punch me again, I'll cripple you."
"Yeah?" John grins, darting away from Sherlock with the agility that makes his football coach a very happy man. "I'd like to see you try!"
"Be careful what you wish for," Sherlock cautions, but there's a smile working its way onto his face as he puts his fists up and waves them about like an old-timey boxer. John just laughs, turns on his heel, and sprints away, leaving a dumbfounded Sherlock in his wake.
"John!" he hears Sherlock shout after him, but he keeps running anyway, relishing the wind blustering through his hair and the breakneck joy bubbling up in his throat. "John, your ribs! Oh, bloody-" Sherlock breaks off, and in a moment John hears his footsteps pounding across the grass behind him. Throwing his head back, John just lets himself laugh as loudly as his chill-ragged throat can manage. Sherlock chases him all the way back up to the castle.
John arrives to his next class late and with his ribs smarting, but he can't quite bring himself to care. Lingering still in his mind is the breathless, sloppy kiss that Sherlock pressed to his wind-chapped lips when they finally collapsed, panting for breath, just inside the castle door.
The next day, John walks into his dorm room to find Lestrade sitting cross-legged on his bed, thumbing absently through a textbook and looking rather more like he's waiting for a train than studying.
"Hi," Lestrade says quickly, before John can ask what on earth he's doing on his bed when there's a perfectly good one on the other side of the room that actually belongs to him. All things considered, though, Lestrade is a pretty good roommate, and since John really has no interest in starting trouble with him, he decides to hold off on asking any questions for the moment.
"Look, um," Lestrade's saying, letting the textbook in his lap snap shut, "I wanted to ask…that is, I've, erm…I've heard, like, some…stuff…" Clearing his throat, he reaches up to scratch the back of his head with one hand, looking the picture of awkwardness. And deep down, John's got a bad feeling that he knows what this is all about, but he can't bring himself to put Lestrade out of his misery and just say it himself.
Fortunately, Lestrade finally manages to bring himself to the point: "Look, I just…I wanted to ask you, to be sure…are you…gay or something?"
"Um," John says eventually, shoving his hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders almost up to his ears. "Probably more like the…something bit? I mean, I, I've had a girlfriend, but I also…" He sighs, finally admitting defeat. "I mean, I'm not straight, if that's what you're asking."
"Right," Lestrade nods, fiddling with one of the worn corners of his textbook and not meeting John's eyes.
"Is…that a problem?" John asks quietly, his heart plummeting into his stomach because oh god no, not Lestrade, please not Lestrade. To be quite honest, aside from a few other blokes on the football team, Lestrade is his only non-Sherlock friend, and that's a really valuable thing. Besides, he likes Lestrade, likes his honesty and sarcasm and his straight-forwardness, which can be astonishingly refreshing after Sherlock.
"No!" Lestrade replies hastily, finally meeting looking up at John with wide-open, earnest eyes. "No. Not…not a problem at all. Really, not a big deal in the least. But, uh…" He trails off as his gaze slips back towards his own lap. "You don't, uh…that is…you're not, erm…you're not interested in…" One hand makes an involuntary sort of motion towards himself, and with horror John realizes what he's getting at.
"No, no," he says as quickly as possible, shaking his head vehemently. "No, god no."
When Lestrade looks up, the relief on his face is as clear as day, and he's almost laughing as he says, "Yeah, I kind of figured not, what with Sherlock and all…"
"How d'you-" John blurts out, and by the time he realizes what he's saying it's too late to stop himself.
This time, Lestrade really does laugh. "C'mon, mate. Even if I hadn't heard the rumors, well…I'm your roommate. I know these things. Look, really it's not a problem. It's fine, it's great. I just wanted to make sure we were clear."
"Right, okay," John nods. There's a pause, and then he clears his throat and says, "So, um. Could I have my bed back now?"
"Oh! Right." Unfolding his legs, Lestrade gets hastily to his feet, but pauses to look carefully at John. "John. Don't worry about it. I can see you worrying and you shouldn't. Really, mate, it's all fine."
"Thanks," John mumbles, and in spite of the lingering awkwardness and the anxiety swelling in the back of his mind (rumors what rumors oh god Anderson must have told more people oh Christ everyone probably knows no one is ever going to leave us alone), he can't help but smile.
After a little over two weeks (16 days, not that he's been counting or anything) without football, John ventures into the locker room. He goes to every practice, of course, partially to support his teammates and mitigate his coach's rage at having one of his best defenders out of commission because of a 'bloody idiotic dare,' but partially because he doesn't quite know what to do with himself otherwise. It's endlessly frustrating, of course, to sit on the sidelines and watch everyone practice and see the gap where he should be, where he could've blocked that, he could've saved that, he could've kept that in bounds. But he's sort of become the team's unofficial manager-slash-water boy, and he's quite happy to do whatever he can to help, whether that means drawing play diagrams or refilling the water cooler.
He makes this particular trip to the locker room (his first in sixteen days) as a part of his search for his trainers, which have mysteriously disappeared. He's doing his best to find them himself before having to enlist Sherlock, who will inevitably find them within moments and make John feel like an idiot in the process. And so after practice one day, he goes in to check his locker in the rather empty hope that they might be there. Unsurprisingly, they're not.
What is surprising is when he feels a hand on his shoulder and turns round to see Mike Stamford, the team captain, regarding him with an unusual sort of half-serious, half-uneasy expression on his normally good-natured face.
"What's up, Mike?" John asks, forcing a mask of ease onto his face and into his voice despite the fact that he's starting to feel faintly nauseous.
"Look, Watson," Stamford begins carefully, and with a touch of horror John realizes that the entire team has assembled around them, "The guys and I were talking, and…well, we wanted to let you know that, that…despite any, y'know, rumors and things that might be going round…well, we're all your mates, y'know, and we're all behind you. One hundred percent and all that."
"I—wait, what?" John blinks slowly at Stamford, and god he must look completely brain-dead right now but he doesn't even care because he's so bloody confused.
"What Mike's trying to say," Seb Wilkes, the goalkeeper, pipes up from behind the captain's left shoulder, "Is that we don't care if you're queer."
"Yeah, like," Dimmock, another defender, chimes in, "We don't much like that Holmes bloke, but we like you, so we don't really mind, do we?"
"You're a damn good footballer, Watson," Stamford says firmly, clapping his hand onto John's shoulder a bit more heavily than before. "That's all that matters to us. If anyone ever gives you trouble, you let us know, alright?"
"Alright," John manages weakly, and he would never admit it but his knees have pretty much turned into pudding with relief.
"Just don't sneak any looks at me in the shower, alright?" Stamford adds with a broad grin, and John's heart plummets into the pit of his stomach before he realizes that oh god he's joking that is so bloody tasteless but thank god it's just a joke.
"Believe me, mate," John chuckles, and this time he doesn't have to force the smile on his face, "I haven't got the slightest interest in seeing you in the shower."
Relief floods through him as everyone in the room laughs, and Stamford grins even more widely and says that's what I thought and gives John one final, companionable cuff on the shoulder before heading off, ironically enough, to the showers. As John makes his way out of the locker room, it seems like every guy on the team gives him a reassuring nod or smile or pat on the back, and by the time he reaches the door he's practically walking on air. When he finds Sherlock skulking in one corner of the common room, the taller boy raises an eyebrow at him and asks what on earth happened because he's smiling like someone hit him over the head with something sizeable and dense. John just smirks and says oh, nothing, but he definitely kisses Sherlock a little more fiercely than usual that night before they part for bed.
One night at dinner, in the midst of yet another heated argument with Sherlock about the virtues of actually eating something for a change you crazy bastard for fuck's sake you're going to shrivel up and blow away, John looks up out of the corner of his eye and sees Jim Moriarty. Moreover, he sees Jim Moriarty walking towards him, and the hatred on John's face is so blatant that Sherlock twists around in his seat to see what he's looking at.
To John's surprise, though, Sherlock smiles—well, at least removes the usual expression of irritation he reserves for everyone who isn't John—at the dark-haired little first-year, who smiles back with a toothy grin that makes all the hairs on the back of John's neck stand on end.
"Sherlock!" At that high-pitched voice, heavily cloaked in its Irish accent, every muscle in John's body tenses, and oh, god, no, he's coming over to their table and grinning and greeting John for all the world like he's not the reason he got his lights punched out by a bunch of half-witted thugs.
"Hi, John!" Jim chirps, and is it bad that John has a terrible urge to just disappear, to sink into the ground or leap out of his chair and run for it or just be anywhere but here. "Your face is healing up nicely."
"Mm," John grunts through clenched teeth, leaning over his plate of spaghetti so that he won't have to look at Jim's stupid, smirking, gloating face that so clearly knows what it's done.
But Sherlock…shit, Sherlock doesn't know, and he shoots John a baffled look as he nods and says, "Yes, he's doing quite well."
"Still drinking out of glasses, I see," Jim observes lightly, and there's a loud bang and for a moment John doesn't understand why everyone's staring at him until he realizes that somehow he's on his feet, his fork slammed down on the table and his eyes doing their best to burn holes in Jim's ever-innocent face.
"Temper, temper," Jim chastises him, his smirk edging into downright cruelty as he backs slowly away from the table. "By the way, Johnny, darling…found your trainers yet?"
The table legs actually screech against the floor as John does his absolute best to leap straight through it towards Jim's retreating, smirking face. As the first-year turns round and trips gaily away, John seriously considers climbing over the damn table, jumping the kid, and making him understand what it's like to get beaten senseless, understand what he did, understand the pain his stupid gossip caused.
Instead, he lowers himself slowly into his chair, fuming. Beside him, Sherlock is looking from Jim's retreating back to John's tightrope-taut shoulders with an expression that says if this isn't explained to me in the next four seconds someone is going to get hurt.
That someone is not, apparently, going to be John, because after a few moments of tense, tense silence, Sherlock clears his throat and says, "Well. That was quite a performance."
John grunts noncommittally and tries to resume eating his spaghetti. He is stymied in this attempt, however, by the facts that A, his hands are shaking too violently to control, and B, he actually bent the tines on his fork and Jesus that Moriarty kid gets to him way too easily.
And then Sherlock says, "He told me where you were, you know. After Anderson…after Anderson did, did that…that thing. That he did. Jim saw them running behind the refectory and told me where you were."
That's right about when John's stomach flips upside down and lands somewhere in the vicinity of his knees because wait, what? His mind goes so, so blank that he can't even stop himself from blurting out, "Jim told Anderson about finding us in the closet."
If he weren't so caught up in his own personal whirlwind of shock and fury, he would probably feel really, really bad for what that sentence does to Sherlock's face. Because what it does is make his eyes go sort of wide and still, and John can just see the guilt crystallizing there like ice.
Almost without moving, almost without blinking, Sherlock says, "He stole the test. Jim. He was—he did it. He stole it, and—oh. Oh." His chair skitters backwards across the floor as he gets to his feet all at once, and John can just see the ideas whizzing back and forth underneath that ridiculous nest of hair. He's never witnessed an epiphany before, but he's pretty sure that this is it.
"I need to—I need to think," Sherlock says all in a rush, and without thinking John gets to his feet, as well. "I need to walk."
He doesn't need to specify, because by now they've got this whole wordless communication thing down to a science, and within moments they're outside in the cold and heading out towards the cliffs at top Sherlock-stride speed.
Sherlock talks even faster than he walks, hands flying through the air as he exclaims, "Stupid, stupid, god, I was so stupid! How could I not see it? It was him all along—it's all been him! Of course!"
"Sherlock," John says quietly, and he doesn't have to speak another word before Sherlock launches headlong into his explanation.
"Think back to that day in the closet," he begins hurriedly (and is it just John, or is there definitely a faint flush creeping into those fine-boned cheeks?). "You knocked over that stack of buckets just minutes after Davies ended his conversation with the test thief. Mere moments later, Jim opens the closet door. He would have to have been close to the door of his dorm room to even hear that clatter, let alone come out and open the door so quickly. And think about what he asked us."
Frowning, John tries to think back, tries to push past the sting of the bucket handles and the mad thunder of his heart to what actually happened, and—oh.
"How long were you in there?" is what Jim asked. And now John understands that strange, desperate look in the first-year's eyes because he needed to know, needed to make sure—
"He wanted to know how long we'd been in there," Sherlock explains breathlessly (and John would be a little worried about how excited he's getting over this, except it's sort of cute and if he's being honest he's kind of thrilled, too), "Because he needed to make sure that we hadn't overheard."
And it makes sense, it all makes sense, from the strange abruptness of the question to the look that passed over that pale little face ever so briefly when Sherlock lied and said oh, not long: relief, pure and beatific. The relief of someone who's just gotten away with it.
"He thought he'd pulled it off," John says slowly, and there's something about the way that Sherlock's eyes are fixed on him that make him desperately, desperately want to be right. "But then…he finds the teachers waiting for him behind the refectory and realizes we're onto him. So…so, he tells Anderson about what he saw in the closet."
"I should have known that Anderson wasn't smart enough to try and scare you away from me," Sherlock huffs, shaking his head in disgust. "It was Jim manipulating him the whole time. He plants the idea that we're queer in Anderson's empty little head, and all of a sudden he starts seeing it everywhere. His mind twists the facts to suit his theory, and before long he whips himself into such a frenzy that he goes after the easiest target."
"Me," John says faintly, and Sherlock's head whips around to look at him, eyes darkening with the subtlest hint of…something, something that could be guilt or anger or a million other things, how the fuck should John know?
"I phrased that incorrectly," Sherlock says gently, and John feels his jaw clench because he doesn't need his pity, doesn't need Sherlock to tiptoe around the fact that John is the weaker half, that he got pummeled senseless where Sherlock would have undoubtedly talked his brilliant way to safety.
"I should have said…unknown target," Sherlock explains, and John can just feel those eyes burning into the side of his face, but all he can do is stare straight ahead and just walk, just keep moving until the boiling tension that Jim unleashed inside him can evaporate into the freezing air. "Anderson had previous experience with me and found me…unresponsive to his particular tactics of persuasion. But he knew nothing about you or how you would react, therefore making you the most logical target—oh. Oh, he's clever. Very clever."
"Anderson?" John raises an eyebrow. "Just a moment ago you were saying-"
"No, Jim," Sherlock breathes, and John wonders if it should worry him that Sherlock didn't scoff at his thickness. "Oh, very clever. He knew Anderson would go after you—probably even helped engineer the whole thing. Jim spots you going out behind the refectory, and oh, it's just poetic that he get his revenge in the same place where he was nearly caught. So he summons his cronies, and off trots Anderson, still thinking that the whole thing is his idea!"
"Don't see what's so clever about manipulating a second-rate thug," John grunts, but Sherlock shakes his head, narrowing his eyes thoughtfully into the fog rising off the sea in the distance.
"No, what's clever is how he manipulated me," Sherlock murmurs. When John looks up at him questioningly, a wild sort of light blooms in his eyes as he cries, "Think about it! As soon as Anderson and co. go off to beat you up, what's the first thing Jim does? He finds me and tips me off—too late for me to stop them, but just soon enough to ensure that I'd find you in the worst possible state. He knew that you, being you, would try and clean yourself up before going off to find me, in order to present a less pitiful appearance. But by ensuring that I would find you before you could do so, he added a whole other layer to his plan.
"As I initially surmised, he was trying to scare you away from me. That much is simple. But what's clever is that he gave himself a backup plan in case you turned out to be as loyal as you did: me. He wanted me to see you beaten and bloodied so that I would do exactly what I did-"
"Tell me to piss off for my own safety," John fills in, wide eyes fixed on Sherlock because god he's beautiful when he's triumphant like this.
"Clearly, he underestimated your loyalty and my recklessness," Sherlock chuckles, and there's something about the way he smiles at John that makes a sort of warmth spring up in his chest, spreading outwards around his ribs and displacing that hateful, trigger-sharp anxiety.
"You're brilliant," John marvels, and it's only when Sherlock's eyebrows shoot halfway to his hairline that he realizes that he actually just kind of said that aloud.
Surprisingly, though, the first word out of Sherlock's mouth is: "Really?"
It takes John a moment or two to formulate his reply, because really, what on earth do you say to a genius who's just revealed one of the few hairline fractures in his self-confidence? Nothing, it turns out; instead, John just reaches up, grabs Sherlock by the lapels, and pulls him down into what he thought was going to be a quick, warm kiss.
Several minutes later, Sherlock pulls back and manages to gasp, "J-john?"
"Sorry," John says breathlessly, pressing his face into the rough wool of Sherlock's overcoat and breathing in the warm, sheepy smell. "I got—well, you're really attractive when you deduce."
There's a brief pause, and then thin, strong arms enfold John as Sherlock chuckles, "I think I can find it in my heart to forgive you."
That night, they don't say another word about Jim Moriarty, which is just fine by John.
A/N: Wow, so...it's been a really long time. For various reasons I haven't been able to update (stupid RL getting in the way), but now I'm back! Hope you all remember what's happening and enjoyed the extra long chapter. I've got lots more in store! 3